Just for Starters ...
Don't get me wrong, Camp Wahkah Wahkah wasn't the worst experience I've ever had. I mean when you're the shortest kid in sixth grade, forced to wear Woody Allen glasses all your life, and basically serve as the all-school punching bag, you've got lots of bad experiences to choose from. But Camp Whacko (that's what we called it for short) definitely rated right up there in the top ten.
I knew I was in trouble the moment I stepped onto the camp bus. Of course it was full of the usual screaming crazies. No surprise there. I mean you take the politest kid in the world and put him on a camp bus and he goes bonkers. Count on it. It's like a law or something. What caught me off guard was the flying peanut butter and jelly sandwich ... open faced of course. I tried to duck, but I was too late.
K-THWACK! right in the old kisser.
Fortunately the jelly was grape, my favorite. And by the gentle aroma of freshly baked peanuts I knew the peanut butter had to be Skippy. Another lucky break. What was not lucky was that it completely covered my glasses. I couldn't see a thing.
Before I knew it, the bus ground into gear and lurched forward. Everyone cheered. Well, almost everyone. I was busy stumbling down the aisle at record speed. Of course there were the usual, "Smooth move, dork breath" and "Way to go, McDoogle" as I tumbled past. (What a comfort to hear familiar voices in time of trouble.)
Then I got lucky. Through the peanut butter I caught a glimpse of an empty seat toward the back. It took a little doing and bouncing off a couple campers"Oh, ick!" "Get away, Geek!" (more of my old school chums)but I finally managed to crash into the empty seat.
Whew. Safe at last. Well, not exactly ...
As I peeled the bread off my face and removed my glasses, I noticed that the whole bus had grown very quiet. I quickly scraped the peanut butter and jelly gunk off of my glasses and into my hands. Then I pushed my glasses back on.
I wished I hadn't.
The first thing I noticed was that all eyes were on me.
The second thing I noticed was a thick crackly voice. A voice that sounded like it ate gravel for lunch and then washed it down with a box of thumb tacks.
But that was nothing compared to the third thing I noticedthe fearsome, gravely voice was directed at ME.
"You're sitting in my seat."
I turned to see who was talking.
Another mistake. Sometimes if you're going to die it's best not to know the details. But by recognizing the kid's face and noticing the size of his biceps I not only knew the "who," I knew the "how."
It was Gary the Gorilla. He hated that name. In fact he did bodily harm to anyone he heard using it. But it was all anyone knew him by. We'd never officially met, but I recognized his picture from the papers. Or maybe it was the Post Office. Or maybe both. It didn't matter where. The point is once you saw it you never forgot it. And you'd always go out of your way to avoid it.
That's okay, I thought. Don't panic. Turn on some of that world famous McDoogle charm. Be his friend. Yeah, that's it. The poor guy's probably just misunderstood. Maybe if somebody reached out to him and tried
"Hi there," I said, reaching to shake his hand. "My name is Wally McDoogle. I'm, uh ..."
I don't know whether I stopped because of the look on his face or the gasps from the crowd. But when I glanced down to our handshake I saw the problem. I had just transferred all of the peanut butter and jelly gunk from my hand into his.
"Oh, sorry, Mr. Gorilla, ... er, that is, I mean ..."
With one swift move he had me by the collar. Next I was high above his head and pressed tightly to the ceiling of the bus.
Suddenly my whole life passed before my eyes. Well, it wasn't my whole life. Mostly just the part of how I got into this predicament. It all started with Dad less than eight weeks ago ...
"Don't worry," he shouted, leaning over the lawn mower as I fought to empty the grass catcher. "Church camp will be great for you."
"Especially that two-day canoe tripget you out in the wild away from the luxuries of the big city"
"New challenges, new adventures"
"And the most important thing of all ..."
Uh-oh, I thought, here it comes.
"It will make you a real man."
"A real man." That seemed to be Dad's whole purpose in my life lately. Maybe it had to do with him being All-State something or other back in his high school football days. Or maybe it was because Burt and Brock, my older twin brothers, win every sports trophy they can get their sweaty paws on. Or maybe it was because I made the mistake of telling everybody at dinner one night that I wanted to be a writer.
"A writer?" Dad winced.
"Yeah, but not just a writera screenwriter. You know, like movies and stuff."
"Yeah, but ... a writer?" The word stuck in his throat like Aunt Martha's overcooked chicken.
"Sure, lots of people do that."
"But ... a writer?"
