Part XI: Descent
Chapter Fifty-Seven -- Rehab
My return to "The Lone Star State" was accomplished without fanfare. I expected bugles and trumpets to welcome my triumphant return, instead, cold stares from steely-eyed nurses greeted me instead. Another gust of wind out of my sails, I began to wonder what would happen next as I was wheeled into my room. With the same lack of concern as that shown by my "friends" on the Vicente, I was thrown into another hard bed, this time in a room with white walls and a window view of the base looking westward.
On the bedside table rested a box with my name on it. I retrieved it with Herculean effort, pried it open, and rummaged inside to inventory its contents. The Bowie knife Plog had presented me was there, along with a collection of clothing, some photos of my family, some miscellaneous garbage, and my kneeboard. I pulled the latter object out of the box and ran my hands along it. Though somewhat battered, it was still intact, and I found myself amazed that it had survived this latest ejection. Designed by a Naval Aviator decades before, the "Soft-G," as it was known, had developed a cult-like popularity in the Naval Aviation Community. From my very first day as a fighter pilot, this particular one had been with me, through good and bad. Scuff mark and tear, scrape or fray, each had its own story to tell, and the scars on this small assembly of nylon and plastic seemed to mirror my own.
With reverence I placed it back in the box, wondering if it would ever accompany me in the cockpit of a jet fighter again.
"Good afternoon, Commander!" Josh Kaufman bellowed as he burst through the door of my hospital room. It was 05 March 2015, and the shock of his entrance nearly launched me out of my bed. "I was afraid you'd be a Lieutenant all your life!"
A few days after my arrival in San Antonio brought a lovely and welcome surprise. My family--mom, dad, Josh, Harriska, and the girls--came to visit. As usual for a man of his responsibility, Josh had pressing matters to attend to that spared him but a few short hours. A situation almost as grave as that in the jungles of South America was simmering to the northwest as Zentraedi survivors began to rise up in anger against their human counterparts--Joshua Kaufman's expertise was desperately needed.
Some definite surprises merrily accompanied my loved ones on their visit. Both parents--especially my mother--doted upon me as if I were still a toddler. My dear mom was choking back tears when she first saw me, and only through sheer will and incessant reassurance that I would be okay did she allow herself to smile. Dad spread his satirical humor around generously, some of it on such a high intellectual level that it took awhile to actually decide he was just kidding! Harriska looked like an angel, though her stomach seemed slightly larger than I recalled seeing before.
Balloons and presents and kisses from family can do wonders for a wounded flyer in more ways than mere physical healing. When I looked upon Casey and Lisa, priorities transformed themselves in a mecha-like manner. Flying combat on behalf of a leadership that would surely use us after the alien threat was diminished to solidify its own power seemed amazingly unimportant. This was what mattered. These two, bright eyed little girls, staring at me as if I were an alien--indeed!--as I dangled from wires and pulleys. The rubber met the road at this point. For a fleeting few frames in the film of my life, flying did not seem so important any longer.
My daughters were like a pair of walking nuclear power plants, bristling with energy. Try as I may, recalling a day in which I possessed such vigor proved impossible. Expectation was happily defeated by reality, for the girls did not shy away from me as I had feared. In truth, both had to be constantly restrained from clambering up on my hospital bed with me. I gave them kisses and listened to stories about imaginary friends, trips to the lake, and other topics that were central to the continued harmony of the universe. It was a refreshing moment...and a reflective one. I had missed out on so much since I last saw them. From crawling to running, squalling to talking, changes were abundantly evident, and they had occurred in my absence. It saddened me deeply.
And what of Harriska's tummy? Had the girl taken to eating in the loneliness that accompanied Josh's absence? This was a delicate subject, for I learned long ago to never use any conceivable combination of the words woman, bigger, stomach, or weight in the same sentence. How to broach it? Pregnancy was certainly an option, but what if one is wrong? I recalled a time when I happened across a young lady with a finely rounded midsection. Hoping to be able to congratulate her on her miracle, I casually inquired when she was going to deliver and reduced the poor woman to an angry fit of tears. She was not pregnant, just overweight.
For three days the question nagged at me until, finally, I had a moment alone with my father. The feminine mob had meandered down to the cafeteria in the hospital to get something to eat. Though my father clearly faced some odds in his new life, four-to-one was far cry better than those I had faced in recent years.
"Dad," I inquired, shifting uncomfortably on my bed. "What is the deal with Kristy?"
My father's eyebrows narrowed. "What deal?"
"Is she pregnant?"
"Pregnant? What gave you that idea?" he said, with an air of incredulity as thick as Redwood Tree.
I was taken aback by his gruff demeanor. "Well...her, uh..." Then I noticed the wry look in my father's eyes, an invitation to "work the problem." The answer was obvious. "When is she due?! When did this happen?!" I exclaimed.
My father smirked. "We had a nice friendly bet going on how long it would take you to ask," he laughed. "She is due in about seven months or so. Everyone is very excited about it, as you can imagine."
"I just hope for your sake it's a boy, dad! All these girls can be trouble you know."
"Yes..." My father smiled. "But granddaughters are truly special. Someday you'll see."
See I did. The satisfaction in his eyes showed that he was enjoying very much his role of grandpa, and the priorities of life continued their inexorable shift toward a new direction.
After four days, the family decided it was time to go back home. I could hardly have blamed them if they had left long before. My dad had been coaxed out of a cozy retirement by a wealthy acquaintance to fly the Next Generation Boeing Business Jet (the "Boeing Blow Job" as he referred to it), which was basically a 737-700 with a fancy interior for executive use. It was a cushy job. Flying essentially the same airplane he had flown during his airline career, he was paid armloads of cash, even though he was home twenty-five days a month. I envied him, and vowed that if my military career was finished, I'd find a way to do what he was doing. There would be other visits, of course, along with an inevitable future outside the military. But the most important thing in front of me now was learning to walk again.
Enter a young, forty-plus female nurse/sadist/drill instructor named Jean. Nurse Jean was not overly given to handing out sympathy pills, nor was she particularly receptive to complaints. Her number one goal in life was to make her patients better through the sheer force of her indomitable will. She was quite a character. Her white ankle socks with red polka dots on them were a distinct trademark that flew in the face of all military regulations--and it was obvious she didn't care a bit that they did. Though closer to sixty than eighteen, she was flirtatious and vivacious as anyone half her age, and she released her sexuality among eighteen-year olds and forty-year olds with equal zest.
I hated her!
She made my life hell!
My blissful days of sleeping until noon ended with a bang when she barged into my room at 0500 one fine morning to announce that rehabilitation was to begin in earnest. One by one the strings that held my battered body in place were undone, and my cries of agony only made her more efficient in her task. The whole right side of my body was an abused and miserable mess. Through a river of tears I saw that Jean was rolling a wheel chair over to my bedside.
"What's that for?" I gasped, cradling my right elbow--or should I say, attempting to cradle my elbow.
"This is for you. You are going to sit in this chair right now."
"Like hell I am," I managed. "Are you nuts? I'm in pain here!"
Jean stood upright and placed both hands on her hips, her polka dot socks visible with her feet shoulder width apart. "You're going to be in a lot more pain if you don't get your ass out of that bed and into this chair. Move it! "
In an instant, all the horrible things I had done throughout my short life flashed before my eyes. This was my penance. Jake's Purgatory. Redemption through pain. The nuns at Catholic school had said one should "Offer up his suffering for those in Purgatory," an act which would presumably help release some them from their punishment a little earlier. I had a feeling Nurse Jean was prepared to dish out enough pain on my withered body for the lot of them!
