It seemed that everyone missed him, except me. But then, how could I miss someone that I hadn't met? Instead, I hated him! It was my first summer at youth camp and I had to spend it in the shadow of an absent kid whose very name was too cool to believe: Миша Заяц. Translated from Russian: Mike "Rabbit." (It's much cooler sounding in Russian.) I heard that he could climb the flagpole, 20 feet high! That he could run very fast. That he was witty and funny. Everyone had something good to say about him. Worst of all, the girls said he was cute. I stood no chance against him - he was a Legend. Заяц first attended the camp, (nestled in the rolling hills of northwestern Illinois) in the summer of 1968, obviously making a big splash. I don't remember why he missed the summer of '69, but we finally met in 1970, and I, too, was immediately won over. He was exactly as everyone had painted him, minus the arrogance that I had resentfully brushed on. I was completely wrong! He was not an arrogant show-off, as I had imagined he would be - nowhere near it. He was modest and thoughtful, kind, considerate, and very capable at many things, sports-wise, handy-wise, and otherwise. Making friends was his specialty - and I quickly understood why everyone missed him in '69 (and I secretly forgave him for the misery he had caused me.)
Over the nine wonderful summers that we spent growing up together at camp, I was blessed to be one of his best friends. It was a long distance relationship: Detroit-Chicago, We visited each other, now and then, during the "off season," and we remained in touch after we outgrew the camp. We recorded a couple of garage-band songs together, and I have a video tape that we made on VHS - an interview while he drove around Chicago (I gotta find it and digitize it, and share it.) He came to my wedding. All along, there were reasons to envy him: his charm, his creative genius, his guitar playing, and still (always), his popularity... but these were no longer a threat to my ego; in fact, I could actually inflate it by bragging about him. "Climb that flagpole? My friend, Mike, he could do it, no problem... My friend, Mike, he can run fast. Very fast!... Let me tell you about this funny thing my friend Mike did. You'll love it!"...
The most vivid memory I have with Mike (among millions) is when we answered the call to a flash flood alarm. We were at the summer camp to help set things up before opening day. Only a few people were around then. We were in a cabin sitting out an incredibly torrential rainfall - I swear, I could stick my arm out the window and not see my hand - when the camp bell sounded an alarm. We ran down to the kitchen area only to see that all the garbage cans had been swept into the nearby lake. I can't recall what our plans were to try to divert the rushing water, (and why divert it? what was there to save now that the cans were gone?) but we waded over to the tool shed to get something (shovels? brooms?) We were soaked to the skin, standing in a current of water six inches deep, when I turned on the light. The look Mike gave me when I flipped the switch was a combination of, "You realize what could have happened to you?" and, "I'm glad nothing did." Oh! the adventures we had! Sadly, they ended much too soon. Mike died, just before his 45th birthday. The good die young. He is missed by a lot of friends!
O.R.P.R. Youth Camp. Summer of '76.
Mike is in the 3rd row (standing), 7th from left. I'm in the same row, 5th from right.
Michael Zajac. October 25, 1959 - October 11, 2004.