When I worked that summer at camp years ago, I never dreamed I would spend the season with someone else who had the same name. The other Alice arrived with the program director, Ms. Gilmore. So she was also Alice Gilmore. But the other Alice Gilmore was not even a person. She was a dog – a draggy-eared, droopy-eyed, short-legged, swaybacked basset hound.
Camp tradition of naming staff after their positions slightly disguised the coincidence of our names: I, the head counselor, became Alice Head. The other Alice Gilmore became, well, Alice Dog.
But given what evolved over the summer, it was our shared names that came to signify the larger ... tale.
As I settled into my job as head counselor, I began tasks I never had anticipated: fetching runaway campers from the kitchens of watchful farmers and refereeing between staff and a director whose capabilities with children resulted at season's end in his immediate reassignment to Florida to work with the elderly.
There was the nighttime search for a missing camper and another hunt to find and retrieve a group of cabin mates who had set up who-knew-where in the woods. And staff needed reorganizing after a counselor bailed out at midseason.
Meanwhile, Alice Dog, who had a great deal of freedom to roam, made friends.
The stark differences in our camp roles jelled, as it were, over grapes. I marveled at the calm, word-of-mouth boycott of grapes one night at supper, in support of César Chávez's campaign for the rights of migrant farmworkers.
The next night, the kitchen again served grapes, buried in Jell-O. The dining room exploded. I, being Alice Head, helped quell the ruckus above the tables. Alice Dog – wet-nosed, a decidedly apolitical garbage disposal patrolling below surface – ate grapes, with and without the ruse of Jell-O.
The pattern was set. "Oh, she just separates the major traumas from the minor traumas and keeps on going," a counselor once responded to another's request as to how Alice Gilmore, head counselor, carried out the demands of the job. Alice Gilmore, dog, also carried out the demands of her self-appointed jobs: chief confidant and keeper of the peace.
As I searched for misplaced soccer balls, Alice Dog sat with head cuddled in the lap of a little girl crying her woes into a floppy ear. As I headed down to relieve Rick Waterfront after a too-long a tour of duty, Alice Dog trotted alongside Linda Boats attentively listening to mutterings best kept private.
Alice Dog rode shotgun with leery first-time canoeists. She chased softballs and flopped along beside gleeful base runners. Around the campfire, Alice Dog knew which girls needed her behind them for "safety" from the dark woods.
When we Alice Gilmores joined paths, campers approached us crooning, "Hi, Alice!" Turning to respond, I saw girls bent over patting a tail-wagging Alice Dog. As they straightened up, they gave me a polite, "Oh, hi, Alice."
I began to think that maybe Alice Dog was the real Alice Head. Except that she displayed lesser characteristics for me alone. Chewing, for one. Not her owner's things – mine. Magazines, socks, my Judy Collins "Wildflowers" LP jacket, and my treasured copy of "Wrinkle in Time."
When her owner left camp overnight for a math teacher's conference, Alice Dog climbed into the empty bottom bunk and cried – deep, lonely, hound-dog moans.
Dangling precariously from the top bunk, I patted her, murmuring sympathetically. More moaning. "Shhhh!" I reprimanded. She started heaving squeaky, jowl-flapping, stage-whisper sighs, more disturbing than out-loud moans. I shut her out of the bedroom – for about 30 seconds. Better one sleepless Alice Head than a baying basset hound rudely awakening the entire state of New Hampshire.
Thus we proceeded to the end of camp, each Alice Gilmore tending to her affairs, with occasional differences of opinion. "Why did I leave my staff and camper evaluations unattended at doggie-nose level?" I groaned, as I glumly tried to reconstruct from chewed scraps what I had written.
Postcamp, making rounds with my clipboard, I noticed gray, lichen-speckled rocks scattered since glacier days over hillsides never cleared for farming. How had I not tripped unseeing over them on moonless nights without a flashlight? How often had Alice Dog hurtled pell-mell downhill on a mission, head bouncing, ears flapping over her face, never colliding with one?
Birds I'd hardly heard all summer twittered atop stately pines weathered from years of storms. The athletic field radiated sunshine in clear air that held a faint, crisp hint of fall. Rake marks striped the beach beside the glistering lake. Driveways sported previously unnoticed middle strips of green grass. Brown boarded-up cabins along wooded footpaths seemed unnaturally quiet.
Was I walking in the same places I had dashed around all summer? What had really happened during camp? Had I been so busy with solving problems that I missed the point? Could we please rerun the summer, so I can check it out?
Then, through the prickly-warm, buzzing afternoon echoed a sound I'd heard over and over during the summer: doggie tags jingling the approach of a happy four-legged namesake who was, literally and figuratively, all ears.
In that sound lay my answer: Alice Dog had been there all summer long, missing nothing. While I held things together behind the scenes, Alice Dog manned – dogged? – the front lines, bestowing the spirit of camp.
It wasn't that important things didn't get done. It just wasn't always I who did them. My little namesake buddy had covered for me. Between us, we Alice Gilmores got the job done. How humbling, that a savvy little basset hound with my name made it work.