The start of a new school year was filled with excitement and dread. Will your friends be the same? Should you get a new haircut? What clothes will you wear? Do you have enough school supplies? There were no easy answers. Read Part 1 here.
Back then, having a new, flashy Trapper Keeper notebook was all the rage. I can hear the fresh Velcro tear of an opened binder before stuffing it with homework. I didn’t know any kids who actually wanted to return to school after three glorious months of freedom. We were eager, however, to see what the new year would bring.
One month before starting eighth grade, I attended two weeks at Cedars Camp in Lebanon, Missouri. At the time, school was the furthest thing from my mind. I was occupied with water slides, horseback riding, and nature hikes amid the vast wilderness.
I was excited to be there despite the initial awkwardness of not knowing anyone. But the powers that be had a rather sinister idea in store for us. Their nightly ritual meant inescapable doom to anyone who had the misfortune of being chosen by a marked slip secretly placed at their seat.
Our first night at dinner began normally enough. The long, wooden tables filling the mess hall were decorated with plastic floral centerpieces and pitchers of water. Warm plates rested firmly atop their placemats, displaying roast beef and mashed potatoes. There were no complaints about the food. A large, empty stage dominated the front of the room. Behind us was the kitchen. A mass of campers took their seats among their respective cliques.
I sat with my new friend Josh and some of the kids from my cabin at one of the tables. We had heard rumors of a secretive pre-dinner exercise and pondered the possibilities. One of us, it was said, would introduce ourselves to the entire camp each night. The head counselor, a man named Tim, took the stage to elaborate.
“How’s everyone doing tonight?” Microphone in hand, he claimed that we were about to have a little fun.
He paced the stage as a female counselor with a swaying ponytail shadowed him from the side. They both wore official camp counselor attire of polo shirts and khaki shorts. Tim had short, graying hair and wore thin, square-framed glasses.
“Under your plates, one lucky camper will find a marked paper slip called the gizmo.” He then paused with a smile. “Each night before dinner, we sing the gizmo song until that person is revealed.”
Filled with dread, I demanded answers from the table but saw only blank faces in return.
Tim continued. “Whoever gets the gizmo will come up here and perform a talent of their choosing.”
I reached for my plate but hesitated. There might as well have been a live grenade under there. Before I knew it, everyone broke out into a chant led by Tim and the other counselors. “Oo-ah, Oo-ah, who’s got the gizmo? Oo-ah, Oo-ah, who’s got the gizmo?”
I tried to comprehend the unfairness of it all. They couldn’t make us go on stage, could they? Public speaking was terrifying enough. Professing a talent to a room of maniacal kids and then trying to deliver on that promise was unimaginable. I lifted my plate and was immensely relieved to find nothing underneath. But somewhere, the paper slip would claim a victim, enough to make Shirley Jackson proud.
Her famous 1948 short story “The Lottery,” depicted a similar but more barbaric ritual, where locals drew paper slips and stoned the unlucky recipient of the marked one to death. At the time, I would have preferred the stoning. The fervent chanting continued until all the plates were lifted. I remained a casual observer in heightened anticipation of what was to come.
The first recipient turned out to be none other than resident celebrity camper and child actor Sean O’Neal, from the Nickelodeon show Clarissa Explains It All. It ran for five seasons and starred Melissa Joan Hart as Clarissa and O’Neal as her best friend, Sam. I had never watched the show, but from what I understood, it was quite popular.
O’Neal introduced himself, mentioning, of course, his role as Sam from Clarissa Explains It All. He seemed confident enough in his jean shorts, baggy T-shirt, and typical boyish mop-top, parted down the middle like mine. He then disappeared backstage and reemerged with a small entourage, all wearing wigs and holding prop instruments. They engaged in a lip sync performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
I don’t know what I would have done if I had been chosen. A dance routine was out of the question. My only role in a school play thus far had been as a Spanish soldier accompanying famed explorer Ponce de León during his Florida expedition. “Look, sir, a snake,” I said, while holding a plush prop. I had one line. None of this would suffice.
O’Neal delivered accordingly and survived. Others would follow in tandem. The next evening, a boy named Will played his banjo. He was from my cabin, bringing his selection uncomfortably close to home. The night after that, a girl named Denise sang. I had the good fortune of avoiding it the entire two weeks, but I always checked underneath my plate ahead of time just to be sure.
Recreational High Jinks
The girl I liked, the sister of my friend Josh, was a reasonable pursuit, if I had an ounce of wits. It’s common among youth to hide their feelings through an inexplicable self-defense mechanism. Liking someone was a secret you were willing to take to your grave. This much was evident during our water skiing trip. We were all in van together–Josh, his sister Kari, her friend Natalie, and some other campers–prepared for a daring adventure. I had never water skied before but was willing to try.
John Candy had unwittingly been dragged across a lake in The Great Outdoors (1988), delivering a blistering romp. He could have let go of the rope, but that’s not comedy. I was determined to effortlessly coast atop the water to the extreme like my childhood hero. Before that could happen, we did some beginner’s training. The ski instructors showed us the proper stance, bending at the knees and griping the handle tightly. Good balance and upper-body strength were a plus. I possessed neither and promptly flew down face-first into the water multiple times later that day. John Candy had made it look a lot easier.
