Never Again: Keeping the Memory Alive
On the morning of our last day in Amsterdam, I awoke bright and early and, as I often did, found Mark already awake. He was sitting in front of my laptop checking his email.
"Morning Bud," I said as I came up behind him and kissed the top of his head.
"Morning Tom," Mark replied with a smile. He turned in his seat and wrapped his arms around me and gave me a warm hug.
"You feel like a run in the park this morning?" I asked already knowing the answer.
"Does a bear shit in the woods?" He whispered back with a grin as he shucked off his pajamas and started dressing in his running gear.
After a quick visit to the bathroom, I dressed in my running clothes while Mark wrote a note telling Bryan and Josh where we were.
We were staying at the Hotel Park Amsterdam which is located right next to the largest city park in Amsterdam called Vondelpark. If we had more time available, we'd have loved to explore the park as a group, but since we had a train to catch that day, Mark and I decided to make it the destination for our morning run.
Running together in the morning was fast becoming a tradition for Mark and me - at least when we were together. It gave us a chance to bond and it provided ample opportunity for us to talk about anything we wanted. Like Josh, Mark knew that no topic was off limits with me and that he could come to me with any problem at all. I treasured any opportunity that I had to spend one-on-one time with Mark.
We exited the hotel, running side-by-side and headed to the entrance to the park. It was still very early, but there were a few other runners on the paths as we looked at the city begin to come back to life for a new day.
"That really is something about your uncle," Mark said after we had covered about a first kilometer.
"I'll say. I had no idea that we'd discover something like that," I replied.
"It's really like you two were meant to be part of each other's life," he said thoughtfully.
"I know, but it also means that we were meant to be part of each other's life too," I said with a smile.
"How come?" Mark asked.
"Because it was through Josh that I met you and Bryan. You and Bryan are as much my family as Josh is. Don't ever forget that Marky," I replied firmly.
"Believe me, I won't," he replied with a chuckle.
"You're like a son to me as well Mark. It's like Gretta DeVrie said.... you have two dads. That day when I first met you, something clicked in me and I knew that I needed to help you. I knew that there was something special about you."
"You did?" Mark asked incredulously.
"Of course I did. The fact that you were Josh's best friend spoke volumes about you," I chuckled.
"I couldn't figure out why you were so nice to me," Mark said softly. "In those days I didn't think I was worth much."
"You were worth plenty kiddo. Plenty to Josh. Plenty to Bryan and plenty to me. Now you're worth a whole lot to a whole new family."
"And I have you and Josh to thank for it," Mark said.
"Son, I've said this to Josh before. Everything I've given to you, you've given back to me in spades," I replied and reached out my arm and pulled Mark against me.
"I can't wait to get to camp," Mark said after I released him. "Can Daisy and Brutus run with us in the mornings?"
"I don't see why not. Might actually be a good idea actually since they'll keep any potentially dangerous wildlife away from us."
"Is there dangerous wildlife out there?" Mark asked with wide eyes.
"It is bear country and there are wolves, but they don't normally bother people unless they're cornered or startled. The dogs will see to it that that doesn't happen."
"Will we see any moose?"
"We might.... more likely though.... there'll be deer. There are moose up there and smaller animals as well. The summer I was up there, there was a family of beavers who'd dammed up a small creek and created a pond."
After we had run what we figured was around two and a half kilometers, we stopped and took a drink from a water fountain and then sat down on a bench to take in the sights. The park was a real gem. Trees, lush green grass, and flower beds were everywhere. It was really well kept and meticulously maintained.
Mark leaned against my side as we rested on the bench. There was a tiny bit of an early morning chill on the air and the added warmth was definitely welcome.
"You know Marky, you and Josh fill our lives with such joy, warmth and laughter that it's a privilege just to watch you guys grow up. You're both growing from incredible boys into amazing men and I wouldn't trade the opportunity to be a part of that for the whole world."
Mark just smiled and me and snuggled in closer still against my side. He was growing up in so many ways, but just like Josh, he still craved that close physical contact with his loved ones.
After a few more minutes, we stood up, stretched, and then ran back to the hotel. When we got back, both Josh and Bryan were still sleeping and the two of us were able to take our turns in the shower and get dressed without waking them. We had a long day ahead of us including a very long train ride and we decided to let them get as much rest as we could.
I'd just finished getting dressed and was sitting at my laptop when Mark stepped out of the bathroom in his briefs. I glanced over at him as he began to search out a suitable outfit for the day.
"Hey Mark, you're really getting buff these days kiddo," I said with a smile and reached out to tickle his belly where he had the very definite beginnings of a six-pack forming. He giggled sweetly. "These pecks are coming along nicely too!"
"You're just saying that," he whispered back to me.
"Not at all Mark! Make a muscle for me."
Mark squeezed his fist and flexed his arm for me and I was amazed at how much his biceps were developing. "That's amazing," I replied. Mark truly was in remarkable physical condition. It was abundantly clear that not only had he mentally moved on from being that sad little boy when I first met, he had also moved on physically.
"You really think I'm buff?" he asked.
"Does a bear shit in the woods?" I replied and we both laughed.
"Bryan and I work out every other day at the YMCA.... I run every morning and I use the weight room at school," Mark said. "Michael does too, but he kinda poops out before I do. Sometimes though I make out like I'm tired before he quits.... kinda like a competition I guess.... gotta make him think he wins once in awhile." Mark giggled.
"Mark, you're a great sport to encourage him like that. Now, show me how many of these you can do," I said as I cleared an area and demonstrated the very challenging one-armed push-up. The one-armed push-up requires a lot of upper body strength to do properly and most people can't do them. Of the people who can, most can only do a handful. My personal best was 30. After I showed Mark the correct technique, I stood back and watched in amazement as he almost effortlessly did 40 with each arm.
"How was that?" he asked barely out of breath.
"That was unreal Mark," I replied in utter amazement.
"Let's try something else," I said. We both sat down at the table and I put my elbow down and held out my hand. "Let's see what you've got," I chuckled.
Mark took my hand and we began to arm wrestle. I was just about floored when it ended up taking several minutes and every bit of strength that I had in my right arm to put him down.
"Mark, I've been around a lot of physically strong and physically fit people before through my involvement in the military, but you're on another level. If you keep at it, by the time you're my age, you'll some kind of superman."
"Really?" Mark asked. "I didn't think it was all that special. I'm not that well-built ya know."
"True, but you're very strong. You make every ounce of muscle count and you know how to use them. You're something kiddo," I replied as I leaned forward and kissed his brow. "I guarantee you that if you keep this up and you keep up your grades, you'll easily make it into RMC and even the astronaut program if you want it. Physical fitness is a big factor in being selected for both of those career options and you've got that in spades."
Mark didn't have a bulky body type like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferigno. He was compact and trim with very little body fat and with extremely good muscle tone. We were all in above average physical condition, but Mark was in a whole separate league from the rest of us.
A little while later, as Mark and I were sitting on the couch quietly watching television, a zombie-like Bryan wandered past heading for the bathroom. I knew he'd be after his morning coffee when he was done. Fortunately, I'd put a pot on not that long before and I handed a cup to him as soon as he came out of the bathroom.
"Your morning fix," I said and kissed him.
"Thanks," he said as he sat down beside Mark and I and took a big sip of the hot coffee. "So what's on for today?" He asked once the coffee began to wake him up. We discussed our plans for the day for a few minutes and I went to wake up Josh while Bryan hit the shower.
Josh was sleeping flat on his back as I approached the bed. I sat down next to him and gently ruffled his hair and I watched the slow rise and fall of this chest. I stretched out next to him and smiled to myself as he immediately rolled over and snuggled up against my chest.
"Hey kiddo," I said softly as I gently shook his shoulder. "Time to get up bud," I said.
He began to stir and a moment later, I was treated to a pair of bright shining grey eyes staring back at me.
"Morning Dad," he said and rubbed his nose against mine.
"How are you this morning kiddo?" I asked.
"Ok," he replied as he reached up to rub the sleep out of his eyes and then stretched like a cat. "Did you and Mark go running this morning?"
"Yeah, we went to the park. It's really nice."
"That's good," he said.
"We have a big day ahead of us," I said. "We've got a long train right tonight too."
"Should be some interesting scenery," Josh said. "How's your head? No headaches or anything?" He asked with a concerned tone in his voice.
"No problem at all kiddo," I replied.
