It begins at the boathouse, with the arrival of several pale, darkly clad men and women who linger in the shade of the eaves, glancing gravely at the lake's thick, verdant waters before bursting into fits of laughter. They settle down and slather sunscreen on the white flesh peeking out of gaps in their monochromatic attire, and then they threaten each other with brightly colored artillery -- large water cannons in fluorescent hues of pink, green, yellow, and blue. Some of them discuss strategy. After a while, another group in funereal clothing arrives, equally pale and similarly equipped with water guns, then another group, and another. Their numbers swell, like a flock of misguided night birds gathering along the shore. Some of the women, adorned in black lace and diaphanous crinolines, shade their pallid complexions under black parasols festooned with smoky glass beads or skulls and crossbones; others carry pirates' flags and wear combat boots. The high-noon sun glints off black latex, soft leather, and gleaming belt buckles as the arsenal of candy-colored weaponry grows. Someone arrives wearing bunny ears.
"What is all of this?" inquires Garfield Schalk, a silver-haired gentleman from Vienna. "Some sort of social club?"
"The fifth annual S.F. Goth Naval Battle, sir," replies a pallid young man.
"It is serious?" asks the tourist.
"Oh, very serious, sir," replies the goth combatant. "Super Soakers and sock monkeys. Very serious, indeed."
"Soaking and sock monkeys?" asks Schalk, lifting his bushy white eyebrows.
"As prizes, sir," clarifies the goth. "Monkeys and pie."
"Ohhh, and pie," says Schalk, nodding with a satisfied grin. "We shall watch the soaking then," Schalk continues, patting his wife's hand tenderly.
A large number of goths moves to the boathouse and forms a dark, snaking line in front of the rental office. The rest gather at the dock, blinking in the bright sunlight, as Perki Mosier and his armada arrive. As is befitting the S.F. Goth Naval Battle's primary strategist, Mosier wears a black armored vest, knee-high boots, fluorescent yellow-green gauntlets, goggles, a yellow Pekachu backpack, and a black shirt covered in bright pink skulls.
The pink in this last article of clothing causes Cairo, captain of the Princess Cruises armada, to take swift and sudden offense.
"Pink is the color of the Princesses," explains fellow-Princess Nadja Herreshoff with a flash of her sparkly pink tights. Indeed, the entire armada is designated by rosy shades (tights, flowers, ribbons, tutus, hair) nestled amidst the more uniform black, and their officers wear tiaras. The Princesses' royal guard is immediately alerted to Admiral Perki's insolence.
"He will pay," swears a guard, characterized by the pink crown emblem pinned to his black shirt. "All of Team Pekachu will pay."
Unruffled, Admiral Perki smears blue greasepaint across his face. One of his men, a wild-eyed soldier named Iron Chuck, spreads war paint on his bare chest and raises his water cannon over his head, shouting for pirate blood. Though Iron Chuck's weapon has been modified to include a formidable "lake siphon," Madam PC, captain of the Pirate Armada, is indifferent to Team Pekachu's bombast. She quickly recruits two camo-wearing anarchists: Buzz Deadwax and his 6-year-old son, the fearless Max Deadwax. There are rumors of ambush and sabotage and new alliances. The first fleet prepares to push, and everyone is so involved in preparations, few take heed of the strange conglomeration of Easter bunnies growing in their midst.
As the teams take to the water in paddle boats and canoes, Admiral Perki's elegant wife, Tina Mosier-Tadd, smiles indulgently, waving from shore.
"Of course, monkeys may be redeemed for pie at the end of the battle," she says, nodding to the three succulent fruit pies shaded by her somber parasol. "The monkeys are tied to ropes hanging from trees on the island. You'll see."
I am bustled into the Press Armada, but veteran fleet photographer Rachel Strasser recoils in horror at the notion of going afloat. "No duck-poo soup for me, thanks," she says with a shudder. "Have you seen the stuff?"
Indeed, the Naval Battle rules clearly disclaim all responsibility for infected cuts, illness, and gross-outs caused by the greenish mire that constitutes Stow Lake. Happily, we push off.
Under the bridge, paddle boats are already engaged in hotblooded combat. Great sprays of slug-green water arc from boat to boat, leaving few unscathed. At this distance, teams are difficult to distinguish, however the white heads of Mr. and Mrs. Schalk are not. They peer over the edge of the bridge, getting a bird's-eye view of the mass drenching, but there is no time to ruminate.
Behind us, Mr. Jonathan, a known mercenary with impeccable dress sense, pushes off from the dock with fiery ship-hand Mistress Elizabeth. Sneaking up behind one of the Princess Cruises, the mercenaries open fire. The Princesses, caught off guard, try to recover and return the volley, but the wily Mr. Jonathan opens his umbrella, shielding his wine-hued long coat from harm. Just ahead, a boatful of snickering bunnies lies in wait in the reeds. They, too, descend on one of the Princess vessels, using cleverly disguised Easter buckets to hurl great gluts of water at their sparkly opponents. (It is not the day's last incident of bunny bucket-wielding treachery.)
As the press boat slides around the south side of the island, I lose sight of the ambush, only to come face to face with the theater of war. No fewer than 10 boats are engaged on the battlefield. Blood- curdling cries fill the air; relentless streams of opaque water pour from the heavens; there is sogginess everywhere; no one is spared.
In a humanitarian effort, my boat docks alongside another and takes aboard the 9-year-old Princess Sarah Lindsey, shivering and soaked to the bone. Her tiara hangs precariously in her tangle of wet hair as she smiles her thanks, but there is little hope for the rest of her crew. Suddenly, a strange hush falls over the battlefield as the goths realize Team Pekachu is nowhere to be seen. The fleet paddles furiously to reach the other side of the island, spotting Pekachu struggling to reach a monkey guarded by a fierce water rifleman in a gas mask. The bunnies and the Princesses descend on Team Pekachu and, in the ensuing pandemonium, one of the Princesses' royal guards nabs the monkey.
A little farther on, Mr. Jonathan and Mistress Elizabeth are spotted, already on shore with an ill-gotten monkey between them. They toast one another with silver goblets filled with wine and offer the bedraggled warriors self-satisfied smirks. Not to be discouraged, a renegade fleet called the GG Pets battles for the third monkey.
In the home stretch, a couple of newlyweds in a canoe find themselves in the midst of the melee. A sodden goth, with eye makeup streaming down his face and revenge within a Super Soaker's reach, halts the battle to offer the pair safe passage.
"We will take no civilian casualties," he says, bowing his head. "Summertime love before summertime carnage."