Waking Up On Wasaga Beach

 

By Ed Staskus

   There might be flies on some of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on us.” Traditional Camp Song

   My brother and I both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was then known, starting in the early 1960s, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s, after we had grown older than the age limit. When that happened there was no love lost in our goodbyes, watching our sister leave for camp, while we ate crumbs at home.

   Everybody who was going waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later, when it was over, saying goodbye to fellow campers felt like summer was over, even though it was still only mid-July. We ran around in the woods like knockabouts, there were bonfires, and it was awesome to hang out with our friends. We would have traded any day in the real world for five minutes at summer camp.

   Austra was a summer camp in Wasaga Beach, ninety miles up from Toronto. It is just north of the provincial park and the town’s honky-tonk boardwalk. Americans, Canadians, and anybody who had a drop of Lithuanian blood in them was good to go. After the first year we never wrote letters home. The first year we weren’t allowed to be campers anymore we wrote letters asking for an exemption.

   Founded in 1957, Ausra was a sports culture religious boy and girl runaround camp all wrapped up in a package deal on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand. The sand is bare-bones and fresh and gets into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day and only drops out of sight after you get home. The trees surrounding our camp are what we disappeared into for two weeks, far from home.

   The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp was longer then. The highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. My father had bought a Chevrolet Brookwood as soon as there were three of us, a blue and white station wagon that was twice as big and long as any sedan. The third-row seat faced backwards. We called it the way back window, playing the license plate game and cows on my side.

   The rear window was where my brother and I always sat. Our little sister had to sit alone on the middle bench seat. She wasn’t allowed in the back with us, although we let her play rock paper scissors with us, since she was so bad at it. My brother and I found out from a friend of a friend she counted her lucky stars to have the middle seat to herself. When we asked her why, she just laughed like Woody Woodpecker.

   We were always so excited about going to camp we couldn’t sit still. It took forever to get there. I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father had stuck a globe-like compass on top of the dashboard next to a plastic St. Christopher figurine staring straight watchful ahead. When he started chain-smoking was when we knew things were getting sketchy.

   When the camp opened it slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister went to camp, wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in roughhewn twin barracks. There were close to two hundred of us. In between were the sports field, a parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs.

   The amphitheater was where we sang songs, acted out skits, and had a lauzas, or bonfire. Everyone ran down to the bonfire and sing-along as soon as it started getting dark. There was so much wood we had a fire every night, as big as a log cabin burning down. “It’s not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” my brother said. “They only have bonfires on weekends, and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.”

   Our camp activities director had been in the Foreign Legion. Bruno wore a black beret, a checked kerchief tied around his neck, and carried a hand axe on his belt. He mostly just picked up wood from the forest floor. Our woodpile was always sky high for a rainy day. Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a full box of stick matches and a half-gallon of gasoline to start the fire.

   Everybody cheered when the whoosh happened.

   The days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often massively starlit and frequently damp. The summer sky at summer camp is big and windy. It’s clean and full of life, too. We didn’t shower when we were at camp. Everybody was expected to clean themselves at the communal sink in the latrine. It wasn’t just a pit, but a cinder block building that teemed with daddy long-leg spiders at night.

   Some kids hardly ever washed anything besides their hands and face, and it could get disgusting, but none of us cared too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him into the car when his two weeks were up, and he hadn’t cleaned all over even once.

   “No, go back, go hose yourself off! What is wrong with you?” his mother asked through her nose.

   One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.

   The Beagle was so good at his work he sniffed out a bedbug hiding in the folded page of a paperback book. The next day everyone whose tents were plagued by the bugs piled their stuff in garbage bags and threw the bags inside whatever cars were at the camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

   Bruno told us that a Canadian had invented plastic garbage bags. He was proud of that because he had become a Canadian citizen. He always had something historic to tell us. Sometimes we heard what he had to say. Most of the time we didn’t.

   In the morning every morning at seven o’clock we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. We stretched and did jumping jacks and ran the track. Afterwards we ran back to our tents, changed into clean shirts, and after raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags, sometimes preceded by lowering underpants hoisted in the night, we raced to breakfast.

   We had porridge and scrambled eggs and Post Top 3 cereal. We always had PB&J on Wonder Bread. Sometimes we had sandwich’s all day if something went wrong and there wasn’t anything else. The sweet jelly was a hit with bees and wasps. Metallic colored dragonflies, agile and powerful fliers, had the run of camp. If the spring had been soggy there were mosquitos.

   After breakfast we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and sat down for services. Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass every day on a makeshift altar. He didn’t have any kids, being a priest, but he was good with kids. He cemented his reputation in the early days when a camper swiped the wine for communion.

   “I was about 12 years old and drank it with a girlfriend,” said Dalia Daugvainyte. “The trees whirled around us along with the stars that night.”

   She had to go to confession the next morning. Father Paul let her off the hook with less than a million Hail Mary’s and a solemn vow to never do it again. “Knowing him, he probably hid a smile,” she said. Since the confessional was out in the open, he probably had to turn his head to the side.

   Late mornings we were free. We cleaned up our tents, messed around, and played volleyball, the national game, according to our sports counselor. One day we played volleybat, which was baseball but with a volleyball. We found out it was hairier than it sounds when the pitcher, who was closer to home plate since he had to lob the volleyball, broke his wrist fending off a line drive.

   Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day, which was going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and towels and tramped through a stand of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to the New Wasaga Beach coastline. Whenever we could, we made a run for it, breaking out of our two-by-two ranks, and snuck into the variety store for bottles of Bubble-Up and bags of Maltesers.

   Bruno was unlike most of the other counselors. He wasn’t a parent or a young adult. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and led our formation to the beach. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during World War Two and every summer thought he knew how to assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scatter pell-mell as soon we got close to the dunes.

   Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and fat family cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out, the water flat as a pancake. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.

   “You’re getting us wet,” they yelled, even though they were in the lake the same as us. One girl I liked hated getting water in her eyes and up her nose. She wore enormous green goggles and said they were for swimming, even though she always just stood and floated around in one spot.

   What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played. Walking back to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back. Sometimes I walked with the pretty goggle girl.

   Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, served by eight volunteer cooks, older ladies, who made burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.

   Potatoes were a staple, like Wonder Bread.

   Going swimming on the bay shore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. Everybody feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old was spotted cavorting on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk and given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks.

   He chose a top bunk in the barracks, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-old’s.

   Two other boys who had messed up did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, and finally Kaunas.

   That night, with the whole camp assembled at the amphitheater, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the spellbinding story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas, they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane careened backwards, shook and shuddered, plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire, exploding into flames.

   Everybody hooted hollered groaned wolf whistled. It was the buzz of the camp for days. The girl with goggles under her pillow was quiet. Somebody said one of the pilots had been her great uncle. I bought her a bottle of Orange Crush from the variety store to cheer her up.

   Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.

   Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection bought the land for the camp from a parishioner for a nominal amount in the 1950s and operated it until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps. There are two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.

   There is a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain. Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”

   “I love this camp so much and I have been going since forever,” another camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.

   My nephew goes to Kretinga and eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles. I asked him if he was going back next summer.

   “Oh, yeah,” he said. “My friends and I have been together for five years in the same cabin. Waking up and being at camp is the best time of the year. We get there the first day and there are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. We punch each other and laugh it up. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech.”

   He had already made his plans for when the talking was over.

   “After the next two summers, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing. I can’t wait to go back.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Family Affair

images

By Ed Staskus

The first thing Jody Candow does after getting up at 6 AM is quietly slip out of her home and drive herself to Boot Camp.

“It’s where you work with a trainer every morning,” said Mrs. Candow.

Boot Camp fitness mixes calisthenics like pushups, crunches, and other body weight exercises with interval training. The difference lies in the intensity.

“It gets my workout in, which is partly to keep me sane.”

Back from the gym, her house has come to life; her husband, Rich, a Lakewood, Ohio, mail carrier, is preparing for work, and her four children, teenager Riley, twelve-year-old Kameryn Rose, and five-year-old twins Carter and Ethan, are on the lookout for their mother.

“We tag team, make breakfast, get them ready for school,“ she said.

“My husband drives our son, goes to work, I drive my daughter, the twins come along for the ride, then they stay with my mom, and I go to work.”

The work Jody Candow does is her own, which is the management of her new full-service Kameryn Rose Salon on Linda Street in Rocky River.

She got started when being a stay-at-home mother got to be less of a necessity.

“My kids were getting older, so I started working as a receptionist at a salon six years ago.”

In less than a year she was pregnant again.

“That was a surprise.”

In her second trimester she scheduled a follow-up ultrasound because she was measuring large and because of the baby’s liveliness.

“I always said to my husband, this baby is crazy, it was so active.”

Midway through the test the technician turned off the prenatal ultrasound and suggested her husband join them.

“I asked what was the matter and they said there were two heads. I asked if there were two bodies and they said yes.”

After returning to work part-time, she moved up the ladder to manager, finally striking out on her own. Supported by her family and husband, she reached an agreement with the Sean Luis Salon to lease their vacant second floor. After renovations her salon now features three stylists and two nail stations in a space lit by natural light beneath an open beam ceiling.

“It’s a really nice salon,” said Laurie Fox of Cleveland, her head festooned with silver highlighting foils.

“When I go to get my hair done here I can relax, kind of be pampered.”

One of twelve children, Mrs. Candow lives on the same street she has lived on most of her life, which is the same street her parents, Vicky and Paul, have lived on during all of their 42-year marriage. Many of her brothers and sisters continue to live in Ohio, while one sibling serves in the military.

Once at work, Mrs. Candow’s work is seemingly never done. She leaves the salon to take her twins to pre-school in the early afternoon, and leaves again in the late afternoon to retrieve them and her daughter.

“My son is 16, so he does his own thing with his friends.”

After school her husband rides herd on the family while she makes dinner, and afterwards returns to work, massaging the details.

Mrs. Candow’s long-time stylist and friend Julie Jurek describes her detail-oriented boss as ‘a little OCD’.

“Jody runs the business the way I would want to,” she said. “She’s fair and honest, but, she’s a tweak, everything’s got a place, and everything’s got to be in that place.”

It is her attention to detail that makes the salon a preferred destination.

“It is a place you can walk into and not be intimidated,” said Mary Caruso of Rocky River.

“They are down-to-earth girls, but they are smart businesswomen, too.”

New businesses fail at a high rate, more than 50%, according to the Small Business Administration. Poor management and neglect are often cited as the number one reasons. Given Mrs. Candow’s drive, experience, and commitment to customer service, it is success that seems to be her better option.

No matter the care and effort she puts into her work, Jody Candow always reserves some special consideration for her daughter, disabled from birth.

Born with low muscle tone, Kameryn Rose suffered infantile spasms as a baby, and although appears an average 12-year-old, has never spoken a word, read a book, or ridden a bike. She has receptive language skills, but at a 2 or 3-year-old level.

“She looks totally normal,” said Mrs. Candow.

“You would never know. We’ve had a million tests done and all of them have come back normal.”

After multiple tests by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic and elsewhere, she has never been diagnosed with any specific malady.

“We’ve had geneticists tell us she’s a medical mystery.”

One of the biggest challenges Jody Candow faces managing her new business is the time it consumes, taking her away from her family. When it came time to find a name for the salon, she found the decision an easy one.

“I named the salon after her, because her name is totally beautiful, just like she is, and she’s my only daughter, perfect.”

But, like any girl in an otherwise all-boy family, she knows how to bother her brothers and hold her own.

“There’s no resting in Kameryn’s wake,” said Mrs. Candow.

Whenever the weather cooperates the family spends their time outdoors, the back yard, at parks on the lakeshore, and visiting the Cleveland Zoo.

“We always take Kameryn,” she said

“She’s a little slower, she doesn’t keep up, but we hold hands and just take our time with her.”

It is the ability to care that matters, not disability.

Every day clients come to the Kameryn Rose Salon from as far away as Sandusky.

“When people come here they feel welcome, like they are part of our family,” said Mrs. Candow. “We look forward to seeing them.”

Once her children have gone to bed, Jody Candow finishes her day at the salon.

“Then I chill out a little, go to bed about midnight, and start it all again the next day.”

Postscript:

After two years the Kameryn Rose Salon moved into its own dedicated, modernist space on Lake Road on the edge of the Rocky River valley. “A five star rating,” said Wendy Jackson Richardson after having her hair and nails done, looking like a star stepping out on to the street.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Mammon Goes Mantra

By Ed Staskus

Tim Feldmann and Kino MacGregor met in India, studied Ashtanga Yoga with Sri. Pattahi Jois, married and moved to Miami, and co-founded the Miami Life Center in 2008. Tim Feldman is an accomplished teacher much in demand for workshops in Asia and Europe, while Kino MacGregor is the author of books and producer of videos about the practice,

When they were asked by one of their yoga studio employees, who doubled as front desk man and janitor, if they would be interested in his take on their financial performance, it is to their credit “Mind your own business” wasn’t the first thing they said.

