*The following post contains roughly 2,000 words and takes about 10 to 12 minutes to read to completion.*
While I was in college I used to work as a counselor at a summer day camp that sat right next to Percy Priest Lake. As a counselor, I was assigned a group of twelve to thirteen boys who were either nine or ten years old and we would be set loose to run wild across 320 acres of campgrounds, open fields, and lakefront.
Each counselor and his or her group of kids would receive a scheduled list of activities that would be done over a two week period. Even though the camp lasted the entire duration of the summer, a counselor would only be in charge of a particular group for up to two weeks at a time. After the two weeks ended some kids would be done with the camp for the summer, while others would stay for an additional two weeks, and perhaps even the whole summer. This meant that some kids came and went, and some kids were regulars. A kid who was a regular might cycle through 3 or 4 camp counselors before the summer ended, and aside from that, as a counselor, you knew the regulars, because they were always around, even if there weren’t in your group.
Each counselor also had to have a nickname which was used exclusively while at camp. Mine was Dingo, as in the wild dogs of the Australian outback. As in “Maybe the Dingo ate your baby.”
Your two weeks were filled with scheduled activities, and the activities had to be scheduled because there was so much to do. You took your kids hiking, horseback riding, fishing, canoeing, to arts and crafts, to an archery range, to climb an Alpine tower, to ride a zip line, swimming in a lake, and in a pool. Then there were times when they’d want to play basketball or football or soccer, not to mention building up a campsite which was meant to serve as your groups base of operations in-between activities. We managed to stuff a lot into two weeks, with the intentions of letting every kid experience everything the camp had to offer. My job as a counselor was to get the kids from one activity to the next and to manage not to let them kill each other in the process.
Now, before the end of every two week period, a counselor has to take his group to their campsite and have a cookout. Campsites are issued to each counselor individually, every time you get a new group of kids you go to your reserved campsite and you let your boys build the area up; stack up rocks, move around logs whatever they wanted to do to make the area their own. Now before the end of every two week period, a counselor has to take his kids to their campsite and you have to build a fire and let the kids roast hot dogs and marshmallows over the open flames. This sounds simple, but it is not.
Even with the modern conveniences of things like matches and cigarette lighters building a campfire is extremely difficult. TV and movies have made starting a fire seem easy, but they have lied to you, it’s not easy. It is an arduous and painstaking process.
You have to get kindling, and small twigs and small sticks, then slightly bigger sticks, but not to big, then, ok now you can bring in the bigger sticks, ok that’s a branch not a stick, branches come absolutely last, if at all. Then you take this kindling and these twigs and these sticks, and you create a teepee. You build miniature Native American style teepees, with the kindling in the center and the twigs built up around it and the sticks built up around those and so on and so on. Then you set the kindling on fire, and then, you breathe life into it. A fire needs oxygen to survive, its like a living thing and most people don’t know this or don’t realize this, but if you’ve ever built a campfire then you know. Once that kindling catches, you have to get down on your belly, down to eye level with the flames, and start to blow. Gently at first, but the stronger the flames become the stronger you have to breathe into it. You have to keep feeding the fire, more kindling, more air, more twigs, more sticks and at first the fire is so delicate, it’s almost like a loud noise or sudden movement might shush it out. So you have to guard the fire, you have to cradle it, and protect it, until its strong enough to burn on its own. You can’t allow kids to throw random things into it just to see if it’ll burn, at least not yet anyway.
Campfire Cookouts had to be done multiple time during the summer and most counselors dreaded them. At one point during the summer of what had to be my third year as a counselor, I had a group of guys and the time for our Campfire Cookout had come. So me and my boys, who collectively went by the name of Dingo’s Dawgs, had made it to our campsite, supplies in hand. We had our hot dogs and marshmallows and the wire coat hangers that we use to cook them on. The only thing left was to build a fire. I immediately began sweating just from the thought of it.
“Alright guys, I need some tree bark, some small twigs and some small and medium-sized sticks for the campfire. Let’s get to it!” I barked out. I’m a fun counselor but when I need to be stern, I’m stern and when I need to be mean, I’m mean. The boys scattered in every direction bring back everything from the items I asked for to ones that I did not.
“Dingo, I got some dead leaves.” a kid name Adam comes up to me with a hand full of black and brown leaves.
“No leaves, no grass they burn to quick and create too much smoke.”
He dropped the leaves back to the ground.
