Once a boy drowned at a summer camp. This was in June of 1968. It was early evening, a dinner of fried chicken and green beans already breaking down inside the bellies of the boys, and as their counselors shouted numbers to the sky (“98…99…100!”), the campers hid, determined not to be found in the all-camp game of hide-n-seek.
Ten-year-old Bobby Watson—more determined than most—slipped away from his bunkmates and wandered toward the floating dock on the shores of Blackman Lake. Blocking the sun with his hand, his eyes refocused, settling on the best hiding spot of all. There, at the edge of the dock, was a Kenmore refrigerator. It was light blue, round-topped with a silver handle, and Bobby—smitten perhaps by the strangeness of the scene, the peculiarity of a refrigerator on a dock—headed toward it.
The waterfront was off limits to campers except during open-swim. The head lifeguard—a broad-shouldered, sunburned man—had made this abundantly clear on the first night of camp (“You do, you die”). But it was a game of hide-n-go-seek, after all, and Bobby Watson—a boy who wanted simply to hide—convinced himself to duck beneath that brown fence. He jogged toward the fridge, peeking behind him to make sure he hadn’t been spotted. He hadn’t. There was no sign of him except for footprints in the sand. He reached for the shiny handle, pulled, listened for the sound of the door yawning opening:
And then, closing behind him:
The inner shelves had been removed, though it was still a tight squeeze for a boy Bobby’s size. Nevertheless, he found that if he tucked himself into the fetal position, it almost felt like a womb. Somewhere in the world beyond the confines of that fridge, the dock wobbled beneath the new weight. Bobby smiled to himself, quite certain they’d never find him.
Half an hour later, as the game wound down, Bobby’s prediction proved true.
Baaaahhhhh-beeeeeee, the counselors’ voices droned, followed by the sharper: Bob-by!
A maintenance worker spotted the fridge on the dock and, in a rare breech of tradition, decided not to put off tomorrow what could easily be done today. Rope in hand, he wandered toward the water, ducking beneath the brown fence as his work boots clomped along toward the dock. He tied one end of a rope around the fridge and the other to the dock post.
The fridge was meant to serve as an anchor to ensure the docks didn’t float away, and after the maintenance man double-checked his knots, he leaned his stocky frame into the light-blue box and knocked it into the water.
Nobody knows what Bobby thought as that fridge bobbed twice in the lake. We can imagine, of course. How the water trickled through the seams like eels. Within seconds the water began filling the fridge—sinking it—drenching Bobby’s shoes, Bobby’s socks, Bobby’s shorts. Meanwhile, on the other side of the refrigerator door, the maintenance man wiped his hands on his sleeves and headed toward the barn. There was a lawnmower in need of tuning.
Back on land, the counselors continued calling out to him.
Baaaahhhhh-beeeeeee! they cried. Come out, come out, wherever you are!
The campers joined in in their pre-pubescence chorus.
Hey, Bobby! Game over! Ollie, Ollie oxen free!
Inside the fridge, the water continued to rise, past Bobby’s orange and gray striped t-shirt, past his slender neck, and finally, as he ballooned his cheeks for the last time, past his mouth and nose. His hands reached for a handle that was not there, his fingers clawing against the smooth surface. Then, he just stopped reaching, stopped clawing. The refrigerator has become a coffin, and in the coming days, as a platoon of sheriff’s deputies commandeered fishing boats and skimmed the water, nobody thought to tug on the rope pulled tight on the dock post.
Bobby—once a boy—was now an anchor.
At night, as the campers slept, the counselors snuck from their cabins and joined the head lifeguard at the waterfront. They were all so young—most of them not yet twenty—and death, for them, still an abstraction. When they tugged their damp swimsuits over their hips they were grateful for the goosebumps, proof they were still alive. When the head lifeguard gave the word, the counselors linked arms and high-kneed it through the shallows, a chain of boys whose toes touched sand but not bodies. Thirty feet away and ten feet below, Bobby Watson body felt the ripples.
The days passed like seasons, that week’s batch of campers returning home, while the next batch arrived soon after, dragging their bags and trunks along the cabin floors. In the time between, the maintenance man mowed a lawn, patched a roof, installed a new refrigerator. The counselors knew better than to talk about Bobby, and when the new campers asked about all those sheriff deputies bobbing about on the lake, jokes were made about bank-robbing bass.
The head lifeguard, too, spent the following week at the edge of the dock staring at the boats. The summer was blazing then, and every half an hour or so he’d reach for a white bucket, fill it with lake water, and send the water sizzling along the scalding docks. He repeated this action—a kind of keening—though one afternoon, as he walked to the boathouse to retrieve the goose poop broom, he returned to the dock to find his bucket missing.
This is the part that gets gruesome, the part that, forty years later, when I was a counselor there myself, we were encouraged not to tell.
How, according to lore, that bucket didn’t just disappear but was taken by Bobby—whose body had broken free from the fridge, though it was hardly his body any longer. His bones were intact, and most of his skin, though the fish had fed on his face. A week after his disappearance, young Bobby—trapped in some transitory state (not quite dead, certainly not living)—was said to have broken his seaweed-speckled hand across the waterline and retrieved the bucket, slipping it over his fish-eaten face to spare others the view.
All of this, we told our campers by flashlight, might have been different had Bobby just followed the rules. But he didn’t. He just didn’t. And that was the end of him.
Before serving as a camp counselor, I was a camper, and for a week each summer I’d unfurl a sleeping bag on a hard mattress in the Apache cabin, unpack my sunscreen and calamine lotion, and start using words like “kindling” and “rucksack” and “bug juice.” Each week, our counselor told us about Buckethead, about the importance of never wandering into the waterfront unattended (“You do, you die,”).
Years later, when I became counselor of that cabin, I began leading my own tribe of rucksack-carrying, bug-juice-drinking, kindling-finding boys. I repeated the story as it had been told to me, adding a few flourishes, including the pencil-scrawled initials “B.W.” on one of the bunks to prove that Bobby Watson, too, had been an Apache. A necessary detail, I thought, to connect us with our fabricated past.
I probably took it too far—provided too many details on what it might feel like for water to rise in a confined space—though I told myself that my vivid recounting was meant only to reinforce the cautionary tale; that if I told it well enough I might scare these kids away from the water.
During my second summer as a camper, I, too, was scared for my own good. I’d been scared the previous summer as well, and as I slipped my backpack beneath the familiar bunk once more, I noticed a white bucket tilted sideways like a bowling pin. My hand reached for it, though I stopped when I heard a cane slap the wooden floor behind me.
My eyes followed the cane up to the blind boy carrying it. He said hello (“Hi!), his name was Dennis (“I’m Dennis!”), and wondered whether he’d found his way into the Apache cabin.
It was the first time any of us had ever seen a blind boy, and my bunkmates and I wanted to know how he kept from tripping over all those roots in the path leading up to the cabin.
“Hell, I trip over shit all the time,” announced Randall, the kid on the bunk above me. This, I later reasoned, might have been his rare glimpse of empathy, though our counselor misread it, told Randall to watch his damn mouth (“Or else”).
That night, after a campfire spent fighting off mosquitoes, the Apache tribe marched back through the woods to our cabin, our counselor promising us a scary story if we could get in our bunks without playing too much grab-ass (“Randall, Paul, I’m talking to you!”).
We wanted the story so we did as we were told, peeling off sweat-soaked socks and shirts and curling—like Bobby—into a space that was almost too small for us. With the lights off, he told us about Buckethead, about Bobby Watson, about the refrigerator that clicked shut and did not open.
Since I knew the story, I mostly just watched the other boys’ reactions. Across from me, Dennis’s eyes told me he was terrified, but not nearly so scared as Randall.
“What a crock of shit,” Randall grumbled, wadding up his pillow, though we’d all heard the tremor in his throat.
The week dragged on—days spent shooting bows and threading lanyards and trying to steer our canoes back to safety of the shore. We learned songs and then forgot them, built fires and put them out. We dedicated hours to sand volleyball, took turns at tetherball, measured the length of our piss streams by the cattails.
Dennis couldn’t take part in everything, but most of us did what we could to make him feel a part of our tribe. We took turns sitting next to him at dinner, keeping close watch over the salt and pepper and bug juice. We tried to anticipate his needs, our eyes focused on the eyes that couldn’t focus on us.
A few days in, Randall said something to Dennis—don’t ask me what, it was all so long ago. Nevertheless, his comment seemed unnecessarily cruel, and though we were just young, innocent boys—most of us terrified of getting our toes nipped by fish—we knew we had to retaliate.