“I was the guy who took out the garbage,” says Matt Tashjian. “But, it was perfectly fine with me. I never thought about it.”

What he did think about was the yoga center’s bottom line.

“There’s some down time during classes when you sit behind the front desk. I started poking around the computer, looking at their numbers, and one day I sent Tim an e-mail suggesting there were a couple of things they could do to improve their numbers.”

Over tea at a local coffee shop he shared his thoughts with them. “We never thought about that, that could be of great value to us,” they said, and for the next year they met monthly, talking business. As they did Tim and Kino began to suspect Matt was someone who knew exactly what he was talking about.

For good reason.

After graduating with a degree in economics from Arizona State University Matt Tashjian worked at and then led a wealth management group at Citi in Hartford, CT, and since 2009 has been the chief advisor, and founder, of the Tashjian Group of Merrill Lynch.

But, before leaving Hartford and moving to Miami in 2008 two things happened: he ran out of steam and had a falling out with a close family member.

“My moving was a result of what can happen in the banking world, which is you get burned out,” he said.

“I was in my late 30s and very focused on professional success and money and got pulled into a cycle of achievement and striving.” As the liquidity crisis of 2007 became the global financial crisis of 2008 he withdrew from the economics world almost entirely. “I went from working 90% of the time to working 10% of the time.”

He found relief by doing more yoga, which he had been introduced to some years earlier, and sought advice at a Buddha Sangha.

“I was looking for a way out of the suffering. It opened my eyes,” he said.

“I reconciled with my sister and realized my life was more important than just work, and I needed to meet those needs. It so happened Miami could fill some of them and that was the impetus for me to start a different life.”

While shopping at lululemon for yoga shorts a sales clerk recommended Miami Life Center to him.

“I started taking classes and eventually asked if I could work there, behind the desk and mopping the floors. I went from being one of the top 500 financial advisors in the country to making sure the bathrooms had toilet paper.”

His personal practice started one day in the mid-1990s when he took a yoga class at a local gym instead of lifting weights.

“I didn’t have any predisposition to yoga or spirituality,” he said. “What piqued my interest was our instructor talking about the breath, patience, and being in the body. I got into it a little bit, started studying yoga, and then Buddhism.”

Sometimes one will go to a yoga class and get the exercise they need to get through the day. Other times they will start thinking about connecting to a higher energy.

“I would say my gym’s yoga class led to a transmutation of how I think about the world. Before yoga I experienced the world through the external, but now I experience it through the internal self. The primary takeaway to my practice is that ultimately all yoga leads to being more compassionate and empathetic to everything around us, and more sensitive to how we’re all connected.”

Compassion and empathy are not common benchmarks of stockbrokers and financial planners. Ambition and desire are the normative ideals, rather, as well as a dollop of greed.

In the modern world making money justifies any behavior. The incentives against financial crime are nominally zero. Almost no one, literally, has been arrested for the banking and market meltdown of the past seven years.

“Is it any wonder that we as a nation seem to be in search of spirit?” asked Kino MacGregor. “What else is left for America to invent than an authentic self in the midst of such rampant materialism?”

If yoga is mixed into the cauldron of capitalism the brew can begin to smell sweeter.

“When you’re deeply ingrained in the yogic path you relate to people differently. What I attempt to do with my clients is infuse the virtues of a balanced life,” said Matt Tashjian. “What’s the sense of having all the money in the world if you’re miserable?”

Sometimes a transformation of motivation can lead to healing and redemption.

“I now try to take a more holistic view with respect to how I interact and counsel clients.”

When Tim Feldmann and Kino MacGregor restructured their yoga center in 2013 they invited Matt Tashjian to join them as a partner.

“There are distinct pros and cons to running a yoga studio,” he said. “The pros are you are surrounded by thoughtful people who care not only about themselves, but other people, too.

“But, like any small business, there are many moving parts every day. Who’s going to change the air conditioning filter or update the holiday schedule on the web site? It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” he laughed.

The Miami Life Center business model is to employ integrated tools, assimilating reiki, arurveda, as well as life coaching, reflecting Kino MacGregor’s approach to supporting people’s paths holistically. “There is a magic there that can’t be expressed in words,” said Claudia Borges about practicing at the studio.

At the heart of the practice is Ashtanga Yoga.

“Ashtanga is definitely very physical in nature,” said Matt Tashjian, “but it really speaks to more of a spiritual practice. Ashtanga studios like ours, by their nature, put their emphasis not only on asana, but on the other limbs of yoga, too.”

But, at most yoga studios it is exercise, not introversion or meditation, that is the de facto breadwinner.

“We’ve Americanized yoga, made it into an exercise,” said Matt Tashjian. “Asana is certainly a component of it, but asana is really to keep the body healthy so we can comfortably sit in a meditative state.”

Sitting and meditating don’t pay the bills, however.

“Studios that are more spiritually oriented face economic dilemmas that exercise-centric studios do not.”

To further their aims he has incorporated economic compromises into Miami Life Center’s mission statement.

“We’re committed to the Ashtanga lineage and we’re committed to the idea of bringing forth something that is more than just vinyasa,” said Matt Tashjian.

“It may not be for everyone, and it’s conceivable that we will make less money, but we want to be the kind of business in the business world that not only does good economically, but more importantly does good, all rolled into one.”

It is the financial advisor in Matt Tashjian that makes him understand it is spiritual snobbery to believe we can be happy without money. It is the yogi in him that reminds him to make sure there is money in his wallet, not in his heart.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Minister of Music

Lavert-Stuart-organist

By Ed Staskus

On any Wednesday evening for the past two decades-and-more whenever anyone looked toward the musician’s pit to the right of the reader’s platform at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River they would have seen, as they still see today, the back of the pony-tailed head of Lavert Stuart.

What they wouldn’t have seen is that serendipity always rewards the prepared. Mr. Stuart has had his fingers on a keyboard from the time he could stand up in a crib. He was ready for the Schantz organ at the Rocky River church

“The substitute for Berdie d’Aliberti, the regular organist at the church, couldn’t make it one night, so I filled in,” said Lavert Stuart. “Then when Berdie’s teaching duties at Baldwin Wallace University got so she could only play on Sundays I became the Wednesday organist, and now we’re looking at more than 25 years.”

What Mr. Stuart didn’t say was that he has been a church musician for almost 50 years, since he started at Cleveland’s Mount Zion Congregational Church in 1965. In the years since he has performed as a pianist and organist at many Protestant churches, from the Historic First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, to the Cathedral de St. Trinity in Port au Prince, Haiti.

Although not a member of the Rocky River church he says he is a Christian Scientist “by osmosis”.

The son of a Cleveland policeman, who was cousin to Carl and Louis Stokes, noted Ohio politicians, and a librarian who went on to become the first black insurance saleswoman in Ohio, Mr. Stuart started small.

“When I was a baby my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where I was. As long as she heard me picking out notes she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else.”

Mr. Stuart grew up in the Glenville neighborhood at a time when it was known as the Gold Coast, crowded with immigrants, delis, clubs, department stores, and churches. He attended Empire Junior High and John Adams High School.

The first in his family to pursue a higher education, he won a scholarship to Ohio University, where he majored in organ. After graduation he moved to Chicago, working for the Board of Education, and playing at several churches, including Salem Lutheran, founded in 1868 by Swedish immigrants. While there he studied with Edward Mondello, the University Organist at the University of Chicago.

“He was a wonderful teacher. I got a lot of the romantic 19th century style from him, playing in the Rockefeller Chapel.”

After being recommended for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he studied there for two years. He was the musical director at the First Congregational Church in Weston and later played his graduation recital at the historic Old West Church, where the phrase “no taxation without representation” was first coined.

While living in Boston he helped coordinate the creation of the 1.6 mile Black Heritage Trail, which winds through the Beacon Hill neighborhood and ends at the African Meeting House, the oldest surviving black church in America.

“The first person to die in the American Revolution was a black man,” Mr. Stuart points out. “It was a terrible time.”

Even in 1976, during the Bicentennial celebrations in Boston, when a man at an anti-busing rally tried to kill an African-American bystander with the pointed pole end of an American flag, captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

“I was only a few steps away from that incident when it happened.”

Thirty-five years later Boston City Council cited Lavert Stuart with a proclamation honoring his “spiritual leadership through music ministry and commitment to developing interest and knowledge in Black heritage and culture.”

Having finished his studies he returned to live in Cleveland.

“It was my experience with institutions, and the sense of history in Boston, which made me interested in the organizations and history that brought me to where I was, and who I was.”

He returned to Mt. Zion Church, serving as their organist and choirmaster for the next ten years, as well as serving as supply organist for several other churches and chapels. He began a 25-year relationship with the Stuphen School of Music, serving as their musical director. The school experienced a renaissance under his leadership.

In 1996 he began his long association with Antioch Baptist Church as their organist for the Sanctuary and Gospel Choirs.

“His ministry of music has been a blessing to me,” said the Reverend Marvin McMickle of the Antioch Church. ”Lavert Stuart has been our local version of the Music Man.”

Mr. Stuart is a long-time supporter of the Antioch Development Corporation, whose mission it is to develop personal and collective self-sufficiency within individuals, families, and organizations throughout impoverished neighborhoods of Greater Cleveland.

“Sometimes you don’t realize the things people have to go through.”

As well as a career in classical, sacred music, Mr. Stuart has had a secular career in jazz and popular music. He got his start at the New England Conservatory under the aegis of Gunther Schuller, a composer, conductor, and performer who was then the president of the music school.

“He really put jazz on the map there,” said Lavert Stuart.

In 1973 Gunther Schuller won a Grammy Award with his Ragtime Ensemble.

In the late 1980s Mr. Stuart was the pianist at the Sweet Water Café in downtown Cleveland, and for more than ten years played three nights a week at Mantell’s in the Radisson in Willoughby.

“They had a grand piano on a platform in the shape of a grand piano.”

As well as playing jazz standards at clubs and restaurants, he has worked as a conductor-pianist for theater productions at both Karamu and the Ensemble Theater. He toured with Karamu when its production of ‘Langston’ performed at Lincoln Center in New York City.

He was the featured pianist in Philip Hayes Dean’s biographical play ‘Paul Robeson’.

“I always wanted to do something on a cruise ship, too,” he said, laughing. “Maybe in a next life I’ll be able to do that.”

As if his plate weren’t full enough, Mr. Stuart volunteers at the McGregor Home, a senior living facility near University Circle, playing the piano in their dining hall.

“One of my last adopted mothers is there,” he said. “She was my car mom when I was a boy, driving me home from church. I sit at the piano, start picking up the vibe, and play for her and her friends. It adds some quality to their lives, which is important, because it’s the little things that count.”

The Reverend Marvin McMickle remembers Mr. Stuart doing the same for his mother. “He would take a keyboard into my mother’s room and play the hymns of the church as she lay in her bed in a nursing home. I believe she is looking on from glory today and sharing in his musical celebration.”

Every Wednesday Lavert Stuart plays a prelude, accompanies three hymns, and finishes with a postlude at the Testimony Meeting at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River. Those who stay for the postlude are sometimes treated to his signature piece, the Carillon de Westminster, written for the organ by the French composer Louis Vierne as an embellishment on the chimes played from the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster.

After nearly two-and-a-half score years the minister of music continues to play organs with consummate skill and enthusiasm.

“It all started when I was a teenager and heard it at Mt. Zion. I would go to the library and get records. I loved to hear that sound,” he said.

For many centuries the organ has been known as ‘the king of instruments’.

“There’s something about the sound of the organ. It’s a light unto itself.” 

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Good Vibrations

By Ed Staskus

Before she spent eight years chanting with Frank Barnett, before she took the stage with Brenda McMorrow at Bhakti Fest, and long before she sang back-up harmonies for Jai Uttal, Beth Gatchall sang ‘Dance of the Sleepyheads’ with her grandmother waking up early summer mornings in Chillicothe, Ohio.

“I was always singing with my grandma, singing songs, and learning songs.”

Even kirtan singers start small.

“My grandma was a schoolteacher, she always had a piano in her classroom, and sang songs with the kids,” said Beth. “All the cousins in the family know the sleepyhead song. Whenever we sing the tagline to each other we just crack up.”

Growing up in Chillicothe, a small town on the Scioto River in southern Ohio, home of Bob’s Banjo Barn, Beth Gatchall began taking piano lessons from both her grandmother and a family friend at the age of six.

“I really took to it. I could read music and I practiced as much as I could.”

At ten she decided to branch out and learn how to play drums.

“But, I didn’t think my parents would go for the drums, so I went for the trumpet, instead, although I think it might have been equally boisterous.”

Her parents were between a rock and a hard place.

The sound level of drum kits is usually around 100 decibels, although rim shots can peak at 135. Trumpets typically generate levels in excess of 110 decibels. Chain saws are rated at 100 decibels, meaning that loggers are required to wear hearing protectors.

While in middle school, and throughout high school, she played in bands, sometimes two and three at the same time. When she left Chillicothe to attend Baldwin Wallace College, where she earned a BS in Biology, she took her trumpet with her.

