Copyright © David W. Bartell 2012
“EEELLLLLLL-MERR!” shouted a group somewhere across the campground. The annual ritual had begun.
“EEELLLLLLL-MERR!” came a reply off to the right.
“Who’s Elmer?” asked my daughter Ellie.
“He’s a guy who got lost in the woods a long time ago,” I said. “You remember from last year? People yell out ‘Elmer’ as they sit around their campfires. It’s kind of a game.”
“EEELLLLLLL-MERR!” the first group yelled back. We couldn’t see the other campers because of the forest and that added to the competition to be loud.
A boy in our group jumped out of his chair saying, “C’mon it’s our turn. On three. One. Two. Three.”
“EEELLLLLLL-MERR!” we all yelled.
My best friend, Stan, and I clinked our beers together. Our families had vacationed annually at Huntington Lake since we were Ellie’s age and yelling “Elmer” was a campfire tradition, like making s’mores.
“Did they ever find him, Dad?” Ellie asked.
“Dunno El,” I answered while shifting a log with the poker.
“When did he get lost?”
“I don’t know that either. I guess it was a long time ago.”
“Does anybody know when Elmer got lost?” she stood and asked the bunch of us.
Uh oh, I thought. Ellie latched on to a subject with the vigor of a mosquito on a bare arm. She walked around the campfire asking the adults if they knew about Elmer. People suspect a little girl when they see her wispy figure and the blonde pigtails, but she can really hold adults in conversation now. It’s hard to believe she’s going into the fourth grade.
Sometime after full darkness, the conversations lagged and we walked back to our cabin.
“Do you want me to read you a story?” I asked.
She shook her head. Something was up. Maybe it was her mom.
“Are you sad because you miss mom?”
She wiggled her head back and forth again, her hair splayed over the pillow she was bear-hugging. This was a weird year. For the first time in our lives my wife, Becky, didn’t come with us because of a big project at work.
“Is it the dark?” I asked, glancing over to the nightlight in the wall socket.
“Well, help me out, sweetie. Did I say something wrong?”
“It’s about Elmer. He’s missing.” She looked up at me with round wet eyes, her mom’s hazel eyes.
“Oh sweetie I’m sorry, but that was a long time ago and, besides, I’m not even sure it was true.”
“How do you know dad? You’re always telling me that every story has some truth to it.”
“I know, but people were yelling, ‘Elmer’ back when I was a kid and that was like…”
“Back when the dinosaurs walked the Earth,” she cut in with a short giggle and rolled her eyes. We said our goodnights and she rolled off to sleep.
I stepped outside feeling the cold air contract my nostrils as I breathed in. Huntington Lake was 7,000 feet up in the mountains and I cherished its rustic quality. But, this year was different. We weren’t all together and it felt wrong … kind of hollow.
Becky and I argued during the week about the family vacation, but when she made a decision, there was no going back. I felt like our relationship was on autopilot, carefully steering around confrontation. We kept a level keel in front of Ellie, but it seemed we were on course with a jagged reef.
I pulled out my phone and saw there was a text from Becky. “How are you guys?”
“We’re great! Fun first day. How’re you?”
I searched the sky a few minutes while I waited for a reply. Stan and I used to count satellites as we drank beers by the fire. We tried to get our wives to count with us once, but they said it was too cold and suggested warmer activities indoors.
Could it be that simple again? I desperately wanted it to be.
The next morning I went on an early walk and brought back chocolate donuts from the General Store.
Ellie was just waking up when I got back.
“Good morning sleepy. Any good dreams?” I asked.
“No … ” she yawned, her kitten breath in need of some toothpaste.
“I got …”
I made hot chocolate and we ate our donuts in silence. She was looking out the window at nothing in particular which usually meant an idea was brewing.
“We need to find out what happened to Elmer,” she said.
“We do? Why?”
“So we know. What if his family never found out what happened? We could tell them. We could make a poster for the bulletin board by the General Store. That way everyone will know.”
“Yeah, but it’s been a long time Ellie. Where would we start?”
“I’ve got it all planned out,” she said and just like her mom she grabbed a sheet of paper and started a list.
“We start asking people. First, we go the Lodge, then the General Store, the Post Office, the marina and the ranger station. There’re a lot of older people around here who probably know something.”
“Well, all right,” I said. “When do we start?”
It was early in the week and each year we had a dad and daughter adventure at the lake. This year the whole week would be a dad and daughter adventure, but I put that thought in the back of my mind.
“We’ll make ham sandwiches for lunch and pack the cooler,” she said rolling off more of the plan. “Better bring a few snacks for the afternoon. Just in case.”
“What if we got Buffalo Burgers at Mono Hot Springs?” I said turning to look at her list.