Josh rolled over and re-arranged himself and began to massage my temples in the way he always did when I had a headache. "I haven't had to do that in a while," he observed.
"I'm glad I don't have as many headaches as before. But I do enjoy your massages," I grinned. The actual mechanics of what Josh did when he massaged my temples was helpful when I had a headache, but I'm positive that it was secondary to the effect of the love that came through in his touch.
Shortly after we heard Bryan turn off the water in the shower, Josh stopped massaging my temples, kissed me on the forehead and then rubbed noses with me before climbing out of bed and getting ready for his turn in the shower.
"Check this out Dad," Josh said as he handed me a folder with some papers in it. "I made a couple of calls before we left the hotel in Amsterdam. Major Poole from the cadets had this faxed to me."
I took the papers as Josh left the room and when I opened the folder, I was surprised to see that it was my Great Uncle's service record from WWII. I read through the documents and learned that he had enlisted in the army at age 17 with parental consent. He had passed basic training and been transferred to the First Canadian Parachute Battalion where he qualified as a paratrooper. In 1942, he was promoted to Sergeant and assigned to the First Special Service Force, the famed "Devil's Brigade" which was a special forces unit made up of Canadians and Americans. He had fought in Italy and during the Battle of Anzio had received a battlefield commission as a Second Lieutenant after leading his platoon in an assault against a well dug in German gun position. The officers in command of the platoon had been killed and he had taken command. For that same action, he was awarded the US Bronze Star. Just prior to D-Day, he was transferred back to the First Canadian Parachute Battalion and promoted to First Lieutenant. He made the jump into Normandy on the night before D-Day and led his platoon through the entire European campaign until his death shortly before the end of the war in 1945. During the Battle of the Scheldt he had led his platoon in an assault on a fortified German artillery position and as a result had been awarded the Military Cross. Following his death in the Netherlands, he had been recommended for the Victoria Cross but nothing ever came of the recommendation.
I was completely lost in thought from reading the papers and I didn't even notice Bryan sitting next to me.
"That's pretty amazing," he observed. "Josh showed it to me yesterday. He was waiting for the right time to give it to you."
I chuckled. "I can't imagine what strings he must have got people to pull in order to get this so quickly," I laughed.
"He said he wanted to make sure that nobody would ever forget him again. He wanted you to know what kind of a man your uncle was."
"From reading this, he was quite the soldier."
"Josh is also onto something else. He was wondering why he wasn't given a medal for what he did in saving the lives of his men and those boys."
"I was wondering about that too."
"It seems that Josh is on a new mission," Bryan chuckled as Josh re-entered the room.
"Joshy," I said. "I don't know how you managed to get this so quickly, but I really appreciate it. Thank you so much," I said and hugged him tightly.
"You're welcome Dad. Now I want to see if we can get him the medal that he deserves. I'm going to start writing letters again," Josh replied with a grin.
Our final day in Amsterdam was a whirlwind of sight-seeing and souvenir shopping. With such a large family, it was a good thing that we were relatively secure financially, otherwise we'd have broken the bank. Josh of course purchased a number of items for Shelly including some really nice ear rings along with the copy of "The Diary of Anne Frank" that he'd picked up the day before. Mark picked up a number of items for Michael as well including a really nice chain.
The trip had been a resounding success so far and the discovery that we made at Holten alone was well worth the cost. That discovery, at least as far as Josh and I were concerned, seemed to explain the deep link that we always knew existed, but could never quite quantify. It also confirmed for me, my role as Josh's protector. I knew that he was clearly destined for greatness and it seemed to be my destiny to help him get there.
As our last stop in Amsterdam, we headed back to "the Five Flies" for dinner before boarding our train for what was to be a very long ride throughout the night that would take us across Germany and into Poland. We arrived in Poland early in the morning on the second day in the city of Oswiecim. The train station was only a few kilometers from the Auschwitz site.
Upon arrival, we took a cab to our hotel, checked in, and left our luggage before heading to the small cafe in the lobby for breakfast.
Bryan and I had discussed it and we wanted to give the boys some warning as to what we were about to see and experience. We didn't want to throw them into such a potentially upsetting experience without some preparation.
"Boys, you may be wondering what we're doing all the way here in Poland," Bryan said.
"Yeah, I was wondering that," Josh said. "I know our troops only fought in the west."
"We're here to show you why it was necessary for the free world to come together as it did to fight Hitler and the Nazis," I said. "You already know that he wanted to take over the Europe and then the rest of the world, but what you might not know, was the horrors of what has become known as the Holocaust."
"That was all about the concentration camps, right?" Mark asked.
'That was part of it, but there's a lot more to it," I replied. "We're going to visit a place today and we're going to see things and hear stories that you boys and even Bryan and me might find very unsettling, but we think it's important that you see and experience this place."
"Where are we going?" Josh asked hesitantly.
"We're going to a museum on the site of the former Nazi death camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau," Bryan replied.
"Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi death camps and they've preserved most of the site as a museum dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust with the goal of educating people and helping to ensure that such a thing never happens again," I added.
"We'll be taking a guided tour that will be conducted in English and they're going show us all around the whole site. We'll also get to hear the stories told by survivors who were actually there. It's not a happy story, but it's important that you know why freedom is important and why it's worth defending." Bryan said.
After we finished our breakfast, we boarded the tour bus and made the short trip to the Auschwitz site. The site is actually two concentration camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II - Birkenau. The second camp was what most people think of when they hear the name Auschwitz.
We began our tour of Auschwitz I at the main gate. Atop the iron gate was a German sign that read "Arbeit Macht Frei" which in English means "Work will make you free". In reality, as we quickly learned, there were very few people who entered Auschwitz as prisoners who ever left alive.
Auschwitz I had started as a Polish army barracks. When the Germans invaded Poland, they took the site over and expanded it into a concentration camp originally intended to house Polish political prisoners. Prisoners were held in terrible conditions and were subjected to horrific torture, depravity, and slave labour. Summarily executions were common and disease was rampant.
Our tour guide explained, "A favorite method of torture employed by the SS guards was to tie a prisoner's hands behind his or her back and then hang them from a hook so that the prisoner's entire body weight had to be supported by his or her arms twisted behind. Prisoners were left that way for hours at a time and many suffered horribly dislocated shoulders. Routinely inmates would be lined up on the parade ground while SS officers would walk up and down the ranks randomly shooting prisoners at will."
I glanced over at Josh and Mark and they both looked somber, but appeared to be handling everything quite well.
We toured some of the preserved barracks that used to hold prisoners. They looked like warehouse shelves with no blankets or coverings and four or five prisoners were crammed into each "bunk".
After about 90 minutes of touring Auschwitz I, we moved on to the Auschwitz II - Birkenau site. It was this site that I knew would be the most emotionally draining and upsetting to all of us.
The tour guide walked us along a set of railway tracks that took us through the gates into the camp explaining that trainloads of prisoners crammed into cattle cars from all over occupied Europe travelled these very tracks delivering their human cargos to what was effectively a factory of death.
"The train would stop here on this platform," the guide said. "SS soldiers with guard dogs would brutally herd the prisoners off the trains and onto the platforms where the selection process would take place."
"What were the prisoners arrested for?" Josh asked.
"They were arrested because they were Jews. Political prisoners. Free Masons. Homosexuals. Crippled people. Anyone the Nazis believed was inferior or undesirable," the guide answered. "The prisoners were people grabbed off the streets. Men, women, and even their children."
Josh and Mark both looked a bit pale at that point and I motioned to Bryan and the two of us moved closer to the boys and put our arms around their shoulders to offer them the comfort of our presence.
"The selection process was conducted here. In one line, able bodied men were sent to barracks to be subjected to slave labour and, if they weren't summarily executed or killed by disease, they were destined to be worked to death with little food and no medical care. They were the lucky ones." The guide began to lead us towards the remains of a number of concrete structures."
"Those not selected for labour including all children under 14, the elderly, and women with children were sent immediately for 'special treatment'. They were led down this path to one of the four crematoria buildings. They were huge buildings made out of stone and they had towering brick chimneys. At the end of the path, steps led down to the lower level."
The guide led us past two completely destroyed stone structures and we stopped at the third, which was little more than a stone foundation. The steps leading down were intact and we descended them into what would have been the basement of the massive building.
