By Linda Boroff
I have always wondered at those who treasure their memories of summer camp—that gamut of rejection, loneliness and failure that cycled into my life year after year. Somehow, despite their financial turmoil, my parents would always scrape together the money to send me, assuming that I enjoyed myself. Setting them straight loomed as a humiliating exposure with unpredictable consequences that might turn psychiatric.
The summer I was thirteen, before I went off to camp, my sister Emily and I would wander through hardware stores and gaze at Sherwin Williams paint cans the way future movie stars look up at theater marquees. Our dad, an obsessive tinkerer and entrepreneur, had concocted an invincible, waterproof cement paint that solved one of civilization’s peskiest if not profoundest challenges, the leaky basement. He named it Mighty Mix. By sealing the pores of the concrete, Mighty Mix made the difference between a warm basement haven and a dripping subterranean vault, dank as a medieval dungeon.
Dad believed that the mighty Sherwin Williams paint company would quickly see the potential of Mighty Mix, buy the patent for a worthy sum, and manufacture it by the industrial-sized tubful. The symmetry, the justice of this outcome was so evident and indisputable, that we knew it had to become reality.
Looking at the logo, it was easy to believe that Sherwin Williams paint did “cover the earth.” That brilliant red dollop, hurled down on the North Pole by a mighty Hand, was slathered thickly over the whole northern hemisphere, with nation-sized drips falling off at the equator. Backed by Sherwin Williams, Mighty Mix would soon take its place in the pantheon of American business legends beside Ford, Holiday Inns, Disneyland, and McDonald’s. We would pay off the mortgages on our house and keep the lights and phone on forever. In fact, all of our debts would instantly vanish, especially those to family, which caused the worst of the fights.
So I departed for camp that summer in a state of optimistic euphoria that almost replaced my usual dread.
Emily and I had always known that our father was a genius. Had he not tamed a red squirrel that lived in his shirt pocket while he fought forest fires in Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps? And had he not gone on to pilot a B-24 in the Pacific, bringing his crew unscathed through direct hits and feathered props and belly landings?
When I was nine years old, he built us an eight-foot-tall kite and sent it soaring aloft, waving a majestic tail of Howdy Doody bedsheets. Hours later, wearing his giant fur-lined leather paws, I had tugged the monster down from the stratosphere inch by inch, until it settled to the ground as gently and harmlessly as a maple leaf. The kite alone proved that my father could do anything. So how was it that he could not make a living?
I can still see his characteristic jaunty stride, a pilot’s swagger that I spent hours trying to emulate. He was tall and handsome, with curly blond hair and a wicked sense of humor. Anyone who could begin a mission from which he might not return by bellowing “Good morning, Mister Sun!” from the cockpit had to be capable of miracles. In the war’s heady aftermath, he had courted and married my mother, a curvy, mercurial, partisan with the dark mane and carmine lips of a classic pinup.
On both sides, our family was a microcosm of that era’s cheery desperation; a stampede toward prosperity, away from war, foreclosure, rationing and scrimping. Poverty was no longer the fault of the stock market or politics; poverty was the fault of oneself.
The bill collectors used to call around dinnertime. My mother would rise to answer, swallowing her food quickly: He had just stepped out. A payment was on its way. My father’s older brother Maurice, now a wealthy contractor, had grudgingly loaned us $3,000, but Morris’ wife, legendary for her obsessive parsimony, found out.
“Your aunt Adeline went to the bank the minute it opened,” said my mother, her green eyes flashing, “and told them that if they honored that check, she would close their whole business account. So they turned your father away.”
In our local library, I discovered a copy of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. The book was incomprehensible, but I tried to read it anyway. Somebody with Rousseau’s credentials should be able to explain why there was such inequality and injustice in the world; why my father, who was so brilliant and generous and deserving, could not get by. Why he had recently taken to swallowing pills, lying on the couch half conscious night after night, gazing bleary-eyed into space, buffeted by waves of canned laughter from the TV sitcoms.
My father had taught himself to play the harmonica and the ukulele. When we were small, he had serenaded us to sleep with achingly sad ballads of lonely cowpokes who fell in with evil companions, filled their romantic adversaries full of lead, and fell to a ranger’s gun amid mesquite and thick chapparal, whatever that was. And though women were the cause of it all, my sister and I vowed never to join that perfidious sorority of barroom floozies. Honorary boys, we watched the Friday Night Fights, built a treehouse, raised reptiles.
The summer I turned thirteen, however, my boyhood status seemed to be ending in obvious and embarrassing ways. The path to womanhood lay through perilous, forbidding terrain defined by Seventeen magazine; it might as well have led through all nine levels of Dante’s Inferno for all the hope I felt.
