Ghost Story

I love a good ghost story, and good ghost stories are never hard to find,  Hawthorne, Irving, Poe, Lovecraft and King have thrilled and chilled me many times over the years. Cinema too has made contributions to satiate my appetite for a good scare or laugh. “Poltergeist”, “Ghostbusters”, “The House on Haunted Hill” (Vincent Price version, of course) and “Ghost” have alternately made me laugh or slump down and peek over the seat in front of me at the theater. Naturally the best ghost story is the one told around the campfire, especially if one is a 12 year old boy seated with a dozen or so friends while an experienced yarn spinner makes it seem like the ghost could be standing right behind any one of us, or all of us, at that very moment. As good as any story is however, the edge is always blunted ever so slightly by the fact that we don’t believe in ghosts, or if we do it is only in the most ethereal and abstract sense of the word. That is what makes this ghost story different.

My friend Dennis grew up with me in San Diego. Dennis was a few years older than me and a few years younger than my brother, so he was a sort of bridge between our two age groups. I looked up to Dennis quite a bit as a kid. Dennis, being older, was connected to thoughts and experiences beyond my years, plus he was a gateway into my brother’s circle of friends who were older and more experienced yet. Dennis thought of himself as a realist; a modern man of science and rationalism who dealt with the real world that he could touch, smell, hear, taste and see. Dennis did not believe in ghosts.  Dennis was drafted into the army a year after I joined, so we were soldiers at the same time and and were actually stationed rather close to each other in Vietnam although we didn’t know this at the time. We were discharged at about the same time and spent the first year of our restored civilian life hanging out together at taverns or friends’ houses, or just kicking around San Diego in various states of conventional or altered consciousness. But not once did Dennis, nor I for that matter, see a ghost.

At the end of that year Dennis met Annette, and after a whirlwind romance they got married. Annette was a student at Mesa Community College in San Diego, studying to become a radiology technologist. She was usually very level-headed which made me wonder how she ever got hooked up with a wild and free spirited person like Dennis. Actually, that was not fair. I knew Annette first and developed a friendship with her that I hoped would develop into something a good deal more serious. I introduced Annette to Dennis one day and the chemistry was obvious and immediate, which for the first time ever put a strain on our friendship.  Dennis took the initiative in that situation and offered to sever his relationship with Annette to preserve our friendship, and although I knew that he would do nothing of the sort I appreciated his expression of commitment to our friendship and we buried the hatchet with a sense of relief on both of our parts.

The wedding took place in June after the semester was over, and using what remained of Dennis’ savings and severance pay from the Army and Annette’s small nest egg they embarked on a tour of the nation in a pickup truck with a camper that they borrowed from Dennis’ dad. They meandered across the Southwest and Texas, through the deep South, up the Eastern Seaboard, and back from New England through the Midwest, across the Plains and the Rockies, through Utah and back home. Upon their return Dennis and Annette told stories of Mexican food and fire ants and civil war battlefields and tiny black flies that bite like pit bulls and a million other experiences which which they encountered on their trip.

A few weeks after their return Annette resumed her studies while Dennis began his own on the G.I. Bill. He was a smart guy and pretty good at the business of being a student, so when I walked over one day to the small house which they rented from Annette’s parents he was sufficiently caught up with his studies to put down his pen and close his books and have a brew with me. We were actually well into our second six-pack when Dennis grew quiet. I gabbled on for a while until I became aware of his changed mood. I had known Dennis long enough to know that he was wrestling with something more than the usual shucking and jiving that typified the banter of our long and warm friendship. I sat back in my chair and averted my gaze out a window, pretending that I was watching a neighbor who was cutting back a honeysuckle that was threatening to take over the chain link fence that separated their yards, but really I was giving space to Dennis so that he could decide whether to tell me what was bothering him or not. Finally he said “Glenn, I haven’t told you all of the things that we saw on our trip.” I looked at him but said nothing while he continued to gather his thoughts. “There’s something else I’d like to tell you about, but I don’t know if you’ll think I’m crazy or stoned.”

“I already know that you’re crazy, and if you’re stoned you’ve been holding out” I replied, trying to lighten the moment. I saw immediately that my attempt was ill-timed and added  “Still, if you want to tell me something I’ll give it an honest listen.”  “OK,” he said, and after pausing for a minute or two more he drew in a breath and said “Here goes.” He then proceeded to tell me the following story.

