You must login to vote
THE HAUNTING OF BOWEN CORNERS
"We saw a ghost in the cemetery!" Swanna Wendler's stunning announcement seemed to contradict her calm demeanor, but not that of the other girls for whom she spoke. They were terrified! Seconds before, the bevy of teenagers had stampeded into the kitchen of Sheriff Loren Kregs' spacious, remodeled farmhouse, incoherent and in tears. The sudden intrusion had so startled Verony, his wife that she almost dropped the large cake she was holding. In these war years, its loss would have meant tremendous disappointment to Loren; he had sacrificed for that cake!
Since the bombing of Pearl Harbor some 30 months ago, rationing had brought a scarcity of even Loren's small vice of heavily sweetened black coffee. He hated the mocking coffee substitute. So Verony used it, keeping the coffee ration for him, along with enough sugar to sweeten two cupfuls each morning and one at suppertime. But bitter days lay ahead for Loren this month! The cake had required the entire month's sugar ration. Tomorrow, the first Sunday of June, it would be decorating a desert table at the annual church dinner. What a time for an intrusion! Just when the frosting bowel was beckoning!
Loren knew the fourteen girls were summer workers from the Jarven farm. They passed his home each Friday night, hiking the two miles to Collins and returning after a movie and soda. As always the boys preceded the girls. Several minutes before, their rowdiness had echoed through the kitchen’s screened windows from the darkness of Bowen road. Then an emphatic bang of the side screen door announced the arrival of the Kregs' only child. Sixteen-year-old Marty "Butch" Kregs had scaled the steps to the upper bathroom two at a time. The girl's voices had interrupted his toileting. Now on the bottom landing, he was watching the girls crowd his father's huge frame.
Well over six feet tall, still evidencing the brawny, athletic proportions of the college football star he once was, fortyish Loren seemed a befuddled giant captured by Lilliputians. His gestures semaphored profound embarrassment at finding himself pressed by the budding. When her husband's long fingers combed through his receding salt and pepper hair, Verony understood that her husband was perplexed; he was doing it now. And, from under their scraggly brows, his brown eyes pleaded for rescue.
Verony's petite proportions belied the decisiveness of her movements as she placed the cake on the counter, then turned and moved silently toward the din of girlish voices. She waited until she thoroughly dried her hands on the apron around her waist before shouting, "Be quiet!"
The girls turned in wide eyed surprise. "Wait in the parlor!" Verony commanded. And the visitors filed quietly from the kitchen, followed by Butch.
"Okay, sheriff; your free; I rescued you," Verony teased. "Now get some cups; I get the cold drink."
The girls had flopped on an enormous oriental rug that centered the Kregs' spacious parlor. Plopped into the flowery patterns of a long, deeply cushioned sofa, Loren waited for Verony to finish filling the cups he had distributed. Sitting quietly on one of the sofa's wide wood trimmed arms was Butch. When Verony settled next to him, Loren asked, "Now; what happened?"
"Are you deaf, Sheriff Kregs?" Swanna scolded, "What kind of a sheriff are you? I already told you! There's a ghost in the cemetery!"
"Behave yourself, young lady! Rudeness doesn't help!' Loren replied.
"And neither do you, Mr. Kregs."
Turning from his young antagonist Loren addressed the other girls and tried to reason with them. "Looks girls; you may have seen a dog chasing rabbits or a white owl hunting mice, but certainly not a ghost. There are no ghosts."
"Don't ignore me, Mr. Kregs!" Swanna's tone was venomous with scorn." Noticing Loren's jaws clench, Verony reached out and squeezed his hand until he checked the reaction.
"No response, Mr. Kregs? Do something! You’re supposed to protect me!"
Now Swanna was almost shouting. "I'm not some hysterical kid, Mr. Kregs - I saw a ghost! Not a dog; not an owl; not a cow or even a horse, Mr. Kregs! I saw a ghost! A ghost! It was sitting near a gravestone and was dressed all in white. It stood and looked straight at us, so we ran. Does your rustic mentality understand me now, Mr. Kregs; Have I made it simple enough for you to understand?"
Loren glanced at Verony. She raised her eyebrows and lifted a corner of her lips. The girl was a rude spoiled brat, her expression agreed, but he should hold his temper.
Butch seemed oblivious to the girl's rudeness. He was staring at her with a look of fascination that changed to embarrassment at his father's nudge.
"Did you notice anything different at the Corners?" The boy shook his head.
"Was there talk of scaring the girls?" Again Butch shook his head.
