Story Number Eight
The Wolf Monument
George picked me up at my house one Saturday morning and told me we were going to see a 350-foot long covered bridge that was still in use. Most of the covered bridges in the state are painted red, but a small number are white, as this one was.
We made the 98-mile drive a short one, gobbling the miles like Pac-Man in a little over an hour. George always said the more interstate there is the quicker the trip, and about 60 miles of this journey traveled the Eisenhower system. Our velocity was not quite as good as the time when he piloted us from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Grand Junction, Colorado, covering 285 miles in three and one-half hours. I do not believe I have experienced as much adrenaline flowing during any of our trips together as the moment I looked down at the speedometer and saw that he was cruising at over 100 miles per hour, followed up shortly thereafter by a journey up a short exit ramp at 85 miles per hour.
The bridge indeed possessed beauty, character, and a relatively new coat of white on the outside. It stood high above the river below, and it had a low hump at its midway point, making us drive slightly uphill after we entered until we reached the hump, and then downhill until we exited the other side. The length of the bridge gave me a few moments of anxiety, but they did not last long.
We took a large number of photographs of this bridge, the Mudcat covered bridge over the White Sands Creek in the east central part of our state. George climbed down the side of a bank and got into the creek to obtain his best angle, but I declined, not being able to espy a path that led down the hill. Instead, I worked my way up a knoll on the far side of the bridge to shoot from above it. Overall, our photos this day proved some of the best we ever took.
There was another covered bridge in the county, and we had planned to visit that one as well, even though from a photographic standpoint it was going to be inferior.
We arrived at a small town called Dunker’s Bend that possessed something that caused us to stop and get out of the car. Directly behind the town’s sign stood a large statue of a wolf, along with a marker similar to an historical one.
“What does it say?” asked George as I approached the marker before he did.
“It says, ‘Dunker’s Bend, the birthplace of Edward McMahon DuPont Wolf, who was stolen from his family while they worked in the fields and lived the rest of his life in the wild. Three hundred feet from this marker Edward met his end when he returned to town and died trying to save his family. That place is marked by a small plaque.’”
“Hmm. Sounds like an interesting story,” replied George. “We haven’t had a good one for awhile.”
“Not since our last trip,” I said.
The statue and marker sat on town land, but adjacent to it began a series of small houses, which if one followed, would lead into the downtown area in about three blocks. A large, unkempt man sat on a dirty, worn, overstuffed chair on the front porch of the first house. The only article of clothing from his waist upward was a sleeveless t-shirt that had many dirty spots on it. Although it was only 9:30 a.m. the man drank beer with enthusiasm. Cigarette butts lay everywhere surrounding him, the products of his chain smoking.
“Reading about Wolf?” he yelled at us, and then before we could answer he jumped from the chair and cussed profusely because he had burned himself with a cigarette.
“We’re just looking at the marker and the statue,” replied George.
“Most people think that’s the highlight of the town,” he snarled. “Maybe it is. Young people leave and never return. Farmers can’t make a go of it. The town’s dying. It’ll be a ghost town in another twenty years, as soon as all us old-timers are gone.”
George and I wandered closer to the man, but paused when we got about ten feet away and his body odor accosted us, the dominant scent being urine.
“We are a little curious,” said George. “What’s the story behind it? Is it a good one?”
The man popped another can of beer, drank half of it, and then followed that with lighting his third cigarette since we had stopped.
“I’m about ready to go to bed—I work third shift at the fertilizer plant in Olfron. You know where that is?” We said no in unison. “Nearly everybody in town works there. If that place would close that’d be the end of us overnight.
“I got home about 45 minutes ago. Thought I’d have some breakfast before going to bed. You want any?”
By this time, we had perfected our synchronized negative responses, and executed one here that would have scored high marks.
“Hold on a minute,” said the man, “while I light up a smoke. Name’s Gleeson, by the way. Gleeson Hardesty. Lived here all my life. Will be buried here as well, right up in that cemetery on the little hill across the road.”
George introduced himself and me to Gleeson, who by this time had drained the remainder of the liquid from the can and popped another. He then took a long drag on his cigarette and leaned back in his chair.
“Kind of a sad story, really,” he began. “Back in the late 1800s—1893 I believe—Dunker’s Bend was a thriving, prosperous farming community. That kind of changed overnight, though, when a group traveling in wagons pulled through the town and made camp out in Jude Beldore’s field, just past the last house on your left down there.”
At this point I believed Gleeson Hardesty was about ready to expire, for he engaged in a terrific coughing attack that lasted three or four minutes. He gasped for air, and the sound his lungs made resembled a blacksmith’s bellows. Eventually he regained his faculties.
“Sorry. Think I might be allergic to grass or some type of pollen. Think Mrs. Franke had her grass cut last night. I get coughing fits like that regularly. Gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.
“Anyway, as I was saying, this group of people pulled into town and made themselves a little camp. In the evenings they would bring one of the wagons to town and sell things out of it. Did some singing and fortunetelling, too. People didn’t mind for awhile, but then things turned up missing around town, and people blamed this group.”
“Sounds like they might have been gypsies,” said George.
“That’s what people called them,” Gleeson replied. “The town wanted to run them off, but most everybody was afraid of them. Finally, they talked Horace DuPont into doing the dirty work for them. He was the tallest, strongest man in town, that’s why they chose him. Big old farmer, hands as big as pie plates.
“Horace approached the group one evening, told them they had to leave, and boy, did they ever get mad. Started yelling at him, throwing things at him and making it look like they was going to kill him with something or other. He finally just said, ‘When morning comes you’d better not be here,’ and turned to walk away.
“An old lady, possibly the mother of the entire group, came out of the back of a wagon and started saying things to him, chanting like. The only thing Horace remembered her saying was something like ‘Loopus, Loopus’ over and over.”
“Lupus,” I said. “Latin for wolf.”
“That’s it,” said Gleeson. “That’s what everybody told Horace it meant. Wolf. But the very last thing she said was something about his son and how the curse was on him.
“The group was gone by next morning and everybody breathed easier. Two days later Horace was working out in the field and all eight of his children were either working with him or playing along the side. His youngest, a boy named Edward McMahon DuPont—McMahon was his mother’s maiden name—was playing in the grass beside one of the fields. The child was only three years old. The family dog was there with it, and the mother was inside the house doing work.
“Horace and his kids worked their way down the field and nearly got out of sight of Edward. They completely lost sight of him when the field curved around to the left.
“All of a sudden they heard this terrible cry come up from the dog and some other growling sounds. Horace ran to where he’d last seen Edward and the dog, but when he got there the dog was a mangled, bloody mess. It had been chewed to pieces. But worse than that, Edward was gone. No signs of him, no chewed up body, none of his blood. He had just vanished. Despite a desperate search, Edward was not found.
“Some strange occurrences started happening in and around town shortly after. Small animals were mauled to death and people began seeing animal tracks all around their places. These appeared to be wolf tracks. Soon people began seeing the wolves. The whole town became afraid to go outside. Men worked in the fields with a gun at their side.
“People estimated there were at least five wolves in the pack because sometimes they had seen three to five wolves traveling together. These weren’t coyotes, mind you. They were wolves.”
George interrupted. “Had there been wolves in the area before?”
“Not for years,” replied Gleeson. “It’d probably been half a century since the last wolf had been spotted. All of a sudden a whole group shows up.”
Gleeson paused and looked at me. “You’re thinking something. Get it out, what do you want to know?”
I hesitated before saying sheepishly, “Am I right in thinking where this story’s going? The wolves stole the child from the edge of the field?”
He popped another beer, chugged it, and then opened another one.
“You’re right,” he said. “Dang wolves had kidnapped that poor boy. They kept him alive, too.”
“Oh, come on!” said George. “Wolves don’t really raise kidnapped children. They’d kill them and eat them first.”
“Let me finish my story,” Gleeson said, “and then think what you want.
“Now, nobody knew the wolves had taken Edward until one day about seven or eight years later when he was spotted running around with a couple of wolves across a field. Stark naked he was. Sniffed around on the ground like wolves. The farmer who saw them called out to them, but the boy just howled at him and took off running.”
“This is unbelievable,” I muttered.
“It is, but it’s the truth,” said Gleeson. “Now let me tell you how it all ended.
“The wolves started getting bolder and bolder, actually coming into town. Many times Edward was spotted with them. The worst part was that a couple more children were killed, apparently by the wolves, and a few other people were viciously attacked. People wouldn’t go outdoors at all, they were so afraid. So the men got together and decided they were going to wait for the wolves next time they came around and kill them all. They waited and waited in the street for three days, taking turns going home to sleep.
“Finally the wolves showed up. The men started firing and the wolves started howling and crying out in agony after they got shot. Most of the wolves were down when down the street comes Edward, howling at the top of his lungs. He races in and tries to drag the wolves away to safety. The men tried to come closer, but Edward turned on them and attacked two, biting them and clawing them.
“The men surrounded Edward and the wolf bodies. He was insane, attacking here and there and causing a lot of damage. He finally got one of them down on the ground and started biting his neck. It was obvious he was going to kill the man, so one of the others in the group went ahead and shot Edward and killed him. It was Horace that shot him.”
Gleeson paused long enough to smoke two cigarettes while George and I discussed his story quietly.
“We’ve heard some strange ones, but this takes the cake,” I said.
“I can believe the story about the guy with the washing machine hose down his throat before I can believe this,” George replied.
Gleeson resumed, “It was a terrible day, a terrible day. Poor Horace. Not only did he lose his son, but then years later he had to go kill him as well.”
“Couldn’t that have been some other person and not Edward?” I asked.
“No. Edward had an unusual birthmark on his back, kind of resembled a howling wolf’s head. Everybody in town knew it. This one did, too.”
George laughed. “I’m sorry, it seems a little too far-fetched,” he said.
“Don’t blame you for not believing,” replied Gleeson. “No one ever does except the people around here. That’s why we built the statue and the marker because we don’t ever want to forget. And that’s why we don’t like strangers, either, not that I don’t like you guys, but those strangers caused all the problems.
