Memory, Netflix and hope in a time of coronavirus

By John Pixley


Years ago, I wrote a piece that I entitled “Growing Up and Out at Camp,” about going to Camp Joan Meier on the coast above Malibu and other summer camps for disabled kids.

I opened by describing a camp dance at Joan Meier, at which the arts and crafts director, a young woman named Chris who I had my eye on stood me up from my wheelchair and held me up as we gyrated and sweated through the song, which turned out to be the long version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

I wrote about how Chris and the other hippie-ish, young people who worked at the camp, who were paid a pittance and had to love the exhausting work that they were doing, let me, away from my protective parents for two weeks each summer, have fun, try new things (sing at the talent show…) I wrote about how they let me explore and about how going home was always so sad (I’d mope, if not cry, for days afterwards).

I wrote this, as I said, over 30 years ago, when I was taking a creative writing class at the Joslyn Center. I had just begun to grow a beard, another step to becoming the man I was to be, one in a series of steps that I’m more and more aware of beginning in those days at camp. It was long before I began writing for the COURIER, long before I came out as a gay man, long before a spinal surgery three years ago left me far more disabled, long before this current pandemic upending our lives.  

All this came gushing back to me in wave after wave, as I watched Crip Camp, a documentary that recently premiered on Netflix. The documentary is about Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled kids in the Catskill Mountains from the 1940’s and 1970’s. One of the film’s directors attended the camp when he was growing up and got hold of a remarkable treasure trove of black-and-white footage from that time and also interviewed a number of former campers and staff members.

Seeing the footage from the camp and hearing about all the adventures and all the freedom that the campers felt (not only were there no stares, there was no disability hierarchy—with those with polio at the top, because they look and talk “more normal” and those with Cerebral Palsy are at the bottom) is incredible enough. This alone is quite satisfying and sweet, enough for a film.

Even more extraordinary is how the film traces how some of the campers, like Judy Heuman, went on to be leaders in the disability rights movement, with a number ending up in Berkeley, the hotbed of activism. The film makes the point that they were inspired by their time at camp, where they were free. The staff had a big part in this. 

I don’t know if they intended to groom future rights activists; they probably just wanted disabled kids to be able to be kids. However, Camp Director Larry Allison, who doesn’t look at all like what one would imagine, does say, “The disabled aren’t the ones with a problem. The non-disabled are the ones with a problem,” an astonishing notion at the time; one that would be a major principle years later in disability culture and studies.

I do wish the first two-thirds instead of just the first third of the nearly two-hour film was comprised of the camp footage—I just loved seeing it and the memories it brought back, and I already knew the movement history—but it is a most compelling, comprehensive and educational history.

The end shows a few campers returning to the site of the camp, as well as pictures and footage and life-span dates of campers who have died, with Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” (part of an excellent, evocative soundtrack) in the background. This may be the most breath-taking, poignant sequence.

Camp Jened appears to have been somewhat or much less structured, with the campers left to decide how to spend their time and even to prepare a meal when the cook is off, than the camps I attended. Also, I wasn’t involved in the disabled rights movement, but I did very much make my presence known and forged my path forward here in Claremont.

And I have a close longtime connection to Berkeley through family and friends (also, my dad, who taught for years at Harvey Mudd College, went to Cal and started telling me about the “rolling quads,” the first disabled students there, when I was a child, giving me something to strive for, even if I ended up at UC Riverside instead).      

To be honest, what I love more than everything else that I love about this documentary is not only seeing but hearing folks like me, with severe Cerebral Palsy, with speech that is difficult to understand, presented to a wide audience. This is a door opening to being acknowledged, accepted, understood. As is evidenced with going to camp, nothing else is more liberating and empowering.

Kudos to Netflix for bringing this eye-opening, uplifting, inspiring documentary, this balm, in these sad, crazy days. I am thankful for Netflix, AmazonPrime and other streaming services in this time of distancing and isolation, when the Colleges are closed until the fall and, poof, there are no more concerts, plays, lectures and other events.   

Yes, this is a sad, crazy time, unlike I and most of us have ever seen. It is a time when many people are getting sick and many are dying, when many are out of work without a date for returning and the economy is going off a cliff. It is a time when we can’t get together with friends and even family, when we wear masks to protect ourselves and we eye each other with suspicion, when a trip to the market feels like being in a post-apocolyptic scene, with people standing in line six feet apart, empty shelves, fights over the last carton of milk.

Even so, I have found a surprising amount to inspire and give me hope. With few people commuting, the skies are clearer, and, unlike in normal times, places are being found to house and quarantine the homeless without the usual sometimes endless bureaucratic and litigious snags. A friend put on an online showcase for queer performers, people are making masks to donate and I have found solace and renewed vigor in being with friends and attending meetings on Google Hangouts and Zoom.

I wrestle, however, with having this inspiration, this hope, when so many are dying and many are mourning alone. Is it right—is it even okay—to enjoy these glints of light when we see, are surrounded by others engulfed in despair, in the dark? I can’t say for sure, but I do think of not recovering but finding life again, finding another life, after my surgery three years ago.

I think of the video that I sent out to friends recently of George Harrison singing “All Things Must Pass.” I also think of the Julian of Norwich quote that I have on my wall:  “All shall be well…and all shall be well.”

Yes, as much of a cliché as it is, this too will pass, and soon enough, the big news headline will be the newly elected disabled mayor or gay president. Or how about just the big rainstorm coming?


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