Excerpt from Mounting to Heaven
By the time that I'd come to my senses and handed in my list of contacts and my samples, the summer was in full swing. Nancy had gotten her wish and, when a position became available, she'd left the school district and had gone to work from three to eleven each day on the units. When school was out, most of the kids moved up to camp for the summer where they would supposedly make new friends with the other kids who'd come from their homes for a week or two or twelve. The building was then re-filled with temporary charges, 'respite care' cases, as they were called. With the increase in kids there needed to be an increase in staff people. So when Nancy went up to camp with her girls, I went with her. What else was there to do?
On the day I was to start we left before the sun came up in order to be there in time for the shift change at seven o'clock. At the end of a forty-five minute drive we turned off the highway onto a dirt road and then another mile and off onto a second dirt road, this one barely one lane and almost completely overgrown. After a few minutes we came through into a clearing, drove by an old farmhouse, parked the car, and made our way in the cool wet morning past a little pond and up the hill to the cabins.
They were set partly in the trees, seven for the boys and three for the girls. Nancy went up the stairs of the second cabin and, having no choice now, I crossed the little half circle toward what was to be my cabin.
As I reached the steps, a man came out the door.
"Are you Karl?" he said in a half-whisper. "Great. Look, I was supposed to spend the morning with you, but we're short of staff, so I have to go over to Number Four."
He told me that all I needed to do was to get the boys up and dressed in time for breakfast, which was at eight o'clock. Then he explained where to find the cafeteria.
"You shouldn't have any trouble," he said. "I'll see you down there."
And he moved past me.
I went up the steps, opened the screen door, and stepped inside.
Although it was just light outside, inside it was still dark. The cabin was divided in three by an enclosed section in the middle. Everyone seemed to be asleep. The inhabitant of the top bunk to the right of the door turned from side to side on his stomach and moaned in his sleep. There were open suitcases and clothing everywhere - on the bunks, under the bunks, in the middle of the floor - both to my right and to my left as far as I could see.
Opposite me was another door. I opened it as quietly as I could. A bare lightbulb, lit, hung from the ceiling. I went through the door and found a small windowless room with one cot. The man I spoke to must have slept here. A T-shirt hung from the top of a bag perched on the metal chair. The boards of the floor were grey and streaked with mud that had been mopped at a bit and then had dried.
It was two steps through this room. I went through the second door and found the bathroom.
A wet towel had been left in the shower stall, a pair of underpants and one sock on a bench next to the wall, and on the floor a toothbrush along with half a bar of soap in the wrapper, a wad of toilet paper, and toeprints in white powder.
On the shelf above the sink were pieces of dried blue toothpaste, on the wall above the shelf brackets which had at one time held a mirror, and on the floor under the sink the empty wooden frame of a puzzle.
Upside down in the sink lay a can of spray disinfectant, the bottom of which was rusting.
On the wall next to the sink there was a list of names and another paper taped up next to it with columns headed Date and Teeth and Shower in what looked to be a woman's hand. Check marks had been entered next to each boy's name for the Monday and Tuesday of the previous week and then the entries stopped. A corner was torn off the bottom of the page.
With a fearful and sinking feeling from my throat to my stomach and lower that had been growing and growing since we'd gotten into the car back in the city, I sat down on the bench and opened the logbook.
It was half full, but I went to the last page.
"Fireworks and movie tonight," read the entry next to yesterday's date. "Good day. Walter."
Walter must be the man I'd spoken to.
The entries before that were not much more detailed.
"Bobby Hart cut his foot running on the side of the pool. Saw nurse."
"Out for ice cream tonight."
"Nothing happened today. Susan."
I was about to turn back to see if there were more detail further back, when I heard a thud through the wall.
I put the book down on the bench and went out to investigate.
He'd fallen on the floor just a step from his bunk.
"Are you OK?" I said in a whisper as I moved toward him and bent over.
"I have to use the bathroom, please. Could you help me? I fell down."
I was very eager to help him - for one reason because he spoke each word as loudly and seperately as if he were calling to me from the next cabin over. As I did not know what I would do when the rest of the boys woke up, I was anxious that they stay asleep as long as possible.
I gave him my hand and he tried to pull himself up, but it was no use. I moved around behind him and, putting my hands under his arms, I lifted him to a standing position.
He was just about my height with black hair. When he stood up he balanced himself with only the ball of his left foot touching the floor and this at an angle, as if that leg did not quite reach all the way to the ground.
Now I saw he'd left a pool behind him where he'd fallen.
"Could you help me," he said again, pronouncing each word slowly and with full force. The sound of his voice mixed with the smell that came from him. "I'm not sure I can make it to the bathroom."
I gave him my left arm to lean on and put my right around his shoulder to steady him. He left a watery brown trail behind him.
We went directly to the shower stall. He was unable to get his left foot over the rim of the stall. I got behind him again and lifted him up and over. He slumped on his elbow on the soap dish.
"I'm very sick," he said. "I think I should call my parents to come and get me."
"Maybe that's right," I said, "but first let's get you cleaned up, OK? I'll help you take your pajamas off and you can wash and then we'll go down and see the nurse. Does that sound all right?"
