summer camp cage match

That was when Fr. Carl came striding into the mess hall, his face lighting up at the sight of the boxing ring. ‘Say, that looks like fun,’ he announced, to Norman’s horror, snatching up a pair of gloves and lacing them on. He proceeded to give Norman the pounding of his life without so much as breaking a sweat…”


by marc covert


In the summer of 1982 I found myself with an unexpected chunk of time on my hands. In the great scheme of things, I should have been preparing for my senior year in college—three down and one to go, then off to the world of work and advancement and marriage and all the rest of the preordained successes to which my wise life choices were supposed to lead. Unfortunately, during the previous three years of college I neglected to spend much time in any actual classes, an oversight that had begun to manifest itself in dismal grades and a recommendation by my academic advisor that I “take some time off and reassess my goals.” It was just a politely passive-aggressive way to tell me I should get out before I flunked out.

One goal that needed no reassessment from me was to postpone full-time employment or other such responsibility for as long as possible. I was 21 years old and, in the words of one of my dearest friends, “an over-educated fry cook,” having worked my way up from dishwasher to cook’s assistant in my college cafeteria in a scant five years, a meteoric rise, to be sure. But the thought of slaving away in that shithole for 40 hours a week for the rest of my life was too much for even my beer-addled brain to bear. I had to get out. I had to get away, far away, and escape the soul-crushing burden of adulthood.

I had to go back to summer camp.

Summer camp for me meant Camp Howard, owned and operated through the CYO—Catholic Youth Organization—and the Portland archdiocese. It’s still there to this day, about 40 miles east of the city of Portland and a stone’s throw from the Mt. Hood National Forest. (I spent five or six summers there as a camper, and two summers as a counselor, and I can honestly say I’ve never had such a great time in my life.) If avoidance of real, responsible employment is your goal, summer camp is a type of Valhalla, a Happy Slacking Ground that serves as a perfect refuge for victims of arrested development. Now all I had to do was find out if they’d be willing to hire me again.

Downtown at the CYO office I walked in unannounced, asking to speak to the camp director. It turned out that the man who had ruled Camp Howard with an iron fist had ended his 30-year reign the year previously, so a small mountain of institutional memory regarding my work habits and questionable maturity was no longer in play. No, they weren’t hiring counselors for the summer, I was informed, but they were looking for someone to serve as head cook in the mess hall. The pay was $120.00 a week to prepare three squares a day for about 160 campers, counselors, and staff. I’d live in the cook’s quarters in camp all week, and get to spend Saturday nights in town between camp sessions. Nine weeks in the woods with my own little kingdom to command as I saw fit — It seemed too good to be true. The poor deluded woman hired me on the spot.

It really turned out to be a sweet gig. I showed up a day early to root around in the cavernous kitchen of the mess hall, my new dominion, and was introduced to the assistant cook, Norman, whom I recognized immediately as the sullen, slightly Neanderthal-looking dishwasher who had been working in the kitchen during both of my previous counselor stints. Norman had always kept to himself back then, not really caring to have anything to do with the counselor staff, but now we hit it off immediately it was soon discovered that we held many things in common. Namely, a love for guzzling beer, a passion for AC/DC, and an unfettered braggadocio regarding depraved sexual shenanigans. The main difference between Norman and myself in that last category was that, for reasons I am still at a loss to explain, Norman wasn’t just blowing smoke — he really did have what it took to get all the tail he could handle. A feat made even more astounding by his bashed-in face from years of playing hockey and a smile that could make a freight train take an old dirt road. Half his teeth were broken or missing thanks to deflected hockey pucks and the bloody, drunken brawls indulged in at every opportunity. Norman was that rare combination of lover and fighter.

We settled in for what we hoped would be a summer of as little exertion and as much screwing off as possible, and for the most part we got our wish.

Camp Howard was in a time of flux; the man who practically built the camp with his bare hands and then ruled the roost for 30 years had been reassigned to parish duties, since he just so happened to be a priest. Fr. Carl, an imposing, barrel-chested powerhouse topped off with a shining bald melon, hammered together the camp’s buildings through sheer determination (and probably not two nickels to rub together) back in 1952, and soon became a legendary figure at his camp.

The imposing Fr. Carl loved his campers without reservation and the kids loved him right back, especially seeing that one of his favorite pastimes was to mercilessly bust the balls of every counselor on his staff. Nothing made those kids happier than seeing their overbearing counselors reduced to whimpering, sniveling simps.

