Chapter 1: Flames of Glory
In the summer, my days usually start early. Six or six-thirty sees me padding off to the shower shack – a simple, open-sided structure that resembles a picnic shelter, with shower heads running down two rows, making four rows of shower stations. The water is held in a tank at the top of a tower beside the shower shack, insulated and heated using a passive solar power system mounted on the roof of the shower shack itself. I follow that with a quick breakfast at the resort's restaurant, a quick trip out to pick up the grocery order that Chef Jacques left after the restaurant closed the previous evening, and then tend to the usual tidying up details essential to the continued good functioning of a clean, family-friendly naturist resort.
The fall, winter and spring are usually a different story. I get to sleep in until eight. Not this October day, however, which started earlier than expected with the urgent ringing of the bedside phone. "Yes?" I barely managed to mumble, as the clock resolved itself before my weary eyes. Three forty-seven. Three WHAT? I let out a string of expletives, concluding with, "This had better be good."
"Oh, it's good, alright," came the voice of Walt Cheevers, proprietor and chief editor of the Manatee Monitor, Manatee Bay's anaemic answer to the Wall Street Journal. "There's a big fire in town."
That had my attention. "I hope it's not someone's home," I fretted. I hate to see people burned out of their homes; aside from the material loss, it has a distressing tendency to include serious, potentially fatal injuries.
"No, it's Willow Lane Elementary School," he reported, chortling with glee. Great. My youngest daughter's school. She was enrolled in Grade Six there.
"Flames leaping into the night sky, as brave men and women from the local volunteer fire brigade work valiantly to suppress the beast devouring the sacred halls of academe. I'm going to be waxing quite poetic in this morning's Special Edition." Walt sounded insufferably pleased with himself.
I glared at the phone. "It's a crime against human nature to be so delighted and eloquent at this obscene hour of the night. But you didn't just call me to ask that I warm up the espresso machine at the pool's cappuccino bar. The Resort's a little far removed from the scene of the conflagration."
"The school board would like to talk to you, and apparently it's somewhat urgent."
"They can see me in the morning. Here. Nude."
"How about Horace's? In about half an hour? And wear some shorts and a T-shirt."
Which saw me, a little after four in the morning, at the finest dining establishment in Manatee Bay outside of Barracuda Beach Naturist Resort, Horace's Home Cooking. Ptomaine like your mother used to serve. Present with me were the six members of the Board of Education led by the able if bleary-eyed Chairman Janet Brooks, two representatives from the Home and School Association (Roger Hollingsworth and some woman I'd never met before), our esteemed mayor and kibitzer plenipotentiary Bill White, and the only paid firefighter on the Manatee Bay County Fire and Rescue, Chief Daniels. Also present was Horace, rapidly creating sandwiches for delivery to the fire scene with the aid of the Spouses' Auxiliary (as two of our volunteer firefighters are women, the Auxiliary includes two husbands), and, serving coffee and day-old pastries to the Instant Committee on Willow Lane Elementary School Temporary Quarters, Horace's hard-working, efficient and ever cheerful wife Mabel ably assisted by my two daughters. My eldest, Debra, fourteen, was happy to be of service. She often helped out at the cappuccino bar by the pool at the resort, so brewing and serving the road tar that Horace served up was not difficult. (I wish I could say that consuming the stuff wasn't difficult, especially on an empty stomach when even the Sun had decided not to answer the alarm clock just yet, but I'd be lying through my teeth.) Tori, on the other hand, was excited to be up with the adults, and was anxious to do an adult job of poisoning us with Horace's comestibles.
The Recording Secretary, an efficient and friendly middle-aged lady named Agnes (whose last name I never did catch) arrived at the same time as Nicklaus Slaight, my younger daughter's principal, and her teacher, Maria Sanchez. Maria clearly didn't want to be here, taking the proffered cup o' mud from Tori with a friendly but sleepy smile and a remark of, "You don't know how much I need this."
