Friday, May 29, 2009

Camp Safety/Hayride of Horror

This week was Jeffrey's 5th grade camp trip. Having learned from my past experiences, I signed up to attend as a "visitor" on the second day rather than as a chaperon. This way I was able to observe all the fun without having to be responsible for other people's children or sleep on a moldy plastic mattress. I drove there with my neighbor friend Monica who also has a 5th grader, making it even more enjoyable. I am learning!

Fresh and rested, we drove a little over an hour, chatting so much that we almost missed the entrance to the Howell Nature Center and Camp. We made our way over the bumpy and gutted hills of the campground road to the building where our children were in the middle of a one-hour safety orientation. We greeted the overwhelmed and beleaguered looking chaperons, and I made sure to thank them for watching out for our children.

After the safety orientation was over we all hiked through the woods to the site of our first activities, which were the rock-climbing tower and "high ropes." The children were then subjected to yet another series of safety instructions. By now I was sure that they had received far more information than they could possibly retain, but I was pleased to observe the emphasis on safe practices given the dangerous nature of what they would be doing. They learned a detailed set of commands that had to be repeated whenever they were "on belay" when wearing a safety harness.

I once read about the purpose of these types of camp activities. It is to safely simulate the feeling of perilous adventure and create a bonding experience for the participants. The kids just think its fun. I was extremely proud as I watched my little Jeffrey scamper easily up to the top of the 60 foot climbing tower, a feat that only a few of them accomplished.

After lunch they were scheduled for the high ropes which is something I've never seen before and is quite amazing. The children were subjected to yet another safety orientation where they practiced the steps of transferring their safety hooks before they climbed high up into the trees to navigate across a course of ropes, wires and logs. I was again happy to observe my Jeffrey complete this with ease, and felt he was safe due to the ample staff and safety precautions they were taking.

After that they did canoeing and had dinner, and then it was time for the hayride. A tall man in a large straw cowboy hat came and told our group that one of the carts had a flat tire and they were going to see how many people they could fit onto one wagon. We squeezed our way onto the wooden benches along the sides of the wagons with the children on a thin layer of hay at our feet. The man stepped up onto the back of the cart and delivered what would be the fourth safety talk of the day:

"This wagon does not have any shocks, so the ride will be rough. Anyone with a heart condition or who is pregnant should not ride." Greg's dad jokingly started to get up, claiming pregnancy, and we all laughed. But a girl named Katie turned to me and said:

"That's how our teacher got her back injury last year!" I smiled dismissively at Katie as the hat man went on:

"Keep yer hands in the wagon cuz if ya don't they could get cut off. We'll be getting real close to some trees so the people on the opposite sides should tell people when to duck. And try to hold on." He looked down at the two kids sitting nearest the opening where he stood. "These two might fall out." I saw that there was no gate to go across that opening, and one of the dads stretched his foot out to partially cover it.

We all hollered as the man revved up the pickup truck that jolted the packed wagon into motion. I contemplated the total lack of restraints and the gaping space in the back of the wagon as I recalled the many crash videos that I studied in slow motion during my career as a seatbelt engineer. We used to fret over the tiniest details to make sure that the vehicle's occupants would remain uninjured in all possible situations. And here I was with all of these precious children as the man turned onto that bumpy camp road and revved the engine to what felt like 40mph.

The happy hollering turned to fearful screaming as the wagon flopped along behind the truck, and those tree branches started whipping us in the faces and heads. There was little to no reaction time as branch after branch sliced through the air and whapped the passengers hard and deposited leaves, blossoms, and possibly disfiguring scars all around. Monica, true friend that she is, took to screaming "DUCK" and smacking me in the back as she saw them coming. I bent into the "crash position" they recommend for descending airplanes: forehead to knees with palms to the back of my head.

We got a reprieve from the branch assault when the truck swerved into an open field and began driving around in circles. Centrifugal force slammed us all against one side and I saw Jeff's friend Nick clutching the side of the wagon trying hard not to throw up.

After another screaming tour of terror over the roads we finally lurched to a stop back where we started. As far as I know we didn't lose anyone or sustain any serious injuries, but my goodness after a full day of careful safety instructions I can't believe they subjected us to this. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done.

When Monica and I got off the wagon and looked at each other's crazy hair spiked with hay, leaves and branches we burst into uncontrollable laughter. It was a bonding experience.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Garden Intrusion

I love growing a garden and now that I'm home I'll have a lot more time to care for it. So maybe this year is the year that it doesn't dry up or become a giant salad bar for all of the creatures that are always traipsing through.

While I was in Mackinaw Larry did some work to get the garden ready for planting. (Per my request.) He dug out some old chicken wire and railroad ties and replaced them with a double layer of new railroad ties to make it more of a "raised" garden, and put in new fencing that is supposed to be specially designed to keep out small animals. He also turned over the dirt which looks really good this year since we added shredded leaves in the fall on the advice of my work friend Alan.

