Revolutionary Ghosts, Chapter 25

The Sunoco station was a glass-paneled square building on a small parking lot. This was June, and the longest day of the year was fast approaching. At a little after 5:30 p.m., the sun was only beginning to edge toward the horizon. The windowed walls of the Sunoco station were lit up with reflected sunlight.

I parked at the edge of the parking lot, not at the gas pumps. I walked into the station, where a lone man around my father’s age was seated on a stool behind the counter. He was the only one minding the station. This he was doing while reading the sports section of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

I could only see the balding dome of the clerk’s head over the top of his newspaper. He had hair that was going grey, and receding from every possible angle.

The clerk had heard me come in, but he made a point of keeping his newspaper up. Yes, this was an hourly employee who was only putting in time. There were plenty of teenage employees like that, of course; but not every employee with a poor attitude was under the age of twenty-five. (Same thing now, as then.)

The store area of the gas station consisted of multiple rows of free-standing metal shelves. There was no signage to indicate what was shelved where. I supposed that I could have started at the front, and worked my way through every aisle and level of shelf. But I didn’t have that kind of time.

“Could you tell me where the oil is?” I asked. There might have been an edge to my voice. Maybe just a little one.

“Shelf closest to the window. Near the end of the aisle. Right side. Bottom shelf.”

The clerk delivered all of these instructions without looking up from his newspaper.

“Gee, thanks a lot,” I said.

The clerk lowered his newspaper for a second. He looked at me over his bifocal reading glasses. He pointedly glared.

Then he raised his newspaper again.

At least the oil was where he said it would be. The Sunoco station didn’t stock Pennzoil, but it did carry Quaker State. Just as good.

The clerk spoke to me as little as possible, and repeatedly glared, as he rang up my purchase and took my money.

What a dick, I thought, heading out to the parking lot, my quart of 10W-30 in hand.

I popped the hood and poured a quart of oil into the Bonneville. It was a maneuver with which I was well familiar by now. I removed a rag that I had placed in the footwell of the rear passenger seat. I used the rag to wipe the dipstick clean, then I checked to make sure that I had enough oil.

I did. For the time being. Luckily, it was a slow leak. I would be okay tonight. Possibly through tomorrow. By Monday I would likely need more oil.

I slammed the hood shut, and I happened to look over at the little patch of grass just beyond the parking lot, to my left.

And I saw the hoofprints.

A little chill went up my spine, defying the late-day heat.

The coincidences were stacking up.

I knelt down and examined the hoofprints in detail, just as I had done at the Pantry Shelf.

Once again, the hoofprints were slightly larger than normal. Growing up out on the fringes between the suburbs and the country, I knew what horse hoofprints were supposed to look like.

Not like this.

There was black gunk around the edges of each hoofprint. I could smell the foul odor, redolent of death and decay.

I was grappling with the weight of so many coincidences, trying to find a logical answer.

Maybe someone has been riding a horse, I thought—a normal Quarter Horse or Morgan—in the area.

If only a witness could tell me that he had seen a regular man or woman on horseback, their animal perfectly ordinary and mundane. If someone could tell me that, I could dismiss the black gunk around the edges of the indentations in the mud as unexplained but ignorable phenomena.

Because what was the alternative? 

The alternative was that I had to think seriously about Harry Bailey’s article. About the Headless Horseman.

According to Harry Bailey’s article, the Headless Horseman had recently been seen in Pennsylvania. I knew my American geography, and I knew that Pennsylvania lay directly to the east of Ohio.

If the Headless Horseman had last been seen in Pennsylvania, and he was moving west…

I needed assurance of a logical explanation for the hoofprints.

But who could provide me with such assurance? If that horse was ridden this close to the Sunoco station, who might have seen it, and its perfectly human rider?

Who else, perhaps, but that man behind the counter of the Sunoco station, the man reading the sports section of the Cincinnati Enquirer?

Chapter 26

Table of contents

Revolutionary Ghosts, Chapter 24


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I was halfway to the McDonald’s late that afternoon when the Bonneville’s dashboard oil light lit up.

My car was leaking oil. I had been in denial about this fact; I’d been putting off the problem. Within the short time that I’d owned the car, however, the oil leak had evolved into a major headache. My first vehicle purchase–my first really big, adult decision–had been fundamentally flawed.

And if I’d only listened to my father, I could have avoided the debacle.

I had found out about the Bonneville through a local “for sale or trade” newspaper. (This was how people commonly disposed of unwanted items before the Internet and Craigslist.) The owner of the car lived just a few miles away from us. I called the number listed for the owner, and made an appointment to look at the car.

