This is a set of stories about events I experienced growing up in Wisconsin
|The Beast That Came to Dinner
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The summer of 1959 was coming to a close, and thoughts of having to go back to high school in the next month or two were making me determined to get the most out of this remaining time that I could.
My mother was leaving me at the Michelson farm for the second straight year while she sorted out her life after divorcing her third husband the year before. My kid sister Eileen, had been sent away to Michigan to stay with our aunt Minnie, sister of my mother’s second husband (our deceased natural father.)
Mr. Michelson was a now-single gentleman farmer who had married into money, and who, after a few years of a most volatile marriage, had finally rid himself of his contentious and demanding wife and his adopted son. The only evidence that remained of this past relationship was the phrase “Michelson and Son” painted in huge flaking letters across the side of his main barn facing the gravel road.
While I was not expected to replace this stepson, I was assigned to Mr. Michelson’s sponsorship by my mother to assist him in taking care of a great many chores on his farm, in exchange for room and board, of course. I actually earned cash from doing odd jobs for other farmers in the local area, as my spare time permitted. My sojourn there was a lonely one, for the farm was quite isolated, deep in the countryside of mid-western Wisconsin, and many miles from the nearest town.
Situated mid-way between Sparta (population 6,000), and Melrose (population 700), the Michelson farm was perched on the top of a long, sloping hilltop, and was traversed by a narrow gravel road running down the south side of the homestead, and crossed by a similar road heading across the bottom of the hill heading north towards the township of Melrose.
A lot or two south of that intersection lay the Kelly homestead, sharecroppers who worked for Mr. Michelson. Included in their care were a small herd of dairy cattle, a sty containing 30 to 40 enormous hogs, and a variety of barnyard fowl.
Old Sean Kelly was a somewhat wild, intemperate one-armed Irishman, who delighted in telling terrible jokes and even worse stories; and performing some rather remarkable feats with his artificial arm, which was nothing more than an apparatus strapped to his left shoulder, ending in a large, stainless steel hook. His wife was a kindly Blackfoot Indian woman, whose two older sons and two younger daughters rounded out this eccentric household.
Margaret Kelly was the older of the two daughters, and was just about the same age as myself. While not exactly a raving beauty, she was intelligent and seemed well grounded in reality, unlike the rest of her strange family.
Lacking anyone else in the area with whom I could come close to relating to, I used to make special efforts to find excuses to pass by their household to see Margaret, occasionally being invited in to listen to old Sean relate some fantastic story or another to me. In the meantime, Margaret and I would manage to find a moment or two to get off somewhere and ‘talk of many things.’
The hillsides leading down from the Michelson Farm toward the Kelly farm contained clean, well tended pastures, which were rotated with dairy cows to ensure pasture recovery in cycles. At the bottom of the hill, across from the Kelly homestead, spread a wide forested area, surrounding a thick, boggy marsh.
In the evenings after chores at the Michelson farm, I used to pick up my BB-gun and march down the hill towards the wilderness to wander the marsh and the forest, imagining that I was a pioneer, warrior or whatever struck me at the moment.
The BB-gun, while not the most powerful weapon in the world, gave me enough of a sense of security to roam these virgin areas, and actually encourage me to seek out their boundaries. When I tired of tramping though these forest paths, I would head towards the gravel road leading back to the Michelson farmhouse and begin walking towards the bright yard light shining at the hill top, illuminating my way.
One evening, while tramping through the marsh, I noticed that I’d stayed there much later than I’d expected, and lacking a moonlit night to guide me, the surrounding area had quickly sunk into a rather complete, ominous darkness. I turned and began to make my way to the gravel road leading up to the Michelson homestead as fast as I could, but the darkness fell upon me much too quickly.
Soon, I could see nothing in front of me, and I had to feel my way out of the swamp in what I hoped was the right direction to the narrow road. Suddenly, as I moved through the underbrush and thicket, I thought I could hear the sound of footsteps following me. Whenever I took a step, I could hear a corresponding step behind me; whenever I stopped to listen, I could hear nothing.
The hair on the back of my neck began to stand up, and my heart began pounding in my chest so hard that I could hardly hear anything beyond my immediate presence. I thought that logically, there was nothing in the Wisconsin woods that I should be afraid of at night. Bears were not nocturnal, and cougars did not usually attack humans day or night, being very wary of human presence.
My BB-Gun seemed pretty useless at the moment, simply because there was nothing that I could see to shoot, much less ‘bag.’ I began to move much more quickly in the direction where I thought the road lay, even though I was being scratched and buffeted by more forest debris in my way than I ever thought I’d seen in the daylight.
