Wednesday, 22 January 2014

10 weeks on summer camp - Chapter 7

On June 9th 1992, three years after I'd returned home from my previous adventure, my parents once again drove me to Manchester airport; this time for a Trans-Atlantic flight. Words cannot begin to express how excited I felt about the prospects of the journey that lay ahead of me. If all went to plan, I'd be gone for at least a year, maybe even two, and the only tickets that I possessed were a flight to Newark, New York and a six week, flexible Amtrak rail pass to get me across America.

The summer camp that I'd been placed on was a camp for rich Jewish kids, called Crane Lake Camp. It was located in West Stockbridge,
Massachusetts, very close to the New York State border. From what I'd read this seemed to be an extremely quiet, patriotic and affluent area, surrounded by idyllic countryside. I was eager to find out for myself.

As I sat in the airport waiting to say goodbye to my parents, Stephen Hendry the absolute god in the world of snooker, sat down next to me. It may not sound like a big deal now, but back then snooker was enormous and Stephen was rarely off the telly. Was this an omen of things to come, and the famous people that I was going to meet along the way? I began to think that it was. 
When I discovered that the lad seated next to me on the plane was a member of a band that I'd seen many times over the previous few years, my excitement was thrown out of control. The band's name was The 25th of May, which happened to be my dad's birthday. The planets were aligning for sure.
I was part of a small group of new summer camp recruits who were seated on the plane together. Within a day we'd all be going to different camps scattered across America but at least this way I got to share my pre-camp euphoria with people who were in the same boat as me (well plane actually, but you get my point). Conversation came thick and fast as we discussed our expectations for the next few months. Before I knew it the flight was over and I was touching down on American soil.

Once at Newark, we were picked up in a minibus and driven to our hotel. On the journey there we were afforded a magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline. This quite literally rendered me speechless, as I sat and stared in awe at the shapes of buildings that we were so familiar to me, although I'd never actually been to New York before.

The hotel was full of young people who would be going to their camps the following day. The organisers had paid for the hotel but it was up to us to find our own way to our camps. Not being one to hold back on conversation, I managed to round up all the other folks that had been placed on
Crane Lake camp, and we arranged to take the bus there together the following day.

This task complete, and feeling rather peckish I headed for the hotel snack bar. I'd earlier spotted burger and chips on the menu and was looking forward to getting a bellyful of America's finest export. Imagine my disappointment when I received a burger and a packet of crisps. Not only was this my first taste of American food, but also my first taste of the differences between British and American language. Over the next four months I'd be astounded by how many differences there actually were.

We navigated our way to the grubby Port Authority bus station, where we were on full alert for pick pockets. Some of the lads in the hotel had spent the previous week in the Queen's district of New York and claimed to have heard gun shots on more than one occasion. Whether they had or not was another matter, but it certainly gave our trip up to Crane Lake Camp a little edge. Here we boarded a bus to
Pittsfield. This was the nearest big town to Crane Lake Camp and the place that our contact would pick us up. Thankfully everything went to plan and by mid afternoon we'd been shown to our meagre living quarters. A tiny room with one bunk bed and one single bed. My room mates Dan from Wilmslow, and Hugh from Totness were faster to react to the sleeping arrangement situation than I was, and therefore I got jibbed. Despite the fact that I was their senior by a good three years, and against my better wishes, I ended up on the top bunk.

There was a great deal of confusion when we arrived, and I was placed on the kitchen staff instead of maintenance team, for which I'd applied. It didn't really matter which team I was on to be honest, I knew that I'd be equally as incompetent at either of these roles. Over the next few months I was to learn that it was no accident that I'd been moved to the kitchen staff. It turned out that Al, our crazy boss, had liked the look of me and wanted me in his predatory sights.

I could write a book, purely dedicated to Crazy Al. Here was a guy, who seemed to base himself on Bill Cosby, but with anger instead of humour. A guy that had been at the camp for so many years that he practically ran the place. And a guy whose lack of scruples was only outmatched by his sleaziness. It's easy to look back now and see how he prayed on the young kids that made up his staff. These were kids who were generally on a university break and had probably never travelled alone before. His every action was designed to instill fear into into his staff. 