After flailing about on my skis and watching the others take turns, my day was over. We packed up and headed back to camp. I noticed Kari and Natalie giggling upfront of the van. I heard my name mentioned, followed by Kari saying “No!” in response. Natalie turned around and looked at me, saying, “Kari likes you.” A mortified Kari pulled her back as her words were drowned out. No one seemed to have heard it but me.
Natalie glanced back and awaited a response. I felt a glaring spotlight upon me and said, “That’s nice,” squandering the opportunity. I thought it might be a prank. Natalie relented and dropped the matter. By the time I realized that it might not had been a trick, it was too late. Kari was more guarded than ever. But I wasn’t worried. I would make my move when the moment was right, sometime in the next century.
The Horse Whisperer
Another fun-filled activity available to us was horseback riding. They had a stable and outside arena, where campers led horses by the reins before riding them. I had a picture taken with me and my horse while wearing my teal Cedars Camp T-shirt. Moments later, my plans were unexpectedly derailed.
I walked too close to the horse in movement as it stepped directly onto my foot. My sneaker offered little protection against its massive, crushing hoof. I panicked and backed away. The horse kept walking, blissfully unaware, as I limped alongside it. My hand remained steady on the reins and slowed the horse to a stop. I pictured my foot flattened like a cartoon character’s. One of the counselors, an older woman, noticed my discomfort, and came to my aid.
“Are you okay?” she asked, taking the reins.
“Horse stepped on my foot,” I told her.
Concerned, she led me toward the bleachers. The pain was starting to surface, and I feared that the split-second blunder could ruin the rest of summer camp for me. “Just stay here, I’ll bring the nurse over,” she told me. I wondered if they would need to amputate.
I brought my foot up onto the bleacher. There was still dirt on my creased sneaker from the horse’s massive hoof. It hurt to wiggle my toes. I pictured an engorged shoe, a bloody, pulpy mess of crushed bone and ligaments. Unable to wait any longer, I carefully unlaced and removed my shoe, fearing the worst. Instead, I was relieved to find my sock free of blood and my foot intact.
I slowly pulled the sock off my foot. Some bruising had formed, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. Would I still be able to go down the waterslide? What about a cast? I didn’t want to stand out more than I needed to.
Meanwhile, the counselor returned with a nurse. She then sat next to me and took my foot into her hands, asking where I felt pain. I looked ahead and saw my horse being led back to the stable. If I hadn’t known any better, I could have sworn it was smiling at me, laughing even. I wouldn’t be riding that day or any of the days to follow. I would in fact limp my way around camp like a dimwitted oaf. And while I was fortunate to be relatively unscathed, I would never trust a horse again.
An Idyllic Haze
Cedars wasn’t entirely like that of Camp Chippewa depicted in Addams Family Values (1993), the great sequel to the 1991 Barry Sonnenfeld hit. In the film, Wednesday and Pugsley battle uptight camp counselors and snobbish kids. I got along with most of the kids, and the counselors were okay. Our stay was generally without conflict. One incident, however, involved a skirmish between two different age groups. Some older boys picked on a group of younger ones in the showers. Josh was in the younger boys group and told me about it. “They were peeking over the shower stalls and laughing at us.”
Such antics were the height of brash, immature, and strange behavior exhibited by yesteryear’s transgressive youth. Josh was angry and even a little hurt. He considered each leering and mocking participant an enemy after that. Meanwhile, things remained somewhat amicable in my cabin. Among its six occupants, Will the banjo player was an interesting guy. I asked him what it was like getting the gizmo and performing in front of everyone.
“Did you want to die?” I pressed.
“Not really,” he said. “I knew I had brought my banjo for a reason.”
We lounged around the cabin, with its open windows on a breezy afternoon. Will also had a younger brother housed a few cabins down. He got the gizmo too in a strange and uncanny coincidence. My bunkmate, Mark, was friendly most of the time but also a little high strung. I could be too, so we constantly butt heads. In addition to his disdain for Batman Returns, he would snap at me sometimes. One point of contention was our bunk bed. I had initially claimed the bottom, and he repeatedly complained about climbing up and down.
“Sucks to be you,” I told him.
“Oh yeah?” he said. “How about I just not let you play my Game Gear anymore?”
“I’ll play my Game Boy then,” I said, switching it on. Though boastful, I privately feared that I hand’t brought enough AA Batteries. His threat could have real-world consequences.
“You do that,” he said, walking away.
“Fine, we can switch,” I told him with a sigh.
He stopped midway to the screen door and turned around. “Really?”
“Nah,” I said, resting my head against my pillow. “I was just kidding.”
His round face reddened as he spun around and stormed out of the cabin, slamming the rickety door behind him. I watched him trail off with his fist balled and began to question whether my defiance was worth the risk. I then determined that it was. With mere days left of camp, tensions were beginning to show, but most of us were too much in our own worlds to care.
