It was a camp for boys. I had a job as the senior counselor for the the Pioneers, the younger boys group. Four junior counselors and twenty-five campers, six to eight years old. As Senior counselor, I was responsible for program activities, ensuring that they ate, took an occasional shower, and had fun. I was the person they talked to when they were homesick or hurt, and I was responsible for keeping them safe. I was sixteen.
Camps don’t run with young staff anymore, you’d have be eighteen, and I bet a lot of camps would want you to be twenty-one. But times were different, and I had the job. My junior counselors were all from the city, none of them had any camping experience, and none of them could swim.
I was a lifeguard for years. I have rescued a fair number of people at swimming pools and lakes. It usually consists of using a reach pole, a couple of times having to jump in. There’s always someone else a step away and the safety plans and equipment minimize the risk to next to nothing. There’s only been one rescue like this.
One of the highlight events for the Pioneers every session was the long hike. The hike began on a trail that meandered through the woods. From there, it was onto an old farm road that we followed for a couple of miles. When we turned off that road, it was onto another road that followed a creek up past a paper mill dam and into a small, mostly unused park. The camp director would drive the truck down later in the day and bring lunch. Looking back, it also gave him a chance to check on us. We would let the kids play in the shallow water along a sandy bend, run around in the open area, and late in the afternoon, retrace our steps back to camp. For most of the kids coming out to this camp, it was like a day on another planet.
The woods we started the hike went through a part of camp that was undeveloped, and for a group of young boys, walking under the canopy of huge beech and oak trees along an old trail was an adventure in itself. It was shady and quiet, birds calling and flitting away as we passed.
It had rained most of that week, but on the day I remember, it was hot and clear. The hike through the woods was pleasant, but when we left the woods, the sun was bright and on the road the July heat was oppressive. Deserted, the road went up and down some hills, past fields and faded barns. Corn fields dominated the area and off in the distance sometimes you would hear a tractor running. Mostly it was the chatter of the boys, the smell of the fields and heat. By the time we trudged down the last hill and turned to follow the creek into the park, the campers were hot and sweaty.
As we crossed the bridge I could see that the rain had swollen the stream. Instead of the usual trickle making a mossy green descent over the face of the dam, there was roaring wall of water. I knew wading was going to be out of the question and had started to wonder what we could do until lunch arrived. When we got to where I usually sat and watched the campers, the water was deep and running fast enough to knock them down. It was a couple of hundred yards upstream from the old dam and normally would have been knee deep and still. I got the staff together and told them playing in the water was definitely out of the question. There were some campers who had been on the hike before and as I was turned away from the water, one of them jumped in.
There is no getting away from this. I let myself be distracted. Maybe I could have stopped him if I had been paying better attention. Maybe I should have had more staff. Maybe the camp should not have hired a sixteen year old to do this job. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. It was 45 years ago and I still have strong feelings about it.
The other campers started shouting. Hearing the alarm in their voices, I turn around to see a boy in the water. He was being swept downstream, moving at an alarming rate toward the dam.
Everything that happens in the next two minutes is absolutely critical to who I am today. Without thinking, I sprinted across the grass, judging my entry into the water to intercept him. An open entry, keeping him in sight, it took only a few strokes to get to him. He had rolled face down and was underwater when I reached him and pulled him back to the surface. He was not struggling, he was limp. I rolled him onto my hip in across chest carry and began to swim.
It was the water I had to fight, and a rising feeling of panic. The current was strong, the water muddy and cold. My first strokes seemed to make no headway and I was starting to think we were both going to go over that dam. I took a different angle and pulled harder, losing some distance, but making headway to the bank. I made the bank, out of the main current, and then had to pull back upstream along the bank using roots to get to a point where my counselors could grab him and lift him back up on the grass.
I half scrambled and was half pulled up the muddy bank. The boy lay on the ground. The grayish color of his face was startling. His lips were a deep blue and he was not breathing. I rolled him onto his back, tilted his head and checked his airway, then gave him one strong breath and lifted up to check for his pulse. One breath was all it took.
He vomited, mostly muddy water, and took a shuddering breath on his own. The color returned to his face and his eyes opened. He gagged up a little more water, and then he was awake. I sent one counselor to call an ambulance. As he ran off, I shouted after him to call camp, too. The boy was cold, probably in shock, and I stayed with him, having the others keep the kids under some sort of control. I had him somewhat calmed, covered lightly with a couple of towels when I heard the ambulance in the distance.
The camp truck showed up first. The ambulance crew took the camper to be checked. The truck, a big slat sided farm truck, took us all back to camp. I don’t remember much else that happened that day.
The next morning I got called down to the camp office. The camp director, the camper and his parents were there when I walked in. I remember expecting to be fired at the very least.
The boy’s father spoke first. “You saved his life.”
The mom was crying a little, she said “He told us he just jumped in. He’s been to that place before and it was always shallow, so he jumped in.”
The dad spoke again, “He wanted to come back to camp, and we decided he couldn’t be any safer than here with you. I want to thank you for what you did yesterday.”
I turned to the camp director, but before I said anything he held up his hand, “I talked to your counselors and they told me what happened and what you did.” He shook his head, “You could have died, I saw what that water looked like. You both could have died.”
The summer went on. Camp sessions continued to follow their two week cycle, in a decades old rhythm. The Pioneers came and went.
I was different. Changed by two minutes on one hot July afternoon.