I have a good deal of respect for the fraud I was at that time. My bravado and false courage was believable. I was 22, driving a 15 seat van from deep in the Catskills down to Union Square where I would pick up families that included at least one member who was diagnosed with an intellectual and/or developmental disability. Pick up was at 5pm on Fridays in the middle of Manhattan. I was the host and the boss. The looks I got. I ignored them, but they were evident. I would drive families that had never met before through the dark and snow to a camp in the mountains that was so remote that the road turned to dirt about a quarter mile out. No houses or light emanating from anything but the vehicle. It had all been arranged by a finely tuned, though still almost totally pen and paper bureaucracy that I had a good deal of responsibility for. They were startled and perhaps a tad frightened by me.
‘You’re Joe MEDLER?’ They’d ask. ‘This Joe Medler?’ They would hold the letter, sometimes pulled from the envelope with my handwriting on it, looking very official, with the logo for AHRC of NYC across the top and a list of board officers and members cascading down the left hand side and point to my name under my signature.
‘Yep. You’re in the right place. Is this Daquan, then? Hey man. Are you excited to head up to the mountains? We’ve got so much fun stuff planned for you.’ I’d say, moving right past the doubts of these now very worried people and instead engaging the kids. I had at least the accidental wisdom of engaging thoughtfully with kids without patronizing them. Usually at least.
Thank god I didn’t recognize the doubt they must have been feeling. I mistook it for something I wanted to help change. It motivated me to be brave and bold and try honestly to change the world. Had I any of the wisdom I’ve gained since becoming a parent, wisdom that often is cloaked in fear and worry, I’d have known they were judging my youth and inexperience. I’d say they were right to have made such a judgment in general, but to this day, and I suspect for the rest of my life, this is the place and the job I was most perfectly suited to. Which isn’t to say this piece of the job was my strongest suit, but this place was the place that fit most perfectly with my emerging sense of right, wrong, fun, learning, priorities. It perfectly reflected my sensibilities. Harriman Lodge. Its my home, the one in my heart and it will always be to some degree.
I arrived at the place from across the state a summer or two ago. I don’t remember the timeline that well anymore. I was driven by my dad as it was the tail end of childhood and the leaping off point for my whole life. My confidence may have had little foundation, but it had good bones. I was a person taught to do what I believe even when it’s hard, especially when others aren’t. I had not yet applied these teachings, but somehow just being here, jumping in with two feet to a new and strange world and becoming a native felt like a stance. Taking the concerns of a person with disabilities as seriously as they took them, feeling like you were literally providing and caring for people that must have had innumerable amounts of ‘no’ and inadvertent and quite intentional discrimination heaped on them over a lifetime that often included severed family relations, neglect and institutional abuse felt world changing. It felt like I was making their lives better and as a result I was finally important. I was important for taking the care of and showing respect for people that needed help to have their voices heard. I was alongside the most wildly diverse assemblage I’ve ever been a part of, young people from all over the globe looking for a unique way to grow up while having fun and being the change they wanted to see in the world. It turned out that the people that were in our charge had a far greater impact on our lives those summers then we EVER could have had on theirs.
That first year was the moment I’ll always think of as my time of discovering the world and inventing myself. Leaping on opportunity and working 7 days a week, up to 20 hours a day, and no less then 16. Even when you were asleep in the cabin you always had one ear open in case a person that needed help was seeking it. You and 5 other counselors in a cabin of 18 guys. Then the leader of the cabin walks off the job, unable to deal with it. Then the Marine, couldn’t hack it. Finally it was me, Mike and Tony. The suburban, the urban and the Russian. And we did it. We had help, but we gave ourselves completely to our guys for more than half of the ten week summer. Ragged and bedraggled. Excitable and exhausted. It was and remains the greatest accomplishment of my professional life. I was 21, a knuckle headed post-teen finding purpose with the rest of us.
We’d all go on to have challenges and struggles. We’d resist the responsibilities of adulthood, shrink at times we should have roared and not use the springboard we were given to jump ahead in life. We’d all come back and do it again and again. I stayed 8 years, often through the long and lonely winters where I’d carry comfortably huge responsibilities only to crumble during down times that allowed me to wallow in ways I needed to in order to grow up. It was the formative experience of my life. One ONLY matched by becoming a parent.
For the first few years I identified as ‘Staff’. God that was awesome. We were weirdos and tough guys and earth mom’s in training and world explorers. Intellectuals bent on bending the world and lifelong service providers. We were on the one hand always ready to be silly and on the other hand so new at adulthood that we applied aesthetic judgment to the way we held our cigarettes. We were terribly vulnerable and horribly self-conscious and lacking the self awareness necessary to avoid embarrassment. I can look at the pictures for hours. When a new one shows up on Facebook I pray all of us will jump on and relive those times and speak of reunions. I can’t tell you how much I hope one comes to fruition. I love those people like my family. They were the people present at my coming of age story and I was present at theirs. I am of these people and I couldn’t be more proud of that.
Something strange happened over my time there. Fully integrated with the staff at 21 I started the slow move away from the group. It took a few years and a promotion or two, but before you knew it I was starting to realize that I was a lifer. I only stayed eight years, but in that time I became part of the permanent structure of the place. Before long I stopped having the bonds with the staff. The staff I’d always thought of as the ‘permanent structure’ that stayed in place as groups of ‘guests’ would come and go throughout the summer, two weeks at a time. I would be emotional when they’d leave and I’d reminisce with my fellow staff, the others left behind. You have no idea how much you bond with someone in this type of setting. How many emotions and experiences you can share in just a few days. But eventually as I got more involved in the year round operations my staff family became ‘big mama’ (Director), Big Joe (Caretaker extraordinaire of the facility) and Jessa-Lee (Year round rep for the AHRC NYC organization for the first couple years). To this day they feel like family to me. Jessa-Lee, though I haven’t seen her in ages, is still one of my very best friends. These people knew me as a pup and not only allowed me to grow up, they facilitated it. Put up with my shenanigans, the false starts and the inconsistencies and knew I was able and entrusted me. Partly because I was the only one who would do some of it, but lots of times because they had faith in me. So I had faith in me.
After that, my family became the guests themselves. My former self, my ‘staff’ self looked out to a horizon that went as long as the evening light. Perhaps into September. It was a short view. By the end I knew that I was with the guys. I was there every year, like they were. It was the staff that changed. Some returners every year, but eventually they all left. We stayed. At least until we didn’t.
There are times now when I look back and know I couldn’t do now all I did then. On the most basic level, it’s a young person’s game. The commitment, the hours, the emotionally raw feelings that come with the whole endeavor, it would be too much now. But I still wish I could do it. I still draw on it, like all of us who were lucky enough to have been there do. It provides a soulful foundation for me. Remembering the whole thing. It’s where I’d fall to if all else failed, if every imaginable tragedy were to befall me, I could always go back there and live out my days working for a roof and food. Sounds crazy I know, but it’s a real thought. It’s even a fall back plan in my mind for me and Karen. We hope to live out our days in our lovely home and have a fully realized vision for what our future will look like. But when discussing fall back plans in the event they should become necessary, the idea of camp has come up on several occasions.
I guess you have to fake it when you start. I did, at least. There wasn’t anything to draw on so you make it up. All of it. Then at some point you realize, I’ve been making it up for so long that in the process something has been made. The whole of the experience has to amount to something. It just has to. For me it amounted to me. I faked it, I made it and that made me.