ANDOVER, N.J. -- In one sense it was just a camp full of kids somewhere out in the boonies of west Jersey -- getting into weenie and mayo fights in the dining hall, swamping the boats down at the lake despite about 104 warnings by their counselors not to, trying to outbelch one another after lights out. Only in this case some of the little agitators and instigators, who came from Newark and Bergenfield and Hackensack and Bayonne, wore artificial legs, or were bald as onions, or had to put on seizure helmets every time they left their cabins. Additionally a few were carrying inside them a knowledge, unspoken though fairly certain, that they wouldn't be around come Christmas, or at any rate not by next year's camp. Which only seemed to make their all-out fishing and swimming and horseback riding that much more intense.
The word "cancer" rarely came into their talk, though of course that word was there, all around them, like bugs and the coolish late summer air. Instead what a visitor to Camp Happy Times, in its 1987 "oncology session," kept hearing were things like this:
"Yep, that's just what I call him, Pizza Face," said a 12-year-old with a chocolate-brown prosthetic arm slung over the partially missing shoulder of a bunkmate. The two seemed the best of enemies.
"Your moth-ahhh," the bunkmate shot back.
"First you bite the head off, then you suck the guts out," sing-songed a sweet-faced 10-year-old in pink high-topped tennies, making her way up the hill from the beach. A bright red bandanna was tied around her head. A few wisps of white hair -- like fake snow under a Christmas tree -- showed beneath the scarf. She dropped that tune after a few more bars and went right into another American standard in which the worms are crawling in, the worms are crawling out, the worms are playing pinochle on your snout. She even conducted a little of it with her short wooden crutch.
"So what is this, tumor teaser?" announced a card named Rob Tornari one day at lunch, stabbing his fork into something resembling macaroni and cheese. (The waiter had just set down the food and then tore off, apparently terrified for his life.) The line got a big laugh from all the guys in Cabin 6, who clearly had been getting out of hand. And yet later, away from his raucous peers, Rob Tornari could say, with an unnerving flatness: "Bone marrow. I got diagnosed in '79. I was on chemo but it wasn't doing much, so they sent me down to Hopkins in Baltimore for the transplant. Jeez, what a place, they give you four days of this nonstop radiation therapy. They shoot the stuff right into your veins. It must have worked, though, 'cause I'm still here, aren't I?"
He changed the subject then, as if he had veered close enough to the truth of his existence. He brightened, and the low flatness in his voice was gone. "I'm from Turnersville. Major, major metropolis. Down near Glassboro. Down south, waaay down, near the Atlantic City Expressway. Jersey's such a huge and beautiful place, isn't it, something like Texas. Big truck farm state. Ever see the trucks? Let me know if you see one. And don't even think about the farms. You could carpet this whole state. Hey, can you get me on Letterman?"
It was as if their enjoyment, even their brattiness, had the luxury of being utterly pure, without any need for values or theories.
"You see," said one of the counselors, back from last year's session, "for so long now, they've been like grown-ups in little bodies, because of all they've faced. But for the space of this week, they can go back."
They were "leukemias" and they were "non-Hodgkin's lymphomas" and they were "relapsed Wilms' cases," which is a cancer of the kidney. But mostly they were just some noisy and occasionally insufferable Joisey kids going flat out, dawn to dusk, in the sunshine of Sussex County, which is on the way to the Delaware Water Gap, out beyond the glow of megalopolis.
They had names like Kerri McCarthy and Frankie Tagliaferro and Lauren Levandowski. There were 140 of them and they were in all stages of the disease and they ranged in age from 6 to 16. They came in every size from pipsqueak to extra-extra-large. They had ridden buses from prearranged points around the state, lugging with them, for their eight days of camp, their duffels and wigs and Moon Patriot games, their canes and hot combs and medicine and makeup.
"What always happens here," said a counselor, "is that for the first two days they're wearing their wigs, they're making sure to keep their plastic arms covered. Then the wigs start to come off, then the arms get uncovered."
They gobbed juicy worms onto little barbed hooks and screamed, "I got one! I got one!" (The Moby Dick in question was a three-inch sunfish.)
They made pottery in the art barn and they water-skied behind the camp's big powerboat. (One 14-year-old tied his artificial leg to the jittery dock before jumping in.)
They had Carnival Nights and Punk Nights and Talent Nights. (They also had some unscheduled panty nights at the girls' cabins.)
