The gears of a warm spring day quickly downshifted in the late afternoon, and before twilight a cold front blew in, plunging the mercury more than 15 degrees. In search of dinner, Scottie and I rounded the edges of pond after pond at the sandpits, looking and looking. We saw not a single frog. We heard not one deep-throated bellow. In Southern towns where creeks and ponds proliferate, frogging is not unusual. What followed, however, was. Quite.
After darkness fell on the unusually cool evening, Scottie and I loaded our gear into my old 1949 Plymouth Coupe (bought for $50) and headed for the sandpits near the golf course on the edge of town. I knew from prior hunts that our quarry was there by the dozens.
Decades before, truckloads of sand had been dug and hauled out for construction and cement. Left abandoned were about 25 gaping holes — large and small, deep and shallow. Over the decades, rain filled them. In time, water lilies and cattails sprouted; critters filtered in. These old ponds now were fully populated by frogs, tadpoles, snakes, turtles and other creatures.
Frogging requires strong illumination. Thus, I carried a powerful, five-cell flashlight with a tight beam. Because houses were nearby, instead of our usual .22 rifle, we had a quieter, far more primitive device — a gig. This is basically a steel fish spear with three or four barbed prongs mounted on a 10-foot bamboo pole. Scottie was the gig bearer; I was the spotter.
In darkness, the eyes of a bullfrog glow bright yellow when a strong light is shone at them. The technique is simple. Find a frog sitting at the water’s edge waiting for bugs: The person with the light blinds the creature, while the other sneaks up quietly from behind and spears it with the gig.
Scottie, my companion, was one of my oldest friends. By day, he was a nervous type. In the inky darkness, with no moon, he was super-edgy, on high alert. He had eaten and enjoyed frog legs, but never gathered them himself. Me, on the other hand, I frequently hunted them, often alone. I was accustomed to and comfortable with the critters and noises of the night — bats, owls, raccoons, opossums, wildcats, snakes, spiders and the like.
Scottie’s tragic personal history had left him different than others our age. One summer day, just before reaching his teenage years, he was a front-seat passenger coming from the Atlantic Coast going inland, long before seatbelts. The car crashed head-on into another vehicle. The impact hurled Scottie into the front windshield, headfirst. Grievously injured, he bounced back into the interior of the wrecked auto. When the ambulance reached the crash site, Scottie was thought dead. But a pulse was detected and Scottie was rushed to a hospital. The impact of the crash caused his brain to swell rapidly, and doctors drilled four holes in his skull to relieve the mounting pressure.
Scottie never fully recovered from his injuries. He now walked with a limp. Tragically, the brilliant, straight-A student was left without higher intellectual faculties. Nevertheless, Scottie was relentlessly upbeat, popular, positive and funny, but limited. He became a zany jokester, hungry for laughs, often at his own expense. Occasionally though, he would say something so profound, so incisive, so on target, our group of friends would wonder if his former intelligence had regenerated. Then, he would give that lopsided grin, once again the class clown. He was always fun to be with, game for almost anything, and a good sport.
I dearly loved Scottie, and I protected him. Yet deep within me lay a sinister streak of sadism, resisted most of the time. Unfortunately, on this night, boredom overwhelmed suppression, to my shame.
At the sandpits, the cool night was a black velvet blanket surrounding us as we plodded along the edges of the ponds. The sole illumination came from the narrow, buttery beam of my flashlight. Crickets chirped and lightning bugs flashed in the dark. Bats swooped down close to us. The less-experienced might find the sandpits more than a tad eerie. Scottie sure did.
The lack of frogs was disappointing and damned frustrating. Not only was our free dinner slipping away, I was quite bored — always trouble. After an hour of luckless looking, my bright flashlight faded to dimness. We stopped while I changed the batteries. I pocketed the depleted ones, inserted five fresh ones, and we resumed our search.
The sandpit’s ponds were near civilization on one side, yet surrounded on the others by thick brush, brambles, swamp and woods. It was the edge of a wilderness, dark as the devil’s soul. Scottie’s mounting anxiety, and his near hysteria over the cries of screech owls and the skittering of unseen small critters near us, gave birth to a disturbing, perverse idea in me as we traipsed around the ponds.
As we fruitlessly scouted the edges of more ponds, I threw three other depleted batteries at irregular intervals. Scottie’s unease rose with each missile’s noisy descent through the thickets near us. Scottie now was so close to me, we were almost hugging. At that point, I should have broken off the prank.
