“You have to leave,” a middle-aged woman who looks to be doing janitorial work says. She holds a damp sponge in one hand that is clenched tightly enough to be forcing a trickle of water onto the ground outside of the cinderblock cabin I’ve been peering into.
“We’re just looking,” I say. “I went camping here for seven summers way back when.”
“You have to leave,” she repeats, sounding as if she is secretly cleaning up a crime scene.
My wife, who is waiting in the car, gives me a sign with her hands that can only mean “back off,” which is ok by me. I already know that this part of the camp wasn’t here in the late 1950s and early 60s. I need to drive farther into the woods to find where I spent a week of each summer from age nine to fifteen. All I need to do first is act as if the cleaning woman wasn’t coercing me with her insistence, that I can stand right here in the doorway and do whatever I please.
I dawdle. I say, “It looks as if you have a lot of work to do here,” and then, before she slaps me with that sponge she’s nearly wrung dry, I walk to the car and drive off, turning farther into the camp site instead of retracing the road back to the highway.
Before too long things look familiar. In fact, so familiar that it’s frightening and depressing. Lutherlyn seems unchanged after fifty years, not a good sign at all. The scene calls up all those Friday the 13th episodes, a setting where campers might die. And though I know the place is deserted because a summer camp doesn’t open before school ends, the fantasy sticks. And I’m pleased to see that unless the cleaning woman has called ahead, there is no sign anyone cares about a stranger and his wife walking the grounds in early June.
I’ve insisted to my wife that it’s not nostalgia that brings me here. It’s not romanticizing to say that the best day of those seven summers began at 10 a.m. on the Saturday church camp ended. I was happy all day. I didn’t have to watch boys act like getting a watermelon slice for dessert was anything but annoying. That spitting out seeds and dripping juice all over myself was a treat to be savored. I didn’t have daily vespers to attend. I didn’t have to sit through morning Bible lessons or make something like a beaded belt or a colorfully woven TV tray in the crafts pavilion that would end up in the trash by summer’s end. I didn’t have to help clean up a cabin with ten other boys I’d never see again unless we were grouped together the following summer. I didn’t have to share those clean-up chores every morning, assigned to sweeping, dusting, or worst, scrubbing the two sinks and toilets that turned filthy every twenty-four hours.
Before I received my fat, sloppy slice of watermelon, I didn’t have to act as if singing the “Watermelon Song” were fun, belting out, “Just plant a watermelon on my grave and let the juice slip through,” complete with group slurping effects. I didn’t have to mumble along with “Kumbayah” or raise my voice for the rousing finish to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as if a room packed exclusively with white boys could be entranced by the Siamese-twinned coupling of an African-American spiritual. Most of all, I didn’t have to swim in a lake with boys who thought it was fun to splash each other or tuck their legs up and do a cannonball from the dock.
There was never a radio in any of my parents’ cars, but I knew that after the hour-long trip back home, each mile putting Lutherlyn further behind me for another year, I could go into my room and turn on my tiny clock radio to hear what new rock songs were being played and to marvel at how great the ones I’d begun to get tired of sounded after being silenced for a week. I even welcomed being told to cut the grass because I could see a friend doing the same chore two yards away and knew that when I was finished I could throw a baseball with him, play records in his finished basement, or even just pound a tennis ball against the bricks on the back of the garage, pretending to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Best of all, for the first time since the previous Sunday, I didn’t have to go to church after dinner. I could hang out with friends in the gathering darkness and later, beginning at ten p.m., sprawl on the carpet in the living room and watch television, half hour episodes of The Honeymooners, Your Hit Parade, and Science Fiction Theater until, at 11:30, collapse into my own bed with no one else in the room.
In Sunday School the next day there would always be some boy whose week was about to begin, who, that afternoon, would be riding in a car to start seven days of religion and recreation. I felt like my shift had ended in one of the nearby Pittsburgh steel mills, that I’d punched out and that other boy was just punching in. Camp Lutherlyn was a job I had to do every summer, and once it was over there was usually about a month, maybe more, of real summer full of unsupervised time, nothing to do each day, besides a few simple jobs, but entertain myself.
When I approach the camp’s larger buildings, I recognize the names Rice Hall and Hunker Hall. They look the same, only worse, my mother’s familiar expression coming right back to me.
