When I was 10 and 11 years old I went for two summers to a children's summer camp, Treetops, that was in the progressive tradition of the school I was going to at the time, the Walden School. They did things a little differently from traditional summer camps, gave the children a little more freedom, and I reveled in it. I ended up having several experiences I might never have had at a traditional children's camp.
For one thing, we were much more on our own than in camps where every minute of the day is occupied with programmed activities. We were free to roam in the pastures and woods for hours without supervision. Some of us owned hatchets, which we carried on our belts in small leather holsters, ready for any task a small boy might think up, just as the Father of Our Country thought up the idea of cutting down his father's cherry tree. (There's nothing like placing yourself squarely in the grand tradition!)
One day, wandering in what formerly had been a pasture a half mile from the camp tents, my friend Alan and I found a large dead tree which, in our opinion should not have been left standing. We decided to cut it down. We stood side by side, Alan on my left, and took alternate swings with our hatchets at the tree. We were probably standing too close to each other, for one of Alan's swings nicked a finger on my left hand, and drew some blood. I looked at it, suggested to Alan that he should be more careful, then took another swipe at the tree. Before I could get my arm back for the next chop, Alan's hatchet whizzed past and sliced through my left forearm. I looked at the damage, as I had done the previous time, and saw, to my astonishment, that he had opened up a three-inch gash in my arm, in which I could see the pink flesh of the muscle, and at the bottom of the hole, the gleaming white of bone. This time I did not admonish, but started to run for the camp, holding my wound together with my right hand, followed by a distraught Alan.
When I got to the infirmary I found that I was lucky: not only was the regular nurse there, but also a doctor, who happened to be visiting. The doctor took me in hand. He improvised a surgery, laid out what tools he had, and started to work. First he took a small bottle of iodine, the standard disinfectant of the time, and poured must of it into my wound. This stung something awful, but I gritted my teeth and bore it. Then he took a quickly sterilized needle and thread, and began to stitch the arm together. I learned that the human skin is tough as leather to penetrate, especially with an ordinary large sewing needle. It hurt as he pushed the needle through. I controlled myself and did not cry. He repeated this torture four times, and each time I bore the pain and refused to cry. Then he finished off with a bandage around the arm, leaving a rubber tube to drain out the pus that would inevitably develop in the wound--this was before the days of antibiotics--gave me a sling for the arm, and let me go.
By this time it was late afternoon. When I wandered down to the dining hall. I learned that I was too late for dinner. I stood outside, feeling sorry for myself, and I then asked what the dessert had been. It had been jello with fruit in it, my favorite dessert. At this I could control myself no longer, and burst into tears. All the anguish of a ten-year-old boy who has just bravely withstood painful surgery came out because I had missed jello..
I still have not only the scar on my forearm but also the little scar on my finger where Alan's first blow had struck, and which should have warned us that we were standing too close together.
The camp stood on a hill above a lovely round lake about a half-mile across, with only one other house on the lake, at the opposite side. So privacy was not an issue when somebody got the idea that we should swim naked, and persuaded the camp management that it was a good way of promoting a healthy attitude among the children towards their bodies and towards the subject of sex (or whatever the rationale was). The children were at ages six to twelve, so sex was not an issue at the camp; there were both men and women counselors--any kid could see that by the way they dressed and wore their hair. So one day we were told to forget our swim suits and just go down to the lake naked. And from that day to the end of the camp season that was the way we swam, children and counselors.
We learned a little about anatomy that most of us had already known or suspected before, and we quickly got used to the custom.
But in my own case I acquired not only knowledge but also some misperceptions. I learned this after camp was over, in the fall of the same year. For some reason, in the mid-twenties the lid was taken off on sex magazines, and there appeared at newsstands girlie magazines featuring nude women on the covers, which I could see displayed without having to buy them, What astonished me was that the women's chests were bare of hair. Now, as a result of the progressive mores of our camp management, I had it firmly in mind that adult women had hairy chests, just like men. I couldn't understand why the ladies on the covers of girlie magazines on newsstands had bare chests--did they shave their chests like some women shaved their legs?
I have concluded in retrospect that, after a summer of swimming with girls and women, boys and men, this embarrassed little boy was confused, either by the chest hair of men or by pubic hair, and was firmly convinced that normal adult women had hairy chests. It was a clear example of how misperception can persist in the face of ample evidence of the truth, and how the mind can overrule the clear evidence of the eye. In my case the educational notions of our progressive camp had misfired a little.
Another progressive idea misfired in my case, and I am loathe to confess all this, since I am a devotee of this view of the world. Late in my second summer at the camp occurred an incident that bothered me in some ways, and also bothered the camp administration, perhaps in other ways. I was among the oldest boys, (that is, about 11 years old), and one day we were approached by the oldest girls with an offer to be let in on a secret, Who could refuse? They took us to a secluded spot, and showed us what they had been doing while we were chopping down trees. One girl took down her pants, lay on her back, and, by raising her knees, displayed her private parts to the other girls. They then proceeded to probe her anatomy with twigs.
This had a startling effect on the oldest boy among us, Eric, who gave an anguished whoop and jumped up and ran away. Perhaps he had taken a bite of the serpent's apple and knew more than the rest of us. But to me, and I think to the others in our group, the performance left us cold. So what? When the girls invited us to pick up twigs and join in the festivities, only one or two boys listlessly responded. The girls soon saw that we were uninterested, and the session ended. Ah, innocence!
Somehow, however, news of these goings on got to the camp director, and he felt that he had to respond. In the progressive education tradition, his response was a gentle lecture. My memory is weak on the content of this lecture, but it went along the line that customs are different all over the world. I vividly remember the illustration he used: that in one savage tribe when a person got old, in need of care, and unable to hold up his or her end of the tribe's business, he would climb up a tree, with the tribe gathered below, and someone would intone, "The fruit is ripe, the fruit must fall," at which point the men below would shoot arrows at the old person until he or she fell out of the tree, dead. How this bit of anthropological information was relevant to the matter at hand I never did figure out, but I remember the story as sharply as I remember the twigs I was invited to use, and I think of that savage tribe whenever I consider America's Social Security program, and the money we could save if we only had bows and arrows.