Saturday, November 13, 2010

Away from Home for the First Time

 My best work seems to come to me when I am under pressure.  As I look at the calendar, I see my deadline approaching to complete my manuscript and there is still much to be done.  The following chapter came to me in the middle of the night.  Like the recent posts before it, it is very raw.  Consider it more of an outline.  My job now is to connect the fragments and shape them into my life's story.

It is not easy to revisit memories buried deep inside my mind.  As they return to me in the middle of the night, I feel as though I am reliving them.  I must endure this.  The time living in darkness is important to the full story.  One cannot enjoy the roller coaster without the twists and turns or the steep descents.

Here is one more memory from my past, penned at 5:00 AM this morning.  It will be refined before it becomes part of "God's Black Sheep Squadron."  Ben Wise, may you rest in peace.  Thank you for the great memories.

Your reader comments are welcome any time.  You are the most important part of the story.  You will appear in the final chapter, the most important character in His book, you are the one He has been seeking your whole life. 

Oh Canada

I jumped for joy as I read the letter from Ben Wise (pictured above), the owner of the Manitou-wabing tennis camp in Canada.  He was offering me a job to teach tennis for the summer at the largest tennis camp in North America.  Mrs. Porter's recommendation letter helped get me the job.  I desperately needed some change in my life and this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

I could barely sleep as I dreamed about spending the summer so far away from home.  Until that summer, I had never been more than five hundred miles from home.  Everything was an adventure.  The plane ride, the bus trip, the people.  I arrived at the beginning of summer, already tanned from hours of playing tennis in the scorching hot Arizona sun that heated the tennis courts well above one hundred degrees.  I stood out in a crowd of Canadians that had not seen so much sun.

I quickly settled in to my cabin that would soon be filled with campers once my tennis training was complete.  We were introduced to our trainer, the number one tennis pro in Canada, Peter Burwash.  He started out as a professional hockey player and switched to tennis after a freak accident on the ice.  His ability to make teaching tennis simple transformed many of my misconceptions about the game.  He helped my turn my forehand into a weapon that still scares my opponents in the fifty something crowd I play with.

Photo by one of my cabin kids, a photography student, Ontario, Canada, 1982
I felt so alive at this place.  "You are tennis professionals," Peter proclaimed.  "And a tennis pro never has a bad day."  His life lessons still resonate with me today, thirty years later.  Once our three day training session was complete, it was time to meet the first set of campers.  I felt like some kind of dad when I met my kids.  Most of them came from wealthy families and were "sent" so the parents could get a break.  When the camp director saw how well I was able to bond with the kids, he decided to give me the ones that were the troublemakers.  Sometimes, I would get a new arrival in the middle of the night.  It was a challenge that I fully embraced.

A prize was offered to the cleanest cabin and the winners were treated to a movie in a nearby town.  It was the only way anyone was allowed to leave camp.  I prepared a game plan for winning this award.  It was simple, appoint a leader and a wake-up person.  The leader had full power to assign clean-up jobs and no one was allowed to go to breakfast, including me, until the leader gave the green light.  I was always the first person to arrive for breakfast.  The other counselors were busy screaming and yelling at their kids while I ate my breakfast in peace.

When points were tallied, we were the champions.  We went to town to see "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  At the end of the one week session, it was hard to say good-bye to my kids.  They had become like family.  The other counselors told me I was just lucky to get kids who liked to clean.  When the new set of campers arrived, I repeated the same game plan.  Soon, we were on our way to see "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  The other cabins got so sick of us that they started dumping garbage underneath our cabin just to make us lose.  It didn't matter.  Every week, I got new campers.  We were undefeated in cabin cleanup for the entire summer and every morning I was the first one to arrive at breakfast while the other counselors tried to figure out my secrets.  It was simple, show them a vision that they want to go for and then get out of the way and let them live the dream.

Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada
I got an opportunity to spend some time with the owner's daughter, Jordana, while taking a boat ride on the Georgian Bay.

"You Americans are so competitive," she said.  "You need to play games where everyone wins."

"Nonsense."  I said.  "Where is the fun in that?  In life, there are winners and losers."

Jordana didn't like me.  When it came time to choose leaders for the Zodiac games, she assigned me to lead the Aries group even though I was born on the 4th of July and should have been in charge of the Cancers.  The Aries team got so fired up that everyone in the camp wanted to be an Aries.  We had the best spirit songs and the best signs.  We completely dominated in every part of the competition.

Can-Am Games August, 1983
The camp director loved what he saw.  Experiences like these were good for repeat business.  The climax of the summer was a three day competition involving an array of activities including basketball, tennis, track, canoe racing, obstacle courses and water sports.  I was nominated to be the leader for the Americans in the Can-Am games.  Although we were outnumbered two to one, we made a grand entrance on horses that we borrowed.  We came in waving the American flag while dressed in red, white and blue.

