Saturday, October 30, 2010

Popcorn Balls and a Ghost Story

One of my favorite Halloween memories is that every year, Scott Schnipert's mother made popcorn balls to give out as treats. I didn't care what other candy I got, the one thing I always looked forward to and the first thing eaten was the popcorn ball that I received.

Popcorn Balls
adapted from Best Ever Popcorn Balls at Allrecipes

3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup butter
1 Tbsp water
2 1/2 cups confectioner sugar
1 cup miniature marshmallows
5 quarts popcorn (3 microwave packages worth)

Heat the syrup, butter, and water in a sauce pan, until simmering. Add in the sugar and marshmallows. Cook and stir occasionally until it starts to boil and mixture is well blended.

Mix the syrup mixture evenly with the popcorn, grease your hands with crisco and form into baseball sized or smaller balls. Speed is a factor here because you can't handle it when the mix is too hot but you have to form the balls before it totally cools and hardens. So I did the popcorn mixing in 3 batches, which just about filled a 13 x 9 dish.

So grab yourself a popcorn ball, pull a chair up by the fire here, and let me tell you my favorite ghost story.

Legend of the Booey Light
by Chris Grove

As a child, I spent several weeks a year at my grandparent’s tobacco farm in North Carolina visiting with my mother’s family. We would often sit on the steps of the old farmhouse on summer evenings, when the sun seemed to stall just above the tips of the trees across the field. While the insects lazily flew around the thick air, my adult relatives would tell stories of long lost family members, happenings in the area, and other tales. One of the most memorable to me was the legend of the “Booey Light”.

The ports of North Carolina have been bustling conduits of import/export since the first colonies were established. To support these establishments, railways cross the countryside to connect the rest of the country to the ports. In the late 1800’s, long before the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and worker’s compensation, railroad workers often suffered gruesome injuries.

As legend has it, just before the turn of the century, a young man took a job as railway worker worked the midnight shift on a line out of Wilmington. His name has not been passed down through the legend but it is said he took the dangerous job to save money to wed his sweetheart. On his first night on the job, a dense fog rolled in from the coast and blanketed the area. The yard man was instructed to travel out past the edge of the rail yard and to wave a lantern to warn approaching trains to slow down for the yard, since the engineer would be unable to see the usual signs. Knowing the engineer would not see him if he was more than a few feet from rail, the young man stood precariously close to the tracks. Hearing the sound of a train, the worker raised his lantern awaiting the train but thinking it was still far off in the distance. Apparently the fog even muffled the noise from the train, because it was much closer than he ever expected. The locomotive burst out of the darkness, striking the worker. The engineer never saw him until it was too late. Search parties were unable to find anything until the fog lifted late the next morning, when his lantern was found alongside the railway. His decapitated body was discovered shortly thereafter, thrown by the train into the swamp. His head was never found and remains hidden in the marsh to this day.

Shortly after the tragedy, mysterious sightings began along the railway from Wilmington that passed through Clarkton. On humid summer nights, engineers would talk of seeing lights floating along the tracks or in the nearby swamp. Rumor quickly spread that the young yard man’s body could not rest and had come back, roaming the swamps with his lantern, looking for his head. Wary locals would not travel through this area after the sun went down.

As a young child, I thought that after all these years of looking, the ghost had to have found his head by now and was no longer a threat. However, my adult relatives assured me that the Booey Light still inhabited the moorish railways of Eastern North Carolina. An aunt told me about how one man saw the Booey Light on a steamy summers’ night and followed it through a bog, where it disappeared near an abandoned whiskey still. Someone else passed on the story of two hunters who encountered the light and fired at it with a high power rifle. It promptly vanished. The most compelling account came from my older cousin, David. Being an older cousin and living in Clarkton, David was THE authority on the subject in my eyes. He described a time when he and several friends went in search of the Booey Light on a moonless evening. After walking the tracks for several hours without so much as a firefly, the teenage boys decided to call it a night. When the group turned around, they were stunned to see the light just behind them but it quickly disappeared. The stories fascinated me.

When I was nine years old, we visited David’s family in Clarkton. During the day, we played at the park, but just a block down the street were the infamous tracks. Word was that several of the teenage boys, including David and my brother Jeff were going on a quest to find the Booey Light after dark. My twelve year old sister, Rhonda, my younger cousin, Teah, and I decided that we had to tag a long. As the day faded into twilight, the three of us staked out the front porch, waiting for join the expedition. We could see the adults inside the house, catching up on old times. They would never miss us if everything went as planned. The older kids started towards the tracks and our trio started after them. They told us that this was “big kids” business and that we were not going with them. I was mad, mad, mad. I just had to see this apparition and I was not going to let some dumb old teenagers stop me. We waiting for about five minutes and then trailed off after them. Things weren’t too scary for the first half mile but that changed when we hit the edge of Clarkton and the streetlights no longer lit our way. We knew the boys were up ahead, but you could not see or hear them. I don’t remember us saying much as we walked. We were all quite nervous. On one hand, hoping to see the Booey Light and on the other hand, praying to God that we wouldn’t, we trudged along into the darkness. After what seemed like miles, we were scared, tired, in the middle of no where and realized we how far we had to walk to get back. A quick vote resulted in a unanimous decision to turn around. On the way back, every light we saw in the distance sparked the chance of still seeing the Booey Light. We made it back to the house without incident, which was a “disappointing relief”. Even though we never saw the Booey Light that summer evening, it was a special event in my childhood and just the fact that we had looked for it made the Booey Light more real to me.

