When I was eleven years old, I got the chance to go to my first sleep-away summer camp. My two–week adventure in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains was sponsored by the YMCA who awarded a few “scholarships” to inner-city kids like me and my schoolmate Wayne. One of my most memorable events happened on the second day of camp. We were all assembled at the camp lake to go swimming — but before we were allowed to swim in the deep water, we had to each pass a swimming test. The Head Camp Counselor stood in the middle of us all, spitting tobacco and explaining the rules. Those of us who could jump in the lake, float for a minute, and then swim back to the dock were called “Sharks”. Sharks are always the first in and the last out of the water. Those who could not swim were called “Minnows”. Minnows could take swim lessons and could eventually qualify as Sharks, but until then, they were relegated to the muddy, shallow part of the lake. Wayne and I looked at each other as the rules were being handed down and we agreed in silent resignation that we were Minnows. In our neighborhood, water time meant playing under a garden hose or the occasional time someone could “pop” a fire hydrant.
Time to separate the Sharks from the Minnows. “Alright now,” Mr. Counselor barked, “if you know you are a Minnow, take your little asses on down to the shallow end and splash around”. And with that, a few kids, including Wayne, slowly got up and started walking. But not me. I just sat there. Wayne looked back and said something like “hey man, what are you doing?” but I didn’t look up. I just defiantly stared at the ground and said “I ain’t no damn Minnow”. Wayne shook his head and walked away. He knew there was no changing my mind.
Kid after kid jumped into the lake, floated for a minute and swam back to the dock. I watched them intently. I studied their moves. With each kid that jumped in I told to myself “I can do that. I can be a Shark.” My turn. I stepped up to the edge of the dock, full of bravado and confidence. “I got this. I am Shark!”. Like the pro I built myself up to be, I plunged into the water, but like the amateur I actually was, I began to swallow what felt like half of the lake. I don’t remember much after that. I remember sinking and then I remember sitting on the dock with Mr. Counselor shouting at me. “Son are you okay? Are you with us?” I am honestly not sure how I responded but I do remember him slamming his wet tobacco pouch on the dock. He leaned down close enough for me to smell the tabacco on his breath and said, “Good Lord, son. What in the hell were you thinking?” I sat there on the dock half dazed, half angry, and wholly embarrassed. I looked up at him and murmured, “I was thinking I didn’t want to be no minnow”.
Now I would like to say that Mr. Counselor and the other kids respected my “bravery” or that they admired my “determination”. The reality was Mr. Counselor’s tobacco was wet, and his heart rate was far beyond what he had planned on for the day. He clinched his chaw-stained teeth and said, “get your narrow ass down to the other end” as my fellow campers unrestrainedly laughed at me. I would also like to say that I learned a valuable lesson that day. I would like to tell you that I grew up to be a more cautious man, and that I now plan my moves carefully and methodically. The truth is I remain undeterred and I still jump into lakes before I learn to swim. Sometimes I still need rescuing, and a few glorious times, I have actually learned to float for a minute and I made it to the dock. I can say that by the fourth day of camp I became a Shark and I loved every minute of it. The last time I talked to Wayne we were in our late twenties. We laughed about our summer camp days and he promised me he was going to learn to swim. I wonder if he’s a Shark yet.