At school, I did not have too many friends. I was small, skinny, and less than coordinated when it came to sports. Sports was the key social outlet for a young boy. So, I was either excluded or purposely excluded myself. Of course, it didn't help being pigeon toed either. Anything that makes you different than others leads to uncomfortable social ostracism.
But scout camp was different. There I was included. I mattered. No one made fun of me. So I really looked forward to going there with Dad.
One of the highlights of this early camping experience was Dad’s ghost stories. I never knew he was such a raconteur. I had no idea where he learned those stories and he surely never shared them with us at home. Had he done so, he knew I would wind up sleeping in his room out of fear.
Not only was Dad good at this, but he had method to his madness. He was raised by German parents. He was an only child. So when Oma and Opa wanted to step out, they had no one to baby sit Dad. In place of a babysitter, they would tell him there were snakes or other vile creatures on the floor of his bedroom and if he stepped out, they would bite them.
Bill Cosby does a small sketch about this method of babysitting. He had similar “German “parents. When I heard that skit for the first time, Dad told me that was exactly what Oma and Opa would do. Maybe it was not uniquely German, but the Germans are the source of the Brother Grimm Friary Tales and most of those were written to scar children straight.
So, Dad knew there was going to be two problems on the first few nights of summer camp – junk food and boys unwilling to sleep. He couldn't control the junk food, at least not by himself, but he could control the boys getting out of their beds at all hours of the night. That control mechanism was utter fear.
Whenever Dad told a ghost story, he created the context to reflect the exact place and time where we were. For example, every story took place on a night just like the night of its telling. Those in the story were our age. They all lived or died among the pines on a black night with barely a wisp of a moon. Typically, their untimely demise was the result of not being obedient to their trusted Scoutmaster.
To make matter worse, when the story would crescendo to a scary climax, my Dad would let out a high-pitched scream that scared even the adults who were listening. All the boys jumped. Some wished they had gone to the bathroom before the story. We all have long forgotten the plot and characters of these stories, but none of us will ever forget my Dad’s scream as it echoed down the glade towards spooky forest.
Dad was unnerved. He just kept on going as if they were listening. He had done this so many times that he knew what the boys would be like on this first night. After all the announcements and some good old campfire songs, Dad announced that he had spoken to the camp host and he had to make us aware of some important matter.
That, my friends, what the start of the ghost story. He so easily transitioned from announcements and camp business to the ghost story that we never knew when one needed and one began.
Again, I cannot remember a single story, but this was my first ghost story and all I remember was each time Dad screamed. I was scared to death. I was not alone in my fear, but the other boys were too proud to admit that they, too, were scared to death.
I knew that I was scared, but I thought I was the only one. I was not. The boys were so frightened about the story that they would go to the outhouse in small groups. No one would dare walk anywhere alone.
A few minutes after the camp fire, Dad announced that it was lights out. He subtly reminded us all that the safest place to be was in the sleeping bag and totally quite. The camp was completely quite. No one was out running around. No one was even talking. Within a few minutes, the entire camp, including me, was sound asleep.
Then came what we all feared most. The very monster or being that brought death and destruction to those in the ghost story came to life in our camp. I could hear screaming, crying, people begging for help. They cried out for my Dad. I remember seeing Dad shoot up in his sleeping bag at the sounds of their screams.
As soon as he sat up, there as a long chain of boys linked arm in arm making their way to our cabin. They were all scared and figured that whatever monster had invaded our camp, they would not dare attack a mass of freighted scouts.
My Dad reached for his flashlight and within a moment knew exactly what had happened. As I said, there were two problem with the first night of scout camp – junk food and boys unwilling to sleep. He took care of the sleeping problem through the ghost story. But taking care of the junk food was left to the nocturnal raccoons.
Our camp was invaded by a happy and very hungry gaze of raccoons who were impervious to the screams of the boys as they had discovered the mother lode of all mother lodes – three cabins filled with junk food.
Needless to say, Dad had no problems controlling the junk food problem after that night.