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Archive for April, 2011

Six tornadoes touched down within a twenty-mile radius of our little house across the road from the creek here in Knobite Corner during the outbreak of storms on April 27. We were lucky; despite fierce wind, rain and hail my immediate family is safe, though not all in their homes thanks to ongoing power outages.

For me, it’s a day of set pieces:

Mom in her wheelchair in the hall in the center of the house.

My nephew and his carpool buddy outrunning a tornado that chased them back up Route 95 on their way home from work.

My older niece spotting a funnel cloud as she approached town, hovering over her neighborhood, and turning back to the relative safety of Mamaw’s house.

My younger niece and brother-in-law taking shelter in the basement of a nearby church while lightning did a merry danse macabre over the graveyard.

Our local NBC station, WBIR-TV, Channel 10, Knoxville reports this morning that in our area the NWS issued sixty-nine tornado warnings and twenty-four severe thunderstorm warnings within a fifteen hour period, with a lead time of reaching safety that averaged out to about twenty-nine minutes. I’m sure that in other areas the total numbers are much higher, and there was less lead time.

In the old days, before our present early warning systems, there was no lead time at all.

All these circumstances reminded me of another spring, and a monstrous storm that came seemingly out of a clear blue sky. Out of that storm came a heartwrenching song by the great Original Carter Family–and a ghost story, with echoes right down to the present day.

Up until one o’clock in the afternoon, or thereabout, May 2, 1929 had been a quiet, very normal day in the little Scott County, Virginia town of Rye Cove. It was a school day; Rye Cove Consolidated School, with around one hundred fifty students ranging from first graders to high school seniors, was just settling in for an afternoon’s work following the midday lunch break.

Just east of nearby Cove Ridge, a bad storm was moving through a valley. A farmer out in his field was the first to notice that the storm was circling back on itself and becoming a “cyclone”, as Appalachian old people often still call tornadoes.

The school’s principal, who had gone to his boarding house for the lunch break, reached the school just about the same time the tornado did, entering through a door that splintered around him.

~~wood and glass sailing through the air, cutting down anything and anyone in their wind-driven path.

~~pencils, blackboards, hot coals from the stoves that still were in use that May afternoon, smashing, stabbing, and burning against flesh and walls.

~~and the screams. Oh, God, the screams, rising above the roar of the wind.

It was all over in little more than a heartbeat.

Of the one hundred fifty-odd people who were in Rye Cove Consolidated School that day, more than fifty were transported to area hospitals.

Ten were found dead at or near the scene, including one teacher, whose body was found seventy-five yards away from the ruins, where the storm had dropped her. Two students died during transport; another died the next day in a Kingsport, Tennessee hospital, bringing the total of deaths to thirteen. The teacher who died was a twenty-four-year-old; of the students who were killed, the oldest were eighteen, the youngest six.

Three of the dead bore the surname Carter. They weren’t relatives of the famous A. P. Carter, songwriter and song collector; he was visiting friends in the next valley over when he heard of the disaster and rushed over to offer his assistance, however it might be needed. Carter wrote a song about the tragedy: he called it “Cyclone at Rye Cove” and a year or so later he, wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter recorded it.

Oh listen today and a story I’ll tell,
In sadness and tear rimmed eyes,
Of a dreadful cyclone that came this way,
And blew our schoolhouse away.

cho: Rye Cove (Rye Cove), Rye Cove (Rye Cove),
The land of my childhood and home,
Where life’s early morn I once loved to roam,
But now it’s so silent and lone.

When the cyclone appeared it darkened the air,
And the lightning flashed over the sky,
And the children all cried, don’t take us away,
But spare us to go back home.

There were mothers so dear and fathers the same,
That came to this terrible scene,
Searching and crying each found their own child,
Dying on a pillow of stone.

Oh give us a home far beyond the blue sky,
Where storms and cyclones are unknown,
And there by life’s strand we’ll clasp the glad hand,
Our children in their heavenly home.

The Rye Cove storm was one of a series of tornadoes that struck western Appalachia that spring; the others were less deadly.

Rye Cove held no school term in 1929-1930. In the fall of 1930, a new school, called the Rye Cove Memorial High School, opened some little distance away, and a memorial plaque with the names of the thirteen dead was placed on an outer wall. Other memorials are nearby.

