Month: August 2017

Unrest in Peace

The summer camp I attended as a kid and worked at as an “adult,” will soon celebrate its 100th year.  My daughter is working at the camp this summer.  She’s the third generation from my family, as my mother attended the camp way back in the 40’s.  To mark the centennial, the camp directors invited former campers and staff to share a memory.  I’ve written several stories from my camper days and counselor experiences, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. I decided to write a new one instead. It’s odd.

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It’s the summer of 1974, and I’m 13 years old.  At camp, they refer to our age group as younger seniors. It’s a rainy day, and we’re having rest hour, forced downtime that as a camper, I do not feel is necessary.  Judging from our counselor, it seems like it’s the “grown ups” who need a break.

Our cabin houses five kids and one counselor.  That counselor, Fred Knight, is atypical for the camp. Most of the counselors are former campers, now in college. Fred is a townie from Keeseville.  He grew up in a house at the base of Pinnacle, a small mountain the camp has always considered its own personal peak.  Fred has recently discharged from the Navy, so he’s a bit more salty than the college kids, though with a big bushy beard, he looks more like a mountain man than a military sort.  He cracked us up on the first day of camp by telling us he had two middle names, Ulysses and Charles.  At first we didn’t get it, until he told us it was really fun to write his initials on things.  Ba-dum-bum.

The problem with rest hour is that it is really hard to rest when you’re in the company of four friends.  Fred can rest.  He’s a grown-up…sort of.  He flops on his bed and within minutes he’s snoring.  Not us. Someone always stirs the pot.  In this case,  the pot stirrer is my friend  Eric.  “I feel like having a séance,” he declares.

This doesn’t get the desired reaction from my friend, Jack.  “A what? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“A séance,” Eric repeats.  Then he elaborates for those of us who are less tuned-in to the mystical world.  “You know, it’s like when witches sit in a circle and try to bring back dead souls.  It takes a lot of concentration, but I’ll bet we can do it.”

I’m dubious.  “Well, for one thing, we’re not witches,” I note,  “and for another thing, don’t you have to do things like that at night?  I doubt it would work at rest hour.”

“And besides, who do you want to bring back?  Does it need to be someone we knew, cuz I don’t really know any dead people, except my grandfather.”  That’s Dave.  He tends to be the voice of reason in our group.  I think he’s even started shaving, so we know he’s mature. However, just the fact that he’s taking the idea seriously gives it some traction.  Eric says that it doesn’t need to be someone that we all know, but it helps if someone has a connection.  We take turns telling about people we know who’ve died, but none of these dead people presents a compelling case for a séance. They all seem old, and we wonder if they’ll be mad that we’re bothering them.  Old people usually like to rest (see sleeping counselor as exhibit A).  Finally, David M. comes up with a new thought.

“What about somebody famous?  Some of them died before they were old.”  This leads to a barrage of suggestions.  Eric starts a list as we call out ideas:  John F. Kennedy, Babe Ruth, Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King,  Roberto Clemente.  We eliminate Clemente when I remind everyone that he didn’t  speak English very well.  He wouldn’t understand our invitations. Eric crosses him off the list.  We’re debating additional options when a loud voice calls out from the bed in the corner,

“JIMI.”

We freeze.  “Who said that?” Jack asks.

“I think it might have been Fred,” I say.  We had all assumed he was asleep.  “Fred, was that you?  What did you say?”

“Hendrix, man.  You guys should bring Hendrix back from the dead.  That would be cool.”  We are learning a lot about music from Fred.  We have a small, plastic covered record player in the cabin, and Fred has been critiquing our musical taste since day one of camp. He’s told me I have musical taste like a teenybopper girl.  Ouch.  That could be because I get most of my musical advice from my teenaged older sister, but I wouldn’t have called her a teeny bopper.  Fred seems to favor bands outside the mainstream, and to our minds, bands with crazy names, like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Mott the Hoople, and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

Now we’re learning to appreciate Jimi Hendrix.  Fred is partial to an album called Electric Ladyland. We like the name, and the music is growing on us.  “Fred, could you help us do the séance?” Eric asks. “It might work better, since you really like Jimi.”

