Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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The painful rites of summer love
By  |

CHILDHOOD BONDAGE and free labor being what they were in our family in 1956, I agreed to go to summer camp purely as a method of avoiding summer chores for a week. It was a church camp, and the extremes of separation of the sexes would have brought tears of admiration to a Shaker’s eye. The boys’ cabins were down the hill, and the girls’ compounds were at the very top of the hill, with counselors’ cabins and a vast wasteland in between. I’m not too sure that the security was really needed, seeing that the campers of both sexes were totally terrified of each other and were far more concerned with appearing unimpressed.

Right up front, I became friendly with the kid who looked the toughest: Max Stanfield. One of my best methods of avoiding confrontations with thugs was to hang around with them. Max was a thug. His close buddy J.W. was a thug. I would have liked to have been a thug.

You must understand that to run with the roughest crowd you must either go up against the leader-not my style-or resolve yourself to being a follower. But being classified as a follower didn’t really bother me because I got to sit with the gang at “our table” in the mess hall. That was where I first saw Ginger. Unfortunately, that was where Max Stanfield first saw her, too.

Why is it that sweet, beautiful, straight girls always fall for guys like Max? My guess is that she saw her first chance to win a sinner over to her side-or maybe she just had a wild streak. Ginger and Max became a couple three-and-a-half minutes after they saw each other. I hated him.

The first night of camp, everyone had to meet under the pavilion to hear all the ground rules and find out about the activities. Kids who were making a return engagement at the camp were all aquiver at the very mention of “The Indian Campfire,” a ritual of torment that required that boys ask girls to go with them, thus allowing the girls to participate in one of the greatest sports of adolescence: controlled rejection. Of course, Max had the competition sewed up before his macaroni got cold. He asked Ginger with a simple nod across the room, which she returned with downcast eyes. I had a week left in which to build up a year’s worth of nerve to ask someone.

Now that Ginger would occasionally hang around with our gang near the water fountain (our spot), I could practice my lines under the guise of friendship. I could make her laugh; I could make her sad; I could get her to show concern at will. I just couldn’t get her away from Max.

THE TIME PASSED slowly at first, then picked up speed as the fear set in and the campfire drew near. Even the marathon hokey-pokey contests couldn’t take my mind off the impending doom. I tried to get up the nerve to ask a cabin-mate’s sister. In a moment of bravery, I broke away from the chattering of pubescent guys whose voice changes made them sound like a troupe of yodelers to ask her: “Are you going to the campfire?” (Dumb question, since everyone had to go.)

Between the slowest recorded gum-chew in history and the longest period of no-eye-blinks, she said: “Of course I’m going, and I hope you’re not thinking of asking me because I don’t like pressure, blue jeans, boys that cuss, smoke, drink, have long hair or hang around with Max Stanfield- or you.”

“Well, if you change your mind,” I muttered as she walked away with her ponytail and little rabbit-fur pompons bouncing victoriously.

I became consumed. A hundred girls in the camp, and all I had to do was pick one. I compared them all to Ginger. Her little 5-foot-2-inch frame cinched in the middle to a tiny waist no bigger than my arm. Her auburn hair cut into a sideswept ducktail that dipped into an eternally upturned collar. Around her neck, Ginger always wore a scarf tied like the one Gale Storm wore on My Little Margie. Her little munchkin feet were covered by penny loafers or ballet slippers, and, as was so common in youthful rebellion, she wore sinfully short shorts. I’m still a sucker for that today: an outward image of respectability, composure and sensibility, with a streak of impishness that keeps popping up. Ginger also played the cello.

The days ticked off. My mind was lost. Even the nature trail walks and “Chapel in the Green” couldn’t get my attention. I started sitting near the girls’ walk with an expression of deep loss on my face in hopes that one of them would ask what was troubling me. “I only have a few months to live” was on the tip of my tongue. “I’ve had a troubled childhood that can only be corrected by a date to the campfire.” But nothing worked.

Then one day a beautiful girl came over to me and asked: “Are you in a skit for the campfire?” Skit? Rising to the occasion, I answered in the negative. She wanted to know if I wanted to participate. Hoping it was the first step to being asked to the event by a girl, I agreed.

