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Camp Conspiracy

Canoeing, archery--and lessons about 'insiders' and worldwide plots. John Birch camp is not your typical summer getaway.

July 25, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANGELUS OAKS — Here are some of the things that happen at John Birch summer youth camp: People in Revolutionary War garb fire muskets into the evening sky. Bumper stickers declare "I love animals, they're delicious." Men in weird hats burst into cabins in the dead of night.

And campers learn about secret world plots involving devil worshipers, cocaine-snorting Caribbean rulers, the United Nations and President Clinton.

Indeed, there are enough conspiracy theories here to make even Oliver Stone's head spin. (And we could tell you what they are, but then we'd have to kill you.)

For 26 years, the John Birch Society has offered this weeklong summer program--held in various locations around the country--as an antidote to what it considers left-wing "disinformation" from public schools, the media and other institutions.

It's a mixture of politics and play that makes for one of the nation's most unusual camp experiences.

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Under a canopy of ponderosas in the San Bernardino Mountains, 85 students have paid $175 each for seven days of canoeing, pingpong, archery, volleyball and crash courses on topics such as New Age religions, illegal immigration and the Constitution.

They also must deal with the Night Patrol, a roving band of camp counselors wearing swords and strange headgear who storm into cabins at unpredictable hours.

The idea behind the raids is to instill resentment against excessive police power, says Kevin Bearly, a former LAPD officer and minister who directs the camp.

Such lessons are built into nearly every aspect of the camp.

"It's very conservative, but that's what you need to hear after getting liberal stuff shoved down your throat [in school]," says camper Karalee Jones, a 19-year-old Glendale Community College student from La Crescenta.

Classes--five a day--walk students through the Birch Society's often intriguing view of current events.

The world is like one of those stereogram paintings, says instructor Orlean Koehle of Santa Rosa: "When you stare at it long enough, the real picture begins to open up."

Birchers believe a powerful group of "insiders" is manipulating global events in an effort to create a totalitarian, atheistic one-world government.

Everything is seen in this light.

Consider the environmental movement. On the surface, it appears to be a collection of "wonderful, benevolent people trying to help and save the Earth," Koehle tells the campers, who range in age from 13 to 20.

In reality, she says, it's a plot to unite humanity against a common enemy--pollution--and lay the groundwork for a one-world regime.

Koehle urges students to ignore doomsday hype about such things as endangered species (extinction isn't necessarily bad, she says, noting that dinosaurs became oil deposits) and depletion of the ozone layer (a point with which some mainstream scientists agree).

At a bonfire that evening, the junior Birchers take her message to heart. "Styrofoam's not bad for the ozone, is it?" quips one boy as head counselor Arnold Marquardt--who in real life works as fire chief for Santa Fe Springs--tosses several foam cups onto the pyre.

On other evenings, the campfire entertainment includes cameos by "Thomas Paine" and fife-playing, musket-toting Revolutionary War soldiers.

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Any remaining illusion that Camp Birch is just another summer getaway quickly evaporates during a tour of the cabins. Each is an orgy of red, white and blue streamers, balloons, bumper stickers and other patriotic paraphernalia.

"I hate what Clinton and his gang of anti-gunner, gays and liberals are doing to America," says a T-shirt hanging from the ceiling in one boys' dorm.

"No New World Order" blares a decal in a girls' cabin.

And the decorations grow more elaborate with each day. Girls plant tiny flags in the dirt, line up pine cones along pathways and spritz rocks with perfume. Boys build dummies that resemble camp counselors, drape roofs with Old Glory and set up displays of conservative and Christian literature.

Still, not everything is purely political.

Some students nod off, doodle or pass notes during class. Young Birchers in love stroll the grounds holding hands. And a frustrated boy tries to fend off rumors that his bellybutton is pierced.

But even campers who were wary of the program initially--Carrie Warren of Downey signed up only after her parents "bribed" her with tickets to a concert by the group Chicago--seem to get caught up in the JBS spirit.

"The classes are really good," says Warren, 18, who plans to enroll at Pepperdine University this fall as an aspiring corporate lawyer. "They back up what they're saying with newspaper articles and facts."

There are also flashes of humor. The head of the United Nations is referred to as "Egyptian socialist Boutros Boutros By-Golly," and the leader of Haiti is portrayed as "a coke-snorting animist voodooist" who was reinstated by "U.S. military forces on an errand assigned to them by the United Nations."

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