Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Island, Part 2: Reign of Fire

In Part 1 I provided a very basic introduction to my island, but I failed to share with you any of the true wonders. You may not have understood what the appeal for such a place is, but for me, no place could be better.

On this small, roughly kidney bean shaped island, only the inner-most curve is inhabited. This inward curve provides some element of protection from the harsh ocean, making it the best place for the harbor (which is also protected by a smaller un-inhabited island opposite it). The outer curve of the island is all tall, jagged cliffs – hardly hospitable living conditions. Along the inner curve of the island runs “Main Street”. I call it such, even though it has no name and is naught but a dirt road, because is pretty much connects everything. The part of Main Street that is closest to the harbor is “Downtown,” where all the stores are. There isn’t much by way of stores. There are a couple of souvenir shops, an art gallery (the island is, after all, an artist colony), a pizza place (non-kosher) slash mini-market (it used to only be a pizza place, but when the Island Market went out of business and became a souvenir shop, someone had to take over the food selling business), a small fresh-produce store, a fish market, a tiny post office and a couple of inns. On one edge of Downtown stands the library and the one-room schoolhouse, and on the other side of Downtown stands the Island church.

Fifteen years ago, when I first went to the island, electricity was a rarity. Places in the center of town of course had – how else would the milk in the mini-market keep? But as you moved father out towards the edges of Main Street, electricity became rarer and rarer. (I used to use the computers in the library about once a week to check my email.) Further along Main Street – past Downtown in either direction – are more residential areas. Just off the road at the southern end of Main Street is where our house stands. As such, fifteen years ago the only electrified object in the house was a land-line phone. Yes, there was plumbing (that seems to be everyone’s first concern), but we had no microwave, TV or internet, and the fridge and oven both ran on gas. Much like in the good ole’ days, it was light so long as the sun was up, and when the sun set there was darkness. Still, even back then there were ways of bringing light into the darkness. Each room in the house had at least one gas lamp hanging on the wall. At nights I would leave my bedroom window open, allowing the sounds of the ocean waves to wash over me, as well as the cool night breeze. I would then light up a gas lamp and bask in its warmth while curled up under my blanket for a good read. For those of you who have never seen a lit gas lamp, the gas tends to pulse, causing the lamp to flicker, growing dimmer and then lighter every so often. The flickers cast interesting shadows on the wooden walls of my bedroom, allowing my imagination to push its limits. Once I turned off the gas lamp for the night and my eyes adjusted to the dark, I would fall asleep while gazing out at the starry night sky. (Having no street lamps is such a blessing.)

A Kerosene Lamp

The other things we used to light up the house at night were kerosene lamps. In case you have never seen one of these in use, they generally consist of a glass bowl, which is filled with lamp oil, into which a wide cloth wick is placed, held by a contraption that allows it to be raised higher or lower into the oil. A glass chimney is then placed around the flame, sending out a healthy glow that will provide light as far as a few feet away.

During weeknights my family would gather around the dining room table with a couple of lit kerosene lamps to play any number of card or board games prior to reading and going to sleep. It’s amazing how entertaining non-TV evenings can be. (Ok, we weren’t completely TV-less. In the house we found a solar-powered mini-TV. By mini-TV I mean that the screen was roughly 1.5 inches in size after a magnifying lens was placed over it. And as it was solar-powered, on cloudy days there was no reception, and even on sunny days it was difficult for the antenna to find anything. I think with my brothers’ tampering we managed to watch maybe a couple of episodes of The Simpsons one summer, but for the most part we were TV-less.)

On Shabbat we had bigger issues. We could, in theory, leave the gas lamps on for a full 25 hours, but we would likely drain the gas tanks at that rate, and being the somewhat money-conscious people that we are, we decided not to risk that. Our only other option was to fill the kerosene lamps as full as we could, which would generally provide at least one or two lamps still burning by the time Shabbat ended. In order to have enough light to have a nice Friday night meal, however, we would have to use any and all lamps we could find. Let me tell you, having tens of lamps lit with full bowls of oil scattered all over the house made the place look more like a cathedral than the home of an observant Jewish family. As the house was made entirely of wood, I think the landlord came to dread Shabbatot as the time when any stumble on our part could mean he’d lose a house. At the end of the day, I think it was for this reason that he finally decided to electrify the house.

So there it was. One summer (maybe our eighth?) we arrived in the house to find functioning electric outlets, an electric fridge, a microwave, a toaster oven, and electric lamps in each room. In some ways it was more convenient. We could use our computers (and thanks to my Dad’s tampering with the phone lines we would occasionally have internet), and we no longer had to fear burning down the house on Shabbat. (We couldn’t be bothered to kasher the microwave or toaster oven, so we never used those.) Still, in my bedroom late at night I’d light up my gas lamp and curl up on my bed underneath it with a good book. Nothing could have been more delightfully cozy.

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Question: If you were stranded all alone on a deserted island with only 5 things in your pocket/bag, what would they be?

It’s a fairly common question that we’ve all considered at one point or another, although statistically anyone reading this will most likely never end up in a situation even remotely similar to the one in question.

I did.

(Well, a remotely, remotely similar situation.)

I was 14 years old at the time, and it was my final summer in the sleep-away camp I attended ever since I was a kid. One morning after breakfast my age group was told that mishlachat (the Israeli staff brought in to work in this Pennsylvania based camp) had planned a special day for us. We were told to change into comfortable hiking clothes, fill up our canteens, pack lunches and meet back at the entrance to camp for further instructions. Once we were all back together, we were broken up into 7 groups comprised of approximately 10-15 campers and 3-4 counselors. Mishlachat then explained to us the name of the game. We were to be loaded, one group at a time, into a series of vans. The windows would all be covered with black garbage bags (in fact, the front windshield was covered as well except for a small rectangle through which the driver could see… crazy Israelis) and we’d be blindfolded as well. After being driven for about half an hour, we’d be dropped off in a pre-planned location. Before mishlachat would drive away, leaving us on our own, we’d be given a walkie-talkie and a map with our drop-off point and camp marked on it. We’d then be on our own to find our way back to camp grounds.

