Tomorrow is Halloween! On the eve of this holiday when all souls are said to roam free we present the tale of one lost soldier who found his way home.
“Home Is Where the Heart Is”
from Ghosts of the Southern Tennessee Valley
by Georgiana Kotarski
The story of a soul returning to comfort a loved one in time of grief is common among people sharing tales around the kitchen table or campfire. Of all the emotions that bind a spirit to earth, the greatest of these is love.
One day in the late 1940s, Earl came down the stairs of his Pisgah, Alabama, home carrying a heavy duffel bag. He was dressed smartly for his trip to a military base in Alaska, more than four thousand miles away. His mother reached for him one last time, holding tight and bracing herself for the long separation. Earl hoisted his duffel bag back over his shoulder and, reminding his mother of the date he would return, started out. As he passed through the doorway, down the porch stairs, and out through the yard, he whistled his favorite tune. He was always whistling. It was his way.
Following a long but uneventful trip to his faraway post, Earl began his tour of duty. He never completed it. One morning, his buddies could not rouse him. He had died in his sleep.
As the weeks and months passed, most of the stunned family made peace with their grief. But Earl’s mother “was just grieving herself to death,” her granddaughter remembers fifty years later. “She was constantly upset and worried about Earl.” She couldn’t understand what had happened to him. Was it a mistake? His body had come home in a closed coffin. His mother had not seen him. She could not touch him, stroke his once-soft face while confessing her love to him in the long night during the wake. The next morning, they had lowered him into the naked earth, then gently pulled his choking mother away.
In her sorrow, Earl’s mother had only his parting words to cling to—words that had made it clear not only that he was coming home, but even when he was coming home. She thought of him every day. Maybe he’ll write, she found herself thinking. She felt secretly eager when mail time drew near each morning, even leaving the eggs frying on the stove or the laundry swinging by one pin when she heard the crunch of gravel heralding the postman’s approach. She moved her chair to the window and spent more time looking down the road than she did mending or snapping beans. “Light’s better here,” she told the family.
The day Earl was due to return, she just didn’t feel up to going to the church singing. She stayed home. That evening, she fell into bed but couldn’t sleep. The grief seemed to wash over her afresh. In the middle of the night, she threw the tangled covers off and set out for the outhouse. In the light of a nearly full moon, she had no trouble picking her way across the roots and ruts of the worn path. It was too cool to bother looking for copperheads in the damp grass. She pulled the plank door open and let it close partway. The baying of dogs in the distance sounded like a dirge. Even here, perched on a cold seat, she thought of Earl. He once got stuck in the outhouse, she remembered, before they bought a real seat to cover the crude hole.
As she started back to the house, she heard whistling. Earl’s tune! Clear as a fiddle, too. She stopped and steadied herself against an old dogwood. Looking up toward the house, she saw a soldier coming through the yard with a duffel bag on his back. His whistling grew louder as he neared the steps and sprang up onto the porch. It was Earl!
As he went in the front door, she ran in through the back, which allowed a view straight through to the living room in the front of the house. She saw Earl, real as rain, walk into the living room.
“I’m home,” he said.
Then he vanished.
“He was always one to play tricks,” remembers the granddaughter, “and Grandmother thought he had slipped upstairs or something real quick. She had every one of them out of bed, searching the house. They looked under beds, they looked in closets—anywhere he could’ve possibly been hiding. But after that, Grandmother thought that Earl was home. She didn’t see or hear from him again, but he was home.”
The family thought it was just her mind playing tricks. “No one else ever saw anything there. Only my grandmother saw him. But it put her mind at rest.”
Years later, the old home between Flat Rock and Pisgah was torn down and its lumber salvaged to repair other houses.
But no matter to one Alabama soldier. Home is where the heart is, and his is with Mama.
Check back for more terrifying legends in our Haunted Halloween Countdown or pick up one of the spooky books they come from.