So I promised a Halloween blog post, and even though once again it has been a while since my last post (sorry!) Life just has a way of imposing itself, it would seem…..
I wanted to tell you this Halloween about the time I was most afraid – that is to say, the single greatest moment of terror of my entire life thus far. It was a night of terror that Edgar Allan Poe himself would be envious of – it was The Night of the Cabin Ghosts!
(insert ominous music here….)
December, 1982. I had only been in Boy Scouts for a year. Dennis told us that in two weeks we would go to Boy Scout Winter Camp – the Boy Scouts of America maintained a nice cabin in the Bighorn Mountains for just such occasions, and Dennis had reserved the cabin for the weekend in question.
I was given the task of grocery shopping for the troop. Our meal list was fairly straight forward – Nalley’s Chili, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, fruit cocktail, eggs, and bacon. Easy enough. Only Dennis gave me too much money, so I made sure we had a few extra cans of chili and fruit cocktail on hand. After all, you can never have too much chili and fruit cocktail, right? So anyway – remember that – we had way too much chili, and this of course was my fault.
Now, at this point in the story, I need to digress a little. In order to really understand this story, you need to understand about Dennis’s campfire ghost stories. He always told us these campfire ghost stories that invariably included some props, clever planning, and acting on the parts of our assistant scoutmasters.
I think my first Boy Scout campfire ghost story was about a wild man that haunted the hills and ate people – and of course then the assistant scoutmasters attacked us – in full wild man outfits – right at the end of the story.
Of particular note was the time on the old Bighorn Canyon Highway campground (still one of my favorite camping spots of all time) when Dennis parked his Jeep Comanche pickup just so and placed his sunglasses on top of the truck’s bench seat, and then set about surreptitiously placing glow in the dark star charts in the trees around camp. When time for our campfire ghost story came, Dennis told us about two archers that went hunting in the Bighorns one time. One accidentally shot the other, and panicking, left his friend to die in the woods. Nice friend. The friend survived, but the agony of his arrow wound and the subsequent infection drove him mad. “And to this very day,” the story went, “The Archer watches and hunts unsuspecting campers off of the Old Canyon Highway…..”
(If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I adopted it for my first short story, “The Pack,” in that Young Authors Contest a few years later.)
“You guys! LOOK!” Greg, one of the assistant scoutmasters, seemed genuinely scared. “Those eyes, oh my God!!!!! They’re MOVING!!!!!!” And there, in the trees, and behind the Comanche, were these blue, terrible glowing eyes, moving in circles, watching us, stalking us, hunting us.
“Everyone in their tents! NOW!!” Dennis took charge of the situation. Every scout was hunched over in his tent, knife or hatchet in hand, ready for The Archer to come through the tent. Dennis let us stew like that for an hour or so before he let us in on the gag. (Luckily no one planted a hatchet in him when he came in to the first scout tent to say it was all a joke.) Up to that point, that was the second longest night of my life. Did I ever mention that Dennis had a slightly sadistic side to him? The thing was, we loved it, and we could hardly wait for the next campout, and the next ghost story.
In the morning, he told us how he did it. His mirrored sunglasses on the truck bench seat reflected the truck’s blue radio clock, looking like eyes behind the truck from a distance at night, and the glow in the dark star charts strategically placed in the trees did the rest.
“But they moved,” I objected that morning over instant oatmeal.
“No they didn’t,” Dennis said. “I provided the props, the atmosphere, and the suggestion, and your imagination did the rest.”
That was how good Dennis was at this. I don’t think he ever knew it, but Dennis was the best storytellers I have ever known.
So, fast forward back to December 1982 now. Not only was I in charge of the shopping, but apparently I got elected to be the chef of the campout as well. So, I went to it.
When it became apparent that we had enough chili and fruit cocktail to feed three times as many people as we actually had, Dennis decreed that we would eat all of it, to teach us a lesson in frugal spending.
Each scout had at least four bowls of chili and at least two bowls of fruit cocktail before Dennis decided we had learned our lesson. As “our” lesson solely involved my grocery store miscalculation, the troop was less than happy with me, but lucky for me I was at least usually a pretty popular guy in the troop. Dennis then decreed that we should all have a “belly bucking contest” to work off the extra calories. Sadistic……
Belly bucking is a form of hands-free wrestling in which you try to knock your opponent over with your protruded stomach. It’s exactly what it sounds like, in other words.
The rest, of course, was inevitable. Tyler was first. “Dennis, I’m gonna puke.”
Thinking he was joking, Dennis said, “Do it in the fire, it makes a great smell.” And so Tyler regurgitated the partially digested remains of four bowls of chili and two bowls of fruit cocktail into the fireplace, not quite putting it out. And Dennis was right – the smell was unbelievable (I still had my sense of smell back then, I didn’t lose that until 1985 – but that’s another story….).
The domino effect was swift and merciless. In short order, 17 scouts were bent over the front porch railing of the cabin, puking into the snow.
