It sounded like dynamite – a reverberating explosion that literally shook the earth beneath your feet. The blast emanated from the island about a quarter of a mile from shore, stopping campers in their tracks, sending forest animals scurrying and birds winging from the trees. There were some insects who didn’t know what to do either.
It wasn’t the first explosion. There’d been others, at various times of the day. When we were eating in the Mess Hall. After bedtime. During “Rest Hour”, while we rested in our bunks, writing home. Can you imagine those letters?
“I have to stop now. An explosion just knocked me onto the floor.”
The parents couldn’t have read those letters too carefully. There was no stream of cars coming to pick up their children and take them to safety.
I was certain these frightening claps of dynamitic thunder had no connection with the impending camp-wide program. I was on the Campers’ Council that year, and I knew that a program was imminent. I’d been in on the plans for it. None of them included blowing up the camp.
The rumors spread. Some scientist had leased the island to engage in some experiments. Yes, they were noisy and nerve-janglingly random, but there was no danger. He was merely tinkering with explosives.
One day, the whole camp was at the beach for what they called it a “Beach Day.” A “Beach Day” was a day when it was so hot, all land-based activities were curtailed and we were sent to the beach to frolic in water, or just lie on a towel.
“Doing nothing in the sun” could easily define my idea of Heaven. (This was before we learned the sun could kill you.) Relaxing under glorious blue skies, a gentle breeze wafting in off the lake, reading comics, and not playing field hockey, or any other activity that could generate a bone-crunching bruise or a lifelong emotional scar. I liked “Beach Days” a lot.
The Water Skiing Instructor was putting on a show. Balanced on one ski, he sliced through the water, doing an eye-catching series of elaborate tricks. Everybody stopped to watch.
The Ski Instructor was coming to his “Big Finish”, where he slipped the rope over his head and skied “No Hands”, the towrope pressing against the back of his neck.
The beach rocked with the explosion. Simultaneously, the Ski Instructor, caught in a precarious position, flipped into the air, somersaulted, and landed awkwardly in the water.
He didn’t move.
An ominous silence fell over the beach. A second boat raced to the accident. The unconscious Ski Instructor was lifted carefully from the water, and wrapped in a blanket. The Health Center nurse was dispatched for a stretcher.
A somber gathering stood by as the Ski Instructor was carried up the hill to the Health Center, his body wrapped in the stained “Is that blood?” blanket. We could only imagine what wreckage lay underneath.
We were sent back to our cabins. I can remember the heated discussion that ensued. “If he dies, will the scientist get the Death Penalty?” I think Canada had that back then. But even if we didn’t, there was still that debate.
I wondered if the camp-wide program should be called off. Was anyone really in the mood for relays?
The following morning, we ate breakfast in an uncharacteristically quiet Mess Hall. The normal din was a funereal mumble, when suddenly
I saw our burly Swim Instructor, his face reddened with rage, explode from his seat and march purposefully out of the Mess Hall. Everyone followed him down to the beach. We had no idea what was going to happen, but we wanted to be there when it did.
As the Swim Instructor prepared to ride out to confront the scientist, we heard a distant motorboat, revving up from the island. It was the scientist himself. (He was wearing a lab coat.) And he was headed our way.
When he reached shore, the scientist was very angry. Which seemed backwards. He had blown up our Ski Instructor! There were staff members were ready to tear his head off. People had to hold them back.
It was not long before the scientist’s purpose was revealed.
He told us he despaired for the condition of the world – the selfishness, the hatred, the intolerance – and he’d rented this remote island to develop weapons that would destroy an earth he had decided no longer deserved to exist. We at camp had already experienced mini-prototypes of his handiwork.
We nodded that we had. We shuddered at the thought that those ear-splitting explosions were only “mini.”
He informed us, however, that there was still hope. He might still change his mind…
“If, during the next three days, the teams you will be divided into can work together…”
The entire camp groaned in unison.
“It’s a program.”
If you were ahead of me on this, it’s because I didn’t tell it well enough. In the way it played out – the escalating explosions shaking us to our shoelaces – you have to believe me, the campers, boys and girls, aged six to sixteen, were completely caught off-guard.
Looking around, I saw staff members, including the Swim Instructor, all in on it from the start, cackling triumphantly at the success of their subterfuge. And there was our Ski Instructor, unharmed, waving goofily from the hill.
And then there was me, a veteran, and a member of the Campers’ Council, who knew there was a program in the works and still didn’t make the connection, looking totally humbled and utterly embarrassed. I thought they were trying to improve my self-worth.
It was the most spectacular program “break” I had every experienced. I still harbor some residual resentment for having been fooled.
Tomorrow (I promise): Greased watermelons and sandy pajamas.