Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Camp Concentration

By Stuart Prestidge

MAY 10, 1999:  Picture the scene: The beautiful Catskill Mountains rolling into the distance resplendent with thick green succulent foliage as far as the eye could see. A cool breeze and the bright June sunshine combining in such perfect harmony that shorts and a T-shirt are the only clothes necessary. One hundred or so interesting, young, and intelligent men and women from countries as far and diverse as Australia, Russia, Colombia, America, and England. Finally, add 500 overweight children ranging in age from six to 16, and you have all of the ingredients for the most surreal three months of my entire life.

In March 1997 my college career was quickly coming to a close and with it came the very real threat of succumbing to a life of paycheques and tedium. In a vain attempt to delay the inevitable, I decided to apply for the position of gym instructor at a summer camp for overweight children in New York state. Incredibly, I got the job, and in June flew to New York, then took the bus to Monticello, eventually arriving at Camp Shane, which was to be my temporary home for the next three months.

The camp's facilities were adequate but not spectacular. The tennis courts were cracked but usable; the gym was small and often damp. The cabins were constructed from weathered wood, and almost every bunk bed and mattress showed severe signs of fatigue from a lifetime of supporting the enormous bulk of the annual denizens. In an attempt to thwart Mother Nature's hormonal insistence that 16-year-old boys and 16-year-old girls should "get naked" at every possible opportunity, the camp was geographically divided in to two parts; the girls' camp and, not surprisingly, the boys' camp. Each cabin within each camp contained between 10 and 12 campers and two or more counsellors. The day started at 8am with breakfast, then three hours of activity, lunch, rest, three more hours of activities, dinner, free time, evening activity, and finally more free time, until the commencement of "lights out" at 9pm for the younger children. My first few weeks passed in a sleep-deprived haze without incident, but one fateful night things began to get a little weird.

In the inimitable words of The Miami Herald's Dave Barry, I swear to you that what follows is the truth and "I am not making this up."

Since this was my first (and last) experience of counselling at a summer camp for the unfortunate children burdened by obesity, I was ignorant to the potential gold mine that 500 candy-starved kids could generate due to their almost addictive, constant, and substantial need for 70¢ candy bars. Other counsellors were, however, not, and had long ago realised that in this environment of candy prohibition the "black market" price of a Snickers bar could reap healthy rewards. Chewing gum, cigarettes, and cans of Coke were also prized commodities, so much so that one would be forgiven for thinking, based on price alone, that the Coke being traded was not brown and fizzy but white and powdery.

illustration by Jason Stout

There were two major "candy narcotics" cartels that were busted in the nine weeks of camp and probably many more minor operations that were never revealed. In an astounding lack of reasoning, the two ringleaders, when discovered, were not fired but instead, presumably due to the possibility of covert surveillance and wire taps, had to limit their dealings to a limited circle of trusted users.

On the infrequent nights off we counsellors enjoyed, relaxation was found in one of two local pubs in the small town just up the road. On this particular night, as the midnight curfew approached, so, with equal speed, did the state of unconsciousness for a counsellor named Travis. A goofy kind of a guy, Travis was surely the human inspiration behind Beavis & Butt-head, with a penchant for relaxing to the point of collapse. It was time to leave, and with the help of two fellow counsellors Travis was loaded into the minibus and taken back to camp. After miraculously signing the headcount sheet upon his drunken return, Travis headed to his cabin and the safe confines of his bed within, but his night was only just beginning. The physical toll required to reach the top bunk bed proved too much, and Travis' night of debauchery, in one sticky, carrot-filled gush, came back to haunt him and the camper who had the misfortune of sharing his bunk bed. At approximately 1am, vomit cascaded from Travis like water from a fountain, its chosen target being not a sink or even the expanse of floor, but instead the sleeping child below.

As punishment, Travis lost a day off and a week's worth of nights off, but, unperturbed, Travis went on to repeat this event, albeit minus the vomit, eventually reaching his zenith when he allegedly struck a camper whom he accused of stealing. Travis was ultimately fired.

Bear was a big man, his sobriquet in no sense given in irony. He was in charge of the youngest boys. There were numerous rumours circulating around the camp that after a night off, Bear would, on occasion, so totally forget he shared a cabin with six-year-old children that he would think nothing of undertaking solo relief with "Mrs. Palm & Her Five Lovely Daughters."

By virtue of his lofty status as Team Leader, Bear apparently had no night-off curfew restrictions, so took advantage and arrived back at camp at roughly 3am. In homage to the story of "Goldilocks & the Three Bears," he proceeded to awaken a sleeping child exclaiming that this was his bed, and that Tony, the head of boys' camp, wished to see him. Startled and confused, the boy ventured out into the night in search of Tony. The boy woke Tony in his cabin, tearfully explaining the previous events and was accompanied back to his cabin. Upon entering the cabin, Tony was no doubt startled to find a naked Bear in the teary-eyed boy's bed. Suffice to say, Bear, too, was fired.

Along with the recreational facilities provided, there was also a small, on-site camp infirmary for the treatment of the inevitable bumps, bruises, and sprains. During a week reminiscent of the episode of South Park when pinkeye ravages the residents, so too did this most contagious ailment infect the population of Camp Shane. Despite the brutal efforts of a number of campers who would deliberately poke themselves in the eye, thus simulating the manifestations of an authentic pinkeye victim, in an attempt to enjoy the pinkeye remedy of zero activity due to expedient isolation, the epidemic was genuine. It affected both counsellors and campers alike, and it was one counsellor's enforced isolation in the infirmary that would lead to the discovery of one staff member's secret life.

During a night of fitful sleep, Ally, a lifeguard when healthy, awoke to the sounds of what seemed to indicate a sexual encounter. Suspecting that the sounds were the product of teenage hormones combined with the tempting proximity of the nonsegregated male and female pinkeye casualties, Ally was surprised to discover that the sounds, in fact, emanated from the head nurse's office.

After a brief, clandestine investigation by the powers that be, it was discovered that the head nurse was a very busy woman indeed: By day, she would tend to the wounded, dutifully dressing the various children's cuts and scrapes. By night, she would tend to the lonely and desperate via a phone-sex line she ran from her office. Suspicion was apparently not aroused when she allegedly requested her own separate phone line at the commencement of her employment. Much to the disappointment of the male counsellors, she, too, was fired.

Despite the very real fears the children harboured of being rudely awakened by either an inebriated and naked member of staff or a vomit shower, most, if not all, of the kids left camp with considerable gains in self-confidence, matched by an equally impressive reduction in weight. Losses of 10-20 pounds in the first week alone were not uncommon, and the combined loss of every child must have been in the tonnes. Yet despite the children's tremendous accomplishments, it will be the other, unexpected, and less flattering aspects of the summer camp experience that, like a nightmare, will always be with me. To this day, when I'm down and blue, the mental image of an overweight child and vomit colliding still manages to raise a smile on my face.

In an attempt to convey in words the sheer ineffability of the Camp Shane experience, I humbly abuse the locution created by those clever people behind MasterCard's current and constant barrage of the airways:

Price to send child to summer camp -- $8,000.

Price of a Three Musketeers on the "Candy Black Market" -- $5.

Discovering that the head nurse ran a phone-sex operation from the children's infirmary...


Stuart Prestidge is from England. His editor thinks he spells funny.

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