Friday, June 20, 2014

Jewish Summer Camp in 1963 Was Not for the Faint-Hearted: Camp Galila, South Fallsburg, NY



            It’s summer, and, all over America and other countries too, Jewish parents are packing their kids’ stuff, getting ready to send them off to Jewish Summer Camp. Camp is more expensive these days than when I was a kid—I sensed that when they started calling the camp fees “tuition,” as though sleeping on a rusty bedspring left over from the Civil War were comparable to a semester at Harvard—but the overall camp experience remains the same, with the addition, I suppose, of computers, horseback riding, and some other, tonier activities.
            My first camp experience, back in the summer of 1963 when I was eleven years old, began when my mother realized I was too old to attend the day camp run by our local Jewish Community Center, the Educational Alliance, mother of all Jewish social-service-day-camp-arts-and-crafts-school-dramatics-programs now existing in America, and possibly the world, today. This was fine with me; I had gotten tired of the school-bus-and-ferry-ride out to Staten Island every day, and the minimal activities that went with it. The “Edgies” was my first encounter with canned pineapple juice (sweet, with a metallic taste) and overdone mac-n’-cheese (leatherlike and smelly). I was ready for Something New, and my mother believed she had discovered it.
            “You are going to sleepaway camp,” she announced to me, “You are not going to hang the around the house all summer and bother me.You will go to Camp Galila, in South Fallsburg, in August—one month only, so you can get your feet wet.”
            It took me a split second to realize that my mother was, once again, trying to get rid of me. Since I had been very young, I had become convinced that she kept on trying to lose me, usually in a large crowd of strangers, somewhere in midtown Manhattan. This would inevitably occur whenever I stopped to read a historical plaque on the side of a building—I adored history—or stare at a statue. I had an ongoing love-hate relationship with statues, and there were a lot of them in midtown. (This relationship is material for another essay.) As for Macy’s and Gimbel’s, well, didn’t store management want you to stop and stare at a display, and buy the thing? And when I stopped staring, looked up, or reached out a hand, she would be gone. For a short person, my mother walked briskly.
But camp was different: this was to be long-term.
I immediately got nervous at the prospect—camp? Me? Mom was, to her credit, being positive about the upcoming experience—a plus in our family, where Negativity ruled; Negative Thinking was practically a member of the family. She stressed how much fun I would have, making new friends, living in the woods. It didn’t matter if I protested; the Die was Cast. Briskly, efficiently, my mother purchased a large, black steamer trunk, a shiny-black affair with large, business-like brass fittings—I could have traveled to Australia, or Africa.
She spent endless evenings watching TV while sewing red-letter-on-white-background DAVID HARTLEY MARK nametags into my underwear (I wore boxer shorts in those days, a rebel against the majority.). Every bit of white-cotton thread she bit off, I thought, was another nail in the coffin of my banishment from my beloved Manhattan for the entire month of August: I was to go live on a Catskills Mountain, somewhere, an eleven-year-old hermit, like Heidi’s Grandpapa, along with the white goat and the black, Shwanli and Barli. I would toast my goat-cheese over an open fire, and blow my alpenstock-horn until the valleys and hills echoed…. Truthfully, Mom sewed my name-tags onto so many T-shirts and skivvies, that I believe I threw out the last of them, stitched with an iron thread, with my name in capital letters, perhaps a mere two years ago; that was how efficient she was, in Getting Rid of Her Only Son….
My departure date came: Mom took my hand, and schlepped me, unwilling, to the Bus Stop: the Trailways bus pulled in, and there I was—packed, dressed in a T-shirt that read CAMP GA-LI-LA like a real-life Paddington Bear, and loaded onto the camp bus, I was off to the Catskill Mountains; like Henry Hudson and his Enchanted Crew, I was off to Parts Unknown, and the Prospect was not Good.
            My thoughtful mother, concerned lest I die of hunger on the bus (this had never before, and would never, ever happen), had supplied me with a large bag of Pretz’l Nuggets, with which I stuffed my face during the trip—never underestimate the power of food to relieve anxiety. Unfortunately, the combination of my choosing to sit on the bumping-and-thumping back wheel of a diesel-powered bus, noxious fumes and all, added to a bellyful of pretzels, did have its inevitable outcome, and I made full use of the handy pretzel bag when I was done.
            Pale, shaken, and with cold perspiration bespangling my brow, I arrived in Greater Downtown South Fallsburg—the saddest, sorriest mountain townlet one could ever wish for, but one which became Greater Transplanted Jewburg every summer. Farther up the block, a small clutch of my fellow campers were happily getting into a large station wagon the camp had thoughtfully sent out to collect them. I, dazed, stood looking about at Nothing in Particular on the sidewalk, until a local cab driver—call him Slick—full-toothily-smiling, businesslike, and expert at marketing his services in a slick, greasy sort of way, approached me, spitting precisely on the sidewalk just between my wobbly legs and the brand-new steamer trunk my mother had purchased, its shiny black sides and golden-brass fittings gleaming in the late-afternoon sun. My chauffeur-to-be smelled New York money, and was eager to collect.
