Ollie Andersen and his wife lived much of the summer in a cabin in northern Minnesota,where Ollie fished, watched birds, and spent considerable effort keeping his boat in repair, while his wife made canned goods and embroidery to bring to the market a few times a year down in Walker, not to make money, but to sell for the Leech Lake Area Benefit Association, her favorite local charity.
One day Ollie came up to the cabin after a couple of weeks down in the cities, and his mail box, out on the county road, was full of junk mail and a few good pieces of mail. Ollie had noticed over recent months that more and more mail was coming to the cabin address, and on more than one occasion he found several days worth either soaked because a bad rain had blown into the box, or found the mail knocked out by the wind and strewn around in the ditch by his drive. So, he decided, about mid August, on a plan to do something good and healthy for himself and deal with the mail box problem at the same time. Every evening, after dinner, Ollie would walk up the drive, out to the county road, and check on the mail.
Now, you have to understand a few pertinent facts.
First, Ollie and Helen’s cabin was pretty far north in Minnesota, up past Leech Lake. So, mid August was also considered the beginning of fall. But, in their retirement, Ollie and Helen had decided to spend more time up north, and were planning on staying through September, maybe even on to November, when the first snow would likely fall, and they’d close up the cabin for the season, pouring blue winterizing solution into the drains, pulling down the shades, but leaving the cabin door unlocked in case anyone needed to get out of the weather if the were lost in the woods or something. The cabin was way off the beaten track on a small lake with only one other cabin, a good mile and a quarter walk from the county road. That took Ollie about a half hour, which wasn’t bad considering his hip replacement surgery and all.
Another thing you need to know is this: Three years earlier, the power had gone out in the cabin, and Ollie realized they didn’t have a flashlight up there, so next time he was at the Ace Hardware in the nearest larger town he picked up one flashlight and two D cell batteries to put in it. Funny thing, though, happened next. Ollie got home with his flashlight and batteries. He opened the packages they were in, avoiding swearing at the molded plastic anti-theft wrappings that always cut up his knuckles. He put the two D-cells into the flashlight, and opened the drawer by the sink where they kept miscellaneous stuff. Helen and Ollie called it the junk drawer, but it contained mostly non-junk that they rarely even looked at but would occasionally need. A couple of screwdrivers. An open package of sticky-back velcro they had used only part of. A tangle of bungie cords. There was their daughter’s old cell phone she left with them. “Keep it charged and in the car.” “We don’t have an account with that company.” “I know, dad. But you can dial 911 on any cell phone and it works.” “I’m sure it doesn’t, Alice (her name was Alice) but you can put it in the junk drawer.” That sort of thing. Anyway, when Ollie opened the junk drawer, there was a flashlight already sitting right there that he did not remember ever seeing before! “Look we already had a flashlight,” he said to Helen. “I could have told you that if you had asked me,” she told him. “That was the one in the cabin when we bought it, remember?” Ollie didn’t even try to remember. That was some 22 or 23 years ago. Did they even have flashlights back then? Anyway, he put the new flashlight with the new batteries in the junk drawer next to the old flashlight, which by the way did not have any batteries in it.
Anyhow, that was some three years ago. Maybe four.
So over the rest of the sumer and fall, Ollie walked almost every day, or at least four or five days a week, let’s say, up the long driveway to the mailbox, and now and then found something in it and brought it back to the house. There was a stretch of five or six days in November, and yes, they had stayed till November, that Ollie didn’t go up to the box because he was feeling a bit under the weather and his hip replacement was bothering him. But after that, one evening, and it was at least a half hour later than it usually was because of what Helen had made for dinner, a roast that took her longer than she’d expected, that Ollie decided to go and check the mail.
But Ollie had a thought. He had noticed that the days were getting shorter and shorter, as they do. Right now, the sun was out yet, but he figured that by the time he got up to the mailbox, it would be pretty near dark, and certainly, by the time he got back, it would be full on dark. What, with it being cloudy that evening, it would be even darker. So, Ollie had the thought of bringing the flashlight with him.
So, he opened the junk drawer, saw the two flashlights. He picked up the one he had bought three years earlier, and he could tell it had the batteries in it because it was heavy. Then, he went out the door and up the road to the mailbox. And, sure enough, it got darker and darker as he headed for the mailbox. By the time he got there, it was pretty much full on night. But he could just see well enough yet to make out the mailbox, pull down the flap, and feel around inside. Nothing there. But, that wasn’t the point of his walk, his walk was for his health. He’d been told to walk more, for his hip and his heart.
