When I woke up in my sleeping bag and realized Chris’s glass eye had fallen out of its socket in the night, I began to scream. I screamed like a man awakening to find his best friend’s hollow, bloody socket staring at him across the smoldering ashes of last night’s campfire.
Chris was my stuffed tiger. I’d named him after a kid who’d convinced me to ride my Big Wheel in the street, even though riding tricycles in the street was forbidden by my mother. Like any cyclist with a “share the road” mentality, Chris (the kid, not the tiger) believed the onus was on the motorist not to crush our tiny child-sized skulls with their enormous 1980s car grills.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, but sleepaway summer camp was not the land of the blind. We had a few near-sighted kids, and some kids with glasses, but nothing approaching land-of-the-blind levels of sight-impaired children, so Chris’s new career as king would have to wait despite his newfound one-eyed status.
Seeing my best friend in such a state, and the mystery of how he got to be that way, was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me at summer camp.
Now, I’d seen stuffed animal violence before. My panda had gotten his head ripped off by the family dog. My mother sewed his head back on, covering the jagged tear around his neck with a tasteful cloth band, like a scarf on a hitchhiking ghost girl returning to the scene of the car accident that decapitated her.
But I’d seen his gruesome death with my own eyes. I could never trust him again. For all I knew, he’d spat in his palm and shaken Lucifer’s hand, agreeing to hand me over as soon as I let my guard down. Or, he’d spat the closest approximation to saliva he was able to produce into his palm. Does stuffing count as bodily fluid? I’m sure the devil is willing to shake hands on stuffing or spit, as long as he gets a soul. Never trust a man or panda who comes back from the dead, is what I mean to say—you don’t know what bargains they’ve struck to return.
The second most traumatizing thing that ever happened to me at summer camp was the time a kid named Spaz pushed me down and put his balls on my head.
Spaz was so named because a group of older kids had picked him up and threw him through a plate glass window at school, citing that he’d been “acting like a spaz.” He returned from the hospital to find the nickname had stuck. He’d gone into the window as David, and come out the other side as Spaz.
Fortunately, this practice was not adopted by the city as their official procedure for legally changing your name, most likely due to the projected costs for replacing the courthouse window every time someone wanted to get married.
Spaz was wearing a Rude Dog shirt when he teabagged me. Rude Dog was a 1980s cartoon dog who was committed to performing varying acts of rudeness, and had been rewarded for his impropriety with his own clothing line.
Spaz seemed fully possessed by the spirit of Rude Dog as he pushed me down on the ground and lowered his nuts on top of my head through a mercifully thick layer of bathing suit shorts, thank God and whatever rude God Rude Dog prays to.
Is it possible Rude Dog is an atheist? Is it belief in a higher power that compels his rudeness? Is Rude Dog rude because he accepts Rude God implicitly, or because he denies him?
Clearly, this is a question for Rude Theologians to answer, if they aren’t busy riding gnarly waves even though the sign clearly states that surfing is prohibited.
Spaz and I became friends by the end of the summer, after I started calling him David instead of Spaz. Would Rude Dog return to the fold, if you called him by his Christian name, or gave him a new one, like the Childlike Empress in The NeverEnding Story? If you’re ever given a magic book by an old man in a bookstore and find yourself riding a luck dragon, consider yelling out a name for Rude Dog as well as the Childlike Empress at the end of your adventures. You might find yourself with a very polite dog.
I blamed the loss of Chris’s eye on Walter, the camp boogeyman. According to campground lore, Walter appeared as a floating, blood-soaked eye that glowed with an eerie light. This sounded suspiciously similar to Madballs, the toy rubber balls with monster faces that were popular that summer, specifically a floating eyeball named Oculus Orbus. In fact, if you held a flashlight under Oculus in the dark, it matched the description of Walter exactly.
Walter was said to be the ghost of Walter B. Williams, Jr.—a former mayor for whom the campground park was named. He’d secured funding for the park, and had been rewarded for his contribution to the community by being damned to roam the Earth as a Madball, apparently.
I knew Walter was stalking the camp that summer, because I’d seen his arrival. I was standing next to a metalhead chick from the camp for older kids when we both saw lightning strike the campground lake.
This same metal chick had once grabbed my hands and pressed them together, swearing I had the mark of the beast on me because the lines of my palms formed a goat when held against each other. I thought my palm lines looked more like a wolf—a sure sign I was changing into a werewolf, which I was obsessed with at the time.
I’d been standing in my driveway in a rubber werewolf mask a lot that summer, or in the free paper Teen Wolf Too mask I’d received when I rented it on VHS from the local Curtis Mathes. Even though it felt less authentically lycanthropian, the paper Teen Wolf Too mask made for easier breathing on the hottest summer days and was a convenient way to alert the whole world to the fact that, yes, Teen Wolf Too was out and was available for rental at Curtis Mathes.
In fact, I was in the middle of trying to impress her by telling her I thought I might be changing into a werewolf when the lightning struck.
I now know that lightning is caused by rising water molecules. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if anyone has ever been struck by lightning created by water molecules that were once part of a warm bath they’d previously sat in.
“Sure, sit in us, dip your balls in, teabag us like Rude Dog, we’re only water molecules, we’re just here to clean your filthy body. But know that as soon as we reach the sky we’re going to fry you with 1.21 gigawatts of electricity and no amount of Huey Lewis songs about the Power of Love will be able to save you. Unless you spit in your palm and shake the devil’s hand, in which case there’ll be a panda waiting to greet you on your return to the land of the living with instructions on how to fulfill your end of the bargain.”
But at the time, working from the rudimentary lake-corpse-revival knowledge I’d obtained by watching Friday the 13th Part VI, I assumed the lightning strike was caused by Walter rising from the bottom of the lake for which he’d passed legislation allocating funding to, as prophesized in the Mayornomicon.
God only knows what Walter wanted with Chris’s eye. Maybe he wanted to add it to his mayor’s cauldron, a taxpayer-subsidized iron pot which is zoned for light industrial/commercial development, casting hexes, and boiling children’s bones. Maybe, being an enormous eye himself, he needed to eat the eyes of others to survive, becoming more powerful by eating smaller versions of himself, like a real werewolf eating Jason Bateman in werewolf makeup on the set of Teen Wolf Too.
Or maybe it was me that Walter had come for that night. Maybe Chris hadn’t lost anything, but had given his eye in a fight to protect me.
Even though counselors and campers alike searched every inch of every sleeping bag that day, the eye never turned up. My great-grandmother made a Nick-Fury-style eyepatch for Chris, and he spent the rest of his days directing the other stuffed animals like his own personal agency of S.H.I.E.L.D..
She also made him a green sweater vest more suited for Nick Drake than Nick Fury, and I slept with him pressed against my chubby cheeks, his own personal Pink Moon. He was never injured again.
David hadn’t had any tigers fighting for him on the day he went through the window. He’d been the victim of real monsters, and then been damned to roam the Earth putting his Madballs on the heads of unsuspecting campers like myself.
Monsters take. They demand sacrifice, some crucial part of you, like your eye or your name. Sometimes, someone is there to give a part of themselves so you don’t have to suffer. Other times, it takes a whole summer, or much, much longer, to get back what was taken from you.
And sometimes you find yourself standing by a lake next to a girl in a Black Sabbath T-shirt, palms pressed together, watching a monster arrive in a flash of lightning. Like the anger of a Rude God, its brilliant flash turns your summer camp into the land of the blind, and the tiger that protects you into its king.