My city kid summer camp nightmare

"This gonna be a long two weeks for you!" the counselor told me. I was 9. And he was right

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 11, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Young boy resting in the park (Getty Images/franckreporter)
Young boy resting in the park (Getty Images/franckreporter)

Excerpted from " Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments" by D. Watkins (Legacy Lit, 2022). Reprinted with permission.

A week after school ended, I was sitting shotgun in the car with Dad, aka Big Dwight, with my seat a little leaned back as usual. My shoes propped up on top of my black Nike duffel bag loaded with camp clothes, shorts and tank tops, listening to his slow jams—Al Green, Luther, Frankie Beverly, and the rest of the songs that only bumped on 95.9, the radio station for old Black people. He liked to tilt the roof up, just enough for the sun to gleam over his waves. He obsessed over his curls for hours every day with all types of grease, sheen, and exotic oils, usually sealed tight under his do-rag, all the way up till he did the big reveal, peeling the cap off, making us seasick with the dark waves he had worked so hard on.

"Do you really wanna go?" he asked.

I didn't want to go, but I didn't want to look scared either. But I was scared.

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I was raised in an environment where fear was lied about, even if you were nine years old. I'd never been away from my family, or even outside of Baltimore, so any other place my fear could have been natural. But it wasn't for me. The people I respected taught me that fear was the worst thing a man could be. I had to hold it during the drive, and it felt like I was the only person in the world capable of harvesting this weak emotion, so I did what any guy in this situation would do: I lied.

"I'm not scared of anything," I said, with a straight face.

 "Good, you shouldn't be," he said. "But I didn't ask you if you were scared, I asked if you really wanted to go."

I looked at my feet. Last year's Jordans –– the fire-red version of the 3s. The same as Ant had last year, and just as clean and new. Classics now. My new-new Jordans were in my bag. My 3s had a bit of a crinkle in the center now because I wore them so much. I'd laced them with the whitest shoestrings anybody has ever seen. I washed them in Clorox, then let them soak in a cup of Clorox overnight, before washing them in Clorox again. "It seems like we never have any bleach," my mom commented one day, scratching her head.

"I don't wanna go, Dad, I don't care about a fucking camp," I said. "I told Ma it sounds stupid, like, why I gotta do this? Why me?" 

"Well, I think you should try new things. I've never been to camp," he said. "Maybe you'll like it." 

Fathers have one job. It looks like many jobs—but all of the jobs fall under the same umbrella: Protect.

Fathers are supposed to protect. 

We were both scared. We couldn't say how scared we were. 

I slung my duffel over my left shoulder and we walked toward the pickup location at this west Baltimore church. A bunch of kids were standing in front in a collage of brown — boys, girls, fat kids with acne, skinny kids, long-faced kids, young and older kids, some bald, others hairy. They wore bright-colored Nike, Fila, and Etonics and carried big luggage, or stuffed book bags that wouldn't zip shut, and duffels like mine, or trash bags — so many kids had their belongings in trash bags.

I scanned the crowd, not a cousin in sight.

 "Didn't Ma say some of my cousins were comin' too?" "She definitely told me that," Dad replied. "You'll be okay, though." He spread his arms wide and wrapped them around me — squeezing me breathless, burying my fade into his chest. He said to call him if anything went wrong. I played it cool as I bopped off, my bag in hand. I glanced back; he stood by his car swinging his hand in a slow wave. I shot him a peace sign and got on the bus.

We were both scared. We couldn't say how scared we were. 

* * *

After the longest bus ride of my life with a bunch of kids I didn't know, a wooden sign that read "Camp Farthest Out" greeted us as we pulled into a parking lot next to another group of buses. The kids bolted off. One hour had felt like ten hours. I didn't know what I was pulling into.

Camp Farthest Out was established in 1962 with the purpose of "providing a camping experience for a wide range of disadvantaged youths of all races and creeds," is what its mission statement says. The thirty-seven-acre camp site is situated in the Carroll County section of Sykesville, Maryland, and allegedly provided "healthful surroundings in the great outdoors, with a nature trail, an in-ground swimming pool, a playing field, and a basketball court," just like my mom said.

