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It's Bangorrific!
A Report Back from the Third Annual SKEMERs Conference
In Bangor, Maine

The Boston Connection

The Third Annual SKEMERs conference began for me early Thursday morning, July twenty-eight. Because I live near Boston, which, in turn, is fairly close to Bangor, my town became the central connection spot for six SKEMERs from across the country. At exactly eleven o'clock AM, my part in the con began, when I met my good friend Rich DeMars at Logan Airport, and we shook each others' hand. It was like no time had gone by at all.

An hour or so later, Sarah Hinman (nee' Toll) and Joy Carletti arrived in our minivan from Providence, Rhode Island. Sarah came from California originally, making her one of the prize-winners for Furthest Traveled. Sarah's had some changes in her life, with a new husband and a five-month-old life inside her she refers to as The Peanut. I listened to Sarah's belly a lot, but I haven't heard anything yet. Sarah says she kicks a lot from the inside, though, and it's kind of sad that I'm going to miss that. The next time we meet, Sarah will be a full-fledged Mommy.

Joy and I became fast friends, at once discussing the pros and cons of Debbie Allen's interpretive dance fiasco on this year's Academy Awards. We gave the van over to Rich and Sarah (Rich wanted to check into his hotel and Sarah needed to sleep) while we went to go pick up Jen Diana at the Amtrack Station at South Station. I hadn't seen Jen since the last con, either, and though we had been friends then, we hadn't really been very close. That would all change over the next few days. Before that could happen, though, Joy and I had to wait at South Station for over an hour while Jen's train was delayed, eating much ice cream and discussing Steinbeck and the Tragically Hip. When Jen finally arrived, we had to beat pavement to get to the Kendall Square Cinema to buy tickets for that night's showing of The Blair Witch Project.

After we finally got tickets (dragging Jen's luggage throughout downtown Cambridge), we raced through the tunnels below Boston to meet up with Sarah, Rich, and Brad Jahn at Logan. I'd never met Brad before, but he's been one of my best friends for over a year. Through e-mails and instant messaging, Brad and I have chatted often, realizing slowly that our personalities gel extremely well. He hadn't been able to go to the previous two SKEMERs conferences due to financial stresses, but this year, his amazing wife Kay had planned his trip behind his back. It was a terrific experience to meet Brad and become friends with him in person, and I owe that all to Kay Jahn.

We again relinquished the van to Rich and Sarah (who wanted to visit Sarah's aunt and look at Boston History), while Brad, Joy, Jen and I traveled back to Cambridge to eat a quick lunch at Au Bon Pain and take in the film. For an hour and a half, we sat enrapt, terrified, in the small theater. As the film closed, we all agreed it had been one of the scariest film experiences of our lives. We had to go to the suburban comforts of the nearby mall to clear ourselves of the disturbing residue the film left, and to pick up a swimsuit for Joy. After a snack at Hoolihan's, we headed back to Logan to meet Heather Meyer, the last of the Van Troup. By the time we got back to my house, around midnight, we were all exhausted and still a bit disturbed from the film. Still, we were together for the first time that weekend, and it seemed that we all clicked immediately. My friends were either back or here for the first time, and I loved them all.

New Hampshire Sucks!

We left early in the morning, taking the van to go pick up Rich at his hotel at around eight AM. The reason why Rich stayed at a hotel was because he's giant-sized; over six foot five inches of genial Minnesotan. I have a studio apartment with one room. You do the math.

Following a light breakfast at the ever-healthy Burger King (love them French toast sticks!), we hopped in the van and began our way up to Maine on 93 North. Now, if you've ever been in a group of SKEMERs who have either 1) just met recently or 2) haven't seen each other in awhile, you're going to get a lot of excited banter. Joy brought the wonder of The Celebrity Game to us in the back seats, with Sarah and Rich accompanying from the Captain and Navigator positions up front. The Celebrity Game is similar to the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, only a lot more free-flowing (although we did seem to hit on Robert Downey, Jr. an awful lot.) We quizzed each other with Stephen Spignesi's Stephen King Quiz Books; every time we got something wrong, we would recite a line from one of our favorite shows, Friends 9"No, we were looking for leafy. Leafy.") We also amused ourselves by poking fun at David Mamet's movie The Winslow Boy, by speaking in shrill British accents and spouting such phrases as, "The Winslow Boy wants some more Chee-tos!" or "The Winslow Boy has to make a poopie!" Juvenile, sidesplitting fun is at its best when bandied about a vanful of SKEMERs.

