The author remembers his search for self in the vivid loneliness of youth.
Part 1: Camp Arrowhead
My mother, brother Andy, and I arrived by taxi at the playing field across from a local high school. It was early in the day, and there was still dew on the grass. Being only seven years old and barely awake, I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen next, other than I was going to summer camp for the first time. As is usual for kids, I would just have to deal with what was in front of me rather than ponder how and why this was going to happen. My brother and I were going, no question, and so we took our trunks and sleeping bags out of the taxi, laid them on the ground, and waited.
In time, a member of the camp staff came by to check our names off a big list. He directed me to one area and my brother to another. We both kissed my Mom goodbye because she needed to get to work. I went over to my assigned group but didn’t know anybody, so I sat on my trunk.
I don’t understand why my mother chose this particular camp. I know that my father had died four months before, not unexpectedly, but tragically at a very young age. Consequently, my mother had to get a job and go to work, so summer camp was an obvious solution to the daily care challenge that my mother had been dealing with to work and care for two young boys. But why Camp Arrowhead? I will never know, but it was a good choice; the name alone connected us to some native Canadians and their heritage or experience, which seemed like a good omen.
The buses arrived. With help from some older boys who would turn out to be our counselors, we loaded our bags and sleeping bags underneath the buses and climbed on board. Later, I learned that it was about ninety miles from Montreal to the camp located on Fitch Bay, an inlet of Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships of Québec. To a boy who suffered from car sickness, the bus ride seemed truly endless but, in reality, was only about 2 hours. Somehow, I managed to hang on to my breakfast as the bus rolled along the old two-lane highway through Magog and then on to Fitch Bay. I remember we saw glimpses of the lake long before we arrived at the camp, and every year after that I was able to gauge how close we were by those views.
The buses pulled into a large gravel lot where we would play many different sports, my favorite being dodgeball. The doors opened, and we piled out into the bright sun. It was a scene of chaos as we sorted through baggage and so on and got lumped into the various groups by age and assigned to different sections of the camp and our individual tents. They assigned me to the Junior Section and my brother to the Intermediate Section, which proved to be a universe away. My tent was number 6 that overlooked the big gravel lot, but far enough away to be free from dust and still get a breeze off the water. A small, grassy brook that ran down one side of the large gravel lot immediately captured my attention and was to become one of my favorite places in all my years at Camp Arrowhead.
While the camp planners had hidden the Intermediate and Senior Sections in the hilly and forested terrain, the Junior Section was conveniently close to the Dining Hall. In addition to eating meals, including drinking the almost universal “bug juice’, a horrible, bland orange drink, we went there for assemblies and sang songs when it was rainy. Over my summers, I learned many interesting songs in that Hall, some of them dating back to the Boer War. There was a flagpole close to the Dining Hall, and every morning the Canadian flag, the Red Ensign, was raised by senior campers and then taken down at sunset. It was an honour to raise and lower that flag, running the flag up smartly before wrapping the rope around the cleat and making sure that it would not slide. I never made it to that elevated level because I did not stay at camp Arrowhead long enough.
Across the graveled lot was a Crafts Shop, where I would learn how to make all sorts of little handicrafts, including weaving plastic bracelets, bending metal into an ashtray, and carving pieces of wood. My wooden blocks were just that, a few bits carved off, while my brother crafted masterpieces, like chain links that were separate. I was always a bit cautious in my carving with a sharp knife since I already bore the noticeable scar of a misadventure with a carving knife and a ham bone. All of these trinkets, of course, went home with us and found places of honor within the apartment, reminding us of our time at Camp Arrowhead.
