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The Brick

This GA post was prompted by ev’s post about the dibbyk box. Although I have serious suspicions as to the veracity of that particular story, what I am about to relate actually happened and can be corroborated by at least two people who read this blog and would call my bluff if I was making it up. The story is not nearly as spooky and in some respects even amusing. Whether I put too much into it and this is just a strange chain of coincidences is up to you to decide, but they were compelling enough to send two semi-sane, semi-educated, fully skeptical and basically down-to-earth people on a long trip to a long-forgotten place. The events unfolded some sixteen years ago, in the span of about five months, but they are still pretty fresh in my memory and I will try to recollect them as closely as I can.

The trigger point for this story can be traced to five or six years before the actual event, while we still lived in New York and before Michael was born. It is no secret to some of you that Pete’s always been obsessed with tornadoes. He was lucky enough to lay his hands on a rare original book published in 1879 by J.P. Finley. Finley was an army engineer sent by the army to investigate the aftermath of a devastating tornado (actually, two separate tornadoes in the same day) which wiped out the town of Irving, Kansas that year. Very little was known about tornadoes at that time, and even though Finley was not a meteorologist, he provided the most comprehensive account of tornado devastation to date, which has become a classic. This link provides some of the pictures as they appeared in his book.

It has become Pete’s dream to one day visit the site of Irving, which to his knowledge at the time has never been rebuilt after the tornado, and retrace Finley’s steps. The dream came true in April of 1991, when equipped with xerox copies of Finley’s maps he set out from Madison, WI to Irving, KS. Michael and I stayed home to take care of business.

Pete came back after a couple of days, with a little memento. When I opened the door to let him in, he was standing on the threshold, holding a brick in his hand. It was a very old fossilized-looking brick, with one edge broken off at an angle. When I inquired as to what the heck was that, he said it was a brick from what he thought was (based on the location found) part of the destroyed town church (you can see the picture of the church at the above referenced site, half-way down). He was going to use it as paperweight. I protested mildly at first, intending to increase the volume of my protestations if met with resistance. Truth be known, I did not object due to some foreboding or such, but purely for practical reasons. We lived in an apartment at the time out of which I was running my business, and I had more souvenirs and relics already that I knew what to do with (other than throw away)–-a can full of ash from Mt. St. Helen, boxes full of paper crap, not to mention Michael’s growing collection of his interest du jour–-fossils, or more like a ton of rocks with fossil potential waiting to be uncovered once he got a big enough hammer.

As it turned out, I had to protest no more, which was very odd in itself and interpreted by me as a sign of extreme tiredness. I was fully prepared for “This is my office and I can do whatever I want!”, but instead he said very meekly: “Where should I put it?” “Oh, put it under the fence”, I said, waiving toward the long chain-link fence running along the apartment complex property. “OK”, he said, and proceeded to do just that. Only much later did he confess the reason for such uncharacteristic compliance. When he picked up the brick on the way back to his car, he was overcome by the strong feeling of nausea and the sense of being compelled to put it back, but shrugged it off as nonsense. That feeling didn’t exactly dissipate when on the way home his car was almost blown off the road by a sudden downburst (yeah, it was a CRX, so what?).

The trip itself was pretty uneventful. After getting lost a few times on unpaved, unmarked roads trying to find Irving which was no longer on any contemporary maps, navigating basically on over one-hundred-year-old maps, Pete finally stumbled onto a grassy clearing with what looked like a tombstone (note the mailbox next to it).

The mailbox contained a notebook left there by a local historian whose name I don’t remember, asking visitors to leave a note. Pete left a note with his address, explaining that he was doing tornado research. He then proceeded to investigate the area. The pictures below show what’s left of the once thriving little town.

The next two pictures are of what was supposedly the center of the town where the church stood and which sustained the hardest hit. You can see a scattering of bricks on the second photo. He picked up one of them.

The following link is the only reference of interest I found on the net today. Note the warning to relic hunters: “Relic seeking, in this case, becomes a FELONY. Be warned, take nothing but pictures.” Amen to that, I says.

Mysterious Illness
The chain of strange events started within days after Pete’s return. There were so many of them it would be too space- and time-consuming to list them all, some I may have even forgotten, so I will just give you the highlights. The first I recall happened on our way to the supermarket one night, with Michael, then six, in the back seat. He was chirping all the way to the store, but as we were about to turn off the main road onto the parking lot, he suddenly fell quiet. I asked him a question and he did not respond. When I turned back to look at him, he was slumped over in his seat, seemingly asleep. I tried to rouse him up when we realized that he was not asleep, but passed out and was unresponsive. This has never happened before or since. At speeds nearing 100 m/h through the mainly residential streets, we rushed to the emergency room. The doctors didn’t waste any time once they confirmed that he was, indeed, really out of it. He came to on the examination table, totally confused, but fine otherwise. The doctors ran his vitals, did some tests and could not find absolutely anything wrong with him. They did find a wood tick on his back which wasn’t even embedded, but categorically dismissed it as cause of unconsciousness. To this day it remains a mystery.