So, Ollie turned back down the road and took his flashlight out of his pocket, and flipped the switch even has he took his first few steps.
But the flashlight did not go on. “Dagnabbit,” he said to himself. “Darn thing should work, it’s new. New batteries too. What the hay?”
Ollie had a terrible time getting his way back to the cabin in the dark. He would walk in the general direction he thought he should do, but eventually run into a soft area of ground he knew to be the shoulder of the drive. So, then, he’s adjust his course, and keep going. Every now and then he’d run face-long into a branch that hung low over the drive, and he’d almost swear. Eventually, though, he got down to where he could see lights from the cabin. After that, as long as he walked carefully to avoid tripping on anything, he had no problem getting back.
“That took a while, everything OK?”
“Ya, no problem here, just took a while.”
That night, Ollie put the flashlight that did not work on the counter near the junk drawer, with the intention of dealing with that problem the next day, when he was feeling less fussed about it.
Then the next day came, and again, Ollie was planning to head up to get the mail and take his walk a bit late, and the sun was going down even sooner, so he decided to take the flashlight again. So, he went over to the counter, and opened the drawer and took out the old flashlight, the one that was in the cabin when they bought it and had been in the drawer, never used, for nearly a quarter of a century. He took that flashlight out, unscrewed the back, then he unscrewed the back of the new flashlight. He slid the batteries out of the new flashlight, and into the old flashlight, and screwed everything back together again.
Ollie then headed up to the mailbox. But this time it was even later and the sun was going down a few minutes sooner. So, he was about a tenth of a mile from the mailbox when he decided to turn the quarter-century old flashlight with the three year old batteries on for the first time.
To his great surprise, the flashlight did not work. He could not fathom why. He shook it, he tapped it on the side with the palm of his hand, he stared through the dark into the front of the flashlight while he shook it again, he flipped the switch on and off a few more times. The quarter century old flashlight with the three year old batteries simply would not work, even though Ollie felt very strongly that it should.
“Dangit,” Ollie thought, as he turned back towards the cabin. “I’ll check the mail tomorrow.”
Ollie started back towards the cabin like he had the night before, heading roughly in what he estimated to be the correct direction, and making course corrections as he went along. Then, out of the blue, he stepped on something funny, and it mad a loud noise and scampered off. Some sort of small animal and he had run into each other. Something the size of a small dog. That put Ollie off a bit, but after listening for a half a minute and only hearing the rustling of leaves on the road ahead of him, he continued forward. It had not occurred to him that it was a quiet night with no wind, and there should be no leaves rustling. And anyway, there had never been anything dangerous on his driveway before, why should there be now.
And he was having that very thought just as he ran headlong into the very annoyed bipedal black bear mother whose cub he had just stepped on.
They didn’t find Ollie’s body until well into the next summer, when the mostly but not entirely eaten and decomposed corpse got a scent strong enough to waft up to the driveway. The bear had dragged Ollie a good 200 yards into the woods, down a shallow ravine that paralleled the drive. The bear, some coyotes, and a lone wolf passing through the area each got a bit of Ollie over the weeks before a two foot snowfall sealed up the landscape for the winter. But the bear family did hibernate nearby, so they sampled the by now very tenderized remains in early May the following year.
The coroner was unable to ascertain the exact cause of death, but the sheriff deputy that had followed the scent did find the old flashlight. He returned the flashlight to Helen, and Helen put it in the junk drawer, where it resided even after the old batteries finally burst and leaked out, next to the old cell phone, until Helen herself passed a dozen years later and their daughter came up and emptied the cabin out so they could sell it. The new flashlight, though, the one without the batteries in it, she left in that drawer, figuring the new owners could make use of it.
Added: Mystery Cave is part of an extensive karstic cave system in Southern Minnesota. The original discoverer of the system found it by poking through some ice with a crowbar, and the crowbar fell into the cave and took a long time to hit the bottom. Eventually, he got himself some rope, rigged himself up, and lowered himself a few tens of feet or so into the start of the cave. That is when he pulled out his flashlight to have a look around. Guess what happened then?