I first heard about the concentration camps on a gorgeous summer evening—the final day of June, 1946—in upstate New York, while I was playing in a softball game, and Murray Greenburg, a guy in my bunk, whispered to me that the reason our counselor Don Silverstein was so thin was because he’d been captured in one of the camps during the War.
On the train ride from the city earlier that day I’d learned that Don was in the Brooklyn Dodger farm system before the War and that after a lot of their regulars were drafted, and before he himself was inducted and sent to the South Pacific, he’d been called up and had actually played in three games for the Dodgers at the end of the 1942 season. According to different stories I listened to, Don had fought at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Mindanao, and Bataan, had been captured by the Japanese, transferred to the Nazis, and tortured for two-and-a-half years in a special death camp for Jews. Before his capture, though, he’d single-handedly saved a platoon of his buddies—they’d been ambushed—by hurling grenade after grenade into a circle of Japanese machine gun nests. When the Allies won the war and liberated his camp, Don had weighed 74 pounds.
Now he was my counselor, and when he stood next to me and ruffled my hair and told me I was a terrific little ballplayer—that we were some keystone combination, as good as Eddie Stanky and Pee Wee Reese—I felt as if I were the happiest boy in the world.
I was eight-and-a-half years old that summer, and whenever I was near Don and he touched me or praised me the way he did that first night, my heart would slam so hard inside my chest I was sure it would burst through my rib cage and fly away. When I looked at him during those times he wasn’t looking at me, though, my heart would slow down and all the noise would slip from it, because instead of picturing him in either his baseball or soldier’s uniform, I’d imagine him lying on a bed in an Army hospital, under clean sheets, with only his dark, unshaven face showing. He’d be fast asleep, but with a steady parade of ballplayers passing through his dreams—guys who’d played in the Majors during the War because their injuries kept them out of the Service, all of them telling him that he was going to make it too: Pete Gray, who played for the St. Louis Browns when they won the pennant in 1944 even though he had only one arm; and Bert Shepard, who was shot down over Germany and had his leg amputated but got to pitch for the Washington Senators; and Dick Sipek, who fell down a flight of stairs when he was five and went deaf but played the outfield for the Cincinnati Reds in 1945.
I saw them walking through Don’s dreams and waving good luck to him—not only guys like Gray and Sipek and Shepard, but guys without disabilities who fought in the War: Billy Southworth, Jr., son of the Cardinals’ manager, who won a Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting his Flying Fortress on 25 bombing missions in Europe—only to be killed when he overshot LaGuardia Field during an emergency landing; Cecil Travis, of the Senators, who got frozen feet at the Battle of the Bulge; Lou Brissie, who had both feet broken and wounds in his hands and shoulders from shell fragments during heavy fighting in Italy; and Phil Marchildon of the Athletics, who was one of two survivors when his bomber was shot down while laying mines off the coast of Denmark, and who spent a year in a Nazi prisoner of war camp where he lost almost as much weight as Don did.
I saw these guys and every other dead and injured ballplayer I’d ever read about, and every time I did, I’d want to do what I wanted to do that first night when Murray whispered the news to me: I wanted to protest with all my heart against what he was saying—to tell him that Don would gain back the weight he needed, that if you wanted something badly enough and worked for it with all your might, you could always get it—but I was afraid that if I said anything, Murray and the other guys would make fun of me.
I was the only new boy in my bunk that summer, and in the train, while the other guys talked and laughed and argued about things—baseball and their schools and the wild things they’d done the summer before—I kept quiet. All the way from Grand Central Station to Albany, where we filed out and jammed ourselves into busses that took us the remaining 25 miles to camp, I stayed silent. Even when they argued about baseball players, I said nothing because I was afraid that if I said one wrong thing—if I said, for example, that I thought Eddie Stevens was a better first baseman than Howie Schultz even though Schultz was taller, so tall he’d been declared 4F during the War—they’d look at me in a way that would make me feel even more left out than I already did.
Yet I sensed even then that it was precisely because I was so quiet all day long that Don picked me out that first night, and chose me to be on his team.
We’d eaten supper in the mess hall and near the end of the meal my mother, who was camp nurse, came to our table and asked me to introduce her to my counselor and my new friends. When she was gone, Shimmy Kwestel mocked her in a sing-song voice—”Don’t forget to wear your sweater, darlings”—and before he even finished, Don reached across and grabbed him by the shirt, nearly dragging him through the serving dishes of spaghetti and meatballs, warning him that he never wanted to hear him talk like that about me or my mother again. Was that clear?
So that after supper when lots of us got our gloves and went down to the baseball field, I hung back in the crowd, and when everybody yelled that Don should choose up sides with Jonah Helfant, since they were the two best ballplayers in camp, and when they twirled the bat around and Don won and looked around and, having his pick of anybody he wanted, older guys and counselors, he reached through a few taller guys and tapped me, saying “I’ll take the kid here,” my heart nearly bounced out of my chest.
