Thursday, August 29, 2013

Camp Tuolumne

One of my first posts on this blog was titled Camp Tuolumne 2011. I included the year in the title because I knew I'd be reporting on the adventures we'd have at family camp every year. I missed last year because I was in Chicago, and this year...well, this year a lot of plans got shelved. So next year for sure! Next year there was no chance I'd be letting the boys miss out on their birthright. It was the source of the greatest collection of my childhood memories and I knew it would be the same for my sons.

It's impossible to overstate what this place meant to me. It was the place I lost my first tooth and had my first kiss. Going there every year was more like a pilgrimage than a vacation. The week spent there was a religious experience. The rest of the year was spent either reveling in the last visit or anticipating the next one. It was bliss.

I use the past tense because just this week, after over ninety years of giving the crazy Berkeley families an annual week in heaven, including four generations of my family, the Rim Fire burned Camp Tuolumne to the ground.

Camp 2010
I can't really put my heartbreak into words. My uncle Stephen wrote an email to the whole family after the news came out. Not surprisingly his experience of that place mirrors my own. I think every kid that spent their summers there had the same experience. It was universal and transcended generations. Here's what he said:

Somebody’s going to say that the destruction, by fire, of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp outside Yosemite is an indescribable loss. It isn’t. It’s very describable: infinitely. Everyone who ever went there can tell you what the loss means. They just won’t use the same words because everyone who went there, and we number in the thousands, will have their own take. This is mine.
Camp Tuolumne was always going to burn down. That stretch of the Sierra Nevadas is too hot and arid and inaccessible. The fact that camp lasted for 91 years is just about miraculous. It was never going to last forever.
To which statement you might reply, well, of course, sorry, but nothing lasts forever.
Which means I wasn't clear. The tent platforms, dining lodge, timber bridges, laundry room, common bathrooms, arts and crafts area, dance hall, outdoor stage and slab-sided teepee were going to last only so long. But the Tuolumne that is a cloud castle of best self, campfire songs, first love, astonishment, fierce loyalty, second love, fishing awards, daring and discovery — that camp — that camp is as fireproof as youth and as indestructible as I don’t know what. Hope.
I said the loss of Camp Tuolumne is describable, and it is. It’s just not easily describable. In one way or another, I think about Tuolumne every day. It wasn’t a place or even an era. Berkeley Tuolumne (too-ol-a-mee) Camp on the south fork of the Tuolumne River about 30 miles from Yosemite is a dream, the scent of sun-baked pine needles, a culture of horse shoes and badminton. It’s two weeks in July during which each day has a dozen moods. It’s the dopey feeling of an afternoon nap in the heat on a cot under a war surplus canvas tent and the taser shock of cold water when you dive in and swim for Beaver Head Rock. At Tuolumne, the pancakes were irrationally delicious, the college guys on the boys staff were Olympians, the girls staff was a blend of Miss Americas and the best big sisters you never had. Our campfire songs were the merriest, our family night skits were beyond witty. The camp store next to the volley ball court had the most exotic candy bars as well as cold drinks you could get no where else. Potato chips tasted better, comic books read better. In short, Tuolumne was Life and the other 50 weeks of the year were a time of weary exile when you grew pale and petty and so did everyone else.
When I was 12, I wrote myself a letter from camp. Camper Me urged my city self not to lose the dream, to keep the flame going, to hold onto the handsomeness, the lightness of being. The light.
Every pathway of memory leads me back to Tuolumne. None leads out.
My parents, Mildred and Carl Fay, were better people at camp. My father was a Berkeley fireman, a product of the Great Depression and abandonment by his own father. By the time I came along in 1949, he had buried two infant daughters. His surviving children, six in all, were mostly obligations and responsibilities for him. He didn’t know about having fun with your children.
Except at camp. Once we arrived at camp after the long drive, the backseat shoving and whining, the  frequent bickering, the boredom and the very occasional barf, my dad shed wary intensity, traded it for two weeks of rest, hikes, swimming (he swan at Tuolumne and no where else), naps, Happy Hour, big meals in the lodge and singing. He would break into “My Fair Lady” or “Oklahoma.”
