Welcome to this month's web "bp," courtesy of digitaljournalist.org.
- by Mark Bell
In the context of this month’s amazing issue of DJ, this may be a strange piece. So what else is new, right?
I don’t know anybody personally who has died of AIDS, although it’s seemingly all around me. There must be somebody I know, or knew. For weeks, since we were assigned to compile this issue on the 20th Anniversary of journalistic coverage of AIDS, I’ve been searching...I have to know somebody. I asked a gay friend of mine if he would like to write for this issue about the friend he had who died a few years back. I thought he had died of AIDS. “No, it was cancer,” I was told. Was I inappropriate in asking? AIDS is more than a disease...to many it’s sadly also a statement, a fear, a social label....
I have had a close encounter with AIDS, though. It also serves to be the answer to the question of “What story have I covered which affected me the most?” as such stories have affected others.
It doesn’t take me long to remember.
It was in upstate NY as I remember it, but only by the drive out. My memory faded quickly as the story shocked me to the point I remember few such unimportant details after.
Our assignment was to take care of a satellite uplink at a camp for kids with AIDS for CBS’s morning show. Phyllis, the Assignment Manager at CBS, may never have known how it changed my life. Y’know, once it’s over it’s over, right?
It was called Camp Wonderland. I called the Camp Director who gave me
some information to prepare me for what we were to experience. “It’s not
an easy place to be,” I remember her saying in a way where I instantly
started feeling for her.
“You probably should be a little careful with touching, if it at all comes up...be a little more cautious than you would be at a regular kids camp,” the Director also suggested. It seemed like common sense in a tragic way.
We rolled in around 4am. It was quiet. We were able to set up easily. It was a very basic camp. The setup was one where everything went well. A camera crew arrived a few minutes after we were totally set. All they needed to do was plug in. Easy. The plan was the Camp Director would be on chair with a few kids on benches all around in a picnic area. It looked like a sunny morning, and quick analysis of light angle and a reflector was all which was needed.
As time passed, kids became active, and every so often a few adults
were spotted among the troops. There wasn’t any yelling for kids to get
up or anything. Gentle voices did the trick. These kids wanted to be up
and running around. Perhaps a half hour passed. It was just before breakfast
that we were in touch with NY, and got talent and a few kids to sit as
planned. It looked and smelled like camp mornings...increasing activity,
musty air, the smell of bacon and pine seemingly wafting about in pleasantly
We were invited to have breakfast with the rest of the camp.
Looking around, it was just like every camp. I’m not sure at what point it hit me, but I realized, with some answers from my gentle host, that all of these kids were most likely going to be dead within a year. It was hard to believe. Most looked so good.
“But that’s why they’re here,” she calmly said.
“Do you cry a lot?” I asked?
“Sometimes I can’t start and sometimes I can’t stop. Happens to all of us from time to time. It’s hard for all of us. But on some days, you guys show up and we know no matter what happens, the word is getting out to the world and maybe something can be done.”
Sometimes her comments went in and didn’t register at first, but I’d see something and what she said would suddenly hit home. The intensity of her environment couldn’t be simply related in words.
Breakfast was in the cafeteria area. There I spotted a really cute little girl. Boy, was this kid cute. She had to be about 4 years old, perhaps 4 feet tall, a little “peanut” some may label her. Among the other kids in line to get food she was just that. As they reached for cereal, bowls, milk and the rest, she had to reach higher, being so small and all that. The height of the furniture didn’t help much.
But she was persistent. She would position herself in places where she could squeeze in and reach between people and pull out, all without touching anyone while grabbing her food and utensils. It was like watching a very experienced and choreographed act.
“Many of these kids are not allowed to touch anyone or anything in their homes,” I was told. “This week at camp was a chance for them to do everything without fear of reprisal for either.”
From her comment was a picture in my mind of kids being hit or pushed away, parents or guardians rushing to disinfect the surface just touched, or the area just vacated by the sick kids. It must have been visible in my expression. She added: “There’s a lot of that.”
I watched this cute little girl fight for her breakfast, a layer of air surrounding her every move. In every second I seemed to absorb more and more of her. I said hello to her in what I felt was a warm way. She brushed past me with little regard for me or my greeting. I was hurt. I’m used to kids having regard and respect for adults. These kids had little reason to have either.
“They don’t acknowledge love, caring or even tenderness from most adults,”
I remember being told. “They are their family’s pariahs. They’ve learned
all their lives that people don’t want them. Many times what they touch
or play with is disposed of.”
As I felt for the little girl I became terrified of my sadness for her, and enraged at the reason for it. I soon started looking around, and in what was physically a camp full of the robust energy of summer kids at summer camp having breakfast, I started seeing death such as one would see in the faces of those in Dachau, Auschwitz, and other places that death was always in sight. My God, all these kids are going to die, I thought.
“Not some of them,” was another thing I was told, which all of a sudden matched the scene in front of me.
I watched the little girl as she threaded through the bigger kids and took a place at a table with others, not acknowledging any of them. Her mission was the meal, survival, serious business, like a starved person, hungry and thirsty getting down to the business of nourishment.
As I walked to leave the cafeteria, and the camp, I noticed other kids going about their meals and next activities in that fashion. They were aggressive in having fun, being together, just to have the fun and be together. It was a liberation of sorts, and for many, a first. It was summer camp, and they were going to absorb every first and last bit of it. It was beautiful, except when the knot in my stomach and lump in my throat would hit every time I thought their freedom and glee was temporary. I stole one last glance at the little girl.
“I need to drive,” I told Brian.
“You all right?”
“No, but I got to do something or I’m going to fall apart.”
Brian allowed me to drive through my tears. They were the type of tears which don’t make one sob, but oozed as if sweat from the soul, for hours, days, years. Thank God Brian was there, and understood. Brian knew I had kids and wanted one more that day, and was wrestling with the thoughts of wanting to steal her from the realities of her life and bring her into mine. Inside I knew that I couldn’t take her. Heck, she probably wouldn’t even let me approach, ever, right up to her death. It was a long ride home which never ended. I never left her, nor she, me.
“There’s always one,” the Director had told me.
I tried to call the Director a few months later, but couldn’t reach her. That’s scary. At the camp the next year there was nothing. I was told that funding was always an issue, and I guess it was again. So much has disappeared.
Perhaps it’s selfish to write about my experience while people agonize
over their friends, relatives and, maybe themselves dying. I don’t know
what else to do though. I don’t have the magic wand to fund the camps,
and don’t have any friends or relatives to hold. In a spiritual way, maybe
that’s the reason I met this little girl, whose life and probable death
shot an arrow through my heart. Maybe writing about the little girl is
what I have to do, over and over again. AIDS has made the planet a Wonderland
for me as well.
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2001 Dates To Remember
AES = Audio Engineering
See Ya Next Time!
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