Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Summer cramp

Why does the shirt graphic tilt so far over?
Good question. Wish I knew.
This is the story of our Boy Scout Troop's descent into hell one summer camp.

OK, descent into heck.

A flashback triggered its telling. Part of National Geographic's new reality TV waste of time (pardon me … entertainment program) Are You Tougher than a Boy Scout? is shot at Camp Whitsett in the southern Sierra Nevada, where this misadventure took place. 

The commemorative shirt (left) literally should have been our red flag, our warning that events would not go well.

We tried to make a habit of creating new shirts to celebrate each summer camp. (Translation, I wanted to make shirts for the Scouts and talked everyone into it.) They were cheaper than the camp's own shirts (which Scouts could still buy if they chose), and they gave us a symbol of camaraderie trudging into camp.

Usually the Troop went to the similar sounding Camp Winton, run by our own Golden Empire Council of BSA about two hours due east of us in the central Sierra Nevada. It's a gorgeous setting on a massive granite slope overlooking a shining lake, quiet vast forest all around; the charismatic young adults running the place practice their elaborate and hilarious pop-culture-pocked skits for months before the season begin; the program offers just about everything we could want for our Troop.

Naturally, we wanted to go somewhere else.

Other side of the fence. Green grass. You get our thinking.

We were doing what we could to keep the older Scouts interested so they'd stay and grow into leaders, and they had already done everything Winton offered, some two or three times over.

(A Scout sketched the initial idea for the back art, and aren't I the perfect heel
for not being able to find it?!)
Camp Whitsett is where you want to go! adults from another Troop told me. They had taken Amtrak and a charter bus to get there; best time their Scouts ever had, they told me. Rock climbing and whitewater rafting, they told me.

Besides, the Western Los Angeles County Council of BSA ran the camp, and word was that if you ever wanted to attend its wonderland of a camp out on Catalina Island, you had to pay your dues with a visit to one of the Council's other mainland camps.

(Eventually we realized Catalina Island's camp lay beyond our budget, but our eyes were bigger than our stomachs back then.)

Let's go! I implored. Discuss, discuss, discuss … the parents' committee said yes! Book the camp, book the train, the bus, raise the money, ready the Scouts, design the shirt.

The shirt is meant to celebrate what for us was a big departure for these Scouts.

We were going big or going home. Prophetic.

I roughened the illustration to give it a worn look. Years of actual wear has enhanced it, I think.

For the front pocket art, I designed it to look like a packing crate stencil, and make it a tad askew, as if slapped on in a hurry. A parent in the Troop knew a shirt vendor who could give us a deal.

But the shirt vendor decided, despite my instructions, that the front pocket art was crooked and needed correcting.

Pause here: If you thought artwork was crooked, wouldn't you set it upright? Me too.

Instead, the vendor inexplicably tilted it more.

There the label lay, at a 45-degree angle. It just looks … stupid. Too late and too expensive to fix, the shirts went with us on the train.

That is, when the train finally showed up. We filled up the Sacramento Amtrak platform with our packs and Scouts' families seeing us off. And waited. Excitement dulled to guarded patience and fell to annoyance.

The train was three hours late. Thirty-some kids, deprived of their electronic games for a week; 10 or 11 adults, anxious to salvage all this preparation. Three hours. Do the adventurous math.

Finally aboard, we reached Bakersfield, having arranged with the bus charter to accommodate our late arrival. The charter runs the route quite frequently from the Bakersfield station into the foothills and the low Sierra to the camp; it turns out a lot of Troops come to Whitsett for the same reason we did.

Except our bus broke down twice on the rolling hills, and the charter had to transfer us to another bus that worked. Thirty Scouts, 10 or 11 adults, 1.5 percent morale.

We found out the hard way what Troops chartered to Mormon churches already know: Scout summer camps often have no backup plan for late-arriving Troops, no meals held over, no emergency campground for temporary lodging, no paperwork set aside for us, or staffer to process them. Troops from Mormon churches, honoring the Sabbath, often come to camp a day late on Mondays and put up with this often.

Hungry and tired and uncertain, the Scouts and adults attended the opening campfire, where the first thing the camp director told all the Scouts in camp, in the glow of a bonfire, was that he and his staff were very tired from the week before and didn't have a lot of energy for us this week.

I suddenly missed Camp Winton with all my heart.

By Tuesday the Scouts and adults were back in a rhythm, well fed, paperwork completed, merit badge classes finally settled, familiar with the camp and comfortable with our out-of-the-way campground. And we did partake of Whitsett's unique offerings, rising at 4 a.m. to climb Sentinel Peak before breakfast, and whitewater rafting a section of the Kern River (though the river guides melodramatized to make the journey seem wilder than it was). I swam a mile in the camp's lake, which was really a grassy creek the camp dammed for the summer and then had to restore after.

In the ensuing years, the Troop camped elsewhere, including Camp Royaneh north of San Francisco (which has no lake) before returning again to Winton and its jewel, the Upper Big Bear Reservoir. How a lake makes a summer camp!

But our Scouts never wanted to venture far, for any outing, ever again.

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