….begins with a story he told me. I am a big believer in summer camp experiences for children. So like my mother packed off her children to summer camp so did I mine. One of the great treats of summer camp is the campfire and its obligatory (scary) story. When my youngest came home one summer and regaled me with a story he had heard, it reminded me of one I heard and then made my own. First his.
It came back to me last week when walking the dog. I was stopped dead in my tracks by what certainly was a black widow spider sitting smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk. I pulled the dog up short, inverted the leash, and took a shot at it. I missed. Then it happened. Bursting from her undercarriage scurried hundreds, seemingly a thousand of the tiniest spiders I’d ever seen. Two or three could easily have shared the head of a pin. Off they went like pool balls scattered by a good break shot in every direction and in moments it was like they were never there. Scarily enough momma was gone too. Came then to mind my son’s story.
It was short. One night a camper went to sleep and awakened to find he had been bitten on his cheek by a spider. During the course of the day the bite became red and ugly and began to swell. By night time he looked like someone had inserted a golf ball in his face. By morning the golf ball had become a baseball. It continued to redden, emitting a heat that was palpable. Cool water, warm compresses, alcohol rubs did nothing. That night as the campers repaired to their bunks and beds, our cheeky lad lay his his head with the hot, heavy cheek on the pillow. Pain shot through his face. It was so bad he shot up into a sitting position screaming. All eyes turned to him when—his cheek burst open and thousands of spiders ran from the now split that opened on his face. They headed with grim determination towards the carrier’s fellow bunk mates.
My son shared with me that he didn’t sleep well for the balance of the summer. It took weeks to control the images. It had that impact on me too, though that remained my secret and I feared in my own recent encounter a recurrence of that dreaded nightmare imagery. It never came, but what did were the memories of a story I had been told some 30 years previous while sitting around a blazing campfire in the woods of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was the story of Three Fingered Willy, a story I embellished upon in my head over the years until I was a counselor and it was my turn to tell the campfire story–at the very same campfire in front of which I had heard it.
For sure I’ll share it, though until now I never did with my son. It’s one thing to scare the pants off someone else’s kids, but one’s own? Maybe not.
I always thought the impact of a story had to do with the telling. It does, but it doesn’t. A campfire story is different. Given the proper setting and elements one could scare the dickens out of a child by just reading a phone book (assuming one remembers what they were). First it’s the getting there. The sun is setting, the shadows are growing. Soon one is off the beaten path into thicker brush. Kids are soon very nervous and mistaken sightings of bears, wolves, snakes, ghosts and “weird things hanging from that tree” abound. Leaves and twigs snap beneath one’s feet, branches slap unexpectedly against one’s back or front. Everyone is skittish as a cat.
And arrival at what? A clearing in the woods, now fairly dark as the sun has fallen behind the mountains, that looks frankly like a place with forethought you might have avoided. With already mounting dread, campers are informed to scatter into the woods and collect wood for the fire. Everyone is sure someone won’t make it back. The fire is lighted, hot dogs, hamburgers, marsh mellows are cooked and consumed with everyone hyper aware of the images produced by the flames as they lick their way up to the heavens. As imaginations began to run amok, campers saw all manner of things dancing up under the umbrella of leaves that hung ominously above them. However by the time dinner was over, dishes cleaned, gear stowed, bedrolls laid out the fire had died to small flames emitted from an intense red core from which also came random, loud pops as twigs exploded from the water that boiled within them. This did nothing to settle anyone down for bed.
Now it was time for the story. What it was originally as it entered the ears of my 9 year old head, I’m no longer totally sure. After the counselor announced the “true” story of “Three Fingered Willy,” a rejected townsman because of his deformity who wandered the woods, I sort of stopped listening, or tried to. Later in life I realized it was bits and pieces of classic tales, tales where a Hunchback of Notre Dame type tried to save someone, a damsel of course, in distress, was misidentified as the killer and barely escaped the hoards hungering to take his life as retribution. He became a solitary, bitter, lonely creature hiding in the woods and taking vengeance as opportunity presented itself.
