I will not swear what follows is accurate to the most minute detail – but I will say it is how I remember these events of over forty years ago.
It was late October. I was roughly thirteen years of age, my older sister and her boyfriend perhaps seventeen or so.
The three of us had just returned home after participating in a “Spook Run”. For those who do not recall or never knew this was an annual fund raising event for a local service organization; part scavenger hunt, part haunted house, a great and scary time and this was the first year we had completed the journey without a parent along. Big medicine.
As we raided the refrigerator my father entered the kitchen and asked how things had gone. “Not bad,” my sister said, “we only got lost once.” “Scared?” he asked the group. “Nah, not at all!” the three of us chimed in unison.
“That’s because those weren’t real ghosts…”he responded as he trailed from the room.
Intrigued and a little insulted, we soon followed after and found him reposed in his recliner, eyes closed, arms crossed as if by a mortician.
“All I’m saying, “ eyes opening now, “is that you three would be scared less if you ever saw the Captain.”
Ugh- the Captain.
A few years prior dad had begun to tell us the story of a Civil War veteran who had the misfortune of losing his head at Gettysburg. Evidently his body made it back to be buried in the family plot but his head, alas, had not. Thus for over a century, on the occasional full moon, the Captain had been sighted wandering the hillsides searching for his head or, failing to find his own, seeking a substitute.
And where was this family boneyard? On the old family farm of course!
Now there really was a small graveyard on the old homestead; multiple stones, the largest, of course, belonging by legend to our veteran but in reality all were too weathered to read. It was really too hackneyed to be true.
A headless soldier!? When the moon is full, no less!? A contrivance to frighten small children. We were now too grown up to buy it anymore.
“Baloney!” I said, “That’s all made up!”
“Baloney?” said dad, an eyebrow engaging ever so slightly. “In that case, how about a little wager?”
He arose from his chair and bid us to follow.
In the next room he took in hand an old railroad spike that had resided on the fireplace mantle for years- rustic décor- and extended it with a flourish. “Twenty dollars apiece for you if you drive this stake into the grave of the Captain! And if you fail, you each owe me one dollar!”
After a collective gulp and a few seconds of silence my sister asked, “When?”
“Tonight! The moon is full….unless, of course… but you’re afraid,” dad trailed off.
It was almost 11 p.m. but the gauntlet had been thrown and we were too proud to not pick it up. Although twenty dollars was a lot of money, I think we hoped our mom would stop us from leaving at such a late hour but there would be no clemency.
As we headed for the car dad stopped us. “You’ll be needing this!” he called. I separated from the group and took from him a 2 pound short sledge hammer. As he beckoned me aside for a moment- “Don’t lose this. Clean it up and put it back when you’re done.”- The same talk I’d heard each time I’d ever used one of his tools; all this again and a bit more. It was heavy in my hands.
Our uncle still lived on the farm. The drive out to the country was spent mostly in nervous silence with occasional attempts at gallows humor. We didn’t admit it to one another but we were each becoming very nervous.
As my sister was parking the car in their driveway, lights erupted on our cousins’ porch. Before we could finish explaining why we were there at such an hour they excitedly told us that the police had just been by warning them to stay inside and lock their doors because there was an escaped murderer on the loose from the asylum at Madison!
Nice try! My cousins soon admitted that dad had called and offered them ten dollars each if they could scare us from our mission. They had delayed but not deterred us.
It was just after midnight. What other tricks might lie ahead?
The path from my uncle’s house to the small cemetery ran roughly half a mile. I knew it fairly well from frequent visits but I had never traversed it at night. Hills and ruts, canopied by brush and small trees framed with barbed wire, slickened now with midnight dew; even with flashlights, it would not be a cakewalk.
As we traveled to the point where the gravel driveway gave over to clods of dirt and mud the night now seemed to grow darker. Using a wooden branch to minimize the effects of the charged fencing we stepped low and carefully between wires and entered a seemingly alien world of mist and chuckholes and lowing cattle.
We fumbled gracelessly along in fits and spurts – each breaking branch beneath our feet, every stray cat’s cry in the distance adding to our trepidation. A dry crab apple falling to the loam softly bespoke our doom.
Breaths rasped hard over dry mouths. Pulses quickened.
At length we broke from the treed canopy and crested a small hill. Here our vantage changed. A pale moon spilled its silver contents upon a small pond from which they skipped across the dissipating mists before flooding the glade below. Just beyond, on a lonely knoll stood a copse of oaks beneath which laid the scattered tombstones.
Far, far to the west noiseless “heat lightning” flashed- briefly silhouetting the scene in long shadows before returning us to dark, argent beauty.
“Oh Captain! My Captain!”
The three of us paused, collectively holding our breath momentarily before exhaling in unison. If the Captain was real then surely this was his realm. This landscape held the memories of generations; a tangible longing more than sufficient to sustain his restless quest – but it also possessed a profound peace.
There was indeed magic here – but no malevolence.
On final approach we spied a set of yellow-green orbs peering from the fog- our lost soldier!? More cousins!? No. Only a lone steer hulking against a tree near the markers waiting in ambush. His eyes glowed eerily from the vapor but we had come too far to be dissuaded.
As the cow galumphed away my sister’s flashlight found the largest headstone. Her boyfriend unceremoniously took the spike and hammer from my possession and in a bizarre cross between a Dracula movie and a historical reenactment of the ceremony at Promontory Summit drove it half-way into the ground with a solitary swing. “Good enough,” he said. Something about that bothered me but he stood before I could protest.
We turned to go when after perhaps thirty paces something more than ether but not quite corporeal pulled me back. I grabbed for the hammer. “I’m going to give it one more blow for good measure!” I exclaimed.
Returning to the grave, I finished the job.
So much for ghosts.
We drove home almost giddy. My sister couldn’t wait to return the next morning with our dad and collect our winnings. We arrived home just before a night long gulley washer ensued.
The previous week’s dim mornings had all shared one dull shade of gunmetal gray. But this late morning as we stood beneath the barren group of oaks co-mingling with the illegible stones the sun occasionally broke through, smearing an impossibly thin hint of strawberry red across the lower horizon, ever so thin- like the last scrapings of a jam jar spreading to cover a second piece of breakfast toast.
Here, within this natural tabernacle of gray and rose hues, our wet shoes squirching in the mud, we – my father, my sister, her boyfriend; my cousins, my uncle and I – stood in revelatory reverence.
The spike was gone. Not a trace. Not a hole in the ground. Gone.
“Well,” dad broke the silence, “it appears the Captain has made off with your spike and, ahem, you each owe me a dollar.”
The expressions of those gathered ranged from beaten to bewilderment to bemused but with no one present who could or would refute my father’s version of events- after all if someone had retrieved the spike that morning there would have surely been footprints in the muck- we simply paid up and slowly, quietly took the path homeward…
After an uncharacteristically quiet dinner that evening- during which my father declined further comment about the Captain and the missing spike- he excused himself stating that he had better get to the garage and make sure that I had properly returned his hammer.
When a few appropriate moments had passed I followed and found him at his toolbox, his back to me. Hearing my approach he said without turning, “Hammer looks good.”
Then he turned towards me and extended an open palm, “Well?”
I retrieved from my pocket and dropped into his hand the muddy object.
“This,” inspecting, then closing his hand around the soiled spike, “should have been cleaned…,” he murmured simultaneously palming me twenty dollars with his other hand.
Putting the spike beneath some screwdrivers in the back of toolbox he finished, “That, my friend, is how Halloween is done.”
The Captain, somewhere, if only in my imagination, shrugged his headless form in approval and patiently awaited the next full moon.
And does so to this day.