Two years before Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball took a nose dive, I had landed a job as a Nebraska Storyteller and a Guest Artist in the schools. After one of my speaking engagements, Bob Furman, Director of the YMCA’s Camp Kitaki, approached me, asking me to write a storyline for a challenge course that he’d planned to introduce at the camp near South Bend.
One week later, I met with Bob and handed him the script for Jungleland. The premise was that an airplane had gone down in the Amazon jungle, and 10 campers and their counselor were the only survivors. So in effect, each cabin full of campers who ventured down into the woods to Jungleland, were interactively involved and required to overcome each of the nine obstacles to win through the course.
Bob asked me what kind of payment I wanted for the finished work. So I asked him for camp scholarships for two of my neighbor boys. I had met the family down the street months earlier while trying to find a home for a Golden Retriever puppy I had found here in Havelock. The two boys, Trevor and Brandon, talked their mom into adopting it, and “Bear” got along great with my Dobie and my Keeshound, so she ended up at my house most days of the week. The dog did not come without the two brothers, however.
So when the week of camp ended, Brandon was so enthused, he asked me to get him another free contract for the next year. I told him I would see what I could do about that. Both boys, Brandon at 10 and Trevor at 13, were fascinated with the dozens of “padded” swords I had just received from my friend, who designed and patented the foam-padded, cloth-covered swords, naming them S.W.W.S. (Softwar Weapons System). Gary Cline was a childhood friend, and he and I had grown up whacking the hell out of each other with broom stick-swords. Gary decided to improve on our weapons, and he designed the thickly padded swords that one could wield without cracking knuckles or breaking bones.
It was Trevor who threw the pebble in the pond, causing the ripples to spread, when he said, “We should create a program where kids have to use padded swords to capture a flag or go on a quest. I bet every kid in Lincoln would sign up for it!”
Later that evening, I wrote a new challenge course, one that I named, Castlelan, based on the chief kingdom in my Fantasy book, The Jewel Folk. In a forty-five minute span, I typed madly away at the keyboard of my old Commodore computer and created an interactive play. The story was that a young prince of the Kingdom of Castlelan came seeking a Bard, asking his aid to help free the King and his Knights from the curse of the Seven Dragons of Dread.
In the opening scene, Prince Corin duels with Anarian the Bard, and as they fight, the Bard tells young Corin about the Dragons, named for their particular evils, Fear, Hatred, Lies, Selfishness, Darkness, Foul-Mouth, and False Dreams. The Dragon of False Dreams, the Bard explains created the potion trade (drugs) that plagues the kingdom. In order to defeat these Seven Dragons, the Bard claims that Prince Corin must agree to venture to the Grove of the Seven Trials, and therefore be granted the Seven Words of Power. Somewhere during this sword duel, Corin becomes aware of the audience and therefore invites them to join him on his quest.
I then ran through a list of the places I could present such a program. I was leaning toward the Nebraska Arts Council, since I was already a Guest Artist with them. I then thought of LAP, churches, scout troops, and other At-risk groups I had spoken to in the past. The Lincoln Police Camp came to mind, and then it hit me, why not present this to Bob Furman at Camp Kitaki?
We met at the old Boar’s Head (a eatery with a Robin Hood theme), and I sat quietly as Bob read my entire script through without saying one word. When he finished, he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, “How did you know about the secret order of the Knights of Kitaki? How did you know about the knight and wizard awards counselors are granted for good service to camp? How could you have known all these things?”
Bob went on to explain how perfect this Castlelan play was for Camp Kitaki, and he asked me to come out and run the thing for the coming summer. The only thing he asked me to change the C to a K for Kitaki and add land, so that Kastleland would be second to Jungleland as a challenge course. I agreed to do so, having no idea how popular it would become.
Trevor and I were busy that next month preparing for the 12 shows we would be expected to perform. I bought swords, flash paper, sparkle addictive, bottle rockets, gun powder, a black light, and a strobe light. We found an old duck blind in the middle of Salt Creek, so we confiscated it and made a large dragon head out of it. We had spot lights in his eyes and a Butane torch hooked up to his mouth so that he spat flame. We then painted the whole thing with orange, red and yellow florescent paint.
