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1936: The Angel Skunks (Bernie Lerner)
As at all Brooklyn Camps in the 30’s, meal-times at Accaponac rocked with songs, cheers and a variety of organized noise. Part of everyone’s repertoire was the responsive table-to-table Greek Chorus chants, made during rare lulls in the decibel level. A favorite one was the “bean chant”, which was a take-off on one of the scenes in a then-current Hoot Gibson western:
Table 1: WHAT IS THE LAW?
Table 2: DO NOT SPILL BEANS ON MESS-HALL FLOOR!
Table 3: THE LAW IS NO MORE!
Tables 1 & 2: WE SPILL BEANS ON MESS-HALL FLOOR!
During the week, a lot more than beans were spilled on the mess-hall floor. Early on in the Brooklyn Camps, this had given rise to the Swiss Navy, which was the necessary weekly swab-down of the mess-hall floor. This was a rotating patrol duty, with each patrol assigned to the Navy just once a summer. The supposed chore, done before and after Taps, had evolved into water and soap-fights and a sing-while-you work tradition.
The night that our patrol had Swiss Navy, Whitey Rossman was the chief mate. During the depression years, when money was tight to non-existent, the camp staffs consisted only of the campmaster, his assistant, and maybe an SPL. However, all of the camps had senior campers, like Whitey, who served as unofficial staff. These 16 and 17-year olds were unpaid, but probably got rebates on their summer rent. Whitey, so-named because of his light blond hair, was easy-going but a quiet perfectionist. He merited universal respect because of his knowledge of campcraft; he was the one the camp depended on to teach the overnighters the difference between edible wintergreen and inedible poison ivy.
With his non-staff status, we could get away with a number of things with Whitey that were normally frowned on. One of these was the singing of forbidden songs, like Avanti Popolo. It was rumored that this was either the Italian Communist anthem or Mussolini’s Fascist Party marching song, either of which might have been the reason that we were not allowed to sing it. So along with the slosh of water and mops, the mess-hall echoed that night with the chorus, “Avanti, popolo, a la stazione, revoluzione, revoluzione…”. All we knew was that it was Italian and very singable.. We also knew a few I.R.A songs, given to us by our friends at the other end of Rock Lake, but these were mostly sad songs with refrains like, “they’re hanging Danny Boy in the morning!”.
Swiss Navy was done by lantern light, in halves: the tables and benches were first piled up in half of the hall and the evacuated half was washed and mopped, following which the drill was repeated, with the tables and benches moved back to the clean side. The large cracks in the floor-boards made the mess-hall floor highly porous, which was a great help in squeegeeing the floor dry on Swiss Navy night, but which also resulted in lost pennies and nickels during the week.
We had almost finished Swiss Navy, and were about to put the second half of the tables and benches back in place, when a dusty puff of wind blew through the open sides of the mess-hall, accompanied by the mutter of approaching thunder. Now the only two occasions that we wore bathing suits at camp were on Sundays, which was visitors’ day, and, out of respect for our cooks’ sensibilities, for Swiss Navy. Our suits were now thoroughly wet, along with of the rest of us, and with the first roll of thunder, Whitey immediately called a halt and dismissed the patrol, leaving just the two of us to finish up. It took thirty more minutes for Whitey and me to get the rest of the tables and benches back in place, and by that time, the storm was in full bloom, with heavy rain squalls, wind and flashes of lightning. We prudently decided to leave the lanterns for retrieval in the morning, and set out on the trail to camp.
The frequent flicker of lightning provided more illumination than our flashlights. We were half-way down the trail to our tent, with rain obscuring everything but the trail dead-ahead, when a long string of lightning flashes picked up some live black-and-white movements on the right side of the trail. We stopped and stood stock-still, shining our flashlights on the apparitions. These turned out be a wet mother skunk and her two white-striped soft-ball sized offspring, who very slowly approached and sauntered across the trail directly in front of us, glistening in the rain. In addition to her normal aroma, the mother skunk had an air of pride, and they all nonchalantly passed within arm’s length, without a sideward glance, totally ignoring us. We had the impression that mom was simply taking the opportunity to show off her new retinue and had them out on parade for anyone who happened to be in sight. If we hadn’t been getting miserably drenched by the delay, the stage-mother attitude would have been funny. We patiently waited in the rain until we were sure that they were out of squirting range, and then started again down the trail home.
We had barely taken our first step when there was a sudden bright flash and sharp crack of sound as a bolt of lightning hit a huge oak tree some forty feet directly ahead of us on the trail. The lightning bolt blew off bark on the side of the tree facing us, showering us with bits and pieces. The flash and overwhelming blast stunned us and, for what seemed a long minute, we froze still in the pouring rain. As reality returned, with the rain sheeting down, we realized that this was hardly the place or time to wait for a possible repeat electrical performance, so we hurried on to the sanctuary of tent and dry clothes.
The next morning, the storm had passed on, the sky a cloudless blue. After breakfast, Whitey and I collected the abandoned lanterns and walked down the path from the mess-hall to inspect the tree of the night before. The doomed old oak had a jagged gash about four inches wide, running its entire length, from top to the massive trunk. Whitey and I looked at the tree and then at each other. It was acutely clear that if we hadn’t been stopped by the skunk passage the night before we would have been right under the oak tree when the bolt hit.
Whitey again looked up at tree and back up the trail at the skunk crossing, turned to me and said,
“Those weren’t skunks; they were angels!”
I looked back at the spot where we had met the skunk family the night before. As I remembered them, they looked like skunks and smelled like skunks. However, I wasn’t about to totally disagree with Whitey, so I said,
“Yeah, Whitey, real Accaponac angel skunks.”
Maybe a new species.