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"Line up!" a neckless, wide, tree-stump-shaped man yelled. "Shut up and line up!" he said again to us kids. "The quicker we get you into your cabins, the quicker we can start our two weeks of fun!"

A group of mid-teens and early twenty-somethings in khaki shorts and tattered sneakers assembled in front of us. I scanned the crowd — again, no cousins. Just a sea of brown faces, even more now with all the buses unloaded, all strangers.

People looked at me. I looked at them. Some with direct eye contact and others eyeing my sneakers. A few pointing them out to the person that they were talking to.

It felt like everybody had somebody, except me.

"N***a! What the fuck yew lookin' at!" a short, pretty-eyed girl in pink spat in my direction. "I'll get yew fucked up!"

"Huh?" I replied.

"Ya lil freak-ass, lil dick-suckin' whore! Shit-ball lil bitch, fuck you!" screamed a lanky, long-toothed guy over my shoulder.

""Don't get killed before the week out!"

She charged past me with an overhand right, and the guy bobbed, grabbed her arm, and sent her spirally until she tripped and slid into the dirt. Her pink was now dust brown. She popped back up, rushing again, only to be intercepted by a female counselor. A male counselor grabbed the long-toothed dude by his neck and squeezed until we could see every long tooth inside of the kid's mouth; he must have had sixty molars. His busted track shoes dangled as the man-sized counselor lifted him off of the ground.

"Don't get killed before the week out!" the counselor yelled.

I put my head down. I'd have to get through these two weeks without being choked out, or "killed."

"Oh, he was here last summer, that dude don't play," some boy behind me mumbled.

The cabins were based on gender and age. Each of the counselors held up cards — the seven- to ten-year-old boys were to go with the man holding the 7–10 card, and seven- to ten-year-old girls were to bunk with the lady, but I decided to line up with the thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds. My cousins were a few years older than me, so if they did make it to the camp, I would be in their group.

I towered over most nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-olds, with a size 10 shoe, so no one questioned my age. Unfortunately, the counselor for thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds was the neckless stump guy. His name was Heavy.

"Get in a straight line and follow me to the cabin!" Heavy instructed. "Get out of line, get fucked up!"

We marched to one of the many cabins on the boys' side of the site. The inside was lined with wall-to-wall beds, the thin kind like those in jails or military bases on television. The other boys wasted no time claiming bunks. I flopped my bag on a vacant bed near the center.

"Yo, my cousin bed is next to yours, let me get that so I can be by my cousin," said a tall pie-faced boy. He had man-sized shoulders and a thousand freckles. He was built like an uncle, stockier than everybody in the cabin. I thought the kid was too yellow to be Black, like he was mixed with something, but he had to be Black, because everybody else was. I didn't push back, I just picked up my bag and found another bed across the room. Him and his cousin burst out laughing.

As we settled, I noticed again that everybody seemed to be laughing and joking like they knew each other for years. I realized this camp was something they did every summer.

"Yo, Heavy, where da bathroom?" one of the kids asked.

"It's out the back door, and three minutes up that pathway," Heavy replied, pointing, jaws wobbling just like the meat that hung from his arms. "But at night, it's a bucket out back for you to piss in."

"Yuck!" a number of us said in unison.

"Aye! Aye! You can't go through dem woods at night!" Heavy screamed over us. "You can't go through dem woods at night!" he repeated. "The KKK is known to snatch up young n***as in doze woods!"

"What's a KKK?" a small mousy kid whispered to me. "That's racist white people who dress up in all white sheets like ghosts and try to kill you," I replied. "I never seen any 'round my way. I really never see white people at all, except the cops."

"Shorty, shut the fuck up when I'm talkin'!" Heavy breathed in my direction, barreling through the crowd. "You think you tough?"

I stood silent.

"Fuck is you deaf?" he continued, stepping closer, eyeballs blood-beat red like he plucked them out of his head and soaked them in cheap vodka every night. His neck and shoulders straight, chest inflated, forehead and eyebrows clenched into an angry fist.

With one swing he knocked away the two boys in front of me to get closer, foam and spit-ash growing around his mouth.

Next thing I knew Heavy's arms were wrapped around my neck. I was in a headlock, my forehead lost in his arm meat, my breath slipping away.

