Introduction: Pentler’s Folly
If you ever want to rile up a Friends meeting, here’s a simple recipe: Leave them a lot of money in your will, but with no instructions about what to do with it.
It’s a sure thing: the meeting will spend years haggling over what to do with all that worldly wealth.
In the mid-1970s, a fellow named Charlie Pentler did just that to Palo Alto Meeting in California. I don’t recall how much his estate finally came to; but it was enough, at least, to build a new meeting house, which was what they finally decided to do with most of it, after tying themselves up in knots for several years.
That whole story would probably yield the plot of an absurdist comedy of Quaker manners, if there was a Friendly cable channel to show it on. But before all the ruckus started, the Meeting decided to use a bit of the loose cash in one of Charlie Pentler’s accounts for a different purpose: to make some small grants to local folks for Friendly projects of one sort or another.
Being nearby when this news came, I hied myself to the front of the line, with my cap in one hand and an idea for writing some Quaker stories in the other.
The meeting gave me $1200, and the immediate result was two Quaker short stories, my first. which I labored over for weeks, hidden away on a farm near York, Pennsylvania.
But in a way, almost half a century later, a few dozen more stories are also the ultimate results of their generosity. That’s because the Quaker story bug, once loose in my veins, wouldn’t go away. For many years, like a recurrent fever, it kicked up ideas from my subsconscious, usually when I was least expecting them, and I’ve done my best to capture them on paper before they slipped back into the mist.
Most of these were first written to be read aloud, the earliest to my own children. Some years later, when my kids were older, they were read to the campers at Friends Music Camp, held for many years on the historic campus of the Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, where I visited for this purpose for more than thirty years.
It started by accident: I visited Olney school one summer with son Asa, just to bask in the locale’s old-time Quaker atmosphere, and met the camp director, Peg Champney of Yellow Springs, Ohio Friends Meeting. I was low on cash and asked what I could trade for a weekend’s board for us.
“What have you got?” Peg asked.
I hemmed and hawed, then: “Um—I have some stories I could read.”
I was in luck. The evening program for the next day had just fallen through. So that evening, campers clustered around me in the main dorm lounge, and I read my stories.
They liked them. Looked forward to more. So one summer visit led to — thirty others. For ninety minutes in each of those years, sitting on a plain camp chair as dusk fell, surrounded by rapt youths, I felt like a famous writer.
The stories aren’t only for children, or Quakers.
I’ll post two of them: one below, the other tomorrow. Read them for yourself, and make your own judgment as to whether Palo Alto Meeting, and the shade of Charlie Pentler, got their money’s worth.
A postscript: some stories feature Quaker ghosts. They too started out to be fiction. The first was told spontaneously in the summer of 1987, during a visit to the historic Friends meetinghouse in Mount Pleasant, Ohio.
My two younger children, Guli and Asa, wanted to know why we had stopped there; and the explanation, to my surprise, came out as a story, about how a Quaker quarrel there in 1828 turned into a riot (it really did) and how ghosts linger with its memory, and can be heard there, still quarreling, on warm summer afternoons.
As the story was being told, Asa, at least, was quite sure he could hear the ghosts when he pressed an ear against the locked door of the meeting house. Asa’s hearing is very good; and ever since then, I haven’t been entirely sure whether the story, and some others, were as fictional as I thought.
His Eye Is On the Sparrow
[Note: This story is essentially true; it happened in summer 1961. I was 19, between freshman & sophomore years in college. The camp was in the Hudson Valley of New York]
It was Marcy Siegel who first realized that a killer was about to strike.
“No!” she shrieked. “Don’t”
But it was too late. The killer squeezed the trigger, squeezed it smoothly, silently, remorselessly. The rifle popped loudly, and the sound bounced back from the low hill in front of them.
The victim jerked and fell to the ground.
Then Marcy Siegel screamed, and so did the others.
Camp Pontiac was not much different from dozens of other such places: A long rambling row of cabins spread out along the shore of a cool blue lake. Behind them were softball fields, basketball courts, and other athletic equipment. A big lodge divided the boys’ cabins on the east from the girls’ on the west. In the big lodge we ate, heard announcements, and griped about the food.
I didn’t gripe about the food, though, at least not so the Inters could hear. “Inters” was short for Intermediates, which meant age 11 or so.
I couldn’t let them hear me gripe because I was one of their counselors. It was up to me to set an example.
