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The Whip-poor-will Story

This isn’t it, but reminds me of the old Walker cabin site.

The year was 1981, and I was 15 years old.  My dad and I had spent the day working on our Christmas tree farm at the base of Booger Mountain (in Taylorsville, N.C.) with two other hired hands — Randy and Jeff — who were both around 20 years old.  It was late summer, and we were using long, razor-sharp, machete-like blades to shape, or “shear,” the white pines for harvest.

The day had been long and hot, but as the hours crept by, we were motivated by the fact that prior to work that morning, Dad had submerged a large watermelon in the cold water of the creek that threaded its way through the remote valley.  By the end of the day, it would be ice-cold and crisp.

When quitting time finally came, Dad dispatched Randy to retrieve the watermelon from the creek.  Randy walked the 50 yards through the bush-hogged grass from the old farmhouse down to the “branch,” as the local sometimes called it, and pulled the watermelon out of its temporary housing.  The crescendo of cicadas was starting to calm down and give way to the gentler calls of crickets and tree frogs as afternoon became dusk.

It was this time of day that always gave me the creeps at Booger Mountain, reputed by the locals to be the most haunted place anybody had ever heard of.  Though we lived elsewhere,  I had nearly grown up in the weathered-gray, barn-wood farmhouse, and had caught salamanders and crawdads in the creek since before I could remember.  I should have been completely at ease on the farm, but there was still an eerie quality to the place that nagged at me.

Booger Mountain had an impressive pedigree of spookiness.  Legend had it that a 19th-century family, the Walkers, had lived in a cabin in one of the back fields on the farm and had gone missing on Christmas Eve one year.  Pa Walker was a bad man, they said, and the devil finally came to collect him.  Ma Walker and the three kids, all “good as gold,” were nonetheless part of Pa’s “belongings,” and had been taken, too.  A vine-covered chimney still stood in the field, and I always gave it a wide berth.

On the upper slope of Booger Mountain — which folks in the upper Appalachians would probably refer to as just a “foothill” — there was a Cherokee Indian graveyard where 28 bodies and two fine mules were supposedly buried.  Folks claimed that war cries could be heard drifting down through the trees, and a green mist would sometime rise from the soil of the graves.

These spooks, haints, or “boogers” had, through the years, apparently made their way into the valley and laid claim to the old farmhouse, the origins of which were unknown.  Pipes routinely rattled, doors opened and shut through heavy stumps propping them open, and heavy, bodiless footsteps clomped through the house late at night.  For years, Dad’s old Ford tractor would, without fail, stop dead on the tiny bridge that led onto the property, like a horse that nervously refused to enter a dark forest.

That evening in 1981, as Randy handed the watermelon to Dad, lightning bugs were launching their displays in the field that fronted the house, and the woods beyond the creek were becoming alive with sound.  Dad carried the melon into the kitchen to section it as Randy, Jeff, and myself settled into our end-of-the-day routines of cleaning our shearing knives.  I sat about halfway up the rickety wooden steps that led to the screened porch of the house.  Randy and Jeff, on the tailgate of Dad’s truck.

A whip-poor-will.

The whip-poor-wills lit in.  Now, any country person will tell you, dusk is the time for whip-poor-wills, although they will often sing well into the night.  There was an enormous weeping willow tree next to the Booger Mountain house, and whip-poor-wills would often use the tree as a home base of sorts.  There is very little in the whole, wide world that can spook a kid quicker and more thoroughly than the call of a whip-poor-will.  Hank Williams called them lonesome.  I considered them to be downright terrifying.

As the birds began calling, I made an off-handed remark to Randy and Jeff.

“You know, I’ve been coming to this farm since I was a baby, and I’ve heard whip-poor-wills a thousand times, but I’ve never actually seen one,” I said as I cleaned my knife.  “I wonder what they look like.”

Immediately, something fluttered out of the woods beyond the creek.  In the dimming light, I could make out a dark shape flying in our direction.  The shape grew larger and larger, and flew without hesitation — in a straight line — toward me.  The projectile passed over the heads of my startled companions by only a foot or two and continued toward me.  Frozen in shock, I watched as the bird approached within a foot of my face, fluttered for a second or two, and landed on the step beside my foot.

Nobody moved.  The world stopped and all sound became muted, like in a heavy snow.

It can’t be.  The phrase flitted across my brain.  As if detecting my thought, the bird — about the size of a pigeon, mottled brown and gray —cocked its head and looked at me.

Whip-poor-will!” it cried, and shot off into the darkness with a loud beating of wings.

The three of us stared at one another for what seemed like a long time.

“Holy beep!” exclaimed Jeff.

Only he didn’t say beep.  At the time, this seemed like an appropriate response.

We all broke into excited laughter and chatter as Dad walked out with the watermelon slices.  He smiled broadly as we recounted our story, all shouting at once.

“I heard the whip-poor-will, too” he said, as if our story was so implausible, it needed adult reinforcement.  “That stuff only happens on Booger Mountain.”

It’s been 34 years since that September afternoon, and I still tell the story.  It’s a perennial favorite of Dad’s, too, and he recounts it gleefully at every opportunity.  And after all these years, I still wonder…  Was it Pa Walker who sent the whip-poor-will?  One of the Indians up on the mountain?  Or one of the unnamed spooks that undoubtably skulked along that old, cold creek?

More likely, I figure, it was simply a gift from God.  You want to see a whip-poor-will?  Okay.  Here you go.

I’ve always appreciated that gift, and though the old house has long since been torn down, and the once-remote valley is now dotted with subdivisions,  I still like to believe that the haints of Booger Mountain are alive and well — rattling pipes and sending whip-poor-wills.

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4 Responses to “The Whip-poor-will Story”

  1. Unknown says:

    I love that story Mark…along with all the others you told me of the cabin and surrounding area. Thanks…now I’m gonna have trouble sleeping tonight!

    Doug

  2. Barbara Davenport says:

    Love the story. I love those kind of tales and I grew up with a grave yard I played in and tales of ghosts, a 6 year old me maybe saw one.

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