Thursday, July 5, 2012

Up the Lake: Flashlights

The Power of Darkness
If You Could See What I Can’t

In the odd and always entertaining world of “Up the Lake”, flashlights were a highly functional and valued commodity. 

This is because it got dark at night. 
Sometimes, that's all you get.

“Well, duh”, is the intelligent response to this statement, but no one who lives in a populated area can completely comprehend the true definition of dark.  In the civilized world, there is almost always some source of light nearby.  Not so Up the Lake, where many a mind has been boggled by the night sky.  The full moon was normally bright enough to read by. (However, if this is the best activity you can think of under a full moon, I truly pity your spouse, significant other; individual you are genetically predisposed to, whatever.)  On the other hand, nights with no moon revealed a number stars greater than even Carl Sagan could enumerate. In fact, finding a constellation became nearly impossible, due to the “guest” stars that aren’t in standard kid’s book charts.  

While this was all very nifty to look at, the general lack of light sources meant that, when walking through a shaded area, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. You also couldn’t  see all the trees and rocks that your hand was blocking, for that matter.  Therefore, flashlights were vital to prevent people from wandering off into the woods, swamps, or lake in the evenings.  Of course, bored kids with flashlights tended to explore these locations voluntarily at night, getting as lost as an unbalanced amnesiac in an Escher painting, but at least they could see.

Every cabin had the required supply of flashlights.

Translation: exactly one less than the amount of people who currently needed one.

Most of these were the garden variety, department store, sale flashlights.  Constructed out of the kind of plastic usually reserved for cheap army men; if the bulb and the batteries had been replaced, enough money was spent to buy three new ones. 

Also, every cabin had...the GOOD flashlight. These were almost always made of metal, built during World War Two, and had one or more highly useful features (such as blinkers, annoying sirens, or loops that will not attach to any clothing normally worn after 1947).  Children were never allowed to use “the GOOD flashlight” for two reasons. 

1) The obvious one is to prevent it from getting: lost, destroyed, eaten, defiled...etc. 
2) The more important reason was: as the good flashlight tended to be the brightest one, it would be nice if it was shining on the ground.  

Kids, especially little boys, would never think to shine the light on the ground.  In fact that is the last place they would shine it.  Normally, they were busy:

- Seeing how high the beam went into the sky
- Rapidly shaking it to produce a strobe light effect
- “Drawing” patterns on the wall
- Holding it in the smoke from the fire and playing Jedi Knight
- Putting it in their mouth so their cheeks glowed,
  and , of course
- Shining it into their own eye, for no immediately apparent reason.

Owing to their stature in the community, the death of a GOOD flashlight was always a spectacular event.  One the earliest reported of these scenes occurred when the people of my parent’s generation were teenagers.  A group of my cousins were going to shoot off fireworks from the boat.  Once again demonstrating the creativeness and ingenuity which grows in all Up the Lake kids, after being stuck on a mountain, in the woods, for long periods of time. 

Supporting  his children and nephews in  their paramilitary adventures, and perhaps hoping they would be able to see what a stunningly bad idea this was,  my Uncle Ackie let them bring his GOOD flashlight.   After they were safely (and I use the term loosely) in the boat and shooting off the display, one of them dropped something into the bag of fireworks.  Unfortunately for my intrepid relatives, it was a lit something, resulting in Titanic like screaming and leaping around, causing all fireworks, flashlights, and teenage boys who probably changed their mind about what a good idea this was, to become deposited in the lake.  They made their soggy way back up to my Uncle Ackie’s cabin, where he was talking to his brother (my grandfather).  As they stood there dripping, and relating there seaborne disaster, Ackie was howling with laughter.  Then, one of them said:

“And we lost your flashlight.” 

Suddenly Ackie’s laughter ceased and he began one of his trademark tirades, using many colorful words in both English and Italian.  Apparently this response was expected as, even as full grown adults with children and grandchildren of their own, when describing this incident, there was always a twinge of fear and sadness in describing the light slowly sinking out of reach, as they desperately dove after it.  My grandfather valiantly, and unsuccessfully, tried to help the situation by saying, “You were laughing before Ackie...what happened?” (This would be where I got some of my smart-ass genes from.)

Once I became an adult (more or less) one would believe I would often proudly carry a GOOD flashlight as I wandered the darkened dirt roads.  Quite the reverse became true actually; I carried no flashlight at all.  When people asked why, I told them:

“I’ve already tripped over every rock, tree, and small animal, so I know where they all are now.”

As painfully true as this statement is, the real reason I stopped carrying a flashlight was...

They hate me. 

There, I’ve said it. As soon as I picked one up, it went dim, and within a day, the bulb mysteriously bent.  This changes the nice bright circle into a pathetic brown fish shape. 

Within a week, it randomly started turning off, requiring smacking it to make it work.  Of course the more it got hit, the worse it worked.  This cycle continued until, finally, I was reduced to wandering through the dark, breaking my hand by bludgeoning it with an inert piece of plastic and metal.  As this would happen several times each summer of my childhood, I finally reached a point where my fear for my flashlight’s functionality was greater than my care for my own personal safety.

I was always the kid who had the flashlight (and the watch...yes, I was less than cool). That meant it was up to me to illuminate our many insane nocturnal attempts at entertaining ourselves.  One evening, Nick’s sister, Chrissy, and her two friends (all slightly older than us) decided they wanted to practice driving.  The problems with this were:  

(1) They owned no car.

