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Unpublished Draft


Silver Lake Lodge

It rained all night and the patched canvas tarps we called tents were soaked and nearly too heavy to fold. Breakfast was oatmeal again, cooked in icy water from the lake over lazy butane burners that struggled to stay lit. We ate in silence as gloom shrouded the campsite. Marx was the only one of us who wasn’t miserable. “Look, guys,” he said, “it’s going to clear by noon. Just look at the sky over there.”

The other campers groaned and guffawed in a chorus of ridicule. “Marx, did you know you’re an idiot?” said Roger, the counselor leading the expedition. “Just shut up and eat your mush.”

Marx was the chump on this trip and there was nothing I could do to help him. For the past three days since we set out from Owakanze Island he kept asking Roger after every portage how far it was to the Silver Lake Lodge.

“I dunno, Marx,” Roger answered. “Maybe this next lake, or the one after that.”

There has to be a chump on every canoe trip and Marx earned the designation on the first day out when he asked Roger whether the rounded and neatly-piled boulders lining the shoreline of Carter Lake were natural or placed there by man. Roger told him yes, the Canadian Conservation Corps hauled boulders from Saskatchewa and placed them around various lakes in the Quetico during the Great Depression to create jobs for unemployed men. That got a lot of laughs.

I felt sorry for Marx because on the last trip I was one of the new kids in the expedition and it took a while to figure out that I’d been selected as the group’s chump, the one guy who is inescapably the exclusive butt of jokes but doesn’t know exactly why. Roger teased me without mercy about my nickname Chocolate Mess, using a lot of candy ass and brown shit jokes.

I earned my name aboard the bus on our way to camp after I bought a large Hershey bar at one of the roadside pit stops. The chocolate was warm and it melted all over my face and dripped from my chin to my clean white tee shirt. One of the older campers stood up in the aisle and in a dramatic voice, loud enough for every one on the bus to hear, recited a line from a popular M&Ms commercial. “Why, he’s a chocolate mess!”

After breaking camp the hard rain eventually turned to drizzle and the choppy water slackened, inviting the canoes to glide across the surface like water birds, smoothly propelled by every stroke of our paddles. My canoe started making good progress to the far shore and soon we caught up with Roger and the other three boats. Roger turned and yelled out Marx’s name.

“What?” Marx shouted back from his seat at the bow of the canoe.

“Just checking, Marx,” he said. “Get it? Checkmarks!”

The other boys snickered just like they snickered every time Roger repeated the joke and Marx fell for it again and again, maybe thinking this time Roger would say something about our imminent approach to Silver Lake Lodge. It wouldn’t have been funny if Marx weren’t the chump.

The lodge was a place where hunters and rugged outdoorsmen stayed, a rustic stone building with dark oak-paneled interiors. The owners loved Owakanze campers and let them bivouac on the lawn, eat hot food along side paying guests under the vaulted timber ceiling of the dining room, and use the heated pool and sauna. Comely teenage girls supposedly worked as maids and servers at the lodge, and Roger bragged that he seduced the prettiest one last year. The lodge was always a few lakes ahead.

Our canoe lagged in last place again until we all scrambled on shore for the first portage of the day. Marx and Zimmerman helped me get the wanagan, the heavy wooden box containing food and cookware, on top of my Duluth pack and strapped the leather tumpline over my forehead. Then they hoisted the dented Grumman upside down over their heads and led the way up the muddy trail. It turned out to be the absolute worst portage of countless portages on the entire trip, nearly two miles long and booby-trapped with gnarly fat roots and sharp rocks on the trail. Roger let us take a break at the other end and we shed our sweat-soaked ponchos because the sky was clearing. Marx did not gloat out loud about his prophecy of clear skies for fear of being mocked, but everybody knew he was right.

One of the boys found a way of putting Marx in his place by asking Roger in a snarky voice how far it was to the Silver Lake Lodge and Roger told him to shut up or he’d make him ride in the Jew canoe. I was never sure what he meant by that. The slowest canoe? The one with unpopular kids aboard? The canoe reserved for Jews and other losers like me?

The suburb where I grew up west of Chicago didn’t have Jews. I got the impression that they lived in Chicago and in the northern suburbs, mysterious people I learned in the schoolyard who were rich and stingy with curly hair and big noses. My friends and I used the phrase “getting Jewed,” meaning getting cheated, and derogatory names like hymie and kike slipped off our tongues without a second thought. In Sunday school it was intimated that the Jews killed Jesus, not the Romans. I heard about the holocaust but didn’t know anything about it other than it was something terrible Hitler did to the Jews. It wasn’t mentioned in the World War II lessons in our textbooks. Nobody talked about it.

