A Death Defying Afternoon

June 8, 2021 Betsy Voreacos

A Death Defying Afternoon

The Bo-Betsy Stories: Chapter Five

Your mother and Bo-Betsy loved to play at Schaeffer’s house. Actually, they still do.

After all, it’s the only house on Woods Road where original members of the Neighborhood Gang still live. Slowly, but surely, everyone else has moved away. Did you know that the Schaeffers are the ones who founded Friendsgiving? They’ve been hosting a multi-generational Thanksgiving Eve party for all their old and new friends for as long as anyone can remember. And long before anyone called it Friendsgiving. This story though has nothing to do with Thanksgiving Eve or The Toilet Bowl, but rather is about an ordinary day in the middle of the summer when your mother and Bo-Betsy were still young whippersnappers.

Kit and Johnny Schaeffer were born only a little more than a year apart. After Johnny and Bo-Betsy and Michael Lachs all skipped third grade, Bo-Betsy, your mother, Kit, Johnny and Michael Lachs were then all in the same grade. Soon afterwards, Michael Lachs moved to a different town. But he never lived in the neighborhood anyway and until very recently no one had any idea what had become of him.

Anyway, Kit and Johnny’s house was hands-down the coolest house on the road.

First of all, there were five bedrooms and only two kids. And more bathrooms than any other house on Woods Road. Johnny was the only boy on the road to have bunk beds in his room. And Kit’s room had a trick door. If you walked to the very back of her closet, stepping over her sneakers and flip-flops and pushing aside all the hanging clothes, there was another door. You’ll never believe this, but you could open that door and end up right in her parents’ bedroom!

Because there were more bedrooms than people, there was a guest bedroom at the top of the stairs to the right. At the back of the bedroom was a laundry room. You probably won’t think that’s anything special, but keep in mind, this was way, way, way before all those home renovation shows on TV had every mother in America coveting a second-floor laundry room.

Out in the back yard there was a cave. A real, live cave, nestled under the back patio. It didn’t really go anywhere, and no one ever really knew for sure why it was there, and only the very bravest would venture inside of it. Some proclaimed that it was a fall-out shelter, which is something no one your age ever had to worry about. Others said it was a dog house, even though none of them, not Sambo, or Halifax or Kit’s Little Cutty Sark, or Buddy or Mason ever as much as sniffed inside. But most of the kids in the neighborhood agreed it was most likely a place where dead bodies were buried.

Next to the kitchen door was a milk box. Only the oldest of old houses have milk boxes today, but of those that do, most have been welded shut or stuffed with tools. Back in the day, there were actual milkmen who would come to your house with glass, yes glass, bottles filled with milk. The milkman – they were almost always men in those days – would come to your house, walk down the driveway, lift the latch, open the thick steel square door and place a week’s worth of milk into the cubby-hole in the wall. The cubby-hole went straight though the wall of the house into the kitchen with another door with another latch so you could grab your milk bottles and put them right into the refrigerator without having to go outside. As cool as that was, the really fun thing about the Schaeffer’s milk box was that Kit could squeeze herself into it, and out the other side, until she was 13 years old.

There were, and still are, plenty of other fun things about that house, like the basement that you could enter from both the inside and the outside of the house, the fully-stocked bar in the little closet beneath the stairs and the hidden telephone box between the living room and the hallway closet. The closet, that wasn’t like most closets because it was sideways along the wall that led to the powder room and didn’t have a door. Just a rack crammed with overcoats and a shelf filled with fedoras (google it), and woolen caps and mismatched gloves and mittens.

But probably the best part of the Schaeffer’s house were the back stairs. They were like a secret passageway from the kitchen up to the hallway on the second floor that led to the Squirrel’s Room. The Squirrel’s Room was at the end of a long, dark hallway. Why it was called the Squirrel’s Room clearly  had something to do with a rodent infestation somewhere along the line, but it’s better to just leave that story alone. To this day, the Squirrel’s Room is the most awesome bedroom in any house on Woods Road.

The Schaeffer’s house had a musty done-over basement – all basements were musty back then – with hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of mystery books on the shelves, on the floor, on top of the table that held the electric train set.

Of course, the trains never worked in those days which is why there were books piled on the table. It wasn’t until much later, when Johnny grew up and had a little Johnny of his own that the trains really got rolling like they were supposed to. There was the funniest little bathroom in the basement – probably the smallest one in the whole wide world. And the basement steps were decorated with Pennsylvania Dutch words and pictures. You know all those swirly-cues and fancy bird-of-paradises that you see all over Lancaster county? Well, for some reason, they ended up in the Schaeffer’s basement on Woods Road.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Schaeffer’s house was, and still is, Party Central.

One rainy afternoon in May, your mother and Bo-Betsy didn’t know what to do with themselves.

“I’m bored,” Bo-Betsy said.

“Let’s go to Schaeffer’s,” your mother suggested. “But let’s see if anyone else is around. It will be more fun.”

Within five minutes, your mother, who was quite an organizer had Bo-Betsy’s sister, Emily, Bobby Amsler, Wayne Hetherington (who many, many years later ended up at college with your father), Anne Seifert, your Aunt Bonnie (who they used to call Bon-Bon), and Maureen Gallagher (a real surprise because she was always off somewhere riding her horse), all  gathered at the Schaeffer’s back door. This was actually quite a feat because remember, there were no cell phones back then. Friends had to be collected by knocking on doors or telephoning from house phone to house phone.

