The second time was during my film studies course at Brooklyn College. We were watching the 1925 Russian silent movie, "BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN." In the film, the long suffering crew is further inspired to mutiny when cooks scrape countless waves if these buggers off the rotten meat being prepared for them.
The first I saw maggots was four years earlier while working at Buck's Rock Work Camp, in New Milford Connecticut. And unfortunately for me, it occurred up close and personal .
I LOOKED THROUGH A HUNDRED PHOTOS OF MAGGOTS AND NONE OF THEM CAPTURE THE NAUSEATING ESSENCE OF SEEING THEM UNDULATE EN MASSE.
I was sixteen at Buck's Rock and on my own, away from home for the first time. My friend Patrick Clark, the assistant chef had gotten jobs for DRJ and me as kitchen-utility men. While Pat had semi-private living quarters near the mess hall, our eight man gang of "untouchables" was sequestered a mile away. Our barracks were in eye-sight of a pig barn, horse stable and an octagonal dormatory for a team of non-English speaking, Slavic charwomen...nicknamed by DRJ as, "the sweat-hogs." (Several years later, TV's, "WELCOME BACK KOTTER," put that term in vogue).
Needless to say, that corner of the forest needed an aerial deodorant bomb dropped on it!
The best perk of our job was that in our spare time, we were permitted to use the camp facilities. I learned a lot about cultural diversity and met people from all over the country and several foreigners too. Yet with the opportunity to network with interesting, wealthy, influential people, I befriended a fellow Canarsian named Jerry.
At twenty years old, Jerry's position in the camp was a half-notch above mine. He was the camp sanitation engineer...the garbage man. Its seems ridiculous now but I was drawn to Jerry because he was sophisticated and I equated that worldliness to being a chick magnet.
I should have realized my folly when he asked me if I wanted to help him do a run out to McNulty's Dump.
HIS TRUCK RESEMBLED THIS ONE EXCEPT THE WALLS WERE SHORTER AND THERE WAS NO ROOF.
We threw so many trash bags into the back that we had to tamp them down so they wouldn't slip out. On the way off the camp grounds, we passed the nature hut. Jerry pointed out a junky, military looking vehicle parked out front and said, "Check it out, it a VW Thing." I said, "Huh?" He said, "They are so cool, one day I'm gonna take it for a joy ride."
AN EARLY VERSION OF A COMPACT SUV, THE VOLKSWAGEN TYPE 181, (The Kurierwagon), WAS POPULARLY KNOWN IN THE UK AS THE "TREKKER," IN MEXICO AS THE "SAFARI" AND IN THE USA AS THE, "THING." IT WAS A CONTINUATION AND IMPROVEMENT OF THE WWII KUBELWAGON, (BUCKET SEAT CAR). THE THING WAS PRODUCED FROM 1969-1983 BUT WHEN IT FAILED STRICTER AMERICAN SAFETY STANDARDS IN 1975, VW STOPPED SELLING THEM HERE.
We were heading to the dump on a quiet country road. A few minutes later Jerry said, "Wanna drive?" I said, "I don't have a license and my permit is only good in New York state. Plus I never drove a manual transmission." He said, "Okay. But some night I'll teach you on my car, its easy."
At the dump, the administration office was empty. A dark green work shirt with "McNulty's Dump" embroidered into the back was hanging on a nail. Jerry examined it and said, "I love the McNulty patch on the shoulder and look it has 'MOOSE' stitched over the pocket." Jerry looked around and stuffed it under his shirt. I said, "Maybe Moose needs it." He smiled, "I've had my eye on this baby for two weeks."
We drove through long boulevards of refuse. Near the tree-line, Jerry stopped and said, "You never know what you might find here. A few days ago I found an Indian Head Penny." My face contorted when I thought, you didn't find that shirt, you stole it. He handed me a pair of work gloves and added, "And remember, you can eat anything you find."
It didn't take long to fling our garbage off the truck onto existing mountains. Then Jerry, in his rubber hip boots, took a stroll through memory lane. Ugh, I was so skeeved because there was no way I going to follow him into his Utopia...even if I was wearing something more significant than gym shorts and Converse hi-tops.
While Jerry snooped around, the fumes irritated my eyes and stench got to me. I was hoping to fart...to clear air as Jerry threw a headless doll at me. He then showed me a half-filled, classic green, six-ounce Coca Cola bottle and said, "Thirsty, want a drink?" A few seconds later he screamed, "Eureka, its the mother lode. You gotta check this out!" From the tone of his voice, I guessed he found a Buffalo Nickel so I tip-toed through the tulips to his side. He lifted some galvanized sheet metal and revealed the remnants of a bacon package with a gazillion bugs on it. Before I could divert my eyes from the tiny predators, I noticed that the light breeze seemed to effect their formation. I fought-off the urge to vomit and hustled back to the truck.
When Jerry got back I asked, "What were they?" He laughed, "Maggots."
That image has been burnt into my psyche for the last 39 years. But while it was still fresh in my mind, I was led astray again by Jerry.
Jerry owned a black 1959 VW bug. He enticed me to go back to Canarsie with him on our day off. He described a veritable cornucopia of girls that he knew in our neighborhood. The twisted reality was, he was going to see HIS girlfriend and wanted company for the drive.
I was homesick anyway and made the best of the situation. I spent the night with my folks and slept in my own bed. I liked the arrangement so much that I joined Jerry two other times. We were going to do it one last time but Jerry's car was in the shop. That night he came over after dinner wearing his neatly pressed McNulty shirt and said, "Let's get ice cream in town." I said, "How we gonna get there?" He said, "Follow me."
At the nature hut Jerry pointed to the Thing and whispered, "There it is." I said, "Why are you whispering?" He said, "Shush! I know the gimmick." As we approached, neither of us noticed the big difference...the Thing's convertible roof was up. Jerry tried the door but it was locked. When he muttered obscenities, I sighed in relief, "Its no big deal, forget about it." Jerry said, "NO! I said were goin' for ice cream and we're goin'."
Jerry's bunkhouse was at the far end of the property. It was a half-mile hike through the dark woods. His garbage truck was parked out front. He said, "Get in." Jerry leaned under the steering wheel and fiddled with some wires. He said, "I have to surrender the keys to the old man at the end of each day. That's why I learned how to hot-wire cars." Suddenly the engine started. He didn't turn on the headlights and we rolled off the camp grounds via the back way.
At the stop sign I said, "You just stole this..." Jerry interrupted, "Borrowed my dear fellow, borrowed." Instead of making a left towards New Milford, we made a right. "Hey," I said, "Where are you going?" He said, "To get ice cream." I said, "Ice cream where?" He said, "Torrington."
Through winding back roads that restricted our speed to 30MPH, I cursed myself for getting involved with stealing the truck. Jerry sensed my reluctance and said, "Dairy Queen is the only cool place in Litchfield County open after dark. Its a great hang-out and place to meet chicks." I wasn't buying it. So Jerry tried a different tact to pacify me, "Wanna drive." I said, "Yeah, but my permit's only good in New York and..." Jerry cut me off, "Yeah, yeah, yeah and you can't drive a four-speed. You wanna or not?" I said, "But what about the cops?" "Cops, you see any cops. We're in the middle of friggin' nowhere. Hell, we haven't seen another car for ten minutes."
We switched places. Jerry coached me as I struggled to time the gears. Once I got up to speed, I was lulled into thinking that I had conquered the beast. But as soon as I had to slow down and start the process again, I realized that I was buried. Twenty miles into our trip I saw a "Torrington 3 Miles," sign. In the distance, a moving van was going 15 MPH. We were stuck behind it for ten minutes before it turned off. When we were free again, I mis-timed my shift and the confused transmission caused the truck to buck and bounce. I was then gripped by fear as someone with his high-beams on, came up behind us. I almost soiled myself when the police car's rack lights were turned on. Jerry was cool. He said, "Slow down, pull over, put it in park and slide over and switch places with me."
I'll never forget the sergeant's name tag: Walter Palmer. He asked for our credentials. Everything was in order but he jotted our names and other information into a memo pad. He shined his flashlight into both of our eyes and scanned the cab for weapons, alcohol or drugs. Its a miracle he didn't notice that there were no keys in the ignition.
Jerry was asked about his erratic driving, his New York license, why we were so far from the camp and why he was wearing a McNulty's shirt. Jerry was nonchalant, "I just learned to drive a stick, I'm only working in Connecticut for the summer, we're heard there's a Dairy Queen in Torrington and I traded my camp shirt with a guy from the dump." Palmer then asked me, "And who are you?" With my stomach in knots from the thought of going to jail my voice cracked, "I w-work at the camp too."
THE SUGARPLUM IMAGES OF LOADS OF CHICKS WAITING TO GET PICKED-UP EVAPORATED FROM MY MIND.
Palmer seemed satisfied as he walked back to his cruiser...until he did an about-face. He scared the crap out of me so badly that I wanted to dig a maggot hole and crawl in. The sergeant leaned into the cab and quizzically said, "DQ closed at 11. Maybe you should head straight back to camp. I got your names. And I'm gonna telephone your boss first thing in the morning and make sure everything is straight. If you play your cards right, this'll be what you call, learning a life lesson the easy way. That seems fair, don't it boys?" Jerry and I both said, "Yes sir."
I spent little time with Jerry after that.
Unlike the 1996 movie, "SLEEPERS," where the normal lives of four teenagers are shattered by a stupid prank gone wrong, I was scared straight, (or in my case, straighter), by my experience. Sergeant Walter Palmer helped me figure out how to avoid being influenced by a friend's bad decisions. And more importantly, the difference between a friend and a maggot.