Note: A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
There Was This One Time…
We crushed ourselves lower in the grass of the open field as the searchlight passed over us again. Desperation filled our hearts; we were consumed with the desire to escape, to be free, but a terror stalked us in the night. We feared capture; we feared the horrendous fate that awaited us if the enemy took us captive.
My buddy Dave tapped my shoulder. “Now!” he hissed. “Move out! Watch the cover!” We low-crawled frantically, dragging our prone forms through the grass, faces pressed into the ground, legs and arms pistoning. In the pitch-dark night, the tree line seemed a thousand miles away.
The light swept over the field again; in the distance we could hear the muttering of the idling truck engine. Our pursuers were not far behind; we had to pick up the pace, or face capture!
“Dave!” I rasped, a hoarse stage whisper. “Next time the light passes, run for it!” Dave considered the distance to the barely visible trees ahead. “OK, be ready to hit the dirt when the light comes back,” he whispered in reply. We gathered our strength, leg muscles bunching, deep breaths to fuel the muscles; the light passed overhead; we leaped to our feet, sprinting, feet pounding, fleeing into the night until we thought our very hearts would leap from our chests.
The searchlight! We slammed into the rock-hard ground, gasping for every fiery breath. The light played over our heads for a moment as we tried out best to become part of the landscape. Finally, the light moved on; I slapped Dave on the back. “Move!” I hissed, and we moved. We ran as though our lives depended on it, as well it might; we ran as though the very hounds of Hell snapped at our heels. Our heels flew in the night. The trees were just ahead. In my peripheral vision I noticed the searchlight sweeping back our way. I looked ahead at the trees; a quick mental calculation; “RUN!” I urged Dave, and we dove for the cover of a giant oak just as the light fell into the moment of space we’d occupied a nanosecond before.
We lay in the leaf litter beneath the great tree, gasping for breath; our hearts were pounding hard enough to leave traces on seismographs miles away. The light continued to play across the field behind us, and the faint shouts of our pursuers revealed their frustration.
“Man,” Dave gasped, “Next time we sneak into Camp Olhagiwon, we aren’t leaving across this open field!” I wheezed my agreement. Our escape had been a near thing indeed.
Camp Olhagiwon a private summer camp for girls ranging in age from fourteen to eighteen and was the pride of area. The Camp covered hundreds of acres, including walking trails, craft areas, and cabins. The cabins were divided into two groups; a cluster of small cabins near the main road, for the younger girls; and a group of cabins raised on platforms in the trees, up the hill from the main compound, for the use of girls aged seventeen and eighteen.
Camp Olhagiwon also bordered my parent’s land on the north. Such was a recipe for trouble.
Sneaking into Camp Olhagiwon became something of a repeated challenge for my friends and me. The presence of a large group of seventeen and eighteen-year-old girls, just a ridgeline or two away, guaranteed our enthusiasm. Only one thing stood in our way, Camp Olhagiwon’s full-time caretaker, Orlie Simyan.
Orlie was a giant of a man, six foot four inches and three hundred and twenty pounds, not an ounce of it fat. He had shoulders like a Black Angus bull, bristly red hair covering almost all his body (all that was generally visible, at any rate) and arms that hung down well past his knees. His arms were thicker than most men’s legs, his hands like huge, hairy grapples. Rumor had it that Orlie regularly assisted local farmers in changing tractor tires by simply hoisting the relevant end of the tractor off the ground with his bare hands. Despite his mass, Orlie was fast; I often wondered how well he’d stack up against an Olympic sprinter. Of course, he’d likely have been disqualified for his habit of bounding on all fours, using his long arms and calloused knuckles to boost his speed.
In short, Camp Olhagiwon had chosen the perfect man to guard their enclave.
Still, we thought ourselves up to the task. Dave and I weren’t put off by our recent close call; we knew that our goal was achievable. We just needed a plan. And not just any plan, a Plan. A cunning, daring, masterful Plan, that would give the feared Orlie Simyan the slip and land us in the company of large numbers of young women, with no other young males around to distract them from our wit and charm. No, all we needed was a plan, and we couldn’t fail.
My parent’s Upper Meadow was on the north border of their land, bordering the camp. One muggy July evening, Dave and I pitched a tent there to serve as a base of operations for a quiet scout and planning session.
