Not Who I Thought I Was by Mitchel Montagna
Not Who I Thought I Was by Mitchel Montagna
The day I learned Bergin had died, at 50, I heard his terrified voice again, cursing me like few ever have.
We had bunked together many years ago, in the early 1970s, at a summer camp for Jewish kids called Camp Ramah. On its grounds was a large, glassy lake, and I remember one afternoon a few days after we had arrived, loitering by its shore and enjoying the view. Woods of deep, piney green lined the far shore, and a vivid reflection of oaks and evergreens rippled on the water. With the intense sun, there was a burning, swampy odor that went right to your head. We liked that the Delaware River was on the other side of the woods, just a few miles away. The rustic setting energized us; most campers came from crowded New York City suburbs, and here you felt like you could stretch out and yell to your heart’s content.
At that moment, I was hanging out with a couple of guys from my cabin. Chayfetz was the largest of us—he wore thick black-framed glasses and had asthma. The other boy, Abrahams, was lean and long-faced, almost like a vulture.
“Couple assholes,” Abrahams said dismissively.
He was referring to two kids in a canoe cautiously pushing off from the lakeside dock. We were there to watch them, as the three of us were scheduled to begin canoe lessons the next day, and we hoped for a preview. The pair today came from a cabin of younger boys, and they looked seriously weighed down by their orange life vests. Their instructor was the boating counselor, named Isaacs, a tall, wiry man with sun-baked skin and a skullcap fastened near a bald spot. We had already pegged Isaacs as trouble, a guy who wouldn’t hesitate to belt a kid if he was being a smart-ass.
“Paddles on opposite sides,” Isaacs shouted. “Let’s go, put some muscle into it!”
Watching the callow youngsters struggle, the three of us snickered.
“Stavis,” Isaacs continued, “keep your strokes near the hull, not like – uh Jesus.”
The canoe capsized, depositing the boys into the lake. After some splashing they stood in the water, looking at each other with bewilderment. Isaacs yelled, “What the hell was that?”
The vessel had righted itself and floated nearby, the sun glinting off its aluminum frame.
“Swamp your canoe, girls,” Isaacs taunted. “It ain’t coming back by itself!”
“What?” one of the kids called.
“And secure your goddamn paddles!”
Abrahams, Chayfetz, and I roared. “Send ‘em down to the minors,” I said.
The sun felt very close, large and blazing. I saw a vein throbbing on Abrahams’ flushed temple. Chayfetz grinned, though a ton of sweat streamed off his chubby face. My skinny torso was shirtless, exposed and burning. But what did I care? We were sure we would do much better than these little twerps tomorrow.
We didn’t, not at first, as Abrahams and I flipped over almost as quickly as the younger boys had the day before. But it didn’t bother me, as I was convinced the screw-up wasn’t my fault. At that point, a week into the summer session, the social pecking order had apparently settled in my favor, and I was feeling secure, almost cocky. My peers seemed to like me, and I was one of the best softball players in the camp.
What was more important than that to a 13-year old boy?
Unfortunately for me, there was something more important, and they lived dangerously close, in cabins about a half mile from ours. Girls had become more important, and they unnerved me down to the marrow of my bones. These were not just any girls, but a sub-species that seemed to have emerged overnight, whose ripened bodies and insolent manners replaced what had been there before like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I hadn’t the courage to look them in the eye, much less deal with their temptations. The best I could do was to ignore girls, terrified of them ignoring me.
But that strategy sometimes required me to pretend my head was up my ass.
A couple of days before the canoe lesson, I had been walking with Bergin near the dining hall. We had just finished Shacharit, the morning prayers, but Bergin wasn’t in a spiritual mood. Instead, he was his usual obstreperous self, rambling on about TV shows, the Mets, and the amazing things he would accomplish in life. Bergin was smaller than me, but feisty and driven, and it was exhausting to try to fend him off. (Fittingly, he grew up to be a lawyer.) Bergin made friends through wars of attrition.