They say that there are less tangible reminders of that dreadful day in Rye Cove, though–

for on May 2 each year, so it’s said, you can hear the freight-train rumble and roar of a circular storm tearing its way up the valley, hear wood being rent from wood and glass splintering and flying in an ominous tinkle, and hear the screams of the injured and the dying, even when the sky is a clear blue and no clouds blacken the sun.

For more information on the Rye Cove cyclone, check out Nancye’s site, which contains several contemporary newspaper reports about the storm and its aftermath. My favorite collector of Appalachian ghost tales, the great Charles Edwin Price, wrote briefly about Rye Cove in his 1993 book The Mystery of Ghostly Vera and Other Haunting Tales of Southwest Virginia. He expanded on the material in that book in an article called “Death in the Afternoon” in the May/June 1998 issue of Blue Ridge magazine.

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In Memoriam

After great pain, a formal feeling comes. . .Emily Dickinson

In memory of those lost in the storms of April 27, 2011~~

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Lunar Eclipse

it’s simple principles of universal motion, dear

the moon is like a giant mirror
the silver glaze is dead and dull
until the sun’s gold kisses it

the jealous earth moves between them
and for a little time the moon is black

it’s most impressive when the moon is full
and firefly stars blink sleepily against a midnight sky

Are we like this

Are you the sun, afire
am I the moon, ghostly
is she the earth, envious

you consult me
to learn these simple things
she does not know

Amateur astronomers, we three

Poem copyright 1989/2011 by Faire Lewis.

Back in the day, when I was a sweet fairly young thang, I developed a mad passion for a coworker of mine. He was involved, at the time, with a woman who would argue with a signboard. One of their biggest arguments erupted on a night of lunar eclipse; it happens this way, he insisted, while she shrilly insisted on exactly the opposite. I was a real know-it-all back then (one of the wonderful things about reaching the half-century mark is, I finally have figured out I don’t know much of anything, especially in matters of the heart), and he came to me to ask exactly how a lunar eclipse occurs. As it turned out, he was right and she was wrong. She magnanimously admitted she was wrong, they kissed and made up–and all I got from the experience was this little poem. 😉

Anyway, I figured my buddy Miss Anna Molly Moonstone would get a kick out of it. 😀

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Ship-Setting

Husband, haunt of my dreams
you are like to chop me to death–

for what treason would you cleave my skull?

I set the ship for you
now the axe pounds my shut eyelids
heavier than hammers

unhorsed
on the hardscrabble plain
between two standing stones of the Old Ones
some warrior brought down the blunt side of the axe
and the triumphal shrieks of carrion crows
led me to this place

crowned in blood I found you

Alone I performed the rite
between the stones
one for prow, one for stern
I tore a death-wound to match yours into the adamantine earth
with no tools save two frantic scoured hands.

I did not weep. I had the strength of a giantess.

I gave you to the ravening hollow maw
my blood pouring fresh over yours
the only blanket save earth I had to give.
Stone by stone
I formed the prescribed ship-shape
bone-white under a full moon

and wished you all speed
almost hearing sails bellying with a gentle wind
at my back

Now, tired to death myself
of waking raw with screams
I huddle in the shadow of the prow-stone
waiting to take the winter for lover

The first snow-clouds,
ragged as rotten sails, as my scabbed hands,
rake across a garnet moon

I will welcome a comforter of snow,
a pillow of ice.
I will fall asleep in the arms of the north wind
borne outward across a frigid driven sea
safe from ghosts.

Poem copyright 1994/2011 by Faire Lewis.

As my cleaning project continues I find things that surprise me. In an old box I found a sheaf of poems I’d long thought lost, this being one. It was inspired, if I remember rightly, by a book I read many years ago about those terrifying Scandinavian warriors–the Vikings–who at one period some fifteen hundred years ago buried their dead, not in a ship per se, but in a grave dug out in the shape of a longboat.

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Saved by a Ghost Train

A burning hot sun, a cry for water
Black wings circle the sky
Stumblin’ and fallin’, somebody’s callin’
“You’re lost on the desert to die”. . .
******************Johnny Cash, “Lost on the Desert”

In Cash’s classic song, a thief manages to escape his captors and runs for the desert to retrieve his ill-gotten gains, with predictable results.

