The Sandman is a member of what I call second-string mythical characters. Not prominent enough to rate the massive Disneyfication that would weld him into a universal image, the Sandman has been used in both print and broadcast media for a wide-range of roles ranging from benign wizard to superhero to evil demonic menace. You’re welcome to take your pick of any of these incarnations but personally I know him to be a kindly short little man dressed in mid-19th century British garb.
I know that because I actually saw him in 1961.
Despite the lack of any Romany blood (that I know of) my family and I were gypsies when I was a kid. Using education alone as a measuring stick it was obvious that we never stayed in one place for long; by the time I got to seventh grade I had been a student in seven different schools. During all those moves we lived in many very different houses, but none of them was more unique or notable than the 100 year old edifice we lived in when we called Little Shasta Valley home in the early 1960s.
It was a fairly large place with two stories and three bedrooms; four if you counted the rather spacious odd room on the east end of the upstairs floor that was inexplicably equipped with a big crows-foot bathtub. The walls were made of plaster mixed with horse-hair and troweled onto lath strips tacked between studs and our only heat came from wood stoves at either end of the house. My parents had leased the house from one of the Soule families, who had at one time been the leading family and ranching power in the valley – sort of a real-life Cartwright family from the TV series Bonanza, lacking only the kiss of death that beset any female foolish enough to marry into the clan.
It was also said that the land grant to the Soule family and been signed by Abraham Lincoln but some interfamily squabble cost them their leading role in the valley. Looking back as an adult, I kind of doubt that the President of the United States would have been involved with a land grant – especially during the Civil War – but I do know that by the time we lived there another man named Shelley was the leading cattle rancher in Little Shasta Valley, owning or leasing most of the arable land and raising far more head of cattle than anyone else.
Our home was nestled in the midst of a complex of unused ranch buildings; barns, storage rooms, woodsheds and one converted wooden building dubbed “the car barn” that we used to garage our car. The house itself was surrounded by that square of trees pioneers all over the American West planted as a windbreak…and we needed a windbreak badly. While the terrain wasn’t pool-table flat like that of Kansas, Oklahoma or other prairie states, the winds that came rushing down off the surrounding mountains would have landed any one of us in Oz had there not been some sort of protection.
In that context having the trees was a very welcome thing, but at times they could be kind of scary, especially at night. While trees around the house would deflect most of those winds coming down off the mountains, their branches would be violently tossed about in the process, sometimes just barely hitting the sides of the roof and making mysterious noises that a little boy’s imagination readily translated into the sounds of monsters or robbers trying to break in. It didn’t help that the large yard light kept on all night long cast all sorts of weird mysterious shapes on the buildings and trees as the wind waved the branches to and fro.
It was one of those windy nights that I saw the Sandman. For some reason I was sleeping in the sisters’ room which featured a large dormer with a multi-pane window looking over the front yard and smaller windows to each side set into the triangular dormer walls. Normally I would be curled up in my own bed in my own room at the west end of the second floor, but I was sick and had a fever and I imagine that as my parents slept downstairs out of ear-shot they felt more comfortable having me bunk with Robin and Holly in case my condition worsened.
It was not a good night for me. In addition to the aforementioned fever, I had a sore throat and a general “achy” feeling all over my body. I tossed restlessly in the borrowed bed and wondered if I’d ever get to sleep, and at one point considered sneaking back into my own room and bed when I happened to glimpse out the side dormer window – and saw him.
It was the Sandman, sitting just under the crown of the tree outside the window, gently rocking up and down as the relentless wind jostled the branches to and fro. He had mutton-chop sideburns and was wearing a top hat and overcoat with a cravat, collar, and a vest/waistcoat visible where the coat was unbuttoned. He sat with legs folded yoga-style and as he gently moved around in the wind-swept branches he turned, looked me right in the eye and smiled.
At first I felt scared – kid-logic dictates that you’re always safe as long as you don’t make eye-contact with the monster – but any fear I had quickly melted away as I saw that smile and realized that he was not there to “get me” but rather he was there to give me something I desperately needed.
I almost immediately went to sleep and kept sleeping until well into the morning when my little sister came in to torment me into getting the Rice-Chex down from the top shelf in the pantry for her breakfast. It wasn’t until I was walking back up the stairs that I realized I was not longer sick. The fever was gone as was the sore throat, and whatever aches and pains I may have had were rapidly getting worked out of my system as I walked and stretched my muscles.
So, what did I see that night? The logical man would dismiss it as the product of a highly imaginative little boy’s fever dream but I have resisted that interpretation throughout my entire life no matter how empirical my outlook on life would be. The Sandman’s image had none of the hazy quality that dream images usually assume – the appearance was sharp and detailed enough to stick in my memory throughout my entire life (and in the process inspiring several different works of art). His style of dress is convincing as well – I remember the detailing, but prior to that time I don’t think I had ever seen that particular vintage of dress before. Remember, I was living in an isolated valley 25 miles from the nearest library, attending a one-classroom elementary school with access to a single television signal of dubious quality coming from Channel 7 in Redding (CA) 50 miles to the south. It wasn’t until four years later as a fifth grader at Woodland Park Elementary in Spenard (AK) that I first encountered that style of clothing when we watched “The Christmas Carol” just before the holiday break.
…and then there’s the benefit of the visit. I had been sick for almost a week and it didn’t seem to be getting better. There had even been talk of taking me to the doctor – which when you consider my dad’s thrift and my mom’s training as a registered nurse meant that I had to have been in bad shape. A kindly glance and smile and it was all gone.
As I said before, the image has stuck in my mind all these years. I have seen several versions of the Sandman come and go – and few of them to my liking. As I work my way through these painful days and sleepless nights of chronic arthritic pain I prefer to think of the benevolent being that brought me that most precious of gifts – sleep – so many years ago.