It had rained heavily over the past couple of days, so our walk required stepping around numerous puddles and messy patches of mud. As Bergin cursed the soggy ground, a girl emerged from the woods up ahead. She had the whole package—long legs, tapered waist, and that teased waterfall hair that was popular back then. The already-humid air seemed to boil over as she drifted by. I was fine with letting the moment pass without comment. But Bergin wasn’t wired that way. Once the girl was out of earshot, he moaned like a hound dog then assured me that he would “love to get into her pants.”
I was dimwitted enough to say, “Who? What are you talking about?”
“That chick who just went by, you moron.” Bergin’s grin was malicious. “What are you, blind?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, surrendering. “Very nice.”
We continued in uneasy silence for a time, but gradually the normal patter returned. Bergin announced: “I’ll tell you who can’t manage, Yogi Berra. I don’t give a shit what anybody says.”
Such fumbling moments aside, I remained convinced of my dominance. So later on during the canoe lesson, as Abrahams and I stood in the lake alongside our capsized vessel, I presumed he was to blame.
“You doofus,” I snapped. “Can’t you tell left from right?”
Abrahams stared at me with gaunt silence and steadfast eyes. I thought he might be expressing contempt, but I finally decided he was at a loss for words. I wondered why people around here didn’t take things seriously enough. When Isaacs hollered (“Hey, I thought you were supposed to be men!”), I nodded with a smirk, as if he was yelling at Abrahams alone.
A few days later, the counselors had exciting news. The camp had scheduled an overnight canoe trip on the Delaware, and those who had successfully completed four lessons could take part. This included me, Abrahams, Chayfetz, Bergin, and about 20 other boys and girls. The plan was to paddle south from Port Jervis to Dingmans Ferry; camp there overnight, and then continue on to the Bushkill Landing where we’d catch a bus back to camp. That middle section of the river was considered relatively calm, with just enough white water to make it interesting. Although most of us had canoed only on the tranquil surface of Camp Ramah’s lake, the counselors reckoned we could safely handle it.
On the day of departure, we were supposed to be on the river by noon—more than enough time to make the 15-mile trip to Dingmans before dark. We had just placed our overnight gear near the office for pickup when we learned that the bus scheduled to ferry us to the river would be delayed.
“Engine trouble,” Isaacs announced, then assured us that plenty of extra time was built into the itinerary, so the delay was no real setback. Eager for adventure, we were disappointed at the holdup, but beyond that we gave it little thought.
It was after 2:30 when the bus finally unloaded us alongside the river. As we milled around, we saw about a dozen aluminum canoes lined up at the water’s edge, and Isaacs stood by them, reciting rules, the importance of taking care, and never—but never—remove your life jacket.
Two counselors flanking Isaacs would also accompany us: one was Sarah, whom I recall as having dark hair with a pony tail, some bulkiness, and a bulldog frown. But her size was nothing compared with the third counselor, a guy named Shildkraut, who looked as wide as he was tall—and he wasn’t short. Shildkraut had a flushed face and a crew cut, and supposedly he had played football at Columbia University. Like Isaacs, he seemed like a guy you wouldn’t want to mess with.
I moved closer to the river, following a hot, swampy odor similar to that of our lake but even more pungent. It smelled like it might have bubbled up from some primeval bog. The river at this point wasn’t deep, maybe two or three feet. In the sun’s penetrating light, the water was transparent: I saw striped fish zigzagging amid rocks and grassy flora bending smoothly with the current.
Behind me, campers were pairing up and selecting canoes. I assumed Chayfetz and Abrahams would both want to partner with me, and the odd man out would have to settle for Bergin. So I took my time strolling back to the group. To my surprise—and dismay—I saw Chayfetz and Abrahams dragging a canoe into the river, apparently having already teamed up. As I pondered that, Bergin with a knowing smirk popped in front of me.
He shoved a life vest into my face. “Mike,” he ordered, “you ride the bow.”
I accepted the vest and forced a pained smile. “Anything you say, Bergin old buddy.”
