By Josh Wolk
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Three months before getting married at age thirty-four, Josh Wolk decides to treat himself to a “farewell to childhood” extravaganza: one last summer working at the beloved Maine boys camp where he spent most of the eighties. And there he finds out that there’s no better way to see how much you’ve changed than to revisit a place that hasn’t changed at all.
In these eight hilarious, uncomfortable, enlightening weeks, Josh readjusts to life teaching swimming and balancing on a thin metal cot in a cabin of shouting, wrestling, wet-willie-dispensing fourteen-year-olds who, contrary to the warnings of doomsaying sociologists, he finds indistinguishable from the rowdy fourteen-year-olds of his day in any way other than their haircuts. With his old camp friends gone, he finds himself working alongside guys who used to be his campers. Moments of feeling cripplingly old are offset by the corrosive insecurities of his youth when he’s paired in the cabin with Mitch, the forty-two-year-old jack-of-all-extreme-sports whose machismo intimidated Josh so much fifteen years earlier, and whom their current campers idolize. And throughout all this disorienting regression, Josh’s telephone conversations with his fiance, Christine, grow increasingly intense as their often-comical discussions over the wedding become a flimsy cover for her worries that he’s not ready to relinquish his death-grip on the comforts of the past.
A hilarious and insightful look at the tenacious power of nostalgia, the glory of childhood, and the nervous excitement of taking a leap to the next unknown stage in life, Cabin Pressure will appeal to anyone who’s ever been young, wishes he was young again, but knows deep down it probably isnt a good idea.
One Man’s Desperate Attempt to Recapture
His Youth as a Camp Counselor
For Christine, of course
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MADE MY SUMMER CAMP SO SPECIAL WAS THE LIBERATION from self-consciousness. For eight glorious weeks, boys were free of the intimidating, judgmental scrutiny that they had to tiptoe around for an entire school year. They could finally be comfortable with their own personalities, likes, and dislikes, at ease knowing that no one was staring at them, analyzing their actions.
Which was kind of at odds with my writing a book about them.
No camper or counselor asked to have their summer chronicled and interpreted by me. When I told the director my intentions while applying to return to work at camp, he said, “All I care about is getting a good staff. What you do with the experience is up to you.” When I arrived, people saw me as a counselor. When I disclosed my memoir “side project” to people, camper and counselor alike asked a few questions and then got distracted by the diving board, sailboats, mountains, bows and arrows, or tennis courts and dashed off to have a good time, quickly forgetting about my book. Fortunately, it didn’t stop them from being themselves. Which is all the more reason not to punish them for it.
All the events that appear in this memoir did happen, but I have clouded people’s identities, composited some, and changed all their names, as well as the name and location of the camp itself. This last part was a decision I struggled over, as I wanted my camp to be recognized as the beloved spot it is, but I didn’t want to leave anything that would make the people involved recognizable. Everyone I had the pleasure to spend the summer with left camp with idyllic memories, memories I didn’t want to confuse by making these wonderful kids and dedicated counselors feel retroactively self-conscious. This goes most of all for my hilarious, sometimes maddening, but always incredible cabin of fourteen-year-old campers: I can think of few people in this world, including myself, who would be willing to be immortalized as their adolescent self.
A DOUCHEBAG SAYS “WHAT.”
I had learned this helpful fact in junior high, but—much like algebra and the capitals of foreign countries—I had forgotten it sometime over the last twenty years. Now, at thirty-four years old, standing on the edge of a dock, I got a refresher course from the three twelve-year-olds splashing in the green lake water below me.
“Come on, I want to see your backstroke,” I begged them.
“Adubagsaywhuh?” mumbled a lumpy, shaggy-haired boy whose dense pattern of freckles made him look like he’d been shot in the face with an orange paintball. He bounced on his toes, spinning himself in a slow circle in the water, making tiny waves with his cupped hands. His two swim-classmates had their backs to me, looking out at a couple of sailboats slowly inching toward their moorings on this windless day.
“I don’t know what you’re saying.” I stared at him. “Get moving.”
“What?” I said.
“Ahhhhhh!” he sprang up in the water, laughing and spraying my feet with water. His friends turned around to see what happened. “I said ‘a douchebag says “what,”’ and you said ‘what!’ Guess you’re a douchebag! Hey, guys, dja hear what I just did?”
One of his friends said, “Ahomosaywhuh.”
“What?” asked the freckled one.
