Author Archives: Lloyd Mattson

About Lloyd Mattson

Founder/Editor of the Hole News. Publisher/Author of Wordshed Books. Old and growing older.

The Ghost of Snail Lake

The Ghost of Snail Lake      Lloyd Mattson

I don’t believe in ghosts; never did. But for a few minutes one dark night in 1944, I wasn’t sure. The setting: Snail Lake Camp (now Gospel Hill Camp), an outreach of the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission where I worked on and off during college and seminary years.

The camp’s 17 acres included expansive lawns, a large garden plot, wooded pastureland, and a handsome, three-level brick lodge overlooking the lake. The ground floor housed the kitchen and dining hall, with the chapel on level two. The third level was one room with three rows of cots. On the night of the ghost, 58 boys grades four through seven slept in the dorm.

The annals of Christian camping have never recorded a more precarious scene: a staff of two staff looking after 58 kids. Bill Jansen was the cook. I was everything else, and I had never directed a camp. I was 21 and hurting with an ear infection and fever. Later on I’ll tell you how that dangerous week came about. As you can imagine, I lived in a constant state of exhaustion. My only time alone came when the campers finally slept. Then I would slip down to the kitchen for a snack Bill prepared for me.

The dormitory was dark save for red-glowing exit lights. Outdoors, faint skylight showed through the mist. My sleep-inducing strategy was a long, spooky story, made up as I went along. I was working on the Ghost of Skull Island, sparing no gore. The story droned on until boy sounds finally ceased.

Eschewing a flashlight, I groped down the dark wooden stairs, stepping carefully. Reaching ground level, I felt my way through the dark to the screen door leading to the totally dark dining hall. Then I froze. Heavy boots shuffled on the far end of the flagstone floor.

My first impulse was to run for Bill a city block away, but that would leave the campers unprotected. I eased the screen open and slipped into the dining hall. Unfortunately, a design error had placed all the light switches at the other end and the room near the kitchen.

A clutter of benches, chairs, tables, and mop buckets rendered a dash through the dark far too risky. Easing along with my back to the wall, I called out, “Who’s there?” The shuffling stopped. As I inched toward the switches, the shuffling resumed. Again I called, “Who’s there?” Silence.

The skylight was barely sizable through the upper part of the row of windows that lined the opposite wall. I strained to catch a glimpse of the irregular shuffling but nothing showed. Centered between the windows were two concrete steps leading up to an exit landing. Double screen doors opened onto the outside flagstone patio. It seemed the shuffling was moving toward the landing.

I thought I heard the boots climb the steps. Something brushed the screen doors. Still nothing showed. Risking the clutter, I broke for the light switches, flooding the dining hall with light, temporarily blinding me. When my vision cleared, the screens had not opened, but the dining hall was empty.

Again I almost ran for Bill but I forced myself to the screen doors and peered into the darkness. There, looking up at me, were three Black Angus calves, escapees from the camp pasture. They were too small to show against the skylight; their hooves shuffling on flagstones echoed through the screen doors.  I made my way to the kitchen and collapsed at the table where pineapple coffee cake and canned peaches awaited, fully aware how close I came to believing in ghosts.


Looking back, it seems incredible that such a dangerous camp week could happen—I shudder to think of it. Blame it on my youth and ignorance. Here is the story:

During college and seminary years, I worked off and on for the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission. I directed the downtown boys club during the school year and filled various roles through the summer, including Snail Lake Camp.

Traditionally, the Mission conducted three six-day camps each summer: one for the downtown boys club; one for the Ober Boys Club, which served a primarily black community; and one for the girls club. Camp cost fifty cents—if you could afford it.

In 1944, as the integration movement gathered steam, legendary Mission superintendent Peter MacFarlane (Mac) decided to merge boys’ weeks. Attendance plummeted. Mac assumed the cause wad racial tension and called me to his office. I felt the problem was community tension, not racial. Our downtown club served a broad ethnic mix, kids who attended school together. Ober Club kids attended a rival school.

In a reckless moment, I bet Mac $50 I could fill the camp if our club had its own week. He of course would not hear of a bet, but gave me the green light and promised a generous bonus if I filled the camp. Hustling campers was no problem, but with World War 2 creating good jobs and sweeping young men into the military, finding a volunteer staff proved impossible.

