Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Learning to create compelling characters at summer camp

By Eleanor Shelton

Recently, I read an article by Heather Abel about how summer camp gave her permission to lie.

Summer camp is often the first place where we children go where we’re with other kids who don’t know us, don’t know our parents, our friends, our reputations. I was sent to camp -- to a far away, eight-week, fairly exclusive, music camp where my parents were able to get me accepted by telling the admin people that I had great musical potential. 

It may have been that or the big check my grandmother wrote.

At the age of eleven, I was sharing a cabin with the late actress Helen Hayes’s granddaughter, several musical prodigies, and other girls who were on the cusp of greatness. The cusp was circumventing me like a hiker on a trail riddled with piles of doggie doo. 

I was chubby, with long brown stringy hair, a chipped front tooth, and I talked so fast I tripped over my own words. I had large feet for my age, and the only pair of shoes I had were bright red loafers.

Me at age 11, ready to tackle summer camp

My singing voice was adequate, and I could tread water like nobody’s business, but I sat each meal in the cafeteria, not with my cabin mates, but with the other outcasts and the counselors who felt sorry for us. 

Other girls made fun of me both behind my back and in front of my face. I hid behind the straw archery targets (probably not the smartest place to hide) each afternoon and cried with loneliness. Wishing I was somebody else.

One day, about three weeks into camp, one of my cabin mates, a willowy blonde girl oozing with cusp who had already won major piano competitions in her hometown of Philadelphia, was holding a Beatles album. 

Without thinking, I said out loud and as slowly as possible, “My grandfather was the Beatles first tour manager in the United States.”

“Really?” the amazingly perfect girl said.

“Yup. Ringo and John used to come to my grandparent’s house for dinner. Ringo loved my grandmother’s pot roast. It reminded him of his mother’s.” The girls just looked at me like they were studying a chameleon, beautiful colors, but still a lizard.

One girl said, “No way. We don’t believe you.”

I shrugged as if it was no big deal to me. “Ringo has a birthmark on the back of his neck shaped like Massachusetts, and Paul’s left foot turns slightly inward. How would I know these things if I hadn’t spent time with them?”

Complete blank stares. I continued, “John told me that when he was done with their U.S. tour, he was going home, and he and Linda were going to plant a garden of rhubarb and raspberries. At our house, he’d had his first taste of sassafras tea, which came from our tree in the backyard. He loved it.” 

Bizarre, yet alarmingly possible stuff poured out of my mouth, as if the words had a will of their own.

Each day I answered the questions peppered by my cabin mates who still never accepted me but didn’t ignore me either. 

Camp life didn't change much, I wasn't invited to share their table at the cafeteria, but I did get some nods and weak smiles. I cared less that I wasn't accepted and avoided the archery targets. I made a few friends and got the understudy role for Ruth, the fat old pirate lady in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Pirates of Penzance.  

Lying to my cabin mates didn't seem like a jail-able crime. To them I made the Beatles come alive and seem more human. For me, I felt that I actually knew the Beatles, if only for a few weeks. It was years before I actually wrote a piece of fiction, but giving life to characters began that summer at camp.


April Moore said...

Impressive "fiction" skills! I would have been captivated by your stories about the fab five.

Kristin Owens said...

OMG! This needs to be a short story. Hilarious.

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