Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Ghost of Ernest Eagleton

by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The church has long been haunted by the ghost of Ernest Eagleton who died in 1924. Or so Pastor Henry O’Donnell would have his church secretary, Tammy Billings, believe. You see, Tammy is a bit superstitious and Henry is a bit of a prankster. And each year in the week before Halloween, the pastor creates an elaborate prank to scare Tammy.

Henry didn’t make up Ernest Eagleton. Ernest was an actual person who died a rather violent death on what is now church property. You see, the church was built in 1947 on the site of what had been a restaurant. And during the 1920’s when prohibition was in effect that restaurant had been a speakeasy. The original building was torn down to build the church, but one element was incorporated into the new structure: a cellar under the current social hall. The church used the cellar to store files and seasonal items. But during prohibition it had been used to store alcohol smuggled in from Canada. This cellar was where Ernest Eagleton met his demise.

Ernest was a jazz musician who played clarinet in the speakeasy band. He was popular among the patrons and managed his money wisely and was thus able to avoid trouble with the speakeasy’s rather unsavory owners.

That is, until he fell in love.

Not that the gangsters who ran the place had any complaint with love. But Ernest had the misfortune of falling in love with Mazie, the voluptuous wife of the speakeasy’s manager, Marco. Ernest and Mazie were very careful to keep their affair secret knowing that Marco kept a .38 in his jacket pocket which had been used on more than one person unwise or unfortunate enough to upset him. When Halloween rolled around, though, Mazie concocted a risky scheme. She bought two costumes - one a nurse’s outfit which she showed to Marco, and the other a gorilla costume which she hid in the ladies’ lavatory.

One of the reasons Mazie cheated on Marco was that whenever they went to the speakeasy he was always too busy running the place to pay any attention to her. (The other reason was that she had never really loved him and only married him for his money.) But Marco’s preoccupation with making all that money allowed her to easily slip away during the big Halloween party and change into her gorilla costume. She then left a note for Ernest - who was dressed as a baseball player - to meet her in the cellar during his break.

Unfortunately, Marco decided to use the cellar for a business meeting while Ernest and Mazie were having their tryst. Even more unfortunately, her plan with the Gorilla costume was undone by the fact that the mask was very hot and she had taken it off once she and Ernest were alone in the cellar. And as a result of that chain of events, Ernest met his demise.

That story, with various embellishments, was well known to anyone who attended the little church very long and it made a good basis for Henry’s annual Halloween prank on Tammy. Tammy typically worked late on Tuesday evenings because her husband Ralph played racquetball with a buddy. Ralph would pick Tammy up from the church after he was finished and the two would have a late dinner.

So at 6 pm on the Tuesday before Halloween, Henry told Tammy that he was going to do a home visit and left her alone in the office. He drove around the corner, parked his car and snuck back. Then he used his cell phone to call Tammy. He told her he was missing his sweater. When she couldn’t find it in his office, he asked her to check to see if he had left it in the cellar where he had been going through some old files that morning.

Tammy didn’t like going into the cellar by herself at night, but she was a grown woman and wasn’t about to admit her fears to Henry. She got her key chain, unlocked the social hall, and descended the wooden steps into the cellar.

The room was lit by a single, long overhead fluorescent light. The pipes and vents on the ceiling and crumbling boxes stacked along the walls left many pockets of dark shadow. Tammy looked around, trying not to let the ticking and clicking of the pipes and vents unnerve her. She spotted Henry’s sweater draped over an easel at the back of the room.

As she went to retrieve it, she heard another faint sound among the pipes - music.

She furrowed her brow. Nobody else was at the church that evening. Where was music coming from? Then she realized it was clarinet music and visions of Ernest Eagleton stabbed into her mind. She looked down and discovered two used highball glasses resting on a nearby box.

Tammy got out of that cellar as fast as she could.

The source of the music was not Ernest Eagleton’s ghost, of course. It came from a boom box Henry was playing near an air vent in the social hall. Sound traveled quite well through the vent system.

As Tammy bolted out of the cellar, she discovered Pastor O’Donnell doubled over in laughter. “You should see your face,” he gasped.

