At summer camp— away from the smog-shrouded city—the Milky-Way glistened as diamonds flung upon their midnight-velvet backdrop. Each August, constellations fragmented as the Perseid Meteor Shower dropping stars to earth as fireflies, lightning-bugs and glow-worms. Camp’s where I learned to swim, ride horses, mangle crafts, scratch poison ivy, and engrave memories and friendships that endure even now.
PJ and I renewed our bond each June as if the school months between the summers hadn’t existed. We neither wrote nor called. In fact, I had no idea where he lived, but the unspoken link remained.
The camp director assigned us to the same cabin, named after the Lenape, a tribe that had once dominated these forests. PJ and I did everything together—meals, swimming, crafts and team sports. After supper, we shared the mess hall piano to play Heart and Soul. My left hand moved like a spider to key the bumba-dumba, bumba-dumba, bumba-dumba, bumba-dumba. PJ’s right hand added the, tink, tink, tink, datink, datink. We brooked no variation, because this was our song.
Between supper, the piano and the bugler’s mournful taps, our nighttime entertainment occasionally included ghost stories, none more frightening than those told by a Monsignor who visited from a nearby parish. He strolled about as the sun set—wearing his cassock decorated with purple buttons, piping and sash—greeting the boys from his town, but he smiled at all as we gathered under the stars in the middle of the baseball diamond.
The counselors brought him a wooden chair and we campers sat cross-legged before him, swatting mosquitoes until the Monsignor redirected the voice that had preached thousands of sermons, to utter tales of horror.
“Boys,” he’d intoned and looked about, “don’t ever go into the woods after dark. I’m telling you for your own good because there is a maniac running among the trees; it’s stronger than a thousand bulls, and has killed many over the years. I wouldn’t want you to join that number. I’d grieve, even if they ever found your body, to vest in black for your funeral.”
The Monsignor snatched our attention as he detailed the mangled corpses flung by the merciless, Newton Maniac. A shiver rattled my ribs as the goose bumps popped where sweat had just glistened on my arms. The whites of PJ’s eyes grew brighter as he bit his lower lip.
The Monsignor cupped his hand to his ear. “Can you hear the scream? Is that wailing in the forest, the Maniac, his most recent victim or a victim’s ghost?” He turned his head following the piercing shriek as it traveled from west to east.
We could trace the inhuman moan, rising in pitch, crossing the woods beyond our cabins. My grandpa often described the banshee’s screech. My dad said it was an old-country myth, but this scream was real and rushing at us. My knees knocked until I hugged them still. The night air retained enough heat to comfort us, so why my chill, I asked as the unearthly screaming tracked among the darkened hardwood groves. My lips moved in desperate prayers, but as the sound faded to the east, my heart-beat slowed back to normal.
Lest we grow complacent, the Monsignor reminded us, “The Newton Maniac had killed an entire family just a few days ago. The children were about your age.”
I glanced about at nodding heads and quivering lips. Even Jack, our counselor seemed deeply concerned. Later, as we prepared for bed, Jack confirmed the existence of the Newton Maniac, the horror of the recent deaths and our need to stay clear of the woods. He warned we’d best behave or the Maniac would come for us. PJ and I agreed we’d never hike through the woods even in broad daylight lest the Maniac count us among its victims. Nightly visits to the latrines required the company of PJ, our flashlight and our baseball bats should the Maniac leap from the dark.
On one of the last nights of that summer season, campers assigned to the Iroquois, banged on the walls of the Lenape’s cabin screaming, “The Newton Maniac’s coming through the woods. You’d better run.”
We of the Lenape cabin raised our baseball bats, rushed into the dark woods shouting our war cry, to engage the Maniac in battle.
The Iroquois campers stopped and laughed, “You Lenape are suckers!”
It was a foolish thing to say to a tribe, armed and ready to shed blood. Again, the scream of the Newton Maniac pierced the night, breaking the stalemate. The Iroquois campers scampered for safety. We of the Lenape ran to engage the Maniac, now approaching at a tremendous speed. We of the Lenape raised our bats, only to see the Maniac whiz by us into the night. We had prevailed, not over the Maniac, but over our fears and the taunts of the Iroquois. We marched back singing our victory chant, ignoring the Iroquois.
The Monsignor told no lie. A Newton Maniac sped, screaming among the trees. It had killed, usually at railway crossings. The Monsignor for dramatic effect never identified the Maniac as a train in the service of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, nor mention that the deceased had neglected crossing signals and the Maniac’s warning call before the engine’s impact launched them and their shattered vehicles into the waiting branches.
History has consumed The Newton Maniac, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Monsignor, the camp and our final season before high school.
In our last minutes together, PJ and I warmed the piano bench for one more Heart and Soul. We left in silence so that final chord would always vibrate within us. I wonder now, how PJ, the Lenape and other campers fared over the decades. As I recalled those times and friends, I wished them well, especially, PJ, wherever he is.
Drawing by Nancy Ann Mulcare (© 2014 Nancy Ann Mulcare)
The Newton Maniac (© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)