In the late ’60s I worked part-time as a street gang counselor in the East Bronx. Under the umbrella of the police department, my job was to interdict street gangs and keep them from killing each other. I used the old “good cop-bad cop” technique. I was the good cop, acting as a big brother might, counseling kids and trying to show them another way. I always had a few “bad cops” with me, tough guys who were there to enforce my will and watch my back.
The neighborhoods had changed. They had become more violent. Drugs had taken a foothold in the community as dealers exploited younger boys and girls, trying to entice them into this malaise. I had a no-tolerance policy for dealers and drugs and whenever we could, we made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Trying to ameliorate the broken souls of young boys was a losing proposition.
I learned at a young age that commanding the respect of street kids is a complicated process. The notion of altruism never impressed them. Instead, the duality of force and love seemed to work. I guess today we call it “tough love.”
As a kid I made continuous installments toward respectability. I was a good student, a good athlete, a devout Catholic and had unyielding values. However, being a Golden Gloves fighter and a kid who never took any lip pushed me over the top. I had influence! What would I do with it?
At the time I was a philosophy major at the University of Dayton. I had read Thoreau’s “Walden,” and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” They proposed a premise that wilderness is the perseveration of the soul. I delved deep into mythology, creation stories, and the religiosity of indigenous peoples and learned that all the works I studied cited the natural world as foundational to civilization.
I always believed that delinquency is a product of a dysfunctional upbringing; the end result being that it leaves a hole in the heart of its victims. I had found the remedy to fill this hole.
I used my influence to garner the support of the police chief. He gave me the green light to take 12 toughs camping in the Catskill Mountains. That first trip was the beginning of an adventure-based program for inner city youth. During the summers of my freshman through junior year I did 12 trips with delinquent boys. After I left for the Marines, the program died.
I never knew the extent of the effect that these adventures had on these boys. However, a quote from John Muir leads me to believe they were better for it: “Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”
When I began teaching at Glendale Community College, I convinced our then-president, Dr. John Davitt, that an adventure-based program was necessary. For the past 30 years I’ve been taking college students to the Rocky Mountains, telling stories about Lewis and Clark, Native American mythology, wilderness philosophy and how to live off the land.
As I write this, we are scheduled to leave tomorrow morning, heading to the Rocky Mountains and another adventure. Who would have known that this crazy idea would have lasted for 30 years?