Chapter One
The YMCA Day Camp
1940-1941—5th Grade

Hi. My name is Peter VanNest. I grew up in a small town where everybody knew everybody else’s business. And what everybody knew about me was that I had a penchant for getting into trouble. So, I guess this book is a type of confessional, and that would make you the priest. I hope you will listen to my mea culpa with sensitivity and decide whether I am worthy of forgiveness.

Following is a group of stories which document my encounters with religion, with sex, and with the Law. I thought at the time that they were the normal activities of an inquisitive boy. My mother thought that they were evidence that I was heading straight to hell. See what you think.

The Westfield YMCA sponsored a day camp in the summer of 1941. My parents sentenced me to attend: they said it would provide me an opportunity to swim, make crafts, exercise, and hone my sports skills. However, structure and discipline weren’t high on my list of favorite things when I was turning eleven, and I protested feebly. But, the decision had been rendered by the highest court and there was no appeal.

Camp was a one-week experience, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. It required that I walk downtown alone, hop a #16 bus on North Jersey Street, ride for twenty minutes, and walk several blocks to the YMCA. IT would be inconceivable to send a ten-year-old on such a journey alone these days, but in that pre-war era—Pearl Harbor was still six months in the future—it was a different world. Everyone along the route looked out for me, and I never had a problem.

My parents had registered me the previous week, at which time Herman entered my life. Herman, who looked to be about thirty, was going to be the counselor for my squad. However, even at age ten, I could tell that Herman was several players short of a full team. He asked my name three times, having forgotten twice that he had ever met me.

On Monday morning, I arrived at 8:50 a.m. and immediately looked for my counselor. I spotted him easily, primarily because he was wearing enormous bright green suspenders which were holding up checkered pants. At first, I thought he was dressed as a clown for opening day, but soon realized that this was his idea of stylish garb.

When he assembled his boys, I was pleased to see that Dexter, a friend from fifth grade, was on my squad. We fooled around for a while and then went into the gym for exercise class. The smell of chlorine permeated the whole building and inspired very mixed feelings in me. One of the reasons for attending camp was the opportunity to use the pool every day, but there was a problem: I didn’t know how to swim.

Later that morning, we got ready for our first pool period. I was suddenly stabbed by a shocking realization: all I had brought with me were a few coins for candy and my registration paper. I had forgotten to bring a bathing suit or a towel. In a panic about what to do, I hurried up alongside Dexter, as we walked toward the locker room.

“Dex!” I said in a hoarse whisper. “I didn’t bring a bathing suit!” Then I noticed that he didn’t have one either.

He shook his head. “That’s OK. We don’t need suits.” That relieved my mind a bit. I figured that the Y would provide them.

Herman, already dressed in plaid swimming trunks, led us to a row of lockers, told us to pick one, memorize the number, and put our clothes inside. I was next to Dexter, and I waited to see what he was going to do. Dexter was an aggressive, outgoing person who wasn’t afraid of any situation. That’s why I liked him. He was everything I wasn’t.

When I turned to follow his lead, I was startled to see that he was already stark-naked and stuffing his clothes into his locker. I whispered frantically to him, “Where do we get the bathing suits?”

He looked at me as though I was mentally deficient. “We don’t wear suits in the pool, jerk! I already told you that!”

Thunder rumbled in my head. I was exceedingly self-conscious about my body at this age. So much so, in fact, that when my mother took me to see her female chiropractor, I refused to take my undershirt, and the doc had to manipulate my bones through my clothing. Now they were expecting me to take off my pants? In Public? I looked for the door, wondering how long would have to wait for the next #16 bus home.

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