"Did anyone leave the group before you got here?"
"We didn't do it, pop! None of the guys I went to town with did it!"
"They all walked back with you?"
"All of them. And no one left the road."
"Okay; I believe you. Take the stake truck and drive the girls home." Butch wasn't perfect, but to Loren's knowledge, he never had lied to him or Verony.
"It really was a ghost, Mrs. Kregs," one of the other girls whimpered.
"Don’t worry, dear. The sheriff will investigate, won't you Loren?" Verony's soft blue eyes telegraphed the response she expected. Loren's baby blue ones were saturnine, manifesting disgust with the evening's development. Nevertheless he nodded his head. "I'll check it out."
"I'm surprised you'd suspect the boys, Mr. Kregs. I keep telling you it was a ghost."
Loren patience was all but dissipated. This girl had to go! Placing a small ladder against the back of the truck, Loren instructed, "Get on the truck, girls."
"We'll walk, Mr. Kregs."
"Swanna, I said, 'Get on the truck!' When I say ‘Get on the truck’ I mean get on now!"
"You needn't shout, Mr. Kregs. I'm getting on."
Friendly, out going Loren Kregs had been brought up on the 400-acre family farm he had inherited. Collins had always been his home; he loved the town. Nevertheless, he had decided not enter farming, choosing instead to study criminology at a nearby college, where he became a favorite sports figure. His popularity in the county had won him every sheriff's election since he first ran for the office some 15 years ago. He now lived in the Kregs family farmhouse, almost at the halfway point between Bowen Corners where Bowen and Versailles roads intersected and the Jarven family farm. Rodger Jarvan's two oldest sons operated the farm. Complying with the government's request, the county’s farmers constantly attempted to increase production, so farm land was at a premium. Because Rodger was his closest friend, Loren leased his own land to the Jarvans.
The High Sheriff endeavored to be understanding with the county’s boys. Like Rodger, as a member of the draft board, he had seen many of them called into the armed forces. A number of boys, whose parents he knew, wouldn't be returning. As a result, he tried resigning from the board, but Rodger persuaded him to continue. Loren couldn't help hoping the war would end before his own son turned eighteen; Butch had no farm deferment.
Since Pearl Harbor day, the burly sheriff became especially lenient with the kids. He always had overlooked their harmless pranks. But pranksters he felt went too far (Like the three boys who attached two M 20 fire crackers to the ignition system of a teacher's car, terrifying the teacher and scorching the car's hood) were hauled before the authorities. Now, if possible, he offered them a chance to avoid the legal system. And, none of the kids who underwent the Kregs alternative - restitution; a possible woodshed experience with their parents; cleaning public buildings or parks; assisting the sick and elderly; or other services supervised by deputies - ever tried for seconds. It was the either the alternative or the judge. No one ever chose the judge.
Summer teenagers from the city whom the farmers employed to help gather the harvests were another result of the war. Helping to alleviate the farm labor shortage, they also were the responsibility of Loren's sheriff department. Like those on the Jarven farm, most of these kids already had worked for several summers the farms. They lived in shacks with their mothers during the harvest seasons, while their fathers continued at their city jobs, visiting on their off days. When school began again, they returned home to the city until the next harvest season.
Mostly, the city kids were well behaved. As among the locals, there were a few hell raisers among them, too. However, even they were respectful toward Loren and his deputies. Not like this Swanna! Her attitude left a lot to be desired. He knew this was her second summer on the Jarven farm. Prior to tonight, he never had spoken with her. But he did noticed her mainly because Butch often mentioned her when the girls rested on the front porch steps of his home on their return from town.
Standing behind the side screen door, Loren watched Butch pilot the stake truck from the driveway. He observed that all the girls were riding in the back except Swanna. She occupied the front seat. It was wide enough to accommodate three girls as passengers, yet Butch permitted only Swanna to sit there. Loren could understand his son's infatuation. The girl was gorgeous; too bad her attitude didn't match her looks. Oh well! How did that cliché go? "It takes all kinds...."
"Yep! It does!" he muttered softly. And Swanna certainly was different! He could see that she dominated the other girls – had made herself the voice of their terror. And they certainly had been in terror. Still, he was sure that his suggestion was right. They must have seen an animal or maybe were the victims of their over active adolescent imaginations. They were city kids, after all. And what did city kids know about dark roads rimmed by swaying shadows, or animals prowling through fields of pastures and fields of crops, or bright moonlight playing hide and seek between breeze blown tree limbs. Some of these kids never saw a horse or a cow before coming to Collins. They easily could have been fooled. Even his eyes sometimes played tricked on him on these dark roads. And he always had lived on a farm.
