Shazam stands before the raucous campers, under the portrait of Christ with long brown hair and soulful eyes, and belts out grace - to the tune of “The Flintstones” theme song.
” … And we thank him, and we thank him, and we thank him for our food,” sing the kids in a rousing finish, and it’s off to another Camp Reed lunch: chicken strips, curly fries and watermelon - for the most special group of campers here all summer.
This session is called Camp Goodtimes. Located at the YMCA’s Camp Reed on Fan Lake 20 miles north of Spokane, it’s devoted to children with cancer and their friends and siblings. It’s a whine-free week of go-for-the-gusto camping, sponsored by the American Cancer Society.
Joe Feryn, a 23-year-old counselor nicknamed Quasi, took his crew on a hike up Creetus Rock one night this week. “Normal kids would complain,” he says. “They’d whine about the steepness of the hills or the mosquitoes.”
Not these campers. Feryn says, “They’re just excited to be here.”
Fifteen-year-old Dov Ashford of Winthrop came to Camp Goodtimes two years ago, but he was too sick last year. He had recently undergone a bone marrow transplant to fight leukemia.
This year he’s back at camp, with wise brown eyes. “It’s good,” he says softly, “to be alive.”
Many of these kids have held out this week as a shining goal, enduring a year’s worth of hospital visits and illness to get here.
“They want to do everything in the world and you can’t say no to them,” says counselor Shazam, whose real name is Sean Pilfrey. “I’m behind them 110 percent. When they get done, the smiles and the tears on their face, the great accomplishment, make it all worth it.”
For the most part, the 98 kids in the dining hall resemble any other group of campers. Most are tousled-haired and wired after an overnight campout of marshmallows, ghost stories and sleeping bags under the stars. But some of these campers are bald from chemotherapy or puffy-faced from steroids.
At Shazam’s table sits 11-year-old Kyle Woodard of Spokane, who had a blast on the campout.
He recounts the tales he heard about Coyote Bob, a baby supposedly raised by coyotes. “When people hear coyotes howling, they hear almost like a human scream,” he breathes.
An S-shaped scar curves through Kyle’s buzz haircut. He’s undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor. Chemotherapy, radiation, more chemotherapy.
The tumor damaged his vision, and now Kyle carries a red-tipped cane. Still, he’s hoping today for a chance to take the shark swim, clear across the lake and back. Last night he managed a half-mile hike.
“We go as fast as our slowest walker,” explains Shazam, “so we stick together.”
After lunch, the campers head to their cabins for “Mucho Siesta,” an extra-long nap time.
Kyle stops at the nurses’ cabin first. There, nurses dole out medications, and Kyle explains the whole routine to a camp visitor.
“I just took dexamethasone. It’s a steroid to maybe save some of my vision,” he says, matter-of-fact as a second-year resident on “ER.” “Now I’m warming my Neupogen up to bring my white blood cell count up after chemo.”
He rubs a plastic vial between his palms. “It hurts more if it’s not warmed up.”
In a back room, blond Reggie Rice of Spokane scratches a mosquito bite and contemplates the joy of a simple ingrown toenail.
Rice, 14, has survived high-risk leukemia. He returned to camp this year with new health.
“It’s great,” he says. “I can do everything the kids who never experienced cancer can do. I can run now and swim fast. It feels great not to have any limits.”
Kyle climbs up on the next bed and hands the warmed plastic vial to the nurse. She asks him to count to three. “Now push it in VERY slow,” Kyle tells her. He squeezes his eyes shut. “Ow, ow, ow,” he says. And the injection’s over.
“Good job, man,” Reggie says.
One of the best parts of Camp Goodtimes, the kids agree, is the chance to meet other kids who understand completely that bittersweet mixture of sadness, pain and happiness they bring to camp.
In Dov Ashford’s cabin, the room is dark and cool, and in each bunk sprawls a teenage boy.
Dov hunches over a tortoise-shell Washburn guitar, on a lower bunk, playing softly. His guitar case and his Bob Dylan songbook lie propped against his wheelchair.
Ashford’s leukemia is gone, but a year and a half ago he was in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle for the bone marrow transplant.
“It’s good to be out of there,” he says.
It wasn’t all bad, he adds, his eyes brightening. They’ve got 60 cable channels: MTV, HBO, you name it.
Besides, Dov says, grinning, “They have any food you want. You can be like ‘I want a Butterfinger for lunch.’ They get you anything.”
Now he battles a bad hip, a side effect of the prednisone, and a skin problem caused by the transplant.
His favorite Dylan tune is “I Shall Be Released.”
The chorus - “I see my light come shining from the west to the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released” - speaks to Dov of a healthier future. The time ahead when he gets a new hip, he kisses the wheelchair good-bye, and he heads off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a career in science.
Any day now.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos