Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Last Day Of Camp, 1982

I could see the steam rising from the water as I chugged full steam down the hill toward the lake. The chill in the air was refreshing, as it had been a hot, steamy summer in the foothills of the Berkshires. As I approached the beach, I stripped off my t-shirt and threw my towel at the waters edge, while in a full sprint. I timed my steps perfectly onto the metal docks and after five tentative strides plunged into the chilly waters of Highland Lake. I swam out to a raft moored 75 feet out from the last dock and climbed aboard. I stood surveying the scene, soaking it in, knowing that this would be my last 7 AM plunge of the year. In a few minutes campers, accompanied by their blurry eyed counselors, would make their way down to the waterfront for a quick dip in the lake so they could earn their Polar Bear badge which would be given out at the "Candlelight Ceremony" that evening. The badge would entitle them to all you can eat ice cream sundaes after the ceremonies. As a camper, I like most of the other kids at Camp Howe, opted for the warmth and comfort of my cabin bunk over the shock and chill of the lake. Steve, the waterfront director, waved to me from the deck of the boathouse, his summer home. Steve was the coolest guy I knew. He was in his early 20's and good looking. He is one of the few people I've ever met who could get away with wearing a Speedo. He owned his own mobile DJ business. He DJ'd our weekly dances, he dated all of the hottest counselors and got to spend all day every summer on his deck overlooking the beach cranking out tunes from his boom box. He took me under his wing this summer making me the only male counselor to lifeguard the waterfront. It was me, Steve and eight girls every day for eight weeks patrolling the waterfront, giving swimming lessons, teaching CPR and First Aid. As uncool as I was, I was perceived as cool by association with Steve and the gorgeous waterfront staff.

Steve beckoned me to the boathouse, so I dove back into the water and swam over to the docks just as the first kids were gingerly dipping their toes in the water. "Last day Sull", Steve said with some melancholy. "last chance.". "Last chance?", I questioned him, wondering what I had missed. "Sull, I know you dated Carol for most of the summer, but you have completely missed the boat". "What do you mean?", I replied, clueless. "Brandl came to see me last night and spilled her guts out. She's liked you all summer, but you started dating Carol, then when you broke up with her she thought that would be her in, but you never did anything about it."

I was replaying the summer in fast forward through my frontal lobe. How did I miss all the signals? Steve must be wrong. Karen Brandl was the cutest, hottest, sweetest girl in camp that year and most any year. She was way out of my league and I knew it from day one when we were paired together for some lifesaving exercises. She had a boyfriend back home. She was the head of her cheer leading squad. She was absolutely perfect. I would catch myself admiring her from across the dock while the children splashed about unaware of the danger they were in by my inattentiveness. I resigned myself to being friends with her and never attempted any flirtation. We would take walks and talk about our single moms, trials being the oldest of big families and hopes for the future. I confided in her my crush on her friend Carol, another lifeguard and she was the go between to get us together. Carol and I became the camp couple of the summer and the preteens lived vicariously through our courtship, ups and downs and subsequent break up. All that time, Karen and I were the best of friends. We lay on our backs at night on the cool sand and looked at the stars shimmering over the lake. I hugged her when she broke up with her boyfriend back home. Our cabins would always buddy up during the camp Olympics. We always sat next to each other in the dining hall, her at the end of her table of campers and me at the end of mine. When I saw her standing alone, not dancing the last slow dance of the year, I excused myself from my ten year old dance partner and went over to her. I led her out onto the dance floor and swayed to "Stairway To Heaven". I had no idea why she was crying.

Steve patted me on the back and said, "Sull, I've known about her crush on you all summer. She's always looking at you, she's always where you are. Well, you've got the rest of the day to do something about it". He saw the look of enlightenment on my face and felt his job was done. "Man, I can't believe you didn't know!", he laughed, almost mockingly then proceeded to walk over to greet the Polar Bears frolicking in the inner den.

I made my way up the hill to the flag raising ceremony which happened every morning right before breakfast. Everyone in the camp would circle the flagpole with the boys on one side coming from the boys unit and the girls on the other. I looked at Karen from across the circle. She was busy talking to her campers, smiling and engaging.

