The summer that I was 18 I worked as a counselor in a boys' camp in New Hampshire, an employment obtained for me by my father. This was a gratuitous service on his part, since I had not planned to fritter away my vacation working. Before I could enter more than a token demurrer, however, the matter was settled and I was sold down the river to the Young Men's Christian Association as a cabin counselor and assistant swimming instructor.
The camp was a pleasant place of rustic cabins, pines and birches, set by a lake remarkable for its clarity and coldness. There were acres of baseball fields, volleyball and basketball courts and other appurtenances of outdoor living. My colleagues, nearly all about my own age, seemed quite agreeable, and I was forced to admit that the outlook wasn't as dim as I had feared.
We were immediately set to work putting out docks, floats, canoes and row-boats, and in this manner time passed rapidly. Then, two days before the campers were due to arrive, we were exposed to a series of lectures concerning our duties. These were conducted by the Camp Director, an exuberant "boys' work" type who beamed toothily, addressed us as "fellows" and went on endlessly about molding young America.
Through his constant averrals that little boys were a lovable and sacred trust, however, there ran a thread of steel. Grim references to discipline kept cropping up, and nonconformity, he made clear, was next to Godlessness. A renegade camper, he said flatly, could always be traced to a weak-kneed counselor. Since I had learned that I was to be in charge of a cabin of eight 9-year-olds, I saw nothing disturbing in this. Surely eight small boys could hardly present any great problem.
June 14, 1964
The campers, 100 in number, were due to arrive on a Saturday morning. Each counselor was to be in his assigned cabin to meet his group, perform introductions and oversee unpacking and bunk making. The cabins were identified by the names of Indian tribes, and I was to be in charge of the Choctaws, a tribal group flanked by the Cherokees and Apaches.
About 10 o'clock my warriors started straggling in, toiling up the path under mountains of duffel, dropping baseball gloves, mess kits and Tom Swift books to mark their trail. Awkward and sweating, they were a montage of freckles, knobby knees and rumpled hair. Introductions were accompanied by toe scuffing and muttered acknowledgments, and everything seemed reasonably expectable until the eighth and last Choctaw appeared upon the scene.
The smallest of the group, he stood in the cabin doorway, calm and unwinking. He was short and pudgy and he squinted. His baggy shorts revealed that he was remarkably knock-kneed. In addition, he had a small potbelly which protruded comfortably. All this, coupled with a grave poise, gave him the appearance of premature middle age. He inclined his head, considered me for a moment and said mildly, "I'm George Jones."
I remember George
Memory today is unreliable where the rest of the Choctaws are concerned. Names have slipped away and faces have grown dim. But George I remember with unsettling clearness (the boy, that is; George was not really his name). Indeed, now the whole summer seems to have been a mildly insane pas de deux that he and I executed together while the others hovered in the background like a crowd of extras.
On that first day George was a decided asset in starting the social ball rolling. While the others were shyly mute, George was lively as an old lady as he busied himself with his unpacking. At first the rest seemed stunned by his loquacity, but soon, apparently unwilling to grant him a conversational monopoly, they were all chattering away.
That evening, while the Choctaws were preparing for bed, George dealt the first of a summer-long series of blows. He was struggling into striped flannel pajamas when he suggested to the tribe at large that it would be a good idea if we all arose at dawn and went fishing. In an instant I was surrounded by small fry enthusiastically seconding the motion. I was still trying to establish the fact that there were rules about such things when taps sounded. I seized the opportunity to hustle everyone into bed and sprinted through a brief prayer, letting the fishing proposal get lost in the process.
Shortly after daybreak the next morning, George shook me awake to announce that "the other guys" were ready to go fishing. A look around revealed that "the other guys" were sound asleep and that only George was burning with the Izaak Walton fever. I ordered him back to his bunk and he complied cheerfully, only pausing en route to awaken two of the others to inform them that the fishing trip was off. Instantly the cabin was alive with supplicants, all clamoring for action. Moments later the Choctaws, with me at their head, were slipping down the path to the lake single file. George brought up the rear with the smug air of one disapproving faintly but willing to go along for the sake of sociability.
