Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bobby Cramer in New Mexico

I'm in Santa Fe, New Mexico, tonight visiting relatives. On the drive up from Albuquerque I was reminded once again of the singular beauty of this desert and mountain landscape, and I thought I would share a snippet from Bobby Cramer when Bobby first goes to summer camp in the mountains of New Mexico. The year is 1971.
When he was nine he was enrolled at a summer camp in the mountains of New Mexico. His father told him he was going to have the time of his life. He would get to ride horses, camp out in the woods, and climb mountains. He would get to meet lots of other boys from all over the country. He told him this one spring day when Magda [his nanny] was off on one of her few trips back to Minnesota, and he told him in such a way that Bobby thought even his own father was afraid to tell Magda. He showed him pictures of the camp and told him stories about the fun he would have. When he left in June for the eight weeks away, Magda dutifully packed his trunk and rode with the Cramers to the airport to see him off. All she said was to be a good boy and watch out for bears.

It was an all-day journey. A flight to Chicago, then to Albuquerque, then on a chartered Greyhound bus proctored by counselors in bright red shirts that took them on the hour-long ride up the interstate to Santa Fe. Bobby stared out the window at the desert landscape; the reddish-brown earth dotted with piñon trees and the vast empty expanses spreading to the distant mountains was like nothing he’d ever seen before. Then the bus got off the interstate and began the slow climb into the mountains. After a half-hour of twisting and bumpy roads, over narrow bridges crossing dry arroyos, past stark rock outcroppings hiding the last vestiges of snow under their shadows, Bobby saw the telltale red shingled roofs of Sun Mountain Ranch poking through the ponderosa pines. Built during the Depression as a two hundred acre training facility for the Civilian Conservation Corps, it became Sun Mountain Ranch Camp For Boys in 1947 when Mac McCormack, a physical education teacher from Santa Fe, bought the property and opened a four-week camp session with ten boys, three counselors, and two horses. One of those counselors had been Holland Cramer. By 1971 the camp had grown to eight weeks for a hundred boys ranging in age from nine to eighteen. It offered riding, hiking, backpacking, and the usual camp activities such as archery and crafts. Mac still ran the place, but he was seventy-five and semi-retired. His son Frank handled most of the director duties, and a woman everyone knew simply as Jeanne handled the administration. Frank was a friendly yet distant man, more interested in the accounting aspects of the operation and the family’s real estate developments, and few campers knew him by sight. The driving spirit of Sun Mountain was Elli McCormack Sanchez, Mac’s daughter. She was in her early forties and had grown up at camp. She had gone off to college, dropped out, bummed around the West Coast doing all the things kids in the sixties did, until she was busted for drug possession at Los Angeles International Airport. She spent a year on probation and drug rehab and returned to Santa Fe with a new appreciation for her family and what camp could do for kids. She gave the weekly vespers service talks, a collection of cheerful, upbeat slogans that were meant to inspire confidence in one’s own abilities, and that your toughest competitor was yourself. Her husband, Gil Sanchez, was a lawyer in Santa Fe, and rarely set foot on camp property.

When the bus pulled up to the playground, Bobby got off and fell into a crowd of laughing and cheering boys and counselors. Mac McCormack came up to Bobby, shook his hand, and said he was glad to meet the son of one of his oldest friends.

At first Bobby didn’t know what to make of the place. The air was crisp and smelled of pine and dust. The rustic buildings were spare but comfortable, and the sky was so impossibly blue that Bobby thought it must be the more than mile-high altitude playing tricks on him. His cabin was called Arapahoe, bunking in with fourteen other boys who were very different than the solemn and well-mannered ones at school. Some were loud and boisterous, some had strange accents, but all of them were friendly, and the first afternoon they showed Bobby and some of the other new campers around, taking them to the barn with stalls of patient horses munching their hay, the archery range set against a hillside with bales of old hay propping up the targets, the ropes course across a dry creek bed, and the chapel area cut into the hillside below the massive log cabin lodge. The older boys in the other cabins further up the hill were bigger and stronger, yet they too welcomed him and treated him like a friend.

His cabin counselor was a college student from Denver named Tom. He was tall, lean, and quiet, and he ran the cabin with a calm and firm hand, never raising his voice. When things got too noisy or the jokes got a little too off-color, Tom would admonish them with a gentle “Hey, guys, that’s enough.” Bobby liked Tom from the minute he met him; he was the first grown-up that didn’t treat him like a child.

Bobby had never slept in any place other than his own room, and at first he wondered how he could sleep with all the other people around, but the first night, after all the traveling, all the new sights, the welcoming dinner and the first night campfire, he found himself nodding off as Mac McCormack led them in Taps. He snuggled in under the warm blanket in his bunk, murmured “goodnight” to Tom, and was asleep in seconds. The next morning Tom led the whole cabin set off for a day of learning how to hike a mountain trail.

For the next eight weeks, Bobby was happier than at any other time he could remember. He learned how to ride a horse, how to hike, and how to build a campfire in the woods. He learned it was okay to get dirty and sleep in his underwear, and he found he liked being around the other boys without having to worry about always minding his manners. He learned jokes that he knew he could never tell at school and even told a few of his own. He wrote letters home to his parents filled with stories of hikes and backpack trips, riding horses, getting caught in a summer snowstorm about the tree line, and spending a night in a mountain meadow listening to the coyotes bark.

Suddenly it was August. At the end of camp everyone joined in the final campfire as the awards were handed out. Bobby got a prize for most improved younger hiker. Then the lights were dimmed as the final award – the Golden Feather – was awarded.

The Golden Feather was the camp’s highest award for citizenship. Winners were chosen by a vote of the campers and staff. Tradition held that only boys who didn’t go out of their way to earn it but just tried their best at everything won the coveted prize, awarded on the last night of camp in a very solemn ceremony. The award was open to any boy, but in all the years it had never been given to someone who hadn’t been at camp for at least five summers. The name of the winner was burned into the Golden Feather plaque over the fireplace, and this year the winner was a boy named Dowd Sullivan. He was a muscular seventeen-year-old giant from Winnetka, Illinois, and he wept like a child when his name was called. Everyone stood and sang Taps and went back to their cabin, calling out their goodnights to everyone. The next day Bobby flew home and began counting the days until camp would start again next summer.

Sun Mountain became his refuge from the life under the watchful eye of Magda and the stifling procession of school and manners. It was the place where he learned about things other boys thought and talked about; things he could never talk about at home, including the mysteries of the male body. It was at camp that he learned about jerking off, and the summer he was twelve on a camp-out in the Pecos wilderness he shared a tent with a boy named Charley who was mature for his age. Charley had no qualms in giving a demonstration on the finer techniques of masturbation and encouraged Bobby to try it himself. Bobby was thrilled that Charley would share such secrets with him. This would never have happened at home; in fact, Bobby couldn’t fathom any of the boys he knew at school being willing to even talk about it, even though he knew they probably did. But Sun Mountain was a world apart, and he came to believe that the true friendship he had with the other boys and his counselors was the way of the world. Home and school was the artificial world; Sun Mountain and New Mexico was real life to him.
Cross-posted at The Practical Press.



Blogger ntodd said...


8:30 PM  
Blogger ntodd said...


8:30 PM  
Blogger ntodd said...

So wonderful it needed to be acknowledged twice!

8:31 PM  

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