The Head Commissioner’s Tale – Michael McSweeney
July 1, 2020
Ray Jones, Camp Thomson’s head commissioner for eleven seasons, held up the photograph of a nude boy showering. Jones stared at it for a few moments, his teeth clenched, before setting it down on the camp director’s messy desk beside the tin box of cash for which he’d gone looking. Terry McDonough, who had been the camp director for five seasons, kept a disgraceful office in the eyes of Jones. Dusty filing cabinets were stacked high with old newspapers. A wastepaper basket beside the desk nearly flowed over with crumpled-up papers and candy wrappers. The floorboards needed sweeping and scrubbing. Two chairs that should have sat opposite the desk were lined against the wall and piled high with old uniforms, thick stacks of paperwork for each Boy Scout troop that passed through the camp during the eight-week season. Perched on top of it all was an old, carefully folded American flag. Jones knew that if you unfurled the flag, you’d see its frayed edges and its faded colors. It was a flag marked for the slow and careful retirement ceremony set to occur in two days.
Jones looked at the photo again. He recognized the scene immediately. The photo was taken through a small peephole carved into the wall of the shower house near the west loop of campsites, about a ten-minute walk from the tiny office building. The boy in the photo had his back to the peephole, facing the iron shower head above him. Water fell on his uplifted head and down his back. Jones could see the boy holding a white bar of soap in his left hand.
He looked away from the photo and toward the window. There was an oval dirt parking lot and beyond that, the wide bowl of Polliwog Pond. Jones could hear the distant splashing and shouting coming from the water beneath the burning sun. Any of those boys could be one of the boys in the photo, thought Jones. He then took the photo, folded it, and slid it into his breast pocket.
Jones stood up and felt pain pinch at his left knee. It felt as if a spider waited on command to bite him when he rose. He moved to the door of the office, opened it, and shut the door behind him. One of the staff members, a sixteen-year-old Scout named Michael, sat at the desk. Michael had his hands folded in front of him on the desk, his back held straight, waiting for some kind of command or instigation to move him to action. Jones liked Michael, liked his work ethic, his obedience. Michael was on the shortlist to be made a commissioner the following season. A commissioner held broad powers at the camp, a kind of warden and sheriff and servant and handyman, all rolled into one. Jones had made a casual hint of this promotion two weeks prior, and Jones knew that Michael held absolute allegiance to him, to the idea of advancement, ever since then. On my honor, I will do my best, he thought.
“When Terry comes in, please let him know that I was here to see him,” Jones said when Michael looked up at him with an earnest smile.
“Sure thing, Ray,” Michael said. “Should I have him call the commissioner’s office?”
“No, that’s alright. I’ll be by again later after I make my rounds,” said Jones. “How much longer are you on desk?”
“Until four o’clock,” said Michael.
“Good. And if Scoutmaster Davis comes looking for me — which he will — please tell him that the extra cot is on the way. Maybe that Scout won’t wet this one,” he added with a chuckle.
Michael grinned at the small and inappropriate moment they’d shared.
“You got it, Ray,” he said. Jones tugged on the brim of his wide hat and nodded to Michael before turning to leave the office. He let everyone be on a first-name basis. But there was an edge of respect when people spoke his name, a verbal bow that curved with the lone syllable of it. They might as well call him Sir.
The sun was high in the cloudless sky and the light bleached the dirt lot white. Jones squinted as he took the sunglasses from his breast pocket and slid them onto his face. As he walked toward the waterfront, his mind ticked through the dozen tasks his team of commissioners had fanned out across the camp to address. Fixing a broken toilet in the east shower house. Sealing cracks in the kayaks before Troop 19’s trip for the overnight camp-out across the pond. Taking a shotgun out to the far trail around Mount Bedford to blast widow-makers out of the branches to keep them from falling and striking someone’s head.
Jones reached the pond and drew in a deep breath, smelling the wind across the water and the trees as they swayed and listening to the orchestration of one hundred Scouts, Scouters, troop leaders and staff members who crowded the waterfront. Two large docks extended out over the water, and each one branched off into smaller sections. Jones saw several sailboats out on the glittering water, their white canvas unfolded and beckoning for the wind to fill them.
