Welcome to the home of LSR Books!

Thank you for visiting my page. I’m grateful you’re here. This blog is a large first step toward the realization of my lifelong goal to become a published author. That goal grows nearer by the day!

Here you’ll find several creative outlets I enjoy; writing, drawing, music, books, and the occasional rant. I have several stories outlined and at various stages of completion. I also post a ‘Sketch of the Day’ when I can sit down to draw, and an occasional glimpse into my favorite musical artists.

Below is a list of stories in-progress that you’ll find on this site. If you’d like to read more about them, click on the image or the cover within the heading to go to that page. Thanks again for stopping by. If you’d like to keep up with my antics, I’d be grateful if you’d follow me by entering your email at the bottom of this page. I’d also love to hear from you, so feel free to drop a comment or a message any time. For now, sit back and enjoy these previews of what goes on in my mind!

Debut Novel – Code Name: Augustine

My first book is planned to release in late spring of 2022, titled Code Name: Augustine. It’s a Revolutionary War-era historical-fiction adventure based on the true story of Sergeant Major John Champe and his attempt to capture the traitor Benedict Arnold.

Currier and Ives publication of the escape of Sergeant Champe at the request of George Washington to retake Benedict Arnold from New York.

The idea first came to me when I read Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade. In it, he mentions a plot hatched by George Washington for a continental soldier to defect and get close to Arnold so he could capture and return him for trial. I was fascinated with the idea and astonished no one else had written anything about it. Over the last few years, I’ve been researching and writing on it, and am happy to announce it is almost ready for publication. This book is a labor of love and I cannot wait to share it with you.

Due in late Spring 2021!

cover updated
Cover design

“What do you think would be my fate if my misguided countrymen were to take me prisoner?”
—Benedict Arnold, 1781

Reportedly asked to a captured captain from the Colonial Army, as quoted in The Picturesque Hudson (1915) by Clifton Johnson; the captain is said to have replied, “They would cut off the leg that was wounded at Saratoga and bury it with the honors of war, and the rest of you they would hang on a gibbet.”

Other stories in progress

The Man in Cell 41

This horror novel is set in the early 1960s, and tells the story of Dean Talbot and a family curse he cannot escape. Accused of a murder he’s not sure he committed and sentenced to prison on Alcatraz Island, Dean finds himself facing a supernatural foe he never dreamed could exist, and that he’s connected to it in an unimaginable way!

Click the cover to read more and see my self-produced book trailer.

The Man in Cell 41
Cover art

Star Wars: Lifeboat – A Fan Fiction

Another labor of love. I’m a huge Star Wars nerd.

Set at the end of Return of the Jedi, Lifeboat tells the story of a group of Imperial survivors after the fall of the Empire. One carries a grudge, another carries a secret, and they all carry the scars of galactic civil war. They hurtle towards a destiny none of them could fathom aboard the deceased Emperor Palpatine’s shuttle; their life boat.

Cover art

Star Wars: Lifeboat – Part I

Star Wars: Lifeboat – Part II

Star Wars: Lifeboat – Part III

Star Wars: Lifeboat – Part IV

Star Wars: Lifeboat – Part V

Star Wars: Lifeboat – Part VI … coming soon!

As this is a work of Star Wars fan fiction, I do not own or claim any rights to this story as mine or my idea. No printed copies will ever exist, and is available for free to read on this website for entertainment purposes only. Click the links above to start the story.

H.A.M.R.s (working title)

In the year 2307, man-kind faces extinction at the iron hands of their own mechanical creation, until a divine savior comes to their rescue. Click the picture below for a full outline of the story.

Fear, Itself (working title)

Set during the early 17th century witch trials of colonial America, a young boy discovers a dark secret within his humble home, but can’t tell anyone about it without casting suspicion of witchcraft on his family. He would soon discover the secret isn’t such a secret after all, and his family’s lives are all in danger from an unimaginable evil!

The Crimson King

In a time of medieval plague and strife, an unlikely hero sets into motion a chain of events to resurrect the legendary Crimson King, a monarch of ancient myth prophesied to save the kingdom in her darkest hour. However, many in the realm do not desire the return of the king and race to stop the prophecy from being fulfilled. This fantasy thriller is based on the music and lyrics of the 60’s progressive-rock band, King Crimson.

The Book of the Damned (working title)

During the Black Plague of the 1300’s, a disgraced English Nobleman returns from a long exile with an ancient and magical book of alchemy to exact revenge on the man who exiled him, King Edward III. He discovers an unlikely ally in 12-year-old Alice, and that his mystical book can give him a supernatural army to carry out his plan.

Scottish Knight Sir Dannag McColl is trying to find his place among the hostile English nobles at Edward’s court. Disliked and mistrusted by them because of his father’s traitorous legacy, Sir Dannag accepts a task that no one else at court wants: to investigate reports of a sickness in the village of Weymouth believed to be caused by witchcraft. Accompanied by a disgraced court physician and an ale-brewing friar, the trio embark into a dark world of betrayal, revenge, and witchcraft that will push them to the limits of sanity.

Down to the Crossroads: The Legend of Robert Johnson

Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is a musician wrapped in mystery. It is said that one night, after being run off from a juke joint, Johnson took his guitar to a south Mississippi crossroads and there met Lucifer, the devil himself. Legend says he traded his soul to become the greatest blues player in the world. The devil tuned and played a bit on his guitar, granting Johnson’s wish and the rest is history.

One of the two known photos of Robert Johnson. This portrait was taken by the Hooks Bros. Photography Company in Memphis, Tenn., circa 1935.

Being a blues fan myself, Johnson’s story is fascinating to me and I’ve always wanted to write about it. One day, an outline came to me out of the blue (pun intended) for a different take on the legend of the man many consider to be the godfather of rock-n-roll. I’m looking forward to penning this historical fiction piece about love, danger, betrayal, music and a little bit of the supernatural and I can’t wait to share it with you!

Dear Satan Claus: A Christmas Comedy

Every 1,000 years, God challenges Lucifer with some menial earthly task for the chance to redeem his fallen son. God hopes above all hope that if Lucifer would see it through to completion, that he will be welcome back to Heaven with open arms.

Since his fall at the dawn of time, Lucifer has yet to complete one of these tasks. He finds them boring and mundane, and he’s not really sure he wants to go back to Heaven. But this time, the Devil will be handed the most challenging task God has ever charged him with: working at the Post Office on Christmas.

Colleen Critchlow is about to lose her job. In her decade with the United States Postal Service, her dyslexia has led to countless sorting errors and undelivered packages. As a final chance to stay employed, Colleen is reassigned to the USPS Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia, formerly known as the “dead letter office”. On her first day, she is assigned to sort this year’s “Dear Santa” letters and finds a few with misspellings to “Dear Satan”. Her new co-worker, “Lucien”, is very interested in these particular letters…

Thank you for visiting my site, and I hope you’ll consider following me for email updates on new posts and releases when they happen. All the best!

Stonehenge: Archeological Myths and Truths

Stonehenge is on my bucket list to visit one day. Until then, I had the opportunity to dig in to some of its history for my anthropology class research paper. I received an A, so here it is in all its APA glory. Enjoy!

            The ancient ring at Stonehenge has baffled historians, researchers, and archeologists for centuries. While it is not the only stone ring found in Britain, it is the most famous and most intact of the mysterious neolithic structures (Pearson, 2021). Archeologists have no definitive consensus on how the structure was built, but they have come to agree that Stonehenge was likely used as a central gathering point for worship, offering a comparison of the concentric stone circle simply being a form of neolithic outdoor church. However, not all accept such a basic approach. Many modern theorists speculate that it was a primitive calendar, star chart, or a sacrificial site built as part of a druidic or Roman temple. Archeological excavation beginning in the 1950s has proven the formation predates both druids and Romans in England (Stonehenge, n.d.). Those cultures may have used it or improved upon it, but they did not build it. There is some evidence backing the calendar and star chart theories, yet the timeline of construction proves that was not its original purpose for being built.

Stonehenge today is not what it looked like when first built.

            Excavations at Stonehenge have revealed artifacts proving multicultural and multi-use purposes over long periods. These finds prove that Stonehenge may have been built for a specific reason—which remains a mystery—but was utilized for many different purposes based on which culture controlled the landscape in its over-five-thousand-year history. The site underwent three distinct phases of construction spread over 2,000 years beginning in 3100BC. Sometimes the site was not utilized for anything, with archeological evidence showing the site was built, abandoned, reclaimed, and rebuilt multiple times (Stonehenge, n.d.). This continuous restructuring and reuse by multiple peoples and cultures shows an interconnected web of relationships to this complex structure that are similar, though not necessarily related.

            Many legends surround the stones concerning origin, purpose, transportation, alignment, magical creatures such as elves, trolls, giants, and even aliens. The application of fantasy to the unexplainable was a result of a limited frame of reference for early archeologists. Anything that could not be interpreted as biblical truth was assigned a supernatural origin (Wolcott Paskey and Beasley Cisneros, 2020). While the legends are mostly fantastical in nature, some of them may contain grains of truth that are not yet understood. Modern researchers and archeologists are suspending the obvious disbelief of such stories and examining these fanciful origins to extract the reality behind them with some success. While the mysticism of Stonehenge conjures unbelievable feats of magic and fantasy, the evidence shows that the stone circle was not created by magic. It was built by early humans devoted to their cause in three distinct phases over two thousand years, and possibly a reconstruction of an earlier monument called Waun Mawn.

Waun Mawn in western Wales, a possible earlier predecessor to Stonehenge. (Photography by A. Stanford)
Waun Mawn in western Wales, a possible earlier predecessor to Stonehenge. (Photography by A. Stanford)

Stonehenge Phase One: An Early Cemetery

An early-period grave discovered at the Stonehenge site.

The first phase of Stonehenge’s construction began with a circular twenty-foot-wide ditch and chalky berm flanked by two large barrows and a standing stone entry. The ditches were dug by hand with tools made of stone and antler by native neolithic peoples about 3100 BCE prior to the arrival of the Beaker peoples (Stonehenge, n.d.). The perimeter was ringed with fifty-six holes, called the Aubrey Holes, that went unused and refilled naturally with silt. Early scientific excavation strictly focused on human remains, grave goods, and typographical classification of monuments (Pearson, 2021). Since early neolithic inhabitants of Britain cremated their dead, little biological evidence remains to prove the holes were intended for graves. Though many remains were found, the discoveries were inconclusive on the intent of the Aubrey Holes. Prevailing theory states they were intended for erecting the first standing stones of the monument, but the effort remained incomplete. After five hundred years of use as an early cemetery, the entire Stonehenge site was abandoned and reclaimed by nature. The reason for abandonment is unknown, though some stone features remained intact afterward. One of the two ‘Slaughter Stones’ marking the entrance, the ‘Heel Stone,’ and two of the four ‘Station Stones’ within the circle is still standing (Stonehenge, n.d.).  

The Slaughter Stone

The ‘Station Stones’ appear to also be aligned with lunar cycles and sunrises, possibly marking times for harvests or seasons and lending to a theory that Stonehenge could have been intended as an agrarian monument before becoming a cemetery (Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge, n.d.). Archeological excavations due to a highway tunneling project revealed not only graves, but further evidence of agrarian uses around the site as well. The discovery of Late Bronze Age pottery shards, hazelnut fragments, cereal grain husks like barley, and wheat with some hulled varieties with evident preservation is proof of the site being used for purposes other than funeral ritual. The 2018 excavation of the Winterbourne barrow ditches by Wessex Archeology on the Stonehenge site also revealed multiple neolithic pottery shards, worked flint, cattle bones, deer antler, and a stone axe (Roberts et al, 2018). The infamous bluestones and triliths seen today would come much later.

Stonehenge Phase Two: The Myth of Magic

The second phase of Stonehenge is the most active and hardest to explain because the landscape of Britain during this time is extremely complex. Beginning around 2100 BCE, the Bell Beaker peoples migrated into areas not occupied by the original Neolithic peoples who built phase one and lived side by side with them. This blending of migrating cultures heralded the beginning of Britain’s bronze age. While the two cultures shared ideas and culture, it is likely the Beaker peoples resurrected the Stonehenge site with further ideas of burial ritual relevance of the site up to and including a limited understanding of astronomical marking (Pearson et al, 2019). The decision to create artificial sacred places was an early indication of the ability of humanity to transcend its environment (Devereaux, 2000, 119). Stonehenge is surrounded by other neolithic sites that the Beaker peoples adopted into their own culture of belief systems and used them for ritual burials, even though they were unrelated biologically or culturally to the original builders of Stonehenge. (Pearson et al, 2019). During this time is when the first bluestones arrived, and the legends began.

A bluestone of Stonehenge

Arthurian legend tells of an ambitious plot to capture sacred healing bluestones from a stone circle in Ireland. Briton King Aurelius Ambrosius desired a monument for the murder of over four hundred British nobles at Mount Ambrius (modern Amesbury) by Saxon assassins. His advisor Merlin suggested these magical stones should be erected as a monument to the dead at their burial place on Ambrius (Coghlan, 1994, 225). Ambrosius sent his brother, Uther, and Merlin at the head of a vast army to bring the stones back to England, which according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, they do. In Geoffrey’s history, Uther was the father of the mythical King Arthur. To explain the logistics of moving monoliths weighing over five tons, Geoffrey escapes the difficult engineering question by asserting Merlin simply used magic to move them over water.

An illuminated 14th century text depicting the wizard Merlin

Two facts give a breath of truth to the bluestone origin legend. First, that due to the large amount of actual human remains discovered on the Stonehenge site, perhaps some massacre did occur there, and this site could be their monument. Second, the bluestones were hewn from a quarry at the Perseli Mountains in southern Wales. The Irish kings controlled parts of southern Wales where the Perseli Mountains are located causing Wales to possibly be considered part of Ireland at that time (Pearson, 2021). These facts blur the lines of Geoffrey’s tale to determine if his story was a work of pure imagination or based in any historical truth. In either case, his timeline depicts Stonehenge being built around 400 CE when there is overwhelming proof against that date, further diminishing his historical credibility.

In this second phase, the structures known today began to take shape. The addition of two concentric circles of standing bluestones came about but was left incomplete. Also, the entrance, now called ‘The Avenue’ was widened and fitted with additional stones that aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, showing a more advanced understanding of marking time by the builders (Stonehenge, n.d.). This period is also when the myth of healing properties within the bluestones becomes prevalent in historical record. This evidence is linked to the discovery in 2008 of burials near the site with unusual injuries. A Bell Beaker grave known as the ‘Amesbury Archer’ with a jaw abscess and severely damaged kneecap was found, along with two burials with trepanned skulls, appearing to be some sort of early attempt to cure head injuries and swelling (Pearson, 2021). These finds show a potential link to pilgrims travelling to the site seeking relief through the purported healing power of the stones. Framed in a medieval mindset of biblical truth, these legends likely influenced Geoffrey of Monmouth again for other ecclesiastical claims that water splashed on the stones gave them additional healing properties (Pearson, 2021).

Gravesite of “The Amesbury Archer”, photo: Wessex Archeology

Stonehenge Phase 3: A Remodeling for the Heavens

            The third phase of construction can be broken into three parts: the early stage, second stage, and the final stage, and is begun around 100 years after the second phase of construction (2000 BCE). Within this time, Stonehenge is transformed into what is found today on the Salisbury Plain in England. The features are grander and more ceremonial than in previous phases and are seemingly aligned on axial lines with purpose to mark annual events of nature, such as the times of solstices and equinoxes, sunrises and sets, and cardinal directions.

Phase 3: Early Stage

            Phase three construction of Stonehenge suggests a large tribal or chiefdom-led social structure due to the relatively coordinated labor of many people and craftsmen to cut, shape, transport, and erect the sandstone triliths that are seen on the modern Stonehenge landscape (Wolcott Paskey and Beasley Cisneros, 2020, 161). In addition, the motivations of a small population to take on such a monumental project must come from a deep-rooted belief system in the effort. The first change in the site during this phase is the addition of thirty upright stones in a circle with a continuous lentil cap called the Sarsen Circle, and five triliths in a horseshoe shape within the circle. Each stone is approximately thirty feet long, weighs an impressive fifty tons, and shaped in a curved fashion by hand with stone hammers, with mortise-and-tenon and tongue-and-groove joints to support the lentils. These were erected into the shape of a horseshoe at the center of the stone ring and aligned with an expansion of ‘The Avenue’ entrance stones, further suggesting a large amount of expected visitor traffic (Stonehenge, n.d.). Some evidence suggests the stones were taken from another dismantled stone circle at Waun Mawn over 200 miles away, which ironically, has similar astrological alignments of the solstice with Stonehenge (Pearson, 2021).

            The ‘Heel Stone’ that remains on ‘The Avenue’ appears to be in direct northeast alignment with the opening of the horseshoe shape, casting a long phallic shadow into the triliths at the summer solstice sunrise. This is thought to be an intentional representation of the mating of earth and sky. These mythical coincidences of shadow usage do not appear coincidental at all but are also not scientific, leaning more toward astrology than scientific astronomy (Devereaux, 2000, 140-141). The Station Stones remain intact throughout reconstruction, furthering the likelihood they were still used for lunar cycle and sunrise alignments. These alignments with astrological events also strengthen the popular myth of a druidic ritual purpose for Stonehenge, but no archeological proof of this has been discovered.

Phase 3: Second Stage

            Less than a century later, this stage sees a removal and realignment of the bluestones, suggesting the continued belief and use of them as healing objects. When wet, the bluestones take on a distinctive blue hue which was thought to deliver their healing properties (Pearson, 2021). About twenty of the bluestones were redressed, some carved with small axes and daggers, then replaced in an oval pattern within Sarsen Circle. The remaining bluestones were set aside for later installation in yet another circle to surround the Sarsen Circle. The holes were dug in two circles for their placement, yet never filled and left open to fill with silt on their own. Shortly after, for an unknown reason, the oval resetting of bluestones was removed, and the installation of the two surrounding bluestone circles was abandoned (Stonehenge, n.d.).

Phase 3: Final Stage

            After the abrupt removal of the oval bluestone circle at the center of the triliths, they were replaced in a specific sequence and horseshoe pattern within the trilith horseshoe. The removed bluestones from the second stage were redressed yet again into obelisks and pillars, with the largest bluestone, misnamed the ‘Altar Stone,’ at the axial center. The remaining bluestones were also reshaped and reinstalled outside the horseshoe but within the Sarsen Circle (Stonehenge, n.d.). There is no evidence revealing why such drastic changes were made in short succession. A final change to the site dated at 1100 BCE was another widening of The Avenue and a lengthening of almost two miles to connect with the River Avon. This suggests an increased interest in travel to the sight, now including a road access for river travelers and that the enduring site of Stonehenge held a popular relevancy and attraction still two thousand years after the first chalk berm and ditch were excavated by its neolithic founders.

A Lack of Consensus on Stonehenge Archeology and Research

            Since the first excavation at the behest of King James I by the Duke of Buckingham in 1620, Stonehenge has only offered more questions than answers as to its origin, purpose, and builder’s motivations. Even amongst modern technological advances, the simple neolithic stone circles of early man remain largely closed. However, certain truths remain clear: Stonehenge was not built by magic, and it was not a druidic or Roman temple, but some of the myths and legends have yielded supporting facts that help unravel the mysteries. A final point that becomes clear in the dedicated people who study Stonehenge and monuments like it, is that there is little agreed upon and even less definitive answers to the questions such sacred places ask.

The Summer Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge

            A deeper study of the astrological significance may reveal how early humans used sacred places like Stonehenge, at least in phases two and three of its construction, to further advance their societies, particularly in agriculture. Even in modern times, many still make the annual purchase of Farmer’s Almanacs, though they amount to about the same result as a newspaper horoscope. However, that modern written tradition may have roots carved in the same stones that the builders of Stonehenge sought out in the movements of the sun and moon to guide their harvests and mark their seasons. A further study of the burials around the site could also reveal the thinking of early humans within the limited framework of their beliefs in nature being a great healer. In this research, I have learned a great deal that early man may have been more advanced than modern society gives them credit for, and that perhaps they were able to find answers among the stars that our modern minds cannot comprehend, begging the question of which society is more advanced after all.


Coghlan, R. (1994, September 1). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends. (pp. 224-225). Element Books, Limited.

Devereux, P. (2000, November 1). The Sacred Place. In The Ancient Origin of Holy and Mystical Sites. (pp. 114-119). Burns & Oates.

Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge. (n.d.). Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from http://astro.wsu.edu/worthey/astro/html/im-lab/stonehenge/stonehenge.html

Pearson, M. P. (2021, December 30). Archaeology and legend: investigating Stonehenge. ScienceOpen. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://uclpress.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.14324/111.444.ai.2021.09

Pearson, M. P., Chamberlain A., Jay, M., Richards, M., Evans, J., and Sheridan, A. (Eds.), (2019, March 31)., The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Vol. 7). Oxbow Books.

Roberts, D., Valdez-Tullett, A., Marshall, P., Last, J., Oswald, A., Barclay, A., Bishop, B., Dunbar, E., Forward, A., Law, M., Linford, N., López-Dóriga, I., Manning, A., Payne, A., Pelling, R., Powell, A., Reimer, P., Russell, M., Small, F., . . . Worley, F. (2018). Roberts et al. Internet Archaeology. 47. Recent Investigations at Two Long Barrows and Reflections on their Context in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and Environs. Summary. Roberts Et Al. Internet Archaeology. 47. Recent Investigations at Two Long Barrows and Reflections on Their Context in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and Environs. Summary. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue47/7/

Stonehenge. (n.d.). Stonehenge. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/stonehenge.html

Wolcott Paskey, A. and Beasley Cisneros, A. (2020). Digging Into Archeology: A Brief OER Introduction to Archeology with Activities. (pp. 19). Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.

A Case for Birds of Prey and the Importance of Raptor Conservation

Have you thanked a raptor today? If not, read on to see why you should.

Barred Owl
Pearl, a female Barred Owl rehabbed and released in Normandy, Tennessee after being hit by a pickup truck. (photo: Alan MacFarland)

A farmer who sells their bushels of grain to market should thank raptors for their pest control services. Just as dogs are considered man’s best friend, hawks and owls could be considered a farmer’s best friend. One mouse in a grain storage bin can ruin up to 3,000 pounds of grain in a few days. On average, rodents destroy 1% of the world’s cereal grain supply, with 3-5% loss reported in developing countries (“Rodents”). A single Barn Owl can eat one rat or up to one dozen mice per night. Imagine that statistic with a breeding pair of Barn Owls along with two owlets in the nest for approximately five months. They can consume 1,030 rats and/or 9,780 mice in a year (“Barn Owl”). Hawks are just as voracious, preying on a high number of rodents and rabbits during daylight hours. While open acreage makes for prime hawk hunting habitat, many acres of old family farms are being converted into subdivisions. Raptors are being pushed out by development that is bringing the built world into conflict with the natural environment and shrinking those ever-important hunting grounds. This loss of habitat and increased negative human interaction creates unsustainable competition for dwindling food sources, and for unrecoverable injuries in vulnerable bird of prey populations. Farther reaching protections should be enacted in areas where wild raptors are in decline due to negative human interaction that impacts habitat loss and environmental quality, natural prey availability, and preventable human-caused injuries.

Barn Owl
Remington is an education ambassador for the Barn Owl ‘Tyto alba’ species that visits over 1,000 schoolchildren per year in education outreach programs.

Raptor populations are in decline around the world, and that is cause for great alarm (McClure et al). A new analysis of data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and BirdLife International found that 30% of 557 raptor species worldwide are considered near threatened, vulnerable or endangered, or critically endangered (Larson). A primary driver of this decline is the poorly planned spread of human developments and invasive built environments. In the last several hundred years, the North American landscape has changed greatly because of human development, and suitable raptor (and wildlife in general) habitat has decreased in turn (“Hawkwatch International”). A secondary driver of the decline in raptor populations is a sharp downturn in environmental quality. Prairie landscapes that intersperse the continent are the least protected biome worldwide, which has resulted in the large-scale loss and desertification of habitats and the species that rely on them (Wallen and Bickford). Without these critical prey species being able to flourish, declines in prey population will certainly result in a sharp decline of their predators.

American Kestrels
These orphaned American Kestrel fledglings were raised by a surrogate Kestrel mother and successfully released back into the wild. Kestrel populations are in decline worldwide, especially in North America. (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

The western plains states in the U.S. have experienced extensive grassland conversion to agriculture, and temperate grasslands have suffered greater species loss than any other North American biome (Wallen and Bickford). Non-native invasive plants, such as aggressive-growing Cheatgrass, have caused a decline in the native grasses which rodent and rabbit populations feed on. Those losses have depleted natural prey for raptors, like Prairie Falcons and Harris’ Hawks, to feed on (“Hawkwatch International”). In addition, humanity’s insatiable appetite for expansion has resulted in those prey species populations finding fewer places to succeed. Where prey populations do thrive, humans then deploy pesticides and rodenticides to eradicate them. Irresponsible use of these poisons then kills off the natural predators and destroys the ecosystem.

Harris's Hawks
Cobra and Stark, a hunting pair of Harris’s Hawks native to the southwestern United States, scan a grassland for prey. These birds hunt in cooperative casts (groups) for greater hunting success and share prey when caught. (photo: Ian Turner)

Due to these compounding challenges, many raptor conservation organizations, such as the North American Falconers Association (NAFA), are undertaking focused efforts to preserve these sensitive environmental areas to reconstitute quarry populations. By taking a prey-centered focus, the efforts broaden an organization’s conservation perspective as it does not exclude raptors in the plan but allows raptor conservation to be viewed with a different lens; one that includes and prioritizes quarry habitat as well as primary and secondary prey consumers (Wallen and Bickford). An alternate approach to habitat and prey conservation is occurring in Future Farmers Association (FFA) clubs in high schools. At Coffee County High School in Manchester, Tennessee, one ninth grade FFA student is undertaking a personal project to restore habitat for wild quail—a staple food source for wild raptors—on his family’s 48-acre farm in rural Coffee County. In addition, he is funding his project by breeding and selling captive live quail to falconers and other consumers. Grassroots conservation efforts such as this are the lifeblood of launching larger movements that will help establish greater protections not only for birds of prey but also their quarry.

Red Tailed Hawk
Lady, a Red-Tailed Hawk, enjoys her quail snack (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

While all animals are subject to natural threats such as disease and predation, raptors suffer far greater harm from human causes (“Hawkwatch International”). A resident of Winchester, Tennessee brought a wounded Cooper’s Hawk to Middle Tennessee Raptor Center for treatment. The mid-sized predator was shot through its wing and side with a .22 caliber rifle by a homeowner defending their favored songbirds from becoming a meal: a federal crime punishable under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (“Migratory Bird Treaty Act”). The bird survived its wounds and was released back into the wild, but not all who suffer from negative human interactions are so successful. Small amounts of lead can cause fatal poisoning in raptors, which can consume lead fragments from scavenging on carrion, or from eating birds or fish that have accidentally ingested lead or have been shot like the Cooper’s Hawk mentioned above (“Raptor Conservation”). While shooting is an extreme example, it is a common occurrence in rural areas and a reportable offense to wildlife authorities.

Red Tailed Hawk
Shelby, a Red Tailed Hawk, was admitted to rehab at Middle Tennessee Raptor Center in 2022 with a gunshot wound in his right wing and right side. He fully recovered and was released. (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

Urban areas are also fraught with significant chances for negative interactions with humans and built environments, such as collisions with cars and trains, window strikes, and accidental electrocution. Due to these recurrent events, licensed wildlife rehabilitators are frequently overburdened, leaving many raptors and other wildlife to suffer or die through no fault of their own. Though dedicated and passionate, rehabilitators are not veterinarians. They are usually underfunded and minimally equipped citizens assuming the heavy mantle of care for wildlife (“Middle Tennessee Raptor Center”). The best way to help conserve both raptors and their caregivers is to be responsible stewards of the local environment and reduce as many controllable conflicts between humans and wildlife as possible. Another simple way to help is to support legislation and enacted protections for wildlife.

Middle Tennessee Raptor Center logo
Consider donating to your local wildlife rehabilitator. A little bit can go a long way in helping our raptors and other injured wildlife.

An alternative method to boost raptor conservation efforts without the arduous task of becoming a wildlife rehabilitator is through the installation of habitat nesting boxes. In urban areas where there is a shortage of suitable nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds, installing nest boxes can help support raptor populations, such as the American Kestrel in particular, and give the unique opportunity to possibly observe the birds up close (“Raptor Conservation”). Plans and videos for boxes that suit different species the best are readily found with a quick internet search. Providing raptors with nest boxes is an excellent method to facilitate a natural form of rodent population control on adjacent properties. Even in rural areas, suitable nesting and breeding sites may be lacking, and nesting boxes could make a tremendous difference. There is also less opportunity for boxes in rural areas to be disturbed often by humans, giving the species an even better chance of thriving.

Barn Owl nest box
This Barn Owl nest box was installed near a municipal airport for a pair of nesting Barn Owls in a nearby hangar with the assistance of the local Fire Department in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

The human population continues to grow, and with that growth comes more opportunities for conflict with the natural environment. It is inherent on people to manage economic growth and urban sprawl responsibly, and with more than just humans in mind. Being better environmental stewards is incumbent on all nations and peoples. For some species or countries, the conservation action that likely could bring the most immediate change is to improve legislation—including implementation and enforcement, and policy changes, such as improved regulation in the use of poisons or mitigation of dangerous power lines (McClure et al). With minor adjustments in behaviors, humans can significantly reduce the negative impact on raptors and their prey, helping preserve these magnificent creatures for future generations (“Raptor Conservation – Raptor Inc”). If up to 5% of the world’s grain supplies are already lost to pests, imagine the percentage without raptors doing their natural jobs. The world’s food supply may be dependent on increased protection measures for raptors. Without them, farmers may end up with nothing left to sell, and humans with even less to eat.

To help and support raptor education programs, you can donate to Middle Tennessee Raptor Center at www.middletnraptorcenter.org.

Lucy, a female Great Horned Owl, wows kids at summer camp in 2022. (photo: Bean Acres Farm Camp)

Works Cited

“Barn Owl – The Peregrine Fund.” Barn Owl | the Peregrine Fund, 21 Jan. 2001, peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/owls/barn-owl.

“Hawkwatch International – Threats to Raptors.” Hawkwatch International – Threats to Raptors, hawkwatch.org/learn/threats-to-raptors. Accessed 25 Nov. 2022.

Larson, Christina. “Birds of Prey Face Global Decline from Habitat Loss, Poisons.” AP NEWS, 30 Aug. 2021, apnews.com/article/health-environment-and-nature-birds-science–0c7d627f236fe1ff86aa4fc34b22916c. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

McClure, Christopher J.W, et al. “State of the world’s raptors: Distributions, threats, and conservation recommendations.” Biological Conservation, Volume 227, 2018, Pages 390-402, ISSN 0006-3207, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320718305871.

“Middle Tennessee Raptor Center.” Middle Tennessee Raptor Center, http://www.middletnraptorcenter.org/rehabilitation. Accessed 29 Nov. 2022.

“Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” FWS.gov, 26 Apr. 2020, http://www.fws.gov/law/migratory-bird-treaty-act-1918.

“Raptor Conservation – Raptor Inc.” Raptor Inc, 2022, raptorinc.org/raptor-conservation. http://raptorinc.org/raptor-conservation/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

“Rodents.” Rodents – IRRI Rice Knowledge Bank, http://www.knowledgebank.irri.org/step-by-step-production/postharvest/storage/storage-pests/rodents-as-storage-pest. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

Wallen, Kenneth E. and Nate A. Bickford. Stakeholder Perspectives on Raptor Conservation and Falconry in North America, Global Ecology and Conservation, Volume 24. 2020.

Digital Jekylls and Hydes: The Two Faces of Humans on the Internet

Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of one man with two personalities was a prophecy that the internet has unfortunately fulfilled.
Single sad teen holding a mobile phone lamenting sitting on the bed in her bedroom with a dark light in the background
Online bullying must be stopped.

The old saying “never judge a book by its cover” was coined long before the internet, yet the phrase is intimately applicable to modern-day keyboard warriors and online trolls. The internet sometimes gives a glimpse behind the curtain of someone’s true nature, and it is not always how they outwardly appear in the real world. Many people are braver behind a keyboard and will say offensive things in an anonymous online setting that they would not likely say in person. Unlike Dr. Jekyll taking his personality-altering serum to become Mr. Hyde, many online commenters do not need a formula to change into their version of a beast, taking their frustrations out on the world with no catalyst required. Where the line blurs, however, is when online comments and harassment violate real-world laws. This tenet has proven repeatedly to be true, yet opponents of policing online speech are not in favor of comment regulation. In a 2017 Pew Research poll, 56% of 4,248 people surveyed declare that people take offensive content online too seriously (Duggan). However, words matter. People must learn to temper their online rhetoric with empathy and kindness or face the consequences. Until then, people who engage in proven online bullying, harassment, and other unwanted demeaning behavior must be held accountable by the social platform they linger on, and possibly again by law enforcement, regardless of the online mask they hide behind.

A masked person using a computer.
Who are you from behind your keyboard?

One way people choose to represent their online persona is by using an avatar instead of a real photo of themselves. Avatars are digital representations that can be nearly anything imaginable. Some are cartoon versions of the real person. Others can be pets, scenery, fictional characters, and the like. Dr. Wendy Patrick states of selecting avatars, “You are choosing a character with traits you either perceive as similar to your own or represent the way you would like to be perceived.” While some might select an avatar due to self-consciousness of their appearance, others use them to hide their true identity and escape reprisal for their online actions.

In the essay “Why Good People Turn Bad Online” by Gaia Vince, she states, “They [social media platforms] offer physical distance, relative anonymity and little reputational or punitive risk for bad behavior: if you’re mean, no one you know is going to see.” This is especially true when using a created avatar versus a personal photo, or nom-de-guerre. In these cases, it is imperative that the social platform manager, be it a video game, a team chat, or social media outlet like Twitter and Facebook, take responsibility for their content and root out their bad actors. That system fails when those bad actors use false names or photos to hide their true identity. By the time the identity of the troll is discovered, they have already moved on into other platforms and personas to continue their path of digital destruction. Platform efforts of policing are usually too little, too late.

To unravel why people choose to represent themselves online differently from their real life personalities, a message board user going by the name Orcos explains why he uses an Orc as his avatar while playing the video game World of Warcraft:

“Morals are more interesting. I hate having to run around being the lawful good person whose motives are ‘be a good person at all times.’ That’s how I try to be IRL, but it’s boring when playing games.”

Orcos, World of Warcraft player – (“Why Did You Choose”)
A World of Warcraft Orc
A World of Warcraft Orc character. For the Horde!

Obviously, Orcos does not look like an orc in real life, yet he has chosen that persona to represent himself to others and backed up his choice with a desire to not feel like he has to be “lawful good” all the time. With lawful morals being described as boring, many might argue that modern society is a lost cause; that people hide their true selves behind a digital mask to act on their real feelings. One of the most difficult components of this puzzle is that many internet trolls and online bullies are usually good people in real life.

However, much like the concept of the film The Purge, good people seize on those moments where they can commit crimes and get away with no repercussions. While the film depicts good people doing horrible things in real life, some could argue that society is in an early form of a digital “Purge” right now. Neda Ulaby, when writing about The Purge, states:

“Numerous polls have found that Americans are feeling more divided than ever — so a story about losing common humanity feels relevant. Regardless of politics, The Purge movies share a sense of a decay of the American dream.”

Nelda Ulaby, NPR
Masked participants in The Purge
You definitely don’t want these two at your door step, and I don’t want them on my social media, either.

That decay easily translates to lashing out online. With such a thin line between the digital world and the real one, those who agree with Ulaby may argue that people such as Orcos are merely a hair’s breadth from bringing their digital transgressions into reality.

Opponents could say that punitive scrutiny of online content in public forums infringes on constitutional rights to free speech, crossing into predictive policing territory portrayed in the 2002 film Minority Report. Social media companies already use trend data in personal profiles to predict targeted advertisements. They also use personal data to categorize likely personality traits based on user’s comments and whom they interact with. These tactics suggest that social media platforms have already profiled users into categories of forecasted behavior. Much like predictive policing in the movie, internet providers could make the case for predicted behavior rooted in biases found in social media comments and predict who will be an internet troll, then potentially punish them for it when they have yet to commit any offense.

Minority Report starring Tom Cruise
Could we be headed toward a method of predictive policing like the portrayal in Minority Report?

CNN Money reporter Matt McFarland states, “If machines are trained on biased data, they too will become biased. Communities with a history of being heavily policed will be disproportionately affected by predictive policing.” While many reprehensible forms of speech are protected, one simply cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. Still, if someone wishing to do harm knew they could do it and get away with it, the anonymity of the internet might embolden them to act in such a way as they might never act in the real world. Proponents of online comment policing would likely applaud a predictive algorithm sniffing out the pre-offender, and platforms or authorities restrict them about it before it happens. There will always be calls to regulate free speech while people cannot self-regulate their rhetoric into civil discourse.

A proposed preemptive method to combat the hidden bad online behaviors in good people is the use of bots. Bots are computer-generated users that analyze comments and predict when a person is about to say something deemed offensive, then counteracts their comment with an empathetic rebuttal or opposite position. For example, Gaia Vince states, “A typical bot response to a racist tweet would be: ‘Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language.’ Simply cultivating a little empathy in such tweeters reduced their racist tweets almost to zero for weeks afterwards.”

Robots typing at a keyboard terminal
Can bots and AI effectively be used to combat negative online behaviors, or does this cross over into psychological manipulation by machines?

While that may seem beneficial on the surface, engineering the social interactions of real people with predictive algorithms is a slippery slope. The effort may temporarily mask the symptom of online bullying, but it does little to root out the human condition that drives a person to be someone they are not online in the endless pursuit of likes and shares. However, Vince agrees with the tactic, stating, “…bots helped the network to function more efficiently. Perhaps a version of this model could involve infiltrating the newsfeeds of partisan people with occasional items offering a different perspective, helping to shift people out of their social media comfort-bubbles and allow society as a whole to cooperate more” (Vince). While that is not a punitive measure, she advocates that using bot-generated subterfuge to alter personality traits is permissible if the ends justify the means. While the initial outcome is favorable, deploying psychological manipulation should never be taken lightly and be closely monitored.

In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself…This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil.” Dr. Jekyll recognized what he had become in the mirror but was not afraid of what he saw. He accepted that he was a man of two halves: a good half, and an evil one. Many who see what they write in online forums or how they choose to represent themselves digitally are not afraid of what they see either, and therein lies the problem. The only difference is, Jekyll had a mirror and saw Hyde’s face. Jekyll also saw firsthand the destructive aftermath of Hyde. Modern humans have a screen and see their words. Unlike Dr. Jekyll though, they rarely see the destruction those words have on the other side of the screen. Only a select few will filter those words for the hurt and pain they will cause and delete them. The best form of online policing now and in the future is by the user themselves, if only humans could be responsible enough to do so instead of hiding their Hyde-like nature behind a keyboard, screen, or their avatar. Stevenson’s famous 1886 fable of humankind’s two faces was a prophecy that the internet has fulfilled, and until society can reconcile the modern right to free speech with the moral obligation to be kind, the world inches closer to enacting The Purge every day.

For the record, I did receive an A on this paper. Take it to heart and be good to each other out there.


Works Cited

Duggan, Maeve. “Online Harassment 2017.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, 11 July 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017/. Accessed Sept. 19, 2022.

McFarland, Matt. “‘Minority Report’ Warned About Predicting Crime. 15 Years Later, the Lesson Has Been Ignored.” CNNMoney, 23 June 2017, money.cnn.com/2017/06/23/technology/future/minority-report-15-years/index.html?sr=twcnni062417minority-report-15-years0531AMStoryLink&linkId=39046369.

Patrick, Dr. Wendy L. “Use an Avatar Online? Here is What it Says About You.” Psychology Today, 4 June 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-bad-looks-good/201806/use-avatar-online-here-is-what-it-says-about-you/. Accessed Sep. 19. 2022.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” New York, USA: Samoa Edition, 1944.

Ulaby, Neda. “The Success of Society Run Amok: What Does ‘the Purge’ Say about Us?” NPR, NPR, 4 July 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/07/04/625683415/the-success-of-society-run-amok-what-does-the-purge-say-about-us.

Vince, Gaia. “Why Good People Turn Bad Online.” Humanities LibreTexts, 15 Sept. 2019, https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Literature_and_Literacy/Book%3A_88_Open_Essays_A_Reader_for_Students_of_Composition_and_Rhetoric_(Wangler_and_Ulrich)/Open_Essays/77%3A_Why_Good_People_Turn_Bad_Online_.

“Why Did You Choose Horde/Alliance?” World of Warcraft Forums, 22 Sept. 2020, https://us.forums.blizzard.com/en/wow/t/why-did-you-choose-hordealliance/652110/59?page=3.

Tennessee Ghost and Legends Podcast Season 2 Episode Line-up is here!

Season 2 of Tennessee Ghosts and Legends launches on Halloween 2022!

Warm up those iPhones and hunker down on your Androids because Tennessee Ghosts and Legends second season is launching this Halloween! On October 31st, two new episodes of the 2022 breakout podcast will be available for download on your favorite podcast app. Season 2 will host a frightful selection of Tennessee’s most interesting haunts, bizarre mysteries, and a special episode detailing the personal paranormal experiences of me, your host! Here’s what you can expect in season 2:

Something scary this way comes! Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast, Season 2 launches on Halloween 2022!
  • S2, Episode 1: The Bleeding Mausoleum
  • S2, Episode 2: The Strange Mystery of the Tennessee Pygmy Tribes
  • S2, Episode 3: The Vampire Hotel
  • S2, Episode 4: A Haunted Life: My Personal Paranormal Experiences
  • S2, Episode 5: The Tennessee State Prison
  • S2, Episode 6: The Legend of Fiddler’s Rock
  • S2, Episode 7: Nocatula’s Tree
  • S2, Episode 8: The Orpheum Theater
  • S2, Episode 9: Doctor McClary’s Skeleton
  • S2, Episode 10: The Haunting at the Wheatlands Plantation
The haunted Orpheum Theater in Memphis, Tennessee, will be featured in episode 8!

When the details are finalized, there will be a bonus episode recorded with a live studio audience, featuring interviews with a few of my local friends detailing their paranormal experiences from three locations in Tullahoma: The South Jackson Civic Center and their ghost, nicknamed, “The Colonel”, and the Oakwood and Maplewood Cemeteries.

I can’t wait to share with you all the spooky stories and research on these amazing haunted locations in and around Tennessee. You can tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Amazon, iHeart Radio, and all other major podcast platforms. As episodes are released, links for them will be posted here, on www.lylerussell.net. Thank you so much for listening, and you’ll be hearing from me soon!

Inside the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville, Tennessee. Featured in episode 5!

Did you miss Season 1? Click here to get caught up!

TN G&L Episode 10: The Bell Witch of Robertson County

John Bell’s Grave, Adams, Tennessee

Welcome to the Season one finale of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, I’ve saved the best for last. I’ll share with you the trials and tribulations endured by the Bell family and some highlights of Tennessee’s most famous haunting, The Bell Witch of Robertson County.

John Bell moved from North Carolina to Tennessee in 1804 with his wife, Lucy, and their six children. He purchased 320 prime acres in Robertson County in Red River, which is now modern-day Adams, Tennessee. Their aim was agriculture, as was the same for many families moving westward to grow orchards, raise his family, and launch a political career. Bell was soon elected to local office and became influential both about the town of Red River and in his church. It is said he was deeply religious and gave fiery speeches both politically and spiritually that moved people to tears. This influence and popularity made him wealthy, and with that wealth he built a school and hired a teacher for his ten children and also his neighbor’s children for a private education. All was right with John Bell’s world. He was a successful farmer, preacher, politician, and had four more children with Lucy since they moved to Tennessee. Then came the day he met the witch.

In the summer of 1817, it is said John was inspecting parts of his corn field that had fallen to a sudden blight when a large dog-like creature appeared before him in the rows. He tried to scare it off by hollering and making noise, thinking it to be a lone wolf or coyote, but the animal stubbornly sat and glared at him with a fierce snarl. The audacity of the beast to stand it’s ground angered John. He fired at it with his rifle and narrowly missed, but it was enough. The creature sauntered off through the corn rows and out of his sight. The next day, his son Drewry reported to his father that a large, strange-looking bird at least twice the size of a turkey was perched on their fence through the morning while John was attending business in town. Drewry said he’d never seen another bird like it. He tried to scare it off, but the bird would not move despite his attempts to scare it. Finally, it went away after several hours of sitting on the post and staring at the cabin. John investigated over the next few days looking for signs of the bird but found nothing. A few days later, his youngest daughter, Betsy, told her father she had seen a young girl in a green dress under the big oak tree at the road, but when she tried to approach and introduce herself, the girl ran off into the cornfield and disappeared. Finally, one of John’s servants named Dean told him a strange black dog that was seen in the cornfield followed him each night on his walk home, and he begged Mr. Bell to please either kennel the dog if it was his or kill it if it wasn’t so it wouldn’t attack him. John assured the man he did not own any such dog, but he would keep a watch. Shortly after, it is said that Dean always carried an axe with him just in case the dog came after him. His wife also made him a talisman called a “witch ball” to protect her husband from evil spirits.

