King of the Lake

Theme Essay by Jeremiah Horrigan

 At Summer Camp, a Boy Loses—and Gains—the World

 


  

 Travis Miller

He looked odd to my eleven-year-old eyes, not a bit like the other suntanned camp counselors. He was round and pale as a volleyball. Wore khaki Bermuda shorts and green kneesocks. His too-small Boy Scout tunic clung to him in the high summer heat like a second skin. He had a black, pencil-thin mustache and eyes squeezed to slits by his plump cheeks.

His name was Frank.

He was our counselor at a pristine Boy Scout campground buried deep in the green rolling hills southeast of my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was a Tenderfoot Scout enduring my first week-long summer camping trip.

I was a good scout, as long as I stayed indoors. The last place you’d find me was outside, on a baseball diamond, a basketball court, the deep end of a swimming pool, or any part of a lake that didn’t offer a welcoming shore.

Baseball was a particular horror. It was bad enough that I couldn’t field a pop fly to save my life. Worse, my father was a sports reporter for the evening paper. I never felt more alone than when I took an inevitable third strike, knowing he was in the stands watching.

While I was used to being the last kid picked for games, I was less happily reconciled to my fear of water. I knew if I couldn’t swim—and I couldn’t—I also couldn’t do the one outdoorsy activity I longed for that summer: boating on the camp’s private lake.

Looking around me that first day, I saw Frank, and my spirits rose.

Frank threw like a girl. He waddled when he walked, and it only got worse when he tried to run. He very quickly earned the nickname Fat Frank, but I never called him that. I felt sorry for Frank. I recognized him. He was the fat version of the skinny doofus that was me.

When I wasn’t embarrassing myself at the rifle or archery range, I spent my free time in the tent I shared with my best friend Pat, staring up at the sagging green canvas roof, daydreaming. When it got too hot or I got too bored, I’d wander up to the camp’s pine-fragrant trading post, where I’d buy sufficient strands of plastic strips to weave into boondoggles whose purposeless manufacture gave me something to do.

One hot sunny morning, halfway through my week’s exile, Frank startled me by sitting down at the picnic bench outside the trading post, where I was busy whipping up my umpteenth boondoggle. I figured I was in trouble, because adults never sat down next to kids unless something bad had happened.

Frank asked to see what I was doing. I gave him the boondoggle. He examined it and said I’d done a good job.

He gestured toward the lake. “Why aren’t you out swimming with the other kids?”

I surprised myself by blurting out the truth. “I can’t swim.”

Frank raised a knowing, patient eyebrow. More words tumbled out of me.

“What I really want to do is go boating, but I can’t if I can’t swim,” I said.

Frank pursed his lips and nodded. Said he couldn’t swim, either.

“But I don’t need permission to go boating.” He smiled, looking out toward the lake. “And you can go, if I take you.”

I nodded my head, hardly daring to speak for fear I’d break the spell his words were weaving.

He said he’d stop by my tent during the camp’s enforced siesta period later that afternoon and we’d have some fun. Then he left.

I could hardly believe it. Someone—an adult—had noticed me.

• • •

I didn’t even pretend to be sleeping during siesta. I sat on the edge of my cot, certain Frank wouldn’t show. Just as I prepared myself to be disappointed, he appeared, looking ghostly against the tent’s mosquito netting.

I leapt to my feet, but before I could spring outside and join him, he swept back the netting and peered inside.

He looked first at Pat, who was asleep on his cot. Then he looked at me.

Putting a conspiratorial finger to his lips, he signaled me to be quiet. Then he stepped quickly, almost on tiptoes, into the tent and sat on my cot.

In one quick motion, he swung his stubby legs up onto the cot and lay down on his back. I stood next to him, mystified.

“Come up here,” he said in a harsh whisper.

I leaned in closer, not sure I’d heard him correctly. Not sure how I could possibly obey him. There was no room for me on the cot.

He grabbed me by the arm and yanked me on my back atop the arc of his belly.

My mind scrambled to come up with an answer to the panic coursing through my body.

An idea flashed across my mind: It was a secret Boy Scout initiation rite, something grownups spring on Tenderfoot Scouts who aren’t supposed to know until it happens to them.

Then I felt Frank’s hand slide under the elastic band of my underpants.

I froze.

He began to fondle me. I knew nothing about sex. But I knew to my soul that something was very, very wrong.