"Please let's not take too long," she pleaded with us. "We need to make calls to my fellow teachers as soon as possible. They'll want to hear from their union rep in time to act on the information."
Janet nodded at her and Principal Slaight and advised her, "We'll split the list, that way everyone gets a call."
Maria glared at the door as two newcomers made their entrances: Publisher and Chief Reporter Walt Cheevers and lawyer Linda Carruthers, official counsel for Barracuda Beach Naturist Resort. "The press?" she muttered.
"This extraordinary meeting of the Manatee Bay School Board will now come to order," Janet announced, her usually strong voice now little better than a croak.
I looked at Mayor White, who was looking at me with that peculiar twinkle in his eyes he gets when something interesting is going to happen. Interesting as in the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times".
I sensed a set-up. I further sensed that Manatee Bay was about to live in not just interesting but absolutely fascinating times. "I see you're holding this meeting in camera," I observed ironically. Janet just scowled at me, as Maria giggled.
"Chief Daniels?" Janet enquired.
The chief collected his thoughts and announced, "Well, it looks like we'll be able to save the foundation."
"Very funny." Janet did not look amused.
"Look," the chief responded, clearly annoyed, "the building is older than dirt, largely stick-construction rather than concrete or steel, shod in clapboard rather than something more fire-retardant, and covered inside and out with about fifty years' worth of highly combustible paint. The wood in both frame and sheathing is so old it's dried out completely and as a result she burned like a shingle factory once she got going."
Maria whispered to me, "Why are buildings and ships always 'she'?"
"Only God would know. We should ask Her."
Maria stifled a snicker.
"How are the grounds around the school?"
"Covered in debris, especially the north side where the walls first started their collapse. The debris is ground into the mud by the fire trucks' tires and the effects of the water hoses and the firefighters' boots." He shook his head. "Nobody in their right mind would allow a kid to play on that playground."
The school hadn't had any real space for a playground anyway. They'd been looking for a replacement for the last two years, but development land in Manatee Bay is restricted because we're part of the Watershed area that the state capital gets its water supply from.
"OK, so the search for that new school location gets SERIOUS now," observed a thoroughly amused Mayor, his eyes shining in delight over his magnificent handlebar moustache.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Janet shot, clearly frustrated. "Yes, we now get serious, as if we hadn't been before." She turned to one of her fellow Board members. "Lydia, what sites do we have available?"
"Just ... just the one within walking distance." Lydia sounded defeated. It could also be because that she'd been up since two-thirty, but I strongly suspected not.
"Just the one?" Janet asked. I could see her fellow Board members wince.
"Just the one."
"Yes, THAT one."
My eyes had been playing Ping-pong between the two ladies long enough. I noticed that Bill, still with his Cheshire Cat grin, hadn't taken his eyes off me at all.
I needed to take some preemptive action here. "What site? Janet? Lydia? Roger?" I glared at Bill, who just sat there hiding his smirk behind his now-empty coffee cup. "You," I pointed at him, "you know more than is good for me." The old walrus grin just grew bigger. My voice turned gravelly. "What site."
I glanced at Linda Carruthers, who was looking sheepish. I remembered what she'd said at a meeting a couple of weeks back of the Willow Lane division of the Home & School Association. "'The field behind the main clubhouse is just the right size for the school's replacement, '" I quoted back at her, catching her intonation quite well, I thought. Linda must have thought so to, as she blushed. I rubbed my forehead in an effort to lessen the migraine that threatened to make me lose what little of my temper that remained.
"Now that you mention it..." Linda ventured.
Maria and Nicklaus are smart people. They clued in as Bill began nodding wordlessly, still smiling like the cat that swallowed the canary. I looked at Janet, who had decided to follow the rest of the Board in examining the Formica tabletops closely for manufacturing defects.
Lydia kept talking, almost babbling. She kept dabbing at her eyes, clearly upset at what she was saying. "King County has the Emergency Modular School, they've already been ordered by the State to release it to us. They could be here and assembled by the end of this weekend. We could have classes resume by Monday."