“Ahhhhh! Homo!” Hoisted by his own petard. Gratifying, sure, but it didn’t bring me any closer to my goal of getting these three to swim. And now a frenetic splash fight had broken out. Pinwheeling their arms into the water for maximum dousing, they turned their heads from each other to keep their faces protected. Preventing their mouths from filling with water allowed them to take the “what” game to the next level while still keeping up an aquatic assault.
“I can’t hear you. Afartfacesayswhat!”
“Enough!” I yelled, taking a step back to avoid the crossfire. In the distance I heard a bugle honk, signifying the end of the class, and the end of another morning at Camp Eastwind. “All right, you win! Now get out of the water!” The splashes petered out and they scrambled up the dock ladder, stopping only to shake and spray me like wet dogs before scurrying to get their towels. I sat down on the edge of the dock, dangling my feet in the water and looking out at the lake that stretched beyond our cove. Shadowing the far coast were low, green Maine hills and mountains. The summer air was fresh—the only trace of anything unnatural was the faux-beachy smell of the sunscreen trapped in my untrimmed beard and mustache. When I first got to Eastwind this summer, I was convinced this spot was the most restful in the world. After six weeks, I believed roughly the same thing, provided all the kids were removed.
My co–swim counselor, Helen, wandered up behind me. “So what’s this I hear about you being a douchebag?”
“I can’t deny it. I said ‘what.’”
“Welcome to the club, douchebag.” I hopped off the dock into the water and submerged, enjoying the deadened underwater silence, where there were no lake trout muttering, “Abottomdwellersayswhat?”
Lunch was characteristically hectic and deafening, the dining hall full of flailing arms all trying to get the last slice of bacon for their BLTs. This sparked a philosophical debate at my table of five kids that lasted for the duration of the meal: Can vegetarians drink bacon grease? While trying to moderate this discussion, an orange gob of French dressing dripped off my salad fork onto my T-shirt. I halfheartedly wiped it away with my thumb, leaving a rusty streak. My normal fastidiousness had gone the way of my need for privacy this summer; my T-shirts and shorts were Jackson Pollocks of meal stains. The water left after I finally did my laundry would provide scientists with the precise DNA of my diet.
By the time lunch ended, we’d agreed to disagree on the bacon conundrum, at least until we could find a vegetarian. Now it was Rest Hour, time for everyone to return to their cabins and count the minutes until they were no longer forced to sit still. I went to gather the mail, and made the slow walk back to the cabin, orbited by four of my fourteen-year-old camper roommates demanding to know if they got any letters.
“Nobody gets mail until everyone’s on his bed,” I said.
“OK, fine, but just tell me: Did I get any?”
“Nobody gets mail until everyone’s on his bed.”
“I’m not asking to have it, just tell me, did I get any?”
“Nobody gets mail until everyone’s on his bed.”
This loop continued until I pushed open the wide screen door of our one-room pine cabin. I strode down the aisle between two rows of metal cots, neck ducked forward so as not to smack my forehead on a rafter. I passed the bed of Lefty, the cabin’s biggest wiseass. He was showing off a tiny class photo of a girl to his wide-jawed sheepdog of a pal visiting from a different cabin, who took it in admiringly. “So she sent me a letter and I wrote her back, but I made her wait a little bit. She’ll totally write back.”
“She’s cute,” said the sheepdog, nodding. His helmet of thick, curly hair flopped atop his head like a bleacher-bum’s rainbow wig. “Really cute. You should totally do her.”
I interrupted. “Are you pulling out that picture again? How can we be sure that’s not your sister?”
“Haaaaa, your sister!” the sheepdog said, laughing and pointing at Lefty.
“It’s not your sister, ’cause I already did her,” Lefty volleyed back at me.
“Haaaaa, he did your sister!” the sheepdog said, laughing and pointing at me. Any port in a storm.
“Hey!” I barked. “I will not have talk like that in my cabin.” I leaned forward and snatched the picture out of his hand. “Especially around my new girlfriend. Helloooooo, sweet thing! Four more years till you’re eighteen and mine.” Lefty pounced off his bed and grabbed at the picture, yelling for the sheepdog’s help, who then jumped on my back. With the picture in one hand and the mail in the other, I could only twist back and forth, attempting to throw them off. Just before we were about to topple to the floor, I yelled, “If you guys don’t get off me right now I’m not giving out the mail! Maybe a certain girlfriend is trying to get through!”