“See, after all them wolves had been killed, and Edward, too, the men went to look at the wolves’ bodies, and what do you think they saw? The wolves had changed into them strangers, those gypsy people. They’d been running around all that time changing into wolves, they stole the boy and raised him as one of their own. They took vengeance on the whole town because the town run them off.
“Now I don’t mean to be unkind, but if I was you, I think I’d take care of business in town and leave as quickly as you can. Like I said, people around here don’t like strangers, and if you stay too long, well, I couldn’t really guarantee your safety.”
We left promptly, heading in the direction of the next covered bridge, noticing people coming out their front doors as we drove past them. After we exited the town limits, I grabbed George’s arm and told him to pull off the road and stop the car.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Listen,” I said. “Do you hear that?”
It was faint at first, but then grew louder.
“It’s just the wind, that’s all,” George said. “But it sure sounded like a pack of wolves to me.”
Story Number Seven
The Great Depression is a time in our country’s history that holds much fascination for many people. Our father grew up during the Depression, and he related a few things about how tough times were and about the effects of widespread gambling and control of entire cities by unsavory elements.
George had visited a particular bridge in a county not too distant, about an hour’s drive, and he wanted me to see it and photograph it. On this visit we made a connection to the Great Depression era, one that we will never forget, and one that put us in an uncomfortable position.
The particular bridge—Swan’s Creek Covered Bridge—was not a large span, just a little over 100 feet, but it was in immaculate condition, even though its location was rural. George drove through the bridge and pulled off the side of the road, leaving me to exit the vehicle in weeds up to my hips. This did not concern George, for he left the car and stepped directly on the pavement.
“Did you bring anything to wipe off with?” he inquired, referring to our numerous cases of chiggers and other things that made us itch after our excursions. I looked at him and laughed, which he returned. We never brought anything that would protect us from nature, and we usually suffered for days afterwards.
Most of these covered bridges, at least the ones that are not miniature in length, have approaches to them that rise, meaning the automobile must ascend before entering either end. A house sat in a gully off to the right, and an old woman in an old, dirty dress with mussed hair sat on the front porch. The house was little more than a shack that appeared as if it had not been painted in decades, the growth around the house was out of control, and in general, the house looked as if it were only days from ruin, standing like the House of Usher.
George waved in his most amiable post office counter employee manner, but the woman did not acknowledge him, which was rather unusual compared to most of the people we had encountered in rural areas on our travels.
“Maybe she’s blind,” I whispered, but George did not hear me because he suffered from the condition of all Burton family members—we are aurally impaired.
George then turned to me and attempted to whisper, “Maybe she’s blind,” but it was not really a whisper since people who have difficulty hearing frequently talk loudly, maybe so they can hear themselves. In this case, George’s whisper likely could have been heard over the sound of a passing semi, had one been passing.
“I ain’t blind!” spouted the woman. “And I ain’t deaf! Just didn’t feel like waving.”
She talked loud enough even for us to hear her, so we walked down the slope and to her porch. She made no effort to prevent us, but I visually searched around for her gun nonetheless.
“Hello,” yelled George when we arrived. “We’re here to take pictures of the bridge.”
“You don’t have to yell,” she replied. “I think I can hear better than you. You boys must be from the city. Only city boys would be interested in taking a picture of a bridge.”
“Well, I like photography more than bridges,” said George, holding up his camera. “Bridges are good objects to photograph.”
“I’m just along for the ride,” I added. “We’re brothers.”
“I can see that plain enough,” she said. “So you like bridges?”
“This is a pretty good one,” replied George. “It’s in really good shape, has a fresh coat of paint on it, and I can get a pretty good perspective on it.”
“We do keep it up. That we do,” she said. “This bridge has been around all my life…my entire life. You can see right up there at the entrance it tells the year it was built—1877. Been talk about building a new bridge and tearing this one down. They say we need a two lane bridge. But people put up such a protest they decided to keep it up and not build a new one. A new one wouldn’t last as long as that one anyway.”
I introduced George and me, and she gave her name as Doreen Loevhardt.
“Have you lived here long?” I asked. “I mean in this house?”
“I’m 86 years old,” said Doreen. “My pa built this house in 1905. He wanted to marry my ma, but her parents wouldn’t have any of it until he was established, so he bought some land and built the house and started farming. I guess that satisfied ma’s parents because they married in 1909 and I was born in 1910. Born right here in this house, haven’t lived a day anywhere else my entire life.”
“You don’t have any family?” inquired George.
“None living. I had three sisters and four brothers, but they’ve all passed on. Lost my favorite sister Lula just last winter. She was the last one. I never married…”
A sad, distant look ran across her face.
After an awkward pause, George said, “I think we’re going to take a few pictures and be on our way. It’s been nice meeting you.”
As we turned she said, “No, no, don’t go yet. You boys have time for a story?”
“Sure,” said George with a chuckle. “Always have time for a story.”
“Have a seat then,” Doreen said, and we deposited ourselves on her steps, most of which needed replacing. “I’m getting old and have no friends and as I said no family left. Oh, I have some nieces and nephews, but hardly know any of them by name. They never came around when they were growing up. I was always kind of known as the Old Maid aunt, crabby and not wanting anyone around.
“I am feeling my years, and to be frank, I believe I may be departing this world soon. There’s a story I want to tell someone—I guess to clear my conscience. Would rather tell it to strangers than someone from around here, so you’re it. You boys have to promise me you won’t say a word about this until I’m gone. Do you promise?”
George and I shrugged our shoulders, and then George said, “OK, we agree.”
“Then I’ll tell you. Mind, no one has heard this story, ever. Not even my brothers and sisters. I’m the only living soul who knows the truth.
“The year was 1930, I was twenty years old. It was the Great Depression and times were very hard. There was a lot of organized crime—the mobs, you know. We felt the effects of gangsters even in our part of the state, not a place you’d think they’d be interested in. A lot of farmers lost everything, and there were so many people out of work you couldn’t believe it. No jobs, no money, nothing. Somehow Pa held onto the place, though I don’t see how. I’ve often thought he somehow got involved with a mob, but I can’t say that for certain. He always said he believed there was hidden treasure around there, like a gold mine or something, and maybe he found a little bit to pay the taxes, I don’t know.
“There was a young man who interested me, and he came calling on occasion. John was his name. Pa didn’t particularly like him, but he didn’t forbid him seeing me. I desperately wanted to leave home, get out of this place and move to a city, where I could experience life, have some fun, and get married. John seemed like he was going to be the one who would take me out of here.
“But he got involved with a mob—I don’t remember which one, hadn’t wanted to think about it—but they had influence in the county and grew in power. John told me he ran errands for them. I suspect the errands was running money from their drugs, prostitution, and gambling operations. Used to be a big casino in the county, right in the county seat. You won’t get anybody around here to talk about it, though. People denied it even when it was here. Had the local and county politicians in their pocket, along with the police.
“I talked to John about getting married, but he kind of squirmed around about it. Said he wanted to establish himself first. I don’t know, maybe he wanted to take a bigger part in the mob. Maybe take over local operations or something. But he kept putting me off.
“Still, he called for over a year, and I thought I was starting to break him down. Finally he hinted we’d get married, but he wouldn’t set a date, but that didn’t concern me because I figured it was just a matter of time.
“Everybody around knew John was working for the mob. Pa never said anything, but I could tell he didn’t like it when John showed up. I didn’t care what people said about me running around with him because like I said, I wanted out.
“One of the runners had made out with a bunch of the mob’s money, but hardly anyone knew about it—I didn’t. It was nearly seventy-five thousand dollars. I know he wasn’t involved because at the time the money apparently was stolen, John was right here at the house, talking to Pa for a good long time, and then later sitting on the porch with me.
“The next night John didn’t show up at the house at the time he had promised, so I hitched a ride with someone driving by and went to town to look for him, hoping he hadn’t gotten into trouble. As I said, at that time I knew nothing about the stealing of the mob’s money. The news hadn’t gotten around yet. I knew he hung out at a place called the Lucky 7 Club, which was a place to dance, drink, and gamble.
“Sure enough, when I went inside, there he was, sitting in a corner with a floozy named Sadie Dunston. Sadie weren’t her real name, just what she went by. She was a prostitute and floor worker at the casino. It was obvious that John and Sadie were more than friends by the way they were acting, and more than once I had already found lipstick on his shirt, which he always had an explanation for.
“I thought we’d have it out then and there, and when I confronted him, he told me straight faced that Sadie was the girl he was going to marry and he had no intention of marrying me. Said he never had any intention of marrying me, and in fact he was at that time living with Sadie. She got all smart with me, too, but I belted her one right there in front of everybody.
“I got escorted out and hitched a ride home. I was devastated. I didn’t care if I ever left this place again…”
George put his hand on her arm when she paused. “That’s a sad story. I’m sorry,” he said.
Doreen cried for a short while. “Sorry,” she sniffled. “Ain’t cried since that day. Never cared enough to cry. But with my time running short…”
George and I looked at each other, at a loss for words.
After about two minutes she said, “Just wait, boys. That ain’t the end of the story. That’s not the part I really wanted you to hear. That’s only the story leading up to the real thing.
“I went out on the porch and decided to stay there all night. I thought maybe John would come by and tell me it was all a mistake, that he really was going to marry me and take me away. You know how people talk themselves into such things.
“About two o’clock in the morning I hear a car coming down the road, and I’m thinking it’s John. Sure enough, he comes through the bridge and pulls in the drive. And who’s in the car with him? That tramp Sadie.
“John said he just came around to pick something up, then he would leave, but I stepped in the house and grabbed Pa’s gun, the one he always kept behind the door, and I came out and told him to get and to take the tramp with him. She also got out of the car and together they started walking towards me. I lowered the gun and they took off walking real fast, didn’t even try to get back in the car, and I followed them into the bridge.
