Thursday, 2 September 2010

Al the crazy chef, Harry the Hood and the stupid bug juice man's revenge

After saving like crazy for almost 2 years, I headed off to America on June 9th 1992. This was my first destination on my 2 year trip around the world and was supposed to be a gentle introduction. I first heard about Camp America during a brief encounter with an English guy at a train station in Cairo in 1989. The fire inside me had been ignited and upon my return from my trip to Egypt I began saving. To cut a long story short, I got a decent paid job, met a girl and fell back into normal life, which meant that my plans to travel were put on the back burner. It took me three years to finally execute my plans, after saving a wedge of cash and mourning a broken relationship.

You get 2 choices of work with Camp America, you are either a camp counsellor or a kitchen/maintenance worker. As a camp counsellor you eat, sleep and shit with the kids, whilst as a kitchen worker you work 3 shifts a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) with free time between and after these times. To me at this stage of my life there was no competition between these 2 positions. I wanted to party and the position of kitchen worker suited me right to the ground. I bid my farewells to my family at Manchester airport, boarded a plane bound for Newark airport and was on my way. At the airport I was sat next to world snooker champion, Stephen Hendry and on the plane I was sat next to a member of a band called 25th May. In the 2 years previous to my departure I had been seeing lots of bands and had seen 25th of May on several occasions. I took these 2 signs as omens of the great times that lay ahead of me.

Arriving in New York was amazing and everything I expected New York to be. The New York skyline in the background with yellow taxi's everywhere and a cacophony of noise. Like a kid I was transfixed and remained silent throughout the whole hour trip. I have 2 prominent memories of the first night in the hotel. The first is hearing Billy Joel's, piano man for the first time and falling in love with the song. Whilst the second memory was ordering burger and chips and being given a burger and a bag of crisps. I mean who would order a burger and a bag of crisps? It just doesn't make sense.

The next day our group of 5, boarded a public bus and travelled through Upstate New York to Massachusetts. Our camp lay on the outskirts of a village called West Stockbridge, which is located a few miles into Massachusetts, close to the border with Upstate New York. West Stockbridge is in a beautiful area of America in the Berkshire Hills. The village is as quaint as it gets, white wooden buildings, with ornamental carts outside on beautifully manicured lawns. It is also very patriotic, each house displaying the Stars and Stripes from 20 ft high flag poles set in the grass. There were numerous shops in the village but they were all run by the Baldwin family, who I can only surmise were inbred.

The kitchen staff comprised of 13 British nationals, a couple of Americans and a Kiwi. The kitchen and dining room were set away from the rest of the camp and also housed our sleeping quarters, directly above the kitchen and second dining room. The chef was for want of a better description, a psychopathic lunatic. This guy was of African descent, and had a very vocal dislike for white people. He was quite small in stature, around 5ft 6 " and walked with a slight limp. However, he seemed to build this limp into his cool walk routine, which also saw him waving his hands around and generally trying to play "the man". Al, as he was named, also had a great fondness for Bill Cosby and the way that he walked was a reflection of this. He had a stocky frame and took great pride in abusing his power to either intimidate the boys or sexually harass the girls.

Revert to real time.

My room is just about big enough to house a bunk bed and a single bed. I share the room with Hugh, a quite eccentric guy from Devon and Daniel, a very sober and consequently boring guy from Macclesfield. Somehow, even though I am their senior, I end up on the top bunk with my face literally a foot away from the ceiling. There is a large graffiti picture of "Harry the hood" drawn on the ceiling which given my phobia of graffiti disturbs me immensely. Whose "Harry the Hood", I hear you exclaim. Harry the Hood is a strange faced cartoon guy that appears on the side of the milk cartons. I can only assume that at some point, one of the previous kitchen workers has drawn this picture (hold this thought, Harry the Hood will bizarrely turn up in a future tale). For the next 10 weeks, Harry the Hood is the first person I see when I wake up and the last person I see before I go to sleep at night.

We are awoken on the first morning by a banging of a frying pan on our room door, which is followed by Crazy Al (as he as been labelled), shouting at the top of his voice "Wake up, you white boys, sons of whore's, get the fuck out of your beds". Considering that until this point I had been in the middle of a beautiful sleep, with my eyes wide shut, I am more than a little disturbed and instantly wonder whether I have made the right decision to come to the summer camp. This is to be the routine and Al's mantra for the whole summer and we are later to find out that his tantrums are alcohol and drug induced.

