Camp Mud : Young Tom Sawyers Get Down and Dirty for Summer Fun

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most youngsters heading to camp this summer are planning on the usual organized activities. You know, arts and crafts, soccer, swimming, tennis, softball.

Not so the kids at Tom Sawyer Camp, whose main activities will be getting filthy and committing a bit of larceny--all in the name of fun, of course.

Since the mid-1920s, Tom Sawyer campers have spent a good portion of their days playing in the mud and devising schemes that bring the venerable schoolyard game Steal the Flag to new heights. The idea is for kids to have pure fun, not structure, for their summer vacations.

And, if you judge a good time by how dirty one gets, the kids are having a blast.

But chances are good that the parents, who must dole out a hefty sum for all of this childhood madness, are not exactly clear on what goes on at the day camp at Oak Grove Park on the border between Pasadena and La Canada Flintridge.

"This is not a camp that has crafts . . . . (Instead) the kids enjoy being themselves," said Susan Futterman, trying to explain the reason her daughter, Lauren Siegel, 13, has attended Tom Sawyer for almost a decade.

"What do the kids do ?" Futterman said with a laugh. "We never have a clue!"

The children will tell you they spend a lot of time at two of the few planned activities, riding horses and taking swimming lessons at nearby La Canada High School.

The older ones, 11 to 14, who take part in the camp's Outpost program, rave about the rock climbing at Stoney Point in Chatsworth and windsurfing at the beach. Another activity is ropes training, in which, among other things, they learn to walk blindfolded across a tightrope stretched between two poles at the park.

But for the most part, the campers talk about just being kids.

"You can come home covered head-to-toe in mud," said Rachel Polver, who has spent 13 of her 16 summers at Tom Sawyer. "I just really like the freedom."

Such words are heartening to camp director Sally Horner, who bought the privately owned enterprise with her husband, Mike, in 1973. They use Oak Grove Park under a contract with the county.

"My philosophy," she said, "is kids go to school 10 months of the year. They need a break. They go horseback riding. They catch frogs. They use their imaginations. We give a child a chance to be a dreamer."

That philosophy does not come cheaply. A five-day, six-week session costs $1,320, or about $44 a day. A full five-day, 10-week season runs $2,100, or about $42 a day.

Day camp sessions at the Crescenta Canada Family YMCA, in contrast, cost about $20 a day.

"I'm so biased that for me (the tuition) is not a consideration," said Duncan Baird, a Pasadena Fire Department battalion chief, who attended Tom Sawyer Camp as a youngster and now sends his son, Wyatt. "When I write the check, I bite my lip and then I smile and it's done."

The fun is worth it, added Futterman, who works as a censor at the ABC office of broadcast standards and practices.

"Life is short. You need a lot of different experiences. If you start looking at the price tag, you're going to deprive your child of special experiences."

Those experiences have varied little since Tom Sawyer Camp was founded in 1926 in Laguna Beach, Horner said. The move to Oak Grove Park came in 1944.

The three Horner children became Tom Sawyer campers in the early 1970s. Sally Horner said she and her husband were especially pleased with the program's effect on their then-6-year-old, Tom.

"He was the kind of kid, if you asked him 'what did you do today?' he'd say, 'nothing,' " Sally Horner said. "When he came back from Tom Sawyer, he'd say 'we did this and this,' we'd feed him dinner and he'd fall asleep! We decided the camp worked."

When the camp was for sale in 1973, the Horners bought it and have since made running it and another child-care enterprise a year-round family affair. In addition to operating the camp, the Horners supervise an after-school program at a Pasadena church.

Tom Horner, now 31, works full time heading the Outpost program. His sister, Sarah, 28, also works full time at the camp, while sister Ginny, 30, teaches during the school year and joins the camp staff for the summer.

Because the camp is private and operates for profit, Sally Horner says, needy children have not been included.

"We don't have money coming in from other sources and we can't do fund-raisers (as nonprofit organizations do)," she said, adding that the camp is exploring the possibility of accepting donations through the American Camping Assn. to give Tom Sawyer the resources to accept some needy youngsters.

Some campers have very famous parents, although the Horners prefer to keep it all low key. And most of the kids could care less. What they do care about is getting dirty . . . realllllly dirty.

"Mudding," as it is called, is an event reportedly saved for celebrating birthdays. A camper or counselor with the dubious fortune of being born in the summer is "mudded," as in dragged through it by their fellow campers.

During a recent visit, each child surveyed appeared to have a particularly fond memory of arriving home caked in goo. Jenny Buchanan, 12, a Tom Sawyer camper since she was 3, was typical.

"We did a lot of fun stuff," she said of her earliest years at the camp. "I remember coming home really dirty with mud in my braids."

Jenny's mother, Marilyn Buchanan, remembers that day too. The family had planned to leave for Mammoth Lakes as soon as the child was dropped off by a camp van at her parents' office in Pasadena.

"Her hair was like a mudpack," Buchanan recalled. "We cleaned her off in the bathroom, but it wasn't enough. We had to call a hairdresser, rush her over and wash her hair in the sink. These kids have so much fun!"

On a given day there are about 400 youngsters in camp, ranging in age from 3 to 14. Programs are often tailored to meet individual needs, and there are sessions offered ranging from four to 10 weeks, Sally Horner said. Campers are divided into 27 groups.

There are no buildings for campers at the park. Instead, the youths spend a lot of time building forts out of whatever they can find in the park or bring from home. Usually they stake out a hideaway beneath a canopy of trees, then decorate the premises to taste. The kids give their group a name and create an identifying flag.

"We kind of have a committee to choose the names," said Wyatt Baird, 9, who is spending his fifth summer at camp. "Last year, we were called 'Dirty Laundry.' We decorated the fort with dirty laundry."

Wyatt's group created a flag to reflect the theme of the summer: a mud-soaked T-shirt scrawled with the moniker "Dirty Laundry."

Once the flag is finished, it is stashed in the fort. And the kids spend the rest of the summer figuring out ways to sneak into another group's fort and capture the opposition's flag.

"You try to do it when you know (another group is) going to be out . . . ," said David Rasmussen, 13, who is starting his seventh summer at Tom Sawyer.

There are time-honored and traditional rewards from all this. The group that loses its flag must also forfeit a watermelon to the victors.

Sally Horner says the routine has not varied much since 1926.

"We do play a lot of games," she said. "But we try to make it non-competitive rather than 'you are the best' . . . We always promote the team."

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