He wished Verony hadn’t made him promise to investigate this foolishness. Yet, judging by the debt of the girls' fright, he never would be able to convince them he was right especially with Swanna speaking for them. If the county residents learned he was chasing ghosts, he would become the laughing stock. He was one of these practical farm people; he knew how they thought. This Swanna, though; Loren wondered what Rodger Jarven thought of her. He decided that come Monday morning he would ask him.
Verony's voice penetrated his thoughts and he turned and walked to the kitchen, where she handed him the frosting bowel.
"When you finish licking the bowel, I'll go to the Corners with you, if you like. That way you can tell them that you made a search."
"I wish you hadn't made me promise to investigate. I'll be laughed out of the county. Boy, that Swanna! If rudeness ever becomes a crime, she'll spend the rest of her life in Alcatraz.
Verony chuckled. "Yes, she's really a spoiled brat, but you must do something, honey. The others were terrified. Something must have happened. Maybe boys from another farm pulled a prank."
Loren went silent – Verony hit on something. At the very least, her idea provided an answer to the ridiculed he expected for checking out the girls' claims - he was investigating practical jokesters; he'd done it before.
"All right, Vron. Let's take a look around; shouldn't take long. I'll be razzed about this one!
On Tuesday mornings, the older generation of Collins farmers usually gathered for breakfast around the large round table at the rear of Frank's Country Kitchen. As he entered the restaurant today, however, Kregs noticed Dwain and Mark Jarven had joined their father. They were sitting to his right, silencing listening. He noticed, too, that the conversation seemed hesitant and surmised that the church dinner had expedited the rumors of Friday's supposed haunting; everyone in town must have heard of it by now.
After crossing the room and stopping behind Rodger's chair, he buckled his long legs, resting his haunches on his heels. "You guys know what's coming," he whispered, "Stay cool; just take it in stride. Wait for me after breakfast. I want to talk to you." Then he moved to a chair, across from Rodger.
Sporting the logo of a farm machinery company, the baseball cap on Rodger’s head seemed at odds with his spectacles and studious features; they could have served as a study in contrasts. A fedora would have been more appropriate.
Sweat rimmed, dusty from fieldwork, similar caps adorned the heads of those around the table. Some boasted the same logo others, emblems from various agribusinesses. On these informal Tuesday morning hardworking farmers attended the breakfasts. Loren's oversized casual clothes, his badge and Rodger's unstained hat appeared conspicuous among the faded blue jeans and coveralls of their friends. Like Kregs and Jarven, each member of the group had grown up on the truck and dairy farms surrounding Collins, but only Loren and Rodger perused other careers.
If Rodger Jarven had had his way, he would have attended a nearby university, as did Loren. His desire had been to study agriculture. However, since his prodigious scholastic achievements had brought scholarship offers from several prestigious colleges, his parents discouraged this. Instead, they sent him to a university in Boston, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics and a second advanced degree in accounting. Completing his education summa cum laude, in the process, he also qualified as a Certified Public Accountant. In a highly unusual move, the school offered him a full professorship, without his first having to serve as an instructor or author thesis, so he remained in Boston, teaching for several years.
But Rodger wasn't happy, stretched so far from his roots. When he inherited the family farm, he resigned his professorship and returned home, hoping to resume farming. Instead, the Collins farmers began consulting him about taxes, bookkeeping and farm accounting. To accommodate them, he opened an office in town, again putting his desire to farm on hold. Farmers throughout the county solicited his services. His practice boomed and, before long, he was recognized as the area's expert in farm accounting. Assisted by Marcy, his wife herself a Collins girl he continued to expand his practice and, by the time America enter World War II, his firm had offices in several towns, staffed by a number of Rodger's former accounting students. The more complicated cases he reserved for himself. His staff of accountants and bookkeepers handled the rest, consulting him mainly on the difficult ones.
Marcy was gone now. She passed away the year before from congenital cardiac problems, leaving behind four children, three of them married with children of their own. Phyllis, the oldest, married a building contractor from Wisconsin. Dwain, the oldest son, occupied the Jarven farmhouse with his family. Rodger lived with them. Mark and his family occupied the house intended for a farm foreman a function Mark filling. The families were closely knit and worked well together.
Only Tom, the youngest, remained unmarried. While serving with the Navy in the South Pacific, he almost was killed. Concern for his life prompted the naval hospital to withhold from him the news of his mother's death until months later. Upon hearing of it, his grief caused a relapse that extended his hospitalization. Now home on furlough, he still mourned, bitterly condemning himself for his mother's death.
