Category Archives: Summer Camp

The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.

‘Guests?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.

The Lodge Part IV: Greatest Job Ever

As I walked away I could already taste the regret. I was making a mistake. I wasn’t sure how big a mistake. I didn’t really care either. It took all of a split second to determine that I was now going to go down on this ship, this manufacturing of a moment, perhaps a moment that would go down in lore as ‘Oh my god! Do you remember Joe? Remember when he was here, he stood right there. Oh my god.’ Really, what regret could I have that would ever make me feel like this was a mistake. So I had to change, put on some fresh clothes and act like it never happened.

As I walked around the corner I knew that everyone would be watching for me to emerge above the fence in the distance as I headed toward the dance/honeymoon suite building. My stride, for whatever reason, became easier. Less encumbered by the stress of the moment and even liberated by the squishing and dripping that oozed and fell from my clothing. I was getting comfortable with what I’d done.

Perhaps not as comfortable as my friend Evan.

Evan was a guest at the Lodge. Evan was about 50, fairly jovial and capable of being incredibly witty and acerbic. It wasn’t all an act, not by any stretch, but there was a peformative nature to Evan. He was in it for the attention, but he wasn’t over eager. He waited for his audience. He lived in my cabin the first year, when I was a counselor turned Lodge Leader. He was there in the second half of the summer when we were down to the skeleton crew/dream team of Me, Mike and Tony. A suburban white kid (me), streetwise city kid (I wouldn’t call Mike a kid back in those days, though in hindsight we all were) and a gangly Russian with an Italian-Americanized name (Tony. I’ve come to know home on Facebook years later by the name of Anton, a far more fitting name considering his surname. He taught me a thing or two about the world I didn’t know, a rapidly changing one in the 1990’s in Russia). I remember going to each of my cabin mates and seeing if they saw things I didn’t. I went to Mike to confirm that Evan was who he was after the following exchange. Before I tell you I should note that it was my first session in charge. It sounds cute, but it was running a cabin of 16 adult guests with various intellectual and developmental disabilities, including people with needs for physical supports, with 3 guys, all hovering around 20 years old, all with six weeks experience, who worked round the clock, 24 hours a day. No punch outs. No back up staff. It was stressful.

Anyway, about a week in to Evan’s stay I see him outside the cabin, at the other end of the fence we all hung out at outside (lodge) 12. I catch an eye, I look for his name on my ever present clipboard (I needed the prop to signify my authority) for head, no name counts…

Me: Evan, right?

Evan: Yeah, Joe.

Me: When was the last time you showered?

Evan (Shaking his head like Al DelVechio at Arnold’s saying ‘yup, yup, yup’): Five fucking years ago. Five long, happy, Jewish years.

Me: (5 seconds of silence) Bwahahahaha!

As you might imagine I grew quite fond of Evan. Not only for the effortless way he used cursing as a tool in his comedy, but for who I found him to be. Who we all did. When I checked with Mike after this he said, ‘yeah, he’s on my side, he’s pretty funny all the time. Unless he’s talking about Helen.’ Who’s Helen? I ticked through the staff, the support staff, the nurses, his fellow guests (who would be campers elsewhere, but we were all adults here, our guys had agency, they were not to be treated as children. Guests, please.) ‘It’s his mom. Mike said. I think he still lives with her. Actually, he can be funny with her too. But you can tell it’s different.’

Evan became a guy. We loved all the guys, but he turned out to have a little Rock Star to him. He was hysterical.

He was also foul mouthed. Not in groups, and not with anyone that didn’t appreciate it. But for me and Mike and Tony, he’d be there, every morning one or the other of us would run up to the dining hall to grab coffees for the crew as we got to the incredibly challenging job of getting everybody up and out on time. Whenever we saw him he’d not do anything. But if we said hello or good morning it was always met with a huge smile and a ‘Hello shithead, how are ya?’ He always said it with a little bit of Squiggy in his voice. He emphasized the how are ya and the smile and it was just so damn funny. There’s no way to recreate it here, but anyone that was close enough to him would tell you the same, it was amongst the funniest and most adored greetings I’ve ever received in my life. Honestly, if I’d never had kids it would be the number one greeting of all time. Hello Shithead, how are ya? With a giant smile and a genuine twinkle in the eye.

What had been regret was turning. As I strode away, aloof and sopping wet, regret was changing. Not to it’s opposite, per se. Rather, I was just starting to own it. To feel no way about my decision. It was just something I’d done. I liked this feeling. I could hear the tittering masses left behind, still giggling, some even guffawing and I liked it. I liked the attention. I liked the silliness of it. I even liked the carpe diem of it all.

Later that summer I’d be charged with taking Evan to the dentist. It wasn’t something that we did at camp without an emergency, so he must have had one, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps they had to pull a tooth or something. Whatever it was it needed to be addressed immediately. It could not wait for him to go home and it wasn’t enough for us to insist he go home.

