Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: memory

Re-Remembering the “Juice” Story

I was watching a documentary on Helen of Troy last night, and the narrator reminded the viewer that much of what we know about the famous beauty comes from Homer’s Illiad, even though he wrote it four hundred years after her death.   By then, many of the details were forgotten, or changed with the morality of the time.

During the Bronze Age of the Trojan War, warriors fought in chariots, but by Homer’s era, it was considered unmanly.  Hand to hand combat was the norm, so the heroes of the Illiad fight on foot. The famous vivid battles in Homer’s Illiad are from a Trojan War re-imagined for a later time, much like Hollywood dressed up Charlton Heston as a twentieth century Moses.  We are always changing our visions of our heroes according to our needs.   Look at the many portrayals of Jesus throughout the ages – from wordly to godly, from emaciated to a long-haired hippy, from a black man to a white one.

Our personal memories are our own stories, and like Homer, we are just as eager to revise, edit, and mythologize as we grow older.   In order to live happy lives, we often emphasize the positive moments of our lives and forget the painful.

I recently found a box with some cassette tapes from my childhood. I had no idea they existed.  One cassette tape was particularly intriguing. It is from my first year at sleepaway camp. I am about seven or eight. It is visiting day, halfway through the summer in the Catskills, and my over-the-top father is interviewing me on his cassette recorder, as if he is Edward R. Murrow interviewing Eisenhower on the field of battle.

The cassette tape is very surreal, so I won’t play it all for you, but there is one section that shook me up, and I’d like to share it with you.

First, some background.

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the TueNight site titled, “Hey, it’s Juice! How My Camp Nickname Gave Me Confidence.” It’s about how I received a camp nickname that lasted for many years.   I always considered it a special part of my identity because it made me unique, and gave me confidence when I was young.  I even thought it gave me some sort of superpower.  The story of how I got my nickname “Juice” is one that I have told often throughout my life.

Here is the full post, originally published on TueNight on April 23, 2015.

When I was eight years old, I attended my first year of Camp Kinder-Ring, a sleepaway camp in upstate New York. Our first breakfast of the summer was served in a wood-framed dining room, where bunkmates sat together at large oval tables. The waiters, 16-year-old campers, served us soggy scrabbled eggs and individual boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, my favorite being Sugar Pops. In the center of each table was an aqua blue plastic pitcher which held the watered-down orange juice.

“Can you pass the juith?” I asked another bunk member.

“The juith?” he asked, and the rest of the table laughed at my slight lisp. “Do you mean the JUICE?”

Now I know some of you are already gripping your easy chair, preparing for an unsettling Lord of the Flies-type essay about mean boys and the bullying of the weak, but that is not the story here. I was lucky that the story veered off course into one of empowerment. Within a week of the incident, no one remembered WHY I was called Juice; it was just my nickname. When I returned the following summer, the lisp gone, I was still “Juice,” and for the next eight summers that I attended this camp, even when I finally became one of the waiters who served soggy scramble eggs to the other campers, the name remained.

The nickname gave me a special identity, despite its origins. It was my first experience of having an alias, much like Clark Kent had his Superman. During the winter, I was a goody-two-shoes, Citizen of the Month, grade-A student named Neil, but in the summer, I put on my shorts and tube socks, and became Juice. Yes, my mother still sewed my real name into a label attached to my underwear, but during the summer, I was only known by my camp name.

In many traditions, the naming of the child is an important statement, because tradition believes that it molds the child’s personality. My parents named me Neil. It was an OK name, but uninspiring. For every Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, there was a Neil Sedaka or Neil Diamond singing sappy pop songs about love. To me, Neil was a nice Jewish boy who listens to his parents and teachers, and doesn’t smoke pot or drink beer.

But during the summer, I became Juice.

Juice, to me, meant energy, a spark, like currents of electricity. On paper, my personality didn’t change much from winter to summer. I was still a goody-two-shoes who was awful at sports, but my nickname transformed the perception of myself. Neil wouldn’t play football, go sailing, or build a tent, but Juice would. Neil wouldn’t take chances, but Juice might try pot or kiss a girl. Neil inhibited me, bounding me to responsibility of city life, while Juice freed me to be as wild as nature (within limits, of course). At school, I was invisible. At camp, everyone knew my name. Gradually, I learned to integrate some of this “Juice” into my “Neil” world, and learned that our personalities can be fluid. My nickname was my introduction into adulthood, and the complexities of identity.

