I learned about masturbation from an old man in a loincloth when I was 16. He wore a black wig, and every inch of his body was painted red. He was trying hard to imitate an American Indian, but to me, he looked more like an accountant with a bad sunburn.
Beyond the trees that marked the clearing, the night was a black void. Around me were 30 other Boy Scouts from troops across Ohio and bordering states. We watched as the painted man took a deep breath, his droopy face illuminated by the rose-colored light of the ceremonial fire. Bleached skulls of dead animals stared down at us from tall pikes, waiting for the chief to continue his speech. Finally, he said, "Masturbation leads to curiosity."
Camp Algonkin sits upon 90 acres of glacial hills near the town of Kensington, a short drive south of Canton, and is part of a larger reservation known as Seven Ranges. Drivers approach the camp slowly on the dry dirt road that leads from town, through sparsely populated Mennonite communities. Young men on buggies tie up traffic as they ride to the market. Women in sun-bleached bonnets hang monochromatic laundry out to dry in the yards beside the road.
Tradition resonates throughout Algonkin. It is in every wooden shack, every battered canoe, every pebble a scout's shoe kicks up behind him. There is a certain way everything must be done at camp. For meals, young boys line up silently at the doors to the dining hall. They will not gain entry unless they can show they have learned to tie a slipknot or a lark's head that day. Each troop holds morning inspections, and the cleanest site is awarded a bright blue feather. Sunday is a campfire, Monday a hike up Thunderbird Hill, and Wednesday is the vespers service at the chapel. They do these things because they have always done them. It is tradition.
Each Friday night, a flag is raised on a hill overlooking Lake Donahay. The simple white flag, with the black outline of a stick-figure man holding up a long piece of wood, is the symbol of Pipestone, a shrouded ceremony that is nearly 80 years old. It is the sign to all campers that they must prepare to cross the road into the labyrinth of trails, which will take them to wooded areas of the camp they've been warned to avoid.
There are five years of Pipestone for a scout to complete. Most campers have just turned 11 when they begin, and the first year is the best. The initiates are taken on a brisk hike across the dirt road in front of the camp at dusk. They can barely make out the shadows of trees as they are led along narrow, winding trails to a small clearing. Adult guides leave them there, alone, telling them only to wait. The fire in front of them dwindles to embers. A half-hour goes by. Suddenly, the fire explodes in a whoosh!, flames shooting into the air. Men dressed as Indians jump out of the woods and drag the kids to their feet.
The boys are arranged into a line, their arms folded tightly in front of their chests. If they move, if they make a sound, an Indian will fly down upon them for "correction." The Indian may put his hands on a boy's face to straighten his wandering eyes, or he may push a boy's legs together if he is fidgeting. Then each Indian lights a long flare. The noise is deafening, the sound of a thousand sparklers. The light they cast is a cancerous red glow on their quiet bodies. The air smells of brimstone.
The Indians begin running the scouts through the woods. The race takes them farther and farther into previously forbidden areas. Finally they come to a second clearing. There is another fire here, and the flares are extinguished.
Around this fire are Indian elders, who are painted with symbols of the different years of Pipestone: A teepee, a flower, an arrowhead. The medicine man sits next to a pile of bones, which look too big to be from animals. Behind them sits the chief, whose feathered headdress reaches the ground. In the chief's hand is a human skull.
One at a time, the boys are led to an Indian who holds a clamshell full of liquid. They are asked to swallow its contents without making a face. This is liquid Bytrex, the most bitter substance ever created; it's used in antifreeze so that babies won't drink it.
If they do not cringe, they go to the medicine man. He is holding a stone tablet, which the boys must read. It says:
Before these braves I promise to tell no other person of this ceremony.
An Indian keeps his word whether good or evil.
I go now to the Great Chief to learn the password of this First Degree.
The chief motions for the boy to join him. The scout is pushed to his knees and must look into the eyes of the skull, which sits in the chief's lap. Inside is the password: Secrecy. The scout is then handed a piece of stone -- pipestone -- which he can wear on his uniform. But the chief warns the boys: If they ever speak of what happens inside the circle, that stone can be taken from them forever.
They say that because they have always said it. Secrecy is another tradition at Camp Algonkin. Stories of ceremonial nudity, physical abuse, sexual advances, even suspicious death are expected to remain in the dark woods forever.
Pipestone was created at Camp Tuscazoar in 1926 by Scout Executive George Deaver, with help from other members of the Canton community. Their goal was to encourage boys to return to camp as they got older. It moved to Algonkin when the camp opened in 1987. Jack Johnson is currently the man in charge of Buckeye Council, the Canton branch of the Boy Scouts of America. Algonkin activities are under his jurisdiction. "The focus of honoring these boys has remained true," he says. "The basic ceremony has remained unchanged."
Over the phone, he seems nervous when talking about the ceremony. He knows that once you've gone through the program, you are sworn not to reveal its details. "If you've gone through Pipestone, you know we're not attempting to spread the word," Johnson says. "I think it's important we retain what Pipestone is about. We try to keep some confidentiality. Eleven- and 12-year-old boys enjoy that. But we're not a secret society."
It certainly acts like one.
The Indians -- ages 15 to 50 -- are allowed to "correct" the boys if they step out of line. In the not-too-distant past, things have gotten pretty rough. "It was certainly more physical in the early '90s," says Chip Bleakney, a pipestone holder and camp staff member for several years, beginning in 1995. "I saw some stuff that I thought was out of line. They really could have gotten their asses sued. Why would you want to hit an 11-year-old boy? It is abuse. I think it's part of the reason the secrecy thing was put in place. To cover it up. And it works."
It works so well that adults care more about obeying the chiefs than admitting lapses in safety. While sitting in on a ceremony that took place on June 9 -- those who have completed all five years of Pipestone may return for ceremonies -- I watched a young boy collapse in the circle from an apparent reaction to sulfuric smoke from the flares. Two Indians dragged him out of the circle and back up the paths toward camp. Later, I called the boy's father to get his reaction. Surprisingly, the kid's old man was also an active member. "We really shouldn't be talking about this," he said, citing the old rule. "I can take away your stone."
Ned Lauver, program director at Camp Algonkin and a pipestone holder, had a similar reaction when I called him. "Be careful," he warned. "If you break that first password, you may not ever be able to set foot in the ISH again."
The "ISH," or Indian Shower House, is a small, secluded facility located up a service road, across from camp. Only those who have completed all five years of Pipestone may enter. Each Friday night in the summer, 100 to 200 men and boys -- some as young as 15 -- visit the ISH to get dressed for the night's ceremonies. They are the volunteers who will scare the shit out of about 2,500 Boy Scouts over the course of the season.
Until at least the late '90s, Friday night at the ISH would begin with a spaghetti feast. Men would strip naked and sit outside the building eating pasta. Then they would cover their bodies with masonry paint, helping each other out with those hard-to-reach places, before donning loincloths. When women began earning pipestone, this changed a bit. Now, there is a partition, so that you can't see into the shower. A secret is better kept behind high walls.
"I was approached by someone in the shower," says a pipestone holder and ex-staff member of Algonkin, who does not want to be identified. It happened at the end of the night, at about 2 a.m., when everyone was rinsing off paint. "All this red crap was falling off their bodies. It's hard to tell who's who. He used an innuendo. He said, 'Do you need help getting some of the paint out of your ass?' I quickly said no. I was 17." He reported the incident to a staff member, who then alerted Buckeye Council, but no charges were leveled. "The thing is, I can't identify him. I don't want to ruin someone's life."
"Sexual abuse could easily, easily happen, and there's no way to stop that from happening in some situations," says Bleakney, also recalling the practices at the ISH.
"Are we technically in violation of national policy? I can't argue that," concedes Johnson, referring to the shower arrangement. He maintains that there's no cause for alarm, though. "There is never a time when there's a boy alone with one adult."
Asked about the 17-year-old who complained of being propositioned, Johnson says, "I am absolutely, unequivocally unaware of that. There is nothing we take more seriously than youth protection."
If that were true, the Pipestone sweatlodge would never have been built. The sweatlodge was constructed in the early '90s by a Pipestone elder named Jim Mills and a few of his adult friends. According to Mills, it was built with permission from Buckeye Council. It sat behind the ISH about a quarter of a mile, close to where the forest began again, and was little more than a tent draped over a semicircle of wood and stone. A large rock in the center could be heated and used to create steam. Boys who befriended Mills during the ordeal of Pipestone were invited to the sweatlodge on Saturday mornings, once everyone else had left for the day.