I took my job quite seriously and at 23 it meant having the conversations, gently, that I knew I had to have.

Me: Now, Evan, it’s not like camp. We’re going to be out in public and there will be others around.

Evan: Oh yeah. I know dat shit.

He burst a second of laughter and then looked sidelong at me to see that it landed. It did. Just saying ‘shit’ was enough to make it funny. I know. It’s immature. I also know that he was not immature, was in on the joke and actually understood why it was funny. Judge if you like, but we were and are good at this and it was merely a grown man getting a laugh with crude language. It was normalizing and accompanied by a very real sense of humor that lived along side his performance art of cussing for laughs.

Me: That. You can’t do that while we’re at the office. I know you know that, but I have to say it.

Evan: I know that. I tell Helen all the time, oh yeah, boy, I know that.

This was our Evan. I didn’t have to bring it up again. We just chatted for the half hour or so that it took to get down the mountain and to the dentist. I gave him one more respectful reminder and we went in.

It was clearly a family practice and they must have been well aware of where we were coming from, and by extension who Evan was, or at least they had an idea that he was different. I have to say, Evan charmed everyone. He is an excellent patient. Why shouldn’t he be. He’s an absolutely lovely person!

That said, he was teasing me a little. Giving me those sideways looks. Answering questions straight when asked by the Dr. then looking at me to let me know that he knew what would be the funniest way to answer. He’d even be smiling as the phrase would go through his head, and mine, but the smirk never turned into uttering a vulgarity. I shouldn’t have been so worried. He’s a good dude. A good friend to all and an excellent companion  for an adventure.

When his work was done and we left to go I gave him a wink of approval/thanks and he chuckled back. We were grown ups, out in the world, away from the camp. All that was left was to pay. I stood at the reception desk, Evan at my side and awaited the forms eagerly so we could sign them and head out for lunch.

Reception Staff: So we’ll just need you to sign this affirming that the work was done.

Me: So would you like me to sign or Evan?

Evan: You can do it.

Reception Staff: That’ll be fine. It was a pleasure meeting you, Evan.

Evan: You too.

He smiled bashfully. Even tilted his head. When he did he fell upon the number, the thousand or so dollars that the procedure was going to cost. That’s when the bubble burst.

Evan: Holy fucking shit. Helen’s gonna fucking kill me!

It boomed. I held back my laughter and you could tell. It was an active denial that was seen by all. He laughed outright, big and jovially, big belly bouncing. The mom’s with kids in the waiting room bristled. One laughed, thank god. The dentist, the assistants, all the staff snickered and smiled, some nervously and some like me, holding back. It was the one instant when we were in the middle of everyone in the whole damn building.

I suppose you had to be there, but it was amongst the funniest moments of my entire life and a good part of that was due to my discomfort next to my man Evan’s seeming indifference. He could have said that in church and his heart rate wouldn’t have budged nor a bead of sweat been anywhere near him. The man just knew himself, had reacted sincerely and was damn funny for it. He knew it.

My regret was fully gone by the time I was rising above the fence line and I was happy, damn happy I’d done what I’d done. My job in this magical place hadn’t really fit me right yet. I was still struggling to wear the ‘uniform’ of big boss man now that I was in my second year and first year on the Admin Team, the four or five of us who were the big bosses. I would be invisible as I strode from activity to activity counting names and looking stern. I was a little overwhelmed by the job at hand and I was trying so hard to look the part that I missed the whole damn point. That being, if you can’t have fun at a job where you are changing the world, making others lives magical and being transformed by that same magic coming at you from all angles, than what the hell are you even doing there.

I think that was why I did what I did that day. Instead of quietly opening the gate to the pool, popping in and eying up the lifeguards and the staff, ensuring everyone was where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing and leaving as quietly and stoically as I’d arrived, I did something different. Of course I still made sure everyone was where they should be. Of course I ensured all was safe. Then, in what amounted to street clothes, I strode right to the middle of the pool and fully clothed proceeded to make a show of the whole damn affair. And it was great. All the guys started laughing, but I stayed in character, never even cracking a smile. Which only made the guys laugh more and even some of the staff, who had to be tiring of my ‘transitional’ phase to leadership. It was a moment. Forget all you normals, we’re the weirdos and we’re proud of it. It was a story they’d tell at lunch. It was something so simple but so special that it had to have turned at least someone who was there’s whole day around. In fact I can guarantee it did.

No matter how much they screamed, or hooted or called my name as I walked up that hill, I wasn’t going to turn around. But as I got to the top of the hill and rounded the corner of the dance building a giant smile broke across my face. From that moment forward until I left years later I had the greatest job on earth.