Monday, January 15, 2007

The Tombstone Blues -- Ian

All right, so my sister Emily has solicited me to co-write a blog about memories from our childhood. There are rules, which are a pleasant aspect of Emily’s idea because without them I would procrastinate for a couple of years, ending in abandonment of the project. The main rule is that we are not to read each other’s posts until both are complete. She emailed me this morning to tell me she had written her first post, and because I’m anxious to read it, I know I must write mine now. So I’m forsaking a Sunday evening so I can get a glimpse of her take on our first topic. (Emily, I almost cheated—on the very first post!)

She chose an object from our childhood that I suppose would have great significance to postmodernists as a fetishistic symbol of symbiosis between siblings. Sorry, three semesters of lit. classes have me BSing like this from time to time. The topic Emily chose is the tombstone that sat deep in the crawl space in the house where we grew up in Clemmons, North Carolina. One of the reasons I like the topic is because it allows me to title my post after a great Bob Dylan song.

I have trouble remembering sequences of events regarding the tombstone. The first thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that when it was first discovered it was as if Tutankhamen’s tomb had been found. It seems to me, ironically, that this was around the time that the King Tut exhibit was touring the country, with as much fanfare and hype as a Rolling Stones tour, and that there was a bit of an archeology craze going on. We may have discovered the tombstone a little earlier, but I believe it was somewhere in the years of 1976 or 77. Elton John was going disco. This is how I date things in my mind.

Emily and I spent a great deal of time doing what we called “exploring.” We had already tracked through the woods around our house, and made frequent trips down “the dirt road” that led down the hill and around a bend to the neighborhood bully’s house who we first encountered when he hurled rocks at us from his driveway. At other times we would head up our road to “civilization” where there was a drugstore that sold Richie Rich and Spiderman Comics and had a good assortment of teeth-rotting candy. Eventually, when the housing development began to be built next to our house, we would explore the foundations, and then the frames, of the new houses.

By a certain point, it seemed that every square-inch of my family’s property was known to us. We were bored with going up to the loft above the garage and seeing the old dusty chest of drawers that stood there, providing speculation of ghosts of Civil War widows who combed their hair there. We had made the climb, through a closet, to the attic many times, sitting on Christmas decoration boxes and hoping that the odd shape by the vent wasn’t really a bat, like our older cousin claimed. Ghosts and weird stories were told and retold and embellished often during this time, and being scared with each other was a primary amusement that would follow us into our teen years and to the midnight showings of Night of the Living Dead and The Hills Have Eyes.

Now, this is the part where there may be large discrepancies in our stories, but it seems to me that we were with a good friend of the family’s, Norman Hill, when we first discovered the tombstone. In fact I’m tempted to say that it was Norman who was the first one to lay eyes on it. Norman was a few years older and was staying with us while his parents were away, and it’s a strong possibility that it happened during this week. At other times, it seems that it was me who discovered it while Norman and Emily waited outside the door to the crawlspace. This will be the interesting part of the experiment because Emily may not remember these events in this way at all.

There was one place left that we hadn’t explored yet. At the very back of our basement, the musky, damp space that no amount of dehumidifiers could keep dry, was a little door that led to the crawlspace. We had ventured into this realm only tentatively, (sweating in an attic with bat-like shapes is one thing, but daring to enter the dark underworld of cobwebs and centipedes was another) and then it was only to enter the first room. You see, the crawlspace had two rooms, an anti-chamber which was about the size of a medium sized bathroom, and then a main chamber which was cavernous to where a flashlight’s beam would be devoured by the darkness. All along the sides, between the floor and the wall, were deeply dug trenches (apparently for irrigation) but to us, they represented pits with unknowable bottoms. To get to the main chamber, one had to crawl through a small opening and scurry along rustling plastic, being very careful not to slam one’s head into the unseen two-by-six-beams placed periodically in the three-foot-high ceiling. The space was perpetually damp, with little things scurrying this way and that to avoid exposure to the flashlight. To endeavor beyond this little opening and into the main portion took a giant step in courage.

Since I can’t remember if it was me or Norman Hill who saw the thing first, and I know I’m leaving Emily out—although it could very well be her that found it—I ’m just going to try to remember what it felt like to see it initially. To crawl through this underground dark world, go through the little gap into the main opening, and proceed forward was a test of courage already; but when a solitary shape emerged from the gloom, standing cold and silent and casting a long shadow toward the unknown portion of the basement, my reaction was amazement and terror. We approached it never-the-less, absolutely sure that under the very dirt on which we tread, lay a body. The inscription read something like “here lies ----------, infant son (or daughter) of -------------- (there were names where the blanks are, but I can’t remember them either, although Emily might). The date, it seems to me, was somewhere around 1932.

The sight, at first, was fascinating. But after gawking at this, probably the most terrifying thing we could have imagined having in our crawlspace, the heaviness of the object got the better of me and I turned to hurry, as fast as I could, out of that infernal place. On the way, I smacked my head on one of the two-by-sixes.

