The Camp Torch
I never was a smoker. I like the smell of cigarettes, though. It’s nostalgia. I worked at overnight camp in the Pennsylvania woods during college summers, and everybody smoked. Counselors snuck cigarettes on back porches while lightning bugs blinked in the trees, and down by the boat dock at sunset. Officially, smoking was allowed only in the staff lounge, which was full of old porch furniture and was right next to the flagpole field, in full view of the campers. A clause in the staff handbook read The Camp Director will beat any and all staff if there is evidence of smoking outside the staff lounge and Staff members under the age of 18 may smoke only with written permission from a parent or guardian.
It was the early 2000s. Things were different. It was pretty much anything goes as long as the kids survived.
Twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, we lived with campers in cabins painted red, the porches strung with wet bathing suits and beach towels. We yelled at our kids to take showers and stop dancing naked, and slept on cracked vinyl mattresses in metal bunk beds with sagging springs. Cool air and cricket song floated through the screened windows at night. Daddy-long-legs raced through the showers and moths held family reunions around the porch lights. On rainy days, we sat on the back porch and watched the rain fall through the trees, and our kids played cards and made messes. Sometimes we leaned into it and got our campers in bathing suits, splashing in puddles and washing hair under the drainpipe downpour. One wet summer, a mudslide developed down the boys’ side field. Everybody rushed over to take turns sailing through the slime, coming up caked in mud and running back to the top to do it again.
Most days, we swam in the pool and took our groups to Sports and Arts and Crafts. We supervised campers at the climbing wall and on long creek walks. We watched the tree leaves breathing in the breeze down at the lake and the sunlight filtering through onto the glassy surface of the water. The lake was disgusting, so staff constantly tried to push each other off the boat dock. If you were a victim, your bathing suit stunk for the rest of the week. Water snakes went after you, too. I got a bite on my ankle and the tooth marks took days to fade.
Before a few hours off each night, we had the Evening Colors flagpole ceremony and a special campwide Evening Activity that went with the week’s theme. Halloween week we played Bonkers. Counselors painted themselves like clowns, put on tie-dyed t-shirts, and pummeled kids with socks full of flour. For Christmas week, the local fire company pumped the grass full of eye-burning firefighting foam and three hundred people dove into the “snow” for a free-for-all. There were always a lot of injuries from that one.
Counselor Roundup, a jailbreak game, was during Wild West Week. It was always the last week of the summer, right on schedule for when things were starting to go off the rails. Counselors in cowboy hats hid in bushes or hay wagons. Other staff, campers cheering behind them, dragged out the cowboys, signaled the kids to pile on, got them into a safe hold and escorted them to the jail. I wouldn’t say it was a gentle game.
It was a bit like Braveheart, which we played during staff training week. The goal was to run from one end of the soccer field to the other, while the person who was “it” tried to tackle runners to the ground. If you hit the ground, you were also it, so the squad of tacklers increased each round until everyone had been brought down. The first year, it was pouring rain, and fifty of us went for broke in the mud. People got hurt every year, banging heads, twisting ankles.
Braveheart was invented by Dave. He was one of the admin team, the supervisors in their early twenties who were in charge of us counselors ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-three. Dave was Head Counselor. He was from Scotland and called bathing suits “swimming costumes” and sneakers “trainers”. Dave had an air of mystery I couldn’t crack. He seemed quite serious about everything and I rarely saw him smile, but then he’d come out of nowhere with a dirty joke or prank. He seemed to be the most responsible person on camp, yet at the same time, the least mature. It was a fascinating combination.
During staff training week we sat in a circle of fifty stackable metal chairs in the wood-cabin meeting hall cooled by industrial fans. Along with “Dave’s Daily Fun and Games” icebreakers, Dave led the sessions working our way through the staff handbook, which he had written. It was full of Easter eggs, I think to keep himself amused but also as a reward for anyone who bothered to pay attention all the way through.
The handbook warned us of overheating: THE HEAT WILL KILL YOU. It talked about thunderstorm safety: Having our campers struck by lightning would really suck and it would make us look a little bad. There was a section titled What Lurks in the Trees that included skunks (“For you who don’t know what they look like, they look like stocky cats that have been tumble dried” and tick removal (“Don’t be macho… you can either take it like a man or use some sort of sting-eez”).
Dave’s handbook outlined guidance on child discipline (“The fact that you harbor thoughts of murder from time to time is quite normal and even healthy”) and camp relationships (“You have to remember that the kids emulate you and if you’re flirting heavily with each other right in front of little Fitzroy, well then little Fitzroy thinks that it’s okay to flirt outrageously with any girl he fancies. Then little Amber goes home and tells mom that Fitzroy is saying all sorts of weird things to her like ‘I saw you naked!’ So please control your hormones in this regard so that kids can stay kids a wee bit longer”).