The hardest part about preparing for the program was the stage combat between Trevor and I. The most intense sword fight with stage combat swords took place between us, and I remember getting bruised and battered several times during practice. Timing was important, when wielding a heavy steel sword, and one second off, often resulted in a painful whack.
The first Opening campfire at Camp Kitaki took place before 200 campers in a dark, wooded grove before a roaring campfire. After Trevor lit off all three flash pods, creating fountains of flame, I appeared out of the smoke, dressed in black leathers, and armed with a fiery blade, with flash paste plastered to my sword blade.
I presented the audience with the story of the kingdom and its dragon problems, and then Trevor appeared, and at once, we broke into a sword duel, with a lot of clanging sword work. The 200 campers could relate to the story since Trevor was just a kid. It was then up to him to stir the audience up and get them to agree to meet with me later in the week at the Grove of Trials to earn the Seven Words of Power.
And then the Seven Dragons stepped out of the woodlands.
Each staff member who played a dragon did so as if it was the most important mission they had ever done in their lives. They hammed it up and had the entire 200 kid audience booing them, hating them, and wanting to defeat them before their lines were delivered. It was their job to fire the audience up, and they did so with a passion.
The last dragon, the Dragon of False Dreams, appeared across a sixty-foot ravine, stepping out of a thick screen of mist, and the ten-foot dragon head beside him lit up and came to life. It’s eyes shone into the crowd. Fire shot from its mouth. Smoke poured from its nostrils, and the entire head was illuminated by both a black light and a strobe light. The Dragon of False Dreams then gave his pitch about his plan to addict all within the Kingdom of Kastleland to his potions. The challenge was now firmly in place.
Once the lights all faded on the far side of the ravine, I appeared back before the campfire, with guitar in hand. I ended the play with a song, and an invite for the campers to meet me at the Grove of Trials sometime during the coming week.
During the following week, campers and counselors would meet Trevor and I down in a wooded grove there at camp. To begin the Seven Trials, campers would have to slide down a ninety foot long fiberglass slide pitched at a steep angle down a steep hillside. They would sit on gunny sacks and slide at rapid speed down and over two major humps in the slide, and end up landing on a thick pile of mattresses at the bottom.
Unfortunately, this Super Slide only lasted for two sessions one summer, as a little girl who had been wearing these extremely slick pants, flew off the slide at the second hump. Fortunately, I had been standing fifty feet down the hill at this second hump, and I caught her in mid-air, spun her around, and sat her down. Then gestured at the counselor at the top of the slide to cancel any more wild rides down the much-too-dangerous slide.
Trevor and I dismantled the slide two days later.
Instead we built a ten foot tall castle front complete with a drawbridge over a ravine to start the first stage. 10 campers and their counselor would approach the castle and I would appear at the top of the castle wall, greeting them by saying, “Seven Dragons, so there are Seven Trials, and each one that you overcome, you will be given a Word of Power to defeat the Dragons. Are you up to the challenge?”
The campers would shout, “Yes!” but then reality would set in when I explained the First Trial. On the ground before the drawbridge were 2 garbage can lids. I would say, “There are ten of you and only two shields there on the ground. Two of you must pick up the shields and try to shield the rest of your cabin-mates as they cross over the drawbridge. But while you are doing that, I will be using this . . . ”
I would then snatch up my huge Super Soaker and aim it down at them. “This Super Soaker is filled with a powerful dye that will turn your hair and clothes green. So two shields and ten of you, which one of you is going to end up with green hair?”
It was a blast shooting down at all ten campers huddled behind those garbage can lids, and each one believing they were being sprayed with water that would dye their hair or clothes. They really had to work together to avoid getting sprayed, too.
When they passed across the drawbridge and through the castle gate, I would squirt them one more time for good measure, and say, “Now, do you really believe I had a powerful dye in this Super Soaker? Do you really believe I would do that?”
