What happened that summer at Miss Katie’s camp
Aware that at the very most she could have us for only nine summers of our lives, Miss Katie was insistent on the cultivation of memories. “Years from now, girls,” she would say in her bright, unsentimental voice, standing under the towering sassafras trees that encircled our campfire site, “you will think back to the nights you spent here by our beautiful lake with the stars just as you can see them now. Think of all the times this summer you’ve swum here, with the trees all around and maybe a deer on the shore watching. If you girls will remember these moments and your friends here—why, these summers will live on for you in all the years ahead.”
And in this summation, as it turned out, she was correct.
Miss Katie’s camp was set in the Tennessee Mountains on the edge of a forest-ringed lake, the water of which, as I remember it, was even on the sunniest days an impenetrable blue-black.
The camp did not deal in half measures. We were committed by our parents to Miss Katie’s care for two solid months every summer, a period that was undiluted by interference from the outside world. We were forbidden to receive packages or even telephone calls from home. Too frequent association with one’s own relatives in camp was discouraged, it being understood that one was there to make new friends. My sister and I always took a circuitous route through the back trails when we set out to visit each other.
Being English, my sister and I were unfamiliar with the institution of summer camp—indeed, the word “camp” for our family, as for most Europeans, held only sinister connotations. As it turned out, however, Miss Katie’s was an ideal place to spend the summer. Most of camp life was lived outdoors under warm and brilliant skies, although occasionally thunderstorms descended over the mountains, driving us inside.
Miss Katie was a woman of marked importance in the state, by virtue of both her family connections and her immense personal wealth. Her face had great character, reminiscent of the unlovely but engaging countenances that challenge one’s gaze in seventeenth-century Flemish portraits—vibrant, canny, and down-to-earth. She was solid and rather square in build, and extremely fit. Although nearly 60 in the year I first went to camp, she could, through all the summers I knew her, hold her own with most of the campers in a game of tennis. Indeed, on Visitors’ Days she might challenge the odd father who had wandered too close to the tennis court and, if the unfortunate man were rash enough to accept, essentially unman him before the eyes on her young charges. It was said that in the early days, she used to sit up all night on her trailer steps, guarding the camp, a shotgun across her knees. She dressed always in open-necked shirts with cotton slacks and canvas shoes. Her long iron-gray hair may have been her one vanity: Usually she wore it knotted in a no-nonsense bun, but on special camp occasions she let it stream down over her shoulders.
In its superficial structure Miss Katie’s camp was like many others, revolving around a daily schedule of classes in all the usual summer skills—canoeing, swimming, riding, crafts, and so forth. But underneath this benign veneer lay a tough interior core. Our small cabins were spartan affairs of gaping split-log timbers, which, it was said, had been built in the 1940s by German prisoners of war. Once a week we were taken in a cattle truck down the dirt mountain roads to yet more remote places in the woods, to the shores of other unfrequented lakes, where we were left for the night and following day, expected to fend for ourselves in the way of building fires, picking berries, preparing food, and finally, when the cold night dew began to fall, rolling ourselves up in cotton sleeping bags under the open skies. As campers we were expected not merely to pull our weight on the long hikes in the mountains or to rein in the essentially unbroken horses on trail rides; we were expected to enjoy doing so. A “sorry attitude” was not acceptable.
“Now isn’t that too bad?” Miss Katie would say scathingly in the assembly after meals. “I got a phone call from someone’s mama asking me why her little girl had written to say that she was so stiff in her old joints from taking a little walk in our beautiful mountains. Isn't it too bad that, with all the fun things we all are doing, someone had to make her mama so unhappy?”
It was not weakness that was contemptible in Miss Katie’s eyes, but passivity, and the survival skills we were so vigorously taught were meant to enable us to engage at every level in the physical world—lakes were to be swum in, mountains to be explored, starry nights to be passed in the open. But while every aspect of the camp experience seemed to have been geared specifically to fostering a sense of self-reliance, the campers themselves came for the most part from extremely wealthy, conservative southern families whose widest ambitions for their little girls centered on their marriage prospects. And it was not Miss Katie’s purpose to undermine these expectations. She herself was married and had daughters and granddaughters who had been to camp, although she left her husband behind in Nashville every summer. Only by extrapolating from both Miss Katie’s feminine convictions and the apparently contradictory aims of her camp did one acquire a picture of the kind of woman a camp girl was ideally meant to become: a woman who could listen to her husband’s story of his fishing trip with the secret knowledge that she would have known how to clean and gut his catch and how to build a fire—in the rain if necessary—on which to cook it.