More than 40 years have passed since then, and though I can recall every physical detail of that evening—what we had for supper, and which guys were on which teams, and what the baseball field looked like, and which campers and counselors stood along the sidelines, and what happened pitch by pitch and inning by inning—most of all I remember how wonderful it felt simply to be out there on the diamond, to the left of second base, with Don on the other side of second at shortstop. And I remember how, when Don stopped talking—which happened whenever the game wasn’t in motion—a dark look came into his eyes and made me wish that some day I’d be able to do something to make him as happy as he’d already made me.
That’s what I remember most about what I felt all summer long: that I wanted to bring light back into his eyes and his life—that I wanted, more dearly than anything in the world, to be able to please him so much that he’d smile at me in a way that made me know he’d forgotten his own pain and memories, and for a while, that first evening of camp, I succeeded.
In the bottom of the second inning, with men on first and third and one out, a ball was hit into the hole between first and second—a low shot that skimmed off the grass the way scaling rocks skim off the surface of a lake—and the instant the ball touched the bat I was moving full speed along the basepath and then launching my body into the air, skidding on my stomach and stretching my gloved hand way out toward the spot where I hoped the ball would be, and then— a miracle—somehow it was there, cracking like a rocket into the webbing of my glove. I got to one knee and threw to second base, where Don took the ball in stride, touched the corner of the bag lightly as he passed over it, and fired the ball to first for the double play.
“Way to go, Joey. Way to go, kid—!” he said, pounding me on the back as we ran to the sidelines for our turn at bat. He stayed next to me and started talking fast, as if he’d decided to give me everything he knew about baseball in one long breath, and I stood there listening and nodding, aware that everybody was staring at me in amazement—at all 53 inches and 82 pounds of me—and thinking to myself: Holy mackerel—I did it! And then: but how did I do it? How had I covered so much ground and air with such speed? I couldn’t remember thinking. All I could remember was that the instant before the bat met the ball, I’d begun moving.
“The main thing,” Don said, “is to say to yourself before every pitch: if the ball is hit to me, what’ll I do? Be ready. Always be ready, Joey. Be ready for what you think’s gonna happen and be ready for anything else—for something to happen you didn’t count on. If the ball is hit to me, what’ll I do. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
“You got good instincts with the glove—I see that. Only I seen it before in players. Talent to burn, but without drive. Gets you nowhere fast. Death, Joey. It’s death that way. So you play the ball, don’t let it play you—the way you just done—got it?”
“Got it,” I said again, and he talked some more, about what to do with runners on first and third, and what to do with no force on, with a runner just on third, or on second and third, and on and on until suddenly he stopped, as if noticing me for the first time. “Hey—are you okay? Let me see—” And before I could stop him he was unbuttoning my shirt, brushing off the dirt and seeing below to where the blood showed in a diagonal across my chest, like a sash made of dull red tire tracks, and telling me that even though the scrape was superficial, with dirt in there it could get infected, so that after the game I should head down to the infirmary and get the nurse to clean it out.
“My mother,” I reminded him. “She’s the nurse.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Well. You can’t have all the luck, can you, kid? Lucky in sports, unlucky in love.” He stopped. “Got it?” he said.
“Got it,” I said, even though I didn’t.
“Who knows?” he said then, and when I looked at his eyes I thought of storm clouds moving across the night sky, their fumes seeping into the moon so that it disappeared. “Yeah. Who knows about stuff like that?”
After the game, Don walked me to the infirmary, and while my mother cleaned out my cuts and put on medicine and a dressing, she talked to Don about how happy she was to get the two of us out of the heat and stink of the city. Usually I felt ashamed when she went into her routine about how she had to work as Camp Nurse, but this time I didn’t. I wanted Don to know my father didn’t do well in business, so that my mother was forced to work—double cases and double shifts some times, and all summer long at camp.
“You must have a secret for calming my little madman down,” she said. “Usually he hides things like this—he hates for me ever to touch him. Most of the time, if he was about to die, he wouldn’t let me near him.”
She laughed and lit up a cigarette, then buttoned my shirt, and led the way to the front porch. She blew smoke rings toward the sky. In the distance, with the sun gone, the lake looked like an oval of slick black ice. “You’re the one we’re going to have to work on from now on, though, mister,” she said, and she snatched at Don’s wrist so fast that even with his reflexes he couldn’t escape her. “I mean, feel this wrist, would you? How come you don’t have any meat on you, a handsome fella like yourself? What’s some lucky young woman gonna grab onto?”
“Mom!” I said. “Don’t—!”
“No comments from the peanut gallery.” She waved me off and reached up past Don’s elbow, to his biceps. “Well, you got strength in there among the bones, only we have to make sure there’s fuel too. After all, like I say to Mel—that’s the boy’s father—the war’s over, right? So if the war’s over, rationing’s over, too. Throw away your gas coupons and your meat coupons, is what I say—it’s time to live a little!”
