The Halloween night was cold and dark, a night when the large campfire not only warmed the 9-year-old boys, including grandson Jack, but the twirling flames were a welcome companion to the first-time campers at the Kentucky Horse Park, a companion that later would provide a reminder of the safety of home and warm beds.
A steady stream of pickup trucks entered the Horse Park pulling horse trailers with large black horses inside. Some of the teenage drivers were wearing Halloween costumes with grotesque masks. One could tell they were looking for fun and innocent mischief.
The plan for the night was for the dads and grandpas to build a campfire, cook hotdogs and hamburgers, sing a few songs, and then all gather around the fire to tell stories to the boys.
Entering the park, son Greg, Jack and I saw a horse trailer parked under a clump of large trees not far away from our campsite.
“I‘ll be right back,” I said, as I hopped out of our truck and walked over to the young man unloading his horses.
“What was he laughing about?” Greg asked when I returned. “Did you give him some money?”
“You will find out later,” I replied.
Greg threw a few pine logs on the fire, knowing the pinewood would provide a liberal amount of popping and crackling as the night winds wailed.
The boys were city boys, as were their dads, unfamiliar with the outdoors, particularly with the rigors of tent camping.
The young men devoured their camp food and were ready to sing.
One dad stood up with his son who was dressed as Spiderman, and curiously sang John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Another, dressed as Flash, sang “Blue Tail Fly.”
It was soon Greg’s and my turn. “Listen to the thunder,” we began. “Hear the winds roar, Hurricane’s a-coming, Board up the door.” “Girls run and hide, Brave men shiver, I’m Mike Fink, King of the river,” we chimed.
The boys roared.
“We are going to tell some Halloween stories,” our host began. Roy, a young accountant, stood up and told the boys about the time a dog chased him one Halloween night. The kids clapped.
Another talked about walking past a cemetery with names on the tombstones. “On the way over here this evening, I walked by this very scary cemetery,” the man said. “Guess who was buried there?”
“Who?” the kids yelled in unison.
“Well, in the first row was Barry D. Bones,” the man said. The other men let out a groan, but he went on. “Then there was Bea A. Fraid, Anita Shovel, Dr. Izzy Gone, Xavier Breath, I.M. Knotwell, Chris P. Bacon, Barry M. Deep, Claude Tupeces, Ted N. Buried, and, of course, Freddie Krueger.”
“Was Freddie dead?” a little boy asked, his voice shaking.
“I think so, but you can never be sure with Freddie,” Greg offered.
Then it was our turn. “Greg, do you mind telling the story? I’m going to stand over there by the woods. That last story scared me a little,” I said.
Greg stood up. “Y’all better move a little closer to the fire. This is a story best heard close together.” The boys needed little prodding. They moved close to the fire, and closer to their dads.
“This is a story about a place long known by the name Sleepy Hollow,” Greg began. “Some say that an old Indian chief, the wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there. The dominant spirit that haunts this enchanted region is the figure on horseback without a head. It is said to be the ghost of a trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. He is the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow,” Greg told the boys most who were then cuddled in their dads’ laps.
“There really isn’t a headless man riding a horse, is there?” young Tony asked Greg.
“We can’t be sure. We just can’t be sure,” Greg answered.
I quietly pulled a small laser pen from my pocket and shined it toward the horse trailer. Within minutes, hoofbeats could be heard. A man was riding a horse straight toward our camp. He was wearing a black blanket around his shoulders, and holding a glowing pumpkin in his left hand.
“That man has no head!” one of the boys screamed in his southern accent.
The horseman rode around the camp once and was gone as the thickened fog rose slowly from the pond near the woods, drifting aimlessly toward the dark sky.
Just then, church bells rang 10 times in nearby Lexington. The campsite was now vacant except for the sound of the campfire crackling. The boys had retreated with their dads, snuggled and warm inside their tents.
“Dad, do you think you should have really hired that man and horse?” Greg asked. “It may have scared those young boys.”
“It’s probably the best $50 I ever spent,” I replied. “Those boys will remember this Halloween night and the story of the Headless Horseman for the rest of their lives.”
“That isn’t a true story is it, Dad?” Greg asked with just a hint of sincerity in his voice.
“Like you said, just like Freddie Krueger, we can never know for sure,” I smiled.
“Goodnight, Dad. Remind me never to bring you on a Halloween camping trip again,” Greg quipped.
“I will. Do you smell pumpkin?” I asked no one particular as the wind blew out my lantern and I zipped up the tent.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.