Lessons from Redwood – Week 1

Me: Do you know what Tank and I have in common?
Beta (My Camper): Yeah, a bad haircut!

At the end of the Death Hallows, after Voldemort had been defeated, after the catastrophe of Hogwarts and the deaths of so many of our beloved characters, one could spy Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts, beginning to “get on” with the world by sweeping the rubble of a collapsed column. I would like to imagine that on this day I was much like Filch, just beginning to “get on” in the world of camp counselors. But, unfortunately, this was very much untrue in the simple regard that I had begun cleaning before Voldemort and the death eaters had arrived.

I had checked and rechecked my bags, ensured my bed was made, tried to walk about the cabin imagining where each of my children would be sleeping. I was rehearsing the rules and how I would present them to my kids – Respect, listen to the counselor, keep them alive one day at a time (the latter was less of a rule than a good guiding principle). I had my banner posted on the outside of cabin 15, which, if I may add, I found to my liking for it had a dim light that shown in from outside during the night and was the closest cabin to the boys bathroom. The problem was with my banner. With every slight breeze it was sent waving down into the leaves. I would grab it, pick out each of the small leaves, and hang it up again. I did this four or five times before heading for our pre-lawn-chant prayer.

All of the week’s counselors and a few of the program staff would circle up at the log for our prayer – arms wrapped about each others shoulders and sides. I’m not sure why we did it this way, but I prefer to think of it as our pre-week “we got each others backs” moment. Of course, there was always one or two late-comers, so before our prayer we just hung around each other until all was accounted for.

After our prayer, it was game time. We all ran to the meadow for lawn-chants. I made sure I wasn’t the first one, as I still had no idea what I was doing, nor the last one, as I didn’t want to betray my lack of enthusiasm for singing kiddie songs to a bunch of strangers, or worse, to the parents of the children I would be taking care of. But I decidedly remember the moment I bought into all this bizarre silliness (I was less than accepting of our previous week’s attempt to be silly with each other during songs). We began doing our lawn chants to the arriving children and chasing them with our tunnel. One of the mother’s came walking up with her little daughter – she couldn’t have been older than five or six – dressed in white with pink overalls. She put her down at the opening of our tunnel and the little girl came running through with the largest and brightest smile I have seen. The mother tried to walk around our tunnel with no avail, for who could resist the tunnel after that? It was in this moment I remember thinking, though I may identify with the father who pledged, “There is no way I’m running through that tunnel,” there’s no good reason not to be a little silly for a smile like that.

Shortly, the time came every counselor was waiting for: to have our names called. “Zeta! You’ve got campers!” By the time I arrived to my cabin, two or three children were already present, and my banner had fallen down … again. This was when I finally conceded the point by hanging my banner on the door handle.

Originally, I was expected to have only six children, but that magnificent number was quickly changed to seven when two more had arrived. The mothers assured me there was a mistake because one of the children in cabin 14 was friends with two of mine. It was at about this moment that one of the fathers pulled me outside the cabin, told me to put out my hand, and gave me fifty dollars. He said, “If you survive this week, you have my sincerest respect.” I quickly and sincerely responded, “Oh, it’s not necessary, I …” he interrupted me, “No, I live with him,” pointing to his son, “and know those two. (One of “those two” was my new addition.) It’s bad.” I’m not sure if there is a surer way to crush the hopes of a counselor or at an earlier time.

I don’t remember speaking to the parents all that much, but I do remember how chaotic it was. The kids were shouting and yelling, they were arguing over their beds and hitting each other with pillows, while trying to say “Hi” to their cabin mates. It wasn’t until three bolted off that I realized all that noise was due to less than half my cabin. By the time I shouted to the remaining mother or two, “Watch the cabin!” They had already jumped on the Whale Watch (It’s essentially a large balancing board that can hold about twenty kids), knocked a few children off to the great dismay of their parents, and ran towards echo base. I was trying to shout their names, but I couldn’t remember and my paperlist was nothing but useless in identifying the backs of heads. I finally caught them just passed echo base and cabin 1, as they were heading down the path towards the dining hall.

At first, I tried to get them to tell me their names, they just made them up. Then I decided to call them by the colors of their hats. They simply switched them. And so I pushed all three of their faces together, which they didn’t appreciate at all, and said, “Your names are Alpha, Beta, Delta, if you don’t respond to those names, you’re BUSTED!” Alpha replied, “Sweet! I’m the alpha dog.” “Wrong,” was my response, “I’m the alpha male, you’re just a small alpha, a mini alpha, a lower-case alpha.” Delta responded, “Delta?! That’s a stupid name.” I assured him that delta squad is a special forces unit, which more or less settled his doubt. But Beta simply argued, “My name isn’t Beta, it’s Beta-Baller!”

