Saturday at Lake Retreat was the end of one camp and the beginning of another. Departing campers got fresh Danish butter-horn pastries for breakfast to cheer them up. Arriving campers got left-overs for lunch so we could clean out the walk-in fridge. While the kitchen boys cleaned up breakfast, my best friend Kirk and I would inventory the walk-in and pull out possibilities for lunch. A curtain call for the mashed potatoes? An encore for the chicken chop suey? Taco meat disguised as Sloppy Joes? All candidates were lined up on our prep counter for a risk assessment. As we debated and poked and sniffed the left-overs, two of our loyal kitchen boys were tasked with cleaning the walk-in. This meant joyfully scrubbing the old wooden floors and walls with horsehair brushes and buckets of bleach water.
Somehow, despite the reality of the job, the position of camp kitchen boy was a coveted prize. The reasons were many but, as with the motives of most teenage boys, girls were at the heart of all of them. For three hours every day, a parade of smiling girls would bring their empty serving bowls up to the kitchen boy’s counter for refills. This flirting ritual brought some kitchen boys back year after year, which made job openings rare and competitive. Once on staff, these boys would die for you. Kirk and I had both started out as kitchen boys before rising to the now lofty height of co-head cooks. We, sadly, were their heroes.
Our left-over lunch prospects came together with one questionable exception, a dried out pan of “Tuna Delight” casserole with a burnt top. I voted to 86 it. Kirk thought we could save it by scraping off the burnt crust, adding some water and a fresh layer of government cheese. “Yeah, that could work,” I conceded.
As we put it in the oven, one of the boys came stumbling out of the walk-in holding his nose. “It’s pretty bad in there!” he declared.
“Yeah, no kidding. That’s why we clean it,” I said, as I shoved him back in and closed the door. A minute later he was out again.
“It really stinks. I feel sick to my stomach,” he complained.
“So you’re going to let Calloway clean it by himself?” I said, trying to shame him. He hung his head. “Fine, Kearns,” I said, “go scrub pots.” He stumbled off to the pot sink. “You never leave a man behind!” I added, turning the guilt screw one last time.
I opened the door of the walk-in to find Calloway on his knees like a little dog. His face was grey and he was scrubbing in slow motion. Even trying to pull him out I started choking from the toxic mix of ammonia and bleach. We dragged Calloway outside to the back porch then went to the pot sink and got Kearns. We all just sat in the fresh air for a while. “Sorry guys. I had no idea.” I offered feebly.
Calloway looked up with bloodshot eyes and said, “We can do it, man. Just let me catch my breath.”
“No, I want you guys to go see the nurse and then take the rest of the day off.” They both looked up at me like I had just shot their dog. To miss the incoming crop of girls was more punishment than they could bare. “Okay, just sit out here for a while and we’ll see how you’re doing.”
Back inside, Kirk and the surviving kitchen boys were trying frantically to assemble the noon meal. The new campers were lining up outside the dining hall as we pulled the last casserole out of the oven. Our new layer of government cheese had now domed into one massive, crusty, botulism bubble on top of the week-old Tuna Delight. Kirk grabbed a knife to lance it. “No, wait!” I screamed. It was too late. As the knife pierced the monstrous boil it released a green cloud of putrid tuna steam that engulfed Kirk’s head. He rocked backward and his face turned white but his instincts remained intact. Trying to save the fresh air in the dining room, Kirk lurched blindly toward the back door with the casserole of mass destruction at arm’s length. Without a word, the rest of us rushed instinctively to put out the peanut butter and jelly.