CAMP WILLIAMS -- The summer was looking sweet for John Thomas as he floated atop a bright blue barrel. The 16-year-old Northridge High School junior rocked a little as he crossed the pond, looking back at eight friends on shore.
Then he really rocked. Tipped into the slapping water like an ice cube poured from a pitcher, Thomas "died" on contact. And his friends cheered.Fortunately, Thomas died only for about two seconds, and only in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps summer camp sense. It's a rule, see, that if you touch the water, you're "dead." Thomas' fellow cadets at the weeklong camp "revived" him instantly so he could tackle eight more water obstacles.
"This is the culmination of what ROTC is all about," said retired Lt. Col. Jim Donnells, a camp instructor.
Every summer since 1993, students from Utah's Clearfield, Northridge, East, West, Highland, Taylorsville, Independence and Ben Lomond high schools and Idaho's Boise and Shoshone Bannock high schools have spent a week at Camp Williams. They take leadership, math and science classes and then use their knowledge on climbing walls, obstacle courses and a four-story parachute-jump tower.
The 205 teenagers took ROTC classes at their schools during the past year. But the camp, which ends Friday, is a long way from their afternoon rifle-twirling practice.
An Army horn wakens the cadets at 5:30 a.m. They run in formation for a mile, then knock out a roster of calisthenics. Only then do they get breakfast, which on some days is an authentic MRE.
Camp instructors affectionately call this "getting out of your comfort zone."
Why would a red-blooded American teen want to live like this after school is out for the summer?
"Because it's fun," yells a cluster of girls, some of whom have already undergone a few unplanned dunks.
"I went all the way under," a beaming Rachel Valencia, 17, said.
The chilly water and chillier wind didn't seem to faze her. Valencia was busy figuring out how to get her nine team members safely over the water obstacle, using only some clumsy barrels tied together with shirts. A wooden plank stretches across the pool, but it's painted red, meaning the cadets aren't allowed to touch it during the training exercise.
At each of 12 stations, they must devise a fording of the pool, carrying ammunition boxes and other cargo and keeping everybody dry.
"They have nine minutes to decide how to solve each problem," said Air Force Maj. Kit Workman, Clearfield High School's ROTC instructor. With an impressive economy of language and an absence of hand-wringing, the task is put away.
Perhaps corporate managers, bogged down in meetings, ought to come see how it's done at camp, Workman said.
The teens applaud when one makes it across the pool, and they applaud when another falls in. Either way, they are learning how to tackle the big problems and skip the small personal issues, said Donnells.
"When they leave here, they realize they can do things as a team that they could not do as an individual," Donnells added.
About 40 cadets come from Northridge and Clearfield high schools -- archrivals during the school year.
"But you can't just stay with your friends while you're here," said Jeremy Evans, 17, a recent Clearfield graduate. No, all the cadets are mixed together in teams, and at each station, a new leader is appointed to negotiate with the obstacles.
Evans is soaking up ROTC camp as preparation for the real thing: boot camp starting Sept. 28 at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. All this human struggle is also readying him for his chosen profession.
"I've always wanted to be a psychiatrist," Evans said. In the Air Force, he'll train to be a mental-health technician. Then he will collect Uncle Sam's money for his college education.
Evans said some parents of ROTC cadets are skeptical about the program's worth.
"A lot of people think it's about guns and war. But they change their minds when they see what we're really about," he said. "The military is about helping people, protecting people."
Some students consider ROTCers to be nerds, with their short hair and camouflage uniforms. That's just something cadets have to get over, Evans said.
As soon as they start having fun at the after-school ROTC activities, students quit worrying about how they are viewed. As for wearing the olive fatigues to school one day a week, "I'd rather wear this uniform than a fast-food restaurant uniform," said Evans.
It's been some time since Kelly Prater stopped looking over her shoulder and wondering what classmates thought. She looks now toward Thayer Falls, N.Y. In 16 days she will start summer training at West Point.
A deerlike 19-year-old with startling green eyes, Prater plans to study aerospace engineering. She received a scholarship, known in the Army as an appointment, to spend four years at West Point. That's $250,000 worth of education, said Prater, who just graduated from Clearfield High School. She'll also receive a $600 monthly stipend.
Workman estimated that 60 percent of his ROTC cadets join the military.
Prater said the camp is a good practice run for her career. Besides, she added with teenage gusto, "You come here, you drop all your problems, and it's fun."