At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Chairman Joseph M. Gaydos (D-Pa.) called his subcommittee to order for a public hearing on the Youth Camp Safety Act.
The first witness was to be HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano. He would let it be known whether the Carter administration will support the bill or whether it will follow the Ford administration's determination to avoid interference with "states' rights."
But at the last minute, football fan Califano called an audible at the line of scrimmage. He decided to become a no-show. He said HEW is still studying "alternate methods" of achieving camp safety and is not ready to announce its position.
Shades of Jake Pickle! Rep. Pickle (D-Tex) killed a Youth Camp Safety Act several years ago by demanding "further study."
With Califano absent, Gaydos began calling other witnesses. Dr. Betty van der Smissen, professor of camping and recreation at Penn State University, testified as an expert on camping. She urged the committee to go beyond setting standards, and stressed the need to include an "educative" approach.
Just before Dr. van der Smissen finished, Rep. E. G. Shuster (R-Pa.) hurried into the room from from another meeting. He complimented his fellow Pennsylvanian on her fine presentation, little of which he had heard, and then lobbed up a soft pitch he hoped she'd knock out of the ball park. "I understand that it is your view that camp environment is one of the safest environments a child can be in," he said. "Can you give us the statistics?"
Dr. van der Smissen disappointed him. She said there were no reliable statistics. Shuster took a slightly different tack and asked whether the witness would agree that there is no need for federal rules for camp safety. But Dr. van der Smissen again declined to go along. She replied by repeating testimony she had given before Shuster arrived.
Then Gaydos called Mitch Kurman. Mitch has been trying to get a camp safety bill passed since his son was drowned in an inexcusable camp "accident" 12 years ago.
Kurman began by saying he is grateful that he lives in a country in which an ordinary citizen can bring a plea directly before the Congress and make his voice heard. This was the democratic process at its best, he said.
I looked at the committee table and noted that Shuster had departed as soon as Dr. van der Smissen had left the stand. Only three congressmen were left to hear Kurman: Gaydos, Rep. Leo C. Zeferetti (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ronald A. Sarasin (R-Conn), cosponsor of the Youth Camp Safety Act.
Kurman launched into his testimony, and he was beautiful. I wish you could have been there to hear him. I wish Shuster could have been there to hear him.
Kurman's testimony was a litany of death - one senseless tragedy after another. As he recited the seemingly endless list of camp fatalities that he traced to incompetent, untrained or negligent camp "counselors," his voice began to tremble with outrage.
Many of the deaths had taken place in the best-run camps in America - camps accredited by the American Camping Association and camps run by the Boy Scouts and the YMCA. In case after case, Kurman cited names, dates, facts, police reports, photostats, investigations into cover-ups, and his conversations with bereaved parents.
The three congressmen who had heard Kurman out were visibly moved. "Why do you think so few states have passed camp safety legislation?" Gaydos asked the witness.
"The camp operators have a lobby; the kids don't," Kurman said simply. "If the Boy scouts really wanted this bill, there wouldn't be five votes in the Congress against it. But look at this copy of the lobby's newsletter. It says the Boy Scouts are supporting the camp operators' position."
Kurman slammed the newsletter down on the table in despair. The voice of Mr. Average Citizen had spoken, but too many members of the Congress were not there to hear it.