FREE SPEECH ZONE | The day an old man cried

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I’m not really given to sentimental moments, but an event about two years ago brought me to tears.  No, it was not what you might expect: a death or tragedy in the family, or some sort of cataclysmic personal misfortune. It was something far simpler, and actually even mundane.

We have a son who was living in Duluth, and we went to visit him from our home in Minnetonka. The route carries us up I-35.  When I was young, say 10 or 11, I went to Camp Miller for several summers, the Duluth YMCA camp. The camp is located in Sturgeon Lake, just a short hop from the freeway. Kind of strange that a youngster from St. Paul would go to the Duluth “Y” camp, but that’s where my friends went, and so it was. And the experience too was indelible. I guess that is what caused the tears.

We exited the freeway, drove on a short paved road, then a dirt road into the camp. And there it was. Many things changed (we had primitive log cabins, the new ones seemed far too sleek for what was once a rustic and natural camp); but also there were things that remained and were strong reminders of the past. Obviously the terrain, a few of the buildings, the picturesque lake as always, the deep Minnesota woods, and the general ambiance.  I took it all in with interest – and then tears came to my eyes. Then a few sobs. Next, I bawled out loud. An old man crying!

My wife looked on with surprise, and I guess a little shock. I needed an explanation. Here it is.  As I previewed the scene, I immediately conjured up a young boy – nutty brown from the sun – carefree and romping around the grounds in front of me. I saw him swinging by his knees upside down on some gym equipment. Making a crude clay ashtray to bring home to Mom (who never smoked). I imagined him swimming in the lake and diving from a modestly high platform – then taking off for the raft anchored about 30 feet from shore. I remembered the rough sawn log cabin, with double bunks, sagging springs, rugged wooden floor, and chewed up candy bars the mice would feast on at night.  I smelled the incredible odor of the “8-holer” that made you do your business really fast, and escape while you were still lucid. Then washing with the only running water in the camp (except for the dining hall). Ahh…the dining hall. Manned by cheerful, overweight local Scandinavian women who cooked from scratch and made every meal wholesome and tasty. In those days, everything was “organic”. Every cabin had its own table, and there was always one extra dessert that was awarded at the end of the meal with a silly counting game called “horsengogle”.

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Being a YMCA camp, there were always Christian services each Sunday (outdoors in the woods); and our camp director was highly religious. However, despite being the only Jewish kid in the entire camp, I attended and listened respectfully. Thus, when I left (and to this day) I can sing virtually very church song with the best of them. “Jesus Loves Me”, “Little Brown Church in the Wildwood” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” are my favorites.

I remember we were at times sent to pick local blueberries from the multitude of wild blueberry bushes surrounding the camp. The berries to be used in fresh blueberry pies. We were given pails, but they usually came back half empty because there is no candy sweeter than fresh picked wild blueberries.  And I remembered nothing but fun, and not a care in the world. Then I cried.

Why would I cry at a remembrance of nothing but pleasant happy, sunny events?  Because here I was at 77 years old, and I could not remember what the hell happened to those intervening 65 years!  It was so traumatic, I burst into tears.  They had been nothing but a massive blur.  I was a carefree young kid – and now suddenly, a tired old man in the twilight. The middle seemed to have disappeared. It was like a video tape that runs on “fast forward”, zipping by…with many scenes barely discernable…and going too fast.  Moreover, I had a wife of over 55 years…three children… served as an officer in the Air Force…and wonderful career. I owned several ad agencies, was my own boss, had a vast number of great experiences, and was financially secure. But now it all seemed so vague, so fast, so remote, almost like it didn’t happen.  I went from young to old in a single moment, and that made me cry. It was analogous to writing a long, long, very long message in the sand of the beach, and as soon as the tide comes in, it is dissolved back to nothing but wordless sand as though it was never there. Wordless sand. Sand.

I had to leave the site quickly. It was too much anguish reflecting on the whole experience. I got into the car, wiped my eyes, and drove back to the freeway and reality. I’m not sure if there is a lesson or moral to this?  If there is one, it is probably best expressed by a wonderful Irish saying I heard long ago:

“Yesterday is history

Tomorrow is a mystery

Today is a gift…

That is why they call it ‘the present'”