I have only told this story to a select few because of that age-old fear of being labeled “crazy”, but well, I really do believe in ghosts. I have encountered a few in my life and shouldn’t be ashamed. Here is the earliest I can remember. I thought it would be appropriate for this day.
1983-1984 had been an eventful year. I was a sophomore at Penn State, University Park Campus. Fall was a kaleidoscopic of colors and I was living in Thompson Hall, in a corner room with two windows. I loved that room besides the size, the amount of light and the ability to sit in the window and watch the world walk by. I remember the poster of Tom Selleck on the wall for my crush on Magnum, PI. He was decked out in the USA Men’s volleyball uniform from the Olympics because, and not many might know this, Selleck was a pretty darn good beach volleyball player. Even played professionally, long before it became so popular and dominates the Olympics. And I played volleyball, have been since I could hold a v-ball in my two little hands. Mom was a coach, referee and so I played. It is my favorite sport besides swimming.
It seemed every time I turned on the radio, the first song was “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” and it would be the herald of dreaded, ominous events for a few years. That first week of classes I learned that a good friend had been killed in a motorcycle accident over the summer. We had met that first summer in 1982 and had tried to stay in touch. He was a great guy. A few days later my 90-year-old grandfather passed away after a suffering a stroke earlier in the summer. Several high school buddies had already passed and at the age of twenty, that thought of invincibility was pretty nicked up. I really missed my grandfather since we had been buddies my whole life.
Penn State is just like any other major university campus around the United States. We have our quirks, our traditions, our ‘culture’ and nuances. We aren’t as closed off as you might think. Even back then we were a pretty diverse campus with a lot of the globe represented. Every student goes through that stage of shock and awe, then blissful ignorance, anger, and hatred that eventually evolves, matures into understanding. I love my alma mater and still do, even after all that has happened. But I digress, I want to speak of ghosts.
That fall JJ and I, my room-mate at the time, were enjoying the freedom of being so close to classes instead of out in East Halls in nomad land. We both dreaded that walk across the infamous expanse of artic winds of parking lot 80. We had camped out in the spring of 1983 almost a whole week to gain prime housing for the fall. We even got our picture in the Daily Collegian with our other friends at the time; a happy bunch buried under mounds of sleeping bags. We wanted West Halls; we got West Halls. We were looking forward to football season after celebrating JoePa’s first National Championship of 1982. JJ was in the Blue Band and taking advantage of the fall colors, had been outside practicing her flag twirls. She bounded into the room an hour or so before dinner and plopped down on her bed. Maybe she was already there but my mind just pictures her outside tossing her fake gun in their air or her flag. As I said, she was on the bed, grabbed something to read as I brushed my hair before the mirror. JJ had a milk crate on its side beside her bed and acted as a shelf for her ‘boom’ box, glass ash tray and cigarettes. We chit chatted as I started refreshing my make-up. I remember she had music playing or the radio on the box as we talked about the good-looking football players that lived in the dorm opposite or some other guy that we had christened ‘hot’ in those first few days. I had my back to her and put my brush down.
I heard this hard snap.
I frowned, looking in the mirror. The drapes were drawn allowing the fresh sweet autumn air to swirl through and looked at them, thinking one had been caught by the wind and hit the wall. No. I heard it again, turned around and looked at JJ. She was looking at me. “What is that?”
“I don’t know.”
We heard it again. I moved closer, “Turn your box off, maybe something is broken.”
She did, it did it again. The sound was something falling with a deep thud on a hard surface. I inched closer to her bed and looked at her. It sounded again. “Is that you?”
“No.” Again the sound and I looked down because it sounded like something was rapping against the milk crate. I watched the crate and then fell on my butt, hard as the glass ash tray lifted about two inches off the crate and dropped back down. I looked at JJ, she hadn’t moved. I looked back at the crate for it did it again. I watched the ash tray. It rose and dropped. I crab walked back, rolled to my feet. “You didn’t?”
She crazily laughed, “No.” We bolted out of the room for dinner. I don’t remember if we told anyone, not even Eberlyn our RA.
September rolled into October, into November and we had to face the reality of losing our next door neighbor. I am sorry that I do not remember her name but she had a severe asthma attack in her room and died several days later at hospital. I remember the sounds, the look of total fear on her face, our controlled panic, the want to help, the desperate waiting for the ambulance and watching her carried out. I remember the anguish, the heartache and the moment of uncontrollable sobbing as my friends comforting me in a panic attack. I don’t remember if that song played on the radio or not that fortnight. But I remember the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when I turned on the radio and it was the first song I heard. I remember asking people, family, friends to turn it off. The lyrics to this day are stuck in my head.
JJ moved on to another housing arrangement. I don’t remember if it was to get away from the sadness, the reality or what? I think she moved to a frat. I got a new roommate and wasn’t happy. My grades suffered. Winter was particularly cold as friendships soured. I remember running out into the night, into the snow and crying after a nasty spat and wondering why. I was turning a corner and realizing just how fragile anyone could be. I needed to be tougher.
The new roommate didn’t last long and I remember I had the room to myself for a few weeks till Christmas break, perhaps longer upon our return. Then Kathy moved in and we were cool. Winter broke its hold and sweet spring shoved it aside. I remember our beds were in an L-shaped configuration and mine was closest to the door; my head at the shelves against the wall. I sleep on my stomach, always have. I curl around my pillows and bury under the covers until you only see my nose or the tuff of my hair at the top of my head. I am a burrower and love that cocoon.
I opened my eyes and the room was cast in shadows, probably about 7:30 in the morning for the sun was shining beyond the closed drapes. The light was on over our dresser. I don’t remember if we had left it on or not; I just remember it was on. I saw Kathy standing, brushing her hair….but it wasn’t her. I looked at her bed and could see the hills and valleys that marked the line of her feet to her head. I turned back to the mirror and froze, frightened and awestruck. I thought one of my male friends had slipped in or Kathy’s boyfriend had spent the night. I was wrong. Nope.
Then I realized it was a gray outline of a shape of man. And then he morphed. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks but to this day, I know I was wide awake. I remember the goosebumps, my hair tingling on my arms, the nape of my neck and standing straight up. I shivered, heart racing. He was about 5’8″ tall, dressed in ‘tennis’ whites of the ’20s. He was brushing back his hair with an oval hair brush, wrapped around his hand. His hair was thick and dark. His sweater was long-sleeved and his trousers pressed to sharp crease. He turned and looked at me, smiled and turned back. He put the brush down and used his hands to fix his hair. I swallowed or at least tried to, past the lump of excitement, fear in my throat. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, wishing he was gone. I opened and he was still there reaching his hand for things on the dresser; his clear outline fading back to gray.
I bolted out of bed, grabbed my toiletries, unlocked the door and ran for the bathroom. I remember the shaking as I tried to get warm under a hot shower spray. I didn’t want to return to the room. I did, dressed and don’t know if I told Kathy. I wrote it down in my journal.
I remember that morning very clearly. I remember the sharp and sweet smells. I remember how I felt and my reaction. Those memories are still sharp in my mind after 29 years.