So there I was… face-to-face with a potentially homicidal maniac who was for the moment held captive in a steel cage that from the looks of it wouldn’t hold him back long. From past horrific experiences, I knew what he was capable of, but I had been tasked by my superiors with returning him to quarters. The options were clear, either we both came back or neither one comes back at all. In this particular situation, the single upside for me was that my adversary was only eight-years-old. On the downside: so was I.
Ah, summertime. For the young, it is a season filled with long hours of gloriously unscheduled time. The days are full of endless games with neighborhood friends unencumbered by the rigid timetables and rules of the adult world. Discovery lies around every corner, the imagination is allowed to stretch and soar, and the only boundaries are found within your mind. That’s how it’s supposed to be, but that’s not what I got in the summer of 1974. Instead, I got seven weeks of re-education in the ways of the real world. Like any new recruit, I was shipped off to an isolated location and forced to eat what was given to me, follow commands without question, and learn the scientific names for flora and fauna. In short, I was sent off to summer camp.
Now this was no ordinary summer camp. I didn’t go to ride horses, canoe, or whittle sticks. I went because I was blessed with a severe speech impediment which I blamed upon my rather unique dental structure growing up. To say my teeth were a bit crooked is like saying the ocean is a bit damp. I freely admit, part of the blame belongs to me. You see, my father was a wrestling coach at the collegiate level, and we were often “encouraged” to attend his meets. I used to amuse myself by running back-and-forth underneath the fold-out bleachers. That is until the day I tripped and fell face-first into the edge of a metal support beam. No one found that amusing at all, except my little brother. The end result of that little fiasco was I could now close my teeth together and still stick out my tongue. A neat party trick, but one that messed up my speech something awful. To try and rectify the situation, my parents sent me off to a special kind of camp. The kind that offered intensive speech therapy. But that wasn’t the only kind of impairment they dealt with, as I was soon to find out.
Life is a funny thing. Sometimes you can’t see it clearly until you’re looking backwards at it. Reflecting upon it now, I realize what a huge pain I must have been as an eight-year-old. On the way to camp, I forced my dad to drive to three different restaurants to find one that served hot dogs because that was the only meal I would eat out. My palate at the time was severely limited, and despite my parents best efforts, I refused to try anything new. This generally poor attitude carried over in other ways, too. In fact, I was such a butt that my last words to my mother, who I wouldn’t see again for seven weeks, was this heartfelt statement, “As soon as you leave, I’m running away.” I think we both knew it was an empty threat. Camp Unbroken, as I lovingly refer to it now, was located thirty miles away from civilization and surrounded by deep forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Until they came back to get me, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Faced with the awful truth of my predicament, I decided to make the best of thing and was soon oriented to the camp’s layout. My fellow campers and I were housed six to a room, which was referred to as a cabin, with some eight rooms making up the dormitory we slept in. My bunkmates all seemed like hearty, stout fellows with the exception of one that I will refer to as Talbert. Talbert, from the onset, seemed a little off. He had long, sandy brown hair that fell over his face and an affinity for wearing tank-tops. Basically, he looked like the hoodlum kid from The Bad News Bears, (the good version with Walter Matthau). Most disconcerting was the far-off look that was the default mode for his pale-grey eyes. That is until he got angry, which happened often and without warning. At those times, his eyes took on a ferocious intensity that was mesmerizing. He would then bite down on his left index finger and strike out ferociously with his right fist against anyone nearby. As an adult, I would probably diagnose him as someone with oppositional defiant disorder and severe anger management issues. At the tender age of eight, I just thought he was crazy.
Not that we didn’t sometimes do things knowing they would incur Talbert’s wrath. He made a tactical mistake once in telling us he couldn’t sleep without a light on. In our room, there were two sources of nocturnal illumination: the big sodium bulb located outside the door and the nightlight in the bathroom. Each night, the same little drama would play itself through. First, my good friend Stanley and I would alternate jumping out bed, racing across the floor and closing one of the two doors (bathroom or outside) that provided Talbert with the comforting light he needed to sleep. He would then follow behind us and reopen the doors. To an outside observer, I’m sure it looked like some madcap Benny Hill sketch. This pattern would continue until he snapped, bit down on his own finger, and attacked us bodily as we hid under our covers in fear. The play wouldn’t really reach its climax until one of the the college-aged counselors showed up, flashlight in hand, demanding to know what was going on. The odds of any sort of lucid answer coming from a bunch of hyped-up eight-year-olds being pretty slim, that conversation usually ended with us being told a lovely bedtime story involving a man with a hook for a hand who slinked around outside looking for misbehaving children to kill. With a sincere admonishment to “Sleep tight,” the counselor would disappear back into the night.
After that point, by unspoken mutual agreement, all the lights would stay on.
I did learn some valuable life skills while at Camp Unbroken. For example, there was the day I was out playing volleyball with some of the other boys. Although none of us had ever played the game seriously before, we all understood the spirit of competition. The score was close, so when the ball came toward me, I took after it like a shark attacks a seal, except a shark usually doesn’t have an iron volleyball net pole suddenly appear in his path. Cronk! I swear both of my arms and legs stuck straight out for a second before I slowly slid to the ground in a crumpled heap. Then I let loose a stream of profanity which was, despite my young age, fairly impressive in both length and originality of combinations. One of the female counselors nearby overheard me and threatened to wash out my mouth with soap if I didn’t knock it off right now. I replied with another torrent of obscenity. Seconds later, I was being dragged by my arm to the bathroom of the nearest cabin where indeed I did have my mouth thoroughly washed out with Lava soap. The lesson I took away from the experience was that women, especially young adult women, don’t make idle threats.
