Already 8 hours behind the charter bus I left the American Red Cross in Tampa. The fourth and final day was over and instructor training was at last finished. Earlier that morning I had asked our teacher to leave early. Looking at my watch I shook my head, the time was 4:30pm. Traffic at the I-4/275 interchange was going to be heavy turning an hour or so drive into a much longer trip. I didn’t mind though, I was actually looking forward to the peace and quiet. “Survivor” was the theme for this year's Burn Camp, just like the television series. Slow and steady the city receded as I joined the stream of northbound travelers merging onto on I-75. Packed with a sleeping bag and a small suitcase I pointed my GMC toward Umatilla in the rural heart of Florida.
This was my first time at Burn Camp and I was going to be a Burn-Buddy. Hypnotized by the unchanging landscape of fields, horses and cattle my mind turned inward as miles passed by in what seemed like seconds. Could I handle it? What was I going to find when I arrived? How bad were these children burned? Would I be able to look in their eyes and see past their scars? Me! me!… me!…. I yelled, ashamed at myself. If that were all I was going to worry about I would have problems for sure. If I was going to do this, it was going to have to be with nothing in mind but these kids. Irene had just called my cell phone to inform me there had been a change. Instead of the severely burned nine year old everybody knew as Ernest my camper’s name was Dorsey. She explained he was a little older and not as badly burned. Still, I couldn’t help it. I continued to wonder if and how “I “could help these children.
The short winter day had me sprinting down dark backcountry roads squinting my eyes to check every lamppost for a sign that read Elks Youth Camp. It was there, just like the map said, turn right off of state road 44 onto county road 450, go a couple of miles and turn left at the entrance. I turned my truck now covered with every imaginable insect, down a neatly groomed entrance. The glowing green numbers on the dash radio said it was seven pm while I followed the signs to the parking lot. This late the majority of camp would be at dinner in the enormous pavilion so I figured I would find my cabin and get settled in. Things looked a lot different than I expected. There were small decorative brick and mortar houses-they called cabins built on a hill that easily sloped towards a lake. Each had its own air-conditioning/ heat and shower. No wooden rafters to climb up in or swing from and no long cold walks to the shower, like the kind of camp I remembered as a kid. This was going to be nice. At the bottom of the hill right next to the lake was my cabin, cabin 5. I took a deep breath and opened the door unsure of who or what I would see. A little relieved and a little let down the only person inside was Gary another burn-buddy from Clearwater Fire and Rescue. I was prepared to come face to face with my kid, my “kid” that turned out to be fifteen years old! Gary said he was next door with his friends then offered to walk over and introduce me.
Another deep breath, I opened the door to an entire cabin full of kids dancing, hoping around, and singing to CD’s on a Karaoke machine. Leading the pack were Ron and Dave, two more alumni of the burn camp and the Clearwater Fire Department. Almost immediately I noticed Ernest. Compared to the other kids in the room he was by far the most physically changed by his burn experience. You could see where the sterile mesh that once held his bandages and skin together had marked both of his arms permanently. His personality and presence however had a way of instantly washing away any shock you might have felt at first sight. Squeezing my way through the door and into the cabin I met all of them one by one and eventually Dorsey. The teenager I was to be with for the next three days. Derek (burned in the same fire) and Dorsey’s close friend was Gary’s kid. Both looked like any teenager you might see in your neighborhood. Clothes could cover their scars’. The four of us had cabin five to ourselves unlike the other cabins that had as many as eight.
With Dorsey, Derek and Gary’s help I unloaded my gear and sprawled my sleeping bag across one of the bottom bunks. We all talked for a few minutes until Derek and Dorsey went back to the rap session next door. Seeing the deer-in-the-headlights look Gary took over and gave me the short tour, pointing out the gym and pool, what I could see of them anyway. Well lit and easiest to identify was the pavilion, center of activity from dawn to dusk. “This would be a good first place to visit,” I thought. Stepping through the double screen doors I saw several craft stations, row after row of tables where we would eat and kids playing all sorts of games. I’m not sure all the games had names. The most popular seemed to be taking tall inflatable plastic palm trees and beating each other silly. Their laughter told the story!
It wasn’t until we went back outside that I literally came really face to face with why I was there. As we walked down the sidewalk to our cabin we came upon a group of campers headed back to the pavilion. I looked in their direction as we passed to say hello, among them was a girl who had been burned with heavy scars on her young teenage face. I smiled and said hello but when her eyes met mine for just a moment; instinctively I looked away. “Why did you look away?” I asked myself silently. Because “I don’t want her to feel like I’m staring at her” I answered. Working through it in my head I realized; These Kids want to be seen! They want to be seen as who they are-just ordinary kids. Ordinary kids who’ve happen to have been burned. If it couldn’t be forever, then just these four merciful days before they return to their daily lives and the certain cruelty they must endure.
