By Bruce A. Smith
The following story was told at several recent storytelling venues, such as StoryOly in Olympia. WA, and at the Moth open mic in Seattle’s Fremont Abbey. It is part of a collection of true, personal stories titled, Stories from the Journey, due for publication in early 2019.
I remember Eisenhower! I even remember his nickname, “Ike.”
I’m old. I have age. I was born in 1949.
But I love age despite the vagaries of health, because it has given me a perspective on life, especially history. I remember a lot of wars, not only Vietnam, but also the “flying boxcars” during the Korean War that used to fly over my house on Long Island from their base at Mitchell Field.
Cultural changes, too. I remember seeing bathrooms in North Carolina that still had signs for “Colored” and “White” when I pulled off the highway on a trip to Florida on spring break in 1969.
I remember simple things, too, like the introduction of ballpoint pens when I was in 5th grade. Before then, everyone used fountain pens. We even had little inkwells cut into our wooden desktops to receive a small bottle of “Scripts” ink.
Of course, I remember the trivial. My first tank of gas cost me 29 cents a gallon. I also remember getting paid $2.50/hour as a hospital aide while in college, and I thought it was a good deal.
All these remembrances give me a welcomed steadiness. I savor it all. Age puts the sweetness of emotional maturity on my tongue, and any anxieties generated by today’s headlines are softened by realizing that I’ve survived Nixon, JFK’s assassination, and the dozens of American cities that burned after Martin Luther King, Jr was killed.
But the biggest gift of age is seeing the evolution in my relationships. It’s a splendid trajectory of change, acceptance, and love. My first wife didn’t talk to me for years after I left her in 1990 to move to Washington State and join Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. But now we’re good friends and we treasure our 40-plus year relationship.
Equally important, and perhaps more illustrative of age’s benefits, has been my friendship with my crew of buddies from Boy Scout summer camp. Back in the late 60s and early 70s we were five, and worked as provisional scoutmasters for our Camp Paumanok, which specialized in absorbing scouts from home troops that didn’t have sufficient adult leadership for two weeks of camping. So Paumanok accommodated these scouts by placing them in ad hoc provisional troops, and my crew and I were their leaders.
I loved that work, and we excelled at it. We were super scouts—passionate about hiking and back-packing, swimming, sailing and canoeing, and we knew plenty about nature and Indian lore. We embraced the sacredness of the woods, too, and reveled in its beauty. Our campsites were litter-free, and I can still smell the crackly, dry needles emanating from the floor of our pitch-pine forest.
Perhaps the most important time in these provisional troops occurred after dinner when we hosted “bullshit sessions,” where the young scouts could ask us any question. They queried us about drugs, and they learned drinking wisdoms such as: “Beer after whiskey—very risky. Whiskey after beer, never fear.”
Of course, we discussed girls, dating, and condoms. We problem-solved dealing with angry fathers and bossy mothers. We talked about Vietnam and why we participated in the March on Washington. We defended long hair and hippies, rock and roll, and cherished Crosby, Stills and Nash. We touched on all of the aspects of life that a suburban New York kid would encounter. Our scouts loved us, and we loved mentoring them.
Beginning in 1967 and running through 1972, we five forged our friendship. The bonds of good work gave us a base, and after camp we continued by surfing at Gilgo Beach, followed by nights of clubbing and dancing. Over time we explored the further reaches of the world – camping in Shenandoah National Park, rockin’ at concerts like The Incredible String Band, and grabbing our own guitars and making music. I took LSD a couple of times with Jeff, smoked pot with the others, and we all confronted the norms of our families who wanted us to be successful pillars of the corporate world. We five were coming alive and felt on fire. Free. Excited. Connected. These were some of the sweetest times of my life.
Over time, we began to sample personal desires. I dropped out of college and went ski-bumming in Colorado. Jim went to New Mexico and studied photography. Jeff dabbled with a spiritual commune in Massachusetts, while Mick moved to Portland, Oregon to come out about his gayness. Frank began a life-long study of chess and found a woman named Kris. But we always had summer camp to bring us back together – at least for a summer or two.
Nevertheless, the pull of our individualized quests eventually took us far afield from each other. By 1972, we didn’t have the time or capacity to be summer camp scoutmasters. We had college and careers. Then marriage and kids. Homes, bills to pay. Our focus became very singular.