Then she started in about how she couldn’t wait for her first day off and the meal she’d treat herself to. Did Don like horse races? If he could arrange it, he should get the same day off she did—that way they could drive to the Saratoga Springs track together, less than 50 miles away. She went on and on while Don stood there, hunched over, until finally I pointed up the hill, to where the campers were heading toward the social hall for the evening activity. My mother winked at me and warned Don not to think that just because he was so thin he was any Frank Sinatra.
“I mean, when they sent his picture over to Europe, to the DP camps, you know what they did? They sent us back a CARE package.” She lit up another cigarette. “Yeah. Ashes to ashes, right? So get going if you’re going,” she said. “And Joey?”
“Don’t forget to have a good time.”
What I couldn’t figure out with Don was where all the food he ate went. My mother kept after him at every meal and made him weigh in at the Infirmary three times a week. She saw to it that they had the same day off together and took him with her to restaurants she described to me afterwards in detail, with prices—New England Inns where they served the kind of food we never got to eat at home because we were kosher: pork chops or chicken or seafood smothered in cream sauces or milk gravy; salad bars where you could go back again and again to get dozens of different relishes and homemade breads and muffins and marinated vegetables; places where you could have enormous brunches with all the eggs and hash and pancakes and waffles and French toast and ham and sausage and bacon and home fries you wanted; and diners where tough truck drivers hung out and they had All-You-Can-Eat deals for fried chicken or fried fish or barbequed spare ribs.
At regular camp meals, Don went at the food the way he went at ground balls: ferociously. He ate seconds and thirds of just about everything—steaks and chicken and hamburgers and mashed potatoes and corn and vegetables and noodle casseroles, and he got our waiter to bring him two glasses of buttermilk at each meal. No matter how much he consumed, though, he gained no weight. It was as if the food vaporized somewhere between his mouth and his stomach, and as he chewed, I’d watch his Adam’s apple slide up and down, and stare with all my might, hoping that my concentration could somehow force the food to stick to him.
Then at breakfast one morning in early August, a week before Parents Day, I noticed a change—that for the first time all summer he wasn’t charging into his food as if there would never be enough of it. And during infield practice after breakfast—he put us through a 15-minute workout each morning once we got our bunk ready for inspection—instead of yelling at us like a drill sergeant, he told us what a great bunch of guys we were and how we’d probably all make the Majors some day.
We were mystified. At meals he was relaxed for the first time all summer—as if a different person were inhabiting his body—and just started in telling us the story of how he and my mother had pooled their money and come out ahead at the race track the week before, and asking the guys questions about their parents, about the businesses their fathers were in and what their mothers did.
The morning after, when the bugle sounded for “Reveille,” I watched him working out at the far end of the bunk. He did 125 sit-ups and 80 push-ups every day. He was back from his usual five-mile run and his T-shirt was sticking to his body from sweat the way it always did. He changed clothes when we were away from the bunk, and he never went swimming, so nobody in camp, not even my mother as far as I knew—for listening to his heart and lungs—had ever seen him with his shirt off. But now, staring at his chest and shoulders and upper arms showing through his wet shirt, I was certain they were larger.
After supper that night, instead of coming down to the ballfield for our usual pick-up game, he said I’d have to find a new double-play partner, that it would be good for me to see how I did without him. When the head counselor announced over the P.A. System that it was time for the evening activity—our favorite: a full-length movie in the social hall— we put on our sweaters and got our flashlights and waited on the porch. The guys started complaining we’d miss the show—the other bunks were heading down the hill and Don hadn’t returned yet—when I spotted him standing about a hundred yards away, on the road that divided the boys’ bunks from the girls’ bunks, next to the flagpole where we lined up every morning before breakfast—for raising the flag, and for my mother to go around and look in people’s throats. He was talking, with great intensity, to one of the girl counselors.
Her name was Linda Hausman and she was very beautiful—with large bluish-green eyes and long honey-blond hair with streaks in it that were almost white. She was probably 17 or 18 years old that summer, an assistant to the waterfront director, and a junior counselor for Bunk 11, which had girls of nine and ten years old in it. For the rest of that week, while we prepared for Parents Day—finishing up special projects in Arts and Crafts, practicing skits for Bunk Night, getting ready for the different athletic contests—whenever Don didn’t have to be with us, or at the ballfield coaching, he was with Linda.
He not only started putting on weight, but he began talking with me about how by this time next year he hoped to be somewhere else: if not at Ebbets Field with the Dodgers, then maybe at one of their good Triple-A farm clubs like Montreal or St. Paul. Whereas before I’d been afraid to ask him about his past or his future, now he kidded around with me about how by the time he retired from the Dodgers and became a coach or manager, I’d just be making my way up through the farm system. Wouldn’t that be something—if someday, when his playing days were over, I’d be in the Majors, the two of us doing just what we were doing now, except in the big time. “I’d like that a lot, Joey,” he said.
