By Joe Torosian
My introduction to camp came when I was nine, going on ten.
In 1972, I started attending Temple City Church of the Nazarene. By 1974, I had discovered NFL football on Sunday mornings. I started following the NFL closely in 1973 and late that season church on Sunday morning had lost.
My brother’s family had a connection with a couple named Joe & Donna Musick who were part of the Rosemead Church. They encouraged my nephew Sam Young to go to camp, and somehow, over coffee, it was decided by others I would also be going to camp.
So I rode up with Rosemead Church to Idyllwild Pines on Monday, August 5th, 1974. Part of that Rosemead group, which I didn’t know at the time, was someone who would for all intents and purposes become a brother, Duane Barker.
Someone else at that camp was another future brother named, Steve Cobbs who I would work alongside in youth ministry for years to come.
Upon arrival, I immediately decided I couldn’t stand being there. The words I said to myself walking towards the dining hall late Monday afternoon are still perfect in my brain. “God, I don’t want to be here all week.”
The theme was cars. The craft time was built around creating our cars for a Pinewood Derby. Which means I had to work with wood—ugh!…Many of the guys debated between using soap or butter from the dining hall to lubricate their wheels.
My cabin was called the Corvettes. Our counselor was an old bald guy named Harold. He was nice, he told us stories at night, told us that Dracula had been a real person, but when we played football he didn’t let me play quarterback…I’m over it, kind of, not really…He played quarterback…And he wasn’t very good.
The director’s first name was Ron. He was okay, but he got on my case for not wearing my “tires” walking back from the showers one night. Meaning I should have had my shoes on.
And at age nine…I was exposed to locker room showering for the first time. Twenty naked boys waiting to get underneath five or six shower spigots is a bad memory. We were in the upper-camp at Idyllwild, and the bathrooms were not connected to the cabins…The boys’ bathroom was about a 50-yard walk, and the stalls did not—I repeat, did not—have doors on them.
Rather than be publicly humiliated by using the bathroom during the day…I decided the privacy of a three to four in the morning visit to the bathroom was worth the risk of the wild animals, ghosts, banshees, and strange noises coming out of the Jewish’ Camp Gilboa which was next door.
The most popular counselor was guy name, Marlin. He was young, wore glasses, and wrestled with us in the pool.
The main song we sang all week was “His Banner Over Me Is Love”—with the motions.
The old couple that took the camp picture in the Fire Bowl, I later found out was the Aunt & Uncle of a superstar children’s worker at my church in Burbank—Lori Barrett.
The staff brought a “hot seat” for us to sit on. “Say ‘Toy Boat’ ten times in three seconds, or we’ll shock you.”
I foolishly thought I could do it and then felt the electric shock burn my butt when I didn’t.
(So there’s another thing gone from camp—no more shock therapy)
Dozens of us rode the lightning before some wiseguy figured it out. He yelled, “Toy Boat Ten Times!” and jumped off to the applause of the staff.
This was an all-boys camp. There were probably a 130 of us, maybe 115, and only two African-American kids who came up late Tuesday afternoon. I am not a sensitive person by nature—I’m an observer—and those two kids, one of them was named, Dale—looked about as happy as I was to be at camp. And then you throw in the sense of isolation they must have felt, all these years later I can only imagine what was going through them.
The one whose name I cannot remember was really mad and decided he wasn’t going to play softball with us on the meadow. One of the staff leaders I remember speaking to him and specifically telling him. “I know this is hard but don’t think I don’t like you because you are black.”
The staffer kept talking to him, and Dale took control of the game. He became our team captain, declared he was batting clean up, then looked at me and said I was batting third. I always liked hitting third when I was playing ball—It’s probably why I remember Dale’s name.
The first day the guys in my cabin—Rosemead punks—started a rock fight. A kid named Matthew (I remember his last name, but he might be a General Superintendent of the Church now) got cracked in the back of the head and had to go to the doctor for stitches.
No more rock fights. The guys in my cabin went a safer route with their next battle. It was a loogie fight. Through a window that slid open to the outside, I witnessed what to this day is probably the most disgusting exchange of my life. They were laughing and wiping green-goop off the sides of their heads and onto sleeping bags as they continued to launch at each other after barbaric efforts to scrape up as much mucus and lung butter as possible.
I made friends with a guy named, Mike. I hung out with him most of the week. I’m sitting next to him in the camp picture, but I’ve never seen him since…Or maybe I have and just didn’t know it.
The whole week they were recognizing students birthdays. At night in the Fire Bowl, they’d sing happy birthday and give some sort of coupon for the candy store…I was excited, but I was dreading it.
Everyone knew me as ‘Joe.’ But in the foolishness of signing me up for camp, my mom felt obligated to give them my full-legal-name…which included my true first name; Harry.
In the late 90’s and onward, it was a cool name. However, prior J.K. Rowling and her franchise the only cultural connection to that name were the children’s books “Harry The Dirty Dog” and old, fat, bald guys named, Harry or Harold–who didn’t let me play quarterback.
So throughout the entire week, I’m correcting everybody to call me Joe, not Harry. But it keeps slipping in there because not everyone gets the memo.
First Pinewood Derby Race on Thursday, woman sitting on the stage with dark hair and glasses speaks into the microphone: “First race: Sam and Harry.”
The Rosemead spawn had a great laugh. I wanted to lose so my name wouldn’t be called again. I won, kicked my nephew Sam’s butt. So Harry had to race again. Thankfully, mercifully, Harry lost.
So it’s my birthday on the last day of camp. I’m looking forward to being recognized, sung to, and given my coupon in the Fire Bowl that night…But I’m on pins and needles because I don’t want them to call me, Harry.
