By Sidney Underwood 2015|
I had just completed the seventh and final night of my 4 to 12 shift at the Washington Works Dupont plant in Wood County. It was February 1966 and I was looking forward to a few days off. When I walked out of the plant shortly after midnight with other “C” shift workers toward the guard gate, a light snow was falling.
The cold nighttime air made me shiver and pull my coat zipper higher. Encountering the guard at the gate, I prepared to open my dinner bucket for inspection when the man in front of me was asked to open his. This was a usual routine aimed at stopping thievery by Dupont employees. I had been subjected to this random search before and thought nothing of it because I was not a thief.
But, It seemed strange to me how some guards checked every bucket while others acted like they couldn’t care less and stood around with bored looks on their faces as we filed past. Luckily for the man in front of me, he hadn’t taken anything that night and was allowed to pass.
I was waved on and the guy behind me was ordered to open his bucket. Maybe, I just had an honest face that night or maybe the guard was just checking out the usual suspects. Management knew some shortages would occur in a plant of this magnitude and the random gate inspections were put in place to limit the losses.
As a Works Control employee, I was a clerk in the storeroom that contained nearly 15,000 items. Dupont had a rudimentary computer card inventory system in place at the time that tracked everything from large gate valves to light bulbs. For every item I disbursed from the storeroom, steel yard and storage buildings, a computer card had to be completed. Where the card went after that, I had no idea because it was way above my pay grade. There was real trouble to be had if the card was not coded correctly as I had learned the hard way early on in my short Dupont career.
When breakdowns occurred during the night shifts with foremen, plumbers and electricians needing items quickly, it was a nightmare trying to code correctly all the stuff flying off the shelves. I had experienced a major breakdown one night at Delrin and it was indeed a miserable time for me. Compounding the problem was the fact that only one clerk worked each night shift while nine people worked in the storeroom during the day. I never fully understood the reasoning for that, but, again, the staffing had been determined by someone way above my pay grade.
Alone at night in the storeroom with all that stuff on shelves and Rota bins, I stayed busy opening freight shipments, logging things in and placing them on shelves. When the buzzer sounded, I was expected to run to the other end of the building to the disbursement counter to hand out stuff and do the card thing.
I had plenty of opportunities to take things, but was never tempted. My Mother used to say, “ Listen to that little voice in the back of your head and you will always do the right thing.” I was many things, but never a thief.
My car sat in a far corner of a mostly deserted parking lot which had been full at 4:00pm when I arrived for my shift. Seeing the few cars at this late hour always made me chuckle when I realized how many people were needed to make the plant function during daytime hours and how few were needed during the night shifts.
Apparently the plant manager and all those indispensable department heads, supervisors and administrative assistants could sleep well at night knowing the place was in good hands during their absence.
As I hurried toward my car, the snow was falling heavier. I knew I needed to allow extra time for a warm up. My Corvair had a tendency to stall out and not shift well on cold startups in 20 degree weather on nights such as this. The engine cranked slowly and caught on the second attempt.
It settled into a rough idle and I turned on the gasoline heater mounted in the trunk in the front of the car. I sat for several minutes warming myself watching the windshield clear as the defroster did its thing. Satisfied that the car would shift and not stall out, I fell in line with the others leaving the plant. Our little convoy proceeded out to the caution light on Dupont Road and most of us turned in the direction of Parkersburg.
When I reached the intersection of State RT#14 and started up Blizzard Drive, I had some misgivings about traveling home on this cold February night although I had phoned my parents earlier and told them I would be coming. The road was turning white with snow and I knew I had to make a decision. In just a few minutes I could be upstairs tucked away in my bed in my rented room on Staunton Avenue. But If I drove carefully, I would be home in about an hour and 15 minutes. I decided I wanted to go home to Calhoun County. My car generally had excellent traction in snow because the engine was directly over the real drive wheels. At my Dad’s insistence I had installed new winter tires and was confident in my driving ability.
I noted that the snow had slackened somewhat when I passed Ralph’s Super Market and headed for Mineral Wells. By the time I reached the turn off separating RT #21 south from RT#14, the snow had stopped and I was much more confident that I had made the right decision. The RT#14 sign indicated Elizabeth was only 12 miles away and that made me feel like I was almost home already. Besides, I always slept better in my bed at home and I looked forward to my Mother’s cooking because it was way better than restaurant food.