Fr. Carl followed a simple protocol whenever he felt the need to place the fear of God into a bunch of green camp counselors. He would drive his huge, ancient International panel truck—the type that has a large, seatless cargo container behind the cab, like a Ryder truck—up to Roslyn Lake, about a five-mile hike from camp. Here would be dropped off the day’s supply of hot dogs, white bread, mustard, and government-issue drink powder for the assembled campers and counselors on hike day. Fr. Carl knew his flock, and he would scan the scraggly throng for any newbies that might be suckers enough to fall for his favorite ruse. After a day of riding herd on over a hundred sugar-dosed campers, there were always a few unsuspecting counselors who were happy to accept a ride back to camp. Fr. Carl would be all sweetness and smiles:

“You fellas a little tired? Care for a ride back to camp, maybe?”

Once his unfortunate victims hopped into the back and slammed shut the tailgate, it was off to the races. The chuckling priest knew every single hairpin turn, every straightaway, and every pothole on the old logging road between the lake and the camp. Nothing made him happier than flooring that old heap and listening for the terrified shrieks and sickening thumps produced by hapless schmucks as they tumbled around in the back of the truck. Empty stockpots, boxes of frozen wieners, and #10 cans of ketchup became airborne projectiles hurtling around back there for the whole 15-minute trip.

The old International would barrel down the gravel road leading into camp, slowing only in front of the caretaker’s cabin as the priest didn’t want to accidentally run over Tony’s beloved, geriatric Labrador retriever. Then came a good head of steam leading to a screeching and dramatic halt in front of the mess hall.

Chuckling contentedly, beaming from ear to ear, Fr. Carl would jump out of the cab, amble around behind the truck, fling open the tailgate, and bellow “All ashore that’s going ashore!” By this time the unfortunate greenhorns would be congealed into a trembling, bruised mass against the back of the truck cab, and it was all they could manage to tumble from the truck and stagger toward their cabins.

Even though removed from the day-to-day routine of camp life, Fr. Carl’s presence still loomed large. Since he was granted absolute autonomy in building his camp, he saw no reason why he shouldn’t design it entirely in accordance with his ideas of what was fun and what was necessary for basic comfort.

Camp Howard was a no-frills, classic “outdoorsy” summer camp, nothing like the vast array of theme camps you have now—computer camp, cheerleader camp, science camp or juvenile delinquent boot camp. Fr. Carl could happily have slept on a concrete slab, so his cabins were square, unfinished plywood bunkhouses with wood stoves and no furniture whatsoever. He was a big believer in arts & crafts, so he built a large, open-sided monstrosity dubbed the “craft shack” where campers spent a minimum of two shifts each day, cranking out gimp lanyards, decoupage, spin paintings, and leather-craft. He thought archery and riflery were just the trick for the future Catholic leaders of Portland, so he built an archery range and a riflery range, the latter stocked disappointingly with old Daisy BB guns that would just wheeze and creak when you fired them, farting out a single BB that you could watch in its slow trajectory as it plopped in the dirt twenty yards short of the targets.

But the crowning jewel of Fr. Carl’s camp was the swimming pool, a massive, cement-lined pit dug by hand with the help of forced labor from the local seminary. A little creek trickled in on one end and then spilled back into its original streambed on the other, and it easily accommodated every camper, counselor, and staff member in the camp at once. Non-swimmers could splash around in the shallow end in relative safety from the older kids’ goon squads while those who passed their swim tests could launch themselves from the diving board in the unplumbed deep end, scraping themselves bloody rare on the rough cement sides of the pool. As long as the weather held out and the camp had open swims at least three times a day, life was just grand at Camp Howard. Add to that the weekly forced march to Roslyn Lake, several nighttime campfire sessions, and the mandatory after-dinner sing-along, and there you had it, a week’s worth of camp activities.

The main flaw in Fr. Carl’s camp design was the fact that, if it rained, you could scratch the swimming, archery, BB gun plinking, and Death March from the itinerary. That left shuffling through the mud to the craft shack and the mess hall as the only rainy day activities. It wasn’t too bad if you only had one or two rainy days, but sometimes the rains would come and not let up for weeks. It’s easy to forget what the unbridled energy of youth can do to a desperately bored kid until you find yourself outnumbered 12-to-1 by a whole camp full of them. The kids get a bit stir crazy after about two days of this, not to mention the counselors. There is only so much leather-craft and finger-painting you can stomach.

Five weeks into the summer we were faced with just such a situation. From the day the kids arrived for their weeklong session, the skies opened up in the mother of all rainstorms, a grey, stifling downpour that had the campers bored stiff and twitchy in no time. By Tuesday the situation was already desperate. Our charges were in open revolt and the counselors were scampering around looking like cornered ferrets. The pressure had to blow sometime soon.