The level of athletic ability was extraordinarily high at Miss Katie’s camp. State tennis champions, competitive swimmers, experienced show jumpers—this was the kind of talent the camp fostered. In virtually all sports a girl’s ranking was to a great extent dependent upon the chance ability of the other campers for that particular year. The lone exception was in riflery, which was dominated every year by Amy Slatkin. To say that Amy was a marksman was not the same thing as asserting that Allison Southey was the best rider we had ever had in camp. Amy’s skill was absolute: A regulation target can, after only, only be a regulation target. Fifty feet must, at any time and place, be 50 feet. And a .22 caliber rifle is always a .22 caliber rifle. Under the standards observed by the National Rifle Association, Amy Slatkin was a Marksman First Class.
Amy was a lanky Texan girl with short, straight, sandy-colored hair who walked with a long, bouncing gait. Like most of the younger campers, I regarded her with awe, and in my eyes the fact that she came from Texas gave her an additional cachet—Texas representing a wild, alien, masculine world that I felt I would almost certainly never visit. Her happy-go-lucky nature and irreverent wit made her immensely popular, and she was one of the most idolized girls at camp. I also recognized, however, that by the standards of the conservative South she must have been something of a misfit. She was an athletic, handsome girl, rather than conventionally “pretty,” and I found it difficult to imagine her assuming the adult roles that would shortly be expected of her. But here she was on home territory. One sensed that she regarded camp not as a summer interlude, but as her real life, around which the events of the outside world and other seasons revolved as background distractions.
It was camp tradition that one shared one’s skills, and the oldest girls usually helped out with the instruction of one sport or another. From age 14, Amy Slatkin was put in charge of the rifle range, which was located at the end of a long woodland trail to the north of camp. I often passed her as she loped along to target practice in the morning. At the range, Amy struck me as cool, focused, serious, and in dealing with other campers, extremely cautious. Clearly, Miss Katie’s faith in her was not misplaced. Her concentration when she shot was legendary. For several years she had owned her own rifle, a mahogany-butted Winchester, which was kept with the camp guns under lock and key in the general office, where she returned it every evening.
To say that there were no males in the camp would be to overlook Mr. Stuart, the caretaker, who lived year-round with his wife and two sons in a little cabin near the entrance. There were many local people like them, generally living on the opposite side of the lake, but the Stuarts were the only ones the campers had real contact with, and we called them “hillbillies.”
Of medium height and build, with a pasty complexion, Mr. Stuart wore heavy blue overalls and a green-and-white-striped railroad hat. He roamed about the grounds, usually on foot or, if he needed to carry tools or supplies with him, in his misshapen dark-green pickup truck. In my early years at camp, his sons trailed along as he made his rounds. In late years, Mr. Stuart himself personally undertook only the most important jobs, content to leave the odd chores to the attention of his sons. In my memories, they are only shadow presences, appearing unobtrusively at the stables, the docks, the cabins, or wherever there was work to be done. A camper might greet Mr. Stuart out of general respect for a recognizably older person, but the sons fell into no known category of human being. Certainly the fact that they were men in an all-girls’ camp was not acknowledged: On Miss Katie’s terrain men were inconsequential, and in the outside world a man was, by definition, someone like your father or—amounting to much the same thing—someone you might hope to marry.
Only once that I know of did the Stuart boys elicit recognition of their sex, and then only by mistake. One July afternoon, during rest hour, the Stuart boys went down to the swimming dock to repair a water-eaten timber and blundered onto a handful of girls from the senior camp who were sunbathing topless. The subsequent report had it that most of the girls rolled over onto their stomachs but that two or three were caught sitting up. The Stuart boys each gave a quick up-and-down glance and abruptly left. After so many years, my memory of important details is hazy, and I cannot be sure of the chronology of events; but I am certain that Amy Slatkin was on the dock that afternoon—and based on what I felt I knew about her, I could well imagine that such a public undressing would have been a bitter humiliation.
I am reasonably sure that the incident occurred soon thereafter. It is even possible that it happened that very night.
The senior camp at Miss Katie’s was strictly off-limits to all but 15- and 16-year-olds. A long, root-knotted path led from the volleyball court, threading in and out of trees before eventually dead-ending at three secluded cabins. There were no other buildings anywhere around to distract from this unspoiled corner of the lake.
On that night, only the oldest girls were left in this solitary part of the camp, the others having gone on an overnight cookout to Hatcher Mountain. The girls turned off the lights around 11. It was just after midnight when they first heard the sound of male voices coming from the lake. From inside their cabin, they couldn’t quite distinguish the voices, which seemed to be bouncing back and forth across the face of the water. After a whispered conference, the girls decided to go outside. As they were reluctant to give away their positions by using the flashlights that several of them had in hand, they could do nothing more than stand as quietly as possible among the sycamore trees at the edge of the lake and listen. The sounds soon sorted themselves out, and the girls were able to establish that a number of young men with “hillbilly voices” were making their way across the lake, aiming specifically for the senior camp, which they had evidently known would be more than half-deserted on this particular night. The girls could tell that the men had been drinking and could hear their crude comments and rough laughter as clearly as the wake-up bell.
