By Kyle Vernon
Tonight was the night! Weeks of planning, frustration, and practice were coming together to deliver an awesome closing camp ceremony for both campers and their parents alike. That we would do this same ceremony every Friday Night for the rest of the summer at Camp Buffalo Trails meant nothing to us. This was the first week of camp and we all had “Opening Night jitters,” as professional actors call it.
We had worked hard to memorize our lines. In the open air amphitheater we had even taped our places to stand on the hard concrete stage. For old timers and new staff members alike it was a new experience. Yes, we were inducting new members into our lodge, but we were doing in a way never attempted before.
That’s not to say it was easy getting there. When we first approached the adult leadership with our idea of a flaming arrow lit fire the answer was so loudly “NO!” that I’m surprised some rocks didn’t fall off Forbidden Mountain next to camp. (It was Forbidden because it was covered in rocks. To walk on Forbidden mountain was tantamount to committing suicide.)
So both sides had dug in their heels and went to war. The teenage staff against the adult staff. In the weeks leading up to the first closing camp ceremony it was a civil, yet, never ending attack by the youth staff. Every meeting, even those not connected to the ceremony, became a sounding board for the ceremony and the plan to light the fire with a flaming arrow.
Since I was only a second year staff member I could only watch and take notes on what worked. Four years later when I became the junior staff leader I would draw heavily upon this matter, but for this summer I could only watch as diplomatic efforts failed and failed again.
The plan was so simple it was scary. A trained archer, or the closest thing next to it, would fire a flaming arrow from the back of the open air amphitheater and hit the immense pile of wood looming behind the Indian actors on the stage. Since there were plenty of rocks to hide behind the archer would remain hidden until the ceremony. For the crowd, we reasoned, what could be cooler than having a flaming arrow soaring over their heads and lighting the wood pile on fire?
“Because, we are not going to break every safety rule of Archery and shoot an arrow over people, directly at people, or anywhere near people,” said the camp director gruffly.
“But!” we would reply, “the rules state that exceptions to the rules can be made in special circumstances, provided that a margin of safety exists. It’s not like we are going to shoot someone in the crowd, you know, the back of the amphitheater is fifty five feet elevation above the front, even if the bowstring breaks the arrow will still clear the audience.” We were good at feeding it right back at them. As both sides settled into the war we became adept at sounding just as technical as they did. We could say “margin of safety,” and “special circumstances” in our sleep, and probably did given the dream of having the best lodge ceremony in the United States.
And so the argument went. Day in, day out, point, counter-point. That some of these staffers would later grow up to hold elected position came as no surprise to me. The issue would not rest. Finally, just days before the campers were scheduled to arrive, the adult staff opened the door just far enough for us to stick our collective feet in. It came after a rather long and tiring afternoon training session when the camp director came to the front of the room. He knew from the look of the junior staff leader what the next question was going to be.
“I have given it some thought,” he began in a conciliatory tone that cause all of us to sit up and wipe the sleep from our eyes,” and if your archery (he said this word particularly sarcastically but we let it pass) can hit the wood pile twenty times perfect, AND I MEAN PERFECT, then perhaps we can have the flaming arrow in the ceremony.”
It felt as it lightning had shot through the crowd of teenage staff members. We had our chance. Our staff leader engaged the discussion in record time.
“Been there, done that,” he responded, “Bobby Andrews has all ready hit it fifty times in a row!”
“I have heard that, but after dinner I want to see it with my own two eyes. Let’s go to the amphitheater tonight and see, but if he misses the pile even once then the deal is off. We go back to the Indian guards lighting the fire with their torches. Do you agree?”
Without even talking to Bobby, our archery range instructor, the staff leader said “agreed.”
Dinner was a victory party for us, the junior staff, we knew we had won even before the first “twang” of the bowstring. We discussed which television stations we should invite down to see the event. One staff member bragged he could probably get his cousin from the Dallas Morning News down to camp in the next few weeks. We were going to be famous. The show had to be perfect. Over dessert we discussed how to make our Indian costumes better. Then we departed for the amphitheater, our spirits high.
Bobby Andrews performed flawlessly, even with sixty pairs of eyes watching his every motion from the side of the amphitheater he was able to hit the campfire woodpile twenty times in a row, often within inches of where the last shot had been. No misses, no deflections, just “Zip, swish, thunk!” again and again. As the twilight faded into darkness, simulating the conditions we would actually be working in, the canyon echoed the sound of arrow after arrow striking the mark. Even some of the junior staff grew bored and drifted away back to camp as the first stars twinkled out of the twilight. Bobby kept going well past the twenty required. I lost count at eighty something, others said he went to a hundred before the camp director called him down. We celebrated that night in the staff huts with enough cokes to add a new meaning to the phrase “wee hours” of the morning. If we weren’t weeing we were twitching in caffeine induced spasms.
