Saturday, May 21, 2011

Summer Camp - What'd I Miss?


Did I miss the summer camp experience?  I don’t know.  Being raised in Southern California is not like growing up on the East Coast, where there are a myriad of summer camps splattered throughout the northeast.  The woodsy, “Parent Trap” camp experience that Lindsay Lohan's character had wasn’t one that I was familiar with.  Canoe rides, cabins in the forest and hikes through the woods.

Many times growing up, my mother spoke of her summer camp experiences where she and her sisters were shipped off at a very young age to Keirsarge Summer Camp in New Hampshire, so I may have developed an over-idealization of what that all might have been like.

My first few camps were day camps, and more than likely served the purpose of getting me out from under afoot in the summertime when school was out.  The first camp, when I was about age six, was called, “Big Rock Camp,” and was located in Temescal Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Big Rock Camp actually wasn’t bad for a day camp in that it felt deep in the wilderness, even though Mulholland Highway was but a stone’s through away.  In fact, once per day at least, a van full of kids would drive by ours shouting, “Boo Big Rock.”  Our counselors taught us to should back, “Boo Mulholland,” apparently the name of their camp.  Since I had no association with their camp, I always felt a little awkward shouting out anything to them.  A waive, “hello,” sufficed for me.

Big Rock Camp was anchored with a main recreation area, which I now realize was probably the heart of an old ranch.  Along one perimeter was a pond in which catfish were stocked.  The kids could fish for them there.  And then on other sides were extra parcels of lands for varying activities.

They also had horse stables up a little hill, and a dirt road that led to a place where they had constructed a mini coaster on tracks.  It seated one kid at a time and the tracks went along the dirt road down to the back of the property where they just ended.  Being that the tracks were raised about three feet off of the ground, they had a tire resting on the end of the tracks to stop the rolling sled. 

They also had hung a cable from two poles off of the ends of a slop that held some sort of harness in which kids could slide down the cable a la James Bond style. 

It all appeared a little makeshift to me even at that age, so I avoided engaging in those activities beyond simply watching other kids tempt their fate.  I recall one such afternoon sitting on a nearby bench watching my Mexican jumping beans hop around to the amazement of other kids.  The jumping beans were always my souvenir of choice when finishing off a visit to Olvera Street, and they help pass the afternoons.

I wasn’t too keen on this camp simply because it was time-consuming and somewhat repetitive; the same activities most of the time.  I must have made a couple dozen lanyard-style key chains during my tour of arts and crafts there.

My Big Rock Camp picture is one of me sitting on a ranch fence, wearing the Big Rock T shirt with a horse’s head peering over my shoulder.  It was a very patient horse to have made it through two hundred-odd portraits.

There had a couple of overnight stays where we slept in our sleeping bags right under the stars and the partial halo of eucalyptus trees.  On one such night, two counselors got into the same sleeping bag and told all of us kids that they were just cold and that we should all go to sleep.  It was distracting to try to go to sleep with the amount of rustling coming from their bags. Upon casual mention of this incident to my mother, I was surprised to find out how much she objected to counselors keeping warm together. 

I’m sure a phone call or two were made.  My parents had to drive me there and pick me up each day, so I think they tired of the trek quickly, which may explain why I was there for only one summer.  That, and the cross-counselor intercourse.

My next day camp was truly dull.  It was called, “The Chiefs,” and was located in Studio City Park near Moorpark and Whitsett Streets.  Every summer morning, one of my parents had to drive me up to the Mulholland Tennis Club driveway, only a quarter mile away from our house, where I waited for a van to pick me up and take me down the hill.  Our driver’s name was Diego; a short, stocky, native-American looking man in his twenties who was always thirty minutes late or more.  He smiled and was friendly enough.  But a number of us kids would be nauseated by the end of the ride from the gasoline fumes that built up in the back of his Avocado green van. 

We would get down to Studio City Park, engage in a few athletic activities, have lunch out of our brown, pre-packed paper sacks and then play in the park’s playground for the rest of the day until it was time to go home.  This park was one of the last in the San Fernando Valley to have one of those orange and black giant robots that one could climb up in and slide down it’s baking hot arms in the summertime.  A good friend of mine named, Nick, also went to this camp, and I trust that he remembers the “Chiefs” experience all too well. 