I asked my father to accompany me. He knew a lot about cars, after all. But I ignored the basic rule of utilizing the superior knowledge of others: If you borrow or rent someone else’s expertise, then listen to what the expert has to say.

I wasn’t in a listening mood. The gleaming white paint job of the 1968 Bonneville instantly pulled me in. Also, I had gotten the impression that there weren’t many cars for sale in the immediate area. I feared that I might be shopping in a seller’s market, with all the disadvantages that entails. I didn’t want to miss out.

But a bad deal is a bad deal, even in a seller’s market. The Bonneville had a slow oil leak.

This wasn’t hard to detect. My father noticed a telltale puddle on the driveway. He was alert to that sort of thing.

When Dad asked the owner about the black puddle, the owner told him–us–that the oil had come from his wife’s car (which was conveniently elsewhere at the time).

Dad was openly skeptical of this explanation. For a brief moment, I thought that he was going to outright accuse the owner of lying, and a serious argument (or maybe even a brawl) would result.

In the end, though, Dad let me make my own decision. I wanted the car, and I would buy it with my own money–money I had earned at my McDonald’s job, and from various lawn-cutting gigs the year before.

“It’s your decision, son,” my dad had said. “It’s your cash, after all. But I would advise you to hold off.”

While the owner of the car stood there scowling at my father, I took less than half a minute to make up my mind.

“I want this car,” I said.

And so I bought it.


Vous Vitamin

I now knew that my dad had been right, though. Since I had purchased the Bonneville, I had been refilling the car’s oil supply practically every other day.

I had already called the owner and complained that he’d told me a lie and sold me a lemon. The man brusquely informed me that the sale was final, and hung up the phone on me.

Theoretically, I suppose, it would have been possible for me to get my money back through legal channels, but who was going to do that in southern Ohio in 1976, for a used car?

Not many people, I didn’t think, and certainly not me.

But now I was on my way to work, and my car needed yet another infusion of 10W-30 from the folks at Pennzoil. There was a Sunoco station on the way to the McDonald’s. It was a large station that sold various automotive supplies.

I had left home a few minutes early, and I figured that I had time to stop for a quart of oil without being late for the six o’clock shift at McDonald’s.

And besides, what choice did I have?


Chapter 25

Table of contents


Seek contentment, not happiness

I am going to put forth the radical proposition that you should not try too hard to be happy.

Instead you should seek contentment.


Why not happiness?

Because happiness is open-ended. Happiness is all about the ideal (whereas contentment is about the real).

Happiness is constantly redefining itself. Happiness is a moving target, a never-ending, ever-evolving list of wants, whims, and flights-of-fancy.

What makes you happy today, or this year, will almost certainly not make you happy tomorrow, or next year.

The quest for happiness will therefore exhaust you—and probably cause you to treat others poorly, too.

An overemphasis on happiness encourages you to look at every person and situation in your life with a critical eye.

An overemphasis on happiness is what causes midlife crises, and midlife divorces.

The quest for happiness is what makes middle-age men buy sports cars.

An overemphasis on happiness leads to that vice that the ancient Greeks called hubris—an excessive pride or overconfidence. Because when you are constantly asking yourself what would make you even happier, you tend to develop an inflated view of what you’re entitled to have.



Of course, the above paragraphs assume a certain base level of having one’s life together. I’m not suggesting that you should be “contented” with being overweight, in an abusive relationship, in debt, or unemployed.

The definition of what it is reasonable to be “contented” with is different for each individual. It varies by age and life stage. A fifty year-old would be contented with things that a twenty year-old ought not to accept (and vice versa).

The determination your reasonable “baseline” requires self-knowledge and introspection.

But once you do determine that baseline, I would encourage you against chasing happiness with too much vigor.

Seek contentment instead, contentment with what you have.

Contentment is attainable. You can rely on it. Happiness, by contrast, is a hare that, once sighted, you can chase…but never catch.

Revolutionary Ghosts, Chapter 16

My bedroom was a small, cramped affair, very typical of secondary bedrooms in postwar tract homes. There was barely enough room for a bed, a desk, a dresser, and a chest of drawers. The one selling point of the bedroom was the window over the bed. It afforded me a view of the big maple tree in the front yard, when I felt like looking at it.

I lay down on my bed and opened Spooky American Tales. I briefly considered reading about the Nevada silver mine or the Confederate cemetery in Georgia.

