Camp lore holds that Fireman Fred haunts the piney environs of Camp Conrad-Chinnock in the San Bernardino Mountains outside Los Angeles. Having perished while rescuing campers from a raging inferno, the ghostly firefighter wanders the woods in anguish, driving his hatchet into cabin doors at night.
“It’s absolutely true that a cabin once [had] a small fire. Fireman Fred? He never existed,” laughs Dylan Wolman, an HHMI medical fellow working on neuroimaging in the labs of Davi Bock and Karel Svoboda at Janelia Farm Research Campus. “His legend, however, served as the basis for one of the more epic pranks at camp.”
Each summer for the past 6 years, Wolman has worked at Camp Conrad-Chinnock. Like many sleep-away camps, it offers rock climbing, mountain biking, archery, canoeing, and swimming. What’s different is that, mixed in with the typical fun, campers learn to manage their type 1 diabetes and thrive in an environment where having diabetes is the norm: most counselors and medical staff have the disease as well.
“It’s an amazing community and everybody gets something out of it,” says Wolman. He attended the camp as a depressed and angry young teen.
Diagnosed at age 11, Wolman rebelled against his disease. He didn’t want to deal with it. Because Wolman was resistant to learning to manage the disease, his doctor suggested camp.
“I really wasn’t in the right mental state to accept diabetes when I went to camp so I was bitter and rebellious the whole time,” recalls the young man who now has the chemical structure for glucose tattooed on his left forearm.
With time, Wolman started accepting his diabetes and moved from “couch potato” to avid runner. He began to understand the importance of knowing he wasn’t alone. That realization drives his commitment to work at the camp every summer.
“I really like dealing with the angsty teenagers because I know how they feel,” he says. “At the very least, I can tell them I was in exactly the same spot.”
As camp counselor, Wolman participates in all activities and makes sure campers stay engaged and happy. He also carries sugar tablets and a blood sugar testing kit. “As medical staff I get to have a more direct role in management and teaching the logic behind dosing relative to diet, environment, and activity,” he says. “As a counselor I take part in more of the campers’ activities and [act as a] role model. They are different but equally fulfilling roles.”
Being part of the camp team and getting to know campers over multiple years gives Wolman his greatest satisfaction. “I see kids who first came to camp depressed and unhappy, and now they are doing great!” he says. “Camp would function just fine without me, but it’s great to be a truly competent part of something that is so much bigger than me.”
Besides, if he skipped camp, he’d miss out on the “Fred” hijinks, like that epic prank that still makes Wolman grin. Employing the skills of Hollywood make-up artists, full firefighter regalia, and a fog machine, one night the older boys fogged up the older girls’ cabin, and sent Fireman Fred inside.
“He came out covered in silly string,” Wolman laughs. “The girls knew about it the whole time—that poor guy was utterly defeated.”