I moved the wet towels from around his feet and threw them under the bench.
"Let's get the top first."
He was very unsteady and shaking as if he were cold. I saw when I'd helped him take his pants off that his knees were permanently bent.
I emptied was what left in his underpants into the toilet and found a washcloth.
I handed him the washcloth and moved to pull the curtain across the stall.
"Will you be OK now?" I said.
He was still leaning on the soap dish, his left foot barely making contact with the floor. His mouth hung open from the shaking of his body. His legs were streaked with brown fluid and bits of more solid matter from his bowels.
"Do you want me to help? Should I help you?"
"Yes," he said. "I think perhaps you'd better help me."
I found a metal bucket at the foot of the cot in the next room. I held the bucket up near his face and turned on the shower to fill it. Then I squatted down outside the stall and reached in to wash off his buttocks and his legs and feet.
There was still no sound from the rest of the cabin. I cleaned off the washcloth and handed it to him.
"Here, you do the rest and we'll get you some clothes."
I found a suitcase under his bunk. It seemed to be the only one in the cabin which had not yet been rifled. In it I found shorts and a T-shirt and socks. His shoes had been left next to the case.
I helped him dry off. He insisted he needed powder and I finally found the container on the floor next to the outside door. I helped him dress and then I helped him to the only chair in the cabin at the foot of his bunk.
"Do you think you'll be OK here?" I said in a whisper. It was now seven-thirty. "I'll get the other guys up and we'll see the nurse on our way down to breakfast. Does that sound OK?"
"I want to call my parents to come and get me then."
This time at the sound of his voice a head came up off one of the pillows.
"Well maybe you will, but let's talk to the nurse first, OK?"
There's no explaining miracles. Or even recognizing them at the time they're occurring.
I have no idea how, but I managed without event to get the other boys up and dressed and out of the cabin by seven-fifty. I say this might qualify as a miracle because of what lay in store for me later.
We started down the hill along with the groups from the other cabins. But before long Stephen's gait (one of the other boys referred to him by name in asking what was wrong) made us fall behind the rest. He walked as if each step were an act of faith which, from long experience, he was now accustomed to make without much thought. Every time his foot came back to earth his head and shoulders shook a bit until he regained his balance. In addition to this his left leg, the shorter one, was less mobile than the right, so that he had almost to fling it into position by using the whole of the rest of his body. The incline and the rough suface of the road did not help matters either.
The other boys, all of whom were shorter and, I assumed, younger than Stephen, marked time with us or fell off to the side for a moment to inspect a tree stump or to retrieve a frisbee that had been thrown into the brush the day or the week before.
Stephen was apparently feeling a little better and he took up several themes to which he was to return again and again through the rest of the summer.
"I really don't have to stay here." he said. "I'm going to call my parents and they'll come and get me."
And then: "Did you know that my father is a surgeon? Last year he made $80,000. How much money did you make last year?"
"Well," I said, "I didn't make $80,000, Stephen - I can tell you that much. But then I was in school."
"My mother teaches school," he said. "She has a Ph.D. in psychology."
He went on to tell me about his father's Mercedes-Benz automobile - he never used a short word or a single word when he knew a long word or a phrase - and about the family's house in the Pocono Mountains where his parents and his sister were going the following week.
By this time I was only half listening. There was, I saw, no need for me to reply. I was watching the others who, one by one as we proceded down the hill, began to wander farther and farther from the group. I was wondering what I could do to get them all back together if the rank did fall completely apart, when Stephen suddenly stopped both speaking and walking.
"I have to go to the bathroom again," he said.
We were a little better than half-way down the hill. The farm house was just in sight. The other groups, even the little ones, had long ago passed us and disappeared behind the trees around a bend in the road. It was now five minutes after eight and we were late for breakfast. What could I do? Go and get the car and drive him? What would I do with the other boys? Should we turn back to the cabin? But then we'd miss breakfast.
"Stephen, just keep going," I said. "You can use the bathroom in the nurse's office."
"I can't hold it. I don't think I can hold it," he said.
And he was right.
Still, I thought, we had to push on. I would drop Stephen with the nurse and the rest of the boys could make it over to cafeteria.
I took his arm and we set out again.
At the turn we met Walter come back to find us.
"Stephen's sick," I said.
"Oh," he said, meaning that his nose had told him what the trouble was.
Stephen, recognising a higher authority, went over my head, so to speak, to plead his case.
"Walter," he said. "I'm going to call my parents to come and get me."
"Sure you are, Stephen," Walter said.
To me he said, "Look, I'll take the rest of them over to the cafeteria. You take Stephen to the infirmary. It's the door on the right."
And he pointed to a low addition resembling a screened-in porch on the side of the farmhouse.
"Who's ready for breakfast," he called out to the other boys. Several cheers came back and they all set off at a trot behind him across the field.
In the infirmary a woman stood over a girl at a typewriter. Something obviously needed correction, a lot of it, and the woman, who had streaked grey hair and a fierce look on her face, was making sure that the girl got it straight this time so that it wouldn't happen again.
The girl looked up, seeing as how we made a fair amount of noise getting through the door, but the woman did not.
"Are you following me?" the woman said in a clipped manner to bring the girl's attention back.
They went on with what they were doing.
Stephen had lost his legs again the last few yards to the building and he was now swaying gently between my hands. We stood and waited.
Finally in exasperation the woman struck with her finger at the page in the typewriter and then one at a time at the pages spread out on the desk.
"Here. And here. And here. And here!" she said. "Do you get it now?"
She made no attempt to hide the scorn she felt for the girl, who was in her eyes clearly an inferior being with whom she had been cursed for the entire summer.
I'd just made up my mind to interrupt them to ask for the nurse, when the woman broke off and looked up at us.
"Stephen Gass," she said.
She spoke his name as slowly as she could in order, it seemed, to be able to coat the words with as much contempt as possible.
"What do you want?"
As she came around the desk toward us, she saw what he wanted. The trouble he'd had on the way down the hill was now dripping down his legs and onto his socks and shoes.
"Don't you come in here to me pretending to be sick," she said, as if there were only Stephen standing in front of her. "You get yourself back up to that cabin and clean yourself up. Look at this. You're repulsive. It's disgusting. Do you hear me? You disgust me, Mister Gass."
She spoke these words even more slowly and deliberately than when she'd first spoken his name.
"Now you get yourself out of here and back to that cabin. Now! Go! I don't want to have any more to do with you."
And she went through a door to the house.
I looked at the girl behind the desk. She lowered her eyes and went back to her typing.
I helped Stephen turn around and we went out the door. He had apparently forgotten to ask about his phone call.
We first heard the word "dysentery" a week later.
Nancy knew a girl who had worked at the camp for several summers and in the city for the past year. It was widely believed that this girl had called the Public Health Authority. By this time there were kids sick in each cabin and the infirmary was full. But, probably because of the woman Stephen and I had encountered, whose name was Catherine Roder, and who was, it turned out, a nurse and the director of the camp, we never saw anyone from the outside on the grounds. And the girl was gone - she'd quit, it was said - within days.
And so after-hours and early in the mornings we jockied for the use of the washing machines in the one larger cabin. And at mealtimes and during the day someone was chosen to stay behind and cover all the kids too sick to eat or walk.
No one saw a doctor. Another week went by. No one got any sicker. Eventually things got back to normal.
Even in a place like this there was such a thing as normalcy. It was only that first day or two that things struck you as odd. That first day you didn't want to look, didn't want to seem to be staring, but you couldn't keep your eyes off these kids and teenagers who moved around in groups with their workers. The way this boy's mouth hung open at an odd angle grabbed at something in your stomach. Was the weight of his lower lip simply too much for him or was it that he just didn't care? The way this girl's two eyes were set, strangely askew and the left one protruding from her skull, so that they no longer seemed quite to be a pair, touched off in you a momentary unnamed terror. It seemed that you were looking at everyone through the bottom of a bottle. It was in the cafeteria with everyone assembled that the place made its full impact. That first day a kind of nausea came on you for an instant when it was time to eat. The girl at the next table seemed to have a double row of teeth in her upper jaw. Across the back of the room a young man moved with a bumpy gait holding in front of him at an odd angle a shriveled arm which hung from his powder blue shirt. That little boy over there appeared to be going bald on one side of his head. This young woman right here had huge breasts and a perpetual smile on her face. And when she wasn't eating, her tongue hung out of her mouth and rested on her lip. There were mashed potatoes on the edge of her tongue. The flesh you saw was all too fleshy, the bone all too evident. The pieces had been put together in some different way. You saw each of the pieces independent. They were the same pieces you were made up of, but it was all different. Perhaps that was why it affected you so - they were the same pieces that you were made up of. But beyond all of the physical evidence there was something more. Here and there you saw someone whose physical appearance gave you no clues to the differences you were still certain of. You would, you thought, have to talk to this person in order to decipher the difference. But it certainly existed. There was something that made each of these kids different from what you were yourself, whatever it might be that you were yourself.
And they were all here together, all these very strange looking kids. And you were here with them. You'd never thought of yourself before as belonging in the world, but now it seemed you'd been flung to the ends of the universe.
But as I say after that first day the picture righted itself. You saw that the odd way the kids appeared to you had as much to do with how they were being cared for as it had to do with their bodies or their mental abilities. For one thing they weren't being dressed in any way that would tend to distract attention from their differences; their forms were merely covered with clothing. Once you understood this you began to adjust to the everyday feel of this particular place at this particular time. You got on with life. Things settled into normal.
Normal, here on the grounds of this camp, was a state in which everything that went on seemed to have been set up for the exclusive benefit of Catherine Roder and her family. We, the workers and the kids, seemed to be, if not quite beside the point, then at the most a regretable inconvenience, countenanced only for the fact that we were necessary to the family paycheck and to the use of the farmhouse for the summer.
Roder's daughter and her husband had neither her inclination for nor her skill at contempt. In fact they seemed oblivious both to the particulars of their situation and to their family member's resentment of same. They took what had been provided and asked no questions. He spent his time wandering about the grounds with his toolbox, tightening nuts and screws that were not loose and ignoring the torn window screens and the unhinged doors and the flat tires on the bicycles. The little girl, who was a long and lanky eight year old, ran around the entire summer stripped to the waist, her straight blond hair flowing out from under a dirty baseball cap, as if she had been marooned on a desert island.