She was not staring at me.

After raising the flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the 4H pledge we made our way to the dining hall. My campers and I sat at our usual table while Karen and her campers sat at the table next to us. We turned to each other and said "good morning " simultaneously and giggled. She turned to talk to her CIT and I kept looking at her. She turned to say something and caught me staring. "Whats up...everything alright?". She broke my trance. "yeah..ah...I..I need to talk to you alone later." "OK, lets walk down to the waterfront together after breakfast. I'll meet you at the flag pole after the bugle." "OK", I said briskly and turned to pass the pancakes or toast or something to avoid staring. During breakfast I glanced at her occasionally trying to catch her looking longingly at me. Maybe Steve was yanking my chain; I didn't catch her once.

After breakfast I met her at the flag pole and we made our way down the hill I had sprinted down two hours earlier. Time had slowed down. Whats up...everything OK", she asked. "Yeah," I was pussing out. "I'm just sad its our last day here. It flew by so fast. I'm going to miss everyone."

I couldn't bring myself to ask her.

"Yeah, me too. I'm going to miss everyone." We walked the rest of the way in silence with the sounds of campers hooting and hollering their way down to the beach. We went into the boathouse and got our clipboards and whistles. At the bottom of the stairs she turned to me to say something, then stopped. She gazed into my eyes right through me. I gazed back. For a moment time stopped. Then the pause button was released and things started moving again. She turned and made her way out the dock to the outer den to teach her Advanced Swimmers. Steve was right. "You are such an idiot; she liked you all along" I said to myself as I gathered my Beginners for their final swimming test.

We walked together up the hill for lunch without a word between us, just an occasional glance. We sat at our respective tables and occasionally looked over at each other smiling, knowingly, as if we were going to burst. After lunch was rest hour, a time where I usually napped while my campers usually hung from the rafters, gave each other wedgies and gossiped about which 12 year old girl on the other side of camp had the bigger boobs. I couldn't sleep, so I went over to Borquies cabin where his eight year olds were lying quietly in their bunk. "Dave" I asked him "did you know that Brandl had a crush on me?" "Jesus Sully, everyone knew, even Carol. Its why she broke up with you. Brandl told her and Carol flipped out." I didn't want to correct Borquie, but the break up was mutual. We dated for three weeks and she never let me get past first base. Not acceptable when camp was full of plenty of girls that would do more, alot more. "You are kidding Sully. You didn't know that? You are with Brandl all the time. You spent more time with her than you did with Carol when you were with Carol".

He was right.

Eric Powell, camp jock and most popular counselor came over and we sat on the picnic table in front of Dave's cabin. He brought over his boom box and we sat listening to "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" on an album oriented rock station out of Springfield. That song goes on for about 11 minutes and I sat there thinking about all the missed signals. What if we dated all summer? What if I never said I liked Carol? Should I even bother now with me being a senior in Northampton and her going back to her head cheerleader/best looking girl in school lifestyle at Pioneer Valley, 40 miles from me? Then it hit me. We were friends. If there was more then it would happen, all in good time. At the end of the song when it changes from a funeral dirge to a raucous party song Powell jumped up on the picnic table playing his fiercest air guitar solo of the year. Just as the song ended the bugle sounded the end of rest hour. Time to head back down the hill to lifeguard the rest of the afternoon for free swim.

When I got to the waterfront Karen was already manning her post on the raft. I took my place on the outer den next to Darlene, whom I had known since my days as a camper. We were campers together, CIT's together and now counselors working waterfront. She was a stunner, as were all the girls that worked the waterfront. Six feet tall, legs up to the sky, tanned. We were mistaken as a couple because for the last few years we would always swing dance to "Jailhouse Rock" each Wednesday at the dance. There was never anything more than friendship, but after this situation, I had to wonder.

"I'm so excited for you David" she greeted me with a hug. The hug wasn't particularly unusual as she greeted most everyone with a hug. She was syrupy sweet, but in a real maple syrup way, not the fake stuff.

"Why?". I knew why.

This was getting ridiculous. "I talked to Karen on the way down here and she says you know. She's so happy". "So you knew all summer Dar?".

