Today being Halloween, everyone is primed for a good ghost story. Or, even, a bad ghost story!
I’d be the last to judge what this story is. Honestly, it’s just a foggy memory now, a moment when something presented itself to me– be it ghosts, spirits, the weight of history and the responsibility of remembrance, or simply a stubborn curiosity that sets my mind reeling and senses on high alert when I know there’s a story to be told that I will never be able to tell. Curiosity. About things that aren’t yours to know. Maybe that’s what haunts us as much as anything.
Well, there’s a way to end your story before you start it! Ha!
Oops. Let me start over. Forget you heard that first part.
“The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” William Faulkner
It was a dark and stormy night. As nights are want to be. I was in my early 20’s, working a summer job for a law firm that had ramped up operations to a nearly around the clock venture while embroiled in a high stakes courtroom battle involving big tobacco and wrecked human lives. Tobacco being the lifeblood of the NC economy for many years, the high stakes and potential for human wreckage on either side of this courtroom struggle created a true war theater atmosphere.
Teams of attorneys from NC and DC gathered. Court reporters typed furiously all day and transcribed late into the evening. Students in need of summer jobs were paid small stipends to be part of the grease that kept the wheels of corporate litigation moving smoothly. Sometimes these students served as “runners,” picking up documents and reports here, dropping off memorandums and documents there, acting as the pony express on a battlefield littered with lives and money. I reported for duty.
It’s no surprise that, as a small player and running messenger in this theater of struggle, I might find myself confronted by souls from another struggle for a brief but impactful moment. Historical harbingers. Etheriel reminders. Young souls, fated to find themselves caught in the theater of war at another time, who might simply whisper in my ear as I crossed their hallowed ground.
Let me set the stage:
It was 1989, a late summer night, and I barreled across the Battlefield at Guilford Courthouse on my trusty, albeit rusty, steed: a 1981 Honda Prelude. Red. My first car, bought used and lacking in air conditioning, because I could either afford a car with air conditioning or a car with a sunroof– there was no having both. I had my priorities and looked back with no regrets . . . although I spent many a summer sweating profusely. But that’s another story.
It was as hot as Hades, the moon was full, or nearly so, and (if you’ll forgive the dramatic observation) the hour was roughly midnight.
It had been a routine evening up to that point. I was leaving my evening shift, while dozens of attorneys and paralegals were still slogging away at desks in the years just before email made communication across town, or across the world, virtual and instantaneous. I was asked to make a late stop at someone’s home to pick up a court document for the office. That home was in the area around the old Guilford Battlefield.
I’d been to the battlefield park in the daytime before. I’d read the plaques, stuck to the manicured paths, seen the statues. I knew the textbook version of events. But I’d never really wondered about the soldiers, the actual lives being lived and lost on that battlefield. A total failure of imagination on my part– thinking history was the dull and dusty stuff captured on a weathered page.
My attitude must have offended those souls who knew better.
Enter my trusty steed, racing across the battlefield–sticking to the roads, but cutting through an area flanked by fields, scarred patches of ground where rocks and dark, rotten sticks jut up out of the soil where life’s struggles have planted them. A rugged spot with no paths and plaques to lead you safely through the textbook story.
It was a dark and balmy night, and I drove my Honda with windows and sunroof open to the elements, down a quiet road crossing the battlefield, flanked by split rail fences. But no sooner had I turned down this path than my anemic headlights yielded something astonishing. I was suddenly surrounded by dense clouds. The air was still and soundless, until the “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” of my Honda pushing through the fog became deafening.
Was it fog?
Suddenly, it seemed that I was pushing through bodies of fog, regiments of fog marching through me in lines, in battle formations– ranks of shadowy soldiers still marching into combat.
The waves of fog rolled in, breaking upon me, pressing through me, every trembling cold hand, every thread-bare knee, every face, determined or terrified, unaware that time had entwined them with my century. Through the fences they marched, through the rough split rails into the grassy fields and into the scarred patches. Lanky and lovely, they marched where the dew would soon form on the grass, where now the smell of sulfur and flesh has given way to the smell of fresh cut grass and occasional car exhaust. They marched to the middle of the field and disappeared from view.
Dumbfounded, I barely idled down the road for a moment, confused but keenly aware that I was breathing deeply, filling my lungs with the smell of this soil that holds tightly is victory and loss. Humid, heavy air that, it seems, catches fast the impression of every hand, every face, every soul whose fate has been bound to her.
How had I ended up in this theater of war? Me and my careworn Honda, running messages for corporate litigators waging their own battles– I couldn’t even tell you today whether I stood on the side of the right or wrong in that battle. I was just the Pony Express, just the pawn to the deal makers.
I’m sure there were young soldiers in 1781 who found themselves on that battlefield with little more understanding of the power struggle at hand than I had that night in 1989.