Outside, in the florescent lit basement with Cat Stevens (“I’m being followed by a Moon Shadow”) playing somewhere in the house, we caught our breath and tried to digest what we had just discovered. Having a body buried underneath our house would make it extremely difficult to sleep; in fact we may never sleep again. We had heard the story of the man with the golden arm, and the hitchhiker on the bridge, and all the others, but this was proof positive that our house was haunted. I mean, if a ghost is buried under someone’s house, he isn’t going to take it out on the next door neighbor, he’s going to haunt the house he’s buried under, especially the curious children who found him. The fact that the ghost would be an infant would make it all the worse, he would float out of the corners of my bedroom, in his little swaddling clothes, and swoop down on me, exacting vengeance for being awoken from his eternal nap. At the same time, having someone buried under your house wasn’t something you heard about everyday; I was wondering how much mileage I would get out of this at school.

We learned that there was no body buried under our house. Word got out about our find, and some investigation by our parents revealed that the tombstone belonged to the original builders of the house whose child survived his illness and who left the tombstone in the crawlspace for some reason. This was a relief, but still kind if eerie, although we were glad the child survived.

But, the tombstone did bring a bit of cache to our basement. When new kids would come over to our house, the first thing they would want to see was the tombstone. We were veterans by that time, very careful about not bumping our heads and scurrying through the small openings, warning the newbies to watch their heads and stay together. I picture myself sometimes with a ranger hat on collecting money at the door (we should have charged admission Emily, what were we thinking?). Even into our teen years, we would take kids who had come to parties at our house down to see the tombstone. It was a great way to break the ice. A bit creepy albeit.

So that’s what I’ve got on the tombstone. It is one of those interesting things about being a kid, when adventure only means trekking to the far corner of the yard or climbing high in a pine on a windy day. Emily and I had plenty of space to satisfy our thrill-seeking habits, and in venturing through the area provided to us, we were allowed to express and, occasionally, overcome our fears for when we moved on to a much larger and scarier space, the real world.


Emily Barton said...

Amazing! At least we both remember ghosts and that Norman was there when we found it.

Danny said...

Wow, your version is even creepier than Emily's as it reveals parents who would purchase a tombstone for their sick baby BEFORE it died! Of course I don't believe that story for a second, I'm sure your parents just told you that to assuage your fears. I'm more convinced than ever that there really was a dead baby buried under your house despite all the lies that were told to you both by well meaning adults.

This blog is such a perfect vehicle for looking into the "truth" of memories. It's fascinating to me how people can remember events so differently while being absolutely certain that their version is the truth. Great details in these stories (love the references to King Tut and Cat Stevens) and Norman Hill seems like the perfect character for this tale. I don't suppose he was related to the civil rights activist named Norman Hill who worked with Martin Luther King? Today is his holiday, after all...

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

CREEPY! You guys had to pick this topic for your first post?!? Excellent storytellers - the two of you!!!


Cam said...

What a great story -- both versions. I have a crawlspace to which I have never opened the door in the 10 years I've owned the house. They are just so creepy! But, the creepiest thing in your story is that the tombstone might have been made before the baby's death.

It does add something to the character of the house, though, doesn't it, knowing the people who would throw a tombstone into the crawlspace once lived there. Were they thinking: have to hide it but can't get rid of it?

BikeProf said...

This is a great story--Emily, is it going to show up in your ghost story? It is very interesting to see how each of you constructs the context differently. For Emily, it's a about how you fit in or don't in the community, and for Ian it's about an adventure. This is going to be a very fun experiment to follow!

charlotte said...

I'm enjoying your experiment too - keep it up! I think it's fascinating how differently the same events can be remembered. I also liked Norman Hill and wanted hear more about him, and I liked knowing that Cat Stevens was playing in your house. Wonderful details.

Anonymous said...

Danny, I think you've helped me break thirty years of denial about that tombstone. I actually talked to my parents last night and they said the story they gave me was just speculation, they didn't what the thing was doing down there. So, actually, it has revitalized the mystery behind it. How cool!

Bike Prof, it was definitely about adventure for me as a kid, maybe as a away of avoiding the fact that we lived in a mediocre little suburb.This might have helped feed a need to be creative.

Cam, Orange Blossom and Charlotte,
the next post should be less creepy, but in a way, just as wierd. The topic I chose is Henry, the vicious, and terminally dumb, basset hound.

Emily Barton said...

My guess is that one of the boys who lived in the house before us got his girlfriend pregnant, and they killed the baby, and buried it in our basement, and our house really was haunted! Hmmm, Hobs, maybe this will HAVE to go into the ghost story somewhere.

Meanwhile, I'm beginnng to think everyone was WAY too harsh with poor old Stephen Frey :-)! As this experiment continues, we'll see what happens.

Neil said...

Came here from Danny. What a great story. What could be more thrilling to a child than finding this secret. I want to come to your house when you tell Halloween stories!

Froshty said...

I loved the tombstone. I loved the cache it gave us--the cache that Emily described so well. I also remember Norman being the one involved in its discovery, but I was also around the day it happened and, like Ian, hurt myself when I went to see it. We didn't use flashlights that day because in our house, things like scissors and flashlights appeared for a day or so and then left us in the lurch. This happens in my current house, too. The story my mother told me was that she thought that the "Woodson boys," which was the name of the former house owners, had stolen the grave from a local churchyard--probably the church right up the street from our house.

Froshty said...

I loved the tombstone. I loved the cache it gave us--the cache that Emily described so well. I also remember Norman being the one involved in its discovery, but I was also around the day it happened and, like Ian, hurt myself when I went to see it. We didn't use flashlights that day because in our house, things like scissors and flashlights appeared for a day or so and then left us in the lurch. This happens in my current house, too.