The Red Faced Man
Havelock, founded in 1891 by a group of brawling Irish railroaders, had once been a bustling railroad town for the Burlington. In my time, descendants of those railroaders owned the three taverns along the four block business district on Have Ave. Bob’s and Arnold’s taverns were frequented by the railroad crowd and the Goodyear Rubber crews. Misty’s, named after the Misty Isle of Ireland, was owned by Robert Milton, a rather colorful character whose ties to the Irish-Catholic community were deeply embedded.
Lincoln, capitol of Nebraska, is made up of three suburbs: Bethany, University Place, and Have-lock. As a little kid I lived in the University Place suburb. When I was five-years-old, my dad and mom moved us to Havelock. My dad, a railroader, was fairly easy-going. I mean, it took a lot for him to lose his temper, and he never hit me or called me names. As dads go, he was a good guy, often working two jobs to pay the bills.
But my mom? She was a different story.
She had grown up a wild child herself in Beatrice, Nebraska. Her older brother had served time twice for car thefts and other crimes, and she had once been arrested for drinking beer as an underage minor. She had been with two bikers and wearing her black leather jacket, she went to jail down in Wymore just south of Beatrice. So, in other words, she was wise to all the crap I was always trying to pull, and she constantly confronted me over it.
Just like the time I was nine-years old and my friend, Tommy Wolfe, swiped a condom from a gas station bathroom. He brought it over to my house and opened it before my astonished eyes. He blew it up like a balloon, and ended up popping it, then tossing it in my dad’s ashtray. We went outside to play, never even thinking about the consequences of his stupidity.
When I came in from playing, my mom stood beside the coffee table, glaring at me. She pointed to the condom in the ashtray and snapped, “Do you see that?”
I meekly replied, “Yes.”
“What the hell do you think that is?” she demanded to know.
I stood there, fumbling to slip my shaking hands into each front pocket. I slouched my shoulders and casually said, “Oh, that? It’s a balloon.”
To which my mom asked, “Where the hell did you get this balloon?”
“From Tommy Wolfe,” I said, trying to act like that popped rubber was really a balloon.
She threw her hands in the air, dumped the ashtray and the rubber in the trash, and muttered, “From Tommy Wolfe? That explains everything!”
Later that day, after punching Tom on the arm for placing me in that situation, he swore to me he would never be that stupid again.
As we approached the California Lunchroom, we were greeted by a gang of railroaders leaving the diner and heading back to the Burlington shops across the street. I stopped before going into the diner and asked, “Why did Patsy name this place the California Lunchroom?”
Tommy explained, “When Patsy was a young girl, her father had planned to move their family from Chicago to California. But they only made it as far as Nebraska, so he opened up the diner, naming it the California Lunchroom as a memento of his broken dreams.”
I said, “He should have just called it the Havelock Lunchroom. Otherwise it just confuses people.”
Tommy smiled, then led us into the diner where we were greeted warmly by Patsy, the elderly owner of the popular eatery. “Visitors,” Patsy said as we sat on stools situated before a long soda bar. “I just love having visitors.”
Tommy said, “So, Patsy, tell us about your most famous visitor.”
“Charlie,” Patsy said. “Charles Lindbergh the world-famous pilot used to land his plane at Arrow Airport, west of Havelock, then visit me! He sat right there on that stool you’re seated on, drinking coffee and eating donuts. Charlie was a really nice guy.”
Tommy said, “Knowing that Charlie sat here, makes me feel connected to the larger world beyond insignificant Havelock.”
“Insignificant?” Patsy said. “Did I ever tell you about the time Pete Wolfe and his wife visited a bookstore in Dublin, Ireland? Good lord! Pete and Jackie found a map of Nebraska tacked to a wall, and someone had crossed out Lincoln on the map and marked Havelock as the capitol of Nebraska!”
Staring at her in amazement, I said, “But Havelock isn’t even listed on a Nebraska map! Who in Ireland would even know about us?”
“Probably Robert Milton,” Tommy said. “Owner of Misty’s steak house. He visits Ireland every year. My mom claims he was a gun-runner for the Irish Republican Army. He even has a plaque in his pub that the IRA gave him for sending them guns! Mom even said before I was born, a house in Havelock blew up one night! Afterwards, firemen discovered an arsenal of guns in the ruins. Bob Milton had planned to ship them to Ireland.”
