Monday, August 22, 2011

Seven boys and Fifteen Days

I went back to Wyoming two weeks early. The last course had too few students, only enough for one course instead of two, so they sent people back to Wyoming, where there was a nearly full roster.
On our drive back I mentioned out loud that there were three things I really wanted to do while in Wyoming: go horseback riding, visit Yellowstone National Park and go white water rafting.
I was immediately put with a group of seven boys, aged 11-13 and two amazing leaders; J and M. (I was lucky, the rest of my team was on maintenance duty; which meant painting and putting up a new deck.)

Let my introduce the boys (names have been changed):

Daniel Boone: The first day in Yellowstone, Daniel Boone bought a fake coonskin cap and wore it literally everywhere. He was wearing it when we woke him up in the morning. He was the leader of the group; starting a spaceship/star wars game (of course, played while wearing their coon hats), something about Red October and endless 'gun fights' fought with sticks that looked like rifles or handguns, occasionally bazookas. Once, I heard him yell orders to a soldier "Hold your fire! We don't want to waste ammunition!".
On the long van rides, we would play games. A favorite was a guessing game for animals, one would think of an animal and answer questions until it was solved. "Is it a mammal? Does it live in the desert? What color is it? How many legs does it have?"
Daniel Boone's animal was red and brown, with four legs and a fluffy tail. We guessed for a half an hour until at last, we all gave up. He proudly announced, "It was that squirrel, about twenty miles back, the one that M ran over." For the rest of camp, M's dead squirrel was a running joke, one that became a zombie dead squirrel, and then a ghost zombie dead squirrel and later a squirrel that wanted revenge and had a whole army of road kill squirrels. The grand finale was "How did the squirrel cross the road?" "It didn't. M ran it over."

Fred: He just seems like a Fred to me. Quiet, steady, sure of himself. He took his time and succeeded at everything he attempted. Sliding down the natural water slide, with the waterfall to his right, he was the only student who did not take my assistance in getting out of the freezing water; he actually pushed my hand away and swam to shore alone. He loved the woods, and sticks. And rocks. He wanted to build a lean-to to sleep under, instead of in the tent. While wrangling kids and starting dinner, I would intermittently tell him to stop, put that down. Another leader came over to drop something off and in a deep, booming voice, shouted "PAUSE!!!" I turned to look, Fred was crouched, reading to jump on a long, strong branch that Daniel Boone was holding the other end of. "We just wanted to break it for our lean-to." He said, sheepishly.
The next day, before setting out on a six mile hike, Fred complained that his backpack was heavy. Upon closer inspection, it was heavy because he was carrying a giant, plat rock, about the size of both my hands, together.
"But it's a perfect skipping rock!" He exclaimed.
The last few days of camp, the boys' stick gun fights turned to Harry Potter wands and shouting spells at one another. One evening, when going back to the tent, Fred was running with his wood wand in hand.
"Fred, don't run with a stick in your hand." I called.
Fred stopped, looked down at his hands and promptly stuck the stick in his mouth and continued running!
"Fred! Don't run with a stick in your possession in any way!" that should cover all bases.

Chipmunk: I really did refer to him as a chipmunk many times, because he was so small (4'4" at 11 years old), and twitchy-always moving in jerky motions, twisting his head when he was distracted, jumping up and running when his name was called, moving sporadically as he talked. And chattery! He had a story with everything! "This reminds me of the one time...." and a million questions a day. It almost became a joke, how many questions this boy had. He was incredibly articulate, speaking like a 25 year old man, shoved into the body of a small, small boy. One night, while we were having the evening meeting, where the boys said their favorite and least favorite aspects of the day, he jumped up, exclaiming that he had to go to the bathroom.
J told him to wait, the meeting was almost finished and he would take Chipmunk afterward. "I can't wait!"
Finally, J consented and directed Chipmunk outside of the cowboy tent (a canvas tent erected on a wooden platform) to the corner where the boys would pee off the edge when they needed to go in the middle of the night.
Silence fell over the ten as we heard J scream in horror: "Stop! Pull up your pants!"
And then they high-pitched squeak from Chipmunk as he cried "I can't hold it anymore!"
I started talking loudly and randomly to cover-up the sounds and voices as Chipmunk took a dump on the corner of the tent.

An hour later, J returned and quietly whispered, "I'm done for the night, I'm going to bed now."
For the next few days, whenever Chipmunk had to go to the bathroom, we had to be very clear with him about what he needed to do and being self-aware, and taking advantage of when we were near a toilet.
About a week later, we were camping outside of the mountains- real, ghetto camping.
There was a line of three boys waiting for the small shovel and their turn at the edge of the woods. Suddenly, Chipmunk started pacing.
"I need to go!" He squealed.
"Just wait!" J ordered. "He'll be back with the shovel soon."
But he couldn't wait. He started running, his hands pressed against his butt.
Right beside our camp site, in front of everyone, Chipmunk dropped his pants and started to go.
J yelled, told him to at least run into the woods!
Instead, we had to move all of the other boys away, while J again dealt with Chipmunk and his droppings.

Carrots: I joined the group because Carrots had a low frustration tolerance and easily blew-up. I spent three nights sleeping beside the kitchen, away from the group because Carrots had threatened the group, or injured someone in the group (the injury being hitting Chipmunk with a foam sleeping pad). I slept out on a tarp beside three nights because he had gotten upset over mosquitoes, or because there was no ketchup for his chicken nuggets. I call him Carrots ironically because he claimed he never ate any fruits or vegetables at home; pop tarts and doughnuts for breakfast every morning. His parents had even supplied food that he would eat: pop tarts, graham crackers, and chocolate chewy bars. At camp, he was required to eat a fruit or vegetable at every meal; usually it was an apple with peanut butter. Once, he ate two grapes, crying while he did so. One night, he freaked out, screaming, cursing, and crying because he couldn't handle all of the mosquitoes. The very next night, he was the cook for a meal of macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets. There were so many mosquitoes that they were even in the macaroni and cheese! It was disgusting. Instead of freaking out, while I cooked, Carrots acted as my protector and killed all the mosquitoes around me, laughing manically as he counted how many he killed.
"Die! Die!" He screamed while he killed them.
Dinner was a disaster- people running in all directions, walking in circles and swatting with their arms, while trying to eat. The leaders consulted and decided the thirty minute drive back to base camp would be well worth it to avoid the horrible mosquitoes. I drove about five minutes away to find cellphone reception and call to tell them we would be coming back early. No service, no service.
Finally, I headed back to camp. As I did, I saw a haze over the camp site. No, not haze... rain? hail? Hail!
I sped up and arrived to a group of seven boys waving their arms frantically, who piled into the van before I had scarcely come to a stop.
Lightning, then thunder. All of the boys started counting. "Fifteen seconds!" One boy called. "Do we need to get in lightning position?"
"No!" I laughed at them. "You're in a van!" Silly boys.

With the boys in the van, we began loading all of the gear- including the still-full pot of macaroni and cheese. I passed sleeping bags, sleeping pads and backpacks to the boys in the van, directing them to stuff them under their seats.
I came back, the campsite now bare and the leaders all soaked through, ready to get in the van. I opened the door and laughed; the sleeping backs and pillows were all piled on their laps- so high, that some of the boys were not even visible. The spot where I was supposed to sit was a mound of sleeping bags and sleeping pads. I took off my shoes and dove over two seats, and buckled up, propped up on the soft hill.
That day was a turning point for Carrots, he became one of the most helpful, positive boys after that day. He would sit off to the side, reading, but always offered to help load or unload the van. He still became frustrated, but this time it was based on if someone was being a team player, not mosquitoes.

Dr. Doolittle: He had a bearded dragon, a pet tarantula, and yes, a pet lobster. While hiking, he would spot a bug and describe what kind it was, if it was poisonous or not. Once, he listed the ten most deadly spiders in the world, the most being a Brazilian something or other, it was brown, I think.
He was my favorite; small, with a huge backpack that reached past his bum. He had too-big ears that stuck out a little and buck teeth. When we were in Yellowstone, he would continually ask, "When are we gonna see Old Faiff-ful?" So cute!
The night after we did go see Old Faithful erupt, his tentmate, Fred, got a bloody nose. M was in the van, trying to get Carrots to take his nighttime medications and go to sleep, J was helping Fred and I was in the tent, wiping up the blood to not attract a bear. What a night!
When Fred finally was all cleaned up and headed back to bed, Dr. Doolittle popped and said said, "Fred, you're nose is like a geyser; it's big and unpredictable!"
Dr. Doolittle provided my favorite quote of the summer. While ghetto camping, the students had to dig a hole for pooping. The small shovel was given a nickname and became a thing of pride to 'have the experience in the woods'. One morning, a boy announced that he had to go No. 2. Dr. Doolittle hopped up and announced, the truest offering of friendship: "I dug a hole yesterday that I never used. Let me show you, you can poop in my hole!" And proudly led him off into the woods to share his hole with a friend.

