Every morning I walk my Dylan around, he is a quiet hound but he pisses on your foot if you get distracted watching a skirt or a car or what the hell to write for ten bucks a story in this sparrow-fart town of Red Oak, Iowa.
I wasn't born here, my mother died immediately after my birth in a hospital in Iowa City. My father moved here to work in 1976 when I was two years old and he has been sent here at the old railway station. In fact, if there are two things that Red Oak is famous for these are the railway and the Second World War. I'm sorry, I should point out about the railroad that this town is most famous for its underground rail system, rather than the one up on the surface. Through these tunnels, for miles and miles, blacks slaves were helped to escape to the free states and to Canada during the Civil War. As for the other war, many guys here have given their lives in Europe and the Congress has given the name of the town to a battle cruiser years later.
There was a time when my father was still alive, that he told me many stories before I went to bed. Those were not just stories that made you sleep, they were anything but lullabies. He would sit on the bed and he would take off his horn-rimmed glasses. Every night for me was a big dilemma: I did not know if I wanted to listen to that stuff or not, because I would fall asleep too late, but at the same time I was dying of curiosity due to the vibrations that his words would cause me. A year after that I knew enough about what I will tell you here, I remember that I asked my father why he would tell me that creepy stuff rather than just fairy tales, but being a lousy writer I will report what the reason he gave me later in the story, trying in this way to keep you interested in what will happen.
What I can tell you now is that every time I watch a horror movie I don't feel any need to cover my eyes.
If I wrote that Red Oak is a very small place, or if you like to hear it again a “sparrow-fart town”, is because few people live here. By the end of the twentieth century the population grew relatively slowly and the new generations have ended up in big cities or in other holes on the shores of America. So here they all seem to know everything about everyone, but what is curious is that I never heard from others apart from my father the facts of the underground tunnels. It seems that it is a great taboo around here. People live their American Dream, and if I may be so trivial, when I saw Jonathan Harker end up in that inn in Transylvania to ask for a castle I got up from the couch and went to the window to look at the last of many sedans parked in the yard with a wife smiling and waiting for her husband at the door. Asking about a castle to those happy little family would have broken their internal balance and would have made them feel uncomfortable even if they would have tried hard not to show it.
The only time that everyone shown a purely awkward silence was during the telethon of six years ago, when none other than Johnny Carson himself, who was born here, made a joke alluding to the "secret business" that wives of Red Oak would carry on underground once their good husbands went to sleep at night.
At that moment, as we were all standing in front of the small stage behind the Town Hall my father drummed with his fingers over my shoulder and supposedly we both enjoyed that moment of truth.
Once back home I told him that embarrassing silence was due to the alleged infidelity of wives and that wouldn't have to do necessarily with that problem. He moved from the stove and looked at me with a frying pan in his hand. He asked me to tell him how old he was, and I told him that he was exactly the age of Johnny Carson. He then asked me why Johnny had gone from that place quickly. To seek success elsewhere? To have a career? I asked that trying to remove all those suspicions I had just like the people we were talking about.
He left because of that hole under his kitchen son.
A hole? He had never said anything about any hole in private homes. The only ones I knew were somewhere in the Town Hall, in the old Methodist church and in the bathroom of a diner closed for thirty years now. I would like to point out that the only time I wanted to see if those holes really existed I shit in my pants and went home. Well, this is just the first part of the whole story of course, otherwise I would not know what to tell you and I should give up those precious ten bucks that I will get from a small literary magazine in Chicago. Ten lousy dollars for a short true story nobody ever told, can you believe that?
But back to us, I remember that when I started taking it more seriously was right after the death of my old man, who left my life at the age of seventy for a fucking lung cancer. During the months following his death nothing had happened around me that pushed to get to the bottom of the matter, something had happened inside me: a series of feelings motivated by the anger towards a father I loved and who had been left alone by the entire community because of his ideas. With a big dose of masochism I wanted to find out if those facts were true along with the existence of that Black Man of whom he had spoken to me for many nights, that Black Man that had garrisoned the underground caves for many many years. When I say the Black Man I mean that he was black in his complexion and not only that it could be the lord of darkness. His name was – and I tremble at the thought that still is - Prince Hall, a legendary figure in the American history over the last three centuries. He was no ghost, no Boogey Man you could see on TV or in the latest version at the only cinema in town. He was real guys, and I wanted to expose all the inhabitants of Red Oak at the cost of my hair getting white altogether, I wanted to do justice to my father, that's what.
