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Not normal - summer Fam Campers deal with Florida’s wild weather

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Jeff Brown (far left) and his wife, Army Staff Sgt. Doanti Brown, pose with their family. They are among the few of MacDill’s summer Fam Campers.

photo by Nick Stubbs

The MacDill Fam Camp is full to capacity in the winter, but in August just a handful of motor homes and travel-trailers dot the grounds. Their roof air conditioners running full-tilt in the "feels-like 105" degree temperatures are the only clue that they are occupied.

If you hang around long enough you may catch a glimpse of someone entering or exiting the laundry room in the middle of the camp. Sometimes you hear an RV door slam shut, but mostly you hear nothing but the humming of AC units and the occasional screeching of seagulls at the nearby beach. It may not be a ghost town but it is far from the thriving mini city that develops by December each year as hundreds leave the cold North for the warmth of sunny MacDill.

But in the absence of freezing temps north of the Mason Dixon line, just what is it that brings anyone to the Fam Camp in summer? The heat is nearly debilitating and mosquitoes swarm from dusk till dawn. There are no recreation programs, hobby classes or cultural getaways that make staying at the Fam Camp in the winter so attractive.

Some come for a summer vacation. But of the 30 to 50 campers who typically account for the summer Fam Camp population, about half are there out of necessity, said Nancy Wheeler, Outdoor Recreation operations manager.

The small summer crowd has the 334-slot camp to itself. There's no traffic on the narrow roads between camp sites and no lines for a washing machine. Take your pick of benches at the beach across the street and if you prize peace and quiet, the camp does not disappoint.

"No way," said Jeff Brown when asked by a reporter if he and family set up their camper as part of their vacation.

Mr. Brown, who arrived this week with his wife, Army Staff Sgt. Doanti Brown, who recently was assigned to MacDill, said the August heat and biting bugs mean this trip is anything but pleasure. He noted the camp is the ideal solution for the couple and their two sons until they find a house in the area. Until then they are looking on the bright side.

"It's hot, but at least there's a breeze," said Sergeant Brown.

Her husband added that the mosquitoes swarm around the camp but being from Alaska, where the "mosquito is the state bird," it could be worse.

Norman Cox is another typical summer camper. He made the trip from Arkansas with his wife and a family friend whose husband is based at MacDill. They spend a lot of time in the air conditioning of their RV, not only to avoid the heat but the mosquitoes, which are "worse than in Arkansas," said Mr. Cox.

"It's not the time of year you would want to take a pleasure trip here," said Mr. Cox, who will be pulling out next week. "We just wanted to come visit a friend and then we'll be on our way."

Maj. (ret.) Mike Downey has been at the camp since April. He and his wife sold their house and need a place to stay until their new home is built. It's a sort of homecoming for Mr. Downey, who was based at MacDill when he retired in 1990.

"I haven't been out (to MacDill) in a long time, so it is good to be back," he said. "Everyone has been great and it's good to be here," with the exception of the mosquitoes.

"The mosquitoes are an adventure this year," he said.

A disabled veteran, who only identified himself as Mark, said he's been a regular summer visitor at the Fam Camp since 1985. He doesn't mind the heat or the bugs in this remote part of the base.

"I like having it available to me," he said of the camp. "I've always stayed here summer and sometimes winter and I probably always will," adding that summer may not be the most hospitable time of year but at least it isn't crowded.

"You do sort of have the place to yourself," he said.

Come October, the natural cycle of things will see caravans of northern RVs making their way to the camp, taking up spaces and eventually covering the grounds in a sea of aluminum and fiberglass rolling homes.

They will stay through March, for the most part, at which time rising temperatures become the cue to pack up and once again head north, leaving the camp to a different breed - the summer campers of MacDill.

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