Everybody Has a Story: Tales of hermit greatly exaggerated

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Growing up in the small town of Orion, Ill., in the 1950s had its advantages. For one thing, we could walk or ride our bikes safely among its 800 inhabitants. The exception was Old Man Carson’s property. My friends and I were warned to keep off Old Man Carson’s land, which was one square block with a large, two-story frame home that had columns in the front and was located near the back of the property.

According to our parents, Old Man Carson had a terrific temper and especially despised children, many of whom ventured onto his property to taunt him. Even though the property was just a block from our home, my friends and I took great pains to walk on the opposite side of the street when passing his home.

It was rumored that he had never married and that his sister had also never married. Thus they shared a home large enough for a family of eight. No one saw the sister out, and Old Man Carson ventured out rarely, having his groceries delivered to him, which was a free service provided by all three grocery stores in town. He installed a rural route mailbox for his mail, allegedly to avoid going uptown to the post office, where he might have to converse with someone. He and his sister had lived in that home since the early 1930s.

In 1952, when I was 11 years old, the rumor floated around that Old Man Carson’s sister had died and that her body was still in the home. Supposedly, she was either buried in the basement or sitting upright on a chair in the kitchen. My friends Gary and Dave and I readily believed the second scenario, that she was a skeleton sitting in the kitchen. We decided it was our civic duty to get to the bottom of this mystery by sneaking up on the house and peeking in the kitchen window. If we discovered the real truth, we would be heroes.

We approached the home from an access road to the railroad tracks that ran along one side of the property. We could see the kitchen window was open and a coffee pot sat on a hot plate just inside. The brushy area where we were hiding was perfect for scoping the place out. We hatched a plan based upon the high August prairie grass that nearly surrounded the home. We would crawl through the grass and one of us would dash to the side of the home and look in the kitchen window.

We drew straws, and I was designated to make the dash. We crawled about 50 yards through the grass, and I ran up to the side of the house. So far, our plan had worked perfectly! I inched along, practically kissing the outside wall, until I got to the window. I looked out at Gary, who let me know that it was safe to look in the open kitchen window.

As I raised my head to look, Old Man Carson came to the window to pour a cup of coffee from the hotplate. I heard Gary and Dave yelp and run off. Old Man Carson saw me and hollered something like, “You stupid kids — I’m going to give you a good whuppin,’” as he headed for the kitchen door. I lit out, well behind Gary and Dave, and we all dashed into the thicket near the railroad tracks, only to realize that one of us had run through a yellow jacket nest.

We ran home with yellow jackets stinging us all the way. As far as we know, our parents never knew what we had attempted.

Fast forward six years. I am now a grocery boy at Norton’s IGA, and Don Norton trusted me enough to take his ’51 Chevy to deliver groceries. On my list was Old Man Carson, and I was petrified. Don assured me that he was a harmless old man, but I approached his driveway with much trepidation. I took his basket of groceries to the kitchen door and he asked me to come in. I avoided eye contact with him, put his bags of groceries on his kitchen table and started for the door. He asked my name and I mumbled it.

“I didn’t quite get that. I’m Bill Carson,” he said, and shook my hand. I never knew he had a first name! I reintroduced myself and we visited a bit, but I still was not comfortable in his presence. After that, we visited a bit more on each delivery trip. We were encouraged to visit with delivery customers, and I would rather do that than load grocery shelves any day. I delivered his groceries nearly every Saturday for more than a year.

He finally recognized me as the kid whose head had crept above his windowsill that August day in 1952. He said he laughed until he cried and still remembered the panicked look on my face. I learned that Bill Carson was simply a lonely old guy who had served in World War I and developed what we term post-traumatic stress disorder today. He held only part-time jobs after the war. He had finally received disability payments and an inheritance in 1934 when he and his sister moved into the large home. Neither had married, and she was a semi-invalid whom he cared for until she died in 1951.

He died while I was in college, and the property was sold. Bill Carson was buried in Indiana next to his sister, who obviously never sat in their kitchen after she died. He turned out to be more than just Old Man Carson to me.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. E-mail is the best way to send materials so we don’t have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.