Another skill I learned took place over the course of the first week of camp. As I described earlier, I was a very finicky eater as a child. Whenever I objected to the dinner menu, my mom employed the prevailing parenting philosophy of the time, which was just have me sit there until I ate it. This would often backfire on her because I would either hide the food in the corner of my mouth, dispose of it in the laundry detergent, or just wait her out and slink off once she got busy with some other household chore. Then, after a short wait, I would just sneak back into the kitchen and make a snack by sticking my finger into a jar of peanut butter and following that up with a handful of Flintstones chewable vitamins. I had so much iron in my blood I could stick refrigerator magnets to my chest. However, this method simply wasn’t going to fly at Camp Unbroken.
I remember the first night of my internment we were served a heaping slice of meatloaf with a side order of green beans. I rejected it out of hand as being beneath my delicate taste buds and waited for another option, but none was forthcoming. Once the other campers were done eating, we were all ordered to bus our tables and move on to the next activity. I couldn’t believe it. I asked one of the female counselors nearby when we would eat again. “At breakfast.” Breakfast? That was at least a million hours away. I would surely starve to death long before then. Panicked, I explained my distaste for meatloaf and begged for some morsel of food. That’s when I discovered why it’s called a maternal instinct. It’s because lady camp counselors with no children of their own simply don’t have any of it yet. And with a one-armed killer out there on the loose, finding food elsewhere was out of the question. It only took a few days of this pattern before my gastronomic range started expanding to new boundaries I had never imagined before. I even went so far as to try liver and onions once. Once. Some things are just worth starving for.
The days went by as the days will do, and soon my time at Camp Unbroken came to an end; but not before I would face my greatest challenge. It was the day of parent pick-up and evidently Talbert was not excited about going home because he went AWOL just before we were released. Evidently, my counselor had misinterpreted our routine melees as a sign of comradeship and sent me out to retrieve him. With no idea of where he could be, I took off on an area wide search trying to find him. I went around the cabins where I met with my speech therapist. No luck. I ran over by the flagpole where we gathered every evening to listen as a bugler butchered the song “Taps.” Nothing. He wasn’t by the mess hall or the picnic tables. I started to circle back to the cabins when I spotted him on the tiny playground near the counselor’s cabins. As soon as we made eye contact, he knew why I was there; so he ran to the only cover he could find – inside the metal confines of the hemispherical jungle gym.
Now, this was going to be a problem. We were pretty evenly matched in size, but I had no idea how I was going to get him out of there. I tried reasoning with him, but it was fruitless. “Come on, Talbert. I have to bring you back.”
“Your parents are probably waiting for you.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’m going to get in trouble.”
“I don’t care about that, either.”
And so on. Like any good hostage negotiator, I did manage to maintain the conversation long enough to accomplish my goal, which was to get close enough to grab him. At the last moment, he figured out my ploy and quickly clambered to the roof of the structure. I took off after him and managed to snag him by the feet. This caused him to lose his grip and down he came, landing primarily on his face. He lay still for a moment, and I was beginning to wonder if I had truly injured him badly when he turned his head towards me. His visage was covered in dirt with the exception of his eyes and the blood running out of his nose. His gaze was one of unrestrained fury. As soon as his finger went into his mouth, I knew I needed to get the heck out of there fast. I almost made it.
Scrambling wildly across the jungle gym’s base, I dove out one of the lower hexagonal shaped holes and ended up stretched out prostrate across the grass. That’s when Talbert landed on my back with a blood curdling scream and bit into my right shoulder like some sort of prehistoric pterodactyl. My legs started churning, and I soon found myself carrying Talbert piggy-back style with his teeth gnawing on one of my meager trapezius muscles. I was well on my way back to my cabin when a counselor found us still paired together. He managed to quickly pry Talbert off of me and I used the opportunity to get away. I sprinted to my bunk, grabbed my laundry bag of belongings and made for the parking lot to find my parents and go home. Typically for me, there were two remaining hiccups to my release. First, my family wasn’t in the parking lot. They were in the main quad trying to find me because I wasn’t out there to meet them due to my secret mission. Second, they had gotten a new car during my absence without telling me. You can imagine my chagrin when I only saw three cars left in the lot, none of which were familiar to me. I stood there a while in disbelief, unable to comprehend why they had abandoned me. I stared down at my sneakers as tears began to well up in my eyes. Not knowing what else to do, I slowly turned with the intention of somehow waiting out the winter in my cabin. I only took a couple of steps before I heard my mother calling my name. I ran to her and hugged her so long that to this day I don’t remember letting her go…
Fast forward a month. I’m back at home enjoying a spirited game of hide-and-seek with my friends in my neighborhood. I’m ducking under a tree looking for a safe spot when my t-shirt snags a small branch. I reach back to unhook my collar when I notice something strange. There, on my right shoulder, faint but unmistakable, I can still see the teeth marks from where Talbert bit me. Amazed, I smile a little wistfully to myself and rejoin the game. My mother comes out onto the porch and calls us in for dinner. I ask her what we’re having, and she replies, “Meatloaf.”