A Brand New Refrigerator

The top bar of the hour number on my digital watch has disappeared; when I wake up in the middle of the night I don’t know if it’s 1:23 or 7:23 and there’s a solar eclipse. Regardless, I got to work on time only to discover that it would rain all day. Rain days on the maintenance crew of Camp War Eagle are joyous affairs.

Since the winter has been unreasonably warm, we’ve been able to save most of the inside jobs for today. Yesterday we built a gravel bridge in short sleeved shirts and finished in time to play Maintenance Soccer. The hourly workers play Maintenance Soccer when all jobs have been finished but there are still five minutes left on the work day. While I have terrifically bad depth perception, Neal played goalie in college and Juan is from Mexico. Juan, our fifty year old and heavily weathered mechanic, actually played minor league baseball in Mexico. One game he pitched over three hundred balls; in a major league game, six pitchers share two hundred. His shoulder has stopped working.

This morning when my boss Rob gave me an assignment list, it had another name on it. I turned to Juan and said, “It looks like we’re working together today, Juan. Up top!”

“No,” he said slowly, pulling the word apart. “I work…alone.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. It’s whatever. I’ll just speak Spanish to myself.”

The first listed item was to clean our new refrigerator. After a ten minute wipe-down I moved on to inventory. While counting trash bags, Rob approached me and said I needed to revisit the fridge. “Not Cass clean,” he said, “but Holly clean,” in honor of my wife.

Then I spent the next two hours scrubbing the first two layers of paint off.

As I cleaned, Juan moved wordlessly onto inventory. He only interrupted me once, holding half of a pair of garden shears. “What is this,” he asked.

The tool room only has one machete, so when Neal and I go vine hacking only one of us gets it. I deconstructed the garden shears so I too could have a machete, because Neal and I like to pretend that I’m a British explorer and he is my mute Hindu guide who must always have his earphones in.

“I have no idea,” I responded to Juan, “but we shouldn’t try to fix it.”

When I finished the fridge I started restocking it and discovered that, once all of the old tupperware was composted (500 years to garden fresh tomatoes!), it was very empty. With one look at lonely Juan compiling a list of spray nosels, I decided to put off my work as long as possible and stock the fridge for my coworkers. As my grandfather used to say, give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Give him a million fishes, feed him for life.

Because camp is hibernating, most of the food meant for anyone is frozen solid and will be long expired by May. It is free game, if you can find it. After visiting the camp store, craft center, and the old head of maintenance’s house, I came back with a box full of soda, a wide selection of ice cream snacks, mixed berries, and two frozen pizzas, which I brought home to Holly.

After lunch as I stomped around the attic looking for hand sanitizier, Rob yelled from downstairs. “Fridge looks nice,” he said. “Good job with the food. You’re a regular scrounger.”

Thus I have become my idol, Henley, the scrounger from The Great Escape – that guy in prison who can get anything for a pack of cigarettes, no questions asked.

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The Sword in the Stump

Tuesdays are bowling days for Rob Khale. He gets off early. Daniel the Wielder got sick fighting a fire yesterday, and so on until I was the only one left at the end of the day. My boss Rob Whorton called and asked me to lock up.

“I’ll pop, lock, and drop it up,” I answered. He ended the conversation by telling me I was reaching.

I found out that Juan was also there. There were no more engines to repair, so he came to help me cut up fallen trees along the fence line. Sometimes I accidentally speak to him in Turkish.

“Juan. Watch out – SEJAK!”

“What?”

“Oh – um…it’s hot. The engine’s hot.”

“Right.”

When camp first opened and I first joined as a counselor, there was a special landmark near the wooden ampitheater where each camper’s morning begins. It was called the Sword in the Stump, and every child knew it’s name. Counselors told a legend that there was indeed a special sword at the bottom of this hollow stump next to the canoe pond. Brave boys would cautiously approach and dip their hands in before running back to their friends saying, “Can’t do it, I JUST CAN’T!”

There was a repeat camper named Dances. I can’t remember his real name because he would only answer to Dances or Dances With Wolves. He liked Transformers and baggy shirts with nature scenes. As a pudgy nine year old with curly black hair, Dances was convinced of by the legend of the Sword in the Stump. He boldly approached it and stuck his entire arm down to the roots. When he pulled it out of the stump, his arm was orange up to the shoulder. He then threw up all over his nature themed shirt.

There is now a rule against the Sword in the Stump.

I bring this up because today I was given a special job. Though there is no longer a stump, there is now a small concrete bubble at the water’s edge. It houses PVC pipes and a pump. After 250 gallons of canoe pond water were pumped out, I was given a pair of wading boots and a dust pan and told to lower myself down. I spent the next thirty minutes in a tiny ball, leaning forward on my toes and scrapping dead leaves out of the muck with a broken plastic scoop. This was a place where peasant rats are unjustly locked up by their lords. This was the place where raccoons hide dead bodies and pray they decompose before raccoon CSI puts it together. This was the new Sword in the Stump.

While I was in this hole, Terry Faulkenberry, the fifty-year-old jack of all trades, crouched over the opening and dumped out the refuse buckets I handed him. I told him the story of Dances and the Sword in the Stump. He laughed and said he hadn’t heard that one before.

“But you think this is bad,” he said, “wait a couple of months until you have to muck out waste water.”

Thanks, Terry.

Ancestors, Give Me Strength!

As the weather turns bitter and old, the maintenance crew at Camp War Eagle is on a constant quest for things to do inside. The concrete floor of the garage is spotless. The lumber barn has been freshly reorganized. On Tuesday we scheduled CPR training for the morning; I arrived last and stood next to my boss, Rob, an big but humorous man. I told him I liked his pullover. “It really brings out your eyes,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied. “That makes me uncomfortable.”

