Thirty Minutes After Taps
The one-eyed preacher drifted through the campground like a ghost. Word spread fast, as ghost stories do at camps. “There’s this guy with an eye patch.” “I bet it’s somebody’s dad, playing a joke.” “There’s too many counselors for him to be up to something.”
In retrospect, that was part of the preacher’s Vaudeville routine: get the kids interested in the sermon by walking around with an eye patch. Invite mystery. Spread rumors about a hunting accident or a bar fight or a government mission, then lead the sermon with “the real story.” It was his gimmick and he milked it for all it was worth.
When all the kids filed into the church house that night, sure enough, his big opener was dramatically taking off the eye patch to reveal a glass eye. “Ah, I got an itch,” and out came the glass eye. Then 40 minutes of preaching. When kids started drifting to sleep, he made a show out of pretending to lose the glass eye.
But the one-eyed pastor couldn’t hold my attention long. To 16-year-old me, he was just a Christian entertainer for hire. His act was too tight, too road-tested. The more compelling figure, the man to be feared, was the missionary who served as camp director, a 6’2” man of 300 pounds who joked around a lot but never let his guard down. When he laughed, it seemed to be a way of redirecting some kind of unspoken frustration.
After Reveille, we campers had about 30 minutes to make ourselves presentable and gather at the flag pole for the Pledge of Allegiance. When kids were late, and there were always a few, he went full drill sergeant. First, long lectures about punctuality meant to shame the wayward children – the undisciplined children. Then, as the week wore on and the amount of tardy kids remained the same, he would reduce all his frustration to a damning one-liner directed at nobody in particular. “If you can’t be on time, who’s gonna hire you?…Who’s gonna hire you?”
I would cross the street to avoid talking to him because I figured any interaction with him, through no fault of my own, would be a coin toss. He would either crack wise or criticize the disrespectfulness of my posture. Avoidance seemed to be the best way to deal with him. I noticed quickly that none of the counselors I liked seemed to have much of a rapport with him.
I got really good at avoiding him by day three, after I figured out his afternoon walking route. I got so good at avoiding him that by day five I was organizing poker games with my bunkmates. Five dollar buy-in. It wasn’t hard to win, really. I just had to lie. I learned from watching the camp director that the fastest way to intimidate people is to make too much eye contact, so I replicated him until people got uncomfortable, and I went home with twice the spending money I started out with.
The camp director made a few peculiar decisions. The first was the aggressiveness of his anti-cell phone policy. He would condescendingly refer to how foolish teenagers look when they use cell phones, how laughable it is to talk about “the new Backstreet Boys song with your school friends without even looking them in the eye.”
On the first day, to establish the sinfulness of technology, he said “if you need to use a phone, you can come to me, and we will walk to the gas station and ask to use their pay phone. It’s three miles down the road.” Stories spread of a girl who, in a brazen act of defiance, left the camp during lunch to go use the pay phone. The whole week, I kept picturing her in my head. How desperate must a person be to walk 3 miles alone on a winding, empty road, against the infinity of all those pine trees?
The second peculiar decision was when he played Reveille in the afternoon, during free time, and ushered us to the flag pole for an emergency prayer. Ronald Reagan, he told us, had just died. He then led everyone through a tear-choked prayer requesting strength for President George W. Bush, who must now guide America through the wilderness.
Nothing about the camp director was that unusual, not really. Authoritarian, apocalyptic tendencies come easily to people in small towns. So does weaponized patriotism of the sort that compels a person to make a few hundred teenagers pretend they have an emotional bond with the American flag. Suggesting that “Leave it to Beaver” could take place in 2004 with enough crowd control and force of will is a deeply intoxicating kind of escapism. Security through order and discipline and running away to the mountains.
At night, when Taps was played over the camp’s ancient PA system and everyone was supposed to sleep, I would always lie awake for an hour or two. I don’t think any amount of positive reinforcement could make me enjoy being in the mountains with hundreds of strangers, where a girl walks through oblivion alone because of a notion to use a possibly rhetorical pay phone.
For all the expected strangeness of a camp where Ronald Reagan’s death constitutes an emergency, the most peculiar thing about that camp happened in the dead of night. Thirty minutes after Taps, when there wasn’t a single sign of life on the campground, another song would come on the PA system. A favorite of the camp director.
It sounded somewhat like a ragged old record bought at a church organist’s estate sale. All hiss and crackling and age. At some point, it had been a choral performance of a hymn, but it wasn’t that anymore. At least, not to me, sitting in my bunk and wishing I was home. It felt longer than the hymns I’d grown up hearing and singing. Stranger, as the vocals lacked the definition needed to be comprehensible. Like the camp and the little stores on the road down the mountain, it felt like it was being reclaimed by nature. And it took on a new texture, a reminder of how short our time really is on earth, how quickly we become dust again, that it surely didn’t have when it was recorded.
In the darkness and the impossible quiet of the mountains, it was a window into something more cosmic. It was haunting in the way very old blues and gospel singles are, where no amount of historical context can make us truly visualize the room where it was recorded. A recording so singular that it’s difficult to imagine anyone buying it and playing it in their homes. To me, what came over that PA system was some sort of eternal command: the camp director is not worth agonizing over and Ronald Reagan is not worth crying over.
I lack the vocabulary to even describe the music. What I can do is reference other pieces of music that conjure eternity to me in the same way. It exists somewhere along the continuum that includes Gabriel Fauré’s requiems, William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops,” or Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.”
When I told other campers about the song, I was devastated that no one had the same reaction. To the people who enjoyed being there, who had a camaraderie with their church friends, it was just an old hymn played on a busted PA. But there was something about how broken it was, the sense that it was about to fall apart and never did, that immediately resonated with me, to the point of deep sorrow.
It’s been a decade since I heard it for the last time, and I still search for it sometimes. The gospel section of record stores, old hymnals, YouTube, hoping something jogs my memory. Sometimes I email people who were listed on the brochure for the camp. I’ve never gotten a lead. Really, it could be anywhere. The camp director was a missionary once. It could have come from almost anywhere. It may have been music for a play, or ambient music for a wake. A local release by and for the members of a shuttered church.
The only idea I have left is to go back to the old camp when summer rolls around, but that would ruin it. I’m not even looking for a song anymore. I’m looking for an emotion from 10 years ago that I haven’t felt since – a spiritual connection to a piece of music from an age where those connections came a bit easier. Maybe that feeling is best left undisturbed. This way, I can close my eyes and imagine the sound from that record navigating through the pine trees, with no one left to hear it.