Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Summer Times - 'Liver'"

I wasn’t looking for trouble. I was sent to camp without knowing I was going? – I was dealing with that. I hadn’t the slightest aptitude for any of the camp’s activities, on land and in the water? – I was getting by, falling and coughing up lake water, but needing no medical attention. My cabin mates took every opportunity to body check me into the bushes on nice days and into puddles when it rained? – fine. I was doing okay, trying to get by till the buses came back.

And then they served liver.

I don’t know why my eating habits bothered people. I ate what I ate. The pounds were flying off, but I wasn’t fainting or dying or anything. Why couldn’t they leave me alone?

Nobody liked the food at camp. The weird thing was, I was the only one who didn’t eat it.

Sometimes, I’d get it wrong. Like one night, at dinner, they served fish. I didn’t eat fish. Something about the smell and the bones. Camp fish smelled particularly fishy. It was like they sent all the regular-smelling fish to restaurants and saved the fishiest smelling fish for our camp. And threw in extra bones.

(This “brackets” is to say I can’t justify picky eating, and when I try, it sounds stupid. It’s just how it is. By the way, I eat fish now.)

I hadn’t eaten much that day, except for bread and cold cereal (dry – the milk smelled sour. I’m starting to sound like Monk). I was pretty hungry.

But not for fish.

After dinner, I ran into my brother outside the Mess Hall. He asked me how I was doing. I told him I was hungry.

“You didn’t like the veal cutlets?” he asked.

This was an old story. My brother was always trying to fool me.

“It was fish,” I replied.

“It was veal cutlets,” he insisted.

“It was fish.”

Then, my brother said something that broke the deadlock.

“Did you see any milk on the table?”

(Jewish kosher laws allow you to eat milk with fish, but not with veal cutlets. There’d been no milk on the table.)

“You just missed veal cutlets.”

I was really angry with myself. I love veal cutlets. I had missed them, ‘cause I thought they were fish.

But that was a rarity. Normally, when it looked like something I didn’t eat, it was.

To wit:

Liver.

Liver looks like liver. Not liver, the dish, liver, the internal organ. Liver is shiny. I won’t go into the smell, but liver smells…functional.

I know I’m not alone when I say I like my food to remind me as little of the entity it was made out of as possible. Imagine rabbit arriving at your table, in a presentation that includes a cute little bunny face and ears. Imagine veal with a birth certificate.

“I was six months old. And now, you’re eating me.”

Liver looks exactly like liver. There was no way I was eating it.

Maybe it was a matter of forcing me to conform, you know, like breaking a wild stallion. (Ooh, I like thinking of myself as a wild stallion. I got a little thrill there.) Or maybe my counselor saw it as a challenge to his authority. Or it questioned his ability to lead. (Years later, when I was a counselor, Joe, the camp director, knowing my background in this department, would deliberately hover by my table when liver was served, cackling heartily at my discomfort. I didn’t eat it then, either.)

My counselor had always encouraged me to eat – to little avail, but he tried. The liver situation seemed different. He seemed to treat my refusal as a personal insult.

This one mattered. It was a line in the sand.

My cabin mates threw off some not too clever anatomical references about the liver, then wolfed down everything on their plates. Some of them had tricks, like covering the liver in mashed potatoes, so managing to get it down. (And keep it down.)

My plate remained empty.

The dinner was over. The utensils were being passed to the front of the table for collection. It was called “stacking.” You took the plates you received, scraped your leavings on the top plate, slid your plate underneath, and passed the stack along. I was about to add my un-food-visited plate to the pile.

“No,” said the counselor solemnly.

He then jabbed his fork into the last remaining slice of liver, lifted it up, and, with a waggle of his wrist, released it onto my plate.

“Eat!”

The table went quiet. This was a confrontation – one that I, in no way, had been looking for. Sadly, sometimes, trouble finds you.

It was him (he) and me (I). The Counselor and the Kid. “Eat!” versus, “Over my dead body.”

Why must there always be violence? Why can’t we all live together in peace? (Sorry. It’s my cowboy background. I can’t help it.)

After “Evening Announcements”, the Mess Hall was cleared. Everyone left. Except for us.

Wide Shot:

An empty Mess Hall, but for two figures, in tense tableau – a determined counselor at the head of the table, me on a bench along the side, a plate of liver sitting in front of me.

“One bite. That’s all I ask.”

“No.”

It was a standoff.

Tick. Tock. Slow and painful, with no end in sight. The liver was cold, and looking shinier, and – sorry – smellier. If there was ever a chance I’d have eaten it before (and there wasn’t, I’m just saying), with the passage of time, that chance had long since disappeared.

That food was garbage. It just didn’t know it. Neither, apparently, did my counselor.

Like an expert cardsharp, my counselor’s face betrayed no emotion. I was nervous – a kid against an authority figure – always a mismatch. But what choice did I have? I’d been challenged. I had to respond.

Or eat the liver.

It was starting to get dark. The waiters announced they were going off duty. With the Mess Hall about to close, my counselor abruptly upped the ante.

“If you don’t eat your liver, you’re sleeping in the rafters tonight.”

What could I say? I had no choice.

“Fine with me.”

The word had been spread – probably by me: I was sleeping in the rafters. When we returned from the washhouse, it was all set up – a large steamer trunk, resting on two overhead rafters, a blanket and a pillow – my sleeping arrangements for the evening.

A napkin-draped plate of liver sat on the night table by the counselor’s bed. There was still a chance of a reprieve. But I didn’t want one. I was the center of attention, and, for once, not in a bad way.

“Are you going to eat the liver?”

“No.”

“Then up you go.”

As my cabin mates watched in silence, I crawled from my upper bunk to a nearby rafter, and then to the trunk, maneuvering with a previously unrecognized agility (I have always come through in “Performance Mode.” I passed my Driver’s Test on national TV.)

Straining their necks, my cabin mates followed my every move. I don’t know if they were hoping I would fall, or what. I don’t think so. I was a kind of a hero that night.

I climbed onto the trunk and slid under the blanket.

“Good night,” I called cheerfully, dropping my head onto the pillow.

Lights out. It was time for bed.

The counselor couldn’t leave. He was responsible for a camper, sleeping in the rafters, ten feet above the ground. There had to be some scarifying thoughts crossing his turbled mind. What if I fell? Dismissal was a certainty, possibly a lawsuit, perhaps even prison. Still, there was the nagging issue of power.

“Remember this, You Guys. This is what happens when you don’t do what you’re told.”

The attempt was feeble. And so recognized.

Twenty minutes into my punishment, the counselor caved. It wasn’t a surrender on the issue. He was afraid of what might happen.

“Okay. You’ve learned your lesson. You can come down.”

My response, of course.

“I’m fine where I am.”

In a surprisingly short period, the counselor went from instructing me to come down, to asking me nicely to come down, to apologizing and begging me to come down. Finally, feeling sorry for the guy, and having nothing more to prove, the light was turned on, I crawled back along the rafters and returned to my bunk.

The liver was thrown out.

3 comments:

RMS said...

On behalf of all liver-haters everywhere, thank you!

growingupartists said...

Empowering children everywhere, well done!

R.A. Porter said...

Kudos Earl, on fighting the Man!

As a liver lover I'm saddened, but as a freedom fan I'm thrilled.

I imagine that counselor went on to being an ineffectual middle manager at a middling job, married to a harridan, and the father of children who didn't even need to rebel because pops was such a pushover. Better that than growing up to be a tinpot dictator.