“Yeah!” she said.
No one at the Lakeshore Lodge knew any more about Elmer than we did. Down at the marina an old guy passing time on the dock perked up and said that if anyone knew, Charlie did!
I should have thought of that myself. Charlie Wilson was legendary around Huntington Lake. He led campfire sing-a-longs and storytelling and spun records for the Friday night teen dances. He was a social hub that spanned at least forty years and knew the local history better than anyone.
“Where is Charlie these days?” I asked the old man. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“He goes up to his fishing cabin near Mono Hot Springs in the summer,” he said in a slow pleasant voice. This news fit right in with our plans.
“Thank you, sir,” said Ellie. “Do you fish around here?”
“Sure, sometimes. It’s been slow this week though.”
Ellie leaned in close, putting on her best innocent cute face and asked, “Where’s your favorite spot? I won’t tell anybody.”
He burst out laughing as he rocked back in his chair. Ellie laughed too. She has a genuine good nature and infectious laugh that wins people over. He motioned her in close and looked around to make sure no one else was listening and whispered in her ear.
“No sir I won’t tell,” Ellie said backing away. “Your secret is safe with me.”
We waved as we walked back up to the car.
“Go, easy dad,” said Ellie as the road leading up to Kaiser Pass narrowed and began to hug the mountain’s curves more tightly.
“You got it El,” I said.
Once over the pass, the road opened onto a spectacular vista that begged us to pull over and take it all in — gnarled bristlecone pine trees that looked more like upside-down carrots than trees, house size granite boulders, and miles of rolling mountains. All this was cast before the mighty spine of the Sierra Nevada, natural skyscrapers at 13,000 feet.
We continued on to the Mono Hot Springs restaurant where the buffalo burgers were delicious as usual. Our day was rolling along just as we planned.
After lunch, we drove a couple more miles up the road to the dirt track that led into Charlie’s fishing camp. Stray raindrops cleared spots on the dusty windshield just as we pulled in. We parked a bit away from the cabin. He was a friendly man, but this location spoke of a desire for solitude.
The cabin was made of rough-hewn pine trunks and the windows, one on each side of the door, gave it a friendly face-like appearance. “Almost Heaven” was carved in the lintel above the door. A single Alder shaded its front.
Charlie wasn’t in. A note tacked on the door said, “Went fishing”. We explored the meadow for a while, but, unfortunately, we couldn’t wait around because we were due back for dinner with Stan’s family.
We got back in the car just as the heavens let loose. The thunder boomed as the storm cells strafed the mountain. We pulled out on the main road when, as luck would have it, the rear passenger tire flatted. We agreed to wait a few minutes for the rain to subside.
“I don’t think this is letting up. Sorry El, but we gotta do this,” I said.
We wore ponchos, but we still soaked through. Ellie screamed a couple of times when the thunder clapped. It was close and each burst caromed off the peaks sounding like the gods were having it out with each other.
Just as we put the flat tire and the tools back in the trunk, the sky around us simultaneously flashed and exploded. An ear-splitting crack morphed into a roaring crash that we felt almost more than heard. I jerked up, smacking my head on the open tailgate. Ellie shrieked and grabbed me. The thunder spread out and Ellie burst into tears as the echoes faded.
In all my years in the mountains that was the most frightening encounter I ever had. I helped her around to the passenger seat and got her wet poncho off. I dropped the ponchos in the back and threw a towel upfront and ran around to my door. I gently toweled off her hair as the crying slowed.
“I just want to go back to the cabin dad.”
“I know sweetie.”
I started driving again and glanced at my phone — No Service. Mono Hot Springs was just around the corner and was as safe a place as any to wait out the storm and they might be able to fix the tire.
“Holy mother of pearl,” I said as we came around the corner.
A massive tree lay shattered over the boulders surrounding the entrance to Mono Hot Springs. It took the full fury of the lightning bolt, the blow shattering its crown and splitting its trunk. The only cell and radio tower in this section of the mountains lay twisted beside the tree, a victim of the crumbling timber. Fortunately, none of it fell on the main road, but it would take a lot of chainsaw work to get people out of Mono Hot Springs. The bridge over the San Joaquin River was …
Not by much, but a jumble of logs partially dammed up the river and water pooled around the bridge. It was a few inches deep over top.
“Oh my God, dad! What happened?” said Ellie.
“Now we know where that lightning hit Ellie. I hope no one was hurt.”
“What do we do now?”
My mind raced through the choices. Driving over the bridge was pure insanity and the hot springs was too far to walk and who knew what kinds of live wires were down.
“I think our only choice is to go back to Charlie’s cabin and wait out the storm,” I said, so we turned back. The rain had stopped; its fury played out for the day, but he happy adventure mood that began our day was washed out by the storm.