All this adds up to a lot of distraction, which caused Rich, Sarah, and the brood not to notice that 93 North was decidedly the wrong way to get to Bangor. After driving for hours, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of New Hampshire, without a clue as to why we were there.

We stopped at a gas station and asked a nice elderly couple the best way to Bangor. They helped us out tremendously (with maps and stuff) and we were on our way again. We finally made it to Maine and got our pictures taken under the obligatory moose crossing sign. Cheerfully, in celebration, we popped into an ice cream place for some upside-down banana splits (Sarah and I enjoyed these quite a lot; little did I know her fervor for ice cream was only just beginning.) Rich and Brad casually asked for the best way up to Bangor while the rest of us were mowing our ice cream, and we hopped back on the road without a care in our hearts.

Until we saw the sign that read Welcome to New Hampshire again. It was then we knew we were royally screwed.

Trying not to think of circular-plotted Twilight Zone episodes, we stopped in a little town called Odell, New Hampshire, where street paving is apparently illegal. Again, we stopped at a gas station where a kindly elderly couple gave us directions to Bangor, with maps and stuff. (My theory: they only have one kindly elderly couple in all of New Hampshire, but they can move at warp speed.)

Wearily, we got back on the road, following behind a truck moving roughly three miles an hour for some time. This is when the phase "New Hampshire Sucks!" entered into our collective vocabulary. In fact, it's really a misnomer, since Mainers were the ones who sent us wrong. By this point, I was beginning to feel like one of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath: a beaten-down road traveler trying desperately to reach his destination, nearly starving in the process. Well, maybe not starving, but by that time the Chee-tos were gone and I was getting a bit hungry.

The dinner at the Oriental Jade (chosen for its parallel to the Jade of the Orient in King's novel It) was set for six o'clock. By five thirty, we were still not in Bangor, but Rich was doing his best to travel at the same speed as elderly New Hampshire couples. Eventually, we hit town, found the Jade, and stepped into the banquet room.

It was like a homecoming.

People I hadn't seen in years like Michele Ballard welcomed me with open arms. Bunny and Barrie, our friends from Canada, told me they had a Barenaked Ladies video for me. Legends in SKEMERs like Anthony (THE Antman) Schwethelm were becoming real faces to me, and longtime online friends like Chris Champine and Captain Tammy suddenly transformed from screen names to people. And of course, there was Michelle Rein (soon to be Revelle), our leader, our dictator, and one of my best friends, waiting to be picked up and spun. God, I love this.

After the very tasty buffet dinner, Michelle passed out fortune cookies. Upon fear of grisly crawlies, we each opened our fortunes to reveal homilies that were like Stephen King meets Confucious. Most of the fortunes were funny riddle-like sayings ("Beware of paying more than you bargained for," was a typical quotation), but mine was the ominous Desperation phrase "Tak ah wan. Mi him in tow." Kinda freaked me out.

Pictures followed, then retiring to the hotel for some much-deserved hot tub relaxation and then bed. The next day would be a busy one, our meeting with graphic artist Erik Wilson, and the SKEMERs con proper. I can't speak for the rest of my troop, but I was wildy excited. Even though I had to sleep on the floor.

The Saturday Signing Fest

When Rich, Brad and I got up to go help set up for the actual "conference" part of the con, Michele Ballard was already awake and getting things set up. The Erin Room at the Holiday Inn was set up nicely, as always, and there were already SKEMERs mugs proliferating on the prize tables. Many of the prizes themselves had been put out, as well: stuff from a Tom Gordon Rookie card to the limited, slipcased edition of The Dark Tower series (books 1-3). An hour or so later, SKEMERs started trickling in, and I got to hand out welcome packets (including, among other things, indie bookstore ads, a different Tom Gordon card, and a SKEMERs pen.)