After traveling for almost two months Dennis and Annette’s path back to San Diego took them through central and southwest Utah. The roads were all two-lane and there would be seemingly endless miles and hours between settlements of any kind, and as the sun began to drop towards the western horizon they pulled onto a dirt side road and parked about a hundred yards up that road in a wide, clear, flat area which had apparently seen such service in the past, judging by the evidence of an old campfire near the middle of the clearing.

The surrounding country was covered with a moderately thick growth of sagebrush, Apache plume, mountain mahogany and Brigham tea among other hardy and drought resistant species. After unpacking some chairs and building a new fire over the remains of the old one Dennis heated up some soup and made sandwiches from supplies in their cooler. By the time that they had eaten their supper, cleaned up and sipped a couple of beers, the sun had sunk below the horizon. As the last glowing line of daylight was disappearing into the inky blackness they threw dirt onto the dying embers of their fire and crawled into the camper to get a well-deserved rest. They planned on spending the next night in central Arizona and wanted to be well rested when they resumed their trip on the morrow.

Dennis quickly fell fast asleep, he told me, and began to dream. In his dream he heard some noise coming from outside the camper. The noise sounded like drumming and human voices, but the voices were not speaking words, but rather vocalizations; hoots, yips, rising and falling wordless chants repeating the same sounds in varying order. Dennis could see a glow through the window in the door of the camper and arose from under his blankets to see what was going on outside. When he got to the window he looked out and saw what looked like Native Americans singing and dancing around what was now a brightly flaring campfire. The Indians were dressed in buckskins and were alternately shuffling, high-stepping, twirling and swooping in a circle around that fire to the beat of a drummer or drummers who could not be seen from the camper window. After they had been watching for what seemed to be only a minute or two one of the dancers, carrying a feather fan and a rattle which seemed to be made of a turtle shell attached to the foreleg of a deer, detached himself from the circle and began to walk towards the camper. Dennis withdrew from the window and retreated to the back of the camper, and when the dancer looked through the window and directly at him he awoke with a jolt.

Dennis lay there for a minute, hoping that the violent start with which he awoke would not disturb Annette’s slumber, but when he had a minute to get his heart rate back under one hundred peats per minute he moved a bit. Annette then moved too and whispered “are you awake”?  “Yes” he replied. I just had a really frightening dream. I hope that I didn’t wake you up.” “I had a bad dream too” Annette said, and began to recount her dream to him. Not thirty seconds passed before Dennis realized that they had shared the same dream. Both he and Annette looked back at the camper window and saw a glow. Moving together slowly and silently they approached the window and peeked furtively around the edge from each side. Outside, where they had left a cold bed of dirt-covered ashes, was a brightly burning campfire.

Neither Dennis nor Annette said a word. They were already mostly dressed so they threw on their shoes, erupted out of the camper, and threw their gear inside without the least care for where it landed. Dennis fired up the engine as Annette buckled up her belt and they raced up that dirt road leaving a cloud of dust in the air and two streaks of rubber on the asphalt when they reached that lonely stretch of U.S Highway, which was no minor feat for an old pickup with a camper on the back. “We probably went a hundred miles before I looked in the rear-view mirror” said Dennis, which I guessed was an overstatement but I was too entranced by his story to point that out. “We were going through Flagstaff when the dawn began to show in the east and we only stopped to get gas, use the bathroom, and get snacks to eat while we drove straight through to home.”

I sat there for a couple of minutes, trying to digest what I had just heard.  As I mentioned earlier, I love a good ghost story but I never took them to be more than just that. I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about Don Juan and separate realities and all of that and wished rather than believed that any of it was real. In fact, I was quite the atheist at that time and not inclined to believe in anything that I could not verify with my five senses.  Nevertheless, I knew Dennis to be not at all unlike myself, and to hear this story from him, reluctantly told, was a powerful proof that he believed every word of it.

“And Annette would agree with this story” I asked? “If she would talk about it: Yes. She told me that she had no intention of discussing our experience with anyone, but I don’t mind if you ask her, and I really don’t think that she would mind you asking. Just don’t expect her to say much.”

In the end I did not ask Annette about it. I knew Dennis as well as I have ever known anyone and there was no doubt in my mind that he told me what he unshakably believes that he saw. Later I mentioned to Annette that Dennis had told me the story and that I didn’t need for her to comment; I only wanted her to know that I had come to believe what Dennis told me had really happened. Annette placed her hand on my forearm and merely said “Thank You.”

