The phrase “Thinking outside the box” might have been created with my father in
mind. Working as an Episcopal minster with five children, Dad was famous for finding creative solutions to ensure that we did not go without, and had a happy childhood. A prime example of this innovative thinking occurred in what will be forever be known in Albury family lore as the as the Summer of the Toxic Blob.
When I was growing up in New Jersey our family spent every August vacationing at a summer camp on a small lake in Maine. While the month at the cabin was always fun and relaxing, getting there was quite an ordeal. My parents loaded five kids and a month’s worth of clothes and necessities into one station wagon for the eight hour trip. It was sort of like fitting the contents of a swimming pool into a shot glass. And then, just to ensure we were violating every law of physical space, they added to the mix three loose cats and a dog. Fortunately, there were no seat belt laws back then, and so my parents, like Japanese subway workers shoving passengers into train cars, crammed us into the open doors for the trip. With limbs askew and faces pressed against the windows, we became contortionists for the duration of the long drive. One year my little sister made it all the way to Hartford, Connecticut in the glove box. Finally arriving in Maine, we spilled out of the vehicle like circus clowns.
After a couple of days free from the confines of the car, we would start to walk normally again and appreciate our new surroundings. Much of our vacation time was spent playing in the lake, where there were basically two options: Marco Polo or diving from a raft. We were the only cabin on the lake without a raft, so we played a lot of Marco Polo.
One spring, prior to our annual pilgrimage to Maine, my parents purchased an aluminum canoe the approximate length of two football fields. They decided to take the new vessel for a maiden voyage on the Raritan River in New Jersey with friends. This particular waterway had the distinction of being an EPA Superfund site. As a result, the bucolic paddle was highlighted by the passing of many forms of industrial waste floating on the water. At one point, they saw a huge, hardened piece of yellow foam the size and shape of the Rock of Gibraltar. While my mother, the voice of reason, attempted to paddle away from the blob and avoid a collision, my dad, the idea guy and stronger paddler, steered towards it. “We can bring this to Maine, anchor it, and the kids can use it as a raft,” he suggested. I’m certain their friends questioned his sanity, but they were good sports and assisted with towing the colossal piece of foam back to the car and hoisting it onto the canoe trailer.
The yellow mass of industrial waste remained in our yard, decreasing neighborhood property values for several months, before it was time to pack for vacation. The plan was to bring the canoe to Maine on the trailer and strap the blob onto the canoe. The good news was we could load some of the stuff from the car into the canoe, giving us more room to enjoy eight hours of howling cats. The bad news was, for 400 miles through six states we would suffer the embarrassment of being part of a toxic waste transportation spectacle.
Somehow, the blob actually made it to the cabin, and with team effort the new diving platform was dragged down to the beach and anchored off shore.
The next day, my siblings and I couldn’t wait to get into the water and play on our new, albeit unique raft. It was difficult to climb onto, but we got the hang of it in a matter of minutes, and spent most of the day jumping off it and having a blast.
That night, a strange thing happened. We all started to itch as a result of angry rashes which developed from our skin coming into contact with the toxic material that was our raft.
My dad was not to be deterred. The next day, he affixed a sheet of plywood to the top of the foam block. This modification resulted in our rashes being complemented by wooden splinters. Eventually, the discomfort caused by the raft outweighed the pleasure we received from it, and it remained anchored and unused the rest of the summer.
I’m not sure whatever happened to the toxic blob, but the following year it was mysteriously missing. In subsequent summers, if anyone ever asked about our not having a raft, we would respond with one word. “Marco …”
Mark S. Albury lives in Northfield Falls.MORE IN Letters
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