Four Miles Up.



There is an idyllic, 111 year-old place in western Massachusetts’ Berkshires.  I think about this place almost every day: Camp Becket, also known as Camp Becket-in-the-Berkshires.  

The basic facts can be plucked casually from Wikipedia. Becket is a YMCA summer camp for boys founded in 1903 by George Hannum on Rudd Pond. It is one of the oldest continually running summer camps in the United States.  It is consistently rated and considered among the best camps of its kind. The boys-only camp concentrates on traditional values while building a sense of teamwork. The camp still teaches many of the values, such as building individual character by achieving goals in the context of a group setting, espoused by its second director, Henry Gibson, whose tenure began 110 years ago. 

The basic facts, casually plucked, fail miserably to capture the magic of the place.  

The magic of the place–in my humble opinion–is the way it somehow shapes young boys into men like Welles Crowther.  Who was Welles Crowther?  I don’t write nearly well enough to be able to do justice to Crowther’s courage and legacy.  As was ably reported in The Atlantic’sIn Praise of Summer Camp,” and in an ESPN documentary, Crowther is iconically known as “The Man in the Red Bandana.”  Unfathomably heroic actions high up in the World Trade Center’s South Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001.

(You might want to carve out 20 minutes now to read the article and watch the ESPN video from those two links above.)

My wife and I watched in horror the events that morning from the comfort of our living room couch in San Francisco’s Marina District.  We held our month-old baby son in our arms, knowing that his world was now forever changed from our world because of what had just happened in New York, Pennsylvania and D.C.  As we cradled our child, 3,000 miles away Welles Crowther breathlessly traipsed up and down the chaotic stairwell near his 104th floor office, shepherding strangers from shock to safety on floors lower down.  Many of these strangers have said they would not have survived but for the man who draped a red bandana across his mouth and nose to protect himself against fumes, fire and smoke.  

When the South Tower collapsed, it took Crowther and his red bandana with it. 

Watching the unspeakable tragedy unfold on our television screen, my wife and I could not possibly have known that the month-old baby boy in our arms would some day share something very important with Crowther.  Almost exactly eleven years from that day, our Max would attend the same summer camp that a younger Crowther had.  A place that some have credited with helping to inspire Crowther to do what he did on 9/11.  Camp Becket.  

How could a summer camp do that?

The Atlantic article continues, “‘The most fundamental thing we can do as a human being is to not run away in the face of a crisis, but turn around and run into,’ recalled Tim Murphy, a long-time Becket staffer[.]  It’s such a compelling example of the Becket values at work, those lessons we try to instill in campers. Whether or not Welles was manifesting those, or they were in the back of his mind, who knows?'”   

Wow.  Heavy stuff.  

And interestingly enough, this is why I write about what I write about in The Lemonade Chronicles.  Finding something–anything–positive in an otherwise bleak situation. Putting my back into trying to teach my own boys what I think (hope) it means to be a “good man.”  

So elusive, these. 

The ashes of a very dark moment in human history gave rise to an incredibly genuine legacy that continues to inspire.  There are of course many examples of finding positive outcomes from the otherwise desperate and crushing 9/11 experience.  But Crowther and his Red Bandana is an uplifting story given renewed currency–told and re-told–every summer at Camp Becket.  Crowther gave himself over to a powerful legend, shared by camp counselors over smoky campfires in the woods, their skinny-legged audience hanging on every word.  

If that doesn’t give the purest example of what it means to be a good man, to be a good human, then nothing does.  

I’d like to think that we’re raising two boys who would do the same as Crowther did, if put in the same situation.  I’d like to think that I would do the same.  But my sons (and their cousins and cousins’ parents and grandfather) all have an advantage:  Time spent at a magical place called Camp Becket.  A place where skinny-legged boys learn what it takes to become Red Bandana-wearing heroes. 

Thanks for reading. 

By the way, the connection between Welles Crowther and Becket is still strong:  The Crowther Trust was established to make gifts to Camp Becket and to other organizations that helped shape Crowther. 

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