Camp

Andre and I looked down from the basketball court, high on the hill near the staff quarters, looking down at the rest of Camp Fox in the meadow below, teenagers dancing their hearts out at the Wednesday night all-Camp dance. We had been busted for smoking cigarettes out in The Cave: a hole in the rocks a few hundred yards down the Catalina Island shore from the villas, where the Pacific crashed onto a few rocky outcrops, shielded from the rest of camp by the cave door – tiny islands perfect for a few stoners to smoke cigarettes, drink, and take drugs in privacy. Until the day Smitty, the assistant camp director, crawled through the cave door and caught Andre and me, fortuitously only smoking cigarettes, and only the two of us. The marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol had been gone since the third day of camp, and with their absence most of our friends as well.

campfoxFrom our banishment zone we awaited the decision on our fate; would we be kicked out of camp, as Nick had been the year before, sent home on a boat for the twenty-three mile journey, hanging our heads, having to explain to our parents why we were home several days early, with NO REFUNDS provided? If this was our last night, we decided to make the best of it. We danced ourselves, just two dudes, bopping around to Billie Jean and Manhunter. We had copped to our crime, even though we had tossed our cigarettes into the sea as soon as we saw Smitty’s face peer through the cave door. There was no real evidence, but we confessed our sins anyway, and somehow we thought we might have a chance at dodging expulsion. We apologized up and down. We were bringing old habits from the mainland to Camp, we explained. We knew we were not living up to the Ragger’s Creed. So as we waited, we danced, we high-fived each other, and we knew that whatever happened, we were having a genuine experience, come what may.

I attended Camp Fox for three consecutive summers; the cigarette bust happened my second year there. It wasn’t a full-summer camp, just one week in July during the years I turned thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen respectively. I can’t imagine – but kind of wish I had attended – the all-summer camps such as This American Life examines in their classic episode Notes on Camp. (I guarantee this is the best hour of radio you will ever experience.) Although Camp Fox was only a week, each day felt like a month, and the long year between camp felt like decades, only then to seem like – upon return – we had just left a couple of weeks ago.

Camp Fox on Catalina Island was run by the La Cañada YMCA, and it was a Capital ‘C’ Christian summer camp. My family was not religious at all, but I had heard about the camp from my friend John in seventh grade at Walter Reed Junior High in North Hollywood where I grew up. I asked my mom and stepdad if they’d let me go with John, and they agreed to spend the hundred and ten dollars to send me. That first year, after the twenty-three mile boat ride to the island, I grumbled that we had to carry bags from the ship to the shore, a two hundred yard journey, to the central meadow area to be picked up by their owners. “Don’t look for your own bags!” Smitty shouted when we docked. “Just grab as many as you can carry and bring them to the meadow!” I grabbed two random, quite heavy, bags, feeling emboldened, and immediately regretted it. “A hundred and ten dollars, and we have to carry the bags?” I protested.

That first year at camp, the year before the cigarette bust, seventh grade had just ended, and it was possibly the worst year of my life, being the period when I truly went over the deep end. A year before that, at the end of sixth grade and the summer before seventh, the year I turned twelve, I started smoking weed and drinking. Not much, just a handful of times. But once seventh grade started, life started revolving around getting high and drinking, and where I once was considered a “gifted” student enrolled in honors classes, I quickly drank and drugged my way into failing grades and constant trouble at school. I received the first “F” in my life in music class, ten weeks into seventh grade: a course that required not much more than showing up. Mom couldn’t comprehend the grade (“An F?”), nor that my report card listed twenty-two absences in the first quarter of the year alone. But these were natural consequences to my new behavioral model. Most of what I did was cut school, go to the Rain Forest (the base of the Santa Monica mountains, entered from the end of Fryman Canyon in Studio City), and steal cigarettes and beer from Dale’s Jr. market around the corner from the junior high.

But nearing the end of seventh grade, when I was still twelve, John convinced me and another friend to come to Camp Fox with him, since he had been the year before, and insisted it was a good time. My mom and stepdad agreed and paid the money, so we took the boat to Catalina, carried the bags to the meadow, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The boys were sorted into villas, open-air cabins on the shore of the island, while the girls had real, four-walled cabins up the hill toward the amphitheater near the water tower. I only knew John and a mutual friend Mike, but these other kids seemed quite well-heeled. This was Southern California in the 1980’s, where the ultimate was to be tan, muscled, bangs dyed, and extremely athletic. If your parents didn’t drop you off at the La Cañada YMCA in a Mercedes or a BMW, you maybe didn’t belong. Camp had a tanning contest: you would stick a piece of duct tape on your shoulder, and at the end of week they’d peel the tape off to see whose skin had darkened the most noticeably. The winner got a prize. Melanoma be damned, this was LA in the 80’s, and if your tan didn’t get you confused with a black kid – or at least a Northern Mexican – well, maybe you didn’t belong at Camp Fox, or in Southern California in general.

We were eleven to a villa, plus our counselor: a cool, decent, gentle soul named Dana. He was a nice guy, and not a typical SoCal douchebag. We did have some fun one night, when a villa-mate named Jimmy, a sound sleeper, was hoisted aloft in his bed, tied by four strong ropes to the cross beams of the cabin, and gently swayed back and forth until he woke up, wondering just how in the hell he was rocking as if at sea, suspended two feet above the floor. Jimmy freaked a little bit, but saw he was in no real danger, and laughed like a loon. (We had heard tales of previous years’ campers’ beds being set afloat into the lagoon with sleeping campers tucked in tightly. I never witnessed these hijinks, and maybe they were merely apocryphal, but Dana’s villa would never risk drowning a kid, no matter the lulz.)

There was no hot water in the bathrooms, so showers were cold. Rather than suffer that indignity too often, we helped wash each others hair daily in the villa sink, dumping Big Gulp cups of cold water on each others hair, the most crucial part of the body that needed daily washing, whether you were a long-hair like me, or a short-hair with dyed bangs like Jimmy. The toilet stalls had no doors; we learned to hang large beach towels just so to do our business. I found out later John didn’t go number two for the whole week that first year. The horror!

We were taught about Jesus, and His love for us, each and every one. We attended workshops during the day, helping us to learn how to resist Satan’s call back on the mainland when we returned home the following week. Smitty, Tim, Don, and the rest of the camp leaders played beautiful renditions on acoustic guitars of Christian folk classics like “I Want To Praise You Lord” and “It’s a Happy Day” at our nightly campfire gatherings in the amphitheater, which were always filled with fun and music, and always ended with admonishments to give our hearts over to Jesus and seek The Lord’s path in all ways, at all times.

In the day, we jumped off the pier into the ocean, a height no shorter than fifteen feet, terrifying and thrilling, but we landed safely, soundly, into the Pacific before turning around to swim to the ladder and back up onto the dock. We went spear fishing and kayaking and hiking up to the Cross on the Mountain. At night we’d play Capture the Flag, and go to dances, and attend Campfire (Jesus time), and hike back again – in the dark this time – to the Cross on the Mountain, but this time it was lit, its sudden luminescence timed perfectly to the counsellors’ sermons. “Whoa! Look at the Cross!” from a hundred and fifty teenagers, excitedly. It was something to behold, that lit “T” against Catalina Island’s perfect blue-purple night sky. Did God Himself light it up? One couldn’t be sure.

That first year was more fun that I’d had in a long time, maybe ever. Even though it was the summer I was still only twelve years old, but pushing thirteen, between seventh and eighth grades, it was at that point the longest I had gone without a cigarette, alcohol, or marijuana in about a year (Andre’s and my bust by Smitty coming the following summer). I returned to North Hollywood that first year feeling exhilarated. We were encouraged to get our Rags: colored bandanas, earned by various commitments to the YMCA, to Jesus, and to our fellow Campers. I earned my Blue Rag that year. The Blue Rag was the easiest Rag to earn: an entry-level Rag, like a white belt in martial arts. It says “I’m a beginner, but I’ve heard of what you do, and I showed up a couple of times.” Fair enough. Higher level Rags required real commitment, essays, quizzes, and Bible knowledge. I obtained a Silver Rag the following year, but never beyond that. I was too much of a fuck up.

Returning to North Hollywood after that first year, and eighth grade at Walter Reed Junior High, I could never quite shake Camp Fox from my memory. As I sunk even deeper into a world of marijuana, alcohol, speed, cocaine, mushrooms, cigarettes, and awkward relationships with girls, Tim, Don, Smitty, Dana, and the other counselors and friends and the Cross on the Mountain were never far from my mind. It was as if I had been let in on a secret that none of my mainland friends knew about. Jesus was real. God was real. Don, Tim, Smitty, and Dana were real. There was a better, purer, more spiritual and satisfying way to life one’s life. One didn’t need to smoke weed, pop pills, and drink Olde English every day in order to find meaning in one’s life. I knew these things, but I did not heed them. I partied may way into surer and deeper destruction, having a lot of fun, but ultimately realizing I was doing perhaps permanent damage to my body as well as my soul, as I waited for eighth grade to end so I could return to Camp Fox, and maybe get my head and my spirit straight. Maybe this year it would stick.

I would begin the summer between my eighth and ninth grades, just weeks before my second trip to Camp Fox, literally the first day of summer vacation, at Santa Monica beach, three RTD buses away from North Hollywood. We started the journey with Mike trying to buy beer for us at the Laurel Canyon and Burbank Blvd liquor store, without success, despite his old-guy disguise of Rayban sunglasses and an unlit Marlboro hanging out of his mouth (Mike didn’t smoke). But the ploy worked when we finally arrived, three buses later, in Santa Monica. Mike was bigger and more confident than the rest of us, and he was able to score us a six-pack of Mickey’s Big Mouth, although he was only fourteen years old. We drank our lagers with imagined impunity on the beach, that is, until the Santa Monica bicycle cops yelled at us. I moseyed beyond the restroom, not comprehending who the guys on the bicycles were, wanting to finish my beer in peace. Ten seconds later a uniformed police officer chased my best friend Chad around the edifice and tackled him to the ground. Before I knew it, I was next, laying face down on the beach, desperately trying to bury the beer bottle in the sand beneath me, and then being handcuffed and led off the shore, back up to Vincente Terrace, where we waited for the police cruiser to take me, Chad, and John to jail. Mike and other friends had escaped somehow, or had already finished their beers, or never drank any in the first place. A girl named Robin kept my slip-on Vans and wallet where I had left them at lifeguard station 17, and I picked them up from her apartment a couple of days later. But while sitting on that curb, hands behind my back, the cuffs felt fairly loose. I was successfully wriggling my way – surreptitiously, I thought – out of the handcuffs; ten more seconds and they would be off, and I would bolt away from the cops while they weren’t looking, and I’d jump on a bus and be free. But the cop saw me trying to worm my way out, walked over, and clamped the manacles down so tightly that the blood flow came to an almost full stop. I knew then I was good and truly fucked.

It was an unpleasant day in Santa Monica City Jail, but I got out several hours later with essentially a slap on the blood-starved wrist. I got in terrible trouble with my parents, and had some lightweight punishment by the court to fulfill, but Camp Fox was looming later in the summer and I was looking forward to it like nothing else. When John, Mike and I finally got there I was overjoyed to see Andre, Steve and other friends from the year before. We sang the Christian songs, hiked up to the cross, did the Jesus workshops, put the duct tape on our shoulders, and also snuck out to the cave, and up to the water tower, to snort coke, drink tequila, and smoke marijuana and cigarettes.

But during Campfire, in the evenings, when the cross would alight atop the mountain, I would feel guilty. What was I doing? Why am I smoking and drinking and taking drugs, when really what seemed to speak to my soul was none of those things? What seemed more real and pure was Smitty, and Tim and Don, and their guitars, and the Cross, and Andre, Steve, John, Mike, and a fourteen-year-old girl named Kris who had beautiful eyes and curly hair, and was sweet and kind.

After the drugs and alcohol were gone, we were left with cigarettes, and that’s when Andre and I got busted by Smitty at the cave. (I wasn’t having a good summer, in terms of getting away with stuff.) It felt like justice though. We crawled back out the mouth of the cave after Smitty, admitted to smoking the cigarettes, honestly relieved to have our true selves revealed, to cop to our crimes (well, only the cigarette crimes), and face justice before the Lord God himself, or to Smitty, the next best thing.

So Andre and I were banished from the dance, but we danced. We had fun. We hoped we wouldn’t get kicked out of camp, but if we did, oh well, we were living. Steve was the King of the Stoners, down below at the dance, and he would shout and wave at us. Andre and I became kind of celebrities, not sitting and moping and bemoaning our fates, but dancing, loving the island, each other, God, and life itself. We became rock stars of a sort that night, with the rest of the well-heeled kids as well as the few stoners, looking up at us under the lights at the basketball courts by the staff quarters.

Smitty told us to go back to our villas that night, get some sleep, and meet him before breakfast the next morning. I walked out to the beach that night, and looked up at the full moon, illuminating what seemed the entirety of Catalina Island. I looked the cross, still lit, on the mountain, and thought to myself – prayed, maybe – I need to turn my life around. I was routinely failing classes at school, smoking weed daily at this point, and heading down a terrible, seemingly irrevocable, path. But here, at the shore of crystal clear waters on the island, with the moon, the cross, and my friends all nearby, I really and truly wanted to make a change in my life.

I slept soundly, if not for long, until the wakeup bell. Andre and I went to see Smitty, and were elated to learn that our crimes were absolved, and we would be allowed to stay the two final days at Camp. Word spread around the campers that the white kid and the black kid from up on the basketball courts the night before were given a reprieve, and would be staying at camp. The rumor mill spread tales of cocaine, LSD, blackout drinking binges, none of which was too far from the truth, but paled against our actual crime of lighting a couple of Marlboros.

It was an emotional week. Kris was beautiful and flirtatious, and we became even closer after my acquittal. Steve – King of the Stoners – was strong, tan, long-haired, and slowly turning his way toward the spiritual path, as I was. That night at Campfire, the final Campfire, the counsellors asked us to lower our heads and really consider our commitment to Jesus. With our heads bowed they asked us to close our eyes and raise a hand in the air if we truly were willing to let Jesus into our hearts. They did this routine the year before at the last Campfire, and my and my friends’ hands had stayed down. But now I peeked across the amphitheater at Steve, where he was sitting with his villa-mates. He looked me square in the eyes and slowly nodded his head. Yes, he said with that nod, we’re doing this. I bowed my head, squeezed my eyes tight, and put my hand up into the air. It was one of the singular moments of my life, even now, thirty-five years later. All my bullshit, all my partying, and drugs, and drinking, and screwing over my parents and my school, came down to this. I found a better path that night.

After Campfire there was much talking and weeping. (I don’t mean this cynically, but to Camp Fox’s credit, they had this trip down to a science.) Tim, the camp director and Smitty’s cohort, asked those who raised their hands to take a quick hike up to the water tower after Campfire, yes, despite the late hour. There were only about ten or fifteen of us: Me, Steve, Andre, Mike, John, and many of us stoners. Tim talked to us earnestly about the commitment we had made. We had pure love in our hearts now; Jesus would always be with us. Tim and the staff at Camp Fox would do everything they could to help prepare us for our journey back to the mainland the next day, like where we could go to church, and how we could resist temptation and become better citizens all around. I was a hundred percent in on this plan. I knew I hadn’t been going anywhere good, and that my life was sinking into a spiral. I felt this new love, and I was ready to live it.

Two days later, on the boat on the way home, Kris and I talked the whole way. We wrote letters to each other for the next few months, but I never saw her again. As close as we got that week, we never even kissed. I came back to the mainland and called my stoner friends, the ones who didn’t go to camp. We got together and I tried to explain to them about the love of Jesus, and about the virtues of following a spiritual path, while they smoked bongloads and drank Olde English forties. They chuckled and said “whatever, dude,” and within a couple of days I was smoking and drinking right along with them, and did so for the next year until it was time to back to Camp. I never went to church. I felt guilty, but I slipped easily back into my old ways.

The next year, ninth grade, wasn’t good. I continued to smoke and drink myself into a stupor, failed most of my classes, and was banned from attending graduation ceremonies from Walter Reed Junior High. (At that time, junior high was seventh through ninth grades, and high school was tenth through twelfth.) By some miracle I was passed on to the tenth grade at North Hollywood High, but I was not permitted to walk the stage as a junior high grad at Reed with my fellow ninth-graders, including my girlfriend at the time. At Camp that summer it was as if the previous year never happened. Steve and I never spoke of our conversion to Christianity, which we had both seemed to abandon within days of returning to the mainland. Andre wasn’t there that following year, and neither was Mike, nor Kris. Although I had earned my Silver Rag the year before, I didn’t even try for the Red. We snuck off to the water tower, and the hill on the back side of camp (we had learned the cave wasn’t safe) and we smoked and drank as normal. I found a girlfriend at camp that year, a fifteen-year-old like me with a unique name. She was gorgeous, and we made out all week long. I looked her up on Facebook recently, and because of her unique name she was easily found, but I decided not to make contact. She’s pushing fifty now, like me, and still beautiful, and she’s having a life like the rest of us, with all the ups and downs and kids and jobs that happen. I spent about three minutes on her page and moved on. I don’t feel a need to reach out; we have no people in common. I wish her the best, she was a sweet kid.

