Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ah, New Jersey

A couple of weeks ago, NJ.com had a Star-Ledger article about the development of a part of Northern New Jersey called Vernon Valley.

It brought back memories... back in the days when I was a young developer...

I mean, a young soccer player, and I paid my first, last and hopefully only visit to Vernon, New Jersey. Or as my teammates and I came to think of it over the course of a week at soccer camp, hell on Earth.

I'm not sure exactly where we were, though to my recollection, the T-shirt they gave us said Vernon, N.J. I don't really remember well, because I never wore it. Last I saw it, my mother was wearing it to garden sometime during my college years.

The point isn't really where we were, exactly, so much as the misadventures of the week.

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, and I'd joined the soccer team after sitting out a year due to the perils of puberty: As a result of my late growth spurt (went from about 4'9" to about 5'7" in a year or so) my knees hurt so much, I could barely walk long distances, much less run.

So to launch my comeback, I joined my buddies on the team and headed off for their summer camp. Normally, they went to camp locally, but this year, for some reason, our coach had settled on this New Jersey camp.

I think it was the brochure. Nine fields, Olympic-size pool, tennis courts, scads of high-school teams all signed up for one particular week.

Well, at least they had the international coaching staff right. The pool? Maybe for the midget Olympics. The tennis courts had no nets - which, admittedly, made the game easier.

And of course, coach got the week wrong. And we ended up at camp, not with a dozen other high school varsity/JV teams, but with the Under-13 New Jersey state select team, a group of elementary school day-campers and the very sad older brother of one of the day-campers. More on all them later.

Our team divided into varsity and JV, for the sake of competition, and I wound up on the JV because I hadn't been on the team.

(I spent the season on the JV, too. Mostly because, although I was in line for a varsity backup spot - but probably wouldn't have played much - I got hurt in our final preseason game. Played the game of my life with a spot on the varsity on the line, then managed to bruise my spleen saving a goal. Cost me six weeks, about half the season. I played two minutes of varsity time all year, in an 8-0 blowout in the rain. I got into the scorebook the only way I could figure out how; I fouled somebody. I had another shot at a varsity spot the next season, but I tore up a knee playing AYSO in the spring - my good knee, no less - and missed the season. I like to say my teammates carried me off the field at the end of my final soccer game, and it's true. They carried me off the field to my car, and from there it was off to the emergency room.)

But before all that heartache and injury time, I had to survive soccer camp.

Did I mention the international coaches? Might've been why coach fell for the sales pitch. The camp's head coach was a German named Heinz, who used a styptic pen when he cut himself shaving, and promptly got dubbed "mole man" by our 14-18-year-old demographic, for reasons I still don't quite get. Our coach was a German. Insert your own joke.

Other counselors included Wilson, a Brazilian; Guy, a Frenchman (one of my teammates insisted on calling him "Gay" for most of the week, until they finally got into a screaming match one night; ah, to be 15 again); the captain of the Czechoslovakian national team; and Julian, an Englishman of about 21 who was nearly as unhappy to be there as we were, and spent most of his time sympathizing with us, impressing us with his accent and teaching us creative British curses, mostly aimed at the agent who thought he could make an easy couple grand coaching for a week in the States.

More on them later, too.

First thing you need to know about this camp: It's built on a swamp. All nine fields. And the first day of camp, it just pours.

Oh, wait, before we get to the rain, my buddy Turbo, a teammate - I was his backup, more or less - and my best friend growing up, brought some music, including Nine Inch Nails. My mother heard him talking about it and asked, "Did you say 'Nine Inch Males'?"

I'm not quite sure what to make of that. And I'm not sure I want to think about it, really.

But that tape also was the first time I heard Depeche Mode's "Blasphemous Rumours,"which remains a favorite to this day. But I digress.

So it's raining. And the fields - all nine - turn into what New Jersey as a state turns into when it rains. A swamp.

