The Whip-poor-will Prank

A whippoorwill atop a sign that reads "REVERENT"

A Scout is Reverent. The Whip-poor-will? Not so much!

By Jeffrey Bishop

Presto: changed-o!

Tell Time: 12 minutes
Scare Rating: 1/5 Ghosts

The choice for Council of the Rock was to take place at the end of the week.  The older Scouts who were eligible were a bit anxious, wondering whom among them would be tapped out to join the ranks of the Council as a Rock Elder inductee.  More specifically, each was worried that he might NOT be selected for the honor.

That is, every boy except for Preston, who was not particularly worried.  Presto, as his fellow Scouts called him, was a good kid — and generally was a good Scout.  He kept the Ways of the Rock — the code of honor of the Scouts — every bit as much as his peers.  Except perhaps for the Way of Reverence.  Since he didn’t take himself too seriously, Presto didn’t take much else seriously, either.  He was more interested in having a good time and in helping others to have a good time, too, than he was in being reverent in all circumstances.

Sometimes this quality endeared him to his fellow Scouts.  And sometimes it simply annoyed them — and their adult leaders.  There was the time at swimming lessons during their first summer camp that Presto gave Bobby a wet willie, which caused the boy to fall off the dock into the lake.  Besides the fact that a wet willie is kind of gross, Bobby didn’t yet know how to swim, and thought for certain that he’d drown while trying to get to the shore, albeit in waist-high water.

As is often the case, it’s not always a funny deed that’s inappropriate or irreverent; rather it’s the time or the place that the deed is done that makes it so.  As was the case when Presto broke wind during Grace — an accident by his assertion, but definitely within a pattern of intentional “funny” behavior that he was known for.

Because of his occasional high-spirited irreverence, Presto had no expectations of being called to the Order of the Rock.  No expectations, no worries, and thus a free mind for mischief and fun.  Which suited him just fine.

So you can imagine his great surprise — along with the surprise of some of his fellow Scouts — when his name, Preston Montgomery Holmes, was called out by the High Chief during the mid-week induction ceremony.

“Well I’ll be sun-dried and put away in a cool, dark place!” he thought to himself as the den hiked back to their campsite following the ceremony.  “I’ll have to think of something to do to  make this really special for me — and for everyone else!”


“Boys, gather around,” said Marc, their leader.  “Those of you inducted to the Order, grab your sleeping bags and your water bottles — and nothing else.  We’re going to hike to the Retreat Grounds.

“Oh yeah, and one more thing,” he added, with a solemnity none of the boys had ever seen before.  “Where we are going is sacred ground.  Once you leave this campsite, you may not speak from sundown to sunrise.  Adhering to this rule will prove your Obedience, your Self-Control.  And your Reverence.  Out of reverence to the ancient lands we are honored to visit, we will adhere to these rules, as all of our forebears have before us.”

Marc scanned the boys gathered before him, and his eyes locked onto Presto’s.  Seeing the subtle smirk on the joker’s face, he was compelled to add, “barring your silence and Reverence, legend holds that a curse will befall he who can not silence his tongue during the trial.  Is that understood by all?”

No boy said a word in reply — taking the admonition of silence literally; not a one even nodded.  Including Presto.  If Marc wondered how it was that Presto had made the cut to been called out, he now wondered, if only briefly, whether the challenge of the Order might help the boy grow up a bit.

The boys silently set out to the retreat grounds single file.  It was a long hike to an area of the camp where none had ever been before, and it was twilight when they arrived.  With pantomimed instructions, Marc set them about their immediate task: to quickly set up their bedrolls for the night.  They then shared a meager meal of stew that Marc prepared for them — only enough for a small cup each — and ate in solitude, together: they sat in a wide circle with their backs turned inward towards the others.

Their day was finished, but the long night — sleeping alone under the stars — had only begun.  Each was anxious to make it through the night and to emerge from the ordeal as Elders.

Soon enough, all the boys were sound asleep.  All of them, of course, except for Presto.  His mind was restless, racing with ideas for how he could make the experience “special” for everyone out there that night.  As he lay there staring at the stars above, an idea filled his head quickly, like storm clouds brewing up and filling the skies overhead.  With the idea in mind, he hopped up and set out to carry it out.

Going into the woods around the campsite, Presto cupped his hands around his mouth and called out,

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

Immediately, he could hear the campsite stirring, waking up to his call.  He let out another round of calls — Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! — before slinking thru the woods back to his sleeping bag.

The other boys awoke from the noise, but none was sure of what he should do about it, given the restrictions on speaking and presumably also on movement. So most just sat up in their sleeping bags and scanned their surroundings.

More than a few were certain that Presto was somehow associated with the ruckus. The boy stifled deep giggles within the plush down of his sleeping bag as he felt the other boys’ eyes burning on his back.

Soon enough, the campsite settled down again, and Presto could hear deep snores — so loud that he wondered why those weren’t waking up the boys the way that his bird call had. He was anxious to repeat the prank, but it wouldn’t work if he was caught doing it; besides, he wanted to have fun, and getting in trouble in the middle of the night wouldn’t be fun for anyone.

So Presto waited. And waited. Indeed, if patience was a Way of the Rock value instead of Reverence, Presto would have been inducted much sooner. After waiting for what seemed to be a painfully long time, Presto compounded the wait by counting to 60 60 times — accounting for a full hour on top of what he’d already waited.

Finally certain that all were asleep, he quietly emerged from his sleeping bag and once again crept to the tree line. He again cupped his hands around his mouth and called out,

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

Again, the campsite stirred, and Presto briefly considered making a second call. But rightfully aware that his friends would suspect him, Presto instead slinked back to his sleeping bag.

