Friday, July 27, 2012

The nest is empty... for a little while

Aaron at the airport, on the way to Ramah Outdoor Adventure
When I was 10, I went away to summer camp for the first time.  It was a 7-week boys camp near New London, New Hampshire, called Camp Sunapee.  I didn't really want to go to sleepaway camp.  In A Christmas Story the younger brother Randy is introduced with, "Every family has a kid who won't eat."  In my family, that was me.  I think I survived that summer mostly on bread sandwiches and Hershey's Almond Chocolate bars.  We also had a counselor from Switzerland who taught soccer and took me sailing on a butterfly, and who introduced me to this amazing thing called Lindt Milk Chocolate that was even better than Hershey's.  I shot a rifle, went to a dance at a girls camp, occasionally saw my older brother who was a 2nd year Sunapee camper, and... well, I didn't really like that summer's camp experience all that much, in the end, but from that year on I was away at camp every summer... and for 8 weeks after that first year.  Camp Sunapee is long gone, but those few memories from 40 years ago remain.


I was the last of the kids in my family to agree to go to summer camp.  My older brother was already in his fourth year of summer camp, and even my younger sister, not yet 8 years old, eagerly went away to a sleepaway camp.  Going to summer camp, it seemed to us, was a rite of passage in growing up.  It was what was done.  My father, a poor inner-city Boston Jewish kid of the depression, had gone to summer camp.  He said his counselor at his camp was Mike Wallace, only he didn't go by Mike Wallace then, he was Myron something, and every time we watched Sixty Minutes my dad would say something back to the TV, probably answering some bad thing counselor Mike must have said to him decades earlier.  Of course we all went to summer camp.


With all of us kids off to camp, of course that meant my parents were all alone in the house.  I don't think I ever considered it much from the parents' point of view, though.  Maybe they took an occasional couple of days down to the Jersey shore?  I'm not even sure, all these years later.  But the house was empty of kids, and from that summer forward they were "empty nesters" for several weeks.


Earlier this week, Lori and I became "empty nesters."  Seven and 8-week summer camps are mostly a thing of the past; among other things, it's way too expensive.  But Elianna was itching to go, and last year -- at age 10 -- we sent her to Camp Ramah in Canada.  Four decades after I started going, that actually seemed on the young side; maybe as parent my perspective had simply changed.  She came back glowing.


Elianna boarding the bus for Ramah in Canada
Aaron had showed little interest at all in sleepaway camps before.  Last year, I had even shown him Ramah Canada information, as well as information about a new camp called Ramah Outdoor Adventure, a Colorado-based Ramah camp that seemed to me a better fit for him.  He shrugged, and spent the summer at home.  He sailed with the Pontiac Yacht Club Junior Sailing Team, which despite the fancy name is still a whole lot less expensive than any summer camp.


But this year, Aaron surprised us.  He asked to go away.  He wanted to meet new people and do new things.  He's 15.  I couldn't help but recall that when I was 15, I was in my 5th and final year as a camper at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  Ramah Canada wouldn't work for Aaron; at 15 they still require a full summer's commitment and we weren't interested in that.  But Ramah Outdoor Adventure fit perfectly.  Early last Monday morning, we put Aaron on a plane to Colorado.


Elianna was home long enough after Aaron left to write him 2 letters -- outbound is all electronic now.  In the first one, she wrote, among other things, "Dad's gone all mathematical so I can't understand him."  She didn't let me see the 2nd one before sending.


This Monday, Elianna got on the bus for Ramah Canada.  And so, for 3 weeks and 2 days, we're all alone.  I'm not even sure yet what we'll do; the Jersey shore seems out of the question.  Mostly, it seems I'm waiting on letters from the kids... how odd is that?


Today, then, was the big day:  The first letters from both kids arrived.  Aaron's, via US Mail, and Elianna's electronically.  They both opted to taunt me.  Aaron:  "I am meeting a lot of new people and everyone thinks I am really funny, Dad."  Elianna: "And btw, Dad, you are very very mistaken.  I love you more.  Yes I do xoo."  May I be blessed with more taunting like that!


The empty nest is a preview, of sorts.  I suppose I now understand "the other side" from when I was 10.  I do have one advantage, at least:  I get to sift through pictures from camp most days.  It's a bit less lonely that way.  They'll be back in less than 3 weeks.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Some thoughts about Penn State

When I was in my final year of high school, I witnessed a sexual assault.  At a trip to a model UN, in a hotel room.  The perpetrator, like me, was a high school senior; I had known him since we were 4.  The victim was 15; I'd known her for several years, as well.  The party was an excuse for us seniors to drink legally a lot in a famous New York City hotel (the drinking age in New York was just 17 at the time).  The girl shouldn't have been there... but she was, and had had too much.  He took advantage, forcing her hands to place where they shouldn't have been.  I could process what was happening, but not what to do about it.  I froze.  Pretended I didn't see.  When he got up to get more drinks, I collected myself... and her.  "You need to get out of here.  I'm escorting you to your room now."  I wasn't exactly proud of myself, just a bit relieved that it was over.  None of us ever spoke about it again.

