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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronciles

An Island Idyll With Sand, Surf and Snoring

April 28, 1999|CHRIS ERSKINE

So here we are on Catalina Island, 12 fathers and their second-grade daughters, a gutty little group ready to take on the great outdoors.

"Did you bring my inhaler?" the little girl asks.

"Yes, I brought your inhaler," I tell her.

We're the Pawnee Squaw tribe. That's right, the YMCA Pawnee Squaws. We're known for our courage. We're known for our gift shop purchases.

"I always wondered who bought this junk," a father says as the girls line up at a gift shop in Avalon.

"And it was you," I say.

"It was me," the father says.

I don't know too much about Catalina. I know they used to write songs about it. Big bands used to play here. The giant round building in the harbor was once a casino.

And I know the Chicago Cubs used to hold spring training here, booting ground balls and practicing pitchouts in the ocean breeze so that when the regular season came along, they'd know how to boot ground balls and blow pitchouts with perfection.

*

My guess is that William Wrigley was probably trying to deport his hapless team--to send the players out into open water, the Hansel and Gretel of professional sports, hoping they'd never find their way back to Chicago.

Fortunately or not, Catalina was as far away as they ever got. Each spring, the Cubs would return to the Midwest, bringing baseball and never-ending disappointment.

"Hey, there's the Wrigley mansion," someone says, pointing to the old place high on the hill.

But we're not here for mansions. We're here for Camp Fox, a scruffy collection of cabins a short boat ride away.

So we climb aboard the shore boat and head around to Camp Fox, one of several such sites on the island that each year crawls with Scout groups or fierce little Indian tribes like ours.

"This is nice," the little girl says when we finally pull ashore.

"Don't rush to conclusions," I say.

This is the little girl's first trip here, three days on the island without her mommy or her big sister to watch over her. Just her dad, a dependable sort but not exactly the patron saint of travel.

"Did you bring extra underwear?" she asks as we unpack.

"Underwear?" I say.

And right away, she looks worried. The little girl looks at the other dads, wondering if they're the type of guys who forget underwear too.

What kind of tribe is this? the little girl wonders. Where's the nearest cell phone? Somebody call me a cab.

"Don't worry," I assure her. "I brought underwear."

It seems decent enough, this Camp Fox. There is electricity and water and some semblance of social order.

The kids are well-behaved for the most part. So are the dads. I hear that occasionally a beer or some cigars will be smuggled in. I've never seen it. But I guess it happens.

"This is really nice," the little red-haired girl says over and over, calm now that she knows there's plenty of underwear around.

Sure enough, the first night in camp goes very well. The showers sort of work, the water dribbling out as if from a colander.

*

And the bunks are comfortable enough, packed in 12 to a cabin. When the lights finally go out, all we hear are the crickets and the ocean, which can lull anyone to sleep in a hurry.

If it weren't for the snoring.

"Jeez, you hear that guy last night?" one father asks the next morning.

"Huh?" the other father answers, his ears shot from all the snoring.

We stand out in front of the cabin like survivors of a mine explosion, rubbing our ears and wondering if we'll ever hear again, ever enjoy the trill of a referee's whistle or the cry of the peanut vendor, the music that makes life worthwhile.

"I gotta get some earplugs," one father says.

The epicenter of the snoring is Cabin 25, where some guy dubbed Mrs. Doubtfire resides with his sister, Chainsaw Doubtfire.

When the Doubtfire sisters snore, the whole cabin shakes. When they snore, porch lights explode on the mainland, 26 miles away. When they snore, no one else sleeps.

"I almost pulled my mattress out on the lawn," one of the fathers says.

"We should pull Mrs. Doubtfire out on the lawn," someone else says.

Somehow, the little girls aren't bothered by the snoring. They wake up and scratch their heads and run out into the morning sunshine, looking for pancakes and things to do.

Eventually, the fathers follow, grabbing Frisbees or wrestling kayaks into the water along the beach.

*

And in the bright April sun, the Pawnee Squaws and their Pawnee fathers splash around the Catalina shore, soaking up sunshine and reveling in Camp Fox, making the most of a perfect spring day on a near-perfect island.

"Hey, I think I see a Dairy Queen!" a father lies, pointing to the top of a hiking trail.

"Let's go!" the Indian princesses all yell.

In no time, our weekend at Camp Fox passes by. By late afternoon, wet towels flap from the front railings of each cabin, like the flags of various nations.

Out on the lawn, each tribe practices its skit for the evening's campfire, the weekend's social highlight.

And as the stars come out, we prepare to say goodbye to Camp Fox, vowing to return again to this island paradise, where the wind doesn't roar but the fathers do, as if trying to expel all that fresh air in one giant gasp.

"Did that snoring bother you?" I ask Princess Butterfly as we pack up to go.

"What snoring?" she asks, careful to remember her inhaler and her underwear.

"Never mind," I say.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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