Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Hello Hudson" - Cemeteries, Halloween, Ouija boards, and the fine art of all-out sprinting!

West End Cemetery by the light of the full moon on Halloween night. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

There are two kinds of scary in this world – good scary, and bad scary.

Bad scary is when you turn around in a mall and can’t find your son or daughter who was just standing next to you, or hearing sirens when your daughter is an hour late for her curfew and you can’t reach her on her cell phone. Thankfully, nine times out of ten, those instances turn out to be nothing more than a false alarm, and all you’re really dealt is a heaping dose of perspective.

Good scary is going to see a slasher flick with your friends, or playing a practical joke, or walking into an old cemetery at midnight illuminated by nothing but the light of a full moon … by yourself … on Halloween!

I can’t say I’m much a fan of slasher flicks, after high school they kind of lost their appeal – and practical jokes never flew well with me either, but as far as walking into a creepy cemetery at midnight is concerned? Well, that’s something I’ve never outgrown and still really enjoy.

At least that's what I was trying to tell myself as I made the long walk through the moonlit, grassy field leading to the old West End Cemetery behind my childhood home in Berlin Heights, Ohio, shortly after midnight on, you guessed it - Halloween.

My goal was to stroll into the cemetery and find the gravesite of Hudson Tuttle - a name that sounds spooky enough, but is even spookier considering Tuttle’s history.

Tuttle, who was born in Berlin Heights in 1836, made his living like most folks in my hometown did in back in the day; he was a farmer and a horse breeder. What made Tuttle unique was the fact he also was a spiritualist. Never a big believer in organized religion, Tuttle attended his first séance as a young man and apparently fell into a trance, writing spirit messages “automatically.”

Despite his lack of formal education (he only attended 11-months of school his entire life) at the age of 18, Tuttle wrote a book on spiritualism “Arcana of Nature” that was quoted from by famed author F. C.L. Buchner. Tuttle also was quoted from Charles Darwin from one his later books “Origin and Antiquity of Physical Man.” Ironically, neither Buchner nor Darwin had any idea they were quoting from an uneducated, 18-year-old, Ohio farm boy. On top of all that, Tuttle was the inventor of a Ouija board-type device he called the Psychograph. Tuttle and his spiritualist buddies used the Psychograph to contact the dead during their numerous séances. 

So I figured, what better gravesite to visit at midnight on Halloween under the light of a full moon than that of Hudson Tuttle? Believe it or not, I was alone because my kids were too scared to accompany me on the trek – wimps!

What was there to be afraid of? Just because West End Cemetery was perilously perched high atop the cliff bank leading down to Old Woman’s Creek and half the gravestones were either tilting this way or that, or cracked completely in half, was no reason to be frightened. And just because the most recent burial at the cemetery took place long before I was even born, was of no concern. And so what if there was a whole section in the cemetery devoted to children who died from scarlet fever – or small pox – or cholera - or even just childbirth. And just because the cemetery should be condemned because continual erosion is making it a matter of time before caskets start tumbling down the cliff bank and into the creek, doesn’t mean the place is spooky!

Still, there I was ... alone, walking the last 50-yards or so to the cemetery gate. The moon was so bright it was easy to see the tombstones jutting out into the night. All evening long I'd been bombarded with Grim Reapers, Freddy Kreugers, Jasons and escaped mental patients. But all of that was expected – this was truly scary.

As I got closer, I started remembering all the times I had visited the cemetery with my older sister and her friends when we were kids. We’d often take her Ouija board with us and put it on top of Tuttle’s grave to try and contact him. Of course there is security in numbers, especially when you’re a kid, so I think we all felt somewhat safe when the Ouija board’s planchette began roaming across the board with our nervous fingertips in tow.

Usually, before the last letter of the first word was completely spelled out, someone would freak out and bail. This would start a chain reaction among the rest of us, and soon it was a free-for-all back toward my house across the long, grass field. 