Safely nestled back in, Presto could hear the expected stirring of the encircled group, and a smile spread across his face in the dark. But this time he also heard a new sound: a sound that removed his smile as quickly as the boy’s stirrings had put it on. He heard soft padding swiftly approaching him in the plush grass of the field.

Presto kept his eyes pinched shut. He affected a low snore, playing possum as the footfalls stopped just in front of him.

“Presto, I don’t know what your game is, but knock it off!” The looming presence belonged to Marc, and he was growling low as he upbraided the boy. “I know it’s you making the bird calls, and I know you’re awake now — you’d be the only boy asleep in the camp if you really were.”

Presto didn’t dare make a sound. He snortled in his “sleep” to convey some sort of understanding, but kept up the possum routine.

“Remember the way of the Rock. Be Reverent,” Marc said, a bit less angrily than before. “And remember the curse,” he added, before walking away.

The adrenaline coursed through Presto’s frame; he was thrilled at narrowly avoiding trouble. He had clearly missed the warnings, however, as he anxiously considered how soon he could repeat the prank.

So for the next few hours, Presto laid awake, keeping himself alert by recounting past adventures, numbering the stars and constellations so clearly visible in the deep night sky overhead, and thinking about how this night would be long remembered by his troop and by the Rock Elders, thanks to him.

It had to be three in the morning when Presto once again emerged from his sleeping bag. He again slinked to the tree line, and again raised his hands to his mouth to make the night bird’s call. As before, he called out:

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

Before Presto could consider making a second call, this time the nature of the shenanigans changed — along with the source of them. From nowhere in the clear, calm night, a high wind picked up and coursed through the campsite. The gusts blew thick clouds of dust off the ground and pulled wads of green leafs off the trees all around the boys. Large and small branches snapped off and fell to the ground around them; the heavier ones sounded like the cracking of a string of firecrackers in a steel trash can — before they crashed to the ground with an anticlimactic thud.

The entire campsite quickly awoke but the boys stayed low to the ground in fear. None was too concerned that Presto could be the cause — clearly this was beyond his ability to pull off as a prank. Instead, each was looking back and forth at each other and at the chaos around them, trying to make sense of it. And trying to figure out what to do.

Marc took charge and ran to each boy in turn and urged him to the center of the ring — an apparent island of calm in the middle of the now-swirling vortex of winds. There, the boys huddled in a tight pile and looked out at the storm that surrounded them — a scene so surreal that it almost seemed as though they were watching it on a large outdoor movie screen.

When Marc got to Presto’s sleeping bag, he was dismayed — but not surprised — to find it empty. “That kid … ” he muttered as he moved to the next boy’s location. He’d have to try to find Presto later, after getting all the others safely to the middle of the field.

“Has anyone seen Presto?” Marc shouted above the noise of the storm when he’d delivered the last boy. Keeping some discipline about him regarding the 24 hours of silence, Tommy nonetheless motioned to the treeline where Presto sat, also taking in the scene in fearful awe.

“Presto! Get over here!” Marc called out over the noise of the storm. “Get out of the wind!”

As if a trance had been broken, Presto looked away from the swirling winds and toward Marc. He rose to his feet from a kneeling position and stepped forward toward Marc and the group. As he did, however, the boys and their leader saw Presto’s body whisked up into the windstorm as if a giant hand had swooped him off the ground in its monstrous grip. As he rose out of sight, Marc could only stare after him, desperately helpless to do a thing to aid the boy.

All at once, the winds stopped — just as suddenly as they’d started. Debris and litter from the trees and field fell to the ground around the field with an unceremonious thud. In the mid-night darkness, all was as calm again as it had been when they fell to sleep.

Immediately, Marc suspended the ceremonial prohibition on speech and movement and directed the boys to start searching for Presto.

“We’ll cover the cardinal points of the compass first; go out about 150 yards, then return and go out on the ordinal radii,” he commanded. “Stick together in pairs for safety. I’ll stay here in case he returns. The rest of you, run to the camp office to let them know we’ve got a boy missing. Understood?”

The boys understood, and were just setting out to search when a loud call came from the woods at the edge of the field.

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

“Is that the joker?” asked Marc, with some relief — and exasperation — in his voice. “Preston, get over here!”

The call of the night bird sounded again:

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

Marc’s relief quickly changed to annoyance. He stomped over to the edge of the field to retrieve his lost charge. The rest of the boys followed along. The call sounded again, almost mockingly, as Marc approached:

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!

Marc scanned the tree line with his headlamp, but couldn’t find the lost boy.

“He must be here somewhere, hiding,” Marc muttered as he trampled the thick brush searching vainly for Presto.

Again came the call, this time from directly above the troop of boys. Marc shot his headlamp up into the tree above him, expecting to see a teenager crouched on a limb there. Instead, he saw a fat, grey-brown whippoorwill, wide awake and calling out to the boys and to the night:

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!


Search parties consisting of first all the camp’s scouts, and then local and state police, along with members of the community, spent the next two weeks scouring the campsite and surrounding woods and fields for Presto. But Preston Montgomery Holmes was never found.

In his honor, the Rock Elders completed Presto’s induction into the Order of the Rock, and recognized him at each annual vigil.

At the twilight ceremonies, a special guest was regularly heard from, year after year — a guest that some of the elders suggested was cursed for want of Reverence, but whom others — Marc among them — believed was a simply a prankster who had himself been pranked by the spirit ancestors of the original Rock Elders.  This guest heralded his own arrival at each ceremony with a loud and hearty call of his name:

Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!


Copyright 2012

Click here to hear the whip-poor-will’s eponymous call!

~ by Random Handyman on December 31, 2012.

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