Our vessel rocked a bit as we set off, and I tensed my belly for equilibrium as I imagined tightrope walkers did. We quickly found our balance, getting in sync with the current that flowed so gently that the river seemed to welcome us with open arms. It emitted a soft, bubbly hiss, like a small waterfall.
As the guy up front, my role was to identify rocks and other obstacles to avoid, so I focused my attention downriver. But the conditions were so placid that it didn’t seem there was much to worry about. I concentrated on finding my rhythm: lowering my paddle into the water so that my bottom hand was submerged, drawing back through the water’s resistance, then lifting the paddle from the river and bringing it forward to stroke again. It was stimulating to see my efforts getting results: the canoe’s “v”-shaped bow knifed through the water, and I had a pleasing sense of forward momentum. Our pace generated a cool, damp breeze against our bodies.
Bergin said, “Ever see a bald eagle?”
“Bald eagle. Maybe. How do you know they’re bald?”
“White head,” Bergin said. “They’re pretty scarce. But you can find them around here.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said, directing all my energy into a prolonged stroke.
“Wild turkeys too,” said Bergin.
I searched my mind for suitable knowledge. “Lotta fish in here,” I observed.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
After I lowered my paddle into the river, I drew it back especially hard. I raised the paddle quickly and exaggerated the backswing, trying to scoop up and hurl a quantity of water. I heard the splatter behind me.
“You fucking asshole,” Bergin said.
I glanced back to see Bergin’s hair and face wet, my aim having been even better than I had hoped. He began to shake the water off.
“Schmuck,” he grumbled, and the canoe tipped to the left.
“Watch it,” I hollered, and we both instinctively leaned rightward, overturning us. We laughed and cursed as we fell into the Delaware, where we splashed around, buoyed clumsily by our life vests.
Farther along, our clothing and sneakers still damp, we approached a highway bridge that spanned the river. The late afternoon sun was partially hidden by a tall, silvery cloud that diffused the light, obscuring the faces of people on the bridge looking down at us. But if their faces were blurry, their taunts were clear.
“Remember Deliverance,” they jeered. “Say hello to Burt Reynolds! Keep a tight asshole!”
Amid their laughter, I thought I heard something about Jews, and an icy fear crawled down my back. After we had passed under the bridge and emerged on the other side, Bergin howled.
“Fuck you, you goddamned Huguenots!”
In calling out a group of locals known for their anti-Semitism, Bergin did something I would not have done. In fact, I would have told him to shut up, but nerves had rendered me mute. So I just kept paddling as hard as I could.
After we had hauled ass downriver for a while, Bergin said, gasping, “We ought to get Shildkraut after those bastards.”
“There’s just one of him and lots of them.”
“Well he’s like three normal people,” Bergin said. “We also got Isaacs. He’s a tough guy—Israeli army, I hear. All else fails, Chayfetz’ll sit on ‘em.”
“We gotta find those guys first,” I said. “Where the hell is everybody?”
During the first hour or so of our trip, the canoes had begun to separate as each one found its own pace. It was odd—what I had expected to be a laugh-filled caravan had turned into a lonelier pursuit. No other vessel was in sight.
Nor was any sign of civilization. As we advanced, the shorelines gradually closed in—dense treetops hung over the water’s edge, with clusters of violet flowers scattered along the banks. Birds multiplied, swooping down to peck at ripples of water; you could hear their screeching calls. Sometimes, they sounded synchronized; at other moments they sounded discordant and aggressive, as if squabbling over turf.
Then, gradually, another noise materialized.
100 feet ahead, we saw currents white as ice whipping across the water’s surface. The resonant hiss grew into a roar as we drew closer, and the incoming breeze cooled and strengthened. The river’s swampy odor filled my nostrils and spiraled down my throat.
“Here we go,” I shouted, feeling reckless.
“Don’t sweat it,” Bergin said. “Just keep your eyes open.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I hollered.
