I want to share a story about a member of my family who still seems to be living a life as he once knew it. I have been told since I was small not to be afraid of him, that he is my uncle and he is just our playful ghost and would never mean any harm. He was 13 and a half years old on the day of his death and the year was 1965. Earl's sudden death took place two days before the start of summer and a few short months before Hurricane Betsy would rip through his hometown of New Orleans, LA. Earl was my mother's younger brother. These stories revolve around my mother's immediate family so I need to introduce all of her siblings to you.
My mother was born in 1950, Earl in 1951, Jamie in 1960, Vincent in 1961, and my grandmother was pregnant with my youngest uncle, Casey, when the accident happened in 1965. On the morning of Earl's death he had awoken with a swollen foot and was complaining about having to go to school. My grandfather said if the boy doesn't want to go to school, don't make him go to school. After my grandfather left for work my grandmother made up her mind that Earl was indeed going to school and she called a cab for him. I have been told that Earl was a dreamer and like many teenagers probably didn't give most of his attention to class or the teachers. For whatever reason one of the school's nuns took an unfair interest in pitting him against some other boys he went to school with. These nuns wanted to see him fight. He was no bully. Earl had mentioned to my grandmother that on a couple of occasions he could see a few of the nuns from the second story windows of his school jeering at situations involving Earl and other boys engaged in fist fights. This had really hurt Earl to think that an adult would exploit his situation, especially his teacher.
Never the less, on this morning wrapping up the end of another school year Earl arrived in his homeroom, apparently unable to get around easily. From Earl's very own recount of what happened, my grandmother tells me that to his astonishment this nun who had so many times antagonized him had responded warmly to him that morning. He would recount how she made sure that he would not have to hobble to the school's cafeteria. Instead, she collected a plate lunch for Earl and herself and brought them back up to the classroom where the two of them laughed and talked and connected for the first and very last time of their lives. When Earl arrived home that day he was ecstatic about this experience he had shared with his teacher. He obviously had wanted to connect with her. He told my grandmother, "I was sooo wrong about her! She's so wonderful! I can't believe it!" These were some of the last words he would ever say to his mother. Since my grandmother had basically forced him to go to school that day she felt she couldn't very well keep him from wanting to meet up with the neighborhood boys that he ran with.
His best friend, Martin, lived across the street from my family. Martin was 16 and the oldest of about three boys who had planned with Earl that day to make a trip before dinner down to the end of their street and catch the train tracks out of the parish and into the surrounding swamps. Like on many occasions, these boys had packed rifles and shells that day and were in search of alligators. These teenagers often swung full grown alligators over their shoulders and would make the trip back to the house, lugging them the whole way.
The story has been told to me that all of the boys had a dangerous, flirtatious habit of playing chicken with the trains that came through the area. Whether or not this was the case that day, Earl somehow got his foot stuck in the tracks. He was unable to get out from its path and he was fatally hit shortly before 5:00pm. My grandmother was preparing dinner. My grandfather had a habit of calling right before 5:00pm every evening to see how dinner was coming. On this particular day he called a little earlier than usual. My grandmother was not aware of Earl's death and told my grandfather that everything was fine. He would leave work not knowing that his 13 year old son was no longer with them. We often think it was fortunate that my grandfather would be able to peacefully drive home.
Sometime shortly after my grandparents spoke on the phone Martin ran all the way back to his mother's house across the street and they both ran to tell my grandmother that Earl had been hit by a train. About the same time my mother, who was 14, remembers coming out of a corner store at the end of the street. She remembers seeing police cars and ambulances rushing down the highway towards the parish line and thinking to herself, "My God, someone just got hit by a train." She could not know it was her brother. It wasn't until she made her way down the street that she was to find a scene transpiring in her front yard. No one said a word as she approached. My mother walked into the house to find my grandmother. My grandmother - she's such an unbelievable person. She had the presence of mind, while having to take all this in, to call the family doctor and tell them to be at the home before my grandfather would arrive. She cautioned to the medical personnel that he would need to be medically sedated as he would soon learn that his son had been hit by a train and was dead. The first time my mother would hear those words of her brother's death would be from overhearing her mother having to make that phone call.
