Thursday, June 09, 2005
Indian Demon Science
I was a great Cub Scout. Dad was the Pack Leader and Mom was my Den Mother. I earned all 21 activity badges and developed interests in morse code and carpentry. I made pinewood derby cars, beeping code levers, birdhouses, and little catapults. I loved it. I sold shitloads of chocolate bars for fundraisers and never missed a campout.
I loved campouts. I could whittle, burn things, play hide and seek in the forest, and yell swear words whenever I wanted. Pure heaven for a whippersnapper like me. Watch out, marshmallows, this kid has a sharp stick and a sugar jones.
When I reached Boy Scouts, things evolved. I learned CPR, archery, rifles, blacksmithing, pottery, leatherpunching, canoeing, and hacking down trees with hatchets. This last skill would come in handy.
Midway through summer in 1991 I went camping with Troop 493 from Schaumburg, Illinois. We went to Camp Napowan in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. This was my first trip without my father. This meant I could ditch all my merit badge classes and swing back and forth all day in my hammock listening to Skid Row on my headphones. Which I did.
Our troop's camp was deep in the forest, several miles from the mess hall and the activity workshops. Although this entailed lots of walking to get anywhere, it also meant we got visits from more wild animals and could make rowdier noises after lights out. We also had one of only two authentic Indian totem poles on the edge of our camp. This was cool.
On the last night of camp I was the last one awake. The other boys had fallen asleep after we'd played cards deep into the night. Bullshit, Hearts, Go Fish, you name it. After we disbanded I laid in my tent and lamented the end of another summer adventure.
Finally I began to drift off when I heard a tent zipper run down. Another urinater. Then I heard groaning and swearing. Yikes. A shitter who wouldn't make it to the latrine. Poor bastard. Would he wipe his ass with poison ivy in the dark? I heard heavy splashing and sizzling on the dying fire, the whoosh of evaporating steam, and retching chokes. Was he puking?
The racket faded. I heard feet stumble away. I opened my tentflap halfway and tried to see which fellow camper was suffering from an ill stomach. It was Mr. Westphal, the grizzled old bastard who stuck with the scouts long after his sons grew up. He whittled great canes and chess sets with his Swiss army knife. I admired him.
Was he humping the totem pole? What the fuck? I crept out of my tent. No, he was hugging it. Maybe leaning on it for support. I heard him dry heaving. I came closer. He was clutching at his throat with one hand and pounding on the totem with the other.
I was a boy scout! I knew the Heimlich maneuver! I ran to save Mr. Westphal. Unfortunately, my first aid was no match for his condition. He turned around at the sound of my footsteps.
I froze in shock and disgust. Poor Mr. Westphal's head was swelling. A giant lump grew just above his ear. It inflated rapidly, stretching his skin, causing his scalp and hair to ripple. He twitched and his eyes rolled up into his head before they popped. Blood ran from the empty sockets. He clawed at his face, smearing loose flesh as his skin bubbled and sizzled like bacon. His skull finally burst. A weak splash of runny brainpulp and splintered skull speckled my wincing face. I threw up. Blood spurted from his neck and pooled with my vomited marshmallows.
Freshly hollowed, I began screaming. Nobody rose from their tents. Frantic, I went from tent to tent shaking shoulders, yelling in ears, kicking legs. The slow slumbering breathing of the children continued. The adults snored. None could be roused.
I heard a sound from the direction of the old fella's leaking corpse. The sound of fish flopping in a dry bucket. With trepidation I faced the pattering sound. Clumps of loosened flesh separated from Mr Westphal's bones and floated into the air. The dripping wads shot to the totem pole as if vacuumed or compelled by magnetism. With sucking little noises like slurping straws in empty cups, they disappeared, absorbed by the totem pole. The bird wings at the peak of the pole glowed and dripped blood back to the mud and grass.
Even back then I was a take charge type of person. I wiped the vomit from my chin and marched back to my tent. I grabbed my hatchet. By the time I returned to the totem pole, even the bones were gone. No trace remained of Mr. Westphal except his intricate cane.
I wondered for a moment if he'd known about this totem, if somehow his woodcarving had attached him to the hivemind of the woods. I was a pretty good whittler, too. Maybe that explained why I was awake and everyone else was unable to rise. They were not welcome to witness the secrets the Indians knew. That felt wrong to me. It must be something else. I put it away from my mind. I had business.
I attacked. I hacked. I chopped. I hewed. I cut the fucker down and demolished each segment into splinters. I cried and howled and grunted and sweated. I gathered up the piney mess and heaved it to the fire. I stoked the flames and watched the pyre. I tried to wrench the crooked stump from the ground, but it would not give. Never once did I find a trace of Mr. Westphal inside the wooden monolith. I'm convinced the totem was a mouth and the stomach digested him somewhere far below the surface of the earth. I went to my tent so I wouldn't have to look at the fractured stump. I didn't sleep that night.
The next morning we all made ready for departure. As I collapsed my tent I saw the adults standing around the shattered stump of the totem pole. They were frowning and rubbing their chins. They called the troop together.
"Boys, do any of you know what happened to this totem pole? It's been standing since I was a boy, and our troop could get in a lot of trouble if they think we destroyed it."
"I didn't hear anything."
"Me either. Wouldn't choppin' it down be kinda loud?"
I chimed in. "Where Mr. Westphal?"
"Who's Mr. Westphal, son?"
His eyes went foggy as he spoke this. The other leaders and scouts looked at me. In the light of their eyes I saw puzzled curiosity dull to blankness and finally to a vacant idiot dumbness. Some ancient earth magic had overtaken their awareness. They promptly forgot my question. I chose never to mention him again.
"What about this cane?"
"Huh. Evidence of our culprit. Our silent culprit. Beautiful carving. Nice cane. I wonder where he dragged that pole off to? I wonder why he left his cane? How could a fella who needs a stick to walk chop and drag something that big? Huh."
We departed for the trading post to check out for the summer. I lagged behind to take one last look around. Even if everybody else had their memories scrubbed, I wanted to remember my favorite mentor. I was the only one who could. I wanted to say goodbye. I murmured a few words of thanks and good wishes to the mysteriously consumed Mr. Westphal.
As I turned to leave, I saw a majestic sight. Butterflies landed. The totem stump was twittering with life.
Not all anceint magic of the earth is evil. 2:10 PM - Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm
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