As children leave for camp, parents say prayer

Published 1:59 pm Saturday, July 3, 2010

A perfect, shiny summer day and a crowd of jittery children in clusters on the corner, about to board a yellow bus, their backpacks in a pile, their mothers giving urgent last-minute reassurances, and I stop and stare at this Large Life Event. Kids from nice homes being abandoned by their mothers in broad daylight and sent off to summer camp and God knows what. The sweet fragility of the kids, especially the gawky boy with glasses. And the elaborate cool of the college kids in charge. The vast love of the mothers, who are on the verge of tears, watching their pups board the bus. (Do the brakes work? Who is the driver? Is he licensed? Sober? Might he be carrying a pistol? Are the wheels securely fastened to the hubs? Two days from now, will I think back to this moment and wonder, Why didn’t I go around and check the lug nuts?)

There is more drama on this corner than on the silver screen, and I see it from three angles at once: I am the geek (when I was 12, I imagined the word was meant for me personally since my initials are G.E.K.), and I was at one time the cool camp counselor with the shades and the enigmatic smile, and now I am a parent and quite familiar with trauma.

Three protagonists in the play and I am each one of them. In my geek years, I was a solemn boy with pipestem arms, wire-rim glasses and a homemade haircut, and attended summer Bible camp where we learned about the total depravity of man and then came home and picked potatoes at a nearby truck farm. I assumed I’d grow up and live alone in a tiny room over the bus depot and earn my living by walking around with a sandwich board (Eat at the Bandbox Cafe).

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Instead, I went to college, became a cool counselor and once took 18 young boys in canoes across Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota in a major thunderstorm, along with another counselor who had smoked dope that morning and basically cut his ties to earth and lay in his canoe singing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” as lightning tore the sky and we plowed across a mile of whitecaps. I yelled at the boys to steer into the storm and keep paddling no matter what. We made it to shore and pitched four tents in a downpour, and then the boy who’d been constipated all week because he couldn’t bring himself to drop his drawers and grab hold of a tree and squat, went tearing into the woods and crapped, and then was too embarrassed to come back for paper, and wiped himself with leaves, and chose the wrong ones.

Of all the leaves that God provided in the forest, these were the exact ones God didn’t intend us to use for that purpose. And of course it was the fat kid. I made him come down to the lake and wash his butt with a special soap and anoint himself with lotion. His crack was neon red. He tried to be brave, but he desperately needed his mother and I was not her. I woke up that night to hear him weeping.

I can still hear him and the trees dripping and Roger sitting by the fire exploring the frontiers of consciousness, though years have passed and I have a 12-year-old daughter, who can go through exaltation, hilarity, despair, all in the space of a minute, and when I send her off to school in the morning, I say, “Lord, have mercy. God, have mercy.” Over and over. It is a parent’s prayer.

And here they are, on one street corner, the three great strands of life — Defenselessness, Cluelessness and Helplessness — and now the innocent children are on the bus, it swings out into traffic: Oh God, no seat belts! Have mercy.

Some people believe that God has revealed himself to us and not to the others, the barbarians, and it is his will that our tribe vanquish the others and rain death and destruction on them. Others believe that our understanding of God is incomplete but that he has bestowed this beautiful world on us, and other gifts, which should be shared, and we should walk softly and praise his name. I walk softly to the café and order a large mocha and pray for the forgiveness of incompetence and for mercy to children. And thanks for the day, which happens to be perfect.

Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.