Hillbilly Highway

By Ed Staskus

   Ever since they were rug rats Oliver and Emma’s dad packed their mom and them up and they went on a one-week road trip to West Virginia. He streamed Steve Earle, and they sang along. “Now I’m standin’ on this highway and if you’re going my way, you know where I’m bound, hillbilly highway, hillbilly highway.” They always took Rt. 83 instead of the interstate. They sang out the back windows of their Jeep Cherokee. 

   “It’s God’s country,” Oliver’s dad said, even though he was born and bred in Cleveland, Ohio and had never gone to West Virginia until he was sent there as part of a refinery inspection team. He was an electrical engineer. He knew how to read a compass. He knew how to go south.

   One summer they went to Elkins for a bluegrass festival. They stayed at the Cheat River Cabins, ate breakfast at diners, went hiking in the Stuart Area woods, and listened to bluegrass at night. It was in the air all over. The Augusta Heritage Festival is held every summer at the Davis & Elkins College. There are old-time tunes and bluegrass, Cajun and Zydeco, Irish and Contra dancing.

   They heard Molly Lewis whistle. She whistled songs everybody knew, standing all by herself in the middle of the stage. Whistling used to be big. Elmo Tanner and Muzzy Marcellino made careers for themselves back in the day pursing their lips and blowing. In 1967 the whistling song “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” was an international hit.

   “If I’m out walking in the woods and hear a birdcall, I try to mimic it,” Molly said. “I have probably got a terrible accent in bird talk, but I do my best.”

   Another summer they went white water rafting on the New River, except Oliver and Emma didn’t. They were underage. They took pictures of their mom and dad pushing off and then ran to the Wonderland Water Park, all-day passes clutched in their hands. They navigated the inflatable obstacles and bounced splashed jumped all around the five-acre spring-fed lake water park. They went on waterslides until they were exhausted and had to chill out on the white sandy beach.

   The summer they were near Flatwoods in central West Virginia they made an excursion to see what the monster sighting was all about. Seventy years earlier the town earned the nickname “Home of the Green Monster.” Some folks called it the Braxton County Monster. Others called it the Phantom of Flatwoods, or simply the Green Monster.

   They were having lunch at Moe’s in near-by Sutton, talking about the monster, when a man leaned over from his table and said to Oliver, “Don’t worry about the monster getting you, kid. You’ll smell it before it gets near enough to grab you.” Emma glared at him from behind her new glasses. She pushed them down her nose.

   “My brother takes care of business where we live, mister. He’s the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County. If anybody needs to worry, it’s you and your old monster.”

   Everybody started laughing and talking about spaceships fireballs glowing red eyes 10-foot-tall eat you alive creatures. Oliver didn’t pay them any mind. He would make up his own mind when he saw firsthand what he needed to see.

   They went to the Flatwoods Monster Museum first. “The story made the local news, then got picked up by national radio and big papers all over the country,” Andrew Smith, who runs the museum, told them. “The mother and the National Guard kid ended up going to New York to talk to CBS.”

   It was near dark in mid-September 1952 when the May brothers Eddie and Freddie, playing in the schoolyard with their friend Tommy, saw a bright light flash across the sky and hit the ground. Freddie ran and grabbed his mother. Several more boys and dogs and Eugene Lemon joined them. They ran up the hill where the light landed.

   “Seven Braxton County residents on Saturday reported seeing a 10-foot Frankenstein-like monster in the hills above Flatwoods,” the local newspaper reported. “A National Guard member, 17-year-old Gene Lemon, was leading the group when he saw what appeared to be a pair of bright eyes in a tree. He screamed and fell backward when he saw a monster with a blood-red body and a green face that seemed to glow.”

   They were nauseated by a stomach-churning smell and ran away fast and faster.

   “Those people were the most scared people I’ve ever seen,” said A. L. Stewart, the newspaper publisher. He marched up the hill with a loaded shotgun after witnesses told him what they saw. “People don’t make up that kind of story that quickly,” he said.

   “One of the boys peed his pants,” said John Gibson, who knew them all. “Their dog Rickie ran back home with his tail between his legs.”

   John Gibson didn’t run. He was a World War II veteran who helped guard Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials after serving with an infantry division in the Battle of the Bulge. He still lived in Flatwoods. He sold 12-inch Green Monster lanterns, thousands of them to curious passersby. He had them made in Marietta, Ohio by a ceramic artisan. Each piece was hand molded, fired, and painted.

   “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny,” he said. “I don’t believe in Santa. And I really don’t believe in the Flatwoods Monster. But I do want to boost our community. If anybody knows how I could get a 26-foot fiberglass Green Monster statue made for Flatwoods, let me know. That would be a big draw, don’t you think?”

   “I thought it was kind of a fake,” a friend of his said. “I didn’t fool with it.”

   “Everybody still talks about the Flatwoods Monster, and they talk about little green men, but I never run into any of them,” John said. 

   Another friend insisted he saw a flying saucer buzz his house around the same time in 1952. “What did you think when you seen the saucer?” John asked.

   “I thought it was Dwight D. Eisenhower on a broom stick.” 

   When the day-trippers from Ohio asked, he gave them directions to the exact spot of what everybody agreed had probably been a UFO incident, if it was anything at all. Oliver and Emma jumped into the back seat. It wasn’t far. It was on a hill on a nearby farm. The property owners were leery of the Green Monster’s popularity, and tourists were forbidden. They worried about city folk trampling their crops. “We’re sick and tired of hearing about that monster,” is what they said. There wasn’t anybody around, though, so Oliver and Emma walked up the hill, while their parents watched from below.

   Oliver stood where it all had happened. The sun was shining in the blue sky. There was no creature with a red face hellzapoppin eyes savage claws and floating in the air like gravity didn’t matter. There was no eerie mist and no evil stench. There was a strong smell of cow manure, though.

   “What’s that awful smell?” Emma asked.

   They ran back to where their parents were waiting.

   “What did you make of it?” Oliver’s dad asked.

   “I only hunt monsters I can smell and see and hear,” Oliver said. “If they are in a museum their time has come and gone. There’s nothing for me to do here. Can we go back to gone fishing?”

   “Let’s go, bud,” his father said, shepherding everybody into the Jeep, giving it gas, and going down the state road to the next corner of the Mountain State. Oliver and Emma sang “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” making up most of the lyrics as they rolled along.

   They left the Green Monster behind. He was taking a nap in the hollow at the bottom of the hill, where he had been ever since landing in Flatwoods. They didn’t hear him snoring as they sang at the top of their lungs.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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