As the bow of our canoe edged into the white water, it seemed like something grabbed our craft and hurled us downriver. We swayed and bounced wildly, my stomach barely keeping pace. I stroked as hard as I could, but it didn’t seem to have an effect. As I blinked and spat through spraying water, I saw a rock protruding sharply above the turbulent surface ahead, and I cried out a warning to Bergin. The torrent smashed into the rock, spewing and bubbling around it like a tiny squall. We hit a swell and the canoe tilted steeply upward then abruptly dropped, launching my balls into my throat. The jagged rock was close enough to touch, and I screamed another warning.
We skated past it, whether through luck or Bergin’s skill I didn’t know. As we left that obstacle behind, another rock, flat and large as a desk materialized and before I could yell we hit it with a crunch. The impact swung our canoe 45 degrees so that I found myself facing the shore and wondering what the fuck to do. I was paddling with futility while Bergin swore and reverse-paddled. We slipped off the large rock then went a few yards downriver, still facing sideways, when we crashed into yet another one. The canoe flipped, dumping us into the rapids.
My life jacket prevented me from going under and I stood precariously as the force of the water did all it could to knock me off my feet. The water wasn’t too deep—about hip-high—but remaining upright for long felt impossible. The shorter Bergin had it tougher, as the water reached past his belly. He struggled for balance next to me, and we watched our canoe careen downriver without us.
Shouting and cursing, we gave chase like a couple of drunks. I fell then got up several times, leapt forward to grab the canoe when I got close but the damn thing spun away. I saw a paddle arise on a swell and grabbed it, feeling like I had accomplished something significant. I heard Bergin call the river a motherfucker. I saw a boulder shimmering underwater, stepped on it, but slipped on its mossy surface. My feet skidded out sideways and I went face-first into the water. Something scratched the holy hell out of my forearm, and I let the paddle go.
I continued to stagger ahead, looking for our canoe, falling and rising every few seconds. Bergin had discovered a more efficient way to travel; he streaked past me, riding the water’s surface and flailing his arms in distress. I couldn’t help but laugh, and I caught a mouthful of water for my callousness. I choked, slipped, and hit my head on something sharp. After a few more minutes I saw our canoe again, resting on its side like a gassed porpoise maybe 50 feet ahead where the rapids had finally run out of steam.
We stood in the water wheezing by our canoe. Bergin looked like he had had the shit beat out of him. Below one eye, a cut leaked blood and his lip was split. I had a gash on an arm that bled pink into the river. There was pulsing pain above my nose and I fingered a solid, quarter-sized bump.
“What the fuck,” I said.
Bergin said through clenched teeth, “I thought the river around here was supposed to be easy.”
“If it is,” I said, “we’re the biggest klutzes in the world.” I licked blood off my arm.
We both saw, by the far bank, another canoe. It lay upside down, half of it misshapen, crunched like an accordion.
“Whose fucking ride is that?” Bergin said.
We located our paddles, righted our canoe, and clambered aboard, trembling like survivors of a blitzkrieg.
And that was when we acquired a passenger. Her name was Melissa, and she and her partner had had their canoe demolished in the same rapids Bergin and I had just come through. Shildkraut had picked up her partner and instructed Melissa to wait for another Ramah party. Apparently, Melissa said, campers were having trouble up and down the river; Shildkraut, Isaacs, and Sarah were paddling around trying to assist. It seemed the rain during the past week had lashed the white water into a frenzy that nobody had anticipated.
I had seen Melissa around camp, but had never spoken to her. I still remember the dewy sweetness of her face, edging into maturity with moist lips and wide almond eyes. Her dark hair was long, her body somewhat overweight and formless but with large, swinging breasts that pinged my heart. The river had done a number on her, too: Melissa had a fresh, raspberry-tinted abrasion on her chin and dark bruises on her upper arm.
Melissa smiled briefly as we spoke, but mainly the vibe she gave off was one of resentful misery, for which I couldn’t blame her. With some effort, we boarded our canoe with Melissa squatting on the floor between us. As we proceeded, I noticed that clouds had filled the sky—mostly soft, billowing white but with scattered gray tendrils. The threat of rain, given the circumstances, was troubling but I kept those worries to myself. I could feel Melissa’s sullen presence behind me, but Bergin seemed determined to snap her out of it.
