Stations of Life’s Journey

2017: Newsletter # 5

It’s been a momentous week at Camp Pemigewassett. No, there haven’t been any further floods (although it did rain a little bit more.) No victory on Tecumseh Day (yet! – and despite the fact that we did very nicely against Camp Moosilauke last weekend!) And no announcement of a Pulitzer Prize for the Bean Soup editorial staff (although Dan Reed and Wes Eifler did scribe some wonderful celebratory limericks for the annual Birthday Banquet.) No, instead, roughly eighty first-session campers said goodbye to us last Monday morning, while eighty second-sessioners arrived on Tuesday to start their own 2017 seasons. It’s especially gratifying when parents retrieving their sons report that their boy’s first words after a crushing hug were, “I’m definitely coming back for seven weeks next year.” It’s equally buoying to see returning veterans bouncing out of their cars and running over to old friends, taking exactly 2.5 seconds to fall into the kind of excited jabber you couldn’t interrupt with an air-raid siren. Session Two is off to an energetic and happy start, with our June arrivals very clearly getting a second wind from last Tuesday’s reinforcements. It doesn’t hurt, naturally, that the aforementioned Tecumseh Day is coming up this Friday. The annual showdown with our archrivals of the past 108 years never fails to get the Pemi engine running at peak RPMs.

Also most definitely revving up the week, though, have been the returns of the two major expeditions we mount every summer – the Allagash Canoe Trip and Pemi West. Both groups rolled back into camp on Friday: Pemi West at 9:30 P.M. and the Allagash van on the stroke of midnight. There are many ways for a boy to extend himself at Pemi, whether he’s a special devotee of athletics, the arts and music, nature, or the trip program. Nothing we do with our fifteen-year-olds, however, offers quite the challenge embodied in the sixty-to-seventy-mile, five-day paddle down the Allagash River through the untamed wilderness of northern Maine. Yet, exciting and demanding as this inland voyage may be, it has to take a second seat to the exacting, life-altering mountain leadership program that is Pemi West. Every year, eight to twelve Pemi veterans aged sixteen or seventeen (sometimes with interested boys or girls who haven’t been with us in Wentworth) set out for Washington State’s Olympic National Park for three and a half weeks of wilderness backpacking, mountaineering, and rock-climbing. The program unquestionably builds on skills and interests acquired at Pemi East (with many participants having in fact cut their teeth on wilderness adventure up on the Allagash!), but advanced training in Wilderness First Aid, glacier travel, and various other skills required in mountaineering and rock climbing make the course as personally groundbreaking as it is exciting. Participants learn to assess their capabilities relative to challenges of multiple sorts, make wise decisions and carry them out with determination and good judgment, and, perhaps most important of all, cultivate a selfless and supportive group ethic that makes for collective success on the trail and, for many years to come, elsewhere as well. The Allagash boys come back to Pemi as leaders of their fellow campers. The Pemi West crew come back as all but assistant counselors and, as often as not, become our very best cabin counselors in subsequent years.

Allagash Trip

2017 Allagash trip

2017 Allagash trip

This year’s Allagash trip was led by veteran Pemi trip counselors Harry Morris and Nick Davini. Under their skilled guidance, Brodie Fisher, Teddy Foley, Miles Schiff Stein, Frank Applebaum, Eli Barlow, Scott Cook, Nathan King, Elliot Muffett, Suraj Khakee, and Owen Lee left camp a week ago Monday, just as the sun was rising across the mist-filled valley. Harry and Nick had decided this year to bypass the sometimes wind-bound Allagash lakes and return to the river section of the waterway, which consists of a 63-mile paddle from Churchill Dam to the Village of Allagash. Including the out and back drives of nearly 500 miles each, the group spent five days away from camp, one more than usual for this outing. They paddled each day from about 8 AM to 3:30 or 4:00 PM, giving them plenty of time on the river as well as allowing them to relax at the excellent campsites that grace that stretch of the waterway. As in past year’s, the group saw multiple moose, over a dozen bald eagles, and lots of other wildlife not typically seen here in New Hampshire. The boys, report Harry and Nick, were absolutely excellent this year. They had been in training for three weeks, paddling on our pond on a daily basis, learning the various strokes required for a demanding river passage, learning how to deal with and recover from capsizing, and trying out the skills of portaging. They had also been on two preparatory river trips, such that when they finally hit the Allagash, they were practiced and confident, and thus able to appreciate all the more the magnificently wild setting through which they travelled. Harry and Nick were especially impressed with everyone’s willingness to lend a helping hand to others when the need arose. A tight-knit group even before they left, they returned sun-bronzed and happy, bonded together even more closely through the rigors, and the pleasures, of the trip.