I have spent some time trying to understand how events at Penn State University unfolded.  I tried to understand, for example, how an assistant football coach, upon witnessing a rape, could possibly freeze up.

Recently, a summer camp for which I have great affection, made a decision that adversely impacted a child with a disability.  When news of that decision became known publicly, it was immediately obvious that the decision was a mistake, and that it had damaged the child.  There was a public outcry, with thousands of comments coming in on various discussion boards, including horrified statements from alumni of sister camps as to how such a thing could never happen at their place.  But some staff and alumni of this particular camp chose, instead, to defend the reputation of the camp and its present staff, putting the child's welfare as an afterthought, if they considered it at all.

At Penn State University last November, after the former football coach Joe Paterno was fired, some students rioted.  Others has an impromptu rally at his house.  To the extent anyone could determine, few considered the welfare of the actual child victims of the case.

In trying to understand the Penn State case, I've done a lot of internet reading.  Within days of the case breaking open last November, Andrew Vachss needed only half a page to explain how Jerry Sandusky got away with it so long, and how it was that Paterno et. al. ended up protecting Sandusky rather than the actual victims.

Still, I felt uncomfortable with the particular focus on this university in this way, the talk of it being the "worst sports scandal ever," a "unique" situation, and calls for the so-called NCAA "death penalty."  Of how such things could never happen in their beloved university (for the record, I have no personal connection to Penn State University).  So I got on my internet research hat, to find other instances of horrific child abuse within large, respected organizations including sports, to see what had happened.  Some, I already knew, and some were new to me.

I found the case of Brad Stowell.  Stowell molested at least two dozen boys at Boy Scout camps over a period of 9 years.  But the Boy Scouts of America and its local affiliate, the Grand Teton Council, ignored repeated warnings about Stowell; when the case broke they hired lawyers to ensure that the court proceedings were kept private.  The reporter who uncovered the story for a local Idaho newspaper was run out out of town by those opposed to reporting the case.  Stowell served a very modest jail term, and so far as I can determine he is a free man today.

Then there was the sex abuse case at Maple Leaf Gardens.  During the ownership period of Harold Ballard, a notorious penny-pincher, 3 employees at the facility combined to abuse more than 60 boys.  According to victims, "a lot of people working there knew about it."  The two surviving perpetrators received light sentences.

Far more notorious, in the hockey world, was the case of Graham James.  James was a successful junior league coach; he was "The Hockey News" man of the year in 1989 after guiding the Swift Current Broncos to the Memorial Cup.  But he was also sexually abusing players on the team.  Finally, in 1996 Sheldon Kennedy of the NHL's Calgary Flames outed James.  James has served several short sentences in jail.

In baseball, there was the case of Gary Downing.  Downing coached the Minnesota Little Gophers travel baseball team, and abused some of its players.  The statute of limitations expired before he could be prosecuted.

Finally, there was the case of Donald Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick worked for the Boston Red Sox for 48 years, including more than 20 as equipment manager.  He appeared in team pictures, including one time sitting next to Hall-of-Famer Jim Rice.  But he was also sexually abusing African-American boys, who he'd entice with the chance to have menial clubhouse jobs.  According to various reports, several prominent Red Sox players knew or suspected what Fitzpatrick was doing, and one even caught him raping a child.  But Red Sox ownership declined to do anything about it, until finally a victim came to a national TV game with a sign announcing that he'd been abused by Fitzpatrick.  The Red Sox eventually paid modest settlements to 7 victims; Fitzpatrick (since deceased) received a suspended sentence and no jail time.

In all of these cases -- and many more -- when the cases finally got to the legal process, the penalties to the perpetrators, damages paid to the victims, and publicity were all very relatively light.  They were abused once by their perps, and a 2nd time by the system.  Few people remembers any of the cases

The Penn State case is not so unique.  But it is different.  The perpetrator is in jail, and is likely never coming out.  And the institution that tried to cover it up will be punished, harshly.  This time, finally, a nerve has been struck.

Tomorrow morning, the collegiate sports governing body, the NCAA, will issue harsh penalties against Penn State.  This is unprecedented, in that the NCAA typically declines to pursue action in criminal cases.  I did not support the NCAA getting involved, because of many other reasons (not least of which is my general lack of respect for the organization).  According to various sources, the penalty will not be the so-called "death penalty," though it will be very severe.

I wonder:  might this start a change towards breaking "circles of trust" wherever they may be?  Might this start a change so that monsters like Fitzpatrick are caught and pay for their crimes?

I doubt it.  I'm not even sure if I would freeze again, given the opportunity.
But maybe, just maybe, the harsh glare -- with or without the NCAA -- is a start.