Seeing as I have no official capacity in SKEMERs (well, unless you include Historian), I was pretty happy being Bag Guy. People didn't sneer too much, and only one rotten egg was hurled at me. Or maybe it was just another person complaining about Holiday Inn restaurant service.

Soon, our Official Famous Person, Erik Wilson, showed up. Erik is known to King readers for illustrating the story "The Little Sisters of Eluria" for the Legends book, but he also has his own comic series called Bodin, and has recently been very active in the horror/fantasy scene. I anticipate Erik will be as well known as Berni Wrightson one day - his stuff is that good. We plunked a bunch of copies of Legends in front of him while the conference commenced and he set about signing them. Only a little later did we discover he was also adding an original drawing to each book - usually a Dark Tower-themed illustration - a special keepsake for each person there.

I got to play emcee again (the little spotlight-grabbing ego boosters make me so happy), introducing Michelle Rein (who managed to keep her speech shorter than a three and a half weeks this time! (Love you Michelle!)), Stu Tinker (who gave a ringing endorsement for Betts Bookstore, the best bookstore in Bangor!), and Erik (who speaks little but you sort of revere his words, sort of like Yoda). Following this came the highly anticipated Drawing, in which the tickets the SKEMERs got with their welcome packet would finally equal prizes! Rich held up a prize, my helper (whose name I can't remember, but she was so good about the whole thing) picked a ticket out of a hat, I called out the number, and the person with the corresponding number got that prize. As usual, the Drawing was full of suprises and excitement (and, as usual, I got something I already had, but that's okay!)

After the Drawing, something interesting happened. Sarah Hinman, editor of the annual SKEMERs Anthology, sold some copies of this year's issue at the con, and the authors were called upon to sign. I, having three stories in the new one, sat down at the table opposite Erik Wilson and did some mean signing. It was really a head rush for me, as I assume it was for all who were asked to sign. It was like I had skipped the whole professional publishing bit and went straight to the rabid fans, holding up their books to be signed. After about a half hour, my hand started to hurt, and I began to feel some real empathy for King, who does signings like this all the time. Still, the Saturday Signing Fest is one of my favorite times ever - thank you all for making that special for me.

The day was just beginning.

From the Drawing, we had some time to kill before we took the bus tour, so many of us went to Betts or spent some time in the hot tub (or both.) The hot tub/pool times were some of the best for me, not just because it helped ease the pain of my sciatica, but I also got to bond with my new friends and re-forge relationships with my old friends. They were quieter times, pleasant times. For me, those were the times that I'll carry with me forever.

After our free zone, we all climbed onto the bus for our Bangor Tour. We had pledged beforehand to only drive by King's house, slowing down to look and for pictures, but not stopping. With King's current state of health, the last thing he needs is weird fans standing outside his gate and staring up at his house. (We'll save that until he's healthy.) The rest of the Bangor roadmap was free to peruse, and peruse we did! We stopped at the Standpipe (monstorously huge as always - remembering It, you still get shivers looking at it), where I picked Michelle Rein up and ran around the water tower with her. Wolf, Wolf, right here and now! All I needed were coveralls.

The Paul Bunyan statue in Bass Park came soon after, brandishing a sign that said "Please Do Not Climb On Statue." We were glad the sign was there, because it offered some leverage with which to climb. Several group shots there, and we headed over to the other side of the park to the gazebo mentioned in The Dead Zone. Last year, I played the Castle Rock Strangler and Sarah played one of my female victims. Rich, as psychic Johnny Smith, looked on. This year, I got to strangle many women, while cameras went off from every direction. Ah, strangling for the paparazzi. Nice, wholesome, family entertainment we SKEMERs provide.