Pemi West

This year’s Pemi West group was comprised of Pemi veterans Dash Slamowitz, Sam Beesley, Pierce Haley, Jackson Morrell, Reed O’Brien, Will Adams, George Cook, Nolan Katcher, and Andrew Kanovsky. Under the experienced guidance of Pemi West Director Dave Robb and his co-instructors Tim Heltzel and Regan Narin, they quickly learned everything they needed to know about organizing their 40-50-pound packs for ease of carrying and quick access to crucial gear; planning, provisioning, and cooking their meals; setting realistic goals for the day’s travel; situating their campsites; moving across glaciers with ropes on their harnesses, crampons on their boots, and ice axes in their hands; glissading and self-arresting after falls; and scores of other skills and necessities for backcountry travel. Once they had mastered the basics and repeated them enough for them to become reflexes and routines, each participant took his turn as leader of the day, assuming total responsibility for everything from determining wake-up time and their optimal route to deciding upon their final destination. Dave, Tim, and Regan were always in the wings, shadowing the group, but Pemi’s “mountain leadership” program required exactly that of all the boys in turn: leadership, with all of the challenges, opportunities, uncertainties, doubts, realizations, and rewards that being a leader involves. In the wonderful talk they gave to the entire Pemi East community this past Sunday evening, they spoke eloquently about the self-knowledge that comes from being in charge of a group you care about and having to decide, in the moment, what the best way might be to work with a number of other strong-minded individuals in order to achieve an important goal. There were also 24-hour solos, when each participant became his own Thoreau on Walden Pond and had a chance truly to digest what he had gone through on this mountain odyssey, how it was all changing him, how different the coming months and years might promise to be as a result.

2017 Pemi West group

2017 Pemi West group

It was all such a daunting prospect, for starters. Two and a half weeks in the backcountry, carrying everything you need, save for what you will unpack from the back of a friendly llama at the resupply ten or twelve days in! Sam Beesley’s remarks on Sunday were especially revealing. The first several days on the trail, he literally wasn’t sure he could make it. Though a seasoned distance runner, he had never encountered anything this taxing. His thoughts were all about how infernally heavy his pack was, how he had made a mistake ever signing on for this, how slogging through two more weeks seemed a complete impossibility. Even as he wrestled with these doubts, though, he could imagine another Sam, a future Sam, who might look back on all this with a profound sense of pride, pleasure, and accomplishment. Mile by mile, day by day, the self-doubting boy in the woods somehow became the proven and joyous traveler through the wild, and Sam’s personal prognostications solidified into a reality. “As we all finished the last three miles of the trip by ourselves, I realized that I wanted to stay longer. And as we camped in the front country and as we got further and further from the Park and deeper into civilization, I missed the wilderness more and more. I missed the quietness of it, the solitude and feeling of self-sufficiency that comes with spending weeks in the woods. The need to get back to the natural world was not one I had ever felt before. I’m pretty sure the Sam who was first counting down the days till the end of the trip would find the Sam who wished the trip would never end was kind of insane. But I guess you don’t know how good you’ve got it until it’s over.” It’s hard to know how better the philosophical and personal payoffs of a rigorous mountain adventure might be expressed. Everyone in the Lodge knew that they were witness to lives that had been irrevocably enhanced, even transformed. Oh, the lucky ones (this year’s Allagashers among them) for whom the Olympic Range might be next summer’s play- and proving ground alike!

