Monday, October 25, 2010

The Spike Driver on the Toxaway Ghost Express

Moonlight. Lake Toxaway. "In Beautiful Sapphire Country."

“Yep,” said Jimmy, “That’s where the colored spike driver dude is buried.”

Every once in a while, in the summer time when school was out, we’d ride Jimmy’s horses all over the Indian paths and logging roads that stitched across the mountains near Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. Jimmy was one of the only locals who would deal with us Floridian transplants every summer without wanting to beat the snot out of our spoiled flatlander asses, and for that we were actually pretty grateful.

Jimmy, a true native, showed us things and took us places we never would’ve realized existed.

On this day we, Jim, my brother Jon, two of the three MacClarty boys Mike and Pat and I, were out riding when Jimmy pointed out that grave. It was an unassuming lonely mound of dirt nestled into a grove of pines marked with a tiny white cross and some relatively fresh flowers.

“How I hear it, he helped build the railroad comin’ up here to the old Toxaway Inn way back in ‘bout 1900. Heard he had a pretty rough time of it up here b’cause he was the only colored man on that crew and how mean everyone was to him,” said Jim. “That’s pretty much all I know.”

“If he died in the early 1900’s, who brings the flowers?”

Jim winked and flashed a crooked smile. “It’s a stone cold mystery who keeps puttin’ them here all the time. I hear tell folks set out here all night just to see who does it but the next morning there’s new flowers and no one saw a dang thing!”

“Yeah, right Jim,” said Mike, “Just trying to get us to piss our pants aren’t ya? Cut the crap.”

Jim took off his hat, grinned bigger and scratched his head. “Just tellin’ you what I heard.”

We were riding on a logging road soon thereafter. It was narrow and flanked by an enormous rock face on one side and a gut-clenching drop-off on the other. I couldn’t look over the drop off and scraped my poor pony up against the rock face the whole time.

We discovered a great wide open cave carved out of the mountainside along that road that day and made plans to come back at night to camp out. We had to get our sleeping bags, flashlights, bug repellent and the all important beer.

Quantity not quality was the agreed upon beer philosophy.

Jim couldn’t join us on the camp out.

“Y’all just have a good time on your own. I’ve been there before so t'ain't so new t' me.”

Odd. Jim never missed an opportunity to party with us when he knew there would be beer. He probably just wanted to hound dog a new blonde-blue sweetie he was pursuing. We knew how to get back up there on foot, which seemed a little safer than by horseback anyway.

So off we rambled, three flatlander guys and a girl, at dusk. We hiked the distance to the cave beneath a red glowing sunset.

The camp fire was easy since all the tinder inside the cave was dry. It had a nice high flame and our shadows bounced and wavered on the back wall of the cavern. I wondered, between sips of Old Milwaukee, if prehistoric people had much the same visions provoked by those flickering images of sparks and shadows.

I thought of Plato.

Then I had to pee.

Camp out romance is not a delicate thing. Mike, who had a marginal 'thing' for me that summer, offered to come along while I stepped out of the circle of firelight.  He often thought my having to pee was really code for it’s time to make out.

“Ok. Mike, one condition: I have to hold your flashlight while I pee so you don’t try anything shady, like shine it on me when I’m in the process. Got it?”

With no moon, climbing down out of the cave was tricky. We got down on the logging road and I found a spot near the edge where I unzipped and squatted careful not douse my boots in hot rental Old Milwaukee. With one hand I yanked up my jeans and zipped them. With the other hand, I kept the beam of the flashlight on Mike who was laughing hysterically at my prissy modesty.

He missed me going over the edge he was laughing so hard.

The edge of the logging road crumbled under my feet and I bounced, rolled, smacked and tumbled down the drop until I came to a stop on something hard, cold and metallic. The flashlight skittered away and blinked off.

“Oh, that’s going to leave a mark,” I announced to no one in particular.

It hurt but no broken bones, just probably bruises and scrapes. I patted the ground around me feeling for the flashlight and felt long cold metal perpendicular to splintery rectangles of wood.


The tar stench of creosote.

Railroad track! I fell on a train track.

Eventually my fingers found the flashlight and I flicked it on to light the tracks, shiny, narrow and curving into the distance, hugging the mountainside. I aimed the beam upward to see how I’d fallen and couldn’t believe my luck at not having broken my fool neck.