“I was in love with it. I used to play every day.” She didn’t care about getting a ring around her lips.

In her senior year she grew interested in the guitar. “I was just enchanted by the sound of Peter, Paul, and Mary, their guitars and their harmonies.” She took a class, and after graduation studied with a local teacher, Bruce Walker, for seven years.

When she later teamed with Kasimira Vogel in 2009 to form Pale Daisies, an acoustic guitar and rhythm instruments duo, she credited Mr. Walker as one of her influences, along with the Carter Family and Blue Sky Boys.

“But, where I really learned to play was when I went to work at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.”

The museum’s loosely-knit basement band was well into its more than 20-year tradition of playing roots folk music during their lunch hour when Beth Gatchall started watching and listening to them.

“They would tip their guitars away so I could watch their hands, and if I didn’t get the chords they would show them to me, always encouraging me,” she said.

“They were so kind.”

At the same time that Beth Gatchall was learning to fingerpick the guitar she was beginning to dip her toe into yoga. It was while she was teaching aerobics at the YMCA in Lakewood, the first-ring western suburb of Cleveland she had re-located to, that she took a yoga class, which led her to Bhumi’s Yoga and Wellness.

Harriet Bhumi Russell, a former Director of Yoga Teacher Training at the Kripalu Center who has studied with Amrit Desai and BKS Iyengar, opened the first public yoga center in metropolitan Cleveland in 1992.

After several years of taking classes, as well as practicing with Tom Carney, a Lakewood-based Ashtanga Yoga teacher, in 2003 Ms. Gatchall put on her game face.

“I decided I would do teacher training, so I did that,” she said.

Teacher training typically focuses on yoga exercise, the names of postures, principles of anatomy, an introduction to the subtle body, as well as some history and philosophy. Beth Gatchall’s training was more wide-ranging, even involving kirtan.

Kirtan is a sing-along is which the performer, or leader, sings a mantra, and the audience sings it back. Kirtan is chanting, although chanting is not necessarily kirtan. Call-and-response chants can last 30 and 40 minutes. It’s a way to immerse oneself in sound, or in a meditation of vibration.

“It definitely didn’t resonate with me at first. My reaction was, this is bizarre. But, that’s how I met Frank.”

Frank Barnett, a Cleveland native and fellow yoga teacher trainee, was already immersing himself in Bhakti Yoga and kirtan.

“Frank was doing some kirtans with Bhumi at a Presbyterian church. I went there, but I didn’t have the greatest experience. Frank and I started talking about it and he really listened to me. When that kirtan at the church dried up he took it to his house and we started to do a lot of chanting together.”

They hosted a monthly kitchen party kirtan and for several years a Sunday night sit-in-a-circle-on-the-floor kirtan at Inner Bliss, one of Cleveland’s most popular yoga studios, with Frank on harmonium and Beth on guitar.

“Singing together with Frank is what put the practice in my heart,” said Beth. “It was a powerful experience. He shared so much unconditional love with me through that practice. We got to be great friends.”

Frank Barnett committed suicide in 2011.

“There were growing indications that something wasn’t right, but I didn’t see the bigger picture,” said David Barnett, Frank’s brother and a reporter for National Public Radio. “He became increasingly irritable as his search for a job dragged on, after having been laid off three years before.”

Someone dies by his or her own hand in the United States about every 15 minutes. Most Americans believe adults have a moral right to suicide, according to the Pew Research Center. The Bhagavad Gita, a central yoga text, says that the self is eternal and cannot die. You can kill the body, but you can’t kill the self.

“We had been working on the Hanuman Chalisa,” said Beth. “I said the verses through a million tears every night when Frank passed. After a year of playing it continuously in my car I learned it.”

The Hanuman Chalisa is a 40-verse 16th century devotional hymn. Hanuman is a monkey-like being, sometimes described as an incarnation of Shiva, the God known as the Destroyer, and the hymn invokes his strength and wisdom.

“Then I learned Mere Gurudev. It’s a beautiful melody, and haunting. I sang that when we distributed Frank’s ashes.”

Frank Barnett’s ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains by a handful of his friends. “This mind of mine, this body of mine, my every atom is dedicated to you,” Beth Gatchall sang heart and soul. For the next three years she kept up Frank Barnett’s work with the Cleveland Kirtan Community.

“I just continued the practice.”

In 2012 she expanded her horizons by going to Bhakti Fest with her friend Craig Wise, known as Narada Wise, a percussionist and singer-songwriter.

Bhakti Fest Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin, is a four-day festival of lectures, workshops, and practice. The kirtan ranges from the popular, like the Wild Lotus Band, to the local, like Amy and the Tribal Bliss Band.

Bhakti Fest West, a larger gathering, is a six-day festival in the desert of Joshua Tree, California. Both fests are centered on the devotional paths of yoga, meditation, personal growth, and especially kirtan. The soundtrack never stops.

“They’re huge festivals, beautiful, and just jubilant,” said Beth.

“Kirtan is a practice of singing from your heart. When you chant from your heart it’s the same as my heart, like we’re all in this together. It’s a community experience. I got that from Frank, from my friendship with him. It’s all about giving and receiving the chant, back and forth.”

The first year at Bhakti Fest she worked as a volunteer backstage. The next year she was on stage with Brenda McMorrow.

Brenda McMorrow is a well-known Canadian musician with roots in both folk and jazz. She has described her first encounter with kirtan as not knowing what it was about, only knowing that “every cell in my body started vibrating.”

She needed an extra harmony vocalist for her next day’s set at Bhakti Fest.

“Oh, Beth can sing harmony,” said Narada Wise. Sometimes you just have to step up to the plate and volunteer somebody else to do something.

“So, within an hour I was at Brenda’s campsite and she was teaching me the music,” said Beth. “The next day I was on stage singing with her. It was so fun, so fun.”

Kirtans are usually sung in their native language, which is Sanskrit. “It’s a vibrational language. There’s something powerful about the vibrations of the mantras. When you intend them sincerely from your heart space, they’re potent.”

Kirtan is the participatory chanting of simple melodies. The imaginary fourth wall between performer and audience is not just blurred, but it and the other three walls of the stage are imagined away, so that performer and audience are all on the same stage.

“It’s not about having a great voice or knowing anything about Hanuman,” said Beth.

Krishna Das, the best-known kirtan singer of his time, has said knowing the meaning of the lyrics isn’t the first or even the last step. “It’s about doing it and experiencing. Nothing to join, you just sit down and sing.”

Beth Gatchall recently appeared at the Cleveland State University Student Ballroom with Jai Uttal. She is the singer and guitarist in her own Vandanam Kirtan Band, accompanied by Eric Vogt on drums and George Shumway on upright bass. She performs at kirtan chant events throughout northern Ohio from the Zen Temple to Yoga Rocks the Park.

“The feeling of kirtan is a warmth in my heart that spreads through my body,” she said. “It’s a sense of vibration, of joy, in me.

“Something ignites in your body. It’s the yoga of the heart.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Flim Flam Man

By Ed Staskus

There are 26 poses in the yoga practice as developed by the Lord of the Flies. There are 26 problems with the practice, notwithstanding Bikram Choudhury still looking super in a Speedo in his 60s.

1) Bikram Teacher Training Guide: “Do not wear green.”

According to Bikram Choudhury green is an unlucky color and is banned from all his studios. “Please try to avoid the color green. Don’t ask, just try.”

Problem: Green signifies rebirth and growth. The “Green Man” of pre-Christianity was a symbol of fertility. Among Muslims it is a holy color. In Ireland it is a lucky color. However, circus and traveling showmen in Australia do consider green to be bad luck.

2) “How many Rolls-Royce do I own? I don’t know. 35?” said Bikram Choudhury.

Bikram Choudhury owns many Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and Howard Hughes’s Royal Daimler, as well, with a toilet in the back.

Problem: Non-indulgence and non-acquisitiveness, or Aparigraha.

3) Bikram Yoga classes are taught in Hot Rooms heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity, reaching a heat index greater than 120.

Problem: The risk factor of moderate activity in a heat index in excess of 115 is considered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be “very high to extreme.”

A common reaction to one’s first Bikram Yoga class is, “Man, this might be a mistake, I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

4) “I am a product of Beverly Hills,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: Bikram Choudhury is a product of Beverly Hills.

5) Bikram Choudhury often refers to his studios as “torture chambers.”

Problem: Torture is inflicting severe pain on someone as punishment or to force someone to do or say something. That has nothing to do with yoga. Neither does chewing glass, lying on nails, nor being buried alive, performances often given by 19th century yogi fakirs.

However, this does not obviate the torture many have felt in a Bikram Yoga class.

6) “They are all a bunch of clowns,” Bikram Choudhury told Yoga Journal, referring to other forms of yoga exercise, such as Kundalini and Ashtanga. “Nobody knows what the hell they are doing.” He claims to teach the only true and pure hatha yoga.

Everything else is “shit,” he explained on another occasion.

Problem: Honesty and truthfulness, or Satya, as well as non-harming in deed and word, or Ahimsa.

7) In a sworn legal deposition Bikram Choudhury claimed that Harvard University was constructing a “Bikram building in their campus.”

Problem: “We checked with our capital-projects group and can confirm no new building in the usual sense of the term is under construction funded by Mr. Choudhury or by a donation in his name,” said Kevin Galvin, spokesperson for Harvard University.

8) Bikram Choudhury professes that Eagle Pose is rejuvenating. “It is good for sex. Cootchi, cootchi. You can make love for hours and have seven orgasms when you are ninety.”

Problem: According to the Journal of Sexual Medicine yoga can improve some aspects of sexual function. Wide-angle seated forward bend and other hip-openers are cited; the Eagle Pose is not mentioned.

9) “I’m not dressed like a guru, am I? I dress like a gangster!” said Bikram Choudhury.

When he is wearing clothes Mr. Choudhury flashes in shiny white suits, diamond-studded wristwatches, crocodile shoes, gangster fedoras, and designer accessories.

Problem: Restraint, or Brachmacharya.

10) Bikram Choudhury has claimed that he and his yoga regimen are able to cure cancer and multiple sclerosis, among other serious medical conditions.

Problem: There are treatments for cancer and multiple sclerosis. There are no cures, yogic or otherwise.

11) For more than 10 years of contentious lawsuits Bikram Choudhury claimed copyright protection for his 26 yoga poses.

Problem: Bikram Yoga’s claims were overruled in 2012. The U. S Copyright Office said that sequences of yoga exercise are not the equivalent of a choreographed work.

Bikram Yoga is protected by trademark, not copyright.

Yogis worldwide were relieved to learn they could again touch their toes without fear of subpoena.

12) “I’m in show biz,” said Bikram Choudhury. “I entertain people.”

Problem: When did yoga become a Lady Gaga song and dance?

13) “A warm body is a flexible body,” says Bikram Yoga, explaining that heat softens muscle tissue. “Then you can reshape the body any way you want.”

Problem: About 5 minutes of cardiovascular work is sufficient to warm up muscles, according to Ben Ballinger of Athletic Performance. “The claim that Bikram Yoga allows for deeper stretching due to the heat is untrue.” Overstretching can even compromise joints and ligaments, causing instability and hypermobility.

14) “Did you pay to come here and listen to me?” said Bikram Choudhury “Wow! I am lucky. I go shopping tomorrow!”

Problem: Paying good money to listen to Bikram Choudhury so he can buy more Rolls-Royces.

15) Bikram Yoga offers up many testimonials of metabolisms made new and excess pounds shed. Warm muscles are said to burn fat more easily as the heat flushes and detoxifies the body. Fat will turn into muscle is the mantra.

Problem: According to the Health Status Calorie Counter power yoga burns 594 calories an hour. Bikram Yoga burns 477 calories an hour. Ballroom dancing burns about 250 calories an hour, while running a 10K in under an hour burns about 1000 calories.

“The benefits are largely perceptual,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “People think the degree of sweat is the quality of the workout, but that’s not reality. It doesn’t correlate to burning more calories.”

16) Bikram Choudhury’s home in Beverly Hills is an 8,000-square-foot mansion seemingly built entirely of marble, gold, and mirrors.

Problem: Non-indulgence and non-acquisitiveness, or Aparigraha

17) Bikram Yoga argues that exercising in a heated and humidified room strengthens the body, resulting in greater endurance, internal organ conditioning, and a stronger heart.

Problem: “The human body is designed to tolerate temperatures between 97 and 100 degrees,” said Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “It is not designed to go outside those numbers. Core temperatures can go up very quickly. Over 105 degrees you will start to damage protein.”

18) “An Iyengar class looks like a Santa Monica sex shop with all those props,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: What was Bikram Choudhury doing in a Santa Monica sex shop sizing up the props?

19) Bikram Yoga proclaims itself the detox practice extraordinaire because it induces profuse sweating. “When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin.” Detoxification may be the most touted benefit of the practice, said to “cleanse and purify the system.”

