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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

Crackpot Palace (3 page)

BOOK: Crackpot Palace

Down Atsion Road

live along the edge of the Pine Barrens in South Jersey, 1.1 million acres of dense, ancient forest, cedar lakes, cranberry bogs, orchids, and sugar sand. Black bear, fox, bobcat, coyote, and some say cougar. There are ghost towns from the Revolution, dilapidated shacks and crumbling shot towers that can only be reached by canoe. I've hiked through much of it in my years, and still I get a feeling that some uneasy sentience pervades its enormity. If I'm quite a distance from the trailhead where my car is parked and twilight drops suddenly, as it does out there, I feel a twist of panic at the thought of meeting night in those woods. You will, of course, have heard of the Jersey Devil. He's for the tourists. The place is thick with legends far more bizarre and profound. If you learn how to look and you're lucky, you might even witness one being born.

Sixteen years ago, when my wife and I and our two sons—one in second grade, one not yet in kindergarten—first moved to Medford Lakes, I noticed, every once in a while, this strange old guy stomping around town. He was thin and bald and had a big gray beard with hawk feathers tied into it. His head was long, with droopy eyes and a persistent smile. He pumped his arms vigorously, almost marching. Rain or shine, summer or winter, he wore a ratty tan raincoat, an old pair of Bermuda shorts, black sneakers, and a red sweatshirt that bore the logo of the '70s soft-rock band Bread. Every time I passed him in the car, it looked like he was talking to himself.

Then one day I was picking up a pizza in town, and he was in the shop, sitting alone at a table, a paper plate with pizza crusts in front of him. He studied me warily, whispering under his breath, as I passed on the way to the counter. Behind me, a woman and her little girl came in. When he saw the little girl, the old guy pulled a brown velour sack from somewhere in his coat. He opened it and took something out. I was watching all this from the counter and wondered if something crazy was about to go down, but the mother let go of the girl's hand. The old guy slipped out of his seat onto one knee. The kid walked over to him, and he gave her what looked like a small, hand-carved wooden deer. The mother said, “What do you say, Helen?” The kid said, “Thank you.” The old guy laughed and slapped the tabletop.

About a week later, Lynn and I were at the lake down the street from our house one evening. We'd taken a thermos of coffee and sat on a blanket, watching the sun go down behind the trees while the kids messed around at the water's edge. A neighbor of ours, Dave, who we'd met a few weeks earlier, was out walking his dog, so he came over and joined us, sitting on the sand. We talked for a while about the school board, about the plan to dredge lower Aetna Lake, he gave us his usual religious rap, and then I asked him, “Hey, who's that crazy old guy in the raincoat I see around town?”

He smiled. “That's Crackpop,” he said.

“Crackpop?” said Lynn and we broke up.

“His name's Sherman Gretts, but the kids call him Crackpop.”

“He's on crack?” I asked.

“He just seems like he's on crack,” said Dave. “A few years ago this kid who lives about two blocks over from where your house is, Duane Geppi, he's in my older son's class, overheard his father, who works down at the gas station, call the old guy a ‘crackpot.' Duane thought he said ‘Crackpop,' and called him that ever since. Now all the kids call him that. I think it's perfect.”

“What else do you know about him?” I asked.

“Nothing, really. He's an artist or something. Lives all the way down Atsion Road, by the lake.”

“That's a long walk,” said Lynn.

“Eight miles,” said Dave.

“He seems deranged,” I said.

“He probably is,” said Dave, “but from what I hear, he's not a bad guy.”

As time went on, and we settled into our life in Medford Lakes, I'd see Crackpop now and then trudging along under a good head of steam, jabbering away, the raincoat flapping. I always wondered how old the guy was. He looked to me to be in his sixties, but with all that walking he did, keeping him in shape, he could have been a lot older. Lynn also started bringing me reports of him. On her way to work and back, she'd take Atsion Road to get to Route 206, and every couple of days she'd spot him going east or west or sitting somewhere in among the trees.