After the bus tour, we had some more downtime before we went en masse to see The Blair Witch Project. My group plus Pat Donahue hung out in our air conditioned suite, ate pizza, and watched Volcano. Many others went to Miller's, a great buffet but a bit too expensive for some of us this time around. When night fell, we gathered at the theatres near the Bangor Mall for the movie. It was my second time, and it was almost as scary this time around. (Some didn't share my opinion … until they got lost in the dark on their way back to the hotel. Heh heh heh.) Later that night, some of us went out to the Standpipe to hang out in the dark and scare each other silly. Not me, though. The Winslow Boy was pretty tired.

August Showers: Wedding, Baby, and Meteor

The big plan for Sunday was to visit Bar Harbor for the day: after visiting the Atlantic Brewery (a tiny microbrewery in town), some of us were to go on a whale watch while others toured around town. As is the case with most planned missions, nothing went according to plan, but we ended up having a good time anyway.

The SKEMERs caravan got down to the Atlantic Brewery at eleven o'clock, happy as clams to finally be there. I felt like I'd seen more of the inside of the minivan than I had Maine this weekend, so it was good to finally get out and stretch our legs in the cool, gray day. Happily, we crossed the street to the Brewery. Happily, we knocked on the door. Unhappily, we realized no one was there.

We decided to wait a little while to see if the Brewery owner showed up, which gave us a chance to get provisions at a nearby convenience store. I don't remember the name of the place (they tell me to write these things and I'm horrible with names), but whatever it was called: thank you! This small, out-of-the-way store in Bar Harbor, Maine is the only place in the world I've been able to find Yoo-Hoo candy bars. Made my morning right there.

The owner of Atlantic finally showed up (he'd written the wrong time down when Sherry Shautt - our tour coordinator - arranged it with him) and took us on a quick tour of the facilities. We got to look at the giant vats the beer is made in and get a lecture on how it is made, with help from young Ben Shautt, who passed out grains to people and let us smell hopps. Ben got a T-shirt for all his hard work, so if you're looking for child labor, it's cheap up in Maine.

Later on, we got to sample each of the beers Atlantic distributes, and I had a small sip of each one (little did I realize my road to ruin began there.) Then, as a surprise, we found out that the owner had manufactured SKEMERs beer labels, designed by Sherry. The labels were so cool, making us aware once again that SKEMERs are slowly but surely taking over Maine. I'm just waiting for "SKEMERville" to appear on a map somewhere.

After the brewery, we traveled to the whale watching docks, but unfortunately, the whale watches had been canceled due to weather. Being the resourceful bunch that we are, though, SKEMERs decided to break off and find their own things to do. The Van Clan (i.e., The Winslow Family, as we were commonly being called then) decided to tool back up to Bangor, stopping along the way to visit flea markets and fine highway eateries. At one of the flea markets, an older man came up behind Jen and asked, "Are those real?" Jen, who rarely gets flustered, responded, "Excuse me?" The man then pointed to the spiderweb designs on her legs and arms she and Heather had drawn on with eyebrow pencil in the van. The man seemed embarrassed. Jen thought it was hilarious. This was also the flea market at which my adoptive family bought me a dog leash and made me wear it. Kev's motto: "No shame."

Later that night, things got a little tricky. For months, we'd been planning a double-shower for Michelle Rein and Sarah Hinman - Michelle and Jim were getting married, and Sarah was about to have a baby. The problem was, each knew about the shower, but didn't know it was also theirs. If it sounds like the setup to a particularly hilarious Three's Company, you're not too far off.

For dinner, some of us went to Captain Nick's (seafood that's apparently good, but I wouldn't know seeing as I detest seafood), and some went to Governor's (the very best restaurant in the entire world: you can get an appetizer, an entrée with two sides, a drink, and a dessert for under $8. Wow.) The Governor's people had to rush back to the hotel, where we were busy setting up the suite that Rich, Brad and I were sharing for the showers. At some point, I became Camera Guy (thanks, Katie's mom, whose name I also forget!), and after fooling around Blair Witching with the thing, I set about to seriously tape. I could have waited. The shower girls didn't arrive for another half hour.

