MICHAEL S. ROBBINS - Eulogy by Peter Stekel
I once asked Mike why he stopped being a classroom teacher. He replied to the affect that he couldn’t handle the disappointment of working daily with students who were not as interested and engaged in the subject as he was.
Once upon a time I thought that must have made Mike a tough father to have. Living up to the expectations of a demanding person, and a father no less, would be enough challenge for any child.
Then I consider the kind of people Scott and Andrew grew up to be. I realize; yes. There were high expectations to reach but I saw them presented with love and understanding, not with some arbitrary sense of "What is good for you." Look at Andrew and Scott and who they have become and what they have accomplished and you see the fruits of a father - and mother - who love and care deeply for their children.
If it is true that "children are our future," no better future exists than in the children of Mike and Louise. And their children’s children.
* * *
Working with Mike at Camp Wolverton could be tough because of Mike’s expectations. Ask anyone who worked at Wolverton. We all knew the rules and that breaking of the rules would lead to a trip back home to Los Angles in the "air conditioned splender" of a Greyhound Bus.
But a huge measure of our love and respect for Mike is that those transgressors who were caught, and paid the ultimate price, never left with anger, rancor, or resentment. Not even to this day! The stories of being sent home from our home in the mountains are told with much mirth.
Why is that?
I think it’s because Mike always treated us with respect, consideration, love, and humor. He never treated us as children. Though he was 5, 10, 15 years older than his boy scout staff, Mike treated us like adults.
No. More important than treating us as adults, he treated us as equals.
And every one of us wanted to be just like Mike Robbins.
You know I think Mike must have been a great and wonderful father. I know that I, and I suspect the rest of us, were always jealous of Scott and Andrew. We could have Mike for a month or two during the summer. Andrew and Scott got Mike all year. How lucky is that?
* * *
I first met Mike Robbins in 1965 when my troop attended Camp Wolverton. The schedule had troops arriving on Saturday. On Sunday, a short hike to the Sherman Tree and a stroll around the Congress Trail in The Giant Forest. On Monday, a rougher hike to Tokapah Falls to slide down the slick wet granite into a large pool to cool off. On Tuesday, backpacking to Pear Lake.
By Tuesday morning my feet were one solid blister from heel to toe and in between the toes. This is what came from hiking in work boots. But, hey! It was 1965. That’s what we hiked in during the 1960s. That or tennis shoes. Some of the staff wore moccasins. Unable to walk too well, I was sent by my Scoutmaster to the First Aid station for emergency surgery.
Mike manned the station that morning. I didn’t know who he was, really. Some old guy who made announcements at meal time.
He asked the shy and quiet kid [yes, that was me] what was wrong. I peeled off my clod-hoppers and socks. He looked at my feet.
It must have been an impressive sight. He commented on how I should have come earlier to be taken care of. Then, he proceeded to doctor my feet. I thought I did well to escape without criticism. I didn’t know it then but Mike would never do that.
What a dad he must have been!
OK, Scott. OK, Andrew. I’m not trying to lay it on thick or anything. Just to point out what an impression your dad could make. That he knew how to recognize when stock behaviors were not called for. That we don’t need to be reminded when we have crossed the line or done something wrong. That’s why there was never any resentment about being sent home in air conditioned splendor.
* * *
I learned something else from Mike.
Camp Wolverton was a hiking and camping and backpacking summer camp. In all the many years Mike worked there, I think he went on only one backpacking trip. There was a time I did not understand this because, for me, Camp Wolverton was all about the backcountry.
Later, I realized what it was.
Sure, the backcountry was great and wonderful but the backcountry was nothing, NOTHING, without the people you hiked with. As Margie Buckingham has commented to me a number of times, "We at Camp Wolverton are special people." And, we are. It’s the people that makes, and made, Camp Wolverton.
Mike Robbins, more than any one of us, and more than all of us together, defined Camp Wolverton and what it was. As a place. As a philosophy. As an education. As a future. If I can be so bold: Mike Robbins WAS Camp Wolverton.
The backcountry was a great place to be, but not as great without the people you went with. I learned that from Mike. You could stay in the frontcountry forever and have just as good a time.
It’s the people that matter.
