On — and off — the waterfront

Although I was a lousy Boy Scout, I loved Camp Bedford.

And how could I not? It offered every activity a 100-percent American boy could possibly enjoy. We played with fire, knives and hatchets, had archery, heard ghost stories and drank unlimited glasses of Kool-Aid at lunch and dinner. We had platform tents, outhouses and bonfires, made exquisite works of art like boondoggle lanyards, and met kids from far off exotic lands like Chateaugay, Burke and Constable.

Today, all those memories are blurred, like an old home movie you can’t get in focus. But I remember one camp activity with startling clarity — swimming.

On our first full day there, we took swimming tests and were divided into two groups — Thems What Could, and Thems What Couldn’t. TWC got to swim off the deep end of the dock; TWC’t stayed in the shallow end, where the counselors gave them lessons.

Thing is, swimming was not an option: Everyone swam, every day, at mandated times. And it wasn’t like we dawdled about, taking our sweet time getting in. Uh-uh. The counselors herded us onto the dock, blew their whistles like Chi-Com NCOs, and we took the plunge, literally, like the buck privates we were.

But it’s not our slavish obedience to martial authority I remember most — it’s the water itself. It was crystal-clear, light green and cold enough to cryonize every mother’s son of us in minutes. In fact, I think the only thing that prevented a wholesale die-off was our frenzied thrashing about in the stuff.

The dueling duo

Ironically, the waterfront activity I remember best took place away from it. It was a long-distance race between the camp’s two strongest swimmers.

One kid was named Piper, and I can’t remember where he was from. The other kid was from My Home Town, and I remember him perfectly because he was in my troop and was my friend, Hank Cochran.

Though Hank was blond and Piper brunette, physically they could’ve been twins. Both were beefy chunkers with a layer of baby fat, but strong and steady as Percherons. Their swimming styles were the same as well: Neither was a picture of textbook grace and fluidity who sailed over the water smoothly and efficiently. Instead, they slashed their way through it, all sass and no class.

Superficially, Henry was an improbable athlete. He was shy, was a wonderful artist in several media; and had an irreverent and quirky sense of humor that made him more a bohemian than a Boy Scout. In those bland, conformist days, he was a Mad magazine guy in a Reader’s Digest world. Beyond that, he was almost preternaturally laid-back and didn’t seem to take much of anything seriously. He might’ve been a bull, but it was more along the lines of Ferdinand than El Toro Loco. There was no sign he had even a hint of the killer instinct.

Piper, on the other, had more than enough for both of them. He played everything for keeps — arm wrestling, pole climbing, wood carving, hiking — you name it and he’d do his level best to finish ahead of the field. Which is why his beating Hank was considered a done deal. If anyone had made odds, the best they’d’ve given Hank would’ve been 5 to 3 — against.

The race

Race day dawned grey and cold, and by afternoon, the mercury had climbed to a balmy 60 or so. Numbers aside, the water temperature could’ve been objectively labeled “glacial.”

And there we all were — campers, counselors, kitchen staff, administrators — the entire camp jammed on the shore, waiting for the start.

Hank and Piper were on the dock, side by side, a study in contrasts. Piper was shaking his head, snapping his fingers, flexing his arms, shifting his feet. Henry just stood there, staring off into the middle distance, his usual stolid and unreadable self.

The waterfront director stood between them, giving last-minute instructions. Finally he quit talking and put his whistle in his mouth. Both boys tensed. Then the director blew a blast, and the boys dived off the dock together. They surfaced at the same time and sped off, side by side, stroke for furious stroke.

Though they took off at full speed, this was no sprint. They had to swim around a small island that lay at least a quarter-mile away. In addition, a wind had started up, giving the water an ugly chop. Not that it stopped or even slowed the boys down. Instead, they plowed through the water, still neck and neck, at a pace that could not be sustained. As swimmers, they were unschooled and untrained, but they made up for it in raw power and bullheadedness.

All eyes were on them as they rounded the island, and the mob, silent till then, came alive, cheering for their favorite. Or maybe because they were going flat-out, giving it their all, the mob was cheering for both of them. Of course, I yelled for Hank, what with his being one of Our Boys, God Love Him, but Piper got my silent cheers as well.

Although from time to time one of them pulled ahead of the other, with a couple hundred yards to go, they were still dead even, still on that maniacal pace, churning up the water, leaving sizable wakes. Then 100 yards from the finish, though still stroke for stroke, Piper started to fade and slip behind Hank. First his head was at Hank’s shoulder, then at his chest, then at his feet. And as Hank also slowed, there they stayed till the finish.

When they reached the dock, pandemonium erupted. Long gone were the days when men threw their hats in the air and shouted “Huzzah!” till hoarse, but we made an uproar in our own 1950s teenage way.

After Hank and Piper had gotten back their breath and warmed up, the waterfront director stood between them on the dock, made a little speech and declared Hank the winner. Once again, we gave another round of cheers.

Piper shook Hank’s hand, smiling broadly. Hank, in his usual diffident manner, smiled briefly a couple of times and then looked down at the dock. And while the race itself was as dramatic as any athletic event I ever saw, I remember those guys less for their athleticism and more for their sportsmanship. They displayed the rarest of sports phenomena — a gracious loser and a humble winner.

There’s always a lot of talk about how appropriate athletes are as role models, or whether they should even be role models at all. Of course, the “athletes” we refer to in this case are professionals. Ah yes, the pros — those alternately strutting and sulking narcissists, with diamonds on their fingers and chips on their shoulders, who make millions a year but can’t be bothered to give a kid a free autograph.

If you want to know what I think of them as role models, I’ll put it this way: As a group, they’re not fit to carry Hank and Piper’s gym bags.