Sunday, January 12, 2014

Chapter 10

Every summer I spend three weeks at a camp organized by my father's employer - the Ministry of Internal Affairs. My Dad is a cop, hence his access to this perk. It is widely believed that those camps are the best, since, presumably, the kids of the Politburo are sent to them. I'm not sure whether this is true, but I like believing it, as it makes the idea of going to a camp a bit less depressing - at least it is a camp for the "elite". (My uneasiness at my father being a supporting cog in the inner machinery of the communist regime will come much later.)

What makes these camps an unattractive proposition is that they feel so much like  school. In fact, we are housed in elementary schools in small towns far away from Warsaw. Our camp counselors are often local teachers looking for a bit of extra income during summer vacations.  There are no classes and no homework, but unlike school, you don't get to go home in the afternoon; you stay in a classroom, from which desks were removed and replaced with military-style cots.

For the first couple of summers I dread those camps. I feel anxious and lonely, scared of the big kids, and hating the forced routines of doing everything by the clock: waking up, morning assembly, meals, showers (once a week), evening assembly, going to sleep.  In my letters I beg my parents to visit me, which they do,  up until I am eleven or twelve and stop asking for these visits.  In fact, as our life at home fills with more and more tension, I'm starting to accept them at first, and then actually liking those weeks away from home.

The routines are still abhorrent, but at least they are predictable and consistent. I don't  need to fear that they will change at someone's whim, earning me punishment for not catching that change in time. The bullies are a constant low-level worry, but I learn to stay under their radar by keeping largely to myself, or hanging out with one or two kids I trust.  I'm far from popular, but that suits me just fine. Most importantly, I lack any of the stigmata that  makes one a likely target of verbal or physical cruelty: I am not chubby or small for my age; I do not stutter; I do not have a limp or scoliosis; I do not have a weird last name (like that girl, Hanna Kielbasa); I do not wear glasses.  I am perfectly average, with almost no distinguishing characteristics, and that makes me all but invisible to both potential enemies and potential friends. This will change  in my teens, but for now I am comfortable in my invisibility.

Te camp life is pretty boring. I fantasize about some day  going to a Boy Scouts camp, where they sleep in tents they pitched themselves, keep night watch, build their own fireplace, raid another troop's camp to steal their banner, and have all kinds of other cool adventures. I do belong to a Boy Scouts troop at my school, but these camps are much more expensive than the heavily subsidized camps of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I could tell  my father wasn't too thrilled about buying me that Boy Scout uniform and all the accoutrements to go with it, so I won't even breach the subject.

I like going on trips,  They are usually short: in the morning or in the afternoon we march a few miles to the forest or to the river and are usually allowed to spread out and do whatever we want. Except playing in the river, which has to be done in short bouts, in small groups, and under a supervision of a guy with a whistle.  Oh, how I hate that whistle. Being used to playing in the Vistula river as much as I want I can't stand being told that I have only 5 minutes, or can't go anywhere deeper than my knees.  This is deeply humiliating, so I simply do not partake and go wander around instead. I find a small field filled with forget-me-not's, so dense that they form a blue carpet. I look for wild blueberries. I look for edible mushrooms, which I will slice and thread on a piece of string to hang by the window, so that the sun will dry them up  - they will smell heavenly. I weave small wreaths out of dandelions or short whips out of tall grass. I lay down and look at the clouds above or at the small insects going about their lives in the grass underneath.  I whittle small boats out of long pieces of soft, pine bark. I am not bored. I think. I daydream. I am at peace.

Being around other kids is more hassle than it is worth, and sometimes gets me into trouble. One day I am wandering around the schoolyard with a book in my hand, when two boys ask me whether I want to see some naked girls. I hesitate - I don't want them to think I'm scared, but I also think this is pretty bad stuff, so I am scared.  They do not wait for my answer, but they do make me stand by the wall, so that one of them can climb on my shoulders and peek through the small window of the girls' shower. He's is immediately spotted and a burst of high-pitched shrieks erupts behind the window.

The boys take flight. I slowly walk away, reasoning that a) it is better to act innocent than be implicated by fleeing the scene of a crime, b) I am, in fact, innocent.  A couple of teachers round the corner running fast, and seeing how I'm the only person in the vicinity of the shower window, they grab me and drag me to the camp director. An interrogation ensues, with me maintaining my innocence, and them questioning my presence so close to the place of transgression. I am a really bad liar, so it is probably quite helpful that I can very truthfully deny ever peeking in that window, because the director lets me go. From that experience I learn that in circumstances when one's innocence is not obvious, the instinct to flee should not be suppressed.

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