A ghost, yes, an invisible ghost, scared me nearly all to pieces once upon a time back when I was a little kid. I was young, so you can laugh if you wanna, but I was well read and smart, too for being such a squirt. The way that ol’ ghost stomped down the hallway of an old farmhouse in my direction freaked me out. Made my big Frankenstein hearing aid SCREAM. I could hear this ghost, too. I could feel it, feel both the vibrations of the stomps and the cold blob of air moving along with it.
I was a young boy back in the mid-to-late1960s sometime. I don’t remember how many years old I was or what grade I attended in school. What I do recall, however, was the weather. It was Summertime. Lush, green Summertime! It must’ve been between grades. I reckon I was in late elementary school or maybe even early middle. Not sure. But it was Summer that I know. And a ghost scared the bedoobus outa my insides. This true story began late one afternoon.
My mother wrote a note and handed it to me.
“Here,” she said as she bent over to give it to me. “Run this up the hill to the Barn and hand it to your Father.”
I nodded my head OK.
“You make sure you give it to him now, OK?” she asked and nodded back
“Yes, Momma,” I said, bobbing my chin again and took off. She had my little sister Beth with her, too, born three years after me in May of 1962.
Up the hill I ran to the Barn. The Barn doubled as the name all of us associated with the central cluster of buildings that served as the headquarters of Riverview Dairy Farm. Enormous in size, it was also the newest, biggest, primary cow barn. The cow barn was the milking barn with tons of hay stored upstairs in the massive loft. It was the third, maybe even fourth of a series of old barns built over the decades to milk the cows and store the hay. Riverview Dairy was also the official name for the Bass Family Farm.
There were at least three Bass families, all interrelated and in different areas of the Greater Rice-Sandy River Area of Prince Edward County in the Piedmont region of Southcentral Virginia. As I grew up, I remember the neighbors called our farm the Willy Bass Farm after my great-uncle, then the Bill Bass Farm, too. Bill was my Daddy and Willy his uncle. The other two I was aware of were the Calvin Bass Farm (Calvin and Willy were cousins) and the former, overgrown site of long-dead Dr. Robert Bass.
At the time of this haunting, atop the hill from my parents’ house was the Old Bass Family Farmhouse. It was a big, majestic old farmhouse painted white with a green tin roof. The house was lovely with fine, lacy Victorian trim and a white picket fence. The yards and grounds included rows of English boxwood shrubbery, an apple tree, a pear tree, walnut and maple trees, tool shed and workshop, smoke house, ice house, deep cellar, old windmill well, walnut bustin’ platform, and a chicken house full of noise and feathers.
In the house at this time lived my great-uncle Willy, his sister my great-aunt Blanche, and their brother my great-uncle Aumon with his wife Mary Scott. Sometimes my great-aunt Irma, ever since her husband Jerome keeled over dead from a heart attack, would come up from Petersburg on the train to Rice and spend summers and holidays. So anywhere from five old people lived there at a time, including two whom never married.
They were White folks of Western European ancestry and were Southern Baptist Protestant Christians. Egad! And they had “help,” an embarrassing euphemism of the time for African-American “colored people” who served as cooks, cleaners, and maids for wages. I feel ashamed just writing this, and it is, unfortunately, what happened in that part of the nation between the end of the Civil War and about a hundred years later the Civil Rights Movement.
Two sisters, Fanny and Martha Stokes, worked hard to keep the biscuits hot, the laundry washed and dried and ironed, and the house cleaned. They were among the children of Raffie Stokes, a legend in his own right, who worked for Uncle Willy and then my father. He was the man I considered my first mentor in life.
His daughters also cooked big farm dinners for the farmhands, too. Dinners on the farm were served midday and were huge. So was supper, what we called the evening meal back then. There was no such thing as lunch. That was for city slickers and office workers. I loved it when they would come out and ring the bell when it was time to eat. They would pull on a rope leading up a tall pole to a large, metal bell. It looked so huge and was the iconic shape of the Liberty Bell up north in Philadelphia. As one pulled down on the rope, that big bell would cock up in the air then rock back hard. The clapper would strike the lip and sound rim of the bell so loud it was like a shotgun going off next to your ear but much prettier. More melodic in a harsh way. You could hear it over a mile away way out in the fields. I especially liked the ringing of the bell as I had a bilateral moderate-to-profound hearing impairment, or “half-deaf” as some declared. Ring farm bells was what country folks did back in the decades before everybody carried cell phones in their pockets.
I ran up to the big old farmhouse with Momma’s note in hand. Not a soul to be seen or heard. No body napping under the apple tree or fixing something broken in the wood shop or rustling up some supper in the house. Quiet. I ran on around the corner to the milk house. Nobody was in sight. I called out for my father.
