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Friday, September 3, 2010

5-21-10 "A Mount Vernon Horror Story"

It was twilight on Mount Vernon. The sun’s last rays were fast disappearing behind the northeast hills. The lake was dark and the estate was bathed in grays and blues. I walked up the path to get a last look at the fields and trees. I shivered as evening wind blew past me and rattled the autumn leaves above.
“Almost closing time, kid,” said a man as I walked past. He was one of the two surveyors who are employed at Mount Vernon. George Washington himself was a surveyor, and these two men display colonial surveying equipment and talk to visitors at a table beside the path.
“I know,” I said, “just finishing up.” I knew that I was walking the opposite way of the exit, but I wanted to be here as long as possible. The cool air was refreshing, and without the throngs of other tourists, it was easy to imagine that George Washington himself might ride out from between the tall trees at any moment. The surveyor shrugged and carefully placed an old, curiously shaped metal object into a padded case. I walked a little further up the path, into a stone-paved clearing. Here was the final resting place of the body of George Washington—an unburied casket viewable behind locked bars in his tomb. The casket of Martha Washington, his wife, was beside it. I was too old to be afraid of dead people and sensible enough to disregard superstition, but here, in the gloom of imminent night with owls hooting mournfully above me, it was just a little creepy. The chill wind moaned and wound itself around the tomb. I pulled my jacket closer to me. Then I froze. I heard a sound. I had always read in novels and mystery books that bones rattle when they move—was that what I was hearing? No, of course not. This was real life, not a thrilling story. Maybe it was a bad idea to venture so far from the visitor center alone after dark. I turned to go. But I had not taken three steps when I heard the sound again. I turned, slowly, heart thumping wildly. There was a dim light that lit the caskets after dark, and by it, I could see into the tomb. What was the movement—a shadow, perhaps? There it was again. No, it was not a shadow; I was sure of it. One of the caskets was moving ever so slightly. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I felt like vomiting. Was I dreaming? This was like a terrible nightmare—the kind where you can’t run and you can’t scream. The casket shifted slightly and groaned, scraping on its pedestal with the movement. Was the body going to burst out? Dozens of terrible thoughts flooded my mind. There was something moving inside the coffin. Were the bones of George going to escape? Then, to my absolute horror, a wraith-like figure appeared out of the trees and moved toward me. My tongue unstuck itself from my palate. I screamed.
The figure spoke. “What on earth? It’s after closing time. What are you doing here?” He looked at me expectantly. I stuttered and fumbled for words. The figure put up a hand. “Stop that gasping! What do I look like to you, a ghost?” No, he looked like a groundkeeper. There was his ordinary blue jeans, his “Mount Vernon” shirt, and dirty sneakers. I swallowed.
“Sorry. I was just… looking.”
“Saying goodbye to George and Martha?” He was not angry. Thank goodness.
“Uh-huh,” I was still uneasy. I began to move away. Then I heard the rattling sound and the casket began to shake. I felt like I was going to faint. “What… is… oh, my… how…?” I choked.
“That’s George turning over.” The groundkeeper seemed unconcerned but a little sad. “Every time congress or a government official does something against what this country was founded on, George turns over in his grave.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I sputtered.
“But true.”
I moved to stand beside him. He was looking at the casket, hands in pockets.
“What I would give to have lived under American government the way it was designed,” he sighed.
“Does it happen a lot— Washington turning over, I mean?”
“Nearly every day; often multiple times each night. It’s disheartening.”
“Yeah.” I sighed. A bat circled overhead, catching bugs. An owl hooted. For some minutes we stood in silence, listening to the sounds of the night.
“Well,” the groundskeeper snapped out of his own thoughts. I started. “It’s after closing time,” he said, glancing at his watch “You better head out.”

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