Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another True Tale For Halloween, In Fictional Dress

Homes and Watson

"It reminds me of our adventure with the infernal Hound," I commented upon our return to our lodgings at 221B Bakers St.

"Indeed Watson, there are salient features reminiscent of the Baskeville case," replied Holmes, settling into his favoured chair. "Our dear friend the Explorer and his wife have once again provided us with some amusement."

"Good Lord, Holmes, you cannot consider their frightening ordeal a form of amusement?"

"If you say so Watson," Holmes gave me a most peculiar look. "But consider. The Explorers were staying in a Bed and Breakfast located five miles from the town of Portree on the Isle of Skye, whilst the Explorer conducted some research into his family history."

"Quite so," I agreed.

"Mrs. Explorer had had a most disturbing meal. The two were seated at a favoured table by a large picture window overlooking the majestic hills of Skye. The large sheep population of the Island dotted the hillside.

"Both the Explorers had ordered the fresh lamb for their repast, wanting to savour the local cuisine. But as they commenced eating, Mrs. Explorer was horrified to notice the sheep beginning to gather at the fence outside their window. Staring at her as she ate."

"To that poor woman's mind it seemed the animals were gazing on her in judgment as she consumed one of their fellows."

"Quite put her off her meal," I commented.

"Were it not for the Explorer gallantly exchanging places with her, she would not have been able to continue.

"However, with Mrs. Explorer safe from the judgment of the local domesticated flock, they were both able to enjoy their dinner."

"Ah, but then we get to the meat of the matter, so to speak," I picked up the tale, "For the couple then decided to go for a walk in the night air before repairing for the evening.

"As I recall, they scaled the large hill overlooking the bed and breakfast to gain a view of the valley from this height. The large herd of sheep were everywhere to be seen, but the handsome couple were the only people abroad in the night."

Holmes verily squirmed in his comfortable chair, "And that, Watson, is when the fog rolled in. Unaccustomed to the suddenness and impenetrability of a Skye fog, the couple were caught unawares on the hillside, the bleating of the sheep, the only comfort in the gathering dark.

"They began their descent of the steep pathway, their vision limited to a mere yard before them. And that is when they heard the terrifying sound of footsteps in the night. Another soul was abroad in the gloaming, yet due to the fog, this mysterious companion could not be seen.

"The couple hurried to the bottom of the hill, the twisting and narrow path, limiting their speed. Being courteous, they then waited to greet the stranger who was also abroad in the foggy evening. But the footfalls of the other simply ceased. Not a soul emerged from the fog. They were quite alone."

"Puzzled, they retired to the warmth of the peat fire in the lounge, where the dear hostess of the establishment brought them some tea to warm them from the chilly night air."

"Whilst leafing through a tour book kindly left on the side table, Mrs. Explorer chanced upon a article that returned the chill of the night to her bones. She drew Explorer's attention to the article with trembling hand.

"The very area in which their bed and breakfast resided was notorious for the appearance on foggy evenings of a headless man whose appearance had frightened several locals to their death.

"'You don't think, those footsteps could have been the headless man?', the dear woman questioned our friend.

"But for once, the Explorer was at a loss for words, the footsteps in the fog, a haunting memory reverberating in his troubled mind."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A True Tale For Halloween

Cavern Tour Pictures, Images and Photos

The very touch of daylight is enough to cremate vampires, as if they were the hapless victims of some nuclear explosion. Although vampires leave no fallen shadow of themselves upon the ground. Or so Bram Stoker claims.

So I am safe in the morning light as Lindsay and I run the pathway along the top of the Scarborough Bluffs. If not vampires, certainly daylight incinerates the worries, torments and terrors of a troubled sleep.

I've been visiting the elegantly chilling blog written by Fairweather Lewis and her stories have reminded me of my one close encounter with horror. It's troubled me all night, but in the daylight the sense of dread has faded.

As a young man, I traveled to England where I worked and roamed the country for two years, before University. My travels eventually brought me to Buxton and a tour of Poole's Cavern.

The cavern gains its name from 'The robber Poole', who is reputed to have lived in the cave in the 15th century. However, the cave has been used by Man since Neolithic times and archaeological digs have revealed Stone Age tools and artefacts, Bronze Age pottery, a wealth of Roman material and human bones. It seems that at one time in the Roman period the cave was used as a workshop by a craftsman who made bronze brooches and other metal items. Many Roman coins and pottery were also found.

