Kids These Days

The summer moves on, sometimes without me. I used to have the structure of summer camp to hold my days in place – breakfast, pools, lunch, sunburn – but now things are much more free flowing. I’m never sure how to use my free time. I’ve read four books in the past two weeks, all written by a Midwestern woman in the nineties. I share them with my dad once I finish.

Most days I spend with kids. Like my mentee, Albert. He’ll be entering fifth grade in the fall. Not only is he exceptionally bright, but I’ve begun to realize that he may be as socially inept as I am. I took him to Barnes and Nobles for his birthday, offering to buy whatever book he wanted. After perusing for a half hour (and glossing over each of my suggestions), we approached the center kiosk and, without forewarning, Albert spouted, “Excuse me: do you perhaps have the Fart Book in stock?”

Following up that classy, polite query, after the worker replied with a slighly-southern tinted accent, Albert said, “Are you from France or something?”

My wife pleads with me to filter my thoughts, which I often release like beautiful doves before a climatic gun battle. I think, If he didn’t want to be asked about the origin of his tattoos, he shouldn’t wear them so prominently. I’m sure Albert thought, If he doesn’t want to be accused of being French, he should dial back his accent.

There is a family that comes to one of our summer clubs that speaks no English. They often drop their son and daughter off wordlessly, not conveying their inability to pick them up afterward. Several times, after club when all the other parents have come and gone, I’ll turn to those two kids and ask, “Do you want to call your mother?” and they’ll say, “Oh, she’s not coming. She wants you to take us home.”

One such night, the older sister climbed into the back of my Civic and let the younger brother ride shotgun. In my backseat, I keep a myriad of board games and donated dime novels, used for various, creative activities like Black Out Poetry and Mystery Novel Basketball. Angeles – a sweet, twelve-year-old Hispanic girl – picked up a novel and began reading in a slight accent:

For twenty-five years the unsolved kidnapping of two young girls has haunted Lucas Davenport. Today, two bodies have been found. He must return to a nightmare -“

“Maybe I should take that,” I said, extending my hand towards her.

“This is good,” she said, ignoring me. I watched her in the rear-view as she opened the novel. Perhaps, I thought, she’ll leave it at that. “Listen to this: The Dexedrine was beginning to fade, but Lucas was still too jacked to sleep. Instead of going home, he drove down to Kenny’s bar -“

GIVE ME THAT BOOK!”

The car swerved slightly as I took it from her.

 

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Kids Who Live Between the Cracks

As a supervisor at summer camp, I mostly know two types of kids: the trouble makers and the awesome makers. Those who deserve punishment, and those who deserve to be adopted by myself and my wife. The majority of camp falls somewhere in between.

One week sessions are worse because there exists half the time for the same number of names and faces. Sometimes I don’t even catch the awesome makers. I’m too busy arbitrating a disagreement about hat stealing and shoe throwing (both received five minutes off of their free time).

Last week, I made a rounds of the cabins I supervised on Final Friday, the last day of camp. I had to encourage campers and negligent counselors to continue sweeping and to please identify and pack all pairs of underwear abandoned on the clothesline. My third time in Cabin 37, Isaac stopped me.

This particular session was a young one – those in Cabin 37 were entering the fifth grade as eleven-year-olds. Even so, Isaac was the runt. Blonde headed and bug eyed, Isaac was four inches shorter than anyone else in the cabin and he spoke like a plainsclothed policeman, whispering into a hidden microphone. Most questions aimed at Isaac echo off his stone faced but sweet visage and are answered by his cabin mates. He is slow to speak and moves quite silently. I knew him little.

*pick a card* he whispered, fanning a deck of 52 in front of me. I chose the six of diamonds entirely by accident. *now put it back* he said three times before I finally understood him.

Isaac then began to shuffle the deck thoroughly, not looking at the cards or myself, but at an unmoving shadow of light coming in from the shuttered window. Then, as abruptly as he began his trick, he ceased shuffling and handed me the deck.

I took it in one hand, expecting further instructions, but none came. Small Isaac, oblivious and quiet, still stared at the shadow. Then, without warning, he slapped the deck out of my hand with an amount of force that shocked me, compared to his tiny frame.