And so the rehab program began. It took nearly an hour of bitching and whining and cursing just to get myself to an upright position, and I had never felt pain like I felt that morning. Nurses and doctors popped their heads into the room to see what the ruckus was about, looks of concern on their faces. Jean would snap at them, "What the hell are ya' lookin' at? Can't you see we're busy here?!" And off they would scurry.
Over the years, many have questioned Nurse Jean Floyd's techniques, but not a soul can argue with her success rate. What others took months to accomplish--or failed to achieve at all--Jean could do in weeks. She was aggressive and refused to tolerate a defeatist attitude. Many broken down ex-soldiers and aviators are walking the streets today because of her forceful efforts.
That first day, I nearly vomited a dozen times, both from the pain and from the effects movement had on my sense of equilibrium, but I made it into that wheelchair. Though life's priorities continued to shift, I began to feel that I would make it back to the cockpit if I chose to.
How little did I know what a long road back it would prove to be.
As the weeks moved past, the pain diminished only marginally. For at every opportunity, Nurse Jean was pushing the envelope in my range of movement (ROM). A quarter of an inch this way, a quarter that. Half a pound more today, a pound more tomorrow. Sweat and tears mingled with curses as she pushed me farther and farther. I wanted to strangle her!
"Don't be a baby on me! You will make yourself well! Do you understand? You will make yourself well!!! " These words reverberated off the walls of my room, the hospital corridors, and the weight room. I was ready to kill her!
My anger at Jean manifested itself in a desire to push myself harder. The sooner I healed, the sooner I could make her shut up. With that in mind I pushed and pushed and pushed, cursing and spitting the whole way. As intended, Jean's incessant prodding began to bear fruit, and a slow realization of her importance to me began. In time my muscles began to build themselves back to, and even beyond, what they had been at my fittest. My appetite grew, the pounds began to pile themselves on, and I began to feel better--and look better--than I had in years. Within a few short months, Jean's ass-chewing began to diminish ever so slightly, and compliments began to spring forth sporadically at great intervals. A mutual respect and admiration began to take hold of both of us, as our common goal neared.
By mid-June, I had restored nearly ninety percent of my ROM in my shoulder and elbow, and about seventy percent in my knee. The latter proved of greatest concern, even though we had accomplished a tremendous amount, for in spite our best efforts, I was simply incapable of moving it beyond about an eighty-five degree bend. The surgeons who reviewed my case could find no direct cause for it, and the implication of this condition, should it persist, was an end to my flying career. If I had to eject from a fighter, the slack reels that tuck the pilot's legs back toward the seat would rip my knee apart, or would themselves fail, leaving my left leg to flail around during the initial stages of the ejection sequence. The ultimate result would be an instrument panel amputation of my right leg. This was not an attractive option.
As before, the priorities of life continued their mechamorphosis.
Time marches at its own pace, and nothing a mortal can do is capable of stopping or changing it in any way. We added another three degrees of movement, but then no more. We had a met a firm wall, and a flight physical deadline was rapidly approaching. The prospects seemed grim, but my combat record was something that could sway the flight surgeon to my side if I failed the physical by a narrow margin. The rest of my body was as good as it had ever been. My shoulder and elbow would transmit a dull ache for the rest of my life, and the fused vertebrae in my back caused a marginal reduction in mobility in certain instances (twisting at the waist for example). But I was strong, could run--fast. Fifty pushups in one minute, ninety sit-ups in two. Nearly four months of conditioning had honed me. I would be a better fighter pilot than ever, once the rust was dusted off.
I slammed the weights onto the rack for the last time. Jean was there, her arms folded across her chest, nodding approval. "You've done well, young man," she said to me, the conclusion of our final session together.
"Thank you, Jean," I said, wiping the sweat from my eyes with a towel. I walked over to her, slowly, and hugged her, the only thing that had truly felt right in a long time.
As we stepped apart from our embrace, she held onto my hands and I gazed into her eyes. The wrinkles around them were slight, adding a mature attractiveness to a woman who had doubtless once been the center of attention wherever she went. In her blue eyes I saw love. I realized then that I loved her even more. An awkwardly composed salad of different kinds of love. Love for her as a person. Love for her as a mentor. Love for her as a woman, sister, mother. An underdeveloped sense of romantic attraction held sway as well, and the idea of an unemployed twenty-something fighter pilot in love with a forty-something nurse with polka dot socks didn't seem so strange. Win lose or draw, she had restored to me something I thought would never come my way, again, and for that I would be eternally grateful.
"Thank you, Nurse. Thank you for everything."
She scoffed. "I did nothing. It was you who did it. I did not lift those weights for you. Always remember that."
I nodded silently.
"Good luck, Commander," she said as she picked up the towels we had used and launched them underhand across the room into the towel hamper. "I'll be seein' ya'."
I watched in silence as she strolled casually away, her muscular body and hip swaying gait drawing lustful stares from across the gym. Sadness remained in her wake. I would miss her forever.
So with a reserved confidence, I marched into the flight surgeon's office on the morning 09 June 2013. The standard physical ensued--vision, hearing, heart, reflexes. It was all very boring. The physical dexterity test followed directly upon the heels of the best physical fitness test I had ever done in my life. Shoulder, elbow, back. All were within limits. All that remained was the knee. That damned cantankerous and stubborn joint, cause of so much misery for so long. I gritted my teeth when I bent it, exerting myself to the limit of my endurance, going for broke, knowing that my career rested in my ability to pull this off. I struggled and pulled, veins bulging from my neck as I bent the bum knee. I was close, very close.
Exhausted, I collapsed on the examining table as the flight surgeon scribbled his notes. What did life have in store for me now? Did my future rest in the cockpit of a fighter? My internal struggle continued. I wanted to fly, but I hated and despised it at the same time. The thrill was there, but the sadness of being separated from one's family overpowered it. Fear was there as well. In the military I had a comfortable life--a certain life. I had no worries about what I would do next. Security was a powerful force, too, and the fear of not knowing what lie ahead was cause for alarm and consternation.
The decision that would shape my life now rested in the hands of a nameless, anonymous, incompassionate flight surgeon. What would he decide?
I did not know.
Chapter Fifty-Eight -- Catharsis
As I awaited the Medical Review Board's decision, my report date for assignment drew nearer. The anticipation began to strain my nerves as girders on a bridge during an earthquake. I packed my gear and dove into an Air Transport Command schedule, trying to decide which flight to take and where to take it. My chance at command was a carrot dangled in front of my face by a very short pole, but the nearer the unattainable goal, the more frustrating failure can be, and this one was tantalizingly close.
I paced the corridors of the quarters to which I had been assigned as would a caged animal, having packed and re-packed my things a hundred times. Over and over in my mind I played out the scenario. What would I do if this went bad? Where would I go? School? A job selling insurance? Insane ward?
The hours dragged along like a plow in a muddy South Texas beat field. I harassed the secretary at the MRB office constantly. Still, no word came of it. The lack of a decision gave me hope. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was a sign that they were seriously considering the merits of my case and a medical waiver. I clearly failed to meet the physical standards, so a "no" decision would have required little in terms of time to determine. The absence of an immediate decision was cause for hope.
