The summer of 1951 I had a chance encounter that became the source of my nightmares for years to come. I was four years old when I came face to face with the scary man who looked like my grandfather—the man who shaped my nightmares.
The summer of 1951 started off like most of my childhood summers. My dad had a dairy farm, and each spring he would rent extra pasture land to graze some of his cows. That summer dad had rented three fenced pastures from his friend Pogey Noble, a retired dairy farmer.
The Noble farm was three miles from our home farm and just across Carnegie Lake from Princeton between Washington Road and Alexander Street. If you watch the TV show House, during the opening credits they show a shot of the lake—in the distance you can see a bridge that is Washington Road and the farm was just beyond that bridge and out of shot to the left. Very pastoral and the perfect place for cows to get a little R&R.
Every morning my dad would come back to the house after morning milking; have a cup of coffee; and then take me with him as he drove out to check the cows on the Noble place. He would put out mineral and protein supplements, lay out cracked corn with molasses, and fill the water tanks near the barn while I walked down into the pasture to count and check the cows.
My first clear memory from that summer was arriving at the farm one day—seeing the cows in the first pasture, the one nearest the barn. As I started walking toward the cows my dad said, “See that man?” and pointed toward the third pasture, the one furthest from the barn, the one closest to the Carnegie Lake. When I spotted a man walking near some trees I turned back to hear what dad wanted to say about the guy. “Don’t go near him. You hear me? Stay clear of that man!”
Now, for a kid on a dairy farm a warning like that usually came after a hired man lost a few fingers while using the hay bailer or a power tool opened someone’s artery, or a combine chewed off some poor fellow’s foot just below the knee. On a farm danger was real and warnings were serious.
I went out counted the cows made each stand up and walk around to prove they were fit and well and then returned to the barn having never come within 100 yards of the scary man. I gave him about the same respect I would have given to a bailing machine or a chainsaw.
My childhood memories from that summer are like islands of light with nothing between, so I am not sure how much time passed before my next recollection. This time I was with the cows in the second pasture—the middle field. I was working at getting the cows to stand up. One sleepy Brown Swiss was determined to remain lying down under a shade tree and looked at me like I was a particularly annoying fly that needed swatting as I smacked her on the hip and shouted for her to get up and walk around when I heard a voice. I turned to see the scary little man across the fence maybe twenty feet from me. He said, “Hello, little boy.” He looked a like my grandfather but talked like my German grandmother. TV had taught me that people who sounded like my grandmother were usually villains. He was short like my grandfather and TV had taught me that the smaller a villain was the more dangerous he was. I took off at a run toward the barn where my father was filling the water troughs.
When I realized that my father had not seen what had happened, I decided my safest strategy was to say nothing. Experience had taught me that admitting to being near something I had been warned to avoid often got me punished even though, or possibly because, I had not been hurt.
My third memory from that summer was from a day when my father had business at the courthouse in New Brunswick. The memory begins with us walking across the lobby and approaching the elevator. From previous visits to the courthouse I knew the elevator operator’s name was Jeff. Jeff was standing next to the open elevator door, and I said hello as we passed him. He stepped in and took us to the third floor.
As usual when my father was “doing business” I waited in the reception area chatting with Millie who answered the telephone using a switchboard so she could redirect calls. The process was like magic, with calls coming in through one plug, going through her headset and going out through another plug. I often debated with myself as to the whether Millie or Jeff had the cooler job.
Dad retrieved me and we went out to the elevator. When the doors opened we entered. I realized there was someone else in the car as it descended, and I peeked around my father’s leg to see our fellow traveler. To my horror I realized it was the scary man who looked like my grandfather. He was looking back at me, he smiled and said, “Hello little boy—how are you today?” Any real memory of what happened has long since been over written by the nightmares. In the dreams it is just the two of us—Jeff is simply not there and dad was left behind on the third floor. In the nightmares that lasted for years after that day, nothing happens beyond me being trapped in the tiny room with the scary man. Over the years in my dreams the scary man becomes shorter, more stooped and disheveled, his hair gets wilder, and his sleepy, crazy eyes come to look more and more like Peter Lorrie’s and the hat or walking stick he held morphs into a sword or dagger.
I was probably twenty before I asked my father who that scary little man was. He was at a loss to understand who I was talking about until I reminded him of the summer he rented Pogey Noble’s pastures. His face brightened and he laughed. He said, “When I rented that land, Pogey warned me that the professor liked to walk the fields when he needed to get away from his office, to watch the cows which reminded him of his own childhood and gather dandelion leaves for a salad. Pogey said, 'Now Russ, don’t let those kids of yours go bothering him; he values his privacy and you never know what important problem Professor Einstein may be thinking about!'”
That was the summer Albert Einstein joined Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and the Riddler in my personal pantheon of nightmare villains.