26 May 2009

I spent the summer of 1971 working as a maintenance guy at Camp Takajo, a summer camp for wealthy east coast kids. My high school friend John’s father owned the place at that point, and helped me get the gig (I didn’t want to be a camp counselor, looking back at it now, because the kids reminded me of a me I didn’t much care for at the time).

My daily routine involved hauling the garbage to the town dump in a 56 Dodge dump truck (it dumptruckkinda looked like this: nothing like learning how to drive a stick and double clutch at the same time), brushing the tennis courts, cleaning out the storm drains, mopping the dining hall kitchen floor after all three meals – you know, maintenance. After hours, we got to canoe on the lake (there’s really nothing like the sound of a loon at twilight), or swim, or hang out, or head into town for beer.

1971 was the year Lt. Calley was convicted of the My Lai massacre. That 12,000 got arrested for showing up in Washington DC for the MayDay anti war actions. Mayday-DCThe year I got my conscientious objector status okayed by the draft board. There was a lot going on out there. But for eight weeks, I was just being a maintenance guy. It was a pretty good summer.

Junior Mowatt was the Downeaster who ran the maintenance shop for the camp. My friend John told me he’d been at the camp almost from the beginning, and that, while he was in his 50s now, back when he was our age, he’d been massively strong, mythically strong. More than one person told me the story of how he lifted a huge laminated wood beam for the new dining hall into place single handedly, no problem. A regular John Henry, he sounded like.

Junior would set up my work schedule each day – we’d meet in the maintenance shop and he’d parcel out assignments to me and the rest of the summer help. He’d taken a pretty accurate measure of my physical awkwardness, and he kept me away from work that involved, oh, tools of any kind, other than a shovel and a rake (I’m amazed he let me drive that damned dumptruck, come to think of it).

About half way through the summer, Junior came and found me one morning. He had a job he wanted me to do. There was an old stone firepit behind the dining hall that they used to burn trash in that he wanted taken down. So he handed me a 12 pound sledge and said, after lunch, go take it down.

This was a big deal. Felt like Junior’s telling me, okay kid, you’re ready to do real manly work now. Bust that thing. I was so proud it felt like I could bust.

So after lunch, I headed over with my sledge to take a look at the fire pit. It was about ten feet in diameter, with a mortared rock wall that was about 3 feet high, made up of the scourge of every Maine farmer – granite stone, mostly about 6 to 8 inches across.

I started banging away with the sledge – rock chips flying everywhere, t-shirt off, sweating like crazy. Kids doing dining hall cleanup leaned out the window watching me take this sucker apart. I probably wailed at the rocks for about a half hour, and maybe got a half dozen of them dislodged, when the sledge handle cracked in half. I stood there holding the metal head in one hand and the handle in the other. Jeez, what was Junior going to do with me?

Back at the maintenance shack, Junior, I said, I broke the sledge. Junior was a pretty mild mannered guy (I later found out that he only really let loose after a few vodka and tonics back at his house in the woods – he had a wicked dry sense of humor), and so all he did was give me a look from under his brow, stare at the broken sledge, and tell me to go on back to that firepit and wait for him.

A little while later Junior came over to the firepit with another, smaller sledge. He said, look, this is how you do it.

He walked over to the rock wall, grasped the sledge way up on the handle near the metal head, and with a delicacy I’ll never forget, lightly tapped a rock – tink, tink, tink – then loosened it up with his other hand, lifted it out, and set it down on the ground. Then he did it again. And again.

Once he figured he’d shown me enough that even I knew how to do the job, he handed me the sledge, and walked away. I got most of the wall down that day, and finished it up the next.

Pace yourself – that was the message I took away from that day.

Junior did me the favor of defining true power, true strength: spare, graceful, effective.

It’s a lesson that’s stayed with me ever since. I’m thinking about that a lot these days.

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