Only some flickering light from the campfire, the stars above and the glow of his Camel cigarette lit the dark. His voice, dusky and low, reached across a silent crowd of rapt campers and counselors as he spun his story.
Tart, as he was called, was a fixture at Camp Longhorn — had, in fact, helped create it at the end of WWII. As members of the pre-war University of Texas swim team, Tart and his brother (my dad) had helped Tex, their UT swim coach, ferry all the army surplus construction materials for the camp across Inks Lake by building rafts of the lumber and then swimming them across.
The nightly ‘campfires’, as they were known, gathered all hands at a rustic, open-air amphitheater and featured some singing, skits performed by counselors and campers, and once a week an old movie — often a WC Fields classic. The most anticipated nights, though, were those when Tart, at the end of the evening, took the stage.
Tall and muscular, but thin, he was a pilot, master sailor and motorboat driver. His chain-smoking and serious drinking didn’t seem out of place in a vet who had seen lots of action across North Africa and Italy during the war. He could skewer you with his ‘hard eyes’, a famous glare that, even at a distance, could reduce a kid (and most adults) to a nervous wreck.
Tart’s stories always began with some young boy, the age of most the campers, who, through some ingenious method but no real fault of his own, got into a tough situation and was thereby confronted with vicious beasts, life threatening catastrophe or heinous villains. He would have to save a variety of young girls, little brothers, parents, cute and loyal animals or best friends from certain death — or at least critical injury. His nightly tale always ended in a cliff-hanger, even at the close of term when Tart would promise to finish the story the following summer when the campers returned.
His regular ritual was to walk onto the dim stage, pause to light a cigarette, then ask for someone to remind him where he was in the story last time. Some eager kid would explain that Tommy was at the top of the waterfall, or whatever, and then Tart would ask whether certain details or characters had shown up in the story yet. He would ask a few follow-up questions of the audience, then proceed with the story from where he left off.
Of course, over the years, I figured out that Tart didn’t have a set story. Each episode would evolve from his imagination that evening, fueled in part, I’m sure, by the scotch he drank. My father had kept most of their childhood books, particularly the juvenile fiction popular for boys in the early half of the century. Many have been passed on to me and I still thoroughly enjoy them. Tart’s stories were definitely influenced by The Air Service Boys, Tom Swift (Senior), The Hardy Boys, Tarzan and a host of others supplemented by movies and his own life experiences. Regardless, Tart caught our imagination as well, and whetted our appetites for finding our own vicarious adventures in books, movies and real life.
And, for sure, being at an outdoor summer camp on a lake with all kinds of cool activities gave us every opportunity to expand our comfort range. Shoot a rifle or bow? Ooh, That’s cool! Leaping off a tower into the lake? Scary, but, “Hey, if Tommy can do it, so can I.” Try a flip on the trampoline — no problem. Try water skiing on one ski instead of two behind the maniacal counselor driving the speedboat? Gimme that rope! Swim a mile across the lake and back? Let me at it!
When I was 14, Tart asked if I wanted to go skiing in Colorado, as he was taking some friend’s kids up to Winter Park to ski. My dad said yes, so a few days later Tart picked me up at a small airport outside of Ft Worth and let me sit in the right-hand seat, while the other two younger kids rode behind us.
Flying in a small plane across north Texas, Oklahoma and eastern Colorado was pretty uneventful and after a while he was starting to get drowsy. “I had a short night,” he noted, “So I need to take a little nap. You can fly for a while.” He explained which dials to watch, how to adjust for altitude and wind and what compass setting to follow. I took over, never having flown before and shortly he fell asleep. I was terrified, but kept the plane straight and mostly level.
My terror subsided somewhat and I was starting to feel a little comfortable when Tart woke up and drowsily asked where we were. I had no idea, of course, so he sat up, pulled out a cigarette and casually reaching across to the cigarette lighter, pushed it in.
Unfortunately, he pushed the throttle in by mistake, causing the plane to start dropping! I was rigid with terror at that point and saw us spiraling down to burst into flames when we hit the ground. Of course, the only real change was the loss of engine noise, and milliseconds later he just pulled the throttle back and then lit his cigarette. We continued — except that I was frozen with shock until he finally noticed and suggested that maybe he should fly for a while. I think he had to pull my hands off the yoke before I was breathing again.
Sometimes learning how to stretch yourself takes several steps. You need to know it’s possible, maybe even do-able. Stories do that by illustrating what can be done. You need to know that you can fail, and then try again. You learn that by trying and not giving up. A cliff-hanger doesn’t get resolved by ending the story, but by finding a way when the story resumes.
You also need to experience the rush of success at something you’ve never done or that you thought was impossible. That feeling of success, even when experienced vicariously, whets your appetite for more. To hell with Tommy, I can do it!
Over the years, I’ve turned that corner to determine it was something I could try and likely succeed many, many times.
I can tell you, however, that I haven’t tried to pilot a small airplane since that earlier experience. I saw that cliff once, and survived. That’s good enough for me.