The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Smoking Ghost

By Mel Tharp © 1990

Issue: June, 1990

Dave Tope was bored. It wasn't that he didn't like his job. Dave liked to drive the hearse for Stringer's Funeral Home in Greenville. Point of fact; Dave liked to drive anything with an engine. Dave had two loves in life; driving and baseball.

Dave never made it big in school. He had dropped out at the age of thirteen after spending four years in the fourth grade. He could never conjugate verbs or comprehend the multiplication table. His mind was always on the internal combustion engine. At the age of ten he could take the engine of a Ford Model-A apart and put it together blindfolded. It was said by some, although not confirmed, that he could drive safely while handicapped in the same manner.

Dave was a baseball fanatic in the true sense of the term. He knew the batting averages and earned run averages of active Major League players like a tout knows the book on race horses. He was an avid fan of the Cincinnati Reds and even in those early days of the 1939 season, it was evident, they were on their way to winning the National League Pennant.

All week Dave had looked forward to taking the afternoon off to go uptown to Moore's Drug Store to listen to his beloved Reds play the Chicago Cubs on radio. Les Moore always had his big cabinet-model Atwater Kent on the sidewalk in front of the store to broadcast everything from sporting events to election returns.

The Red's sensational young left-hander, Johnny Vander Meer was slated to go against the Cubs' ace, big Bill Lee. As a rookie the previous year, Vander Meer had pitched two successive no-hit games against the Braves and Dodgers respectively.

But on this day, Dave's plans were not to be realized. That morning, Roy Brackett, distraught, unshaven and clad in a pair of dirty bib overalls, came in to report that his father, Ira, had died during the night.

As was the custom of the times, Buddy Stringer, the mortician, directed Dave to drive the hearse to the Brackett home to pick up the deceased. Buddy would follow in his private car.

The procedure in those days was for the funeral director to go to the home of the deceased, make the necessary arrangements with the family, and then bring the corpse back to the funeral home to prepare it for burial. It was a 20-mile drive to the Brackett yard, followed closely behind by Mr. Stringer in his Hudson sedan.

The Brackett yard was crowded with visitors. Even though mourners were in evidence, there were others who seemed to be treating it as a festive affair. On the front porch, a group of men were smoking and chatting. Off in one corner of the yard, a gang of boys were playing at a game of mumblety-peg.

When Buddy Stringer started in the house he was greeted like a politician seeking reelection. He had to literally go through a receiving line of handshakers and people who were merely asking abut the latest town gossip.

Meanwhile, Dave yawned, fretted and fumed in frustration. How he wished that the hearse could be equipped with one of the newfangled car radios. At first, he wondered how the Reds were faring. Then, he started to worry about the long drive back over the treacherous trails.

While Dave was stewing about the Reds, there was another man present who had a fever of his own. Hoot Young had been a dedicated follower of the Kit Carson serial which was playing at the Prince Theater in town. Chapter ten had left Kit tied up and helpless at the mercy of a herd of stampeding buffalo. Tonight would be chapter eleven and what fan in good standing would leave Kit to those charging hoofs without at least some kind of moral support.

Hoot was sure Mr. Stringer would give him a ride into town in his big Hudson. Certainly, there was adequate room. He would wait for the mortician to finish his negotiations with the family, then confront him.

As it turned out, Hoot got his ride, but not in the way he expected. "Hoot, I won't be going straight back to town," Buddy Stringer informed him. "I have to go work out some arrangements with another family. But if you don't mind riding in the back with Mr. Brackett, you can ride in the hearse."

"Ira Brackett never hurt me when he was alive," was his reply. "I reckon he won't hurt me when he's dead."

Unfortunately, in all the confusion, Buddy neglected to tell Dave he would have an additional passenger on the way back to town. While Dave was supervising the loading of the corpse, Hoot was finding a comfortable place to sit in the back of the hearse. Meanwhile, Buddy Stringer went off to his next appointment.

If Hoot was unafraid of work, it could be said that he had the same lack of fear when it came to corpses. He could lay down and sleep beside either of them. In fact he did only minutes after Dave pulled away from the Brackett place. Hoot fell fast asleep and did not wake up until the hearse was half back to Greenville.

The thing that brought Hoot back to consciousness was his craving for tobacco. He awoke with his mouth tasting like the inside of a woodchuck's nest and the intense desire for a cigarette.

The driver's seat of the hearse was blocked off from the back where the corpse reclined by a heavy black curtain. When Hoot awoke, he had instant awareness where he was of the sanctity of the place. But he desperately needed to smoke. On one hand, he knew he owed it to the deceased to be respectful. But on the other hand, if he received permission from the powers in charge, he was sure that Ira Brackett would understand. After all, hadn't Ira smoked during his tenure in the physical vehicle on the mortal plane? Parting the curtains quietly and softly, he tapped Dave on the shoulder. "Hey buddy," he pleaded, "do you mind if I smoke back here?"

At the moment Dave was having visions of playing second base for the Reds in the seventh game of the World Series. When he felt the probing sensation between his shoulder blades followed by the voice, he thought he was imagining things. It was difficult enough trying to steer the hearse around the hairpin curves without having to sort out imaginary voices.

Again came the pleading voice. "Hey buddy, can I smoke back here? I won't burn the place up."

No one knows what really happened at this point. Evidently Dave didn't really stop the hearse. Certainly he wasn't going over 20 miles per hour at any rate.

Evidence points to the fact that Dave simply opened the door of the hearse and stepped out. Dave hit the road running and went through a pine thicket at the side of the road. The hearse came to rest against a rock bank and stalled. Dave let out some sort of scream when he left the hearse. Hoot, thinking that Dave had seen Ira Brackett come alive, also fled the area. It was several days before the whole mess could be sorted out.

Happily, no one suffered unduly from the mishap. Dave went on to become an ambulance driver in World War Two. Hoot got a job as an usher in the Prince theater where he could spend every weekend with his heroes and heroines of the silvery screen. As for Mr. Brackett, it is assumed he went on to his just reward.