I’m eight years old and on a train out of New York City headed to my second overnight camp, in Upstate New York. Last summer, when I was seven, I was in an overly-athletic camp which hardly suited the underly-athletic me, for whom competitive sports involved trying to outrun the other kids for the few remaining chocolate milks they’d offer before bedtime.
As is the custom, camp lasts eight weeks without any two- or four-week options, as is so often the case these days. There is no internet, so no emails, either, in fact, no computers, and we aren’t permitted to use the camp’s phone. Postcards and letters are the order of the day: Dear Mom and Dad, How are you, I am fine. Camp is fun, even though it really isn’t fun, at least not all the time. If you don’t like group activities, which means most sports, it’s a bit of a downer. I like tennis, however, which involves me playing someone like me, and chasing fuzzy white balls as they end up in the woods and tall grasses around the courts when we aren’t at the net discussing comic books and movies.
In the woods and tall grasses are creatures most of us haven’t encountered in the Bronx or Brooklyn or Yonkers: snakes and huge spiders and, once in my bunk, crawling like Nosferatu on the screen window next to my bed, a bat. The worst thing I’ve ever seen before this was a sewer rat, a pale, fat beast some nine inches long on the street outside the house where I’m growing up. At least that thing was already dead.
We were there for the long haul. Upstate. Somewhere else in the universe. I imagine for some there who would grow up to watch prison films the situation will seem familiar. You had to serve your sentence with no time off for good behavior. And there were no plea deals, as I soon discovered.
Our bunks, as is always the custom, are unheated. It gets cold here at night, and even colder when we wake to a bugle playing Reveille, and to get warm you have to move fast, fight your way to one of the three or four sinks allotted to us in the bathroom, wash, brush our teeth, then line up outside for inspection and the walk to the dining hall.
Most of us are city kids, or at least suburban kids, mostly from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Camp like this is not an inexpensive way of getting your kid out of your way for an entire summer. Just as private school does likewise for the rest of the year. And you get what you pay for.
It’s now the final stretch of the camp season, it’s late afternoon, and I’m in my swimming activity. The waterfront is a large dock that separates the shallow water from the less-shallow water and ends with a long dock that faces the deep water of the lake. I’d often stand by the ranks of rowboats and canoes looking out over the lake, to the dense woods surrounding it, to the dark, deep water.
But right now I’m standing on the dock with my group. I sense what’s going to happen, and, no, I don’t like it. I don’t like it because, 1) I can’t swim in anything but water shallow enough for my feet to settle on the bottom, 2) I can’t really swim, and 3) I’m deathly afraid of deep water.
Like Picasso, also a non-swimmer, I can stand in water up to my chest and pretend I’m swimming (looks good in photos), but I can’t paint, either.
I have to note here that ever since I was old enough to understand these things, I was told by my mother that I was born in a caul. As David Copperfield puts it, I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas. Whether sea-going people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don’t know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain.
It was believed by sailors—many of whom couldn’t swim to save their lives, hence making them expert sailors—that either being born in a caul or owning one that had belonged to a newborn guaranteed that you couldn’t drown.
Lord Byron, one of the elect among us, was an expert swimmer; while the novelist J.G. Farrell, also a caul-barer, was swept from a rock while he was fishing by Bantry Bay in Ireland, his body never recovered.
I never put much faith in my caul.
So I’m waiting on the dock, and I’m getting nervous. It’s going to happen, I think, he’s going to make us jump in, and of course he says, “Okay, guys, let’s go, it’s time to show that we’ve learned so much over the summer,” and the other kids start jumping in, perfectly happy to be in water that’s probably twelve feet deep.
I don’t jump in, and resort to begging, hands together, “Please, please, I can’t, I can’t swim.” Looking back over all these years I can still see myself saying that. I can still sense the immense fear that my life is now in someone else’s hands. And I can still remember what happens when he throws me in the water. Just like it was yesterday…
I’m drowning. There’s nothing to hold onto, no lake bottom to stand on, no up or down or left or right, and I’m panicking, I’m losing it, in fact, I’m going under for at least the second time, my lungs filling with water, and the counselor, a big, burly college kid probably no more than nineteen and working to make a few extra bucks, jumps in beside me.
I can see him to this day. He has reddish-blond hair. His face is wide and florid, nearly orange, and around his neck is a religious medal which I seize and twist in my panic, and begin to choke this increasingly angry man.
I have let him down. I have disappointed him. I have failed him as a swimming counselor, because I can’t swim. So angry is he that he grabs onto me and begins swimming me out into the deep water. We reach the raft, and he lifts me onto it. It’s a small raft, with a pole mounted on one side, that I hang onto until my knuckles are white. He says, “Either you’ll swim back on your own, or you can stay here and die.” And he turns and, with long, confident strokes, swims back to the waterfront, heaving himself out of the water and…walking away.
I sit there and watch the dragonflies land near me. I look down into the water. It’s dark, and deep, and for maybe ten seconds consider doing it. I’ll jump in and swim back, but I know that I can’t swim back, that I would, in fact, drown and die. But if I stay here I’ll also die…
I sit, and I think, and I wait. And I wait, and I inch closer to the edge…
In the novel, my body is never found, not in the lake or the campus. But twenty-one years later the swimming counselor, now a billionaire real-estate developer in New York, wakes up one morning to find his swimming pool filled with what appears to be blood and, once it’s drained, the words Remember Me are seen crudely-engraved into the bottom.
It seems that I’m back… And that’s where The Drowning begins…