Campfire gets going, we sing our songs—“His Banner Over Me Is Love”—Ron, the director comes front and center. I’m really looking forward to my coupon, and then he says:
“Our President resigned today. We need to pray.”
President Nixon’s resignation cost me my recognition and more importantly my candy coupon.
So everything is spiritual. Everything is sweet. Then at breakfast the next morning the staff is getting set to announce the “Camper of The Week.”
Matthew—the kid who got conked in the back of the head by a rock on the first day, who later participated in loogie fights inside our cabin, and that very morning when I was walking with him before breakfast by the dining hall asked me if I wanted to go inside with him to snitch/steal a fresh donut—is declared “Camper of The Week.”
Even as a freshly minted 10-year old, I smelled a rigged game.
One of the Rosemead rabble dropped an F-bomb…and it blew me away. I was very proficient with the use of the “F-bomb” as a young boy…But to say it in front of church people, at church camp? Wow! That was playing with fire…But, then again, he was from Rosemead. 😉
That was my camp experience…And I didn’t go back again until the summer of 1985 to work as an assistant to the assistant games person. Idyllwild hadn’t changed…It was literally the same camp.
In 1986 I was in charge of the games, and then Ridgecrest Pastor Larry Wylie was the speaker. Three things stick out about him–Okay, four.
1.) Best junior high camp speaker I ever heard. 2.) All the “good” food that was in the staff lounge always disappeared into his cabin. 3.) He gave me and my other brother Tim Peterson a dirty look when we took Peterson’s Toyota 4-wheeler out to Field Three–the Rock covered softball field–where we were spinning donuts. 4.) In 1987, Larry confirmed my call into the ministry—But we won’t get into that here.
In the summer of 1987, I was still the games guy and would be through 1992… Brent Wylie then a junior higher called me a, “Creep!” …Who would have known that he would have become a Pastor/Camp Director?…And I blackened Steven Cobbs eye with the point of a football and sent him to the ground with an elbow to the back…And a young girl named Seana Frizzell attended the camp. Seana is now Seana Zilbert, wife, mother of two, and the director of our awesome VBS’s at Burbank Faith.
In 1989, we found mutilated body parts of skunks…and learned about what happens when you give Campers too much free time.
In 1990, I worked my first back to back Junior High-Senior High camps—Two weeks in Idyllwild. Tripped over a stump chasing a kid at night, cut my leg open, and received first aid from Debbie Songer. I still got a pretty good scar.
In 1991, I was a counselor for the first time at a Senior High Camp that nearly saw a race riot breakout in the Fire Bowl thanks to some poor decisions by those running the show.
In 1993, I turned down another future brother, Mark Valadez, when he asked me to come back and run games for him at Junior High Camp.
In 1995, I survived Camp Fox on Catalina Island, a camper mutiny, and violent threats by an angry counselor…I was the games guy…and I stayed up all night with my sister, Traci Fenimore preventing a raid from boys cabins on the girls…And my brother, Alan Holmes sending me encouraging messages–that I will not repeat here–via radio every 90-minutes…I also learned from Bill Carrol, then youth pastor at Newhall Church, that there was such a thing as bio-degradable water balloons.
In 1996, we began a run of very physical Camper-Staff basketball games. By this time Brent Wylie was gone. His younger brother Ryan Wylie hung out on the perimeter casting threes, and Kyle Wylie was in the paint trading elbows with Steve Cobbs.
In 1998, I was the Dean at Camp 911…
In 1999, in an NYC year and out of space, Steve Cobbs and I slept in the back of a van called, “El Coche.”
In 2000, while clearing a tent cabin area at Camp Oakhurst (worst food ever btw)…My brother Jim Hickman turned off the mercury-vapor lighting by accident—Just after we saw the paw prints of a bear that had come into the area.
In 2004, I went to Children’s Camp for the first time and worked for Rodney Bertholet…Greg Garman was the speaker. The plan was to train me to direct, but I was needed in a cabin.
In 2005, I went to Children’s Camp to be an assistant director for Jenene Watkins…Howie Briggs was the speaker. The plan was for me to train me to become director, but I was needed in a cabin.
In 2006 & 2007, illness put me in a position to direct children’s camp for two years at Pine Summit in Big Bear. Which connected me with So Cal District Camp Director, Steven Cobbs who was there the same week…I got athletes foot and strep throat in 2007.
After some stops and starts because of schedules and opportunities to speak at off district camps, I came to Granite Ridge in 2012…and connected with Shay Stewart and whole new generation of camp leaders like Julian Morales, Jill Osborne, Tracy Wright, Wes Thompson, and Ken & Paula Lewis (a reconnect) and so many others…
So this is a long informal essay to share that I’m not unique–we all have something like this in our lives. We just have to force ourselves to slow down enough to recognize them.
There are a million stories I left out…Stories you don’t deserve to hear until you’ve been in a foxhole when an injury occurs, the weather changes, the speaker melts down, a camper who think’s she’s allergic to bees is stung by a bee but ends up–following a major anxiety attack–learning she is not allergic to bees, or stay up all night preparing things for the next day…or washing out a kids soiled shorts with your toothbrush–That, of course, you will throw out the second your done.
So many of the deepest experiences and connections in my life have come through camps…The ability to touch base every once in a while with a Joe Myers, Robert Moore, Alisha Bassett, Jeff Maxwell, Bonnie Gare, Jenn Kelsey, Tanja Clark, Melissa Monroe, let alone my own students…And to see brothers and sisters I’ve worked with…
I never considered—even while writing that book about camp—how profound its influence on my life has been. Camp, the Camp experience, is a gift from God. It has genuinely formed me, and I am eternally grateful for all the small moments that were built into my life by the people I met…only because of the blood of Christ.
So, I will always…
“To Honor The Past
Live For The Present
Create The Future”