“Mike?” No answer.

Just wind in the trees and constellations swirling around a very black sky.

Standing, I turned the flashlight off to let my eyes adjust. A little way down just before a curve in the track, I could see a pin prick of  light. It was swinging back and forth from right to left, then left to right again. Then it went still and I heard “clang…clang…clang” of metal hitting metal.

Then the light began its pendulum motion once again coming closer to me. It was a man swinging the light. A very tall powerfully built black man wearing a hat. Who was it?  John Henry the legendary guy?  My mind was fuzzy.  He held a lantern in the one hand and a huge sledgehammer-like mallet in the other.

I could see him set the lantern down, and then raise the mallet over his head and with a powerful stroke, he’d pound down on the track, once, twice, three times – “clang…clang…clang!”

A rumble began teasing my feet and, faintly, a whistle blew somewhere in the distance.

I called out to him. “Hey! Where’s a good place to climb back up to the road up there?”

His lantern behind him, all I could see was his silhouette abruptly straighten up and peer at me. He waved at me to get off the tracks.

And suddenly it wasn’t just his lantern rendering him backlit in silhouette.

It was a headlight. A train’s headlight. A cyclops monster chuffing its route down those rails at a furious pace.

He waved me off frantically but I had nowhere to go. Neither did he.

The rumble was making pebbles vibrate up into the air around his feet. The whistle pumped once, twice and then intoned the long lost distress wail...

The steam engine towered over him like a dragon, black smoke from the stack and white clouds from the runnels filled up the space behind him.

Unbelievably, the man leapt off the tracks in one smooth jump. He leapt off into the yawning void where it seemed there was nowhere to go but down. Straight down.

A punch of displaced air riding in front of the locomotive stole my breath and flattened me against the mountainside where I willed myself to sink into it. Hot exhalations of steam from the engine breathed against my chest, and the deafening squeal of wheel against rail as the engine and coal car sped by me, inches from me, percussed in a rhythmic clack, clack, clack.

The cars rolling by were lit from within and the people inside were laughing, dining, toasting each other with glasses held high with care so as not to spill because of the train’s lurch and shudder. The fringes on the windows swayed and the people, fleeting images of wealth dressed in long bustled skirts and formal suits were… happy.

As the whistle echoed, and the caboose lights rounded the curve, I flipped over onto my stomach and made a mad adrenalin-fueled scramble up the dirt face I had come down. I made it scratching with my fingernails almost all the way up when I felt my hand grasped by someone hard. He pulled me up as my feet found leverage on tree roots.

Mike was pale and angry. “What the hell? I thought you shined me and went back to the cave, and when you weren’t there we panicked! Quit screwin’ around!”

“I almost got hit by a train and you’re panicked?”

“What train?”

“The one down there. Didn’t you hear it? The tracks are right down there. It was some kind of tourist train with people in it acting out some turn of the century thing. You didn’t hear it? See it?”

All three of them looked at me in the flashlight beams with slack expressions.

"Oh and there was this guy!  A worker or something.  He was hammering the rails when the train came.  He  jumped off the cliff down there!  We gotta go see if he's ok...We have to get the rescue squad!"

"Um, by the look of your forhead, I'd say you were seeing things...Let's get back up to the cave."

A bump on my head was approaching the size and shape of a quail egg, and combined with all the scratches and bruises, I decided that pressing the issue further was futile.  And judging from the outlandish jabber issuing from my lips,  I even doubted what I saw.

A beer and half-assed first aid later, I tucked into my sleeping bag and listened for whistles. The guys took turns keeping me awake, watching me for signs of concussion. So much for camp out romance.

In broad daylight, I found the evidence of my descent over the edge. It was easy to find with all the freshly turned dirt and the foliage broken and crushed all the way down that drop off.

I sat on my rear and scooted down to where I must’ve landed.

There was Mike’s flashlight alright.

Lying right in the middle of a clay road.

Only the faintest indentations revealed where there once were ties, one after another, and where the rails must’ve been.

There was no railroad there anymore.

Just hard pack clay embossed with ghostly corrugated indentations where once there was.

Next to Mike’s flashlight though?

One lone handmade iron rail spike.  I still have it.



Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, was once a popular resort locale for the wealthy at the start of the twentieth century. The Edisons, Vanderbilts, Astors and Fords all travelled by train to the Toxaway Inn for luxurious rustic vacations on the largest man-made lake in the south.

The resort lost its luster and crumbled into memory when the dam broke in 1916 sending the lake in a tidal wave down into South Carolina sweeping folk and property along with it.

(A new dam was built in 1960, however, and the lake is back.)

That railroad spur for the privileged was built in 1900 by local crews across treacherous terrain and at great peril. One man, a black spike driver, was noted (and reviled by fellow caucasian crew members) for his practice of walking the rails at night to check for and repair damaged or poorly-constructed rail that could send a train plummeting down to its doom.

Like this one did... 
His lantern light waving back and forth is seen even now on the abandoned rail bed by those who know where to look for it.

The flowers on his grave? Still a mystery.

The porch on the old Toxaway Inn 1902

A ticket folder for the railway.  The ladies looked like this in the train...

Interesting memo from 1901 announcing the train link called The Transylvania Railroad.  Yes, it is Transylvania County.  Where prompt delivery of your baggage is paramount!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Priests, Lies and Boone's Farm Apple Wine

Beth Anne leaned over and said to me in a big-eyed giggly whisper, “”Did you hear what happened to Father Dennehy at the basketball game Friday night?”

“No, what happened?”

“Can you believe that one of the cheerleaders walked right up to him and…”

The classroom intercom crackled and a chipper and efficient voice asked: “Will you please send Linda to the officer, Sister?”

“Linda, go ahead and take your things with you.”

Slinging my shoulder bag over my arm and gathering my books, I could feel the laser beam eyeballs of my fellow classmates as they fantasized luridly. They all hoped, I am sure, that something juicy would be coming down. I just hoped it wasn’t really bad news.

It wasn’t.

It was just one of those strange Mondays when a steady stream of girls, all cheerleaders, was being called down to the office at intervals. I hardly noticed who went or when. I didn’t even notice the odd sort of attention they were giving me when they returned to class and whispered amongst themselves.

Cheerleader drama wasn’t my thing.

Beth Anne was dying to finish her sentence, but didn’t have a chance.

My eyes and nose both were producing enough snot to annihilate an entire forest of Kleenex. I had a mean cold and all I wanted to do is get through the day, walk home, and curl up with my cat and The Fellowship of the Ring on the big green corduroy couch where, magically, no one could last longer than five minutes before falling asleep. I was sick.

It was eerie walking the distance to the office down the loggias devoid of bustling kids. Everyone was in class and it was surreal, or I was woozy from my malady.

Standing outside of the office waiting for me was Father Thomas Dennehy, pacing, arms crossed, and face mottled red. I thought for one optimistic moment that  he might be waiting for one of the guys to show up for coporal punishment of one kind or another. But, no, he was waiting for me.

Father Dennehy was an Irish priest, complete with a folksy sing-songy brogue.  He was highly valued as a “rainmaker” for the Archdiocese. He could squeeze every last penny out of a congregation to build a church, gymnasium or a school using every technique possible to extract pledges and cash short of holding us upside down by the heels and shaking it out of us. Or offering penances. When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs and all that.

He begged, pleaded, scolded, guilted, coerced, blackmailed and even exerted mild forms of extortion. He was aggressive. And the Church loved him for it.

He was also well known amongst the guys for his no-hostages-taken disciplinary practices of getting their attention in a loud and physical manner and making examples. The good Father was a pugilist and enjoyed boxing with the boys to toughen them up. Many times I would see him paired off with one of the guys, bare-fisted, hopping around on light feet, sparring and ducking and lunging for fun.

But when he was not having fun, watch out.

Once Father burst into a class, pulled a boy out into the loggia by the back of the shirt, and smacked him down to the ground for some transgression. Another time he plucked a misbehaving scamp out of the school bus dragging him down the middle aisle by the kid’s hair and down the steps to the outside where he cuffed him, hard. Another boy received a shove so powerful that his head smashed into a blackboard and cracked it.

In those days, the guys shrugged it off, if not in need of medical attention. Astonishingly, I heard that many of their Dads had given permission for the Father to deliver this testosterone rage of rough justice as their proxies.

