Another quiet end of day in a sleepy midwestern town. An occasional car ambles along the river road, slowing down for the curve by the trestle bridge. As the sun sets it throws warm red light on the bricks of the old factory. The birds and frogs and crickets are competing in their evening choir. The frogs are winning.
And the smells of the evening air: the dry cottonwoods, the warm wet reeds, the mud of the riverbank. And something else, too, something sweet and dry and … what is it? It takes you back somewhere—a memory of that scent is trying to push itself to the front of your mind, but can’t quite make it. Dry and sweet and … not pleasant.
You stand up straight and look around you. The sky is still bright in the west but the light is filtered and fading. Down the road the streetlights are on, but none near you. The dark trees, the slow river, the sounds of the night. You can’t see anyone around, but … but that smell … Something is about to happen. You’d better leave this place. You’d better go where the light is a little stronger.
Come closer to the fire. This is the Camp Monsters Podcast.
Every week we come together around the campfire and tell stories about that big something you heard rustling through the reeds beside you one night, following you. Or that awful smell on a lonely trail that awakened some instinctive rush of terror. Every part of the country has its own stories to explain these things. So every week we’ll be in a different part of the country, hearing the stories about the things that live ... just beyond the firelight.
And as you listen, remember that these stories are just that: stories. Some of them are based on the testimony of people who claim to have seen these creatures, but it’s up to you how much you believe … and how to explain away what you don’t. So come up closer to the fire, away from the dark. Let’s hear this week’s legend.
Ahhhh, I tell you. Wherever you are, if you just get out a little bit you’ll find something special. A big trip to the famous national parks is great, don’t get me wrong—but a weekend spent at the little state park just an hour or two away will remind you of how many wonders await right on your doorstep.
This little spot, for example. Barely an hour from downtown Cincinnati, and look at all this. Woods, trails, open fields, rolling hills, a little river right beside us, a beautiful night: what more can you ask for? Plenty of interesting sights to see around here, too. Just a ways further east is Serpent Mound Historical Site, one of the sprawling mounds built in strange shapes by the people who lived here a thousand years ago. They call it Serpent Mound even though no one is sure what it’s really supposed to depict. Some think it’s a snake, or an abstract human figure, or an enormous frog … or something in between.
Huh … There have always been whispers of something … in between that roams at night along the rivers and streams of this area. But for a long time the whispers were just whispers-- and a vague warning passed down from the days of the earliest settlers: don’t stop by the water at night. There’s something down there that you wouldn’t like. The early settlers must have held onto the old-world superstition that you might summon a thing by talking about it, for the warning always came with a knowing look and no explanation. Don’t stop by the water at night. The people who lived here had all heard the warning many times, and did their best to heed it. But the modern world kept creeping closer, bringing more and more strangers to the area. What happened that night in 1955 was bound to happen eventually.
Jim was a traveling salesman. They don’t exist anymore, not ones like Jim anyway. He had quit school when he was ten, at the height of the Great Depression, to sell newspapers-- and he’d been selling ever since. Pots and pans, sewing notions, vacuum cleaners, soft soap, Jim could sell it all-- and did. Not slick and slippery, like you might be thinking: “Always friendly, never phony,” that was Jim’s motto. He lived it and he’d done very well by it. His customers were repeat customers, and they bought from Jim whether he came selling motor oil or marmalade.
Yes, Jim had done very well. The days of wearing out shoes-- literally wearing holes in the bottom of shoes-- selling frozen chickens door-to-door in the dog days of summer were long gone. Jim worked by automobile now: a brand-new Studebaker, with air-conditioning no less. That night in 1955, Jim had the Stoodie parked right next to the Little Miami River on a quiet stretch of road in the town of Loveland, Ohio.
This was a ritual of Jim’s, carried over from his earliest days selling. In fact, it was one of the secrets he considered key to his success. Jim had watched a lot of good salesmen ruin themselves, in Jim’s opinion, capping off every great sales day by rushing to the nearest diner or restaurant or bar to celebrate. Talking big and eating big and drinking big, they dulled themselves, got satisfied, went soft. Not Jim. Here he was, after the biggest sales day of his life, sitting quietly in his air-conditioned car beside the Little Miami River, thinking about the day and looking over the water at the western sky fading orange to pink to red.