Distance Swim

Distance swim

Distance swimmer

Many Pemi West participants have indeed first worked up an appetite for the rigors of extended wilderness travel on the Allagash waterway. Pemi is not unique in believing that boys and girls thrive best when they are introduced to appropriate challenges at just the appropriate age, but we do try to structure many things at camp in a way that allows our boys to match being satisfied with things they’ve already mastered with the boldness needed to take on things they’ve not yet tried. Historically, one of the most dependable building blocks of self-validation and confidence has been the “distance swim,” the half-mile, staff-escorted swim that qualifies a boy to take out a boat on his own or with a fellow camper. Hard as it may be to believe, some boys arrive at camp never having swum in anything other than a pool – or perhaps in the wave-tumbled shallows of the ocean shore. The prospect of swimming the equivalent of 30 to 35 pool lengths when you can’t even see the bottom (let alone count on being able to touch it if you tire) can be extremely daunting to an eight-, eleven-, or even fourteen-year-old. It hardly matters that staff members are just feet ahead in a rowboat, with their life-saving tube at the ready. You still feel very much alone (and I am remembering the feeling distinctly, almost with a chill, as I write this sixty years after my own first distance swim!) You wonder whether you have it in you to move past the first fifty yards – to the second – to the tenth – to the fifteenth. But, as the chilly waters seem almost to warm with your extended effort and the float that is your destination grows from the apparent dimensions of a Lego spied across an amphitheater to a sofa cushion viewed from the coffee table, you get that giddy feeling that you’re going to make it. Maybe your biggest worry now, in fact, is that, when you pull yourself up, arm-weary, onto the float, your smile will be so broad and crazy that your counselor will be forced to chuckle at your extravagant pleasure. “Of course I could manage,” you’ll want to say. “Never the slightest doubt! (And boy, are my arms exhausted!)” You look forward to the cheer of acknowledgement in the mess hall that night – even though you’ll blush when you hear it. Playing Frisbee running bases that evening, you’ll pause to recall what you’ve managed to do – and that silly smile may bloom once again. That night, after taps, as your counselor starts to read the next chapter of Treasure Island, you’ll think quietly to yourself, “Maybe I’m more like Jim Hawkins than I thought.” These are the little steps, of body and mind, that mark so distinctly our progress as we grow up, get stronger, believe in ourselves.

We’ll close by looking at the Distance Swim from a slightly different angle –a perspective offered by former Director Tom Reed, Sr., who left us in 2010. What follows is a transcription of a recording made in May of that year. It speaks, as we have spoken above, to the way boys can rise to challenges in a fashion that changes them forever for the better. But is also speaks to the incalculable satisfaction that can be derived from creating an atmosphere in which that change can happen. The boy may swim, but the giddy smile may belong as much to his counselor as to him. (Ask Kim Bradshaw who, just this past week, watched with delight as Jon Ciglar and Kieran Klasfeld, with whom she had been working for three summers, finally waded ashore after managing The Big Swim.) Somehow, inevitably, we are all in the water together. 

(Tom usually told this story at the last meeting of staff training week, the night before the campers arrived.) 

With regard to why we’re all here tonight, and for the remaining seven weeks of the season, it’s become customary for me to speak a little bit because of my long experience at Pemi myself. Some people may be here to make a huge salary. Don’t expect that to be the case. Others will come for a variety of reasons, but I want to explain, in a short story of what happened at Pemi one summer not too long ago, why we really are all here, every one of us. 

