"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 17, 2020

Twisted Fairy Tales, Three-Fingered Willy, And COVID Panic–“Mommy, I’m Scared”

Petey Roberts in his younger years had been a Junior Counselor at Camp Onawa, summer retreat for boys on Cape Cod.  The camp was located on Lake Mashpee on Indian tribal land leased to the Reverend Paley Jenkins for a period of fifty years.  Reverend Jenkins saw little of Chief Albert Long Smoke or his lawyers, for as long as campers respected the sacred burial grounds, secreted in a remote corner of the property and far from the archery and rifle ranges, softball fields, and refectory, did not fish in the lake; and as long as the staff remained honorable, decent, and pious, there would be no interference by the tribe in camp affairs.

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Old Reverend Jenkins, well into his seventies when Petey worked there, had no trouble adhering to tribal rules.  He recruited his staff carefully, vetted them for religious faith (although he was surprisingly ecumenical in his choices) , assured that they were of a better class of men (Ivy League, University of Virginia), and took only boys who had led a trouble-free childhood.  The camp was always in demand exactly because of its probity and rectitude, discipline, and strict supervision.  Most of the boys at Camp Onawa did not want to be there, and after their first Sunday service held under the shade trees of Main House, they wanted to be there even less. The Catholic and Jewish boys especially resented being harangued about Jesus by this old time preacher who doddered to and from the lectern, grabbed ahold of it with both hands, steadied himself, sipped from a glass of water, and picked up his dog-eared Bible and read from the Epistles. There was grace before meals, prayers before bedtime, and very noxious homilies repeated as encouragement on the ball fields.

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Petey’s job was easy.  He was in charge of Big Bear Cabin and a group of ten boys aged 10-12.  He was to assure that they were asleep after taps, up and ready for breakfast after reveille, and present at the days activities.  The camp had a ‘core curriculum’ – swimming, volleyball, and boating were obligatory; but the boys could choose electives from field sports to crafts.  Petey was responsible for seeing that his boys showed up when called, and returned when finished, cleaned their plates, washed up, napped, and made their beds.

The best part of the job was getting to town.  Petey’s classmate from Virginia had driven up in his ‘34 Ford, kept it in racing tune and as polished as a freshly-picked apple, and the two of them went in to Hyannis after dinner to get ice cream from the girls from Briarcliff and Brearley on Cape Cod for the summer.  They had to back at the camp by 7 so that they could see to their boys, settle them in for the night, and assure that all was well.

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Counselors were encouraged to use the time between bedtime and lights out for telling stories.  This was a tradition at Camp Onawa, and Reverend Jenkins, proud of his young men, often stopped in to listen. The boys, after a dutiful day at camp activities, were happy to lie back and listen.  The stories reminded them of listening to their fathers reading to them when they were little and felt comforted and somewhat at home even as far away as they were.

Petey’s stories, however, were grisly, frightening, and weird; but the more twisted his characters became as he improvised, the more the campers loved it.  The huddled under their blankets and the younger ones hid under their pillows, but they stayed awake and listened.   Their favorite was ‘Three Fingered Willy’ a tale of a grotesquely deformed, twice dead, zombie who prowled the Cape Cod woods in search of boys’ blood.

The night was cool, starry, and quiet, and a soft breeze blew off the Bay, moved the tassels on night table lamps, stirred the fur of dogs and cats, and rustled the old papers on the desk by the fireplace.  Tommy Barker was just about to fall asleep when he heard a strange, unfamiliar noise outside his window on the back lawn.  It was not loud but disturbing – a soft scraping noise followed by hollow thumps.  Tommy tucked himself down farther under his quilt, hoping the sounds would stop, but they only got louder.  The scrape became a grating, and the thumping became a banging.

The noise became a hammering, and Billy could hear the screech of nails pulled out of old lumber.  Whoever it was grunted and breathed with effort, uttering guttural oaths.  He threw the planking of the back wall onto the ground, and reached for the rafters above the door.  For a moment the noise stopped, and Billy could only hear a labored breathing. Where were his parents?  Why didn’t they hear?  Then, a horrible figure appeared at his bedroom window – a scarred, mutilated, gashed, horrible figure reached up and pulled himself over the sash.  Billy could see the gnarled, broken fingers of one hand; but on the other there were only three fingers, more deformed and wretched than all the others.