With all this spare time that I suddenly found in my possession, I decided to rent a car and take a tour of the Hill Country to the West of San Antonio. In earlier times, this area was the source of great fun and held among its limestone hills and juniper trees many fond memories of days that were all but devoid of responsibility.
As a young boy, not so many years removed from my present station in life, I attended one of the many fine summer camps nestled along the winding Guadalupe River. Most of these camps were non-denominational, all-male or all-female, with Judeo-Christian themes that, while not really noticeable on a daily basis, still formed an important part of camp life--at least on Sundays. Camp Brave Heart, the oldest, and perhaps most exclusive, boys camp in the state, was my home for several glorious summers. That my parents managed to scrounge up enough money to send three of us there for a combined total of nearly thirty terms was a true testament to their desire to provide for us a wonderful experience, not to mention their own five weeks of private time every year.
I left the main Interstate and proceeded into the more remote expanses of the Hill Country, along a narrow two-lane stretch of pavement lying along the Guadalupe River. As I drove down the winding road--far more so than I remembered it thanks to the effects of Dolza's bombardment--memories began to flood my mind. The beautiful green trees--Cypress, Juniper, Live Oak--covered the hills and valleys of this grand place. So many times had I taken this path. Even with the changes it all felt familiar. Finally, with the cool wind blowing my hair, around a bend it appeared--that immense, yellow limestone bluff. "Joy Bluff." I was back! I pulled the car off to the side of the road, the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires echoing off the hillsides, and stared up at it, half a mile away. There is where it stood for so many years, about four-fifths of the way up. That damned cross. That damned cross I had flipped upside down for everyone to see.
That damned cross...
I will never forget my first day there. My mother drove my younger brother, sister, and me up to Corpus Christi, Texas the night before a bus would transport us--and about twenty other youths--to Brave Heart and its sister camp for girls. The three of us, having never spent any appreciable amount of time away from home, were on the verge of homesickness, though my sister was the only one who really showed it.
A tall, dark, and incredibly handsome college student named Blake Ashley, met us at the bus pickup in a strip mall parking lot. Blake, one of the counselors at Brave Heart, was serving as a chaperone that day. His wit and engaging personality made him an instant favorite to all that met him. Of all the counselors I would meet in the years to come, Blake was far and away the most decent, intelligent, and compassionate. (Blake's life would parallel my own in a way, as he went on to fly commercial jet transports for Federal Express.)
We said goodbye to our parents and clambered into the bus. I don't remember many of the details other than the strange sensations my inner ear felt when we began winding through the roads which followed the twisty path of the Guadalupe River, toward the small town of Hunt, Texas, the geographic center of the Hill Country camp region.
We stopped to offload the girls first. My poor little sister was on the verge of hysteria, not wanting to be separated from her big brothers. The camp owner, Mr. Moore, a cherubic, red faced man in his mid-fifties with considerable wit and charisma, jumped aboard the bus to wish us all a happy summer and to invite us back to the annual Joy/Brave Heart dance a few short weeks away.
"Okay, now everyone repeat after me," he bellowed in a cheery voice.
I cannot understand what possessed me to do what I did next, but as he went through his litany, I found a way to interrupt it in a rude and tactless manner not befitting someone of my upbringing (i.e. mom and dad always insisted I treat adults with respect).
"I!" the camp director shouted.
"I!" the kids on the bus replied.
"Kick...your...butt!!" the kid next to me shouted.
I found this incredibly amusing and on the next go around, decided to assist my intrepid companion. Never one with a quiet voice, my participation drew the immediate attention of the camp director. He gave me a stern glance and tried a third time.
"Kick...your...butt!!" I yelled, even more boisterously than I had the first time. My partner in crime was strangely silent this go around.
"Young man, get your tail up here right now," the camp director insisted most forcefully. I was promptly yanked off the bus by my arm and given a very firm lecture. "Young man, I will send you back to your parents immediately if you don't shape up! Do you understand? This is no way to act toward adults."
I trembled under his stern gaze.
"We are here to have fun. We are here to learn. This behavior is inappropriate and will not be tolerated."
"Yes, sir," I meekly replied. "I'm sorry."
"Okay. I'd like you to come back and visit me again sometime, okay?" he said extending his hand. "I'm Mr. Moore."
I was completely surprised by his kindness. "I'm Jeff. Uh...thank you, sir. I'll be here."
"Okay then! Have a great summer, young man."
Back on the bus I went.
"So long kids!"
Vroom! Off the bus went, over the hills and around the bends to Camp Brave Heart.
With my car safely parked to the side of the road where it would not be easily noticed, I grabbed a small backpack from the trunk and made my way down the hill. This was a journey of discovery for me, a chance to look back on simpler times amidst the carcass of the abandoned former camp. Weeds and trees had overtaken the once lush soccer and football fields, and the place took on the appearance of a ghost town in the absence of its once incessant care.
Just beyond Brave Heart's rusted entrance gate stood the remnants of the camp's guardian, a thirty-foot tall totem pole, made of a single Redwood tree by an American Indian craftsman. It was a lovely "Thunderbird" totem, and though the many brilliant colors that had once adorned it had faded, I was still struck by its beauty. The explanation behind its design escaped me, but I recalled the story to be wonderfully enchanting. The Native American theme at Camp Brave Heart revealed itself in many ways during my years there, and I left that wonderful place with a profound reverence for the American Indian culture(s) as a result.
I strolled down the cracked pavement of the road that ran through the middle of the camp, remembering the many wonderful days spent here. The arena where horseback took place...rifle range...the waterfront... Derelict and in disrepair, they brought a torrent of forgotten memories back to me when they mixed with the smells wafting through the air of that beautiful Hill Country region.
The first day of camp was like a giant open house carnival. A buzz of excitement permeated the air. I was given a leather nametag with my cabin assignment and hometown proudly emblazoned upon it and was escorted to my new home for the next five weeks, "Kangaroo Pouch." All the cabins at Brave Heart had unique names: Armadillo Arms, Badger Burrow, Coyote Coven, Dog Patch, Elk Yard, Gopher Hole, Hare's Nest, Iguana Inn, Jackrabbit Junction, Kangaroo Pouch, Lynx Lair, Monkey Manor. These were the Junior Camp cabins comprising the youngest kids, divided into three divisions: Raven, Hawk, and Falcon. I was in the Falcon Division, and thus among the oldest kids in Junior Camp. Across the river was Senior Camp, with the Eagle and Condor Divisions: Antelope Hill, Cougar Cave (which was said to have been built from two cabins, one of which, Bear's Den, had caught fire many years before), Deer Thicket (rumored to be haunted, and hence, unused), Elephant Walk, Foxes' Den, Javelina Haven, and Kudu Kastle (the most elaborate cabin in the entire camp). These older boys were a mystery to us in a sense, for though we saw them every day, we did not interact with them as much as with our younger brethren. As a result, we nestled a sort of wonderment about their status and activities.
As I walked to my cabin with my friendly escort, I noted the activity around me. The rifle range was in action, horse rides were in progress at the riding arena, and the people were running around playing games. Of all the activities, horse riding was the one that struck my fancy with the most impact, and I could not wait to try it out.