“John tried to talk to me, but I wouldn’t listen. Finally he turned around and explained again that I had been mistaken the entire time, that he’d never promised to marry me, and that Sadie was the one he loved. And then she said—I’ll never forget the words as long as I live—she said, ‘Why would he want you? You’re just a farm girl, you’ve got no class, and you don’t even know how to act like a woman. John could never marry anyone like you. You’re ugly and don’t even know it.’
“Her words ignited something inside me, and I killed them on the spot. Cut ‘em down with the shotgun. Their blood was all over the floor. I went and got his car, drove it to a place about a mile or so away and ran it over a cliff and walked back here.”
George’s brow creased. I knew he was thinking the same thing I was—this woman’s going to kill us before we leave.
“I think we’d better be going—“ George attempted.
“Don’t be a fool,” said Doreen. “I ain’t going to hurt you. I already told you I only wanted to clear my conscience before I die.
“Let me finish. The next morning their bodies were discovered. Naturally the police came and investigated. They came and asked everyone in the house the same question: Did you hear anything last night? I told them I’d heard a gunshot, just as others did. No one got out of bed because hearing gunshots in the country is nothing unusual. The police later discovered the car, and then I heard their version of the story.
“They knew about John’s involvement with the mob, probably because they were on the mob payroll as well, and they had already heard about the missing money and figured John had taken it. They concluded that the mob had caught up with him and brought him out here and executed him and Sadie. That was the end of the investigation.
“I think if they’d have asked me straight out if I knew any other information, I would’ve confessed. I was prepared to go to prison or even get executed from the moment I did it. They never asked because they didn’t need any other information, so I kept quiet.
Doreen paused, then she looked around her land, out into the fields that had gone unplanted for many years, and the places where trees had taken over and filled up what once had contained corn or soy beans.
“This land ain’t been worked in the last twenty years, ever since my brother Everett died,” she said. “He and my brothers never really worked it themselves, just shared it out to people. I ain’t got any use for money. Been living off my government check for over twenty years. Don’t have many expenses, just food and utility bills. I got a boy from town does my shopping and runs to the bank for me, and another one cuts my grass a couple times a year. So this farm ain’t much use to me. Now the nieces and nephews are going to get rich when I die. Not from me, but from this land. They’ll sell it off piece by piece and make a subdivision out here, a real nice once. They’ll get a whole lot of money out of this place, all six hundred and twenty-seven acres.”
Doreen brought a stern gaze into our faces.
“Now you boys, you promised me you’d keep quiet about this until I’m gone. You still good for your word?”
We said nothing, only nodded our heads, and then we left, took photos of the bridge, and drove home, talking nearly the entire way about Doreen’s story.
Three weeks later George read in the paper that she had died. We debated if we should tell the information we knew, but decided against it, knowing would make no difference one way or the other.
A few months later, though, an event happened that surprised us, even though it did not change our minds. The house went to the nieces and nephews, and they decided to tear it down. Under the floor of one of the rooms, they found over sixty-eight thousand dollars.
George and I speculated that John had actually stolen the money and hidden it in the house, probably with father’s consent, and that Doreen’s execution had saved the mob the cost of his elimination. We surmised that Doreen’s father had decided to use the money to save the farm. George did some research a short while later about the father and discovered that he had died within a year of John, making it likely that he had never told his family about the money, and it had sat under the floor for over 65 years.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Story Number Six
The day did not start out to be a good one for George and me. We had been used to jumping in the car, traveling fast via George’s leaded foot, and covering a lot of territory in 12 hours or less. This day shaped up early to be a frustrating one and each of us sensed it.
To begin, our sister and her husband had arrived in town earlier in the week, and wanting to spend some time with us, volunteered to go bridge hunting, which we enthusiastically agreed to do. Our sister Jane and her husband Tom had rented an automobile and Tom offered to drive.
As I have mentioned once or twice in earlier stories, when George drives we arrive at our destination well under the projected time as determined by AAA or web mapping services. With Tom behind the wheel, the time factor has a significant multiplier to it because he is at the opposite end of the spectrum as George.
The drive lingered, with us making a couple of stops that George and I alone would not have made, plus with the slower driving rate it took us a good hour to hour and a half longer to arrive at our destination than it had taken George and I complete a couple of weeks prior to this.
We left at 7:30 a.m., and normally George and I would be taking pictures by 10:00 or 10:30. This day, however, found us approaching our destination nearing noon and searching for a fast food restaurant, which we spied and went inside with the intent of eating sitting down. Normally George and I ate food on the goal to conserve time.
There were about 30 covered bridges in the county, and when George and I had last visited, we had photographed all of them in a day. That did not appear possible for this excursion.
A young man waited on us. I use the term man because he was not a teenager, but likely in his early twenties. The first thing one would notice about him was his face, which bore the appearance of having been beaten with a club or brass knuckles. He took our order and George ordered one of the meals that came with fries and a drink.
George desired a larger drink, so he asked, “How much more for a large drink?”
This question obviously bewildered the young man, for he stood speechless for a number of seconds, and after deep thought replied, “Just a little bit more.”
George waited for a better answer, but upon realizing none was imminent, he agreed to get the larger drink.
Meanwhile, waiting for our food, we overheard the young man arguing with a supervisor.
“But I’ve got to leave,” he protested loudly. “I’m still in the competition, in the championship!”
After considerable squabbling, the employee briskly walked out the door, not too happy.
We left the restaurant and headed to a town about 10 miles away. From there we could fan out in one of five directions and encounter numerous bridges. When we arrived in that location we came upon a mad scene, for it appeared as if the entire town had congregated along the main street, filling it completely. There were numerous cheers coming from the throng and faces looked happy.
Naturally, we parked and made our way to the crowd to discover what was taking place. At first we had difficulty seeing but then spied bleachers off to our right, which offered us a good view.
Inside a rectangular marked off area covered with tons of dirt were two men who were participating in various events, with each man apparently trying to prove he was the stronger, better man. Scattered about the rectangle were various large objects, including automobile engine blocks, tremendous hunks of stone—limestone, I believe, from a nearby quarry—30-foot logs, and sundry other large things.
At this moment, the two men stood at one end of the rectangle behind a line. In front of each of them lay an anvil. A man dressed as a circus ringmaster held up his hand, in which he held a starter’s gun, and fired. Each man picked up his anvil and tossed it as far as he could. Meanwhile the crowd began counting down from 30. As soon as each man tossed his anvil, he ran to it, picked it up again and heaved it with all his might. At the end of the countdown, the man who had tossed his anvil the farthest was declared the winner and he was presented with a basket full of prizes, some of which we assumed was money.
George and I wished silently that we could have seen more of the competitions.
The items were cleared away from the arena, and men replaced them with rakes, hoes, shovels, bean poles, post hole diggers, sickles, and other objects that belonged in a tool shed or a barn.
Then the ringmaster roused the crowd with the announcement, “This is what you’ve all been waiting for. The competition’s been going on all week, and we’re down to our final two contestants. Give them a huge welcome as they make their way to the arena.”
The crowd complied and two young men went inside the marked-off area.
“Look,” said Jane, “it’s the guy from the restaurant!”
The young man who apparently could not tell a 30-cent difference in drinks strutted, bare-chested. There were welts, cuts and scars all over his arms, abdomen, face (which we had already seen) and back. The man at the other bore a similar appearance.
“I wonder what this is all about?” I asked no one in particular.
However, Tom had momentarily left us, and when he returned, he provided us with the necessary information.
“There’s been some type of man contest going on all week,” he said, “but it’s not just a strongest man or baddest man type of thing. They’re competing for a woman and a whole lot of money. The money and the woman go together. She’s an heiress or something. When she came into the money she knew every man would be out trying to get her to marry him, so she announced she would not entertain anyone’s advances, but that a contest must be held which would determine the worthiest man.”
“What’s the deal with all the farm equipment?” asked George.
“That’s part of it,” continued Tom. “They were each told they could choose 10 farm items to use in combat against their opponent. The only stipulation was that it could not run, like a tractor or chainsaw. But anything they can lift they can use as weapons. There’s no time limit and no time outs. When one of the two is not able to fight, the match is over.”
“That’s barbaric,” said Joan. “Something out of gladiator times. And fighting for a woman? How sexist can you get?”
“It was her idea,” observed Tom, but that did not appease our sister, who fumed and said she wanted to leave at least half a dozen times during the fight.
The fast food worker’s name was Billy, and his opponent went by Tad.
The fight commenced, and it was brutal. The opponents grabbed things that lay near them and mainly used them offensively, although at times the items had to be used in a defensive manner. Billy took a blow to the back with jumper cables, and blood immediately began to flow. He whacked Tad over the head with a garden hoe and later dodged a swinging spade.
The fight continued for nearly 15 minutes, but finally Tad finished off Billy with a rake handle to the gut, followed by an uppercut by the same weapon that left Billy in an unconscious heap. The crowd cheered violently throughout, but none so much as when the ringmaster raised Tad’s left hand in victory, declaring him the winner. He had attempted to raise Tad’s right hand originally, but the wrist lay at a crooked angle, obviously broken.
After tending to Billy’s wounds and bringing him back to consciousness and taking him out of the arena, the ringmaster announced that now it was time for Tad to receive his reward for winning the contest.
“And now, here is the object of this battle for manly mastery, Miss Isabel Greathouse!”
The crowd cheered their loudest cheer, and a path was parted along the side, as when Moses parted the Red Sea, and into the arena trod Isabel Greathouse.
George, Tom, and I laughed out loud at the sight of her, but Joan glowered in disgust. Isabel Greathouse was a woman who appeared to be around 50 years old, stood less than five feet tall and weighed at least 400 pounds. She moved as quickly as she could, but in no way could it be called running, to her future husband, put him in a bear hug and kissed him profusely.
We left the scene and hunted covered bridges, of which we found four. Neither Tom nor Joan were impressed with the marvels of covered bridge construction, so we cut our stay short in covered bridge country.
On the return home, George volunteered to drive. We stopped at the same restaurant that we had in the morning, and sure enough, Billy was again working, although his face was so swollen and bruised I do not see how he could do anything.
“We were at the contest,” said George as he stepped to the counter. “That was quite a fight you had.”
