With late October in mind, I thought that I would write about the time that a ghost (that’s right — a real regulation white ghost that would emerge nightly from an old graveyard) floated throughout the abandoned and overgrown farm fields of our rural New Jersey community in the late ‘60s.
I should mention that I don’t believe in ghosts and do not celebrate All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween. Scholars who have followed the history of this holiday into dark antiquity have determined that its purpose is to memorialize the Nephalim, or demon spawn, that were destroyed in the flood of Noah’s day — yuck. Still, as we move into October, phantom-like rivulets of cool air course their way down the mountainsides and make a solitary tree limb or shirt on a clothesline dance wildly. The yellow sunlight slants lower seeking out normally hidden nooks and crannies of the fields and forests, and as the shadows grow longer, it becomes easy to imagine that spirits are on the move. It became even easier after actually seeing “The White Thing,” as I did.
The old roads.
We weren’t sure who built the old roads that we referred to as “tractor paths”; they were just always there. Elaborate grading and drainage work hinted that they were once more than simple farm lanes. They were probably Colonial-era roads touched up by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ‘30s. This network was quite extensive and it allowed a lad too young for a driver’s license to drive his $50 DeSoto to the school dance. In the ‘50s, these roads were a privileged shortcut — if you knew the landowner.
By the late ‘60s, though, as suburbia began to encroach upon the area, developers started purchasing large tracts of fields and with them, the old roads. And so these multi-thousand-acre tracts sat neither farmed nor developed for years while the investors waited for the right time to make their move. During this era, we who were too young to drive legally used these roads freely. We moved over them in a colorful variety of automobiles, motorcycles, tractors and homemade motorized contraptions.
To say that these fields were completely untended would be inaccurate. By law, they had to be mowed now and then to prevent the large wildfires that we regularly seemed to have anyway. I found the method of fighting these fires kind of interesting. Everyone who might be available was welcome to assist. As the fire roared and crackled across fields of dry broom sage and cedar sprouts, we would pull up the highly flammable cedars and use them to beat out the flames. When the volatile cedar oil would ignite, we would throw the flaming tree onto burned-over, ground and grab another.
I’m not exactly sure how Uncle Joe and I were related. Possibly, his folks and mine had extensive dealings in Europe before they immigrated. Just as the 1967 school year was beginning, Joe secured a mowing contract from one of the developers. Since Joe preferred to limit his actual labor to elevating quart bottles of Schaefer beer, I was hired to do the actual mowing. Joe had acquired a vintage (delicate euphemism) Ford 9N tractor and a Mott Hammer Knife mower through one of the many deals available to the Jersey Bar Fly.
Getting to the fields that I was to mow required extensive travel over these old roads aboard the 9N. Because I wasn’t paid for the commute, it cut severely into my after-school mowing time and made realizing my dream of owning a Harley-Davidson Sportster even more distant. I was thus inclined to mow until dark and drive home with nothing but the flickering wedge of 6-volt light that the tractor’s single remaining headlamp beamed in front of me. This was real darkness — no streetlights — and the glow of distant houses accompanied me for only a small portion of the way.
In the middle of this expanse, it seemed as though the tractor’s wheels had synchronized themselves with the rotation of the earth and that I wasn’t really moving. My friends and I had grown up on TV programs such as “Chiller Theatre,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits.” We agreed that traveling this stretch at night, either by tractor, motorcycle or even automobile was pretty scary. We sensed that the goblins, monsters, space creatures, beheaded knights and so forth from these programs were right behind us and off to the side, just beyond the headlamp’s glow.
Some of these creatures and apparitions ran on grotesque, oversized legs, others crawled and some slimed and globbed along as best as slimy globular creatures could. Some flew in the manner of witches, while the Japanese pterodactyl, Rodan, flew overhead on slowly beating wings. To look to the right or left was to invite them to leap into your path, grab your handlebars or steering wheel or pluck you from your seat.
As scary as these rides could be, all of the monsters were confined to our imaginations.
That is, until people began seeing “The White Thing.” It was there all right, drifting soundlessly over the dark fields, having no well-defined shape. Theories of swamp gas and ball lightning and even ectoplasm were considered.
As the number of sightings increased, rumors insisted that “The White Thing” was heard screaming, that it disappeared as if swallowed by the ground whenever a light was shone toward it, that it disemboweled livestock and that it came out of a graveyard at night. This latter rumor actually proved to be true.
In the area where most of the sightings occurred was an old, overgrown farmhouse. The barns and out buildings were a shambles of weathered boards and rusted tin roofs. The mysterious lone inhabitant of the collapsing farmhouse made his presence known only by a dim glow at night, probably from an oil lamp, in the one room that he apparently lived in.
Near the farmhouse was a field, and in the middle of the field was a cluster of trees, some of which were of a size to indicate that they were more than 100 years old. They covered about an acre. It was from this grove of trees that The White Thing was said to emerge after dark.
One day, the DeNappolini brothers and I decided to investigate these woods and find out what we could about The White Thing. These brothers were tough, fearless Mafiosi heirs apparent. I was happy to be in such good company. We hiked out to the grove of trees that were starting to show some autumn color. We carried various weapons — baseball bats, hunting knives and a loaded .22 rifle. None of this armament or any of the strategies that we devised prepared us for what we would find.
In the midst of the trees was a graveyard. Some of the gravestones dated back to the 1700s, which is not unusual in this part of the country. One of the stones stood askance — the grave had been dug up and apparently had caved in again. The disturbance wasn’t new. Rain had rounded the pile of dirt and softened the edges of the grave. My Italian friends crossed themselves.
We gave The White Thing a wide berth after that. Some of us were becoming old enough to drive and, with considerable relief, no longer had to travel this lonely expanse at night. A few sightings still occurred, but a new and fascinating world of free mobility was opening up for us, and our interests were directed elsewhere — to cars and girls.
We never found out who had opened the grave. In a small community, a story usually surrounds finds like this. The lack of one is a strong indication that the perpetrator (in this case, probably just some boy who had read Tom Sawyer) went away and never came home. The information trail probably ended abruptly at someplace like Anzio or Iwo Jima or — considering the date on the stone — maybe Verdun or even Antietam.
That large tract of land is completely developed now with high-end homes and posh asphalt lanes with woodsy names. Occasionally, while gardening or perhaps setting a post for a mailbox, people may find pieces of the past: an old piece of metal from a tractor or implement, the brass remnant of an old paper-cased shotgun shell or a porcelain insulator from an electric fence. Wildlife still abounds in the creek and river bottoms. Folks still delight at seeing muskrat squirrel, pheasant, geese and, on rare occasions, a snowy white albino deer, likely a descendant of The White Thing.