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August 2000

Storm King

A tall, true tale of the Miller Camp boys

pp72-73_ja2000_webStorm King wrestled the alligators at Animal Land U.S.A., a small amusement park that prospered just south of Lake George Village in the early 1960s. He was seven feet tall, bearded and bald, with a voice like the bottom of a rusty organ pipe, and he stood at the back door of the Miller Camp one night just as the lightning cut our power and the thunder rolled over the darkened screen porch.

This was Basin Bay, on Lake George, in a ramshackle old Adirondack camp built by Gus Miller and his wife. Lamps in the rooms sported birch­bark shades, and shards of the same crumbling stuff papered one of the walls. Above the dining room table a birch log had been fashioned into a sort of chandelier. In the front room an overstuffed horsehair sofa faced a fieldstone fireplace. Above loomed the mammoth, mounted head of a deer, its antlers decorated throughout the summer with caps and jewelry and worn-out bits of fishing tackle. A party-line telephone sat on a birch-twig table, ringing brightly and mysteriously whenever thunder threatened a summer storm. No one was ever on the other end of the line. A stand-up Vic­trola stood in a corner, its one heavy disc offering highlights from Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. On special occasions my Aunt Eve, wrapped in a frayed beach towel and with a mophead over her hair, would mime her way through the music to gales of laughter from the seven little boys-my five cousins, my brother and me-who shared this house with their two families.

A small white sign nailed to a tree at the end of the driveway read simply, “The Birches,” which is what Gus Miller and his wife had decided to call the place when they built it back in 1923. But we never called it The Birches. We just thought of it as the Miller Camp. And for ten years we were its sole summer occupants.

Each summer, one week after the Fourth of July, we were shepherded from our homes in sub­urban New Jersey to the Miller Camp. It was a great event, the predawn escape from our house, the first few morning birds twittering lazily and stars still visible over our darkened street. In the car, my mother would hide her face in her hands while my father struggled mightily with the front door of the house, trying every possible way of closing it soundlessly so as not to wake the neigh­bors. Sticky with humidity, the door finally gave with a resounding crack, and my father would race for the car. We’d glide without brakes, without power, down the driveway to the end of the block, where he’d put the key to the ignition and the journey would begin.

During the weeks of summer, each Monday before dawn, our two fathers would return to their jobs in the city, leaving our two mothers and all seven of the rest of us to the birch woods and moss lawns and log forts and newly proclaimed battle­grounds which surrounded the Miller Camp. And each Friday at sunset, we’d watch from the end of our dock, and a Heath candy bar would be awarded to the first to spot the city car returning along the Cotton Point Road.

Cotton Point was a spit of land to the right of the camp, separating Basin Bay from the main body of the lake. Among its large summer homes was a dilapidated boathouse that gurgled and creaked in the late afternoon sun and a tiny shack where mail was delivered to wasp-riddled cubby­holes. On clear nights we could walk to the end of the point to watch the steamship Ticonderoga pass up the far side of the lake. All around us, post­war cottage colonies stretched back through tall, cool woods of birch and pine.

But on this night, with our fathers away in the city and the power out and the thunder rumbling over the bay, Storm King stood at the back door of the Miller Camp, seven feet tall in the mon­ster-movie glow of my Eveready camp lamp.

Some nights before, my Uncle Tom had gathered us by the fireplace to recount the tale of Mad Anthony Wayne who, lost in the colonial wilderness, had been forced to eat his own nose for sustenance—and whose ghost, according to my Uncle Tom, could still be heard wandering the moon-dappled slopes of nearby Tongue Mountain, crying out for the appendage he’d swallowed so many years ago. Now, as I stood on the back porch staring up at this giant, I was sure General Wayne had followed his missing nose to our door.

But it wasn’t a nose Storm King was after. It was the turtle.

A few days before the night of the storm, propped on an aging canvas raft which stank of rubber patches and Sea and Ski lotion, my cousin Nicky paddled through the shallows near the end of our dock, an old face-mask tucked over his eyes and nose. Nicky was ten and thin as a pencil and took to shivering violently whenever he climbed out of the water—but Nicky knew fish. Around our dock and all along the seawall that fronted the house stretched a wide, sandy bottom not more than three or four feet deep. And in this landscape Nicky was master. He knew that sunfish would gather in the afternoon shade of the dock, that bass would hug the rocks beneath the boat buoy, that the largest and most terrifying crayfish any of us had ever seen lurked under the old planks con­necting the dock to the seawall. I don’t think he really wanted to catch these inhabitants, despite his father’s urging to the contrary. I think he just wanted to look at them. And so, rafted, masked, lotioned up against the sun and with Nicky as guide, the Miller Camp boys would glide in canvassed formation over the sunfish nests that dot­ted the sand below us—delicate, shallow craters brushed into existence by industrious parent fish, who hovered bravely over these depressions to nip at a straying toe.

