Then in the summer of 1966 the family headed down to Maryville, Tennessee to see if we wanted my father to accept an offer to relocate with the company for which he worked. We settled our trailer in a semi-rural mobile home park, looking to all of the permanent residents of the park like itinerant gypsies emerging and re-entering a clown car at a circus. Having fallen in love with East Tennessee, we lived in this park until September when we finally bought a house. We still kind of thought ourselves as having been camping during that summer, but since East Tennessee is a sort of mecca of camping and other outdoor activities I eventually discovered real camping.
Toward the end of my senior year of high school, I went on my first camping trip where I slept in a tent. It was 1969. I was invited by my friend Bob, who was a member of the football team. Bob and I had met during that summer of 1966 when my family was living in the mobile park. Bob's family lived in a house near the park and as things would turn out, he would be attending the same school where I would be going even though our new house was several miles from where his family lived. In high school, Bob and I remained friends, though we did not really hang out together much. For that matter I was a loner and didn't hang out much with anyone.
In the last month of our senior year, Bob invited me to go camping out at Chilhowee Lake. He was going with Don, another member of the football team, and George, the sole male member of the cheerleading squad--probably one of the few male high school cheerleaders in East Tennessee at that time. I did not really know Don, but George was one of my sister's best friends so I knew him through her. I eagerly accepted Bob's invitation and on that weekend he picked me up in his black '65 Mustang and we met up with Don and George out at Chilhowee Lake.
We set up camp next to the bridge crossing Abram's Creek where it empties into the lake. There were no other campers nearby as apparently the really busy summer season had not yet commenced. None of us were beer drinkers so we were there for good clean fun--an evening of sitting around a fire and joking and telling stories. Once darkness settled upon us we began gravitating toward ghost tales and other scary stories. Back then I used to like to say that I wished I would see something so scary that it would turn my hair permanently white. Of course now I can no longer say that because what little hair I have left is already white and that didn't happen in one sudden scary moment.
On previous visits, Bob and I had found a trail near our campsite that led a short distance up the side of the mountain to an old graveyard. The trail was unmarked and probably few visitors went to this graveyard even though it was probably less than a hundred yards from the highway. The crudely handmade grave markers had dates from the mid 1800's and were undoubtedly the resting places of some of the first white settlers of that area, which had once been the site of large Creek and, later, Cherokee Indian towns. It is a very historical area which lends itself well to ghost stories.
Our conversations eventually came around to this graveyard. We began to speculate what one could find digging up the old graves. The bodies would have been long gone except for some skeletal remains, but there was the prospect of finding old buttons, coins, or other items that would survive that long. We didn't have shovels or any digging tools so we weren't about to go dig up any graves, but the eerie thrill of walking up in the darkness to where the graves were began to entice us. We decided to take our flashlights and walk up to the site just in case we might see something truly terrifying.
There was enough night light to see as we walked the short distance up the highway to where the trail began. We did not want to call attention to ourselves by using the flashlights. Our quiet chatter might have carried across the span of the lake, but no one would be able to tell what we were up to. Once we got onto the trail and entered the trees, the almost absolute darkness required using our lights. We stayed close together as we made our way up the trail. Then we came to the old stones.
Our lights passed over the faces of the grave markers as we read the names and studied the dates. Trees towered all around us and we were surrounded by an intense darkness. Although the night was warm, one could not help feeling a chill here. We pondered about the inhabitants of these graves and took a special interest in one grave of a very young child. Then someone made the suggestion--I swear it wasn't I--to remove one of the markers and take it with us. I tried to dissuade them from doing it, but then George wriggled the marker from the ground and took it. The stone was fairly thin and was not too heavy-- maybe forty pounds or so. George carried his trophy back to camp and I was sure we would get arrested that night.
George, Don, and Bob had the coolest teacher of senior English, Mr. Williams. He was apparently fascinated by the supernatural and the other guys thought it would be a great prank to leave the grave marker outside Mr. Williams' apartment door to freak him out. After our camping weekend, George and Don made a stop on their way home and followed through with that plan. Mr. Williams was not scared or amused, but he was very angry. He undoubtedly was aware that what they had done was probably criminal in nature. It did not take long for Mr. Williams to find out who was responsible. He let George and Don know that if the grave marker wasn't returned immediately they might not pass senior English and would not be able to graduate.
I was not with George and Don when they returned the marker so I can't say for sure if they did put it exactly where they found it. A few times over the next few years I went back to revisit the graveyard. Each time it looked like there were less stones or some had been broken. It even looked like some graves had been tampered with--perhaps by someone looking for artifacts. I have not been back to that graveyard in about thirty five years.
Bob and I remain friends to this day. I talk to him on the phone every few months and usually see him when I visit Maryville at Christmas. Don eventually moved to Nashville, but it seems I heard recently that he was back in Maryville. Either way, I never saw him again after graduation. Likewise it was several years before I saw George again. The last time I saw George was at my wedding to my second wife in 1982. George, the one who took the grave marker, had moved to California where he had come out of the closet and was leading quite the gay lifestyle. None of us ever suspected, although the cheerleading thing might have been a suggestion. To us George was just a fun guy who was just a tad effeminate, but we really didn't think too much about it. When he came to the wedding he was dressed in a tight fitting leather outfit that looked rather stylish for what it was. I didn't talk to him. I actually didn't even know who he was. My sister told me later on that it was George and she filled me in on all of the history that she had learned about him. A few years later I learned that George had died from AIDS.
Have you ever been to Chilhowee Lake? Do you like to go camping? Do you have any graveyard prank stories to relate?