“Yes,” Patsy said, “he’s a ruffian. And yet, for the past thirty years on Saint Pat’s Day, Bob gets spruced up in his green suit and greets guests at the Emerald as the Lord Mayor of Havelock. Why, he even claims that green beer flows in his veins!”
That night, Tommy Wolfe and I camped out in my backyard. At midnight, we crawled out of our pup tent, zipped up our sweatshirts, and crept along the quiet streets of Havelock. Summer was coming, but the air was still nippy, numbing the ends of our noses, causing us both to sniffle. Far above us, bright stars dotted the night sky. The moon’s radiance trickled down through overhead branches, cast shadowy webs on the street. Both of us leaped nimbly from space to space, making a game of not placing our feet on shadow lines.
“Step on a crack,” Tommy whispered, “and you’ll break your mother’s back!”
We exchanged knowing smiles, aware of the moment and the magic of the night, pleased to be on a mysterious adventure. At the park, we moved past the old stone library toward the grove of pine trees standing tall on the green lawn and towering above us. Tommy said, “My dad claims these trees are like old, noble kings. If so, they got gypped, because their kingdom is like a tiny green island that barely takes up two city blocks! We got gypped, too! Two picnic shelters, one playground, sixty trees, and the city calls this dinky place a park?”
When we stopped beside the manhole leading to the Havelock tunnels, a sewer system that ran beneath the suburb, we dared each other to clamber down the iron rungs set in the tunnel’s graffiti-covered walls to descend to the storm sewer’s floor nine feet below.
Once down in those depths the tunnels ran three blocks south to Ballard Park or five blocks north to the Burlington train yards.
In the daylight, we’d oftentimes raced down those tunnels, splashing through puddles of water and skidding through slick patches of mud, without the benefit of a flashlight, setting our sights on the small white dot marking the sewer’s exit in the distance. But that night, however, neither one of us rose to the dare of descending into those eerie dark depths.
When we heard a noise behind us, we glanced back and found ourselves peering directly into the dark eyes of this small spooky looking, bug-eyed man with an extremely red face. He was staring back at us with his bugged-out eyes, and creeped us out so bad, we immediately walked away.
The Red Faced Man followed us.
We took off running down the street, and he ran to catch us. We lost him near Ballard pool and when we got to Tom’s breeze way of the Wolfe’s house on 68th and Colfax, we slipped inside.
Moments later, the Red Faced Man walked by the house, the cherry on his cigarette illuminating his homely face. His eyes drifted up to the house. Inside the breeze way, Tom and I held our breath for he appeared to be peering directly at us. The Red Faced Man tossed his smoke and continued on down the street, disappearing into the night.
Two days later, Tom and I found the police investigating a window peeper incident two houses from my house. The neighbor lady reported that she had looked up at her bedroom window and she saw the red cherry of a cigarette on the outside of her screen. She screamed and the window peeper ran, but he left behind burn marks from his cigarette in the center of the lady’s window screen.
Tom and I knew it was the Red Faced Man, and we tried to convince our moms. However, my mom simply said it was my wild imagination.
Three nights later, she drove down to the Safeway Store, parking in what is now Misty’s Steak House parking lot. While she went inside the store, she left me sleeping in the car, with the windows up and the doors locked.
When I woke up, I found myself looking directly up at the Red Faced Man! I screamed and he ran. When my mom got out to the car, I was in hysterics. In fact, she had to take me to the emergency ward where they gave me a shot in the butt to calm me down. When the nurse asked what had brought this on, my mom said, “Oh, he keeps seeing this Red Faced Man every where. It’s his imagination, just like the white tigers he swore he saw roaming our neighborhood a year ago.”
Yes, I did say I saw white tigers, but that is because stupid Timmy Shepherd scared the crap out of me by telling me about them. I had been on my way home that night as dusk settled on the neigh-borhood, and the Bully of our block, Tim Shepherd, blocked my path, towering over me by about a foot. I was already late and didn’t want to be grounded, but big-mouthed, arrogant Tim would not let me past him.
