Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Red Paw Night 1970

Bullfrogs and Ghosts? What more could a 10 yr old away at summer camp want?

In the late sixties, at the age of nine, I began spending a week each summer at a boy's paradise: Camp Elliot in Black Mountain, N.C. It was owned by the YMCA in my home town of Kannapolis, and engendered some of my sweetest memories.

The camp was laid out in a narrow mountain valley, maybe 1000 yards long, with 1920's era cabins dotting the hillsides around a small lake. A lovely little chapel sat at the opposite side of the valley next to the superintendent’s cabin, and a huge mess hall clung to the hill overlooking the glade below.
Our days were full of the usual summer camp fare: archery, arts and crafts, riflery, swimming, and hiking. But we still had plenty of free time to hunt the giant bullfrogs that inhabited the lake or just hang around with new found friends.
Meals at the mess hall were prepared by old black men in very white aprons, and one feature of every lunch and supper was "snake juice" - basically tea and lemonade - served from big, sweating metal pitchers. Platters of fried chicken and big bowls of fixins were delivered to each table by boys on "mess duty." If the Chief Counselor ever stood with his hand raised during a meal it was our signal to clam up. The last kid talking had to, by tradition, stand up and sing a song to the entire room. (I made well sure never to be the last kid talking.) He'd then proceed with whatever announcements he needed to make to the group.
Hanging above the door of the mess hall was a huge red plywood foot attached to ropes and pointing upward. We learned on our first day there that this was the symbol of Red Paw, the Cherokee boy ghost spirit who inhabited the camp.
The legend went like this:

In the valley where Camp Elliot was situated once stood a Cherokee village. The Indians lived a happy peaceful existence hunting the in mountains and fishing in the lake until they came to be terrorized by a rogue mountain lion. One by one the villagers would be stalked and killed, and the efforts of the hunting parties sent to bring it down were consistently frustrated.

There lived in the village a boy of extraordinary bravery: Red Paw. One day while walking alone thru the forest Red Paw became aware that he was being stalked by the mountain lion. Rather than panic, Red Paw coolly led the big cat further into the forest and away from the village before drawing his knife and turning to confront the killer.

Suddenly prey turned predator, and a mighty battle was enjoined between the lion and the surprisingly strong and agile boy. The advantage in the fight shifted several times until the lion had had enough and climbed a huge pine to get away from Red Paw’s deadly, slashing blade.

Undaunted Red Paw simply clinched the knife between his teeth and started up the tree in hopes of delivering a coup de grace. He knew that if the lion were to escape then the stalking of his fellow villagers would continue.

When at last Red Paw had climbed as high as the cat, he found him snarling and backing away on a large limb. With one mighty leap Red Paw lunged and sank his blade deep in the heart of the lion. But, in so doing, both lion and boy plunged to the forest floor far below.

Before he took his last heroic breath Red Paw had the satisfaction of seeing the killer cat dead on the ground beside him. His spirit then left his body and dwelt in the valley protecting all ever since.

