I had not planned to return to Starkville to see the camp show this year. I always want to, but with the Lewisburg Literary Festival coming up on August 7 & 8 and me with a 10 minute play to memorize and rehearse it seemed a foolhardy thing to do.
About mid week, Leigh Ann, wife of my best friend and brother Joe Evans, called to alert me to the fact that Joe was to be inducted into the Summer Scholars Hall of Fame this year. The Hall of Fame is something that’s been done for the past 10 of our camp’s 34 plus year lifespan, honoring people who have served the camp in a variety of capacities. Joe has been one of the longest-serving staff members, coming in at around 30 or 31 years of service, by my memory. This was all being done in secret, too, which would be great if the secret could be kept until the ceremony. This is not precisely easy to do, though, for Joe is a pretty savvy guy and might already suspect something like that was in the offing. I wanted to be there to see him recognized.
I texted Leah, back at camp, and asked if they’d had to give away my room to someone else. “Nope. Come on back,” she wrote. My driving hands began to itch.
On Thursday of last week I learned that my scene partner in the play we are rehearsing could not meet until Tuesday of this week. Seemed the chance to go was mine if I would take it. But how to sell this to the wife?
My wife has a love/hate relationship with camp, as do most of the long-term staff spouses. On the one hand, they know we love the camp and would do anything we could for it. They know it’s a constant draw, especially for those of us who help the campers in creating it (as I did as script consultant). We want to see the finished product and get antsy when we can’t. On the other hand, camp takes us away from home for long periods of time, which causes rippling effects on those who are used to being able to rely upon us being around. And for those of us who live 11 plus hours away, it can be even more of an effect because there’s fuel costs to be considered. I had told her that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go back. Now that I had the free and clear time-wise, though, I wondered what she would think. Would she approve or had she already assumed I was staying and made other plans for us?
Naturally, she saw right through me. After moping around for most of Thursday afternoon, wondering silently how to present my case, my wife hit me with, “So, are you going back tomorrow?”
“I’m seriously thinking about it,” I said, hands continuing to itch. I then began packing the car to make them stop. I sent Leah a text to let her know I was coming and not to tell Joe. I then wrote the associate director and told him, as well as Leigh Ann. They would be the only three to know my plans for sure, now to throw scent off the trail…
On Facebook, I found an appropriate photo of the set from this year and wrote: *sniff*
Joe quickly responded to this by saying: “This is your own fault, Eric Fritzius.”
Heh heh heh.
I lit out before 7 a.m. on Friday. I had to get to camp before the show started at 7, preferably an hour before. I didn’t exactly have a plan of what I was going to do, but figured something would occur in the moment.
When I stopped for gas, I looked up the Summer Scholars Facebook page on my phone and wrote: “Everybody in the show tonight break a leg. I really really wish I could be there to see it with my own eyes.”
A little while later, my friend Tristan Durst wrote: “I still hold out hope that you’re going to show up and surprise us. So. Don’t let me down.”
Took me 40 miles to come up with a response, so at the next rest stop I wrote: “If I had a Tardis, I would be there yesterday.”
Then I went radio silent for the rest of the way.
I arrived in Starkville around 5:15, just enough time to grab some grub before putting my plan into action. It would be a matter of timing. See for decades now the staff of Summer Scholars has organized an acapella ensemble to sing a song at intermission. And for just as long they have met at 6 p.m. in the back corner stairwell to rehearse that song in preparation for debuting it to the campers after they’ve warmed up in the theatre’s scene shop. I snuck in the costume shop door at 6p and headed into the scene shop, expecting to see costumed campers waiting. However, only my friend Gand frequent clone Glen was there. And from the amount of general stuff in the middle of the floor, I knew plans had changed. Glen revealed that the kids were downstairs in the lab theatre and the singing ensemble was in a different place to rehearse.
“Hey, check this out,” he said, passing me a program for the camp show. I saw the logo for the title IN A BIND on its cover–mighty sweet–before Glen flipped to the back cover where Joe’s face stared out.
“Does he know about this?” I said, disappointed that the secret might have been spoiled.
“I don’t know how he couldn’t,” Glen said. “These are everywhere.”