One of them lasted two days and then had to go home. It wasn't homesickness. A fever had bolted up in him, and the camp doctor got alarmed about infection. The child's parents had figured he wouldn't last the week, but they allowed him to go. As it is, they've been praying he makes Halloween.
The medical and counseling staff, most of whom were volunteering their time, came with messages on their license plates: NEW JERSEY. GARDEN STATE. PED ONC. As in pediatric oncology.
They slept, campers and counselors alike, in old wooden cabins, in green metal bunks. They went to the bathroom in long low buildings with rows of hoppers along the wall. They took showers in paint-peeling yellow bunkers.
And nothing about it was quite "normal." And everything about it was uplifting, though that is a word they probably would have snickered at.
Some of them looked like stringy hags out of "Macbeth." Some of them looked like Irish poster kids -- all clean-scrubbed and apple-cheeked. Some had to be taken around in golf carts. Some were stone blind.
If you were just passing by in your car on Sticide Pond Road, you might have grinned and thought to yourself: Some kids have all the luck.
And sometimes you couldn't miss what you wanted to ignore. There was a child so dangerously sensitive to sunlight that he had to go around all day with an adult's huge canvas beach hat pulled down over his ears. A pair of great silver sunglasses concealed his eyes. And even then he would shield his face with his hand, hold it up toward the sky, as if that were the mortal enemy. He was 13 years old, and 10 years earlier he had suffered a malignant tumor behind his nose. The heavy radiation that had followed, from the age of 3 onward, had withered and darkened and all but caved in his face. It must have done something to his voice, too, because he spoke like a little moon child, an E.T., tremulously, as if his vocal cords had a reverb box in them, as if they'd been stretched over something cavernous and old.
"Frankly, when he got off the bus on Sunday, I about fainted," said one counselor. "I kept thinking, 'How will he get through this week, how will any of us get through this week?' because kids, you know, can be so cruel, even to one of their own. And what do you know, the kids, at least the kids in his cabin, have taken right to him. Have you seen them leaning in, talking to him? They're not looking away."
It took a visitor to the camp most of a day to lean in, to not look away, but when he did, this is what the moon child said: "You may take a look, you may take a look." He pulled off his hat. He withdrew his glasses. There he was. He was smiling. "Jason," he said. "J-a-s-o-n. Jason Kresky. K-r-e-s-k-y."
He got up. "Would you like to see my trunk? It's over here, in my cabin. I brought along a lot of my games from home. Come, I will show you." He said it with a strange formal courtliness, even a tiny bow, as if he wished to lead someone three times his age into another world.
In his cabin, which smelled woody and good, Jason Kresky pored over a large dark footlocker. "This is my Man of Many Faces," he said, lifting out a little plastic toy and handing it over. And then something odd happened. Jason Kresky, 13, the radiated child, began to dance on the smooth wooden floor of a cabin that had been built in 1934, and not for kids with cancer. It was a kind of hi-de-ho dance of some interior glee, and he did it with total spontaneity. He looked lost in the dance, at least for that moment, the way Walter Huston looked lost when he went into that wild thigh-smacking jig in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Then Jason Kresky stopped. Like that. He didn't explain.
This year somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 children will be diagnosed as having cancer. Most will be leukemias. Tumors of the central nervous system are the most common solid cancers. But the good news, if that does not sound obscene in this context, is that survival rates are now higher than at any time in history. In 1940 if a child was diagnosed with a malignancy, the chances of his cure were less than 20 percent. Today that child has a 60 percent chance.
"Vineland," said a kid, as if he were instructing a dim-witted pupil. "You don't know where Vineland is? Half an hour from Philly."
There was a seizure child who took naps every afternoon outside on an old brown army blanket. His helmet, which was soft and leathery and white, looked like a goalie's.
This year was Camp Happy Time's fifth session for New Jersey children of cancer, and the enrollment turned out to be the largest yet. (There is at least one other such camp in New Jersey, and other states also have such facilities. Cancer camps are a growing phenomenon in oncology medicine. The sessions usually last about a week.) For the main part of the summer the camp operates as a regular residential boys' and girls' facility named Lane Robbins 2, with sessions lasting from two to eight weeks and tuitions ranging from $650 to $1,995. The tuition for the cancer session is zero. All fees are paid by the Valerie Fund, which is a memorial to a New Jersey child named Valerie Goldstein who died of cancer after a six-year struggle. Besides underwriting Camp Happy Times, the Valerie Fund contributes to the support of six oncology centers at hospitals throughout the state.