Early rising was, I discovered, a custom with George. He awakened me regularly at about 5:30 to propose baseball or boating, or merely to ask a question that couldn't wait. He usually managed to awaken the others at the same time and incite them to such an extent that the Director finally spoke sharply to me about suppressing disorder.
The Choctaws were indefatigable in their athletic fervor. They rushed madly from swimming to baseball to volleyball, and then cooled off by rowing erratically around the lake. Such physical frenzy was not for George, though. He was a born spectator. He was, of course, on hand for everything, and his was one of the foremost voices raised in debate or in discussion. He rarely took part in the more violent forms of exercise, but he was very active in the fields of exhortation and criticism.
In the matter of actual athletic participation, George's sole interest lay in swimming. He couldn't swim, but above all things he wanted to learn. The rest of the waterfront staff was more than willing to acknowledge George as solely my responsibility, so each morning during Beginner's Swim, George and I would frisk ourselves into gooseflesh in shallow water.
His coordination was poor and his natural floating ability, despite his corpulence, approximated that of a flatiron. It was with extreme difficulty that he mastered the dead man's float, a preliminary maneuver that involved floating downward with the arms stretched over the head. George would squinch his eyes shut and launch himself forward, face down. Within a yard or two he would come to a halt, wallowing drunkenly like a derelict hulk. As he commenced to sink I would haul him to his feet, where-upon he would say with obvious relief, "That was a pretty good dead man's float, huh? How far did I go?"
Eventually we reached the point where George flailed the water with his arms and performed something vaguely like the flutter kick. I couldn't teach him to turn his head to breathe, so his convulsive twitchings only postponed briefly the instant when he would begin to sink. None of his own ineptitude, however, seemed to register upon George. Despite any evidence to the contrary, he became convinced that he swam very well, and argument with him was useless.
Ready for George
During regular swimming periods it was my duty to perch on a rickety life-saving tower situated halfway between the end of the pier and float. I was supposed to sit there alertly, poised to take action in the event of emergency. One morning, following the usual swim period, I was sunning myself on my tower when I noticed a counselor shoving off from shore in a rowboat. George was squatting happily in the stern, having wheedled a ride from the counselor, who was on his way out to repair the diving board on the float. George gave me a casual wave as they passed me, and I watched idly as they disembarked. The counselor started to work on the diving board while George strolled to the edge of the float and stood peering intently into the water.
"Hey, watch me," he called suddenly. "I'm going to swim in to the pier."
Before I could move or shout, he had thrown himself headlong into the water in what he imagined was a dive. The instant he hit, he commenced his frenetic thrashings, but even as I stood up he began to sink in 12 feet of water.
The other counselor and I reached George simultaneously. He was in his dead man's float position about four feet off the lake bottom, earnestly lashing out with arms and legs. He seemed oblivious to the fact that there was more water over him than under him. We both grabbed him and shot to the surface. Together we thrust him, choking and gagging, onto the float. By the time I was on the float beside him, he had coughed up a pint or two of water and was on his feet. I was both frightened and angry, but George was calm. He exhaled a long and gusty breath, squinted against the sun and said thoughtfully, "The water's kinda cold today. I believe I'll wait and go back in the boat."
Apart from our daily swimming lesson, I didn't see much of George in the mornings. I was on duty at the waterfront while he busied himself at leather-craft, nature lore or some of the other scheduled activities. Reports reached me from time to time, however, concerning his progress. The nature lore instructor informed me that there was something "uncanny" about George's ability to sight unusual birds during bird walks, particularly when others saw nothing more exciting than an occasional blue-jay. Knowing George, I privately felt that "uncanny" wasn't the word at all.
As George pursued his appointed rounds, he bustled along with a dedicated air. Like many of the dedicated, he had an extremely casual attitude toward the matter of dress; his shorts hung droopily beneath a shockingly dirty shirt and his hair looked as though something were nesting in it. His raffish appearance weighed so heavily upon the Director that it served as an excuse for a series of unpleasant conferences with me.
The Director was in the habit of holding Counselor Evaluation discussions in which he met with each counselor for a session of soul-searching and criticism. In my case, these discussions always centered around George. The Director seemed to find it difficult, if not impossible, to think of George as a lovable and sacred trust.