"When the prisoners arrived in this room," our guide continued, "they were told that they were going to be given a shower and delousing and then be resettled into barracks. Jewish prisoners known as the 'Sonderkommando' or special action group assisted in getting the prisoners down into the disrobing room where they were told to undress and leave their clothes on hooks. They were told to remember their numbers and to be sure to breathe deeply in the shower to get the full effect of the 'medication'.
"Once the whole group was undressed, they had their heads shaved and were then herded through a door into the next chamber which appeared to be a shower room. Behind them, the doors were shut and a moment later, Zyklon-B gas was dumped into the room and then entire group was gassed to death within minutes."
"Jesus," Bryan breathed.
"It doesn't make any sense," Josh said softly. "Why kill innocent people like that?"
"You are right young man. It didn't make sense, but the extermination of the Jews and anyone else who was not considered Aryan was the ultimate goal of the Nazis," the guide said.
"How many were gassed at a time?" Mark asked.
"As many as 3,000 people at a time would be pushed into the chamber," the guide replied.
"I feel sick," Mark said softly. Bryan put a comforting hand around his shoulders and steadied him.
I put my arm around Josh as the tour guide continued. "Once the victims were all dead, the Sonderkommando were sent in to remove the bodies and load them onto lifts that would carry them to the next level where they were loaded into ovens and cremated leaving no trace that they had ever existed save for a fine gray ash and their worldly possessions which were confiscated by the SS and shipped to Germany for use by German families. Sometimes men of the Sonderkommando were forced to cremate the remains of their own family members."
"How many people were actually killed at this site?" I asked.
"It's impossible to say for certain, but the Germans did keep meticulous records and the best estimate is that 1,000,000 men, women and children were gassed here with countless others shot, tortured to death, worked to death, or killed by disease."
Our guide escorted us from the remains of the crematoria and headed to a small clearing not far away. There was a pond and next to the pond were the remains of another building.
Once we were all gathered, our guide explained, "There were four crematoria that could dispose of some 10,000 people per hour, but sometimes even that wasn't enough. At those times, the SS would bring in heavy equipment and dig a pit in places such as this. Prisoners selected for 'special treatment' were herded into the small building that used to stand here. They were forced to strip, had their heads shaved and they were herded outside to the pit. The pits would be filled with flammable material, then set ablaze. Standing beside the pits were SS officers with pistols. Before the prisoners even realized what was about to happen to them, they were shoved to the edge, shot in the back of the head by the SS and then pushed immediately into the flames. Most times the wound wasn't fatal and the prisoners were still alive when they were pushed into the burning pits. Infants and small children were simply tossed into the fire without wasting a bullet."
"Fuck!" Josh whispered shaking his head slowly through his tears, "Where was the rest of the world?"
That hit us all like a ton of bricks and I don't think there was a dry eye in the entire tour group. From there, we headed through some of the remaining barracks buildings and through the remains of some of the administration buildings on the site. We finally arrived at a building that surprisingly was called "Canada", by both the prisoners who were forced to work there and the Nazi guards.
"Why did they call this place Canada?" I asked.
The tour guide smiled "Because Canada is the land of plenty. Many of the prisoners had relatives who had emigrated to Canada and they knew how beautiful and open and free a country it was and how everything you could ever want was available to you if you were willing to work for it. This building was the land of plenty in Auschwitz. All of the goods stolen from prisoners was stored here until it could be sent to Germany. It included clothing, books, jewelry, gold, silver, even gold teeth pulled from the mouths of corpses. Prisoners were put to work sorting and cataloging the loot."
We entered the building and, as we walked down row and row of piles of clothing and other items, the whole thing became more and more real for all of us. A pile of eye glasses more than six feet high hit me as particularly disturbing. What Josh found really drove the point home for him. He was walking a few feet ahead of me and I saw him as he stopped in his tracks staring at another exhibit of stolen property. After a moment, he stumbled back and sat down hard with his back against the wall and with his head in his hands. I immediately ran to his side and wrapped my arms around him. While I held him, I turned to see what had disturbed him so much.
Stacked against the opposite wall behind a Plexiglas screen was a pile of children's toys. Dolls, stuffed animals, toy cars, toy ships, and toy air planes. Each item had been the treasured property of a murdered child whose only 'crime' had been being born into a religion that the Nazis despised.
I pulled Josh close to me and he buried his head against my shoulder and cried hard. I had tears in my eyes as well as I gently rubbed his back as I held him, trying to soothe him.
"How can anyone do that Dad? How could anyone kill people, especially children like that?"
"Joshy, there were many reasons. In many ways, a collective insanity took hold until the evil and insanity of one man was allowed to infect an entire nation."
"Why didn't anyone say, 'this is wrong?"
"Some did, but they usually met the same fate. There actually was a pretty large resistance against the Nazis within Germany. They were called the White Rose. Unfortunately, the SS had such a grip on things that they weren't able to accomplish much. Their legacy does tell us something important though."
"What does it tell us?"
"That not all Germans were Nazis. That we can't judge the whole country based on the Nazis. The Nazis were vile and evil and so were their followers, but not all Germans fell into that trap. Sadly for them, they simply got taken along for the ride."
"We can't allow anything like this to ever happen again," Josh said forcefully. "We can't ever allow anyone to do this kind of thing. If they try it, we have to stop them right away."
"I agree Joshy. That's one of the reasons why this place was preserved. It was preserved to remind people about what evil looks like so that we can guard against it."
"It's like what you said about hatred," Josh observed as he dried his eyes.
"It's exactly what it was. This is what hatred brings. This place is what results when hatred and intolerance is allowed to flourish. If we put a stop to hate we can stop places like this from ever operating again."
"Has the world really learned the lesson?" Josh asked thoughtfully.
"Honestly, I think humanity needs a reminder from time to time. Too many weak leaders have gone about their business looking in the other direction when things like this happen. When General Eisenhower liberated the concentration camp at Dachau, he ordered that the whole compound be photographed and filmed as they moved in to help the survivors. He wanted the world to know what had happened.... yet sadly, there are those still today that deny it ever happened. Those movies and photos are very graphic, but still exist for the world to see."
"I heard about the slaughter in Rwanda in school. Why didn't the world stop that?" Josh asked.
"Because there was no strong leader who was willing to stick his neck out and stop it," I replied.
"Well that's what leadership is. It's not about telling people what to do. It's about doing what needs to be done and sticking your neck out for what you believe in," Josh replied firmly.
I smiled at him as we walked back to Mark and Bryan.
"You ok Josh?" Mark asked.
"I'm ok bro," Josh replied and bumped knuckles with his brother.
"He took that kind of hard," Bryan observed a couple of minutes later as the four of us walked towards the visitor's centre.
"I get the feeling that something important imprinted itself in his mind," I replied with a wan smile, "....how to be a good leader."
"I think our boys have always had it," Bryan added. "This trip is just proving it to you and me."
Inside the visitor's centre, there were a large number of displays that documented the holocaust as a whole and not just what had gone on at this camp. The four of us watched a short movie that documented the early days of the holocaust and the activities of several German military formations know as the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen were SS paramilitary death squads that followed the German armies east. Their job was the wholesale murder of all Jews and other undesirables. Their "actions" killed tens of thousands of people at a time and wiped out entire populations in Poland and the Soviet Union.
One particularly disturbing clip was an interview with an elderly man who had survived an Einsatzgruppen massacre in the Ukraine at a place known as Babi Yar. Babi Yar is a ravine just outside Kiev where between 40,000 and 90,000 Jews and other 'undesirables' were massacred over a period of just two days. The elderly survivor described what happened through an interpreter.
"The Germans came and told us that all Jews had to report the next morning in order to be resettled. If any Jews failed to show up, they would be severely punished. My father, my mother, my brother and me went the next morning. My mother was put on one truck and me, my father and my brother were put on another truck with some other men and boys. We knew some of them. We were driven outside of town and then pushed off the truck and ordered to undress. When we were all naked, we were taken in groups of eight or ten and made to run at rifle point down a path into the ravine. The SS men made us stand in front of a pit. The pit was full of the bodies of men and boys who had come before us. Just as the Germans began to shoot, my father pushed me into the hole and he and my brother fell on top of me. I was not hit, but I could feel my father and brothers blood pouring all over me. I could hear screaming and groaning from the pile as some people were not yet dead. Every few minutes the whole thing would repeat itself. There would be gunfire and more bodies would fall into the pit. Later that night, after the guards were gone, I managed to climb out. My father and my brother were dead. I was naked and covered in blood from head to toe. I stumbled across some men from the town who were stealing the clothing from the people who were shot. They saw me and told me to 'go back where you belong. Go back to your grave.' I ran away and made it to a house with a kind lady who took me in and cleaned me up. They hid me for the rest of the war."