I also knew I couldn’t make a sound. I thought that if I woke up Pat, I’d be somehow betraying Frank. Worse, what would I say to Pat?

Quiet, quiet, quiet. I had to stay quiet. No one could know what was happening. I had to lie perfectly still or things would get even worse.

As his hand continued to probe, I did the only thing left to me: I prayed. I pinched my eyes shut in desperate supplication to the God who’d never answered any of my previous prayers. But He was the only authority I could call on. And I could do so silently. So I prayed the most fervent prayer of my life: Please, God, please. Don’t let me get a boner.

After a time—a minute? five?—Frank withdrew his hand. I slid off his belly and ran outside.

There I stood, five feet from the tent’s entrance, not knowing what else to do or where to go. When Frank emerged, I said the first thing that came to mind: “Take me boating.”

He just looked at me.

“You said you’d take me boating.”

I could hardly believe what I was saying. I’d never made such a demand—any demand—of an adult. Someone else was speaking, someone I didn’t recognize.

Without a word, Frank stalked off toward the lake. I followed him. The dock was deserted. I stepped into a boat, felt it slide and shimmy beneath my feet, forcing me to sit down in the bow. Frank squatted in the stern, seized the oars and shoved off.

Frank’s silence and his refusal to look at me told me he was angry. I didn’t care. I gazed at the sun-spangled lake, avoiding his silent glare, somehow aware that by ignoring him, I was making him even angrier.

I heard the oars slap the water. Felt the sun beat down on my buzz-cut, sunburned head. Frank rowed to the silence at the middle of the lake. I saw the water’s glassy surface shatter under his clumsy strokes and watched as the resulting wavelets radiated away.

The silence between us spread like those wavelets, which we followed back to shore. I was dizzy with excitement. I’d held Frank to his promise. Made him do what I wanted him to do. I was king of the lake.

Early morning in Honeoye...

• • •

The week ended a few days later on Parents’ Day. Moms and dads piled out of cars, anxious to see what a week in the woods had done to their boys.

It was a broiling Saturday afternoon. I thought the dizziness I felt was from a wasp sting I got after lunch. I knew my mother would make a big deal of it if I told her. So, as the family Rambler station wagon pulled into the parking lot, I resolved not to say a thing.

I saw her get out of the car, but sullenly hung back. Then the front passenger door opened, and my father stepped out. I couldn’t believe it! I ran to join them.

Frank was standing near the trading post, wearing his too-tight uniform. His slitted eyes widened when he saw me approach, my father in tow.

There was no mistaking my dad in this crowd. He wore a sport coat and tie and dress slacks despite the heat, despite the other fathers in their T-shirts and jeans. My father the newspaperman never wore a pair of jeans in his life. His wardrobe told the world he was different from the working-class men he’d grown up with. Men who worked at Bethlehem Steel. Men whose wives packed their lunches in black lunch pails and who came home as soon as their shift was over. Men whose sons I’d grown up with in the blue-collar neighborhood my father was dying to escape.

I don’t know what Frank was hoping for that day. I can’t imagine why he was there at all. Maybe he had the predator’s confidence that I wouldn’t—couldn’t—turn him in. Maybe he hoped I would. Maybe it was all part of his game. I like to think he experienced at least a moment of panic when he saw the two of us approaching.

Regardless, I had the sudden, giddy hope that the voice that had commanded Frank to do my bidding on the lake might return.

“Dad, this is Frank….”

My voice failed. I stood between the two of them, grinning wildly.

I wanted my father to rescue me. But I didn’t have the words I needed. God, I thought, had answered my prayer in the tent. Now I looked to my dad to answer a prayer I couldn’t ask of him.

I watched them shake hands. And with that handshake, relief washed through me like a sun-warmed wave. I rode home that evening feeling as I had in the middle of the lake, the water lapping the rowboat’s sides, the sun splintering into shards that bounced back into my dazzled eyes.

I look back now on that little boy with all the yearning an old man feels while basking in the warmth of a summer memory. Fifty years on, I can say I survived Frank’s attack, guileless kid that I was. On the odd occasions when the memory of what he did returns, I tell myself I beat the bastard at his own twisted, mysterious game.

But no one who’s felt a predator’s touch ever escapes without damage. The predator may not kill his victims outright, but he always takes prisoners.