Robin Courtney, who was the fastest runner, was sent to tell Miss Katie, while the other girls remained on the edge of the lake. Robin’s knocking drew Miss Katie out onto her porch in her pajamas, her long gray hair reaching down to the middle of her back, and they set off together in the little golf cart that Miss Katie used when she had to make long runs. It is entirely characteristic of her that she did not at this point call either Mr. Stuart of the police of the nearest town. In her eyes, no situation was an emergency until she declared it to be one, and she couldn't know that until she encountered it herself. She did, however, take the precaution of stopping by the office and taking from the racks the first rifle that came to hand, which as it happened was Amy Slatkin’s mahogany-butted Winchester.
She found the girls standing in their thin nightgowns, just as Robin had left them. No one made a move back toward the cabin, which seemed suddenly to offer less protection than the wide and intricate woods. Reflecting on this event from the distance of years, I realize now that no one ever actually articulated what it was that the men might have intended. But even as a child without knowledge of such unspoken details, I knew that their mere presence in Miss Katie’s lake represented a violent transgression, that a line between the camp and the outside community had been crossed—and that Miss Katie herself, standing under the trees looking into the indistinguishable blackness of sky and water, was right to believe that anything was possible.
It was not as strange as it might seem that she resisted calling out a warning. What effect, after all, could she have expected the voice of one old lady to make on those determined men? What is odd, however, is that she did not shoulder the gun she had taken the trouble to bring, but instead saw fit to hand it to Amy Slatkin—as if a blind shot into the air could be fired only by the camp’s best marksman.
Amy took her familiar rifle, adjusted her stance, raised the gun to her shoulder, and fired high into the trees. A sudden silence immediately followed, then sounds of floundering and splashing, and the girls realized with some shock that the men were not in boats as they had assumed. The voices fell away, and only soft, surreptitious plops could be heard from the water. Amy again raised her gun to her shoulder without changing her stance and fired a second, somewhat lower shot.
Instantly screams were heard from the water. A man’s voice called out in terror not to shoot again. The cries continued and then gave way to pleas for help. The girls darted along the shore, wading into the shallows, calling to the man to raise a hand. The erratic beams of their flashlights swept back and forth, merely batting at the immense black union of lake and night. But who could say how those frantic skidding beams appeared from the water? The men could be heard thrashing about distractedly, while the voice of their stricken friend bubbled more and more feebly from the water until at last it sank for good. Only at this point did it dawn on the other men that the girls had been searching the lake to help, not to hunt them down. Safe with this realization, they began to curse them while beating a slow retreat to the opposite shore.
Given Miss Katie’s importance in the community, it was no small matter when, early the next morning, she summoned the sheriff, who came out with his men to drag the lake. None but the oldest girls who witnessed the incident were allowed near the water, but I was told that the sheriff’s operation was watched from the bridge by a sullen crowd from town. The body was eventually recovered, and after being identified by the sheriff as that of a young man who had lived on the opposite side of the lake, it was hastily wrapped in a sheet and whisked away in the back of the sheriff’s truck.
The sheriff, in his report to Miss Katie, said that the young men had come out on a dare with the intention of scaring the girls. As was typical of the local boys, none of them could really swim, and they had come across the lake in inner tubes, one of which it seemed had suddenly—and, as it turned out, fatally—deflated. The sheriff declined to speculate as to why this might have happened, saying only that the dead man had injured his back some months earlier and had worn a brace until very recently. “This boy here,” the sheriff said, “had been sick for some while, and I guess he bit off more than he could chew. That shot must have scared him so that his strength just wore out.”
In camp this was the final word on the incident. To my knowledge the deflated tube was never found, nor did I ever hear any reports about an inquest. Only one detail snagged in my mind over the intervening years, hinting that other parties, outside of the camp, may have perceived the situation differently. The sheriff, in turning to leave, had warned Miss Katie that everyone connected with the camp should stay away from town “for some while.” And in deference to his advice, the Catholic campers, who usually went to mass at the local church, stayed behind that Sunday.
The event caused a mild ripple among the campers but was not discussed as much as one might have expected. Everyone instinctively assumed Miss Katie’s own unruffled, back-to-business attitude. It was, as Miss Katie would say, “just one of those things.” Still, I was later surprised to discover that no story of the incident was handed down, and when I made a visit to camp years later, I found that it had sunk without a trace.
