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I Am an Underprivileged Summer Camp Survivor
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I Am an Underprivileged Summer Camp Survivor

Please, no charity — I’d rather meet the bear!
6

When I was eight years old, I was sent along with a bunch of Los Angeles’ “underprivileged children” — sponsored by a local parish— to Catholic girls summer camp, in the smog-obscured San Gabriel Mountains.

The first hour we arrived, the counselors and clergy lined everyone up to get shots from a nurse in a white hat— I don’t know the shots were for, but I guess they assumed we needed them! The "underprivileged" must be cleaned of vermin, you know.

There were dozens of kids in line; it was hot and dusty. I remember I was wearing a dark green and lime striped shirt, and I was shy, staring at the ground. I didn’t know anyone, and my idea of “summer camp” came from watching romantic comedies on TV. This camp, Teresita Pines, was religious — they had us in group prayers several times a day. There was no pool, or archery or horses. There was a ping pong table.

After about a half-hour of inching along in the line, the girl behind me, who was about a head taller, grabbed my pony tail from the back. She spun me around, grabbed me by the shirt, right in the center of my chest, and ripped it in two.

It was like those scenes where a monster rips the heart out of a deer. My chest was naked. I was frozen like an animal. Girlie threw me down on the ground, got on top of my chest, and beat the crap out of me.

I’d never had anyone hit me but my mother, and she never sat on me. I’d never wrassled or rough-housed with anyone; I didn’t have sibs. I was a complete sap.

The shot nurse came out of the medic hut and pulled the lunatic off of me. “She’s a lesbian!” the Girl screamed at the lady in white, pointing at me, as if that explained everything.

I didn’t know what that word meant, but obviously: BAD. I was confused, in my nerdo 8-year-old-way, that it had something to do with being Lebanese. What was wrong with that?

The same girl, Leslie made my every day a living hell.

Ready for church. Not ready for Camp Teresita. With mom, in Riverside, I think.

This story is not a late-life confession, or the recollection of the worst day of my life, or the worst day of anyone’s life… it came up unexpectedly.

In my generation, in that parish, everyone was beating the crap out of everyone all the time. Adults beating kids, kids beating each other up, etc. It was all “discipline” and “Hard Knocks” and “toughen up.” Everyone had their strategy and mine was laying low.

The reason I’m writing it down today, is that I woke up at 3am last night, from having a full Technicolor moment-by-moment dream of that incident!

I woke up just as Girl’s fist was about to connect with my face, me flat on the ground.

In the dream, I am watching the two of us, it’s like I’m the camera. The only time I was in my own body was when occasionally the focus shifted, and I was looking down at my torn bloody green shirt. It was my only field of vision.

That happened in 1966. I don’t think of it very often at all; it’s been years. Why did I dream it last night?


Another Camp Teresita highlight— it was climax of our time there: a camp out under the stars.

The counselors planned to take us on a short hike, at high noon, and we’d “sleep outside” overnight. They assumed, rightly, that most city kids had never spend the night under the stars.

I’d camped with my dad before, and Teresita Pines was different. There were no tents; the camp brought bags, no tarps, and you found a little spot on the forest floor.

Well, leading up to the event— my tormenter Leslie and her gang had tried to psych me out by saying that I couldn’t sleep anywhere near them, and that instead I was going to have to sleep next to the “Murderer girl,” who would kill me in the night with her “big knife” just as she had killed many before. Multi-murder girl.

Well, I bet you won’t be surprised to hear this girl was the only black camper in the summer session. At that time, the white kids, if they were polite, would say “NE-GRO” in this exaggerated whisper.

The story was she came from a “rough school” — haha, of course. And that she routinely stabbed people with her butcher knife. Right.

The truth is, nothing could have been “rougher” than the working class Italian-Irish parish I came from, and this little girl, like me, had been plucked out of her school, probably part of the Church’s big campaign to prove they were “integrated” and “not prejudiced!”

I mean, give me a break, there were 100 of us there, and I don’t remember another black camper. Maybe a couple Chicano or Indian kids… it was like that. Poster children.

When the mean girls “tried” to psych me out with the murder story, they didn’t realize how far gone I was. My typical reaction to murder threats was, “I am so glad, because then I will be dead and this summer camp will be over.”

That night I slept under a pine tree next to that little girl. I think her name was Karen. Everyone else was yards away.

Up til then, the two of us hadn’t said a word, to each other or anyone else. The temperature had finally cooled down, and we both buried into our bags. Owls hooting. Wind. I liked that. Familiar. Nighttime was our respite.

I heard cries from her side of the tree. Sobs! Karen was hiding deep inside her bag. I rolled a bit over and touched her nylon sack. “Are you okay?”

She wouldn’t pop her head out. She got quiet. I didn’t know what else to say. I hated Camp Teresita.

Then she whispered, “They said we had to sleep here, this tree, because the bears are going to eat us.”

Omg. The same people had told her a story.

“There aren’t any bears here, I promise, NO bears. And they wouldn’t just come over and eat you anyway, they only get mad if you bug their cubs.” (Per my dad).

She popped her head out to look at me. We both wore glasses and were near-sighted. You never know what to do with your glasses when you’re camping, so we both had ours on.

She looked skeptical about my bear ranger-talk. I felt ashamed that I even for one second had believed all that “knife” baloney. I was not going to tell her that.

I think she was still very worried, but she must have decided I was slightly less worse than a bear, because she rolled over closer to me, bag to bag. Two girls against one wild animal, right?


Another question I have now: you may wonder if I tried to escape Camp Teresita.

I wrote a letter to my mom begging her to come get me and spilling some of the beans. She didn't answer. I don't know if the Camp never posted it, or if she got it, and if she did, if she thought it was just typical whining.

She also had seen me come home from school beat-up once before, and had warned me to "toughen up,” herself. She was repulsed to see me bloodied. She wanted me to fight back and be victorious, but there was no "here, let me show you how to do that" part. It was like something you had to summon in yourself, or else you quite frankly deserved it.

The last day of Camp Shit came around, and all the parents picked us up. My mom drove up in her old VW bug. She looked over my pack, and said, "Where are all your clothes?"

I explained that they had all "disappeared" and no one, not counselors, not anybody, would tell me what happened. I wore the same thing every day. I really could not take all the insanity in of the previous two weeks; I only wished I would die or it would end, one or the other would be fine.

Mom got pissed— at me, I thought— and marched off to the main cabin. I sat in that hot parking lot. I remember that heat! When she came back, she had a paper bag of all my clothes and my books, with a sheepish counselor following her. She was livid.

We didn't say one word driving back to LA.

I was never sent to "underprivileged" camp again, any camp, or anything else that was oriented toward scholarships for the needy. I think my mother found it humiliating to her, and furthermore, more proof that people who give "hand-out's" are hypocrites. She wouldn't apply for food stamps for the same reason. It was kind of an early inkling of what I'd now call the perils of "the rescue industry." They are indeed brutal.


P.S.

By the way, Camp Teresita still exists, but in a different form. The Lions CLub bought it decades ago and remodelled it for campers with disabilities, in an extensive way. Like Crip Camp but without the Woodstock part! It looks very fancy and they have a POOL. Anyway, if you see their web site, don't write them any damning letters... god knows what they've heard over the years.

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