Bob Stroggen, who owned a large dairy farm on Versailles road, fired the first salvo of taunts at Loren. He opened the barrage even before the wartime portions of powered eggs, pancakes, paper thin ham slices, and fake coffee were brought. He was a close friend of both the sheriff and the Jarvens, but that didn't matter now; today, they were fair game.
"Say, Rodg," he called, with a conspiratorial wink to the others, "I hear Loran’s hunting ghosts on your farm. It that true?"
Following the cue, Bruce, another farmer joined in. "Yeah! That's what I heard, too. Tell us about it." Rodger remained noncommittal; his hands extended to signify incomprehension.
"Hey, Dwain!" Bruce shouted again, "What's with your girl pickers? I hear their seeing ghosts. Your place isn't far from Bob's. Better tell him; he's worried about his herd."
"I sure am!" Bob agreed, "Some of my cows went dry Friday, sheriff. It must have been those ghosts. You’d better catch them before they dry up my whole herd. After all, my cows are girls too; they’re scared of ghosts."
An elderly farmer sat at Kregs' left. Looking directly at him, he tied to assume a serious pose. Instead his eyes twinkled when he said, "Now Loren, Bob is right. If your hunting for the ghosts that are haunting Rodger's girls, you must hunt for the ones that are scaring Bob's girls, too. Fair is fair, you know."
The taunts made Dwain flush with embarrassment; nonetheless, he knew that if others had been the butt of them, he too would do the teasing. He was glad to see both Loren and Rodger wore wry smiles, as though the ribbing amused them. The smiles put things into perspective for him. They reminded him that the teasing was that of friends in a spirit of good natured fun.
Managing to overcome his feelings, with a dour expression, Dwain remarked, "Don't worry, Bob. Our ghosts don't haunt dairy farms. They haunt only girls who pass Bowen Corners at night."
"Yeah, Bob!" his brother jibed in, "Our girls see boy ghosts, so your cows must be seeing bull ghosts. The sheriff can't catch bull ghost. You need a bull fighter for that.
The comment produced a round of laughter and, for some reason, Rodger and Loren laughed loudest. Rodger was pleased his sons were weathering the affair so well. "I'd like to know the names of those boy ghosts," he said, "They sure have our girls scared."
"When you catch them, send them to my place," a farmer replied, "I'll put them to work in the fields; free help, you know."
"I wish they would go to your place. They're sure a problem for us,” Dwain said.
"Do you think a scarecrow would keep them away?" Bob asked, "You know sort of a scare ghost."
The joking continued a while longer, often uttered so loudly that surrounding customers all of whom knew Loren and the Jarvens sometimes chimed in.
Finally, from behind the counter, Frank, the proprietor, called out, "Hey, sheriff, if you really want to catch those ghosts, I know some spells you can use."
When the others turned their teasing on him, he held up his right hand, as though taking an oath. "As God is my witness, I'm not joking. My grandmother learned them in the old country. She said they really work. I'll be glad to help you try them out sheriff." He appeared so sincere that his patrons dissolved into laughter.
"No one can top that!" Bob laughed. The ribbing sputtered and fizzled out.
Finally, the Collins farmers had no more time to spend on teasing. They were at war, too, battling the enemy as valiantly as anyone in uniform, struggling courageously to keep faith with those who depended on what they produced. Together with their colleagues nationwide, they had helped to transform America into the cornucopia of the entire Allied war effort. These practical men were proud of this achievement; they spoofed silly notions especially the notion of ghosts. Sheriff Kregs understood this. He had expected the ribbing he and the Jarvins just received. Normal times would have permitted Kregs to overlook the girls' claims. But with a world at war, these times weren't normal. Certainly not with young men being killed or wounded in action, or a disabled sailor blaming himself for his mother's death. Surely not with city slickers working on farms and their daughters claiming to see ghosts, with one of the girls grossly disrespecting a county High Sheriff. No, indeed, times weren't normal
Kregs accompanied the Jarvens to their pick up truck. "We took a lot of ribbing, but I think the worst is over," he noted.
Rodger appeared dubious, "I don't think so, Loren. There’s a problem with the mothers."
"They want us to drive their daughters to town on Fridays and then pick them up, so we agreed," Dwain informed him.
"As though we don't have enough to do," Mark grumbled.
"Well, tell them you can’t do it and there’ll be no problem." Kregs tone seemed to suggest the answer was obvious.