I settled in and began to find my way about my new world. The camp was situated overlooking Fitch Bay, a lovely little body of water, an inlet off Lake Memphremagog. There was a foot-trodden path that led from the graveled lot through an always silent stand of large spruce trees to the swimming area on Fitch Bay itself. The water was clear and warm enough for even my skinny body to tolerate for the entire daily swim. My mother had taken me to classes at the local YMCA on Hampton Avenue, so I thought I had the rudiments of swimming sorted out. As all of the new campers arrived at the swimming area on the first day, the instructors wanted to know if everyone could swim 25 yards. If not, you would have to wear a life vest, stay in the shallow water, and not jump off the tower! Confidently, I stepped up and said that I could do it. It proved to be a long 25 yards as I flailed, splashed, sputtered, and dog paddled my way, but I made it! Beaming, I was happy this accomplishment spared me the ignominy of wearing a life vest, and I could go into the deeper waters. By the end of my years at Camp Arrowhead, I could easily swim five hundred yards freestyle.
Another perk of swimming my 25 yards was I could jump off the tower! It took me a while to build up my courage, paddling about in the deeper water near the dock. On a warm sunny morning during the general swim, I walked up to the ladder nailed to the tower that led to the diving platform. I was all skin and bones, a regular “sparrow’s kneecaps,” as my mother called me, but I was also determined. Grabbing the first rung, I pulled myself up and continued rung after rung, finally pulling myself onto the diving platform itself. I don’t remember how high it was, but there I was. I looked around, and the view was spectacular. To my right, I could see the entire bay out to the large island at its mouth that separated it from the main lake. The water narrowed to the left, crossed by a bridge to the other side that was all farmlands. Then, I looked down. The water was so clear that huge boulders appeared to rise from the bottom directly below me – they seemed to end just beneath the surface. I could not jump into there!
The water was so clear that huge boulders appeared to rise from the bottom directly below me – they seemed to end just beneath the surface. I could not jump into there!
The counselor on duty laughed when he saw me looking down and guessed what I was thinking. A high school student probably knew all about refraction, so he said, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t even get close to them.’ I smiled, and with other campers already coming up the ladder, my moment had come. I jumped and crashed into the surface of the water, arms and legs akimbo, shocked about how solid the water felt, pulling my bathing suit uncomfortably out of place and stinging my arms and legs. ‘You OK?’ asked a counselor on the dock nearby. Spluttering, I said, ‘Yes, I am!’ with a big smile. Making this first jump was one way my time at Camp Arrowhead helped me grow, the staff trusting me enough to let me challenge and overcome my fears.
All summer, we had a structure to our daily routine. After waking up, tidying up and breakfast, it was off to instruction in various skills; how to row a boat, paddle a canoe, swim, use an ax, start a fire or make a leather belt or a plastic bracelet (gimp). As I became a better swimmer, I was able to take out rowboats, and eventually a canoe. Canoes were so much more graceful than rowboats, and mastering how to travel by canoe was transformative for me. Canoes are unstable but light and responsive; you could slowly move over the water, look down, see the bottom, and sometimes fish. If you rowed for two miles, your hands, legs, and back would all be sore, but if you canoed for two miles, the distance just glided by. I will always thank the instructors at Camp Arrowhead for teaching me how to canoe. It was a skill that I took forward to the next camp I attended and the rest of my life.
Morning instruction was not voluntary, and like school, there were tests to be passed. You earned a feather for each skill you acquired, another connection to native people. As these feathers accumulated, you progressed from tenderfoot to brave, then warrior, and until finally, you became a chief. After two years in the Junior Section, I was a chief and admitted to a secret tribal society. I remember being led to a special area late at night with a large campfire, ringed by counselors and chiefs from the other sections holding burning candles. They welcomed me into this elite tribe and put out a small candle on my chest to affirm my membership. I had such a unique feeling of belonging, of having made my mark among a group of people that I hadn’t known before, didn’t go to school with, or weren’t from my neighborhood. It was a very special moment.
