Jabberwocky Celebrates Jubilee: Fifty Years of Summer Camping

By TOM DUNLOP

The first time I saw Camp Jabberwocky to know what it was, it looked just like what you will see sometime after five o'clock this afternoon, probably about halfway through the parade - the dark red bus growling and coughing its way around a distant corner in Edgartown; in front of it, leading the way, the lanky kids with long hair and painted faces skipping, dancing, blowing whistles, banging drums and pushing other kids in wheelchairs. It was probably around 1968 or 1969 when the idea of what Jabberwocky first began to register with me. The bus, I think, was stubbier and even louder than the one you'll see this evening - Napoleon III rather than V. Two Roman numerals: In some ways, that's the only big change between then and now.

I remember a red-haired teenager - he would have been called mongoloid then - riding an adult tricycle. Or, during his shyer and less athletic years, smiling down at us enigmatically through his beard from the front seat of the bus. Later I would learn that his name was Skipper Brooks, that among other ruses and ploys, he used to wear dark glasses and tap around Vineyard Haven with a cane, pretending to be blind. An abandoned, blind, destitute, mongoloid man: You couldn't get more pitiable than that. He grew large on the candy and money he conned half the town into giving him summer after summer, until he decided one year that that was enough of that, and decided instead to be a pirate.

I remember the man I now know to be Larry Perry, scrunched up in a wheelchair, his hair black, his skin well tanned, his face an astounding and terrifying rotogravure of grimaces. He had cerebral palsy to what appeared to be a wrenching degree, and I thought these faces must be evidence of unimaginable pain. Every other year or so he'd let out a great hoot as he rolled by. I know Larry a little better now: He is the only camper left who has attended all 50 years of Camp Jabberwocky. I have seen him on stage at the Toronto International Film Festival, where a documentary he made with four other Jabberwocky campers and a bunch of counselors played to sold-out houses and standing ovations in the late summer of 2001. I now know that those faces and hoots Larry makes are the ones he reserves for public acclaim.

I remember Katie Johnson, rescued for a summer from an institution in Maryland, a girl of 14 who somehow managed to teach herself the alphabet lying in bed, unattended for years. At Jabberwocky, for just a few weeks, she flourished, playing a central role in Grease, the first of the two camp musicals that year, and I recall her leading Jabberwocky up North Water street during the parade, her arms flung out as she squinted into the setting sun. Then she returned to the institution where, left alone once again, something went awry and she died in 1991.

I saw why kids with problems like these deserved to be in the parade 30 years ago or more. I understood the effort to have fun. But I was eight or nine or thereabouts, and I remember feeling that the skipping and dancing all around them looked - what? - scary and sad and maybe even a bit mean. I could not comprehend why the counselors were laughing and clapping when Larry Perry looked and sounded like that. I knew that a summer camp for the handicapped could not possibly be indifferent to the suffering it dealt with every day, and so the only thing I could figure was that Jabberwocky was actually trying to make a spectacle of itself. The hippy-dippy costumes, the long hair, the whistles and drums - these looked and felt like the demonstrations I was seeing on the news every night in 1968 or 1969, and hearing of just over the river from my home on a hilltop in Alexandria, Va. I could understand putting on a show to demonstrate against the war. I could not understand putting on a show to demonstrate against something that no one could possibly help.

I also wondered from time to time why my littlest sister did not go to Jabberwocky.

Christine, born in May of 1967, was epileptic, suffering her first grand mal seizure when she was only a few months old. Among the three of us kids, hers was the keenest intellect. She learned things fast, remembered them vividly and had no problem picking up in school each fall where she had left off the previous spring. But something - the unknown brain injury that produced the seizures, or the oxygen she was deprived of during the long minutes when she had them - left her with severe communication problems. Her language was limited, her grammar even more so, and the spasticity she coped with caused her to walk and write and do most everything else in an awkward, angular way. She had a splendid, ironic sense of humor; one of the last things I heard that she did at the Edgartown School was draw a hopscotch board on a sidewalk so that the last jump landed you squarely in a huge puddle of water.

I once asked my parents why we did not send her to Jabberwocky as a day camper, and the answer, as I recall it now, is vague. Yet I had the sense even then that what my family knew about the camp was gathered over time from people who themselves knew of it only indirectly. And though it seemed to be a well-intentioned and striving place, the rumors we were hearing weren't all that great.

