This is the first part of a three-part piece I wrote for my Gothic fiction class. The two prompts given us were quite simple: the first asked us to define a ghost, the second to comment on a quote by Edith Wharton regarding ghosts. This piece grew well beyond my original plans, which is why I’m splitting it into three parts here. I hope you enjoy.
We’re walking outside, all of us, following the youngest kid in the camp. He’s holding a single candle, which on this mostly moonless night is mostly making shadows on the pine trees towering above us. We all walk in excited silence. Occasionally some new kid will attempt a joke or some comment on the scene, only to be hushed by the older campers or a counselor, many of whom were once campers themselves and so knew the drill.
You don’t mess with tradition. Not on Flying Joe night. Not on this, the last night of camp.
His grave’s down the hill, behind the senior cabin. We’ve all seen it, of course — you have to pass it on your way to the water ski platform or the river. Most of the summer you go past it, ignoring it. But new campers notice, and ask questions. Why is there a grave there? It’s hard to miss it. A simple wooden cross. A grave outlined with stones, between three huge norway pines, each so large that two seniors might just be able to join hands around it.
We gather around, in the dark. The youngest campers get in front, the older ones in back. Rob, the camp’s director, kneels down at the foot of the grave. Suddenly the quiet group becomes even quieter.
“Can you hear us, Flying Joe?”
“We’ve had a good summer, Flying Joe, and we hope you’ll give us a sign…”
We all wait. What will he say?
It’s silent. And then, we hear something. It’s a sound, hard to understand, but it’s definitely speech. We all lean closer, trying to hear.
Good summer… I hear, then can’t hear any more. Behind me kids are whispering excitedly.
“What?” “What’d he say?”
And then there’s silence. Nothing else — at least until next year.
The tradition begins
Flying Joe is a camp ghost. Rather, he’s described as the “patron spirit” of Red Acorn Camp, a seven-week overnight camp for boys. I spent six glorious summers at Red Acorn, learning how to waterski, build a campfire, run rapids in a canoe, run a mile without puking, keep a cabin clean, and all the other things a young boy needs. I haven’t been back to Red Acorn in years, but the visual images from those summers have seared themselves into my memory. Though I have a box of old photos and other memorabilia from these summers, I don’t need them to remember the most important moments.
I should point out here the camp’s name is not Red Acorn. I’ve changed its name, as well as a few other details in the story, to keep the curtain at least partially drawn on the mystery of Flying Joe, at least for current campers and the casually curious. More essay than journalism, the truth of this story is not in these details. Anyone who’s shared a similar experience will recognize what’s most important in this story. Those who perseverate on hard “truth” and facts — well, let me say that I understand you well. But not everything that’s beautiful in the world can be captured with photographic evidence.
Besides, some of the most important moments at summer camp didn’t happen with cameras present. And that includes pretty much anything having to do with Flying Joe.
Flying Joe, the story goes, was a circus performer from central Europe who achieved fame with the Ringling Brothers’ circus in the mid 1800s. He was the only aerialist who could achieve the difficult triple somersault. Injured in an accident, he retired from the circus and began residing with the lumber company that formerly stood on the grounds of the camp. Using a trapeze he put up in the camp, he would entertain the lumberjacks with his tricks, including the rare, difficult and dangerous triple somersault.
One, two, three…
The lumberjacks would cheer loudly, marveling at this man who spoke little English, who could achieve such spectacular feats.
And then one day something went wrong. Something went horribly wrong.
Flying Joe went up to the trees, got on his trapeze bar. He began his routine, flying, spinning in mid air. Then it was time for the triple somersault.
He missed the bar.
The lumberjacks buried him in a beautiful place, on the top of a small hill overlooking the lake, between three tall pine trees.
But Flying Joe didn’t fully go away. There were signs over the years that couldn’t be explained. People reported hearing strange sounds. Things appeared — or disappeared — in groups of three.
Flying Joe, the explanation went, was still with us.
Sometimes, people said, you could even see him. Walking among the three trees that surrounded his grave, singing to himself in his strange, voice…
Takuri, takuri, takuri…
His spirit is still with us today, went the story. Watching over us all as we go about the daily camp activities. If you listen and watch closely, you may hear — or see — his telltale signs of three.
And on the last night of camp, we gather in the Rec Hall, one of the original buildings of the lumber camp. We sing a song. Then we turn out the lights and wait for a sign. Sometimes we need to sing it two or three times, because if people aren’t completely quiet, we won’t get a sign.
But if we do, we’ll go to his grave, led by the youngest camper by the light of a single candle. And if we’re lucky, he’ll talk to us.
How a story develops
That was the story of Flying Joe, based both on a written version of the story sent to campers before camp and as how I remember it being told to me by Rob Jones, the co-owner and director of the camp. Rob and his wife Kate purchased the camp in 1967, but the history of the camp goes back to its founding in 1921 by a teacher who wanted his students to have a great summer experience.
According to Kate, the story of Flying Joe originated with this man right at the beginning of the camp. For many years the story was told to campers by a man who had been with the camp since the 1950s. It’s likely he learned the story from a former student of the camp’s founder.
Other aspects of the story, and the ritual surrounding it, remain mysterious. The origin of the “Flying Joe” song, for example. An eerie, haunting song in a minor key, particularly when accompanied by an off-key piano:
I’m the ghost of Flying Joe, ho, ho, ho
I’m from where the spirits go, ho, ho, ho
Just one hundred years today
Since from earth I passed away
Now I’ll turn the pages back
Watch the spirits play…
But the tradition remains strong. The campers still sing the song, turn out the lights, wait for a sign, and then go to his grave.
I wonder if the kids believe in Flying Joe. I know I did. That is until someone — who ought to have known better — said something to us on the last night of camp.
“Don’t ruin it for the younger campers,” he said. He never directly confirmed anything, or answered anyone’s questions, but the meaning was clear.
Flying Joe wasn’t real.
Next: Part 2: “Why we love a good scare”