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Canoe Counselor (The Camp We-No-Naugh Way)
Fiction by David Portz

My dad said I should make more duties for myself. He said I shouldn’t just stay in my room being addicted to electronics. He said when he was my age he had a job bagging groceries. I said they don’t bag groceries anymore they are delivered. He said there must be other jobs. When he was a kid there was a big recession, he said, and he still worked.  Right now we are in a recession. I don’t see why he gets to stand in the doorway of my room anyway. It’s my room - I don’t care if it’s embedded in his house. When he gets mad he calls me “young lady”.

I decided I’d show him.  I’d get a job and be out and away from all his standing in the doorway.   My dad said that when he was a kid his parents were always nagging him about his long hair, so he got a “butch.”  My dad’s head is all knobby now so that’s the way it must’ve been then.  I got a job as a camp counselor and went to stay at an all girls camp the entire summer. Camp We-No-Naugh.  Only when I moved into my tent did I realize that the camp didn’t have Wi-Fi.   I felt that living outdoors without Wi-Fi must be like having a completely exposed knobby head, just to get back at people. It completely sucks.

Plus being a counselor isn’t as simple as I thought it would be: just hanging out with adoring little girls coming up to your elbow. I had exaggerated a little bit about the extent of my ability in paddling a canoe in order to get the job. Being a camp counselor is also about being rah-rah about the camp experience, singing songs while clapping and smiling, rocking back and forth around campfires, watching as if I care while they raise and lower the camp flag, the pledge of allegiance. There’s a certain amount of cleanup after the meals and in the shower building because little kids can’t do anything without losing their soap, leaving their wet towels, and not taking their plates back. Even though there’s a lot of social pressure about every one of these things being bad for the environment.  And somebody always gets hurt or is crying, has something in their sleeping bag, mosquito bites scratched until they’re open sores or coming down with appendicitis. Blisters from hiking, broken arms from night-time snipe hunts, horse bites from Prince Testy and Trigger Mortis, and, clearly my department, burpy hiccups and crying after tumped-over canoes.

I was worried about my having to teach kids how to canoe even though I didn’t know anything much about it. In this case my Dad’s talking endlessly came in handy.  He’s a professor - he professes for a living.  He said early on he worried a kid would know something he didn’t, and humiliate him. Then he’d lose tenure or something.  But he said in all his time he’d never had a younger person know more than he does.  Armed with this I felt I could teach canoeing.

A lot of canoeing is taught on land. Even more of it stays on land if you don’t know canoeing. First I could quibble about whether it’s a free period.  “What are you doing here anyway - shouldn’t you be over in knot-tying or bows and arrows? Go see if that’s where you’re supposed to be instead.”  When they turn up again then there is the paperwork to check in, then instructions on cubbies where you put your shoes and things, then getting the right paddle, putting on the PFD and how to get in and out of the canoe, practiced on the beach.

“Oh so you know this already because your mom and dad taught you at your lake house? Where’s your partner? No one is going out alone no matter what their skill level. Did you know you were supposed to bring a partner?  Go get a friend and then come back and we’ll see if we can get you in a boat. The friend will need beach instruction.” 

“Oh that kid over there is your partner and she’s paddled before?  Her mother was in the Olympics in whitewater slalom?  Do you remember that kids who know something are supposed to be partnered with kids who don’t know anything?  Why?  It’s the Camp We-No-Naugh Way.”  

It’s not a big lake, and not very deep. You’d think children would have the sense to swim to the edge and not drown if their boat flips over.  Counseling children is hard work and I wave goodbye as they bumblingly paddle off.  In their PFDs, they’re a lot of little orange flowers drifting in gray aluminum planters. 

I don’t think they’ll be out there long because I’ve already seen lightning. Surely they have the sense to come in when it strikes.  That seems like something you don’t have to tell someone.

I wave goodbye to the descendants of Olympians once they’ve returned their canoes and put their gear away. Little tiny bougies with torsos straight as pipes, reflecting years of gymnastics.

That night I cry alone in my tent.  There is a knock on the canvas.

 A person calling himself Philippe says he’s the canoe counselor on the boys’ side, way across the lake.  I look at him as if he’s from the moon.  He explains that he thinks he can help me. 

I am also the person in charge of the key that unlocks the canoes in the boat racks any time day or night. There is at least one other person with a key - the lady in charge of the camp, Miss Glenda, whom we seldom see.  She did not clearly tell me as a key-keeper that I could not unlock the canoes in the middle of the night.  She seemed more concerned with the camp songs, many of which she wrote, and upon which we counselors took an exam, and a second exam after she reviewed the results of the first.  Point being also, she’s not the type to roam around at night.

Phillipe speaks with a slight French accent and I don’t know if it’s fake but it’s adorable.  Philippe said you don’t know how to paddle zee canoe, do you?

Philippe said his parents were from the French part of Philadelphia, and they had split up. I told him my mom and dad had parted company based on radically different narratives. I told Philippe that while my mom was embarked on a voyage of self-discovery my dad was left as captain of the garbage scow which is my life. I said in this camp I had refugee status.  

It is not the ideal instructional setting, at night on a lake. Nonetheless I made progress.  I mean these little ones don’t need the all the named strokes.  They just need to know the person in the front is the motor and the person in the back angles this way and that to get where you want things to go.  Philippe said I picked up things quickly.  Philippe has curly hair which looks black at night but may be dark brown. He has lips which are puckered as if they are about to say things in French. Also brown eyes, good eyes. Philippe said my eyes were good also. 

I was much better the second day, if a little sleepy, and took small groups of girls out on the water.  I told them their parents would be grateful I took it slow and assured they had complete instructions.  Nonetheless one boat flipped over and the girls thrashed about a bit until they realized they were just outside the wading area.  That night I went to the boys’ camp across the lake and knocked on tent doors until I found Philippe.  I got a few more things figured out and felt somewhat ashamed but also grateful.  He really is a nice boy and I met his tentmate also, Francois.

By means of my double life I came forward very rapidly as the camp’s canoe counselor.  Philippe showed me a good bit and François chipped in also.  I felt I would be able to go home afterwards and see my father a bit differently because I was making my way in the world quite well thank you.  In many ways a grown woman.  Squirmy camp-song earworms grew in my head - I hope they go away by the time I get to college.  The horse-riding counselor was thrown the fourth week and broke her back and it turned out she didn’t know anything about horse riding except always use a blanket. At the end of the summer Miss Glenda was revealed to have an alcohol problem and a bankruptcy problem and I think I will not be able to get this same job next summer. But if everything works out I would like to teach canoeing in France. 




The author, David Portz