Everybody in camp noticed what was going on and when the girls’ bunks would call over in unison—”Paging Don Silverstein . . . Paging Don Silverstein . . .” and then, when they got the dining hall quiet, would sing the song named “Linda” to him—he didn’t seem to mind or even to blush. He just smiled at Linda and let the words wash over him.
After evening activities that week, he and Linda would linger behind the rest of us, holding hands, and when they did, I thought I could feel everything Don felt—how wonderful it must have been to care for somebody young and beautiful and to have that person care back for you. I’d lie in my bed after “Taps” and try to imagine the soft ways they’d touch and kiss, and all the things they might say to one another, and how she would tell him everything I yearned to tell him—how she could, with her love, give him back the confidence to believe in himself, to keep working hard so that he could still—again!—have the thing he loved most in the world and thought he had lost.
He might never fully get back the sheer physical strength he’d once had, but he could compensate with drive and hustle and—most of all—with knowledge. Nobody in the world, I believed then, not even Leo Durocher, the Dodger manager, knew more about baseball than Don. Power isn’t everything anyway, Don, I imagined her saying. It’s being able to hit the ball where it’s pitched—it’s mental toughness—it’s not how much you weigh, but the speed and snap of your wrists when you connect with the ball—it’s in concentration and follow-through—it’s in saying to yourself before every pitch: if the ball is hit to me, what’ll I do. . . .
I imagined them sitting on a blanket down by the lake, the moon sending a long pathway of light right up to their feet, her resting her head on his shoulder and the two of them talking about all the years to come—about what it would be like for her alone in an apartment in Brooklyn while he was on road trips with the team—and I imagined how gentle and full of light his eyes would get when he told her that, in his life, she had made the difference.
I got to play second base on the camper-waiter team that went against the counselors on Parents Day, and I was thrilled, not just because Don selected me, but because nobody objected. I was the only guy on the field under ten years old, a good 6 inches shorter than anyone else. My father was up from New York for the weekend, and when I led off the game with a line-drive single over Don’s head into left field and everybody cheered, I felt as high as the center field flagpole at Ebbets Field.
The counselors beat us 8 to 7, and after the game I saw Don with Linda, her introducing him to a man and woman I assumed were her parents. Then I saw another man standing nearby and Don took his hand and brought him to Linda. Despite the fact that it was a broiling August day, the man wore a dark black double-breasted suit and a black hat. He was unshaven and there was something wrong with the way he held his head to the side—as if he wanted to lean it on his own shoulder, as if he was afraid his head was too heavy for his body and might fall off. The man’s arm stayed bent at the elbow, as if carved from wood, and he never seemed to open his eyes. I kept imagining that his eyes were somehow unshaven too, flecked with hundreds of miniscule black dots, like hairs that were starting to grow through.
My father said my mother was waiting, that we didn’t have much time—his bus was leaving for the train station in 30 minutes. I told him what Don said about me making the Dodgers some day and him being my coach. I thought that bringing in the fact that Jake Pitler, one of the Dodger coaches, was Jewish, would make my father happy, but he just snapped at me that he didn’t have time to talk about nonsense when my mother was waiting. Then, at the infirmary, my father told me to leave her alone because this was when she had to make her tips. My mother smiled brightly at all the parents—she looked beautiful in her nurse’s uniform, her white starched cap on her head like a tiara—and she gave everybody the news they wanted and thanked them, even kissed some of them, for the envelopes and money they handed her.
When my father pointed to his watch, my mother excused herself and took us into a back room they used for kids with contagious diseases. There was nothing in the room except an iron bed witii a pinstriped mattress on it. I tried to talk about Don again—to ask my mother if the man who visited him was Don’s father, but my mother and father didn’t have time for anything except to argue with each other about whether or not he’d told her he had to leave early. When my mother tried to kiss him goodby, he pushed her away and had a sour expression on his mouth that made me want to blast him with a baseball bat. And when my mother reacted by nagging him the way she always did, about how she’d like to be one of the women who could go on a real vacation to visit her son in a camp, and why was he such a nothing—”You’re a nothing, Mel, and that’s all there is to it,” she said. “It’s the one thing you’re good at: nothing!”-—I wanted to whack her also.
But what I wanted to do and what I did were two different things. What I did was to wait until they took a break from fighting, and then, very quickly, I said the words I was thinking: “Why don’t you both just shut up.”
My father slapped me across the cheek—I was stunned by his speed and force—and when my mother bent over and tried to kiss me, yelling at my father that he was a bully too, I got away from her fast. “I hope you both drop dead!” I shouted, and I ran from the room, shoving my way through the campers and parents out on the porch, and headed for the woods behind the baseball field, where I knew nobody could find me.
After the parents were gone and camp went back to normal, I threw myself into activities—baseball, basketball, volleyball, tennis, swimming, pingpong—whatever there was—like the madman my mother said I was. I got into four fights in the next day, all with older guys, but I didn’t care, and when Don took me aside after I’d roughed somebody up by barreling into home plate, I shrugged him off too, telling him to leave me alone, to go take another walk in the woods with his girlfriend.