The next short film was a documentary on "The Doctor of Death - Joseph Mengele" and the descriptions of his horrific medical experiments on innocent children, twins in particular was almost too awful to bear. All I could think of was my adorable twin nephews.
In addition to such horrifying stories, we watched a short film about Oscar Schindler who had saved 2,000 Jews from the gas chambers by employing them in his company. He was actually a member of the Nazi party, but he was sickened by the treatment of the Jews and did what he could to help. He was recognized as being "Righteous Among the Nations" as a gentile who had saved Jews from the holocaust.
Both Bryan and I had seen the movie "Schindler's List" and we made a mental note to show it to the boys as soon as possible. The Schindler story made an excellent finale to our visit to Auschwitz. It allowed us to leave that place of horror on a lighter note – with a thought of hope.
That night, both of the boys were more subdued than usual and both were more cuddly and clingy than normal. It was obvious that the experience of visiting Auschwitz had deeply affected both of them.
We ate a quiet meal in our hotel room that night and we ordered the movie "Schindler's List" from the Pay Per View menu. The boys watched it with interest and it was obvious that it held a deeper meaning that it otherwise would have following our visit to the site of a death camp. The scene in which a train filled with Schindler Jews was mistakenly sent to Auschwitz gave them an ever deeper appreciation for the place they'd just seen.
The next morning we headed to the train station and boarded our train to Berlin. It was to be our final stop in Europe and in two days we'd be back home in Canada and heading north to Tonawanka.
Shortly after we crossed the border into Germany, I decided that a history lesson was in order. "So guys, we're going to change gears here a bit and we're going to see some cold war sights in Berlin. Do you know much about what happened after the war?"
"Not really," Josh said.
"Nope," Mark smiled.
"Ok, here it is in a nutshell. When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, the country was occupied by the four major allied powers. The United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Each had its own zone of occupation to control. However, the capital of the country, Berlin, was in the Soviet zone, but it was similarly divided into four zones. Eventually the three zones controlled by the western allies were merged into a new democratic country called West Germany or the Federal Republic of Germany. The Soviet zone became a new communist country known as East Germany or the German Democratic Republic. The western controlled portions of Berlin became West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The Autobahn highways provided access between West Germany and West Berlin, but for almost a year after the war in 1948 and 49 the Soviets stopped all railway and road traffic between West Germany and West Berlin. Did you ever hear of the Berlin Airlift?"
"No, what was that?" Josh asked.
"The Soviet purpose was to control the entire city of Berlin by being the only suppliers of food and goods for all of East and West Berlin. The allies were having nothing to do with that scheme for fear of losing the freedom for the West Berliners, so the Western Allies organized the Berlin Airlift to carry supplies to the people in West Berlin by air. The over 4,000 tons per day required by Berlin during the airlift totaled, for example, over ten times the volume that the encircled German 6th Army required six years earlier at the Battle of Stalingrad. The Royal Air Force, other Commonwealth nations, and the recently formed United States Air Force, flew over 200,000 flights providing 13,000,000 tons of food to Berlin in an operation lasting almost a year. By the spring of 1949, the effort was clearly succeeding, and by April the airlift was delivering more cargo than had previously flowed into the city by rail. The success of the Airlift was claimed to be humiliating to the Soviets, who had repeatedly claimed it could never work. The Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949. One lasting legacy of the Airlift is the three airports in the western zones of the city served as the primary gateways to Berlin for another fifty years. That was pretty much the defining period that started the Cold War between the United Sates and the Soviet Union. So that's the history of the Berlin Airlift."
"It's kinda like the Germans were getting a taste of what they'd done to the other countries during the war," Mark said.
"Yes, but that wasn't the point Mark. Remember it was only the Nazis that commited the atrosities that we've heard about.... it wasn't the whole of the German peoples. The general population of Germany suffered a great deal during the war. The allies had defeated them and deseminated their cities and they were no longer a threat..... no longer our enemy..... and we had to show them that we were no longer their enemy as well. It's the old story.... love thy enemy..... it's the only way you'll get to know them.... or better yet, turn them into your friend. When you put it all together, you realize there's no satisfaction in getting revenge."
"Right again Tom," Mark smiled.
"So everything was going great in West Berlin and West Germany," I continued, "but when they split the country in two, many families were separated. With all the supplies and technology going into West Berlin, the West side of the city was rebuilt and became a shining example of what could be done to rehabilitate a city after the war. The West Berliners became the envy of all the East Berliners and East Germans for that matter. It didn't take long for East Berliners to try to escape to West Berlin to enjoy the better economy there. The Soviets had done little to improve the welfare of the East Berliners on the other side of the new border, but they sure didn't want the East Berliners to leave the part of the city they had control of. So they build the Berlin Wall around West Berlin. It was Churchill, the English Prime Minister that dubbed it as the Iron Curtain. One of the places that we're going to visit tomorrow is Checkpoint Charlie, which was one of the main crossings between West Berlin and East Berlin."
"The Soviets didn't allow East Germans to cross it did they?" Josh asked.
"That's right. Only westerners were allowed to cross it to visit East Berlin, but East Berliners were blocked by their own government from visiting the west. Many tried to escape by going over the wall and some made it, but many were shot in the attempt. This of course, escalated the Cold War just a little bit. It was the poliferation of nuclear weapons that really escalated things between the USSR and the free world."
"It sounds like the Soviets were as bad as the Nazis," Mark said.
"As far as freedom was concerned, yes. They wanted to control their people in a military way." I answered.
"It stayed that way until the Berlin wall came down and the cold war ended in 1989, shortly after that the USSR collapsed economically and many of the countrys they had control over elected their own governments." Bryan added.
"During the cold war though, Germany was basically the front lines for what could have been WWIII," I said.
"Why didn't WWIII start?" Mark asked.
"Nukes," Josh replied.
"That's pretty accurate," I agreed. "NATO, which includes Canada, has a first strike policy which means that they have stated that they will use any means of defense necessary up to and including nuclear weapons if any NATO member is attacked. Under the NATO treaty, an attack on one NATO member is considered to be an attack on all NATO members requiring a full response."
"So the Soviets wouldn't attack because they didn't want to get nuked?" Mark asked.
"Right. They called it MAD.... Mutually Assured Destruction. I heard about this stuff last year," Josh smiled.
"Exactly. No side would attack the other for fear of being nuked and no side wanted to be the first to use nuclear weapons unless they had no choice because they knew they'd get nuked in return."
"Dad, I know it's wrong to start a war to conquer another country, but what if a country was doing what the Germans were doing in WWII. Would it still be wrong to attack them and go to war to make them stop?"
"You mean do I think WWII was right or wrong?" I questioned.
"No, I think it was right, I mean in the future." Josh said. "How about Rwanda? How come nobody went in and stopped the killings there?"
"I guess nobody had the courage to stand up and do it."
"Why didn't we go in and stop it? I heard that a Canadian General was in charge of the UN force there." Josh's knowledge base was beginning to surprise me.
"General Romeo Dallaire. He wanted the world to come and send help, but nobody would listen. The Canadian military alone wouldn't have had enough manpower to do it." I replied.
"I guess we need a bigger military then," Josh grinned.
"I think so too."
"I would have sent in the troops to put a stop to it," Josh remarked firmly.
"Some people would have screamed about it, but you'd have been right," I replied.
We arrived in Berlin that afternoon and after checking into our hotel, we headed off to see the sites. We had only two days left before we were due to fly home and there was a lot that I wanted the boys to see. One of the things that struck us immediately when we arrived in Berlin was the fact that unlike other European cities that we'd visited, Berlin was all new and modern looking.
"I guess that's because everything was destroyed in the war," Bryan observed.
"Berlin was pretty much reduced to rubble," I agreed. "I remember Al Burger saying something about East Berlin when he was here in the 70s. He said that there were still bomb damaged buildings left standing."
"I suppose that's why there's so much construction taking place on the east side of the city," Josh remarked.
Our first stop was Potsdamer Platz, which is a large public square located in central Berlin. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, it had been cut virtually in half by the border between east and west. It is presently home to one of the few still standing sections of the Berlin Wall. The West German side of the wall was covered with colourful graffiti while the East German side was a plain drab gray colour.
