Labor Day and the Brute Squad

Do you ever experience that monotony of working daily to get to Friday? Monday comes and the cycle repeats. The sun streamed through my window one Saturday. It brought a sleepy, guilty smile. I slept past seven. Rolling out of bed, I followed my nose to the kitchen which has always been the heart of our home. Mom announced a little unexpected news, and the weekend went from a wonderful weekend morning to a jaw dropping, “WAIT-REALLY?” How-can-I-help-get-ready?” kind of day. The weekend was one of those get up and get ready kind of adventures because every minute passed with something new and exciting. It began like this.

Our family has always been quite close. In the evenings after major sports championships, academic successes, and honors, the phones ring, siblings inquiring about the news. We’re each others’ biggest fans. Mom takes one phone, Dad takes another, and the kids crowd around a third, jabbering about the most recent event. After a while the phones rotate and the stories begin again. We seek the latest news in  educational successes, athletic achievements, or hospital visits for something either really stupid or really genius gone wrong (it’s all relative).

I sat down in a kitchen chair. Mother announced that brother number 4, Josh, is coming home from West Point and in less than two hours, AND (It gets better) he is bringing the brute squad with him (eleven other cadets). That “how-can-i-help-get-ready” kind of day began. In our house when a sibling discovers something, word travels by pounding fists, slamming doors, and stomping feet. Sometimes you are caught in the bathroom notified by two fists hammering on the door like the house caught fire, sometimes while completing the monotonous task of folding washcloths all the same way with the little ribbons and designs pointing one direction or else…mom makes you fold them all over again….and sometimes even you are disturbed from deeeeeeep, blissssssful, sleeeeeeep.

STOMP. STOMP. STOMP. STOMP. STOMP. (Klaclick WHAM a door slams open)

“WAKE UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUPP!!!” I rip the covers off my sleeping younger sister. She pulls them back over. I rip them off again. She pulls them back.

“Josh is coming home in thirty minutes.”

I know the secret to creating urgency. It’s called “military promptness.” Military promptness is when a command is sent down the ranks. The president of West Point might say to a General to prepare the cadets for a ten o’clock march. The General passes on the command to a Lieutenant General to be at a certain place at a specific time. That Lieutenant General says to a Major General to be at a certain place at a certain time five minutes earlier. This cycle repeats all the way down to the Major General, and the Brigadier General, from the Colonel to the Lieutenant Colonel, from the Major, to the Captain, to the 1st Lieutenant, to the 2nd Lieutenant and finally to the cadet who by this time has been standing in formation for at least an hour before the general arrives. This is military promptness. I learned very quickly that it’s best to be the first to know.

As I predicted with such exciting news, Icky sat up without a word. Planted her feet on the ground and started yanking clothes out of her drawers. Pretty soon there was a pile from floor to ceiling, which in seven days would land in my dirty laundry basket unworn yet “dirty” enough to go back through the wash. She always found what she wanted to wear…only just at the very bottom of her drawers.

I headed down stairs.

(KlaClick WHAM my brother’s door flings open) “WAKE UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUPP.”

Yeah we all learn quick.

No one had to ask what Mom was making for breakfast. An aroma lured us to the oven window. Inside two spice cakes swelled. This spice cake contains the perfect blend of honey and spices to golden perfectly. It leaves a chewy candy like texture when hot out of the oven. Its aroma permeated every corner of the house and when those glass doors opened wide to remove the cake, our eyes closed trying to lock away in our minds the perfect image of spongy, golden goodness. Before it hit the top of the oven, eight fists held hunks of warm bread. And within five minutes 2/3 of the cake number one was gone. Mother banished us from filling our bread baskets with any more of her breakfast cake. She was saving it for the army. And so we waited for Josh and friends.

As predicted the vehicles started rolling in around ten a.m. Josh’s jeep led the way. It hummed powerfully up the driveway, and parked up on the hill. Mud spotted its doors which were flung open by a wave of cadets. They rolled out of the jeep and into the kitchen stiff from the drive.

Mom served the cake as each of us eyed the portions she dished out. We shifted uncomfortably. Piece after piece disappeared.

“So where are you all from?” my mother asked.

“Wisconsin, Ma’m,” one said swallowing a piece of cake.

Another asked me for some milk and with eagerness (and maybe also to distract myself from the cake) I pulled open the fridge, handed him a glass and began filling it. What a genius idea, warm bread and milk.

“Is that whole milk?” one asked incredulously.

“Ummmm…well yes.” I responded taken aback. “What other kind is there?” I asked myself.

