Saturday, February 12, 2011

Phenomenologically Speaking

This story is true. 

It is completely true in the phenomenological senseI don't have a scientific, theological or psychological category for it and I've never felt a particular need to find one.

It was the summer of 1980. By standard trajectory I should have been a newly minted University of South Carolina graduate standing on the cusp of the soon-to-be Reagan-era economic job grab. But for reasons both providential and self-inflicted I had plenty of college left. "Taking a victory lap" was the existing fraternity house phrase. At that point I had accumulated about $7000 in student loan debt, an amount which by today's college-debt reality is practically chump change. But then it seemed massive and unconquerable. To avoid more debt I determined to find a summer job that would pay enough to fund a year of college. I signed on to sell books. Door to door. Six days a week, 12 hours a day. In Texas and Arkansas.

To be clear, I was aware of the mercenary nature of this job. The company that ran it (and still runs it, but now they call it an "internship") had plenty of haters and adherents on campus. The former heavily outnumbered the latter. One group signed up overlooking - or being misled about - the nature of the job. You were independent contractors who after attending (at your own expense) a week of training in Nashville (think Billy Graham meets Adam Smith; a frenetic pastiche of positive-thinking, generic god revivalism and pre-Gordon Gecko greed-is-good behaviorism) were then assigned a territory several states away from where you lived. There you knocked on doors all day and tried to convince total strangers to a) let you in the door and b) part with $50 for a pair of obviously overpriced dictionaries. Pay was straight commission, and the dropout rate during the first two weeks was astronomical. Ergo the hate.

A much smaller group took on the job and made money. A lot of money. A sort-of friend in the Sigma Nu house had done it for a couple of summers and made about $5000 each time, which then was a staggering amount for a summer job. One night at a sorority mixer he told me while mildly inebriated , "Cannon, you could definitely do this." I needed the money. So I did.

Which is how I wound up in Texarkana. Which, if you are told to sell books in Texas and Arkansas, is a pretty sensible place to live as the state line runs right through the middle of town. My Sigma Nu friend and I found a place to live with a retired and terminally cranky widower who lived on the Texas side of town.

This story is about the only Saturday I took off that summer. Saturdays were the best days to sell as most people were home and you usually didn't have to deal with the "I'll need to ask my husband" death-ray objection. I needed that Saturday off because another college friend of mine was getting married that day. My friendship with him was well past sort-of and I was in the wedding party. And he was getting married just down Highway 82 from Texarkana in El Dorado, Arkansas. That's pronounced elda-RAY-da by locals. 

When I say just down the road, I mean a mere 90 mile straight shot on a paved and well maintained Federal Highway. From a strictly financial perspective (this was the Adam Smith part of the training) I was thrilled. My friend could have been marrying a woman from Florida or New Jersey meaning a plane ticket and even more time off. And to minimize the financial load I worked a few extra hours on Friday and I decided to hitchhike to El Dorado.

I was not completely unhinged. Hitchhiking in 1980 was not exactly mainstream and it was vaguely frowned upon. But it was not, as it is now, the sole purview of the homeless, the mentally ill or the serial killer. Back at Lower Merion High School I would routinely miss the bus after lacrosse practice and hitchhiked home. I hitchhiked to the Jersey shore twice to meet friends.

So what could go wrong hitchhiking in rural Arkansas?

At about 10:00 p.m. on Friday I stood on the side of East 9th Street/U.S. 82 in Texarkana with backpack on and thumb out. The very first vehicle stops. A huge Dodge pickup. The cab was full with what seemed to be a family of ten. I tell the driver where I'm headed. He says, "If you don't mind riding in the back I'll take you as far as Waldo."  I jump in the truck's open bed and we head East. Having examined the route on our host's Triple A map I knew that Waldo was exactly halfway to El Dorado. It was a warm, pleasant night and I found a spot in the truck bed next to a bike, an old washing machine (properly secured) and a banjo. 

Yes, a banjo. But to relieve possible tension this story is not headed in that direction.

Feeling the wind and watching the stars I felt good. Life was good. My Sigma Nu friend was right. I could sell books. I didn't mind the long hours, was generally impervious to the routinely closing doors and learned early in the experience that I genuinely enjoyed contact with people who were in the nature/nurture conundrum comprehensively different from me. I loved their stories, the tone and cadence of their voices, and general lack of guile. Most were fascinated by my Philadelphia accent (still present then) and one man was clearly disappointed when I told him that no, young men in Philadelphia don't spend their weekend nights singing doo-wop around a trash can with a fire like in the Rocky movie

And they bought books. The oil 'bidness in Texas was good and the trickle down meant the economy was strong. Most people paid in cash. These people were different but certainly not stupid. They knew they were overpaying for something they probably already had in their house. For most people it was more like a token of generosity toward a college kid from another world who amused them for 30 minutes. And of course I was more than happy to accept those tokens (see Smith, Adam).

In about an hour the truck slowed, pulled to the shoulder and the driver gave me a friendly nod through the cab window. I jumped out and the Dodge turned right on a secondary road. I soon realized two things.

First, Highway 82 doesn't actually go through Waldo. On the Triple A map the solid black line for Highway 82 neatly intersected the black dot representing Waldo. That, as they say, was not to scale. There was a turnoff sign that pointed to Waldo. Two miles away. 

