Ghost stories and legends abound in America’s remote mountain areas-like Little Switzerland, North Carolina, where I was born and raised. But I don’t remember being much affected by the fairy tales my grandfather used to tell us around the big fireplace before bedtime. As a boy of six, thoughts of ghosts were far from my mind.
However, a strange thing happened that year (1930), which to this day is still a mystery to me. I had a playmate of my own age named Jerry Palmer who lived nearby. We were inseparable through the long summers, and when winter came we had sleds our dads had built for us.
Jerry’s father always had more money than mine and Jerry always had better clothing and more store-brought toys. My father was a moonshiner and bootlegger. Corn liquor and brandy sold for 25 a pint or $ 1.50 a gallon-when he could find a buyer who had that much money. With a small and unsteady income, my father was hard put to support the family, let alone buy nice clothing and toys.
When winter came Jerry appeared in his new clothes, wool pants, shiny little boots, and a heavy corduroy coat. I wore overalls, a denim jacket, and somebody’s nondescript hand-me-down shoes. I don’t think I really envied all Jerry’s advantages, but I did take a shine to those little boots.
In November Jerry took sick and died within a few days. He had been an only child and his grief-stricken parents moved away, obviously to find a place where they would not be constantly reminded of their little boy. They left behind many of Jerry’s belongings. His death made me sad and lonely .
After a few weeks, I thought that if I visited the scene of our many contented hours together I might recapture some of the happiness of the past, so one day I wandered down the path through the woods to Jerry’s house.
I found the house open, and as any little tad would do, I went in to explore. In a cupboard near Jerry’s bed I found the corduroy coat and boots I had admired. Childlike, I carried them home with me. I hung the coat on the foot of my bed and put the boots underneath, impatiently anticipating the following day, when I would wear that warm wonderful coat and those shiny little boots.
When bedtime came I looked again at my new treasures and happily fell asleep. Sometime during the night I was awakened by the shaking of my bed. Sometimes was moving in my room! I cowered under the covers, petrified with fear. The bed stopped shaking and the room became silent as a tomb.
Then I heard the footsteps-were they Jerry’s footsteps in his little boots walking slowly toward the door? I also heard a dragging noise, like the little coat brushing along the floor. I couldn’t see a thing but the sounds continued through the door of my room, then silence .
Finally, exhausted by my awful fright I went back to sleep. In the morning I awakened slowly, stretched, and snuggled back for another nap when suddenly the night’s events flashed into my mind. I jumped up and looked at the foot of my bed.
The coat was gone. I bent to peek under the bed; the boots were gone too! dressing quickly I dashed through the house and outside. In the snow were the tracks of the little boots and marks that showed the coat had been dragged alongside.
Summoning up the whole store of my six-year-old courage, I followed the tracks-right back to the house from which I had taken the items the day before. Thoroughly frightened, I ran madly for the haven of home. At breakfast I had no appetite and my parents knew something was wrong. They pressed me until slowly and reluctantly I told them about my terrible night. They pooh-poohed my tale, until I insisted that my father come out to see the tracks in the snow.
As the sun rose higher, shedding a welcome warmth into the woods and hollows, I began to doubt my senses. It had been only a nightmare-but no, I had gone to Jerry’s house and taken the things from the cupboard.
Now I strode purposefully back down the path and into Jerry’s house. Less assured I approached the cupboard near Jerry’s bed and cautiously opened the door, dreading to find what I knew would be there- the coat on its hook and the little boots on the floor, both showing the damp evidence of the night’s travels.
I firmly closed the door and made my slow and thoughtful way home. I related the final chapter of my adventure to my mother and father who answered in the fashion of hill-country folk. “Son, don’t never bother with things that belong to the dead.”
Fred J. Lowery
Deer Lodge, Montana