Billy mumbled something unintelligible from his swollen lips.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, I think you came out the winner, though. I mean, that’s about the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” George said.
Billy looked through one eye at him and replied in an acerbic tone, “Who cares what she looks like. I don’t want to be working here the rest of my life. I’d take the beating again if I could’ve won.”
“I don’t understand. You’d need an awful good reason,” replied George.
“Fifty million dollars is plenty of reason,” said Billy. “I’ll get over being beat up. Don’t know if I’ll ever get over being poor and having to work here the rest of my life.”
Story Number Five
Alfred the Meteorologist
George and I had heard about a covered bridge a long distance away from us, the longest distance we would drive within the state, one that supposedly had a breathtaking view. While the location of nearly every bridge we visited was rural, this one seemed uniquely remote, not close to any town. Naturally, we took the long drive and the obscure location as a challenge and proceeded before daybreak on a Thursday in our continuing quest.
I used a vacation day to go with George and I had worked the previous evening and slept part of the drive, an action I knew might lead to navigation disaster, but when I awoke after a twenty-minute nap, I discovered George had somehow managed to say on the correct route.
“I’ve been flying on autopilot,” he said, chuckling because he knew my concerns about his ability to remain on course.
“Well, I figured I’d have to recalculate our course,” I replied, yawning and stretching. “Especially since it’s still dark.”
“If necessary I can navigate by the stars,” he replied straight-faced, which was an interesting statement considering it was impossible to determine which way was north on our map.
As has been previously related, the maps we had were considerably inaccurate most of the time, and once again, after not finding what should have been apparent, we elected to find the nearest town and ask for directions, hoping we were at least within an hour of the sought-for bridge.
A middle-aged man sat in his front yard in a lawn chair, and a well-mixed dog rested peacefully at his feet, so we elected him to be our direction-giver due to the lack of any other individual within view.
“Morning,” the man greeted us. “You strangers passing through?” The dog remained silent.
“Yeah,” said George, “we’re looking for Darr Creek covered bridge. You know where it is?”
The man spat on the ground near the dog, which did not move.
“You’re in the wrong part of the county, boys,” he said. “That bridge is about twenty miles southwest of here, along county road 575 south. It’ll take some figuring to get you there from here. No easy was to get there. I said twenty miles, but you may have to drive thirty or more to hook up with the right roads.”
We groaned and shook our heads.
“That’s a mighty fine bridge, though,” the man continued. “Why did you want to go there?”
“We take pictures of covered bridges,” I said, “and heard about that bridge. It’s supposed to be really pretty, we heard.”
“That it is. That it is,” the man concurred. “Name’s Dixon. Glad to meet you. Too bad, you shouldn’t go today.”
“What’s the matter?” asked George. “Is is closed off or being repaired? It hasn’t burned down, has it?” he said, recalling our recent outing at Carver’s Mill.
“No, nothing like that. The bridge is fine and still as lovely a place as ever. Just kind of stuck out in the middle of nowhere, though. When they built it, they put a lot of money into it for no reason. Probably aren’t five cars go over it a day. That’s because nobody lives out there, just a half dozen or so families. Really strange they’d build a nice bridge like that for a few people. People always said that the Monroe family paid for it. They’ve lived out there for a hundred and fifty years, and they’re the richest people in the county. Guess they didn’t want to drive their buggies or cars over a rinky-dink little bridge.”
He paused and George looked at the dog.
“Then why shouldn’t we go out there today?” I asked, hoping this time for a direct answer.
“Well, it’s like this,” Dixon continued, as I wondered whether Dixon was his surname or Christian name. “The weather’s not going to cooperate with you today. You’ll be taking pictures from inside your car to stay out of the monsoon.”
George looked at a partly cloudy sky. “It doesn’t look threatening,” he said. “In fact, this type of weather is ideal for picture taking.”
Dixon bent over and scratched the dog’s head. The dog turned inquiring eyes to him but remained in the same position.
“No, it’ll be coming down in buckets before you get there,” he said. “You haven’t got much time before the heavens open up.”
We could not disguise our unbelief. I peered into the sky and shook my head.
“You don’t see anybody outside this morning, do you?” Dixon took it up again. “That’s because they know a big storm’s coming. If I was you, I’d find me a nice place to ride it out. You’re welcome to come inside my house until it’s over if you want. I’ll be going in shortly myself.”
George laughed, but I studied the man.
“The weather service have a bunch of equipment out here?” George asked.
“No,” the man smiled, exposing big teeth. It looked like he may have had 40 or 50 of them in the confines of his mouth. “Got something better. Alfred tells us what kind of weather we’re going to have, and he’s not been wrong in fourteen years.” He bent over again and scratched the dog’s head. “This here’s Alfred.” He snapped his fingers and the dog immediately went into a sitting position.
“That’s pretty good,” I said. “How does he tell the weather?”
Alfred looked at me not unpleasantly, then he looked at the man, barking once.
“There, there, boy. They’re just curious. Guess you’ll have to show them.”
Then looking at us he said, “Alfred and I been telling people the weather, like I said, for a long time. I think he’s been able to do it all his life, but it took me awhile to figure out what he was trying to tell me. Once I ask him to tell me the weather, he sniffs the air, turns his face into the wind, and does some other things. Then he gives me the signs.”
“Signs?” said George. “What do you mean signs?”
“Signs,” replied the man. “Kind of like a baseball coach gives batters or base runners signs. Alfred has signs and that’s how he tells me. For example, after he does his thing, if he lays flat on the ground and puts his front paws over his head, there’s going to be a thunderstorm. If he runs under the front porch and does the same thing, there’s going to be a whole lot of rain and a whole lot of lightning with it. If he just sits there and looks around at things, it’s going to be a nice day to be outdoors. If he curls up around my feet, it’s going to be really cold. If he goes inside the house, snow’s on the way. He can even tell if there’s going to be frost or fog, hail or strong wind.”
George and I made some sounds, attempting to stifle a belly laugh and not insulting the man.
“Don’t you worry about thinking I’m crazy,” said the man. “The people around here they thought so too for a couple months before realizing Alfred’s amazing ability. Now everybody stops by in the morning to find out what the day’s going to be like. You want a demonstration? He can do it anytime. Just remember what I’ve already said. There’s going to be a pretty good storm today.”
“All right,” said George. “I think I’d like to see him predict the weather. This is interesting.”
Dixon addressed Alfred, told him he was a good dog, and explained in English that he was going to have to tell him the weather again. The dog remained impassive, waiting for a command.
“All right, Alfred, what’s the weather? What’s the weather?”
The dog sniffed the air a few times, emitting a low growl, which produced a quizzical look on the man’s face. Then he turned on an axis slightly to his left, directly facing the wind, emitting another low growl. After this he turned 180 degrees and stood, tail in the air and sniffed again. Finally he turned his head to the left at a right angle.
“All right, boy. Tell me,” said the man.
The dog barked five or six times. Then he dug a small hole with his front paws and put the muzzle of his nose in it. The man grunted, “This isn’t good.” Suddenly the dog whirled around, his rear end facing the wind, and took off running as fast as his legs would carry him for a hundred feet or so. He then turned abruptly to his right and ran another hundred feet. Then he stopped for maybe three seconds and ran to the street and down it to the right, barking the entire time.
“The school!” the man yelled. “The kids are in danger! Help everybody!” he yelled at the top of his lungs as suddenly the wind picked up. “A tornado’s coming!” he yelled and heads popped out of houses. “A tornado’s coming!” he yelled again, “and it’s heading right for the school. Quick! Let’s get the kids out of there before it’s too late!”
The rain commenced, falling from a horribly black sky, which seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. It came down in huge drops, and then started falling at a slant as strong winds propelled it.
People frantically ran or drove down the street, going towards the school, we assumed. George and I jumped in the car and followed those in cars, stopping twice to pick up people on foot.
When we arrived at the school, Alfred was barking madly at the door. As people from the town arrived, they ran inside the building and brought crying children outdoors.
“Where do we go?” inquired someone to Alfred’s owner.
“Go southwest,” he pointed in the direction of a community building a number of blocks away. “Alfred says it’s coming from the northwest and going southeast. Take them that way. It’s the safest place.”
The citizens took the students to the place the man indicated. Everyone sat with their hands over their heads as we heard the storm rolling through, with the typical freight train sound. The wind diminished a few minutes later and people ventured outdoors, though it was still raining.
“Look! Over there at the school!” exclaimed a woman.
“I don’t believe it!” said another. “Flattened.”
“The kids would’ve been…would’ve been…” sobbed another woman, unable to complete her sentence.
Dixon called for his dog, but was distraught when he could not find him.
“I saw the dog standing at the school door like a sentry,” said a neighbor.
“He wasn’t going to leave until everyone was out,” said Dixon, and then he broke into tears.
However, those tears dried quickly as we heard barking from a couple of blocks farther southwest of us. Alfred came running in, straight to Dixon, who hugged him with all his might.
The story became a sensation and was picked up by several news agencies. Alfred and the man had their pictures in local and regional papers and magazines, and a feature story appeared on a television newscast.
George and I did not get to take a picture of the covered bridge that day. We saved it for another trip later in the year. When we returned later that summer, we were pleased to find that the citizens had erected a small monument to Alfred right in the middle of the main intersection of downtown. We visited Dixon again, and Alfred, who seemed to remember us, wagging his tail as we approached, and then he came and stood next to us, nudging his head underneath our hand until we petted him. The man assured us Alfred still predicted—completely accurately—every day’s weather for the town, and no one ever doubted him.
Story Number Four
The Tragedy of Carver’s Mill
One of our photographic expeditions of covered bridges George determined that he wanted to visit a bridge named Carver’s Mill Covered Bridge, located approximately two hours from my house when traveling the speed limit and an hour and a quarter when George drove. He was keen on seeing this bridge because an arsonist—likely a teenager—destroyed it approximately 10 years previously but had been rebuilt a few years later. According to reports, George had heard the bridge was in all aspects identical to the original structure.
