Danny Novak has been hired to work the summer as camp staff at Camp Baker.
|On the Waterfront|
Mom idled her old blue Chevy Impala in the gravel parking lot just long enough for me to grab my backpack and a well-traveled suitcase borrowed from an aunt. I looked back to see the Impala speeding away in a cloud of dust.
Standing alone with suitcase in hand, I watched her drive away with my little brother looking out the back window flipping me off. I'd have to remember to beat him up when I got home.
I wasn't sure why she was in such a hurry. Maybe she was glad to be rid of me. I should have been sad, but I wasn't. My mom was a stressed-out single mother raising two rambunctious boys. We weren't exactly poor, but we never had money. Mom's job didn't pay much, and dad never sent support on time. She yelled a lot. Any little thing could set her off. It didn't help that I was at an age where I gave her grief. She was against most everything I wanted to do, wouldn't let me go places or spend the night at a friend's house. She said we'd have to reciprocate. That meant she didn't want anyone to see what a mess our house was.
The one thing my mother supported was scouting. I don't know if she was hoping I'd get exposed to proper male role models, hoping to make me a better man than my father or if she just wanted me out of the house. Mom usually wasn't around to drive me to scout meetings, so I had to beg people for rides. I hated that, but she never denied me a camp out or a scouting trip.
It was the summer of 1978. The Oregon Trail Council had hired me to work as a staff member at Camp Baker for the summer, a Boy Scout camp near Florence, Oregon. Camp Baker is a couple of miles east of the Pacific Ocean and the Oregon Sand Dunes. The camp occupies most of a two-mile long peninsula, a long leg of land that juts into Siltcoos lake like a three-sided island surrounded by water.
I looked forward to that summer. For the first time in my life, I'd be free. Being on staff meant I got to be away from home for eight weeks. Away from my brat of a little brother, away from mom, away from that crappy house and my sad life, just away.
It would be a summer full of adventure. I'd meet people and make new friends. No one on staff knew me. I could leave my shitty life behind. It was a fresh chance at being Danny Novak.
Regardless of what I was escaping, money was my primary motivation. I'd earn two hundred forty dollars for the summer, double what I'd earn if I picked strawberries and beans all summer. Enough money to buy new school clothes and save the rest.
At thirteen years old, I was the youngest staff member that summer. The minimum age for camp staff was fifteen, but Mr. Henderson at the trail council office said I impressed him with my strong desire to work. He thought I was mature for my age, so he gave me the job.
Being the youngest didn't bother me. I imagined it would be like the spring break camp I'd attended where nobody knew anybody else. All the boys were in the same awkward situation. You made new friends because you had no other choice. My age wasn't a big deal. I'd been to Camp Baker many times for summer camp, winter camp and spring break, taking every chance I could to get away from home and earn merit badges. Being at camp wasn't new to me. I'd fit in with the other guys in no time. Easy as pie.
Walking down the gravel road, I studied the jagged gray rocks embedded in dark brown mud. I jumped to the raised center of the road, avoiding potholes filled with water, deep ruts that became muddy puddles every time it rained.
I gazed down at my reflection. Dirty blond hair, hazel eyes, and smooth white skin. People, well mostly old ladies, and aunts say I'm handsome. Looking at my reflection in the muddy water, I know people say that as a pleasantry. What do you expect old ladies to say? "Mrs. Novak, what a short, ugly child you have, or don't worry, he'll grow into those ears." I don't hate the image that's reflected. It's just that you never know what people really think.
I remember marveling at the cloudless blue sky and basking in the sun's warmth. Growing up in Oregon, you learn to appreciate the sun because nine months of the year you live under gray overcast skies, the days wet with soggy rain.
The road ahead cut a narrow path through a wall of tall Douglas fir trees that led from the parking lot, past the caretakers' home, and the trading post, all the way to the dining hall where the gravel thinned, and the road became a wide trail covered with fresh wood chips. These wood chips were not the dark bark-o-mulch you spread on flower beds. The chips that covered the main trail were fresh chunks, the raw white flesh of young trees. They looked like a giant machine with powerful teeth had chewed up entire trees, spitting out the pieces.
Smaller trails, like veins off an artery, branched from the road leading to campsites on the east side of the peninsula with names like Tyee and Chinook. On the right side of the road sat the enormous dining hall and beyond that, a grass covered field called the assembly area with a flagpole at the edge of the dark forest.
Every morning, scouts assembled to watch the flag rise with the sun as a scout bugled reveille. The boys assembled again every evening before dinner, standing at attention listening to taps as a cadre of scouts lowered and reverently folded the flag. Many of the boys fidgeted anxiously, waiting for the ritual to end. Once dismissed, they'd run to the dining hall and line up to fill their hungry bellies. I'm sure I was one of the anxious boys when I was younger, wondering why it took so long for the flag to be drawn down and folded. Now that I'm older, I have more respect realizing there is a humble, noble order in that exercise.
I swung my backpack over one shoulder and ambled along the road to the dining hall. Staff members arrived a week before summer camp began to help get everything ready and allow the senior staff to train us. I saw a teenage boy sitting at a folding table on the porch of the dining hall. I ran up the steps, stopping at the table. The older boy stared at me. "I think you're here too early. The boys don't show up till next week."
"I'm Danny Novak, check your list. I'm on staff," I said, pointing at his roster.
"Huh, I guess so. I didn't know they let kids work in the kitchen. You're in cabin nine." He sorted through papers on the table, then handed me some mimeographed pages. "Here's a map of the camp, and your first week's schedule."