“Daddy!” I shouted.
Silence. Didn’t hear anything. Now, to be sure, I am hard of hearing and wore hearing aids and talked funny, but all was strangely silent. Eerie. I went into the cow barns. Nobody anywhere! I scampered all over the farm, peeking into buildings and yelling out names of all I knew. Nothing.
So I dashed home to Momma. Guess what? She was gone! With my little sister! Nobody was home, even though the doors were all unlocked. Scared and confused, I ran back up to the Barn. Again! And again, nobody! Nobody! There wasn’t any human being anywhere to be seen. This felt so spooky. Really spooky! Scary spooky! There must be some hideous mistake. Maybe God was playing a terrible joke on me. Or maybe it was the end of the world, and I was the last one left alive!
I stepped up into the old farmhouse where my elderly great-greats lived and Fanny and Martha baked hot fresh biscuits. Surely somebody, SOMEBODY would be there! But nobody was. I was all alone in this big old house. I double-checked, ran upstairs and all over, looked in all the rooms, even in the closets, ‘cause you never know, they might be dead under the stairs or something. There were so many spooky hidey-holes in that old house someone could crawl up there and die and no one would ever know it until they started smelling something rotting real bad. I called them each by name, and listened…and felt…nothing.
Slowly, feeling terribly alone and a little bit scared, I walked back into the main hallway cutting through the central interior of the house and just stood there baffled. Bright, amber sunbeams from faraway windows cut through the shadows. I watched particles of dust floating in the sunbeams sparkling as they spun slowly along the edge of darkness. Suddenly a heard an odd thump. And another. Big thump, too! What was that?
I stood there still as a stone and listened as hard as I could with my hearing aid. Big ol’ Frankenstein bolt hearing aid with thick, twisty wires and a box around my neck. Then I heard it again. And again. Heavy, lumbering, stomping shuffles of what clearly were human footsteps were coming down the hallway at me. Getting closer and closer! The air turned cold as ice, and goosebumps broke out across my skin. It felt as cold as January this summer evening!
Couldn’t see anything or anyone but could clearly hear those big, heavy footsteps. I could sense its presence, whatever it was. This strange spirit paused, as it clearly knew I stood there petrified, then stomp-shuffled toward me again. Must be a ghost in that blob of cold air; had to be! This house was haunted! I felt an ice-cold hand and fingers lay softly upon my shoulders from behind. Whipped away and nothing was there! Felt like cold bones!
So I turned and fled. Bolted through the house like a crazed horse. Slammed open the back door, jumped down the back steps, and started screaming. I ran screaming all the way home. I just knew that ghost or demon or whatever you wanna call it was gonna chase me down and catch me up. Little primate boy I was, I freaked out as if my life was at stake. My body was surely going to die with my soul sucked out by hungry ghosts and shoved all the way down into Hell.
At that moment a pickup truck, my Daddy’s Uncle Willy’s big farm truck, rolled down the Gates-Bass Road and pulled into my parents’ driveway. It was jammed pack with laughing people, including everyone I had been calling. My Mom sat in the cab holding my sister Beth. There, too, was my Dad. I shrieked and blubbered at them as I still gripped that darn note Momma wanted me to give to him. I was mad, too.
My parents yelled at each other, thinking the other had “already done something” to take care of me or sent me back or made sure I was OK. Apparently there was a huge breakdown in communication between all these people over me, each claiming they thought the other had me, which made no sense to me as they were all together in that truck.
They had all jumped in spontaneously for a quick ride “to the store,” one of several country stores scattered many miles apart but still closer to home than a ride into town. Back then only a few had motor vehicles way out in the country, so folks would sometimes pile up into pickup trucks when the weather was nice for a jaunt to the store for ice cream, smokes, and soda pop.
I swore the farmhouse up on the hill was haunted. True, no one had been left behind on the entire farm except me. What did I hear? Whose soul was stompin’ and shufflin’ up and down the hallway? Was someone’s spirit trapped in Purgatory? Did my great-aunt Mattie who adored me as an infant but died of glaucoma soon after my first birthday, didn’t she die inside that house? Was it her soul? House was built around 1900 or 1901 or so, which made it seem mighty old to me and thus more prone to being haunted. And often both Native American Indians and early settlers and poor folks and slaves were buried all over the place in unmarked and overgrown graves. So maybe the house was built on top of some dead people!
Of course, most everyone thought it was just my overactive imagination making things up because I was already scared. My parents admonished me not to worry.
As a partially-deaf child, however, I simply felt more hypersensitive and thus more alert and aware of such energies. More gifted in certain ways, with ESP and heightened vision and feeling. Funny thing was those White folks thought I was either disturbed or imagining nonsense, but the Black folks knew better. They listened to me not with dismissal but with respect. They leaned down and declared in a whisper it could only be one of two things. Neither one were to be messed with, either.
