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Naked lunch, volleyball exposed in Beaver County

Sunday, September 10, 2000

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This story is a real expose.

Just about every single person in it is naked.

Before it's over, I may even be naked with them.

As they say, "When in Rome ..."

When at White Thorn Lodge near Darlington in Beaver County, people are nude, as members prefer to call it, because it's a nudist camp.

I had no idea there was one around these parts, either.

The mostly unknown, private and normally placid 105-acre parcel is jumping this weekend, as more than 1,500 people from around the country and beyond roll in for its 30th annual "Volleyball Superbowl."

The event started here in 1971 because this club was halfway between two nudist leagues.

Yep, that's nude volleyball.

Naked and co-ed.

No shirts and all skins.

You can't play unless you're nude, but as White Thorn president Lawrence Hettinger told me beforehand, not everyone who participates is a full-fledged, or full-tanned, nudist.

"You can tell the ones who aren't," he said. "We call them 'cottontails.' "

After he and other board members deliberated, I was welcomed to come out to do some coverage of this rarely covered event, as long as I didn't bring a photographer.

One more thing, Hettinger added:

"You might want to be nude. You'll stand out if you're not."

Indeed, even in the cool of 7:30 a.m. yesterday morning when I pulled up the gravel drive to the bustling Welcome Center, most of the workers weren't wearing any, or at least not many, clothes.

Same with the volleyball players, dozens of whom already were out on the 11 courts, warming up for the day-long round-robin play.

You've likely never seen such a body of, well, bodies.

Hard bodies and soft ones. Wrinkled and smooth. Bronze, black and white. Really white.

This year's event fielded 91 teams, of at least six people each, from as far away as Florida, California and Canada, and individuals from as far away as Australia. The competition is to conclude this evening, with the top teams in several skill categories getting trophies, along with bragging rights.

Not only is this Super Bowl famous in nudist circles, "it's one of the most competitive tournaments in the country," said Jonathon Keenan, 27, a San Diego State University graduate student who's here with a group from his home state of Michigan.

They are among those who "come for the volleyball," as he put it, while waiting, wrapped in a teal towel, for his men's AA-level team's turn. Amidst the noise of whistling referees and cheering spectators, naked guys did hard-hitting battle just like they normally would, though, Keenan noted, on hard courts, you tend not to dive.

He and his teammates mostly play in regular semi-pro tourneys around the Midwest. But they've been coming to this Super Bowl for years.

"It's a great party. It's more just some fun with some great volleyball in the middle."

Hettinger, 40, leans toward the fun end by playing on a co-ed "novice plus" team, but insists the level of play can get so good, you can forget the players are nude.

And for sure, other than the uniforms, the scene was what you'd expect at a big sporting event, if with a few twists.

At the entrance, workers collected not only admission ($25 per person, plus $5 to $10 per vehicle), but also driver's license numbers (one of the security precautions the camp takes). One sign warned: "NO PHOTOGRAPHY. Cameras Will Be Confiscated" (to protect people's privacy). Chalked onto another sign was the day's weather forecast (cloudy and warm).

Nothing unusual about campers standing in line for the showers, until you realized they were naked before going inside. Or that some were showering outside.

And what's this? A souvenir tent selling shirts?

"Seems like a contradiction of terms," said the blissfully bare woman behind the tables, but "it does get cold at night."

Then she hit me with a line I'd hear several times: "We may be nudists, but we're not stupid!"

The board member who met me was wearing nothing but flip-flops and a smile.

"Call me Jimbo," said the man who would be my guide into the camp and the nudist lifestyle.

Like most of the White Thorn members I talked with, Jim didn't want to give his full name or other identifying details.

Some people might "have a problem with it" outside camp.

That is, in the "textile" world.

But the affable 40-something electrical contractor, who lives in Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs, has gotten lots of positive reactions from folks he's "come out" to since he and his wife joined in 1994, including his adult children. They now sometimes spend the weekend with their parents in the 40-foot trailer that's parked on one of the wooded camp's 160 lots.

Other members -- there are about 330 -- have small cottages, vintage travel trailers, mobile homes, or just camp sites for RV's and tents. They share the clubhouse, snack bar, bathhouse, pool, sauna and other facilities, and activities like dances and bingo.

Your average Americans, they'd seem, except they also share a taste for a special freedom.

Jim: "I don't want to see nude people. I don't want to be nude. I just want to be."

He stressed White Thorn's family atmosphere, and how nudism isn't sexual, even if it is sensual.

"It's the feeling of the breeze and the sun on your body."

The feeling of spattering burgers you don't want, which is why (not-stupid) member Walt Lippert wore an apron while manning the grills. The 47-year-old factory worker who lives north of Pittsburgh, said, "It's no different than the Elks or Moose."

He first tried that at a nude beach on St. Martin's on his 40th birthday, and loved it so much he sought and found this camp. Now he values the friendships he's made here as much as the chance to be nude, which he thinks has made him "more non-judgmental of people. There's two kinds of people: Men and women. It's what's inside your heart that counts."

So went the heart-felt testimonials. I don't know if it was that, or how laid-back everyone was, or journalistic duty, or what, but how could I not experience it? And so around noon, I finally told Jim I'd take him up on his invitations to "get comfortable."

I couldn't believe I said this, because I don't even let my best male friends see me naked. As for my scrawny body, well, I'm not even sure it's fit for medical research, much less for public display.

Nonetheless, in the back of the company car, no less, I doffed my shorts, T-shirt, everything but my watch and sandals, then slung a beach towel and fanny pack over one shoulder and ... froze.

But after a minute or so, I forced myself out and shut the door, suddenly remembering something Jim had told me: How nervous first-timers often lock away their keys.

After checking to be sure mine were in the fanny pack, I started tentatively across the camp.

Me. Naked. Outside. In front of hundreds of strangers.

The volleyball did not stop.

In fact, I made it over to "Walt's Wonderful World of Burgers" and sat down -- on my towel -- at a picnic table to eat one.

It was a naked lunch.

During it, I half-watched a women's game, and had some interesting thoughts about the weird stuff I've done for this newspaper (like driving to Arizona with a bunch of Steelers fans for the other Super Bowl XXX I've covered).

But this is the weirdest, I thought, as I did my first interview ever in the buff. It was with Chippewa Township Fire Capt. Mark Wolz, one of (clothed) emergency workers staffing the event. He recounted how one woman had asked, "Do you think we're all crazy, running around naked?"

He told her, "We're firefighters. We run into burning buildings. ... All you're doing is enjoying the sun.' "

I must admit, I really was, even after a member discreetly handed me a bottle of sunscreen.

I had to stay for the nude skydivers.

Then feeling a little warmer all over, this cottontail got back into the car, back into clothes, and headed back to the textile world.

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