I suppose I should be happy that I was placed in such structured activities as a child rather than being left to roam the neighborhood on top of the Hollywood Hills each day, which would have been undoubtedly even less stimulating.  But I think it was this experience that made the start to realize that day camps were not the way to go.  Plus, one day I left my favorite blue jacket that had all of my patches on it such as, “Dingbat” and “Meathead” in the bathroom, and it was never to be found again.  The Chiefs just wasn’t meant for me.

My third day camp was called, Pine Trails.   “Ho, ho, ho- hee, hee, hee, Pine Trails, how we love thee.”  That was our little jingle (I still remember it’s circular little melody….I’ll play it for you on the piano sometime).  We had a carpool meeting place that my parents drove me to somewhere down the hill, but I don’t recall where.  From there, we made it onto a school bus where we’d make the rest of the trip to Pacific Palisades High School. 

During our bus ride, there was a dark haired female counselor who used to have us sing an altered version of the Noah’s Ark song.  For reference, here’s a blog I wrote about that song.

As all things pre-internet, most of these camps were referred to my parents via friends and relatives of theirs.  At least this one was close to the ocean.  Our assembly area was on the athletic lawn of the high school, while th arts and crafts headquarters were at a local church.  I remember finishing up a project of sewing two halves of felt frog together after filling it with beans.  It wasn't my choice of how to spend my time.  I would rather have been outside playing.  As I finished the project, this fat lady, who was one of the official arts and crafts people, came over to me and wanted to show me how the frog could sit up on it's butt, which due to the design, it wasn't meant to do.  She spent a few minutes trying to accomplish this while I thought, "Get on with it lady so I can get out of here!"

Two things of note that I remember about this camp.  The first is that heard the first bit of sexual lore while waiting for some activity to start in the bleachers.  I was sitting with a friend of mine named, Nick (not the Nick who is a long time friend of mine, but just a Nick who I happened to meet at camp), and a boy sitting near us said that if a man touches a woman in a certain place, a woman would automatically “go down” on a man.

I thought this new bit of information to be really strange.  First, why?  Was this some sort of autonomic reaction in the woman?  And what did it all mean anyways?  It took me a few years to sort that one out.

The second thing of note was that the friend that I made there, Nick, was a nice kid who I still remember because we used to sit on the benches at lunch and share our potato chips and Fritos.  It was like we had a little pot luck every day.  We remained friends by phone for a couple years after that, but never saw each other again.

I think my parents sensed my dwindling tolerance for day camps, and as a matter of fact, whatever part of me might not have been ready for a real, go-away for a month type camp, had ripened. 

My family just at that time had moved down from the Hollywood Hills to Studio City.  The move allowed me a lot more freedom to move about the country.  Growing up in the hills is very isolating.  Don’t do it to your kids!

Someone had mentioned to my parents about a go-away camp called, CIBC; an acronym for Catalina Island Boy’s Camp.  I think my parents weren’t sure if I would really want to go away.  I say this because once I made my decision, they seemed surprised.  A man came to our new Studio City home one night and set up a slide projector and a screen.  We all sat together in our family room as he did his presentation of the camp.

All I saw in front of me were water sports and kids seemingly running around an island like banshees.  I liked it.  “Yeah, I’ll go,” I said.

So off to Catalina Island Boys Camp, I went.

The adventure started out a few weeks before my departure when my mother accompanied me in shopping for everything I might possibly need for a month.  A lot of our time and money was spent at Sport Chalet if I recall correctly.

One of the items on the camp’s list of necessities was a big trunk.  We bought a blue one that had both a shelf in it for odds and ends, as well as plenty of room for clothes.

My parents drove me down to San Pedro, where I boarded a ship that would take us across the channel to Catalina.  I really had no idea what I was in for.  My mother cried as I said goodbye, and my dad waived in his suede brown jacket.

No sooner was the anchor up than one of the kids did an okay sign by his leg and then socked me in the arm.  How strange, I thought.  What the hell was that about?  And then again, it happened with another kid.  Someone near me asked if it was my first time to CIBC as was apparent to him.  He explained that everyone plays a game that never ends until you’re back on the mainland, i.e., for the full month. 

When someone makes a circle with their thumb and index finger and then look into it, you get socked in the arm.  There were some peripheral rules too.  The circle had to be held below the presenter’s waist, or else it didn’t count.  Also, if the presenter successfully got someone to look in and gave the recipient the earned punch on the upper arm, but forgot to rub it off with his hand afterwards, the presenter could get socked back.