Many of my kids could use a good example too; Pontiac was an expensive camp, where most campers arrived hauling huge trunks crammed with stacks of brand new shirts and shorts and socks, twice as many as they’d ever need. Fortunately this was 1961, or there would have been cell phones and tablets too. Instead, when Visiting Day came a few weeks into the season, parents and other relatives brought or sent each of my kids bags and bags of candy, more than a single child could be expected to consume in a week.
In hopes of controlling the sugar craziness, we told them to eat as much as they could by bedtime that night, and then confiscated the rest. But there wasn’t much left by then, because what they couldn’t eat, they ended up throwing at each other, or us. For the rest of the season there were brown splotches on our cabin porch where M&Ms were ground into the wood floor.
That had been the low point; mostly the kids were bright and interesting, even if they wore us out. Besides, several of them had an air of underlying sadness that all the candy and new clothes couldn’t quite conceal: I called them the orphans.
They weren’t officially orphans, of course, but they might as well have been: they were shipped off to boarding schools for nine months of the year, and then trans-shipped off to camp for the summer. Their parents were evidently otherwise engaged, and had the money to keep the kids at a comfortable distance. I admit I cut the orphans a little extra slack sometimes; maybe I’m just a sucker, but it felt like they needed it.
Days at Camp Pontiac had a regular round of activities, swims, and assemblies. A kind of focal point came every weekday after rest period. That was when we gathered in front of Herbie the Head Counselor’s cabin for mail call and any last-minute afternoon announcements.
Herbie was big, blustery, sun-blond, and not really very athletic. But he was a longtime Camp Pontiac staffer, who knew what was what, and he was always ready to set us straight. He’d burst dramatically out of his cabin, blow a whistle hanging around his neck on a nylon cord, make a joke or two, and pass out the mail. Then he’d collect postcards the kids were constantly encouraged to write to their parents, at least weekly. The camp provided the postcards, and Herbie dropped them ceremoniously through a slot into a big locked wooden box attached to the front of his cabin.
“Okay!” he’d shout when this ritual was completed. “Let’s get out there and have a great time!” With one more blast of the whistle, he’d send us scampering to the afternoon’s activities.
There were a lot of options at Camp Pontiac; there had to be, for as much as they charged. This variety was why I was there at all: in the winter, when checking the Summer Job Directory at college, the counselors’ lists in the camp section were a series of painful reminders of just how un-athletic I was:
Could I swim? A little, but not enough to teach it or lifeguard; as for hitting a baseball or shooting a basket, forget about it. And tennis? Don’t be silly. Volleyball, just barely.
Page after page, the activities lists at camp after camp were nearly identical. I was about to give up on getting away from my college in Colorado for the summer when, near the end of the section, Camp Pontiac appeared. Its list was longer than most, and even included horseback riding. Not that I could ride a horse either; but it gave me hope.
Then, like a gift from heaven, there it was–something I could actually do, and maybe even teach: riflery.
It’s true. When I was about twelve and living in rural California, my father bought me a single-shot .22 rifle. We never went hunting, but several times I took it out behind our house, facing an empty open field, and used up a box of shells plunking away at tin cans and bottles. I always hoped a bird or a rabbit would stray into my line of fire, but none ever did.
Two years later, a high school youth group offered target shooting lessons, and I jumped at the chance. I liked shooting; what 1950s American kid wouldn’t? I enjoyed the classes, too: (This was Back in the Day when the NRA was mainly about safety— no, really.) The instructors were sticklers about safety rules. But unlike a lot of rules in my world, theirs made perfect sense. They taught us to listen to the instructor’s commands, and to move together in sequence:
Move up to the firing line.
Pick up your rifle.
Load and lock.
Ready on the Left?
Ready on the Right?
Ready on the firing line.
Move back from the firing line.
We followed these rules because they kept us safe, and focused on the real objective, which was blowing little holes in the black bullseyes of the targets at the other end of the range.
Besides appreciating the discipline, I also liked the classes because in shooting, bigger didn’t mean better; what counted was control, concentration, aim, a steady trigger finger. A skinny kid like me could be a better shot than some burly, swaggering jock. We even had girls in the class, and some were better shots than most of the guys.
Besides, the results suggested I had a knack for it. My shooting scores were decent, and with practice got better. I was picked for the rifle team, earned a Sharpshooter’s medal, then added several bars to it. Our team won a few matches, and lost some, but in all I carried my weight. I hadn’t ever done that in a team sport before.
But then it ended: my family moved, and the new place didn’t have a rifle range available to teenagers, and that was that for my shooting career. Or it was until that day I sat reading through the Summer Job Directory at college.