Traveling over Bogal Ridge and passing through the community of Slate, I had the road all to myself. It was snowing again and my wipers were keeping me company with their monotonous strokes across the windshield. Nice and warm inside the car, I was content as my little car eased along this familiar winding road. Several miles later I noticed distant headlights in my rear view mirror. Some other late night traveler probably heading home, I mused. But, in a matter of minutes, those headlights were right on top of me, or so it seemed.
Glancing up, I saw two people in the vehicle so close to me. I reached up and flicked my mirror to its downward position because the glare was troublesome making it difficult for me to see the road ahead. We traveled on with their front bumper close to my tail lights for several miles. It felt like those headlights were boring into the back of my head.
Soon we came down off Beulah Hill and entered a turn near the road to Camp Barbe in Wirt County. When I glanced again into the mirror wondering who those guys were, I felt my car move. It was slipping sideways to the right doing a slow motion pirouette.
Instinctively, I steered in that direction avoiding the brakes, but felt myself sliding backwards off the road. I heard a thump and then found myself sitting in the edge of a cornfield facing the highway about six feet from the berm. The engine was still running, no damage done. I shifted in to first gear and released the clutch. A tire spinning noise convinced me that I was hopelessly stuck in some farmer’s cornfield at 12:30 a.m. Damn!
I saw the taillights first as a Volkswagon Beetle backed slowly toward me on the highway. This had to be the vehicle that had been on top of me nearly blinding me in the process. I got out and stood beside my idling car, it was snowing again and I was not a happy camper. Two young men materialized out of the darkness and inquired if I was ok. I replied that I was fine but my car was stuck. I soon learned that those two were student teachers from Glenville State College assigned to Wirt County High School. In the headlight glare one of them looked familiar to me but I could not place him. He said that I had hit a patch of ice and he saw my car slide off the road. He added that they were lucky to not have done the same thing.
I asked why they had been running so hard. He replied they had been to a birthday party at Mineral Wells and were running late trying to get back to their rented trailer in Elizabeth because they had to be at the High School at 8:00 am the next morning. His companion came over and said that a friend who also had attended the party would be coming along shortly and he would try to wave him down because that friend had a three-quarter ton heavy truck with a Lincoln Welder on the back. If he could get the friend stopped without getting run over, he said with a chuckle, he was sure that I could be pulled back onto the road. With that, he started walking quickly back down the road around the turn.
The familiar looking guy stayed with me and asked my name and when I replied, he wanted to know if I had attended Glenville State College. I explained that I graduated from there two years ago. He said that he had made the connection. He had been a sophomore that year and was now a senior due to graduate in May. We continued with small talk until we both heard voices in the distance and soon saw a pickup truck with cab lights approaching slowly.
Once alongside my car, the driver of the truck jumped out and rattled out a chain. Before I could say or do anything, he had hooked the chain from his hitch to my car and was back in the truck ready to pull. Quickly, I jumped into my car and put it in gear and soon was idling back on the road. I got out of my car and told the driver of the truck I appreciated his help as he tossed the chain up into the truck “No problem,” was all he said before he climbed into his truck and drove away. The young man that had waited with me said that the truck driver never had been much for talking, he was the quiet type. That was ok with me, in my book he was a good guy. I thanked the student teachers for their help and asked them to please go ahead first as I was going to take it easy the rest of the way home. Soon they were out of sight and I was again alone on the highway.
Passing through Elizabeth, I saw that RT# 5 to Grantsville was clear as the snowing had stopped. The sky was clearing and I could see stars overhead. Nice and cozy again, I tuned in WOWO, a radio station in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that played all the latest hits. WOWO was a strong AM station that reached all over the east coast at night. I listened to the news and weather reports waiting for the music to start. Easing along with my high beams searching the road ahead, I thought about how my car had slipped so suddenly and had done a 180 degree spin before I could blink my eyes. In truth, I had speeded up when that car had been following me so closely. I was partly to blame for what happened. I vowed this would be a learning experience for me.
It was just the car and me and the radio until I came to the Creston Straight. In the distance, I thought I saw a small truck missing a taillight with a flapping tarp over the bed. The thing was going about 40 mph and I was quickly gaining on it. When I closed to about 25 yards near the Creston Bridge, I could not believe what I was seeing. It was not a truck, it was a motorcycle! Now this was a seriously cold night and whoever was on that thing had to be freezing. I rubbed my eyes and took another look. Yes indeed, it was a motorcycle and that tarp I had imagined was actually a World War Two heavy wool Army over coat in drab green with the tails flapping in the wind being worn by a shimmering figure with military boots and gauntlet gloves.