He kept saying, “The white tigers are out prowling in the alleys tonight. They are hunting for someone to eat. The white tigers are going to stalk you, pounce on you, and eat you while you lay there screaming!”
By then, I was getting really spooked. Tim was three years older than me and he was really getting off on how badly he was terrifying me. I vividly recall my hand transforming into a fist. I then did something that surprised me so badly that after it was over, I just stood there for long moments.
I hauled off and slugged Tim Shepherd right in his left cheek. I hit him hard, too. So hard, he flew back and sprawled on his butt on the sidewalk. He started bawling and carrying on, while I stood there stunned by how well my survival reaction had been.
A short while later, Tim had the audacity to bring his mom over to my house to confront me in front of my mom about how I had beat him up. It was pretty pathetic, too, with Tim towering over me by a foot. My mom simply laughed, ushered me back inside the house, and dismissed them both, still laughing to think that I had actually plowed my fist into the face of the Block Bully.
Now the white tigers I never did see, but I for sure saw the Red Faced Man.
That night at the hospital, the nurse and my mom chuckled over my story of both the white tigers and the Red Faced Man, and I came home feeling stupid and with a sore butt from the shot.
No one believed there was a Red Faced Man prowling the streets of Havelock. So two nights later, Tommy Wolfe and I armed ourselves with baseball bats and set out on a mission to prove he existed. We walked up Benton Street, determined to catch the Red Faced Man peeking in some unlucky lady’s window. But halfway up the dark street, all the bravado went out of our sails as another neighbor kid leaped out from behind a car and scared the hell out of us. I stood my ground, base-ball bat raised to destroy. Tommy Wolfe, however, flung his bat in the air, dove to the ground, and began screaming at the top of his lungs.
So our mission for the night came to a screeching halt.
The next night, my dad and I were coming home from the Hinky Dinky grocery store on Adams, when the Red Faced Man walked past our driveway. I stood and watched him blend in with the trees across the vacant lot next to our house. He stood there between the cottonwoods, smoking a cigarette, its cherry-red glow illuminating the creepy features of his face.
I directed my dad’s attention to the man between the trees. I said, “That’s the Red Faced Man!”
My dad simply chuckled and walked into the house. I quickly followed him.
A few minutes later, I was sprawled on my bed, reading comic books, while my dad was in the nearby bathroom shaving. I got the distinct feeling that someone was watching me from outside my bedroom window, and when I turned to look in that direction, there came a loud Boom! on my window. I yelped and rolled off of my bed, hit the floor, and crab-crawled my way out into the hallway. My dad, standing at the bathroom sink, shaving cream plastered on his face, looked down at me and asked, “What are you doing?”
I gasped, “The Red Faced Man just banged on my window!”
My dad continued shaving, once again believing the spook of the night was nothing more than my wild imagination.
A few weeks later, I was seated at the kitchen table. Night had fallen. My mom was talking to my Aunt Darlene on the phone, standing at the sink washing dishes. I was eating a bowl of Lucky Charms, and I remember my mom turning at the sink and staring off toward the open back door. She muttered something to my aunt and then suddenly screamed!
I melted out of my chair, knocking my spoon full of Lucky Charms out of my bowl, and slipping to the floor. My dad came running from the living room and my mom began screaming, “There was a man standing there on the porch staring in at me!”
My dad went outside. My mom followed him, the phone with my Aunt Darlene on the other line forgotten on the floor where she had dropped it. I crawled over, picked up the phone, and Darlene asked me, “What in the hell is going on over there?”
I whispered, “It was the Red Faced Man!”
The next night, my mom drove my Aunt Darlene and I out to Lincoln Memorial Cemetery to put flowers on someone’s grave. Darkness had fallen, and I kept saying, “Let’s get out of here before we get locked in.”
My mom got to talking about the man who had peeked in our back door, and Aunt Darlene began telling me a similar story from their childhood.