“Do it yourself, ya candy-asses.”  That’s Fred’s nickname for us.  We’re pretty sure it’s a term of endearment.

We decide to go ahead with Fred’s idea, even if he won’t help.  We start the séance by sitting in a circle in the back section of the cabin. Eric thinks we need to join hands.  I’m still fixated on this daylight problem.  I get up and pull the heavy cabin shutters closed.  This helps, I think.  Jack grabs Electric Ladyland from Fred’s shelf. and places it at the center of the circle. The  cover has a huge glowing image of Jimi’s head.  “Everybody close your eyes,” Eric says.  We do.  Now what?  “I think someone should say something to invite him.”

“Slide over.”

To our surprise, Fred joins the circle, plopping  himself down between me and Eric.  “I’ll say something,” Fred offers, “I’m not gonna let you guys screw this up.”  He lowers his voice to this gravelly tone and begins. “Oh, spirit of Jimi, greatest guitarist the world has ever known, if you can hear us, please come back to upstate New York.  Return to the land of Woodstock.”  We’re hundreds of miles from Woodstock, but Fred’s voice sounds so mysterious and inviting.  I’m beginning to think this might work.   He continues, “Come.  Come to the North Country and show these pantywaists what real music sounds like. They dig Elton John and Cat Stevens.  Please help us.”  This comment is directed more at me than at Jimi.  It stings a bit.  I’m worried Jimi’s going to think less of me.

We wait.  No sound. Just raindrops on the cabin roof.

“Well, that was stupid.  I knew that wouldn’t work  Now what do we do?”  That’s Jack, who was never really on board.  For one thing, he’s a Led Zeppelin fan, so he prefers a different Jimmy.  He’s mad that Jimmy Page hasn’t made it on our list.  I have politely pointed out that he’s ineligible, since he’s not yet dead.

We all  head back to our bunks and flop down. Suddenly  a long, loud note pierces the air.  It’s the distinctive wail from Hendrix’s guitar.  We all jump.  Fred chuckles.  “Man, you guys scare easy.”  He’s up in the overhead rafters, where the record player resides. Suddenly Dave sits up.  “That’s it, man.  That’s what we should do.”

“What?  Play the record?  We’re not supposed to make noise during rest hour.”

“No, we make a fake séance to scare the cubbies.” The cubbies are the youngest kids in camp.

“Hey, we can charge ’em each a candy store to come in.” Jack has always had an eye for profit…and candy is the camp currency.  Now, suddenly he’s interested in the afterlife.

What follows is the kind of rapid and ridiculous teamwork that can only happen when you’re not supposed to be working or even playing.  We start by putting all of our rain ponchos and some of our sleeping bags over the screens in the back section.  We hang other sleeping bags over the rafters to block the entrance to the back section.   Darkness is key.  We decide that Jimi will enter through the roof, so we place the album cover high on the ledge over the back windows. We experiment with spotlight possibilities.  None of us has a very powerful flashlight, though.  Just then, Dave rushes to his trunk and pulls out his camera.  He has a big flash that plugs into the top of the camera.  He unscrews it.  “Check this out,” he says.  He presses a button on the back. There’s a faint high-pitched whistle, and then POW, an explosively bright flash of light.

“That is so cool,” I say.  “Aim it at Jimi’s head.”  We wait while the flash re-gathers its energy.  The cabin is dark. Poof!  Suddenly Jimi’s illuminated face beams back at us.  We decide that it looks too much like an album cover, so we nestle it in one of our army blankets.  Eric says that if that’s the only thing we do, it will be over too quickly.  He’s right.  We need to build tension and suspense.  We station David M., the smallest of our group, in the rafters with the record player.  We cover him with blankets so no one will see him.  He finds the perfect parts of “Voodoo Child,” some very unsettling guitar for little kids, we think.

Jack still doesn’t think we’ve got enough drama.  He suggests a flaming devil flying across the cabin.  “We could wrap a tennis ball in toilet paper and set it on fire,” Jack suggests.

