Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thinking About Paul Newman

Paul Newman with campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang camp (Paul Newman with campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp; all images in this post from their website)

Thinking About Paul Newman

When I worked at a cancer clinic here, one of the oncologists spent two weeks each summer as the on-site physician for one of Paul Newman's Hole In The Wall Gang Camps in Colorado. His example inspired other members of our staff to donate their vacation time as well to serve at the camp, and one of our extremely competent chemotherapy nurses, Mel, went every year. She was bristly and brisk most of the time: Her job was a hazmat position, and she didn't tolerate any short-cuts. (As you'd wish, in my opinion.) But the camp brought out her deeply tender heart, and I loved hearing her stories after she returned each summer.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp The children who attended this camp were profoundly ill, many of them terminally so. They had spent much of their lives in medical settings, shut away from natural environments, spontaneity and risk-taking. The counselors did everything they could to make their two weeks at Hole In The Wall an antidote to the rest of their regimented existence, but sometimes it was a hard sell because the kids were far too used to being dependent and cautious.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp There was a tradition that on the next to last night of camp, the most trusted counselor that year would persuade the kids into wrong-doing. A big dessert of some kind would be brought, with much public fanfare, into the cafeteria and stored for a party the next day. Once everyone had gone to bed, the counselor would go from cabin to cabin, rousting well-behaved campers into a raid on the kitchen.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp One year it was Mel's turn to lead the raid, the prize being tubs of chocolate ice cream. It took much time to get everyone assembled and on the path to the kitchen, in chairs, on crutches, a few dragging IV poles. Mel said the racket was enormous despite their desperate attempts to proceed with stealth. Since the rest of the staff as in on it, however, no one emerged to demand what was going on.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp Once in the kitchen, Mel insisted they operate in complete darkness, which added to the children's thrilled terror. She said it was at this point every year that they began to get into the spirit of it, to revel in their own daring and the denied rebellion of childhood.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp They feasted like animals on the ice cream, constantly and vainly shushing one another as the sugar hit their bloodstream. At the peak of their exhilaration, as they were about to sneak triumphantly back to their cabins, Mel released the booby trap, a large pan of silverware which she unobtrusively dropped into the metal sink. The resultant clatter was stupendous.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp Children ran in every direction, some of them screaming. As they almost reached their cabins, lights began coming on and other staff would yell to each other behind opening doors, "Did you hear that? Let's go investigate!" Miraculously, however, no child was ever captured. They reached the safety of their own beds and lay there, panting, pulses racing, muffling their own gleeful laughter at the sounds of staff running along the path and loudly repeating the discovery of ice cream theft.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp At breakfast the next morning, the camp director would solemnly condemn the actions of thieves. Fortunately, there was a second batch of ice cream in another freezer, and he would conclude with a decision to not punish everyone for the misbehavior of the unknown miscreants. The gloat and shine on the children's faces at getting away with it made Mel suddenly weep as she talked about what it meant to see them having a few minutes of normalcy.

A good life lasts for generations.

Campers at a Hole In The Wall Gang Camp