The Dancing Man
This is a story from our family Cabin. That is to say the setting for this tale is a six-acre parcel of land on which an extended group of family and friends have gathered three-times a year for over five generations to bond, blow off some steam and be family. The land itself is covered with an old abandoned walnut orchard of about 150 trees and about twenty 100-plus year-old beautiful valley oak trees. The Cabin itself is more of a house really. A creepy, dusty old place to most, but a place of a thousand stories of card games, breakfasts, dinners and everything wonderful to those who grew up there. All of this is located in Lake County, California, just a few hours North of San Francisco. Less than a quarter mile away, and within shouting range, is the site of the infamous Bloody Island Massacre, a horrific event in American history that occurred there in 1850. If interested (as you should be) you can find this story here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Island_massacre.
Our story, the one of the dancing man, took place Memorial Day weekend, 2002. As usual, there were at least fifty of us in attendance for the long weekend, an extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters and many of their friends. Truly a group tied together by blood and time. This holiday was an especially important weekend for this extended family because each and every one of us knew in our hearts it would likely be my father's last trip to the Cabin. He was in the last stages of stage 4 lung cancer.
My father, Leo Eaton, was part of the founding generation of the Cabin and he was one of a very few of that group that were still alive in 2002. He loved the Cabin deeply and it was in no small part because of his fifty-year efforts, vision and commitment - along with the rest of his generation - that the Cabin had became the "magical" place that it was for all of us that weekend. He had been coming there since his early 20s, and he had watched his children grow into adulthood there, and later, his grandchildren. He was important figure to us, larger that life, and the extended Cabin family was desperate, each in their own way, to make my father's last trip special.
My dad probably knew he would not be back as well. He was growing weak with the Cancer. He needed a walker, and he needed to wear an oxygen tank all the time to breath. His time was short for sure, but when the first weekend of the Cabin season arrived that year, he ignored all orders from his doctors and family and insisted on attending. He was a very stubborn old man.
Over the long weekend, my father did his best to participate as he had all the summers before this one. He had a beer or two, and despite dying from lung cancer, he puffed on his Pall Mall non-filtered death sticks. We did not fight him on this, as we all knew the damage was done. He was stage-four, plus some, and there wasn't much more damage that the smokes could do. He played dominoes with us, which was a time honored tradition for all of us. He taught most of us how to play when we were kids, sitting at that same table, underneath those same giant valley oak trees that buffered us from the summer heat. He watched, but did not play horseshoes, another Cabin tradition. If anything broke his heart, it was probably him knowing he would never play this, his favorite game again.
We all catered to him as best we could that weekend. We sat with him and listened to his stories and told our own stories to him. We took pictures, and sometimes just sat to listen to the wind in the trees with him. He was as happy as he could be, and he did his very best to insure that we did what we always did - have fun. He insisted on it, and despite our already creeping sense of loss, we did our very best to comply. In all honesty, it was not entirely difficult. The Cabin after all was the Cabin, and as always, it fostered fun, peace and family.
Saturday night of that weekend was a particular good time with many ruckus games of horseshoes, drinking, dancing, singing, karaoke and the general state of debauchery that defined the Cabin experience. By around 1:00 am, I had done all I could do. There was still one more night left to the long weekend, and wisdom told me to pace myself. I whispered in my wife’s ear that I was tired and we quietly wandered off to go to bed.
For us, going to bed meant getting into my Ford Explorer and driving it across the property to our normal spot under the big oak at the far south end of the property. This was a great spot as it was about as far as you could get away from the center of the activity and at the same time insured extended morning shade via the largest oak tree on the that side of the property. We climbed into the back of the truck, where we had arranged some sleeping bags, and with our two faithful dogs at our feet, we went to sleep.
A few hours later, at exactly 4:47 in the morning, Cynthia woke up suddenly to the sound of the dogs growling and alerting to something outside of the SUV. My wife Cynthia sat up and looked out the back window of the truck. There in the distance, at the front of the Cabin, she saw a dancing man. Assuming that the party was - true to form - still going on, she nudged me awake. "Do you believe that they are STILL dancing?" I raised my head and looked through the window. Standing at the Cabin firepit, maybe 100 yards away from us, was a man dancing wildly in front of the fire. He was dressed from head to toe in white, and I saw that his arms and legs were flailing wildly about his body. His hands were over his head and he was jumping from leg to leg, knees thrusting up on each side as he jumped in place. His dancing was absurd looking, completely out of control. We both noted the time, displayed in bright green digits on the clock of the dashboard, wondered for a moment if we should get up and join them, then mumbled briefly to each other about how our family were all "Party Animals...", laid back down and went back to sleep.
As soon as we awoke the next morning, I climbing into the front seat of the truck and drove back to the front of the house, parking the truck in the shade of an old walnut tree. It was a traditional "morning after", with everyone wandering around like zombies clutching coffee cups, hoping that drinking massive amounts of it would help us to regain some cognitive ability. I sat on a bench, clutching my own cup and looked at my cousin Andy. "Who the hell was up at 4:30 AM this morning still dancing?"