For our first Christmas in town, Lynn and I were invited to a party. The couple whose house it was at had a son in our older son's class. I met a lot of people from town and beyond, and we drank and shot the breeze. When the living room got too crowded and hot, I stepped out into the backyard to have a cigarette. It was lightly snowing, but it wasn't all that cold. I was only out there for a minute before the door opened and this older woman, a little heavyset but tall, with white hair, came out and lit up. I introduced myself, and she told me her name was Ginny Sanger.

I talked to her for quite a while. Eventually she said she was an amateur historian. The origins of the area had always interested me, so I asked her when it had been settled.

“Well, the first people were, of course, the Lenape, the grandfather tribe of all the Algonquin nation,” she said. “They go way back here. The first Europeans, you're talking early 1600s, Swedish trappers. Stuyvesant came in 1655 and shooed the Swedes out. The English eventually kicked the Dutch out.”

“What got you into the history?” I asked.

“After my husband died ten years ago, I really had nothing to do. He left me with plenty of money, so I didn't have to work. One summer day, about seven years ago, I went over to Atsion Lake for a swim. Do you know where I mean?” she asked, pointing east.

I nodded.

“I was out in the lake swimming around, and I stepped on something sharp. I knew I had to find whatever it was; there were a lot of kids in the water that day. I reached down to the bottom and felt this big piece of metal. Bringing it up, I saw it was a flat, rusted figure of an Indian in a big headdress, shooting a bow and arrow. He was attached at the feet to about a four-inch shaft. It was pretty corroded, but you could definitely make out the form.”

“So that got you started?' I said.

“No, what got me started was my neighbor, who told me to take the thing over to Sherman, who lived just a little way up Atsion Road from us.”

“Sherman?” I said, and the name rang a bell but I didn't place it.

“You've seen him. The old guy with the raincoat.”

“You know him?” I said.

“Everybody up that way knows him. I took the Indian to him, and he told me that it was an ornament for a weather vane and had been forged in the iron works at Atsion Village, probably in the mid-1800s. He started telling me stories about the early settlers and the Lenape. We sat all afternoon on the screened back porch of that crazy house of his, sipping iced tea from blue tin cups, and he told me about a place called Hanover Furnace, a story from the time of the settlers that involved a description of how iron was made, an evil spirit of the woods, and the last Lenape sachem.”

“From seeing him around town, I got the impression he's kind of out of it.”

“Well . . .” she said.

Lynn came out looking for me then, ready to split. I introduced her to Ginny and we quickly said good-bye and left through the back gate. On our way home, in the snow, we walked around the lake and I told her what the old woman had said about Sherman Gretts.

Months went by, and I was deep into writing a book, so I didn't go out much. Crackpop was about the last thing on my mind until one Friday evening in February. Lynn came home and told me that in the morning on her way to work she saw the old man going into a house down by the end of Atsion Road. “I never noticed the place before,” she said. “And I can't believe I didn't because it's bright yellow.”

The thought of Crackpop in a yellow house made me smile.

“You've got to see it, though,” she said. “I always thought, when I passed, that there were trees, like tall dogwood, growing around it, but today, when I saw him and knew it was his place, it became clear to me that they're not trees but sculptures made of limbs and pieces of trees. He's got like an army of tree-beings in his yard.”

Saturday we drove out Atsion and Lynn slowed down as we passed the sagging yellow house. The sculptures were primitive, writhing forms like Munch's
made of twisted magnolia wood. “Jeez,” I said and made her turn around and pass it twice again.

Crackpop appeared in and disappeared from my life well into the spring. I didn't see him as frequently as I had at other times, and when I did spot him, I thought of his sculptures, and studied him closely. During the summer's first thunderstorm, I caught him tromping along Lenape Trail toward the pizza shop. The rain was beating down, and he was drenched. The two cars in front of me, one right after the other, hit the puddle along the edge of the road, sending a sheet of water up over him. He never slowed down or even acknowledged what had happened, but stayed on parade, jabbering away. A few weeks passed then where I didn't see him, and out of the blue at dinner I asked Lynn if she had. She said she saw him coming out of the woods down by 206 one night on her way home.

