Thursday, March 17, 2011

Up the Lake: A Typical Week

Week o Wandering
Or
Seven Days of Silly

The amount of stories told at any gathering of Up the Lake folk is truly staggering.  The reason is the place acts as an “event generator”. By way of demonstration, the following tales all occurred in a single week.  The main characters (who all come from fathers named Joe) are a brother and sister and their cousin.  Their ages at the time of these events were: Ashley (12ish), Joey (9ish) and Jay (8ish) (Mine was “old enough to know better”ish.). In only seven days, enough material was generated for a Francis Ford Coppola style extravaganza.  However, as I have neither the time nor budget for that sort of thing, I’ll just hit the highlights.

The first weekend was a fairly peaceful “untainted nature” experience, with one small exception.  My cousin Steven was up with his family cleaning out their cabin; removing old stuff, painting, and other standard maintenance activities that are done once a decade whether it needs it or not. There were apparently bunches of old sheets and blankets that they wanted to get rid of. That evening, issuing forth from the fireplace was this immense, foul smelling column of black smoke.  This meant A) They had not elected a new pope, B) Tonto had something urgent to tell us, or C) There was a rather large smoldering thing in the fire place.  Apparently it was C), and the large thing was a wool blanket. The smoke weaved its way through the woods so that one of the guys in the field (also, unsurprisingly, named Joe) thought his wife had set her hair on fire. (He checked this by smelling it, as the fact that there were no flames on her head was insufficient evidence.)  Joe then drove up to identify the source, prompting me to walk over and look at the fire. The underneath wood had gone out, rendering the big smoldering thing as a big squashed thing under a couple of big log things forming an unburnable mass thing.  Using my Up the Lake fire making resources, I poked some air holes, set up strategic sticks and twigs and moved the coals around to better aerate the fire. The total effect of this was that the smoke was now coming at me.  Therefore, I decided to use my juggler resources and threw an entire cup of the lighter fluid I use for my torches toward the base of the smoke.  The huge blast of flame managed to get everything caught up and incinerated, also nearly turning my arm into a burned up thing.

To give the woods time to air out, we decided to take Joey and Ashley to the Bronx Zoo (Jay hadn’t arrived yet.), and prove that you can take the people out of “Up the Lake” but you can’t take the “Up the Lake” out of the people. The Bronx Zoo is my favorite place in the world.  I was practically raised there (ook ook), and even know most of the gorillas on a first name basis. In fact, Pattycake, a Gorilla brought over from Central Park as a baby on one of my first trips to the zoo was the mother of the twins (Ngoma, and Tambo) that made headlines and were immortalized by FAO Schwartz.  Although I was thrilled for her and Timmy (the big silver back) it was a little unnerving to realize that even the gorillas I knew had a better social life than I did at that time.  

One festive moment was when little Joey apparently sucked down his lemon ice and soda too fast. This wonderful combination demonstrated its effect as we passed the Blesbok.   He nonchalantly said, "Uh oh", as in, "Uh oh, my shoe is untied", or, "Uh oh, I dropped my map", and then unceremoniously threw up all over the walkway.  Then he said, "OK let’s go," without breaking stride, and was his usual hyper self the rest of the day.  To continue with the “gross stuff”: Although we missed feeding time at the seals (liberally advertised on every bulletin board in the place)  we got to see feeding time with the vultures (a half dozen dead decomposing rats littered about the cage, which, oddly enough, was not even hinted at on the schedule list).   Having already passed the nauseous portion of his day, Joey described them as “cool”, while the rest of us decided to see how the broken winged eagle was doing.

Apparently the Blesbok sent word throughout the zoo about Joey’s defacing his area.  In the Sea Bird house the zookeeper was feeding the Tawny Frogmouths. One was happily eating while the other kept turning his head away and ruffling his feathers.  Then it looked at the glass, on the other side of which there was a large crowd, most likely of city folk, absolutely riveted by seeing a non pigeon being hand fed.  The bird puffed up and suddenly flew a full bore kamikaze attack directly at Joey's head.  While the real kamikazes were slowed by anti aircraft fire, the pane of glass worked pretty well for us.  Everyone jumped back as the bird SLAMMED into the glass and collapsed into the corner of the cage where he sat dazed chirping, “I’m Batman,” long after he was interesting to watch anymore. Later e-mails to zoo people assured me that the bird was OK, and the reason for the attack was that they are very territorial, and they were settling down to nest and mate. (The birds had me beat too...phooey!)

The damage sustained up to that point of the week was minimal, until the creation of “The Fire of Many Injuries”.  Jay had joined the group and the three kids had made a fire at their cabin one night, while the adults were elsewhere.  Contrary to the fires my friends and I made at their age, it was actually in the fireplace, not: in a hub cap, on some rocks, in an ash tray, atop the  dinner table, or on ourselves, where many of our pyrotechnic creations ended up.  It was a very well made "wood fire" as most children up there are capable of building a good campfire somewhere between learning to walk, and learning that dirt is not one of the four major food groups.  They asked if they could have some marshmallows to toast. I brought some down and decided to keep an eye on them. Frightening as it may seem, I was the “responsible adult”. The festivities began when Ashley heated the end of her marshmallow stick till it was red and then attempted high speed sky writing. One of her words culminated in her brother’s earlobe, causing him to generate several of his own words, and non word like sounds.  As I was making sure he was not the proud owner of an earring tattoo, Ashley managed to drop a hot marshmallow onto Jay.  Jay ran away (obviously) and stepped out of one of his sandals. (The cursed ones...more on that later.)  As I came back outside I saw one of the dangers of technology manifesting itself as Jay tried to beam the light from a candle by aiming it toward the ground like a flashlight.  I grabbed it away to keep him from getting hurt just as a flood of molten wax ran merrily onto my fingers.   As I peeled off the new waterproof coating from my hand, along with several layers of skin, everyone managed to burn everyone else with marshmallows a few more times.  A bit of advice: if you’re helping someone make a s'more and the marshmallow starts to fall...just let it go, man. (A little more skin, no biggie.)  Finally the marshmallows were done so (Please ask the environmentalists to leave the room…are they all gone?  Yay!) we put the garbage on; along with some newspaper to get it restarted.  Joey decided the Parade magazine was not in the correct artistic spot, so he picked it up, to enhance the esthetics of the burning trash.  Except...it was already on fire.  I valiantly grabbed it out of his hand to protect him, and discovered: 1) Staples get hot.  2) Something plastic already melted onto Parade.  And 3) I no longer had feeling in any of the fingers on my right hand.