The cards scattered to the floor. All the cards, except the six of diamonds – somehow, I was still holding it.

In amazement, I looked at Isaac with my eyes held wide. I had only learned his name that morning, when I had to double-check whether he would ride the bus or be picked up by his parents. I opened my mouth to congratulate him on a well done trick, much like I would to any camper, but instead he walked back to his bunk and laid down.

Other campers began to pick up the cards quickly, as one shouted, “Isn’t Isaac awesome?”

I’m now in the early stages of adoption papers.

A Controversial Gamesmith

Five weeks into my new job, I’m beginning to deduce my strengths and weaknesses. For instance, weakness: I don’t know what I’m supposed to be working on most days. Strength: I have funny asides during staff meetings.

Weakness: Many days I forget to bring my lunch. Strength: I create new games.

We have Ozone club twice a week; middle and high school campers from War Eagle gather for an hour and a half to play games and review the gospel of Luke. There is a document that floats around our office labeled Game Gallery, which lists forty or so possible group games to fill the time at club.

Not I, I say.

My co-director has been gracious enough to let me make up one game a week; these are extravagantly hit or miss. I can’t abide normalcy. I makes me feel like everyone else.

Reverse Charades and Animal Kingdom were both hits, though I’ve been told they bear resemblance to pre-existing games. So sue me, Samsung says. Not so with Stickman Kickball. That was completely original and inspired great ambivalence. Kickball without the use of joints like knees and elbows, it was fun for the few who played infield and really fun for the handful who cheated.

A few games halfway worked; most often these were the ones geared towards creation. Silent Art Gallery and Six Word Art Gallery were well received during the drawing/writing aspect but fumbled with presentation. In these, our middle schoolers had to silently work together to draw a pre-determined scene; a few days later, the high schoolers had to pick one of those works and write a six word story about it. Though share time was awkward, it did result in some abstract gems from students I would’ve never suspected.

“Slowly, leave something that is lost,” and “Gazing serpent gazes at what was” were both written about a dinosaur fighting an army tank.

There are complete duds, like Chinpenny Underwear Dodgeball, which of course requires no explanation. I changed the rules so many times during play that we finished playing a game called the Chinpenny Olympics. Chinpenny has now become a buzzword in staff meetings for ideas that won’t fly.

When I was at camp this summer, I was given a family group, or small group of counselors to look after. Most family groups revolve around food, watching sports or making pottery. Horrified at being like everyone else, I wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons with my group. However, the complicated system discourages new and casual players. So as I supervised the waterfront, I wrote an entirely new system of rules that did away with any statistics or mechanics I thought extraneous. The end product was different enough that I renamed it Skygarden.

We played six sessions over the summer; during a change-over session when old counselors went home and new counselors arrived, I was approached by players asking for a good death. Eventually their characters died while fighting off a troll horde over an endless chasm.

Skygarden remains my most successful invention as the participants recently approached me about recording the rules so they could play with their roommates and fraternity brothers. I wrote it all down one morning while Holly was sleeping.

You can download the Skygarden Manual free because I’m a swell guy.

Targeting the Audience

On Saturday, summer camp ended for the season. We went out with an awards dinner and a skit revue titled, “Encores.” I co-wrote this year’s, like last year’s, and modeled it after Saturday Night Live. There was “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “Weekend Update” as well as a musical guest.

Afterwards, the camp director approached me and said it was one of the best he’d ever seen. “Except for one thing,” he added. “That Drunk Uncle guy. I didn’t really understand that.” He was referring to a reoccuring character on SNL’s “Weekend Update.” Their version of Drunk Uncle complains mostly about the state of youth today. One of my co-workers has a solid impression and we ran with it. He complained about the coaching in campers’ tribal competition.

“So you didn’t like it?” I repeated dumbly.

“No, no I didn’t really see the point,” the director said. “But I’m not your target audience.”

This summer I also wrote Eagle Tales, the skit series that camp uses to teach the Christian gospel and camping values. In the past, Eagle Tales was a disjointed group of skits with consistent characters but an unconnected plot. That’s not me. Instead, I wrote a six part series that followed young Finneas the Knight, his twin sister Quintus the Archer, and Steve the Wizard. Steve spoke like Satchmo in a wizard hat and cast spells from an electric guitar. He was inspired by a picture of actor Ian McKellan in sunglasses For some reason, Steve was the absolute star.

