When I look back on childhood, I realize that some of the best memories I have are from summer camp. There were the pillow fights, the scavenger hunts, the dance at the girls’ camp across the lake, and the zany hijinks we pulled during arts ‘n crafts. The look on the counselor’s face that time! And then, of course, there was my bunk-mate Rudy, who spent the first half of the summer dragging me along on zany escape attempts, but by Family Visiting Day, we realized we were having the best summer of our lives!
Of course, it’s possible that I am remembering my repeated readings of the children’s novel I Want To Go Home by Gordon Korman, a Canadian author whose books were all I wanted to read as a kid. That seemed like a fun camp.
As for my other camp memories, I recall a bench outside the mess hall that I always stuck my face up against because it kind of smelled like pancake syrup. There was a swimming hole I never wanted to go in, although it occurred to me some time later that it was probably named the “Meese Hole” after the owners of the adjacent piece of land and not because of some infestation of grammatically incorrect plural mice. I remember an eleven year-old who was said to give out handjobs to younger boys who inchwormed their sleeping bags over next to hers, although I don’t think I knew what a handjob was at the time. That might be about all I’ve got, despite having returned to the same YMCA camp year after year. But, this stands to reason, as I only got one-third of the true camp experience, anyway. See, I was a day-camper.
Every morning, I would get on the bus for the hour-long drive to camp. We would rush through the standard pony-ride/swimming/arts ‘n crafts/archery agenda and then return to town before homesickness set in. I think my Mom, who had attended the same camp in her youth, was disappointed that I didn’t love it like she had and hoped, in vain, that I would eventually embrace the overnight camper adventure. But, each afternoon, I gave her a brief, reticent summary of my time at camp just as I would have had I spent the day at summer school instead. Or, at least that’s how it went until the day I told her I was going to be in the movie Krull.
Released in the summer of 1983, Krull is today most notable for two things. First, it features a young Liam Neeson in an early, minor role that he clearly took only for the paycheck. This is, of course, long before he would go on to distinguish himself in films such as The A-Team, Battleship, and Taken 2.
Krull was also significant because it merged aspects of both epic fantasy and science fiction. This hardly seems like the world-shaking introduction of chocolate to peanut butter, but I have gathered that this was a big deal at the time. I can’t really say that Krull jams the two together in Reese’s Cup-like transcendence; it’s essentially just a standard hero’s quest tale with a band of swashbuckling guys and magicians and a friendly cyclops versus The Slayers, alien invader worm-things in knights’ armor on horseback. With lasers. Just in case it’s not immediately clear which are the villains, some painfully prolonged expository dialogue follows a portentous opening voiceover, both of which together make the decision to float long paragraphs of text past the screen in the Star Wars movies seem like an inspired, exciting choice. The narrator concludes with the prophesy that, “A girl of ancient name shall become queen. And she shall choose a king. Together they will rule the world. And their son will rule the galaxy.”
Hey. Spoiler alert, please. I guess I won’t need to finish the movie, now. I have to assume, however, that galactic rule will be dependent upon their son finding a better mode of interplanetary transportation than horseback.
All this is much more than I knew about Krull when our counselor herded us to the camp obstacle course one misty morning that same summer. But Chip, the guy in charge of the course, filled us in on the basic plot points with a movie poster as visual aid. Mostly, what I remember is that it prominently featured The Beast, leader of The Slayers and the major antagonist in Krull. His face, which looked as if a psychologically troubled kindergartner had tried to sculpt a bust of Darth Vader from day-old oatmeal, both horrified and fascinated me. I could neither look at it, nor look away, for too long.
Chip also told us about the Glaive, a mystical five-bladed throwing weapon, which Prince Colwyn would use in his fight against The Beast. As I recall, Chip had his own Glaive, although this doesn’t seem like a safe thing to have kept around kids. Then again, the camp was allowing grade-schoolers to use rifles, hatchets, knives, bows, and arrows, so what difference did one big ninja star make? But, given what I’ve discovered from Google, it’s entirely possible that my memory is embellishing upon what was, in fact, an official Krull Glaive Frisbee.
I’m not really sure where I got the idea that I would actually be in Krull. Probably because Chip, who had decided to make the obstacle course Krull-themed, said something dramatic to set the scene like, “You are in Krull.” To me, this statement was not ambiguous.
The fact that there were no visible cameras didn’t seem strange. We young, inexperienced actors might find a busy movie set intimidating, interfering with our craft and shattering the nuanced fragility of our performances. Many of the “outdoor” scenes in Krull were clearly shot on a soundstage, but perhaps the director required so naturalistic a rendering from the day-campers that these crucial moments would be filmed in the quiet woods of rural Appalachia. Or, more likely, things like the rudimentary logistics of moviemaking, such as the fact that the movie had already been released, didn’t even begin to occur to a seven year-old. But, as someone who has ended up working in television, it’s become clear to me that even some adults have a tenuous understanding of media production.
Once, I went with a producer and interviewer to shoot a massive collection of vintage lunchboxes crammed into the attic of a huge, labyrinthine antique mall. While there, the producer had also arranged to interview Brian, a man who had devoted himself to crafting an imaginary metropolis from paper and cardboard in a nearly-forgotten basement room. Brian had hand-colored his massive model, painstakingly drawing hundreds of thousands of windows with ballpoint pen. Given the lingering funk one associates with outsider art, I don’t think Brian left the room very often.
As our interviewer layered on heavy makeup and we set up lights, tripods, and cameras, Brian asked, “Why does a radio station need cameras?”
“This is going to be a TV interview,” the producer told him.
“I thought this was radio.”
“No. We’re with a TV station.”
There was a pause, then, “BUT, WHAT DOES A RADIO STATION NEED WITH CAMERAS?” Admittedly, Brian was maybe a little hard of hearing.