Rowboat on a lakeSometimes over the years, in moments beyond this grownup kid’s control, I’ve seen the lake again, seen its glassy surface broken not by the triumphant slap of oars on sparkling sunlight but polluted by a fat, bloated body bobbing to the top.

Sometimes I’ve found myself replaying the scene outside my tent, wondering what made me demand that Frank take me boating. Instead of feeling like a king, I feel dirtied. Did I really beat the devil at his own game, or had I merely developed a cover story, a defense against darker suspicions?

Maybe, I tell myself, maybe I wasn’t so innocent after all. I must have played some part in what happened. Something in me must have attracted Frank. Wasn’t there something…girlish about how I’d insisted he take me boating? I must have wielded some unsuspected sexual power to make him do my bidding.

Maybe I was his seducer. He was my victim.

I feel guilty of a sin I know I didn’t commit.

Here’s one thing I do know: God didn’t answer my prayer that terrifying afternoon. God has ignored the prayers of too many other little boys for me to believe I deserved His intervention. I was just lucky.

But a miracle did occur. I cling to its memory whenever I feel the need to distance myself from the irrational doubts that Frank has left bobbing in my mind.

The miracle happened between my father and me.

My dad was a busy man, building a bright and shining future for his family. He worked weekends and came home late. It was the price he was willing to pay for the success he craved. And it was a price I paid as well. The older I got, the more I needed him, and the more distant he became.

I never expected to see him that Parents’ Day. But there he was, striding straight and tall through the dust of the parking lot, past the other fathers in their jeans and T-shirts.

He gave me a quick hug around the shoulders, smiling as he approached the sweaty little man standing there in his absurd uniform. My father reached out, and with the touch of his unsuspecting hand, reclaimed for his skinny, lonely son a boyhood nearly stolen away.

 


Art Information

 


Jeremiah HorriganJeremiah Horrigan is a contributing writer at Talking Writing. He is finishing work on his memoir Fortunate Son: a Father, a Son and the War on the Home Front.

A different version of this essay previously appeared as “Tenderfoot” in Fictionique, June 28, 2012.

"What better camouflage could a sin ask for than to be thought as quaint as a corset, as deadly as a peashooter?" — "Sloth: The Slyest of Sins"


 

Comments

Fine, brave, insightful, moving piece. I remember this from an earlier read. Didn't think then it could get any better, and can't see now that it could, either. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Susan: It took me years - decades - to acknowledge I'd been abused. This story was the best I could make of it. That touch makes you wish never to look back again. But, as I've found, there's more to be seen looking back than memory first suggests. Memory joined with everything I've learned since then doesn't help me understand him. But it helps me understand myself, and that's what this life is all about, isn't it?

Steve: I don't know about that "falling short" business. But what you describe I recognize and have admired about your own stuff over the years. And as I said to Matt, though I've written stories all my life as a reporter and wise-guy newspaper columnist, I've almost always had to tippy-toe around the edge of other people's stories. It's an inclination as solid as railroad tracks. In this and other chapters of the book, I've been at work first recognizing those tracks and then trying to tear them up. De-rail myself. Surprise myself. From what I understand you to say, it sounds like I'm on -- what else can I call it? -- the wrong track. And that's where this newspapered writer needs to be. Thanks my friend.

Matt: Good to hear from you from so long ago.
This really was an opportunity for me to take the original piece further than my journalistic inclinations incline. And it's been a revelation for me, both as writer and self-explorer (which may be a redundancy). I wrote the original under an 800-word limit, a length that in newspaperdom I'd consider spacious. I was pretty much satisfied with it. Then Martha Nichols saw it. She suggested I could -- maybe even should -- go deeper. And, even when I did , she sent it back for more deepening. For a guy who still can't swim, it was a terrific and sometimes terrifying lesson, for which I'm most grateful.

Eric: Thanks for reading. Couldn't do the sharing part without you.

". . .no one who’s felt a predator’s touch ever escapes without damage. The predator may not kill his victims outright, but he always takes prisoners."

Well put. True.

Wonderful piece of writing here, Jeremiah. You've accomplished--in spades--what I set out to do with every piece I begin, but generally fall short. That is, to tell a good story that is porous enough to melt away at some point and reveal the real story, the subtextual story that stays alive long after the last page has been turned. Although the memory of Frank the predator is a powerful vehicle, the narrative about fathers (a counselor, God, your dad) brings me all the way back to Abraham's betrayal of Isaac.

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