Scout Master Lloyd Tippet was leading the seventh rendition of Row Row Row Your Boat and Joey Mathews and Frank Crumity were contemplating his murder.
When the yellow school bus on loan to the Boy Scout troop was loading in their Philadelphia neighborhood, Joey and Frank were actually excited about the trip. It wasn’t often that inner city kids got to head to Jersey for a camping trip. Joey had needled Frank that he was finally going to get to see a tree that wasn’t drawn in spray paint on a wall.
Their neighborhoods had once been a genteel area with marble steps hand scrubbed by old Polish women but over the last forty years the neighborhood had become more run down. The ethnic mix became less European and the camaraderie of the neighbors transformed into hostility and gang violence. Joey and Frank were an oddity, a white kid and a black kid becoming friends in what was neighborhood dominated by racial strife.
Normally the Latino kids who made up a large part of the population would go to war with the black kids that lived a few blocks over. White kids like Joey were normally forced to side with the Latinos for pure survival. Most of the remaining white families lived in the middle of the Latino neighborhood, their very proximity required allegiance; also, white skin stood out less among the Latinos than with the African Americans. They could blend in.
Frank’s family lived in the no-man’s land that existed around the school that stood as a buffer between the black and Latino neighborhoods. When Joey had met Frank at school they quickly became friends, each boy very alone in his neighborhood. Frank’s proximity to the Latino zone kept other African American boys from befriending him out of fear of attack and Joey was one of only eight remaining white families in the Latino side and while he looked similar he never truly was accepted as part of the local tribe. The teachers in their school bemoaned the spirited pranks the two boys enacted but secretly were glad to see at least two boys in their care were creating something beyond the incessant gang warfare that pulled so many of the other youths down into a life of crime and early graves.
Joey’s mom had suggested Boy Scouts as a healthy outlet for the youth; little did she know that Troop 713 was not much different than the other neighborhood gangs. The dozen boys in the Troop normally banded together against the other neighborhood gangs. The group was a mixture of whites, blacks and Latinos who for one reason or another were outcasts in their respective neighborhoods. They formed a small band of misfits who stood against all comers. While not all the boys were friends, they all realized that their survival relied on being part of the Troop. Most of the boys carried switchblades and blackjacks rather than Swiss Army knives. The only difference between the Troop and the other gangs was that the Scouts didn’t usually commit crimes, occasionally listened to the adult in charge and, most importantly, got to escape the ghetto on annual camping trips to the Pine Barrens across the river in New Jersey.
“Mathews,” boomed Scout Master Tippet’s voice; stopping yet another round of the song.
“Is something so interesting outside that window that you don’t want to participate?”
Joey jerked at the voice and frantically looked around; everyone was staring at him. Looking out the window where he had been blindly staring he only saw the blacktop of the state highway and the ever increasing trees and sandy soil.
“Um, no sir,” he managed.
Tippet waddled down the aisle to stand over the boy and looked out the window then back at the unlucky youth.
“Ain’t nothing but trees out there boy. Fine. You don’t want to be part of the group; then the entire group will get to sit in silence and not enjoy themselves for the rest of the trip.”
He looked around the bus at the mix of faces and then turned back to glare at Joey.
Joey swallowed hard but caught the surreptitious grins and thumbs up from the other Scouts; they were also sick to death of the stupid song.
“Sorry sir,” he muttered, hanging his head in mock shame.
Tippet stomped to the front of the bus, secure in his authority.
“Damn boy,” Frank punched him in the arm. “I was like five minutes away from hitting that putz with my sap to shut him up. You’re my hero.”
Joey grinned, “That song does get pretty annoying I guess.”
Frank glanced out the window at the scenery that had held Joey’s attention.
“Like the man said, nothin’ but trees. This is definitely the middle of nowhere. Think we’ll see a bear?”
“Bear,” laughed Billy Wallace, turning around in his seat to look at the pair. “Don’t you know, the Pine Barrens is the home of the Jersey Devil.”
“What; the hockey team?”
Billy brayed laughter, earning a look from Mister Tippet.
“No stupid, THE Jersey Devil. It’s a monster that roams the Barrens scaring people. Don’t you know nothin’?”