“Never gets old, does it?” Jones heard from his right. He smiled but didn’t turn at the sound of Eddie Norton’s voice. Eddie Norton had been the aquatics director for ten seasons. He and Norton were life-long friends, brought together through a Boy Scout troop that spanned five northern New Hampshire towns. Jones reached out with a hand and took the small orange coffee mug that he knew Norton was carrying, as he’d done every day, made with the little hot plate and coffee tin kept in the staff boathouse.
“It doesn’t. It definitely doesn’t,” Jones said. The sight of an entire troop leaping into the water, their laughter resounding across the pond and over the trees, reflected on his sunglasses.
“It’s a hot one today,” Norton said. “And it’s going to be a hot one tomorrow.”
“I wouldn’t mind some rain.”
“Rain this weekend, maybe. That’s what the forecast says, at least.”
“We could use it. Everything’s so dry.”
“Don’t wish too much. We don’t want another thunderstorm.”
Jones grimaced. During the first week of the official Scouting season, one of those vicious, spontaneous New Hampshire summer thunderstorms suddenly formed. The sky turned black in what seemed like minutes. The wind lashed at the trees and wailed like a screaming child. Hail as thick as golf balls struck the parking lot and broke two windshields. Lightning danced in the sky, a flash stabbing above them every few seconds. What was widely believed to be a down-burst struck the east campsites and flattened every tent, and two Scouts broke their arms when the beams of their tent came crashing down on them. Now there were shelter-in-place drills, twice a week, further carving order into the minds of Scouts who were one step away from chaos and panic.
“No, we don’t,” Jones said and sipped at his coffee. He silently gazed at the scene, taking a sip every few seconds, feeling the invigoration of the coffee seep into his muscles and bones and brain. That mid-afternoon malaise that sometimes crept upon him seemed to vanish as the coffee took hold. Close to the boathouse, a staff member was leading swimming tests for younger Scouts who needed to pass to use the boats or trek out into the deeper sections of the aquatics area. One boy had fallen behind the other Scouts, and Jones watched him slash his arms weakly at the water, trying to keep himself aloft as he tried to pull himself forward. Jones heard the staff member call out to the boy and ask if he needed help. The boy squeaked out a No and kept going. A minute later, he completed the lap. He passed the test. But he struggled to lift himself onto the dock, so the two other Scouts pulled him out and set him down on the planks. The staff member knelt beside him, grinning. Jones watched the boy gasp for air, his body heaving and glistening in the sunlight, as the staff member said something Jones couldn’t hear.
When Jones finished the coffee, he turned and walked into the boathouse. He set the mug down in the deep sink and let some water out of the faucet to rinse it out. Jones watched the coffee dregs swirl and disappear down the drain. He then took off his sunglasses, closed his eyes, and splashed cold water onto his face. Jones thought about the photograph and what needed doing and how he would say it. He felt his mind tighten with expectation, like the veins and nerves in his mind were turning to steel in anticipation of the task ahead. He tried to imagine McDonough as he peered through the peephole at the boy in the shower before raising the camera lens to take a photo.
Jones walked back out of the boathouse and wordlessly clapped Norton on the back.
“I’m going to see Terry,” he said.
“I saw him earlier. Looked like he was in high spirits.”
“It’s been a good summer.”
“I’ll see you at dinner, Eddie.”
“See you, Ray.”
Jones made his rounds after leaving the aquatics area. He visited the dining hall kitchens, spoke with the man who visits the camp twice a week to haul away garbage, and helped a first-year Scout find the way back to his campsite. Before going to the main office to find McDonough, Jones checked in with Maryanne Paine, the camp’s head nurse, to make sure she had the supplies she needed. Jones saw a Scout lying on a cot in the corner on his side and facing the wall when he entered the medical hut. Paine gave Jones a knowing smile and shrugged. They went over a two-page checklist, and the only thing she had begun to run short on was calamine cream. The past week had seen a resurgence in the number of wasps in camp, who built nests in the rafters of the shooting range or burrowed beneath the trails. The wasps would fly out, enraged by the summer heat, and sting any Scout unlucky enough to step on a ground nest.