I hurriedly get ready and rush down to the kitchen area, where Al is busy looking his staff up and down in a perverse fashion. I am later to find out that he has hand picked his staff from our submitted photographs. He will spend the rest of the summer trying to get us all into bed. After he has finished checking out our bits, we are allocated maintenance and cleaning jobs around the camp. The kids will not turn up for 2 weeks, so it is our job to make the camp homely before they arrive. My job is to paint all the green bits green and all the white bits white, which is no easy task given the amount of wooden huts around the place. The camp is set on a hill, with the kitchen building at the top and Crane Lake at the bottom. In between are all the outbuildings and playing fields.

Two weeks of hard labour later, the kids turn up and our peace is to be totally shattered. These kids are horrors, think Jewish American, loads of money and fired off to camps for the whole summer whilst their parents work and accumulate their wealth. These kids are spoilt, they have everything and want more. As far as these kids are concerned we are their slaves and they mean to make us work for our pittance of a wage. There are rumours that Vidal Sassoon's grandson is on the camp and it would not surprise me. As an example of how ludicrous these kids families are, one of the boys father's in my friends group of kids, sends him porn magazines on a regular basis. The kid is around 10 years old.

It is soon realised that I am useless as a kitchen hand and therefore I am fired off into a small room with a hatch looking out over the dining room and a large cool room behind it. In the cool room, amongst other things are 2 large containers which contain bug juice. If you are American and have been to camp, you will know what bug juice is. There are 2 types of bug juice, well at least on my camp there were. One is red and the other is a bright yellow, not dissimilar to the colour of urine. It is my job to pour 5, 2 litre bottles of this stuff into the large containers and then fill the containers up with water from a hose pipe. Whilst lunch and dinner is being served, it is my job to keep the kids watered whilst they ravage their burgers and chips. Boy, can these kids drink. They are drinking jugs of the stuff as fast as I can pour it. I am rushing around like a fool, trying to keep up with their greedy demands. However, as soon as I get back to my observation hatch, there are 20 hands raised up with empty jugs in them. If they deem me to not be moving fast enough, they start to bang their jugs like prisoners banging their cups on the bars of their cells. Some of them even shout "hey, stupid bug juice man, bring me some stupid bug juice" and other such derogatory chants. This particularly annoys me and prompts me to go slower.
Subconsciously I am plotting my revenge.

Throughout the whole summer, Crazy Al's behaviour becomes more and more erratic, as he indulges in his narcotic and alcohol habit. One of our tasks is to give the kids snacks at 3.30 pm to keep them going between meals (fat little bastards). However, Al often hits the bottle and then sleeps between shifts without telling us which snacks to give the kids. This results in one of the kitchen staff having to go and bang on his door and consequently suffer his wrath. It usually goes something like this, knock, knock "What, what do you want"? "erm Al, it's snack time, what shall we give them"? "Fuck, Christ, you fucking white boys are stupid, give then ice cream, give them ice cream man, yeah give them ice cream". He would then fall back into a deep sleep and we would feed the fat, gluttonous, little pigs ice cream.

Throughout the summer, the kitchen staff are partying like animals. We are literally going through a slab of beer each on a daily basis. Granted this stuff is weak but when consumed in the quantities that we are drinking it, it does the job. It becomes routine to finish our dinner time kitchen duties which finish around 7 pm and then the boys will then go off and have a game of football. A weak argument about the evening's pastimes then ensues before we inevitably head down into West Stockbridge to purchase slabs of beer.

One night we actually manage to break this routine and decide to do something more cultural like play cards or something along those lines. However, an hour into this new pastime and we are all getting shaky for ale. With a "fuck it" mentality to which we became accustomed over the summer of 1992, we head of into Baldwinsville to fetch the beer. However, our hesitance has ruined it for us, we get into town to find that the Baldwins have all gone to bed to produce more inbred Baldwins no doubt. We return to camp and a mist of confusion darkens our mood. What are we to do? By now we have forgotten that initially we had planned a none drinking night. Now, it's a crisis on a grand scale. We hold a meeting in my room and lots of idea's get thrown around before someone comes up with the gem of driving over the New York state border and purchasing our liquid gold at a truck stop. We dance around in glee at our saving solution before it is pointed out that we don't in fact have a vehicle. The person with the idea then interjects with the following show stopping statement "Well we could take the camp station wagon". Such is our desire for alcohol that we pay little heed to the consequences of this action and it's all systems go. Unfortunately for me I am the only one with a driving license and therefore get the job as chauffeur come delivery man. This fact is trivial when compared to the fact that somebody has got to retrieve the station wagon keys from Crazy Al's bedside cabinet whilst he sleeps. But who would be stupid enough to take on that task?

