by Morton Schlein
One of the most important pieces of equipment at a camp for blind kids is the public address system. Notices on the bulletin board were not practical, so all of the general announcements were made over the PA system. The wife of the camp director, Mrs. Downs, appointed herself to make these announcements. Her delivery was rather unique. We would be called for supper in this manner: "First call for supper! First call for supper! First call for supper!" The emphasis would be put on a different word each time. It is interesting how one remembers the little nuances.
I remember charging toward the dining hall for supper that particular evening with a couple of my buddies. Every day before breakfast there would be a flag-raising ceremony and each night the flag would be lowered. It seems that we were invariably late for these events. As we passed the kitchen, the aroma of food filled our nostrils. We knew that we were going to have ice cream for dessert because Arthur Torgesen was turning the crank on the ice cream freezer. It seems that we were always famished and couldn't wait for meals. We never dreamed what was in store for us that hot summer night.
The most coveted award you could win at camp was the all-around-camper award. I never came close. My greatest claim to fame was being able to stand on my head longer than anyone else. What I cherish more than any award I could have won are the events that are related below. It seems that there are certain things in one's life that are indelibly printed on the mind. This is one of those memorable events.
When you're 12 years old, and the year is 1945, a big part of your life was the Second World War. It was July and the war in Europe was over. We didn't know it at the time, but the war in Japan would soon be over as well. Even though we were blind, we were aware of the war planes on both sides and the insignia on the uniforms.
This was the seventh straight year I spent the month of July at Camp Wapanacki. The camp was about 365 miles from New York and about 40 miles from the Canadian border in the northeast kingdom of Vermont. It was a very rugged place and there were no special adaptive features for blind kids. The paths were strewn with rocks and ruts and we had to do the best we could. As a matter of fact, there wasn't a paved road within three miles of the property. The object was to survive. The facilities were quite rustic and were at the top of a hill which was quite a jaunt from the tents and cabins. No hot water, and as a matter of fact, the bath water came directly from the lake, which at that time of the year was freezing cold. Outside each cabin was a water spout which gave us cold, clean drinking water from a spring. There were no sheets, pillows, or mattresses, just blankets on a canvas bunk.
We had a very inspired camp director. He was the physical education teacher and the wrestling coach at the school for the blind which owned and ran the camp. Mr. Downs and the rest of the camp staff treated the campers as ordinary kids. Blindness was not an excuse for anything. The activities at Camp Wapanacki paralleled most other camps. Swimming, boating, and hiking were some of the many programs that we participated in. We would go on a lantern hike and the counselors would lie down on the path, so that we would trip over them. They made us feel like normal kids. It gave us something to talk about in the months to come. We all thought it was a lot of fun.
This year was special and gave me a memory that has lasted well over half a century. My cabin counselor was Lincoln Adair, who regaled us with stories from his experiences in the Royal Air Force. He was from New Zealand and served for three years. Each night just before taps he would tell us about a different experience. As you can imagine, for a bunch of 12-year-olds, this was pretty exciting. We would ask him all kinds of questions and wouldn't get to sleep for hours.
I remember standing facing the flag pole with my hand over my heart, listening to the strains of Louis Wilson's bugle echoing over Lake Wapanacki. Each night two of us were chosen to fold the flag. It was quite difficult to fold it so that the three stars and only the three stars would show.
I was thinking about what we were going to have for supper when two trucks rolled into camp. We discovered they were military vehicles with the insignia of the RAF. Two men in uniform got out and huddled with the camp director. We were curious about this chain of events, but no more was said until after the meal was over.
After every meal at camp, the campers were encouraged to sing camp songs. On this night there was no singing. Mr. Downs stood up and told us that he had some very sad news to tell us. It seems that Lincoln Adair was accused of being a deserter from the military. What a shock! A buzz went around the dining hall which lasted for about two minutes. He asked each of us to come forward and talk to the officers and tell them how important Lincoln was to the program. We all got up and made our statements. I remember thinking I better not make a mistake and say something inappropriate. We sat there and waited to see what would happen next. Mr. Downs got up and further told us that he had a long talk with the officers, and that he had explained that Lincoln was an integral part of the program and that we could not get along without him. He informed us that the officers agreed to wait until morning to make their decision. It never occurred to us that that didn't make any sense at all.
The evening program would be canceled. We were ordered back to our cabins to await further developments. We couldn't believe what we heard. Lincoln couldn't be a deserter. That was not in the realm of possibility. We huddled in our cabin waiting to hear more. Imagine our surprise when in walked the man himself. He told us that he was allowed to come back to the cabin to say good-bye. At that point we never realized how absurd that was. We still believed every word.
We all gathered around Lincoln to listen to what he had to say. He informed us that he didn't think that they would let him remain at camp, and that he would be arrested in the morning. He was pretty excited and he was going to make a run for it. He wanted to know if there was anyone that would go with him. All 10 of us agreed to make the plunge.
He suggested that we all go to bed as usual, and that he would come for us at midnight. Imagine our excitement. What could we do to help him? Someone decided that we should have weapons. The only weapons that were available were brooms and rakes. We got into our pajamas and waited for Lincoln to come back for us.
Taps sounded at the usual time, but nobody went to sleep. We were all holding our collective breath waiting for the man of the hour. He showed up on the dot at midnight. He warned that this would be rough and that some of us might get hurt. He showed us a revolver, which we all handled. He said that there might be gun play. That was when I started to sweat.
There was a truck parked just outside the cabin door. We all piled into it. In Vermont in those days, most of the roads were rutted. We bounced around and thought we were going 100 miles per hour when in reality, we were moving quite slowly. Lincoln was giving us a running description of what was happening. He informed us that we were being followed and that we would have to get out of the truck and duck into the woods.
We heard gunshots; it seems that we were in the middle of a war zone. I remember that Albert took off his pajama top and put it on his broom handle and waved it as a flag of truce. We were all really scared and tried to dig fox holes. We were rolling around in the dirt for about five minutes when we were told that this was a big practical joke and that we could go back to camp and have doughnuts and cider. It is amazing that no one was hurt. The fact was that there were counselors all over watching to make sure that nothing went wrong. It is something that has been talked about for the last six decades.
What made this event more satisfying was the fact that I visited Mr. Downs in his nursing home. I was able to tell him how much we appreciated that practical joke, and that he gave us something we would never forget. A few weeks later he died at the age of 90, and his daughter told me how much he enjoyed hearing about that marvelous event. He really left us a wonderful legacy which would be passed on for generations. I don't know how much they enjoy it, but I delight in telling my grandkids about some of the events that I participated in when I was their age.