This one time at summer camp, I remember being a wee, young thing and being terribly afraid of the dark. But as you can probably guess, at J-CC Ranch Camp (nestled comfortably in the black hills behind Elbert, Colorado), there are no bathrooms in the cabins. Far from it. Rustic living at its best is personified in the six-stall, echoing, cement and wood block that they call the girls’ washhouse. And of course, it was a bit of a stroll from the warmth of the sunken bunk bed that I shared with my BFF Courtney.
So here I am one night, lying in bed. Bladder full. Mind racing with all the possible awfuls that could happen to me if I decide to venture out to the toilet. I find myself wondering how long my pee would keep me warm if I decided to just let it go in my sleeping bag. That thought only aired live for an instant before my inner voice (with very outside-voice volume, mind you) screamed, “NO! That’s gross!” So I gathered my guts, slipped out of my bed and into my flip-flops, and headed for the door.
Now, there’s some back-story you need to know before I go forward: Years later, when I became a counselor at J-CC, a rule was made that we were not allowed to tell ghost stories to the campers. Apparently one time a kid really did wet himself, which led to an overprotective-parent-driven lawsuit and I guess things got pretty messy (especially in that kids jeans—BA-ZING!). But that didn’t protect us poor kids who attended camp before the ban went into effect.
Our counselors were relentless. There was the tale of Crazy Annie who took a blade to her neck and then went running—carrying her bloody, still-screaming head—over the ridge to the tents where the older kids slept. There was Top Hat, the old-timey pimp who decided your fate with the tip of his hat, or the flip of his middle finger. The Watchers, whose eyes appeared at the softball field if you ever snuck out of your bunk past bedtime. Stumpy was a good one. He had a stump for a leg, but I think that’s about all I can remember about him. I’m sure it got cut off in some gruesome fashion. And, oh man, the twins! These two young girls who caught some horrible disease while traveling in their covered wagon. They had to bury themselves alive! So many absurdly scary stories. Enough to make anybody squirm.
And then, there was Ladlehead.
Ladlehead was a ghost who, when he was alive, worked in the mess hall that we called “the Chad.” I honestly can’t remember his whole story, but I believe a soup ladle had somehow made its way into his skull. Poor little fellah.
In the grand scheme of things, and in comparison to the other ghosts, Ladlehead was tame. He didn’t do anything to you, as far as I know. I mean, the Watchers would taunt you and then scratch you to death, their claws ripping against your young, tender skin (no doubt the sound was abominable). But Ladlehead just stood there. Chopping knife in hand and ladle in head. I honestly think he just wanted to get back to work.
But anyway, back to my potty saga. Once I reached the cabin door, Courtney woke up and asked me where I was headed. I told her, “I have to pee,” in the most pleading voice I could muster, hoping she’d offer to come along. No such luck. She just rolled over and made some kind of low-toned honking noise. To this day she claims it was the bed squeaking, but I know it was a fart.
I walked out the door and moved swiftly toward salvation in the well-lit and moth-filled bathroom. You really had to watch your step back then because decades of erosion had left countless tree roots unearthed that were just begging for a youngin like me to trip on. I journeyed past the Mo (rec hall), the climbing wall, the whole of Girls’ Village cabins, and then I saw the light outside the Chad illuminating the bathroom as if it were a desert oasis or holy land. But as I neared the front steps, I noticed something. Someone, really. And you’ll never guess who it was.
It was fucking Ladlehead.
I swear. He was standing right there at the top of the stairs like all my counselors had told me he would be during campfires past. My 10-year-old body immediately ceased movement and he surveyed me silently from the deck. He didn’t move much either. Had a kind of pissed-off poise, if I had to describe it. I stared up at him for what felt like a million minutes, but surely couldn’t have been more than two. And all the while I was thinking how odd it was that of all the ghosts in all the camps in all the world, here I was with the one that didn’t really scare me all that much. Ladlehead? Shit, really? God must be pulling one over on me, I thought.
After he-who-is-supposed-to-be-spooky won the official staring contest (I have dry eyes and can’t go long without blinking), Ladlehead bid me what I took to be “adieu” by turning around and disappearing into the door of the Chad. And I don’t mean that in the sense that he just walked through the door. I mean he literally disappeared into thin air in the general direction of the door.
I stood there a bit bewildered for a second. I was confused, chilled, kinda hungry, and still full of bug juice from dinner. But without thinking, I took off back to my cabin as fast as my feet would take me. I didn’t care about anything else anymore. All I cared about was getting back to my bunk and telling Courtney about my afterlife encounter. I ran like the wind.
But do you want to know what the weirdest thing is? I can hardly remember anything that happened after that. The memory of meeting Ladlehead is vivid, but not much else. As an adult, I think back and realize that maybe that was his secret power: memory evasion. He’s the most cryptic kind of ghost that meanders his way into your mind, plants himself there, and does away with everything else. This is my rationalization for why I’m not so good at history. Or geography, for that matter. Or politics.
Anyway, long story short, I never made it to the bathroom that night. I may or may not have peed my pants. But either way, my parents never sued anyone.