Episode One: Brownie Fright Night
I was behind the wheel of a brand new Saab turbo with three girls in the back and one in the front trying my best to stay in caravan with the other four drivers (mothers with carloads of 10 year olds) when the song “Sympathy for the Devil” came on the radio. It was an omen.
Was that Ruthie’s SUV still in front of me? I couldn’t tell. Rain streaked across the windshield, brake lights melting as the windows frosted. Where’s the damn defrost? Quiet girls! I’ve got to concentrate. Christy, is that your mom’s car?
We’d gotten a late start which made our predicament that much more dire. None of us had been to the Arequipa Girl Scout Retreat in Marin County before – including our Brownie leader – and we only had sketchy directions as to how to get there. (Folks, this was in the olden days before GPS and cell phones.)
The plan had been to leave right after school but one little girl had piano lessons and another forgot crucial-to-her-survival allergy medicine and since both were the daughters of women who signed up to drive and chaperone, the Brownie Leader and I (her assistant) were forced to grin and bear it. Getting mothers (or fathers) to sign up for a weekend camping trip with their girls – as anyone who’s ever been a Brownie leader knows – is like pulling teeth. Especially for us. Our campouts had a bad reputation. We were constantly either rained out or our escapade was cut short by Hurricane Erika who liked to defy gravity and thus always seemed to have a cast on either an arm or a leg.
We’d just reached the Richmond San Rafael bridge in heavy Friday night traffic when rain began to fall, hard. Oh Lord, I prayed, please let the retreat be on the other side of the bridge. It was not.
“Two by two they must enter and take their seats by my side. Only then can the witching hour begin.” Sylvana told the troop as they stood in flannel jammies and slippers outside the common area. This was two hours after we’d finally found the damn place, gulped down a dinner of Hamburger Helper and settled in.
“Is this some kind of strange girl scout thing?” Ruthie whispered in my ear. Like me, she’d only gone so far in scouting. Sylvana, on the other, lived and breathed scouts, even wearing her badge-filled sash proudly at Brownie events. She was the perfect girl scout leader as her energy and cheerfulness exceeded all reasonable boundaries but, for reasons which I would soon learn, the other mothers often treated her like a necessary evil.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t like it. It’s like some kind of Satanic worship thing.”
I laughed. “I think she’s just trying to spook them.”
“Great! She drags us to this, this place on a dark and rainy night and then decides they need to be spooked!” Ruthie’d smuggled a couple of bottles of wine in with our supplies which was a big scouting no-no. Then, after being scolded like a child by Sylvana, Ruthie calmly informed her that after getting lost not once, but several times – in the rain and the dark – she intended to have a drink. The other mothers agreed. Two bottles of wine split between five ladies was hardly anything to get worried about.
It was the second time that evening we’d rebelled against Sylvana.
The first time was on the road. After following her station wagon round and round the soggy side of Mt. Tam, Ruthie insisted we pull into the gas station in tiny Fairfax to get a real map of the area and the other mothers agreed.
The gas station didn’t have any maps but the lad at the cash register claimed to know the area well. “Arequipa?” he asked, “I’ve never heard of it. You mean Hill Farm?”
“It’s supposed to be a major girl scout retreat!” Ruthie scowled. She’d just spent hours in a carful of silly girls with the promise that this place (when we found it) would be well worth the effort.
“Oh right! I heard they was using the old asylum for something.”
“Yes ma’am. The lunatic asylum. I think that’s the place you mean.”
“It was a tubercular asylum!” Sylvana laughed, “not an insane asylum.”
“If you say so. I dunno. But to find it just keep on going down this road. About a mile and a half down, just past Grossman’s Pond, you’ll see a sign. I’m not sure what it says but you can’t miss the pond so just turn after you see the water. I ain’t never been up to the nuthouse but my daddy used to deliver milk up there and he says the driveway is pretty crazy and it’s not paved so mind yourselves in this rain. Water runs off Tam like crazy.”
I could tell what Ruthie was thinking because I was thinking the same thing. If we were smart, we’d get into our cars and return home but that would mean dealing with eight irate girls in lousy traffic for another couple of hours so we climbed back in our cars and resumed the caravan.
Luckily (or maybe not) Mr. Service Station knew what he was talking about. Soon we found ourselves slip-sliding up a muddy road until finally reaching a dark circle of wooden structures. Sylvana stopped her car in front of the largest building and ran up the stairs to the door, flashlight in hand.
A few minutes later she yelled back at us “The door’s locked! We’ll have to find an open window and break in!” Then she laughed hysterically.