They explained. It’s called 1%, skim milk, but as far as I know, it’s really white water, or a liquid to make cereal tasteless, or maybe even dirty, paint water. Whatever it is, it is not milk. It’s not cheaper to serve cheap food, because what you put into something/someone is what you get out.

Car number two rolled in soon after with the usual greeting, and cake was served. I left the milk on the table still fathoming what “fake milk” tasted like and hoping I never would.

I find it amusing the kind of guests we host. They enter the house and leave just as quickly to tour Vermont to do whatever else I do not know about. It’s no surprise to wake up one morning and meet them as they run in and run out again–not surprising but always exciting. Over the years I watched my brothers bring home their buddies. We’d have pillow fights, wrestling matches, and good food (which Mom always went above and beyond to prepare). I guess it was a family effort to make these kinds of trips home rewarding. I watched many pass in and out over the threshold of our home. That’s how our house functioned. Our doors are always open.

Eventually all eleven cadets were changed, full of cake, and heading back to their vehicles to hit up all the local swim holes. As always, I was glad to have family back home and not have a long distance phone conversation.

I watched them leave this time to invade the local towns. I knew which spots Josh would take them to and laughed to myself at some of the things he would demonstrate off rope swings and bridges and waterfalls. I envied them slightly; being able to go off while I packed the car to clean a house. It was on the way home from work when I picked up Beastly and Buddy from the local Diner that we devised a plan. It required the stamped approval from the Father and Mother of us Bassette hounds. It’s harder then one might think.

I learned, when making plans, to make them as simple as possible. No details except for who, when, where etc.–the cold hard facts. Details subtract from the chances of approval, but there are plenty of times, when no matter how skinny the details look, that the mother puts the hammer down.

So it happened at dinner.

“Dad, can Beastly, Buddy and I go to the camp tonight…you know, to spend quality time with Josh?”

Mistake number one. We should have asked him before he was sitting beside Mom.

“Oh, John, I don’t know how I feel about that,” Mother immediately interrupted.

It’s true. A mother’s instincts are feelings based, and when something puts the damper of danger between children and safety, she puts the fear of God into whatever danger that may be, even if it is only an idea. She said, “no.” We persisted. Dad had kept his cool and would have said yes. In only a few moments we were full fledged in Bassette debate.

Months ago, I argued my desire to drive back to North Carolina with my brother, Joel, and my sister-in-law, Grace. I was prepared to crawl into the back of my brother and sister’s car to drive to NC with them. My line of argument was that I NEEDED to see my brother, Johnny, and he NEEDS to see me. And then…only then we’ll be a happy family. But no. It didn’t work that way because I had other plans too and they needed to know exactly what each step involved. My spontaneous desire for adventure is often shut down. So this time I planned my point of argument with sibling affection at the very “heart” of the debate.

“Father and Mother, (or maybe I should have addressed Judge and Jury. Our adopted baby sister, Nicole, was over for dinner and even though she is a trained, professional attorney. She wisely kept her role of Jury in this legal case of “child vs. parent.” It cost us precious time, but it was for a sibling’s right to see a beloved sibling…and friends). I proceeded.

“My dear brother Josh comes home barely three times a year. My siblings and I plead desperate. We desire to once again be reunited with him at the camp.”

Nic laughed, she had been here before when I debated up until the last minute before my siblings left for NC. I am sure she saw the parallel lines of strategy. After all she had partially trained me.

Dad wavered. Mother’s opinion was unmoved by my pathos.

I made another stab. Beastly chimed in, echoing my sentiments. Now the Judge and Jury were fully engaged in the conversation of “to go or not to go.” Dad remembered his youth. Kids must be kids. “To be or not to be!”

The clock ticked up to seven p.m. I was growing frantic. It would take an hour to get to the camp and we were still discussing around the table. *that table had heard plenty of debate in its lifetime.* Ten minutes later…they were still discussing. Without anymore words, I flopped in my chair desperate. I had repeated most of them five times over. Buddy rode it out saying no more than “yep” or “yah” or “yeah” and sometimes “I agree.” Beastly put in his argument, but at this point the elected officials weighed the dangers and worse, the PURPOSE of the trip. I thought to myself “not everything needs a point…” but that would counter the core of my argument.

I made my final arguments. They were short and to the point. “In the confrontation of danger, which seems to be a major factor, it would do well to remember that if anything happens we will be with eleven members of the Brute Squad.”

