MDA Camp

“Rick, you’re going and that’s that.”  My dad stood at my bedroom door and looked firmly at me.

I didn’t look up at him.  “I don’t want to.  Why are you making me do this?”

“You’re just going.”

“That’s fair.”  The sarcasm was intentional; I was always sarcastic.  Sarcasm kept away the pain.  I refused to acknowledge him standing there, and as I deliberately turned a page in my comic book he turned around and went into the living room.

Where I was going was MDA Summer Camp.  I was born with Muscular Dystrophy, and I just knew the entire world was against me.  I fell down a lot, I couldn’t run well, and I felt stupid and useless whenever I was with those who could.  So I stayed in the house a lot, closed up in my room where I could read comic books and pretend I was someone else.  I didn’t want to go to any camp, much less MDA Camp; I wanted to stay at home and be left alone.

The whole next week I spent moping around, putting together what I thought I would need at the camp: some clothes, some books, a hand-held video game, my journal.  I had started writing a journal that year and writing poetry; writing gave me an outlet for my misery.  I tried a couple times to show my dad and mom how much they needed me to be at home, but they were rigid: I was going to summer camp.  So I resigned myself to it and decided that I would make everyone else as miserable as I was.

The drive out to Lake Wales was interminable.  My dad tried to get me to talk on the 90-minute journey, but I just read my book and tuned him out.  We finally arrived at the camp and went to the Mess Hall to register, and everywhere I looked was the decay of humanity.  The other kids were all in wheelchairs.  Some of them were sitting up straight, smiling; others were twisted into Dali shapes, drooling on a towel.  It was horrifying.  Why was my father making me go to camp with these inhuman beasts?  Is this what my parents thought of me, that I was a misshapen abomination?  I felt ill.  I felt betrayed.  I felt alone.  Again.

My father and mother left.  I was introduced to Bobby, who was to be my personal counselor for the week.  The look in his eye was pure disappointment when he saw me, and I didn’t understand until much later that he had expected to have a wheelchair-ridden camper to care for.  All I knew then was that he looked uncomfortable when he looked at me.  But I was used to people looking at me as if I were a disappointment, so I resolved to make things especially difficult for him in any way I could.

 I discovered that one of the rules was that the counselor had to stay with his camper at all times.  Each camper was assigned to a counselor, and groups of these pairs slept in a cabin filled with bunk beds.  When I discovered that he was supposed to stay with me, I waited until his head was turned and then I ran away.  I was only going back to the cabin, but he didn’t know I had left until I was halfway there.  I did this many times, getting away from him and doing what I wanted to do.  We finally reached an understanding that he would not bother me as long as he knew where I was and stayed where I was supposed to be.

Bobby was a good guy; I knew that.  He passed my test when he talked to me as if I mattered; I don’t think I had felt that before. So I lightened up on him.  I tried to take part in the activities they held at camp so that he would feel as if he were doing his job.  But once again I was out of place.  Unlike home, I was too athletic to take part in most of the games.  Baseball, for example, consisted of the campers being pushed by their counselors to home plate, where the counselors held a bat in their hands and hit a whiffle ball which was lobbed at them.  The counselor would then push the chair around the bases as other counselors pushed their kids to the ball and tried to throw them out.  Not me, however.  When I got to the plate, I walloped the ball hard, and it hit a quadriplegic camper in the face.  I decided not to play baseball anymore.

I spent a lot of time looking at people there.  I found myself wishing that I were a part of this group, of any group.  And in that observing time, I discovered that all of these campers were individual people.  I couldn’t group them up as “the cripples.”  There was Angie, who was almost completely quadriplegic; there was Donny, who knew he would only be able to walk until next year, when he was seven; there was Sherry, who was paraplegic and could move her arms and had the sweetest smile.  There was Mike, who had no legs and always knew a new dirty joke; there was Susan, who could only gurgle and was little more than curved bones covered with flesh; and there was Fred, who liked to sing.

Fred sang at the talent show.  I had played the piano, a gift that I have since lost.  Fred was the last act of the evening and was singing a song he had written while the music teacher played the piano.  Fred never got more than three lines into the song and then broke down crying.  We all started crying.  I didn’t stop crying that night until I was asleep, many hours later.  Fred’s words seemed to sum up the sadness of my soul:

“You never talk to me, it’s such a sight to see

I sit here unable to run to you

And you look at me as if I am less than a man…”

Less than a man.  That’s what I had been feeling, what I had been unwilling to say to myself.  Was I less of a person because I was handicapped?  That night I was sad, I was sorry, I was hateful, I was murderous, I was suicidal…and I was cleansed.  The tears I cried that night carried with them the doubts I had about myself, and I knew the truth: No matter what other people thought, no matter how they treated me, now matter how I could or could not play with them, no matter whether I had friends and girlfriends or if I was alone forever, I was going to survive.  I was going to survive because I was a man.  I was a human being, and I had a reason to live: I would show the world that you cannot keep a man down when he has decided to overcome his problems.

My father came to get me two days later.  I hugged Bobby and dozens of people in wheelchairs, telling them every time to be strong and survive.  When I got into the truck, I hugged my dad and I told him that I loved him.  He was surprised, but I needed to tell him that.  He had made me come so that I could see that I was not all alone in the world and that other people were worse off than I.  He didn’t realize what I would learn there, that the only person in the world who was against me was me, and that others could love me only when I started to love myself. 

