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October 2005

Terror in the Trees

Ghost stories always seem scarier beside a flickering campfire. So, dim your headlamp and scoot up closer: our writer-at-large explores the ghoulish beginnings of these age-old tales and shares a few of his all-time favorite blood-curdlers. We dare you to read on.
terror in the trees 445x260(Illustration by Jackie McCaffrey)

Who was the first to open his back door? Was it a child, checking to see what was wrong with Prince, or Duke? Who was the first to call to his sleeping dog, to call again, and then to realize Prince would never wake up again? Who was the first child to pick up his pet and sense something wrong? Who was the first boy to feel a dog’s snapped spinal cord?

This time, the authorities were ready—they brought in experts from Madison. Again, they found nothing. An entire town wakes up to hundreds of dead dogs—dead dogs with broken backs—and you never heard of it? You’re probably thinking what the kids in the Mighty Hawk Cabin were thinking. You never heard of it because it never happened. Right?

I’ll tell you what I told the boys that night. You never heard about it because the folks of Minocqua were bewildered, and, yeah, they were frightened, but they weren’t stupid. They knew that in just weeks the fisherman would be flocking to the area, and the summer camps would be opening, and the bratwurst would be roasting at the lakeside grills and the beer would be flowing. An inexplicable illness that attacked chipmunks and dogs was bad, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what might happen if the tourist dollars got scared away. That would be the real death of the town. So there weren’t any big press conferences or warnings about bringing dogs to Oneida County. This was before CNN and the Internet, remember.

So how do I know about it, if it was all hushed up?

I’ll tell you the same thing I told the 10-year-olds of the Mighty Hawk Cabin that night. I’ll tell you the truth. You’ve heard of Camp Red Eagle, in Lac du Flambeau? No? The kids in the Mighty Hawk had heard of it. Years earlier, it had been the leading boys’ camp in the entire North Woods. They say it was the model for Meatballs, that Bill Murray movie. Seriously: You can look that up on the internet. Just plug in “Meatballs” and “Camp Red Eagle” if you don’t believe me.

But then the camp shut down.

“’Cause the owner cheated on his taxes,” one of my boys, BlimpyLardo, yelled out.

“’Cause the assistant director was sleeping with a kitchen girl, and there was a big scandal,” shouted Hormone.

“You guys will believe anything,” I said, chuckling. No, the reason Camp Red Eagle shut down didn’t involve taxes or sex. It was something else.

It was the morning of the Fourth of July, a big day at Camp Red Eagle, with archery contests and a hamburger cookout. But this morning, an hour before the campers at Red Eagle were supposed to gather at the flagpole to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the camp song, one kid couldn’t sleep. He was homesick. He was weepy. He was a frightened little boy, and he didn’t like camp. Other kids made fun of him, because he wore his Camp Red Eagle bandana around his neck, all the time. I mean, all the time, swimming, playing basketball, sleeping, all the time. Anyway, that morning, he walked through the woods to be first at the flagpole, to weep in silence, away from all the kids who teased him.

At first the boy thought they were sleeping. There were six of them, six boys from the Mighty Wolf Cabin, lying in a circle, head to toe. They were on their backs, looking up at the wispy morning clouds. The boy stopped sniffling. No matter what, he couldn’t let them hear him sniffling.

“Hey guys,” he shouted, but they ignored him. He walked closer. “Guys, hey,” he said again, but there was no reply. Only then did he notice they weren’t blinking. Only when he was staring down did he see they weren’t breathing. That boy screamed then, and he didn’t stop screaming until doctors at the Howard Miller Medical Center in Minocqua shot him full of tranquilizers. That boy saw a psychiatrist—yeah, a kid psychiatrist—until he went away to college.

What? Yeah, that’s when Red Eagle shut down. It never opened again. And yeah, their backs were broken.

“That’s bull!” Blimpy yelled, but there was a high-pitched edge to his voice.

“It was a sex scandal!” Hormone insisted, his voice quavering. “Salty, the junior counselor in the Mighty Cherokee cabin, said the kitchen girl got pregnant, and she was a nympho, and…”

I wish it were bull, or just a sex scandal. That’s what I told the boys. “It was 10 years ago and no one ever figured out who—or what—did it,” I said. “All I know is I wish it never happened.”

Why, the boys wanted to know? Why did I wish it had never happened?
“Because,” I said, my chin quivering as I pulled off my Camp Timberlane sweatshirt and let them get a good look at the bandana tied around my neck. The bandana with the faded but still legible letters emblazoned across the swooping bird. Red Eagle. “I never want to see what I saw that morning again!”

There was a hush then, as the boys stared at my Red Eagle bandana.

I shuddered a little then.

“I’m sorry, guys,” I said. “I just hadn’t thought about this in a long time. And I don’t like to talk about it, and I don’t want to talk about it again. I don’t even want to think about it. I’m just telling you since you’re good campers, and I know you’re not sissies who will freak out. So please don’t freak out when I tell you this: Two months ago, they found dead chipmunks on the road. And in June, they brought in the state vets, because, yeah, all the dogs in Minocqua had been killed—backs broken.”
A few boys started whimpering.

“I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure it’s some weird kind of disease. But listen up, you guys,” I said, as I rose, to head out into the night to meet my girlfriend Cindy for a make-out session at the flagpole. “Everyone try to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day, lots of Fourth of July festivities.”

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