My Cabin Leader that summer was a tall blonde haired young man named Liam Phillips. Liam was a really wonderful individual, who took a great deal of time and effort to make our experience fun. Blake Ashley turned out to be our cabin's Activity Counselor, and it was with great joy that I discovered this to be the case. I grabbed a top bunk above the head of a nerdy, bespectacled kid named Benjamin Wells. Like me, Ben enjoyed reading books, and we spent many summers trading paperbacks to keep ourselves entertained during our rest periods. He came from a wealthy, highly refined--almost aristocratic--family (his dad was a lawyer) as evidenced by his father's letters, always addressed to "Master Benjamin Wells." Ben proved to be one of my best friends at camp, and for the next several years we were assigned to the same cabin together. As if linked by fate, we always ended up in the same pair of bunks: Ben's the lower, mine the upper. Ben was also a master with a bow and arrow, and he and his father won the annual Father/Son Archery Competition, held during closing ceremonies each summer, four or five years in a row.
Others in the cabin included Lawrence Seiterly, Jeff Underwood, and John Armour, among others. Lawrence was the one we were most intimidated by, though he was usually quite friendly. He earned the nickname "Greystoke" because of his Tarzan-like appearance, sans glasses, in the boxing ring during a bout in the annual Camp Boxing Competition (he won his fight). Underwood was somewhat of a pervert, always cracking jokes and passing gas. John was known for his crossed eyes and this twitch that caused him to move his head periodically from left to right and back to center again. All proved to be great guys in the long run.
As I organized my belongings, Liam spoke to the new arrivals about the day's events. When he mentioned horseback riding I nearly hit the roof.
"Horseback! Awesome! I want to do that!"
"Sure. Just head over to the arena and go for it," Liam said, a smile filling his bespectacled face.
Now I had never ridden a horse before, but I had seen enough John Wayne movies to know that it was important to look the part. With careful reverence I donned my Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, shirt, and hat, and ambled out the door toward the arena. I had no concept of just how ridiculous I looked, strolling along in the June Texas heat. As I approached the riding ring I could faintly hear someone say, "Look at this." Only years later would I realize that all the glances I spied out of the corner of my eye were of stifled humor. Not that it mattered. I clambered aboard an Appaloosa and took one lap around the ring, the steadying hand of a riding instructor on the steed's bridle lest the horse roam off out of control under the inept guidance of an abject novice. The instructor's British accent seemed out of place, but he was a nice guy and paid a compliment to my form, noting that I would be a good rider soon.
I clambered off the horse and tipped my hat in a very cowboy-like manner, doing my best impression of "The Duke" as I trundled back toward the cabin, smiling in spite of the obvious looks of confusion my wardrobe was causing. Despite the ridiculous beginning, horses became a passion with me. Of all the disciplines that I would master during my years of camp, horseback riding became the first, and I would ascend to the level of instructor in a very short period of time.
That first year of camp was eye opening to be sure. Though I had been a member of the Cub Scouts and then the Boy Scouts, there was nothing to compare to the five weeks spent that first summer (and every summer that followed) at Brave Heart. The activities were abundant and the food was terrific. The camp chef was a hulking, muscular black man named Billy Ray. Never has their been a more prolific, diverse, and skilled a cook as Billy. From Cajun to Mexican to the most unbelievable fried chicken the world has ever known, Billy could cook anything. That he did it for three hundred mouths three times a day was amazing enough--that he made the food taste so damned good was miraculous.
It seemed to many that chicken was a part of the menu at least once a day. We always joked that the camp director's wife, a fair-skinned, thin, and attractive lady in her fifties, had a cookbook entitled "Four Million Ways to Make Chicken." In reality, we did not eat chicken as often as the detractors would have had us believe. Besides, with Billy's ability to cook food of any kind, it is certain that we could have eaten chicken for every meal during out stay and not seen the same kind twice.
After every meal came singing and announcements. The Camp Director, "Sal" Rosendahl, would jump up in front of the microphone and ring the triangle to demand our attention. With amazing fervor for a man his age, the old camp master lead us in a roaring series of songs with the flair of a man who loved the limelight. We sang "Dixie" and "The Army Air Corps" fight song embellishing them with twisted endings. ("...A way down south...in Dixie. One! Two! Three! Robert E. Lee! Three! Two! One! The South shoulda' won!!" And my favorite, "Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps...EXCEPT THE NAVY! Anchors aweigh my boys...Anchors aweigh!")
When he considered the food to have been better than usual (which would have been outstanding by any measure) Sal would get us to sing "Hello Dolly" in tribute to the camp chef. The song would continue as long as it took to force an embarrassed Billy Ray to make a quick appearance, walking out the kitchen door and right back in again, offering a brisk wave and smile to the applauding campers. Announcements were rendered by a ruddy-faced man named Bliss Stiller whose most notable quality was the fact that he appeared at least ten years older than our college-aged counselors.
The days were full of action and adventure from sunrise to well past sunset. Over the years I became a master of all the major disciplines offered by the camp. Horseback came first, followed in short order by swimming and lifeguarding, mountain climbing, canoeing, archery, and finally riflery--the most difficult and highly regarded of all camp activities. Each summer, through no real plan, I chose one area to specialize in and focused all my energies into that one craft, bringing home a skein of awards in the process.
My quest for the Expert was perhaps the most egregious example of Brave Heart's undercurrent of politics, where boys were (or at least, seemed to be) rewarded not based solely upon merit, but upon social standing. It was a condition that robbed me of a number of rewards during my many years there.
At the beginning of that most memorable summer, John, a young, former U.S. Army Green Beret served as the Camp's Riflery Instructor. He was a tall, blonde haired man with Scandinavian features, and I was immediately impressed by his forthright demeanor. He was all business when it came to the deadly discipline of firearms and he inspired me in a way difficult to describe.
He was left-eye dominant but trained himself to shoot with his right eye because all the conversion equipment necessary to make a right-handed rifle work for a lefty was "a bulky, complicated pain in the ass. Your non-dominant eye is not as accurate--it wanders all over the place. So my groups are the size of a quarter instead of a dime, but that's close enough." He smiled when he said it and I could see the warrior in his green eyes. It was thrilling!
John taught me all the techniques necessary to become a disciplined shooter: breathing, positioning, trigger pull, and patience, and in a matter of but a few days, the results began to make themselves known. The first four levels, all fired from the prone position, had taken me four years to reach. The fifth, and final prone level took only five days. This rapid progress was the most astounding thing I had ever witnessed, and I found myself completely consumed with continuing my advancement. With my Cabin Leader's permission, Hunter Lord (a fellow cabin mate) and I began to spend nearly all our time down at the rifle range.
Hunter was a blonde-haired kid, the son of wealthy parents, and one of the more "favored" of Brave Heart's long-time campers. He had started the summer needing a pair of qualifying targets for Bar Nine, the rank that preceded Expert, and though we had never really been close friends, our mutual quest for the Expert drew us together.
My assault on Expert moved rapidly. The three sitting levels took but five days. The three kneeling levels took scarcely more than four. The first standing level was gone in two. It was at this point that Hunter and I began to interact fairly closely. Down at the far end of the range we took turns shooting, one firing at a pair of targets while the other encouraged and updated with the telescope.
"Seven ring, four o'clock."
"Take it easy bud," I whispered. "Just relax, and flow with it."