The cavern has attracted visitors for hundreds of years, and there is a local tradition that the ill fated Mary Queen of Scots came to visit on one of her trips to take the waters at Buxton during her imprisonment at Chatsworth.

Poole's Cavern is also reputed to be haunted.

I know it is.

In those days the tour was guided and the lighting poor. We were led in groups of twenty and in the Great Dome, that was scoured out of the solid limestone in neolithic times by the power of swirling flood-waters loaded with rock and sand, the guide would turn out the lights to plunge us into pitch darkness. In the dark he told the story of hauntings and terrifying footsteps he had heard when in the cave alone.

I felt chilled by the story and when the lights were turned on and we were led back to the surface, I made certain I was in the middle of the crowd, not wanting to be the last one leaving the cave. Eventually, with the comfort of people laughing nervously and chattering around me, I grew calmer and finally could see the light of day at the cave's entrance.

Our guide stood at the entrance with a clicker, counting off our number to ensure no one was left behind. As I emerged in the middle of the group he said, "Ah, here comes the last one now."

I turned and realized I was alone. All of the people who had been walking and talking and muttering behind me were gone. In fact, had never been.

I run in the daylight now, away from that memory that has been disturbing my sleep all night.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Ultimate Adventure 3

So you wanted to hear about the my brush with death by shrapnel, mentioned in yesterday's blog?


V1 Rocket

I celebrated my first birthday on April 3, 1944 in the London suburb of Mitcham, close to Croydon. In June of 1944, the first V1 Rockets began to rain down on England's capitol. I really don't think they were out to get me personally, but you can never tell.

I slept through most of it.

My father was a Staff Sargent in the Canadian Army and he was posted overseas in North Africa. My mother had moved back home with her parents for the duration of the war.

The skies of London were filled with barrage balloons, looking suspiciously like the craft of invading Martians from War Of The Worlds. Eventually some 2,000 barrage balloons were deployed in the hope that V-1s would be destroyed when they struck the balloons' tethering cables. Only the Germans had fitted the leading edges of the V-1's wings with cable cutters, and fewer than 300 V-1s are known to have been brought down by barrage balloons.

My grandfather, a WW1 Captain, was a Street Marshal and when sirens sounded he herded the people from his street indoors or into their shelters and made certain no light could be seen from any window, before rushing home himself.

Up to this point, the biggest explosion on his street had been to the backyard of the home next to his. It was ironic, the neighbhour had build a backyard shelter capable of withstanding anything but a direct hit. His wife refused to use the shelter, insisting on staying in the house. And when the bombs came they hit the shelter directly, leaving the home and the wife intact. There was a large crater now where the man in the shelter had been.

My grandparents, my mother and I huddled in the pantry. I was placed in my pram under the stairs. Everyone kept low.

Almost 30,000 V-1s were made. Approximately 10,000 were fired at England; 2,419 reached London, killing about 6,184 people and injuring 17,981. The greatest density of hits were received by Croydon, on the SE fringe of London. Mitcham wasn't that far from Croydon and the guidance systems of the V1 were primitive to say the least.

The V-1 lacked the primary points of vulnerability of conventional aircraft: pilot, life-support, and a complex engine. Hits to the pilot, oxygen system, or complex reciprocating engines of a piloted aircraft by a bullet or small shell fragment destroy its fighting capability, but the V-1's Argus pulsejet provided sufficient thrust for flight even if damaged. The only vulnerable point of the Argus was the valve array at the front of the engine. The V-1's only one-shot stop points were the two bomb detonators and the line from the fuel tank, three very small targets buried inside the fuselage. A direct hit on the warhead by an explosive shell from a fighter's cannon, or a very close anti-aircraft shell explosion, were the most effective forms of gunfire.

As my family huddled in their skullery, they could hear the distant explosions but what they were listening for was the sound of the V1 engine. As long as you could hear the engine you were fine. But when it stopped, it meant it was coming for you and the silence was ominous.

And on this particular day, they heard the engine sputter and stop and waited in the deadly quiet.

Suddenly the rocket exploded with a deafening roar directly across the street from my grandparent's home, window's imploded and shrapnel ripped through the walls of their house while they lay on the floor.

