As Eldon and I walked up the path from the dock toward our tent we passed by the four Dads. They were all veterans of World War II and our camp chaperones. They spent much of their day seated on old worn out aluminum lawn chairs in front of a fire in the center of camp drinking coffee, smoking, and telling stories. One of those four Dads was my Dad.
It was a camp custom for the kids to address our chaperones as “Mister” followed by the first letter of their last name. As Eldon and I passed Mr. L, the tallest of the Dads, he pointed his coffee cup at the camera I was cradling and quipped, “Hey Wes, are you going to be the next Alfred Hitchcock?”
Without missing a beat I replied, “Hey Mr. L, don’t you mean the next, Mister Hitchcock?” The three Dads chuckled.
Mr. L shook his head and refilled his cup from a black coffee pot that looked as if it had never been washed. “He’s a pistol, that one,” he remarked. Mr. K and Mr. B nodded. My Father smiled and winked at me.
The center of camp was a clearing in the woods about twenty-five feet in diameter and a short walk up from the lake. In the center of that clearing stood a flagpole. And on that flagpole flew the flag of the United States of America.
Every morning the 25 campers, the four Dads and I assembled before breakfast to salute Old Glory as it was raised. With the sun streaking over the tree line a Dad would bark, “Cump-knee ten-hut.” Then all four Dads with their receding hairlines and wrinkled faces would snap to attention. With straighten backs and squared shoulders they instantaneously looked twenty years younger.
As a son of soldier Dad, I stood with my hand on my heart trying as best as I could to imitate his crisp military stance as the flag was raised to the top of the pole and then secured. Then a Dad would bark, “Comp-knee dish-ma!” Then I scattered like the rest of them, each to our own campsites to cook breakfast.
I always thought my father looked like Humphrey Bogart. They were about the same height, rail thin, had broad smiles and walked with confidence. I swear you could take a photo of my Dad from the 40’s wearing a crisp white shirt, his best double breasted suit with its broad lapels and sharply creased pants, pull a wide brim fedora down to his eyebrows at a rakishly angle, and voilà! Humphrey Bogart.
And they both had a similar habit. They’d raise their pants by pressing their forearms against the waistband and then shrug their shoulders. Bogart usually did this in his movies while holding a revolver in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. My Dad occasionally did this while repairing the family car and holding a coffee cup and a greasy wrench.
They had another characteristic in common: large powerful hands. This explains how Bogey could convincingly fight his way out of a jam when cornered. For me, this explains why I avoided my Father’s ire at all costs. Those large hands of his were powerful deterrents for my wicked inclinations.
But the thought of those hands didn’t always stop my impulses from getting the best of me.
Eldon and I were standing at the entrance to our tent for what to me seemed like an eternity. He appeared to be deep in some thought. I was holding the camera and expecting him to open the flap so I could enter the tent. I cleared my throat. He still didn’t move. So with the arm that wasn’t holding the camera, I reached for the flap.
“Wait!” he cried.
It was too late. When I pulled the flap the tent collapsed. It gently descended until the old green canvas revealed the outline of our two Army surplus cots. Our deflated home now looked like two flat mountain ranges with a valley between.
Eldon pointed to a dirt-caked tent stake sticking out of the ground. “I’m tellin’ yah, that didn’t happen by accident.”
We inspected the other stakes. They all had been yanked out of the ground just enough so that any movement of our pup tent would cause it to collapse. Plus there were footprints, large footprints, footprints made by tennies several sizes larger than ours. Eldon looked at me and asked, “Who would do that?”
“My brothers,” I said carefully perching the camera atop a pile of firewood. Standing on opposite sides of the tent, we pulled the ropes taunt and pounded the tent stakes back into the ground.
“Why would they do it?” Eldon asked.
“Have you met my brothers?”
With the tent re-pitched we climbed inside. Eldon watched me pack up the camera. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
I pulled out my pocketknife.
He warned, “They’ll retaliate yah know.”
I opened and closed the blade of the knife. “I know.”
I started to get up. He pushed me back down. “Leave your glasses.”
I furrowed my brow at him.
“In case you’re hit in the face,” he added.
I nodded. Then I asked, “You coming?”
“Nope. Can’t stand the sight of your blood.”
I don’t remember walking to Pan and Tilt’s tent. I do remember making a beeline through the woods for their campsite while my mind was flashing through all the sibling injustices I had endured that summer like getting their hand-me-down clothes and being forced to sit between them in the backseat for the whole ride to camp. And then there were all the past pushing, shoving, teasing, taunting, the disregarding of my presence, and of course those damn 13 Ghosts.
I stepped out of the woods and stopped at the entrance of their tent. I reached into my pocket and could feel the cold metal of the pocketknife in my palm.
The sound of Pan’s voice hit me like a slap across the face. “What are you doing here?” he bellowed.
I pirouetted with my tiny fists clenched.
Standing in the middle of the path shoulder to shoulder were my two older brothers looking like a couple of tackling dummies. I squinted at them. They appeared annoyed. I tried to look ferocious.
Tilt gave me his best stink eye. “What’s that in your hand?”
I snarled in my deepest nine-year-old voice, “You owe me fifty cents”.
He threw his head back and chuckled, “Come and get it.”
I stood my ground waiting for him to charge me.
“He’s right,” Pan said breaking the tension.
Tilt looked surprised. “What?”
“He held up his end of the bargain. You hold up yours.”
“Yah right, in your dreams.”
“Nooo,” Pan said shaking his head and pushing a finger in Tilt’s face. “You were there. We all agreed.”
Tilt laughed and nodded. “Sure I was there, watching the two of you agree to a deal that didn’t involve me!”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Their verbal volleys started out softly but built up stream as they went.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“No, you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
And just like that, my two older idiot brothers resorted to what they did best: argue … very loudly … with each other … to a draw.
I studied the tent stake near me. I slid the knife back into my pocket as I tiptoed around the corner of their tent. I noticed a cluster of trees to my left. Without my glasses on I had to squint pretty hard to get a clear view of them. I thought those trees would make a good escape route.
“Go ahead Twerp,” Tilt said with a villainous threat. “Go ahead pull it.”
Pan slowly shook his head at me and dropped his jaw so low his ‘O’s’ sounded like a foghorn. “Nooooooo.”
I looked at them. I looked at the trees. I pulled on the stake and took off like a jackrabbit.
This was not the first horse race wherein I was the Shetland pony. I knew speed was not my long suit. Zigzagging would be my one and only strategy.
Two steps into the chase I could hear the ‘clump, clump, clump’ of Pan’s flat feet behind me. I headed for a large birch tree with a low hanging branch. I ducked under it. They out flanked me. Now they were only a step away. Entering another campsite I flew under a string of wet clothes hanging out to dry. They had to run around it. I now had three steps on them.
The forest floor in front of me was covered in pine needles. With no obstacles between us, they gained on me. A dirt footpath was coming up fast. Suddenly, I was only a step a head of them. I gambled and turned left onto the path.
“Get ‘em,” I heard Tilt cry.
I dug deep and shifted into the highest gear my short little legs had ever known. At a large oak tree I zigged right into the woods. At the stump of an Elm I faked to my right but zagged to my left. This meant I had doubled back onto the path and was now heading right for the center of camp. Opening my fear valve I lit my after-burner and headed for the dock.
I wasn’t the best swimmer but I knew what would happen if they caught me, so I was prepared to keep flailing the water until I had reached the opposite shore.
Stay tuned to this space for Part Three
and the exciting conclusion to
My First Film.