Frank turned as red as a black kid could and grabbed Billy by the throat.
“Who you callin’ stupid, honkey?”
“Hey! Stop that shit,” Tippet lumbered down the aisle again at speed.
“Crumity, you let go of that kid or so help me I’ll box your ears.”
Frank visibly forced down his anger and released the smaller boy turning red again but now in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry sir,” he muttered. “I, I just got angry at somethin’ he said is all. Sorry Billy.”
“Oh really,” Tippet said. “What did he say that made you decide you needed to strangle him?”
“He called me stupid,” Frank whispered.
“He called me stupid, sir,” Frank finally said in a louder voice.
“Well,” said Tippet, “that is not sufficient grounds to be killing a boy on my bus. Wallace, why did you call Crumity stupid?”
Billy was still the color of a sheet and when he spoke his voice was far from having the derisive tone it had harbored moments before.
“He didn’t know about the Jersey Devil, Mister Tippet.”
Tippet gave a belly laugh and looked around the bus.
“Ok boys, gather in; I’m going to tell you all about the Jersey Devil. “
The boys shifted around in their seats, several moving closer as the Troop Leader perched on the edge of the nearest bus seat.
“The Jersey Devil is supposedly the son of the Devil and a Jersey witch named Mother Leeds. Supposedly it was born in the 18th century as her thirteenth child and has haunted the area ever since. But I bet you don’t know that the legend is even older. The Lenni Lenape Indians used to live here and they called the Pine Barrens, Popuessing. That translates as the place of the dragon. They knew there was some kind of monster roaming around long before the white man got here.”
Tippet looked around quickly as if searching for outsiders overhearing.
“You know, the place we’re camping is right in the middle of its hunting grounds. I even saw it once about ten years ago. It was big as a horse with wings and claws and its scream; well let me tell you, it almost made me shit my pants.”
The boys erupted in laughter imagining an adult losing it like that. Tippet laughed with the boys, the altercation rapidly slipping from everyone’s mind.
Thirty minutes later, the bus pulled through an open archway proclaiming the Wharton State Forest. The large highway gave way to a narrow tree lined road that wound through the ever deepening woods. It was easy for the boys to believe that maybe Mister Tippet wasn’t joking and this place was home to some kind of monster. As the bus bounced along, Tippet worked his way to the side of the driver.
“Harry, take the next right instead.”
“What’ya doin’ Lloyd? The Pond camp is to the left.”
“I know but I want to give the boys a treat. Maybe scare them a bit. There’s some trails east of here where we can mess with them.”
Harry the bus driver grinned at the Troop Leader and turned the bus east away from the labeled camping area.
“Pull over here,” Tippet proclaimed pointing to a sandy area next to the road.
The bus came to a halt and Harry killed the engine.
Tippet addressed the group, “Boys, we’re going to do some hiking first. This here is the area where I had my encounter with the Jersey Devil. Who knows, maybe we can spot him.”
A ragged cheer went up and the boys began to scramble out of the bus strapping canteens to their waists as they went.
As the last boy stumbled off the bus, Tippet leaned close to the bus driver.
“Let us get a bit away and then shadow us a little to the south. I’ll take them along the east running trail. You can make noises and then jump out at them when they’re good and frightened.”
“This’ll be a blast; serve the little tough boys right to pee their pants.” Harry laughed as Tippet followed the boys out of the bus.
The trail wound through widely spaced trees. The silvery trunks of the trees created a surreal atmosphere. The boys were amazed by the sandy soil. The only trees in their neighborhood were the pathetic, half dead oak trees in the small city park. The soil there was heavy and brown, it was odd to see trees here growing out of soil that almost looked like it should be at the beach.
Three miles from the bus the small Troop was brought up short by a high pitched yowling scream. It was a cross between a lion, a steam whistle and possibly Godzilla.
“Damn, Harry,” Tippet muttered, amazed in spite of himself.
The boys looked at each other in confusion.
Frank elbowed Joey, nodding toward Tippet. “Dude, was that…”
Joey nodded with a grin, obviously the adults were messing with them; time to play back.