But the baby, being with her more often, was the full recipient of the displays Catherine Roder put on to dramaticize her feelings.
It was in the cafeteria, a long cinderblock building, that we saw these scenes enacted on more than a single occassion.
One involved an older gentleman who, along with several other older men, had apparently been condemned to spend the rest of his life at this camp. They lived year round on the floor above the cafeteria. We saw them only at meals.
At some distance from the rest of the assembly a table was kept exclusively for the Roder family. Everyone had to walk past this table when the meal was through to deposit all trays and utensils on a cart near the door to the kitchen.
The husband and the girl had long since left the table. I myself was farther back in the tangle with my group. Catherine Roder was giving instructions to the activities director. Beside her in a highchair sat the baby.
The room was always loudest now with plates clanking and feet shuffling and voices lifted again. It seemed to me to take forever for this last phase of the meal to come to a close, because now, with the distraction of the food gone and my group again on its feet, it was, I feared, obvious to all how little control I had over them.
So we're inching our way along toward the kitchen, Gass stumbling along behind with his tray threatening any moment to capsize, little Michael O'Hala up to no good on his knees under one of the tables, and me holding onto Jerry Sanders's hand for all I'm worth as he strains with all of his might to break away.
Two groups ahead of us are the older men. They have nothing to say to one another or to anyone, but they move along in unison. There are four of them. One of them holds his hearing aid like a radio in one hand and his tray in the other. One, the tallest of them, is decked out for some reason in a plaid sportscoat and a tie and a green baseball hat. The third man is very short and round with dungarees rolled up at the ankle and cinched far above the waist with a belt. Only the top halves of the three balloons on the front of his shirt are visible. The fourth man is tall with steel grey hair very recently wetted and combed.
I put the three stacked trays I'm holding down on the edge of the empty table and reach under for O'Hala and as I'm straightening up I see one of the older gentlemen, the one with the grey hair, take a step out of the line and toward the highchair.
The baby has dropped a toy rabbit on the floor.
Catherine Roder is facing the other way, still talking, now with her finger pointed at the activities director, who stands there taking what Roder has to dish out with little more than his clipboard to sustain him.
The old man bends over and picks up the toy. He is reaching to place it on the tray of the highchair when Roder catches sight of him.
She spins around in her seat.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demands.
The words cut the day in two.
You wouldn't believe that any one person's voice could silence all this noise. But the room goes dead in an instant and all heads turn to see what will happen.
The old man's hand is frozen in mid air. His face, until now carrying a smile which appeared, against all regard for his situation in life, to be permanent, has turned to a gasp. What he holds in his hand now seems to be afire.
What is he to do with it?
It belongs to the baby; he'll give it back to the baby.
He completes his motion and puts the toy on the baby's tray.
But this logical movement sets Catherine Roder herself aflame.
"Don't you touch her things!" she shouts and she swats at the toy to send it flying across the floor, and on the back swing slaps his hand away as if he were himself an infant.
"Get away from her! Now! Move back!"
The old man is too stunned to respond. But the girl who is working with his group comes up directly behind him - as if at the same time to try to shield herself from the wrath which is spewing from Catherine Roder - and pulls him back and away.
"Don't you touch her things, you! Do you think I want her to get your cooties? Don't you ever come near my child! Don't you come near her with your filthy, dirty hands! Never! Do you hear me!"
My group consisted of six boys and Stephen Gass. I figured that Stephen had been placed in this group because the older boys might have eaten him alive.
There was Jerry Sanders, ten years old with chalky black skin, who had a preoccupation with movement. He was in constant motion himself and he had a morbid and persistent desire to see things and other people in motion. The more violent the results of that motion the better. He wanted cars to crash, planes to fall from the sky, boats to collide, animals to run in terror. But most of all he wanted to see people fighting. Lacking this, he would settle for sports.
Mario DeBrutis was a soft chubby kid with curly black hair. He had a smile for everyone and everything. Momma had had no idea what she was doing when she sent him away to this camp.
Jimmy Samitsky within a week and a half knew the vital information of every adult on the grounds. Other than this he had no interests whatsoever. He collected his data in a sort of interview he conducted in a sing-song voice with each new person he encountered. "Where d'ya live? What's your phone number? When's your birthday?" He was obsessed with compiling this information, but once he'd gotten the answers he wanted from you, he walked away without another word. After that he would only talk to you again if you spoke first or from time to time to re-check his data. It was only the adults he seemed interested in; he never spoke to the other kids. Once on a rainy afternoon I asked him if he knew the birthdays of the other boys in the group. "Yes, I do," he said in his dead-pan manner. And he reeled them off, with not the least tone of satisfaction in his voice, as I called the names to him. I then went on to name every other kid I could think of and he matched me with their birthdays. I had no idea how he could have gotten this information. Toward the end of the summer, however, he apparently began to overload. The newest dates and addresses he took in seemed to bump out the oldest, so that he would slip up from time to time if someone asked him, as many of the couselors did for a kind of diversion, something as elementary as Walter's address.
