Jr. Jewish World /
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

Good intentions

by Libby Lazewnik

Eli stretched his arms wide and paddled his feet in the cool blue water. Directly above him, miles high, a few puffs of cloud floated in their own airy sea. Eli closed his eyes, listening to the splash and shout of his fellow campers. These few moments of free swim were his favorite time of the day. He felt at peace with the world.

He remembered the first time he'd floated on his back like this, all by himself with no one supporting him. He had been just six years old, and his father was so proud of him that he carried him on his shoulders all the way back to the bunglow. It had been his mother's birthday, and when she heard the news of his accomplishment she laughed and called it her best birthday present...

Abruptly, he opened his eyes and twisted around to swimming position. A few strong strokes brough him to the side of the pool. Mom's birthday! If he'd caluculated right, it should be just around the corner.

"Hey, Moish," he called to Bunk Nine's junior counselor, perched at the edge of the pool. "What's today's date?"

"July 23rd," came the laconic answer.

Eli nodded: it was just as he'd thought. His mother's birthday was three days from now. Wouldn't it have been nice if there were a gift shop in camp, so that he could have surprised her with a card? He clung to the ledge of the pool, imagining how her face would look when she opened the card and saw that it was from him. As a rule, he was not a very regular correspondent in the summers.

Then he thought -- Why not? He'd heard Moish mention that he had a day off tomorrow. He could ask the junior counselor to pick up a nice card for him. If he mailed it off tomorrow evening, the cared would reach his mother a couple of days later -- right on her birthday. How happy she'd be that he'd remembered!

He squinted into the sun toward the place where Moish was sitting -- only he wasn't anymore. After a brief search, Eli spotted him talking to another counselor near the gate. He fell back into the water with a refreshing splash. He might as well take advantage of what remained of his free swim. He'd speak to Moish about the card later.

"Looks like rain," Eli's counselor, Shimmy, announced. His boys were busy pegging their soaking bathing suits onto a line strung between two trees behind their cabin.

Dovid Baum disagreed. "Aw, it's just a few clouds. There'll be plenty of time for these things to dry."

"I heard they're expecting rain later tonight, though," Leiby Shwimmer remarked.

The counselor nodded. He turned to Eli, who happened to be standing closest to him at the clothesline. "Eli, I want you to be in charge of taking these suits in before dark. They should be dry by then, and it would be a pity to leave them out in the rain."

"Sure," Eli said easily. He would do it, he decided, in the interval between supper and night activity.

"Let's go, guys," Shimmy said crisply. "Time for our next activity."

"Baseball -- yeah!" someone shouted. "Tomorrow's the big game against Camp Mesorah!"

Like a herd of rogue elephants, all ten boys in bunk Twelve pummeled down the hill toward the equipment shed. They spared no thought for the weather -- and the weather spared none for them. Slowly and inexorably, far above their heads in the west, the heavy gray clouds massed together. They were like people who'd been summoned to an important meeting. Some came slowly and others came late, but there was no question that the meeting would take place.

Night activity found the boys bundled up in their warmest sweaters. The balmy day had melted into a chilly evening, and gusts of cold wind had sprung up out of nowhere to muss their hair and make their tzizis dance. Eli made sure to stuff a handkerchief into his pocket, as he had the beginnings of a slight cold. By the time he and his bunkmates trudged back to their cabin later, he felt pleasantly weary and ready for sleep.

Everyone knows, however, that camp is no place to be if you prefer an early bedtime. The flurry of pajama-donning and tooth- brushing were just the preliminaries. It was only when the boys were in their beds and their counselor had departed for the company of people his own age that the night's fun really began.

Binyomin shone the beam of his flashlight right into Dovid's face, then Reuvy's. "What d'you wanna do now?"

Dovid yawned. "I'm out of ideas. Leiby? What are you in the mood for?"

Leiby had just received a letter from his sister in which she described in ecstatic terms the long, late-night discussions she enjoyed with her own camp friends. "How about if we just talk?" he suggested.

