The first time I ever went to summer camp was just last week. I was a chaperone for my son Matthew, and a billion of his fellow Harelson fifth-graders for three days at the Triangle Y Ranch Camp. The Triangle Y is at the intersection of Camp Granada and Sloppy Joes, just east of Oracle and a little bit north of Tom Sawyer. And the word "chaperone"? It's a French word meaning "sucker."
A few years back I was suckered into chaperoning the sixth-grade trip to San Diego for Matt's older brother, Dave. Under my watch at SeaWorld, Dave was last seen in a pelican's bill bound for Bali. I wonder what became of him. That trip saved me a fortune on college tuition.
On the Triangle Y trip, I was one Homer Simpson surrounded by a busload of Barts. Eight boys, two dads and I were assigned to Cabin 3, a bunkhouse that had the Old West charm of Stalag 17. We unpacked and walked to Linoleum Hall, where we all were reminded to play fair and be honest. A lot of future politicians were discouraged by this turn of events.
The kids were led through a number of team-building exercises with hula hoops, ropes and cattle prods. I'm kidding. There were no ropes. After that we returned to our cabins to make banners and team cheers. The girls choreographed Broadway showstoppers that involved smoke machines, lasers and human pyramids. Our boys chalked outlines of their feet on butcher paper and grunted, "We don't bathe. We don't shave. We're from the man cave!" Men are from Mars, girls are from the planet Glee.
The day ended with a campfire singalong featuring classics such as "Great green gobs of ishy gishy gopher guts" and "Clementine." Raffi ignored we bad grownups in the back requesting "Freebird." I asked around for a flask of anything. You? No. Me, neither. You? Nope.
We didn't need to switch the lights off at curfew. The boys simply took off their socks, releasing a sour essence that curled our sleeping bags, drove the bears back up Mount Lemmon and shorted the lights out.
Because cabin raids were strictly forbidden, a late-night expedition was mounted to the girls' side of the camp. Seal Team 5 made it to the target and howled outside their cabins. Lights went on. Mission accomplished. I know nothing. I saw nothing.
The giggling in our cabin finally died down around sunrise. Up with the sun, the spitefully cheerful boys headed out to play, skipping and singing, while I stumbled to coffee as if in a "Cool Hand Luke" chain gang.
It was a full day. We herded them into basketball games, down a zip line, up a rock wall, through a line dancing class, past archery, and I gotta give a high-five to Mrs. Wall, our Florence Nightingale, for her tweezers, cold packs and boo-boo kisses.
Then it was straight into lunch where a sadist insisted on serving beans. With one more night to go in the cabin, was that necessary?
The girls started a tabletop "Stomp" number that involved slapping, flipping and passing plastic cups in a circle. Girls are from the Planet Double Dutch and the boys from Mars caught on fast. It sounded like a riot in Cellblock 3. Johnny Cash sang "Folsom Prison Blues" and then we made lanyards out of clay. By the end of day two I had become the sputtering dad in "Malcolm in the Middle."
After dinner came the big dance in Linoleum Hall. It was grand. The summer camp finale over, our gaggle of gossiping gigglers followed our flashlights home to their bunks.
I had never heard 11 people snoring in unison before. A rooster crowed, French toast was gulped, awards were dished and we boarded the bus home.
Feeling like Joe Pesci after being ambushed for three days by Macaulay Calkin in "Home Alone," I plopped down in my seat and listened to the happy chatter of fifth-graders. I turned to search for my kid's happy face. He smiled and I smiled. I saw a fortunate son who attends a great public school, where every one of his peers - from families perfect and imperfect, living in plenty and in want, are excited about learning, teamwork and competition. Where parents care deeply about their education. Where they are mentored day after day by the most creative, energetic and selfless teachers south of the moon.
I learned two lessons from this camp experience. When public education works, it rocks. And next time? Smuggle in a flask.
Email Star cartoonist and columnist David Fitzsimmons at firstname.lastname@example.org