The speed attained by the average 11-year-old scared out of his or her wits is hard to describe. Any kid knows you can run faster in the dark – it’s a simple kid fact, just like swimming pool water is always warmer at night too - you don’t question it, it’s just a fact. Of course it didn’t hurt that the entire 500-yard sprint back to my house was downhill. Still, I remember my fear turning to absolute glee when I'd hit top speed about halfway home, knowing full well no ghost in the world could keep up with such an incredible gait. 

My feet barely touched the ground - it felt like I was flying, like most kids in my town, I may have been barefoot as well. If we were lucky, someone would have remembered to bring the Ouija board. If not? Chances were pretty good the board would stay there until morning light.

The memory made me crack up as I approached the gate.

“What is it that makes a cemetery so scary at night?” I thought to myself.

“It’s not like the dead care if it’s day or night – it’s dark to them no matter what time of day it is.”

I swung out around the gate that hangs half over the cliff bank - probably the only real scary thing I'd done so far that evening. Plummeting 150-feet off a shale cliff into Old Woman’s Creek wasn’t out of the question, but I’d swung around that gate so many times as a kid, it was kind of like riding a bike – even by moonlight.

Hudson Tuttle's tombstone.

Once inside the cemetery, I had to call on my memory to find Tuttle’s grave. Even though he was born in the 1830’s and died in 1910, his tombstone wasn’t all that old looking or scary. Not like some of the markers at West End that were truly creepy – even in daylight.

The ground was quite uneven in the cemetery, most likely from creep (the actual geological term for when the earth moves due to the gravity of a hillside) toward the cliff bank … or moles. Either way, it was enough to make me stumble a time or two. Once I actually stumbled enough to fall to the ground, this time over a bone. If I were a kid that would've been the time to bolt, but I realized fairly quickly that the femur I'd tripped over was merely a prank by one of the town’s freshly minted group of kids who’d probably just discovered the joy of ghost seeking at West End themselves.

The tall pine trees in the cemetery blocked out most of the moonlight and made it hard to see. But soon my eyes adjusted to the darkness and before long I could have read a book - maybe even a book by Hudson Tuttle! And wouldn’t you know it, my memory and my navigation skills must have been finely tuned, because at my feet was Hudson’s grave, along with his wife Emma’s.

It was just as I remembered. His tombstone was rather plain and modern looking, but still in good shape; clean with no debris or chipping, it was like he could have been buried last week. Before I got caught up in ringing up Hudson, my own cell phone rang. It was my concerned daughter calling to make sure the dead hadn’t abducted me. She’s 13, the perfect age for thoughts like that.

“Liv, it’s past midnight, go back to bed, I’m fine.” I assured her.

“Okay dad, but hurry up would you?”

I put the phone back in my pocket wondering what life would have been like if I had a cell phone as a kid and my mom would've called when I was in the midst of spiritual connection.

It didn’t matter. Here I was standing by Tuttle’s grave. I took out my camera and snapped off a few frames using the moonlight and a flash as my light sources. With every flash the entire cemetery would light up and then vanish in an instant.

On my last exposure I pressed the shutter and the flash lit up something I wasn’t expecting – a figure hanging from the branch of a pine tree. Suddenly, the 11-year-old in me kicked in and, just like I’d done a hundred times before as a kid, I darted up from Tuttle’s grave and began sprinting the 500-yards to my mom’s house.

Of course, tombstones that once stood erect now littered the cemetery grounds and I caught the edge of one right in my shinbone sending me reeling to the ground. No time for pain, I got up and continued on, sling-shotting around the gate with extreme precision before accelerating down the hill toward home. Halfway there I hit top speed, maybe not as fast as I was at 11, but pretty good for a 44-year-old. Once again I felt as my feet were barely touching the ground. A smile crossed my face - this was good scary, and soon I was laughing.

My heart was beating like a rabbit when I reached the safety of the house. Once inside, I walked upstairs and assured my daughter I was still alive, and then I hit the sack.

The next morning, the kids and I headed back to West End to sacrifice our Jack-O-Lanterns over the cliff bank into Old Woman’s Creek. Once inside the cemetery, I peered over at Tuttle’s grave once again, and there; hanging from a branch of the pine tree, was a toy skeleton.

“That was good one Hudson, “ I said to myself, “a good one indeed.”

No comments:

Post a Comment