Glenn Miller - Pagan love song

I am convinced that there is a twisty little sequence in the human genome that draws us toward membership in clubs, most especially those that are secret. Is this only a male thing? Perhaps.

My parents were never keen on the Boy Scouts, for reasons I never quite understood. I don’t remember that we were forbidden to join, my brother and I, but I distinctly remember being discouraged from it. My mother had been a Campfire Girl and occasionally told fond stories of days spent in the woods. My father never mentioned such activity in his youth.

However both my brother and I belonged to the YMCA which had a brick building on Washington Avenue complete with an indoor swimming pool which is where I learned to swim. The YMCA also accommodated girls, oddly enough, given the name. There were no YWCA’s in those days. We swam in the highly chlorinated indoor pool, afterward showering naked and all together in a big shower room. Rumors flew that there was a way to see girls showering after it was their turn to swim (as in Saudi Arabia today, mixed swimming was not permitted), but we never ourselves figured out how to do it.

Our Catholic school had no gymnasium or shower room but, at the Y we could play ping pong, and there was a pool table, which was off limits to the younger boys. But I also had the impression that there was something just a little bit shady about it that precluded the youngsters from playing it. Even watching the older boys play pool was fascinating then as the game already had a slightly tangy aroma, even in that innocent center of youthful Christianity. I was dead certain that there would never be a pool table in the SS Peter & Paul school basement.

Our membership in the YMCA was unusual: none of our Catholic school friends attended but our parents didn’t seem bothered by that. We were given to understand that the Catholic Church forbad membership in such Protestant organizations, and I felt something clandestine about attending. This was long before ecumenism struck the Holy See with a revelatory flash. Also, mother had been a protestant of some variety before she “converted” to marry dad, the Catholic, so that may partly explain our relative liberalism.

One summer in the early 1940s I went to a YMCA summer camp at a lake in Wisconsin—Phantom Lake was the name, I believe. It was understood that occasionally in the evening a phantom hand had been seen to arise from the middle of the lake. I remember two things about this excursion: the difficulty of getting there on a train in wartime, many times sidetracked to permit the movement of troop trains—today I presume that they were transporting draftees from the north to training camps in the south—and, most of all, a terrible, debilitating homesickness, not even to mention an embarrassing bedwetting experience (with two boys in the same bunk). I was never to forget this “vacation”, and I never wanted to leave Naperville again until I was grown, and now that I think about it, even after growing up I did not do so willingly.

I was in two other rather more esoteric and more revealing “clubs” in my early youth, first the Snake Club when I was seven or so and later, the Sex Club. One was actually, I believe, in a peculiar way, the precursor of the other, both on the path to growing up. I doubt that kids nowadays do it this way anymore, and I wonder how they learn what we learned. Kids today have many formal organizations and structured activities that we didn’t have, yet we had some activities that I doubt that many children have today. One did not tell one’s mother about these clubs, and certainly not one’s father.

When I was six or eight, boys in our neighborhood had a club that I call the Snake Club. I don’t think it actually had a name—it was too secret for that. Probably we were indoctrinated into the club by the older boys—they could pretty much make you do whatever they wanted but you tolerated that because you were so interested in what was going down. Our meetings were in an area of the woods about two blocks from our house at the end of the hill on Mill Street down by the double-quarry. It was part trees and thick underbrush and part refuse dump. This was our Guadalcanal, our Tarawa—look them up—our proving ground, our secret place where you were completely out of sight of grownups.

To qualify for the club you had to catch three snakes. Garter snakes were not very hard to find there. To catch them you had to let your knowledge that they couldn’t really hurt you overcome your instinct that they were different, evil and to be avoided. Tarzan movies had taught us this. Snakes were mysterious, and frightening. So this wasn’t just some lark; you had to have courage and learn to grab them right behind their head so they couldn’t bite you, and then hold their angry, twisting bodies away from you. Although we were told by our mentors that they were not poisonous, we weren’t absolutely, positively sure; there was that small twinge of doubt. Once you had them in hand you stuck them in a bottle brought from home. We had thoughtfully punched holes in the metal screw-on top of the bottle and put a little grass in the bottom for the comfort of the prisoners. (Unfortunately for them, after a few days we usually forgot about them and they perished.) I no longer remember what happened after you were vested in the club. Probably you got to boss around the new kids.

Some boys failed to catch any snakes and had to be instructed and helped by the older boys (in that strongly hierarchic tribe, one year older than oneself qualified one as older.) We were little warrior savages learning hunting and courage. No doubt this need to test ourselves and form hierarchies is hard-wired in. But on the other hand if it is, why don’t kids seem that way today. Maybe they do and did, and I simply became the father not to tell. Yet my guess is that kids now don’t act this out in the same way; parenting is different now, and that word says it all: it is a word, nonexistent then, that confers a seriousness to the project which I don’t think was felt then, by either the parents or the children. Parenting today is an enterprise not entered into lightly, and one prosecuted vigorously when undertaken. We didn’t wear seatbelts or sit in car seats; bicycle helmets, had they been available, would immediately have made you a laughing stock, (unless of course you were playing fighter pilot). Part of growing up then was learning to confront danger on your own and surmount your fears.

In my childhood people knew where children came from but they only knew one sure way of preventing it, and that wasn’t much fun. Perhaps this is one reason why raising children was more relaxed back then: there were generally more of us to go around, making it nearly impossible to completely control the juvenile environment, no matter your best effort. We played outside from dawn till dusk nearly everyday, unless it was raining. We had to come home for meals or we wouldn’t be able to go out after that for x number of hours or days; x being a function of the lateness of your appearance at table. After dinner (my now lunch) or supper, we were right back out, pretty much on our own. Today it seems that “structure” is an important element of rearing children. I know children whose every moment is supervised by someone. I’m glad I missed that part. I think I learned more as a result.

Which brings me to the Sex Club. It had a more varied membership; there were some older kids, maybe ten or twelve years old—the ringleaders—and there were girls too (forbidden to the Snake Club). We younger members weren’t sure why the older boys tolerated girls. We found out later.

Like the Snake Club, the Sex Club was secret—are you kidding! The clubhouse was a small barn/garage behind one of the girls’ house. The site of the meetings was the “hay loft” on the second floor, which you reached with a ladder of sorts, nailed to the wall. Naperville was still a small farming community at heart, and a few people still had some of the minor elements of a farm: small barns doubling as garages, even a few horses, and chicken and pigeon coops (for food, not sport).

The initiation rites, without which you weren’t allowed in the clubhouse, involved running (quickly) from a small tool shed to the barn—naked. Usually there were bed sheets drying on a clothesline along the route that gave one some cover. Fortunately, no one but us ever seemed to see the rapid-fire burst of small naked bodies fired from the tool shed at the barn.

Our meetings were irregular; whenever the older kids wanted to I guess. Once initiated you were allowed in the clubhouse where all kinds of experiments were conducted. You had to do what the older kids said, under threat of being banished from the club—or worse. Seeing girls without their clothes on was startling enough, yet we learned even more. Their bizarre physiognomy was delicately, even ritualistically, probed with instrumentation—a large nail as I recall—to see exactly how everything was put together. It was at the same time both forbidden and innocent. Writing about it does not adequately explain what this felt like: the shared secrecy, the forbiddenness, the nakedness, the dry wood and dirt and straw smell of the barn, all these were indelibly burned in our memories—obviously, since I still recall it today.


YMCA camp at Phantom Lake