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By Alan Gratias


The Montréal Review, February 2012




Camp Nominingue is a residential wilderness camp in the Laurentians, four hours north of Montreal. Founded in 1925 by the Van Wagner family, and set on 400 acres on the shores of Lac Nominingue, the summer camp is based on the belief that the self-esteem of young boys grows the longer they live in tents and go on canoe trips. Families, who want to get rid of their sons for the summer, send them to Camp Nominingue. Deo and I lived under canvas for July and August for nine consecutive years, from age 7 to 16. We enjoyed our annual banishment, accumulating the maximum number of points for our Indian headdress shield of feathers. The Gratias Twins became recognized as BBIC - Big Boys in Camp. Betty and Orvald had the summers to themselves to fight,fall into stupors, disappear, call the police, and have affairs. All parties were pleased with the arrangement.

In 1962 at the age of sixteen, Deo and I became CiTs, the threshold all camp lifers aspired to. Counsellors-in-Training were like prefects at Lower Canada, the anointed who were given just enough power to tempt and corrupt. Deo couldn't wait to deploy his new swagger. He wanted to up the ante in the 'equality of twins' stakes and his CIT status gave him enough stature to pull off what he had in mind.

In a blast of pubescent pseudo confidence, the newly minted CiT twins fancied themselves as hunky and irresistible, at least to the one new nurse on the Nomininigue staff. Two inches taller and, overdeveloped in the shoulder and arms because of his regime of two hundred push-ups a day, D caught the early attention of Eve Lamarche. Petite and perky from the town of Maniwaki down the line, if Eva hadn't gone into nursing, she could have been a stand in for Natalie Wood. How could she not have noticed DAG with his constant stream of sick bay calls. Deo conjured up more cases of poison ivy, homesickness, and scrapped knees by campers in his section than had ever been seen in the first week of camp. But he had more than flirtation on his mind.

A week before our departure for the crowning summer of our Nonimingue years, I had developed an alarming medical condition. While not life threatening, it was manhood intimidating. For a lad on the verge of adulthood with its attendant insecurities and vanities, my inflated testicle was an abysmal embarrassment. Hydrocele testis is the medical nomenclature for water leaking into the gonads, in my case the right gonad. Clear fluid accumulates in the internal membrane containing a testicle. A primary hydrocele causes an enlargement of the scrotum on the affected side. At first I thought my CiT might be in jeopardy but Dr. Geddes assured me that the only danger was that the water saturated ball might continue to enlarge over the summer. At some point I would need to have my right testicle drained.

On June 29, 1962 Deo and I clambered aboard Canadain Pacific train 43 for the three hour journey north to Maniwaki. As CITs we arrived a week before the campers to set up the tents and oversee the cleaning and repairing of dozens of canvas covered canoes. Bugs, birch bark trees and outdoor living were the essence of the Nomininigue adventure under the guise of living in balance and harmony with nature. D took a brotherly interest in my condition, querying me daily about its dimensions, weight and changing shape. Occasionally he would produce a lab calibrator to measure the actual size of my right gonad. The principal cause of hydrocele testis is believed to be some sort of strain, but D thought it more interesting to speculate on sexual excesses.

"You haven't been fooling around with Lorette?" he asked, knowing damn well that I had been briefed about his regularly visits to our cook's bedroom at 235 Chester.

In early July my hydrocellec testicle was about the size of a small fist, slightly elongated and smooth. I could easily camouflage the misshapen package in my briefs. Over the course of the summer as water continued to leak into the teste, I had to change from a jockey style to a looser fit of underwear. At night Deo would come over to my cot with a flashlight to shine through the fluid. The hydrocele is translucent, and when a bright light is placed under it, the entire swelling lights up, casting an image of a home grown aquarium on the white canvas tent above us. As long as I was able to keep the secret to myself, my summer could unfold as the idyllic last chapter I had anticipated.

"If you breathe a word of this, we are finished as twins," I vowed to him each time he came for an inspection. To seal the promise, I made Deo execute the Geoff Merrill grip, the long serving Camp Director's signature ten second clasp of the genitalia.

One of rituals Camp Nominingue followed, many inspired by native Indian practice, was the Friday afternoon wash-up. Akin to a collective cleansing, the entire camp gathered on the beach at four o'clock 'sans costume'. On the sound of the gong, everyone dropped towels and walked into the water for a vigorous nude soap up. While it was intended as a male bonding activity, wash-up allowed the younger boys to admire those parts of the male physiology they longed for. Male camaraderie is never more powerful than when 220 boys, fifteen CITs and twenty three counsellors share a common experience, a sighting so unique that is remains seared in memory.

The final wash-up of the summer in the last week of camp was of symbolic significance because we were joined by the Van Wagner clan, the owners and animus behind our indulgence in outdoor life, father and son, starkers like the rest of us. By this stage, the last week of August, my hyrocele had grown almost to the size of a football. Deo as the coach in my corner, gave me good counsel. Come to the wash-up at 5 o'clock, he advised, when everyone was sudsy and swimming about, and slip into the water unnoticed.

"I'll find you a wheelbarrow," he teased, "to carry your testicle on the bumpy walk to the lake.

Instead of the escalating chatter of boys in the surf, there was an eerie silence in the dunes as I approached. I acted non chalant as I could feign with a ten pound testicle in a wheelbarrow, striding down the beach with a small blanket cinched at my waist. Large hydroceles, and mine was more in the jumbo category, cause great discomfort. They throw you off balance and I could not help but limp to the right. I should have known that Deo had leaked my secret. There was a universal shift of eyes as I dropped my cover. A collective gasp, then the mummer of lads in awe at what they had seen.

A month later Dr. Geddes dispatched me to the Montreal General Hospital to have my manhood drained in an procedure called a hydrocelectomy. The night before the surgery, I was scheduled to have my public hair shaved. Deo was sitting with me when the nurse came to clean the theatre of operation. I am sure Eve Lamarche was not normally assigned to the urology ward, but with her zealous handling of the preparatory gel, nature took over. She must have expected the erection so prepared was she with the hard clap of two gloved hands.

"You won't be needing that," she assured me, flicking an eyebrow towards D.

Gossip is inherently truth bending, greased as it is by exaggeration. Not long ago the story was told to me by a staff member present that August afternoon in 1962. John Blatchford, known as Tumpline Jack because he was always recruiting lads for his never ending canoe trips to LaVerendrye Park, demonstrated how wilderness myths develop a life of their own. Over martinis in his Tudor townhouse, he recounted the story of a camper, all names long since forgotten, with a gonad the size of a watermelon who created the only tsunami Lac Nomininique has ever known. According to legend, the wave knocked down the oldest totem pole in the Council Ring on the hill above the Dining Room.

"The carved image of Wakonda," he asserted, "was knocked under the Big Chief's chair."

We clinked glasses, years after the event, and together, Tumpline Jack and the tsunami perpetrator recited the camp creed.

"Rise free from care before the dawn and seek adventures. Let the noon find you by other lakes and the night overtake thee everywhere at home."



Alan Gratias is the founder and creative director of Gravitatis Entertainment and former agriculture trade negotiator in Ottawa.  He has published a book, The Completely Civil Servant (Eden Press), a satire on public service.



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