I finally brought them back to cabin 15 and was glad to see a mother there. I thanked her, got all seven of my children together, and began our tour of the camp – the only  event I had so far anticipated.

First Evening – Da rules. 

After completing the camp tour, I sent my cabin running into the pavilion to usher whatever destruction they had left in them. It was in this thirty or so minutes that became a somewhat “counselors’ update.” We exchanged our initial thoughts, our prayer requests for the coming week, and just laughed at any crazy moments we had.

Soon, we were all called to Victory Circle where we watched an intro video on the main camp rules and introduced each of the Summer Staff, the jobs they had, and the names of their cabins if they were counseling. It was this moment I won my cabin over, “My name is Zeta and I’ll be counseling my Titans!” I had not known Percy Jackson was a hit among 3rd and 4th graders, but I could hear them saying, “Oh! Titans, those are the most powerful Greek gods.” And then Beta shouted, “Yeah, much better than the Olympians. They suck!” I’m fairly certain, or at least hoped, that Athena, a female counselor who’s cabin were the Olympains, didn’t catch it. Afterwards we headed to dinner.

The dinner was quite uneventful, shockingly, but it did begin a few habits that I carried on through the summer. I always made sure to handle the water for my kids and ensure they drank enough water at every meal. Also, for the most part, I tried to do the scrape, stack, and sorting myself – often delegating the “spray and wipe down” and providing all of my children something to take back to the kitchen.

Later, when we all arrived back to the cabin for the night, we began going over the camp rules and introduce a few of our own. The first was “Don’t interrupt the counselor when he’s speaking.” I’m not sure if this was a rule for the kids or a reminder of how detached I was from reality. Second, was “No Swearing.” I’m not going to even elaborate as to how that became a rule on the first evening. And, my last rule. Respect.

I had just begun to explain this rule when,”Boom! Boom! Boom!” The kids almost jumped out of their sleeping bags and I had almost hit my head against the desk (I was sitting on the floor near the back of the cabin). I had forgotten Tank had told us  he would make the first night the “straighten all the kids up” night and so enter with a bit of thunder. In the utter silence of my cabin he told us his favorite rule – Respect – and that if they misbehaved they’d get a “Tank-Talk”. Pretty scary.

I hadn’t a way to know for sure, but that week, and every week after, I always tried to not smile or laugh as I listened to Tank give “the talk” to my kids. While it was perhaps the most priceless help a counselor could ask for – to have Tank be our bad guy for us – it was also a side of Tank that wasn’t truly in his nature… Well, except the beard. That helped him out a lot.

After my kids were lights-out for bed, I had my first prayer partner time. I was assigned to be apart of the one trio group that week – three partners instead of two. They were Toothless (Cabin 16) and Mr. Incredible (Cabin 14). I didn’t know them all that well, even during training week. But, taking it in faith, I was confident that this time would become a prized possession and spent the night with two strangers after what appeared to be a day in hell.

The first night of prayer partners was actually a time of prayer – I was surprised. We talked about our day, the ups and downs, and then simply prayed for strength in the coming day. We weren’t too concerned for the entire week, just a day at a time. And then we were back to our cabins for sleep.

I remember walking in quietly so as to not wake anyone up, carefully shutting the door without too much noise. I stood there for a moment, in the entry way, listening to them sleep and thought, “Man, they’re such good kids when they’re sleeping.”

The Next Day…

It had to be 6:00am or 6:30am when they began fighting. Some of the cabin wanted to sleep, the others weren’t so concerned with getting up as defending themselves on why they weren’t being loud… by yelling at the others that they weren’t being loud. After about 30 minutes or so of trying to get them to be quite, I had it. I told everyone to put on their shoes and step outside. Beta began complaining that he was in his pajamas, which created an echo in the cabin among the other children. Too bad. We all got our shoes on and were standing outside the cabin in five or so minutes.

I told them we were going to greet the morning properly, not with fighting, but a nice jog through the woods – taking in the quite morning air of God’s creation. We began just outside cabin 15, headed up to Victory Circle (I waved to Spud during his one-on-one, I remember his puzzlement but I don’t remember a reaction), down through the pavilion, through the playground, around the backside of the main office, and back to cabin 15. We did this almost twice. During the second lap the morning bell rang so I brought them all to the water-main between Cabin 15 and Cabin 16 to form a circle and pray to God that this day would go well. Afterwards we went to breakfast – all the while Beta complaining that he was still in his pajamas.

