My "Summer of '42" actually occurred in 1964. The few short weeks that I spent as a camp counselor in rural Virginia during that fateful, formative summer between my junior and senior years in high school can be targeted through the crystal clear lens of retrospect as the pivotal point in my life. Many small events and circumstances, each insignificant in themselves, combined into the collective singularity, which ripped me from the black hole of my childhood and projected me--unprepared and overdue--into the expanding universe of my maturity.
When I arrived at the camp called Okie on the river named James, I was an insecure, awkward victim of puberty. The raging hormones of the prior year had stretched my thin frame eight inches, leaving the wardrobe of my mind in total disarray, with the dated fashions of a puny self-image strewn wildly among the poorly fitting trappings of a new giant. The runt in my mind--who now towered over his former tormentors--had no reference point from which to play their games. A "Stranger in a Strange Land," I turned inward for solace and may well have succeeded in total isolation, were it not for one old childhood friend who, through some still mysterious burst of perception and compassion, wrenched me from my safe haven within, and launched me irrevocably on a new course into the star filled universe of life.
Al Welter and Camp Okie were a pair. Both were ancient, having served their masters well for over 30 years. Both had seen their usefulness absorbed for the greater benefit of others, and in the end, each was dismissed unceremoniously, with a few mumbled platitudes of gratitude, and then--on to the next generation. Al's retirement from the Marine Corps had come a few years earlier. Having devoted his youth to age-old traditions, he now dedicated his old age to instilling traditions in youth; giving to the Boy Scouts the devotion and leadership that his beloved Corps no longer found necessary.
The final days for Okie were still before me then. Strangely, (or so it now seems), I had no sense of import--no hint or premonition whatsoever--of the monumental changes that Okie's swan song was about to orchestrate in my life. I was just a lost soul named Bruce; cursed with a lispy, sibilance of speech; somewhat reminiscent of a grass snake--which made self-identification a living humility.
I came to teach. The only Sea Explorer at the camp, I taught knot-tying, navigation, and seamanship. My Navy whites served to distinguish me even more than my newly acquired height. A gawky scarecrow in a Popeye hat, I was immediately labelled "Sailor Bob" by the campers, whom we called "Grubs." Fortunately for me, it wasn't until several weeks later--long after I had permanently and irrevocably absorbed the name and attendant persona of "Bob" and had buried forever the waif who had been "Bruth"--that I finally discovered that Sailor Bob was the local clown who hosted the Popeye cartoons on Saturday mornings. What, a month earlier, would have been a devastating humiliation for the lost Bruce, was by then a source of wild hilarity for the emergent rogue now known as Bob.
Although, in retrospect, the transition must have come gradually during those fleeting, wild, and reckless days, I cannot recall a single moment of that summer that was not magic. It was as if Bruce had stuck to the upholstery of my father's car, and returned empty to the cold hostility of my new home in Arlington, Virginia--a home that I had not even finished moving into when I was whisked away to camp; a home that was by no means mine. I hope he found peace there, for I never saw him again.
In trying to pin down what I think of as the seminal moment--that instant in time which represents the birth of my soul--I keep coming back to the day when the first group of campers graduated. They had been at camp for two weeks, had worked hard for their merit badges, and even harder so that they could advance to their next stage of Scouthood. The crowning event was the awards bonfire, a formal scouting ceremony, held Saturday night to honor the achievements of these hard-working scouts. That bonfire was the terminal event of their camp experience, and parents often came to share the experience--peacock fathers out--strutting each other through our forest camp; reviewing their heir's accomplishments; brooding mothers quietly nesting together in the clean sanctuary of our linen-draped dining hall.
It was a family event, so along with the parents came eager younger brothers--in awe of the mysteries of wood lore; dreaming of taking their turns at these holy rites of passage--and bored teenage sisters who, resenting being hauled along to this childish event, assuaged their misery by dragging along a girlfriend or two. It was a small price for dad to pay to keep the peace and mollify dear young Lolita. For some reason (lost to oracles forever, I'm afraid), young girls tended to run in packs of three back then. Each covey had it's queen, usually the sister of the resident grub.
Two certainties simultaneously coalesced from these conditions: Post-pubescent males--isolated from civilization in a military-style environment, and suddenly encountering the female of their species in full plumage and vulnerable to any diversion--suffer an immediate and devastating hormonal meltdown. Their drive to "score" is surpassed only by their total lack of any "cool" method of approaching their quarry. Any direct approach will spook the flock, leaving the hunter empty-handed, and the prey wary.