Ah, well, I thought. Someone else’s department. I had a reveal to accomplish, so I swore Glen to secrecy and headed down to the lab theatre. A few campers saw me along the way and gave me hugs, but mostly I was just a generic staff-face, able to blend in. Even after I arrived in the lab theatre, I made no big deal about my presence and all but a few campers seemed to notice me. My plan, such that it was, was to hang out in the lab until the ensemble arrived. I might hide, or I might just lurk until I had a chance to reveal my presence to Joe. But this was tricky. I didn’t want to be discovered mid-song and interrupt things. Then I spotted it, a lone black rehearsal door over at one end of the black box theatre space. It was perfect. The two campers who were seated beyond it were engrossed in their phones and headphones, so I just went over and stood behind it, out of the way and mostly out-of-sight.
After 15 minutes or so, I heard Tristan’s voice and I peeked around the corner to see if it was her. She spotted me and started crying immediately. I told her my plan was to wait for Joe and crew to arrive. I had still not worked out what I was going to do once that happened. A few minutes later, the kids began warmups, all in a circle on the other side of the door, which was, itself, aimed at the entrance to the lab theatre. They did vocal and physical warmups and then Tristan signaled me that Joe and crew had arrived. I was able to use the door’s peep hole to spy on them as they circled up in the middle of the circle of campers.
“I want to open the door,” Tristan whispered. I grinned.
Someone shushed the group of kids and everyone began to grow quiet in preparation for the song. When it was almost completely quiet, I struck.
BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM, I knocked.
There was laughter from the kids, but only a few knew what was happening. “Who is it?” someone said, but no one opened the door. What I only learned later was that my banging on the door was infuriating Joe. Here he was trying to get this song sung so he could get back to the important work of making sure everything was working so he could direct the musical accompanists from his position on the front row while they were secreted at the back of the stage with no physical line of sight (long story there), and some jerkweed camper was banging on the door and being an ass.
I happily banged again. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
Finally someone opened the door. It swung on its hinges and I stared out and into the angry, then shocked, then elated face of Joe Evans through it. I started to say “Avon calling,” but was drowned out by a sea of cheers, as most of the people in the room had no idea I was even there to begin with. It was awesome.
Joe and I hugged it out, then they got to the serious business of singing an acapella version of “Dr. Worm” by They Might Be Giants.
Leigh Ann had saved me a seat on the front row. There I sat, saying hi to friends, staff, and former campers. There were indeed programs everywhere, but Joe didn’t seem to have one. Then the show started and my enjoyment began. Act I was great. Then, at first intermission, Dr. Joe Ray Underwood and associate camp director Joel Rutherford came out to conduct the hall of fame ceremony. It looked something like this…
Joe swears he had no idea up until the point when they said his name. He later said he could see the evidence was all around him, but he never paid much attention to any of it. The strangest thing, he said, was that Leah wouldn’t give him a copy of the program before the show. It was great to see him honored for all the work he’s done for the camp and for the kids who’ve attended it over the years. Joe truly is the heart of Summer Scholars. And his own words in the ceremony tell you precisely why.
The show was fantastic! One of the all time best in terms of performance, sound mix, lighting, set, costumes, direction, dancing, and, yes, script. The kids wrote a good one. It was pretty light lifting for me as these things go.
The following day, I went out to breakfast with the parents and then went back to their house to see kitty Abin. I was prepared for a tearful reunion, in which he ran to me and leaped into my arms to once again see the savior who rescued him from hunger, disease, and the elements out on campus. He ran, all right–away from my ass. And hid. Took quite a while to coax him out and more time to get him to let me pet him, let alone pick him up. By the end of my visit, though, he seemed to like me well enough. Dad suggested that Abin thought I was coming to get him and take him away again. Perhaps he thought I was going to take him back to the bushes I found him in.
He’s doing great in his new home. He’s bonded with my dad moreso than Myra, but seems to be developing into a great housecat.
The rest of the weekend was spent hanging out with great friends, seeing the show a second time (even better!), wagering on which camper would cry first during our final meeting (I won $10 in the pool last year, but I picked a bad horse this year), eating stupid amounts of bad food, and watching Sifyl and Oly at three in the morning. Despite a few complaints along the way, and a near record number of characters to have to write for, it was one of the best years on record.
I always feel a strange mixture of anticipation and dread as camp approaches. Gives me night terrors and butterflies in my stomach, and this year a case of the shingles. Right now, though, I find myself oddly looking forward to next year.