The Message Out of Time
Walking to the golf course that summer morning was a source of enjoyment. Tennessee is beautiful in the summer, with the sun in the sky, Iris’s and Daffodils in bloom, and lush, green leaves adorning the trees. It was already turning out to be a scorcher; the warm breeze that made it tolerable carried the sweet smell of honeysuckle. During the summer break from school, my friends and I would flock to the municipal golf course every day we could to enjoy the public, Olympic-sized swimming pool. The pool was the happening place, without a doubt, and on a scorcher like this, you could bet it would be filled with beautiful teenage girls and lots of teenage boys filled with all the hopes and desires of youth. Between the oppressive heat and humidity and my teenage hormones, I was restless to get there.
Unfortunately for me, my house was a long walk from the pool along the quaint, neighborhood streets ran through the hills and across the streams of the small town. From Main Street, where I lived, I could have cut straight toward the pool cross-county and it would have been less than a mile. In 1978 rural Tennessee, urban sprawl hadn’t even been thought of yet and the wild places tended to creep right up to the houses of downtown neighborhoods. I would have to take a real hike if I traveled to the pool as the crow flies. It wasn’t that I was incapable of it. Ever since having moved to the small, Tennessee town from southern Florida with my parents, I had accompanied my father often into the heavily wooded hills and valleys around Center Hill Lake. My father was a successful business man in Florida who decided to pick up from the big city rat race and move the family to the slow, wholesome hills of Tennessee. He had bought three hundred acres of rural property around the scenic lake and had lofty plans to develop it into a resort community. Clearing the rough countryside into a polished, resort area was no small task and, as he went every day to mow and chop and shape these woodlands, I would accompany him, spending all day, every day roaming the old-growth forest. Exploring the hills and valleys of this rural paradise attuning myself to nature was a thing I did alone and often. It was during these times that I first met the true wild places where it seemed a human being may have never stepped before. From the age of eight to eleven I got to know these places like an old, mysterious friend.
So, no, it wouldn’t have bothered me to have made the hike through the woods and across the creek to get to the pool but, in the hot, humid climate of a Tennessee summer day, I would have arrived at the pool quite less than fresh. Going to the pool on Saturday when everyone who was anyone would be there, including Becky Stone, the flawless, bronzed, brunette beauty that I had a huge crush on, would require me to arrive as fresh as possible, without brambles and stickers clinging to my socks. Therefore, the prudent course would be to follow Main Street to downtown Smithville, which consisted of a courthouse and a circle of small shops around the Square, and then follow the road around to descend Town Hill and then trudge onward across the bridge. From there, the golf course was only about a mile away. The entire journey was about a mile and a half and I could make it there fairly quickly if I walked at a brisk pace, and still remain somewhat presentable considering what a scorcher it was.
Filled with anticipation of enjoying that cool, refreshing water and not-so-subtle peeks of Becky Stone carousing around the pool in her wet, turquoise-blue bikini with her long, brown hair hanging down her perfectly-tanned back, I was impatient with the time it was taking to walk there. It wasn’t the kind of impatience that might negatively affect my mood or cause me not to enjoy this wonderful day. It was more like the restlessness of a naïve, hormone-filled, thirteen year old boy wanting to get there as quickly as possible and have fun doing what teenage boys do. The sky was blue with the promise of a perfect day at the pool and I was eager to get there. Looking back on it, I wonder if it weren’t something else that lent itself to my underlying sense of unease.
It was due to this odd sense of urgency that I began to consider how much quicker I may have arrived if I had decided to hike through the woods to get there. It was really too late to worry about it though, as I was already three quarters of the way there. I was getting close enough now to hear the sounds of laughter, people diving off of the high dive, the din of conversation, and music blaring on the pool-side juke box. I was already past Town Hill and the bridge, quickly approaching the left turn onto Golf Club Drive. I felt a tinge of resentment that I had to walk - and it was taking for-freaking-ever- as I continued to hear the fun everyone was already having. From the sound of it the crowd was hopping. Three more years and I can get my driver’s license, I thought. Pushing away thoughts about Becky Stone’s popular, football playing boyfriend already having a driver’s license, I arrived at the little, rustic graveyard that occupied the corner lot where Town Hill Road met Golf Club Lane. If I cut through the old graveyard I could cut five minutes off my walk and come out less than fifty yards from the pool. But…
During the course of the summer I had, often, spent the night with my neighborhood friend, Steve Cook. One of our favorite activities was to stay up late with Steve’s older sister, Jolynn, watching late-night scary movies and Creature Feature on the weekends. These were usually the variety of scary movies that were more goofy than scary, and sometimes funny and scary at the same time, but every once in a while they were just plain scary. More often than not, the really scary ones involved a spooky old graveyard just like this one.