Try as he may, Hunter had hit a wall with the last target he needed to qualify. It seemed that no matter what he did there would be a pulled fourth or fifth shot that would sink his chances.
"Five ring, six o'clock."
"That's thirty-eight at best, now," of the required forty.
A loud sigh erupted from everyone present, reminiscent of a deflating balloon. A new pair of targets followed shortly by the same disappointing results.
"Four ring, nine o'clock. Thirty-six max, now."
A shot fired into the backstop without much aiming punctuated Hunter's frustration. "Stupid dadgum thing..."
This grind continued for days as Hunter struggled to finish. Finally, the day came when it seemed he was ready to give up until the next summer. Bill Senter, a long-time counselor who took a weeklong vacation every summer to come help at the rifle range was there. We all loved Bill, who had been head of riflery for many years before the real world curtailed his summer free time, and he was working the scope that day.
One shot fired. Reload. Aim...squeeeeeeeeze...KER-POW!
"How was that one, Bill?" Hunter inquired.
"Not bad. Keep going."
"How was that one, Bill?"
"Ehhhh, kinda' borderline. Just keep shooting."
We all stood back and watched Hunter, not breathing a word in his direction as he carefully loaded, aimed...and squeezed the trigger. KA-POW!!! Click, chink! Empty brass hit the ground and Hunter placed the rifle on the mat at his feet.
The cease fire order was given and Bill, Hunter, the other counselors and I ran down to check the target. We crowded around Bill as he hid the target from our view, quietly calculating the points in his head.
"Congratulations, Mr. Lord," Bill said, handing Hunter the target for his perusal. "You are our newest Expert." He had done it!
A loud cheer and roar of applause went up from the assembled throng.
"Outstanding!" I said, pounding his shoulder.
"Way to go guy!"
It was a wonderful moment and we all shared in Hunter's joy as he beamed proudly. I am sure the relief he felt was shared by all present. A tremendous weight had been lifted off all our shoulders, but it was not the end of things for that amazing summer. My turn was next.
It did not take me long. Bar Eight took two days. Bar Nine fell in a day. Expert in only two more. The holes in the final target lined up like the fingertips of an outstretched hand, the middle one squarely in the bullseye.
"Didn't pull a shot. I've never seen anyone do that on the tenth target," Sal was reported to have said.
At dinner that night the camp demanded the obligatory victory speech. "Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!" they chanted.
A hush falls across the dining hall as I stand up before the microphone. As usual, at the sound of the first syllable, an impossible din of cheering erupts and I wave unabashedly before taking a seat at the head table once again.
One would think that going through ten ranks in a matter of weeks--compared to but twelve targets in the same span--would be worthy of the "Most Outstanding Rifleman Award," but the politics of camp were not to be overcome by performance alone. At closing ceremonies that summer, the Most Outstanding Rifleman award went to Hunter Lord, the Award of Merit to me. Even Hunter was gracious enough to say what no person in authority would.
"You deserve this more than I do."
"Yeah," came the muttered rejoinder from the other campers around the two of us.
When asked to explain this strange twist of events by my thoroughly enraged mom (her outspoken anger over the political scene at camp was no secret to anyone) the muted reply from Bill Senter was, "Well...it was just so...dramatic."
"Dramatic?" she icily retorted. "I thought this was about marksmanship not acting ability!"
It was not the only disappointment this place awarded me.
The advancement program at Brave Heart was similar to that of the Boy Scouts. In keeping with the American Indian theme, each level had a distinctive name. Pathfinder was the first rank, followed by Hunter, Hunter Warrior, Brave, Brave Warrior, and Chief. In sixty-plus years of the Camp's history, only twenty-five people had ever earned the highest rank in the advancement system. Many truly great campers had fallen short of this lofty goal. My quest for the rank of Chief turned out to be one of my most bitter disappointments, as politics and my own incorrigibility conspired to rob me of it a scant few inches short of success.
The first signs that Chief would lay beyond my grasp appeared in my second year at Brave Heart. Each year, the boys would vote among their peers for the honor of membership in "Uncle Jack's Team." Jack James, a.k.a. "Uncle Jack," was once owner/director of the great camp. Legend had it that Uncle Jack and a group of men went on a hunting trip in the Hill Country area near Brave Heart. When night fell and it came time to bed down for the night, it was discovered that there were not enough sleeping bags for everyone in the expedition. Despite the inclement weather and Uncle Jack's advanced age (in his late sixties he was at least twenty years senior to the next oldest man in the group) he refused a sleeping bag so that someone else could rest comfortably through the night. This quality, and Uncle Jack's motto, "God first, others second, myself third," were honored by the establishment of "Uncle Jack's Team."
Admission to Uncle Jack's Team required character of an unselfish nature, a large number of votes from one's fellow campers, and at least one completed level of advancement. That summer I had finished two: Hunter and Hunter Warrior. I had also made many friends, and after a long summer, Camp Closing drew near. The day of the election found me bristling with excitement. This was my year! There was a bounce in my step as I walked out of the dining hall, having cast my ballot.
It was an amazing day. Like many who hope to garner favor from God when such events occur, I was extra-friendly to all I came into contact with that day.
"I voted for you, Jeff!"
"You're going to make it this year!"
The pats on the back and the smiles from my fellow campers brought great joy to my heart. Even my Division Leader, a wonderful young man named Bart Aldridge came up to me and filled me with hope. "Jeff, you got a lot of votes this year, son. You've got it made!"
I was so happy because Bart had been one of the most patient and understanding of all my counselors. To make it onto Uncle Jack's Team would be a great way to thank him for all his guidance and assurance during the summer. I wanted to make it for him, if nobody else.
The day passed by with agonizing slowness, until finally, as darkness began to fall, it came time to make our way down to Uncle Jack's Camp. We proceeded in a silent double column, past the senior camp cabins and along a narrow, twisting valley. A pathway marked with candles and the solemn faces of the current members of Uncle Jack's Team pointed the way. Carved into the hillside, beneath a rare triple trunk tree, the Brave Heart "B" filled the area in front of the seating area. That tree, Sal noted, was the living embodiment of Uncle Jack's motto. "The center trunk, pointing to the sky, stands for 'God first.' The right trunk, pointing back toward camp, stands for 'Others second.' The third trunk, pointing away from camp, stands for 'Myself third.'"
The Brave Heart B was set afire where it flared brilliantly in the night air. In his mesmerizing, Patton-like way, Mr. Rosendahl, standing solemnly in front of the assembled campers, told the story of Uncle Jack James in somber detail. Then, in Division order, the new members of Uncle Jack's Team were announced and awarded their ceremonial orange and white sash. It was agony, waiting for my name to be called. An average of but four boys per age group were chosen, yet it seemed to take hours for him to get to the Eagle Division. Finally, after what felt like days, he did. I was seated next to Bart Aldridge and he patted me encouragingly on the shoulder. Others around me did the same.
The first name was called. A shadow popped up out of the crowd in front of me and proceeded to the front of the assembled crowd. A second was called, and then a third.
"Jeffrey..." the first name hung in the air like a weather balloon. Around me were gasps and stifled cheers. "...Underwood."
My heart went to my throat. Okay, I must be next then. "The Condor Division..." Sal continued on. A groan went up among the boys surrounding me. Bart's head dropped to his hands. A choking, sickening feeling overcame me, a fit of tears held at bay only by shock.