The fourth boy was Eric Ingram. Eric was with us the whole summer, but you might also have said that he was never really with us even for an hour. If Jerry Sanders's movements were self-announcing and combative, Eric was a kind of whirligig. He twirled his fingers and his arms in the air; he spun around in place; he pivoted at the waist in a rocking motion; his head bobbed and weaved; his eyeballs floated around in his skull. He was in constant delicate motion, his wispy hair bouncing on his forehead as he jumped up and down on his tip-toes or clapped his approval or laughed beatifically at some joke the clouds seemed to have whispered to him. He followed along, he held an oar or a crayon when you placed it in his hand, but that was about it.
And then there were Michael O'Hala and Bobby Hart.
It was O'Hala who kicked off the summer for me, so to speak. On my second day we went for a hike on one of the trails through the woods; this was after archery and before lunch. We came upon a clearing and off to the right, down a little bank, ran a stream. Jerry was, as usual, way ahead of us; he'd already gone through the clearing and was just out of sight down the trail. Stephen Gass, still sick, had stayed behind at the cabin. I called to Jerry to come back and I was wondering if he would respond, when Michael O'Hala threw the plastic bat he was carrying, and which, much to Jerry's delight, he had applied to Mario's head earlier in the day, into the stream.
I went down to retrieve it.
I was squatting on the rocks at the edge of the stream reaching for the bat, when Michael came up behind me and pushed me over into the water.
You might say I was in and out of that water for the rest of the summer.
Michael was a little freckled dynamo with a large head which seemed to roll about on his shoulders like a pumpkin and a glint in his eye the effects of which you had to be constantly on guard against.
I was at the mercy of all of them really, the whole summer, but it was Michael who recognized this fact and acted on it. We went from one activity to the next, from one day, from one week to the next, with Stephen Gass trailing behind us, Jerry Sanders far ahead, Mario wandering off into the brush or across a field, and Eric performing his own private ballet. Only Jimmy would follow unswervingly whatever track you set him on, unless of course he spotted a new source of information for his files. And while I was rounding them up, which I had to do perpetually and, like a cowboy without a horse, desperately, reining in Jerry, encouraging Gass to get a move on, directing Mario back to the group and Eric back to reality, Michael O'Hala was cooking up his next scheme.
If Mario went off to the left, Michael would go off to the right. If for once Jerry was able to restrain himself and walk with the rest of us, then it was Michael who took his place out of sight in the lead. And if everyone was moving and I had him by the hand, why then Michael would simply sit down.
At the cabin he broke windows, squeezed out toothpaste on the floor, pulled everyone's clothes from the suitcases onto the floor, and, in one grand and superb attempt to sabotage the entire day at one swoop, he collected everyone's shoes early one morning and threw them into the crawl space under the cabin. He knew perfectly well the spot he had me in and he used that knowledge to his advantage at every turn. I squirmed under his hand.
But if I was repeatedly embarassed by my inability to deal with these seven boys, it was Bobby Hart, I felt, who suffered the real hurt. He was to my way of thinking the soul of our little dis-organization, the little boy of the story books, wide-eyed and brimming over with wonder and interest at the world of nature. His body was lank and lean and brown and you had get up real close to hear what he had to say. Usually it was only one word: "Frog."
Bobby discovered the pond, I think, before he even got off the bus. What he wanted to do, all day and every day, was to catch frogs. Trouble was there was no frog-catching on the schedule. Swimming in the crowded pool, archery with, after a week or so, one lone arrow and a frayed bow string, a tractor ride around an unplanted brown field. All these things, yes. They were on the schedule. But no frog-catching. And of course Bobby had to go where the rest of us went - that was how things were to be done. There was no greater crime than a child discovered without his or her group. So, Bobby, the frogs will have to wait. We're due at arts and crafts in two minutes. We could go for a boat ride on the pond at three o'clock, but we could not leave Bobby at the side of the pond with his frogs.
I don't think he had an uninterrupted moment the whole summer. And the worst part of it was that we passed by that pond a hundred times a day, for, as I say, it lay on the path from the cabins to the rest of the camp. He would gaze lovingly each time we made out way by.
No, there was no time for frogs.
But why, I asked myself. If Bobby wanted to catch frogs all day, isn't that what he should be doing? After all it was an activity perfectly suited to this place and this season and to Bobby's time of life, his childhood. Why was it exactly that he couldn't catch frogs? Well, it was because he had to stay with his group. This was the logic you could hear operating at the camp. And why did he have to stay with the group? Well, it was because he might wander off if he were left on his own. Yes, he might wander off, but at least he'd be with his beloved frogs. No, he might wander off and we can't let that happen because, well, because you know what Bobby is. We have to protect him from himself.
All right, so even if granted he might wander off. Still there must be another way to handle the situation. For instance there must be other kids here who would like nothing better than to spend all day and every day at the pond, in the boat if not catching frogs. Why couldn't some one of the workers stay at the pond, someone else at arts and crafts, someone else at archery? Or if that was unworkable, then why couldn't all of us keep an eye on all of the kids - let them go and do what they want and each one of us pick up whatever kids came our way? Or better yet, why not simply have someone stay with Bobby all day? But this last solution, the true one, was so ridiculous as not even to be mentioned out loud. For it would of course cost too much money.