He grabbed me by the shoulder then, pinching hard, and marched me straight down to the Infirmary and handed me over to my mother, saying he wanted to know what the hell had gotten into me since Sunday. My mother sighed, told me to stay put or else, and then she motioned to Don to go for a walk with her. That burned me even more, because I didn’t want him knowing about how my parents didn’t really love one another, how it was such a relief for them to be apart in the summer.
But sitting alone on the infirmary porch, I was scared mostly—scared that my mother might begin acting cold to me the way she did to my father, and scared that knowing about my mother and father might make Don afraid of being in love with Linda, so that he’d fall back into his silence and start losing weight again. I tried to imagine Don joking with Linda about how he’d lost his appetite all right, the way you were supposed to when you fell in love, but that something was wrong—that was the surprise and the miracle, he said— because instead of losing weight the way people in love usually did, he was gaining weight. When I pictured Linda reacting to him, though, from the puzzled expression on her face I could see that Don’s joke had fallen flat.
“You really love Don a lot, don’t you,” my mother said when she returned.
“I don’t mean love like with men and women—the mushy stuff you hate in the movies—but something else. . . .”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have to get back to my bunk for General Swim.”
“Your father means well,” my mother said then. “He called last night—I meant to tell you before—to say he was sorry and that next time he visits he wants to hear all about Don. He said you played a terrific game. Your father’s very proud of you, you know, only he doesn’t know how to show it sometimes.”
“He can do what he wants.”
“He was almost a lawyer, did you know that? When I met him he was scheduled to go to Brooklyn Law School like his brother Hymie. Your father was some smart man once upon a time.” She laughed and flicked ashes onto the grass. “We had lots of swell times, Joey. He was the first guy I ever went out with who won every argument we had. Oh yeah, when it came to arguing, your father was the champ—the best.” She laughed again, but to herself this time. “Maybe he still is, in a way. Only what happened was his mother died two days before classes started, and when the week of Shiva was over, he just never went down to register. He never said why either. Who can figure it? It’s 16 years and mum’s still the word. At the time, he offered to let me out of our engagement without having to give back the ring, but the day after our wedding I moved in to help him take care of his father and his two younger brothers. Sure. With my eyes wide open I was dreaming, like always.” She looked at me in a way that made me feel she wanted me to know everything she was feeling. “Oh we had some terrific times after that, me and him—he always knew how to tell a joke, your father—so what I’m trying to say to you is you don’t have to worry about him and me ever splitting up. He loves me too much for that, see, and—”
“Don will be angry if I’m late for swim, He’ll make everybody wait for me and then the guys will hate me more than they already do.”
“Shush. I’m telling you something, so listen for once in your life.”
“I always listen,” I said.
“Sure you do, Joey. Maybe that’s your trouble.” She sighed. “You just be careful, okay? That’s all I mean to say. I think it’s good you look up to somebody like Don for a friend. But be careful he don’t break your heart.”
“I don’t care what you say,” I said. “You can’t make me stay.”
I started down the steps, her voice following me: “You’re a very strong boy, Joey, and where you get your strength from, God only knows, only nobody I ever met got the strength to stop a broken heart, you know what I mean? So you remember that.”
By the time I changed into my bathing suit and walked down to the waterfront, General Swim was almost over. Everybody was too busy diving and splashing around and dunking one another to notice me. One of the waterfront counselors told me I was buddies with Number 27—Murray and Alan—that they were out by the raft in the Deep Area. I dove in and swam out just as the whistle went off. When we were done counting off, I did a surface dive to the bottom of the lake, grabbed some mud in my fists, and then swam back up and under the raft, I decided to stay there for as long as I felt like.
There was an air pocket about a foot high, and a faint smell of gasoline—from the huge barrels that held the raft up. Above me I heard the guys shouting and screaming and I wondered what they’d feel if I stayed where I was until General Swim was over—if they’d miss me when they went back up to change into clothes for supper. The air under the raft was usually thick and heavy from the heat trapped there, but for some reason, even though the sun had been shining down on it all day long, it seemed light and cool to me this time.
The next thing I remember is that everything was totally still and I was having a hard time breathing. I felt as if somebody had clamped enormous hands around my chest and squeezed all the air out of it, the way you squeezed air out of a football bladder before inflating it. I was holding onto one of the barrels so tight I’d scraped rust under my fingernails. Still, I couldn’t figure out how I could have fallen asleep while my body was standing up in the water, and I also couldn’t figure out how things had become so quiet without me noticing the difference. The sunlight filtered down through the slats of wood and made lines across my forearm, the way light did through Venetian blinds at home. The bright yellow rays moved through the water as if through a thick window, but catching all the pale green and brown specks of dust that were in its way.
I ducked my head down and swam underwater for a few feet and then rose to the surface. The swimming area was totally deserted: no campers, no counselors. All the rowboats and canoes were tied up at the side of the docks, and the boathouse was locked. The sun was still high in the sky, and nobody was searching for me, so I figured it must not have been supper time yet. I lay on my back, took in some water and sprayed it out in a high arcing stream. I had the whole lake to myself! I closed my eyes and saw sunspots on the insides of my eyelids—like bursts of anti-aircraft flak—and I pictured my mother getting the news that I was missing from General Swim. I saw her running toward the lake, one hand holding down her nurse’s cap, and she was screaming my name, only no sound came from her mouth. Everything was totally still—as quiet as my house after school, with my father and mother both at work, and me sitting in my room, reading or doing my homework or oiling my baseball glove, with nobody in the world to ask me what I was doing or why.
I spread my arms and legs out as far as I could so that there was an imaginary circle around me that was perfectly round, and I thought of a picture I’d seen in the Dodger Yearbook of Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reiser and their wives horsing around in a swimming pool during spring training at Vero Beach, Florida. I began going through a game in my mind too, batter by batter, me and Don and the rest of the Dodgers against the Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series, Hal Gregg on the mound for us and Spud Chandler pitching for them.
I heard a splashing sound, and then another, and I saw that two people were racing from the shore towards me, their arms and legs churning the water into pale blue foam, and I realized that the instant before I heard the splashing, I’d also heard them laughing. I took a deep breath, slipped under the surface, and came up below the raft.
I recognized the girl’s voice at once—it was Linda—but I couldn’t tell who the man was. As the two of them hoisted themselves up, the raft wobbled, and I heard him ask her what his penalty was for losing. Then the raft shook some more and they were in the water again. I let go of the barrel I was holding onto and began swimming underwater. The sunlight lit up the lake so that I could see almost all the way to where the boats were lined up. A school of minnows headed towards me, then reversed direction and disappeared. I saw Linda swimming underwater too, gliding in slow motion. She was wearing her black one-piece lifeguard’s bathing suit and her gold and white hair streamed out behind her gorgeously, as if there were thin strands of tinsel in it. She was doing the breast stroke, using her long legs in powerful frog kicks, her hands stuck straight and fast to her sides, a steady stream of tiny bubbles rising from her mouth.
The other swimmer was Jonah Helfant, the waterfront director, and he swam towards Linda with an identical stroke—propelling himself along with frog kicks, and with a huge grin on his face but no bubbles coming from his mouth. When they were only about a yard apart they kind of pivoted, as if they were lying on an invisible platform that was rotating slowly at a slight, tilted angle, and then they moved forward some more, stopped kicking, and, without moving their arms or hands or legs, they kissed—and while they kissed, their lips pressed to one another’s as if they wanted to keep them there forever, they kept turning slowly in their slanted circle.
I dove down deeper, reversed my direction, and when I came up for air, underneath the raft again, I was gasping so hard from having held my breath, I was sure they’d discover me. By the time I took a chance to come back out from under the raft, though, they were gone—way out in the middle of the lake on their backs, gliding side by side in long easy strokes that made two clean white cuts in the water’s surface.
Don was furious with me, but when he asked why I’d hidden in the lake, I didn’t answer. He asked if I knew how worried and scared I could have made my mother. He asked if I knew how dangerous it was to be in the lake alone and he asked lots of other things, but I resisted everything he tried. I knew exactly what I was going to do.
He docked me from evening activity—a campfire where Uncle Irv, the head counselor, told ghost stories—and when he and the guys came back at nine o’clock, talking about how great it all was, I pretended to be asleep. At 11:15, when Don came in to go to bed, I was still up. I forced myself to stay awake by going over baseball lineups in my head, one team after the other, from first base to second to short to third, to left field to center to right to catcher to pitcher. After I’d gone through all 16 teams I began making lists of players who’d been in the service and had come back, beginning with big stars like Bob Feller and Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg and Howie Pollet and Ewell Blackwell and Johnny Schmitz, and then going on to less famous guys who’d survived, like Ed Head and Bob Klinger and Gene Hermanski and Lonny Frey and Don Kolloway. When I got to number 196 I stopped. It was ten minutes after midnight. From the raspy way he was breathing, as if his lungs were lined with sandpaper, I could tell Don was asleep.
I got out of bed, went into the bathroom, and dressed. I took my flashlight, put on a sweater and my baseball cap, and then tiptoed to Don’s bed, reached up to the shelf of personal stuff he kept above him, just under the window, took his Army knife, and stuck it into my belt. I went out onto the porch, where I sat on the steps and put my sneakers on. My heart was beating normally. I was ready.
I walked towards the girls camp, and it felt wonderful to be all alone out there, in the middle of the night, with everybody else fast asleep. The stars were shining so brightly that even though there was hardly any moon, I didn’t need to use my flashlight. I headed straight for Bunk 11, my hand gripping the smooth metal handle of Don’s knife.
