During my unit’s preparation week for Israel’s counter terror school, as we were hanging by our hands from the sharp rafters of the shooting range, and I felt such a pain that I wasn’t sure I could continue, one of the instructors sensed my ailing status. He looked me in the eyes at that moment, just as I was about to let go, and told me, “Your body has to be here, but your mind doesn’t. Go somewhere else.” Those words have stuck with me throughout my army service. They have preserved my sanity, and gotten me through some of the tougher times. Ultimately, everyone has a place they go to in their minds when they need to escape. A place where they can take a mental vacation from the stress of their lives. Where, for just a moment, they can retreat inward, and block-out reality. I found my place in the summer of 2006, when I was working as a summer camp counselor at Camp Echo Lake, a place which was in-and-of-itself an escape.
If you drive down main street in Lake George, New York, on the opposite side of the street from the Price Chopper, next to the park where everyone watches the fireworks on Independence day, there’s a deck restaurant and bar they used to call “Simple Simons.” It’s now called “Shepard’s Cove,” and due to new management, new staff, and a new target audience, little but the location remains the same. As I describe it to you now, though, I can still see it in my mind as it once was, as clearly as if I was standing in front of it. It’s set back about a hundred and fifty feet from the road; you could miss it, if you didn’t know it was there. When you walked through the entrance, the first thing that caught your eye was the old, beat-up jukebox in the corner, filled almost exclusively with classics from the 80’s and 90’s. As you made your way up the stairs, your eye would likely have been drawn to the left side of the room, which was peppered with bar-style arcade games like Buck-Hunter and Mortal Combat, which were as emblematic of the region as they were of the period that Simple Simon’s came of age in. The right side of the room was dedicated to what most of it’s patrons were there for in the first place: drinking. The giant bar, which dominated the right side of the giant room, had about 25 seats, all of which were filled by regulars on weekend nights, and all of which afforded a view of the 20×20 wooden dance floor on the right side of the DJ booth. But by and far our favorite place to congregate on a Thursday afternoon, after driving back from whatever city we had torn apart the night before on our night off, was on the deck. Stretching the width of the entire establishment was a wooden deck, which extended out about 25 feet towards the water with tables, chairs, and umbrellas to hide you from the mid-day sun, and which most importantly, afforded an incredible view of Lake George. Countless adventures began on that deck. I’ll never forget one particular one that began there on the day that myself and a fellow counselor were seized by the urge to conquer Lake George. While our friends drank and watched, we swam across the entire lake dragging along a boogey-board that we bought on the spot as a back-up flotation device. Dodging speed boats, sail boats, and jet skis all the way, we made it 900 feet from the opposite bank when the Coast Guard picked us up. Bless her soul, not only didn’t she arrest us (apparently that’s illegal), she brought us right back to Simple Simons so we could resume our drinking.
But the view of the lake wasn’t the real reason we loved it so much out there on the deck. That honor belonged to the man that made Simple Simons what it was to us; Don Eddy. Thursdays were Don’s day; on Thursdays, he and his guitar could be heard for blocks in either direction, singing the classics for the good folks at Simple’s. In 24 years on that deck, he never charged a cover, a rarity, especially for someone with his talent. That was just the kind of guy he was, though. The world seemed to stand still during those lazy Thursday afternoons on the deck, surrounded by amazing friends, a breathtaking view, and the soothing sounds of Don’s guitar. We would sit on that porch for hours drinking discounted pitchers of Sam Adams, taking in the sun, singing along with Don, and complaining about our campers (who we all secretly loved). When I revisit Simple Simons, I revisit not just the place Itself but the people I shared it with; I revisit memories of afternoons turned to nights spent on the deck with good beer and good friends. Simple’s to me is and will always be a symbol of my youth; of uninhibited freedom and possibility. That deck holds in the records of its wooden planks conversations about our hopes and dreams for our futures, as well as unrealized promises and grandiose plans made with the best of intentions over strong drinks washed away with the sobering rays of dawn. It holds day off secrets that tended to come out as the rounds went in. If only that deck could speak, the stories it could tell; the conversations it could recount. Simple Simon’s was a beautiful summer afternoon. It was the head waitress, who used to be a state trooper and yet had me checking ID’s (I was 19). It was the two cute waitresses in their early twenties who were always behind the bar, who once came with Darren and I on a day-off to Montreal. Ultimately it became more of a couples retreat than a true day-off, but that suited us just fine. It was the owner, an older gentleman with a thick mustache, who was always there for an easy chat or some good advice, depending on what you needed. It was the man we called “Chief,” the dying half-Indian who believed his fortune should be spent before he left this world, who bought us countless rounds and every now and then took us out on his boat. It was standing up and singing “Your Song” with Don Eddy in front of the crowded late-afternoon bar.
When I revisit Simple’s, its always a beautiful Adirondack summer afternoon, with blue skies, Don Eddy on the guitar, and a cold beer in my glass. It’s about 3 pm, late enough to have been there for a few hours, but not so late that the thought of leaving has crossed anyone’s mind nor left anyone’s lips. We are completely consumed in the moment, and everything is as it should be. At my table, among others, sit my brother and my two cousins. Nigel, a large red haired Irishman, is telling me about the Bushmills brewery two kilometers from his house. Darren, my partner in crime on our Montreal adventure and one of my best friends, sits to my right. It is unclear to me, as always, what he has consumed more of this afternoon: pints of beer or cigarettes. Kenny, the laid back hard-drinking newfoundland native, has a contemplative look on his face as he sips a white russian, parts his long blonde hair, and as usual says very little but takes in everything. Bobba Wadda, the Hawaiian former college linebacker, is hiding last night’s hangover behind a pair of dark sunglasses, while washing down a burger with a Jack and Coke. Rauch, Zez, Cory and Toby are sharing a pitcher and exchanging stories about last night, which every now and then causes Cory to erupt in a loud high pitched laugh (to the dismay of the other patrons). I look up from Nigel’s story and am not surprised to see my co-counselor and friend, Eric Diehl, dancing with a local woman in her mid-fifties (a Lake George creature, as we affectionately called them) to the entertainment of all those watching. As I reach for the pitcher to refill my glass, the screen suddenly goes blank, and I’m jolted awake by an incredible bump.
Flash back to reality. The bus has just rolled into —, a base situated a few short kilometers from the Gaza strip, where we will make our residence for the next 3-6 months. It’s 99 degrees in the sun, and there is no breeze. When our rooms were unlocked for us, our worst nightmares were confirmed: 80% of them were without air conditioning. Our mission this first week has been to guard the base. It has been infiltrated by terrorists before, so it is not routine guard duty, and yet, the phrase “interesting guard duty” is an oxymoron. All guard duty, regardless of where it is or what the threat level, is boring, redundant and can potentially drive you to insanity. In Southern Israel during the middle of July, dressed in a full 100% cotton uniform under a bullet proof vest, it has the added characterstic of being as hot as the devil’s oven. Too many hours this week will be spent swatting flies, sweating, and staring out into the motionless landscape. In the coming weeks we will have missions; we will potentially stop terrorists trying to cross the border. We will potentially feel that we are doing something important, that we have come here for a reason. But for now, we do not. For now, we stand guard, and we escape in our minds, each man according to his own thoughts. We dream of a better yesterday, while hoping for a better tomorrow. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s happy hour at Simple Simons..