These were the kinds of questions that Nancy and I began to work through from the first. It all made no sense to us. But then again it made perfect sense. It made no sense only if you followed through with the logic based on the premise presented to the outside world: that the camp was set up for the kids. Obviously the only people in the entire universe that the camp was not set up for were the kids. The camp was set exactly against anything that might benefit the kids. They were thrown together in large groups under the care of people who didn't know them and who had no access to any but the most basic information about them. They were dragged from one meaningless activity to another. Even if we had a ball and bat, Jerry's interest in baseball was irreparably hobbled by Stephen Gass's disdain for the sport, by Eric Ingram's inability to hold the bat in a way that did not remind you of a butterfly net, and by Mario's insistence on running from home to third even if he had missed the ball completely. What did Michael O'Hala want with a picture of a rainbow, even if he had drawn it himself? He'd drawn it under duress. We simply had to keep him occupied until the next activity. Wherever each of these kids was - and each one was most decidedly in his own world (my greatest and only achievement of the summer were the ten continuous moments during which Jerry and Michael threw a frisbee back and forth, unassisted, outside the cabin) - the activities might just as well have been located in a separate universe. A universe none of them could get to. I certainly didn't know how to transport them there.
No, the camp was not set up for the kids.
It was set up for the adults.
It was set up for the workers, so that they would have to think as little as possible through the course of the day, make the fewest number of necessary decisions. The workers took this arrangement on gladly, we thought. They wanted to work in this way; they wanted to go mindlessly from one task to the next, in perpetual meaningless activity, until the end came. It must be that the repetitiveness was used to mask the knowledge that death was approaching.
There was, we saw, a little chain. Next the administrators hooked into this arrangement. If the worker was content, even eager, for regimen and predictability, this made the administrator's job easier too. The administrator, Roder or the activities director, had only to see, then, that the worker was in the right place at the right time with the right people, the group to which he or she had been assigned. It didn't matter what happened, or indeed if nothing happened (in the sense of anything worthwhile), so long as the kids were in no worse shape at the end of the summer than they'd been at the start. No one could really expect anyone to do anything with kids such as these. We were only all to pretend that it wasn't hopeless, just to keep the whole thing afloat. It only mattered then that the worker and his group were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. What could be simpler? Again no need for thought, question, decision. It was a streamlined system. The money came in; the pantomime was performed; everyone kept their mouths shut; the money was distributed; and at the end of the summer we'd all go home. What matter that this little arrangement may chew up those it was supposedly intended to serve? It worked well from the administrator's point of view. That was more than enough.
It was set up for Holland. Was he making money? Or was all this just a tax write-off? If he was simply a man intent on doing good, he wasn't paying much attention to the apparatus he'd set in motion. Maybe just enough attention to keep his name out of the papers.
It was set up for the parents. What worse a fate than to be stuck with a child the like of these? A respite from such a situation or better yet a permanent reprieve - that was the only answer.
And of course it was set up so that Mr. and Mrs. John Q. would not have to waste their eyesight. Wasn't it written down somewhere in the Bill of Rights that Americans were inalienably entitled not to be accosted by any vision that might disturb them? And of course the protection of that right grew proportionately with the scale of the neighborhood you found yourself in. So, Mario had only to demonstrate that he could not distinguish an "a" from a "q" in order to be packed off, whereas Jerry E. had to resort to hitting his mother with a chair in order to win his place in the sun.
What I wanted to do was to take Bobby to the pond each morning and say, "Bobby, the day is yours. Happy frogs." Instead I rounded him up and drove him with the rest of my herd from one activity to the next.
Activity. That was the word we used. That was the lie in its most local form. No one was active but the workers, the counselors. How could eight boys learn to row one boat? There was no way to design an activity so that it included all the kids in one group. There were no two kids in the whole of that camp that went together, if you know what I mean. It wasn't just that little Michael had boundless energy while Gass always lagged behind because of his legs and his poutiness. Or that Stephen could play a decent game of checkers, while Bobby could give no evidence even that he could distinguish the red from the black squares. Underneath their individual differences lay the one way in which they were fundamentally different. They didn't understand, any of them, the idea of conformity. To each of them the world was supremely egocentric and they acted, or tried to act, accordingly. The doctors said they weren't smart enough to function in the world. I couldn't say that was not true, but it was also true that they refused to toe the line with the rest of us. Maybe this and not the other was the real reason why they were turned away.
Maybe too we see something of our own situation in them. They are born to a world they can't understand - the world of men. They have not the wherewithall to deal with this world; they cannot make their way in this world. We quickly lose patience with them. The ones who make their best efforts to come to terms with human society, still never quite getting it, we scorn and call fools. The others we put away so we won't have to look at them.