"I don't understand this at all," Bart said to me as we shuffled away at the conclusion of the induction ceremony. "I feel so awful. I thought for sure you had it made."
I proceeded to my cabin amid the sounds of sobs and tears coming from others who did not make it that year. In short order, I joined them in crying, though I did it on my own. My good friend Eric Wroten, one of the younger Uncle Jack's Team members, came down and visited me in my agony.
"I can't believe it, Jeff. You deserved it so much," he shook his blonde head. Then his eyes brightened, "You can wear my sash tomorrow if you want."
I politely declined, but appreciated the noble gesture. Eric was a great friend.
In the end, six more summers passed, six more induction ceremonies...six more disappointments. One of the women who worked in the office confided in me on closing day after another snub. "It is political. You will never make it because you aren't one of the 'chosen' favorites. It is not your fault." Her words were like salve on an open wound, but they did not douse the fires of rage burning inside. The seeds of rebellion were sprouting in me, and each disappointment served only as fertilizer.
So the summers continued. I moved steadily up the advancement program and entered the first of my final two years at camp firmly on the path toward completing the Chief rank. I was a member of the Leadership Trainee program where "qualified" boys (i.e. those whose parents wanted to fork out the money) were groomed to be counselors. In effect we were given very little guidance in this regard and spent a great deal of our time cleaning bathrooms, stocking soda machines in the counselor's lounge, and performing other menial tasks. I quickly grew weary of such nonsense, and after years of disappointments, this final one was more than I could stomach.
I made no secret of my displeasure, much to the chagrin of my counselor, a blonde-haired weasel named Grant Besser, the camp director, and others. It did not help that I was a teenage boy who had spent three years in military school, either. Weight lifting and three-mile runs twice a day did nothing to quell my anger over our situation. It came as no surprise, however, that when it came time to receive my counselor's signature on my Chief, attesting to my fitness for advancement based on character, hard work, and good spirit that he refused.
My mother was furious. After more than half a dozen years of diligent effort on my part and many numerous--and blatant--slaps in the face, all of which I took in stride, she simply could not fathom Grant refusing to sign my advancement sheet.
After closing ceremonies concluded, my dear mom launched into a tirade in front of the entire camp. "After seven years of work! You should be ashamed of yourself!" I could see the veins in her neck bulging and thought she would strangle Grant if I did not stop her.
I could see tears in his eyes as my mother lit into him, and for a brief instant I felt sorry for him.
"It's okay mom. Grant, I'm sorry. She doesn't mean it."
"Don't you apologize for me!" my mother insisted. "This 'man' is pathetic!"
I could hardly blame her for her feelings, but in the end, it was I who rose to the bait and allowed the "system" to get the better of me. It was to be my last summer at camp, for I was politely asked not to come back. A carefully worded letter to the camp director during the intervening summer changed things, however, and earned a chance to go back--free of charge. The only stipulation was that I would not be allowed to complete my Chief.
I shrugged at this requirement. I was already an Eagle Scout. Being Chief was no big deal. I was simply looking forward to proving everyone who despised me wrong.
I nearly succeeded.
With grim determination I put my best foot forward. I worked hard and without complaint. When others around me were in bad spirits it was I who urged them onward. It was I who volunteered for the dirty jobs and went the extra mile to help everyone. After three weeks of this behavior my detractors began to murmur among themselves. "Maybe this kid is for real."
I did have my fair share of pranks, but very few, and all of them harmless. At the Camp Mystic dance I managed to dance with the only girl my height. She a very tall, slender, girl with brown hair and bright eyes named Katie Trungale. That I recall her name is probably due more to its uniqueness than to anything about her. We danced some of the slower songs and as I was wont to do with any girl who looked at me more than once, I managed to develop a mild crush on her. When the list of rifle team representatives selected to go Mystic did not include my name I hatched a plan to get there. I had to see Katie if it was the last thing I ever did.
Borrowing a move from Steve McQueen, I stowed away on the camp van, lying beneath the seats along the center axis. My friends kept their mouths shut during the ride and I prayed the entire way that we would not be involved in an accident. I would surely have died if we had.
It was a very surprised Riflery Instructor who greeted me as I staggered out of the van. He was visibly displeased, but I had completed half my mission. I awaited patiently my opportunity to head out in search of the tall girl who had struck my fancy. Finally, when nobody was paying attention, I began my stroll down the hill leading from the Mystic Rifle Range. With two of my compatriots in tow, I had not an inkling of an idea where I was going. It just seemed obvious that Katie would be in this particular direction. Getting myself hopelessly lost was not even a thought.
It took less than a minute to stumble upon a few of the Mystic girls. When I inquired about the Trungale "woman," one of the kids ran up an adjoining hill toward the cabins that lined its rim. Moments later, the visibly embarrassed object of my affection appeared. We exchanged a few awkward words, but before we could say much, her two counselors, alerted no doubt by the giggling and squealing going on about us, charged down the hill and shooed three wide-eyed boys back to whence we came.
I wrote Katie numerous times that summer, but in the end, I was awarded for my efforts not by a love letter in reply, but by stony silence.
Sam Dealy was one of the more favored--and wealthy--of Brave Heart's campers. A member of the rifle team and an Expert Marksman in his own right, Sam was known as much for the custom-built target rifle he brought to camp each year as he was for his laser-like accuracy. A member of Uncle Jack's Team, he was one of those precious few whose misdeeds were conveniently ignored.
One of the benefits of being a Leadership Trainee was the privilege of driving camp-owned vehicles. Because our job involved trash hauling, hog feeding, and other tasks, driving these vehicles was a grand convenience. One of the more loved vehicles was a white Bronco. Once a pristine specimen, years of hard use were marked by dents and scratches in the paint, and a black front fender as posthumous going away present from a road-crossing deer. It seemed that every year at camp someone would plow a brand new car into a White Tail buck on the drive to Kerrville some fifteen miles distant. More often than not, the vehicle was not the property of the driver, but instead, that of said driver's best friend, who, in a state of blissful generosity, had loaned the auto out for the day. Camp vehicles were no exception to this rule. Just as their non-camp counterparts had, camp automobiles have had the distinction of being washed away in floods at low water crossings, smashed by deer, or driven into trees going around curves.
Sam and I were tasked with driving down to Uncle Jack's camp to see if recent heavy rains had done any damage to the site. With the top removed and Sam in the driver's seat, I jumped into the truck and he drove cautiously down the road. We crossed the bridge into senior camp and headed down the dirt road toward our goal. We stopped at a locked horse gate and I hopped out to open it. Sam drove through and waited, engine idling, on the other side. I had barely gotten my foot inside the truck when he stomped on the pedal and launched down the dirt road, dust and gravel hurtling backward in a cloud that could be seen for miles.
I held on for dear life and managed to get inside without killing myself as we careened down the path. Sam wasted no opportunity. Even the slightest bump was an invitation to play Bo or Luke Duke and launch our "General Lee" want-to-be into the air. Although it was a thrilling ride, I was mortified to think that I was actively involved in the destruction of this poor old truck. I stifled any objections and held on.
We cruised back to camp after inspecting the site. Sam was as cool as ice, feigning innocence as our dust-covered truck rolled past wide-eyed campers and counselors. Strangely, nothing was said of this incident. At Brave Heart, destruction of camp vehicles by an Uncle Jack's Team member did not appear to be high on anyone's priority list.