We had a camper I’ll call Matthew who was with us for two or three summers about twenty or twenty-five years ago. He was one of these appealing but somewhat ineffectual kids who really couldn’t do much that was likely to impress other campers, or even some of the staff. He was put in the Junior Camp, the only new kid in his cabin, and like all the other Juniors started out learning occupations (as we call the morning activities) including swimming. At Pemi, all campers must swim the half mile from the Senior Beach to the Junior Beach before they’re allowed to take boats out by themselves, as opposed to going out with a counselor. Well, so Matthew started out on this swimming program along with some other kids, and he wasn’t making much progress, and he and other people in the Junior Camp surely noticed that he wasn’t making much progress in other areas either. He didn’t seem to make new friends, he didn’t seem to get much better in tennis, or any activities like that. Meanwhile, all of the other Juniors, as usual, were making progress, sometimes immense progress, in other areas. So Matthew often seemed to be adrift, kind of a, oh, I don’t know how to describe him, in this sea of activity around him. 

Now, here’s where the story really starts. I think he must have become afraid of swimming somewhere else, because he was a very slow learner in the water, and while the other boys made rapid progress, he hardly made any progress at all. And he hated it. He would sometimes hide, and the counselors would have to come and find him, and almost drag him out to the swimming area. And they hated themselves for that, and he hated them too, I suppose, for that. But he made slow progress through the season. First it was swimming from dock to dock, then around the Junior swimming area, and finally to the Junior Point and back – quite a short distance, but significant psychologically in this case, I think.

And then comes the end of the summer, or nearing the end of the summer, with two days left to go, and Matthew still hasn’t swum his distance. He’s the only boy who hasn’t, and everybody in camp knows that. So what do the counselors do? Should they start him out on that swim, with the knowledge of what a huge thing it would be for him if he made it; or what an awful thing it would be if he tried and failed, with no time left to repeat. But they decided to do it, and just two days before the end of the season.  

I remember I was in the office with Holly Gardner, our secretary, working, when a little Junior ran by the open window and yelled in at us: “Matthew’s swimming his distance!”

Well, the sound of those words still sends a chill up and down my back. So Holly and I ran out onto the porch of the Lodge and, sure enough, there was Matthew in the water about fifty yards out, with a row boat ahead of him with two counselors in it, one rowing – you could hear the creaking of the oars – and the other holding a bamboo pole out over Matthew’s head (just off the stern of the boat) so that Matthew could grab that any time he wanted to for help. And there was a third counselor, Brad Saffer, the head of the swimming program in the Junior Camp that year, who, very unusually, was swimming in the water with Matthew, singing songs, mostly Gilbert and Sullivan songs, because Brad had starred in the show the night before and was going to again that night. And you could see the arms of Matthew rising laboriously above the water, and hear occasional conversation.  

As I say, Holly Gardner and I were working, and we came out and we saw this apparition, and we watched for a couple of minutes. And suddenly, unexpectedly, there was utter silence, and out of this silence, from across the water, came this little boy’s voice saying, “I’m gonna make it!” 

Well, I don’t know if I ever heard more thrilling words in my life to this day – except perhaps when [my wife] Betsy said “I do!” And Holly felt the same way. We both began to cry, and by this time, about half the camp was along the shore, watching Matthew make progress. And this is really significant, because with only a couple of days left in the season, boys who were good friends were much more likely to play tennis with each other, or some kind of activity like that, than to watch an eight-year-old boy swim in the lake. But there they were.  

Holly and I ran down to the Senior Beach, and by that time probably two thirds of the camp was there. And as Matthew came out of the water, the campers ran out to meet him, to shake his hand, and pat his back, and rub his hair and so on. And I wish you could have seen Matthew’s face, which really resembled the rising sun. I don’t think there was a person there who didn’t know what Matthew must have been thinking: “I did it! I did it all, every stroke of the way, all by myself.” (He wasn’t, of course, old enough yet to appreciate the full contributions the counselors had made.) And Matthew’s face also said, “If I can do something this hard, at which I wanted to give up, at which I had to work so hard all summer, and do it all by myself, then there may be nothing in life ahead of me which will be too hard for me to do.” Now if any of you who are or will be parents consider the full impact of this, you’ll know how important that was. I think the word “miracle” is not too strong to describe it. And then that night in the Mess Hall, Matthew had perhaps the longest, loudest cheer in Pemi’s history.

