By Lana Rodlie
(Names have not been changed to protect the innocent. Live with it.)
It was a dark wooden ivy-covered shack clinging to the banks of the Columbia River just off Clark Street in East Trail – and every kid between Merry’s Flats and Sandy Island knew it was haunted.
You couldn’t see the shack from Columbia Avenue. It was kind of behind Bobby Alton’s house on the lower side of the 1600-block. And you couldn’t just walk up to it. It was tucked in behind. There was no easy access. To get to it, you had to go to the river bank and launch yourself onto this telephone pole that kind of dangled at a 30 degree angle over the fast-flowing river. (Remember, the Columbia River was quite high and thick back then – before the building of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam at Robson.)
Once you got yourself safely to the pole, you’d have to throw yourself back onto the bank while grabbing for a rickety fence that served as a barrier to the old cabin. From there, you could make your way around to a little yard, tucked inside a two-storey L-shaped building.
The yard itself was scary enough – overgrown with creepy vines and one of those tangly black locust trees leaning against the shack. The windows were boarded up; but what was worse, because of the shack’s obscure location – no one could hear you scream and there was no quick way out.
I only went there one time – once was enough. But I’ll have to back up the story a bit to let you know how I got there.
In the 1950s, growing up in East Trail, the streets and schools were bursting with kids; after all, we were the Baby Boomers. And while today, kids are entertained with a myriad of gadgets, from televisions that play games to telephones that play movies, we were thrown out into the cruel world to fend for ourselves from the time we were about three – providing you had an older brother or sister to “take care” of you. That usually meant being left in the dust while they ran off and played with their older friends. But now I’m ranting. The quip “I’m bored” wouldn’t dare come out of our mouths lest we found ourselves shelling peas, cutting wood, or having our arms attached to a vacuum cleaner. The streets of East Trail were much preferred to the possible torture of house chores, so off we’d go each morning, staying outside until we were famished, until dusk, or until that horrendous call came.
It was’t the telephone – it was the “yell-a-phone.” When they wanted your attention, moms would stick their necks outside the door and yell their kid’s name. It would be repeated by the next mom down the street and throughout the neighbourhood – like Indian smoke signals – until the required youth was located.
I can still to this day remember the boy down the street, Ronnie Rebalato, whose mother had a particularly loud scream: “Ronnie Allan! Ronnie Allan!” Not sure why mothers of the day used second names. It seemed to have more effect.
My playmates varied, depending on who I’d gotten into trouble with the most recently. There was a girl who lived in the alley on the next block, which was stretching my allowable distance-from-home. (She didn’t actually live in the alley – her house bordered the alley but hey – I was only six years old.) Her name was Jeanniemoga. In a kid’s world, you didn’t separate first names and last names. She was Jeanniemoga to me and always will be. I don’t know how to spell her last name and have not seen her since.
Others who lived around me were the Johnsons: Lolly and Dina. They were older, and Dina was a bit of a bully, but they lived on my block and were most accessible. There were my cousins: Barry and Alan Corth. Alan was younger and Barry was the same age as me but acted like he was my older brother. And then there was another boy two doors away, Dennis Henschel (who I haven’t seen since we were kids), the Collis family and George-Anne Coupland. All of the above were within my one-block radius. I never met Barbara Chartres or Carol DelBucchia – my two best friends, until we were in high school. They lived in East Trail but beyond my allotted radius.
Oh, I forgot the Decaire brothers (Larry and Bert?) and Gary (?) McAdam but I steered clear of him as the Johnson girls said he was “dangerous.” Next door to me was an elderly lady whose grandsons visited occasionally: Roger and Melvin. And then there was Kenny Sweetman, a mentally challenged boy whose mother didn’t let him attend school. Alan and I were the only kids that would play with him. And I must say, it wasn’t through any act of charity that we did. Just often-times, he was the only one around and he had quite a neat yard for building highways and roads and liked to play “cars.” It was a boys’ thing, but I’d go along when there was nothing else to do. It beat vacuuming. (For many years, I’d run into Kenny shopping at Safeway for his mother who he lived with his entire life. He always called me “sweetie.” He grew into a very large loveable Christian man and I often wondered if he’d been born today, would he have been disabled at all?)
And then there were the boys my brother played with: Ronny and Kenny McDonald, Fraser Robb, Johnny LePage, and the Stewarts. (The Stewarts had a dreamy older brother named Chas who hung out with the big boys at the Welcome Inn. The Welcome Inn on Second Avenue was one of several confectionary shops in East Trail (currently a shoe repair place.) There was also Joffey’s down by the Old Bridge and Zinio’s up on Third. My weakness was chocolate milkshakes and the best one was at Joffey’s. But each night, I’d find an excuse to go to the Welcome Inn. Chas might be there. I always walked down the dark alley behind our house on Columbia – no street lights – yet no one ever worried about a six-year-old out at night in the dark, especially if your mother was out of cigarettes. And yes, they’d sell cigarettes to a six-year-old back then.
