It’s 3 am pitch dark. Nando and I are driving on this winding, wooded, mountain road in the middle of Upstate NY. It’s the beginning of our work day and bats are still circling us on the way to the film set. We feel like a couple of zombies having worked crazy 16 hour days for the past four weeks.
We’re chugging over-roasted black coffee trying to wake up. Nando’s flipping through AM radio stations constantly changing them, because they do weird things in the middle of the night. Facing our current situation, Nando said, “Sally, we need to get back to Polk County.” I said, “Yeah… that or we should be sipping Champagne in Paris with Sebastien instead of this crappy coffee.” There’s poor reception on the radio because we are so rural. Suddenly, through the static we hear “Polk County, Bok Tower, Lake Wales, FL” and we look at one another like – are we losing it – or did they just say Lake Wales on the radio in the Catskill Mountains? Author, Mark Muncy was being interviewed on ‘Coast to Coast AM’ about his book called “EERIE FLORIDA.” He was speaking of his favorite story, The “Little Man.” A tale about a tiny man that stole oranges from an orange grove in Lake Wales. We were captivated. Nando knew a version of the story from his childhood. Then we got to talking about our own ghost story that happened on the farm in Winter Haven.
This is the tale of Tío Perucho... Nando’s Uncle from Colombia. Perucho was a big politician in Cartagena with a grand personality, but small in stature. He was well loved by the people. As much as the people loved him, he loved the Casinos, staying out until the wee hours of the night with the other politicians; gambling, living it up, smoking cigarettes and whatever else they did.
Perucho and his wife Maria came to Winter Haven often to visit the farm. One trip, Perucho fell ill and had to go to the hospital. He and Maria spoke no English, so Nando’s mom found herself having to translate for them. She was crushed when she had to deliver the line that Perucho had throat cancer and needed surgery. Maria being very religious set up a shrine in the hospital room to Saint Mary, the mother of God. She lit candles and the hospital staff went wild blowing them out with smoke everywhere as Perucho was sitting calmly breathing oxygen. Her prayers worked. He made it through surgery and back to the farm to heal so he could go back to Colombia.
Every morning Perucho would sit in a big arm chair in the guest room. Maria would delicately dress him in his native uniform-white shirt and white pants. She would put on his shoes, shine and tie them and complete his look with an Ascot to cover the stoma. Perucho’s new voice sounded like a robot coming out of a box attached to a tube. It reminded Nando of a video game at ‘The Barrel Of Fun Arcade.’ He taught Tío Perucho in English how to say “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” over and over again. He still smiles today thinking about that.
Early one morning while sitting in his armchair after his usual dressing ritual, Perucho looked out toward the placid Eagle Lake and saw a fox run across the pasture. He had an initial look of excitement and then immediate defeat knowing he was not going back to Colombia with Maria. He would be joining the Saints very soon.
He stopped breathing seconds later and collapsed. The house was silent. The fox was gone.
Family came from Colombia to escort Maria with Perucho’s body home to Cartagena for burial.
Years later, a young Venezuelan girl named Teresa came to stay and work the racehorses on the farm. One morning, Nando’s mom was having coffee and a hysterical white faced Teresa flew into the kitchen screaming and shouting, “Janet, there is a little man sitting in the chair in the my room!” He is wearing all white, shiny shoes and some cloth around his neck. Calmly Janet said, “What is he doing?” Teresa said, “I already told you he is just sitting there all proper looking out towards the lake. He is not speaking to me. I think I’ve just seen a ghost. “
Shaking, Janet ran and got a dusty photo album and passed it to the girl’s trembling hands. Upon flipping through the album Teresa pointed directly to a picture of Perucho. “That’s the man I just saw in my room.” Perucho’s body made it to Colombia but perhaps the rest of him wanted to stay in Winter Haven.
When I finally met Teresa, she told me this story, which reminded me of when Nando proposed to me in Cartagena, Colombia. Maria was there. She came to meet me. As if with instruction, she removed a shiny gold wedding band from her finger and put it on mine. Maria said, (in Spanish) “This is my ring from my marriage to Perucho, may he rest in peace. He loved Nando and would have wanted you both to have it. May your marriage and faith be as strong as ours. Do not be afraid.”
I have always been drawn by the story of Perucho and I am someway connected to this man that I didn’t even know. I wonder when he will present himself to me or if the ring was his way of doing so. Is he still in Winter Haven?
xo Sally & Nando DC
See Y’all Soon, pending we don’t get stuck in Paris.
P.S. The film is wrapped and we’ve upgraded from the gas station coffee.
Follow APALACHIN (apalachinfilm.com) -based on a true story, like mine.
Director: Danny A -Starring: Robert Davi, David Arquette, Jennifer Esposito &