I don’t believe in ghosts; never have. But for a few minutes one dark night in 1944, I came close to believing. The setting is Snail Lake Camp (now Gospel Hill Camp), an outreach of the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission, where I worked during college years. The camp’s 17 acres included playfields, expansive lawns, a large garden plot, and wooded pastureland where the Mission sometimes kept livestock.
The lodge housed the kitchen and dining hall at ground level with the chapel on level two. The third level was a single-room dormitory that could sleep 90 or more. On the night of the ghost, 58 boys grades four through seven slept in the dorm.
I doubt that the annals of Christian camping ever recorded a scene more precarious. There were 58 campers—and a staff of two. Bill Jansen was the cook. I was everything else. I was 21 and had never directed a camp week. And I was hurting with an ear infection and fever. My only time alone came when the campers finally slept, allowing me to slip down to the kitchen for a snack. How all that came about is a story for another time.
We were nearing the close of the camp week and I was dog-bone tired. My sleep-inducing strategy was a long, spooky story, sparing no gore. My story concerned the Ghost of Scull Island, invented as I went along. Finally, boy sounds ceased and I felt my way through the dark down the wide wooden stairs—I had no flashlight. The outside, the misty sky showed only the faintest light. Inside, full dark.
Half spooked by my story, I reached ground level and felt my way to the screen door leading to the dining hall. Then I froze. I heard heavy boots shuffling on the flagstone floor! My first impulse on was to run for Bill a city block away, but I eased into the dining hall.
Unfortunately, all light switches were at the other end and the room. Between me and the switches was a clutter of benches, chairs, tables, brooms, and mop buckets. A dash through the dark was far too risky. I called, “Who’s there?” The shuffling stopped. I backed to the wall and inched toward the light switches. The shuffling resumed and again I called, “Who’s there?”
I could just make out skylight through the upper part of the windows that lined the opposite wall. At mid-point, two concrete steps led up to a landing where double screen doors opened onto a flagstone patio. The shuffling seemed to be moving toward the landing, but nothing showed against the skylight. I thought I heard the boots climb the steps. Something brushed the screens, but still nothing showed.
Risking the clutter, I broke for the switch panel, flooding the room hall with light. That of course blinded me. When I could focus, I saw the room was empty! Again, I almost ran, but I forced myself to the screen doors and looked out. Three young Black Angus steers, escapees from the camp pasture, looked at me curiously. Their hooves shuffling on flagstone echoed through the screen doors. I made my way to the kitchen and collapsed at the table. I ate pineapple coffee cake and canned fruit with strong black coffee.
Had I panicked and fled, I would be telling you about the very real ghost I encountered that night at Snail Lake Camp