Late August 1969
Last week when I watched baseball’s All-Star Game, Fox Sports, as usual, juiced a game that required no juicing. Film clips of notable 1969 events such as Woodstock and the moon landing were liberally dropped in. There was no film of then Vice President Spiro Agnew throwing out the first ceremonial pitch at RFK Stadium for the ’69 midsummer classic.
These events naturally lured me back to my own summer of fifty years ago, when three noteworthy events took place over the course of three days. Each was with my friend Fred von Lewinski and each left something of a mark on me.
It was the last week in August.
We’d spent another full summer at Camp Champlain in Sandy Cove Nova Scotia, Fred’s twelfth and my fourth. We were out in the middle of the Bay of Fundy on Digby Neck.
When you examine a map of the route Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, you’ll see he passed just south of Digby Neck and Sandy Cove by a few miles. Lindbergh could have looked out the left window and seen Sandy Cove.
Everyone we spent the summer with at camp had gone home. But we stayed on and had a cabin to ourselves. We stayed to serve as ushers in the wedding of one of our counselors, Robin T. Lewis. Very few people knew who we were, or why we were there, and it was great fun to roam around with this air of mystery for a few days.
But we were not alone. Our camp’s owner leased the place to the Halifax YMCA which took over for a week at the tail end of summer and brought in its own group of campers.
It was this new group that rattled me, the sudden displacement of our culture and our customs that swept across the camp. These were outsiders who seemed not to belong. The YMCA kids seemed noisier, sloppier, and less bound by our rules. These boys clearly weren’t as fortunate as we were, less privileged and less worldly. Sadly, I looked down on them.
I don’t think it was the boys themselves that rattled me as much as a changing of the guard and a loosening of the rules of our camp. When the bell at the main lodge rang for meals and the boys ran out of their cabins and across the lawn by the swimming pool to reach the main lodge, this was no longer our camp. At our camp, crossing the lawn was forbidden.
You went around the pool then across a covered walkway by a small cabin that served as a storage shed and then took a short path to the steps at the back of the main lodge.
Crossing the lawn as a shortcut was unthinkable. Punishment was usually what we called a Bobby Thompson. That’s where a counselor took a few spirited swings at your ass with a broom.
Watching those new YMCA campers running across the lawn was unsettling, an erosion of standards by a lower class of people. I’m afraid I slipped into some ugly, self-righteous thinking.
But at the same time I was conflicted. I’d just spent the best part of the summer reading John Dos Passos’ USA, getting to know about the wobblies and immersed in America’s class struggles of the early 20th century.
The economic hardships, the sufferings, injustices and tensions caught my sympathies in the pages of three novels. But somehow, I had no sympathy and rather a mild disdain for the less privileged boys now at camp.
Those same copies of The Big Money and Nineteen Nineteen are still on my bookshelf. Who knows where The 42nd Parallel went.
That outlook of 1969 disturbs me. Nowadays I try not to be so critical. But for those few days we were at Camp Champlain watching the YMCA campers, I’m afraid I was highly judgmental and unsettled by the sight of strange faces in a familiar environment.
One afternoon we walked down the dirt road away from camp. Then we crossed a narrow paved road. Turning left would take us down to the wharf on the Bay of Fundy and turning right would take us around Dead Man’s Curve into the village of Sandy Cove.
But we kept straight, crossing a small, freshly cut pasture then heading out into an overgrown field bordered by lupins and sprinkled with Queen Anne’s Lace. The tall, damp late summer grass tickled our legs.
We passed a farm house and went left when we came to the correct spot in woods. We found the overgrown path that took us through a small stand of trees where the wind off the water sheared the tops of the evergreens and kept the growth low.
This put us out onto the coast. An endless stretch of rock separated the band of spruce from the sea like a piece of ragged ribbon. There were no breaks for patches of sand or pebbles, no streams or estuaries, just this one massive slab of rock.
We headed up the Bay of Fundy shore away from the wharf. The rock was pockmarked and slippery. This was where the world’s highest tides rose and fell and ground away against the coast. Depending where you were on the rock the surface could have been slippery and smooth, perhaps covered with slick seaweed, or more ragged with better traction.
After a few minutes, we came up on a big glacial gash. It was a deep slice in the rock, an intrusion where seawater poured in, sloshing with the swell. Where we were this gash seemed four or five feet across and eight feet down to the churning water. You could get around it by heading from the shoreline back toward the trees where the gash narrowed.