The Goldfish: He had a poor memory, that is why I call him the Goldfish. He would get in an argument with another boy, and within five minutes, literally forget it all. When a leader was trying to process with him and discuss an issue, he blinked, looked a little blankly at her and then said "What are we talking about?"
And he always wanted juice. The directors tried to use activities as incentives for good behavior, but we knew what he really wanted- he just wanted juice. Once, he stopped walking because he wanted juice. He shuffled his feet and took ten minutes to go 100 meters because he said he was 'faint' because his body needed juice.
We went on a canoe trip, paddling about an hour to a small, rugged campsite near the lake. As soon as we arrived, we saw evidence of bears. We warned all of the students that they would need to stay close by, and if they needed to go to the bathroom, a leader would accompany them with bear spray for protection.
That evening, the Goldfish was supposed to wash the dishes; he refused and took off into the woods. A leader immediately grabbed bear spray and chased after him. When they returned, the leader said that the Godfish had said that he wanted a bear to come, he really wanted to see a bear.
The next evening, he got upset because of bugs and took off running down the road. I followed him for about a mile, he paused occasionally, threatening to kill me with a rock in his hand, obviously quoting from some movie or video game. Finally, he ran off of the main road, and over to a small ravine. He threatened to throw himself down the small, tiny slope, to kill himself. I stayed back, waiting for him to calm down.
But he continued to freak out, screaming and yelling and making himself more upset.
He started screaming, "come here! come here!"
I asked him if he was yelling to me, he said he was yelling for a bear. He wanted a bear to come.
I told him the truth; that bears don't come to yelling, that will scare them away. He needed to be quiet for a bear to come. He immediately grew quiet, and squatted in the tall grass. When another leader showed up twenty minutes later, the Goldfish was calmer, and just wanted to go to bed.
The next morning, he gave me a letter:
 "Dear Ellan:
I am sorry for threatening to kill you. I was very angry. I know you were just doing your job."

The Goldfish didn't have a good memory for events, or what he was directly told, but he absorbed stories like a sponge. If he heard a story once, within two days, it would become something in his past, part of his life, nearly word for word. Sometimes these stories were more than far-fetched; he was best friends with Justin Beiber. His brother had a Ferrari that he let the Goldfish drive sometimes. He had eaten llama eyeballs while on a trip through a tropical rainforest.
We went to a birds of prey show, at the request of Chipmunk, who was an avid bird lover. All of the birds at the exhibit were removed from the wild for a specific reason- one could not fly because it had a deformed wing, another had been blinded in an injury. A great horned owl, which we learned was the greatest of all birds of prey and known for it's hunting ability because it had been raised by people and never learned to hunt. It was ironic that it couldn't hunt, rats and mice would run over it's feet, but it wouldn't attack them, it only ate already dead rats and mice.
Three days later, while getting ready to ride horses, the Goldfish casually bragged to another student that he had a hunting horse (yes, a hunting HORSE!). Only, it sort of had a mental problem, and it wouldn't eat rats or mice- they would run over it's hooves and he wouldn't do anything at all to them. (A hunting horse that eats rats and mice?) The other student seemed mildly interested, but was more focused on the real horse in front of him.

Clutzo the Clown: He was somehow always injured. His glasses were broken- and then the lens fell out.
While horseback riding.
While rappelling.
Somehow, the lens was always found, even in the dark, on the edge of a cliff.
It was Clutzo who had to go to the doctor, it was Clutzo who had a fever and it was Clutzo who got a bloody nose while white water rafting. While going over a large rapid, Clutzo's nose knocked the shoulder of another boy. He turned and looked at me, blood spurting down his face. "I'm bleeding." He said, pathetically.
We told him there was nothing to do (we were in the middle of a river), except pinch it and lean forward. Finally, it stopped bleeding and he looked up- a red line from his nose to his chin, even blood in his teeth when he smiled. "What do I do now?" He asked.
"Ride the bull!" We declared- and sent him to the front of the raft for the water from the river to splash up and wash his face.
We finished the ride and he ran out of the boat, smiling at his adventure; dried blood still all over his face.

Clutzo had a special diet, but never tired of peanut butter and honey on a corn tortilla. He would chant "PB and H! PB and H! Peanut Butter! Peanut Butter! Peanut Butter, Honey and a baseball bat!"
We never found out what the baseball bat was for.

