GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Now then, if you are risk averse or anxiety prone, you'll be able to relate to this next story. Our own Anna Sussman takes us back to a summer when she was only 11 years old.
ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: I went to Camp Okiwa every summer as a kid - ten cabins arranged in a circle in a tiny cutout of cedar forest. Each June, a hundred boys and girls would pile into bunk beds and sleep to the sounds of peeping frogs from the swamp on the edge of camp. We were free from the shackles of winter and school and parents. But something about that freedom and the cabins made of screen, the boundless expanse of forest, the absence of teachers or parents terrified me.
At camp, we had our own kid families. There was a 9-year-old girl named Danelle (ph) who followed me around and sat next to me at the bonfire. At camp, an 11-year-old becomes a full-on mother to a 9-year-old. I'd hug her before bed. I helped teach her how to swim. Other kids would come and tell me when Danelle was crying because Danelle was scared of everything at camp - swimming in the creek, sleeping in the dark. Danelle didn't know that I was scared of everything, too.
I was the only kid that brought their own first aid kit to camp. And I refused to go to sleep at bedtime until I went around and shouted down the toilet of each outhouse to make sure a kid hadn't fallen in. On canoe trips, I had to personally make sure that every kid's life jacket was strapped on correctly and snuggly. The other campers seemed to walk around completely certain that we weren't all going to die in some freak accident. Danelle and I liked the quiet activities. We'd sit on the docks singing songs while a counselor played guitar or go to the dining hall for bracelet making. There was one activity that I lived in fear of. It was called Swamp Stomp.
Two counselors would lead a group of squealing kids into the swamp at the edge of camp. They would wade into the mud until it seeped over their shoes and waistbands. They'd throw handfuls of mud into the air, rub leafy muck into their hair and clothes. Then they would always parade back through the camp, mud in their ears and pockets. They'd grin with mud in their teeth, victorious and free. I would look up from my bracelet making in awe and horror.
Of course, I thought it was reckless to bring children stomping into this unknown morass. I worried a kid would get lost in the mud or get dragged down by some invisible hand. There were just so many unknowns in the sucking muck. I wanted the counselors to keep us safe, and Swamp Stomp seemed very unsafe. But I also knew enough to worry about my own worrying. I sat on the edge of the pool during midnight swim while other kids splashed around in the dark water. I never climbed the rock wall, never got to ring the bell at the top. And then when Danelle refused to sign up for an overnight hiking trip, I knew she'd be missing out. And I knew she probably watched me back away from just about everything.
So one afternoon, I hopped onto the dock where Danelle was sitting. Hey, I signed up for Swamp Stomp tomorrow. We should totally do it together. I didn't look at her when I said it, like it was no big deal. You're definitely doing it, said Danelle. Yeah. I'm definitely doing it. Danelle walked over to the camp bulletin board and wrote down her name on the last open line under Swamp Stomp. Then she looked at me. I'm definitely doing it, too. That night in my anxiety, I inventoried my first aid kit in bed. Twice. Then I lie awake listening to the frogs in the swamp. I didn't eat breakfast the next morning. And then it was time.
We walked to the edge of the swamp. The other kids lifted their knees high and swung their arms, plowing into the swamp like they were running into the ocean. Danelle and I hung back. I put one foot forward and leaned in. The mud crusted my sneakers. My socks got wet. I stepped further and the swap sucked at my shins. The other kids were already throwing mud balls. Then I saw Danelle. She was all in, painting her face with lines of mud and laughing. I stuck my fingers in the mud and began to let go just a bit. Then I climbed on a tree root and dropped into the swamp on my knees. I laughed. Danelle was waist deep, dragging her tiny body through the muck.
What happened next is hazy. I watched as Danelle moved unnaturally. She jerked her back into an arch, but her lower body was frozen. Her scream suddenly had a sharp edge. Then the other kids were screaming. Then I saw a cloud of bees form around Danelle. She had stomped on a beehive. Each kid realized what had happened one by one as they got stung or saw someone else get stung. One boy's hand flew to his face. A girl grabbed her shoulder. Everyone swatted and ducked, but no one could run. We were stuck. The counselor pushed hard toward Danelle through the swamp in slow motion. She lifted her in a fireman's carry and trudged the edge of the swamp and then once they were clear of the mud, sprinted back to camp.
Danelle was allergic to bees. In my mind, I saw the EpiPen in the nurse's cabinet - a piece of masking tape on it - and the marker writing that said the Danelle Patterson. By the time I got back to camp, they were closing the ambulance doors. I stood in the middle of the circle of cabins, filthy and shaking. I killed Danelle. Someone took me to the showers. They told me, we don't know anything yet. I climbed into bed that night, and I felt fuzzy and empty. From my screened-in cabin, I made a promise to the dark world that I wouldn't do anything unsafe again - anything.
The next morning at breakfast, a crowd had formed around one of the tables. Danelle was at the center, beaming and pointing out each one of her 20-something welts. She hugged me and then tucked into her cereal. That was so crazy, right, she said. And I watched her happily chewing. A few days later, she was at the bulletin board, writing her name down for Swamp Stomp. She handed me the pen. You coming?
WASHINGTON: Careful out there, snappers. Never ever go outside. That piece was produced by our own Anna Sussman, with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.
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