I should point out that we’re not talking about a Brownie troop whose mothers have vast experience breaking and entering. Marith, a tax accountant from Norway, frowned severely when anyone cursed; Cate never left the house with a hair out of place nor a nail undone; and Ruthie hosted Christmas brunches every year during which the highlight was her toy poodle dressed in a Santa suit. They watched Sylvana jostling with the windows as the girls began shouting gleefully to each other “Mrs. Robinson’s gonna break in!”
At that point I was certain the headache moving in would never leave. “Can we get out now, please?” my girls all pleaded. No girls. That would be the frosting on the cake to have twenty girls running around in the dark woods looking for banana slugs (their favorite activity.)
Then I remembered I had a copy of the facilities’ usage manual (which I hadn’t read) in my purse. According to it, the key was hidden in “the phone booth,” one of the structures scattered haphazardly around a pool. However by the time I made this brilliant discovery, Sylvana had climbed through a window and begun turning on lights. The girls bounded from the cars with great whoops of joy! Indoor camping was going to be sooooo coool!
Before they’d run completely amok, Sylvana took the whistle that always hung around her neck for such occasions and loudly blew. “Troop 93 – help unload the cars!’
Many sleeping bags and boxes of groceries later we were finally able to take a breath and look around. The building we were in (the hospital) was rectangular, with an industrial-sized kitchen, like one you would find at soup kitchens and churches, at one end and the two sleeping wards at the other. The bunks were the sort you’d find in a military barracks but, though moldy-smelling, seemed clean enough. A common area with several well-used sofas, coffee tables and a fireplace built of stones sat in the middle.
“I thought you told us that this place had phones.” Ruthie said as we concluded our tour.
“It does! The pay phone!”
“And where would that be because I didn’t see it and if I don’t call Bruce to let him know we’re okay, he’ll bust a gut.”
“Oh, it’s over near the pool. Don’t worry – I brought lots of quarters! Isn’t this fun girls? I tell you what. After dinner, let’s start a fire and tell ghost stories.”
“And roast marshmallows!” The girls chimed in.
“Oh Lord,” Ruthie said just loud enough for me to hear. She was looking out the window towards an unlit phone booth which stood in the now pouring rain approximately 500 feet from the hospital.
When Marith volunteered to tell the first ghost story I stifled a ho-hum. I’m afraid I’d formed yet another woefully misguided first impression of someone, this time based on a stereotype which my Norwegian grandmother encapsulated so brilliantly: the frigid, humorless, unimaginative Scandinavian. I was in for quite a surprise.
We’d all gathered around a stone hearth in the common area as the girl scout leader, Sylvana, led the girls in song while Ruthie and I managed to coax a reasonable fire using Sterno logs and old newspapers. Sylvana had tried to convince us to retrieve real wood from the woodshed but we said “not on your life.” Beyond the dim light cast from the asylum the world had fallen into an inky black pool.
“Shall we sing another round of Kookaburra or listen to Mrs. Hansen’s story? Sylvana asked.
Poor Sylvana. If it were up to her, Kookaburra would have stayed in the old gum tree all night long. However she set her guitar against the wall and prepared to relinquish her audience to the stoic Norwegian now walking toward the hearth from the back of the room. Marith sat down on the stone with her back to the flames as the girls moved closer to her on the floor.
“I come from a farm in Norway which is very far away, girls I have come here when I was a young woman …”
“Why?” One of the girls asked.
“Oh, it is for adventure. Then it is for marriage.”
“Do you ever go back?”
I’m certain Marith had been asked that question many times but for some reason she paused, stared across the room blankly and then said, “Sometimes there is nothing to go back to.”
For just a second the room quieted of babbling girl noises. Then an errant wind whistled down the chimney, scattering bits of burning paper over the brownies. We grabbed the iron fire grate and put it in place as the girls stomped to death the fire sprites.
“Let’s let Mrs. H. finish her story and not interrupt her with questions.” Sylvana ordered as the scene of frenzy calmed.
“I could use that wine now,” Ruthie whispered in my ear, as we moved to the back of the room to assume Marith’s abandoned guard position. The usual suspects had already escaped once and, let me tell you, banshees couldn’t shriek as loud as those two.
Because our daughters were friends Ruthie was the only chaperone I really knew. Cate had recently moved to California from New Jersey and Marith worked and thus was rarely seen. “I could use a drink too.”
Marith settled back on the stone. “I once had seven brothers and three sisters and we all sleep in the attic. Even my parents in the winter when the snow is high. Sometimes we just open the window and ski to school from our bedroom. Can you imagine?”