This was a novel idea. Eli was the first to say, "Okay. What about?"

"Well, my sister says it's fun when everyone talks about themselves -- you know, what they consider their strongest point and their weakest one. She says it helps you know yourself better."

Eli was not sure he was especially interested in getting to know himself better, but he was too tired to argue. "All right, Leiby. Since this was your idea, why don't you start?"

"Okay." Leiby drew a deep breath, screwing up his face in thought. Presently, he said, "I guess my weakest point is my temper. I get mad in a hurry -- but my good point is that I don't carry a grudge. My mom says I'm like a storm that blows up quickly and then dies down just as fast." He looked around the dark room, illuminated only by the pale beam of his flashlight. "I guess that's it," he finished lamely. "Uh, any comments?"

"That's pretty honest, Leiby," Dovid said. "I appreciate honesty, 'cause that's my strong point. I try to be really straight with people -- and I expect them to be straight with me, too."

"Which brings us to your weak point," Reuvy commented.

"Expecting too much from other people. Like yesterday, for example, when you were mad at me for not speaking up in shiur when I knew the right answer. You expect everyone to be just like you."

"Well, if you weren't such a chicken," Dovid argued, "I wouldn't have to keep pushing you to speak up all the time. That's your weak point -- being scared of your own shadow."

"And Reuvy's strong point," Binyomin put in, "is being able to understand how other people feel. He always knows when one of us is feeling low."

In the darkness of the cabin, the others nodded their agreement.

"Your turn, Eli," Leiby said.

"Okay." But instead of talking, Eli fell silent. Binyomin asked, "Need any help?"

"I guess I do. What do you guys think I'm strongest at?"

Dovid said, "Let's start with your weak point instead. That's an easy one."

Startled, Eli asked, "What do you mean? What am I weak at?"

"Following through."


"Let's face it, Eli -- you always have good intentions. Let's even say great intentions. But how often do you follow through on them?"

"Like that time in school," said Reuvy, who happened to be a classmate of Eli's, "when you announced that you were going to memorize the entire seder of mishnayos that we were learning. How far did you get?"

"The real question," Leiby chuckled, "is did he even start?" Eli was chagrined. The truth was, he hadn't started. But was that really his weak point?

"That's not true," he insisted. "I carry through on lots of things!"

"Oh?" Reuvy challenged. "Name one."

Eli was still floundering for an answer when the batteries of Leiby's flashlight flickered and died. The room was plunged into total darkness. Someone yawned, and then someone else. One by one, with a few last drowsy mutterings, the boys fell asleep. The last thing Eli thought about before he, too, drifted off, was the birthday card he'd intended to ask Bunk Nine's junior counselor to buy for him tomorrow. He'd never actually gotten around to speaking to Moish today, and it was uncertain whether he'd catch him before he left camp grounds in the morning. It was really too bad about Mom's birthday card... Of course, he could still send one late, but it wouldn't be the same... Good intentions... no follow through... It was an unhappy Eli who finally sank into an uneasy slumber.

Heart pounding, he sat bolt upright in bed.

It was a clap of thunder that had woken him. That clap was quickly followed by another. Reuvy, in the next bed, opened his eyes, pulled his blankets over his ears, and fell promptly back asleep. Leiby turned over restlessly but did not wake up. Eli sat and waited for his racing pulse to resume its normal pace. That thunder had sounded close. A storm must be coming. He frowned. Now, what did that remind him of?

Suddenly he remembered -- the bathing suits. Shimmy had asked him to take in all the dry suits before nightfall, and he'd forgotten to do it. He bit his lip at this newest evidence that his bunkmates' assessment had been correct. No follow-through! Tomorrow, they would all be there when their counselor discovered the row of soggy suits still hanging on the rain-soaked line. His friends would smile knowingly, as if to say, "What else did you expect from Eli? He's all good intentions, but absolutely no..."

He cut off the imaginary picture and listened closely. His ears could detect no swish and patter of falling rain. It wasn't too late! He could still redeem himself. Quickly, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and groped for his slippers. With thunderclouds blacking out the stars and moon, it was pitch-black inside the cabin. He grabbed his robe and carefully navigated his way to the door.

Opening it, he was almost blown away. The wind had picked up considerably in the past few hours. The trees were behaving with reckless abandon, throwing up their arms as if to shield themselves from the wind, and hurling stray leaves into Eli's face. It was much colder, too. Tying the sash of his robe tightly around him, he plowed headlong and shivering into the wind, toward the clothesline at the back of the cabin.

The bathings suits were whipping to and fro like things gone mad. With fingers growing rapidly numb, Eli fumbled with the clothespins. Thank goodness, the suits were dry. The first one dropped into his arms. He slung it over his shoulder to tackle the next. By the time he reached number seven both shoulders, both arms, and his neck were festooned with cold bathing suits. Lighting flashed intermittently in the black sky. The wind rose higher. The hem and sleeves of his robe flapped against him with loud, smacking noises. Doggedly, he went on pulling suits from the line. Number eight... nine...

He nipped the peg from the last bathing suit with a feeling of enormous relief. He stamped his feet hard to warm them. His nose was running and his throat tickled. A drop fell on his hand. Hurriedly pulling the suit off the line, he gathered the rest into a bundle and held them close to his chest.

But not close enough. The wind, with a gleeful howl, plucked one of the bathing suits right out of his arms. It sailed away from him on the current. Stifling a yell of frustration, Eli ran after it. On and on it flew, bobbing and dipping but never quite falling to the ground. Eli's forced his icy legs to move faster. At last, with a quiet cry of triumph, he reached the bathing suit just as it settled down in a momentary lull. As he stooped to pick it up -- keeping a careful hold of the nine other slipping, sliding suits -- there was a tremendous thunderclap directly above his head. Eli jumped. He seized the suit, took a better grip of the others, and ran back in the direction of the cabin.

The rain caught him when he was still some thirty yards away. This was no ordinary rain. It felt more like but more like a solid entity, a weapon of assault -- a watery battering-ram. The drops felt rock-hard on Eli's head and back. Gasping, trying to blink the streaming water from his eyes, he stumbled the rest of the way to the cabin door. With his shoulder, he pushed it open.

The sudden silence was blissful. Eli stood still for a moment, trying to catch his breath, and listening to the regular breathing of his nine companions and the counselor. His hair was plastered firmly to his head. His robe had offered less than no protection against that furious rain -- he was soaked through and rapidly forming a puddle where he stood. Tiptoing with chattering teeth to the bathrooms at the rear, he dumped the bathing suits on the floor and turned his attention to the serious business of drying himself off.

Some minutes later, Eli crawled thankfully under his blanket. Even now that he'd rubbed himself down and put on a dry pair of pajamas, the shivering wouldn't stop. He reached for his handkerchief, blew his nose softly, and fell into a deep, leaden sleep.

"Hey, who left these things in the middle of the bathroom floor?"

Hands on his hips, the counselor glared around at the boys in his bunk. Shimmy was notoriously short-tempered in the mornings, but today he had ample reason.

"Eli!" he barked, spinning around to find the camper he sought. "Weren't you supposed to make sure these didn't get caught in the rain yesterday? And who brought them in and left them here in a heap? Did you expect them to get dry this way?"

"It was me," Eli said through a hacking cough. His teeth were chattering almost as violently as they had the night before, when he'd raced the storm. "I got them last night, but then the r-rain caught me..." The coughing started again, hurting his throat and making his eyes water.

Shimmy came closer. "Let me have a look at you," he said. "Eli, I think you're coming down with something. Do you feel feverish?"

"J-just c-cold..."

"It's straight to the infirmary with you," the counselor ordered. "Ask the nurse to take your temperature. I'll bet anything you have a fever."

"Yeah, you don't look so good, Eli," Leiby said, peering at him.

Eli sneezed. "S-sorry about the bathing suits, Shimmy. I meant to hang them up on the shower railings last night, but I guess I f- forgot."