“That’s not funny,” Tammy responded and threw his sweater at him. She stomped back to the office.

Henry giggled to himself as he retrieved his boom box and started to lock the social hall up again. And then he heard a slow thunk-thunk-thunk sound coming from the cellar. It sounded like something had bounced down the stairs. Tammy must have knocked something over in her mad flight, he thought, and went to investigate.

He discovered a baseball resting on the cement floor at the bottom of the stairs. He picked it up. “Must belong to one of the scouts,” he thought.

And then he heard a rustling from the back of the cellar. He looked up…

There in the shadows was someone in a gorilla costume.

It was too dark to make out the eyes behind the slits in the mask, but there was definitely someone inside the cheap outfit. A muffled voice said one word: “Ernest?”

Henry made it up the stairs only falling once. The next thing he knew he was standing in the middle of the office panting, his shin throbbing from where he’d banged it when he fell, and his heart racing at an alarming rate.

“Tammy, someone in a gorilla costume is in the cellar!”

“Very funny.” Tammy responded.

“No, really!” Henry insisted.

The two of them went back and forth in the same vein for several minutes. Meanwhile, back in the cellar Ralph Billings took off the gorilla costume. It had been well worth the forty bucks he’d spent to rent it, though he felt bad he’d had to cancel racquetball. He shook his head at poor, predictable Henry O’Donnell. Every year Henry played his Halloween pranks on Tuesday when Tammy worked late. Ralph was surprised Tammy still didn’t see them coming. But he suspected perhaps Pastor O’Donnell would skip the prank on Tammy next year.

Ralph shoved the costume in the trunk of his car and went to pick up his wife. While she was gathering her things and Henry continued to try to convince them he’d seen Mazie’s ghost, Ralph slipped the spare social hall keys back in Tammy’s desk drawer.

And back in the cellar the ghosts of Ernest and Mazie were happy to have the place to themselves once again.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, October 7, 2007


By Douglas J. Eboch

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. It was built sixty years ago and is a pretty traditional protestant church. The pastor, Henry O’Donnell, was built fifty-five years ago and is a pretty traditional protestant pastor. But one day Henry read an article about multi-media worship services and decided perhaps it was time both he and the church modernized.

He decided to start small: a screen and a projector in the sanctuary so they could project song lyrics and announcements. The church had bought him a laptop computer a couple years before which he could attach to the projector to provide the media. The church secretary, Tammy Billings, was reasonably good with computers and certainly capable of running the operation from the balcony at the back of the sanctuary which saw little use these days.

Pastor O’Donnell took his proposal to the Trustees committee which would have to approve spending several thousand dollars on the screen and projector. As usual, the committee was split in their opinions. Henrietta Miggins thought that if the church survived just fine without fancy multi-media when her parents were members, it would survive just fine without it today. Ralph Billings, Tammy’s husband, was a technophile and all for modernizing the service. Del Winslow opined that anything that might make O’Donnell’s sermons more interesting was worth a shot. In the end, the motion passed.

Pastor O’Donnell may have intended to start small, but once the equipment arrived he was like a kid with a new toy. He stayed up until the wee hours for several days planning an elaborate slideshow to illustrate his sermon for that week. He was preaching on the duty of Christians to actively help those in need, and as he tapped away at the laptop he had visions of the congregation moved to tears by the power of his presentation.

If Tammy Billings was intimidated by the elaborate show she would be running she showed no sign of it. Tammy believed in organization and preparation. As the pastor revised his sermon and added new images to the slideshow, Tammy simply printed out longer and longer cue lists and practiced until she was completely familiar with the program.

The first hint that things might not go quite as planned came an hour before service Sunday morning. As Pastor O’Donnell headed toward his office, his cell phone rang. It was Tammy Billings. She and Ralph had a flat tire. Ralph was in the process of changing the tire, but Tammy suggested Pastor O’Donnell better go ahead and get his laptop hooked up to the projector.

Pastor O’Donnell was certainly cable of handling that. He and Tammy had done a dress rehearsal Friday afternoon so he knew exactly how to set everything up. Then the phone rang again. “Ralph broke one of the lug nuts off,” Tammy said. “The auto club is coming. But we may miss the start of service.”