Fortunately, when we got back to Charlie’s, candlelight shined from the windows and smoke poured from the chimney. He must have seen our headlights because the front door opened as we walked up.
“Are you Charlie?” I said.
“That’s me,” said Charlie.
“Sorry to crash in on you like this. I’m Bob Coleman. This is my daughter Ellie.”
“Nice to meet you, Ellie,” said Charlie shaking her hand after mine.
“I hate to impose, but the Mono Bridge flooded and lightning knocked a tree across the Mono Hot Springs road,” I said.
“So, that’s what happened. That was one helluva bang. C’mon in.”
“Car got a flat and I don’t think we can make it into Edison Lake on the spare.”
“Not likely,” said Charlie looking past me to the car sagging in the mud.
“Listen, my place isn’t big, but you’re welcome to stay here.” Leaning down to Ellie, he added, “You look like you could use some hot chocolate.”
Her face brightened a few shades. “Yes … thank you.”
Charlie turned to the corner kitchen and we grabbed some extra clothes from the car. We changed and put our wet things around the fireplace to dry. We drank our hot chocolate sitting around a pine table between the kitchen and fire.
“Do you know Elmer?” asked Ellie, like her mom she didn’t waste time when something was on her mind.
Charlie laughed. I guess Elmer had that effect on people.
“Well, there’s a conversation starter if I ever heard one,” he said.
We all laughed. It helped to shake off the day’s tension and break the ice.
“Why’d you ask about Elmer?” he asked.
“We’ve been camping here for years, except now we stay in a cabin because mom doesn’t like the dirt, and we always shout ‘Elmer’ at campfires and no one knows if he’s real or made up or something, and if he is real, I want to know if anybody ever found him,” said Ellie.
Charlie glanced at me. I gave a slight shrug. He turned back to Ellie.
“I haven’t told many people, but I know about Elmer. It’s a scary story. Are you sure you want to hear it?”
“How scary?” I asked.
“Well, it’s a ghost story. Might be a bit scary on a stormy night in the mountains.”
“I’m not scared. I’m going into the fourth grade.”
I nodded okay.
“Okay then. Here goes. As best I can figure, Elmer was a crewman on a B-24 bomber that crashed on Huntington Lake back in 1943. Only two survived and the rest of the bodies stayed in the plane until 1955 when the lake was drained for maintenance on the dam. It was that summer in ‘55 that the kids at the Boy Scout camp saw a ghost that was calling out ‘Elmer’.”
“Really,” she said, eyes like a startled cat.
“Really,” he said and lowered his voice a little, “I was one of the scouts that summer and saw him myself.”
Ellie stole a glance at me and wiggled in closer, her knuckles white around her mug.
“Growing up we all heard stories about the plane. It was one of the big mysteries our parents talked about. You know, why did only two crewmembers survive? They said the pilot told them to bail out and people wondered why the others didn’t.”
“Well, we kind of forgot about it by the summer I was sixteen. I was a patrol leader then and my job was to walk around the camp to make sure everyone was in bed by ten o’clock. It was in mid-June and there was a mist up around the lake. It was kind of hard to see, but it looked like someone was walking down by the shore. All the Scouts should have been in bed so, I walked down to get that guy back in his tent and put him on KP for breaking curfew.”
“What’s KP?” asked Ellie.
“Kitchen Patrol,” I whispered. “You have to do the dishes,” I added after seeing her eyebrows crease.
“Yup, and doing the dishes for 200 boys is definitely no fun at camp,” Charlie continued.
Ellie and I sipped our cocoa simultaneously, not taking our eyes off Charlie.
“When I got down by the lake, I could see the guy was dressed strangely for a scout. He was wearing a leather flight helmet with goggles braced on his forehead. I could see the helmet flaps over his ears and tucked into the thick collar of his bomber jacket. He carried a droopy kind of pack on his back that I realized was a parachute. He appeared thin, not a in a skinny way, but not quite solid. It’s hard to describe.”
My heart bumped up a couple of beats and I could hear Ellie’s breathing. Charlie went on.
“At first I thought it was one of the leaders playing a practical joke. One of them was a British guy, Basil, who flew in the war and was always telling stories and pulling pranks. So, I got a little closer and threw a rock off in front of him. He looked out toward the rock and, then turned toward me. I’ll never forget the next couple of moments.”
“He looked right at me and said, ‘Elmer?’ Then he started walking toward me. I was scared now. If this was Basil, it was the best prank he ever pulled. I grabbed a rock and threw it at him as hard as I could. I swear the rock went straight through him. He must have felt something, though, because he stopped and said again, clear as we’re talking here, ‘Elmer?’”
Ellie gasped and grabbed my leg.
