Sonny is one of my closest friends. He’s also the most dangerous. Not only is he forever thinking up stuff that could get one or both of us hurt, but he also keeps tabs on what we owe each other.
Last week, Sonny called and informed me that I was to be a judge of a scarecrow contest in Mapleton. I also was required to think up a ghost story to tell kids around a campfire. This wasn’t a request.
Both of these sounded like excellent opportunities for trouble. The last time I told a ghost story to some Scouts, one of them had a seizure and another ran headlong into a tree in a panic-stricken attempt to get away from whatever I was describing.
Then there was the time a radio station persuaded me to help judge a dog contest. This was even worse. People don’t like it when their children get hurt, but they become homicidal if you find fault with their pets.
Taking these factors into account, I decided the proper thing to do was hang up on Sonny. I did. But he’d been drinking, so he immediately called back with the same directions. I decided to put my foot down.
Me • “No, I’m not doing it.”
Him • “OK, remember last summer when your water heater failed and I drove all the way to Herriman to help you install the new one so that it wouldn’t explode and kill your family?”
Rats! He was right. I owed him.
On the evening in question, I drove down to Mapleton City Park. The place was packed with Halloween junkies and scarecrows.
I’ve never understood the logic behind scarecrows. Crows are among the smartest animals on the planet. In fact, I once read (or dreamed of) a study that proved crows are more intellectually sophisticated than the average college freshman.
So, why would anyone think that a suit of old clothes crammed full of straw and hung on a stake is going to scare a bird capable of long division? It makes no sense.
But scarecrow contests can be fun, mainly because they’re supposed contain a large element of the ridiculous.
The Mapleton scarecrows had plenty of that, especially the one from a plumbing business that featured a scarecrow plumber bent over a task. Two pumpkins wedged in a pair of jeans really brought out the “plumber’s crack.”
My next favorite was the one sponsored by the city police — a cop scarecrow with a doughnut in his hand.
At some point, we got around to the troublesome part: the ghost story. By then the crowd had thinned, and it was still light. About a dozen people remained.
The fires were contained in small pots and fed by wood pellets, which do not crack and pop when burned. The unexpected snap of burning wood is necessary to make people jump and scream.
My story was titled “The Rag Man.” It basically recounted the “absolutely true” experience I had of chancing upon a mysterious ragged figure late at night. The Rag Man had red eyes and fed upon small animals and pets.
The Rag Man eventually got around to eating children. Not all of them, of course. Just their ears and fingers.
But there was a way of protecting oneself. By holding cupped hands to your ears, it was possible to detect the low moan of his approach. The kids in the small audience did so, straining to hear what wasn’t actually there.
Suddenly, The Rag Man appeared. It was actually Sonny dressed in military camouflage with torn clothing attached to it. He leaped into the crowed and frightened — no one. Several children even attempted to assault him.
I take that back. He scared me. I’m terrified that the phone will ring and I’ll find out that I still owe him for another time he saved my life.