EVERY SUMMER at the end of June, I got on a bus on the South Side of Chicago and rode north to a summer camp in Michigan where I knew -- I knew at the time -- that I was as happy as I would ever be.
They started in 1952 when I was 10 and ended when I was 17, these summers of the kind that can haunt people for the rest of their lives. Not that they were part of a lost era of a world of manners and splendor or anything that grand. Although we had some fancy boats call from time to time on our little lake -- which was connected by a narrow channel to Lake Michigan -- the setting was rustic and the manners were Midwestern straightforward.
Nor am I going to make the usual claim that the significance of those summers lay in what I learned about life. Those summers shaped my character, teaching me about grit, perseverance fair play and so on. But the main thing I learned -- even though I didn't understand how central the lesson was to life until much later -- was that golden moments in any form are just that; they don't last.
My first summer there was 34 years ago, but I still play scenes from camp in my mind like favored old movies. It seems strange that a 44-year-old man should keep going back to what happened so long ago. But I suspect that I am not alone. Summer was the time when I broke free of the restraints that held me in check -- school and all the anxieties and responsibilities that that meant; my parents; moving in a narrow world that did not allow me to spread out, expand and be the person that I secretly believed I was.
Here I am teeing off on a 2-1 pitch and driving it over the center fielder's head for a grand slam home run; there is the look of shock on Stevie Hoffman's face as I return his forehead drive back at his feet on my way to deposing him as the camp tennis champion; now I'm galloping down a logging trail, feeling the power of the horse beneath me, ducking branches and feeling -- why be restrained about it -- joy. Is it a sign of immaturity, of my eternal youthfulness, that these pictures are so clear in my mind?
The camp I went to, Tosebo, was founded as the summer headquarters of the Todd Seminary for Boys, a reasonably fancy prep school in Woodstock, Ill. Todd was all right academically as far as I could tell, but its long suit was an insistence that boys get off their duff and do things. Todd owned a schooner, two Pullman buses, a stable of serviceable horses, a place down on the water in Florida and Tosebo. Todd students learned to sail, to ride, to play ball, and so on. The idea of the summer camp was that some of Todd's students, near as I can get it, had parents who really didn't want to see all that much of them. So the summer camp kept them occupied when school was out.
The spot the school picked for this camp was beautiful: Lake Portage, in the middle of the woods about a mile off Lake Michigan. The woods were full of white birch and aspen as well as pine, oak and maple and Lake Portage is one of the loveliest lakes anywhere in the world.
Except for the younger campers, those under 10, everyone slept on World War II surplus Army and Navy cots in four-man "Baker" tents. We had no heat, of course, no electricity and two lavatories with flush toilets for 60 boys and another 10 counselors. We washed in cold water, with hot showers once a week. The craft shop had electricity, which allowed us to listen to the All Star game (a big deal then) and Detroit Tiger baseball (not a big deal at all for me; I was a diehard Chicago White Sox fan.)
Not everyone, of course, loved the lack of amenities. We all complained, but most of us felt it told us we could take it, that we were tough, that we were becoming men.
The campground and the baseball diamond were on what we called "The Hill." A batter had to run uphill to first and second, down to third (being careful not to round third too wide for fear of running into the backstop behind the adjoining tennis court) and then downhill to home. The field was surrounded by woods in such a way that center field, rather than being the deepest field, was the shallowest. As a result, the left fielder, when playing deep, could not see the right fielder.
Somewhere in center field was a tree that was a marker of some sort. Balls hit to the right of it were ground rule doubles, while balls hit to the other side were good for whatever you could get. I have a feeling that some summers the sides were reversed.
We played on Sunday nights after the picnic on the hill (there were picnic benches under the trees in center field -- another hazard). The games were supposed to be seven innings, but in late July and August, we seldom made it because it got dark too early. These games were all-out affairs. We played 12-inch ("kitty") ball: fast, underhand pitching, stealing bases, sliding, and called balls and strikes. Scoring was done carefully and batting averages were posted, which is how I know I batted over .700 the summer I won my baseball bar, batting third, in front of my brother, six years my elder, who for once found little to criticize in my performance.
