The ghost who walks Willis Park

Published 7:02 pm Friday, October 30, 2009

Tonight, it’s All Hallows Eve. Ghosts walk, spirits rise, witches brew, the dark side consumes the Earth.

Last year, I offered this piece for Halloween, “The Ghost Who Walks Willis Park.” Many readers asked if the tale was true. Yes, it is true, because if we say that it is true, and we believe that on All Hallows Eve that a ghost really spirits Willis Park, then, my children, it is true.

So in honor of Halloween, in the spirit of spookiness, with some new modifications, herewith is—“The Ghost Who Walks Willis Park.”

Email newsletter signup

It first appeared on a late October night.

After midnight, among the bushes, benches and monuments of Willis Park, a light eerie mysterious figure was seen lurking among the shadows.

The figure cannot be seen by everyone. Only on rare occasions does it emerge from the darkness, visible only to those who listen closely to a particular sound of the midnight.

As it stalked the historic downtown square, its soldier’s body was adorned with tattered and battle-scarred butternut gray. It wore no shoes but its bloody bare feet gave witness to severe battlefield engagements from Fredericksburg and Antietam, perhaps even a soldier from here in the Wiregrass.

As many children do when they come to Willis Park, the tattered soldier sat atop one of the Civil War ancient cannon, gazing upward to the Confederate officer atop the tall center-of-the-park monument.

Among hundred-year-old buildings, the figure quickly zips in and out of storefronts, easily passing through solid, closed and locked doors of The Sharon House and the bank and other businesses on the historic town square. In the park, he observes the stone monuments, digesting names and inscribed tributes.

Billy Conners had been watching this mysterious and wandering apparition for nearly an hour, ever since the courthouse clock tolled midnight.

Billy has trouble sleeping. Almost nightly, he can be seen in one of the rocking chairs on the second floor balcony of the historic Bon Air, bordering the east side of the park square, where he rents an apartment. It was October. Prior to midnight, Willis Park was quiet, reflective from a fresh evening shower, aglow from the warm yellowish blankets of light cast from the street lanturns. Billy watched the traffic signals silently switch from green to yellow, from yellow to red, and back again and again, moving silently but casting colorful glows on the wet streets.

Few traveling vehicles this hour broke the silence, or even observed the signals.

Billy knows the routine of the downtown courthouse clock as each day atop its high tower on the corner, it correctly tolls the hour and the half hour, 24 hours a day. Unable to sleep, Billy sits on a balcony rocker. Each night by habit, he counts the tolling of the clock on the hour—to check its accuracy, of course.

And then on this one midnight in October it happened. The apparition in the park, instantly appeared when the courthouse clock tolled 13.

And that’s when Billy saw him. In butternut gray, a civil war soldier sitting atop the ancient cannon nearly in front of the Bon Air, his gaze focused upwards to the top of the tall concrete monument where the Civil War officer stood guard over the historic downtown square and all its monuments dedicated to those who served in our nation’s great struggles.

Fascinated and a little bewitched from his vantage point on the Bon Air balcony, Billy saw the figure suddenly appear in the Gazebo, where it watched the changing colored lights—green, yellow, red. Billy’s body tingled. Cool now in the crisp October night, sweat broke out on his face as the figure suddenly appeared at the far end of the balcony where Billy was sitting.

Momentarily, they stared at one another, then, zap, the soldier was gone.

Billy searched the park with his eyes, then saw some motion on the far side of the park across from Reeve’s Gifts, in front of the war memorial wall. The figure appeared to be reading the names of those honored local dead who gave their lives to serve their country.

The in a flash, from monument to monument, the figure dashed and zipped with instant speed. From the time capsule planted in 1973 near the Gazebo, to the service history of Samuel Marvin Griffin, to the monument dedicated to teacher and students who perished in the Atlanta hotel fire in 1946, to newspaperman Benjamin Ellsworth Russell, to the remembrance of Revolutionary War soldiers, from the Daughters of the Revolution to the Daughters of the Confederacy, and from the center of it all, the civil war officer in all his Confederate finery with musket at the ready, guarding the park from high atop his place of honor.

As Billy watched the busy figure in the park, it suddenly appeared again on the Bon Air balcony, poised on the railing only a few feet away from one another, almost face to face, as if it was saying, “you haven’t seen anything yet.”

It was almost time for the courthouse clock to strike the hour again.

But this time, instead of one gong for 1 a.m., it kept going again as it did one hour ago. Billy counted. And as the clock tolled, the ancient butternut dressed soldier vanished as if turned off by a light switch.

Next, as the clock continued to toll, a new commotion in the park demanded Billy’s attention.

There between the tall Confederate monument and the Gazebo, next to the flagpole, Billy saw a military rider mounted on a great black steed. The rider was dressed in the uniform of a Confederate officer, his musket at his side. High above, the tattered butternut dressed soldier now scanned the park from atop the monument in the center of the park, moments ago occupied by the Confederate officer.

Then the mighty black horse reared. The rider raised the musket over his head, and Billy heard him proclaim:

Listen my children and you shall hear

A clock that tolls from the spire so near.

And as the midnight hour strikes thirteen,

Then, Oh my children, you’ll know its Halloween.

The rider’s musket fired, and the minnie ball struck and smashed through a pumpkin nearby on one of the storefront Halloween decorations. On the 13th strike of the courthouse clock, Willis Park was normal again. With a big sigh of relief, Billy collapsed into one of the balcony rocking chairs.

“We’ve got to get that clock fixed,” he thought.