I remember my first trip to Lutherlyn, when, at seven, I rode along with her to pick up my sister from her first week there. Nearly frantic with excitement, my sister sang songs the whole way home, teaching me the words so I could join her in a chorus or two. “The Watermelon Song,” for sure: “Southern fried chicken is mighty fine, but all I want is a watermelon vine.”
But the songs that took us half way home were not one but two about body parts. “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” delighted me all the way to “eyes and ears and mouth and nose,” but the other one was supposed to be sung in broken English with a German accent. “Mine hand on mine self, vas is das here?” it began. “Das is mine sveatboxer, my momma dear.”
My sister slapped her forehead and shouted out the words from the back seat. She did verses for eye-blinker, nose-blower, and chin-chopper, looking like a doll being shaken by an impatient child. She performed chest-thumper and bread-basket and whatever other parts of the body that could make the fantasy of a young German child in America sound stupid. “That’s vat I learned in der school” came at the end of each verse.
My sister kept it up all the way to our driveway. “I bet you can’t wait until fourth grade,” my mother said. Two years was so far away that I said “sure” and went outside with my hand-me-down baseball glove and the rubber-coated baseball my friends and I tossed around as if we were big-leaguers.
What I did envy was the official camp photograph my mother had paid for. My sister carefully scrolled it open from left to right, the photo of 200 nine- and ten-year-old girls sitting on the camp’s bleachers stretching for a foot or more, a miracle of enlargement. It was wonderful, like some great panorama. And there, huddled among those girls and their twenty counselors, was my sister grinning as if she was about to be treated to watermelon for sitting perfectly still while the camera whirred.
“You might be disappointed,” that sister had said earlier in the morning when I told her I intended to find the camp we went to for a week each year, forcing our mother to drive the forty-five miles up and back four times each summer because our weeks never coincided.
She was wrong about that. I’m fascinated by how things are unchanged. I feel something close to delight in how the camp appears to have fallen into decline. Maybe the place will be spruced up in two weeks when the season begins, but now there are weeds growing up from the cracks in the parking lot asphalt. Now the cinderblock cabins, including the one named for my childhood church, Emanuel Lutheran, look exactly the same except being fifty years older. Now the assembly hall looks like a place more suited to a tornado shelter if only the roof didn’t look as if it would disintegrate, leaving the campers staring up into the sky’s abyss.
To be fair, not everything is old. One newer group of small buildings is named Shaulis Village after, I remember at once, the minister who directed the camp every year I attended. His primary contact with the campers was at an enormous bonfire gathering on Friday night. After we all had settled onto the rows of logs that circled a tall pyramid of wood, he began his yearly talk about how the Indians who’d lived on that land had spoken their opinions. How-how meant approval. Wow-wow meant neutral. Nitchi-nitchi meant disapproval. As if the language of those long-ago Indians had been based in redundancy.
That last night, with the fire soaring upward from the huge tepee of logs, was solemn with the director’s talk about our growth and promise. Campers never say nitchi-nitchi that aging minister would remind us. When results of the week’s competitions among cabins and groups of cabins named after Indian tribes were announced, we had to say how-how to every award, a tactic that worked the first two years, then grew more muted as the week’s campers grew older, a few boys snorting out nitchi-nitchi to each other despite warning looks from counselors. During my last two years, the coed ones, there was no chance I’d ever utter an Indian chant unless someone offered money
In front of the one new large building there is a sidewalk made of fitted bricks, many of them engraved with inspirational messages or the names of donors and the memorialized. God’s Little Angel; The Greatest is Love; even a few names, both living and dead, I remember from Emanuel Lutheran.
I learn, from a nearby sign, that Lutherlyn was founded in 1948, fewer than ten years before I started my seven-year run. Seven weeks of living in a cabin that held a dozen cots, eleven for boys and one for a counselor who was usually a minister or else some college guy who was studying to be one. If you arrived late, you ended up with the cot next to the two toilets. The gang showers were in the woods, a place I avoided, trusting an hour pretending to swim in the lake to freshen me until coed camp began in ninth grade.
For meals we sat at large tables where the food was already placed in enormous bowls or on huge plates. We were expected to manage the portions so we ended up with equal shares. Though the meals were better than the ones you’d get in Dotheboys Hall, I’d recognize the atmosphere in an illustrated Dickens collection I read in sixth grade with the boys seated for gruel or porridge or something I couldn’t identify in a bowl. My favorite meal each summer was something called city chicken, cubes of breaded, gray, unidentified meat arranged on wooden skewers. It was as close as we got to the mighty fine Southern fried chicken.
