What the Vampires Knew

By Tom Neale, 9/5/2012


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

The beach was as desolate and isolated as you could find in those parts. It was just a sandy hump of shore rounding out into the Virginia’s York River, cut off from the rest of the world by miles of pine forest and marsh. My friend and I each had a flat bottom wooden skiff. They were around 18 feet long; I’m not sure exactly, because that was back in the 1950s and I’ve had a lot of boats since then. We were excited. We were going camping in the wilderness, and we were going by boat.

We left our town’s beach each loaded to the gunn’les with a big tent, cooking gear, food, books, lanterns, sleeping bags and other camping gear that we’d normally take on Boy Scout trips. Except this time we were on our own, going to a place that you could only reach by boat. Our outboards pushed the boats down the glassy river until we came to the shallows off the beach. We cocked the motors, waded in, anchored the boats just offshore, and started unloading in the late sultry hot summer afternoon. Pitching a tent in sand is both easy and hard. It’s not difficult to drive the pegs in but you want to be sure they’re driven deep. This we did and piled our stuff inside. We built a fire from wood we found up in the dense pine forest beyond the sand.

Storm clouds.
The air thickened as the flames started to lick at the logs. It had been overwhelmingly hot all day, without a breath of wind, the air infused with suffocating humidity. But this wasn’t unusual for summer. We thought little of it, and not much of the graying sky in the west as the sun lowered. We had no weather radios in those days, or radio or TV stations that gave constant updates and warnings of significant weather. We didn’t even have a TV in our house. It was a very different world from what we know now.

Our biggest concern was the mosquitoes that we knew would come. We sat downwind of the fire as we cooked, smoking ourselves thoroughly. We hoped that the sweat and river mud on our bodies would also help. Even so, they began their piercing attacks. Soon we retreated to our tent. This wasn’t a fancy modern tent with netting. It was just a very basic tent. The kind we all used in those days, out in the country. We closed the flaps and tied them tightly. We debated whether to burn our Coleman Lantern so we could read. We hoped that the smoke would repel bugs more than the light would attract then, so we decided to keep it lit for awhile and crawled into our sleeping bags. The closeness of the night enveloped us. From outside, our tiny glow in the tent must have looked surrealistic to anyone—or anything that may have been looking. We hoped no one--or no thing.

I wondered why we weren’t getting bitten badly, thinking that the closed flaps of the tent and smell of the lantern were working. I raised my eyes from my book and looked up at the inside of the tent. It was as if the blackness of the night outside was seeping through. But something was strange. I put on my smudgy glasses and looked more closely. It wasn’t the inside of the tent I was seeing. It was mosquitoes, thousands and thousands of them, clinging tightly to the inside surfaces of the tent. I whispered to my friend, “don’t move. If anything stirs them we’ll be eaten alive.”

We both continued reading, afraid to turn off the light. We knew our boats were out there off the beach, gently tugging at their anchors, but we knew they weren’t far enough offshore to get us away from the mosquitoes and we certainly didn’t want to take off into that black river. So finally we decided to douse the lantern and go to sleep. It’s hard to pull a sleeping bag over your head when the night is so hot, but we did, as a last defense should the bugs get hungry. We couldn’t understand why they were behaving that way—just sitting on the inside of the tent and not moving. We’d never seen anything like it, and we’d dealt with mosquitoes all our lives.

Tom’s Tips About Signs

Always look for and pay attention to weather signs. They are real time and on scene and can be very helpful. A few examples:

1. Swarms of seagulls in the fields inshore may indicate a very bad storm coming.

2. Old sayings such as the one about "red sky in the morning sailor take warning, red sky at night sailor’s delight" can be very helpful.

Click Here for More Tips

We began to hear an occasional soft moaning. It seemed both close and far. It wasn’t what we wanted to hear on a night that black on a beach that desolate. Eventually the strange noises grew a little more pronounced, and, yes, closer.

As I lay there smothering in the sleeping bag, drowning in the near liquid atmosphere and smelling my sweat, I remembered that I’d forgotten a tradition. I loved garlic dill pickles and I’d usually take one or two on camping trips. Near our home was an old country store. Among its marvels for sale was a big batch of dill pickles floating in a huge glass jar, sitting on the counter, right next to the jar with the pickled eggs. You reached in, grabbed the one that you wanted, rescued it from the murky liquid, and paid your penny. I’d done this in preparation for the trip. Mine was wrapped in a piece of waxed paper, and it was within reach in the tent.

They played a dual role on camping trips. First, they tasted good. Second, they’d ward off vampires if any were there. Of course, I didn’t believe in vampires, but I’d seen the movies and why take chances if you like garlic dill pickles anyway. Tonight there was a third reason. I figured that if they’d keep vampires at bay, they might do the same for blood sucking mosquitoes, hanging there like vampire bats, motionless---waiting for something.

Carefully, I opened up the flap on my sleeping bag and looked out. Blackness. I got my flashlight and shone it on the inside of the tent. The mosquitoes were still there, clinging, as if waiting for some horror only they imagined. If anything had changed it was that there were even more of them. Barely breathing, I got my pickle, opened the paper, and took a bite. That first crisp mouthful was always such a pleasure. But I hadn’t finished swallowing before the entire world seemed to explode.

A huge wind swept in from the river and across the beach. It hit us like a brick wall. Our tent was gone in an instant and we were cowering in what was left of our camping debris, trying to protect ourselves from the wind driven sand, shredding our skin. The darkness disappeared for instant after instant as lightning changed the world, thunder roaring simultaneously with each hissing flash. In one strobe instant we saw our tent down the beach, flailing around an old tree stump. We ran after it, pulled it from the stump, dragged it above the high tide mark and huddled under it, holding it desperately around us as the rain came in sheets so heavy that it felt like we were under a powerful waterfall.

We knew there was no help. We hoped we could hold on to the tent. We hoped it wouldn’t get worse. We hoped the lightning wouldn’t hit us. We felt sure our boats and outboards were gone forever. We knew the storm would be just as bad in town upriver and that our parents would be panicking about us. We had no idea how we’d communicate with them next morning, if we survived the night.

Then we heard, through the rage, two voices calling our names. They were our fathers. The storm had hit town before it reached us and they could imagine the seriousness of our plight. They’d both grown up in those parts, as had we, but they’d been growing up a whole lot longer. They knew of an old slab road built for a CC camp years before, heading down to that point. They’d found it, forced their way through the swamp, and come looking for us. All they saw in the lightning was two strange lumps under a tarp, which exploded upwards as we realized they were there. We all ran for the car and made our way slowly home through a world of blackness. There were trees down everywhere, houses destroyed and no electricity or lights except the blue and red ones from emergency vehicles.

The next morning they took us back to the beach. We knew our boats were gone, but we had to look. As we cleared the forest line we shouted. They were just where we’d left them, tugging quietly at anchor. They were half full of water from the rain and the waves, but the motors were fine and started as soon as we finished bailing. It was a beautiful trip back up the river, as it had been going down the day before. But the night in between had left us with some lessons and memories I still haven’t forgotten.



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