My spirits lifted: Riflery was a skill I could legitimately offer Camp Pontiac. And it wasn’t that common; lots of people could hit a baseball; but how many could hit a bullseye? This, I thought, just might be my ticket back East, to New York, which I’d never seen before.
And so it was. One sunny morning in mid-June I was on a train chugging up the Hudson Valley from Manhattan. A few hours later, in my brand new Camp Pontiac tee shirt, I inspected the rifle range.
It was small, only six target stands, and backed up against the slope of a wooded hill, with nothing behind it for many acres. It looked good: safe, cozy and familiar. This I could handle.
I asked Herbie if I could try out the range; the campers weren’t due til tomorrow. He wasn’t too keen on the idea, but let me take a few potshots. I put two bullets through the bull’s eye, several more close to it, and was getting ready for my last shots when I noticed a fluttering in the trees halfway up the hill.
Lifting my eye from the rifle sight I saw birds flitting through the branches, seemingly unconcerned about the slugs kicking up dirt a few feet below them.
Come on, tweeties, I whispered urgently to them. Come on down here. Let me find out if I’m really still a sharpshooter. Come to papa. But they didn’t.
Everything went well that summer until the morning the killer appeared. Several times a week I met groups of campers at the range, showed them what to do, explained the importance of following instructions, gave out ammunition, and barked the commands:
”Campers ready! Move up to the firing line; pick up your rifle; load and lock. Ready on the left? Ready on the Right? Ready on the firing line, commence firing!”
I called out these orders from a spot behind the line, where I could see everybody and the targets beyond, to make sure every rifle was pointed in the right direction at all times. There weren’t going to be any accidents on my watch; the camp couldn’t afford it, and neither could I.
And it was going fine. In fact, the whole summer was going great. Camp, I soon discovered, was not just a matter of shepherding kids around. Over on the girls’ side, there were many pretty college age counselors, and the big lodge had a canteen where we could meet them after our boys were asleep. That year too, the Twist was the big dance, and I discovered to my surprise that I could actually do it.
So I was a popular guy, with kids when the sun was up, and with various female counselors after dark and on our precious days off. This, I concluded, was living.
That’s how it was the morning Marcy Siegel and her twelve year-old colleagues showed up, giggling and pigtailed. They were a little nervous about this business with guns, but eager too.
My confident tone was reassuring as I explained that a rifle is not a gun, that safety was primary, and how following my commands in unison would keep us all safe. They were wide-eyed, somber-faced and obedient when I said we were ready.
The first round of shooting went off without a hitch, though few of the girls could, as shooters say, hit the broad side of a barn. When we took a break I spoke encouragingly, gave them a few pointers, and said we’d do a second round so they could try to raise their scores. This time they were eager.
”Group One,” I shouted, “Move up to the firing line!”
Six subteens plopped down in their stalls.
”Pick up your rifle!” They obeyed.
“Load and lock!” There was a clicking and snapping of metal.
I started to say, “Ready on the Left!” But just then I glanced out toward the target stands, and the words stuck in my throat.
A bird, a sparrow, had flown down from the trees above and was perched, big as life at about four inches long, on the third target stand. Its little head moved in quick jerks. One tiny claw flicked up to scratch its squat neck in a blurry rhythm.
My mouth went dry. I had wanted to see something like this, not just all summer—no, for years, ever since I stood knocking tin cans off a fence post in California. And now, here it was.
My fingers tingled. I had, I figured, about ten seconds to decide what to do, if I was going to do anything, about this. I took a couple of deep breaths, and then spoke:
“Rifles down. Yes, down!” Heads turned toward me, faces quizzical, but my stern voice brooked no questions or challenge. “Move away from the firing line!” They scrambled nervously back in my direction.
As soon as they were even with me I said, “Wait here.”
In a second, I had flopped into position in the third stall, and was aiming down the loaded rifle sight, over the shiny dark barrel. That was when Marcy Siegel realized what was about to happen, and screamed.
I don’t think any bullseye ever felt better than that one shot. When the rifle made its single pop, the bird leaped off the target stand, then swerved right into the ground. I dropped the rifle and trotted out to the stands. There it was, limp and still, with a spot of blood bright on the tiny dark grey feathers where an eye had been. I walked back to the stalls, practically crowing about my shooting.
In fact, I was so full of pride at my kill that it took a few seconds to realize I was now surrounded by twelve near-hysterical girls.
To them, I was not a good shot; I was a killer, a cold-blooded, brutal murderer.
