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The Phantom Knocks

In 1903 my grandfather, Joseph Hampton Gregory, was age 42, and after years of toil, he finally achieved enough success to purchase a bit of land. He bought a 165 acre Kentucky rock farm and built a beautiful, classic country home for his family. He named the farm Sunnyview. My father was six months old when the family moved to that farm, with his two older sisters, Irene, age 11, and Eva Lee, age 8. My father and his sisters grew up there. Their parents had previously given each of the girls a nearby farm of their own when they married, and my father inherited the original farm after their parents' deaths.

     In 1926, my father, now age 23, built a small country general store at Sunnyview, from which he sold packaged goods, soft drinks, prepared soups, and gasoline. That farm and the general store remained in the family for another forty years, and numerous family tales and legends grew up around it.

     If you have ever lived in an old country house, you can relate. In 1903, insulation, tight windows, and such were not generally the norm. Even with multiple coal and wood-fired stoves going, the house would be cold and drafty, and parsimonious country folks would not keep a roaring fire going all night, even if there were a practical way to feed wood or coal to it. Instead, fires would be banked, dampers set, and the fire would burn low so as to last the night. It would not put out much heat, but the coals would keep going, and on rising in the morning, fresh fuel and a bit of stoking would quickly reinvigorate the heat. Country houses were not often comfortable in severe weather.

     Winter weather in an old country house means cold air breezes through every room, regardless of how much it is heated. Every window, every door leaks cold air almost as if it were open. Even the walls themselves leak cold air. It means stuffing newspaper in the cracks around every window. Doors that do not open onto a closed-in porch are never opened in cold weather, simply because of blockage with newspaper insulation and sometimes even blankets to block out the cold. Unused rooms are closed off and not heated, both to save fuel and so that their mass would serve as a weather break to the interior spaces that were heated more generously.

     The Sunnyview home had a back door, a kitchen door, which opened into an enclosed porch. It also had a front door that faced the main road and the service station. This front door was usually blocked in cold weather, and the living room it served was unoccupied, unheated. The family would come and go via the kitchen, living in the kitchen and upstairs bedroom.

     Given the familiar nature of the small community, it was not unusual for a neighbor to come to purchase something, be it gasoline or groceries, at an hour when the store would not normally be open for business. On such occasions, a customer would naturally approach the main entry since it faced the road.

     One bitterly cold winter Sunday morning, substantial fresh snow covered the ground from a storm the previous night. The family had barely arisen; my mother was stoking the wood cookstove in the kitchen and starting to prepare breakfast. It was very early, and as yet, no one had ventured outside. In fact, the family had not yet dressed for the day, still wearing robes and nightclothes.

     Suddenly there came a knock at the front door. The knock was barely heard at first, as the family was in the kitchen at the rear of the house. But the knock quickly repeated and became louder, more insistent, to the point that my father shouted from the kitchen for the party to hold on. At that shout, the knocking stopped for a moment. Rather than enter the frigidly cold living room, rather than disturb the makeshift insulation protecting the door, the normal response would be to go out the back door and walk around the house to greet the visitor.

      Assuming the source of the knocking to be someone in need of gasoline, my father hurriedly donned a hat, coat, and boots. As he did so, the knocking resumed, louder and more insistent than before. Finally adequately dressed for the cold, my father stepped out the back door and walked around the side. No one was in sight. There was no car at the gas pumps. There was no car in the service station parking lot.

     Walking on around the house to the front, he sees no one at the front door. Then he realizes that not only is there no one either at the front door or at the service station, but there also are not even any tracks in the fresh snow to indicate where someone might have come and gone. No tracks at the door, no tracks in the service station parking lot. No sign whatever of anyone who might have raised such a ruckus on such an early Sunday morning.

     So what was the source of the knocking? Perhaps a wayward tree branch was being blown against the house by the wind. Perhaps the wind was swinging a loose shutter against the house. Or could it be that a lost spirit was desperately trying to buy supplies for the long journey to the next world? This seems unlikely from today’s perspective, but whatever the cause, the mysterious “visitor” never returned.

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