Paradise On the River Styx


For eight weeks every summer from when I was thirteen until I was sixteen, while life at home was collapsing, I lived an alternate life as a pot scrubber at Wheaton College’s north woods summer camp.  We worked long hours – from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, serving three meals a day seven days a week.  The first year, in addition to “room and board,” I earned $3.50; in the last year, $35.00.  The church friend I went with the first summer called home regularly to plead for rescue.  For me the place was idyllic.

The camp director’s wife was proud of my growing from 100 to 125 pounds that first summer.  I ate three meals a day, and slept between clean sheets.  In the evenings I could play tetherball or basketball; I could swim in the lake, or go canoeing or sailing; and I could gorge myself on ice cream sandwiches from the Beehive snack shop.  I was submerged and absorbed into the warmth and comfort of the religious culture that prevailed.  I hung out with privileged, upper middle class kids – nice kids – that nevertheless seemed to me to be a part of a world that was closed to me.

Being so close, but assuming (this was my own doing) that most of it was off-limits caused me real grief.  Girls – attractive on many levels – I could talk to, but I believed there was some vague boundary that could not be transgressed – that at some point my family had hived off and become an inferior species.  I was Moses, allowed to see the Promised Land, but not to enter it.  (I have never learned to defeat this feeling of exclusion entirely, but usually can now subdue it.)

 ***

 I was ambivalent about going back to the camp for the second summer, but having a modest difficulty with the town cops that spring led to my return.  I knew how Judge Fell thought about leaving my brothers and me loose in the summertime, so when I got in trouble I proposed to him that going back to work in the camp would “keep me off the streets,” which he thought was one of my better ideas.

I found that over the winter one of the college kids I’d known the year before had committed suicide.  I sensed that his exceptional gentility had somehow made him too soft to live.  I now imagine that he was gay, but even then I thought something in that judgmental environment had forced his hand.  Whether I was right about that kid or not, we know now that gay kids in that environment live in self-contempt, which is sometimes deadly.  This left me indelibly contemptuous of that culture, which Jesus himself would certainly have shunned.

For the next three summers, four of us worked together smoothly in the kitchen.  The other three were cooks, kids from the college.  The chief cook and I became fast friends, brotherly.  He described us as David and Jonathan, and I was very glad to have a David.  He was six years older, but as he said many years later, socially “behind the curve,” having come from a very small country town.

On the last day of the last summer, we took a short overnight camping trip nearby.  In the course of the evening, he grabbed my crank and gave it a good yanking.  I had become accustomed to the family pedo back home doing that, but this was entirely imponderable for me.  This was my big brother in a sense that my biological brother could not be.  Worse, he immediately hated me.  (Karen Armstrong has noted that it’s most difficult to forgive those we have harmed.)

And then, what awaited me when I returned to Glen Ellyn was unforeseeable.  My mother had moved to Chicago over the summer, so I was returning to a town, but not to a residence, with only the left-overs from my summer’s pay, in an ancient convertible whose top had blow off.  I would have my three friends, and maybe to some extent their parents, to fall back on if I got desperate.

Well-Intentioned, Ill-Advised

Our church had acquired a preacher at last who didn’t seem to be a fanatic.  He was a Billy Graham look-alike, and he had a yummy wife that my friends and I often had improper thoughts about.  He and she undertook a selfless act – they took me in, bought me new shoes and glasses, and set me on a course to succeed.

It was a disaster all around.  I think they had seen that I was smart, a nice guy, and had been a  boy preacher for a while (until I realized I couldn’t believe the supernatural stuff – which they did not know).  The trouble was that they couldn’t see that I had also become an undisciplined renegade, and only did things that appealed to me; so when I was assumed to be studying for high school courses, I was devouring all the books they’d left with me in the spare bedroom.

Just as they had begun to catch on to me, the preacher was offered the chance to go to work as the protestant chaplain for ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia.  So we all had had a somewhat bitter learning experience – and I got dumped at a rooming house in town (which I deserved).

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 My room in that house was actually the pantry, with a cot across the back wall, a steel cabinet on one side to serve as a wardrobe, and across from it a glass-fronted bookcase for a dresser.   In the doorway was a curtain, which I learned to brace with coat hangers so that it stuck out into the kitchen and directed some hear from the kitchen register into my pantry.