After lunch and Quiet Hour, we emerged from our tent (they were more like cabins with canvas walls and roofs) for a bracing swim. As a very little boy, my dad took me swimming on his back. I hung onto his trapezoids as he muscled through a modified breast stroke, barely keeping his chin above water, his breath coming in measured gasps. Umm-pfff, umm-pfff. The skin on his broad back was baby smooth. It was the closest I ever got to him.
My mother's transformation was more subtle, but still substantive. Most significant was her opening of a charge account at the camp store. We all could use it. It was an impossible benevolence; it made everything free: pingpong balls, badminton birdies, salmon eggs for trout fishing bait, Coke, fish hooks, Sea 'n' Ski, ice cream sandwiches, Mars bars.
When I was quite small, I spent most of the day in mini-programs with beatifically patient staff girls. I learned to swim in the Minnows Program. Each year, a new accomplishment: assembling a B-17 bomber model from a kit, catching several rainbow trout (great name!), climbing to the top of Sawmill Mountain and leaping past a rattle snake, kissing a girl on the lips. That’s as far as it went, but I wasn’t complaining.
Kids who came to camp year after year developed a loyalty, a chauvinism, that exceeded Japanese nationalism. We thought people who went to Oakland Camp or San Francisco’s Camp Mather or the San Jose Camp — all within several miles of Tuolumne — were hopeless losers. There was only one camp.
I have gone on too long. Those who have been to Tuolumne already understand and those who have not are thinking that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. So I will conclude.
But before doing so: Camp Fire.
Without a camp fire, it ain’t camp. It’s a visit — at best, a picnic with swim. Camp fire seals the deal and Tuolumne camp fires unfailingly rocked. We gathered at 7:30. The boys staff guys would ignite the kind of inferno Incas used to sacrifice virgins: driftwood, logs and the super-sized pine cones that only Tuolumne's super-sized sugar pines could birth. Bill Rhoades, the unflappable camp director throughout my childhood, stepped forward and, without preamble, started singing. “Sugar Bush, I love you so … I will never let you go … don't you let your mother know … Sugar Bush I love you so … Choc-o-late your are so sweet … you, yes you I'd like to eat … if I could t'would be a treat … Choc-o-late you are so sweet.” We had all joined in two words into the first verse.
This would be followed by the much-admired “Did You Ever See a Fishy on a Bright and Summer Day?” and a dozen more songs which, under Bill's direction, we sang in rounds, always among them the internationally acknowledged “Little Tommy Tinker Sat on a Clinker.” Then followed the evening's entertainment. Onto the rustic boards came the players. It depended on the day of the week. There was campers night, children's night, table night, staff night and Aquacade... which was the girls staff doing an Esther Williams number at the base of Beaver Head. The night’s program always concluded with  (need we say?) “Day is Done, Gone the Sun.”
Then to bed: sleeping bags under the stars. The stars. Even in the 1950s and ‘60s, starlight was a rare species in Berkeley. At Tuolumne, the entire solar system was on show.
Twice, mid-year, back in Berkeley, there were reunions. Terrible idea. My heroes and most cunning friends looked like the guys at my middle school. They, too, would have to do a better job channeling their summer selves.
And I was among the dweebiest. A little wiseguy who left his mojo in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Well, that's about it. I went back to camp — Senior Camp — in August of 2012. Nothing had changed. The dining hall, the river, Beaver Head, the pine needles, my sisters.
And now it’s gone. Today is a very sad day. I’m sorry not for myself, since I had the great fortune to have had the full experience. I’m sorry for the kids who were just starting to love it — the 5 and 6 and 7-year-olds who won’t be at camp at ages 8, 9 and 10.
Camp 2011
I may go back one more time to pay my respects, though, in my heart, I honor Tuolumne just about every day. And I have promises to keep. My 12-year-old self wrote me a letter 51 years ago and implored me not to lose what I had found at camp.
I’m working on it.

I never had a plan B for my boys. It was always going to be Camp Tuolumne for them, every year until their brooding and apathetic teenage years when they finally declare that it's "so lame". Then they'd have kids, rediscover it for the heaven-on-Earth that it is, and start the cycle over again. The city of Berkeley is already talking about a 'recovery', but the camp itself wasn't exactly prosperous so who knows. Fingers crossed for a Camp Tuolumne 2.0. My uncle was right, it was a miracle it lasted 91 years, but I could have gone for 91 more. 

1 comment:

  1. I just found out yesterday that my favorite place in Yosemite burned to the ground -- Lake Eleanor -- along with everything between it and Hwy 120. I was planning on taking my girlfriend there in a month or two. So sad.