“Melissa,” he said. “What cabin are you in?”
There passed a moment of silence, presumably to let the girl elaborate. When she declined to, Bergin continued. “I’m in cabin nine. Well, we’re in cabin nine.”
He plowed on. “You know Leslie Marcus? She’s a good friend of mine. She’s in cabin six. Know her?”
“I’ll introduce you some time.”
I saw that the river had widened, and to our left was a large silver-gray rock face that blocked our view of trees except for their very tops, which swayed gently and whose leaves turned in the breeze. The edifice had a damp shine, and smooth bumps and angles were sculpted along its surface.
Bergin said, “Ever see a bald eagle?”
“No,” Mellissa said.
“You might see one out here. There’s like, over 200 species of birds on the river. That guy Shildkraut was telling me.”
I chimed in: “Can you name them?”
“How about the dodo?” Bergin said. “There’s one right here.”
I twisted around and said, “I wouldn’t take that from him.”
Melissa half-smiled, which I considered a victory worth noting. After I turned back and resumed paddling, she spoke up.
Her tone was one of disbelief. “I think,” she said, “there’s a dog crossing the river.”
Melissa probably suspected it wasn’t a dog, and it took me a few moments to accept it myself. Some 50 feet away, a large black mammal’s head moved through the water at a leisurely pace. You could see its pointy ears and great snout, along with a submerged furry body of considerable heft. The creature swam right to left in a start-stop fashion, like a tugboat hauling a ship. Bergin and I had stopped paddling, but our canoe kept easing closer to the animal. By now it was about halfway across, directly in front of us. I lowered my paddle into the water to stall our forward momentum. For a terrifying moment, the canoe rocked rightward.
“Great goddamn Christ,” Bergin hissed. “Do that again and I’ll kill you.”
We floated there trapped, witnessing what had to be a bear taking its afternoon swim. Our canoe still drifted downriver at a nearly imperceptible rate. I focused on the bird chatter, discerning in its machine-like caws an unrelenting march of doom. The notion that we absolutely had to keep the canoe upright fucked with my head. It was like walking on a ledge with a steep drop—if you obsessed over the cost of losing your balance, you’d probably fall. I couldn’t help but consider what might happen if we overturned and drew the bear’s attention. I tried to tighten my stomach muscles for balance, but I could feel nothing in that part of my body. Instead, my butt started to twitch. Our canoe wobbled—someone behind me gasped—and I could scarcely draw a breath.
The bear was breathing fine, dunking its nose into the water, advancing a few feet, then lifting its head for air. I thought I heard the beast give a rumbling groan, though it may have been my stomach. The bear progressed to a spot near the stone wall, and then turned downriver with the current. Where the rock face ended, it emerged from the water on four legs, hair matted down. The bear appeared to look around furtively, like a sneak thief, and then launched itself into the woods.
We listened to the rustling, snapping sounds of demolished branches as the animal charged through the underbrush, the noise gradually diminishing then finally all we heard again were the birds.
We remained silent, still. Perspiration ran down my nose and dripped onto my crotch. Bergin grunted and made a gurgling sound. I turned to see him barfing into the river. Melissa ignored him, her face drawn, looking past me with glassy, gold-flecked eyes. I regarded the paddle in my hands and wondered what I was supposed to do with it. Then I registered the churning noise of lively water ahead.
Well, this particular stretch did not topple us. Maybe because of what we had come through already, we felt less overwhelmed. As we entered the white water, everything seemed to move a little slower compared with the earlier rapids, so I could see things clearer and react well, calling out when I saw an obstacle and confident that Bergin would steer us around it. It didn’t hurt that Melissa’s weight stabilized us, or that these rapids were rather gentler than the earlier ones. It also may have been our attitude, one of serious, focused commitment. I think we were tired of feeling pushed around, which helped us to more effectively deploy our energy. At least I felt that way.
