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Clyde, Time Was: Beware of Chicken Springs

Time was, if you went in the woods, something might “git” you. We knew about the boogie man — not exactly what he looked like, but for sure we didn’t want to find out.

Before Uncle Jimmy’s Hurley Park was built and even before the City Lake that froze over in winter, there were native forests and gullies from down behind Spring Hill distillery. Hobos from the railroad were bad to procure live dinner from somebody’s chicken coop and cook out and camp along the creek near Spencer Woods. The ravines were covered with kudzu, imported from Japan, and plenty of local crows and crawdads inhabiting the undergrowth of brambles and cockleburs among the poison ivy creeping out of every knothole and stump.

A family with all boy offspring lived near North Fulton Street, and two of the boys headed out for the vast wasteland every day to play, swing on vines and make up war games or just fool around and “hang out” until supper time.

On a bank with a long root from an old scrub pine, the boys envisioned an entrance to a cave for buried treasure or a Jules Verne tunnel to the depths of the earth. A Yankee told them they could dig all the way to China. They dug feverishly at first and later with homemade tools, the roots holding up the red clay.

By the end of summer, the hole was big enough to “git” inside for a home away from home. When their mother asked what they did everyday up in the woods, they simply replied, “Oh, nothing.”

By fall, they had forgotten their hard work until one day, after school, the younger boy decided to revisit the hole, alone.

It was Halloween and there was a play and a party that night at Sacred Heart Church, where their daddy was custodian. It would be silly, childish games and fake costumes, so he lingered to watch the leaves falling, covering the entrance when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, what looked like a figure at the edge of the road, crossing the pathway out, as if under a trellis of low-hanging vines.

He knew about the eyes of Knox with swamp gas along the nature trail, but he had never seen it. A straight-on look produced nothing there. Old people said if you ran from a ghost, it would chase you until it caught you. Once he had found an old blue shirt and what looked like underwear.

He had read about Boo Radley. A chill went down his spine and he decided to get in the hole to watch from a safe place. Was it real or in his mind, he imagined. He had heard older boys talk about people in the Henderson Woods, and he had heard tell of the legend of black-eyed children and zombies. Once something growled at him from the thicket.

Now all he heard was a tree frog, when he saw a shadow pass over the path coming out of the woods. The light grew dimmer and there was no way out, so he crouched farther down in the hole and covered his body with leaves, disguised by nature.

After a few minutes that seemed like forever, his thoughts switched to fear. What if he was found dead? How long before he would be declared missing? What would his parents do?

When, for real, something WAS coming. What he could see in the near-dark was a big, black void with hands that came towards him. He leaped out and took off, but not before something grabbed him by his pocket and held on. He hollered out loud and jerked away, leaving a patch of blue cloth behind. As he ran the rest of the way home, he could see the skyline of Salisbury against the last golden rays left before dark fell, the town and church towers standing guard. He was never so glad to see the yellow porch light over his own door.

The next day, taking the streetcar downtown and walking along the sidewalks and the storefront windows, all painted and decorated for the costume walk and trick or treat, his parents walked with him by the Empire Hotel. A strange man approached in what looked like a costume, with painted shoes and a long, tacky necktie. He offered the boy a shiny new penny in a miniature ironstone night jar, but his mother quickly grabbed him away, past an old woman who had on scary makeup and reached out for his hand.

Were these the people in the woods that had come out?

To this day, in late evenings, you can drive by these woods and maybe catch a glimpse of a faint outline just standing by a scaly bark hickory tree, waiting until dark. Or you might see a movement slipping through the underbrush, an enigma, standing looking back at you, staring with ol’ blue eyes, right through you.

Stay out of the woods if you know what’s good for you.

Clyde is a Salisbury artist.

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