Instead I flipped back to page 84, to Harry Bailey’s article about the Headless Horseman.

After the opening paragraphs, Harry Bailey explained the historical background behind the legend of the Headless Horseman. While most everyone knew that the Headless Horseman was associated with the American Revolution, not everyone knew the particulars:

“Is the Headless Horseman a mere tale—a figment of fevered imaginations? Or is there some truth in the legend? Did the ghastly Horseman truly exist?

“And more to the point of our present concerns: Does the Horseman exist even now?

“I’ll leave those final judgments to you, my friends. 

“What is known for certain is that on October 28, 1776, around three thousand troops of the Continental Army met British and Hessian elements near White Plains, New York, on the field of battle. 

“This engagement is known in historical record as the Battle of White Plains. The Continentals were outnumbered nearly two to one. George Washington’s boys retreated, but not before they had inflicted an equal number of casualties on their British and Hessian enemies…”

By this point in my educational career, I had taken several American history courses. I knew who the Hessians were.

The Hessians were often referred to as mercenaries, and there was an element of truth in that. But they weren’t mercenaries, exactly, in the modern usage of that word.

In the 1700s, the country now known as Germany was still the Holy Roman Empire. It consisted of many small, semiautonomous states. In these pre-democratic times, the German states were ruled by princes.

Many of these states had standing professional armies, elite by the standards of the day. The German princes would sometimes lease out their armies to other European powers in order to replenish their royal coffers.

When the American Revolution began, the British government resorted to leased German troops to supplement the overburdened British military presence in North America. Most of the German troops who fought in the American Revolutionary War on the British side came from two German states: Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau. The Americans would remember them all as Hessians.

The Hessians had a reputation for brutality. It was said that no Continental soldier wanted to be taken prisoner by the German troops. The Continentals loathed and feared the Hessians even more than the British redcoats.

I supposed that Harry Bailey would have known more about the Hessians than I did, from my basic public school history courses. But Harry Bailey wasn’t writing an article for a history magazine. The readers of Spooky American Tales would be more interested in the ghostly details:

“That much, my dear readers, is indisputable historical record. Journey to the town of White Plains, New York, today, and you will find monuments that commemorate the battle.

“But here is where history takes a decidedly macabre turn, and where believers part ranks with the skeptics. For according to the old legends, one of the enemy dead at the Battle of White Plains would become that hideous ghoul—the Headless Horseman. 

“A lone Hessian artillery officer was struck, in the thick of battle, by a Continental cannonball. Horrific as it may be to imagine, that American cannonball struck the unlucky Hessian square in the head, thereby decapitating him. 

“What an affront, from the perspective of a proud German military man! To have one’s life taken and one’s body mutilated in such a way!

“So great was the rage of the dead Hessian, that he would not rest in his grave! He rose from his eternal sleep to take revenge on the young American republic after the conclusion of the American Revolution.

“This is the gist of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. The tale is set in the rural New York village of Sleepy Hollow, around the year 1790. 

“But we have reason to believe that ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ was not the last chapter in the story of the Headless Horseman. For according to some eyewitness accounts, that fiendish ghoul has returned again from the depths of hell. 

“Read on, my friends, for the details!”

Lying there on my bed reading, I rolled my eyes at Harry Bailey’s florid prose. He was really laying it on thick. But then, I supposed, that was what the readers of a magazine called Spooky American Tales would require.

Then I noticed that the hairs on my arms were standing on end.

My gooseflesh hadn’t been caused by the article in Spooky American Tales—at least, I didn’t think so. I hadn’t yet bought into the notion that the legend of the Headless Horseman might be anything more than an old folktale.

Nor was the temperature in my bedroom excessively cold. Three years ago, my parents had invested in a central air conditioning system for the house. They used the air conditioning, but sparingly. It sometimes seemed as if they were afraid that they might break the air conditioning unit if they kept the temperature in the house below 75°F. With the door closed, it was downright stuffy in my bedroom.

I had an unwanted awareness of that bedroom door, and what might be on the other side of it.

The shape I had seen in the hallway.

Then I told myself that I was being foolish.

It was a bright, sunny June day. The walls were thin, and the door of my bedroom was thin. I could hear the muffled murmurs of the television in the living room.

It wasn’t as if I was alone in some haunted house from Gothic literature. I was lying atop my own bed, in my own bedroom, in the house where I’d grown up. My parents—both of them—were only a few yards away.

There is nothing out there in the hall, I affirmed.

With that affirmation in mind, I continued reading.


Chapter 17

Table of contents