My (first) cousin (once removed), Mike, is an artist of some renown, mostly for his oil paintings, but more and more for the wholly Mike-ish tales he tells in his newsletter, The Right Brain Express.
Every year about this time, Mike resurrects this story, and every year it gets a little creepier.
The Jon of the story is my father.
Mike's other art can be viewed at www.michaelomeuntiedt.com
Every year people ask me if I have revised the story about Old Aurora and the ghost of laughing Jack Smiley. As I think about this I look at myself in the mirror and see that the treacheries of Time have added more white to an already grey head; I wonder how much revision is necessary? My boyhood steps led me to a palette and easel of unfinished canvas. My cousin Jon, youthfully prominent in the story, has cast his life to flow into a comfortable one of trout streams and gentlemanly contemplation. Though our lives are located in the pleasantries of different times and locations than that dark and wretched Halloween of 1960, the surprising horror of that night cannot be forgotten…or redeemed! Recently, as in this past year, the City of Aurora has gone to great lengths, and expense, to reportedly “upgrade” the old City Park on 16th and Dayton. Granted, this aged and time-worn part of town does not deserve neglect and decay. Yet in the cold winds of a darkening October sky with pale yellow leaves carpeting the ground like a veil of shifting whispers, one must ask if the recent face-lift is one of community development or of convenient cover-up. Cover-up of the proof of the profane, of Laughing Jack entrapped in an eternity of terror. If such is the case, no amount of asphalt and designer poured concrete can ebb the flow of the Devil’s tide, or hide the mark of His ill gotten gain!
The Story of Laughing Jack
It seems it is always stormy on Halloween. I remember Halloween 1960. The storm that night blew over the bee tree, from which my brother Pat and I scooped handfuls of sweet honey treat the next morning. This storm was also the last time Laughing Jack Smiley was seen walking this good earth...
We lived on the former Hugh Berry farm south of what was then the small town of Aurora, Colorado. The Berries sharecropped the William Smith land for years. William Smith was one of the founders of Aurora, and his eighty year old unmarried daughter Margaret still lived in the old Smith Mansion, a Victorian Denver Square built up against the Highline Canal at the end of Park East Road. The road was a gravel farm path then, and crossed a bridge behind the mansion that led to our home. Aurora pretty much ended at Sixth Avenue, and the Highline Canal meandered through miles of farmland. My uncle, Bryan Untiedt, purchased the Smith farm and along with my father Ome, was beginning to build houses on the land which became known as Park East. In 1960 the area was still alfalfa fields and pasture with giant cottonwoods along the ditches and Canal. Aurora Central High School was new, and my cousin Jon Untiedt attended there. I was infatuated, as any eight year old would be, of cousin Jon and his friends, all athletes and ball players, and was from whom I first learned of Laughing Jack Smiley, and the tragedy that followed.
Laughing Jack Smiley lived in a small, overgrown cottage on Alton Street in old Aurora. He was my cousin Jon's age, and often met to play basketball with all the older high school boys on the new basketball court in Aurora City Park at Dayton and 16th Avenue. That court is still there to this day, though the newness and sparkle has long ago worn away. City Hall has moved, Aurora has grown to hundreds of thousands of citizens and the old City Park has become one of those off-the-beaten-path forgotten places. I doubt if the name Laughing Jack Smiley would be recognized by any living person there today, though the bare spot still exists on the eastern side of the basketball courts, the bare spot that appeared on that terrible night.
According to those that knew him, Laughing Jack was a peculiar sort. Tall and dark-haired, he rarely spoke, and when spoken to often responded with a shy half smile, from whence came his nickname, Laughing Jack. Though none ever mentioned personally knowing his family, the Smileys were rumored as being related to an ancestor who, in the previous century, helped dig up the graves in the old Denver cemetery where Cheesman Park is now located, and moved the disinterred to Riverside Cemetery on the Platte River. That bit of history is fraught with rumors of greed and disrespect, and that a Gypsy Curse followed the most disrespectful of the grave movers and their descendants. I can't attest to the truthfulness of this rumor, but it makes sense and helps explains the events on Halloween night, 1960.