So that really is why we’re all here. Every one of you can do something somewhat like that for one of our campers; and if you can, do it. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, like Matthew’s story. Any little improvement here or there can work as a minor to a major miracle in a boy’s life. So we’re delighted to have you all here, and we’ll be working together on this and other important projects all summer. Thank you, and good night!

Baker Pond. The Allagash. The glacier-clad peaks of the distant Olympics. Crucial stations, all of them, on a life’s journey of growing confidence and consequence.

(Tune in next week for an account of Tecumseh Day 2017, penned by our storied Athletic Director, Charlie Malcolm.)


Summer 2012: Newsletter #4

Tuesday, July 17. Changeover Day! Ninety first-session campers wrap up their 2012 seasons, and ninety eager second-session boys take their places. As David Byrne might say, “How did we get here (so quickly)?” A remarkable stretch of clear weather no doubt helped, as everything seems to go more quickly when the sun shines. But we trust that the proverbial speed with which tempus seems to fugare when you’re having a good time may have had something to do with it as well.

Moose Day

The last several days have been fraught with engaging activities. The world premiere of Metal Boy: The Musical graced the Pemi boards last Friday evening (on which see more below.) Saturday was Moosilauke Day, as we squared off against out storied rivals on Upper Baker Pond in a host of sports in multiple age groups. It was good to welcome the families of some of our full-season campers on this, the first of two visiting days. It was also good to prevail in the majority of the day’s contests, leaving Pemi with aggregate victories in all three of our first-session sports fixtures: Kingswood Day, Baker Valley Tournament Day, and Moose Day. Even more important though, as Danny pointed out in the Mess Hall that evening, was that the competition had been spirited and fair, and the sportsmanship flawless.

Saturday evening featured our weekly campfire, with numbers substantially augmented by our visitors. Fred Fauver and Tom Reed Jr. kicked things off with “The Lion Bitin’ Song,” with which their fathers Al and Tom had regaled the masses from the 1940s to the 1970s.  Having so many families there brought out scads of new camper acts, and more than one parent commented that s/he hadn’t known “Junior” had it in him to perform in front of 300 people. Such may be the impact, though, of our mantra, “Never be afraid to try something new.”

Counselor Hunt

The dreaded Annual Counselor Hunt, postponed from the Fourth of July, took place on Sunday afternoon, with many staff successfully flushed out of their hiding spots by fiercely intent camper/hunters – and many of them undertaking entertainingly ridiculous plunges from the high-dive as a “penalty” for being found. Top honors to Michael McKeand, braw Scots counselor of the Hill Tent, for being the first Pemi staffer ever to hide – and swim – in a kilt! That night, Head of Staff (and masterful maven of Pemi Improv) Dwight Dunston entertained – and moved – the community immensely with a wistful, wise, funny, and celebratory account of where Pemi fits into his remarkable life trajectory.

Birthday Banquet toast

Yesterday was the annual Tecumseh Track Meet, with over sixty of our campers traveling to Lake Winnepesauke for a Pemi-Tecumseh warm-up, followed by a sumptuous end-of session banquet, which doubled as a chance to celebrate the birthdays of all campers and staff whose natal anniversaries fall during the season. Chef Stacey’s turkey-with-all-the-fixin’s feast put the final touches on what has been nothing less than a brilliant five weeks as the new Pemi Escoffier. The program ended with Birthday Greetings from around the world and limericks for all of the celebrants, penned and voiced in the best Mead Hall style by resident bards Ian Axness, Peter Siegenthaler, and Dwight Dunston. Then it was down to the Lodge for first-session awards and the last Bean Soup of the stanza. As evening crept over our little valley, the spirit in the room couldn’t have been warmer, as we all relished our last moments together as a full group. To live together amiably for three and a half weeks is great in and of itself. To laugh together good-naturedly just makes it that much better. Thanks to Ian, Peter, and Dwight for making that laughter so infectious and easy.

