The Boy Scout leaders never let us camp in the Devil’s Hopyard State Park, part of an effort to spare adolescents from being scared, the same reason we did not watch the Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. Everyone’s parents had experienced too much fear in their lives with the Great Depression and a World War and our grandparents trumped them with another World War and the 1919 flu pandemic. So we received flu shots and only feared meandering into fright-engendering situations, which meant we largely camped in our own backyards or at the town ballpark, capturing night crawlers, while Satan reportedly squatted on a boulder in the Devil’s Hopyard. We avoided the place and never spoke about it.
Caution failed to save Checkmate, who disappeared before his eleventh birthday. I knew him by sight only as an altar boy at St. Reinhold’s Church, notoriously, because he once failed to catch a Host that fell to the ground during Communion. He lived in the Polish part of town, Redemption Rock, and got his nickname due to his last name, Checshzinski.
Growing up, most of us scoured around for Checkmate, searching the local wooded areas and abandoned buildings while many staged séances, hoping to retrieve Checkmate from the dead. But séances never worked, someone always burst out laughing and most eschewed the supernatural once we heard a rumor that a kidnapper had abducted him up north to Maine, which seemed romantic, skirting through endless rows of potato fields.
Yet still we searched. My sister Hawaii had some old school photos of Checkmate, sitting in the front row with his hands folded, yet something seemed odd about him, a dead or disappeared person waiting to happen. Probably, Checkmate was doomed once he failed to catch the Host fluttering to the church floor, and if you looked hard, he looked like a kid mesmerized by his abyss.
Checkmate’s parents tried everything, they prayed all the time and even had their heads checked for bumps by the town phrenologist, to scratch out a clue. Nothing worked, though Mr. Checshzinski often returned to the phrenologist because the fingers kneading his scalp soothed him, plus he liked talking to someone about his son.
The Checshzinskis moved out of town, leaving no forwarding address, when gossips circulated a theory that one of the parents had killed Checkmate.
Decades after Checkmate disappeared some parks officials from the State of Connecticut found his remains buried in the Devil’s Hopyard, identifiable by old dental records. No one located Checkmate’s family members, so the Hale Town Clerk applied surplus money from the snow plowing budget, thanks to a light winter, to pay for his funeral and burial. His Cub Scout den mother eulogized him, mentioning that Checkmate liked dinosaurs, before digressing into a discussion about pies.
The stone inscribed over his grave etched out a Host falling to the floor together with a chess set knight and a brontosaurus.
I avoid the Devil’s Hopyard, knowing it will find me.
Donald Hubbard has written six books, one of which was profiled on Regis and Kelly and another that was a Boston Globe bestseller and Amazon (category) top ten. Two books have gone into a second edition and he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame as an author in 2015. He has published two dozen stories in thirteen magazines and had a chapter from one of his books published in Notre Dame Magazine.