Clyde, Time Was: An All Hallow’s Eve tale

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 29, 2017

“This is the place, stand still my steed, and let me survey the scene and summon from the shadowy past the forms that once have been.” — Longfellow

Time was, it was a scary time. All Hallow’s Eve before All Saints’ Day. One dark and moonlit night, in a house beside the railroad tracks, a very strange thing happened that should be a lesson to us all. There was a bespectacled old man who lived there, not old enough to remember actually being at the old Confederate prison, but old enough to have heard about it. The garrison was across the tracks, but many travelers must have stopped there on the way to the prison gate. The old dark red Valentine house still stands and it was old enough and dreary enough, for nobody lived there but the old man who was getting older every day, as we all are.

There were two wells on the property. They were hand-dug and lined with big round black rocks and curved bricks around the top. We know  that Yankee prisoners were marched out of the confines of that “horrid” place to drink at wells that had not run dry because of too many mouths that were thirsty. Some men were crippled, one had a gimp leg. History books say over 10,000 men were kept there in the winter of 1864. The old man digging in his garden would often find a bullet, maybe from the attempted escape that was foiled there in November of that year.

Once, he found a button, half-rusted. You could barely make out the letter “I” on it; maybe from a guard at the prison. The same guard who looked into the same well that this man did today. The only thing that separated them is time. During the war, women in the small town of Salisbury were scared to death they would see “a live Yankee” on the streets. Mrs. Brown, who lived at the top of the hill on Corbin Street in the old Chambers house screamed out “O my children” when she heard explosions at the prison grounds. Citizens had been ordered to go out into town and “make like” a big city, so the prisoners wouldn’t know that only 2,000 people still lived here. Our boys were all off to war. Poor ol’ Mrs. Sloan Johnston, even took a prisoner home to nurse, but he died and she buried him in her garden.

Salisbury sent supplies. It was the main line to send bacon, whiskey, clothing, tanned leather for shoes for Lee’s army and niter for ammunition, all made in factories here. In fact, the old prison had once been a cotton factory,  the finest in the state.

At night, the man could hear the occasional footsteps upstairs. Once, while rounding the winder statues, the black Lincoln rocker was still rocking as if someone had just got up and left. It slowly came to a rest. Things got progressively worse. In the smoke-darkened kitchen, cookie cutters jumped off the wall and flew across the room. Things falling would waken him to a deafening silence and going into the front room, closed off like the old parlor, the chandelier was swinging to and fro when he opened the small paneled door. The signs of the cross at the top and the open Bible at the bottom of the door battens have not protected him from whatever it was that just swept across the now dead still room. One morning, he noticed that what looked like handwriting on the bedroom wall, actually was. Someone had signed “I hold you in high regard” on the wallpaper with maidenhair fern designs.

Children at history camp would come dig for potatoes. Civil war reenactors pretended to dig trenches. One young girl found what looked to be an arm from a tiny porcelain doll. They found clay marbles made by prisoners from the bull tallow clay and baked in the sun or maybe the bake oven. Pea-daubers, they called them. Did they think they would ever see home again as they passed the countless days and hours looking for amusement? They made up games with lice and rats.

Sleep came and went for the old man, not unlike it must have been for the incarcerated. A glass eye sits in an old eye wash cup. It stares in one line only seeing what passes by it. In his small daybed in the kitchen corner for warmth, the quilt just covered his nose and his toes hung out at the bottom. When one night, as clean as a bell, he heard his name called. Loud enough — not a whisper — to be real. Then again, louder and clearer. Dare he answer that someone, or something would echo back. Suddenly louder still it called. In an instant, he threw off the covers, jumped to his bare feet and looked in every room. With a small light, he ventured into the back yard where, near the site of “Mrs. Johnston’s soldier’s grave,” he thought he saw part of a blue sleeve and what might have been a hand disappearing into the ground. The rock-lined well only feet away.

The old man knew better, but he made up things to tell little children just to scare them. Sometimes he put in facts to make it sound historically accurate. The townspeople believed him and the more they heard it, it became not a myth, but a legend. The old slave-made granite wall still stands. The old blue uniformed and brass-buttoned figure may be seen to this day trying to get out from under the stockade wall, his arm grabbing at whatever comes by. So, when you go down East Bank Street and over the bridge, remember, where they moved the old Masonic Cemetery, to make way for the new railroad coming through town. Don’t be surprised what you see coming out of the rocks. So hold on to your britches and don’t let anything grab your ankles as you pass by. Boo!

Clyde, who goes only by his first name, is a Salisbury artist.