In no particular order these were that the woman who ran the camp was a bit of kook, that it pushed kids to do things they probably ought not to be doing, that there was something slightly sinister about its politics and that things sometimes got a little too free on the physical front. But the main reason we did not send Christine to Jabberwocky, I think now, is that we had a good record of keeping her engaged in the world on our own, and believed she did not need it. For the next 15 years or so, the impression I had of the camp was of an outlaw place, a bit dangerous because it behaved insensitively to its own campers during parades, because it was said to take risks with them at other times, because it believed unnamed, but unpatriotic, things about the world and - well - because there was something unsettling about people who weren't related making so much noise and being so close to and physical with each other, particularly when half of them were regular folks and half of them so obviously weren't.

In 1991, after Christine had been gone for 15 years, I spent a month at Jabberwocky so that I could write about it for Martha's Vineyard Magazine. It was during that time that I began to learn that each of my old, general notions about the place was at least half true - and that several were even more true than that. The greatest of these truths: You could not have a place like Jabberwocky unless there was a place like Martha's Vineyard to draw from on the outside, nor could you have a place like Jabberwocky unless there was a measurable degree of madness to draw from on the inside.

Helen Lamb, the founder, now nearing 89, has admitted as much many times during the past 50 years of Jabberwocky. There were summer camps for the disabled in England, from which the recently widowed Mrs. Lamb and her three young children emigrated in 1950. But there was nothing like it in this country, and so the whole idea (a summer camp . . . for handicapped children . . . on an Island . . . where they would spend the night . . . far from their parents . . . for up to a month at a time) had to be explained over and over to mainland authorities, rather like trying to particularize the concept of time to captive dolphins. The idea seems to have come to her not as a revelation, but almost in a rage.

Hellcat - her nickname these past 30 or 40 years for a host of reasons, ranging from driving habits to a bluntness of expression which can shock and amuse with equal force - was a speech pathologist who had spent four years in England coping with children banged into aphasia and worse by the Blitz. By the summer of 1953 she had spent three years more dealing with southern New Englanders too addled by proprieties to let their afflicted children be seen on the street. They were kept, she said, in back rooms and "hot third floor tenement attics," and sitting on an Oak Bluffs beach one afternoon in 1952, her children playing in the wash, she decided enough was enough; it was time to create a place where, if only for a few weeks, "they could be brought into the light."

"You must be mad to think of it," the director of the Fall River Cerebral Palsy Training Center said to her after she took him through the plan, which dignifies the word "plan" to a degree it plainly didn't deserve. But he had dealt with Helen Lamb for two years and knew it was useless to oppose her. Just so long as she didn't send him any bills, he said, and it is a measure of either his own bravery or perhaps his indifference that he let six of his charges go with her for the first time to a tiny Camp Ground cottage in Oak Bluffs and spend God knows how much time there doing God knows what.

"I don't know a whole lot about the Bible," her daughter Gillian Butchman told me in 1991, in the first of a clutch of startlingly frank things that Jabberwockians would say to describe each other that month (and this was a daughter talking about her mother): "but I used to go to bar mitzvahs a lot, and Jacob is the chap that God chose as Israel. Jacob was a thief and a cheat and a liar. But Jacob got things done. In a funny way, that sort of reminds me of Hellcat: Whatever needed to be done to make this happen was going to be done."

One of the first stories I heard about Hellcat was the time she went to an Edgartown cocktail party during the early years, waited until the evening began to feel suitably oiled up and sentimental, and then began to make the rounds, telling the swells the sad story of her crippled children. At first light the next day she and a counselor banged on the doors of those who had signed surprisingly generous pledge cards the night before and began collecting the donations from bleary-eyed partygoers, in cash.

This was one way to make a spectacle of yourself, and a good way to get a reputation as a kook.

The subjecting of campers to danger was also true enough, I learned in 1991. Kids as rigid as planks were put on horseback and, with two or three counselors holding them upright, trotted around a ring at Pond View Farm in West Tisbury. Wheelchairs were rolled onto sailboats, paralyzed or unfeeling bodies were led out onto basketball courts, and people who had never stood unassisted in their lives were rigged up in harnesses as elaborate as Cape Canaveral gantries and, with their counselors bracing them from the rear, sent across Sengekontacket Pond on sailboards.