I didn’t think I ever met a real Jew before I came to Camp Owakanze. Eventually it dawned on me that all the boys in my cabin were Jewish except me.

That summer Marx and I were best friends. We got assigned to the same boat with Zimmerman at the stern on every canoe trip. We were both twelve. Marx was a second-year camper so he got to ride the bow out of seniority. He had the privilege to ply his paddle to keep the nose of the boat away from rocks when we hit rapids. He did the sweep and the draw, the J-strokes and C-strokes to help the stern man keep the canoe on an even keel. I was always Chocolate Mess the middleman, the grunt whose job it was to hump the wanagan on portages and paddle hard without complaint when the pain in my arms was unbearable. Zimmerman was the junior counselor assigned to our cabin and he hardly ever spoke other than barking out commands to change strokes or switch sides with our paddles.

The expedition to Silver Lake was scheduled to take five days, all hard paddling and grueling portages, “a test of manhood,” Roger said. Yet he encouraged us to play hard at the end of the day after setting up camp. We swam buck-naked in the freezing water, diving off rocks and dunking. We raced empty canoes, banging each other like Ben Hur and swamping the other boats. We played war games, throwing rocks and makeshift spears at until someone got hurt. It was taboo to tell Roger about injuries unless you were bleeding profusely, or dying.

Owakanze’s mission was to train macho boys, hardened by the challenges of the wilderness. None of the campers took this seriously. The theme song we had to sing in the mess hall after every dinner, “Stout-Hearted Men,” was a joke. We belted it out in our cracking pubescent voices, stomping our boots as loud as we could on the dense floorboards. “Give me some men who are stout-hearted men who will fight for the rights they adore!” The next obligatory song was “Climb Every Mountain!” A nun sang that in the movie, not macho boys, but what did that matter? During the campfires at the great circle of rocks, after the ghost stories were done, we sang old standbys like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” a song that no one made fun of.

The only female at the camp was Harvey’s daughter, a very beautiful girl with walnut hair. Campers spied on her from the trees when she bathed alone in the lake. She seemed to enjoy her voyeurs. Harvey was the camp director, a tall and kindly man with a sad bulldog face and a bulbous nose etched with tiny red veins. We didn’t see him very often outside his cabin. Midway through the camp session I proudly announced to my cabin mates that I knew Harvey on a personal basis. He was the athletic director at the high school in my town. My oldest brother told me that Harvey had a reputation as a lush, I told my cabin mates, and was rumored to spend long lunches at the bar across the street from the school.

“Shut up, Chocolate,” yelled Meyer, turning to face me with daggers in his eyes. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Harvey.”

The other boys huddled around to hear what was going on. Meyer was one of the most respected kids at camp. He was good at sports and humble about being really smart. And he sang like an angel, always mesmerizing the macho boys with his pitch-perfect solos at camp recitals. Marx once told me that Meyer’s father was a cantor. I didn’t know what a cantor was but nodded in appreciation anyway.

“Harvey was the one who single-handedly persuaded the board of directors to let Jewish kids into this camp,” Meyer said. “My father said he’s one of the most courageous men he’s ever known. He deserves your respect, Chocolate Mess.” Meyer paused and looked me straight in the eye. “Don’t ever take your heritage for granted, Chocolate.”

My heritage? What does he mean? My mother talked about our Irish heritage, particularly around St. Patrick’s Day. I had a German last name but I never heard my father talk about our German heritage. Occasionally he’d speak a little of his high-school German for laughs and he’d say eins, zwei, drei instead of one, two, three to make my brothers and I behave, and he used other German words like schmuck and schlep.

I didn’t know what to say to Myer. All I could do was look at my shoes.

“You don’t know, do you Chocolate?” Marx said in a whisper that night. “We’re going to have to talk about this later.” We never got around to that conversation.

It was a hot and cloudless day when we changed course to follow another string of lakes that would lead us eventually back to Owakanze Island. After an easy portage, Roger turned his head around in the stern of his canoe and yelled, “Hey Marx!”

Marx replied as always, “What, Roger?”

“Just checking,” he said. “Checkmarks!”

Most of us groaned. The pun was getting old.

“Sorry, Marx, I forgot to tell you Silver Lake is in this direction,” Roger said in a mocking apology. “Silver Lake is so small you can’t see it on a normal topo map and the lodge is so exclusive they don’t want it to be easy to find. But I know the way, trust me. I have a couple of girlfriends waiting for me there, and if we paddle hard we might make it by sunset tomorrow.”