Even paddling.

T’was the way young men were broken and remolded in those days and the Dads and the Fathers were in cahoots.

Just the guys though. When Father had business with a girl, it was verbal, mean, and followed up by lengthy repetitive, almost begging for forgiveness, apologies.

And I apparently became the object of his attentions that morning.

“Sit here.”

I sat in the chair in front of his big wooden desk. The open windows were behind him and he left the door open. I was relieved that the receptionist was within earshot. Jesus was there too. A giant crucifix towered over us on a stand behind his chair replete with a depiction of our pegged and painful Savior hanging from it, His eyes cast down in agony fixed precisely at the person being interviewed by the Father.

He sat in his leather chair and put his elbows on the desk, tenting his fingers and resting them against his lips.

“Ye took yer friends out onto the golf course behind yer house Friday night and you got ‘em all drunk on apple wine, din’t ye?”

“Uh, what?”

“Did ye get yer friends drunk out on the golf course Friday night, little missy?”


And I don’t know what possessed me, but I laughed.

His hands slapped down so hard on that desktop the telephone receiver hopped out of its cradle and skittered across the surface of his blotter.

“Yer LYIN!” he bellowed, “Ye think I don't know a LIAR when I put eyes on one?  I happen to have solid evidence and the testimony of WITNESSES pertainin’ to yer activities Friday night. I know what ye’ve been up to. Ye may get what ye want by lyin’ with everyone else who will excuse yer wanton dishonest and sneaky ways, but ye can’t lie yer way outta this!”

The receptionist’s fleeing footsteps and the slam of the outer door made me lose a little courage and some control of my bladder as well. My nose dripped unattended. I had to keep my wits about me here.

“Father, I was home Friday night with my Dad. I was sick. I didn’t go anywhere.”

“No. THIS is what ye did, girlie. Ye got that older guy ye date to buy wine for you and the girls on the cheerleadin’ squad and ye all sat out there on the fairway in the dark and got drunk! THEN ye all came to the game, those girls got to jumpin’ around like they do, and they got sick…”

Dennehy had information. How the hell did he know I was dating a college guy? How did he know the golf course was a great place, second only to the beach at Lauderdale by the Sea, to hang out and get wasted?

“Not true. I was home on the couch sick watching Star Trek with my Dad, Father.”

“NO. YOU. WERE.NOT!” his voice was straining and I could see the cords standing out in his neck.

He picked up the phone receiver and waved it in my face. “We are callin’ yer Dad right now to get to the bottom of this and agree on a consequence.

And I want ye to know, missy, ye’ve lied to a priest here; t’is like lyin’ in the confessional, y’know.

Do ye t’ink yer goin’ to heaven when ye’re sich a liar? Ye better change yer ways, quit engagin’ in sinful behavior wit that delinquent boyfriend ‘o yers and get the drinkin’ under control. And especially quit yer lyin about it all! Hell is a consequence.”

“Jackson 33448”

“Did ye hear a word I said?”

“Yes, Father, Jackson 33448 is his office number. His nurse assistant is Marty. She’ll put him on the phone.”

The color of his face changed drastically to a butter colored white. He scowled and spun the numbers on his rotary phone and put the earpiece to his ear. I could hear it engage.

“May I speak wit’ the Doctor please?” Then puffing his chest and standing straight looking me square in the eye he announced into the mouthpiece, “This is Father Dennehy.”

I heard my Dad’s garbled greeting on the other end. The good Father wasted no time and asked the big question.

“Doctor, may I ask if you know the whereabouts of your daughter this last Friday night?”

I could hear Dad’s polite even cheerful voice relay the news to the now shaken man of the cloth.

“Home with what I think is just a bad cold. We watched some TV together. Why do you ask Father?”

With that, Father Dennehy stuttered and  thanked my Dad in an awkward spray of non-connecting syllables, maybe even Gaelic was worked in there, and hung up.

He wiped his hand across his now perspiring brow and said to me, “You are dismissed. Please return to class.”

So I did. Classes had just begun to change and about five of the cheerleaders were eyeing me from the commons in an uncharacteristically curious display of interest. I ran headlong into Beth Ann who, with big dramatic eyes, finished the sentence she had begun just before my interview with Father Dennehy.