After a leisurely half-mile trek I made it to the edge of the Guadalupe River, about fifty yards downhill from where the camp Dining Hall once stood. Enormous Ball Cypress trees, with trunks measuring twenty feet or more in circumference, stood majestically on some of the small islands of rock and mint plant in the center of the river. Another memory sprang forth as I unpacked my gear and went in search of firewood for the night. Joy Bluff towered above me, more imposing in some respects than even Mount Everest. In many ways, Joy Bluff was my Mount Everest. As much legend as reality, Joy Bluff was the embodiment of Brave Heart.
It was said that the Mad Miner lived here amid the cracks and crevasses of the limestone hills. A prominent Live Oak Tree, visible from just about any place on the campgrounds was known as "The Mad Miner's Tree." From this tree the Miner had murdered an entire family caught trespassing on his property. A noose dangled from one of its outstretched limbs for several days each summer, placed there, presumably, by the Miner himself. Cut marks from chainsaws abounded on its trunk. The story was that counselors of previous years had tried to cut it down, but the wood was too strong for the saws to cut.
It was also from the spot just below the tree where a group of impressionable friends and I saw "Quarb" for the first time.
During my first summer, Liam Phillips and our Division Leader, Steve Baskin, told the tale of Quarb. Steve, a smiling guy with an Indiana Jones-style fedora and accompanying whip, was one of the great pranksters in camp history. According to their story, the intrepid duo had been campers together at Brave Heart many years before. Deciding that goofing off was more fun than swimming in the frigid waters of the Guadalupe, the pair sneaked away from their group. They made their way to the opposite side of the riverbank from the swimming area, using the trees that paralleled the bank for camouflage. A clearing about fifty feet long proved the only thing between them and a perfect escape. The counselors on the other bank would surely see them as they darted across. The pair looked at each other and shrugged. Why not? With teeth gritted in determination the two ran as fast as they could from the shelter of the trees to the safety waiting on the other side. One of the pair slipped in the middle of the clearing on some gray clay but managed to slither across it beneath the noses of the counselors.
They formed a glob of this clay into a skull, with hollow eyes and grim mouth, and christened it Quarb. Quarb occupied a place of honor on the table in the cabin that evening as the two, along with their cabin mates, turned in for a much-deserved night of rest. A rumble caused Liam and Steve to stir and when the lights were turned on, Quarb was nowhere to be found. A frantic search revealed that the gray clay skull had managed to move on his own across the cabin and out the front door. The two intrepid counselors thought it a fluke until it happened again that very night. In fear for their lives, they disposed of Quarb the next day by launching him into the Guadalupe River. He appeared on the table the next morning, in picture-perfect form. Thusly warned, Quarb was ripped and smashed into millions of pieces by his creators and scattered haphazardly about camp, never to be seen again.
A few days after hearing the story, a group of about six of us found ourselves playing in the river, not far from the tall Cypress trees downhill from the Dining Hall. A cracking sound immediately commanded my attention and I sounded a call to my friends. "Watch out!"
A moment later the cracking turned into a fury of noise as boulders and rocks crashed down from Joy Bluff.
"Rock sli-iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide!" I yelped as I turned and ran for my life. In reality we were in no immediate danger, but we didn't know it at the time. When we finally, breathlessly reached what we considered safety, we stared up at the side of the bluff. Framed by the green leaves and brown branches of the Cypress trees, I spied a figure. It was Quarb!
"Look up there, guys!" A cold and menacing wind began to blow and the cloud-filled sky above us turned a dark shade of gray. "Oh my gawd!"
We looked at one another in wide-eyed amazement, then erupted in a simultaneous yell. "QUAAAAAAAARB!!!!!!!!!"
The slowest among us proved the fastest man alive as we ran back to our cabin as quickly any human ever could. Two amused counselors were greeted by breathless explanations about Quarb being alive. In spite of our grandest efforts, we never again saw the figure in the side of the hill. But for one brief moment in the lives of six impressionable boys, Quarb truly did exist.
A grand sizzle went up as I dropped the Sirloin steak and breast of Quail on the grill. Darkness was descending rapidly upon me as I sat contentedly by the rushing river. My hastily improvised troutline had managed to grab only a small Perch, but I was hardly complaining. While my friends and comrades battled for their lives against an entrenched and resolute enemy, I sat in comfort beneath an orange-hued sky. In moments, stars would pop up and crickets would chirp. The mild chill in the wind was a grand comfort compared to the steamy hell of a South American jungle.
As if to emphasize the point, a loud roar filled the air as a pair of jets hurtled through the sky at low level, doubtless a training flight. I thought of the friends I'd lost, one in a hillside not far from where I sat. I produced a small flask of Swedish Vodka, tipped it in the direction of the departing fighters, and took a short pull. The heat of the liquid rushing down my throat warmed my body, and I smiled, thinking of other memories held amid the Cypress, Juniper, and Oak of this grand locale.
During my third summer I was striving toward the rank of Brave. Among the more daunting requirements for someone of my age and strength was embodied in a thirty-five foot "Tarzan Rope" that dangled from a mammoth Cypress adjacent to the swimming area. Boys were required to swim out to the rope and haul themselves to the top, the goal being to touch the branch of the tree itself. I was ill prepared for this task on my first try. I simply lacked the arm strength to do it and could only managed to climb ten or twelve feet. In bitter disappointment I let go and slid down the rope, giving myself a nasty case of rope burn in the process.
I was so hacked off that I could have committed murder. For the next eighteen hours I marched around camp with one thought in mind--to climb that rope. "I'm gonna' get that rope...I'm gonna get that rope!" I muttered to myself over and over again. It was an all-consuming thought.
The next day, hissing my pledge continually, I proceeded down to the rope at the appointed hour. Bang! Like a bullet out of a gun I ascended that rope with an ease that amazed all who witnessed it. If it took longer than five or six seconds to reach the tree branch then it wasn't but by a millisecond.
"My gawd..." the counselor who signed my advancement sheet said with incredulity. "I've never seen anything like that before. You made it up there in about five seconds!"
Reaching that goal proved without a doubt that I was capable of anything if I put my mind to it.
There were other stories hidden in the limestone hills. During my second, ill-fated LT summer, Will Braun, another of Brave Heart's elite campers, gained immortality when he smuggled alcohol right out of the Camp Director's home. Along with a couple of the other LTs, all Uncle Jack's Team members, Will proceeded to get totally smashed. His hangover was so bad that even I awoke with a headache.
That he was able to commandeer the stuff was of little surprise to many. It was no secret that Sal was a borderline alcoholic and the stash of liquor held within the confines of his lavish home was legendary. Someone once remarked that they could never cremate Sal "because his body would burn forever." Rumor had it that before the annual Monterrey trip (a reward for campers spending their fifth summer at Brave Heart) departed one year, Sal met the bus in his night shirt, a drink in one hand and a shot glass in the other.
"Have a goooood time boyyyyyys!" he purportedly slurred.
There were other pranks and gags that summer, all of which I deftly avoided. I was determined to behave myself and prove wrong my detractors. With a scant few days left in camp, I finally cracked.
