I’m a This American Life junkie – I completely agree with the woman in the TAL ad who says she can’t eat crunchy foods while listening to it in case she misses something. I always seem to be doing something else Sundays at noon when it is broadcast on my local NPR station, so I tend to download it as a podcast and listen to it as I drive back and forth between Indiana and Illinois. (This means I’m sometimes a couple weeks behind the broadcast episode.) And while I invariably find the stories compelling, gripping, moving, and educational (such as the episode on the Giant Pool of Money which explains the mortgage industry collapse), I usually don’t find something quite so immediate to my life. Until last week’s episode, “Life After Death”.
The episode opens, as it always does, with Ira Glass doing a prologue that sets the theme for the rest of the show. This episode starts with a man telling a story about something that happened to him when he was at church camp in Wisconsin. My interest is piqued, as I too went to a church camp in Wisconsin. He goes on with his story, which is essentially recalling weegie board “stories” that it seems are universal at American camps – someone has a friend for whom it really worked, someone has seen it him or herself, and so on. Only, because it was church camp, the weegie board takes on some more religious significance, and this guy talks about how he worked himself up to believe the devil was flying over their cabin. So, he borrows a crucifix from his friend Joe.
So this is all pretty straightforward. Up until he starts describing the storm that happens.
He recalls coming in from sailing and seeing a huge storm cloud, and he thinks it is the devil again. And, for reasons you’ll have to hear when you listen to the story, he taunts it. And the heavens open, with a torrential downpour.
It is at this point that I am completely creeped out. Because I know what happens next. Because I too went to this camp, I remember this day, I remember the cloud.
What happens next is that a bunch of kids who are heading through the forest to the main lodge in the pouring rain decide to take a turn on the merry-go-round. Which is metal. And the merry-go-round is struck by lightning. Six kids were on it, and two of them died.
One of them was Joe, the kid from whom the TAL narrator borrowed the crucifix. And, sitting here in my living room, I remember that he was supposed to be going to the Thursday night dance with a friend from my camp group – I think her name was Tammy.
I remember the whole thing – the call to the main lodge, sitting with little kids around, and the bone-shakingly-loud thunderclap which was the lightning that hit the merry-go-round. I remember a little of the panic afterwards, and I remember almost nothing else of camp that year except for when the camp finally told us when our parents came to pick us up at the end of the week that two kids, Joe and Rico, had been killed.
The TAL storyteller tells this story to share how this event made him no longer religious, because when he confessed to his counselor and to the camp minister that he had taunted the devil in that black cloud that everyone told him it wasn’t his fault, that he wasn’t to blame.
For me, who lost religion a long time ago, this event signaled to me that bad things happen. And they could happen again. While everyone says how unlikely it is to be struck by lightning, here was this freak event of kids getting struck in the midst of a forest with really tall trees. So, in my 11 year old mind, they were wrong and they could be wrong again. This twisted psychology I still find I irrationally apply to all kinds of potentially lethal situations – airplane flying, car commuting, and of course, lightning storms. I figure those people who say how unlikely it is for lightning to strike the same place twice (and I figure I count as a place, or at least, 100 meters from a place) could also be wrong.
I don’t freak out at lightning storms now as much as I used to. But it is those house-shaking thunderclaps that send me right back to camp, with goosebumps and a high heartbeat and sweating and everything.
The TAL story and what I remember are a little different – the camp isn’t next to Sheboygan, I think we were going to the lodge not for lunch but because of the severe thunderstorm warning, and so on. But the key details are the same. Joe and Rico.
I confess I turned off the rest of the episode at that point. I’m not sure I could take listening to other stories of people who felt responsible for others’ deaths. While the camp story is supposed to be about guilt in order to set up the rest of the stories, for me I can’t get away from that old feeling of terror I had when I first realized kids like me could die for no “good” reason.
It’s going to take a while for me to shake this episode off. I hope the weather stays fine while I do it.