Fred says no.  He says it in a more colorful way.  Still, we like the idea of something flying.  Dave has fishing line.  We think it will be pretty much invisible in a dark cabin.  We run it from the ceiling on one side to a lower cubby on the other side of the cabin.  Now we just need something to fly.  I come up with the idea of a red bandana.  I wear red bandanas all the time at camp. Very cool.  I’m pretty sure they offset the Elton John and Cat Stevens stuff.  We wrap a tennis ball in the bandana and fluff out the other end to look like flames.  We use an eye hook from one of the cabin shutters and screw it into the tennis ball.  The eye goes over the fishing line.

It’s time for a test flight of the fake flaming devil.  Jack stands on the bunk in the corner of the cabin.  Dave readies the flash.  Other Dave lies poised with the needle over the record player. We count down, “3-2-1, go!”  There’s a screech as David M. drops the needle and it skids off the edge of the record.  The flash goes off.  No flaming devil.

“Sorry, it’s too heavy, it only moved about two feet.”

Discouraged, but not defeated, we continue refining.  We tighten the fishing line, work on our timing, rig up a way that the album cover can swing over the seating area at the climactic moment, and then practice our lines.  We decide that Eric will conduct the ceremony.  We tell him to use some of Fred’s original lines.  I suggest that he leave out the part about Elton John.  The rest of us will play along.  I decide that I will scream and duck at the moment the flash goes off.  Others will point or grab the nearest cubbie  in fright.  Fred chuckles.  “Maybe you should have a mop handy in case one of them pees all over the floor.”  I’m pretty sure he’s kidding.

Finally, we’re ready.

As if on cue, the bell rings for the end of rest hour.  We send out our recruiters, Dave and Jack, to intercept cubs on their way to afternoon activities.  Unfortunately, the rain means there is not much traffic through the senior section.  We get four customers, not even enough for a candy store for each of us. That’s okay.  We escort them into the cabin. We explain that we’ve been practicing summoning the spirits of the dead, and we think, with their help, we may be able to finally succeed. The cubbies nod uncertainly, and we lead them into the back section of the cabin.  We seat them on the floor, alternating cubbie and senior.  Rain taps on the roof of the cabin. Eric begins in his most solemn voice, “Oh, spirit of Jimi, greatest guitar player…”

The séance goes perfectly, just as scripted.  Unfortunately, the reaction does not.

“Wow.  That was cool.  Can you do the flying bandana again?”

“How did you make that album cover fall down at just the right time?”

“Who is Jimi Hendrix?”

“That was a pretty short  show.  Can I have my candy store back?”

We do not spook any cubbies, and we’re quite a few candy stores short of a fortune, but I think all of us agree, it sure beats lying on our bunks listening to our counselor snore.

 

Note: The year 1974 occupies a strange period in camp history.  Later that same summer I will experience a true camp novelty:  for the first and only time in my camp experience, Pete, the head of the camp will bring a TV into the lodge and let campers watch.  Normally our camp tries to keep life very simple and rustic.  But, it’s not every day that the president of the United States resigns from office.  Also, during the 70s, the camp has actually run electricity to the cabins so that they have a single central light and an electrical outlet. Later, considering the electricity a fire hazard, the camp removes the lights and outlets from all but the big communal buildings in the camp, making it considerably harder to conduct fake séances.

Ships Passing

I’m heading down to my old hometown tomorrow, not to the house in which I grew up. That was sold last summer.  I’m heading to the apartment that’s the new home of my parents.  It’s hard for me to get used to the idea that I have octogenarian parents.  Like with most of these adjustments, I’ll probably just be getting used to it in about three years, when they become nonagenarians.  Let’s hope they do.  I’ve enjoyed the fact that my mother, the former history teacher, is now four score and seven years old.  I’m not enjoying the fact that she’s having to deal with more and more health issues.

Already a breast cancer survivor with a titanium hip, this year she had to deal with a very painful back problem and then another cancer bout.  I’m heading to Bethesda because she’s heading to the hospital in Baltimore for three days of treatment, and someone needs to be in both places.  My sister is planning to take care of the Baltimore patient, since she works there one day a week, and I’ll be taking care of my father, who’s not too great at fending for himself in the apartment.