The rider also appeared to be wearing an old military style leather aviator helmet with padded ears. He was wearing googles as I could just make out the strap on the back of his headgear. Looking more closely, I saw bulging canvas saddlebags on the back of his machine. He looked just like a member of the U.S. Army Motorcycle Courier Service from the early 1940’s that I recognized from my military history book. I watched fascinated by the sight before me as the rider seemed to shimmer exhibiting a dull green glow with his scarf billowing behind him like a dark flame. He crossed the bridge and started up the hill.
I watched as he reached down with his left gloved hand and instantly his motor made a more urgent sound. I had just witnessed a rider changing gears on an old side shift Harley. I could hear that familiar staggered cadence of his V-twin and saw blue flames tumbling from the exhaust pipes. That thing had to be an antique and the rider was wearing old military issue clothing. This was not Halloween, this was a seriously cold February night! What the heck was going on? There was no way this could be happening at 1:30 am in twenty degree weather!
Following along, I decided that I might have unknowingly hit my head when I slid out of the road. I seemed alright and those two student teachers hadn’t noticed me bleeding or anything. There was no other way to explain what I was seeing unless it was an optical illusion and I didn’t believe in optical illusions anyway. I was curious and somewhat fearful at the same time. I decided to tag along with my low beams on because I certainly didn’t want to mess with this apparition, ghost or whatever by using my high beams.
I could see the stars in all their glory on the Annamoriah Flat as we travelled along. WE meaning myself and the shimmering phantom rider just ahead of me. It was a clear cold night and I remember I looked up and recognized Orion’s Belt and thought about the eternal great hunter in the night time sky. Suddenly, I had a very strange feeling because in addition to Orion’s Belt, I also saw several yellow lights streaking across the dark sky like small fire balls shedding sparks. Was it possible that I had entered a time warp of a different dimension? One thing I knew for sure, I said aloud to myself,” You need to get your butt home quickly.” Almost afraid of looking at the sky again, I concentrated on the rider who had gained distance on me while I was star gazing.
If the lights had been a ruse to distract me, it had worked because the distant shimmer of the rider was now barely visible. I increased my speed trying to close the gap between us. But I could not catch him. The mysterious rider remained a shimmering image and he maintained a distance of a quarter mile ahead of me. I glanced at my dash and was surprised that I was going 60 mph. I had to slow down and to my amazement, he slowed still keeping the same distance between us.
Now my story becomes even stranger. I remember WE travelled down the hill and entered the Annamoriah bridge. I was badly shaken by what transpired next. Climbing the hill beyond the bridge, the shimmering elusive rider appeared to vanish in front of me. Rider and motorcycle disappeared in a red flash momentarily lighting up the darkness. Where once there was matter, it was simply gone. I swear I saw it happen on the hill beyond the bridge near where the armory is located today.
I stopped at the spot where the rider disappeared and rolled down my window. There was a peculiar strange pungent smell in the air but nothing to see. My forgotten radio was going wild with static and the hair was standing up on the back of my neck as if I had entered a constricted space of electrically charged air. I slowly drove forward expecting to see wreckage on the highway. There was nothing to be found. I drove through Big Bend nervous and shaken by what had happened. In a few minutes I was much relieved to finally see the garage lights of home. I parked my car, composed myself and walked into the garage and stepped up into the kitchen and by force of habit tossed my keys on the refrigerator. You could not believe how glad I was to be home!
My Mother came quietly down the hallway and inquired if I was ok since I had arrived rather late. Not wanting to upset her, I was not about to tell her all that I had experienced on this night. I simply said that I had been careful and had driven home slowly. I found it difficult to fall asleep that night.
Post Script: All of us have seen things that we could not explain. Fearing that we will be deemed a “Nut Case” we often keep those things to ourselves. Over the years, I have seen some strange things in the night time sky, but nothing like what I saw on the highway that night. I have no explanation for the phantom military courier I saw so long ago. I never saw him again on any of my subsequent night travels. But, he may still be out there ---- somewhere. So, if you find yourself traveling in the Annamoriah/Creston area on some cold and clear February night, don’t be alarmed if you see the shimmering image of the phantom rider. He intends you no harm, he simply does not want to be deterred from his endless journey.