I was also the catcher, which was not a natural position for me because I was a runt, relatively speaking. I had two qualities that recommended me for catching: I could catch the ball almost no matter what -- an important consideration when runners could steal bases if the ball got away; and I was a gritty kid, sometimes foolishly so, but then that's what shedding boyhood is all about.
For eight summers that was my world. Camp at first had meant games for me, insurance that I would never be left -- as I had been so often in the city -- with nothing to do and no one to do it with; then it had become a matter of challenges, of tests to find out what I was capable of doing; by the time I was 16, my seventh summer, camp was freedom. Maybe the moment I felt free was when I had to leave, and spend the rest of my life in a world where nobody ever gets to feel free like that.
But all that came later. Who could imagine a world larger than camp? In the early years I found myself rubbing shoulders with living monuments and legends. Someone had hit a ball to the far limits of left field; someone else had swum across the lake or wrestled a horse to the ground or eaten 100 pieces of toast in a single sitting. My brother was a monument to me, but he was not the grandest of monuments. That would have been Anthony C. Roskie -- known simply to young and old alike as "Coach."
I had known him since my brother had first started going to camp, some five years before me. When I got there, Coach Roskie was program director of Camp Tosebo. People said he had been little All-America football and basketball at Lake Forest College and had lettered in track as well. We never asked, but we believed it. There was talk that he could have been a major league baseball player as well but chose instead to get married. I have no idea. All I know is that he was one of the most charismatic people I have ever met, born to lead and inspire.
Coach walked with a stoop, which, legend had it, came from his colliding with a wall-mounted drinking fountain during a basketball game with the Harlem Globetrotters. In any event, I never saw him move at anything faster than an animated walk. He threw a baseball only short distances and limited himself to hitting grounders during infield practice.
It wasn't in sports that Coach distinguished himself, but in his handling of boys, of knowing exactly what to say to get them to do the right thing, of never losing his enthusiasm, of tolerating mischief and boisterousness because he knew what boys were like, of knowing when they needed to blow off steam and when to restrain them.
As I look back I realize that with each summer, Coach's authority was diminished. First his house was taken away from him by the camp owner, who gave him a smaller, less comfortable place across the road. One summer I noticed that where he could make decisions before, now he had to check. Still, he was the one who made things happen -- who conducted the morning meeting every day, who set up the Saturday night campfire and who put on his buckskin suit and Indian headdress four or five times a summer and became Chief White Cloud, presiding over the Indian councils.
But as he changed, I changed too, and he understood that, maybe because he understood the lesson I hadn't learned yet, about how everything ends.
The summer I was 15 I lived in a tent with another 15-year-old -- Weissman. We were friends from Chicago and spent the summer raising hell -- staying up late to talk about girls and other important matters, sneaking in smokes when we could, racing horses -- my horse was a high-spirited mare we believed to be at least part quarterhorse -- down the beach on Lake Michigan (which was probably illegal). Our tent was located away from the other campers and, to distinguish ourselves, we had found two oversize beds with wrought iron headboards.
The morning Coach was scheduled to leave on a three-day canoe trip, Weissman and I were lying on our beds fantasizing about how good it would be with Coach away. With him gone, we told each other, we would get away with murder -- leave our beds unmade, do no work, sleep in the afternoon and indulge our every whimsy.
Our fantasy was interrupted by a voice -- Coach's -- summoning us by name to the spot in rightfield where he was standing. Wearing our blue work shirts, which were decidedly non-camper, we sauntered down.
"Men," he said, "I'm going to be gone for three days. Now, Meyer, when your brother used to be here and I'd go off on a trip, I'd ask him to keep on eye on things for me, make sure that everything stayed on track. Your brother's not here now, so I'd like to ask you to take over the responsibility. And, Weissman, you, too. Help him out. Can I count on you men to do that for me?"