For a short time, the strange incidents around the farm calmed and things seemed to be back to normal. There were occasional unexplained noises and bumps in the night, but none were reason for alarm. Then suddenly and without warning, the witch decided to make herself known.

One night in 1818, John’s middle son, Richard Williams Bell, was startled awake when his hair was pulled so hard it nearly yanked him out of bed. While he screamed out, Betsy started screaming from across the hall that her hair was pulled, too. Other minor things of a strange nature occurred around the Bell home over the following days like loud knocking, thrown objects, things being knocked over, and none could be explained. John did his best to ignore them out of embarrassment that his neighbors would think him mad. But every night thereafter, each of the children experienced more torment: hair pulling, scratches, being yanked from the bed, covers pulled off of them while sleeping, chairs being knocked over, and constant loud knocking and banging. Before long, his wife Lucy began to think the family was cursed. She pleaded with her husband to talk to someone from the church and get help. John was stubborn to ask for help but finally relented out of desperation. He confided in his best friend and fellow preacher, James Johnston. He begged him to help rid the Bell family of whatever this malady was and restore their standing before God.

James was unsure what to do, never having received such a request. John invited James and his wife to spend an evening at their home and witness the strangeness for themselves. On the first night, the group enjoyed a large meal, sang hymns, and held group prayers to bless each of the family members before bed. All was well until the last tallow candle was extinguished. Then, the witch began a raucous tirade that kept everyone in the house awake the entire night. The children were slapped and scratched; their hair was pulled relentlessly. In the room prepared for the Johnstons, their blankets were snatched off the bed throughout the night, chairs were turned over, and items flew across the room. James, believing they were dealing with some sort of demon, tried to communicate with the restless spirit and banish it from the house, but nothing would stop the assaults on them and the Bell family.

James told John that this situation was beyond his ability to help, but maybe others could. He told John to advertise for assistance to see if anyone had ideas on how to rid the Bell family of this tormentor. John was reluctant, but desperate for help, he began asking others to come witness the witch themselves and offer suggestions on how to rid them of her. James Johnson stayed with the Bells a while and tried to convince visitors to talk with the witch and see if she would respond. Before long, the raspy whispers and whistling sounds became a voice that could be distinctly heard by everyone present. Before long, she identified herself as Kate Batts, a former neighbor of John Bell who thought he cheated her in a real estate transaction. John did not recall her, but she definitely recalled him. The Bell Witch was now communicating with visitors, proving James’ theory that the spirit was intelligent. While all of this was transpiring, the nightly abuse of the Bell family continued, primarily on John himself and the youngest daughter, Betsy. Lucy Bell and the other children were largely spared, but poor Betsy was unmercifully tortured along with her father.

Over a short time, the witch’s voice became loud and unmistakable; a raspy female whisper that would sing hymns, quote scripture, and repeat sermons she apparently had heard in the town’s churches. The story of the talking witch grew far and wide as her antics continued, escalating violently once young Betsy and a neighboring suitor, Joshua Gardner became a couple. Their engagement enraged Kate and she assaulted Betsy and John relentlessly with slaps, bites, and scratches, and constantly threatened to kill John Bell. Eventually, Joshua and Betsy broke off their engagement out of fear, and the attacks subsided for a while on her. John Bell was not so fortunate as the malicious poltergeist ratcheted up her hatred of him, nicknaming him “Ol’ Jack Bell” and cursing him throughout the day. John’s health declined rapidly into seizures, loss of muscle control in his face, digestive problems, and of course, the verbal and physical abuse from Kate.

The talking witch became a wildly popular spectacle. A steady stream of visitors came to see and hear this bizarre phenomenon for themselves, included General Andrew Jackson in 1819, who it is said met the witch on the road several miles from the Bell farm. Jackson, skeptical of the talking witch reports but always up for an adventure, gathered some close friends and equipment to build a camp on the farm, then set out from his home at the Hermitage towards the town of Red River. Reports say that as Jackson’s caravan approached the farm, his luggage carriage was suddenly stricken on the dry and well-traveled road and the wheels froze in place like they were frozen or stuck in deep mud. The men pulled with horses and pushed from behind with all they could muster but the carriage would not budge. When Jackson jokingly declared, “By the eternal boys, this must be the doings of the witch.”, a disembodied voice from the woods taunted his caravan with a warning, saying “All right, General, let the wagon move on and I will see you tonight.” Suddenly, the wagon wheels rolled with ease and the caravan tepidly continued onward. Jackson and his party spent a night encamped on the farm, and the events he supposedly witnessed quickly made him a believer that the witch was real.

One of the events that cemented that belief occurred when one of Jackson’s men declared himself a “Witch layer” or a “Witch Hunter,” and bragged with stories of how he had hunted down and then shot dead other witches. Jackson leaned in and whispered to one of his men, “I bet this fellow is an errant coward. By the eternal, I do wish the thing would come, I want to see him run.” Suddenly the gathering heard light footfalls prancing, at that moment the same disembodied female voice from earlier announced, “Alright general, I am at hand and ready for business.” The voice then demanded the Witch Hunter shoot but when he tried his gun did not fire. The braggart was then struck by an unseen force as he twisted around, he shouted that something was sticking painful pins into him. He then cried out that something had him by the nose. All were silent as he was forced about then they watched as he ran from the tent. The witch chimed in once more, “How the devil did run and beg. I bet he won’t come through here again with his old horse pistol to shoot me.” The gathering then heard, “I guess that’s fun enough for tonight general, and you can go to bed now. I will come tomorrow night and show you another rascal in this crowd.” It is said that after this Jackson was eager to stay and see what else the witch had planned but his men, having had enough, insisted they move on. Jackson’s party struck camp the next morning and returned to Nashville.

Three more peculiar incidents are told by others who experienced the witch’s tale that are worth mentioning. In the first one, a family friend of the Bells named William Porter spent a night to try and ascertain for himself if this witch was real or imagined. He claimed that in the middle of the night, the witch climbed into his bed where he lay waiting, capturing the invisible figure in the bed linens. He then attempted to throw her into the fireplace wrapped in the blankets, but after trapping her, he could not budge her weight and she suddenly disappeared, leaving behind a putrid, sulfur-like smell.

In the second incident, the witch was purportedly fond of religious sermons despite calling herself a witch and loved to recite her favorites word for word. One claim is that she repeated verbatim two different sermons: one given by the Reverend James Gunn at Bethel Methodist Church and the other being the sermon of Reverend Sugg Fort spoken at Red River Baptist Church. What makes this claim unique is these sermons occurred at the nearly same time over twelve miles apart from each other. Had the silver-tongued witch been a hoax, how could she have knowledge of both sermons spoken at the same time yet so far apart?

Finally, the witch allegedly interacted with passers-by of the farm, including religious missionaries and Shakers, thrill seekers who came for the spectacle of it all, and neighbors like Bennett Porter who is said to have shot at the canine manifestation of the witch with a silver bullet, a nod to the popular belief on how to kill werewolves. Each had encounters where Kate would chase them off in the form of the strange dog John Bell saw the very first time he met the witch, or she would conjure objects to frighten them away. There is also a claim that she had the power to transform others into animals. The Bell’s servant Dean claimed she turned him into a mule and taunted him. That’s when the story says his wife gave him the Witch Ball. Claims of her interactions and powers grew wilder with every tale.

John Bell finally gave up the ghost in December of 1820 after falling into a coma and years of abuse at the witch’s hands. The witch claimed to have poisoned John and even told the family where they could find the proof. John Junior was his father’s caretaker, and when he went to the cupboard to retrieve his medicines, the witch cackled with glee, saying, “It’s useless for you to try to relieve Old Jack – I have got him this time; he will never get up from that bed again!” In the cupboard, in place of where John’s medicine would be was a vial of putrid black liquid. She claimed of the vial that she “gave Old Jack a big dose of it last night while he was fast asleep, which fixed him.”

The legend says they tested the liquid on a cat, and it died almost instantly from the poison, then tossed the vial into the fireplace to destroy it. The ensuing explosion caused a blue fireball that shot up through the chimney. Kate even haunted John’s funeral, taunting the mourners until the last one left the cemetery. After John died, Kate promised Lucy Bell she would leave for seven years, but would return. Kate made good on that promise, returning to visit John Jr., and staying for three weeks with him. At that time, she promised to leave again for 107 years and would return to visit John Jr.’s direct descendant, who turned out to be a Nashville doctor and John Bell’s great grandson named Charles. Since then, Kate has been silent. Where she went, no one knows.

There is no shortage of documentation of this story. Articles, books, websites, and movies have all been made about Tennessee’s—and arguably America’s—most famous haunting. The Bell family are real people with real history, and their farm is a verifiable place. Early versions of the legend were questionable but well documented in a book titled, An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by M.V. Ingram written in 1894. It was again documented with descendant accounts written by Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, John Bell’s great-grandson. While there is little real-world explanation for the strange happenings to the Bell family, one part of the story might have some scientific explanation.

John Bell is said to have died because the witch poisoned him. There is little doubt he could have been poisoned, but there are other symptoms talked about in Richard Williams Bell’s eyewitness book, Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. In it, Richard defines many of his father’s worsening symptoms up until his death. In modern medicine, everything he describes in the book is an indicator of a possible neurological condition brought on by gradual arsenic poisoning. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element and was readily found in many every-day items on farms during that era. The poison could have found its way into John’s system naturally. As for the vial of black liquid found in the kitchen cupboard, the origin of it is anyone’s guess. Testing the theory on the barn cat could provide additional evidence that it was indeed some type of arsenic. The description of the cat’s quick death is potentially explainable, since cats lack a metabolism process that arsenic can tap in to, making it extremely deadly to felines.

To destroy the deadly fluid, the family is said to have thrown it into a fireplace which suddenly erupted in blue flames. The blue flame and random liquid are hardly evidence of a supernatural origin. There are any number of liquid elements commonly found on a farm that could result in a flame burning blue. What isn’t so easily explained, however, is the nightly commotion and physical abuse of the family by the witch. No definitive explanation has ever been found on why she focused her hatred on John and young Betsy so much.

Betsy’s story is the strangest of the Bell children. All accounts of Betsy and Joshua’s doomed relationship agree that they could find no refuge and no peace, and that the witch would pester them relentlessly, forbidding them to get married and physically assaulting Betsy. Accounts differ on the break-up timing of Betsy and Joshua, with some versions saying it happened before John Bell died, others say it was after. Another version says Betsy spurned an older suitor, which was ironically her former teacher at the school her father built. The teacher was believed to be involved in the occult and that when she chose Joshua instead of him that he cursed them for it and summoned the witch to torment the Bells. Further investigation hints that she broke off with Joshua and eventually married her former schoolteacher after all, moving with him to Mississippi in 1820 just to escape the torment of the witch. Supposedly once she left, the witch never bothered her again. There are some who believe the only reason the witch let her be after that is because the teacher released the curse.

As for Andrew Jackson’s visit, the former President owned multiple parcels near Red River and had visited there several times, so his presence in Robertson County may just be coincidence. His signature has been authenticated on more than one deed record there with some of the parcels not far from the Bell’s farm. Jackson was also known to visit the men who he fought beside in New Orleans. Three of John Bell’s sons (John Jr., Drewry, and Jesse Bell) fought under Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and it’s possible he was checking in on his former comrades while having a passing interest in the witch story. Given his history of possessing a freewheeling and adventurous spirit, it is very possible he sought out the Bell home just for the entertainment value. There are supposedly two quotes attributed to him after witnessing one of the witch’s tirades. First, he claimed “visiting her was more fun than fighting the British.” Second, he is said to have told his men, “I would rather fight the British again at New Orleans than fight the Bell Witch.”

Stories differ on where and how the witch revealed herself and where she came from. One version tells the witch as verbalizing her origin by saying, “I am a Spirit and once was very happy, but I have been disturbed and made unhappy.  I was buried in the woods nearby and the grave was disturbed, my bones disinterred and scattered. One of my teeth was lost under this house.  I am here to find that tooth.” While there is no verifiable proof of this claim, several native American burial sites are on and near the Bell property. Another tale says the witch claimed a more spiritual origin by saying, “I am from everywhere, Heaven, Hell, the earth; am in the air, the houses and the churches. I am any place at any time, and I was created millions of years ago.”

The Bell Witch is said to have manifested twice more after John Bell’s death, once in 1828 and again in 1935. For the first visit, she reportedly made good on her promise to return and visited John Bell, Jr. for three weeks, though no violence came with her. It is said she offered him insight to the spirit world in which she now lived and the worlds beyond. They spoke of philosophy, religion and she made predictions of a coming war, which turned out to be the Civil War.

Banking on the legend’s popularity, Dr. Charles Bailey Bell took advantage of Kate’s second predicted return and published a book just before the appointed year with an accounting of the witch’s three-week discussions with John Jr. based on notes passed down through the family. His book, titled A Mysterious Spirit: The Bell Witch of Tennessee, covers the topics Kate supposedly spoke with John Bell Jr. about as well as conversations with some of the servants, and included other Bell children’s accounts of the infamous haunting of their home. Dr. Bell died in 1945 without telling anyone if Kate made good on her second predicted visit or not.

Finally, there was a real Mary Catherine Batts that lived in the area around Red River who went by Kate. Her brother-in-law named Benjamin had a dispute with John Bell over the sale of a slave, but the facts become distorted with each telling of that tale, with Benjamin being changed to Kate having disputes with John before she died, and then threatening him beyond the grave. One fact that can be proven is that the real Kate Batts outlived John Bell and leaves many descendants still living around the area. In life, she was a strange person that people tried to avoid. Many thought her peculiar ways were evidence of her involvement in witchcraft and the occult, though it was never proven. Even though Kate being the witch is the popular theory, it is likely the witch named in this haunting was not her.

Today, Adams, Tennessee has a cottage industry centered around the tale of the witch. The Bell Farm has a cave where the witch supposedly lived but was not mentioned at all in the original legends. Visitors can also tour the Bell Farm and a recreation of the original cabin, complete with artifacts owned by the Bells and news clippings from that era talking about the witch and her antics. The cave had very little to do with the legend at the time, but visitors after the famous haunting legend claim to have strange and unexplained events happen in its depths. These bizarre happenings have kept the legend alive over 200 years since the witch tormented John Bell. Paranormal investigators and enthusiasts, as well as the general public still make the pilgrimage to visit the site of Tennessee’s most famous haunting in Adams and see things for themselves. If you happen to make the trip, be sure to tread lightly and try not to give the witch a reason to come back home with you for her next visit.

Thank you for listening to the season one finale of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. I am grateful you decided to listen, and I am thankful for all the wonderful support of my listeners. I would like to invite you to visit my website, www.lylerussell.net to keep up with the other stories I’m working on, or if you’d like to leave a note about the podcast and leave a suggestion for episodes you would like to hear in Season 2.

I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next season.

Listen to this episode here: The Bell Witch of Robertson County

TN G&L Episode 9: The Shelby Forest Pig Man

What haunts the area around Meeman-Shelby Forest?

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. This episode will explore a bizarre tale out of Shelby County, Tennessee north of Memphis. Something stalks the monstrous tract of woods in the Meeman-Shelby Forest that runs along the mighty Mississippi River, but what is it? Today, I’ll introduce you to the strange tale of the Shelby Forest Pig Man.

The city of Millington, Tennessee is situated directly west of the 12, 539-acre Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. If you travel west on Shelby Road, then turn left on Shakerag Road, you’ll see the ruins of two tall smokestacks, once the site of the Chickasaw Ordnance Works power plant. In 1940 at the beginning of World War II, 6,000 acres were set aside for the creation of this plant to produce a smokeless powder cake called Guncotton. These cotton liners were highly explosive and used in making artillery, small arms munitions, and dynamite. The factory was built over miles and miles of underground tunnels which were used to transport the products to create high-explosive cakes. The smokestacks that stick up above the woods are not the factory itself. They towered over the coal-fired power plant. Due to the volatile nature of the product they created, workplace safety was paramount. The 8,000 employees there boasted a world record by operating for 3.6 million working hours without a major documented injury. The factory ran 24-7 and only closed for one day, Christmas in 1942. Industrial records indicate that more than $50 million dollars were spent on creation and operation of this facility up until 1946. When the plant closed it was deemed too dangerous to be sold as public surplus and was dismantled, leaving only the foundation, some walls, and the two unmistakable smokestacks protruding above the horizon.

The workers at the plant were held to stringent standards to mitigate safety risks, and MPs searched employees both coming on shift and going off shift. Smoking was strictly prohibited, and you could not even carry a ball point pen because it was thought the click would spark and detonate some of the Guncotton residue that got on everything. With that much volatility in one place, even the best risk management plan would be put to the test. Not following those standards would change one man’s life forever.

The story says that one day, a man working at the plant was disposing of some chemicals behind the tunnels and into the creek. While that practice is prohibited now, it was fairly common for industrial waste at the time. The hot Memphis days required those who worked outside to take regular breaks in the shade, so when this man finished dumping his barrels, he went to a nearby tree where he had stashed his cigarettes and matches for a smoke. He pressed the filterless cigarette to his lips and struck the match on the box. The flame did not even have time to ignite as the tiny spark from scratching the match ignited the residue on the man’s hands and clothes. Needless to say, the fireball explosion was enough to do great damage to his face, hands and body, but his life was amazingly spared. The miniature explosion mutilated his face, taking off his nose, scorching his face and scalp, and burned his ears almost completely off. His heavily scarred face left behind what looked like a disfigured pig head on a human body.

For months, the man recovered at the Kennedy Hospital in Memphis. Once he recovered sufficiently to be released, the cold world had no love for the man with the burned and scarred head. His wife left him because his new visage frightened the children. His friends and family spurned him, saying they could not get over how grotesque the accident had left him. The only place he could find refuge after the accident was back at the factory. Experienced labor that knew the chemical work to make Guncotton were few, so the factory management allowed him to continue working for them until the war ended, even with his injuries. Being shunned by his family and friends due to his disfigured appearance, he could not find a place to live and found himself sleeping under a bridge. Cast away from society, much like many throughout history with disfigurements, the man became bitter and angry. He would only come out to work the factory, then go back to the bridge. His co-workers stopped and stared, some pointing and whispering about him while others outright snubbed him. Then the day came the factory closed and he truly had nowhere to go. He stayed under his bridge and was hardly ever seen, only coming out at night to avoid people. His seclusion begat rumors, and before long stories were told around town that the “pig man” under the bridge was kidnapping children and eating them.

Stories vary as to which bridge is the one in the legend. Shakerag Road at the time of this story would have been right through the middle of the factory grounds. While it’s possible that’s where the bridge was, another bridge stood at Epperson Mill Road connecting to Shelby Road before a highway widening project was completed in the 50s. The bridge there is said to have been washed out in a flood before the road project, leaving the Pigman with nowhere to go except the countryside leading to the Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. Some think, however, that the Pigman still lives under the bridge on Shakerag Road at the turn just past the smokestacks.

Legend says if you park in the middle of the bridge in a night with a full moon. Turn off your car, roll down your window and flash your lights three times and call him each time. “Pigman, Pigman, Pigman!” and he will appear. Many have claimed to try this summoning ritual, but no serious reports of Pigman sightings have come of it. That said, campers in Meeman-Shelby Forest have claimed to see and hear strange sounds and figures in the woods

Stories differ on whether the Pigman is a person or the ghost of the disfigured man in the factory accident, and there are more than one Pigman hauntings in Tennessee. One video on YouTube claims to have encountered the Pigman in a farming are near Knoxville. Three thrill-seeking young men took a grainy, Blair Witch-type video of their hike through the woods looking for the Pigman. After a short while, a sound of squealing is heard in the distance, followed by a barking dog. The sounds continue over a few minutes until they actually encounter what they believed to be the Pigman. They described him as a person, not an animal, with tumor-like bulbous features on his face, and likely a homeless person who taps into the Pigman legend and tries to scare people away from where he lives in the woods. If the video is a hoax, the audio is on par with high-quality effects that rivals Hollywood-level creepy sound effects. In either case, the encounter was frightening and believable.

Other Pigman stories exist in multiple states across the country. Denton, Texas has a story of the Pigman of Bonnie Brae Bridge. The tale says a drug runner in the 60s was caught and mutilated under the bridge by the gang he ran for, carving his face to look like a pig because he squealed to the police. Angola, New York also has a bizarre tale of the Pigman of Road Bridge. They say he was a farmer that placed severed hog’s heads on pikes near his property line to frighten people away from trespassing. It is said a group of boys went to put the legend to the test, encountering the Pigman who then placed their severed heads on pikes in place of the pigs. Hawkinsville, Georgia also has a Pigman on Holland Road that runs through several tunnels. He is said to be a circus trainer who enjoyed the company of his pigs than of people. One day, he fell next to their trough and the pigs killed and ate him. His ghost is said to haunt the tunnels appearing with the body of a man but the head of a pig. Finally, Northfield, Vermont has what I find to be the creepiest Pigman haunting.

This legend also began in the fifties and involved couples out parking in secluded areas. The pigman seems to specifically target boyfriends, leaving girls to run home screaming and terrified. Some versions of the story describe this Pigman as being covered in white hair, or even wearing a rotting pigs head as a mask. It all started in 1951 when a local teenager named Sam Harris went out on the night before Halloween to get into mischief. Sam Harris never came home, but soon afterward the Pigman began terrorizing the area.

Some say that Sam sold his soul to the devil and became the Pigman; others say that he was the creature’s first victim. A few years after his disappearance a group of teenagers drinking in a sandpit near the high school reported seeing a man-like creature with a pig’s face come lumbering towards them from the woods. They ran back to the school dance, but no one believed their story. Soon after this people all over town began reporting sightings of the Pigman. Drivers claimed he had run in front of them across the road, and farmers reported seeing it on their property, possibly hunting their animals. Teenagers making out in the Devil’s Washbowl- an area known for its caves and waterfalls- reported the creature banging on their cars. There were even reports of bones and cloven hoofprints being found in one of the caves. This story has gotten bigger and better over the years and is one of Vermont’s most popular tales to tell after dark.

While those stories are not specific to Tennessee, they illustrate that the haunted stories of Pigmen spans across the country. Interestingly enough, most of them also include a bridge and an isolated road. Further details of the story all track back to the 50s, when people on car dates would try to find places in the woods to park. So much commonality begs to question if the pigman legend wasn’t created to deter teenagers from parking in the woods and isolated back roads.

An investigation group called Southern Paranormal of Tennessee spent time at the smokestacks with K2 meters supposedly having a conversation with the spirit of a little boy at the site. During the conversation, the little boy communicated through turning flashlights off and on and lighting up the K2 meter when he was asked questions.

During the course of the investigation, they claimed to see a shadow figure cross the field next to where they were. When asking the boy who the shadow figure was, the responses on the K2 meter indicated the boy might be afraid of it. He answered yes when asked if it was the mean person. Was the shadow figure the Pigman stalking the area? Or some other malevolent entity on the factory grounds? Additional footage of that night provided some EVP evidence of different disembodied voices.

So, did the Pigman start as an urban legend to scare teenagers from parking in the woods? Or is there something more sinister stalking the forested areas of the United States? The local legend says the Pigman still haunts the Shelby Forest looking for victims, though I don’t necessarily believe that. Without no confirmed sightings or victims, it’s hard to believe it to be anything other than an urban legend. However, if you find yourself on the bridge on Shakerag Road, perhaps you’ll be tempted to stop your car, flash your lights, and say, “Pigman, Pigman, Pigman!” and let me know how it turns out.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I would like to invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net if you’d like to learn more about this and other stories I’m working on. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Shelby Forest Pig Man

TN G&L Episode 8: Pink Lizzy and the Mystery Jar

The Brinkley Female College, Memphis, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, we’ll travel to the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock-n-Roll to explore a peculiar, haunted tale that includes a startling apparition, seances, an untimely robbery, and an old musty jar full of treasure. Allow me to introduce you to one of Memphis’s most famous ghost stories, Pink Lizzie and the Mystery Jar.

Our tale begins in 1855 prior to the onset of the U.S. Civil War. Memphis was a bustling riverfront town growing in leaps and bounds based on the city’s strategic placement on the Mississippi River trade routes. A Memphis resident named Colonel WJ Davie borrowed funds against his home from another colonel, Robert Brinkley, to invest in the Memphis-Charleston Railroad. Versions of this tale use the last name Davie, Davis, and Davidson interchangeably. For today’s story, I’ll be using Davie. When the Civil War broke out, the railroad was seized by the military and his stock investment became worthless. To hold off the bankers from foreclosure, he worked out a deal to sell his mansion back to Col Brinkley, plus and extra $15,000 to cover his stock debts. Colonel Davie’s finances were ruined, and the stresses of his loss took a heavy toll. He passed away a few short years later, rumored to have gone insane before his death.

Col Brinkley was on much more stable financial footing and decided to use the Davie home for a new purpose. The beautiful mansion stood on the corner of Fifth and Georgia Streets, and Brinkley spent the next two years renovating the stately home into an all-female college. Many who worked on the renovations reported strange happenings on the property even before it opened as the Brinkley Female College, with many believing the demented ghost of Colonel Davie had returned to haunt his old house and was unhappy with the renovations. The rumors of Col Davie’s ghost gave the property its haunted reputation, but the ghost story of the Brinkley Female College was only getting started. In 1868, the Brinkley Female College opened its doors under Headmaster J.D. Meredith with space for 50 female students.

A young Brinkley student named Clara Robertson sat upstairs at the ornate upright piano on the second floor with the window open. It was a cool February day in 1871, and Clara had a recital to practice for. She laid out her performance piece on the music desk and was grateful this was a piece she enjoyed playing. Her instructor always wanted her to play scales, but the actual music was much more fun. As she played the first notes, a frigid breeze blew through the open window, sending her sheet music floating to the floor. Pushing back the bench, she turned to collect them and realized she was not alone. A young girl in a dirty pink dress stood at the far side of the room staring at Clara with a blank expression. The sudden appearance of the girl startled her, and she let out a yelp. The girl was small and very thin, almost starving. At first, Clara thought perhaps she was a beggar who had snuck in to find something to eat. She never even heard the girl enter the room. That’s when she noticed her face wasn’t just dirty, it was skeletal.

She took a step toward the frightened Clara, and that was all it took. She fled from the parlor screaming and into a bedroom. Clara jumped on the bed and pulled a pillow up over her head to hide her face, praying that the frightening apparition was just in her imagination. The young skeletal girl in the dirty pink dress followed her, coming up to her bedside while Clara trembled in fear, barely able to look. The ghastly girl placed her hand next to Clara’s face on the pillow and stared down with blank hollow eyes, then, just as quietly as she appeared, she then disappeared. Clara bolted from the room to find the headmaster but instead found a group of her classmates. As she breathlessly related the story, her friends laughed at her without believing a word of it. Clara was so upset that she ran home.

Clara’s father, a well-known Memphis lawyer named J.D. Robertson, had trouble consoling Clara but finally persuaded her to go back to school in the morning and forget whatever she had seen. When she arrived for class, no one spoke of anything that happened the day before, making Clara suspicious that perhaps the whole incident was some cruel joke played by a classmate. She scanned the room of girls looking for one who could have pulled off the ghoulish disguise, but none of them seemed to fit the bill. The rest of the day went on as usual and without incident. However, that would change on the following day.

When the ghost appeared this time, more than just Clara was present to witness it. Two of Clara’s friends and a teacher, whose names were not readily found, were in the room when the skeletal girl appeared though they never claimed they actually saw her. Some investigators think the others said they had seen the ghost to placate Clara, but Clara claimed she absolutely saw the little girl again in the same dingy pink dress and distorted face. Clara went home that day and declared to her father that she would not go back to the school again, so he decided to investigate the claims himself.

Mr. Robertson enlisted a client who also claimed to be a clairvoyant to visit the school and assess what it was his daughter was seeing. The client, identified as Mary Nourse, spoke with her about the encounters and developed a theory that the ghostly girl is trying to communicate or must want something from Clara. Mrs. Nourse told her if the little girl appeared again to not be frightened and speak to her. The next day, Clara got the chance to do just that.

Armed with the courage instilled in her by the spiritual medium, Clara returned to the Brinkley School the following day. She was playing with two of her friends in an upstairs room when the little girl appeared again. Clara stood and faced the spirit, suppressing the urge to scream or run. The ghost simply stood there and stared back. Clara raised her trembling hand and gave a nervous wave. The skeletal girl mimicked her movements and waved back. Feeling less scared, Clara took a step forward. Again, the girl mimicked her and took a step forward. She took another step, so did the girl. Everything Clara did, the little girl did too until they were only a few feet from each other. Remembering the medium’s instructions, Clara found her voice and asked the girl for her name. She was shocked to get a reply. The little girl said her name was Lizzie Davie and Clara didn’t need to be afraid of her. She said this was her house, not some school, and she wanted all these people to leave except for Clara. She was adamant that her father didn’t want anyone else in the house. Clara told her that was impossible, that old Colonel Davie had died, and the house was now her school. Lizzie said she could not rest until she knew the house was going to be taken care of like her father wanted it. Clara, being only thirteen, told Lizzie there wasn’t anything that she could do about it, but her father was a lawyer, and he would know what to do. Lizzie told her that she would visit Clara’s father with instructions, then she vanished. Clara immediately ran several blocks home as fast as she could to tell her father what Lizzie said.

Mr. Robertson called Mrs. Nourse and Headmaster Meredith to be present to hear Clara’s claims from the ghost. He was skeptical of the whole business but believed his daughter was telling him the truth. The headmaster became angry, worried that all this ghost-story business would sully the school’s spotless reputation. He argued with Mr. Robertson, who himself was more concerned about his daughter’s well-being than what people thought of the school. They implored Mrs. Nourse for guidance on what to do, and she recommended holding a séance at the Robertson house to contact Lizzie. The event would need some of Mr. Robertson’s closest friends and be made public. He was even more skeptical of this request from Mrs. Nourse, but finally relented. A date was set, invitations were sent out, and the public and media became very interested in the otherworldly goings-on at the Brinkley Women’s College. A crowd gathered outside the Robertson home for the séance.

Like some macabre scene from an H.P. Lovecraft tale, Mrs. Nourse settled several participants around the Robertson’s darkened dining table, including some of Robertson’s neighbors, Headmaster Meredith, Clara, and her father, and attempted to conjure the spirit of Lizzie Davie to put this haunting business to rest once and for all. She called out for Lizzie to communicate her instructions and make herself known. Before long, young Clara began to act strange, like she was having a seizure. Mr. Robertson wanted to stop but Mrs. Nourse pushed on. Clara continued to convulse, then suddenly went limp. Her father thought she had died, but Mrs. Nourse pushed him away, telling him this was normal. Mr. Robertson argued this whole charade was anything but normal. Suddenly, Clara flailed around wildly and had to be restrained by several of the men present. A few moments later, she calmed and sat normally at the table as if nothing had happened. Mrs. Nourse gave Clara a piece of paper and pencil and asked to whom she was talking to. Clara wrote the name Lizzie Davie on it. Mrs. Nourse asked all sorts of questions about the incidents Clara relayed, and Lizzie answered them all just as Clara described them. She then told the neighbors to begin asking questions, which again through Clara, Lizzie answered them all. Finally, it was Mr. Robertson’s turn to ask. He wanted to know why she had chosen to talk to his daughter, to which Lizzie replied, “She is the kindest person in the house, and I want her to own it.” She went on to tell Mr. Robertson that there was a large jar buried under a stump behind the house that her father buried before he died. Lizzy said it contained jewelry, money, gold, and papers that would let Clara claim the house as hers. Along with the promise of buried riches, she issued a warning. Lizzie said that her soul would not rest until Clara became the new owner of her father’s house, otherwise she would curse the property to be of no value to anyone forever. Suddenly, Clara convulsed wildly again and then went still. Lizzie had departed, but ghost fever was now an epidemic in all of Memphis.

The town was abuzz for weeks after news of the séance and claims of buried treasure. The newspapers ran sensational headlines in every issue. Mediums and clairvoyants became all the rage, though how many were legitimate and how many were frauds was anyone’s guess. Those who could afford it booked them at all hours, hoping to channel dead family members or find out about their own buried treasure. Even Clara was dragged along for the ones Mrs. Nourse performed, continually channeling Lizzie through her to the amazement of others. Bars created “ghost cocktail” recipes for the upper society parties held around seances. Table tipping, slate writing, Ouija boards, and tambourines were all used to communicate with the dead. In all cases, ghost fever became a money-making venture, and those who knew how to do it could charge whatever they wanted for their services.

After Lizzie’s initial warning and declaration of treasure, Mr. Robertson and Headmaster Meredith employed some of the others that attended their séance to seek out the stump behind the school and see if the ghost was telling the truth. The announcement to commence digging set the local media ablaze with wild speculation of what might be found. The frenzy of public attention put the whole school schedule in turmoil. The school faculty was nervous over all the disruption, and they wanted the whole ordeal put to rest once and for all. So, the men took their shovels, found a stump matching Lizzie’s description, and set to work. At a depth of around five feet, they hit a solid layer of brick.

While this was happening, Lizzie appeared to Clara back at her home and demanded to know why Clara was not the one digging. She emphasized that Clara was to find the jar herself if she was going to stave off the curse, then disappeared. Clara ran to the school to tell them what happened, so they gave her a shovel and helped her down in the hole. After a couple shovels full of dirt, either the Memphis heat or the stress of the whole ordeal set in, and Clara collapsed.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Robertson requested Mrs. Nourse conduct another séance with an offer to switch places with Clara. He would dig in her stead if it meant peace of mind for his daughter. The séance was conducted and Lizzie agreed, but with one condition: The jar had to remain closed for 60 days once it was found. After that, it could be opened. She did not give a reason for the odd timetable delay but was adamant that her instructions be followed. The next day, Mr. Robertson took up a shovel himself and worked through the bricks into the old and damp soil below. After about an hour of digging, the lid of a musty jar shone through the dirt. He carefully extracted it, cautious not to break or damage it. Inside, he could see different sized bags and envelopes. He took the jar home without telling anyone he found it yet for security reasons and hid it in his backyard outhouse where no one would think to look.

Eventually he revealed to the press that the jar had been found exactly as Lizzie’s ghost described, and the 60-day countdown had started. There would be a public opening of the jar at the Greenlaw Opera House with $1 tickets available for the spectacle. The proceeds were pledged to a local orphanage, to which skeptics thought was the only redeeming moment of the whole jar fervor. All of the hubbub around the incident had taken a toll on Clara, so her father sent her to visit relatives far from Memphis until the big day that Lizzy’s curse would be no more. They all looked forward to the quiet until then. Sadly, no peace would come.

Speculation ran wild over the jar and its contents. What was inside? Jewels? Gold? Money? Many inquired about seeing the jar, touching it, shaking it; anything to satisfy their curiosity but Mr. Robertson held firm that the jar was in safe keeping until the appointed time. His assurances were not enough to keep thieves at bay. One afternoon about a week before the opening event, Mr. Robertson hosted a small gathering at his home for his law office colleagues. A loud noise from the backyard caused him to investigate and find three men pulling the jar from his outhouse hiding place. As he confronted them, they clubbed him on the head, jumped the wrought-iron fence and ran away with the jar. It was gone, along with the contents, and never recovered.

Even though Lizzy’s instructions were not met, she never appeared to Clara again after that. Her curse held true, however. Shortly after the buzz about Lizzy and the jar died down, with some claiming the whole story was some elaborate hoax, the Brinkley College would fall into ruin and close its doors forever. Clara completed her education elsewhere, married, and moved to Arkansas where she continued to regale people with the strange tale of Lizzy and the jar. Clara’s school friends would later claim they never saw what Clara was looking at or who she was talking to, but did say they heard a strange hum, almost like murmuring, on the other side of the room whenever Lizzy supposedly appeared.

As for the house where all this occurred, the building became run down and was rented out to a local family for the simple fee of keeping the property maintained. They lived there for many years until a wealthy northerner offered to rent the house from Col Brinkley. That arrangement quickly fell apart when Brinkley discovered the man only rented the house to hold seances again and try to revive the fervor around Memphis’s ghost jar. He was soon evicted, and the original caretaker family moved back in for many more years. Hard times called for even harder decisions, and the home was eventually split up into tenement apartments for railroad workers up until the property and several others around it were purchased by a paper company for pennies on the dollar. It would seem Lizzie’s curse held true afterall. The homes were scheduled to be demolished to make room for the manufacturing space needed for the paper company’s warehouses. An investor came along to buy and dismantle the Davie house materials with an intent to rebuild it in Jonesboro, Arkansas. As of the recording of this episode, I could not find any record stating whether the investor followed through with rebuilding the mansion in Arkansas or not. Once the paper manufacturing plant warehouse was built over the old Davie home site, bizarre occurrences started up again with workers reporting strange noises at night, objects moving on their own, and intense hot and cold spots throughout the structure. In the paranormal world, drastic temperature changes are believed to be a sign of a spirit presence, though no one has ever claimed to see Lizzie manifest again.

In my later research, one of the reasons I found that possibly caused Colonel Davie to go insane was not totally due to his financial ruin but because of the death of his young daughter, Lizzy Davie, on October 6th, 1863. It is not known how she died, but it is said she died in the house that her father built before selling it. Her body was interred at the Winchester Cemetery in Memphis until 1931, when it was moved to another gravesite because Winchester Cemetery became a city park. Her grave now resides in another local cemetery in Memphis. Members of the Davie family confirmed that Lizzy died in the mansion and was buried in a pink dress that had strawberry juice stains down the front. She spilled the juice on her dress the day she died, making the dress look stained and dingy. However, it was her favorite dress, and she hardly ever wore anything else, even to the grave.

So, is Lizzy and her mysterious jar a real haunting? Or is this an elaborate hoax concocted by the Robertson family with Mary Nourse’s help? All of the principal characters are verifiable people with real stories and backgrounds, and all good ghost stories have an element of verifiable truth to them. It was also not uncommon for people to hide and bury valuables in jars, particularly during the Civil War. Could this have been Colonel Davie’s way of hiding his valuables? To this day, the story of Pink Lizzie leaves more questions than answers. Perhaps another séance is in order to solve the mystery, but you can do that at your house and let me know what you find out.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I would like to invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net if you’d like to learn more about this and other stories I’m working on. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: Pink Lizzy and the Mystery Jar

TN G&L Episode 7: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Due to graphic descriptions, parental discretion is advised for this episode.

Petros, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, we’ll discuss some of the frightening tales told by the guards, employees and inmates who spent time for one reason or another behind the haunted walls of the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Due to descriptions of violent crimes from the prison, listener discretion is advised.

During the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War, East Tennessee saw a boom in construction primarily based around its rich coal mines and rapid railroad expansion. As with any mining prospects, the most remote and hard to reach areas were the richest in resources. With that limited geographical access, mining companies would house their workers near the mine to increase operational efficiency. They would also provide “company stores”, where miners could purchase goods and sundries, often at inflated prices and leaving the worker owing more to the company for supplies than they actually earned in wages; a debt they could never escape.

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “Sixteen Tons.” One stanza says:

If you see me comin’, better step aside,
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died.
One fist of iron, the other of steel,
If the right one don’t get you,
Then the left one will.

You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.

The sixteen tons he refers to is the amount of coal mined by a miner in a day, yet whatever was harvested was never enough to dig the miner out of debt to the mining company. His lyrics paint a picture of the type of person who would work these mines; their toughness, swagger, and an eager willingness to use their fists to solve a dispute. It also tells us that at the end of the day, the miner was simply too indebted to die no matter how hard they worked, owing money as well as their soul to the company store. Even with such a mantra, many did die in those mines and left debts their families could never repay. Those who remained were at a simmering boil, ready at any moment to lash out in frustration with being taken advantage of by the mining companies.

This broken system was becoming untenable for both the miner and the mining company. The poor relationship between them was always at a breaking point due to work stoppages, low pay, and hazardous working conditions. This constant strained connection led mining companies to seek new sources of cheap labor, and they found it in the state’s convict lease system.

One of the other industries that boomed during Reconstruction was crime and there was no shortage of prisoners. Tennessee began leasing prisoners to all sorts of hard labor industries in 1866, and found a profitable partner in the mining industry, particularly in Anderson and Morgan Counties, northwest of Knoxville. Convict leasing relieved the mining company cost to house workers and gave the state a new source of funding, reducing their costs associated with maintaining prisons. One aspect the state and the mining companies exploited was the 13th amendment loophole of “involuntary servitude” as a sentence. Using this technicality, prisoners were given harsh and unusually long sentences to supply labor throughout the state, especially the African American community. This availability of cheap labor put coal miners out of work, leading to the Coal Creek War in 1891. After that bloody dispute ended, the miners were put back to work, but not every mine used their hard-won contract labor and still relied on prisoners. Two years later in 1893, the state legislature gave the go-ahead to build the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in nearby Petros, Tennessee; the state’s only maximum-security prison intended as a home for the worst of the worst.

As stated in a previous episode, a common thought in the paranormal community is that areas experiencing great tragedy, suffering, and violence tend to retain the negative energy that comes with it. Brushy Mountain is definitely one such place. For many of the most hardened criminals that had proven too much for other prisons to handle, Brushy Mountain was their “last stop, end-of-the-line” prison. It was here they were sent to serve out their sentences or die, whichever came first. Many would never see the outside world again, serving consecutive life sentences varying from 80 to 316 years for their crimes. From the early mining days until the prison closed for good in 2009, over 10,000 people lost their lives on this small patch of land with many being from terrible and violent ways. So much suffering and death was bound to leave a troubling spiritual residue. In addition, a common paranormal belief is that spirits cannot cross bodies of water. Brushy Mountain is surrounded by running creeks completely on three sides. If that belief is true, then the property will remain a prison for the souls that are supposedly still there even after the living are gone.

The original wooden structure was built, ironically, in a pattern of a cross from the air, trying to harness the only blessing those confined to its walls would ever receive. It was constructed by the prisoners themselves in a rugged and isolated bowl of the surrounding mountains, giving it an even more lonely feel and used the natural terrain as an additional security measure. Cliffs and dense forest surround three sides of the stockade and make escape nearly impossible. The location was chosen intentionally for that reason, as well as its proximity to the coal mines. Prisoners were filed in and out of the mines daily. Some on their feet, others feet first. For them, that was the only escape from the hellish conditions inside the prison. Stories tell of brutal beatings and hangings in the early years as the vicious reputation of the penitentiary spread. Another constant source of misery was the regular outbreaks of illness and fever, most of which went untreated. Those who survived the mines and the violent tendencies of their cellmates often succumbed to disease or decided to end their suffering on their own. A graveyard exists on the property where expired inmates were buried. The headstones have long since been removed but the bodies remain interred; unmarked and unknown.

In the 1920s, a reconstruction of the prison began using stone harvested from the property, again by cheap prison labor. The wooden complex slowly became the monstrous, castle-like structure that still stands today, a monument to the broken men that built it. Within those walls, hope was lost. One article written in 1982 while Brushy Mountain still actively housed prisoners said, “violence in prisons is more the rule than the exception.” At Brushy Mountain it was the standard from the beginning. Many early stories of the violent deaths inside the prison were not recorded and lost to history. However, some of the gruesome tales are still told. One in particular tells of a fight that broke out in the cafeteria between two inmates, leaving one chopped up into so many pieces that the guards claimed that when they lifted his body to take to the morgue, most of his back remained on the floor. What remained was so badly mutilated that parts of him were flushed down a toilet. The kitchen and cafeteria were the site of many violent interactions, another of which saw an inmate’s arm severed in an altercation while an accomplice to the crime chopped the victim’s spinal cord in two with a meat cleaver.

Other random acts of violence occurred throughout the prison grounds. Another story of a ghost that haunts the death row building is named Leroy. He was a prison yard bully and was mean just because he could be. One day, one of his victims took matters into his own hands, waiting for Leroy to have his back turned in the exercise area and stabbed him to death while he was doing pull-ups. Paranormal investigators have recorded a disembodied voice whispering “Leroy” when asking if anyone was in that area, and some have complained of mysterious scratch marks appearing on their arms. Another inmate, a little person named Jack Jett, was found to be a snitch. One of the inmates he ratted out waited until he was distracted and on the phone with his mother, then stabbed him 19 times in the neck. His ghost haunts the phone bank, causing investigators to experience extreme dread and intense cold spots near where he was attacked. Some prisoners claimed they would sometimes see the phone receiver float off and on its hook.

The last place with the claim of the most spiritually active on the property is the prison chapel. EVP recordings from multiple investigations have recorded disembodied voices within, some clearly saying hell, beast and pain. Photographs in the chapel have multiple orbs, commonly thought by paranormal investigators to be a form of manifested spirit energy. Inmates have claimed for years to witness objects suddenly float from one area to another inside the small sanctuary and incredibly intense cold spots. Some would joke about going to the chapel during the excruciatingly hot summers and braving the ghosts just to get cooled off.