In all the commotion my mother ran down the street and hid in the woods and cried as the neighbors fanned out to the scene. Unbelievably, my grandmother was left to collect her 3 and 4 year old sons and begin the walk down their street to those tracks to her oldest son. My uncle, Vincent, who was 3 remembers trying to keep up with my grandmother as she moved down the street towards the tracks with Jamie in her arms. She was unaware of everything in that moment but Earl.
Martin's mother had driven to the scene and was so hysterical the police thought she was the mother. They tended to her frantically. When my grandmother arrived, pregnant, with her two boys, the police and medics ushered themselves around her and ultimately seated her in the backseat of a cop car. She was silent and consumed. As she sat with her two little boys, Martin's mother caught sight of her and screamed, "That's the mother! I'm not the mother!" My grandmother handed her boys off to Earl's friend, Martin, and told him to take them away.
On the night of the accident my grandmother stayed home with 3 year old Vincent and 4 year old Jamie. Neighbors had taken my mother in that night and my grandfather had disappeared into the night screaming. It was still fairly early in the evening, around 8:00pm, three hours after the accident and my grandmother sat alone. Her toddlers were by her side when the phone rang. She picked it up and Earl's voice began, "Momma, where are you? Everyone's left. You need to come get me." She then heard silence as she tried to get a word out herself which she couldn't. The phone call ended as quickly as it had begun. He had only been gone for three hours.
From that night Earl would appear in and around their house for the next 25 years that my grandparents resided there. There are many stories. Earl certainly was not ready to leave this life. He was full of life and was said to be constantly on as if everyone around him were his audience. In spite of this he had some unexplainable dread about his future even at a very young age. He was known for telling my grandmother he truly didn't believe he would live to grow old. Even at a very young age he would ask her as if she could confirm it. In his mind, she's his mother, and he somehow reasoned she would know these things. Even at the age of 13 and under he seemed to be aware of the fleetingness of his thumbprint on this world. The family had even owned one of those cheap Magic Eight Balls in the 50's when he was a child. Apparently, every time he would ask about his future and shake it he would always get ominous replies like, "Ask again later, Can not share at this time, Future is uncertain." Even though this was only supposed to be viewed as a family toy Earl had gotten so shaken by this toy that my grandparents destroyed it. During the funeral my mother remembers looking out the back window and seeing hundreds of cars in procession with them. There were hardly cars going anywhere else. Even as young as 13, Earl had networked friendships from around everywhere, and strangers had come from neighboring states for his services because no one could believe this had happened. This event unraveled many lives. Earl's best friend, Martin, would be affected by this event horribly. My family tells me how Martin used to take rocks and spell messages like, "You're next," across the tracks, laying large stones on the rails to derail trains. Thankfully, nothing ever came of the rocks. Unfortunately, Earl's friend grew up to ultimately take lives himself. Our family has always felt that this accident had a huge role in shaping Martin's life.
To give you a sense of the neighborhood where these people come from, let me describe to you my grandparent's house. It may give insight into their world. My grandparent's house used to be a car repair shop in the 1940's before my grandparents bought it in the 1950's. The living room was originally the repair shop area where cars would be worked on. There are two bedrooms upstairs where a person must walk through one to get to the other. These rooms were once where offices were located for the car shop. The far bedroom, away from the staircase, would have been Earl's and eventually Vincent's room. My grandmother told me that Earl and his friend, Martin, used to play cops and robbers in his room when they were teenagers. This would irk my grandfather because when he would come up the stairs, the boys would climb out the window yelling, "The fuzz! The fuzz!" and hang outside the window by their hands. Two bedrooms downstairs were once small offices on either side of the car repair shop. The whole house has a very rustic, earthy feel. You feel like you are outside even when you are inside because of drafty doors with splintered corners covered in ply-board. All doors have simple latch hooks to lock them. The faucets in the bathtub would give off a little jarring shock if you touched them. My grandfather would just wrap a tub rag around the faucet to lighten the shock when you'd turn it on. Even as a kid I remember there was always a set of old car seats propped together in one corner of the living room that created a bar table feel to them. My grandmother was always barefoot in her house, being the country girl she is. There were mice in her kitchen. I'd point them out to her and she'd just say, "I know, don't scare them." Woods creep up to the back of the house where beyond you can walk trails going in all different directions. Kids from other neighborhoods would appear far off in the trails and everyone stands their ground, sometimes with shotguns in hand. Beyond these woods were several junkyards, huge sprawling sand pits for construction, swamps everywhere, and the tracks. An old snake farm was near the house where the boys used to catch and sell the snakes and alligators.
