The Ghost of Halloween Past

by Calendar Hacksaw

Well, October has reared its ugly head again, and in addition to the end of Daylight Savings Time it also means the arrival of another Halloween, which always reminds us old-timers of one of Walker Basin’s most endearing love stories, which is sadly also a tragic ghost story. Many readers already know the tale I’m referring to, and would agree that done right it takes about two hours around the campfire and a good storyteller like Wayne Moody to really make it come to life. The best I can do in a thousand words or so is just hit on the high points, but I believe newcomers and tourists deserve to get a little of the local flavor.

Late at night, after all the lights are out, some cityslicker will pull into the parking lot at the General Store and drive toward the rear before stopping, his headlights focused on the east wall. He’ll get out and spend a minute looking at the building, pull something from his pocket and drop it on the ground, then quickly get back inside his car and speed away.

No one really recalls who first spotted the pair’s initials, crudely penciled inside the shape of a heart, near the rear of the old school house; probably a plumber called in to address a persistent water leak nearby. There was no date, and no easy way for the casual observer to know when the emblem of undying love had been committed to the faded wood siding. The years passed, memories faded, and it wasn’t until 1976 when old Elmira Beavers passed away that the story again came to light.

In cleaning our Elmira’s collection of relics and antiques from her rundown cabin on upper Weaver Creek, Earcylene Coleman—Elmira’s daughter by her first marriage—came across a faded clipping from the long-defunct Kern County Daily Express, which brought back the story and suffering of the teenage sweethearts.

Teodoro "Teo" Ortega was born and raised near Twin Oaks, one of six children fathered by a proud Mestizo, Juan Antonio Ortega, whose linage in the area stretched back into the 1860s. Juan Antonio’s inherited, acquired and leased holdings were significant, with cattle in the thousands grazing on lands stretching from the Basin to Onyx. He was a proud man, and reared his children well. He raised his son in the saddle and stirrups; Teo was known far and wide for his intelligence, good looks, and abilities as a vaquero. There’s little wonder why at the age of 17 he would catch the eye of Gerty Stanton.

Unlike Teo, Gertrude Stanton had no real connection to the area. At 15, she drifted in from Oklahoma along with her father and two sisters during that sad period known as the Dust Bowl. Elwood Stanton was originally from Texas, and was more versed in cattle than agriculture, so it only made sense that they ended up squatting on land overlooking the west side of the Basin, rather than joining the larger migration into the San Joaquin Valley. Far from becoming rich, Elwood Stanton was at least able to keep some food on the table, a tarp over their heads and dirt on the floor, even in the worst of times.

Teo and Gerty met at school, and quickly became an "item" throughout the area, much to the consternation of Juan Antonio, who had better things in mind for his eldest son than marriage to a lowly migrant. But his orders to Teo were largely ignored, and the young couple had many trysts in the hidden canyons and valleys that ring the Basin and beyond. One of their favorite meeting spots was by the old cattle pen a mile or so in from the Havilah cemetery; it was peaceful and secluded. They dreamed of a ranch there some day.

On October 31, 1937, Teo and Gerty were motoring back from Bakersfield after a long and special day in town. Defying the wishes and demands of his father, Teo had presented Gerty with an engagement ring, and now the couple faced the unpleasant but necessary task of breaking the news to Juan Antonio.

What happened next is anyone’s guess. Some think an argument broke out in the cab of Teo’s old truck, and got bigger as they approached the Creek Road. Did Teo insist on taking the Lion’s Trail to Gerty’s place? Did Gerty think it best to bear right toward Twin Oaks and confront Juan Antonio?

No one will ever know for sure, but what is known is this: Teo was clearly speeding when he began to fork left at the "Y," but the steering wheel was suddenly pulled hard to the right, as if grabbed by an angry and determined passenger. The truck careened off the slope, rolled over three times, and ejected the lovers with fatal force onto the lower road.

Traffic was much lighter back then, and their crushed and lifeless bodies weren’t found until the following day. A wedding license application was still in Teo’s hip pocket, and a gold band decorated Gerty’s ring finger.

* * *

Now sometimes a stranger will pull into Twin Oaks late at night, and he’ll look wide-eyed, shaken and pale. If you’re still at the bar, you’ll likely hear a strange but familiar tale. It always goes something like this:

"Y’know, I was comin’ up on that "Y" in the road back there a dozen miles or so, and I saw the strangest damned sight. There was this pretty girl—teenager, I’d guess—and she flagged me down.

"So I stopped and rolled down the window, and the girl comes up and asks me for a favor. "Sure," I says. "What is it?"

"When you get to Twin Oaks, find the schoolhouse and look for some initials penciled inside a heart back by the rear. Please put this ring on the ground right below the heart."

"I looked down at the ring she put in my hand, and when I looked back up again, there was no one there!

"Well, when I looked back down at the ring in my hand, it was gone, too! There was nothing but an old rusty washer!

"I’ll tell you, friend: I didn’t know what was going on, but I did just exactly what the little lady asked. I drove straight to the General Store, found the heart with the initials in it, and threw the washer on the ground. Funny thing was, there was already a bunch of washers lying there in the dirt.

"And then, I got the hell out of there as fast as I could!

"What do you make of that?"

* * *

The story never changes, does it?

Calendar Hacksaw hangs his hat at and sometimes he wonders if that couple’s initials can still be seen on that faded wood siding. Probably not, after all these years.

Last Month "Thunderhead" Next Month