The Time We Found the Dead Man

 

There was an old grain elevator down by the railroad tracks which had been vacant for as long as most of us kids could remember. Except for the courthouse, it was the biggest structure in Stinnett, standing around eighty feet tall and covered with rusting corrugated tin. It was rather a scary place with gaping windows in the headhouse and there were even rumors that it was haunted. To add to the illusion that it was occupied by ethereal beings, bats could be seen flying in and out of the out of the open windows each evening. On the back side of the building, next to the rusting tracks of the unused siding, a flexible iron spout which once funneled the grain into the boxcars swung in the wind like a huge elephant's trunk. When the winds were especially strong, the rusty spout would creak and groan as it clanked against the iron side of the building.

Before the dust bowl days came along and wiped out all the farmers, a long line of trucks loaded with wheat would line up at the elevator each year during harvest time to be unloaded. Moving the grain around in the place was accomplished by a huge conveyer belt which lifted the wheat from the pit under the scales to the top of the elevator where it was dumped into one of the four grain bins which made up the basic structure of the building, or else funneled directly into waiting railroad cars for shipment to mills in Amarillo where it would be ground into flour. The conveyer could heard all over town as it ran twenty-four hours a day during harvest season. Now, all that came or went from the building was pigeons during the day and bats at night.

Next to the elevator was a huge, round metal tank. It had been used to store excess grain during harvest season until it could be loaded into boxcars for shipment. It was painted a dull black, which made for an excellent place for us kids to write dirty words with chalk. Thankfully for everyone concerned, this was many years before the advent of spray cans and gang graffiti.

When the original owner went broke at the beginning of the great depression, the bank repossessed the scales used to weigh trucks. They ripped them out, leaving a huge hole in the middle of the floor. After the scales were gone, various vandals and thieves came in and took just about everything else of value from the place. Not only had they made off with all the electric motors, belts and pulleys; they had taken all the switches, light sockets and even ripped out the electrical wire and sold it as scrap copper.

Evidently, because the place was so dangerous yet so attractive to kids, someone tried to keep people out by nailing boards over the doors and windows on the first two floors. However, for boys with their natural ability to get themselves into trouble, this posed only a slight problem. It came as great news one day when a couple of the older boys told us that they had discovered a way to get into the place. They had removed the bolts from a small hatch in the side of the tank, opening a hole barely large enough for a person to crawl through. In the middle of the floor of the tank was a square opening into a tunnel leading directly into the pit beneath the scales where the trucks dumped their loads. At one time, a conveyer belt for transferring grain from the tank to the elevator ran through the tunnel, but it was now gone. To get into the main structure of the elevator, one had to crawl into the storage tank, drop through the hole into the tunnel and crawl about a hundred feet to where it opened into the elevator.

Even after you reached the end of the tunnel you weren't out of danger because it was a good ten foot drop to the bottom of the pit which was littered with scraps of lumber, broken bottles and other junk. A certain amount of light filtered down from the open windows in the headhouse, making the experience even that much more frightening. The secret of just where to put your feet and what to grab in order to work your way from the tunnel opening along the wall of the pit to a ladder which you could climb up to the main floor was passed from older kids to younger ones.

Once a way into the elevator was discovered, we started a secret club which, naturally, all the other boys wanted to join. In order to join the exclusive club, a new member had to go through an initiation of sorts. He had to go into the tank, crawl through the tunnel, climb a ladder inside one of the grain bins to the headhouse and wave to us from a window. My cousin and I were the first new members to go through the initiation, promoting us to a status usually reserved for boys at least two years older then we were. This made us very special in the eyes of all the other boys our age.

I don't really remember much about our initiation, probably because we were too scared for the real danger involved to register in our minds, but no matter how many times after that we crawled through the pitch-black darkness of the tunnel, it was always a scary trip. Rats were everywhere and you could hear them squealing as they scampered away. Occasionally, you would crawl right into a spider web in the darkness.

As scary as it was to get inside the old elevator, getting to the top was even more frightening and a lot more dangerous. When the place had been in operation, there was an electric lift to carry people up and down, but even if someone hadn't stolen the motor that ran it, there was no longer any electrical power to the place. The only way to get to the top now was to crawl through a small opening into one of the grain bins and climb a rickety ladder made by nailing boards across the studs in the wall. There was absolutely nothing to keep a person from plunging to the bottom should he lose his grip or if one of the nails holding the boards should pull loose.

If your heart wasn't already beating a mile a minute by the time that you reached the top, when you stuck your head through the small opening into the room at the very top, you would usually be met by a flurry of beating wings as the pigeons nesting up there tried to escape. At least the bats hanging upside down from the rafters slept during the day and few of them even took notice that someone was there. To my knowledge, no one ever fell while climbing around in the place, but it took several hours for some to work up the courage to climb back down.

Even though vandals had stolen just about everything else out of the place when it went broke, they ignored the ratty old furniture in the back room and the rolltop desk in the office. The desk was filled with canceled checks, weight slips and old letters but when I dug under the cushions in the old couch, I struck the mother lode. Along with a fountain pen, four pencils and a pocketknife, I found six pennies, two nickels, a dime, two quarters and a real silver dollar. Since this was during the depression, almost two dollars was more money than I had ever seen in all my life.

Bucky Dilt, who was with my cousin and me when I found the money, insisted that since he was president of the club, the money really should belong to him. I failed to see the logic of his idea but after considerable negotiation, we decided that the thing to do was spend it all at the drug store. We had strawberry sundaes, chocolate malts, vanilla shakes, root beer floats and coke fizzes until we were about to pop before it was all gone. Mr. Black became suspicious of three boys spending nearly two dollars on ice cream and called the sheriff to see if anyone had reported such a loss. By the time the sheriff got to our house to investigate the situation, I was so sick that I could barely talk. I convinced him that we had found the money buried in a coffee can but didn't leak the secret that we had been in the old elevator.

