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By Robert H. Wills

mystery

Outside, an evening fog turned to snow that sifted onto the brick sidewalk leading to, first, a bright red barn and, then, the sheet steel horse barn that was almost invisible in the whiteout. The stable anchored the evergreen-lined lane linking us to Elizabethtown Road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

We didn’t realize it then, but it was St. Nicholas Eve on December 5. We were in the rolling Pennsylvania Dutch country, guests of a son and our daughter-in-law, Maria Moll, who could trace her lineage directly to the Netherlands.

“Santa Claus is a derivation of Sinterklaas, our word for St. Nicholas,” she reminded us. Each evening after dinner, our granddaughter Marianna, 16, would entertain us on the piano with some Christmas carols and other musical favorites. This night, after “Silent Night, Holy Night…” she chose, ironically, the chilling theme song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.

“…the phantom… is there inside your mind.”

There was a rumble, then a bang, and the house shook. Quietly, the two German Shepherds, Crisp and Zori, who had been napping, jumped to their feet and began to pace.

We huddled, humans and dogs, in the family room of the more than century old farm house.

“Did you feel that?” asked Marianna, who was talking a mile a minute.

“That’s the kind of noise that I sometimes hear when I’m here alone. I never can find what causes it.”

A Mysterious Noise

The noises weren’t stopping. The house rumbled and grumbled as we talked. I went to the front door and peered through the center of a lighted Christmas wreath as I turned-on the outside lights, chuckling at the image one might see from outside of an 82 year old face encircled by balsam branches and holiday lights.

No one was there to appreciate it. The snow in the front yard lay unbroken. No footprints, no rabbits, no squirrels, no deer.

What could be causing the noise and vibrations? My wife Cherie, who had been deeply engrossed in financial matters, didn’t hear or feel the first shock, but now she listened: There it was again: kerthump, then quiet, followed by a rafter shaking boomer.

“I felt it that time,” she said.

But we still couldn’t figure out from where the noise was coming. It didn’t have the metallic clang of plumbing, nor the rumble of an overheated furnace. Was it inside the house? Or outside?

“Maybe it’s the hot tub,” Cherie suggested. It normally churns enticingly at 104 degrees, winter and summer, outside the screened porch at the side of the house. We hurried to the windows overlooking the tub deck. No footprints, no paw prints, no claw prints.

We cracked the door and listened. The snow muffled the far away horn of a Diesel engine as the flakes spread over the insulated lid, the pump purring deep in its innards. Nothing more.

Then, noises again. “It sounds like its coming from the overhang,” I said.

“Maybe something is on the roof.”

The Legend of St. Nick

“Hey Grandpa, it’s St. Nicholas Eve,” Marianna said, “Maybe Sinterklaas is on the roof, and we’re hearing the pawing of each little hoof.”

I climbed to our bedroom and checked the rooftop that stretched over the family room below. The snow lay unsullied. No jolly little elf, no sleigh, no deer. My brain began dredging what I knew about St. Nicholas: Back in the eleventh century, he was the bishop of Myra (now a part of Turkey) who, after his death, became the patron saint of such diverse groups as sailors, children, newlyweds and pawnbrokers.

He was known for his generosity. Children in his neighborhood who put out their shoes found coins dropped into them. Destitute brides and grooms received envelopes of cash. Even today, the three balls traditionally displayed outside pawnbroker shops represent purses of money that he gave to newlyweds.

It was his generosity that eventually linked him to the Christmas night celebration of the birth of Christ — or so the story goes.

More timely, was my vague memory of a crudely lettered sign I had seen earlier in the afternoon placed on a chair at the entry to Darrenkamp’s super market. It announced that “Santa Claus will arrive on a fire truck…” Less certain was the time; I remembered 6:30 p.m. that day, which I was to learn, was St. Nicholas Eve.

Santa on a Fire Truck

The incongruity of Santa Claus arriving on a fire truck struck me as odd. But I shrugged it off. As a Midwesterner, I don’t always understand the ways of Lancaster County.

Until the banging and thumping at our granddaughter’s home, I had given the sign no thought. Now I linked the sign with St. Nicholas Eve and the chaos at Marianna’s home.

I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts, I told myself, but maybe the long ago occupants of this old farmhouse – located far off the road near an artesian spring that once cooled a stone summer kitchen — come back to knock around the place on special occasions. Maybe they still celebrate St. Nicholas Eve, in their own way.

I returned downstairs determined to solve the mystery. “The noises were the loudest near the hot tub,” I recalled as I went to the porch door and opened it.

I was right. Through the door, along with a blast of winter, came the sounds of a battle, or was it fireworks? It increased in intensity as we listened, as if Pickett’s troops were again charging up Cemetery Ridge at nearby Gettysburg. There was the sharp crack of what sounded like rifle fire, and then the mechanical staccato shots of a Gatling gun being cranked by Union forces in other battles with the intermittent boom of what could be cannon fire.

A Terrorist Attack?

The thought flashed through my mind that maybe terrorists were attempting to invade the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant down the road, or more likely, security forces were practicing strategies for its protection.

Terrorists on St. Nicholas Eve? The thought was too gruesome to contemplate. So I cast it aside.

“Look on the horizon for the illumination of fireworks,” I suggested. But there was no horizon and no illumination. “The fog and snow are too thick,” I said, trying to explain what I really wasn’t sure of.

That’s when I remembered the sign at the supermarket. I looked at my watch. The hands were on 7:30 exactly. Maybe Santa had been an hour late; maybe they had delayed his arrival to get a larger crowd.

In any case, the cacophony of battle ceased. Bang, just like that! Replaced by the quiet of the sifting snow.

A Logical Explanation

“I’ve got it,” I pronounced with finality, “Santa just arrived.”

“If Santa just arrived, why can’t we hear the pawing of reindeer hoofs on the roof?” Marianna asked.

“I don’t mean that he arrived here. He arrived down at Darrenkamp’s,” I explained. I told her about the sign I’d seen. “They must have had fireworks when he showed up in the Mastersonville fire truck,” I guessed. “But we couldn’t see the explosions because of the fog and snow.”

Satisfied with my explanation, everyone returned to the routine of the evening, broken only by the occasional barking of the German Shepherds. They seem to bark at every little noise. Inside and out. Except, thinking back, we realized they hadn’t barked all evening.

* * *

A couple days later, I stopped in at Darrenkamp’s to pick up a few things.“That must have been some ceremony you staged for the arrival of Santa Claus the other night,” I commented to the man staffing the Customer Service desk.

“It sure was,” he heartily agreed. “Only it wasn’t at night. We did it in the afternoon.”

“And you didn’t have a repeat show in the evening?” I asked.

“No sir, 2 PM on the button. Santa was right on time. He greeted the kids from the fire truck, then he came inside to the café. The kids lined up at the table over there and he took them one by one to hear what they wanted for Christmas.”

“Was the fire truck from Mastersonville?”

“I don’t know where it was from. That’s pretty far away.”

“There were no fireworks?”

He laughed. “No, we save those for the Fourth of July.”

Home for the Holidays

I walked away, shaking my head. As a good reporter, I believe you can always get the story if you’re willing to ask enough questions. And if you ask too many questions, you sometimes wind up with no story at all.

So what was that racket we heard on St. Nick’s eve?

As we drove into the lane with our groceries, four whitetail deer darted from the roadside where they had been eating the grass that they’d pawed free of snow. They know, I thought. If there had been reindeer on our roof, the whitetails would have sensed it.

Not waiting for my questions, they bounded into the six foot high prairie grass of the hilltop field, where they disappeared.

I’m sure St. Nicholas is the patron saint of whitetail deer, too.


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