The first thing I did was to finally open my father's handbook. I know it sounds stupid stuff like the ones you see in the movies, but if you will show mercy I will tell you that I hadn't found it in a secret drawer closed with a key hidden in a book. I always knew it was there on his dresser but as long as he was alive I never had the urgency to open it. Thing was I didn't want to find myself alone with that terrifying world, I had room service every night and also a goodnight kiss that made the pill a little easier to digest.
The second thing was to lock myself in the library reading of Red Oak and Prince lobby with the notebook in hand and with a new brand to try to put down any track that would anticipate an exploration in those caves.
When I grabbed from those high shelves all the books about the underground system intertwined with the huge drains the librarian gave me a bad look, but soon he went on minding his business and drinking his pint of coffee. I had made a big mess, several other volumes had fallen down on the floor and I lost half a day before concentrating on the material. At the same time I guess it was all part of the desire to postpone the thing indefinitely, just like when I was taking small breaks between one paragraph and another, or when I spent hours choosing what kind of coffee I wanted from the machine down the hall. After two months, however, I'd put together an idea about what people were hiding in Red Oak, and especially what was the reason.
Now I will inform you about a couple of historical backgrounds so that it will be easier for you to follow the thread of my theory and make your personal opinion out of it.
When the black Freemasonry had found its way into this country at the end of the eighteenth century - and from Boston it scattered itself throughout most of the northeastern states - the ideas of abolitionism had been emulated by many other brothers, many of whom have received an education by entering the lodges in young age. During the nineteenth century, and with the fury of the Civil War, those ideals have found greater strength due to the growing hope due one of the main purposes of the conflict, the abolition of slavery. Consequently, the Black Masons, whose founder was none other than Prince Hall, tried in every way to move their affiliates (not only) to the Union states so that they could put together a military power that would allow them to attack the Confederation and free an overwhelming number of black slaves from the chains.
In 1863, in the midst of the conflict, a black lieutenant stationed at the town of Red Oak sent a letter to Prince Hall himself - whose headquarters was in Boston - to notify the existence of a very long tunnel that from Canada would go down south for miles and miles and cross the Republic of Alabama to finally reach the banks of the Mississippi river from which began the border to the free state of Mexico. It is no coincidence the fact that in that letter Canada and the Mississippi River were referred to as "The Promised Land" and the "River Jordan".
It happened that Prince Hall sent many followers in Red Oak. The plan was to go down in those caves and set a real iron train that would travel underground. Through a sophisticated system of espionage blacks slaves living in the Southern states through a sophisticated would be gathered in the underground stations and start their journey towards a freedom they had never known. Everything went well for the first two years. And in those big books I could admire the drawing of the coal-fired locomotive “Freedom”, a train that could reach forty miles per hour underground. The enormous mass of exhaust steam went up into a complex ventilation system and then emerge from the manholes on main street here in Red Oak. The white citizens of the town, totally unaware of that formidable plan, attributed the cause of that black smoke to the devil that he was underground and that loved to remind with those high puffs that hell would have been too close for sinners.
A year before the war was won by the Union all went wrong. I found evidence of this in the diary of a soldier belonging to the Boston Division. He had collaborated in the success of the plan for the last two months. Ten thousand slaves were brought to Canada from Alabama, when a small number went to Mexico, but not before they swam for a mile at least, in the waters between the Mississippi delta and the coast.
The problem started during the night. The Freedom had been traveling for a month under the soil of Texas and then, after passing through the other states it had entered the Republic of Iowa four months later. Its cargo was about a hundred slaves, some with their entire families. For the journey they had little food and water they were pretty exhausted. It was to be considered normal that many would have not survived to see their Promised Land.
