Back to the Future
Public Speaking and Media Training
By Jack Cashill
In the first hour of my first day at camp, as I changed to go swimming, Jefferson, one of the Liberian staffers, patted me on my bare butt and grinned broadly.
Welcome to Camp Fast Forward, named changed to protect the guilty.
To be sure, the camp recruiter had promised an environment both "progressive and coed"- two words that held great promise for an eager-to-be-corrupted 19 year old. And if the progressive part came first, the coed would soon follow. In fact, no gender, race, or sexual orientation would go unrepresented at camp that summer. No intoxication nor deviation either.
Fast Forward was way ahead of its time. That was according to plan. Years back, a would-be good-deed doer expiated his robber baron soul by funding the Fast Forward Institute, a rod-sparing refuge for New York City's lost boys and girls. There was to be no corporal punishment at this joint, no harsh words, damned near no discipline at all. Just tons of love and hugs and self-esteem. Each summer, the administrators trucked this whole happy flock to Camp Fast Forward and hired summer staff, like me and Jefferson, to shepherd them about and do those things that shepherds do.
Still wondering whether Jefferson had slipped me a love pat or a Liberian low-five, a climbed down the hill to the lake. There I first eyed the ewes among us. What a delightful and dangerous concept this was, a coed camp, progressive no less, and what better a perch to observe it from my way-cool life guard chair.
Hitting the dock that first day like one woman USO show was Sandi- with an "i"- Sandford, the staff's radical prom queen ascendant, our very own Barbarella. With her folk singer's hair and porn star's bod, Sandi (sigh!) was fated to be cast in the undreamed-of role: femme fatale at the most shocking drama ever to hit this seemingly shock-proof camp.
Ah, Sandi! She loved humanity and hated people- save, of course, for certain folks of color or men of means, and I was conspicuously neither. As to my lifeguard gig, a big-time '60s aphrodisiac, it impressed her not at all; nor did my status as sole starting ofay on the all-camp basketball team. She loathed the sun, sports, and all things American- jocks and lifeguards chief among them- and did not shy from telling me so.
My comrade in contempt that summer was a Bronx hustler name of Marv, Marvelous Marv. Marv had skipped college to pioneer a promising new field of auto insurance fraud. He also dabble in off-track betting (way off), hashish selling, and the now lost art of abortion brokering. He came to camp on the lam from some deal downtown gone sour and would have split soon afterwards had he not discovered Sandi with an "i." How mightily did he yearn! But though he pleaded ceaselessly for her pleasures (it's not just a joke- an hour of begging was his idea of foreplay) he was even lower on Sandi's lust chain than I.
The reason? In this, the most tolerant of words, Marv had one vice that Sandi would not tolerate. No, no the drugs, nor the abortions, but those damnable, evil Winstons! When Marv first lit up near her she lit into him the way John Brown might a Mississippi slaver, all sound and fury prophesying everything. I have seen such unfiltered abuse since, but not before. Sandi had a nose for the future.
Fact is, though, Marv smoked just about anything that grew. Each lunch time, I could find him sprawled out as blithely as a caterpillar in Wonderland, hookah in hand, hashish smoke billowing out shamelessly from under his tent flaps.
One day, just to be social, I joined in. No big deal. I had tried in college and never did get high. I presumed I was immune. After this attempt, feeling a bit strange, I glided over the basketball court to ref an inter-camp game. The camp director handed me a ball at center court. The players crouched around for the opening tip. I looked at the ball and remembered vaguely that the game started when I tossed it up. But I remembered nothing else. Not the logic of the game, not a single rule. Nothing.
"Hey man," said a player, "throw the damned ball."
I couldn't. I stood there like a total buffoon for who knows how long. Finally, I walked the ball back to the director. "I am really s-s-sick," I stuttered. The director was a rummy himself, with a nose that looked like a Delaware road map. He chose to accept my alibi. After all, no one was responsible for nothing at old Camp Fast Forward.
This I also learned the hard way. On one occasion, I banished a kid from the lake for trying to drown his buddy. The kid was flummoxed. No staffer had ever bawled him out before. He climbed the steep stairs up the hill, uttering foul oaths every step of the way, reached the top, picked up a rock the size of a Burger King Whopper, chucked it, and plunked me right in the noggin. As my cohorts led me dizzily to the hospital for stitches and X-rays, the camp director ushered the young assassin toward me.
"Tell him you're sorry," the camp director pleaded. That's it? Sorry? The little dude was back in the water before I was out of the hospital, no lessons learned, a prime candidate for the FFA- Future Felons of America.
No one ever got booted from this anti-Eden. One particular eve, the fun-loving Liberian staffers embarked on an all-night beer-a-thon with a six-pack of 14-year-old coeds. This incident finally roused our director, and he took a bold course of action: reprimands for them all. "That'll teach those fellows," I could hear him thinking, "to flaunt our statutory rape laws!"
But Jefferson, at least, kept his hands on his peers. Mr. Baker was another story. A year-round guardian of the littlest boys, Mr. Baker seemed the most decent and selfless gentleman in the camp.
He wasn't. An 8 year old finally told me that his name was not Mr. Baker, but "the Baker." Why? "Cause the Baker gives you pies for buns." The pies in question were those little Ann Page fruit pies. As to the buns, alas, your worst guess is correct. I told my peers. They told the administration. They knew already. But so committed were they to being non-judgemental and open to experience that they were paralyzed from passing judgment on any experience (smoking, then as now, oddly excepted), no matter how flat-out wicked the experience may have been.
And then there was always Sandi. Imagine Snow White as a Marxist sex kitten, strolling among staff and campers both, patting heads and scattering her charms like pixie dust while the proles fought to rub up against her and stroke her fairy-tale hair. Marv warned her of the furies she was rousing. But she wrote his warnings off to sexism, racism, and old-fashioned jealousy. Right on all three counts, to be sure, but so was Marv.
I wish I could say I was there when it happened, but I wasn't. I wish I could say, for symmetry's sake, that it was Marv who did it. But he didn't. The culprit was a forlorn ex-camper, now a full-time potwasher name of Jesus. The victim was a 16-year-old camper whose name eludes me. The weapon--a kitchen knife. The diagnosis- end of one kid's summer, almost his life. The subject of their dispute--Sandi's affections.
Sandi, of course, was shocked. So was the camp director. But like many such good-hearted souls, they lacked the remotest sense of cause and effect. The kids had been getting stones, screwed, and sodomized by the staff for years. Even to my inchoate 19-year old brain, stabbed seemed a logical progression.
I had seen all I needed. I handed in my whistle a few days after the incident, and Marv drove me to the bus stop, braking abruptly every now and then in hopes that someone would rear end us.
Waiting for the bus, he suggested we head down to Miami and get in a little gigolo work before school started. "Naa, sorry Marv," said I. "It's been fun, but I've had enough moral decay for the summer." The bus came, I got on, and left the whole mess behind.
I wish it were that easy today.