Less than four weeks later the brochure from Camp Whacko mysteriously showed up on my dresser. It wasn't long before the camp found its way into our daily conversations. It made no difference how I argued. Somehow some way, just four weeks later, I found myself loading my bags into the car and heading for the church bus.
"You sure you need that computer thing?" Dad asked as he suspiciously eyed the laptop computer I was carrying to the car.
"Sure Dad," I tried to sound matter of fact. "It will uh, um, it will help me take notes on all the outdoorsy stuff I learn."
"Hmmm ..." was all he said.
I pulled the computer closer to my side. This could get messy.
He stood beside the car and slowly crossed his arms.
"Please, God," I silently prayed, "not ol' Betsy, too." ("Betsy," that's what I call my computer.)
Finally Mom spoke up. "I think he should take it, Herb. It's one thing to ship the boy off to camp against his will, but to take away his computer?"
"I didn't say we should," Dad hedged. "It's just with all the new experiences he'll be having, I wonder if it's really necessary to"
"I really think he should take it, Herb."
Now, everyone in our family knows what it means when Mom says "really" like that. It means her mind is made up. Oh sure, Dad could still have his wayafter all, he is the man of the house. But if he did, it meant he'd have to pay for it in the days to come. Little things like cold dinners, burnt toast, or finding starch in his underwear. You know, details like that.
"It was just a suggestion," he offered as he threw the rest of my bags into the trunk.
"Thanks, Mom." I grinned and climbed into the car.
"No sweat, Kiddo," she said, sticking her head through the open window and giving me a goodbye kiss. "But you owe me."
"Put it on my bill."
Dad started the car, but before we pulled away Mom went down her list of usual "Mom" things. You know, stuff like, "I expect you to wear your pajamas. Tops and bottoms."
"And don't forget to change your underwear."
"And don't forget to floss. Remember, healthy gums are happy gums."
"Son ..." Now it was Dad's turn. But instead of a long lecture he reached over, put his powerful hand on my shoulder and looked me straight in the eyes. I knew it was going to be something profound, something deeply moving, something I'd remember the rest of my life.
"Son," he repeated to build the suspense. Then, after a deep breath he continued. "Think ... manly thoughts."
I did my best to smile. He gave me a reassuring nod, put the car in gear, and off we headed for the bus.
That was just half an hour ago. And now thirty short minutes later I was pinned to the roof of the bus by Gary the Gorilla.
So this is what it feels like to die? I thought. Not so bad. Course it would be better if he'd let go of my collar so I could breathe. Still, on the McDoogle pain scale of 1 to 10 this is only a
Suddenly an idea came to mind. I reached down to his meaty hand (the one wrapped around my throat) and scraped the rest of the peanut butter and jelly from it. Next I began to eat the stuff. The idea was to get him to laugh, to show him that I was just a stupid geek and that this was all just a stupid geek accident.
Unfortunately he didn't laugh. But the rest of the bus did. And, as they chuckled, Gary, being the insecure kind of bully he was, naturally thought they were laughing at him.
His grip around my neck tightened.
Now, I got to admit, I don't exactly remember praying. Sometimes when you're busy dying you forget little details like that. But suddenly, out of the blue, I heard this voice:
"Put him down, Gary."
At first I thought it was God or at least one of those archangel guys we hear about in Sunday school. After all this was a church bus going to a church camp. But when I turned I saw it was only a counselor. Still, beggars can't be choosers. I'd take what I could get.
Gary gave the man a glare but the counselor stayed cool and calm.
"Put him down," the man repeated.
I gave my glasses a nervous little push back onto my nose. Unfortunately it was with the hand still dripping in peanut butter and jelly. I noticed an exceptionally large glob of the goo starting to fall. I tried to catch it but I was too late.
From high above it nailed Gorilla Boy right in the ol' face.
The bus broke into even louder laughter.
Gary never had people laugh at himat least not to his faceat least no one who lived to tell about it. And to have it happen twice in a row was unthinkable. But instead of enjoying the experience as something to treasure and remember, Gary turned beet red. The muscles in his neck began to tighten and quiver. He turned to the rest of the bus and gave them his world famous death glare.
The rest of the bus stopped laughing. Come to think of it, they may have stopped breathing.
Finally the counselor's voice broke the silence. "It's the last time I'm telling you, Gary ... put him down."
Slowly Gary turned his head and directed his death glare at me. I could almost feel the plastic rims of my glasses melt.
Then he dropped me. I hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. But at least a living sack of potatoes. For that I was grateful.
I was not grateful for Gary's final words to me. "I'm not going to forget this, Weasel. No one makes a fool of me. No one." (Continues...)