To me, this was something to be avoided. To Fred, it was an inconvenience to be dispensed with.
The problem is I can’t remember the details of Fred’s jump over the gash except that where he needed to land looked precarious. The surface was slick, slippery, and unforgiving of any landing too fast, off balance, or otherwise imperfect. The margin for error was small and the risk was large.
There were no prolonged deliberations from Fred, only his decision to make the jump and a fairly quick analysis of what it would take to be successful. I knew that he was far from reckless but neither did he always play it safe. There were adventures to be enjoyed, challenges to overcome, all randomly presented by life and embraced as part of a greater game.
I watched Fred jump and wasn’t at all surprised that his landing was perfect. He turned to me and his entire face was aglow. He didn’t say a word.
He turned to me with an expression that I have never seen since. It was as if all the joy in the universe was for one sparkling moment swept up and sent beaming down onto that piece of the coast expressly for Fred to absorb.
His expression was one of deep satisfaction. But not a hint of smugness and not a trace of superiority. There was not a glint of relief in that expression. He knew he was going to make it.
Somehow, I immediately understood that Fred’s jump was symbolic of something more. It seemed to represent a passage from one season of life into another. Even though I didn’t make the jump, I shared, perhaps undeservedly, in its aura.
I too felt the beginning of a new season of life, a vague shedding of annoying restraints, and a confirmation that worthy challenges were waiting to be overcome.
Fred never asked me to attempt that jump. He knew I couldn’t make it and he was enough of a gentleman to forego anything approaching goading, or even a low-key invitation to give it a try.
For half a century it has always struck me as odd that Fred’s jump has grown into such a fertile memory. Unfortunately, it’s of those annoying instances of not recalling the precise details of the jump itself.
His stance, the takeoff, the posture of his body and the positioning of his feet when he landed, all that is lost. Only the emotions are left.
Fortunately, I can effortlessly recreate Fred’s expression.
So, I look back on Fred’s jump as a confirmation for two sixteen year-olds of life’s possibilities, the different ways that doors can be passed through. That hurdles can be overcome, and difficult achievements can be full of fun instead of poisoned with pressure.
We went up the coast a bit more then turned back to camp. We were unusually quiet. Each of us understood what had just happened, the magic of it, and the abundance of adventures awaiting us.
The next day we were in church.
Fred and I were ushers for the wedding of Robin T. Lewis. Robin was from Montreal and I believe his bride was as well. Perhaps the wedding party all came down on the Canadian Pacific train that cut across northern Maine and disgorged its passengers in New Brunswick for a ferry ride on The Princess of Acadia across the Bay of Fundy to Digby.
Robin T. Lewis was married at the Anglican church in Digby, one of the world’s great scalloping ports, the county seat on the mainland eighteen miles back up Digby Neck from Sandy Cove.
We were on our best behavior which was pretty damned good. We smiled and we were gracious. I felt as if I were part of a royal wedding in Monte Carlo or Westminster and took this ushering job quite seriously.
So, when I took the arm of a serious-looking older woman and lead her and her husband down the aisle, it was with gravitas, grace, and aplomb. That’s when the trouble started.
The woman refused to let me steer her into the third pew back. She was adamant. The woman tugged me forward, and left me no choice but to tell her, “I’m sorry. The front pew is reserved for the parents of the groom.”
Her response was emphatic and unexpected. “We are the parents of the groom.”
It was one of those instant and inescapable bouts of embarrassment, not the slow roasting kind you anticipate or the kind you hope might be avoidable by making an adjustment late in the game.
Things were looking up after the service. The reception was at The Digby Pines. The Pines was a classic railroad hotel opened in 1905 overlooking the water. It was a lovely but somewhat dowdy place with a decided British air. With only minor alterations it could have served as a set for an Agatha Christie movie.
I went up to the mother of Robin T. Lewis and offered my apologies for my miscue before the altar. Mrs. Lewis was gracious. She laughed cautiously, not unlike the reserved laugh of her son, and told me not to think twice about it. At least she knew I was keeping her best interests in mind and safeguarding her turf.
Did Fred and I take full advantage of the bar at the reception? I can’t remember, but I do remember us hitchhiking back to Sandy Cove from Digby. It was early evening. The low sun tinted the fields and the trees with a peaceful late summer glow.
The next day we were gone. The Robin T. Lewis wedding, the YMCA boys at Camp Champlain, and Fred’s leap over that big gash on the coast were all left behind.
Or perhaps they weren’t.
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