The House
This was probably the longest drawn out drama of the summer. With the apartment complex going downhill, I decided it was time to start thinking about buying a house, some time in the next year or so, since we didn’t really have enough money. My business was relatively new and struggling, while Pete was still collecting unemployment from his previous job–-not a good time to apply for a mortgage loan, but a girl can dream. On May 1, 1991 I opened the classified section of the newspaper just to see what’s out there. The very first listing, ABC Builders, was for an open house of a model home by that builder, so off we went. I immediately fell in love with the house, but it was way more than what I had in mind. Just for the hell of it, I asked the builder if he would settle for about 10% less than the asking price-–he looked at me like I was crazy. We ended up employing the services of a real estate agent, a rather snotty middle-aged woman. She worked hard, she showed us a lot of properties, but nothing was good enough for me in comparison. I could not get the #1 house out of my head, I was becoming obsessed. Finally, exasperated, the agent asked me if there was a house good enough for me, or I was just wasting her time. I told her. When she found out that I offered the builder $10,000 less than he was asking, she laughed in my face, saying that I would be lucky to get $900 out of a builder. She wrote me off as a nut case. (Incidentally, she called me a month after we moved into the house to see if we were still looking. When I told her we bought the house I wanted for the price I wanted she almost choked.)

Meanwhile, I was writing offers to the builder which went unanswered. To further exacerbate the matters, he hired his own real estate agent and upped the price by another $10,000, so I now had to deal with the agent. Oh, the wringer I put that sweet old man through... I stopped at nothing in my evil scheming. I recruited all my friends and acquaintances to make him phony offers a few thousand more than mine, get him all excited and change their minds the next day. Every night I used to drive up to the house and peer longingly through the windows. Quite often, I would see other potential buyers in their Volvos and Saabs and my heart would sink. To this day, I don’t know how I got this house, it simply should not have happened under normal circumstances. For example, after we already moved into the house, I befriended one of the future neighbors who was in the process of building the same house as mine, by the same builder, in the same development. She was quite shocked and hurt to find out how much I paid for the house, since she and her husband were negotiating with the builder the same time I was and were offering $5,000 more. Why he wouldn’t sell it to them neither one of us had any idea. All throughout that ordeal I had a feeling that someone was toying with us, wagging a carrot in front of our noses and pulling it away, but not all the way. That same pattern applied to my business that summer-–it was as if everything I tried to do became suspended.

Crises were coming out of the blue to just suddenly disappear under some weird circumstances. At the same time I was playing cat and mouse with the builder, I was trying to secure a mortgage loan with the bank. I lied, I cajoled, I exaggerated, my chutzpa knew no bounds. Let’s face it-–an unemployed husband and a wife with a small start-up business showing very little profit for the last couple of years is quite an iffy proposition. I managed to impress the bank with my rather vague UN contract enough to consider accepting my application, but as far as solid paperwork to back it up, there was none, I was running on fumes. My loan application was being reviewed by a loan officer named Jackie. Jackie was dragging her sweet ass and getting somewhat annoyed by my frequent inquiries, but the feeling I got from her was that the prospects were dim.

Some time during the summer, when Pete’s unemployment benefits already ran out, he received a letter from the unemployment office informing him that he was under investigation for fraud. If found guilty, he was facing the refund of all his benefits (about $7,000), plus that amount in penalties, plus possible jail time. Ouch. We were floored and had no idea where that came from. Since they subpoenaed my business records, I figured out it had something to do with him working for the business, but how that came about I had no clue. I was the sole proprietor of the business and he actually was not doing any work for the business at the time. He was doing some kind of internship at the weather station that summer, without compensation. The only place where they could’ve gotten that information was the loan application, where I stated that Pete was working for the business. Duh, what was I supposed to do? Say that the head of the household was unemployed? Sure, that would’ve helped a lot. How they got a hold of that information though, I had no idea.