Despite its routines, Camp Arrowhead was also a camp where there was time for self-discovery and exploration. One of my early friends was a boy named Billy Lurry. We discovered a mutual delight in catching frogs and snakes – yes, snakes. It was fortunate that they weren’t any venomous ones to be found, or we probably wouldn’t have made it past our first week. Together, we would walk down the grassy stream by the gravel lot looking for frogs – bullfrogs, leopard frogs, the odd toad. Sometimes, we would find a garter snake and let it wrap around our arms. Eventually, we learned that another stream in the campgrounds, a much bigger one, ran behind the Dining Hall. It was a typical eastern Canadian woodland stream with lots of rocks, little waterfalls, and small pools. Turning over the stones, we would find all sorts of creatures, salamanders, frogs, crayfish, and tiny minnows. What we would see and catch changed every day as we sloshed through the water.
Camp Arrowhead encouraged campers to explore the surrounding area on afternoon picnic hikes and eventually to stay out overnight. On one picnic hike, I fell out of a tree when a branch broke off under my foot. I landed flat on my back atop a pile of small branches – just winded and no harm done, but with an abiding wariness about the dangers of tree climbing and gravity! The overnight trips were the best, sometimes on the camp’s houseboat going up to Georgeville where we could buy soft drinks and candy bars at the small store there. Cruising the big lake on an August afternoon was blissful, baking in the sun but cooled by the breeze surrounded by low wooded hills on the shores that seemed so far away. I even went on one overnight trip by canoe, just like the “coureurs de bois” that opened up Canada for trading in bygone years – exciting for a young lad like me. This love of camping out, of traveling by canoe stayed with me after I went to another camp when I turned ten.
After getting all my feathers in the Junior Section, I was excited about going back to what would turn out to be my last year at Camp Arrowhead. Although I was only nine, the staff moved me into a tent in the Intermediate Section with much older kids. And not just any old tent, but into one in “Dog Patch’, a unique area set in a small hollow with very tall trees to climb – no ropes or nets in case of a misstep. My brother was a superb climber, absolutely fearless moving about the treetops. As a result, I felt driven to climb despite this little voice in my head saying, “No, this is not a good idea,” especially after my fall the year before. There was a kid in the next tent who was really into bodybuilding, and I spent those hot summer days working out with him doing pushups and chin-ups, adding significantly to my frame. I recall my mother was amazed about the bulk that I had added – “sparrow’s kneecaps” no longer!
After my first year, I was at Camp Arrowhead in August, that most perfect of all summer months. The lake water was still warm from the heat of June and July; the days were hot under the cloudless sky but cooled as the sunset in the evening, bringing a chill to the air. Perfect for sitting by camp fires and passing dreamless nights in my sleeping bag. The signs of change grew more evident as the month and our camp season wound down to its close. The days seemed to fly by, the last few taken up with preparing to leave, packing trucks and bags, and stowing away a summer’s worth of little souvenirs to proudly show off at home. After a last lunch in the Dining Hall, the buses pulled into the gravel lot, and it was time to go. I was always torn at that moment, happy at the thought of seeing Mom and sleeping in my own bed but tempered with saying goodbye to a place with so many memories.
There was a last wistful glance at that grassy brook as my bus pulled away. The ride back to Montreal seemed longer despite some singsongs. I usually sat staring out the window, straining to catch the first glimpse of Montreal, Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and the mountain around which the city stretched. Once the mountain was in view, it seemed to take forever for the bus to get through the busier highways and across the bridge into the city itself. I breathed in the unique smell of Montreal in late August, hot and humid with a sweet tang from fumes rising from the heated concrete and the asphalt. It was usually later afternoon when the bus finally stopped at the athletic field by the high school. Anxiously, we poured out, tanned and boisterous, searching for parents. Some years, my mother could not meet us because of her work, which was painful. One of her friends was always there, but it wasn’t the same. With luck, my Mom would be home for dinner, sometimes chicken and fries from Cote St Luc barbeque, the best in the city. I always felt the unique happiness of a young boy being reunited with his Mom, a feeling of finally being home, being able to stop being brave, safe and secure in a big hug. Then, we proudly presented our craftwork and talked over tea about our month away.