After we had zigzagged through these rapids, we rode on calm water for about a half-mile then we approached white water yet again. I noticed a dark purple hue in the sky to the east, rising like smoke behind the treetops. As I stared, the dreamlike image transformed into more familiar signs of dusk, with colors muting and the eastern sky, to our left, growing dim. Then we slid into more white water, which we navigated successfully with the same somber sense of purpose as before.
Back in calm water, we continued in near silence (Bergin identified a wheeling flock of birds as swallows, to no acknowledgement from his crew) for some time and I seriously began to wonder where the hell Dingmans Ferry was. We’d been told it would be on our right, marked by a large sign you couldn’t miss after a sharp westward bend.
I asked the others if we might have missed it. Both said no. Melissa complained she was thirsty; Bergin suggested she drink from the river. I didn’t turn to see if she took him up on it. Instead, I observed the swooping darkness. After the early indications of dusk, night had come as suddenly as if we’d floated into a cave.
“Be alert,” I called. “I can’t see shit.” In fact, only the sounds of the river assured us we were still on water. Our enclosed space probably added to the murkiness, as trees and bushes crowding on both banks blocked out lights that might have flickered nearby. The trees were tall, lurking shadows, merging vaguely with the grayer but opaque sky, offering little in the way of visual cues but plenty of disorientation.
“Where’s the fucking moon?” Bergin said.
“Behind clouds,” I said.
“Fu-u-u-ck,” Bergin said softly, a tone of wonder in his voice.
We’d both stopped paddling. Our canoe continued to drift forward—into what, we couldn’t know. I asked whether we should pull over.
“Not with that bear running around,” Melissa said.
“We’ll go to the other side,” I suggested.
“What about his friends?”
We stayed on the river, paddling cautiously and watching the suffocating dark turn a shade deeper.
After a few more minutes, we heard the hiss of white water again, and this time it was a different proposition. With our eyes useless, maneuvering safely through rapids seemed a tall order. As the water grew louder and its pungent odor danker, I was more afraid than I’d been all day. I looked around toward both shores but perceived only chasms of blackness.
The danger seemed to jack Bergin up. “You better keep your eyes open, Mike,” he yelled. “You hear?”
“I hear fine. What I said was, I can’t see.”
“Better find a way,” he hollered.
I recognized that we had entered the rapids when our canoe pitched forward. The water itself appeared ghostly, its white swirls like vapor. We hit something, probably a rock, and the canoe stopped suddenly. Momentum forced me off my bench, onto my knees. I felt the vibration of something scraping against our keel. After the canoe managed a horse-like buck, it slid off the impediment and we continued erratically onward.
“Goddamn you Mike, goddamn you!” Bergin bawled.
I thought the boy might be losing his mind so I ignored him and focused on responding to the next challenge, whatever it might be. I rested my paddle on my thighs, figuring the less I intervened, the better. The canoe bounced and swayed as the rapids surged. I grabbed both sides of the vessel to steady myself.
We crunched into something again and I received a cool face full of water. Then, my body started to rotate clockwise as I sat. I tried to locate some perspective, but the darkness prevented me from having any idea of what the hell was happening. My sense of direction was gone. I swiveled my head around and saw no line of demarcation, no clue. I might as well have been blindfolded, hanging upside down.
“Fuck you Mike, you bastard!”
The canoe bucked again, and water doused me as we crashed down. I kept revolving and sensed at one point I might be facing backward. The night appeared as veils of black gauze looping around me. We rocked violently and I thought we were going over. I tensed my body, anticipating impact.
I received another splash—it felt like a gallon of water against my right side—but we remained upright. We banged something, stopped briefly then regained our pace, rotating in some mystifying direction.
I distinctly recall the air warming a little and the smell of the river diluting. A moment later, we stabilized and the water was calm. The sighing rapids were behind us. The abrupt change seemed like we had slipped into a fairy tale. All seemed tranquil.
“No way,” Melissa muttered.
Apparently, while pitching through the white water, our canoe had revolved 360 degrees. Through dumb luck, we hadn’t capsized. But that did it for us. Without communicating, Bergin and I began to paddle toward shore. Fuck the bears; we had to get off the river.