Al claimed to like the ladies but I'm pretty sure that he'd take anything that he could get his lecherous hands on. He bragged to us constantly about how he'd fired most of the workers that had been sent to him over the years. And the majority of the ones that he hadn't fired, he'd fucked. He even bragged that two years previously, he'd sacked the entire kitchen staff in one foul swoop. We assumed that he said stuff like this to keep us in line. However, a year later, whilst I was in Canberra, I was to meet one of the lads that he'd sacked and it turned out to be true. If you were fired, you basically lost your return flight, and failed to get your $500 bonus at the end of the summer. He used the threat of this loss to manipulate us in whichever manner he could get away with.

Thankfully, the first few weeks on camp were kid free. We were given two weeks to get the camp shipshape, before the horror show began. During this time we were allowed to use the camp swimming pool, so things weren't too bad. Jobs included painting, cleaning, scraping boogers of the walls of the kids huts and moving big inanimate objects around the camp. To be fair though, the hardest job was trying to stay out of Al's way. Despite having a limp he always seemed to appear from nowhere and catch us at inopportune moments.

There were 13 of us in the kitchen, mainly from the
UK, but also a girl from New Zealand, and three young local lads who came to help out. Two of these were Al's nephews and the other was their mate, so we treated them with caution. Our job was split into three shifts of two hours each (breakfast/lunch/dinner). If you were unlucky you'd also get a fourth shift which involved handing out snacks in the afternoon. It was quickly discovered that I hadn't a clue what I was doing in the kitchen so I was demoted to the role of bug juice man.

Bug juice came in two colours, bright red or bright yellow. This highly concentrated sugary liquid, which I've since heard, is served on summer camps throughout
America, was delivered to us in enormous bottles better suited to holding detergent. It was my job to pour these bottles into two stupendously large containers and then fill the containers up with water from a hose pipe. These containers were situated in a large walk in fridge which was located away from the kitchen. In this sense I got lucky because I didn't have to deal with Crazy Al, whose behaviour became even more erratic during busy periods.

Once the containers were full I had to fill hundreds of jugs up with this most vile of liquids. One jug of red and one jug of yellow for each table. During meal times I would stick my head out of a serving hatch which looked out into the dining hall. Once the kids finished their bug juice, they would raise their jugs into the air and shout such obscenities as "hey stupid bug juice man, get me some more fucking bug juice." I would then have to rush to their table and replenish their drinks. It was a thankless task to say the least.

To help me carry out my duties I was given a different assistant each day. My assistant and I would charge around for an hour while constantly filling up jugs, under a barrage of abuse from the rich little Jewish kids. I imagine that they displayed the same behaviour at the meal table back home in their New York penthouses.

In one of the last weeks of camp I got my revenge. I won't say too much for fear of a libel case but let's just say that I'd been drinking beer all afternoon and had a full bladder and decreased morals. My friends were warned to drink water with their lunch, and the yellow bug juice may not have been diluted purely with water. I'll let you make your own assumptions on that one.

Crazy Al, hated white people and he was very vocal in letting us know. The guy was a total pill pushing alcoholic who woke up in a bad mood and got progressively angrier throughout the day. We were awoken every morning to the sound of Al purposefully clashing pans together in the kitchen below our room. On more than one occasion he staggered up the stairs and tried to smash our door in with a frying pan, because we stayed in a bed a minute too long, "Wake up, you white boys, mother fuckers, sons of whores," he would shout as he clashed the pan against the door. This was not a pleasant way to wake up.

Fortunately, Al liked to nap in the afternoon after we'd finished the lunch shift. He'd assign one of us the mid afternoon snack duty and then stagger off to his room. Which just so happened to be right in the middle of the girl's living quarters. His room was also the home for his terrapins, which lived in a kiddie pool in the corner of his room. More often than not though, they could be found roaming around his floor at their leisure. I was to find this out for myself on the night that we decided to steal the camp station wagon to go on a beer run.

