On the banks, and beneath the trees, Camp Crucis. Although we were Methodists, I attended this Episcopalian Camp due to Father Herron, who gave the Episcopal services in a one-room stone chapel just inside the gateway of Henrietta’s graveyard. Every service a real Memento Mori.
He had a picture of Van Gogh’s “The Shriek” on his wall; he said he liked it. One time, coming to dinner with my mom and me, he brought a cucumber. Scouring its skin with a fork, slicing quickly, a dash of vinegar. Voila! Salad!
The man knew everything. He taught me a sentence in Spanish when we went to visit an old Mexican man who lived in a shack, with a vineyard, arrowheads in cases, and a vast comic book collection. Tengo mucho gusto en conocerle. I’m very happy to meet you.
Father Herron it probably was who told my mom about Camp Crucis. And off I went.
Bunkhouses separated the four tribes, as did our ages. My mother had marked everything with my name. I still have an odd pair of scissors, from Uncle Doc’s surgery, with my name scratched upon the blade. Those scissors went to camp, too.
But I was afraid and unhappy. I became sick to heart, and soon sick at stomach. The priests were baffled. Father Herron suggested beer. “It calms the stomach,” he said. So while the others finished lunch with rousing renditions of John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith, and the Worms song, I drank my beer.
Of course, then I was drunk. Father Herron took me on a walk, till it wore off. Along the path we came upon a buzzing, and a vast bee tree. He showed me how we could slowly walk right up to the buzzing hive upon the tree. All around us they flew, but no harm came to us.
He watched carefully, then suddenly reached out and snatched one. I was frightened. “Won’t it sting?”
He shook his head. “It’s a drone,” he said. I held the bee in my hand. A drone cannot sting; it has no stinger. He’d known it for a drone because it buzzed differently. I felt the bee walking around inside my closed fist; then I let it go.
That was fun, but the next day I was sick again. I was home-sick. They called my mother. She wasn’t happy, picking me up. She’d had unusual and elaborate plans with Pete, a boyfriend in Bowie. In our green 1951 Chevrolet, she took me to lunch in a town. I had chicken-fried steak, and we had “a good talk.” By the end of lunch, I felt better and had been successfully pep-talked to give it another go.
I was a flop at baseball, and felt scorched during the hike, but I stuck it out, met a friend named Pinky during the swimming, and saw Father Herron kill a rattlesnake.
About two o’clock in the afternoon, several boys called out in fright. They’d startled the snake during its siesta.
Untreated rattlesnake bite is only 3% fatal in adults, but severe danger to small boys. Father Herron followed carefully through the grasses, and then pounced!, grabbing it near the rattles. Quickly, faster than the snake could turn to bite, Father Herron lifted the snake and cracked it like a bull-whip.
The snake was dead.
We boys gaped in wonder. And now, fifty years later, I wonder, where is Father Herron today? Intoning Latin in a dim cathedral? Resting agog in the Old Priests Home? I’d rather think of him running the bulls in Paloma, or perhaps working undercover in a Chicago dive, or maybe wrestling alligators in the Everglades. Why not? He was a mighty man. Snakes couldn’t bite him, and bees didn’t sting him.