As girls, they’d lived in Beatrice, NE, and one night when coming home from a movie, they were followed by a strange man. Much like the Red Faced Man, he followed them, almost catching up to them in the dark. They made it home and ran in shutting off all the lights, telling my Grandma about the man following them home. The three of them were walking around in the dark house, peering out of windows. My Aunt Darlene had recently been in an auto accident which left her jaws wired shut. As it happened, when she peeked out the bedroom window, the man was looking back at her. She screamed and popped all the wires off of her jaws!
Moments later, the front door started to open and my Grandma ran and got the poker from the wood stove and started to swing it at the figure who came through the door. It happened to be my Grandpa, who caught the iron poker just before my Grandma brained him with it.
She quickly explained about the strange man outside, and my Grandpa went and got his shotgun and searched the perimeter of their property, but alas, the man had gone.
When she finished her story, I again said, “Let’s get out of here before we get locked in.”
But my mom and aunt were having too much fun scaring the 9-year-old kid propped on the back-seat, staring wide-eyed out the car window, looking for the flashlight ghost rumored to be out there. And after thoroughly freaking me out, they finally decided it was time to leave, but when we got to the front gates, they were closed and locked.
I screamed bloody murder, scaring the hell out of my mom and my aunt.
It was spooky watching my mom walk up to the caretaker’s house, while my aunt sat protecting me in the car. All the way home, they talked about how much fun that was to tell ghost stories and get locked in a cemetery. However, I wasn’t laughing . . . until later.
When my Aunt drove into her garage, my cousin stuck a dust mop in through her window, directly in her face, and Aunt Darlene stomped on the gas pedal, and crashed the nose of the car through the back of the garage.
Only then, did I laugh. And to this day, that story still puts a grin on my face.
Tommy Wolfe and I had our Birthday parties together for three years in a row, his was July 4th and mine was July 9th. When we both turned ten, we went down to Bob’s Tavern that Saturday after-noon to get money to go the Joyo Theater. When we walked in, neither Tom or I noticed the small, stocky man seated at the table with Tom’s dad. He was dressed in overalls, wore a railroader’s cap, and was facing in the other direction.
Tom and I were both so busy trying to coax money out George Wolfe, that we didn’t notice the man until George pulled out his billfold and said, “Hey, boys, have you ever met Bubba?”
The small man turned to face us. Tommy and I ignored the money George offered us and ran out of there quicker than Jack the Bear!
Bubba was the Red Faced Man! And Tom’s dad knew the guy!
We left the tavern without even getting money from Tom’s dad.
An hour later, Tom and I were clowning around in his back yard. I had made a bow out of a flexible wooden stick and a cord of string. I had also fashioned several sharp sticks into arrows.
I remember Tommy saying, “Betcha’ can’t hit a running target.”
I took him up on his bet, considering it a dare.
As I stood there, fitting that homemade arrow to the string, I grinned, suddenly reminded of our younger days when overnights were so much fun. Staying up late to watch spooky movies. Drinking so much pop we thought our bladders might burst. Playing prank phone calls on girls. Ordering pizzas for teachers we didn’t like. Impressing each other with gut-wrenching belches or thunderous, jean-ripping farts.
I raised the bow and sighted on Tommy running across the yard before me. Yeah, I thought, spending the night together when we were little kids was quite a blast. In those days things were so simple, too. Going to a Saturday matinee at the Joyo Theater. Riding skateboards at the park. Shooting BB guns down at Stephen’s Creek. Playing Army and Flag Football, and “Do or Dare,” and “Run like Sixty.”
I then released the string of my flimsy make-shift bow. The arrow flew straight and true, and hit Tommy Wolfe dead center on his nose. He skidded to a stop, reached for his nose, and brought his hand back to examine the blood leaking from the arrow wound. He gave me one look of disbelief and then wailed like an Irish banshee.
His dad suddenly appeared behind me, and seeing what I had done, he ripped the bow out of my hands, broke it over his knee, and proceeded to swat me on the butt. He sent me home with an angry order that I never play with his son again.
The last sight I saw of him was him standing there holding his bloody nose, and peering at me through tear-filled eyes. Little did we realize then that our transition from childhood to adolescence was going to be a rough one. Breaking laws. Skipping school. Violating curfews. Being placed on probation. From kid to teen, we were both going to change considerably, traveling into dangerous territory.
And that bow and arrow incident would come back to haunt me in later years.