Once upon a time a boy named Bobby Watson drowned at my summer camp. This was in 1968. Thirteen-year-old Bobby had been playing an all-camp game of hide-n-seek when he spotted an old Kenmore refrigerator stationed on the far side of the docks. Indeed, it was a peculiar place for a fridge, but Bobby never questioned it; after all, where others saw a fridge he saw a perfect place to hide. He pulled the door wide (caree-eeek), and then pulled it closed behind him (click).
There, Bobby thought as he crouched in that fridge, now no one will ever find me.
A few minutes later the camp’s maintenance man arrived on the scene, tied a rope from the fridge to the dock, and shoved it into the water. You see, that fridge was meant to serve as an anchor to weigh down those docks, but Bobby didn’t know that then.
All he knew was that the fridge had begun to take on water, tiny rivers breaching the seams. Bobby grew frantic, pounded on the door, shouted, “Ollie Ollie oxen free!” at the top of his lungs, but the water continued to rise. It rose to his neck, his chin, his mouth, and finally, even his nose.
A decade passed, and eventually, that refrigerator door rusted wide. Poor Bobby was still there, and since the fish were hungry and his flesh was ripe, they began to have a nibble.
They’d hardly finished before Bobby inexplicably woke to the sound of campers shouting “Marco Polo” just above him in the water. He wanted desperately to join, but he was so mortified by his fish-eaten face that he remained submerged instead, forced to watch the bubbles churn as their beanpole legs kicked.
That evening, long after the campers had toweled off and two-timed it to the lodge for dinner, Bobby spotted a white bucket on the edge of the dock. He took it, placed it over his head, and dragged himself from the water.
Some say that on dark nights when the moon is full you can still see Bobby Watson looming by the oak grove near the cabins. Only these days, Bobby goes by another name: Buckethead.
As a camper, I was told this story for years. As a counselor, I’d tell it, too, usually glossing over the part about the fish-eaten face—no need to give nervous-bladdered campers another reason to wet the bunks.
Over the years, Buckethead became legend, and equally legendary were its tellers. Every counselor had his or her own take, each of us contributing details during our retellings. In retrospect, it was probably the grandest game of telephone any of us had ever played, one that spanned at least a few generations of counselors—a yarn we spun once and kept spinning.
But who, I often wonder, spun it for the first time? And was any portion of the story grounded in truth?
Now, a decade after leaving camp, I continue my search for Buckethead. I take to social media, asking every camp alumnus I can find what they remember about Bobby. Everyone remembers the same details—the fridge, the bucket, the fish-eaten face. Though amid their comments comes a clue to the story’s origins.
One person writes: “You should really talk to John Zerega.”
The name transports me back a quarter century to my first week as a camper. How the seven-year-old me had tiptoed into the Mohawk cabin to be greeted by none other than counselor John—our man in question.
I fire off an email to somebody that shares his name and receive a reply 30 minutes later:
“Hey. How are you?”
It’s him, and though we haven’t spoken for decades, he tells me to give him a call. I rush to my phone, and he picks up on the second ring.
“Hey, John,” I say. “It’s B.J. Hollars. From the Mohawk cabin.”
John laughs a belly laugh, and immediately, the years melt away. Within seconds we fall into the old language, chattering about mosquito swarms and mud hikes and the old pipe in the shallow end of the waterfront. We both remember every detail of that camp so vividly, though when I ask him about Buckethead, he pauses, says, “You know, I haven’t thought about him in a long time.”
“Where’d the story come from?” I ask.
“Well, the story came about because of the old cooler. You know about the old cooler, right?”
“We found it the first summer I was there—1990, I guess. One day the waterfront director and I were putting in the docks, and he said, ‘Did you see that?’ We swam down as deep as we could, and there was this old cooler, this chest freezer—probably 25 feet deep—with a chain around it. And attached to that chain was a bucket.”
He goes on to describe he and the waterfront director’s later explorations of that freezer, how they’d row out to the spot, hold tight to an anchor, and then allow themselves to be pulled to the bottom of the lake.
“We’d stay down there as long as we could,” John explains. “I remember we’d stand on top of the cooler and push off to get back to the surface faster. It’s probably covered with algae now, but I bet it’s still there.”
I think back to the first time I ever stood on that dock: how the teeth-chattering seven-year-old me had curled his toes along the metal edge while the raindrops plinked atop my skin. I’d prayed for lightning, anything that might prevent me from having to leap into that dark and unknowable water. But I leapt because others leapt, and eventually, my fear began to subside. Had I known then what I know now—that the inspiration for Buckethead lingered in the algae just a few feet away—perhaps that fear would still remain.
John explains how he and two other counselors first concocted the story, and why they began telling it around campfires.
“We were having problems with kids sneaking out and trying to swim late at night,” he explains, “so we had to find a way to stop it.”
Buckethead became their answer.
We talk Buckethead for a few minutes more, but soon find ourselves reminiscing on the magic of camp itself.
“I worked there for nine summers,” he tells me. “One time I did the math, and I was making something like nineteen cents an hour.”
I nod all too knowingly. “So what kept us coming back?” I ask.
He pauses. “It’s hard to nail down,” he says. “I mean, you could have just met some counselor from another country, and five minutes later you’d be checking her for ticks. And five minutes after that maybe you’re rolling around with her in the mud hike. Anyway, you worked at camp,” he says, cutting himself off, “you know how tight it gets.”
I do. So tight, in fact, that camp was where I met my wife and where we later got married. There was something about the woods, the stars, the campers, that magic.
“Hopefully we can reminisce more one day,” I tell him, “preferably around a campfire.”
“Man, I hope so,” my former counselor agrees.
As I hang up the phone, I realize that Buckethead is but one camp legend among many. And as John has proven, over time, we counselors nearly became legends ourselves. Not legendary, mind you, but legends: people whose histories might be twisted and tangled for the benefit of the next generation of campers and counselors.
We are all Bobby Watson.
And on dark nights when the moon is full you can still hear talk of us—our stories rising like ghosts.