Really, they were so cute when they were angry. I patiently explained about how common such birds were, and how predators killed them by the dozens, and that actually I was no different than one of those sparrow hawks we saw circling overhead every day. No big deal; there were plenty more birds where that one came from, and anyway, didn’t they see what a good—no, what a great shot it was?
They weren’t buying it. My rationalizations about life and death in the wild cut no ice; my bragging about the fine shot did not impress. Marcy and a couple others started to cry.
I could see it was time to backpedal. I apologized for upsetting them, assured them that the bird did not suffer, and calmed them down as best I could. When it seemed that order had been restored, we finished up the second round and I sent them back to their counselors. They seemed back to normal as they went.
Once they were gone, I walked back up and took another look at my prey. No, I thought, they didn’t understand; they were too young. This really was the best shot I’d ever made. But probably it would be wiser, I figured, not to mention it to the other counselors.
This policy lasted exactly two days. Then, after mail call, when Herbie blew the whistle to send us off for the afternoon’s softball tournament, he called out to me to stay behind, and beckoned me to follow him into his cabin. I had never been inside it before; it was unofficially reserved for the senior counselors.
As soon as the door was closed behind us, he rounded on me, fury in his face: “What the HELL were you doing on the rifle range the other day?” he demanded.
Busted. Looking mostly at the floor, I explained what had happened. “I don’t know why I did it,” I concluded sheepishly. “But a bird never came down on the range before. It was probably the only chance I was going to have, and I guess I couldn’t pass it up.”
Herbie softened a bit as he listened. There was a good chance he had relatives in the army; and for all I knew he’d been in the army himself. I think he appreciated good marksmanship, at least in the abstract.
“And anyway,” I added lamely, “I was very careful about the safety procedures. None of the kids was anywhere near the firing line.”
Now Herbie snorted. “Oy vey,” he said. “Maybe not close to it, but they weren’t far enough away. Do you have any idea how many of them went back to their cabin and wrote home about this?”
I shook my head, confused.
“Five,” he roared. “FIVE!”
I was still confused. How would Herbie know that? But then in a flash it was obvious: the postcards. The box. It was not a regular mail box that could be opened only by an actual employee of the United States Postal Service. I glanced to my right, and there it was: the outside lock was for show: the box opened into a wire basket, right there in his cabin. And of course, there would be one just like it on the girls’ side.
No wonder the camp gave out the postcards. It was so the head counselors could read the notes home before sending them. And chances are, some never got sent. Like, Herbie explained, the five from my target practice escapade.
”You mean you didn’t send them?” I squeaked. The idea of tampering with the U.S. mail was genuinely shocking.
”Are you kidding?” he snapped. “What do you think the parents would do if they read that?” He rolled his eyes at my naivete. “We can’t afford that. You can’t either.”
Herbie let me go a few minutes later, with orders never to do any such meshuggenah thing again. I promised him I wouldn’t.
And I didn’t. Of course, this self-restraint was made easier by the fact that no bird ever again came near the target stands while I was on the range. A few weeks later, Marcy Siegel and her buddies made another visit to the range, eyeing me suspiciously the whole time. But everything went strictly by the book, and soon they seemed to be enjoying their shooting as much as the other campers did.
Maybe, I thought, this whole business was blowing over.
It seemed to be. The weeks passed swiftly, with kids keeping me busy during the days, and pretty female counselors to flirt with in the nights. By late August, when camp ended, everything seemed fine again. Heading back west toward Colorado and another year of college, I was determined to return there the next summer. Camp was fun; I missed the kids; I missed the female counselors. But next year would be even better-now I had experience to offer, as well as a specific skill.
Early the next spring, I sent an eager letter to Camp Pontiac, telling them how anxious I was to come back and do my best for them and the campers.
I never got an answer to that letter, nor to the follow-up I sent as May approached and I began to get desperate. My career as a camp counselor was over, no doubt slammed into oblivion along with that tiny sparrow. That year I ended up in ROTC summer camp, marching in full uniform around an Air Force base in Kansas in one hundred degree heat, without a cool blue lake or an eligible female anywhere in sight.
All this was sixty years ago, but I still miss Camp Pontiac sometimes, and wish I could slide one more postcard into that slot in Herbie’s box. If I could, the card would read like this:
”Dear Marcy Siegel, wherever you are, I’m sorry. I really am.”
That would be it. Although I admit I’d like to add a PS, which would say: “But really, Marcy, it was a great shot, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Do you understand that any better now?”
I wonder if she would.
Posies for Peg is a collection of my stories, in memory of Peg Champney, founder of Friends Music Camp. Available here.