His name was Frank. He looked odd to 11-year-old eyes, not a bit like the other counselors, all trim and sun-tanned, hanging out with each other. Frank was round and pale as a volleyball and always stood off by himself. He wore khaki Bermuda shorts and green knee-high socks. Wire-rimmed glasses that made his eyes bug out. His too-small Boy Scout tunic clung to him in the high summer heat like a second skin.
Frank was our counselor at a campground buried deep in the green rolling hills southeast of my hometown of Buffalo, NY. It was the early ‘60s. I was a tenderfoot Scout enduring my first week-long summer camping trip.
Though I loved Scouting, I wasn’t very good at the outdoor life. Knot-tying was my lone specialty, games and sports my nemesis. So when Frank dropped the pop flies or tripped over his own feet just walking down a path and the other boys laughed and called him Fat Frank, I didn’t join in.
I felt sorry for him. I recognized Frank. He was the fat version of the skinny doofus that was me.
One day in the camp’s lodge, he did what no other grown-up who wasn’t my father had ever done. I was sitting alone at a picnic table, weaving my umpteenth useless plastic lanyard. He sat next to me and asked to see it. I gave it to him. He admired it. Then he asked me why wasn’t I out swimming with the other boys.
I surprised myself by blurting out the truth. Because I couldn’t swim, which meant I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do, which was to go row-boating on the camp’s lake.
Frank nodded his head in sympathy.
“You know you can go if I take you,” he said.
Yeah, I said, surprised all over again at the hope I heard in my voice.
He said he’d stop by my tent during the afternoon siesta. Said we’d have some fun.
When Frank approached my tent, he seemed in a hurry. Hot and bothered. But quiet. Didn't say a word. Just swept back the tent’s mosquito netting and sat down on my cot.
In one quick motion, he swung his stubby legs up onto the cot and lay down. I stood next to him, mystified.
“Come up here,” he said in a harsh whisper.
I leaned in closer, not sure I’d heard him correctly. Not sure how I could possibly obey him.
He grabbed me and lay me on my back atop his belly. I figured this must be some secret Boy Scout initiation rite, something grown-ups did to tenderfoot Scouts who weren’t supposed to know about until it happened to them.
Then I felt his hand slide under the top of my pants. He began to fondle me. I froze. I knew little about sex. But I knew to my soul that I couldn’t allow this to happen.
So I prayed, pinching my eyes shut in supplication. Please God. Please don’t let me get a boner.
After a time – a minute? Five? Frank withdrew his hand. I slid off his body and ran outside.
As soon as Frank emerged from the tent, I demanded he take me boating. Like he said he would.
He glared at me then stalked off in the direction of the lake. I followed him. No words. When we came to the dock, I teetered into the first boat I saw and sat in the bow. Frank followed me, squatted down on the center seat, grabbed the oars and pushed off.
His silence and his refusal to look at me told me he was angry. I didn’t care. Being on the sun-spangled water made me smile. The only sound was the slap of the oars. I felt the boat glide beneath me, out to the middle of the lake, to where all was peaceful.
I was king of the lake.
The week ended with Parents’ Day. What I remember of that day was how eager I was to introduce Frank to my father.
Frank seemed even paler than usual when I introduced them. They shook hands. I don’t know what they talked about. It didn’t matter.
While the other boys bragged to their parents about trophies won, bull’s eyes struck, merit badges earned, I presented my trophy to my father. My father didn't know, would never know. But Frank did.
Within an hour, I was in the back seat of the family car, on my way home. I still felt like a king, though I couldn’t explain why to myself or to anyone else for years. Decades.
This is what I know now: Frank had forced me to play a frightening game whose rules I could not comprehend. But the skinny, hapless doofus who was no good at games had gotten what he most wanted that day. And that same bewildered tenderfoot had denied a full-grown man what he had most wanted.
What I knew but couldn't speak about then I gladly proclaim today: Fat Frank lost that day. And I won.