The other certainty, kept from our developing consciousness at the time by a mischievous Mother Nature, was that nothing in the world is more fascinating to a group of teenage girls cultivating boredom, than a group of older boys in uniform. And no uniform is sexier to them than a clean bright set of Navy whites. The sheer, simple, seemingly insignificant coincidence that only I had such a uniform was cause enough to forever divert the course of my life.
Sensing the attention of the approaching game, and desperate for an opening gambit, someone remarked "Hey! Sailors are supposed to be great with women. How about you going over there and collecting up some of those babes for us, Sailor Bob?"
I was immediately inundated with "Yeah, Sailor Bob!" "You can do it!" "We're counting on you!" and similar testosterone-triggered taunts. Trapped, with nowhere to go but forward--and my newly discovered persona hanging desperately in the balance--the fear of loss of status finally overcame the fear of failure, and I plunged forever over the precipice of daring.
Annihilating the black hole of my fear with the nebula of self-discovery, I strode forward, the bravado of inevitability rapidly replaced by the confidence of momentum. Approaching my probable destruction with a swaggering stride and a surprisingly easy smile, I took my cap and destiny in my hand and, with a sweeping bow, quipped "Hi, I'm Sailor Bob, your official camp guide, and I've come to show you around camp."
The universe continued. The sun still shone, but in mere seconds was surpassed forever by the radiance of three perfect smiles. The damsels were rescued from the dragon of tedium by a gangly white knight, reminiscent of Gary Cooper, and followed closely by a band of lesser knights--whom fate had cast instantly and forevermore as my followers. No longer would my self-image be allowed to embrace Lou Costello. I had loftier responsibilities to fulfill. The cosmic dust of my empty existence had reached critical mass, and a star was born.
The energy of that moment, and the momentum of maintaining my new existence, reached far beyond the remaining weeks of that summer--and the boundaries of a camp called Okie.
Returning to a home that had never been Home, integrating into a community I had not yet met--it was only natural to carry with me the only friend that I had ever been. Bruce never made it home. Bob replaced him in his first classes at the new school, and at the church fellowship group. Bob dated girls that Bruce had only dreamed of. He fell in love, had his heart broken, and recovered. He learned to live and he learned to write. And perhaps most valuable of all, he learned that the only thing worth fearing in life is the fear of living it.
We ended that summer watching the flames kiss the clouds as they rose from the funeral pyre consuming what was left of the bones of our beloved camp Okie. We all felt a sense of loss: loss of the magnificent camp which had trained three generations of youthful leaders--gone now forever; loss of the constant companionship of new and often intense friendships, buffered only slightly by half-hearted promises to stay in touch, the impetus of which was already starting to erode even as the words hung fading in the dark; loss of our innocence, not sorely missed--but lost all the same.
But the universe is balanced. Each of these losses was offset by the many benefits that we all carried away with us: new knowledge, new confidence, new friendships, and a deeper and lasting awareness of self.
Amazingly, even as I watched the final flames of fraternity consume the last lingering log of our lives at Camp Okie, I had no clue--no sense of the apocalyptic metamorphosis which had just transformed my being. Galactic change is like that--subtle, gentle, hidden in the myriad events that make up our daily existence, but with the sheer, slow gravitational force to bend forever the course of our journey through life.
I had come to teach, but had been taught. Now, the sweet, sad melancholy of nostalgia forever brushes my mind, and those magnificent, radiant youths, who shared my life and my birth, shall shine eternally from seats of honor around the ceremonial bonfires of my heart.
B. D. FAW is a retired electronics engineer, teacher, and entrepreneur. Author, prize-winning poet, and philosopher, he has been published in books, magazines, newspapers, newsletters, the Internet, and even a freeway time capsule. His latest credits include the lyric poem, "The Alabaster Mermaid," which won first place in the OnceWritten.com summer poetry contest and his own collection of lyric love poetry, "Cycles of Love," being published by 1stBooks Library. His poem "Ode to a Freeway Time Capsule" was selected for inclusion in the time capsule embedded in California Highway 71. He is currently working on a science fiction novel, a collection of short essays, and a book of inspirational poetry. A graduate of North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), he earned a master's degree in interactive multimedia at California State University, San Bernardino, where he also earned a teaching credential. A former Marine Vietnam veteran, he is committed to public service and has been an active Rotarian since 1988.© 2004, B.D. Faw, All Rights Reserved