And so on the night in question we were hyped! All except for me. My Indian costume, a loin cloth worn over a swimsuit, was not acceptable to the new higher standard and I was given the job of helping Bobby. After all, the junior staff leader laughed, someone has to carry to spears of fire for the great Bobby Andrews. Rumors were flying that Bobby would earn some secret Indian name meaning “Shooter of the sacred flame” when he moved up to next level within our lodge. I was disappointed, but kept to myself. I would light the arrow and give a war whoop when it hit to surprise the crowd even more. Not the job I wanted, but that’s life. For most of the ceremony Bobby and I would be hiding behind some rocks, it was going to be a forgettable evening for me.
After the awards ceremony it was time. Our lodge was readying for the induction ceremony! The lights went out after Nutikett, the name of Indian guard, told the audience that pictures were not allowed and that all talking would cease. We waiting. High on Forbidden mountain I could see the three “W’s” being lifted into position. Besides lighting the fire, other team members were to light the “W’s” on fire. All we were waiting for was the team and the phrase “Let the tap out begin!” to let her rip. As the team solemnly entered the amphitheater Bobby and I went through the agreed to motions to get him ready.
A single concert speaker placed in the creek bed behind the campfire and powered by an extension cord from a nearby latrine belted out the soundtrack to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” First into the ring was Nutikett, he was a fourth year staffer respected by all. His costume was handed down to him by his father, who had done the job in this camp many years earlier. His war bonnet was small, but the beadwork on his leather was second to none. He played the part well. He was also a high school football player and he could project just the right image for a guard.
Behind him entered Metayu, the Indian Medicine Man, he was also a fourth year staffer. His costume was completely different than Nutikett’s, reflecting an Apache approach rather than a Sioux, but it was complete and complimented the occasion. Except for the pale skin, they both could have passed as authentic Native Americans. Metayu also carried with him his medicine pouch, from which he would extract a seed filled gourd during the ceremony to rattle around the new inductees as they were inducted.
Third person in was Allowatsikima, the chief of the fire himself. Our Allowat was the junior staff leader and was a fifth year staffer. After this summer camp season he was joining the Army, but like the guard, he too was a football player, and was not lacking in stature as he strode powerfully in behind the others. His costume was the most impressive of the lot. Except for the synthetic feathers of his huge, ground dragging war bonnet everything was real. During the winter months, when he wasn’t scoring touchdowns, he had fashioned a real Indian breastplate made with authentic animal bones to wear on top of his impressive leather outfit. He had gone so far as to collect the bones from a slaughterhouse and bleach them. He had taken time to get his costume right, and tonight it showed (in what light there was to see!).
Other Indians came in after he did, but I can hardly remember who they where because of his powerful impression. He was the right man for the job, even if he had struck me from the rolls and stuck me on the mountain with Bobby “Sure Shot” Andrews.
Soon the crowd was hushed and the opening comments from each of the cast had been spoken. With some excitement I took the arrow that had a cloth strip tied around it near the point and handed it to Bobby. Earlier in the awards ceremony I had dipped the arrow into some kerosene, as both Bobby and I realized that a fresh dipped arrow might drip some flaming kerosene in flight. Bobby hefted the arrow up to his bow.
“Too bad, I couldn’t use my crossbow,” he regretfully whispered to me as he took the arrow.
Hefting the arrow up to the bow Bobby made an unsettling discovery, one that changed everything.
“Holy cats!” he said after flexing the bowstring with the arrow ready to fly.
“What?!” I whispered, “Did I do something wrong?” I was alert to all possibilities.
“No!” he yelped, “it’s the arrow!! It’s soaked in kerosene!”
Bobby always did have a firm grasp of the blatantly obvious.
“And what part of ‘flaming arrow’ do you not understand? You can’t shoot a lighter down there!” I said flashing a trusty, well used cigarette lighter given to me by the camp director earlier in the evening.
“No, it’s heavier than what I practiced with! I don’t know the trajectory! Too low and I’ll drill a camper, too high and I’ll light off the brush in the creek bed behind the campfire or hit the sound tech!”
Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. My heart stopped and my stomach took up the slack, I felt queasy all over. I looked down the line of fire. First there were campers and their parents, obviously a no go. Between them and the campfire stood Allowatsikima, the chief of the ceremony. Behind the campfire was the dry creek and the speaker complete with someone to turn on and off the cassette. Immediately behind them was the Latrine, no one was in there, but the camp director would frown if we torched the only toilettes on this side of camp. Even higher up the hillside was the team of people preparing the “W’s” for their part of the show. Six potential target groups where there was only supposed to be one. I was going to be an accomplice to pre-meditated, summer camp sponsored, murder.