"The girls won't ride; they want to walk,” Rodger informed him.
"That’s even better; so let them walk."
Pressing his palms together, Mark lifted his eyes, "Oh, what a wise, wise sheriff we have,” he quipped, “Thank God for small favors."
Rodger seemed amused, "Mark feels that when the girls agreed with Swanna not to ride to town, our problem was solved, but it wasn't. Now the mothers are angry because the girls insist on walking to town, and we're caught in the middle."
Swanna's name perked Loren’s interest. "That Swanna seems to have a lot of influence on your girls. I saw her in action Friday night. She never gave other girls had a chance to speak." Then he told them what happened.
When Loren finished, Dwain exclaimed, "That's Swanna!"
"Fill me in on her," Loren requested, and listened attentively as his friends tried to explain the girl.
This was only the second summer that Swanna Wendler had worked on the Jarven farm. Though her parents were extremely wealthy, they had acquiesced to her insistence that her patriotism required that she spend her summers picking crops. The thoroughly citified mother and daughter adjusted slowly to the strenuous harvest routine: Dawn wake ups; damp morning fields; torrid afternoons; clean picking; aching muscles; and grueling backaches. It wasn't long before the mother wanted to return home. However, as always, it was Swanna who controlled the situation; eventually she joined the teenagers on their Friday night hikes to town.
Swanna's petite figure made her seem younger than her 16 years. Still, she was the prettiest girl ever seen in Collins. Even the soft tan she developed couldn't improve on nature's artistry. At work in the fields her long raven braids were stuffed into an enormous straw hat. Otherwise, she wore it ponytail style or cascading gently over her shoulders.
Swanna knew she was beautiful. She manipulated her endowments as proudly a peacock did its fan. She could modulate her soft alto voice to communicate overtones of absolute acceptance. At her whim, her wide set, brown eyes could express unqualified pleasure in the company of a boy.
Swanna's attitude toward other girls was that of a Cleopatra among handmaidens. Magnanimous to those who catered to her, she was furious toward anyone who threatened her supremacy. All boys were fair game to her especially those interested in other girls. Her spite fell on any girl who challenged this credo.
Adding to its crime of having endowed Swanna with such loveliness, nature also gifted her with a personality most boys found irresistible. She was with requests for dates! She never forthrightly refused any boy. To do so would have made them available to other girls. Instead, she kept them in the limbo of future possibility with insinuation their hope could be realized.
"Ken Stroggen is crazy about her," Mark told Kregs. "But she never dates him. She has him on a leash just like most of our boys."
Kregs wanted to ask if Butch belonged to this forlorn group, but rejected the thought.
Rodger looked thoughtful. "Say Loren, Would you do us a favor?"
"Glad to do whatever I can." And, after his friend explained what he wished done, Sheriff Kregs returned to his car.
Across the road from a dilapidated old building, concealed by wildly prolific vegetation, the green and white patrol car seemed invisible. In its darkness, two officers sat in bored silence. This was the Friday after the so called haunting. Both Kregs and his senior deputy, Billy Greenoak, could think of a thousand things more interesting than observing an old graveyard through shrubbery. Loren felt foolish being here and he knew Greenoak did, too. But he had promise this favor to a friend and he never broke promises.
When Kregs explained the mission to Greenoak, the veteran deputy had smiled and agreed to give this unpaid time only because he felt compassion for the Jarvens. He felt that they had endured enough grief for a lifetime what with Marcy's death and Tommy wounded so severely. The thought of the poor kid's grief over his mother's death saddened him. If staking out this old graveyard might help the family, it was the least he could do.
For over 150 years, the small cemetery had huddled next to the venerable edifice, as though its inhabitants drew comfort from the fact that the structure once had been their church. Its connection to religion ended with a stint as a one-room schoolhouse. Afterward it retired as a grange fraternity hall. It now stood boarded and abandoned at Bowen Corners stripped of even its status as a county landmark an ignored vestige of the past.
Despite its history of change, the relic still appeared like a small church. Even in darkness it never seemed menacing. Its bygone parishioners, once planted in its ancient graveyard, had no reputation for wanderlust. Had such a spirit possessed them, their only possible hindrance would have been the weight of timeworn tombstones: not even a fence enclosed the diminutive resting place. Since the departed ones always seemed indisposed to social contact with the living, their abode went mostly unnoticed - until Marcy Jarven requested interment therein. A small granite bench where visitors could sit and meditate flanked her headstone.