I got a job at Scripture Press, a religious publishing house in Wheaton, as a shipping clerk.  I found most of my mediocre roommates there.   We were terribly underpaid because we were doing the Lord’s work, although the owners made out nicely; and I began moving all around Glen Ellyn ad Wheaton, searching for the Holy Grail of rented rooms.  I had a lot of roommates, all religious – one who made his bedsprings creak by incessantly scratching his athlete’s foot, and one who did it while trying to mate with his pillow.  The guy with the athlete’s foot, whose last name was Green, became memorable as well for painting his old car with green house paint.

It would be years before I got any sense about cars.  I would buy one I thought looked good, and drive it until it wouldn’t go any farther, when I would trade it for another; so I always had car payments to worry about, but they were small because the cars were junk – but always had nice lines.

I began living among sort of normal people and getting some practice.  In the beginning I ate warm canned entrees (like Dinty Moore Stew or mac and cheese) from a vending machine at work.  After I moved up in the world and had the use of a cook stove, I became very fond of Campbell’s Scotch Broth, to which I’d add a dollop of Bisquick dough to make a dumpling; and eventually moved further on up to TV dinners – which I imagine were then standard fare for young people “living independently.”  I have never since developed a discerning palate, and can still put almost anything down my gullet and think it quite tasty.

One roommate deserves to be tattled on in a little more detail.  He was attending the Moody Bible Institute in the city.  He was also engaged, and often brought his girlfriend to our living room, I guessed to try to break down her resistance to his getting her blouse off.  (This was 1960, so that effort still called for slow and intense work in our subculture.)  My problem was that the hide-a-bed, which was supposed to be mine from 4:00 to midnight when I went to work (in the Post Office by then) was unavailable to me until they left.  (The truth is they were using it in its disguise as a sofa, for “making out”, not as a bed.)  They were often reluctant to leave.  I got progressively more angry.

I then convinced a friend that he should read a book that was in the living room, and that we should go and get it.  We burst in – and there was sweet Kathy lying on the sofa in her bra, under a sun lamp.  So that was his method!  I walked in, picked up the book, cruised past Kathy (who by then had her hands over her eyes) for a closer look, and left.  We formed a tiny parade – my friend closely following me, my roommate following him.  I suspect he caught good grief from Kathy for that episode.

I only saw him once after that, at their wedding.  Until that day, all I had to do when I got home in the morning was to make a racket when I ascended the back staircase; I could then hear him crashing down the front stairs.  Simple nit.

 Sass

 I had begun to acquire a modest pride as I succeeded in my mundane jobs, getting some encouragement from my bosses.  I was smart, and had much to prove – most of all to myself – so I worked hard.  I became defensive of my new seed of hope, and never really left that defensiveness behind.  I think it results from my defiant Scotch genes, but it may simply be due to my rocky beginning.

I only got bloody once because of that attitude, and it was the first time it manifested itself.  I was walking with a friend down a gravel road at the edge of town, when a fancy ’57 Chevy convertible passed us.  Since we were a couple of poor shmucks hoofing it, the driver roared his engine disdainfully at us as he passed.  I yelled “VROOM” to mock him.

He stopped.  The car contained four jocks from the high school.  The driver confronted me, and asked what I’d said.  “VROOM!” sez I.  He punched me in the head, and got back in his car.  As he drove off – “VROOM” again.  He hit me again, and knocked me down.  As he headed for his car again, I said “I bet your friends are really impressed with you for doing that.”

After he hit me once more it occurred to me that I knew his girlfriend, who had once been my neighbor.  So I said, “Oh, don’t feel like you have to tell Ellen how tough you were today; I’ll tell her for you.”  This wasn’t as much fun any more.  So, in a shower of gravel, he roared off down the road.

My friend was a wimp, just like me, but could not comprehend my belligerence and said so.  I, on the other hand, in spite of the inside of my mouth being pretty raw, was proud of myself; and I have never regretted it.  Since my mouth was connected to my brain, it was to become a formidable ally to me.  Am I allowed to say that?  (Yes.)  And clearly, I had stopped stooping.

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