That was my last year at Camp Fox. I didn’t go between tenth and eleventh grades. By then I was way too enmeshed in my love of marijuana to be able to consider going a week without, or sneaking around like a criminal when I was there. By that time, I was working, and smoking pot with impunity – for the most part – in my own home. Jesus was long gone, and I had no desire to seek Him out again. The following year, when I was in eleventh grade, I knew I was going to die. My drug and alcohol use became even more intense, and I prayed one night that if God kept me alive, I would return to Camp Fox the following summer, and find the righteous path again. I never returned to Camp Fox, but a day after reciting this prayer, I overdosed on formaldehyde-laced marijuana. The overdose led me to the hospital, then eventually to a substance-abuse treatment center, and an outpatient counseling program with lots of other teenagers who were trying to kick alcohol and drug problems. Many of us, me included, did kick these problems. I didn’t drink alcohol or smoke pot for decades after that. And for a few years I tried to go back down that spiritual path I had first experienced at Camp Fox, the night at Campfire when Steve nodded to me that, yes, we were going to raise our hands.

(Once, a few months before my rehab, I had a bad LSD trip. I ended up cowering in the weeds in the back area behind my house, and clear as day, I hallucinated Tim, from Camp Fox, telling me that I needed to change my life. “I know,” I cried, “I know, Tim.” In the hallucination though, Tim was God Himself. I took acid maybe one more time after that, but never again. I was clean and sober in my outpatient program a few months later.)

But the spiritual path didn’t stick, although I stayed clean and sober for more than thirty years, until I was in my mid-forties. The emotional pull of changing one’s life is powerful indeed, but ultimately I found it hard to believe in something for which there was no real evidence, despite the strong, real, feelings I had once had. I figured it was worth being a good person for goodness’ own sake, but an omniscient overseer seemed, and still seems, far-fetched. I can still find love in my heart, can still breathe deep and soak in the glory of the sun and the wind and my family and my friends and I can revere the miracle of my existence, but I don’t believe there is someone out there watching and listening. Maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t it be great if I was?

I’m not sober anymore, but I’m nothing like the substance abuser I was when I was a teenager. Although I never went back to Camp Fox, I never forgot it. I grew up, got married, had kids, and my wife Amy and I took them to Camp Sacramento for eleven straight years when we were in our thirties and early forties. Camp Sac was an absolute blast, and there was no religious element to it whatsoever; Amy and I were mainly there to provide a fun experience for the kids. I loved going to Camp Sac, but it bore not much similarity to being a teenager at Camp Fox, in respect to the emotional roller-coaster that annually ensued. But we’ll see what our kids have to say about it eventually.

I go to a technology conference every year, and it’s beginning to feel like summer camp too, with much of the partying and none of the Jesus. A friend and I were talking about this, and we decided that Conference’s new name was #CampIAUG. This is my new summer camp: a place where you see incredible friends once a year, but typically not in-between. A place where some heavy shit goes down sometimes, but your Camp friends are by each other’s side every step of the way. I love it! There are fewer drugs (zero for me, but maybe some people smoke a little weed, I don’t know), more alcohol (occasionally too much), and good grown-up business stuff too. So this is my new summer camp.

Camp Fox was literally a lifetime ago, thirty-five years ago. I don’t remember Andre’s or Steve’s or Kris’s last names. John’s not on social media. Mike, I think, was for a while but seems not to be anymore. Camp Fox has a web and social media presence, but diving too deep there is somewhat painful to me. My times at Camp were some of the most emotional and serious of my life. It was more than fun: it was good, and it hurt, and it was intense, and it was amazing, and it was terrifying all at the same time. Ultimately, it was a place that offered me a way out of a dark period of my life, but that I chose to cast aside. Although I have done many bad things in my life, I choose not to wallow in regret. Today, at forty-eight, I am probably the happiest and most fulfilled that I’ve ever been, though not without some bumps in the road. Every idiotic and brilliant thing I’ve ever done got me here, so although there are things in my past I might change if I could, I’m not sure I would, given the chance.

Sometimes this trope goes around: What would you say to your teenage self? It’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t know what I would say. I think nothing. I think I’d walk on past that teenaged kid, a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard, pretending I didn’t know him, because he certainly wouldn’t know me. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, I would think, because he’s going to become me.

But I’d turn around and watch him walk away.