Pastor O’Donnell was getting a bit nervous, but he quickly came up with a back-up plan. His wife, Jennifer, could operate the computer until Tammy arrived. It was often the uncomfortable role of a pastor’s spouse to be called on in these kinds of emergencies. Jennifer was not a computer person and was reluctant to take on such a big responsibility. But when Henry showed her Tammy’s neatly arranged cue list she agreed. All that was required for the first half of the service was to bring up the lyrics to the hymns. The slideshow during his sermon was the complicated part and surely Tammy would be there by then.

Yet as the time for the sermon approached, Tammy had still not arrived. Jennifer scooted out of the sanctuary during the offering and dialed Tammy’s cell phone.

“There’s been a complication,” Tammy told her. “Ralph got in an argument with the tow truck man and…well, we’re waiting for a different one. You’re going to have to run the sermon media yourself.”

“I can’t!” Jennifer cried.

“You can,” Tammy told her. “After the hymn that comes before the sermon, turn off the projector and close the file with the lyrics. Open the slideshow entitled September Sermon. The entire text of the sermon is on the cue sheet. When Henry gets to the first red X turn on the projector. After that whenever you see a red X just hit any key to move to the next slide. Easy.”

It sounded easy. After the next hymn, Jennifer turned off the projector as instructed. She closed the file with the song lyrics. She clicked on “open” from the menus -- and realized she didn’t know where the September Sermon file was located. As the scripture was being read, she frantically searched through Henry’s folders. Henry’s filing scheme was not as intuitive as one might prefer.

She still had not located the file when her husband stepped into the pulpit. Jennifer eyed the printout of the sermon. Henry was fast approaching the point where she was to put up the first slide. She clicked through folder after folder. Finally, her eyes fell on a file named September Images. “That’s it!” she thought, and clicked on it.

Pastor O’Donnell was building to the big moment. “Can we Christians ignore the suffering of others? We often do because we avoid seeing it. But we must act when faced with tragedies like this.” Pastor O’Donnell gestured grandly at the screen.

As the file was opening, Jennifer turned on the projector. An image popped on the screen.

The congregation laughed. Not giggles or titters either, but deep guffaws. O’Donnell thought that was a strange reaction to a slide of people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. He looked over at the screen.

The image projected there was of Pastor O’Donnell in cut-off shorts and a stained T-shirt standing outside a cabin. It was taken on the O’Donnell’s vacation the previous September. Pastor O’Donnell prided himself on being thrifty -- though Jennifer thought that was just a euphemism for “cheap” -- and had made the cut-offs from an old pair of jeans he had worn in college. However the good pastor had gained some weight since his college years and the shorts were extremely tight.

Pastor O’Donnell’s face turned bright red. “Next picture!” he shouted. Jennifer desperately hit buttons on the computer and the image switched to O’Donnell in the same outfit pushing a canoe into the water. The act of bending over had split his tight shorts and a white arc of underwear showed through the gap. Whatever button Jennifer pushed only advanced the slideshow to the next embarrassing image.

Jennifer and Henry O’Donnell’s teenage daughter Katie was guffawing along with everyone else. She had almost forgotten how silly her father looked that day. Then her laughter stopped abruptly as she remembered that was the same vacation she had tried to perm her own hair. Her mother had taken lots of pictures of that disaster. Pictures certain to be coming up soon in the slide show.

Katie dashed to the back of the church, up into the balcony, and hit the “Escape” key on the computer ending the slideshow in the nick of time. For her, anyway.

Somehow Pastor O’Donnell got through the rest of the service. On his way out to coffee hour, Del Winslow let the pastor know that the multimedia had indeed made his sermon more interesting. Henrietta Miggins only sniffed in disgust. Tammy finally arrived and spotted Jennifer. “Did it go okay?” Tammy asked.

Jennifer gave her a nasty look. “Someone needs to tell Henry to be more specific when labeling his files.”

The next week the service returned to its low-tech traditions. The projector and screen did continue to get used for weddings, church meetings and special events and in the end the equipment was well worth the expense…but it was some time before Pastor O’Donnell tried to do a multi-media sermon again.

(c) 2007 Douglas J. Eboch