“The path that follows your steps defines your past as surely as the path ahead portends your future. And some paths you will cross arising from nowhere, only to disappear.“
The path to the farmhouse was unimpressive, just a gap in the cornfield that disappeared into the stalks. The only thing beyond the usual was the banged up mail box with the Stars and Stripes painted on it, the lid dangling by just one rivet after fending off the relentless attack of nocturnal beer bottles. Those heat seekers of the night were forever launched by the anonymous backhanded gunners who rolled the roads between Black Creek and Lucama.
Ease past that mailbox and explore that path and in a hundred yards or so and it opened up into a yard which held the usual sharecropper house like so many which dotted the rural landscape of Wilson County in the early seventies. But this was not just any sharecropper house, it had a name known to many – “The Farm”. Walk up the front steps across a tall front porch through the front door and you immediately entered the unusual. The eyes are pulled upward and suddenly the mailbox made sense. Covering the whole ceiling in it’s red white and blue painted glory was the flag of a generation, the peace flag. It was painted there by the crew that sat below it.
The Farm was but one in a series of semi-communal houses in the counterculture in 1970s Eastern North Carolina. Raleigh had the Crystal Palace and Archers Lodge. There were Pactolus Farm and Contentnea Street from Greenville. Wilson had The Farm. Each place had a resident population and a rotating cast of characters. Gatling, Sunshine, June Bug, Soupy Ann, Bear, Flash, Rag, they all came and went in a pervasive cloud of smoke.
It’s hard to hide houses full of hippies behind a cloud of smoke and loud loud music and soon enough the proper authorities began to take notice. Tongues were wagging by the time the SBI commenced their first undercover drug operation in North Carolina. Two agents were selected and after they grew their hair out as much as they could in a few months they began to make the rounds. Talking a rap that sounded like the drunk Marines down at the Atlantic Beach Circle on Saturday night they seemed to turn up everywhere and ready to “cop some stuff man”.
Their cover ran out on their second trip out to the farm. As a resident named Rag lay in a mellow haze listening to the deals going down in the front room the charade hit him. Grabbing the sawed off twelve gauge from under the bed he stepped through the doorway into the front room and declared, “You’re the fuckin man!!!”. A room full of open mouths gaped back and a cloud of dust arose down the path through the corn as two undercover agents instantly disappeared . Sadly this was not the last time that someone looked up the barrel of a gun in this room.
Nothing spoils a good party like a drug bust, and the next day there were enough police cars kicking up a cloud of dust that was thick enough to make a Blues Brothers movie. The party was over. The State Bureau of Investigation now had its first marquee drug bust with forty- seven arrests and over one hundred and twenty warrants.
Suddenly it was hard to find a hippie in eastern North Carolina. Certainly everyone cleared out from The Farm. The only hippies left around lived in the tenant house next door. If one would cut across the field a few hundred feet or so you would come to the abode of Jim and Jane. Jim was straight out of central casting if you were casting The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers with shoulder length hair, a beard that wouldn’t grow and a seventh grade mustache. He was perpetually skittish and nervous, a product of his love of bennies which were mostly black beauties and white crosses which he got from the truck stops out on 301 and I-95. It seemed of the girls in ‘71 either wore their hair long, with or without bangs, or in the shag cut that Jane Fonda made popular. Jane of Lucama wore hers in the latter style also which worked well with her short cute looks. One-day Jane grew bored with the country life and jumped on the back of a motorcycle with a flat track bike racer and took off to Florida leaving Jim alone with his two dogs. Only Graham, his old friend from school days, stopped by to visit which was often.
Things were just about as bucolic as possible when Edna moved into the empty house next door. Edna liked the peace flag on the front room ceiling but not the green and white ecology flag that had also been painted on the front bedroom ceiling. She repainted that ceiling underworld black to cover the flag and any distractions to anything that one may do in a bedroom. One thing that Edna also liked to do was men. She was ready to take on any and all comers and it didn’t take a lot of convincing.
Southern society is like a bacon press though. It will flatten you and lay you out like everybody else. Edna felt the pressure and in fits of delusion she tried to maintain a monogamous relationship. What really happened was she got herself a steady boyfriend on the side. I mean a girl has to have someone to carry around to meet the family every now and then.
It didn’t take long for this slow motion train wreck to roll across the field and crash through Jim’s back door one night. “He’s gone crazy! Help me make him stop!” Edna blurted at Jim and Graham. Being caught flat footed and also with a little bit of compassion, they headed back across the field with Edna and some apprehension. When they stepped through the front door, there stood Bubba in full drool in a room full of overturned furniture. Bubba had seen Jim before, but one look at Graham and he was locked in. Grabbing Graham he alternated between a chokehold and a headlock as he drug him around the room. Jim’s mind exploded! Shouting did nothing to stop him. Not having the intestinal fortitude or the physical prowess to intervene, Jim took the next option. He ran.
There were no phones. The only option was his gun next door, the snake killer. Running through the field and across the rows, he was hitting the top every third or fourth ridge. Flashing into his bedroom he grabbed the bolt action .22 along with a handful of bullets and took off on his run back.
He returned to a struggle that was getting pretty real. The door had been dislodged to the potbellied stove and Bubba was trying to cram Graham’s head into the glowing coals. Graham won’t going. He was holding onto the heater’s legs and bucking like a rodeo bull. “Stop it or I’ll shoot!” which probably sounded more like Barney Fife than John Wayne. Nothing. Jim had to shoot. He couldn’t shoot a man in the back but he could shoot him in the ass. He missed. Got him in the leg but that was enough. Bubba got up, limped out and went to the hospital. Edna took off and went underground. That should have done it. Then about a week later Bubba died. The blood clot in Bubba’s leg had shifted to his brain. The biggest peace freak in the county had killed someone and The Farm had a murder.
