I am plagued by a recurring memory of something wrong I did as a young child some 60 years ago. I wonder if others have similar stories to tell, or am I among the few who can’t let certain things go no matter how inconsequential? I have often been told that I beat myself up too much when I’ve made a mistake. Maybe a big public bloggin’ confession will finally get it out of my system.
Okay, so it’s summer in the mid-1950s and I am ten years old and, lucky me, I am in the midst of six glorious weeks at an all-boys summer camp on Maryland’s Eastern shore along the banks of the Corsica River. Yes, right near the setting of my book, Dead Letter. I am learning how to swim and how sail a small boat by myself. I’ve ridden a horse a couple of times, made a leather wallet and matching belt and I’ve even gotten pretty good at tossing horseshoes. These were all things a city boy like me never got a chance to do and I’m soak’n in every ounce of it all.
The youngest boys lived in one or two small cabins. Everyone else bunked in actual canvas tents that were rigged onto wood platforms. Every morning we had to line up in rows military-style and spend about 15 minutes doing calisthenics with nothing but towels wrapped around our waists. Then it was down a dirt path and set of natural stairs to the river where the towels came off and everyone had to go in for a morning dip. Some mornings the cold water was torture. On your way back up you were observed to make sure your hair was wet, confirming your entire body had been submerged into the mighty Corsica. Then it was get dressed and off to the dining hall for breakfast. This was the routine. It was wholesome, manly and all very 1950s. We were there to have fun, learn some skills and build character.
It was this latter element that I messed up on. We had free time every now and then and I would don my militaristic imagination and go exploring. The camp was set in a rural environment with nearby cornfields and dense woods. Box turtles, harmless garter and black snakes were as plentiful as dogs and cats were on the sidewalks back home. One day I was out on one of my typical “reconnaissance missions” spying on some imaginary enemy. I had a bunk buddy with me and, strangely, as vivid as my memory is of this day, I haven’t the slightest idea who the hell he was.
We wandered into the area of the dining hall. It was normally busy with the cooking staff, but it must have been a Sunday evening when supper (the main meal) was served mid-afternoon and then the dining hall went dormant until Monday morning breakfast. Security was never thought about in those days. “Lockdown” was an unknown term as much as locked anything was pretty much non-existent. My friend, soon to be accomplice, and I walked into the back door of the dining hall, right where the ice cream was stored in a box freezer with sliding panels on top. The ice cream came in 4” square slaps, each wrapped in paper. They were used for being put between two wafers to make ice cream sandwiches.
Now, anyone who frequents my blog knows of the exceptionally strong bond that exists between me and ice cream. And here before me was this freezer full of a gazillion of these ice cream slabs, all stacked neatly in rows, one atop the other. It was the mother load of dairy delight and I could not help but think two slabs of ice cream would never be missed and how much pleasure they would bring me and my partner. So we did it. We each grabbed one, left the building and continued down the path back toward camp center, both of us licking away at our new-found culinary bounty.
Then suddenly, from out of nowhere in the dense collage of trees and bushes and rocks and dirt, springs this formidable adult body that comes lunging toward us. It’s Mr. Radcliff….can’t get any bigger than Mr. Radcliff. He’s the owner of the camp. He’s the one who sets it all up. He hires all the people. He oversees all the ordering of goods and supplies…and ice cream. It is a daunting task to manage all the details, worry about everyone’s safety and maintaining the infrastructure and all the boats and even the horses. Of course, at my age, I know nothing of all this. Nevertheless, there must be even more than a gazillion details on his mind that he frets about all summer long, not to mention making enough money to pay the bills and buy his wife a birthday present.
Seeing two of his campers strolling nonchalantly down the pathway with ill-gotten contraband in hand and mouth must have struck the deepest nerve in the poor man’s soul. He started muttering about how many things there were to worry about running a summer camp and all the expenses it entailed and how ungrateful and how incredibly unfair it was that two boys would actually help themselves to ice cream with no regard to how offensive it all was. We were each unceremoniously grabbed and laid over his bended leg and whopped upside our tender butts for a very embarrassing period of time which must have been at least six hours.
A few weeks later during one of the “Parents Visiting” weekends I couldn’t find something that I wanted to show my mother and I said something to the effect that maybe someone took it. I cannot remember at all what it was I wanted to show her, but to this day I pretty much recall her response: “Well you should know about helping yourself to something that’s not yours for the taking.” My world collapsed. She knew. Obviously she had to. Even though the concept of spanking was far far different from today, Mr. Radcliff certainly must have called my parents to tell them of the incident and I am quite positive my parents endorsed his handling of it. Nothing more ever was, nor had to be said about the great ice cream caper. The looks on our faces that my mother and I shared at that moment of revelation, said everything that needed to be said…for as long as I shall live.