I had known since pre-school that I had the pick-on-me pheromone. Not only did I attract bullies the way Hollywood attracts starlets, I seemed to have the magical ability to transform the most passive, churchy kid into a snide little sadist. This summer apparently was to be no exception. Once at camp, I quickly plummeted to the bottom of the social hierarchy. On day two, my three new cabin mates collaborated to draw my portrait, titled “Stinky”, on the bathroom mirror in my toothpaste. I didn’t make the Water Ballet Corps, but was dumped into the Dog Paddle Squad. While we rejects flailed away in the leech-laden muck close to shore, the little naiads of the Corps practiced their synchronized routines out in sparkling blue water above their heads, wearing shiny yellow bathing suits, twirling huge hoops and tasseled wands.
But that summer, I had two allies to protect and elevate me: Sherwin Williams, the most powerful paint company on earth; and Sullivan, my camp horse, an irritable redhead of seventeen hands; a kindred problem child with whom I instantly bonded. Sullivan didn’t care that my teeth were crooked and my hair a shapeless mat with the texture of rusty steel wool. He was solid and true, manifestly superior in his sheer bulk and power, his rich smells and snorts. Though appealingly needy, he could kill if he got mad enough. I liked that dichotomy a lot.
Every day, I would escape the relentless bullying of my cabin mates to head down a narrow path through shimmering dogwoods and baking, drooping evergreens to the camp stables. There, for two dollars, I could cling to Sullivan’s gleaming neck for one blessed hour. Anguish fled. I didn’t bother with a saddle or even a bridle; I didn’t care where I went or if I died. Sullivan followed the trail with the others, but it was strictly by his choice. He was bred to lead, a broken-winded thoroughbred who still had the moxie to leave those other nags in the dust. When he ran, his flaming mane became mine. My nether half was no longer a crampy, bony pelvis with white legs sticking out of their ballooning bermuda shorts like soda straws. On Sullivan, I pounded the earth with steely hooves; reared magnificently, pawing the air. I bolted free and drank the wind, the clouds skimming above, the earth unreeling below.
While signing up one morning for my ride I was summoned to the office of the camp administrator. “Your account is out of money,” said the business officer. She had short graying hair and small angry eyes of no particular color. “So you can’t ride any more this session.” I stared. “Your parents put twenty dollars in your camp account, and you’ve gone through it in under a week.” She extended a pile of my signed receipts.
“They’ll pay you when camp is over.”
“We can’t allow that. Didn’t your parents ever teach you how to budget?” I begged to call home, and she reminded me that the phone was for emergencies only.
“This is an emergency.” She rolled her eyes and granted me access with a dismissive wave. Minnesota was not known for mercy in those days, least of all toward spendthrifts.
“That’s all we have, Brenda,” said my mother. “We had to borrow the money for camp from my brother Milt. You can live without candy bars.”
“But it’s for horseback riding.”
“Well, ask them if you can clean the stalls in exchange.” My silence must have felt like an accusation. “Brenda, you can’t just have everything you want. We’re going through very hard times.”
“Can’t Sherwin Williams give us some money in advance?”
“What’s the matter with you? Plenty of things are free. Go swimming.”
Despondent, I walked to the stables anyway, though they now seemed as inaccessible as Seventeen Magazine’s prom night fashion gala in New York. Campers plodded around the corral, oblivious to the seething broth of envy and contempt straddling the fence. Worst of all, Sullivan, my Sullivan was saddled and bridled, ridden by a doughy stranger who kicked him in the flanks and whined to the counselor, “He won’t go! He’s lazy.”
I tasted bile.
“Try squeezing him with your knees,” I shouted from my wicked perch. The girl obediently grimaced. Sullivan whinnied, charged and leaped the fence, and was gone in a staccato of hoofbeats worthy of Wild Bill Hickock. It took nearly half an hour to round them up. That nobody was hurt was “a miracle” and I was thereafter barred from the stables. The camp was now going to marginalize and warehouse me, run out my time.
“Can’t I just exercise the horses?” I begged the riding counselor the next day. She narrowed her leathery eyelids as if at a horse thief and shook her head.
“Can I clean the stalls? I’ll do it for free.”
“No,” she said and turned her hindquarters on me and walked away.
“How come?” I ran after her.
“S’ the rules.”
My nemesis. Rules existed to limit and torment a person, to make sure that dire consequences automatically ensued any time you were unfortunate or defiant. Rules were why I dared not silence my demonic cabin mates, Anne, Jane and Pru.