Why Norman and I took it upon our selves to do something about the general malaise I still can’t quite understand. We didn’t have to deal with the kids other than to fling slop on their plates three times a day, but we still wanted to do something to help boost morale around camp. Inspiration hit that Tuesday as I walked into the mess hall and suddenly remembered an afternoon just like it two years before. I was a counselor then, and was enjoying a rare break from the kids, walking up to the mess hall to mooch a snack from the kitchen crew. Norman and his fellow dishwasher knuckleheads had cleared away the tables in one corner of the dining room and pulled some long benches together around a few old mattresses on the floor. They were using it as a boxing ring, and Norman was taking on all comers. I barely knew him, but he invited me to put on the gloves for a friendly round.

I foolishly accepted, laced on the gloves, and stepped into the ring. All I really remember is his steely gaze over the top of his gloves, then three blurs, two left and one right, a succession of dull impacts, and then the sensation of being stuck on a merry-go-round as I stumbled over the benches. By the time I could make sense of what was happening, Norman’s next victim had my gloves on and was being pummeled in my place. That was when Fr. Carl came striding into the mess hall, his face lighting up at the sight of the boxing ring. “Say, that looks like fun,” he announced, to Norman’s horror, snatching up a pair of gloves and lacing them on. He proceeded to give Norman the pounding of his life without so much as breaking a sweat. Norm was tough as hell and there he was getting absolutely creamed, think Butterbean beating the shit out of David Spade. He took his punishment, though, and Fr. Carl walked out of the mess hall whistling happily.

A sweeter sight I had never seen.

So there it was! That was what we needed to break the monotony of the endless rain, only Norman didn’t have any boxing gloves with him this summer. That was fine with me, since I didn’t relish the thought of getting my ass handed to me again. We could do the next best thing: put on a full-blown, Portland Wrestling-style, two-out-of-three-falls wrestling extravaganza for the whole camp. The same old musty mattresses and benches were there to use as a ring. We could get our poor, harassed dishwashers to drag the tables out of the mess hall and it would hold every kid and counselor in the camp.

We put the word out around camp that on Thursday night would be the grudge match to end all grudge matches, “Mad Dog Marc” vs. “Stormin’ Norman” in a two-out-of-three falls, no time-limit match. We never thought to clear the idea with the upper staff or camp director, but they never did say anything in the time leading up the match, so we figured it was okay with them. The kids loved the idea, and the counselors, who were fighting off their own brand of insanity, thought it was a great idea too. They pitched right in and generated plenty of heat around camp for the big match.

Norman and I barely had three days to plan out the match. We practiced our moves at night in the mess hall, where the plywood floor had plenty of bounce and produced a resounding crash whenever you stomped your foot down for effect, just like the old Portland Sports Arena ring. With the tables shoved off to the side, it made the perfect wrestling venue. The match would be all worked out according to the erstwhile traditions of old-school pro wrestling: “Oh, we’ll go about ten minutes per round,” we calculated, how hard could it be? I was going to win the first round; Stormin’ Norman would take the second, and then I would finish the third by loading my boot with a “mysterious foreign object” and knocking out Norman, the “babyface,” with a kick to the head. The kids would go nuts when the “heel” (me) won, the referee would not see what happened, of course, and maybe we could generate some good heat for another match next week if the rain didn’t let up.

We worked every move out meticulously, every single hold, the outcome was never in any doubt. It was beautiful—we’d dazzle the kids with deftly executed flying elbow smashes, dropkicks, sleeper holds, body slams, forearm smashes, eye gouges, maybe even the dreaded Piledriver if things needed a little lift. We would ham it up good and everyone would have a grand old time. I even came up with a little pre-match routine: I took a white plastic coffee mug and smashed it up into little tooth-sized pieces; I was to enter the ring with the pieces in my mouth, and while strutting around taunting the crowd, Norman would sneak up behind me, turn me around, belt me in the mouth, and I would spit the “teeth” all over the ring.

Everyone agreed it looked pretty convincing.

The night of the big match finally arrived, with every kid and counselor in that camp crowded into the mess hall. We didn’t think to set up chairs, but the kids were too excited to sit anyway. Norman didn’t really dress up much, he just wore his sweats, but I did the full getup: work boots, trunks, tank top, an old ski mask, and a robe with “Mad Dog Marc” on the back written in silver duct tape. Emerging from the kitchen through the swinging doors, I immediately went into my “heel” routine. The kids booed long and lustily, hissing and giving the thumbs-down as I strutted around the ring yelling at them to shut their pie holes while trying not to swallow any pieces of the broken coffee cup in my mouth. I was getting pretty worked up myself.