At lunch we received mail, our counselors passing out envelopes and cards and small packages as we ate our allotment of brownies or cookies, but it was also the time when our mailing errors were announced, when, during each of my first three summers, I had to walk up to retrieve the postcards whose stamps I’d forgotten.
Just before that lunch, we gathered in one large group in Rice Hall for an assembly. There would be some sort of skit that ended with a moral assigned to it by counselors. Then the lists of scores from zero to ten for cabin cleanup were announced. For the first three or four years it somehow seemed important to get eight and a half or nine or the miracle of ten rather than five or six. Always, when we returned to our cabins after lunch, there was a score sheet that itemized which areas weren’t cleaned well enough, and for a few minutes the boy who’d failed was ridiculed.
But before we were allowed to eat lunch, as if music built appetite, there were always songs to sing, and they were the same ones my sister had belted out when I was seven, all of them found in a stapled songbook that was waiting on every chair when we entered. The final song was always serious—“Kumbayah” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—and others like them meant to set a tone before we gobbled our sandwiches and soup.
And for emphasis, there was religious instruction every morning and a vesper service after dinner. We were supposed to be awestruck sitting on benches that faced a large cross, the sun going down behind it while a minister delivered a sermon that was always full of nature references. We were expected to appreciate the blessing of being in a pleasant setting for church and feel regret when it rained and we had to huddle in gloomy Rice Hall.
When I find my way to the recreation area with its two softball fields and paved basketball and volleyball courts, I’m stunned to discover that the backstops look to be the exact same wood and chicken wire ones that were in use fifty years ago. Alternating softball, basketball, and volleyball sessions accounted for the one hour each day that I enjoyed. By the coed years I’d learned that I could slip into another group when the session ended, playing basketball again instead of trudging off to the lake for an hour of kids my age acting as if splashing in muddy water was an annual treat as welcome as Christmas.
Standing where I enjoyed myself most, I have to acknowledge that my best summers at Lutherlyn were the coed years, which began after ninth grade, though even that first summer there was a sort of desperation to pair up with a girl. There were few opportunities to spend time together, but if you walked to vespers with a girl, you had status, and the service didn’t seem nearly as tedious as you stood beside her mouthing, but not singing aloud, the hymns. There was a dance Thursday night, and the agony of having to approach girls you didn’t know was removed if you knew one was willing to say yes, especially when everyone was required to circle up and do the Hokey-Pokey. And if you managed to sit beside her at the bonfire, you could shout out a few how-hows with your arm around her shoulders.
Lutherlyn, in fact, was the place where I first kissed a girl during a junior high school party game. Her name was Joyce and she lived in Derry, PA, a town about forty miles from where I lived and so unfamiliar to me she might as well have been from a foreign country. She seemed as naïve as I was at fourteen, which gave me confidence. Earlier in the week I’d spent two vesper services, including the walks to and from, with a girl named RaeAnne who lived in Pittsburgh, the city itself. She wasn’t naïve at all, and though I was excited just to be holding her hand, I was so lost when we actually had a few minutes alone that she and her friend from the same part of Pittsburgh mocked me to other boys who were a year or two older, most of their ridicule referencing the word “baby” in any number of humiliating ways.
Although there are three cars besides ours in the main lot, no one is outside at midday. My wife, bored, I’m sure, after following me around for more than an hour, sits with a book on a bench by the same wooden snack shop building where I bought junk food every day after lunch.
The only other sign of life is the sound from the nearby woods of chain saws being operated by two men who, I imagine, are dealing with trees felled during the winter, creating enough lumber for a summer’s worth of Friday night bonfires where Native American has likely replaced Indian as the source of proper etiquette.
Now, shuffling across the basketball court, which sports so many cracks I conjure lawsuits over broken bones from headlong falls, I decide not to walk to the lake which, after all, I never entered during my last two summers at Lutherlyn. If I’m going to find a center for an afternoon of wandering the past, I think I’m more likely to discover it on the basketball court, even if there is a beach-like glare off the polished cement that makes me wish I hadn’t left my sunglasses at home more than two hundred miles away.
“Cathi with an i.” I remember the way she introduced herself during my second coed year. From the moment we first walked together to the Tuesday night vespers until Saturday morning, it was the best experience I ever had at Lutherlyn. It was also the only week I wanted to continue past the moment when I wrapped my arms around her in front of her mother on Saturday morning. I kissed her once in the light of day before promising to write and see her again once I managed to get a driver’s license in the fall.
