You may know a lot of things about Donald Trump, but you probably didn’t know he has a board game. Trump: The Game was a gift to Ben from his grandmother back around 1989, the giving of which appalled Ben’s mom. “But he loves to play board games,” Grandma said in her defense. “Mom, it’s a game about Donald Trump,” my mom retorted. “Do you want your grandsons to grow up like Donald Trump?” Grandma paused as if considering the correct answer to this question, saying finally, “It just looked like Monopoly to me.”
The game’s slogan, emblazoned right there on the front, is, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!” Below a picture of The Donald is his signature, with what appears to be at least four m’s in his last name.
When Ben packed up his apartment to leave Pittsburgh in July of 2003, he put Trump: The Game in his backseat underneath boxes and boxes of books. It was still there when he arrived at camp later that month, and so he decided it could be good for a few laughs.
Erin left Nashville three days early, on July 17, for third term at Summer’s Best Two Weeks. She would be going back as the kitchen crew counselor for two terms — one month — and was kicking it off by spending time with Ben in State College before they both showed up for camp. The plan was to meet Ben in Pittsburgh, where he and most of his worldly possessions would be packed in his car, waiting to ship out. Ben’s first contact with Erin that day had been a cell phone conversation in a hospital. Ben was there visiting one of his youth group kids when the phone rang. Ben answered it in the hall. Erin was somewhere outside Wheeling — be there in about an hour. A nurse passing by informed Ben he couldn’t talk on his cell phone in the hospital. This was news to Ben as he had just purchased his first cell phone the week before. “I’ve gotta go,” he told Erin. “A nurse is yelling at me.” He went back into the room and watched a family he had grown very close with try to make small talk as everyone awaited a doctor. Not for the first time, Ben felt guilt at the kids he was leaving behind. He also felt guilty that he should be so excited to leave.
Erin and Ben arrived at camp on Saturday the 19th for dinner. It was a cookout, and since it was between terms there were only other counselors. They caught up with friends and filtered into the crowd, and at one point Ben found himself standing in a circle of guy friends looking across the lawn at Erin standing in a circle of girl friends. They had just spent two days together, and yet suddenly she had eluded him again. Ben watched a tall, athletic counselor cross paths with Erin, and after they shook hands he stood there nodding his head as Erin talked, looking tall and athletic and dangerous. Out of nowhere, Ben was filled with jealousy bordering on hostility.
Ben was walking back to his cabin when Erin caught him from behind. “Hey, where you going?” she asked. “Just back,” Ben said. “Gotta unpack.” “I was thinking it’d be good to, you know, pray together before the term if you wanted to do that,” Erin said. Ben stopped and considered this. “I think I’d like to do that,” he said.
Later that night, after dark and once the stars over Boswell, Pennsylvania, came out in a fashion far superior to that of either Nashville or Pittsburgh, Ben and Erin walked around Lake Gloria to the zip boat dock near the rope swing. It was the same place where, a year before on that same Saturday night, Ben had sat alone in prayer about the upcoming term. It was the following day that he met Erin Beers.
What they prayed about that night, neither remembers exactly, except that Ben was still on anti-malarial meds from his trip to Quito, Ecuador, the prior month. The pills were an unholy combination with Ben’s other meds, and on the nights he took them he had terrible fever dreams. He would wake up shaken and disoriented as if he had inherited a different brain overnight. Slowly everything would come back to him, but not without a toll. He asked for prayer for that.
It was a hard transition for Ben in other ways. It was his seventh year at camp, and yet the minute he arrived on site, tailing Erin’s Jeep, he was wracked with anxiety, as if it was his first summer all over again. The first day there he wondered if he could summon the strength and confidence to get through the day, much less the two weeks. Sitting on the dock that night, he found it hard to believe he couldn’t find peace in a moment like that one.
The kitchen crew is virtually the only place at Summer’s Best Two Weeks where guys and girls intermingle. Every high schooler working crew gets the “relationship” speech at the beginning of the term: You’re here for God, not a date. This is only a slight variation on the speech counselors get at the beginning of the summer. Once the speech is given, however, a moderate degree of harmless flirting is tolerated, checked when necessary with one-on-one interventions with serial flirters.
The Loveline was another way of channelling attraction into the relatively harmless confines of the written page. At the O.D. (Officer of the Day) Shack, every counselor had a clothespin with his or her name on it. Fellow counselors could pin an encouraging note any time of day. The lines that held these pins up practically coursed with both the low hum of modest admiration to the full throttle buzz of repressed sexual tension.
One benefit of being a high school crew member was that you also had access to Lovelines. There was only one drawback: You did not have your own clothespin, only the generic “Boys Crew” and “Girls Crew.” There was no way to pen a heartfelt and faintly suggestive Loveline without the near certainty that it would be screened by, if not two counselors, then any number of fellow crew interlopers who circled the shack before and after meals like buzzards.
The primary way around this strategy was to encourage everyone to write a Loveline to each member of the opposite crew. These letters would be group efforts, and both guys and girls had the same idea: If, for example, Heather liked Andy, then all the girls would help write/decorate Andy’s letter, but it would fall to Heather to add just the right personal touch or coded phrase which would communicate her true feelings in a discreet but unmistakable way.