October evenings were a time of basketball on the court in Aurora City Park. My cousin Jon and his friends would meet every evening to divide up into teams and play ball until the cold dark settled on the blacktop and they could no longer see to shoot. Laughing Jack was often present but rarely played, instead watching from the sidelines with that queer smile engraved on his countenance. Remember the times, these were the days of Wilt Chamberlin and Jerry West. Basketball was a game of large dunks directly under the basketball, or long practiced jump shots from the floor. This was before the days of Dr. J or Magic Johnson, and the Flying-Slam-Dunk was an unheard-of move… the Flying-Slam-Dunk…indeed, who would have ever imagined?
One afternoon, several days before Halloween, Laughing Jack asked if he might join in a game of pickup basketball. "Sure" was the answer, teams were chosen and a game commenced. Laughing Jack played in an unremarkable fashion, until late in the game, as the sun was setting over Mount Evans, and a cold crispness was spicing the air. Jon intercepted a pass and made a fast break down court. Big Denny Rider, whose father Doc ran the Aurora Auto Supply on Dayton Street, made a great defensive lunge, requiring Jon to pass off to Laughing Jack at the head of the key. Laughing Jack caught the ball, and in a mighty leap, four feet high and ten feet long, carried the ball soaring through the air and stuffed it in the basket. The ball cleared through the net and struck the pavement with a baleful thunk. There was not a sound on the court, or in the park, save for the breath of frost on yellowing leaves. Everyone stared at Laughing Jack in disbelief, tinged with fear of the unknown. You see, in those days no one had ever seen such a move, and its strangeness was as a man sprouting wings and taken to flight. Laughing Jack stared at his team mates, smiled in that half way of his, and took off at a slow dog trot down Sixteenth dribbling a basketball. Even as he disappeared into the evening his footsteps and sound of the ball echoed on the sidewalk and Jon, Denny, and all the players shook their heads and turned for the safety of their homes and families.
The next day some of the boys asked Coach Butchkowski from the high school to stop by during the evening game, in case Laughing Jack was playing. They wanted Coach's opinion on the legality of the move Laughing Jack had displayed. Laughing Jack showed up and again asked to play. As like the night before, his play was unremarkable until the last rays of sunlight were gleaming like ice frost over the western mountains. At that time, in the power of the gloaming light, Laughing Jack was offered the opportunity for another fast break Flying-Slam-Dunk. He successfully seized the moment, and as the ball struck the pavement, it resounded with a hollow bounce. But unlike the silence of the night before, this cool fall evening the basket was met with shouts and curses. You see, we fall victim to human weaknesses, and once the newness of something wears off, we often replace quiet unknowing with self-righteous indignation and anger. Coach Butchkowski stepped in to prevent fisticuffs, and rendered his verdict on the legality of Laughing Jack's move. "Now boys, calm down! I watched Laughing Jack carefully, and he took no more steps than you would for an ordinary lay up. There are no rules about how far you can jump when taking a shot, so long as neither foot is touching the floor, and his were definitely off the floor! Though I have never seen anything like it, I would say what Laughing Jack did was perfectly legal, and a new way to play basketball. I would like to know where he learned such a thing!" But laughing Jack spoke offered no explanation, and with that half smile tattooed on his face, turned and silently dribbled away into the waxing light. The boys would not play another game of basketball after Butchkowski's ruling, and the court remained empty until Halloween evening. You might view this as a harsh reaction to a new strangeness, perhaps even cruel. But we must be careful to pass judgment, now, a half-century after the fact; for our present seat in the story is a safe and comfortable one.