We didn’t drift apart, exactly, for we saw each other intermittently for a few years and still felt a strong, magical connection. But our destinies lay in separate directions. By 1980 our friendships had entered a kind of vacuum that was real but inert. For me, I had no contact with anyone for 38 years, except one visit to Jeff’s abode in New York City.
But in the early months of 2018 I became haunted by memories of some of the irresponsible stuff we did as a crew. We were good scoutmasters but we weren’t saints. The height of our irresponsibility occurred on a combined five-mile overnight hike with all of our scouts. To qualify as a First-Class Scout each boy had to hike five miles with a full pack – carrying food, a tent, and a sleeping bag. So we organized a combined qualifying hike, and our troops headed to campsites along Long Island Sound. One spot was a Catholic orphanage, another was a state park, and my troop camped on lands managed by a local youth group.
As darkness fell and my campfire burned low, I was surprised to see Jim and Jeff enter the shadows.
“What are you guys doing here?” I asked.
“When my kids started going to bed, I decided to go for a walk down the beach,” Jeff said. “I ran into Jim and his group a mile away, and we decided to come down to you. We’re walking the beach. Want to join us?”
“Sure,” I replied. I told my assistant I was leaving for a little while, and since most of my kids were asleep or on their way, my guy agreed.
Walking down the beach with Jeff and Jim was a delight—I thrilled in joining them on adventures. I had no realization that I was putting my scouts at risk.
Frank soon joined us, too. We walked down the beach to the town park and entered a nearby pub, only to meet our boss. He fired us on the spot for our obvious dereliction of duty, but the next day we were able to talk our way back into our jobs. However, the fact that I could be so careless and irresponsible has lingered in my psyche for decades.
This past January my shame tanks burst open. I couldn’t shake the nightmares. Yes, I acknowledge that I messed up when I was a scoutmaster… I tried to console myself. Yes, I made a mistake, but I learn from all things…. Nevertheless, the rationalizations failed to calm my soul.
That night, unable to sleep, I made some tea and sought emotional relief. As morning approached, I still ached terribly with guilt.
I decided to meditate and revisit the event, and see why it was staying with me so powerfully. I focused on the beach, Jeff, Jim and Frank, and the abandonment.
Mentally, I was transported back to summer camp, and instantly learned how much Paumanok meant to me. I realized it was a uniquely safe place for me to be myself. A golden glow encompassed me. I saw that Paumanok allowed me to feel so psychologically secure that I could truly express myself. I understood that my camp was the place for me to think, feel, and act in my own ways and not according to the expectations of others. Paumanok was my place to make Really Big Mistakes, if that was what it took to become self-actualized.
At dawn brightened, I wrote the story and decided to send it to my guys. I scoured old address books, but I only came upon one working telephone number: Jim’s, from 1980. Although he had moved a number of times during the ensuing years, he still taught at the same college in Northampton, Massachusetts, and had kept the same landline phone number. I dialed.
“Hello?” answered an unfamiliar woman’s voice. I introduced myself, and learned I was speaking to Jennifer, Jim’s wife of 30-some years, but someone whom I had never met. She put Jim on the phone.
“Hello,” said a weak, hoarse voice. “Bruce… is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Jim.”
“Wow…. Long time…. Everything… okay?”
“Yeah. I just wrote a story about us. About camp. I’d like to send it to you. What’s your address?”
“Bruce, I’m dealing with cancer… I’m very tired…. We’ll have to pick… this up tomorrow… or the next… when I have more strength.”
When I called the next day Jim was stronger, and over the next few days we figured how to reach the rest of the guys. Jeff’s website for his counseling practice was valid, but he was doing so much in so many places that accessing him took time. Eventually, though, we were successful.
Frank was tough. Jim knew he was a successful attorney in New Jersey, whose office I was able to locate. However, the photos that accompanied Frank’s contact information didn’t look familiar. Nevertheless, it proved to be legit.
Frank in turn had kept in touch a bit with Mick, who ironically was living only a couple of hours away from me in Portland. He had been in the Pacific Northwest on-and-off for over thirty years and we had never met – although he had lived in India for nine years during that spell. But I hadn’t seen him since we worked together on the McGovern campaign in 1972. Frank gave me Mick’s contact info, and eventually we connected – first by phone and email, and then we dined at a Bangladeshi restaurant near the famous Powell’s bookstore.
