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”.