After the fourth D-cell cartwheeled off some vines and landed, Scottie moved even closer and said in a high-pitched whisper: “Something is stalking us!” He was shaking, quivering, looking left, right and behind us with every step. He was carrying the frog gig like a spear, jerk-jabbing it into the dark in front of us. So, of course, I readied the last battery. Before I could heave it, something thrashed noisily in the brambles beside us.
Scottie took off as if the hounds of hell were hot on his heels. Without hesitation, I followed. His desperate panic lit my own. I did not want to be left all alone out there in the dark. I was a decent sprinter on the high school track team, but I could not keep up with my frightened friend.
Instead of following the long and circuitous land route around the many watery holes, in his terror Scottie made a straight line toward the car, splashing through the ponds, thrusting the gig at unseen threats. I followed as fast and close as I could. A few ponds were shoulder deep, the water not warm at all.
In my fiery imagination, I felt the hot breath of some hungry monster just behind me as Scottie sprinted and splashed toward my car. Behind him, I raced for my life. We jumped dripping wet into the seats of my coupe, locked the doors and fishtailed out at high speed down the sandy road to safety. Scottie held the frog gig out the passenger’s car window. It wouldn’t fit inside. Not a word was said.
We broke all speed limits covering the short distance to a favorite hangout, a popular, well-lit, drive-in restaurant. Friday nights, the place was thick with other teens. As we pulled up and parked, friends came over to say hello. They noticed our wetness, the gig sticking out the window, and asked what happened.
Rascal and rogue that I am, another prank flashed through my mind like a firework’s starburst. As a small group gathered around my car, I said in a loud, quavering voice, “We were out frogging at the sandpits and we kept hearing something stalking us.” The equally soaked Scottie, now quieter and calmer in these safer environs, picked up the story as though we had rehearsed it.
Pointing at me, he said: “He heard something big in the bush while we were frog hunting. It sounded really big. I mean, like huge. When he turned his five-cell flashlight on it, oh my God!” He let out a theatrical gasp, his hand going to his throat. Limitations aside, he was a masterful performer with an audience.
I picked up the improv tale. “When I heard a stick snap, I knew it had to be something pretty large, real near us. I focused the light in that direction and saw this thing.”
“What thing?” asked the chorus of boys and girls outside the car. Our group of rapt listeners was quickly growing.
Scottie added inspired embellishments. “It was about seven feet tall,” he said with elaborate hand gestures, “had the face of a man, but covered with fur. It had big reddish eyes. It growled and snapped its fangs at us.”
“You guys are bullshitting us,” came a male voice from the back of the group. “You didn’t see any such thing. Quit making up crap.”
“Oh yeah?” I challenged. “Then how did we get soaking wet on a cold night? We sure weren’t swimming in the dark with all our clothes on, and we didn’t fall in. We were getting the hell out of there is what we were doing. If you saw what we did, you would have shat and peed your pants.”
The story was spreading quickly. Our car now a magnet, attracting more teens wanting details about the seven-foot monster. Late arrivals wanted it from the beginning. With each new start of the story, the two of us took turns fabricating extra details while the other nodded attestation to the truth of the lies. In the midst of spinning this yarn, a police cruiser suddenly drove into the space right beside us. We were still sitting in my car, windows rolled down, dripping top to toe, shivering in the coolness, smelling strongly of algae and stagnant pond water.
A uniformed officer walked up to the passenger window, saw the frog gig mounted between the side mirror, extended through the window to the back shelf of the coupe. My five-cell was on the seat, lens fogged. He looked in, sniffed the dankness rolling off us. “We got a call. Are you the kids who saw that thing out at the sandpits?” His partner had walked up quietly beside my door. I glanced at Scottie. It was one thing to lie to friends, quite another to make false statements to the authorities.
Before I could say a word, Scottie gave me a quick, in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound look. “Yes, we are, officer,” he said in a small voice. “We are the ones who saw it. Horrible. Never been so scared in all my damned life.”
“Hellish,” I added. “We are lucky to be alive.” I too was in for the penny, in for a pound.
We told the story one more time for the two cops, with more youths pushing and cramming in at all angles to hear our tale. By now, the restaurant’s waitresses had heard about our story and they too crowded around my coupe, ignoring the impatient customers waiting to order food and drink, vainly flashing their headlights for service. The fact that we’d related our “experience” to the police lent credibility to our fabrications.