It was apparent that Marx had lost his trust in Roger by this time and that his contempt for the man was starting to boil over. “I’m going to kill him, Chocolate, honest I am,” he said to me under his breath in the privacy of the mildewed tent we shared. “When we get back to camp I’m going to get a rifle from the firing ranges when old Gerb isn’t watching and blow Roger’s brains out.” It was the stupid checkmarks, not the lore of the elusive Silver Lake that drove Marx to contemplate murder. Marx hadn’t lost his faith in the existence of the lodge and I couldn’t help sharing his anticipation. I liked the idea of a hot shower, real food and teenage girls in the middle of nowhere.

The following afternoon we were way behind the other canoes when Zimmerman stopped paddling and spoke up for the first time on the trip. “You guys got to have thick skins,” he said as the boat drifted. “The world is full of assholes like Roger and you can’t let them fuck with your head. He’s smaller than you and me and that’s why he has to be an asshole and an anti-Semite. In the future he’ll be nothing. Nothing. Just a memory of a shithead in a canoe.”

I had heard that in the previous year Zimmerman was the recipient of the Azore Award, a prize given to a senior camper who distinguished himself by being awkward and geeky. A prospective Azore had to be the butt of jokes but to win the award he had to remain popular and affable despite all the ribbing.

But Zimmerman’s remark was dark and bitter, and it seemed to carry the power and depth of an ancient truth.

After a short portage Roger stood in his canoe holding his map and declared with great bravado: “This is Jordan Lake, lads. Silver Lake is the next one after this! I guarantee you.”

Marx wasn’t the only boy who was eager to get to the lodge. Our little flotilla power-paddled to the next portage and even Roger was straight faced, seeming to be determined to prove, once and for all, that luxury was within reach. “Michael row you boat to shore, hallelujah!” he shouted when our canoes neared the portage trailhead. “Tits and pussy on the other side!”

We joined in. “Hal-lay ooo-ooo-ya!”

After traversing the quarter-mile of rocky earth that separated the two lakes we jumped back into our canoes and paddled slowly, reverently, as though to savor the final moments of anticipation. Necks were craning left and right in every canoe in a competition to be the first to spot the lodge.

Marx shouted, “There it is! Can you see that pier over there on the left? It’s jutting out from behind those rocks.” No one else saw Marx’s pier. “Get yourself a pair of eyeglasses, Marx,” Roger hollered from the front of the formation. “Maybe you’ll be able to see as far as the end of your dick.”

We paddled on in silence.

Then we stopped to watch in wonder as a flock of loons suddenly emerged from the glare of the late-afternoon sun. They soared in graceful loops above Silver Lake before dropping from the sky to dive bomb for prey, skewering walleye and lake trout with their spear-shaped bills. Some of the birds swooped so close overhead we ducked. We saw them skim the water gracefully then take off like rockets warbling their ghostly song, Hoo yoop! Haha-haha-haeeee. The loons returned to dive and swoop and rise again until we started yodeling, Hoo yoop! Haha-haha-haeeee. Louder and louder we laughed and jeered at the birds until Marx yelled at the top of his lungs, “Stop it! Shut up! You’re scaring them away!”

The boys all looked at Roger for a sarcastic retort to Marx’s outburst but instead the counselor turned his head toward Marx and nodded, pointing to the sky with his paddle. The loons were retreating to the far shore leaving behind a spine-tingling echo of their eerie cry spreading across the lake. We saw them soar over the lush forest of white pine on their way to the next lake, where a drifting gang of snotty boys would not wound their pride.

Roger was the last of us to take his eyes off the horizon. He instructed us to break formation and spread out so each canoe could scour different segments of the shoreline in search of a secluded cove, a boat ramp or a dock. It wasn’t long before the sun suddenly, almost hurriedly, slipped below the western tree line, casting Silver Lake into deep-gray dusk. Roger led us to a clearing where we dragged the canoes up a narrow bank and lashed them to the gnarled limbs of a birch tree to make sure they wouldn’t slip away during the night. It was dark by the time we started cooking dinner.

Roger assured us we’d find Silver Lake Lodge in the morning, saying he thought he remembered now where it was, over at the far end of the lake. We let the campfire burn late that night and when the jokes and stories were all told, when the logs turned to glowing red embers, when we all started nodding off, Roger cried out, “Hey Marx!”

My best friend answered enthusiastically this time because he was certain the man had something important to say about Silver Lake Lodge. “Yes Roger,” he said, barely able to conceal his hope and excitement.

Roger stood up, slowly and solemnly, and brushed the dirt and pine needles off the rear of his jeans. The other boys looked up expectantly along with Marx to hear what he was going to say about the Silver Lake Lodge. Some knew, some doubted and some hoped, but we all wanted to believe in Silver Lake Lodge in our own way.

Roger paused to look us over. “Just checking, Marx,” he said in a weary voice. “Just checking.”


Copyright © 2015 Karl Schoenberger

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