Breaking out of fat camp for a cheeseburger

By Jordan

Weight-loss hysteria has infected the nation like a bad disease. Americans have spent millions of dollars on Thighmasters, Buttmasters, Legmasters, Chestmasters — lots of masters — Power Riders, Health Riders, Knight Riders and anything else that has its own infomercial. Susan Powter screams, “Stop the insanity!” and thousands of fat people go insane trying to lose weight. Long before any of these things existed and long before Susan Powter lost what little sanity she had, there was a place loved by all adults and despised by all their children: fat camp.
As a child, I had the pleasure of attending such a camp. I know what you’re thinking — lots of fat kids spending their summer nights sitting around the campfire, eating our low-fat turkey dogs and reminiscing about chocolate cake, cheeseburgers and French fries. To be young and in love with food! Such is the way of the obese.
It was nothing like that. Meals were a passing moment in days filled with sports, swimming, dances and everything else an adolescent camper experiences. Just because we weighed more than average didn’t mean we weren’t normal. It meant that we all had something in common. And by the end of the summer, most of us lost 20 to 40 pounds of that commonality. The summer months weren’t easy for us all. With the heat and dearth of Hershey bars, an overeater is liable to crack. That’s what happened to Steve Lipschatz. Steve wasn’t your average fat kid. He was your average land mass. We called him “Couch” because whenever he laid down, five guys could sit on him comfortably — five overweight guys at a fat camp. He always took his weight in stride and knew how to use it. Whenever people got him angry, he just threatened to sit on them. You’ve never seen anyone shut up so fast.
You mess with Couch, and you could end up two-dimensional. Nobody ever suspected that Couch was going to create the biggest commotion since the Snickers scandal of ’83 — not even Couch himself.
As I’ve said, Couch was a fairly big guy. If you wanted to find the kid, you didn’t have to look too hard. So when the head counselor made the routine bunk bed check one night and couldn’t find him, he knew something was wrong. A meeting of the counselors was called, and a campground search began.
An hour came and went, and Couch wasn’t found. The owner of the camp panicked and called the police. The camp radio station, WFAT, broadcast Couch’s description and what he might be wearing. Another hour came and went. No Couch. The counselor’s flashlights were joined by policemen’s. None of the campers slept. Each had his own theory about what happened. Maybe he was kidnapped. Maybe he was killed by the Indian ghost rumored to dwell in the forest borders. Maybe cannibals were stalking plump children.
Or maybe, just maybe, Couch broke out. Maybe he escaped. Just then, the bunk door opened, and there he stood, sweat stains covering his Yankees T-shirt, a massive grin on his face and the biggest McDonald’s bag you’ve ever seen. Without a word, he flipped the bag and dumped 30 cheeseburgers on the bunk floor, gleamed at us all and said, “Eat up. I ate the other bag on the way over.” Those cheeseburgers never had a chance.
To this day, nobody knows how Couch got out or how he survived the 10-mile walk to and from McDonald’s. But for some reason none of that matters. For one night, a bunch of starving heavyweights ate like kings.
We rebelled in the only way we could: by eating. We went on a reverse hunger strike. No matter how much our parents wanted us to lose weight or how forceful the fat camp was, in the end it was our choice. And that opportunity of choice gave us a sense of power over our lives.
Without that, the insanity you’ll have to stop might be your own.
Jordan Gelber’s column originally appeared in the May 22 edition of The Stanford Daily newspaper.