I turned to our club basketball team—teens long on athletic skill but short on spiritual interest. Four boys agreed to help. On camp day, 83 kids lined up at the Mission for a quick physical and bus ride to Snail Lake. The staff: Bill Jensen the cook, four inexperienced teens, and me. And I had never directed a camp. Red flags flew all over the place, but my ignorance and youthful zeal could not see them.

The long line of kids pleased Mac. He asked me if I had everything in order. I assured him I did. When you’re 21, you feel invincible. He placed more confidence in me than I deserved. Following brief checkups by a nurse, the Mission bus hauled the kids to camp. They settled into the dormitory then roamed the camp.

To manage that number of campers, I whistled them together and formed four squads, each with a counselor. I told squad members to look after one another. Wishful thinking! Supper turned into near chaos; dish washing, total chaos. The first evening chapel signaled trouble: the counselors were absent. Bill took over the meeting and I went to look for them.

I found the four teens at the waterfront smoking. They declared they would not be attending chapels. Tense negotiations got nowhere—they were sure I wouldn’t send them home, but I arranged for Bill drove them home first thing the next morning.

More trouble brewed at bedtime. Influenced by the unhappy counselors, several older campers showed signs of rebellion, with the next age tier joining them at morning lineup. These were mostly street kids, not given to accepting authority.

To head off mutiny, I invited any camper unhappy with the way I ran the camp to step forward. A bunch did. I sent them to pick up their stuff and Bill bused them to town. That left me with 58 younger campers. Among them was a curly-headed first-time camper who was new to the boys club. His name was George Verely.

With the kitchen consuming all Bill’s time and energy, I became the counselor, teacher, lifeguard, nurse, craft instructor and everything else. Add a painful ear infection and fever. No wonder I saw a ghost. But the Lord looks after fools and innocent kids and we survived the week with no major mishap.

I returned home wiped out, convinced it had been a wasted week. I could not identify one spiritual gain.

Fast forward 20-plus years. I’m at my desk in Chicago fulfilling my duties as director of camping and boys work for our denomination. A staff colleague just back from a trip to Minnesota trip stopped by. “Lloyd,” he said, “your name came up in a meeting. The new superintendent of the St. Paul Mission was speaking. He told us he came to the Lord at Snail Lake Camp when he was nine, the summer Bill Jensen and Lloyd Mattson were there. His name is George Verely.”


The Song of a Man and a Land

The Song of a Man and a Land
Lloyd Mattson

I am the nation that gave to the world
The man who is called Abe Lincoln.
I watched legend born in fire-lit books,
River rafts, the smooth shovel slate.
Quiet myth, gaunt truth,
The sad portrait speaks
Of Lincoln, Head of State.

Abe Lincoln and I are some alike,
A hybrid, a mingling of seeds.
The tall rebel man who freed other men
And the Nation most nearly free.
Note well this mingling of seeds in the land
That sent the tall man to his task,
Else tyrants will rule over slaves anew.
Even now some drink from death’s flask.

Abe Lincoln’s kind was not known in the world
When men first walked my valleys;
Not among my copper-skinned tribes
Nor the people of distant lands,
Where the rich were born to riches,
and the poor to servitude.

My first people lived in shadowed days
With crude tools and simple ways.
Hogans and wigwams, mystic longhouses;
Shrill cries, soft chants,
drums and dance
Called men to war and to hunt.

Then, a west-blowing breeze
Brings to the lea
The sea-weary Santa Maria,
With a new kind of folk,
milk-skinned and bold,
Who call my people Indians.

More ships come to probe my coasts,
To explore each river and bay.
They leave on my beach men, cargo and guns.
The ships sail eastward, away.
Red man stalks white man.
Death stalks them both.
I saw no wise man to guide them.

The white man came lusting for wealth,
His passion: power and treasure.
Before him I lay, a new world to gain,
But empire and gold was his pleasure.
He robbed my people, who fought back and killed.
Red women trembled in wonder
That the sure arrow’s whisper so soon was hushed
By the musket’s deadly thunder.

The Old World men unfurled gaudy flags
And plunged their staffs in my soil,
Claiming the land for England or France,
For Spain or Portugal.
This dull people dared to think
That man can own a land.
Dull indeed.
Did they not know? The land possesses man.
And this land claimed a man, Abe Lincoln.

Treasure and empire, the hunger for fame,
Lured Old World men to me,
But another kind came with a Book and a song.
They spoke of a Man and a Tree.
They clung hard to life, but many died
Building homes where men could be free.
Free? Idle dream, Old World men,
Yet a seed of promise for me.

Freedom swelled in the heart
Of one Roger Williams,
He thrust the seed deep in good soil.
In Rhode Island earth lay hope for new birth,
Ancestral seed for Abe Lincoln.

More nations sent their ships to my coasts
And spewed on my shores ten thousand.
I shuddered to see the plunder and waste
Of my creatures and their homeland.
Forests fled. Plows ripped the sod.
I saw my wild beauty fade
As hamlets grew bold,
Stretched their bounds to be cities,
Then spilled out the hardy beyond
My mountain defense toward the Great River.
Boone and more of his kind.

From the North Hampton pulpit
Of Jonathan Edwards
Rose a tide that swept down the land.
Wesley flint, Whitefield steel,
Gospel fire, God’s command.
A light in the night of gospel decline
New seeds for the needs of mankind.

My soil spawned a hybrid, hardy and bold;
A blending of spirit and might;
Ideas more daring than men ever dreamed
Put British Redcoats to flight.
But the time was not right
For Abe Lincoln.

Then I opened my gates and the people poled
Their flatboats down the Ohio.
The rafts bore scant goods,
But their hearts bore great hope,
Nourished by seeds from Rhode Island.
Man’s worth as a man,
Man’s right to be free;
The stalk and the branch of that hybrid.

I watched the frontier push westward and north.
A man rode out on his circuit.
A thousand miles alone he rode
To marry and bury and comfort.
He fought demon rum, the Devil and greed.
His Bible, his prayer, his sermon, more seed;
The leaf and the bud of the hybrid.

He summoned his flock
From the woodlands and fields;
They came, child and man, saint and sinner.
I swept clear the skies
That the great moon might rise
On the camp meeting hard by the river.

The tapping of feet to a staunch gospel beat;
Glory shouts rose to heaven, dulling the ear
To the chill cadence of fear
Already finding its rhythm.
My valleys caressed
And returned to the blest
In echo the song of the camp.
No lark sang so well as the music that fell
On the air in the night by the river.

A penitent wept at a hand-hewn bench,
Seeking peace with the price of tears.
Camp meeting seeds, swept by faith’s breeze,
Added the worth to the hybrid.
The Cross and the Book,
And the man who found God
Tore down the gross pride of high birth.
Freedom’s cup filled,
Slowly filled, then spilled
To bathe the new Nation with might.

A land of the free!
A home of the brave!
Almost, almost, but not quite.
A sore marred the health
Of the yet fledgling State,
A people come not by choice;
Bowed with a chain, dark children of pain,
They bore bitter seeds and a voice.

From the hold of foul ships;
Fettered, naked, for sale.
A cancer arose in my throng.
Their anguish-born prayer
From hearts torn with care,
Moses surely soon must come ‘long.
Labor and suffer, weep and more toil,
Dark seeds of shame in my soil.

Now, three hundred years
Since the white man came
To mingle bloods in my land,
The seeds sown and grown, and sown yet again
Swell. Nolen Creek, Kentucky.
Tom Lincoln paces.
Nancy travails.
A cabin of logs hears the cry!
Moses? Aaron?
No, Abraham!
Tom could scarce lift his eye.
An uncomely babe, new-born Abe,
But a son! The darling of Nancy.

Now kings are born on palace beds,
Lords from the ranks of peerage.
Caesars inherit the toga of power,
The garland festooned brow;
Abe? Abe was a clod,
Born to the sod,
His hope lay in the plow.


Yet the soil Indiana then Illinois,
Betrayed a mystic rare fragrance.
The straw Abe chewed, the rail he hewed,
Nourished and wrought a wonder.
Abe jumped and wrestled and swung his axe.
Abe listened and thought and read.
He learned of a Book left behind by poor Nancy.
No longer poor, now dead.

The clod caught the echo of dead Nancy’s prayer
For her cabin-born, uncomely waif.
From the fruit of the seeds of three centuries
Prayer brought forth a sweet wine of life.
Rough Abe drank deeply this nectar of God,
And allowed he was more than a clod.
The boy stood tall and became a man,
Taller than men around him.
He stood so tall he looked one day
To see the White House before him.


But it is not a hymn or camp meeting air
Or a mighty anthem I hear,
But a martial air, hot oratory,
The reticent marching of fear,
The retching of my child-State,
Sick with the gall of her slaves.
Those are the sounds that fall on my ear
As Abe takes the President’s chair.
Half slave half free?
Secede! Secede!
The boom of the guns of Fort Sumter.


I watched from a mountain my people at war;
Homes torn, lands ravaged, men fell.
I grew sick from the stench of Andersonville
And the northern dungeons of hell.
Spades tore my sod.
The weight of the dead!
Men hid their shame in my soil.


Then peace. No, not peace,
War never brings peace
But a stupor before the next conflict.
Abe, tired, faced the taskOf mending his land,
But one shot was yet to be fired.
The last soldier to die
In that most tragic war
Was the man from the cabin of logs.


Yet Abe Lincoln stood tall,
North and South lowered flags that day.
The Union reborn in hearts called to mourn,
They wore blue coats and gray.
A dirge from the South,
A moan from the mouth
Of the people Abe Lincoln set free.
Men gathered the Clod,
Turned back the sod,
My earth folded close.
Abe was gone.


From the north Arctic snow
To the summer green South
One flag, Abe’s flag, was unfurled
To remember God’s Clod,
A new kind of man
In a new kind of land in the world.
A mingling of earth and faith and breath
Wrought by God for the dark and the fair

From bold hybrid seeds
Of hymn tunes and creeds,
Of courage and daring and prayer.
In the Man, in the Land,
See the Book and the Cross.
Don’t lose them.
Freedom lies there.

E-store Under Construction

The Wordshed is building an eBook store with webmaster Jackie McBride as chief architect, builder, and manager. Jackie has become a vital part of our Wordshed Mission. She will work with my Hole News partner Keith. I will supply merchandise and try to keep out of the way.

The initial inventory will include eight existing Wordshed books and five e-titles in the works which we’ll post chapter by chapter here on the Story Tree.

When will the store open for business? That’s anybody’s guess. Jackie will explain how the store will work. I haven’t the foggiest idea.

Old Grandpa Lloyd

And He Did!

Two or three years after the Allagash trip I was back in northern Maine, this time for a father-son backpack trip in Baxter State Park. We planned to climax the trip by climbing Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. Though the climb failed, Katahdin gave us our most memorable campfire.

Our guide was Alton (Beaver) Wardwell, Christian Service Brigade leader for the Stockholm-New Sweden Baptist churches. He also led the Allagash trip. Tall, rangy, in his 50s, I admired his spirit and woodsman skills.

Baxter State Park is 200,000 acres of mostly-unspoiled forest, ponds, and trails. Moose and other animals abound. Imposing Mount Katahdin, the park’s centerpiece, is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  Thoreau explored the region and wrote about it, referring often to Katahdin.

Our hikers came from several New England communities. They rendezvoused the afternoon before the trip and set up camp by a small a cabin where the Brigade battalion met. Upstairs was Cap Matt’s room: a bed, a chair, and a rustic-curtained window. The boys hoped someday Cap Matt might sleep there, and I did. My long-running column in Venture, Brigade’s magazine for boys, made me something of a folk hero to some kids.

Campsites were assigned for each night in Baxter Park, controlling the number of groups to preserve the sense of wilderness and determing the length of each day’s trek. We headed for our first campsite Monday morning, a dozen men and boys. The oldest hiker was George, my 70-year-old tent mate. He had climbed the highest point in many states and looked forward to tackling Katahdin with his grandson. The youngest hiker was a red-haired, freckled lad of ten or eleven. His father, a small man, had never backpacked. We hadn’t gone far before both were hurting.

We enjoyed great weather and well-marked trails. The red-haired kid and his dad soon cheered up. My tent mate hiked with his grandson; I usually hiked with seminary classmate Bob Dishinger, now pastor at the New Sweden church. Bob had a philosophical turn of mind.

At one point our conversation turned to longevity.  “If we keep fit in mind and body, there is no reason we can’t live to 100.”  I proposed we get together on our 100th birthdays and reminisce, but Bob copped out. A few years after the hike, he died shoveling snow.

Daily Bible input followed a simple pattern: one brief Bible passage per day. During morning briefing, we explored the day’s passage asking, what does it teach? No preaching; just a simple search for meaning. You don’t dawdle over theology when you have miles to go before you sleep.

After lunch, dads and sons spent a brief time together, reflecting on the question, what does today’s passage say to us?  You put yourself in the story or passage. I taught a prayer technique I called Pray Back. Phrase by phrase you talk through the passage with God.

At evening campfires, we encouraged campers to share personal discovery from the passage and adventures of the day. Sometimes I told a story.

We reached our third campsite late in early evening; just time for a quick supper and the campfire. The skies were clear and we decided to sleep under the stars. Campers unrolled sleeping bags in random fashion. I picked a spot among them.

It was a beautiful, star-filled night. A half-moon reflected off the small lake bordering our camp. The campers had covered several miles, and silence soon settled over out camp. I settled in and slept. Well into the night, something woke me. I eased up on an elbow. At the edge of campsite stood a huge, dark form—a bull moose with a full rack. He eyed our camp then headed for the lake, picking his way among the sleeping campers. I watched him wade into the lake and drink. A page from God’s other book.

We reached our final campsite in good time. We would spend two nights there. Clouds thickened as we set up camp. In the morning we would climb mile-high Katahdin. At the evening campfire, Beaver Wardwell briefed us on the climb and told a sobering story.

Some years before, he was leading a group up Katahdin when his hikers came upon a tragedy. A lad from another party had taken a risk and fell to his death. Beaver volunteered to retrieve the body. Improvising a litter, he took his three biggest boys and followed a difficult route to the body. The lesson: stay close to your leader.

I had focused devotional times throughout the trip on the first part of John 15. We had reached verse 7:  “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” We reflected on that around the evening campfire and again the next morning. Then we organized to climb Katahdin.

The shortest route would take us through a steep jumble of huge rocks to a plateau. From there the going would be easier. Ahead lay the Knife Edge, a safe though scary trail to the top. Beaver led, kids followed like squirrels, and those of us more years and proportions to match worked harder.

My tent mate struggled, his 70 years showing. For his safety, we counseled him to return to camp, a deep disappointment, but safety is always paramount. As we climbed, the temperature dropped, bringing the cloud cover lower. We reached the plateau in dense fog. We could no longer see the peak. Beaver called us together. “Doesn’t look good, boys” he said.

Within minutes, a whiteout enveloped us, forcing us to abandon the climb. Visibility shrunk to a few feet. Admonishing the campers to stay close together, Beaver guided us along the plateau trail toward a safer return route. I brought up the rear. The whiteout made hiking slow and difficult. We dropped below the whiteout and worked our way safely to our campsite.

A trip’s final evening is always special. Campers have bonded. The park provided ample firewood and we huddled in jackets around the blaze, sharing thoughts on the trip and the hike through the whiteout, a first-time experience. We sang and said John 15:7 together. The red-haired man sat close to his son.

The fire was burning low when the lad spoke. “Cap, you’ve been teaching us about pray-back, talking the Bible back to God? Well, today I found out it works!”

“It got really hard to see and I was really scared. I stuck as close to my dad as I could, but I had to slow down and I got off the trial. I could hear the guys getting father and farther away. I didn’t want to yell. I wasn’t sure which way to go. Then I remembered what you said about talking the Bible back to God.”

“I prayed, “God, you said if I remain in you—well, I believe in Jesus. Then you said, and my words remain in you. Here they are, Lord; I know the verse by heart. You said, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. God, get me off this mountain!”

He paused and grinned. “And he did!”



A Light in the Night

A Light in the Night

It was our last day on the river and we were the last canoe. The Allagash was low, the temperature uncommonly high for Northern Maine—90 plus. My bow paddler was distressingly slow.  I’d yell hard right and we’d be on the rock before he decided which side was right. None of the campers wanted to paddle with Willie.

We’d been drifting, swimming, and goofing off for five days; a dozen boys and two men. I chose Willie for my partner out of compassion. I generally bring up the rear on the trail or water to make sure no one gets left behind, and Willie assured me that position.

He was 12, maybe 13, from a foster home. Short sandy hair, brown eyes, scrawny; he read poorly but could he talk! He chattered away, seamlessly moving from one topic to another, delighted to have a listener. “See that duck?” he said, pointing to the sky. “No, in the clouds.” I saw no duck, but I noted the clouds were thickening.

“Wish I had my camera,” said Willie.  “Why?” I asked, looking skyward. “No, down the river.” In the shallows stood a buck with a huge rack in velvet. He watched us approach then ambled into the woods. Willie paddled quietly a while.

“Cap, were you ever scared?” “Sure. Lots of times.” “I mean really, really scared.”  “I guess so,” I replied, wondering where this was going. “I was really scared today,” said Willie. I had paddled with him since morning and nothing I considered scary had happened. “Tell me about it.” “Remember when we stopped to eat and you asked us to tell about Jesus?”

We had rendezvoused on a sandbar for lunch and devotions. I asked the kids to tell what they had learned on the trip; then tell and how they met the Lord. Last-day excitement ran high; responses were meager. We loaded the canoes and pushed off for our last stretch of river with some distance to go. Nothing scary happened on the sandbar.

“I wanted to tell how I met Jesus,” said Willie. “I have a Bible but I don’t read good. I wanted to say something, but the kids always laugh at me. I got really, really scared.” That tore at my soul; a boy pouring his heart out to a friend. Guilt for my impatience swept over me. I wanted to hug Willie and tell him I cared.  We paddled silently a long time.

The Allagash runs north toward Canada. We’d enjoyed a following breeze throughout the trip. Now at late afternoon the sky darkened and a brisk north wind hit us in the face. Rain was certain. Willie wore cutoffs and a T; I wore jeans, a T, and a baseball cap. Our sweatshirts and rain gear were in a canoe far ahead. Thunder rumbled.

The front swept in, dropping the temperature 40 degrees in minutes. I dug with my paddle, fighting the headwind. Rain splotches turned into a downpour. Lightning cracked. Willie put down his paddle to hug himself for warmth, and I was as cold as I care to be. At one point we paused to dump water from our canoe. Willie shivered violently but there was nothing I could do for him. The river ran through deep woods in the gathering dark.

Then the front passed; the wind calmed and the rain stopped, but it was getting colder. Willie sat mute. Heavy overcast hastened night darkness, making it increasing difficulty to pick a course. I couldn’t risk a dump-over in the dark, and I had no idea how far we had to go. I called to Willie. “If we don’t reach the guys soon, we’ll have to pull out until daylight. It’s OK. I’ll keep you warm.” How I did not know.

We were both silent. I strained to see. Boulder-strewn water wound through the forest, carrying me toward the hard decision. One more bend and we would have to pull out. The bend came and beyond it a straight stretch. I thought I saw a glimmer. I paddled with renewed energy.

The glimmer became a Coleman lantern hung on a branch over the river and up the steep bank a campfire reflected off the firs. Hello camp! I called. Eager hands caught our canoe and helped us up the bank to hot chocolate and warm sleeping bags. I prayed with a great fervor that night.

I never saw Willie again. I’d like to find him and thank him for what he taught me that night on the Allagash.


Joe and the Gypsy Fortune Teller

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!”

Good question.



The Legend of Pierre

The August night chilled under a full moon as scores of junior campers circled the campfire on the hill overlooking Center Lake; a perfect setting for a story. But I didn’t yet have a story, just a mossy prop.

While exploring the lakeshore by canoe in the early days of the camp, I spotted the remains of wooded boat half-buried in bottom muck. Obviously, it had been there a long time. I wondered why it sank; wooden boats ordinarily don’t sink.  Some campers had noticed the boat too. With that relic as a prop, I launched the story with not a clue where it would lead.

A story must have good guys and bad. The good guys would be Ojibwa and Pottawatomie villagers; the bad guy: Pierre, the cheating fur trader. I gave him the boat. The moonlit setting and crackling fire didn’t need much of a story.

We journeyed to the fur trade days and the first people who lived live near Center Lake. Pierre’s cheating angered the Indians, but they feared his rifle. For many days they tracked him, plotting revenge. One night, he camped on the very spot where our fire burned.

One moonlit night Pierre sat by his fire, rifle and fur bundles nearby. His fire burned low, as had ours. From the dark forest, Pottawatomie warriors watched, waiting for Pierre to sleep. A wolf howled in the distance.

A movement disturbed a great gray owl. It flew heavily through the forest and swept low over Pierre’s fading fire. Surmising something had disturbed the owl; he gathered his rifle and furs and stumbled through the dark toward the security of the lake.

Meanwhile, Ojibwa war canoes glided toward the shore below Pierre’s camp. , Pottawatomie and Ojibwa war cries filled the night. Pierre threw his furs in the boat and pushed from shore. Their foe fully visible in the moonlight, arrows flew from land and water.

In desperation, Pierre stood to leap overboard. An arrow stuck. Pierre fell, tipping the small boat. It slowly sank under its ill-gotten load, and there it rests today.

The campers sat by the glowing coals, caught up in the story. In a hushed voice I added, “On this very hill when the moon is full and the night is still, you can hear Pierre’s heart, beating, beating.

Then the hair on the back of my neck stiffened. Through the night came athunk, athunk, a thunk. I swear: Until that moment, I had never noticed the faint pulse of an oil rig a few fields over.

Guardian Angels at Snail Lake

(Scroll down to read the Ghost Story.)

In fairness to all, I must explain how the precarious circumstances described in the previous story came about. From 1942 through 1945 I worked on and off for the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission, owner of Snail Lake Camp. Through the school year I directed the Arthur H. Savage Boys Club in the downtown Mission building.  Summers, I filled various roles at the Mission and camp.

Each summer the camp held three six-day sessions: one for our downtown club; one for the Ober Boys Club, serving mostly Black kids; one for the Mission girls club. A camp week cost fifty cents—if you could afford it. Attendance was fair, though declining.

In 1944 legendary Mission superintendent Peter MacFarlane decided to merge the boys’ weeks, a nod to the growing demand for racial integration. Attendance dropped dramatically. Mac assumed blending the camps had caused the decline. He called me into his office for a lecture on the Christian imperative for integration. But I felt race was not the problem. We served an ethnic mix at the downtown club. I believed neighborhood tensions caused the low attendance Ober Club kids and downtown kids did not along.

To strengthen my point, I bet Mac $50 I could fill the camp if our club had its own week. He would not hear of a bet, but he gave me the green light and promised a generous bonus if I filled the camp. With the club was closed for the summer, hustling campers was a challenge. But finding staff was a far greater challenge. Camper registrations began to pile up but I failed to nail down one staff person.

With time running out, I turned to our club basketball team: teens long on athletic skill but short on spiritual interest. Four boys agreed to come as counselors.  I had no time to train them, nor could I keep track of camper registrations.  On camp day, 83 boys stood in line at the Mission, awaiting a cursory physical.

Mac dropped around. Pleased to see the crowd, he asked if I had everything in order. I assured him I did. When you’re 21, you feel invincible. He did not know the staff situation. Following the physicals, we bused the kids to camp.

Supper was noisy chaos and the first chapel brought trouble. My counselors failed to show. I found them at the waterfront smoking. They declared they would not be attending chapels. Tense negotiations got nowhere, so I told the boys to pack their gear. Bill drove them home.

Bedtime foretokened deeper trouble as several older campers showed signs of rebellion. It came to a head in the morning.

The only way I could manage that many campers was to form them into squads,  line them up military-like, count heads, and give instructions. I told the squad members to look after one another–wishful thinking. Then the rebels began to smart off. I told any camper who was not happy to step forward. Calling my bluff, about 25 did. Bill bused them home. That left me with 54 kids (one camper later ran off—I wasn’t even sure of his name).

Cooking took all Bill’s time, leaving me to be counselor, teacher, lifeguard, nurse, craft instructor, referee, and everything else. And I was hurting with an ear infection and fever. No wonder I saw a ghost.

I was totally irresponsible to allow the week to happen, but the Lord looks after fools. He must have commissioned a legion of angels to look after us. We had no major mishap, though I pulled one scared boy from deep water.


The Ghost of Snail Lake

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


Why the Story Tree?

After more than 50 years of producing print books, I am going digital. Future Wordshed tiles will hang on the Story Tree, to be joined eventually by earlier writings.  Down the line, we’ll open an online store. Webmaster Jackie is working out details.

To start with, I will post chapters on the Story Tree, mostly stand-alone stories.  The chapters will form e-books.  Expect variety. I have a weird propensity for working on several books at a time.  Time is what I have these days.

I serve an unruly muse. I can’t produce stories on command. A story’s ending may surprise me as much as the reader.

Why do I bother? I’m an old guy. Lord knows I won’t get rich. Writing is an affliction that strikes a few. There is no known cure.

I will try to focus on memoir books three, four, and five, restraining Tales from Johnson Junction and The Valley Vigilantes, the doings of seven ornery seniors who meet around the round oak table at the Kaffe Stuga.

The Hole News will pass along Story Tree action.

Old Grandpa Lloyd