Halloween 1960 started off as a beautiful day. At Lansing Elementary School we had parties and watched "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in the school auditorium. As darkness came storm clouds were building in the west, but the storm looked far off, and my mother allowed brother Pat and I to walk into town, to spend the night at Billy Lombardi's house, along with the rest of our bunch, which included Billy, Steve Rider, Corky Metcalf, Pat and myself. The plan was to trick or treat and watch horror movies on late night TV, which we executed in high style. We slept in Billy's dad's camper, and I remember well the lightening, wind and driving sleet that rocked the trailer, and helped our vivid imaginations drive the spirit of Halloween into our dreams. In the morning the storm had passed, and Pat and I walked home, our feet crunching in the wet gravel of Park East Road. As we passed Miss Smith's, we noticed that the storm had blown over a giant cottonwood tree, a tree William Smith had planted back in the 1880's when he first came to Aurora. The tree had fallen across the bank of a feeder ditch just below the head gate, and had broken in two. The tree had a beehive in it, and the hollow exposed core was a mass of honeycomb and golden honey. We feasted in high style, and could verify Halloween 1960 being one of the sweetest on record. That is, until we later learned of the Halloween fate of Laughing Jack Smiley.
It seems Jon had been to a party on Halloween, and driving home about 11:30 p.m. through the wind and sleet, had passed Aurora City Park. By the flashing glare of lightening he saw Laughing Jack shooting baskets on the basketball court. He stopped and despite the rain asked Laughing Jack if he was OK and perhaps needed a ride home. Laughing Jack smiled in his strange way and waved Jon on. As Jon was driving up Dayton Street, heading for Colfax, he passed a tall man in a slouch hat and long black coat walking down the middle of the street, towards the Park. This seemed strange to Jon, even more so when he didn't recognize the person. You have to remember, in those days Aurora was not the bustling suburb it now is, but was a small farm town east of Denver. Everyone knew everyone else. As Jon drove closer to home he became more bothered by Laughing Jack shooting baskets in the rain, and the tall stranger walking alone down an October street. He turned the car around and drove back to the Park, just to make sure Laughing Jack was OK. The Park was empty, and Jon could find no sign of Laughing Jack, or of the tall street-walking stranger. Jon seemed to notice a faint glow on the east side of the basketball court, but he was sure rain puddles and flashes of lightening in the sky were responsible. Satisfied with his inspection of the peculiar recent events, Jon returned to his car and drove into what became the rest of his life. Not so Laughing Jack.
Laughing Jack was absent from school the following week, when at last the high school attempted to contact his parents about Jack's truancy. The over-grown cottage on Alton Street was empty and boarded up. Every trace of the Smiley family seemed to have disappeared. The police were notified, but nothing came of it. After all, no one was sure anything untoward had happened. Eventually the disappearance of Laughing Jack Smiley became a numbered police report in the dusty files assigned to the vagaries of time.
But occasionally, when the late light of fall disappears over the Rocky Mountains, the sound of a dribbling basketball can be heard in Aurora City Park, when no players are present! After that Halloween night, 1960, a large bald spot appeared in the grass on the east side of the Aurora City Park Basketball Court, and it is there to this day! The City has tried to hide it with a playground, mulch and gravel, but it is there still, for no living thing will grow on it. The unholy spot is camouflaged with happy cries of children swinging and sliding through a timeless ritual. Despite the joy a playground brings, there are rumors that you can stand by this bald spot of ground on Halloween, and hear the distant thump, thump, thump of a dribbling basketball, and a weakening voice crying out "help me, please, please...help me!"
Halloween 1960 will always stand in my memory for the wonders of the honey-laden bee tree; but even more so, though the spirits of Halloween brought the miracle of honey to this October night, they also took something away. There are those I know who believe in the Cheesman Gypsy Curse, and payments made to quiet the dead, and to this they account for the disappearance of Laughing Jack Smiley. The Curse is based on an old legend, hard to verify and harder yet to satisfy the questions of a discerning mind. After the facts I have related and attested to in such good faith, I believe there is an undeniable explanation for Laughing Jack's predicament, if a predicament may be called such when it represents an event that lasts an eternity. Laughing Jack Smiley was taught the skill of the Flying-Slam-Dunk by the Devil himself, at the cost of his soul. In that fateful storm of Halloween midnight, 1960, Lucifer visited Aurora City Park to collect his debt; and collect his debt did he!