Sunday, October 19, 2014

Haunted Byersdale

Used by permission of the artist.
by Robert Giles

Some of the old timers who put up their own homes on top of the hill in Byersdale must have built without benefit of plumb or level.

I’m talking about the houses just beyond the water tower where the road straightens out just before the dogleg to the left. They were all jammed in cheek-by-jowl, like row houses. Maybe they held each other up. Or perhaps the thick tangle of woods on the hillside kept them from rolling over backwards into Legionville Hollow.

That row of six or seven houses always seemed to be holding on for dear life.

I may exaggerate. It is one particular pair of houses I remember from fifty years ago. The others suffer from guilt-by-association.

I delivered the morning paper to the occupants of the two houses. The two families were related and shared a single copy of the Post-Gazette.

There were two brothers – one married and one a bachelor. The bachelor lived with his mother. When it came to paying for the paper, I collected from the married brother; but if he and his wife were absent, I was instructed to call on the bachelor.

The bachelor seldom spoke. The mother I saw only once.

In autumn the days shortened. It was dark when I got home from school. I delivered papers in the morning but did bill collection in the evening. Who wants to get out of bed at sunrise to do business with the paperboy?

That stretch of road wasn’t my favorite place. There was one streetlight. If you looked closely you could spy out a bat or two circling the water tower. Beneath my right shoulder were the black depths of the hollow. The pavement was neglected and broken away at the edges.

I shuffled through a cover of fallen leaves. The night air was frosty.

I turned onto a boardwalk that forded the frozen ditch in front of my customer’s front porch. The house sat right on the road. It was just a few feet over the ditch and onto the porch. There was no room for a lawn. The two houses were separated by a gap of twelve inches. The families shared a single porch as well as a single newspaper.

The decking of the porch gave perceptibly with each step. I felt as though I was aboard an old ship that was groaning in a heavy sea. One false step ...

I approached the door. It seemed no one was at home. There was one dim light on, back in the kitchen. I knocked once, then a second time. I waited. No one answered. I walked over to the bachelor’s door.

I knocked at the second door. I knocked again, then a third time, more forcefully. I turned to leave. Just then there was an answering knock – more aptly, a tap, slowly repeating and becoming louder.

I looked into the small window high up on the door. A creature with a thousand legs scurried across the glass.

I peered in. Tap … tap … tap. A figure in black came toward the door. The room was unlit. I could see that the figure held a cane.

Slowly, slowly, slowly towards the door it came. The knob turned. The door opened wide. Before me was an ancient head in a heavy black babushka, its owner clad in widow’s weeds. Someone had dressed for a funeral thirty years before and had never undressed.

The apparition looked at me blankly as it opened its mouth to utter something unintelligible in a foreign tongue.

It was time to screw my courage to the sticking point. Screw courage.  I turned and fled.

The Dead-End Swing

If Roy wasn’t a jagoff he wouldn’t have jumped like he did onto the Tarzan swing beneath the Legionville Bridge.

Couldn't he see there were already two kids holding onto the rope? They were swinging out over the pit under the north end of the bridge. Below them was a whole bunch of broken concrete that some chiseler had left scattered on the ground when he replaced the deck.

There was an open sewer line down there. It always stunk.

We saw that Billy was scared bad. You could tell by the way he clung to Dave’s waist. The rope swung back towards us like a pendulum beneath a cuckoo clock.

Roy landed high up on Dave’s back, missing the rope completely. How did he think Dave was going to hold on? Dave was the strongest kid in the neighborhood but Roy must have weighed two hundred pounds.

What was he thinking? A big fat zero. To think you have to have a brain.

Three kids were taking a ride and only one had a grip on the rope. Something had to give. Roy may have panicked and started to kick. Maybe Billy was trying to grab the rope to help Dave. Anyway, something made Billy lose his grip. He started to slide down between Dave and Roy. Dave tried to grasp him with his legs in a scissors lock to save him, like the way The Flying Wallenda had saved his partner on the high wire.

Dave tried his best but down Billy slid. It all happened in a second though it seemed like forever plus one day. Everything was quiet except for the wheeze of the rope against the steel of the bridge.

Billy grabbed at Dave’s foot but it was bye-bye Billy. He went down like a load of bricks. Luckily Billy missed the concrete - he landed feet first between two huge chunks.

Couldn't those highway contractor bastards pick up after themselves?

