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Arlynn and JohnTwo Hoosier Lives
By Arlynn Mary Ann Swope Knight John Curtis Knight John Howard Knight
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 John H. Knight
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGrandfather's Stories
At this time of the year, autumn, when I walk in dry leaves and crisp air with the fall colors all around me, I remember the stories my Grandfather, Joe Palmer, told every year to all of the kids I grew up with. I smile to myself as I recall how fascinated we all were as we listened to the way the old man spun out these yarns. Even now, as I tell them to my grandchildren and watch their faces and wide eyes, as they listen to me, I know I'm bringing some of the past back to the present. This they otherwise would never know; some things never change, even with time. These yarns may or may not be true; each year Grandfather may have added to them, and maybe I have too. Even so, either way, as I enjoyed them, and my children enjoyed them, so now are their children doing so. I am not a writer, but I will do my best in retelling these tales so that they won't be lost in the past, as so many things have a way of doing. I hope the reader will enjoy them as much as the people do when I tell them. And I hope a little of what my Grandfather was to me and my young friends will come through yet one more retelling.
The Muck Lantern—A Halloween Story
Late in October the weather in northern Indiana is at its best for ghost stories and tales of goblins, witches and the mystery of the unknown.
The children in grandfather's days of growing up made their own recreation; they did not have radio, let alone TV, or even much trick or treating because the farms were far apart and the kids had lots of chores to do even at night. So they made up exciting things to do on their own. In the 1880s the people were very superstitious; parents told their children, "Don't walk under a ladder; it's bad luck." Or if a black cat crossed in front of someone, it was thought to be a bad omen. I think some of this came from the past of witchcraft, superstition and plain old ignorance. My grandfather's boyhood home was on a 80-acre farm in Pleasant Township, Indiana. So the nine boys and their three sisters had to help after school at night. In those days the farms were bordered by large wooded areas because much of the woods were still being cleared off the land. The children walked miles to the one-room school with one teacher for eight grades. In late October it was close to dark when they got home.
Late in the fall, when the sun set early, about dusk time they had to pass an old graveyard near the dirt road but back a ways in the woods that were on both sides of their road home. Folks told the children never to go into the graveyard because a long time ago a man was buried in the woods, and he had come back to life. So the graveyard was never used after that because someone had seen a person, or a person's ghost, back along the creek that bordered the woods of the cemetery. From a long lack of attention the graves' headstones were broken down; others were leaning over or sideways from being knocked down or just sinking into the wet, soft, dark Indiana ground.
So the boys always ran past the woods as fast as they could, not taking any chances on the way home from school, especially when it started to get dark early about the time of Halloween.
One day the older boys made a dare to the younger ones. On the night of Halloween all who were brave enough would go into the woods to see if the story of the ghost was true. They had to go on Halloween because everybody worth anything knew that was the best night to find a ghost, that on All Hallows Night the spirits of the dead walked the earth.
So it was settled. All of the boys, big and small, would be in the old cemetery woods. No girls allowed!
After dark when the boys had all of their chores done, they left home and scruffed along the dusty dirt road to the woods. The evening was brisk, dotted by moonlight sifting its way through the deep shadows of the pin oaks, black walnuts, cottonwoods and sycamores lining the banks of the creek and bordering the woods. The dappled moonlight made the tombstones look larger than a good-sized man. As the moon rose higher through the tree branches, the breeze began to play in the trees, knocking small branches against one another, breaking off twigs that fell to the ground, adding to the creaking sounds of the huge, gnarled trees. As the swishing of the branches increased, the boys clumped closer together to protect one another from the sounds and from "the things that were out there," as my Grandfather used to say.
My Grandfather had an old rusty kerosene lantern, but as he held it up, the breeze made the flame waver and the light flicker, and the light just shined harder and sharper right into his own eyes, half blinding him to the path ahead. He put his hand over the top of the lantern to stop the effects of the wind, but his hand got hot and he had to let the wind play with the light. That, of course, made the shadows in the woods do even stranger things, dancing between darkness and light.
Soon some of the younger boys got scared and said that they didn't want to go into the woods any farther. They didn't care what it was that everyone was so scared of in that old graveyard woods, and they didn't care any more if their older brothers called them chicken. Of course, without their older brother, Joe, who had the lamp, they sure weren't going to try to find their way out of the woods. So they kept going. There is a seeming safety in numbers.