He’d sold three thousand today, three thousand, it had to be a record. But he wasn’t satisfied yet. He went back over things in his head, saw all the places where he’d missed out, where he could have sold a bit more or should have offered another product that was a perfect fit with the one he’d sold. He made notes: on his next round through town he’d clean up, he’d make all the pitches he’d missed and then ... he’d park back down here again and figure out what he’d missed that time. That was another thing Jim loved about selling, the fresh challenge every time …
Hmm, but … something around here wasn’t so fresh. Jim sniffed ... sniffed again. It was a strong smell, strong enough to make him shift in his seat. It was a smell he knew, somehow, though he couldn’t place it… a sharp, dry smell, sickly-sweet … maybe some of that Freon leaking from the air conditioning, Jim thought, but that didn’t seem to match the sense-memory in his mind. No, it was something from his childhood ... something … ahh, he couldn’t place it. Anyway, it couldn’t be healthy. Jim opened a panel on the dash and pulled out a cigar, lit it. Well, that was that for the smell, anyway.
But Jim couldn’t drift back into his usual stream of thought. The last of the light in the west had faded, and anyway he’d made enough notes for the day. Even with the AC the cigar smoke made the air in the car a bit stuffy—Jim opened the door and stepped out into the hot, muggy night. He leaned against the guard rail at the shoulder of the road and let himself sweat a little in the summer night heat. He didn’t have to worry about keeping his suit crisp, now that the day was done. He took the cigar from his mouth, blew a cloud of smoke up into the air and watched the way it glowed orange in the streetlight above.
He glanced either way down the road, and realized for the first time that he wasn’t alone. About thirty yards away, just where the streetlight’s glow faded out entirely, someone was squatting down against the guardrail. At least it looked like a figure—it could just be an odd-shaped piece of roadside trash. Jim smiled and waved the hand with the cigar in that direction, and the figure moved suddenly in a way that Jim didn’t like at all, it jerked its whole body in one startled motion and then returned to perfect stillness, not moving another muscle. An unnatural, inhuman movement.
Well, Jim had been everywhere and seen all kinds, and he wasn’t going to be put off by a guy having some kind of fit on the side of the road. He ought to go over and see if the fellow was alright ... but he couldn’t quite get his feet moving in that direction. It wasn’t fear that stopped him, no, it was … it was a deep, instinctive revulsion. Something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t right with the way that fellow moved.
Jim put the cigar back in his mouth, folded his arms across his chest and did his best to look unconcerned—keeping a corner of his eye on the figure the whole time. For several solid minutes Jim smoked and sighed and shifted against the guardrail, his mask of quiet contentment slipping more and more as the sweat beaded on his face and the unblinking stare of the shadowy figure bored into him.
The cigar was almost dead. Jim crushed the last of it out, and as soon as he did that smell—that sweet, sickly smell—crept back into his nostrils. What was it? What was it? Not pleasant, that was for certain. And the figure was still crouched down there in the dark, unmoving. Jim had had enough. He patted his pocket for his car keys, intending to get away … but what he found instead gave him courage—and an idea.
“How are you, friend? I didn’t see you there.” Jim walked casually toward the figure, smiling, his hand in his pocket and ready for anything. There was no response: no word, no sound, no movement. Jim sidled a little closer. “Is everything alright?” Silence. Stillness. Jim was close now, about as close as he wanted to get. His shadow stretched out huge in front of him and fell across the strange figure, hiding it even further in darkness. Jim stopped, just steps away from the dark form. The smell was overpowering, it turned Jim’s stomach.
Nevertheless he breathed a deep sigh of relief. He’d been wrong. He must have dreamed that sudden movement earlier. Up close the size of the thing was all wrong: too big to be a small animal, too small to be a person or a deer. It was just a pile of something. Sure stank though. Jim pulled the flashlight from his pocket and switched it on.
