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Archive for November, 2012

Black Panther

Every few years or so, from the time we moved here (forty-four years ago, this past March), we have heard something terrifying down by the creek: the scream of a big cat. This was once “painter” country, as the old folks called panthers/cougars, and with small populations reported from further south, and with recent reports of sightings in the knobs down the road about fifteen miles, it’s not impossible that they have returned, in ones and twos, to their old range.

A friend from another blog asked me, in bewilderment, if I wasn’t mistaking the cry of a screech owl for a big cat. So happens I know the difference; Dad would be back to haunt me if I didn’t! 😉 In any case, though, the question reminded me of this story–

about a painter ghost.

In the community the old lady was known as Granny Stone. She claimed that her memories began the day she was born, but she also was a veritable storehouse for the memories of older generations. She could remember every story her parents, grandparents and other relatives and neighbors told her, and loved nothing better than telling them to her own children and grandchildren.

One of those stories began with a man who simply vanished one night.

He was a married man and father of seven, who could drink his fill of moonshine and then some and wasn’t very work-brickle. It was thought at first that he simply had ridden off–rather irresponsibly, on his only plow horse–and left his wife and family to escape his duties.

Then his horse showed up, winded, covered in foam, and terribly injured: long, deep, clawed places on its hindquarters caked in dried blood. The wounds were such that the horse was never fit to work again, and had to be put down.

A bear might have been the culprit, but then people began talking of hearing the shriek, like a woman screaming for her life, of a painter.

After the screams, they had found the remains of chickens and calves and other such animals; now, they were sure, the cat had taken a man.

So they organized a hunt. Painters are generally nocturnal hunters, and hide out during the day. It was in broad daylight that the trackers surprised the cat, a great black beast twelve feet long from nose to tail. They shot it to pieces and dragged it out into the woods to rot, then inspected its den. Amid the bones of chickens, calves, deer, hogs–whatever its prey–they found two complete human skeletons. The fresher of the two, they assumed, was the drunkard suspected of having deserted his family; the other was never identified. The two sets of remains were given Christian burial.

More than twenty years later, when Granny Stone was a girl, they had reason to remember the story of the drunkard and the painter.

By then, painters, thanks to hunting bounties and habitat loss, had been all but killed off in the area. So it caused a great sensation in the community when, one warm spring night, a man showed up in a lather of sweat and terror, telling of an encounter with a black painter.

He was a fiddler, and he had been playing at a dance that night. He had had a little ‘shine, but he wasn’t drunk. He and his horse were taking it slow and easy, enjoying the ride home in the fine warm moonlit weather, when he heard a scream.

So long had it been since the cry of a painter had been heard in the area that he was certain there was a woman in trouble, close by. He was about to dismount and run to her assistance when there were noises in the bushes.

Out into the moonlight stepped a giant black cat, eyes blazing killer green.

The horse took off at a dead run, and its rider held on desperately. The panther was close behind them, every now and then letting out another of those bloodcurdling screams.

After what seemed like hours, but could not have been more than a couple of minutes, the horse splashed into the shallows of a creek, and the man dared to look back. To his despair, the cat gave one last scream and bunched itself to jump the creek. He knew, once the cat was out front of them, that he for certain, and probably his horse, was done for.

The cat stretched out in an endless mighty bound. . .

and was gone. Its silhouette faded against the moonlight, in mid-leap.

Man and horse sat there awhile in silence, waiting for their hearts to beat again, and then rode on home.

The story of the ghostly painter comes from The Cold, Cold, Hand: More Stories of Ghosts and Haunts from the Appalachian Foothills (1997) by James V. Burchill, Linda J. Crider, and Peggy Kendrick.

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Peace came, after four years of the most merciless war the world had yet seen, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, ending World War I.

Originally, this day was designated as Armistice Day, in remembrance of that peace. Now, in the United States, we call it Veterans’ Day, in remembrance and celebration of our veterans of all wars.

My paternal grandfather was a veteran of that “war to end all wars”, as was the senior occupant of Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns, and while I honor all veterans of all wars today in my heart, I dedicate this post to the men of all nations who died in World War I–and their spirits.

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The British author James Wentworth Day was a twenty-year-old lieutenant serving in His Majesty’s British Expeditionary Force when peace came in 1918. Some forty years after the war, Day wrote of a strange experience he and a noncom, a Scots corporal named Barr, had while guarding German prisoners of war at Bailleul.

Word had come to the POW camp that nearby, in the ruins of an old coaching inn, were stashed a huge number of Queen stoves (from their description, these must have been similar to what old people in the knobs call a “warm morning heater”, and could also be used as a cookstove). Day and Corporal Barr hiked over to the inn to reconnoiter. Word, for once, was proven right; there were enough Queen stoves to heat guard shacks and prisoners’ tents and some left over! They would bring over a POW detail to fetch them in the morning; meanwhile, they set off to hike back to camp.