Our family still owns this house today although my grandparents moved out in 1990. My grandparents have always related that they would never sell the house because Earl had never left and they wanted to give him the time that he needed to pass over. They always seemed to understand that they shouldn't expect him to do that easily. Before my grandparents moved they used to leave the side gate unlocked, the side and back lights of the house on, and the back door unlocked for Earl. Vincent would move back in 1990 by himself until 1995 when he had to move for a job. Since 1995 our family has rented the property until the present. I honestly don't know if renters experience Earl's presence. We have never asked them and they have never offered up the conversation. These stories that I am about to share have always been looked upon by my family with adoration and love for a 13 year old who seems to be living out a life frozen in time. These events have also fed out hearts and perpetuated a need to understand the mystery of life and death.
My uncle Jamie is mentally retarded and at the time of Earl's death, Jamie was 4. He is now 50 and possesses the mind and pure heart of a child of about 2 and a half or 3 today. At the age of 4 he would call Earl "Bubba." A little less than a year after Earl's death when Jamie was about 5 the family was in the backyard with neighbors sitting in lawn chairs placed in a large circle in the yard. At some point Jamie became hysterically excited. He looked up into the sky, pointing and clapping his hands and running around the lawn chairs in a circle. He was laughing and yelling, "Bubba! Bubba! Bubba!" No one could calm him down. It was as if Jamie was reeling at his big brother who was entertaining just for him.
When Vincent was about 4 he remembers standing by the back corner of the house looking on into the back yard at Jamie, or what looked like Jamie floating and rolling above the ground and laughing. He described it as looking like someone who would be lying in the grass on their back and playing with Jamie in their arms. It was as if Jamie experienced it as a completely natural experience and of course he could not have even expressed it from his point of view to anyone if he had wanted to. It's hard to understand what he wants today. Vincent reflects that he was at an age where things you perceive may not have made sense at the time but he was so young that he didn't understand what he was looking at and didn't quite know if to even question it.
Vincent would take Earl's upstairs bedroom as he grew up. He always felt safe in the room but remembers a day a few years later where he could hear my grandparents downstairs arguing in anguish over Earl's death. As Vincent gazed into the doorway of his bedroom he saw his big brother, Earl, looking right at him and leaning in the doorway with his arms folded and this look on his face as if to say, "Oh God, they're at it again." Vincent was extremely shaken at what he had seen and my grandparents really tried not to argue over Earl's death in front of their children again.
My mother tells a story that happened shortly after Earl's death. She and her best friend at the time, who is still her best friend today, were sitting on the couch in the living room and they heard the side gate open, the back door open and footsteps march up the stairs. They thought someone was breaking in so they ran to the front door and yelled to Martin across the street. Again, this was Earl's best friend who had been with him at the accident. Martin ran to the house with his gun within seconds and ran to confront who was upstairs. No one was there and the back door was still locked. He stayed with them until my grandparents got home that evening. It wasn't until later that they reassessed what had happened and figured this had been Earl "coming home."
Vincent fondly reminisces when Earl was alive he used to like to stand behind the doorframe of the bathroom and jump out at Vincent to make him jump, then Earl would pick Vincent up and throw him in the air and make him laugh. After Earl's death Vincent says Earl regularly hid behind that doorframe and would jump out at Vincent when he would walk through. It may be hard to imagine but Vincent did get used to it and over the years grew to expect it.
My grandmother has always fondly told a story where she is sitting in her living room alone and Earl appears before her in the room. She sits still without taking her eyes off of him as her son appears to her at the age of 13. He then slowly changes from 13 to 12 to 11 and so on until he appears before her as her baby. Just as he appears, he fades back away behind that curtain of "reality."
Decades later, after my grandparents had moved away and Vincent had moved back into the house by himself in the early 1990's he remembers an evening where he is about to prepare a shower. He steps into the bathroom to find the floor flooded with 3 inches of water. Annoyed, he rushes into the kitchen to grab the mop and returns within seconds to find the bathroom bone dry. This instance is one in a number of strange occurrences that center around the area of the house where that bathroom is located. Another story originates around an old chest of drawers under the window in the bathroom. One night Vincent placed his comb and hand rag on the chest of drawers and stepped back out the bathroom for something. He returned a moment later to find the top drawer pulled out and his things sitting inside of it.