Second, it was dark and I was surrounded by nothing but thick pines. The night was moonless and a slight cloud cover obscured the stars. I saw the last of the Dodge tail lights through the trees and was slightly overwhelmed by the blackness of things and lack of anything suggesting human presence. Still I was confident of making the last 45 miles without drama.

Over the next four hours that confidence faded as I realized a third thing. This time of night, Highway 82 near Waldo, Arkansas was practically deserted. In that time the only traffic I saw consisted of three logging trucks that drove by with unbroken speed and a wake of diesel fumes. By 3:00 in the morning I was resigned to waiting till sunrise, walking into Waldo and figuring out some way to get to El Dorado in time for an afternoon wedding. Miserable yes, but doable.

Then from across the road, through the trees I heard a slight rustle. The slight rise of panic I assuaged with the obvious. A raccoon, or maybe an armadillo. Then through the trees a red light began to glow as if being controlled by a dimmer switch. At first barely visible and then over about 30 seconds becoming distinctly luminous. It was unnerving but I quickly reasoned that a train line paralleled the highway and this was some kind of signal light.

The signal light theory lost traction when the light began to move and the rustling increased. It moved in a way that clearly suggested someone was holding it. A slight swing back and forth. Then a deliberate movement ten yards to the right. Then back. Staying right across the road from me. At this point the adrenaline of fear was involuntarily coursing through me. Part of me thought that someone from the Dodge pickup banjo family was having fun with me. Or that my mind was collapsing in the midst of irrational fear. The best option seemed to move. So I began walking east toward El Dorado. Not running, but walking at a brisk pace.

As I walked the light followed me through the copse of trees across the road. I stopped, it stopped. I would move 20 yards back where I had come from, it would follow. By now I'm in the grip of unalloyed panic and I begin to run. The road in front of me began to rise at about a twenty degree angle for about 200 yards. When I crest the rise I see in the distance a brightly lit saw mill and I sprint faster down the rise and notice there is a guard in the security pavilion. Turns out he's a teenager from down the road in Magnolia who's getting off work at 6:00 am. He's happy to give me a ride to El Dorado then. I don't mention the red light as by now fear has ceded and I'm back in full don't-look-like-an-idiot mode.

I catch a few hours of sleep on the floor. The kid drives me where I need to go. The wedding is great and a guest from Dallas gives me a ride back to Texarkana. I mention the red light experience to no one and it fades as I'm distracted by the long hours and vagaries of my job. That includes being chased and nearly caught by a rabid dog in Hooks TX, getting arrested for selling without a license in Queen City TX (and talking my way out of it solely on the basis of a shared hatred of the Dallas Cowboys with the arresting officer who grew up in Houston. My best sales job of the summer) and a day in Prescott AR that was 117 degrees where, I swear it, the paved roads were spongy from the heat.

My last day on the job was in late August. I was in Fouke AR, a town southeast of Texarkana. The last sale I made was to a middle-aged woman who, as I remember her now, bore a strong resemblance to Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies. She was also the area folklorist, and showed me several articles and self-published books about local legends and myths. The most prominent was the "Fouke Monster". They actually made a movie about that. As she talked it was clear her interest in these stories was strictly sociological. She didn't believe any of them. She shared her incredulity with me like we were two educated people who knew better.

"Oh," she said. "There's even that silly story about the Waldo Red Light. Typical myth. Supposedly the ghost of a dead train conductor appears once a year in the woods around Waldo to seek vengeance for the murder of his only daughter."

Click Play


  1. Creepy... total twilight zone moment!

  2. Top story Thomas. Stephen King redivivus. Although the most entertaining bit was picturing you as a door-to-door salesman. I see it!

  3. It is an interesting fact that my father has a similar red light story from North Carolina.

  4. While I remember you telling us this story, it was much more fun to read here with all of the other details. I could almost feel the hair that must have been rising on the back of your neck that night...


  5. My father grew up in El Dorado, and my grandparents lived there until they died a few years ago, so I've been there many times. On one trip, as a teen, I went out one night with my cousins, several from out of town and one of whom was a local (though I'd never met her before that trip and haven't seen her since). After checking out El Dorado's regular teenage hot spots (they weren't too hot, actually, even to a boy from small-town Tennessee), she took us out in the country to see some kind of "ghost light". I don't remember the details, and it wasn't as far away as Waldo, but there was some kind of story about a long-ago death and a light that appears in the woods. Well, sure enough, when we got to the spot, we saw a light, maybe 100 yards off the road in fairly thick woods. And it moved, following our car as we drove slowly by. Then we stopped, and it stopped. We backed up; it continued to follow us.

    I think we finally decided that something in the woods was reflecting the car's lights back at us. We were still in the car, and we had about 6 people with us, so we weren't too scared. But alone, on foot, it would have been a different story. Particularly since, alone, and on foot, I don't think we would have been generating any light to reflect back toward us.

    Maybe there's just something about south Arkansas.

  6. Only 5 posts in and you are becoming one of my favorite bloggers. Careful you don't run out of fantastically entertaining yet somehow eerily relevant stories too quickly...