The Second Day…

One of my lesser known rules was that after I had divided up bathroom partners (we always go in groups of three), I told them that if they had to go to the bathroom during the night, they had to not only wake up their buddy, but also wake me up. The catch to the rule was this: I told them that the sound of their bed creaking would most likely wake me up (as it usually did), but I wouldn’t move or show any signs that I was awake until they actually came over and physically tried to wake me up – they had to be comfortable doing it.

So the next morning, I’m not sure why, but Beta jumped down out of bed. Thinking he had to use the restroom, I watched to see what he would do. He started getting his shoes on and then stood by the door. A few of the other kids in the cabin, hearing his disturbances, peaked out of their sleeping bags and asked him what he was doing, he replied, “I can’t find Zeta anywhere, he’s probably waiting outside to make us run again.” Okay, I’m a bit of a bundler when it comes to blankets, as I effectively had four blankets during camp, but you could find me if you came over to my bedside. Another kid, Psi (I’ll explain later) replied, “No… I’m pretty sure Zeta wouldn’t leave us.”

At this point everyone was getting out of bed so I chimed in, “No, were not not going for another beautiful morning run through the woods,” Beta gave a cheer, “Unless… someone wants to. It’s quite beautiful outside.” They weren’t going to have it. But I did explain why that happened the first time and why it wasn’t going to happen again.

Later in the day, as I came back from my break, Fumba nabbed me under the pavilion. “Hey Zeta, your kids are crazy.” I couldn’t help but laugh and give that wide-eye expression that implies, “You’re telling me?!?” He continued, “I knew Kuya and I had your kids because yours were the ones not listening and destroying everything.” Yeah, that daily hour break was a small slice of heaven for me during that week.

When I arrived back, my kids were arguing why Alpha, Beta, and Delta had cool names and they didn’t. Where they special? So I told them I’d give them names. One of them approached me and said he had one. “Shoot for it,” I replied. “Omega.” I was surprised he understood I was using only Greek letters and chose one for himself. He got it. I named his friend Theta. The other two pairs, because they were friends, were Psi and Phi (I told them, together, they could be Psi-Phi [Sci-Fi].)

At dinner, while in line, the Camp Director approached me and said, “You have some crazy kids… Remember, this too shall pass.” In my defense, I did get him back a few weeks later. I almost felt bad, but I’m sure he took it all in good humor. He was sitting nearby during lunch, looking like it was already a really really long day, and so I asked him, “Having a rough day?” He laughed, sighed, and agreed. So I responded, “Well, remember, you have another one coming tomorrow!” He gave me a courtesy laugh, but, I know the truth, deep down he appreciated it.

That night I lost my voice. And it wasn’t that raspy sort of voice you get after a sore throat. It was gone. Anything above a whisper either cracked or didn’t even make a sound. As Tank later mentioned, “I have never seen someone lose his voice so bad before.” He then explained to me how to yell like a counselor – from the stomach and not from the throat. What is it that Tim Hawkins says: Good advice too late?

The rest of the week in a rush…

As with the previous week, it’s hard to sort out all of the memories into chronological order, but here are here below.

Candy Galore. When the triple threat had arrived, they had bags and bags of candy, and after every lunch, they each received another box full of candy. It got to the point that three of the kids in the cabin had too much candy and four of the kids just sat and watch them eat it. So I did the responsible thing and purchased four more bags of candy. the program staff write the four kids letters and Tank delivered it to them during KBAR (Kick Back and Relax) time. However, I told everyone I would collect the candy and distribute it to them during their KBAR times, any cabin time, and just before bed (Yes, I know, good call).

Well, apparently I didn’t collect all the candy. During one of the nights, I woke up to Beta’s sleeping bag falling off the bunk above me. I had a charitable moment where I thought I should pick it up for him and tuck him in, but that didn’t last long so I went back to sleep. Shortly after, I woke up to the sound of a bag of candy hitting the floor. Okay, I thought to myself, I’ll get that in the morning. I went back to sleep. Shortly after, I heard another bag of candy hit the floor. I popped my head up, “How many bags of candy does that kid have in his sleeping bag (I had already confiscated a USPS sized priority box of candy from him)?” While I waited, I could hear him kicking around in his sleep, the only other sound was the rustle of candy wrappers. “That little devil.”

Serious Shower Time. Anyone who knows anyone will tell you there is always a “sanctuary” that we make in our lives – it’s that fixed, archimedian point. When I was traveling through Europe, it was where I slept. The traveling could be rough, the food terrible, the people mean, but I had to have a place to sleep that I knew was safe. At camp, with all the spiders, my bed wasn’t my sanctuary, it was the shower (as long as I didn’t look up).