Now add one more layer: Not only were crew members engaged in this meticulous game of epistolary romance, but the crew counselors who were artfully stoking these young passions were also playing the same game. Not that long after they began dating, Ben and Erin would both remark how weird it was to talk through their feelings as opposed to writing them down on a tiny scrap of paper in some coy or amusing way.
That particular term in 2003 it was the boys crew who launched the first wave of Lovelines. Trying to think of a creative way to write the letters, crew member Evan saw Trump: The Game sitting underneath Ben’s bunk. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Evan said. He opened it up, took out some Trump Money and passed it around.
“What’s this for?” someone asked.
“Fellas,” Evan said, “a wise man once said, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win.’ It’s time to win some lonesome hearts.”
He removed a pink $50 million dollar bill and wrote on the back of it: $50 MILLION IN TRUMP MONEY < ANNIE
“Gentleman,” he said, “Annie will be putty in my hands.”
The men launched into the Lovelines with a fury. Once they were done, Ben and the boys sauntered — no, make that swaggered — down to the O.D. Shack before dinner that night and pinned a mammoth stack of Lovelines for the girls crew. They were early so they could get a head start on the pre-meal chores that often fell to the (more enterprising) girls. When the ladies arrived on time they were all beaming and laughing, little notes in their palms or tucked in their pockets. The guys played it low key and saved their grins for when the girls weren’t looking. Ben did the same.
“The price of a Las Vegas casino in ‘Trump’: $50 million. Working with you on crew? Priceless.”
Unlike a year ago, Ben and Erin didn’t spend their day off together that term. Erin drove to Cincinnati for the day to attend the Sweeney’s wedding, while Ben went to see Seabiscuit by himself. You can probably guess who had a better time.
“Dear Emily, thank you for the encouragement like on the dodge ball field and caring when I hurt my arm. If I could have you or 50 million dollars, I would choose you.”
Ben and Erin thought they were being discreet. But two people falling in love are about as discreet as — to borrow Tess Gallagher’s phrase — “tigers answering questions about infinity with their teeth.” Will, the camp director and a man not given to inhibition, was talking with Ben and Erin about film when he asked if their taste in movies would be compatible in marriage. (Erin turned red and walked away in response.) Ben’s co-counselor Brad, who knew Erin from college, picked up on the signals pretty quick. And one night in the girls cabin, a girl named Liz Lackey said to Erin, “So, Ben Vore is moving to Nashville.” “Yes, I think he is,” Erin replied. “And you live in Nashville.” “Yes, I do live in Nashville.” “So … do you think, like, you and Ben will hang out?” There were giggles. The cat was out of the bag.
“We ♥ girls crew! (like whoa)”
What Ben and Erin remember about the crew that term wasn’t especially remarkable. It was a fun group but not an extraordinary one. Nobody made any giant spiritual strides. There was friction between the guys all term long, but they worked hard when they needed to.
Erin would stay on for two more weeks while Ben went home to State College: to rest, to prepare for Nashville, to transition from one thing to the next. They wrote letters daily, and on Erin’s fourth term day off Ben drove to camp and they hung out in Greensburg for the day. As they went about day off hikes and Bruster’s ice cream stops and the obligatory chill time at Barnes & Noble, they looked at one another and saw two things at once: the couple they were becoming, and the couple they might be, together, for the long haul.
That night they kissed for the first time, in the Adventure Fort across the lake, where the eight- and nine-year-olds camped during their overnight trip. Erin was the fifth girl Ben had kissed in his life, and he hoped the last. Erin had kissed so many guys that she stopped counting.
“If I had to choose between $50 million and working with you, you would find me in the kitchen, right next to you, letting Tim do all the work.”
On Friday, July 18, the day before Ben & Erin arrived at camp and prayed on the dock, there was a downpour in State College. Ben had taken Erin to Meyer’s Dairy for milkshakes, and they were driving home when it suddenly became quite dark overhead. “Looks like rain,” Erin said. “Looks like the flood,” Ben replied.
It was the flood. It hit suddenly and came down so hard that Ben had to pull over because he couldn’t see the road. A lightning strike sounded like it was directly overhead. Erin said quietly, “Are we going to die?” Ben wouldn’t realize until much later that she was not joking.
Ben’s house was fifteen minutes outside town, close to the county line, situated in a flood plain with a stream that winds around the property. When they arrived home there was a gulley pouring down off the mountain. The storm had lessened but the rain was still falling hard. The stream had risen above the bridge between the driveway and the house. The current was so strong it was pushing the right side of the bridge up, tilting it at a slight angle.
“What do we do?” Erin asked. She was holding two half gallons of Meyer’s skim milk. Neither of them were wearing a rain jacket.
Ben said, “Here. Give me those.” He took the milk jugs. The mountain run-off was above their ankles. “Now jump on.” He turned his back to Erin and crouched down.
She hoisted herself up for a piggyback. As soon as she was on, Ben handed her the milk. “Don’t drop these, okay?”
“Are you going to make it? Isn’t there another way across?”
“I’m afraid this is it.”
“You won’t drop me, will you?”
“I sure hope not.”
Ben waded down the steps to the base of the bridge. The water was up to his shins. He stepped onto the bridge and it held.
“I think we can do this,” he said.
“Are you sure?” Erin asked.
“I’m sure,” Ben said.
“Then let’s do it,” Erin replied.
One foot in front of the other, they crossed the bridge.