I wasn’t overly concerned, just majorly PO’d. There was nothing in the records to indicate that Pete was a paid employee, there was nothing illegal going on as far as unemployment office was concerned, but you never know when you are dealing with the government. The hearing procedure provided for the accused to bring a witness in his defense. There were no witnesses relevant to the issue, so Pete hit on a brilliant idea to bring a character witness–-his minister and family friend. Oh, you should’ve seen the bewildered look on the adjudicator’s face when presented with pastor Dan, complete with the black and white pastorly collar, but minus the joem hat. It quickly became obvious that there was no case, the adjudicator seemed to be surprisingly sympathetic despite my initial blustery indignation, so I took the opportunity to find out how they got a hold of this information. She sighed and disclosed the following:

Jackie the banker called Pete’s former employer to verify past employment history and spoke to the bookkeeper named Laura. Said Laura and Pete never had any conflicts while he worked there, on the contrary, I gave her all my pregnancy clothes when she needed them. However, Laura contemplated, upon hearing Pete’s voice on the weather radio, to inform the unemployment office that he was working for them while collecting unemployment. Her decision was further spurred by the gall of him applying for mortgage while she could not afford such luxury. So to make sure that her suspicion was correct, she asked Jackie what he put on the mortgage application as his employment. Jackie told her that he was working for me. So Laura wrote a letter to unemployment accusing Pete for working for both me and the weather station. And here’s where the plot thickens. By some weird coincidence, prior to becoming an adjudicator for unemployment office, this lady used to work as a loan officer for the same bank as Jackie, she actually knew Jackie pretty well, she trained her. She said that Jackie broke the confidentiality rules by divulging this information to a third party and may lose her job had it become known.

Equipped with this ammunition, I came home that day and called Jackie. The conversation went like this:
packen (in her most sugary voice): Hi, Jackie, this is packen. Any progress on my loan?
Jackie (in her most annoyed voice): Nothing yet. We will inform you as soon as the decision is reached.
packen: Say, Jackie, did you by any chance talk to Laura at such’n’such?
Jackie: Yes, I did.
packen: Did you by any chance give her Pete’s employment information from the application?
Jackie (after prolonged silence): No, I don’t recall doing that... Of course not, it would be against our policy to give out personal information.
packen: Really? I see... So... Say, Jackie, when can I see my loan approval?
Jackie: I will put it in the mail today. You can expect to receive it in a few days. If you don’t, please give me a call.
packen: Thank you, Jackie, you’ve been most helpful.

As a side note: Pete confronted Laura about that letter to unemployment office, to which she replied that she was simply protecting her employer’s interests. Oddly enough, only a year later Laura was convicted of embezzling that same employer for $50,000. Oh, sweet irony.

As I mentioned earlier, that summer Pete was doing internship at the weather station located by Truax airport, a military airport next to the civilian one. Needless to say that possibly the worst tornado (or a tornado producing storm, he can fill you in on details) in Madison happened around July of that year, while he was on duty. He was actually the one who issued the tornado warning. Interestingly enough, the highest wind velocity was recorded in the vicinity of the weather station, a small cement building with no basement. The wind destroyed a couple of hangars and scattered a whole bunch of military airplanes.

I happened to be at home at that time. Pete called and yelled for us to immediately get down to the basement. I grabbed Michael and as I opened the door from the apartment leading onto the second floor landing, I could feel the whole building shift a little. Running down the stairs, I could see an old birch tree laying flat on the ground, trunk and all, and remember feeling sad because I really liked that tree.

This is the picture of the tree. The building I lived in is attached to the one on the picture, it is obscured by the pine tree on the left. The birch tree escaped unscathed and I couldn’t imagine how an old trunk could be so flexible and what kind of wind would lay it flat on the ground.

The next picture is of Michael a few years before this summer, showing some heavy cables running along the whole length of the property. The cables were positioned right above the fence, you can barely see the top of the fence, the bottom is hidden by a ravine. The brick was lying underneath a section of that fence. The wind of the storm knocked the cables down, but not all the way to the ground. The lowest point of the hanging cables pointed directly to the brick, terminating about an inch from it.

I don’t remember at which point we began to jokingly implicate the brick in all those bizarre happenings, but not to worry, the hint was on its way.

The Letter
Within days from the storm we received some unexpected mail, a thick manila envelope with the return address of Manhattan, Kansas. It contained a letter from a local historian with some information about Irving. The letter was sent in response to Pete’s note left in the mailbox. Now mind you, we were under impression that the town was completely destroyed by the tornadoes and never rebuilt, nor did we know anything about the town’s prior history. What we read blew our minds. Unfortunately, I am no longer in possession of that material, but this is what I remember.