“Have you seen Terry today?” Jones asked as he closed his small notebook and slid it and a little pencil into one of his breast pockets.
“An hour ago. Terry popped in to say good morning, as he often does. I think he was going to check in with the cooks afterward.”
“I see. Well, let me know if you need anything else.” Jones touched the brim of his hat and left the medical hut. He slid his hands into his pockets and slowly walked down the trail that ran alongside the pond.
As he walked, Jones heard the pop-pop-pop of rifles from the nearby shooting range. His mind drifted back through the years to remember himself on that same range, gun held clumsily in his eleven-year-old hands. Every shot he took either flew above the target and disappeared into the trees or hit the berm below it, scattering sand as the bullet struck with an oomph. The rifle instructor had walked over and, with his big hands, adjusted Jones as he sat, raising his elbow, straightening his spine. “Don’t squint,” the instructor, whose name he couldn’t remember, had said. “Both eyes open. Don’t move when you fire. Hold your stance until you see the target hit.” Jones made two bulls-eyes that day and when he returned home from camp that summer he tacked the hole-pocked target to his wall. He still had it, hidden away in his desk near the mountainside where the commissioners’ headquarters sits.
McDonough was sitting on one of the benches placed on either side of the main office door when Jones arrived. Beside him sat young Scout, probably a first-year. When the boy looked up at him, Jones saw his red puffy eyes and a red-stained bandage on his knee.
“I want you to think about this as a learning experience,” McDonough was saying as Jones approached. He smirked at Jones before looking back at the Scout, who mumbled something in reply that Jones couldn’t make out.
“What is a Scout?” McDonough asked.
“A Scout,” the boy repeated.
“A Scout is…a Scout is…a Scout is trustworthy. You lied about stealing from Daniel’s tent.”
“We aren’t talking about Daniel,” McDonough said. “We’re talking about you. Let me worry about Daniel.”
“And let’s not forget the Scout Oath. What’s the final part of the Oath?”
“Uhm,” the boy said.
“On my honor,” McDonough began. “I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” As he spoke, the Scout repeated some of it along with him, struggling at first but then speaking more forcefully as he continued. Jones nodded, more to himself than to anyone.
“Morally straight. We have to be trustworthy, be loyal, be courteous and kind to our fellow Scouts. Stealing snacks isn’t living the Scout way, Pete.”
“Yes. Yes, sir. I understand. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me. I want you to apologize to Daniel and your troop. Remember that a Scout tries to live up to the Scout Law each and every day. It’s not always easy, but a Scout always tries,” McDonough said with a sigh, sitting back on the bench. He looked at Jones for a moment before turning back to the boy. “I think your troop is scheduled for a hike up the mountain in an hour. You should go to your site and prepare.”
The boy rose from the bench and gave McDonough the Scout salute: the three middle fingers of his right hand raised flat against the brim of his hat with the thumb pressed down over the pinkie. McDonough returned the salute. The boy left them, making his way toward the west loop of campsites that stretched along the far bank of the pond. Jones watched him disappear down a bend in the trail and then turned to McDonough, who had gotten to his feet.
“A fight?” Jones asked.
McDonough scoffed. “Hardly. That kid got caught stealing some cookies and he got shoved to the ground, scuffed his knee. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“And the boy who pushed him?”
“Scolded and scheduled to serve a shift in the kitchen.”
Jones frowned. “Once upon a time, you’d get kicked out of camp for assaulting a fellow Scout.”
McDonough ran one of his small hands through his sweat-slick hair. The movement drew Jones’s attention to the bald bowl at the top of his head, and as McDonough’s hand fell, Jones took a step forward.
“Got a minute for a catch-up? Got a few things to run by you,” Jones said, repeating a line he said almost every day when it was time for the particular mid-afternoon ritual between the man who ran the camp and the man who kept it running.
“Sure, sure,” McDonough said, and as he did, he looked out across the dirt lot to the pound. He then stood and pulled open the front door of the office and entered, with Jones behind him. Michael was still on desk, and he perked up at their entry.