Lefty let go—but not without poking me in the chest first—and ordered the sheepdog to heel. I winked at the picture and whispered “Call me” before handing it back. I banished the sheepdog to his own cabin, then walked up and down the center aisle, distributing the mail. Boys gleefully ripped open envelopes with skateboard magazines and comic books; they weren’t yet totally jaded teens—they still grinned happily when they got a letter from Mom, too. When the mail was all gone except for a large envelope for me, there was nothing from Lefty’s “girlfriend.” “Sorry, man,” I said. “She’s probably just trying to come up with the right words. Sometimes, ‘Dear Stinky, stop writing to me’ just isn’t enough.”
I dumped my envelope out on my bed. Forwarded mail from home—a bunch of bills, a few magazines. Lefty appeared over my shoulder and reached in to grab my new copy of Harper’s. “There any hot chicks in this?” he said, thumbing through it.
“Yeah, go crazy.” I thumbed through the stack of mail, a flip-book of metered envelopes. One thicker and taller envelope stood out. It was made of rough, textured paper. It wasn’t stamped, but it had my name and camp address written in a florid script. I tore it open and pulled out a rectangle of thick, creamy card stock. Handpressed in red letters, it read:
James and Ann Schomer Would Be
Extremely Happy to Have You Witness and
Celebrate the Marriage of Their Daughter
Christine to Josh
Son of Richard and Linda Wolk
Saturday, September 13, 2003, at 6:00
The biggest day of my life, just—I looked over at a conspicuously blank desk calendar on my shelf—six weeks away. I stared at the invite for a while. The precise, elegant lettering felt out of place in this emporium of dirty socks and damp towels. But it was inarguably exciting. This was the staple of all future scrapbooks. My most-prized souvenir-to-be. I was getting married. I needed to share the moment.
“Hey, Lefty …” I got up off my bed, just in time to catch a fluttering Harper’s in the chest.
“That magazine blows,” he said. “It’s all words and crap. Give me bikinis, Josh. Bikinis.”
“Josh has dirty magazines?” Someone down the bunk perked up.
“No, he sucks,” yelled Lefty.
“What are you, gay?” hollered someone else. “What about Maxim?”
“What about Big Dorky Swim Counselor Monthly?” cracked Lefty. “I bet you’ve got a subscription to that.”
I rolled my eyes and laid back down on my bunk, staring at the invite. Six weeks? It felt so close. And as I inhaled deeply the smell of sweat and forest and mildew and lake breeze, it felt so far away.
EVER SINCE I MOVED TO NEW YORK CITY IN 1991 AFTER GRADUATING FROM college, the word “summer” lost all of its verve. Manhattan is many things—vibrant, thrilling, propulsive—but it most certainly is not a summer paradise. It isn’t all New York’s fault: Most adults have to come to terms with the fact that summer is no longer an extended vacation. But the city rubs it in your face. The giant skyscrapers lean over you, daring you to just try to get a glimpse of nature. The only oasis is Central Park, but as you squeeze in on weekends to claim a little patch of lawn, the buildings still loom around the edges like sentries; you and your fellow parkgoers are the prisoners who have been given a couple hours out in the “yard.” Just try to swim in a pond and you’ll be shot on sight. I resented everyone’s forced exuberance as they trekked from their tiny apartments to convene in the Park. It wasn’t a real summer; we were just playing summer, the way you played doctor or post office as a kid.
Through eleven years of working in the city in television production and then in magazines, each summer I devoted at least fifteen minutes a day to closing my eyes and drifting into a reverie about the place that best idealized what a summer should be: Camp Eastwind. From 1980 to 1988, as a camper and counselor, I attended this all-boys camp on Maine’s Sebago Lake. (Judging by the number of camps that ringed its 105-mile shoreline, I assumed that “Sebago” was an Indian word for “land of friendship bracelets and wedgies.”) The more I thought about camp, the more it seemed insane that I would choose to be in New York. At camp, I spent every day standing on a dock, a fleet of sailboats available for a post-dinner jaunt, surrounded by my closest friends. In New York, I sat under an air-conditioning vent, attempting to store up as much chill as possible to hold me for the muggy trek home. At camp I was never more than forty yards away from a refreshing dip in a lake. In New York I debarked from the subway smelling like I had been soaking in a marinade of my cocommuters’ sweat. When I really wanted to torture myself, I would recall that in one of the camp bathrooms, you could pee while watching a glorious sunset through the window above the urinal. Just try to find a urinal with a view in New York.
