Dog Days Tales: His Eye Is On the Sparrow
A True Camp Story
It was Marcy Siegel who first realized that a killer was about to strike.
“No!” she shrieked. “Don’t”
But it was too late. The killer squeezed the trigger, squeezed it smoothly, silently, remorselessly. The rifle popped loudly, and the sound bounced back from the low hill in front of them.
The victim jerked and fell to the ground.
Then Marcy Siegel screamed, and so did the others.
Camp Frontier, in the Hudson Valley of New York, was not much different from dozens of other such places: A long rambling row of cabins spread out along the shore of a cool blue lake. Behind them were softball fields, basketball courts, and other athletic equipment. A big lodge divided the boys’ cabins on the east from the girls’ on the west. In the big lodge we ate, heard announcements, and griped about the food.
I didn’t gripe about the food, though, at least not so the Inters could hear. “Inters” was short for Intermediates, which meant age 11 or so. I couldn’t let them hear me gripe because I was one of their counselors, and it was up to me to set an example.
Many of my kids could use a good example too; Frontier was an expensive camp, where most campers arrived hauling huge trunks crammed with stacks of brand new shirts and shorts and socks, twice as many as they’d ever need Fortunately this was 1962, or there would have been game boys, iPads and cell phones too.
When Visiting Day came a few weeks into the season, parents and other relatives brought or sent each of my kids bags and bags of candy, more than a single child could be expected to consume in a week. In hopes of controlling the sugar craziness, we told them to eat as much as they could by bedtime that night, and then confiscated the rest. But there wasn’t much left by then, because what they couldn’t eat, they ended up throwing at each other, or us. For the rest of the season there were brown splotches on our cabin porch where M&Ms were ground into the wood floor.
That had been the low point of the summer; mostly the kids were bright and interesting, even if they wore us out. Besides, several of them had an air of underlying sadness that all the candy and new clothes couldn’t quite conceal: I called them the orphans.
They weren’t officially orphans, of course, but they might as well have been: they were shipped off to boarding schools for nine months of the year, and then shipped off to camp for the summer. Their parents were evidently otherwise engaged, and had the money to keep the kids at a comfortable distance. I admit I cut the orphans a little extra slack sometimes; maybe I’m just a sucker, but it felt like they needed it.
Days at Camp Frontier had a regular routine of activities, swims, and assemblies. A kind of focal point came every weekday after rest period. Then we gathered in front of Herbie the Head Counselor’s cabin for mail call and any last-minute afternoon announcements.
Herbie was big, blustery, sun-blond, and not really very athletic. But he was a longtime Camp Frontier staffer, who knew what was what, and was always ready to set us straight.
He’d burst dramatically out of his cabin, blow a whistle hanging around his neck on a nylon cord, make a joke or two, and pass out the mail. Then he’d collect the postcards the kids were constantly encouraged to write to their parents, at least once a week. The camp provided the postcards, and Herbie dropped them ceremoniously through a slot into a big wooden box attached to the front of his cabin.
“Okay!” he’d shout when this ritual was completed. “Let’s get out there and have a great time!” And with one more blast of the whistle, he’d send us scampering to the afternoon’s activities.
There were a lot of activities at Camp Frontier; there had to be, for as much as they charged. This variety was why I was there at all: when I had checked the Summer Job Directory at college, the camp section was full of painful reminders of just how un-athletic I was: Could I swim? A little, but not enough to teach it or lifeguard; as for hitting a baseball or shooting a basket, forget about it. And tennis? Don’t be silly. Volleyball, just barely.
Page after page, the lists at camp after camp were nearly identical. I was about to give up on getting away from my college in Colorado for the summer when, near the end of the section, Camp Frontier appeared. Its list was longer than most, and even included horseback riding. Not that I could ride a horse either; but it gave me hope.
Then, like a gift from heaven, there it was some-thing I could actually do, and maybe even teach: riflery.
It’s true. When I was about twelve, living in rural California, my father bought me a single-shot .22 rifle. We never went hunting, but several times I took it out behind our house, facing an empty open field, and used up a box of shells plunking away at tin cans and bottles. I always hoped a bird or a rabbit would stray into my line of fire, but none ever did.
Two years later, my high school youth group offered target shooting lessons, and I jumped at the chance. I liked shooting; what kid wouldn’t? The classes, too: the instructors were sticklers about safety rules, but unlike a lot of my world’s rules, theirs made perfect sense. We learned to listen to the instructor’s commands, and to move together in sequence:
“Ready! Move up to the firing line; pick up your rifle; load and lock. Ready on the left? Ready on the Right? Ready on the firing line. Commence firing!”
Then: “Cease firing! Rifles down; move back from the firing line.”
We followed these rules because they kept us safe, and focused on the main goal: blowing little holes in the targets’ black bullseye centers, 50 or so feet away.