Jimmy DeCarlo, 7, from Pennsauken, in flip-flops, said this: "My brother's 18, my sister's 15, my dad's 45, my mom's 45. We had macaroni and cheese today. I hate the way they made it. I like the way my mom makes it. Lots of cheese. My mom works, my dad works, my brother works, but my sister, she doesn't work."
He had a little foreign-made plastic watch on his fair right wrist. The time on the watch was way off. "I think it's the time in Japan," he said. "They gave it to us in aerobics class. You want it?"
Jamie Cochran, 15, from Boonton, N.J., doesn't walk so well. He got to ride in a motorized cart all week, with his own special counselor -- Doug, who in his regular life is a systems programmer for Nabisco. "I got it made, I got it made," Jamie said. "See this splinter? I wanted to check out the nurses, so I got a splinter. I went fishing this morning. Thing is, we ran out of worms, had to use bread."
Doug, who is muscular and tanned and in his early thirties, said, "I mean, I had my week down the shore, okay? This is better really, if you want to get away from the job. Down the shore, a little piece of your job might still be in the back of your head. Here, you get out of your head. I heard about it, I volunteered, they signed me up."
The Leg: It was smooth and shiny and it just stood there, eerily, without a body, seeming to support itself of its own weight and balance at the edge of the dock. Actually its owner had tied it to a post and gone headlong into the lily-padded green water. The leg had an Adidas tennis shoe laced onto its wood-and-steel foot. Its owner was Eric Jones, from Ocean City, N.J., who worked in the early part of the summer at the Pike Two restaurant. "Ever hear of it?" he asked. "Ninth and Atlantic. I prepped for the chef. I had to stand up a lot. Sometimes it bothered me."
When he came in a little while later (he was water-skiing) Eric Jones fitted the leg onto the stub of his right thigh, balancing himself, belting it on, making sure to cushion the bridge -- the real to artificial -- with the soft T-shirt-like fabric that was wrapped inside the hollow top.
Then he went up by the cabins to kick the bejesus out of a football.
On the way up he slapped at his prosthesis, a cozy little slap. He stuck out three fingers. "It's made of wood, steel and a plastic covering," he enumerated. Then he said, "I've been trying not to let it bother me. It's just a part of me, it's something in my life. My parents, they treat me like a regular kid. My mom, she yells at me. My girlfriend, Belinda, she encourages me. 'You can do it,' she says."
A visitor couldn't think of anything to say, and so he said: "You're special, Eric."
"Oh, yeah? Like what?" There was the smallest menace in it: Don't patronize me, Jack.
But then he answered it himself. "For not giving up, right?"
This is how Eric Jones kicks the bejesus out of a football with a fake leg. He puts most of his weight on his good leg, his left, then executes a nifty little hippety-hop with his other, his right, the mechanical limb working something like a ratchet. The prosthesis comes up, meets the leather ball -- bingo -- the pigskin is sailing over top of some counselor's head.
"Pretty weak kick, man," said the counselor, in a weak voice, retrieving the ball. He tried to kick it back but it only came halfway. Eric Jones was just wreathed in grins.
"I'm surprised it didn't break up already," he said. "This kicking can't be real good for it. As long as the leg holds up, I'm there." He shrugged. "It breaks up, so what, I'll send it to the therapist, he'll redo it."
The camp doc was Larry Ettinger. It was his first year at Camp Happy Times. He baited a lot of hooks, he carried a lot of ice chests, he wiped a lot of noses with what a kid, any kid, would call a snot rag. He didn't look like a doc, he looked like some lucky grown-up in his thirties loving a week at camp.
"It's good for me, too," he said. "In the hospital they see me as the one who has to inflict the pain. Or whatever." For an instant he looked away. "Here they can see me as a human being. Had to send one home this morning. He went into relapse in May, we got him in remission, he relapsed again. Now we'll put him on heavy chemo. It's all we can do. Look, simplistically, there's no more healthy cells to grow in this kid's body. He's full of leukemic cells. Basically his time is pretty short."
He cleared his throat. "It's rough. Pretty tough. I got out of medical school in '73. I've seen a lot of death. Well, I'm still in the field. I know an awful lot of pediatricians in hematology/oncology who've left it. Just too much. I guess I must want this. I guess just being a regular pediatrician -- you know, general pedes -- is not enough for me."
Just then a girl came by. "Hey, doc." She stuck out her palm. Larry Ettinger, MD, high-fived her.
"I don't know when she was diagnosed," he said, after she went off down the hill.