From there, we headed to the magnificent Brandenburg Gate just west of Pariser Platz. The gate is the only one remaining of a series of gates through which one had to pass in order to enter the city of Berlin. The gate had become sort of a symbol of Germany and a symbol of the cold war. The Gate had been off limits to West Germans and indeed everyone else during the cold war because it fell within the former Soviet sector behind the Berlin Wall.
"Dad we should get a picture of us all under the gate and email it to Sean to show to his Dad," Josh suggested.
"Yeah Mr. Burger said he wished he could have seen it up close," Mark agreed.
We approached as close to the Gate was we could get while still keeping it in the frame of the photo and we asked a kindly passerby to snap our photo with my Digital camera. I made a mental note to remind Josh to email the photos to Sean later that night at the hotel.
After we left the area of the Brandenburg Gate, we made our way to Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie had been the main border crossing between West Berlin and East Berlin. Civilians, government officials, and even exchanged spies had passed through it over the course of the cold war. While the border that it once guarded was long gone, the checkpoint had been preserved as a museum and as a reminder of the past.
Our final stop of the evening before we headed out to dinner was a visit to the historic Reichstag. The Reichstag houses the parliament of Germany and is a beautiful historic building. It was quite literally reduced to a shell during the waning days of the Second World War and in the years since German reunification, it had been wonderfully restored to its former glory. The modern building features a striking modern looking glass dome, which nicely complemented the much older looking features of the rest of the building.
"I get kind of an odd feeling standing here knowing what played out here during the war," I observed.
"I noticed that there isn't so much as a trace of the Nazis left," Josh said thoughtfully.
"Yeah I noticed that too.... nothing to suggest they were ever here," Mark said.
"I think that's because Germans are deeply ashamed of that part of their history and they'd rather not be reminded of it," Bryan said.
"It's like they want to forget all about it," Mark replied.
"No, I don't think so. They don't want to forget, but they don't want to dwell either. Since the war, Germany has done a great deal to try to set things right. They'd given a great deal of money to the state of Israel and they've worked very hard to combat the type of extremism that led to the rise of the Nazis."
"I guess forgetting isn't so good," Josh said thoughtfully. "If we forget things like the holocaust, we won't be able to stop the fanatics the next time."
In many ways Berlin was exactly what you'd expect - a very efficient German city, but it was also a very modern and charming place that would certainly warrant a much longer visit one day down the road.
As we had done in Amsterdam, we asked the cab driver who picked us up to suggest a good restaurant and once again we were not disappointed. The driver took us to a place called Tiergerten Quelle. The restaurant is located inside an older red brick building and they serve the most wonderful home-style German meals you could imagine. While the boys enjoyed tall glasses of Coke, Bryan and I indulged in some wonderful German beer that was served in one litre size stone mugs. Dinner included the most wonderful sausages we'd ever eaten with potatoes and sour kraut. By the time we left, we were all stuffed to the gills.
After yet another busy day, we headed back to our hotel for the night. We managed to watch a little TV but before long, all of us were sound asleep and it was a good thing too. The next day would be our final day in Europe. Shortly after the supper hour, we'd be boarding an Air Canada jet at Templehof Airport, which would carry us home to Canada.
The next morning, as had become our habit, Mark and I headed out for a morning run and returned to the hotel before Bryan and Josh were even awake. As much as we had enjoyed our European runs, we were really looking forward to running through the woods at Camp Tonawanka.
The four of us spent most of our day strolling around buying souvenirs for friends and family. With such a big family, it took a lot of effort to ensure that nobody was left out! We picked up a number of small toys for the twins and a stuffed animal for Timothy. For sure, the airline was going to hit us for extra baggage.
When we arrived at the airport that evening, it was bittersweet. We'd thoroughly enjoyed our European trip and we'd learned a great deal about ourselves in the process. We would have liked to spend more time in Europe, but we had the rest of the summer to look forward to at Camp Tonawanka. It was an experience that we were all keen to begin.
For Josh and me, it would be a return to the past of sorts. For Bryan and Mark, it would be something new to experience for the first time.
Our flight was long and uneventful. The four of us managed to sleep through most of it and we were reasonably well rested when we landed at Pearson International late Friday evening. We were reasonably well rested, but we were already feeling the effects of the jet lag. Going through customs was a lot of fun and paper work, although we did have a list of all the things we'd brought home. Fortunately, there were no charges. With all our luggage, the four of us filled a taxi to the brim.
When we got to the house, we were immediately set upon by an incredibly happy Brutus. His little doggy brain nearly short-circuited with happiness when he saw us. He was bouncing around like a pinball running from one of us to the other barking, happily yelping and kissing us all madly.
Susan was happy to see us as well, but she didn't quite meet Brutus' enthusiasm.
"Mom, you wouldn't believe all the stuff we saw!" Josh said enthusiastically.
We spent the next three hours chit-chatting with Susan and filling her in on our adventures.
"I still find it absolutely astounding what you found out about my Dad and your Great Uncle," Susan said to me.
"It completely floored all of us," I replied.
Mark grinned. "Remember last summer.... 'what if'?"
"I remember Mark," Josh answered. "This trip just proved that it was meant to be."
That night, as we tucked Josh and Mark in for the night, Bryan and I were filled with anticipation as to what lay ahead. It felt special that night for Bryan and I as we swarmed in the privacy of our own bedroom. We cherished these moments as points of celebration of what we meant to each other and we didn't have to think of 'what if', we knew this too, was meant to be. Passion was always a nice place to visit and rejoice.
As nice as it was to be home and in our own beds, the four of us were raring to go the next morning.
Saturday morning Susan woke up early with us and cooked us a wonderful breakfast that would give us the energy we needed to make the long drive north to Tonawanka. The Jeep was going to be very full with two large dogs, two adults, four boys, and all our gear.
After breakfast, Josh and I installed the roof rack on the Jeep while Mark and Bryan hauled all of our bags upstairs. With everything loaded and room to spare for our other passengers, we had an emotional goodbye with Susan and hit the road. Our first stop was to be the Brown house to pickup Kevin and then we'd be off to the airport to pickup Michael and Daisy.
As soon as we pulled up outside the Brown family residence, the door burst open and Kevin, smiling broader than I'd ever seen before came bounding out with Freddie and his Dad following closely behind.
Freddie and Brutus exchanged doggie greetings while we loaded Kevin's gear into the roof rack.
"Josh my man! How's it going?" Kevin said jovially.
"Doing good Kev," Josh replied and the two bumped knuckles.
"You looking forward to this?" Mark asked as they bumped knuckles as well.
"Sure am!" Kevin replied.
Bryan and I shook hands with Grant. "Looks like someone's a little excited about going to camp!"
"Excited? You don't know the half of it! He's been bouncing off the walls all week!" Grant laughed.
Ethel exited the house carrying a small cooler. "I thought you boys might enjoy some refreshments for the road," she said as she handed Bryan the cooler.
"Thanks Ms. Brown," Mark said happily.
Once we had Kevin's stuff loaded into the Jeep, it was time to say goodbye. I smiled as I watched from the driver's seat as Grant picked up his son in a massive bear hug and swung him around as he often did. A moment later, the very happy boy said goodbye to his dog and joined us in the Jeep.
As I drove the short distance to Pearson Airport, Bryan called WestJet and discovered that the flight carrying Michael and Daisy from Calgary was early and had just arrived. I pulled up to the arrivals level and looked at Mark.
"How about you run in and find him bud?"
Mark smiled brightly at me. "Okay!" He replied and bounced out of the Jeep in a flash.
I glanced at Bryan and winked. He nodded knowingly. It was just about the only alone time that Mark and Michael would get all summer.
We'd only been waiting for a few minutes when Brutus suddenly stood up and stared out the window with his ears perked right up. None of us were surprised when we looked towards the door and saw Mark accompanied by a broadly smiling Michael and an incredibly happy Daisy, heading towards us. Josh got out of the Jeep with Brutus on his lead so he could have space to greet his sister.
When the three of them piled into the Jeep, it was virtual bedlam for a few minutes while Daisy greeted all of us and we all greeted Michael. The Jeep was as packed as it had ever been and we had a long drive ahead of us, but we all knew it was going to be a drive filled with fun, warmth and laughter.
The drive north to Tonawanka was about three and a half hours and Bryan and I decided to do it in shifts. I took the first shift, which would take us as far as Webers Hamburger stand then Bryan would take over.
"Hey Dad are we going to stop at Webers?" Josh asked.