But meditative thoughts occupied neither lawman tonight. Hunched behind the steering wheel, Greenoak said, "I don't think anyone's here, chief. If it wasn't Rodger who asked for this favor, I'd be bowling now." In the darkness, only the glow of his cigarette was visible. Each time it moved up, the gaunt facial features revealed by its heightened brightness seemed remarkably appropriate to the vicinity. Then, like a frightened, confused firefly, the glow would fade and float downward.
"It won't be much longer, Billy," the sheriff replied.
The lawmen had promised Rodger that, for two Friday nights, they would watch for pranksters in the cemetery as the Jarven girls returned from town. Only they and the Jarvens knew they were there.
"What time is it?" Loren asked, "The kids should be coming soon."
Before answering, Greenoak waited for the glow to lift one last time and exhaled through the open window. After holding it to his wrist, he dispatched it between a thumb and forefinger. Then, with a snap of his fingers, the butt followed the smoke.
"Its eleven forty five," he reported, "I hear the boys coming. The girls shouldn't be far behind."
"Remember no noise," the sheriff reminded him, "We don't want them to know we're here."
Equipped with night binoculars, both officers stepped from the car; slowly they moved through the trees. Directly across the road from the cemetery, they hunched down behind a cluster of thick brush. While Greenoak trained his glasses toward the on coming boys, Loren focused his on the cemetery. In the greenish circles of their perimeters, he noticed only the occasional scampering of nocturnal wildlife.
"See any ghosts? I don't," Greenoak teased.
By now, the boys had reached the intersection. Crossing it, they breasted, and then passed the officers, their volume holding for several seconds, then receding gradually and finally fading. Both officers noted none of the boys leaving the road.
Now, girlish singing was heard. Loren continued observing the cemetery, while Greenoak refocused on the intersection. The deputy estimated a bevy of some fifteen to twenty girls, their approach paced by the gradually decreasing amplitude of song. By the time they crossed the Corners, the music had died and the girls were edging the culvert farthest from the church. The officers could not help but discern their fear as they passed.
Unlike the boys, the girls passed in sober silence. Finally, the girlish harmony resumed and came echoing back to them. When it faded from earshot, Kregs put down his glasses. Billy seemed about to follow his example when Loren heard him exclaim, "What in tarnation is that?"
In a swift movement, Kregs glasses again went to his eyes. In the distance, they revealed a white figure that appeared to be hobbling toward them. Even through the night glasses, its details were indistinct.
"Where the heck did that come from?" Loren exclaimed, incredulity tingeing his voice, "What is it?"
"I don't know, chief. It came out of the bushes on our side of the road." Astonishment also filled Billy's voice.
Slowly, the phantom moved toward them, its progress labored and slow. It seemed to be holding something in its left hand. Then it turned off the road and appeared to float over the opposite culvert and head toward for the cemetery.
"Did you see that?" Billy exclaimed, "That thing floated right over the culvert! The girls are right; it must be a ghost!"
"Don't be silly! There are no ghosts. Come on; let's get down there with the car."
"Okay, chief, but ghosts aren't in our line of duty. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, I'm doing this against my better judgment.”
The officers sped to where the seeming phantom vanished. And, to Billy's red faced chagrin and tremendous relief, it was a culvert crossing. The thing hadn't floated after all it had hobbled across.
"Don't worry, Billy; I won't tell anyone you believe in ghosts," Kregs teased, "Whoever that is, headed for the cemetery. Let's go back."
Sheriff Kregs, with Senior Deputy, Greenoak, in his wake, moved quietly along the side of the old church. Their flashlights were darkened and their pistols holstered. Kregs presumed that what had moved toward the old cemetery was a kid, bent on a particle joke.
When they arrived close to the left rear of the graveyard, in the soft moonlight, the white figure again was evident. Partially hidden by a Marcy’s stone bench, it was barely visible, but nevertheless real. The figure seemed unaware of their approach and the officers could detect that it was seated on the bench bent over with its face in its hands.
Reaching to within earshot, the men heard the figure speaking. "Oh, Mom. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."
Realization instantly struck the Loren. In a move to retrace his steps, he turned so inexpertly that Greenoak bumped him with a loud grunt. The white figure jumped to its feet and turned.
"It's us Tommy. I'm sorry we disturbed you."
"Yes, Tommy. And, Billy; we're sorry we intruded."
Tommy limped closer to the officers. He was wearing the white summer uniform of a Naval Full Commander. "That's alright Loren. I understand. You must be checking out the girls' story. It was me they saw last Friday."