Two minutes later we were paired up to practice rescue breaths. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the ‘half-effort’ instruction and put my ear way too close to unconscious Rob’s nose. I also had to cradle his forehead in order to check the airway. We grew closer that day.

(At lunch, Neil came in to the breakroom and said, “Daniel, Cass and I all got 100%!” Rob asked me how I did that and I said, “I asked the instructor for the answer to two questions. She just told me.”)

Thursday I awoke to a cold ground covered by sheets of crunchy paper. The car radio told me to watch out for black ice and the White Witch. I clocked into work late and said, “Sorry about the time; I couldn’t decide which jacket I wanted to freeze to death in, so I brought both.” I changed jackets at the 9:30 break to see if the green one would protect my midriff, the only section of my body I didn’t quadruple layer. Massive overlook.

When the sun finally rose after ten, Rob gathered Neil and I together. “I have two jobs,” he said. “Neil, I need you to reorganize old files in the centrally heated office. Cass, I need you to dig up some sewage pipes in the horse pasture woods.”

This is about CPR, isn’t it, Rob?

We subcontract plumbing out to a nice man named Chris. The sprinkler heads for sewage disposal were taken off for the winter and replaced with old coffee cans to keep moisture out. While I was digging my first line Chris said there was too much pressure in the system and turned the valve without telling me what to expect. That coffee can jumped fifteen feet in the air on a geyser of green water. As I stumbled backwards I said, “Gross,” but I thought Awesome.

Eventually I worked by myself. I like digging alone in the woods because no one can see me roleplaying as a grizzled warrior. Sometimes when I got really worked up at chunky ground I’d raise my rockbar above my head and shout something medieval sounding like, “Enkindlers arise!” or “Old gods protect us!” I probably shouldn’t be telling anyone this.

I don’t know why the mafia makes people dig their own graves. It takes so long. Tommy Two-Fingers has to be standing in the cold marshes for hours before someone could get six feet deep and eight feet long. It took me two to go two feet down across foot feet of pipe. If I was about to get whacked I’d say, “Kill me now and then you dig; I’m not going to meet Jesus all sweaty.”

Near the end when I was clearing the pipe of hard packed gravel and clay, the valve kept getting in my way, so I turned it, knowing there was another valve twenty feet away to stop that green volcano of waste. After a few minutes I exchanged my shovel for a rock bar and started stabbing the ground indiscriminately, breaking up the rock, until I shouted, “Ancestors give me strength!” and accidentally broke the PVC pipe clean off of the valve. I froze in fear.

The naked valve and broken pipe started a high pitched, fast flowing hiss. I was the red shirt in action movies who discovers he just stepped on a trip wire. I felt the camera quickly zooming into my face, preparing for a smash cut of my stunt double being blown away my a landmine. However, after a few seconds of hissing I had the presence of mind to slam the valve shut and then take a short break to think about what could’ve happened. Old gods, thank you for your protection.

I Invented a Sport Once

I invented a sport in high school. It’s not something I’m known for because no one knows about it, but my sophomore year, with the help of a few friends, we spent the spring laboring over all eventualities that called for rulings in something we named Phishball for absolutely no apparent reason. We had a website and several typed pages of canon.

The easiest way to describe Phishball is as a crossbreed between tennis and volleyball. Played on a tennis court with a kickball, the rubber ball is served from the service line into the opposite service box; there are two service fauls. After it bounces once, the team (which can be any number between three and six, but four usually works best) has three hits to get it back over the net. Since the ball has to bounce once every time it crosses over the net, this creates an interesting game of dodgeball inside this other sport. If someone on Team A spikes it into the chest of someone on Team B, it’s A’s point.

As the sport developed, the linguistics grew alongside. Phishball became a very vocal affair, with an essay long list of commands and responses, including “HULK!” to begin a serve and “NANCY!” when the serve hits the net and doesn’t go over. This is an automatic double fault, and the word must be yelled by both teams with derision.

“SNIPER!” is the shout when someone is hit with the ball before it bounces, the most coveted play in the game.

After the wedding, several of my groomsmen who helped invent the sport stayed in the area to celebrate Christmas. We don’t see each other much anymore. David goes to medical school in Little Rock. Ed works for a non-profit in Seattle. Ryan is half way through graduate school. Before everyone finished Christmas, we made sure to get together for a final game.

A few new friends joined, including my new wife Holly, and for what wasn’t the first time but felt like it, I realized that Phishball is hard to explain. It takes everyone a few games to learn to let the ball bounce once, but the third time Holly asked, “Why do I have to yell ‘DENNIS!’ on someone’s first fault?” I was reminded how difficult it is to explain why high school was funny.

As we played Phishball at Wilson Park last Saturday, tennis games on neighboring courts did their best to ignore the shouts of “NANCY!” and the stray balls we ran down while we whispered, “Sorry, never again, I promise,” to the closest tennis racket. In high school we had been asked to leave a few times but even on a unseasonably warm day in December the courts were not very crowded. It was nice to get three games in, though this sport works only one muscle in my right forearm, and works it well.

(Before we played, a big man in a dirty warrior’s beard gave me a free burrito from a Wal-Mart sack full of burritos. “The old lady is a manager at Chipotle,” he said as if apologizing. I said, “Oh yes, her,” because I know exactly which old lady this stranger was talking about, and took a bite. It was double chicken.)

The first two games, Holly and I were on the same team, but we lost both so the teams were split up. In the last game I was swinging hard at the ball without aiming because usually that was enough to score, when I heard a small cry. The ball slowly rolled away from Holly as she looked at me with fierce anger. “Square on the shoulder!” Ryan yelled as he tried to give me a high five.

We added a new command to the Phishball lexicon. “ACCIDENT!” It means sleeping on the couch.