In each episode, Steve had maybe four or five lines – half of which were always “STEVE!” Regardless of depth of character, campers loved him. Before some performances they would chant, “WE WANT STEVE” so loud that my character, a puppet named Blizz the Well Informed, would have to quiet them.

“Silence, children,” Blizz would squeal.

“Orange elmo!” campers would cry back.

The adventurers traveled a long way to slay a dragon and rescue a princess. Along the way they crossed the Bridge of Broken Rainbows, were captured by Rothgar the Pantsless, dueled Joe Jonas, and recited numerous puns and Star Wars references. Yet all the kids wanted was Steve.

I think the most frustrating thing involved in directing Eagle Tales was that no one appreciated my humor. Not only the kids, but even counselors didn’t recognize the deep pool of kill puns (Sorry to cut it short, I hope you get the point, Let me put a bow on it). It wasn’t until August until I realized that I missed my target audience. In my effort to craft the show that would make me laugh the hardest, I forgot that eight year olds don’t really have the cultural back ground for things like, “He’s all tied up at the moment!” All they wanted was a quirky wizard with a funny name.

In the last two weeks I finally gave the actor playing Steve carte blanche to say his name as many times per episode as he wanted. It was our most successful run to date. No person has yet to recognize the Star Wars quote in each episode.

Welcome Back to Camp!

I like to blog because funny things happen. I must tell someone. However, working at a summer camp introduces new difficulties. The camp-cultural background required to appreciate what these kids say and do, as well as the legal restrictions of privacy and concerns about context create obstacles in the way of making people laugh. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t laughed in July.

I, at the bottom right, practice a camp skit called the “Rocking Car.” It’s performed once every session. I just drove the car for the thirtieth time. It always ends the same way.

For two weeks, all summer staff at camp played a game of Assassins. You receive a water pistol and a secret target, and you spend your off-time trying to assassinate him or her, just as someone is secretly after you. In my six summers at War Eagle I have never made a kill. So when I was the first male killed out of a hundred and fifty males, I was unphased. As heavy footsteps sounded behind me, I thought, “Of course this happens to me.”

My wife Holly, however, chose to take the game seriously this year. She killed four targets before bowing out because of a possible rules infraction (she had rifled through someone’s luggage, looking for car keys so she could hide in the back of the target’s Civic). At one point she spent the two hours between 10 p.m. and midnight hiding under the bunk of a victim because her target locked the cabin at night.

I wrote a novel during fifth session, in outline form. Black pen marks cover the front and back of 22 pages of computer paper. My superiors were curious why I did so much paper work. It’s about a man from the future who falls into a portal, transporting him to a more medieval time, a la A Connecticut Yankee… or Timeline. All the characters have last names taken from campers in the cabins that I managed: Mondragon, Goforth, Overturf. Look no further than the real world for fantasy.

I like portal stories. I think it fulfills my own daydreams and fantasies.

I also drew several maps of the magical land. And invented a language. Tevwoshi-Elvish. “Ma’fest mish” – I go to death, as Skillian Underturf, the grizzled old dwarf says. The language itself has only one parsed tense and relies on prefixes to denote time or objectivity. It also has no prepositions, which I appreciate. Sometimes prepositions overwhelm me.

There’s only one week of camp left before I start my new job working for Ozone, War Eagle’s year-round outreach program. I will be a city director in Rogers, maintaining the camp experience all year for any attending kids. And at club, announcements will be in English and Tevwoshi-Elvish both.

Brotherly Love

Now that the summer has come I have switched from maintenance to camp programs. Holly and I moved out to Camp War Eagle two weeks ago to teach an intensive, four day lifeguarding class. Each year the class starts with an endurance swim of 600 yards. I re-certified this year and swam it miserably and alone before the class officially started. Hours later, as the lifeguard hopefuls slipped into the water, I found out that it was only 300.

