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Happy Campers : The dog days are here. But while adults seek refuge inside, day camps make the most of summer's end.

August 10, 1995|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scavenger hunts and Capture the Flag, lanyards and s'mores, skits and softball. Is anything more fun than to be a kid at camp in August? Not much, according to a late summer survey of happy campers. So what if it's hotter than blazes? From the cool San Gabriel Mountains to the dusty San Fernando Valley to the gritty inner city, camp is gloriously in session.

HOLLENBECK PARK

'This Place Is So Much Fun, So Much Fun'

*

Nature class is taught by pigeons nesting in the eaves. The swimming pool is a leaky plastic tub, and campers must pick their way across a blanket of cigarette butts and broken glass to come and go.

But it's summer camp, no question. And from 8 in the morning to 6 at night, the red brick building at Hollenbeck Park in East Los Angeles fairly bursts with glee.

"This place is so much fun, so much fun, I can't even tell you how much fun!" says Aarika Martinez, 11. "That is my favorite thing about camp--it is just so fun !"

She turns a cartwheel on the linoleum floor. "See? Fun!"

Outside, 10 children squeeze into a pool designed for three babies. Of course, it overflows and some of the children spill out, laughing.

One of them, 8-year-old Stephanie Aceves, dashes to the end of a row of blue mats and nods solemnly to a boy holding a garden hose halfway down the runway.

"Ready?" he says.

"Readeeeee!" she squeals and slides headfirst into the cold spray.

At the end of her ride, Stephanie stretches out in a corner of the cement patio, eyes closed tight against the midday glare.

"I'm at the beach. I'm sunbathing," she says dreamily.

An old man with droopy trousers appears and the children stop playing.

The man holds an empty plastic 7UP bottle and moves toward the boy with the hose.

" Por favor? Por favor? " he pleads.

"He just wants some water," says counselor Jenny Rockwell. "It's OK."

The boy fills the man's bottle and returns to the makeshift game of slip and slide. "Who's next?"

"Not me," says Patrick Urban, 10. He isn't "swimming" today, he says, because he forgot his bathing suit. Most of the boys getting wet, though, are wearing the same baggy shorts and oversized T-shirts they wore to camp.

"To tell you the truth," Patrick confides, "this isn't my favorite thing in camp. What I really like are field trips. Boy, we go everywhere. The beach, the library, Hurricane Harbor . . . all very excellent."

Next to the park's "No Loitering" sign, on the wall behind the folding chairs where the children eat their lunches, there is a poster listing the August camp trips.

Recently, some neighborhood gangsters scrawled their "tags" across the children's happy plans.

"Y'know the guys who did this? I guess they don't have anything else to do in the summer," explains senior camper George Ramirez, 12.

"Too bad, huh?"

TOM SAWYER CAMP

'I Can Be Dirty All Over by 10 A.M.'

*

Betsy's Bionic Bugs are all abuzz.

"Want to see our secret fort? Promise not to tell? C'mon, this way. Look out for snakes!"

Snakes?

Deep in the jungles of suburbia, little girls in matching T-shirts gather five days a week to play house in the dirt.

Snake sightings are rare, but as they like to say at Pasadena's rustic Tom Sawyer Camp, "You never know who you're sharing the wilderness with."

Besides all those boys on the other side of camp--creatures more despised than rattlesnakes, say the Bugs--the girls share their 50-acre camp with fish, frogs, birds, lizards and a gentle herd of non-indigenous horses.

Every morning, the Bugs and another 200 or so clean-scrubbed campers are chauffeured from their homes in spacious air-conditioned vans to the Arroyo Secco campsite at Oak Grove Park.

Within minutes of their arrival, the campers are dirty. Very dirty.

"I can be dirty all over by 10 a.m.," boasts 7-year-old Catherine Cahill.

Out of sticks and rocks and tree trunks, the Bugs have created a 2,000-square-foot dirt home.

"At first, we had to push the dirt around with our feet to make the rooms," explains counselor Betsy Fox. "Then we got a broom, so now we can sweep the dirt clean."

There is a dirt living room and a dirt patio. And here, beneath a ledge, is the dirt hole where the earthworms are stored. "Lunch," winks a camper.

The dining room is the only room with carpet--wall-to-wall, thanks to remnants someone scavenged from home.

Eight-year-old Pinky Farnum--"Pinky is only my nickname, my real name is Lark"--shows a visitor to the secret mud flats where the girls take turns digging in the cool brown clay.

"The deeper we dig, see, the more the colors change," says Madison Kilbride, 7. "Sometimes we dig all the time and then it gets oranger and then we use it for makeup. Right now, we're getting to the white makeup. Can you believe it?"

"It doesn't really make us that beautiful," sniffs Pinky. "But it's fun anyway. Isn't that right, Catherine?"

Catherine doesn't answer. She's too busy rolling a fresh mud ball down her arm.

CAMP FUNTASIA

'They Give Us All Kinds of Sugar and Stuff'

*

"We're up in the morning, singin' a song. Camp Funtasia's where we belong!"

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