The following story is true.
In early 1977 my family moved from upstate New York to Bristol, Vermont, a small mill town just a few hours southwest of Burlington. Bristol was the all-American small town, the kind of place Norman Rockwell popularized on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. The kids in our family had a blast there. I remember my sister Lisa (who was a year and a half younger) and I, wandering around town without adult supervision just taking in all the sights. We’d go to the center of town and play on the gazebo, hang out with friends, throw rocks at stuff (and occasionally be confronted by adults), catch frogs in the river and hang out at the Laundromat. Sometimes we’d go into the small department store and buy candy, though on one occasion I remember trying my hand at shoplifting and getting caught (the shame I felt taught me a valuable lesson that stuck with me and served me well for the rest of my life). It was in this wonderful town that I would meet a man who was larger-than-life.
* * *
I met Byron Liberty in the summer of 1977 when I was seven years old. The middle child from a family of six, he stood six foot tall, weighed over 200 pounds and had a knack for finding trouble wherever he could in rural Vermont, short of committing a murder. Byron was my mother’s youngest brother, the black sheep of the family in my grandmother’s eyes and a real wild child.
In our family, Uncle Byron was a bonafide legend, the subject of many wild tales. Growing up I heard stories about him picking up car engines by himself, running barefoot through the woods with a stolen safe, taking down a deer with just a buck knife and knocking men out in bar fights with a single punch. One story goes that while he was in the Army he chased his commanding officer with a tank after an argument and earned a trip to the stockade. The Army, eager to get rid of him, gave him an honorable discharge “with conditions,” according to family legend.
Those stories paired well with his dark sense of humor, which I witnessed first-hand during his many visits to Bristol. There was the time he crawled upstairs with a buck knife between his teeth to scare the shit out of one of my sister’s unsuspecting friends who had been foolish enough to sleep over; or the time he hauled a deer into the kitchen and pretended to eat its guts while we tried to hold down our breakfast; and the countless times he’d bang on the window in the middle of the night to scare the shit out of us. The most memorable prank involved a young man and half a shot glass full of rum. Byron thought it would be a good idea to give me a very small shot of liquor – a mixture of rum and apple cider, lightly warmed up on the stove for taste. After drinking it, I turned several different shades and laid on the floor. My mother wanted to kill him that night as I watched my world spin for hours.
My mom had a lot of fun with Byron around, despite the antics aimed at us. They’d make jokes, prank each other and have drinking contests that she would almost always win. She’d always chide him about scaring the shit out of us, too, but that never seemed to stop him from doing it. One time when everyone was drunk, she gave him a perm. A big burly white guy with a perm is always good for a laugh, but I doubt anyone outside our circle had the stones to say anything to him about it.
While Byron was there to see us, he was also hanging out with girls in town. He met one named Cathy, who he was doing god-knows-what with whenever he could. She and her friend Angie Prime, who Byron met through my older sister Dorothy, would hang out at our house all the time. Angie was a big beautiful sweetheart; huge round glasses, rosy cheeks, an awesome sense of humor and a sweetness that couldn’t be faked. Everybody loved her. Cathy, on the other hand, was what my mom called a “bitch on wheels.” The frumpy 18-year-old brunette wasn’t particularly kind or pretty, and didn’t seem to care that my uncle had a wife and two kids somewhere. She was in it for the joy rides in his Opal GT and spending his money. All he cared about was the sex. My mom and sister agreed that Cathy was all too happy to play the part of home-wrecker and that Byron didn’t have the best taste in women.
As summer came to a close, we moved away from Bristol to East Charleston, a small farming town in the northeastern part of the state, to live with my aunt Lorene and her seven kids. Byron’s visits became less frequent after we moved and then one night he was gone for good. He died on October 8, 1977 in a fatal car accident involving a drunk driver. Cathy and Angie were with him at the time, but managed to survive the crash. No one was wearing a seatbelt, but Byron saved Angie’s life by putting his arm out to stop her from taking the full force of the dashboard. The impact from the drunk driver’s Jeep on that little car was so severe that it pushed the engine into Byron, nearly cutting him in half.
* * *
I was sad that he was gone, but at seven years old, I was scared to death of my uncle. For much of my childhood he was my personal boogeyman. I remembered all the times he banged on the windows in the middle of the night yelled, “What are you doing?!?” and felt fresh terror when my brothers would tell me that Uncle Byron was “going to get me” – usually right before I had to go outside at night to do some stupid chore. But the jokes about Uncle Byron getting me evaporated when Byron started coming around again.
* * *
On the night Byron died, my sister Dorothy and her future husband Mike both had a horrible, prophetic dream. They were staying at a camp owned by her boyfriend’s family on Lake Champlain when it happened. As my sister tells it, the dream went like this:
There is a knock on the cabin door. She opens it and there stands Byron. She tries talking to him, but he does not respond. His eyes are empty black sockets. As he stands there staring at her, more people that she does not recognize start appearing behind him. All of their eyes are missing. She wakes up from the dream sobbing, knowing that he is dead. Her boyfriend Mike has the same exact dream – a knock on the door and an otherworldly, empty-eyed Byron standing there to meet him.
He wakes up terrified and shares the bizarre dream with Dorothy. Suddenly there is a knock on the cabin door, but when they open it, no one is there.
A few hours later Mike’s mother and father come to the cabin bearing the bad news about Byron.
* * *
My mother’s experience was a bit more tangible. She claims Byron paid her a visit shortly after his death. She was in my dad’s Lincoln Continental, driving on a back road between East Charleston and the town of Brownington. She looked over to see him sitting in the passenger seat next to her. Before she could get a word out of her mouth, he spoke. “Everything is going to be all right,” he said, then disappeared.
After my uncle’s funeral, he made several visits to the house in East Charleston. According to my older brother Arthur, he had a run-in with Byron late one night that scared the hell out of him… and by extension everyone in the house. He was coming back from the barn and ran face-first into his dead uncle. “Byron, you scared me,” he said to the ghost, quickly realizing that his uncle was dead and shouldn’t be there. “Oh, it’s just me,” Byron replied to Arthur, matter-of-factly. My sixteen-year-old brother bolted into the house, slammed the door and locked it.
“I just ran into Byron!” he yelled, scaring the shit out of everyone in the house.
The scariest incident happened to my cousin Andrea. According to her recollection, Byron visited her bedroom one night. She shared a room with four other sisters; her three younger sisters shared one bed, while she and her sister Debbi (her older sister) shared the other. Andrea woke up feeling as if someone was in the room that shouldn’t be there. Looking towards the window, she saw a figure standing there wearing a cowboy hat.
“I knew it was Uncle Byron because of the outline of his cowboy hat, [and] I also knew that he was no longer with us… and I was scared to death at first,” Andrea recalled.
She was so scared that she was shaking uncontrollably, causing the old iron bed the older girls slept in to rattle. None of this seemed to wake her sister Debbi, her other siblings or anyone else in the house. She tried shaking and nudging her sister awake to no effect. The next morning Debbi did not recall her sister trying to wake her up at all.
Andrea was on her own and scared, but she didn’t dare make a sound. Time seemed to stand still and after what she describes as “an eternity,” Uncle Byron walked to the bottom of her bed. He made no sound and didn’t speak. Then he walked to the bedroom door and went down the stairs. After a while, she stopped being afraid, realizing that he hadn’t come to scare her half to death: he was just there to let her know that he was all right. After calming down, she went back to sleep.
Andrea says that, despite the stories told over the years about Byron’s visit to the girls’ room, this particular experience was hers and hers alone. She also told me that she never experienced anything odd in that old farm house besides Byron’s visit in all the years her family lived there.
* * *
No one knows why Byron visited so many people. Likely, he just wanted to say goodbye and let everyone know that things were going to be alright. Our family loved the guy and he loved us and, despite being scary to me at seven years old, I learned later on in life that he was more than just a clown and a tough guy – he had a big heart and would have done anything for the people he loved.
Sadly Angie Prime, one of the sweetest people to walk the face of this earth, would follow Byron a year later. She died on Christmas Eve, 1978. She and the unborn baby she was carrying were killed in a car accident.
James Fudge is a writer from Adams, Massachusetts, and is Unwinnable’s senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @jfudge