I realize all of this is pretty typical stuff when your parents reach a certain age, but it definitely makes going home a different experience.  Gone are the days when I’d go home to be spoiled or fussed over.  As are the days when the family gets together and just talks about the kids.  Now we get together and talk about ailments, treatments, medicine, physical therapy, hearing aids, and procedures.  My sister and I talk about the frustrations of parents who don’t always follow directions or seem to listen to advice. Clearly it’s the payback for the years when we behaved the same way.  I find myself wondering how I’ll be able to act with my father.  I’ve spent so much of my life being impatient with him for stupid things. It’s hard to believe how much time I wasted then, groaning over the noisy way he ate his raisin bran, bemoaning the fact that he didn’t share my interest in sports, griping about the way he interrupted tv shows that I was watching.  Now I’m wondering what I was thinking.

When I first bought a house, way back in the 80’s, I remember that I attended a writing institute at Fairfield University.  I wrote a short story (?) narrative that I called “Home Plate, Home, and a new Home.”  I remember that it focused on my relationship with my father, and how having a new home of my own was helping me see him in a new light.  I also remember my mom reading the piece and saying, “It’s very nice, but I was the one who taught you to play baseball.”  True enough.  I wish I could say that it totally changed my relationship with my father.  Maybe it did for about ten years, my twenties, his fifties.  Somewhere around when he headed into his sixties (and I headed into fatherhood), my impatience returned,  again not really rational impatience.  He started losing his hearing, and for some reason this annoyed me.  It became harder and harder to have a conversation with him.  I had to repeat myself all the time.  This sign of failing strength and health somehow seemed like something that he was allowing to happen.  Rather than being sympathetic, I was impatient, intolerant.

During those years, though, his mind was still totally intact.  He read voraciously and focused intensely on projects.  After he retired from NIH, he threw himself into projects, like translating his grandmother’s memoirs from Swedish to English, like researching his family tree, and then my mom’s much trickier family tree (Any idea how many Leveys and Kleins there were in New York City in the late 1800s?).  They weren’t always the projects that interested me, but I could have celebrated his passionate interests.  We had adopted our older daughter, so I often wished that my father was paying more attention to her than to the bloodlines of the past, which she didn’t even fully share.  I was self-conscious for her that hearing about these relatives didn’t (or wouldn’t) give her the same feeling of belonging to something bigger.  I wished my father would turn his attention to the present, his living breathing granddaughter, instead of his own great-great-grandfather’s sister’s husband.

A few years ago, as my father’s hearing loss made him more and more detached from conversations and interactions, my sister and I became worried that his brain was lacking stimulation.  We tried a few ways to bring him into conversations, like a phone app that transcribed speech into text so that he could follow conversations.  That worked for a bit, but by then his eyesight was also less acute, so he still didn’t always follow the conversations.  I also showed him some examples of  childhood memoirs, like Ralph Fletcher’s Marshfield Dreams, and Russell Baker’s Growing Up.  I knew my father had had some interesting experiences, both as a child living in Sweden during World War II and as a young immigrant in the U.S. in the late 40s.  He took to this project obediently, but his mind had become less and less sharp, and now the writing seemed more like a memory test than an journey in writing.  We shared a Google doc for a year, with him writing sections, me inserting comments, and him answering the comments, in another comment, not the text.

I was happy to hear from my sister last week that he was having some frustration with the document.  To me, that was a good sign. I hadn’t known he was still working on it. The frustrations were mostly just clumsy cuts and pastes that fell in the wrong place or trimmed too much or too little. The good news for me was that he was adding to his stories, making revisions and rearrangements.  I’m hoping this was spurred by the writings of my uncle, who recently passed away at the age of 90.  During his last months, as he struggled with kidney failure, my mom’s older brother diligently penned childhood memories of his summers with his grandfather.  I think my dad was impressed by this, saw the effect that it had on the younger generation, and decided he’d better get back to this project that no one else could tackle.