“What we need,” Dave opined while slowly incinerating a beef hot dog over our tiny fire, “is some kind of diversion, you know? Something noisy that will have Orlie off on the wrong end of things while we sneak right into the huts. Once we get through the meadow and inside, we only have to duck the camp counselors. Piece of cake. We can come up with something.”
“Yeah, but what?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Dave replied, plopping back I the grass and examining his smoking hot dog carefully. “But I tell you what, my girlfriend is stuck in there for two weeks, and I’m not going two weeks with no Stacy.” Dave frequently went two weeks with no Stacy after one of their Herculean arguments, but I figured that was beside the point; Stacy no doubt had friends in there, and with the odds of me in the midst of twenty or so teenage girls was too good to argue with.
“You know, we still have all those fireworks from our trip to Missouri last spring,” I offered. “You suppose we could work up something with those?”
“Not a bad idea,” Dave perked up suddenly. “My Dad still has a big roll of dynamite fuse from last time he blew stumps. I wonder…”
The planning session lasted most of the night and included a pre-dawn scout around the periphery of the big meadow just south of the objective. The meadow we had to cross, in the open, to reach our goal. Orlie’s truck crossed the meadow once, just as the eastern sky was growing bright; his searchlight played out across the field once, twice, before his pickup disappeared into the trees. Dave and I grinned at each other.
“You know,” Dave gloated, his eyes bright in the pre-dawn gloom, “this just might work.”
“Won’t be from lack of fireworks, eh?” I chuckled.
We chose the night of the new moon for our assault.
The woods were pitch black; you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. But Dave and I knew these woods well, and we already knew what our hands looked like anyway.
We crossed the border into enemy territory at 11PM precisely, when our reconnaissance patrols had established that Orlie would be down at his house, watching the Late Show. We had thirty minutes before his next patrol. Thirty minutes in which to deploy our equipment and cross a half-mile of open meadow. Fortunately, Dave was a master at scrambling into trees; even in the coal-black night, he ascended with dizzying speed into shagbark hickories, walnuts and oaks; at least ten trees were loaded and ready. This, though, took a good twenty-two minutes.
Dave dropped from the last tree, panting. “What’s the time?”
I had a cheap watch that lit faintly when a stud was pressed. “We’ve got eight minutes.”
Dave took care of one last detail, quickly. Then: “Run!” We sprinted for the meadow.
Running in pitch-blackness isn’t much fun, but we had our bearings. Feet flying, hearts pounding, we ran through the knee-high grass and charged into the treeline just as pickup headlights appeared on the road that passed through the clearing. We crashed to the ground, gasping. The first perimeter was breached.
The headlights of Orlie’s pickup played gently along the tall grass as the pickup cruised, slowly, across the meadow. A searchlight beam played along the far treeline, but away from us; we were already inside the first belt. Remaining inside was now our primary concern. Suddenly, in the faint, first probing beam of the headlights, a sight that made my blood run cold; the tall grasses along the edge of the road parted, broken down ever so slightly, where Dave and I had darted across the meadow.
It wouldn’t have been obvious to most people, but Orlie was an experienced tracker, as were Dave and I; the breach stood out like a drunk at a parson’s convention. As though from a great distance I heard Dave’s sotto voce exclamation, “Oh, crap!”
“How long is that first fuse?” I growled as I tried to work my way a few inches further into the dirt.
“Should be any time now,” Dave hissed back in reply. “Oh, man, he’s gonna see that any minute…”
Somewhere, in the trees on the far side of the great meadow, there was a faint pop. Orlie’s truck slammed to an immediate halt. The driver’s side door popped open, and Orlie’s massive, primate form unfolded from the truck’s interior. Propping his impossibly long arms on the truck’s hood, he played his searchlight on the opposing treeline.
We held our breath. Then, from farther off into the trees came another faint pop.
Orlie stood up straight – not an easy task for one with his physique – and squinted at the trees.
“Right about now…” Dave whispered.
Shaking his head, Orlie ducked back into his pickup and, with a crunch of gears, set off across the meadow. I saw Dave’s teeth flash in the faint starlight. “Ok, let’s go!”
Stacy and a friend were waiting, alerted by some mysterious intuition, at the edge of the collection of huts. Far off, across the now-still meadow, I heard another distant pop; the string of firecrackers we had strung on dynamite fuse in the trees was timed to keep popping, seemingly at random, for an hour or more. Calculated to drive Orlie to distraction, our cunning scheme only missed in one slight detail. That detail, of course, was Orlie’s own uncanny intuition, gained in his years of being guardian of a camp full of teenage girls on a forested hill frequented by teenaged boys in the throes of testosterone overload.