Poor Me

Poor Me

I wonder how many other people feel about themselves as I did then, back in 1981 when I was 14 years old. I remember well my overall attitude towards everything: Poor me. I was convinced that everyone was against me and equally certain that no one had ever suffered the way I did. Poor poor me. I changed my attitude, however, after going to summer camp with other people who had it much worse than I did.

My parents made me go, completely against my will, to MDA Summer Camp in 1981. I had resolved myself that I was going to spend the entire summer holed up in my room, reading comic books and trying to shut out everything and everyone else as much as I possibly could. I could hardly believe my ears when dad came to tell me he had signed me up for MDA Camp. MDA: Muscular Dystrophy Association. I had been cursed with a neuromuscular disease that made me walk bow-legged and forced me to wear leg braces. I could no longer run and play: everything important to me had been taken away through no fault of my own. The onset of the disease did not hit until my thirteenth year, but there I was – 16 months after being diagnosed – being told I was being thrust among a bunch of cripples for an entire week. I begged and pleaded to just be left alone, but they made me go. I hated them for this.

I was resolved to make everyone else at camp as miserable as I was. I ran away from my counselor and refused to participate in any of the activities; everywhere I went I took a book and just read, not talking to anyone else. The truth, however, was that I could not bear to look around me. Almost every camper there was confined to a wheelchair. Many could not use their legs at all, and some could not use their arms either. A few could not even support the weight of their heads on their necks. It was heart-breaking. The counselors helped the campers with everything, from dressing them in the morning to feeding them at mealtime to cleaning them after they went to the bathroom. Yes, even that indignity. I did not want to be a camper, did not want to be a cripple, did not want to be associated with people who were barely capable of maintaining their life functions. I wanted to be a counselor.

But I could not be a counselor, not with muscular dystrophy. I was stuck as an observer of what I did not wish to see, and through it all I found a different me. Obviously, there were others who had it much worse than I did, and those who had it worse were much brighter people than I could ever have hoped to be. Their smiles and their joy shone through them, regardless of their crippled bodies. On the night before camp ended, I spent most of the night in tears: not because I was sad, but because I was ashamed of my overall attitude. How dare I behave as if suffering had been invented just for me? Yes, I had muscular dystrophy, and yes, I could not run and play as most of my classmates back home could; but what truly handicapped me was my attitude, and I resolved to change it. I had been given a challenge, and maybe that was unfair, but I knew then that I could never be beaten by anything as trivial as a physical infirmity.

Going to camp that year made me see the world in a different light, and I changed my life as a result of that experience. Today, at nearly 350 pounds and suffering worse than ever from the deterioration of my leg and arm muscles, I still have not given up. My disease has progressed to affect my hands and has eaten away even more at my leg muscles, but I still have not given up. I never will: until the day I am physically unable to function, I will continue to rise and do what must be done to survive. I still walk, and I still work, and I still strive to make the world a happier place. And as a teacher, when students comes to me with their Poor Me attitudes, complaining about how hard their lives are, I cannot help but remember that week at MDA Camp and believe that the answer to their woes lies not in the world around them, but in the world within.

My First Screenplay

I I did it! I did it! My first screenplay, completed!

Well, the first draft anyhow.

That was the only goal I really set myself for the summer: to finish my screenplay for Suicidal Tendencies. I started off pretty strong this summer, but after the first couple weeks I fell away from it and then once college started I didn’t even return to it until earlier this week. Once I sat back down to it, though, I wanted to finish. I don’t know what it is that held me back from finishing this project for so long, but it’s done. DONE!

The end it didn’t turn out exactly the way I thought it would. I thought it would end on a tragic note, but it actually ended pretty sweet. That surprised me. And once the last line was written, I knew it was done.

In one way or another, I have been working on this story for 17 years. I have little rough drafts and ideas all over the place, quickly written outlines of ideas. I started, and stopped, and started, and stopped. When I took a class in screenwriting at USF back in 2007, I decided to get serious about this script, and this was my major project for that class. We had to write 60 pages, and I wrote 61. I also decided that I didn’t like the way it was going and decided to restart from the beginning (so I actually wrote 71 for the class). When I resubmitted those first 10 pages to the instructor, he praised me greatly and suggested I might want to consider moving to LA so I could take my career seriously. Of course, I’m too big of a chicken for that, so here I have sat for the past seven or eight years now, teaching and thinking and halfass writing the script.

But it’s done!

Now the end is kind of clunky. I don’t actually like the way the action of the climax scene plays out, so I’m going to have to reconsider that as I go to the next draft. But I made such significant changes to the beginning of the script that I’m sure the second draft is going to end up quite different anyhow. So I’m not going to eat myself up over this; I’m just going to celebrate my victory.

I did it!

No, you can’t read it. I don’t want you to influence my thoughts as I get into the next draft. Or the next one, for that matter. But now that the play is written, it should not take that long to rewrite it. And perhaps even less time for the third draft. I think that after the third draft, I will be ready to share with people and get some feedback, so let me know if you’re interested.

For now, though, how about a big HURRAH for me for finishing?