I had taken the mysterious photographs with my 35mm camera in the pitch-dark basement of an old, abandoned church. In the summer of 1972, a few days after graduating from high school, I entered the church through a side door, stepped over rat droppings and busted pews bearing rusted screws, and crept down the dank concrete steps.
Extinguishing my hand-held light, I aimed at nothing and clicked the shutter a few times, each flash illuminating a desolate array of dusty angular junk for a lingering microsecond. After developing the film, we were amazed to see a procession of spectral orbs floating through an eerily lit room toward the camera.
One explanation for the glowing spheres is that dust particles, stirred by my presence, had reflected the bright flash from the camera, causing an optical illusion. Roger and I didn’t accept that cop-out any more than we believed a few scraps of aluminum foil weather balloon could account for the plethora of witnesses to the UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. As far as we were concerned, this was going into our newspaper, The Astral Beat, as a ghostly manifestation.
Roger and I were enthusiastic fans of anything involving unexplained mysteries. This was before the actual television shows, Unexplained Mysteries, Ghost Hunters, or In Search Of. There were plenty of books and magazines on the subject, but reading other people’s accounts of strange phenomena was not enough for us. We wanted to be a part of it.
We proclaimed ourselves investigators of the paranormal. Our friends Anne and Nancy proclaimed us goofballs who embellished the truth to legitimize our games and to convince local businesses to buy ads in our otherwise amateur rag, the aforementioned Astral Beat.
Roger was a natural born PR man. Almost seven feet tall and still in shape from playing high school basketball, he could be imposing, but most of the time he was friendly and articulate. To tone down his intimidating stature, Roger’s girlfriend Anne, an aspiring hairstylist of the emerging scissor-cut school, feathered his thick brown curls to contour naturally around his big head, a popular coiffure among rock musicians that year. He usually wore an open white buckskin vest, with western tassels, over various band logo T-shirts.
Roger had recently sold a full-page ad to Rock City Records & Tapes because the store manager, Meg Longino, was into New Age.
“You know about that Wicca commune in Roanoke?” Roger asked her. “How the local churches are harassing them for supposedly practicing witchcraft?”
“Yeah, man,” said Meg, chin raised, eyes obscured by the ruby glint in her rectangular granny glasses. “I read something about that in the paper. The Wicca folk should have freedom of religion like anyone else! They observe the seasons, man. The cycles of the harvest.”
“And,” added Roger, “They have herbs and roots that heal sickness and bring visions. The big drug companies don’t like that because they don’t want anybody to learn about natural healing. My friend Whit is writing a story on it.”
“Fight the power,” agreed Meg Longino quietly. “Yeah, I’ll buy an ad.”
My attempt to look hip was nowhere near as seamless as Roger’s was. My hair always looked like it needed a trim because I only went to the barbershop when pressed by my parents, and then refused to go again for two or three months. This resulted in choppy, ragged bangs and fuzz on the back of my neck. Still wearing slacks and shirts my mother bought me at the department store where she worked, I showed the world that I eschewed convention by pulling out my shirttail as soon as I left the house, and by drawing colorful patterns on the white toes of my Converse sneakers with ink markers.
At least one psychiatrist has labeled my lifelong thirst for a genuine supernatural experience obsessive. This obsession, or as I prefer to call it, field of study, would eventually carry me across the ocean and, some would say, propel me into insanity. Others say I was insane from the get-go. Looking back, I always did have a secret morbid side, even as a child.
Roger said he believed in the paranormal as much as I did, but he always told me, “Whit, I know we are convinced, but we have to construe it for our readers.”
We had developed a system of presenting supernatural phenomena that we called the “three-point construct.” There always had to be at least three points. The ghostly orbs floating in the church basement is a perfect example. We looked up the history of the church to see if we could dig up any dirt.