The amateur cartographer who had hand drawn the map to Carver’s Mill Covered Bridge gave little attention to details. The bridge lay in an isolated rural area on a county road. Very few landmarks, such as road numbers or other intersecting or parallel roads, or even towns appeared on the map, so we could not find its location. Instead, we pulled into what we believed to be the nearest town of some size, at least compared to many others we stopped at for gasoline or to take a restroom break. A road sign informed us that we were in actuality entering Carver’s Mill, so our conclusion naturally was the covered bridge was in the immediate vicinity. The town had a square in its center, and George rolled up into one of the angled parking spots around the courthouse and we sought the aid of a local to give us directions to the bridge.
A haggard woman I hypothesized had lived about 60 years sat on a bench, and she continuously dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. She possessed disheveled stringy, gray hair, her clothes were worn and dirty, an unpleasant odor reeked from her being, and every once in awhile she would hit herself squarely on the forehead with her balled up right hand while mumbling, “Why did he go? Why did he go?”
We also saw a group of people gathered on one side of the courthouse, some seated in chairs and others standing. Most of the ones standing wore uniforms of some sort, but we could not discern what type of uniforms they were.
“Looks like a wedding,” said George.
The old woman immediately looked at him and said, “Evil, that’s what he is. He shouldn’t be marrying her if he doesn’t love her, and he doesn’t!”
“Pardon me?” said George.
“She’ll find out soon enough. He don’t love her, don’t love her at all. He loves another…”
George and I made a quick departure from her and looked for assistance from other quarters, which we found maybe 30 feet away in a professional-looking woman, smartly dressed and coiffed and emitting a much more pleasant aroma.
“Could you give us some help?” I asked.
She replied pleasantly, “Certainly, if I can. How could I help you?”
“We’re looking for the Carver’s Mill covered bridge and this old map we’re using is not very good. We haven’t been able to find it.”
“Oh, you must’ve gotten hold of the one drawn by Morgan Delaney back in the 1940s. If you go to our library there’s a much better map there, but I can easily direct you. Which direction did you come from?”
George explained our route, which he mostly got correct.
“So you came in over there?” she pointed to the road that we had traveled. We nodded and she continued, “Then all you have to do is follow the same road out of the other side of the square,” and she pointed in the appropriate direction.
We introduced ourselves more formally and explained the purpose of our expedition. Her name was Janice, she was a lawyer who spent most of her days in the courthouse, and she was polite in her apparent interest, but it was not likely she cared, other than from the standpoint of being friendly.
“It’s a good place to photograph. There’s lot of different perspectives to take a picture from,” she replied. “It’s a pretty bridge.”
Before we returned to the vehicle I said, “Somebody having a wedding over there?”
“Of course you wouldn’t know about that, you’re not from around here,” Janice replied. “I don’t suppose you’ve even heard about the wedding.”
“And what about that old woman sitting on the bench?” interrupted George.
“Her? She’s not an old woman, believe it or not. Barely 30, if that.”
“Must’ve had a rough life,” I said.
“Sure has. Now about the wedding—“
Just at that minute the fire siren sounded with its moaning wail. A couple of seconds later somebody pulled up to the parking area, screeching the car’s tires. As he exited the car he yelled, “The bridge is on fire! The bridge is on fire! Come on everybody, the bridge is on fire!”
The woman who was about 30 years old but looked twice that age lifted her head and began bawling vehemently, yammering something unintelligible.
The wedding broke up and men and women ran past us. Then we saw that their uniforms were those of fire fighters. Most of them ran to the fire station, which was only a couple hundred feet from where we stood.
“The bridge?” said George? “The bridge is on fire? Again?”
“Hold on!” said Janice. “You don’t need to go there—“
We did not hear anything else she said, for we were rolling in a few seconds. A fire truck and a couple of other vehicles with flashing lights forced us to pull over to the side, delaying our departure, and it quickly drove out into the countryside. In spite of George’s lead foot, we lost the fire engine.
When we arrived at the covered bridge no one was there—no people, no fire trucks, no police, nothing, just the bridge, and it was not on fire.
“Do you suppose there another covered bridge around here?” I asked.
“Not that I’ve heard about,” answered George.
“What other kind of bridge could’ve burned?”
“They came this way. I’m going to drive farther. We’ll have to come to them eventually.”
No other bridge of substantial size appeared before us, nor did we find any on fire. George drove for a few miles, and then bewildered we headed back to town.
The young woman who looked old had vanished and there was no indication that a wedding had been in progress when interrupted by a fire alarm. The courthouse lawn looked completely undisturbed. There were no chairs, no arch, and no trampled grass.
Janice emerged from the courthouse and walked to us.
“You didn’t find anything, did you?” she asked.
“No,” said George. “How’d you know that?”
She sat on a bench and asked, “You have time for a story?”
We nodded and sat down as well on an adjacent bench to listen.
“It was ten years ago—ten years today, in fact—that the woman you saw earlier experienced one of the worst tragedies in the town’s history. Her name is Lauren Ralston, and as I told you earlier, she is only 30 years old at the most. She was either 19 or 20 when it happened.
“This very day ten years ago Lauren was getting married to her high school sweetheart, a young man named Eric Feeley right over there on the courthouse lawn,” she pointed to where we had witnessed the wedding earlier. “Lauren was quite immature and possessive of Eric. She didn’t want him going anywhere or doing anything without her. He was a fire fighter, which was something she didn’t like because it took him away at times.
“Lauren was not prepared for marriage in any way. She frequently accused Eric of being unfaithful and demanding that he make a choice between her and being a fire fighter. Eric tried to downplay it, but everyone knew it bothered him because her possessiveness was trying to take him away from something important to him. She felt jealous of fire fighting, plain and simple. There was never any other girl Eric was interested in, but Lauren’s jealousy gave him no end of grief.
“She finally talked him into getting married, and like I said, today is the anniversary of their intended wedding. They were right in the middle of the ceremony when the fire alarm went off, Bill Peters came rushing over to the courthouse in his car and yelled at everyone that the bridge was on fire.”
George and I looked at each other quizzically.
“Just hang on,” said Janice. “Hear the rest of the story.
“All the fire fighters made an instant decision—they were going to save the bridge, which is our most notable landmark. People come from many states just to take pictures of it. We usually have fireworks in the little park in the field across the road from the bridge on the Fourth of July and town picnics on Memorial Day and Labor Day. It’s always been like our most sacred place for the town.
“Standing up there, ready to get married, Eric had a decision to make. He looked at Lauren and said, ‘I’ll be back shortly and we’ll finish.’ He never came back alive, though. While fighting the fire the floor of the bridge gave way and Eric plunged 70 feet down into the shallow water. The fall probably killed him outright, but if not, a big portion of that end of the bridge landed on top of him.
“Lauren was devastated and has lost her mind. You see what she looks like today, and just ten years ago she was a beautiful young girl.”
“I thought she was 60 years old,” I said.
“She looks that old,” she said, “that’s for sure. No one ever sees her except for this one day every year, when she comes and sits on a bench while the wedding’s going on behind her. She cries about Eric and is still mad at him for choosing fighting the fire over marrying her.”
“You mean someone schedules a wedding every year on this day?” said George. “Do you have a re-enactment? Isn’t that kind of cruel for Lauren?”
“Uh, George, I don’t believe what we saw were real people,” I said.
“Shadows,” said Janice. “Just shadows of what happened ten years ago. The first couple of years everybody was kind of frightened and upset when they saw them. Now, we just let them get on with their business. They don’t bother us, we don’t bother them. Some people say they’re nothing more than concoctions from Lauren’s mind, but somehow we can see them. I personally have never believed in ghosts, and I don’t really have any other explanation for them, so I just call them shadows. We think they’ll go away when Lauren dies. Until then we see them once a year.”
“What do you think?” asked George on our trip home.
“I think it’s something I can’t explain,” I replied. “Strange, just strange. Shadows, she said. I guess I’ll go with that, too. We thought we saw something, but they were just shadows, our eyes playing tricks on us.”
Story Number Three
Stump Bottom Community Church’s Best Day
One Saturday morning George and I departed from my driveway with unrivaled expectation in our search for quality covered bridges. One existed within a half day’s drive that could not be matched for size in the entire state, with the bridge spanning a river at a distance of more than 400 feet. Most of the covered bridges we tracked down and photographed had lengths somewhere in the 100 to 150 feet range.
The town closest to this bridge was quite small, and we estimated the population to be somewhere near 500. As we approached the town we viewed what appeared to be the remains of another town, long vanished, with only some foundation stones or concrete slabs remaining. The town itself, called Stump Bottom, perched on a hill, high above the river. The old town rested in a flood plain, with evidence that recent floods had inundated many places.
A recent coat of red paint graced the gargantuan bridge, which was in immaculate condition, in spite of the fact that it had been bypassed and a new two-lane concrete structure had taken its place at some point. People were in the bridge when we arrived, and it appeared as if some event was going to transpire, which piqued our curiosity.
George parked the car per our custom, and we sought some of the local plebeians in order to strike up a conversation and acquire some teaching concerning the location’s unique lore. A woman exited from the bridge, apparently giving orders to drones inside.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” interjected George as she approached us. “We’re curious. What’s going on in there?”
The woman wore her hair up on her head, but strands hung down all around her, giving her an unkempt appearance. She was extremely busy, either by the nature of her work or because she wanted to appear busy.
“Yes, yes?” she answered impatiently. “What do you want?”
“We want to find out what’s happening inside the bridge,” said George.
“Oh, yes, the bridge. You’re not from around here, are you? No of course not, because you’d know what’s going on. Since you asked, we’re preparing for our annual Flood Celebration later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go. There’s still so much to do.”
She sallied forth to a building across the street, giving orders to everyone she met along the way.
“Looks like Medusa’s in charge of this Flood Celebration,” I said. “I wonder what a Flood Celebration is?”
George shook his head, then replied, “Maybe they’re descendants of the Egyptians and worship the flood, like the Egyptians did with the Nile. You know, that flooding gave them all that fertile soil so they could produce an abundance of food.”
“I don’t really think that’s it,” I said chuckling.
