THE CAMPFIRE STORY

By John Thomas Tuft

Miss Maybelle’s choir took an annual camping trip; a once-a-year journey into the Laurel Highlands for the two dozen 12- to 14-year-olds who endured the school year of daily rehearsals, constant bickering, awkwardly awakening adolescent amours, and the other essentials that come with that age. After the district and regional choir competitions and the grand finale concert for parents and other long-suffering adults, the grand tradition was a week in the woods and wilds at Camp Fairfield. In the summer of 1971, I was a seasoned seventeen-year-old known as Jack Goo, and Miss Maybelle asked if Cindy Ranier and I would serve as counselors for the little stink…um, angels. What follows is the camp fire story version of what happened that fateful summer. Don’t say you were not warned!

The two hour ride in a school bus of shrieking pubescence and boisterous singalongs was enough to try the souls of men and angels. Cindy, seated next to me–entirely by chance, mind you–at one point turned to me and asked, “Are you ready for the overnight?” Noticing the pleasurable panic on my face, she laughed, “The hike out to the old homestead, cooking over the fire, sleeping on the ground. It’s haunted, you know!” No, I absolutely did NOT know. “It’s the highlight of the week,” she added as I kept my counsel. The Choir went through the hits of the summer: Take Me Home Country Roads, I Feel The Earth Move, and the insufferable Knock Three Times, at the top of their lungs. There was Maggie Mae, and Joy To The World. And when they really wanted to get on our nerves, Bang a Gong by T. Rex. That playlist haunts me to this day (and I bet it is running through your head right now).

Camp Fairfield sprawled over a hundred acres or so of woods and a huge open field. Beneath the trees to one side was a dining hall. Near it rose a metal water tower, painted green, with a narrow catwalk around its tank seventy-five feet in the air. At one end of the field sat a beautiful swimming pool with a bathhouse beside it. One of the favorite ways to torture their minders was during swimming period for some of the choir to sneak out through the bath house and climb the water tank. Then when ready, their compatriots at the pool would sing, at the top of their lungs, Knock Three Times. When they reached the chorus the tower sitters would take the rocks they hauled up there with them and bang on the side of the tank. It made a sonorous tone that echoed across the big field, followed by much laughter and endless repetitions. And Miss Maybelle shrieking to get themselves down from there before someone got hurt.

The day of the hike to The Homestead arrived. Everyone had a backpack to carry supplies for drinks and meals on the overnight experience. Twenty-seven set out on the journey, singing goofy camp songs and the top ten pop ones, of course. Late afternoon we arrived at the dilapidated old farmhouse deep in a hollow between ridges. The kids were grossed out by the old outhouse set off a ways and fascinated by the lure of the old settlers who traversed and settled the area. “But remember,” said the ever helpful Cindy, “they say this place is haunted. There was an old shed out back where they kept their milk cow. Mr. Peabody, who owned this place, went crazy and killed his entire family in there. It’s torn down now, but they say if it is ever disturbed he’ll come back and seek revenge!” Later, as we sat around a fire, watching our food cooking, Miss Maybelle suddenly got very agitated. “Where did that wood come from?” she asked, pointing to the pile near me. I picked up a piece and threw it into the fire. “I found it behind the house,” I answered casually.

All of them gasped. “Jack Goo, you disturbed his place!” yelled Cindy. The entire choir alerted. And moved away. As we ate our dinner, a thick mountain fog rolled in, so thick we could barely see the old farm house. The choir dug out their flashlights, but they could not penetrate the swirling goop. As we tried to get them settled for the night, the inevitable calls of nature clamored to be answered. Miss Maybelle took the girls in the direction of the out house. We waited by the dying fire for them to return. But they never did. Cindy panicked and insisted that I go check on them. I felt like I was swimming through the fog as I felt my way around to the back of the old house. Nothing. Nobody was there. They had disappeared. Heart in my throat I found my way back toward the glowing embers of the fire. Nothing. Nobody was there. Now Cindy and the boys were gone, too.

It took all night, but I made my way back to the camp, scared and tired. I had to feel my way along the trail, tree to tree, trying to go as straight as I could. Every so often I thought I heard footsteps behind me, and I would freeze in place, barely daring to breathe, the cool fog making me shiver. As dawn broke over the mountains, I finally made it to the big field. I was startled by the scratching sound of the PA system being turned on. It started to blare out Tony Orlando and Dawn singing Knock Three Times. I started running across the open space toward the water tower and pool. They reached the chorus: “knock three times on the ceiling if you want me….” Sure as I’m writing this, I heard the tapping of rocks on the water tower. I skidded to a stop and looked up. There hung the backpacks of the choir, Miss Maybelle, and Cindy, dangling empty from the catwalk. But that was all. I heard splashing and laughing from the pool. I looked. It was empty…

Have a safe and restful summer. Enjoy a campfire or two…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.