And so, if you were to ask me if I believe in ghost stories, and if I read those books and watch those movies with a different set of plausibility filters, my answer would be an unqualified “yes”.

The Complexities of Social Justice

     I heard a story the other day that I believe is important enough to share with others.  The story centers on a cold weather shelter which a church in my community opens up for a period of time in the dead of winter, when the weather is most likely to be at its worse.  The church has an indoor gym/basketball court upon the floor of which homeless families can spread a mat and catch a night’s sleep out of the elements.  There is also a kitchen, bathrooms and showers, so the guests can get a hot meal and clean up for a night and perhaps feel a little better about life for a while.  These homeless people can line up each night for a couple of weeks and after the adults blow into a breathalyzer (no drugs or alcohol permitted in this space) the families go in and reclaim their corner of the gym floor. Various churches in the community take turns monitoring and facilitating the process, and my church’s turn will come later in January.

     The speaker at my church told us a story about a family that helped last year, and particularly about a young boy who is a member of that family.  On their appointed evening the parents went about their chores while the little boy in question played with the children of the guest families.  As children are able to do, the differences in social position between servers and served were overlooked and he simply had a great time playing with another little boy.  When their four hour shift was over the parents gathered up their little one and began their drive home.  On the way the little boy was expressing how much fun he had had and how he wanted to play with his little friend again the next day.  “Well, we won’t be going back tomorrow” said his father.  “We only signed up for one evening.”  “Can’t we just go over to their house?” asked the little guy, seeing an obvious solution to the problem.  “No, we can’t” responded Mom.  “That little boy and his family don’t have a house.  That is why we were helping them to have a warm place to sleep tonight.”  The little boy thought about that for a while and as the concept that the family of his new friend did not have a home sank in he began to tear up.  “But where do they live when they are not at the church?” he asked.  “I don’t really know” replied Dad.  “Sometimes with friends for a while, or in their car.  I really don’t know.”  This was too much for the little boy to deal with.  He simply broke down and cried as Dad and Mom drove home.  Mom and Dad were weeping too by the time they arrived at their warm house and both ended up lying on the bed with their little son, comforting him and each other until at last he fell asleep.

     After hearing that story I meditated for a while on the concept of justice and its counterpoint, injustice.  The words get used in a great many different ways and their meanings can become murky.  One person’s injustice is another person’s just deserts, and so on.  Many people speak of social justice and injustice and it can be hard to pin those concepts down too firmly.  A baby is born to an addicted mother, and clearly the baby is a victim of injustice while the mother is guilty of breaking a plethora of moral and judicial laws, and is deserving of retributive justice.  But when that baby grows up with his capacity diminished by the drugs in his little preborn body and surrounded by the most marginal edges of society and then he is homeless, addicted and viewing life through a lens that doesn’t quite reflect the view from a safe and secure middle class life, has he ceased to be a victim of injustice?  He should most certainly be answerable to the law for infractions of that law, but is a bag of dope in his pocket going to get him a much more harsh sentence than the same bag of dope in the high school quarterback’s pocket?

     I could make this a longer bit of writing but I don’t want to preach.  The topic of social justice and injustice is a difficult and tangled one and if you believe that you have it all sorted; well, you don’t.  There are ins and outs, nuances and a galaxy of tangents and rabbit holes to be plunged into in a full discussion of this topic, and I do not propose to so discuss it.  Rather, I find it valuable to ask myself as I ponder the issue “does it break my heart?”  Do I weep because a little boy or a little girl does not have a home?  If not, why not?  Am I so calloused and hard that such a thing does not bother me?  Has this child tapped into the heart of God in a way that I, with my books read and sermons listened to and tedious opinions rendered to whomever would listen to me, have completely missed?.  I am uncomfortably certain that that is indeed the case, and I will have to give up a lot of my smug pride and false sense of superiority to even begin to understand what that little boy instinctively knows.

Movietime

Many years ago, before there were cineplexes, multiplexes, and myriad other megavenues for enjoying a movie, there was the neighborhood theater. Where I lived in San Diego there were three movie theaters within walking distance of my house and one more only a short bus ride away.  There were matinees every weekend and evening shows all week, and for only fifty cents a double feature could be had for a day’s or evening’s entertainment.