Brave Heart hid beneath a grand fašade an inescapable--at least to we teenagers without a cause--undercurrent of racism. Photos were required for enrollment and in the nine years I spent there only one black camper ever came to mind. At the conclusion of camp every summer, a large iron cross, standing prominently atop Joy Bluff and wrapped in diesel-soaked burlap bags, was set afire. The camp would sing the song "The Old Rugged Cross" as it flared in the night. Though the sight was impressive, we found it difficult to ignore the darker side of a burning crucifix, for in the post-Civil War south of the U.S.A., cross burning was an evil form of terrorism upon blacks. Burning crosses planted sickeningly in the front yards of black-owned homes preceded the lynching of many an innocent man.
So one day, along with a group of my fellow LTs, I climbed to the top of Joy Bluff. We had no mission in mind other than a desire to sightsee, for the view from atop that hill was one of immense beauty. Before heading down one of the guys remarked at how funny it would be to flip the cross upside down. I laughed at the thought and jumped up to help my friends. In a matter of seconds we heaved the heavy, iron cross over and back into its mount on the bluff--inverted.
"I wonder how long it will take anyone to notice?" I asked as we clambered down the slope.
Will laughed aloud, "They're going to kill someone when they see it!"
A counselor and some of the older boys met us coming up the other way but we feigned ignorance of the event. Our collective reputation for rambunctiousness preceded us, however, and in short order we were all "standing tall before the man."
Mr. Rosendahl was not pleased and proceeded to give the assembled LTs a tongue-lashing the likes of which the world has not seen in the years since. When he queried us as to who was responsible for turning the cross upside down there was a moment of silence. I glanced around at my friends who were doing their best to read each other's minds. As I looked at them, my hand went up and I announced quietly that I had done it, waiting for my comrades to admit to their participation. Their admission did not come and it was I alone who suffered under the wrath of the Camp Director.
"That's disgraceful," he said, in conclusion to a tirade aimed solely at me. "Turning a cross upside down is a sacrilege of the highest order!"
"Well it's no worse than burning one," I retorted. "That's blatantly racist."
There was a collective gasp followed by stunned silence. Nobody in the history of Sal's rule had ever dared challenge him in such a manner.
I watched as his face reddened then hunkered down for the explosion that was imminent. "It's not racist! Burning that cross stands for spreading the word of God!"
I could tell he was furious. He dressed me down severely, but I said nothing, sitting there with absolute indifference. "We were going to consider giving you your Chief, but you can forget about that now. We don't give great awards away to boys who flip crosses upside down and masturbate on their counselor's trunks," he tersely added.
I had dreaded the comment, for like so many other things about my later years at camp, it was taken completely out of context. What was actually just a prank cost me far more than it should have, and yet it paid a tidy sum nonetheless.
One day the LTs were sitting around gabbing and the subject of sex came up, as it often does among any group of teenagers. My peers were all younger than I by at least a couple of years, and I had heard all the boasting about sexual prowess before. To me it sounded like utter bullshit. When the subject of masturbation was introduced in some offhanded way I noted that anyone who said they didn't was a liar. Everyone insisted that I was nuts and I stated boldly that I would do it right then and there.
"I'll bet you twenty bucks you won't," one LT said.
"Yeah, me, too."
I stood and stretched my arms in mock preparation. "Show me the cash, first." To my amazement, dollar bills sprang from pockets and were waved in the air. "Step outside, gentlemen. I'll call you in when I'm done. Have your money ready."
It was a great opportunity to really screw with their heads. Glancing around the cabin I spied a bottle of liquid hand soap. It appeared to be of similar consistency and color to actual semen. A few choice squirts on top of my Cabin Leader's army trunk had the desired effect. When my friends entered the cabin and saw what I had done they completely lost their minds. In the end, a few drops of liquid hand soap earned me something in the neighborhood of seventy-five bucks! Not bad, I thought, especially considering it wasn't even my soap!
Any hopes that our wager had been kept a secret were dashed with Sal's revelation and I merely shrugged. Defending myself was utterly pointless, and I was eventually dismissed along with the rest of the group. In time, anger over the issue of my promotion to Chief overcame me. The thought that I would have ever been awarded that rank was utterly preposterous, and I knew it.
I sat down and drafted a letter to Sal in which I proceeded to unload eight years of frustration. I noted that I was already an Eagle Scout and that being a Chief was not that important in the grand scheme of life. Many, many boys of tremendous caliber and spirit had failed to attain the rank of Chief. If not getting it was to put me in the same category as young men like Doug Wiley, Lawrence Seiterly, and Neil Masterson, then I considered it a great personal honor. I also noted in great detail that talk of even being considered for Chief was utter fluff--"You weren't going to give it to me any way." I made sure to point out that certain unnamed individuals had stolen liquor, abused camp vehicles, and that of the five of us who flipped the cross over, I was the only one held accountable--the only one who admitted to doing it. "The integrity to admit to wrongdoing is something that very few people seem to possess. They are rewarded for their lack of character while those with honesty are punished."
That night at dinner, after showing the letter to several of my LT friends, I marched to the head table and placed it in front of our illustrious Camp Director, did a smart about face, and returned to my own seat to watch the fireworks. Even from thirty feet away the anger in Rosendahl was readily apparent. As he read the note, his face reddened, veins bulged from his neck and forehead, and a scowl made its way across his face. A heart attack was imminent, and amid a chorus of whispered "attaboys," I took a bite out of my food, smiling inside and out.
At closing ceremonies that summer, Sal made a very deliberate effort to explain the burning of the cross. "For some, burning the cross is a symbol of hatred. But to us, it stands for spreading the word of God."
My friends went crazy at that one. "You did it man! You made a difference."
In a small way, that was perhaps the greatest victory of all.
Though I never did get my Chief, at the campfire ceremony the night before camp closing, I was inducted unofficially into that grand group. Reid Shackleford and Will Braun, both Chiefs, took a moment to bring me into their circle by anointing my face and chest with the traditional white paint that signified that rank. One of the secretaries also included a Chief patch in my award folder, one I still have to this day. Though my name wasn't put on any plaque, to all that knew the score, it didn't matter.
I stared at the stars as the fire embers glowed their warming orange brilliance. A new day was approaching in my life, and I spent what was sure to be my last night as a fighter pilot, dreaming the same dreams I had held onto during my years at that camp. I watched the same twinkling stars, listened to the same gentle breeze, and soaked in the rushing sound of the grand river flowing past. If my career were to end, it would not be the worst that could happen. Perhaps I would find my way back here, to live a life amid a place that held great sentiment...one that served as a bookend to carefree youth and unfettered exuberance. Perhaps that is what made me love Brave Heart so much in spite of the negatives, for it was here, in this place, that I took many awkward steps along the path of rebellion before taking that first, child-like step toward manhood. This was my Fountain of Youth, my Mt. Everest, my grand love, and being here amid the trees, the rocks and the water served as a grand catharsis, cleansing me of my fear. If my career was over, so be it! I would survive. Coming here helped me realize it, and surely there was something to be said for that!
Jason W. Smith
Copyright © 1995 by Jason W. Smith
(Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual events, persons, etc. is coincidental--even if intentionally so! --June 1995)
Based on characters and situations from
Robotech, © 1985 Harmony Gold, USA, Inc.
Robotech (R) is the property of Harmony Gold. This document is in no way intended to infringe upon their rights. The author has not accepted any remuneration for this work.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
Copyright © 1996 Robert Morgenstern
Version Last Updated: 27 April 2000