Beautiful Camp Elmwood

Gather 'round, friends, and let me tell you of the most wonderful, relaxing three months I've ever spent in my life.

It was at beautiful Camp Elmwood.

It doesn't take much to set the scene (see photo to right).  A few acres way on the outside of the S.F. Bay Area with a rolling terrain of paths and camp buildings with lush green lawn everywhere you looked, all safely fenced off to keep the vagabonds and ruffians at bay.  The weather was splendid (I was there in the Spring) with crisp mornings and warm afternoons.  The atmosphere of the camp was invigorating.  It was fresh.  It was alive.

And just why am I telling you about beautiful Camp Elmwood?

Ah, friends, therein lies the mystery.

I now invite you to take that clever little noggin of yours and decide, as you're reading this post, just why I'm telling you about beautiful Camp Elmwood in the first place.  I admit, just rambling on about some fun summer camp really isn't much of a story, so you have to figure there's something else going on.  And you'd certainly be right.  You have until you hit the bar running across the page to figure it out.

And then there were the peacocks.

Now, I went to a few camps and communes and retreats back in the day, and many of them were quite beautiful, but they sure could have taken a lesson from Camp Elmwood.  A peacock in full bloom feather is just like the autumnal colors in New England.  You can take all the photographs you want, but nothing touches the real thing.  Being surrounded by peacocks added a magical air of surrealism to an already-tranquil existence.

And you want to talk about idyllic?  Consider that for three months:

  • I had three completely balanced, nutritional meals a day.  In all fairness, I'd have to say I've never eaten so well in my life.  Even at home growing up we still crammed down a bowl of cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch.  At Camp Elmwood, every meal was a full tray of meat, starches, fruits, vegetables; all topped off with an ice-cold glass of milk and, at dinner, a scrumptious piece of chocolate cake for desert.
    I gained ten pounds.
  • We had a fresh change of clothes whenever we wanted and fresh bedding twice a week.  We kept everything spotless and I don't ever recall anyone getting sick.
  • We were allowed personal items but nothing electronic, so all the rat race of modern gizmos was left behind.  No phone calls, no one hounding you about this or that, no one banging on the door.  Our indoor entertainment resorted to simpler, more community-spirited games such as cards and dominoes, checkers and chess.  People yelled, whooped, laughed, got angry, got happy, came to know each other and basically acted — for such a brief period — as people have acted together since the dawn of time.
  • I also had one of the greatest 'jobs' I've ever had.  I got to be the one to give the fresh-faced campers their 'Welcome to Beautiful Camp Elmwood' speech.  It was a riot.  I'd make up stuff on the spot, scaring the hell out of the youngsters.  "Oh, and one other thing, kids.  Don't listen to any of those stories about wild bears roaming the campground after dark.  Hey, Shirley!  Did they ever find Jimmy's foot?"
  • And, with all of our electronic trinkets gone, we finally had time to pursue quieter, nobler interests, such as art.  Some painted, some worked with their hands, I rediscovered how much fun it is to work with colored chalk.  A dab of spit can really create some dazzling effects.

So, does that sound idyllic, or what?

No, there weren't any girls.  I'm not so sure I'd be using words like "serene" and "tranquil" in this dissertation if there had been.  They were on their half of the camp with this big field and two fences between us.  We'd stare longingly at each other from afar until the camp counselors shooed us away.  They didn't want crude, baser thoughts interfering with our meditation classes, or whatever we were into.  And understandably so.

The only other "negative" — if that's the word — was that we couldn't just take off.  Private cars weren't allowed on the grounds and the buses only ran so often.

And why would anyone want to leave?  Terrific food, clean clothes, fresh bedding, gorgeous scenery, big sports area, big library and, overall, a great bunch of guys to hang out with.

Yes, there were a few bad eggs, but you're going to get that in any crowd.  You'd certainly have to expect that at least some were being sent there against their will.  One of those, "But I don' wanna have fun!" stories.  Sure, kid, anything you say.

And even the counselors were great.  They weren't stuffy 'professional' counselors, as such, more like rent-a-counselors, and all they wanted us to do was have fun and stay out of trouble.  And, being stuffed like pigs three times a day and sleeping like babies in our fresh bedding, it was kinda hard not to.

Again, I have to say, it was undoubtedly the most relaxing, fun, entertaining, healthy and downright invigorating three months I've ever spent.

I think how nice it would be to have a permanent invitation there, one that would last a lifetime.  It would be hard to imagine a more serenic, peaceful way to live out one's days.

And, if I hadn't rented that back room of that nice lady's house about twenty years ago and her son hadn't grown those pot plants in the back yard and that SWAT team hadn't broken down our front door and arrested us, I never would have been so fortunate as to spend three very interesting months at the Milpitas County Jail, located in the Elmwood District.

Hence the name.

Here's one of everybody's favorite jawbreakers:


From a sociological perspective, it was just fascinating watching it in action.  The entire situation just begged the question, Why, on God's Green Earth, would anyone want to give up a luxury of creature comforts like this?  There's not a word in this post that deviates from the truth in the slightest — up to and including the peacocks.  It was, by any definition you'd care to use, a great big fun camp for male adults.  With, as I said, the only two limitations being you had to do without females screeching and yelling at you all the time and demanding this and withholding that and-, well, anyway, no girls.  And you couldn't leave.

Like anyone would want to.

I gained ten friggin' pounds!

The 'camp counselors' were 'Correctional Officers', not actual cops, so they weren't on any kind of power trip and didn't treat us like dirt.  All they really wanted us to do was not fight, and since the place got put in lockdown for a day whenever a fight broke out, the inmates, themselves, tended to keep that under wraps.  This was jail, not prison, so it was such a transitory mixed-up bunch that there weren't any gangs or racial tensions.

And since this was basically set up for short-term sentences, most of the people there were just regular ol' slobs like you and me, caught up in some nuance of the law.  One guy was there because he sent his ex-wife a birthday card, which violated the restraining order against him.  There was a whole pisspot full of people there for driving without a license.  Just regular guys who didn't want to rob anybody, didn't use a weapon; all they wanted to do was get from Point A to Point B, but because they did so without some precious piece of paper, they were sent to jail.

To put this another way:

Hello!  Welcome to America!  Thinking of stealing a car or robbing a store?  Well, watch out!  Here's what's going to happen to you if you get caught!

(insert above 'idyllic list' here)

That's right!  If you get caught doing a crime in America, you'll be sent to Beautiful Camp Elmwood!

It was, by any sane standard, thoroughly reprehensible.

Not only did it make a blatant mockery of deterrence, itself, but it went the completely opposite direction.  The institutionalization created by this heaven-on-earth environment actually sucks them in.  Come to America, throw a brick through a window and get clean bedding and three hot meals a day!

It wasn't a jail.  It was a hospice.

And I'd note that it's only getting cushier and cushier.  There was an article just the other day on prison inmates getting high-speed Internet, laptops, TiVo, etc, all at taxpayers' expense.

Come to America!  Break a window and get three square meals a day.  Shoot somebody and get TiVo!

When you hear of "soaring crime rates", and yet you see harsher and harsher penalties being enacted like the 'Three Strikes Law', you just have to wonder why criminals take such chances.

Wonder no more.