Usually, it was a group of three to five boys in their late teens, who would accompany Mills to the sweatlodge and strip off their clothes before stepping in. There, they would relax in the heat and ash for the better part of an hour. Afterwards, Mills (still naked) would stand on the back of his paneled van (complete with bunk beds), and hold out a makeshift shower under which the boys could rinse off. The last boy through would switch places with him, holding the water bag as Mills rinsed himself off in the open air.
Matt Bocian was introduced to Mills's strange initiations when he was a young scout at nearby Camp Tuscazoar. "I remember several instances of tying members of his troop up to a tree and spraying shaving cream on their private parts. Including me," says Bocian. "Everyone had to take a turn. He would take pictures and humiliate you in front of everyone."
He also remembers the van Mills used to drive to Pipestone. Bocian had a chance to see it from the inside during a Buckeye Council pig roast. "He pushed me into the van. I remember him trying to undress me. I remember coming to and trying to fight him." What happened after that is "kinda fuzzy." He does remember being outside the van sometime later. His mother found him hiding in the woods.
The Bocian family contacted Jack Johnson, but no charges were filed against Mills or the camp, because Matt didn't want to talk. Mills denies that the incident took place. He left the scouting program at the behest of Buckeye Council, but Johnson maintains that neither Bocian nor the sweatlodge led to his departure. (Mills declined further comment.)
Buckeye Council does not require background checks for Pipestone volunteers if they come from outside the council. And the majority do. Instead of weeding out potential adult pedophiles, the Pipestone chiefs would rather talk to 14-year-olds about the dangers of becoming a homo.
The fourth-year Pipestone speech is so important that the Chief of Pipestone himself, Greg Swinehart, delivers it. This is the speech that once included, "Masturbation leads to curiosity." That word has been removed, but the theme remains that of the birds and the bees. Or, rather, the bees and the bees.
"Beware of homosexual encounters," Swinehart tells a group of fourth-year candidates on July 9. "Homosexuals are immature. They are stuck in childhood forever. Leave your close friendships with the same sex behind."
Camp Algonkin is the only camp in the nation to offer Pipestone, and because of this, it remains the most popular summer destination for Northeast Ohio Boy Scout troops. However, it is not entirely unique.
There is the Ordeal of the Ku-ni-eh, which originated in 1922 at Camp Friedlander, Cincinnati's most popular Boy Scout camp. Before hazing became criminal, candidates of Ku-ni-eh had arrow shapes scratched into their arms with needles. New recruits were blindfolded and roped together, and hiked until dawn. The Tribe of Gimogash, founded in Toledo, is almost as old as scouting itself, beginning in 1914. During the ceremony, three one-gallon cans were buried in the ground between the fire and the chiefs. One can was filled with hot ashes, one with water, and one with dirt. The candidate would dip his hands in each one. Ku-ni-eh and Gimogash exist today only as offshoots of another program, and the more painful activities have been abandoned.
Still very much active -- and winning the prize for most elusive -- is the Tribe of Mic-O-Say, based in Missouri. Boys going through this ceremony supposedly work for an entire day in silence, receiving a minimal amount of food (a Scout official admits that there is "light fasting").
An anonymous caller telephoned while I researched Mic-O-Say. The voice was that of an older man, and he sounded displeased. "I'm telling you to stay out of the Tribe's business," he warned. A call returned to that number was picked up by the answering machine of Paul Hinterleitner, a retired master sergeant with the United States Air Force and honorary warrior of the Tribe of Mic-O-Say.
Camp Algonkin is singular in one way, though. The award itself is a piece of carved catlinite, commonly known as pipestone. Catlinite is found in only one place in the world: Pipestone, Minnesota.
It's actually nothing more than compressed red clay, but it's a bitch to get to. The catlinite sits between two layers of quartzite, buried at least 12 feet underground. In ancient times, the Sioux tribes of the Minnesota region would go to great lengths to get at this material, which was known to make the very best pipes. The tribesmen would drill holes into the hard quartzite during the summer, using hand tools. When winter approached, they would pour water into the holes, and as it froze and then warmed, cracks would begin to appear in the stone. When spring came, they would pry up bits of rock to get to the pipestone below.