On Sunday when I got back it was ready for planting, so Jeff and I went to the Garden Center and bought seeds and plants. We got the plants a little larger than usual with the thinking that would give them more of a boost to produce. Instant Garden! It looks great!

Of course I remain worried about the deer which in the past have decimated my gardening effort immediately after its been planted. Larry helped me to stretch a special netting that Aunt Chris gave me across the top of the fencing. This created a complete Box of Protection around the garden. I hoped it would be effective but could be a pain when we need to get in there to pull weeds or pick vegetables.

I hung up a wind chime on a hook and planted marigold seeds around the perimeter, which are said to be deterrents. Then I got out this spray jug of "Deer Away" and squired the putrid stinky stuff over all of it. Disgusting, but if it works, worth it.

Finally, after a long day of laboring, I went in the house. As I looked out the window to watch the sun go down, the deer came through our yard, right on schedule. I peeked out and watched them to see what would happen. On of them went up on his hind legs to nibble on a tree branch nearby, but then they wandered away without inspecting it. Phew!

After it got too dark to see anything I sat down and watched some shows on TV. A teaser for the 11:00 news came on. FROST WARNING FOR TONIGHT! I was so busy outside all day I hadn't checked for this. And now it was dark out and not realistic for me to get out there and try to cover all the new plants.

I went to sleep and dreamed of shriveled seedlings. Later in the morning, before I'd gotten the nerve to go outside and look at the garden, there was knocking on my front door. At first I didn't recognize the woman who watches the children next door. They have a baby and a 3 year old, and she brings two other preschoolers over there with her.

"I am SO SORRY!" she said, looking stricken. In her hands were the cute vegetable-face garden markers that I had gotten on clearance last year and had put in right after we planted everything. "I was tending the baby and I looked over and saw the kids having a parade across the yard holding up these sticks I had never seen before. Then I realized they are your planting markers! Now you won't know where everything is!"

It made me laugh that all of the efforts to keep the animals away had not deterred the children from reaching their little hands through and pulling those things out. I assured her that we didn't need those markers to know what we planted, and then I explained to the guilty looking children that they had to get permission to touch anything in there from now on. They were very cute as they listened to my explanation of what we planted, and then they invited me to see their tree fort.

Other than a slight frost damage to the tomato leaves, everything is still looking good, for now.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bad Chaperone

At the beginning of the school year Tim's band teacher announced that they would be taking a trip to Mackinac Island in the spring. He encouraged the parents to have their children attend, and said that there would be some fundraisers to help with the expenses. "It's a great experience." he told us.

Because I don't like to make my kids sell stuff I signed up for the online payment plan and forked over the $250 fee in installments. At the parent-teacher conferences in March I met with the Band teacher and asked him a lot of questions about the trip, especially regarding how to manage Tim's food allergies. Timmy has never been that far from home before without us, and I know from reading the Food Allergy Network materials that many of the deaths from food allergy reactions have occurred on this type of trip, when the kids are older and kind of on their own. The band teacher suggested that I consider chaperoning the trip since they needed more parents to go along anyways.

At that time I suspected that I might not be working any more in May, so I wouldn't have to worry about taking the time off, but doubling the cost of the trip would sting even more. I didn't do much about it until a few weeks ago when he emailed me directly requesting that I attend because they needed more parents to go. I agreed and went online to sign up. I gulped when I saw that the cost for chaperons was even more, $330, apparently due to the double instead of quad room arrangement. That's almost $600 for the two of us to do this. I could take my own family on a very nice trip for that amount, but oh well.

About a week before the trip there was a meeting for the parents. It turned out that both the band and the choir were doing this. I saw my friend Gail at the meeting. She said she would not be going but asked that I keep an eye on her son since he now has a girlfriend in the choir who would also be on the trip. I met that girl's mom and assured her that I would try to see that things were "on the up and up" with them. The band teacher explained to the nervous parents that the children would be well supervised during the entire trip, and that the chaperons would be evenly distributed throughout the bus. The man from the travel company was there and said that they have been doing trips for years and have never lost a kid yet.

One parent raised their hand and asked how many would be going on the trip, and the teacher said about 40 kids total, way down from years past, "probably due to the economy." That led me to ponder the idea that this trip was actually optional, and that my family was the one with the job loss and complicated food issues and yet was participating.

After the meeting I went up to the band teacher because I wanted to talk about allergies, and another mom was also there because she was looking to find a chaperone who could help her daughter who is diabetic. Since I was the one standing there I said I would try to help with that.

