Published in modified version in the April 2016 issue of The Sun magazine.
I went to camp every summer until I was too old to be a camper, too young to be a counselor, and still too in love with the place to leave. So I got a job working in the camp kitchen.
Each evening the kitchen staff boys loaded the day’s trash into the camp director’s pickup and drove it down a sandy hillside for dumping. The truck was the largest vehicle I’d ever driven, and one humid night, I took a turn too tight and heard a wrenching metallic scrape. I jumped out to see that I’d hit the steel volleyball pole in front of the dining hall, leaving a four-foot dent on the side of the otherwise pristine truck. The repair would likely cost more than I’d earn that summer.
I fled behind the kitchen and pretended to rinse out mop buckets. In an instant, camp had ceased being a magical world with a role for everyone. It had become, in my mind, one more harsh place where a man’s worth depended on his ability to operate machinery. Back at home, my friends’ fathers drove cement trucks and garbage trucks. These weren’t prestigious jobs, but they were steady jobs that commanded respect. Men were good drivers or else not real men. I was sure the dent would become the mistake that defined my summer.
The head cook found me and told me to tell the camp director.
I arrived at his cottage door trembling. Bob was a retired schoolteacher, gray-haired, slight of frame, paint still flecked on his forearms from helping the maintenance team that day. Before I said a word, he came out to greet me. He heard my stammering account. He responded with utter kindness, a few gentle words to tell me it was okay. There was no flash of anger or irritation. He didn’t scold me before letting me off. He saw the terrified kid at his doorstep and knew what I didn’t know—that the dent didn’t matter.
I no longer remember the words he said. I will never forget the way he said them.