What happened earlier in the week? Here are a few details, from various sources. First, from Paige Wallis, head of our Swimming Program:

Pemi Swimmers

On Tuesday July 10th, an eager group of Pemi swimmers made the trek over to Walt Whitman for that camp’s annual swim meet. Upon arrival, the Pemi team prepared to jump in and warm up in Walt Whitman’s outdoor pool, located just yards away from their lake. The meet consisted of a Free Relay, four individual strokes, and finished with a Medley Relay. The 11s Free Relay team of Nick Carter, Diego Periel, Teddy Foley, and Isaac Sonnenfeldt put up the first points for Pemi. Throughout the afternoon, Pemi continued to compete with great sportsmanship and speed. The 15s Free Relay team consisting of Jamie Marshman, Jackson Seniff, Nick Pennebacker, and Sompy Somp amazed the Pemi coaches with their velocity in the water. Robert Cecil glided through the H2O with ease and precision, winning Pemi points in the 13s Freestyle, Backstroke, and Medley Relay. Jack and Nick Carter brought a great energy to the11s team and tied for first in the Butterfly. The 15s Medley Relay was the final event of the day. Alex Baskin, Nick Pennebacker, Sompy Somp, and Jamie Marshman came in second, fighting hard against a skilled Walt Whitman team. There was lots of hard work and energy from Pemi team, and by the end of the day Pemi came out on top with a 178 point win! Great work, Pemi swimmers!!!

Now, let’s hear from Jonathan Merrin, Head of Archery. (Will you be able to tell from his language, we wonder, that Jon hails from Merry Old England?)

Pemi attended the Silver 25th-anniversary Robin Hood Invitational Archery tournament on the 13th of July. Even though it may have seemed a less than auspicious date for a Pemi to take on a old rival, our band of top archers set off, come what may, on their quest to claim a victory against formidable competition from a brace of other camps.

Our bold and daring band took the line for their battle with great gusto. With words of encouragement and a Pemi cheer for luck still ringing in their ears, they launched their arrows with deadly accuracy.  They acquitted themselves with the honour and valor of knights – nicely balanced by the dignity and humility befitting Pemi Kids.  To come in third out of five camps, falling only to Robin Hood and Lanakila (in whose programs archery plays a substantially greater role than in ours), they shot with a steely determination befitting champions.

To be sure, Pemi’s leaders were right up there with the tournament’s best. With sheer skill and unwavering concentration, Kai Soderberg came in second in his 12-and-under age category, narrowly dropping a championship shoot-out with a score of 255. Following that, Nathaniel Kaplan’s stunning score of 277 set a new record high tally for Pemi, garnering him sixth place on Robin Hood’s storied all-time Wall of Fame. We mustn’t forget two rising stars in Thomas Bono and Hugh Jones, who had only been doing archery for a week before their first competition. Those who saw their high standard of performance after such a short apprenticeship won’t soon forget it.

Alas, after a long day, Pemi’s brightest could not bring the trophy home, but we acquitted ourselves with distinction, setting a new benchmark and firing hope for future attempts at the title with our rising young stars.

Next, this word from Track Coach Dwight Dunston:

This past Wednesday, July 11, 2012, marked the annual Baker Valley Tournament Track and Field Invitational, hosted by Pemi. After a short Rest Hour, our boys set out to the track, thoroughly sun-screened and well hydrated for what would prove to be a successful day. Camps Moosilauke, Walt Whitman, and Kingswood arrived with their athletes in tip-top shape and ready to compete, which meant that Pemi’s task of holding on to the title as reigning champion of the meet would not be an easy one.