Brushy Mountain did house an electric chair and most records indicate there were over 100 executions during the prison’s tenure, but there are conflicting records on how those executions were actually carried out. Many say “old sparky” was never used while it was there until it moved to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, and some say the executions were all by chair. By the time of this recording, I could not find definitive evidence to support one claim or the other.

Racial tensions were prevalent in the prison from the earliest days of construction, particularly when the prison housed the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. James Earl Ray is one of the more infamous inmates at Brushy Mountain and there were gang factions within the walls that meant him harm. When Ray arrived, many of the African American prisoners were upset being in the same vicinity as King’s assassin and threatened his life. There were also white gangs active in the prison and the rivalries regularly turned deadly. Some accounts say Ray was well-liked by the majority of the prisoners, though I do not subscribe to that theory since Ray was assaulted more than once during his time at Brushy Mountain by black inmates, including one incident where he was stabbed 22 times.

Many of the African American prisoners claimed for multiple nights they could hear sawing on metal as white gang members tried to cut their way out of their cells using tools made from scraps found around the prison, guitar strings, and carbide jeweler chains. Their goal was to kill their black gang rivals when they were locked in their cells on the third level. One white gang that called themselves The Magnificent Seven were able to get a smuggled .25 caliber pistol inside the prison. Finally, on February 8th, 1982, they succeeded in sawing their way out of their cells and execute their vendetta against the black inmates in the segregated cell block. The seven went from cell to cell on tier 3 seeking out their rivals and shooting several of them through the bars. They would then jam the doors to delay medical assistance and took four guards as hostages. After a 45-minute tear through the third level cells, the seven surrendered to the prison medic and a deputy warden. Two of the victims died from the gunshot wounds with many others wounded.

It is believed the shootings were retaliation against members of one black gang for stabbing James Earl Ray just days before the hostage incident: one of many racially motivated attacks in the prison’s 113-year history. An associate warden at that time is quoted as saying, “The gangs here are groups of predatory career criminals with a history of assaultive incidents preying on weaker inmates. They’ll prey blacks on blacks, whites on whites and on each other. They try this on society, and they get locked up in places like this. But in here they don’t have the same constraints.”

In one paranormal investigation I read about, an investigator claims to have played Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech while sitting in James Earl Ray’s cell and recorded a disembodied voice saying “hush”. There are many recordings of strange sounds, footsteps, loud bangs and even the sounds of anguished crying. In one amateur investigation, two metal folding chairs in the cafeteria were filmed sliding roughly across the floor like they were being dragged. Tour guides also claim almost daily sightings of apparitions. Some appear as solid as a normal person yet are not there. Others are dark swirling and nebulous masses reminiscent of the evil energy that has plagued the prison since it was built. One unsettling story claims there have been sightings of a crawling ghost in the auditorium known as the creeper. The story says after an altercation in the auditorium during a movie, an inmate had his throat cut with a handmade prison knife. The guards put him in a padded room without medical attention where he eventually bled to death and his anguished spirit is sometimes seen crawling on all fours across the floor.

One of those who died in the retaliatory shooting was an African American inmate named James, and there are stories that if you leave a lit cigarette on the bars of the cell he died in, he will take drags from that cigarette. In one investigation I watched on YouTube, the investigator tried this experiment in James’s cell with his camera rolling and his flashlight off, only leaving the lit cigarette visible in the frame. When the investigator speaks out to James, the red herring on the cigarette flares as if being smoked. He immediately turns the light on to see a large puff of smoke come from the cigarette like an exhale, yet there was no one there but him. If it was a hoax, it was a convincing one. While I am a skeptic at heart, based on what I could see and the reaction of the investigator, the footage appeared unaltered; both the cigarette and the chairs being dragged across the floor. While I can’t say for certain these are not staged, the footage was convincing enough for me to believe they were genuine paranormal encounters.

So, what haunts the grounds and cells of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary? Do the spirits of those who died in such a tragic place remain? In the prison’s files, the inmates consisted of murderers, serial killers, rapists, and the worst of the worst of Tennessee’s violent criminals. One research statistic stated while the prison was in operation, it averaged one murder per week and that the guards rarely had full control of the prison. After one visit to Brushy Mountain, a Nashville attorney is quoted as saying, “It was like walking into the mouth of hell.” The same associate warden I quoted earlier on gang violence in the prison later told a Washington Post reporter, “We get the hard-to-manage inmates. That’s the function of this institution. It’s the end of the line. They’re serving long sentences, they’re in close confinement. You do that to a bunch of rats, and they start chewing on each other. Humans are not so different.”

Brushy Mountain closed officially in 2009 and all remaining inmates were sent to serve out their sentences at the more modern Morgan County Correctional Complex. Now the former prison is home of a distillery, restaurant, and event venue along with multiple opportunities for tours, both historical and paranormal. Some parts of the facility have been permanently closed, such as the solitary confinement block, known affectionately as “The Hole”, but most is still open for guided as well as overnight paranormal flashlight-only investigations. The cells are open for explorers and investigators alike. Even though the remaining prisoners were transferred out, there is little doubt that those stone walls are still a prison to the spirits that remain.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I cordially invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net if you’d like to learn more about this and other stories I’m working on. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

TN G&L Episode 6: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

Natchez Trace Parkway near Hohenwald, Tennessee
Natchez Trace Parkway near Hohenwald, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story, as well as a good history legend. On today’s episode, I’ll share with you the strange circumstances behind one of America’s most recognizable names in its early exploration and try to shed light on the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis.

Shortly before sunrise on October 11th, 1809, at the age of 35, Meriwether Lewis took his last breath. Mrs. Priscilla Grinder, proprietor of Grinder’s Stand, a makeshift tavern and inn on the Natchez Trace, was likely the last person to see him alive. According to her account given to Lewis’ traveling companion and Indian Agent James Neelly, the famed Governor of the Louisiana Territory, military Captain, confidante of President Thomas Jefferson and heralded explorer of the western frontier arrived alone at Grinder’s Stand in a deranged state. His behavior left her feeling unsafe, so she gave up the larger cabin for his sole use and slept in an adjacent kitchen building with Lewis’s servants taking up residence in the stable nearby. No one occupied the main cabin except for Lewis.

At around 3am, Mrs. Grinder was awakened by the cracking sound of two gunshots from the main cabin. She woke his servants to investigate, and in his report from interviewing Mrs. Grinder, Neelly wrote “He had shot himself in the head with one pistol and a little below the breast with the other—When his servant came in, he says; I have done the business. My good servant, give me some water. He gave him some, he survived but a short time.” This is the account that was hastily written by Agent Neelly and sent to President Thomas Jefferson to inform him of his friend’s death.

A few months later, another friend of Lewis’s, an ornithologist named Alexander Wilson, was traveling near the Stand and decided to inquire about the circumstances of his friend’s death first-hand. He took a room at the inn, the same one Lewis died in, and arranged to meet with Mrs. Grinder. In this account, she gave much more detail that either she failed to tell Neelly or details he felt unnecessary to include in his report. Nevertheless, this new interview revealed additional detailed information. Wilson is credited with conducting the first real investigation of Lewis’s bizarre death.

She told Wilson that Lewis arrived alone that night but assured her that his traveling companions and servants would be along soon and he would need one night’s lodging. In the tavern, he ordered spirits but drank very little, and at supper time, he ate even less. She stated he would frequently have conversations with himself, sometimes violently, only occasionally addressing her with kindly pleasantries, such as “What a sweet evening it is,” and, “Madam, this is a very pleasant evening.” She said he took his pipe and paced the floor, continuing to speak to no one but himself.

She then told Wilson that she offered to set the bed for him, but he politely declined, claiming he was only comfortable sleeping on the floor. He requested his free servant, named John Pernier, bring him his buffalo robe and bearskins. She left the main cabin to him and retired to another one nearby with her children and servants.

Mrs. Grinder said that Lewis’s disturbing behavior kept her awake most of that night. She claims she could hear him pacing the floor in the neighboring cabin and talking to himself “like a lawyer.”, She had finally dozed off when the sudden crack of gunfire startled her awake, along with Lewis’s scream of “O, Lord!” Then, just a moment later, a second shot rang out. Immediately after, Lewis came pounding on her door shouting, “O Madam! Give me some water and heal my wounds!” but she did not unbar the door out of fear. Weakened and bleeding, she watched Lewis stagger his way back into his room. At sunrise, she sent her children to fetch the servants from their beds in the stables to investigate. They found Lewis still alive lying on the bed in frightening condition. One of the gunshots had torn away part of his forehead, leaving his brain exposed but with surprisingly little blood. He was conscious enough to raise his shirt and show the servants the second wound in his side. He reportedly begged the servant to take up his own rifle and finish him off. “I am no coward,” he said, “but I am so strong; so hard to die.” They could not bear the thought of doing any such thing, and Lewis mercifully passed away shortly after.  Some versions of this tale also say Lewis was cut to ribbons by his own straight razor he apparently used in a haphazard attempt to remove the bullets himself, speeding the loss of blood and his death.

The second version offers more details, though it is difficult to say why Agent Neelly would be so negligent in his report of such an untimely and awful death and omit so much. There are some who believe he may have been short on details to spare such a vaunted person as Meriwether Lewis the indignity of a gruesome end. Not all are convinced his motives were pure and that he had a hand in Lewis’s demise, keeping his report short to obscure his involvement, but more on that later. Now comes a third account, related by Mrs. Grinder some thirty years after that tragic night to a schoolteacher from the Cherokee Nation inquiring about the infamous and mysterious death. Many of the details were the same, though significant parts of the story had changed, making the already bizarre tale even more so.

In this account, there is an addition of three unknown men who arrived on Lewis’s heels and a confrontation ensued. She said Lewis drew his pistols and admonished them to leave, which they did. The rest of the story stays relatively the same until the fateful moment where she now claimed there were three pistol shots instead of two, and that she did not send her children to wake the servants as they were already in Lewis’s cabin. She now claims she was surprised to see them coming from the stables to Lewis’s aid where she thought they’d shared the cabin with him, leaving her to question why they left the cabin. She was also surprised to see Pernier wearing Lewis’s clothes; in fact, the very same clothing that Lewis was wearing when he arrived. She said he told her that Lewis had given him the garments, but he did not know why. Then, discovering that Lewis was gone, they departed to search along the Trace for the missing governor, only to find him wounded on the trail wearing Pernier’s tattered clothing and badly wounded.

Whether or not the changed parts of the story are hidden truths emerging over time, a poor accounting of the tale by the schoolteacher, or the poor memory of an aged Priscilla Grinder is unknown. Historians agree on one thing: there is little in this entire story that they can agree on. The popular theory is this whole affair was the tragic suicide of an American icon who suffered from depression, but there are others who believe this tragedy to be a murder most foul. To determine which theory is most plausible, we need to establish why Meriwether Lewis was traveling the Natchez Trace in the first place.

After his astounding three-year expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back, one of Meriwether Lewis’s life goals was to arrange his extensive journals of the trek into a publication that would satiate the ravenous public that was eager to consume the chronology of the expedition’s adventures. Lewis wanted to beat the speculative publications to print and reveal the tale from his point of view, not some printer with wild imaginations. He struggled to reach this goal because his pesky official duties got in the way. To compound his frustrations, the bureaucracy in Washington, even in Lewis’s day, was more hinderance than help, and they refused his expense reports while debating his honesty in reporting. These personal affronts irritated him so badly that he decided a face-to-face confrontation with those who denied his integrity was the only way to restore his reputation. In addition, he would use this trip to finally present his papers to the Philadelphia publishers for publication. Lewis became a man on a mission.

His journey started from St. Louis by river heading for New Orleans, where he planned to by sail around the Florida straits and up the eastern seaboard, but that’s when things turned sour. Lewis became seriously ill shortly after departure. Upon stopping at Fort Pickering near modern-day Memphis, the fort’s commander demanded Lewis stay, in the commander’s words, “until he recovered, or some friend might arrive whose hands he could depart in safety.”

Lewis was the medic for The Corps of Discovery and carried an extensive medical knowledge as well as a medicine chest for every occasion. He still religiously kept a journal of this time and writes about having a “bilious fever”, and mentioned having access to laudanum, opium, and tartar pills. Some historians think he may have developed an addiction to opium that led to his steep mental decline. He wrote to then-President James Madison, informing him that the heat and concern over his personal journals falling into the hands of British spies changed his travel plans. He would now take horses to Washington overland through Tennessee; a decision that turned out to be fatal.

In 1809, the fledgling United States was again on the brink of war with England, and New Orleans might not be a welcoming city for him since former Louisiana Territory Governor and General James Wilkinson’s treasonous acts alongside the Spanish Government were discovered. Wilkinson was holed up in New Orleans with American troops under his command, which also gave him command of passage in and out of the Mississippi River. Many historians agree that Lewis, having access to Wilkinson’s gubernatorial papers, likely found out about the former governor’s bribes taken from the Spanish government and was more afraid of falling into Wilkinson’s hands than the British. In any case, while waiting to recover enough to continue his journey, Agent Neelly arrived at Fort Pickering on his way to Nashville and agreed to accompany Lewis’s party at least that far. After ten days of rest, they loaded two of Lewis’s four trunks of journals to a pack horse and left two stored at the fort to be shipped later. On September 29th, Lewis, along with his servant Pernier, Neelly and his servant, and several friendly Chickasaw Indians, departed the fort. Ten days later, Meriwether Lewis would be dead.

After the ghastly events at Grinder’s Stand, John Pernier immediately departed straight for Virginia to find Thomas Jefferson and report what had happened. Jefferson received Pernier’s report with a sad acceptance of the cause of death being suicide, relating that Lewis, “had from his early youth suffered from hypochondriac afflictions inherited by him from his father.” Jefferson took the news hard. He always thought of Meriwether Lewis as the son he never had. Once Pernier delivered his report to Jefferson, he visited Lewis’s family to deliver the sad news and receive his final wages. The family was not so convinced of the suicide story and accused Pernier of killing his master.

About seven months after Lewis’s death, Pernier met his end, with the tale saying his throat was cut ear to ear. However, a man who was boarding with him informed Jefferson the Pernier, facing accusations of murder, took his own life by consuming a full bottle of laudanum. We know Jefferson took this news just as hard, as Pernier was a former servant of his before going to work for Lewis, and said in a later writing to a friend, “You will probably know the fate of old Pierney, Lewis’s servant, who lately followed his master’s example.” Jefferson believed his death was a suicide, but much like Lewis’s demise, many others believe it was more sinister.

On a beautiful Fall morning in October of 2019, my youngest son and I made the nearly 2-hour drive from Tullahoma to Hohenwald, Tennessee, where nearby, there is a National Parks site along the Natchez Trace Parkway dedicated to the final resting place of Meriwether Lewis. The Park is a beautiful section carved out of an even more beautiful wilderness. Hardly a landscape you would think would be the home to such a gruesome scene as Lewis’s death. The Park is small in size but grand in history. A recreation of Grinder’s Stand sits nestled among the trees next to the remains of the original building, now reduced to a few stones of foundation left in the clearing. At the back of the park, a connecting driveway circles a large cemetery, appropriately named Pioneer Cemetery, that holds the unmarked grave of Meriwether Lewis, among other local pioneers that settled the area.

There is a granite monument for Lewis, even though his grave in the cemetery is unmarked. For years, many have petitioned the Parks Service to allow an exhumation of Lewis’s body to solve the mystery once and for all on how he died. The theories vary wildly, from suicide to murder to madness to disease.

My son and I at the Meriwether Lewis monument
My son and I at the Meriwether Lewis monument

Some historians believe Lewis’s strange actions could have been from a severe bout with Syphilis, which if left untreated, can lead to mental disorders as well as brain and neurological damage. There is speculation he may have also contracted malaria, as indicated by his bout of “bilious fever”, in Lewis’s words, when he stopped at Fort Pickering. Malaria, if left untreated, also leads to bizarre behavior and dementia. Critics of this theory cite his hypochondriacal tendencies as the answer to his death coming from disease. They believe Lewis would never have let an illness or infection go without some treatment to counter the effects.

If that argument is true, could his cause of death have been from his ample stocks of medical opium? If he had hypochondriacal tendencies, as Jefferson said, he could very well have fallen victim to a chemical dependency in trying to stave off a real or imagined illness. According to the Mayo Clinic website, side effects linked to opium include confusion, hallucination, mood and mental changes, nervousness, sleeplessness, and disorientation among many others. Mrs. Grinder described observing Lewis exhibit several of those symptoms on that fateful night.

Perhaps the easiest answer is that he committed suicide. He was no doubt under severe stress and pressure from his fame and position, and if that was compounded with opium or untreated Syphilis, the toll may have been too much for him to bear. It is said that near the end of his life, Lewis regularly took to the bottle to drown his sorrows. It is also believed that even though the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a resounding success, he often felt the trek was a failure, citing the primary reason for the whole trip was to find the Northwest Passage, and even though they made it to the Pacific Ocean with only one life lost, they did not find the passage. To add insult to the injury, all their hard work in establishing trading outposts crumbled even before the Corps of Discovery returned home. Finally, after such a grand adventure and raucous homecoming, Meriwether Lewis was not thrilled with the drudgery of what amounted to a glorified desk job.

Or after all of that, could he have been murdered? Lewis’s own mother believed that to be the case. At the time of his travels, the Natchez Trace was not a safe or hospitable road. Bandits and highwaymen roamed the area preying on anyone who carried valuables. It’s possible that word of the famous explorer’s route preceded him, and some of these scoundrels looked to profit from robbing or kidnapping the famed Meriwether Lewis. One version of this theory states an infamous bandit on the trace named Tom Runions may be the murderer. Runions was known for violent behavior toward anyone who dared speak about his illegal dealings. Some believe maybe Robert Grinder plotted against his famous guest for his money, putting his wife up to spinning the tale of suicide to throw off any suspicion. When the monument at the park was erected in the 1840s, his exhumed body was examined by a coroner’s jury committee who noted that it was probable that he died at the hands of an assassin but did not complete the documentation as to why they believed that. Records of that committee’s findings would have been filed in the judge’s docket book, which seems to have been lost to history. No one knows what was in their final report to the judge.

Perhaps the danger of his predecessor’s treason was greater than previously thought. If Lewis was carrying evidence of General Wilkinson’s foul deeds, was Lewis assassinated to cover up the crime? Or was Indian Agent James Neelly involved in a murder plot? His own journals call some of his decisions on the Trace that week into question, such as sending his servant forward with Lewis and remaining behind to look for a missing horse. Some think it peculiar that a man traveling with a servant would take on a task so menial. A few years after Lewis’s death, Neelly was dismissed from his post for incompetence, and his lackluster account of Lewis’s death has always drawn suspicion. One critic of the suicide theory states that Lewis was no ordinary traveler and compares his presence to the celebrity level of Neil Armstrong returning from the moon. This same critic proposes an interesting question about the manner of death in citing that Lewis was an expert marksman. He argues how someone with Lewis’s skill could botch a point-blank suicide attempt with a weapon he would have been as familiar with as his own hand, not just once, but twice?

At the end of the day, the answer is simply that no one knows for certain how Lewis died. Among the many efforts underway to exhume his body for a second time, scholars advocating in favor of examining his body again claim they could determine if his death was suicide or an overdose, or disease or murder. Others remain skeptical a new exhumation would reveal anything of value to solve the mystery. When I asked at the park visitor’s center, the attendant told me and my son that Lewis is not actually buried under the 1840 granite marker and was done that way intentionally. He told us the real grave is unmarked on the property due to lawlessness at that time on Natchez Trace. He then said the decision was somewhat prophetic with the renewed interest in digging him up again, just in case someone advocating for another exhumation decided to take matters illegally into their own hands. I’ve searched several cemetery records but cannot determine if that story is true, however, it makes some semblance of sense to me if there were concerns over grave robbers looking for a famous grave to dig up.

Even over 200 years later, locals near the Park claim that Meriwether Lewis’s death is no mystery at all but an obvious matter of jealous rage. In one article I read, a local resident claims that, “everyone knows what happened. Robert Grinder came home that night and found Meriwether Lewis in bed with his wife and shot him. The rest of the story she just made up.”

Is that how one of arguably the most famous explorers of early America died? From the rage of a jealous husband? Or did illness overtake him? Perhaps an overdose? Or had he decided his burdens were too great and ended his own life? This Tennessee legend is likely one that will never be solved.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. If you’d like to read more about this and other stories I’m working on, I cordially invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

TN G&L Episode 5: The Beast of the Land Between the Lakes

Due to graphic descriptions, parental discretion is advised for this episode

The Land Between the Lakes, Tennessee and Kentucky

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, you’ll hear three disturbing tales of a cryptid creature with a murderous appetite in a popular National Park called the Land Between the Lakes. Allow me to introduce you to The Beast of LBL.

There are stories worldwide of supernatural occurrences in places with dense forested areas. The National Park area known as The Land Between the Lakes covers over 267 square miles of natural woodlands split by the Tennessee and Kentucky border and flanked by Kentucky Lake and the Cumberland River. The Park is a popular outdoors destination that hosts one and a half million visitors annually. A handful of those visitors have encountered a cryptid-like creature described as a bigfoot, a dog man, or a werewolf. While those three have striking differences, each has been reported at different times throughout the history of the park. The first incident we’ll discuss today is related by a gas station attendant named Jan Thompson who worked near the park in the early 80s. This is a paraphrased version of what is supposedly a hand-written third-person account of that night by Mrs. Thompson.

On an uneventful night around 3am, two police officers who were regulars at this gas station pulled in under the pump canopy. In Jan’s written account, she has left the officers unnamed to protect their identity. For the rest of this story, we’ll use the aliases she gave them of Officer Bill and Officer Adam. Instead of their usual jovial banter with Jan, Officer Adam collapsed himself onto the curb and vomited everything his stomach could muster. Jan watched through the window as Officer Bill did his best to comfort his partner, but was also visibly shaken by whatever malady had befallen them. Jan came out to find out what was wrong, offering some Rolaids and refreshments. Neither said much outside of fragmented and incoherent sentences for a span of several minutes, only repeating, “I can’t believe it, it’s just not possible,” or, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” When Adam raised his head, Jan could see dried blood on his face and neck. Jan was curious but didn’t press for more information. She could not imagine what could have disturbed these officers so badly. In her words, “Adam’s bottom lip was trembling slightly, and it wasn’t from the slight chill in the late spring air. Someone or something had filled them each with a congested fear.” After a short while, they calmed some and began their story.

They had been called to assist with a remote site investigation within LBL. It was the beginning of tourist season, and some early arrivals had already staked claim to the prime remote spots throughout the park. Sometimes disagreements would erupt between campers wanting the same site, so an occasional call to the remote areas was not unusual. They arrived at the scene around sunset to find several other official vehicles and investigators already there. Among them were other police cruisers, an ambulance, and a coroner’s van. Before them was a parked motor home with the door hanging on by one hinge. A campfire lit the immediate vicinity that whoever was camping there surely built. Flashlight beams were splitting the usually silent forest surrounding the campsite, and occasionally illuminated what appeared to be bloody hand prints on the walls of the motor home.

Bloody hand prints were insignificant to the carnage they witnessed as they walked into the site. Body parts were strewn everywhere. Shredded clothing, severed limbs, and internal organs were thrown about like confetti at a child’s party. Many on the scene had already lost their composure and their dinner at the gruesome scene. Adam and Bill asked another officer on scene what had happened. He told them a newlywed couple on a hike had discovered what they were now looking at and fled into town to call the police. So far, they identified three separate bodies; a father and mother with their young son best they could tell, and they weren’t sure what the murder weapon was that caused such devastation. The coroner overheard the report and interrupted them with an answer. He stated there was no murder weapon at all; that the bodies had been torn apart by teeth and claws. Adam asked if this was a bear attack. The other officer said bears were not native to the area, but anything was possible. He added it may have been a mountain lion or a wolf. The coroner dismissed that explanation.

“These are not from a mountain lion or a wolf,” he said. “The teeth and jaws are far too big for that.”

The coroner showed Adam and Bill on a larger portion of what was identified as the father’s torso four distinct cuts made by claws, “at least 2 inches long,” he said. “But the bites are what confuses me. The depth of the jaw is much larger than a bear, meaning this beast has a longer snout.”

Suddenly, an officer burst from the ransacked motor home holding a little girl’s dress. “There’s a fourth!” he shouted. “Look for a little girl. We might have a survivor!” They regained as much professionalism as they could and renewed their search. The officers formed a line and marched into the surrounding woods, calling for anyone who could still be out there. After a few minutes of searching, a shrieking scream pierced the night. Bill ran towards the scream alongside the other officer he and Adam first met at the scene. When they came upon Adam, he was kneeling to the ground and sobbing. Bill shined his light onto Adam’s face, asking what made him scream. His tears streaked through the wet blood on his face. Adam pointed up. Their flashlight beams traveled up the nearby tree trunk and into the canopy. The officers jumped back with a start.

Dangling from a high limb was a small and lifeless hand, and on the other side of it a pale leg with a white sock still over the foot. They had found the little girl, and she did not survive. Shortly after they took down her body from the tree, the coroner said her tiny body had been partially devoured, and clumps of dark brown/gray hair were clutched in her hand and on the bark of the tree. An animal had done this, but of what kind, they had no idea. After a few hours of trying to make sense of it all, a line of dark vehicles came up the road with a new team of investigators to relieve the officers. They gave explicit instructions not to speak of this incident to anyone, especially the media.

About a month later, Adam and Bill returned to the gas station while Jan was working, taking a break from their patrol. She describes them as being different after their harrowing experience. No longer jovial or friendly, but quiet, serious, and withdrawn. They told her that lab tests from the crime scene determined the hair and saliva samples could not be matched to any known species, and that the closest comparison was from Canis lupus, a wolf, and that I should be careful. They explained to her never to mention to anyone that they had told her what happened that night.

The Land Between the Lakes has a long history of strange occurrences. Since the early 1700s, there has been talk of Native American curses on the white settlers moving into the area, of hauntings, of orbs seen floating in several of the more than 220 family cemeteries that dot the park, and creature sightings described as a tall, hairy, wolf-like creature that walked on two legs and could be smelled from a great distance away. It is also said this creature has glowing red eyes. Two possible origin stories of the beast come from early settlement of the area, though neither can be proved. One states a Native American shaman gained the ability to shapeshift into a wolf. At some point, he used this ability in some evil way and was outcast from his tribe. The shaman was hunted down and killed by white settlers while in his wolf form, and with his dying breath, vowed to return and stalk the forests and haunt the settlers and their families.

Another account says the beast is an early European settler who moved with his family to the remote area because of an illness that kept him from controlling his “night rages” and was not fit to live in a populated society. It is said that this man’s illness was passed on to his children and they were all kept locked away in their remote cabin. In either case, there are several accounts of unexplained livestock killings and unidentified howls and wails from deep in the woods. Early settlers complained of losing their cows, pigs, horses and hunting dogs to some predator in the woods that was never identified. At a time when wild Bison still roamed in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, hunters and farmers would occasionally find mutilated carcasses of young Bison with the rest of the herd clustered nearby in a tightly knit defensive circle; a behavior displayed when a predator is near. Other than a hunter with a large caliber rifle, not many natural predators prey on Bison. This means whatever killed those calves must be strong, aggressive and relatively fearless.

The second account comes from a group of college students from Murray State University, who took a weekend off to camp in the pristine wilderness of the Land Between the Lakes. On their first night, the young men built a fire and were enjoying the evening when one walked out into the trees to answer the call of nature. He was gone longer than the others thought he should be, and they called out to him. The student came back into the firelight wearing a terrified look and claiming he was being watched and that he heard growls and sniffing coming from the darkness beyond. His friends laughed and teased him of being afraid of the dark, or that he encountered a wild hog or some other benign woodland critter and dismissed the notion.

As the night wore on, they started hearing something just beyond the light of their fire in the surrounding woods. At first, it was the rustling of leaves, like an animal was passing by. But they kept hearing it and quickly determined it was not passing by but encircling them. Each time they shined their flashlights towards the sound, all they would see was the beam of their light on a tree trunk, or a quick blur with no shape or form. Some of them began to believe their friend that something was out there. That’s when the howling began.

A piercing, wailing howl erupted from the brush behind them. They spun to see where it came from only for the sound to erupt again behind them. Whatever it was, it was circling them swiftly. Then, they caught random glimpses of what they thought were red eyes running through the dark. Terror finally overtook them. They piled into their Volkswagen van and sped out of the site, abandoning all of their gear to get away. As the van emerged onto the main road, one of the students looked out the back window to see a large black shape emerge onto the road and chase behind them. As the driver pressed harder on the gas pedal, the VW engine was no match for the creature’s speed. A jolt shook the van as if something grabbed it and was holding it back. The driver pressed the pedal all the way to the floor, breaking free of whatever it was and never letting off until they were far from the park. Upon returning to the campus, the terrified students looked at the back to find the metal around the engine hatch was crumpled and cut through with deep gouges that appeared to be claw marks. Authorities dismissed their claims as a drunken weekend in the woods.

Our final modern-day and arguably more famous account comes from a man named Roger, who claims to be the only survivor of a cryptid attack on another family in another part of the park. This story has a specific date of April 7th, 1982 and is believed to be credible by many members of the cryptid investigative community. He also names the members of the family but omits their last name. Some details of his story have been removed from the sources I found on this due to an upcoming television appearance where he reveals the rest of his story, so this account will have some gaps that will be filled in later.

Roger’s story takes place about an hour before sunset at another remote campsite. Roger was with another family of four that arrived at the park for a vacation. They drove a motor home with a vehicle towed behind it. After unhitching the vehicle and backing into the RV site, the family began setting up their home away from home. The mother and young daughter, Diane and Connie, decided to take a nap inside the camper while the father and son, Levi and Steven gathered firewood for dinner and a campfire for later. One part that is unclear in my research is Roger’s relationship to the family. Perhaps he will reveal that later. Roger was inside the camper preparing to take his shotgun out for target practice by picking up some cans to use for targets. He hears a commotion outside, and suddenly yelling and shouting. He looked out the window inset in the door to see Levi running around the front of the camper, then hears the driver’s door open. Levi takes his shotgun and runs back around to the side where he sees Steven lifted in the air from behind and killed by a black, hairy creature. Levi fired his shotgun, hitting the beast in the shoulder after it dropped Steven’s body.

The shot was not enough to take down the creature. It charges Levi before he can shoot again and mauls him. Levi’s limp body collapses to the ground over his shotgun, and now the beast sets his sights on Roger behind the door. Roger opens the door and as the monster gets closer, he fires his .410 from much closer range, hitting it in the shoulder area again but closer to the neck. It let’s out a blood-curdling growl and runs off past the back of the camper. He yells back to Connie and Diane to follow him outside and hide underneath the camper until help comes. He leapt from the door and rolled under, pulling himself upward above the driveshaft of the camper. The girls did not follow.

He hears Diane and Connie scream as the beast returns to the rear window, smashing it out and climbing inside. The camper rocks violently. His view is obscured, but he can hear everything as the beast rips Diane and Connie to shreds. There are two versions of the account here that are confusing. Roger says he believed a second beast came to the back of the camper and attacked Diane and Connie, but the investigator I researched who broke down this account believes the beast to be a solitary hunter, much like a werewolf is supposed to be, and that the same wounded beast came back to finish off what he started.

Roger is frozen with fear, still hiding beneath the RV, when the attack ends. He can no longer hear anything other than his own pounding heartbeat in his ears, but remains still and silent, straining to hear even the slightest sound. What he does not realize is that the beast has gone, but not without a prize. It has taken the body of young Connie with it out into the night. Something else Roger did not realize is that his point-blank shotgun blast found its mark. Weak, wounded and losing blood at a rapid pace, the beast dropped Connie’s lifeless body about fifty yards behind the camper. A thick trail of blood continued well past where she was left, leading to a large tree where the beast climbed up to rest and recover.

Roger, feeling like the danger had finally passed, eased himself back to the ground and looked out in every direction to see if the beast remained nearby. Out to the side where the cold firepit lay empty is Steven’s contorted body, the first to fall to the monster. At the front, Levi’s twisted body lay in a heap; his head and arms bent in an unnatural pose. He scrambled out and made a run for it. Along the main road, a farmer passing through in his pickup truck found Roger running as hard and fast as he could. He told Roger to get in the back while they drove to the farmer’s house to call the authorities.

The next part of his account resembles something out of an episode of the X-Files. Two agents from an unknown organization arrive at the farmer’s house to pick up Roger and transport him back to the campsite. When he arrives, the area is crawling with other agents of the same organization cataloguing the crime scene. An agent is assigned to escort Roger around the site named Walt. Roger described him as an authority figure based on the behavior of the other agents, and their vehicles as military jeeps, thought to be M-1151s, with large spotlights mounted on each of them. Walt escorted Roger around, asking him questions about the attack when suddenly and agent in the woods shouts for assistance. The jeeps train their spotlights up to see the corpse of a large beast laying in the high branches, bled out from Roger’s shotgun blast to its neck, and the body of young Connie lying not far away.

The Likely Truth:

This legend is divisive in many ways. When the Land Between the Lakes was created, it required imminent domain proceedings that displaced over 700 families that called the area their home. Those families are why there are so many small family cemeteries within the park. And those displaced residents, some of whom are still alive, are still fighting to get their land back. Some of those same residents find the legend of the beast offensive to their ancestral home, and disregard it as nonsense.

So where do they believe the legend originated? LBL has been the home of many moonshine stills since the beginning of settlements there. Some believe the old moonshiners made up the story to scare people out of exploring the woods and accidentally finding their still. Even so, LBL has been the home of one confirmed bizarre incident, the Vampire Hotel. A man claiming to be a 500-year-old vampire named Vesago invited several of his sharp-fanged followers to a structure in LBL. Declaring to be the leader of this vampire clan, he would have blood parties within the park where his friends “fed” off one another. Not long after, he was arrested for the murder of one of those friend’s parents.

Aside from that strange tale, I could not find any official reports of missing persons or murders within the park. Many believers in the LBL Beast claim a suspicious cover-up has buried the stories, and that these dog men and werewolves are known to certain government agencies. In fact, even finding these few stories was difficult, as it appears most of the tales surrounding the legend are only passed by word of mouth.

In a few of the versions I could find, the werewolf is described more as a Bigfoot-type creature over 11 feet tall but no less murderous than its lupine cousin. All of them describe the creature with glowing red eyes and extremely aggressive behavior. There is also a local warning that if you pass through the park at night and come upon a group of White-tailed Deer, they are cautioning you to turn back because the red-eyed demon is near.

I’ve driven through Land Between the Lakes and found it to be mesmerizingly beautiful. The untouched wilderness it offers is like a flame that I can’t help but be drawn to like a moth. When I drove through, it was daytime and sunny, but many stories of the fabled beast denote that day or night makes no difference, and that is enough to give me pause. I’ve spent many days and nights alone in the woods, but I am not certain I’d make a solo trip through the LBL. It appears that the creature is still active, still stalking and still hunting.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Beast of the Land Between the Lakes

TN G&L Episode 4: Haunted Battlefields – Shiloh and Chickamauga’s ‘Old Green Eyes’

Old Green Eyes at Chickamauga Battlefield

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. In this episode, we’ll discuss two haunted Civil War battlefields; the random and wandering spirits at Shiloh, and the terrifying phantom that haunts the Chickamauga Battlefield known as ‘Old Green Eyes.’

Between the years of 1861 to 1865, over 620,000 Americans lost their lives across the scarred U.S. landscape, and Tennessee was the site of many of those bloody contests. Two of the most significant Tennessee sites are Shiloh, near Savannah, Tennessee in Hardin County, and Chickamauga just across the border into Georgia south of Lookout Mountain. Both battlefields saw tremendous casualties; Shiloh with 23,700 and Chickamauga with 34,600, nearly 10% of the lives lost in the Civil War happened in these two battles. While many battles in every conflict are given the title of “the bloodiest battle,” Chickamauga comes in only second to Gettysburg, with Shiloh being a close third for the title in the American Civil War. Two quoted accounts of the carnage at Chickamauga come from a pair of Confederate soldiers that witnessed the aftermath.

In his book, “Reminiscences of the Civil War”, Confederate General John B. Gordon wrote of Chickamauga, “Words, however, cannot convey an adequate picture of such scenes; of the countless costly, daring assaults; of the disciplined or undisciplined but always dauntless courage; of the grim, deadly grapple in hand-to-hand collisions; of the almost unparalleled slaughter and agony.” Even the name, Chickamauga, is said to translate in English to “River of Death”.

A local farmer and Confederate Cavalry soldier named Larkin Poe, who’s family home was close to the site, wrote of what he saw in the aftermath of the costly two-day battle; “The moon was far down the west and cast a ghostly light over the woods and fields. The stillness of the night was unbroken except for the sound of my horse’s hooves and the hoot of some solitary owl. I had seen an old house near Jay’s Mill filled with wounded and suffering men, and I had hardly started till I began to see dead soldiers yet unburied, lying in and near the road. I rode on, turning my horse first to the right and then to the left to avoid the thick-strewn bodies. In places I saw where great trees had been splintered by shells and riddled by bullets… Just before reaching the Brotherton house, I came upon a scene of death and destruction noteworthy even on that terrible field. I saw a piece of artillery, evidently a Federal piece, which had been knocked from the wheels by a direct hit from our guns, and apparently most all of the horses and men belonging to the gun had perished there for their bodies lay in grotesque heaps around their piece.”

In the paranormal community, a common thought is that sites of great tragedy or loss of life tend to draw the most spiritual energy and can attract the attention of malevolent entities. This could be an explanation for why there seems to be so many reported hauntings of Civil War battlefields. And if the adage about malevolent entities is true, that could be the case with the phantom called ‘Old Green Eyes’ at Chickamauga.

One of the earliest accounts of a possible supernatural encounter at the battlefield comes from a book written by Susie Blaylock McDaniel called “The Official History of Catoosa County.” In this strange tale, a resident near the battle site was returning home after attending the 1876 American Centennial celebration held on Market Street in Chattanooga. While passing through the battle site, a man known locally as “Uncle Jim” Carlock and his companions encountered a large creature they described as being over 10 feet tall with a white, furry head. The area was remote, with no houses or light shining other than the moon, and he and another reveler called Mr. Shields were on horseback while the rest of the party rode in a wagon. Shields, it is said, charged the creature and reached it before it could escape, swinging wildly and hitting it in the head. The creature cried out, almost in the sound of a baby or a young child’s voice, and said, “Let me alone!” He later stated the creature they encountered was probably no creature at all but was a washer woman balancing a basket of clothes on top of her head. Even if that were true, why would a washer woman be out in the middle of the night on a remote battlefield with laundry? Even if the encounter was not supernatural, it was at least odd.

There are brief mentions in many accounts of soldiers claiming to see Old Green Eyes immediately after the battle around Snodgrass Hill, crawling among the dead Union soldiers left unburied on the field. Early accounts in Native American lore say this creature, or one similar to it, has inhabited the area for centuries.

When something can’t be explained to the rational mind, the mind rationalizes what it can and makes up the rest. With Old Green Eyes, the legend varies wildly as to what the creature actually is. Some accounts say it takes the appearance of a large cat like a tiger, a floating head, a small goblin-like creature, a large white-headed creature like the one Jim Carlock described, or a disheveled Civil War soldier that was left unburied and has returned to exact revenge for the slight. Some who believe in the metaphysical say it could be an elemental being; a guardian of the ancient mound-builders that inhabited the era in prehistoric times, and some who believe in the spiritual say it is a demon come to feed on the pain and suffering that remains over the battlefield’s many casualties. As the legend is retold over generations, the tale becomes taller, the details become darker, and the creature becomes more sinister.

Many paranormal investigators have ventured into the park at night trying to find or make contact with Old Green Eyes or other wandering spirits. The area of the park around Snodgrass Hill is touted as the most haunted area of the park. One group of female investigators in 2001 had a sleepless night, claiming to have heard horse hooves running, gun fire, smelling gunpowder and strong odors of alcohol. They also reported an overwhelming sense of melancholy and a feeling of being constantly surrounded throughout the night. In their photos from their investigation, they claim to have captured several images of floating orbs around the battlefield monuments and encountering several ghostly mists. Many locals and long-time residents around the park claim to have encountered Old Green Eyes, with the overwhelming majority describing him as a large man with long, black stringy hair and wearing a riding duster coat. Many of those same residents do not speak about him lightly, saying the malevolent spirit is real and something to be very fearful of. Some others add that he has fangs and claws, resembling more of a demon than a man.

In one such tale, a Chattanooga teenager in the late 50s/early 60s took a shortcut through the park on a foggy and drizzling night while on his way to pick up his date from her house in Georgia. The young man stated the fog and rain made it difficult to see, but in the distance, he saw incredibly bright green headlights coming toward him in the fog. He didn’t think anything of it at first, other than he had never seen a car with green headlights before until he realized they were not headlights at all, but the eyes of something running toward his car in the middle of the road. He swerved off the road and hit a tree trying to avoid the collision. As he lay there in the front seat, the eyes stared at him from a distance through the cracked windshield, unblinking and circling the wreck for several minutes while making a terrible moaning sound. Suddenly, the creature leapt onto the crumpled hood of his wrecked truck giving the injured driver a close up view of his stalker. He described it as hunched over with long, dark and stringy hair past its waist and a large jaw with sharp fangs jutting out. It watched him for a long while with those glowing green eyes until another approaching car scared it off. When the park rangers found him and his wrecked car, they dismissed his claim as a severe bump on the head and a hallucination. Of all the accounts, this one is difficult to determine if it is true or not.

A more modern encounter involves a Park Ranger named Edward Tinney, a 17-year veteran park historian at Chickamauga, who claims a close encounter with Old Green Eyes, or something similar to him. He claims that the ‘Green Eyes’ specter is a soldier who lost his head to a cannonball and his phantom head is searching the battlefield for his body, but that other ghosts are known to roam the grounds. During a Civil War reenactment event, Tinney and a fellow ranger took up a patrol of the park on foot near where the re-enactors were camped at around 4am. After crossing an intersection within the pitch-black park, a tall dark figure appeared at the end of the road and started toward them aggressively. He described it as being over six feet tall and wearing a long black riding cloak with black stringy hair. They stopped and watched as the man approached and came very close to where they stood. It looked up at him with not green, but dark glistening eyes and a feral-looking grin. As quickly as it approached them, it disappeared as car lights in the distance started up the road towards them. They could not explain what they both saw.

A story from a re-enactor at the park on a different date tells of a phantom patrol of soldiers encamped in the park during a living history days festival. He states on their first night, he and some of his reenactment group approached a neighboring campsite where several men were encamped around a fire and were having dinner. The re-enactor states they spoke with the men for several hours about the battle before heading back to their campsite to turn in. The following morning, they packed and went back to wish their neighboring campers luck during the event, but the camp and all trace of those men or their dinner fire was gone. He says the site was completely natural and undisturbed as if no one had touched it for years.

Another reported encounter happened on a foggy night near Wilder Tower within the park, where a restaurant worker was taking a short-cut to home after a long shift. She claims in an S-curve near the tower, she slowed down because of the thick fog and caught a glimpse of an apparition in the road with big, glowing green eyes that disappeared as she got closer. Having heard the tales of ‘Green Eyes’ growing up around the area, she states she never thought she’d actually see it, and now will not go near the park after sundown.

Chickamauga has two other special ghosts of note, the first being called “The Lady in White” that is reportedly seen around the Snodgrass Cabin area. It is said she wanders the field in her wedding gown looking for a lost love in the battle. Another tale tells of a group of teenagers working a hayride event near Wilder Tower where they encountered a phantom torch floating in the tree line. When they investigated, they claim to have clearly seen a skeletal figure in a Confederate uniform dismount a phantom horse with glowing green eyes and continually called out for an “Amy” before disappearing in the brush. Could those two spirits be seeking each other, their souls destined to wander the battlefield in an endless search for one another?

At Shiloh, many of the paranormal reports mirror those at Chickamauga; the sounds of phantom hoof beats, smells of spent gunpowder, echoes of gun shots and cannon fire, and drums sounding out battlefield commands. One of the strangest occurrences is the pond on the property, nicknamed The Bloody Pond, will sometimes appear red. Rangers have dismissed this as heat-driven algae blooms at the hotter parts of the year, but not everyone is ready to dismiss the paranormal explanation. After the battle, it is said the pond was completely red from the blood of both Union and Confederate soldiers using its water to clean their wounds.

Shiloh had a storied past even before the battle, as it is the site of several Native American burial mounds. Park visitors have reported sighting orbs moving in and out of the ground around the mounds, hearing tribal singing and drumming in the woods, and strange sudden drafts of hot and cold air mismatched to the current season. Some feel freezing gusts in the summer and heated blasts during the winter.

When the battlefield became a park, several unit monuments were built in areas significant to that unit’s role in the battle, much the same as monuments at other Civil War battlefields. Many reports of gunfire and phantom yelling are common around the monuments. This is a very common occurrence for those who walk the battle line by The Hornet’s Nest. Some commenters on the park’s website claim to have heard phantom moans and cries for help nearby when there was no one else around.

