Vermes Family Horseback Archery Camp

The scene is brutal. The yard is empty but the evidence of recent chaos lingers. Dogs and cats lay sprawled across the grass in some sort of coma-sleep while the sheep, wide eyed and bewildered, return to grazing the now empty lawn. Everyone is in the house, moving slowly and nursing coffee with hopes of mustering enough energy to finish cleaning the house. The vacuum kicks on and the clatter of dishes moving through the sink picks back up. Today marked the final day of the Vermes Families’ summer camp, which is a week long whirlwind of 40 children aged 6 through 17, fun, games, riding, archery, assorted weaponry training, and the most beautiful experience of camaraderie, discipline, and friendship that I have ever seen. It was altogether epic, inspiring, and completely exhausting.

To back it up a little bit, between the last update and now, we have acquired a vehicle. She’s nothing fancy, but at 1900 Euros she’ll do the job. And I’ll say I’m pretty impressed with the purchase, as Balázs spent considerable time perusing the market for just the right match. The whole buying process was really quite simple. We headed north about two hours through fields and forests to the location of the seller, a used car lot similar to what we see at home. The seller was upfront and seemed to be honest enough as far as car salesmen go, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the vehicle was in much better shape than anything I was expecting for the price. We took her for a spin, checked her inside and out, and decided move on with the cash purchase after a bit of haggling, of course.

With the keys to our new Skoda Octavia, officially named Joli, which is the Euro equivalent of the VW diesel wagon, we headed home. I was thrilled to see that she ran like a champ and with a quick diesel fill up our range indicator flashed 1100 km. Generally, we don’t take the car unless it’s a must, as most everything is within a ten minute bike ride, but it sure does make life a lot easier when its raining or the distance is further than we’d like to pedal. So, we are now mobile.

Fast forwarding to camp. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though I’d seen pictures and read articles and knew it was a big attraction for kids of all ages locally and internationally. In preparation the boys erected four yurts in the yard for the kids to camp in while the girls headed to the market to gather all of the food and supplies for the week. With 40 mouths to feed this was serious business. When all was prepared and we were one hour out from parents dropping kids off at the front door, the air was still and quiet. It wouldn’t be that way for another seven days; the perfect calm before the storm.

On this particular first day of camp we experienced some heavy weather. And by heavy I mean taking precautions to make sure the yurts did not blow or float away. Balázs’ sister had borrowed the car that morning to head to the train station in the neighboring city, Komárom, as she was picking up her boyfriend at the Budapest International Airport that day. The weather here can change quickly, so while we were still enjoying breezy sunshine the storm was hitting Komárom with a vengeance. Campers who traveled through the city showed up still ducking for cover.

Apparently golf ball sized hail was making Swiss cheese out of windshields everywhere and better yet, flash floods three feet deep were turning vehicles into rubber duckies. The parking lot closest to the train station, where our beautiful Joli happened to be parked, had reportedly become a swimming pool. We made a few phone calls and addressed Facebook to see friends posting images of a potentially tragic situation for our new vehicle. With no way to find out until Balázs’ sister made it back to the city, we waited in suspense for the evening as kids signed in for camp.

Fortunately we had a lot to distract us, as hoards of children of all ages started to populate the yard. Balázs had shaved his head into a Mohawk for the occasion, because why not, and offered the same haircut for campers (the boys, at least) as they filed in. Given that Balázs is the leader and unofficial king of camp, most all of the boys figured it would be best to follow suit and lined up to get their head shaved less one stripe through the middle.

Right about when all campers were accounted for and given appropriate haircuts, the storm arrived and our car came rolling into the driveway, unscathed. We all let out a huge sigh of relief and carried on. It was a wet evening but I’d never been happier to mop water out of leaky yurts and entertain foreign children under the cover of the canvas tents. Other than one fallen tree in the campsite (thankfully no one was hurt) we survived the stormy night.

The next morning, and most all of the other days, went as follows; Balázs sounds the wakeup horn at 6:55, giving the kids five minutes to throw on clothes and make it to the arena for the morning warm up, which includes various calisthenics and stretches. At 8:00 breakfast happens, which is generally a simple meal of bread with some sort of protein based spread or lunchmeat, vegetables, and hot drink. For the next hour kids eat and prep for the day, and at 9:00 they line up in team formation head out to the far arena for archery, weaponry training (ninja star throwing, javelin, and axe hurling amongst the options), and horseback riding, which, believe it or not, all happen in the same 20’ x 60’ court.

I get anxiety when it comes to humans and safety on horses. At home I can’t even hack out someone’s horse if I don’t show them my original trainers insurance policy with their name undersigned as additional insured’s. The application process for coverage looks like this;

Does everyone wear a helmet?

Does everyone wear closed toed shoes and body amour?

Has there ever been a dog on the property?

What about a cat?

Do birds fly in your airspace?

Are all gates closed at all times?

Is there a gate around your gate?

Is there a gate around that gate?

Has anyone ever consumed alcohol or smoked within 100 miles of the premises?

And so on and so fourth the list goes on, and by the time I am done with the damn thing I am drinking and smoking in the wide open barn aisle about to lie like a dog because answering incorrectly to any of these questions guarantees that your premium will quadruple in price. This is why horse trainers starve across America.

