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The Battle Beyond Oyster Point

 

Dennis Myers

All that remains is a plaque, one of those blue and gold Pennsylvanian historical plaques with the date and a couple facts and everything. The plaque and the knowledge that every Camp Hill school boy’s knows that the true high water mark of the Civil War took place at Oyster Point, up on Market Street right behind the Giant supermarket. The plaque is still there, but the Giant moved long ago, now across the 32nd Street bypass and safely out of high school lunchtime walking distance. But, back in my tenth grade, the Giant still sat squarely between Market and Chestnut, with watermelons piled up across the storefront windows in the summer and, in the autumn of that year, Giant was selling big square grey cardboard cartons of eggs, three dozen eggs, at the kid-affordable price of ninety-nine cents. Small eggs, palm-sized. The closing weeks before Halloween, the intention of the mark-down seemed obvious: stock up children, stock up. In those two weeks, Giant must have unloaded more eggs than a dozen Easters, despite the store’s paperthin promise limiting you to a three carton maximum. 108 eggs. 324 eggs a trip.

Halloween accumulated a number of traditions in Camp Hill. Our town’s tall oaks provided mounds of leaves, piled on lawns for jumping, or racked just over the street’s curb tempting cars to drive on in. Come on, push on, whispered the leaves. Pile after pile, higher up, mounting leaves over the windshield. And the Saturday before Halloween each year the senior class sponsored a haunted house. They piled cardboard and facepaint into the gym and forced paying underclassmen to lay hands on squishy, bloody things and thrash in strobe lights and the pseudo-torture pressed into the clammy confines of the wrestling room. This tenth grade, Rick Graul and I washed away the horror of it all with unfiltered, homemade Welch’s wine, drunk from papercups in the alley behind his house. It was nastier than anything found in the high school gym.

Halloween night itself was filled with pleasant, innocent traditions, repetitions that built anticipations in young minds. Ruth Wrye, our mayor, gave out orange juice in boxes and mom, for a long time, gave out homemade popcorn balls. The Myers Funeral Home folk, however, could be trusted (to those brave enough for the trek) to handle out cold coin. If you were really lucky, Charlie Myers would take his glass eye out for you too.

Back in four grade, someone had discovered the hobo’s code from the thirties for marking houses. For next couple of years you could read the caulk marks on the sidewalks indicating who was a prize mark and who was pretending not to be home. In Camp Hill, though, you didn’t need a code though to fill a Giant shopping bag within a steady hour or so running house to house in the husky twilight. And despite the annual swirl of rumors of razorbladed apples and LSD-spike candy corn, I know of no dark incidents.

Not that there was no darkside to the season. That’s why the tradition held the night before the 31st and, in tenth grade, that night was on a Wednesday, Hell Night, Prank Night. Unfortunately, that year Hell Night was also the night of the annual Camp Hill Cross Country team dinner, held solemnity at Reverend Hoyt’s, the father of running stars Larry and Dave. Cross Country was more modest than other high school sports and we learned to thrive off invisiability and small favors, such as the annual dinner. That night, we recounted our mix of bitterness and pride from the day the pep club ate the bakegoods initially intended for our post-meet celebration. Seems it had rained that day and our peppy supporters simply thought that no one in their right mind runs in the rain. So they ate the cupcakes themselves. So it was that our annual dinner was our one chance to celebrate with respect, but this night, this was Hell Night and I had a 324 eggs waiting for me. I was fidgety, could hardly sit pleasantly through the pre-dinner blessing, and I callously reminded people in the post-dinner prayer that things had to speed up. This was Hell Night, Prank Night.

For many, Prank Night tradition meant TPing trees, soaping windows, and egging houses. Ah, some students would go to great lengths—even using the phonebook—to locate their favorite teachers’ houses and target them specifically. But I wasn’t out for revenge and I wasn’t in a gang. I was driven by a sale on eggs on a Giant scale. The promotion had built a fever for weeks now and the general unvoiced sense was that kids would be roaming the dark streets of the town looking for surprise skirmishes with other kids who too had loaded up on cheap, palm-sized projectiles. I wandered alleys and the sides of yards, springing a couple of attacks, retreating in shadows. In short order I fell in with Gary Swanger. He was old enough to drive and crazy enough to haul around an oddball collection of similar egg-carting youths. Mobility brought more and quicker battles and the evening now seemed to be rolling towards the climax glimpsed weeks ago standing in line at the checkout counter with only eggs in your shopping cart.

We turned off Market onto 25th Street, up past the historical marker citing the Cumberland Riflemen, proceeded up along Willow Park. Lurking in the trees along the stream, there, the glimmer of white eggshell. There was a crowd of kids, a grade or two younger, with eggs. We drove past them and pulled over just above the northern end of the park, in the darkness where the waters originate in someone’s backyard.

In the history of conflict and adventure, there were greater battles fought at Gettysburg than Oyster Point, greater tales of bravery, glory, and confusion. It was on the frozen fields of Gettysburg, somewhere just west of Devils’ Den, the story goes, that Frans Barends inexplicably drove the station wagon after a family of deer caught briefly in his headlights. We had to dig out in axel-deep mud, thick and it would ice on your hands and Mark Thompson smeared it like war paint on his face and danced off invisible into the frosted mist. We had to sacrifice the C C signs (for Cross Country) stolen earlier that morning from Gettysburg College stadium. We wedged them under the rear wheels to get traction, flinging ourselves from the mud only minutes before the park ranger quietly drove past. (Ah, but we still left the cow parked in that person’s front yard.)

Sure, greater battles. I have seen the Civil War displays of bullets found in the field, two bullets as one, welded together in mid-air. “The air was so thick with bullets,” the display tag read, “many collided and fused together.” Greater battles. I believe it for I have seen it.

With the high ground but the disadvantage of no cover, we hopped out of Swanger’s bigass car, maybe eight of us, each armed with at least one personal carton of three dozen eggs. The opposing gang had foolishly moved out from the trees and we had maneuvered past them to outflank their left. We unleashed the first barrage and turned their lines in surprise and they reeled in momentary confusion. But their numbers were far more than we had initially scouted, with maybe ten on the field but another ten or so still coming out the trees. There was a fierce return volley and eggs were landed everywhere. We were temporarily overwhelm, pushed back to Gary’s car, when the reserves, drawn by the sounds of battle, came running down Willow Avenue to join us. Not that we had teams like some pick-up game in the gym; teams that night were constructed by accident and geography. But now we had the reserves and the supplies and the sky was littered with flying eggs.

Stationed near a street light, in the pure clarity of the battle, I paused to look up at the beautiful spectacle of it all. Now, the egg at rest is a beautiful thing, an aesthetics of pure orthodoxy. But in flight, moving in a graceful arc, the temporary glow, the egg transcends this world’s beauty and becomes a thing unto itself. Of course, it then collides in mid-air with another egg that, moments ago, was another thing unto itself. I saw dozens of eggs that night burst against another egg, both shattering in midair, their yokes flying free.

We all scattered in about a thousand directions when a patrol car turned up the now slick street. The battlefield immediately emptied, leaving a slim coating across the grass, the litter of 324 thousand eggshells everywhere. Now all that remains is a historical plaque, one of those blue and egg-yolk gold Pennsylvanian historical plaques that still commemorates the wrong event.

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