In 1940 we moved back to Virginia after
my fathers short and unsuccessful coal mining partnership with my Mothers
Dad and Uncle in Mason county, West Virginia.
Dad had gotten a job as the assistant Commissary Manager at VMI. As he put
it, that meant he was a glorified store clerk, but it was job with a secure
future and a few benefits and the depression was still dragging our country
He’d rented a house on the banks of Kerr’s Creek just where Route 60
crosses. It was supposed to be temporary but our family lived there about 10
years until they bought a farm near Rockbridge Baths. Va. The Fitzpatrick
family owned the house, which was originally a log cabin, and they lived
next door and operated the neighborhood General Store beside their house.
The store building was a large frame two-story building with an upstairs and
down front porch, the original owners of the store had likely lived in the
upstairs, as the stairs to the upper story had entrances on the downstairs
porch as well as inside the store. The doors leading upstairs were always
locked. No one, as far as I knew, except the family, had ever been in the
When I was about 14 year old, the young lad who had previously helped out in
the store on Saturdays had other responsibilities and quit. I asked for the
job and for some reason, likely Mrs. Valle, his wife, I got it!
I pumped gas and counted eggs and toted stuff to the cars of our customers
and when summer came Mr. Billie, the owner, asked me if I would like to work
the summer, I was delighted. I had a job!.
There was always another employee at the store, either Mr. Davis or Homer
Plogger, and, of course neither of them had any problems with telling me
what to do. We sold groceries, pumped gas up into the large glass tops so it
would flow into the customers tank by gravity. The store carried men’s and
women’s and children’s clothing and shoes and work boots, we had fabric for
sale by the yard, hardware supplies up to and including horseshoes! We would
buy eggs and country butter, berries, black walnuts and other delicacies
Mr. Fitzpatrick was the only one who would buy the furs and the Ginseng and
where he stored them I had no idea. Occasionally he would unlock the door to
the stairway leading to the second floor and one could hear him moving
around and sometimes one would hear nothing but I had the notion he might
keep them upstairs.
On one rainy day in the summer, he told me, “Johnny, I’d like for you to go
upstairs and sweep and clean out the large room at the top of the steps, you
won’t have a need to go into any of the other rooms! Throw the trash out the
window on the back and take it away later”. Boy! Was I excited, I was about
to have my chance to see the upstairs that had intrigued me, (and others)
Lordie, that back room was a mess, ancient walnuts, onions, herbs that I had
no idea of, and dirt and dust over it all, around the wall were stacks of
catalogs going back many years, there were boxes of shoes and racks of
clothing and items I couldn’t classify, it was fascinating. I poked and I
pried as much as I dared, but made sure I was making enough noise to sound
as though I were working.
Mr. Fitzpatrick’s voice called up the stairway and asked how I was getting
along, he said, “I’m going to lunch, listen for Homer, he may need you to
help him”, I looked out the back window and as soon as I saw him go in the
back door of his home, I went to the front room!
It opened onto the upstairs front porch and was a bedroom. A bed and a
dresser and a small table and chair were the only furniture. As if yesterday
I can remember the cold chill that went over me when I saw that the covers
of the bed were thrown aside as if someone had just gotten up, the
impression of their body and head was still visible in the feather tick and
on the long pillow that extended across the bed. A pair of mans trousers
were hanging on the back of the chair and on the dresser were a pocket
knife, a handkerchief and wallet and a quarter, two dimes and 4 pennies,
everything covered with a thick layer of dust, the floor had several sets of
recent footprints but nothing else had been disturbed for generations.
I have wondered for years about that room, the building burned down a few
years later and a new building erected on the site. There was no way I could
find out without confessing I had done what I had been forbidden to do,
enter the room.
I wondered if perhaps Mr. Billie’s father or another relative had perhaps
died in the room and it had just been kept the way it was, it would be my
guess that the family, had in the early days of the store, lived on the
second floor. Perhaps Mr. Fitzpatrick, when he had went upstairs had
sometimes visited the room and quietly communed with what ever spirit was
present, I wonder even yet.