"I realize that now, Tommy. Why didn't you tell your father?"
"My family's already so worried about me. I come here almost every night to talk to mom to tell her how sorry I am; how much I love and miss her. If they knew that, it would only worry them even more."
"I'll have to tell your dad, son. You know that don't you?"
"I understand. I'll tell him, too."
In the darkness, the young Commander seemed to just become aware of Billy. "I'm sorry Billy. I didn't intend to ignore you. How are you?"
"Just fine. The whole town's proud of you, Tommy."
"We certainly are, Tommy," Loren affirmed, "Your mother was really proud of you. She always told anyone who'd listen about your letters."
In the darkness, Kregs heard a soft chuckle come from Tommy. It pleased him; Rodger had shared that, since his return, Tommy never laughed. Neither had he vented his grief over his mother's death. Instead, he continuously demonstrated tearless mourning. He needed to cry, the Navy doctors had informed Rodger. It would help him heal emotionally.
"Was she really that proud of me? I didn't know that, Loren. I always thought she resented my joining the Navy; that she hated me for breaking her heart. I know I really hurt her when enlisted."
"Tommy, all parents want to keep their children close by. I don't want Butch to leave, but I know that someday he will. I'll still love him and be proud of him. It’s only natural that Verony and I wish he'd never go. That's the way it was with your mother but, was she ever proud of you!"
"She sure enough was," Greenoak agreed, "I've never seen a prouder mother. No women could be more proud of her son than she was."
"Thanks for telling me these things. I never knew them before. If you don't mind, I want to be alone now."
"We understand, son. We'll leave now. Sorry for the intrusion."
"No intrusion, Loren. I'm glad we met here. Tonight, you both helped me more than you realize. Good night." The Commander turned and limped back to the bench. And, as they walked away, the law officers could hear him sobbing.
Back in the car, Loren said, "Don't ever tell anyone but Rodger we heard Tommy crying tonight!"
"I'd never do that, chief."
"I know, Billy. I was reminding myself, too. Let's get out of here."
Tom Jarven inherited his father's prodigious intellect, but not his ties to the land. He sought to sever his roots, though not because he didn't love his family; he did. But the thirst for adventure lacking in his siblings, had been all deposited in him. It felt unquenchable, yet possible to slake temporarily by learning what lay beyond Cayuga County and everywhere else, for that matter.
Tom had breezed through high school. Prodigious in most subjects, he was an absolute phenomenon in mathematics, physics and chemistry. He hated being a prodigy. Others always were awe by him as though he somehow could read their thoughts. By age 14, his powerful frame was a mere two inches below its adult height of six feet, three inches, an advantage he successfully utilized in battling would-be loneliness through sports.
After completing high school at 13, at Rodger's insistence, Tommy began college pharmaceutical studies on a full state scholarship. He had planned to eventually pursue pharmaceutical studies, but resented being forced into college so soon. On his 17th birthday a year before the war began he compelled Rodger to sign him into the Navy by threatening to run away if he refused.
At first, Tom's rebellion brought grief to his mother. But promotion came fast to her son; she soon became a mother whose pride was full blown. After completing boot camp, Tommy was given the stripes of a Chief Pharmacist Mate and assigned to teach at the Navy's school of pharmacology. With the outbreak of war, the Navy offered to send him to Officer's Candidate School. Instead, he requested combat corpsman training and overseas duty. After completing the training and being promoted to Warrant Officer, he was sent to Midway in 1942. There he commanded Navy combat corpsmen attached to the Marines. At Guadalcanal, another promotion made him the Navy's youngest Chief Warrant Officer.
In 1943 he was almost killed at Tarawa. Two enemy concrete machine gun bunkers had raked a large platoon of Marines. Several of them, including their lieutenant, were killed. Severely wounded, many more were calling for a corpsman and Tommy could hear their cries. Each time he endeavored to go, the machine gunning resumed. Finally, he decided that the only solution was to take out the guns; there was no other way to reach the wounded.
Against the all advice, he and a Marine corporal armed themselves with a flamethrower, hand grenades and side arms. Crawling under the barrage of bullets, they had almost reached one of the bunkers, when an enemy exited and lobbed a grenade at them and missed. When he attempted to pitch another grenade, Tommy shot him, and he and the corporal reached the bunker. To the wild cheers of their buddies, they incinerated it through the gun-port, dropped in two hand grenades as a security precaution and moved toward the next gun.