As I love to repeat "many" would have been normal, and even if the train had crashed into a rock and they were all dead - something with a high probability of risk after all - it was to be described as a “normal” accident, but when that same soldier went down to the station that is now under our Town Hall and found a sea of bodies with a hole in their chest he had decided to use words like "unlikely typical of normal circumstances" in his letter to Prince Hall.
And now it's time to talk a bit about Prince Hall. The man of Caribbean origins who, as I said, gave rise to the first black Freemasonry. Believed died in 1807 at the age of seventy-two this man has never ceased to exist. When I say that a soldier and a lieutenant had sent their letters to this person, I mean the person, not the name of a Masonic family that has his name until today. Prince Hall would have written to these two men about himself in first person putting down his signature at the bottom. Prince Hall himself would have taken the train before the end of the Civil War and would have traveled to Red Oak with a congregation of Masons wearing jewelry, leather apron and a blue silk collar.
In his memoir the same soldier describes the events of those days. He wrote - and I had found everything already noted in my father's notebook - that he escorted a group of black men of Boston from the Town Hall entrance, through the hole and finally to the place of the massacre.
Prince Hall has been described as a man who wasn't apparently upset at the sight of that genocide. The soldier wrote that he walked through the bodies with a face made of stone and that now and then he would call one of his brothers to share a few words, like a surgeon who reveals a drastic situation to his assistant, added the the witness. The second day the train was dismantled. The operation took place underground, and everything was done without the knowledge of the white citizens of Red Oak, who would remained locked up in their houses during that long winter and eating the food they had accumulated at the end of the summer. On the third day Prince Hall asked the mayor of the town, the Methodist Aaron Smith, the granting of the number 103 on Victory Street. Smith was reluctant despite President Lincoln had sent him a letter of recommendation for Grand Master Hall. As stated by the soldier in his writings, at the time there was no need for a black man to live in one of the seven confederated republics to be subject to racism. But in the end the will of Lincoln was always more or less effective in the Union states and Hall managed to get the use of the two-story building that would have become a diner in the fifties.
Hall and his team of thirteen Masons settled in that building and never returned to the Town Hall. They would only come out early in the morning to reach their private couch at the town railway depot. From there they would load a carriage with a series of mysterious wooden crates and carry them to 103. The day they stopped to come and go with was already the eighth day that Prince Hall had set foot in the town, and none of his men were seen on the streets for more than a year.
in 1865 the Civil War was finally over and the Union celebrated its success in each state with huge parades and parties with tons of alcohol. But as the soldier continued, 103 Victory Street remained closed as usual and none of those men was seen around. Once, a group of white soldiers, having seen the wooden boards nailed to the windows, thought that building was a brothel and kicked the door in. Two of them managed to escape and went straight to jump on the Nishnabotna River were they soon drowned. The others were never found. Another time, a white preacher making his quest through small towns decided to camp in there. He broke an axle from a window and went inside. The man was found the next day lying on the mud of Victory Street, the rest of his mutilated body was all covered with big burns. A month later, by the river that cuts through Red Oak, a black man totally naked was found on the sand with his throat cut from ear to ear. He was a mason who had arrived in town along with Prince Hall. He was dead the day after he had revealed to the local newspaper what was going on inside number 103.
The director of the Red Oak Bulletin published the confession on the first page of the September 7, 1867. I present here a summary of the article: a black man by the name of Samuel Hinds stepped in the press office on the morning prior to the day in which he body was found by the river. He confessed what he had seen and attended inside the number 103, Victory Street. The details concern the phenomena to which he and the members of the Masonic cult led by the Master Prince Hall witnessed during the long period of one year after their arrival in Red Oak. After bringing the tools of their worship in the building and have it adapted this into Masonic temple he and his brothers have expanded a sewer hole forty feet deep in which they entered. Having set up a small camp underground, in a clearing at the crossroads of an old railway tunnel and having there practiced their worship every night in the hope that no further evil things would happen. In this respect, the man reported the real reason he and his brothers came into town, describing the mysterious murder of a hundred black slaves in the intent to escape from the Confederation territory during the past conflict.
After reading the testimony I had taken the trouble to better inform myself on the Masonic statutes and their regulations. The goal was to understand the nature of certain objects that were brought to the building by Prince Hall and his crew, and maybe to discover something that would have appeared – knowing nothing about Freemasonry – too much complicated to understand.