Wonderfully, we did write all summer and into September. She dotted the i at the end of her name with a heart, sprayed perfume on the stationery, and sealed the envelope with pink wax. When school began I was still a month from having a license, which I obtained the week before basketball practice started, the same week I asked the girl who sat across from me in American history to the upcoming junior prom. By the following summer I had a host of excuses for not returning to Lutherlyn for my eighth and final year, at the end of which I could have “graduated” with the handful of campers, like my sister, who had attended all eight years.
A routine summer romance story, of course. Nothing about it was exceptional other that one afternoon after my freshman year in college, when, finished with mowing the lawns I’d scheduled in order to make money, I found Cathi’s old letters in a box of sports souvenirs. With no current girl-friend prospects, I copied her address on an envelope and wrote her a brief letter to ask if she was interested in me finally driving to Carrick, where she lived. “If you’re not seriously dating someone,” I wrote. “If you’re not engaged or maybe even married after three years have passed without a word from me.”
Incredibly, as if neither of us owned a phone, she answered with a letter, Cathi with an i, no heart over it this time, saying sure, come on over. On a Saturday night, a few days later, there I was in Carrick at last.
Three years after that week at Lutherlyn, Cathi was a beautiful young woman who was in residency at a nursing school in a section of Pittsburgh closer to where I lived than Carrick. We went to a drive-in theater and drank the bottle of wine I’d brought along. We made out in the car, and I fondled her breasts through her blouse before I took her home and made a date for the following Wednesday night when I could drive to where she lived in a dormitory near a hospital on the North Side. “If I change my mind,” she said, “I’ll have my roommate come down and say I’m washing my hair. That’s what we say when somebody shows up we don’t want to see.”
I laughed and so did she. We went out together twice more, and the second time, when I managed to nervously unbutton her blouse, unhook her bra, and kiss her bared breasts, I ran my hand up high on her thighs and believed, at that moment, she would allow me inside her if only we could find a comfortable, intimate place.
In fact, I said something to that effect shortly after I came inside my pants from rubbing against her.
The third time I drove to the hospital, when the receptionist called up to Cathi’s room, another girl came downstairs to tell me in person that Cathi couldn’t come down because she was washing her hair.
“Really?” I managed to say, and the girl smiled in a way that made me understand she’d walked down the stairs to see for herself who this fool was that Cathi had told her about. I turned and left and hoped I wasn’t parked where that girl and Cathi with an i could watch me cross the lot from an upstairs window. “Washing her hair” wasn’t a simple “no”; it was more like an emphatic “get lost” accompanied by laughter. It made me a character in a story Cathi would tell a few people, including the next guy who touched her, before she forgot about me.
That brief reunion was as impossible as returning to camp fifty years after my last day there. By the time I reached home that night I realized that at nineteen I’d seemed as naïve to Cathi as I’d seemed to RaeAnne at fourteen. Foreplay wasn’t an adventure to the Cathi she’d become in the three intervening years. I was excited about the possibility of having sex; she expected to have it in cars or wherever else was available. My admitting I wanted to “sleep with her someplace nice,” after I’d lost control of myself as a consequence of a few minutes of touching her, must have sounded like something no boy had said to her since she’d graduated from high school.
I wave at my wife and hold up two fingers to let her know I was nearly finished. I lift a basketball from a large, unlocked wooden box and stand three feet from the basket that, remarkably, has a real net that shows little sign of wear. The cheap playground basketball feels like the same kind the camp provided when I played through two afternoon sessions each day, only now it’s pale blue rather than red.
I stand on one of the cracks, bouncing the ball where the surface is unblemished so I don’t have to worry about it squirting away. My first shot, even from this close, hits the front rim, and I look around as if a group of previously hidden young campers might be laughing at that awful performance. The next one swishes. I back up a step and swish one more. From ten feet now, I make another, and suddenly I wish somebody, maybe one of those men working with saws, were watching.
From just inside the foul line a fourth shot goes through. I move back to the nearly invisible free throw line and hit a fifth shot and then a sixth, all of them nothing but net.
This time, retrieving the ball, I feel as if the next shot will surely miss, so I drop the ball into the container and close the lid. Let whoever I imagine can be watching believe I am infallible. Let him think I am the recreation director come to camp a few days early, somebody who will dazzle ten-year-old boys by hitting eight or nine free throws in a row. From a hundred feet away, for those men who are clearing trees, I must look the part.