West Stockbridge was around a 40 minute walk, there and back, and this is where we got our beer supplies. There were a few shops in the village but they all seemed to be owned by the
Baldwin family. The Baldwin general store became our daily pilgrimage, to purchase cases of Busch Light or Budweiser. At only five dollars a case, it would have been rude to turn the bargain down, that's the way we saw it anyway. One evening we all decided that we were going to have a night off the booze, so our trip to the village was neglected. A few hours after this decision was made, it was decided that we had been too hasty in our judgment of the situation and we did indeed want beer. It was too late, all the shops in this conservative village closed at 9 pm, and it was already 9.15. What were we going to do? This was a disaster of epic proportions, we were all revved up with no place to go.

"Let's go to the truck stop over the border", somebody shouted out. We all cheered. A great idea had saved the day.

"Hold on a minute, how are we going to get there?", somebody else asked.

This was indeed a good point, the truck stop over the border in
New York State was close, but it was not that close. I'd run there once when I'd stupidly decided to try and get fit, and it had taken me a good half hour to get there.

"Let's take the camp station wagon", somebody shouted. Once again this was met with a barrage of applause.

By now, I was the only one not applauding. Being the only person over the age of 21, I was the only one eligible to get served. The night depended on me.

"How do we get the keys?" somebody asked.

But we had a solution for that too. And guess who volunteered to liberate the keys from Al's bedside table as he slept? Yeah, that's right, yours truly.

I would be lying if I told you that I wasn't nervous as I pushed Al's door open and crept into his room. Knowing that that there were terrapins covering his floor made this all the worse. I attempted to combat this by taking enormous strides, thus reducing the chances of contact with these small reptiles. And all would have been good and well, had I not taken a giant stride into the kiddy pool.

Al sat bolt upright in bed and stared straight at me, the whites of his eyes illuminated by the light shining through the gap in the shutters. Fuck! I thought, the game us up. 

"Give them ice creams", he shouted "give them fucking ice creams boy", and then he fell back to sleep as promptly has he had woken up. Obviously he thought that I was the afternoon mug, coming to do the snack duty. I could hardly contain my laughter as I darted from the scene with the keys in my hand.

Then it was over the border in the station wagon to supply us with another evening’s entertainment, in the form of piss weak but cheap beer. On the way back to the camp I left the handbrake on by mistake, and almost burnt it out. The next day I was petrified that my crime was going to be discovered and I would be thrown off the camp. Amazingly, I got away with it though.

Those who got thrown off camp were rumoured to get the six minute warning. That is, they got six minutes to gather their possessions together and remove themselves from the camp before the police got involved. Naturally we thought that this was nonsense, made up to control us, but as the camp went on people started to disappear. One of the American counsellors was even rumoured to have received the six minute warning for his sexual liaisons with one of the young girls on the camp. 

One night, near to the end of the camp I almost became a victim of the six minute warning myself. A group of us went off to the nearby town of
Springfield for a night at a bar there. After an hour or so of drinking I discovered that the alcohol storeroom was not only unlocked but also unguarded. I spent the next few hours steadily getting drunk for free, until I was caught red handed and thrown out of the place. The others were far from prepared to go home so I had to wander the streets for three hours until they were ready to leave. After an hour or so I heard a disturbance in the distance and went to investigate. The cause of the disturbance turned out to be my mate Andy from Manchester who had got into a fight with Crazy Al's nephews and their mate DJ. 

Andy was parading around a children's playground, bare-chested and beckoning them to come and have a go. He repeatedly informed his enemies that he was from Wythenshawe (rough part of
Manchester) and that Wythenshawe boys were the hardest in the world. Eventually the three Americans waded in with a flurry of punches, which unfortunately prompted my own involvement. Within two seconds of entering the arena, I was flat on my back and seeing stars. DJ had hit me in the temple with his best shot and I went down like a sack of spuds. Apparently DJ had tasted the contaminated bug juice a few weeks earlier and had been dying for this opportunity ever since. Needless to say, Andy and I lost the fight, which would have all been good and well if Andy had not decided to get revenge.

