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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

Book 5 Media Post 2

Book 5: Media Post 2 (Scroll down to Post 1)

Getting Published

Everyone who aspires to write a book knows the challenge of finding a publisher. Every publisher knows the challenge of finding manuscripts that will pay their way. Probably fewer than one in a thousand manuscripts find a publisher; and less than one in a thousand published books earn significant money. How then did an obscure executive of a small denomination latch onto five publishers and see a bunch of books into print?  Certainly neither my scholarship nor literary skill can account for it. My success resulted from providential timing and my niche interests.

I came to Chicago in the early ‘60s just as the Christian camping movement was transitioning from mostly adult-oriented Bible conferences to youth camps. Evangelical publishers listed practically no youth camp literature, and though the American Camping Association offered excellent resources, the theological mindset of traditional Christian leaders called for materials aligned with Christian camping distinctives.

And another factor: Christian camping had no national voice to coordinate leadership resource development. I came on the scene just as Christian Camping International (CCI) was forming. As camping director for our denomination with its strong Bible camp tradition, I became part of the founding committee and the resources sub-committee.

My first book, Camping Guideposts, had recently appeared as the first Christian camping handbook in the general market. When the limited first press run sold out quickly, Moody Press picked up the book, identifying me nationally with the new youth camping movement. Excellent books by Joy MacKay of Cedarville College and Free Methodist Christian Education leaders Floyd and Pauline Todd soon appeared, but my proximity to Wheaton College, where CCI organizing meetings were held gave me a leg up.

My lifelong passion for camping and the outdoors was well known. Writing camping literature was in line with my professional duties. Providence allowed me to write Camping Guideposts, which sold widely. Participation in CCI conference across America and Canada gave me broad exposure. And none of this was of my doing. Book assignments came.

Bob Kobeilush, President of CCI, wrote in his Foreword to Christian Camping Today that Lloyd Mattson had published more words about Christian camping than any person who ever lived. That may even be true.

How Many Books?

How many books have you written? That question comes often and my answer is always the same: I don’t know; I haven’t kept count. What books should I count? I have authored, co-authored, ghost-authored, and crutch-authored more titles than I can remember. That’s not a big deal; it’s just what I did as a journeyman editor-writer lacking in technical training but genetically disposed to writing. Most books came and went without stirring much fuss.

Curious to learn what was still out there, I googled Lloyd Mattson Books and found 19 different titles on and its used-book minions. Some titles listed for one dollar (sellers scrounge free books and make a buck on shipping). Other titles, considered rare, bore ridiculous price tags. Books we gave away by the thousands were respectably priced.

I came across a small book I had forgotten and got credit for a book on Cuba I never wrote, co-authored by a woman I never met. Readers must be hanging on to ­Night Watch; it appeared on no list.

The 19 titles included Camping Guideposts, my first book. It lived through many editions, six publishers, and over 100,000 copies, about 40 percent of my gross book output.  River City Press keeps it alive as Christian Camping Today.

 I have no idea how many books translators distributed in Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Afrikaner, and possibly others. I granted mission agencies blanket permission to translate anything I wrote.

Then there were about ten books I helped camps, missions, and individuals produce. Some I helped build from scratch; some I virtually wrote; some just needed editing. And I contributed chapters to several textbooks. I agree with the sage of scripture: of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:12.


Book 5: Media Post 1

Book 5: Media. Post 1

Mixed Media

Talking was my main job through 60 years of ministry. By conservative count, I unlimbered over 8,000 sermons, Bible studies, workshops, banquet talks, campfire stories, and assorted other presentations. Figuring 30 minutes per speech (wishful thinking) at the normal 120 words per minute, I uttered at least nine million words in public. Makes one tired just thinking about it, not to mention how tired listeners got.

Radio began in Iron River, Michigan in 1950 with Melodies of Life, a Saturday evening 30-minute show with records and stories. That evolved into part-time work at WMUS in Muskegon, Michigan. In Anchorage I produced two 30-minute TV specials and in Duluth from 1978 to 1987 I did close to 2,000 North Country Notebook shows for WWJC. It was a weekday morning five-minutes, mostly taped, on outdoor themes.

Filmstrips: During my hitch on the denominational staff I got into filmstrips, a popular medium at that time. I wrote scripts, often narrated, and sometimes shot the pictures for perhaps a dozen filmstrips of varying length.

Writing: As reported elsewhere in these pages, my interest in writing began in childhood. I sold my first story in 1959. An uncounted number of stories, articles, essays, monographs, columns, and devotions followed. I wrote or ghost-wrote two dozen or more books with translations into several languages. I worked with several publishers and contributed chapters to several books. I wrote for Christian Service Brigade and Christian Camping International. Elsie and I ran two small publishing companies.

Wordshed Mission:  In1986 we took early retirement we set up the Wordshed Mission to tell the stories of quiet servants of the faith we had met. We planned two books, a few hundred copies. Reprints and new titles followed, and be 2011 the Mission had distributed over 30,000 print books and nearly a thousand audio books.

Blogging: Late in 2008, to keep the family apprised as Elsie faded, I began a group email to family and a few close friends. I called it the Hole News because I wrote it nightly during in my inevitable, sleepless, hole in the night, hence Hole News. The group grew by referral until the list reached nearly 250 names. In 2011 we moved to the Web:


How I Became an Author

The popular view gives the title author to people who write books. Writers, on the other hand, create short stuff for newspapers and magazines. Did you ever hear of a freelance author?

In 1958 our family moved to a mission church in Anchorage. There I sold my first story to a Sunday school paper for ten dollars, which made me a writer. I  sold  many more articles and stories, mostly for three cents a word, but my most profitable writing drew no pay.

I fired off missionary reports to our denominational magazine about summer camps and Boy Scout adventures. When our church troop died for want of leadership,  I wrote how the Lord sent us a gung-ho Christian Service Brigade leader. We started Alaska’s first Brigade battalion.

That drew the attention of Lawrence Swanson, our Conference Christian education executive. Under his leadership, the denomination had adopted Brigade as its official boys program. Camping was also in his bailiwick. In early autumn, 1961, Lawrence came to Anchorage to lead teacher training workshops. A friend for several years, he told me he was fighting a deadline for Tips, his leadership newsletter. The topic was using nature in the Bible camp program. He said, “Lloyd, I don’t know anything about that,” “Piece of cake,” I replied, and offered to rough out a piece for him. His relief was palpable.

Overnight I worked up 1,500 words which Lawrence read and put in the mail untouched. The piece came out under my byline. It won a minor award, got reprinted in other periodicals, and became a widely-circulated monograph.

Not long after the piece was published, Lawrence’s assistant resigned. His job description included camping and boys work. He left on his desk the outline and a draft of one chapter of a counselor handbook, Camping Guideposts. The deadline had passed; orders were piling up. Lawrence needed a new assistant in a hurry, one who knew boys work and camping and could write. He phoned me.

In January, 1962 our family moved to Chicago where I began a ten year hitch on the Conference staff. I finished Camping Guideposts in time for the summer season and became an author.

My job involved me in the beginnings of Christian Camping International. Venture, Brigade’s magazine for boys, invited me to write a regular column. Other assignments came and before long I gained considerable notice as a Christian camping and outdoor writer. Someone once introduced me as the Apostle of the Outdoors.

It’s curious to look back and note how seemingly unrelated circumstances merge to shape our lives. Writing became part of my work.

How I Became a Writer

When I was grade three, a circus elephant gave me glasses and opened my life to books and writing. It happened this way:

One day in early spring, Mother took sister Hazel and me to the circus, my first. The whole thing fascinated me, especially the huge tent with its three-ring flurry. How did all those clowns squeeze into that tiny car? Then Mother said, “Look!  An elephant!”  I looked but saw no elephant. That’s how my parents learned I had poor vision. I became the only four-eyes in the class.

I had learned to read from big-lettered flash cards in earlier grades, but I had no idea what the teacher was doing at the blackboard, and books were a blurry mystery. I could see the pictures and somehow managed, but when I got glasses, wow! I soon became Lester Park Library’s best kid customer.

I discovered Bob’s Hill books by Charles Pierce Burton; read everyone one on the shelves, some twice, and began to imagine writing stories like them. I recall lying on the Davenport in the living room of our small home it Duluth plotting a book, scene by scene. Someday, I told myself, I’d be a writer. Maybe even an author!  I never told anyone, of course. Authors were bearded dignitaries in a card game sister Hazel and I played. Maybe I’d just be a writer.

Teachers said I had the flair. I wrote poems but hid them. I read Horatio Alger, Jr. books by the dozen and devoured Tarzan. I discovered  Hopalong Cassidy, Clarence Mulford’s cowboy hero, and moved on to many other authors.  Essays were the easy part of school. Later, when I moved about as a pastor, I inherited district newsletters.

The Standard, our denominational magazine, gave me my first published article, “God Bless our Little Church” about a woman who bugged me every prayer meeting by closing her prayer with that phrase. She stressed little. Hey! We had over 100 in Sunday School. My piece declared there are no little churches. We were the biggest church those kids had.

My first for-pay piece came ten years later in Alaska. A Sunday school paper bought my story about a boy fishing trout for ten whole bucks!  Finally, at age 37, I was a professional writer.

More stories and articles followed, along with regular reports to the Standard about our mission church in Anchorage. Those reports played a major role in my first book.