By Julianne VanWagenen
y cousin Ian has a way of convincing and motivating people. When we were young he'd corral groups of us into construction projects and competitions — and even into prohibited activities. But his greatest youth leadership achievement was the invention and implementation of the annual Sandpit Olympics.
My memories of summers spent at our Michigan cottage feature two basic backdrops: Clear Lake and the sandpit. The sandpit lay along a dirt road that led from our families' cluster of cottages to the lake. When my great uncle bought the land in the 1960s, he decided that nature hadn't done well enough by Clear Lake, so he filled it to the brim with blue gill, pike, and walleye. He then extracted 1,000 cubic yards of sand from a forest clearing to create a beach.
His efforts created a child's dreamscape: a monstrous sand cliff we could scramble up and jump or roll down. The sand softened our tumbling. A tall lone oak created a small, rotating stain of shade at the ridge of the pit, with a congregation of Bracken fern huddled at its base. The tree's roots helped us climb up one side of the pit and kept its structure from eroding. The plain at the top was composed of Jack Pine and Sweetfern. We'd roll the Sweetfern between our fingers to extract its aromatic smell.
More important was the Milkweed, which our child-tribe fetishized. The Milkweed is the favorite plant of monarch caterpillars, and every summer soon-to-be butterflies ate and grew and ate and grew some more until suddenly, sated, they disappeared in mid-August. The caterpillar's chrysalises, pale green like the Milkweed, were spotted with gold and would dangle dainty and hidden.
The Milkweed's pods were large, beautiful, poisonous, and a particular source of pleasure. Not only did they fit nicely across the length of a palm but they were also filled with silken, pearlescent filaments that released viscous milk that stained clothes and made sand, dirt, pine needles, and insects stick to the skin. To us, the Milkweed pod was the perfect weapon.
While the Sandpit Olympics had some relatively traditional events including the long jump — downhill — and the skeet-target throw, its compelling genius was in its innovations. Chief among them was the Milkweed War and the ensuing medals ceremony.
The Milkweed War was the final "event" of the Games, and began just before sunset. Teams were chosen, time given to build bunkers, gather pods, and strategize. The battle began slowly, with a more daring cousin, one of the Austin boys, making a mad dash at the enemy, delivering a single pod — a strike that was hard, focused, and fast.
But it soon escalated, and then degenerated, into a frenzy of adversaries throwing and re-throwing sandy pods. When sand got into a smaller warrior's eye she'd usually give up and sulk off to a sideline (such as it was) to whimper. The event would usually end in fisticuffs between two of the older boys, after which we'd all finally head home and argue about our rankings.
The next afternoon came the long-awaited (in child-time) awards, over which cousin Ian lorded. Ian was very ceremonious. The medals were carefully described with the full weight of pomp and grandeur. There were no cheap stand-ins, just the glory of our imaginations. Then came the matter of gold, which had been demoted to second place. Platinum, Ian explained intensely, almost angrily, was by far a more impressive medal. "Consider its weight," he'd say. "When you hold platinum in your hands, you can feel the moment."
I thought of the Sandpit Olympics last fall in Northern California while walking along the Pacific Coast at 2 a.m. We were there for a wedding — Ian's wedding — and at the time I felt drunk, my feet hurt, and I was cold.
But Ian summoned a group of us and told us it was time for an adventure. So we gathered up our beers, our headlamps, and set off into the foggy bluffs.
Our adventure destination was our friend's hotel, two miles up the coast, but the path suddenly took a sharp left — and there was: a wooden staircase that ran all the way down to the beach. We were soon rushing down it jubilantly. The flashlights, the beach, and the adventure had made us kids again. We dared each other to swim. We drew a target in the sand and threw a stick at it.
At a certain point Ian called out to me. He patted the sand next to him. "Sit down," he said, "I want you to feel something."
He placed his wedding ring in my hand.
"Do you feel that?" he asked, staring at his wife as she giggled with her own cousin just a few feet away.
"That," he told me, "is the weight of the moment."
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