I picked up the philosophy behind these escapades without much difficulty. On the face of it, riding a horse or sailing across a pond could help a youngster or an adult with cerebral palsy strengthen muscles he was not adept at using; putting an autistic kid on a kickball field might not help, but it couldn't hurt - badly or permanently, anyway. Beyond this, the camp clearly shared my family's old idea that Christine had deserved the chance to climb trees or ride a bike even if she died trying, because would life for her be worth living if such things were within the realm of the possible, but forbidden? The difference, I think, was that so many disabled people were doing so many daring things all at once that accidents - quite possibly serious accidents - seemed more likely at Jabberwocky than I had been used to at home: If you let the disabled child take what appears to be a significant risk when she plays with her normal siblings and friends, then a summer camp assumes that much greater a risk when disabled children play together. There is no time for each to play alone, one after the other. Besides, that would defeat the whole point. And thus the risk is not only palpable, but in fact inescapable.

The political question surrounding camp was answered simply enough: Hellcat was a socialist, belonging to no particular sect, but believing from childhood onward in two simple precepts - that everyone ought to have a crack at a good education, and that everyone ought to be paid equally no matter what they did for work. "Everyone's got to have the same," she thundered at her father on the day he tried to explain to her why things in this world were quantifiably less fair than that.

At Jabberwocky, the socialist problem solves itself in a singular and straightforward way: Nobody gets paid at all. From 1953 forward, all the counselors have worked for nothing more than room and board and a few bucks to find their way back home at the end of the summer. The balance comes from whatever they get out of feeding, lifting, washing and watching their charges, minute by minute, from first trip to the bathroom in the morning to the laying on of the last blanket at night - this with just one day off a summer which, in 1991, nobody that I know of took. The theory then, as now, was that you can't pay anybody enough to do this kind of work, so why try? When you consider three more things about these arrangements - that some of these counselors are 15-year-olds caring for other 15-year-olds, that officially Hellcat has never had to charge parents more than $15 a week and that the reason the camp has gotten away with it all for 50 years has to do with the fact that Martha's Vineyard gives the camp most everything it has ever needed free of charge - socialism begins to look rather useful.

The messiness - that is to say, the noise, the physical contact, the obvious and unsettling intimacy I first noticed during the parade when I was a boy - took a little longer to understand in 1991. I remembered some of it from the days when my parents or I would carry Christine, unconscious, to a couch after she suffered a seizure. But she had died in her sleep in the late spring of 1976, and my thoughts about the physical side of caring for someone who will always need help were more or less arrested when I was about 15 years old.

Two people would help me put those thoughts back into words when, in 1991, I went to find out what Camp Jabberwocky was like.

"One of the things that makes it more Utopic here, and very different, is that it's very physical," Clark Hanjian, the author of Jabberwocky: A Brief History of the Martha's Vineyard Cerebral Palsy Camp, told me early on. "You're constantly touching people, you have to bathe people, and wipe their butts, and help them when they're having seizures, and get them dressed, and brush their teeth - all that stuff. We're just not in a world that thinks that any of that's good or okay. And here, that's the basic stuff of the day. And it's interesting how the physical part carries over to the counselors, and how they relate to each other. I've found it pretty common for people - even when they're not romantically or sexually involved - still to be more physical with each other. Giving backrubs, or sitting close or putting your arms around each other. And the amazing part is that that happens all the more when there's not romantic involvement."

And then there was Clayton Nemrow, an actor from New York who was regarded as something of a legend the summer I was at camp. One day, standing shin-deep in the sound at State Beach, he looked out at his camper, who was on a raft, floating on flat water as the sun went down behind us. I had asked Clayton, who was then 26, why the counselors did it, and not only did it, but did it for no money, and not only for no money, but why they seemed to yearn for it. One had talked of feeling a heartache for Jabberwocky in the winter that was so powerful that sometimes she just broke down and cried.

"I don't want to say it's like a drug; that's kind of an extreme way to put it," Clayton said. "It's like meeting a foreign person, someone you can't necessarily talk to very well in English. If the words aren't there, the communication goes somewhere else. It gets off the tongue and penetrates other areas. You feel more of the spectrum of what is to be a human being here than you ever do in the rest of your life.

"That's why I always want to come back. You're giving and giving, and receiving and receiving, and everything grows: The highs. The lows. Everything's exaggerated here. Such that you think, ‘That's the way life is supposed to be, isn't it?' But somehow, it's very hard to do in the rest of your life."

It occurs to me now that I misunderstood only one thing about Jabberwocky back when I was seven or eight, watching the parade going by and wondering what the skipping and dancing and whistling and drumming was all about. It wasn't really a demonstration against anything, but - in the strange, half-century old spirit of the camp - actually a demonstration in favor of it. We did not know it in those days because, I see now, we did not know whom to ask, but I believe that although she did not need Jabberwocky, exactly, Christine was the type of girl for whom the skipping and the dancing would have made a great deal of sense.