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1935: The Cropsey Maniac? (Bernie Lerner)
It was well along in the summer of ‘35 when Accaponac’s turn came to present a skit at the Saturday night Talequah campfire. Our Campmaster, Murray “Dubey” Duberstein, decided to preview the candidate skits off-Talequah. So on a Wednesday night, Accaponac had its own private fire. The campfire site was adjacent to the so-called ball-field, which was at a remote edge of the camp, near the Cliffs, and surrounded by deep woods, which were the only kind of woods that the camps had at the time.
We had gotten through most of the program, and the fire had pretty well died down, when somewhere off in the distance we heard something howl. It was almost too faint at first to really register, but after a while, it repeated again, a bit louder. It was a remote angry howl, unlike anything any of us had ever heard or could identify; an unforgettable sound, starting off as a low human call, escalating to a snarl. We all head it, but our uneasiness was tempered by the fact that it was in the far distance. Soon after the third howl, which turned out to be the last, we noticed Dubey and Al Michaels, his assistant CM, engaged in a whispered conversation off to the side. Al nodded at whatever Dubey had instructed him, went over to put some more wood on the fire and then walked around to the back of the ring, out of sight, except for those of us sitting on the fringe. Al tapped Maurice Pollet on the shoulder, and after a brief whisper, they both slipped away from the fire and disappeared in the direction of camp.
After about twenty minutes or so, with everyone paying half-attention to the closing skit, (it was a Hillbilly take-off, which was a big hit the next Saturday night) Al and Polly returned carrying four baseball bats, the camp’s entire inventory. At the end of the skit, with the forest now ominously still, Dubey got up and casually announced that there seemed to be a wildcat in the area. While there wasn’t much of a danger, as a precaution, he wanted each group of patrols to take a baseball bat with them when they returned to camp.
When Dubey finished, there was total quiet, in the middle of which Stan Fudell leaned over and stage-whispered to me,
“It sounded more like the Cropsey Maniac!”
In the momentary stillness, Stan’s voice carried much farther than he intended, and there was a stir as Stan’s opinion was passed along the circle of campers. We had all heard of the Cropsey Maniac, usually in creepy after-Taps tales, but whether the Maniac was a former or current camp resident had never really been made clear. It occurred to me later that I should have asked Stan just how he knew what the Cropsey Maniac sounded like, but given the prevailing state of near-panic, logic was not an option at the time.
Of course, after Stan’s ad lib comment, Dubey’s wildcat story took a back seat to the Maniac origin of the eerie howls. We were aware that wildcats were quiet stalkers who don’t normally advertise their presence. Of course, looking back, it could have been a female cat in heat, but in our early stages of puberty, this was not yet within the realm of our experience. Most of us were absolutely certain that it was the Cropsey Maniac, which was a more exotic and appealing worry than an errant bobcat. Our main question was: what good would a lousy indoor baseball bat do against him?
We closed the campfire with the usual songs, but Till We Meet Again doesn’t sound quite appropriate with a maniac waiting in the woods. Polly led our group of patrols on the long walk back to our tents, carrying his bat in the cocked position. With everyone telling everyone else to be quiet and listen, the noise level was enough to cover the sound of a couple of maniacs or a half dozen wildcats in pursuit on the trail. Which was about the total number reported at various times during the hike back. On a dark night, the light of kerosene lanterns and flashlights does not go very far, certainly not out to the limits of young imaginations. When we finally arrived back at our respective tents, Polly wisely directed that the buddy system be used for all Willy trips that night. As I remember, not too many were made.
This would be simply a nostalgic recollection of a campfire evening of the ‘30’s if it wasn’t for what happened fifty years later- the night the lesbians stayed late. Greater New York Council, in an unfocused moment, had rented Keowa to the New England Womens’ Association, without bothering to ask what the girls meant by association. The girls were supposed to vacate Keowa by Thursday afternoon in time for the early bird Arrowheahd arrivals. Jesse, Yank and I had separately driven in, but were politely told that the Associated were going to have a closing ceremony that evening, to which we were not invited. This statement was reinforced by the appearance of some beefy karate instructors, equipped with scowls. In any event, six of us wound up at Zuni Family Camp, near Ranaquah, prior to heading back to Keowa the next morning.
You assemble six Arrowheads in the evening after dinner and the first thing they want to do is start a campfire. The problem was that It had rained earlier that day and the wood was wet. Finally one of us remembered some of his campcraft, after which we gathered enough dry dead branches from the bottom levels of some evergreens to start a small smudgy fire.
Jesse had said that Arty Gill might arrive with his pots and pans and coffee-maker, and we were standing around the smoky fire waiting for this possibility when it started. The first howl came from somewhere in the distance, over the uphill ridge. It began as if someone in trouble was calling out a name, and then escalated into an inhuman half-animal snarl. At first, Jesse thought that it might be Arty trying to announce his arrival in an appropriate way. So Jesse yelled and howled back, but the only answer was the almost-human yell, rising to a creepy screech, which kept repeating at five-minute intervals and coming closer. About the third howl, Jesse abandoned the notion that it was Arty. The rest of us also came to this conclusion.
Now the spook threshold of six adult Arrowheads is pretty high. However, along about the fifth howl, this threshold was crossed, and the initial running commentary and speculation went fairly quiet. We found ourselves collectively holding our breath in between the calls, waiting for the next one, and hoping it wouldn’t come. We noted that it was now moving, coming from a slightly different direction with each howl, and seemed to be circling around our campfire. Whoever or whatever it was, it seemed to want to make sure that we knew it was there.
Once when I was fishing on Crystal Lake in the evening, I was startled by the sudden call of a loon, which is one of the most unsettling wild calls that you can hear. However, a loon’s call is identifiable. The howls at Family Camp that night were ten times worse, and were unrecognizable as either animal or human. I must admit that it wasn’t until the third howl that I remembered the last time I heard it, fifty years ago, at Accaponac. Stan Fudell now lived in Texas so there was no one around to identify it as the Cropsey Maniac, and I wasn’t about to volunteer this tidbit of history. Without Stan or Dubey, we had no good explanation. What or who was it? We didn’t know and after a while, I don’t think we wanted to know.
The howling went on for about twenty minutes, gradually moving off, leaving us with little desire to stay around what was left of the fire. We broke up shortly after the howls faded off, dousing the fire and retiring to our respective cabins. Speaking for all of us, the only thing I can say about the rest of that night is that it’s a good thing that Family Camp has indoor plumbing.