The town was settled in 1859 by brave dedicated pioneers. Life on the prairie was harsh, but through hard work they persevered. Houses were built, fields plowed, and for a couple of years it looked like the town was going to make it. The first hard blow followed a few years later, when the whole crop was devastated by locusts. The farmers recovered, just to have the same blight hit again the next year. They made it through, the town seemed to grow and prosper. Life was looking better and better, especially when the railroad came through. The railroad was a pipe line to security and prosperity and with great enthusiasm the citizens embarked on building a railroad station. A whole lot of money and effort went into it, and they had just enough time to celebrate the dedication before the station was hit by lightning and burned to the ground, literally within a week after completion. That must’ve hurt a lot, but nothing could stop the settler spirit and the railroad was rebuilt a year or so later. This time the lightning didn’t wait for the dedication and obliterated the station shortly before it was completed. Time went on, the town recouped, until being totally destroyed by the two tornadoes in the same day in 1879. Notice the x 2 pattern?

This was, however, not the ultimate end of Irving. The town never completely recovered after the tornadoes, but a few hundred hardliners still clung on. The end came in 1959, when the government evacuated the area prior to building the dam. It was estimated that the area would be covered by water. Ironically, though, it was all for naught, since the water stopped five miles away from Irving.

Yikes! I just googled Irving after typing all the above from memory and uncovered this site, even though I didn’t see it a few days earlier.

Irving, during its infancy, seemed to be linked with a destiny fated to its advancement. Alluding to the drought of 1860, we should mention that the climax of the year's discouragements occurred in July, in the shape of a severe wind and thunder storm. Most of the buildings in Irving at this time were new and unfinished, and offered but little resistance to the wind. Buildings were blown down, houses unroofed, smoke-stack of the colony saw-mill destroyed, and many narrow escapes reported. Some of the colonists went back to Iowa, others located in different parts of Kansas, but the majority remained, and soon others came in and Irving was again on the ascendancy.

I didn’t know about the drought of 1860 and the severe wind and thunder storm which happened in July. Hmmm...

I don’t recall whether the documents we received hinted at a curse, or whether we decided to conduct some research on our own, but Pete is still in the possession of a book whose title escapes me at the moment, which documented the plight of an American Indian tribe force-marched through the area which was later to become Irving, or maybe it was already there in its conception. What I do remember is that the chief’s 18-year-old son named Little Cottonwood died of exposure during the march and was buried at that location. So distraught was the father of the boy that he put a curse on that land for eternity. Our jokes didn’t seem so funny any more.

The Book
A few weeks went by, during which Pete mentioned a few times that some time when things settle he may take another trip to Irving and return the brick to where it belonged. It was strongly recommended by a young American Indian friend of our neighbors to whom we related the events and showed the brick with the cables pointing right at it: “Whoa, man, take it back...”, he said. Yeah, sure, whenever, in a couple of years maybe, we have other things to worry about for now...

The “now” happened a few days later, which was the second half of August. We woke up on Saturday morning. It rained all night–-slow, steady rain, nothing special. I opened the door to the office to fetch some stuff--and lo and behold--there was a hole in the ceiling, about six inches in diameter, where there was nary a crack before. All night long the water was pouring into the room, right on top of a filing cabinet. The bottom drawer of the cabinet was not pushed in all the way, and it was full of water. The carpet was soaked. I kept my finished jobs files in that drawer, and even thought everything was ruined, it wasn’t a big deal, the $60,000 typesetter was at the other end of the room, undamaged. Seemed at first glance that the only area affected was the filing cabinet. A book shelf about a foot away from the cabinet seemed untouched, so was the desk on the other side. I needed some strong coffee, fast.

While I was making coffee, Pete went back to office to make sure there was no other damage. He walked into the kitchen a few minutes later, ashen-faced. In his hand he held a book, presented to him by his mother the previous Christmas. It was a coffee table type picture book called “The Plains Indians”. The book was soaked half-way through–-from the bottom. It looked like it absorbed water from underneath. I went back to the office. I remember seeing that book on the shelf when I first looked at it that morning. It was hard to miss because the position of that book always bothered me. Pete was very fussy about his book collection, everything had to be arranged by subject and then by alphabet. The middle shelf of the bookcase was devoted to Indian history, and “The Plains Indians” happened to be in the middle of the row. Being a large, horizontally elongated book, it stuck out like a sore thumb next to paperbacks. I checked and triple-checked the adjacent books–-bone dry. Shelf–-dry. Top of the cabinet-–dry. Only this book was wet. Everything up to this point could be written off as amusing--or amazing--coincidences, but not this. There was simply no explanation.