And of course, they did but laughed in relief to find it had only been water. They then got their first Word of Power.
Trevor met them at the second Trial, making it look so easy as he passed over the sawed-off stumps planted in the ground, while dodging a dozen swinging sand bags suspended above him by a cable strung between two trees. The object was to stay on the ten logs, cross twelve feet to the other side, without getting hit by a swinging sandbag.
After Trevor won through, skimming over the logs like a squirrel, each of the ten campers would try their luck at it. Sounds easy? Not hardly, and many would get struck by a sandbag as they tried concentrating on keeping their feet on the logs, as I told them to imagine quick sand below them if they got knocked off.
And so, they passed through the Seven Trials of the Grove. The favorite part for most campers was the Combat Arena where three campers at a time would pick up padded swords and accept my challenge to defeat me in heated battle. This was by far, the highlight of Kastleland, for not one camper left there without throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the sword fights which took place. For the seven summers I ran my program I stayed in great shape, dodging, bashing, and getting battered by padded swords.
The last part of the Grove took place before an old fireplace, where all ten campers sat around the Round Table of the Grove, and then I would come out of character, dropping my Irish brogue, and talk to them about the kids I had worked with during my youth work. Nine of those kids had ended their lives in tragic ways, and so I was able to emphasize my point when I gave my drug free speech. The session ended with me picking up my real sword, planting it point down in the table, and asking the campers to place their hands on the table and to swear a vow that they would have the Strength to Say No to Drugs.
Before this vow, I always gave campers the option not to participate, and in all seven years, with 15,000 kids going through my program, I only had two kids who chose not to swear vows of staying free of drugs, because they admitted to me that they did drugs and would continue to do so.
At Closing Campfire, as darkness settled once more on the woodlands above the Platte River, the Seven Dragons reappeared and confronted the 200 campers. At this point, Trevor the Prince was brought before the Dragons before the huge campfire, held as their captive. Bagpipes would then begin to play through the speaker systems and as Amazing Grave rang out clearly through the woods, I would appear at the top of the path leading down into the campfire area, my swords brightly burning with strobe flashers taped to the blades.
I would then lead the 200 campers in shouting the Words of Power at the Dragons, and thus we defeated them, and they slunk off through the shadowy woodlands. Except the one, the Dragon of False Dreams who left the campers with one last challenge, claiming the battle had been won there at camp, but the war was far from over once they all returned to the real world.
So armed with the Words of Power of Strength to Say No, the campers would then send this last dragon packing and I would end my session with a song of a true story of the tragic ending to one boy I had worked with in the past.
And the 200 campers would leave camp with these words ringing in their heads:
Long after dark,
I went down to the park.
There was a kid sittin’
on the bench there
with sadness in his eyes.
He didn’t know
where he was going to.
Didn’t know where he’d been.
He was trying so hard to
fill the emptiness within.
He’d smoked a lot of dope.
He’d used a lot of speed.
The acid he dropped an hour ago,
wasn’t filling up his need.
There was a Dragon of Darkness
hovering over him,
and from his spells and storms,
he wouldn’t ever be free.
Late last Monday,
I heard that kid had died.
All the drugs he’d taken
had finally burned him out inside.
There’s so many kids just like him,
throughout this land.
Forever getting high and
never making their stand.
From the beaches of California,
to Tucson High.
To a park in Wyoming,
beneath Nebraska skies.
In the suburbs of Chicago.
At a concert in Tennessee.
Kids across this nation
all too blind to see.
Phil, I wonder if you’re listening,
wherever you might be.
I’m sorry I didn’t reach you.
So sorry I didn’t see.
Your death it touched me deeply.
More than words can say.
So I wrote this poem
for kids like you
out there in the USA.
Wonder what you would tell them
if you could come back.
Of how the Dragon tricked you
and how the odds are stacked.
I bet you’d say No to drugs,
and tell them to do the same.
And tell them when they’re
messing with the Dragon,
they’re losing at the game.