Monday, July 19, 2010

"Summer Times - One Friday Night"

I love a classic story.

And absurdity tickles me to death.

A classic story laced with absurdity?
I’m in heaven.

So here we go.

The Senior Boys (aged 13 to 15) built an Outdoor Theater. What that looked like is that they’d chopped down trees to fashion into benches, and had wedged about eight rows of them into the side of a beach-abutting, lake-facing hill.

The Outdoor Theater would thus consist of an audience of campers, sitting on hand-hewn benches, watching a performance played out on a “stage”, comprised of the beach area between where the lake’s waves lapped gently against the shore and the bottom of the Outdoor Theater hill.

To inaugurate the opening of the Outdoor Theater, a very special event had been arranged.

It wasn’t a primarily religious camp, but on Friday nights before dinner, we lit Sabbath candles, chanted blessings, and drank grape juice instead of wine. On Friday nights, everyone wore their “whites” – white short-sleeved shirts or t-shirts, white pants (shorts or long), white socks, and white sneakers, or White Buck shoes.

There was rarely a Friday night that our “whites” didn’t end up spattered with chicken grease and grape juice stains. But it looked good at the beginning. It’s what you’d wear on Visitors’ Day if your parents were God.

Our camp’s primary focus was on social awareness.

I’m proud to be me,

But I also see

You’re just as proud to be you.

Like that. One of my counselors once played us audiotapes he recorded in the South during the fifties, where we could hear the anger and hatred, greeting efforts to integrate a formerly “Whites Only” high school. That counselor later served as the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.

The evening’s “special event” would be showcasing my counselor’s equally famous father.

A well-known labor lawyer and politician, my counselor’s Dad had volunteered to represent some black customers who’d been denied service at a lunch counter in a small Ontario town near the American border. (I include the proximity to the U.S. as a partial rationalization for Canadians behaving badly.)

For that night’s “Friday Night Service”, our first at the newly constructed Outdoor Theater, the man would deliver verbatim the inspiring speech he’d made, representing the lunch counter patrons who’d encountered the prejudice.

It’s evening. Senior Unit campers (boys and girls) and their counselors fill the Outdoor Theater, sitting on backless logs turned into seats, still wearing our Friday Night “whites.” After a brief introduction, a man emerges from the darkening periphery. He’s wearing a gray suit, a tie, a dress shirt with cuff links and a pair of polished black shoes. He looks conspicuously out of place. And old. Though when you’re fourteen, anyone over forty seems ancient.

There he was, a dignified statesman, standing in front of a lake, speaking eloquently on behalf of some turned-away – as they called them then – Negroes. The air is still. The sun descends slowly behind him. It’s a magnificent setting for the recreation of a classic moment in Canadian jurisprudence.


The Outdoor Theater had inexplicably been constructed on a marshland, giving the footing on the “stage” the slippery consistency of butterscotch pudding before refrigeration.
Pacing as he speaks, the man’s measured rhythm is interrupted by his efforts to extricate himself from the shoe-sucking slime he keeps stepping in. Each struggling footstep comes with a mood destroying “clitch-clitch” accompaniment. His polished, black shoes are inevitably changing color.

Meanwhile, up in the bleachers…

Marshlands attract mosquitoes. “Attract” could be the wrong word; they may live there, making us the interlopers, since I doubt if the camp asked the mosquitoes’ permission to build an Outdoor Theater on their breeding grounds. They seemed to be out for revenge.

There were fifty campers in the seats, most of them dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, who had recently consumed numerous gallons of grape juice. That blood had to be tasty.

The result was a continual barrage of incoming mosquitoes, swooping down with their high-pitched, squealing, “Mmmmmmmmm”, followed, usually belatedly, by a slap, immediately followed by a pissed-off “Dammit!”

There were fifty campers in attendance, many in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, who had recently consumed numerous gallons of grape juice. That blood had to be tasty. Or so it seemed from the mosquitoes’ continued dive-bombing of the captive crowd.

But that’s just the beginning.

Marshlands also house frogs. And frogs, particularly, it seems, at sundown – perhaps there’s a mating issue involved – make a tremendous amount of noise.

“Boowiggie!” Boowiggie! Boowiggie!”

Signaling, maybe, “Y’interested? Meet me on the lily pad.”

Accompanying the buzzing of the mosquitoes and the insistent croaking of the frogs were an invisible host of crickets, chiming in with their wall-to-wall, leg rubbing, “Ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts.”

The speaker pressed on gamely through Nature’s intruding orchestra, orating up a storm, while at the same time struggling with the ubiquitous mosquitoes, the sucking marshland terrain, and keeping a wary eye on the incoming tide, which was rapidly reducing his performing area.

I don’t remember his words. I just recall biting my lip real hard to stop myself from laughing. But if instead of this noted Canadian civil rights attorney, it had been Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, the result would have sounded something like this:

“Four score…”


“and seven years ago…”

Mmmmmmmm. Slap. “Dammit!”


“Our fathers…”


“Brought forth…”


“on this continent…”

“You’re standing in the lake!”

Clitch-clitch. Jump. Splat!

“a new nation…”

Mmmmmmmm. Slap. “Dammit!” “Boowiggie! Boowiggie!” “Ts-ts-ts-ts…” “Look out! The water!” Clitch-clitch. Jump. Splat!

I have no idea how he made it to the end.

No comments: