For the Geek, school camps typically vary between periods of extreme humiliation and extreme boredom. The 1990 year nine camp at Levington was no exception. I can remember many periods, some of them quite extended, of humiliation, but from the perspective of nine years on it's hard to arrange them chronologically or account for the boredom in between. I will do my best, but if this narrative seems lacking in spots, please forgive me.
We had arrived. The place that was to be our home for the next three and a half days was laid out before us. Initially it didn't look promising. It was a roughly built, low building, with a large double door, and two wings extending backwards at an angle. These wings had shaky verandas, and were lined with doors. No windows could be seen. The entire building looked like some kind of run down gulag.
There were the usual disputes and attempts at theft as we stumbled off the bus and sorted out our baggage. The staff, no doubt affected by the concentration camp type surrounds started yelling orders in an attempt to arrange us into our fours. This took quite a while. Once we were sufficiently organised, we were marched in and allocated quarters.
At this point it would probably be worthwhile describing the extremely odd building we found ourselves in. The "lodge" (as the staff insisted on calling it) was built into the hillside, and was on two levels. The dorms were in the two wings, stretching from the entrance vestibule behind the double doors on the top level.
There were two types of dorm. At the end of each wing was a large communal dorm, filled with bunks. The rest of the wings were made up of small cells, sleeping four in bunk beds on either side of the doorway. They barely provided room to move, if you wanted to change you had to do it while lying down on your bed. "Privacy" was obtained by drawing a foetid, black, cloth curtain that failed to reach the floor across the doorway. Each cell had an external door as well, these were the doors we had seen from the bus.
The internal doorways led onto a balcony walkway that ran the entire length of the building. Travel along this walkway was impeded by inconveniently placed tree trunks that held up the ceiling. It widened out to form the vestibule behind the double doors.
The vestibule itself contained three things of interest. Stairs down, a fireman's pole down and a chimney. This chimney reached up from a firepit in the small room beneath the vestibule. For reasons best known to architect this room was glassed in. At first I mistook it for a kind of primitive sauna. It became known as "The Eagle Room", although I was never able to figure out why.
The lower floor of the building was a large open space, floored with cracked and stained concrete. At the far left end was the kitchen, underneath what was designated as the girls' communal dorm. Underneath the left wing of cells was the dinning area, which was filled with wobbly trestle tables and hard benches.
To the right of the eagle room was a strange tunnel, running backwards into the hill. the concrete floor soon gave way to dirt, and it was full of cobwebs, so no one went down it. Daylight was visible at the other end, but despite a few searches we could never figure out where it opened out on the top of the hill. In all probability it lead to Narnia.
To the right of this weird burrow was another large dorm room, the only one on the lower floor. It was the only part of the building not made of raw, unsanded timber, and thus was known as the stone dorm. A Basketball ring was mounted halfway up it's wall, which would have provided some entertainment if the staff had been willing to relinquish the one basketball they'd brought down with them. They weren't so the ring remained unused.
Past the stone dorm were the bathrooms and toilets. There's not much to note about them, apart from the fact that they could have done with a good wash.
The front of the building was glassed in, with doors leading out onto a small lawn studded with rickety benches. Steps from here led down a rocky slope to a larger lawn with a stone firepit. From here meandering paths led down through the bush to a logging road, regularly travelled by huge trucks that wouldn't stop for anything short of brick wall.
Taken overall, the building seemed to be modelled on a hemispherical version of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon.
We Geeks were given the option of sleeping in one of the large communal dorms, or occupying one of the prison like cells. We opted for the cells and were allocated the first one on the right. It may have been like living in a maximum security penitentiary, but at least we would be able to sleep unpersecuted by the Socials and Rebels. The dank cloth curtain also provided a small amount of privacy.
Looking back it also becomes clear that we were the only guys on what was the girl's side of the building. Whether this was because the staff figured the Geeks would be the least likely to attempt to molest the girls, or that they figured we were girls I cannot say. I think we provided some sort of non threatening buffer zone.
By now it was late afternoon. No activities were scheduled for the rest of the day, so we were free to do as we wished. This was mostly a bit of exploration around the building and grounds. Needing a break from the rest of the Geeks I went for a bit of a bushwalk, and not too far away discovered the main electricity switchbox, hidden behind a screen of bushes. Inside was a nice big switch marked "MAIN POWER" and I toyed with the idea of cutting electricity to the entire site. However my ingrained Geekiness and fear of authority stepped in and stopped me. A shame, it would have been extremely funny.
That night we had our first introduction to Mr Vinda's beef stew. Mr Vinda was one of the school's two computing teachers. Whenever a school employs two computing teachers, one of them will know what he's doing. He'll understand the machines from inside out, be able to program and troubleshoot, and most importantly he'll be able to pass these skills onto the students. Mr Vinda was the other one. The one who has no idea. The one who's really a woodshop teacher who was in the wrong place when the vice-principle needed someone to take a class. Mr Vinda barely knew what a computer was, even when one was right in front of him. He could manage simple programming tasks (like making the machine play a bar of "Daisy, Daisy"), so long as he had the manual right in front of him and a few days to work on them. He was terrified of the students. I felt sorry for him, until I had him in year ten and decided he was too stupid to live.
Exactly why Mr Vinda had been given the task of cooking was a mystery, because he was no better at it than he was at computing. If anything he was worse. I never had the privilege to be on kitchen duty while he was working on his culinary disasters, but with extensive research have backengineered the recipe. So here I proudly present...
This cheap and unpalatable meal will feed a large group of people, as no one is willing to eat more than a few mouthfuls. Great for extending those parts of the horse you can't sell to the French restaurant!
5 pounds of grade E beef or similar meat-like substance
5 packets of Gravox gravy mix, assorted flavours
3 pounds of plain flour - Weevils optional
2 packets of peppercorns
1 packet of frozen peas
1 packet of mixed herbs
1 packet of salt
A handful of leaves and twigs from the garden
Anything you find in the cupboard that's past the use by date and better be eaten real quick
Chop the meat up into finger sized chunks. Put it into a big pot and add enough water to cover it (if the meat floats, just guess). Open the packets and pour in all the other ingredients, making sure not to leave any over. Stir the mixture until it's evenly mixed. If stirring becomes too difficult, add some more water. When fully mixed the stew should have the consistency of freshly poured concrete or volcanic mud. Set the stew aside for several hours in a warm place to ferment then move the pot to the oven and simmer mercilessly over a low heat for twelve hours. If you smell burning add a few cups of water. The stew is ready when the meat crumbles into fragments when you poke it with your finger. Make sure you're poking meat, not gristle! Ladle the stew into bowls and serve with chunks of stale bread.
For obvious reasons the vile concoction soon became known as "Chew and Spew Stew".
After attempting to eat we were sent to bed.
That night was enlivened by the revelation that Giulliano couldn't fall asleep without rocking his head from side to side for several hours. We lay in the dark for a few minutes listening to the rythmic "creak, creak, creak" noise from the upper bunk, before gingerly asking Giulliano exactly what the hell he was doing. We were wandering if Jed Evans would have been so out of place in our group after all. Giulliano's explanation eased our minds slightly, but didn't make it any easier to get to sleep.
Morning was greeted by the staff wandering up and down the veranda, yelling and banging on the doors. They followed this up by sticking their heads through the foetid curtains about a minute later and yelling "AREN'T YOU UP YET!?!". We assembled downstairs for inspection and breakfast.
Breakfast was a self serve bonanza consisting of milk, cornflakes, and sugar. Most people opted to combine all three. Orange juice was also provided. An ancient coffee percolator in the kitchen burbled loudly as the staff tanked up on caffeine. Soon they emerged and announced the agenda for the day. The girls would go for a bush walk, while the boys would walk into town and tour the lumber mill.
Exactly why we didn't all go off on a walk together wasn't actually explained, but it probably had something to do with the possibility of students sneaking off into the bush together and (oh horror!) having sex. Why this should be a problem on the bushwalk, but not back at the lodge is a mystery. Perhaps the staff thought the lodge had "adequate supervision".
The girls set off first, leaving the lodge to us guys. Apparently their objective was Scarp Pool, a lake about five kilometres away. Soon afterwards we were driven out into the car park, and began our forced march.
Levington, for those unfamiliar with it, is a small timber town in the southern forests. The entire place was burnt to the ground in the early sixties, perhaps because one of the residents finally gave in and went crazy from the extreme boredom that permeates the place like a bad smell. The town was soon rebuilt around the lumber mill however, and the inhabitants got on with their business of, well, whatever the hell it was that they did prior to the disaster.
It took us about an hour to walk into town, and we ended milling around in a small side street while Mr Vinda and Mr York tried to figure out where the lumber mill was. Just nearby was a mom and pop style corner store, and across the road from that some kind of rustic attempt at a high class restaurant.
Seeing that the staff were occupied, the Rebels decided a bit of delinquency was in order. With no spray cans or bricks handy, they settled for shoplifting. Operating in sophisticated relays they dashed in and out of the store, grabbing bags of chips, soft drinks, and magazines. Sean, never one to resist peer pressure, got all worked up about this, and announced that not only was he going to join in, he was going to go for the big time. He was going to steal a knife!
He walked casually into the store. About a minute later he emerged with his prize. We gathered around in anticipation, expecting a Swiss army knife, or possibly some kind of switchblade. He reached into his jacket and pulled it out.
It was a vegetable knife. A cheap vegetable knife. Attached with twist ties to a piece of cardboard announcing that it was made in China, never needed sharpening, and was available for only $2.99.
We fell about laughing. "But there weren't any other knives in there!" Sean spluttered in protest. We laughed even harder. Some other students in the vicinity came over to see what was going on and we explained between cackles. They started laughing too. Sean got madder and madder. Just as his face turned red, and he seemed ready to prove just how good his knife was by stabbing someone, one of the Socials neatly defused the situation by appearing out of nowhere carrying a large peacock feather.
The shoplifting and general mayhem ground to a halt as everyone gathered around. He explained that he'd obtained the feather from the restaurant, and just inside the lobby there was a big vase full of them for people to take. There was a quick debate about whether this was in fact true. General opinion was that the Social was an idiot who'd mistaken a decorative feature for a free giveaway, but this didn't stop several other students dashing into the place and grabbing their own feathers.
By now the great navigators Mr York and Mr Vinda had decided where on the tourist map they were, and we were marched across a muddy paddock inexplicably signposted as a park to the lumber mill.
I don't know why we needed to see our ancient forests being processed into woodchips for the Japanese market first hand, but apparently it was regarded as essential to our education. Possibly the staff were really grasping for stuff for us to do. In any case we were greeted at the gates by a morose timber worker who would have quite obviously preferred to be spending his lunch hour eating his lunch rather than showing the facility to a bunch of spoilt brats from the big city. He proceeded to guide us around the mill in a desultory fashion.
"That's the wood shed" he said gesturing vaguely to the left. "That's the truck shed" he said pointing somewhere to the right. "That's a log".
The only even mildly interesting part of the lumber mill was a gigantic, black, structure with a bonfire in the middle, fed by conveyors continuously bringing in fresh wood. It looked like a five storey tall dalek (minus the eye stalk and arms) with severe heat sink problems. Apparently this thing was vital to the functionality of the mill, although the guide either wouldn't or couldn't explain how. We were all itching to go inside and play around with the fire, but the guide explained that this was out of the question due to the danger from falling lumber. We were pretty pissed off.
He guided us back to the front gate. Then with a deep sigh of resignation he faced the inevitable. "Any Questions?" he asked.
He was immediately assaulted with a barrage of demands to explain how the timber industry could cut down old growth forest when it was so bad for the environment, where the animals go when their homes are destroyed, what are woodchips used for that's so important, and exactly what sort of monster was he anyway?
With the tired intonation of one who's had to say the same thing a million times before, and knows full well that no one is going to listen this time either, he launched into a little speech that he obviously knew by heart. "The timber industry works hand in hand with the department of Conservation and Land Management to manage the forests and ensure the impact of logging is kept to a minimum. Clearfelled areas are replanted with native species and are soon recolonised by displaced wildlife. The impact of the timber industry on our native forests is minimal." He pushed us out of the gates. The unspoken addendum of "And stay out!" was almost audible as he locked them, and tramped off towards the cafeteria. Poor man, he'd have to do it all again tomorrow.
We walked back to the campsite.
It was several hours before the girls got back. The meantime was filled with varying levels of boredom, ranging from the general tedium you get when waiting for a bus or train, up to the soul destroying ennui of a wet Saturday afternoon when there's nothing on TV. Several students were dragooned into the kitchen to help Mr Vinda prepare dinner. They emerged with stories that on several occasions he'd swatted flies into the stew with the comment "It's just protein". In the listless monotony of the afternoon, the story spread like wildfire, until people who hadn't been anywhere near the kitchen were swearing black and blue that they'd seen it with their own eyes.
Naively I believed them. Mind you, if you'd tasted the stew the night before you would probably have believed anything about Mr Vinda's cooking methods. When the girls arrived back and dinner rolled around I searched carefully through my serving, and found a number of suspiciously fly like objects. I piled them to the side of my plate.
