Late night in the craft shop

My brother turned 46 this week. Not my oldest brother. He’s 54. The brother who turned 46 is closest in age to me (which makes me older than I thought.) This brother and I used to fight a lot when we were kids. I’m not really sure anymore what we fought about, but maybe we just spent too much time in close proximity.

When we got old enough, our parents separated us for the summer. I’d go to camp for a month and then he’d go to camp for a month. That worked until he was old enough to be a counselor. Then he went to camp for both months. Which turned out to be fine because, for whatever reason, we did not fight at camp. We got along pretty well there, actually.

When I became a counselor, we actually hung out together. We’d play cards late at night when all the campers were asleep. Some of the counselors would hang out in the dining hall, but a group of us would go down to the craft shop and play spades. If you don’t know the game, it’s something that people play in teams and it helps if you can guess what cards your partner has. It especially helps if your partner has the Ace of Spades.

The deck we played with most often was a set that commemorated the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Each of the cards had a historical fact about Texas, and the Ace of Spades had directions to the LBJ Ranch. When our opponents did not know this particular deck of cards, I could ask my brother something innocuous like, “Have you ever been to the LBJ Ranch?” If he said yes, then I knew he had the trump card.

It was cheating, but it seemed like a fairly benign form of cheating. There were other benignly illicit behaviors going on in the craft shop. Since the campers were not allowed to have cokes, drinking them was our chief pleasure. We used the cans for spitting juice from the tobacco we chewed. This was definitely against the rules for us as well as the campers.

At some point, word got back to the camp director about the Copenhagen we’d been using. He was a very good man, and none of us wanted to disappoint him. For me, he had created a place of peace and stability in the midst of an uncertain childhood. I owed him a great deal, but when he asked me a direct question about goings on in the craft shop, I lied to his face.

About ten years later, I took a car trip across the country. On the way back home, I stopped off at camp. It was the middle of the summer and the middle of the day, but the camp director stopped what he was doing to spend a little time with me. I told him how much camp had meant to me, how it had provided a shelter from my stormy family life. I also told him that I had lied to him, and that I was sorry.

He looked at me through slightly teary eyes and said, “That must have been really hard for you to say.” And then he thanked me and invited me to stay for lunch. I still had a place at his table.

Malcolm Williams died this summer. There was a memorial for him at camp today. Hundreds of former campers were invited to attend. A few weeks ago, I found some decks of those LBJ playing cards on Ebay. I bought a couple of packs and sent one to my brother, along with a poem.

In the Craft Shop
(For Allen on his 46th birthday)

On summer nights
Under a bare yellow bulb
We observed a truce
Called brotherhood
Which trumps all

Do you know the way?

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