If this were a movie, the script would probably say that stories about Slocomb's Pond went back hundreds of years...before the British Colonial period of coastal Georgia, before the Spanish conquest, back as long as written records of the area go. Some character, like a folklorist or a learned professor, would claim the ancient tribes who hunted and fished all across these shadow-swept lands had legends about the pond; that their elders had passed down, from generation to generation, a warning to the young: Don't go near those waters, ever; bad things live there.

Not so, I'm afraid. Slocomb's Pond was a man-made and fairly recent addition to the local geography. You could tell just by looking at it: about five acres of water molded into a perfect lima bean shape, too boring and exact in its dimensions to have been fashioned by Nature's hand. A pretty sight, though, with its muddy banks garlanded by bracken ferns, elephant ears, and gnarled, moss-draped live oaks.

The pond was dug on the orders of one Mr. Percival Slocomb, who bought a thousand acres out here in 1915; the tract had previously been part of one of the largest plantations on the Georgia coast. Mr. Slocomb was a wealthy businessman from Savannah who wanted a private hunting retreat close by, and this property met his need. A few years later he commissioned the pond for stocking brim, catfish, and whatever else struck his fancy. A large swamp abuts the land, so Slocomb arranged for a shallow trench to connect it with his pond. That way, given sufficient rain, it would always have a steady freshwater feed.

The earliest stories I've heard about Slocomb's Pond date back to the Great Depression, specifically to the summer of 1931. Well before my time, of course, but pretty much anyone who knows anything at all about Slocomb's Pond can quote the same approximate time frame.

That's because 1931 marked the first year a person officially disappeared in the vicinity of Slocomb's Pond. Almost as notable as the disappearance was the identity of the disappeared.

You guessed it.

Percival Slocomb.

Let's back up for a minute and talk about bonding rituals, because that's what got me and my friends into this mess. Generally speaking, I can't say I have much use for bonding rituals.

Either you want somebody to be a part of your group or you don't. Is it really necessary to make a person jump through a flaming hoop, metaphorically speaking, to assess whether he or she would make a worthy addition? Shouldn't the criteria be shared values like honesty, moral fiber, loyalty, and so forth?

Yes, I appreciate the values of fellowship and camaraderie as much as the next person. But some of the exercises we come up with to exhibit those values strike me as, well, a little overboard. Sometimes they're merely gross, like forcing a pledge to swallow a live goldfish, and other times they sink into the realm of hazing and brutality: endless push-ups, paddling, subjection to demeaning tasks and tribulations that I won't go into here. And still other times they're just plain dangerous. Thanks to my experience at Slocomb's Pond, I take a dim view of any activity that's designed simply to make people afraid.

A dim view, indeed.