Unfortunately the small pile of mushy black lumps attracted the attention of Mr York. "What's wrong with them?" he asked in a sarcastic tone. Completely failing to notice the danger I was in, I replied "Well, they're flies."
Mr York blew his stack. He went into a five minute rant about how Mr Vinda had been working all day to produce food for us, and we should be grateful, but all we could do was find fault and make up disgusting stories about flies. He concluded by ordering me to eat everything on my plate (including the "flies") and demanded that I show him my clean plate before being allowed to leave the table.
It took me a good ten minutes. Eventually after a truly heroic effort I gulped down the last forkful of rapidly cooling mud, and waved Mr York over as I raced off to the bathroom.
I returned from the bathroom (where I'd just spent five minutes drinking out of the faucets in an attempt to quiet my heaving stomach) to find a furious Mr York standing over the plate. Which, despite the evidence of my clenching gut, was heaped with stew. "You think you're finished do you!?!" he screamed like a character out of Dickens. Protests that the stew wasn't mine cut no ice, and ended in Mr York standing over me and watching me force down my second huge serving of the disgusting concoction for the evening. Sean, Craig and Giulliano sat off to the side giggling like idiots. They later admitted that they'd heaped their uneaten portions of stew onto my plate while I was away, thus saving them from having to eat it themselves. Bastards!
Luckily we had about an hour of free time after dinner which gave my digestive acids the opportunity to reduce the ball of lead in my stomach to slightly more manageable proportions. This was just as well, because we were soon summoned down to the concrete assembly area and split into teams to take part in "The Olympics".
The Olympics, as everyone knows, are a four yearly sporting event where the world's best athletes gather together in a chosen city to vie in friendly competition and take massive amounts of steroids. They are not a timed relay race around a set of chairs, up a staircase and down a fireman's pole, concluding with the competitors shooting a basketball through a hoop and lifting a chair over their heads. Nonetheless this is what we were expected to do.
I took the opportunity to protest. I was, and still am, severely acrophobic (one of the very few qualities I share with Harrison Ford). The idea of throwing myself over a ledge, with only a slick metal pole to slow my descent was terrifying. Unfortunately Mr York was in charge, and still mad over the stew incident, so my pleas fell on deaf ears. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was going to use the pole, and like it, and if I caused any more problems I'd regret it. I shut up.
Our four man team (Myself, Sean, Giulliano and Craig, no one else was willing to join us) were about the fifth to go. We sat around watching the other teams compete, observing their enthusiasm with severe distaste. Mr York stood to the side with a stopwatch, yelling insults and encouragement. Then our turn arrived.
Sean went first. He completed the course in admirable time, and lifted the chair over his head with a dramatic flourish, sending Giulliano on his way. I was next.
I had about a minute at most to figure out a way to avoid the pole. "What if I just plain refused to do it?" I thought. "Not really an option with Mr York acting so much like Torquemada. Running out the front doors into the bush instead? A bit hard to explain afterwards. How about faking an injury? Yeah I could trip on the stairs and hurt myself. Now should it be my arm or leg? The leg's a bit inconvenient cause I'd have to fake a - Bugger!!"
Giulliano had lifted the chair over his head. I was up.
"Why am I doing this?" I wondered as I lurched into action. I dashed towards the chairs. Right, left, right, left, 180 degree turn towards the stairs. I charged up them at a slow, heaving gallop, then across to the dreaded fireman's pole. From my dizzying perspective, the cheering (Geeks) and jeering (everyone else) crowd below looked like ants. I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and lept at it.
With the painful squeaking sound of damp hands on polished steel, I slid the three meters to the ground in a series of graceless jerks. I landed awkwardly, stumbled to my feet and ran across to where Sean was holding the basketball.
In my primary school days I had played basketball for the school team. I never actually shot any baskets during games, concentrating instead on defence, but got plenty of practise at training sessions. So I didn't anticipate many problems getting the ball through the much lower and somewhat larger than regulation hoop. To the amazement of all present (who were anticipating an entertaining display of Geeky incompetence) I got it the first time, and stumbled over to the chair. I heaved it up into the air. Craig took off like a rocket, and I collapsed into my seat, attempting to lower my pounding heartrate via biofeedback.
I was interrupted. "Hey!" yelled a Social. "Denys didn't lift the chair right over his head!" I shot him a snarling look of pure hatred. He went pale and shut up.