They were passing a patch of forest, blasted by great guns but tenacious of life, when out of the wood burst horsemen: German cavalry, dressed as they would have been in the heady early days of the war in 1914. As Day and Barr watched in amazement, French cavalry, also dressed in uniforms of 1914, charged from the opposite side of the wood. There should have been sounds: of harness and weaponry and hooves and hoarse, shouted orders in two languages. There were no sounds, and before the two forces met, they vanished.

Day and Barr returned to camp badly shaken. The next day, Day talked to the one person he knew could tell him the meaning of what he saw, an innkeeper called Marie, a native of the area.

Marie told him that the wood he passed was on the frontier, and had long been rumored to be haunted by ghosts from as far back as the Napoleonic Wars. There was, she said, about half a mile past the ruined coaching inn, a little churchyard, and in that churchyard were buried cavalrymen from Napoleon’s time, from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and now this great war.

Day found that little churchyard, found, as Marie had said, the graves of German and French cavalrymen. And since, as he wrote, he “love[d] a horse and revered a good rider. . .[he] stood in homage for a frightened moment.”

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Among the fallen of World War I were a number of men already renowned or gaining renown in the arts: the American poet Alan Seeger, who died fighting with the French Foreign Legion in 1916, before the US joined hostilities; British author H.H. Munro (better known by his pen name, Saki) and poets Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen–four names among many. Wilfred Owen came back, to let his beloved younger brother know of his death–or was it a fever dream? You be the judge.

On November 11, 1918, Harold Owen was serving in His Majesty’s navy, aboard a ship anchored off the Cape of Good Hope. He was in a low fever at the time, after an attack of malaria. Ill and depressed, he found himself worrying about his brother, Wilfred, who had been fighting in Europe. Had Wilfred survived to see this day?

Harold found himself unable to join in the festivities of peace, and went down to his cabin to write letters. He walked in to find Wilfred seated in his chair. Delighted and shocked all at once, Harold tried to question him as to how he had gotten here, aboard this ship. . .

All the while he noted that Wilfred sat curiously immobile. When Harold spoke, he smiled in understanding, but never spoke a word.

And then, Wilfred was no longer there.

Harold, exhausted and ill, could not puzzle out what he had just seen: his brother in a place where he could not be. He fell asleep, and when he woke, he later wrote, he knew for a certainty that Wilfred was dead.

Wilfred Owen had been killed on November 4, 1918. His parents in England received word at noon on November 11, an hour after the cessation of hostilities, of his death.

Wilfred himself had let Harold know.

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Here in honored glory lies an American soldier known but to God. . .

He was one of four unidentified American soldiers whose bodies were exhumed and brought back from the battlefields of Europe in 1921, three years after the end of the Great War. They were placed in identical coffins and each coffin covered with an American flag. He was chosen to be our first Unknown, buried under a marble tomb at Arlington, by a veteran who laid a wreath of white roses atop his coffin–third from the left.

The others were buried in honored glory elsewhere. He was buried on November 11, 1921, at that great bivouac of the dead with President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding designated as his next of kin. Before his entombment, he was awarded a Medal of Honor and a British Victoria Cross.

Near him lie Unknowns from World War II and Korea, while the grave of the Unknown from Vietnam now lies empty, its occupant having been identified by DNA and removed to a family plot elsewhere. He and his fellows are guarded round the clock in what is possibly our nation’s most impressive ceremony.

The Doughboy from World War I, alone of the Unknowns, does not rest easy.

Stories say that, when a Commander in Chief or a great military figure lies in state in the Capitol’s Rotunda in the District of Columbia, he comes back. Late at night, he appears, dressed in that unmistakable World War I uniform, comes to full attention by the coffin, snaps a brisk salute, and then is gone.

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On this day of honor and remembrance, to all our veterans, male and female, living and dead, a heartfelt thanks for your service and sacrifice.

James Wentworth Day’s story of the Ghostly Cavalrymen of Bailleul comes from his book Ghosts and Witches (1991 reprint edition).

The story of Wilfred Owen’s appearance to his brother comes from the Reader’s Digest anthology Mysteries of the Unexplained (1982).

The story of the Unknown Doughboy of World War I is told in John Alexander’s Washington Revisited: The Ghostlore of the Nation’s Capital (1998; revised edition).

The phrase “bivouac of the dead” comes from Theodore O’Hara’s poem of the same name; written during the Mexican War of 1845-1848 but inextricably bound to all our wars and war cemeteries since, its first verse is prominently displayed on brass tablets at many such:

The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo!
No more on life’s parade shall meet
The brave and fallen few.
On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.