“Everything going okay here?” McDonough asked.
“There’s not a problem in sight, Terry,” Michael said.
“Perfect. We’ll be in my office in case disaster strikes,” McDonough said with a laugh. Jones smiled at Michael and nodded and then followed McDonough into the office. Terry walked over to his seat and let himself fall into it. Jones’s eyes settled on the bulge of McDonough’s uniform, and he noticed the spaghetti grease smudge near the third button down from the top. Jones eased the backpack off from around his shoulder and set it gently on the ground and fell into a relaxed stance. McDonough absently swung his chair back and forth in small movements, gazing at the surface of the desk, before looking up at Jones.
“There are a few things requiring your attention today,” said Jones. “Scoutmaster Douglas from Troop 42 heard about the flag retirement ceremony and wants their senior patrol leader to participate. I told him it would be a strictly camp staff event, but he’s quite persistent, so you might want to talk to him before he gives some of the other Scout Leaders any ideas.”
McDonough scoffed. “Douglas? Bob Douglas? He’s a lush, and that kid of his is a pimply pain in the ass. As if I’d want him standing before the entire camp during a solemn ceremony.”
Jones grimaced. He didn’t like Douglas, who nitpicked most things and always seemed to be turning a deep shade of red by the end of any conversation. But the man held his troop together after one of its Scouts drowned in the pond three summers back, Jones thought. Douglas was a leader.
“Chip Sweeney from Troop 9 took me aside at breakfast and complained about the way Jack Young is teaching the First Aid Badge,” Jones continued.
“That’s Mark’s problem. He’s the program director.”
Jones fought the urge to raise his eyebrows. “Mark hasn’t been in camp for six days. After his mother’s death.”
McDonough sighed and slowly started to crack and pop his knuckles. Jones watched him and said nothing, betraying no level of disdain or disgust. He didn’t hate McDonough; he’d known him for five years. But during the past couple of seasons, Jones had watched as McDonough’s care-free style — the camper’s consummate buddy, the song-leader, the most eager participant during campfire skits — slowly wore away his ability to run the camp effectively. It was like ocean water gnawing at the edges of a dune. McDonough had become lazy. And careless.
“I’ll go talk to him,” McDonough said. “Jack might be getting a few things wrong. He’s a good kid.”
“I agree. It’s because he’s a good kid that he should be corrected, if necessary. If Chip asks, I’ll tell him you’re on it.”
“Last thing,” said Jones. He paused before continuing: “It’s about the photo. Do you have any more?”
McDonough stared at Jones, visibly confused. “What do you mean?” he asked. There was no hint of concern or worry or panic. To Jones, he seemed genuinely lost. Jones took the photo out of his breast pocket, unfolded it and then placed it on the desk in front of McDonough. McDonough’s face drained at the sight of the photo.
“Look,” said McDonough.
“I did,” said Jones.
McDonough gripped the photo with both of his small hands. “This—I found this. It isn’t mine.”
“And you kept it inside your desk. Beneath the petty cash box, specifically.”
“Why were you looking in there?”
“I needed some petty cash. I have to send Rudy with the truck into town to buy paint.”
McDonough’s eyes flicked to the door and then back to Jones, whose face remained neutral, sphinx-like. Jones moved forward until his legs were almost touching the desk.
“Michael doesn’t know,” Jones said.
“That’s not—look, I don’t know what funny idea you have, but—”
Jones leaned forward and pressed his large hands flat on the desk. He became aware of the size of his own presence, how small McDonough felt by comparison even though the camp director was technically his boss. McDonough didn’t shrink away; there was a fire of defiance in his eyes, and he rose in his seat. Their faces were inches apart.
“I don’t have any ideas. I merely discovered a photo inside your desk of a naked camper in the shower. Now, I could do one of several things. I could burn it. I could pin it to one of the backboards at the rifle range and shoot it until it’s unrecognizable. I could call the police. I could inform the Daniel Webster Council, as I am technically instructed to do, and let them conduct a formal investigation. Or,” he added, and Jones let a small silence follow, like the moment before a rock slams against the ground after breaking off a mountainside. “Or, you could give me the rest of the photos.”
