The first in a occasional series reflecting on significant moments in Vore history.
Six years ago today, Ben was sitting in the dining hall at Summer’s Best Two Weeks, a Christian sports camp nestled in the Allegheny Mountains in Boswell, Pennsylvania, waiting for third term to begin. This was his sixth, and possibly last, summer at camp. One of his best friends, Eric Johnston, was doing something he had not done in eight years: Taking a term off. In EJ’s absence, the plan had been for Ben to fill in for EJ on the leadership team. Two days earlier, Ben got a call with a change in plans: He’d be a crew counselor — working with high school students who volunteered in the kitchen — instead.
The eighteen crew members — eight men, ten women — arrived at eleven o’clock for their briefing. Ben was joined by his co-counselor Zach and one of the female counselors, Jen. The other one, Erin Beers, was running late from a weekend in Cincinnati.
The group was still doing introductions when Erin arrived. “I’m Erin Beers, I graduated from Miami of Ohio with an English major…” she said when it was her turn. Ben made a mental note. English major. Attractive. Probably has a boyfriend. Which, he would soon discover, she did.
That afternoon, Erin saw a Nalgene with a Wilco sticker sitting on the kitchen counter. Where did this come from? she thought. She resolved to find out, and to befriend its owner.
Four days later, Ben found himself doing something rather impulsive, which was walking across the cabin after lights out and sitting on the end of Zach’s bunk and feeling out just how attached he was to taking his day off the following day. Ben had discovered that night at dinner that Erin would be taking her day off tomorrow; his was not scheduled until Saturday. Unless he could get Zach to switch…
“Well, I don’t really have any plans,” Zach said.
“Then if you’re up for it, let’s switch,” Ben said. “You can have Saturday and I’ll take tomorrow.”
“Actually, come to think of it, I was going to run a couple errands,” Zach said.
This was unacceptable, Ben suddenly realized. He had walked across the cabin thinking that he could accept either outcome — switching or not — so long as he at least tried. Now, as Zach wavered, he realized he had to go in for the kill.
“It’d actually mean a lot to me if we switched,” Ben said. “I just need a break earlier in the term than I thought I would. And I could always get you something if you need me to run your errands for you.”
“Sure,” Zach said. “That’ll work.”
Ben went back to his bunk, stretched out, and stared up into the dark. It wasn’t even like he had a plan. They might not even cross paths. While still unconfirmed, Ben was rather certain there was another guy in the picture, lurking offstage. The bullfrog you could hear croaking down on Lake Gloria was wide awake tonight. I, Ben thought, am acting like an idiot. What surprised him was how good that felt.
Most of the counselors taking the day off converged on the Barnes & Noble in Greensburg at three o’clock. Erin had already claimed a table in the cafe when Ben arrived. He claimed the table next to hers.
They talked for forty minutes, about what, who knows. But Ben knows it was forty minutes because that’s what he wrote in his journal. Several counselors made plans to have dinner at the Olive Garden at six. When the time came, it was just Erin, Ben and another counselor named Allison. During the meal, everyone revealed the most embarrassing contents in their wallet. (Ben still had a Prom Promise card from high school.) Erin and Ben discovered they both loved the movie Rushmore. And Ben discovered that Erin did indeed have a boyfriend, whom we’ll call Rex, because Ben thought Rex’s real name was also a good name for a dog.
The next week, the girls and guys in kitchen crew switched Bible studies to talk about dating relationships. Ben & Zach met with the female crew members, while Erin & Jen led a discussion with the male crew. According to Ben’s notes, he learned about the “isolation technique,” wherein a girl separates herself from the group to see if a guy will come talk to her. Damn, Ben thought, recalling the past few days and his many calculated but guarded conversations with Erin, often when he spotted her alone by the sink or heading toward the freezer. I think I’ve blown my cover.
The dramatic tension behind every encounter was the ticking clock. Ben would be at camp for two weeks that summer, then gone. Two weeks is nothing. Trying to be respectful of this Rex character — for Ben had been the Rex before — made every conversation boxed in with circumspection. Two weeks required a sprint, not slow, careful progressions forward, like an army staking its claim on a hill against enemy fire, inch by bloody inch. Two weeks was just not enough time.
The term ended Friday, but Ben hung around for the weekend. On Saturday, counselor mail was spread across one of the lunch tables. Ben spotted a postcard with Erin’s name on it. It began, “Hey beautiful.” It was signed Rex at the bottom. Ben felt sick to his stomach.
That Sunday they said goodbye, as fourth term began with Erin returning to the kitchen for two more weeks and Ben going home to State College before making a road trip to Chicago. Ben had the distinct impression after church on Sunday morning that Erin had sought him out before he left. When he got home that night, he put in The Royal Tenenbaums and wrote the letter that he had already composed in his head during the two-and-a-half hours in the car. It was part thank you, part love letter, part just-saying-hi. What Erin would make of it, Ben didn’t know. He just knew he had to send it. So he did.
On his road trip to Chicago, Ben stopped in Pittsburgh to check on his apartment and pick up mail. There was a letter from Erin Beers. For the remaining part of his trip — the first leg to Gambier, then Gambier to Chicago — Ben replayed every sentence and paragraph in his head, turning them over again and again. At a rest stop outside South Bend, Indiana, Ben sat for an hour analyzing the possibilities. One fact was unmistakable: Erin had a boyfriend, and she was committed to him. Yet the letter was hopeful, and promised a friendship, if nothing more. It also contained this delicious postscript: “If you are ever in Nashville or somewhere close by, give me a ring. I expect to see you again.”
While in Chicago, Ben took a picture of the corn cob towers from roughly the same angle as the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and mailed it to Erin. The ever-wise Scott Guldin counseled that he should lay low on any expressions of affection since the original letter had been sent. The ball is in her court now, he said. And he pleaded for Rex’s case as a guy who might really love her and deserved his shot the way any guy deserved a shot. Even then — probably because he’s a good friend — Scott predicted a break-up.
Seth and Miriam Swihart were married on Saturday, August 17. So were Pete and Beth Buck. Ben attended the Swihart wedding in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and stayed for the first hour of the reception to observe Seth’s silky smooth dance moves before racing off to Grand Haven to catch the end of the Buck reception. As he tore up Route 96 with the windows down in the summer dark of humid Michigan, Ben cranked “Fight Test” by The Flaming Lips no less than twenty straight times. The lyrics were both cryptic and prophetic. Ben was certain somehow they applied to him. I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the star lights begin / It’s all a mystery, Wayne Coyne sang above the driving drumbeat and spacelike guitar warble. And I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life / It’s all a mystery. He thought of the prologue to Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, and its harrowing description of Conroy driving drunk through the empty streets of three a.m. South London at sixty miles an hour. He wasn’t buzzed, but there was something about that drive that was as urgent as anything Ben had ever done. Yes, he had to make the Buck reception before it finished, but it was as much when he got there as how he got there. In the few villages along the way I pulled every trick I could think of to make up for the slower speeds, Conroy writes, driving in the wrong lane, cutting corners on the wrong side of the pylon, mounting the sidewalks, running red lights — anything at all to keep the speed, to maintain the speed and streak through the dark world.