Many “wows” broke out in bubbles in the room. Skiing out your window, how cool is that!
“Between the farm and the town are thick forests like the one we are in now. They are filled with trolls and other wild animals. Do you think there are trolls in Marin County?”
“Do you believe in trolls?”
“Nooooo!” Scattered giggles.
“Norwegian children believe in trolls. That is why we do not go into the forests. We may be eaten.”
“They eat children?”
“That is the thought of many people who live on farms or in small towns. Legend is that trolls were once like humans but after living under rocks and in the mountains for hundreds of years, they changed – some growing quite large while others stayed short.”
“Have you ever seen a troll?”
“Oh yes. Many times. You do not believe me? It is true. Here is my story and we see if you believe or not! Many many years ago, before the time of my great grandmother (whose story this is), a young boy arrived dirty and half-naked on the steps of a church in Akerhus, which is now part of Oslo but was then small. The priest, who was a kind man, took him in, fed him and gave him clothing. But when the townspeople heard, they were not happy. They thought he was a changeling: A human baby who had been kidnapped by trolls. Rumors spread that he had been sent to lure their children into the woods to be captured and eaten. Which is how the trolls used changelings. Their panic grew when they learned the little boy did not like to go out during the day. Then strange rocks began to appear in the town square. (If a troll is hit by a beam of light he turns into a large rock.) So the townspeople thought the trolls had come into the town because they wanted the boy back. They went to the priest and demanded that he return the child to the woods but the priest couldn’t. Instead he took the boy to a farm owned by a older couple whose children had all died. There the boy grew and grew – until he was over ten feet tall! He was ugly and lazy and soon refused to help out around the farm. One day the priest noticed that the older couple hadn’t come to church for a while and he went out to check on them. It was a dark and rainy day like today. As he neared the farmhouse he saw the boy, now a man, watching him from the forest, his eyes growing red and he knew what had happened to the older couple.”
“Great!” Ruthie groaned as the lights flickered. “A slasher story.” After a second more serious flicker, Sylvana sprang to her feet. “Ladies, let’s assemble all the flashlights and lanterns in case we lose power,” she said, meaning the chaperones. “Girls, I’m afraid it’s time for revelry. We’ve got to hit the hay in order to conserve our batteries – we have one more night to live through, ha, ha!” Then, to the moans and groans of disappointed girls (it was only ten o’clock), she began singing: “Day is done, gone the sun.”
“Gone the sun and the power,” Ruthie mumbled as the room went black.
Ruthie finally got her wine (once the girls settled down.) By that time, we really needed a drink. The little darlings had chosen to bunk in the large room at the end of the sanitarium because it had enough cots that they could all be together. The problem was the room also had an exterior door and we had at least four flight risks. After much debate we agreed that one mother would bed down with the girls while the rest of us chickens slept next door. Sylvana, of course, volunteered. She just couldn’t get enough of “her girls.”
Once things were quiet, Cate, Marith, Ruthie and I slipped down to the kitchen where we drank wine from metal cups by candlelight. Outside, branches from nearby trees raked the side of the building but at least the rain had abated.
“Do you think the girls will get any sleep?” Cate asked.
“You haven’t been on too many sleepovers, have you?” Ruthie chuckled.
Cate’s face froze. “Well then, maybe one of us should sleep in there with poor Sylvana.”
“She’s the heaviest sleeper I’ve even seen,” I assured them. “As soon as her head hits the pillow, she’s in Snore City. At the girl scout jamboree she slept through the tent collapsing and all those girls screaming their bloody heads off.”
I thought it was funny but Marith didn’t smile.”It is not normal to have so much energy and then to drop into a sleep like that. Maybe that is why she goes to Dr. Paulson.”
“You don’t mean Sam Paulson? Gwen’s husband?” Ruthie asked.
“Yes, she sees him three times a week. Gwen says she even shows up at their house! Uninvited!”
“Shit! You know what Sam’s specialty is, don’t you?”
We shook our heads no.
“He’s the shrink who testified at Meryl Ottoman’s trial.”
“You weren’t here then, Cate. Meryl Ottoman slashed her sister to death a few years ago – with a machete! She claimed her evil twin did it.”
“Don’t girl scout leaders have to take psychiatric tests,” Cate asked.
I had to laugh. The only reason I’d signed on to be a girl scout leader was because no one else would and Sylvana made it clear that if no one signed on to assist her, there would be no Brownie troop. “I had to get a TB test and that’s it. I’m sure Sylvana’s just depressed. I don’t think things are going well in her marriage.”
