Thursday, January 1, 2009

Summer Camp

In the early eighties--and just days before her accidental death--my mom sent me a 112-page manuscript for a romantic novella she'd written called "Summer Camp." (There are a few titles scribbled on the front cover, but that's my favorite.) Several times, I tried to read it, but the ick factor was fairly high: I simply could not handle the detailed accounts of "Jakie" (so obviously my mom) having sex. But yesterday--in a mellow, post-menopausal mood--I retrieved it from a closet shelf and read the entire thing for the first time. I don't presume to know which parts are fact, which parts are fiction, and which parts blur the line; I only know that I felt close to her while reading it. "I'm going to blog about this!" I hollered enthusiastically to my husband in the next room.

I grin when I see that the first page contains nothing but a quote, which my mom ascribes to her sister "N" (she includes N's last name, but I'll omit it here). The quote: "I am no stranger to small thinking."

The first chapter introduces us to Jakie (rhymes with flaky, and observation, not hers). The opening dialogue is between Jakie and her husband, Ron, who is needing some space. He loves her madly, but feels smothered in their small town (a Denver suburb). "Are you content knowing nothing but narrow-minded people who hate to go more than ten miles away because something might change while they're gone?" he asks her.

Ron is an idea man, and a flirt. While reading, I thought they'd reconcile (apparently, he's very good in bed), but they do not. He leaves a note ("Don't worry") and moves to San Diego.

A paragraph later, Jakie is divorced. There's precious little information about twin sons Jeff and Mark (recent high school graduates), and only slightly more about grown daughter Sadie (engaged to be married, starred in a school play, a bit of a spendthrift, works with her mom sometimes, a "real personality"). (If no one minds, I'll be her.)


The second chapter explores Jakie's upbringing and philosophy, and some of her post-divorce angst. The granddaughter of Danish immigrants, the daughter of a grocer, she hasn't traveled or graduated from college or enjoyed a career. She recalls a conversation with a girlhood friend:

"I want to be a nurse when I grow up," said Carolyn.
"Not me," said Jakie. "I want to be a mother."
"You can be a nurse and a mother, silly," said Carolyn.
"No," said Jakie. "I only want to be a mother."

Ron's rejection "shattered Jakie's orderly existence." Ron thrives after the divorce, but Jakie feels aimless and confused. She reads a lot, and watches too much TV. Men--of course--find her enchanting, and many pursue her, but she isn't interested. She's "pretty, though slightly overweight," with dark eyes and curly brown hair. When she isn't looking sad or worried, she has a killer smile.

True to the genre, Jakie loses the extra weight, gets a tan, and goes in search of a
job, reasoning that employment will lead to improved self-esteem, and improved self-esteem will lead to hooking up with a new man. (I've heard that some women prefer the new-man-will-lead-to-improved-self-esteem model.) "She wasn't interested in learning to be without a man at her side. Sleeping alone was not to be part of her destiny." Oh dear.


I'm a bit confused by the third chapter; it almost seems to stand alone (perhaps as an essay on paratroopers). She doesn't mention Ron or the kids. It's her first summer working at the Officers' Club at Camp Bradley, a military post near her home, frequented by National Guard and Army Reserve troops doing two-week stints.

"Jakie sat on the hood of her car near the drop zone at Camp Bradley." (I've done that! I was younger than Jakie--without the recent divorce or the magnificent rack--but I, too, enjoyed the late-August sunshine and the scent of sagebrush, and the even-better scent of sweaty, dusty, triumphant men after a successful jump.) Jakie awaits the object of her affections, Colonel Matt Chipman (who isn't seen in later chapters).

"She idly wondered if she was in love with the man she waited to see jump."

Then, quickly: "No, she wasn't in love." Whew.

"She didn't even like him a lot." I see.

"Love was for kids and sadists." What?!?

In this chapter, it becomes clear that the author has gathered some serious intel about helicopters, short-take-off-and-landing vehicles, safe and unsafe jumping conditions, static lines, reserve chutes, canopies, wind speeds, forward speeds, soft versus hard landings...and she generously shares it with us. She also shares that Matt likes "a good jump, good PT, good scotch, and a good woman," and something about that is pissing Jakie off. "Why was she feeling so furious?" she wonders. She describes their lovemaking (her word) as "satisfying, but not tremendously exciting." Matt is kind, slim, and a lousy listener. She admits to being "embittered."

"Matt disapproved of many things," she writes. "Often, he disapproved of her. He constantly prompted her to be this way or that way, but would also tell her to be herself." At one point, he has the audacity to suggest she lose
another ten pounds. He makes helpful if unwelcome suggestions regarding her PT.

I don't care for Matt Chipman, and I'm not sure what draws Jakie to him. "What in the hell am I doing here?" she mutters, as the weather turns windy and wet. "What is a thirty-nine-year-old woman doing here by herself, leaning against a dusty car, in such godawful weather? Her wish, at that moment, was to be any place else." One page later, she repeats the question: "What in the hell am I doing here?"

As Jakie continues to watch the jump, she lyrically describes one soldier's actions: "He gathered up his chute like a voluminous petticoat." (I would have followed him back to camp, in search of something Tremendously Exciting.)

After the jump (cut short by the rain), she returns to the Officers' Club. She's alone. "Summer camp was over; fall was in the air. A feeling of nostalgia swept over her. She poured a cup of coffee and sat in front of the water-stained window, waiting for Matt Chipman. The beautiful shades of lush green had given way to golds and browns. That morning, in the valley below, a farmer had finished cutting his grain. He'd turned the rich brown soil, getting ready for another crop, another summer."


The fourth chapter takes place early in the summer of 1975 (days after I graduated from high school, and the summer of my first soldier, Larry France.) This also seems like the beginning of her career at Camp Bradley, as if the events of Chapter 3 never took place.

Jakie "has misgivings about being a barmaid." She prefers being outside, cleaning the pool and making burgers for military families. She enjoys being useful; she has the heart of a caretaker.

Here, we're introduced to grounds-keeper Evan McShane. (The true identity of Evan McShane will not be a mystery to anyone who ever visited "Camp Bradley.") I adore the character, and I adored the real man. He was sexy and affectionate; he was ageless. I wanted him to take care of me, and--because he seemed a bit wounded--I was also eager to take care of him (using the rather limited arsenal of skills I possessed at age eighteen).
I suppose he broke my mom's heart: He wasn't happily married, but he was permanently married.

Jakie describes the beauty of the Officers' Club, which was a WPA project. "Huge beams supported the cavernous roof," she writes. She describes the stone brought down from a nearby canyon, the "splendor of the decadent drapes and carpets," the "big brass chandeliers made of crossed swords."

Next, we're introduced to the handsome, extroverted, chivalrous Major Ryan Pendleton. His first line (spoken to Jakie, of course) is, "Ma'am, I stand chagrined!" Later: "Could we prevail on your kindness to prepare us each a cheeseburger?" It might seem overblown, but they actually talked like that...the confident, well-traveled officers from the South. "What would you like to hear on the jukebox?" he asks Jakie. "It's the only instrument I play." She chooses "For the Good Times," a Kris Kristofferson classic performed by Ray Price.

Many more characters are introduced, all military men. I stop keeping track after a while. Other than Evan McShane, I only notice the men she sleeps with. "The attention from men was important to her, and she'd be a liar if she denied that," she writes. "At this crucial point in her life, she seemed to need it. At Camp Bradley, there was no lack of men ready to make a woman happy, if only for the evening." The only vulgar line is found on page 16. Jakie overhears someone say, "Well, I don't know about you, Captain, but I wouldn't fuck her with your dick." Jakie doesn't speculate as to whom they might be discussing, but I feel my brow furrow as I read it. Not me, surely. She wouldn't have included the line if she'd suspected they were talking about either of us, right?

One night, daughter Sadie comes out to help Jakie at
the club. "When there was a lull, Sadie left the grill to play the jukebox. Major Pendleton gave her eight or ten quarters, and together they made some pretty good choices." (Is it strange that this makes my heart beat a little faster? As I type, I feel nervous, as if right now I'm standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Major Pendleton at the jukebox, choosing "Help Me Make it Through the Night" and "Long Long Time." Did that happen? Was there a particular soldier that was Major Pendleton?)