On All Hallows’ Eve, moving toward All Souls’ Day, I pay these soldiers my respects. How their timeline crossed mine, I’m not sure. Whether their corporeal spirits crossed mine, I’m not sure. But of this, I am sure: the universe gifted me an unbidden and unexpected moment of curiosity. A moment to lift the dull, dusty textbook story from its library shelf and place its real-as-you-and-me lives in my path. And, after shaking off the shock, I was amazed and grateful.
You can keep your slasher movies on Halloween– they unsettle my spirit and make my skin crawl. But I’ll gladly embrace the stories, the souls, and the power of curiosity whenever and wherever they choose to visit me.
The tiny chapel in the woods behind our house in Germany: I find myself missing it today in the metropolitan hum of suburban DC with the tiniest of snow flurries falling. What I wouldn’t give for a German Christmas Market, a dusting of snow, and a tiny chapel behind my stone house.
Wishing you each a season that is merry and bright!
“His name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.” The Scotsman, December 24, 2004
Ebenezer Scrooge– his story is synonymous with Christmas these days, his changed fate is the stuff of redemption stories (“Christ was born for this” to be sure), and his hauntings both thrill our narrative nerves and warn us of our own shortcomings. Most of us roll our eyes when A Christmas Carol comes on TV for the umpteenth time in the wind up to Christmas, but it’s a tale well told and it probably deserves its stature as a holiday classic.
These days, Dickens is even recognized as a key “inventor” of our modern Christmas traditions. He and his Victorian age put a certain stamp and feeling on the holiday that we still embrace: carolers, Christmas trees, gifts and goodies, and a St. Nick who was less complex and more “festive elf” than the saint of years past and countries east. None of the traditions was new, but the packaging and cheer of it was differently polished and easily palatable. The general rallying cry? “God bless us, every one!”
Charles Dickens had a well tuned sensibility about what made for a good tale. But how funny would it be if this Christmas tale of his was founded on a misunderstanding? What if Ebenezer Scrooge was birthed by a mistake, a misplaced letter, and an imagination that barreled full speed ahead?
It’s said that Charles Dickens kept a diary. And that diary kept a secret about A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843. While in Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a stroll through Canongate Churchyard (or Kirkyard, as the locals would say). It was evening and the light was dimming. He paused at the tombstone of an Ebenezer Scroggie (1792-1836) and mused at the inscription “A Mean Man.” What horrible person had this Ebenezer been, that his epitaph would be so harsh?
Not only did Dickens note this in his diary, but clearly he puzzled it over to the point that Ebenezer Scrooge was born and fully fleshed out in a tale that would delve into that miserly past but offer a redemptive future, if only Scrooge would take it. Poor, mean old Scroggie could finally be redeemed.
Except that, as the kirkyard tale goes, Scroggie wasn’t a mean man. In fact, by some reports he was quite the bon vivant. Scroggie, who was a vintner and corn/grain merchant, was actualy a Meal Man. Dickens needed better glasses.
You can’t verify this story, I’m afraid. Scroggie’s grave marker was removed in 1932, during kirkyard redevelopment. However, you can read more about Dickens and Scroggie here.
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can enjoy your own stroll through Canongate Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s quite a beautiful church on the Royal Mile, close to the Houses of Parliament and Holyrood Palace. Back in September, I found myself strolling the Royal Mile and happened into the church. It was a slow day, and a young docent was eager to bend my ear about the bright and beautiful space. Interestingly, the space is especially bright and beautiful because of it’s sad past.
The church was built in 1690, with a Dutch gable to the façade. It’s simple and elegant, and just a little different from everything around it in Edinburgh.
The interior was to be refurbished in the late 1930’s, but WWII intervened and a war time of belt tightening and serious endeavors put that on hold temporarily. In December of 1945 the work was started, and it was finished in 1952. This is significant because, according to the docent, it changed the tone of the work done. The parish, as the United Kingdom, had suffered and lost much during the war. The number of young soldiers who did not return home was a wound that would be long in healing. And so the decision was made that the interior space must be light and bright, must be cheerful and uplifting– a reminder that, though sorrow was heavy, the world was a beautiful place and this was a space for rejoicing as much as grieving.
Still today, the interior of the church uplifts. To me, it has a nautical sensibility, at least in its coloring (though it’s possible that I’m influenced by the sea gull cries that are heard over the skies of Edinburgh– a constant subliminal reminder that you are in a port town nestled by the North Sea).
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, it’s worth your time to take a peek into Canongate Kirk. I guarantee that you won’t leave saying “Ba Humbug”!
A very merry Christmas and happy holiday season to you all! (And may God bless us, every one!)
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door-
Only this, and nothing more.” -EA Poe
Here’s hoping that only hungry trick or treaters come tapping at your chamber door this evening.
Happy Halloween, everyone! Have fun and stay safe!