“Yeah, ok, this is great. You’re gonna laugh your butt off. That cheerleader named Shelly walked right up and projectile barfed Boone’s Farm apple wine all over Father Dennehy on Friday night! Right in his face! In front of everybody in the gym! Boy was he mad!”

“Don’t I know it?” said I.

Don’t I know it.


Fast Forward - 2010.

Father Dennehy, deceased in 1999, was accused just this last September of child abuse and pedophilia by a man who served as an altar boy at the parish within which the high school is located.  There is not much more to say about it until the lawsuit is at trial.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Tale of The Rower (Inspired by Canterbury Tales)

He's tall, fit and athletic, this young man of might,

Whose arms are sure strong and his leg muscles tight,

Made verily so by rowing a four-man sport boat,

With movements sleek smooth and rhythms fair rote.

Spandex clad, hands calloused and game-face sore dire

He and his brave shell-mates seemed never to tire.

And when the splitting of water wears them far down,

Anew their strength and steel wills always come 'round.

To Nation’s fame, this hearty boy crew,

They pulled and feathered their oars and flew

In perfect oared sync down canals, bays and lakes

Inviting trounc’d nemeses to eat of their wakes.

One night when discussing bold victories physical,

He and his crew guys became quite quizzical

Of a new sport to conquer, and on which to boast

Called Parkour. In such, the urban landscape is host

Where no city sidewalk, wall or stair is barrier

To the tumbling, flipping or leaping Parkour harrier.

Instead of water, rival crews and timing to beat,

He’d with his companions, like spiders so fleet

Flip down from the rooftops and all breathless they’d run

Climbing bus stops and bike racks and stairwells for fun.

Not meant for competing, this free running art,

‘Tis control of the mind gives movement its start.

And, like rowing, to rule over nerves, fear and pain

With Parkour there’s grace and good balance to gain.

Yet after a night of flips, climbing and vaulting,

With agile young friends in the downtown assaulting

The sidewalks and walls and the nooks of the city,

Our Rower did something that brought him great pity.

At McDonald’s where all Parkour-ists had met up to snack,

He tripped on a small curb and fell with a smack.

Descending, neglecting his skills learn’t fantastic,

He fell on one hand, the angle so drastic.

And, in irony abundant no one could fair conjure,

His thumb he did break. His pride he did injure.

With thumbnail fac'd east in an unnatural twist,

The Rower did visit a hand specialist.

A surgeon who put the Rower well under,

To pin the one digit he had tore all asunder.

He awoke from the sleep with an oath on his lips

At McDonald’s, he said, he was cursed with the trips!

(Then the boy still all woozy from drugs dulling pain,

Did vow to hug mom and kiss girlfriend again.

No mem'rie he now of those words that he spoke,

But tender that strong man was sweet when he woke.)

Eight weeks for to heal and climb back in the boat.

Missing three crew regattas, that’s all she wrote.

But all was not lost, he allowed in the car,

His sweetheart apparently digs guys with scars!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Dozen Eggs and A Plan

The Beach Divas:  Eileen, Des, Mary, Mary Anne, Sue, Anne Marie, Karen,  Linda

I had a vision last weekend.

“Oh, oh! Time to go” announced Anne Marie guiding me to the car. Ever vigilant, she saw my eyes well up as I took in the stunning aqueduct-style architecture that now made up the fa├žade of my old high school.

In our day, it was but four non-descript two-story buildings with one flat-roofed bunker in between. Now, with time and the support of alumni dollars, it was palatial.

This high school was no longer a non-air-conditioned geometric collection of shoeboxes squatting in a Florida sticker patch.

My vision that night was some kind of time machine revelation; a wavy broadcast special dissolve effect that kept shaving away the renovations. My vision melted the new expensive trappings like some crazy dripping Dali painting and left only the pure depiction of the original school, as I knew it during the day. I saw us walking those open air loggias changing classes, laughing.

My fevered misfiring chardonnay-addled brain was wrinkling time for me.

I love my brain for giving me these wrinkles as I grow older.

I love my brain because sometimes the time wrinkling folds pieces in, hiding memories that do not move me to tears. They move me someplace else entirely…Another tale for another day.