School started after Labor Day, and I was back into the routine of school and boarding there from Monday to Friday. Holidays aside, this was life for the next nine months until, once again, the buses would arrive at the playing field. Two hours after that, Billie and l would be rushing to be the first ones off the bus and on our way to hunt for frogs and snakes in the grassy brook by the gravel lot.
Part 2: Bus to Schroon Lake
It is an early autumn afternoon, Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and I am going home to Crown Point to the farm to be with my mom and stepdad George. I’m living alone at a boardinghouse in Montréal, finishing my high school career at Lower Canada College, just another nine months, and then off to university and more polishing and finishing. I’m not alone; the house is owned and run by a buxom older widow called Mrs. B, the grandmother of a schoolmate of mine. She is considerate, but not particularly kind, frugal but not miserly, where the best meal is always breakfast. Mrs. B has another lodger, a Ms. Tremblay, a middle-aged French-Canadian divorcee who works in an accounting firm all day downtown.
Going back home is a respite from the academic routine and long hours spent sleeping to avoid the reality, a way to persevere as I have done since my father died when I was seven years old and my life course changed forever. No dad, so it was off to summer camp and then boarding school, the most reasonable English thing to do, even for a seven-year-old. But that is all in the past. Accepting this reality, I am learning how to make the best of it, not happily maybe, but that’s another story.
I pack a few belongings and take the bus downtown to the terminus at Dorchester near Dominion Square, just up from Windsor station, a heroic edifice so integral to and interwoven into Canada’s history and destiny. I buy a return ticket and sit listening for the garbled message announcing the bus that goes to Plattsburgh, Schroon Lake, Glens Falls, Albany, ending at the Port Authority bus terminus on W. 42nd Street in New York City. I climb aboard, having put my suitcase down below, and grab a window seat. The bus is busy but not crowded this Friday afternoon, and at precisely 4 pm, we enter the late-day traffic in downtown Montréal.
We leave the island by the Mercier Bridge at the western end of the island, one end of which is on a Native reservation after it passes over the St. Lawrence Seaway. In time, this bridge will become a rallying point for an uprising by the native people and an actual pain for all the folks who’d decided to live in Chateauguay and points further west trying to get to their offices every day. Many of the trees have already turned, and they almost glow in the late autumn sunlight as we drive by small towns with strip malls and closed drive-ins along Route 9 that goes to the American border.
An hour or so later, we stop at the border crossing in Champlain, New York. If I’m lucky, I will not have to reveal my British birth and citizenship. If I do, US Immigration will hustle me off the bus to explain why a 16-year-old is traveling to visit his mother in the United States. The previous year, my mother left Montréal to move to a farm that she bought near Penfield Pond and Ironville in upstate New York amid the Adirondack Mountains. So, the officer’s question is a good one. I knew I needed a visa and even had the RCMP process my fingerprints. But looking at the lines near the US Consulate in Montreal one day, I just didn’t have the patience to complete my application.
This travail of getting back and forth across the border to visit my mother is that though I am still a minor, I must have my own visa or carry a passport. The only passport I qualified for was from the UK, where I was born, hence the challenges entering the States. And it was the same thing when I returned to Canada, the same questions, the long explanations and sometimes, grudging readmittance. These hassles went on until one day when a benevolent Canadian immigration official decided that a single, nameless yellow card dated September 5, 1952, issued at Québec City with an LI stamped on it was sufficient to document my status as a Landed Immigrant. He stamped my passport ‘Returning Resident,’ and all my subsequent returns to Canada were wonderfully uneventful. However, as the war in Vietnam deepened, every time I went to visit my mother and crossed the border, the questions became more pointed, and I felt that I was passing through a very real gauntlet.