I opened some old leather-bound books that contained dozens of rituals and after I had read them here and there for a long day I was finally able to understand two things: the first - which in my opinion is the least important since it's a matter of form – justifies the cruel killing of the mason Samuel Hinds by the hand of his brothers. In fact, according to one of the main Masonic amendments, a brother mustn't tell who to who does not belong to his lodge what happens in it. It 's the famous Masonic betrayal re-enacted in other circumstances other than the ones narrated in the Bible. The second thing concerns the Masonic tools: the article presents a brief list of the objects that Prince Hall told his brothers to bring at the number 103: a Bible, which is the most important book in the whole Masonic ritual, and then, from a number of chairs and jewels and decorated pillars and rough stones, what is highlighted is the use of a “long flaming sword”, so-called among Masons. This sword would have the power to overcome many difficulties while fighting evil, and more specifically - as it's described in the old manuals – this powerful weapon can defeat the Lame Goat that lives under the earth's surface where his reign begins.
I didn't need to read too much about the Lame Goat, or the goat with the tail, horns and hooves, it was the devil. If I believed to that story I also had to believe in the Devil and that in that same moment he was looking at me from under the marble floor of the library. It was a lie big as an elephant and I slammed the book on the table. The librarian awoke suddenly from his reading and invited me to calm down.
I thought I had wasted all that time, I thought about those cowards who lived in Red Oak that would laugh at me and my father for believing in that story. They could laugh at me alright, but my father had died, and for that reason I couldn't quit. I had to get to the bottom of the matter, I had to go so deep that I would end up underground, and my legs started shaking.
I went down in November 1993. At the time I did not believe in God nor the Devil, and people have always said that these two things have always gone together. I put in a backpack a flashlight, two sandwiches,a bottle of water and a bottle of whiskey so that, eventually, I could not believe my eyes.
My bike had a flat tire, so I started walking from my house to the old diner, at 103 Victory Street. At two in the afternoon of a rainy autumn I saw nobody around, the usual cemetery. It was a normal thing, especially in a small town, but thinking back to that story, I imagined that people was hiding behind the windows and that they knew exactly where I was going. Just like the inhabitants of a village in Transylvania, at the feet of the castle. Walking along the last avenue before my destination I was attacked by a strong wind behind him as if it wanted me to hurry up. Everything was so full of sadness, my situation was not good: I was alone in the house, my father was dead. In Red Oak there was anything to do and I hadn't found a woman yet. If you add that I was going to find the devil, you would feel exactly the way I did on that day: I was excited by the risk of doing something different, I was excited by the fear of dying from fright and never come back. The diner had lost all the chrome plates on the front and the grout had gone away from the walls. It was a strange building where two different architectural styles had been fused together, but after the newer facade was completely gone the old one had resurfaced, and boy that was scary enough for me to stop and go back. It seemed like a little church without a steeple, the windows were closed with plastic panels and cardboard, and in one of the two on the ground floor there was a circular hole from which you could see all the darkness inside. At the door still intact and made of hard oak hung a notice of seizure of the property dated 1962. Having seen that the door was firmly planted on the ground I went back to the window and I easily enlarged the hole by ripping off the rest of the cardboard and plastic. I jumped in and ended up in a large room occupied half by a long counter with twenty chrome stools all in a row. On the ground there were pieces of glass, porn magazines, used condoms, syringes, tourniquets, torn stockings, rat poop and so on. The smell was unbearable. I took the handkerchief from my pocket, I poured some water in it and put it on my nose. There was nothing that suggested the entrance of a hole in that room, and even behind the counter, nothing.
I went to the bathroom which was paradoxically as big as half the restaurant, and there I saw a whole square meter of floor made of white tiles occupied by a mountain of cockroaches moving slowly over each other. In my life I have never have never been afraid of those animals, they only made me sick. I took the bottle of whiskey and poured some of the liquid on them. They moved faster and two large ones, ran on my legs that I slapped them and squeezed one in one hand. In few minutes they all returned in the hole, but now they had fifty percent alcohol whiskey on them. I lit a big match in a single shot and threw it on them.
(to be continued)