The officers asked us to follow them to their small station house on Main Street, hardly a mile away. There, we repeated the story for a small gathering of uniforms, detectives and a civilian dispatcher. We tacked on a few more faux details. After hearing the story, a big, authoritative Captain of Police took command.
In a deep, serious voice: “Can you boys meet us back here at 6 tomorrow morning?” We both nodded yes.
“We’ll have a team of tracking dogs ready to go,” the captain continued, “and we’ll hunt this damned thing down.”
Thankfully, the statute of limitations for lying to the police has long since run out.
We left the station, suppressing smirks. Inside my car, I asked Scottie to drive over in the morning and pick me up at 5:15 a.m. — my car seats were still soaked. He agreed and woke me with a knock on my bedroom window. We drove back to the sandpits in his car. The early morning sun bleached the ponds and thickets clean of all mystery and spookiness.
I found a dead, quarter-inch-thick stick and broke it over my knee. Scottie knew I had something in mind, but his puzzled face said he had not a clue. At the edge of the brush near the rear of one of the larger ponds, with bare hands, I artistically fashioned a huge, ape-like footprint in the sandy soil. Scottie watched and giggled. I pressed the two jagged edges of the broken stick down into the “footprint” to pose as the snapped twig. For each of the “toes,” I used a tiny branch to make big claw marks. I made another partial print further into the thicket, as if the creature had left hurriedly.
I cautioned Scottie: “Make sure to let them find it. Not us.” He vigorously nodded his understanding.
We then drove back to the police station, arriving just before 6 a.m. What happened next was, remarkably, not the work of my imagination. Awaiting was a party of 10 men with pistols, shotguns and high-powered rifles with scopes. On their belts were big, sheathed hunting knives. All had serious, determined faces. In the back of a nearby pickup truck, we could hear the tracking dogs — beagles and bloodhounds, barking in anticipation inside their cages.
We drove in a caravan to the sandpits and led them on foot to that particular pond. Scottie pointed to where “we had seen the creature” and told them we were too afraid to go any nearer. They nodded and spread out, guns and knives at the ready, looking for signs. The dog handler followed closely behind, holding leashes on five attentive canines, sniffing, straining against their harnesses, ready to do their duty. Suddenly, an excited shout.
“Sheriff, you better come over here. Quick! Shit! Holy shit!”
The crowd rushed to where my faux footprint with the broken stick lay. We hung back. We heard several gasp and say, “Jesus H. Christ, almighty!” Then the dog handler elbowed his way in and pushed the lead dog’s nose close to the “footprint.”
To the dogs, he said excitedly, “What’s it? What’s it boys? Go get ’em!” The dogs crashed off through the brush, baying in pursuit. Over his shoulder, the handler cried out, “They have the scent!” as he smashed his way through briars into deep woods, thorns ripping at his clothes and skin.
Scottie and I were relieved that the famed tracking dogs did not lead the cops straight back to us, something we had not considered. If they had, surely we would have been handcuffed and roughed up, if not far worse.
We could hear the dogs baying and barking in the distance for about 15 minutes. Most of the posse stayed with us, making small talk, fingering firearms, checking two-way radios, listening for a sighting.
As we waited, the county sheriff, a large man with a bulging belly, tipped his wide-brimmed hat back and said to no one in particular, “There’s no better tracking dogs in this state, if not in the whole damn country. If that thing is still hanging around, they’ll find it, by Jesus.”
A half hour passed before the handler and his team of tracking dogs came back, looking weary and worn. The dog handler was bleeding from cuts on his face and arms. He was covered in welts, smacked by switches. His pants were wet and muddy to the thighs. Dozens of cockleburs and stickers were stuck in the wet fur on the chests of the tired dogs. They were panting, tongues lolling. “We lost the scent,” the handler said dejectedly.
Scottie and I managed not to smile as the men discussed what to do next, apparently not much that day. They huddled away from us in low voices and then decided to go for coffee. But they promised a more thorough and wider search with more men the next day.
End of story. Or so I thought. Not so. Fast-forward almost a year. After our sandpit prank, for months Scottie and I steadfastly and repeatedly had to swear to skeptical friends that it was all true.
In February, I volunteered for the Selective Service System draft. In April of 1960, I was called up by the U.S. Army. The Vietnam War was heating up. After finishing basic training and advanced infantry school, I went home on a week’s leave before shipping out overseas. It had been four months since I had seen my girlfriend.