“This our purpose and intent!” boomed out the Medicine man, that was my cue to light the arrow, “mark with silence reverent!” he sang out. My brain said no, but my hand went ahead and lit the arrow now primed and ready to fly.
“Please God,” Bobby prayed, “don’t let me kill somebody!”
A silence settled onto the camp, there was no wind, the crowd was impressed by the show. Focused on the front not one of them turned to see the arrow as the flames caught hold. Allowat stood taller than he had all evening, it was psychological I know, but for a moment he appeared ten feet tall as Bobby and I waited for the final words. He looked stage left and stage right, everything was perfect. With a confident smile he knew that this would be a night long remembered. He raised his arms upward as if addressing the great spirits. Bobby lifted his aim and guestimated for the additional weight of the now flaming arrow.
“Let the tap out, ” he paused for effect, “BEGIN!” he yelled.
The bow beside me thwaped out its flaming projectile, for whatever Bobby had done to it, it was a flying physics problem now. The arrow screamed low over the audience. To me it looked like it was going to make it, the Boy Scout cruise missile was right on target. I was so excited that my requested “War whoop” was probably much louder than it needed to be. Maybe I was trying to lift the arrow just a little more.
The arrow stuck, but it wasn’t the firewood pile, it was Allowatsikima! The arrow struck just to the left of his sternum, around the place they always point to during a CPR class. Allowat, who had just finished screaming the word “BEGIN” loud enough that those on the mountain could hear him, now screamed loud enough to wake the dead. The Indians near him could only stand in shock as they watched their leader scream. The crowd jumped, some even stood up, more than a few mothers added their terrifying shrieks to the night air. Bobby Andrews fainted away next to me (sorry Bobby, I didn’t keep the promise). On the mountain side only two of the “W’s” lit up, the other crew watched the amphitheater. The crowd, faced with a Indian style whoop from yours truly AND a burning indian, was on the verge of bolting.
Allowatsikma went into a dance routine seldom matched in even professional fancy dance routines. It was quick, high stepping, and circular with the words. He then began to yell. It started low and built up in wavering tones to a loud roar.
“Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiire!!!!!!! I’m on fire!”he screamed repeatedly. The Medicine Man, closest to him, was the first to recover from the chief’s hypnotic dance routine. With one smooth motion he to a step towards the chief and quickly pulled the flaming arrow out of his shoulder and placed his hand over the wound. It was the camp medic’s finest hour. Had he joined into the panic I bet the crowd would have run for the hills, but he didn’t. Fishing a small flashlight out of his medicine pouch he quickly illuminated the wounded shoulder. The chief stopped dancing and also took interest in his wound.
“It’s okay!” screeched the chief, “my breastplate stopped it!”
The chief looked at the flaming arrow on the ground and back at his shoulder.
“It didn’t penetrate!” he yelled, “My breastplate worked! I’m fine”
A muffled murmur swelled across the crowd. A collective sigh filled the canyon.
“It’s cool! no blood,” added the Medic, “well not a lot. Just a scratch.”
The chief removed the medic’s hand and reached for the arrow. Tossing it on the wood pile he turned back to the crowd and calmly said “Well, back to business.” The crowd sat back down and the ceremony continued.
It was nearly midnight when the ceremony team members could meet back up at the dining hall. We called these events “Cracker Barrels” out of tradition and it was a chance to review what exactly had gone wrong. For the first time in several days, both sides of the staff (adult and teenage) understood what had happened and the list of lessons learned was impressive. The only tense time was when the chief came in to the dining hall and made a bee line for Bobby. He was still in his costume and by the lights of the hall we could see that the damage to his costume was much greater than his ringside brush off had led us to believe. His breastplate had indeed stopped the arrow and some of the bones were blackened from the flames. Several of his plastic eagle feathers were noticeably melted, but between the bone breastplate and the thick leather underneath it he barely had a scratch.
Walking up to Bobby the junior staff leader quickly wrapped his arms around him in a big bear hug. Some others nearby flinched thinking, no doubt, that the chief was about to execute his would be assassin.
“Bobby” he said, “words can not describe the feeling I had when I saw that arrow coming down at me! Thanks for not killing me!”
“Yeah, now go clean out your loin cloth!” shouted someone amidst even more laughter.
From there we broke up and returned to our huts. Since 1979 the story was handed down from one years staff to another. By 1986 my last year on camp staff at Buffalo Trails it had crossed the threshold into legend status, but a quick check of a another staff member in 1994 revealed that the story had been sadly lost. Somewhere in the course of eight years the story faded, but in staff lore of the time it would always be remembered as “the night we shot Allowat.”
© Copyright 2001 – All Rights Reserved
Disclaimer: This story was not endorsed by or written expressly for the Boy Scouts of America, it is part of my personal memories written for the book “Teacup Dobermans”. Names/dates have been changed to protect the innocent and/or guilty.