I stood up and walked to the sink as Mr. Judge and Mrs. Judge discussed. They included the opinion of the Jury as they decided. I began loading the dishwasher, and after listening a moment I realized the tables had turned. They were now talking about details. There would be no dramatic yes, but it was going to be a yes. See, when presenting a case to a parent, it is best to let them determine the details and just present the outline of the case. They fill in the pieces how they will and often less is more for both parties. I glanced at Beastly and Buddy, and they caught the hint. They slipped from the table and started stuffing a hiking back pack for the evening. I dumped the rest of the dishes into the dishwasher, and by the time they had decided to let us go, we were out the door, in the car and driving north…..without directions.

Okay Beastly, you can text Dad now that we are out of the house. Where are we supposed to be going? We picked up s’more material and hit the road again making turns based on gut instinct and remembrance.

No one texted back. No service. Welcome to Vermont.

Driving past woods and fields, It was at this point in the cool dusk that I observed a change in our surroundings. Beastly turned on the country tunes. Summer wrapped her cloak around her and let Fall twist his paintbrush around a leaf here and a field there, a corn husk high and a garden low. He changed the patterns in the sky and tipped his pallet to the trees like a gentleman to a lady. It was a slight change of color but it reminded all that one day Winter would creep in and curl his icy finger around fall’s changes. The farmers felt the change coming. We drove between fresh hayed fields, the windows down, and the yellow double lines ticking rapidly by.

Okay…I thought to myself Rt. 12 to 107 to 100…we made turns and looked for that bridge which would lead us to the dead end. It came and it came quickly. A sudden stop, a turn, and we were crawling to the gate where our hike would begin. I turned off the car and let the guys drag their bikes out of the trunk. Darkness enfolded us and then the bright lights of our headlamps pushed the darkness into the shadows. Beastly rode up ahead of Buddy and I. We decided to run. I could hear the tires grinding away up the trails. Buddy and I shouldered the paper bag. I wondered if there was a more comfortable way to carry a large satchel on the run. How do criminals do it? I wanted to know. It was a stupid question. They drive fast cars.

“Would you like Paper or Plastic?” the Cashier at Mac’s Market asked me.

Trying to be resourceful, I chose paper.

We caught up to Beastly whose light looked strangely dim. “Beastly, since you’re on a bike want to carry the bag?”

“He took the bag and handed it back. There are no handles.” Now I knew why I regretted my decision.

“Burn all the paper bags,” I thought to myself.

“Kathryn, can I use your head lamp?”

“Fine.” I handed it to him.

In darkness the run passed quickly and we made the turn which in daylight would show a camp with a porch, a small yard, and a string of mountainous horizons. We saw the fire and pushed through tall grass bobbing up and down to get through. Josh knew we were on our way, but I don’t think the others did. I saw a light from the porch. It was the pathetic screen of a cell phone staring into the darkness which masked us.

A voice from the porch made itself known, “Bajezis, you two scared the life out of me.”

We veered to the fire. Buddy dropped the bag of s’more materials, dove for a stick and popped three marshmallows on the end of it. I found a place on a log and enjoyed the company of new friends and a fire.

Cool darkness wrapped itself around me like a good friend. Crackling and popping, an orange fire glowed and flickered as if showing off for the warm company who surrounded its embers.  Tipping my chin to the sky, I held my gaze on the unblinking stars. Still contemplating the night sky, I found myself leaning closer to the dancing flames. With both hands I cupped them to my face. Smoke rose and disappeared into that dark darkness. No one felt pressed to speak. Creation sung its soft, night sounds in a sort of symphony. Every once in a while a friend would turn and ask me a question, and for a few moments I permitted the gentle wind to tease the stray hairs around my face before tucking them behind the ear and responding. Wrapping my arms around my body, I felt the softness of my North Face fleece and smiled in response to a happiness that I wished all the world could feel— the soft sounds of creation, the tranquility of a Vermont mountain top, and the good company of friends around a campfire. I would write about this, so I could remember it always.

Hours passed and our time to go had come. We said our good-bye unsure if we would see Josh again for a long while. Little did we know a plan was being schemed at home. A pit stop on the way down the mountain, the arrival at the car and we were off. Heading home under a midnight sky.

We walked in the front door. Dad came down the stairs. “Guys……………..” Perhaps we should have come home sooner, but Beastly, Buddy and I whispered teasingly to each other, “he’s upset only because Mom won’t let Dad go to bed until we were home”

Morning came. I woke myself and arose at 6:00 a.m. I had something to accomplish and something to prove. Before we left for church, I accomplished playing all my scales on the piano, and perfected Tchaikovsky’s Nut Cracker Sweet. I proved to my mother that a girl can stay up late and get up early. I proved to myself that I didn’t want to have to prove that again. I still had to stay awake in church. Getting up early wouldn’t prove anything if I dozed off.