(2) The only car available (once again, I use a term loosely) belonged to one of the girl’s Aunt, who was asleep. 

Therefore, they managed to convince us to push the car to the hill, where it would start rolling, and when they got away from where people could hear, they would start it.  

“How in the name of anyone with sense enough to not eat their own head did they convince you to do this?”
I hear you cry. 

-They were girls.
-They were a little older than us. 

Ask any teenage boy and you will find this is a powerfully convincing argument.  Motivated thusly, Nick, Skip, and I pushed the car to the hill.  The car was not on, however, so there were no headlights to illuminate the thin, twisty, rock laden dirt road.  Sane people would have given up at this point, but remember, we were teenagers. 

One of the girls had the brilliant suggestion that I shine my flashlight while pushing and then continue to run along behind the car.   Once again self -preservation lost the battle to obeying a woman’s wishes, and onward I ran.
Actually, not being able to see this road made it feel safer.

As a moderately in shape adult I had a difficult time keeping pace with a large rolling automobile.

As a goofy awkward kid, there was no hope. 

Halfway down the hill I wiped out, and proceeded to roll, bounce, and otherwise continue my descent.  Nick and Skip ran back up the hill to find out if I was still among the living.  As they checked to see if all limbs were present and accounted for, all I could say was, “Oh good, my light still works.”  They cast several aspersions on my light’s worth and ancestry as they dragged what was left of me back up the hill. 

I have no recollection what happened the rest of that night, but the fact that the car was back on top of the hill the next morning means that they did get it started eventually.

Not all of my flashlight’s deaths were my fault.  Other people have dropped them in the lake, in the mud, and on my head, all of which caused permanent damage (mostly to the light).  Nick and Skip once borrowed one to climb the Big Pine Tree at night.  Like many other of the larger apes, I had no business being in trees, and never attempted to climb to the top of that beast.  When we were younger the tree was at least one hundred feet tall, however, today it appears to be only about half that. (I blame congressional partisanship.)  As Nick and Skip ascended into the darkness, I tracked their progress from the ground.  The light and voices remained at the apex of the tree for a while and then began to slowly come down.  Suddenly, I heard yells which consisted of,

{Many obscene words}
“You stepped on my fingers!”
{Many new and different obscene words}
“Jeff, here comes your light!” 

It was quite a drop.

The light spun and danced through the branches like a stoned will-o-the-wisp, until it unbouncingly landed on a rock and went out.  This is perhaps the strongest use of the phrase “it went out” ever written in the English language.  No part of the light was visibly broken. Apparently it died from fright.  Nick and Skip then came down with great care, and great caution, and great amounts of foul language echoing through the cool night air.

Although involved with the death of several flashlights Nick and Skip also pulled off what can only be called the greatest flashlight rescue in the history of all Up the Lake.   They were entrusted to bring the GOOD flashlight with them to take a trip down to the outhouse. 

As a side note (with an apology for stooping to this level of humor), I’ve never figured out what new visitor’s fascination is with combining the flashlight and the outhouse.

Definition: a little wooden building over a big hole in the ground.
WARNING: this system will not work the other way around. 

If you don’t say anything they look down and complain how disgusting it was, and if you warn them not to, they accuse you of being stupid, and look anyway, and complain how disgusting it was.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s obvious why all the experienced Up the Lake people keep the lights pointed roofward when visiting these little buildings. Maybe it’s the same reason why people like to look at an automobile accident, or Reality Television...I don’t know. 

Anyway, as could probably be expected from the set-up, the new GOOD flashlight fell down the hole.  This left the guys with two options:

(A) Leave the flashlight there and face the wrath of Nick’s mother. 
(B) Risk a fate worse than death in an attempt to rescue the GOOD flashlight.   

There is no way to explain this to those of you who do not have an Italian mother who comes from the Bronx, but they chose the obviously safer option, which was (B). 

Most outhouses were built with the entire upper platform containing the seats on a hinge.  This was done by extremely optimistic designers who assumed it could be opened up, and cleaned out in the winter.

Most optimistic designers convinced some poor fool of a relative to try this once, and then the hinges were never used again.

But this time, those hinges were put to use.  The guys found a bucket, opened the lid and began the rescue mission.   Looking like drop outs from Ringling Brothers clown college, Nick held Skip up by his ankles, perfecting skills he would use later in life operating those giant cranes in New York, while the highly trusting Skip saved the life of the GOOD (and still shining) flashlight with the bucket.  They then carried the light back up to Nick’s mom, in much the same way a cat will proudly present a dead rat to its owner, and with pretty much the same response. 

Nick’s mother greeted them with a prideful and emotionally charged:

“Get that the hell out of here and throw it away!!”

This daring act placed the two cousins in a unique situation.  It is highly unlikely that, no matter what mischief their children get into, either of them will ever be able to use the phrase:

“What were you thinking? That’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard!”

Up the Lake Index


Anonymous said...

As my brother Nick was in the boat with Robert I witnessed this event. The bottle rockets going off in the boat was quite the sight!

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for commenting, it always means more when an eye witness weighs in.

The biggest Up the Lake disasters always have the greatest visuals though.