Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gin Rummy and an Unlikely Friendship

He was the first and only person I ever met named Elmer.

An early fiftyish, mentally challenged man who functioned at perhaps an 8-year-old's level, Elmer was a camper in my cabin one summer at Pine Tree Camp.

For those not familier with Pine Tree, it has - since 1945 - provided a residential summer camp experience to people with disabilities. In the early years, all of the campers were children and most were survivors of the polio epidemic that once ravaged perfectly healthy children and adults.

Besides having an opportunity to swim, fish, play games and tell ghost stories around a campfire, the youngsters who came to Pine Tree received physical, occupational and other therapies that may not have been readily available to them in the small Maine towns in which they lived.

Over time, Pine Tree Camp expanded to include children with a much broader range of physical and developmental disabilities and, eventually, opened its doors to adults with the same challenges.

That's how I came to know Elmer.

He was part of a group of adults who came to camp for the first time in 1986. As a 17-year-old, first-time camp counselor, we shared a bond of being newcomers to an amazing world of opportunities.

What little I knew of Elmer came from the camper application that his group home staff completed. Unlike some of his more extroverted cabinmates, Elmer was rather shy and didn't talk much.

His ready smile let me know he was enjoying himself but my repeated efforts to engage him in conversation were largely unsuccessful. Until one rainy afternoon when the weather required a change from planned outdoor activities to cabin time with board games, puzzles and other activities. Most of the campers - with the counselors' encouragement - found ways to occupy themselves.

Elmer, however, sat alone at a table in the cabin's front room, a small pile of games and a deck of playing cards in front of him, untouched.

I sat beside him, a few awkward moments of silence passing before I randomly picked up the cards - and saw a noticeable change in Elmer's expression. He began telling me about the different card games he liked to play at his group home. His favorite, he said, was gin rummy - which also was one of my own.

And so it was that Elmer and I made a connection. It continued after the camp season ended, when I visited Elmer on a few occasions and we would play gin rummy. We never spoke much; there wasn't too much to say. Our ages were separated by 35 years, our intellects by more than that. But we both enjoyed the time we spent together, for different reasons.

I don't know whatever happened to Elmer. I went to college, entered a new phase of my life, and my visits with him ended. I hadn't thought of him in years - until I rediscovered a long-forgotten photo of me, Elmer and another camper, Lloyd, taken that same summer at the Skowhegan Fair. I remembered the day fondly for the joy each camper felt and the fun I had with them.

Thirty-six years removed from that summer, I have a greater appreciation for the opportunity I had to meet Elmer and spend some memorable time with him.

I realize how my life (all of our lives, really) has been enriched by the many different people I've encountered along the way. Some have been a part of it for as long as I can remember. Others, like Elmer, occupy a brief period of time.

All of them, however, share my life story and have influenced it in rich and wonderful ways. I am thankful for the chance to meet and spend time with Elmer.

And I hope, in some way, that I created a happy memory in his life as well.

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