Eastwind was the repository of approximately 87 percent of my greatest memories. I had thrived as a camper there; during those summers I replenished all the self-confidence that was lost during the previous year spent in the ego-shooting gallery that was public school. Eastwind is a noncompetitive camp, which isn’t the coddlefest it sounds like. It concentrates on one-man sports like boating, archery, and rock climbing, so you are able to better yourself without worrying about being crushed by others. The us-versus-them bloodlust of other camps’ Color Wars is anathema to Eastwind. I was an extraordinarily tall kid (“extraordinarily” being a euphemism for “freakishly”), six feet tall by age thirteen, and six-seven by eighteen. When you’re growing that fast, you have to give up all dreams of excelling at team sports. You concentrate on smaller goals, such as bending over to tie your shoes without tumbling into a ditch. But without the scrutiny of a scorekeeper, I threw myself into activities like archery and canoeing until I became quite good. At camp I was recognized for what I could do, as contrasted with school, where on a daily basis I was angrily confronted with why I couldn’t dunk a basketball. I even had my first kiss at a dance with a neighboring girls’ camp. Everything I couldn’t get during the school year, I got at Eastwind.
At seventeen I became a counselor, hired by the director and assistant director who watched me grow up; I couldn’t ask for a more official handstamp into adulthood. Now I was in charge, and part of a staff I had revered for the past six years. I was finally the one whom the campers looked to for guidance, even idolized. And as it was my first “real” job with a regular salary, I embraced the image of myself as a working man. When I’d hang out at the Staff Lounge after the kids went to sleep, getting drunk with my friends, we saw ourselves as dads who relaxed after work with a drink. Granted, those dads weren’t playing Quarters with Milwaukee’s Best—the cheapest case we could buy—and then stumbling home at two A.M. over an obstacle course of tree roots, mumbling mushmouthedly about how that bastard Tom cheated by taking too-small sips when his quarter missed. And yet, hangover be damned, we’d still—incomprehensibly—be able to get up at seven A.M. and ably deal with the next fourteen hours of screaming kids. These truly were the salad days.
The summer of 1989, after my sophomore year at Tufts University, I decided to seek out more adult jobs and internships. I could sense the dreaded “real life” crouching in wait for me in just two years, and it would require a résumé with entries that involved more than greased-watermelon races. Nonetheless, I was certain that I would eventually be back. Nobody ever left Eastwind for good. Long-gone counselors were constantly reappearing, taking one last Eastwind summer before or after attending graduate school. A couple of alumni in their fifties had actually returned to work for a session alongside their second-generation-Eastwind-counselor sons. While they might have been a little out of place, no one begrudged their intentions, because no one wanted bad karma out there in case years later he wanted to do the same thing. If and when I did go back, I was confident I wouldn’t be alone. In ’88 I was a counselor alongside guys who had been campers with me at age eleven, of course, but I also had coworkers who had been my counselor when I was eleven. With that kind of constancy, I could always count on camp to be exactly as I remembered it.
Years passed, and I never found the opportunity to return for an entire summer. I visited regularly for the first couple of years, and then only sporadically for special reunions. These occasional gatherings, attended by dozens of familiar faces who would travel any distance to breathe their childhood air, always hit the “restart” button on my urge to return for a whole summer. But there was never a realistic time; either my career severely lacked momentum and I was too panicky to take two months off from obsessing about it, or professionally I was gaining momentum and I didn’t want to risk derailing myself. Besides, I thought, as another June came and went, camp will always be there, and I’ll try again next year. If it never changed, and I never changed, what was the hurry?
Then, in the summer of 2002, I got engaged to Christine and we set a date for September 2003. It was an exhilarating time, an enormous life landmark. And suddenly everything that was once in the hypothetical realm of “someday we’ll have hovercars and live on the moon”—a house, kids, family vacations—was now becoming real. At thirty-three, I had long considered myself an adult, but as I prepared to cross the line of marriage, I realized that this was real adulthood. Everything before was just the Epcot Center version: It simulated all of the trappings (independence, career progress) but had none of the real ramifications. Now I was entering a phase not only rife with exciting possibilities, but also riddled with weighty responsibilities.
I come from a family with a proud tradition of worrying, so while other grooms-to-be might busy themselves, say, obsessing over the end of their promiscuity or time lost with their male friends, my hand wringing was more big-picture. I figured that after marriage, everything needed to be thought of in terms of a thirty-year plan, not a three-month plan. This was a time when money should be saved for something more than a big-screen TV. Mortgages, 401(k)s, IRAs, day care, preschools, college funds … it would all soon be a part of my daily consciousness, and the many colors of my fret palette. The staples of my life up until now were screwing around, acting immature, and having ample time to watch TV or just stare off into space; they were the key elements of the innocent frivolity of childhood, and I was about to lose them. My silver hair would no longer be considered prematurely gray: it would be appropriately gray. And not only was this the next phase of my life, it was the last phase. The schedule from the wedding on would be worry-worry-worry-worry-death. I decided now was the time to give my life’s carefree first act a farewell party. And where better to do it than Eastwind, the place I most closely associated with the joys of childhood?