Problem: “That’s silliness,” said Craig Crandall, director of the Thermoregulation Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Center at Dallas. “I don’t know of any toxins that are released through sweat.”

The liver and kidneys filter toxins from the blood. Sweating too much and becoming dehydrated could stress the kidneys and actually keep them from doing their job.

20) “I should be the most honored man in your country,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: Ahead of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and Edward Snowden, among many others, both men and women?

21) The heat and humidity of Bikram Yoga are often explained as replicating the heat and humidity of India, where Bikram Choudhury learned yoga.

Problem: In India yoga was and is traditionally practiced in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day.

22) Bikram Yoga says its practitioners derive aerobic benefits from the practice. “You can derive these benefits [i.e. aerobic] from practicing Bikram Yoga.”

Problem: In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research one group of young adults practiced Bikram Yoga three times a week for eight weeks while another group did nothing. By the end of the study researchers found no differences in either group in terms of maximal aerobic fitness or cardiovascular measures.

23) Bikram Yoga studios are required to outfit their Hot Rooms with carpet flooring.

“Don’t throw up on the carpet,” said Bikram Choudhury. “It’s new.”

Problem: Carpets are nearly impossible to clean thoroughly, much less sanitize. Allergens are particularly adept at hiding among carpet fibers. Sweat-soaked carpets are breeding grounds for bacteria, fungus, and pathogens.

Vomit may be the least of anybody’s concerns in a Bikram Hot Room.

24) “Oxygen deprivation is a major cause of sciatica,” says Bikram Yoga, encouraging the use of breath to “break through the fear of pain.”

Problem: The causes of sciatica are varied, including degenerative disc disease, isthmic spondylolisthesis, lumbar spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, and sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

Oxygen deprivation is not one of the causes of sciatica, although it can be a cause of death.

25) “Because I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: All eight limbs, or aspects, of yoga from the Yamas & Niyamas to Samadhi.

The yoga master confessed he only has two bomb balls, which is fortunate for everyone, not just the girls. The world’s nuclear arsenal is big enough.

26) “The whole Bikram class is one big brainwashing session,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: No problem, as long as you believe applying systematic and forcible indoctrination is the best way to advance yoga.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Dancing the Night Away

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By Ed Staskus

I went to our Homecoming dance with a girl. She wasn’t a girlfriend, not exactly, just somebody who happened to be a girl. Nobody is allowed to go by himself or even with another guy, no matter what kind of friends you are. You have to go with a date to go to Homecoming. The dance was in the main gym the night after we smash-mouthed a mouthwatering win over Moeller’s, the Fighting Crusaders.

The big bad Crusaders slouched back to Cincinnati and afterwards we called them the Sad Taters. They weren’t singing the Blue and Gold Fight Song. St. Ed’s takes no prisoners on the football field. No, SIR! Mr. Rote, our religion teacher, says mercy is a virtue, but not on Friday nights.

My dad worked the refreshment table at the dance. He’s a member of the Father’s Club. It was awesome for my friends and me. We had a boat load of free drinks, for sure. I must have had four or five cans of Mountain Dew.

Homecoming was the night Jake and Jess broke up. It isn’t the kind of thing that usually happens at Homecoming, but that’s what happened. It started when I saw Bert making out with Jake’s girlfriend. They were dancing and the next thing anybody knew they started kissing, right on the dance floor. When you’re somebody else’s girlfriend that’s rude and inconsiderate, especially out in the open.

Allan and I both saw it happening. Allan is one of my best friends. He’s a football player, not much taller than me, but he’s at least 250 pounds. He’s a lineman on the team, although he had to sit out after he got a concussion. He’s a white kid and pasty, which isn’t pretty, but he’s on the dot on the line.

We all saw Bert kiss Jess plain as day. Allan walked right up to Bert. He was mad about it.

“Bert, what the fuck, what are you doing?”

Bert plays soccer, is taller than me, but he’s a toothpick. He’s kind of ugly, too, to be honest. He was really scared for a minute.

“I was, like…” he stuttered.

Allan was angry about it and I wasn’t happy, both of us being Jake’s friends. Allan faced Bert down, who started backing away. I stood there for a few seconds and then ran to find Jake. I didn’t want to leave him hanging. Hanging for what? I had to tell him. Bro’s before ho’s. That’s what a brother does. Everybody says so. She was obviously that if she was kissing another kid.

Jess is short skinny blonde and sort of pretty in her own way. I might even have liked her once. She had been to my house for dinner, with Jake, one night when Allan and Paul were over.

Jake was outside getting a drink at the refreshment table when I found him. There was Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Mountain Dew. He was picking up a can of Sprite. The can looked big in his hand. Jake is almost a midget. I’m on the short side, but he’s shorter than me, by a long shot.

“Jake, Jess kissed Bert,” I said.

“What? Are you kidding me?”

“No, dude, I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

He was sad at first, and depressed, that he had just lost his girl. “I’m going to talk to her about this.” We went into the main gym.

“I’m sorry, dude,” I said. He was down in the mouth. But then he jumped her on the spot, surprising everybody.

“Yeah, gangster,” I thought out loud.

“Thanks a lot,” he said, all sarcastic, and then said something to her nobody else could hear.

“We’re done,” he said, flashing his thumb and finger and walking away. He dumped her on the spot. Her jaw dropped. She was left standing there. Jake wasn’t blue about it the rest of the night. He had only been going out with Jess for less than a month, anyway.

I was rocking in the mosh pit later when a girl suddenly threw up all over the floor because she was wasted. Somebody slipped on the mess and fell down, hitting his head and getting puke on his clothes. He smelled like beef liver with onions in a can after that.

Everybody merks their beer and booze before the dance. It used to be weed, but this last summer the school principal’s brother got a sweetheart contract for himself to drug test us, so now it’s drinking instead of drugs. At least it is during the school year. It doesn’t even do any good to shave your head, because they snip a different kind of hair from you, and the drug test works exactly the same way.

“Maybe I’ll just do LSD,” DB said, spinning his head in fast tight circles. DB is a nut, but that’s what happens when grown-ups get involved. They’re so crazy they make everybody else go crazy.

They don’t test for LSD because they have to get your pee, not just your hair, to do that test. The St. Ed’s ’s men would probably start peeing on each other if that was a rule. It’s too expensive, anyway. Our military even stopped testing for it because it costs so much.

I don’t drink much of anything, just sometimes, nor do my friends, but that doesn’t mean anything. If it weren’t such a big deal to drink or not to drink, guys wouldn’t do it so much. HONEST to GOD!

It’s mostly about being rebellious. Kids think it’s cool and it makes them be cool. If guys could drink whatever they wanted they wouldn’t do it as much. They just wouldn’t, honestly, since the temptation would be all gone. But that’s the exact thing, the light in their eyes, they’re doing something forbidden, it makes them feel SO MUCH cooler.

Drugs, drinking, and smoking cigarettes at Homecoming are a tradition. Oh, yeah, I can feel it and smell it when I’m in the mosh pit. When you’re in the pit it’s pushy noisy hot rowdy dowdy. It’s sweaty and the tang is bad, all armpits and hot dog water. You dance and two-step in the pit and have fun. There are a thousand guys and girls all pushed together and the teachers are stuck and dumbstruck on the outside.

Not everybody crams into the mosh pit, but a large crowd does, for sure. There’s a stage at the front of the gym and everybody swirls it, surging in tight, and facing whichever which way and all ways. We dance to slow songs, rock, techno, whatever. The best are Skrillex, Kid Cudi, and M & M. I love ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ except I hate it at summer camp, where the kid on the bunk next to me plays it every night on his guitar. We finally broke his guitar. There’s another song, ‘White Roses,’ I’m high on for slow dancing.

It’s all horseplay in shirts and ties. The girls look sweet in their dress-up. Nobody’s brains are guaranteed in the pit. Everybody goes there to live it up, that’s all. We like it. The girls like it. That works for us. We all get going get amped get excited in the pit. No one can help it. Romping in the pit is the greatest when you’re rubbing up against some girl to Lady Gaga’s ‘Disco Stick.’ You don’t even have to look them in the face since most of the time it’s from behind.

The parents don’t know the grinding that goes on. Girls put their butts on you and figure eight. Sometimes we form lines, forty or fifty of us in a conga line. Nobody’s parents want to know about that.

NO WAY! BELIEVE ME!

You can get in trouble for grinding. All the teachers are there, and they watch out for it. They call it pelvic thrust dancing, or at least Mr. Rote does, who’s got an eagle eye for it. He’s young and knows, and he’s our religion teacher, too, and knows that, too. There’s a strict rule you will get kicked out of the dance for doing it, but none of the teachers can ever get into the pit, so hardly anybody ever gets caught.

They will mark your hand with a Sharpie if they do somehow catch you, which Mr. Rote does all the time, like a weasel after rabbits. If they catch you a second time, they kick you out of the dance. Guys go all crazy, all sweaty and flustered, after the first time, trying to rub the indelible Sharpie mark off as fast as they can.

Not many guys ever get kicked out of the Homecoming dance, but Allan’s older brother did. Qe were all laughing, although he didn’t think it was funny. Girls don’t ever get kicked out because it’s at our school. Just the guys get the boot. I saw a couple of them being dragged from the pit and kicked out of the gym. The Dean of Students got their cell phones and looked through all their messages.

St. Ed’s is a private school. They aren’t funded by the state. They don’t have to stick to the state rules like the public schools. They can’t hit you, but they can, if they want to. If a teacher hit me I would be very upset, but they can do just about anything. THEY CAN DO WHAT THEY WANT! Everybody knows that. The school from end to end is just like Mr. Hittbone’s Rules

They can look through your phone and anything else of yours. I’ve seen cell phones thrown into trash cans. They downpress you and there’s nothing you can say. They can drag you away by the scruff. I don’t even know all the stuff they can do.

They can kick you out of school, for sure. If you do something bad it is suddenly Steck Time. He is the Dean of Students, a completely mean man, tall thin pale. He can say, “Don’t come back tomorrow.” When Mr. Steck-It-To-You says it, he means it and he can make it stick. Because it’s a private school they can lock you out and you can’t ever go back. And then you’re out, that’s all, and you have to try to explain it to your parents and the neighbors, who will for sure never understand what you did.

Nobody ever believes you and they even resent your explanations. I’ve heard of kids who got thrown out once-and-for-all for good no matter how much they begged. That’s bad. You’ve got to watch your step.

They won’t kick you out of school for grinding. We all know that. You have to get caught stealing computers, or smoking weed, or something like that. Not always kick you out, though, since it depends on who’s doing the doing. There’s a guy’s father who owns a jewelry store in Rocky River, and when his son got caught smoking weed on campus, he didn’t get kicked out. Diamond Jim talked to the Dean, somebody probably got a karat, and after the deal was done the kid might still have gotten thrown out, but he didn’t, obviously. It wasn’t even close.

The girls at our dances sometimes come from public schools, but mostly they are from St. Joe’s, Magnificat, and the other Catholic schools. Are good Catholic girls the same as good girls? Are you pooping on my face? God, no, they’re not good! That’s why they’re Catholics. We believe we’re bad right out of the gate. That’s why we can go grinding at the school dances and not worry about it. There’s always confession.

There isn’t much difference between a Catholic girl and a public school girl, although there is. It seems like bad Catholic girls can be even worse than regular bad girls. They go to extremes, like wanting a guy more than regular girls do. They just want to have boyfriends. They want to have somebody, anybody, they can say is their boyfriend, someone to be on their hip side. They are thirsty for guys, like bright-feather barnyard hens at the well.

The Catholic girls aren’t even that hot, at least not most of them, not most of the time. They think they are, but thinking doesn’t make it so. There are hotter public school girls than Catholic girls. Some of the Catholic girls think they are better on the scale of everything than other peeps, which is rude, and mostly mistaken by them.

Many of them seem to think they are on a totally upper level over other girls. They totally believe their status is higher, which I think is ridiculous. They truly think they are better than other people, at least better than public school girls, for sure.

I have some good friends who go to Mag’s, but St. Joe’s, not even. St. Joe’s girls are Catholic girls all out. They are ever not so nice. I will jog past Joe’s with Scar and keep going before I even look at them playing lacrosse on their fancy new playing field on Rocky River Drive.

If you are hanging out with public school girls, or Catholic girls, and the other side walks up, it shakes out that the public school girls are the nicer girls. They can be like your friends right out of the box and they are nice to you, too. The Catholic girls are kind of low and frank. The wrapping stays right in your face. The public school girls are like me, asking what your name is, and being interested in you.

Catholic girls are like, “Oh, hi, WHO are you? I have to GO.” You can tell they don’t care. The only time they CARE is when they’re GRINDING, but that’s a TOTALLY different kind of caring.

It’s the kind of caring you care about for ten minutes, maybe less.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Blue Highway Bug Out

Road-Trip-4

By Ed Staskus

We went on a road trip at the end of summer, first to West Virginia, then North Carolina, north to Philadelphia, and finally Vermont, afterwards circling back home by way of the low-scale Town House Inn in high-scale Lake Placid.