Invariably he brought up the fact that George was a disruptive influence at the Saturday night Council Fire. This was a pet project of the Director and an integral part of the camp's Indian motif. Each Saturday evening, as soon as it was dark, we would all traipse off into the woods, clad only in breech cloths and feathers, to sit around a mosquito-strafed campfire. There was a fire-lighting ceremony, invocations to the Great Spirit, and then the serious business of discussing "Things Done for the Good of the Camp," "Things Seen and Heard of Interest" and similar highjinks. After each contribution the assembled warriors indicated approval with Indian grunts of "How, How." With considerable asperity, the Director said that George's "Hows" were unnecessarily loud and frequent. As a matter of fact, George did sound like a coyote in a trap as he yowped away enthusiastically at every pause. Furthermore, said the Director, George's contributions to "Things Done for the Good of the Camp" usually took the form of a filibuster featuring the good deeds of G. Jones. Summed up, it turned out that George's unorthodox approach to camping, untidiness and overall nonconformity were keeping my Leadership Efficiency rating in the neighborhood of zero. I tried several times to discuss this with George, but he assured me that he personally rated me very highly as a counselor, so there the matter stood.
I always looked forward to evening with George. Dusk and he settled down at about the same time and then it was that his languid period set in. After supper most campers raced around to use up the unexpended balance of their energies, but George's chief pleasure was to talk me into taking him for a canoe ride. The crowning effect was for me to sing to him as I paddled. His favorite number was Twilight on the Trail, a mournful piece made popular by Bing Crosby. We would glide along, George lying back with his eyes half shut, one hand trailing in the water, the other vaguely waving time. After a bit we would drift in silence. Then George would break the quiet with a remark which made up in appeal for what it lacked in accuracy.
"You have a lovely voice. Just lovely," he would say.
George discovers snakes
Toward the end of the summer George discovered that he had an affinity for snakes. The nature lore instructor, a prissy type with a dismally high Leadership Efficiency rating, captured a couple of dozen harmless specimens and installed them in a snake pit that he had built. He gave endless lectures on them and announced that he was taking them back to the city after camp where they would be available for study all winter at the YMCA. His pride in ownership of these lethargic reptiles knew no bounds.
It was exactly the sort of thing calculated to fetch George. For hours on end he would sprawl at the edge of the snake pit while he and the snakes regarded each other unblinkingly. No longer did he awaken me to suggest fishing; instead, he perched on the edge of my bunk by dawn's early light and talked of snakes. Even his bunk mates tired of George's never-ending accounts of the excitement prevalent at the snake pit.
The camp season ended on a Saturday, with the campers scheduled to leave for home in the morning. After breakfast I hurried to the cabin for a check on baggage and a last search for missing sneakers and towels. The Choctaws were milling around, pledging eternal allegiance to one another and promising to keep in touch. I noticed that George wasn't present, but someone volunteered the information that he was saying goodby to the snakes, so I dismissed the matter.
A few minutes later, while trying to determine the ownership of a leftover bathing suit, I heard myself being paged in an angry bellow. Before the fact could register, the nature lore instructor exploded through the door with a violence that drove the seven Choctaws to the far end of the cabin like a huddle of frightened sheep. Through his spluttering rage I was finally able to grasp the gist of the crisis. George, it appeared, had gotten into the snake pit and released all the snakes. His voice rising almost to a howl, the nature lore instructor informed me that the best collection of snakes in New England was now scattered all over the state of New Hampshire.
This information was still ringing through the cabin when George appeared primly in the doorway. Before the nature lore instructor could make more than a convulsive start toward him, I pulled George to my side.
Why, by the honor of the Choctaws, I demanded, had he done such a thing?
The look he turned up to me was the same bland one that had marked our first meeting eight weeks earlier. His tone was the patient and reasonable one used to explain the obvious to a child.
"Everyone else was going home and the snakes looked lonesome, so I turned them loose," he said.
George was the last of the Choctaws to clamber aboard the bus for home. He paused on the step and turned to face me. The ingenuous warmth of his smile caught at something in my chest.
"Hey, we sure had fun, didn't we?" he said.
"We sure did, George," I agreed.
As I turned away from George, I saw the Director standing near by, regarding me narrowly. He was listening to the nature lore instructor, who was speaking earnestly to him. I nodded briskly to them both and hurried away, trying to look as though I had pressing business elsewhere.