“Holy crap, the Jersey Devil,” he shouted moving toward the sound.
The boys of Troop 713 quickly divided into two factions: those who were more timid clustered near the Troop Leader, while the ones who knew Joey and Frank well followed those boys toward the source of the echoing sound. They knew well that if Joey was interested it meant a good prank rather than something bad.
“Boys, you should stay here. It might not be safe,” Tippet called at the five boys inching into the trees off the trail.
On cue the steam whistling Godzilla roared again.
“Yeah, right,” Frank taunted. “We all know it’s just the bus driver trying to scare us.”
No sooner had Frank spoken than a crashing sound came from the woods. All heads snapped upward as something arced over the five daring boys to crash to the sandy soil with a sickening, wet thump.
Lloyd Tippet was the first to begin screaming as he recognized the bloody, severed head of Harry the bus driver, the inside of his mouth, open in a silent scream, filled with sand from the impact.
The roar split the stunned silence and Joey turned as a crashing sound began moving through the trees behind him. The shape was enormous, not horse sized at all but the size of a small house. Time slowed to a syrupy flow for the boy as he watched the monstrous form approach. Trees were pushed aside like blades of grass; the earth shuddered with each step the creature took.
“Come on man,” screamed Frank in his ear returning the boy to full awareness.
Joey turned to run. He could see the backs of the entire Troop in full flight already well ahead of Frank and him. As he began to run, he smelled something sour and realized that his pants were wet as they flapped against his body; he must have pissed himself in fear without knowing it.
The crashing sounds began to draw closer; he could hear Frank whimpering in terror as he ran beside him. Dear God, he promised, don’t let me die and I’ll never disobey my mom again. Please God, please God, please.
The crashing sounds were right on top of the two sprinting boys and a sudden gust of wind knocked them both from their feet. Screaming, the two boys rolled into tight balls, waiting for the claws and teeth to savage them. Joey’s scream died as he ran out of air; he was amazed to still be alive.
Peeking through his fingers, Joey expected to see the monster standing over him but instead only saw the sky. He looked at Frank who was finally realizing that he too was alive. Joey noticed that the front of Frank’s pants were now equally soaked; it seemed that both the brave adventurers had pissed themselves.
The two boys began to laugh hysterically and hugged each other, glad to be alive. Just as quickly, conditioning kicked in and each boy shoved the other away.
“Gay!” They erupted in more laughter.
The Godzilla roar rent the day, crushing their mirth. As one, the boys whirled and spotted a gigantic winged shape flying west above the trees. The beast was in silhouette and all the boys could make out beyond the wings was a head crowned with multiple horns and four long, clawed limbs dangling below the torso. As they watched, the creature pulled into a stall and then plummeted earthward with an ear piercing roar.
The sound of the beast’s impact reached them clearly. It sounded like a wrecking ball demolishing a house. The wind carried faint screams that had to be their fellows but those were drowned out as the beast again roared its dominance to the world. Soon silence fell.
Joey and Frank stared at each other, both grey with fear. The sound of a great splintering of trees reached them and again they saw the winged form take to the air. The boys hugged each other in terror, no longer worried about their perceived manhood. The form circled above them once and then turned to the East. Soon the shape disappeared into the distance and silence fell once more on the Pine Barrens.
Joey and Frank staggered through the woods the final distance to the bus. What had been the once proud property of the Philadelphia School District was now a tangled heap of scrap, not even recognizable as a vehicle. Of the boys and Troop Leader Tippet there was no sign. Frank tripped over a crushed canteen, in turn knocking over Joey. Both boys landed in one of the many pools of red liquid on the sandy soil – blood; their Troop must have been eaten by the monster. At this point the fear and horror was so deep in the boys that they could not even react to being covered in the blood of their friends.
The boys began to walk. They had no plan, they weren’t even sure where they were heading but they knew they were moving in the opposite direction from the monster.
The sun was slowly sinking in the west when the two battered young men stumbled out of the trees into the clearing filled with cabins, small tents and laughing people.
Screams rang out and soon adults swarmed the staggering, blood soaked boys. The police were called, questions were asked but the only thing the boys could repeat was “The Devil. It was the Devil.”