I later realized it wasn’t unlike the idea of Medusa; the not looking in her eyes, the taboo, the consequences.   Everyone played, and I mean everyone.  The counselor, the camp headmaster or whatever we called him. 

I really thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard of at first, but after a couple of days of seeing how clever one had to be to get someone to look at the offering, it became a hoot.  People would feign being injured and rubbing their leg to make you look, or, “Oh, dude, you dropped this,” and then, bam!  "You looked!"  Hilarious at times.  In fact, the idea still makes me laugh.

Our ship got out about eight miles or so from the mainland, and I saw something I hadn’t anticipated.  I witnessed the algae-looking green water of our Pacific Ocean, the same sea that I had swum in since I was very young, suddenly turn a deep blue that I had never seen before.  And the transition was quick.  It happened within a minute or two.  We must have passed the inner continental shelf because I felt as though I were now looking at liquid sapphire gemstones.

We made landfall at Avalon Harbor, switched to a second boat which we took to the Isthmus, and then took an even smaller boat to our camp, which was nestled in a cove called, Howland’s Landing; just a few coves away from the Isthmus, and right next to Emerald Bay.  Looking out from our bay, we faced that of the mainland.  Howland's Landing had trees all around the grounds, docks by the ocean, a girls camp on the periphery of our cove, senior cabins and junior cabins, a shooting range, a camp fire, a little outdoor theater, a large eating area, a recd room with ping pong, checkers and outdoor showers.  This was as real a camp as I’d ever been to.

In one month, I swear I did more things that I still have ever done in my life.  The camp was considered a sport camp, so there was a great emphasis on swimming, running, hiking, and kayaking. The sand at our harbor was especially white and packed with small to medium sized shells; enough to make my feet hurt if I wasn't watching where I stepped.  One of the relaxing things I found during our daily, unscheduled time, was to stand on our docks and watch the current move in and out with each passing wave.  The water is very clear around Catalina Island, and so I would watch different types of fish swim by completely unaware of being observed.

It was the first time I ever water-skied, and on the ocean to boot.  We would wake up early; maybe 7:00am to the sound of revelry being blown through a bugle.  We had a little time to get ourselves together, get something to eat from the mess hall, which was cold on some overcast summer mornings.  We had a choice of which activities we wanted to be a part of for the day.

A group of us went out on a Boston Whaler; a little outboard engine boat that could really haul ass over the smooth morning water.  With skis aboard, one of us would jump into the water, get the skis on, grab the rope and go!

It’s been nearly forty years since I skied on the ocean. Yet I remember with such clarity the feeling of being pulled behind the boat with a few kids as my audience as I glided out over the smooth, rolling swells.  I water-skied many times after CIBC up in the Sierra lakes, which was glorious.  But nothing equaled being out on the limitless ocean early in the morning.  Something so virgin about it all.

If you don’t happen to know, there are all sorts of animals on Catalina which one wouldn’t expect; the result of many movies having been filmed on the island during the early Hollywood days, after which, animals brought there for production never having been rounded up.

The result is that you might step in huge Bison chips anywhere on the island, or maybe more alarming, find yourself staring up the snout of a Bison itself.  The other strange thing, and much more the subject our focus as campers, was that there were wild boar running all round the island. The hills around the camp were criss-crossed with boar trails, which they had gouged out of the hillside through repetitive trips for food in the nighttime. 

Our cabins had open entrances and partially open sides.  So around Midnight, we would hear boar meandering around our campsite looking for food.  Each of us campers picked out our own “boar-bopper;” a nice, thick log from around the environs Howland’s Landing, which we kept by our bunks.  I had a lower bunk right next to the entrance, so I made sure I had an extra potent boar-bopper, which luckily, I never had occasion to use.

We went on day excursions. Sometimes a long hike down one of the dirt roads, past our neighboring Emerald Bay, where the Boy Scouts would camp and on to a cove that had a high overhang that allowed or cliff-diving.  This was something the CIBC representative hadn’t included in his presentation at my parents’ house, and I saw why.

We each, with our bathing suits and bare feet on, walked up a little trail that skirted a cliff until we got to a point where our counselor said, “Now, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.  This is just for those who would like to jump into the water.  I looked over.  “Ahhh, that’s high.”  It was probably about forty feet over the deep, blue Catalina sea.