We had to air the cabin out, start a new fire in the fireplace after cleaning it, and by the time we sluggishly performed these chores, the cabin was freezing, and it was about time for bed.
The remainder of that night is what I will always think of as The Night of the Cabin Ghosts. It was, unequivocally, the longest night of my life. It was a night of sheer, gothic terror.
We had all settled down from the Involuntary Chili Eating Contest and the Belly Bucking Contest (of which there were no winners, I might add). The fire was roaring in the freshly cleaned fireplace, and we were all gathered around it as the cabin started to warm up again.
“Hey Dennis – Tell us a ghost story!” Proof enough from Gary that sadistic or not, we couldn’t get enough of Dennis’ stories.
“Okay – just one,” Dennis conceded. It seemed the least he could do after what he had put us through that evening. “But there won’t be any horseplay – no props, no surprises. None of that. I have a deposit on this place that I only get back if nothing gets broken.”
Funny thing about that, too – in the final analysis after the aftermath, Dennis was proved to have kept his word on this point.
Dennis told us about the Cabin Ghosts. Gold miners in the 1800s (there was never any gold in the Bighorns to speak of, but we didn’t know this at the time) had devised a scheme to steal gold from the mine and hide it beneath the floorboards of their cabin in the woods. Once they had filled the spaces beneath the cabin’s floorboards with gold, they hired packers with mules to help them pack the gold out of the mountains. But the packers turned on them. The packers came to their cabin in the middle of the night, knocked on all the windows, and when they were sure everyone was sound asleep, broke into the cabin and slit the throats of all of the miners, the packers then stealing all of the gold for themselves. (This is a slight variation on the plot of the movie, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” but we didn’t know that at the time either.)
And so, the story went, the ghosts of the murdered miners would wander these mountains, rapping on the windows of any cabin they happened upon, and if no one answered, they would enter and slit the throats of all of the cabin’s occupants, in order to eternally search for their stolen gold……….
Pretty good one, as far as Dennis’ ghost stories went. Dennis then told us to all get into our bunks and go to sleep. The night was over, and there would be no further high jinks…….
BAM BAM BAM BAM!!!!!
A sudden, loud knocking on the window from outside, just above Brett’s bunk, sent him sprawling from his top bunk and onto the floor.
BAM BAM BAM BAM!!!!!
It had moved to the next window. Every scout was suddenly and harshly wide awake now.
BAM BAM BAM BAM!!!!!!
Now at the back of the cabin.
BAM BAM BAM BAM!!!!!!!!
The other side of the cabin. We all looked at Dennis accusingly, but Dennis was wide-eyed with a terror on his face that not even he could have faked. We were quickly proved right about this, as Dennis produced his hatchet he had brought from his trunk. Besides, Dennis had never let a ghost story go on this long, and everyone, assistant scoutmasters included, was accounted for.
BAM BAM BAM BAM!!!!!
Still on the far side of the cabin.
At this point, things quickly fell apart. Scouts started jumping into beds with each other – normally not an acceptable practice. Some were crying, others were asking Dennis what to do. But everyone was terrified. My bunk was next to the kitchen door. Dale said, “I thought I heard something in the kitchen!!!”
I slammed the kitchen door and locked it, catching a glimpse of a dark figure in the kitchen, the outside kitchen door swung open, letting in the blowing snow and frigid winter mountain air.
“”They’re in the cabin!!!!!” I screamed.
BAM BAM BAM BAM!!!!!!!!
On the wall closest to us now, and closest to the kitchen.
BAM BAM BAM BAM!!!!!!!!
The front windows of the cabin at the same time.
At this point, Gary had a meltdown. He began wailing non stop, screaming hysterically that he wanted to go home. This did little to help calm the situation.
Dennis ordered us, in a voice we had never heard him use before, to all get under a bunk and stay there.
Slowly, in a moment of true sheer terror unlike anything I have ever experienced before or since (and this coming from someone who grew up in a haunted house) the front door opened with a loud
Dennis almost planted the hatchet in Richard, our Chief Assistant Scoutmaster, who had sat this campout out because he couldn’t get off work, as he walked through the door.
“Jesus Christ! – I could have killed you just now!!!” Dennis said with a level of relief he didn’t even try to conceal.
It turned out that Richard had gotten off work early, and on a whim he and his wife had decided it would be funny to drive up to the cabin in knock on the windows of the cabin.
“Geez – I’m sorry!” Richard said, unable to control his laughter (we weren’t laughing). “I meant to give you guys a start, but how was I to know? Geez, what a coincidence!”
He swore he knew nothing of Dennis’ story of The Cabin Ghosts, and Dennis himself swore, and always maintained, that he had no knowledge that Richard would be coming up that weekend, nor did he plan any theatrics to a ghost story he said he made up on the spur of the moment.
In an ironic twist of fate, Dennis had scared himself to the point of sheer terror with one of his own ghost stories.
I know Dennis was telling us the truth about that, because that was the last ghost story Dennis ever told us.