“Dingo what about this?” A kid named Jason holds up a small branch he ripped from a nearby bush, the leaves on it are still bright green.”
“That’s still alive which means its full of water, green things don’t burn. I need, dead dry wood.”
He flings the branch over his shoulder without a second thought.
“Here you go Dingo.” a boy named Tyler walks up and passes me a handful of gnarled twigs. Tyler is a regular, he’s been at camp all summer but this is the first time he’s been in my group. Tyler is black, or rather, he’s mixed, I know this only because I’ve seen an older white woman, pick him up and drop him off on multiple occasions. He had said she was his grandmother. Regardless, he is one of the only black kids in my group.
“Thanks, Tyler,” I take twigs without so much as looking up at him. I’m laying fist-sized stones in a large circle to encase and control the campfire.
A few kids go to nearby trees and start to scrape off thin strips of bark, others collect nearby sticks of suitable sized and begin dropping them in a pile a few feet from where I’m working. It’s an efficient little network of organized chaos all around me. I begin to construct the teepee using Tyler’s twigs. It’s the height of summer and our campsite does not offer a lot of shade, at least not where you would set up a campfire. The heat is sweltering. Not only is it hot but the Tenessee humidity is making the woods feel like a jungle. The sun is beaming down on what feels like me and me alone and by now I’m sweating like crazy. The teepee is done the kindling is in place, and it was time to light the fire. My boys are still running wild, stick fighting, throwing dead leaves onto each other and an assortment of other unadvisable things.
“Aight, everybody come sit down! Put the sticks down, drop the leaves come sit.” I yell.
In no particular hurry, the boys settle down and comply. They sit in a circle around me and our soon to be campfire. I get down on my hands and knees, light the kindling in the center of the teepee, being extra careful not to knock down the fragile framework, and begin to blow gently on the budding flames.
“Dingo can we open the Marshmallows!” Jason blurts out as if I am not face down in the dirt trying to start a fire so he can have an authentic camp experience. I snort in frustration and almost snuff out my dwindling flames.
“Dude, this is not the time,” I toss a small sliver of bark into the fire encouraging, begging it to grow.
Jason, Tyler and Adam are sitting side by side waiting with the other nine boys for me to get this fire roaring so they can begin roasting hot dogs.
While they are sitting there Adam says, “This is fun, I love it when my dad takes me camping. Do you like when your dad takes you camping Tyler?”
“I don’t know my dad, ” Tyler responds, “Dingo is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a dad.”
In that moment my heart drops. I’m hot, uncomfortable, covered in dirt, sweat, and mosquito bites, probably a few ticks, probably contracting Lyme disease in that exact moment and as I am down on my hands and knees with my face in a campfire I’m thinking to myself about how much I hate kids, I hate hot dogs, and hate campfires and then this kids goes and says that.
“I don’t know my dad, Dingo is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a dad.”
Everyone goes dead quiet, which for a group of 10-year-old boys is damn near impossible. I can feel my heart turn to play-doh inside my chest and all of my superficial anger and frustration from the heat and the kids and the fire dissipates like the smoke that’s floating up around me. Tyler has been around me all summer and has been with me for two weeks, just two weeks and he is sitting here saying “this is the closest thing I have ever had to a dad, my counselor from summer camp.”
In this instance it just hits me, Tyler is a bi-racial kid living with his grandmother, growing up in a household where everyone is white, going to a school where mostly everyone is white, and then coming to summer camp where mostly everyone is white, and finally, he gets this black camp counselor, that looks like him, that looks like maybe his father would look, and for nearly two weeks straight we spend day after day together, fishing, swimming, canoeing, building campfires and having cookouts and for this brief little moment in time he thinks to himself, “This is what it would be like to have my dad around,” and just so happens someone asked the right question at the exact right moment and he vocalized those pure and honest thoughts just as kids are known to do. And here I was acting like I didn’t want to start a damn campfire so my boy could roast some hotdogs and some marshmallows.
These thoughts rush through my brain all in a matter of seconds but it felt like we all sat in silence there for an eternity. I swallowed a lump in my throat, cursed under my breath for the feelings the kid was making me feel, fought back at least one tear and said, “Ay man ya’ll go can go ahead and open up the marshmallows. Fire will be ready in a few minutes.”
And they did, and a couple of minutes later, I had a good fire going and we roasted our hot dogs, and then we roasted our marshmallows, and we made smores, and we talked and we laughed and we had a good time… and I’ve never been more humbled in my life.