"Nah, I ain't deaf," I said. "You told us to shut the fuck up." The cabin shook with boys' laughter, and "Yo crazzzzzies!" Next thing I knew Heavy's arms were wrapped around my neck. I was in a headlock, my forehead lost in his arm meat, my breath slipping away, the cabin still laughing, harder now. "You still funny, n***a?" he asked, squeezing my head tighter, his slimy arm fluid oozing into my face, my hair, my nostrils, my mouth. Smothered, I was fading. He dumped me on the floor.

The fire in me wanted to pop up, square up with my chin dipped, and give him an overhand right, a left, and another right to knock him on his fat ass.

I wanted that respect, that fear — I wanted the other people in the cabin to fear me, like I feared them.

But I just laid there, balled up, defeated.

"Where you from, lil n***a?" Heavy breathed, standing over me. "Never seen you, where you from?"

"Down the hill, n***a!" I barked, wiping his sweat off of me. "Down the hill."

"Ohhhhhhhhhhh!" they all yelled. "Yoooooo!" Heavy included.

"Yous a lil ova east n***a!" Heavy laughed. "Boy, this a Murphy Fuckin' Homes cabin!"

Murphy Homes was a housing project in west Baltimore, located near the church where the bus picked us up. All of these kids were strangers to me because they were from west Baltimore. East and west Baltimore are two different worlds. They might as well be two different planets — we don't come on their side, and they don't come on ours. There's no history on why we're so divided; however, I'd bet my money on it having something to do with Baltimore's historically poor public transportation. A ride from my east Baltimore block to the center of west Baltimore takes about thirteen minutes by car, and probably one and a half hours by bus.

"Okay, lil n***as!" Heavy yelled, dragging a small dingy towel across his face. "Line up, we gonna march down to meet with the rest of the campers for orientation."

"Get ya shit together, lil East Side," Heavy huffed in my direction. "This gonna be a long two weeks for you!"

* * *

We spiraled down a dusty trail of rocks and trampled grass — dirt brushed my Jordans. I wished for my cousins to appear; they would crack Heavy in the head with a baseball bat, they'd be happy to do it. They cared about me, and that's how they showed it. If my cousins were there, I thought, he wouldn't have ever put his hands on me. 

But they weren't there, and they weren't coming, and I knew it.

I was alone and would have to figure it out alone.

"Yo, are you okay?" that mousy kid squeaked. "Hey man, what is your name?" he continued as if I hadn't ignored him, tapping my shoulder. "What they call you?"

"D," I said, without turning around. "And I'm good, fuck Heavy."

"I'm Antwan, everybody call me Twan. Heavy is okay for the most part, just don't give him a reason to mess with you." 

Twan was bony, even skinner than I was, so skinny he didn't have shoulders. He had a flat fade, accompanied by a bird-ish face and mannerisms to match. He was from Murphy Homes housing project too, like every other kid in our bunk except me. He was also my age but opted to stay in his older cousin's group. His cousin was Jabari, the freckled pie-face guy that asked me to switch beds. I guess everybody was Jabari's cousin.

The counselors, our "big brothers and sisters," were our judge and jury.

We reached the end of the trail where all the different age groups sat on the ground or on benches or chairs in front of an older Black man with salt-and-pepper hair, in one of those short-sleeved button-ups that only older Black men wear, with jeans and church shoes. He shared the laws of the land. No sex, no fighting, no drugs, no kissing, no touching, and the counselors, our "big brothers and sisters," were our judge and jury — and if we were bad, we weren't being sent home, so we shouldn't even think about acting up or out.

He continued with the shower rules, and how we'd learn to swim, become Red Cross certified, praise Jesus; and how we'd go on a five-mile hike, be fed three meals a day with dessert, hear camp stories, and play ball, and how we'd remember our time at Camp Farthest Out forever.

His speech was followed by a huge feast—crispy chicken nuggets with white meat inside, not the gray stuff I was used to, curly fries, chocolate cake, milk, juice, Neapolitan ice cream, and we could take as many servings as we wanted.

