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"Eastern Standard Time" columns
from Camp Windsor Hill

The night the bear came

This column appeared originally in The Washington Blade.

By Lawrence Biemiller

The night the bear came, I discovered that j.-with-a-small-"j" had fallen asleep in the next bed with the covers pulled up over his head. I tell him every summer that the bats never land on you, never even bump into a raised shoulder or knee, but my assurances mean nothing to him.

I think it was the bat in the living room after dinner that spooked j.-with-a-small-"j." He made it into the kitchen a few seconds ahead of even the first shouts from the others, and he didn't leave until my stepbrother had pinned down the bat -- tiny and squealing -- with a tennis racquet. I found a dust pan, and somehow my stepbrother and I got the bat outside and hurled it off the porch into the dark of the Maine night.

On our way back in, my stepbrother checked the porch barometer. In his family -- I'm only related by divorce -- sons are raised knowing they must one day assume their fathers' ritual responsibilities at the lake. The barometer is among those responsibilities, as are the fireplace, the woodpile, flashlights, boats with motors, and bats and other wild animals.

Which is where the bear -- if it really was a bear -- came in. Or didn't, more accurately.

At two or three that morning I heard a faint knock on the door to our bedroom.

"Wake up!" my stepbrother whispered, opening the door and shining his flashlight in. "I think there's someone in the house."

"Huh?" I said.

"Someone's down in the kitchen. Julie and I heard him."

I rolled out of bed and pulled on a sweatshirt. j.-with-a-small-"j," buried in his blankets, didn't stir.

"There was this rattling noise about 15 minutes ago," my stepbrother said. "Then it stopped, so we pretended we hadn't heard anything. It started again just now. Only this time it was rattling and banging. I thought we were both gonna -- "

"Where's the light switch?" I said.

He pointed the flashlight beam, and I clicked on the hall light. At every creak of the stairs, I expected an axe-murderer to appear, his weapon raised high.

The living room was empty. So was the dining room. My stepbrother aimed the flashlight down the passage to the kitchen.

I went first, heart racing. I tried to look casual, as though I were just coming down for a glass of water and meant no harm. In the middle of the room, I found the string that operates the light. No murderer. I glanced at my stepbrother.

"Flashlight," I whispered, holding out one hand. He gave me the flashlight and I inched down the other hall to inspect the dusty maids' rooms. No murderer.

"Hey, I think I see something," my stepbrother called. He was standing at the kitchen door with his hands cupped against the glass. "There's trash everywhere. I'll bet it was bears. They came up on the porch to get at the trash cans -- that's what was so noisy."

"Bears? I've never heard of bears anywhere around here but the dump."

"Well, okay. A bear."

"Try 'a raccoon.' Raccoons get in the trash cans every year. Can we go back to sleep now?"

"A momma bear and her cub, probably," my stepbrother said, still staring out into the dark.

"Anything you say, George. Turn the lights out when you're done." I was halfway up the stairs when two questions occurred to me: How come he let me go first into the kitchen? And how come I went?

Some years these visits to Rangeley Lake seem to be day-by-day tests of one's manhood. Credit is given for fearlessness and manly skill, although not necessarily for common sense.

It was my stepbrother's idea, for instance, to tow the two canoes across the lake behind the motor boat. For the record, I said from the start that it was too windy, and that we could canoe through the bog some other morning. Righting the canoe that swamped in the middle of the lake, I might as well as add, was less a question of brute strength than of common-sense physics, which luckily I've always been good at. With j.-with-a-small-"j" as lookout, we even found the paddle that had floated toward Oquossoc.

The ultimate manhood test, however, is going in the lake on a chilly morning. It's still considered bad form to take a bath in the house, even though a big new septic system was installed three years ago. As my stepfather is fond of reminding us, his grandmother bathed in the lake every morning even when she was in her 80s, no matter how cold the thermometer dangling off the end of the dock said the water was. My own record, set on a rainy day in 1981, is a respectable 62 degrees; my stepfather claims 58.

It makes a bizarre triathlon, when you think about it -- bats, boats, bathing in the lake. What compels me to compete every summer I can't say. I could hide my head under the covers, or stay behind on the dock, or run hot water in one of the claw-footed tubs, and no one who wanted dinner would give me a moment's grief, since I do the cooking. As a Gay man, you get to make many of your own rules.

You also get to choose what league to compete in. Late on our last afternoon at the lake, I carried a beer down to the dock, where j.-with-a-smalI-"j" sat with his eyes closed and his sunscreen at his side.

"GWM, 24, blond, seeks lover," I said. "Now freshly tanned."

"I gotta make a splash when I get back to D.C.," be said. Since he moved down from Pennsylvania, he'd been filling my answering machine with reports from one bar after another. He's much more sure of his league than I am of mine. Only the truly fearless compete for attention on a crowded dance floor on a Sunday night.

Dragonflies played around the edge of the dock. I looked back up at the birch trees and the old house and the flag restless on the flagpole, and then across the lake toward the setting sun. I found that if I held it at just the right angle to the breeze, the beer bottle whistled a long, hollow note, almost melancholy. I let it die out slowly, and then went up to start dinner.

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