She paused our goodbye party to meet her business school teacher for a homework assignment. I walked with her to the nearby school. After a few minutes of genial conversation, the teacher looked at his watch and said, “I hope you folks will excuse me, don’t mean to be rude, but I have to get to the hardware store before it closes.”
“What do you need from the store?” I asked, just making idle conversation.
“I need a gun.” The hair on the back of my neck prickled to attention.
“A gun? For what?”
“For protection against that thing, that thing killing dogs, cats and cows out my way. Leaving bloody messes of them. We don’t let our kids out unless we are with them. I want a gun.”
“By any chance,” I asked, “do you live anywhere near the golf course?”
“Yes, I do. We live very close by. How on earth did you come up with that?”
“Just a guess,” I replied. “Lucky guess, that’s all. Heard something about it.” My girlfriend didn’t know. She thought I was a seer.
Decades rolled by. I had moved many miles away to a respectable and responsible job in a northern metropolis. Scottie had moved further south to a larger, coastal city. We lost contact. Years later, news reached me that he had passed away from natural causes. Good friend that he was, he took our sandpit secret to the grave.
A few years ago, when a hometown high school reunion beckoned, I went back. Not much had changed there. At the reunion, over drinks at an outdoor pavilion in the evening, the talk turned to strange doings — especially from those living in the new housing development near the golf course, less than a quarter mile from the sandpits.
A former cheerleader related nightmares over this “thing,” ruthless killer of cats and cows. Another woman (she’d been in the band in high school) said she never let her kids out of sight in the yard. A few parents said they made the children stay inside, night or day.
As stunning as it was curious, no one at the reunion seemed to remember that Scottie and I were the ones who first “saw” the creature. Thankfully. I slipped away from the anxious group to get a bourbon and water from the bar and took a table to myself in a quiet corner beneath the stars.
I realized that in the intervening years, every animal hit by a car, wounded by hunters or larger creatures — ones that crawled off to die — had become “victims” of the Creature from the Sandpits, seeding and feeding the myth.
I sat at my small table alone, drinking and thinking. I kept a straight face, my piehole shut. I recalled our little town was host to other, similar spooky stories. The ghost of a long-ago, murdered girl was claimed to walk the streets when there was fog and the moon was full. A few miles away, a man decapitated in a bad car wreck was said to be seen wandering headless in the night along that dangerous and sharp bend (now called Deadman’s Curve), searching for his missing top.
For my job, I traveled quite a bit, spent time in many towns like my own. It seemed almost every place I visited had some otherworldly story. Out of curiosity, I began to seek out those tales, wondering if their origins sprang from pranksters like Scottie and me.
At this reunion, on a pleasant night, with the river lapping softly at the pilings a few feet away, I sipped bourbon and wondered whether Scottie and I had unwittingly stumbled on a secret source making life interesting in a town where not much happens. Had we switched on some closed circuit of mystical intrigue, energizing the static humdrum? Why and how do so many spooky tales start in so many towns? Crop circles. Ice discs. The crash of alien craft. Mysterious lights and noises. Ghosts. It defies sense to think pranksters like us are the genesis of them all.
I pondered how and why a preposterous story stays alive, still scaring intelligent people 60 years later. Does something in the darkness of the human soul require a measure of fear? Do we need a bit of fright to keep the spark of life lit? In time, perhaps social scientists or advanced computer algorithms will churn out the answers.
Whatever those answers are, I’m the last one who knows the real story of the Creature from the Sandpits. I’m an old man, and I figured I better tell it before I too pass on. What started as a prank on friends got away from us when the cops were called. It escalated. Quickly.
Although I kept my silence at the reunion, I wanted to tell my fellow alumni to please, unload the firearms and put them back in the closets. Let your children go out in the yard to play again. Allow penned up dogs, cats and pet rabbits access to fresh air. We made it up.
Once the story escaped our grasp, we couldn’t call it back. Sixty years later, the Creature from the Sandpits lives on, the myth fed by random dying creatures and vivid imaginations. The raw fear of something unknown in the dark has its own power, fortified by a few hurried and partial “sightings” of the Creature. I suspect, even if I publicly confessed, I would not be totally believed. The new discovery of the mangled body of a dead, domestic cat, maybe one that had tangled with a raccoon or coyote, would be proof positive the Creature still stalked.
I am indeed a native son of this particular Southern town — a son from a most respectable family, long married with children and grandchildren. But, I am still not giving my real name. I used a pseudonym in this piece, and one for “Scottie” too. I know the folks down there. They have long memories … and guns.