A couple of days before the trip I called the travel agency to find out about the food that would be served. Since I was going to be there with the epi-pen at the ready, I wasn't so much worried about a reaction but needed to find out if there would be enough "safe" food available for Tim to have enough to eat. After I politely explained why I was calling, the woman on the phone sounded all put out about it. "This is the first I've heard about this!" she complained. I told her that the Band Director was aware of the issue and asked if there was a place I was supposed to indicate any special needs when I registered. She admitted there was not but did list off the food that was included in the meals that would be served. When it looked like Timmy might be limited to eating dinner rolls and plain lettuce, I asked if there was a possibility of having anything specially prepared. She said that was not an option and suggested that I bring along a cooler with our own food in it. OK, then.

When travel day came they loaded up the bus with luggage, band instruments, and dozens of over-excited 8th graders. After I took my seat in the front of the bus with the other chaperons, the band teacher and tour guide took the microphone and told the kids to behave themselves, and some other typical rules. The band teacher looked at me, and took the microphone. "And no eating peanuts on the bus!" Then they made to leave and I asked where they were going. "Oh, we always travel in a separate vehicle, ever since that one time" they explained and then left us with our charges.

The bus ride really wasn't so bad, at least in the front of the bus. I looked back and thought I could see the top of Timmy's head. And I identified the diabetic girl. She had her eyes closed and mouth open. She was either asleep or in diabetic shock, I hoped it was sleep. They had given us an information DVD about Historic Fort Michilimacinac to play on the bus. When we did that the kids complained and turned up their ipods. I found it very interesting.

When we got to our destination the band teacher re-appeared and told the kids to stay on the bus while we he met with the chaperons. We were handed a list of children we would be "responsible for" and given itineraries. My list had son, his friend Clark, the diabetic and 6 other girls I did not know. When they disembarked from the bus they were told to go and meet up with their chaperons. Several girls drifted my way and I tried to find out their names and match them up with those on my list. One came up to me and stated: "We don't have to stay with you."

I said that they didn't have to but were welcome if they wanted to. Another girl smiled at that and I decided that I liked her better. Then they went away, never to be seen by me again. To this day I am sure that I could not even select them from a police line-up. I tried to memorize their faces in the 30 seconds I had to look at them, but honestly they all sort of looked the same. I happen to know at this age, they work at that. And then they all bought new sweatshirts, and later changed their clothes. I would often scan the crowd, looking at faces and wondering what girls were "mine." Especially when we were on the ferry, I hoped really hard that none of them were left behind, unnoticed. Imagine the headlines.

Our accommodations for the night were at the Mission Point Resort on the island. The chaperons were to share rooms with 2 double beds, but I noticed that the teachers would be in a complimentary "hot tub suite." I was a little nervous about sharing a room with someone I had never met, but my roommate Bonnie turned out to be very nice, and we did fine. Much better than the two stunned looking 6 foot tall fathers who went to check into their room and found one double bed. After much discussion and wrangling with the hotel and the travel guy they were able to secure 2 separate rooms. Then they were charged extra for it.

The food they served us at the resort wasn't that good and I realized that there were other children who might have had diet issues too when I saw them picking out very little from the one-entree choice line-up. Tim seemed to get in line way ahead of me despite my best efforts to catch up with him. He had very little to eat and would not accept the carton of soy milk that I had lugged all the way up there for him. This made me frustrated and him hungry. By the middle of the second day he came up to me pleading for money to buy a box of popcorn which got him a less-than-loving parental look and yet another wad of money from my purse.

At night we were given a list of rooms to check on that was different than the list of kids I was "in charge of." The rule was that they were to be in their rooms for the night at 10:30, and the chaperons job was to count them. There were security guards with roaming the halls with clipboards at this time. I checked on my assigned rooms, and all looked fine, and then went to the boy's hallway to say goodnight to my son. Clark answered the door and Timmy peeked out and waved at me and then disappeared. Gail's son (who has the girlfriend) was also in that room so I jokingly asked if it was only the four boys in there. As they grumbled an affirmative answer the guard appeared over my shoulder and told me that I should check under the beds. What? "They do that all the time" he told me. I just shouted "go to sleep!" and left.

Mackinac Island is a beautiful place but I suspect that traveling with a middle school tour group in the off season isn't the best way to enjoy it. I looked wistfully upon charming porch chairs and beachfront walkways and thinking how nice they would be to enjoy...IF I were there in different circumstances. I also believe that the students didn't appreciate it. We were scheduled for a horse-drawn tour of the island. After I saw Timmy departing on a carriage full of boys (could he be avoiding me?) I slipped into the back row of a carriage with the girls from the choir. I don't think that they realized there was an adult present as they proceeded to torment the poor woman who was charged with steering the horses and narrating points of interest to her passengers through a microphone. "I'm cold!" those dressed inappropriately for the 50 degree rainy weather interrupted her to complain. "My room had bugs in it! Breakfast was terrible! I can't live without a car! This place smells bad! Everything is old and boring!" I cringed and felt bad for their parents and embarrassed on behalf of our group, their school, our town and my gender. I noticed that it was only me and the choir teacher who chose to tour the historic fort while everyone else rushed to stand around in the gift shop and buy candy. They turned up their noses at the "too fancy" food in the Grand Hotel Buffet and Clark put in his ipod headphones during the Three Men and a Tenor concert.

