The summer camp I attended as a kid and worked at as an “adult,” will soon celebrate its 100th year. My daughter is working at the camp this summer. She’s the third generation from my family, as my mother attended the camp way back in the 40’s. To mark the centennial, the camp directors invited former campers and staff to share a memory. I’ve written several stories from my camper days and counselor experiences, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. I decided to write a new one instead. It’s odd.
It’s the summer of 1974, and I’m 13 years old. At camp, they refer to our age group as younger seniors. It’s a rainy day, and we’re having rest hour, forced downtime that as a camper, I do not feel is necessary. Judging from our counselor, it seems like it’s the “grown ups” who need a break.
Our cabin houses five kids and one counselor. That counselor, Fred Knight, is atypical for the camp. Most of the counselors are former campers, now in college. Fred is a townie from Keeseville. He grew up in a house at the base of Pinnacle, a small mountain the camp has always considered its own personal peak. Fred has recently discharged from the Navy, so he’s a bit more salty than the college kids, though with a big bushy beard, he looks more like a mountain man than a military sort. He cracked us up on the first day of camp by telling us he had two middle names, Ulysses and Charles. At first we didn’t get it, until he told us it was really fun to write his initials on things. Ba-dum-bum.
The problem with rest hour is that it is really hard to rest when you’re in the company of four friends. Fred can rest. He’s a grown-up…sort of. He flops on his bed and within minutes he’s snoring. Not us. Someone always stirs the pot. In this case, the pot stirrer is my friend Eric. “I feel like having a séance,” he declares.
This doesn’t get the desired reaction from my friend, Jack. “A what? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“A séance,” Eric repeats. Then he elaborates for those of us who are less tuned-in to the mystical world. “You know, it’s like when witches sit in a circle and try to bring back dead souls. It takes a lot of concentration, but I’ll bet we can do it.”
I’m dubious. “Well, for one thing, we’re not witches,” I note, “and for another thing, don’t you have to do things like that at night? I doubt it would work at rest hour.”
“And besides, who do you want to bring back? Does it need to be someone we knew, cuz I don’t really know any dead people, except my grandfather.” That’s Dave. He tends to be the voice of reason in our group. I think he’s even started shaving, so we know he’s mature. However, just the fact that he’s taking the idea seriously gives it some traction. Eric says that it doesn’t need to be someone that we all know, but it helps if someone has a connection. We take turns telling about people we know who’ve died, but none of these dead people presents a compelling case for a séance. They all seem old, and we wonder if they’ll be mad that we’re bothering them. Old people usually like to rest (see sleeping counselor as exhibit A). Finally, David M. comes up with a new thought.
“What about somebody famous? Some of them died before they were old.” This leads to a barrage of suggestions. Eric starts a list as we call out ideas: John F. Kennedy, Babe Ruth, Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Roberto Clemente. We eliminate Clemente when I remind everyone that he didn’t speak English very well. He wouldn’t understand our invitations. Eric crosses him off the list. We’re debating additional options when a loud voice calls out from the bed in the corner,
We freeze. “Who said that?” Jack asks.
“I think it might have been Fred,” I say. We had all assumed he was asleep. “Fred, was that you? What did you say?”
“Hendrix, man. You guys should bring Hendrix back from the dead. That would be cool.” We are learning a lot about music from Fred. We have a small, plastic covered record player in the cabin, and Fred has been critiquing our musical taste since day one of camp. He’s told me I have musical taste like a teenybopper girl. Ouch. That could be because I get most of my musical advice from my teenaged older sister, but I wouldn’t have called her a teeny bopper. Fred seems to favor bands outside the mainstream, and to our minds, bands with crazy names, like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Mott the Hoople, and New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Now we’re learning to appreciate Jimi Hendrix. Fred is partial to an album called Electric Ladyland. We like the name, and the music is growing on us. “Fred, could you help us do the séance?” Eric asks. “It might work better, since you really like Jimi.”
“Do it yourself, ya candy-asses.” That’s Fred’s nickname for us. We’re pretty sure it’s a term of endearment.
We decide to go ahead with Fred’s idea, even if he won’t help. We start the séance by sitting in a circle in the back section of the cabin. Eric thinks we need to join hands. I’m still fixated on this daylight problem. I get up and pull the heavy cabin shutters closed. This helps, I think. Jack grabs Electric Ladyland from Fred’s shelf. and places it at the center of the circle. The cover has a huge glowing image of Jimi’s head. “Everybody close your eyes,” Eric says. We do. Now what? “I think someone should say something to invite him.”
To our surprise, Fred joins the circle, plopping himself down between me and Eric. “I’ll say something,” Fred offers, “I’m not gonna let you guys screw this up.” He lowers his voice to this gravelly tone and begins. “Oh, spirit of Jimi, greatest guitarist the world has ever known, if you can hear us, please come back to upstate New York. Return to the land of Woodstock.” We’re hundreds of miles from Woodstock, but Fred’s voice sounds so mysterious and inviting. I’m beginning to think this might work. He continues, “Come. Come to the North Country and show these pantywaists what real music sounds like. They dig Elton John and Cat Stevens. Please help us.” This comment is directed more at me than at Jimi. It stings a bit. I’m worried Jimi’s going to think less of me.
We wait. No sound. Just raindrops on the cabin roof.