In other words, Orlie knew all the tricks.
As it happened, Stacy had brought along an extremely pretty young friend from the camp. Judy was a little, wasp-waisted blonde girl, the archetypical farmer’s daughter, and she seemed to respond to my wit and charm; things were going remarkably well. I’d found a seat on a downed log, and Judy had settled beside me; with every witticism, she leaned a little closer. Dave and Stacy were nowhere to be seen. The mundane matters of the world seemed farther and farther away by the moment.
Somewhere, far off in the woods, there was another faint pop.
“What was that?” Judy asked, perking up in a devastatingly attractive manner.
“Oh, that was just Dave’s mind shifting gears without a clutch.” I grinned. Judy giggled, scootching closer to lean on my arm. Even in the pitch-dark, I couldn’t help but notice the devastating shortness of Judy’s cut-off jeans; some inner instinct focused my attention in that area. I gave her my piece de resistance, the joke about the three dairy farmers and the pregnant heifer. Young Judy collapsed against my arm, giggling uncontrollably; when she caught her breath at last, I found her face turned up towards mine. Oh, man, I thought, it’s finally gonna happen!
Then, it happened. Not, however, what I was anticipating.
And Then This Happened.
First, there was a wild, animal screech. Judy and I both leaped at least six feet straight up; I landed with my lips still in an expectant pucker. The last I saw of Judy was a pair of long, pale legs flashing in the darkness, running at top speed for her cabin and safety. Dave’s head poked up from a patch of ferns a few yards away; odd that I could see him, it had been pitch-dark a moment before. “What the hell?” Dave wondered aloud. A faint glow seemed to fill the very air, growing slowly brighter, brighter… I looked at Dave, he looked back at me. Past Dave, I saw the back end of Stacy’s jeans, bobbing up and down as she crawled for cover with sure instincts, better in fact than ours.
The glow suddenly resolved into a flashlight beam. Behind it was the bounding form of Orlie Simyan, howling his rage at our trickery. The distracting image of Judy’s offered lips finally faded from my mind, and I screamed, “Dave! RUN!”
We were in a tight spot indeed. If an enraged male orangutan has never charged you, it will probably be difficult to imagine exactly what we faced that night. An irrelevant thought flashed in my mind, something to do with distracting Orlie by tossing him a banana; I fought back the notion and concentrated on fleeing for my life. With speed borne of terror, Dave and I leaped for the cover of the nearest blackberry thicket.
Blackberry thickets aren’t bad places to hide, but they are bad places to set up residence for any length of time. Blackberry bushes have whip like, resilient stems coated liberally with thorns. Orlie was sniffing around the perimeter of the thicket; he’d noted the direction of our plunge. His apelike form appeared, here and there, silhouetted against the stars. In the far treeline, a faint pop sounded; he ignored it.
A faint rustling told me Dave had crawled close enough for a strategy session. “What are we gonna do now?” he wanted to know. “I don’t know!” I whispered back. “Doesn’t look like he’s coming in here after us.”
Just then, Orlie decided to come in after us.
I grabbed one end of a blackberry bramble, and yanked; the stringy bramble came out at the roots. “Grab one end of this!” I hissed at Dave. For once, he caught on quick.
Orlie must have caught a bit of our whispered conversation. He confidently crashed right towards our hiding place. One hand clutching an end of the blackberry bramble, Dave rolled half a turn one way, myself a half turn the other; as we’d hoped, Orlie’s boot caught the tightened bramble. He crashed to earth with a howl of outrage, even as Dave and I leaped to our feet.
We’d underestimated the length of Orlie’s orangutan-like arms. One hairy hand shot out even as Orlie thrashed around in the bushes, grabbing Dave’s ankle. Dave crashed back down with a yelp.
I slammed down a sneakered foot with all my weight on the wrist belonging to the hand that clutched Dave’s ankle. Orlie let out a roar that would have made a silverback gorilla cower in fear, but he let go. Dave rolled away and bounced to his feet. I jumped over Orlie, somehow dodging his flailing, hairy grasp in midair, and followed Dave’s dimly seen form in the rush for better cover.