“What makes you—” McDonough sputtered.
“If you’d rather it not be me that decides, it could be Lester Edmunds. Retired general of the New Hampshire National Guard, now president of the Council? I’m sure he’d love to overturn a few desks during an investigation. An investigation of you.”
McDonough glared at him, but as quickly as he did, he then sagged back in the chair. The chair squealed beneath the shifting weight. McDonough scoffed and his glare fell to the desk. He scoffed again, more guttural this time. McDonough then removed a dense loop of keys from his belt and used one of them to unlock the lowest drawer of his desk. He took out a green binder and tossed it on the desk. Jones stood up straight and opened the binder. There were two-dozen photos inside, all of Scouts standing in the same shower stall visible through the peephole. Jones recognized many of the boys. The photos were creased as if they’d been bent or gripped tightly. In several of the photos, the boys faced the camera, unaware of the peephole or the person hiding on the other side of the wall. Jones closed the binder, took it and pressed it against his chest. The fear in McDonough had fully taken hold, Jones saw, making his face sweat and his body tremble and, when he finally spoke, his voice cracked.
“What happens now?” McDonough asked.
“Well, to start, you need to go talk to Scoutmaster Douglas about the flag ceremony. He’s got a lot of pull with the Council, so I suspect he’s not going to take no for an answer without putting up a mean stink. Then you need to go speak with Jack about the First Aid badge. We can’t have Scouts earning merit badges they don’t deserve,” said Jones.
McDonough’s eyes widened. “No, I mean—”
“Then you need to go talk to the Scoutmaster of the boy who shoved Pete,” said Jones. “I won’t have violence in my camp. His parents will need to come and pick him up.” Jones’s face was immovable, like Cannon Mountain’s immortal Old Man. After a few moments, he continued: “You need to stand up to do all of this.”
McDonough quickly stood. Jones walked around the other side of the desk, and McDonough moved away, backing up toward the door. Jones sat in the chair and felt it shift beneath him. I’ll need the wrench to fix this along with some oil, he thought.
“After that, you’ll need to call Mark. I know he’s grieving, but we need him back here soon. We’re family, too,” said Jones, setting the binder down and folding his hands over it.
McDonough seemed to relax at the mention of the word ‘family,’ but the look of fear on his face was still there, as if etched in permanent marker.
“So,” McDonough said quietly. “You’re not going to—”
“I don’t have to say one damn thing to you about what I’m going to do, Terry,” Jones said forcefully. “You are going to do those things. And when you’ve finished, you’ll come to me and tell me the outcome, and then you’ll continue doing things. Lead the camp. Leave in disgrace. Run the flag retirement ceremony on Friday. Rot and die in jail. Regardless of what happens, you will do your best.” On my honor, I will do my best, Jones thought.
McDonough’s mouth was open, but he said nothing. Jones sighed and leaned back in the chair.
“Douglas. Go talk to Douglas,” said Jones. “Oh, and give me your keys.”
The instruction hit McDonough like a whip. After a moment, McDonough reached for his belt, detached his set of keys, and set them on the desk. Jones removed a brass key from the loop — the one for the camp director’s cabin’s front door — and held it out.
“For you,” Jones said blandly. McDonough eyed the key warily and then reached out to take it. He pocketed the key and wordlessly moved to the door and opened it. Jones saw Michael’s cheerful face as the young Scout staff sat at the front desk, waiting, no doubt, for the final minutes until 4 p.m. Then he would rush back to the staff site and join his friends. The thrill of those first seasons working at camp is irreplaceable, Jones thought. Staff fires and dirty jokes. Raucous card games. Clandestine cigars on the flat rock extending out onto the pond where conversations stretched into the early morning beneath a sky overwhelmed by stars. The door closed behind McDonough and the moment passed. Jones sat up, opened the binder and removed one of the photos. It depicted a boy facing the camera and scrubbing his pale chest with two soapy hands. Jones pressed his finger against the boy’s face and let it slowly drift down the length of his body. Jones smiled. He then folded the photo twice and tucked it into his breast pocket.