In the summer of 1998, my sister and I took our families to visit our grandmother, who had moved into Elizabethtown from the farm. We sat on her screen porch, reminiscing of our childhood visits; playing on Grandpa’s tractor, chasing the cats under the house, the time it had rained and we played slip and slide on the gray clay road, ruining our clothes in the process. That lead to the telling of the Booey Light. Our kids sat and listened as we told them of the tales that had been passed on to us many years before.

That night, we decided to give our kids the full Booey Light experience. Late in the afternoon, we drove the 11 miles to Clarkton. It was a perfect night for finding the Light. Warm and sticky humid. The eerie tone was set when we pulled into the driveway of my aunt’s old house, which was only a few houses away from the tracks. It had burned down several years before and was never rebuilt. The brick shell of the house remained but the roof and interior were gone, replaced by a 30 foot tree growing up in the middle and giving it a post apocalyptic look. The sun had not yet disappeared so we had light as we walked along the tracks. As we neared the edge of town, dogs barked loudly and viciously at us. This made everyone nervous, since many of them were not fenced in or chained, but they did not come after us.

The granite rock bed of the rail road tracks noisily announced our presence as we walked into the swampy woods. We quickly began seeing skeletons of animals on the tracks. It seemed odd that so many of them would just happen to be on the tracks when a train came through. The evening slowly stole the sky from the sun while we walked away from Clarkton for the next 45 minutes and you could see less and less into the dense woods that lined the tracks. Soon the hunt had begun. All 6 sets of eyes were scouring the swamp, behind us, and the tracks that lay in the distance, for any sign of our prey. The sounds of the animals crashing through the undergrowth added to the thickening tension. Bugs flying through the air hit you like rain drops. You could no longer see the lights of Clarkton behind us and the only sign of civilization now was the occasional car that would cross a railroad crossing far in the distance. The chit chat among us had completely stopped because our jaws were clenched with suspense. Suddenly, a large owl burst out of the darkness and flew just overhead, causing everyone to screech with terror.

After realizing it was only an owl, we laughed and laughed, which briefly relieved our nerves. We continued on into the night, in search of the elusive Booey Light but it was no where to be found. It was getting late, we were physically tired from the walking and mentally strained by the stress, so we decided to turn around. Due to my cousin’s experience of turning around and facing the Booey Light, I glanced over my shoulder first! We kept looking for the Light was we headed back towards town, holding out hope that we might see it.

This particular stretch of rail road is called the Wilmington Subdivision and when it was built by Seaboard Coastline Airlines (now CSX), it was the longest straight stretch of track in the United States. My father worked for Seaboard for over 30 years, so I grew up knowing a lot of things about trains. One special pearl of wisdom was that you don’t pick up the sparkling granite rocks off the rail bed. This is because until a very recent incident involving a fishing boat under a railway bridge, passenger trains did not carry holding tanks for their rest rooms. Yuck! One of the most important train facts is that you don’t walk on tracks because a fast moving training can be on top of you before you hear it. Because of this, my sister and I both kept looking over our shoulders. We started seeing a light in the distance behind us. Because this track is so straight and long, your eyes can play tricks on you. We couldn’t tell if the light was a quarter mile away or 11 miles away. It would disappear briefly and then reappear. We kept our eyes behind us for the next fifteen or so minutes. Was it getting bigger and closer?

“Maybe it’s the Booey Light!” one of the kids exclaimed.

“Maybe it is some hunters who got lost and are following the tracks back in to town,” I countered, trying to throw some rationalization in.

My sister and I thought it might be a train, but then decided it probably wasn’t or it would have passed us by now. One thing was for sure. We weren’t going to stop walking to wait for it. By now, our clothes were damp with sweat and we were ready to be home. We picked up the pace, ever aware of the mysterious light on our heels. Before long, the light became constant and it was definitely getting closer. Finally, it was close enough that we could tell it had to be a train or a railroad truck on the rails. We kept walking until we found the widest clearing that we could and got off of the tracks, but there was only room to be barely off of them. It seemed like several more minutes before the big train silently approached us and swept by. I was amazed at how quiet it was right up until it passed us. The behemoth roared by only feet away from us, cooling us with the only breeze we had felt all night. Once it passed, there seemed to be a finality to the night. We weren’t finished but we could see the lights of Clarkton up ahead and we could sense that we weren’t going to see the Booey Light.

Back in town, the six of us piled back into our little rental car and I drove us back to Elizabethtown. Driving down Highway 711, I thought that while we didn’t see the light, that did not necessarily mean that I didn’t get what I had come for. After all, I knew that the Booey Light isn’t even a ghost. It is actually methane, also known as swamp gas, that spontaneously combusts in the right atmospheric conditions (i.e. warm, humid nights). I was able to do something very few people do anymore in these days of television, the internet and DVDs. I participated in a legend. The legend is not as much the story itself as the telling of the story. That night, I became a part of the Legend of the Booey Light by passing it on to my children.