Somehow, in the brief time it took for our simian pursuer to extricate himself from the blackberry bushes, we made it safely to a nearby clump of sumacs. We froze, listening; somewhere, nearby, we knew that Orlie would be doing likewise. The race would not now go to the swift, but to the stealthy; we knew we couldn’t outrun Orlie in straight flight. We’d have to sneak out.
“We’ll stick to the treeline,” Dave offered, “And work our way south. Once we get in the big oaks over by the border, we’ll cut straight in for the fence line; he won’t chase us into your folk’s place.”
In the far treeline, another faint pop drifted our way.
“I might have a better idea, you know…”
In the pitch blackness, I could somehow sense Dave’s face screwing up in confusion. “Listen,” I told him. “What do you hear over in the clearing?”
Dave’s grin gleamed faintly in the darkness. “Why, I hear Orlie’s pickup idling!”
“Yep. Think we can get over there?”
“Yeah. Follow me; stay in the tall grass.”
As we figured, Orlie expected us to go the other way. Ten minutes of crawling and listening got us to the old pickup where it sat, idling, at the side of the drive through the meadow.
“Driver’s side door is open,” Dave whispered to me, as we lay hidden in the grass under the tailgate. “Let’s crawl around to that side, you hop in and dive over, I’ll jump in after you and drive us outta here.”
“Deal,” I agreed, and we sprang into action. I leaped for the open door, throwing my body across the seat; behind me, I heard a grunt of exertion and felt the thump of Dave’s posterior hitting the seat. A grind of gears, and the old truck sprang into movement. Dave slammed a foot down on the gas, power-shifted into second, and sent a rooster-tail of dirt and grass flying skywards behind us as we shot south for safety, straight across the meadow.
“Hit the lights!” I sang out, elated at our audacious escape; Dave yanked the switch and bathed the grasses in yellow light. A movement out of the corner of my eye drew my attention to our rear, where I beheld a sight that made my blood run cold as ice. Orlie Simyan was bounding full tilt after his rapidly departing pickup, using his long arms to good effect. Like the great ape he so resembled, Orlie bounded on all fours, each bound eating up ground by the yard. He was gaining on us!
“Hit the gas, Dave!”
“What? What’s up?” Dave yelled back, squinting through the windshield at the grass ahead.
One hairy, long-fingered hand shot forward, and grabbed the tailgate. Orlie’s low-browed face, twisted with rage, popped up over the edge. Dave risked a glance in the rear-view. A squeak of terror popped out; Dave stomped on the clutch, slammed the old truck into third gear, and stomped once more on the gas.
The pickup bounced, slamming in and out of ancient ruts in the meadow. My foot hit something on the floor; in desperation, I grabbed at it. An old red hooded sweatshirt. Of course! Nights got chilly out here, even in summer. I glanced back; Orlie had both hands on the tailgate now and was pulling his upper body over.
“Hold her straight!” I shouted at Dave. I climbed halfway out the right-side window, and with an uncanny aim borne of desperation I cast the ragged sweatshirt right over Orlie’s face. Finding his vision suddenly blocked, he reflexively clutched at the jacket covering his face, and fell to the ground in a tangle of long arms, short legs and red hair; Dave tried his best to grind the accelerator pedal through the floorboards, and before Orlie could recover and continue his pursuit, we’d reached the safe, southern edge of the great meadow.
We abandoned the pickup, motor still running, and fled headlong into the trees. A moment’s flight took us to the fence line and safety.
Our tiny tent stood as before on the high ground in the Upper Meadow, and we headed that direction. Orlie wouldn’t pursue us off Camp property; we were safe here, only a hundred yards from the property line.
“Well,” Dave puffed, “I guess that was enough Stacy to last me another week.” In the dark I could almost see his satisfied grin; worse, burned into my mind was the image of Judy’s long legs under the cut-off blue jeans. I fought back the urge to give Dave a damn good punch in the nose out of frustration. “That’s it for me,” my tone as sure as the words in my pronouncement. “I’m never, ever sneaking in another place like that, not ever again.” I reached out, poking one finger into Dave’s chest hard enough to leave a bruise. “Never! Got that?”
Dave could only nod his wide-eyed agreement. My resolve was obviously unshakable.
“So, you think we can get in along this creek bottom?” Dave asked me, one dark moonless night a month later.
“Yeah, if we want to sneak into this keg party without paying at the gate, I guess that’s the best way to do it.” I agreed.
With practiced skill, we low-crawled into the woods.