Finally, I stumbled onto the roadway, the feel of gravel beneath my feet offering me a security I’d have offered up my soul for moments before. I looked in both directions to see where the Michelson homestead was, but I could see nothing but a very dim light far off and above to my left. Worse yet, that faint light was being quickly covered by a swiftly spreading blanket of fog rising from the swamp behind me.
Taking a chance, I began to carefully move toward that dim light. The darkness was so complete that I actually had to bump my way from side to side on the gravel road to make my way towards that dim light. To complicate my already shaky situation further, was the fact that I continued to clearly hear footsteps matching mine as I made my way towards that light.
Whenever I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, the footsteps ceased. Whatever was following me, was careful not to make it’s location known to me, which only made my terror become more intense. I could also hear heavy breathing right next to me, which only served to heighten my terror. I knew for a fact that I was not imagining things, and seeing that I was in the middle of nowhere, I saw no hope for refuge. Thinking that I had nothing else to lose however, I made up my mind to make it as close to the dim light that I could.
Then, in true heroic fashion, I hoped that someone would find, and then ship my poor, broken body off to my mother whenever the evil deed was done, whatever that may be. It seemed romantic in a dramatic sort of way at that time, but now that I’ve had decades to reflect, it would have been much more practical for me to have concentrated on lessons I’d already learned in the Boy Scouts and in every day classroom instructions at that particular time.
My progress along the road was initially somewhat careful, as I had to change my direction slightly whenever I wandered too close to one edge of the gravel road or the other. Whenever I felt the grassy side of the road, I’d stop briefly, reset my bearings, and then proceed once again towards the light.
I was becoming more acutely aware of the sounds of footsteps behind me mimicking my own however, stopping only when I stopped, and proceeding again whenever I renewed my fearful journey.
The heavy breathing continued to impose itself on my terrified mind more often, which was sending my already collapsing composure into new wild flights of panic, for the breathing was the only thing that didn’t stop whenever I did; it remained real and very, very close.
As I began to speed up my race towards the dim light at the top of the hillside, I finally fell head-long into the ditch along side the gravel road, rolling up into the fence enclosing the pasture on my right.
As I bounced off the fence, I suddenly heard a tremendous bellow, not more than a foot or so from my head. “Booo-OOO-WAHHHHHHHHH!!!!” rang across the bottom of the hill, and in utter terror, I virtually shot towards the light, which now had become recognizable as the sentinel of the Michelson farmstead.
Ripping open the kitchen door, I slammed it shut behind me, firmly blocking it, now facing a very alarmed Mr. Michelson, who had already begun eating his dinner.
As he sat looking at me with wild, shocked eyes, I babbled out my story of how I’d gotten caught in the swamp, followed by something that seemed to be tracking me, trying unsuccessfully to hide it’s footsteps with mine, and finally attacking me with a ferocious scream when I finally fell into it’s trap at the bottom of the hill, all in one breath!
Barely able to breathe and shaking, I locked the kitchen door securely, and slowly walked past him to clean up for dinner. Suddenly I stopped, and turned to face my host, who had gotten up from the table to watch me walk by. We both had heard the ‘scrit, scrit, scrit’ sound of footprints behind me as I moved across the kitchen floor.
On a hunch, I reached behind me into the hind pocket of my loose jeans, and drew out a large analgesic tin full of BB’s. A cautious shake of the tin confirmed my suspicions, for each step that I had taken, the tin had shaken just enough to emit the ‘scrit’ sound that I had thought was a footstep. That little mystery having been solved, Mr. Michelson calmly informed me that old Sean Kelly had just moved his cattle herd to the pasture that ran along side the gravel road leading to the farmhouse.
Indeed, the next morning old Sean walked to the hilltop to complain to Mr. Michelson that he thought there’d been prowling around the herd by a ‘painter’ (country-talk for panther), ‘cause they were all spooked when he went to take them in for milking early that morning.
Mr. Michelson glanced quickly at me, winked, then solemnly looked at Sean and said; “I don’t think we’ll see that ‘painter’ again after last night.” But if they did, he told him, he’d get the county involved right away.
It was hard telling, he told me later, what a crazy one-armed Irishman would do with a gun on a pitch-black night to his herd, his boarder (me), or to himself.
I made up my mind in that moment that I’d take much more careful pains to examine my encounters with ghosts and marsh monsters in the future. This resolution was to prove extremely difficult to abide by as another, but less explainable encounter occurred later that winter.
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