After pulling the overnight waitress shift at a Daytona Beach HoJo’s for a month—just me and a big black ex-con flipping burgers—camp never sounded better. But I hadn’t counted on a different kind of danger driving into Our Lady of the Hills in 1977 in the back of Father McSweeney’s station wagon.
A car load of boys—all attitude and dirty blonde hair—from Charlotte Catholic High School oozed onto the dirt in front of the dining hall like liquid sex.
Our high pitched voices silenced in the middle of words.
Saturday Night Fever played from somebody’s transistor radio in the gazebo where we stood.
The guys slung their duffles over their shoulders, barely nodded to us, and hiked past like they were about to serve ten weeks of hard labor.
I think I singed my eyelashes just watching them saunter by the office and up the hill.
As chatter swelled in the gazebo, I took a deep breath. The air smelled of pine, grilled cheese, and change.
Eddie Falcone had graduated from law school and disappeared into life. The camp boys we’d grown up with had stayed home to lifeguard or work on road crews. Father McSweeney’s boys and a couple of malcontents from Camp St. John, our shoddy sister camp in Florida, would take their place.
Sure, we’d still sing Edelweiss for grace and make pilgrimages to Carl Sandburg’s Connemara. We’d rinse our hair in cold North Carolina water to make it shine. We’d eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with whole milk and green Jell-O.
But nothing would seem right this year.
Mid-summer, I stood on the office porch, trying to ignore the two Charlotte Catholic staffers flirting with several female counselors on the road below. A queasy mix of desire and fear sloshed in my stomach.
I squinted at the far side of the athletic field.
Catfish, aka Mike Alewine, one of the Camp St. John defectors and an undergrad at the University of Florida, wielded a mop like a drum major at the front of a scraggly string of campers.
I jogged down the steps and across the road, careful to skirt ten feet around the Charlotte temptations.
Behind Fish, two shyly grinning campers, a boy and a girl, trotted to keep up while balancing foil-covered Burger King crowns atop their heads. Bath towels were tied around their shoulders and they carried cans of Spam.
The girls’ counselor brought up the rear, doing her best to copy Fish’s antics.
The other campers hip-hip-hoorayed as they snaked between the counselors.
I waved at my little brother, R.J., and tried to decide if he’d changed his shirt since yesterday.
The girls peeled off toward archery and the boys followed Fish’s Floridian co-counselor, Wes, to the Canteen.
Fish collapsed on the grass, spread-eagled between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.
I fended off the backstop and walked over to him. “You made those kids nobody would have noticed feel great.”
He sat up and shrugged as though the event were nothing special. “At Camp St. John—”
I held up my hand. “Don’t ruin it.” I’d already heard enough about Camp St. John.
Fish had spent his summers making the Florida campers believe he was half catfish by diving into the St. John’s River and hiding under the dock until the kids became believers. He’d zipped along the river on a yellow motorcycle, teaching archery and riflrey, staging vegetable boycotts, inciting his charges to ditch crafts to raid the kitchen or ogle the girls in the swimming pool.
Fish blew on a blade of grass between his thumbs, a skill he’d teach his boys to attract mountain lions.
When he’d perfected the technique, we discussed his obscure bands—Ian Hunter, Mott the Hoople, Jethro Tull—my lousy tennis backhand, and Thursday night’s mass.
Sunny silence settled between us.
Fish leaned up on his elbows. “You know, I almost became a priest.”
Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Even I’d considered the convent.Fish spoke of Father Foley’s belief in him, how he’d been spurred to follow his mentor’s vocation.
I gulped a mouth full of sunshine and courage, then told my story for the first time.
I’d stared at Jesus on the cross in the chancel my whole life, but I’d always seen His forgiveness as a ginormous blanket over everybody. It took a Baptist at Florida Southern College where I’d just finished my freshman year to point out that Jesus died for Ann’s sins. I had to believe that meant the real sins underneath the sanitized ones I created in Confession.
I shot a glance at Fish to make sure I hadn’t shocked him, but his thick brows scrunched together in concentration.
Protestants at college said odd things like if I’d turn over my romantic life to God, He’d pick out the one.
Geez. Whoda thunk? Since I’d only dated a frat guy for five minutes since Mike Smith last summer, it didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. By the end of first semester I dumped the other categories of my life into God’s lap for Him to run.
Now, instead of wondering if God read my letters, I saw Him answer in subtle ways—gut feelings, circumstances, truths I spotted in the Bible. He was still invisible, but somehow more literally present.
I peered at Fish, trying to gauge whether he thought I was a wing nut.
But he stood to join his boys as they filed past. “God as micro-manager. I like it.” He grabbed the mop and drum majored double-time to catch up to his boys.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted one of my friends walking into the gym, shoulder to shoulder with a Charlotte Catholic bad boy. Maybe if I wasn’t such a chicken that could be me.
As summer wound down, my girls told Mrs. Duemmling to shoot our cottage photo in front of the Virgin Mary.
I arched a brow at them, not sure what they were up to.
They said the picture was in my honor. Then, they pressed their palms together and smiled beatifically at the camera.
After the photo, I blinked wetness from my eyes and hugged them all, feeling like one of Fish’s Spam Queens.
I hate endings—sunsets, autumn, and good-byes, but they happen whether I’m ready or not.
Multiple friends had been charmed out of their innocence by the bad boys. One took home Charlotte Catholic DNA to gestate, birth, and own her heart forever. Girls like me, chock full of Daddy issues, usually cop to sex, but this year cowardice counted for something other than a character flaw.
I didn’t know this off-kilter summer was my good-bye to being a kid, camp, and Catholicism.
I didn’t know God tacked so much happy history to the tail end of a sad childhood.
I didn’t know, nearly forty years later, I’d roll over and find Our Lady of the Hills, my Catholic roots, Catfish, and a cadre of camp friends still curled up in my heart.