For the 11-and-Under age group, Diego Periel, Whit Stahl, and Reed Cecil got the day started off on a good foot, posting top times in the 60m dash, coming in 1st, 3rd, and 4th, respectively. Stahl then turned around and placed 4th in the 400m dash, while teammates Will Moore and Nick Carter captured 2nd and 3rd. In the shot put, Periel and Quinn McConnaughey showed their strength by coming in 1st and 3rd. Ben Burnham and Will Moore showed off their springs by coming in 2nd and 4th in the long jump, and Jackson Smith and Tate Suratt leapt to 2nd and 4th place finishes in the high jump. Pemi swept the mile, with Carter, McConnaughey, Cecil, and Stahl coming in the top four positions. 

The 13-and-Under crew got out to a strong start, finishing 1st and 3rd in the 60m dash behind the speed of Andrew Merrell and Dylan Cheng. In the 400m dash, Nick Todalagi captured second out of the fast heat. In the mile, Patterson Malcolm came out strong, finishing second, and teammate Pepe Periel finished four seconds behind him to capture 3rd.  Periel turned around and grabbed 2nd in the high jump, while Jack Elvekrog garnered 4th. Ben Ross, Patterson Malcolm, and Ezra Nugiel finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, respectively, in the long jump, and Robert Cecil and Dylan Cheng finished 3rd and 4th in the shot put.

Perhaps the story of the day came from our Seniors, who certainly led the rest of the camp from the front. In the mile, Pemi pushed the pack, with Ben Chaimberg, Dylan O’Keefe, and Nick Bertrand coming in 1st, 3rd, and 4th. Chaimberg would go on to win the 60m dash and the 400m as well (a very impressive feat indeed!), with John-Henry Bahr finishing 3rd in the 60m and Jackson Seniff finishing 4th in the 400m. Bahr would later show he had more than speed by winning the shot put, with J.J. Murray Jr. finishing 2nd. Jack Cathcart and Dylan O’Keefe finished 3rd and 4th in the long jump. Pemi then swept the high jump in the order of Bertrand, Barr, O’Keefe, and Chaimberg.

 At the end of the day, Pemi managed to gather enough points to win the track meet and retain the title for one more year. We are now looking forward to our next meet, which will be this Monday at Tecumseh. Congratulations to all of the boys who participated. Can’t wait to see what you accomplish next!    

Gramps, Metal Boy, and Pemi Counselor

Finally, in case you missed Saturday’s review in the Times, Friday’s world premiere of Metal Boy: The Musical lived up to every kilowatt of the advanced hype. For those of you who don’t know the quirky story on which Ian Axness’s show is based, it involves a little metal camper (we get ‘em here more often than you’d think!) who risks terminal rust in order to help his Pemi teammates win our annual athletic day with Camp Tecumseh. As fate would have it, the story itself has always ended with Tecumseh Day being just two weeks off  — and the narrator enjoining Pemi to “Use every day!” in preparation. Lo and behold, this year’s battles with Tecumseh come exactly two weeks after show night, so an odd cosmic propriety seems to have been in place. Interviewed by the videographer after the show (see the interviews here, on YouTube), Ian was heard to say that the story’s vision of an artistically crafted humanoid who turns out to be a fiercely-competitive athlete appealed to his sense of Pemi’s programmatic hybridity. Similarly, staging a dramatic tour de force such as Metal Boy even partially in order to spur Pemi’s real, flesh-and-blood athletes to greater effort and determination seems a wonderful blend of the Athenian and the Spartan. But back to the show.

