(Another one from my archives, as I continue to move them; this one is about my dad.)
My late father was not an imaginative man, which is why I took his story of a strange day at Fort McClellan, Alabama, in the summer of 1963 seriously.
Dad had come home from the army in 1960, but was on reserve and therefore sent for training to Fort McClellan for two weeks that summer. On one particular day they were out on manuevers when they came up on a little cove surrounded by three hills–I am not familiar with Fort McClellan’s geography; I’m just recalling the way Dad described it–and he said he got that odd feeling the French call deja vu–literally already seen; that feeling you’ve been in a place you KNOW you’ve never been before.
He told his fellow soldiers, “If we go back into that cove a little ways, we’re gonna come up on a little ol’ deserted log cabin.”
They carried him high about that one, about how hillbillies are like that–but finally some of them accompanied him back into the cove. There, in a tangle of underbrush and tall trees, they found the log cabin–doorless, windowless, obviously long deserted.
But then, he said, he told them this: “If we go a few more yards into the woods, there’s a grave back here too.”
You guessed it. They walked back behind the cabin, into the woods, and there, in a tiny cleared place, they found a grave. Dad said it had a name and dates still legible on it; it was, if I remember right, a little girl’s grave.
Dad had never been to Fort McClellan before, and never went back after those two weeks.
He had a few other stories like that: one about riding a train through Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, about five o’clock one morning, with mist rising off the river. He said, “That was the spookiest little town I ever saw. I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to look up and see old John Brown walk out of that fog.”
John Brown, of course, was the radical abolitionist hanged in 1859 for his raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. He is, in fact, the most famous of Harper’s Ferry’s ghosts. I sort of think Dad always regretted not seeing him.
And one final story that he told about his time overseas:
Dad was stationed, during his European tour, at a base between Augsburg and Munich, in what was then West Germany. He wasn’t very far from the dreadful concentration camp at Dachau; he often talked about how there was still an indescribable smell of death in the air on days of rain and fog and low clouds that came from there–fifteen years after it was liberated.
Just before he came home in 1960, they went on what he called a hundred mile road march that took them all the way to the border of Austria. He talked about how beautiful and clean the little towns they went through were–and about one little churchyard they passed.
The way I understood it, the church itself had been damaged during the Second World War; German troops, possibly SS, had been holed up in the sanctuary and Allied troops had used a tank gun to blow a hole into the side of the building to dig them out. There was a graveyard behind the church; it was walled in, with the back wall of the church being the fourth. The graves were all old ones, he said, surrounding a tall stone cross. There had been a murderous firefight among the graves, and every one of the tombstones was pocked and chipped by flying bullets.
There was not one single mark on the stone cross, though.
That always stayed with Dad, a not-especially-religious hillbilly boy, more than anything else he saw in Germany.