The 4th of July at the camp I attended as a kid always meant a Pioneer Meet.  Nowadays, in my classroom, I hear from kids who go to sleepaway camp that they call them “color wars.”  I wonder if some camps are thinking of rebranding that event.  I never thought of the Pioneer Meet as a war, though it involved competition, for sure.  

Three events from those days stand out in my mind.  The first was the human pyramid.  I loved that event.  Nowadays, I would say the reason was that it was a team event that involved kids of all sizes.  We had teams of six kids, and they had to race in sync to a line about 30 yards away.  Then, the three largest kids threw themselves on their knees in a tight line, side by side.  Once they were firmly planted (in about half a second), the next two, medium-sized kids put their knees on the backs of those three large kids.  The lucky middle guy got two knees on his back. It was okay.  He was big and sturdy. Finally, the lightest kid, timing things just right, planted one foot on Lucky Man’s backside, and then his knees on the backs of the middle row.  Once in place on top of the pyramid, Little Guy took his bandanna out of his mouth and waved it frantically in the air for the judges to see before, inevitably, the pyramid collapsed, again, mostly onto the back of Lucky Man.  

I loved the teamwork.  I loved the practice as we learned to run in formation. I loved the strategy,like the locked arms of the bottom row and the small gap left for the top guy’s first footstep. I loved the timing and the coordination.  I loved the sense that every size mattered.  I also have to admit that I loved that for the first two years of my camp life, I was the lucky little guy who got to climb the human mountain, wave the bandana (usually a great photo op), and then fall on top of the pile of people.  I realize now, that I wasn’t really the hero of that event.  I stood on the top, triumphant, because the bigger and the stronger supported me.

The second event I loved also combined teamwork and a remote possibility of glory.  We called it the Pony Express, though there were no horses involved (or it would definitely not have been my favorite).  It was essentially a long baton relay race that started at the girl’s camp about two miles down the road.  We had 8 kids on a team, four from the junior section and four from the senior section.  Spaced evenly over the trails and dirt roads that connected the camps, each kid waited his turn to carry the mail (baton). Each kid shared a piece of the responsibility.   The last leg was usually run by one of the oldest kids in camp, who, if his team happened to be leading, got to race that last stretch of dirt road and glide through the toilet paper finish line with the whole rest of the camp cheering (well, at least half of them).  

But the best event in my mind was the one that finished the whole competition.  It involved every kid in camp, and it actually had some functional significance.   All of the cabins at our camp were made from that seemingly unlimited Adirondack resource, the pine tree. The cabins were beautifully simple and sturdy, but we also knew that no cabin in the camp was a match for a sudden fire. In those remote parts, fire departments probably wouldn’t reach you in time. The camp had to have its own way of extinguishing a fire.  The lake provided a large amount of water, but it wasn’t so easy to bring the lake to the flames.  So, everyone needed to know how to transform 100 individuals into a giant human conveyor belt.  This was known as the Bucket Brigade.  For the Pioneer Meet, we turned it into a competition, but always, Pete, the head of our camp, told us why we practiced it, and he reminded us that it symbolized something bigger,  an act of community, one that involved every individual working as part of a group, chipping in to save the lodge, to save something we all loved.

Our camp’s main lodge stood toward the top of a fairly long and steep hill.  Divided into two teams, we spread out along the two main trails that led up from the lake.   Each team had fifteen fire buckets laid out on the dock and one person who served as the dipper.  That person stood waist deep in the swim section of the lake.  On the word “Fire!” he filled the first bucket and handed it up to the next person in line.  Then each person on the team had to pass that bucket, quickly, but carefully, up the long line toward the top of the hill.  The buckets were heavy on the way up the hill.  The younger kids could barely carry the bucket, much less keep it from spilling.  The first bucket was followed by a second, and a third, and so on.   As each bucket got to the top of the hill, a counselor had to determine that it was at least ¾ full before the lucky captain, standing on a ladder, got to hurl the water onto the roof of the lodge.  After that splash, the empty bucket made a return trip to the lake, touching each camper on the way down.  We had to finish two cycles of fifteen.  If a bucket spilled, that meant another one needed to make the journey to replace it.

I have no real memories of who won these competitions from year to year. I know it mattered in the moment.  What stood out to me, and what has stuck in my memory, was the sense of a motley group of kids who, only a few days into the summer, transformed into a machine, a bucket-hefting, muscle-straining, teammate-cheering  water-moving, fire-dousing,  lodge-saving machine.  There was no individual glory, but we had glorious spirit.  

I was thinking about that spirit on this 4th of July, the first summer in 100 years that my beloved old camp stood silent, its grand old lodge, empty.  I found myself wishing our country of rugged individuals and pioneers could figure out a way to run in sync, kneel for each other, carry the baton, share the load, and work as one,  all for that greater good.  There’s glory in that.

Precedented Times

Saturday night I escaped reality.  I zoomed back in time to May of 1996.  Here’s how it happened.   In January I had bought tickets to a baseball game in Baltimore.  The date of the game, June 27, seemed safe at the time.  We had heard of a virus that was in the news, but we didn’t feel any immediate threat.  We certainly didn’t see a risk to buying tickets to a game that was nearly seven months away.  These annual pilgrimages to Baltimore had become a tradition.