I was lucky. My nickname, based on a lisp, transformed me in a positive way. Some children are not as lucky. A name like “Fatty” or “Freckles” can torment a person for a lifetime. Whether for good or bad, names ARE always powerful.

I use my full name “Neil Kramer” on my blog and in social media. I have friends who only use aliases, which helps them express their hidden personalities, away from their families and workmates. The anonymity of the internet is a problem culturally, because it tends to lead to abuse and bullying, but for many, an alias allows someone who is normally a Clark Kent to find their Superman.

Last summer, I traveled to upstate New York to attend a reunion of friends from my sleepaway camp. I was nervous while driving up the Taconic because I hadn’t seen some of these people in 30 years!

I rang the doorbell.

“Hey, it’s Juice!” said one of my long-lost bunkmates.

Neil is the name my parents gave me at birth, but ever since that breakfast in that camp dining room when I asked to “pass the juith,” I have also been Juice. I have two names, and I wouldn’t be the same today without both of them.

You can imagine my shock when, a few months after writing this post, I hear my father ask me about my new nickname.   My mouth flew open.   I was confronting my own personal history.  The “Juice” story was coming alive.   At the time of the recording, the nickname was brand new, and now here  was my voice, reappearing — dozens of years later – – like a surprise witness at my own court case, about to corroborate the story I had just published!

But the truly shocking part is the sound of my voice. It wavers. It creaks. This is not a child who feels like a superhero, confident with a brash new nickname.  He sounds like an insecure kid about to cry.

What happened to the story that I have been telling forever, where I was instantly energized by my new name?  Was the nickname hurtful at first, and I never acknowledged it ?

In the retelling of my tale, why do I always distinguish my cool nickname from those like “Fatty” or “Four Eyes?”   Yes, my camp nickname eventually became a positive one,  but how long did it take?  At what point did I  rewrite my own narrative, erasing the discomfort of the beginning?  And would I have gone to my last days believing every detail of this story if I didn’t stumble onto this cassette tape?

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” – Marcel Proust

small excerpt of audio —

The Incident in The Car

When I was in high school, there was a girl I liked in my class. She was smart and pretty, and she came from a wealthy family. I came from the “other side” of Queens, so our relationship had all of the potential of a Lifetime movie.

One spring day, after math club, I walked her home. I bought her an ice cream cone at Baskin-Robbins. We sat in the sun and talked about how our SAT scores were going to determine the rest of our lives. The fact that we were sitting there together was a sign that she liked me. I was hoping this would be my first serious girlfriend.

That weekend, a group of our friends went to “the city” to see some movie at the Ziegfeld Theater on the big screen. Her friend drove us to the theater. It was six crammed into one car. I was in the front and she was in the back. She was all dressed up, wearing a dress, and looked fabulous. As we drove, I became upset when I saw her flirting and talking with one of my other friends. I could feel my stomach tighten. Until that moment, I had never felt such intense emotions, harsh and powerful feelings of jealousy and lust.

To this day, I do not remember what the movie was that we saw at the Ziegfeld or what we did afterward. I think we went out to eat after the movie, but I don’t remember for sure. Someone smoked pot, but it wasn’t me.

As we drove home, we took the same seats in the car. When I looked at her in the back seat, I wanted her badly, even though I’m not sure what “wanting her” meant as a virgin in high school. I just knew that I hated myself for wanting her so badly, and that these wild, animal feelings were turning me into some sort of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde monster.

I turned to her in the back seat. She was wearing boots with her dress, and a silk blouse with no bra. I was so angry that I did not possess this girl for myself, or that she might give “herself” to someone other than me.

The next five seconds have haunted me for decades. As we drove over the 59th Street Bridge, I put my hand on her thigh, saying, “Is this what you want?! Is this what you want?!” She quickly blocked my hand and started tearing up. I grabbed my hand back and turned to the front, ashamed. The others in the car didn’t really know what had happened, because it occurred so quickly. When they asked her why she was upset, she didn’t want to talk about it.

I didn’t speak to anyone for the rest of the trip home. I later apologized, but she didn’t talk to me again.

This was one of the meanest thing I ever did, and the only time I ever did anything like this, and it affected my relationships with women for years.

This incident truly scared me, not only because of what I did to her, an innocent victim, but because I lost control. For many years, excessive emotions and sexuality frightened me, as if they were dangerous, never knowing where they might carry me, like a leaky raft on wild rapids.

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