Betcha he’d have envied the prospector picked up by the Ghost Train of the Alkali Flats. This story comes from Tony Reavy’s 1998 book Ghost Train! American Railroad Ghost Legends.

Tombstone was past its heyday as a mining town, which is why the prospector decided to move on to richer pickings. He’d heard of one such place, called Dos Cabezos, some fifty miles northeast of Tombstone. So he loaded up a pack burro and bravely set out to make his fortune.

But the alkali flats, north of the Dragoon Mountains, were trackless and unbearably hot, and the water, true to that name alkali, was deadly to drink. He outlasted his burro, who dropped dead in the midst of the heat devils that rose from the ground, but he was soon in the direst of straits himself, his body baking under the merciless sun that rode a merciless blue sky above, his insides slowly drying out in the most unbearable of all torments.

He collapsed, as best he could figure later, some thirty miles outside Wilcox.

Hallucinations deviled him as much as the heat, especially when he heard a hearty chugchug chugchug chugchug and clicketyclack–and then the long wail of a train whistle off in the distance.

Unlike your run-of-the-mill hallucination, these sounds kept coming closer. Somewhere in his parching brain, he remembered a legend he’d heard–and pooh-poohed–of a train that had been seen, many many times, by lone travelers on the alkali flats–of how it began its metallic racket far off, coming closer and closer, and finally racing by in a rush of steam and wind to vanish in the dust it stirred up in its wake.

He managed to look up and saw with his drying eyes–too dry to cry–a black speck that moved closer and closer, to the accompaniment of those unmistakable train sounds.

Whoo-whoo! Whoo-whoooooooooo. . .

The train was close enough now that he could see the engineer, and hear the frantic jangling of its bell, as if the engineer were trying to warn him off, that he could see the worried faces of passengers looking out from their carriages. He thought, in remote amazement, that he was lying just about where it would run over him.

And by God, he was at a point where he’d welcome the cessation of this slow foretaste of hell.

He couldn’t move. He lay there, hoping hazily that the big wheels would cut him right in half.

But the engineer did something totally unexpected. He braked the train to a stop, and crewmen lifted the prospector to safety on the floor of one of the passenger cars. He rasped a single word.

Water. . .

And then he fainted.

He woke, some time later, to find he had water: a stranger with a kind, weathered face and a sheriff’s badge was bending over him, pouring water over his face.

“Glad to see you’re wakin’ up,” the sheriff said laconically. “Another hour and you’d been buzzard bait.”

He asked weakly, “Where am I?”

“Wilcox. Feller found you about five miles out there, brung you in.”

He thought a minute, then said, “Train?”

“Train? Son, there ain’t no train around here.”

Although the Southern Pacific Railroad came through Arizona around 1880, running through Wilcox and eventually putting a branch line out to Tombstone, no tracks were ever laid across those deadly alkali flats where the prospector was saved from death. . .

by a train that never was.

Reavy tells another story about a ghost train that ran on tracks where there were never tracks, somewhere near Belleville, Texas. That train was apparently seen only once, around 1960, by a passing motorist, who said it seemed to move in a light of its own and vanished into an inexplicable bank of fog that rose from nowhere.

As for the ghost train of the Arizona desert, the legend says that never before, and never again, did the train stop to take aboard a passenger on its phantom run.

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Sunday afternoon drives are generally fun, especially if you and your companion (or companions) are of an adventurous turn. Just such a pair were a northern Vermont salesman and his wife, who, while out for a Sunday drive, stopped to explore an abandoned farmhouse.

Okay, it was a creepy place, all right.

But not until they drove away did things get seriously weird.

This story, a chilling variant on the Vanishing Hitchhiker motif, comes from Charles Turek Robinson’s 1994 book The New England Ghost Files.

Alden, a salesman, and his wife Judy (not their real names, according to Robinson) were out for a Sunday drive when they spotted an abandoned farmstead. From the road, what they could see was the upper story of an old-timey farmhouse, obviously long disused and falling in on itself. The house piqued their curiosity, so they pulled up into the grassy track that had once been a driveway and got out.

