Fred’s Song

Saturday September 15, 2012

I once worked at a summer camp where I often played the guitar.

We sang a lot at Indian Brook -- feminist anthems (yay Elizabeth Cady Stanton!), environmental ballads, protest dirges ("Today in Oklahoma, Karen Silkwood died ..."), labor and civil rights rallies, goofy ditties and pop songs rewritten with camp-centric verses, such as Pat Benetar’s "We Belong":

"When we say we belong to IB/We belong to each other/We belong to the sound of the bells/A spell we fall under ..."

It was hilarious. Believe me.

My guitar speciality was melancholy contemporary folk songs, in which love was wistful, if not entirely lost. I fancied myself a performer. I was never a great player or singer, but I had presence, feeling and an extremely generous audience.

I miss those gals, that place, the music. Nothing else in my life comes close to the out-of-time intensity, the delight in each other’s company, the solemn sense of purpose and the devotion to flamboyant absurdity of my summer camp years.

Last week I pulled the old axe out of its dusty fabric case. I stopped playing in 2004, not long after I ended my camp-counseling career. Partly, my friends and I got serious jobs and babies, so we had less time to sit around singing Dar Williams’ "Iowa." Then my approach to music itself turned dull, just a few chords and a lilting finger-picking pattern each time.

My dad had put new light-gauge strings on the guitar during his August visit. They shone in the living room light. I used to dream hard on this guitar, playing it until my fingers ached in solitary apartments I lived in between camp seasons. That girl, that driven girl who wrote lyrics in notebooks with red velvet covers, who recorded songs on a borrowed four-track, who played slide with the fat end of a butter knife, who proudly tapped her left hand calluses on the kitchen table -- she was so lonely and so ignorant and so, so brave.

I don’t visit her too often. Her hope is hard to bear.

Last week, though, I wanted to play a song I heard on TV back in the summer of 2010, when my husband and I were slogging through the last season of "Angel," the Buffy spin-off starring the titular vampire with a soul.

The show wasn’t good. Genre TV shines only when the stories are attached to real life; when it veers into comic-book style mythology, it becomes as ornate and cloying as a Victorian lamp.

Say you fall in love with a mortal woman who ascends to godhood only to be impregnated with the form of another goddess so that she can relieve the world of its suffering by removing free will (and eating a human now and again), and meanwhile your son hates you because he got stuck for 14 years in a hell dimension called Quor’Toth. Somebody better still be thinking about the electric bill, or your audience is going to get really, really small.

"Angel," set in Los Angeles, naturally, didn’t care about finances or even about breakfast in its final season. We watched because we wanted a feeling of closure on the whole Buffy experience, and because, pre-baby, we enjoyed wasting time.

And there was Fred, Winifred Burkle, the tiny woman with the huge brown eyes and Southern drawl who joined the gang in season two. (Physics genius, accidentally transported to parallel world Pylea, saved by Angel, now crack demon hunter.) Played by Amy Acker, Fred was like a Shih Tzu with a flamethrower. She curled up to you, cuddly and soft, but she could kick butt.

She died over two episodes, her soul shredded to oblivion while an ancient god named Ilyria colonized her body. Her lover, Wesley, held her helplessly as her spirit disintegrated. She shook with cold. "Wesley," she said at last, "why can’t I stay?"

That was heartbreaking, but the scenes just after Ilyria rose, all blue hair and red leather, flooded us with tears.

Time jumped back to Fred’s life with her parents in Texas, just as she was leaving for L.A. She packed her room, hugged her parents, and hopped in an enormous station wagon, happy and naïve as a new buttercup. Over it all, a slow, acoustic song played; Kim Richey’s "A Place Called Home."

We cried and cried and cried. We missed Fred so badly we couldn’t do anything but sob. I’d heard the song before, in 2005 when I tried moving to Tucson for a few months, and my brilliant friends there made me a Kim Richey mix tape. To lose Fred, to remember Tucson, to remember me there walking the bleached sidewalks and stark canyons, making fish tacos and planting sage in the yard, just a year gone from summer camp ...

I learned the lyrics and sang them, tearfully, as I walked the dogs. I loved every second of my tears.

Last week, I thought of the song again. I don’t know why, but I wanted to play it on the guitar.

My left fingertips hurt immediately. I turned off the lights and sang into the dark living room, my husband listening while he read in bed. Our son and our remaining dog slept. I sang as I used to sing, alone in my apartment, or to a group of friends out on the camp gazebo, fireflies coloring the hills.

Passions do die. I think so. Camp ends. But the music rings and rings.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer.


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