Rich decided to take the two out for ice cream after dinner, and both kept trying to hurry it along, knowing that the other had a party waiting for them. When they finally arrived to a dark, dark room full of cheerful SKEMERs, both of them looked very surprised. Well, Sarah had to finish her ice cream first, but then, boy howdy, was she excited.

After the opening of the gifts and many hugs, the lights went out and we were treated to two mini-movies: the extended trailer for the upcoming film The Green Mile (if I had to judge on preview alone, four stars just ain't enough), and SKEMER Jim Cole's short film The Last Rung On the Ladder, adapted from the Night Shift story. Last Rung is one of King's "Dollar Babies," a story he sold the rights for to a student filmmaker at the cost of a dollar. Despite some glitches, Last Rung played really well to the audience, prompting some to ask if they could get a copy. (The answer is no: King's contract stipulates that no copies can be made.)

Later that night, we were supposed to take a trip out to the Standpipe again, where there would be a surprise waiting for us. Being at the Standpipe in the dark is pretty cool - it's lit up at the top (the locals call it "The Big Lights") but really dark all around it. When we arrived, we were instructed to go toward the back, where it was darkest. Now, by this time, we pretty much knew what was going on, but even still, we're horror fans with active imaginations. We were scaring ourselves. It didn't help that Michelle jumped out at us in her clown suit, cavorting wildly toward the group. I think Jen, who has a clown fear, bolted. Some of us gluttons for punishment decided to go into the woods beyond the Standpipe and get Blair Witchy. We ended up bolting out of there soon enough.

As most of us were packing up to leave, Pat Donahue and I decided to lie down in the grass and look up at the Standpipe upside-down. The effect was dizzying: from that angle, the Standpipe looks wildly out of proportion, like it's going to fall on you. But that massive cylinder of white against the deep purple starlit sky was also beautiful. Peaceful. Soon, Brad, Joy, and Nick came over and joined us, looking up at the stars in a rare moment of pure tranquility. And as we watched the sky, a meteor shower began, the first I've ever seen. I have never felt smaller than that moment, watching stars shoot across the dark sky as if the gods were playing catch; smaller, but I also felt huge and full of life. It was like we were witnessing a miracle, and when we had to leave, the miracle faded, and I felt a little sad.

Next comes the going-to-bed part, but that's not what some of us did. Brad, Joy, Jen, and I met up with Nick in the hall and we decided to take a midnight swim in the outdoor pool (against the rules? Ooooh yeah.) I wondered aloud if Anthony (Antman!) Schwetholm couldn't come, and they all said sure! invite him along! The problem there was, once I found out what his last name was, it was nearly impossible to spell it right for the operator trying to transfer me to his room. "How is that spelled again, sir?" After several stuttering tries, I reached him, and invited him out.

The hotel manager caught us sitting around the pool, so we then retired to Nick's room and began ordering liquor from the Holiday Inn bar. Now, I have never been a drinker, ever. In my entire life, I have had roughly the alcohol equivalent of three beers. But, this being a night of firsts, I said what the hell, popped open a whisky drink, and proceeded to get mildly drunk. It's interesting to see what personalities shifted in a state of drunkenness. I got a little sullen and quite tired. Joy got a wee bit snippy ("You have to switch positions when you play counter-clockwise!!!") and Jen just got really happy. There was no notable difference in attitude in Brad, Anthony, or Nick. My theory: drunks, all of them, and it'll take more than a few cases of single malts to do 'em in. (Kidding, guys!)

Later, we did card tricks and played the card game "A**hole" for a few hours (I got to be President like six times!), and I napped a bit. Is this the end of the story? No! Because around three-thirty AM, Anthony left, and the rest of us decided to "wander." This seemed like a really good idea at the time. We wound up by the side of the freeway, actually contemplating if we should walk off into the distance against the hope of finding a breakfast place somewhere. Thankfully, we decided just to go to bed.

I would love to say it was like being in college again, but I've never been. Kind of like the autographing coming before I actually publish books, I got to have all the drunken, up-all-night excitement of the college life without actually learning anything!

God, I had so much fun.

(click "The Finale" to read the rest of the essay...) The Finale Return to main house.