"With four ravenous eating machines on board?" I asked. "Does a bear shit in the woods?"
"Yes.... yes he does," Mark replied and we all burst out laughing.
Bryan, Mark, and Michael were Webers newbies while Josh, Kevin, and me had all eaten there before. None of the three of us Webers veterans were the least bit surprised to see that despite it not even being 11AM, there was already a lineup formed outside the small burger shack.
"These must be some burgers for people to line up like this," Bryan said.
"These are the best burgers you'll ever eat," Kevin replied.
"For sure," Josh agreed.
"This is that place that you told me about isn't it?" Mark asked.
"Yeah. We stopped here on our way west last year," Josh replied.
"Most cottagers stop here on their way north," I said. "I don't think I've ever passed the place without stopping."
"Those onion rings look good too," Michael said as he glanced at a group of people who had already received their food and were heading back to their cars. I decided that I'd take the dogs for a walk around the back of the food stand while the others stood in line to get the burgers.
Brutus and Daisy were amazing. Although I wasn't their primary master, they seemed aware of my presence and didn't pull or misbehave while on their leads. Moreover, they were very courteous to each other. If one had to stop and do their business, the other would patiently wait. At one point when I had to stop and bag the business, they patiently watched and waited. I realized as we approached the Jeep, that maybe Daisy was pretty thirsty after being cooped up in her container in the belly of the plane. I went to the back, pulled out their dog dishes, and poured a generous amount of water for them from the big thermos jug that we kept just for that purpose. Daisy was very thirsty and Brutus drank his fair share as well.
The lineup had moved surprisingly well and before long the four had all loaded up on delicious Webers' burgers, onion rings, and milkshakes. Josh and Mark both bought extra plain burgers to give to Brutus and Daisy as a special treat since they had both been such good dogs. No doubt about it, Bryan, Mark, and Michael were impressed as we ate our burgers using the hood of the Jeep for a table. It took us a little longer to eat ours than it did for Brutus and Daisy to chomp down theirs. After another drink of water and another quick walk around the back of the food stand, Josh and Mark returned and we all piled back into the Jeep. I made it a point of reminding them, that while we were in the camp, it would be one of their primary duties to be responsible for their dogs. Bryan and I would probably be too busy to pick up after them and feed them at the proper time. Both boys readily agreed.
When we left Webers, it was Bryan's turn to drive while I got to relax and enjoy the scenery for a change. Traffic was moving reasonably well and all the greenery lining the highway looked very inviting.
When we reached Huntsville, we pulled over to give the dogs another chance to do their business before we hit the road on the last leg of our journey to Tonawanka. I took over the driving duties and before long we were pulling through the gates. We stopped at the main office and were greeted by Rachel who, after fawning over the boys and the dogs got us all registered and sent us on our way. I parked the Jeep in the small parking area and we all grabbed our gear and headed to our respective cabins.
Bryan, Mark, and Michael headed for Cabin 5 while Josh, Kevin and me headed for Cabin 6 right next door. Andy had been minding my cabin while I was away and as far as I knew, my arrival was to be a surprise to the boys - some of whom knew me from my previous stint as a camp counselor.
I had a brilliant idea. I sent a quick text message to Andy (who was presently inside cabin 6 with my campers) and asked him to get the boys outside to meet their new counselor and a couple of new campers. I hid around the corner with Josh and Kevin after I got Andy's response.
A moment later, the door banged open and a gaggle of boys piled out led by Andy.
"How come we've gotta have a new counselor?" I heard what sounded like George ask Andy.
"I told you George, I'm the assistant director, and I was only filling in until the new guy could get here." Andy said.
"But you're almost as fun as your brother," another boy who sounded a lot like Gary replied.
"Is that so?" I said as I came around the corner with Josh and Kevin in tow.
"Tommy!" Ricky shouted as he, Gary, and George launched themselves at me.
For the second time in two summers, I found myself under a pile of happy teenage boys. Laughing, I managed to extract myself.
"I'm glad to see you guys too," I said with a grin. "You guys know Josh and this is Josh's buddy Kevin. We also have a couple more boys that I know joining us sometime today as well."
"I'm so happy that you're back!" George said enthusiastically. "Andy was ok, but you're the best. Listen up guys.... this guy.... this is the best counselor you'll ever have."
"Thanks George," I replied and bumped knuckles with him.
"You have a few new faces here," Andy said. "This is Peter," he pointed to a tall lanky boy with a mop of brown hair. "This is Marcus," he continued pointing to a short and stocky 12-year-old boy with light coloured hair, "and this is James," he said and pointed to an average height boy with brown hair in short spikes similar to the way Josh wore his hair.
I shook hands with each of the boys and then with Andy who also introduced me to my new Junior Counselor, Howard, or Howie as he liked to be called.
"Good to meet you Howie," I said.
"It's great to finally meet you," he replied. Howie struck me immediately as a nice kid. He was 16 years old and already over six feet tall. He had a friendly looking face and I could tell that he still had a mischievous streak in him.
Howie helped to usher the boys back into the cabin to allow Josh, Kevin, and me to get situated. Josh grabbed the top bunk and Kevin took the bottom bunk on the last set of bunks before the Counselor's bunks at the back of the cabin. We stowed our gear and I took a moment to look around. The place was just as I had remembered it and it had been well kept. There was the usual clutter associated with a gaggle of boys, but it was manageable.
On a hunch, I checked my bunk to see if it had been "short sheeted" and I smiled when I discovered that it was. "Ok, whose the wise guy?" I asked.
Ricky grinned sheepishly. "I didn't know it was you. Nobody ever manages to get you in a prank!"
"Yeah, I think he has eyes in the back of his head or something," Gary added with a chuckle.
"No, just lots of experience," I laughed.
During this time, Brutus was in doggie heaven. He was busily making the rounds of the cabin where all of the boys fussed over him and gave him all the petting that he could ever want.
Just then, there was a knock on the cabin door. When I opened the door, Al Burger was standing on the porch with his two boys in tow.
Our history with Al Burger and his family started last fall after Josh's success with the Terry Fox run. After the success Josh had with his presentation of our vacation across Canada, Al wanted him to give the same presentation at his boys' school. It was becoming par for the course – Josh's presentation was exemplary and well received by all the students. It was during and after that visit we got to know Al's very unusual family. Not entirely different from the one that Bryan and I were a part of.
"Al, it's good to see you," I said jovially as I opened the door and joined them on the porch.
"Good to see you too Tom," he replied as we shook hands. "You sure you want to take these two young fellows off my hands for a whole week?" he asked earning two pairs of rolling eyes from his sons.
"They'll fit in just fine with the bunch of turkeys already in there," I laughed and motioned towards the cabin.
"Welcome to Tonawanka Sean," I said and I held out my hand to him.
"Are Josh and Mark here?" he asked as he smiled and shook my hand.
"Mark's in cabin 5 and Josh is right inside." I replied.
Sean hugged his dad and then headed into the cabin to join the rest of the boys.
"Welcome to Tonawanka Jake," I said and offered him my hand. I smiled brightly when he locked thumbs with me rather than offer a traditional handshake.
"This is going to be great!" Jake replied enthusiastically. He hugged his dad and then bolted inside to join his brother and the other boys.
"We got Stéphane and Charles settled in with Mark and Bryan a few minutes ago and the girls are on the other side," Al remarked. "I got that picture of you guys at the Brandenburg Gate. Thanks for sending it. It brought back a lot of memories. They really cleaned it up quite a bit since I saw it last."
Just then, we heard a commotion coming from inside the cabin. "Brutus! Bring that back here!" It was Sean's voice. Everyone else was laughing. I didn't have time to turn my head to find out what was happening before Brutus came dashing out of the door of the cabin dragging a blanket. He was running as fast as he could with his burden. Sean and Jake came right behind him bumping Al and I out of the way, as they chased Brutus, followed by Josh and the other boys.
"What's going on here?" I asked as Josh stood there laughing.
Through his giggles, Josh explained, "I'd just shown Sean his bunk and Brutus walked over and started pulling on the blanket and he pulled it all the way off even though it was tucked in under the mattress. Then he went running with it."
Brutus ran with the blanket much to our delight as Sean and Jake chased him. Every time the boys thought they had him trapped between them, he would deek between them. At one point, Sean made a dive on the dusty ground for the blanket to catch a corner of it and landed square on his chest as the corner of the blanket slipped through his finger tips. There was no doubt about it, the blanket was going to need laundering before it could be put back on the bed. The rest of us were laughing so loud while some of the kids were cheering on the boys and others were cheering on Brutus.