An ancient man with a stubbly, white growth of whiskers, wearing a broad brimmed hat, and a blue-striped shirt with checked pants, sat on one of the large stones that comprised the approach to the bridge. He worked his gums as he looked around at the workers, but never said anything.
“If he can talk, I’ll bet that’s the one we want to talk to,” said George, and we ambled our way in his direction, having to stop twice to avoid collisions with people carrying armfuls of fold up chairs.
“Hello,” I said, hoping he heard me. When he turned clear eyes in my direction, I repeated with some volume, “Hello.”
“Howdy, young fella. Escoe Pheeters’s the name,” he replied. “Don’t worry, fellas, I can hear just fine. You don’t need to talk loud.”
After George inquired as to the nature of the Flood Celebration, Escoe Pheeters adopted the look of a schoolboy, and we knew it was a topic he would relish relating, so he obligingly commenced unraveling the tale of the Flood Celebration.
“The year was 1933. Back then the town was down there,” he pointed to the abandoned site we had passed through earlier. “Nobody lived up there at all,” he twisted his arm towards the top of the hill. “Every year we flooded down there. You see how little of a bank there is with the river? It could rain for half an hour and people’s yards would be underwater. Don’t know why everybody was so ignorant as to build the town down there.
“But I suppose when Stump Bottom was settled people built their dwellings right along the river out of necessity, close to a water source and all. But by 1933 people should’ve known better. It flooded every blessed year. People never seemed to learn I guess. They just kept repairing their homes after each year’s damage.”
At this moment Gorgon Hair dropped down in a whirlwind from the other side of the street and interrupted us and spoke to Pheeters. “Escoe, you remember what you’re supposed to say tonight, don’t you? Do you need me to give you a script?”
“Mercy, Wanda,” he upbraided her. “I’m 86 years old and I’ve said the same thing for the last 79 years. You think I’m going to forget it this year just because you’re in charge of the thing? You young people think us old-timers are just plain stupid. I’d made my speech nearly 35 years before you were even born. Run along, of course I know what I’m going to say.”
Chastised, the woman we now knew bore the appellation Wanda, scurried inside the covered bridge and found some different underlings to issue orders to.
“She’s a sweet girl, she really is,” said Pheeters with a twinkle in his eye. “I asked her grandmother to marry me but she refused. She’s taken too much on herself with this here festival, that’s all.
“Now, back to what I was telling you. People around here didn’t have no more sense than to keep living down along the river, even knowing that one day a big flood was going to break all their hearts and probably take a few lives. And that’s exactly what happened and why the whole town moved up the hill.
“Sunday morning, March 5, 1933, was when it all happened. Nearly everyone was in church—church then was called Stump Bottom Community Church, called Covered Bridge Community Church now. I was there with my ma and my pa, my five brothers and two sisters. I was the youngest, just six years old at the time. Hated going to church mostly, but liked it when they had picnics and such.
“The church had this preacher then by the name of Noah Hammonds, and he was the best hell, fire, and brimstone preacher ever walked the face of this earth, and that’s a fact. It had been raining for five straight days, coming down in buckets, so to speak, and people’s yards were already small ponds. The preacher was real agitated this day and was working up one of his best sermons ever. He weren’t fifteen minutes into it when Earl Babcock—he was in charge of the town’s water and was in town hall this day keeping an eye on things—he come barging in through the church doors and told everybody to run for their lives because a flash flood was heading our way.
“Panic set in naturally. People didn’t know where to go, and so a lot of them headed for the covered bridge. Don’t know why, they just did. I guess because the bridge had withstood everything nature could throw at it over the years. Many went inside, but others ran to their homes.
“Somebody looked out one end of the bridge and yelled, ‘There’s a wall of water coming down!’ Sure enough, it came through, plumb up to the bottom of the bridge. Everybody was crying and screaming and yelling they were going to die.
“Somehow I climbed up into a window to look at the water, and I slipped and fell out. My dad caught hold of my suspenders and held on for dear life. I was mostly in the water and fighting like anything to get back in, yelling and crying and screaming.
“The preacher, he got a bright idea right then. He ran over to the window and asked me if I’d like to be baptized, if I’d like to be guaranteed of going to Heaven because it looked like I was going to perish. I really couldn’t hear him, but I said yes, and he directed my dad to dip me down in the river, then pull me straight back out.
“The raging river continued at that height for over two hours and kept us all in doubt concerning life and death, and the preacher got all worked up and held a regular revival meeting. He told the people the story of Noah and the flood, and how only Noah and those with him in the Ark survived. He said it appeared that the bridge would likely give way at any moment, but he himself was confident, as Noah in the Old Testament was, that he had found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
“The preacher hammered away at the captive congregation, telling them they could have security too, if they would only get baptized and be assured of their eternal place. That day everyone in the bridge got baptized, even if they’d been before. People didn’t want to die, but they felt a peace if the bridge got washed away and them with it. There was an old fashioned gospel hootenanny after the water subsided and everyone knew they were going to live.”
George interrupted and a somewhat skeptical look flashed across his face. “That’s amazing. Obviously your dad pulled you back in, but how long did you have to stay out there, and how did the preacher safely baptize everyone?”
Pheeters looked him squarely in the eye. “Don’t you doubt me, young man. Everything I said is the truth. But to answer your questions, Dad couldn’t pull me in for over an hour. He was afraid my suspenders were going to break, so he didn’t put much pressure on them by pulling me. Eventually he got a grip on my pants and pulled me back in. Haven’t been in the water since. Never even gone swimming. Don’t even take baths, just wash myself up real nice.
“Now about him baptizing everybody, someone—I think it was Harvey Nightsong—had a strong rope in the back of his truck, which he had pulled into the bridge. They got it out and tied people on, one by one, and dunked them in the river. They had six men holding the rope so no one would fall in and perish, and of course they anchored the other end to the truck bumper. It was the best day that Stump Bottom Community Church has ever experienced. Most of the people who got religion that day have stuck it out, too. Most of the people are now dead, but they faithfully went to church every Sunday after that day.”
“So the town—?” I said.
“Washed clean away. All that went to their houses died,” Pheeters replied. “Twenty-seven souls lost their lives that day, but not a one who went to the bridge.
“And that’s why we’ve held what we call the Flood Celebration every year. We’re remembering those who died, but also remembering the work this bridge did in saving our lives. Two iron bridges washed completely away a little down the river, and a third was so damaged they had to tear it down and build a new one. But these covered bridges were built to last.”
George and I each looked into the bridge. It was long and dark, but men were stringing lights inside. Chairs were being set up and what was obviously a church-like service was going to transpire later.
“The town moved up the hill where it should’ve been all along,” said Pheeters. “Pity people couldn’t see it sooner and it took a disaster to open everyone’s eyes. You guys staying around for the memorial service?”
George and I looked at each and shrugged our shoulders.
“Sure,” I said.
“Yep,” said Pheeters. “This bridge has served us mighty well. Probably isn’t a boy around here who hasn’t had his girlfriend in a car parked in this bridge. State bypassed it about 10 years ago. We protested but it weren’t any use. We keep it up to remember how it saved us.”
The service was simple but effective. Wanda flitted about the entire time and could not have heard five words. Escoe Pheeters repeated his lines for the 79th straight year and never missed a syllable. There were few dry eyes in the crowd. George and I determined we would return to this place next year.
Story Number Two
One weekend George and I decided to visit a county in which two covered bridges resided and which were somewhat remote, not only from each other but from nearly the rest of civilization. As usual he sat behind the wheel and I served as navigator, a position George woefully needed. He had obtained maps from the local library to the covered bridges still remaining in the state, but these maps had been drawn by hand as many as 50 years ago, and in no way were they drawn to scale. At some location on a map an inch may have represented a mile, while on the same map but in a different location that same measurement might represent five miles or possibly 500 feet. Fortunately I navigate well by landmarks—there were some on the maps—and numbers of roads. George’s navigational skills were not nearly as acute as my own, and occasionally we had small disagreements about which roads to take and where to turn, most of the time of which I was correct.
We traveled for a little over an hour and a half before we got within shouting distance of the first destination. George had driven there alone previously and he was somewhat bewildered by my crystal clear driving directions, for he revealed that he had come in a more circuitous way on his solo excursion. I, on the other hand, prefer main travel arteries for as long as possible. He confessed that he had taken considerably longer to get this close to the bridge.
Before arriving at this particular bridge, we had to pass through a small village of old houses along a river. Also at the river was an old dam, still structurally sound itself, but the things around it, like a walkway that extended nearly halfway across the spillway and 15 feet over the top portion of the dam, and a couple of buildings and some equipment no longer in use, were rusted and ancient. We had to take a sharp curve and go up a small, steep hill before we could park at the dam area.
Upon cresting the hill George pointed to a dilapidated building to our right. It was still in use, for there was an operating soft drink machine in front, cars parked in its gravel lot, and people were coming out a screen door. George laughed loudly and said, “Did you read the sign?”
I read it. “Big Don’s Bait and Pizza. I know it’s near lunch time, but I’ll pass on that.”
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Not in the mood for a mealworm pizza?”
“I think I’ll just capture some grasshoppers or a couple of cicadas when we stop. Maybe I’ll catch a fish with my bare hands. That’ll tide me over until we get to a restaurant.”
Also on the other side of the hill was a long line of automobiles parked along the road as far as we could see, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking around, while hundreds more were fishing in the river, both above and below the dam. Some adventurous fishers stood on the walkway that extended over the dam and cast into the water below the dam, 30 to 40 feet below the walkway.
“What’s going on?” said George. “I’ve been here before and at the most I’ve seen just three or four people.”
“Kind of looks like a fair or celebration or something,” I replied. “I only see a couple of vendors, though, selling food and drinks. No crafts or anything like that.”
George parked the car far down the road and we determined to ascertain the cause of the excitement. There were many people along the riverbank, a good portion of them fishing, but some milling around in a party-like atmosphere. George has an innate sense of finding the best person from which to garner information, and he headed towards the bank after eyeing three men in a small boat getting ready to come ashore. On our way there a small, malnourished dog attached itself to us, running around us excitedly and yapping.