Before leaving home, I called an exterminator about a swarm of yellow jackets nesting in our eaves. Every morning it sounded like the Bee Gees, as they came and went, always buzzing, as though they had forgotten the words. They had the high-pitch key right, at least.

“Don’t worry,” the bug man said. “I’ll put a spell on them. They’ll be bee-witched by the time I’m done with them.”

Unlike earlier in the summer, when we ran into bad weather the week we spent in the woods, rain was as scarce as hen’s teeth on our late season trip. We spent considerable time outdoors, hiking in parks, sprawling on beaches, and getting lost on small town sidewalks. We had different kinds of weather, mostly dry and warm enough, from the Cheat River to the Au Sable Chasm, which was white on rice.

The wettest we got was when Vera slipped on a patch of slime and fell on her butt crossing a rocky stream in Vermont. There’s no wading a river with dry breeches. I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean off Nag’s Head and got wet that way.

We left on a Friday afternoon for a bluegrass and gospel music festival in Elkins, West Virginia, 300-some miles from home. Our weekend booking was the Cheat River Lodge. We had a hard time finding it, relying on a Rand McNally road atlas, in the solitary countryside, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. It was out of town on a dark road, up a big hill, then down a steep, even darker road, until Vera suddenly spotted it as easily as sliding off a greasy log backwards.

It wasn’t a lodge, not nearly, but it was on the Cheat River.

On Saturday morning we drove down the mountain into Elkins to the crafts, arts, and music fair at the Elkins City Park, on 9 acres dotted with 300-year-old oaks. As I searched for parking Vera’s stomach began to grumble, and she quickly spied a run-down-looking good-food-looking diner called Scotty’s.

“Frank, there’s a parking spot,” she said, pointing and pointing.

Scotty’s was full of people eating breakfast. We got the last Formica-topped table in a back corner. Across from us a Metallica tee-shirted teenager wearing a scruffy backpack was explaining to his girlfriend’s mother how nice their new apartment was.

I overheard the mother say, “What do you mean ‘we’? You got a mouse in your pocket?”

Three big sweaty women were doing the cooking in an open kitchen and one small woman was doing the waiting. She was quicker than grease off a b-b-q biscuit. I looked up and there she was.

“Ya’ll ain’t from around here, are ya?” she asked, tossing menus down on the table and pouring coffee without breaking stride.

Vera ordered a plate of grits, a plate of gravy biscuits, and a plate of chicken-fried steak, which came with a plate of mashed potatoes. I was barely able to get my plate of eggs and home fries safely on the table. By the time she was done she was fuller than a tick on a 10-year-old dog.

Afterwards at the craft fair, while talking to a fiddle-maker at one of the booths, we mentioned eating at Scotty’s and how good it was. “If that ain’t true,” he said, “grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man.”

We saw two bands at a show later that night at the Harmanson Center on the hillside campus of the Davis and Elkins College. The opening act was the Sweetback Sisters and the main show was Blue Highway. Both were good bands, but what we liked the most was the young lady who came on stage ten minutes before Blue Highway and whistled five songs. She didn’t sing or play a musical instrument. She just whistled. Introducing her last tune, she invited everyone to whistle along with her.

I didn’t even try. I hadn’t puckered up and whistled in years. It would have been like trying to nail jelly to wall.

On Sunday morning we stopped at a small chapel in town that was hosting a workshop of Appalachian gospel songs. There were 60 or 70 people in attendance, guided by a conductor of sorts, a man who introduced the songs and led us by hand. We had been provided with a printout of the songs and when prompted sang 18th and 19thcentury gospel truths for an hour-and-a half.

When we left West Virginia it was on a twisting, mountainous state road that crossed the Appalachian Plateau and wound up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Later in the day we drove onto the coastal plain and made our way through the Outer Banks, passing Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and finally arriving at Nag’s Head.

There are only two up-and-down roads on the Outer Banks, the beach road and Route 12, which is also the ‘Hurricane Evacuation Route.’ We drove in on Route 12. It was new to us, it was dark, our Rand McNally was looking dog-eared, and I was sure we were going to have a hard time finding our reservation. But, again, Vera saw it in a flash. I don’t know how in the Sam Hill she did it.

“It’s a gift, Frank, a gift,” she said.

We stayed four days at the First Colony Inn, a 28-room, 2-story roadhouse built in 1930, and re-built several times after hurricane disasters. It was a 2-minute walk from the ocean. We started every morning in the John White Breakfast Room and then retired to hammock chairs on the upper floor breezeway to read. Vanessa read books about Mesopotamia and I read books.

The weather at Nag’s Head was in the high 90s every day beneath a clear blue sky. It was hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch and as humid as a prostitute in church. The constant ocean breeze tempered the heat and humidity a little, as did the shade of the veranda at mid-day. We went to the beach across the street and down a narrow sand trail every afternoon, laying on our blankets in the sun and walking along the surf line.

We found a small yoga studio in Kitty Hawk and took classes, and at night went out to eat seafood. One night we stopped at a fish camp down the beach road. It was called Owens, a family place that’s been there more than 60 years and is still owned by the same founding father family.

There was a crowd and we had to wait, but once seated and served I exclaimed, “Well, I swaney!” We had a basket of hush puppies, Carolina Jambalaya, Yellowfin Tuna, grits, and pecan pie. The portions were so large and so good it’d make you slap your mama. While walking back to our inn we agreed it was a great day in the morning, even though it was night.

Another night we drove to Roanoke Island, had catfish and wild rice on the outdoors patio of the Blue Moon, and were as happy as clams at high tide. Afterwards we saw ‘The Lost Colony’ at the Waterside Theater in the Fort Raleigh National Historical Park. It was a musical, of all things, about the first English settlement in the Americas.

The show has been at the Waterside every summer since 1937. The theater is under the stars. It has been rebuilt twice, once after it burned down in 1947, and again after a hurricane demolished it in the 1960s. The only things saved in the 1947 fire were the costumes, which the actors threw into the water of the sound behind the main stage. A man and wife well into middle age sitting behind us talked about how the show hadn’t changed much since they had seen it as teenagers.

The story of ‘The Lost Colony’ is about Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth, the motley colonists, and the still mysterious fate that befell them. To this day no one knows what happened. They all just disappeared. The show itself was a bag of nails. The uncertainty and danger of the American wilderness in the 1580s was delivered in Disneyesque song-and-dance. On top of that, even though the expedition was English, a land that broke with Rome, the narrative was by a Franciscan friar, of all people.

I didn’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my butt.

On the Friday afternoon we left Nag’s Head thunderstorms loomed in an uncertain sky. One of the ladies on the cleaning staff of the First Colony Inn, standing on the veranda with her hands on her hips, said, “That sure ’nuff looks like a frog strangler comin’ in.”

Instead of taking I-95 to Philadelphia we decided to go around our elbows to get to our thumbs by taking Route 13, a state road that traces its way north to Norfolk, Virginia, up through the tidal flats of Delaware, and finally into Pennsylvania. It was the long way round, but worth the drive. There’s scenery everywhere, but it’s hard to see from the interstate.

“Bless your pea picking heart,” I said to Vera for suggesting the local roads.

We traversed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, which are three bridges and two tunnels, linked together by four man-made islands and spanning more than 17 miles. We lost sight of land for a few miles driving over the middle of the Chesapeake. It was like a drive over the open ocean.

The bridges and tunnels have to be inspected, according to federal law, every five years. It takes inspectors five years to do the job. When they’re done, they start over. The job never ends. Ain’t that the berries!

We cruised up the eastern shore of Virginia and along the tidal flats of Delaware and Maryland. The small towns looked like the 1940s rather than nowadays. Farms and marshes were spread out in all directions. Everyone, black and white alike, looked more raw rustic ethnic than back home.

Gassing up at a filling station, I overheard two black men talking at the next pump. There was pepper in the gumbo of their talk. One of them said, “If a bullfrog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass when he jumped.” When I asked what he meant, he said they were arguing about the mayor.

We got to Philadelphia, although we later learned from a cabbie it’s really pronounced Fulladulfya, just past ten at night, and from the minute we got there it was yo, supp. When I got off the highway a couple of exits north of the senner siddy and turned left, faster than a knife fight in a phone booth I was stuck on railroad tracks facing the wrong end of a one-way sign.

“What the hey!” Vera squealed.

I thrust the Honda CRV into reverse and backed up, hoping praying cursing I wouldn’t hit anyone. Sometimes I can throw myself on the ground and miss, but this time I got the car going forward on the right road. After several more wrong turns on Philadelphia’s many one-way streets we finally found our bed-and-breakfast. We stayed at the Shippen Way Inn in the Society Hill neighborhood, the oldest residential area in the city. The inn was built in 1750, expanded in 1810, and again in 1900. We had one of the upstairs 1750s rooms, tiny as a jail cell, under a low raftered ceiling, and slept on a lumpy twin bed. The inn itself was be yoo dee full, with a big communal breakfast room and a tree-shaded brick patio.

“Jeet yet?” our hostess asked us the next morning, pouring coffee, the smell of breakfast on her apron.

One day we had breakfast with a couple from the state of Washington and their four children. Another day we ate with a young man and his girlfriend, both from Ireland, who were law students and had spent the summer interning in Chicago. Everybody was in town to see the historic sights, just like us.

We walked around the sites on Saturday, Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and Congress Hall. We strolled brick-lined arcades that used to be slave markets, historic churches from back when churches were a vital business, and then spent the rest of the day with Kate Burnow, one of Vera’s idiosyncratic Cleveland State University teachers, who was working at the University of Pennsylvania that summer.

She is short and stout, 51-years-old, with a head of crazy thick long black hair, paints her nails purple, and walks really slow on really small feet. She doesn’t own or drive a car. She has a boyfriend, a police detective in Philadelphia, with whom she talks by phone every day, although she hasn’t actually seen him in more than nine months.

She leads an imaginary existence on a web site called Second Life. Her avatar, which is what she called her alter ego, is a lissome cocktail waitress in a nightclub in Thailand. In real life Kate Burnow is a middle-aged authority on West African art. She had recently returned from London, where she delivered a lecture about folk art. When in Philadelphia she lives with her aged parents in the suburbs. She is lonely, or at least said so half-a-dozen times over lunch and a walk afterwards. I figure there’s no warming up next to a wood figurine late at night.

On Saturday night Vera and I decided to have dinner at Morimoto’s, a swank Japanese fusion restaurant owned by one of the Iron Chefs on the Food Network. Even though it was a mild night, it was slightly too far to walk from our inn, so we took a cab. Besides, we didn’t know how to get there.

“Niceta meechas,“ our driver said.

The streets, some of them cobblestone, were crowded with people and cars. We made our way past blocks of 18th and 19th century homes. While stuck in traffic and idling for a moment at the curb of a narrow one-way street two young women approached our cab.

“Hal ya doin’ ladies,” the cabbie said, leaning over his elbow out the open window. “What youse lookin’ for?”

They didn’t blink an eye. They were looking for directions to paint the town, they said, in a similar dialect.

“Deflee,” the cabbie said, and rattled off the names and streets of taverns and clubs.

Morimoto’s was a narrow and deep space with a curving undulating wood ceiling that sloped down to an open kitchen. There were phallic-shaped lamps on the forty-or-so booths and tables. The seats were chic and illuminated and tube lights were embedded in the tables. The lights glowed and slowly continually changed colors. We each had a mixed drink and shared a fish appetizer. After a delicious chicken broth soup, Vanessa had Kobe beef and I had seafood, each of us sampling the other’s plate, and we split a bottle of wine.

After dessert and coffee, we rolled out of the restaurant dizzier than bessy bugs and thought we would try walking back to the inn, a meandering mistake, finally finding it a few hours later and falling into bed.

The next morning following a light breakfast we headed for Stowe, driving as fast as possible through the horrible state of New Jersey, where God made the food but the devil made the cook. We stopped in Albany at an Einstein’s for coffee and bagels, and then crossed into Vermont, which we knew it was when we started seeing guyascutas, or cows whose legs are shorter on one side than they are on the other so they can walk comfortably on the steep hillsides.

Stowe is a small one-main-road snow town. We hung a Ralph at the mountain road that dead ends at the base of Mt. Mansfield, where the skiing is. Every few miles a swamp donkey sign warned us to watch out for the beasts. We stayed at the Grey Fox Inn, in a sizable room with a balcony. It was up-scale because of the Range Rover set, but affordable because it wasn’t winter, yet, although the Dairy Queen were closing in a few weeks.

The weather was refreshing, mild and sunny during the day, crisp at dusk. The forecast for the nights was for dark damp darkness. We camped out at the pool every day after breakfast. We went on hikes on successive afternoons partway up Mt. Mansfield, one on the Long Trail, and the other on an unnamed branch trail. The trails were both steep and rocky. After a few hours on them we were both like toads in a tar bucket, wondering why we ever thought hiking in the mountain woods would be fun.

In the evening my prayer handles were wicked achy.