The windows all had that strange blank stare of glasslessness, and the front door was missing. Alden and Judy went inside and cautiously explored the lower story. Almost immediately, Judy spotted a staircase that led to the upper floor, cobwebbed and molded as was the rest of the downstairs; she wanted to go up, but Alden warned her it might fall in under her. In what had once been the kitchen, they found where the back door had once been, a gaping shape that opened into the back yard. They went out, Alden going over to take a look at a covered well, while Judy wandered back around to the sadly neglected front yard, where weeds and vines were taking over house and trees.

She had only been there a few minutes when she heard Alden yelling for her. She returned to the back yard, whereupon he chewed her out for going upstairs in the house despite his warning. Judy, startled, let him know in no uncertain terms that she hadn’t even been back in the house.

Only when he was convinced that she had not been in the upstairs did he tell her that he had seen a woman pass one of those eerie open windows. The two went back in, fearing that a vagrant had somehow gotten into the house without them noticing, and carefully picked their way up the staircase–it was sturdy, after all–to warn her off.

They searched every inch of the second floor, only to find that there was no woman there. Yet Alden insisted that he had seen one, and they went back downstairs still wondering what or whom he had seen.

By now the shadows were getting long, and they got in the car and drove away. A few miles down the road, Alden asked Judy to reach into the back seat and retrieve his cigarettes from the pocket of his jacket.

Judy obligingly reached into the back seat. For a moment, she froze, and then began to scream bloody murder.

Alden pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road and tried to calm her; she threw herself out of the car and ran off down the road. By the time Alden caught her, she was hyperventilating.

By degrees, he finally got her calmed enough to tell him what had frightened her. She had reached into the back seat to get his cigarettes, only to find there was a woman sitting there–a young woman in an old-fashioned white cotton dress, her red hair disheveled and her face deathly pale but remarkably pretty. She had smiled impishly at Judy and tried to hand her the pack of cigarettes, but disappeared into thin air before the startled Judy could take them. That was when Judy began to scream.

Although Alden wasn’t sure at first that he believed Judy’s story, he eventually decided that her terror was genuine. Over the next two years they frequently talked over that bizarre day, but were never able to come up with an explanation for anything that had happened.

One night they invited a friend, a local policeman, over for dinner. They didn’t tell him about their odd encounter with the woman in the back seat, but he, completely without prompting, dropped a bombshell in the middle of a discussion about the area’s low crime rate: there had been no major crimes in the surrounding county since a man named Keller murdered his wife, out on their farm, way back in 1938.

Feeling a bit sick, the pair asked for more details. The policeman told them that Keller had killed his wife and hidden her body in an old well at the back of their farmhouse. For a year he had insisted that she had simply left him and he didn’t know where she had gotten to, but a suspicious local constable had kept tracking Keller’s movements and eventually found the body. Keller died in prison, and his surviving family, unable to sell the farm, eventually let it fall into complete neglect.

By the description, the farm was the one that they had run across on that afternoon drive.

Alden asked the cop what reason Keller had given for killing his wife: an old one, he replied, possibly the oldest of all–jealousy. Mrs. Keller was young and pretty and a bit wild; farm life, not to mention her husband, bored her. She had fallen into a dangerous habit. Traveling salesmen frequently visited the farm, and, each time one left, she would hide in the back seat of his car, pop up a few miles down the road, seduce the man (and, apparently, was never turned down, such were her looks and skills), then hop out and walk home, satisfied until her next quickie came along. Keller, who knew what she was up to, eventually got fed up and killed her, following her last caper.

The policeman added that, ever since the farm was abandoned, a curious legend had attached itself to the place; if a man parked his car near the old house, he was like as not, when he left, to get a few miles down the road, look into his rearview mirror, and find the smiling ghost of Mrs. Keller looking back at him. She invariably vanished once noticed, though.

Well.

After all, Alden was a salesman. . . (^_^)

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A Game of Billiards

Tales abound about houses with bloodstains that can’t be eradicated. Rip out floorboards, take down whole sections of wall and replace them, paint over them–the pesky things can’t be gotten rid of, so they’re usually covered with rugs or tapestries–or, occasionally, the room where they appear is locked up and only spoken of in whispers.