            “Need a lift, Sport?” asked Slick, drawing a large comb from his jeans pocket and dragging it through his Elvis-like pompadour.
            I nodded numbly, still queasy from my pretz’l binge, and waiting for the world to stop spinning.
            “Whereya goin’?” Slick pursued, an errant toothpick moving from side to side in his shark’s-tooth mouth.
            “Camp Galila,” I whispered, through vomit-and-pretz’l-embossed lips.
            “That that Jewish camp outside a’ town?” asked Slick.
            I nodded again.
            “Let’s saddle ya up,” said Slick, seizing hold of my trunk and hoisting it onto his cab’s roof as if it were gossamer, “and get ya t’Camp Gonorrhea, or wherever it is yer goin’.”
            I held on desperately to the worn-out grey leather of the back seat while Slick floored his De Soto Airflow Taxi, working the wheel and shift expertly with one hand, while the other combed his coif, so thoroughly shellacked with Bryllcreme that it refused to move in the breeze. We sped along so quickly, it seemed to me, that even the little Hawaiian hula dancer on the front dashboard hid her eyes in fright. The combination of squealing tires, flying pebbles, and airborne dust was too much for my overworked stomach, and I closed my eyes, praying for it all to end—which it did, quickly. Spinning madly and with a shriek of its worn-out tires, the De Soto executed a full-on one-eighty-degree spin, ending right in front of the main cabin on the campgrounds. Slick leapt out of the driver’s seat and opened my door with a flourish, and I saw a prominent sign whose bold red-on-white letters read, “Camp Director’s Office” in Hebrew and English.
            I slowly eased my aching frame out of the back seat of the De Soto—it wasn’t easy; the seats were cushy and deep, and a used condom had somehow stuck itself to the seat of my pants—I didn’t find out what it was until later—but I emerged to see a small delegation of camp personnel, and was grateful to see them happy to welcome me; that is, until I noted the puzzled look on everyone’s face. Slick yanked my trunk off the roof of his cab and lowered it gently to the ground, where it landed with a dull thud, sending up a cloud of yellow camp-dust. His toothpick quivered as he grinned and stood, expectantly, right hand out, palm up.
            “Thank you,” I said to him, weakly, and went to shake his hand.
            Slick withdrew his hand, used it to smooth his hair, bent over, and said, slowly, as if he were speaking to a cretin,
            “You don’t have to thank me. You have to pay me.”
            I stood, horrified, looking at Slick: was this part of the deal? I had no money, and was truly unaware of any services I could offer him to pay for the ride. I had no Pretz’l Nuggets left, either: digested or undigested, they were gone—luckily, an officious-looking gentleman stepped forward, smiling and nodding at Slick, and wagged his hand at me. I was saved.
            Hours later, this same man—Uncle Sy, the Camp Director—told me that he called my mother.
            “Did David arrive safely at camp?” she asked.
            “Oh, yes, Mrs. Mark,” Sy replied, “he came by taxi.”
            My mother was amazed. I had never even taken a bus, or subway, alone before.
            Uncle Sy called my Division Head, or “D.H.”—I was soon to become acquainted with all sorts of camp incunabula—Louie, who took me to my bunk.
I must explain here that Camp Galila had not begun its existence as a camp; it was originally one of the many Catskills demi-hotels, a “kuch-ah-lain,” literally, “cook alone,” or “cook by oneself,” or bungalow colony, which a small group of Jewish entrepreneurs purchased, and turned into a summer camp. Camp standards were lax in those days, and food was cheap, and the growing demographic of Baby Boomers to which I belonged was in need of summer recreation.
            The bunk was actually a former bungalow. I met my fellow eleven-year-olds, all, or most, of whom, it seemed, were named Al. We shook hands, and they all crowded into my room—two guys to a room—to watch me unpack my stuff. I did not know it then, but, having arrived midseason, I had the dubious status of being The New Guy, or Fresh Meat, in a den of young He-Wolves.
When I took my most Precious Possessions—my set of six paperbacks comprising “The Best of Mad Magazine” out of the trunk, their joy was unbounded. Mad Magazine was more precious than Torah or Bible for young American boys in those days; we memorized and recited its every line to one another, and the fellow who knew every clever phrase was highly esteemed. Not being athletically gifted, I made up for it by knowing Mad routines and articles by heart. My books of Mad collections, therefore, were my Keys to the Kingdom, but I did not know this then. I became at once popular. My newly-found friends were pleading:

            “Can I borrow them?”
“Oh, Dave, can I borrow them?”
“I’ll be your best friend!” Etc.
           
Speechless, I stood, holding out the books, like a bucket of guts to a murder of vultures: my joyful bunkmates seized the precious paperbacks from my grasping hands, and they vanished. I never saw them again—the books, that is—with one exception. As I was packing to go home, weeks later, a counselor I did not know came into my room, holding one—just one, volume of my collection. It lay limply in his hand, half its pages missing, looking as if it had been kicked and tossed and used in some diabolical game of ringalevio—he held it out to me, and said,
“I found this book, with your name in it. Do you want it back?”
            Dumbly, I reached for it: it lay in my hand like a dead thing. All I could do was stare: you must understand that books, in those days (and, to some extent, today) were my best friends. I did not like to loan them, to run the risk of losing them. And now, here, one of my friends had returned to me, torn and nearly destroyed. I stared at it, at its remains. I could not speak.
            The counselor waited, and said, crossly, “The least you can do is say, ‘Thank you’ to me for returning it to you!”
            “Thank you,” I said.
            He left. I know he didn’t understand. No one could understand.
            From the time of my arrival, I was in for hazing and teasing—I could not know, going in, that this was the fate of the New Guy, and I was ill-equipped to withstand it. I had no athletic abilities, no skills or talents that were marketable in the bourse of Boyhood. Years later, I mastered the art of Humor, and, to a greater extent, the Art of Sarcasm, and of the Putdown. This was not really hard: I learned it from an Expert, my Mother. Indeed, I was an adult before I learned that Humor and Sarcasm were not the same thing. I believe now that this a particularly Jewish trait—or, perhaps, that of the weaker person who wishes to defend himself against those more powerful. To be sarcastic with a deadpan face is particularly deadly, and one must learn How, When and Where to use it. It becomes an Art.
            In the meantime, I quickly learned the Camp Routine, and discovered the pecking order of the bunk. The athletes were on top, while nerds like me were somewhere in the middle—we could defend ourselves verbally. Those who could not shine either athletically or verbally were at the very bottom, and all, myself included, dumped on them—or, as I preferred, ignored them. It was a harsh existence, but this was the price of Being a Boy.
           
Camp was a Life-Lesson in definitely crucial ways. I learned to:
           
            1. Sweep the floor of my room, first tossing some water on the wood floor to dampen the dust.
            2. Make a bed using straight sheets, including hospital corners—this particular skill has disappeared, in a world of fitted sheets, but time was when a finicky counselor might deliberately toss a quarter onto a bed, to see if the sheets were truly stretched tightly, and, if the quarter did not bounce, the counselor would strip the bed. Again, this happened rarely, except during Color War, for which, see below.
            3. Swim. I am convinced that, had I not gone to camp, I would not have learned to properly swim. If walking is controlled falling, then swimming is controlled drowning.
            Camp was also a fine place to be—well, a boy. I had never really been physical, unless carrying home tall stacks of books from the local Branch Library could be considered a physical act; for me, it was a pleasure, and the paramount act of my week. At camp, I learned to roughhouse. One day, I was playing with a bunkmate in the narrow hall of the bungalow—one of the ubiquitous Als—when he threw me against the wall, with all of his might.
            To our mutual amazement, when I picked myself up off the wall, I saw that my posterior part had gouged a hole in its fragile, plastered surface. We both started to laugh—not at me, but at the utter delicacy of our dwelling. After we stopped our giggling, we went to fetch one of our counselors, who did not share the humorous nature of the occurrence.
            “How did you do that—I mean, bash a hole in the wall with your butt?” he asked.
            Without hesitating, I threw my hefty hindquarters against the wall a second time—and gouged out another hole.
            There was much to be said for the construction of camp bunks at Galila, but little about their durability. Luckily, my parents were not charged.
           