"Of course silly."

When it came time to switch guard stations I asked Dar if I could take raft next so I could see Karen. I swam out to the raft and took the life preserver from her. I put my hand on the small of her back. She smiled and dove in toward the docks. I spent the rest of afternoon out on the raft soaking in the late August sun, anticipating the evening to come.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Evening of August 14th, 1999

I had just drifted off to sleep when I heard a loud knock on the backdoor. I knew immediately that something was wrong. My wife and I lived in an apartment on a desolate stretch of road in the Connecticut River valley of western Massachusetts in the town of Whately. The houses on that road were spaced far apart and most of my neighbors were farmers. I knew that who ever was knocking had to have driven and if someone spent the time to drive out to my house, it must be urgent. I peeked out the window and saw a Massachusetts State Police cruiser in my driveway. I had left my wife an hour earlier at a food festival in Northampton where we sampled food from some local restaurants and had a few drinks. Did she have an accident? Did I hit something on the way home and not know it? In my heart I knew what it was. I opened the door. "Are you David Sullivan?" the female officer asked with an ultra official voice that only a statie commands. "Yes", I groggily replied. "Is your mother Cecilia Sullivan who lives at the Walter Salvo house in Northampton?". My peripheral vision was lost; the officer appeared to be at the end of a telescope. "Yes", I replied. My eyes quickly welled up and I went numb. "Mr. Sullivan, I'm sorry to tell you that your mother died sometime in the past few days. Her body was found in her apartment by a friend in the Salvo House." I stared blankly at the officer. Her male counterpart broke my concentration. "Are you OK sir?". I was holding on to the door jam for support. "What happened? How...was she..", was all I could get out. I felt like I was falling into a deep, dark hole with no end. The male officer was moving his lips, but all I could hear was my own breathing. " him with any questions", he handed me a card with a phone number of the detective in charge of the case. "Are you going to be all right Mr. Sullivan?", the female officer asked. "Yeah...thanks" I creaked. I turned and shut the door.

The police detective was matter of fact, "she died on the toilet, the way we found her she was probably trying to pull herself up with her good arm using the bar, but something happened, heart attack, whatever. There was no evidence of foul play, but we found a bunch of empties by her chair and a bunch of medications, she was on a lot of medications, huh?" "Where is she?" I interrupted. "She went directly to 'Pease Funeral Home' over by the hospital. There was no need to go to the hospital she was there for three, maybe four days." "I talked to her on Tuesday, so it wasn't more than three." "Well, she was in bad shape. It was hot up there and I'm surprised that no one complained about the smell earlier." I was numb to his insensitivity and wanted to hear more, however painful the details. "Can I see her?" "You'll have to call the funeral home in the morning, but you don't want to...I shouldn't. Its bad. Just remember her like she was the last time you saw her."

That was easy.

I took her to her favorite restaurant, The Bluebonnet Diner, for lunch on her birthday, August 7th. She didn't seem right. She only ate half of her meal and was very spacey. She had been disabled since the age of 35 when a brain aneurysm burst, causing her to have right side paralysis and no hope of getting out of the hole she dug for herself by marrying at age 17 and having 6 kids and a divorce by the time she was 24. The last time I saw her she was getting out of my car at her apartment after lunch at 'Bluebonnet'. I put her wheelchair next to my car and helped her transfer from the front seat to the chair. I tried to help push her to the front door. She had a hard time disengaging the brakes. "Ma, push the brake up, I can't move..." "All right, all right. Leave me alone!", she snapped. and wheeled herself to the front door. I chided, "Bye, Maaa" in a sing, songy voice hoping to get her to lighten up. She responded by waving an arm in the air, irritated, without turning around. I got in the car and my wife and I laughed at how stubborn she was. I never laid eyes on her again.

I called my brothers and sisters after I got off the phone with the detective. By this point shock had settled in and I have no recollection of my conversations with them except that I was surprised by the lack of emotion in their responses. Her death was expected, exactly when was the question. She had been given last rights dozens of times over the years, but always pulled through. Maybe their lack of discernible affect was not shock, but relief that the years of self loathing and self destructive behavior was over. She could finally stop running from the demons. My wife came home and I gave her the news. I saw my devastation in her eyes. I realized that her face was mirroring mine and that realization caused me to break down. I didn't cry again until days later when I was carrying my mother's casket out of Blessed Sacrament Church. I faced my brothers who were holding the other side of the casket. They both looked like they did when they were little boys, vulnerable and needy. My face was mirroing theirs.