If Saturday morning causes happiness, then Sunday morning is for expressing that happiness. If someone asked you today, “what makes you happy,” would you have an answer beyond the physical or material realm? In a life of despair, war, and struggle, a person of joy is one either envied or curiously looked at. The human race spends a lifetime to discover happiness when in reality it is an offering always available for anyone who chooses to accept it. Joy is a choice. I realized when I was eleven that Saturday morning would not be so happy if it weren’t for Sunday. There is a hope and it isn’t a political agenda. God can use an agenda if He so chooses, but my hope goes beyond the material and reaches into the spiritual. I knew also that if my hope was getting to Saturday or Friday, my life would be a rat race on a hamster wheel, going no where and accomplishing nothing. My ears fixed on the words of grace which changed the way I perceived reality. I heard the Truth. For the umpteenth time, I heard the Gospel for the first time.

On the drive home, my parents revealed the plan. It included a pot of pasta, a trip to the camp, and a run for Dad which he signed me up for. I guess I deserved it for signing him up for a 50 mile ultra race.

As soon as the van wheels hit the drive way, the unified “click” of five seat buckles sounded. When the wheels reached the plateau of our drive way my siblings and I were squatting off the seats,  before the van stopped moving the doors were flung open and the kitchen door ripped off its hinges.

There was pushing and jostling from all my siblings and then Buddy broke free like Louie Zamperini in the fastest mile he ever ran. He reached the stairwell first already half undressed.

I chuckled to myself as I collected my things for an evening at the camp and loved my mother for the giant pot of pasta she planned to bring, the four dense loaves of hot bread and the other details that guys on a camp get away often overlook. I decided to also contribute. What is a meal by a fire without pie?

My siblings and I packed anything we thought we might need. Of course depending on gender the contents of the bags varied. I’ll admit, while Beastly packed knives, and ammo, I packed clothes, and water. I had good reasons. Just like my good reasons, he had good reasons just they were guy reasons.

After packing my bag I flew to the flour bin to prepare my pastry. Let’s see. I had exactly one hour and twenty five minutes to make three pie crusts, pick the rhubarb, wash the apples, cut the fruit, mix the filling, pop them in the oven, and put them in a cardboard box for transportation with a minute to spare.

By the time I had finished the pie filling and was pouring it into the crusts, Nicole walked in the front door. My jaw dropped. She epitomized the single life of an Italian, Vermont Princess. If that makes you wonder what in the world that would possibly look like, think no more. She wore a pink, camouflaged bandanna on her head, a pink shirt, and rugged jeans. But what she held in her hands was a sight to behold. Imagine your Grandma’s largest pot and multiply that by ten. Now you have an Italian, sauce pot, and in her hands she carried a ladle big enough to take a bath in. She shifted her weight from side to side to carry the pot to its destination. With a kerplunk she heaved it up on the stove and began mixing the spicy Italian sausage and broccoli pasta together like she owned the place. Never mess with an Italian in the kitchen.

I paused my pie production and looked in the pot. Even with a legitimate Italian sized container, I wondered if there would be enough for the army. I contemplated a serious question. What do you get when you cross the army and the Bassettes? You create a famine, and no one wants that, especially me.

The evening ahead proved eventful. Dad and I left early. We schemed a run up the backside of the mountain. Mom, Nicole and the rest of the family loaded the van and waited five minutes on the pies. My math calculations had failed me.

Dad and I made that same route that my brothers and I made the night before, but this time in broad daylight. A vehicle passed us, one that we both knew. Dad stomped on the breaks, put the car in reverse, and drove back farther than anyone should on any road.

“What’s up?” my Dad asked the guys in a chrome polished, mud splattered vehicle.

Josh and a bunch of others looked ready for the beach. “We’re going swimming.”

“We’ll see you at the camp then?” On the side he half asked me if I wanted to go with them. I shrugged my shoulders and gave one of those non answers that most teenagers are so good at giving.

“Sure.” Josh replied.

I thought to myself, “he better be there because we’re bringing them supper and if no one is there to give Mom and Nic a ride up the trail on a class four road then no one gets dinner.” So much for sisterly affection at that moment.

Pulling over along the side of the road as planned, the sweet scent of corn hit me like a wave. It was too good. I would run five miles carrying twelve ears of corn just to eat it after. We started trotting, and the stalks of corn passed by us. A row of baby cows moseyed happily. One bounced into his little hut and bounced right back out legs apart, eyes big, head down and mouth frowning. 