Despite my heroic efforts, we failed to come first in the Olympics. We also failed to come second or even third. We were even beaten to the booby prize by the lacklustre performance of Jed Evan's team of leftover losers. The winners received handfuls of M&Ms, and the Olympics were over. Thank God.
There were still a few hours before lights out, so people found ways of entertaining themselves. The student body split up into two main groups. The Socials and Rebels gravitated down to the fire pit where they could drink, smoke and swear unmolested, while the middle classes set up shop in the "eagle room". They were accompanied by a few of the more law abiding Socials.
As a Geek I was excluded from joining either group, so decided to thoroughly depress myself by watching the Rebels and Socials have fun down by the fire pit. I found a convenient bench at the top of the slope and sat down, resting my arms and chin on the railing. No one noticed I was there.
The fact that I was semi-invisible probably accounted for the fact that cigarettes (both packet and hand rolled), beer cans, and bottles of some amber coloured liquid were being passed around the circle with impunity. Even from where I sat some of the hand rolled cigs smelled a bit suspicious. Every now and then someone would spit a mouthful of alcohol into the fire, causing much hilarity and a sudden burst of flame.
One of these bursts must have reflected off the zip of my jacket or something, because Meggsy (one of the high ups in the Rebel class) glanced upwards. His eyes widened and he started backwards, almost falling off his bench and coming perilously close to spilling his whiskey. He pointed dementedly up at me. "There's someone up there!" he hissed.
The conversation stopped dead. The bottle and cans vanished. Paper cups and cigarettes were shoved behind backs, or hurled into the flames. In an attempt to identify the interloper perched over them like a vulture, a few rebels began climbing the rocky slope. I considered running away, but couldn't be stuffed.
"It's just Denys!" called the nearest Rebel. There was a collective sigh of relief and the climbers returned to their seats. Conversation resumed, and the alcohol and tobacco reappeared. Somewhat annoyed at my apparent complete lack of threat, I remained where I was.
"Hey Denysh!" called a Rebel a few minutes later in somewhat slurred tones. "Come down 'ere!" He was joined by the others, all inviting me down to the firepit. Knowing full well the humiliation in store if I accepted, I shook my head. "C'mon!" they called. I shook my head again and added a loud "Nah", waving my hand dismissively. "OK!" they called back "You tell ush if a teachersh coming orright?". I nodded.
There was another long break before they decided to harass me again. The first sign of their renewed interest was Meggsy, now rather unsteady on his feet, getting up from his place by the fire and stumbling up the rocky slope towards my perch. He made it to the top, and grabbed the railing, his fat bound form silhouetted against the flames below. He leaned in towards me until I could smell the ethanol on his breath.
"Ya know Allishon?" he asked.
"Yeah" I answered non committaly.
"She really likesh you!" he uttered. A dumb look of satisfaction spread over his face, as if he were a journalist breaking the story of the century. He burped.
Allison Malter was one of the high ups among the Rebel and Social cliques. She was wildly popular, extremely good looking, and got invited to all the parties. In other words she was highly unlikely to be interested in the King of all the Geeks. I smelt a rat.
"Yeah right, I'll believe that when I hear it" I answered sarcastically. Meggsy stumbled backwards as if I'd punched him, only just regaining his footing on the narrow ledge. The look of drunk satisfaction fled from his face.
"Nah! It'sh true mate!" he insisted "Why doncha come down and talk to her?" I glanced down to the pit where Allison was sitting looking up at us with an odd grin on her face. Everyone else was also looking up. Many of them were wearing the same grin.
"Piss off Meggsy" I said.
"Yeah, well.....fuck you!" he grumbled, and stumbled his way back down the slope. He plonked back down on his bench and said something to Allison, pointing in my direction. She glanced up. Was that disappointment I saw on her face? Almost certainly not, just wishful thinking on my part. They proceeded to engage in a whispered conversation, every now and then glancing and pointing in my direction. I ignored them.
The teachers came out several times during the rest of the evening to check on the firepit, but the Rebels had their own system of lookouts and their contraband was never discovered. After a while their supplies seemed to dry up and the party began to die down. It was almost time for bed so I wandered back inside and discovered that the rest of the Geeks had had a fine old time sitting around in the Eagle Room, where the normal social barriers had been temporarily dropped in the spirit of "We're all in this hell together". I drifted off to sleep to the sound of Giulliano's head banging, reflecting on what a total waste of time the entire day had been. At the time I had no idea that tomorrow was going to be worse.