My father was a pretty scary guy. With his big gray beard and crazy eyes, a casual observer once likened him to a psychopathic Santa in mechanics overalls.
Blessed with a booming baritone voice and eyebrows that could hide a small animal, Les Tomalin liked to laugh like a maniac fresh out of the asylum and send his children running for the shelter of the nearest stranger's campsite.
Looking back, I know now that his campfire creepiness was all in good fun. Ghost stories are supposed to be frightening. But in today's cuddle-your-kid culture, I am sure there are those who might consider the old man a monster.
In fact, on more than one occasion, I suspected that the Bearded One might not be my dad at all, but an imposter, some lunatic lumberjack right out of the Maine woods, sent by the forest gods to punish me for playing with matches.
Then again, maybe it was just a dream, or perhaps, one of his timeless tales of horror that has worked its way into my psyche, so deep, that now I can no longer distinguish reality from that campfire world of ghosts, witches and ax-wielding madmen that I have come to love.
But before you dial 911 and have me committed, read on. That is, if you have the courage.
The set up
As the Scoutmaster of Canterbury Cub Scout Pack 210, my main responsibilities include building fires that can be seen from space and telling scary stories that make my friends and colleagues wonder why I have never been institutionalized.
But alas, I have a confession. My tales of werewolves and swamp creatures aren't really that scary. If my scouts were to hear the same tales by the light of day, they would laugh and pummel me with spitballs.
At night, however, under the oak trees, with the wind howling and the flames flickering, I could tell the one about the little girl in the red hood and have them all crying for Mommy.
That is because by the time the actual ghost story starts, I already have them under my spell. I like to start early in the day, offering casual tidbits about local history and folklore. Like a skilled politician, I blend a little truth with great big lies.
Usually, I don't go it alone. I always try to let somebody else in on my devious plans. There are always plenty of adults willing to play along. Apparently, I am not the only grown-up who was traumatized as a youth.
Caution: Please run your plan by at least one sensible adult. For example, on a recent trip to a well-known Hillsborough County park where the legendary Florida Swamp Ape is thought to congregate on moonlit nights, I tried to convince my friend Dead River Jack Coleman to make a special appearance in his gorilla suit.
But Coleman, even though a fan of the Boston Red Sox, had better sense and cautioned against it. "It's hunting season," he said. "I might get shot."
In retrospect, while a large, hairy, man-ape emerging from the trees at precisely the right moment in my story would have been amusing, it might have also inflicted lasting psychological damage to all involved, Dead River Jack included.
An accomplice, however, does come in handy, especially if he hides in the woods and can deliver a blood-curdling scream on cue without laughing.
Everybody knows the old flashlight under the face trick. But my scouts are a sophisticated bunch and never fall for such simple-minded shenanigans.
Instead, I treat them with the respect they are due. I approach every story as if it were just another conversation with other intelligent adults. I talk slowly, and with purpose. At times, I even lose my train of thought.
I'll pause and wait for one of the youngsters to put me back on track. Sometimes, I'll even ask a question, and that is when the particularly alert ones will regurgitate the tidbits of local history or folklore that I so cleverly planted earlier that day.
By now, they are all listening, some even arguing, but each with ownership of this community effort more commonly known as a campfire tale.
My stories often end the same way, with me, the fearless scoutmaster, facing a horrid death, too ghastly to repeat, so I usually just stop and gather my things for bed.
"Well, what happens?" somebody always asks.
That's when I pause, look around and answer, "I got killed, of course."
They'll sit dumbfounded for a moment or two until somebody says, "Wait a minute ..."
That is, until the next time.