By the third day, my voice was so hoarse that I could barely speak.  I organized captains for every event and we gave it all we had in every event.  On the final day, the entire camp gathered for the results.  We cheered as we saw the American flag appear from the roof top.  As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared.  Our hearts dropped as the Canadian flag was hoisted while the home crowd screamed uncontrollably.  Jordana posted the final tally for all to see.

The next morning, I returned to the scoreboard and recounted the scores for each race.  I couldn't believe it.  The Americans had won!  I ran all the way to Ben's office and explained what happened.

"Sorry Mike,"  Ben said.  "You can't tell anybody about this.  It would be bad publicity."

I left Ben's office with my head down.  The Canadian campers and counselors were still talking about their big win as they packed their bags.  I kept my mouth shut as I watched all the campers depart.  Later, Ben talked to me about the situation and consoled me.

He told me, "look Mike, in your heart, you know who won and that's all that matters.  I respect you for keeping your mouth shut.  I want you back next year. Okay?"

"Yes Ben, I will be back.  Next year I am going to lead the Americans to victory, you can count on that."

I spent three summers in a row at Ben's camp.  I made friends from all over the world.  Ben invited me to extend my contract and work at the Inn, a five store resort, during the fall.  We had a one week break and I seized the opportunity to get on a train all by myself and travel to Montreal and Quebec City.  I will never forget looking out the window of the train at sunrise and seeing so many vivid colors as the leaves were changing.

There was a special week when Ben closed the Inn to outside guests and invited his friends from the YPO, the young president's organization.  To be a part of this group, you had to be a CEO under age forty.  John and Sheri Eaton were part of this group.  They were the equivalent of the Sears family in Canada.  I talked with Sheri at the bar.

She asked, "where are you from, Mike?" 

"Arizona," I replied.

"I went to Scottsdale once and visited Capezios.  I liked it, so I bought it." she said.

"You bought what?" I asked.

"I bought the whole store," she said with a smile.

The other pros told me that the husband was out of control.  He refused to listen and distracted every lesson.  When John got to my court, I was conducting a backhand clinic.  I told John that if he could hit the target, I would buy him a drink later that evening.  John was so competitive that he begged me to show him what to do so he could win a drink.  It was one of the best lessons I have ever given.

Before it was time to return home, one of the guests took an interest in my personal life.

She asked, "do you have a girlfriend back home?"

'There is someone that I care about but she broke up with me the day before I left Phoenix.  She told me we both needed to be free to explore our options.'

"How do you feel about your options?" she asked.

"Confused.  I was supposed to go home at the end of summer camp but I wasn't ready.  I am supposed to graduate with an accounting degree.  I am good with numbers but I don't see myself sitting behind a desk.  I feel trapped."

"Want a ride home?" she asked.

"Sure."  I hopped in her pickup and we drove back to my cabin.  She asked if she could come in.  I was nervous especially because she was about fifteen years older than me and was married.  Her husband was too busy with his work to vacation and my friend was up for the week with her girlfriend.

She asked if she could spend the night with me.  There were two voices in my head speaking to me at the same time.  I compromised.

"You can stay if you want to, but you will need to sleep in another room."  She turned cold and walked out of the cabin.

The next morning, I spotted her truck outside my cabin.  I went outside to check on her and she was laying down in the front seat.  The doors were locked.  I knocked on the window.  She didn't move.  I started yelling at her.  Finally, she woke up and unlocked the door.  There was a note.  It was a suicide note.  She had swallowed a bunch of pills.  As I read the note, she fell back asleep.

I jumped in the truck and started up the engine.  The nearest hospital was twenty miles away.  I did my best to keep my friend awake.  My words were not pleasant.

"How can you do this? You have a family."

I dropped her off at the hospital and gave the keys to the nurse.  My head was spinning as I walked out of the hospital.  As I started running back towards camp, crazy thoughts entered my mind.  What kind of crazy mess did I get myself into?  I kept running for about five or six miles before getting fatigued.  I didn't even have any water.  The hills were rolling and full of green grass and tall trees.  During the twenty mile journey back to camp, I prayed.  It was dinner time by the time I got back to the Inn.  By now, the staff had been alerted.  I ate dinner alone and returned to my cabin.

As I was falling asleep, headlights beamed through my window.  My friend had returned with her husband to thank me for saving her life.  I stayed silent while they knocked at my front door and prayed they would go away.  My friend left that night with her husband.  She made a follow-up visit with her young son, however I refused to speak to her.  There were letters and even a cake.  The letters were thrown out and the cake never eaten.  It was time to go home.  Back to Arizona.  I had time to make my decision about my future.  Now it was time to live my dream.  I was ready to go home.

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