“She crashed my Christmas brunch last year dressed as a clown! She scared Winston half to death, poor little thing. He peed all over the carpet. Maybe we better get back there.” With that Ruthie corked the wine and put it into the cooler. In the space of a few minutes Sylvana had gone from being the world’s best girl scout leader to a clown-faced axe murderer with an evil twin.
We returned to a scene of relative calm. As I’d predicted Sylvana was dead to the world leaving the girl to entertain themselves with the flashlights they had been ordered to turn off. A lantern in the hall provided just enough light should one of them need to visit the bathroom.
After confiscating the flashlights and responding to their complaints – two girls had upset tummies, one couldn’t find her sleep bear, one demanded to call her mother and the “usual suspects” wanted to take a midnight stroll to find banana slugs – we took to our bunks fully dressed, knowing we probably wouldn’t get much sleep.
The lantern in the hall provided just enough light to bring splotches of pealing paint on the ceiling to life. I kept thinking that only a few decades before the room in which we were trying to sleep housed patients in various stages of tuberculosis, some even dying. As I tossed and turned within the tight constraints of the sleeping bag, those splotches grew and shift-changed into the former residents of my bed singing their sad stories in my ears, or so I dreamt.
I woke to a grumble and then footsteps as Ruthie made her way down the hall. She has to go to the bathroom, I thought. Better her than me. Walking the halls of the old sanitarium, with its creaky wooden floors, bleached beyond character, and yellowed walls at night with a flashlight, well, let’s just say, I’d really have to pee.
After a few minutes Ruthie returned. “Jan – I thought I heard someone sobbing but I checked on the girls- they’re all okay.”
Cate snapped to a sitting position. Followed by Marith. They’d only been pretending to sleep or maybe like me, had been haunted by previous residents.
Ruthie lit another camp lantern. “I’m not sitting here in the dark. I don’t care if we don’t have enough fuel…”
She was cut off by a low rumble. Earthquake, I thought but nothing moved. Mudslide? Rivers of mud run under and destroy the foundations of many structures on the mossy side of Mt. Tam. Was the sanitarium about to be washed away?
Then we heard the howl of a lone wolf. Followed by another and another as their pack assembled somewhere not far away.
I tried my best to make light of our situation. “Well thank goodness we’re not in tents! The wolves probably just killed a deer and are inviting other wolves to… ”
“Shush!” Ruthie ordered. “Do you hear that?” We sat around the lantern listening to what sounded like a pack of wolves sniffing and scratching just outside the undraped windows. “Go see what it is.”
“Me?” I asked.
Before any of us could move, there was a racket at the back door, shortly followed by the screaming of brownies. A pack of wild dogs now snarled and tore at the flimsy door. The usual suspects viewed the whole event with great glee and somewhat perverse scientific interest while the others ran into our room.
The “usual suspects” view our plight with delight!
“The kitchen!” Ruthie cried. I’m not really sure why it made sense but we gathered the girls and off we ran down the halls with hearts racing. Once there I realized why it made sense. The kitchen windows were small and far above the floor and the exterior door, for reasons I can’t fathom, was metal. Quickly we did a head count – yup all twenty girls were present and accounted for.
“Where’s my mommie?” Sylvana’s daughter cried.
“My god – she couldn’t have slept through all that!” Ruthie said. “Shouldn’t we…”
But there was no reason to worry about Sylvana. A howl just outside the kitchen door, quickly followed by the scurrying of the rest of the pack informed us that the dogs had followed us to the kitchen.
“Don’t scream girls,” Marith plead, as they began to shriek. “This metal door is strong. If you scream it gives the dogs what they want. Let’s sing a song. I’m sure Mrs. C knows a good song.”
I had only one thing on my mind at that moment and it wasn’t a Brownie song. “Ah, ah.. let’s see.
“We should call for help,” Cate suggested to which Ruthie snorted.
“Who’s going to volunteer to fight their way through mad dogs to the phone booth?”
The usual suspects stepped forward, one of them pointing out that she had a yellow belt
in karate as she kicked imaginary dogs with her fluffy pink slippers.
“If we sing the dogs will know we are not afraid and they will leave.” Marith explained.
“That is what we do Norway.”
“How about Make New Friends?” One of the girls suggested.
We survived that night by soothing mad dogs with girl scout songs but left in the daylight as soon as the coast was clear. Our first stop being the coffee shop. Sylvana, who’d slept through the whole thing and awoke bright and perky, risked her life by suggesting we at least take one short walk in the nearby woods before leaving.