Shuttle launch first, time travel second: An introduction

14 Jun 2014 by Jim Gibbons, No Comments »

“The first draft of anything is shit.”—Ernest Hemingway

Thankfully, that’s not exactly what this is.

When I launched this blog way back when, I wanted to put my memories into storage. I didn’t want to forget all of these crazy stories. I wanted to save them so that, one day, when I had the skill, I’d put them all into a book.

Well, I’ve learned that you never really have the skill to write something until you write it. So, due to that catch 22, I decided to start writing Nothing More American, the prose memoir this blog was always meant to facilitate, a few months ago. It’s going to be a while before this whole monster is done, but I’ve gone through a few parts of it more than others, and I figured I’d share a snippet here.

While this isn’t a first draft, it’s a very early draft, so feedback is very much welcome. Thanks!


An oasis, according to the dictionary program on my computer, is “a fertile spot in the desert where water is found” or “a pleasant or peaceful area or period in the midst of a difficult, troubled, or hectic place or situation.” In the Chicagoland area, that definition also applies to the rest stops that live above the I-295 tollway, floating over the sounds of speeding rubber on asphalt.

I believe starting a memoir with a dictionary quotation is a cliche. Or maybe just bad writing. But this is a big story, a culmination of years worth of experience poured onto the page in hopes of recapturing my youth. It’s gotta start somewhere. It’s starts at an oasis, so I started with “oasis.”

Maybe cliches have a place in a story about a quintessential American experience. I sure hope so. Because I love cliches.

But anyway, back to the Oases above the Windy City’s car-clogged tollway…

Once they were majestic way-stations above the open road. The Chicago Oases were a spectacle, I’m told. A novelty in which families could sit down to dinner at a linen-dressed table and watch cars zip below them as a hot, first-class meal was delivered to their table by a smart-looking waiter. Now, of course, the novelty’s passed and the innards of the above-road stopovers are filled with fast food chains, coffee shops, and souvenir emporiums. Refurbished relics from an ancient time.

That’s the state the oases were in back in 1995, the year I first went back in time and started to become a man. The first summer I began a semi-insane annual pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere, which I’d come to love as one of the best places in the world. The first year I left home. The first year I went to an oasis above the I-295.

It was the first year I went to summer camp.

We’d driven all the way from Duluth, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, to the Chicagoland area. Hundreds of miles traveled in my mom’s white Chevy Suburban. Hours on the road, from the muggy south the flat Midwest, brought us to our launch site. My brother Dan and I were 10 and 11 years old respectively, and we had no idea what we were getting into. Not really. We’d seen an ancient VHS tape about camp where everyone’s shorts were the length of underpants and all the t-shirts were skintight and, primarily, of the ringer variety. It fit our view of camp, as it’d been a family tradition for our uncles—recruited by camp owners Bill and Gerry Will from the Chicago suburbs like majority of Camp Shewahmegon’s attendees—so, all the stories we’d heard about it, naturally, took place in the distant past. The VHS matched that view. Like a forgotten low budget film from the early eighties, it felt like a place that couldn’t be really real. But, we’d soon find, Camp was indeed real and though it was decades later, a great deal of the camp experience was still very much like what we saw on that home video. A trip to the north woods of Wisconsin, you see, is as close as one can come to time travel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First comes the shuttle launch, then the time travel.

Our older cousins, Ryan and Tim, had followed their fathers’ footsteps and gone to camp. The previous summer, they’d sent us letters, encouraging my kid brother Dan and I to join them at camp next year. We’d visited Ryan briefly at camp a few years prior, and it seemed like a lot of fun. There was capture the flag, archery, sailing, and all sorts of other activities we’d only heard tall tales about. So, even though I was terrible at sleepovers, having friends parents call my folks to fetch me in the night more often than I’d lasted in a foreign bed till breakfast, Dan—my younger bro by 20 months, yet the much braver of the two of us—wanted to go and this relic of a VHS convinced me that it’d be a bunch of fun. I mean, there was a woodshop where you could build your own sailboat for the competitive tiny boat race regatta, so… how bad could four weeks in the middle of nowhere really be?

I decided to suck it up and give it a shot.

After the long haul up from the deep south, we prepared for our journey into the Northwoods. First step, find your way to one of the once-great oases of the Chicago loop. Second, climb aboard a aluminum-sided vessel bound for the unknown.

As the roar of hundreds of cars echoed below, we disembarked from my mom’s SUV in a darkened parking lot and, after chucking our backpacks full of sleeping bags and clothes into the guts of the beast, we climbed the steep, narrow stairs of a charter bus. Its deep amber track lighting only added to the semi-futuristic and yet distinctly decades old feel of this familiar (I’d ridden a bus before.) yet very foreign (But not one with a bathroom in it!) vehicle. We said goodbye to my mom and then we entered the bus alongside dozens of unfamiliar faces. Our names were crossed off a checklist as we came aboard. The door closed and we rolled off into the night. We had liftoff. We were now amongst the blackness and the stars of the night sky and the headlights. We were in space. Traveling.

The bus rolled along vigilantly all night, driving the eight hours from Chicago to Drummond, Wisconsin, so that we’d arrive in the morning and be able to move right into our cabins. Surrounded by new people, on a bus-like spaceship heading to a new land, I took in all the new faces and tried to get some sleep. I remember the loud older kids in the back yelling and laughing, some of them with tough-looking crewcuts. I remember trying to make friends with the kids my age up front. I found out who would likely be in my cabin—seasoned camping veterans at the age of eleven, all of whom were debating who our counselor might be. It was overwhelming and frightening, but in that big metal bus rattling through the tall pines of Wisconsin, the air felt thick with adventure. That, or the B.O. of fifty boys in a bus with poor air conditioning.

Eventually I drifted off, only to awaken many more miles from home, the darkness outside the window replaced by the first faint light of day above a see of trees. A small town appeared. A gigantic fish loomed over the treeline, a Dairy Queen whizzed by. Where the hell was I? Was that really a giant fish? (It was. Kinda.) The bus, in the grey light of morning, entered the field of trees again. That was Hayward, I’d learn later. The fish was the 45-foot tall fiberglass muskie of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. It’d be the last I’d see of civilization for four weeks. Soon, we’d pass a sawmill and a large black bear sculpture carved from a enormous log by a chainsaw before turning onto the winding tree-lined Lake Owen Drive, a road so nearly swallowed by the wilderness that it seemed likely the gigantic bus would hit every branch along the way. Whether years worth of buses out to Shewahmegon had convinced the trees not to stretch out over the road, I don’t know, but a few miles later, our space shuttle had fully converted to time machine. The town we passed, the woods, and now a large gateway constructed of timbers next to a hand made sign, with letters made from birch branches or painted-white sticks when birch was unavailable confirmed our arrival: “Camp Shewahmegon, Private Camp for Boys.”

We’d traveled back to the time of the VHS tape.

But before we pulled through the timber sentries that guarded the gravel entry to camp, the buss stopped. The horn started honking and everyone was shouting, loudly, enthusiastically, crazily, and mostly incoherently (to the uninitiated, at least)…

“Boo-Boop ski-deeten-dotten, whadot and choo
Itten-bitten widdle diddle, Boo-Boop ski-deeten-dotten
Wich-biddly otten-dotten, Boo-Boop ski-deeten-dotten
Why not Shewahmegon? YEAH!”

And with that, alongside a bunch of maniacs in the woods, I began the most insane and most amazing experience of my life.

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