Thursday, September 8, 2011

The train tracks always lead him home.... and sometimes beyond.

   My great grandfather on my mother's side, Charles Collins, had several encounters with the supernatural.  My mother still tells me these stories to this day. What makes these stories so strange is the kind of man my great grandfather was proclaimed to be. He was a no nonsense kind of fellow who was not taken to flights of fancy or imagination. He was the groundskeeper for the local cemetery and was firmly grounded in reality.  He was not one to joke, kid, or exaggerate. Tending to the dead and the grieving had a way of sobering a man's view. That's why when my mother tells me these stories, they hit home a bit harder.
   One of these tales stands out to me and I will share it with you now.
   It was late Autumn in 1960. Charles lead a very structured work life as head groundskeeper at Glencoe Cemetery. It was a very repetitive existence but my great grandfather thrived in the structure of it.
  Every Friday at quitting time, Charles would drive a town truck from the cemetery to the stone mason just a few miles down the road. He would drop the truck off at the mason's shop so that they would have it loaded with ordered tombstones or other stone work for Monday morning. Having no vehicle himself, he would then walk home following the railroad track to 2nd street, right across from his home. Luckily he had a good friend, "Skinny" Wilson, who would meet him there and walk home with him.
    Skinny worked for the railroad. He was one of those jack of all trade workers at the local station yard. He was mostly in charge of ensuring the large metal "arm" of the water tower was positioned correctly over the engine. He was very good at this due to his stature, from which he gleaned his nick-name. Being a small man, he could easily climb the side of the train engines as they came into the yard. He would scurry under the heavy spout and secure it to the boiler.
   Unfortunately, Skinny Wilson was always about half a bottle shy of being the town drunk. While not one of those staggering Ottis types from Mayberry, he kept it at a steady pace. Often, he would drink himself into a good nap while waiting on Charles to get off work. Several times, my papaw would find Skinny, passed out and using the train rail for a pillow and his old wool jacket as a blanket. Charles was a deeply religious man and would then preach to him the entire way home about his drinking.
   "You are going to wake up dead one of these nights Skinny! That train is going to take your head!" he would berate to the intoxicated man.
   "Then thank the Lord I have you Charles to watch after me and guide me home!" Skinny, would always respond.
   It was a very familiar argument that anybody within ear shot had overheard countless times. My mother said the only reason they put up with each other was papaw needed somebody to walk with and Skinny needed somebody to wake him up and lead him home.
   On one such Friday, my great grandfather found himself working very late into the evening. He had to see to the digging of 2 graves before he could end his day. It was already dark when he started down the road in the town truck. Being as late as it was, Charles fully expected his friend to have given up and walked home long ago, especially as cold as this particular night was. Parking the truck, he  then climbed up the steep bank and started following the familiar tracks home.

   It was very dark on those tracks, having no street lights to find his way. He was fortunate to have a nearly full moon to give some form of  illumination on his journey. Walking alone must have been unnerving to say the least. He must have felt very relieved when he saw the familiar form of Skinny Wilson, huddled up in his old wool coat by the track just ahead.
   "Come on Skinny! You're going to catch pneumonia on that cold ground!" he called out to to the figure.
   The form under the long wool coat did not move. Charles thought he must have drank the bottle dry waiting on him and was down for the count.
   Moving closer to the wool covered form, he called out again, "Skinny! Come on now, we gotta get moving!  No God fearing man should be out this late at night.".
   Again, no sign of movement at all from the form. As he moved in closer, he could see the old wool coat in detail as it covered the humped up form of his friend. He bent down to shake his friend awake. As his hand made contact with the materials of the coat , he was surprised to feel how terribly cold and damp it felt. Gently he shook the form. The figure in the jacket did not respond.
   Charles must have been very frustrated with Skinny as he reached down with both hands and roughly pulled him up to his feet.
   "Come on Skinny, get up and head down the track to your home and your own bed!",  he grunted with the effort.
   Slowly Skinny stood up. Not like a normal person would using their hands to push them up on their knees, but almost as if the figure rose straight into the air. The figure continued to rise until it was fully erect and standing whole in front of Charles. Whole, except the figure had no head!
   Charles stumbled back trying to put distance between him and the headless figure in front of him. Not daring to take his eyes from his friend with the missing head, he back peddled furiously.
   The figure stood motionless there for a several seconds, as if staring back at Charles, if it had a head that is. Then, with no warning, the figure turned and slowly walked away. It headed down the tracks away from him. Charles watched the figure shuffle away until the darkness swallowed it.
   At that point, my great grandfather ran like a man possessed back down the bank to the truck he had parked just a few minutes ago. He started it up and flew back to his house. My mother was just a young girl, but she knew something was wrong with her grandfather. He was pale and out of breath. Once he had regained his composure, he described his encounter in vivid detail to his family.
   He soon had steadied himself enough to drive over to Skinny's house and check on him. The door was locked, and the lights out. Charles beat on all the doors and windows but Skinny was either not home or not answering. He hoped he was passed out drunk in his bed. Reluctantly my great grandfather returned home, vowing to return in the morning when Skinny had slept it off.
    The next day, true to his word, he returned. Charles was surprised to meet the Sheriff  as he pulled up to his friends house. The Sheriff was the bearer of bad news. He went on to tell him that Skinny had been found dead near the station yard. Apparently skinny was working on the side of an engine, securing the water spout. The train had lurched forward pulling Skinny under the large spout, severing his head at the neck. His body was not found till that following morning as it had rolled down an embankment and was hidden in the weeds.  Nobody had missed Skinny because he was filling the last Engine scheduled that day and it was close to quitting time. The other men all thought he was in a hurry to hit the bottle and had headed home.
   The most disturbing news from the Sheriff was that they were still looking for the head and feared it had been scavenged by wild animals.
   I can only imagine how my grandfather reacted to this news. Skinny had died at around 4pm that Friday and my papaw had his encounter with the headless form at almost 10pm!
   My great grandfather never walked those tracks again....even though his good friend was still willing to walk with him from beyond the grave.....

   I have to wonder if Skinny Wilson even realized he was dead? If his spirit continued to follow the same routine as it had in life? Was it waiting on my great grandfather to direct it and guide it home? Maybe it was a sense of loyalty that Skinny stayed behind to walk home with his friend.  Perhaps he was searching for his missing head that was never recovered or trying to lead my papaw to where it was located.
   We may never know why this spirit lingers, but to this day, people still report seeing a ghost on the tracks during full moons. A headless form wearing an old wool jacket that hops up and heads down the track when approached. 

   I wonder what  one would find if they ever followed him?


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