The Pipestone ceremonies at Camp Algonkin are said to follow Sioux traditions, in keeping with the spirit of their culture. But the man who mines the stone for Camp Algonkin, Travis Erikson of the Sisseton-Waphota Dakota Nation, questions that claim after hearing about Pipestone's obsession with prohibiting gayness.
"There were gay people in the native culture," he says. "They were called Winktay. The gay people were looked on as more powerful, because they had two souls. They have the power to speak with spirits. Chiefs who needed their daughters protected when they went to war would leave them with a Winktay."
But Sioux tradition cannot compete with the forces striving to keep scouting free of queers.
The Boy Scouts remains a private organization, funded by sponsor groups. Their biggest supporter: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which threatened to sever ties if the Supreme Court ruled to allow homosexuals to become scout leaders in 2000.
"The Church, in this case, loves the sinner, but abhors the sin," says Don Russell, who works in the public affairs office at the Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The Latter-day Saints keep the money flowing into the organization by all but requiring their young men to join scouting. "I wouldn't use the word 'mandate'," says Russell, "but it's pretty close. You can safely say that almost all our youth are in scouting. Without a doubt, it's a huge amount of institutional support."
If the Boy Scouts weren't so focused on keeping the gays out, they might wake up to the very real dangers within.
On July 12, 1995, the staff at Camp Algonkin could tell something was wrong with one of the counselors who had just returned from a night campout with some first-year scouts. At 18, Todd was an extrovert, usually the loudest one at breakfast, but he wasn't eating that morning. He looked like a shadow of himself, drawn and hollow. As the hot day went on and the scouts didn't see him at camp again, the rumors began. The most widespread was that he'd gotten into a fight with another counselor, 24-year-old Mike Klingler.
The following morning, the staff was gathered behind the dining hall. By then, the rumors had escalated to insinuations of sexual abuse, and tensions were high. We were told by Jeff Gonzales, our camp director, that Klingler had been fired, then had gone home and killed himself. We were stunned. Then, an hour later, we were gathered again and told the coroner had made a mistake: a bullet had ricocheted off a tree as Klingler was shooting at pop cans. The fight with Todd, we were told, was over Klingler's having beer in his tent.
Todd, who never returned to Algonkin, heard all this for the first time last month. "That's as far from the truth as can be," he said, but refused to elaborate. After agreeing to be interviewed, he changed his mind, deciding to not relive the incident. It's hard to blame him.
Police reports fill in most of the blanks and reveal the lie told to the staff back then. The following is from Todd's handwritten account:
About 11:30-11:45 PM, I went to bed and then sometime after midnight, Mike Klingler pulled off my blanket and woke me up. He asked me if everyone was accounted for. I quickly began to walk around the shelter to count [the younger scouts] and Mike grabbed the back of my shirt and took me to another camp sight and began choking, punching, kicking and hitting me. He took me behind one of the shelters and made me jack him off. He caught the ejaculate and smeared it on my face and hair. He beat me some more. He called me gay. He pulled down my pants and made me continue hugging the tree which was covered in poison ivy. He pulled me off of the tree and told me to go back to bed and if I told anyone about this he would kill me. He said he should have killed me that night.
Todd made it through the night, staring into the blackness beyond the trees and wondering with every snap of a twig from the underbrush whether Klingler was coming back for him. In the morning, he woke the younger campers and marched them back to Camp Algonkin. Once the scouts were again with their separate troops, he allowed himself to finally break down, telling his story to the camp chaplain.
The chaplain's written account states that Don Schneck, the Buckeye Council representative who escorted Klingler from camp, said that Klingler began to come unhinged. Schneck told the chaplain that as he packed, Klingler was mumbling about a suspicious 1993 fire on the grounds -- which Klingler was rumored to have started -- and about when he could get his last paycheck.
Reports show that Klingler then returned to his parents' house in Stark County's Beach City. He took a nap. The Carroll County Sheriff's office called and left a message, indicating that it might be a good idea for him to call them back. When Klingler awoke, he picked up a .22-caliber rifle and headed outside, telling his mother he was "going to shoot at groundhogs." A short time later a shot rang out, and Klingler was dead. A neighbor later told police that she turned in time to see Klingler's feet fly up in the air as he fell backward. She did not see anyone else nearby.
According to Richard Walters, the coroner's investigator, the chances that this was an accidental death are slim. The gun was in contact with the body when it was fired, as if it were pressed against his chest.
"Normally, when you say 'a contact gunshot wound,' right away the word 'suicide' pops up," says Walters. "However, we can't prove it's suicide, because we can't even prove that he fired the gun." Unlike handguns, rifles don't leave gunpowder residue on the shooter's hand. And the Stark County Sheriff's Department never tested the gun for fingerprints, so technically it remains possible, witness statements aside, that someone else fired the gun.
"And that's why the case was [ruled] undetermined. We were unable to prove it was a suicide or homicide."
No charges were ever filed against the camp or Buckeye Council. Carroll County Chief Deputy Robert Wirkner explains, "At the time, it was the victim's word against our dead man's word. The dead man's dead. We can't debrief him."
The shifting accounts of what happened to Klingler, and Todd's failure to return to the camp he used to dream all year about attending, made it clear to the rest of us that we were unwilling accomplices in perpetuating a myth. But we were good at keeping secrets. We had been through Pipestone.
The Pipestone program will always exist, and it will always be secretive. Because it has always been that way. And because its allure has become too valuable to abandon.
"Other camps can't hold a candle to Camp Algonkin," says Ken Richardson, scoutmaster of troop 555 from Upper Arlington, Ohio. "They take 500 to 600 scouts each week. That's a lot of money coming through. Pipestone is the component that brings troops back instead of [their] going to other camps. The scouts look forward to getting their fifth-year Pipestone. They have a lot of tradition."
"It's kind of like participating in live theater," says Terry McElroy, scoutmaster for Troop 6 out of Salem, Ohio. "They're so authentic."
"I can't think of a better way to keep kids coming back," agrees Anton Zellers, the leader of Troop 335 from Pittsburgh. "The scouts want to go to Camp Algonkin for Pipestone. The talks each year, I think, are appropriate, although somewhat dated. But I think the kids appreciate that, whether they admit it or not."
The speeches can be changed, but not easily. "The circle chiefs, the men that give the talks, are the ones who review them," says Johnson. "Those talks are reviewed annually. They critique the speeches every year."
Some changes are coming more quickly, however, because of Scene's inquiries. "None of us remembered the line about a Brave keeping his word, whether good or evil," says Johnson. "Those words will be stricken. That portion will be exorcised. No one thinks that you should keep your word to someone that's evil."
The shower arrangements have been "corrected" as well, says Johnson. Boys 17 and younger will get ready in a separate room within the ISH. No timetable has been set on purchasing doors.
Not everyone will be happy with the changes.
"Pipestone is important to a large number of scouts," Johnson says. "It's tied to their advancement. Buckeye Council has three times the number of Eagle Scouts because of Pipestone. This program is so important to scouting and so important to so many people. I hope people understand."
Most graduates protect it as an important trial of manhood, believing its antediluvian practices helped prepare them for their successful lives. Patrick McGuire, an economist working in Switzerland, writes in an e-mail, "Pipestone is one of the last remaining 'real experiences' a young person can have . . . It is precisely because the whole ceremony is shrouded in secrecy, and seems so far removed from everyday experience and the reach of parents and lawyers, that it sticks in the gut of every person that participates.
"Local traditions are dying at an alarming rate. I fear that anything which describes a bunch of half-naked adults dressed as Indians running through the woods with a group of 12-year-olds will be nothing more than a cheap exaggeration of the Pipestone program used to sell a few more magazines. You know as well as I do how 'Joe Mom-n-Dad public' will react."
It would be hard to explain why a youth organization would want to teach children to keep secrets from their parents. It would be hard to explain why Pipestone wants to promote homophobia. And it would certainly be hard to explain why their 15-year-old boy's naked body is being painted by an adult leader.
However, it's easy to explain why Pipestone has the power to influence so many people. Tradition.
For now, the drum still beats every Friday night through the summer. Its sound marks the beginning of the ceremony. And when it's over, the young men of tomorrow return in silence to their campsites. In their hands, they hold a cold piece of stone dug up by the aged hands of Travis Erikson. In their hearts they hold the words of the chief. And, as they drift off to sleep, it is his deep voice they hear, echoing in an empty skull where one word sits illuminated: Secrecy.