Summer Camp and Petty Crime in Prospect Park

During the summer, my local park turns into one massive summer camp. The baseball camp bleeds into the lacrosse camp bleeds into the Harry Potter camp bleeds into Percy Jackson Camp bleeds into the toddlers who pick at the grass and do singalongs bleeds into the Orthodox Jewish toddlers who pick and grass and do Orthodox Jewish singalongs.

Usually, I do my best to ignore them all as I take my daily walk, but one day last August I felt compelled to stop and watch an event that was unfolding on the main lawn.

There was a massive dragon in the middle of the field. It was made out of paper, cardboard, and black cloth. It looked like a stripped down version of what you would see at a Chinese parade.

I didn’t envy the five camp counselors who were manning the dragon, with their torsos covered entirely in black felt. It was 95 degrees and humid. Standing around the dragon, tossing homemade cardboard swords in the air and catching them, were five more counselors.

Thirty yards across from the dragon stood about fifty children, ages seven through twelve, each brandishing cardboard swords of their own. Four counselors on this team led the group in call and response chanting. It appeared that they were about to go to war.

“Romans!”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Who are we?”

“We are legion!”

“What is pain?”

“Fresh bread!”

“What is fatigue?”

“Army clothes!”

The kids were frothing at the mouth. They screamed their responses at the top of their lungs, pounded their chests, and stabbed their swords into the air for emphasis.

As someone who only ever went to basketball camp growing up, I had no clue what was happening. Weren’t summer camps about playing capture the flag or something? I took a seat to watch the action, riveted. The “good guys” (all the campers) were supposed to represent Roman soldiers, but I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. They were definitely not referred to as Carthaginians, so it wasn’t like they were faithfully recreating a famous historical battle. I guess I could have deduced that from the dragon.

Even though there were 50 child soldiers ready for battle, bloodlust in their eyes, mouths drawn back in snarls, only ten kids were sent forward to fight.

If I was a parent, I would be kinda pissed. If you’re going to dress my kid like a warrior, make her recite chant after chant about winning honor on the great field of battle and using the tip of her spear for justice, you better let her at least fight someone. With all that buildup and no discharge, I’d be worried she’d use the excess energy kicking the living shit out of her siblings when she gets home.

As the battle progressed, a few of the younger kids in the back of the pack could not contain themselves. They charged forward to try to join the fracas.

The counselors were on it. They grabbed the kids and ordered them back, staying in character the whole time.

“Hold the line, soldiers! Hold the line! We need you back here!”

Those kids wanted to use those swords so bad their heads were ready to explode. I would not like to have been a squirrel walking by.

After a couple minutes of sword fighting, half of the “evil” counselors were dead. The other half had been converted to the good side. I’m not sure how. Maybe the Romans sent a priest.

When the captured counselors got back behind the good guys line, the same kids who tried to charge sprung into action. They surrounded a captured soldier and held him at sword point.

“Traitor!”

“Murderer!”

“He did a homicide!”

The kids seemed actually mad. Things had gone full Stanford Prison Experiment. A more senior counselor had to walk over and ease the tension.

Fighting on the battlefield continued until the original ten kid fighters, plus one counselor, had advanced to battling the dragon.

After the last of the “bad guy” counselors were slain, the lead counselor called off the kids who were fighting by his side. He then approached the dragon and, with a mighty downward slash, felled it. The counselor raised his sword and everyone cheered.

I couldn’t believe it! From what I could tell, this was the climax of the entire camp. Why on earth would they not let the kids be the heroes? Was it all part of some lesson? That life was about waiting your turn, following orders, holding the line, and letting more senior people have all the fun? At least at my basketball camps the counselors didn’t all of a sudden insert themselves into the games and start dunking on the kids.

Once the dragon had collapsed on its side, the counselor turned back to the campers.

“Warriors, come forward and have your vengeance!”

The kids ran over and started beating the living shit out of the already dead dragon. They loved it. They wailed on that thing until their cardboard swords started to bend and break.

It was weird watching them all attack the dead dragon carcass. I had flashes of how Nietze felt when he went crazy after watching a horse get flogged on the streets of Turin.

The kids liked beating that already dead dragon a little too much. Jordan Peterson has been making a lot of waves lately by saying that we all have a “monster within us,” and what I was watching had me thinking he’s right. We’re definitely one bad power outage away from the world turning into Lord of the Flies.

There were so many Roman soldiers trying to get their licks in on the dragon that the smaller kids, those same ones who tried to hard to get in on the action earlier, were still on the outside looking in. They circled the mass of kids, looking for an opening to get their licks in on the dragon, but never found one. They pounded the grass in frustration.

After a few minutes, the whole thing was called off. There was a final chant about honor and pride or something, and camp was over.

The campers dispersed, and I followed behind some of them as they walked to an ice cream vendor in the middle of the park. One of the kids I was near started muttering to himself, “kill their family, burn their homes, kill their family, burn their homes,” as he swung at shrubs with his sword. I’m telling you, they unlocked something in these kids minds that was better left untouched. I gave them a wide berth as I passed.

I was brought out of my thoughts when the ice cream vendor I was approaching started shouting at someone who had just left the stand.

“Hey! What you doing! Hey!”

A teenager, about 15, and smoking a cigarette, was walking away with a smirk on his face and a Snapple in his hand.

The vendor, a small man in his early 40’s, looked at me.

“He stole that Snapple!”

I was unsure what to say, so I defaulted to playing dumb.

“Him?” I pointed at the only person holding a Snapple in a 50-yard radius.

“Yes!”

“Wow, sorry.”

“He stole it!”

The guy was looking at me like I should go perform a citizen’s arrest. It felt like an extreme version of the way people seem to love stopping me on the street to ask for directions. I don’t know why I get singled out, but I almost never know how to get anywhere, so I just leave people disappointed.

I knew the same thing would happen here, but I still stroked my chin like I was developing a plan.

The kid was 30 feet away now, casually strolling, defiant. I was annoyed by his youthful brazenness, but not enough to actually confront him and risk getting knifed. Or worse, embarrassed.

“That kid stole my Snapple!” The vendor repeated.

“I know! You just told me that.”

“Stop him!”

I just stood there, despite the vendor’s increasingly aggressive exhortations. After a few seconds, he shook his head and stormed away. It was starting to feel like he was more upset at me than the Snapple thief.

The vendor then flagged down a gardener who was passing by in his truck. He pointed at the thief, who was a good 20 yards away at this point.

Vendor: “Stop him! He stole a Snapple!”

Gardener: “I can’t do anything. I’m a gardener. Call 911.”

I wish I’d quickly and confidently used a line like that.

“I can’t do anything! I’m a non-confrontational tech worker on my lunch break and I’ve never been in a fight. Plus he’s smoking a cigarette and I really hate secondhand smoke!”

As the gardener drove off, the vendor turned back toward me with a look like, “can you believe this gardener? He has all sorts of sharp objects with which to apprehend a criminal! What a coward.”

He took a breath and then ordered me to call 911. I don’t know what pheromone I was giving off that caused this guy to think I was his enforcer, but I didn’t fight it. I just told him the truth, which was that I didn’t have my phone on me.

I guess he didn’t have one either, because at that point he gave up and went back to his stand.

I like to imagine that the Snapple thief got what he deserved. He was heading towards a group of campers. I imagined he might accidentally anger some of the overstimulated, under-satisfied, bloodthirsty, nine-year-olds, and that they could finally get a true taste of vengeance.

 

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