For a few wonderfully scorching summers in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I spent weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at Summer Thing. Summer Thing—let me repeat the name; it’s delighted my mind’s ear for 30 years—was an old-fashioned, all-around-fun kids camp at UNLV. We played basketball and carved wood and wrestled and tumbled and, at lunchtime, sitting on the grassy plaza near the spot where the Bigelow building now stands, we listened to Donna Summer and Glen Campbell on an eclectic counselor’s extra-super-powered ghetto blaster. The whole world smelled of freshly cut grass and sagebrush and peanut-butter sandwiches. We drew the sunshine into us—banked it, as it were—and girded ourselves for the afternoon session in the cold and shadowed waters of the Buchanan Natatorium.
Swimming at Summer Thing was Character Building Hour. First, there was the locker room. For most of us, it was the first whiff we’d ever gotten of such a place—bare feet on wet tiles, the mixed odor of chlorine and sweat, the notion of undressing in public, the knowledge that there were precocious towel-snappers among us. Then there was the swimming itself: None of us had ever been in a pool so wide, so long, so deep, with diving boards so high. And the counselors—UNLV swimmers and a soccer-star/water-polo buff named, as I recall, Whitey—wanted us to cross those chilled waters, dive from those platforms and plumb those depths in search of colored rings. Even now I can summon an earache just thinking about those rings! Those pool hours put some steel in the soul; when you climbed out of the Buchanan pool, you felt a little tougher, a little taller and a lot colder.
Our next destination was not the soggy locker room. Just out the back door of Buchanan, there was a concrete slab, fully exposed to the saving wrath of the three-o’clock sun. We were entirely ready, at that point, to slow-roast ourselves with a spritz of lemon. The slab swiftly challenged the survival instinct, though, and most among us resorted to standing on towels or putting on flip-flops. These were the only unsupervised minutes of the day, so, naturally, we created The Hotfoot Contest.
The object was simple: Who could stand barefoot on that slab for the longest time? No shuffling. No hopping. Long days of sports had prepared us to think of all things as tests of skill and fortitude, but this one was pure fortitude—maybe even stupidity. And I considered myself the king of the hot-feet. My Summer Thing rival was also named Greg. At the age of 10, he had the size and swagger of a teen. He was tall and golden-skinned and deep-voiced and athletically gifted—and he was determined not to yield primacy out there on the Buchanan back porch.
The last day of Summer Thing, 1981: a blistering, empty-sky August afternoon. I am undefeated for the summer. Eight of us have entered the contest. One by one, the contestants drop out, their soles red and dusty and hard as cardboard. Only the other Greg and I remain. The fire on the feet is worst at first, then it gets better, then, just when you think you’ve got it licked, it comes back, working its way into the bones, up the legs. You have to either picture yourself someplace cool or embrace the heat completely—meditating on the white of the slab, the pink of your feet, the sound of cicadas, the campfire orange you see when you close your eyes. I chose the heat imagery. I don’t know what Other Greg chose. Other Greg seemed to accomplish most things without too much effort. Neither of us moved. The rest of the kids cheered and razzed. Then they seemed to just go silent.
Counselor Whitey came out to fetch us. He had thrown a bullet water-polo pass to me that day, and, treading water, I’d struck the ball with my head, soccer-style. I was proud of this, and I fancied Whitey thought it was pretty cool, too. We put a lot of stock in what Whitey thought. “Come on,” Whitey shouted. “Time to go!” Art class was coming up—the lacquer was dry on our wooden plaques; today was the day to put hooks on the back and take them home. Nobody budged. “Let’s go now! Get in there!” Our spectators got up off their towels, hopped across the hot concrete and disappeared through the natatorium door.
Whitey looked at Other Greg and me. “Hustle up!” Other Greg and I looked at each other. The cicadas buzzed. The concrete glowed. The sky blazed. I was beyond feeling; there was no way I was going to move.
Whitey shrugged. “Fine, you want to stand out there like morons, you go ahead. I got things to do.” Other Greg smirked at me; his eyes narrowed; he gave me one of those reverse nods people give when they don’t find you worthy of Hello.
“Man, you can stay here,” he said. “This is for dumb-asses.” He stepped away, joined Whitey and left me out there on my own.