I’m looking forward to sitting down and conferring with my father.  I hope I can be patient with this writer, especially when both of us are not so great at  communicating our true feelings.

 

Beach Trip Revisited

Way back in the August of 1977, I was a 16-year-old almost-high-school-junior, and I got a call from some friends saying they were renting a house at Rehoboth Beach.  We lived in Bethesda, Maryland, a landlocked suburb of Washington, so an invitation to the actual beach with actual ocean was a pretty big deal.  I asked for clarification.

“So your folks rented a house?  That’s great.”

“No, my folks didn’t rent a house.  We’re renting a house.  A bunch of us are going in on the upstairs of this guy’s house.  If you can chip in $20 a night, we should be able to do it.”

This was huge news.  Seriously, a bunch of high school kids were going to be able to rent a house at the beach?  How was this possible?  Who would do that?

“Yeah, Kevin found this guy and convinced him that he was in college and a bunch of his buddies wanted to get together.  The guy believed him!”

So, the only problem was that I was carless, and I had to work on Friday, which is when most of the guys were heading to the beach.  It was a pretty long drive.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there.  Fortunately, my  sister came through with a suggestion.  One of her friends was heading to the beach on Friday afternoon, and maybe I could get a ride with him.  It worked. So late Friday afternoon, I squeezed into a car with a bunch of people I barely knew.  All of them were older than I was.  They had already started college.  I don’t remember much about the trip except that there was a lot of traffic, and Bill enjoyed slouching in the driver’s seat and steering with his feet.  He was a soccer player, with excellent foot-eye coordination, so what could go wrong?

Looking back, it’s remarkable what my parents allowed me to do in those days.  In this case, though, I’m guessing it was because I was less than forthcoming about the living arrangements at the beach.  I may have forgotten to mention that the house was being rented by kids and there wouldn’t be any parental types in the vicinity.

Bill and Company dropped me off quite late.  This was, of course well before cell phones and google maps, so it’s surprising to me that we even found the place. I had the house number and explicit directions NOT to knock on the front door.  That would be where Mr. Latsios, the owner, lived.  While some of my friends could pass for college kids, I, at about 5-foot 3 and 100 pounds and not yet shaving, barely looked like a high school kid.  I went around to the side entrance and climbed the porch stairs.  These were not deluxe accommodations, and we were not quite on the beach, but it looked pretty great to me. Unfortunately, it was late, and no one seemed to be home.  I guess the guys had gone out to cruise the boardwalk.

On closer inspection, I noticed that someone was passed out on the couch.  I didn’t recognize him.  I dumped my stuff in a chair and started looking around.  There were beer bottles everywhere, clothes piled in every corner, and a large bowl of red punch on the porch table.  Always prudent about these things, I helped myself to several cups.  Very refreshing.  I later discovered the empty bottle of grain alcohol by the sink.

I only remember little scraps from the rest of the trip.  Sunburn,  Boardwalk. Bouncers. Touch football. Pinball machines.  Beer (no more grain alcohol).  Creating inscrutable t-shirts to commemorate the trip.  And Elvis Presley dying  (That was temporarily sobering).  Otherwise, it was the perfect weekend.

After college I moved away from Maryland, and except for weddings, Christmas cards, and one high school reunion, I fell out of touch with most of my friends from that group. I was somewhat surprised this spring when I got a Facebook message  from one of those friends.  “You know this is the 40th anniversary of that beach trip,” he said.  “We were hoping to have a reunion this summer. Any chance you could make it?”

As I drove down to Delaware this summer, I admit that I was a bit nervous.  I wondered what the gathering would be like.  When you don’t see people for 30 years, there’s this suspended aging effect that takes over your imagination.  Visions of keg parties and beer pong floated through my mind.  I’m not really up for that stuff anymore.  We rarely play Quarters or have chugging contests in the teacher’s lounge.  Would I still like these people?  Would they like me?  Would we have anything to talk about besides our high school days?

