T'was the Summer of '99

In the summer of 1999, right before the world ended, I was a traveling camp counselor for the MN Farmer's Union, which meant I helped run woefully understaffed, underfunded week-long summer camps and weird day camps all over the great state of Minnesota. The MN Farmer's Union had a serious mission to push (the family farm rules! Big corporate farms suck!) and we actually were required to push this rhetoric across to groups of mostly ADD farm kids just happy not to be on their own farm. This wasn't like your usual one or two week camp counselor fiesta-this was an entire goddamn summer of bonfires and arts and crafts, and at one week long camp up in northern MN we literally had seven counselors for around 110 kids, with three male counselors in charge of about 60 farm boys, and thus I learned much about child herding, how to make viable threats that don't exactly involve physical pain, and general shouting. I also learned that if you decide to introduce a mafia-style sense of family and justice in your cabin, you shouldn't be surprised when a kid flips out on the last night of camp and just starts punching everyone in sight.

But that's neither here nor there. What I wanted to talk about today was a guy I knew, let's call him Jim, who worked with me that summer, or part of it, anyway. Jim was a Native American from the Detroit Lakes region and was the first real life Indian I ever knew. A nice, sort of foggy headed guy, Jim did not exactly mix well with the more uptight female members of our staff, who'd gone to MN Farmer camps as children themselves and wanted nothing short of mind-blowing perfection from every art and every craft (though the were all paid as poorly as we were, something like fifteen dollars a day, and a day was eighteen hours, with no official breaks). Jim and I became friends out of self defense against these vocal members of our staff and because there weren't many other adults in the general vicinity. Sometimes we'd train here in St. Paul and go over planning stuff, and during these days we'd get to stay in a nice Double Tree hotel on the interstate and Jim and I would be roommates.

One day Jim came into some money somehow, something like a hundred bucks, and I jokingly dared him to spend it all at the gas station we walked to every day for snacks. For some reason, maybe because we'd been stupefyingly bored all week, he took my dare and invited me to the gas station with him, where he proceeded to fill his arms up with crap and, being the friendly dude he was, invite me to do the same on his dollar. And so we spent that money of his, spent every penny, and returned to our hotel room to pig out on junk food and watch cable TV-I don't remember exactly what we got, except that no item could be over $5 per the dare and that I bought an entire half gallon of chocolate milk which wouldn't fit in our mini-fridge and I had to drink it that night, down to the last drop, for I already felt guilty about wasting poor Jim's money, for I had no doubt that Jim was indeed poor, far poorer than my regular small town poor and the seemingly wealthy girls we worked with.

Later that summer, as we dealt with mosquito-infested site after site, as well as a dark wave of loneliness, Jim found out via a telephone booth call home that his seventeen-year-old girlfriend was pregnant back in Detroit Lakes. I think Jim was nineteen, like myself, and he took this news about as bravely as any broke ass nineteen year old could, alternating between despair and elation while we continued to soldier on through our current week-long camp. A week or so later, we actually had some day camps up north in the Detroit Lakes area-it was the 4th of July, and I remember Jim meeting up with his Native American friends, including the girlfriend, and the whole group of them walking happily through whatever small town we were staying in, Jim with his arm around his lady friend, smiling like a king.

By the time our next week long camp rolled around, Jim started getting pretty flaky, even by my laissez-faire standards. He stopped listening at meetings, started sleeping in late, and he generally let his campers run a-muck. Infuriated by these great sins, the other counselors started really tearing into old Jim, insulting him to his face and generally reprimanding him in a myriad of passive aggressive ways-I think if they could have reduced him to steam with their eyes, and faced no legal ramifications, they would have. Miserable and exhausted, I started thinking along their lines, too, and acted a bit coldly toward Jim myself.

Then, one day when our second to last week-long camp was winding down, Jim tearfully told me his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. The next day he was gone, though he had no car of his own, and he didn't return for our last camp of the summer. Jim left his brand new boom box in the backseat of my car, which I knew he'd purchased with his pitiful counselor salary, and I had no way of getting it back to him, not even a working phone number. I kept the boom box for a decade, until it broke down, and boy did that thing seem to play the blues beautifully.


Anonymous said...

is there any justice in the world, d? is there any mercy?

David Oppegaard said...

Well, there's a little. Enough to keep the whole ball turning, anyway.

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