- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
Even now, closing in on 50 years later, memories of my 21st year are an odd combination of the pleasant and the truly horrific. All of them, though, are related to my emerging interest and early participation in theater. Virtually every step taken that year was either motivated by or tangential to decisions I made to pursue that interest.
And it began in the spring of 1969, when, after two years of working with the Quannapowitt Players in Reading, MA, I opted to attend a massive 'cattle call' audition in Boston. Representatives from summer stock companies all over New England were on-hand, basically to choose the enormous contingent of support personnel they'd need to mount their summer seasons. As best as I could figure (hindsight, really), very few of the producers and directors were there looking for actors or actresses to star in leading roles. Most of those roles had already been allocated to previous employees of the company, or known quantities that were invited. The rest of us were there for the future privilege of wielding hammers, nails, paint brushes, and our own bodies to move set pieces, as necessary, during actual productions. Actual roles were confined, more or less, to bit parts, like Lancelot's squire in Camelot, whose sole contribution to the words in the play amounted to "You fell him a mighty blow, sire," or words to that effect.
Didn't know this going in, of course. Full of myself, I expected to be cast as Lancelot (fat chance). Don't remember what I did at the audition, but in a matter of weeks, it was enough to land me a few invitations, which arrived, quaintly, in my actual mailbox. Some of these offered no money. Some wanted me to spend money (fat chance). One, the Weathervane Theater in Whitefield, NH, offered me room, board, and if memory serves, a small stipend to spend my summer working with the northernmost barn theater in the country. I accepted, immediately.
Then, in May, I discovered that the Selective Service had spit out my number (related to my birth day). It was low enough (4) to assure that come June, when they selected young men to be drafted into the armed forces, at the height of the Vietnam War, I would most certainly be among them. As it happened, I was working (at McDonalds) with a woman who was the wife of an Army recruiter. I knew them both, socially, and when I articulated my frustration at this unfortunate turn of events, the Army recruiter suggested an alternative. He told me that the Army offered what they called a 'delayed enlistment' program. It meant that as an alternative to being drafted, I could voluntarily enlist, which would commit me for an extra year (three, instead of two), but would offer me options, like selecting an MOS (military occupational specialty), instead of being tossed into an infantry unit, and, the deciding factor, I would not have to physically report for duty/basic training for 90 days.
I was sworn into the US Army in June, days before my 21st birthday. I'd more or less dodged the draft to pursue my theatrical ambitions. By the end of the month, I was in Whitefield to spend most of the following 90 days.
Not surprisingly, it wasn't quite what I'd imagined. As a repertory company, we were premiering a new show every week, which, at certain times, meant three different shows running in a given week. For us peons, it meant double (triple) duty with the hammers, nails, screw guns, brushes, and the milk-based paint they used for sets, the smell of which still lingers in my nasal memory banks. Every day was something of a boring grind. No glitz, no glamour. Work on stage actually made things worse, because in addition to being up, literally, at the crack of dawn to do set work, you were expected at the end of a really full day to do your part in rehearsals, and ultimately, performances. Our opening production was Camelot, and sure enough, I was given the role of Lancelot's squire, with his one line that I was determined to say, in spite of (as it turned out) Lancelot's tendency to jump it at every opportunity.
The day that Camelot was to open dawned grey and cool, but having been afforded a first day off since our arrival, cast, and crew set out to do any number of things. In the early afternoon, myself, a fellow performer and a 14-year-old drummer (literally, half of our piano/drum orchestra) set out for a local swimming hole, formed by a river flowing out of the White Mountains. A 12-foot waterfall fed this swimming hole and provided an option of climbing into a rock sluice and allowing that waterfall to plunge you into the swimming hole below it.
Upon our arrival, though, that same fun-friendly option looked a tad ominous. Rainfall, higher up in the mountain, had turned the flow of water into something of an angry stream, which initially, none of us was anxious to ride into a maelstrom of water. We stood on the edge of the rocks, questioning whether a swim at this particular moment was a good idea, but throwing caution to the winds, the young boy jumped off the edge and into the swimming hole.
And didn't come up. The two of us left looking down into the pool wondered whether he had come up behind the waterfall and into a little cave space behind it. The roar of the water made it likely that even if he were answering our shouts, we wouldn't have heard him. Finally, concerned that something had happened beneath the surface of the roiling water, I jumped in after him. And immediately lost all control of my movements, which, for the next two or three minutes were controlled by a whirlpool that sucked me under, driving me in a continuous circle around the swimming hole and under the waterfall. It would suck me directly under the waterfall, which, in turn, would drive me to the bottom of the hole, before sucking me back up to the surface, allowing me a quick gasp of air, and then sending me back into the vicious circle.
I struggled for a while against the overpowering current, but remember, distinctly, giving up and committing myself to what I was sure was my death. I remember going through a thought process about how pissed my mother was going to be; having to take a day off, possibly two or three, to drive all the way up to New Hampshire to claim my body. I suspect that giving in saved my life. Somehow or other, I had caught a random current moving beyond the raging whirlpool, that drove me downstream, out of the swimming hole. When I felt my knees scrape a rocky bottom, I stuck my head up and out of the water. I staggered to my feet in waist-deep water, and struggled to catch my breath.
The young boy had caught the same current apparently, but too late. He was found dead in a tangle of branches a couple of hundred yards downstream from where I'd emerged.
I don't know how long I stood in the middle of the river, the powerful current continuing to push at my legs below the surface of the water. I was paralyzed with fear, and more than likely in clinical shock. I was literally scared to move in the water and stood there for I don't know how long.
At a time well before cell phones, I have no idea how the EMT vehicles were alerted, but still standing in the water, I watched them arrive at the riverbank and move downstream with an ambulance cot. I worked up enough courage to get to the riverbank myself, and by the time I did, one of the EMTs was headed back toward the road. He informed me that the body had been found and continued his way up the path. As I headed that way myself, a small group of 'lookee-loos' came running towards me, anxious to get downstream and (I presumed) see the body, like rubber-neckers looking for tragedy and blood at the scene of a highway accident. I don't know who was more surprised, them or me, but from a distance of a few feet, I started hollering at them. I planted my feet wide and curled my hands into a fist as I screamed something to the effect of "Get the hell away from here!" One of them tried to ignore and go around me, but I stepped in his way and repeated my command at a voice level that strained every vocal chord in my body. He took a look into my eyes, and decided against taking another step. He and the small band of them turned heel and headed away.
It was approaching 4 o'clock by the time I got back to the cast house, just outside of downtown Whitefield. Camelot, which was going to be my first performance on a summer stock stage, would open in four hours.