The theater closest to me was the Crest Theater, which was torn down in the early 1960’s after a forty year run, first as the Fairmont Theater and then later as the Crest. The building which housed the Crest sat on a corner of Fairmont and University Avenues and was home to multiple other small businesses. My first dentist had his office there, but that is a story that I would rather forget. The theater itself was all that you would expect of a neighborhood theater in the 1940’s and 50’s; one central block of seats separated from smaller blocks on either side by aisles which ran from the back to the front. Set in the back wall on the right, as one looked back from the stage, was a thick glass window. Behind the window was the “crying room”.  Accessed by way of a hall originating in the lobby, the crying room was reserved for mothers with crying infants who wanted to finish their evening’s entertainment without their squalling child driving everyone else in the building insane. I cannot say that I ever saw the crying room being used for that purpose and must assume that it spoke to a need that existed before I was old enough to go to the movies. Or maybe mothers with young children didn’t go to watch “Fiend Without a Face.”  Could go either way, I guess.

Going to the theater was one of my favorite activities when I was young, which was before parents were afraid to let their children get out of their sight. Most of my friends felt the same way and on a Saturday afternoon I was certain to find a large contingent of my neighborhood’s kids standing in line at the ticket box or already in the door and seated with a coke and a box of popcorn, or Jujubees, or Necco wafers, or licorice, or any of the other seemingly countless candies and other treats offered for a reasonable price at the snack bar. While we waited for the first feature to begin, which would be after a cartoon and the newsreel, we would flatten out our empty popcorn boxes and fly them like Frisbies, or shoot other kids with small white beans through our pea shooters. And then, after what seemed like an eternal wait, the lights would dim and the thick, red velvet curtain would begin to pull away exposing the screen, and it was finally time for the show to begin.

The 1950s were the glory years for the “B” science fiction genre, and between the Crest, the Academy, the State, and the slightly more distant North Park theaters we saw then all. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “The Thing”, “The Beast with Five Fingers”, “Fiend Without a Face”, they all paraded across the silver screen wrenching shrieks from the girls and stoic grimaces from the boys who were much too tough to make a sound at what was, after all, just a movie. Such courage was more apparent than real however. On more than one occasion I was slumped down in my overstuffed theater seat peering barely over the seat back in front of me just in case some gristly beast crawled out of one of my nightmares to jump onto the screen and challenge me in the darkened room. I ducked down from time to time, as did everyone else.

One time I was not prepared. The movie was “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and it was being shown in one of the downtown theaters, the Savoy or the Orpheum I believe, and it was being shown in something new called “3-D.” I had no clear idea what 3-D meant, but when my brother asked if I wanted to go with him I enthusiastically answered in the affirmative. I counted out what remained of that week’s allowance money and found that I had enough for both tickets and a couple of dimes left over to get us there and back on the bus. Brad, my brother, had used up all of his money for the week, hence the invitation to use mine.
We got to the theater, found seats right in the middle, and waited impatiently through the cartoon and newsreel and finally the introduction to the movie, which proceeded at the usual glacial pace. At last things began to heat up;  The good scientist clearly had the affection of the girl while the bad scientist wanted the girl and also wanted to kill rather than capture and study the monster. The boat captain with the weird sense of humor skillfully navigated his way into the Black Lagoon while the third scientist (who was last seen turning Michael Landon into the ‘Teenage Werewolf’) speculated that they might have bitten off more than they could chew.  About this time the girl decided to slip into the water and take a swim in the Black Lagoon. It was as she was doing the backstroke across the pond that Old Fishface boiled up out of the weeds and began to tickle her feet. In 3-D, remember.

I nearly shat my underwear. I did not see that one coming. I was nowhere near slumped back in my seat prepared to make that strategic dip of the head between the shoulders in order to block the view for the few moments I needed to take the edge off. I was sitting there flat-footed and amazed by the 3-D, not to mention the curves on the lovely lady taking a dip in the pool, and then BOOM! It was just him and me. I don’t believe that gravity alone can account for the speed with which I hit the floor.  There was some other power, as yet neither named nor described by science, that pulled me down to the floor at least three times faster than my weight and Newtonian physics would suggest was possible. The girl was safely out of the water and back on board the boat before I ventured to peek over the back of the seat in front of me again. That was one of my best days ever.

The only real downside to my neighborhood theater experience came about when we attended a late showing. In such cases the movies would begin in the bright San Diego sunshine, but by the time that the Giant Leeches had sucked their hapless victims dry, or The Tingler had broken every spine in sight, I would emerge from the Crest with the daunting challenge of making my way home in the dark. Home was located only two blocks and change away, but between point “A” and point “B” there were only three feeble corner street lamps to keep “Them” away from me.