“Well, what did I hear coming down the hallway after me?” I asked.
“Good Lawd a mercy, child, that was either a ghost coming to gitcha or it was Satan the Devil his own self!”
Religion did funny things to people down in the South.
My great-uncle Aumon, a deacon in Sharon Baptist Church, once claimed he saw God in the window of his upstairs bedroom. God told him to go teach at the deaf and blind school for Black boys and girls in Hampton, Virginia. He went on to become a regionally renowned leader of the Deaf. Back then folks did what God told ‘em to do or people considered you crazy. Nowadays it’s the other way around.
For me, however, ghosts and hauntings right next door really messed with my head. This experience exacerbated my fear of abandonment and triggered my PTSD. Those conditions weren’t recognized as such back then, especially in rural Virginia farm children, and were discerned much later in my adulthood. This whole event, regardless of what actually transpired, left scars on my psyche. No one’s fault, and it was as if some portal opened in the fabric between the Mundane and Spirit dimensions, openings I was to sense again in different ways off and on over the years. So perhaps my experience of this event was a gift.
As the years rolled on by at Riverview Dairy Farm most of the people mentioned above died one by one. As I write Fanny and her sister Martha remain alive and went on to operate a housecleaning business. And my sister Beth, of course, soon joined three years later by our baby brother Joe, continue to sparkle with life. My great-aunt Mary, however, a deaf-mute who loved Latin and the great beloved of Robert Aumon Bass, fell and broke her hip in that house as an elderly old lady.
She soon died in the hospital, and Aumon plunged into grief. His loud, deaf-man sobs wailed and groaned out from the old house and reminded me of the forlorn sound foghorns made inside coastal banks of spooky fog. Hearing people could hear Aumon’s sobs far down the hill. His grieving affected us all. A dignified man most of his life, he allowed himself the freedom to cut loose and wail full-tilt up to the heavens. A few years later, he died, too, in 1984 from pneumonia at age 98, the last inhabitant of the Old Bass Family Farmhouse.
My wife of the time, Margaret Rose, was very Witchy and psychic, too. We would creep around inside the house in the dark, then stop and wait. And wait. We sensed spirits in that place at night. Ghosts? We couldn’t see anything, and we could feel their presence in a spooky sort of way.
At some point during the mid-1980s I took a photo of that old, weather battered house. A Kodak color print. Stood down in the pasture where the house trailer sat, the one Margaret and I lived in during our early to mid twenties. In the window which at various times was the bedroom for Irma and maybe Blanche or Mattie, was the silhouette of an old lady sitting sideways in a rocking chair with her long hair up in a bun, customary for that elder generation of countrified, church-going ladies.
I wasn’t aware of this ghostly image at the time I snapped the picture. For a time old, falling down homes rich with the mysteries of long-ago better days were among my favorite subjects to photograph. When my prints came back from the developer Margaret and I noticed the old woman in the window of the house.
“That’s really weird,” Margaret said. “There’s no one living up there anymore.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Then you know what this must be a picture of, right?”
We all knew it was a ghost, but of whom we couldn’t tell. I thought it interesting was the degree to which a pre-formed opinion formed a reactionary or responsive belief to an anomalous event. Those open to the possibility of the Spiritual realm being a real place or that some interaction between the living and the dead or other spiritual entities was at least possible were clear they saw a ghost of an elderly lady sitting in the window of an old farmhouse.
Those who were atheistic or scientific materialist, reductionist, or rational dismissed the whole concept of spirits and souls as absurd. When they observed the photograph in question they shrugged their shoulders as they tossed off the image as one of shadows and gray blurs and Rorschach tests.
“Oh, sure, looks like an old lady in the window, but you know there are simply no such things as ghosts. So, its just reflections of clouds off dirty glass windowpanes on a partially overcast day in the evening, is all. You’re imaging what you want to see, see? Our minds love to fill in the blanks, you know. Like those Martian canals that never were.”
What is one to do? Leave ‘em be with kindness. You have to let such people have the chance to discover the truth for themselves. They’ll stay inside their own rigid paradigms unaware of their own self-righteousness after you and I experience directly the “Otherwise,” which is the wisdom of the other worlds.
I saw a ghost in the old photo. In March of 2010,unfortunately, most of my photo collection was destroyed when my house burned down. The fire was in Edmonds, Washington, just north of Seattle, far away from where I grew up in rural Virginia farm country. There isn’t anything left of these ghosts but memories. As of 2013 the Old Bass Family Farmhouse still sits upon the hill as it slowly disintegrates into ruin and decay.
William Dudley Bass
26 October 2011
23 January 2013
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