Besides the sports events in which I was forced to compete, and in which I inevitably sucked, there were also all-camp events. I remember the time that our camp played host to another Jewish camp—one whose philosophy was not religious. Our camp rabbi gave us a lecture in which he stressed that Derech Eretz kadma l’Torah—Good manners precede Torah—meaning that, if any of us noticed anything strange or out of the ordinary about our visitors, we should keep it to ourselves; if we had any questions about their behavior, we could either consult with our counselors, or go directly to him.
Our visitors were from Camp Ha-Bonim, “The Builders,” which I discovered later were affiliated with Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsa’ir, the “Young Guard,” the left-wing American branch of the Jabotinsky Party in Israel, Menachem Begin’s Herut (Liberty) Party, from which Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party is descended, for better or worse.
As we watched, the HaBonim bus pulled up, and our visitors disembarked, wearing identical workmen’s denim-blue workshirts, and matching shorts. They were a well-drilled group of miniature right-wingers, it seemed, with no kippote (skullcaps) among them. Wordlessly, as though they had rehearsed their parts in perfect unison, they took the field, and our baseball game began. Our teams were somewhat evenly matched, until one of their players got on first, at which point, all of their players got into a circle, hunched over, and, in a deep, group voice, called out their special team cheer: “Ka-DI-ma, Ha-bo-NEEE-EEM! Ka-DIM-ma, Ha-bo-NEEE-EEM! (Forward, Builders of Israel!)”
This shamanic utterance totally flummoxed and frightened our pitcher, “Hawkeye” Mintzenberg, who muffed his pitches to the next three HaBonim batters, and we lost the game. It could not be considered an Act of God; HaBonim were all atheists, or, at least, agnostics. But when we were forced to line up for the traditional “Good Sport” hand-slapping ceremony, I distinctly recall how the HaBonim players gave each of us an evil look and went out of their way to give an extra-hard slap to our tender, scholarly palms. Several of us flipped them the middle-fingered bird as their bus went coughing and lurching out of our camp grounds.
There was also Color War, in which the Entire Camp was divided into two teams, made to march in Perfectly Straight Lines, and compete in Athletic Contests for three days, following an esoteric Scoring System known as “Olympic Scoring,” where both the Winning and Losing Teams still managed to divide the points between them, making scoring each event a Solomonic challenge, subjecting each counselor-judge to waves of hatred emanating from both teams, not just the loser.
The entire Three-Day Experience culminated in a Major Sing Event, with both sides using songs as weapons to demoralize and demolish their foe. Judges paid close attention to the “banners” each team produced, which were actually elaborate, 3-D mannequins of each team’s symbol. After a couple of events, in which I was made to march in lockstep from my bunk to the basketball court to the baseball field to the lake for a Group Swim, with every event measured, scored, and written down, including fines for those Who Dared to Talk in Line, I concluded that this was nothing more than Organized Fascism.
I witnessed at least one of the two Color War “Generals”—the counselor who headed one of the teams—become so involved, overwrought, and near-manic over this foolish group experiment, that he almost suffered a nervous breakdown. I pledged to never be involved again in such a ridiculous group experience.
Still, it was useful to study, from a distance, the sociological effects of forcing young children to march, sing, and dedicate themselves to oddly-named teams—that year, we had the Grey Buccaneers and the Blue Cavaliers; the Buccaneers took Color War, which taught absolutely no moral lesson whatsoever:
           
Cavaliers (clap)
            Cavaliers (clap)
            We will beat those
            Buccaneers
            Everybody now!
(Repeat)