The stains usually represent some dreadful tragedy, but some of the circumstances that surround them are more curious than others. Take, for example, the great black stain that covered the wall of a billiard room in a house in the English countryside. Ian Fellowes-Gordon, when telling the story in John Canning’s 1974 collection 50 Strange Stories of the Supernatural, discreetly alters the name of the house, the family who owned it, and even the county in which the house stood (and may stand yet)–but swears that he, and others who stayed in that house, had close encounters with the man whose blood adorned that wall, a quarter-century after his death. He tells the story from the point of view of another officer, but all the encounters were eerily similar

During the Second World War, during the planning stages for the Normandy invasion, a British artillery unit was stationed at an old estate in one of England’s southern counties, resting, training, and having equipment refitted. In August of 1943, they got word that they would be getting a new commanding officer; their previous one had been killed in combat.

When the new commander arrived, he found the manor house, where the regiment’s officers were quartered, empty save for himself, his valet and the butler of the family who had given up their home to the officers for the duration of the war. After bathing and changing clothes, he went downstairs and to his astonishment met a young man, blond, handsome, about six feet tall, and dressed in one of the British army’s dress uniforms. The young man greeted the commander by his name and rank, but did not volunteer his own name or rank.

Instead, he asked the officer if, while he was waiting for his staff to return from training exercises, he’d like a game of billiards.

A gentleman’s game, that, and most great country houses in the old days had just such a room, where the men of the house could have a drink and a cigar and pass evenings knocking the balls around. The commander agreed, and the young man led him to a neat little billiard room. They chalked cues, shot the break, and the game was on. The new commander eventually won, but only by the skin of his teeth. The young man thanked him for the game, then excused himself as the dinner gong rang.

The commander, incidentally, never saw the young man again.

He had a solitary dinner, then, as his officers had yet to return, wandered back to the billiard room, thinking perhaps the odd young man in dress blues would return and they could have another game. But the youngster didn’t come back, and the commander found his attention riveted by something he hadn’t noticed before: a huge stain that began some six feet up one wall of the room and covered not only the wall but a good portion of the parquet floor–an ugly black stain that he knew, without being told, was blood.

When his officers finally returned from maneuvers, he let them get cleaned up and have a meal before he told them about his game of billiards.

They stared at him over snifters of brandy, until finally one of them said, “Well, sir, you’ve met the ghost.”

“The–”

It seemed the story was quite well-known among men who had been stationed at the old manor house at various times throughout the war, but the junior officer summoned the butler. He had served the family since he was a very young man at the end of the Victorian era.

The butler told the startled commander that he had encountered the ghost of the First World War era heir to the estate. The young man–Fellowes-Gordon calls him Sir Nigel–had, for most of his life, suffered from tuberculosis, and as a result had been unable to participate in any outdoor sports or activities. He could, however, play billiards. At billiards, he was unbeatable.

Nigel’s father had volunteered to fight in that war to end all wars, and was killed in Belgium early in 1915. Nigel, who was medically ineligible to go into the military, took it in his head that he must go fight the Germans who had killed his father. And so, somehow, he managed to conceal his tubercular cough, passed a medical exam, and went down to the fabled training camp at Aldershot to learn to be cannon fodder.

And there, his charade of health came to an end. He had barely arrived on base before he began hemorrhaging from his fragile lungs–heavy hemorrhaging. There was no chance of him getting to Belgium now. The doctor who had passed him as fit for duty narrowly escaped cashiering, and Nigel went home in what he considered disgrace.

Within days, he had made a deadly decision. He couldn’t fight in the escalating war, and he wouldn’t wait for that wicked disease to kill him.

He shot himself in the billiard room one afternoon. The shot took the back of his head clean off, and left great gouts and runnels of blood that gradually blackened on the wall, but never could be cleaned or covered, despite all efforts.

The butler told the plainly horrified commander that he wouldn’t be seeing Sir Nigel again. He would, the butler said, pay a visit to every new arrival in the house, and challenge them to a game of billiards. And he would let them win that one game, since they were guests in his home–

but he would never challenge them to a second.

Good manners only go so far.

Something peculiarly British about that mannerliness, huh? 😉

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