"The infirmary," Shimmy said firmly. "We'll take care of these things."

"Want me to walk you?" Reuvy asked solicitously.

Eli shook his head. "Nah. I can make it on my own."

But the way his legs were feeling -- no stronger than a couple of pieces of taffy -- he wasn't so sure that was true.

He made it -- barely. Nurse Schwartz took one look at him and ordered him into one of the clean white beds in her charge.

"Hmmph, a fever of 102," she said, reading the thermometer.

"You're going to spend a pleasant day or two right here, young man."

"But there's the big game against Camp Mesorah today." Eli made the protest mechanically. There was nothing he felt like doing at that moment except snuggle down into his pillow and close his heavy eyes.

"That's too bad," the nurse said crisply. "You get some sleep now. You can use it."

Those were the last words Eli heard for the next six hours.

He drifted in a dream of fever and ache all that day and through the night. By the next morning he was feeling slightly improved. His counselor visited him, and some of his bunkmates -- as many as Nurse Schwartz would allow. Then she shooed them all away. "He's on the mend, but he needs at least one more day in bed. The fever's not completely gone yet."

When they had the infirmary to themselves, she shot a shrewd look at Eli. "My, that's a long face you're wearing this morning. It strikes some that way -- feeling a little depressed when you're recovering, I mean."

"That's not why," Eli blurted. A second later, he could have bitten his tongue.

"Well, why, then? Want to talk about it?" She pulled out some knitting from her bag and began clicking the needles together. She was a comforting presence, a little like his own grandmother.

He muttered, "It's nothing. Nothing anyone can do anything about, anyway. It's just the way I am."

"What is?"

"My -- my weak point. Having good intentions, but never following through on them. That's how I got caught in that downpour the other night. I promised to bring in the bathing suits, only I put off doing it till after supper and then I forgot. I'm always doing things like that."

"Hm. Did you remember about it at all?"

"Uh -- yes, actually. I remembered when I came back to the bunk to put my siddur back after minchah. But then I figured I could just as easily get the bathing suits later."

"And that, you say, is your weak point?"

"That's what the other kids say." He sighed. "And I have to agree with them."

"And what's your strong point?"

He shrugged. "We never actually figured that out..."

"I see." Nurse Schwartz knitted a while in silence, considering. "Well, when we have weak muscles we can do things to make them stronger. How about doing something about this weakness of yours?"

He was startled. "Like what?"

"Like... Let me see." She stopped knitting, gazing thoughtfully through the window at the sunny stretch of grass beyond. "Well, you could make a resolution to always -- always -- do a thing the minute you think of it. It's when we put things off that we run the danger of forgetting them. It's as if your brain did its job by reminding you, and then it assumes you carried out what it told you. Often, it won't remind you again."

Eli thought about this. "Do you really think that could help?"

"I really do. Why don't you try it for yourself and see?"

"I guess I will." There was a companionable silence, broken only by the nurse's clicking needles. After a while, Eli said,

"Nurse, I think there's something I want to do right now -- before I forget. Could I ask you a favor?"

She looked up from her knitting. "What is it?"

"Could I use your phone for a minute? I need to make a call to the city. It's kind of important." Quickly, he told her why.

She smiled. "I believe I can let you do that. Make it short, though."

"I will." Beaming, Eli hitched himself closer to the phone and dialed his home number. Boy, would his mother ever be surprised to hear his voice wishing her a happy birthday -- a whole day early! As Nurse Schwartz listened to him chat with his mother and observed satisfaction and joy stamped on his young face, she reflected on the conversation he'd told her about -- the one in which Eli and his friends had tried to pinpoint their own and each other's weaknesses and strengths.

Well, they'd been right about Eli's weak point. And she thought she had just discovered what his strong one was. It was something that might well be the greatest strength a person could have.

Eli was a kid who learned from his mistakes.

Author Libby Lazewnik is one of Jewry's most acclaimed juvenile fiction writers.


© 1998, Libby Lazewnik