One counselor stayed at the top to make sure nobody did anything stupid, while the other counselor, without mincing words, said, “Okay, this is how you do this,” and then he jumped down into the water with a big splash that sent plenty of salty white foam up to ocean’s surface.  He floated up and said,”The thing to remember is that you never jump until you see the last person is completely out of the way.”  I’m personally really glad we had a pretty attentive and responsible group of kids among us that year, or else it could have been a messy affair.

So a few kids went, maybe three, before me, and then I was up.  Fearful of being fearful, I just jumped out and spent those few seconds in the air wondering exactly where I was headed and what was under that water.  But low and behold, I landed in okay and felt like I had slain my lion for the day.  We all got a few turns at it. 

Another excursion we did involved a lengthy van ride (what was with all of the cargo vans back in the day anyway?) across what seemed like hours of dirt roads to a harbor on the other side of the island called, Shark Harbor.  Because it faced the open sea away from the mainland, we actually got good-sized swells on this side.  The counselors brought a few of those Doyle (spongy) surfboards and it became a first for my ever standing successfully on one.

Some of us also did a hike on our own to one side of the bay where there was a hill easily accessible from the sand.  Unbeknownst to the six or seven of us who hiked up there that day, and without a counselor I might add, the trail lead up an gradual and enticingly friendly hill, then suddenly ended at the edge of a very high cliff that was a couple of hundred feet above Shark’s Harbor; a site that put pure fear into my heart for those moments.  It was sobering, and to this day is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to getting killed.  I wasn’t in peril that afternoon, as I tended to be very observant of any unfamiliar surroundings; something I learned from my pre-adoptive life.  But had any of us not been paying attention, it would have been a fatal fall.  That wasn’t in the CIBC slide show either.

One of my favorite excursions was when we hiked up the canyon that fed from Howland's Landing back several miles into the interior of the island.  A large group of us hiked for hour an hour or so led by a few counselors who had done the trip several times.  Our hiking involved a lot of wild boar trails and thick under brush until one point when we were led to our left, up away from the canyon stream via a steep arm towards a crest several hundred feet above.  The hike up this slope took another hour. When we made it to the top of the mountain, to my amazement we could see over the other side of the island to San Clemente and San Nicholas Islands.  I felt like I was suddenly in an Air Force jet looking down at the ocean below with puffy clouds between.  I’ve never forgotten that vision.

There were two brothers in camp, probably around 15 years old, whose bodies were super-built (did people take steroids at such an early age?).  They looked like two young, cut, body-builders.  All of the rest of the guys wanted to emulate their athleticism and confidence.  Funny how that matters so much at that age.

As I said, there was a girls’ camp in our harbor.  We interacted with them a couple of times per week, mostly for campfires and such.  I began to develop a crush on a beautiful girl whose name was Jamie.  She was blonde, slender and had a golden tan.  She was  fond of me as well, which built up my confidence that summer. 

One day, she came with me to the shooting range where we shot rifles at a target.  She wasn’t sure how to aim, so I put my arms around hers to support her.  I was a lost cause after that.  A counselor named Steve, who must have noticed my having been smitten with her, came up to me after that sang the refrain from the Van Halen song, “Oh, oh, oh, Jamie’s cryin!” as the song was popular at the time.  I chuckled with him realizing how transparent my crush probably was to everyone.

Another interesting moment was when a group of us were snorkeling out a ways from our cove accompanied by a counselor, and we all noticed directly under us several, as in eight or nine, sharks below us.  Not small sand sharks, but each in the range of four to five feet long.  One of the kids spoke up and asked the counselor what we should do.  He answered, “Just do your thing and don’t bother them.  They won’t bother you.”   I don’t know if that’s true in general, but, thankfully, it worked that day.  It took my mind off of the eels that we had continuously been warmed about.  I now have the same philosophy with rattle snakes.

Our campfire time at the end of the day involved skits, stories, and talking among the differing cabin groups.  The headmaster of the camp told the story a coupe of times of a headless horseman who could sometimes be seen riding on the hills above.  The campfire area was just yards from the ocean and was really a serene place to be at the end of each day.

One Saturday morning, and I remember it was Saturday because we were allowed to sleep in a bit longer those days, a counselor from another cabin came and knocked on our cabin looking specifically for me.  “Fred, time to get up and do the Miracle Mile.”  Groggy and lifeless as I always was in the morning, I had no idea what he was talking about, or really, who he was.  “Get on up, Fred.  This is an annual race we do.  You’ll like this.” 

How did this counselor pick me to do this?  I got some shoes on and made my way out to where he was pointing.  On a trail by our tennis courts, they had chalked out a starting line and kids were lining up, including kids older than me.