When the baseball season was put on hold in March, it still seemed possible to us that the late June date might work.  In May, we realized it wouldn’t happen.  We started thinking about Plan B.  There’s nothing imaginative about watching a game on the computer, but I’d never done it through Zoom as a social thing.  My job was to create a menu of old games involving the Orioles, preferably games that they won.

I found some vintage games, like their World Series wins in 1970 and 1983.  I found others that featured classic performances, like a Mike Mussina one-hitter in the playoffs or Eddie Murray’s 500th career home run.  We settled on a game that my nephew suggested.  He remembered it from his teen years, a game in which a player named Chris Hoiles had actually hit not one, but TWO grand slams. In the SAME game!  A rarity, indeed.  I searched it up. The first three Google hits were of the 1-minute variety, quick highlights of the two homers.  The fourth one was what we wanted.  A full game on YouTube.  Wow.  Three hours and 39 minutes. 

What I didn’t realize as I saved the link for our big Zoom night was that the full game was a DIFFERENT game.  Chris Hoiles did play a role in the game (hence the Google hit), but it wasn’t the two-grand slam game that my nephew had mentioned.

I realized my error in the second inning, when my nephew mentioned that this game had been one of the few bright spots in the otherwise-dismal 1998 season, when the Orioles’ long drought had just begun.  “Hmm, that’s odd,” I said, “because I think the game we’re watching is happening in 1996.”  I quickly checked on my phone, not wanting to interrupt the game on our screens.  Sure enough, the two-grand-slam game was in 1998.  Also, sure enough, the game we were watching was in 1996.  I had the wrong game on our shared screen.  

I sheepishly admitted my mistake.  I’d only had about a month to get this right.  Yeah.  

I rallied, though!  I suggested that maybe this would be better.  I could now see in the description on my phone what would happen in the game.  The title of the video pretty much gave away the ending.  My brother-in-law and nephew, though, were blissfully ignorant.  This actually gave them the opportunity to experience the game with some suspense.  

So, there we sat in our little box seats, a stripe down the right side of the field.  The TV image took up the rest of the screen. Our voices occasionally drowning out the announcers’.

There were moments of greatness.  Roberto Alomar makes a diving stop to rob Joey Cora.  Ken Griffey Junior makes a diving, rolling catch in center field to return the favor.  My wife comes down to the basement for a cameo, shuffling between me and my computer’s camera, saying, “Excuse me, excuse me, I just need to get to my seat over there.”    Later she came down to shout out, “Cold beer!” And still later, she came down to do what she often does when I’m watching games (by her own admission).  She just had to tell me what she’d learned from a friend on Facebook: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bradley Cooper were all sharing a house in the fancy side of our town and had been spotted at a nearby gas station and at a dive bar by the beach.  I promised I would keep a lookout, but I was currently residing in 1996, and those three didn’t even have careers yet.

Another nephew tuned in during the third inning, sharing a couch with his son and daughter. At one point, I suggested, perhaps a bit rudely, that a pitching change was in order.  The Orioles were leading 7 to 2, but their starting pitcher was clearly struggling, barely escaping jams in the previous two innings.  Apparently the Orioles’ manager was listening to our conversation, because he promptly switched pitchers.  I cheered. Within moments of that brilliant move, the Orioles’ lead had evaporated.  The play-by-play announcer AND my family members reminded me of this strategic error at five-minute intervals for the remainder of the game.

I got up to get another cold beverage (and some relief from the barrage of criticism), offering to get some for my fellow spectators, before realizing that, oh yes, we were hundreds of miles apart.   To make them feel better, when I returned, I told them that the lines had been super long. On the plus side, the men’s room was surprisingly clean.

By the ninth inning, the Orioles’ lead stood at one run.  The score was 10-9, when a young Alex Rodriguez, only 21 at the time, came to the plate for the bad guys…with the bases loaded.  On the first pitch, he rocketed a ball into the left field stands, giving his team, the Seattle Mariners, a 13 to 10 lead with one swing.

Even with the mini view of their faces, I could see that my nephew and brother-in-law were not amused.  “Seriously?  You’re making us watch a game that the Orioles LOST? And in the most painful way imaginable? To the young version of that hated future Yankee?”  This was far worse than my ill-advised pitching change blunder. I tried to seem equally disappointed. I apologized repeatedly.

That disappointment, that bleak moment, of course, was a necessary dose of anguish. The hero’s despair. The low point before the redemption.  I think it worked very well from a dramatic standpoint.

The bottom of the ninth was all that much sweeter, as the Orioles, with two outs, loaded the bases. Chris Hoiles, the only Oriole who hadn’t managed a hit in the game, lumbered to the plate.  He had been mired in an 0-for-20 slump.   At several points during the game, I had feigned disgust at his ineptitude.  Now, I suggested that the Orioles should probably pinch hit for him. This was too big a moment for such a lame hitter. 

Well, you would have, too, if you were in my position.

When this happened (did you watch it?), it was all worth it.

For an evening at least, we were living in precedented times.