One morning while working as a Gifted Mentor at Irving Middle school, one of my students asked, “Hey, Tom, did you ever visit the Ville when you were a kid?”
I looked at Drew curiously. “The Ville? What in the world is that?”
Drew said, “Hobbitsville. Me and my friend are sneaking in there tomorrow night. Do you want to meet us there?”
I laughed and said, “Just what I need, a trespassing ticket for sneaking into Hobbitsville. But no, I have never been in there. When I was a kid my friends said they had visited Hobbitsville. They said it was a huge mansion surrounded by a large stone fence. They also told me the enormous yard had a moat running through it with two stone bridges. They claimed that giant gold fish swam in the moat and that a small castle turret overlooked the yard. They claimed it was a place where Hobbits might live.”
Drew said, “Well, it’s now owned by the Abel family and they used to hold wedding ceremonies inside the yard. The swimming pool is said to be haunted by the ghost of a girl who died there when she dove off the board and cracked her head open. Kids claim she is buried there. Back in the 60’s, UNL students hung a manikin from the top of the castle and snapped off a photo of it. It appeared in the Daily Nebraskan. But other than that prank, no other vandalism ever took place there. The thousands of kids who sneak in there never leave behind graffiti nor do they destroy any property. Just think, kids have been going in there since the late 50’s, and no kids ever left evidence that they had been in there.”
I said, “They knew they were walking on sacred ground. However, most recently, I had heard that a group of boys snuck in there to skate in the moat, and some guy named Juan the Gardener chased them out by shooting salt loads at them with his shotgun.”
Despite this fact, Drew called me later that night to ask me to join him on his adventure. When I shared with my foster kid, Josh, that Drew wanted us to sneak into Hobbitsville, he started pleading with me to go along. I finally called Josh’s mom and asked her if she had ever been there when she was a kid. Deb told me it sounded interesting. So she said, “Why not just go up to the door and ask permission to go in there?”
I told her about Juan the Gardener and warned her that the owners might outright refuse her request, saying, “I guess Juan is a little hostile, though I have never heard of any kid getting shot for skating in there.”
The next afternoon, Deb drove over to the Abel mansion and rang the doorbell, intent on getting permission to venture into the Ville. A lady with a long, black dress came to the door and invited her in to have tea in the den. While seated there, 15 cats wandered in and out of the den and Deb kept hearing someone in the kitchen rummaging around in drawers. When the mysterious person in the kitchen began to mutter and curse, the lady shouted, “Juan? Would you quiet down in there? We’re trying to hold a decent conversation out here!”
Deb immediately froze. Juan the Gardener! she thought. Oh my God, the man who shoots at skaters with salt loads is here in the kitchen!
After they finished their tea, Deb asked, “My son and I would like to know if we could visit your backyard.”
“No one goes in the back yard,” the lady cryptically said, and it became strangely quiet after that, no more Juan rummaging in the kitchen, the cats stopped pacing, and the lady asked, “Why do children call my yard Hobbitsville?”
Deb explained to her who Hobbits were from the Lord of the Rings, but the lady didn’t seem to understand. She then looked up and said, “It would be nice of you to leave now.”
Deb called me to tell me about her visit. The one thing she tried to impress upon me was that Juan the Gardener was a real person, and quite possibly he had a shotgun.
Drew called a little later. “Well? Are you going to meet me at the Ville tonight? We will be at the north wall at ten o’clock. Come on, it will be a great adventure!”
Josh needled me for the next two hours, asking, “What’s the worst that can happen to us?”
I said, “Trespassing citations. My name in the paper. Salt loads stinging my butt as I fly back over the wall. Those are just a few of the things that come to mind.”
But at 9:30, I decided we would chance it. All we would do is climb over the fence, take a look around, and be out of there swift as the wind, right?
I scaled the wall, Josh clambering up beside me. We hurtled over the top of the high stone wall and landed in amongst the trees along a garden path. We explored the moat, walked over both bridges, searched for ghosts around the swimming pool, and climbed to the top of the castle turret to survey the yard from on high. It was a nice spring night. Cool breeze. Silver moonlight drizzling down through the overhead leaves. A great night for such an adventurous quest.
“What’s that?” Josh whispered, sidling up next to me and pointing down the trail.
I peered down the trail and spotted two brightly glowing embers of the cherries on two cigarettes. We were not alone in Hobbitsville. Two kids were walking down the dark trail, totally unaware that they were not alone either.
Thinking it was Drew and his friend, Josh and I both moved over beside a large tree and waited for the two kids to reach us. When they were about ten feet away, I very casually slipped out behind the tree and stood facing them.
The bright red glow of their cherries went swirling through the air like fireflies as those cigarettes went flying from their wide-open mouths, and then both of those boys let out high-pitched screams!!
As they wheeled around to run, I couldn’t help but laugh as the one kid yelled, “You aren’t crazy, are you?”
I guess he wanted to make certain that I wasn’t an axe-murderer or worse . . . Juan the Gardener.
And then the other kid stopped in mid-stride and said, “I know you, dude! You once spoke about your book at our school!”
They both came back down the trail then and shook my hand. The one kid said, “So you are the guy who wrote that 8-Ball book, huh? My mom told me she went with you in high school.”
I asked for her name, and winced when he said it. I knew it was just too good to pass up telling her exactly where he’d run into me at. The other kid said, “You work at my school.”
Oh, no, I groaned inwardly. The news that the author of 8-Ball was caught by two kids sneaking into Hobbitsville is going to run rampant through the halls of Irving Middle School Monday morning! And I will probably get a call from my old girl friend who will rib me about meeting her son in this unlikely location. This is going to be worse than a trespassing citation!
Josh and I left the Ville, listening to the relieved laughter of those two boys as they faded away into the shadows of the night. When we got home, I received a call from my student, Drew. He said, “Me and my friend were sneaking up to the north wall of the Ville when we heard these girls screaming from inside the yard! It scared us so badly, we took off running, too freaked out to climb over the wall. I think those poor girls had a run-in with Juan the Gardener!”
I laughed and told him the “girls” were actually two boys, Bobby Kingston and his friend. Drew thought the whole thing was hilarious as Bobby was known to be a major tough guy in the halls of Irving School.
The following Monday as I walked down the crowded halls of Irving, students slapped me high-fives for scaring Bobby Kingston. I simply smiled and said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
I still think of that magical night and how cool that yard was. I smile when I think of those two screaming boys, and then shake my head in wonder that I didn’t come away from that venture with a trespassing ticket or worse, that I didn’t have a run-in that night with Juan the Gardener.
It is rumored that his ghost still patrols the yard, but whether this is true or not, I will never know.
Only Juan and the Hobbits know if he is there, keeping his vigil on the sacred grounds of Hobbitsville.