My time with Dorsey was important and memorable but often erratic. Teenagers need lots of room, so I mentored to him when I could and sometimes watched from a distance. Young men like Dorsey aren’t the warm and fuzzy hugs kind of type. Although I often thought that was just what he needed. To be held down and hugged to death. He had a hard home life and adapted by being street-tuff. Always reserved, they way he interacted with me and other burn-kids were always on his terms. Resisting anything organized, scheduled, or required. It wasn’t at all who he really was I suspected. In fact I knew it. He was that transparent. Many times I saw a different nature. The young man with perfect teeth was also kind, caring and compassionate. Here at Burn Camp, at least Dorsey had some control of the world around him.
On Friday and Saturday we competed against other “tribes” in Survivor Challenges. My Team’s flag was red with bold black letters that read Mogo-Mogo. There were canoe races, catapults that tossed beanbags into baskets, and giant team-name puzzles scattered in a field with blindfolded kids putting them back together. The shallow end of the pool bottom was covered in colored rings with each camper jumping in to grab them one by one and racing back the wall to get all sixteen on their stick first. Mogo-Mogo didn’t win any Survivor Challenges but we did win the “Idol Challenge” at the end of camp. Early on, our first activity was to construct a team idol. Through a collaborative effort we had concocted a scary doll-like thing that looked more like it belonged in a voodoo shop in New Orleans. It must have had a curse too because it was stolen, rescued, broken, repaired, battered and abused too many times before it’s final triumphant parade at the closing ceremony.
There are many defining moments at Burn Camp. Some are shared with other burn buddies and burn survivors still others are entirely personal experiences. Moments when you feel like an idiot for even once being vane about a cold sore, grey hairs or warped outlines from broken bones and dislocated joints. Moments when you totally forget yourself, what you are thinking and everything you’re doing is solely for someone else. One of those moments came to me in the swimming pool.
She was to me the most physically changed from burns of all the children at camp. Pay particular attention to those words; changed and not challenged. “She’s been coming to Burn Camp for five years” I was told “her name is Melissa”. I think she was eleven years old. We had spoken at breakfast briefly but not shared names. I purposely sat near Melissa that morning. I was nervous around her and wanted to meet her and my unease head on. I had no experience of being terribly burned, no physcological or medical degree to rely on. I was unsure of what to do, what to say, how to act, how to be her friend, or how to look at her without making her feel self-conscious. Despite all that, I was determined to learn how. Much later I realized it was me who felt self-conscious. Melissa had already come to terms with her scars and misshapenness. Here at burn camp it was me who was “different”.
In-between Survivor Challenges we had free time. There was the Slip-n-Slide, Ropes Confidence Course, Archery, Canoes, and tons of indoor activities. Since I had performed so well the day before slipping and sliding I set my sights on something with less aerobic impact on my knees. The pool sounded good. There would be lots of kids at the pool too; I wanted to meet as many as I could.
My guess was right and soon I was tossing a football around when Melissa, who was all by herself, jumped in the pool right next to us. The next pass I caught I pushed the football to her and asked her to join us. Despite having essentially no hands and such short arms she would grab the football and launch her whole body out of the water to throw it. More than once it sailed through the air a perfect spiral. Maybe because it was getting crowded and partly because of the great effort it took Melissa we stopped.
There was just the two of us on that side of the pool now. She looked tired. How wrong I was!
Commence jumping! She and I must have made a hundred jumps into that pool in every way. Holding my hand with the rounded end of her arm where her hand used to be, Cannonballs, and her personal favorite the shove/push method. Over and over we jumped. The obvious goal and boundary for her was that floating rope of blue and white buoys that defines the shallow and deep ends. She called it “the line”. With each poolside jump she wanted to get a little closer to that rope. Eventually we stayed in the pool and raced back and forth from it to the shallow end wall. More confident together, I asked her if she wanted to jump in on the deep end side of the rope. She replied in her very southern accent, “I’ll try, will you jump with me”. I assured her I would and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. On the way she admitted she was scared but never once hesitated. We jumped and I told her she was brave. She could not have known how much I meant it.
She kept going, challenging herself by swimming from the “line” the other way to the wall of the deep end. I stayed in the pool by her side (when she would let me) and only twice swam for both of us when her lungs wouldn’t carry her any further. The grand finale’ was touching bottom in the deep in end. It was harder for her since her arms moved very little water on her way to the surface. A couple of hours had passed, we were turning into raisins and I was being summoned to the slip and slide. I headed for my towel Melissa right behind me. Never in my life have I been more humbled or amazed by another human being than I was by her that day.
Melissa, Dorsey and Derek were just a few of the many Survivors at camp but every kid there had the same kind of courage. To some of them all that mattered this year was going to Burn Camp and for many it’s all that will matter until next year. It’s hard to do something for someone else and not feel a little guilty for getting something out of it. As my wife pointed out, that is a necessary piece of what compels us to do good things in the first place. It’s human nature to want to feel good about who we are. We want to believe that we are a kind, unselfish, compassionate and decent people. I don’t know about you but I fail at those things often and the world makes it hard to be that way everyday. However as long as there are days like that one in the pool, I’m going to try. If you ever have a chance to be involved in or with the Florida Burn Foundation, Burn Camp, or any organization like them, please do. You will never regret it and will most likely remember it the rest of your life. It changed mine.
I still wonder who took more away from burn camp…those kids or me.