This is also why, on day one of camp, I nearly resorted back to drinking and smoking in the barn aisle as I sauntered out to the arena to see five horses with bare-footed children trotting circles in halters, while kids were scrambled about hurling arrows, lead weighted ninja stars, metal tipped spears, and battle axes into targets on the dirt barrier bordering the far side of the arena. My immediate question was “JESUS CHRIST, WHAT DOES YOUR INSURANCE POLICY COST??!??!?!?” To which Balázs answered, “it doesn’t. Parents sign a waiver and leave their kids health insurance information and its cool.”

So, for the record, “it’s cool.” And for the official record, while bumps and scrapes happen as expected, after 13 years of summer camps, there hasn’t been any major incidents involving the crossing of horse, child, and/or weapon. The return rate is 80% and all but one of the members present had been to the camp for consecutive years with some of the older children celebrating their 7th consecutive year in attendance. And after experiencing it myself, I can see why.

Training in the arena happens for about two or three hours as kids rotate around the activities at their leisure. Campers also have the option of assorted crafts before lunch, which includes your expected camp activities, lanyards and friendship bracelets, and then some more culturally specific crafts like wool-working and historical song singing. Every few mornings the kids pick names out of a hat in a tradition called angels and, much like a secret Santa, the child must do something for the person they pick which would make them happy. The emphasis is that it doesn’t have to be a material thing, as words and gestures can go a long way.

Throughout the week old friendships grow stronger and new friendships blossom. The feel of togetherness and structure is thick as the older campers lead the younger ones through a hierarchy as to promote teamwork and safety; it takes a lot of collaboration to safely handle 40 children and horses throughout the day. Team leaders are responsible for their members, and when consequence is necessary, the leader and the child must execute the “punishment” together, which generally consists of pushups and squats, etc.

While most of the children are of Hungarian decent, some come from other places like the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain. All of the campers speak Hungarian, and most understand enough English or Spanish to get by, and we talked over so many matters of varying seriousness. Given that I come from America and live by the sea, there were many questions to be answered. Just to be clear, the chupacabra is real, as are mermaids. Bigfoot is still unconfirmed. And while we grew together as one enormous family, one sound of the battle horn changed everything. It was time for war.

The war of numbers, as it is named, divides the camp into two teams; red and black. Each soldier wears a large card with a four-digit number written in red or black, respectively, on his or her forehead. The object of war is to call out the numbers of the members of the opposing team, rendering that soldier dead. We all trekked out to the densely forested horse pasture and took position on the far sides of the battlefield. These loving children became cold-blooded killers as they moved in formation and coordinated attacks on the enemy.

While you cant physically cover your number with an arm, you can hide behind trees and brush as to stealthily catch a glimpse of the enemy. Likewise, kids can put their heads together as to create a “tank” and hide their numbers whilst moving into enemy territory un-detected. The suspense is unbelievable and possibly more nerve wracking for me was calling out numbers in Hungarian. Though, through some stroke of miracle, I won the first battle as the last soldier standing, which earned me some street cred for the rest of the week.

Between training and activities there were brief moments where everyone stopped to eat and sleep for periods of time I was convinced weren’t lengthy enough for sustained human life. Breakfast and dinners were prepared by the family and lunch was catered by a local restaurant, typically a soup, salad, and meat of sorts. While the campers took some time to relax after camp and meander amongst each other, we prepared the afternoon fun, which included the aforementioned number war, various equestrian activities, and a game called Meta; a simple home run derby of sorts which, in my opinion, was way more fun than baseball. There is hardly any waiting to play and the only way you can strike out is if you aren’t on a base or through the home run line when the ball touches down at home.

From start to finish the camp is non-stop energy. I waved the white flag a couple of times, admittedly. One night I came down with a horrific stomach bug, likely something I had eaten, and crawled my way down to the bathroom to spend the next few hours in the fetal position on the floor hugging the pot and praying that none of the eight other family members currently a-slumber in the house were feeling anything similar because, if you’ve been keeping up with the blogs, you might recall that it’s the only bathroom in the house. Fortunately I was the only one but it sure rendered me entirely useless for the next 24 hours.

At the end of every evening, while the activities wound down, us adults found ourselves sipping wine under the cover of the patio and relief of citronella candles, staring in amazement at the energy levels of the kids, who kept moving full-tilt until the bedtime horn sounded. Included in that group was Balázs, who, despite complete exhaustion, made every effort to keep up with the campers sun up to sun down and well beyond. The way they looked up to him was incredible, as he truly lead by example in every way from his skills with the archery and horses to the way he could capture the entire group with elaborately narrated stories both factual and fictional. Much like the kids, I have a well-earned respect for the man and his moral compass.

The entire family joins forces to put on this camp, which totals about seventeen members from both of Balázs parent’s respective sides. From preparing meals to directing activities and coordinating nighttime entertainment, which ranged from live singers to dance instruction, metal forging, and elaborate puppet shows and plays, everyone cooperated and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It is a true labor of love felt deeply as everyone brushes teeth and joins hands to sing the goodnight song together every evening. And by the time the finale tournament of champions was over and the awards handed to the most hard-working campers, a sweet sadness washed over the campground as kids woefully anticipated the train ride home and bid their farewells to the horses, dogs, cats, and all of their friends.

After we finally disassembled all of the yurts, cleared the yard, washed the dishes, and dusted the house top to bottom, one quote from a camper who was particularly sad to travel homeward stood clearly in my thoughts. “Only 358 more days until we get to do it all again.” And with that thought in mind, we all crawled into our dens to hibernate and rejoice in another successful Verems Family Horseback Archery Camp.

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