“What’s going on around here?” George asked the front man in the boat, who was wearing a hunting vest over the top of a blue flannel shirt, a fluorescent orange cap, hip boots, and was placing a container on the ground, apparently full of fish.
“Hey, where’d you get that dog?” the man answered. “We got here a week ago and that mutt was wandering around, begging for food. We fed him a couple of times, against my advice, but Red—he’s the one wearing the red shirt—threw him some bread and lunch meat.” He pointed at a man in the rear of the boat wearing a red flannel shirt, so we made the assumption he must be Red. “We think Red thought the dog was his nephew Orrin. Thought we’d never get rid of him, but for some reason the dog ran away the next day and we haven’t seen it since. He was nothing but skin and bones, somebody had probably dumped it here at the river. We figure he’d been starved out and that’s why he hadn’t come back, because everybody else just chased him away.”
Red staggered from the rear of the boat and stumbled onto the bank, revealing a solid bed of beer cans in the boat’s bottom. His red eyes rolled around as he looked for something stable to secure himself to the earth. “Where’s my pole?” he asked, but he had left it hanging over the side of the boat.
“You been fishing all night?” I inquired of Blue, making the assumption that their names matched the color of their shirts.
“Yeah, well kind of,” he replied. “At least me and Pete been fishing. Red doesn’t do anything but drink beer, and the cheaper the beer the more he guzzles. Don’t believe he’s drawn a sober breath for a couple of decades, maybe more. He was a drunk before we graduated high school, plain drunk at our graduation, but the school didn’t say nothing—they was just glad to get him out of there.”
“Does Red ever catch anything?” inquired George.
Blue chuckled and threw the rest of equipment to shore. “He caught a fish once down at Kramer’s Lake—you ever been there?” We shook our heads negatively. “Well, Red was powerful drunk, and we’d only been out a couple of hours. But then he hauls in a huge catfish and can’t believe his eyes. He really weren’t fishing, he’d just cast out and laid his pole on the edge of the boat. That fish bit and Red didn’t even know what to do. We had to help him bring it in. He was so excited, he went on and on. Didn’t know how to take it off the hook, so we pretended like we took it off for him and put it back in the water. Naturally Red thinks he’s caught another one, so we helped him bring it in again. We kept that up for nearly an hour and told him at the end that he’d caught about 30 fish.”
“You telling the boys about me catching all those catfish?” Red accidentally ran into consciousness.
“That’s right, Red,” answered his friend. “Best catfishing we’ve ever done.”
“I was better than all you that night,” Red replied. “Better than all you ever been. Nobody’s caught that many fish at one time.” Then looking at us he said, “That your dog? There’s been a dog running around here that looks just like your dog. You got any beer in your car? We seem to be all out.”
George assured him we were fresh out of beer, so Red lay down on the muddy bank and fell asleep.
“Why are there so many people here?” I asked. “Some type of festival going on? Fishing contest?”
“Well, you might call it a fishing contest of sorts,” replied Blue. “I reckon that people are mostly here to go to the funeral.”
“Some local fisherman die?” asked George.
“No, not yet, but he’ll be dying either today or tomorrow.”
“Bad sick? Cancer?” I asked.
“No, nothing like that. Seems fit as a fiddle. Doctor says he’s in tip-top shape and could live another 25 or 30 years. But he’s going to die as sure as Red is asleep down there.”
George and I looked at each other with puzzlement. “I don’t understand,” said George. “How do you know he’s going to die? Can we see him? What’s his name?”
“Name’s Ed Harbin. He’s around here somewhere—there he is, over by that tallest oak over there, dressed real nice, getting ready to be planted. I’ll take you to him. He can explain better than I can. After all, it affects him the most.”
We followed Blue, and he introduced us to Ed Harbin, an honest-looking man of about 50 to 55 years, slightly graying hair, wearing what was undoubtedly his Sunday best. He was jovial despite his impending demise and gladly shook our hands. George told him of our curiosity concerning his situation and he wholeheartedly told us his story.
“A number of years back—I don’t remember how many—a man by the name of Virgil Pressman went fishing right below the dam over there with a couple of his buddies. He reeled in this huge bass that was all tore up around the mouth. They figured he must’ve been caught numerous times and that’s what caused the damage around its mouth, so they named it Old Snagglemouth. Virgil up and decides he’s not going to throw Old Snagglemouth back into the river, but throws him in his container and keeps him alive. He was planning on cleaning and cooking him that night for dinner.
“Wouldn’t you know it, though, Virgil ups and dies of a heart attack before he got home. His buddies came to the conclusion that it was in retribution for deciding to keep Old Snagglemouth, so they quick as they can take the fish back down to the river and put him back in.
“Since that time Old Snagglemouth has showed up at this spot for one week a year—the week of Virgil’s death. Every year somebody has caught him. The second year he was caught by a man named Bob Dudley, and Bob decides he’s going to keep him as well, but wouldn’t you know it, Bob dies right on the spot and the fish went free.
“People began putting two and two together and came to the conclusion that that fish is some type of devil fish, and a curse of death goes with it. Every year since Virgil caught Snagglemouth the person who has caught him has died within a year—some of them natural-like, other’s violently, like in a car wreck.
“So we began having a fishing contest for that one week and challenged people to participate. Something about the danger attracted people—kind of like playing Russian Roulette, so to speak. People wanted to fish for Snagglemouth, hoping they’d not be the one who caught him. As it happened, I caught him last year, and since that time I’ve been waiting for my death. It will be exactly a year in two days, so I’m looking at passing on either today or tomorrow. I’ve been praying it will be quick and painless.”
He paused long enough for me to interject, “OK, let me see if I’ve got this right. You caught a fish and you’re going to die, you believe, in the next two days because there’s some type of superstition connected with catching the fish?”
“No superstition in it,” said Ed. “It’s a fact. Everybody who’s caught Snagglemouth since Virgil has died within a year, most of them almost immediately. I’ve made it longer than anybody. I’ve had a wonderful year, doing a lot of things I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never took the time.”
“Kind of like a bucket list?” asked George.
“Bucket list? What’s that?” said Ed. “Don’t know what a bucket list is. Simply done everything I’ve desired to do for years like visit the state capital, play in an all-night poker game, got married—“
“Got married?” I asked, smiling. “You never been married before now?”
“No, never took the time, too busy working. Up and asked Sally Leiter. Always had a crush on her but never let her know. She said yes, and we’ve had a great year. She knew it was going to be a short marriage, so I appreciated her saying yes. Wasn’t looking for love, only looking for someone to share my final days with.”
“So all this?” said George, pointing to the crowd.
“It’s about me, and the fishing contest. I don’t expect anybody will catch Snagglemouth until I die, but these people sure are having a good time. Started charging a hundred dollars apiece to enter the contest, and whoever catches Snagglemouth gets all the money so he can enjoy his remaining days on Earth. Last I heard we have over 250 people paid up this year, so the winner’s going to get at least twenty-five thousand dollars to spend however he likes.”
We stayed and talked to Ed for about 20 minutes longer, but he kept getting interrupted by people shaking his hand and wanting to wish him a fond farewell, so we went back to the car and proceeded to the covered bridge to take our shots.
After sundown we drove through the town again and there was no longer any crowd. Everyone had seemingly packed up and left. We stopped at the Bait and Pizza place to inquire where everyone had gone, and were greeted at the door by Blue, who had been profusely crying.
“What’s the matter?” George asked. “Did Ed die?”
“Yes,” replied Blue, “about two hours ago. They had a big fish dinner planned for him because fish is—er, was—his favorite food. Larry Martin caught a mess of catfish, cleaned them and gave them to his wife Sharon to cook up. She’s a mighty fine cook, but it didn’t work out too well tonight. After taking a couple of bites, Ed puts both hands around his throat and can’t speak. Appears like he got a fish bone lodged in his throat, along with some bread and other stuff he was eating at the time. Nobody could help him and he choked to death.”
“The curse continues,” said George.
“Never any doubt about that,” replied Blue. “Ed had a strange, peaceful look on his face right before he passed on.”
“That’s real sad,” I said. “He seemed like a nice man.”
“He was, he was. Salt of the earth. They don’t come any better than Ed.”
“So where is everybody?” asked George. “No one staying around for his funeral?”
“No, no one was planning to do that. They only wanted to see him these last couple of days and wish him well. But there’s no reason to stay around any longer, and that’s the main reason I’m upset.”
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Blue looked over to the riverbank where his boat remained.
“Red’s still sleeping in the mud,” he began, “but he’s been dealt a bad hand. He won’t be conscious for some time, possibly not until morning, but when he wakes up I’m going to have to tell him that he caught Old Snagglemouth. The old rascal bit on Red’s line that was hanging over the boat. Weren’t even any bait on it, live or artificial. We don’t allow him actually to fish, just goes around and puts a hook in the water so we don’t have to mess with it while he’s drinking. As soon as everybody heard about it they cut out. The contest ended when Red caught him. I’m hoping maybe he’ll die in his sleep tonight so he never finds out.”
George and I departed, saddened and confused. He sheepishly approached the subject of us entering the contest next year but let it drop when I refused to respond.
Story Number One
Sawyer “Spin Cycle” Chesterton
My brother George and I spent the greater part of three years traveling across our great state in search of covered bridges. The incipient purpose of these expeditions resulted from George’s latest—and as it turned out, for the remainder of his life—hobby, which was photography. He invested much time and a considerable amount of his disposable income perfecting his skills, which, after much practice, turned out to be significant. George photographed still images, such as people, undisturbed nature, architecture, and generally anything immovable, eventually venturing into weddings, along with action shots, particularly sporting events. As I said, his skills became sharply honed, and family and friends developed a sincere appreciation for his work.
Never content to undertake anything alone, George persuaded me to accompany him on some of his photographic safaris. I became his companion in his quest to record first on film and later on digital media, every remaining covered bridge in our state, which at that time approached 100. Most of these 19th-century conveyance marvels were painted red, but a few of them were white-colored. The majority of them were still capable of carrying vehicular traffic, and they consisted of varying lengths, from about 60 feet to over 400 feet.
