Being a member of the Cub Scouts worked out really well for me, most of the time. Despite what you may assume, nothing was really expected of anyone in my troop.
There were crafts, birdhouse construction, and so on... but really we just watched the dads do it all. When it came to earning badges, we'd pick the easiest tasks and fudge our way through it.
The one thing we couldn't really fake, however, was the camping trip.
Our Den Mother was a housewife. She'd never slept outdoors, and the closest she'd gotten to "roughing it" was managing her garden in the backyard. When it came time for us to go out into the wild, to sleep in tents and get mauled by mosquitoes the size of model planes... well, that duty fell to her husband, Mike.
Mike was an okay guy, as far as I could tell. The Cub Scout who belonged to the two of them seemed a little meek, but he had everything a kid could want. He had the kind of toys that were constructed and stood taller than the boy himself once they were complete.
Mike was a fix-it man. He wasn't into anything specific, but I'd seen him fix my parents' car and he was the guy our Podunk school called on when they needed graffiti painted over.
So, our little group journeyed out into the thick, dark, and uncomfortably humid forest. Being in full uniform until bed time didn't help matters in the least.
For his part, Mike did what he could. He'd brought along a Cub Scout guidebook and tried to get us involved in little projects. Leaf collecting, the ubiquitous knot-tying, and so on.
We'd already done most of it, but there was an unspoken agreement to keep doing as little real learning as possible.
When nightfall came, Mike had set up a roaring campfire. It had taken him a few tries, first with stones, then rubbing sticks, and finally some matches and a bit of gas siphoned from his truck. That took a bit of time since we'd hiked a good distance from the park's parking lot.
The embers lit up the air around us and mingled with fireflies that would dance with them, unsure of their intended message.
"Oh! I have a surprise for you guys!" Mike clapped his hands together as he suddenly stood.
We all remained glued to our makeshift seats... fallen logs we'd collected... content to keep warm around the fire.
"I'll be right back!" Mike said as he disappeared into the trees.
"I know what it is!" The Son teased, "We camp in my yard sometimes, and we always do this. It's a tradition!!"
We demanded to know what the surprise was, but he wouldn't give in. In fact, the more we begged and threatened, the wider his smile grew. When we realized he was enjoying the small measure of power over us, we decided we didn't care anymore.
"Here he comes!" One of the kids shouted, pointing to the tree line.
A single flaming twig hovered in the darkness. The improvised torch approached, and before long we could make out Mike's tall, stocky build. Though his silhouette was dark and hard to make out and the flaming stick obscured his face, each of us leaned in and waited for the surprise.
"Who wants to hear..." Mike lowered the flame, illuminating a carved wooden mask, "SOME STORIES?!"
We all cheered as Mike sat down at the fire once again. The mask he now wore was crudely whittled from some random, blotchy piece of old wood. The man was nothing if not handy.
He had also changed out of the traditional shirt and slacks and into a black turtleneck and black sweat pants. It was something we were all wishing we could do at that point, though none of us dared show weakness by asking permission.
"I do!" Shouted one of the boys. He was followed by a chorus of identical cries from the rest.
"Alright..." Mike lowered his voice, taking on a creepy Boris Karloff tone, "You asked for it!"
Mike held the flaming twig under his chin, letting the light flicker and fade across the beady-eyed, grimacing carved visage.
"Once, there was a man who lived near here. His name was Harold. He'd often heard stories that these woods were haunted... but he never believed them."
We all leaned in again.
"Then, one night, he heard a Coyote howling at the moon. Fearing for the safety of his pets, Harold took up his shotgun and followed the sound."
Mike cocked his head left and right, surveying our wide-eyed, silent faces.
"He found some odd tracks in the mud and followed them until he reached the edge of a cliff. There, he saw something veeerrryyy straaaannnge..."
"What'd he see?" I asked, almost whispering.
"It was a man, much like him, but with legs turned around the wrong way. The man had a face like a toad, with two large, black eyes and a mouth that almost went around his whole head. He was gnawing on a bloody Coyote leg."
"What happened then??" Someone begged.
"The strange toad-thing lifted Harold and threw him off the cliff!"
Silence, save for the crackling of the fire.
We all stared hard at Mike, who remained eerily still. He seemed to be looking directly into the campfire.
"And then?" Another child asked.
"Nothing," Mike replied, "Would you like to hear another story?"
Whispers and chuckles rose up among us.
"Alright, here's another one..." Mike lowered the flaming twig, then brought it to his mask again, "Two young lovers parked out here one night. They thought they were alone, but as soon as their attention was focused on each other, the soil began to shift. The entire car, with them inside, sank beneath the Earth's surface. Down, down, down it went until they seemed to hit something hard."
We weren't sure what to make of Mike's stories at this point, but it seemed to be getting good.
"All was dark. Dirt pressed against their windows. Dirt covered the roof. Dirt was even spilling into the car through every available opening. The glass made unsettling cracking sounds."
The flaming twig lowered, then rose again. The mask almost looked as if the expression had changed from a grimace to a sneer.
"Then, they heard the digging sounds. Digging, digging, digging... Yellow claws tapped the glass. The young lovers screamed as they saw the wrinkled, blind, pure white faces of half a dozen men with segmented bodies."
"So what happened?!" I all but screamed into the darkness.
"I shouldn't tell you the rest, they're listening."
A simultaneous groan escaped our lips. With that, Mike stood again and suddenly turned away from us. He took a few steps back toward the trees without so much as saying a word.
We watched him leave, and soon all we could make out in the darkness was the light of that burning twig. That small beacon bobbed and turned until it shrank to a small dot in the distance. Eventually, it disappeared from view. Looking back, I don't think the flame had even moved from the very tip of the twig.
"Well that was weird!" Someone laughed.
"Hey, look!" Another kid shouted, his voice trembling.
We all turned to see the one boy... Mike's son... as he sat completely still. He was pale, and he wore a look of shock and horror the likes of which I've not seen since. He looked like he was having a seizure.
"What's your problem?" I asked, not one for empathy at this point in life.
"S... suh... suh..." the boy stammered.
We heard rustling from the trees once again and turned to see what the strange man had in store for us this time.
Mike emerged, dressed in the proper Scout clothes we'd seen him wearing earlier. He was toting a cooler. There was no time to change out of the outfit we'd just seen him in.
"S'mores..." His son finally spoke, "The tradition is S'mores..."