Summer is here, and it’s finally time to tell the story of “Camp Blink.” Several subscribers have asked for it. Camp Blink wasn’t its official name but rather the nickname the “blinkies” gave it. Neither is “blinkies” a real name but the nickname the campers gave themselves, which they did not only willingly but with a certain cheekiness. I think they believed their blindness gave them license to overstep social bounds. At least some of them felt that way. The ones in my cabin did. They stayed up late every night, played the banjo, drank whiskey, smoked cigars, and played poker with a deck of grimy, braille cards. They even wanted to raid one of the women’s cabins. The camp director warned me that if I didn’t control them, they’d be kicked out and I would be put on notice.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me back up and give context. I financed my college education with grants, loans, and scholarships, but I still had to work during the school year and summer. One summer I drove a cab (see Prodigy for a Day), another an ice cream truck, and a third I strapped kids onto horses on a carousel at a children’s amusement park. The summer after my junior year I got a job as a counselor at a Lions’ Club camp in southern New Jersey for blind adults from New York City. Every week for a two-month period, buses would drop off a new crop of blind adults and take the previous week’s group back up to the city.
You meet a lot of people that way. I certainly did. I also discovered a world previously unknown to me: blindness. And I learned the difference between blindness and people who are blind. Up to that point I identified blind people with their condition, which put them in a different category of human beings. I learned over the summer that blind people are people who happen to be blind, with emphasis on people. That’s not to say that blindness is a secondary characteristic or a minor handicap. I never met anyone who preferred not seeing, including people who were blind from birth and had no idea what the rest of us meant by “seeing.”
I was surprised to find that “blinkies” included nice people, ill-tempered ones, honest ones, devious ones, and every other kind of personality you would get in a random sampling of adults. This was also about the time I was surprised to find a luxury car parked in a handicapped spot. Somehow, I had worked out in my mind that “less than” in one category meant “less than” in all categories. I was nineteen.
Now that I think about it, I’m not so sure I was dealing with a random sampling. It was more like an open call for a stage play or movie. The people I met included a red-haired guy in a red beret who worked as a chicken plucker; a fortune teller named Lucia who called me “honey” and sat me down one day to tell me my future, a Polish grocer who lost one eye resisting the Nazis and another fighting a thug who robbed his store, a James Bond type who liked to take a rowboat out every afternoon with a new woman, an elegant German lady named Lété Hanse who taught me some Deutsch (das Wasser ist warm), a chubby guy in black-framed glasses with greasy fingers who stuffed himself every night at dinner and always asked for more, and a quiet, elderly man who told me about his travels around the world and how that was at least as good as writing books and probably better. He treated everyone around him with disdain.
In addition to these, I had a guy in my cabin, younger than the other men but older than me, who wanted to go jogging each morning. I would get up with him at dawn, tie a rope between our waists, and jog down the hiking trail with him behind me. We got to be friends, and one day I took him home for lunch where he met my mom and family. I must have asked him later what he thought of us and how much he could tell about people from listening to their voices. I suspect quite a lot. I don’t remember if he had an opinion of them other than saying how much he enjoyed lunch. I think what he liked was the chance to get out of the camp and do something different.
A few campers were blind and deaf. One in particular got upset when she discovered me in her cabin, which she hadn’t expected. I was visiting another counselor, and we both had assumed it would be all right. I’m not sure why we thought that except out of naiveté. Of course, the woman could sense my presence. It must have been frightening for her. My cluelessness was due, in part, to the direct way I was used to dealing with the guys in my cabin; i.e., threatening to rearrange the furniture if they didn’t stop their raucous behavior (see In Praise of Couches).
Among the rest of the staff was a tall, cool dude who worked as a lifeguard. He wore Speedos and had polished fingernails. His girlfriend was a counselor. The camp director created a very tight schedule of arts & crafts, sports, entertainment, outings, and special events like talent shows. One week we took a group to a local playhouse to see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I closed my eyes through half an act just to experience “hearing” a play. They used to do that years ago. They called it radio.
To squeeze as much as we could into the week, we always ended with a Christmas celebration complete with gifts, carols, gingerbread houses, and Santa Claus. We also made punch that the guys in my cabin spiked. It was the last night of their week, so there wasn’t much the director could do. By then I had perfected the art of feigning shock and dismay à la Captain Renault in Casablanca.
We held dances throughout the week. We had a tape deck, record player, and a limited collection of music. One song in particular, “Teach Your Children Well,” not only was a favorite but got to be the summer theme song. Even now, whenever I hear it I think of Camp Blink, which, like so many things from my past, is gone. The irony is that the further away I get from these events, the more I remember. Memories, apparently, just need time.
Image credits: feature by Aaron Burden; marshmallows by Josh Campbell; cabin by Katie Rodriguez; cabin mike by Marcos Luiz Photograph. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” Happy 9th Birthday to Edgar Eugene Kendall.
What a wonderful memory and story! Yes, expectations based on …little contact, no experience. Your camp sounds like a great experience for anyone lucky enough to be there:)
I was mature enough not to refer to the campers as “blinkies.” l let them do that. I think they had a derogatory word to describe us in the seeing world, although I can’t remember it.
I still can’t get over Lucia, the blind seer…