Near the Peach Orchard stands a cabin that is often photographed by visitors. Some claim to have captured images of a little boy with a drum by the cabin. One visitor who posted about the drummer boy spirit claims the spirit spoke to them on their phone’s voice recorder. When asking his name, they heard a response of “Jack.” They also asked his age and got the reply of “nine.” Park records indicate the youngest Shiloh drummer to be 11-year-old Johnny Clem who survived the battle, but there could have been an unknown younger one elsewhere that perished in the fight. There have been repeated sightings of a little boy in grey and white clothes seen descending the cabin ladder and running into the woods. It’s possible this apparition was a bystander that hid in the cabin and his spirit replays him running from the battle in fear.

The Peach Orchard is home to another Shiloh ghost that appears and disappears at random places on the road around the cabin. He’s always wandering slow, as if exhausted or possibly wounded, and his features and clothing are always non-descript and drab. As the people who see him get closer, he disappears only to reappear somewhere else along the road a short time later.

Some of the structures at Shiloh are also reportedly haunted. The rebuilt Shiloh Church, a replica of the original cabin-style one-room church that the battle site is named for has reports of visitors being touched or feeling like they are being watched, and some apparitions will show up in visitor’s photos on the inside of the church as a white mist or fog. In the ranger’s housing area, many reports are made of doors and windows shutting or opening on their own, and of strange drafts of hot or cold air in closed rooms.

While Shiloh doesn’t have a reported recurring entity like Chickamauga’s Old Green Eyes, it is no less spiritually active. There is little doubt that these enshrined sites have seen great pain and suffering, and perhaps some of those intense feelings of anguish remain to remind the living of what happened there in hopes the pain and suffering is never repeated.

So, what haunts the historic Chickamauga battlefield? Is Old Green Eyes real? One tale says no; that it’s a story made up by a park ranger in the 1960s to resurrect interest in visiting the park. While that could be true, it does not account for the many varied encounters people claim to have in the battlefield park.

What about Shiloh? Do you think those random spirits people claim to encounter are souls left behind to relive their anguish where they died so tragically?

I have personally visited both battlefields, Shiloh with a guided tour and Chickamauga on my own accord. While I did not encounter any spirit manifestations at either site, there is a heaviness to the landscape, much like the paranormal investigators claimed when they said they felt an overwhelming melancholy. Perhaps that sensation is simply the weight of history for those who care to learn it.

If there was any place that I felt the heaviest to me, it would have been the area known as The Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh. There are many descriptions written by soldiers who experienced the carnage in that narrow and sunken roadway. A young Confederate soldier named Henry Morton Stanley described his experience at Shiloh; “How the cannon bellowed, and their shells plunged and bounded, and flew with screeching hisses over us! Their sharp rending explosions and hurtling fragments made us shrink and cower, despite our utmost efforts to be cool and collected. I marveled, as I heard the unintermitting patter, snip, thud, and hum of the bullets, how anyone could live under this raining death. I could hear the balls beating a merciless tattoo on the outer surface of the log, pinging vivaciously as they flew off at a tangent from it, and thudding into something or other, at the rate of a hundred a second. One, here and there, found its way under the log, and buried itself in a comrade’s body. One man raised his chest, as if to yawn, and jostled me. I turned to him and saw that a bullet had gored his whole face and penetrated into his chest. Another ball struck a man a deadly rap on the head, and he turned on his back and showed his ghastly white face to the sky.”

Members of the Shiloh tour group I was with decided to walk the distance from the Confederate artillery line across the field to the low berm where Ulysses S. Grant described, “it would not have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction and stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” We then traversed the entire length of the Union line; walking through a young forest that has replaced the splintered and shattered trunks of the trees those men hid behind as Confederate lead rained down on them. A battle that saw so much carnage is bound to leave some spiritual energy lingering. Our walk was silent, and it was difficult not to feel surrounded by what happened there.

At Chickamauga, I was not able to spend much time outside of the visitor’s center but taking in everything that happened there gives even that modernized building a heavy feeling, as if the eyes of those who fell watch your every move when you enter their hallowed ground. After leaving the battlefield and a short drive north back into Tennessee, I spent a considerable amount of time walking among the tombstones of Chattanooga National Cemetery, where many of the fallen from Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge are interred. Of the 12,800 Confederates buried there, almost 4,200 are unknown and many more Union soldiers interred in mass graves, their names lost to history. Perhaps one of them is the earthly remains of Old Green Eyes.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

TN G&L Episode 3: The White Bluff Screamer and Werewolf Springs

White Bluff, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. In this episode, we’ll discuss a strange tale out of Dickson County, Tennessee about a murderous creature known as the White Bluff Screamer.

Near an isolated area known as Trace Creek, not far from where modern-day Highway 47 crosses southwest of Montgomery Bell State Park, there lived a young family whose names are lost to history trying to make their new life in 1920s rural Tennessee. The family had seven children, the oldest being around fourteen and the youngest was six. There was nothing remarkable about them, as the area saw many young families spread to the rural areas of Tennessee at the end of World War I to restart their lives. The patriarch of this family could well have been one of those returning veterans. They built a typical cabin-style home in the bottomlands southeast of White Bluff and planted their crops. All was well with their world—until the screaming started.

The first night was unsettling for the quiet rural farm. The screeching wail echoed throughout their valley. The children and their mother waited silently in their cabin as their father took his lantern around the house to investigate, but nothing was found. He dismissed the noise as some sort of injured animal. However, the following nights, the screaming grew longer, louder, and so frequent that after a week of the disturbance, sleep was impossible for any of them, and the children were terrified of the coming night. When the sun went down, the screams would start anew. Their father, desperate to rid his family of this horrible screaming, sat out on their porch one evening, rifle in hand, and watched as the sun sank over the surrounding hills. When the last light of day extinguished itself, he told his wife to lock the doors and windows, and to only open it for him when he returned. The familiar eerie wailing began almost immediately after dark. He steeled himself, said goodbye to his family, then set out into the dark woods. Tonight, he would find the source of the screams that tormented his family and kill it.

The ceaseless scream pierced his ears as he bounded through the thick brush. The man was determined, though icy chills ran through his body every time the scream started. He was an expert woodsman but struggled to keep his bearings and became lost chasing the screams through the fog. Every time he thought he was getting nearer; the unnerving wail would suddenly move farther away and in different directions. At times he felt he was walking in circles, or, that the screaming was actually encircling him. Was there more than one beast out there taunting him? The horrible sound echoed off the large trees and made tracking the source nearly impossible. He extinguished his light and knelt down trying to pinpoint the direction of the screams.

“If I can’t find it, I will let it find me,” he said to himself. He crouched and waited.

Suddenly, the horrible wail became mixed with the blood-curdling screams of a woman… and of children. Whatever this thing was, it had found his family. He raced through fog and brush, his heart pounding with every footfall. He cried out for them, but only the terrified screams of his family replied. After what seemed an eternity, he could make out the dim lantern light hanging on his front porch through the fog. He was almost there. Then, the screams abruptly stopped.

The man burst through the cabin door to find a gruesome scene. The eviscerated bodies of his wife and children were strewn about the cabin; their lifeless forms torn to shreds. As he collapsed in horror and disbelief, the eerie wailing started again.

Many versions of the tale do not end there. Some say that after finding his family slain, the man set out again in a murderous rage to hunt down their assailant, only for him to find a ghostly female figure enshrouded in a white mist. The spirit floated through the trees, leaving scorched ground beneath her in a blue, ethereal fire. Another variation says he encountered a great beast with white fur, easily twice the size of a man, with savage claws and teeth. Both of those versions have led paranormal enthusiasts to believe the White Bluff Screamer to be one of two mythical creatures: a Banshee or a cryptid. While no records of a terrible murder like this could be found, locals of White Bluff, Tennessee who keep up with the town’s history, say that this incident happened. Reports say the remains of the man’s cabin are still there, and that the White Bluff Screamer still haunts the area around it.

So, what could the ‘Screamer’ be? A Banshee, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a female supernatural being in Celtic folklore who’s nightly wailing foretells the death of a family member of the person who hears it. Banshees are usually associated with Irish legend, but a version of the banshee exists in Welsh and Scottish lore as well. There are also many stories originating in the United States about banshees, particularly in North Carolina and South Dakota.

For those who believe the Screamer is a cryptid of some sort, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in east Tennessee has a few reported sightings of a Bigfoot-type creature, but that is a fair distance from White Bluff. However, Tennessee is covered in large and heavily forested areas. It is possible there is more than one or that perhaps the creature migrates to different parts of the state. Most of the reported cryptid encounters in Tennessee have a somewhat violent twist to them. If this was indeed a cryptid, the massacre of the family fits the profile.

A different possibility involves another long-standing fable in Dickson County: The Legend of Werewolf Springs. This 1860s tale says a passing circus train either stopped unexpectedly or derailed just outside of Burns Station, Tennessee, and many of the circus animals escaped into the surrounding countryside. Any of the animals that could not be recaptured were left behind. Among the elusive escapees were two men known as the “Wolf Men of Borneo”; a side show act that touted these men as half man and half beast, being able to shapeshift at will. The wolf men were not recaptured and were abandoned to their fate in the Tennessee hills.

Two years after the train incident, a local landowner and one of his foremen were passing through an area called Hall Springs, now called Werewolf Springs unofficially, near Burns Station on their way to a homestead in nearby Beckley. It was almost dark and the road was muddy, so their pace was slow. The foreman kept pestering his boss that he felt like something was stalking them. The man dismissed the notion as cowardice and forced the wagon to push on through the night. Suddenly, a wild howl pierced the twilight and a creature emerged on the road behind them running on all fours. The Foreman whipped the mules to go faster but the creature was gaining on them. In a panic, they abandoned their horses and wagon for the woods, fleeing for their lives in different directions. The landowner crashed through the brush as fast as he could go until he heard another wailing howl and the terrified screams of his foreman back the way he had come. He continued to run in fear. The creature never came for him, so he lived to tell the tale.

When he made it back to Burns, he immediately went to the sheriff, who formed a posse to find the foreman and hunt down this creature. They took a goat for bait and headed to an area near the springs where other reports of a strange animal had been described. They hitched the goat to a tree, split into groups of two, and surrounded the clearing with rifles at the ready. The moon was high, and all was quiet. The nervous men kept a sharp eye out for their prey but saw nothing. Around midnight, just as the sheriff was planning to call off the hunt, an ear-shattering scream split the night and a large, hairy creature entered the clearing moving quickly towards the goat. The muzzle flash of hunting rifles cracked out their report as the men yelled to charge the beast. When they lit their lanterns to see if they’d hit it, the creature was gone, along with the goat and two members of the posse that were never seen again.

It is said that next the sheriff contacted a famed big game hunter to slay this beast and brought the man to a remote cabin near the spring to begin his hunt. After two nights of stalking the springs, the hunter found no sign of the beast and returned to the cabin to rest before his third and final night of hunting. When he woke that evening to prepare, a loud wailing howl echoed across the springs. He saw the beast through the window at the edge of the woods and fired at it from inside the cabin. His shots either missed or hit and angered the beast and it charged the cabin.

The door hinges barely held as the beast slammed against the oak planks. The hunter fired shots through the door but couldn’t tell if he hit it or not. He pushed heavy furniture against the door and window, waiting to see where the creature would try next. At one time, a weak area of the back wall was giving way, but after firing his pistol into the wall, the beast abandoned the idea of coming through it. For hours, the creature tested every part of the cabin for weak points and then seemed to leave when it could not get in. The hunter, having experience with stalking dangerous prey, was not so easily fooled. His ammo was low, so he climbed into the rafters for higher ground, reloaded every weapon he had, and waited. His caution paid off, as a few moments later, the beast returned with a renewed vigor, slamming repeatedly into the door until it finally gave way. It charged into the cabin and the hunter opened fire, hitting the beast multiple times. The beast clawed and scratched to try and get to him, but the hunter climbed too high. The story says the sun peaked over the horizon shortly after, and the creature fled the cabin and into the woods as daylight broke.

Further to the north and east of Werewolf Springs, a cave was discovered in an area called Creech Hollow where the beast supposedly lived. Another story of a young girl who disappeared while fetching water from the spring is told, and a search party set out to find her. The searchers found both animal and human bones within the cave, but the girl was never found. The lost cave is now at the bottom of Creech Hollow Lake, a man-made reservoir formed when the park opened. Mule and horse bones have also been found around the Werewolf Springs area.

A State Park Ranger who was familiar with the legend found the remains of a cabin site in between Werewolf Springs and nearby Hall family cemetery, all of which is now part of Montgomery Bell State Park. While the story of the hunter and the cabin comes to mind, it was more likely the cabin belonging to the Halls or one of the many other families that made their home within the area before being declared a park.

Even with a preponderous amount of evidence that the White Bluff Screamer and the beast of Werewolf Springs are myths, many long-time residents of Dickson County around Burns and White Bluff hold on to their claims of having seen and heard the Screamer. They are also open to the notion that the screamer and the beast could be one and the same, roaming the dense woodlands around the park. I have personally camped at Montgomery Bell State Park, both in their beautiful geothermal cabins and a short overnight hike to one of the primitive campsites along the Montgomery Bell Trail. I didn’t make it as far as Werewolf Springs, but I wandered a fair distance into that beautiful wilderness and luckily did not encounter anything resembling the famed beast.

There is also no readily available record of a rail accident involving a circus train. There are rail lines in that area that have followed the same tracks since the mid-1800s, but rail traffic in that time would likely have been troop and munition haulers during the Civil War and not civilian circus trains. That said, there are records of multiple train accidents after the war in that area, though none specifically mention a circus. Many also say that the landowner in the wagon that was stalked by the beast was none other than iron-mining tycoon Montgomery Bell, himself. Yet Bell died in 1855 which is prior to the supposed encounter.

There are also living members of the Hall family who have given accounts of their childhood growing up around the area of Werewolf Springs, and none of those reports include a creature tormenting their family. However, there are still reports of strange happenings in the woods around White Bluff. In one such account, a hunter at his cabin near the park encountered a cryptid-like creature after cleaning and field dressing his deer. He placed the innards in a washtub for later disposal and hung the deer up for skinning. While taking a break on the porch, the woods became strangely quiet when all the sudden, his hunting dogs bayed and scurried into the cabin in fear; tails tucked as they ran. When he stepped off the porch to investigate, around the corner stepped a monstrous white-haired creature. It went after his hunting dogs first, then the hunter himself. He ran for the cabin and locked himself in, barricading the door as his dogs continued barking and howling at the creature outside. The creature wailed and paced on the porch for a long while before finally giving up, stealing his deer and the wash tub of deer parts. He later found the tub in the nearby woods licked completely clean.

Did he encounter the famed White Bluff Screamer? Or was it the beast that gives Werewolf Springs its infamous name? Only one thing is for certain: there is something wailing in the woods around White Bluff, Tennessee, and what it is, no one knows.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

To listen to this episode, click here: The White Bluff Screamer and Werewolf Springs

TN G&L Episode 2: The Headless Signalman and the Chapel Hill Ghost Light

Chapel Hill, Tennessee

Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, we’re talking about one of Tennessee’s most haunted tales, the Headless Signalman and the Chapel Hill Ghost Light.

On a dark and rainy night, a freight train heading south out of Nashville on the L&N rail line was bearing down on Chapel Hill, Tennessee. Several days of heavy rain had washed out part of the fill beneath a stretch of track before the tressel crossing the Duck River, creating a potentially dangerous hazard for trains passing over it. A lone signalman was dispatched up the track with a lantern to warn the locomotive to stop so repairs could be made before the train could safely cross. Donning his oil-treated raincoat and a rusty lantern from the station platform, the signalman began the muddy walk north up the tracks.

Somewhere near the modern-day crossing of the tracks over Logue Street, the signalman felt the familiar rumble of steam-driven steel wheels grinding on the track and the faint headlight in the distance. He watched as the train approached, knowing they probably couldn’t see him through the torrential downpour until they were much closer. He raised his lamp as high as he could, waving the dim light back and forth to catch the engineer’s attention, but the train was not slowing down. He waved it faster, even jumping to give the light an erratic movement, but there was no stopping it. He waited until the last possible minute to move off the tracks, which turned out to be a fatal mistake. The rains made the tracks slick and the signalman slipped, striking his head on one of the rails. At that moment, the engineer noticed the flickering lantern laying in the middle of the track. He sounded the whistle as he pulled the brake, but it was too late. The giant iron engine skidded past the lantern, wheels screeching as steel slid across steel and sparking from the friction. The train finally stopped several hundred yards later, far past where the signalman fell.

The engineer took a lantern of his own and ran back through the night to find the signalman, but all he found was what was left of him. The steel wheels had severed the signalman’s head clean off at the neck, leaving his headless corpse laying in the mud next to the track. Upon seeing the gruesome scene, the engineer dropped his lantern and ran back to the engine shouting, “We hit him! We hit him! What a terrible accident. We hit him!” The Brakeman and Conductor could not console the poor distraught engineer. They put him back in the cab and went back to collect the poor signalman’s headless body. They searched through the pouring rain for hours, but the body was gone. All that remained was a broken flickering lantern in the middle of the track.

Many years later, sightings were reported of a strange light on the tracks to the west of Chapel Hill, and not just by one person. Hundreds of people claim to have witnessed this strange light and none could explain it. Three significant encounters with the light are often repeated. One such story written by Kathryn Tucker Wyndham in her book, Thirteen Tennessee Ghost and Jeffrey, states that in the 1950s, two boys and their uncle were out walking the track one evening looking for the light. One of the boys, Jackie, grew bored and started tossing rocks into the nearby woods. While the other boy, PeeWee, was chiding him for making a racket, he stopped in mid-sentence and stared down the track. There, in the distance was a glowing light the appeared to be moving straight toward them. They all scurried off the track and watched as the strange orb started swooping and swaying erratically around the open area. The light stopped moving, then suddenly, it swooped in at high speed toward them, hitting one of the boys in the chest. The glow disappeared and all was black. The uncle stated that as the orb hit his nephew Jackie, a loud thud was felt through the railroad tie beneath his feet. The boy that the orb hit said afterward that it felt like a powerful force paralyzed him, holding him still. He tried to scream but couldn’t. PeeWee said he also felt a thud through the ground as the orb suddenly reappeared behind Jackie after passing through him, then speeding off down the track and out of sight.

The second tale involves four thrill-seeking boys in the 1970s that decided to investigate the light for themselves. They drove up on the tracks around midnight where the train crosses Depot Street by the old train station. It was a clear and moonless Fall night with a slight fog hovering low to the ground. They pulled up on the crossing grade and put the car in park. The boys on the driver’s side watched down the left side of the tracks while the boys on the passenger side watched the right. They left the car running in case a train came, or if the sheriff pulled up. They didn’t want to get in trouble for parking on the tracks. After a few minutes of watching and poking fun at each other for believing some silly story about ghost lights, a light suddenly appeared in the distance on the passenger side and started moving toward them.

The panicked boys were shouting at the driver to move the car and to get out of there, screaming that it was coming right for them. He slammed the car into gear and floored the pedal, but the car wouldn’t move. They shouted more and more to go, to get the car moving right now, but still, the engine revved and the car would not move. The light moved closer and closer, picking up speed as it approached. They all screamed and braced for impact as the orb collided with their car. Again, a loud thud was reported but the light diminished to a faint glow. In their fright, the boys concluded it must be on top of the car or under it, they didn’t know which. Nothing happened for what seemed like an eternity, then suddenly the glow intensified as the orb continued past them down the track and sped off into the night.

After the light disappeared, the car worked again, and the driver sped off into town to a gas station that was closed for the night. They all got out and sighed with relief after the encounter, trying to make sense of what they had just seen. As the driver rounded the back of the car, he noticed rows of deep scratches in the paint that were not there before.

There is another story of a man who was hit by a train there in Chapel Hill June 8th, 1942, named Skip Adjent. The story of his demise is verifiable, and most folks credit his death as the beginning of the ghost lights. A song was written about him by John Rickman called “Chapel Hill Ghost Light” and recorded in 1977 by Us Two and Him. His lyrics go like this:

Many years ago, along the railroad track one night,

A man was walking home and held a lantern for his light.

He never heard the whistle scream or the mighty engine pound,

He never even knew it when the freight train ran him down.

The engineer ran back in time to see the poor man die,

But as he neared the tragic spot a light rose in the sky.

The lamp the man carried was never found that night,

Now the old folks say above the track, his lantern’s shining bright.

And still, his lantern hangs over the railroad watching every freight train go by.

There’s a ghost light over the railroad shining in the Chapel Hill sky.

The last story about the light takes a darker turn, and this comes from Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book. In December of 1940, a single mother of two teenage boys known as Mrs. Ketchum went missing from her rural home just outside Chapel Hill. Being around Christmas time, the neighbors didn’t worry much about her absence, but thought it strange that the boys didn’t go with her, and even they didn’t know where she went. After two weeks, the boys and the neighbors decided to notify police of the missing woman and an investigation was started. It wasn’t long before suspicions of foul play concerning another reclusive neighbor they linked to her, but they could not confirm what happened to her without a body. Authorities questioned the man relentlessly, and one day, when returning to ask him for additional information, they found him dead of suicide. The townsfolk immediately condemned him as her abductor and that a guilty conscious compelled him to take his own life. Police assumed she must be dead after so much time, so the boys were adopted out to other family in another state and the case remained an unsolved mystery.

Some of the townsfolk were not satisfied that Mrs. Ketchum’s body was never found, so almost a year later, in January 1941, they contacted a well-known clairvoyant named Simon Warner, ironically known as “The Murder Doctor”, who lived in Shelbyville. Mr. Warner had an uncanny knack for finding missing people and things through his gift and agreed to help. Through his methods, it is said he told them she was certainly dead and described a location in exacting detail where Mrs. Ketchum’s body could be found, including the including the plant species of brush she was hidden under. The description was so vivid that some of the townsfolk knew exactly where he was talking about, and a search party was launched. Mrs. Ketchum was found in the exact place Simon Warner said, with every detail correct, even the plant species. Her frozen body was taken to the morgue, where, strangely, long-time local undertaker Thomas Lawrence did not perform an autopsy or list a cause of death on her death certificate before she was buried.

It is said the occurrences of the light did not start until after Mrs. Ketchum was found, and that the light was her spirit erratically wandering the woods near where she died searching for her sons. When a young man is nearby, her light races toward them to see if it is one of her boys and disappears when the spirit of her neighbor and abductor who committed suicide comes for her.

This haunting is difficult to investigate because sightings occur at irregular intervals. Many have claimed to see the strange light. Orbs and ghost lights are seen in many places, particularly in remote sections of the Appalachian Mountains. One of the most famous occurrences of this is the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina, which are described identically like the Chapel Hill light. In many cases, the lights are what is called foxfire or swamp gas, a naturally occurring phenomenon made by sudden releases of methane pockets from decomposing organic material. Swamps are hyper-active with decomposition activity, thus the name. These lighter-than-air pockets of flammable gas will sometimes flare up from spontaneous combustion due to the content of phosphine, which reacts violently when exposed to oxygen. This natural occurrence gives the appearance of a floating ball of fire or light. Some skeptics also dismiss this case as light reflection from the train rails, which are dull to the eye from the sides, but shiny and reflective on the top where the train wheels roll over them.

However, if the reports of direct interaction with the orb are true, like Jackie and the four boys stuck in their car, swamp gas and light reflection would not cause a ground-shaking thud nor explain the erratic movement. Many paranormal investigators, both professional and amateur, have captured orbs in photos from haunted places and claim they are spirits on film, but none have ever been proven beyond a doubt to be supernatural. There is also no explanation for the scratches on the back of the car, though such circumstantial evidence is also hardly proof of the light being supernatural. Anything could have caused those marks.

Believers in the legend, and of the paranormal in general, have reported these sightings as possible UFO’s, and there are several occurrences world-wide of “phantom train” legends that roar up and down abandoned tracks or places where significant train accidents have occurred.

With basic research, I found that there was a Ketchum family around the Chapel Hill area on the 1920, 30 and 40 census, but I could not find any mention of an abduction or murder. The story of Skip Adjent is verifiable, however, so much has been written about him because of the lights that it is difficult to discern which is the real story and which is sensationalized. The experiences of the four teenage boys and Jackie being accosted by the light are word-of-mouth. I could not find any official reports of the incidents, but that does not mean they don’t exist.

In the end, there is no definitive proof of the light’s origin, but with the many reported sightings since the 1950s, there is definitely something strange on the tracks around Chapel Hill, and it is not just the trains.

Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Chapel Hill Ghost Light

TN G&L Episode 1: The Legend of Sadie Baker

Sadie’s Grave, Coffee County, Tennessee

Show Script

Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, I’ll share with you the Legend of Sadie Baker.

In the 6th Civil District near modern day Manchester, Tennessee lived the Sheltons, a large and prominent well-to-do family who was blessed with multiple healthy children. Their daughters were well-known in the area for their beauty and the sons were handsome and strong. All had many prospects for advantageous marriages until one day, when a beautiful stranger came to town. This legend focuses on the youngest Shelton daughter, a kind-hearted soul named Olivia.

All the Shelton daughters were sought after by many handsome and prosperous suitors, but none were so prized as Olivia. She was the most beautiful maiden in town, with flawless olive skin, curly raven-colored locks, and crystal blue eyes. Young men far and wide vied for her affection and she was the toast of the local gentry. Her parents knew and used that to their social advantage, especially her mother.

One afternoon after a day in town, Olivia encountered a sad-looking beggar girl on the dusty streets of the Manchester shopping district. Olivia had never seen the girl in town before and asked other passers-by about her, yet no one could say who she was or where she came from. The poor thing was a pitiful sight, draped in threadbare rags under a dirty cloak and smelled repugnant, causing the townsfolk to ignore her, or at least avoid walking near her, but not the kind and curious Olivia. She approached, kneeled in front of the sad-looking stranger and asked her name. The girl would not reply or even look up at her. She only extended a dirt caked hand, gesturing for a coin or anything else of value Olivia might be willing to part with. Olivia asked again for her name or if she needed help, but the beggar remained silent, only staring down and holding her hand out. Olivia asked a final time, but as much as she tried, she received no response. Through her boundless sympathy and pity for the downtrodden, and now a strange curiosity about her identity, Olivia pulled her up by the hand. “That settles it then, “she said. “You’re coming home with me, and my family and I are going to help you.” And off they went toward the Shelton house at the edge of town.

When Olivia arrived home with the young girl in tow, her sisters were giddy with the thought of a makeover project, but her mother was not so enthusiastic about Olivia’s new friend. Nevertheless, after all the girls begged to let her stay, Mrs. Shelton finally relented. Olivia and her sisters went to work straight away on cleaning her up. As the grime was slowly wiped away, they were all taken aback by the incredible beauty underneath it all. The girl had flowing golden-white locks, flawless pale skin and bright green eyes. Her slight frame fit into Olivia’s best dresses too easily. It is said that the sisters became insanely jealous of this new diamond in the rough, but none so much as Olivia’s mother. Mrs. Shelton saw this silent street rat’s beauty as a threat to her own daughter’s place as the most beautiful girl in Manchester, and that simply would not do.

Her fears were proven true later that day, as Mr. Shelton and his sons arrived home from a hard day’s work. At dinner, they barely spoke or ate as the gob smacked Shelton boys were enthralled by the stunning beauty of this young girl. She had probably not eaten in some time, and voraciously yet gracefully ate her fill without ever speaking a word.

In the following days, Olivia’s brothers are said to have fought with each other for the beautiful stranger’s attention, though she paid them nor anyone else any mind. The quiet girl just kept to herself and never spoke. Her lack of enthusiasm toward the boys didn’t stop them from bragging around town about the stunning new resident at the Shelton’s house. As word spread through the small town of her presence, the usual gentlemen callers that normally came to see Olivia and her sisters lost interest in them. Instead, they all clamored for a glimpse of the beautiful stranger behind their door.

Olivia was not jealous of the girl like her sisters were. In fact, she made every effort to be the girl’s friend, even though she never got any response for her efforts. However, all the unnatural devotion from the Shelton boys and the other male townsfolk was not lost on the keen eyes of Olivia’s mother. This mysterious girl became the talk of the town and left Mrs. Shelton facing a southern societal conundrum. She could not kick the girl out on the street for fear of appearing to be a less-than-gracious hostess, and surely someone else in town would scoop up the young maiden for their own benefit, creating even more of a suitor rivalry for the Shelton girls. Her only option was to forcefully keep the girl as a captive house guest. Mrs. Shelton would lock her away from the town for as long as it took until marriage proposals for Olivia and her sisters could be negotiated. She forbade all the Shelton men from speaking to anyone about her presence anymore. She then sat the girl in their parlor and explained that she was not safe outside, and that great harm would befall her if she left the house.

The girl did not protest her imprisonment. She just stared at the floor and never uttered a word.

Olivia’s world came crashing down one Spring afternoon when her most eligible gentleman caller, a handsome young man from another prominent family and Olivia’s sweetheart, called on their blonde house guest for a stroll about town instead of her. The visit sent Mrs. Shelton into a rage, and a crying and heartbroken Olivia pleaded with her mother to throw the girl back out into the street or at least send her away to some other town. She could not be consoled about the loss of her sweetheart, locking herself in her room and crying through the night. That’s when her mother decided to act.

She called on the local minister and insisted the only explanation for all this strange behavior was that this enigmatic girl must be a witch. How could a common beggar girl who would not speak a word and hardly left the house have captured the attention of every man in town? The minister needed little convincing, since he, too, had witnessed his congregation’s strange infatuation with her grow since her arrival. He sent word to convene the town council for a trial. Mrs. Shelton demanded the council pass judgement without the girl’s presence, as the council were all men and they, too, could be bewitched by her devilry. The minister agreed, and the council convened for judgement without allowing the girl any representation or a chance to defend herself. The trial commenced, and the fiery speech of the minister and scandalous accusations by Mrs. Shelton whipped the town into a moral frenzy. That was all they needed. Within moments, a verdict was passed.

They declared her a witch without any further evidence and immediately debated how to proceed with ridding the town from her spell. After debating the options of traditional punishments for witchcraft, such as hanging, drowning, or burning at the stake, a vote was taken that she would be buried alive and covered with large rocks so she could not escape the grave. A mob was dispatched to the Shelton house to retrieve her, and the rest were sent to the cemetery to find rocks and hastily dig a deep grave.

The silent girl was drug from her bed in the middle of the night by her golden hair. She was stripped, bound to a pole, and roughly dragged through the dirt streets where Olivia originally found her. The townsfolk spit on her and cursed her as she was shoved mercilessly toward the fresh hole in the Earth where they would bury her, yet through the horrible shame and torment, she did not resist and still said nothing.

Olivia suddenly had a change of heart, feeling responsible for this cruelty after seeing the rage of her neighbors carried out on this poor girl whose only crime was being prettier than her. She ran into the fray to try and stop the procession, placing herself between kicks and punches and pleading with them to stop, but she was unsuccessful. When the mob arrived at the cemetery, they stood the girl up at the edge of the hole where she looked around at the angry torch-lit faces of the men who were once smitten with her and the women who cursed and despised her. She suddenly locked eyes with a distraught Olivia; her bleeding and swollen face flew into a rage as she shouted the only words anyone ever heard her speak.

“I am Sadie Baker!”

They pushed her in and took turns throwing down the rocks, burying the helpless young girl under a small mountain of stone.

Several months passed, and life returned to the normal that the Sheltons were accustomed to. All of the sons and daughters were now married off to start families of their own.Last to marry was young Olivia, who ended up marrying the sweetheart she so adored. At first, there was bliss in their house. Olivia’s husband worked hard and provided a wonderful living, and they talked regularly of grand plans and having children. All seemed right for a while until one night, while preparing for bed, Olivia’s husband found her sitting and absently staring at her reflection in the dressing mirror. Her raven locks were clutched tightly in her clenched fists. When he asked her if she was alright, she screamed and accused him of wanting a family with Sadie instead of her. She then cried herself to sleep, and every night thereafter.

The strange paranoia continued for several days as she cursed her long dark hair and olive skin, hating how she looked. She told him she wished she looked like Sadie so he would love her again. He assured her he loved her now, but her fury would not let her hear him. Olivia would not eat or sleep. She sat and stared blankly into the mirror and pulled at her hair. He begged the town doctor for help, but no balm or tincture would calm Olivia’s mind. He then went to the minister, who declared that Sadie’s final words at the grave had bewitched Olivia, and that it must be Sadie’s spirit trying to take over her body. He desperately wanted to ease his wife’s pain, and out of desperation, he allowed the minister to treat her. A violent exorcism was performed, among other religious rituals to expel the tormented spirit, but nothing worked. Olivia’s condition worsened by the day.

One evening, Olivia’s husband arrived home to find her in front of the mirror again with a wide-eyed and wild stare. Her head was a mess of chopped and jagged tufts, and small bleeding cuts from the garden shears she used to cut off all her hair. Her long, raven-colored locks laid in clumps on the floor. All Olivia would say is that the ugly dark hair did not belong with her new beautiful blonde hair. She repeatedly asked him if he liked it. When he tried to calm her, she attacked him again, throwing him to the floor and pouncing on top of him with a feral snarl. She screamed into his face, “I AM SADIE BAKER!” then sprinted out of the house and into the darkened woods, never to be seen again.

Around the cemetery where Sadie was buried, reports persisted for many years after of a woman’s maniacal laughter and blood-curdling screams coming from the surrounding woods. They believed it to either be Olivia suffering the guilt of causing Sadie to be buried alive, or it was the spirit of Sadie Baker herself, returned to find her body under the stones. It was said until Sadie found her body, she would curse those who came to her grave and not leave a coin, just as Olivia should have done when they first met in the dusty streets.

I do not usually make a habit of debunking myths, however, in my research, I cannot corroborate the story in any capacity and must relegate it to local word-of-mouth folklore. The last official witch trial in the United States was held in 1918 just over 100 years ago, and, ironically, happened in Salem, Massachusetts. There is a possibility that an incident like this could have occurred in Tennessee, as many people were falsely persecuted as witches in many places throughout world history.

As for this legend, there is little known about the life of the real Sadie Baker, but this grave and the story that is attached to it that has stirred so many minds to think the grave belongs to a beautiful witch that was buried alive, when it definitely does not. The evidence I have found about the real Sarah ‘Wileman’ Baker in that grave is that she was born in Georgia around 1804 and was the widow of a Samuel Baker who was killed in 1838 during the Seminole War in Florida. By the 1860 Census, Sarah, at the age of 57, lived in the 6th Civil District of Coffee County near Manchester, along with eight various other Bakers as young as 1 years old, likely a grandchild. On that same census, there are several records of the Shelton family and their children living in the same district, but I could not find any named Olivia. Though an exact date isn’t certain, it seems she died in or around 1865 right after the end of the American Civil War. Based on property records, she was the only Sarah Baker in Coffee County at that time. Since Sadie is a derivative nickname of Sarah, this is most likely the Sarah Baker that passed in 1865 at 61-ish years old, and not a young girl thought to be a witch and buried alive.

The Sadie Baker story is well known in the paranormal world, and no new ground was broken by my investigation. However, even though it appears this legend is easily debunked, an air of mystery still surrounds the grave site. Many modern-day visitors have reported unsettling feelings of dread and fear even after just a brief time at the cemetery, and of being watched, particularly around Sadie’s grave.

Believers who make the pilgrimage to Sadie’s final resting place still leave a coin atop her stone, homage to her first encounter with Olivia begging for spare change and a hope the coin will placate Sadie’s restless spirit. I decided to see for myself what the fuss was about and visited her grave at the Concord Cemetery in Coffee County, Tennessee on April 7th, 2022.

It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon, just over 50 degrees; sunny and breezy. I wandered around the gravestones alone for about 30 minutes to get a feel of the place, trying to recreate the experiences others have reported. I’m happy to report, I did not feel any of those things. I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries hunting for my ancestor’s graves and have always found peace while walking among the dead. Concord Cemetery was no different. Though only 200 yards from a busy highway, it was remarkably quiet and peaceful. The only noticeable sound was the sway of the tall cedars on the property from the gentle northerly breeze.

After a time, I visited with Sadie at her stone. I never once felt uneasy or the sudden urge to glance over my shoulder. She is interred right at the front of the cemetery near the small redbrick church building that stands sentinel over the hillside plots. Her carved marble block stands low, just about ankle high; her infamous nickname emblazoned in bold black letters. Not Sarah, but Sadie. There are no dates of birth or death, no words of inspiration. Just a cold piece of marble marking the final resting place of a local legend, and her name is all that remains.

Other visitors had left pennies on top of her stone, as well as a small horseshoe, unlit candles, small crystal stones, some artificial flowers and a small green bottle marked “unfiltered poison”. While I’m not sure of the significance of the other items, I understand the coins and their attachment to the legend. Before I departed, I left a coin of my own on top of her stone. Though I’m not a believer in the legend, I still felt it appropriate to pay my own respects to the woman’s name that adorns the title of my first podcast, and just in case the story is true, I’d rather be safe than sorry!

Thank you for listening to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast inaugural episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.

Listen to this episode here: The Legend of Sadie Baker

How to be S.M.A.R.T. and Lead Your Team

I wrote a letter once to a personal hero of mine named Homer Hickam. He went from a financially challenged coal mining town in West Virginia to be one of the foremost NASA rocket engineers of his time. If you’ve seen the movie October Sky or read his book Rocket Boys, you know his story and you know what he had to do to get where he wanted to go. In the letter he wrote back to me, he had this to say about pushing yourself to succeed:

“The Rocket Boys succeeded with their rockets and with their lives because the followed what I call the three P’s for a happy and successful life: Passion, Planning, and Perseverance.”

-Homer Hickam

The tenets I will explain here are tried, tested, and true methods for achieving the three P’s you may be after in your life, and it all starts with setting objectives that lead you to your goals. Think for a moment about something you have always wanted to do. That item you just thought of is your goal. Goals describe the purpose or result toward which some effort is directed. Goals usually do a good job of describing the desired results but provide few specific tactics.

Now think about what you must do to get there. Some goals are easy, low-hanging fruit that can be obtained instantly or over a short term. Others will take years of preparation and planning to realize and are reached through specific steps. These specific steps are your objectives. Objectives are often more detailed and easier to measure than goals. Objectives are the basic tools that underlie all the planning and strategic activities you have to undertake. They define tactics and action plans that get you to your goals.

Be S.M.A.R.T. About It

All that sounds much more complicated than it really is, especially if you know how to map those objectives. If you don’t map a map, that’s what will make all your goals hard to reach. Many know where they want to be at the end, but few can plot the course to get there. To be sure that your goals and objectives are clear, try putting them up against the S.M.A.R.T. test:

S—Specific: What are you trying to accomplish, and is your objective precise in targeting your goal?

M—Measurable: What metric will you use to measure your progress or success?

A—Attainable: Is this goal something you can actually do, or is it an unachievable carrot on a stick?

R— Relevant: What is this goal or objective mean to you? What is it going to do for your success in your bigger picture?

T—Timely: Can it be achieved within your resources and within the time you’ve allowed yourself to reach this goal?

The S.M.A.R.T. test was developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham in their 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”, and while trying to fit a goal to every letter of the acronym, the authors left you some wiggle room in their formula. When applying this method, remember that not every goal worth achieving is measurable, and each objective does not require the agreement of others. However, sticking close to this method will increase your chances of success in reaching your goals, or perhaps expose the reasons why you should alter a goal that could be unmeasurable or unattainable. In a team setting, this method is powerful and can save your department valuable time and money.

Stages of Team Development

Let’s apply the above method to a workplace team setting. You have now set objectives and goals for your team using the S.M.A.R.T. method. What happens next? Another tenet Mr. Hickam touched on in his letter to me is the teamwork, and sometimes the lack thereof, among The Rocket Boys while trying to build and launch their test rockets. In October Sky, they go through different phases of team cohesiveness much like a group of co-workers can find themselves in when things aren’t going well, or when the team is firing on all cylinders.

Educational psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman suggested that all teams go through four distinctive stages in their development. They were originally referred to as Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, and this simple model has been in use since he unveiled it in 1965. The model offers important insight for organizing, building, and leading a team that can help you recognize which phase your team is in and ways to move forward. Let’s take a look at each phase and see if you can spot where your team is in right now.

Forming (High Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

When in the Forming stage, team members exhibit high enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new, though their skills and productivity concerning this new activity are low. Team members will come with high, unrealistic expectations accompanied by some anxiety about what their new role is, how much they can trust others on the team, and what demands will be placed on them. Team members are also unclear about norms, roles, goals, or timelines of others while everyone finds their place. Behavior is usually tentative and polite, with many not wanting to step on toes just yet. In this stage, there is high dependence on the leadership figure for purpose and direction. If the leader neglects their duty to the team, secondary leaders will assume the reins and confusion quickly follows concerning who is in charge. An effective leader of a team that is forming will do lots of careful explaining to help the team understand exactly what the leader expects them to do.

Storming (Low Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

As the team gets some experience under its belt, there is a decline in morale as team members experience a rude awakening between their initial Forming-Stage expectations and reality. The difficulties in working together to accomplish objectives can lead to confusion and frustration. In some cases, there can also be a growing dissatisfaction with dependence upon the leadership figure. Negative reactions to each other develop, and subgroups can form which polarize the team. Even the leader can fall victim to this bump in the road. The breakdown of communication and the inability to problem-solve result in overall lowered trust. At times, the frustration builds to where team members might choose to leave rather than commit to resolving the conflict, adding more stress to an already overtaxed team.

A team that is in the Storming stage will have less enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new or working together. Conflict in the phase can be rampant while skills and productivity are still low. Leaders in the Storming stage can weather the storm by continuing to make objectives and expectations clear by demonstrating to the team how they can succeed and know when and when not to get involved. A key to managing this phase is remembering to publicly recognize your successes. The world is full of insecure people who have been told their whole lives they were never good enough, and I’m willing to bet you have more than one of them on your team right now. This is your chance to start them on a new path toward self-confidence and the willingness to grow by taking a chance and buying in to your system of leadership. Improvement is always necessary, but if you act as if you think their efforts are half empty, that’s how they’ll feel and that’s how they’ll perform. Focus on what’s right versus what you perceive to be wrong.

Norming (Rising Enthusiasm, Growing Skills)

Teams in this stage will likely exhibit higher enthusiasm and motivation to achieve their goals. As the issues encountered in the Storming Phase are addressed and resolved, there is a noticeable uptick in morale and task accomplishment. The team starts thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and mountains become mole hills. Team members are more positive toward each other and the goal. Trust and cohesion grow as communication becomes more open and task oriented. To-do checklists grow smaller. There is a willingness to share responsibility and control. This phase can be the most rewarding for leaders and teams due to increased commitment to purpose, roles, and goals. However, beware the pitfalls.

Even the best of teams can find themselves in trouble during this phase because the euphoric feelings of trust and cohesion are still fragile. Team members sometimes avoid conflict for fear of upsetting the positive atmosphere, and that reluctance deal with conflict can bog down progress and cause fewer effective decisions. Leaders of teams in the Norming stage can gain success by offering team members copious amounts of freedom to act on their own but standing ready with guidance and coaching when the team needs it.

Performing (High Enthusiasm, High Skills)

This is the phase all teams strive for. In the Performing stage, teams have higher enthusiasm and motivation to reach their goals, and their skills are up to the task. All cylinders are firing, and life is good!

At this stage there is a sense of pride and excitement in being part of a high-functioning team. All members focus on performance and readily assist others. Purpose, roles, and goals are clear. Standards are high, and there is a commitment to not only meeting those standards, but to exceeding them. Team members are confident in their ability to perform and overcome obstacles. They are proud of their work and enjoy working together. Communication is open and leadership is shared among the team. Mutual respect and trust are not the exception, they are the rule.

The pitfall of a high performing team is complacency. A Performing stage leader continues to enable team members to take ownership and to keep moving toward their goals, both for the team and for them personally. Leaders in this stage also must be mindful to identify and develop new leadership potential. Every leader should be looking to train their replacement, and high performing teams is where you will find them. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: EVERY LEADER SHOULD BE LOOKING TO TRAIN THEIR REPLACEMENT!

Good leaders can anticipate what a team is likely to go through and navigate their team to a better position to reach the goal on their own. Recognition of the stage your team is in is a critical skill. Once you learn to identify the signs, you can draw your map to move to your next objective and migrate toward the ultimate Performing stage. Spotting the signs can prevent team members from being staggered or depressed by the negative elements during the Storming stage. Strategies can be developed to smooth the progress of an evolving team by establishing ground rules for the Norming stage. Leaders of Performing teams can positively influence others by example and sharing their methods for success.

An interesting aspect of this concept is that teams may progress through different stages at different speeds and can find themselves in more than one stage at a time. Be careful not to set time limits for your team to break through a stage. Teams should avoid making self-fulfilling prophecies about how long each stage will last, because they will almost always be wrong.

It is also possible to regress to an earlier stage as changes within the team occur, a process that can be affected by the individuality of team members and their personal progress. Not everyone on the team will always be on the same page. One of the biggest reasons for regression is a change in mission or leadership vision. When that occurs, the usual fallback is the Forming stage, as the anxiety of learning and meeting expectations starts over again until everyone learns their role.