It was Three-Fingered Willy who had come for him and his blood.

Petey varied the story every time he told it, but the character of Three-Fingered Willy never changed.  He was always a ghoulish, twisted, ugly, and deformed figure who had risen up from the dead, still covered with dirt, dead leaves, and brambles which hung from his head like tangled, unhuman hair.  A few of the younger boys wet their beds, and a few of the older ones huffed and tried to laugh as the story got more grisly and frightening, but soon there was nothing but silence in the cabin except for the deep, dark, haunting voice of Petey Roberts.

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Whether it was little boy machismo, peer pressure, or just plain dry-mouthed fright, all Petey’s boys kept coming back for more; and the more they insisted, the more ghoulish and monstrous Three-Fingered Willy became.  By the end of the summer, even the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he told his stories.

Scary fairy tales are nothing new.  Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm wrote their own terrifying tales.  Hansel was kept in a cage, and each day the wicked witch felt his finger until it was plump, and she could finally roast the now fat, delectable boy for dinner. Sweet  Little Red Riding Hood was about to be raped and eaten by the big bad wolf.  There were morals to these stories, or so went the Victorian meme, but children loved them because they were no more frightening than the world that they saw around them.  There was something about the anticipated terror, the lucky escape, and the vengeful retribution that fascinated them.  Justice was done when the wicked witch was baked in the very oven which was to have cooked Hansel, or the wicked wolf blown to the four winds by the gentle hunter.

Perhaps Petey had the Brothers Grimm and Three-Fingered Willy to thank for his completely nonplussed attitude towards COVID-19.  In fact he conjured up Corona as a beastly, twice-dead ghoul, and imagined telling stories to frightened children.

The house was still, his parents were asleep, and the dog was curled by the fire.   Everything was in its place – the table set for breakfast, the plumped cushions on the couch, the latched and bolted door, the night light in the hall – and yet Tommy felt uneasy. There was someone – or something – in the house with him.  He listened carefully but could only hear the wind in the chimney and the owl on the tree outside his window, and the rustle of the mice in the cellar; but what he felt could not be seen or heard.  It was something malevolent, evil, and mortal.  It was in the air like a miasma, an invisible but dark cloud of millions of creatures, all acting as one, a murmuration of deadly, invasive, horrible microscopic beings.  They were in the air you breathed, they landed on your table, your chair, your desk, your clothes.  They enveloped you, attacked you, and infected you with their spores and malignancy…

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In fact, he wished to tell the story of COVID to those afraid of their own shadows, scared of the droplets of diseased, atomized, aerosol vital bits that might fall on them, wary of any contact, mortified, unhinged, as fearful of death as the most timid, weak, faithless girl.  Perhaps if  he could put a real bloody, melodramatic scare into them, they might be less fearful, Corona less recondite, more acceptable.  Every young boy in Big Bear cabin at Camp Onawa wet his bed because he knew that there were ghouls, ogres, and demons abroad; but if they took Petey Roberts’s stories to heart, and recalled them in the Time of COVID, perhaps they too could be less fearsome, more happy, and accepting of death.

It is quite amazing how many people are scared out of their wits by Corona, how few people have come to grips with life and its ups and downs, have assessed its risks and benefits, and have come to face death with equanimity.  The Russian soldiers at the Battle of Borodino, blasted by Napoleon’s cannonade, but manning the battlements with courage and defiance, were not afraid of dying.  A heroic, military, honorable death at 35 was far preferable than dying from an infected foot caused by an inadvertent step on a thorn.  Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Americans’ timorousness in face of Corona.  After all, we have been promised a long, productive life well into our 80s, so what was this Chinese thing, this foreign infection, doing, disrupting one’s plans?  Premature death is simply not in the cards.

So perhaps Petey Roberts’ tales of Three-Fingered Willy should be syndicated in this time of Corona.  Shake some sense into everyone.  There is a lot to be afraid of, no doubt, but in some ways it might be better to be taken off at 45 and not at a doddering about, incontinent, illogical 90

Think about it, said Petey, reflecting on his days on the Cape, on Lake Mashpee, at Camp Onawa.

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