Within a moment, Cabin 5 emptied out to see what all the noise was. As soon as Daisy saw Brutus with the blanket, she zipped over and grabbed the other end in her mouth. As if with one mind, the two of them took off down the trail towards the lake, Sean, Jake, and many of the campers running after them.
"It looks like our camp mascots have decided to give your sons a special welcome!" I laughed as Al, Bryan, and I made our way down the trail. By the time we reached the beach, Brutus and Daisy were standing at the water's edge, still with the blanket in their mouths. Sean and Jake were about two metres from the edge of the water, but as soon as the boys took one step closer, the dogs would move into the water. Now the blanket was getting wet.
"Sean! Jake! Take a step back and sit down. They'll come to you." Josh said.
The boys did as Josh suggested and Brutus and Daisy cocked their heads looking at them, then dragged the blanket slowly to them and dropped it. Then it was tongue bath time – one dog per boy.
"You certainly are going to have a tough week with those two!" Al laughed. "They haven't been here an hour and one of them already needs a change of clothes and a new blanket."
Bryan, Al, and I followed the boys as they made their way back to the cabins. We went with Al to his car. We took a few minutes to discuss our trip and the plans we had for his boys in the coming week. We also discussed Charles briefly.
"It'll be good for him to spend some time with Mark and Michael. It'll give him the sense that he's perfectly normal and that being different doesn't mean there's something wrong with him."
"I agree. Bryan is well aware of the situation." I said.
"Not to worry Al, I'll keep an eye on them." Bryan added. "I've been there and I know what it's like. Mark's experiences will add a lot to their confidence as well."
"Do me a favor and keep an eye on my two as well and their female friends!" Al said looking at me with a wry grin.
The three of us had a laugh about that. "I was actually going to have a welcome to camp talk with my whole group and go over some ground rules when it comes to the ladies. I want to make it clear that the boundaries they have at home apply here as well." I said.
"And I'll be having the same talk with my group," Bryan added.
"Ok then. I will see you in about a week," Al said as we shook hands before he got into his car.
When I got back into the cabin, I saw that Jake and Sean had got themselves settled in nicely. Sean had cleaned up nicely with a clean shirt. They had grabbed the empty bunk next to Josh and Kevin. I guess they had scrounged another blanket because all the beds were made neat and tidy. The four of them were having an animated discussion about our recent trek to Europe.
"Hey gang," I said. "Before we head out and have some fun, I wanted to say a few words."
I was pleasantly surprised when the boys quickly quieted down and turned to face me.
"In actual fact, all but three of you in this cabin know me to one degree or another so much of what I am about to say is for the benefit of those who don't. I am very easy to get along with. I don't have a lot of rules, I don't tend to shout or get angry. I like a good joke or harmless prank as much as the next guy. My job here isn't to be a baby sitter. My job is to keep you guys safe and to ensure that you have fun. Your job is to have the time of your life this summer. My only rules are simple," I said and surveyed the cabin before continuing.
"One, be nice to me and to each other. By all means razz and kid with each other, but I don't want to see anyone getting upset by it or insulted by it. Banter is what guys do, but we have to ensure that it stays friendly. Two, don't do anything dangerous. Ok, when we make our overnight trips to the top of the mountain, don't run near the edge or jump over the fire pit!" I had to wink at Josh as I said that. "Three, boys will be boys. What do I mean by that? I mean we're all guys here. I want this cabin to be our sanctuary. It's a guy zone where you don't have to try to look cool or try to impress the ladies. Here you can burp, fart, play poker in your underwear for all I care. Here you can do guy things without having to apologize for them. You guys get me?"
"Yeah!" Josh and several other boys replied enthusiastically.
"I didn't hear you!" I said.
That time all the boys replied with gusto.
"One more thing.... about the ladies. As you know this is a coed camp and some of you may have girlfriends on the ladies side," I said and glanced at Jake and Sean. "You'll have plenty of time to interact with the ladies during day programs and during our evening and weekend activities. We have nightly camp fires and special events such as the talent show every Friday where you will have a chance to interact with girls. I'm sure that I don't need to tell you this, but you need to use your heads.... and I mean your thinking heads, not the other ones," I added and smiled to myself as the whole cabin blushed slightly. "What I mean is that unless you're changing clothes, using the bathroom or having a shower, Mr. Willy had better not make any appearances!" At that point, Howie, Josh, Jake, Kevin, George, and Gary laughed out loud while the rest of the boys turned crimson.
After our little talk, we all changed into swim suits and we headed outside to take a walk around the whole camp. Mostly for the benefit of the new campers, I wanted to give the boys the grand tour and then we'd finish up at the beach for a nice refreshing swim.
"The scar on your leg looks larger than the last time I saw it, but you're walking much better," Ricky observed as we made our way to the beach.
"He had it operated on again," Josh said, "The doctor said it's as good as new."
"Better than ever, I think. That reminds me. I'll be getting up early every morning and taking a run through the woods with Brutus, Daisy, and Josh's brother Mark who's in Cabin 5. Any of you boys are welcome to join us. We go a pretty good distance and you'll get to see a lot of wildlife."
"Can I go with you?" Sean asked.
"Yeah, me too," Jake added.
"You betcha," I replied.
Our tour of the grounds took us about an hour and when we finally reached the beach, the boys all took off running into the water at full speed. Howie and I dove in after them and after the obligatory splashing sessions and impromptu water fights; Josh came over to me and put his hands on my shoulders.
"Throw me up in the air Dad just like you used to," he said.
I linked my hands together under the water like a stirrup. After Josh stepped into it, I thrust upward propelling him out of the water and over my head. He splashed down into the water head first, then popped up laughing and grinning. Jake went next followed by his brother Sean and pretty soon boys were coming back for second and third throws. When I tired out, Howie took over. He was only sixteen, but he was as big and as strong as an ox and he managed to throw the boys just as high as I could.
After about an hour we dried ourselves off and headed back to the cabin to get dressed for supper. Feeding time at Camp Tonawanka was always a special time. The food was plentiful and always tasty. The camp employed culinary students as their cooks and the meals that they cooked were as delicious as they were nutritious. The whole camp would get together for each dinner. Each cabin group was seated at their own table and all through the meal the various groups would be bantering back and forth with each other.
After dinner, Josh and I met Mark and Michael and we took the two of them to show them the wall of honour and Mark got to see his picture on the wall for the first time.
"I guess I'm not an honorary camper anymore," he observed with a smile.
"No, you're the real thing now kiddo," I chuckled and put an arm around his shoulders.
"Thanks again for everything Tom," he said as he leaned briefly against me.
"You're welcome son," I replied.
"Wematin," Josh said with a smile, "Yup.... you're my brother."
We had some free time before the nightly camp fire and I sat down on the porch of the cabin to watch my boys enjoy themselves. In particular, I watched Mark and Sean who were on the small baseball diamond in the common area in front of the cabins. They seemed to be getting along very well and Mark was giving some hitting pointers to Sean who was holding a baseball bat on his shoulder as if he was standing at home plate awaiting a pitch. Mark adjusted his stance here and there and then showed him the finer points of swinging a bat. After a few minutes, they persuaded Stéphane and Charles to play outfield for them and they began hitting a few balls. Sean lobbed a slow pitch to Mark who promptly hammered it over the right field home run fence.
"Holy cow!" Sean exclaimed. "You've got to teach me how to do that!"
"You guy's aren't going to hit them all that far are you?" Stéphane asked as he trotted out to retrieve the ball.
After Mark crushed a few more and gave both Stéphane and Charles a thorough workout, he handed the bat to Sean.
Mark lobbed an easy pitch to Sean, but he swung and missed on his first try.
"Remember to keep your eye on the ball and swing nice and smoothly," Mark instructed as he threw again. This time Sean connected and launched a deep fly ball to left field. It landed just short of the homerun fence.
"Nice shot," Mark said enthusiastically.
"It wasn't out though," Sean complained.
"It doesn't have to be a home run to count," Mark replied. "That would have been a great sacrifice fly. You might have been out, but you'd probably have driven in a run."
"I guess so," Sean said. It was about that time when 'Bulldog' made his appearance. If anyone had looked closely, they would have noticed a very determined expression on Sean's face as Mark lobbed in the next pitch. This time, he got ever bit of it and launched it clear over the left field fence.