Dutifully cleared and back on board, the bus pulls away from the border, and the sense of country immediately changes. I am in the United States of America, and I should point out that this was before the age of the interstates, which bypass all the small towns and hamlets and let the buses roll unchecked from major destination to major destination. Instead, we wind along Route 9 as the sun sets to the west behind the mountains ahead. House lights come on as the darkness falls because Route 9 is the local Main Street in many of these towns, and so I can see into the houses fleetingly. I see glimpses of warmth cast through the windows as the bus rolls, and I recall so many nights looking out from the dorm windows at boarding school. Dusk is a melancholy time for me, wanting and wishing to be part of the secure inclusive warmth of family and home, of the kitchen full of supper, windows misted, with a sense of permanence and belonging, not some transient observer.
The stores and gas stations look different from those in Canada. The names on signs are only heard or seen in football broadcasts beamed from faraway Burlington, Vermont, the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium with Chris Shenkel announcing. And I’m here in the US, aware and feeling the difference. It is very much like watching a movie about a town you have lived in for a long time. Somehow all the little pieces just fit right, and you know what a sense of belonging is.
The bus stops briefly in Plattsburgh, then bustling because of a yet to be closed Air Force base and then heads into the mountains. The darkness becomes complete. We climb the ancient backbone of the American East, rock faces blending with the pine and maple. It is foreboding and uplifting all at once. Wilderness lines the road much as it did when previous voyageurs found their way down through the mountains to Lake Champlain and beyond.
Marguerite’s is a brown, single-story, stone building with steps to a wide veranda and a double front door. A red shingle roof is illuminated by a neon sign that can be seen from the highway announcing food and cocktails.
We pull off the road at Keeseville into Marguerite’s Diner. Every Greyhound route had its places like this, like the railway hotels in the movie, “The Hardy Girls” with Judy Garland. Large parking lots, so it was easy for the buses to stop then get on their way with a full load of passengers having been given a quick supper and drink. Marguerite’s is a brown, single-story, stone building with steps to a wide veranda and a double front door. A red shingle roof is illuminated by a neon sign that can be seen from the highway announcing food and cocktails.
Every time we stopped there, I had a ritual meal. At the time, the drinking age in New York State was 18, whereas, in Québec, the age was 21. This difference was a constant challenge during my years at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec. But here outside Keeseville, New York, I figured I looked 18 enough, so I would order a ham and Swiss on rye because it seemed so very American with pickles, fries, and a Schaefer beer. The food came quickly and with the beer, no questions asked, and was always a treat. I was always hungry at the boardinghouse, so this was heaven, just to eat what I wanted when I wanted, no fear of some tasteless offering.
Back on the bus, I sit through an hour and a half or so in pitch darkness. Now and then, the strobe of the headlights flashes on trees and rocks as the bus navigates the sharp curves through this desolate countryside. On this same stretch of highway, my grandfather, my father’s father, died in 1959. For me, another life-changing moment: he perished in a head-on collision between his Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and a Cadillac on a bitterly cold wintry morning in February. My grandmother was driving the two of them to Florida. My grandmother had survived two world wars only to have this terrible accident and hold her dead husband while looking out at the trees and snow, in the cold, waiting and waiting for the ambulance to come.
The accident is the reason I am in this bus on this same stretch of highway. My mother met my future stepdad George at Moses Luddington Hospital in Ticonderoga, New York, after giving blood to save my grandmother. They picked up their relationship after three years passed in 1962, and she eventually bought 200 acres in the middle of nowhere, a return to her roots as a county-born girl from Oundle, a small town in England.
The driver calls out that the next stop is Schroon Lake. This quiet resort town is home to many summer camps for affluent kids from New York City and other cities. Having done that myself, I know it’s a chance to experience some nature, learn crafts, get away from Mom and Dad, and for them to get away from us. Indeed, this is an indulgence that many can’t afford. For me, it became an extension of school and the many struggles with relationships that I had there.
Route 9 is the main street through Schroon Lake, and the bus stops in front of the local diner, which doubles as the Greyhound depot. I get off, retrieve my bag from underneath and stand in the dark as the bus pulls away, taillights disappearing around the corner on its way to Albany and New York City. I look up the road and see the headlights of a 1961 Ford Fairlane coming down the road to pick me up and take me up into the mountains, to the farm.