He never came back for that flashlight. Anyway it broke when he dropped it. The cops pulled him over going about eighty miles an hour through every stop sign in downtown Loveland. And when he started to tell them about the thing’s face—like a scaly little man’s with slits instead of a nose; a lipless mouth stretched like a frog’s but with sharp, broken teeth; bulging eyes with horizontal pupils—well, they impounded the Studebaker and took Jim to jail to dry out. The next morning he was still sweating through his suit, though, pacing the cell and talking about how the thing had jumped: flashed out of the light in an instant and he’d heard the splash in the river at least thirty yards from shore.
At that point the cops gave him his car, patted him on the back and told him maybe he’d better go home to Cincinnati and see a doctor. And the modern-day legend of the “Loveland Frogman” was born. Jim eventually recovered from his fright—in fact he worked the story into his sales pitch and did better than ever. He kept his Loveland territory too—but he never drove that stretch of road down by the river. After a really good sales day you’d find him having coffee and making notes at the counter of the late-night diner downtown. A very well-lit place, that diner. Several blocks back from the river, too.
[Chorus of frogs croaking] Sure are loud tonight, aren’t they? Me, I love that sound. The way they throw their voices—lying in your tent tonight, you’ll swear they’re in there with you. Did you ever catch them when you were a kid? Not to hurt them, you understand, just for the feeling of them wriggling away through your fingers. Something any curious kid would do. Except maybe around here, where every kid worries that one day the tables might be turned.
Kids are known for being curious, though. That’s probably why most of the sightings of the Frogman over the years have been made by the young people of Loveland—they’re the ones curious enough to go down to the river at night looking for it. Of course the young are also known for their vivid imaginations, which is why so many people still laugh off the idea of the Frogman. The story hasn’t faded though, and the sightings haven’t stopped. And every once in awhile someone who is supposed to be past the age of imagination sees something. In 1972 a Loveland police officer filed an official report about a creature that appeared in his headlights as he cruised slowly along Riverside Drive in the middle of the night: about 4 feet tall with leathery skin, it jumped over the guardrail toward the river as his car approached. And then there was the most recent sighting—the closest encounter yet.
Loveland is one of the most popular destinations for road-biking in southern Ohio. The Little Miami Scenic Trail runs right through town, following an old railroad right-of-way. And multiple lovely rural roads run like spokes from the hub of Loveland. You can ride out along one, cut across, and come back on another. Some routes follow the rivers, some wind among the hills; some are flat and easy, others long and challenging—and all of them take you through a picturesque countryside as pretty as a postcard.
Govind knows all of the roads around Loveland. He’s one of the fastest riders in the Southwest Ohio Cycle Club—his friends call him “Go”—and he can regularly be found at the front of the pack at any club event. Govind rides every chance he gets—with friends or solo, he spends his spare time blurring past all the beautiful scenery that you and I would, ahem, choose to view at a much more leisurely pace.
On the night we’re talking about he was going even faster than usual. He had gotten a late start, and then couldn’t resist taking a longer route than he had planned, so that it was fully dark by the time he came speeding back past the Little Miami river. His car was at Nisbet Park, less than a mile away, and he was simulating a sprint to the finish on the last leg of a long race. Normally he wouldn’t have been going so fast in such low-light conditions—the streetlights are far apart on that stretch of the river road. But he’d rode it so many times, Govind felt like he knew every pebble of the way here in Loveland. So he sprinted into the last mile, the echo of his tires humming off the guardrail beside him and the world ahead sliced into frozen moments by the strobe of his headlight amp. He saw something moving up in the frantic light ahead in the same instant that his front wheel caught the wrong pothole just right.
Stretched out unconscious on the warm pavement, Govind’s battered mind took him on a trip he didn’t expect. It took him to the Reptile House at the zoo that he’d visited once as a little boy. Govind had seen a lizard there with big peels of skin hanging off its body, and the zookeeper had explained how lizards shed their skin as they grew. Govind had asked the zookeeper if it hurt the lizard to shed its skin. The zookeeper hadn’t known for sure, but Govind had felt that it must, it must hurt to have your skin peeled off like that. He looked at the lizard laying on the rough, hot rocks in the dim light of the reptile house, looking raw and sore where the chunks of his old skin tore away from his body, not wanting to move at all.