But as they stand to the world of men, so we stand in the face of the universe. In this larger realm, it is we who are the fools, though we never call ourselves thus. It is we who don't get it. And how do we react to our own situation? We give it up as useless from the start, denying that there is any reality but the little human ones we find ourselves embedded in. We have not the courage to confront all of creation and so we give ourselves over to the lie that this immense yawning mystery simply does not exist behind and around and underneath and inside the world of men. We create smaller universes to deal with. We count the stars and, telling ourselves that what we can see or imagine is all that there is, we congratulate ourselves on our advances. We subjugate our fellows and, counting ourselves as gods in some lesser world, we blot out the larger one. We paper over the windows of our cells with money. We drown out the encompassing silence with prayers. But the real truth of creation is closed to us, whether we acknowledge that fact or not, as closed as is the world of men to these others among us. Perhaps it is true then that they mock us by their very existence. They show us what we truly are, how little we truly know. But more than this, there is the grace with which they handle their own situations. Perhaps they mock us too in this respect.
But of this last I could not voice much at that time. I only knew that, given the choice between Gass's ramblings and anything Catherine Roder might choose to pollute the air with, I would without hesitation choose to listen to Stephen.
The whole mess was ass-backwards and upside down. And anyone who could not see this, as Nancy and I did, must be in some sad shape himself, so obvious did it appear to us.
But we found few who did see it our way. For one thing, there was little time to chat. You were on the go constantly and in the evenings (we slept over three or four nights a week - for no extra money, I'll add), you were too tired for anything but that thin, damp mattress next to the john. On the few occassions when we did bring these matters up in conversation, we were met with blank stares. Well, the stares seemed to say, what you say seems logical, but what possible difference could it make to me? Surely you don't think I'm going to change things?
We did think that everything should change and that we, the workers, should be the ones to begin the change. But I was certainly in no position myself to make a start. If the kids were seen as damaged merchandise, I felt my own image was not much better. For I was unable to perform under the criteria I was judged by. I could not keep my group together; I could not get them where they were supposed to be on time; and once there I could not control them. And so while I railed in private against the evils the system visited upon the kids, in public I was only an incompetent and so, I felt, as powerless as were the kids themselves.
The summer went by in a fury of crises. My private war had been lost on the first day; what was left was only the romp. I tried to minimize my losses by blustering and threatening, but I only ended up trying to hold the most insignificant ground, while the victory of Michael and the others advanced all around me.
Most of the time it was all I could do to gain their attention, much less to direct them. When their eyes opened in the morning they were off and running as if I didn't exist. The only attention I had was that which I didn't particularly care for any more of - namely that of Mr. Gass. His monologue went on incessantly in my ear while I chased the rest of the boys from one end of the summer to the other.
But I didn't blame them for my embarassment. I blamed myself.
Walter held his group together without trying apparently. And these were the senior boys, no less. I never heard him raise his voice. You might have called him grizzly if he'd been older or not so likeable a person. His beard and moustache were scraggly in some spots, non-existent in others. And his substantial mid-section, over which he wore the same red flannel shirt no matter what the weather, looked as though it was stocked regularly and well with beer. He was quiet and unassuming; he seemed to have been around for years. It wasn't really control he had - who could control eight teenage boys? He had some sort of understanding with them. They seemed to recognize and respect his goodwill. I looked in vain for a threat lurking under his calm exterior. I only found what I sensed to be a kind of inner strength. Had his boys gotten to know him? Had he started off the same as I had and gradually gained control? My own lack of progress as the weeks went by argued against this notion. I concluded that the boys went along with him because they trusted him, they needed his quiet strength in their lives.
Nancy too had no trouble with her group. She worked with the little ones, sometimes the boys, sometimes the girls. They followed her around and a lovely time, it seemed, was had by all. No matter what was on the schedule, she seemed to find a way to present it to them so that everyone was eager to participate.
But at the same time there was a small parade of counselors in and out of the camp during the first few weeks who fared worse even than I did. I remember in particular one girl who left in complete exasperation after only a few days. She worked the shift opposite me and I recall her dragging up the path to the cabin with the boys one day as Nancy and I were coming into work. She was yelling and screaming at them with a vehemence that was frightening. I often yelled at them myself, but I recognised in her voice something different. She hated them for what they were doing to her. And because of what they did to her, she hated them for what they were. And for all I suffered at their hands, I could see that what they did to her was much worse. For they gave her hatred back to her. It was, I saw, as if the group were a mirror to the person who worked with it. In the boys I saw my own insecurity and indecisiveness. They ran around and over me, but it was nothing personal. But this girl, had she had the courage to look, would have seen something much more terrible to behold. She was frantic to get from the world that which she thought she deserved. These boys, she believed, stood in her way. It was for this that she hated them. She had a desperate look in her eyes. What she was trying to do was to step on the boys to get to whatever it was she wanted. Who could say what it was she wanted? Perhaps it had something to do with the activities director in whose direction she shot once in my presence a look calculated to put the lie to everything that was really going on between her and the boys. The important thing was that, whatever it was she wanted, she felt somehow that the boys held her from it. Rather than helping them, she was trying to use them. They would not stand for it. They thwarted her at every turn, with a spirit that could be termed deliberate even if it could not be called conscious.
But no matter how they ran me around, when the day was done and they lay asleep in their bunks and I sat down to perform the final chore of the day, the logbook entry, I wrote for them.