One day, while having lunch at a park in Jackson Hole, the boys started chasing away the Canadian Geese. They started chasing them because they were approaching too closely to our lunch and they kept chasing them because it was fun.
Someone pulled over and got out of their car, yelling that it was illegal to chase wildlife in Wyoming. J called to the boys to stop running- but these are kids with ADD, ADHD and behavioral problems- they don't listen the first two times. The man became irate, cursing and yelling at J. He threatened to call the police. J asked him to please stop using curse words around the young boys and then the man actually called the police.
He stood there, glaring over the boys, telling them that he had called the police.
Clutzo froze. He was in the green grass, in the shadow of a small tree, completely frozen, white-faced. He shuddered a little. Then he started crying.
"I don't want to go to jail!" he cried.
I loudly suggested that we may have to leave the park to get some peace, and finally the man went and lingered beside his car instead of our group.
The police arrived within five minutes, and upon seeing that it was a group of boys, most who were 11 years old, laughed about it and told them not to chase the geese any more.
Chipmunk, famous for his questions, asked the police officer if they were allowed to chase the geese away if they were trying to eat the food.
"Well, you have a right to defend your lunch!" The police officer laughed.

I had so much fun working with these boys.
And because of them, I got to do everything on my list and more;
Visit Yellowstone. I saw the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic
Visited the Grizzly and Wolf Center, where we could see the animals in their natural habitat
Went on a two-day canoe trip
Horseback riding, including an all-day trail ride
Rock climbing.
Went down a natural water slide
Went white water rafting for the first time

All in all, it was a wonderful summer!

Santa Cruz and the Sea Lion

Previously, every time off I had run away to San Francisco, to take in the sights and sounds of the city- the trolleys, the crowds, the street performers. But this was the last break I would ever have in California, and with my co-workers, so I decided to stay in Watsonville, a small immigrant town situated between Santa Cruz and Monterey. Too bad the two other girls decided to go to Berkeley, and my staff partner went to visit a friend. That left me with Q and X. The first night, they talked about poop.
Yes, poop.
After 5 minutes on the subject, I walked to the van and turned on the radio.
"What are you doing over there?"
"I'll come back when you stop talking about pooping."
Ten minutes later, I rejoined them, when the topic was something else other than bodily functions.

The second night, it started to rain. We we hooked up a laptop between the front seats of the van, cuddled up with blankets and pillows and had a TV marathon in the back of the van while it rained all around us. That was pretty fun- except the potato chips dipped in potato salad, that was just gross.

We spent our days at Santa Cruz- the boardwalk, smelling of fried foods and flashing over priced T-shirts, the beach, with beautiful white sand and endless sun. We drank Margaritas; the boys complaining that they looked too girly, but tasted too good to pass up on looks alone. We got seafood sandwiches at little stands along the pier, crab, shrimp and calamari- so, so good!
We sat beside some steps at the edge of the docks to eat, serenaded by barking sea lions. When we finished, we walked down to the bottom to see the sea lions we could so easily hear. There were at least 50, maybe more, propped up along the cement blocks holding the posts of the dock, a few barking, many of them sleeping. There was a small, chicken-wire fence preventing the sea lions from entering and climbing up the stairs, and probably also from people to reach the sea lions. Against the fence, one huge, at least 600, maybe 700 pound sea lion was fast asleep.
Q gave me a wink and reached his hand through a hole in the fence, brushing the back of the sea lion's head.
"I wanna do that!" I said, excitedly.
I took a breath, and reached my hand through the same hole. For a moment, I touched the bristly, but soft hair on the back of the sea lion's head- like a rough stuffed animal, but softer and hairer than he appeared to be.
It was only a moment, because the sea lion whipped it's head around and stared at me with giant, almost animated, brown eyes. Eyes that did not look happy with me.
I jumped back and laughed: I had touched a sea lion.

X was still at the dock, talking on the phone, we called him down, bragging that we had touched a sea lion. He ended his call abruptly, saying he needed to touch a sea lion (I'm sure the person on the other line was confused) and ran down the steps.
By now, the sea lion was prepared, and had turned it's head so it was facing in our direction (a fact we decided not to mention to X). He refused to be outdone, and bent down to reach his hand through the hole.
Half an inch past the hole in the fence and the sea lion's eyes popped open, as did his mouth and he snapped his jaws, nipping his sharp, fish-eating teeth at X's fingers. The grown man squealed and jumped back- sending everyone, even a random old woman, laughing. She even called him a 'sissy' and told him to try again, he needed to defend his honor and touch the sea lion

He never did touch the sea lion, he said he liked his fingers too much.

When people ask me what I got to see and do this summer I mention three things:
I went white water rafting.
I saw a bear.
And I touched a sea lion.