He returns at closing time and asks if Jakie would like to join him for dinner later that week. She's taken with his "cute personality," but doesn't commit. "He never asked if she was married, and she just imagined that he was." Later, Sadie is encouraging: "He's darling...he's really cool! Go out with him!"

The next day,
Jakie runs into Major Pendleton again (who knew). She needs to go to the store to buy hamburger buns, and he offers to go along. He suggests that she call him Ryan, rather than Major. They talk about the markedly high ratio of men to women at Camp Bradley.

"Well, any woman would get a great deal of attention out here," says Jakie. "You don't have to be anything special. As long as you realize that, you won't get hurt."

"Don't you consider yourself special?" he asks.

"Sure I do. But the men would pay attention if you were big or little, pretty or ugly, smart or dumb. It would be sad if a woman came out here and didn't realize that." (She speaks to me...from the grave...)

Ryan admires Jakie's "depth" and "warmth," and he touches her hand, where it rests on the gearshift.


There's a romantic scene at the beginning of the fifth chapter. After a long night, Jakie is standing in an open doorway, enjoying the light rain and the scent of sagebrush. Ryan walks up behind her. (A woman loves it when she's feeling relaxed, maybe a little wistful, and a handsome man walks up behind her.)

"Tired?" he asks.
"I'm okay," she says. "Don't you just love that smell?"

I can imagine the two of them at the door that leads outside from the kitchen. Very dark, with quickly falling temperatures. Quiet, but with the friendly sound of men's voices in the distance. They breathe in the scent of cigarettes, beer, grilled onions, grass clippings. And I know how Jakie feels: bone tired, lonely, but not unhappy. And here's this tall man behind her, just inches from her. He's far from home, and weary after a long day of leading and encouraging younger men. And what they want from each other, and what they need from each other, isn't clear to either of them. They'll get something, but they'll never get enough.

Jakie does that thing that women (even smart, evolved women) sometimes do. She overtalks a subject. And the subject she overtalks could be titled "But Will You Respect Me in the Morning?" This subject makes tired men much more tired. He laughs, but he's reassuring; she's embarrassed, but reassured. The rain turns into a storm, and they remain in the doorway. I'm reminded that I'm reading fiction (and not my mom's diary) when she writes: "The heavy rain beat down on their faces and heads until they were soaked."

"Your hair is drenched," said Ryan.
"I love it!" said Jakie. "I don't mind at all!"

Jakie then thinks about all the times she rushed inside when it rained, to avoid ruining her "hair-do." She regrets doing so. She wishes she'd been "sporty and casual...soft and warm and fun."

That night, she lies in bed thinking about Ryan. His face is both "innocent and ruthless." His voice "lazy and educated." His eyes "full of lights and laughter...shrewd, calculating." Ron calls in the middle of the night (?) and invites her to visit him (and the twin boys) in San Diego. She's conflicted. She doesn't want to miss work, and he says, "I bet you enjoy all that attention." That makes it easier for her to turn down his invitation.

Ryan goes on maneuvers for a couple of days, and Jakie stays busy and happy. "She didn't have time to dwell on past mistakes or future problems; she was quite content with life at the moment." Well...good for her.

Just as I'm getting bored, Evan McShane shows up again. Jakie is looking adorable in "...a bright-yellow-and-grey-checked pant suit with a rather low V-neck with buttons down the front...her bright yellow jacket matched perfectly." They stand at the bar, shoulders touching. "If I was twenty years younger, I'd make a pass at you," he says.

When Ryan returns, Jakie ("always the incurable romantic") is imagining a scene from a "World War II movie." She anticipates that the returning soldiers will need hot coffee, "maybe bandages." She sees Ryan across the room: "Bogart is back. The war is over."

It's raining (again!), and after last call they go for a ride in Jakie's Pinto. She's very nervous, and she worries that she might hyperventilate, choke, or pee her pants. Not surprisingly, those things don't happen. They do, however, get stuck in the mud. That doesn't stop them from necking. "The heady aroma of scotch and after-shave excited her." Eventually, they make it back to camp.