I was grouped together with a couple of friends, one of my bunk’s counselors, a large and fearless male counselor (who will henceforth be known as “Bob”), the head counselor of our age group and some other campers. We were the second group to be shipped out. I remember being transported blind in the camp van, trying to recall every turn we made. One moment I was convinced we were going in circles, the next, I wasn’t so sure. After the first 5 minutes I gave up trying to remember anything because there was simply no way to keep it straight. I put so much faith in movies that it wouldn’t be too difficult to sense car movements while blindfolded. But at the end of the day we were being kidnapped and nothing in my head could save me.

And so it was, after about half an hour of driving we were dropped off in the middle of a grassy meadow, surrounded on one side by a forest and on the other side by some little country lane. We were given our walkie talkie and map, and we stood in the knee-high grass watching the van drive away.

Despite it all, the excitement of adventure got my adrenaline pumping and I entered survival mode. Only one other member of our group, aside from myself, felt comfortable using a map, so together we spread it out and studied it. It seemed simple enough. Since we had no car, we were not limited to streets, and the most direct route back to camp seemed to be in the direction of the forest. The map showed a little stream starting at the edge of the forest that met up with the highway halfway between our drop-off point and camp. The plan was to kick off our shoes, walk through the stream, and then hike along the highway. Sounded simple enough. So we headed towards the forest, fanning out to find the stream, not knowing how wide it would be. After circuiting the closest bit of forest for half an hour, all we managed to find were some muddy areas – hardly a stream. So we headed back to the meadow to re-examine the map, letting everyone take a look at it this time.

As we were arguing over the exact positioning of the stream, our walkie-talkie came to life.
“Uh… hello? Can anyone hear us?”
“Yeah, this is so cool! We’re group six, who are you?”
“Group four. We have a problem.”
“So do we. Group one.”
“I wonder if we all have the same problem.” (Counselor from my group with the walkie-talkie)
“Well, we’re just getting out of the van and group seven probably just left camp grounds a few minutes ago. Why? What’s the problem? (Group six)
“Our map shows us dropped off by a lake, but we were dropped off in a residential neighborhood.” (Group four)
“Yeah, our map shows us by a stream that we can’t find. (Us)
Etc. etc.

It turns out that the Israelis mixed up the maps. Slowly but surely, each group was able to determine their position relative to camp and decide the best route to take home via the walkie-talkies. Group five happened to be dropped off a couple of hours outside of camp, and group four was dropped off by the mini-amusement-park a short distance from camp (I still to this day resent that their group got to buy ice cream). After all the groups had worked out their routes (while ignoring our group entirely), someone finally piped up over the walkie-talkies:

“Has anyone heard from Bob’s group?”

The answer was, of course, no. No one had heard a thing we said all this time. Not only were we given the wrong map, but we were also given a walkie-talkie that only worked one way. We could hear them, but they couldn’t hear us. We eventually gave up trying and just turned it off.

Without any clue as to where we were, we went towards the little country lane. It took twenty minutes for the first car to drive by, and drive by it did, even though we were hailing it to stop to ask the driver where we were. About ten minutes after that another car passed by, and finally about five minutes later a car finally stopped, except he himself was lost and couldn’t tell us where to go. Rather than stay in place all day we decided to follow the road under the assumption that all roads had to lead somewhere.

After about an hour of walking, it turned into a dirt road, and then eventually led us somewhere… to the edge of a small wooded area. Naturally, we decided to explore. After a number of minutes, we found ourselves at the other edge of the wood, facing a wire fence blocking our way from a nice, little house surrounded by rolling green hills. On the front porch rested a number of shotguns. Ah yes, we were in the middle of Hicksville, USA. Trespassers are not only unwelcome… trespassers get shot. Well, at that exact moment a small group of guys conveniently needed the little boys’ room. Since the trees around us were too sparse, Counselor Bob decided to lead an expedition over the the fence to the far side of the nearest rolling hill. The remainder of us watched the small group frolic off into the horizon. After about five minutes or so, we noticed some fast moving dark dots coming from that same direction. As they slowly approached we noticed that it was our expedition team, running for their lives and shrieking like a group of pre-adolescent girls. It mattered not that we couldn’t make out what they were yelling, as a few moments later we saw three viscous looking dogs chasing them. They made it back to our side of the fence, brave Counselor Bob reduced to tears, and we decided it was an omen. On a rare occasion you can outrun a dog, but you can never outrun a bullet from an angry farmer’s shotgun.

The rest of the adventure is somewhat of a blur in my mind. We sat down for a late lunch on a grassy hill overlooking some small town, at which point G-d opened the heavens and drenched us. A bit later, after we resumed hiking, one of the girls in our group twisted her ankle and needed to be carried the rest of the way, slowing down or non-existing progress.

I don’t know how we managed it, but some time around 7:30 pm our group finally entered camp grounds. We were wet, achy and hungry. Dinner was over and all the kitchens could arrange for us to eat was some bread and peanut butter (this was back before it was a banned substance due to allergies). All the other six groups were back already, fed, showered and warm. (The second to last group arrived back in camp over two hours before us, and the first group back had only been out of camp grounds for a grand total of three hours).

I was tired and miserable, and did not even think for a minute how that day would forever be ingrained in my mind as an extraordinary adventure.

So, even after that experience I still don’t know what I would want to be stranded with on a desert island.

Not an Israeli, that’s for sure.