A team responds best to leadership tailored to the stage the team is experiencing now, and good leaders should develop more than one leadership style to navigate it. When unveiling a new set of objectives or taking on a new team, the leader must assess the level of enthusiasm and skill exhibited with respect to the set goals, then match their style of leadership to the people and the situation.

There are two final items Mr. Hickam shared with me in his letter that I would like to share with you, and these can apply to any professional or personal situation in your life. For the first one, he said, “Nothing will happen if no one takes the initiative to make it so. To be passive and wait for something good to happen in your life is probably to experience vast disappointment.” Take a look at your list of goals. Are you actively pursuing them or are you waiting for them to happen to you? The second thing he said was, “It is my belief that there are no boundaries to excellence and success except for those we place on ourselves.” Take a look at your list of goals again. Read them out loud and ask yourself what is holding you back from checking each of them off? Now apply those same quotes and questions to your team. What is holding your team back from accomplishing their objectives and reaching their goals? You’ll likely find the only thing holding you back both personally and professionally is the boundaries you’ve placed on yourself.

Communication Barriers and How to Overcome Them

January 2022 This is my first article in a series I’m calling Be a Better Leader. Each month in 2022, I will share with you some useful tips and tricks on leadership that I’ve learned through the years.

There is no shortage of resources on leadership in the world. Books, magazines, Ted Talks, blogs, vlogs, websites, flyers, Prezis, Power Points and the list goes on. So, what makes this article any different than all those others?


Other than occasional witty banter, nothing you are about to read is something that hasn’t been said a thousand times before in a thousand other places. But do you know what will make this particular article different? You. You’re here reading it because you want to learn something. What makes this article different is what you will do with this information after you read it. No difference will be made by these words. The difference will be made by your implementation of these practices to make you a better communicator and leader.

The Blueprint of Communication

Aristotle is remembered by history as a pretty smart guy, and he summed up the blueprint of communication over two-thousand years ago. His summation applies almost the same today as it did in his time. Are you ready? This is a hard concept. You’re going to want to write this down. According to Aristotle, communication has three components: the sender, the receiver, and the message. Now that’s an earth-shattering revelation, right?

Aristotle and his blueprint of communication
Aristotle and his blueprint of communication: Sender, Receiver, and Message.

There is no fluff in his analysis, but here’s where the modern era pokes holes in his simplicity. He’s right about the physical parts of a message—if I write instructions on a card and hand it to you, we’ve technically met Aristotle’s definition. The card says, “Go do X-Y-Z.” I’m the sender, you’re the receiver, and the card is the message. Now, is that all you need to go do X, Y and Z? Maybe, but maybe not. We don’t live in Aristotle’s world anymore, and what may have worked back then has become an extremely nuanced skill that few possess in the modern era. One key unlocks this skill. To be a good communicator, you have to learn to listen.

Good communication begins with intentional active listening by both the receiver and the sender. When your staff is speaking to you, don’t get in their way. Don’t let your thoughts, opinions or agendas interrupt active listening. Hear them. Whether working with one person or a thousand, a good communicator will listen to their receivers by paying attention to both the spoken and unspoken signals that indicate whether the message is getting through. Communication then becomes a two-way process, not just instructions on a card. Both the sender and the receiver have responsibilities to make the message happen, and never overlook constructive feedback from the receiver to help guide you as the sender.

Aristotle leaves out the details, particularly three critical caveats that are needed for good communication. Those are intent of the sender, clarity of the message, and perception of the receiver. If you want people to trust you and value your presence, you’d better trust them and value their presence. When a sender is not actively listening to their receiver, that’s when communication barriers pop up.

Common Barriers of Communication

I am inundated with weekly calls from someone out there who is worried to death about my car’s extended warranty. You probably receive these calls, too. Do you hang up instantly once you hear that pre-recorded voice, or are you an empath that politely waits to tell the person that finally picks up no thank you? If you wait for the spiel to finish and let them down easy, you’re a better person than me because I either prank them or hang up pretty quickly.

"We've been trying to reach you concerning your car's extended warranty..."
“We’ve been trying to reach you concerning your car’s extended warranty…”

Why do we hang up?

It’s because the caller on the other end has not and does not make any attempt to break through the barriers to effective communication and deliver their message. Here are some of those barriers they commonly ignore, and tips on how to work around them.

Lack of Common Ground

The person calling knows nothing about me except that I probably have a credit card and I obviously have a phone since I answered it.

How to overcome it: The more you know about a person, the greater is the common experience that you share, and the easier communication becomes. Before you can lead others towards a goal, you must first seek to understand how they see themselves in the world you are trying to create. Getting to know your staff and letting them get to know you allows for an opportunity to meet on a common ground. Make efforts to learn the entire employee professionally, not just the part that gets the work done. When staff feels cared for, camaraderie, teamwork, and commitment are the result. Your communications will be much stronger when bound by mutual respect rather than authoritative fear. Leaders must be careful here to understand where the boundary lies between getting to know your employees and becoming buddies with them. Beware of the pitfalls!

Pro Tip

Pro tip: People tend to express who they are as well as their likes by what they display in their work areas. Pay attention to what they display and recognize common inroads.

Lack of Sincerity

The caller is only interested in making a sale. They are not concerned with any long-term satisfaction with a product or service, or that I even need their service.

Fitting a puzzle piece that says "trust" into a wooden puzzle.
Without trust, there can be no sincerity.

How to overcome it: It is difficult to lead without earning trust, and without trust, nothing you ever say will be sincere. A lot of ingredients go into building trust, but it starts with being present. Being present isn’t a skill. It’s a commitment and it takes sincerity. Make other people a priority, set aside distractions, listen to understand their point of view and, most of all, demonstrate that you care. The sender must care about the message and care about the receiver of that message. Otherwise, there is no point in passing it along.

Pro tip: Your staff may not need you all the time. But when they do need you, they need all of you. Be present and learn to recognize when you need to step in and when you need to step back.

Lack of Authority

The caller is hired simply to make the calls and read a script. They know nothing about what I drive or it’s current condition. There is a good chance the caller is unqualified to answer questions of substance about the product or anything about my car.

How to overcome it: Ideally, a leader should know what they are talking about. However, there will be times when the leader is not an expert in a subject or simply doesn’t know the answer. What becomes important then is the willingness to learn along with the staff and be coachable. If I tell you, “I know nothing about astronomy, but I’m leading a star party this Friday night and I need you to be there.” I essentially just told you this is my program, I don’t know what I’m doing, and you’re going to be there to help make me look good or we’re going to look bad together. You’re probably thinking, ‘this is going to be a disaster’. But if I say, “I can’t tell the difference between the Big Dipper and the moon, but I’d like to have this event and I need your help. Let’s research how to host a star party, find an expert to help, and put on a good show.” While the leader’s technical skill in this area may not be high, their ability as a good communicator maintains their authority while engaging you in a potentially interesting and worthwhile learning experience.

Pro tip: Don’t be a know-it-all and know when to seek help. If you don’t know an answer, don’t make one up. Find out. Nothing erodes authority and trust faster than a leader who is consistently wrong.

Lack of Clarity

The caller may exaggerate, blur the truth, or fail to mention weaknesses of a product to land the sale. They have made no attempt to earn our trust or prove they are being honest about the benefits of their product.

Glasses focusing on a blurred landscape
How clear are your instructions?

How to overcome it: Your words create your world. Trying to hide part of a message or twist the truth leads to fuzziness and confusion on the receiving end. Leaders who are good communicators can reshape the perceived reality of any situation by choosing the right words, so reduce the fluff, get to the point and be clear with your intent. It’s vitally important to think through your thoughts before putting them into words because the next thing out of your mouth could have a lasting effect on the relationship with your staff, be it good or bad. Leaping before we look gets us into trouble all the time.  Think it through and listen first before speaking. Leaders who care about their messages and care about their receivers and communicate with clarity.

Pro tip: When communicating electronically, use every tool at your disposal to ensure your spelling and grammar are correct. Message clarity is easily lost when the receiver has to wade through a mire of mistakes. If grammar isn’t your strong suit, don’t feel embarrassed to recruit a proofreader.

Poor Presentation Skills

Callers may badger people or argue with them, be bored because this is their hundredth call of the day, distracted, unprepared to answer the simplest of questions, or barely there at all. The listener tunes them out with ease.

People sleeping in a meeting
Are your presentations putting your audience to sleep?

How to overcome it: There is no magic formula for this one. Presentation skill is simply practice, practice, and more practice. Even if you’re terrified of public speaking, accept any and all offers to address groups. Recruit your family to be a practice audience. Present your topic to your pets (sounds silly, I know, but it works), or use a mirror and speak to yourself. Also, anticipate the weak points of your discussion and develop responses to potential tough questions. Master the art of research and becoming an instant expert when needed. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’re halfway to a good presentation.

Pro tip: If you have a script, presentation, or speech to give, read it out loud to yourself. Your ears will pick up problems with clarity and errors in grammar more than your eyes.

Lack of Receptiveness

The caller is not receptive to any of your needs outside of making the sale and getting your credit card number. Any discussion that isn’t leading toward a sale for the caller is wasted time.

How to overcome it: Much like in real estate, where you’ll hear location repeated three times as the most important tenet, communication has a mantra, too: timing, timing, and timing. If you’ve gotten to know your staff, you know when they are the most productive and when they struggle. You’ve learned most of their strengths and weaknesses. Using these clues, you also can surmise the best time to tell them important information and dole out important tasks. Time is especially valuable in the workplace, so work with the times you know your staff to be the most receptive.

Pro tip: Learn to be succinct. Articulate your points in the most uncomplicated manner possible for best results.

Call Environment

Callers disrupt our personal or family time, often calling during the dinner hour. This intrusion into the home environment generally makes people less receptive to their message than if they were to receive that same message in an e-mail or mailed flyer, for example.

Woman yelling at her phone
“I think I caught you at a bad time…”

How to overcome it: As stated above, timing is everything. If you drop a massive change bomb on your staff at the end of a workday or right before a weekend, chances are you just ruined their off time, and there’s a greater chance the important details will be lost in the noise of life outside of work. Unless it’s dire to pass the message along, it’s likely better to wait until you have the receiver’s full attention. A good communicator recognizes opportunities to get the most bang for their buck to get a message across with the least amount of disruption. Sometimes you have information that just can’t wait, and everyone needs to be brought in quickly. Be aware of possible diminishing returns in message reception if your timing is off.

Pro tip: Choose the right delivery method for the type of message you’re sending. Face-to-face meetings are expensive in both time and dollars, and not always necessary when a call or e-mail would suffice. Be efficient and considerate of your audience with your communication methods.

The Take-Away

Even with all these barriers to good communication, companies still invest millions of dollars into this business model of cold-call selling for an extended warranty you may or may not need. That tells you that even with these barriers, this method still works. Now, step back and think how successful these calls could be if they made any effort to overcome these communication barriers. They may convince you to buy an extended warranty after all!

Think about how successful you could be if you found ways to get over communications barriers with your staff. Here’s a challenge for you: Next time one of your staff makes a mistake, before you deliver your reprimand I want you to really scrub how you communicated your expectations to them. Were your instructions clear? Did you send a mixed message? Did you give partial information? Did you expect them to just “know” what you wanted?

Sometimes the mistake they made is actually yours from poor communication. If it was your fault, own it, then let the employee know you own it and help them fix it. You’ll see an instant improvement.

In February, I’ll share with you one of my favorite leadership topics: Coaching and Mentoring! Until then…

The Call of the Sea: An Essay

I’ve always been at home on the water. Any water, be it a river or a fishing pond, a trickling brook or the vast oceans. While the eyes of many explorers look to the heavens and the far away stars, my heart has always dreamed of the deep places beneath the waves.

As an orphan growing up on the wharves, I wander the dock under the bows at port trying to guess their country of origin by what flies on the jack staff. As the ships roll in, I sit among the barrels and listen to the sailors talk in between the cries of the fishmongers about cockles and mussels for sale. I revel in the tales they spin. They tell me of treacherous sirens and beautiful mermaids, of cutthroat pirates and buried golden treasures. Some are lies, for certain, but those make the best tales. One even claims he saw a kraken. I may be ten, but I am not that gullible. There’s no such creature as a kraken. Some teach me knots while others toss me a tuppence for directions to the nearest ale houses and brothels. I learned my ropes and took many a coin for helping them navigate the town, but I would trade all the knots and coins I’ve earned for a berth on the next ship out. I dream only of the sea.

One particular night, down past the rocky point where the gulls won’t fly because the water roils there with some black evil in the depths, a great storm brewed up. It raged for three whole days wreaking havoc on the local fisherman’s haul. Ships are stranded in port while the sea rages on in unrivaled fury. On the second night, a sloop-of-war hobbles out of the blackness and into my port, her rigging looking a fright after her tempest-tossed lashing from the waves. The captain, a Dutch fellow by the name of Homburg, expertly pilots his battered oaken beast, Hollandia, right to the offing. I’m certain at launch, her lines were clean and her hull ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. This brutal storm, however, has made her a right mess. The sailors debark in a heap of ragged humanity, some vomiting, some kissing the dock as they file off the gangplank and cross themselves like some water-logged priests at an oceanic mass. Their survival is a miracle for sure, and they all credit the captain with saving their souls.

I stand there, my maw gaping open like a cracked barnacle, as the bedraggled men stagger past. Captain Homburg is last off, limping and bloodied at his left eye. The sailors take no notice of me, but the captain does. Even with one eye, he is observant of everything. “You there, wharf rat,” he calls out. I can’t answer. My voice rasps like a weak breeze as the old salt gimps toward me. His remaining good eye looks me over, then he flips me a silver piece. “None among us have the legs left to stand watch tonight, boy,” he growls with a rumbling Jutlandic tone. “See that my Hollandia remains undisturbed ’til morning and there’ll be ten more of those for ‘ya.” Eleven silver pieces! I’ve never seen so much money in my life! I puff out my chest and salute smartly like I’ve seen so many sailors do when addressed by their officers. “Good lad.” He hobbles off into the night as I take my first watch with glee.

The bright streaks of morning warm my face as I stand on the abaft railing facing east to greet the sun. My first watch is a grand success. All supplies are accounted for. Not only did I fend off imaginary bandits through the night, but, in my moon-lit boredom, I also untangled and re-lashed two running backstays. I contemplated climbing them up the mast myself, but decided against it in case my imagined saboteurs scaled the anchor ropes while I was away. Captain Homburg is most pleased with my efforts as were the sailors. Two of them hoist me on their shoulders, parading me around with a cheer as if I am the hero of the day. Soon after, they go about the rest of the work, refitting planks and hauling sails with block and tackle larger than my whole body. The deck is a bustling hive of sailors preparing to go back to sea. For a moment, I am one of the crew. Oh, how I long to be one of them forever!

For two days, I man the bottom of the gangplank under Hollandia as she becomes seaworthy once again. The sailors jeer and joke with me as they pass to and fro, tussling my hair and giving a wink and nod. The ship’s carpenter, Billy Fleet, thanks me for my expert advice on which planks are ridden with woodworms and which are not. I learn all the sailor’s names. There’s Salty Jack, Paul the Butcher, Mister Killingsworth, Hatchet, Helmsman Reed, Bosun’s Mate Peterman, and One-Eyed William Hastings, the scourge of the Black Isles. I have never heard of the Black Isles, but he must have done something terrible there. He is missing a hand and has a patch over his eye. It appears he earned his moniker the hard way. All of their names are as colorful as the men who wear them. Salty Jack enlists me to freshen up the paint on the prow figurehead; a life-size nude likeness of Eirene, the daughter of Poseidon.

“Carved her meself, I did!” exclaims Salty Jack with his jack-o-lantern toothless grin—which is also how he got his name. “With Eirene on the prow, the god of the sea always favors us. Paint her up right, and don’t be touching her breasts now. They may be wood, but I did carve them mighty nice and tempting!” His guffaw turns my face every shade of red in the paint palette. The other sailors join in having a laugh at my innocent expense. It’s all in good fun, however the last laugh is mine. When no one was looking, I gave them both a good squeeze.

At long last, the morning arrives when Hollandia must depart, bound for service off the Spanish coast. Admiral Nelson is assembling the fleet and taking the fight to Napoleon. I listen as Captain Homburg reads the orders to his sailors, that Hollandia will join the blockade forming near Trafalgar in hopes to starve out the French and their allies. The crew cheers at the prospect of action. I look on as they make ready to weight anchor, and I long to haul the rope alongside Mister Killingsworth. I swell with pride as Bosun’s Mate Peterman hoists the Meteor Flag of Old England boasting the King’s Colors at the canton. The banner catches high in the morning breeze, snapping crisp like the gnashing teeth of a lion ready to pounce.

Though my heart is full for the experience, I am saddened to stand at the end of the dock on that grey, foggy morning knowing that was as far as I would ever go to sea. A single tear rolls down my cheek and I steel myself for the hard goodbyes I will have to say. As Hatchet and One-Eyed William roll the last barrels of salt pork and dried fish up the gangplank, Captain Homburg limps to my side. “You’ve done us a great service, lad,” he tells me in a soft voice; softer than I thought possible out of the old seaman. “Your jolly countenance has lifted the hearts of these old sea dogs, myself included. Me and the crew like the cut of your jib.” He places his rough and reassuring hand on my shoulder. “We lost our last cabin boy in the storm that brought us here. Useless as he was at sea, he was good for a shanty and divvying the rum rations, and the men miss him. You’ve got some wits and decent skills with a rope. What say you, boy? Will you join us in his stead?”

An hour later, I am standing above Eirene’s freshly-painted likeness on the prow of the Hollandia while the brisk salty air whirls around me in a tempest. The gulls dive and soar through the sails as we cross into the deep blues and blacks of the channel. The mist breaks, revealing the sun glittered-waves sparkling like so many diamonds adorning the Crown Jewels. Their brilliance stings my eyes with their shimmering brightness. I howl and hoot like a wild dog filled with sheer joy of a fresh kill. There is no sensation to compare with this. The whole world could end after this day and I would not have a care. At long last, I am at sea. I am at home.

By nightfall, my elation is cut to the quick. The gentle rolling waves of my first day turn into the stuff of nightmares as Hollandia goes headlong into the teeth of another raging storm. Captain Homburg has lashed himself to the helm as the roiling black where the gulls dare not fly does it’s level best to take us under. I can hear his laughter through the cracks of thunder. He spits curses and dares the sea to take him. The crew below decks whispers of the ship being overwhelmed, maybe even cursed. They vomit and cross themselves as I saw them do before. Others bail helplessly against the ocean’s onslaught as plank after plank gives way to the icy north Atlantic waters. The salt spray stings my nose and throat. All the while, Hollandia tosses bow to stern and port to starboard, testing the strength of good English oak past its limits. Eirene, in her wooden and naked glory stands her silent vigil as the roiling black swallows us whole.

I still stand at the prow above her from time to time between the coral heads, but now it is the tides that swirl about me instead of the winds. Eirene is my constant companion. Salty Jack would be proud that I keep his wooden masterwork clear of barnacles and seaweed. Even my paint is still visible on a clear day. Sometimes I ask her why her father forsook us to the waves. She never answers. Her visage smiles back at me. Unchanging, wooden and stiff, yet warm and inviting as the day I painted her.

Sometimes I will stand my moonlit watch again on the gangplank and defend my ship against the imaginary saboteurs haunting the depths. Captain Homburg would be pleased to know I’ve kept them at bay these great many years. To my astonishment, I’ve even seen a kraken. That old sailor was telling the truth after all.

I stand abaft on clear days and imagine I can still feel the warmth of that morning sun as it crests the horizon, but the sun and moon appear different down here. The deep is cold. There is no sun here. I pass my days watching the modern metal hulls pass overhead, witnessing the change from sails to steam to ships that now travel beneath the waves. Such a marvel! I’ve even visited a few ships at anchor. I envy those who still sail above me, but I don’t begrudge them. All my life I’ve always been at home on the water, and now the water has become just that. I am home. I am where I belong, and here I will remain. My eyes will look to the heavens and the far away stars, but my heart still dreams of the deep places beneath the waves.

Author’s note: The oceans and the age of sail is a fascinating time that captured my young imagination on the first pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the first time I read Melville’s opening words, “Call me Ishmael.

As an adult, that fascination translated into a love for Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, Gene Hackman’s The Wake of the Perdido Star, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, among many others. Everything about the ocean is a wonder. If I couldn’t sail on it, I wanted to swim under it. I fondly recall the nights laying under the coffee table in my Great-Grandmother’s living room eagerly awaiting the commercials on her console television to finish for the start of the next edition of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I suppose that’s a condition that comes from being born under the sign of Pisces.

I’ve always been at home on the water. While the eyes of many explorers look to the heavens and far away worlds, my heart has always dreamed of the deep places beneath the waves.

Lifeboat: A Star Wars Fan Fiction, Part VI

The Emperor’s Lambda-Class t4-a Shuttle,
Great Gran Run Hyperspace lane, Tashtor Sector, 4 ABY

Krest was furious. She paced the short distance of the stateroom in stuttering, angry steps. Meera placed her finger on the mute button, suspending the Shaaridan bounty hunter’s face on a blinking pause. “Krest, I have an idea.”

“As do I, and it involves scattering that creature’s atoms from here to Velusia.”

Velusia, Velus System – Galactic Core

“There may be another way to play this and I think I know how to do it. You said the crew of the Stargazer would defend themselves, how many are there?”

“The last time the Emperor brought us here, Aloo had his own private army of aboard that ship. Surely they have heard about the disaster over Endor by now. Anyone coming close to it will have quite a fight on their hands.”

“How loyal are they to Aloo?”

“As much as we are, or were, to the Emperor. They are not conscripts or mercenaries. He cultivated the greatest warriors from Oktaria as his personal security, and there’s no telling who—or what—else they have on board.”

“How do you think they would feel about you if they knew you killed him?” The glare Krest shot back said more than any words. “If we’re going to get out of this and get what you want off the Stargazer, I need you to do exactly what I say or we’re all going to die.”

Krest stared at her with a long look of distrust, but she knew Aloo’s soldiers would cut her down without mercy for killing him if they found out she did it. “Alright, Lieutenant. Let’s hear your plan.”

“We need to get everyone on the same page or it won’t work. Gather the troops in here. We don’t have much time.” Krest opened the door and spoke quietly to Sergeant Marillion. In moments, the sergeant was back with Majors Deshken and Andalor along with Technician Vel. The six of them filled the small room to capacity, so the others crowded outside. Krest gestured to Meera. “Let’s hear it, Lieutenant.”

Meera looked around the room and gave a reassuring nod, though she wasn’t even sure herself that this plan would work, but it was all she had. “I need you all to trust what I am about to do. You need to put aside loyalties and feelings about the Empire and follow my lead.” She picked up a datapad from the table and tossed it to Marillion. “Sergeant, have one of your men get Aloo’s code cylinder and a photograph of his face on the double if you please.” He shuffled through the others out of the room. She took a quick deep breath and removed her finger from the mute button. The blue static image of Gekko sparked back to life. “Here we go.”

“…inal warning. You will be taken. How you are taken is your choice. The Guild pays me either way. Power down your engines or be fired upon!”

“Bounty hunter Gekko, this is Meera Dyre. Please don’t fire on us! I was a prisoner on the Death Star. We are not Imperials. I repeat, we are not Imperials. We are refugees and wish to negotiate. Please do not fire!”

“Your claim is weak, Meera Dyre. The Imperial code your ship is transmitting tells me you are not only Imperials, but you travel aboard the shuttle of Emperor Palpatine, himself.” The guttural, reptilian tone of the bounty hunter’s voice sounded sarcastic and unconvinced. Meera cleared her throat to respond as a cannon blast seared across the bow of the shuttle in warning.

“We are not Imperials, I said. Hold your fire!” She muted the transmitter. “Sergeant, I need that picture. Krest, tell the pilot to power down the engine but keep his finger on the button. If this works, we’re going to need to get out of here quickly.” Sweat broke out on her brow. She needed to convince Gekko to stop firing on them before the Stargazer noticed the skirmish and got involved. Timing was everything. She unmuted Gekko again and altered her voice to sound panicked.

“We were prisoners of the Empire but escaped aboard this shuttle. We overpowered the guards and took a hostage. He’s an Imp, or he was. Looked like someone important. He was killed in the skirmish but we still got out. Please, don’t fire on us. We just want to live.”

There was a long silence. At first, Meera thought the holo-projector stopped working, but the Shaaridan monster turned his head. At least he stopped firing on them.

“Gekko, did you hear us? We are not Imps—”

“Who is your hostage? Speak now!”

Gekko the Bounty Hunter, art by Aubrey Eden Dukes

She pressed the mute button again. “Sergeant, where is that picture?” The datapad was passed forward through the throng. The contorted face of Sim Aloo stared back through the screen. At that moment, the rhythmic thrum of the ship’s engines stopped as the pilot powered down the engines. She looked at Krest. “Tell the pilot to be ready. As soon as we offload Aloo’s body, fire the engines and hail the Stargazer with a mayday. We’ll be coming in hot.”

“Just what do you have in mind, Lieutenant?” Major Deshken appeared to not like this part of the plan. “Going down this path will get us all killed. You heard the bounty hunter. He has us dead in the water!”

“Lieutenant Dyre is in charge of this plan, Major,” Krest stepped in front of him. “Accept it or find your way to the airlock. I’m sure the Shaaridan will welcome the extra profit from your surrender.” He acquiesced, but the look on his face screamed that he was not happy about it. Meera punched in a code on the datapad, sending the digital death mask of Aloo through the comm channel. She watched as the progress bar painfully crawled across the screen like a wounded womprat.

“Transmission underway. Check your datapad,” she said into the holoprojector. “It looks like the shuttle computer recognized him, too. He was an Imperial adviser named Sim Aloo. He resisted, so we had to kill him.”

Again, there was a long silence. She could see the Shaaridan looking between screens to verify Aloo’s identity. Finally, he spoke. “What was your crime, Meera Dyre?”

“What?” she asked, confused.

“You were a prisoner of the Empire. What was your crime? I warn you, do not lie or I will know it.”

She knew that the Shaaridan species had a pheromone sensitivity that could sense deceit. Something in their reptilian nature gave them abilities some would consider unnatural. If she continued to lie, he wouldn’t know it now, but should be board the shuttle, they could not hide it from him. That’s why she decided to tell a partial truth.

“My father stole something from them,” she said, not making eye contact with anyone else in the room. “And I hid it. When I refused to give it back, they killed him and took me.”

“What did he steal?”

“If you’re trying to find a puck on me—” She wasn’t expecting any further inquiry. Meera suddenly regretted bringing everyone in the room to hear this.

“I will not ask again. What did he steal?”

“It was a Kyber Crystal.” Deshken gasped, but everyone else remained silent.

“Do you still possess this crystal, Meera Dyre?” Her hand went to her neck and felt for the familiar bulge of it at the end of the leather thong, always hiding in plain sight under her Imperial uniform.

“There is a ship, The Stargaz—”

“I am aware of Aloo’s vessel. They scan us as we speak. Again, do you still possess the crystal? Is it on your person?” She reached into her shirt and pulled out, the room’s light refracted in tiny rainbows as it spun in her hand. She held it where he could see its reddish brilliance shine through the holoprojector.

“I do, and I will make you a deal.”


“We will place Aloo’s body and my crystal in a cargo container and drop it out of the air lock. You can take it and collect the reward for him from the Republic. The crystal is yours as a gift.”

“And in exchange for this generous gift?”

“You will fire warning shots at us for effect, after which you will jump to hyperspace and let us go our own way.” Meera kept the crystal dangling in front of the device where she knew Gekko could see it spin and refract. The shuttle pilot comm interrupted and she quickly hit the pause button.

“Stargazer is hailing us. They are transmitting Advisor Aloo’s personal docking codes. They must have been expecting him. Your orders, Captain Krest?”

Krest looked at Meera with urgency in her eyes. “Wait,” she said to Krest, then tossed her necklace to Major Andalor. “Major, take another and prepare to jettison Aloo’s body. Double time please, Major.” He nodded in agreement and one of the Storm Troopers followed him out. Meera then turned back to the projector. “Gekko, do we have a bargain?”

The projection flickered and refocused on the bounty hunter’s masked face. “We have a bargain, Meera Dyre. I sense you speak the truth, yet still hide much. I warn you, should you double-cross me, I will assign you the Death Mark of the Shaaridi. My kind will not rest until you are destroyed.”

“I understand. You are most gracious and deserve your reward. Stand by for cargo offload.” She cut the projector and looked at Krest. “Once the airlock reseals, tell the pilot to answer the hail with a distress call. Have him report a toxin on board and that we have captured a traitor that killed Aloo. Tell him not to make it sound Imperial.”

“What does that mean?” Krest asked with a puzzled expression.

“The more professional it sounds, the less believable it becomes. Tell him to make it lubberly and un-Imperial Navy-like. Request that they fire on the bounty hunter’s ship, shoot to kill. Then put him in our wake and run for the Stargazer. One good thrust in their direction, then cut the engine and let us drift.”

Krest scowled. “Adrift makes us vulnerable. I don’t like it.”

“Like it or not, we need to look panicked or they’ll see right through the ruse and we die anyway.” Meera was taking a risky path, but in her mind, she could see the entire scenario play out perfectly, almost as if she had seen or done this before. Had she? The feelings of deja vu were overpowering yet somehow in her mind, she could see every piece of this plan working.

Krest smiled in return. “You’re more useful than I thought you would be, Lieutenant.” She looked at the rest. “Look alive, rebel scum. Battle stations, and prepare for close-quarter combat!” They scurried out, leaving Krest and Meera alone for a moment.

“How did you know the bounty hunter would accept your terms? He could have taken us any time he wanted.” Krest asked.

Meera smiled back. “My father had dealings with Trandoshans once. They are as bad a Jawas when it comes to shiny objects. Since the Shaaridi are close cousins of Trandoshans, I took a gamble. It worked out.”

“Your ‘shiny object’ is property of the Empire,” Major Deshkin walked back in after hearing her last statement. “You stole from your Emperor and then hid your father’s crime. Now you give your ill-gotten gains freely to this beast and take foolish risks with all our lives. You should be executed for this insolence. Your father was no better than the rebels we fight against!”

Major Karlov Deshken, photographed at his promotion to captain, Imperial Loyalty Bureau

Meera shot from her chair and charged at the Major. Krest intercepted her before she crashed into him, holding her back. “My father paid for that crime with his life!” Meera screamed back. “The Emperor got his justice when his Storm Troopers came for us and murdered him. Despite all that, here I am, still loyal to the Empire, you bastard! How dare you!” The Major was taken aback by the ferocity of her response, but composed himself for a reply ripped straight from the pages of an Imperial Training manual.

“None of that matters. I will be adding your most irregular behavior to my report for the fleet and requesting a full inquiry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be below assisting Major Andalor.”

Meera struggled against Krest. Rage and anger coursed through her marrow. She reached after him and missed by some distance, but a sensation in her hand felt like she had grabbed him anyway. The Major stopped in his tracks and grabbed at his throat, gasping like he was being choked. Meera strained against Krest’s grip, but focused her intense feelings of hate on Deshkin. She could feel her hand around his neck and squeezing the life from him, though she was still several feet away. Her fingers slowly clenched into a fist while he turned shades of red, then blue. With a flick of her wrist, his neck spun in an unnatural twist and his corpse collapsed to the floor.

Krest flung Meera down into the chair and quickly shut the door. “My, my, Lieutenant Dyre. First, a kyber crystal, and now you use the force like a Sith Lord. What other forbidden secrets do you harbor in there?” Major Andalor’s voice crackled over the intercom before she could answer.

“Payload ready for launch, Lieutenant Dyre. Awaiting you order.”

Meera was exhausted. Her lungs could barely take in enough air to speak. She did not know what just happened, but it drained every ounce of energy she had. The anger overtook her senses and she couldn’t control herself. Krest sat and pressed her finger to her lips, indicating for Meera remain quiet. “Dyre has been attacked by Major Deshkin. Send Marillion and his troopers to the conference room immediately.” She then pressed the cockpit comm. “Keep your finger on the button, Lieutenant Cearza.”

“Aye, Captain Krest. Standing by.”

She stared at Meera again with a look of wide wonder and calculating calm. “When Marillion arrives, follow my lead.” She stood, drew her vibroblade, and plunged it deep into Deshkin’s chest. Just then, the door swung wide and Marillion’s red-armored form filled the entrance without his helmet, but blaster at the ready.

The Imperial Crimson Storm Trooper Battalion

“What happened here?” he asked.

“It would seem the good Major was angry that Lieutenant Dyre stole from his precious Empire. He attacked her and I ended it. Take his body below and toss him in with Aloo. That should earn us extra goodwill the bounty hunter.”

Marillion looked at Meera with confusion. She sat sprawled in the chair, panting like a Lothcat, barely conscious and drenched in sweat. All she could do was nod in agreement. Marillion and one of his men took Deshkin’s arms and drug him out. The door swished closed behind them and Krest sheathed her deadly talon.

“I cannot have the crew see us as equals, Dyre. I control them because they fear me. If they know what you are capable of, I no longer control that fear. Loyalty becomes divided, and I cannot allow that. Something has awoken within you. You possess the very skills the Emperor scoured the galaxy for, but be mindful. Just because he is dead does not mean you are safe. There are others, and the Emperor still has reach far beyond the grave.”

“I am…I’m no one…I am just a …medical off…icer. Nothing more.” Meera struggled to reply.

“Silly girl. You are far more than that now. I’ll keep your secret and you will follow my command until this mission is complete. If you’ll agree to that, I swear to you I will help you discover these abilities you have. Earlier I gave you a choice, so I ask you once again: Join me and live or oppose me and die. We’ll speak on this again after we’ve taken the Stargazer.” She reached over to the comm. “Major Andalor, is the secondary cargo prepared?”

“Yes, Captain. Prepared.”

“Good. Activate Aloo’s code cylinder and jettison the package immediately.” She quickly pressed the button to the pilot. “Lieutenant Cearza, once the cargo doors close, give a twenty-count, then fire engines. Plot intercept course with Stargazer and request fire support. Distress signal Zeta-Omicron-Six-Six. Give me some distance between us and this bounty hunter heathen.”

“Aye, Captain. Orders confirmed”

“Stay here and recover, Dyre. You’re going to need your strength for what comes next. We’ll handle the rest of your plan from here.” Krest swept out, leaving Meera alone.

Over the last twelve hours, Meera’s body endured a myriad of brutal trials, from the relentless thrashing aboard the failing Death Star, to the stresses of the situation aboard this shuttle, her lifeboat, and now whatever supernatural transformation was happening to her. The moments of quiet washed over like waves, making her limbs and eyes heavy. It felt like days since she slept. As her head lolled to the side, a tiny blue light flickered on the holoprojector. She swung her arm up as if it were tied down with stones and pushed it. The Shaaridan’s face in a blue holographic triangle erupted upward.

“Meera Dyre, my patience wears thin. You have—”


“Repeat your message?”

“They’re calling Aloo’s ship to destroy you. Take your bounty and run.” A grinding sound could be heard through the durasteel walls as the cargo doors swung open to space. They were sending out the bodies.

“I fear no luxury cruiser. My ship is—”

“There’s an army aboard it, loyal to the Empire. Take what we have offered you and run. You only have a moments to live otherwise.”

“You speak truly, Meera Dyre?” The grinding sound started again. The cargo bay doors were closing.

“I do. You have twenty seconds. Collect the payload and run.”

“You have earned the respect of Gekko. I will not forget this.” His visage wavered and disappeared. She didn’t know what happened after that. Her eyes closed and exhaustion took her.

Coming Soon in Star Wars: Lifeboat, Part VII…

Krest leads a boarding party onto the Stargazer seeking the holocron manual and her missing son, and ends up finding more than she bargained for when Aloo’s guards unleash an unexpected and powerful enemy against the shuttle crew. Meera struggles with her new-found abilities and what they are turning her in to, and Captain Vario finally wakes with a warning for her. Tune in next time!


The preceding is a work of fan fiction based upon and utilizing locations, characters, and/or plot points from the Star Wars universe, originally created by George Lucas and trademarked to Lucasfilm, Ltd. The author makes no claim whatsoever of ownership of the Star Wars name, characters represented, or the Star Wars universe generally. This work is created of the author’s own imagination and is intended for entertainment purposes only. It does not purport to be an “official” Star Wars story or part of existing Star Wars canon in any way. The author is not profiting financially in any way as the result of the creation or publication of this piece of fan fiction.

The Day I Became a “Rocket Boy”

I received a message out of the blue today from a dear old friend. It said:

“Just getting ready for Wood Badge this morning, preparing my presentation and my thoughts turned to you. Wondered how you were doing and hope all is well!”

Wood Badge Beads: Two is a participant, Three is a staffer, and four is a Course Director (Scoutmaster)

For those who don’t know what that means, Wood Badge is the penultimate (in my opinion) adult leader training in the Boy Scout organization. Over the span of seven days, sixty-four participants and twenty-eight staffers become a whole new family to you that you will never forget. I went through as a participant in course #MT-61 back in 2014. Then, for MT-63 in 2016, I was a first-year staffer when I met Liz and her husband Ren, and during my second stint on the Wood Badge staff for MT-64 in 2017, Liz and I were both staffers and Ren was a participant. I could write another entire article about this amazing training and the wonderful friends you make along the way, but that’s not why I write this today. I’ll sum Wood Badge up for you with this description: As a participant, you are in for the time of your life during the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. When you are invited to be a staffer, you are given the enormous honor to deliver the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. But again, that’s for another article. Let’s get back to that text message.

As a Wood Badge staffer, you get assigned presentations to do throughout the week that make the program so exemplary. My first year on staff, my assigned presentation was “Coaching and Mentoring.” I worked hard on perfecting it, and to this day, some five years later, I still receive the occasional message about it from random MT-63 participants. The text I received above from Liz, a MT-63 participant from five years ago, still remembered my presentation and my chaplain’s message from MT-64 about the “Lower Lights”. It goes to show you that you don’t realize how much of an impact your words can have on someone, and how long those words will stay with them.

Her kind message today found me in a strange mood. There is some tumult going on with me these days that I’m wrestling with. Of course, I responded with warm regards and that I’m great and all that good stuff. But the truth is, I’m not. The reasons why don’t matter. What matters here is that the universe knew I needed a kick in the pants, and delivered it wrapped in twenty-seven typed words from a good friend. The universe is smart. It knows things and has an uncanny sense of timing.

What that text message did was remind me of those days back in Wood Badge that inspired me so much. When you’re a staffer, your whole job is to inspire the participants in any way you can within your assigned role. I was a Troop Guide, and then Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, and also had the Chaplain duty during my second year to boot. I like to think that within those three titles, I did my best to deliver whatever inspiration I could. These occasional messages from my Wood Badge family are evidence that I must have done alright back then. Even with that legacy behind me, sometimes the inspiration well still runs dry. That message this morning found me lacking, but it also reminded me of the day I became a “Rocket Boy.”

October Sky poster

One of the presentations in Wood Badge centers around the movie October Sky. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean when I say “inspirational.” It’s a heart-warming tale about a group of boys from a small coal-mining town that do extraordinary things in the arena of aerospace and rockets during the time of Sputnik and the start of the space race. That’s a terribly poor description on my part, however, the unmistakable message of the film is the three P’s of success:




You may know this already, but October Sky is based on the true story Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam. (Trivia moment: October Sky is an anagram for Rocket Boys.) If you haven’t read the book, I cannot recommend it enough. I devoured it shortly after it came out, but the subtle messages in the story didn’t resonate with me as much until I went through Wood Badge. Going back through it again as a staffer put a whole new spin on those three P’s and what they really mean. So, after my first turn on staff at MT-63, I reached out to Homer Hickam to ask a favor. I decided to go to the source of all that inspiration and see what he had to say. Lo and behold, he replied.

Book cover for Rocket Boys

When I was invited back for my second staff gig, I wanted to bring with me something that conveyed how much the message of this program and his story can change your life. I wanted to give the participants of MT-64 something they would never forget. I asked Mr. Hickam if he would write them an inspirational letter that I would deliver on his behalf, and he did. Here’s what the letter said:

Homer Hickam's Letter to MT-64

I got to read this aloud to the ninety-one other people of MT-64 at the end of our third day together—right after watching October Sky—and there was barely a dry eye in the house. It’s not sad, not at all. I struggled through those elegant words, breaking up a couple times in joy. Those words—they hit you right in the feels, don’t they? It doesn’t matter what condition you happen to be in at any given moment. Pick up a letter written like this, and, well, like it says—

“A rocket won’t fly unless somebody lights the fuse.”

O’Dell, Rocket Boys

I framed the original as a gift for our MT-64 Scoutmaster, Michelle, and made copies for everyone else in the course. I hadn’t forgotten about that letter, but it was also not at the forefront of my mind. However, when I received that text message this morning, it reminded me how kind words can make such a difference to someone. It reminded me of the lessons I learned from Rocket Boys/October Sky.

My fuse was lit.

When I came home this evening, I went to the book shelf and pulled down my hardback copy of Rocket Boys for a quick browse. Ironically, a folded copy of that letter was neatly tucked in the dust jacket. I read it and re-read it, then I read it again. I’m not ashamed to admit my eyes leaked a little bit. I was transported back in front of those ninety-one people again; reading it aloud and sending my feels on a tempest-tossed ride one more time. I folded it back the way I found it, nestled into the cover until the next time I forget it’s in there. Then, I flipped a little further to the bookplate page and my eyes leaked—again—when I read this:

Homer Hickam's inscription to me in my copy of Rocket Boys

I was honored that my words so many years ago still inspired one of my participants, who turned out to become a dear friend, and how her preparations to be a staffer this year hearkened back to something I said all those years ago. I’m proud that she’s going back now for what I believe is her third or fourth time as a staffer, and that now, in twenty-seven typed words, our roles have reversed. She is delivering inspiration to another generation of adult leaders this time, and knocking it out of the park. Then to top it off, THE Rocket Boy himself, Homer Hickam, counts me among his pantheon with this inscription. Boy, I needed that.

The universe sure is smart, ain’t it?

MT-61 Bear.

MT-63 Owl Troop Guide. (The Bear with Owl tendencies…)

MT-64 Assistant Senior Patrol Leader and Chaplain.

Servant Leader for Life.

What Happens When You Run Up Against a “Box-Checker”?

I’m going to brag on myself for a moment and say that I am pretty damn good at my day job. Could I be better? Sure, all of us can benefit from improvement. But where I’m at, I do pretty well. Properly managing staff is one of the greatest responsibilities a manager could ever have in the working world. I care about my employees and the people who utilize my services like they are family. I care about my employer’s money like it was my own, and I am very conscientious about image and public perception of those I represent. My attitude, skills and experience have put me in some sort of management position since I was 22-years-old.

But now, let me tell you how that all came crashing down.

Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘Renaissance Man’ sketch

I had a boss tell me one time that she thought I was the textbook definition of a modern renaissance man. She told me because of the wide array of hobbies, skills, interests, knowledge and experience I have from my 36 years on this planet (at that time), she felt like anything I was asked to do would be done well and on-time. That may have been the highest praise I have ever received from anyone, bar none. While I try to be humble, that puffed me up a bit. It made me glad that I was recognized as a go-to employee. I am proud of what I can do and what I bring to the table. So this one time when I worked for the Federal Government, I was put into a civilian mentorship program and I was paired with our highest-ranking civilian leader. I was excited because this guy had it all going on and was a businessman’s businessman. He was smart, educated, friendly and had all the qualities of a good leader. When we finally got to sit down for our first discussion on my future career goals, he dropped a mega-ton atomic question on me that I still feel the fallout of to this day. He looked me right in the eyes and asked:

“What is your degree in?”

On the surface, that’s a benign question for most people and fairly easy to answer. It was not easy for me. Do you know why? Yep, you guessed it: I did not go to college.

I had a relatively poor upbringing. I started working at 15 and rode my beach comber bike all the way through my senior year of high school. We weren’t destitute by any stretch, and many others had it worse than me. But we were poor enough that when high school graduation came, I had already been working part-time for three years to save for a car. College wasn’t something I ever thought I could afford. In that part of my life, the thought of a college degree was hardly even on the radar. No one else in my family had gone to college either. It just wasn’t something I set as a serious goal. Of course I knew how important education was, but I also knew that if I was ever going to get out on my own and be my own person, I was going to have to work and work hard for it. No one I knew was handing out money so if I wanted it, I had to earn it.

To this day, I do not regret my decision to enter the workforce instead of going to school. In reality, the decision was truly made for me. I would not trade the knowledge and experience I have for anything. It would have been cool to go to school, but that wasn’t in my cards.

So, back to the mentoring session— my reply to him was short. I said, “I did not go to college. I don’t have a degree.”

The only part of that answer that made me feel good was the shock on his face. He told me he couldn’t believe someone with my skills and knowledge did not have a college degree. He also said that he applauded how well I had done for myself in the government system with that limitation. Then, he looked me in the eye again and dropped a second atomic knowledge bomb on me. He said:

“Lyle, you have to go get your degree. Make it a priority, because one day, no matter how qualified or talented you may be, you’re going to want a job from a box-checker. And when they can’t check the box that says ‘Has a Degree’, you’re not going to get the job, even if you’re the number one candidate.”

