In school, one learned about symbolism and theme through illustrative stories. A Somerset Maugham short story illustrates symbolism through rain. Young Goodman Brown teaches us about evil using symbolic allegory. The Picture of Dorian Grey, Rebecca and the Good Soldier, with greater and lesser degrees of sophistication, revolve around that tried-and-true literature class mainstay, appearance versus reality. But when it comes to another of literature's great themes, man's inhumanity to man, let me posit the notion that summer camp is the supreme novel against which all fiction must be evaluated.
Chandler, Oklahoma is not a pre-possessing town. Located mid-way between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, it is one of those nice small towns. The Chandler Baseball Camp is set near a nice wooded area on open fields. The summer I finished fifth grade, I went to baseball camp for three weeks. There I learned about the dark iniquity which lies at the heart of us all.
Kids seem to divide into two basic food groups when it comes to sports. One type might be described as "premium caramel". This type flows like a fresh-made Belgian confection, hitting home runs, passing for touchdowns, and hitting eagles on endless Par 5 holes. The second type of sportster might be described as "cheap penny candy". This type of player is the person who drops the easy fly ball, can't block a linebacker to save his life, and can hit a 17 on a par 3 hole. I do not divide into either of those camps, though. I typically played baseball each summer, at the glorious town field where our teams had names like "Mayer Bread" or "First Baptist Church", and in my first year in any given league, I was abysmal, in my second year I was always passable, and in my third and final year I was always very good. I suppose you could place me in the Horatio Alger sports field, deleting, of course, all the disturbing details about Mr. Alger's personal flaws.
My best friend when I was 10 was Charles. Charles is that guy that everyone knows so well. He was athletically gifted, entirely bright, and the most talented artist in our school. He went on to become the high school quarterback, before getting his architecture degree and going to work at Pei's firm. Last time I e mailed Charles, he was teaching at Georgia Tech. Although Charles was "my best friend", in all likelihood I was not his best friend. I was, however, reasonably good sidekick material.
Somehow it came to pass that Charles was going to Chandler Baseball Camp for three weeks. My parents encouraged me to go as well, and soon I was signed up. My folks drove us up from Arkansas to Oklahoma, past turnpikes and native American reservations. In a day or two, we arrived at Chandler Baseball Camp. This camp was a sports camp on the model of several camps that existed then and exist now. It has been started by someone who did a year or two at either the Mets or at a Mets farm team. Now, in rural Oklahomas, it was a place for the teaching of baseball fundamentals, one pitch at a time. It had the requisite cabins, a swimming pool, and a curious system by which one could write checks on one's meager camp savings account for the peculiar pleasure of being able to buy frozen chocolate bars. It was all a bit like being in a mining town, except that the only thing we mined was boys' souls.
Now on paper, nothing about Chandler Baseball Camp was particularly ghastly. The Pee Wee age players had a good coach, a fellow named Red Dog. Red Dog was one of many college age-ish or young college graduate-ish fellows who did the coaching at camp. The setting of the camp was relatively attractive, in that sparse but pleasant Oklahoma way. The little town had a treasure--a used comic book store.
But let me tell you I have been to the Hellmouth, and it is a baseball camp. I should have seen the warning signals when too many kids in the age bracket just ahead of us had come to camp, and not enough of the kids my age had come to camp. Soon, instead of being the "Pee Wee League", a bunch of the older kids were placed in our age division, and our league was renamed the "Midget II" league. Midget II is an ominous description, and I'll have to say that it precisely described my next three weeks. I had a Midget II time.
I can't put my finger on what dark inequities were practiced upon me. This is not a post about personal misfortune on some global scale. But I will say that for the first time, I met kids who had been "dumped" in camp by parents who usually dumped them in boarding school. Although this experience generates certain resilience in those fortunate enough to be "dumped", it does little to help one to "win friends and influence people". I had known bullies, of course, but this was something different. These were kids who just did not know how to relate to others. I wasn't tortured or hassled in particular, I don't think. I just didn't feel at home. Of course, I was immensely homesick, for a place where I could play baseball two nights a week with my friends, and ride my bike all over town, and sleep in my own bed, and be molly-coddled in the way I usually was as a child.
Instead, here I was in a hostile environment. Although at home I was a relatively good player, in this camp I saw my skills betray me. The camp was actually pretty good when it came to instruction. I was an outfielder (indeed, in my heart I was born to play right field), and I was taught all sorts of useful things. I learned this odd maneuver for fielding a ground ball called "crow hopping". This was a way to make a literal little bird hop to grasp the ball quickly, throw it from glove to throwing hand, and get it to the infield in a flash. I learned to judge fly balls as if it were second nature. I learned how to play each of the strategy calls in the field.
But for some reason, when I was at bat, I could not hit. This is not surprising, because I was playing in the main against pitchers a few years older than I was. But my batting average was only .200. Now a .200 batting average means one is getting a base hit only 1 time in every 5 times that one is at bats. A 10 year old of reasonably good skills should be hitting .400 or so, or 2 out of every 5, and it is not unusual in those youth leagues for someone to hit .600 or so, or to get a base hit 3 times out of 5.
My problem was not that I was striking out. I always hit the ball. My problem was that I hit ground balls which were easy for the defending team to field and to throw me out at first base. I developed an imperfect coping mechanism for this event. I learned to throw off my batting helmet to the ground, or a bat if I had put out by a caught fly ball. I then began to cry profusely.
Now crying is not really very cool when one is a ten year old boy--at least it wasn't then. Maybe things have changed now. I did not endear myself to my fellow campers with this attitude. When the "town boy" team came to play our camp team, Coach Red Dog pulled me aside and made a not very veiled threat about how I would have something to cry about if I broke into tears during the camp v. town game. I kept my tears in during that game, which the town always won, to the chagrin of the campers each year.
The camp only lasted three weeks. I do not remember a single other thing I did that summer. But I remember so many things about that camp time. I remember the boy who taught me how to put a grasshopper into an ant nest, apparently for the joy of seeing the ants attack it. I remember the wave of hot dog and 100 degree heat nausea I experienced, and having paper cuplets of water doused on my head. I remember the log across the creek, and how frightening it was to walk across it, as if I were walking on Everest.
My friend Charles, needless to say, was the guy everyone at camp liked, who hit .400, and pitched as well. He went on to other camps, to sports awards, and to Rice and Columbia> Me? Coach Red Dog's evaluation form, mailed ot my parents, prescribed much more camp as a remedy for my obvious immaturity. In point of fact, my brother and I both went back the next year. I hit .400 that year, my brother a little better. The kids were closer to our age in our league during the dozens of camp baseball games. My brother sent a postcard home to my mother, advising her that I was mean to my brother and sometimes took his cap or hit him. I had apparently learned about camp too well my first year. My mother still has that postcard, which is signed by my brother with the saluation "your son,".
But although baseball camp was not all bad, it seemed to me to symbolize that whole Lord of the Flies thing. It was the place where under-supervised boys made weaker boys' lives miserable. I later went to church camps and even to college. It was all much the same. I never knew people could be so cruel, until I was around a lot of people. I keep that lesson, tied in my hair like scripture, even today.
It's funny, though, because today I was longing to revisit Chandler, Oklahoma. I want to see if the comic book store is still in the town square. I want to visit the camp, where I learned things I did not want to learn. I want to meet my demons, and remember them, and lay them to rest.
But it was only baseball camp.