Billy’s legs buckled, then his ass hit, then his back and shoulders, finally his head. Everything bounced as it hit the clay.

We looked down. Was Billy dead? What would we tell his mother?


We took a shovel and a galvanized steel container down into the woods to dig some topsoil for Dad. “Get some good black earth”, he instructed.

We descended the path that cut across the steep hillside of the hollow. About half way down the ground leveled out, down by the “gold mine”. That was where we were going to dig for dirt.

The “gold mine” was perhaps a stone quarry back when the Harmony Society owned the land. Maybe they dug into the hillside poking around for minerals. Who knows? (Farther up the hollow in Economy Park was a “silver mine”.)

We looked for a spot a good distance from a large tree. We wanted to get twenty gallons of dirt quickly and go home. We didn’t have time to fool with tree roots.

My brother called out, “Over here. Someone may have already loosened the dirt.”

We dug down about two feet, filling our “bucket” with light, friable earth containing lots of naturally composted oak leaves and mast.

Just then the shovel struck something hard. Chuck reached into the hole. He pulled out a skull and a jawbone.

“There’s a whole skeleton down there, he exclaimed. Maybe someone was murdered.”

It was too small to be an adult. Maybe it was a child. The skull was narrow and elongated.

“Why this must be a big dog, like a collie.”

Just then something made us all look up the hillside toward Anthony Wayne Drive. On top of the bluff stood Old Mike, glowering at us through the trees.

“Christ almighty, I think we just dug up Frieda,” Chuck mumbled beneath his breath.

Frieda was Old Mike’s beloved pet.

Six Ghouls in an Olds 88

One evening after dark Mom sent me over to the Isaly store for a half-gallon of milk. When I came out of the store and headed up the alley, a big car pulled up alongside me.

The man at the wheel rolled down the window. There were six men in the car.

I wasn’t savvy enough to know that six men in one car always meant trouble. Still, I got a little nervous.

“Hey kid, is this where the girls are?” the man asked.

“Do you mean in the hotel?” I asked, puzzled at the man’s question.

“Yeah, in the hotel, you know …” The man’s voice trailed off and he began to wink at me. He moved his arm as though giving me a nudge even though I was outside the car and three feet away.

“Yeah, I guess there are ladies in the hotel. I’m not allowed to go in.”

A man in the back seat started to laugh. “Let’s get out of here, the kid’s still a virgin”, he said. They all started to laugh.

When you put your finger on a phonograph record, everything slows down and gets distorted.

“Haw, haw, the kid's stilllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaviiiiiiiiiiiiiiirgin,” someone cackled again as the car pulled away.

I told Mom what had happened when I got home. She turned almost as white as the milk I handed her.

“You stay away from that place, you hear me. Stay out of the alley.”

One thing about moms – they always order you to do the impossible.

Miracle of the Fishes

My brother and I were fishing for catfish down at the old lock wall when we noticed that the water below us was teeming with tiny silver minnows. We put down our rods to make a survey.

The minnows seemed to be coming from the stream that flowed into the “lock” from a tunnel that led back to the swamp that pooled just below the Byers plant.

Those minnows must have taken a shine to swamp water. There were millions of them.

Dave had an idea. “Let’s go home and get Dad’s seine out of his fishing tackle. We’ll get some big plastic buckets too.”

Soon we were back at the river properly equipped with minnow gear.

We waded into the stream. We wore our tennis shoes to protect our feet from glass and metal. 

Our feet sank in the muck. Soon the water was cloudy and we couldn’t see the minnows. We could only feel them bumping into our bare legs, hundreds at a time.

Dave instructed me to go upstream and walk towards him as he held the seine across the run.

All of a sudden he raised his net. There must have been ten pounds of minnows thrashing about inside the seine, their silver sides reflecting the sun. We scooped them into our buckets.

“This is way more fun than catching catfish.”

We sat and made plans to open a bait store. Why pull night crawlers from the grass when we could scoop up a thousand minnows with one sweep? We calculated we would need two 50-gallon aquariums.

I put my arm up to my elbow in one of the buckets. It was all squirming flesh. “This is what a doctor must feel when he opens up someone’s belly and probes around for an appendix.”

“Yeah”, Dave agreed, “it feels just like life.”

What happened to our bait store?

We returned to the river many times to catch “shiners”. We never again caught more than a handful.