Irving Revisited

We didn’t even discuss the course of action. I immediately called a friend and arranged for babysitting Michael over the weekend. We packed enough stuff for overnight stay and hopped into the car. The brick was carefully placed in a cardboard box. By the time we deposited Michael and left Madison proper, it was late morning. We had 600 miles in front of us.

We barely talked on the way there. The trip was uneventful until we reached Kansas. Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, on the straight stretch of the road resembling an old washboard, up and down, rise and fall, enough to make a person seasick. Not a sign of human life for miles and miles, not even a distant farm. It was getting close to evening, but still light, and we were about 30-40 minutes from Manhattan, Kansas, and another 30 minutes from there to Irving. “Shall we get it over tonight, do we have enough daylight?” one of us asked. “Sure, let’s try”. We were doing about 70 m/h. A short while later we passed a row of big trees, an old windbreak, casting long shadows onto the field. The sun was setting fast. “Maybe not,” I said, “Let’s do it first thing in the morning.” “OK,” Pete replied as we were cresting another hilltop. And right at that second, coming straight at as from the opposite direction, was a cop car. Damn. He put his flashers on and turned around. We stopped immediately like good boys and girls. “You folks from Wes Cownsin think you can drive every which way, huh?” he said, spitting a wad of tobacco. “Um, yes officer, um, we mean no officer, we didn’t realize, sorry officer,” we mumbled while the scenes from “Deliverance” flashed through our minds. The cop looked disappointed, muttered some more insults and took his sweet time to write us a ticket. That was Pete’s first traffic ticket, by the way.

By the time we got to Manhattan, it was already dark. We booked a motel room and went out to eat. We finished eating around 8 p.m., too early to go to bed, we needed to occupy our minds with something. And there it was, playing at the theater next to us-–Terminator 2, The Judgment Day. At some point toward the middle of the movie there was a scene where the heroes go back in time to change the future, or the other way around, don’t remember, but it struck me as funny that there we were, two sane individuals, 600 miles away from home, doing something equally as plausible. I turned toward Pete and laughed. He laughed also, as the same thought crossed his mind as well. I turned back to the screen and at that precise moment a lens popped out of my glasses. I don’t mean fell out, there was nothing wrong with the frames, it literally popped out forcefully with an audible sound, hit the back of the chair in front of me and fell onto the floor. I tried pawing for it, but encountered nothing but a bunch of garbage and spilled popcorn. So I spent watching the other half of the movie with one eye closed. Once the movie was over, I retrieved my lens from underneath the front seat.

One last step we had to coordinate before retiring for the night was what to do with the brick--leave it in the car, or take it to the room with us. I am not sure common sense prevailed, but this was the line of thinking: if the car gets stolen during the night, screw the car, but we can’t afford to lose the brick, so we took it with us and put it under the bed. The sleep was fitful that night and we awoke before dawn.

As soon as the sun came up, we set out for Irving, where I had a chance to see first-hand what you saw on the pictures above–-the tombstone, the mail box, the long-abandoned streets, the crumbling foundations. We were on our way to find the clearing where the brick came from, which turned out to be not that easy. The problem was that the first trip took place in April, no grass, no leaves on the trees. This time it was the end of August and everything looked wildly overgrown. We took one road which looked like a dark tunnel, with trees forming a dense canopy completely blocking the sky and thick spider webs stretching in every direction, blocking the way. But like Indiana Jones we forged ahead, knocking spiders off each other, just to realize that we hit a dead end.

Finally, after a few more false leads, we found ourselves at the edge of the clearing. What was scorched barren earth in April was now covered by waist-long grasses, some sticking up, most beaten down by the wind and rains. We wandered around, looking for the right spot. I don’t recall feeling spooked or uneasy, on the contrary, there was a feeling of pleasant calmness. After 10-15 minutes of wandering it became clear that to find the right spot would be impossible, so we headed back toward the woods, following a semblance of a path, probably beaten down by wild animals. “Just put it anywhere, it’s close enough,” I said to Pete who was walking a few steps ahead of me, but he seemed to be in some kind of a trance. All of a sudden, without saying a word, he jumped a few feet off the path, lifted a ramdom clump of grass and there it was-–a clear impression in soil of a lifted object. He put the brick into the hole and it wobbled slightly. He turned it around, where the soil met the missing chunk and I swear you could hear a sucking sound as it sank perfectly into the depression, like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

We stood in silence for a few moments and moved on.

Our offer on the house was accepted a few days after our return to Madison.

Posted by guest author: packen on Jan 28, 2007 7:00 am

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