My bad luck was nothing compared to Jay and his cursed sandals, though. The night after he ran out of one at the fire, the four of us were playing Cosmic Wimpout in my cabin while listening to "Shaving Cream" and "Its a Gas" (the MAD magazine belching song) over and over again.  They decided these were the Rosetta Stone of comedy, and even funnier after hours of repetition.  Yes, their parents still aren’t talking to me.  The topic of conversation eventually had to turn to what the heck smelled so bad.  (As, ever subtle, Ashley had taken to attempting to construct a complex air purification system out of a cup, a napkin and her sweatshirt.)  We all checked our shoes and Jay maintained, "It’s just mud."  Not wanting to upset him further I informed him, "Well, then it’s some stinky ass mud", and removed the offending footwear out of the cabin (sans foot).   Along with the shoe I brought, water, napkins, picks, shovels and implements of destruction and managed to clean it off.  We left the purified, yet soggy, shoe outside, and continued the game.  Sadly (for everyone involved) the smell persisted.  Poor Jay had failed to check his other sandal, and lo and behold, we had a winna! Therefore, by public demand, and by order of the health department, Jay spent the night shoeless, but less fragrant.

The next day while on the pre teen boy equivalent of a vast archeological dig, also known as “lookin’ for stuff in the dump”, Jay stepped on a piece of glass roughly the size of Kentucky.  Joey ran down to our cabin and made sure everyone stayed calm by yelling, "Jay got a huge piece of glass in his foot and there's blood everywhere!"  I rushed up the hill with a gallon of water and some paper towels. (I am a graduate of the Lew Zealand School of Preparedness.)  I found Jay sitting on a rock looking as pathetic as only a little boy with a cut foot can.  He had his feet on the ground and refused to lift them so I could see, while Joey was offering the helpful advice, "See, the shoes are cursed."  Finally, we cleaned him up and my mother put on 5,476 band aids. (The first two covered the cut, the next four held the first two down, and so on, and so on...)  Then I carried Jay down.  Joey sped ahead to tell his grandmother and aunt. Unfortunately all I could tell him as he took off was, "Just say he's all right." I thought they already were informed of the tragedy du jour.  They were not. Therefore the first warning they had was hearing, "Jay's all right!", which never calms anyone down, and then saw me carrying the boy, who by this point had gone limp in my arms, like a scene from Frankenstein.  Chaos ensued for only a few hours, (not bad considering everyone involved was Italian,) but eventually subsided.  After handling the cursed shoes both Joey and Ashley were stung by wasps that night...coincidence?

Needless to say I needed much stress relief that week which leads to, “Jeff vs. The Trees” (available on pay per view).  I like to find ways to make boring tasks interesting. (Male to female translation: interesting = dangerous.) For example, when I got firewood, I only went for dead trees that were still standing, knocked them down, dragged them back, and then broke them up (all the while trying only to use my bare (bear?) hands).  This resulted in several scratches, logs bouncing into my face, and tree limbs falling on my head over the years, (which probably explains a lot), but it was fun, so what the heck. That year I made the mistake of knocking down a tree in front of the kids, and they wanted to see more, more, MORE.  They all suggested many fine candidates.  Usually these were: in a swamp, covered with poison ivy, six feet in diameter, and still alive.  I did get one that was about half a foot in diameter at the trunk and still pretty sturdy. (I worked on it three days in a row. No humor here just showing off, it was quite the tree.) 

Knocking down trees is easy with just a little physics and an extremely thick head (mostly the latter). Basically, push the tree hard enough to shake it back and forth until it resonates, (ooh...big physics word) and cracks.  The smart way to do this is to get it to only pivot at the base, so it eventually snaps and falls over in one piece.  The more fun way (male to female translation: more fun=stupid) is to shake it faster until starts to vibrate like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (non geeky comparison, shake like an epileptic go-go dancer in an earthquake); creating several points above your head where it can break. Then after dodging the falling debris, (optional) push the stump down.  The secondary problem is that once a piece brakes off, the natural frequency, (how fast the tree wants to shake, for those of you with less physics, and more of a life) changes and the tree suddenly stops swaying, allowing the person shaking it to occasionally slam into the now stationary tree, with a colossal force. (Want to see the scars?)   The primary problem happened on one mid size birch.  I got it shaking good, heard a crack above me, and jumped back from the top section which was plummeting in front of me.  Fortunately I noticed the remaining stump, and section I was dodging didn’t add up to a whole tree.  Thanking my mathematical speed, I froze as the remaining third of the tree missed the back of my head by an unsafe margin. 

The winner for distance was a very springy tree that had the top yard connected only by a piece of bark, which eventually snapped free and flew, like a wooden sidewinder missile, back out of the woods and about fifty feet down the road.   Although this doesn’t sound relaxing, or like a good way to relieve stress, the coma induced by a piece of timber introducing itself to your skull just shy of the sound barrier is quite restful, and helps you forget the anxiety built up during the rest of the week.

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