Soon after my wife got home we went to bed. The next few days were going to be stressful at best and if I stayed up I'd just be torturing myself with memories of Ma and me swimming at the lake, playing catch in the backyard or her rubbing my head as I lay in her lap, watching television. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, I was comforted by the thought that my mother was with her infant son Derek who had died 29 years earlier, her sister Rosemary and her mother in a place better than this one.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Curses, Tagged!

I've been tagged a number of times in the past year and a half since doing this blog thing. I've only responded to a couple. Not because I don't like them, but because they usually take time and thought, both of which in my case are limited. Melinda from Canada, whose photography I've enjoyed for most of my time in the blogosphere since finding her in my cousin Suldogs blog faves, has tagged me.

Here are the rules:

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog.

2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog; some random, some weird.

3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.

4. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

The Facts:

1. I born a poor black child. Besides being a memorable line in "The Jerk", Steve Martin's comic masterpiece it is also the title of one of my first blog posts (read here). Ok, I wasn't really born black, but I was as poor as fuck. For those of you who think assistance programs (welfare, food stamps, etc...) are just ways for people to scam the system and not necessary all I can say is "fuck off". Children should never starve because their parents don't have their shit together.

2. I hate hypocrisy. I'm sure most people do. I don't care if you are into bestiality, cheat on your income taxes or love American Idol, but don't put others down for what you do yourself. I despise bestiality and people that cheat on their income tax... Leave the hypocrisy up to experts: politicians, evangelicals and baby boomers.

3. I love being a dad. Not just because my father was a complete douche bag, but because its the only time in my life I have ever felt or given unconditional love.

4. I am good at everything, but great at nothing. One of my former employees asked me once "Is there anything you are not good at" as I was throwing 25 yard spiral after spiral to another employee at the beach. My answer "I don't think so". I am a real renaissance man. The flip side? My attention span is too short for me to ever get great at something. Where were we...oh yeah...number five...

5. I've been to every state, but Alaska. Some of them were no more of a visit than taking a dump in the airport (Omaha Nebraska). I hit most of them during a trip I made across the USA in the summer of '85. You can read about the shenanigans and hilarity of the trek in a series of blog posts titled "The Odyssey" right here on this very blog.

6. I love golf. I am a huge sports fan. I grew up playing sports, watching sports, living, breathing sports. I didn't pick up a golf club until I was 29 years old and I regret I didn't find the game earlier. In high school I thought the golfers were prissy, little wimps and I was pretty much right. The guys were wimps, but the game they played was one of the toughest. I love the fact its all about you. There is no one to blame when you hit a bad shot or lose a hole except you. You police yourself and its your job to enforce the rules. It is a gentleman's game and maybe someday I'll be one...a gentleman, that is.

7. Fall is my favorite season. Being that I have traveled all over the U.S. I have a huge appreciation for living in New England. Fall in New England is my idea of perfect weather. Cool, dry air comes down from Canada washing away the hot, stale summer humidity. The days are warm and the nights are cool to chilly, perfect for sleeping. Quintessential fall scenes include sitting in the bleachers at Fenway in late September with the sox in the playoff hunt. Tailgating in Foxboro before a Patriots game second or third week in October as the leaves are reaching their peak color. Teeing off at a golf course on Cape Cod with the fog and dew enveloping the course and finishing the round in brilliant, leafless, mid- November sunshine.

8. I love Canada! Ok, OK that was shameless kissing up to Melinda who called me "Suldog's talented cousin, David", but how can you not love a country that gives us hockey, beer, Seth Rogan, The Trailer Park Boys, April Wine, bacon, Mounties... and the list goes on.

Now for the tagged:

Dirty Red
Random Lunacy
Chicago Zack

I only tagged four folks because thats all the time I have for now. Happy tagging!