This old burial ground wasn’t the best kept. There was no churchyard nearby. This cemetery was the abode of last resort for criminals, indigents, and the very poor. Obviously very old, it ran all the way back to the wooded tree line, containing a strange mixture of newer tomb stones and old, weathered monuments. Placed the way it was along the tree line leading deeper into the old growth forest, it had a quiet eeriness even in the summer morning light. This abode of the dead had even grown a line of trees and thick brush along the side of the road down Golf Club Drive toward the pool. This gave the graveyard a sense of estrangement, cut off and alienated from the rest of the town, closed in amongst forest on two sides and the roadside tree line on the third. Amongst the widely spread, haphazard placement of the tomb stones, large trees were growing throughout the graveyard so that it almost seemed to be a part of the forest. In fact, in my highly developed, thirteen year old imagination, it wasn’t at all improbable that this charnel ground extended far back into the wild places, with the grave stones getting older and more weathered as you went, until it became difficult to discern between grave markers and old, natural stones, both of which had been reclaimed by gnarled vines and wild growth. For all I knew, it ran as far back as the woods between my house and the city pool; as the crow flies. The dark, sinister, gothic crow, I thought, maybe even a whole murder of them. I shuddered to think of what I may have come across had I decided to hike straight through the woods to the pool. Images of this imagined Lovecraftian necropolis began to take hold within my mind and the sweat on my neck seemed to take a cold turn. In the deep shadows of old growth forest, the ancient earth has a way of reminding you of your insignificance in the grand circle of life and death. It’s as if the shadows themselves were whispering I will absorb your bones in the tangle of this forest… come on in.
I was quick to dispel these dark images with those of Becky Stone in her turquoise bikini, and decided to push the fears back down into their rightful place deep within the yet unexplored recesses of my subconscious. By now, it had become a matter of pride. I’m getting too old to scare myself like this. I would cut diagonally across the old graveyard and walk amongst the tombstones toward the corner of the cemetery nearest the pool. Daylight. Sunshine. Saturday morning. Becky Stone!
These happy thoughts did their job until I was about two thirds of the way through the graveyard. The deeper in I traveled, the older and more gothic the stones became, and the closer to the creepy, old growth forest I got. The sounds of pool revelry grew louder and I began to unconsciously grasp upon their familiarity to bolster my courage the further I went. Just as my attention had fully wandered into the comforting realm of audible consciousness, effectively blocking out the reality of where-I-was with the imagined pleasure of where-I-was-going, a loud THUMP,mixed with the tactile sensation of shaking earth underneath my feet caused me to stop cold, my heart in my throat. My quick, reactive glance to the right brought my eyes to rest on the large tombstone that had just fallen over twenty yards away from me! Holy shit!
Any happy thought about sunshine and Becky Stone had fully dissipated as I found myself back in the hell bent reality of the Lovecraftian necropolis, fully aware that something had just sent me a clear and present message that it would not be trifled with! Without cognitive thought, I was painfully aware that it was the “bright-and-sunny” reality that was imaginative, but here… here in this domain of the dark and unthinkable… this was reality! I had been stupid to ever doubt it, and now some denizen of the dead was letting me know how things really are.
A new layer of cold perspiration covered my body and with each heartbeat I heard the sound of blood rushing in my ears. My eyes were locked on the toppled monument and the hole it had left in the ground beneath where it had stood for who knows how long. I half expected a bony, cadaverous hand to shoot itself through the dirt into the morning sunlight. Eyes locked on the broken earth, I was frozen with fear and shaking with adrenalin. For some unknown length of time I simply stood and watched, waiting for the dreadful event to take its next, dark turn. When I began to re-associate with my habitual consciousness, I finally gathered myself enough to sprint the rest of the way out of the graveyard, through the tree line and onto Golf Club Drive nearer the pool. Breaking through the tree line felt like I was being expelled from the graveyard and spit back out into the “reality” of the everyday. Out of breath, heart pounding, I turned back to peer toward the toppled tombstone, fully expecting to see some dark thing following me, but alas, I had been granted a reprieve. I wasn’t anywhere even close to that thing! What made it fall? My mind struggled between logic and confusion as I tried to cope with having been pulled beyond the grim, dark veil that lingers in every charnel ground to one degree or another. The truth was there was absolutely no logical reason that stone should have fallen; especially right as I walked near, but not too near, it!
On that beautiful, sunny day in 1978 it was easy for me to simply turn away and jog the rest of the way to the pool and lose myself in the fun of youth and the lust of Becky Stone. It’s all I could do.
Thirty three years later, pondering the memory of my sojourn into that dim necropolis, my heart still beats nervously at the thought of the attention given me that morning, so long ago. Fortunately, for the boy I was then, enough innocence still existed within me to “shake it off” and immerse myself back into the pursuits of life in the everyday world, if there is such a thing. Now, however, all these years later, having been no stranger to matters that gradually eroded my innocence during life’s voyage, the message from that inhuman herald reaches out not across but outside of time. Somehow, I know, that’s where it exists, and that’s where it’s always been. When this thing called man is but a memory, and the stones of the graveyards have become the dust of the forest, perhaps it will remember me, a young and naïve trespasser.
What I know, a lifetime later, is that things exist outside of the reality made available to us through frail human senses. What poor senses of perception we possess for looking deeply into the night. How pitiful we must seem to those terrible things who watch us struggle feebly along our way. I, now, realize the fullness of the illusions we create, communicated to me through a toppled tombstone across decades of time, and I tremble.
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