I began a sweeping pan of Briantopia, pulling the arm of the tripod with a heavy-duty rubber band.
“You’re using a rubber band,” Brian helpfully observed.
“It acts like a shock absorber and helps make the motion smoother.”
“Why do you need a rubber band?! HA HA HA HA! BOING!”
Despite being no more media-savvy than Brian at the time, I eagerly embraced my role in Krull. As best as I can recall, this involved dodging the Glaive and/or Frisbee, jumping over logs lying on the ground, ducking under logs suspended a few feet up, running through some tires, possibly trying to climb something, and doing some put-as-many-people-on-the-tiny-platform-as-you-can teambuilding bullshit. As unimpressive as this seems, it actually exceeds several of the stunts featured in Krull.
I returned to school that fall a jaded veteran of the film industry. I used any opportunity to ask classmates, “Did you catch that movie, Krull? I’m supposed to be in that, but I dunno. I haven’t seen it yet.” After a few weeks, my enthusiasm for the project died down, but whenever I would glimpse the hideous face of The Beast on the shelf of my local VHS rental place, I would think, “Hey, sometime I should see if my scene is in that.” It was years before this evolved into a realization that, not only did I not have a scene in the theatrical release of Krull, given the absence of a director, lights, cameras, costumes, or a prop other than a Frisbee, there was a very good chance I was incorrect about having been filmed at all.
For a long time, I wondered why Chip integrated the Krull storyline into our obstacle course. Given the poster, the Glaive, Chip’s familiarity with the plot, and his enthusiasm for getting us to partially reenact it, the conclusion I first arrived at was that it was some sort of promotion where the movie studio tried to gin up buzz by sending Krull swag to places where kids gathered that summer. Years removed from this now, the real answer seems so obvious. Chip was just a dork.
I knew dorks my own age. Depending upon whom you asked, I was one of them, but I’d had very little interaction with the mostly grown-up variety. I can only guess what the other counselors thought of Chip. Either professional decorum dictated that they wouldn’t call him a nerd in front of the campers, or maybe I just don’t remember it. But Chip clearly didn’t care. He dug Krull and would evangelize to anyone who would listen. Who cares if the congregation was captive and under-aged, stranded without transportation in the North Carolina mountains? It would just have to do.
Thirty years later, dorks have never had it better. Adults will proudly admit their geeky pasts and, quite often, presents. Massive fandom conventions pull in record attendance. Technology has caught up with imagination to the point where nerds can make movies for other nerds and pull in gazillions of dollars from everybody else in the process.
But, the newly-hip nerd community’s boom has brought growing pains. One of the more contentious issues in the geek world is the debate over the interloping “fake geek.” Much of this hostility, a sticky, dark layer of misogyny surrounding a nougat of self-loathing, is directed at women attending science fiction conventions who seem suspiciously attractive, but many other newcomers and casual fans are also perceived to be aspiring trend-hoppers, sporting the trappings of nerdiness like a hipster with an ironic moustache. Adults are actually fighting over who gets to call themselves nerds.
That summer at camp, however, being a nerd or a geek was not something you would freely or readily admit to. But, orchestrating an army of seven year-olds in a Krull-themed proto-LARP was the same as putting it up in blinking lights.
Like a lot of kids, I grew up successively obsessed with space movies, action figures, and comic books, but for me, the latter two interests extended uncomfortably far into junior high. Unlike Chip, however, my overt nerdery would vanish for most of high school and college, which is probably for the best, given my already iffy social standing.
But, as it turns out, it was just lying dormant until after graduation. No doubt, the ascendency of the Web during the end of my college years led to a re-acquaintance with the geek world, but more than that, I’ve come to see my renewed, casual interest in comics and toys and monsters as a holding action against the pressures of being a grownup. My interest has ebbed and flowed with the stresses of job searches, dating, work, car payments, marriage, bills, home ownership, and parenthood. In truth, much of my geekdom is really just a retreat into nostalgia, a chickenshit refusal to plunge fully into the Meese Hole of adulthood. I might actually be regressing into a Flowers For Algernon-esque idiot man-child, so if that’s the next thing to be hip, I’m in pretty okay shape. But, if pressed to argue for the right to call myself a true nerd, to some, I’d make a weak case.
So many of the nerds I know (and I know a lot) are completely obsessed with what they love and their mastery of its arcana. Somehow, these true, nerdy passions seem more pure and joyous than my fluctuating interests, the mere digressions of a dork dilettante. I am driven mad every time I try to figure out just what the hell kids who are into anime are talking about. Star Trek obsessions are passed down from parent to child to grandchild now. Huge groups of nerds are still completely devoted to Firefly, a show cancelled after a scant handful of episodes that aired ten years ago. And, Chip had Krull. I can’t help but feel a certain amount of envy; I would love to be obsessed with something other than my own anxiety. I’ll bet Brian never needed to see a therapist.
“This skyline is seventy percent taller than New York City’s,” Brian boasted, beaming over the paper cityscape.
“In scale…?” my producer attempted to prompt clarification.
“SEVENTY PERCENT TALLER!” Brian doubled-down.
I should probably amend that from “didn’t need to see a therapist” to just “didn’t,” but I digress. Obsession. Memorization. Mastery. Coping. Escape. Take your pick. We try to control something, even as so much else exceeds our influence. When a nerd like Chip mustered his ragtag forces against The Beast, it may not have made the final cut, but that morning, at least, he was able to rule one little part of his galaxy.
Plus, he had a Glaive, so who was going to fuck with him?
Jack Walsh is the director of Four Days at Dragon*Con, food pornographer on Get Delicious!, public TV producer of assorted things, and a writer of stuff that’s not all that other stuff. Artwork by Clint Hardin.