I slept through it all and lived because I slept. When they came to check on me, the hood of my carriage was sliced to pieces from shrapnel. Had I been sitting up, frightened by the noise, I would have resembled the carriage hood.

There is perhaps a lesson in there for coping with very bad times.

Just sleep on it.

London Blitz

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Ultimate Adventure 2

The dark waters of the mid Atlantic were heavy, cold and eerily calm. Stories of icebergs had circulated and memories of the Titanic were still fresh. A light fog lay wrath-like on the waters.

It was a day out of Liverpool, in late May 1946, on the North Atlantic run and the huge grey ghost sliced the waters with calm assurance. The Queen Mary was still painted her wartime colors, was still stripped of most of her finery but her decks held a precious cargo.

For years now she had carried men, grim soldiers in battle gear, over 8,000,000 of them, 16,000 at a time, many going to their deaths on the bloody battlefields of Europe. But today she was on a return journey, her decks alive with women and their very young children. War brides on their way to a new future on a new continent. Hope and joy replaced fear and determination as emotional cargo.

My mother and I were among them. I was three years old and had just had my first train ride, from Mitcham to Southhampton, and was now settling into life on board the second largest ship in the world.

There were children everywhere and every woman had a story of romance to tell, swept off their feet by brave young men in uniform on their way to an uncertain fate. The men these women had chosen had survived the nightmare of battle and had returned to North American to prepare homes for them in a new world.

For every woman on board, this was the adventure of a life time and no small testimony to their own courage.

It came out of the fog, a towering island of ice far to starboard. Women grabbed their children and ran, anxious not to miss seeing the fleeting drama of an iceberg at sea. My mother lifted me onto the rail for a better glimpse as other mothers were doing, her strong arms holding me tight.

Many of these young women had been children themselves when a berg such as this had sent the Titanic to bottom of the ocean and the memory sent a delicious chill through the crowd.

Suddenly, the ships fog horn sent an ear-splitting blast of noise into the air.

Women screamed and lost their tight clutches on their children and we tottered on the rail three stores over the icy waters of the North Atlantic. There was an instant of panic before grips were reestablished and terrified women hauled their children off the ships rails.

And then everyone laughed with relief.

Someone noticed the iceberg had already drifted out of sight as the great engines of the Queen Mary drove the ship toward the distant shore.

My closest encounters with death were all before I was three years of age. The first when illness led the doctors to contemplate an abortion to save my mother's life, the second when shrapnel from an exploding V1 rocket ripped the hood of my carriage apart. The third when I was almost dropped into the dark frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

Life has been pretty good since then.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Ultimate Adventure

I have been reading Tomme's "Maybe A Surprise Or Two" blog on Near Death Experiences yesterday and it has taken me back a long, long way....

Before the term "Near Death Experience" was coined, my mother would often tell of her own NDE. It happened while she was pregnant with me during the Second World War, when my father was a Canadian soldier and she a young British Nanny. It was a terrible pregnancy with my mother having pernicious vomiting throughout, her weight dropping to 90 lbs. She could keep no solid food down and she was kept alive through feeding tubes.

As a staff Sargent responsible for his men, my father had to live on base. My mother lived in a small cottage beside the base and was cared for by my grandmother. My father awoke one night, literally soaked with swet, haunted by a terrible premonition. Rushing to the officer in charge, he was given a special 24 hour pass and then ran the two miles from the base to the cottage, only to find my mother collapsed at the bottom of the stairs, my grandmother in a complete panic. He phoned for an ambulance and my mother was rushed to the hospital on the military base.

But in her sixth month of pregnancy my mother died.

She saw herself leave her body through the large toe on her right foot. Death was the most peaceful feeling she had ever known. Hovering at the level of the ceiling she could look down at her wasted body with a feeling of relief. She saw the light, she felt its alluring pull, but before she could enter, she felt herself reluctantly return to her body as doctors and nurses came rushing to help her.

Unknown to my mother, the doctors decided to conduct an abortion the next day, it being a choice between my life or hers; but by the morning she was feeling hungry and rapidly gained weight through the final trimester.

I was born, well as normal as I am. one of my closest shaves with death being three months before I was born.

The image above is of my mother being walked to Church by her father on her wedding day. She will be 90 in February.