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My island reckoning

The biggest challenge, for me, was to preserve my self-esteem.

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John Kehe

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I stand on rugged Scottish soil as an idiot volunteer at a youth adventure camp on the Isle of Mull. It is “challenge night,” and our guests, the Kibbles (adult caseworkers and their charges from a social services agency in Glasgow), have cooked up a series of competitions. 

Dot, in her usual all-black with a pink scarf threaded around her neck, cries, “The games are about to begin!” Kibble and Camas (my group of adults and youths) have a long rivalry, and we both take this very seriously. 

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Mercy me. 

The Glasgow lads, 13- to 16-year-olds, nudge each other smugly, their thin arms crossed over their shallow chests. The gnarly claws of dread scrabble at my heart, and the odor of unwashed bodies mingles with my own wilted-lettuce smell of cowardice. 

Kibble caseworker Billy, a dingy T-shirt straining over his stomach, nods and continues: “Each team’s first challenge is to construct a free-standing sculpture using only what can be found on the beach. No wood or glue allowed.” His Scottish burr is as thick as a swarm of midges.

Both teams ragtag it to the beach. I schlep along, craving a swallowing hole. 

Leading the Camas contingent is astringent-faced engineering student Tim, with adult volunteers Izzy, Adrien, and Jenny; gardener Helen; and prehistoric me. Our squat tower of turquoise polyester rope, cardboard, and disinfectant bottles quickly collapses like a sack of wet groceries. We lose to a motley crew of rough street kids, who congratulate themselves boisterously as though they’d just dog-paddled across the English Channel. All week, they have been apathetic somnambulists – playing cards and slurping coffee half the night. Now, on their last evening, they seem supercharged.

I liked them better before.

Our next challenge requires flinging a Wellington boot backward, the winning team throwing it the farthest. Resignedly, when the scuffed old Wellie is handed to me, I hurl it over my right shoulder so hard I nearly dislocate it. It sails a few feet and plops down in the straggly, sheep-chewed grass, appearing aggrieved and disappointed in me.

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Kibbles win by a toe – actually, more than that. They again clap themselves on the back, and high-five each other. I yearn for my duvet and a good book – after boxing the Kibbles’ ears. 

Our next challenge is to skip a stone over the water. Not without divine intervention, I mutter. Near the islet we probe for small flat stones in shallow water. Before we get started, the opposition gives me 50 extra points, presumably because of my antiquity. Trembling inside like a leaf in a storm, I concentrate on Tim’s instructions. We each get three tries. On my first try, the ginger-colored pebble plunks to the sea bottom, but on my second attempt, I skip a stone for the first time in my life! It hops merrily over the shimmering sea like a song. The Kibbles’ jaws drop. Dot says I skipped the stone “most elegantly.” 

Then Billy shouts, “Football on the beach!” (You call it soccer.) Panic, thick as syrup, washes over my vitals. Tall, stalwart Izzy, purple-haired Helen, and I try weaseling out, but Dot insists that we all try. When it’s my turn to play I slink onto the marked-off playing beach. Close by, a seabird squawks over the Atlantic, urging me to get off Mull, but it is too late. 

The sand sizzles under a remorseless white sun. The young, crazed, and vigorous crowd wallops the ball off to the far left of the beach, and I am abandoned, eyes stinging, in the fine dust of the kicked-up sand. I edge back uncertainly toward the spectators, feeling like a wallflower at a cotillion. 

Then another miracle happens. A little-known, compassionate Celtic sports deity with Kryptonian powers picks up on my distress signal. The black-and-white ball, whistling in the air just a few short minutes before, suddenly rolls daintily in front of me like a rotund cosmic gift. The unprotected goal winks at me only a few feet away, while everyone else is sprinting back from left field. All those years as a soccer mom finally pay off: I bend it like Beckham and kick the ball as hard as I can into the net! Momentarily, the planet wobbles on its axis, and then everyone – spectators and players – whoops it up, either in disbelief, consternation, or jubilation! With shining eyes, my team hugs me and thumps me on the back.

The Challenge finally over, I glow red as a berry, self-conscious and delighted, as I move forward to receive my jumbo candy bar from Billy for being Camas’s most valuable player.