Stepping up to the podium, I positioned my guitar the best I could and willed my fingers into position. My palms were slick with sweat, and my mouth was dry as cotton. Looking up briefly I was immediately blinded, albeit temporarily, as the stage lights were boring into us like a dozen late afternoon suns. I locked my knees into place so they wouldn't shake and readied myself by pretending I belonged there. I was pretty sure my best friend Shannon was having an anxiety attack next to me, which only served to irritate the heck out of me. Why couldn't he just pull it together? After all, this was important. This was our big shot...
Our chariot had whisked us away to Hughsville Summer Camp.
The words, “Summer Camp”, will elicit one of two responses from those of us who have had the experienced; it will either illicit wonderful memories or overwhelming dread. For me, it was wonderful beyond compare. 7 days of freedom, with no worries, no tension, no stress of any kind. Imagine if you will an inmate on furlough, except nobody knew that you were on furlough. You were just this cool kid from New York who came down to camp every year. Nobody knew the real you… just the one you wanted to portray, and HE was cool.
New York sounds pretty important to kids from rural Pennsylvania, especially in the little town of Hughesville, and I played that up for all it was worth. “No, I’m not from the city”, I would reply when asked, “but I’ve been there enough”. True to a certain extent because I’d been there on a field trip once and had seen all I thought there was to see.
The drive to camp only took a few hours, but it was great fun. The whole way there my best friend Shannon and I, along with my brother George and cousin Mark, would make big plans for the week. We would need to build a dam in the river to create a swimming area like we did last year. Sneaking out at night was an understood adventure that would occur at least once during the week. We’d count our money to make sure we had plenty for all the supplies that we would buy from the "Snack Shack" throughout the week, (mostly soda and candy). We also needed to make sure that we had a full supply of punk sticks, bought from the same store once we got there.
(Punk sticks were these incense type sticks that you lit and let smolder down slowly. They may have looked alot like incense, but they didn't smell nearly as good. Supposedly they were to keep away the bugs, but I never met the insect they would deter. Having said that, one looked very important with one of these glowing sticks jutting from their mouth and so it was important that we had plenty. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that the use of such implements would ever be condoned today, as we were more likely than not to burn ourselves a half a dozen times while climbing the closest tree, rafter, or whatever. I am more than a little surprised that nobody burned down one of the ancient, dried out wooden cabins at some point through the years.)
Of course… there were girls. We were just reaching the age where this was an all important factor in our lives, and truth be told, they were the main motivation for us going. Many a summer camp romance bloomed into an all out passion over the coming year, and every one of us was looking forward to seeing the girl they were keen on last year. Even so, I can’t remember a romance ever being taken up again the following year. There was just no way that anyone could measure up to a year's worth of build up and expectations, so more often than not there was an awkward reunion once eyes set upon our intended. Excuses were made, hearts were broken, and new romances with the next perfect member of the opposite sex began.
Hughesville camp was a Christian camp, but none of us minded. Sure there were assigned chores, tabernacle services every evening, and assorted other organized events put on by the staff, but we had enough free time to ourselves and with our friends to make it so worth our while.
We were at an age where we didn't have to be "doing" something to be having fun. Just hanging out with our friends and girlfriends was fun enough. But there was still plenty to do.
There was the basketball court where I could show off my prowess, built soley on the fact that I was taller than everybody else. The volleyball court was much the same scene. There were a hundred diffeent places to hang out and hide out, behind and between buildings, in fields, and on the many paths that criss crossed the camp grounds.
A short walk away was a path that led to a small river, or perhaps it was a large creek. Many a warm day was spent splashing in the water, piling up rocks, and generally just having a good time.
However, of all the activities, and all the fun available, my favorite night of all was the talent show. It was where I knew my dreams of being a performer would someday be realized. Standing in front of all of those people... not only camp kids, but local town folks as well, was a heady experience. The best part of it all was that none of them knew me well enough to know that I didn't belong on stage in front of people... that was a place for people like my Dad or my Aunt, or others... you know, the TALENTED people. But here... here I was as talented as I wanted to be and these people would be none the wiser. They would only judge me by my voice, and nothing else. I was pretty confident that I could fake it well enough given those parameters.