My brother Harlin is out at War Eagle this summer; he certified to be a lifeguard as well. Though he wasn’t in my teaching group, I could see him stride jump into the pool because his legs are the biggest pair of scissors on the planet. When the class moved towards the final skill, backboarding potential spinal injuries, I made it a point to watch Harlin perform. He dove nine feet in order to secure and resurface with his victim. When he came up treading water, he yelled, “I can’t see anymore!”

I never knew how bad my brother’s eyesight is. I assumed that we had similar prescriptions – not in the least. He could hit the broadside of the barn but he wouldn’t know it was a barn. And the rush of resurfacing washed his contacts out of his eyes and onto his cheeks.

Before he could make a further decision, his victim, another future lifeguard, recognized the problem. “Don’t worry,” she said as she took his contacts and put them in her mouth. Then Harlin finished the backboard procedure with a lot of helpful commands from the sidelines.

He wore the same contacts the next day.

Harlin won’t work the first half of the summer – he’s enrolled in summer school. Classes actually began four days before orientation ended. As a part of camp policy, Harlin had to leave camp early in the morning to attend his classes and return in the afternoon. The night before his first class, we talked about when he should leave camp and agreed on 6:30.

The next morning at 7:15, Holly and I stepped onto the office porch where Harlin was sitting in a porch swing. “Have you seen my keys?” he asked. No, and not usually, I said. “I think I may have given them to Katie,” he said, citing his girlfriend. “I’m waiting for her to wake up.” To speed up the process, Holly gave him the keys to her car, warning him that it was low on fuel. After he thanked her and turned to go, he said, “Oh yeah – my wallet’s in my car. Can I borrow money for gas?”

That night when he returned, showed me his spare car key and paid me back. He was a half hour late to class, but Harlin described his history professor as “an odd duck.” The first hour of the four hour block was the professor’s lifestory. Since Harlin  missed it, he summed it up during the first break. The man has been in three movies.

While we were talking, Holly arrived and asked about her car. “It’s fine,” he said. “And thanks for gas. Oh yeah – you got a parking ticket because you don’t have an NWACC pass. You need to be more careful next time. But your court date isn’t for another month.”

I assured Holly that he was joking. However, that night when we got back to our room there was a yellow parking slip on her pillow. It was only a first-offense warning.

The Triple C

At Camp we keep a community chest called the CCC, which is an acronym that I have no explanation for. Campers who arrive without the necessities (all the shirts and underwear to make it through a exhausting and dirty week) can restock through the CCC. Even toiletries and bedding. Since 70% of camp kids are on scholarship, it’s not surprising how many kids need a little extra.

In the off-season, however, the CCC lies dormant. Sometimes there’s a shipment of deodorant or new socks but there’s no real need for its services. By anyone but maintenance, that is.

I never know what I’m going to be doing at camp. Many times I’ve come to work with one pair of clothes only to leave in another. Mud pit or giant petri dish, I find ways to spoil new shirts. Back in the fall I was tapped to crawl inside the blobs floating in the Cove and wipe down the old moisture with beach towels. It smelled like slow death in there. Afterwards, I visited the CCC for a change of clothes.

The Cove is totally empty now. The black rubber liner fades to a strong green color as it slopes down to the bottom. There was a small contest among the three young workers on who didn’t have to crawl down there to unhook the pumps. I won. The other two guys were wearing different shirts at lunch.

The CCC’s most frequent customer during the off-season, however, is far and away Juan. Juan gets a lot of the dirty jobs at camp. He’s always painting something or shoveling something else. Shirts are like tissues to him – they can only be used four times before they have to be thrown away.

English is Juan’s second language and he speaks it better than any second language I’ve ever studied. However, since it is his second language there are often misunderstandings. And since the CCC is often restocked with last year’s lost and found, this can lead to some funny situations.

Two weeks ago Juan was wearing a camo colored shirt with big block letters on it. “DON’T WORRY,” it screamed. I asked Juan what it meant and he said, “Relax.” Then I pointed to the sentence below the words. “There’s enough of me to go around,” it said. Juan said that he didn’t bother to read that.

Monday at lunch he came up wearing a big red tee with a giant graphic of the pokemon Charzard.

On Thursday it was like he wasn’t even trying. “LADIES MAN,” the shirt screamed in lightning script. After I pointed it out he whispered, “Don’t tell my wife.”