Weissman and I couldn't look at each other. If we felt ourselves to be above it all, Coach had played right to our vanity, while making the one appeal he knew would work, to our respect and affection for him. We could not say no; and we could not say yes to him and then not honor our promise.
We trudged off to make our beds, so that we would be setting the proper example.
I would not want to leave that impression that those summers were pristine idylls full of appeals to moral pride. The following summer -- by then I was a junior counselor -- I ran into a 16-year-old girl who was, in Tom Lehrer's phrase "similarly inclined," and spent every night I could on the beach with her. I'm not sure what else we had in common because once we discovered our mutual interest, and got over our terror at the wonder and power of it, we didn't have many conversations.
Some things promised to stay stainless, however: not just in memory but in fact.
Once a summer at least, as a treat for the campers and for me when I got old enough to lead trail rides, we would ride out to a spot overlooking Lake Michigan that we called the "Top of the World." To reach the Top of the World, we had to ride up an old logging trail that wound through the woods until suddenly we emerged in a hilly pasture surrounded on three sides by woods. On the fourth side was a steep, sandy slope that led down to the wide beach of Lake Michigan. On a sunny day, emerging from the woods, you could see the water shimmering in the sunlight and hear the waves pounding on the shore.
For me, going to the Top of the World was something akin to a spiritual experience. My brother and the other riding counselor had conveyed that sense to me years before, and we had kept the tradition. No houses, no signs of civilization marred the beauty and serenity of that pasture. It was as if God had designed it and left it there as a secret we treasured. We tried to be selective about whom we brought there. Knaves and fools of whatever age would not appreciate it; limiting our visits kept the experience special.
When I was 17, a high school graduate spending my last summer at camp before I went off to college, I was made the riding counselor. I wasn't entirely anxious to go to camp that year. For one thing, I had fallen in love with a blonde goddess. I knew it was love because we had spent endless hours together and hadn't even kissed yet.
That summer was agony for me. I missed her terribly. The only outlet for my loneliness was physical activity. I couldn't even bear to take out rides, a task I delegated to the 15-year-old boy who was helping me out. In past summers, I had found a thrill in galloping down logging trails on my quarterhorse. Now I chose to stay behind and clean out the stalls and the corral, hoping the time would pass by more quickly. The object of my lust from the summer before came for a week, but we'd lost interest in each other. She, too, was in love with someone back home.
Coach was there, but his stature by now had been substantially reduced. The camp owner had arrogated to himself all the little symbols and perquisites of Coach's authority. I spent most nights, that last summer, in his living room, sitting by the fireplace with him, his wife and daughter and another counselor or two, listening to a ballgame or talking about the "old days." The old days!
Somewhere near the end of that summer, while a friend and I were fixing a roof on top of one of the cabins, we hit on the idea of getting Hillerich and Bradsby to make a special "Louisville Slugger" to mark Coach's 25th anniversary at Camp Tosebo. It was too late to arrange that summer, but we said we would do it the following year, and sure enough, my friend did, but by that time, I was gone for good.
I didn't go up to the Top of the World until one of the last rides of the summer. Was I saving it? Was I hoping it would save me? We trotted up the old logging trail and came to the clearing, looking at the water that roared and shone all the way out to the horizon. Then I saw the stakes and the cinderblocks and the foundations. They had subdivided the Top of the World.
It was a lesson I have learned over and over again, but that was the first time.
Later on, when the letter came to me in my college dorm from the camp owner offering me a job the next summer, he added as a postscript that he had sold my horse. I could have gone back, but then it would have been just a job for me.
I know this now, having learned it over and over again. The pleasure, the joy of summer and camp was in not knowing -- in not having to know. If I'd known, I would have had no innocence to lose.
Lawrence Meyer is an editor of Outlook