Somehow, the story got out that there was a treasure hidden in the elevator, but no matter how much we searched, all that we ever found were a few of the aluminum coins issued by the State of Oklahoma as a way to collect sales taxes. Since they were worth only a tenth of a cent each and worthless everywhere except in Oklahoma, people who brought them back across the state line to Texas usually used as washers under bolts. After all, washers were five for a penny and you could get ten of those things for the same amount.

The elevator had become the secret meeting place where most of the pre-pubescent boys of Stinnett gathered to do the pre- pubescent things that pre-pubescent boys do when they feel safe from discovery by adults. We practiced rolling our own cigarettes and then had contests to see who could inhale the most puffs before going into a spasm of coughing. We had contests to see who could pee the highest on the wall and who could fart the loudest. We measured ourselves to see who could produce the biggest erection, which naturally led to long discussions about girls and sex. We kept copies of The National Geographic with pictures of bare-chested native women as well as pages from the women's underwear section of the Sears catalog there. One of the boys even came up with a deck of cards with pictures of naked women on them. Life was good.

One day after school, my cousin and I headed straight for the old elevator. For some reason, we hadn't been there for several days and were anxious to get back to our secret hiding place. We crawled into the tank, dropped into the tunnel and sent the rats scampering into their holes as we made our way to the scale pit. We didn't have a care in the world as we climbed to the main floor and walked into the office, that is until we froze in our tracks when we saw a pile of clothing laying on the floor and a man asleep on the couch in the back room. Somehow, he must have found our secret way into the elevator and had taken possession of it. I don't think that we drew a breath until after we had scrambled back through the tunnel, out of the tank and were half way home. We didn't look back as we raced for home for fear that he was dead on our heels.

We told all the other boys about finding the man asleep on the couch and it was several days before any of us worked up the courage to go near the elevator again. We watched the place all one weekend without seeing a soul around, so my cousin and I decided to see if he was still there. We reasoned that the safest thing to do before going inside was to throw rocks at the sheet iron on the walls to see if anyone responded. We figured that if there was anyone in there, they were bound to come out to see what all the noise was about. After we pelted the walls for half an hour without raising anyone, we concluded that he was gone and it would be safe to go inside.

Before entering the tank, I carefully checked the loose sand around the opening to see if there were any fresh tracks. Finding none, we went inside and crawled quietly through the tunnel to the scale pit. As I reached the end of the tunnel, I smelled a terrible stench. The place always stunk in some way; from rotting grain, rats droppings or an occasional skunk, but this was more like something dead. While I had smelled a number of dead animals before, this was totally different. As I poked my head above the edge of the scale pit, the stench became stronger. I could see the pile of clothes lying on the floor in the office just as they had been when we first saw them, but I couldn't see the couch from where I was.

When I whispered that the clothes were still there, my cousin refused to come out and started backing down the tunnel toward where we had come in. Even without his moral support, I had to see what was going on so I climbed out of the pit and made my way as quietly as possible to the door between the office and the back room. The smell was so strong that it almost gagged me. The door was about half closed so I peeked through the crack between the door and the frame. The man was lying in the same position on the couch just as he had been when we first saw him. A big rat which was sitting on his shoulder and chewing on his ear but it scampered away when it saw me. It finally sank through the befuddled mind of a twelve year old that the man was dead.

My cousin was waiting for me in the tank when I stuck my head out of the tunnel. "He's still there but I think he is dead," I told him.

"Think we should tell someone?" he asked.

"I guess we should, but if we do, we'll have to tell how and where we found him," I answered.

All the way home, we discussed whether we should tell about finding the dead man or not. It was finally decided that the proper thing to do was to tell someone. After all, the man was dead and being eaten by rats, and since we were the ones who found him, it was our duty to tell. We concluded that since my dad had been a Texas Ranger, he would know what to do about a dead man. All that I had to do was to work up the courage to tell him, which greatly relieved my cousin since he didn't have to share in the responsibility.

My dad was getting ready to feed the chickens when I got home and I went out to talk with him. Figuring out just how to go about it and what to say posed more of a problem that I had anticipated and as I stood there, scrubbing my foot over a nail sticking out of the wooden floor of the feed house, he sensed that something was wrong. He waited a minute or so for me to work up my courage and he finally asked, "Want to tell me about the dead man?"

"How did you know?" I blurted out before I could think of something more suitable to say.

"I could smell it on you," he replied. "I was around a lot of dead people in the trenches during World War One and you never forget that smell."

He listened carefully as I told him how we were able to get into the elevator and about finding the dead man in there and how rats were eating on him. When I finished, he told me to go take a bath and give my clothes to my mother to wash. I knew that the smell was pretty strong but never realized that it could permeate a person's clothing to the point that anyone near could smell him. He told my mother that he was going to contact the proper authorities about the dead man, got in his pickup and left. When he returned later that night, he said that the Justice of the Peace had ruled that the man had evidently gone in there to get out of the weather and had died of natural causes. Then he added, "We also fixed things so you can't get back in that place. It's a wonder that someone wasn't killed climbing around in there."

That was all that was ever said about the subject but when we checked it out a few days later, we found that the cover had been put back on the opening into the tank and the bolts welded so they could not be removed again. I smelled a dead person only once since then and he was right, you never forget it.


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Copyright 2001 by Jim Foreman