One summer night, on a family vacation in Cape Cod, I drew a treasure map.

Logan and Jackson, maybe eight and six at the time, were asleep upstairs, and I wanted to create a bit of summer adventure for them. So I took an old piece of parchment from an old book on a book shelf and wrote up some clues. Getting into it, I found three odd bits of metal in a drawer and fitted them together, Da Vinci Code-style, to spell out a secret message. Then I hid these metal pieces outside in the woods, buried them, nailed wooden “X”s to nearby trees, paced off some directions, wrote it all up on the map, and hid the map in an old Bible back on the bookshelf. All the kids had to do was find it.

I didn’t want to hand it to them; self-discovery is the thing that makes something real. So I placed a few dollar bills in some random books and found one the next morning in front of them.

“Hey, you guys,” I said. “Look at this. These books have cash in them.”

That was all it took. The kids searched through every page, loving the free money, until they found something unusual.

“What’s this, Dad?” Logan asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What does it look like?”

“It looks like a treasure map,” Logan said, his eyes growing wide with wonder. And away we went.

It took several days to solve the map. I didn’t help them much. I wanted them to figure it out. But I’ve always considered that treasure hunt, and the excitement surrounding it, as one of the crown creative jewels of my parenting days.

I feel the same about Pirate’s Day.

Yesterday, as part of Week 4 of our epic Summer Games here at the orphanage, Clifton and I launched what was our most ambitious activity yet, a six-hour event that will go down not just in the history of this Mission but perhaps in the annals of pirate lore, as well.

It began with a viewing of Pirates of The Caribbean, just to get in the mood. Then Clifton and I burst into the room in full costume, transformed into Captain Deadeye and his creepy first mate Blade McFinnegan. We barked orders, brandished our tinfoil cutlasses, threatened anyone who laughed at us (which was everyone), and generally acted like over-the-top community theater performers.

[frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Captain Deadeye and the scalliwag Suhanna.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”] [frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Several children were legitimately frightened of Blade McFinnegan.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”]

After this, teams had to make hats and decorate them while Deadeye and Blade kept watch for signs of mutiny. We had a “Best Girl Mustache” contest. Permanent markers were used with reckless abandon, creating some truly memorable facial hair.

[frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Anthea and Ikindra: the scurviest scalliwags who ever wagged a scally.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”] [frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Kureena, Shakshi and Gladys competing in the mustache contest.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”] [frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Kelly, lookin’ like a briny sea wench.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”] [frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”The crew of the Flying Elephant, ready for battle.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”]

Then it was onto the main event: a four team treasure hunt that took six hours to set up and took the teams to the farthest corners of the Mission: solving riddles on numbered scrolls, collecting pieces of eight, pacing off clues, finding “X”s. From the top of the new school to the bottom of the pool, seven clues led to a key and all keys opened one lock.

[frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Pirate Central. Where pieces of eight could be traded in for another scroll.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”]

Hours later, the 8th and final clue led to an open field with three teams arriving at the same time. The fourth team arrived shortly after that. Everyone sped off across the dry, dusty ground, searching for the last “X” that marked the treasure’s location…

[frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Teams Tiger, Elephant and Crocodile, looking for a “X” in the dust at sunset.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”]

It was the only part of the original treasure hunt I put together for my own kids that felt like a letdown to me: the payoff at the end. Over the course of our search, Logan and Jackson came to truly believe that the map was real and that the treasure it was leading them to would make us all rich. Not wanting to give the game away and not having a sack of gold doubloons at the ready, I did the only thing I could think of. When the map led them to an old chest in the attic and my kids opened it with sweaty palms and baited breath…all they found was a note from another pirate, saying he’d stolen the treasure first. It was disappointing but plausible. If only we’d been a little faster…

Luckily, the Summer Games treasure hunt suffered from no such anti-climax. When Jackie on Team Tiger discovered the “X”, his team started to dig. Two feet down through packed dry soil, they struck something hard…hauled a burlap sack into the light…removed a shining silver trunk…tried their key…opened the lock and discovered an overflowing bounty of cold drinks, chocolates, chips and chewing gum.

[frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”The treasure before we hid it.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”] [frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Team Tiger digging for treasure while Ankit looks at the camera.” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”] [frame style=”modern” image_path=”” link_to_page=”” target=”” description=”Enough plunderin’ fer one day. Santooshi dances in victory!” float=”” lightbox=”” lightbox_group=”” size=”two_col_large”]

As the sun set into the jungle, Team Tiger danced in the dry field while the other teams cheered. It was the reaction I’d wanted thirteen years ago for my own kids, and as Blade McFinnegan is my witness, it was worth the wait. Aye, laddies, ’twas worth the wait, indeed.

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