Later that day, while Dennis slapped his cane along the blacktop, four of us sprawled ourselves on the lodge porch plotting against Randall. We knew Buckethead was his weakness, so we figured we’d scare him. We wanted him to feel cruelty, too.
As we tried to figure out how, I offhandedly mentioned the bucket beneath my bunk.
“What kind of bucket?” asked Paul.
“The right kind.”
That night, after campfire, we marched through the woods to the shower house as we’d done every night that week. We were an awkward bunch—some of us less suited for the wilderness than others (“Something bit my butt!”)—and our three-minute trek always seemed to stretch out much longer. Somebody (usually me) was always dropping his soap in the leaves, or getting a towel stuck on a branch. That night, I broke a spider web with my face and started spitting like Daffy Duck. I tried not to think too hard on that spider and what I’d done to its home; my mind was on Paul carrying the bucket.
Who knows where our counselor was, probably attending to a scraped knee or poison ivy. Years later, when I was the counselor, I could confirm that these injuries were endless, that it was impossible for a nine-year-old boy not to sprain an ankle or stumble into a wasps’ nest. Whatever our counselor’s alibi, it meant we were momentarily alone in that shower house, our mud-caked shoes tromping against the moldy tiles while we bit back guilty grins. The overhead lights gave us shadows, while a screened window invited in the summer heat. It was not hard to imagine decades of summers of boys just like us being baptized beneath those showerheads. Or if not there, then in the lake, in in the mud, or half-drowned in the smoke around those fires. I have seen black and white photos from those forgotten years, boys wearing war paint who—unlike Bobby (if there ever there was a Bobby) were lucky enough to grow to be old men.
We thought of none of this as we kicked our clothes in a pile and positioned ourselves beneath the showerheads. Randall snapped a towel or two our way (“Take that, suckers!”), but we didn’t care. He would get his soon.
“Guys,” I said, reciting my line unconvincingly. “I think I saw Buckethead out the window.”
Randall, secretly terrified, studied his soap in the washcloth but refused to look himself.
“Did you?” asked Dennis, reaching for my arm.
“Aw, he didn’t see jack shit,” Randall assured.
“Then look,” someone pressed, so Randall did, marching bare-assed toward the screen and peeking out.
“See? Nothing out there but…”
We flicked off the lights as Paul began pounding the plastic to the shower house screen. His moans were louder than ours, more desperate, how I imagined a cow might sound giving birth. I couldn’t see Paul’s face behind the bucket, but I thought of Bobby’s, what his might’ve looked like had his tragedy been true.
Randall screamed—it was all we wanted from him—so we flicked on the lights and told Paul to remove his bucket.
Bu what we saw with the lights on was far worse than what he’d seen with them off:
Dennis, our friend, curled naked on the mossy tiles.
Assuming a lack of light didn’t matter to him, nobody had thought to warn him. We never consider the effects of confusion on a blind boy.
“Hey, Dennis, it was no one,” I said, hovering over him. “We were trying to teach a lesson.” The others gathered around him, touching his shoulder or his forehead to let him know they were there.
Dennis kept shaking, and as we asked repeatedly if he was all right—if he’d pull through—he just nodded or maybe shook harder.
Who can remember what happened on the walk back to the cabin that night. Randall shut his foul-mouth for a change—I remember that much—and a pair of us may have threaded our arms through his arms as we led him back through the woods.
That night, for the first time, we went to bed without talking.
“Finally tuckered you out,” our counselor said upon his return. “About time.”
While the others slept, I became newly afraid of the dark. I’d never needed a nightlight before, though I needed one then, the sliver of moon bouncing off the lake was just enough to keep me staring into the water. Paul had returned the bucket beneath my bunk, which meant—for the moment—it wasn’t hiding anyone’s flesh-eaten face.
The box fan on the windowsill hummed the crickets quiet, but I still knew they were out there, chirping as Buckethead tromped along the overgrown trails in the woods. My imagination conjured him so clearly, a boy just like me dragging his feet along roots.
Across from me, Dennis lay in his bunk, his hands folded across his stomach. I couldn’t tell if he was awake or not, if he was scared like me, so I balanced myself on my elbow to take a look.
“You still up?” I asked. He didn’t answer.
But his eyes, like mine, were wide.