For whatever reason, I only remember two of the talent shows, although I am fairly certain I took part in more than that. The one that really stands out is the one I did with my best friend Shannon. I had written some sort of cheesy love song called "You and Me" that was about walking hand in hand with my beloved on the crystal sands of some imagined beach, (remember the girls?)
It was another one of those defining moments in my life...
I began to strum confidently and purposefully. When I opened my mouth I defiantly belted out the melody, making sure that people got the impression that I believed I belonged up there in front of them. There was no hesitation, there was no timidity, I was the COOL Paul when I was at camp, and the COOL Paul would never have given into any kind of nervousness.
The first verse went off without a hitch. Shannon joined me on the chorus, emboldened by my dispaly of hubris, and rang loud and clear with his accompanyment. Shannon was a good singer, so our voices mixed with rich harmonies, and reverberated through the rafters of the tabernacle hall. We were on point, feeling good, and singing like we were on American Idol. Then came the next verse and Shannon's turn...
For whatever reason he hestiated. Later he would say he just froze and forgot the words, but that one second of hesitation felt like 10 minutes of awkward slience. My heart jumped into my throat. A thousand thoughts went through my mind in an instant. Was he going to start? Was everybody going to be able to tell? What are we going to do? First panic, then anger then a plan formulated in my mind. I kept playing the guitar like I was doing exactly what I wanted and had planned to do. I quickly played one more time through the last chord progression, and when I got to the appropriate place in the song I picked up the verse where he was supposed to sing. I almost felt Shannon's sigh of relief when I did so, and he quickly rejoined me. We again transitioned into the chrous and we ended the song strong, and together.
What happened next was the stuff of dreams... as the last notes rang out, I looked up from my guitar and saw everybody standing. Girls were tearing up, boys were hooting and hollering, and the grown ups were smiling good naturedly. In my mind, the lights had dimmed, a spotlight had clicked on, and all eyes were on us. The girls wanted to be with me, the boys wanted to be me, and the grownups were clearly dazzled by the display of talent they had just been priviledged to bear witness to.
The girl I would later call my first love met me at the back of the tabernacle, making sure all the other girls saw who I was with. There was a decidedly blatant staking of claim that happened right then and there that was undoubtedly inapproriate and a little too risque for a building called the 'Tabernacle".
A dialogue began to run throgh my mind. Whoa! I might actually be good at this. I might actually be worth something. Am I lovable, if I am talented? What a revelation! This is how I will get the world to love me. I will woo them with my voice and my songs, and they will love me.
I have defeated all comers! I have out performed them all! I... AM... SPARTACUS!!
Folks, it was NOT that good of a song or performance, but it was clear that we were the stars of the show and I can remember the wave of warmth that washed over me from head to toe.
The rest of that camp, I was the man. My status had risen significantly more than when I had everybody convinced I was a breakdancing savant with my electric blue shirt. I was clearly going to be a star someday, and they were the first ones to see the unveiling. Of course, I made sure to make everybody feel special when they approached me, and I felt pretty good about myself whenever I paid attention to somebody who was clearly interrupting my fun/free time at camp.
My chin began to raise ever so slightly, my view began to slant down my nose, and the "normal, untalented people" began to lose importance for me. After all, I was clearly something special, and special people are way too busy for the mundane and blase'.
I was finally feeling good about myself in a very real and tangible way. Since it was clear that there were losers and winners in the world, and I had for so long been a loser, I felt that now that I was a winner it was incumbent upon me to handle myself accordingly. Wasn't it?
Nobody told me that arrogance isn't really the over abundance of confidence. Nobody told me that arrogance is actually a defensive mechanism designed to mask insecurity. I am not sure I would have listened if they had. Instead, the world told me that arrogance is considered to be a strong belief in ones self and is actually a sign of a confident and self assured individual.
I bought into this thinking, hook, line and sinker. I was actually worth something now. I was actually worthy of love now.
Just try and take that away from me.