Our eyes were finally getting accustomed to the dark, revealing sketchy outlines of tree stands as our canoe bumped gently against the bank. As we entered the woods, the three of us were holding hands, Melissa in the middle. She felt hot, moist, and soft. I squeezed a little, sensing a genuine connection.
In single file, with me in the lead, we snaked around trees, our breathing and crackling steps the sole noise. I prayed no other sounds, like a growl, would intrude. Fortunately, this latest period of duress was short-lived. We soon stepped on to blacktop, a two-lane road, its double lines bright down the center. To our left, down a little ways, we saw the blazing, spinning lights of a police car.
Apparently, camp leaders had learned there was trouble and called the cops. A number of cruisers were patrolling the roads along the river. Most campers, like us, had abandoned the river at some point. Turned out we had made it farther than most—Dingmans Ferry was just a couple of hundred yards ahead of where we had pulled off.
We were all driven to the campsite, and everyone had hair-raising stories. As we sat around a campfire, people told of plowing into rocks, flipping over, being dragged along the river’s bottom, being caught in the dark, nearly drowning, etc. Not unlike what we had experienced. A couple of other canoes were, like Melissa’s, destroyed by the Delaware’s power. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt. I heard Chayfetz, with his asthma, had wheezed badly as he stumbled off the river and was hospitalized as a precautionary measure. But he turned out to be fine. And, nobody else saw a bear. I’m not sure if the others even believed our story. I overheard Bergin relating it to a couple of girls, and you would have thought a beast the size of King Kong had confronted us. I lay down in the grass near the fire and laughed until I nearly suffocated.
That was the only summer I attended Camp Ramah, and I never saw any of my fellow campers again. But one day I stumbled onto a Ramah alumni page on Facebook, and in skimming through it I saw that Bergin had died some years before, of cancer. He’d left behind a wife, two children, and what was described as a successful legal practice.
As I hadn’t thought of Bergin much in decades, news of his death didn’t immediately affect me. But soon I recalled, with warmth, his mix of bravado and folly, and decided it reflected much that was distinctive about being young. I felt moved as I pictured his sharp, conniving face, and I spent some time pondering the passage of so many years.
But the most significant memory I dredged up of that time was of a brief incident a couple of days after the canoe trip. I was cutting through the girls’ camp alone after some kind of hiking exercise when I saw Melissa and another girl emerge from one of the cabins. They were talking in an energized, animated fashion, which in those days I observed as uniquely girlish. I hadn’t seen Melissa since the trip, and in seeing her now I felt a sudden surge of affection, as powerful and cleansing as adrenaline.
I adjusted my path in order to approach her. As I got close, I beamed and roared something blunt like, “Hey Melissa! How are ya!”
But as that last syllable erupted from my throat, I sensed something off-kilter. I realized, too late, that my defense mechanisms existed for a reason, and some things are better left hidden. With my naive outburst of goodwill, I was disclosing an immaturity that was, in that circumstance, unseemly. I could just about feel the egg on my face. Still, my asinine grin remained, hanging out there like a palooka’s chin.
Melissa’s face still had that glowing quality. It barely flickered as she raised a side of her lip just slightly. Her eyes pinged off mine and settled on a point above my head. Her friend, whose appearance I otherwise don’t recall, looked through me like I was glass.
The girls resumed their high-octane chat and strode past me. I trudged along and once I was out of sight, stood with my back against the rear of one of the cabins.
I felt queasy. My heart knocked around and I coughed several times. Past that, I stood erect, stiffened by numbness.
I resumed walking until I approached my own cabin. Chayfetz and Abrahams were outside playing ping-pong. A couple of other guys were throwing a softball.
The joke is that I felt I still might be able to pull off my act. I called to Abrahams, and told him I would take on the winner. Then he regarded me with the same effortless, drop-dead expression Melissa had just used, and I sensed how wrong I was.
Copyright Mitchel Montagna 2019