Shame

Shame

In the summer of 1971, I was a counsellor at Camp Chapleau, a summer camp for underprivileged children run by The Old Brewery Mission (http://www.oldbrewerymission.ca/index_en.htm). I don’t know if the camp still exists as I am unable to find word of it on their website.

Anyway, one of my best friends at the time, Gary Campbell, was already going to be a counsellor, along with his sister; he encouraged me and I applied and got the job as a counsellor for the “little ones”, boys of about eight years of age. Every counsellor at the camp was known by a nickname; with a surname like Silverman, I was known as “Stirling”.

Every child at the camp stayed only two weeks; the majority of them were of Greek origin and, despite my famous memory, I don’t remember too much about them except that a few of them wet their beds. Every night around midnight it was up to me to pull the bedwetters out of the tent at so that they could have their pee outside instead of on their sheets. (It was camp policy that if a kid wet his bed he had to haul the soiled sheets to the main building/dining hall in front of everyone). Needless to say, the tent, and the area surrounding it, always stank of old piss, a smell that somehow never went away.

I was in a sad phase of my life. I had started meditating the previous fall in a fit of despair. Suffering from the effects of an unhappy childhood which included a lot of verbal and physical abuse from my emotionally unwell mother, I had been close to suicide at times and eager for a way out. Eastern philosophy and practice, with its talk of Enlightenment and Bliss, was where I turned to. It didn’t make me any happier for the first few years, but at least it took my mind away from more calamitous deliberations.

I used to listen to meditative Bruce Cockburn songs before he became political (“I’m looking to be by a window, That looks out on the sea, Anybody here know, Where such a place is? Surf of golden sunlight, Breaking over me, Man of a thousand faces”). I wasn’t a happy camper.

I also had a crush on Gary’s sister. You’d think that with a name like “Campbell” Gary was of British or Scottish origins. But no, Gary was tall, muscular and swarthy with an aggressive outgoing personality, always pushing me, even in his affections. His sister was dark and gorgeous, tall with long auburn hair with a distinct Arabic or Persian face (ah, I remember now, her father was a Native American Indian!). When I heard from Gary that she “liked me”, I tried to overcome my shyness but failed miserably. We were both the quiet types and, unable to sustain lively conversation, discovered that besides youthful lust (at least on my side) we didn’t have much in common. Or if we did, we never found out.

Once, back in Montreal, I took her on a date and when she kissed me goodnight, I found myself on the receiving end of the most erotic and satisfying kiss I’ve ever had, even now 42 years later. Which shows you that it’s possible to relate to someone profoundly on a physical non-verbal level, if only that.

Besides the few surviving memories that I have of that summer are those of the exquisite beauty of the camp. Yes, it was a place where only very underprivileged children could escape the heat of the city, but the place itself was blessed with three lakes and acres of beautiful Laurentian forests.

Another memory is of being thrown into the shallow end of the lake by the other counsellors for breaking the rule concerning the dress code at the beach. I had come down to swim instruction one afternoon not dressed in a bathing suit. I had had a fever, I seem to remember, and sent down my kids with another counsellor. When they saw me dressed in t-shirt and shorts, the counsellors grabbed me by the arms and threw me in anyway. It was shallow, as I’ve said, and I came up bleeding with little stones and pebbles carved into my side. I still have the scars on my right side to prove it.

The last memory, the shameful one, happened one Sunday morning. The camp director, I forget his name, came every Sunday to give a sermon. This man, besides being the Director and the person who had interviewed me for the job, was also a pastor or a priest. So there we were, the entire camp, gathered in the dining room for the weekly sermon.

He began an inspirational talk about Jesus, I assume. I still had this fever or cold; I was out of it, I remember. I sniffed, sniveled or coughed. The camp director looked up and laced into me with such venom! “You!” he cried, pointing at me. “You think that you’re being funny. You think that you know everything. It’s people like you who spoil everything. You disgust me!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I sat still with complete, utter shock, red in the face and unable to hide my deeply-felt humiliation. The whole camp — sitting there, surrounding me — was absolutely quiet, thoughts and feelings frozen in disbelief. What had I done to provoke such an attack? Absolutely nothing.

Perhaps he didn’t like Jews; perhaps he didn’t like my face. Perhaps I looked as if I was smirking during his sermon. I didn’t, and still don’t, have a clue. I only felt, on leaving the hall with the rest of the camp, that I had been unfairly attacked. “Abused” is too mild a word. If I had been physically struck down I would not have felt less attacked.

Did it leave, as you would imagine, a lasting effect upon me? Curiously, not immediately afterwards during my remaining days at the camp. Some of my friends were sympathetic to me and let me know it. But obviously, to bring it up so many years later, it must have left a deep impression regarding the potential nastiness that exists beneath the surface of the world, how “friends” (and I had conducted only friendly, if albeit minimum, interactions with the Director) could turn on you, in an instant, and wish for your public humiliation, if not destruction.

Within a relatively short period, Gary and I grew apart; we went to different CEGEPs. I never saw him, or his beautiful sister, except for that one date, ever again.

My relationship with The Old Brewery Mission didn’t suffer. For many years I was as donor and even donated extra vegetables from my market garden about six or seven years ago, boxes and boxes of onions and potatoes.

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