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somebody’s darlin’
Some mother’s pride
Who’s going to tell her
where her boy died. . .

Tennessee Wesleyan College, a small United Methodist school in Athens, turns up frequently in books about Tennessee hauntings and college ghosts thanks to a historically improbable tale about a daughter of the great Cherokee chief Attakullakulla, her British soldier husband, and two trees. There are statues of Nocatula and Conestoga, the doomed lovers, on campus, donated by alumni; such is the power of that story.

When I was a student there in the 1980s, though, another campus ghost story was passed around among us. That story dates to the Civil War, when what was then Athens Female Academy’s lone building–now called Old College–was used, during the Chattanooga campaign, as a hospital, successively by both Union and Confederate forces.

He was a southern soldier boy, they say, and young–barely seventeen. People grow up fast in wartime, and he was no exception: you could see in the old man’s eyes that looked out of his child’s face that he had seen and done more than any boy should have to see and do.

But he was a good soldier, who had the misfortune to be wounded and taken to the big building on the campus of the girls’ school. An amputation with gangrene following took his young life, there in an upper room near a window. Toward the end he was delirious, and like any child sick unto death and in a strange place, he bedeviled those around him calling weakly, Mama? Mama. . .

Then he was gone.

Eventually, the UMC made a college of the ladies’ academy. The old building was supplanted by newer ones, and stood empty for many years until finally it was refurbished and, for a time, housed a museum.

Still, there were stories: on some nights, especially in the fall of the year, students reported seeing an odd light in one particular window of Old College, and sometimes, a flash of a grayish color passing across it.

Parking has always been a problem on campus (some things don’t change), and one young female day student, in the fall of 1980, had the misfortune, one morning, to have to park at the Methodist church on the corner next to campus. Although spaces cleared out later in the day, she was so busy she completely forgot to move her car to a closer lot.

She had a night class, and by the time class was dismissed, it was full dark, and cold, and windy, and she had to walk alone clear across campus to her car in the church lot.

As she made her way through the dim light cast by streetlamps, she heard something that was affirmatively not one of her fellow students, most of whom were already in their cars and gone. She stopped and listened.

It sounded like a boy’s voice–a young boy’s voice, barely past the breaking onset of manhood.

Mama? . . .Mama. . .

She looked up toward Old College. In an upper room, there was a light where no light should be, and a figure in Confederate gray silhouetted against it.

Mama?

She had never heard anything so pitiful in her life.

Then light and figure were gone, and the chilly wind carried off one last call: Mammmmmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. . .

She nearly broke her neck getting to her car, and didn’t sleep a wink that night, haunted by what she had seen and heard.

She didn’t confide in anyone for several days, but she finally went to an English professor, a lovely lady who had been at the college longer than any other instructor and knew its history and secrets like no other, and told her strange story.

Yes, the professor told her; there had long been tales of the ghost of a young Confederate soldier who looked out a window on an upper floor of Old College. But this was the first time, she added, that anyone had heard him calling for his mother.

I envy you, she added. I’ve been here many a dark night in the fall of the year, but I’ve never seen him.

The story goes that the coed transferred to another school after fall quarter that year. She would rather not have heard the dying boy’s calls, and didn’t want to risk hearing them again.

somebody’s darlin’
some mother’s son
who’s going to tell her
that her boy is gone?

Don’t go searching for me in 1980s online yearbooks or whatnot; I hadn’t yet adopted my pen name, and in any case, my career at TWC was not an especially distinguished one. And no, I wasn’t the girl who heard the young boy calling for his mother; the only night classes I ever had were in spring quarter, in daylight savings time, so I likely would never have encountered him. I have friends who did, though, and they told me this story.

Musicologists will recognize the song from which this post takes its name: “Somebody’s Darling”, a lachrymose piece written apparently c. 1864 with lyrics by Marie Ravenal de la Coste and music by John Hill Hewitt (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). In Ken Burns’ companion volume to his series The Civil War, it’s said that some soldiers would, with nervous bravado, point to corpses by the wayside and say that’s Somebody’s Darlin’ back there. . . And, if I remember right, in Gone with the Wind a distraught India Wilkes, mourning for one of the Tarleton twins, begs Scarlett O’Hara not to sing it.

For the story of Nocatula and Conestoga and the two trees, the best sources are Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey (1977) and Daniel W. Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities (2004).

As for the story of Somebody’s Darlin’, other than a post written some years ago by a friend of mine on the defunct Blogstream, I don’t think I’ve run across it anywhere else.

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Dona Nobis Pacem

Peace be unto you. . .

and unto you also.

Would to heaven that peace were a transitive verb rather than an abstract noun. . .

yet by our words and our actions we spread peace, one unto another.

I AM A PEACE BLOGGER.

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