We had orange plastic lockboxes stacked against the walls in the downstairs office to keep valuables. One evening I went into the office to sign out. Dave, on duty that night, had built a fort out of the lockboxes and was patrolling from behind the wall wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin hat. Other evenings, he stretched out on the sagging couch on the admin cabin’s front porch. There he took pen and paper and wrote letters for Amnesty International to free political prisoners. Occasionally when visiting to see how we were getting on with our kids, he’d drop some breadcrumbs about his life. He had put himself through university in Scotland playing pro rugby while getting his degree in religious studies with a focus on feminism. He had worked as a Santa Claus and bus tour guide in Scotland. He once offered conspiratorially, “I have a special surprise for Colors. I’m wearing my short shorts.” He showed up to the field in hi-cut scrum shorts with less coverage than most Speedos.
Dave often filled in at the infirmary. It was a struggle to keep a camp nurse for the whole summer, and the ones we managed to get came only in the daytime. So every night after Evening Activity Dave handled meds.
It was the height of the boom kicked off in the nineties of children being prescribed medication for ADD. Half the campers were taking Ritalin, and on the busiest weeks, ninety kids needed medication before bed. The counselor on night duty would take the other campers back to their cabin, and one of the other staff had to take that group’s kids for meds. It was their last responsibility before being free for the evening, so after dismissal from the Colors field, it was a take-no-prisoners gallop rushing their kids down the hill to be first in line at the infirmary. Dave, alone behind the plastic table in the carpeted cinderblock hall, called out order of distribution in a pharmaceutical Hunger Games. Untrained beyond First Aid, he followed dozens of different requirements for the psychotropics and tranquilizers: some pills had to be broken in half, some taken with water, some without, and everything documented on paper. Occasionally a five-year-old who wasn’t prescribed anything would tag along with his age group and say, “I want medicine.” Dave would give him a teaspoon of water and send him on his way.
Staff-to-camper ratios weren’t a thing yet. After dinner, counselors blew off steam playing soccer. The ones who weren’t playing were watching, which left five staff assigned to supervise two hundred kids having free time. There were no cell phones back then, just a pay phone outside the meeting hall, and we had a number of international staff on summer work visas. Every so often the camp director blared over the PA system: “German Tom, please come to the office, you have a phone call.” (Tom from America was called American Tom and Tom from Germany was called German Tom, even after American Tom was fired. We lost an average of five staff per summer, not counting legitimate injuries or the underperformers who exaggerated a knee twinge midway through the season as an excuse to use the golf cart.) German Tom, or Anna from Poland, or Matt from Wales, would run up to the office, excited to talk to someone from home for an hour in the air-conditioned office. Their partner was left with twenty kids at the boat dock. Of course, the American counselors also skipped out for long smoke breaks, naps, or hanging out with the cabin of someone they had a crush on.
I don’t want to give the impression that we didn’t take our job seriously. Everyone took a lot of pride in being a good camp counselor. It was cool to be good. Staff were noticed and admired when they managed campers effectively or pulled off something impressive for the theme days and traditions. Everyone talked about who had won Best Counselor, Best Skits, and Hardest Worker the previous year. (There were also awards for Best Legs and Nicest Bum.) That first year, I was as eager as everyone else to be a great counselor, and just as importantly, to be seen as one.
Monday morning of Olympic Week, Dave approached me. He had a way of striding along with purpose, head cocked to one side. I was leading my group across camp in pajama pants, flip flops and white wife beater, drinking coffee from the cafeteria out of a paper Dart Solo cup, the kind with the jazzy turquoise and purple graphic. “Martha,” Dave said, stopping and putting hands on hips. He was wearing his “Drink or Die” t-shirt (it meant alcohol, but he maintained that it was about hydration). “Would you like to carry the torch for Opening Ceremonies tonight?”
Of course I said yes. It felt like a serious initiation to be given the honor only four weeks into my camp experience. There were lots of opportunities to be in the spotlight: veteran staff members sang acoustic Indigo Girls covers at the weekly Staff Show or led the “Your Mama Wears Army Boots” cheer at the campfire; I hadn’t put myself out there for anything yet. Now Dave was asking me, specifically, to do something important.
Dave told me my job would be to receive the torch handoff from the first runner and run it to the Colors field for the ceremonial lighting. The whole camp would be there, ready for the parade of flags from their nations (“Hungry”; “New Guinea Pigs”, et cetera.).
The other torch runner was going to be Jonathan from Archery. Jonathan was a very nice priest-in-training. The camp was run by the Archdiocese; they sometimes sent a seminarian to work the summers. They had recently had a bad track record of seminarians coming to camp, falling in love, and abandoning the priesthood, so it was a risk, but we needed an Archery instructor. For a while the diocese also sent us the same alcoholic priest every year to hang out for a week. The guy had great hair but he was always a bit drunk.
Jonathan had a real sense of duty. He always pitched in with whatever was needed, and he helped set up for Mass. He was quiet, with surprising bursts of enthusiasm during cheers or skits, when he sometimes got into a dress for shock value. Jonathan had a side part, and hated whenever anyone touched his hair. Of course the guys made a game out of trying to touch it. So he took to wearing a hat.
That night, everyone proceeded to the Colors field with their flags and I went to stand at the torch hand-off spot near the basketball courts. I had my sneakers on. I was ready. The bullhorn sounded, music started playing from the speakers, and everyone turned to look in my direction.
I watched for Jonathan from Archery, and he appeared from behind the ten-foot team-building wall at the edge of the woods, running toward me at a frantic pace, carrying the ---
When Dave said “Olympic torch,” I envisioned a neat paper towel tube, with some tissue paper glued to the top in alternating layers of yellow, orange and red. He hadn’t explained in detail; I filled in the gaps. Gold glitter, maybe, for effect.
Jonathan was not carrying a paper towel tube. It was a huge tree branch that had been wrapped in a rag secured with rubber bands, doused in gasoline, and lit on fire. The ball of flame coming toward me was two feet in diameter.
The closer Jonathan from Archery got to me, the more scared I got. The torch was blazing and hot and spitting sparks like a piece of furniture from Satan’s living room. Jonathan was moving at top speed, looking extremely uncomfortable but determined. He arrived at my spot and held the torch out, sweat dripping from his head. His face was red and urgent. “Take it!” he said. “Take it!”
I hesitated. How could I possibly transport this much fire? Jonathan was in agony, about to melt. Smoke choked the air between us. “Take it!” he said again.
I had to do it. I reached through the hot smoke for the bottom of the stick, the part that wasn’t on fire. I thought it would make the most sense to hold the flame as far away from me as possible, lengthwise like a tennis player doing a forehand. I winced at the heat and maneuvered the heavy branch sideways. The flame instantly shot down the gasoline-soaked stick and hit my hand. My hand was on fire. I threw the blazing branch down into the dry grass.
I stared at my blackened hand. The parched July field started to smoke and crackle at our feet. Three hundred campers and staff watched and waited. Jonathan from Archery did not have time for this.
Jonathan got a look of cold steel in his eyes like he was about to deliver a baby and dove into the ball of fire in the grass. He grabbed the torch and took off in a wild sprint for the Colors field. You couldn’t tell where the fire ended and Jonathan from Archery began; it was one huge ball of light with trails of sparks flying behind like fireworks. The field of campers pulled a Red Sea and Jonathan ran through the middle, bolted up the ladder at the front, and into the silver bowl at the top dropped the burning Olympic torch.
Horns blew and the presentation of flags began. I stood alone at the torch handoff spot, looking toward the field, then at my hand. It was stinging with pain. Dave loped over.
“What happened?” he asked in his non-judgmental Scottish accent. I told him. He inspected my hand and explained that you should always hold a stick upright if it’s on fire. “Go to the infirmary,” he said. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
I could see the sun setting through the window as I sat on the metal folding chair in the infirmary next to Jonathan. He was completely scorched. All the hair had burned off both his arms. He sat there calmly, without speaking. He seemed to be in a meditative state.
Dave told me to run my hand under lukewarm water while he tended to Jonathan.
“You guys were on fire and you didn’t let go,” Dave said. “Why did you not let go?”
Jonathan said nothing as Dave bandaged him up. He had saved Opening Ceremonies. He’d done his duty.
I didn’t say anything either. Because, you’ll remember, I did let go.
It was my turn. Dave wrapped my hand in a white bandage and looked back and forth from Jonathan’s arms to my hand. “I don’t know why the fuck we do this shit,” he said. “This is so stupid.”
Two cabins’ worth of shouting kids arrived at the door, fighting to get in first as the counselors behind them yelled “Hurry! Get in the front!” It was time for evening meds. I thanked Dave and headed across the field to my cabin. It was dark now, and cicadas were loud in the trees. I had the happy, satisfied feeling you always got at camp at nighttime. My bandage was as thick as a cast, and I lifted my arm up and down to feel the weight of it. I don’t know. I felt kind of proud.
Years later I asked Dave how he decided who to pick for things like carrying the Olympic torch. “Well,” he told me, “my role was risk and stupidity mitigation. We would have these stupid plans, and then I would decide who wasn’t going to do something foolish and mess it up.”
Jonathan from Archery won Most Willing to Volunteer that year, and was runner-up for Most Enthusiastic. Dave won Most Likely to Rule the World and Best Legs. The next year for Opening Ceremonies, they didn’t use a stick-and-rag situation. Eddie from England carried a tiki torch, and he walked instead of ran. It didn’t have the same zazz.