It was just after beach day, I had taken my 20 minute shower. I know, I expected a lot, but it was my 20 minutes in the fortress of solitude. On my way from the shower, back to my cabin, Beta met me along the way. He stopped and said, “Zeta, you wanna fight?” I don’t know what came over me, I was just in one of those moods.  So I replied, “You’re barking way too far up the totem poll, dude.” Upon hearing this, Alpha  came running out of the cabin to join in, “Yeah, we’ll both take you on!” I dropped my towel and said, “You wanna go? I’ll take you two down right here.” Obviously, I wasn’t going to actually take them down, but I did realize that this whole hostage crisis would become active terrorism if it wasn’t reigned in.

Later that week, I heard from Peanut that while he was brushing his teeth, they had told each other, right in front of him, “If I take his legs, you can go for the throat.”

Theta Swimming. This was such a small moment in this week, but it was just…well, let me explain. Theta was, in the truest sense, a happy camper. Every morning, to my horror and against all the prayers I could spare, we had morning swim… It was cold… But the main game we played  was water polo.

On this morning, Theta was just chugging along from one end of the pool to the other when, as he passed through the middle of the water polo section, Stryder (one of the tallest counselors of the summer, if not the tallest) jumped up for the ball. Upon coming down Stryder landed sideways on Theta. I jumped over to grab Theta, but I was too late. Theta was already being pushed under. But before he submerged, all I caught was a HUGE smile on his face. He was my smallest child, so I easily pick him up and out of the water and set him down outside the water polo section. No harm. He was still just as happy as can be.

The Tank Talk.  As, perhaps, anyone could guess, my first cabin was the cabin that had the famous “tank talk”. The problem that ended up emerging during the week is what I’d like to call mob warfare. Alpha, Beta, Delta, formed the cool-kid-club that wanted to control everything and Phi, Psy, Theta, and Omega formed the not-cool-kids-club who would make underhanded comments to get them going.

During the week I had tried to soften up the tensions by requiring the first part of KBAR as a “Get to know you,” where I would assign kids to hangout on the bunk from someone from the other mob, write out 10 things about them, and then, that night, I would always begin by having them tell me four or five of them that they learned about them.

Also, after losing my voice, I sent all of my cabin, save Alpha and Phi (the mob leaders), over to Mr. Incredible’s cabin for a game of mafia. While they were there, I told gave my kids “the Zeta talk”. I sat them both on the floor of my cabin and tried to talk to them about leadership. The beginning was rough because it’s hard to have a serious conversation with a voice that incessantly rang with pubescent crackling. So we agreed that we would all have to whisper – that was all my voice could handle.

I began with the facts of the situation – that two mobs existed and they weren’t getting along. I told them that what I’m about to ask them isn’t, strictly speaking, fair. That often times in life 20% of the people do 80% of the work. They both seemed to agree and understand what I was saying: I wanted them to take it upon themselves to makes sure each side was getting along and being respectful. I concluded our meeting with a few stories about Alexander the Great. I wasn’t sure if it sunk in or not until, after reuniting them with Mr. Incredible’s cabin, they both yelled, “Guys! Zeta has these awesome stories about Alexander the Great and being a leader.”

Despite my best efforts, Tank did come by that evening to have a talk with each of the cabin mates independently – to inspire fear in the wilder ones and to ask about how the quieter ones were holding up.

After the shake-down was over, Tank came back to check up on me. I told him everything was fine and that I was feeling okay. Then, from the side of the door, came Fumba’s head. He said, “You’re kill’n it Zeta! You’re doing great!” It was probably the only time I had done this, but I got up from the floor, walked to the door, and voluntarily gave my almost bald-headed friend a hug (he had a buzz cut). It was my unvocalized expression of conflict between “Please, don’t leave me,” and, “I can’t give up on myself.” I almost cried.

A few days later, towards the end of the week, Alpha squad became emotional.We were supposed to be on our way to the catapult game down by the meadow, when the fighting broke out – and then the crying. I had Mr. Incredible take the rest of the cabin down while I spoke to the three kids. I began asking them what was wrong. Apparently, Beta and Alpha were fighting about why Alpha helped the other team instead of Beta during basketball. When I was just on the brink of solving that problem, Delta joined in and said, “My mother told me Beta’s a bad influence and I shouldn’t be friends.” That…. Didn’t help any of the progress that had been made.