I walked out of his office after that a little bewildered. We had a fantastic discussion on career goals and steps to move around and up within the department we worked for. But there was a nagging, grinding feeling pulling at my soul. At 36, did I really need a degree? I got every job I ever applied for. I had already done so much and come so far without a scrolled piece of parchment hanging on the wall. I was not in a job that required specialized training, so why should I spend four years of my life trying to work, take care of my family and enjoy life while adding the crushing debt and time-consumption of college homework? After all, the School of Hard Knocks had served me well so far. I made it a long way on my experience, so nah. I’ll keep going as I am. Everything will be alright.

And now, at 47 and one career move later, his advice that I ignored came home to roost.

You see, I like to fix businesses. That’s one of my working joys is to walk into a dump and start turning the ship around. I know how to do it, I have done it multiple times, and I am damn good at it. I relish walking into a place that everyone says will never amount to anything and proving them wrong. I suppose it’s somewhat of a mimic of how I see myself. I may not look like much, but I know how to make something from nothing. It’s a skill I had to learn at an early age and continue using to this day.

About a month ago, opportunity came knocking. In my current recreation career field, a Department Director position in a neighboring town started accepting applications. I am not unhappy where I am, but I always look for opportunities to better myself. This particular Director position was a troubled and much-maligned post that was plagued with other’s good intentions but also with their bad execution. I visited the department incognito to see what I would be up against, and boy, did they need serious help. But the idea of taking over a struggling department and making it into something to be proud of again was chicken soup for my weary soul. I salivated at the chance to once again take a pig, scrub off the lipstick someone else tried to put on it, and turn it into gourmet ham sandwiches for all involved. It would have been a serious challenge that I would welcome with open arms. I updated my resume, spoke to my current boss about a recommendation and I applied.

And… crickets. No call for an interview ever came.

I didn’t understand what the problem was here. Had they decided to scrap the position? Were they waiting for more applicants? Because I thought for sure that others would see this pile of mess and run the other way. Did they lose my contact information? Surely there was some nefarious game afoot.

And still, my phone never rang.

I emailed their HR department and their Administrator with more information to make sure they received what I sent. I ensured I had crossed every “I” and dotted every “T” they required. I did get an email back that said, “Yes, Mr. Russell, we have received your application. We’ll be in touch.” Two more weeks went by.

And still, no call.

Two days ago as of this writing, I received a letterhead in the mail that said, “Mr. Russell, thank you for your interest in the position of Department Director. At this time, we have chosen a more qualified applicant and wish you the best success in the future. Sincerely, HR.” They couldn’t write down that check mark. My old mentor was right. It was my Thanks-But-No-Thanks reply. I had finally met my box-checker.

I got some inside information that they found an applicant that, even though they had been out of the industry for a few years, has a Master’s Degree where I don’t even have an Associates. They chose him over me because of that. For the first time in my life, my high school diploma and endless enthusiasm was not enough.

I’m not bitter. I’m sure he was a very qualified candidate. I wish him the best and hope for his and their success. We all succeed by lifting each other up and one day, because we work in the same field, we could be working together on some project or program. I look forward to that. But what sticks in my craw over the whole thing and that they missed out on me, who would have been an awesome director, because of one, little blue check mark that didn’t show up on a piece of paper.

I do not lament any decision I have ever made about my career or experiences. I am rich in many other things besides money, and things happen for a reason. You don’t always know what that reason is. I still do not feel I would be overly successful in a college environment and honestly, I’ve met new college graduates that can’t find their way out of a wet paper bag with a hatchet and a weed eater. I am definitely not that guy, and I have a hard time working with people like that, but it doesn’t mean I won’t. And don’t misunderstand me as slighting the college graduate. If you have your degree and are living life, by all means, live life and know that I am happy for you. All I know is the universe still has plans for me and it does not always care about little blue check marks.

But for the record, I am now registered to start my A.A. in Recreation Management this fall at our local community college. That sage advice finally hit me. In two more years, that box will get checked.

Until next time!

The Top Ten List of My Favorite Rock and Roll Songs of All Time

The only piece of Apple electronics I own is an 8GB 4th generation refurbished iPod Touch. I know, I’m a Luddite, right? However, this one device has precisely 1,019 songs that define my 46-year love of music. Within that 1,019 songs, you’ll find a wide and varied appreciation for all types of music from rock to rap, country to classical, and heavy metal to easy listening. For this list, I chose to focus on rock. Our friends at Oxford Dictionary define rock and roll as follows:

a type of popular dance music originating in the 1950s, characterized by a heavy beat and simple melodies. Rock and roll was an amalgam of black rhythm and blues and white country music, usually based on a twelve-bar structure and an instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums.

While doing my Sunday morning workout and listening to my rock playlist (which consists of 316 songs), It occurred to me there are really only about ten of those tracks that really get me moving and keep me motivated. Of course I like all 316 of them, but I never touch the next button when any of these ten songs come on. There are many lists out there, but this one is mine. Get ready to rock!

Honorable Mention 1: Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones

For the record, I am not a Rolling Stones fan. However, credit where it is due. Mick Jagger and company never fail to keep me moving with this iconic track. I’ll admit, there are other really good Stones songs, but if I could only choose one from their discography, this is it. Plus, I had to throw a bone to my friend John, who might be the biggest Stones nerd I’ve ever met!

I really chose them for honorable mention for three reasons. One, the opening chords might be the most recognizable in all of rock and roll. Even with only one note, any rock and roller would probably get this one on Name That Tune. Two, no rock and roll top ten list would be complete without mentioning the 13th best-selling band of all time, and the holder of the most expensive concert ticket face value ($624). The only age these guys show is on their faces because the music is still kicking all these years later. Finally, number three, this video. Mick Jagger looks like a holdover from a heavily edited Richard Simmons workout video and does not care one bit. With their charisma, The Stones and their music will outlive us all.

Honorable Mention 2: Welcome to the Jungle by Guns and Roses

Some rock and roll songs are subtle in their structure. This one is not. Welcome to the Jungle is one that jumps up and smacks you in the face and leaves subtlety lying bloody on the floor. While Guns N’ Roses had several really good rock tracks, I feel like this is the one that put them on the map and separated them from the other 80’s hair band chaff. Many of those bands were and still are amazing, but none of them really had the brazen rock audacity of G-N’-R. They have several tunes that rank high for me, but this one stands out.

The only other one that came close was Motley Crue, and they have a different moxie all their own, but Axl laying down that opening scream cements this one as an honorable mention in my Top-Ten. Click the link and see if they still got your disease!

Honorable Mention 3: Baba O’Riley by The Who

So what happens when you mix a trashed Isle of Wight music festival, an organ with a marimba repeat, the musically sequenced vital signs of an Indian spiritual leader, and the influence of a minimalist composer on Pete Townsend? The obvious result is this track, Baba O’Riley. Townsend wrote this as part of a rock opera follow-up to Tommy, but it never materialized. However, the track was salvaged, shortened and became the lead off single from 1971’s Who’s Next? by The Who.

Townsend subscribed to a concept that music could connect with an audience at the level of their DNA, and tried to put that data into a musical sequence. Another song he wrote, Join Together, was based on the same concept. I know, it hurts my head to think about too, but there may be something to it. There are some songs that when you hear it, the melody just speaks to your soul. It’s hard to explain, but you always feel it when your jam comes on. For me, its just about anything rock-and-roll. Baba O’Riley is one of those songs for me and lingers just outside my Top-Ten All-Time Greatest.

Alright, so enough with the honorable mentions. Let’s get to the meat on this Top-Ten bone. Are you ready? Head to the next page to start my official Favorite Top-Ten Rock and Roll Songs of All-Time list. Buckle in, cupcakes, because here we go.

#10: Roundabout by Yes

There are musicians, there is musicianship, and sometimes you find a group that embodies the very definition of both. Roundabout by Yes is unlike any song I have ever heard. It fits no mold or predefined composition. It is a mashup of instruments going a hundred crazy directions but still makes a melody that cannot be duplicated. Plus, if you see a band with a keyboardist rocking a glitter cape, well, that’s a wizard, Harry. Don’t mess with him.

Seeing Yes inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2017 and play this song with Geddy Lee standing in on bass was the highlight of my musical observing life. One of my co-workers told me how she went to see Yes in the 70’s and said she didn’t need to smoke anything at the show because the music was so insane she got high off the melody. I don’t believe her about not smoking anything, (if you knew her, you wouldn’t believe her either) but I do believe her about the melody. There’s not a band out there that can put together so much complicated noise and notes and pull out a mega-hit like this, but they did it and I am here for it.

#9: The Trooper by Iron Maiden

A rock and roll song that’s about a historical event is a song right down my alley. The Trooper by Iron Maiden tells the musical story of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854. What’s interesting is that today’s listeners try compare the song to today’s military actions going on in the Middle East, but that couldn’t be further than the truth because it was written well before the current hostilities going on there even started. Bruce Dickinson wearing a red coat and waving a Union Jack is all just part of the show.

All that aside, this song rocks. It’s proof that metal can have melody, and that rock can have musical depth. It debuted in 1983 and still stands as a solid metal classic all the way into 2021. Some fans even joke that this should be the new National Anthem of England. I’m not from England, but part of me agrees. That riff mimicking a horse gallop and the scene in the video with the flag being passed just makes this song so awesome that it will always have a home on my top ten playlist.

#8: Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith

Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith is a sentimental favorite on my list. I had the interesting pleasure back in the late 90’s of meeting Steven Tyler at a gas station in Sarasota, Florida, and I met Joe Perry at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. Both guys were stellar to talk to, but I was an Aerosmith fan even before those chance meetings. As a teenager, I was on an awkward date in a pool hall the first time I heard this song and I never forgot that moment. She selected it on the jukebox, and with a single wrinkled dollar bill, introduced me to one of my favorite rock bands of my formative years.

Out of all their tracks, I like this one because riffs are tight, the cadence is smooth, and the off-speed beat changes blend metal with melody. And that opening bass riff—just drills into your soul. Aerosmith has more rocking songs for sure, but this cut IS rock and roll and I am all about it.

#7: Wherever I May Roam by Metallica

I’ve never seen Metallica live, but I’ve been told from more than one person that their stage show is something to behold, and with their armory of head-banging chugging tracks, it was hard to choose one. King Nothing, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Master of Puppets, Whiskey in the Jar, and the list goes on. But if I had to choose one song from them that I like the most, Wherever I May Roam gets the nod. Plus, how could such a proper and divine demonstration of the whammy bar NOT be on my top ten list?

I’m a lyrics nerd and I love alliteration and unexpected twists in the song. At the end, “My body lies, but still I roam, yeah, yeah.” So this whole time, a ghost has been singing us this song? That’s fricken’ awesome just by itself. Plus, I’m just a fan of James Hetfield’s tireless gravel. That guy can grind out a song from the depths of somewhere that doesn’t exist in most of us mortals.

#6: Barracuda by Heart

Though Heart was not the first female-led band in rock and roll, Barracuda leads my list of the best female vocal track in rock and roll. This is no slight to other girl rocker pioneers like Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Patti Smith and the many others in that hallowed pantheon, but Ann Wilson’s voice is so pure rock and roll in this song, it almost makes me cry. And for the record, Heart’s rendition of Stairway to Heaven with Jason Bonham on drums in 2012 at the Kennedy Center was the best thing since the original. Disagree? I’ll fight over that one!

I wish Heart had kept this edgy nature to their music in later albums. but it felt like they caved to the mainstream with their music soon after this gem debuted on their second album. It’s full of metaphorical anger and obscene gestures over a rude comment made to the sisters by some sleazy music executive. Part of me is glad he was a sleaze because without him, we wouldn’t have this track. In one interview, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson was asked what she liked about playing this song:

“I love playing (Barracuda) every time. It feels really big and muscular and larger than life and, you know, it gets me off to play “Barracuda” because it’s so loud and so big and it’s fun and fast, you know? The cool little parts where it skips a beat here and skips a beat there. There are a couple of odd time signature things in there that bring it into a more sophisticated song. A sophisticated song of rage!”

Nancy Wilson to American Songwriter

#5: All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix died before I was born, but I had the benefit of a rich musical upbringing that included all the gods of classic rock. As I said with Aerosmith above, Jimi Hendrix had a lot of songs that rocked, but none of them struck me as much as All Along the Watchtower. Maybe The Wind Cries Mary or Hey Joe comes close, but neither one jams like this one does.

There have been times I wondered if artists like Hendrix had not died so young, what other awesome songs were still in there waiting to be recorded? Had he and others like Jim Morrison lived to later years, there’s no telling what other songs we would have received. Sadly, we’ll never know, but I’m glad we got what we did before Jimi left the world. He made amazing music and I, for one, am grateful for it.

#4: Crazy Train by Ozzy Osborne

When Ozzy yells, “All Aboard!”, you know what comes next. Everyone gets out their tickets for Crazy Train. I’m not an Ozzy purist, so I don’t really differentiate his solo and Black Sabbath years, but Ozzy is a rock legend that is hard to ignore on any list. Honestly, this song could be interchanged with War Pigs or Iron Man and it would still be in my top ten favorites. In his early years, Ozzy was kinda taboo to be a fan of because of his extreme antics, but as he got older and became a little more commercialized, his career saw a resurgence and he pulled his whole family along for the ride.

If you listen to the lyrics here, they are somewhat hopeful with lines like, “Crazy, but that’s how it goes, Millions of people living as foes, Maybe it’s not too late, To learn how to love, And forget how to hate.” Not exactly the message some might expect from a hard rocker like this, but it just goes to show you that suppositions about Ozzy were not always accurate. Plus, Randy Rhoads’s guitar solo here is ranked 9th best of all time by Guitar World Magazine and VH1 named it 23rd all-time greatest rock song. I concur. It’s dang good.

#3: Far Cry by Rush

I would be a hypocrite to not include my favorite band in my Top Ten list. Rush has a ton of material I like and it was hard to pick just one song. For this list, I chose Far Cry to represent the trio from Toronto. I love all their music, but this song has a little something extra in it. It’s not their most popular, but I will argue that it’s one of their most rocking tracks they ever made. When this song rolls up on the playlist, if I’m driving, I have to be really careful because Neil Peart’s drums make my foot much heavier than it really is.

In all seriousness, Rush is a group like no other and I cannot even measure my level of reverence for their musical genius. It was so hard to pick just one of their songs, but this lead-footer is my choice. I haven’t had to use the excuse yet, but I wonder if an officer or a judge will accept my excuse for going 90 in a 45 because the music made me do it. If this was a list of top ten driving songs, this would be my number one every time. In fact, maybe I should do that list next…

#2: Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin

Does Led Zeppelin have more rocking songs than this? Of course they do. But none of them come close to marrying beautiful lyrics, melodic strumming, singing electric solos and legendary bass and drum lines like Stairway to Heaven. I struggled with settling on one song from them to make my list. Achilles Last Stand is a rock triumph. Immigrant Song will blow your speakers at any given moment. Rock and Roll and Black Dog stand the test of time and are great tunes. However, there is no song from the classic rock era more iconic than this one.

When I was a teenager in Tampa, Florida, I remember the 98 Rock radio station there played this song on repeat for 24 hours as a radio stunt. The rumor was the DJ locked himself in the studio and had a heart attack, forever leaving the song that was playing when he died on eternal repeat until the police broke in the door. Of course that was all false, but a glorious and full Gregorian calendar day was devoted to this rock classic and I listened to it all day long.

#1: Shoot to Thrill by AC/DC

Everything about this song is rock and roll. The lyrics, the music, the attitude… it’s all there. In addition, what other group of senior citizen rock legends can rock a stadium full of millennials like they do in this video? And for the record, Iron Man II did not make AC/DC famous. AC/DC wrote the soundtrack 30 years before that movie was made and caused Iron Man II to be the best movie in the Marvel pantheon (yes, it was better than Endgame). I never was lucky enough to meet Brian Johnson when I lived in Sarasota, Florida, but I saw him out driving his green Bentley Vanden Plas, nicknamed “Thunder Guts”, more than a few times. If you honked at him, you’d always get a wave or a fist pump in return.

I have zero doubt that some of you are scratching your head going, “AC/DC at #1? Really?” But not only is the song good, these guys command a stage with this larger-than-life song. I can’t imagine any tune better representing the fictional life of Tony Stark, and rock and roll as a whole. It talks about the excess of a rock star and their goal of thrilling the audience every time they step out on stage. I will always love this song and it is, without a doubt, my #1 favorite rock and roll song of all time.

Well, there you have it. The music world according to me. There are so many more artists I love and would love to list, but I had to narrow this down to my favorites. What did you think of the list? What does your Top-Ten look like? Write it up and let me hear it. Until then, rock on!

Would You Want to Know When it’s Your Time to Die?

If you could know the appointed date and time of your demise, would you want to?

Or, would you prefer the random, “when it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go” philosophy we humans abide by now? Perhaps just embrace the concept of YOLO?

Or what about this: what would you do if you knew the exact time and date of death for another? Would you tell them or keep it a secret?

July 27th, 2020. 4:30pm CST.

That was the knowledge I was doomed to carry for two whole weeks.

I lost a family member that day and I knew exactly when and where it was going to happen. I even knew how they would die. How would you feel if you were burdened with this knowledge? For me, it was absolutely crippling.

Anything you say (or write, in this case) in an emotional heat of the moment can have unintended consequences, so I tend to bottle up until I can make better sense of what I’m feeling before I speak or write. I’ve waited until now to pen this post in an effort let some of my raw emotion simmer down. I know it’s always going to be there but after time it settles into the fabric of my being. Now that I’ve had time to process, I feel I can write this with a small bit of coherence. As best an effort this will be, it will fall short of the eulogy this family member deserves.

Allow me to introduce you to Tinker Bell. Tink was our 14-year-old Akita/Pyrenees mix that, sadly, had to be put down after a long bout with hip and knee problems in her back legs. It wasn’t the standard dysplasia larger dogs are typically plagued with. A couple years ago, it was discovered she had damaged both meniscus in her hind legs at an early age. She never outwardly showed signs of injury, so it went unnoticed until it was too late to repair. As she got older, the problem manifested and robbed her of any remaining quality of life. She became almost immobile. The simple task of getting up from the floor to go outside was a painful chore that required human assistance, and even then it wasn’t guaranteed she could get up anyway. She was hurting, and we just couldn’t let her suffer anymore.

Let’s talk about that phrase for a second: quality of life.

Most people give context to that phrase at the end of a life as opposed to the beginning or middle. Think for a moment about what that phrase means to you right now, today. For humans, it might mean the amenities of your home or car, your decor and furniture, your bank account or investments. Most (but not all) younger folks only consider it as a material reckoning. I think very few in the human realm contemplate what “quality of life” means to them or that it applies until they’re at the end of it. Why wait til then?

Tink has her Doggles on!
Tink has her Doggles on!

I have found a thread common with some other friends of mine: J.J. in New York, Greg in Indiana, Mary Jane here in Tennessee, and my youngest son Eian. What do we all have in common? We were dog dads and moms who have all lost our beloved fur babies this year. Back in March, J.J. lost his Boxer, Memphis. In July, I lost Tinkerbell. Earlier this week, Eian lost his mixed-breed, Shiloh. Mary Jane lost her rescue dog, Simon, and Greg lost his beloved German Shepherd, Scarlet, just today as I write this. When they leave us, there is a chasm that even time struggles to fill. For me, I’m a better person because of my dog.

Something else we all have in common is that our dogs were a major part of our quality of life considerations, even though we may not have thought about it that way. They are our family. I feel it safe to say I speak for them when I say that our dogs, probably much like yours, provided some of the happiest moments in our lives as well as saved us in some of our lowest. There is no greater unconditional love on this earth than a dog’s love for their family. My friend Mary Jane even wrote a book about Simon: Life Lessons from a Rescue Dog.

If you want to see a grown man (or woman) cry, wait until something happens to their dog. I’m not ashamed to admit it. When I had to take Tink for her last ride, I bawled like a newborn baby that was just smacked on the butt. I mean I ugly-cried. I was a wreck and so was everyone else in the house. The vet could not have been nicer or more gentle, and gave me all the time I needed with her both before the deed and after she was gone. I’m terrible with goodbyes, but I stayed and made this one meaningful.

A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself. - Josh Billings

I say this often as a joke, but I mean it with some level of sincerity when I say the more people I meet, the more I like my dog. Sometimes people just plain suck. But dogs? Never. I’ll say it again: Never on earth has the unconditional love for people been seen in a greater host than a family dog, and Tink was no exception. I know I am not the first one to say it, but we do not deserve dogs. Cat people, I know you’re scoffing right now. You might argue that cats are the same way, but I will argue back that no greater love exists than that of a canine. None. Anywhere. Search your feelings… you know it’s true.

Tink's last photo. I'll always remember her this way, with a smile on her face
Tink’s last photo. I’ll always remember her this way. Even when she was hurting, she had dirt on her nose and a smile on her face 🙂

Read more about J.J.’s dog, Memphis, here: Goodbye, My Memphis

So, I go back to my original question to you: If you could know the appointed date and time of your demise, would you want to? Personally, I don’t. I can tell you from my experience with Tink that knowing for two weeks about her final appointment tore me apart. And even though we spoke different languages, I never told her. In the end, I didn’t have to. I think she knew, and I think she was alright with it. Godspeed Tink, Shiloh, Scarlet, Simon, Memphis, and all the other fur babies out there who left us too soon, with memories in our minds and aches in our hearts. Enjoy that big dog park in the sky until we can get there to throw sticks and tennis balls for you again one day.

San Jacinto

“It is today, Sahale, that we celebrate your passage into manhood,” the old man said standing over the three boys. Eddie sat cross-legged by the fire while his best friends Danny and Zeke—known formally as Keokuk and Kele—circled him with smoldering sage bundles. The savory scented smoke washed over him in fragrant waves. The old man stood quiet and still while Eddie’s friends completed their tasks in the ritual. His dark eyes behind the deep and wise lines of age were fixed on Eddie’s face, making him shift uncomfortably. “Today, the Great Spirit will decide your destiny.”

His father called him Eddie when he was a baby. He usually went by that, but he liked his tribal name, too. Sahale meant higher place in Apache, but he only ever heard it when one of two things happened: First was from his mother when he was in trouble, and Eddie had caused a lot of that in his fourteen years. The second is when he was a part of official tribal business during the investigation of his father’s death. Today was the third time he’d been addressed with his native name formally by a tribal elder, his grandfather, who sat across from him now. After his grandfather said the rites, he waved his hand dismissively at Eddie. It was time.

“Away with you, Sahale. San Jacinto awaits,” the old man said with a dismissive wave. “Kele, Keokuk, tell Hania to prepare the way.”

The two boys led Eddie out of the Wikiup, where Hania, their medicine man, awaited his arrival. He was a terrifying sight in his black and gray wolf’s head cloak and red-painted body. In his hand was a long spear and a small coil of rope. Danny was afraid of Hania anyway even without the formal dress, but he had to be brave for his younger friend. Today was the day Eddie would either join their ranks as a brave of the Apache, or join with the Great Spirit and watch over them from the pastures of the sky. He looked over to Zeke, who gave a reassuring nod. They both handed their sage bundles to Eddie and sank back into the crowd gathered to watch the spectacle.

“You are found worthy of trial. Come, Sahale,” was all Hania said, turning his back and walking toward the mountain trail. The others around them, adorned in tribal finery no outsider had ever seen, erupted in whoops of encouragement. With ceremonial spears and bows raised in triumph, they willed Eddie forward. Bile climbed high in his throat. He looked up at the path before him as far as he could see to the peak of the great mountain, San Jacinto. It disappeared into the cold mist swirling above. Hania handed Eddie the coil of rope, but held on to the spear. “Now, we go up.”

Eddie heard stories of the bravery ceremony from as far back as he could remember. His grandfather loved to tell of his own trial with the Great Yellow Eagle. He remembered the old man’s words. One day Sahale, you will meet the Great Yellow Eagle, too, he would say. Remember to hold the line. Never let go. Always hold the line. Now that he held the rope in his hand, he wondered if he was ready. It was just a rope after all, and nothing special. Hania turned, the black tail of his wolf cloak swaying, and started up the cliff trail. The old Apache medicine man and the young brave began their ascent. Eddie looked back to see Zeke and Danny hold their hands high for him. He would be so proud to return to them no longer as a boy, but their equal as a man.

The minutes became hours as the dusty, stone-covered trail continued upward. Eddie’s legs burned with the fire of inactivity. Grandfather warned him the trek would be difficult and that he should get out from the front of the white man’s electronic box. No good can come from white men preaching our destiny from miles away inside a box of wires, he would say. Only the Yellow Eagle knows what is best for we Apache, and a smarter coyote would have made many meals of roadrunner by this time. Eddie dismissed the old man’s warning with a scoff. He liked watching television, especially Saturday morning cartoons. Now the pain of understanding washed over him as they went higher and higher up the incline. Hania showed no fatigue at all. Eddie had to jog at times to keep up with the scary old medicine man.

Not a word was said between them until they reached what appeared to be the end of the trail into a sheer rock wall. “From here, you travel alone Sahale. I will greet you again where the Great Yellow Eagle perches on our world.” Hania gestured up where the rock face stopped, about a hundred feet above them. “Now climb.”

Eddie put the coiled rope over his shoulder, found a precarious hand and foot hold, and took his first step up. The wind at this height blew hard from his left. Small bursts of dust clouded off the tiny rock shelves, stinging his eyes. He glanced back and Hania was gone. Where did he go? Eddie thought. Was there another trail upward? Why couldn’t I just walk up that way? However, he knew if he was to pass the trial, he must do what Hania said and climb. Eddie closed his eyes. “Your name means higher place,” he said to himself. “Guess we’ll put that to the test.” Hand over hand, Eddie climbed skyward.

After the first few movements, his ascent became easier. The rock face had a gentle slope he couldn’t see looking up from the bottom. Another trial from the Yellow Eagle, he thought. This isn’t so bad. I’ll pass your test. I will be a brave today! More than once his handholds crumbled away, causing him to grasp onto whatever he could reach and rake his knuckles on the sharp rocks. Still, his grip held. Gusts of wind continued to sting his eyes and cheeks with sand as he went upward hand over hand. With grim determination, he finally crested the cliff.

The rock ledge he climbed to was about the size of his bedroom back home. Eddie sat down to rest from the arduous climb and looked around. It was cold up here. The brisk breeze bit into his skin with a sharp chill. Peering down into the canyon where his journey began, he could barely make out the shape of the Wikiup where his family and tribe gathered and awaited his triumphant return. Which ones are Zeke and Danny? he thought. Was Grandfather still waiting in the Wikiup? He wondered if they could see him from there. He looked out toward the horizon and saw in the distance a large city of the white man in the haze; a jagged scar piercing the skyline with its disdain for the natural shapes made by the Great Spirit. Above him, the white sun beat down from the clear blue ocean of the sky. He basked in what little warmth it offered for several minutes before getting to his feet, ready to take on the next part of his challenge.

Before him loomed a cave opening. Above the entrance, carved deep into the orange-tinted rock, was the unmistakable shape of the Great Yellow Eagle entangled with a serpent. Eddie did not know what it meant, but that was a sign that here is where his journey went next. His first darkened steps were met with the cool and moist air from inside the earth where his ancient ancestors would escape the heat of the day. In the dim light, he could see more carvings and pictograms on the walls. Depictions of warriors hunting great buffalo, of owls and eagles, of wolves and strange creatures of the night that adorned every surface. At the end of the shaft, just before all light diminished, was a large pictogram that gave him pause.

The unmistakable diamond-shaped head of a great serpent, a diamondback rattlesnake, gazed back at him through its narrow eye slits. He stepped closer to inspect the glyph. It was so life-like, Eddie felt like the eyes were watching him.

“Sahale!” came Hania’s voice from the dark. Eddie let out a shrill chirp in fright at hearing his voice. “Come. Your next trial awaits.” Where did he come from? Eddie thought. I knew there must be another way up! Hania sparked a flint onto a torch and the cavern glowed a dull orange. The acrid smoke of the old torch burned his nostrils. Hania turned to go deeper into the cave. Eddie followed with a cautious reluctance.

The cave became dark, even with the torch. It was so dark that Eddie had to place a hand on the wall as he walked the narrow path to keep from falling or running into the exposed rock. Before long, the cave ended into a room with a small crackling fire set in a ring of rocks. The damp stones hissed from the moisture drawn from them by the heat. Hania sat on the far side of the fire, then motioned for Eddie to sit opposite from him.

“Sahale, child of the Apache people and hopeful warrior,” Hania said in a deep tone that echoed through the room. “Does your spirit tire, or are you prepared for your trial?”

“I am prepared,” came the response his grandfather told him to say. “I am ready to face the trial of the Great Yellow Eagle. I will become a warrior among my people.”

“This is good, young brave,” Hania began. “Many moons have passed since the Great Spirit brought you to this world. Among his greatest creations is the Yellow Eagle, which our people revere.” The heat from the fire intensified. Eddie could feel the sweat forming on his brow, even though the temperature in the room was cool. Hania continued.

“Even Its’a, The Great Yellow Eagle was not without trials, and his greatest foe was T’iish, the serpent. Will you face T’iish as Yellow Eagle has, and become one with Yellow Eagle’s spirit?”

“I will,” again was the prompted response. “I will become one with Yellow Eagle and face my trial with his blessing.”

“This is good,” Hania said, and lowered his head down. He began a low mumbling chant as Eddie stared into the fire, watching each glowing ember shift and squirm from the heat. The coals shimmered from red to orange to white and back as the fire intensified with Hania’s words. The chanting went on for several minutes. Eddie was mesmerized by the stillness of the room, the tone of Hania’s chant, and the tiny flickers in the dancing flames.

Time slowed. His legs grew numb. He didn’t know how long they had sat there in the dark. As he awoke from the fire’s trance, Eddie noticed a swaying movement above Hania’s head. He strained to see into the shadows, trying to determine what it was. It was small. Barely noticeable at first among the thick wolf pelt draped over the medicine man. Then, it broke through the shadows, growing in size and made its way over Hania’s shoulder, down next to the fire. Eddie froze with fear, eyes widening as a monstrous Western Diamondback moved effortlessly across the space between them. Its eyes were fixed on Eddie, just as the eerie glyph outside on the wall was. It was the same eyes. T’iish, Yellow Eagle’s nemesis, had come for Eddie.

“Ssssahale,” it said as Hania continued his guttural chant in the background. “One named for the higher placessss. You come before me assss Yellow Eagle oncccce did. You think yoursssself brave assss he did?” Eddie was paralyzed as fear locked his muscles in place, rendering him stiff and still. “You wish to be known assss a brave among your peoplessss, the mighty Apache?” The snake continued his stealthy approach, now only inches from Eddie. It rose up it’s great body in front of his face, tongue flicking in search for prey. “I will decssside your worth, young warrior. Let ussss ssssee if you can withsssstand my bite.”

Eddie sat frozen and helpless as the giant rattler rose up into a coiled nightmare of fangs and scales. It lunged faster than eyes could see and buried its dripping fangs into his chest. The serpent’s venom poured into Eddie’s veins like lightning from an angry storm cloud. Every fiber in his body screamed in burning agony until the beast released its crushing bite. The serpent remained poised for another strike, weaving its head before Eddie’s face. Tears rolled down his swollen cheek while the venom’s liquid fire did its worst to his body, wracking him with pain.

“Now, young brave,” the snake hissed to him again. “We will ssssee what it issss that you fear. My venom sssspeakssss to your mind and revealssss your thoughtssss. Relive your nightmaressss and prove your worth to me.” Eddie still could not move. He strained to cry out and awaken Hania, but could not. His voice was drowned. The cry stayed locked in his burning chest. “You sssshall reccccieve the blessssing of the warrior if you can return to your peoplessss below. Yellow Eagle possessed great wingssss to return to the earth, yet you only carry a coil of rope, sssshaped much like me. Ironic, don’t you think? You musssst hold the line and prove your worth. If you cannot, you become one with the Great Sssspirit, and I sssshall be victorioussss yet again.”

Each scale began to glow with a white-hot fire all it’s own. All of the sudden, the snake burst into flame before Eddie’s eyes and Hania awoke with a start. Eddie fell onto his back in violent convulsions. The cave spun in wild circles as the venom took hold of his muscles and reflexes. Hania reached into his sack and pulled out a small buffalo hide, placing it over Eddie. The weight of the thick fur and dense skin was comforting to him, as if the pressure of the heavy hide would suppress his body’s revolt. His shaking mercifully stopped but he was no longer in control of his faculties. His head rolled to the side and spittle pooled below his mouth on the dusty floor.

Hania then took out a large ceremonial rattle, painted red and adorned with two eagle feathers and a bundle of sage. He passed the sage through the fire to catch the embers. Though he could not move, Eddie could discern the unmistakable scent of the burning herb just as it was in the wikiup with his grandfather. Hania waved the bundle and the totem over Eddie and shook it at different times in the highs and lows of an ancient chant only the medicine men would know. Ashes of the burnt sage nestled in the hide, also giving off a distinct scent of burning hair.

“Sahale,” Hania said after what felt like an eternity of this. “You have faced the first trial and now will continue on your own journey. I leave with you this eagle feather.” Hania held up the rattle and plucked a feather out of the adornment. He nestled it into Eddie’s constricted fist. “Never release this feather. It is your link to the world of the living; your life line. You will soon have a vision. The demons will come and they will torment you. Show no fear and return to us as a brave. Hold the line, Sahale. May the Great Spirit watch over you until we meet again. Hold the line.” With that, Hania took up his satchel and left the cave.

Eddie’s mind screamed out to Hania not to leave, but his paralyzed body and mouth betrayed his thoughts. He was left alone to face whatever came next. And what did Hania say it would be? Demons? As if the serpent wasn’t bad enough, now something else was coming?

The tiny flame in the rock circle threw dancing shadows around the room. The reflection of the crackling fire danced in his eyes as the scorching venom ran its course. Every nerve shrieked in agony yet he could not move. Eddie could barely feel the coarseness of the feather shaft. One flicker of his finger was all he could muster to clutch it tighter.

Stay anchored to the feather, he thought. Hania said to never let it go. No matter what comes for me, hold tight. Hold the line!

Eddie lay prostrate beneath the buffalo hide staring into the fire for what seemed an eternity. He had no concept of time. All he felt was the rage of the snake’s toxin wreaking havoc on his senses. His ears rang. His pulse pounded as the venom raged through him. He could taste it in his mouth. He could feel it in his heart.

Am I dying? It feels like dying…

Slowly, letting go of life…

That’s when he heard faint footsteps in the gravel coming down the cavern.

Who’s there? Has someone come to save me?

Eddie was still unable to move, his spindly limbs locked in state by some unnatural bond he could only feel, not see. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot came closer. His eyes strained in the sockets to see who had come to save him but the range of his vision was limited and he could not see who it was. Was it his grandfather? Did Zeke or Danny follow them up here? Please, he thought. I’m here! Please let it be someone who has come to help.

“I cannot help you in that way, Sahale,” came a deep voice with a strong Apache accent. “I am no medicine man.” The footsteps came closer and suddenly a foot wrapped in an adorned leather moccasin stepped into view. The unknown man strode past the fire and sat cross-legged in the same place Hania was when the snake first appeared. “As much as I would like to help you, I am forbidden to interfere in that manner by the Great Spirit. However, I can guide you on your journey, Sahale. Your thoughts are open to me. I can share in your nightmares.”

Eddie stared at the man through the dancing flames. He was young, but carried the mantle of an elder. His face held the deep lines of age and wisdom, yet appeared youthful, like someone who has seen many seasons but still clung to their child-like appearance. His long raven-dark hair hung in two braids over either shoulder and was held back by a golden beaded band. Two eagle feathers hung with the braids. He wore a simple pair of leather leggings with a bright red breechcloth. Across his chest was a bead and bone breastplate encrusted with silver and turquoise finery. He stared at Eddie through the dark pools of his eyes for a long while before speaking again.

“Before long, young brave Sahale, the venom that paralyzes you will dissipate and you will rise again.” Not once did his piercing gaze waver. “When it does, you will be given a choice, much as I was when I faced the same trial.”

Who are you?

“Ah, there you have it.” The man smiled for the first time, revealing his brilliant white teeth. “As your mind makes questions, I will be able to answer them. Try again.”

I said, who are you?

“In time, brave Sahale, in time. But who either of us are is not important right now.” He continued to stare at Eddie, never so much as blinking. “Tell me, child of the Apache, why do you deserve to become a brave among your people?”

Because I am fourteen. It is my time to become a warrior.

The man chuckled. “You believe it is age that makes you worthy? That the number of seasons you have lived makes you a brave? Perhaps I should ask a different question, Sahale. What do you fear?”

That was a question Eddie hoped he would not have to answer. Images started flowing through Eddie’s mind; memories of his childhood. His thoughts finally settled on a particular cool desert night. He recognized the landscape instantly.

“No, please no. Not this night…”

When Eddie turned eight, his father gave him a rifle—a Winchester bolt-action .243—for his birthday. Mother was against it. She argued he was too young, but his father soothed her fears and assured her he would teach him how to use it safely. Every day, they would go to the field behind their house and shoot tin cans. He loved that time with his father more than anything. Later that summer, coyotes killed several goats at his grandfather’s house on the reservation and the men decided they must find the pack and drive them off. So, on a bright moonlit night, Eddie, his father, and his grandfather set out into the hills following the coyote tracks. They assured Eddie’s mother he would not have live ammunition. It’s just for show, his father said. The boy should come with the men and learn how to hunt.

Eddie never felt more alive than he did that night, walking the game trail through the brush and tracking those yipping bandits. As they walked quietly along, Eddie’s father held out his closed fist and dropped a single bullet into Eddie’s little hands.

“Coyotes in large numbers can be dangerous,” his father said as he dropped the shiny brass shell. “You must be able to protect yourself. Load up like I taught you, and if we see one, wait until I tell you to shoot.” Eddie slid back the bolt in eager agreement. The bullet slipped in with ease, and the smooth clicking sound of the oiled bolt locking it into place gave Eddie power. Confidence surged through him. Now, he was ready for anything.

This part of the reservation was isolated and dark. The moon was brilliant white, mostly eliminating the need for flashlights. The three of them hiked quietly in single file through the soft sand. His father in the front, him in the middle, and grandfather at the back. They walked for hours without finding a thing. It was just after midnight when his grandfather decided to call off the hunt for the night. Eddie yawned in agreement despite his earlier enthusiasm. His rifle became too heavy a hour ago so his dad shouldered it for him. He was past ready to go back to the truck.

Suddenly, howls and yips erupted off to their right. The coyote pack finally revealed themselves… and they were close! Eddie’s dad handed him back his rifle. The burst of adrenaline brought him back into the moment and the excitement from the earlier night came flooding back.

“Let’s circle around them,” his father whispered to his grandfather. “You and Eddie go below them. I will go above. Make noise when you’re close to scare them towards me. We’ll drive them to the far rocks and corner them there.”

His grandfather nodded in agreement. “Great Spirit watch over you.”

“Great Spirit watch over us all,” he said back. Eddie’s father stalked off through the brush. Then his grandfather knelt down to Eddie’s level. “You stay right behind me, Sahale,” he said. “Always right behind me.” He nodded in agreement and they walked slowly down the trail to flank the pack.

The eerie cries continued as the pack carried on their demonic racket. Eddie’s heart was pounding. His first hunt! Even though he only had one bullet, he was determined to make it count to keep his grandfather’s livestock safe from these canine fiends. The pack whooped and howled in a frenzy. “They must have cornered something,” grandfather said. “They only carry on like that when they have found prey. Let’s drive them away and save whatever they have caught. Make noise!”

Eddie’s grandfather started wailing like nothing Eddie had ever heard before. Eddie gleefully joined in and followed him deeper into the brush towards the pack. In the distance, Eddie could hear his father doing the same thing. The coyote cries went silent as the three of them raised all the hell they could muster. The yips came fewer and more distant. The pack was moving away from Eddie and his grandfather’s position and towards his father at the rocks, just like he said. It was working!

Suddenly, the night was split by the report of his father’s AR-15. Eddie and his grandfather stopped running for a moment and listened. Chaos erupted from where Eddie’s father was. Cracks from the rifle mixed in with the yelps and cries of injured coyotes. Then they heard an unexpected sound. Eddie’s father was crying for help.

His grandfather took off in a sprint that did not seem possible for a man his age. Eddie moved as fast as he could to keep up but still fell behind. One misstep on a loose rock sent Eddie face first into a patch of chicory. His rifle and flashlight flew further into the brush and out of sight. He got up and checked for chollas, just in case there was a cactus in there. Fortunately for him there wasn’t so he started feeling the ground for his gun. Abruptly, everything went silent. The shooting stopped and the coyotes quit sounding their cry. He strained to listen for his father and grandfather but couldn’t hear either of them. The night became quiet as a tomb. He scurried around more and found his flashlight at the base of a bush, but where was his rifle? Eddie dropped to his knees and crawled around frantically, to find it. With heart pounding, he crawled about in a panic until his hand finally touched the cold steel barrel of his Winchester. That’s when he heard the first growl.

Eddie froze. A second growl came from behind him. Then a third. With wide-eyed fear, he clicked on his light. Dotting the landscape in the beam before him were what seemed to be a thousand dark orange eyes reflecting back.

…Coyotes in large numbers can be dangerous…

“Eddie!?” his father called out in the distance. “Eddie, where are you?” but he sounded too far away to help.

…You must be able to protect yourself…

The closest set of orange eyes gave a piercing howl and snarled. With teeth bared, it took a quick step toward him. Eddie scurried to his feet and dropped the light but raised the rifle. The light landed badly and broke, shrouding him in darkness. His eyes strained to adjust.

… if we see one, wait until I tell you to shoot…

“Eddie? Answer me, son! I’m coming!”

More yips and snarls erupted from the dark around him. Sounds of movement came from all directions. They were circling. The pack was closing in on him! A loud crashing suddenly came through the brush in front of him.

…You must be able to protect yourself…

“Eddie? Where are you!?”

The big coyote had sprung toward Eddie in the dark! It was now or never.

Eddie squeezed the trigger and his rifle split the night, silencing everything around him. Echoes of the report bounced from boulder to boulder. He fell back from the kick of the round, knocking him on his backside. The barks and howling wailed as the pack bolted into the night from the loud rifle shot. Eddie lay in a daze, panting in heavy breaths and ears ringing from the sound, hoping his aim was true. Otherwise the next thing he would feel was teeth pulling his throat out, but the bite never came. Out of the darkness, rough hands grabbed him up by his collar, pulling him up into a forced embrace. It was his grandfather. Eddie burst into sobbing tears.

“My boy. You’re safe now,” his grandfather said soothingly. “Don’t look, it’s okay. It was an accident. You’re safe now.”

“I’m sorry, grandpa,” Eddie blubbered out. “You said right behind you, but I fell. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay, boy. You’re safe now. It was just an accident.”

“No,” Eddie cried. “No, it wasn’t an accident, grandpa! I meant to shoot that coyote.”

“I know you did, Sahale, I know you did, but it was an accident. You couldn’t see him.”

“What?” he asked and tried to look, but his grandfather held him tighter.

“No, boy. Don’t look. It was an accident.”

Eddie forced himself away and looked back to see his father sprawled out on the desert floor. Across the chest of his light grey sweatshirt was a slick, dark pool that was flowing down onto the ground beneath him. The last thing Eddie remembered was his own high-pitched scream as his grandfather squeezed him closer. That was the last memory Eddie had of his father, and it was a nightmare.

The dancing rock fire cast a large shadow behind the man as he stood up and put another oak log on it. “The venom of the serpent shows us a great many things,” the man said. “Your medicine man, Hania, told you demons would visit you and not to fear. What many do not recognize is that the only demons and fear they meet are the ones they bring up the mountain with them. They are already inside. Here,” the man pointed to his forehead, “and here.” His fingers rested over his heart. Reaching up into his golden headband, he pulled out one of his eagle feathers and twirled it in his fingers. He moved over and knelt down at Eddie’s side.

“You have faced your demon with bravery. You are worthy, and now you must decide.”

Decide what?

He rolled Eddie’s head upright and placed the feather across his forehead. “You must decide if you can exist with your demon, or if you cannot. Your demon will always be with you on the earth. If you decide, you may stay here with it and become a brave of the Apache.” The man clapped his hands hard and rubbed them together. He placed one hand over the feather on Eddie’s forehead and one hand over the serpent bite. “If you decide that the burden of this demon is too much to bear, you may leave this earth and the Great Spirit will embrace you above.” His touch was hot, burning like a glowing iron over the bite, but the hand on his forehead over the feather was cool and calming. Eddie, still immobile, inhaled a sharp breath and screamed out.

“I met your father here many seasons ago,” the man said, “He carried great fear within him. In his vision, he foresaw his own death, but that his sacrifice would save a life. That sacrifice would come out of great fear. Not your fear, but his. I shared in his vision just as I have shared in yours. Even then, the coyote terrified your father. That was his demon. When the time came for him to choose, he stayed to live with his demon, comforted that he would face his fear to save a life—your life—even though he was destined lose his own. He resides with the Great Spirit now, and has great pride in you, young Sahale. Now rise.”

