One Million Ice-Cream Sticks

Getting creative at camp

By Brian Doyle | July 5, 2013


The first time I was sentenced to summer camp was when I was seven years old. My mom had just given birth to yet another new brother, and my near-twin brother Peter and I, being old enough to survive in the wild but too young to be farmed out to work, were mailed for a week to what was billed as camp but what seemed much more like school, as it was housed in an elementary school, albeit one with vast open fields and meadows and copses of trees.

Peter adjusted easily to the regimen, although his counselor did come to me on the fourth day and ask if my brother was a mute, as he had not yet uttered a single word. I explained that he was adopted from Lapland, and did not yet speak American—a whopping lie, and not my first either, but it freed Peter from any expectation of speech the rest of the week, for which he was grateful, he said later, when we were home.

Mostly we wandered outside, some of us playing basketball, although we could hardly reach the basket, and the rest napping or eating slugs or trying to escape through and over the vaulting steel fences around the schoolgrounds. Our counselor was a pleasant young man who carried a lacrosse stick with him at all times, whipping lacrosse balls against any and all surfaces, and growing more deft by the hour, although there were some near misses, and once he hit a boy named Edgar in his reproductive parts, and I was sent to get as much ice from the nurse as I could carry. I remember that Edgar had to be iced down all day, and a boy named Bruce said that if your reproductive parts are frozen, and you sneeze, they fall off, and then you have to be an opera singer.

The outdoor parts of summer school I remember with affection, for it was always sunny, and I could wander freely in the dappled light under the oak trees, and watch jays and grackles, and listen to cicadas, and gawk at caterpillars, and count the children trying to tunnel through the fence, and marvel at the way our counselor whirled his netted lacrosse stick to magically trap the ball even as he sprinted as fast as he could to head off prison breaks.

But it is a rare indoor moment that arises all redolent and sticky for me this morning, for I just smelled that awful white paste again, and I am plunged suddenly back into a world where I have just been given one million ice-cream sticks and a huge vat of some brooding pale muck, and instructed to Be Creative.

My first thought at that moment, as I remember, was where did the school get a million ice-cream sticks? And my second thought was that my brother Peter certainly would eat this glue, which he did, but not so much that he got sick. He was a bright lad even at age six, Peter was, and he remains a brilliant man today.

Peter told me later that he too was given a forest of sticks, although he thought they were tongue-depressors, and while the other kids built birdhouses and such with theirs, he tried to build a magic surfboard like the one the Silver Surfer used to explore the Celestial Ocean and soar among the stars, saying gnomic things with exclamation points after them! Oddly I too had tried to build a Silver Surfboard, stealing sticks from the other kids when I ran out of my allotment, so when Peter and I went home at the end of the week, each of us had half a Galactic Surfboard. We tried to stitch them together, but you need about a thousand pounds of industrial glue for that, it turned out, or some sort of magic spell known only to Norin Radd, whom we know in this small obscure corner of the universe as the Silver Surfer, and our newest brother, who was already a force of nature, soon found and demolished the pieces, and by then it was almost September, and time for real school.

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