Well, they hit the jackpot that day because Mrs. Schaeffer was off at an emergency PTA meeting – something about the new playground – and Mr. Schaeffer was at work. He was a big lawyer in Philadelphia and wouldn’t return until 6:30, after the train from Reading Terminal pulled into North Hills Station and he walked the half-mile home. Unless, of course, it was raining like it was that day, then Mrs. Schaeffer would drive down to the station to pick him up.

And even though there was way more freedom back then, don’t be thinking your mother and Bo-Betsy were allowed to go play at houses where no mother or father was home when they were little tiny kids. This actually all happened when they were a few years older than you are now.

When the kids all showed up at Schaeffer’s back door, Kit hemmed and hawed because she knew the Neighborhood Gang would end up making a big mess and what she really wanted to do was her homework. Kit was always a straight-A student and, believe it or not, LOVED everything about school. Even homework. Just then, Johnny appeared in the kitchen and yelled at his sister for making their friends stand outside in the pouring rain. So, finally Kit gave in and let everyone come inside.

Naturally, it was your mother who decided what they were going to do next.  She probably read about it in a Nancy Drew book or saw it in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Regardless, the next thing Kit knew, they were all clomping down her basement stairs to hold a séance.

You may never have held a séance yourself, and might not even know what a séance is. To tell the truth, a couple of them didn’t either, but they certainly weren’t about to admit it. Here’s how it works:

First, you have to gather in a really dark and scary place. Then everyone sits cross-legged in a circle, very solemnly. If you have a candle, that definitely adds to the ambiance. And finally after  searching through all the drawers and peeking in all the nooks and crannies, they found half of a green candle in a brass candlestick on the workbench next to a jar of nails.  The point of the séance is to bring back someone from the dead. If you do it right, they say you can talk to someone who is in heaven, or maybe even in the other place. Well, no one in the group really believed this was possible, but your mother had a true gift – the power of persuasion – and was very good at convincing people that some things that couldn’t possibly be true, actually were. So, the Neighborhood Gang gave it a go.

Since it was Kit’s house, it was her choice. She decided to contact  John F. Kennedy, or JFK, as he was affectionately known. JFK was a family favorite of the Schaeffer’s. He was once President of the United States, like Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. The only difference is that John F. Kennedy was dead. And had died a very untimely and horrible death, indeed.

Your mother, being the bravest, stood at the wall switch between the hang-out part of the basement and the part where the little bathroom was. She turned out the lights and then scurried over to the circle and plopped down between Bo-Betsy and Kit. She started the séance.

“John F. Kennedy. JFK. John, we are calling you,” she began.

Maureen Gallagher whinnied like a horse.

“Stop it Maureen. You have to be serious!” your mother scolded.

“John F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy. We are calling you,” she tried again. And then everybody started laughing.

“This is NOT going to work unless you guys take it seriously!” your mother said. “If you don’t want to do this, fine. We’ll just go home. Come on, Bo-Betsy.”

Bo-Betsy, being the follower that she was, stood right up to go with your mother. But then the rest of the gang started mumbling and grumbling and promised not to laugh again.

“All right then,” your mother said, pushing Bo-Betsy back into position.

 “John F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy. We are calling you.”

Nobody moved a muscle. The candle flickered. A bolt of lightning lit up the little windows on the far side of the basement. The mood was perfect. Hands were sweaty. Hearts were pounding.

“JFK. If you hear us, give us a sign.”


The doorbell rang at the exact second, the very instant that your mother had asked for a sign.  Bo-Betsy screamed. Anne Seifert gasped. Emily ran to the sofa. Kit turned on the light. Bobby Amsler said he had to go home and feed his poodle, Lucy.

Johnny said, “It’s only the doorbell.”

“But, it’s a sign!” your mother insisted. “Just what we asked for.”

“No it’s not,” your mother’s sister, Bon-Bon insisted nervously.

“Is so,” said Bo-Betsy, who always stuck up for your mother.

“Is not,” said Wayne Hetherington.

“Well, let’s go see,” suggested Kit.

“I’m not going up there!” 

“Me neither.”

“What if it’s really him?”

“Come ON, let’s go!”

Your mother grabbed Bo-Betsy by the hand who grabbed your Aunt Bonnie by the hand who grabbed Bobby Amsler by the hand who grabbed Emily by the hand who grabbed Kit by the hand who grabbed Johnny by the hand who grabbed Wayne Hetherington by the hand who grabbed Maureen Gallagher by the hair and slowly, slowly, step by step, they walked up those creaky steps with the creepy Pennsylvania Dutch decorations on them. Up the stairs, into the dining room, around the big old dining room table past the secret back stairs, into the kitchen, right to the back door they crept.

There, standing in the pouring rain was none other Kit and Johnny’s next door neighbor,  Cheryl Becker.

Well, a séance is a funny thing. No one really knows how they work or if they really do work at all. Your mother insisted that Cheryl Becker was a sign sent from John F. Kennedy. Your mother’s sister, your Aunt Bonnie, or Bon-Bon as she was called back then, said your mother was full of bunk and everybody else just kept their thoughts to themselves.

Like so many things that happened so long ago on Woods Road, there was, and still is, the question of which stories are real and which are not. Was there a séance? Most definitely. Was Cheryl Becker sent by JFK? Maybe. Maybe not. But your mother believed it, or at least pretended to believe it, so Bo-Betsy believed it, or at least pretended to believe it. And since Bo-Betsy believed it, or at least pretended to believe it, so did her sister, Emily. And on and on it went until it was just easier to believe than not to believe.

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