The heat started to make my blood boil and it turned my cheeks that lobster red. You haven’t seen red until you’ve seen me in the heat. I thought, “I wasn’t born for this!” What in the heck did I think I was trying to accomplish? It only got worse. These roads only rose higher and steeper and longer than any I had ever run before. At last we arrived at the trail head. With every turn I just knew it would go back up, but I guess we had reached the peak and when we started rolling downhill again, I was convinced we made a wrong turn. Two miles later, only the sound of laughter and jeep made me realize our run had come to and end. Josh had come back. “Why do I do this?” I asked myself. But faithful to my cross country roots, I dutifully stretched, found a bar between two trees (likely a training prop set up by my brother) and hung myself upside down from my legs to drain the lactic acid. “Why?????” I asked myself yet again. 

I regretted no part of my run (AFTER), and the heat in my body made the swimming all the sweeter. By the time the rest of us were ready to swim it was six in the evening. We had prepared the final details for supper, made a fire, and picked up a cadet from the Pumpkin inn who was dutiful to his studies. We crowded into a jeep, and an unhappy rattling car which did not enjoy the rocks of a class four trail. Nevertheless we would go swimming. They spoke of the cliff thirty feet high and deeper still. I followed everyone down the rocky trail and stopped short at the spot. I looked over the edge. That was thirty feet for sure. Just as long as I tucked my arms to avoid smacking my arms, I would be fine. I felt the adrenaline I always felt rushing into my body. The what ifs…

Beastly plowed by me ripping his shirt off just before take off. Tuck and SPLASH! Buddy ran after and landed without so much as displacing a drop of water. One more look and I removed my shirt and jumped. It was the highest height I had ever jumped from. Once more and that was enough. I swam to the other side and shivered. The sun had disappeared, and I had more than cooled off. My hair hung long and drippy. I shook it like an irritated dog. I was ready for those extra clothes that I packed.

Back at the camp, cadets slept. Nicole was cracking up over something awfully funny. I sat down near by and listened. The story took us back to just before our swimming adventure.

When we left, the others were just coming in from their cliff-jumping, dare-devil’n swim. They shouldered their cooler, and made the call to Josh to pick them up. We were gone so they hiked the mile up to the camp sopping wet and hungry. HANGRY! That is beyond an understatement.

Mom and Nic sat enjoying the fire and little Icky who pranced around on all fours like a horse. She practiced her jumps and leaps over 36″ high barriers. Around the corner the brute squad came. They plopped their cooler down and made a beeline for the food table. A pile of speared meat spilled over the paper plate. A couple started in on the pasta. Several others grabbed the stick of wood and started ripping pieces of meat off with their teeth. They started chewing and kept chewing. Minutes later they still chewed. By this time Nicole couldn’t keep it together.  She burst out, “they’re RAW!”

By the time we reached the cadets, they had resorted to sleeping–bellies full of raw meat. For the rest of us, we cooked our meat medium well.

Night once more began to close around us. We passed a Frisbee in the small playing field that we had mowed. I walked inside and joined a card game. No sooner had I sat down when suddenly from outside I heard a shriek and a roar of laughter. I jumped up and ran outside.

Icky stood guiltily to the side. Griffin trembled like someone had shot him through. He looked like he might pass out. He pointed a shaky finger at Icky and shook his head.

Josh looked at Icky and in that voice that he only gave to her, he said “are you scaring big boys, dorable?”

In the darkness she had wrapped herself in a blanket. She practiced her prancing like a horse and pretended a rider sat tall on her back. Out of the woods, across the field she had galloped, and into the clearing. She tore out of the woods into the game of Frisbee and nearly knocked Griffin off his feet. I forgot romping around like a horse isn’t normal, but that was my little sister and wasn’t she good at it?

The evening passed like the previous over a couple card games, around a fire, and under a starry night.

The morning of their departure we invaded the local Diner. Josh asked me what I planned for the rest of the day. I was walking three miles to a cleaning job. After breakfast he dropped me off instead of walking. Hopping out, I waved good-bye. I looked back at a silver chromed jeep spitting up dust as it drive out of sight. It was over wasn’t it?

Just two days ago and I felt like it would go on forever. The adventure and the feeling of anticipation, that warm spice cake that I secretly horded and the desperation to join them at the camp. I looked at my watch. It was 10:00 a.m. Monday morning. That dreaded cycle repeated. Somehow this Monday was different though. I was not running on a hamster wheel trying to get back to the weekend. The things that made the Monday after Labor Day different were the memories and the people. The best way to throw a rat out of wheel is to do something unexpected. Some days I feel like hiking a mountain and so I hike it. Sometimes I decide to run 50 miles, so I run them. Some days I wake up and ten cadets pass in and out the front door, but always leaving behind a story. I hold onto the stories. I can’t tell them all. I keep some of those to myself of stories with my family, days with the Army, or a weekend with the brute squad.



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