That first summer, we spent a lot of time at the lake with the kids. On the weekends we cooked out, and then, as the sun was setting, we'd walk the twisting trails of town. The dark brought a certain coolness and the breezes would ripple through the oak leaves, carrying scents of wisteria and pine. The kids ran after toads, and every now and then someone would appear out of the dark.

Late one night in the middle of July, we crossed the dirt bridge that spans a section of Upper Aetna Lake. I had my younger son on my shoulders and Lynn had his older brother by the hand. We approached a bench that faced the water, and just as we drew up to it, I was startled by the sudden bright orange glow of a cigarette. The spot was cast in deeper shadow by a stand of oaks, and the figure was invisible until the ash glowed and momentarily lit up a face. I did a double take when I saw that it was Ginny Sanger.

I said hello to her and reminded Lynn that we'd met her at the Christmas party. The old woman said that she was visiting the couple who'd had the party, and while they were getting the kids ready for bed, she decided to duck out for a walk. “I like this spot,” she said.

“We're trying to get these two guys home before they both fall asleep on us,” I said.

“We're losing the race,” said Lynn.

“I see you have to go,” said Ginny as she stamped out her cigarette. Now it was perfectly dark under the oaks. “But I never got a chance to finish telling you how I got into the local history.”

“Yeah, you told me it was that guy Sherman,” I said.

“That's true,” she told me. “I started reading books and going to lectures on the area after talking to him. This is the part I wanted to tell you, though. From my own study and from having related some of Sherman's stories to a Lenni-Lenape storyteller I met at a conference, it became clear to me that Mr. Gretts was making everything up. The place names were right, and some of the details, but in all the texts I've scoured I've never seen any of the things he's spoken to me about.” There was a moment of silence and then she laughed.

“That's pretty interesting,” I said, and an image of Crackpop marched through my thoughts.

Ginny nodded. “Sherman spends a lot of time in the woods,” she said. “One of his big things is, and he always whispers this one to me, like someone he doesn't want to might be listening, that there is still a band of Lenape roaming the Pine Barrens, living in the old way, like it was before the Europeans. They've always been there, he says.”

I would have liked to hear more, but we had to get back home. As we trudged along, now each holding a sleeping kid, passing beneath tall pines on a carpet of needles, Lynn said, “I bet Ginny tried to corroborate Crackpop's story about the band of Indians hiding in the Barrens with that Lenape storyteller.”

“So?” I said.

“Say the storyteller was in on it, and he told her he'd never heard of it in order to keep people from searching for his ancestors.”

“Don't you think Crackpop's just nuts?” I said.

“Of course,” she said.

t was early November and Atsion Road was littered with yellow leaves the same color as Crackpop's house. I drove to the end of the road, looked both ways, crossed over Route 206, and entered a dirt driveway with a steep incline. The car dipped down and then ascended a little hill. On the other side of that hill I could see a grass parking area and beyond that the steeple of a church from behind the trees. There were two other cars there but no one in sight. I parked, got out, and put my jacket on. It was cool and there was a strong breeze.

I was only twenty yards from the trailhead. I'd done some research of my own and knew that if I'd had the time and fortitude that trail would've taken me through the heart of the Pine Barrens and ended fifty miles later, at Batsto, another early iron settlement where they'd made shot for the Revolution. I started into the woods. About a hundred yards later, off to my left, there was a large clearing, and sitting in the middle of it was a white church. I'd read up on it. The Samuel Richards Church, a Quaker establishment built in 1828. Richards had owned the foundry at Atsion Village. His mansion still stood over by the lake.

There was a graveyard next to the building, the stones planted in concentric circles. At the far end of it was the most enormous oak I'd ever seen. The tree was ancient, and the way it stood there, barren of leaves against the blue sky, made me feel as if it could be thinking. I walked into the graveyard and looked at the markers. They were thin, with an arch at the top, and were made of some white stone that could have been marble or limestone. I read some of the names and dates that were still legible, the oldest being 1809. Some disaster took four of the Andrews family in one day. As I walked back to the trail, I looked quickly over my shoulder at the oak.

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