But on that after­noon, our flotilla passed soundlessly over an abandoned terrain. Empty nests pocked an underwater desert, now marked only by the tracks of a few lonely lake mussels. Baby Keith, not yet eleven months old, watched solemnly from a playpen which had been bolted to the shadowy end of the dock, resigned to the torment of a summer mere inches from the water.

There was no question about it: the sunnies were gone.

The reconnaissance continued for three more days. Toward late afternoon of the fourth day, the alarm was raised. Something was under the water between the seawall and the dock. And it was moving.

The troops massed quickly. Masks were donned, rafts were launched, Nicky leading the way. Shrill cries drifted over the water as the sub­marine visitor shot forward, changed direction, cir­cled back. From above, it seemed as if a large piece of dark cloth were being blown aimlessly through the water until, rather unexpectedly, it blew itself directly into Nicky’s face mask.

Once, a small bat found its way into the second floor of the Miller Camp and announced its mid­night presence by landing on Nicky’s bed. On Nicky. His screams woke everyone in the house, and for the next three nights he refused to go to sleep. But on this hot afternoon, although muffled by his face mask and a sudden and unanticipated mouthful of the bay, Nicky’s terror caused a general panic. Our fleet exploded in a maelstrom of legs and rafts and crewcuts. By the time we had reached the dock, the only thing we knew for cer­tain was that whatever was in the water was good reason for the rest of us not to be.

For a moment Nicky just stood there, shiver­ing mightily, staring down at the dark shape that had followed us from the shallows and now circumnavigated the end of the dock. Our rafts, abandoned in the panic of retreat, drifted aimlessly in the shadows by the seawall. Then, in a sepulchral whisper calculated to restore his leadership and drive forever from our minds the image of one terrified little boy dogpaddling hysterically toward the safety of the dock, Nicky staked his claim:

“Snapper. Biggest snapper I ever saw.”

“How many have you seen?” asked his younger brother Chris, whose chronic and sometimes frightening bouts of asthma left him dryly unimpressed by most of life’s other surprises.

“Never seen one before except in books,” replied Nicky.

“Then how do you know it’s the biggest?”

Somehow it was determined that the under­water marauder was responsible for the flight of the sunfish, and that a quick response to this threat was essential if we hoped to restore the natural balance of the bay. Armed with oars, canoe pad­dles, two cap pistols and an egg-shaped fishing net, we crowded into our aluminum rowboat and set out in pursuit.

I’ve tried to remember how we did what we did next, but all I know is that somehow the beast wound up in the net, and the net and its cargo wound up at the edge of the dock. With paddles for leverage and cap pistols trained, we managed to hoist our catch into the only suitable enclosure we could think of—newly relinquished by Baby Keith, who had been lifted by his brothers from the playpen and deposited several feet away in the safety of his bounce chair.

Our monstrous prize glistened prehistorically, filling the bottom of its new prison and obliterating the dancing bears and smiling giraffes painted on the playpen’s floor. It had impressively nasty claws and a spiny ridge along the back of its shell and, for the moment, didn’t seem to be too con­cerned about the unexpected change in surroundings. Perhaps it was stunned—but I think it was simply taking a minute to size up the situation.

It’s at this point that I recall our mothers stepping onto the dock and into the story, a horrified Aunt Eve yanking Baby Keith from his bounce chair, my mother shrieking something about somebody losing a finger. And it was at this point, too, that our visitor chose to amplify my mother’s point of view by seizing one of the playpen bars in its nightmarish beak and producing a jawful of splinters.

The younger kids were rushed into the house where Aunt Eve, who had decided the best course of action would be to call someone, set about trying to decipher the mysteries of the party-line phone. The older boys stayed on the dock to stand guard over the prisoner. And that’s when we thought of Storm King.

Two weeks earlier, we’d watched him wade into a muddy wallow at Animal Land, seize a sun­bathing alligator by the tail, flip the animal onto its back and lull it into submission by rubbing the pale, scaly skin of its belly. “See?” he said to the stunned little boys who clung to the protective fence, “This big baby just goes right to sleep.”

Frankly, I thought the big baby had been sleeping just fine when he grabbed it, but show business is show business, and we were all very impressed. Storm King, the announcer told us, had the blood of four native tribes in his veins and had survived murderous assault by enraged alligators, petulant pythons and even the dreaded Amazonian anaconda, the largest and most fearsome snake known to man. No question about it: Storm King was our man. Yes ma’am, he told my Aunt Eve that afternoon on the party-line phone, he’d be glad to stop by later and take care of our little problem.

In the meantime our fathers had learned by phone of our catch, and my Uncle Tom told my Aunt Eve he seriously doubted that it could be as large as she insisted it was because any animal that large and with that kind of temperament would never allow itself to be cooped up in a wooden playpen in the first place. He was right of course, but the first bar of the playpen wasn’t com­pletely torn from its mooring until a few minutes after he’d hung up the phone. And by then it was clear that our prisoner had emerged from its brief afternoon snooze and had no intention of waiting around for the local alligator wrestler and a cozy new pond at an animal theme park on Route 9 South. Instead, it was dismantling the playpen.