They had walked farther back into the woods already than anyone had planned. Suddenly they heard a yelp and a scream, and Joe turned the lantern back toward the sounds of the scrambling and shouting. Out of the darkness rose the shadowy, wet form of number five brother, Albert. He had found the creek they were all looking for.
No sooner had the boys stopped laughing at their drenched brother than Joe's lantern flickered a couple of times and went out with a hiss. In the midst of the dark woods with barely enough moonlight slanting through the trees to make out each other's shapes, the boys noticed a bright ball of light rise off the mucky swamp next to the creek. As the boys watched, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, the fire rose higher in the air. It was like a fiery bubble, a fuzzy ball with a light in it. The younger boys bumped into each other as they mobbed behind Joe and his older brothers walking over to the swamp and the glowing ball hovering just off the stagnant water. Joe reached out to grab it, but it slipped right through his hand. Or rather, his hand went right through the ball of light.
Standing there amazed, the boys broke into a chatter of excitement just in time to see the fiery orb rise out of the muck once more and begin moving into the swampy waters of the undergrowth bordering the woods. As it moved into the brackish water, the boys tossed their now useless lantern on the shore and followed the glowing ball into the swamp. Each time they drew near, the ball would fade from sight and reappear farther away. Each time someone was close enough to grasp it, the ball slipped through their hands and into the blacker waters sucking around their feet. But it would also reappear each time.
Finally, the boys began to get scared. They turned around to run out of the woods. Before they knew where they were, they ran smack into the graveyard, and Joe stumbled over a broken gravestone. Soon John and Ira bumped into Joe and were snatching at their hair and clothes, and all the time over their shoulders, they could see rising, moving balls of eerie light, hanging out there in the swamp, coming closer and closer.
Scrambling for their lives over the tops, backs and bottoms of one another, the boys finally got through the graveyard and made it to the farm house road. When they hit the road, they didn't stop running and sprinted all the way back to their house, the older boys ahead, the younger ones strung out behind like a Hoosier version of a Chinese dragon. Six times the old screen door on the kitchen flew open to let in the Palmer boys—dirty, scratched, lumped and soaked.
Through all of the noise David Palmer's voice rang out loud enough to quiet his boys: "What's the matter now, boys?" their father asked. The older boys began all at once till the old man held up his hand and shouted, "One at a time!"
Joe piped right up, telling his father about the graveyard, the lantern going mysteriously out, and the sudden appearance of the balls of fire.
Like a good father ought to do, Old Man Palmer first chewed on the boys a bit: "Ya been told not to go there, haven't ya?" he yelled. All the boys stared at their feet, except the youngest and the wettest, Louis, who broke out, "But we saw balls of fire, Papa, real balls of fire!"
Trying to hide his chuckle, the old man turned more grim faced than before and replied, "Well, I won't punish ya for this because tonight was a much better punishment than I could cook up, an' one ya won't forget. But yer gonna haf to go back and get that lantern tomorrow. An' I'll even tell you what you seen tonight out there."
The boys stood frozen in front of their dad, David Palmer.
"Like most folks, you boys were just afraid of what you didn't understand. What ya saw was a muck lantern; some folks hereabouts call 'em will-of-the-wisps or even jack-o-lanterns. They come this time of the year when the sun is warm at noon and beats down in the mucky ground along the backwater places in the crick and the swampy places. The heat makes the vapors in the muck come up like a fog. Only in this case, instead of comin' up all over the place, it just comes up in spots and kinda lights up and glows. That's why ya can't catch it, 'cause nobody can catch a vapor. It disappears 'cause of the air ya make with your hand when ya try to catch it, and when ya ran up to it. They come up along the crick in different, kind of slow places," their dad explained.
"An' no matter what ya thought, ya didn't see the same one; ya just got yer imaginations workin' overtime a bit so that ya thought it was following ya around, playin' hide-n-seek with ya. The farther back in the woods and swamp ya went, the more of them ya ran into."
"There's a good lesson here, boys: there's a reason for everything if ya go to the right people to find out."
At that he slapped his leg and let out a big laugh and told the boys to go to bed, adding, "Now you boys get cleaned up and get ready for bed. This outta be one Halloween ya won't forget!"
