Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Spud: A Remembrance

I was attacked by a monkey once at summer camp. And no, it wasn't my asthmatic bunkmate Carl, nor was it Rusty, our cabin's lone true juvenile delinquent (divorced parents, beat up Carl, cried passionately about cabin counselor Phil's lack of understanding), nor, for that matter, was it Gordon, the cabin's lone nerd--poor fellow had acne long before he should've--who cut his knee awful bad one day falling down on the way to first base and thence, scared of going to the camp nurse and unbeknownst to counselor Phil, poured Phil's Old Spice after shave on it. He then leaned back on his bunk holding the bloody knee and hissing through his braces, the cloying scent of some kind of weird spice filling the air. No, the animal that attacked me was a real monkey named Spud donated to the camp by a kid from Atlanta with a purple scar from thorax to navel: he'd already had open heart surgery and I don't think he was 8! Not Spud, but the kid.

I was returning from archery. The camp had just recently gotten a couple of beautiful new bows and an older cousin was in charge of dispensing them to eager young bowmen; he would always find the best one for me. They weren't compound, but neither were they the flimsy fiberglass ones with the hard plastic grips. Carved from some kind of hardwood, they had ergonomic grips that fit my 12 year-old hand perfectly. I loved archery, actually, and this particular year I'd considered with something like a broken, hesitant sort of preadolescent confidence that I might win the archery award at the end of the summer session. Returning to my cabin after a successful session at the range, I noted a large crowd gathered around Spud's wire mesh-walled cage. Even from afar I could hear murmurs of excitement and could see the crowd moving as one as it collectively followed some kind of activity. I grew closer to see that two counselors were atop the cage in crouches of readiness. Between them, relaxed on his haunches, was Spud, having gotten somehow out of his cage.

Spud wasn't one of those tiny organ grinder monkeys with masks and long prehensile tails. He was a pretty big slow grey monkey with a tan chimp-face. I really enjoyed being that close to a real primate. Spud was funny. It should be said here that the camp was filled with primates not entirely unlike Spud, if not a little bigger. We were all pretty funny! Which perhaps was a part of the problem. We used to take spring peepers and throw them by the handfull into the giant air-conditoner fan next to the mess hall, laughing hysterically as they pinged off the blades with a sound not unlike popcorn. A kid named Lee from Louisiana shat in his pants one day while we were outside of the arts and crafts cabin and, in embarrassment, threw the soiled grippies into into the woods; someone, not me, retrieved them and put the grippies, now stiff and tan and stinking like roadkill, in his locker. The abovementioned asthmatic Carl was also undersized and spent much of the summer with his head in the toilet, either barfing or getting swirllies. In fact he had long brown hair and when Rusty told me we were going to give Carl a "swirlie" I understood the derivation of the word pretty much from the start; Rusty pulled Carl from the bowl and Carl's hair rose up from his head like soft-serve ice cream on top of a cone. A junior counselor next door was, in retrospect, flamboyantly gay and he took no end of guff from some of our more macho, summertan sailing counselors (one of whom, I remember now, was mostly deaf and wore hearing aids). We gave him a lot of shit as well; Rusty used to call him "grandmother". I have memories of sympathizing with Spud, all alone there in his cage. He was funny, true, but there was something tragic in his wizened countenance, the way he beheld us free primates with his brown-red eyes. I also have memories of looking around the sandy backyard of the nature center looking for long thin sticks that would fit through the holes in the mesh enclosing Spud's 12 foot by 10 foot living area (he had a bald limb to sit on, maybe a tiny pond, always there seemed to be spent brown pieces of fruit lying around) in order to see if Spud would grab the sticks. Spud had endured a lot of passive torment; that is, no direct physical abuse, but months if not years of the kind of behavior I'd think a primate would be highly sensitive to: bared teeth, lots of laughing and pointing and growls, aggressive-seeming movement as we wrestled for position in front of him, being prodded by sticks.