My younger sister and I were visiting Vincent in the house one weekend in the early 1990's. I was 16 and my sister was a few years younger. It was just the three of us that day. I had brought a backpack with some of my things with me. At some point I was digging in the backpack for my hairbrush and couldn't find it. I asked my uncle and sister if they had seen it or if they were messing with me but they both denied having seen it. The day went by and eventually I forgot about it. A few hours later I found myself doing what you would do when you're bored in your grandparent's house. I began snooping around. I wasn't looking for anything in particular but just walking around 'abandoned' rooms and pulling out drawers of the furniture left behind by my grandparents. Vincent's old bedroom was the only room being lived in by him at the time so I played around in all the other bedrooms. I found myself in the bedroom connected to Vincent's room upstairs. As I was pulling out random drawers and digging around I stood next to an old bed in the room that has pull out drawers in the headboard. I pulled a drawer out and there was my hairbrush.
My sister had an experience when she was 12. We were both sleeping in one of the downstairs bedrooms. My sister had brought some school items with her that included a protractor, pencils, and a composition book. She got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and when she came back in the room she turned on the light so she could see for a moment. She glanced at the chest of drawers where she had left her school items and stood paralyzed, staring at her protractor and a pencil propped up against each other in the shape of a triangle.
Another incident revolves around the bed upstairs with the pullout drawers. There is a space in the middle of the headboard where you can place a picture frame between the drawers. On the day of Earl's death a box of gun shells that they were using to kill an alligator with had gone missing at the scene. This box was missing and assumed gone forever. 25 years later, in the early 1990's, the box with the gun shells reappeared in that space between the drawers in the bed. It sat there plain as day. Vincent picked it up and took it into his bedroom where it stayed for the next few years. He handled it many times and couldn't understand how it had come to be on the shelf of that bed. It would eventually vanish again. It has never reappeared.
Many teenagers lived on and around my mom and uncle's old street and I got to know them all very well because my uncles and their friends were closer in age to me than my mother, who again was 16 years older than my youngest uncle. My grandparent's house had become the hangout spot in the early 1980's. I remember arriving for holidays and the front door would be wide open and 8 to 10 teenagers from the block would be crammed into the living room watching the early MTV. On many occasions the TV would be known to flip channels and turn off and on and some of the more skittish teens would knock into each other trying to get out the house. My grandma would be sitting at her table peeling potatoes and just laughing at everyone. One of the neighborhood boys, Sam, who used to come visit had what my uncles called a psychic web. I'm not quite sure what this implied but I remember there were certain houses he would not walk in front of on their street. He did feel safe visiting with everybody at my grandparent's house though. Again, Earl's ghost doesn't scare as much as intrigue people who are familiar with his story. Once Sam had come over to hang out with my uncle Vincent. He saw Vincent poke his head out from behind one of the curtains and then disappear again. Sam started banging on all the windows laughing and yelling, "I saw you! Get out here!" When Vincent didn't respond Sam got more obnoxious, yelling and laughing around the side of the house. Just then Sam turns to see my uncle Vincent driving down the street coming home. Sam turned white and told Vincent what had just happened. They both checked the house out and no one was there.
