The Great and Powerful Oz

May 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 6 minutes, 18 seconds

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Not all ghost stories are scary, but they can still send chills down your spine.

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister. Growing up he had four brothers. His wife, my grandmother was an only child and a divorcee, a terrible blemish in the 1950s when they wed. Her first husband had been abusive, but even with that justification a divorced woman marrying a minister in that day and age was an anomaly. Other than that, I know remarkably little about my grandparents.

This story is about my grandfather. “Grandpa Boo” we called him, though he was never scary to us. He had a big hearty laugh and would sometimes take the long way home down a big hill so our tummies would toss. He’d let us decorate his office with streamers when we went to visit and we mutually impersonated the mysterious figure of “Oz” that my sister and I had dreamed up one day as children. The joke stuck.

Every time we visited we’d dress up a mannequin in a costume and position it at the top of the stairs, saying that Oz had come to visit too. Over the years we started sending tapes back and forth of our deeply-modified recorded voices, always impersonating Oz. He usually had a riddle or joke for us, sometimes he told us to be good or enjoy an upcoming trip. In turn, we’d create tapes and send them to him. He thought we were immensely talented, and would tell anyone who’d listen that my sister and I were going to be famous broadcasters someday.

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I remember the day my grandfather died. It was March 1, 1991. I was young and he’d been sick as long as I could remember. He was always in and out of the hospital, having some procedure or running some test, but that never dampened his smile. His death wasn’t unexpected. We went to visit him in the hospital before he passed. I remember picking out my best outfit; I think I knew it was the last time I’d see him alive.

We traveled from central Pennsylvania for the funeral near Altoona. It was scheduled for March 4, my Birthday. Looking back, I was unforgivably selfish about the arrangements. I pleaded and begged for it to be changed so we could observe my Birthday and, when that didn’t work, I resorted to guilt.

“It’ll scar me for life,” I promised. This did not turn out to be true. At least, I don’t think it did.

“I’ll never be able to celebrate a Birthday without thinking about this day,” I sneered. This turned out to be true, though I often reflect more on my poor character than any other aspect.

“You’ll be sorry you scheduled it for that day,” I threatened. This, as fate or other forces would have it, also turned out to be true.

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My Aunt, Uncle and cousins came in from Pittsburgh for the viewing the night before the funeral. As I said before, my grandfather was a minister and almost the entire parish came out to wish him farewell. It was unreasonably long and terribly boring for my sister, my cousins and me.

Eventually the eight of us were told we could play quietly in the other rooms of the funeral home. Before long we found the kitchen and proceeded to dare one another to consume the packs of sugar we found there. By the time the viewing was over and my parents came to get us we were unruly, sugar-fueled terrors.

They packed us all in cars and shuttled us back to my grandmother’s house, a three-story home with plenty of spare bedrooms to sleep all the guests. We ran screaming from room to room, high on sugar and the company of one another. My Mom and Aunt somehow got us all washed and changed, then dragged us up to bed, threatening that if we didn’t say in bed and go to sleep there’d be hell to pay.

Now, in my cousins’ family there is a special Birthday competition to see who can wish the Birthday girl/boy happy Birthday first on their big day. So that night, as my Mom tucked me in, I was promised of a shower of Birthday wishes in the morning even though it was the same day as the funeral.

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I did not awake to the promised Birthday wishes. The first thing I remember was hearing screams. We woke up late, very late, though no one could say exactly how late at first. The power had gone out overnight, most likely due to the near foot of snow that had fallen so far. Without power, none of the alarms had gone off and we’d all slept just as late as we pleased.

My Dad had to run out and fire up the old wagon to see the time. It was 9:07 a.m. The funeral was at 10:00 a.m., half an hour away in good travel conditions. There were eight kids and five adults in the house who were not showered, dressed or fed. The immediate consensus was that we’d skip breakfast and showers were on an as-needed basis. Everyone flew into action and, miraculously, by 9:30 a.m. we were all buckled into cars and on our way.

In our car was my Dad behind the wheel, my Mom, sister and grandmother. We plowed through the snow at a desperate crawl. Each mile seemed to go slower than the last, with snow falling more and more rapidly as the minutes ticked past.

Because of the heavy snowfall we soon discovered our planned route – west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike – had been unexpectedly closed. We followed the detour onto the highway instead. It was only a minor setback; we could still make it my father insisted, trying to convince himself as much as the rest of us.

We didn’t begin experiencing car trouble until we were getting off the highway. My cousins were behind us – all eight of them crammed into their car. My Mom leaned out the window and flailed urgently at them, trying to communicate that we needed to pull over. We stopped in a Hoss’s parking lot.

There was more than a foot of snow on the ground by now, and our options were quickly deteriorating. We’d all come to terms with the sad reality that we were going to be late. Now it looked like we might not make it at all. As my Dad and Uncle were under the hood trying to figure out what was wrong with our wagon, my Aunt crept over to me.

She smiled weakly and bumped hips with me, trying to feel out my mood. I half-heartedly smiled at her and hugged my coat tighter as the sky pelted us with white flakes.

“I feel bad,” she confided. “In all the rush this morning, I forgot to wish you happy Birthday.”

I beamed.

“Who was first?” she asked.

“You,” I said. “Everyone else forgot.”

A burst of laughter overcame her. I was confused; how was that funny? Just as she was stopping, another wave of laughter seized her and soon she was nearly doubled over from laughing so hard. Everyone was staring at her by the time she regained her composure.

She smiled, a big wide smile that seemed so out of place with the mood of the morning. She squatted near me. “Grandpa Boo remembered,” she said, gesturing at the car and snow and the world around. “Heck, he’s only been up there three days and he’s already running the place. Guess he didn’t want his funeral to be today either.”

In the end, the fourteen of us all piled into my Uncle’s car for the final five miles of the trip. We didn’t make it on time, but we made it. On the way back we stopped at my parents’ car. It started right away this time and rode fine for the trip to the cemetery and, later, back home. My parents never figured out what the problem was.

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On the way back to Harrisburg after the funeral, my sister and I found an unmarked tape in the backseat of the old wagon. We played it later when we got home and found a mysterious message recorded on it. Though it didn’t identify the recorder by name, the voice sounded too similar to Oz to be anyone but him.

The tape explained that sometimes life doesn’t go our way, but that the people who love us will always try to do their best for us. It signed off with a promise that he’d always use every resource at his disposal to ensure our happiness. He always did.

When we tried to replay the message, nothing was on the tape but static.

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It has been 25 years since my grandfather died. To this day I believe that he was behind the trials of that morning. Between the rogue snowstorm, the power outage and the car trouble, it’s just too many events for me to chalk it up to mere coincidence. And if that wasn’t enough, my sister and I both heard the fortuitous message on Oz’s final tape.

Not all ghost stories are scary.

*Written with love in memory of The Rev. Richard L. Tome