On cool, spooky nights as the Chapel Heights children snuggled in bed, no one was ever safe from the man who scoured the windows looking for trouble.
He was introduced to me and my friends by the older neighborhood kids. He was known to wreak havoc on the little ones should we become tattletales.
If any of us ever told our parents about our older siblings’ mischief, we risked backyard “cherry bellies” (a beating on the tummy), “wet willies” (a finger stuck in your eardrum with saliva) and numerous “wedgies” (pulled to the sky from your underdrawers).
But most of all, we risked facing the evil man known simply as HeadHunter.
“We never actually saw HeadHunter,” said my childhood friend Sam Haney. “But we all believed he was real. I was only 6 years old and had numerous nightmares about HeadHunter. To this day, I still feel on-guard for him to jump out of the bushes on Halloween night.”
I thought he was real, too.
One day while we were all playing outside, our older friend Big A disappeared. We thought he had wondered off to the woods to smoke a pack of Marlboros when Charlie Murrah appeared with a walkie talkie in his hand informing us of the news.
“Big A’s been kidnapped by HeadHunter,” said a serious-faced Charlie as he pointed to Carol and Mac Martin’s house with Big A’s John Deere hat on top of their chimney. “The good news is that Big A still has his walkie talkie with him.”
“Is he OK?” Charlie’s younger brother Joe asked.
“Yes,” said Charlie. “He’s taken Big A to his home.”
“Where does he live?” I asked.
“He lives in the log cabin on the island at Lake Carroll,” Charlie replied. “And HeadHunter told me if we want him to release Big A, then one of you will need to go my basement and eat a hot red pepper.”
That’s exactly what we did. We wanted Big A back, even if it involved the abuse from our older brothers.
Sam and I took the first bite of a fresh hot pepper confiscated from Mac McGukin’s summer garden.
After the first bite, Sam had tears in his eyes and so did I. Thankfully, Joe Murrah stepped up and ate the entire pepper as Charlie and my older brother Bob just laughed. Charlie sent a message to Big A and HeadHunter let him go.
A few hours later, Big A reappeared. He looked exhausted and smelled like cigarettes. For fear of HeadHunter returning, we never told our parents.
As far as I know, HeadHunter hasn’t been spotted in the Chapel Heights neighborhood since that day. However, every now and then when the moon is full on a cold, cloudy October night, legend has it you can see his ghost walking around the island on Lake Carroll.
And, if you smell a Marlboro cigarette, there’s a good chance the ghost of Big A is hanging out with him, too.