* * *
Even as the guy in charge of Camp, Mike had a higher authority to answer to. No. That’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking about Paul Weiss.
For those of you who never knew Paul Weiss, he was a retired, curmudgeonly, balding, grey haired, growling, sweet and tender-hearted fellow who worked for the Crescent Bay Area Council as camp ranger at Camp Josepho. You know that phrase, "His bark is worse than his bite?" That was Paul - though we were still deathly afraid of him!
Every summer Paul Weiss would drive up to Sequoia to help open Camp Wolverton and at the end of summer, he’d drive back up in the Josepho truck to help put Camp to bed. I remember, that’s what Paul used to say. To "Put Camp to bed."
Now, this truck of Paul’s was a huge thing - one size down from a semi-truck, I think. So big in fact, that he liked to drive it into the park late at night so that he could do some "road straightening" without worrying about oncoming traffic. You see, the road up the hill to camp is a tortuous 20-odd miles with 30 switchbacks. Though there is a broken yellow line down the middle of it, there is barely room for one car, it seems. And two? Forget it.
Paul would arrive at Camp late at night and announce himself by leaning on his truck’s air horn long enough to wake the devil - and us.
Mike liked to tell the story about how he was sure Paul Weiss was going to kill him. Mike had borrowed the smaller Camp Josepho truck and gotten into some trouble with it. Got it stuck somewhere, I think. After contemplating the choices of either calling Paul, and asking to be rescued, or moving to an undisclosed location on another continent, I think Mike was checking his bank account to see if he could afford the airfare!
Anticipating the worst, he called Paul. Paul came out, looked at the truck, looked at Mike, and then proceeded to laugh his ass off!
Mike could be cowed though it took the likes of someone like Paul Weiss to do it!
* * *
Lest you think I can only see Mike in how he reacted as a wonderful parent, let me leave that behind and tell you about what a great friend Mike Robbins was to me.
Remember how I said he didn’t just treat us like adults, he treated us as equals?
I had a conversation with Mike, ages ago. I wanted to tell him about how important Camp Wolverton had been to me and how I looked up to the guys on Camp staff as if they were gods on Mt. Olympus.
He smiled at that and said, "Yes. I always thought of all of you in the same way."
During the time when my book, Final Flight, was being written, and again during the editing phase, Mike was a constant reader and correspondent. He provided feedback, pointing out not only what was good but what was unclear and needed work. He made my book better just by being Mike.
Nearly every email I ever received from Mike ended with, "Next time you’re in LA, please stop by. If you ever need a place to stay..."
Well, a couple of years ago, while hiking in Sequoia, I broke my ankle. I live in Seattle and there was no way I was going to be able to drive home. At least, not with the drugs I was taking.
So, my mother-in-law, Alice, volunteered to fly from Seattle to LA and drive me home. We met in the late afternoon at LAX where my friends from England, who I’d been hiking with, drove me - in my car - so that they could fly home.
Alice, hadn’t driven a car for three years and she was deathly afraid to drive in city traffic. What to do?
I called Mike and Louise. Can Alice and I stay with you tonight? That way I could pilot the car for about 20 minutes today and 20 minutes tomorrow to get us out of town. All within the window of taking my drugs. Alice could handle I-5.
You know the answer I received.
* * *
This poem always held special meaning for Mike whenever we lost a member of the Camp Wolverton staff. It's fitting to now read it with Mike in mind.
Around the Corner
by Henson Towne
Around the corner I have a friend in this great city that has no end.
Yet days go by and weeks rush on and before I know it a year is gone.
And I never see my old friend’s face for life is a swift and terrible race.
He knows I like him just as well as in the days when I rang his bell and he rang mine.
We were younger then and now we are busy, tired men.
Tired with playing a foolish game, tired with trying to make a name.
Tomorrow, I say, I will call on Jim just to show that I'm thinking of him.
But tomorrow comes and tomorrow goes and the distance between us grows and grows.
Around the corner yet miles away here's a telegram sir, Jim died today.
And that's what we get and deserve in the end, around the corner a vanished friend.
I am so happy to say that this was never true for either Mike or me about each other. We always stayed in touch by email or phone. As I’m sure he did with all of us.
* * *
What a great friend. We’ll miss you, Mike.