After dinner, we all challenged each other to foot races, and shared stories about our families, the sneakers we loved, and dirt bikes. I shared how I had rode a PW50 and was going to get a CR80 when I got bigger. We revealed our crushes and what they looked like, being happy to be able to swim all day whenever we wanted, how good those nuggets were, and how good it felt to be out of our neighborhoods even though Heavy was probably going to knock all of our teeth out by the last day. I didn't want to come, but camp was starting to seem okay. I felt the power of independence — it was freeing in a way.

In my neighborhood, sounds of nature were sirens and gunshots.

I returned to the cabin and stretched across my bunk, dozing off to a sound I had never heard in real life: crickets. It sounded like there were millions of crickets screaming through my window. In my neighborhood, sounds of nature were sirens and gunshots. Crickets were probably eaten by all of the mouse-sized cockroaches that were scattered all over the place.

Something crawled in my nose—it's a dream, back to sleep—no something definitely is in my nose. I swatted my face with my right hand, and heard boys giggling by my bed- side. I felt something wet in my left hand and opened my eyes. My hand was covered in mustard.

"Yoooooo, I thought you was left-handed from how you hooped," a beady-eyed boy named Kareem chuckled, hold- ing a perfectly twisted piece of paper. "You was supposed to smash mustard in ya face!" 

Jabari was next to him, and passed me the squeezable French's mustard bottle. "Come on, East Side, get the fuck up. You gotta help us get somebody now," he ordered, yanking me out of bed. 

I wiped the mustard on a towel that belonged to the kid in the next bunk, and followed them across the room. The glow from the moon shone just enough for me to see through the rows of sleeping Black boy faces. We were all exhausted after dinner, likely from the bus ride, the racing, the chicken nuggets, the unspoken anxiety.

"Get him," Kareem whispered, pointing to a plump kid. "Look, get him."

The kid was in a deep sleep, resting flat on his back with his mouth wide open. The plan was to put some mustard in his hand while someone else used the twisted paper to tickle his nose, so that he'd react, rubbing mustard on his face. I thought it was stupid.

Kareem and Jabari made their way to their beds and got into position to pretend to be asleep as I screwed the top off of the mustard, centered the container above the plump kid's head, and dumped a glob of mustard right onto the center of his face. I don't know if he was dreaming or allergic to mustard or just scared, but he let out a scream like I'd never heard before, "TAAAAAAAAAAA! YAAAAAAAAAAA!" It sounded like a bag of baby kittens had been dropped into a pot of boiling grease. I jetted to my bed and dived under the paper-thin covers as everyone woke up wondering what the heck that was. Jabari even fake-rubbed his eyes like, "What's goin' on, yo? Why y'all so loud?"

As the fat kid started to wipe the mustard off with a shirt, our cabin rumbled with laughter.

We cackled loud until Heavy entered.

He made his way to the kid's bed, knocked the shirt out of his hand, and punched him hard.

He made his way to the kid's bed, knocked the shirt out of his hand, and punched him hard, knocking the mustard off of his face — knocking some blood out too. "Bitch," he yelled. "You fuckin' bitch!" 

The laughing stopped, all of the noise stopped — we just sat there and watched Heavy pound until he was tired of pounding. "Keep cryin', bitch, and I'ma do it again!"

Finally, Heavy hunched his way back to his room, exhausted.

Kareem tucked his head under his cover and kept it there. Jabari giggled.

I just watched.

* * *

The next morning the plump kid's bed was vacant, and his bags were gone.

Rumors circulated about him being sent home or transferred to another cabin. It was all my fault. I was just messing around. I wasn't a bully. I hated bullies. I didn't want to pick on anyone. I never knew it would lead to a beating. Heavy just plows through people as if there's no consequences, I thought, as if we don't have family that he'll have to answer to. 

"I got that lil bitch sent to another cabin," Heavy said to us as we lined up for breakfast, his big face still Brailled with beads of sweat, always wiping himself with a beige napkin or towel that used to be white. "Any other of you lil bitches wanna switch cabins?" 

I wanted to raise my hand, I wanted to bunk with kids my age. By now I knew that my cousins weren't coming, nobody's coming and these dudes are crazy, I thought. Camp is bullshit, ain't no Jesus here. I told Ma, but she didn't listen, she never listens — maybe she'll listen if Heavy smashes my skull in and they send me home in a pine box.

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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