Janet swung her bleary eyes at me. "I don't suppose there's any way we can relent on the ... obvious... 'condition'..." She clearly didn't expect any compromise.
I couldn't disappoint a lady, and I didn't disappoint her. "Janet, my dear, you are asking me to place, between a naturist subdivision of cottages and a naturist resort's clubhouse, and within spitting distance to say nothing of being in full view of naturist campsites, an elementary school for some eighty or so students – some of whom I might point out actually LIVE at said resort, year round. In fact, half the student population has for the past six weeks spent half a day a week at the resort's swimming facilities, all dressed in Nature's own swimsuits. The answer is 'no'. In fact, it's 'hell, no'." I sighed. "Their playground equipment, at least at first, is going to be MY resort's playground equipment, and it's located in full view of the picture windows of the clubhouse, near the tennis courts and basketball court and outdoor swimming pool. They're going to see naked men, women and children everywhere they look. I didn't turn my little naturist village 'textile' for the swim program you oh-so-cleverly foisted on yourselves and me, and I'm not going to do so just because a trainload of kids, who as you should well know having rug-rats yourself are natural-born nudists, are moving in for the next two and a half terms, if not permanently."
Janet glowered at the Formica. Maria's face was a mask of horror.
"I'll make the deal as sweet as I can for you, but some conditions are non-negotiable. I'll lease you the land for a buck a year. That eliminates that capital cost. The profit from selling the old Willow Lane school grounds can go into building the new Barracuda Beach Elementary, that way you don't have to look to the ratepayers, with or without a bond issue, to fund the thing. And staff and their families don't pay daily grounds fees." I hoped to recoup the grounds fees from sales at the convenience store and restaurant. "But students and staff will be nude."
"But-" Maria protested.
"And staff." I paused to enhance my calm, while I still had any calm to enhance. "Forcing nudity on people is not exactly my idea of a grand time. It may get some people's rocks off, but I prefer people to come to the party willingly, or not at all. And forcing naturists to go textile is even more anathema to my philosophy of life than forcing textiles to go naturist, so when the coin has to be flipped between 'forced naturist' and 'forced textile', it will inevitably come down on the 'forced naturist' side. Hence the 'be naturist' conditions to my offer. If society was naturist and confined textile lifestyle to resorts like mine I might feel differently, but that's not how the world works."
Janet glared at the Mayor. "And just WHAT are you grinning at?"
"Oh, I think it's a grand idea," Bill responded happily. I think everyone in the room would have happily strangled him if they got the chance, me included.
"Yeah, it's not like YOU have any kids still in the school system," Lydia observed darkly.
Nicklaus cleared his throat meaningfully. "He, ah, his, er, granddaughter, ah, is ... in ... Grade three ... at ... Willow Lane..."
Lydia's head snapped to look at Bill so quickly, I was afraid she'd get whiplash. "You STILL don't have a problem with it?"
"No," Bill responded mildly. "Why should I?" And with that, he motioned for a refill of the liquid drain cleaner Horace calls 'coffee'.
"I'm surrounded by perverts," Lydia moaned weakly.
"Lydia," a furious Linda leaned over to look the stunned Board member in the eye, "I live in one of Barracuda Beach's cottages, year round. My son is in his granddaughter's class," she pointed behind her at the mischievous old elf of a mayor, "my daughter is in Tori's. I've dreamt of having a school so close the kids can walk there and back without crossing a major road. My kids know all the staff and regulars at Barracuda Beach, they'll keep an eye on them, I know – I can trust my fellow Barracuda Beach naturists. After school my kids can play on the playground equipment, the volleyball courts, the putting green, the pool, hang around the club house, use the library. If I'm working late they can even get dinner at the restaurant, the staff will put it on my tab. They're safe there."
It had been quite a while since I'd seen my favourite legal beagle get all worked up over something like this. I liked it.