One night we saw ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ at the local movie house, which was action-packed derivative dim-witted, and another night we saw ‘Urinetown’ at the Stowe Community Center, which was funny and loaded with engaging tunes. A 2001 Broadway musical, half the cast was high school students and the other half were adults who had once acted in high school, which goes to show it don’t make knee-odds the talent.

On our last night in Stowe we made a pizza and packie run and watched ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ on the TV. We drank a toast to Friar Tuck.

The next day we drove to Burlington and took the car ferry across Lake Champlain to Port Kent, and from the landing through the Keene Valley to Lake Placid. We stayed at the Town House Motor Lodge, which is on Lake Placid, while the town of Lake Placid is actually on Mirror Lake. We read and sun-tanned at the 1960’s-style pool surrounded by cypress hedges and 100-foot-high white pines. Even the four farting Quebecois men didn’t bother Vera overly much the one afternoon they were taking a break at the pool from their daily golf outings.

We went on two long hikes in the ADK wilderness area, more rolling than up-and-down paths, had dinner one night at the Caribbean Cowboy and another night at Nicola’s on Main, where we split a liter jug of Chianti, wobbling back to our room, and on Friday night went to the Lake Placid Center for the Arts and saw an affecting but disturbing movie called ‘Volver’ directed by the Spanish man Pedro Almodovar.

They say the weather in New England is nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding. It was already into September, so when Saturday rolled around, even though we weren’t ready to go home, we went home. We took the old road, through Tupper Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and Racquette Lake, stopped in Old Forge at the Pied Piper ice cream stand, by-passed Utica, and made the rest of the long drive back to Ohio on the turnpike.

It was late when we got home and after rubbing up our lonesome cat Snapper, we threw ourselves into bed. We were plum tuckered out. The next morning, we both unpacked the car, I mowed the lawn, and Vera went through the mail. She found the bug man’s bill tucked into our front door. She said it said, “I have made the yellow jackets bee-gone.”

When I checked they were, indeed, done gone.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Pennies From Heaven

 

By Ed Staskus

I would trade any day in the real world for a minute at summer camp.

Those two weeks are what I wait for all year. It’s hard to believe, but my best friends and I and everyone who knows us best have been going to camp for half our lives, just after I turned seven. Since then I have gone every summer. The first day of camp is better than the rest of time.

I used to go to Camp Katahdin with my dad when he first started taking Katie and Sylvia. I went along to keep him company on the drive, because my mom wouldn’t go, and the girls were just girls. After dropping their duffels and backpacks off and getting them signed in, we would walk around the campground, to where it is fenced in along the lakeside, although most of the fence is now rusting and falling down.

My dad and his sister went to the camp in the 1960s, before there were real highways and it took forever. They rode in granddad’s Chevy Impala, a green woody wagon that was twice as big and long as the Hyundai dad drives to work. The third row seat faced backwards. That is where he and his sister sat, what they called the way-back seat, playing the license plate game and category abc’s.

They slept in Canadian Army tents at the camp in those days, not the A-frame cabins we sleep in now. They had bonfires and sing-a-longs every night and ate peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder Bread. “Some days we had sandwiches three times a day if there wasn’t anything else,” my dad says.

“There was so much wood we had bonfires every night, as big as a house burning down. Not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” he said, pushing the wrapped-up firewood packages with his foot. We only have bonfires on weekends and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.

“One of our camp commanders back then had been in the French Foreign Legion. He wore a black beret and a small hand axe on his belt. He just picked wood up in the forest. We always had more than we wanted, the woodpile was so high.”

When it was late afternoon and the girls were finished at the orientation we would leave for the ride home, driving all night, listening to talk shows and baseball games on AM radio, twisting the knob on the dashboard back and forth as the game or the talk show faded in and out. My dad likes talk shows so he only listens to AM radio.

I knew I wanted to go to summer camp the first time I saw it. Since the girls were already going I knew I probably would, too. I just had to wait to be at least seven-years-old. Every summer they told me how much fun it was to be at camp and not at home. That was the big thing, they always said, to be away, to be somewhere else for two weeks.

Summer camp is a different life than being at home. There are fewer adults than anywhere else and no parents. The counselors are almost like you. Some of them let you run amok and hope no one dies. All of your friends are together and there are even more of them than you have at home. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors scream if you do something really dumb, but you don’t get yelled at for just doing something wrong by mistake. Even when you do it’s all over in a few minutes, not like at home, where it never ends.

You can’t always go wherever you want, roam around the camp, or just run around in the forest, but you can be who you want to be almost all the time. When you’re at camp it’s like waking up on the roof. The nights are dark and everything smells damp, like a bottle of milk in the refrigerator. Although everyone is supposed to be in after lights out, and there’s a night guard, he isn’t able to watch all the cabins all of the time. In the forest in the middle of the night when it’s quiet it’s scary quiet, and the quieter you are, just breathing, everything’s a strange echo.  Sometimes it’s so dark walking is like feeling your way with your hands, but you never lose your way.

The sky at summer camp is clean and windy, not stuffy and dead like at home. Some kids don’t shower when they’re there and that’s disgusting, but nobody cares too much about it. Once somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when they came to pick him up. ”No, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth!” his mother yelled. The cabins are gnarly old, partly plywood and partly brown clapboard, and moldy in some spots. They never smell all good, even on sunny days. There is a beat-up screen and wood door in the front and a tilt window in the back, although most of the time the window won’t crank open.

But, it doesn’t matter. The camp is big and so are the lake, the dunes, and the woods. We hardly live in our cabins, anyway, only sleeping in them, unless it rains.

Camp Ketahdin is a long drive from Cleveland, to the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, on Little Traverse Bay. It’s past a town called Petoskey, which means ‘Where the light shines through the clouds’, hidden down a winding gravel lane from the main road. The boy’s cabins are on one side of the camp, the mess hall is in the middle, and on the backside of the drive-in and packed-dirt lot is the chapel. The girl’s cabins and nurse’s station are on the other side and the flagpoles and bonfire are down a sloped sandy hill from the hall. The lake is a one-mile walk from the sport’s field.

A year goes by and it’s like I never left. As soon as we get to camp we unload everything we’ve brought, our clothes, sleeping bags, and snacks. Everything we own has our initials on it written with a Sharpie. We find our cabins and claim our beds, and then your parents are gone before you know it. Sometimes I don’t even realize they’ve left. You see your friends again, your cabin mates and everyone you have ever camped with, and there are high-fives, knuckle-touches, and bro-hugs all around.

Everyone punches each other and laughs, “What’s up, dude.” We hang out, reunite with the girls, and get some overdue hugs from them. When everyone has gotten to the camp and all the parents are finally gone we have sandwiches in the dining hall. Father Elliott says a prayer for the kids and new campers, and afterwards the camp commander gives us a chalk talk about everything. He writes the rules in block letters on the blackboard.

Before nightfall we hike to the beach for our first look at it. We go to the lake every afternoon, unless the weather’s absolutely horrible. But, when the day’s cold and gusty it’s really the best time, because there are huge waves, the wind is blowing hard, and the surf is smashing you. When we come out for a break the counselors have a snack set up for us, and later we go back in the water a second time, or just lay around on our towels.

We have activities every night, like bonfires, mystery night, and sleep-outs under the stars. There are three dances, the big one on the last night of camp, which is the formal dance. Some nights we do things later than the kids, like the manhunt game, because they have to go to bed before us. They sleep in the long barracks, not the cabins like us, where they have their own sleep-in counselor.

The last couple of summers the kid’s barrack counselor has been an immigrant, who is tall and pretty, but has bad teeth, is very serious, and barely speaks English. She has twin girls who stay in her room. She sweeps the hallway with a broom for a long time after all the kids have gone to bed. Nobody ever thinks about sneaking out. Everybody knows what would happen, because she tells them all in her own way on the first day of camp.

As soon as we’re done with the night activities, but before going back to our cabins and staying up, or whatever we do, we gather in a circle and cross our arms with each other. A counselor says a prayer and everybody shouts good night. Then it’s a mad dash back to our cabins. We always flip our mattresses over to get the sand and wolf spiders out. The spiders aren’t poisonous, but they can be big as your hand, and they bite hard as if they had teeth.

One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood they left itchy clusters of bites on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out he hired a bedbug-sniffing dog. The next day everyone whose cabins had bugs put everything they had in plastic garbage bags and put them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

In our cabins we talk, jump into the middle of things, and beat each other up. We plan different ways to kill people, have wrestling matches, and see who can burp and fart the loudest.  Whenever anyone falls asleep they are fair game. My fourth-best friend Tomas is an open-mouth sleeper. One night we squirted minty toothpaste around his lips and watched bubbles form as he breathed. Another time we covered his face with lipstick and mascara. He didn’t like that, but later he thought it was funny. We don’t fight or talk the whole time, at least, not necessarily. We eat a boatload of candy, too.

The camp doesn’t let us bring our phones or tablets, or even video games, but everyone brings four or five pounds of candy. Some bring less, but some bring even more, which is ridiculous. One boy brought four cases of soda and a carton of family-size Lays Classic potato chips with him, and that was on top of the pickings at the camp store, where you get two treats every day. He is 14-years-old, like me, but built like a twig. He ate and drank everything he brought and didn’t share it with anybody.

We have a food-eating contest every summer after the Counselor Staff Show. The kids have to go to bed, but we stay up late to play the game. Whoever volunteers is blindfolded and has to eat whatever the counselors make. Everyone has to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up with their mouth like a dog. Sometimes the other kids vomit, but I never throw up. Last year the counselors made bowls of Rice Krispies with ketchup, mustard, jelly, lots of salt, and it was mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. Everyone cheers you on and you have to eat it all as fast as you can if you want to win.

Some nights if we have stayed up until dawn the night before we try to go to sleep a little earlier than usual, no later than two or three in the morning. We don’t keep track, but we have to get some sleep because the counselors wake us up at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They march us to the sports field and make us do jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches, and run the track. If they see you are tired and slacking they will make you do more.

We get up every morning to dance music, like Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the counselors want, played loud on loudspeakers hidden in trees. Sometimes I don’t hear it because I’m sound asleep. The counselors carry water shooters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start squirting you. They shake your bed and jump on you, and scream “Wakey wakey campers!”

After exercise hour on the sport’s field we go back to our cabins, clean up, and then raise all the flags before breakfast. Sometimes we don’t clean up and instead fall back asleep in our cabins and then are late for the flag raising, which means humiliation. Whoever is late has to step out into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance, or whatever dance they tell you to do.

All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop when that happens, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means, but they all do it, and the girls stand there watching, and then they do their dumb dance, like cheerleaders, but they aren’t cheering for you. We have some pretty messed-up people at camp, but everybody gets their share.

Every cabin has to keep a diary for two weeks and we get graded on it every day. Whoever is the best writer wins Liberty Dollars. But, if you write something dumb, like “ugi, ugi, ugi” or anything that doesn’t make sense, you get a bad grade. The counselors tell us to be sincere. Matthew always makes up our diary because everyone else in our cabin is retarded. At the flag lowering one time, after Titus had written something stupid, we had to do the Rambo, running down the hill to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “cha, cha, cha” while everyone did the chop.

My friends and I are in cabin three, which is the smallest cabin of the nine boy’s cabins. There are eight of us and the only space we have to move around in is to walk back and forth to our beds. Matthew is my best friend and totally number one. He’s a little shorter than me, has dirty blond hair, and is stick slender. We like to relax, not get uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. We have been rooming together for seven years and know each other best.

Logan is my second best friend. He is a tad taller, funny, and chunky.  He chews green frog gummies and spits them out on the cabin floor. He likes to play paintball. I don’t paintball, but I think I’d be better, considering I’ve never done it. He’s strong, too, but not loud and belligerent. Once he punched someone who stomped on his bad toe. He has in-grown toenails. Logan was, like, “Dude!” and he pushed him, and then got punched in the stomach. Logan punched him back in the face, but without being mean. It was the Night of the Super Starz in the dining hall, we were just sitting there watching the show, and the rude boy started crying. He had a reddish bruise and a black eye at the end of the day.

There was a midnight mass afterwards, but Logan had to go back early and alone to our cabin, although all that happened the next day was they made him sweep the hall. That’s somebody’s job, anyway, so he just helped, but not too much.

After the morning activities we eat breakfast, and then clean up our areas. You don’t have to do it, but there is a cabin judging at the end of camp. We didn’t win last summer, but we didn’t come in last, either, which is a good thing, because then you would have to do something bad. We go to classes, sometimes, or you can say you aren’t feeling good, and then we have lunch, and later go to the beach. After dinner we lower the flags, there’s an evening program, and then we go back to our cabins and get naked, at least some of us. I don’t know why we do that, exactly.

We talk about movies, television shows, and our favorites on YouTube. We talk about girls, some of them more than others, and we talk about video games, even though we don’t have any at camp. It’s never been allowed. The one of us in our cabin who doesn’t talk much is Titus. He just sits in his corner all secluded, but he does play some games, so I talk to him about that, sometimes.