They found no heroes in this nest; the gunners had fled, but not without flinging back several grenades of their own. One exploded almost directly in front of Tommy. It cleanly sliced opened his entire left leg, from thigh to ankle. Now, other corpsman ran to help him. They found him still conscious though in shock screaming that he had to care for the wounded marines, insisting that the corporal destroy the empty bunker before the enemy returned. Finally he comprehended that other corpsmen already were caring for the wounded and that the corporal had flamed and blown the bunker. That's when he passed out and almost died.
The heroic deed earned the corporal the Navy Cross and a promotion to gunnery sergeant. It earned Tommy the Congressional Medal of Honor, a pronounced limp, and no feeling on his complete left side, all at age 20.
In March of 1944, after Tommy's release from the Walter Reed Naval Hospital, the Navy was reluctant to discharge him. Not only was he a prodigy, now he was a war hero as well something he considered a double whammy. The Navy needed men of his caliber, the Naval Chief of Staff informed him. In spite of his disability, it wanted him to stay to make the Navy his permanent career. If he did so, the Chief of Staff could guarantee him an immediate, unprecedented promotion; one from Chief Warrant Officer to full Commander. Tommy needed no time to consider. Since he loved the Navy; he agreed. And so, he was promoted to Commander again, the Navy's youngest.
The Navy had plans for its new Commander. It quickly enrolled him at his old college to complete his pharmaceutical education and planned future assignments to guarantee unlimited opportunities for postgraduate studies, both naval and scientific. Tommy understood that the Navy already had started to groom him toward the eventual leadership of its budding pharmaceutical research department. As early as his boot camp days, he was told, the Naval Chief of Staff had learned of his genius in that field, hence his swift advancement. The only drawback had been his request for combat. The Chief of Staff thought of denying it, but concluded that combat experience could only enhance Tommy's value, so he risked sending him into combat. Now that the Commander had chosen a naval career, the Navy wanted him to achieve his full potential. He now was a permanent "dry land sailor," the Chief of Staff explained; his wounds precluded further combat duty.
Tommy had joined the Navy to see the world, but he wasn't about to gripe. Not when congressional approval and a special dispensation from the Secretary of the Navy had been required for him to stay in. Restriction notwithstanding, he remained.
Though Tommy chose to stay in the Navy, he adamantly insisted that his enlistment caused his mother's death. Rejecting Rodger's assurances that Marcy's heart problem had been congenital, he refused consolation, until his graveside conversation with Kregs and Greenoak. Their assertions prompted him to open unread letters. Sent to him by his dying mother, they had followed in the wake of his island hopping combat, not reaching him until after he learned of her death; then he refused to open them.
The lawmen’s claims were true; the letters manifested his mother's glowing pride in him. He had never known; no one had ever mentioned it. He realized that night, though she had disguised the fact, that his mother knew she never would see him again. She had wanted to prepare him; she had yearned to say goodbye. He also discerned her hesitation to speak forthrightly of her impending death because he was in combat. So her message had been subtle, with only overtones indicating that an imperfectly formed heart would soon take her away. He probably wouldn’t have caught it while in a combat situation, but he saw it now.
"At first, I thought the feelings in my heart wouldn't permit me to marry your father. From childhood, I had always listened to them. Even in eternity, I’ll be thankful that he finally convinced me to ignore what I thought my heart was saying," she wrote in one letter.
"Time has a way of fleeing from us, my darling son," she wrote in another. "My heart tells me to appreciate the time God gives us. This is a feeling I can't ignore. As long as I live, I'll be grateful for my husband and children," she said in another.
Tommy realized that she had written these letters as her last words to him. Motherly love, pride and concern saturated every page.
"No mother could hope for a better son. I'm so very, very proud to call you my own, and I’m proud of the job you are doing in the Navy, helping those wounded boys, so they can return home to their own loved ones. I shall love you throughout eternity, my darling, darling son."
By the time he finished reading this final message from her, his tears were wetting the page. It was a wetness of realization an initiation of healing, brought on by the posthumous balm of love applied to the heart of a grieving son by his loving mother, now deceased.
That night, in the company of his father, Tommy returned her gravesite to again thank his mother for loving him. Both father and son were weeping. When their tears finally assuaged, with Rodger’s arm around his shoulders Tommy said, “Mom, Dad and I are here together to visit you. I’ve been away such a long time and I miss you so very, very much. I know now you didn’t die because of my joining the Navy. I’m so happy I made you proud of me. I shall try to live up to you’re love and pride in me. Thank you, Mom. I’m home at last.
© Josprel (Joseph Perrello)