“You’re bigger and stronger,” said one of my few sympathizers. “Don’t be afraid. Just beat ‘em up and they’ll leave you alone.” But it was not fear that immobilized me while they tied my sheets in wet knots and poured tadpoles in my water glass. It was my inner certainty that if I ever did start hitting them, I would not be able to stop.
Days later, I watched the chosen few depart on the horseback overnight. Sullivan shuffled past, a resigned drone, misused and misunderstood by indifferent amateurs. My tears turned him into a bobbing auburn blob against the fading sky, shingled with cirrus. Soon, night would close in, primal, loud and dark. Amid the croaking and chirping and buzzing, Sullivan’s interloper rider would lie in her tent, sore between the legs with that good horse pain. My pain. My horse. And only money kept us apart; how I craved and hated it. Wide-eyed in my bunk, I pondered how lack of money ruined everything, even my love for Sullivan and that of my parents for each other.
The day after the horseback overnight, I awakened with the realization that the end of the session was nearing at last. A briskness and relief were in the air. The big water show, “Splash Capades” was in final dress rehearsal, lunch arrangements in full swing for arriving families. Our dog paddle squad, the Mud Puppies, had created a lame routine in which everyone could tell that we were really walking on the bottom. The camp was also putting together a newspaper, a cabin-by-cabin overview of activities, insights and experiences.
“Brenda,” said our counselor, Trudy. “You seem to have a way with words. Why don’t you write about our cabin for the camp newspaper? Tell how we’ve gotten to know each other, the things we’ve done together, stuff like that.
“Why do I have to do it?”
“Because nobody else wants to. Just drop it at the camp office when you’re done.”
When I arrived with my article, the crabby male-of-all-trades, Axel the Axe Murderer, was already assembling the newspapers.
“About time,” he said. “You’re the last, so you got to type it yourself. And hurry up because I can’t wait around here all day.” Whatever intelligence Axel had did not manifest in literary interest. He grabbed my typed article, glued it unread to a larger sheet, and mimeographed it onto tabloid-sized paper. As each issue came off the press, he folded and placed it atop a stack.
On the last day of camp, I returned from breakfast to find my cabin mates staring at me as if I were radioactive.
“Thanks a lot, Brenda,” said Jane.
“Thanks for making us look like a bunch of idiots,” said Ann.
“There’s nothing funny about Ann throwing up her s’mores,” said Pru.
“And I did not eat fourteen of them.”
“You did too,” I said.
“Well anyone who has nothing better to do than count s’mores is a loser.”
“You told where I found that wood tick on me,” said Ann. “You’re a pervert.”
“And we did not make you drink tadpoles,” said Jane.
“I didn’t drink them willingly.”
“We ought to beat you up,” said Pru.
“You made Trudy cry,” said Ann. “I hope that makes you real, real happy.”
“Writing something funny that hurts a lot of people is not very nice,” said Jane, whose nickname for me was Jewpot.
“Just because we teased you a little,” said Pru, “you had to go and ruin all our memories.”
Trudy may have been crying, but the rest of the camp was roaring with laughter. That the arriving parents found my article so funny they read it out loud to each other all through lunch was no vindication. I felt the worst that I had all session.
I wandered out to the stables to say goodbye to Sullivan. The tyrannical gatekeeper of a riding counselor, as if released from a spell, came running out to greet me with a hug.
“You’re the only one who came to say goodbye to me,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “Makes you wonder sometimes, people just take and take.” We found Sullivan, and I held his heavy, nippy head close, inspecting the hairs of his muzzle, his whuffy velvet nose and horseteeth and lashes, sealing him in my memory
“Why you’re even pickin’ the stuff out of his eye,” said the counselor. “Now there’s a girl really loves horses.” She grinned and mussed my hair.
After the swimming show, I found my family. My sister ran ahead of my parents and drew me off to one side. “Sherwin Williams fell through,” she said.
I looked up at the canopy of trees waving in a light, hot breeze and suddenly imagined something wounded hurtling earthward, hitting branches on its way down and crashing dead at our feet.
What had to be, was not to be, after all. Around me, the wooden bungalows were unaltered; campers and their families strolled and chattered just as they had a moment before, but nevertheless, the world had changed. My dad, hurrying toward me with arms outstretched, looked the same too, but he was not, and he never again sent his dreams soaring like a giant kite. What awaited us now was not prosperity and a place in the American canon of success, but something very different. Sherwin Williams continued to cover the earth, but Mighty Mix was destined to cover only our porous, and in the end, very permeable, dreams.