“He lives alone in a little cabin somewhere on the back side of Echo Hill,” said Vern Rathkamp, our counselor. “He is a hermit.”
“What’s a hermit?” asked one of the kids.
“It’s a man with no testicles,” said another voice in the dark.
“No, stupid. That’s a eunuch.”
“A hermit is somebody who doesn’t go out with girls,” said somebody else.
“He doesn’t go out at all,” explained Vern. “At least not in daylight. He only goes out late at night, when all the people are asleep. He creeps around the hills and hunts for food.”
“What does he eat?” a young camper asked, with a quaver in his voice.
“TV dinners,” said Vern. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a TV.”
I peered down from my upper bunk and saw Vern pacing the wooden bunkhouse floor like a tiger. Could he be the hermit? No, that was ridiculous. I’d seen him too many times surrounded by kids in the sunlight. As always, he was wearing a faded green military cap, and he had a pack of Luckys rolled up snugly in the sleeve of his T-shirt.
“What does the hermit look like?” I asked.
“Well, compadre,” Vern replied, “that would be hard to say. Nobody’s ever seen him and lived to tell about it.”
The bunkhouse suddenly seemed as dark and still as a tomb, though I doubted seriously if any of us were asleep. It was so very quiet you could hear the crickets outside the windows, the cicadas in the tall trees, the bullfrogs down by the river, and way up on top of Echo Hill, an owl hooting its eerie warning to the little monsters—I mean, children—in the valley below.
“Wait a minute,” a wise guy piped up. “If no one’s ever lived to tell about it, how do we know the hermit even exists?”
“There’ve been lots of sightings over the years,” Vern said, “but they’re always at a distance, and he’s an expert outdoorsman, so he eludes them every time. They’ve found the carved-up carcasses of animals he’s killed. They’ve even found his tracks up the side of Echo Hill. They say they’re way too big to belong to a normal man.”
“Maybe it’s the Jolly Green Giant,” said one camper.
“Hardly,” said Vern.
“If there have been all these sightings,” somebody whispered again, “what does the hermit look like?”
“Like half a man and half a monster. He’s that big. And old—at least twenty-five. Also, his skin is sickly white, like the belly of a salamander. Almost translucent.”
“What’s ‘translucent’? ”
“Shut up and let him tell the story.”
“Translucent,” Vern explained patiently, “means you can see right through it.”
“Kind of like this story?” asked a young smart-ass.
There was a small degree of nervous laughter. I don’t think any of us were really sure whether a translucent creature might be roaming the hills around our bunkhouse that very night. Part of the charm of being nine years old is that, in some precious measure, you can still find the incredible credible.
“Look, I wasn’t going to tell you this,” Vern said, pausing theatrically, “but I see that some of you don’t believe me. That’s your prerogative.”
“What’s a prerogative?”
“I’ve never told anybody this before, but it’s time I got it off my chest—so I’m telling you guys tonight.”
This was a standard storytelling ploy, but it seemed to hook almost everybody in the bunk. Vern was sharing a deep, dark, personal secret with us, and he was just about the coolest guy in the world. Maybe in a few more years we wouldn’t have bought it. Maybe, not too long after that, once the rough edges of our lives had been rubbed smooth by high school and college, we might never again have been so willing to believe in anything worth believing in, not even ourselves.
At the moment, however, it did not occur to us that the hermit might merely be a lonely old man living away from the rest of the world—if he existed at all. We willed him to be something far more exotic, like a malevolent unicorn. With the casual grace of our youth, we could believe in a hermit the way some older people could believe in love, a country, or a savior.
“I can report to you guys tonight,” said Vern in a low, confidential tone, “that I’ve been looking for the hermit myself, and I’ve finally located his cabin.”
“Where is it?”
“Actually,” said Vern, “I smelled it before I saw it. The smell was terrible.”
“Did it smell like this?” asked a fat kid named Curtis Applebaum, thereupon blasting a loud fart into the jasmine night.
That brought down the house. Everybody was laughing, and it took a good while for Vern to restore some semblance of order. When he finally did, he spoke softly.
“Trust me,” said Vern. “This story is true. There is a hermit. I just hope you never have to meet him.”
Suddenly an animal-like shriek emerged from the darkness directly behind us, at the foot of Echo Hill. A huge, translucent-looking form came lumbering toward us and began pounding frantically on the back wall of the bunkhouse. The hermit was screaming, and we were screaming, and this caused the little clusters of daddy longlegs along the wooden rafters to become nervous. If children are dreamers who never sleep, it was certainly true that night.
The hermit, of course, was a big, friendly counselor named Tommy Davidson wearing a butterfly net over his head. All the counselors seemed big to us back then. And impossibly old. Soon we would know better. Looking back, it now appears that, by our dirty little fingernails, we were still clinging to the crumbling cliff of childhood.
Since my parents, known affectionately to the kids as Uncle Tom and Aunt Min, owned and directed the summer camp, I had many opportunities in the off-seasons of my life to tramp the trails of Echo Hill. Indeed, once my parents were gone, I came to live on the property and call it home. I must report that, after many exploratory campaigns, I never found hide nor hair of the hermit. I long ago came to conclude that he did not exist.
I was wrong. Recently I returned to Echo Hill after a hectic concert tour and found it very peaceful being alone with my four dogs, the Friedmans. That first morning, I looked at the guy in the mirror, and he smiled at me. I smiled back. “You’re a lucky man,” he said, “because you’ve loved many people in your life, and you still do.”
Fifty-five years after Vern had told the story, I had finally met the hermit of Echo Hill.