The Ghost in the Cellar


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The Ghost in the Cellar

By Bobby Neal Winters

The older I get, the less I know. I used to know and understand every passage of the Bible, and now it seems there is something new every time I turn a page.

It all started when someone told me to look for symbols in the Gospel of John. Look for water; look for light; look for wine. Each means something that brings greater understanding. Light is God’s holy knowledge, for instance.

Elsewhere, keep your eyes open for places where breath and wind are mentioned because breath, wind, and spirit are all the same word in Hebrew and Greek, which are the original languages of the Bible.

That part about wind should be of some interest us who live in the middle of the country, between the Rockies on one side and the Mississippi on the other, where “the wind comes sweeping down the plains,” as they say.

We all know sometimes wind sweeps houses out of its way, especially when in comes in the form of a tornado. Consequently, many folks who value life and limb build storm cellars.

This is what my Dad and Grampa Sam did. Today you can buy them ready-made, or you can pay someone else to build one for you. I’ve even seen where you can buy them made out of fiberglass. But back in those days, it was a less ready-made and a more do-it-yourself world, so Dad and Grampa built one for us.

As the men folk sat around under the shade tree drinking ice water with beads of condensation running down the side, we heard about the thickness of the walls and the fact they were reinforced with sucker rods, which I presume were oil field surplus. I also get the feeling Grampa Sam made his contribution to its construction in the form of trading favors, bartering, and calling in IOU’s. As a consequence, it was built in Grampa Sam’s back yard.

Grampa Sam lived about a hundred and fifty feet away from me from the day I was born until the day he died. He and Grandma lived in a house that had been constructed by nailing two old oilfield shacks together, while we lived in a house Dad had had built shortly after he and mother married. The two houses were separated by a strip of land we called the Park. The Park was filled with trees and whenever it rained there was a stream of water running through it, fed by the culvert going under the road. When that happened my brother and I waded out into the water with strings and bacon from Momma’s refrigerator—which we called and icebox—and fished for crawdads in the holes they opened in the ground after the rain. Sometimes we’d give the crawdads to Grampa for trotline bait.

My brother and I adored Grampa Sam, and he loved us. Jerry in particular was his favorite. He had other grandsons, but my father had married late, and Jerry was the first grandson of Sam’s dotage. Between us, we kept a path beat down across the Park from our house to Grampa’s. We played various games like cowboys and Indians and so forth, but one place we liked to play was on the storm cellar.

The cellar was about twenty feet out of Grampa’s back door, and it was what lawyers would call “an attractive nuisance.” It was mysterious, unknown, and therefore attractive. It was attractive, and we were a nuisance. I suppose that’s why they call it an attractive nuisance.

There is the ancient image of the painted lady who stands in a darkened doorway and calls men into the darkness with her to their ruin. Though my brother and I were too young to appreciate the fullness of that image, the cellar served a similar role for us. It was dark and mysterious, and it beckoned to us.

We were always trying to get down into it, but the cellar wasn’t a safe place for children to play. In the eternal summer of my youth, the cellar was a haven for the three Ss: Spiders, scorpions, and snakes. Any one of those can put a serious hurt on you, but for some reason, my brother and I weren’t scared of them.

This may be why Grampa told us about the ghost in the cellar.

He didn’t say how it got there, and he didn’t have a story about who it had been; he just showed it to us. One day at noon, he marched us over to the cellar door, opened it, stood us right in the middle of the doorway, and stepped back. Sure enough, there was a black, boy-shaped ghost at the bottom of the cellar steps surrounded by daylight just like he said.

If the desired effect had been to scar us, it didn’t work because we forever wanted to go see the ghost in the cellar after that.

The only thing that cured us of wanting to go down into the cellar was going into it and turning on the light. When the light was on, all of the mystery disappeared. There was no ghost, only jars of peaches, pickled beats, and green beans.

All of the wonderful things my brother and I believed were there disappeared, but I’d take a real peach over a fake ghost any day.

I suppose.

(Bobby is a professor of mathematics, writer, and speaker. You can contact him at or visit his webpage at )