"Nobody has sex in the open there, we've got these things called 'bedrooms', or at least tents, where we can get some privacy. WE ARE NOT PERVERTS. Got it? Nude ain't rude." She sat down, much to Lydia's relief – having someone go nose to nose with you is nobody's idea of fun.
"It'll be a good experience for the other kids, and it'll be good for the staff too, once they get used to being comfortably dressed all the time," Linda added, calming down a tad.
Maria and Nicklaus were sweating, and not because of the heat – this part of the country stays hot all year round, but this heat was coming from a realization they were in for a drastic change in employment dress code.
Janet looked around at her Board members. One older gentleman asked, mildly, "Janet, do we REALLY have a choice in this matter?" Janet stayed silent, as he added, "The reports I'm hearing from the students in the swim program is that they've adapted quite well. A few families have started to go to Barracuda Beach on the weekends as a result." He was right; my September weekend receipts were up significantly over the same period last year, and October looked to be another profitable month as well. "I think the kids can handle it, and if any can't, we'll probably have plenty of space to swap them out to the other elementary schools. Let's ask the younger lady here if she thinks it's a good idea."
Tori spoke up immediately. "A naturist school at 'Cuda? I'd love it!"
"Poor choice, Jack," the Mayor advised him. "Tori is Paul's daughter," he pointed to me with his coffee mug, "and lives there year-round."
Janet spoke, her voice rusty as if she were unused to using it. "And what of the staff?"
I spoke up. "If I may? I've got some literature that might help the staff, and I can invite them, and their families if they choose, up for a barbecue on Saturday afternoon. Help them get used to being nude in a social setting." I shrugged. "You and the board and your families as well, of course. If you're going to send your staff nude into battle with the brats, it'll help morale if you show some enthusiasm too."
Janet does not wear dentures. Everyone at the meeting found that out as she stared at me slack-jawed for a good five minutes. Any dentures would have fallen out and been left sitting on the table. "Me go to Barracuda Beach? You're joking!" she squealed, scandalized.
"Certainly not," I responded reasonably.
"Actually, I think it's a good idea," came the dignified Jack's polite and calm rejoinder. "Leaders are supposed to lead. Sometimes that means leaders do things that they personally find distasteful, or potentially humiliating, or worse yet dangerous, in order to keep the troops' enthusiasm up. In this case, it's not dangerous, and it's only humiliating if you let it be. There will be other naked women there, right Paul?"
"My wife and daughters, four waitresses, Linda and her daughter, and I think I've got about 20 families booked for the weekend, so there's another 20 or so adult females right there, to say nothing of their daughters. I haven't added in the permanent residents. Yes, the distaff gender will be well represented among the experienced naturists."
Nicklaus cleared his throat uncomfortably. "As the Principal of the school, I think I should be there." He smiled ruefully. "I can't speak for my wife, of course." He turned to Maria as the rest of us chuckled, mostly sympathetically.
Maria stared back. After opening and closing her mouth soundlessly for several beats, she found her voice. "I suppose, as the Union Rep, I'm considered a leader. I guess I have to." She turned to me. "When would this thing start?"
I turned to my eldest daughter. "What do you think, Debra? Eleven AM?"
"Why not sooner, say ten?"
"Because Sensei Robert leads his Aikido class from eight to ten in the club room, and we need some time to set up."
Nicklaus leaned over to me and whispered, "Aikido?" I nodded. "In the nude?" I nodded again.
"OK, give me a list of the school staff by five o'clock Friday, and we'll be ready for them. You can promise them swimming, volleyball, basketball, hot tubs and babysitting. No need to worry about their kids, no need to worry about getting their clothes dirty, no need to worry about making lunch." I smiled. "It'll be a wonderful time."
Janet and Maria looked like they were having their doubts about how much "fun" they could expect.
After the vote, unanimous to accept what was quite frankly the only option open to them, the Board adjourned and we slipped out into the street. The first rays of sun were beginning to lighten the eastern horizon. Thursday was promising to be a nice, sunny, warm day.