According to the archives at the public library, the abandoned Gothic structure had once been Grace Lutheran Church until the Lutherans built a bigger, more modern facility, and sold the old church to the city. Some people wanted to tear it down and build a parking garage for City Hall. Others voted to preserve the church as a historical landmark due to its 19th Century Gothic architecture, with the high pointed steeple, stone archways, stained glass windows, and bell tower. The Town Council formed a committee to avoid doing anything for a while. That was two years ago.
We scanned the obituaries for people who had died under the Lutherans’ tenure. A man named Crebnor Miles had died from tuberculosis on August 3, 1912 at the age of forty. The wife, son, and daughter that survived him held a memorial service at Grace Lutheran Church, where they were members.
We looked up the church in an old book about our small town, called A History of Hansburg, Virginia.
“This is perfect,” said Roger. “Look.”
Back in 1910, the book said, a fire destroyed several buildings and apartments in the downtown area. The Lutheran church didn’t burn, so it provided temporary shelter to all the people who lost their homes to the fire. Neighbors donated clothing, blankets, pillows, and food. The assemblage soon discovered that one man among them had tuberculosis. Fearing that his wife and children might also be infected, they quarantined the whole family in the basement of the church. Could that man have been Crebnor Miles?
We had our three-point construct. If anyone questioned the connection between Crebnor Miles and the Lutheran church, we had (1) the obituary, officially documenting his memorial service at said place of worship. If anyone doubted that people had ever been (2) quarantined in the church basement, we had a record of that. While there was no record that Crebnor Miles had been among that group, or for that matter, that anyone actually died in the church basement, I had (3) a photograph of disembodied spirits floating in that very place!
“I have a good feeling about this one,” I said. “I think there’s something to it!”
“Oh, me too,” Roger agreed. “Me, too. What we need is a quote. We need to visit Old Baxter.”
Old Baxter lived across town at the end of a dirt road. His mobile home, ensconced under a shady chestnut tree amid briars, vines, and wildflowers, was actually a 1946 Airfloat travel trailer, made of aluminum and magnesium from refurbished World War II airplane parts.
The trailer looked like a space-age moon rover, something out of Buck Rogers. Looking back, I would call it retro, with the clean stylish lines of a solid-state art deco radio. A horizontal red stripe ran along the side, under the windows and across the door. I almost expected to see tailfins. The forward curve on the front end of the trailer held a convex observation window, flanked by two convex vent panels, textured with silvery ridges.
The first time we visited Baxter, to arrange a liquor transaction, he confided that sometimes, late at night, he saw the ghosts of an ill-fated flight crew that still refused to abandon their station. That disclosure had given us material for Issue # 1 of our tabloid.
Baxter usually needed a couple of dollars for some tonic.
“I mix it with sassafras root for my arthritis,” he explained.
We gave Baxter enough money to get two bottles of whiskey, one for him and one for us. It was a good way to score alcohol until we were old enough to buy it ourselves.
“You boys can wait in the backyard,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
Behind the camper trailer, in a patch of dirt by the chestnut tree, we sat in decorative but corroded wrought iron chairs that must have looked good twenty years ago at some sidewalk café. Roger rested his arms on a round, glass-topped table, rolling a joint. Insects buzzed in the honeysuckle-scented sunshine beyond our shaded nook. By the time Baxter returned from the liquor store, the buzzing had clicked into a symphony synchronized with the sparkling molecules around us.
Leaving his bottle inside the trailer, Baxter emerged from the back door with a coffee cup full of whiskey. He handed our bottle to Roger, who opened it, took a sip, and handed it to me.
“What you boys want to know?” he asked.
“Do you remember something about people being put in the basement of the Lutheran Church after the big fire?”
“Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” said Baxter in a vague tone. “I was just a little feller, but I’ll never forget it.”
“In 1912?” I said.
“That’s right,” said Baxter. “I’ll never forget my daddy tellin’ me about it. ‘Course I was only, uh, not born yet, but yeah. Human beings herded into a cold stone basement like cattle. A terrible chapter in the history of Hansburg . . ."