Hard as I tried not to hear I did hear–that to survive the wicked winters of of northern New England his body grew bear-like hair. His deformity prevented him from fashioning weapons so the three fingers on his right hand grew overly large, overly thick, and overly dangerous. He could kill an animal as big he with one blow of those fingers. And to get to the animals he had to be stealthily quiet and wind-like fast. Let me tell you, in my mind, and those of the campers he was one scary dude, especially as the fire died, the air cooled, the shadows in the trees became more and more phantasmagorical, and the real animals of the forest began their own chorus of snap, crackle and pops as they moved through the underbrush.
And of course there were the counselors adding their special brand of evil to the mix.
The beauty of the story was it never had to be the same. When I inherited its mantle, I told of murders in the mountains, abductions from river side cabins, late night forays into town. And to Willy, I added revenge. Came my telling, he began hunting down those who ran him unjustly out of town and turned him into a raging monster forever banned from society. Never was there a sorrowful girl who came to gentle is weary brow. It was Willy vs. the World.
But I was telling this story 10 years after I had heard it. Times had changed. Children, even cloistered together in the wilderness, were wiser and more mature than when I was their age. What they had that I didn’t was gumption, albeit used as an aggressive cover for fear. Oh yes, the little ones were terrified, but the 10-12 year olds, they heard a challenge. “Oh yeah? A three fingered monster no-one ever saw? Kills animals with is fingers?” Add some braggadocio and sprinkle liberally with profane inventive and you’ve got the picture.
So I faced a reckoning. Was I going just to tell the story to the gullible little pishers or was I going to find a way to best my tormentors and show them up for ruining my show biz moment? For sure the latter. I thought long and hard. And lightening struck.
We were after all in a rural area of a small state. The nearest town was Laconia, NH not exactly a metropolis. It had one part time office and one post-mistress. One night when being heavily post-story peppered by my tormentors, I blurted out–“You don’t believe me? You want proof? Willy had been wondering the woods for decades. Write to the post-mistress (I have no clue why I chose her). She’s been here forever. See what she says.”
First session of camp, no one did. Fear can freeze bravado. But amongst a few it thawed by late July and one or two kids wrote. Understand this is pre-I phone, pre-internet, pre-tablet, pre-google. It took a little stick-to-itive-ness to get it done. Off the letters went. I held my breath. By the end of camp there had been no response. My assumption was that winter a group of old timers in Laconia were smackin’ their knees over the nonsense that came out of Camp Samoset over there on the Lake.
But camp comes every year and with it campfire and with that campers yet a bit more wise, a bit more mature, a bit more full of themselves. Again the challenges. This time I upped the ante. I said try the post-mistress again, but the city has a council, they’re all a bunch of long time locals, surely they too know of, or have personally experienced, Three Fingered Willy. And for a few nights counselors reported to me campers huddled with flashlights under their blankets writing in a 10 year old’s handwriting letters to the authorities. Camp ended. No answer.
I had one more year of this before Willy, like the out of work ventriloquist’s dummy, would be laid away forever, not in a box, but in the creche of my memory. So why not go for broke? That summer I had done some research of my own and found that there was a local historical society. When my challenge to the campers to “trust but verify” was issued, I gave them the additional name and address.
By the end of camp–no replies. Yet that winter, round the ole stove pot fire, the gatherers ’round the warmth must have had a change of heart. Maybe it was their civic duty to answer these children. Maybe even by not answering them, they could be letting a rumor live that could harm tourism. Who knows why, but with camp closed came a letter, a letter I would not have to deal with.
The camp director shared it with me. It was as I recall short and kind in tone. It was written on small but official stationary. Like most things in Northern New England it was straight and to the point. They had searched their collective memories, checked with a relative or two, reviewed the area history. They could find no record of a large beast-man, with 3 fingers who caused havoc among people and live stock. They thanked the writers for their interest, told them not to worry, and suggested that maybe they had been taken advantage of by one of their counselors.
Well they had, as had I years ago.
But as I put this story to bed, I wonder about something. Where are you, these letter writers so intent on bursting the story bubble? You’re younger than I, so some of you must still be out there.
How does it feel to know that because of you, because of that letter the story of Three Fingered Willy was never again heard ’round the campfires in the New Hampshire woods? Because of you, from then on children could sleep in their sacks never knowing the thrill of being scared to death under an umbrella of Poe-like images playing in the trees and noises made far-off and near by the denizens of the night.