Later, she's happy to be home (alone), and she describes her charming Early American furnishings. The house makes her feel "cozy, warm, and safe." She settles into the overstuffed rocking chair with its matching ottoman, remembering "sitting here when the kids were little, sick with an earache or colic." On the stereo, Neil Diamond sings "Until It's Time for You to Go." She ponders the relationship with Ryan, the "affair" she's about to launch with a married man, and she wisely decides "to go in with her eyes wide open, and her heart wide open, too."

Jakie and Ryan have plans for dinner the next night, but--as often happens--dinner becomes an unnecessary distraction to sex-in-the-barracks. She's a bit disappointed in the digs ("her room was better when she went to YWCA summer camp"), but she rallies. There's awkward talk of birth control, there's a "skimpy black bra-slip," and there's even more discussion of possible morning-after regrets and resentments. She admits to being "terribly naive." It's erotic, and it covers all the bases (those mandatory, and those optional), and I try to get through the reading of it as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Ryan is also in a bit of a hurry. "'No, really, I'm just fine,' she lied."

The book is full of conversations with assorted men: funny, flirtatious, intimate, instructive, and newsy conversations. Some are military in nature; others are about family members or the local culture, maybe weather or farming. I'd be surprised if my mom fabricated any of these small exchanges; they read like real conversations, often without neat beginnings or endings. I wonder about all the men she chatted with--old and young, married and single, officers and enlisted men, locals and visitors--and what they remember of her.

At one point, Jakie has a long (and probably ill-considered) discussion with Ryan about her marriage to Ron. Later, she asks Ryan if he will ever return, just to see her. Or--if that's asking too much--will he call her from anywhere in the mountain west, and she can hop in her Pinto and... But he shakes his head and says, "If you don't like the answer, Jakie, don't ask the question." Understandably, this disappoints her, but she doesn't let on. Instead, they go skinny dipping, before making sweet love on the carpeted floor of the Officers' Club. Once again, it's over quickly, and he rushes off to be with "his men." She feels "an overwhelming fatigue" and "an aching loneliness coming on like a summer cold."

I'm surprised by a few paragraphs on page 92. Jakie gets a phone call from a sister informing her that the family discussed Jakie's work situation, and they agree that the job at Camp Bradley is "unsuitable." They're worried and concerned (Jakie reads this as disapproval). I wonder if her family really felt that way. If so, I never heard about it.

Above all, I'm struck by Jakie's loneliness. It seems...crushing, bruising. As I read, I want to help her find a friend; I want to be her friend. She's searching for connection--she's desperate for it--but the only options she considers are men. Men who will leave! I mean, most men leave, but this group of men is actually scheduled to leave. A bus will pull up and haul them off; they risk Leavenworth if they stay behind. There must be a better way than this...a better way to find love or friendship, a better way to lift the burden of loneliness.

Anyway. It's Ryan's last day at Camp Bradley, and Jakie hasn't seen him. At the club that night, last rounds are ordered, and good-byes are said. The place slowly empties, and Jakie is about to lock the doors. She's in the kitchen when she hears it: "For the Good Times" on the jukebox. He's here! She wants to run to him, throw her arms around him, kiss his mouth, laugh, cry...but she doesn't. "Hi!" she says, cheerfully. "Where've you been?"

They go back to the barracks. After the efficient sex, there are tears. She suspects she'll never see him again. "Don't think about it," he says gruffly. But in an effort to protect himself, he hurts her. She yells at him for being insensitive, and then she cries some more. He tries to comfort her ("I'll never forget these past two weeks..."), but he makes it pretty clear that this is it. "He kissed her meaningfully, but with finality." And he's gone.

You know, t
here's a fine line between what is trite and what is universal. Almost all grownup women will relate to these words: "Everything reminded her of him. How could life go on as usual? How could life go on at all? Nothing would ever be the same. She felt everything with him; now, she didn't want to feel anything ever again." She drives home, and crawls in bed. The end.

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