The Way Back
Our two weeks ended with a big farewell breakfast. As we ate, I glanced around the dining hall and saw Will and his brother at one table. Josh was at another table next to Heather, his supposed girlfriend, with her long, black hair. Earlier, he had feebly approached the cafeteria, looking sickly and pale. He was stuffed up, and his voice was hoarse, on our last day, no less.
I sat with Mark and the rest of our cabin crew. Everyone was excited to go home. They all resided in different states around the country. Kari sat tables away with Natalie and some other girls. She wore a purple shirt, and her face beamed as bright as the morning sky. We hadn’t said much to each other, but I hoped that would change on the ride back home.
Head counselor, Tim, took the stage again to offer some parting words. “Did everyone have fun?” The room cheered. “Do you want to stay a little longer?” They cheered again. “Are you ready to go back to school?” Crickets followed amid some light, sarcastic claps. He then led us in prayer, asking that we all get home safely. I wondered if I had done enough in those two weeks. I had missed out on archery, frisbee golf, and a dozen other activities as a result of procrastination.
We cleared out of our cabin, leaving behind five empty bunk beds. I limped across a wooded trail, carrying my bag of clothes and my backpack with magazines and sacred electronics. The boys of cabin 4D soon dispersed and said their goodbyes. We reached a cul-de-sac outside the welcome center. I took in one last look as vehicles lined neared the pickup curb. Forest surrounded us on all sides. I saw the white vinyl of the winding waterslide obscured by trees in the distance. The Ozark mountains stretched for miles in the horizon.
Natalie’s parents drove again from Florida to pick us up in their van. Kari, Natalie, Josh, and I left Cedars Camp with new memories to stew over. We resumed our same seating placement as before. Josh and I sat in the back. Kari and Natalie sat in the front, with one empty bench seat in the middle.
The four of us passed around a Mad Libs book for a riotously good time, though Josh was sick most of the way, hunched over and groggy. Natalie’s parents got him some medicine at the store for his fever. As we coasted down the highway, halfway home, he asked me if I could massage his neck.
“No way,” I said,.
“Come on, it’s killing me.”
I refused, so he asked his sister. “Please, Kari. It’s really soar.”
She slipped off her headphones and looked back at us with an eyebrow raised. “Really, Josh?”
“Natalie?” he said, growing desperate.
Natalie turned around. “Ew! Not me.”
It went without saying that we were less than sympathetic to his plight. Josh pleaded with me some more, to little avail. The whole thing was very weird. I didn’t even want to be sitting there. I’d much rather prefer to be up front, talking with Kari. I still thought there was enough time, despite us crossing into Georgia. Josh then reached into his backpack and pulled out a big bag of Skittles. “They’re all yours, if you help me out.”
The payoff seemed irresistible, so I reluctantly agreed. He lowered his head as I squeezed the back of his warm, sweaty neck. For how long, I didn’t know. I opened my copy of Mad Magazine with my free hand and prayed for an end to the ordeal.
The Drop Off
Our journey ended in a parking lot, where my mother was waiting in the station wagon. The return trip totaled about nine hours of “quality time” with a family and two siblings I would never see again. Josh and Kari’s parents were there to pick them up too. It seemed that Natalie’s folks had drawn the short straw in transporting us to camp and back. Or perhaps they had insisted. I was not privy to the details.
The van doors swung open as we emerged. By the end our journey, everyone looked fatigued. We set our bags on the ground and stretched. My mother sat behind the wheel in the distance and waved. She looked to be in a hurry. Natalie and Kari hugged. I hugged Natalie and thanked her parents for the ride. They smiled and nodded in return. Josh and I shook hands. He was looking better even with the ends of his bangs sticking to his sweaty forehead.
“Have fun in school,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “You too.”
He leaned closer to Kari upon her approach and whispered in her ear. She stared to the side, entranced, with her thumb pressed to her bottom lip. Laughter followed as Josh grabbed his bags and turned away. I pressed Kari on what was so funny. “Nothing,” she said, still smiling. She reached out, exhausted, and hugged me.
After our short embrace, I popped the question. “Can I get your number? We could always talk.”
She looked up with hesitation. “Really? Josh told me that you were gay.”
Mouth agape, I turned to Josh as he tried to skirt off. “What are you talking about? I’m not gay!”
He swung around with this dastardly grin and shrugged. “Nothing to be ashamed of .”
“Hey, you bribed me to massage your stupid neck,” I said, irate. “I didn’t want to.”
“Bye, Shawn,” Kari said with a pat on my shoulder. She joined her brother and walked toward their parent’s car. I wasn’t ready to leave yet. My own question was left unanswered, just as I had done to her. Limping to the station wagon, I was greeted warmly by my mother.
“How was summer camp? Did you have fun?”
“I did, Mom, thanks. Lots of fun.”
“How’s your foot?” she asked, having been told about the incident on the phone.
“Broken” I said with veiled sarcasm, as we drove away.
The movies had lied to me about summer romances. There were also no food fights or wild antics to speak of. And not one camp counselor was murdered by an unseen killer. Reality was far different. I only knew that I was about to start the eighth grade. Within a few weeks, summer would be over for good.