It made think what the point of all this was. There was a part where they went to a soundstage to play some songs on their instruments and get instructions from a man from CMU, but it came to mind that he could have much more easily made the trip to their school and accomplished the same thing and reached more of the students. I do see the benefit for the economy of the island and the tourism industry in the off season to host all of these students in bulk, and I can see why the teachers would enjoy getting away from the classroom and enjoying their complimentary deluxe accommodations. However, knowing what I do now, I don't think I would do this again, or send my child alone. Can't trust those chaperons.

Monday, May 11, 2009


The phone rang and it was my sister Mary Beth.

"Mom called me to tell me that she went to the funeral of our old neighbor Mr. Spiteri yesterday."

"Yeah, I heard about that, very sad." I wondered why she would call to tell me about this.

"Well, get this. She ran into some old neighbors there and struck up a conversation with a Mrs. Suffeck. Do you remember a Mrs. Stuffeck?"

I rolled the name around in my brain for a moment. "The name sounds vaguely familiar."

"Well," she went on, "apparently Mom was going on about her daughters like she does, and she got to talking about her youngest who is a Very Successful Buyer at Ford. (ha, ha)"

I wondered just what adjective my mother might have applied to my current career situation, but Mary Beth continued her story: "And then Mrs. Stuffeck says that her daughter is married to a Very Successful Buyer at Ford." I thought I could see where this was going. "Doesn't she realize that there are hundreds of buyers who work for Ford?"

I reminded Mary Beth that it is one of those Rules of the Universe that when our mother strikes up a conversation she will somehow magically hone in on the common link with lightning speed, and it always beats the odds of likelihood. Oh, your brother went to Michigan State? Well then he must know... Even though hundreds of thousands of people have attended certain Universities, or lived in certain towns or states, or worked for a giant corporation, it always turns out that you actually do know of or have a connection to the person. It just works that way. In fact, the entirety of my (unsuccessful) career at GM began with my mother standing in line to check out books at her local library, and finding out that the woman behind her worked in the department of GM where they hired summer students, and of course I was finishing up my sophomore year in Engineering and would sure like a job like that...and the rest is history.

There are no six degrees of separation when you have the single degree of Dorothy on your side.

So I was curious as to why Mary Beth was calling me with this story as she went on to say that when she asked our mother for the name of Mrs. Stuffeck's son-in-law, she found out that she had written it down on a scrap of paper and put it in her purse. And then couldn't find it. It is another (unfortunate) Rule of the Universe that my mother tends to quickly forget crucial details from these conversations, and I won't even go into the Black Hole Theory that I have about her purse.

But Mary Beth goes on: "So when I get to work today, my good friend and co-worker from the next cubicle comes over to tell me how his mother-in-law met up with my mother and that his wife Gloria grew up on our street!" But of course.

And now to the point of the phone call. Mary Beth was desperate to figure out if we actually knew Gloria growing up. She is probably a bit younger. I riffled through the rolodex of my brain trying to place a girl of that age into a house down the block near where the Spiteris lived. I thought I had it. "I know! She was the daughter of the President of the Barry Manilow fan club who lived in the smelly house who we never wanted to babysit for!"

Mary Beth was horrified. "It just can't be her. I've never met Gloria but she has a reputation of being very pretty and neatly dressed. That doesn't fit. Think some more."

I added the additional data of 'pretty' to the search engine of my memories, and came up with a vague and filmy image of a fancily dressed little girl being pushed around in a stroller to our side of the block. And then I remembered that I have this little photo album of pictures that I took when I found an old brownie camera in my Grandparents attic. The film for that thing was hard to get, so there are very few pictures, but they got looked at a lot. We're talking mid 1970's here.

I told Mary Beth that I would get back to her, and went to the closet where I quickly found the album and this very faded old photograph:

That is our older sister Becky in the back, and neighbor girl Debbie Dillworth pushing a tricycle with, could it be, little Gloria?

I scanned the photo and emailed it to Mary Beth at work, where she forwarded it to her coworker who shot it home to his wife who immediately confirmed that, yes, that was her on the tricycle.

It would be amazing except that this kind of thing isn't all that uncommon in our family and probably isn't for you either. I think that these things happen for a reason. Maybe their purpose is to serve as a reminder to us that we are always surrounded by people who are connected to us in ways we could never imagine and will probably never know. Unless, of course, you have a Dorothy.