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Going to great lengths to send a kid to camp

The signs of summer's pending arrival are abundant. The swimming pool needs near-constant attention. The broadcast airwaves are filled with "who really cares?" season-ending cliff-hangers. And the Devils Rays are out of the pennant race.

Here's one more seasonal indicator that parents can appreciate. No, not that field trips and other special events outnumber tests in the classroom. A sure sign of summer is the annual campout at the county's parks and recreation sites.

Getting your kid in the Pasco County summer recreation program is akin to Ivy League acceptance in some quarters. Demand, you see, exceeds capacity.

The county accepts 1,200 children at nine sites, but most of the ruckus surrounds the 600 available slots at the three recreation centers in Land O'Lakes, Hudson and Holiday. Those are the prime locations. They have swimming pools.

Particular notoriety surrounds Land O'Lakes. Its recreation center was constructed a decade ago amid orange groves.

It is now surrounded by housing developments filled with young families. With no mall, central shopping district or movie theater, the recreation center serves as the center of the youth social scene in central Pasco.

"Land O'Lakes is bursting at the seams," said Jim Slaughter, director of the county's parks and recreation department. "Every activity we run there is full."

Knowing this, we still agreed to let our eldest offspring attend camp this year because 1) he wanted to; 2) we figured he might be lonely because his best friend who lives two doors away is moving away at the conclusion of the school year; and 3) he'd drive my wife nuts if he were underfoot the entire summer.

I suspect that final reason is most parents' true motivation. But the county camp also provides a reasonably priced, safe activity for children so working parents don't have to worry about a summer of unsupervised kids using a slingshot to prod the neighbor's cat into a Pokemon-like battle.

Aware of the program's popularity, I conferred with a former colleague about the sign-up. She'd arrived at 3 a.m. one year and found herself seventh in line. She brought a lounge chair and blanket and settled down for an attempt at a few hours of sleep. No luck. The recreation center's automatic sprinklers popped on, spraying everyone in line.

Okay. There's really no need to be seventh in line, and besides, who wants to get wet in the middle of the night? So, last week, I journeyed over at 4:15 in the morning. Probably be 20 to 25 people in front of me.

Wrong. The dozens of cars in the parking lot signaled the magnitude of the miscalculation. There were people sleeping everywhere.

I set up a beach chair and a thermos of coffee next to a sewer grate, closer to Collier Parkway than the recreation center doors. I counted the people ahead of me in line: 110.

The line started forming at 8 o'clock the evening before, 13 hours before registration began.

One woman brought a padded massage table upon which to sleep. Another man brought a rocking chair. Sleeping bags, folding chairs and unconscious adults littered the lawn.

It was a commune of parental distress. The guy next to me labeled it the "Oh damn" zone. Parents arriving after us would pull into the parking lot, see the long line of adults and mutter the phrase.

The bewildered looks made us laugh; just the opposite of a deer stunned by approaching light. We were watching drivers in the headlights.

We swapped stories of camping out for concert tickets decades ago.

We worried aloud whether we'd even get our kids enrolled because we knew each person could be signing up more than one child. They could be out of spaces before they even got to us.

A quartet of juveniles pedaled their bicycles past the line. What are they doing out at 4:30 in the morning? They reappeared later in the predawn hours screaming, "Wake up."

It's why we were there. We didn't want our kids to grow up to be them.

Later, a southbound motorist laid on his horn for several seconds. The message was the same. It was an obnoxious wake-up call. I figured the driver to be one of the parents of those kids on the bikes.

Cellular telephones brought spouses bearing fast-food breakfast after daybreak.

At 8:30, the drama unfolded. Two recreation department workers handed out numbered cards to the groggy masses, indicative of the number of children to be registered.

I peered down at our number. It was 155. There was momentary exhilaration until I remembered the cut-off for the weekly field trips was 150.

There was little time to fret about junior's disappointment. My spouse relieved me just before 9. She finished the nearly two-hour wait to complete the paperwork while I headed off to help coach a Little League game.

Turns out he qualified for the field trips, too, because enough parents declined that option.

You think children appreciate these efforts? Highly unlikely. Our 7-year-old wondered why I hadn't slept at home the night before.

Good question. Here's another: When will you be old enough to get a summer job?

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