Nobody knew what to do. Thunder was build­ing in the distance and wind was kicking up the water around the dock. Two bars had now been snapped from the playpen and our guest was grue7 somely worrying a third. One thing was certain; nobody wanted to be the one to tell the alligator wrestler who had the blood of four native tribes in his veins that we had simply allowed our prize to swim away.

And so it was decided that the aluminum row­boat might prove a more effective—and escape­proof—container. Aunt Eve approached the play­pen and its resident with the egg-shaped net raised. My mother followed close behind with a broom. Gently my aunt slipped the aluminum frame of the net under our guest, who seemed momentarily nonplused, while my mother circled to the side to prod it gently with the handle of the broom. A simple tap and our obliging visitor would climb serenely into the nylon webbing.

Things happened very quickly. With a noise like the hiss of an angry house cat, our visitor shot its snakelike head more than half a foot out of its shell, seizing the aluminum frame of the net and putting an impressive kink in the metal. Nicky and I jumped onto the arm of the net, and the added leverage lifted the net and its attacker, now holding fast and dangling by its clenched jaw, out of the playpen and into the rowboat. Since it wouldn’t let go, we did, and the net and its acro­batic occupant came to rest on the bottom of the boat. Quickly the assembled troops covered the boat with planks from the woodshed, then weighted the planks with rocks from the seawall. In a few moments, the prison was secure. Alcatraz. Completely escapeproof. Within, the terrible claws skittered and scrabbled and scratched against the hull.

By nine o’clock the storm was on top of us, the lights had failed, and I was staring up at the ghost of Mad Anthony Wayne on the back porch of the Miller Camp. He wore military pants and a safari jacket and boots that stretched from his feet to his knees; tucked into the webbed belt at his waist was the largest, meanest, sharpest knife I’d ever seen. And he looked a lot bigger up close than he had in the muddy wallow of Animal Land, and a lot more intimidating with the light­ning bouncing off his shiny skull, and maybe that big baby alligator hadn’t been sleeping after all.

“Evenin’. I’m Storm King.”

He didn’t say much else. Frankly, neither did we. My mother managed to steal one snapshot of the entire Miller militia standing to either side of Mr. King. I think my Aunt Eve offered him a beer, which I’m pretty sure he declined. On his way to the front room of the camp, he bumped his head against the kitchen door­frame. He glared at it, and I imagined the dreaded Amazonian anaconda trapped in that frosty gaze. Then, camp lamps fired, we started for the dock.

By this time the rain had stopped, and the rowboat spluttered and bumped lazily against the dock, every plank, every rock still securely in place. Storm King motioned us back as he bent to remove the first of the planks: “They can move pretty darn quick if they want to”—a lesson we’d already learned. We peered over his shoulder, down into the dark opening where the first board had been lifted, our camp lamps reflecting off the dented bottom of the boat. Somewhere deep within the shadows under the remaining planks our prisoner lurked.

One by one the rocks and planks were lifted. We boys carried them dutifully to the seawall, then raced back to witness the final battle. Would Storm King wrestle the monster to the dock? Would he lose a finger? Or his nose? Would his ghost join Mad Anthony’s, haunting forever the mossy yard of the Miller Camp?

At last, in the spent flicker of de­parting lightning, the man with the blood of four native tribes in his veins stood up, and turned into the light of our camp lamps, clutching the twist­ed metal frame and nylon shreds of our net. Thunder rumbled overhead. “Just how big did you say this thing was?”

We crowded forward and stared into the empty bottom of the boat. Our lamps picked out a few playpen splinters drifting in a bilge puddle at the stern. Sinister scratch marks criss­crossed the aluminum hull. Bits of nylon net still clung to one of the seats. But that was all.

We shook hands with Storm King before he left. I remember him telling us about a python, destined for a zoo, which had managed to slip from its escapeproof container in the baggage compartment of an airplane, only to appear moments later in the warming drawer of the galley, much to the surprise of the flight atten­dants. But I think he was just trying to be nice about the whole thing. Our mothers, of course, apologized pro­fusely as they walked him back to the zebra-striped cab of his safari truck.

Nicky and I stayed behind on the dock, silently training our camp lamp beams over the empty bottom of the boat, then out across the black surface of Basin Bay, toward the darker­-than-dark rise of Tongue Mountain.

A few days later, the sunnies returned. And that weekend, Uncle Tom took us out in the big boat and up the lake for a picnic on Paradise Bay. On the way we passed the abandoned shell of an old lodge at the very foot of Tongue Mountain. The roof had collapsed, and the rotting dock bobbed precariously in the dark swell of our wake. Nobody had lived there for a long, long time, explained Uncle Tom, ever since the morning when the last inhabitants woke up to discover hundreds of rattlesnakes dripping from the ceilings and curled in the bed quilts and coiled on the pancake griddles.

But that’s another story.