I can’t remember how old I was when I first discovered the neighborhood Boy’s Club. I also can’t remember if my father told me about it, or if one of my classmates took me there. I can remember, however, that once I walked through those gigantic oak doors, it quickly became my favorite place in the entire city.
It was the ultimate city kid’s paradise. They had shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, billiards, darts, basketball, and board games. They also had a huge library with the neatest books and magazines that I had ever seen.
Periodicals like Boys Life, Outdoor World, and National Geographic filled the enormous shelves. I spent many wonderful hours in that library.
My favorite place in the entire boys club was the basement. That’s where the swimming pool was! To me, that swimming pool was gigantic. It was hundreds of times larger than the tiny metal kiddy pool in our backyard.
I loved swimming there. I went almost every day after school and on weekends. I couldn’t get enough of the place.
I also discovered something even better than the swimming pool at the Boy’s Club—their Summer Camp.
I was walking out the front door one evening when I spotted a notice that summer camp reservations were being taken. I immediately ran up to the clerk behind the desk to inquire about it. When he told me, I couldn’t believe it.
The boy’s club had a camp in the woods of southern Wisconsin with log cabins, a deep blue lake, golden meadows, and thick green forests. You could sign up for two-week trips. Without needing to know any other details, I demanded that the clerk sign me up.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “You have to get your parents to sign this consent form, and they have to pay the camp fee. It’s all right here in this pamphlet.”
I grabbed that pamphlet and raced home as fast as I could. I burst into the house screaming that I wanted to go to summer camp.
“Please, please, please! Can I go? Can I go?”
My parents read the pamphlet over very carefully and told me that they would think about it and let me know their decision. That answer wasn’t good enough for me. I pestered them constantly until they agreed.
I don’t remember how much that summer camp cost, but I’m sure it was enough to put a crimp in their tight budget. But, they let me go anyway. At that moment, they were the best parents in the whole wide world!
The big day finally arrived. I pestered my mother that we had to get to the boy’s club early. I would die if I missed that bus, and it would be her fault.
She had my bag all packed, and away we went. I jumped on that bus and demanded that the driver get going. I was ready!
It was only a two-hour ride to that summer camp, but I sincerely believe that those were the longest 2 hours of my life.
When I look at a map today, or drive past the old camp on my way to the northwoods, I can’t help but laugh. That camp was only 90 miles from the big city, but at that time in my life I thought it was on the other side of the world.
For me, that camp was a wilderness paradise. It was heaven. It was the escape route which enabled me to leave the bustling, dirty, crowded city far behind. My grandmother’s backyard was wonderful, but this place was absolutely fantastic.
They had a lake to swim in; they had woods and meadows to explore; and they had all sorts of wild critters and insects to study! What more could a kid like me ask for?
Those first two weeks at summer camp went much too quickly for me. I couldn’t get enough of the place. I could never decide what to do next.
Should I go swimming or boating? Should I explore this meadow or that grove of trees? What kinds of bugs or animals should I examine today?
God, I need more time. Dear God, please give me more time!
The camp counselors had to drag me onto that bus for the terrible trip home. I did not want to leave - ever.
I also remember that when the bus got back to my neighborhood, I simply refused to get off. My mother had to climb aboard and try to convince me to get off.
“Mom, this bus is going right back to camp. Please let me go back. I’ll do anything you want. I’ll be good. I’ll be better than good. Please, can I go back? Please!”
My poor mother had really not anticipated that I might take to summer camp like a fish took to water.
“Why don’t you go back in two weeks, Edward? I’ve got to wash your clothes, honey; and I don’t think we have enough time before the bus leaves again.”
I quickly unzipped my old duffel bag and proudly showed my mother all the clean pressed clothes in it. She looked extremely puzzled by this.
“Did you wash all of these clothes by yourself, honey? Did the camp counselors do that for you?”
To this day, my dear old mother still laughs about my very honest answer to her question.
“Uh, not exactly, Mom. I never wore them. They’re still as clean and fresh as when you packed them!”
When my mother examined the clothes that I was wearing, she knew that I was telling the truth. My shirt, pants, and sneakers were completely covered in dirt, mud, grass stains, pig poop, fish scales, bug parts, and God knows what else. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had my bathing suit on under my jeans.
After the first day at camp, I had decided that it took far too much time to take my underpants off, put my bathing suit on, take my bathing suit off, etc., etc. There was just too much to do at camp!
That bathing suit, whether wet or dry, stayed on my skinny little body the entire two weeks. I often fell exhausted onto my cot in the cabin in the woods at night with sopping wet trunks on. I didn’t care.
After laughing hysterically, my mother said that I could go back to camp. She kissed me; I hugged and thanked her; and she got off the bus and went inside to pay for another two weeks.
I saw her waving at me as the bus pulled out again. I waved back. What a Mom!
I spent the next several years attending that magnificent summer camp in the glorious woods of Wisconsin. I often went for several two-week sessions each summer. I could never get enough of the place.
I finally stopped going when they told me that I was over the age limit. That was an extremely rotten thing to do.
Those childhood summer camp trips of mine were simply glorious. And, I immediately fell in love with ‘slop duty.’ I always volunteered for it.
Slop duty entailed hopping onto the back of an old rusty camp pickup truck filled with gigantic, smelly, bug-infested metal barrels containing dining hall leftovers. These rotting food morsels were then driven to a nearby pig farm and fed to the farm’s numerous residents.
I adored slop duty. I loved feeding those big old pigs. I even began jumping into their big muddy pigpens, hand-feeding and cavorting with dozens of boisterous, cantankerous, and utterly fascinating swine creatures.
“Hey! Look at this, Mr. Piggy! Scrambled eggs! Try some!”
“Wow! Yummy baked beans! Who wants some of these?”
“Would you believe we have strawberry cake today, fellas? Hey! Quit shoving over there; I’ve got plenty for everybody!”
The old farmer who owned the place thought I was one wacky city kid. I guess he was right. But I did love those pigs!
I also swam in the camp lake everyday. When I got tired of swimming, I waded around the lake shallows examining bugs, crawdads, toads, frogs, turtles, worms, leeches, and anything else I could find that crawled, slithered, or breathed.
I explored every meadow, every forest area, and every inch of those campgrounds. At least two or three times a week, I would walk out into the forest, hunker down against a tree, and just listen and look.
I would close my eyes and try to figure out what kind of bird was calling. I would intently gaze into the grass or the brush or the sky to determine if there was anything moving, crawling, walking, or flying in the vicinity. I loved every minute of this.
I even began sneaking out of my cabin at night (something the counselors frowned on) and sitting silently in the deep dark woods. I would sit there and listen, and look, and learn. The sounds and the sights of the nocturnal wild thrilled me to death.
Sometimes I would spot a raccoon, a rabbit, or an opossum. I once caught a fleeting glimpse of a gorgeous red fox dashing across a meadow in the moonlight. To me, this was what I had been waiting for my entire life. To me, this was heaven on earth!
I still practice these animal listening and sighting skills to this day. I also admit it’s a habit that annoys my wife to death.
No matter where we are - in the car, in the city, in the woods, in the mountains, or at the beach - I will suddenly spot some fascinating creature, grab her by the arm, and yell, “Look at that!”
She’s usually not too impressed if the creature I’m forcing her to look at is a bug. About the only animals I think I’ve impressed her with so far have been brown bears and bald eagles.
But to me, that little bug is almost as interesting as that bear or that eagle.
Not quite, but almost!
©2003, Excerpt from Curious Creatures-Wondrous Waifs, My Life with Animals, by Ed Kostro