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A Yankee Notebook

August 25, 2014


LINCOLNVILLE, ME – During the late summer of 1964 I was browsing through a copy of Life and came across an article titled “Marshmallow Becomes a Man.”  It followed a kid named (as I recall) Mike Kobulnicky as he struggled through a course at the Colorado Outward Bound School and emerged, after 26 days of stress, as a tough, confident young man.


I was teaching high school English, building our first house in my spare time, and working a summer job in a lumber yard to make ends meet.  “Wow!” I thought. “Wouldn’t that be a great job, instructing at the Colorado school!  It’d be getting paid for what I do, anyway.”  So I wrote the national office of Outward Bound inquiring how to get involved.  The president, one of the most positive people I’ve ever met, got right back to me with contact information.  I fired off an enthusiastic letter to the Colorado School.  I’d be available in the summer of 1965, I said.

They declined the opportunity to hire me, and suggested I try the Minnesota canoeing-based school.  I’d canoed a lot, so I tried there.  They said yes, but I had to get myself to Minnesota, and they couldn’t accommodate my wife and two little kids.  There was one school left: the one on the coast of Maine.  I got an interview in New York City, but didn’t know enough yet not to show up for an interview with Ivy Leaguers wearing a beard.  Don’t call us, the Director said; we’ll call you.

Which, amazingly, they did.  A previous hire had dropped out.  Was I still available?  The family could come along, too.  A couple of weeks later the four of us piled into our ‘54 Ford wagon, crossed Lake Champlain on the Essex ferry, and parked at evening in a line of cars for the Maine State Ferry to Vinalhaven.  We slept in the car while the local police and state troopers hunted through the night for a murderer escaped from the state prison in nearby Thomaston.

We arrived at Hurricane Island at low tide and climbed a slippery, barnacle-encrusted ladder (somehow, it’s always been my skirt-wearing wife’s fate to arrive at low tide) onto the main pier.  We found an island madly preparing for its first influx of students.  “Welcome aboard,” shouted the Director.  “They’ll show you where your tent’s going to be, but the platform isn’t built yet.  There’s a pile of lumber over there.  Take whatever you need.”  Two other newbies and I had the platform finished and the wall tent erected on it before supper time.

The first students arrived a couple of days later.  Thanks to a heavy infusion of federal funds through the New Frontier legislation, the school had been able to recruit students from Southie and Dorchester to mix with the inevitable preppies and schoolboy athletes.  Many of those city kids had never been in nearly total darkness before, and the island, covered thickly with spruce, held unseen terrors for them.  Almost as fearsome was the prospect of an early-morning run around the rugged granite shore of the island and then leaping off the pier into 45-degree salt water.

There were initiative tests to build teamwork and help the instructors identify the leaders and the group dynamics; Drownproofing – “You ain’t gotta prove to me I can drown,” cried one kid.  “I know I can!” – rock climbing; and the ropes course, parts of which crossed two-strand rope bridges far above the ground.  Each “watch” of 12 students was assigned a 30-foot wooden pulling boat with twelve oars and two sprit-rigged sails.  They tipped it over to practice what to do in a capsize, rowed it when the wind failed, memorized the names of its many parts, and learned how to use its box compass and nautical charts.

It was the busiest and most exciting summer Mother and I had ever had.  I was on duty with my watch from five in the morning till well after nine in the evening, and there wasn’t much left of me when I got to the tent at night.  Mother built a furnished apartment inside the tent, strapped life jackets on our kids in all their waking hours, and helped the other mothers form a gang of children that followed treasure maps through the abandoned cellar holes on the island, picked berries, and made jam with sugar liberated from the kitchen and green apples for pectin.  We must have done something right; we were asked back year after year.

Last evening about 400 of us gathered in a huge dining rotunda to celebrate the fifty years of the school’s history and to honor its long-retired first Director.  George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority leader, spoke about a similar program he’s launched to help Maine kids who want to go to college or other higher education.  Phil Powers, Executive Director of the American Alpine Club, spoke of the value of experiential education in expanding young people’s horizons.  The evening led finally to honoring the Director who started it all.

But most of all it was for us oldest of former staff there to reconnect with our long-ago colleagues and comrades who were still standing and able to make it.  I was delighted that the Reverend Bob Bryan, a former trustee of the school, had made it.  He’s in a wheelchair now, but still sparkling with the wit that made him the “I” in the “Bert and I” stories of Downeast Maine.

The school has changed a great deal, and not in every way to the liking of the old guard.  The current risk management executive would need a defibrillator if he could see some of the exciting stuff we did in those innocent days fifty years ago.  Perhaps a fifth of the attendees knew us; it’s been 45 years, after all, since we were there, and new people reinvent the wheel every few years.  But as we talked together and remembered old friends gone on, I think we realized that once, long ago, we’d created Camelot there on that rugged granite island, and that it was now but a lovely memory.

Photo by Willem lange