East Side Misadventures
An essay collection of boyhood memories from Depression- and WWII-era Madison
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Richie’s brother Billie came home from World War II with an injury received while serving in the navy. Billie was not specific about his wound but word in the neighborhood was that he was a flickering porch light. I didn’t think that was true because he seemed normal to me and he told us stories. Not about the war but spooky stories about ghosts and vampires.
Early one evening he sat on the front steps of our house on Williamson Street and told us about the “Ghost Park.” As he told the story I thought the “Ghost Park” was far away or in another country or at least in another state or city, but Billie said it was only a few blocks from here.
He said that during the Civil War many Southern rebel soldiers were kept at Orton Park and that many had died and were buried there in unmarked graves. Their spirits longed to return to their homeland in the sunny South. Each month, Billie explained, the ghosts of the soldiers rose up from their graves to look around to see if the wagons had come to take them home. They did this so they could see the wagons by the light of the full moon. Some crawled all the way out and walked around while others only came up as far as their waists. Not seeing the wagons they moaned, cried and slipped back to their graves. Billie said you could hear their moans and cries if you walked by Orton Park at midnight during a full moon.
That was all Richie and I had to hear. We didn’t believe in ghosts but we didn’t NOT believe in ghosts! We had to see for ourselves. I have to admit that without Richie I would never have had the nerve to follow up on our plan.
“When’s the next full moon?” Richie asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s ask Mr. Gerhardt.”
Mr. Gerhardt was the pharmacist on the corner and when I had scientific questions I went to him. I once tried to count my teeth but kept losing track. My older sisters counted them but they each came up with a different number. I went to Mr. Gerhardt and he said “twenty-six” without even counting them!
We walked to the corner and entered the drugstore. I sighed when my hot bare feet met the cool terrazzo floor. We soon found Mr. Gerhardt working on a prescription in the back.
“Mr. Gerhardt,” I said, “can you tell me when the next full moon is?”
“Tomorrow night,” he answered without looking up.
“Thank you,” I replied and turned to leave. He said, “Thank you what?” and I said, “Thank you, sir.”
I arranged for my sister to wake me when she came home from her job as an usherette at the Majestic Theatre. She got home at eleven and gave me a nudge. I popped out of bed, telling her Richie and I were going to look at the full moon. Richie had slept in the backseat of his father’s car, which was up on blocks due to the wartime tire shortage. I knocked on the window and we were soon off to Orton Park.
We covered the five or six blocks quickly and were at the east end of the park before 11:30, according to Richie’s Ingraham pocket watch.
South off Spaight Street on Few Street took us to Rutledge. Orton Park was a rectangle framed by Few Street on the east, Rutledge on the south, Ingersoll on the west and Spaight on the north. There was a streetlight on each corner and with the moonlight Orton Park was fairly well lit. This changed when we reached the middle of the park where the land sloped down to the north. The large trees shaded the moonlight and their trunks cast shadows from the streetlights.
“What was that?!” Richie said. The hair on the back of my neck stood out and I held my breath, listening.
“What was what?” I finally said.
“It sounded like leaves rustling,” Richie said.
“Maybe a squirrel or something,” I told him.
“Squirrels don’t come out at night,” he said.
We walked further up Rutledge with our eyes on the park. Richie stopped in his tracks. “I saw something near the bandstand. I think it was one of them,” he said. I didn’t look ... I didn’t dare. I turned away from the park and faced Richie. He was standing sort of awkwardly with a sick look on his face.
“Let’s run!” he said.
I was the second-fastest runner in the neighborhood and Richie was the fastest. We bolted! We jumped down the slope from the sidewalk to Rutledge Street and ran. That night Richie and I were side-by-side, neck-and-neck and stride-for-stride. There was no fastest and second-fastest.
We pulled up at the Baldwin Street streetlight, caught our breath, and looked at each other. A far cry from the two brave boys who started out that night.
The bells from St. Bernard Church pealed the hour softly in the distance.
Richie said, “Don’t tell anyone I wet my pants.” I said that I wouldn’t and for that matter I wasn’t going to tell anyone about anything that happened.
I never go by Orton Park at night. Even if I’m driving a car I go on Jenifer or Williamson. I’ll never know what Richie saw that night—maybe it was a hobo smoking a pipe or maybe it was one of those rebel soldiers looking for a wagon to take him home.