A great yarn for a nine year old, to be sure. We were told that on occasion Red Paw would call for a Pow Wow deep in the forest for which he would signal by coming (in spirit form, of course) to the mess hall in the night and turning the foot upside down, and if we ever came to breakfast and found the foot pointing down we would know that the coming evening would be “Red Paw Night.”
My first summer there came and went with the giant red foot pointing upward. There was lots of talk about Red Paw. It was explained that the small red feet painted on the foot of some of the bunks were messages left by Red Paw to non-believing former occupants. But, there was no call to Pow Wow.
Then during my second summer we arrived for breakfast one morning to find a great clamor among the other campers already in the mess hall. As we entered we beheld the red foot pointing towards the floor. We instantly became electric – Red Paw Night had finally come.
That evening about dusk we were instructed to return to our cabins where the counselors showed us how to prepare for the event. We had to strip down and don an improvised Indian breechcloth. This was basically a towel between your legs secured by a belt around your waist. I can just imagine how silly this must have looked, but I thought it was the coolest thing ever at the time. We all got a liberal dose of Off , slipped on our sneakers, grabbed a flashlight, and were on our way.
We were led up an old fire road, 100 of us from the various cabins, far into the forest. After a time we saw torches burning in the distance. This was the Pow Wow ground. A large circle of benches, probably 30 yards across, was arranged around huge, unlit logs, obviously intended for a bon fire, stacked ten feet high.
After all the boys had taken seats the head counselor stood to welcome us and tell us about the tradition of Red Paw Night. He told of how generations of boys had experienced what we were about to experience and reminded us that this was a solemn event. We were warned to act accordingly.
Silence descended once he finished, and we were left listening to the crickets. Only in the flickering light of the torches penetrating the intense dark of the forest. Then in the far distance came the faint jingle of bells and the steady, but equally faint, beat of a tom tom.
One hundred boys were dead silent and transfixed on the drama as the sound drew closer. Suddenly a line of dancers in full Cherokee ceremonial dress burst into the circle and began to circle the unlit pyre in rhythm to the drumbeat. We recognized the main dancer as one of the counselors who was full blooded Cherokee and a long time fixture at the camp. The other dancers were some of the older campers who’d been taking “Indian Dancing” as an activity during their years there. And let me tell ya they were freaking great! Full costumes, feathers, bells on their ankles. The lead dancer did a very authentic sounding Native American song. This was just all very, very exciting to that ten year old, and the memory is still vivid despite the passing of 40 years.
After a couple of minutes of dancing the drums stopped suddenly and the dancers froze on cue. Then the lead dancer/counselor stepped forward to tell the tale, in dramatic detail, of brave Red Paw’s battle with the mountain lion. How that battle had taken place on the very ground on which we sat, and that the tree from which the fell was the giant pine on the edge of the circle. We were told that Red Paw’s selflessness and bravery should be an example to us. It went on for probably fifteen minutes, and I can’t remember the exact speech, but needless to say it was pretty cool.
Then the moment arrived. He would try to evoke the spirit of Red Paw. The drums started up and the dancers resumed their circumnavigation of the unlit logs. DUM dum dum dum, DUM dum dum dum… Then again a sudden stop. The leader began the Indian song again, the stopped and, arms raised and hands open made a quick thrusting motion towards the unlit stack while asking the "Fire Spirits of the North come forth!" …Nothing. Crickets.
The drums resumed and the group danced to the southern side of the pyre, and again the same speech and the same result. They attempted the same from the eastern side, again nothing happened. Then came the western side of the fire. Indian song, the gesture with the hands, and again the spirit evoked – and WHOOSH! To this day I have no idea how they did it, but that huge stack of logs just went up in flames. Instantly. My pulse must have been racing along near 150 bpm. I was awe struck, as was every boy there. The forest around us was clearly illuminated for the first time since we’d arrived. Phenomenal. To the people who gave me that moment, I owe eternal gratitude.
But, just when it seemed that it couldn’t get any better, the voice of Red Paw (yes, BY GOSH,  it was his actual voice), now grown ancient in the intervening centuries, suddenly emanated  from the top of the tree in which he and the cat did battle. He told us to obey our parents and be good citizens or some such. Frankly, I was too amazed by a disembodied voice in the top on a giant pine to pay a great deal of attention. Eyes as big as saucers we listened with rapt attention. Then he finished, and Red Paw Night had concluded. We made returned to our cabins much quieter than we'd arrived.
I have dozens of great memories of Camp Elliot – the giant tadpoles in the lake, my first time in a canoe, my first bulls eye with a .22, walking by the screened back door of the mess hall one night and seeing frog legs sticking up out of a metal bowl about to be dropped in the hot grease, an encounter with a rattlesnake, every kid in the camp trying to play Wipeout on their knees when the song came across the camp PA. But none are as vivid or as fondly remembered as Red Paw Night.


  Writing about Red Paw Night at Camp Elliott the other day aroused my curiosity as to what might have become of the place. I knew it had been sold long ago, and I guessed that it most likely had been turned into a subdivision or resort development. Anyway, I Googled it and came up with this:

IT STILL THERE! Most of it appears to be intact. The red topped building at the top of the image is the chapel, and the red topped bldg to it's left is the old Camp Superintendent's cabin. Mr Safrit was the man during my day. Anyway, it's now a special needs boarding school for boys. And you can see a virtual tour of the place here:


It all looks much smaller that I remember. Things usually do. I overestimated the length of the valley. It's just over 400 yrs from chapel to the south shore of the lake rather than 1000yrs. And I remembered the Mess Hall being bigger and higher up on that hillside. Anyway, I love that the place is still populated by kids. Live long, Red Paw!!!!!

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