I don't know whose idea it was, but I somehow don't think it was mine. Two weeks at YMCA camp. It was, by far, the longest I'd ever been away from home, from my parents and my dog and my treehouse, and the circumstances of the separation weren't ideal.
At the age of eight, I was leery of other boys. Being a boy myself, I was pretty sure that boys in general were up to no good, and the prospect of spending time with a few hundred of them was uncharming to me. Especially in an isolated situation, a clearing surrounded by forests in some direction unknown to me, miles and miles from my room and from the people who understood that I liked to be left alone. Still, I was a trooper. My mom packed my dad's old Air Force footlocker with labeled clothes and in the Fairlane station wagon we set off for a place called Montvale.
We arrived just before dusk for some sort of baked-beans-on-paper-plates dinner. It's a fair-sized camp, with several cabins in the woods surrounding a big open area of mown grass.
But the first thing I saw intrigued me: there, in the middle of a clearing, a dozen or so stone steps leading up to absolutely nothing. Clearly, it was a ruin, or a serious construction error. I climbed them, and climbed them again. I didn't know anything about the history of the place, that it had been a nationally heralded 19th-century resort, and wouldn't learn much about its weird literary heritage for another 25 years or so, but it fascinated me the same way a wrecked ship did. There was something profound and tragic about this place.
Not far from there, an odd wall-less building of white-painted fluted wood. It looked like an old-fashioned porch, except without the requisite house to go with it. I'd never seen anything like it. That evening I learned the word for it, and it fascinated me: gazebo. I liked to say the word, and I still do whenever I get the chance.
I said goodbye to my parents, and made myself at home. I got a top bunk, which is by far the better situation when you're eight, in a cabin crowded with about a dozen other kids. I remember the horror of the bathhouse that night, already putrid with the mildew of previous weeks of campers. In our fortnight there, we didn't improve it.
Our cabin was a collection of misfits, a lot like a platoon in a 1960s World War II movie. There was the kid who'd lied about his age—he was only seven—who played the ukulele. He knew only two songs, and sang them well into the night. One was "Little Brown Jug, How I Love Thee," and the other was "My Dog Has Fleas." Another kid claimed he preferred classical music, but he pronounced the th in Beethoven. Another kid had a morbid streak and reminded me of the sadistic little urchin in my dad's Charles Addams cartoon collections. In the creek behind the cabin, this kid found a salamander and stabbed it with an old nail. Over our time there, he built a little graveyard for his victims—newts, crawdads, stag beetles—beside the cabin. He buried the salamander with the head of the nail at the surface, for convenience. He didn't have to dig it up daily to check on its state of decomposition; he'd just pull out the nail, and there she was.
Reveille—a trumpet recording, amplified from a loudspeaker—sounded at 6 in the morning, and we had, as I recall, about four minutes to don the official camp uniform, make our beds, and assemble in military ranks for the raising of the flag. Then we got some sort of breakfast.
Then we had "Swimming." It sounded fun, at first, swimming. I thought I liked swimming. Back in Knoxville, my friends and I played Marco Polo, jumped off the high dive, swam underwater and scared each other, and it was fun. I thought I was pretty good at it.
But I came to understand that swimming at camp wasn't exactly what I recognized as swimming. The counselors marched us single file along a long narrow path through the woods, at the end of which was a huge chain-link cage surrounding a large, square, concrete hole full of water. There were already about 100 kids in there swimming in parallel lanes marked with float ropes. We were lined up and told to swim in prescribed strokes. After each uncountable lap, the swimming commander blew a whistle and told us to improve them. None of the strokes they told us to swim was my favorite stroke, which was the Underwater. Standing in line for the inspection of my backstroke, I dreamed of being underwater, but they wouldn't let me down there.
I came to believe the high fence was there to keep us all from escaping.
About the third day, I found that there was one spot, along an outside curve in the narrow path from the mess hall to the pool, where the counselors couldn't see you, and you could just peel off into the uncharted woods. I skipped swimming that day, and never went back.
To swimming, anyway. To my surprise, I found I could slip in and out of camp as I pleased. I had a watch, and could join in when it was expedient. There were a few things I enjoyed: the hike, the campout, the skits, even some of the food. But I spent more and more time alone in the woods, where I felt safe. I found a creek with a lot of rocks in it, and I set about to build dams. I got pretty good at building dams. Although I experimented with mud as a sort of caulk, my dams weren't watertight—far from it—but they slowed the water down enough to form pools. I even constructed one which formed a pool that was big enough to swim in.
Nobody seemed to notice for a while, but then the younger of the two counselors told me the swimming commanders were angry at me and that I was in trouble. That intelligence didn't encourage me to return to swimmenkamp. I just kept peeling off and heading for my creek. When I saw the swimming commanders in the mess hall, I turned to the wall as if I was sneezing and somehow skirted around them.
My cabinmates tried to talk me into coming back. "It's not as bad as it was the first days," they said, but I didn't buy it. I always whistled, along my own private paths, the theme from my favorite movie, The Great Escape. Nothing could be as good as my pool in the woods. I'd always liked creeks all right, but this particular one, when I was supposed to be somewhere else, seemed blessed.
To spend more time with my creek, I skipped other things, first of all horseback riding, which seemed far more complicated than it was worth. I could never remember the names of all the knots and leather straps, and my ignorance seemed to annoy the horseriding commander, who seemed to think I was playing dumb. In arts and crafts, I made a creditable teapot coaster for my mom, but ultimately began skipping that, too.
The biggest planned excursion of our fortnight at camp was a daylong bus trip to the Lost Sea. I'd never seen it and was curious about it. I liked caves more than anything, and boats in caves was an interesting new idea to me. But the idea of seeing this one with a few busloads of loud, stinky boys was more than I could deal with. Someone told me there were prehistoric panther bones in the cave. I told the counselor I was scared of panthers, and was surprised they let me stay. It turned out there was one other kid, a nerdy-looking guy from the other side of camp who didn't want to go, either. They put us on the rifle range. We had a satisfying time shooting BBs at targets that afternoon, and didn't say anything at all to each other.
I heard a rumor that I was going to be officially punished the last night, at the Awards Ceremony, which was held not far from the swimming pool. The other kids seemed excited about the ceremony, weirdly so, it seemed to me. My best friend from Knoxville won the award for Most Cooperative Camper, or something like that. I won no awards, of course; I sat on the hillside certain that, after the next award, the head counselor would point at me, tell me to come up there and make me stand in the spotlight where my friends had been accepting awards all night. And he'd say, "Who are you, and where have you been for the last two weeks?" Then they'd give me a certificate, "Most Troubling Young Camper." Or, much worse, tell me I'd have to stay late until I could demonstrate that I swam a perfect Australian crawl.
But they didn't. They just played taps, the lights went out, and our two weeks was over. It was strangely anticlimactic. The next morning I said goodbye to my creek, and to the mysterious Steps to Nowhere, and helped my parents load the Fairlane. I never went back there, at least not as a camper.
Not too long ago, though, I was visiting a friend in Blount County and turned out toward Camp Montvale. I left my car outside the gate, walked in, and was relieved the old steps were still there, if much smaller and plainer than I remembered. I climbed those old steps one more time, and looked down toward the woods. For the first time I wondered if maybe the counselors knew all along what I was doing in the woods every day instead of going to swimming, and knew how much it would mean to me someday.