By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
The legendary Lewis Grizzard noted the difference between naked and nekkid is that naked is just not having clothes on, but nekkid means that you’re up to something.
I have come to realize that the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard (bone orchard) is that graveyards are haunted. They’re up to something. Every one.
The rural Wrinkled don’t like to speak of such things. My grandmother said, “I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I’m scared of them.”
She believed some graveyards are worse than others. Some just might scare you and others, well, others might do worse. Some might get you. They are bone orchards.
Old Pisgah graveyard in northwest Walker County, with near 400 residents, is worse. Residents are permanent but perhaps restless, you know. It sits, abandoned and furious, midst craggy hills and shadowy forests. It sits apart. And it’s said that whatever walks there at night walks alone.
There are more than 300 cemeteries and graveyards in Walker County. Old Pisgah is a bone orchard, with a reputation. It is therefore attractive to the hardy and the foolhardy. Its foreboding landscape is perfect for minor rites of passage – for hunting the mythic snipe or taking a dare. It is a prime place for young Lochinvars to terrify a maiden with lurid tales and, of course, to provide comfort.
Among those who know his exploits, D.T. is a legend. Of medium size but well made, dark haired handsome, he had a wry wit that bordered on gifted. He was smart. He could plan something for weeks, and also he could respond to a situation in a blink. So I don’t know when the Old Pisgah plan began to incubate – the set up and the sting.
Someone, it might’ve been D.T., planted the idea that Old Pisgah, outside police jurisdiction and away from prying eyes, might be the perfect spot to gather on Friday nights after the game, after the date, hoist a few cold ones and celebrate life right there in midst of death.
And so it became. Most Friday nights, eight or nine hardy (foolhardy?) souls would rendezvous at Old Pisgah, Sometimes there were a dozen guys lounging about, telling lies and laughing, sort of daring the tombstones.
At heart, maybe they were a little uneasy (whistling past the graveyard). None had seen a ghost or knew anyone who provingly had. But, well, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So they thought Old Pisgah was haunted, but they didn’t really believe it. D.T. changed all that.
D.T. was the first student at Walker High School to own the brand new invention, the cassette tape deck. Those portable recorders were at first used for business records and such. Later came the music cassettes.
They were expensive but D.T. got one, and he told nobody. Possibilities were always swinging through D.T.’s mind. He figured the deck was going to be useful. He wasn’t sure why or when or how. So I don’t know whether the Old Pisgah rendezvous or the tape deck came first.
The tape deck was not a toy yet, before mass production and the music. He paid more than a hundred bucks for it, and this is when gasoline was 30 cents a gallon and minimum hourly wage was a $1.25. The day the recorder arrived, D.T. went straight to the tool shed and came back to the living room with chains and a sheet of tin roofing.
He ran five minutes of silence on the tape then, going low, moaned an eerie oooooooohhhhhhh into it, and rattling a chain a little. Then some silence, then ooooeeeeeeeeeee and a little heavier chain. Then, into a hand towel, oooohhhhooohhh. Silence for a minute. Then OOOOOOHHHHHOOOOOO, moans and groans and shouts, chains rattling and the tearing sound of shaken tin. Fearful noise.
Friday, after school, he put the tape deck and a length of rope into his car and drove to Old Pisgah. He walked to a tree near where his party guys parked, threw the rope over a limb, attached the tape deck and hauled it 15 feet into the air. He went home and, like the bone orchard itself, waited for prey.
That night he was the last to arrive at the rendezvous, and, aforethought, parked away from the rest. It was about 11 p.m. Spirits were high, in many ways. The night was perfect, with a sparse cloud cover and a gusty wind. There was a faint moon. Clouds scudded overhead. All were jolly.
One of the ancillary attractions to party/rendezvous in a graveyard (bone orchard) was that it is also one big place to pee. One needs merely to step away behind the stones.
At five minutes to midnight, D.T. announced for relief, stepped away into the lidded night, and went to the tree. He lowered the tape deck, pushed the play button, and hoisted it back up. He returned to group, and engendered a lively conversation.
Right in the middle of some raucous laughter, one of they guys stopped suddenly and said, “Did ya’ll hear that?”
I told you the night was perfect. The tree, yet with yellowing leaves, muffled the first small sounds, coming from above, and the wind pushed the sound around until even D.T. couldn’t tell from whence it came. He said, “I didn’t hear anything.” And the laughter resumed.
A half-minute later, one of the other guys said, “Hey, wait a minute. I think I heard something, too.” D.T. said he was crazy, but everybody stopped talking and started listening, and swallowing hard.
Then the night burst with cacophony, yells and chains and moans and then the thundery rippling sound that is made by shaken tin. Fearful noise.
There were three wrecks.
When the dauntless graveyard goers fled toward their cars, D.T. sort of sauntered along behind. His car, parked further away, was safe. Not so for the panicked. Fenders crunched and a headlight shattered. A tail light, too.
One unfortunate, almost to his car, got his pantleg snagged on the protruding limb of a stunted bush, blurted “Got me!” and lunged free for the doorhandle, but he missed the button and jammed his thumb something awful. In fact, D.T. said, that thumb never did heal right.
D.T.’s was the last car out. When all were out of sight, he doubled back and got his tape deck.
Phones rang all weekend at the homes of students at Walker High School. And Monday, school halls rang with the story. There was proof positive Old Pisgah was haunted. Nobody was sure anything actually had been seen, but fearful things had been heard and heard by more people than just some.
Students could hardly wait until after the game Friday to gather at Old Pisgah for some serious ghostbusting.
(Next week’s final: Old Pisgah graveyard strikes back at Our Hero.)
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com.