Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Spooky Stuff

The discovery of my strong stomach for all things creepy has only been made within the last two or three years. Before then, I'd generally leave the room when horror movies were turned on (a common occurrence in my house) or go stargazing when scary stories started up at the campfire (a common occurrence in my scout troop). Of my emotions, scared was in the bottom two or three. One night, though, my brother and his entourage were watching "The Shining." I decided to cowboy up and watch. Thus began my appreciation for spooky stuff. I found that I tend to be more difficult to scare than those around me. The analytical side, I guess. I could handle even the creepiest of stories, or the scariest of movies.

I just returned from working a Summer at Camp Frontier, a scout camp high in the Uintah mountains. And I learned something very remarkable about myself: not only do I have a strong stomach for scary stuff, but I have quite the propensity to scare others as well. A guy on staff went around to different troops offering to share a local ghost story over their campfires. The scouts ate it up. Following his example, I started to share some experiences of my own with my troops. It terrified them! I think one of my new favorite thing is scaring little kids spitless!

I ought to say, though, that while I may be adept at telling scary tales, the fear I struck into the hearts of 12-15 year old boys all over Utah wasn't because of my skills at oratory, it's because of the stories themselves. The need no dramatic retelling.

The stories are real.

One story in particular seemed to steal sleep from the scouts very effectively. It was an experience I had only six weeks ago at camp. It was late one evening when my friends Maddi and Krystal came up to me and asked permission to go to the waterfront and stargaze from the dock. The night was dark and moonless. It was an ideal night to stargaze.

"Sure," I said, "in fact, I may meet you down there in a little bit. I left my keys in the water tower."

"Awesome! We'll see you down there, then."

They left and shortly thereafter I grabbed my flashlight and started walking the small distance to the waterfront.

There were men frequenting that remote corner of the Uintahs far before the Boy Scouts of America arrived there. There were men frequenting that area before the BSA was created. They were tiehackers, railroad men responsible to cut the timbers laid under the rails of the transcontinental railroad. They made that inhospitable section of the Uintahs their home in the late 1860's. I was very familiar with their story; we held a demonstration for the scouts every week about what a tiehacker's life and work were like. We demonstrated cross cut saws, broadaxes, drawknives, and thick tree wedges. In fact, we had made that demonstration earlier that evening, and the tiehackers were on my mind as I walked the solitary road toward the waterfront, which was isolated from the lights and sounds of the rest of camp.

Only my footsteps and my flashlight disturbed the dark quiet of that night. It was incredibly still. No wind, no crickets, no frogs, as was typical. Just the crunch of the dirt benath my feet, and a coyote's occasional, mournful cry. As the waterfront drew to my view, I tried to shine my flashlight in the direction of the dock to see Maddi, and Krystal. No one seemed to be there, but I couldn't see well through the darkness. As I walked on, a sound began piercing the darkness. It slowed my step as I neared the waterfront, now definitively vacant. It sounded like someone was striking a metal object with a sledge, the sound was a percussive, dull clang; it was the same sound the tiehacker's wedges made. Suddenly a second sound accompanied the first, the unmistakable sound of a double-bit axe biting into a lodgepole pine.

What are those girls doing?

I arrived at the waterfront's fence. Listening closely to the repetitive clank and thuds of the hacker's instruments. They sounded close, 30, maybe 40 feet down the hill from the waterfront, in a deeply wooded area completely shrouded from the meager light the stars offered.

"Hello, who's there?" I yelled at the woods. The sounds stopped, replaced only by the oppressive silence, and the sound of my quickened heartbeat in my head. I waited for a few moments that seemed to last an hour. At length, I gulped down some courage and appealed to my logic. There is some reasonable explanation for this. I'm too tired to care what it is. I just need my keys, and I'm hitting my bed. Emboldened by my newfound nonchalance, yet still unnerved somewhat, I stepped to the watertower, and began searching for my keys.

I found them. They were sitting in one of the storage boxes. I was reaching for them when I jumped. The dull metal clang of a timber wedge erupted no more than 20 feet from the lifeguard tower. Shakily, but silently, I slowly grabbed my keys and pocketed them. I turned off my light. Both the wedge driver and the axeman seemed to hasten their work. I quietly stepped out the door opposite the noises, closed and latched it. I edged to the tower's end and drew a deep breath. I turned on my flashlight, and jumped from behind the tower shining my light where I was certain the noise was coming from.

The beams of light pierced the black of the forest, catching on trees and casting their shadows at odd angles into the darkness. Nothing. The forest was still and silent. I ran. I leapt the fence and bounded down the road, periodically glancing behind me. Was I being pursued? The darkness wouldn't yield my hunter. My run gave into a dead sprint.

I burst into the office and sat down in a chair, panting and white, greeted by surprised staf members. "You alright Stu," someone asked.

"You guys," I said between breaths, "I just had the creepiest thing happen to me at the lake."

I told them the story. "Hey, check the tools," someone suggested, "I bet it's just someone trying to freak you out." Of course! The tools! I opened the closet that stored all our tools. A cold shiver ran down my spine when all the tools were present. Every axe, every sledge, and worst, every wedge, was tucked neatly into place.

I was shutting the closet when Maddi and Krystal burst into the room, panting, white, near hysterics. When we had calmed them down enough, they managed to say "we just had the scariest thing happen to us at the waterfront."

Apparently Maddi and Krystal had gone to call their families before stargazing, resulting in their arrival after I had already had my experience. (I incidentally confirmed their testimonies about the calls from an independent party. They were nowhere near the lake when I was there). They were sitting on the dock admiring the stars when they heard strange noises from the woods: like someone hammering a timber wedge. They asked who was there, just to be met with silence. Not easily phased, Maddi insisted they stay and not fall for some sort of prank. They were getting comfortable again when the noises started again, this time closer. As they shined their lights toward the forest, the dock suddenly pitched and swayed underneath them. The screamed and fled.

Is there some explanation for what happened to the three of us that night, or the noises we heard in the old forest behind the lake? Sure. But I can't find one. I think there is an explanation for everything. But my scientific mind also accepts there are things out there we simply can't explain, things we don't understand. When we described a tiehacker's life to the scouts, we failed to mention the danger of the work, or the men who passed away from their hazardous work in the unforgiving Uintahs. I can't help but wonder, who knows if what I heard that night wasn't some passed tiehacker, trying to finish the job he wasn't able to in life?

Whatever the case, I never went to the lake alone again, and never on a dark, moonless night.

"But psychoanalysis has taught us the dead. . . can be more alive for us, more powerful, more scary, than the living. It is the question of ghosts." -Jacques Derrida