"Next time make sure Charlie puts some coal oil in that lantern."
The Open Grave
In those days long ago when my Grandfather was a boy, the children and their folks never went far from the land of their farms. Those were the horse-and-buggy days when it took half the day just to drive the buggy with the family from the farm into Fort Wayne.
Of course there was a one-room schoolhouse for all eight grades, and the boys and girls walked many miles from the farm to school and back. Now and then some lucky kid would have a horse or pony to ride, but he'd be a rare one, one whose father was either well-to-do or a town merchant. The roads were all dirt, muddy in the spring and fall, snowy and either slushy or icy in the winter, and dusty in the summer. Woods generally bordered both sides of the roads unless the field had been cleared up to the road, with a little clear creek crossing under a rickety old bridge here and there.
According to my Grandfather the boys in the Palmer family sometimes were late to school because they stopped to catch frogs or just waste time along the road. They were seldom late getting back to the farm from school, however, since chores awaited them, and their father was even less understanding than the teacher about tardiness. A good strapping made a kid real aware of the time of day. He and his brothers were just like all kids: they got away with all they could. What one of them couldn't think of doing, one of the other eight boys would. "I dare you" was the worst oath a boy could utter, and it was more often used to lure a brother into trouble than to try his courage.
One autumn no one would go into the woods on the north side of the road because the townsfolk could hear, so they said, a groan or a mournful moan coming from it each night. The moaning was followed by an earth-shuddering thump. It came from way back in the trees, they said, from near the graveyard.
All the headstones were falling over from no attention, not from vandalism like so often happens today. The weeds had grown tall, and huge oaks surrounded and shadowed the cemetery all day, bringing an early dusk to the place and making it solitary, lovely but eerie. Owls were abundant in the woods, and a brightly moonlit night and hooting owls could keep most people out of the place. Like everyone else, the old German, French and Irish farm families were superstitious and not eager to be in that old woods once the sun sank through the trees. Like the poet wrote, "The goblins will get ya if ya don't watch out."
The superstitions of the parents were passed along full-fledged to the kids, of course, mostly through the usual adult methods: the big people forbade the kids from going into the old woods. But since no reasons were given to the kids, the kids' imaginations were free to boil up all sorts of reasons, most of them just this side of the most blood-thirsty tale that Edgar Allen Poe could cook up.
The most common tale, around for as long as my Grandfather could remember, was that the graveyard was haunted by the ghost of the caretaker. One day, so the story went, the caretaker walked into the cemetery at dusk to dig up the body of a town rowdy who had died under suspicious circumstances. The body was still buried the next morning, although a few shovelfuls of dirt were piled alongside the grave. The caretaker was never seen or heard from again. That moaning from the old graveyard, said the locals, was the wail of the old caretaker trying to get out of the grave. Of course nobody seemed to ask why someone didn't just dig up the body to find out who was really buried there! That would make too much sense, wouldn't it?
Now a cry in the woods and a thump on the earth followed by the hoot of an owl was certainly frightening to hear. Most people who passed by the woods at dusk moved along at a brisk pace. Now how long this went on, no one could remember, but one year when my Grandfather was a boy, the old story took on new meaning.
One late afternoon after school when he and his brothers were traipsing home from school, all of them heard a moan and a thump coming from the woods. Suddenly the old story came alive for them, and they snatched up their books and coats and tore for the farm. This mess kept up pretty regular for a couple of days. As the reader will see, however, what was finally found in the woods gave a little different twist to the tale than what the old timers had expected all those years.
Close to Halloween the boys were planning to do something exciting for the ghostly evening. The oldest boy, John, who had to pretend to be brave just to keep up his reputation among the crew, said, "Let's go back and see what we can find in the old graveyard." Of course, no one could chicken out, so they all agreed that it would be the scariest thing they could do. Since they had farm chores first, it was well after dark before they could get away from the house. And they had to tell a big lie to their folks just to be able to go to the graveyard. They knew that if anything went wrong and their father found out about it, they'd really be in hot water. But that only added to the thrill of it all.
Excerpted from Arlynn and John by Arlynn Mary Ann Swope Knight John Curtis Knight John Howard Knight Copyright © 2012 by John H. Knight. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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