Right on cue, Stormin’ Norman came bounding into the ring, twirled me around, and threw a pulled punch, just as we’d worked out. I acted as though I’d been hit with a battering ram and flew over backwards, spitting the “teeth” straight up in the air. They came clattering down and all hell broke loose, the campers went nuts, stomping on the floor and chanting “Nor-man, Nor-man, Nor-man!!”

It was all coming together.

The campers managed to quiet down just long enough for the ref to make his ring introductions—thunderous applause and cheers for Stormin’ Norman, heartfelt boos and hisses and curses for me—then called for the bell (an old soup pot, I believe) to be rung to start the actual match.

Norman charged out of his corner, head down in a bulldozer stance, and took me out at the knees. “Hmm,” I thought calmly, “that’s not how we planned this out,” and told Norman so. He just kept attacking with a crazed look in his eyes and made no response. Evidently the opening bit was the only part of our whole routine that he intended to follow.

It probably had a lot to do with the charged atmosphere. By now the kids were screaming for blood. Norman completely lost it and was rolling around on the mat with me, clamping my skull in a vicious death grip, not following any of our choreographed moves, and just grunting at me with a glazed look on his faced when I got close enough to hiss–

“You asshole! What are you doing?? Are you nuts?? We worked this out!!”

I cracked him over and over again with my elbow, managed to roll over on top of him a few times, and got my hands around his neck at least once. He seemed a little dazed as I tried to throttle him but it was apparent that all I was doing was making him madder. After delivering a particularly vicious elbow, the ref grabbed me, pushed me back in the corner, and started yelling at me about my “illegal tactics.” I could see that glazed look in his eyes; this was no act. I’d lost him, too. He had gotten caught up in the action and wasn’t doing anything to keep the match to its original plan.

The campers were going out of their minds, screaming at the top of their lungs, crowding around the benches that served as ring ropes, encouraging Stormin’ Norman to rip my head off, which he was trying his best to do. I was becoming strangely focused; the screaming and stomping were outside of my sphere of comprehension; all I could think of was somehow getting this madness to end. I was dog tired—the sweat was pouring off of my head into my eyes, I was gasping for air, and Norman was still going completely berserk. Finally I thumped him with a textbook headbutt—the real thing, mind you—stunning him momentarily so I could pry myself away from him and have a little tête-à-tête with my wayward referee.

Grabbing him by the collar I pulled him close, hollering in his ear that I was going to choke Norman with my mask and I wasn’t going to stop until he disqualified me. He nodded “ok” and I pulled off my ski mask, wrapped it around Norman’s throat, and stood behind him with my foot on his back, pulling for all I was worth. He thrashed around quite convincingly and had gone fairly limp by the time the ref counted 20 and called for the bell (the old soup pot again). Mad Dog Marc was disqualified, Stormin’ Norman was the winner by default, and we both crawled out of the ring and back into the kitchen. That was it, no mas, no way were we going back into that ring. It was all I could do to struggle into the walk-in refrigerator and lie panting on the floor.

The entire fiasco, from beginning to end, could not have lasted more than three minutes.

Out in the mess hall, pandemonium reigned as panicked counselors attempted to herd their kids into manageable groups. Lights-out was less than an hour away and they realized, too late, that there was no way they were going to get this howling mob quieted down. Those kids were amped, just completely worked up into a lather by the wrestling match, and were laughing and hollering as they slogged through the mud back to their cabins. The counselors were in for a long night.

Once I was able to move again I staggered off to our cabin. I was 22 at the time, in fairly good shape I thought, and Norman was quite an athlete himself, but our plans for going three fall of ten minutes each were way off the mark. My wrestling days were done.

I was pretty pissed off at Norman for losing his mind on me. He was nowhere to be found in the mess hall, for all I knew he’d slunk off to the woods to die in peace, and it would have been fine with me for him to end up as buzzard fodder. I stuck my head in his door at the cabin just out of curiosity and there he was, flat on his back in bed, still wheezing and staring at the ceiling.

“You alive?” I muttered, and he just flashed his snaggle-toothed grin and chuckled, the bastard.

The next day Norman and I were both summoned to the camp director’s cabin and informed that we were never, EVER, to stage another wrestling show, not for any reason whatsoever. Most of the campers had been up all night, too excited to sleep, and once again the counselors had that haunted look you expect to see only on the faces of hardened combat troops. Chastened, we vowed to stay out of the morale-building business and stick to stuffing the campers full of hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.

But I still like to think that Fr. Carl would have been proud.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Six
June 2003


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