Here’s how all this happened: Seven of us 50-something gal pals, fueled by cocktails and the urge to relive some of the mischief we all got into when were kids, crashed the 50th Anniversary Celebration of our private Catholic high school alma mater in Fort Lauderdale.

Actually we met up for another beach weekend using this milestone as an excuse to get together again to eat, drink, reminisce, bob around in the ocean, nap next to the pool and laugh our collective selves silly.

None of us really wanted to go to the formal activities planned to mark the 50th Anniversary of our high school. The answer to the question ‘why?’ to any one of us was a shrug and a smile all weekend. Too crowded, might not remember anybody, don’t have anything to wear…

“Maybe I am seeing the people I wanted to see right here!” ventured Anne Marie as we sat for hours on the beach enjoying a day of perfect sun, clear water and delicious food and drinks leftover from dinner by Des the night before.  Des loves to spoil her guests.

But that night the overwhelming urge to leave our mark on the 50th party eclipsed any age-appropriate behavior. We reverted to our 17 year old selves and devised a plan. We piled into two cars and drove right on in to the high school compound just about five minutes before the big event was to end.

The plan was simple.

It was supposed to be a “drive-by prank,” just like the old days when some of us cruised the crowded parking lot and mooned everyone loitering around the gym after a basketball game. The priests interrogated witnesses relentlessly for days after that to see if anyone would crack and roll-over on our fellow culprits, but no one caved.

It was supposed to be a quick rolling incident with an easy escape just like the time when some of us armed ourselves with eggs, removed our tops and drove around pelting anyone who dared look…Well, maybe that yarn goes against our “code of silence” for certain episodes.  Oops.

For this escapade, now much older and more self-conscious, we toned it down. We didn’t want to get busted and we certainly didn’t think a fleeting glimpse of our vintage body parts would amuse anyone at this time in our lives.

The only risk was to commit social suicide and none of us cared one way or another if we did.

We took a great group photograph of the bunch of us, blew it up and scribbled “The Class of ’75 WAS HERE!” on it.

Karen was designated to jump out of the car, pick a good spot and tape that picture to the gym wall somewhere obvious, and then run like the wind, vault into the car and take off.

It sure didn’t work out that way.

As if mesmerized, we parked, totally abandoned the plan, piled out and scattered. It must’ve looked like clown cars in the circus.

Anne Marie, Eileen and Des went right into the gym and greeted everyone left at the event, Mary, Sue and I walked back to the athletic fields, Eileen even reportedly got up on stage when the alumni from the 70’s were called up.

But Karen, true to her original mission, taped that photo up on the gym door like a small blonde Martin Luther nailing 95 Theses to the church in Wittenberg.

The Class of ’75 was there.

The next morning, Sunday, Karen and I actually paid for breakfast at the Denny’s atoning just a little for a “dine and dash” incident a long time ago.

That guilt thing lasts forever.

“Whut choo like some pencake puppies? I hef to ask…” said our German waitress causing us to spew orange juice we laughed so hard.

Before starting the drive north to go home, we all met up one more time at Des’s house.
Des had already been to mass and had distributed communion to shut-ins, as is her habit and mission. The rest of us hold on to our Catholic practices tenuously, or not at all.

We have each other as a result of it though.

Saying good bye is hard now. I hate to leave the little fun bubble we create when we all get together. But our little lives must go on in separate places.

Karen was speaking on the drive back home of how it is a lonely glance backward in the rear view mirror sometimes.

“Oh you mean when Anne Marie or Des is standing there all sad faced when we’re driving away? Yeah…I told Sue there was to be no crying, damnit! Mary too!”

“No, I am talking about how high school is back there in the rear view, along with marriage, raising the kids, seeing them leave, for some divorce, watching our parents age and losing them, losing my husband Danny…All those things.”

All those things growing smaller and more distant as we dash ahead running generally above the speed limit.

“But we have to drive on forward,” she said, “There’re no u-turns.”


But I know now who is in the back seat riding along.

With a dozen eggs and a plan.

 Sunrise. Lauderdale by The Sea

 Mary, Des, Eileen, Linda, Karen, Anne Marie, Sue at d'Antonio's for tapas, looking innocent.

 The little bohemian resort with great beach.  Reminded me of Mexico on the coast there.

 Here comes the sun...

These hearts in the sand were drawn in a trail all along the beach one morning.