The only thing that will clear out a good party quicker than the cops down South is a shooting. Things got predictably quiet around The Farm. Edna moved on to who knows where. I’m not sure the right people found out. Jim got off. Heck, you can’t shoot a man in the leg and get charged with murder. In some circles, it’s not worth a trip to the emergency room. Bubba would have probably disagreed.
And then we showed up. By we, I mean Sugar Bear, Re, and me. If Sugar Bear has anything unusual about her it was that she and her best friend Pooh were able to maintain a platonic relationship with me. We looked after each other like brother and sisters. Pooh and Sugar Bear had even went off to girls’ school together in Tampa. There they met Re. Re was a tall drink of water who was intrigued by these crazy girls, found a job at the travel agency in Wilson, and moved on up to find out if everybody was like her crazy roommates. I truly enjoyed being a very single man but I was smitten by this exotic brunette from Palm Beach County, Florida. When Sugar Bear learned The Farm was empty again, she asked Re and me if we were interested. We soon moved out and prepared ourselves for a quiet life.
Things were quiet and sometimes not so quiet. Seems that quite a few friends knew where we lived and loved to stop by and say “hello”, especially on weekends. Things were quieter during the weekdays, and since I was often away in my job as a steelworker, the girls were there alone. That is where things got interesting. Not everyone got the memo about Edna. An occasional car would show up mostly around the edge of dark only to be disappointed. It did not take the girls long to learn to not go outside to answer. “SHAINT CHEER!!!” Bear screamed out the window screen after another of the random cars had pulled in the front yard and blew its horn. “What did you just say?” Re asked. Bear translated to a hysterical Re and from then on “Shaint Cheer!!!” was bellowed out the window in a giggling duet.
One thing I should explain here about the mid-century lifestyle in rural North Carolina, which is hard to envision nowadays is that air conditioning was only rarely available. You kept your 1 windows up, the window fans running, had a big water oak in the yard for shade, if you were lucky, and definitely slept out from under the covers in the summer nights. In the early weeks there I had been working out of town and had not had the opportunity to greet any of Edna’s fan club. When a car pulled up at daybreak on Saturday and blew the horn I was annoyed, mainly because I was awakened on my day off. “Shaint Cheer!!” bellowed out Sugar Bear’s window followed by some muffled solicitation. That was it! I was up and out of the front door! Did I mention I slept in the nude? “What in the hell do you want?” I asked off the front porch to a car backing around and disappearing through the corn. Interestingly that was the last car looking for Edna.
Things got back to our version of normal. It was one of these normal Saturday nights when Sugar Bear walked through the door with Tonto. Dark skinned, mostly from tan, with long straight dark hair that was kept out of his eyes by a red bandana that was tied around his head Indian style, Tonto looked the part and was one of the hippies. He was a quiet person and did not say much, but I swear I expected every sentence from him to end in “ Kemo Sabe”. Greenville, New Bern, Atlantic Beach, I honestly couldn’t tell you where he was from. It looked like tonight he was from Lucama. It was good to see someone from the past and after a long night of catching up, we all retired to our bedrooms. Re had taken the black ceiling in the front bedroom and decorated it with a phosphorescent constellation, but I didn’t notice it tonight and fell quickly and deeply asleep.
I don’t know if I have ever awakened so quickly! I had heard a gasp beside me. Re had tensed so rapidly the bed had bounced. Then I saw him. In a dark room filtered by a little moonlight there, he was dressed in white by Re’s side of the bed!
“Who is it?!?!” I demanded while we both sat up. Two seconds without an answer was enough for me. This guy was going to meet my left hook. As I lunged off the bed, half frog, half Ali, I didn’t scratch. It was as if I missed by an eighth of an inch as he leaned back. I knew he was off-balance as I tried to cram a right straight down his face. Light as a feather, he dodged slightly to my right. When engaged with an adversary, and if that adversary is unknown, I have always been from the Jeb Stuart school. “Get there firstest with the mostest”. He had retreated towards the corner and I could finally get my hands on him. Like a middle linebacker at the goal line I dived. Poof! He instantly disappeared.
Someone turned the lights on to a surreal scene. Tonto and Sugar Bear stood in the doorway with a look I can only describe as gobsmacked. I stood in the corner naked with the 2 sheets wrapped around my ankles. I remember Re as clutching a pillow in modesty. Jim’s dogs howled like they had been hit by a car from across the field. There was no going back to bed now. Time to talk. Re had felt someone touch her. I awoke and saw the same apparition. She witnessed the fight blow for missed blow. We would carry the knowledge of what we saw.
Eventually, the dogs quit barking, we grew tired again and all went back to bed. Tonto got the hell out of there and I never saw him again. Sugar Bear eventually moved to Raleigh, got a job with the airlines, and married a pilot. Apparently, in the South, there is a tradition, about naked ghost fighting in a room with a woman that is every bit as binding as jumping the broom and so a little later we made it official. To this day Re tells me it was one of the most impressive things I have done for her. If not already a tradition I would like to also add ‘Don’t paint your ceilings black’.
If you ride by today the house is gone. The path has disappeared. Most of the people in this story are no longer with us. The path that Re and I took? Never-ending.
Thanks to Daniel Ferrell for sharing his ghost story with Feathers & Whiskey!