Getting back to the haunted shack – I cannot remember what possessed me to go there, but I seem to recall my cousin Barry, the McAdam boy, probably Lolly Johnson and Jeanniemoga, and likely Dennis Henschel were the prime suspects. Barry and McAdam had been there before (of course, they had). And the rest of us were “chickens” if we didn’t go.
Well nobody in 1950s East Trail wanted to be called a chicken. It could ruin your life.
And there was only one thing scarier than a haunted shack – and that was my mother when she was on the warpath. I wish I had a toonie for everytime she said “stay away from the river.” If she knew I was even THINKING about going down the bank behind Bobby Alton’s house, I would have got a whacking.
Again, the aforementioned river, the Mighty Columbia, is the fourth largest river in North America and flows at the rate of about 190,000 cubic feet of water per second. And it’s only about half the size today as it was back then. It flowed fast and deep right up to its rocky edge, with angry whirlpools that would suck a person under in seconds. Anyone falling into the river would surely wind up at Dead Man’s Eddy down across the border.
So I had to weigh the odds – my mother, the river, my cousin Barry and his friend McAdam; Lolly (who would surely tell Dina if I freaked out and Dina would make my life hell) or forcing myself into the yard of the haunted house. I mean, it was daylight. How scary could it be?
Off we went. But we couldn’t go altogether – a gang of us would likely alert the authorities – somebody’s parent would suspect we were up to something. So we agreed to meet at the edge of the river just above “the pole.”
(I should stop right here and admit that as a child, I was a whimp. Because I had three older brothers and my mom was sick of boys, she made me wear dresses and discouraged unlady-like behaviour. Hence, I never climbed trees, didn’t play anything more stressful than Kick-the-Can and was in a constant state of fear – fear that I’d hurt myself; fear that I’d look stupid; or fear that I’d ruin my dress.)
But on this day, especially with Barry, McAdam and Lolly present, I was NOT going to whimp out. I would DO this.
Barry and McAdam went first, showing the rest of us how easy it was to jump onto the pole then squiggle around so you could reach-for and jump onto the bank, grabbing the fence and pulling yourself up. If you missed, you’d fall head first into the river and disappear in a whirlpool.
When it got to be my turn, I just kind of fell onto the pole, straddling it with my legs. Easy-peasy. The fact that the rushing river was only a few feet below didn’t bother me. I was safe against the pole. Frankly, I would have been happy to spend the rest of my life against the pole. But I had to jump back to the bank and grab for the fence. The other kids were there, urging me to “jump . . . jump . . . jump!”
I twisted myself around so my back was against the pole, then I launched myself towards the bank, reaching for the fence.
I missed. As I began to slide down the rocky embankment, Lolly (I think it was Lolly) grabbed my hand and pulled me up.
“Ahah!” I was there. How on earth I was going to get back never occurred to me. I’d made it. I wasn’t a chicken.
We all gathered in the creepy eerie yard. Thick bug-covered vines hung down from the roof and twisted around the dead black locust tree covering the boarded up windows. So to peek through the cracks, we’d have to push aside the vines. There were a number of gaps and each of us jostled for a position.
To this day, I remember what I saw.
The house wasn’t quite dark inside, despite being boarded up. There were enough holes in the walls to let in light. I saw an old wooden table and a wooden bench along one side. There were two cups, like old dirty mugs, sitting on the bench.
We all saw the table, the bench and the cups – but I saw something else. The cups were LEVITATING.
I swear – up and down about two or three inches in mid-air.
I screamed. The others screamed. And of course, we all ran like hell in all directions.
I absolutely do not remember how we all got out of that yard but I must have because I am here to tell the tale. None of us ever told our parents about this – they would have killed us for being that close to the river.
As years went by, I tried to find out more about the haunted shack. Who lived there? Where was it? It seemed to have disappeared like a memory. In the Trail Archives, there is an old picture of Trail looking across the river at the barren flat that became East Trail. There was an old miner’s shack along the river. And I think that must have been it. And it must have been removed, taken down, or fallen down as that section of East Trail was developed with more houses and the change of the upper Columbia Avenue road.
And when I look back into my own recollection of that time, did I really see levitating cups?
Yes, I did – just as surely as Lolly and Barry and I saw the devil from under the bed at Lolly’s house one time. But that’s another story.