Just when I turned to address Delta, I heard Sweets yelling from the top of the hill, “Zeta! You’re cabin needs to be down at the meadow for the game.” I quickly replied, “I know, I sent the others but I need to talk to these kids for a moment.” She replied, “Zeta! The game’s going on now.” “Yes, I need to talk to these kids.” She stood there with a look like, “Are we really going back and forth right now?” So I added, “There’s some fighting and I just need like… five more minutes.” She told me to hurry up and left.

Instead of trying to address them again, I decided to take a fairly advanced approach – why not, nothing’s guaranteed. I said, “Guys, a college I once attended had a motto that read, ‘Manners Mayketh Man.’ What does that mean?” I was taken back my Alpha’s answer, “It means like… etiquette. Like, you have a way to eat but you eat another way.” “Exactly.” I continued, “The motto tells us that what makes us different from anything else, from the birds or… even the squirrels,” they both looked at the tree behind them, “we don’t merely respond to each other at a whim, we get to choose how we treat each other. We can choose to be nice even if we don’t feel like it.” Delta responded, “But I don’t feel like treating him like a friend.” A few moments later, they agreed that, even if they didn’t like each other, they would try to treat each other as friends anyways.

On our way down to the meadow, one could perhaps see that solemn process of dishearten children who were forced to smile. When we arrived at the bridge I told them, emphatically, that they couldn’t cross it. Beta responded, “Why not?” “Have you not heard of the story of the bridge troll?” They all replied, “Yes, it asks questions.” “Yes, but this one makes you do something, you can only jump across the bridge – walking. If you do, I’ll throw you off into the creek below. There’s enough water down there that you won’t die, but you may have a few bruises.” I then jumped high and hard to shake the bridge as much as I could and send the kids on their way as quickly as I could…. It wasn’t until later that I found out that bridge jumping was against the rule. Oops.

Mr. Incredible being Incredible. I don’t remember if I ever thanked Mr. Incredible for his services that week. Each nigh, just after pray partners, I would leave Mr. Incredible posted between my cabin and his while I left for the craft shack. Every night, for fifteen minutes, I would lean again the garage door and listen to hymns. I’m not sure why, but “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” was a reoccurring hit. But those fifteen minutes each night was what I needed to recollect myself before slumber.

Beta’s Failing Leg. My first medical emergency. My cabin was walking together down to dinner when Beta comes running up, “Zeta! Zeta! My leg doesn’t work.” I simply paused and stared at him for a moment. “What does that mean?” He replied, “I don’t know, it wasn’t working and now it does.” “Does it work now?” He nodded. “So, what do you want?” He replied, “I want to go to the nurse’s office.” I didn’t know what authority I had in protesting his nurse request, so I said, “Well, can you walk yourself over there and tell him your leg doesn’t work?” He nodded and headed over.

Later, while I was in dinner line with my cabin, Wolverine came up behind me and said, “Never in my medical career have I heard of a leg not working.”

Staffermation. During our daily counselor meetings, after we dismissed our cabin to the fields to play with our rotation staff, we had staffermations. This was essentially a time where you affirmed some aspect of someone who wasn’t your prayer partner. I had just gotten my cup of mint tea, and was sitting down – trying not to spill why moving and fighting against my nervous PTSD ticks – when heard Dimples say, “I want to affirm Zeta,” and expressed how much she appreciated my dealings with my kids and how much they respected me.

In one sense I was shocked. It hadn’t even dawned on me that other people were watching what I was doing. I wasn’t looking for the attention nor even trying to do my”best”. I felt like those heroes in horror movies who slide under the closing gate just in time. Each activity or event seemed to be completed, “just in time.” There wasn’t a whole lot of “perfecting” as there was “surviving” going on. But in another sense, I realized how much I had forgotten about the community around me. Yes, keeping my children alive was a priority, but losing that community value had, in a way, gotten myself into the situation I was in.


For those who are unaware of Port Redwood’s traditions, the end of every week was crowned by Illuminaria night. Though the staff may not have believed in an alter call for the children, they did want to provide a night, under the stars and surrounded by the redwoods, to peer into the vast creation of the sky, ponder what was learned in the previous week, seek any answers to their final questions, and understand that God is always there for you.

This night, during our last song, each cabin was dismissed one by one. I quietly took my cabin down and around the pavilion. The meadow had a series of glass jars which contained a single burning candle. All of camp formed a circle around the glowing cross and began to listen to Raggs as she spoke about creation, being lights in a dark world, and knowing that dedication one’s life to Christ wasn’t an easy decision. I was always amazed at the impromptu speaking (as I can’t do it to save my life) that accompanied her talks each week, but they never failed to capture the essence of the week and speak dearly to the children.