"That's it!" Mark said encouragingly.
"Yes!" Sean replied and pumped his fist. "That felt awesome!"
"I never get tired of that feeling when you make good contact," Mark chuckled.
After Sean hammered a few more homers, they let Charles and Stéphane have a crack at it. Both of them did pretty well, but neither was quite the power hitter that Mark was and that Sean was learning to become.
"That was pretty cool. I'm more of a hockey player though," Charles said.
"Yeah but you're pretty fast," Sean said. "You'll make a great base runner."
"For sure," Mark agreed. He took a few minutes to teach Charles the finer points of base running and how to slide into the bag. I almost didn't notice Josh and Ricky approach.
"Dad," Josh said.
"Tom," Ricky added. "It's a nice night and we were wondering if...."
"We could camp out up the mountain tonight?" Josh finished for him.
"How about we do that tomorrow night. Mark, Michael, Sean, Jake, Charles, Stéphane, and maybe a few others are strangers to all of this. How about tonight we sit around a campfire and get to know everyone a bit better, then tomorrow night we can go up to the mountain with the guys in Cabin 5? I'm sure there's a few others that may be feeling a bit homesick or something and need some reassurance. Wha'd'ya say?"
Josh smiled and looked at Rick.
"Good plan Tom!" Rick exclaimed.
"Tom!" a familiar voice shouted from behind me.
I turned around and spotted Paul approaching leading his group of campers out of the woods. Evidently from the tired looks of his boys, it had been a long hike. "Paul, great to see you again!"
"So I guess we're once again 'Partners in crime' with this CIT program," he chuckled.
"I've been looking forward to it," I replied.
"Same here bud," he replied as we shook hands. "I see you scooped my star student from last year," he said as he pointed towards Howie.
"I guess they decided that one year of your bad influence was enough," I teased.
"Howie's a great kid," Paul replied.
"I was thinking about taking the guys up the mountain tomorrow night with the cabin 5 gang . You want to join us?"
"I'm always game for climbing the mountain," Paul replied with his usual gung-ho good nature. "How about you? How's that leg?"
I took a few minutes to fill Paul in on what had happened over the past year and he was utterly amazed. Paul had been a great Junior Counselor and he'd been a good friend. I was glad that he was back and that we'd be working together again.
Bryan and I organized our boys in going out to gather firewood for the evening camp fire. Camp fire time was always a special time at Tonawanka. Each night we'd take a few minutes for any announcements and to recognize special achievements of campers before launching into a series of songs and ghost stories. We'd also serve up S'mores and toasted marshmallows by the dozen. By 9PM, the younger campers were sent off to their cabins and the older campers were left to enjoy some of the scarier stories until around 10PM before we put out the fires and everyone headed to their own cabins.
I'd been the master story teller during my year at Tonawanka and I was looking forward to reprising that role. I had a solid collection of funny and scary stories with which to amuse the kids.
As usual, the camp fire was bedlam until the younger kids went to bed for the night. Once it was down to the older kids, it was a little quieter and less rambunctious. As I launched into one of my favorite tales, I glanced around at the assembled campers. As usual, Josh was holding court with a bunch of other kids, the life of the party as always. He had hit it off with Stéphane who was sitting next to him. Michael and Mark were sitting side by side next to them and the two of them looked very happy to be together. Charles was usually not far from where Mark was and indeed he was sitting between Michael and Sean who was holding hands with Melissa in the front row. The pair of them frequently glanced at each other and smiled. Jake was in the front row holding hands with Rachel and, as was his unique style, he was having a very animated conversation with those around him. The other boys from my group were there too and everyone seemed to be getting along very well.
I was really happy with the group of kids that I'd been assigned. They were a great bunch whose personalities seemed to compliment each other. I was thrilled at the way Mark was interacting with Sean and Charles. Charles because it gave him a sense of normalcy in his life and Sean because Mark was doing a great job of reinforcing for him that gay kids are every bit as normal as straight kids and that being gay doesn't mean eschewing masculine things such as sports.
"It was a dark and moonless night when there was a knock at Fred's door at precisely the stroke of midnight," I began my story. "When he opened it, he suddenly found himself face-to-face with this strange looking woman with deathly pale skin accented by almost shockingly bright red lips and long fingernails painted in the same blood like shade of red. 'Would you like to see what I can do with my red, red lips and long, long nails?' the creepy woman asked." I paused for dramatic effect before resuming,
"'No!' Fred shouted and slammed the door shut. He was pretty creeped out by the whole thing, but he went back to watching his hockey game. By the next night, he had pretty well forgotten about the strange incident when once again at precisely the stroke of midnight, there was another knock at his door. Once again it was the same strange pale faced woman with the strikingly red lips and long red nails. 'Would you like to see what I can do with my red, red lips and long, long nails?' she asked again. Annoyed and frightened Fred once again shouted 'NO!' and slammed the door shut.
"The next night and the next after that and the next after that, always at the precise stroke of midnight, the same weird and creepy woman showed up at his door and always asked the same strange question. By the end of the week, he had stopped being scared and was more annoyed that anything else. When the knock came that night, he answered the door again and sure enough it was the same woman. 'Would you like to see what I can do with my red, red lips and long, long nails?' she asked again. Finally Fred snapped. 'Alright! I give in. You're driving me crazy. Show me what you can do with your red, red lips and long, long nails!' he shouted."
I paused again and walked to the side of the fire where my campers were all seated. Some of them such as Josh, George, Gary and Ricky knew the story, so I focused in on Sean and Melissa. "The strange woman grinned and held up her index finger with the long red painted fingernail gleaming in the light of the porch light. She then touched her finger to her blood red lips and went, 'BLUB BLUB BLUB!'" I shouted as I leaned right into Sean and Melissa.
The two of them nearly jumped out of their skins at first as the rest of the campers began to laugh. The pair of them looked sheepish at first, but it only took a second before they began to laugh just as hard as the rest of the kids.
With that the campfire broke up. Sean and Jake asked for and received permission to escort Melissa and Rachel back to the girl's side of the camp. I agreed to let them go as long as they agreed to be back within ten minutes. I initially considered sending Howie to follow along from a distance as a chaperone, but I decided to trust them.
"Remember our little talk boys," I grinned outside of earshot of the girls. The pair of them turned crimson.
Sure enough, the pair of them bounded through the cabin doors almost exactly ten minutes later. Evidently my trust had been well placed.
"Ok guys, official lights out is 11PM. Everyone needs to be inside the cabin and in their bunk by that time. Please try to keep the noise down to a dull roar after lights out. We had a good day today and I've plenty of fun stuff planned for us tomorrow. For those of you who want to join Mark and me in running in the woods, we're getting up at 5AM. The rest of you can sleep in until 8AM when breakfast service starts. While I'm out with the runners, my main man Howie will be here in my place. Have a good night boys."
I stretched out on my bunk and read a few chapters of the book that I was working my way through. Around me, the usual pillow fights and other nighttime antics raged. Thankfully by the time lights out was called, everyone had settled in for the night. As was my custom, I took a few moments to make the rounds of the cabin and speak to each of my boys. I liked to personally say goodnight to each of them and share a bit of a small talk about the events of the day.
"That's a sweet swing you're developing there Sean," I said as I stopped by his bunk.
"Thanks," he smiled and replied sleepily. "Mark's a cool guy."
"He sure is. Goodnight Sean," I said as I moved on to Jake's bunk and then finished with Josh and Kevin.
"So how did you enjoy your first day of camp?" I asked Kevin.
"It was awesome!" he replied.
"I'm glad. Goodnight kiddo."
"Goodnight Tom," he replied.
"How about you son." I said as I got to Josh's bunk." How was your first day back?"
"Totally awesome," he replied and held out his arms for a goodnight hug.
I hugged him tightly and then tucked him back in. "Goodnight son," I said.
"Goodnight Dad," he replied.
With all of my guys looked after, I headed to my bunk, corrected the "short sheet" that I had discovered earlier and then settled in for the night.
Brutus plunked himself down right next to my bunk and groaned contentedly as I reached down to scratch his head between his ears. "Goodnight Brutus," I said.
I stretched out on my bunk and closed my eyes. It wasn't long before I drifted off to sleep thinking about what a perfect day it had been and my dreams were filled with visions of the joys of summer camp that lay ahead in the coming weeks. With Josh nearby and with Bryan and Mark in the next cabin, all was well in our small world.