I also liked shooting because bigger didn’t mean better; what counted was control, concentration, aim, a steady trigger finger. A skinny kid like me could be a better shot than some burly, swaggering jock. We even had girls in the class (a big deal then), some as good as any of the guys.
Besides, my shooting was pretty good, and with practice, got better. I was picked for the rifle team, earned a Sharpshooter’s medal, then added several bars to it, showing further improvement. Our team won a few matches, and I carried my weight. That was new for me in team sports.
But then my family moved, and at the new place no rifle range was available to teenagers. That was that for my shooting career.
Or it was until that day I opened the Summer Job Directory at college. Hey! Riflery was a skill I could legitimately offer Camp Frontier. And it wasn’t that common; lots of people could hit a baseball; but how many could hit a bullseye? This just might be my ticket back East, to New York, which I’d never seen before.
And so it was. One sunny morning in mid-June I was on a train chugging alongside the Hudson River from Manhattan. A few hours later, in my brand new Camp Frontier tee shirt, I inspected the rifle range. It was small, only six target stands, and backed up against the slope of a wooded hill, with nothing behind it for many acres. It looked good: safe, cozy, familiar. This I could handle.
I asked Herbie if I could try out the range. He wasn’t too keen on the idea, but let me take a few potshots. I put two bullets through the bull’s eye, several more close to it, and was getting ready for my last shots when I noticed a fluttering in the trees halfway up the hill.
Lifting my eye from the rifle sight I saw birds flitting through the branches, seemingly unconcerned about the slugs kicking up dirt a few feet below them.
Come on, tweeties, I whispered urgently to them. Come on down here. Let me find out if I’m really still a sharpshooter. Come to papa. But they didn’t.
Everything went well that summer until the morning the killer appeared. Several times a week I met groups of campers at the range, showed them what to do, explained the importance of following instructions, gave out ammunition, and barked the commands:
“Campers ready! Move up to the firing line; pick up your rifle; load and lock. Ready on the left? Ready on the Right? Ready on the firing line. Commence firing!”
I called out these orders from a spot behind the line, where I could see everybody and the targets beyond, to make sure every rifle was pointed in the right direction at all times. There weren’t going to be any accidents on my watch; the camp couldn’t afford it, and neither could I.
And it was going fine. In fact, the whole summer was going great. Camp, I had soon discovered, was not just a matter of shepherding kids around. Over on the girls’ side, there were many pretty college age counselors, and the big lodge had a canteen where we could meet them after our boys were asleep. That year too, the Twist was the big dance, and I discovered to my surprise that I could actually do it.
So I was a popular guy, with kids when the sun was up, and with various female counselors after dark and on our precious days off. This, I concluded, was living.
That’s how it was the morning Marcy Siegel and her twelve year-old colleagues showed up, giggling and pigtailed. They were a little nervous about this business with guns, but eager too.
They were reassured by my confident tone as I explained that a rifle is not a gun, that safety was primary, and how following my commands in unison would keep us all safe. They were wide-eyed, somber-faced and obedient when I told them we were ready.
The first round of shooting went off without a hitch, though few of the girls could, as shooters say, hit the broad side of a barn. When we took a break I spoke encouragingly to them, gave them a few pointers, and said we’d do a second round so they could try to raise their scores. This time they were eager.
“Group One,” I shouted, “Move up to the firing line!” Six subteens plopped down in their stalls.
“Pick up your rifle!” They obeyed.
“Load and lock!” There was a clicking and snapping of metal.
I started to say, “Ready on the Left!” But just then I glanced out toward the target stands, and the words stuck in my throat.
A bird, a sparrow, had flown down from the trees above and was perched, big as life at about four inches long, on the third target stand. Its little head moved in quick jerks. One tiny claw flicked up to scratch its squat neck in a blurry rhythm.
My mouth went dry. I had wanted to see something like this, not just all summer-no, for years, ever since I stood knocking tin cans off a fence post in California. And now, here it was.
My fingers tingled. I had, I figured, about ten seconds to decide what to do, if I was going to do anything, about this. I took a couple of deep breaths, and then spoke:
“Rifles down. Yes, down!” Heads turned toward me, faces quizzical, but my stern voice brooked no questions or challenge.
“Move away from the firing line!” They scrambled nervously back in my direction.
As soon as they were even with me I said, “Wait here.” In a second, I had flopped into position in the third stall, and was aiming down the loaded rifle sight, over the shiny dark barrel.
That was when Marcy Siegel realized what was about to happen, and screamed.
I don’t think any bullseye ever felt better than that one shot. When the rifle made its single pop, the bird leaped off the target stand, then swerved right into the ground. I dropped the rifle and trotted out to the stands. There it was, limp and still, with a spot of blood bright on the tiny dark grey feathers where an eye had been.