The door squeaked. I waited. None of the girls stirred. I moved the beam of my flashlight around the room, low, and found Linda where I thought she’d be, by the door. She was sleeping on her side, one pillow under her head and another pillow in her arms. Her mouth was open and her hair was away from her face so that the starlight, from the window above her bed, shone like silver on her throat.
I stood by the side of her bed for a few seconds, reminding myself of all Don had gone through during the war, and then I touched Linda’s neck lightly with the point of the knife, as if I were poking it into the skin of a fish.
“Don’t make a move or say anything or you’re dead,” I said.
She smiled at me and stretched her arms out. “Hi Joey,” she said back, and there was no fear at all in her voice. She hugged her pillow and flopped onto her stomach.
“I mean business,” I whispered. “Get up now. We have to talk.”
She rubbed her eyes and smiled again, but I wasn’t fooled. I flashed the knife at her, right toward her eyes. “I’m serious,” I said. “Move it.”
“What the hell—?” She sat up. “Hey—get out of here with that—!”
“Be quiet and do as I say and you won’t be harmed,” I said, and then: “I was there. I saw you today in the lake—what you did underwater with him. I was there.”
“What are you—crazy or something?” Her eyes flared with anger. She swung at me, to knock the knife away, and I saw a ribbon of red, like silk, unfurl from the side of her hand.
“This is Don’s knife, from the Army, and it’s very sharp. I’ll make you listen if I have to. Do you hear me?”
She sat there, her hand on her pillow, the blood dripping and spreading. “Jesus,” she said. “My hand.”
“I saw you today in the lake,” I said again. “I was there. I saw what you did underwater with him.”
She reached to the side of her bed and took a polo shirt out from a bundle of clothes next to the wall, wrapped it around her hand, pulled the knot tight with her teeth.
“If you don’t move, I’ll—”
“You’ll what, big shot?” She lifted her hand above her shoulder, to slow down the bleeding, then mimicked me: “I-saw-you-there. I-saw-you-there-with-him. So what? It’s a free country, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to have to do this,” I said.
“Then don’t.” She laughed. “You’re probably a coward just like him. The way he hides behind his famous wounds, waiting for the world to wave a magic wand. The two of you deserve each other. Baseball baseball baseball. Joey Joey Joey. It’s all I ever hear and it makes me sick already, so you get out of here fast, you little pipsqueak, or I’ll wake the whole camp and tell your mother too.”
Then I said the words I’d been saving: “You have to love him and not another.” The smile went out of her face and I kept talking, pressing the words out of my memory and into the air. “That’s the only hope. You can’t kill him again. It’s not fair. You have to love him!”
She stopped staring at me, unwrapped her polo shirt, lifted her hand to her mouth, and sucked the blood. “Shit. I’ll probably have to get your mother to look at this in the morning. Maybe she’ll give me a note so I can get out of waterfront duty for a few days. Maybe me and whoever will go on a day off together while Don’s stuck here with you. How would you like that?” I could hardly breathe. She smiled, as if daring me to go against her. “I have to love him? That’s a new one. It really is. Wait till Jonah hears that. I mean, I bet Don’s a great counselor to you little boys, but what a drip, the way he moons around all the time, always asking me What-can-I-do-to-make-you-happy? What-can-I-do-to-make-you-happy? so I’m sick to death of it already.”
She laughed then and when she did I felt my heart explode up through my lungs, spraying blood everywhere. “Don’t you make fun of him, do you hear?” I screamed and I lifted Don’s knife and plunged it down towards her mouth, to wipe out her smile.
Behind me the girl campers were all screaming. Feathers started to float up into the room, and for a second it was as if the world had turned upside down, the feathers moving in slow motion, as if rising in water, and me dizzy and sinking into an endless white sky, Linda was out of her bed, backed up against the door.
I turned in a circle and crouched down. “I mean what I say,” I said. “I warned you. I gave you your chance.”
“This isn’t happening,” she said to me then, and she said it very softly. “Tell me this isn’t happening, Joey, okay? Tell me we’re dreaming, yeah?”
The other counselor, Marcia Cohen, came towards me but I flashed my knife at her and she backed off.
Linda sighed. “Okay. Everybody back to sleep,” she said. “Everybody back to sleep and fast or you’ll lose your canteen privileges for the rest of the week.”
She kicked the door open. “Come on, you—”
I followed her onto the porch. “So what do you want me to do?” she asked.
“I told you before. You have to love him—why don’t you just love him so that everything will stop being wrong?” I was shivering so badly I could hardly get the words out. I stared at the olive green handle of the knife and imagined green paint being baked onto metal in a war factory: onto pistols and machine guns and bazookas and compasses and field glasses and jeeps and airplanes and tanks. “He nearly died for you and for me. He was in a death camp for Jews—”
She smiled then in a way that made me feel as if I didn’t matter, as if nothing I’d felt and done mattered, and so I said the only thing I could think of that might still hurt her, the only thing I had left to say. “Okay for now,” I said. “But some day I’m going to write down everything that happened and everything you did to him—do you hear?—and then the whole world will know. Maybe I can’t make you love him, but I can make you and everybody else remember what happened. Do you hear what I’m saying? Do you? Do you?”