So by the time Spud made his escape there to the top of his cage he probably had a lot of issues to work through. And as I angled towards the cage after my successful afternoon of archerying, a coastal North Carolina summer sky growing fuzzy and swollen, the air thickening as one of the afternoon thunderstorms began to build out on the Neuse, I figured it would be a good way to pass a lazy part of the day. That is, watching the counselors assist Spud in regathering his wits and convincing the little grey ape to go back into his cage.

As I approached I could see without any doubt that Spud was staring directly at me, even from, oh, fifty feet or so. My use of the words "staring" and "directly" are not redundant: in the span of a millisecond Spud's full attention was aimed at me, wandering up to the crowd, whistling, hands in my pockets, as if I was the only other primate in the entire camp. There were probably thirty campers gathered around the cage by now so, even though the monkey had chosen to stare at me, well, maybe I felt the tiniest bit of pride. I puffed out my chest, raised my shoulders as heads turned to check out the object of Spud's attention. I had great faith in the supreme power of the counselors' abilities to wrest control of the situation and didn't feel at all threatened, even when Spud, his eyes not moving from mine, begin to inch towards the edge of the cage. The detail must be stressed: his eyes remained locked on mine, and his head did not move as his body moved towards the edge of the cage, then over the edge, disappearing from my view as he hit the ground at the crowds' feet. And suddenly the counselors were yelling Get back! Get back! at the campers, who split into two screaming groups, each moving chaotically away from Spud, who as yet remained squatting at the foot of the cage until our eyes met again. As the groups split I could see that Spud, still on the ground, was still staring directly at me.

And there was no one between us.

The counselors were still on top of the cage, their white t-shirts wet with sweat. Above them was a canopy of shade tree, catawba maybe, or locust, something with dramatic leaves that gave the dappled ground something of the appearance of a jungle. I noted these details as my buddy Spud ran directly at me, scooting along the ground in that knuckle-to-foot sideways ape run and shrieking. Spud was not playing, I knew this, so I turned around and ran twenty feet or so around the Nature Hut building to the door, already thinking how funny it would be to look at Spud from the other side of a closed door (the so-called Nature Hut consisted of five or six reeking cages, two of which held guinea pigs). I was not so skinny anymore but was still, objectively, a fast runner, and had a good jump on my little monkey; Spud trailed me by twenty feet or so, and the door was, well, now that I'd jumped up on the porch of the Nature Hut it was just two giant steps away. I grabbed the screen door and threw it open just as Spud leapt up onto the end of the porch. I had about three seconds, plenty of time to dash into the Nature Hut and close the door behind me. A detail from a bad dream, but true: I threw the screen door open only to find the second door locked. I tried to open it--chunka, chunka, chunka---just as Spud, still shrieking, leapt into the air.

And directly he was on my shoulders. I raised my arms and stumbled away from the door. Spud grabbed the collar of my t-shirt and was pulling on it, his feet on my back, now both of us shrieking. Then I was falling off the edge of the porch and hitting the dirt hard. Spud still had ahold of my shirt and was still tugging on it and jumping up and down on my back.

And just as suddenly Spud took off towards the main part of camp. My last sight of Spud was of him tearing across the putting green, knuckles-to-feet, knuckles-to-feet. Turns out I got off pretty easy. Wandering back to the cabins in something of a daze was like walking through a battlefield. Kids crying, legs bleeding. Spud had gone on a rampage through Camp Seagull, getting back for all those years of poking and pointing and yowling and cage-smacking and monkey-copying and all that rotten brown fruit.

Spud's cage behind the Nature Hut remained empty, and our lives were a little emptier as a result. Everyone at the camp told us that Spud had been hospitalized for exhaustion.

I never saw the old boy again!


  1. Jackson... Funny. And true by the sound of it. Thanks for a laugh over my lunch. Chinese from last night. Be good.

  2. oh it's real all right...

    I would love to know what happened to Spud. I've googled him in any number of combinations.

    Also, I did NOT win the archery award. My cabinmate--who I think had the last named of Kulda, first name James--DID win it.

    He was a great archer, I was merely good.

    Where'd the CHinese food come from? Any new culinary finds in R'mond?