October 22, 2005
A Strange Visit in the Night
In September 1977—about 1,300 miles from Thunder Butte—I was studying at a university in California not far from where I grew up, working on my undergraduate degree. That fall, I was living in a group house—a rented house with two other guys. I always held part-time jobs in college. As I came home late one Friday or Saturday night from one of those jobs, the house was dark and no one else seemed to be home. I washed up, closed my bedroom door, and got into bed—leaving just a bedside lamp on to read.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps coming from the bathroom at the opposite end of the hallway from my bedroom. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself. I had thought no one else was home. As the footsteps approached my door, I tensed up. Who could this be? What was happening? Then, whoever it was stopped right in front of my bedroom door.
This was an older house. It had the kind of doors inside the house that are framed with thick wood, but that have just a thin plywood panel in the center. As I watched in horror, the center panel of the door began to bend inward as though someone was leaning or pressing in on the door. The hair on my head felt as though it was standing up as I shouted out, “Who’s there?”
Total silence. There was no answer. I shouted again, “Who’s there?” Still, there was no answer. Then, I grabbed the bedside lamp in one hand as the nearest available weapon, jumped out of bed, and threw on the light switch next to the door with the other hand. There wasn’t a sound. I threw the door open and no one was there.
Let me tell you, I searched every room of that house from top to bottom. I checked the front and back doors and every single window. I checked the access panel for the attic and the locked basement door. The place was shut up tight. And, no one else was there.
Spooked, I got back into bed and tried to resume reading. Eventually, I went to sleep. But, I only dozed fitfully until the phone rang at about 8:30 a.m. the next morning. No one ever called me THAT early in the morning. My very first thought was that someone had died.
I lifted the phone off the hook hesitantly. It was my mother. She had called to tell me that my uncle, Neal Crowley, had died in the hospital in Presho, South Dakota, the night before. He had been ailing for some time with cancer.
Neal was the only one of the Thunder Butte Crowleys to stay on in South Dakota after 1940. He had married and lived most of his remaining years in Faith, where he had raised two kids and had been the chief of the two man police department for some years. At the end of his life, he was happily married for a second time and managing a tavern with his wife, Chubby, in Presho.
I always felt a lot of affection for my Uncle Neal. Ever since I had first met him on his occasional visits to see us in California when I was a child, he was my favorite uncle. He had fired up my imagination from a young age with tales of Thunder Butte country and promises to take me back there with him some day. Neal never did take me back to South Dakota with him, but I’m sure he would have if he could have. Had he come to pay me a last visit on that September night?
Sometimes we poke fun at things that have happened to us, almost as much for levity as to put our minds at ease about the things we don’t understand. I started teasing my roommates, telling them that the house was haunted. Uncle Neal had always loved a good joke, and he probably would have enjoyed my trying to spook the neighbors, too. When Halloween night came the following month, I turned out the lights, put Pink Floyd’s “Umma Gumma” album on the stereo and cranked up the volume for all the neighbors to hear one of Floyd’s most utterly bizarre tracks—“ Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict.” (“Umma Gumma” is arguably Pink Floyd’s oddest and most experimental album.) The eerie and shrill cries of cave creatures on the track made the house feel haunted for Halloween, and surely gave the creeps to the neighborhood kids who came trick-or-treating that night.