Soon, the counselors were called to grab a glass jar and take their cabin to an area of the meadow to sit together in reflection of the week. My week was filled with cabin division, difficult and trying arguments, but, most importantly, despite all of that, I was confident that our cabin had come closer together. So this night was focused upon them understanding that despite all of that, we loved each other as God loved each other – we loved despite ourselves.

When we final found our spot, I told my cabin to sit in a tight circle. It was so tight, perhaps someone from a distance may have thought my group was the most loving cabin of them all. We laid almost face to face, with my arms rapped around all of them at once. While this was true – we did love each other – it was to ensure all of them were in arms reach.

I began our illuminaria by telling each child what I loved most about them in being in my cabin and where I had seen them grow the most. And, without any complaint, each of the other children followed suit. We joked about the dumb things we did during the week, talked about our first impressions of each other, understood why we got along so well.

After everyone had gone, and just before I thought I could hold their attention for just a bit longer, Beta bolted. Before my reflexes could catch up with what I saw and could predict, Beta barrel rolled from the group and blasted a fart so loud as to only hail the coming of Lucifer.

That brought our illuminaria to an abrupt end, well almost. After recalling Beta, I told everyone to come around, close again. I told them my plan – it was perfect. We would be super quiet – I looked at Alpha who was already smiling – and repeated, “Super quiet.” And continued, “We will quietly walk over to the craft shack and quietly place our jar on the table, and then we will quietly return to our cabin so as to not disturb anyone else.” At this point they were all smiling. So I emphasized it again, “Guys, if you get confused or lost, remember to stay quiet.” Just as I began to stand up, Alpha jumped up and yelled, “Dog pile Zeta!” And the entire group mobbed me. I began crawling on all fours, with seven children on my back doing nothing short of yelling out laughter, while I was responding, “Shhhh!!!! Shhhh!!! Shhhh!!!” as loud as I could. Knowing that I couldn’t silence them, I grab the jar, said, “C’ya!” and made for the craft shack like I stole something. The children were swarming after me, spilling around all the other groups. We eventually made it back to our cabin not so quietly… but they all made it back.

I dished out our first round of candy for the evening and then sent them on their way to brushed their teeth. One the way out, one of the kids grabbed the remaining back of Kit-Kat singles and asked, “Zeta, what are we going to do with the last of the candy?” There were far too many to split the remaining up among the children, so I told them that when were were finished brushing our teeth, I would have a surprise for them. And then I quickly left to brush my teeth.

Upon my arrival back, I caught Theta in the back of my cabin swallowing handfuls of sour gummy worms. “Noooo!!!!!” I yelled, he almost coughed up his candy and dropped the bag. I felt so bad, but I knew he’d be sick. He’d never grabbed anything on his own before. As I put the candy back on the top of the shelf, the kids had already began swarming around me, asking what was the surprise.

I told them, “I could have you guys jam as many kit-kats in my mouth as you can.” And they replied, “While singing frozen?” What could I say but, “Sure! Why not?” They were ecstatic. Fortunately, just as I got on my knees, Tank came into my cabin, “Lights out guys!” Without skipping a beat, I replied, “Well, guys, that’s just too bad. It’s bedtime!” I’m not sure what came over me, but I thought I was a free man. They all looked to Tank, in anticipation of rioting, while they quickly tried to explain to him my promise and that it would super quick. He just laughed at me and said, “Well, if it’s quick, it should be fine.”

And so the games began. I was singing Let it Go! on my knees, with seven kids jamming almost 15 kit-kat bars into my mouth in front of the men’s staff lead. I also spied Peanut looking over Tank’s shoulder as he stood in the doorway wearing a “what-the-heck-is-going-on” face. Soon after, I put them all to bed, and headed out for prayer partners.

We weren’t sure where Toothless was at, so Mr. Incredible and I had prayer partners on the curb just between our cabins. About 15 minutes into it, it happened. Psy came running out saying, “Theta says he’s going to throw up!” I jumped up from my seat, kicked the door open, flipped on the lights (all the kids were yelling that their eyes were on fire), and ran up to Theta’s bed.

He was laying in his sleeping bag groaning, so I invited him out to prayer partners with me. As I follow behind him I grabbed my towel and a trash bag – the odds of the sour gummy worms making a comeback in the fourth quarter was high. Outside, I sat on curb with Mr. Incredible, wrapped Theta in a towel (in a what I call a baby burrito, so as to ensure if he threw-up, his shirt, shorts, and arms wouldn’t be in the way), and sat him on me knee while he laid against my chest. We continued prayer partners until he was rocked to sleep.