I ran across the assembly area, ducked into a dense tunnel of bushes and trees behind the flagpole, then followed a dark trail that led to the west side of the peninsula, far from where campers would stay.
The forests of Camp Baker were dark. Dense boughs of tall old-growth trees blocked the sun and shadowed an undergrowth carpeted with green hues of tangled Ninebark bushes, Bracken fern and low-lying Huckleberry covering the forest floor. Roots of giant old-growth trees spread across the forest floor and across the trail like an octopus' tentacles, reaching out ready to trip you if you didn't keep your eyes open.
As I walked further, the dark forest and green ferns became lighter transforming into a lustrous bronze carpet of dry pine needles. Walking out of the dark, I entered a majestic grove of Sitka Spruce with saffron beams piercing the thin canopy, illuminating the forest floor in a dusky yellow glow. The trail disappeared as I wandered into a large camp that sloped slowly to the lake. Rhythmic music, with a sound and beat I had never heard, wafted from rustic cabins scattered among the towering trees.
The cabins were tall, boxy structures built on raised foundations to level the buildings on the sloping terrain. The cabins had a framed wood door with a spring that slammed closed with a loud whack. The wooden walls of the cabins went only halfway up. The high roof and upper walls were open rafters covered with weathered gray canvas.
I walked past a guy with dark bushy hair and dark stubble on his face sitting on the steps of his cabin smoking a cigarette. He looked old enough to be in college. I asked him where cabin number nine was; he pointed without looking. I walked past a cabin decorated in a Hawaiian theme with colorful paper luau girls and a string of paper pineapples draped over the entry. Christmas lights outlined the door of the next cabin. Outside another, a wheelbarrow sat filled with books, a lamp, and an armchair.
A solitary wooden picnic table sat among the trees. Crisscrossed strings of lights hung between trees over the table. The wires decorated with multicolored swatches of cloth looked like Himalayan prayer flags. Walking further into camp, I discovered the source of the music. An Asian boy who looked a few years older than me sat on the steps of his cabin playing a guitar, singing along with a record. I'd never heard Reggae music before that day, but later learned the boy was singing with Bob Marley.
I opened the door to cabin number nine and my jaw dropped when I saw a large red beanbag chair and posters of Farrah Fawcett, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, and topless Playboy models covering the walls. At the far end of the cabin, a popcorn maker sat on an overturned wooden box. The cabin had bunk beds on both sides with a broad wooden floor between them. I heard hammering and looked up to the rafters. A boy was nailing the last corner of a large black flag adorned with a multicolored peace symbol that canopied the room.
"Welcome to party central, I'm Eric," he said as he stood high above on a wooden beam. He gazed down at me with auburn hair hanging over brown eyes and a welcoming smile.
I stood in the doorway with my mouth hanging open.
"Don't worry. There's plenty of room for your stuff. What'd you bring? Did you leave your stuff outside? I'll help you bring it in."
I lifted my suitcase and shrugged.
"A suitcase? That's it? What've you got in there?"
I stepped forward and the wooden door smacked closed behind me. "Clothes."
Eric's enthusiasm evaporated instantly. He stepped from the wood beam down to the top bunk, then jumped, landing with a heavy thud on the cabin's wood floor.
He sized me up. "You're short."
"I'm five foot one and a half."
Eric suddenly looked angry. "Doesn't matter how tall you are. If you didn't bring anything for the cabin, you can't bunk with me. Git. Find your own place."
His words struck me like a lightning bolt. I hitched the strap of my backpack up on my shoulder, turned, and pushed the spring-loaded door open to leave.
"Psych." Eric laughed. I stepped out the door. "Stop. I was kidding."
I turned on the step and faced the boy, studying the freckles covering his nose, the freshly popped zit on his chin, and his peach fuzzed cheeks.
Eric smiled. "You can't leave. You're stuck with me. I tried to change cabin mates last year, but senior staff wouldn't let me. We'd practically have to kill each other before they'd let us change."
Eric's words didn't make me feel better.
He extended his arm, pushing the door fully open. "Take a chill pill, man. Come inside."
Reluctantly, I stepped in.
Eric let the door slam behind me. "I hope you like what I did with the place."
"Yeah. It's off the hook," I said sheepishly.
"It's all about making the place your own. I saw one guy setting up a stereo system with gigantic speakers, and Dennis, you'll meet him later, brought a black light. Man, this summer's gonna rock."
"Nobody told me we're supposed to bring stuff."
I didn't know what I would have brought even if I had known. I didn't own any topless posters or a beanbag chair. Even if I did, my mom would have thrown a fit if I filled her car with a bunch of crap.
"Our cabin isn't as funky as the other guys, but it's not bad."
I looked up and saw Cheryl Tiegs wearing a tiny pink bikini smiling at me and my heart lightened.
"Yeah. not bad," I mouthed.
"Hey. You gotta be able to take a joke, man. Nobody's gonna cut you any slack around here. What's your name, anyway?"
"I'm Danny. Danny Novak."
"Well, Danny. I hope you're ready to have some fun. Like I said, this summer is gonna rock!"
Eric was two years older, six inches taller, and worked in the kitchen, same as me. Well, not exactly the same as me. I was at Camp Baker to work. Eric worked at having fun. That day, I felt unprepared and late for the event. All the other guys were a lot older, and it seemed like they'd been at camp for days, but it was the first afternoon.