When I was young, a group of us from my nearly all-Black neighborhood were enrolled in a summer camp for city children to expose us to the soothing wonders of the great outdoors. The camp was run by the Salvation Army and located in the white wilds of Western Maryland – I call it “the white wilds” for reasons that will become apparent later- and was Native American themed. We would live in replicas of Native American housing – teepees, pueblos, etc and learn . . . well, I can’t recall what. All I remember is that when our parents came to pick us up a week or two later, there would be a final celebration with Native American dances performed demonstrating what we had learned and leather and beaded trinkets we had made in the workshop to take back home as souvenirs.
After our parents left and the staff smiles and waves ended, things began to change. The staff was all older white teenagers from the lily-white surrounding rural area of Monkton, Maryland. I don’t recall one Black staff person even though the kids at the camp were overwhelmingly Black.
The first day, I was told I had to move from the Pueblo where I was staying with my friends to a cabin where they had put the handful of white kids. In other words, they were racially sorting the attendees. They took me to the cabin, which unlike the rest of the housing, was nicer and not Native American themed. I refused to stay and went back to the Pueblo with the boys I knew. That didn’t sit well with the counselors but they let me go.
Later, I can’t remember when, things escalated. At night, the counselors would dress up in Native American costumes, with war paint and improvised masks hiding their identities, and shine a flashlight in some kid’s eyes and force him outside. There, they would “bank” him. “Banking” consisted of one person wrapping your arms behind your back around a tree while the other punched you hard in the gut. Immobilized, you couldn’t escape. We all lived in terror that they would come for one of us and it was hard to sleep. This went on long enough that it came to be part of camp routine.
One night, one of the kids in the other tents who had gotten banked came up with a plan. He was much harder and street-wise than the rest of us, from the mean streets of West Baltimore, and talked back, which is probably why he was singled out for “banking.” He stole a bow and arrow from the props room and snuck it back to his cabin. When he saw the counselors creeping in the woods in their de-facto Klan costumes, he shot an arrow at them. It lodged in a tree very near where one was standing. He had learned his camp archery lessons very well. After that, I vaguely recall the banking ended. There were murmurings among the staff, but nothing ever came out of it. The regime of terror had ended.
It rained hard for several days and water seeped into the poorly constructed faux Native American housing. Those staying in the teepees had it the worst; the water soaked everything since the floor was earth, which quickly turned to thick mud. Water even seeped into our better built Pueblo. The cabin with all the white kids was barely affected. I often wondered later if that is why they were put there.
Finally the parents’ night came. I still have the letter in faded, now barely legible pencil I wrote begging my parents to come that night and pick me up, like all the other kids. The counselors had threatened that we better be out then or things would not be good; we would be in their way of quickly shutting up shop and leaving. Unfortunately, my father, who worked at the railroad, was working evening shift and so my parents couldn’t come until the next day. That last night, they put the other kid who hadn’t gotten picked up and myself in a storage shed; I remember shivering no sheets or cover in the dark with lying on big bags of potatoes that were stacked on the floor. The ordeal ended next morning when my parents came.
I don’t trust memory; details fade and new ones that never existed get conjured up by the imagination: autobiography is always prey to the twin pitfalls of memory lapses and unconscious self-deceptions. But for decades, my memories haven’t changed of this experience and the fact that I’ve carried around the letter I wrote from camp all these years reinforces the basic truth of my recollections that something strange and menacing happened there, even if secondary details have inevitably faded. Children’s vulnerability confronted with adult authority has a long pedigree as a theme in the arts, from Truffault’s 400 Blows to Communard Jules Valle’s L’Infant and of course Richard Wright’s Black Boy ,and my own experience gave me empathy with those who struggled far harder and longer than I did facing greater obstacles. But the ultimate moral of this story is that the camp for underprivileged children was a perfect example of how nearly every institution in America, large or small, has the opposite effect of what is intended.
And I wonder, of the other kids at the camp, whom I wouldn’t recognize today if I ran into them, if this experience was preparation for the hardness and ugliness of life to come, of being at the mercy of arbitrary authority, of regimentation, of the Army, of prisons and senseless slaughter on the streets? How many I ask myself, are even still alive today?
That is a question that will never have an answer.