My most frequent companion at these times was Wes. Wes and I were born 10 days apart on the same block and I have known him as long as I can remember. Wes had a considerable advantage when it came to surviving an evening trip from the Crest back to the safety of home; he lived one block closer to the theater than I did. We would cross busy and well lighted University Avenue and dive into the gloom of 44th Street, walking down the middle of the street so that we might have a head start if a slimy tentacle should shoot out from between the cars and trees that lined both sides of the street.  It was a comfort to have Wes there because even if we couldn’t outrun that tentacle and the scaly horror attached to it, I could at least hope that I would benefit from the luck of the draw, and the thing that “Came from Beneath the Sea” would take Wes instead of me. I feel quite confident that Wes was calculating the same odds. Upon reaching the end of the first block and regaining the limited safety of the first street light, Wes would break off of our mid street trajectory and veer to the right towards where his house sat on the corner of the alley which ran between Wightman and Landis Streets. My advantage of numbers disappeared when I saw Wes disappear through the front door. Now, there was only me, one long and pitch black block, and whatever else was lying in wait for me out there.

The dim illumination provided by the street lamp offered a glimmer of safety, but there was no way around the fact that I would not be secure until I disappeared behind my own front door, which waited for me a little more than a block away. As I began my trudge down the middle of 44th Street the glow of the street light was quickly swallowed up by the preternatural gloom which ruled the neighborhood like a tyrant with a spiked iron fist. There were houses facing out towards the right side of the street  which ran for the entire length of the block. Out from the living room windows and open front doors, if it happened to be warm (which it usually was in San Diego), light would usually shine, but it was never equal to the hungry darkness which allowed no challenge to it’s inky reign. I would not be fooled by those light’s empty promise of security into drawing closer to the right side of the street, thereby giving up any advantage that the middle of the street gave to me in the way of a head start.

The other side of the street, the left side, in latere sinistro, presented it’s own unique challenge. On the corner was a church building which was nearly always dark at this hour. After the church there were two houses which were usually dark and offered little cheer, and then came the Park.  The Park was a nearly all-block complex of buildings, fields and courts, and the tennis court was the first thing to meet me as I passed the Last House on the Left. I felt no more threat from the tennis court in the abstract than I felt from any other part of my journey, but that dark expanse of concrete provided to me an awful temptation, and therein lay its real threat. Just a few yards past the far corner of the court lay the lighted basketball court and the recreational center buildings beyond that.  The lights and the activity that could frequently be seen on the other side of the tennis court were inviting but the tennis court presented a challenge that I would not rise up to; it was surrounded by a twelve foot chain link fence and was not lighted.

I will not present myself as a guy who can never be swindled. I have bought more than one metaphoric bridge in my life. But even I, at my tender age, was smart enough to not get suckered by a promise of a quicker release from my anguish of fear into taking that short-cut which took me into a dark cage with gates at only three corners. Tempted as I was, I knew that my chances of completing a traverse of that sepulchral tennis court was exactly zero, so on I maintained my course into the continuing gloom down the middle of 44th Street.

After the tennis court came the shuffleboard courts, low gray buildings with a high and solid wall around the whole complex. The senior citizens of the neighborhood would gather there on weekends and didn’t need to be pestered by the noisy and irreverent kids like myself who infested the rest of the park. At night though the building was silent and brooding, providing ample cover for giant ants, blobs, flies or teenaged this-or-thats which might be lurking in search of a snack.

Passing the shuffleboard courts I only had a small field left to get past until I reached the light at the next intersection. Already I was beginning to make out the colors of the cars parked to my right as the light from the streetlamp on the corner of Landis and 44th wrestled with the dark for primacy in this tiny corner of the city. The shrubs which surrounded the field on the left were losing their malice as I began to make out each individual shape of the bushes among which I played during the daytime.  The increasing light lifted a weight of dread off of me and I rounded the corner, now less than a half-block from my home and with one more street lamp between me and there.

Feeling increasingly safe I nevertheless stayed in the middle of Landis Street until I passed the dark open mouth of the alley (no sense in being foolish with success within my grasp) and then casually strolled around the next corner, patting the pole of the third street lamp affectionately, and scampered four more houses down Highland Avenue to where I disappeared into the safety behind my own front door.

I am now in my sixties and those old childish fears seem silly to me.  I can hardly believe that I was once afraid of…, wait a minute!  What was that noise?