We didn’t want to go, my brother even less than I. Summer camp meant new places and new faces, and as children of recent immigrants, we had had enough of that. For us, an ideal summer was one spent between the “fort” in our apartment building courtyard and the Atari console belonging to a new friend who lived down the street. Father tried to sell us on the camp by citing its cultural value: “Boys, there you’ll learn something of your Estonian side,” while mother made perhaps the more convincing argument suggesting that if we stayed behind, we’d be helping with our newborn twin sisters.
Not that our parents needed our consent. Our attendance at Estonian camp was a certainty no matter what we said. I suppose they only appealed to us because a long drive out of Toronto into the country could be a pleasant thing if all four underage passengers weren’t grumbling.
The first thing that happened after our parents dropped us off was that my brother and I were split up. Kristian was to live in the “little kids camp” centered around an old house on a hill, while I, being eight, took up residence in one of the clapboard cabins in the central camp. I didn’t mind this arrangement, but my brother did. The following weekend my parents had to take him home. He said that the old house was haunted and threatened to run away. My gain from Kristian’s active imagination was his shoebox of candy and his unused paid week of camp.
I transferred what I liked of his candy into my shoebox and traded the rest with other boys in my cabin. The best trades were with Marcus, who was from Buffalo and had candy the likes of which I’d never seen. A standard trade would be a carton of Whoppers for a slab of Macintosh Toffee, which I wanted to dispose of in a hurry. It had cost me two fillings already.
Marcus and I became friends shortly after our first day at the shooting range. He had been the only boy to best me with a .22 that morning. The counselor in charge of marksmanship held up both of our arms as though we had just fought a grueling bout. Marcus’s arm was longer than mine, and he had shot here previous summers and was, in my eyes, someone worthy to play wingman to. He also spoke a little Estonian (which I didn’t - the language of our home was my mother’s Czech) and introduced me to The Kinks on a large silver ghetto blaster he’d sneak between our beds at lights-out.
There was plenty of singing at Estonian camp, Estonia being a nation of singers. We sang in the mornings, marching to the flagpole to raise the Eesti tricolour, we sang for our meals and around the flames of bonfires, and we sang extra loud on the wide open field as the flag came down and before the snare drum kicked in. Marcus helped me turn my humming into something resembling the Estonian tongue.
But on the dance floor and in the water and woods, we were on an equal footing. On Friday nights, on the lit-up tennis court surrounded by trees, we’d compete for the attention of the same girls. He’d dance on one side of the court and I’d dance on the other, and any girl that entered into no man’s land was fair game. I fell in love once that summer, with detrimental effects on the cross-border candy trade. Suddenly, Marcus’ insatiable appetite for toffee had dried up.
Below the tennis court was the camp pool. It was a rectangular hole in the earth, and the water was mucky but cool. Into the pool stretched a short pier leading out from the sauna. We boys would pack into the heat with a bucket of water, a wooden ladle and birch branches. To improve circulation, we were supposed to strike ourselves with the branches. During our trade embargo, Marcus struck me across the back of the neck with his switch.
Afterwards, naked in the dark water, we glared at each other. Our teeth chattered, but neither of us was going to be the first to get out. The counselor and the other boys had dressed and stood along the dock, counting out loud.
Once a week, the entire camp would play capture the flag in the woods. Teams were made in a clearing, red or blue string was tied around wrists, and kids large and small would disappear into the trees. You would be hiding in some thicket on your belly, watching and listening. A stick would break, someone passed and you attacked, the two of you tumbling into ferns, fingers ripping after the other guy’s string.
Once I survived until the very end of the game, until the counselors combed the darkening woods, calling out names. I had wound my wrist with the secret replacement string that Marcus had given me. He knew the routine and had brought it from home. Placed on the same team, we had put our differences aside.
My brother was forced to return to Estonian camp the next summer. I couldn’t wait to go. I had my suitcase packed long in advance with surplus toffee, my own Kinks tape and two balls of string – one blue and one red. On the way out of Toronto, I secretly wished that Kristian would see ghosts once again.
[i](This article appeared originally in The Globe and Mail under the title Candy Wars and Marksmanship, July 17, 2008, and appears here by the permission of the author.)>