The Cove Monster

As a child of sixteen, I knew there was a lake monster where my family liked to boat. I had evidence. From my nightmares. Once when my father hit a sandbar in a wide waterway of Beaver Lake, my skis sunk a foot before hitting a solid mass and I flipped out with my fingernails, trying to claw my way through a sand filled liopleurodon. I have issues about dark water and the unknown.

At Camp War Eagle there are two water activity areas – the Pools and the Cove. The Pools are two standard country club chlorine tanks with a few basketball goals and mysteriously deflating inner tubes. The Cove, though – the Cove is dark water. Everyone must wear a lifevest. It’s where we keep the blobs and water trampolines and the Cove Monster.

Counselors tell campers that the Cove Monster eats children who don’t wear lifevests. Something about a floatation allergy. Kids will try to pick apart the logic of the Monster – where is he during the day? has anyone seen him? is there a missus? – but eventually they buckle their jackets. But when I fall off the blob, I swim like an Olympian because I know that the Cove Monster doesn’t hone in on the lifejacketless – he goes for stationary targets.

(I realize this sounds like I’m exaggerating or even inventing. No one thinks there’s a monster in the Cove. However, I don’t walk around a hallway maze with the lights out and I don’t watch Paranormal Activity because, even if I know something isn’t real, that doesn’t mean it isn’t just invisible.)

My fears compounded when I became the Waterfront Director. I had to dive twenty feet to the bottom to tie loose blobs down on a metal H-frame. Usually this happened as lifeguards took their stands, preparing for an onslaught of children. I’d tread water for several minutes, breathing deeply, until someone asked if I was okay.

“If I’m not back in fifteen seconds,” I’d say, “Get the harpoon gun!” Then I’d dive, blind as the dark green water and later come up with maximum adrenaline, thrashing invisible demons.

Last week the word came down to drain the Cove. There’s a small door on the bottom that sounds like a bathtub plug. Because of the pressure exerted by a million and a half gallons of monster habitat, my boss hired divers to hook the trapdoor to a hydrolic pump. I was shoveling mulch when I saw them climb into the Cove. “NO ONE IS SAFE,” I tried to warn them. No one ever listens.

The hydrolic hose broke. Instead, we built a small floating island from spare dock parts and bolted two 8 h.p. pumps to the decking. Connecting it to land with a twenty foot ladder, we ran the discharge hoses off into the woods and push/pulled the dock into position with old ropes. It was very much likeThe Sandlot’s erector-set ball throwing robot. Except the Monster didn’t show.

Today was the third day that the pumps were churning. I can see the rusted H-frames that hold the blobs down as well as concrete filled tires that keep the trampolines in place. Nasty green algae coats a fifteen foot wide ring on the black rubber lining of our man-made pond. However – no monster. Last night I told Holly that I think the monster is laying flat on the Cove floor, stone still and holding his breath until we go away. She told me that she married a child.

As I prepared to leave camp today, I drove past the Cove a final time and saw a white swan treading water. I yelled at it to get out while it still could. But now that I remember the bird, pecking at the water plants and putzing around the shrinking pond, I believe I just got Keyser Soze’d.

A Moral Victory and An Actual Loss

Though I did not get a Spring Break, most everyone else did, including the Ozone program that Holly and I volunteer with. Ozone is the year-round ministry of Camp War Eagle – summer campers can come to a once-a-week club with all of the zany games and safety infractions they love. As it happens, our Ozone club loves me so much that they used their spring break to visit me at work.

Though there were a hundred and fifty high schoolers fist pumping the heart of camp back to life, I had to spend the sunlight hours cleaning bugs out of florescent lights and organizing limited inside jobs for service-hour hungry students. However, at night I became –

A BRO! The campers were grouped by city and age and were asked to decide on a collective name. Since my nine guys are at an age where imagination eats lunch in the bathroom, they called themselves The Bros. But we made the most of it. Fellows were bromoted, one was brotrayed (et tu, brotus?), and we sang “Bro, Bro, Bro Your Boat”. And we sang it in the bround.