Ian’s libretto was based on the trilogy of Metal Boy stories scribed by Tom Reed Jr. towards the start of the last decade. The music Ian culled from a variety of Pemi songs, Gilbert and Sullivan tunes from last year’s Mikado and this year’s Pirates, and two numbers from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Staging involved a clever black-box design by Zach Barnard, who also masterminded all other aspect of the production. We mentioned some of the cast in a previous newsletter, but suffice it to say that Metal Boy’s “Fellow Campers” Dan Bivona, Harry Cooke, Jack Davini, James Minzesheimer, Bill O’Leary, and Jackson Welsh turned in performances worthy of Tony consideration, while “Juniors” Jacob Berk, Brady Chilson, Matt Edlin, and Spencer O’Brien came through as the true infant prodigy kids they are. Lucas Jansky was hilarious as Skin-Bag (so named because that’s the way real boys evidently look to a guy with a steel epidermis), his best number being one in which he explains to Metal Boy the difference between a Squish House and a Pagoda. Peter Siegenthaler narrated with the finish of a James Earl Jones. Harry Eifler was brilliant as the ostentatious yet ever-so-slightly-cynical Counselor (type casting?), while Bridgid Ruf and Austin Blumenfeld played Mom and Dad with the warmth and wisdom of June and Ward Cleaver. Tom Reed Jr., played Gramps like the doddering old man he is, while Larry Davis played himself with a total self-immersion that would have taken Stanislavsky’s breath away. Appropriately stealing the show, however, was MB himself, realized with assured musicality and remarkable dramatic flair by Nick Gordon. He brought tears to more than one spectator’s eyes, and to a few cast members’ as well. (Fortunately, that was the way it was supposed to be!) The production was a double-header, with the curtain rising at 7PM and then again at 8, and when the second show closed with a standing ovation, it was clear something truly remarkable had taken place. If you’re interested in a DVD, let us know!

Well, that about does it for now. Stay tuned for next week’s number, when Assistant Director Ken Moore will review some highlights of Pemi’s diverse Occupations program. Until then, we hope you all enjoy cool and clement weather. Thanks to all the boys who made the first half of the 2012 season such a success. We miss you already, and look forward to the next time we meet.

— Tom and Danny

Pemi’s heartbeat: daily occupations and activities

Photo by Rob Verger

Photo by Rob Verger

One of my favorite parts of being a camper at Pemi was the mornings spent in occupations, hustling from one activity to the next. “Occupations” is the word Pemi uses to describe the organized activities that occur every Moday through Friday and some Saturdays; each activity is 55 minutes long. Campers sign up for new occupations each week, giving them the consistency of five or more days in a row of doing the same activity, but also a change each week, too. This allows the instructors to develop lesson plans that build day-to-day; occupations are where the most structured teaching happens at Pemi each day.

As a camper, I loved any occupation on the water: waterskiing or canoeing, for example. Lower Baker Pond is more than big enough to host lots of activity on it simultaneously and feel far from crowded. I’ve also always loved the chance to take a canoe or kayak under the bridge into camp and explore the quiet lily pad and reed-filled lower lake, or “swamp,” as it’s sometimes called, with a group of campers and staff. (All campers at Pemi are always very closely supervised by staff on the water, both on the lake and lower lake.)

But most of all, when I was a camper, I loved taking sailing occupations. I loved time on the water in a small Sunfish sailboat, and later, in a larger boat called a Puffin. (Now, the Puffins have been upgraded to more modern multi-person sailboats called Capris.) In my years on staff at Pemi, I taught sailing more than any other activity, and I liked the circularity of it: as a camper, I learned how to sail, and as a counselor, I taught it.

Pemi offers all the occupations you might expect: baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball, wood shop, music, and nature occupations galore. If you were to drive into camp on a busy morning, you’d see the fields and the lakes alive with activity, and maybe pass a fifteen-passenger van driven by Larry Davis for a quick outing to the nearby butterfly field. But there are also occupations you might be surprised to hear Pemi offers—night photography, for example, and other arts occupations, like rock painting.

What were your favorite occupations to take or teach when you were at Pemi, and did any of them influence the direction your life took? I know that I can’t pass a sailboat now without thinking happily of Pemi.

Rob Verger