And the smell—that strong, dry, sickly-sweet reek of the Reptile House—that smell suddenly came on so strong that in his concussion-dream Govind split in two, and for a moment he was both the lizard and the little boy looking through the glass in wonder and pity at it, breathing the close, hot stink of the memory. Then like a light went out the little Govind was gone, and now he was just the lizard, lying there in the pain of his own shedding skin.
In the real world, on the pavement, under the streetlight, Govind began to stir. He moved his head slowly from side to side, his eyes fluttered open—then closed against the brightness of the streetlight. He blinked and groaned and began to come back to himself, to remember who and why and where he was.
He opened his eyes again, and saw that another bike rider had stopped to help him, was squatting down beside him. As Govind slowly started to put the pieces of consciousness back together, he thought about that for a long time. Who had he been riding with today? Who was with him? No one, he finally answered himself. No one. He’d been riding alone. Some other biker must have been on the road at a distance behind him, and seen his crash and come to help.
Govind squinted his eyes open, looked up at the good samaritan. He couldn’t see his face the way the other rider was crouching, but ... sure was a strange racing suit the other rider was wearing. He’d never seen one like it. It didn’t have all the colors and logos that one usually saw … it was all one mottled, muddy brown color but tight, tight so that the muscles and bones of the body under it stood out in every movement. The other rider stretched out a hand and gently placed it on Govind, as if to wake him up. Govind moved his own hand on top of the other rider’s to reassure him that he was alright. And the hand as Govind touched it felt clammy, and small, and … and … webbed?
As Govind’s battered mind tried to decide whether this bizarre idea was real or concussed, his body reacted instinctively and he raised his head up to get a better look at the stranger. With a flash of movement faster than human the other rider pivoted to face him … and it was a face that Govind will never be able to forget. Inches from his own, with a wide, wide mouth full of jagged teeth, breathing that hot, horrible smell into his face. The little slits that were its nose pulsed, and the broad, square pupils of its enormous eyes shrank as they focused on him. Govind couldn’t breathe to scream. The thing was so impossible that his mind rejected the nightmare that his eyes recorded. All he could do was stare through a shocked paralysis and force out a noise like “—guh … guh …”
Then the thing tried to leap away, to spring off into the night as it had done from the glare of Jim’s flashlight all those years ago. But in terror Govind’s hand had closed on the creature’s. The momentum of the leap snatched the monster back onto Govind, and he felt its strong, thin, struggling body all over his as the creature fought to free itself. Do you remember the wriggle of a frog’s body squirming out from between your childhood fingers? It was that feeling, grown and magnified a thousand times into a horror that pushed and slid and struggled all across Govind’s front as he finally found the voice to scream and the sense to let go and push his hands against the cool, slippery thing.
And then it was gone, and it was over, and Govind was running and sliding awkwardly down the road in his cleated cycling shoes, toward the lights of Loveland, not daring to look back into the darkness of the river where the monotonous chorus of frogs called after him.
Govind still rides these roads regularly. But he doesn’t wear a racing suit anymore. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that the increased drag caused by looser-fitting clothes is a good training tool. There must be something to his theory, because he’s riding even faster these days … especially when his route takes him down along the river. Plus, he always thought that racing suits made him look like a giant frog … and he wasn’t the only one who thought that.
[Continuing frog chorus] Boy they make a big sound, don’t they? All around us. And they really can throw their voices, can’t they? No matter where you look, it sounds like one is right behind you. Well, we’d better put this fire out before we turn in. Take the bucket and run down to the riverbank, bring back some water, will you? Oh …. oh sure, I’ll go with you. I’ll hold the flashlight.
Camp Monsters podcast is a part of the REI podcast network. It is written and performed by yours truly, Weston Davis, and recorded and edited by Nick Patri in the very cozy and campfire-like confines of Cloud Studios in Seattle, Washington.
Be sure to listen to the next episode of Camp Monsters, when we’ll hear something about the Ozarks. Hear something... that we cannot see. Something coming closer. Something big.
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