            Being the woods, for a City Boy, meant going into the Woods—an experience I would have missed, and gladly, but for most campers and counselors—the fools—the culmination of the summer at Camp Galila was the Nature Hike, with an Overnight in the Woods. As a City Boy, all of my early life, I had developed certain ideas about Nature.
Nature existed in two places: Central Park, where it was sensibly kept within certain boundaries—the Sheep Meadow, the Pond—and the American Museum of Natural History, where my mother took my sister and me, to observe dummies made up to look like cavemen, early explorers, dinosaurs, mammals, and the like.
            In the Museum, I saw Nature, from behind glass. A dummy sabre-toothed tiger threatened dummy cave-people, and I had no idea who triumphed: the action was static. Certainly, my hopes were for the cave-people, but the tiger seemed to have the weight and fighting advantage. It was amusing and quaint to watch the little, make-believe fire, composed of a small bulb held under red-and-yellow painted plastic cubes, flickering away.
            The resultant problem was that I saw no need to enter or even visit an Actual Woods. I knew, or at least assumed, that Walt Disney’s Bambi, Thumper, Flower and their friends inhabited real-life (or, at least, cartoon) woods, but I felt no great urge to visit or spend time with them. How would I benefit from this? But then, I went to camp, where Nature assumed an exaggerated importance I did not believe it deserved—partly because of Earl.
            The Nature Counselor was a thin, serious-browed fellow named Earl Vinecour, who was inevitably nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” for his tragic mien. He announced after breakfast one day that nearly the entire camp, my bunk among them, would be going on an overnight “up the river,” to some mysterious destination, which he chose not to name. If he had told us we were marching to Tibet, armed only with toothbrushes, prayerbooks, and a Torah scroll, the destination would not have mattered to me. I had only recently grown used to sleeping in my bungalow, listening every night to the chirping of crickets, the hooting of owls, and the sounds of various small animals in the underbrush; as long as a sturdy, or not-too-holy screen separated me from the various Forest Creatures and Bugs, I was content.
            Now, it seemed, the tables were turned. No longer was I to be safe within four sturdy walls, between sheets and blankets. I was going to enter into Nature’s lair, for no sensible reason. Why should I go on a Nature Hike? What was I to learn from this experience? What had Nature to do with me, or I with Nature?
            I had no time to puzzle over these questions, since Earl ordered all of us boys and girls to immediately return to our bunks, and pack suitable clothing, whatever that was. We took shorts, long pants, sweatshirts, hats, flashlights, and assorted forest-appropriate paraphernalia. And we were off, to encounter Nature.
            I next remembered standing by a small river, balancing on a surface of river rocks made up of small and medium-sized round pebbles whose chief purpose is to trip me up or make me twist an ankle. The rushing rivulet nearby was cold, and totally unappetizing. The sun seemed to have gone behind clouds—strange, for mid-August, but this was, after all, the Catskills, and a fairly high mountain elevation. I idly wondered if Rip Van Winkle might make an appearance, followed by the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his Crew, as I had read in Washington Irving’s stories.
            I was thoroughly bored, and, like the other campers, was walking alongside the rivulet, poking at the stones with a dry stick. Was this the great Introduction to Nature that Earl had promised us? Apparently, Earl sensed our boredom, because he suddenly had the idea that we ought to cross the stream, for reasons I could not figure out. The other side looked just as boring as this one, but we all knew not to cross him; he was the Mighty Woodsman, after all (We found out, later, that he was majoring in Accounting at college, and his knowledge of woodcraft was just a front.).
            “Campers! All campers, line up—we’re crossing the stream!” he shouted. This was Vinegar Joe, the Mighty Earl, himself: apparently, we had achieved the first objective, of studying the wilderness stream, and it was time to strike out boldly, into the woods. The water was cold and uninviting, if bare of any fish save a few minnows; the tall pines which blocked out the mid-August sun contributed to the unseasonable cold.
            There was no dry path to cross the stream: a few rocks, moss-covered, slippery, and rounded by the winter’s swollen waterflow, were the only way to get over. The thinner, more agile kids, giggling and calling out to one another, had no trouble maneuvering across; I chose to hold back, studying where they placed their feet. I had never been graceful in any way, a family trait I shared with most every immediate relative I could think of.
            Finally, it was my turn: I placed a careful foot on a green-bearded boulder, and started across. It was like stepping on sharpened ice cubes, and I felt every step through the thin soles of my U.S. Keds sneakers.
This was not going to be easy, I told myself.
Across the stream, the other kids, bored, were tossing pebbles into the sluggish stream. A few of them, grinning sadistically, winged a couple in my direction, not aiming directly at me, but close enough to give me something else to worry about.
I looked down, focusing on my progress: One foot, other foot, one foot, other foot….
It all happened very quickly: while I was concentrating on moving my left foot forward, my right foot, which I thought I had planted firmly on a fairly solid rock, started to move sideways, as the stone, unaccustomed to the unusual weight (I was a chunky fellow, who tended to relieve my camp-related worries at the dinner table, and camp meals leaned toward meat and potatoes), moved into the stream, and away from its fellows—
--Trying to regain my foothold on the right, my left zipped up, and I fell backward with a mighty splash into the chilly water, going beneath the surface once—
--And came back to the surface, choking and sputtering. As I struggled to my knees and stood up, soaked to the skin, I looked at the little mob on the opposite shore. They stared; to my relief, no one laughed, but the waves of Schadenfreude, their unexpressed joy at thinking, knowing, “Thank God that that fall happened to the Fat Boy, and not to me”—radiated across the span of cold water, as I splashed to the shore, shivering.
No one said a word; no one asked if I was OK, or offered me any sympathy. I took up my place at the rear of the group, and we trudged off into the forest, my dripping blue Keds protesting, it seemed, with every step.
When we halted for the night, and spread out our bedrolls, which a truck from camp had pre-delivered at the campsite, I noted that many of my fellow campers—boys and girls were segregated, in accordance with Modern Orthodox practice—shucked off their pants, and hung them on a clothesline to dry.
I was shy, and did not join them; I kept my long pants on, though they were clammy and uncomfortable, soaked with river water from my fall.
It was a long night, and I shivered in my soaking-wet clothes. Lying there, deep in the woods, with stars twinkling overhead, I wondered at what sense it all made; why leave civilization for the dubious pleasure of lying on a woods-covered ground, with twigs, leaves, and assorted thorns poking oneself in the back? No answer came, either from God or the various woodsy creatures, and I finally, exhausted from the day’s exertions, slept.
I awoke feeling chafed (I have always been a delicate sort), but happy to find my pants dry. We lined up for the ubiquitous dry cereal boxes—the ones that opened like a double-door, using a plastic knife. I got on line in time to find the pre-sweetened brands all gone: vanished were the Frosted Flakes, the Raisin Bran, and the Frosty-O’s; I had to content myself with Rice Krispies, which were dry and tasteless. Perhaps this cereal penance, added to my cold, stiff jeans, might have made me think of ancient monks living on pillars or depriving themselves of other earthly joys: I was a sort of Simon Stylites, Jewish version, had I been aware of him, at the tender age of eleven.
The day began apace, with our group, for reasons unclear, returning to the very stream where I had come to grief the day before. Earl, our seasoned woodsman, showed us where the moss grew, and lectured us far too long about different varieties of tree bark. He then led us down to the side of the stream, and began pointing at the minnows and explaining their particular differences; I was far from the group, and chose to stare at the water nearby, so his bits of woodsy wisdom were, unfortunately, lost on me. I had already resolved to keep as far from the forest as possible for the rest of my life, so I had no need of any information he might provide.  
The stream’s passage, combined with the rays of sunlight playing on its surface, was mesmerizing. I did not notice that Earl had led the rest of the group across via a drier path of rocks, and stayed, along with other bored and uninvolved campers, on the quieter side of the stream. Camping was turning into a more pleasant, restful experience, and I began to look around for a relatively soft place to sit and gaze upon the stream, somewhere I could appreciate nature’s beauty and ignore the plaintive voice of an accountant-cum-trailblazer.
Suddenly, once again, Earl’s strident voice cut into my reverie:

“WATER MOCCASIN! COTTONMOUTH! POISONOUS SNAKE! Drop what you’re doing, Kids, and run across the stream! RIGHT NOW! Omigod, it’s right next to you! MOVEITMOVEITMOVEIT! That’s one of the deadliest—no, THE deadliest—snakes I know!”

Without hesitation, my fellow-dreamers and I sprang into adrenaline mode, and went splashing across the turbid, chilling waters, even as a little Voice of Conscience in my head, went, “What? This crap, again?” and my nether parts quickly ascended into my lower abdomen.
To Earl’s credit, there was, indeed, a Water Moccasin, scourge of Jewish campers, in the water, though we never learned if it was, truly, a Hazard to Our Existence.
The only view I had of the Beastly Reptile was of its Headless Form, writhing on a rock in the sunlight, after Fearless Earl had beheaded it, with his handy hand-ax. For years afterward, I believed the entire affair was a set-up, but could not figure how Earl managed to plant the snake in the water: how does one bribe a snake into getting killed? I have since given up trying.
I spent the rest of the day squishing through the woods in my twice-soaked jeans and submarined Keds, until we mounted school buses, and went back to camp.
And that is why, Reader, I have never, since, re-entered any woods, anywhere, for any reason. Moses, our Original Nature Counselor, led the Israelites through the Wilderness for forty years; I spent one night in the forest with Earl Vinecour, the legendary “Vinegar Joe,” as well as Wet Underwear and Jeans, Squishy Keds Sneakers, and, as Piece de Resistance, My Own, Personal, Deadly Serpent. I have done my share of Wilderness Exploring, and my pants are finally dry, thank you very much. If you need me to go camping, you may call the nearest, mid- to high-range motel. Leave any errant creepy-crawlies outside. I’ll leave the light on for you.