I used to play WoW, but I got addicted to it and didn’t like that. Call of Duty is my game now, except I don’t play it on my Xbox anymore, only on my computer. I love it when they say, “In war there is no prize for the runner-up.” I’m not sure what games Titus plays.

Nobody knows what is wrong with Titus. We love Titus, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re sitting in our cabin talking, he’ll start crying. He’ll just cry on his bed, and when we ask him what’s wrong, he says, “I don’t know.” We don’t ignore him and we never do anything to him. We punch him every once in awhile, but not hard. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he isn’t looking. He gets pinkeye every year. We don’t make fun of him, though. But then he got double pinkeye

We were all, like, “God damn it, Titus.”

Everybody made fun of him as a joke, and then he cried, but not because of that, just because he’s Titus. Every year he sleeps in the corner by the door. That’s the problem, he doesn’t know. He is one sad, sad child.

We stage our wrestling matches in cabin two, which is the oldest boy’s cabin. It’s the coolest cabin, too, and the biggest. What we do is take our shirts off and duct tape a sleeping bag onto the wood floor. There is no punching allowed, no hammer blows, or anything like that, but you can kick and throw each other on the ground. We aren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commanders don’t like it, but everybody wrestles and gets bruised, and crap.

One night we had wrestle mania. The winner is the last man standing. Mason and Chase, two boys from cabin five where they’re younger, were locked together when Chase grabbed Mason’s head and flipped him over. Mason slammed hard into a bed and got knocked out. We let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up for twenty seconds we threw dirt on him. He was fine after that. The next day we were walking to the beach and Mason jumped on Chase’s back for no reason and almost cracked it. But, they didn’t punch each other, or anything like that. They’re both hardcore kids, everybody knows that, but not haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble.

Liam sleeps in the other corner opposite Titus by the door. He’s a serious douche bag. He thinks he can play guitar, but all he does is play the same part of Stairway to Heaven over and over. Who needs that? We are always yelling “Shut up!” and then we broke his guitar, but it was a piece of junk, anyway.

We broke the brand new fan his parents got him, too. Logan was angry, his toes hurt that day, and he started hitting it with a comb. We took the fan behind our cabin and beat it with a bat. It was hanging on rags when we were done. The spiny part was smashed, giant chunks were missing, and we just kept beating it. We beat it with a hockey stick and threw bottles of water at it. I mean, we did everything to it.

He wasn’t too happy about it, but he deserved it.

When his parents came mid-week they asked him what happened. He told them we did it, but not surprising to us, they didn’t believe him. After that he tipped a Diet Coke over on my bed in spite, so I poured the rest of it on his bed, and he pushed me, and I punched him back, and then he punched me, and I finally punched him in the jaw, but not crazy hard, and he stopped.

He thinks he is swagged, but since he is Liam, there is no reason.

Boys are never allowed to be in the girl’s cabins, ever. But, once a day we go over, one or two of my friends and me. We usually sneak peek there from the boy’s side, through the woods, to right behind the girl’s cabins. We know which one we want and go in through the rear window. Sometimes we run to the front door, but it is better all around to go the back way. That’s why all the screens in the back windows are ripped out. The counselors staple them back on every year.

We hang out, talk about life, and chill. We dream up rages, but never in our cabins, always in their cabins. It’s awesome and the music pumps. We just go up and down the walls. Sometimes fifteen people crowd into the cabin, having fun and out of control. We rage every day, mostly during the day, but sometimes at night, too, at least whenever we can. It’s better in the dark when we can turn on the Christmas lights and crazy dance to Skrillex. The counselors hear the music, but they don’t care. There’s music playing all the time. The wrong counselor coming in for a random reason might catch you, so you have to watch out for that.

When people knock on the doors we jump in-between any crack or under the beds. The girls say, hold on, we’re changing, and we just wait, hiding under the beds, or in the cracks where they can’t see you. All the time you’re hiding and you’re quiet so they won’t find you. Most of the counselors just laugh and call you pathetic if they see you. But, they always let you stay.

After the rages we talk and chill again, eat all of the girl’s candy, and then sneak back to our cabins. We’re only there for two weeks, so we have as much fun as we can, playing music and dancing to the beats. It pumps hard every day. It’s not melodic, trust me on that, although one time Logan slowed it down and sang I Did It My Way, and everybody loved it. For the rest of camp whenever we chanted his name he had to jump on a picnic table and lead a sing-along of My Way.

I am the boss of dance moves at the camp dances. There isn’t anyone or anything that doesn’t make me the boss; a picture of the boss busting moves is worth ten thousand words. The girls dance with me because I’m not a douche. The ones who are exactly that think they’re cool, but then nobody really likes them, or only a select few who are just like them. You can’t be the boss and a douche, too.

At the dances everybody makes a circle and I squirt into the middle. I break moves, and I’m dead serious about it. I’m out there every dance rocking it. I do the party boy, popping, liquiding, and electric shuffling. One of the counselors is teaching me. He goes to things called raves, like rages, except they’re gigantic, where people get wasted. He says they’re awesome.

My favorite dances are slow dances, of course, because you get to dance in a curve, your arms wrapped around your girl, soft and flowing. Everything is good about that. I love shuffling and going crazy on the dance floor, but it’s a close second. I slow dance with just about everybody, except cabin seven, the youngest girls, who once asked me to dance with them. I said no to that.

It was two or three years ago when I started noticing the chiquita’s at summer camp. At first it was just curiosity. Then it was like standing on the rim of the Rocky River Valley and feeling how great it would be to jump. They were there and they were nice. Being around them felt like something good was going to happen.

Happy girls are the prettiest girls, but some of them, especially the ones who think they’re stars, are mean. When you try to talk to them, they act, like, “Oh, my God, I’m so cool, and you’re so dumb, leave me alone.” They will say, “Just because you know my name doesn’t mean you know me,” and walk the other way. It’s then you know they’re down and snobby. They never smile when no one else is around because they would have to really mean it.

Natalya is one of the mean girls. She isn’t hot, although maybe she is, partly. She’s shorter, not fat, but not like a twig, either. She has some knockers, nice and big, but she wears a butt-load of make-up, which is weird. She prances around, like she is acting it out, and dyes her hair all the time in different colors, black, and then blonde, and then something else. She brought her own little folding table to summer camp so she could put make-up on in private. She wears a ton of it.

If you wear make-up it doesn’t mean you are snotty, but that’s just a thing with her. Most people can only whine for so long, but she whines over stupid things all day. We’re in the same morning classes, after cabin clean up and the inspections, so I know. She’s in my group, and whenever we have to do anything, she whines about it, saying, “Oh, my God, I’m not doing that.” She just wants to sit around and be annoying.

She has a lot of friends, but she has a lot of enemies, too. Logan said she deserves her enemies, but I think she deserves her friends, too. Some of my friends, girls who are nice, hate her a lot. They won’t be in the same cabin with her, even though they are the same age. I know she hates being ignored. I try not to care about her, but I can’t, not always.

The other mean girls, Alexis, Samantha, and Hannah, are all in my morning group, too, which sucks. Alexis doesn’t constantly whine, only most of the time, and she wears shiny bracelets and rings, too. She just wants to sit around and be looked at. Samantha is all drama, way into herself, and I don’t like her at all. Everything she says she starts by saying “Frankly…” She looks awkward when she’s not talking. I don’t even know about Hannah, she’s just kind of weird, glammed up like a puppet.

The nice girls are fun to be around. That’s the big difference about them. They’re not immature about things like having to play sports all day on sport days. They even play the dizzy bat with us between games on the soccer field, at the end the sidelines strewn with us lying on the ground, grabbing for the grass to keep from falling off the edge of the earth. The mean girls sit in their cabin and flame about it, and stupid stuff, like how small their cabin is, even though there are only four of them. Ours has eight of us in it, it’s the smallest boy’s cabin, and we never complain about it, ever.

The mean girls always want to be with the boys who are ripped. All they want to do is talk to them and then talk about them the rest of the time. The nice girls don’t like the boys who are mean and their girls. They don’t get along. There really is a divide and it’s serious. Last year one of the mean girls, Kayla, started cursing out another girl and charged her, and got kicked out of camp. Her parents had to come and get her. That was bad.

The nice girls don’t try so hard to be something they aren’t, slapping on a smile or a smirk. They’re not expert liars. The mean girls always look like they’re waiting to be discovered behind their cover up. But the nice girls, even if they have bandy legs and a lopsided face, when they laugh it’s one of the best sounds in the world.

One of the nicest girls at camp is Lauren, who is tall, has wavy brown hair, kind of long, and is a little chunky, but not like fat. At least, not too fat. She lives on the other side of the lake where it’s the Upper Peninsula. Lauren doesn’t try to be anything. She’s pretty, but not beautiful, not like she’s impersonating somebody, trying to fool you. Instead, she’s really kindhearted and friendly. She stays up at night, like me, listening to music.

Jessica is my age, the very nicest girl of all. She is fourteen, just a month younger and a bit shorter than me, blonde hair, but not dirty blonde. We have known each other for five years. She appreciates everything about me, the whole nine yards. We see each other every day. We go to the secret swings and talk, but I don’t remember about what. You never know what girls are going to say. I just stare at her. I don’t know what she talks about, girl stuff, I think, and her clothes. Anything they wear is fine, really. I heard her say once she likes the Detroit Tigers, and another time she said something about her room. She says all kinds of stuff and I just listen. Sitting in the woods with her at night feels like hanging loose. I never want it to end.

Last summer Raymond, the night guard, who is the weirdest man, was in the bushes when I was walking to the crapper from the swings after a night with Jessica. He was standing in the dark watching me, and my friend Logan saw him and started screaming at him, “Get out of here, man, what do you want?” He also used some select words. It was the funniest thing, because most of the time no one can talk to Raymond like that.

Raymond is the night guard, not a counselor, or even one of the camp commanders. His hair is long and greasy, he always wears a baseball cap, and he smells terrible. He’s one of the older adults, for sure in his 50s, and he told us he’s an ex-Spetsnaz.  Titus was stung in the ear by a hornet once, and was crying, and Raymond told him to “tough it out.”

He sleeps during the day and patrols the camp at night, and will stand behind your cabin, just looking in at you for a long time, like a freak. He’s very patient. Nobody wants him chasing you when you have snuck out. You can’t break away from him, ever; he’s just a beast. He has a birch branch that he whips your feet out from under you when you’re running, and will seriously manhandle you when he catches you, which is every time.

The best night of camp is the night of the manhunt game we play with the counselors on the 4th of July. It’s called Nazis and Jews. The older campers are the Jews and the counselors are the Nazis. We call it that because the Jews run from the Nazis. The kids have to go to bed. They aren’t allowed to play. We start running as soon as it gets completely dark, so we have a chance, and then the counselors come after us. If they catch you they railroad you back to a jail where you have to sit and wait.

You can try to get away, but it’s hard because the counselors who catch you are the strong, fast ones, and the ones who don’t catch you are the slow ones, the ones who are mostly unfit. The strong ones don’t like it when anyone makes them look bad by busting out. You can try to break free when no one’s looking, but if they grab you then you have to stay longer. The longer you sit there the less chance you have to win Liberty Dollars for the auction after the game, which isn’t a good thing. It is intense. I am dead serious.

One summer during the manhunt Simon, who is from Maine, jumped out of a tree on me. Whenever he talks it’s with a slurry, toothless accent. He was ten feet up in a quiet, dark shadow where I couldn’t see him, and he jumped down and tackled me. I got up and ran, but he started chasing me. He was like a monster, coming to get me, and I ran into a branch. Everything just went SHING! I almost got knocked out because it hit me right in the face and tore my neck, which really hurt. There is still a scar on my Adam’s apple to this day.

On another game night Matilda, who plays for a college basketball team and is seriously fast, blind-sided me, decking me. At first I wasn’t sure what happened. I didn’t mean to, but when I got up I tripped her, and started running away. You try to run away whenever anyone catches you. When she caught me I fell on the ground like I was out cold. She was forced to drag me by my arms and legs. While she was dragging me, huffing and puffing, I noticed a large lump on her chest. When I asked her what it was she gave me a sly look and said, “It’s a tumor, I have cancer.” I couldn’t believe it. She seemed so healthy. I jumped to my feet so she wouldn’t have to drag me. While we were walking the tumor started to jerk back and forth. I didn’t know what to do, since it wasn’t anything we’d learned about in first-aid training. I thought she might collapse. Then, just as we walked up to the jail, her baby pet gerbil poked its head out of her bra.

Last summer the jail was inside the art house, where all the supplies and costumes are stored. It’s at the farthest end from the sand dunes. Makayla was the guard that night, and although she isn’t very big, she’s strong. There are two rooms, so she had to patrol both of them. We had to sit in chairs and be quiet. If you talked too much you had to sit there longer. If you got up from your chair for any reason you had to stay in there longer, too. You could try to escape, but it wasn’t easy. Makayla would hit you, not really hard, but hard enough, with a twine broom, usually with the soft end. She would push the broom down on you and yell the whole time.