I had no idea where this race was headed, but I figured that if I just go on with it, I’d be back in bed in no time and have forgotten all about it.  “On your marks, get set,” and then a whistle blew and everyone started running.  We ran through the cabin areas, and then started up one of the hills that were on the perimeter of our campsite.  There were counselors placed along the way to guide us.  The hill was extremely steep, and so we were kind of fast walking it up certain sections.  I thought to myself, “Just take it easy up this hill, and then when you get to the top, you can see how you’re feeling and where this race is headed.”  This a tactic I formed right there on the spot.

I finally made it to the top, about three hundred feet above our campground and hit a dirt road along with the other participants.  We ran and ran along the dirt road and I started passing other kids.  Gradually, I found that I had eaten up pretty much every kid that I had in my sights.  All but one older kid.  The dirt road snaked around and ended up feeding into the top portion of our campsite, where it opened up to a straight shot to where I assumed was the finish line. 

During the beginning of that last stretch, I passed, and I mean, smoked that last remaining older kid and found myself running through the finish line first with a smattering of camp attendees cheering.  I had just won the, “Miracle Mile,” a race I had never heard of until about fifteen minutes before.  I was indeed proud of myself for whatever had just happened.   Later, at lunch, I was given the award of a flat rock with painted on it, “CIBC’s Miracle Mile – 1st Place.”

Each time we'd go to sleep at night, our in-cabin counselor, Skip, would let us talk for a while with the light out.  We'd each tell anecdotes, or jokes, such as, reciting those fictitious books written by unfortunate authors:  "The Revenge of the Tiger, by Claude Balls," or, "Yellow River, by I.P. Freely."  Click here for a full list of these.  And we listened to Dr. Demento, who was on the radio Sunday nights at the time, and hear all of the strange songs put forth on the air.

So we would laugh ourselves to sleep, and then usually be woken up by the sole Latino cabin member we had named, Julio, who sang Mexican sonatas each morning.  "Oh, shut up, Julio!, we'd all mumble.  The one thing I've always remember about waking up, essentially outside since our cabins were open, were those early morning sounds of people in the camp site starting to clang things together off in the distance, and my trying to sink a little deeper into my sleeping back to muffle those external sounds. 

There were a couple of really unlikely connections that happened while I was there.  Not one, but two of my cabin mates were indirectly associated with my family.  One was a kid named Bruce Geller.  My parents were friends with a producer named, “Bruce Geller,” who died in a plane crash in Santa Barbara shortly before I went to CIBC.  And when I found out that this kid’s name was Bruce Geller, I said something snotty like, “You’re not the real Bruce Geller.”  After some explanation of my comment, it came to pass that he too knew the producer because his family was in the television business, and in fact, his parents had named him after the producer.

A second unlikely connection was found in a cabin-mate of mine named, Jacob.  As we got to know each other, we discovered that his father and my mother had been married.  That’s not small thing to discover.  I had met my mother’s ex-husband on occasion, but had never met his son, Jacob.  I remembered then that my mother’s ex-husband’s son, Jacob, had been adopted; the kind of detail I would remember since I had also been adopted.  At mention of this, he was extremely surprised.  Apparently, his parents had never told him of this little detail.  So I’m sure that when he went home after camp, there was a very informative discussion that was had. 

And then we had a kid who played the banjo all the time.  His name was Rusty.  He had straight, blonde hair, like John Denver, and he just loved getting that thing out and playing in the afternoons.  It added to the ambiance of camp life.

A portion of our lunch time in the outdoor mess hall was spent waiting at the covered picnic tables waiting for the headmaster to pass out mail for the day.  He would call out a given camper's name, who would answer, "here" or "yo," and then the headmaster would spin the envelope through the mail like a frisbee with startling accuracy to camper; a talent he must have refined over many a summer.

My mother says that I only wrote her to get care packages of red liquorish sent to me.  I remember the Red Vines and the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and the excitement each afternoon when the mail came in as we all anticipated getting a care package to stow away in our clothes chests.  I don’t recall not writing her enough, but you know how mothers are.

I really had a great time at CIBC, and I'm thankful to my parents for sending me there.  I’m glad it was my last summer camp experience. 

So did I miss out on the traditional summer camp?  The one I had heard about and idolized?  I don’t think so, but as I said, I didn’t grow up on the East Coast.  So you tell me.