I walked back to the stalls, practically crowing about my shooting.
In fact, I was so full of pride at my kill that it took a few seconds to realize I was now surrounded by twelve near-hysterical girls. To them, I was not a good shot; I was a killer, a cold-blooded, brutal murderer.
Really, they were so cute when they were angry. I patiently explained about how common such birds were, and how predators killed them by the dozens, and that actually I was no different than one of those sparrow hawks we saw circling overhead every day. No big deal; there were plenty more birds where that one came from, and anyway, didn’t they see what a good–no, what a great shot it was?
They weren’t buying it. My rationalizations about life and death in the wild cut no ice; my bragging about the fine shot did not impress. Marcy and a couple others started to cry.
I could see it was time to backpedal. I apologized for upsetting them, assured them that the bird did not suffer, and calmed them down as best I could. When it seemed that order had been restored, we finished up the second round and I sent them back to their counselors. They seemed back to normal as they went.
Once they were gone, I walked back up and took another look at my prey. No, I thought, they didn’t understand; they were too young. This really was the best shot I’d ever made. But probably it would be wiser, I figured, not to mention it to the other counselors.
This policy lasted exactly two days. Then, after mail call, when Herbie blew the whistle to send us off for the afternoon’s softball tournament, he called out to me to stay behind.
He beckoned me to follow him into his cabin. I had never been inside it before; it was unofficially reserved for the senior counselors.
As soon as the door was closed behind us, he rounded on me, fury in his face: “What the HELL were you doing on the rifle range the other day?” he demanded.
Looking mostly at the floor, I explained what had happened. “I don’t know why I did it,” I concluded sheepishly. “But a bird never came down on the range before. It was probably the only chance I was going to have, and I guess I couldn’t pass it up.”
Herbie softened a bit as he listened. There was a good chance he had relatives in the army; and for all I knew he’d been in the army himself. I think he appreciated good marksmanship, at least in the abstract.
“And anyway,” I added lamely, “I was very careful about the safety procedures. None of the kids was anywhere near the firing line.”
Now Herbie snorted. “Oy vey,” he said. “Maybe not close to it, but they weren’t far enough away. Do you have any idea how many of them went back to their cabin and wrote home about this?”
I shook my head, confused.
“Five,” he roared. “FIVE!”
I was still confused. How would Herbie know that? But then in a flash it was obvious: the postcards. The box. It was not a regular mail box, with a lock that could be opened only by an actual employee of the United States Postal Service. I glanced to my right, and there it was: the box opened into a wire basket, right there in his cabin. And of course, there would be one just like it on the girls’ side.
No wonder the camp gave out the postcards. It was so the head counselors could read the notes home before sending them. And chances are, some never got sent. Like, Herbie explained, the five from my target practice escapade.
“You mean you didn’t send them?” I squeaked. The idea of tampering with the U.S. mail was genuinely shocking.
“Are you kidding?” he snapped. “What do you think the parents would do if they read that?” He rolled his eyes at my naïveté. “We can’t afford that. You can’t either.”
Herbie let me go a few minutes later, with orders never to do any such meshuggenah thing again. I promised him I wouldn’t.
And I didn’t. Of course, this self-restraint was made easier by the fact that no bird ever again came near the target stands while I was on the range. A few weeks later, Marcy Siegel and her buddies made another visit to the range, eyeing me suspiciously the whole time. But everything went strictly by the book, and soon they seemed to be enjoying their shooting as much as the other campers did.
Maybe, I thought, this whole business was blowing over.
It seemed to be. The weeks passed swiftly, with kids keeping me busy during the days, and pretty female counselors to flirt with in the nights. By late August, when camp ended, everything seemed fine again. Heading back west toward Colorado and another year of college, I was determined to return there the next summer. Camp Frontier was fun; I missed the kids; I missed the female counselors. But next year would be even better–now I had experience to offer, as well as a specific skill.
Early the next spring, I sent an eager letter to Camp Frontier, telling them how anxious I was to come back and do my best for them and the campers.
I never got an answer to that letter, nor to the follow-up I sent as May approached and I began to get desperate.
Who was I kidding? My career as a camp counselor was over, no doubt slammed into oblivion along with that tiny sparrow. That year I ended up in ROTC summer camp, marching in full uniform around an Air Force base in Kansas in one hundred degree heat, without a cool blue lake or an eligible female anywhere in sight.
All this was more than fifty years ago, but I still miss Camp Frontier sometimes, and wish I could slide one more postcard into that slot in Herbie’s box. If I could, the card would read like this:
“Dear Marcy Siegel, wherever you are, I’m sorry. I really am.”
That would be it.
Although I admit I’d like to add a PS, which would say:
“But really, Marcy, it was a great shot, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Do you understand that any better now?”
I wonder if she would.
Copyright by Chuck Fager.
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