You don’t want to try escaping too many times, either, because if you try a couple of times and they catch you each time, they might kick you out of the game for the night. It isn’t fair, but that’s what they do if they get annoyed about it. If you sat there quietly, or told Makayla you’d be good, sometimes she let you out before the others.

The game starts once it gets dark and everybody is assembled at the bonfire pit in the sand arena. The counselors change the game a little every year. One summer whoever was a Jew child had to go out to find passports for their family. That was the main prize. When they got caught, and they all got caught because there were traps everywhere, the rest of us, their family, had to break them out of jail somehow. It was like capture the flag, but trickier.

This summer the counselors took us to the dining hall, closed the doors, darkened the windows, turned off all the lights, and made us sit on the concrete floor. There were two people giving news broadcasts, but then a counselor warned us they were going to censor the station. It got quiet. You couldn’t hear anything.

When the counselors came back they were dressed in black, charcoal from the bonfire smeared on their faces, and screaming, acting like they were mad. They split us up into groups and gave us directions. We had to find books and save them from being burned. They gave us clues and we had to find them. They weren’t real books, just pieces of paper. The more we brought back the more Liberty Dollars we got for the auction. The more of us in our group, our family, that got caught the more of our Liberty Dollars were taken away.

The papers were scattered around the camp in the pockets of a couple of special counselors, who were hidden in the forest, and kept moving around. You had to find them and when you did they would give you the paper. But, sometimes you had to beg them. If the Nazis captured you they would take the paper away from you, rip it up right in front of you, and you would have to start all over. A lot of people hid them in their shoes, or their underwear, or different places no one would look.

It can be a dirty game. One time I was by myself, not far from the art house, but on the edge of the woods, and one of the counselors came walking past, and I dropped flat. I was lying in a bunch of crap, leaves, twigs, bugs, mud, and stuff, and he just walked right up to me, but didn’t see me. I was, like, “Oh, man.”

Everybody gets the same number of campers for their group, and they are your family. The mom and dad of the family are the two oldest from the girl and boy side, and the children are the trickles from the other cabins. You have to find the books, but you have to protect each other, too. If anyone in your family gets sent to jail you have to rescue them. But, it’s best to be careful, so that you don’t get caught yourself.

They called us out family-by-family and yelled at us if we didn’t listen. They were hitting the floor with brooms, yelling at us, dressed all in black. Most of us were dressed in black, too, or camouflage, because it gets intense. They gave the moms and dads a lit candle, lined us up, and marched us to the sports field. They were telling us the rules, when Gregory, who has an anger problem, and wasn’t even in my family, snuck up behind me and snapped at me because I was laughing, “Shut up!” and then slammed me. I slammed him back on the ground. I was, like, “What the hell?” The counselors were shouting, “Gregory, get over here!” and they started chewing him out, because I hadn’t done anything.

Gregory has crazy anger problems. He might not make it. His brother used to come to the camp, but he was kicked out one year for the same thing. They called his parents to pick him up and he has never been back. That’s the worst thing that can happen at camp.

The counselors were being all serious, spitting out commands, when out of nowhere, out of all directions, they just started screaming and sprinting at us, without even telling us that it was starting. We booked it in every direction. That’s how the game started. It was crazy.

I had already planned to go with my friends, because you don’t really want to stay with your group. It’s stupid then, since you’re just trying to have fun, anyway. We hustled to one of the boy’s cabins and hid there, and then started running around, dodging the counselors. Some of them are fast, and there are two girl counselors, too, who can catch you if you don’t see them coming and they are already sprinting towards you.

You can push the counselors away, out of your way, but not punch them, although you can punch them, just not all of them, only the ones who don’t care. Your friends can come help you, and if the counselors try to catch both of you, you have a good chance of getting away, because they can’t get both of you at the same time, no matter how big they are.

The counselors tackle you hard when they want to. They can be stealthy rockets and they don’t mess around. Sometimes they’ll use you as a distraction so they can catch someone else. If they’re your counselor they’ll cut you some slack. You act like you’re getting caught when one of your friends is walking by, and yell, “Help me!” and your counselor will throw you to the side and run to get them, and you can then dash free.

I had to help when Noah explained he needed me to go along with one of his plans. When I was little I would slip into his cabin and his friends would let me sit on their beds and give me candy. Besides, he had me pinned down. He pretended to capture me, but he really wanted to capture one of my friends. He had his own reasons. They are usually not going to let you go just to capture somebody else, because then you can run off. But, I did what he wanted, and I begged one of my friends, “Dude, come help me,” and Noah let me go and took him.

This summer the jail was on the sports field, which was a pressboard box used to store basketball backboards. It was small, the size of a dining room table, but tall and deep to the back. Last summer the jail cell was the boy’s bathroom. It was dark and clammy, the light bulb missing, with only one door, so it was hard to escape from. We had to sit in there with the daddy long-legs and rotten smells.

The pressboard box was even worse. It was out in the open with a pole lamp over it. The counselors squeezed eight people in there, around the edges, and then made more people stand in the middle like cattle. They nailed two-by-fours to the sides so we wouldn’t spill out. Everybody was packed tight inside it. You could try to crawl out, but they would have already gotten you by then.

We escaped when some counselors grabbed new runners and were bringing them in, but there wasn’t any room left because it was so crowded. Someone pushed us out. We had a couple of seconds of leeway. They can’t just grab you again that minute, so we ran into the forest to the Hill of Crosses.

The Hill of Crosses is on a small dirt hill in the woods. There are trees all around it, and nothing but crosses on the hill, hundreds of them, some bigger than life. Everybody’s parents know all about it. It has something to do with their past. It’s been there a long time, but no new crosses have been added so long as I can remember. There’s a white fence around the hill and a gate, but it’s never locked. We go there for fun sometimes, to talk, and chill, because almost no one ever goes there anymore, and it’s secluded.

We were cutting through the Hill of Crosses, talking out what we were going to do, when Lovett, who is very fast and really fit, jumped out of a sand dune right at us, waving a flashlight. We just flipped out, everybody started running, none of us going the same way.  Somebody smashed into Lovett, who singled out Mark for it, running after him.

A lanky kid named Norville, from another cabin but who was with us, sprinted to the border of the camp where there is a crappy old fence. He didn’t know it was there and when he jumped on it he got all tangled. He ended up stuck on it, his hands were gashed, his clothes ripped, and he couldn’t get off. He was bloody after that, not like gushing, but it was bad.

Later, when we all found each other, we saw Lovett with his big flashlight, looking for Mark. We lay down in the sand; we were so afraid, but he ran right past us. We stayed there behind the little hill where we hang our clothes after coming back from the lake, and then snuck back into our cabin. We were sitting on our beds, laughing, but Mark was freaking out. He was so afraid he got on his knees, put his hands together on his bunk bed, and started praying out loud. He was praying there, crying, saying, “I don’t feel good,” when Lovett walked in.

“What’s wrong with Mark?” he asked.

“I don’t feel good,” Mark said, and walked outside the cabin and threw up. He tried to throw up in the trashcans, at least it looked that way, but he didn’t get any in the trashcans, at all. The next morning we dogged Mark, because he’s an idiot, but all he said was he really didn’t feel good, anyway.

After Mark threw up we heard one of the counselors squawk on the loudspeakers that the game was over. That’s how it really ends. They broadcast all during the game, about how much time is left, and what we have to do, and then it just ends. I don’t know what time that is. I don’t wear a watch at camp. Everybody just has to report to the dining hall.

After the game is over we get a five-minute break to mess around, and then we all go to the hall, laugh with our friends, and tell them how crazy it was. We’re still getting our breath back when Father Elliott starts his talk. He always speaks after the game. This summer he told us about Siberia, how he went on a memorial train ride there, to commemorate our grandparents who were taken away by the Communists in the 1940s.

He talked about the train cars, how there were so many people in the freight cars that nobody had any space to move around in, and how they had to go to the bathroom in the train itself. He was very serious. It was kind of sad, actually, how serious it was, but I was glad he told us about it. He had pictures on his laptop, lots of them of the little broken-down villages where people had to live in the freezing cold. I remember one picture, there were wooden railroad tracks, old rusted bolts, and the snow was blazing white. The tracks were all nasty and messed up. I don’t know why I remember that one. He said we should be thankful we didn’t have to go through that, that we were lucky.

Father Elliott is our priest at the camp. He runs the religion classes, says mass, and organizes the Faith Nights. We build bonfires all around the camp for Faith Night, in the dunes, by the art house, and everyone goes to one of the bonfires with their morning group. Our two counselors have a list, they ask us questions, and we talk. I used to think it was stupid, but I like some things about religion now. Some people take it as a joke. They are smart-asses.

In my class at St. Mel’s I hate my religion teacher, but at summer camp I try to express myself. Some of the questions are dumb, but a lot of them are intriguing. How do you see God? What does God mean to you? How do you communicate with God? When I was a kid they taught us to go to church and pray, and everybody would be happy. But, is that truly enough, to pray once in awhile, and that will please God? I’m not sure.

Father Elliott goes to each group on Faith Night carrying chairs for confession. I don’t really like that. You’re sitting by your fire, talking about God and all, and he comes by with his two folding chairs. He doesn’t make you confess, but you basically have to. You have to sit face-to-face with him in the open. He stares straight into your soul while you’re giving confession. I don’t want the priest to know it’s me because you see him every day. You know he thinks of you differently afterwards, at least for a few days.

This summer we almost didn’t play Nazis and Jews. We heard rumors the camp commander wanted to stop it, or change it, but the counselors said you couldn’t just stop it. It’s a legend at camp. It’s the most fun night of the two weeks. It was probably somebody’s parents, the counselors said, complaining about calling the manhunt game Nazis and Jews, or something like that. Everybody was worried. At least we got the game back, and it was the same, although we might call it something else next summer.

They were playing it when I first started going to camp. I used to want to play it so bad then. When we were kids in the long barracks we would get together, go somewhere, and play our own manhunt game for hours. We stood in a circle and chanted “bit, burp, poop, you, are, not, it” until only one kid was left, and he was it and had to go and catch people. If you saw one of your friends you could try to tag him and he would be it.

One summer my third-best friend Adrian was it and he was mad because he had been it twice that day. “I‘m not playing anymore,” he said. We said, “Stop being a baby and just be it.” He started chasing Luke, who was still really small. He ran and Adrian tore after him, and then slammed him onto his back. Luke broke his arm and had to go to the hospital. He wore a cast for the rest of camp, which was bad. Adrian told everybody he was sorry. He was crying about it and explaining he hadn’t meant to do it.

Summer camp goes by fast. You wake up one morning and it’s over. Where did it go? We’re always wasting our time, but we never waste a minute. You’re hanging with your friends, everything is carefree, and then suddenly you have to go back to your normal life. It’s gone, it’s done, and you have to wait another year. You go see your girls and they’re all teary. You hang out with your bro’s and everybody is kind of sad.

After breakfast we raise the flags one last time. I know we won’t be the ones lowering them later that night and nobody feels good about that. We go back to our cabins, get all our stuff ready, and then everybody’s parents start arriving. We go to the bonfire pit and sing songs one more time, like The Cat Came Back the Very Next Day and Tin Tan Tin. I don’t know what the girls sing. It is something like “Tick a lick a lick, per diena zirgele, I am alone.“ But, the truth is, my friends and I don’t really sing anymore. When you’re a kid it’s fun, but now it sucks.

We always sing one last song. Everybody gets in a big circle at the end, the whole camp, after the awards are given out, and our arms all crossed together we sing I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane, and then say a prayer. It’s really sad, and then it’s over, and you say goodbye to everybody.

The next year when it’s time for summer camp again you are jonesing, it’s like getting the jitters. All the same people are there, all your girls and your cabin, and everything we do. It’s just a great experience. When I’m older, after my last year, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s for sure, at least until I finish college and have to get a real job.

I was the top dog at Nazis and Jews this summer. The next day I ran my stack of Liberty Dollars to the auction. The camp commander stands at a podium with a wood mallet. There is a chalkboard behind him with a list of all the things you can get and everyone starts bidding. There are t-shirts and baseball hats, breakfast in bed, and counselors cleaning your cabin. Sometimes it’s a mystery box, which can be good, like roasting marshmallows for two hours, or it can be not so good, like cleaning the urinals.

There’s stargazing with another cabin of your choice, which is always obviously a girl’s cabin, and that is a good thing. But, I put everything I had, all of my Liberty Dollars, on the first shower. Saturday was the night of the formal dance and I wanted to look my best for it. I made absolutely sure nobody outbid me because it was do-or-die for the hot water.

You get to shower first, all by yourself, for as long as you want to.  You’re in the shower and nobody can get you out. They post a counselor to stand guard at the door and they don’t let anyone in except you, and you can use as much hot water as you want. There is only so much of it at the camp, but you can take it all, and everybody else is left with the cold remains.

Oh, yeah, that is what you always do, because everybody else would do it to you.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”