“Ah yes, I remember it well. It was on a night not unlike tonight …”
The tip of his cigarette glowed in the darkness, briefly revealing his features when he took a puff. Mostly he moved back and forth across the small outdoor stage spinning his yarns in the night to the expectant kids and counselors.
Back in those days when summer started on Memorial Day and ended on Labor Day, summer camp had a rhythm — cycles of the day, week and the month-long term. (Was that the last gasp of civilization? Did we rob future generations of knowing a real three-month-long summer?) Our summer camp had three four-week terms and while the kids came for one term, the counselors were usually there for two or three. There were a few permanent residents of the camp, employees that ran things and provided continuity, including my uncle, nicknamed “Tart.”
My folks probably couldn’t have afforded to send three of us there were it not for the family connection. Following WWII, the former University of Texas swim team coach and an ex-admiral in the Navy decided to build a summer camp on a remote peninsula in a central Texas reservoir. Members of a group recently returned from service — including my father and uncle — were invited to help build the camp. They swam and ferried supplies a quarter-mile across the reservoir to build the place, otherwise accessible only by a treacherous, rocky track. Army surplus equipment was plentiful, and various items became standard features, including airplane fuel tanks used for pontoons on rafts and floating cabins. Afterwards, several individuals, including Tart, decided to stay on and help set up and run the camp. By the late 50’s and early ’60’s they were an indelible part of the place.
Each day’s rhythm concluded with a gathering around a small bonfire where concrete steps provided seating for the 130 campers and counselors. The small stage backed onto a screen, not unlike a drive-in theater, where Saturday night films could be shown. There was a limited number of films, including several WC Fields black-and-white shorts, Disney’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and a few others. Counselors and return campers knew the plots and dialogue by heart.
The real draw for the ‘campfire’ wasn’t the daily announcements, the camper’s skits, or the counselor’s comedy routines, but Tart’s story time. It was the last item of the evening, darkness prevailed and with all the lights off, the stars were incredible. The dwindling campfire flickered as Tart took the stage, lit his cigarette and began a story in a rough, husky voice.
First he asked some of the front row campers to ‘remind’ him where he had gotten in the story over previous nights. After a few follow-up questions, he’d ‘remember’ where he was and resume the story. Usually the story featured some spunky kid finding himself in dire circumstances — part mystery, part suspense, often involving bandits, pirates or spies. As the kid worked his way through the puzzle, Tart’s slow voice carried us all along on the adventure, wrapped in darkness lit only by the campfire, the stars and the glow of his cigarette.
Inevitably, just as the kid would fall prey to a trap or be on the verge of capture, the time ran out for that evening and the story had to be continued on a subsequent night. Campers and counselors alike headed for their bunks anticipating the future drama and wondering about the final outcome.
Unfortunately, the camp schedules never seemed to allow for the conclusion to Tart’s stories. As term end approached, there were more and more activities that had to be conducted at ‘campfire,’ so the stories always hung at a crucial point, unresolved. Would Tommy get out of the cave? Would his father fall prey to the foreign thugs trying to steal the formula? Did he and his horse go over the cliff? I guess we’d have to wait for next year to find out.
Of course, by the next year, a different story was being told, so each of us had to rely on our imagination, our own creativity, to finish the story. That was alright, because in the intervening year campers grew some and experienced more and were ready to move on. It was also necessary, because I had learned that Tart’s stories weren’t fixed; they evolved from whatever he was thinking about at any given time. He too found out what the story was about each night, because it was created on the spot every time.
Sure, he’d often remember characters and events from his earlier stories, but they were all similar to each other, and similar enough to the whole genre of kid adventure stories that they didn’t need to be complicated with unusual plots or radically-different characters. Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, Andy Lane, the Air Service Boys, and dozens of other fictional adventure-finding youths provided the characters and the plots. Saturday matinee serials like Jungle Jim, the Lone Ranger and Buck Rogers added new details and twists.
Layered over it all was Tart’s strong sense of story, his knack for telling a good yarn. He could make it compelling and believable, and keep us on the edge of our uncomfortable, concrete seats. I’m sure the darkness and the stars set the stage, but we were all held transfixed by the mystery and suspense of the glowing cigarette and the rough voice in the darkness.
I don’t know if that experience is possible anymore, with books, movies, TV shows and video games expanding our fictional experiences. Reading Harry Potter to my son may be the closest he’ll ever get to that kind of storytelling.
Maybe that’s not bad, but it does seem a shame. I know I’ll never forget the experience I had with Tart’s stories told around that campfire. And, yes, I remember it well.