I tentatively turn the handle of Al's bedroom door and wince as it creaks open. The others are all located in the corridor trying to stifle their nervous giggles. I choose this point to inform the reader of Crazy Al's other hobby besides alcohol and drugs. The guy is obsessed with terrapins and has hundreds of the little blighters all over his floor. The majority are to be found in a paddling pool which is slap bang in the middle of his room but they are literally free to roam anywhere. With this in mind I have taken off my shoes and socks so that I can make careful strides across Al's floor and feel them out with my toes. I hasten to add that it is pitch black in Al's room and I only have a vague idea of where the keys will be. I estimate that I am half way across the floor when I encounter my first terrapin , fortunately my bare toes are sensitive enough not to crush him. My confidence rises and with beer on my mind I speed things up. This is to my detriment as it turns out. Within seconds I have fallen full length over the paddling pool, Al has turned on the light and is bolt upright in his bed. His face is totally illuminated and his eyes wide open. I brace myself for the onslaught as outside I hear the others giggling like a pack of hyenas. He looks directly at me, the whites of his eyeballs the size of pool balls and shouts "What's wrong with you boy give them ice cream, give them fucking ice cream". With his words released, he then switches out the light and falls back to sleep.

With balls of steel, I continue with my mission and grab the keys. My kitchen Buddy Dave and I then drive over the New York state border and grab the slabs. However, in my nervousness at what I have just been through I manage to leave the handbrake on and burn it out. This does not go unnoticed but blatant denial takes away any blame on my part. I think Al is onto me and have to tread carefully for the rest of the summer.

The kids become increasingly more beastly as the summer goes on and by the last week I am liable to explode. As, I say my sub conscience has been plotting it's revenge and by George it does not come any sweeter than this. It's a blazing hot Wednesday afternoon and my friend and I decide to join a group of the American camp counsellors at the nearby Card Lake. In the knowledge that I have to do the dinner shift, I tread cautiously with a few slow beers. This is all fine and dandy, until somebody offers me a tequila slammer, which turns into another tequila slammer and another etc etc. Before you know it, I am being carried back from Card Lake slumped over 2 guys shoulders. In the modicum of common sense that I have lurking in the depths of my rational mind, I assume that I can be thrown into my bug juice room and away from Al's prying eyes. Unfortunately, I assume wrong. When we get back to camp, Al has decided to throw a spontaneous bbq due to the hot weather. He spots me and shouts "Hey white boy, don't just stand there, serve them hot dogs". I am propped up behind the hot dog cauldron, in a manner not too dissimilar to 'Weekend at Bernies'.

Before long there is an enormous queue waiting for hot dogs and I am in no fit state to serve them. One of my friends has the sense to relieve me of my duties and tells me to hang out in the bug juice room. The story from here on in, has been told to me through the tales of those that witnessed the following. The guy that relieved me of my hot dog duties, comes to check on me in the bug juice room and finds me relieving myself into the large container of yellow bug juice. He is apparently in disbelief at what he witnesses and is concerned about how we are going to rectify the situation. The only way that we could rectify the situation it turns out is to notify the kitchen staff of my actions and let the kids get their daily dose of bug juice "who's the stupid bug juice man now"? Unfortunately for me, one of the American kitchen staff who nobody likes, is not notified and consequently get his fill of my salty fluid. This guy is enormous and not a person to mess with. After dinner I crash and burn in my bunk bed, only to be awoken by the brute in question, who is repeatedly bringing a metal chair crashing down onto my torso.

The story does not end there, in fact it takes an even more incredulous turn. Fast forward one year and I am at a youth hostel in Canberra, Australia. I have met a couple of guys that I have been hanging out with for a few days. We are sat having a few beers in the hostel when we coincidentally get talking about travelling through America. It turns out that one of the guys has also been on summer camp 2 years previously. I ask where his camp was located and am pleasantly surprised that he too was in Massachusetts. I ask him where and am even more surprised to narrow it down to the vicinity of Pittsfield. I tell him that my camp was also near to Pittsfield and was called Crane Lake Camp. The guy looks on stunned, he says something along the lines of "you're joking". It turns out that not only was this guy at the same camp but in the same top bunk. We literally go from country to state, to town, to village, to camp, to block, to room to bunk with 8 moves and finally arrive at "Harry the Hood", which we both shout out at the same time in amazement.

This was to be one of many "Small world" incidents that I have had in my life and they never fail to freak me out.

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