The man removed his hands from the bite and Eddie’s forehead. All of the emotion and pain from reliving his nightmare came rushing through Eddie’s body like a raging river. Though groggy and painfully difficult, he could move again, but only just. The man helped Eddie to his feet and steadied him. The room was still spinning faster than his head could keep up with.

“I have slowed the venom enough for you to decide. Should you choose to stay, take your rope and begin your descent. If you choose to leave, I will carry you to meet the Great Spirit. I await you outside, Sahale of the Apache peoples. Think on this and make your choice.”

The man leaned Eddie against the wall and walked out, leaving him to think about his decision. This was nothing like he thought it would be. Neither his grandfather nor Hania prepared him for anything that he just experienced. The weight of emotion at remembering the death of his father crushed him like an avalanche. Eddie fell to his knees and sobbed. He tried to bury his feelings of guilt and remorse over his father’s death. Grandfather told everyone it was an accident, but that wasn’t true at all. It wasn’t an accident that killed his father. Eddie never believed it, and he didn’t think anyone else did either. But was it? Was it truly an accident?


It was Eddie’s cowardice.

His own fear killed his father.

The realization of this truth hit him hard. All this time, Eddie carried the guilt in his heart. It weighed him down like a stone tethered to his soul. He ached every time he saw his mother cry over the only photo they had of him. Grandfather would say his time with the Great Spirit was needed, and that is why he was gone. They both told Eddie it wasn’t his fault. He never believed them. But in facing his guilt, there was doubt. He accepted that maybe it was all an accident. Some terrible, awful accident. Now he must decide is he can live with his fear and guilt, or succumb to it.

Eddie couldn’t remember how long he sat there before finally gathering the strength to get up again. The venom, though diminished, continued coursing through him. It slowed his movements and clouded his vision. He wondered how long he would feel this way. When he emerged from the cave, the man with the golden head band stood at the edge of the overhang waiting for him. A cold white wind dusted up a light snow around them. The biting icy air made Eddie pull the buffalo hide tighter to his shoulders, but the shirtless man seemed unaffected by it. He staggered up face to face with the man. They stood there for several minutes before he spoke.

“Have you made your decision, Sahale?”

“I… I have.”

“And what have you chosen?”

Eddie held open the buffalo hide and extended out his arms. In one hand, he held the coil of rope, and clutched tightly in the other was the eagle feather. The man looked down at his hands and spoke again. “You cannot hold both. Whichever you release decides your fate. Choose.”

Eddie looked down at his hands, first at the feather. “I hold the line; the line of strength that pulls me through the fear. My fear is that I am the reason for my father’s death.” He then looked at the rope. “I hold the line; the line of life that anchors me to the world I know and the people I love. Tell me, Yellow Eagle, if you were me, what would you choose?”

 “I, like you, faced the same trials. My demons were many. I, like you, also came before the Great Spirit with a rope and feather in hand, asking the same question.” The wind and snow flurries danced around them. Flecks of white clung to Yellow Eagle’s dark hair. He reached up and placed his hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “I could not live with my demons and chose to go with the Great Spirit. Unlike you, I was not brave enough to make peace with them.”

Eddie smiled. “You speak as if you know already know what I have decided.”

Yellow Eagle smiled back. “I have always known what you would decide.” He extended his hand out. Eddie looked down at it and handed him back his feather. Yellow Eagle smiled wide. “Live well, Sahale, of the higher places, brave warrior of the Apache. May the Great Spirit watch over you until we meet again.” He affixed the feather back in his headband and walked to the cliff’s edge, extending his hand in a farewell wave. Then, he turned and gracefully dove off the edge into the flurry of white. Eddie ran to the edge when suddenly a great Golden Eagle soared up past him, crying out to the wind and declaring that Sahale, brave of the Apache, was soon returning home.

What Rush’s Song, Cygnus X-1, Can Teach Us About The Current Political Climate in America

While driving home from a baseball game a few nights ago, I had my iPod (yes, I still use an iPod) in my car set to play Rush. I wasn’t even out of the parking lot before Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres cranked up. I love that song and I know the lyrics well. However, for some reason, this time they painted a picture I had not considered much before. But before we get into that, let me bring any unfamiliar readers up to speed.

The Black Hole known as Cygnus X-1 - Artist's depiction and photograph
The Black Hole known as Cygnus X-1 – Artist’s depiction and photograph

What is Cygnus X-1?

The real Cygnus X-1 is a black hole in the constellation of Cygnus, The Swan. The constellation is also called the Northern Cross and is visible all across the northern hemisphere. In 1971, the black hole was discovered as the first source of X-rays within Cygnus (hence the name X-1). Neil Peart read a newspaper article about it and, using his brilliant imagination, penned a nearly 29-minute progressive rock epic about it.

Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage is from the 1977 Rush album A Farewell to Kings. It’s about an explorer that sets his space ship, The Rocinante, for the heart of a newly discovered black hole. Our hero knows this is probably a one way trip, but undaunted, plunges on. Book 1 of this prog-rock epic goes on for about 10-minutes, and ends with The Rocinante spiraling into oblivion. Our hero expects his demise and the song ends. It’s in Book 2 from 1979’s Hemispheres that got me thinking about the parallels between the song and politics.

Political commentary is a dangerous minefield these days, but art does imitate life. This song is no different and was a prophecy before its time. I’m going to make some broad-brush generalizations in here about followers of the political left and right, so before you send me responses like I am a so-and-so and that’s not what I believe or My party believes in this platform, not that, just calm down and digest the core basics of what I’ve interpreted here. I’m going to ask you in advance for grace, and ask that you consider what I say with introspect. However, I always invite thoughtful discourse if you want to voice your opinion on it.

Disclaimers in place? Check. Now, let’s launch into it.

So what does a song about Cygnus X-1 have to do with American Politics?

Let’s examine the lyrics of Book 2:

“When our weary world was young, the struggle of the ancients first began. The gods of Love and Reason, sought alone to rule the fate of Man. They battled through the ages, but still neither force would yield. The people were divided, every soul a battlefield…”

This first part just sets the stage, reminding the listener that since the beginning of time, humankind has struggled with how best to govern their affairs between the boundaries of love and reason. The Rocinante emerges through the black hole to find it was a gateway to Mount Olympus, where Apollo and Dionysus are engaged in epic battle over the fate of mankind. Will they be ruled by Apollo’s wisdom and reason, or Dionysus’s love and emotion? Each god makes a plea for their case while our hero observes.

Apollo’s Plea for Reason

Apollo gets to go first:

Apollo, God of Light with Urania, Muse of Astronomy is a painting by Charles Meynier
Apollo, God of Light, with Urania, Muse of Astronomy is a painting by Charles Meynier

I bring truth and understanding, I bring wit and wisdom fair,
precious gifts beyond compare. We can build a world of wonder,
I can make you all aware. I will find you food and shelter, show you fire to keep you warm through the endless winter storm. You can live in grace and comfort in the world that you transform.

I would contend Apollo’s vision falls more to the right side of political ideology. Typically, Republicans see through the lens of numbers and logic, placing a lower value on feelings and emotion. Apollo offers to share knowledge, the basics of food and shelter, and to show you how to make fire, but it is up the individual to take those tools transform their world for their own grace and comfort. Again, it’s a broad brush approach, but one of the party platforms of the right is deeply rooted in the idea of each person being the captain of their own destiny. Apollo’s offer was accepted, and here’s what happened:

The people were delighted, coming forth to claim their prize. They ran to build their cities and converse among the wise. But one day the streets fell silent, yet they knew not what was wrong. The urge to build these fine things seemed not to be so strong. The wise men were consulted
and the Bridge of Death was crossed, in quest of Dionysus to find out what they had lost…

My interpretation of this is knowledge, numbers, and logic is only going to get you so far before you run out of creativity. In a simpler term, this world feels like a minimalist black and white painting; probably beautiful in it simplicity, but devoid of color and personality. It’s cold and hard there. In my observations, Republicans can get caught within their own versions of reason and take a narrow-minded world view; very much like a horse with blinders. The mind needs expansion or it will die.

I think the key statement in here is crossing the Bridge of Death. Curious wording, don’t you think? I would liken this to the idea that you sometimes hear out of right-wingers warning you don’t go over there by those lefties… it’s dangerous! You’ll be in peril unless you walk this fine line! Don’t cross that bridge of death! It’s a group-think idea that once you try a forbidden fruit, you are a lost cause.

Dionysus’s Plea for Love

When humankind crossed their Bridge of Death seeking out Dionysus to see what he could offer, here’s what he said:

Dionysus, God of Wine by Caravaggio
Dionysus, God of Wine by Caravaggio

I bring love to give you solace, in the darkness of the night; in the heart’s eternal light. You need only trust your feelings, only Love can steer you right. I bring laughter, I bring music, I bring joy and I bring tears, I will soothe your primal fears. Throw off those chains of reason and your prison disappears

It’s not a stretch to see Dionysus is taking the political left approach. He’s playing on your heart strings and telling you that only love can make things right with the world. He’s ready to give humankind everything they need to fuel a creative fire – joy, laughter, music, solace. He promises a spiritual freedom of they will abandon reason and pursue their heart’s desire. Where the kicker comes is the line that he will soothe their primal fears. That line begs a question: What are your primal fears?

The answer will be different for everyone. For some, it’s eliminating loneliness and finding their soul mate. For others, it’s financial stability. Others might argue for spiritual or physical well-being. The bounds are endless on what people fear. Dionysus is telling them he’ll take all that away for them. The Democratic platform sometimes claims to have government provide everything people would fear to lose. I contend, however, that no god or government can possibly provide for everything a person needs. No one. The people, in this song’s case, decide to take him up on the offer. Here’s how it went:

The cities were abandoned and the forests echoed song. They danced and lived as brothers. They knew love could not be wrong. Food and wine they had aplenty and they slept beneath the stars. The people were contented and the Gods watched from afar. But the winter fell upon them and it caught them unprepared, bringing wolves and cold starvation, and the hearts of men despaired…

The romantic notion of throwing all logical caution to the wind and living your best Bohemian life—Y.O.L.O., if you will—is popular among younger generations today. But there are consequences to an ideology that only lives and loves in the moment without logical planning for the future. There’s even greater consequence for depending on someone else to provide everything for you. A day will come where the well dries up. In our song, the winter falls upon the people who lived only for the summery moment with Dionysus, thinking all they needed was love to sustain them. The wolves and weather had a different idea.

The Great Battle for the Heart and Mind of Humankind

The heart and mind, the greatest assets of a human being.
The heart and mind, the greatest assets of a human being.

In modern politics, this same metaphoric battle rages today as I type this and as you read it. There is a deadly competition for your vote without your voice, and each side knows exactly what string to pluck to get it. One side preys on fear of losing all reason, while the other preys on your fear of losing all hope. Many good people are entrenched in one side or the other and will not accept any olive branches offered by the opposition. In the song, their battle goes like this:

The universe divided as the heart and mind collided, with the people left unguided for so many troubled years; in a cloud of doubts and fears. Their world was torn asunder into hollow hemispheres. Some fought themselves, some fought each other. Most just followed one another, lost and aimless like their brothers. For their hearts were so unclear and the truth could not appear. Their spirits were divided into blinded hemispheres.

There has never been a more poignant description of today’s Left vs. Right political ideology than that stanza right there. The whole of the United States lives in a cloud of doubt and fear because many have buried themselves so far into their beliefs that no one will budge. People fear each other. They don’t trust each other. They prey on each other. And many who are not clear on their own thoughts blindly follow others to fit in to one of these camps just for the sense of belonging. More importantly, no one wants to admit their side is wrong. Not on one single thing. The faithful are so blinded without sound judgement that they can’t see a bitter truth in front of their face: That the opposition is truly not their enemy. In the song, a select few were blessed with discernment:

Some who did not fight brought tales of old to light. My Rocinante sailed by night on her final flight. To the heart of Cygnus’ fearsome force, we set our course. Spiraled through that timeless space to this immortal place.

Our hero is not yet sullied with the ideological dilemmas of Apollo and Dionysus, and encounters people I would call the Neutrals. These are people who haven’t fully decided their fate yet and observe the battle before them between the heart and mind. They tell the sordid tales from both sides, taking on traits of each. Some may call that not choosing a side. Sometimes it’s necessary to choose, but in this case, I think the Neutrals have created a third option to consider.

Cygnus, the Bringer of Balance

A depiction of Balance
A depiction of Balance

Enter the hero of our story, which in my mind is you. Yes, you, who sit here and have read to this point. Here’s your grand entrance:

I have memory and awareness, but I have no shape or form. As a disembodied spirit, I am dead and yet unborn. I have passed into Olympus, as was told in tales of old, to the City of Immortals; marble white and purest gold. I see the gods in battle rage on high, thunderbolts across the sky. I cannot move, I cannot hide, I feel a silent scream begin inside.

This stanza is chock full of metaphor. The U.S. Capitol is loaded to the gills with white marble buildings and monuments gilded in gold leaf. For an every-day citizen or political outsider, the halls of government might feel like an Olympus. A place where the gods of elected government rule from on high. You could even stretch to think of it as a City of Immortals.

United States Capitol Building east facade - Washington DC United States
United States Capitol Building east facade – Washington DC United States

You enter the halls of Congress to see and hear the “thunderbolts” being hurled from the right and left sides of the aisle; the nonstop bickering over how you will live your life. It’s messy, complicated, drowned in a legalese few laymen can understand. Who would enter that fray, and upon seeing the ridiculousness of it, would not want to scream? What if you actually did it? Here’s what the song says happened:

Then all at once the chaos ceased. A stillness fell, a sudden peace. The warriors felt my silent cry and stayed their struggle, mystified. Apollo was astonished. Dionysus thought me mad. But they heard my story further and they wondered, and were sad. Looking down from Olympus on a world of doubt and fear; its surface splintered into sorry hemispheres.

In reality, if you walked into a Senate or House session, or the Oval Office, or the Supreme Court chambers and screamed in bloody frustration at them, they are going to have you escorted out. Probably with prejudice. But imagine what would happen if you did and they actually stopped and listened to you? I know what you’re thinking: Lyle, seriously, government stopped listening to the people a long time ago. You’re right. But that’s not my point in all this. Now this next part, this is the true science fiction of the tale:

They sat a while in silence, then they turned at last to me. ‘We will call you Cygnus, the God of Balance you shall be.’

Just think, for one moment, if you had the chance to be the arbiter between the left and right ideology, and they had to abide by your final judgement on their argument. Who would you side with? Always the Left? Always the Right? Some might, but the majority of us would not. We would invoke the third option of the Neutrals, and that brings me to the conclusion of this extremely long political rant.

The Hemispheres United

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I have to think you’ve got at least a foot in the camp of the Neutrals. In my mind, we the Neutrals are the centrists. I would argue the centrists live with the mantra that if you can’t do what is right, then you do what is fair. We are the ones in the middle that see merit and fault on both political fronts… the ones who political parties have abandoned for the warm and fuzzy fringes of their followers. We in the middle are left in the political cold and both sides are making a fire to warm us. We are the ones those governing gods fight over. We are the ones they hope are afraid of being alone so we can get pulled in to their fold.

It is us who pilot the Rocinante into the black hole of politics and scream in frustration at Apollo and Dionysus for their limited vision and schoolyard pettiness. It is us who seek the peace in an arena that only knows war. But not war in the traditional sense. Oh no. They don’t want to kill you. It’s the war for your heart and mind. They are the most precious bastions you can ever protect. The day we once again realize we are not enemies is the first day of our freedom. There is a way to reconcile our trespasses against each other, and Rush sums it up nicely in the final stanza:

We can walk our road together, if our goals are all the same. We can run alone and free, if we pursue a different aim. Let the truth of love be lighted. Let the love of truth shine clear. Sensibility, armed with sense and liberty, with the heart and mind united in a single, perfect sphere.

While I am not naive enough to think those who govern will stop and hear us when we scream, I am hopeful that, outside of their influence, we will hear each other when we scream. Maybe then we can once again come together—those with love and those with logic—and make our country a better example for the world.

Chewbacca: The Best Friend We All Wish We Had

Chewbacca from Solo: A Star Wars Story
Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ask any Star Wars fans, or even those Moofmilkers who have maybe just “seen the movie once”, what they think of Chewbacca. I’m willing to bet every single one will say they love him. In fact, I’m willing to bet the Millennium Falcon that not one of them will have a negative thing to say about him. Even in this hyper-critical moment Star Wars fans find themselves in over the franchise, the one constant we can all agree on is a universal love for the Wookiee, Chewbacca.

Why do you think that is? Why has this character touched so many hearts without ever saying a word we can understand? I have a theory, and it comes with a deep personal meaning.

Chewie: The Ultimate Wingman

Han didn’t know how lucky he was to have a best friend like Chewie. Let’s be honest… he would never have survived even half of the junk he pulled, and the trouble he got into throughout his adult life, without Chewbacca.

Han Solo and Chewbacca, from Solo: A Star Wars Story - photo: Lucasfilm/Disney
Han Solo and Chewbacca, from Solo: A Star Wars Story

Need something fixed on the Falcon? Chewie’s got it.

Need to borrow a Bowcaster when your DL-44 Blaster isn’t up to snuff? Chewie’s got you covered.

Trapped at a blast door on Endor by the Empire and an Imperial Walker? Chewie has your back, with a little Ewok help.

Pulling a heist? Chewbacca calls shotgun. Any time Han needs him, he is there.

One thing I wish they had delved into with The Rise of Skywalker is the connection that had to exist between Ben Solo and Chewbacca. Imagine as a child growing up with “Uncle Chewie”. There could be no better babysitter. Even when Ben became Kylo Ren, there had to be a twinge in his black heart somewhere of how his turn to the dark side would affect Chewie. He could hate mom and dad all he wanted to, but I’d bet the farm there were some strong attachments to the big furry oaf. And imagine how much it did affect Chewie? After all, he is a sensitive Wookiee. Just look at what he did with the Porgs in Episode VII!

Chewie: The Great Protector

Something that always stood out to me in Star Wars is C-3PO being the butt of a lot of jokes. Sure, he could be annoying, but he always meant well. Goldenrod, the professor, mindless philosopher, and whatever else R2 called him in his squawks and squeaks—C-3PO took it all in stride. He could dish it out, too. In fact, he could be quite a jerk about it. But on Cloud City, when he ran afoul of some Storm Troopers and was blasted apart, it was the kind-hearted Chewbacca that fought off the Ugnaughts for his parts and put him back together.

Chewie pieces Threepio back together again - Photo: Lucasfilm/Disney
Chewie pieces Threepio back together again – Photo: Lucasfilm/Disney

And who did Han trust to look after his love before going into carbon freeze? It sure wasn’t Lando. When Chewie was ready to rumble over it, Han calmed him down by charging him to take care of the princess.

Chewie takes his fair share of zingers, too, and he never complains because that’s just who he is. He’s been called a walking carpet, flea-bitten furball, overgrown mop head, a big hairy thing, big furry oaf, and probably the worst one… “he’s only a Wookiee.” All things you could only say to your best friend and get away with it. Even with the knocks, our ever-faithful sidekick always plunges on. Plus, you know he could remove all your limbs if he wanted to.

What Chewbacca means to Star Wars fans

“It’s a privilege unlike any other. With relative anonymity, you can bring joy to so many, and at the same time you’re giving people the opportunity to reminisce about their childhoods — and giving people big, hairy hugs. So it’s a wonderful job.”

Joonas Suotamo, on what it means to him portraying Chewbacca
Speaking of big, hairy hugs... - Photo: Lucasfilm/Disney
Speaking of big, hairy hugs…

The now-Legends book, The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime is a difficult book to read, because in it, Chewbacca dies. It struck me hard knowing he died in the Extended Universe. Chewbacca dead? I am not sure I can handle that! Even more profound is that Han starts a dark spiral after losing his long-time best friend. Something we could probably all relate to if it happened to us. His death was taken so hard by some fans that the author even received death threats over it.

The death of Chewbacca in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime
The death of Chewbacca in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime

In doing a little more research, I found out this book is rumored to be one of the primary reasons the EU/Legends was cut from Star Wars canon. To quote the Hollywood Reporter article, it says:

“A new Star Wars films without Chewbacca just wouldn’t feel like Star Wars, because the character is so much of the series’ heart. It’s impossible to take for granted that there’s an emotive quality to Chewbacca, an undeniable sense of personality that transcends the costume. As much as we’d like to imagine that if we lived in the Star Wars Universe we’d be a Jedi like Luke or Rey, a diplomat like Leia or a cocky pilot like Han, the truth is that we’d most likely be like Chewbacca; dependable, empathetic and just along for the ride. That’s an honorable position to be in.”

…and that is truth. A Star Wars movie without Chewbacca is like one without R2-D2. They may be the most influential supporting characters in film history. Being a supporting character brings around the point of all this. Why is Chewbacca the best friend we all wish we had?

Be Someone’s Chewbacca

August 2020 will be the two-year anniversary of the death of someone I knew who took his own life. His name is Miguel. We were co-workers at the rec center in my town. His mom works there with me, too. Miguel and I weren’t best friends. We saw each other when he would come in to work the pool cleaning crew, or when his mom would bring him after school to play basketball. We talked sometimes about little stuff, always nice to each other. He was 15-years-old.

In hindsight, nothing anyone could have said or done was going to stop him once he made this decision. Stars help me, I’ve thought about it constantly. Was there something I could have done differently that would have given him pause? Is there more I could have done? Could I have been nicer to him? Would he still be here if I had? Did he have a Chewbacca? I see his mom every day at work and it breaks my heart for her.

Miguel was born the same year as my youngest son. We both share a love of Star Wars. We play Star Wars games together, like Battlefront II and Galaxy of Heroes. We tag-teamed Jedi: Fallen Order on the PS4 to face Vader. I could not imagine being a Star Wars fan, or a life, without him. I’ll always be his Chewbacca, as I would to any of my kids and grand-kids.

My now-16-year-old at Machine Falls, Short Springs State Natural Area

My challenge to you: Be a Chewbacca to someone. It just might be the tiny Force push they need. Alternately, If you need a Chewbacca, we’re out there. Look hard and find us. We might be in the bottom of a muddy pit, labeled a beast and trapped in chains of our own. Help us out of there and I can promise you, we’ll be friends for life.

Reverend Wrinkle

A short story of the supernatural – Part 1

The round spectacles at the end of his nose fogged from the hot tea the Right Reverend Wrinkle sipped, annoying Marie past her short level of tolerance. He’s not even listening to me, she thought. He must be deaf or stupid, haven’t figured out which. The wiry reverend set the delicate cup back down in the saucer at his side table. He stared off out the window watching the dark clouds roll in.

“Storms a’comin,” he said. The old bloodhound lying by the front door perked her ears at the word storm. Marie lost her patience with the man. Her limit was reached

“Have you even heard a word I’ve said?” She got up from her chair in frustration. “They say you’re the only one around here who knows how I can get back home, but if you ask me, you don’t know a damn thing!”

The Right Reverend Wrinkle sat calm as could be and continued to glide gently in his rocker. At last, he spoke again. “I know many things, but you never can tell with a storm. They kinda’ just do what they want. It’s as if God let’s a little chaos roam free once in a while. Hard to find your way home in a storm, they say.” He reached down with a lazy hand and brushed off some of the bone dust from his sleeve. Then he put his index finger behind the tight white clergy collar and loosened it. The low rumble of distant thunder rolled across the churchyard outside.

“Yep, this storm’s gonna be a good’n. Best to keep inside, I think, eh Sticks?” The dog got up and moved to the reverend’s feet, careful not to get her tail under the curved runner of the chair.

Marie sat back down in a heap, burying her face in her frustrated hands. “Alright, let’s try this again, shall we?” She sat directly across from him, looking down at the dog. Sticks looked back up at her through tired and droopy eyes, groaning as she rolled to her side to sleep. The reverend peered down over his glasses and took another sip of his tea.

“Look, I’m sorry about running over your mailbox and smashing the headstones. Can I just use your phone? I’ll call my dad to pick me up and send a tow truck for my car. My cell phone is in my purse but I don’t remember where I left it. I promise, he’ll write you a check for the damages.” A strong gust came up as the first drops of rain streaked down the window. Another roll of thunder boomed, giving the windows a rattle. Marie sighed. “Oh great… now it’s raining. I’m gonna be stuck here forever!”

She stomped her foot and looked out the window. The accident scene looked worse from here than she remembered it. The side of the first mausoleum lay in rubble under the front of her red two-seater convertible. It was her 18th birthday present. She loved that car, but now it was junk. Rutted tire tracks smashed through the front fence, the mailbox, several headstones, and coming to an end where she crashed into the side of the one crypt in the cemetery. Marie noted that had she been going a little faster, she probably would have hit the church building, too.

“Next time, I won’t swerve to miss a cat. That’s what I get for being nice, I guess.” He got up and stood beside her, also surveying the damage and shook his head.

“You know, it’s not really about the money, is it? Oh, I can just hear it now… Them Rigbys are gonna be hoppin’ mad that old lady Eleanor’s tomb was disturbed. They said she was mean in life, but Ellie would be a sight meaner in death!” He chuckled and took back the rest of the warm tea in one swift gulp. “Well they were right about that one. I remember ol’ Ellie Rigby back when I first got to this parish. She wanted nothing to do with a shiny new deacon-in-training. Almighty, that was a wicked woman. Only one who ever took a shinin’ to her was that ol’ Father Mackenzie, but he liked everybody anyhow. Ah well, couldn’ta happened to a nicer lady!”  He looked down again at the old hound, and she looked back up at her master waiting for his instruction. “Well, whaddya say, Sticks? Should we go find the phone and get somebody out here? We’ve got work to do.” Sticks woofed in approval.

“Ugh. Yes. Finally!” Marie said, and then felt bad for it. This lonely old parish priest probably never got visitors this far out in the country. He’d been kind and just made idle chat once he tended to her wounds. Even though she’d just wrecked her car and smashed his crypt, the guilt of her rudeness took control. The reverend reached down and rubbed to old dog’s head. The dog looked at Marie and gave a tired woof in admonishment for her poor manners. He rubbed her head again between the ears.

“That’s right Sticks, you go on an’ tell us all about it now.” Reverend Wrinkle opened the church office door and they cut across the empty and silent pews to the vestibule at the front door. The old dog wandered between them. Not overly excited about anything except just because the reverend was going somewhere, his faithful companion followed without hesitation. On a side table by the vestibule door sat Marie’s purse. She couldn’t remember bringing it inside. The purse had a large blood smear on the side right across the gold Coach emblem. She must have hit her head harder than she first thought.

“Oh no, my purse is ruined! Ah well. My phone is probab—”

Reverend Wrinkle picked it up and started rifling through it.

“Hey wait just a minute! What are yo—”

“A-ha! Here it is!” He held up her wallet. “Now let’s see who you are, lil’ missy.” He opened it up to her license. “Andromeda Marie Olson. Andromeda? Who names a poor kid something like that?”

“Well, excuse me for having parents who like science fiction. My dad was an actor,” she said as she swiped at her wallet. The reverend held it just out of reach and she missed. “Hey, give me that!”

He ignored her and opened the vestibule door. Marie gasped. On the table at the center of the room lie a young woman in her early 20s. Her head wrapped in a bandage, soaked through in red. Her eyes were open wide and dilated. Sprawled out on the table before her was Andromeda Marie Olson, and she was dead. Reverend Wrinkle looked down at the old brown Bloodhound, who quietly woofed back at him.

“I know it, girl. Poor little Andromeda. I guess there’s worse places to die than a cemetery in a churchyard, eh Sticks? Well don’t just sit there, ol’ girl. We’ve got rites to administer.”

“OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod…” Marie repeated frantically. “This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening!” She wrapped her arms around herself and started to cry. “That’s why you can’t hear me… Oh my God, I’m dead!”

“Now there’s where you’re wrong, Andromeda Marie,” Reverend Wrinkle said. “Well, right and wrong, I suppose. Yes, you are dead, but I can hear you just fine, and so can Sticks.” He went to the cabinet and pulled out a plastic tablecloth from some long-ago church picnic and covered her body. “It’s hard on everybody when they first see their own mortal vessel layin’ there all cold and stiff, but it does get a little easier with time.”

“This isn’t happening…”

“It is happening,” he interrupted. “It is, and it happens around here more than you might think. I got more spirits haunting this place than ol’ Sticks has fleas.” As if on cue, Sticks scratched her ear with a hind leg. “Only question we have to answer now is why are you still here?”

We?” Marie asked through the tears.

“Well in case you haven’t noticed, it’s just me and Sticks here, that’s who. This is what we do.” He sat in the wingback chair against the sidewall and crossed his legs while Sticks curled up by his foot. “You see, Andromeda—”

She held her hand up. “Please stop calling me that. I go by Marie.” She sat at the table next to her covered body, arms across herself, and unsure if her form would fall through the chair as she was now a ghost.

“Now don’t interrupt, Andromeda, or I won’t be able to help you. As I was about to say, you said a certain phrase back in the parlor that gave me all the inkling I need to know about your current predicament. It could be worse.”

Marie started feeling angry again at his choice of words. “Predicament? Predicament? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m dead, you moron! How much worse of a predicament could I be in?”

The reverend leaned forward with a squinted and piercing gaze. “Careful now, darlin’. There are worse things than being dead.” He said back with a grin. “Much worse.” With that, emotions resumed control and Marie broke down in sobs of anguish. Sticks sauntered over to her and rested her head on Marie’s leg to offer comfort. She looked down at the dog but saw something different this time. The warmth of the dog’s jowls on her leg was soothing; comforting in a way she couldn’t describe. All the sadness she felt over her own demise dissipated. The droopy eyes of the old hound sparkled like crystals. They offered a comfort unlike anything Marie had ever felt.

Sticks the Bloodhound

“You feel it, don’t cha? See, Sticks there, she has a gift. A gentle nudge from her and suddenly all seems right with the world. Ain’t it a grand thing?”

“It’s unreal,” Marie said and extended her hand to the dog’s head for a rub. “Can she feel me touch her?”

“Oh yes, she can feel it alright.” He scooted his chair a little closer to them and leaned in. “Just cause you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t interact with the physical world. It takes some practice, but you’ll be poltergeistin’ in no time.”

“Her eyes…” Marie continued to stare into the deep, dark pools of the dog’s red-rimmed eyes. They looked as if the whole universe was just on the other side of them.

“With the slightest touch, Sticks takes the fight right out of someone right down to the point of docile so I can talk some sense into them. You ready to hear some sense now?”

“I don’t want to talk,” she said as if in a trance. “I’m ready to go… Just let me go…” The reverend snapped his fingers under her nose and broke the spell Marie was falling under.

“Hey, hey… Andromeda. Hey, don’t go there yet. You’ll get to travel down that river eventually, but first I have to do my part.” Marie looked up blinking. “Yeah, there you are. Okay now, stay with me on this. In all my years of actin’ the ferryman, I’ve found this the easiest way for the newly-deads to get a grip on their situation. You ready?”

Marie was trying to pay attention to the reverend but could not shake the feeling from Sticks’ touch. Her mind was foggy with the euphoria of the revelations laid before her. She was dead, yet here she sat in a church vestibule with a priest and his dog talking about why she was still here as a spirit. This was definitely not how she thought the day would go. Sticks laid down by the reverend’s chair, breaking their connection. The emotion of her realizing her death crashed back in like a wave on the sea.

“Okay Andromeda, try this on for size. You told me I was the only one who could get you home. That’s how I knew you were dead. It’s the same phrase everyone says when we first meet.”

“Yes, that’s right. You’re the only one who knows the way back home.” Marie couldn’t figure out how she knew that, but she just knew.

“That’s partially true. I’m not the only one, but I’m the only one around here. Sticks has her gifts, and so do I. You see, certain people attract spirits; spirits with unfinished business here in the mortal realm. What I’m gonna tell you here will be a bit of a shock, but it’s my job to be your guide.”


“Yep. Hear me out. Psalms chapter 23, verse 4, you know it? It’s a famous one. Even the most heathenistic amongst humanity has heard it at least once. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. Sound familiar?” He leaned further forward, only inches from Marie’s face. “That valley is a real place and right now, you’re in it. But you can’t toil in there for long. Death only gives me so much time with you because it is his valley and he don’t suffer visitors much. I’m your guide out.” The storm outside increased to a fevered pitch. Marie could hear the rain pound on the tin roof above and the wind whistled through the trees outside. The reverend continued. “What we have to do is figure out which end of that valley you’re going out of.”

“This is crazy,” she said. “I have to be dreaming this. What in the hell is going on here?”

Sticks’ ears perked at the mention of hell. The reverend chuckled. “Funny choice of words there, darlin’, but you hit the nail pretty close to the head. That option is at one end of the valley.”

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon Marie… wake up. Wake up!”

“Andromeda Marie Olson, you are not sleeping, you are dead! You sit here in this room before me as a spirit separated from the body. The Book of James, chapter 2 verse 26 starts For as the body apart from the spirit is dead and I’m tellin’ you sweetheart, you are indeed dead. Sooner you accept it, the sooner we can get you goin’ home. Now, you ready to hear me yet?” He sat back and folded his arms awaiting and answer. Marie slumped is resignation.

“I’m truly dead…”

“Yes, you’re truly dead and for that I am sorry, but we’ll have time to mourn later. Right now, I need to get you on a path so I’m gonna need both those radar dishes on the side of your ghostly head pointed in my holy direction. We’re going to figure out what’s keeping you in this valley, and we should be quick about it. Just ’cause your dead doesn’t mean Death is finished with you yet. The Moonlit Man is coming and we don’t have much time. So now, are you ready to tell me which direction you wanna go?”

to be continued…

The Mausoleum of Ellie Rigby

More coming soon from Andromeda and Reverend Wrinkle. Stay tuned!

Based on the song, Reverend Wrinkle on the album Folklore and Superstition, by Black Stone Cherry. Let me know if you want to read more!

Lyle’s Sketch/Project of the Day: Fenrir-themed Viking Shield

I thought it would be fun to do a literary art/wood project, so I started brainstorming. While wasting time browsing Amazon, I found a place that sold a shield boss (that’s the round metal part in the center). Well you know I just had to have it. Now, about 4 months later, my Prose Edda literary art/wood project is complete! Here’s the stages of the project in photos. Enjoy!

My shield boss from Amazon
Next, I went to Lowe’s and bought a round tabletop blank and cut a hole in the center and routed out the sharp edge.
Once the boss was dry-fit, I marked out the hole
Shield boss pattern for later
Then I gave it two good primer spray coats
After finding the circumference center, I split the top in half with tape and a board to catch the overspray and painted half white.
After that dried, I repeated the process for the other half in green. The colors were simply ones I liked. No particular meaning.
In the end, I came out with this split-color shield blank
Then came the design elements. I decided to theme this project on Norse mythology in honor of my Finnish and Norwegian ancestry. I chose the great wolf, Fenrir, for the theme. This is the sketch pattern for the design of Fenrir.

In Norse Mythology, Fenrir is a wolf born of Loki and giantess Angrboda, the mother of monsters. Fenrir grew at an alarming rate to the Norse Gods and frightened them. Odin was particularly interested in seeing something done about this great and terrible beast when it was prophesied the wolf would devour and kill him during Ragnarok. The Gods tricked Fenrir into a game of strength by binding him with different strengths of chain to see if he could break them. He broke them all.

Little did Fenrir know that Odin went to the greatest craftsmen among the dwarves for a binding that could not be broken. They had just the thing: gleipnir. The super-strong silken bands were an enchanted concoction of a woman’s beard, a fish’s breath, root of a mountain, bird spittle, sinew of a bear, and the final ingredient, the sound of a cat’s footfall. Mixed together, they made an unbreakable bond.

Fenrir was wary of the God’s enthusiasm for this game, so when Odin proposed he try to escape a gleipnir binding, Fenrir demanded Tyr, the Norse God of Justice and Fenrir’s only friend among them, place his hand in Fenrir’s mouth while he tried to escape the gleipnir. They bound him up and as expected, he couldn’t break the binding. Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand as he struggled to free himself but the binding grew tighter with every thrash and twist. Before long, the great wolf was trapped.

Fenris faces Thor concept art.

From there, Odin had Fenrir imprisoned on the isle of Lyngvi where the beast would be kept until Ragnarok. While Fenrir was free, he had two sons; Hati, the one who hates, and Skoll, the one who mocks. The white wolf, Hati, would forever chase the moon while his brother, the black wolf, Skoll, would chase the sun. Once the brothers succeeded, they would devour the heavenly bodies and herald the coming of Ragnarok. They would then free their father to take his revenge on Odin and bring about the end of the world.

The valknut symbol, often associated with Odin and Fenrir. Three interlocking and never-ending triangles.
The pattern for Hati and Skoll.
I cut them out to stencil onto the shield below.
I traced the outline of my design sketches to paint.
Four coats of black laid the foundation for the detailing to begin.
Laying in and painting details for the valknut, Hati and Skoll. Then came Fenrir. I used paint pens and acrylics for the details.
Once the designs were fully transferred, detail work was underway. Here’s my final detail on Fenrir.
Detail for Skoll, who chases the sun, with his binding rune.
Detail for Hati, who chases the moon, with his binding rune.
A leather band was added to the edge for a more authentic look, and the names Hati and Skoll were added in runic letters.
And the final product. Hati and Skoll are bound to always chase, but never catch, the sun and moon to try and free their father.

I hope you’ve liked this. I truly enjoyed making it and learning my ancestor’s mythology. It was a fun challenge that taught me a few things. In the end, it gives me a wonderful conversation piece I am proud to say I made. That’s something I love about hand made items: they aren’t perfect. They are just the work of a simple artist doing what they love. Now it’s your turn. Go make something awesome!

My Dream Set List: Pink Floyd

It’s hard to talk about great music and not include Pink Floyd. The British super-group still outsells most of today’s artists since they dropped their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, back in 1967. Their music, in all it’s crazy and glorious forms, still represents a major segment of progressive rock that can never be duplicated, and a musical sound still unmatched, though many have tried.

The albums of Pink Floyd, from 1967 to present
The albums of Pink Floyd, from 1967 to present

I got to see them live in 1994 at the old Tampa Stadium (The Big Sombrero to the locals!) in Florida during the Division Bell tour. I had a nosebleed view of my second favorite band of all time and it was glorious. Not being a smoker, my seats were great, because floor seats were covered by an odd fog over the crowd that would have made it difficult to see! Even from my seat in the clouds, it was an awesome show I will never forget. Little did I realize, that tour would end in October and be their last full-length concert ever (minus the 18-minute reunion show Live 8 show in 2005). That means I got to see one of their final set lists live. It was excellent, but I have some changes for it.

Pink Floyd: Loaded with Drama

Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii in 1972
Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii in 1972

If you keep up with the band today, you know there are some rifts that may never heal between Roger Waters and David Gilmour. When Waters broke away in the early 80’s to launch a solo career, he declared Pink Floyd to be over with. The other members disagreed and went on without him, opening a chasm that to this day remains deep and wide.

Going back further to the Sid Barrett/Bob Klose days, there was more of a divide when Barrett left and David Gilmour was permanently added to the roster. All five were together for a few months, but times were tense. Let’s be honest here. While Sid launched the band and made some great—albeit weird—music, Pink Floyd would have been a footnote in musical history without David Gilmour. Waters alone could have pulled them a little higher, but it was Gilmour’s musical vision that sent the band into the stratosphere after Barrett’s departure. Hardcore fans may disagree, but search your feelings. You know it to be true.

Rare photo of all five members of Pink Floyd, including Syd Barrett, in 1968
Rare photo of all five members of Pink Floyd, including Syd Barrett, in 1968

I talk about their drama because I think that final set list they chose is due to much of the music that featured Waters’ parts being omitted. Whether or not that was intentional, we’ll never know. With that in mind, my dream set list would be if all five members (Barrett, Waters, Mason, Wright, and Gilmour) were still happily singing as one. First, let’s see what the actual set list was.

Their Final Tour and the Tale of Two Set Lists

Some songs rotated throughout the tour, but a major change in songs happened around July prior to the European shows. The first set list is as follows:

If you ever got to see Pink Floyd live, the laser show was always as good as the music
If you ever got to see Pink Floyd live, the laser show was always as good as the music

Opening Set:

Astronomy Domine, Learning to Fly, What Do You Want From Me, On The Turning Away, Take It Back, A Great Day For Freedom, Sorrow, Keep Talking, One of These Days,

Second Set:

Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts I thru V, Breathe, Time, Breathe (reprise), High Hopes, Great Gig in the Sky, Wish You Were Here, Us and Them, Money, Another Brick in the Wall, Comfortably Numb

…and the encore:

Hey You and Run Like Hell.

That was the set list I saw, and even though I was likely the only one in the stadium who wasn’t high, the crowd was berserk during the encore. Swaying and singing along to Hey You, and then almost moshing with pumping fists during Run Like Hell. And for the record, the greatest guitar solo ever in rock and roll is Gilmour’s outro of Comfortably Numb and I’ll fight those who disagree!

The second set list was similar for the most part, but set two saw Dark Side of the Moon played in its entirety and shifted the encore to Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb, and Run Like Hell. Surprisingly, the second list cut back the songs from the Division Bell album they were promoting. Even so, those are all great songs. But now, here’s what I would have chose for them.

My Pink Floyd Dream Set List

David Gilmour live at Pompeii
David Gilmour live at Pompeii

Everyone loves an opinion, so here’s mine. My additions to the existing list are in bold, and you can listen to them all at the YouTube Link below.

Opening Set:

  1. Welcome to the Machine
  2. Cirrus Minor blended intro to Wish You Were Here
  3. Astronomy Domine
  4. Arnold Layne
  5. See Emily Play
  6. The Nile Song
  7. Money
  8. Pigs on the Wing, Parts 1 & 2
  9. Learning to Fly
  10. The Great Gig in the Sky
  11. Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2
  12. A Great Day for Freedom

Second Set:

  1. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun blended intro to One of These Days
  2. On the Turning Away
  3. Poles Apart
  4. When the Tigers Broke Free
  5. The Dogs of War
  6. Hey You
  7. Is There Anybody Out There?
  8. Us and Them
  9. Brain Damage/Eclipse
  10. The Show Must Go On blended intro to Comfortably Numb
  11. Run Like Hell


  1. Mother
  2. Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I to V
My Dream Set List: Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd Dream Set List: Final Thoughts

The unlikely reunion for Live 8 was a huge deal for Pink Floyd fans. The rift between Waters and Gilmour divided fans as well as the band. Both of them went on to successful solo careers, and rumor has it they’ve finally buried their personal hatchets, though they do not perform together any longer.

Pink Floyd at Live 8 in 2005 - David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright
Pink Floyd at Live 8 in 2005 – David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright

In 2006, Syd Barret passed away. Even though he wasn’t involved with the band officially, many fans felt he was still a part of this odyssey through psychedelic rock. Shortly after in 2008, keyboardist Richard Wright passed away as well. Rogers went back to his solo career, and Mason and Gilmour went on to record Pink Floyd’s final and largely instrumental release Endless River in 2014. The cool part of the album is they have parts recorded by Wright prior to his death, so the three do appear once again. However, it didn’t receive high critical acclaim. That’s one reason none of it made it into my dream set list, but it’s still a good cut.

One of my prize musical collectibles: A vinyl Wish You Were Here album signed by Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters and David Gilmour.
One of my prize musical collectibles: A vinyl Wish You Were Here album signed by Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters and David Gilmour.

The music of Pink Floyd will live on long after the band members are gone. They are regarded as one of the most influential rock bands of all time and have sold a whopping 250 million albums the world over. I consider myself among the luckiest to have seen them live, even if it wasn’t the full band. It was an awesome show I will never forget.

Thanks for reading!

The World According to Me: To “Ma’am” Or Not To “Ma’am”. That, Sir, is the Question

C'mon, you think I'd write anything and not reference Star Wars? Anyway, where do you fall in the argument to use or not use honorifics?
C’mon now, you think this geek would write anything and not reference Star Wars? Anyway, where do you fall in the argument to use or not use honorifics?

I have reduced myself to a mere spectator on social media any more because of the ugly and divisive forum it has become. However, when I get the chance to peruse the feed, a nugget will pop up that’s too juicy to ignore. Recently on my feed, an acquaintance posted a meme that states the following:

“Biggest pet peeve: ‘Don’t call me sir or ma’am, I’m not that old’ – Listen, I got too many whoopings growing up to not call you sir/ma’am. Just let me respect you, ok?”

Facebook meme

My acquaintance proceeded to talk about how they do not condone the criticizing of children that don’t say sir or ma’am, and they do not teach their children this because in their upbringing, it was not done out of respect but from a place of control and dominance. It is their opinion that returning a yes or no to a question is acceptable and doesn’t need to be followed by sir or ma’am. It caused me to ponder a question: Do these honorifics need to become a thing of the past?

The No’s vs. the No Sirs

Any time you share a strong opinion on the internet, Newton’s third law of motion becomes a gob-smacking reality. It says for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This situation was no different. Acquaintances of my acquaintance began choosing sides. The great Facebook debate had begun. I read the responses with great interest, which ranged from a simple “I agree”, to “that’s bull____”, and everything between. Some spoke of their own upbringings and how they did or didn’t suffer the same punishments as my acquaintance for omitting or using the familiar form of address.

