Revisiting the past is a preoccupation common to us old guys. Sometimes we look back and wonder how we could have been so stupid. I seem to have more than my share of such memories. Among them was that evening at Center Lake Camp, the year Joe Burkhart served as director.
The summer of 1953 our family moved to Muskegon, Michigan to serve Wayside Baptist Church. Two years later Joe came to teach science at Lincoln School across from our church. He and his family joined our fellowship.
Joe and I both had Scouting in our backgrounds and we explored starting a troop at Lincoln School. Our community seemed ideal for Scouting. We contacted the Scout office and put out feelers for committee members. I suggested Joe as Scoutmaster and volunteered to be chaplain. Within a year, the troop had 60 kids.
Each summer Joe scheduled a troop camping trip. Our plan for 1956 was to circle Lake Michigan, with a five-day stay at Imp Lake in the Ottawa National Forest. The committee bought and refurbished a used school bus and we headed north in early June.
Following good days at Imp Lake, we drove south through Wisconsin, planning a day at Wisconsin Dells, a popular tourist center; among the attractions, a Gypsy fortune teller. I sensed a story in that mysterious lady with her cards and red kerchief.
The following summer, Center Lake Camp near Cadillac, Michigan hired Joe as director. I signed on for young teen week, with evening campfires among my duties. As I pondered the first campfire, The Gypsy came to mind. I plotted with Joe.
A waning moon lit the sky as campers and staff gathered on the hill overlooking the lake. Campers and younger staff circled the fire, sitting on the grass. Folding chairs accommodated older staff members and visitors; among them, a white-haired grandmother. Joe stood just outside of the camper circle, the fire between him and me.
After campfire songs, I launched the story. I told about the Imp Lake trip and the Dells. Then truth faded. I pictured me and Joe mingling with tourists at the fortune teller’s booth, not hiding our skepticism. The Gypsy stared at us, growing increasingly irritated. Suddenly, she rose, ripped a page from her notepad, scrawled hasty words, and strode into the crowd. She thrust her face close to mine. “You shall see! You shall see!” She thrust the crumpled note into my hand.
I paused and laboriously fished out my wallet, extracting a crumpled slip, slowly smoothing it. “Come to think about it, that was just a year ago today.” I slowly smoothed the slip. “I don’t know why I kept it this. I don’t believe in fortune tellers.” I pretended to study it by firelight. From the circle: “What did she write?”
“Ridiculous! Joe and I are the best of friends–” “What did she write?” I read slowly: “On this day another summer, one of you will slay the other.” That was Joe’s cue.
With a yell, he leaped campers and fire. Feigning terror, I hurled myself down the hill into the darkness, Joe close behind. We lay in the tall grass stifling laughter. That was one campfire the kids would remember! Little did we know.
At the fire circle, panic. Campers cried. The grandmother came close to a heart attack. Adult staffers grew angry. When Joe and I appeared, expecting applause for a masterful performance, our laughter turned to chagrin. Said one stern soul, “How could you!”