We got so filthy muddy, the camp people offered to do our laundry for us. I think by "camp people," I'm referring to the coach's wife. But whoever it was, it took so long, I got my shirt back the night before we left.

Oh, and we're bunking outside, in a big cabin. The whole team. In super-humid midsummer weather. In a swamp. We had to use the heater, too, too dry our freakin' cleats for the next practice session.

Let me put it this way: Our starting goalie was licking the bugs off the cabin ceiling for the added protein. And he didn't have to try very hard.

And, you smokers out there, explain this to me? How do a dozen or so pack-a-day smokers of several years (ah, small-town life: I had my first cigarette, thanks to my pals, at 13; but it didn't take) manage to bring about a pack for the week, on average?

Guys were getting twitchy by Wednesday, if you know what I mean.

Speaking of Guy, somebody on the team also managed to bring a bullwhip. Why, I have no idea, but when one of the 13-year-olds called one of our guys "gay," he went after the kid, in his cabin, with the bullwhip. Kid was crying in his bunk. Literally.

This was before one of our varsity guys, in a fit of pique, kicked in every stall door in the group bathroom... only to discover the poor big brother - who was playing on their team - was in one of them.

BAM! Metal door handle to forehead. Concussion.

That was before one of the 13-year-olds - you're thinking we're immature, you should've seen these little buggers - threw a brick at Wilson. A brick. At about the nicest counselor at the camp.

'Twas Friday night, the last night of camp. And we spent the last day running. It was Heinz's revenge for Wilson. He let Wilson make us run with him. Did I mention Wilson was a Brazilian soccer pro? Dude could run all the live-long day.

It's a wonder we didn't go back for seconds on the 13-year-olds with the bullwhip, but our folks were coming to get us.

In between, there I was, playing left fullback on the JV, against the 6-year-olds... and three counselors.

I got stuck as the only guy back on a two-on-one break by Speedy, the fastest of the 6-ers, and the captain of the Czechoslovakian national team. Just me at fullback and Merv, my buddy, in goal.

So the captain - a guy who must've been 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, just fakes me out of my shoes. I try the desperation slide tackle, get nothing but air. So I'm lying on my stomach, watching him do the exact same thing to Merv, who comes charging out to cut down the angle like his hair's on fire.

Cap'n Czech fakes him out, taps the ball with a bit of flair to Speedy, and presto. Me and Merv, on our bellies in the mud, looking at each other, and he says to me, "I just got beat by a 6-year-old."

You wonder why we wanted to go home.

Best thing of the week was that the seniors brought a boombox, and played nothing but Back in Blackall week long. I've had a fondness for AC/DC ever since, and I know most of the words.

Second-best thing of the week was that being stuck in that hellhole actually achieved one of the intended purposes: Building camaraderie.

Not just that, but building camaraderie in the time-honored small-town way of politically incorrect jokes and acey/deucy card games.

First, the card games.

The obnoxious freshman - there's one in every crowd - was the right fullback on the JV to my left, and we hated each other with the fire of a thousand sons. He gave me grief for being Asian (and thus, different; which was OK when the guys I'd known all my life did it, since they were just giving me grief like everybody else got it); and I enjoyed the fact that Merv accidentally elbowed him in the head making a save.

So the one time the dealer, Dingo, gets him to bet the pot on acey/deucy, on an ace-two, the best possible odds, he hits a double-two and has to pay double in. Boy, did that make my week.

As for the jokes, maybe they're the you-had-to-be-there type, but the three primary targets were Woody (the black kid, who was constantly accused of stealing things), me (the Asian kid, constantly urged to say "I drive a Toyota" in a fake Asian accent) and two twins (as opposed to three twins, I know, I know...), victims of the "your momma" jokes.

But when Woody tried to get me to say "I drive a Toyota," I shot back in my best F.O.B., "You stole my Toyota!"

Brought the house down.

Funny how such a miserable experience is really something I look back on fondly, and can tell great stories about. Kind of like that trip to Nice...