I needn’t have worried.  Almost all of my friends arrived not only with spouses but also with kids of various ages from teens to twenty somethings.  Moderation was the order of the day.  We talked about our jobs and our aging or recently-departed parents.  We bragged about our kids.  We commiserated about our parenting struggles. We ranted about the embarrassment in the White House.  We tried (unsuccessfully) to make the beach a Trump-free Zone. We swam. We lounged,  We shopped at Sea Shell City (I don’t recommend it).  In short, it was the height of boredom…if you were still in high school. For the me of 2017, it was (again) a perfect weekend.

Whirlwind

Two days ago my daughter, Sarah, was in Africa, about to head home after a month working at a hospital in Zambia.  Today, Sarah is at the camp where she has worked the past three summers in upstate New York.  Yesterday, she briefly touched down at our house.  My head is bound to stop spinning soon.

At 6:00 a.m. I headed to Kennedy Airport to pick up my globetrotting girl.  Even the pick-up was a whirlwind.  Her plane was due into Kennedy at 6:40, but I knew that with international flights, the customs and baggage claim process could easily take an hour, so I wasn’t worried when I parked my car at 7:00 and headed into the terminal.  No sooner had I slammed the car door, then I had a text from Sarah saying she could see from her stalking device that I was at the airport.  She was all set and would meet me on the sidewalk.

“We landed about an hour early, so I’ve been ready for about half an hour,” she said.

“Wow, I’m sorry you had to wait.  I’m also sorry I parked, I could’ve just pulled up the the curb.”  We headed back to Connecticut, our car mixed in with all of the Long Islanders heading into the city.  The traffic didn’t really matter to us.  Sarah had lots to share.

For the next two hours, she filled me in on the highlights and the frustrations of working in an understaffed hospital in a town where  the locals paid money to visit healers  rather than visit the hospitals where the treatment was free.  There was one doctor at the hospital.  While she was there, Sarah saw the same doctor deliver babies, perform an appendectomy and a hysterectomy,  drain the abdomen of someone with liver failure, and treat the many HIV patients who the healers couldn’t help.  I learned a lot about the culture of the tribal community, the challenges of an underfunded medical system, the corruption of the president (how novel!), and the language barrier the nurses faced, not because they couldn’t speak English, but because they were from a different part of Zambia and couldn’t speak with the locals.

Just to give Sarah a little rest from her talking, I filled Sarah in on the various health problems in our family.  I also detailed the rapid rise and fall of The Mooch.  Then it was back to the stories from Africa.

I heard about her fouled-up flight into Johannesburg, her amazing housemates, the leader of her trip, who was taking her 20th summer trip to Zambia, the cobra that the doctor killed with a rock in front of the hospital, and the rumpled man who tended the mortuary right behind the hospital.

Sarah’s group of nine college students and one faculty leader spent a lot of time trying to learn how things worked in this town.  They followed the doctor on his rounds, worked in the HIV clinic, visited outreach stations, interviewed nurses, patients, shopkeepers, elderly and disabled people.  As a group, they’re now tasked with a project to develop a plan for having a positive impact on the health care system in this region of Zambia.  It seemed daunting to me, but Sarah was looking forward to the project this fall.

By the afternoon, Sarah was beginning to drag.  She had slept on the 15-hour flight, but they were  six hours ahead of us, so her day should have been winding up.  “You must be tired,” I said, stating the obvious.

“Yeah, but I need to stay up until at least nine.  Otherwise I’ll wake up in the middle of the night.”

“When are you heading up to camp?”

“I was thinking I should leave as soon as I wake up tomorrow.”  Right.

When I got up at 6:00 this morning, Sarah was already up, sitting on the floor stuffing newly-washed clothes into her duffel and her frame pack.  “I woke up at 4:00,” she proclaimed. “I tried reading some Facebook posts, thinking that might put me back to sleep, but…Nope.  So, I took a shower and packed.  I think I’m about ready.”

I managed to stall her for a bit with other things she could pack or eat, but by 7:00 a.m. she was on the road, starting the five-hour drive to the north country.

Thank goodness she’ll be back later this month (for 48 hours) before she goes back to school.