Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 4th?

The first thing I always checked was the weather.  Rain on the 4th of July was-- and is-- a punishment unlike any other.  Our family tradition is to head up to Spring Lake in Burrillville every 4th of July for a family party.   My grandparents had a tiny camp there, nestled away in a cove, the most serene and placid part of the spring-fed lake.  When young, this meant my family of five, my grandparents, my aunt, and the Griffins, a family of five whose kids were the same ages as my family.  On days of sun and warmth, the 4th meant swimming for endless hours, floating on rafts, or diving deep beneath the water with Benny's-bought masks and snorkels. Mr. Griffin would lock himself away in the cramped, steamy kitchen with a fryolator making homemade clam cakes next to vats of clam chowder.  In-between trips in and out of the water, kids would rush inside in hopes of sneaking a handful or two of Cheetos along to be downed by overly sweet Country Time lemonade. We would fish and canoe and sail and play epic games of cribbage or Hi-Lo-Jack.

That is, if it was sunny.

Then, there were the holidays with rain.

My job was to check the weather. It wasn't really my job-- my job was delivering my 35 Woonsocket Calls and my 23 Providence Journal up the road to my loyal customers first thing in the morning.  However, since I was up first, I was the "canary in the coal mine", so to speak.  My job was to determine if the weatherman who provided us with his speculation the day before was telling us the truth:

Dad:  "Well, Tim, looks like a good 4th.  John Ghiorse said that today was going to be partly cloudy."

Tim: (standing soaking wet from the rain outside) "Really?"

Once our family determined that rain was an omnipresent aspect of the 4th, everything changed.

Now, our quaint little camp became something out of some modernist short story of 13 strangers trapped together in a room, having to juggle personalities, seeking to find which one should be cast out. Mr. Griffin, who--when the weather was nice--I eagerly awaited to arrive so that he could begin cooking, now was a cruel warden whose fryolator did nothing more than heat the dampness of the air to an unbearable level and fill every nook and cranny of the ancient structure with the thick, sweet smell of oil.

Sailing? No.  Canoeing?  No.  Sneaking handfuls of Cheetos and cups of overly sweet Country Time lemonade?  Impossible as every parent was now within sightline of these forbidden snacks.  Games of cribbage and Hi-Lo-Jack would still go on, but not out of a desire to play, but as a necessity because it was one of the only things that could be done to kill the time as the clocked ticked slowly throughout the day.

But there was one fall back:  we could always try to go swimming.

 At first, we kids tried to make best of the situation and talk about how, even though it was still raining, it was nice just to get together and see everyone.  We would break into our separate areas of the camp, try to talk or force in a  game of Yahtzee, but at some point, we realized we were doing nothing more than  Sisyphus pushing that rock back and forth up the hill.  Usually, it was the older ones who would suggest that we go swimming: my brother Kevin and Will, the oldest member of the Griffin family.  Dan, the youngest Griffin and the one closest to me in age, and I would watch expectantly because if our parents said that they could go, then they would have to let us go as well.

Oh, the joy that would fill our hearts when my mother and Mrs. Griffin would say yes.  As a kid, I took their acquiescence as a sign of their love of their children as mothers.  Yet, as I got older, I came to realize that they agreed because they knew that unless we got out of the house and away from them, they were going to have to kill one of us.  Yet regardless of their reasons, we would run off into our rooms, filled with a new sense of joy, and throw on our bathing suits.  Perhaps-- just perhaps-- this day would not be a loss.  Swimming in the rain-- that was fun.  Swimming in the rain-- it was different and exciting.  How could it be any different?  After all-- rain got you wet; swimming in the water got you wet.  It was the same thing!Once dressed, I would grab my towel and run outside.

 As soon as I stepped out of that door, I knew I was committed.  

And as soon as I stepped out of that door, I understand the foolishness of my decision.

First, the rain-- although wet-- was freezing.  The droplets did not float upon your skin like a light mist.  No, these tiny pieces of ice shards would slam into your body, causing you to realize the only way to escape was to go back inside or to jump into the lake.  As I said, having already committed to one course of action, I could not go back.  No-- I had to go forward.  Having watched my brother and Will and Dan all seem to run into the lake with unbridled enthusiasm, I assumed I was missing something and went all in.  I began running towards the edge of the dock, through the sheets of November rain, throwing my towel onto the picnic table-- because that's what I always did-- where it immediately became drenched.  But I did not care.  I would deal with that later.  For now-- the lake!  I ran down the stairs, across the cement patio, down another set of steps to the dock, and sprinted towards the end of the dock-- only to hydroplane on its wet surface, causing my feet to go out in front of me and me to slam down on my butt.

My thought: God I hope no one saw me.

But then, as I lay there, body facing heavenward, now numb from the rain, I could hear it all. From the distance and safety of the camp, I heard guffaws and belly-laughs, punctuated with my grandfather's distinctive "Heah" laughs as they watched me fall.   I knew then and there that I had provided the rest of the family with THE moment: the one event they would point to when speaking of the holiday for the rest of our lives.

"Didn't we have rain last year for the 4th?"

"No, not last year.  That was two years ago, remember?  That was the year that Tim fell on his fat ass on the dock."

"That's right.  I remember that."

In the distance, once the laughter had faded, I could hear the insincere voice of my father: "Tim, are you okay?"  An ironic question considering the way the holiday itself had gone.  However, despite my shame, I pushed myself up, turned to the camp with a fake smile and gave them all a thumbs up, which, as I look back, was probably a subliminal concession on my part from the finger gesture that I actually wanted to give them all.  I turned and then sprinted as fast as one can by tip-toeing the rest of the way to the end of the dock.  Once there, I jumped into the lake and allowed myself to feel the warmth of the water.  Just maybe this swimming thing would still work.

But then I needed air.  So that meant coming up and feeling the rain pound on your head.

Dan, Kevin, Will and I would try to talk about things to do in the water, but the rain hitting the lake was deafening.  Ideas like diving contests-- always a good fall-back at the lake-- would quickly be vetoed when we realized that would mean we would have to get out of the water.  So, after minutes, of trying to decide what to do with only our heads visible above the water, we realized that one can only do so much just treading water.  Tthat meant one thing: getting out and going back to the camp.

Exiting the lake, we must have looked like soldiers returning from battle: heads sunk down, steps slow and deliberate, soaking wet towels draped over our heads to keep the rain away.  Returning to the camp meant hearing "How was it?" and "I told you so" or just looking at a sea of shaken heads.  We had let them down.  The momentary sense of hope that this day could be salvaged for all of us was now gone.    So, found  another towel to use to dry off, put on my clam cakes-infused clothes and tried to find a place to sit amongst the sea of people.  Then I looked at the clock:

Swimming had taken all of ten minutes.

Four hours and 53 minutes left.

Happy 4th.

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