Planning our wedding had been the catalyst for countless arguments between Christine and me. Our opinions differed on every aspect of our wedding except who the bride and groom would be, and if I suggested vanishing off to summer camp for the two months prior to the event, she might change her mind on that, too. But she was surprisingly open to my idea. Perhaps some of this was a naive underestimation of how much work would be involved in planning the wedding, but a big part of it was her desire to live vicariously through me. Now a TV producer, she too had once been a devoted camper and counselor, up in New Hampshire. As a fellow too-tall teenager, she cherished those summers as a time when she was noticed for other qualities than her height, a happening that actually made her stand taller. She still had good friends from her camp days and could summon the lyrics of hundreds of her old dining-hall songs on command.
Getting a job at Eastwind used to be effortless for an old-timer. All you’d have to do was call up the director and announce your intentions, and you’d be hired. It was as informal as asking if you could swing by for a beer. Once you’d proven your worth, you had a lifetime pass. Now that the director I’d worked for was retired, I had to apply to his successor, Frank Mason, whom I had never met. In November of 2002 we had a long chat on the phone, and it felt strange having to sell myself for the job. I figured it would be no problem, since Frank, too, had started as a camper in the 1970s, become a counselor, and then left for seventeen years before returning in the early ’90s with a family and eventually becoming director. This made him the ultimate camp recidivist, and he’d surely embrace my quest.
Frank was receptive, although businesslike. We talked about my desire to return to teach my old activity, swimming, and he seemed to be listening but waiting for a catch. Startled by the absence of an immediate “come on down!”, my pitch became more fervent. As I filled him in on my life since 1988, I played down the journalism experience and stressed the patches of volunteer tutoring and big-brothering I’d done in college and afterward. The maxims came fast and furious. I believe that the children are the future! You never stand so tall as when you bend down to help a small child! A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet! You can lead a horse to water, but if you think you can get him to drink, I’ve got a moss-gathering rolling stone I’d like to sell you! I felt a familiar real-world professional anxiety take over, which was alien to my camp experience. If he accepted me, I hoped I could shake it off when summer came. I didn’t want to be overachieving down at the swim dock, trying to invent new strokes to impress Frank with my initiative. (“The butterbackstroke, eh? That shows the kind of spunk, moxie, and grit I want on my team, Wolk. How does the title head of swimming grab you?”)
A few weeks later I received a letter from Frank confirming my employment as a swimming counselor with a salary of $3,000 for the summer. Eight weeks of camp, preceded by a week of precamp orientation … it averaged out to around $330 a week. Considering this included room, board, and all the refreshing dips in the lake I could take, this was very fair compensation indeed.
The cool June night before I left for camp, I stood in the bedroom of our apartment, surveying the piles of clothes that covered our bed. I was still unable to commit to what I would stuff in the empty duffel bag crumpled and waiting on the floor.
Every summer, Camp Eastwind used to send a packing checklist to each camper recommending what to bring: five pairs of shorts, seven T-shirts, two bathing suits, one flashlight, three packs of DD batteries, etc. The powers-that-be seemed to have arrived at this formula by averaging out the clean laundry requirements of the most vain, finicky camper and the stinkiest, the camper who would wear the same yellowing T-shirt every day until the only remnant of its original color was a small white dot that lay over a blocked sweat duct on the left shoulder. The numbers always worked for me, apparently putting me in the fiftieth percentile of filthiness.
By the end of my camp career, I had the formula memorized. Everything practically jumped into my trunk, as if lured by the familiar musty smell that puffed out when the box was swung open. Since then, my brain had dumped some of its old, long-unused inventory, and that included my camp packing list. As I stood in our Manhattan apartment, staring blankly at the heaps of T-shirts, shorts, and jeans on my bed, I had no idea what I needed. I knew how to pack for business trips, for wedding weekends, for funerals, for ski and beach vacations, for holidays home, for company retreats. But nothing that involved bug spray, a towel, and a canteen. I asked Christine to come look.
- On Sale
- Jun 5, 2007
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Hachette Books