"Nobody, we all went to bed at 2:00."
Cynthia and I recounted our story to the other comatose Cabinites, who by now were stumbling out from whatever tent, couch, ditch, tree or trailer from which they awoke.
One by one, each of the Cabinites argued that there was no way anyone was up at that hour. "Well, that makes no sense. Some of us got a little loud last night, and Aunt Flo got pretty angry and shut the party down about 1:30 AM.", said one Cabinite. Flora was the family matriarch and the actual owner of the Cabin. Her word was law. If she said “Shut it down”, you shut it down. There was never a debate when she put her foot down. On this morning, she appeared from inside the house just in time to confirm that she had indeed shut the party down very early the prior night. "You guys were just too darn loud. Leo needs his rest", she said.
My sister Dianna was the next to offer evidence that what we had witnessed could not be. She had gotten up at 3:20 in the morning to check on our dad. She noted the time and noticed that the fire was out and that the only sound she heard was Dad's oxygen machine. She pointed out that the large porch light in the front of the house was off. This was confirmed by my Uncle Smitty, who pointed out that he was the one who had to turn off the lights before going to bed.
Fellow Cabinite Darrin noted that he went to the outdoor bathroom about 3:30 and that there was nothing going on.
Finally, cousin Gary pointed out that Aunt Flo had ordered him to put water on the fire before he went to bed to make sure that it was completely out. He insisted it was thoroughly soaked when he went to bed at around 2:00.
In light of all this evidence, and for the sake of clarity and my own confusion, I looked at Cynthia and asked her exactly what she saw, something we had not discussed in detail earlier that morning. "Well, I just saw one person. It was a large man, and he was dancing in front of the fire. His arms were waving over his head and he was jumping up and down. I remember that it was 4:47. Oh, and he was dressed in all white." There was no doubt. This was exactly the same thing that I had seen. We both also agreed there was no sound of the loud music that you would normally associate with such dancing, nor did we see anyone else around the fire. As far as we remembered it, he was dancing alone. We both also noted that the fire was very high, jumping far over the man’s height into the sky. Higher than Flo usually allowed. It was Summer after all, and there was always high fire danger in Lake County. Regardless, what we saw was more of a bonfire that a campfire.
Though we did not register it at the time, in occurred to us later that it was odd that the man was dressed all in white. Cabinites did not wear white. The Cabin experience was a filthy experience. Dirt and dust was everywhere. Camo was good, browns and grays were ok, but Cabinites never wore white.
There was one exception to the rule about wearing white at the Cabin. One person got away with it. It was my father. You see, dad was a laborer by trade when he was a younger man, and when he worked, he wore coveralls, sometimes blue and sometimes white. Over time, and for many years since he had quit working, he had adopted coveralls as his attire of choice. He seldom wore anything else. I guess you could say it was his uniform. On this particular morning, as we all tried to make sense of what Cynthia and I had seen in the dark just a few hours earlier, my father was sitting quietly in his wheel chair, with hoses in his nose that pushed air into his failing body from a machine plugged into the wall. He said nothing, nor did he have to, he had gone to bed very early that previous night, tucked into one of the two bedrooms in the house where there was power for his life support, doped up on pain killers and beer. The fire pit was indeed soaked when we investigated it, and no firewood seemed to be missing from the stack from the night before.
It was my father’s last trip to this place, and although he was sick, he was surrounded by everyone and everything he loved and cherished. He was tired and weak, barely able to drink his morning coffee, but there he was, wearing his favorite pair of white overalls. As to these events, he had nothing to say or add to the conversation.
My father died just a few weeks later. His ashes were spread under that giant oak tree at the far end of the property on Fourth of July weekend of that year, just a few feet from where Cynthia and I parked that faithful night. My dad never claimed to be the dancing man. It could not have been him anyway. He needed help to use the restroom at that point. All these years later and no one else has taken responsibility for that dance either.
We never saw the Dancing Man again, nor were we able to come up with a reasonable explanation. It should be noted that no one was ever afraid in this story, and it is still one we tell from time-to-time. There was no “BOO!” moment here, and in this respect this may not be a true ghost story at all. I think we all knew it was my dad’s spirit, saying good-bye to the land he loved. For us, it is a story of family, love and enduring spirit.
Now in closing, it has been discussed over the years that this could have been an Indian spirit dancing in the fire. To this point, I have a few notes, mostly that my family held that land for well over 60 years and in that time we never experienced anything like the dancing man. Having said that, there could be no doubt that our land was traversed and likely provided rest and repose from the intense summer heat under our ancient oaks during the time of the Massacre and likely for centuries before. Could it have been the spirit of one of those indigenous people? Why not? We’d be honored to have him.