“On Ghost Tales.”

M.J. Downing

Back in late 1972 or early 1973, I heard a ghost in the dormitory of the old firehouse at Preston and Marret Streets here in Louisville. In that big room, full of firemen’s bunks, there was always a little light, though it did not go far back into the dark corners. Whatever winds there were whistle through its old windows and shook the frames. And, the only sounds were usually men’s snores or the heavy tread of their feet on the hundred year old floor when the “Knock out” klaxon sounded and roused them. Then, they’d each wake, with varying degrees of success, head for their apparatus, rush out into the night, and go fight a fire.

            I hoped to avoid a call to a fire that night, for I was bone weary from one earlier in the day, which involved a great many heavy ladders and a good deal of shoveling-out of fire debris. With nothing much on my wind except sleep, I walked into the dormitory, plopped down on my bunk, and began to untie my shoes. My bed was closer to the light source of the exit sign and that which spilled in around the swinging door from the dorm lobby. I was, after all, a “newboy,” and would not get another better bed in some dark corner where the sleeping came easier. That night, it didn’t matter, for I was, as I said, quite worn out.

            I make mention of my fatigue because, I realize, that it is quite possible for someone to say that I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed and dreamed the whole event.  That is the unfortunate context of many a ghost tale, and so, a given as to why so many of them seem to lack credibility. But I believe this happened just as follows.

            Both shoes off, I rose and began to turn down my bed, but from the opposite row of bunks, down in the shadows of the street end of the building, loud footfalls came, pounding down the length of the row of some ten beds, and though I searched with wide eyes, much younger eyes, I might add, no shape of any kind rose before me.  The footsteps came just the same, heading in my direction. My pillow clutched in shaking hands, I stood awaiting—I knew not what.

            And they stopped, just at the level of my bed, on the other side of the trapdoor that opened ‘round a pole with which one could make a quick, safe drop to the apparatus floor below, also with varying degrees of success (See my earlier blog posts for that but of unfortunate humor). Those steps did not carry on, but I did, out into the well lit lobby beyond, shoeless, clutching my pillow, heart pounding.

            “Was that a ghost?” I asked aloud. No answer.

            Poking my head out the staircase doors, I asked the men watching tv on the apparatus floor, “Who else is up here?”

            “Just you, you useless m@ther f@*#er And stop runnin’ will ya?” You know, the usual response. But they had heard it too, unless they referred to the sound of my socked feet in the dorm lobby. So, I went back to my bunk, pulled the covers over my head, and eventually went to sleep.  But I didn’t sleep soundly until the other articulate gentlemen retired for the night, an hour or two later.

            Now, a firehouse, when it has reached a hundred years of age, which Engine #15 and Truck #3 had passed by then, is the sort of place that is a perfect setting for a ghost story. Three men, one of whom had been stationed at Truck#3, my company, had met his death in the Parkmoor Bowling Alley fire of 1960. Red Wilson was his name, a sergeant, I think. That very winter, in a burned out shotgun house on St. Catherine Street, I would witness a shovel push itself away from the wall it leaned against at a steep angle and topple over—not down and flat— to the floor in front of mine and several other firemen’s feet.

            “Old Red’s here,” someone said. “Makes runs with us, every once in a while.” Laughter and jokes about his lack of actual work on the fire-grounds ensued. I stood remembering the footfalls heading toward me—or maybe heading to the pole, from the other end of the room and took stock of my experiences and those few I’d gleaned from a few other firemen willing to talk about hearing and seeing strange things around that old building—as well as others like it around the city.

            Just now, ghost stories abound in this season, with three weeks or so to go until Halloween, and all of them make good sense to the people who have experienced them first hand.  If they are willing to talk about it, it is likely because the experience meant something to them, even something undefined, as my experience had been. Rational explanations abound for all of them, but the experience stays alive in the memory of the one who experienced it, which has led me to speculate about something that might be true.

            I am not a parapsychologist, let it be known.  There are no diplomas on my wall lending my opinion credibility, but what if the ghosts we experience, through any sense, have more to do with who the person is having the experience?  What if it is psychology in some sense, even if not that which measures electromagnetic fields or temperature shifts in a room? What if it is about abilities of which we are not aware and maybe even science doesn’t know how to quantify or qualify?

            In my case, I have only ever heard ghostly things, experiences that defy my rational ability to explain. There was the ghost I heard in U.of L.’s Bingham Humanities Building late one night in 1985. Again, heavy footfalls rushing up to the spot where I stood, in room 213, which, then, was a huddle of carrels used by graduate teaching assistants.  Again, back then, I hunted for some other source, outside of my head, for the explanation. I found one in a graduate student who had left our program, a troubled Vietnam vet, who committed suicide shortly after his departure. 

            Again, slightly later, I heard the ghost of a cat, playing with his ping-pong ball in the hallway outside where I slept. Looking up, I saw shadowing shapes like his small furry feet passing outside the door, in the light of the hallway. Hearing is my gift, my symptom, my psychic ability?  It would seem to make sense, to a degree, given that it has happened often enough, without my seeking it, to make it seem real.

            “My seeking” seems important.  My mother died from cancer in 1958. I had just turned four. Perhaps I developed an ability to listen for her to come back to me that goes beyond what I can choose to do, being a part of my make up. It would be nice to think that all those footfalls were some evidence that she did come back to me, somehow, someway, and that she came when I didn’t even recognize that I needed her.  I cannot remember actually hearing her footsteps, but would they have been as heavy, as intent to almost reach me?  I don’t know, and, to tell you the truth, it’s a chilling kind of speculation. What do you hear?

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