I was taught in journalism school that the phrase, "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night," is the worst ever cliché with which to begin a story. But the story I am about to tell you actually begins that way.
Dark clouds were already beginning to form as we loaded into the 1953 Chevrolet on that summer day in 1955. My mother, father, sister, Mommie Howell (my grandmother) and I had been invited to the home of Cousin Lawson Jenkins and his wife Thellie, for an evening meal and a visit.
The wind was ripping green leaves off trees and debris was kicking up along the highway as we headed north to the Jenkins’ farm, located just over the Tennessee state line near a wide place in the road called Five Points.
Cousin Lawson was one of my grandmother’s few remaining relatives on her mother’s side of the family and they stayed in extremely close contact.
He was about the happiest man I ever met, short of stature and big of heart. He had twinkling eyes, was full of energy and loved children. Often he would entertain us at Mommie’s house with songs, little jigs and stories.
When we arrived at the Jenkins' home that rainy night, he introduced us to a couple he had met at a church meeting.They had invited themselves to the Jenkins’ home, just for a few days, they said, until they could make other arrangements.
They seemed out of place in that rural setting. He was dressed in business clothes; she in a red gabardine suit, while everyone else in the room was dressed in their “everyday clothes.” Their appearance and behavior was different from anyone I knew.
Later, my father would remember how, shortly after we arrived, the man had pulled him aside and quizzed him about what he did for a living, what his relationship was with the Jenkins family, where he lived and many other questions that my father thought a bit strange. The lady was very quiet and did not engage in conversation with the other women. My mother remembered later that her eyes seemed to constantly dart around the room and she appeared to be extremely nervous.
Later, as we were sitting around the dining room table enjoying the feast Thellie had prepared, the rain began hitting the tin roof loudly as the wind whistled around the house. There was a feeling of unease about an approaching storm.
Suddenly the room went dark and everyone thought for a split second there was an electricity failure, until we realized the lights in the kitchen were still burning.
The man was standing at the wall light switch, having darkened the room himself.
“Shhh, don’t anyone say a word. I think someone’s out there.”
“What are you doing? Turn those lights back on, man,” said Lawson. “There’s nobody out there, not on a night like this.”
He switched the lights on again but did not return to the table to finish his meal. He motioned for his wife and they disappeared into a back room.
Everyone looked around the table and all eyes came to rest on Cousin Lawson. He had a worried look on his face. He looked straight at my father and said, “Whatever you do, do not let them get in the car with you. I know he’s going to ask you to give them a ride away from here, but don’t do it. I have been feeling uneasy about their presence here all day. He's too nervous and I believe something is very wrong.”
I have no recollection if we ever finished that meal but I do seem to remember the uneasiness that prevailed as dishes were cleared.
Cousin Lawson at some point told the man they would have to leave the next morning, and as he predicted, the man called my father aside and asked if we would drive them to the Pulaski bus station, some 20 miles away.
My father told him he could not, that he had to get the family home before the storm got worse.
We said our goodbyes to Lawson and Thellie, loaded into the Chevrolet and headed out the dirt road away from the Jenkins house. We only had traveled a short distance when up ahead of us, walking in the pouring rain, was the mysterious couple, suitcases in hand. They were in a hurry.
They had slipped out of the house without any of us knowing, headed for who knows where.
Cousin Lawson later speculated that the man first thought my father was an official come to arrest him and that's why he had asked him so many questions about himself. Satisfied that my father was no threat to him, he next became scared when he thought he heard someone outside the house.
I remember being somewhat afraid that evening, but like a child, excited that something different had happened. My sister and I insisted that our grandmother not stay by herself that night, but instead stay the night at our house. She did and my sister and I hid her pocketbook in the piano bench.
I don't think any of us slept well that night.
Months later (I don’t recall how many), my mother called our attention to a story in the local newspaper about a couple who had been arrested and charged with bank robbery. Alongside the story were pictures of a man and woman that looked eerily like the ones we met at Cousin Lawson’s house on that dark and stormy night.
My mother kept the clipping for years, like she did everything else. I thought I might be able to find it, but I asked her about it a few days ago and she said she threw out a bunch of newspaper clippings several years ago.