A Close Call
By Mort Laitner
At 5:00 pm, Lefty, Joel, Allen and I ran home while waving and yelling, “Good-bye,” to the Camp Alamac staff and counselors. My friends and I headed toward the village with our stomachs still full from lunch and our heads still full of ideas on how we would spend the final four hours of our day.
We strolled down the Glen Wild Road pretending to be pirates ready to launch a murderous raid on the town. We swung invisible swords and dueled with each other. Joel ringed his fingers into the shape of a spyglass scanning Kreiger’s Garage and Gas Station as if looking for victims to plunder, while Lefty pulled back the string from his imaginary bow and shot arrows at the sun. Then Allen, my red-head friend, with a Froggy voice and a freckled face, started to sing:
Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,
Ninety-nine bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around,
Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.
The rest of us joined in and after three more bottles were passed around, I broke in with a barrage of questions, “What brand of beer was on that wall? Budweiser? Schlitz? What would happen if all those bottles fell off the wall? Who would clean up the mess?”
The threesome pondered their replies as if they were taking the New York State Regents Exam.
Breaking the silence, Lefty, our skinny historian, piped in, “Those bottles were on a pirate ship. In the old days bottles didn’t have paper labels affixed to them. Therefore they had no brand.”
“Yeah, Lefty’s right. This is an old pirate song and the lowest mate on the ship would swab the room clean if any bottles hit the deck.” Joel replied.
Allen, displaying his knowledge of pirate lingo, followed, “You’d have a bunch of mutinous pirates on your hands if all 99 bottles broke. Those buccaneers loved to drink their grog.”
Turning onto Broadway, Joel switched tunes and bellowed,
“Row, row, row, your boat gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”
The rest of us, in our deepest voices, joined in with our arms flaying as if we were drunken sailors rowing the boat toward a pirate ship.
As eleven-year-olds, living in the Catskills, our lives were one big camp song. We sang loudly, as if no one lived in the village. We sang the tunes in the carefree voice of children without responsibilities. Our lives were all fun and games. What did we have to worry about? What harm could befall us?
I invited Joel, my best friend since kindergarten, to stop at my house for a Coke and as we stepped in the door, we yelled at our friends, “See you later alligator.”
Lefty and Allen laughed and retorted, “In a while crocodile.”
We entered my kitchen and saw my short, slightly over-weight grandmother, Babcia Roza, rendering chicken fat into schmaltz—the Yiddish word for fat. Like young sea hawks we watched as Grandma Rose held a sharp, bone-handled kitchen knife and trimmed the skin off the fat. She placed an eight-inch-high pile of uncooked chicken fat on a clear-plastic chopping block. We watched as she chopped the fat into small pieces. Then she dropped the pieces into a large black frying pan and added slices of onions. As she cooked the concoction over low heat, the smell of oil permeated our nostrils. Magically the fat turned to oil. Grandma stirred the mixture as the fat began to brown. When the white fat disappeared, she used her slotted wooden spoon to remove the crispy chicken fat skin bits—gribenes—a tasty treat for which we anxiously waited. The schmaltz remained in the frying pan until Grandma poured it into a glass-mason jar and placed it in the refrigerator. In a few hours it would be ready to spread on bread.
After guzzling our Cokes, Joel and I decided to take archery practice in Lefty’s backyard. In my room, I found my nylon bow and leather quiver filled with six hunting arrows. Each hunting arrow had a razor-sharp, three-inch steel blade. These arrows were designed to kill deer.
Lefty’s backyard consisted of a small field where we played touch football; a wooded area where we dug for worms, had crab apple and snow ball fights; and a narrow path that led to Lefty’s Dad’s shoe store.
From one end of the field, Joel and I took turns shooting our steel-tipped arrows into a fifty-year-old maple tree. Impressed with our dead-eye accuracy, we crossed the field to remove the deeply-embedded, razor-sharp arrows from the bark.
Having tired of shooting at tree trunks, we decided to have a contest to see who could shoot their hunting arrow the highest. Joel shot first. He pulled back the string, tightly securing the arrow between his thumb and index finger and arching his bow with all the muscle an eleven-year-old could muster. Joel let go and his arrow zoomed seventy-five feet straight up in the air. Within three seconds, the arrow flipped over and jettisoned toward the ground before landing point first, within ten feet from where we stood. We gasped inhaling lungs full of air, realizing the extreme danger of this fool-hardy game.
A taste of fear filled my mouth, my esophagus, my whole digestive track, but I would not be dissuaded from taking my shot.
It was my turn. I wanted to shoot my arrow higher than Joel’s. I flexed my bow, placed the pronged plastic arrow tip between its nylon string, and pulled back with all my might, releasing my pinched fingers and letting the arrow soar.
As soon as I let it go, I glanced down field and saw Lefty’s Dad slowly walking toward us. I heard Joel gasp. My lips froze, as my eyes prayed that the razor-sharp hunting arrow would not puncture Lefty’s Dad’s skull. I watched in horror as the arrow flipped and headed toward earth.
In those three seconds I knew my “fun-and-game life” would end in tragedy. Then the arrow landed point first in the ground—ten feet behind Lefty’s Dad. I exhaled, as I heard Joel whispered, “Holy cow, that was close! We’re not playing this game any more.”
In silence, I watched Lefty’s father walk toward and enter his house. He never would know how close he came to death. I stepped foreword, walked across the field and pulled the arrow out of the ground. I examined the arrow. I examined my life—as well as any eleven-year-old could—and reaffirmed my belief in the Almighty.
Leaving the backyard with my bow and quivering knees, I whimpered, “Joel, I’m going home. I’ll see you later.”
At 9:00 pm, Joel stopped by my house to see how I was doing. He greeted my mom, who responded by opening her purse and giving us thirty-five cents to purchase fresh, right-out-of-the-oven-seeded-rye bread from Mortman’s Bakery. She knew how much we loved the warm bread.
As we ran to the bakery, Joel and I smelled the freshly-baked breads from a block away. We ordered, paid, and watched as the noisy old bread slicer cut though the loaf. Mrs. Mortman placed the rye in a waxed-paper bag. Leaving the bakery, we politely said, “Thanks.” as I clung to our treasure.
Exiting Mortman’s, I ripped open the bag grabbing the tip of the loaf. We strolled back to the house sharing and devouring slice after slice. I watched half the loaf disappear.
We sang no camp songs, as our mouths were filled with rye.
Entering the kitchen, I remembered the schmaltz and quickly removed it from the refrigerator. With a bone-handled knife, I spread the schmaltz evenly across the face of two slices of bread, and I handed one to Joel. Biting into the slice of bread, I silently counted my blessings.
I would never tell this story to anyone because I didn’t want to be labeled an idiot or face the wrath of Lefty’s father. Instead, I preferred to remember the delicious taste of my grandmother’s schmaltz spread across warm rye bread.