By Jay McAleer
In the summer of 1984, when I was twelve years old, my family moved from Reno to Boston so my father could finish his P.H.D. As a way of easing the transition, my parents enrolled me in a six week summer sleep away camp, Camp Manitoh, located in the Berkshire mountains. It was the kind of place where the counselors got you up every morning at 7:30 so you could engage in all of the fun and exciting activities the camp had to offer. This translated into a long series of structured events starting with reveille, a flag raising, breakfast, the two morning sessions (hour long lessons in swimming, woodcarving, boating, waterskiing, or archery), lunch, a mandatory “rest hour” (where we were encouraged to write letters to our friends), snack time, hobby time, sports time, and then an hour of “free” time in a cordoned off area of the lake under the watchful eyes of the counselors.
After the evening shower, we all lined up for the flag lowering, where the counselors shared some of the highlights from the day and we all applauded accordingly. Then it was off to dinner, followed by evening activities around the campfire, at the talent show, or back down by the lake. I hated all of it.
Up until then my summers had been spent doing pretty much whatever I wanted. I was a definitively free-range kid. Our house in Reno was on the outskirts of town and I could hop the fence in the backyard, walk through the freshly dug lots of the encroaching development and wander into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. I was used to wide, open spaces, to scrub brush and juniper. I’d spend hours at a time climbing trees, throwing rocks, or looking for bugs. I was fascinated by insects and kept a small notebook where I made rudimentary sketches and jotted down the names of every specimen I could identify, Stenopelmatus Fuscus: the Jerusalem Cricket, Ocypus Olens: the Devil’s Coach Horse, Nymphalis Anitopa: the Mourning Cloak Butterfly. I had a friend at school, Jennifer Rodriguez, who liked rocks and if I found one that was particularly interesting I would pick it up and ride my bike over to her house so she could add it to her collection. She kept them organized on a set of bookshelves that her dad had made out of plywood and cinderblocks. Each shelf neatly labeled in her impeccable cursive handwriting, Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic.
The day before we moved away I promised her that I would send her a rock from New England and told her about the insect I couldn’t wait to see. Photinus pyralis, the Big Dipper Firefly. My mother had described them to me the night before and had given me a book all about them. She explained how insects like that didn’t live in Nevada, that I was about to see all kinds of things I had never seen before. Jenifer smiled and placed a small chipped piece of smoky quartz into my hand and told me to write her a letter. Then she got on her bike and pedaled away and any amount of excitement I had been able to summon about the move left with her.
Boston felt loud and cramped. The humidity was disorienting, it was like stepping into the bathroom after my father had taken a fifteen minute shower. The first insect I found was a large cockroach I spotted in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. When my parents dropped me off at camp Watitoh I smiled and acted excited but inside I was miserable. With each step across that blazing green lawn I could feel a kind of timid hesitancy creeping into me. When my parents left I ran after their car, waving goodbye until they reached the end of the drive. They pulled out onto the main road and my father honked the horn twice. The sound of their car receded and I was left alone, surrounded by the claustrophobic trees and dank lushness of New England. I started to cry and a few moments later a small group of boys emerged from the bushes around me.
“What’s wrong, do you miss your mommy?” One of them called and before the others could laugh I rushed up on him and punched him in the stomach. He doubled over in an asthmatic wheeze. The kid to his left looked at me in disbelief. “Your ass is grass!” He said. And then to emphasize his point spat a giant loogie at me that landed on my neck and dripped down onto the front of my shirt. I cut my losses and ran back towards the main part of the camp.
I had been assigned to the Beaver lodge cabin and when I got there the counselor noticed the spit still clinging to my shirt. “Rough start?” he asked and then nodded his head to the right. “Bathroom is over there.” When I came back he introduced himself as Cody Williams. He was seventeen and had an air of permanent ease that I immediately envied.
“Where are you from?” He asked.
He nodded his head. “I used to live in Tonopah,” he said.
“Among other places.”
His father was in the Air force and Cody had lived all over the country. He even spent two years in Germany. “Moving is tough,” he said. “But trust me, you’ll be fine. I’ll make sure of it.”
But I didn’t feel fine. I felt small and nervous and afraid. When the rest of the boys in my cabin showed up I struggled to talk to any of them. I hung back around the edge of the group until Cody circled us all up for the formal introductions. I stood next to him and we went around the circle saying our names and where we were from. I was the last to go and after I said Reno, there was a short pause and then Cody added, “The Reno kid.” As if, with that nickname, he could shroud me in a protective coating that would last the first few weeks of camp.
After the introductions Cody led us on a tour. He showed us the lake, the archery field, the shed where the sporting equipment was kept. He pointed out the bathrooms and showers, then finally the dining hall where we all went inside to have our first lunch.
The room was full of round tables, each one organized by cabin. I sat down next Cody and looked around. Next to us was the table for the Badgers Den. When I looked over at it, I noticed the kid I had punched in the stomach. He was sitting at the far side of the table and he smiled at me in a way that could almost be interpreted by a councilor to be polite.
When I came back for dinner, he made sure to sit right behind me. After we ate, one of the counselors said it was time to play a game called “Who’s from where?” She asked us all to stand up and then asked, “Who’s from Massachusettes?” Over half the kids in the room raised their hands. All of the counselors applauded and told those kids they could sit down. Next they asked, “Who’s from New York?” Another group sat down, then it was Vermont, then New Hampshire, then Main. After another five minutes I was the only one left standing. “Who’s from Ohio? Who’s from Kentucky, Who’s from Indiana?” She kept guessing, each wrong state filling me with a strange expectancy and pride. After a few more tries, she finally said Nevada. I raised my hand and the whole room burst into applause. I could feel myself smiling as I sat down, it was the biggest smile I had all day. And then the kid from the Badgers Den quietly slid my chair out from under me and I went crashing to the floor. The applause turned into laughter and then there was shouting from some of the counselors as I jumped up and punched him in the face. Cody pulled me off of him and dragged me outside.
“What the hell man? You have to calm down.”
Another counselor poked his head out of the dining hall door. He pointed at me and then looked at Cody “He stays on the steps all through smores!” Cody gave him a mock salute and we sat down.
It was just before sunset, and there was already a campfire on the other side of the lawn. Everyone else from the dining hall made there way over to it. No one spoke to us as they passed. After a couple of minutes Cody stood up. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “Stay here.” He walked across the lawn and talked to another counselor. She handed him something and then he walked back. When he got closer I could see he was carrying smores. He handed one of them to me. “I didn’t hear anyone say you couldn’t eat one,” he said.
I took a bite and looked across the lawn at the campfire. I could see the sparks moving up and away from the flames and sometimes it looked like they re-appeared in different parts of the lawn. As it got darker I could see more and more sparks flashing in and out around the campground. I realized what I was seeing and before I could stop myself I blurted out “Fireflies!”
“Pretty cool huh?” Cody said
I quickly recovered. “Whatever, they’re just bugs.”
“You don’t always have to act so tough,” Cody said. “Have you ever even seen fireflies before?”
I looked across the sloping lawn. There were other kids my age running around in the flickering constellation of insects. They had all made friends or at least formed temporary alliances.
“Photunis Pyralis.” I said. “The Big Dipper Firefly. But it’s not really a fly, it’s actually a beetle.”
“Is that right?” Cody said.
“Uh huh, from the Lampyridae family. Once they reach this stage, they only have about fifteen or twenty days left to live. The ones that are flying are the males. The ones on the ground or in the bushes are females. They can lay up to 500 eggs, although some of them could be Photuris Pyralis, which are a totally different species. They can mimic the signals of the Big Dipper Firefly and lure the males down, and eat them.”