On this month’s Tales, Dr. Charles Lewis shares his discovery of a trunk once owned by a WWI soldier, and how he uncovered the story of the man’s journey to a war from which he would never return. Listen below.
When I was a young girl attending one of the many camps I enjoyed, I loved sitting around a campfire telling stories. One of my favorites is a mildly spooky tale that I can’t quite remember the origins of, though I suspect it came from a Girl Scout leader or text at some point.
Half of the fun of telling spooky stories is the ambiance. When telling stories around a campfire, the circle can be big or small, but the warm light from the fire casts deep shadows, as only faces are lit up. Woods or fields surrounding the fire seem darker, and deeper. As a storyteller begins to share a tale, everyone hushes, and the quiet is only broken by the breaking of a log, the snap of pine pitch crackling in the flames, or the call of a night bird.
Perhaps it is a night Iike this where you might hear me tell this story:
Once there was a couple from the Twin Cities named Jane and Martin Hill. They were newlyweds, and in the time-honored tradition of the Midwest, decided to take a road trip for their honeymoon, heading up North along back roads they’d never been on before, just for the adventure of it. One evening, they were driving as dusk was falling, and it started to rain.
It came down in great sheets, making it hard for Martin, who was at the wheel, to see the road, which had gone slippery. He slowed the car, but a shadow ran in front of it without warning, and he swerved. The car flew into a series of rolls, ending up in the ditch with the headlights pointing skyward.
Martin must have fallen unconscious for a moment, but when he came to, he noticed his wife was gravely injured. The rain had lightened up a bit, and there was just enough light from the dashboard that he could see she was bleeding.
Now this was in the days before cell phones, so Martin had no way of contacting an ambulance, and he, himself, knew very little about first aid. He was frantic, trying to think what to do. He managed to get himself out of the car, then to her side, which was crumbled. Something gave him tremendous strength, and he was able to pull her caved-in door open, and take her into his arms. All he could think to do was to get to the road and start walking toward the last town, which they’d passed several miles ago.
He gathered Jane up, stumbled up the wet, slippery ditch, and made it to the road. He began walking, holding on to his wife and looking for any sign of assistance. His patience was rewarded after a time, and he spotted a light off the road, in the distance.
Martin looked for some kind of path or road that would take him to that light. In the dim light of the rising moon, he saw what looked like a footpath in the underbrush, and he took it, stumbling his way down the path, holding Jane carefully, and looking ahead to a large house that appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with light emanating from its bay windows. He carried Jane up the steps to the front door, and used his foot to kick it harshly.
He heard footsteps from within, and the door opened with a creak. An old, decrepit man appeared, his long gray hair thinning over his scalp, and his walk marked by a heavy limp.
“Yes?” The man looked Martin and Jane over carefully.
“Please, do you have a phone? My wife, and I, well, we’ve been in an accident and she needs help. Please?”
The man pursed his lips, then nodded. “The Master is in.” He gestured. “Bring her inside.”
Martin entered the house, still holding onto his wife as the other man closed the door behind him and guided him into an old-fashioned looking parlor, gesturing to the settee. “Lay her there,” the man said. “I’ll get the Master.”
Martin lay his wife down. She looked pale and bloody, and he worried it was too late to help her.
The man came back, and with him, he brought a tall, elegant-looking man in what seemed to be an old-fashioned suit, whom Martin thought was likely this “Master” of which the former had spoken. “Please,” Martin said. “Can you help me?”
“We haven’t a phone,” the Master said. “But I am a physician, of sorts. Let me see what I can do.”
Martin stepped back, and the Master rolled up his sleeves as he knelt next to Jane. He checked her breathing, listened to her heart, and sat back heavily. “I’m sorry to tell you this, sir, but your wife is already dead.”
Martin felt faint.
“She can’t be! She can’t!”
“There’s nothing more we can do for her.”
Tears fell from Martin’s eyes, and for the first time, he noticed blood dripping down his own arm to the floor below. “Oh,” he said faintly, and fell, before the Master or his servant could catch him.
The Master checked Martin’s pulse, and shook his head. “He’s gone, too.”
“Master, what shall we do with them?” The servant asked.
“Lay him out on the other settee,” The Master directed, going to his parlor organ. He sat at the instrument as his servant laid out Martin on the other settee, and began to play a few chords.
“Master?” The servant asked.
“Just watch, Igor.” The Master began to play, deep rolling chords in flats and trills, a music none had ever heard before that night, and none would ever hear again. As he played, the bodies on the settees began to shake and shiver. He continued to play, the music reaching a fever pitch as the bodies sat straight up, and their eyes opened.
“Master!” The servant called out.
“Yes, Igor, yes!” The Master cried, then sang: “The Hills are alive, with the sound of music.”
A beat. A pause to let the truly terrible pun sink in.
Perhaps the Hills left.
Perhaps they stayed.
But the power of music saved their lives that night. And when this story is told around the campfire, the “boos” are truly fun for the storyteller. Which was often me, with my terrible sense of humor.
Listen to me tell the story:Continue reading “On Spooky Stories”
I find the most interesting things when I am going through old boxes. This was in some of my grandma’s knitting things. Since we mentioned the extension office on the podcast last month, I thought you’d appreciate seeing an example of what they offered.￼
On Tales from the Midwest this week: Rachael Hanel tells the story of Camilla Hall, a St. Peter, Minn., native who was killed in a shoot-out with police as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974.
Today I’m introducing my new podcast: Tales from the Midwest. The first episode focuses on Midwest food, and I’m talking to Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a Milwaukee native and expert on food journalism. We had a great conversation about food, home economics, and our hopes for a Midwestern cuisine movement.
For every podcast, I’m going to include links to favorite places discussed on it right here. Kim named Kopps Custard in Milwaukee and State Street Brats (aka The Brat Haus) in Madison, Wis. I’m adding Mader’s Restaurant, The Spice House, and Usinger’s Factory Outlet on Old World Third Street in Milwaukee.
Tales from the Midwest: Episode 1, with Kim Voss
Have a listen. The podcast is also hosted on BuzzSprout.