I was shouting and crying at the same time, and she looked at me with pity. “You are really nuts for a kid your age,” she said. “Totally screwy. Listen—you better get away fast, before your mother has to strap you into a car and take you to the funny farm. You better—”
“Let s go, Joey.”
Don was standing a few feet behind her and I didn’t know how long he’d been there. Linda turned. “Oh Jesus,” she said. “Oh shit and a half.”
“Say it now,” I said to her. “Say it now if you’re so brave. Say it to his face. Come on—I dare you.”
“Let’s go, Joey,” Don said again.
“Look,” she said to Don. “Would you just get this kid back and we’ll talk in the morning?”
Don put his arm around me. “Let’s go, Joey.”
The girls from bunk 11 were staring at me in a clump from the porch window. Don took his knife. He looked towards Linda’s hand. She held it out to him and he unwrapped the polo shirt and touched her cut. She didn’t pull away.
That was the night Don told me about the concentration camps and what they were like and how he had not been in one of them. But the man who visited him on Parents Day had, and that was what made Don so bitter, he said: that while he was rotting away in a P.O.W. camp on an island in the South Pacific, his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, all his relatives except for one—the man I’d seen, his uncle Heshl—had been dying in a concentration camp in Poland. What he didn’t understand—what would keep him angry the rest of his life, he said—was why God had chosen to send him to the other end of the world when his parents’ parents and brothers and sisters and children—people he’d never met and never would meet—needed him on this side of the world.
But he hadn’t even known about the camps until the war was over, and he was let out of the different hospitals they kept shipping him to. We sat on the porch of our bunk until the sun rose from the hills on the other side of the lake, and he told me everything he knew about what happened to Jews during the war. He didn’t mention Linda’s name once and he didn’t mention what I’d done.
“So now you know what I know,” he said, when he tucked me into my bed. It was just past six, less than 45 minutes until the bugle would sound, and our bunk was already filling up with morning light. He leaned down and kissed me on the cheek and I was surprised, given the rough beard he always had, at how warm and soft his lips were.
The next summer my mother and I went to a different camp, in the Berkshire region of Connecticut. All winter long that year I looked for Don’s name in articles about the Dodgers and their minor league teams, but I never saw it. Then, three years later, a week before my Bar Mitzvah, as it happened, and three weeks before we left for camp—this time back to upstate New York, near Poughkeepsie—my mother came into my room when she got home from work at the hospital and said she had some sad news for me: one of my best friends had passed away. She’d heard about it from a woman who worked in the camp office the year we’d been there: Don Silverstein was dead. He was 28 years old.
When she put her hands on my shoulders and told me she knew what I was feeling, I turned and screamed at her to get out and leave me alone, to just leave me alone! I didn’t know what else to do. What I kept thinking after she left, though— what I wanted to explain to her—was not about Don himself, but about what he’d said to me that night about not taking things like the death camps personally. The big mistake people made, he said, was to reduce everything to just friends and family, or to who had lived and who had died. The fact that he’d never even met the family he’d lost—”Hey, in what way do we ever truly know another person anyway?” I remembered him asking me—seemed to prove his point for him.
All the things he and I and about a hundred and fifty other Jews had done and felt during one summer in a sleepaway camp on a beautiful lake by a small town in upstate New York, then, were things millions of Jews I’d never known and would never meet would never do again. I understood that much. But who were they, and how would the things Don told me ever help me understand what it meant that they were gone?
For a while after Don told me his story that night I’d go around trying to imagine what seemed unimaginable—lists of dead and lost people that might somehow add up: everybody in Brooklyn; every baseball player who’d ever played; every Jew in the United States; every person I’d ever met or seen—in school and on subways and in camp and on family trips; every person who made up the populations of entire states and nations—Montana or Rhode Island or New Zealand or Norway—but I could never concentrate long enough on individual faces to get very far.
The news itself didn’t surprise me and maybe that—the feeling that my belief in the inevitability of Don’s death had somehow helped to cause it—was part of why I reacted the way I did to my mother. But realizing this, I could also feel in a new way that I understood why Don talked so angrily that night about having spent the war in the wrong camp.
What surprised me, though—what made me come out of my room later that day and apologize to my mother for not having let her comfort me—was how much I kept thinking not about Don being dead—I never even tried to imagine what his body might have looked like at the end—but about the way he’d seemed so happy for those nine or ten days when he was in love with Linda and when he talked to me about making it back to the Dodgers. When I saw him smiling at me inside my head, I wanted to smile back but I found that I couldn’t because what his smile made me feel most of all was how much he had existed in my feelings and imagination, and how little, truly, I had ever known him.