All of us agreed that we wanted to get together, and I suggested June since my mother was sending me a plane ticket to visit for her birthday. Mick agreed to fly in once a date was set.
On June 15, 2018, we rendezvoused. First, Frank, Mick, and I met at Jeff’s place in New York City. Then we four drove to Jim’s home in Massachusetts. He looked okay when we arrived, and announced that his cancer was “stable.” But he warned us that his strength might not last more than an hour.
But he was still going strong four hours later, and our reunion became more like a communion as we forged new bonds of heartfelt connection. Hours of catching-up, identifying kids and wives, homes and jobs, and trying to remember who did what and when merged with discussions of addiction, divorce, and medical emergencies. Some of us had wine. Others celebrated their sobriety. For the record, I still don’t remember seeing the Grateful Dead with Jeff and Jim at the Fillmore East in 1970, although they both swear I was with them. No, I was not stoned or tripping, either.
Our hearts brimmed full and we savored the gorgeous feast, especially the different kinds of vegetarian lasagna. Plus, we delighted in meeting Jim’s wife Jennifer, their son Joshua, and learning about their daughter, Rebecca.
The good times were so lively and therapeutic that Jim and Jennifer invited us back the next day for brunch – and that lasted another four hours. When we left, Jim looked fine. In fact, I was the one pushing us to leave since we had a long drive in traffic back to NYC, and construction delays on the LIRR at Penn Station awaited me.
For the entirety of the return to New York, we four of Jeff, Mick, Frank and I continued the “catching up,” and the exploration of what it all meant to us.
Mick proclaimed the reunion was one of the “finest days of my life,” and described how he felt a new chapter was opening, with stronger connections and more openness. He even confessed that he preferred to be called, “Michael,” instead of “Mick,” which he had told us was his “coming-out-name” and we had been using all weekend in place of his old camp nickname, “Mike.” So, we practiced his new-new moniker of Michael for the last ten minutes of our trip.
Frank also requested a name change. At camp I had always called him “Frank,” and when most of the crew talked about him we always referred to him as “Frank.” In fact, when Jim called him “Francis,” I thought it was some kind of inside joke poking fun at Francis’ penchant to be very serious.
“But everyone else in the world calls me Francis,” he declared.
“Francis, it is, then,” I proclaimed as we joined the name-change parade.
Jeff was able to resolve another haunt of mine – my gawd-awful acid trip with him at NYU when I went mute for hours, feeling like I was falling endlessly into an abyss. “Could have been from not having experienced unconditional love in life,” he suggested, based upon his 30-year clinical practice and his masters in psychology from Columbia. He touched a nerve, and with a few brief words Jeff was able to soothe another old memory, and help identify an on-going dynamic within my family.
When I told Jim about these name changes, he too, pipped up: “I’ve been called ‘James’ all my adult life, so please make another adjustment!” So, a full trifecta of name-changing occurred that weekend.
We had come together easily and completely. Yes, there were moments of awkwardness and no one seemed to know what to say, but those were few and faded as the weekend progressed.
For me, perhaps the most telling example of this brotherhood is how everyone contributed, each in their own way. I got the ball rolling by writing the story and getting in touch with everyone. Francis drove us in his huge Nissan Land Yacht. Jeff paid for the gas and lunch. Michael and Francis bought individual rooms in a luxury motel for each of us so we could all unwind and relax in our own way. Joshua, Jennifer and James prepared two huge, wonderful meals. Joshua did the dishes, as well.
But a lingering thought may be the sweetest—all of this took fifty years to unfold. We met when we were teens, and now we’re in our 60s. We romped into life together as youth—laughing and exploring, working and experimenting. Sometimes we created beauty and helped people, like our scouts. Sometimes we screwed up royally, as when we left those kids compromised.
Then, we all went off to live our lives as men.
But we’ve all come back together, now integrating the experiences of youthful exuberance with the wizened joys of adulthood. It takes time – a lot of time – to complete that kind of arc.
Age. Sometimes there just isn’t any substitute.