“I didn’t wait another second. I turned and ran back up to the camp and got the leaders out of their poker game. They ran all over the camp but found nothing. Next day there were a lot of laughs at my expense and I ended up on KP for causing such a commotion, but a bunch more times that week people said they saw the same figure walking down by the lake and calling ‘Elmer’.”
“How did they know it was a ghost?” asked Ellie.
“Well, everyone in camp was accounted for and Basil had gone home the week before. One night a few of the men tried to corner it down by the lake, but it seemed to disappear behind some trees and reappear behind others. Some of the boys snuck out to see it and they heard it call ‘Elmer’. It really got serious when a young Tenderfoot went to the latrine before bed one night and the ghost walked in next to him and asked, ‘Elmer?’ The kid shrieked and passed out. The rest of the week we posted a watch.”
“Anyway, over the next couple weeks different groups of Scouts claimed to have seen the same ghost walking the shore calling for ‘Elmer’,” said Charlie.
“I thought it was just a made-up story all these years,” I added.
“Nope. It was a real as the steam rising off this cocoa. It scared the bejeezus out of us. Camp was canceled after July that year and there was some debate about opening the next year. But, the ghost must have wandered on since no one saw it in the summer of ’56,” he said.
We sat a few moments in silence letting the image of a wandering airman penetrate our thoughts. I shuddered when the image in my head looked me straight in the eyes and asked, “Elmer?”
“Why do people yell Elmer now?” asked Ellie recovering the here and now.
“Best I can tell, the 1960s saw the opening of a second Boy Scout camp on the account of the baby boomers, you know, guys like your dad. The camps got into a rivalry as boys do and yelling ‘Elmer’ was a challenge to show which camp was the loudest,” he said.
“Over the years the Lakeshore campers heard the Scouts and yelled back for fun. Now it’s just part of the campground fun,” he added wrapping up the story.
“Does anyone else know?” asked Ellie.
“Oh, some of the older guys like me, but they don’t come up here much and it’s not something we to talk about. I haven’t told that story in a long long time,” said Charlie.
We talked a few more minutes before he said it was dinnertime and there were some extra trout. Later in that night he offered Ellie and me the bed saying he could sleep just fine on the couch. I tucked Ellie in. Surprisingly she didn’t seem bothered by the story.
“What about mom?” Ellie asked. “Won’t she be worried about us?”
“Uncle Stan probably called her,” I said. “She’ll worry a little, but we’ll call her in the morning.”
I sat with Charlie for a while by the fire and must have talked a little too much about my disappointment with Becky’s decision not to come up this year and that our relationship felt strained because Charlie shifted in his chair to face me more directly.
“My wife and I were married for fifty-three wonderful years. During that time there were many seasons. We disagreed on a lot of different topics and took up hobbies the other didn’t really like. Fishing, for example, Julia, my wife, never really liked it up here,” Charlie said. “But the point is, son, don’t lose each other. You need to keep making time for just the two of you. She’ll finish up her work. You just make sure that she knows you’re there for her.”
I drifted off to sleep practicing how I would tell Becky I was such an idiot and hoping the others weren’t too worried about us.
The next morning I walked out to get a message to a passing vehicle when I saw Stan’s pickup come around the bend. Becky leapt out and ran into my arms, tears of joy streaming down her face.
“You’re all right!” she sobbed, “where’s Ellie?”
“She’s down at Charlie’s. We’re fine.”
“We were stuck up here when the bridge flooded and lightning took out the cell tower. Charlie put us up.”
She just looked at me through her tears and, at a loss for words, and buried her head in my chest. After a minute, we drove to the cabin where Charlie and Ellie stood by the front door. Becky jumped out of the truck again and ran to see Ellie.
“Guess you called Becky,” I said to Stan when we had a moment.
“I had to bro,” he said, “you know she would have killed me if I didn’t.”
We gathered our things and said a heartfelt thank you to Charlie. Becky kissed him on the cheek. We winched the Volvo out and Stan and I limped it back into Huntington Lake.
There was late morning coffee and donuts at Stan and Lisa’s condo where the talk was long and loud. Ellie was loudest of all recounting the Elmer story. She said she was going to write it up and post it on the General Store bulletin board.
Becky, Ellie, and I spent the next couple of days going to all our favorite spots. On Thursday, Becky and I went to dinner alone and talked long about our lives and relationship. After dinner, we held hands as we walked down to the lake. We lay on the dock with our heads next to each other looking up at the Milky Way.
“It’s beautiful Bob, but I’m gettin’ cold,” she said after a little while and we started walking back.
“Ellie’s staying at your parent’s tonight,” I said in a tone somewhere between rhetorical and suggestive.
She slid her hand into the back pocket of my jeans and answered with a firm squeeze.