The convertible and four women inside it screeched in unison as the car lurched to a halt.
A mysterious figure at the side of the road stopped them in their tracks.
What they saw in that moment in 1969 elicited sheer terror, much to the satisfaction of the pranksters testing their Parker Road Phantom getup out for the first time.
The women had no idea the frightening figure towering – some would later say floating – high above the car was young Billy Gates atop a concealed David Gates’ shoulders.
“It was a really warm night but there were clouds and fog, and there we were standing on the side of the road. They screamed, ‘Get away! Get away!’ - so we ran away,” laughs David, who added that the conditions were perfect for creating the illusion of a floating phantom.
It was a typical Friday night 50 years ago for the four Gates boys – Tommy, Billy, David and Ronny – and Dickie Taylor, who all lived near each other on Parker Road and Victoria Road in Aylesford.
David found an old Second World War army-green wool coat in an attic and chucked it down to the boys. They threw the coat over 12-year-old Billy, the youngest, and hoisted him onto David’s shoulders.
They scared David’s grandmother, aunt and uncle before deciding to stand by the road like a hitchhiker.
A LEGENDARY PRANK
The convertible that kicked their scare scheme into overdrive came cruising down Parker Road – now Aylesford Road – and screeched to a halt as the four passengers got a glimpse of what looked to be an eight-foot-tall phantom lurking on the side of the road.
“Well, that’s when we knew this could really work. But for it to really become something, we had to keep it going because no one was going to talk about something that happened only once,” recalls David with a laugh.
A routine was born.
Tommy was the tallest and most athletic of the bunch, so he became the runner with little Billy on his shoulders. He always kept a single button open on the peacoat as a small eye hole. He grasped Billy’s legs, and the duo would dash across the road with Billy waving his arms frantically.
The prank would finish as Tommy ran for the red barn where David, Ronny and Dickie were waiting, manning the doors, and ready to catch Billy as Tommy biffed him down the hatch and into the barn cellar.
“It took three people to intercept and secure Billy,” a jovial David explains. “We had to catch him a certain way and he had to remember to duck his head, otherwise he’d hit it as he came in.”
There were a few close calls when this plan went awry, like when Billy boinked his head quite hard. The other boys secured the barn doors and heard Billy moaning, so they acted quick and used the coat to muffle the sounds.
RUMOURS AND NOTORIETY
Doorman Dickie says these quick escapes were the key to their success and went a long way in establishing the rumour that the mysterious phantom was, indeed, all things ghastly and ghoulish.
“The phantom disappeared, and people never knew where it went,” says Dickie. “Everyone started making up all kinds of stories.”
Their families were in on the prank, too, and never divulged the secret. They even played it up by making large, green footprints by the nearby pond and spreading stories that they had spotted the phantom.
Notoriety grew, and word spread rapidly as the prank went on for two weeks. No one could agree on exactly what it looked like – some said it floated, while others said it left footprints – because it was there and gone in a flash.
Cars lined the road as people set out in search for what became known as the Parker Road Phantom, and some even drove up to the barn with their headlights extinguished to try and sneak up on it.
All five boys fought to keep straight faces at school as they explained how they lived so close to the phantom, yet knew nothing about it.
“My god it was hard keeping a straight face. Our teachers were even bringing it up! Everyone was talking about this thing,” laughs David.
A SHOTGUN AND A CONFESSION
The spectacle grew so large that television media outlets interviewed the Gates family, owners of the property where the famed phantom appeared. Ronny says his father and grandfather told reporters it had killed a cow, leaving only the head and hooves, and they saw it run on water.
“Everyone was so embarrassed about the answers they gave once it came out that this was a prank. A lot of people had a good laugh, but others were a little angry about that,” he says.
The five prank partners insist they were just having a blast until they heard some of their West Kings District High School classmates were planning on shooting the phantom.
“We got pulled into the back of a cop car, and the police asked us what we knew about the ghost, so I told him we knew nothing. He got us around back by the trunk and threw a shotgun at me. He said, ‘this is what some kids are planning to do to you,’” says Tommy.
The boys fessed up and returned to the station with the officers to complete the police report. It was a job that took several hours because the police kept breaking out in laughter as the boys recounted the strategy and planning that went into bringing the phantom to life.
And so the prank came to a close but, to this day, remains a local legend. Some five decades later, the men still get recognized. Tommy was just approached at a gas station last week.
“This guy looked at me, said, ‘aren’t you the Parker Road Phantom? I know all about you, and I want to shake your hand,’ and then he said, ‘that must’ve been fun.’ And I told him, yes, it was,” he laughs.
National front-page articles from the former Ottawa Journal and other news clippings now hang protected inside the place where everything started, a red barn on Aylesford Road, where the five still meet regularly to remember the good times.
The army coat hangs on a wooden hanger and still fits the men. Dickie laughs as he pulls it on and turns up the collar.
“We really used to have fun here,” he says.
REMEMBERING THE PARKER ROAD PHANTOM
An April 1969 edition of The Register calls the frenzy surrounding the Parker Road Phantom "the biggest 'ghost' hunt in this area ever remembered."
The news article describes the bumper-bumper traffic that lined the road as RCMP investigated the two-week long incident that was reported on by print, radio and television news media which showed "the credibility of a gullible public."
This article shows it really didn’t take long for the phantom fable conjured up by Tommy, Billy, David and Ronny Gates and Dickie Taylor to captivate the Aylesford area.
Stories ranging from recounting seeing the phantom flying toward people, running across water and measuring 15-feet-tall spread like wildfire throughout the town and entire Annapolis Valley as people drove through Aylesford to see the ghost for themselves.
Jean Dutot grew up 250 metres from Parker Road and remembers feeling terrified and being told to stay indoors after dark.
“Being a neighbor and only eight years old I was petrified,” she says.
Faye Casey grew up in Aylesford and vividly recalls the fear that gripped her and others on their morning commutes to school, when she’d peer out the window and hope to catch sight of the phantom.
She was 12 when the prank was pulled off, and eventually found out it was her cousin and friends behind it the entire time.
“There were all kinds of stories, of what people were seeing. I don’t remember the stories but at the time I remember they were ridiculous,” she says.
Anita Burns lives in Aylesford, just minutes from the red barn, and remembers men, worried about their wives and children, meeting to discuss ways they could capture the phantom,
“Each time someone told it the phantom was getting taller and bigger and scarier. I would sit at the top of the stairway and listen. Some of them thought they should form a group and go looking for it,” she says.
She says despite the matter being taken very seriously by the community, laughs were had when the true culprits were revealed.
“There were a lot of people that had to admit they had been fooled,” she said. “It was a great laugh.”