At camp, the rifle range consisted of a simple lean-to with a wooden floor and a corrugated metal roof that looked down a green forest tunnel, carved from trees, to the target stands. Before going to camp I had never seen a gun, let alone handled one, and riflery was for me a revelation. Once a deer wandered out of the trees directly into my line out of sight, and I lowered my gun and watched entranced. My mind made no connection between the deer standing timidly in the sunlight and the loaded gun in my hand, and it did not occur to me until a week or so afterward that at that moment I had possessed the power to kill. I later wondered whether, if I had been a better shot, I would have known immediately. But target shooting was for me a purely meditative art, akin to Zen, and cathartic ritual that entailed clearing one’s mind of all extraneous thought so as to concentrate on the sole objective at hand—the firing of a perfect bullet into the center of a target.
For many years I considered target shooting as something exclusively associated with camp, and I had not found myself one year doomed to spend an entire summer in Texas, I doubt I would have turned to it again. But perhaps because I associated Texas with guns, and perhaps, too, because the best marksman I had known had come from there, I decided to take up pistol shooting during this sojourn. The range I found was divided into shoot cubicles with hard cement floors that looked down a track of sun-scorched grass buzzing with the relentless song of grasshoppers—a far cry from my sylvan gallery at Miss Katie’s. Yet even here I found in the ritual of performance the same tranquility I had known at camp.
This ritual begins in the isolation of one’s booth: the shooter assumes his familiar stance, often drawing chalk marks around his feet to ensure that his position will not change. He breathes deeply and relaxes before raising his arm several times to verify that it falls naturally in alignment with the target. Every shooter has his own preference for laying out ammunition—five bullets stood on end, or laid in a row, or loaded into an extra magazine. The method does not matter, as long as it never varies. One’s faith in the system should be so absolute that it is enacted without thought. Finally, the shooter grasps his pistol as if shaking hands with it. He raises the gun, concentrating all attention on the front sight while slowly and evenly squeezing the trigger. One’s concentration should be so intense that the shot, when it is fired, comes as s surprise. The final element of this ritual is the “shot analysis,” in which the marksman, preferably while the gun is still raised, mentally calls the shot—notes to himself the exact location of the bullet on the target, by virtue of his last memory of the crucial front sight.
The range was run by a local gun club that made an effort to provide first-rate coaches along with the range supervisors. One of these was an ex-marine sergeant who had a flattop, little eyes, and a mouth full of very large, square teeth. The coach was less concerned with technique than with the follow-through. “Call your shots!” he would say. “Know where that bullet went! Go down and score your targets. I’m not going to monitor you—how you score is between God and your conscience.” He told us we should perform 20 push-ups a day on our fingertips to develop our grips and trigger fingers, a suggestion he followed with a demonstration. After each round he would stride down the range and make comments on every target. He greeted the women with a supportive, fatherly squeeze of the shoulders: “So, what have we got here? Say! Is this yours? That’s not so bad!” I never heard what he said to the men, but from across the range I saw that his face became furrowed and serious and that he stood with his arms folded across his chest, nodding gravely and occasionally making complicated gestures with his hands.
I had quickly reached that uncomfortable gray zone of competence that can be broadly labeled “above average,” and showed no sign of improving. The fact that there was no fault to be found with my stance, my grip, how I raised my arm, or even how I squeezed the trigger only made my situation all the more dire, for it indicated that my problem lay not with mechanics, but with a fundamental misunderstanding of the sport.
One afternoon, toward the end of practice, an expert marksman who had won almost every shooting honor of any note, including an Olympic medal, walked over to my booth. He said he had been watching me and volunteered that he saw my problem. “You’re looking at the target,” he said. “You shouldn’t even see it.” He then demonstrated the impossibility of focusing simultaneously on a near object—the front of the sight—and the far-off target. “It’s one or the other, but you can’t look at both.”
In fact, he wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t heard before, but for the first time the significance of what was being said sank into my consciousness. Seeing that he had genuinely caught my attention, he became confidential.
“Do you know how I prepare for a big competition?” he asked. “In a darkened room. I don’t need a target.” He tapped his temple. “The target’s in my head.”
One summer, years later, I drove to the mountains of Tennessee to revisit Miss Katie’s camp. I was amazed to discover that the vast, foreboding blue-black lake was in fact so unremarkable. From the swim dock, the forest on that once-distant shore seemed only one long dive away. There were fewer trees in the camp itself. I had remembered the cabins as being set within the most grudging of forest clearings, but in fact there were broad, brown patches of beaten earth around them. I was especially struck by the size and youth of the campers: they were, after all, only little girls. It may be, then, that my memory, so unreliable in these essentials, has led me to attribute to Amy Slatkin skills that she did not possess. But if she was the marksman that I took her for, then at some point in her life—either on the edge of the black lake or years afterward perhaps, in her comfortable Dallas home, late at night when her husband and children were in bed—at some point in her life, she would have called that second shot.
Caroline Alexander is the author of The Way to Xanadu: Journeys to a Legendary Realm, recently published by Knopf. Her article “Little Men” appeared in the April issue. Some names in this story have been changed.