A rare photo of a real-life Facebook argument - (woman yelling at brick wall)
A rare photo of a real-life Facebook argument

I consumed them all with gusto. It was an extraordinary glimpse into human behavior over something I considered a non-starter. I know which camp I fall into, or at least, I did, but the great debate had me questioning my feelings on the subject. One particular exchange of ideas stood out, and forced me to ponder my own stance on an issue that I never realized was an issue. My best paraphrase of the exchange is that saying these formal terms are a sign of respect, to which the reply was respect is earned, not given. That phrase became the lightning rod for me.

My Own Upbringing and Experience

I was raised in the south, but I would not call my childhood a proper southern rearing. Florida is a mighty collection of transplants, so it’s hard to say Florida is truly southern. However, aspects of being raised by my dad and two grandmothers from Iowa allow adjustments for anything. While I was never forced to say ma’am or sir as a child, I always found it a better way to communicate with people older than me because using the words elevated me above the old saying children should be seen and not heard. By using these terms to address my elders, I was given the same amount of respect I was giving conversationally by people much older than me. And the interesting part is I learned that on my own without parental coercion.

Me and my dad, circa 1985
Me and my dad, circa 1985

The phrase respect is earned, not given is a conundrum. While it’s a true statement, respect is a red herring people chase endlessly and sometimes never catch. In hearing that phrase, my mind goes instantly to a newly-minted MMA fighter that feels like they have to trash talk and beat the baddest fighter in their ranks to get respect; that they have to go in and force it from their peers. Perhaps in that world, that is how respect is quantified, but in the everyday, non-MMA world, respect should never be forced from anyone. At the same time however, it shouldn’t have to be forced. Respect should be given freely until some reason arises where it can no longer be given.

I would go so far as to contend a lack of freely given respect is a major source of societal woe. In my day job, I often work with staff much younger than me. I respond to every one of them with sir or ma’am at the end of a greeting or statement. It is not always returned, and I don’t require it. But what I aim to do is show them I will give them all of my respect until they give me a reason not to. In the end, my staff usually hums like a well-oiled machine because they know where I stand with them. I may be the supervisor, but I respect the job I have trained them to do and their ability to do it, and treat them accordingly. By giving my respect freely to them, they, in turn, give it right back. For some, it takes a while for them to figure out how this mutual respect dynamic works, but in the end, they all get it.

If you have to earn respect, how do you do that?

"What you do has far greater impact than what you say." - Stephen Covey

I can only use my personal method on this, as I’m certain methods will differ based on the personalities you are working with. If I feel I have to earn someone’s respect, there’s two ways I attempt do it:

1 – Leading by Example

My staff knows there is not a single job in my purview that is beneath me. If it happens to be cleaning toilets, washing dishes, or any other job no one really wants to do, I’ll be right there shoulder to shoulder with them doing it. That does not mean I’ll do it for them (if that’s their job), but I am willing to help them if needed. No task can be beneath you. That is the price of being a good leader.

2 – Servant Leadership

My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I’ll say that again: My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I am not here to show my employees how to do everything and then watch them do it. I am here to teach them to be better versions of themselves. It is my responsibility as their leader to develop my staff into my business equals. It is my responsibility to ensure they are properly trained and to push them farther. It is my job to learn their goal and help them achieve it. It’s a job I take seriously.

Commanding respect with an iron-fist approach of do as I say and not as I do is a certain guarantee of disrespectful anarchy. Put these two principles into practice and I promise you will have no issues with respect, and you won’t ever have to ask… they’ll call you sir or ma’am of their own accord regardless of any upbringing.

Using Sir/Ma’am as a Sign of Dominance?

I can’t say taking these formalities as a sign of dominance is untrue because everyone’s experience is different. From the description, it would seem my acquaintance had a difficult time of it. It’s not for me to judge how someone was raised or the trials they faced. I spent eight years working as a civilian for the military. While no one ever told me (as a civilian) to address officers or enlisted soldiers in a specific way other than by rank, I still used the formal address when speaking to them. It wasn’t the product of any southern rearing or demand from anyone. It was just the right thing to do. Again, everyone’s experience is different, but I wouldn’t go up to my commander at the time and say “Hey Bobby, how’s it going?”. While I did become friendly with many of my military co-workers, I never felt dominated in any conversations with them. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

One of my old business mentors told me a saying I’ll never forget. Familiarity breeds contempt. The basis is, the more you know about someone, the less you respect them. Business superiors are not your friends. They are in those positions for a reason: to run the business. You can be professionally friendly with them, but the more you know of them personally, the less of a supervisor they are and the more of a buddy they become. Does this mean you can’t have friends at work? Of course not. Does this mean your boss doesn’t care about you? Of course not. I care a great deal for my staff and their personal well-being. You spend more waking time with your co-workers in a week than you do with your own family. It is a word of caution, however. Keep business relationships professional and above board. Freely give your respect while it is deserved.

Societal use of sir and ma’am has another consideration among gender identity politics. Folks who identify themselves as different genders other than their outwardly appearance are requesting not to be categorized by these terms. What some would see as a sign of respect is viewed by others as a sign of disrespect if you get it wrong. Whether you believe in a person’s choice to choose gender or not, at least in this argument, is irrelevant. If you’re going to use honorifics and you can’t be sure of who you’re addressing, it may be incumbent on you to find another way.

What’s my point in all this?

In the end, I can only govern myself and be responsible for my actions. I don’t think the mandatory use of ma’am or sir should be required by anyone except within your own parenting structure or within a military environment. While I can see both sides of the “dominance” argument, I do not require it from my children or staff. I’ll let their own respect-o-meters determine what honorific they use.

Where the world could use some improvement is when someone gets it wrong. Attacking a person for an attempt at respectful dialogue is wrong in any arena. Even minor corrections, like “I’m not that old, don’t call me ma’am”, or “My father was sir, I am not” are unnecessary. Even if those are said in jest, it creates an awkward situation that can have lingering effects. Allow the person to use their own judgement of you and practice their own culture. If you must make a correction, do it politely and quietly and move on.

While my theory on this is far from scientific, I will make you one guarantee. If you ever meet me, I can promise you I will grant you the utmost respect right out of the gate, and will likely call you sir or ma’am. Please don’t take it as a sign of dominance or a remark on your age. I say it out of my well-full of freely given respect.

My Dream Set List: RUSH

Author’s note: This article originally appeared for another website I write for, www.thathashtagshow.com and originally appeared on May 8th.

Over four decades of live performances, Rush dazzled crowds with some of the most amazing music three people could make, and each set for each show had it’s own unique flair. I was fortunate enough to see Rush live one time during the R30 Tour. Looking back, I had multiple opportunities to see them. Let’s face it, these guys were on tour more times than they were off.

The R40 Tour in 2015 was their last, and featured songs from across their multi-decade catalog. It was great, for certain, but it needed more oomph in my opinion. So now, let’s turn their final set list on it’s ear and speculate on what it should have been!

In writing this piece, I have the benefit of already knowing the songs they chose for the last-ever live Rush performance, and it was tremendous. However, everyone has an opinion. There were some tunes I would rather have heard than the ones they ended up choosing. First, let’s dive in to that final show set and see what they actually played.

Rush’s Final On-stage Performance

On August 1, 2015, Rush took the stage for the final time at the Los Angeles Forum. That’s not to say the individual musicians never played again. I have zero doubt the requests for special guest performances poured in from everywhere. I was particularly fond of Geddy Lee performing with Yes! at their rock and roll hall of fame induction. Alex Lifespan jamming with the Trailer Park Boys was great, too. Other bands and musicians adored Rush. Many of them wouldn’t be where they were/are if not for our trio of pioneer prog-rockers.

In that final show, they left nothing on the table and ground out a 26-song show that included tunes they rarely played live over their 40+ year touring career. Here’s the last show set list:

Final Concert Opening Set:

The Anarchist, Headlong Flight, Far Cry, The Main Monkey Business, One Little Victory, Animate, Roll the Bones, Distant Early Warning, Losing It, Subdivisions.

Final Concert Second Set:

Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta, Spirit of the Radio, Jacob’s Ladder, Cygnus X-1 – part II: prelude part 1 and drum solo, Closer to the Heart, Xanadu, 2112: parts I, II, IV and VII.

…and the Encore:

Lakeside Park, Anthem, What You’re Doing, Working Man.

That’s a who’s-who list of Rush’s greatest hits. Also, keep in mind their songs are not 3-and-a-half minute bubble gum pop-boppers. These are long and complex tracks. You won’t find the standard, three or four-chord pop riffs anywhere in here.

Everyone Loves An Opinion, So Here’s Mine On What Rush’s Final Set List Should Have Been.

If I were writing their last set list, Rush would hate me because they probably would have to be carried off stage in stretchers when I was through. As philosophically dreamy as it may sound, nothing lasts forever. Not even the immense on-stage stamina of Rush. The guys were ailing when the R40 Tour rolled around. For any band, life on the touring road is grueling. Though Lee said he felt pretty good throughout, his voice during R40 was different. Lifeson was struggling with staving off arthritis for a three-hour show, and Peart was dealing with some serious medical issues of his own.

“(The) last gig was a difficult night. But what you’re talking about is really what was going through Neil’s mind. He was struggling throughout that tour to play at his peak, because of physical ailments and other things that were going on with him. He’s a perfectionist, and he didn’t want to go out and do anything less than what people expected of him. That’s what drove him his whole career, and that’s the way he wanted to go out, and I totally respect that.”

Geddy Lee to Ultimate Classic Rock

My dream set list for Rush’s Farewell Tour

Keep in mind while reading this, that Rush cut over 180 songs across their discography and 26 made the original list. That’s nearly 15% of their song catalog in that final three-hour show. That is a lot of awesome Rush as it stands. However, if I were king for the day, here’s how it would go. Songs that were not on the original list are in bold.

Opening Set

Opening tape: The Three Stooges Theme, then it fades into the opening riff for what I think it the tightest Rush opening track, Anthem from Fly by Night.

  1. Anthem
  2. By-Tor and the Snow Dog
  3. The Trees
  4. Working Man
  5. Xanadu
  6. Marathon
  7. Test for Echo
  8. The Wreckers
  9. Presto
  10. Far Cry
  11. Countdown
  12. Cygnus X-1: Book II (in it’s entirety)

Second Set

Opening tape: The original 1984 Count Floyd introduction fades into…

  1. The Weapon
  2. The Main Monkey Business
  3. Closer to the Heart
  4. Spirit of the Radio
  5. Leave That Thing Alone
  6. Dreamline
  7. Losing It
  8. Subdivisions
  9. 2112: Parts I and V
  10. Jacob’s Ladder
  11. Freewill
  12. YYZ


  1. Red Barchetta
  2. Time Stand Still
  3. La Villa Strangiato
  4. Tom Sawyer

It hurt to cut out others I wanted, like A Farewell to Kings, Ghost Rider, BU2B, Bravado. Force Ten, Bastille Day, The Necromancer, The Garden, and Cygnus X-1: Book I, among many, many others. But sadly, a concert can only last so long. By my calculation, my dream list above would be just over four hours. However, that’s my list and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and Neil can have drum solos anywhere he wants for all I care!

Final Thoughts On My Rush Dream Set List

While I’m sure my set list will not satisfy every Rush fan, I look through that track list and could simply put it on repeat for days. There’s a representation of every era of Rush tucked in there. All the major hits are covered, and there’s a few of my dark horse favorites mixed in. It’s a fan’s fan list of all the ones we know and love.

It seems the old adage of how artists typically aren’t famous until they are gone did not apply here. The untimely passing of Neil Peart solidified in my mind that true artistry in the age of information is recognized quickly and spreads to the masses like lightning in real time. Rush was on the forefront of technology before it was cool, and we got a front row seat to musical brilliance that started in 1974 and brought down the house in 2015.

This was not an easy list to make by any means. While writing my Rush discography reviews, I listened to each song multiple times over the course of months I was writing it. There’s so many that deserve a spot on this list. I’ll boldly declare there has never been, nor will there ever be another band quite like Rush. All fans of rock-and-roll were fortunate to witness their talent and blessed to share in their music.

What does your dream set list look like? To learn more about Rush, visit their official site at www.rush.com. Rock on!

Lyle’s Sketch of the Day! May the Fourth: Star Wars Edition

Along with the rest of the fandom, I celebrated Star Wars Day with a couple sketches of my own while taking a break from writing Star Wars: Lifeboat. I suppose I fall into the category of fans that watched Episodes 7, 8, & 9 but wasn’t overly thrilled with them. However, I feel Disney is on the road to redemption with their direction of the franchise on Disney Plus.

The Clone Wars finale was outrageously good, The Mandalorian is phenomenal, and the slate of upcoming Star Wars projects (Obi-Wan, Cassian Andor, and more) looks great. So, in honor of May the Fourth and Revenge of the Fifth, here’s some Star Wars sketches. I even tried to learn a little Aurebesh. Enjoy!

Now that The Clone Wars is over, the best chance to see more Maul is if they finally make a Solo 2
“The Child” eyeing the biggest chiccy nugget in the galaxy!

Lifeboat: A Star Wars Fan Fiction, Part V

Last time in our fan fiction Star Wars: Lifeboat

Inda Krest, Meera Dyre and the rest of the surviving Imperials from the Death Star II arrive at Volusia to raid the Aloo Family star yacht, only to be ambushed by the opportunistic bounty hunter, Gekko!

Now, in Part V, we flash back a final time to join Darth Vader and Lieutenant Seeda at The Temple of the Kyber on the ancient moon of Jedha. The Emperor has ordered his apprentice to restart the stalled Kyber crystal excavation and retrieve two artifacts from the temple. While the crystal mining gets back underway, a rebel faction on Jedha, led by the outlaw Saw Gerrera, learns of Vader’s arrival at the temple and attempts to take him out. And now, Part V

Temple of the Kyber, The Holy City, Moon of Jedha – 1BBY (5 years earlier)

credit: Luscafilm

Darth Vader never felt such a strong disturbance in the Force as he did the day his ship entered orbit over the ancient moon of Jedha. Many considered the moon to be the site of the first Jedi Temple. In reality, Jedha held the largest known deposits of natural Kyber crystals in the galaxy, and the Empire’s mining operation of those crystals had stalled. Completion of Project: Stardust depended on restarting the mine, despite the obstacles the operation faced. Kyber wasn’t the only thing plentiful on Jedha. The moon was crawling with troublesome rebels, known as The Partisans. Completion of his fortress on Mustafar would have to wait. The Emperor needed Vader on Jedha to ensure the crystals were harvested without further incident.

His master commanded. Vader obeyed.

He sat in his stateroom watching their approach from the video feed at the nose of the ship. The Holy City of Jedha sat atop a mesa in the middle of a vast desert. The smashed ruins of the Imperial ground base sat in the foothills before it. Rebels had sacked it a month prior, delaying Kyber harvesting and forcing the mining operation to move aboard the Star Destroyer Dauntless, which now hovered above the city. As he watched, the disturbance pulsated as the crystals cried out in agony. Something was disturbing them, sending shock waves through the Force unlike anything he had ever felt.

Imperial Navy Destroyer Dauntless over Jedha City

In the shadow of the Dauntless stood the ancient Temple of the Kyber, dominating the skyline of the bustling city formed around it. The two towering forked spires jutted into the sky as if to tune the very winds to the will of its masters. He noted the similarities the structure to Momin’s final design of Fortress Vader back on Mustafar. A simple coincidence? Perhaps the Force brought me here with purpose after all, he mused. He surmised the design must be significant in channeling the energies of the Force. He would consult with Momin’s depraved Sith spirit upon his return home. Fortress Vader on Mustafar must serve the same purpose as the temple here on Jedha, but to a greater degree. Still, the crystals wept.

Four TIE-Interceptors took up flanking positions on their final approach to the Dauntless. The comm speaker buzzed and a caption appeared on Vader’s screen showing the burly Commander Kyson, resplendent in the fineries of his formal Imperial uniform.

“Lord Vader, you honor us with your presence on Jedha. How may my forces and I be of service?”

“Commander Kyson,” Lord Vader growled back. “Your Kyber refinement production is behind schedule. I am here to update your process and reignite your passion for meeting The Emperor’s deadlines.”

“I assure you, my Lord, we are operating at full capacity,” came the timid reply. “We boast the highest efficiency rating from Imperial Industrial Command, and from Director Krennic.”

“The Emperor does not share your enthusiasm for that rating. What is the status of your progress?”

“In a word, my Lord, remarkable. We are excavating the largest crystal ever recorded in the Imperial archives. The size is well beyond what is needed for Stardust’s main weapon. It connects into a chamber under the temple we cannot explain, and we are studying it’s structure before proceeding. Removing it could collapse the whole temple. Surely this momentous discovery merits a merciful delay.”

“The Emperor is a great many things that I am not, Commander, and one of them is merciful. Prepare to receive my shuttle and appropriate escort to your excavation site. I’ll will see this progress-hindering crystal myself,” Vader replied in annoyance.

“Of course, my Lord. Our finest battalion will escort you at your leisure.”

“Tell me of the rebels that plague your operation,” Vader asked, abruptly changing the subject.

Kyson shifted uncomfortably. “Vermin and local scum, my lord. Nothing more than paltry annoyance, I assure you. My men are dealing with them swiftly.” He tried to sound confident, but Vader knew he was lying.

“That is your error, Commander. You do not deal with rebels; you crush them. Your lack of fortitude emboldens their attacks. I will assume command of your three attack battalions and see them destroyed. Have your battle plans prepared for my review.” Kyson kept his composure, but Vader could sense the insult spark an anger brimming over in the sluggard officer. For too long, Orson Krennic’s pet, Commander Kyson, has sat safely on his laurels. It was time for a change to his operations, whether Krennic wanted it or not. “The rebels have continuously embarrassed you and the Empire, Commander Kyson. I will no longer accept delay as an excuse for laziness.”

“At once, My lord. We await your arrival with great antici—”

“Your pleasantries are not required, only your compliance.” He ended the transmission.

The only thing Vader expected to find in Kyson’s strategy was more excuses, delays and failures. In his mind, Vader already knew the battle plan he would follow, using himself as bait to lure out the rebels. No doubt the brazen extremist Saw Gerrera would seize the opportunity to strike such a large target as Darth Vader, and when he did, the trap would spring. He tapped a key at his console and the Empire’s last verified image of Gererra—in a flickering, blue-lined hologram—emerged upward from the projector.

The Emperor knew Vader would be tempted to prioritize hunting the rebels over recovering artifacts, especially considering the history Anakin Skywalker and Gerrera had during the Clone Wars. Darth Vader was no errand boy. Seeda and his two pet Royal Guards could excavate the entire moon if they wished. Vader was a warrior, and today he would strike down his old rebel opponent without mercy.

“All those years ago, you should have died on Onderon with your sister, yet here you are—still vexing my authority,” Vader said to himself, staring down into the image of this rebel from his past. He reached out with an open hand and his lightsaber flew to his side, pulled to him by the Force and ignited the room in a bright red glow. “It will be my pleasure to finally end you.”

At the rear of the shuttle, Lieutenant Seeda looked out the viewing window at the desolate landscape trailing behind them.

Ruins of ancient Jedi civilization crumbled to dust in their wake. Jedha was a historical treasure-trove of Jedi lore. Seeda was excited to be here, though he could not outwardly express it. He couldn’t wait to get down there to root out Jedha’s secrets, but enthusiasm for anything other than the Empire’s goals was frowned upon. The pilot announced their final approach as the shuttle passed underneath the great shadow of the destroyer. Seeda could see other large cargo shuttles taking off for the surface after unloading their Kyber hauls.

“Lieutenant Seeda,” came the booming electronic voice of Darth Vader behind him, startling Seeda and making him jump with surprise. How could he have not heard him approach? “Are you prepared for your mission?”

“Yes, my lord. My apologies, you startled me. I am completely prepared. I’ve uploaded the latest Imperial archives on Jedha and her histo—”

“Good. When we arrive, you will have access to all records of artifacts recovered from the temple. Report to me immediately if any discoveries contain ancient Sith references. When your analysis is complete, you will muster with the escort protection detail and proceed to the Temple.”

“Of course, my lord. Though, Jedha was the home of ancient Jedi, not the Sith. Do you expect we’ll find anything to the contrary?”

“Focus on your area of expertise, Lieutenant. Once you have something, report to me at once. Tell no one of your discoveries except me. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Lord Vader, perfectly clear.”

As the shuttle settled into the hangar, they gathered at the ramp to debark. Through the viewing window, they could see another shuttle being off-loaded with canisters of what Seeda assumed were Kyber crystals. The only sound among them was the intermittent electronic breath of Darth Vader. The sound made Seeda uncomfortable.

“If I may say, it does appear moving the mining operation aboard the Dauntless has guaranteed greater security,” Seeda said and instantly regretted it. The casual manner of their conversation lulled him into a false sense of familiarity with the Sith Lord. Darth Vader did not answer to anyone except the Emperor, especially not a lowly Imperial Navy lieutenant.

Seeda braced for reprisal for his insolence, but the response he received surprised him.

“Your observations on security protocol is not required,” Vader dismissed the notion with a wave of the hand. “However, your assumption is wrong. The loss of surface operations has doubled the resources needed to refine the crystals. Commander Kyson is a fool. He has more than enough troops to secure the city, yet he hesitates because he is weak. I will not tolerate interference from his ineptitude, nor the rebels, with this mission.”

Seeda looked up at the massive black-clad figure with a puzzled look. “Won’t you be joining our expedition force to the Temple site?”

“The Emperor’s pets will keep you safe,” Vader said, gesturing to the guards behind them. “I have a more important matter to attend. I will join you once my trap is set.”

“Trap, my lord? I don’t unders—” The hiss of the nose ramp lowering drowned out the rest of his statement. In a flourish of black robes, Vader turned down the ramp with Seeda in step. Immediately after him, the two guards filed behind. A throng of pristine, white-clad Storm Troopers in a robust display of Empirical might were assembled on deck. At their head, a hulking officer in his formal Imperial uniform turned to greet them.

“Lord Vader, this is a most unexpec—” were the only words he got out. Vader extended his hand, stopping his speech in mid-sentence. The large officer lifted from the ground, his shined boots flailing as he clutched his throat and gasped for air. With a slow twist of other his wrist, Vader plucked the struggling Commander’s code cylinders from his breast pocket. They hovered out before the wide eyes of Kyson as he gasped. The tiny cylinders flew to Vader’s outstretched hand.

“Commander Kyson, you are relieved.”

Vader flicked his wrist, and the officer soared across the hangar to the open cargo bay doors. His breath returned in time for Seeda to hear his final scream as he plummeted from the Dauntless into the sands of Jedha far below. Vader turned to Seeda and extended his hand, passing the cylinders to him.

“The records I require reside in Kyson’s office. You may begin.” Vader then turned to address the mass of Storm Troopers assembled before them. “You will stabilize a route to the Temple below. Clear the streets and lock down the city. Let none stand in your way!” His challenge was met with a stomp to attention and a thousand white-armored raised fists.

Residents of the Holy City below were about to understand what it meant to be ruled by the Empire.

The holotable in Kyson’s office was already lit when Seeda arrived. The guards took flanking positions outside the door as it hissed shut, leaving him to work undisturbed. Before him, projecting up six feet into the room, was a holographic maze of green lines outlining the tunnels explored thus far beneath the Temple of the Kyber. Blinking red dots showed at the end of each tunnel with active excavation, and dots of blue marked tunnels already mined and abandoned. At the base of the map was a large, flashing yellow arrow. A few taps at the keyboard told Seeda this is where excavation has halted because of a massive crystal blocking the path forward. He zoomed in the projection to the highest resolution on the yellow area and could see why this brought production to a stand-still.

The crystal truly was a one-of-a-kind discovery. A quick scan of his Imperial archive records showed no other of this size or arrangement ever recorded. Even more unique was the crystal, itself. It was hollow, creating a chamber within, but the energy signature of the structure blocked whatever was inside it. It was also directly beneath the split towers, making the massive crystal an integral part of the foundation.

So that’s why you delayed all this, Kyson, he thought while intently studying the holographic data. One wrong move and the whole temple comes crashing down.

Seeda sneered. He hadn’t properly set foot on Jedha yet, and her secrets were already spilling into his hands.

Based on his records, a Kyber crystal of this size and properly harnessed could power half of Coruscant for decades. He understood Kyson’s desire to harvest it whole. That feat would certainly have gained favor with the Emperor, but patience was not a virtue encouraged by the Empire, as Kyson probably realized when he fell three-thousand feet to his death moments before. He was about to close his data-pad and compile his report for Lord Vader when a filename blip on the screen caught his eye:

Whills – Black Sun Sith glyph

The title said Whills and followed by an ancient Sith symbol; Borzûm, the Black Sun. “Well, hello there little symbol, what are you doing here?” Seeda again tapped again at the keys bringing up the file.

The symbol was a small black circle with black rays emanating forth, very similar to the symbol adopted by the Empire but not encircled. To the untrained eye, it could easily be mistaken for a sloppy rendition of the latter, but Seeda recognized it immediately. He plugged Kyson’s code cylinder into the console and the file opened. Seeda drank in every word and image within, reading as fast as he could. Kyson had made an incredible discovery and didn’t even know it! He ran to the door, knocking over his chair in his excitement. He burst into the hallway, where Captains Vario and Krest were startled by his sudden appearance. They dropped their Force pikes into defensive positions, ready to attack before realizing it was just their charge in an excited state.

“Quickly, Captain!” he shouted at Vario. “Contact Lord Vader immediately. I’ve made a momentous discovery!”

Within minutes, the office door hissed open to a mass of black robes sweeping through the opening. “What have you discovered?” There was never fanfare with Darth Vader. He spoke, and others obeyed.

“My lord, I’ve made tremendous progress!” Seeda could no longer contain his excitement, even in front of the terrifying dark lord. “Commander Kyson was on the verge of the most incredible find in galactic history and didn’t know what he was doing!”

“Unless you wish to share his fate, explain yourself,” Vader commanded. “Speak plainly, Lieutenant.”

“It’s not simply just a large Kyber Crystal, per say—,” he replied.

“I grow tired of your enigmatic mutterings. What have you found, Seeda?”

“My lord, it’s a vault… A vault of the Whills.”

Vader was silent for a moment as he mulled over Seeda’s claim. He knew of midichlorians and the Whills, however, he long ago dismissed their existence as Jedi dogma; a way for the Republic’s Jedi Masters to arbitrarily judge the worthiness and strength of a Jedi Knight. Just another myth perpetuated for control. For now, he would entertain Seeda’s notion until he could discover the true nature of this revelation. “And what is in this vault?”

“What’s inside it is what’s inside you, Lord Vader… inside is what you desire most!” Seeda replied in excitement. “You see, the Whills ar—”

Vader was intrigued, but not convinced yet. “And what of this Borzûm? This Black Sun?”

“A mystery I cannot yet explain, my lord,” Seeda turned back to the keyboard and brought up the symbol on the holotable. The glyph spun in a slow circle, casting long shadows throughout the room. “The Borzûm is an ancient Sith philosophical symbol, a Memento Mori of sorts, used by Sith Lords of old as a reminder of mortality; a glorification of the idea we are all dead men walking under a black sun. For the most ambitious of them, the Borzûm was taken as a challenge to achieve immortality and defeat death before it defeated them. But why a Sith symbol is prominently carved into the wall of a Jedi holy site eludes me. It shouldn’t be here.”

Suddenly, all the pieces of this mystery began to fall into place in Darth Vader’s mind.

Could this truly be what he has sought after all this time? Is this how he can return Padme to the world of the living? The works of Darth Plagueis were here, finally, a mere parsec of where he stood. So many questions with so few answers. He must find out more. “You believe the vault contains the arcane Sith knowledge to cheat death?” he asked Seeda.

He shuffled a moment in uncomfortable silence. Not having an answer for Lord Vader could be a death sentence at times. This could be one of those times, as Seeda had no idea what was inside the vault. “I cannot answer that for certain, but all I have seen on the subject suggests that yes, it may be so.” He braced for the reply.

“Make preparations, Lieutenant,” Vader said with impatience and spun on his heel toward the door. “We leave for the Temple at once.”

The streets to the Temple were lined with Storm Troopers going house-to-house. The people of Jedha City were strewn about around them; standing with their hands up, lying prone as their homes were searched, or laying dead in the gutters. All of them were facing the barrel of an E-11 standard-issue Imperial Blaster. The Empire descended like a hammer into the populace and laid waste to those who resisted. The armored transport rumbled through the middle of it, finally halting in front of the Temple steps where Darth Vader and Varon Seeda debarked to begin the second part of their mission. Captains Vario and Krest took up flanks beside them. A battalion of Storm Troopers formed ranks between them and the street rabble behind. Even so, Lieutenant Seeda was nervous.

“We should have taken a shuttle, my lord,” Seeda remarked as they went inside. “You are too exposed using ground transport. The city’s unrest could boil over any moment.”

“Again, you offer assessment of security protocols without prompting. A third assessment will ensure you are transferred to the ISB front lines.”

Seeda knew when it was best to stay silent. Vader did not need further reply from him, only compliance. He mounted his holo-pad to his wrist and the same map from Kyson’s office sprung up from his hand projector. “The tunnel entrance is behind the altar. This way.” They marched through the crumbling ruins of long-forgotten statues of ancient Jedi and columns carved in Aurebesh, and other languages Seeda could not begin to understand. He wanted to stop and study each one, but Darth Vader remained laser-focused on the tunnels below. As he said, on the floor behind the altar was a large hole into the ground. A stone-carved stair went down into darkness. “The excavation continues below. We need to be mindfu—”

“The Emperor’s prize awaits us, and he is not as patient as I. Lead me to the vault.” Vader commanded. He could still hear the crystals and their wails of agony. The closer they drew to the altar, the louder they were. Something beneath the Temple was making them scream out through the Force.

Seeda descended first. Darth Vader took one step down and suddenly, the wailing of the crystals ceased. Silence.

Vader could sense them all turning their attunement to him, reaching out to him, searching his mind to find out who now walks among them so powerful in the Force. He could tell the Force-sensitive guards noticed the quiet as well. He could hear a tiny voice echo through to him but could not discern what it said. With each step deeper into Jedha, the voice steadily grew. Then, he could hear it plainly.

Come to us, Chosen One, it said. We await your presence.

He did not reply, but pressed on behind Seeda, his hand at the ready over his lightsaber. He detected no danger in the voice, but something about it made Vader uneasy.

Beware, Chosen One, it said again. One among you is not what they appear. You are in danger.

As they descended further down, they passed Imperial workers continuing to mine their crystals, though they stopped at the spectacle of Darth Vader passing among them in the tunnels. Each stopped working and saluted smartly as the party passed, but Vader paid them little mind. The voice kept speaking to him with each step, warning him.

You are in danger, Chosen one. One below will betray you. Enter the kyber vault. We will protect you and your companions. The others shall perish.

They wove a path through the gaunt faces of miners. Most were prisoners or conscripts from the locals. Storm Troopers from the 43rd Salagori Lancers were stationed every few meters to keep them in line. Their eyes all fell to the ground when Vader passed. He could sense their fear as he traversed the tunnel lower and lower to the source of the voices. He could not determine if the Royal Guards heard them, too. If they did, they did not react.

Kyber foundation of The Temple of the Kyber, Jedha

The deeper into the cavern they went, the more workers were present.

We await you, Chosen One. Make haste.

“We’re almost there, my lord. The entrance should be just ahead.” Seeda adjusted his instruments and zoomed in on their location. “The energy emanating from these caverns is creating interference with—”

“It is not the crystals…” Lord Vader stopped. Turning to his left, he reached out his hand and a shriek of agony came from a group of prisoners huddled against the wall. The Royal Guards ran forward and pulled forward a man in rags, and in his hand was a transmitter beacon. Two Storm Troopers rushed forward and forced the man to the ground, but it was not necessary. Vader had already crushed his windpipe. He took his final gasp as the transmitter rolled from his dead hand to Seeda’s feet. He picked it up and turned it off. Suddenly, his instruments sparked back to life.

“He is here…” Vader said. He turned swiftly to the two Lancers and they snapped to attention. “Troopers, form ranks behind us and remove this rabble from our path! Seeda, get me to that chamber. We are not safe here for long.”

Hurry, Chosen One. It is urgent we speak.

As the troopers herded the miners back up the tunnel, blaster fire erupted behind them. Seeda jumped with a start.

“Keep going, Lieutenant.”

The sounds of battle erupted behind them as they quickened their pace down the tunnel. Vader could feel the walls tremble as they delved deeper down. The crystals reached out to him, driving him lower into the mine, drawing him closer to the source of the voices.

Make haste, Chosen One. Your enemy is upon you.

The cavern opened around a sharp bend and opened into a small chamber. The walls glittered with kyber fragments, drawing their eyes to the back of the chamber. Before them was a solid wall of opaque crystal, easily five times the height of a man. They could not see the top or bottom, and both sides were occluded by the rock walls. There was no way for certain to determine how big it actually was. On the floor before it, in a sunken and faded relief carving, was distinctly the Borzûm.

They are behind you.

“Welcome to Jedha, Darth Vader,” came a raspy voice from the cavern entrance. They all turned to see a large man in well-worn armor, flanked by four heavily armed miners. The Royal Guards took defensive positions in front of Vader and Seeda. Vader suddenly lit the small room red by igniting his lightsaber.

“Saw Gerrera.”

Saw Gerrera confronts Darth Vader

“This is indeed a joyous day, my brothers,” Saw said as he took a long pull of oxygen from a face mask in his armor. “Today, we remove a major piece from the galactic board. Today will be remembered as the day we buried Darth Vader beneath the Holy City.”

“And there is your mistake, rebel. Your arrogance has blinded you and your sycophants.” He pulled a communicator from his belt. “Moff Raythe, fire when ready. Vario, Krest, attend me.” A massive explosion shook the cavern, causing rubble to fall from the ceiling. The guards collapsed back to either side of Vader, pushing Seeda back against the crystal. Saw and the rebels looked around in confusion.

“You’ll kill us all!” Gerrera shouted.

“It is you who will be buried here, Gerrera. You will never make it out in time. This cavern will be your tomb!”

“And yours! My sacrifice will be small to yield the death of the dark lord of the Sith!” He reached to his belt and armed a thermal detonator, hurling it at them with all his might.

“As the Temple Masters used to say, all is as the Force wills it. Guards, touch the crystal!” They reached back and placed their hands on the smooth surface. Vader retracted his saber and grabbed Seeda’s arm with an iron grip. When he placed his other hand between the two guards’, a brilliant flash of light erupted as the detonator exploded at the same moment he touched the shimmering green crystal. The world suddenly became brilliant white light and total silence.

When Darth Vader awoke, the red tint of his helmet lenses was gone. He could see and feel brilliant white light all around him. It was warm and inviting. He rose, catching a shocking glimpse of his hands; his pink, fleshy hands. Gone were the mechanical digits he had grown accustom to. They quickly went to his face, and did not feel the cold, hard edges of his fearsome helmet, but of more flesh. His face was uncovered. A brief moment of panic set over him as he took in a deep, unassisted breath with his own lungs, not the iron machines that breathed for him. His clothing was layered black and brown robes. His hands ran up to the top of his head and felt hair.

“What sorcery is this? Am I dead?”

His voice, for the first time in many years, was his own rather than the modulated growling of his helmet.

“Hello?” He yelled. “Is anyone here? Lieutenant Seeda? Captain Vario? Krest?”

No response.

In every direction around him was a wash of opalescent white with no horizon. He was not floating, but he also could not make out what he stood on. He scanned as far as he could see for a point of reference, but could find none. Whatever he was treading on felt solid, so he walked. After a few dozen steps, a feeling washed over him. The Force was pulling at him from multiple directions but he could not detect its meaning. It was very strong here, unlike anything he’d ever felt. He tried to reach through it and sort out the source, to search for others, but none could be found.

credit: Luscafilm

“I must be dead.”

No, Chosen One, you are not dead. The same voice from the cavern rolled through his head. You are safe within the Vault of the Whills.

He looked around but could not find where the voice was coming from. He sat cross-legged and closed his eyes, focusing on the voice.

“Reveal yourself. Why do you hide?”

We do not hide from you, Chosen One. We are here if you would only see us.

“Enough games! Show yourself!”

He opened his eyes and before him was an even brighter orb of light, shimmering and turning. “What manner of creature are you?”

We are not creatures. We are the watchers of all who are strong with the Force in the universe, both light and dark, and those between. My cousins and I have been waiting for you, Chosen One. The shimmering ball expanded into a humanoid female form in a black robe, wearing a broad white mask showing a blank expression. Her two-toed feet hovered above the surface.

credit: Luscafilm

“Is it you who spoke to me in the tunnels? What do you want of me? Why do I appear in this form?”

So many questions. In this realm, all appear in their true form before the Force. Here, you appear as the Jedi Knight and General Anakin Skywalker.

“Anakin Skywalker is dead. I am Darth Vader.”

A lie you perpetuate to yourself. The beast is you, and you are the beast. Try as you might, you cannot escape the destiny set before you, Chosen One. To fulfill your destiny, you must know yourself—your true self. That is why you appear in this form. Your true self is Anakin Skywalker.

“You speak in lies and riddles.” He reached down to his waist, but the familiar hilt of his lightsaber was gone. “Why am I here?”

The Watcher’s form glowed brighter, then split into another visage, though the mask of this one appeared angry. She moved down within inches of his face and yelled.

Cousin, this one would strike us down for speaking the truth to him! He is not worthy to possess what he desires! Expel him immediately!

“You do not know what I desire, fiend!” He yelled back. “Tell me who you are and why I am here!”

I am Serenity, and this is my dear cousin, Anger. We appear to you because we are the emotional instruments you live by. You are driven by your anger, but you seek the serenity of love and family. Search your feelings. You know this to be true. You seek the serenity of a life with the one called Padme Amidala. You seek to restore her from her place in the cosmic force.

Vader was stunned. This being had reached into his innermost recesses of suppressed thought and extracted what he wanted most; to leave the Empire and the Emperor behind and live out his days in peace with Padme at his side. How could she know this much? He stood up to plead his case.

“If you know these things then you must know how I can bring her back! You must tell me! How can I bring her back?!?”

Anger moved up into his face again. Foolish boy! She is now one with the Cosmic Force. She cannot return! The one known as Sidious has fooled you. He, too, visited us with the one known as Plagueis asking the same questions. Life. Death. Immortality. The Cosmic Force is all-powerful! Seeking to control it is folly!

In his heart, Vader knew she was right. He could feel anger rising inside him. He didn’t know if he was furious with the visage of Anger for saying these things, or with himself for being fooled. Within those same hidden recesses of his mind, he’s known all along Padme could never be returned to him. A single tear rolled down to his trembling lip. The anger welling inside him was about to boil over.

“Tell me how I can bring her back!”

He reached up, extending his hand at Anger and feeling for her air way. He would choke the answer from behind her treacherous mask. He felt within her neck piece, searching for her throat, but found… nothing. Suddenly, her robe collapsed to the ground and her mask tumbled down within it, coming to rest in a neat pile and leaving behind her violently flashing orb. Anger let out a maniacal laugh and shot toward him, smashing into his chest, knocking him down and stealing the air from his lungs.

credit: Luscafilm

Foolish boy! You have been deceived! Bringing her back is a fool’s errand! The orb of Anger disappeared. Serenity still hovered before him as he regained his footing, coughing and choking to recover his breath. He then fell to his knees, seeing no other avenue than to beg for her mercy.

“Please, I beg of you, please return her to me. Please!”

It is not within our power to interfere with the destiny of others. As is my purpose for being, I am compelled to help those within the Living Force that seek it find serenity, and alas, you are the Chosen One. You are destined to bring balance to the Living Force. I will help you, but be warned, Anakin Skywalker. What you seek—the possessions of the one known as Darth Plagueis—carry a great darkness with them. A darkness that, if uncontrolled, will create a wound in the Force not easily healed. Your actions will have a ripple effect that cannot be stopped. The ancient one known as Nihilus sought this ability, and nearly succeeded, though the results were disastrous. These artifacts became interred in this vault for a reason. Once removed, their darkness will consume you. Do you accept this great and terrible responsibility?

Darth Nihilus

“Yes! Yes, anything… just please show me how to bring her back.” He collapsed in sobs of anguish. The realization of all the evils he had done washed over him in an instant. Killing his fellow Jedi, the Younglings, all the incalculable deaths across the galaxy credited to him came crashing down on his shoulders. “Please… I’ll do anything…”

Very well. And in another brilliant flash of light, the visage of Serenity was gone.

Darth Vader awoke in the main hall behind the altar of the Temple of the Kyber with his face pushed into the ground. His right eye could see clearly the dirt and rubble of the temple floor. In his left eye returned the familiar red hue of his lenses with a diagnostic readout running. Then the labored, mechanized breathing apparatus heaved him to life. Pushing himself up from the floor, he could see his hands were once again machine parts and tattered black gloves. Around him was a nearly shredded black cloak, covered in burns and rips.

He looked to his left to see stirring both Captain Krest and Vario. Their uniforms were also in tatters as they regained their composure. Seeing Vader’s condition, they rushed to his side to defend while he recovered, but they were both injured as well. Behind them, lying face-down, was Lieutenant Seeda. Vader reached to him through the Force and felt a heartbeat, but he also sensed something else. Walking over, he used the Force to roll over Seeda and beneath him was a small wooden box. In the top was a gold inlay of a Borzûm. He pulled the box to him through the air and opened it. Finally, he held in his hands what he long desired. Finally, there was a chance to save Padme.

A chance for him to once again experience… serenity.

Seeda awoke, groggy and injured as well. He barely got to his feet when his communicator started blaring that a shuttle was en route for Lord Vader. He looked over to the opening where they entered the tunnels. It was filled with rubble and rock. He had no idea how they got out of there before it collapsed. Vader sensed Seeda’s confusion.

“Do not ask questions there are no answers to. Saw Gerrera is dead and we have the Emperor’s prize. You have done well, Captain Seeda,” Vader said through a cracked and damaged face shield. Seeda tried not to stare, but Vader’s right eye was exposed. He could clearly see the red and orange striations of his iris surrounded by the scarred and pale gray skin of his face. He looked down to see the Borzûm box in Vader’s hands. With all that was running through his mind, it was difficult to focus on the fact he just received a battlefield promotion from Darth Vader, himself.

The injured Vader and his party emerged at the top of the Temple steps where the remaining Lancers that were not buried in the tunnels secured a wide area where a shuttle was now landing. “You will return to the Dauntless by ground transport. See to your injuries, then send your mission report directly to my shuttle. These artifacts are precious to the Emperor. I leave at once for Coruscant with our spoils. He commands, and I must obey.”

In a flourish of ragged black robes, Lord Vader turned and limped up as the ramp hissed closed behind him.

Seeda looked on as the shuttle climbed through the atmosphere and disappeared behind the clouds, watching until it was well beyond his sight.

“When I get back, I must remember to tell Commander Junus about this. He’ll be upset he missed attempt number eighty-nine.”

Next time in Star Wars: Lifeboat!

Darth Plageuis. (Image credit unknown)

Captured! The crew aboard the Emperor’s shuttle finds themselves in the clutches of the bounty hunter Gekko. They’ll have to bargain for their freedom if they are to proceed with their mission to find the missing journal of Darth Plagueis and the kidnapped son of Captain Inda Krest!

Go back and check out Lifeboat from the beginning with Part I here!

To learn more about Star Wars, visit the official website at www.starwars.com. May the Fourth, and the Force, be with you!


The preceding is a work of fan fiction based upon and utilizing locations, characters, and/or plot points from the Star Wars universe, originally created by George Lucas and trademarked to Lucasfilm, Ltd. The author makes no claim whatsoever of ownership of the Star Wars name, characters represented, or the Star Wars universe generally. This work is created of the author’s own imagination and is intended for entertainment purposes only. It does not purport to be an “official” Star Wars story or part of existing Star Wars canon in any way. The author is not profiting financially in any way as the result of the creation or publication of this piece of fan fiction.

Lyle’s Sketch of the Day! – April 11th – Heroic and Villainous

Feeling heroic and villainous today, so here’s a little of both! First up, in honor of the return of The Clone Wars final season, Ahsoka Tano – the best Star Wars character to not be in a film (so far). I prefer the black and white, personally, but here’s colored and uncolored. Okay, perhaps Thrawn is the best character not to be in a movie yet. We can fight it out between him and Ahsoka. Maybe Thrawn will be my next sketch of the day! (Oh, and I learned to write my name in Aurebesh!)

Then, poor Spidey has run afoul of Venom. I’m not thrilled with the final result, but not bad for an amateur! I haven’t seen the Venom movie yet, but I really do hope they eventually get these two on the big screen together. Tom Hardy’s Venom with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would be sweet. Morbius looks pretty exciting, too. That would be an epic movie trio!

Have a wonderful Easter weekend, stay safe, and stay healthy. Practice, practice, practice!