During our journeys we mostly discovered the better natures of our fellow citizens, along with some unique characters that appeared to have been formed without the benefit of a mold, which obviously could not have been broken.
Nature gives most people their defining traits in physical, mental, and emotional form, and these traits usually last with us throughout our lives. Other characteristics come from artificial sources, however, such as when a person is injured in an automobile accident and walks with limp thereafter, or if an individual suffers a burn in a visible area and redefines features or perhaps someone might lose a finger or a hand through an industrial or agricultural accident. The story that follows portrays how a person is defined by the second method.
George and I had been traveling for nearly three hours, stopping once for breakfast and to fill the car up with gasoline, and along the way stopping and taking photos of two well-preserved covered bridges. Our objective for the day, though, still lay at least half an hour to the northwest, located in most of the more rural areas of the state. Three hours is a long time for men our age to be confined in a vehicle without any restroom stops, so we pulled into a quaint hamlet that housed possibly 200 inhabitants, but probably fewer. Downtown, such as it was, consisted of a service station, a small restaurant, and a couple of small establishments that I presumed were the post office and possibly a barber. In front of the gas station sat a bench containing three adequately-sized men in overalls, two of whom had toothpicks protruding from their mouths. The third man sat unusually upright and was not a participant in any verbal exchanges with the other two, who talked non-stop.
After answering nature’s call and purchasing necessary snacks to tide us over until lunch, which would occur an undetermined time later, we strolled outside the station and stretched, gazed around at the local scenery, and paused before re-entering the vehicle.
“Where you fellers from? Obviously not around here,” said the right-most man. “Nobody around here’d buy anythin’ from inside there.”
“Those candy bars might be four, five years old,” said the center man. “Jimmy Woods ate one a couple months ago and sat on the pot for three days after’ards. Puked out his insides too.”
“We don’t see many cars around here neither,” said man number one. “Only people who drive cars ‘round here are outsiders. Everybody I know owns a truck—a Chevy.”
I looked at George and an invisible smile passed between us. George was always better at socializing than I was, likely due to 40 years of postal work where he talked to people daily and fielded their complaints and service needs. He addressed man number one, introducing us and explaining our point of origin and today’s destination.
“Ain’t got no covered bridges in this county,” said number two. Then to number one he inquired, “You ever heard of a covered bridge ‘round here?”
“I think there’s one over near Plumbville, but that’s pert near an hour away. We really ain’t never been out of the county in our lives,” he explained to us, “but we do hear things time to time. Now why would anybody build a covered bridge?”
Number two laughed heartily, then uncorked a mouthful of tobacco juice off to the left. “Melvin, you talk like we’re dumb hayseeds. What’re these fellers gonna think of us? Bet’cha these guys don’t know nothin’ ‘bout farming, though, do you?”
George and I shook our heads negatively, smiling.
“A covered bridge, Melvin,” he continued, “would’ve been built a long time ago, when they still used horse and wagons. I’ve heard they built ‘em covered so the horses wouldn’t see how far it was down to the water, and they wouldn’t get scared or nothin’.”
Melvin, man number one, removed his decades-old International Harvester cap and scratched his thin hair. “Well, I suppose that makes sense. Nobody ‘round here’s ever talked ‘bout a covered bridge. Don’t need one with tractors. Just drive through cricks if we need to. Guess that’s why they got rid of ‘em.”
Man number two turned to the last man, the man the left end of the bench, and asked, “Spin Cycle, you ever heard of a covered bridge in these parts?”
The one referred to as Spin Cycle shook his head ever so slightly in the negative. Actually I would say he moved his eyes that way without really moving his head. I could not help but stare at him. There was something unsettling about his appearance and his demeanor.
“What’s the matter?” said Melvin. “You afraid of old Spin Cycle? Well, there’s nothin’ to be afraid of. He just had a little accident a few years back. Gentle as a lamb, he is. Can’t talk, can’t move his head much, but he’s alive, that’s all that matters.”
“Spin Cycle?” said George with a chuckle.
“Yes, indeed,” replied number two. “Name’s actually Sawyer, but we’ve called him Spin Cycle for ‘bout fifteen, twenty year. Because of the accident, that’s why we call him Spin Cycle. Spin Cycle Chesterton, from one of the oldest families ‘round here. Owned land since the early 1800s. Best farmers, too. Spin Cycle was ‘til he got hurt.”
George and I were too polite to inquire into the nature of his accident, but we anticipated that either Melvin or number two would provide the details if we let them, which they wasted no time in relating.
“Like Barney says,” began Melvin, revealing number two’s first name, “’bout fifteen or twenty years back, Spin Cycle was the leadin’ farmer in the county. Always took the prizes for hogs and cows at the fair, and between him, his wife, and his kids, they won ‘bout ever’thing worth winnin’ ever’ year. Owned the most acres, produced the best stuff, always had the best equipment.”
“I couldn’t hold a candle to him,” interjected Barney, “and neither could Melvin. Now we’re not bad farmers, mind you, it’s just that Spin Cycle was that much better’n anybody else ‘round these parts.”
He followed that with another ejection that landed in nearly the identical spot of his first one.
I peered at Sawyer Spin Cycle Chesteron, who sat motionless. No emotion showed on his face.
“Well,” continued Melvin, “life was goin’ ‘long well for Spin Cycle ‘til one day when he was doin’ some fix-up work ‘round his place. Patty, his old lady—sweetest gal you ever met—talked him into doin’ some work on the roof and the gutters. He doesn’t like heights—scared of ‘em—and he tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted, so he got to workin’.
“His children weren’t old enough to give him much help with that kind of stuff, so they were runnin’ ‘round the yard, hootin’ and hollerin’ and playin’ with some things scattered ‘bout. Well, one of these things was a washin’ machine.”
“Maytag, wasn’t it?” asked Barney. “Or was it—no, definitely a Maytag.”
Melvin gave Barney a thoughtful look, then took his cap off and scratched his head again.
“Yeah, well, I think you’re right,” he said. “Never really thought of it, but yeah, I believe you’re right.”
Turning back to us he said, “Like I said, Spin Cycle’s afraid of heights. Always has been. I remember back in grade school—was it second or third grade?” he inquired of Spin Cycle, who held up two fingers. “Back in second grade we couldn’t even get him to get on the teeter-totter or even a swing, he was so scared. Ever’body made fun of him, but he never cried when we did. When he got really mad at us for teasin’ him he’d simply hit us real hard. He could hit harder’n any boy in school, so’s you never wanted him mad at you.
“He finally climbed up the ladder, like I said. You were cleanin’ out the gutters, weren’t you?” Melvin inquired of Spin Cycle, who moved his eyes in the affirmative. “Got up there, and the kids was yakkin’ away, and he was as scared as anythin’. Well, he lost his balance, fell off the ladder and fell smack dab on the edge of the washin’ machine, right on his windpipe. One of the kids—Curtis, wasn’t it?” and again Spin Cycle indicated yes with his eyes, “—well, Curtis ran as quick as he could and told Patty, who came runnin’ fast as she could. Spin Cycle, he wasn’t doin’ nothin’—no talkin’, no breathin’, nothin’. You know how people do when they got to think fast, they just do whatever needs to be done, and that’s what Patty done.”
“Don’t see how,” said Barney. “It was pure genius, it was. I wouldn’t a thought of it.”
“Me neither,” replied Melvin. “Me neither. Well, Patty, believin’ her husband was dead, which he undoubtedly was, she didn’t panic or nothin’, she just grabbed somethin’ handy to try to save his life. So she looks aroun’, and there’s the washin’ machine. She pulls out her pocket knife and quickly cuts the drain hose off the machine, then takes it and rams it down Spin Cycle’s throat.”
“It was stickin’ out about two feet,” said Barney.
“’Bout two feet I guess,” echoed Melvin. “She yells for the oldest girl, Mary Beth, to get on the phone and call the ambulance, and in the meantime Patty starts blowin’ down the washer hose to get old Spin Cycle breathin’ again. She kept it up until the ambulance arrived. They didn’t know what to do with him, so they kept on doin’ what she’d been doin’ all the way to the hospital.”
Melvin paused and George and I looked at each other, convinced Melvin and Barney had told us a whopper of a story. I looked at Spin Cycle. A tear or two trickled down his face from each eye.
George asked, “So obviously Spin Cycle had he windpipe crushed, his voice box crushed, and everything in his throat crushed. What’d they do at the hospital? How’d they get him fixed up?”
Melvin held out his hands, palms up. “Weren’t anythin’ they could do,” he said. “Eventually Spin Cycle started breathin’ on his own and appeared to be able to live. The doctors were puzzled. They couldn’t replace his windpipe, and they figured nothin’ would be stronger’n the drain hose he had rammed down his throat anyway, so they just trimmed it to fit and sent him home a couple days later.”
George and I shook our heads and waited for the three men to break out in laughter, but none came. Seeing our unbelief, Barney spoke, “Don’t blame you for not believin’ us,” he said. “I wouldn’t a believed it myself if I didn’t know Spin Cycle personally. Go ahead, tap on his throat. He’ll open his mouth and you can see down in there and see the hose. Now, that ain’t the original hose. Just like on washin’ machines, the hoses need replaced ever’ once in awhile, and ‘bout three years ago he had to have a new one put in.”
We declined to verify the evidence for ourselves, instead electing to return to George’s car and continue on our way to the next covered bridge after wishing them well and thanking them for the story. I suppose we did not want to discover the story’s falsity, like a person who believes something for a long time only to discover it was not factual, and then suffers disappointment thereafter, wanting to believe the lie, like believing in Santa Claus. We chose to believe that Sawyer “Spin Cycle” Chesterton sat on that bench every day with a washing machine drain hose down his throat, not speaking or moving his head, only waiting for the next stranger to come around so that Melvin and Barney could tell his story, and probably make it better with each telling, and share in his grief and his glory.
– The End –