“Well, that was stupid. I knew that wouldn’t work Now what do we do?” That’s Jack, who was never really on board. For one thing, he’s a Led Zeppelin fan, so he prefers a different Jimmy. He’s mad that Jimmy Page hasn’t made it on our list. I have politely pointed out that he’s ineligible, since he’s not yet dead.
We all head back to our bunks and flop down. Suddenly a long, loud note pierces the air. It’s the distinctive wail from Hendrix’s guitar. We all jump. Fred chuckles. “Man, you guys scare easy.” He’s up in the overhead rafters, where the record player resides. Suddenly Dave sits up. “That’s it, man. That’s what we should do.”
“What? Play the record? We’re not supposed to make noise during rest hour.”
“No, we make a fake séance to scare the cubbies.” The cubbies are the youngest kids in camp.
“Hey, we can charge ’em each a candy store to come in.” Jack has always had an eye for profit…and candy is the camp currency. Now, suddenly he’s interested in the afterlife.
What follows is the kind of rapid and ridiculous teamwork that can only happen when you’re not supposed to be working or even playing. We start by putting all of our rain ponchos and some of our sleeping bags over the screens in the back section. We hang other sleeping bags over the rafters to block the entrance to the back section. Darkness is key. We decide that Jimi will enter through the roof, so we place the album cover high on the ledge over the back windows. We experiment with spotlight possibilities. None of us has a very powerful flashlight, though. Just then, Dave rushes to his trunk and pulls out his camera. He has a big flash that plugs into the top of the camera. He unscrews it. “Check this out,” he says. He presses a button on the back. There’s a faint high-pitched whistle, and then POW, an explosively bright flash of light.
“That is so cool,” I say. “Aim it at Jimi’s head.” We wait while the flash re-gathers its energy. The cabin is dark. Poof! Suddenly Jimi’s illuminated face beams back at us. We decide that it looks too much like an album cover, so we nestle it in one of our army blankets. Eric says that if that’s the only thing we do, it will be over too quickly. He’s right. We need to build tension and suspense. We station David M., the smallest of our group, in the rafters with the record player. We cover him with blankets so no one will see him. He finds the perfect parts of “Voodoo Child,” some very unsettling guitar for little kids, we think.
Jack still doesn’t think we’ve got enough drama. He suggests a flaming devil flying across the cabin. “We could wrap a tennis ball in toilet paper and set it on fire,” Jack suggests.
Fred says no. He says it in a more colorful way. Still, we like the idea of something flying. Dave has fishing line. We think it will be pretty much invisible in a dark cabin. We run it from the ceiling on one side to a lower cubby on the other side of the cabin. Now we just need something to fly. I come up with the idea of a red bandana. I wear red bandanas all the time at camp. Very cool. I’m pretty sure they offset the Elton John and Cat Stevens stuff. We wrap a tennis ball in the bandana and fluff out the other end to look like flames. We use an eye hook from one of the cabin shutters and screw it into the tennis ball. The eye goes over the fishing line.
It’s time for a test flight of the fake flaming devil. Jack stands on the bunk in the corner of the cabin. Dave readies the flash. Other Dave lies poised with the needle over the record player. We count down, “3-2-1, go!” There’s a screech as David M. drops the needle and it skids off the edge of the record. The flash goes off. No flaming devil.
“Sorry, it’s too heavy, it only moved about two feet.”
Discouraged, but not defeated, we continue refining. We tighten the fishing line, work on our timing, rig up a way that the album cover can swing over the seating area at the climactic moment, and then practice our lines. We decide that Eric will conduct the ceremony. We tell him to use some of Fred’s original lines. I suggest that he leave out the part about Elton John. The rest of us will play along. I decide that I will scream and duck at the moment the flash goes off. Others will point or grab the nearest cubbie in fright. Fred chuckles. “Maybe you should have a mop handy in case one of them pees all over the floor.” I’m pretty sure he’s kidding.
Finally, we’re ready.
As if on cue, the bell rings for the end of rest hour. We send out our recruiters, Dave and Jack, to intercept cubs on their way to afternoon activities. Unfortunately, the rain means there is not much traffic through the senior section. We get four customers, not even enough for a candy store for each of us. That’s okay. We escort them into the cabin. We explain that we’ve been practicing summoning the spirits of the dead, and we think, with their help, we may be able to finally succeed. The cubbies nod uncertainly, and we lead them into the back section of the cabin. We seat them on the floor, alternating cubbie and senior. Rain taps on the roof of the cabin. Eric begins in his most solemn voice, “Oh, spirit of Jimi, greatest guitar player…”
The séance goes perfectly, just as scripted. Unfortunately, the reaction does not.
“Wow. That was cool. Can you do the flying bandana again?”
“How did you make that album cover fall down at just the right time?”
“Who is Jimi Hendrix?”
“That was a pretty short show. Can I have my candy store back?”
We do not spook any cubbies, and we’re quite a few candy stores short of a fortune, but I think all of us agree, it sure beats lying on our bunks listening to our counselor snore.
Note: The year 1974 occupies a strange period in camp history. Later that same summer I will experience a true camp novelty: for the first and only time in my camp experience, Pete, the head of the camp will bring a TV into the lodge and let campers watch. Normally our camp tries to keep life very simple and rustic. But, it’s not every day that the president of the United States resigns from office. Also, during the 70s, the camp has actually run electricity to the cabins so that they have a single central light and an electrical outlet. Later, considering the electricity a fire hazard, the camp removes the lights and outlets from all but the big communal buildings in the camp, making it considerably harder to conduct fake séances.