I wrote for continuity and order where there was chaos; I wrote for empathy where there was annoyance or hatred; I wrote for understanding of the courage that each one of them demonstrated in going on with a life he could neither understand nor enjoy. They were still kids, no matter how alone each one of them was in the world. I wrote; it didn't matter that no one would ever understand or heed - or maybe even read - what I wrote.
For all the trouble I had, I was hooked. I didn't like what happened when I was with them, but that was me not them. I wanted to be with them. Their world swallowed me up; their suffering mesmerized me; their courage won me over.
Nancy and I both wanted to be with them. And that's why, on the days when we worked the morning shift, we often ended up with one or another of the kids in our company for the evening. These were the times we lived for.
One day Bobby Annuzio needed shoes.
He was called Bobby A. to distinguish him from the three or four other Bobbys. He was one of the little ones, maybe six or seven, but the size of a four year old. He never spoke a word. His hair seemed to grow all from a small patch on the top of his head, his eyes had deep black pupils, and his jaw hung open as if on a metal hinge to reveal an equally black space within.
We put him between us on the seat of the car and after Nancy had peeled his fingers off the steering wheel, we set out.
He tried to help me with the gas pedal.
She pulled him back on the seat.
He thought we should shift gears again; maybe a sudden transition to reverse would be entertaining.
She took his hands from the gearshift.
How about the wipers?
But he wanted to listen to several stations at once.
There was nothing for it but to sing. And so Nancy took him on her lap and began the song about the train and the smoke.
Bobby immediately decided he needed more human contact and spun around on her lap, splaying his legs out to either side so he could face her.
The train, then, what does it do with the big black smoke? It choo-chew-choo's of course. And the people on the bus go up and down.
And now we're out to the highway where for some reason we stop to pick up a hitchhiker.
Nancy's singing away like a house afire to keep Bobby on her lap. There's a feeling now with the hitcher in the car that was not so evident before. It has to do with all that we know about Bobby and his situation and with all that the hitcher does not know or suspect.
Slowly it dawns on Bobby that there is now another person in the car. His curiosity gets the better of him. All of a sudden up he scrambles, his little feet stomping on Nancy's thighs and she just able to catch him at the ankle before he goes over the top of the seat and onto the unsuspecting hitchhiker.
She pulls him back and sits him down on the seat next to her and then she turns to say hello to our passenger.
White as a sheet, she tells me later.
Apparently the sight of this odd little boy, whom he must have assumed from Nancy's singing to be our own toddler, coming over the seat at him, black eyes blazing, his disproportinately large mouth hanging open, his little ears cocked out from the sides of his head, and his arms and hands working overtime as if he was intent on doing damge to the first thing or person in his path, was too much for him.
He says not a word in response to her greeting and stumbles out the door without a goodbye at the first light.
This tickles us no end.
But the topper is still to come.
We make it into the department store with a momentary delay at the front door while Bobby, tugging at the end of Nancy's arm, convinces himself that he can open the door by stepping on the mat, and that he can open it again, and again, and again...
There's a pair of nylons he wants to examine.
A blue purse he has to have in his possession.
We pry his little fingers loose and make our way up to shoes.
The clerk is genuinely friendly, but Bobby's having none of it.
"There," says the clerk, tying the second lace, once he has measured Bobby's foot and gone to the back for the shoes.
Bobby's legs are swinging back and forth under the chair and out from the chair, in a way that makes you nervous but which you cannot at present define as malicious. He ignores the clerk. He looks around at nothing.
"And how do you like those sneakers, little boy?" the clerk asks, insisting on a response from Bobby.
A response he gets.
Without a warning Bobby slides down to the edge of his seat and kicks him in the shin.
We loved it.
Not that we wouldn't have prevented it from happening if we could have. But Bobby had so much energy, such passion, such drive. You couldn't stop him. And, if you had no other concerns pressing you at the time - that is, if you were not burdened by responsibility for the group that Bobby normally was relegated to - the fact that you couldn't stop him, that he was going to go from one object to the next without rhyme or reason, driven only to touch, to hold, and then to throw, to break, to demolish, without stop or slack until he dropped over asleep at the end of the day - all this only made you laugh
uncontrollably. In addition, when the situation got tight and you were forced to contain him in a more complete fashion, he switched in an instant, as if from two-wheel to four-wheel drive, to his alter ego - Boneless Child. All at once there was nothing to grab onto. He seemed to have been stripped and greased. You wrapped your arms around his waist and he went limp and disappeared from your grip. Suddenly you were dealing with a child who had, incredibly, acquired all the knowledge and skill of a world-class wrestler. He slid, he dived, he slipped from your grasp. And you all the while weak from laughing...
But the kick in the shins was the ultimate. It was not the clerk himself - he was nice enough - but all he stood for. "Don't you like this wonderful world we've built here?" he seemed to be asking. But the true question, the complete question was: "Don't you like this wonderful world we've built where all is lie and pretense, and into which we will only admit you for the sake of relieveing your companions, your keepers, of a certain sum of money? Don't you agree that it's the best of all possible worlds?"
And Bobby swung his foot for all of us.
Bullshit and get the hell out of my way.
©1993 Karl Williams