The others eventually came out of the bar, jumped in the station wagon and set off back to the camp without us. We found out later that they assumed that we'd left already. Andy, who took great offence to this, magically produced an iron bar and ran after the station wagon. Surprisingly he caught up with it and used the iron bar to smash all of vehicles windows. I was watching this unfurl from a distance whilst trying to regain a modicum of consciousness. Thoughts of the six minute warning were already circulating my mind. How on earth were we going to get back to camp?

Despite the threat of the severest form of punishment looming in the air the walk back to camp was wonderfully entertaining. The night sky was alive with a sea of stars, the likes of which I’d never witnessed before, the ever-present chirp of crickets was almost hypnotising, and the deep belches of bull frogs added an almost comical edge to our predicament. We estimated that we were probably more than 20 miles from the camp, which at a walking pace of four miles an hour, would take us at least five hours. This did not take into account that we were drunk, injured and sleepy. After a few hours we had simply reached our limit. We weren’t even sure if we were going in the right direction, so we decided to give up.

We were walking along a very rural lane which ran in front of some incredibly large and expensive looking houses, each surrounded by humongous gardens. My diligent eye spotted a small tent in the middle of one of these gardens, immediately illuminating a light bulb in my head. “Right Andy, I’m sleeping in that”, I commanded. He knew that he was getting thrown off the camp anyway, so my suggestion was met with a positive response, “OK, let’s do it”, he replied.

With haste we ran across the garden and entered the tent. Our success was celebrated with laughter and a high five before we fell in to a well deserved sleep. The odds were that we would sleep till the next morning when we would wake up and see what fate had to deal us. Andy, would be thrown off camp for sure, we were under no illusions about that. But how would the camp react to me missing my breakfast shift in the kitchen? Only time would tell.

It’s often been said that I am the unluckiest, yet the luckiest person around. The events that happened in the next few minutes perfectly exemplify this statement. We were awoken by the sound of the tent door being zipped open and a gun barrel appearing through the flaps.

“I’ll count to ten and if you don’t come out of my fucking tent I’ll pump you full of lead”, our intruder warned us. Not the most pleasant way to wake up, I have to admit. Needless to say Andy and I were standing outside the tent within seconds.

Now, here comes the lucky part. The guy, a burly fellow who looked as though he could crush us both with one hand, turned out to be our saving grace. Well my saving grace anyway, Andy was already screwed. The guy took one look at us in our blood stained and tattered clothes, and immediately took pity on us. Within the hour he’d run us back to camp and we were back in bed.

I was awoken the next morning to the news that Andy had been given the six minute warning. With my head literally throbbing with pain I managed to get out of bed and bid him farewell.

A few weeks later it was time for us all to say goodbye to
Crane Lake camp. As quickly as the kids had appeared, they disappeared, and an eerie silence fell upon the place. There was time for one last party which was preceded by a ritual burning of the shoes that we had worn all summer. We danced around the fire like native Indians as they burnt. During the final party we wreaked havoc by ringing the camp director to tell him that his holiday home in the Florida Keys had been destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, a few days earlier. In our drunken states it seemed like a wonderful idea, although that next day we were afraid that a final six minute warning may be sent in our direction. Luckily this was not the case.

Leaving the camp was even worse than leaving the kibbutz. On the kibbutz it was transient, a constant process of new people arriving and old friends leaving. The camp wasn't like that, we had all been together for the duration. When we arrived it was like a ghost town, a few weeks later it was brimming with life. On the last day, it was a ghost town again. The silence made me feel sad I longed to hear the voices of the young people that I had cursed all summer long. I felt the need to be alone to help me cope with my feelings of deep melancholy. Once again I cried like a baby.

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