“Good! You’ll be Big Chief Ipana of Palmolive Lake,” she said. “I’m Princess White Rain and my boyfriend is Little Pep-sodent.. .you have to learn a six-page script and perform it in front of everybody at the campfire. See ya.”

Stupid! I was stupid! Still no date, and now I had to be further humiliated in a dumb skit. My world was lost. Even dumb Bill Gregory had a date. Wesley the Wimp had a date with Syna Mae Handley, who wore a brass man-in-the-moon pendant that had turned her chest green. Everyone was getting into the groove. My blues couldn’t be shaken. Even when the song “Bingo Was His Name” (Bingo was a dog) was interrupted by a new Elvis Presley record that inspired a wild “bopping” extravaganza, it didn’t faze me. I was dateless.

AS I LAY in my bed at the cabin, wondering how at least 48 mosquitoes could have gotten behind my knee while I slept, Max Stanfield burst into the room with J.W. and the other members of the gang that it was becoming obvious I no longer belonged to.

“Get outta that bed, you *#%@, and get this straightened out!”

I didn’t know whether to be terrified or mad. “What are you talking about?” I asked as I saw my former friends eye me like a pack of dogs.

Max punched his finger into my chest as he frothed: “Ginger! Ginger isn’t going to the campfire with me because she heard you cussing in the pavilion!” I was dumbfounded. I denied it. “Well, you’re going to apologize to her and get her to go with me or I’m going to pound your head off and stomp you silly!” Max probably could have, too.

We marched up the hill to the pavilion. It was like a march to the gallows. With every step, I grew more afraid-not of Max, but of Ginger! Just talking to a girl like Ginger made my voice go up six octaves. I sounded like Mickey Mouse. The idea of apologizing to her was more than I could stand.

We came to the giant doors, made to look even bigger by the impending doom inside. Max’s finger again found its way into my bruised chest as he said: “Just remember, I’m waiting right here until you come out.. . and it better be with the right answer or you’ll be picking up your teeth like Chiclets. Got that, fat boy?” I got it.

I walked into the giant stone-and-concrete hall. The girls standing near the water fountain were laughing, probably at me. But no Ginger! Thank God, I’m off the hook, I thought. It’s not my fault she’s not here. But as I tried to formulate an excuse sufficient to avoid mutilation at Max’s hand, I saw her. She was coming out of Mrs. Turrentine’s office. My throat closed down to 5mm as I walked toward Ginger. She was getting a drink of water. As she finished, a little drop rolled down her chin, and she did this movie-star move to get rid of it.

“You look sick,” she said. I was.

“I want to apologize for cussing around you,” I said in a Seven Dwarfs voice.

“What are you talking about?” she said.

“Max said you weren’t going to the camp-fire with him because I cussed around you!”

Her face showed a questioning look: “I’m not going to the campfire with Max Stanfield because he’s a jerk!”

Suddenly, my world went amok. Max Stanfield was going to kill me. He would never believe her statement if he heard it from me. And then, from some hidden place in my being, a voice rang out in the perfect, un-cracked tones of manhood: “Well, would you go with me?” With a simple jerk of her shoulders and a smile, she said: “Sure.” She took my hand and added, “You can be in my skit!”

I walked away in heaven. But when I saw Max stick his head inside the giant doors, I remembered my original mission-and my impending destruction. I walked out into the sun. “Well?” he asked.

“She’s not going to the campfire with you because she said you were a jerk.” And, flinching my muscles to withstand the coming blow, I added: “She’s going with me!”

Max’s face dissolved. His body melted into a posture of total rejection. His eyes watered up. “Gawl. What did I ever do to her.. .I mean, what?” Then Max walked away. J.W. and a couple of the guys tried to follow, but he waved them off.

The campfire was dumb; the skits weresilly. I blew every line, and Ginger was boring. She told me if I ever got to Hooks,Texas, to give her a call. I did, eight yearslater, and she had forgotten who I was. Me,the boy she had made a man.