If Hell Had a Showerhouse, Part 1.

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People wonder how I do so well with twins. I’m like, twins ain’t nothin’. No, I’ve been responsible for the actual lives of up to 250 five to seventeen year olds at the same time, not to mention the lives of the sometimes dumbass staff at Girl Scout Camp. TWINS? Two kids? Fuuuuuck. You have no idea.

So for your pleasure, here is part one of a real life story written in 2003, by my friend Opposite Gender Soulmate. It is about the summer he worked at camp with me, when my job was the imposing title Staff Director. Him? He was simply The Boy Counsellor.

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I can immediately remember the slurping sound my sneakers made as I ran through patches of mud, like a toilet plunger into peanut butter, and I can also remember the strain on my hamstrings as I did this, trying not to stumble in panic at the near-miss sound of trees falling against each other and into the soggy ground all around me, which was glittering with the pounding rain.

Much earlier that day we’d predicted this, the worst storm of the summer, which had rolled in from the west and then hung there, formidable in the distance, backed-up against a sky of clear blue and white sunlight, angrily building it’s strength through the morning hours. We’d spent the after-lunch hour singing songs and leading single-file lines of little girls into the shower house where they would emerge transformed into miniature spandex superheroes, bounding in energy and the occasional pink ruffle. They scampered in twos and threes, out into the pool area, which was fenced in and regulated like a prison yard. It was Friday, the last day of camp for most of them, and in small groups they moved unpredictably in and out of order through the Friday pool-party ritual, testing the dozens of procedures that made up our system, which was designed to prevent the kind of unimaginable tragedy it was our job to imagine.

Oh yeah, not to put a mute in the brassy morning bugle that rouses your rosy-cheeked children from their cabins in your blissfully ignorant summer-camp fantasies, but camp is all about your children almost dying. The rosy-cheeked teenagers who are paid sweatshop wages to keep your children alive know this; they spend the summer sleep-deprived and with high blood pressure, motivated through each day by the threat of catastrophe. Luckily, they’ve probably been trained extensively in the basic skills of first-aid and survival; they know what steps to take if your daughter gets a sinus headache, turns up missing, or is struck by lightning.

I’d spent the day supervising the goings and comings of several groups, darting from one end of the camp to another in a sluggish golf-cart that left in its wake a trail of gasoline fumes. The only male counselor at a Girl Scout summer camp, I was the Sports and Activities Director most days, but was utilized in an administrative capacity on Fridays due to a shortage in staff and the fact that I was not allowed inside the shower house. I carried a bulky, black walkie-talkie strapped to my waist, which I used so infrequently I’d learned to resent its weight and sometimes forgot to turn it on at all. The storm had caught my attention sometime during lunch and I had asked the camp director, while pointing a finger into the sky, if we would move forward with the pool party.

“The camp brochure says the kids get a pool party. So unless there’s thunder, they get pool-time, even if it’s for five minutes.” Chirp gave mandates with the kind of arms-crossed authority that inspired confidence, and at the sound of her conviction I had forgotten about the black edge of the firmament and focused on the beauty of a sunlit noon. My forehead was beginning to burn, despite the coat of sun block I had smeared on my face at 7:30.

Later, as sheets of water ran down my face I felt the sting of SPF-30 in my eyes as the lotion washed away. It tasted like plastic, like licking a Malibu Barbie. I blinked my eyes rapidly so I could find my destination, a building named after one of the early Girls Scout leaders, Old Lady Lodge. “Make sure they’re all inside. And do a head count,” Existere had said with her hands on my shoulders, struggling to look me in the eye for emphasis as rain slapped the side of her face.

Head counts were typically done every seven to ten minutes at camp. It was this way because the second worst possible thing that can happen is for a camper to turn up missing, and the first step in finding a missing camper is knowing she’s missing. So each day we counted heads obsessively, and we taught the campers to count off as a backup procedure. They’d shout out the consecutive number they’d been assigned the first day in shrill, outside voices, until eventually each girl thought of herself and her fellow campers as a number from 1 to 30. When the numbers stopped short, it was usually because one of the girls was staring into the distance, perplexed by the emotional distraction of homesickness, or the palpable exhaustion of no sleep; the others would bring her back with impatient whoops. “Helooooo!? Wake up twelve! Marcie! You’re tah-wel-vah!”

At Old Lady Lodge my clothes were soaked down to my boxers and I dripped from everywhere. I coughed and shivered from the workout and my face was red; I could have been sobbing and no one would have known the difference. Things looked relatively good. The children, who seemed to be working very hard to repress the terror incurred by every roar of thunder, were singing and clapping and otherwise busy with the often-inane hand motions that necessarily accompanied every song we taught them. The counselors there greeted me and we each did a head count until we came up with the same number. I turned on my walkie-talkie and left it with them, since they’d forgotten to take one that morning, and then I started back running to the pool.

Traveling with the wind was easier, and I took deep breaths and hummed “The Princess Pat” to myself, doing small versions of the hand motions while running. As I approached the pool area, I saw no one where just moments earlier there had been dozens of small people scrambling in chaos. Good, I thought to myself, everyone is safely inside somewhere. And then, just as I entered completely into the clearing beside the pool I began to hear a vague hollow bellow which then sharpened as I came closer to the shower house: dozens (hundreds?) of voices, all shrieking at once, like a purgatory of tortured souls, invigorated by every flash of lightning, every clap of thunder.

Inside a shower house the size of a very modest two-car garage.

To be continued…

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5 Responses to “If Hell Had a Showerhouse, Part 1.”

  1. Kate Says:

    I have had that day. Just once, and I was just the Nature Director, but that was enough. While reading I thought to myself, “I know this wasn’t my camp, but it may as well be.”

    I won staff of the session that year for singing camp songs non-stop to a bathroom full of terrified 4th graders, and a whole host of barely holding it together staff, many of whom were internationals who had practically never seen a thunderstorm before. Between songs, I’d duck out to watch the funnel clouds that formed on the flag field but never grew large and never touched down. They called me fearless, but I haven’t been able to sing a camp song with the same love since.

    • existere Says:

      I have had this day So Many Times. I worked at camp for what feels like forever, eventually ending up as the Director. I can’t even GUESS the number of times I had to get up and go around bleary eyed in the middle of the night due to severe weather and hundreds of kids in fucking TENTS. Ah, memories.

  2. Katie B. Says:

    You think the twins are nothing now? Just wait until they’re TODDLERS. 😉

  3. nutella Says:

    Ah, camp, so many fond memories. The one summer that I was a CIT we had a terrible drought, so I never experienced the other side of the terrible storms. I do remember getting evacuated to the Stone Lodge one evening (cook out night, too) due to impending floods.

  4. If Hell Had a Showerhouse, part 2. « existere (latin): to stand out, to emerge. Says:

    […] existere (latin): to stand out, to emerge. existence as becoming, bursting forth. « If Hell Had a Showerhouse, Part 1. […]

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