SUMMER OF ’69

By John Thomas Tuft

It can be difficult beyond words to leave the things of childhood behind. The summer of 1969 I was 15 years old and trying to hang on to the feelings of no responsibilities, no life decisions to be made, too soon into the high school experience to realize that the fellow travelers through that hellscape really did not have the power to make or break my life. Vietnam was a hot war described by Walter Cronkite every evening and I had a half dozen lawns to keep cut and trimmed for a steady income. Elvis sang about “In the Ghetto” and we all tried to decipher the lyrics to “In the Year 2525” in this the year of the dawning of “The Age of Aquarius” on much treasured transistor radios powered by 9 volt batteries, now sadly relegated mostly to smoke detector duty—extended life gained by putting them in the freezer, you’re welcome, I’m sure. Cutoff a pair of old jeans that won’t fit next school year, loafers with no socks, a madras shirt, and I was all set for a week at camp. My last week at camp and, as it turns out, a benediction to my childhood.

A decade and a half of baby fat had mysteriously disappeared as my legs lengthened that year. Just to be sure, though, I did 200 sit-ups each and every night before going to bed. The chubby 8th grade camper from last summer was now lean, mean, and fifteen. And, finally, I would be at a week of camp without my minister father being on the faculty of teachers and preachers and counselors. This was a whole new unexplored territory. A week of softball, volleyball, basketball and swimming under the watchful eyes of 15-16 year old females…no judgmental eyes around. My sister Sue, 16, was there at the same time, and quite the athlete in her own right, but we knew this was a golden opportunity to safely ignore each other and let nature take its course. Coming summers would be full of working at real back breaking labor jobs, other growing pains and adventures, but this was just for us. Just for me…

I greeted old friends from previous summers in my cabin and compared notes on who was ready to tear up the athletic fields and crush the other cabins in sports and which girls we noticed so far that we felt we had a chance with. That’s when I met Dennis. He was a little small for his age, polite, deferential, son of a doctor, who immediately attached himself to me. Like a lost puppy. Everywhere I went, there was Dennis beside me. It was like having a mirror image of my own insecurities around me all the time. Dennis was shy, not very athletic, smart as all get out, more comfortable around adults than with the rough and tumble of a cabin of adolescent boys. He was an only, I was number 6 of 7. Everywhere he went, there was a camera hung around his neck to document the experience. “Jack, look at those waves! Jack, look at that sunset! Jack, do you want to lead devotions together? Jack, do you…” you get the idea.

The second evening there, our gang of guys was hanging out in the rec center/camp store, when in walked Marianne. Long legs and arms extending from the short shorts and cropped tops of the late 60s, tanned, sprinkle of adorable freckles over her nose and she walked right over to our table and took the seat across from me. Wonder of wonders, I made her laugh. Dennis retreated to a corner as I connected with a goddess, hoping I was not all hat and no cattle. Even more wonderous of wonders, she asked if I wanted to take a walk. In my best “Wonder Years” voiceover in my head, you would have heard, “Do I want to take a walk? Do I want to be seen walking out into the night with this vision? Do I want the opportunity to fulfill every 15 year old’s fantasies? You can bet your sweet bippy I did!” We stood up to leave, holding hands, and Dennis made a move to come with us. I stopped him with my free hand and some free advice. “Stay right here, if you know what’s good for you,” And for spite, “You little pesky dweeb.” Or words to that effect…

I had no problem ignoring the hurt in his eyes, but I didn’t feel I should need to explain. At least, that’s what I told myself. Marianne led me to the back wall of the rec center. Too public. We headed toward the big trees around the ballfield. Occupied by other couples. Finally, we went behind a cabin for a few moments of inelegant frenzy of lips and hands that were reaching the desperate crescendo of ‘what do we do next?’ when the beam of a flashlight hit us. “What are doing there? Jack Tuft, is that you?” Of course, it was a clergy friend of my father on patrol. I took off running. And for the longest time, felt like I kept running…but that’s another story. I slipped into my bottom bunk, ignoring Dennis pretending to sleep in the top one.

The next day, Monday, I took a step backwards into childhood. I ignored them both. I walked into the dining hall for breakfast and Marianne motioned for me to sit next to her. You can imagine the Kevin Arnold voiceover for that performance. And, God bless him, Dennis also still wanted to include me. I walked on by to another table. That evening, as I took a lonely walk of real and imagined shame around the camp, I spotted Marianne in the outdoor chapel, preparing to lead the program later. I summoned my courage and slowly approached, taking a seat a couple rows behind her and to the side. (You’ll be forgiven if you hear Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help From My Friends” starting to swell in the background.) Just as we started to talk, a commotion arose from the volleyball court across the field. Someone came running calling my name. My sister, Sue, was badly injured.

Tuesday morning my father arrived to take us home. My last week of camp was brought to a crashing halt with childhood and adulthood still hanging in the balance. And for some reason, every summer still feels that way…it’s a threshold, waiting for me. Waiting for me to decide who I’m going to become this time… As I tossed my suitcase into the station wagon, Dennis came over and handed me the picture which graces this story. Only in pictures do we not have to decide such things… 

Words are magic and writers are wizards.