The final morning…

I really didn’t know how much those kids became a part of my life until I had to say goodbye. The parents began coming just after our pancake breakfast. The kids were exciting, the parents were excited, I was excited. However, as I made my rounds to ensure I said my final goodbye to each child before he left, I caught Theta with his mother, father, siblings, and grandparents. “Bye Theta!” I said, as I got down on my knee – I always tried to speak or listen to my children at eye-level. He ran over, almost tackling me, and said, “Zeta, if I come back, I really want you to be my counselor.” I’m glad the the parents and grandparents responded with the appropriate, “Awww,” to drown out my chocked-up, “Thank, man,” with a slight laugh. And there I waved bye as my last child left.

From there I headed to Victory Circle for an end of the week gathering. It was really, in a sense, the victory circle – we were still physically alive, though, perhaps, more psychologically scarred that we led on. Once all the other counselors arrived, the staff handed out awards for the actions of each of the counselors. The first one was Tank. He stood up and held a green mesh and said, “I have the Hula Skirt and it is given to the counselor who danced their way through the week.” I’m fairly certain I laughed out loud because dancing was not the first word that came to mind to describe my week- though many ancients identified a correlation between music and war. “This counselor had a tough week,” I don’t know why, but at that point I started chocking up, “He even took his lunch break to go buy candy and me and a few of the staff wrote letters for them, and I brought it to their cabin during KBAR. The kids were so excited!” Obviously, I knew it was me, but then Tank said, “But you know what was so awesome? Last night as I was making my rounds, I saw him with one of his kids who was sick, rocking him to sleep in his arms during prayer partners.” I began crying at this point. And I remember thinking two things. First, I was so thankful that even to the end, God gave me enough grace to still love my kids who needed it when I was physically and emotionally drained. And second, Peanuts HUGE SMILE as he was trying to not make fun of me – he later mentioned, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry.”

Unfortunately, or perhaps blessingly, there were more moments of crying to come. But those are for future weeks and events yet not had. Until then, I grabbed the Hula Skirt, wiped the tears away as quickly as I could, and conceded to the social pressure as the other counselors began chanting, “Put it on! Put it on!” with the ever so classic Mr. Incredible, “Do it and you’re cool. Do it and you’re cool.”

Things I learned…

  1. In Sickness and in Love.We often go through life enduring some form of drama or another without reflecting or realizing how we have changed in the small things. Sure, the larger picture may seem unaffected as jogging a few hundred yards may not alter your view of the ocean, but we sometimes fail to see the cuts on your feet and hands from the climb or the lost friends along the way. We fail to notice the slight alternations in our decisions – no longer going to an old church, or skipping the local fast food place, or deleting texts from old friends. It’s not until we take a moment to pause, to reflect, to somehow receive a personal update on ourselves that all of sudden it dawns upon us how much the world around us, and our thoughts within us, have changed.It wasn’t until I had Theta upon my knee, wrapped in a towel and my arms, and told Mr. Incredible, “Where were we?” that I simply reflected, “This was why I was here.” While I would not have admitted it then, one of the reasons I came to Redwood camp was an attempt to reshuffle my cards a bit and try to glean whatever it was I thought God had for me. In the truest sense it was a blessing because it was nothing more than a simple reminder of how far I had traveled from home and that it was time to return. It had at one point been so easy to love unconditionally, but by circumstance, or unreflected living, or whatever we desire to call the formation of unconscious habits, I was consciously reminded for the rest of camp of a single question: “Am I loving those around me unconditionally?”Below, I have reproduced a poem I had found during high school which inspired my dedication to living unconditionally. I remember reading it and thinking that something so utterly simple and so fully encompassing of my experiences must be worth remembering and living out:

    “People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
    Forgive them anyway.

    If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
    Be kind anyway.

    If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
    Succeed anyway.

    If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
    Be honest and frank anyway.

    What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
    Build anyway.

    If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
    Be happy anyway.

    The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
    Do good anyway.

    Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
    Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

    You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
    It was never between you and them anyway.” – Mother Teresa (Dr. Kent M. Keith)

  2. It’s Easier to Divert, than Dam, a River.I never wrote this in my journal, but it was something that I carried on into other weeks and ended up explaining to the Camp Director when he asked me what have I learned so far. I replied, “There is a difference between a kid being a kid and a kid being disrespectful. And what makes it such a flimsy rule is that what’s ‘being a kid’ to one is ‘being disrespectful’ to another.” It’s learning how to navigate that often sea of shifting sand.My children were hellhounds, furies, harpies, anything from Hades’ domain. But I had realized that it was only as bad as I made it. I had children that acted, well, like children. They were full of energy, possessed an infinite well of devious plans, and laughter. And I was faced with a choice: either I find a way to allow them to express their craziness or try to cage them up and feel the full wrath of bounded energy. I chose the former. Of course, yelling at program staff, “Your stupid!” for not selecting us for lunch was inappropriate, so I told them they could yell any chant of their choosing as loud as they possibly could. No you couldn’t run through the dining deck and try to slide into other children, but you were able to climb the decent sized stump outside and jump over each other (yes they got hurt, but it didn’t stop them). No, it wasn’t okay to stand up during the middle of team introductions and scream that the other team were a bunch of racists for having white face paint, but it was okay to have a war cry during the game and be passionate about winning. I actively sought ways to be loud and exciting… and for the most part it brought joy to our cabin.

Quotes of the Week…

*On our way to breakfast*
Alpha: “You know how I know you’re Italian? Because you slick your hair back.”

*During Cabin Time*
Omega: “Why does Cody always talk about girls?”
Beta: “Because all of you guys are a bunch of girls.”
Me: “Why don’t we talk more about Zeta?”
Beta: “Your nuts?”
Me: “No, not my nuts. Let’s talk about how awesome I am.”
Beta: “No, you’re lame.”
Psi: “Zeta is so awesome you can’t even understand it. I’m speaking logic, guys!”

*While playing the treasure collecting game*
Some Camper: “This is the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life.” [Referring to his face paint]
Me: “Oh this won’t be the worst mistake you’ll make in your life…. Oh, guys, I’m sorry, I should be a bit more encouraging and positive.”
Omega: “Zeta, don’t worry about it; You teach us the life lessons we really need to know.”

*Upon walking out of the cabin and seeing Beta’s face – he had to have done something wrong*
Me: “Do you know what Tank and I have in common?”
Beta: “Yeah, a bad haircut!”
Me: “You know what’s even scarier? We can tell if you’ve done something wrong just by looking at you.”

*During dinner, I asked what professional sport they would like to play and why*
Beta: “Football because I want to *blows a kiss* with the girls and drive a Ferrari.”
Me: “(seeing it as a teaching moment)…. Beta, what about girls do you like?”
Beta: “Dem thighs.”
Me: “Okay, Beta, imagine a girl liked you only for your money. What would you do?”
Beta: “Drop her off in da woods.”
Me: “Now imagine if you only liked a girl for what she had. What do you think she would do to you?”
Beta: “She’d probably drop me off in the woods… or taze me in the balls.”
Me: “Well Beta, you better be careful because you’re probably getting tazed.”
Psi: “Zeta, this conversation is weird, can we talk about something else?”

Memories from Week 0 :

The problem with memories is that they don’t always come together in the same way as they were experienced. It’s like climbing a tree, you just grab the branches that happen to be nearby and then, when you look back down from the top, you can’t always trace your path back to the ground. Here are a few moments I don’t want to forget but should be reminded from week 0.

  1. Towards the end of Week Zero there was a scheduled hair cut session in the boys bathroom. Not knowing anyone but Peanut, I thought it would be a golden opportunity to talk to whoever was there. When I arrived Tank was just finishing up Fumba’s buzz cut. We didn’t really talk about a whole lot except that a buzz cut would probably get them through the entire summer. However, just as Fumba was getting up, in came Rocket, “Buzz cut time!” He pulled off his shirt, “There’s only one way we’re doing this.” Tank replied, “Are you seriou-” and off came his pants, “Yep! Naked! I don’t want my shorts getting dirty.” “I’m out!”Just as I walked outside, Mr. Incredible walked in. I don’t remember what he did, but I could hear him, “Oh! It’s one of those haircuts.”
  2. On one of the nights when Fumba tried to show us how to light a fire (I say “tried” because it didn’t really happen without extra doses of lighter fluid), I got to speak with Wolverine about his life, his ups and downs, and what God had in store with him. I really enjoyed the conversation and understood why he was here. But a thought kept creeping into my mind – is wolverine going to be a man’s man, someone I can look up to, or a boy’s man, someone that’s trying to rediscover his life and just be another counselor.  This memory meant most to me, as any first impression memories, because it was a starting point in which I could back and think, “Oh, how much things have changed.”

Zeta and his Titans

Week 1 Highlights:

Week 1 Staff Highlights:

My Hope is Built on Nothing Less:


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