There was a final competition on the last day, before boarding the homeward buses. A dodgeball tournament that paired a boy and girl group and pitted them against others via Round Robin. The Bros were matched with the Fire-Breathing Ponies, creating the Bronies and a Cinderella run.

The throwing motion is my nemesis. I cannot do it correctly. Balls most often look like asteroids that float by themselves in space, depressed and alone. As a rule I don’t put effort into dodgeball, in hopes that no one will notice that my arm looks like a crippled whale flipper.There was a short black girl on the Bronies. Journey. I knew Journey loved to sing and only held dodgeballs accidentally. I proposed that we spend the tournament dancing. She accepted. So over the next six games, Journey neither touched a ball or stopped moving. Together we did the robot, the wop, and the slide, among others. Though sometimes I stepped out to grab a ball (each time immediately getting out), Journey never gave up and never paid attention to what was going on around her.

The final game – the championship – arrived. Our team had handled most others swimmingly. During the championship, we were slaughtered. In record time. After only a few minutes, it was ten on two. Ten ball juggling high schoolers on one side, and on the other – Journey and me.I spent the next few minutes running line sprints and lobbing softballs at the huddle of opposing girls. There was a junior varsity baseball star facing me; he even had a lackey, a fifteen-year-old me, supplying him with ammunition. As we circled each other, I caught a glimpse of Journey. Still alive. Doing the moonwalk.

In the end, it amazed me still that not only did Journey survive as long as I did (eventually it was four on two) but never once considered playing dodgeball. She stuck to her strategy, which, to her credit, never gave any indication that it didn’t work. I was the one who occasionally stopped dancing, and I also occasionally got out. Even as I used my hands as crude spades to dig balls out of the nets surrounding the gym, I couldn’t bring myself to be mad. Journey was following her heart.And when she was finally hit, she struck a Michael Jackson before strutting off the court.

The Sword in the Stump

Tuesdays are bowling days for Rob Khale. He gets off early. Daniel the Wielder got sick fighting a fire yesterday, and so on until I was the only one left at the end of the day. My boss Rob Whorton called and asked me to lock up.

“I’ll pop, lock, and drop it up,” I answered. He ended the conversation by telling me I was reaching.

I found out that Juan was also there. There were no more engines to repair, so he came to help me cut up fallen trees along the fence line. Sometimes I accidentally speak to him in Turkish.

“Juan. Watch out – SEJAK!”

“What?”

“Oh – um…it’s hot. The engine’s hot.”

“Right.”

When camp first opened and I first joined as a counselor, there was a special landmark near the wooden ampitheater where each camper’s morning begins. It was called the Sword in the Stump, and every child knew it’s name. Counselors told a legend that there was indeed a special sword at the bottom of this hollow stump next to the canoe pond. Brave boys would cautiously approach and dip their hands in before running back to their friends saying, “Can’t do it, I JUST CAN’T!”

There was a repeat camper named Dances. I can’t remember his real name because he would only answer to Dances or Dances With Wolves. He liked Transformers and baggy shirts with nature scenes. As a pudgy nine year old with curly black hair, Dances was convinced of by the legend of the Sword in the Stump. He boldly approached it and stuck his entire arm down to the roots. When he pulled it out of the stump, his arm was orange up to the shoulder. He then threw up all over his nature themed shirt.

There is now a rule against the Sword in the Stump.

I bring this up because today I was given a special job. Though there is no longer a stump, there is now a small concrete bubble at the water’s edge. It houses PVC pipes and a pump. After 250 gallons of canoe pond water were pumped out, I was given a pair of wading boots and a dust pan and told to lower myself down. I spent the next thirty minutes in a tiny ball, leaning forward on my toes and scrapping dead leaves out of the muck with a broken plastic scoop. This was a place where peasant rats are unjustly locked up by their lords. This was the place where raccoons hide dead bodies and pray they decompose before raccoon CSI puts it together. This was the new Sword in the Stump.

While I was in this hole, Terry Faulkenberry, the fifty-year-old jack of all trades, crouched over the opening and dumped out the refuse buckets I handed him. I told him the story of Dances and the Sword in the Stump. He laughed and said he hadn’t heard that one before.

“But you think this is bad,” he said, “wait a couple of months until you have to muck out waste water.”

Thanks, Terry.