A few weeks ago I had something happen to me that I did not realize was connected to any of these stories until the next day. On a Monday night I had locked up and gone to bed early. My roommate had not come home that night. After being asleep for a few hours I found myself wake up in my bed and glance at the clock. It was 4:40am on a Tuesday morning. The room was very dark. Only linings of objects could be seen. As I lay there I watched as two figures crept into my room. I knew they could not turn the light on from the switch because I had pulled the cord for the fan on along with the cord for the light off. When I tell you I really thought I was going to die I can't stress this enough. I was terrified because I believed that real live people were in my room at 4:40am. I know I live in the murder capital of the nation and people die violently in the paper almost every day in New Orleans. I lied there frozen with my eyes fixed on these two figures as they quietly crept into my room. They spoke in low voices to each other, not whispers. I could not understand them. I believed they could not hear me breathe because of the fan. I also believed they had not seen me. I had hoped they wanted to take some things without disturbing anyone because of how they crept around. One came in the room while the other stood in the doorway. They were casing the far side of my room. The one I could see the most had a white t-shirt and light colored jeans on. That's how he stood out so well in the dark. He walked across from me on the opposite side of the room and crouched down, staring in my direction. I lied there staring at him, not moving. My eyes tried to register on the one who was crouched and staring at me. After a few moments I was unsure if he was still there. I searched in the darkness for some movement. I never got up or turned on the light. I didn't want to invite confrontation. I had tears running down my face. I never saw movement of figures leave my room. I stayed up until the sun came up and went to work the next day. I found out my roommate had never come home that night and the door was locked with the latch engaged. She told me that there's no way an intruder could have gotten in the room without breaking in the door. I also live three stories up where no windows are near landings. Unbelievably, the next day my uncle called me to tell me that Martin had murdered someone the day before and cops had picked him up walking down the highway. Again, Martin was Earl's best friend who had been at those tracks all those years ago and had always blamed himself because he was the oldest kid. I told my other uncle, Vincent, and he believes that what I saw was Earl and Martin as teenagers come into my room. He believes they were both casing the room for something. Even though Martin is still alive I believe my uncle when he tells me this.
The reason I decided to write these stories down is because of a conversation I had with Vincent last week that was sparked on by the murder that Martin was charged with last week. In remembering many of these stories, Vincent told me an incredible story that he always thought I had known. I would assure him that I had never heard this. Vincent told me that for a period of time when he lived in the house in the 1990's he would have his friends from the neighborhood over. They would bring beer over, mostly in bottles. He said friends from the street experienced this with him regularly and everyone used to joke that someone was messing with everyone. He said that many times if someone would take a beer into the bathroom and place it on a particular area of the chest of drawers something unexplainable would happen. If you would happen to walk out and forget about your beer, then eventually go back for it, it would disappear. It would later reappear on the coffee table in the living room. This happened many times. If you would try to recreate the situation nothing would happen.
I told him that I had never heard this incredible story. A little later that day, he and I went to see my grandmother next door. When we arrived she was dozing in and out but propped herself up when we came in to check on her. She is a very talkative person. Makes me laugh a lot. She loves sharing stories of all kinds. We told her we had been reminiscing all afternoon. We sat and listened to her as her conversations swayed back and forth for a while. Eventually, she starts to tell us how her children always thought they could pull the wool over her eyes. She laughed and said she always could catch them. After sharing a story or two about my mom or Vincent she told us a story that Vincent and I would realize could not be dismissed as a coincidence from the story he had told me just moments before. She proceeded to tell us that when Earl was alive he used to think he could outsmart her. She explained how he used to take a coke, the kind in the old glass bottles. He would take it down stairs and walk past her in the kitchen and walk into the bathroom with it. She said she'd wait and he'd reemerge with it a moment later and walk back past her and put it in the refrigerator. Vincent asked her what Earl had been doing. I looked at him and he was focused looking at the floor. His eyes were big. She said, "That boy thought he'd be slick. I knew what he was doing. He was going and getting his father's whiskey from the bathroom closet, pouring it in his coke, and putting it back in that fridge to chill. I'd open that fridge and smell the whiskey and pour it out down the drain. That little sneak would just stand there and smirk at me because he knew he got caught." Vincent asked her where Earl would usually go with it when he'd drink it. She said, "He'd take it to the couch in the living room and sit in front of the TV with it." She had no idea the connection we were making. We asked her if he would ever leave it sitting around to be found and she said, "Sure, he'd leave it on my coffee table." This left us speechless as you well know. Vincent jokingly got on her case about this. He said, "You never told me that." She answered to the effect of why would she ever think to, then paused for a moment and told us that the first time Earl ever materialized in front of her after his death he was carrying his coke with him into the bathroom. She said she stood in the living room waiting to see him reemerge but he never came back out with his coke bottle. We shared with her the story about the disappearing beer bottles in the bathroom that always reappeared on the coffee table. We can't help but believe that Earl led us to this moment by reintroducing and then leading us to solve a mystery that would have never been solved. He's still communicates to us to this day, through us.