Working Stiff: Memories of Being a Summer Camp Counselor, Pelican Lake, Wisc.
I vividly remember the summer of 1968. All hell was breaking loose all over the world. Meanwhile, I was comfortably ensconced in a teenage cocoon. A hormonal bubble. Sixteen and raging. In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, we had moved one contiguous suburb of Milwaukee west-from New Berlin to Waukesha-and I was scheming to hang onto my girlfriend from New Berlin West High School. I finished up the school year at New Berlin, but would enter Waukesha South as a junior in the fall.
Marci and I thought we could maintain our relationship long distance, and made a point of trying to hook up over the summer, to prove to our parents and friends but mostly ourselves that, yes, it could work, damn it. Yeah, right. Not so much. It didn't help that she was leaving for six weeks to work as a camp counselor at Pelican Lake, which was, as we say in Wisconsin, "up north." Couple hundred miles. Three and a half long hours.
My parents' old family friends Butch and Blanche ran a bar on another lake about 12 miles away from Marci's job site and I somehow managed to con Dad into letting me join him and my stepmom Harriet up there for a summer weekend with the ultimate goal of crashing the camp. We drove up after he finished work on a Friday night, checked in, went to our friends' bar, closed it and came back, retiring for the night.
It wasn't until Saturday morning we realized how run down the joint was. Ma Rasmussen's Cottages were obviously going through some rough times: the place had been built as a roadhouse in the 1920s and hadn't been updated since.
To say the cottages looked dilapidated is to say the Pacific Ocean is moist. 10 small round buildings in a semi-circle around a main office. Two rooms. An actual ice box in the kitchenette, with tongs on the wall to carry from the icehouse next to the manager's cabin closest to the road. My particular sleeping arrangement was a cot in the kitchen area. A lumpy cot.
After laughing at our predicament and succumbing to our living conditions, I found out where Marci's camp was and convinced Dad to lend me the car to drive over there. I dropped him and Harriet off at the bar and stopped at a gas station to get directions to the camp where she was counseling. Marci had plans to be a Phys. Ed major and her job at camp was to run the kids ragged so they would blessedly fall asleep at night. That particular weekend she was putting together a kids triathlon. Swimming, biking, and running. but really short distances.
The rich parents from Chicago who sent kids away for two weeks didn't really want the wee ones throwing up or collapsing from exhaustion. A heat stroke victim is neither a happy nor a return camper. I got there in time to help set up the pylons for the triathlon before lunch and ate lunch with the rest of the counselors, which ended up being my pay for the day. Afterward, I helped officiate the Ironkid Race.
They seemed to be great kids. I was only a couple years older than them, but had them laughing mostly by poking fun at all the other counselors including Marci, which she seemed to be taking well. A normal triathlon progression is swim, bike, run, but because of the way the grounds were laid out, it was more conducive to first run to the dock, swim across to the edge of the ball field then bike back to the parking lot. So that was the plan. Only about 20 of the bigger kids out of the 80 at camp entered, which was good, because that's the amount of bikes they had.
Somehow I got a hold of one of those "Big Wheels" tricycles and went down to meet the kids at the dock. I thought it would be funny if I just kept riding off the end of the pier on the tricycle. Some kids laughed so hard they almost drowned. Marci was furious. She went from 16 to 60 in an instant: "What were you thinking? You could have killed yourself! What if you had lost the tricycle?" And even though I was 30 feet away from the nearest one: "You could have hit a kid!" Wow.
I kept waiting for a break from her scathing attack to reveal she was kidding, but no: this was serious. Maybe too serious for me. We continued our whispered fight behind one of the dorms and I mumbled some apologetic remorse and left, heading back from the camp at a fraction of the speed that I had approached it.
And the rest of the weekend was pretty much a bummer. My family went back home on Sunday and Marci and I might have talked two or three times later that summer but then again we might have not. But I knew I could ride a Big Wheel. And look good doing it. Come on. Driving a Big Wheel off a pier into a lake? I should have called this my stunt man job.
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