When the lights went out in the ancient locker room with an audible click from the timer, my immediate reaction was to be careful not to walk into anything en route to where my clothes were. Even though I was alone in the gym after midnight hours, there was not anything immediately spooky on my radar. Yet.
It was October 1985, and I was stationed at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York. It is situated on the west bank of Lake Champlain, directly across the water from Burlington, Vermont. I used to enjoy the ferry ride across the water, back and forth.
At Plattsburgh AFB there is (or was) a main base and an “old” base, known as Old Post. Route 9 lies between the two, with the Old Post hard by the water of Lake Champlain, and a set of active railroad tracks running north and south.
As a member of the security police, myself and my fellow airmen were tasked with guarding the aircraft and weapon storage areas of this Strategic Air Command Base. A tedious yet important job, as the Cold War was still going on back then. Like Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington (where I was also stationed, and came to know and love), Plattsburgh AFB had FB-111 fighters/bombers poised for counterstrike if there was a threat.
The above-mentioned incident was facilitated by my impulse to ingratiate myself with my new roommate in the barracks. Our pickup basketball games after the 3 to 11 p.m. shift would carry us way past midnight. I thought I would try not to wake him by showering at the gym then returning to the barracks.
So, when I suggested to my buddies at around 2 a.m., “Go ahead, you guys, I’m going to take a shower and I’ll lock up,” I should have paid more attention to their concerned glances. “Are you sure you want to do that?” they asked. “It’s kind of lonely here.” This from my otherwise rugged and competitive friends.
“No, it’s okay,” I said, with a young man’s bravado. With one last look over their shoulders, they departed. I locked the front glass doors and headed downstairs to the locker room.
I was showering in the basement, which was next to a weight room. Working off of memory now, I am more than reasonably sure I heard odd noises which could have been from the clanging of the ancient hot water heater pipes. I do remember the lights going out while I showered; it must have been on a motion sensor, but still. I walked carefully to my locker, and the lights either came back on or I hit the switch again. In a hurry now, I made sure I wasn’t forgetting anything and went upstairs to the front entrance. You had to go up another flight of steps to the floor of the basketball court; I thought I heard someone and stuck my head in the gym and called out, “ Anyone there? I’m getting ready to lock up.” No answer, so I exited and locked the door. On the way back to the barracks I returned the gym keys to the law enforcement desk.
So, it was spooky to be sure, especially since I was aware of the local history which included the violence of the War of 1812. Then years later, while attending UNH as an undergraduate, the proximity of another Halloween made me look online for local haunted sites, and my search expanded to New York.
According to the website newyorkhauntedhouses.com:
“Opened in 1955, Plattsburgh Air Force Base was an active military base for 40 years before being decommissioned in the mid ‘90s. Parts of it have since been redeveloped and used for residential housing as well as a historical museum. Though the base was not established until World War II, visitors have reported seeing the spirits of those who lived as far back as the Revolution or the French and Indian War; Plattsburgh was also the site of a major American victory in the War of 1812. Ghost children, flashing lights, cold spots, the sounds of soldiers on horseback are among the paranormal phenomena said to occur on the 3,447-acre plot. Some have seen the phantoms of combatants refighting a battle from the French and Indian War, and others have seen a Revolutionary soldier march or standing guard at the pillars near the front entrance. A pale lady in white has been seen in the nearby woods, and the basement walls of the finance building – a former hospital – are allegedly painted red to mask a multitude of bloodstains. Screams and loud pounding have been heard from the old gym, which was once a morgue during wartime. Ghostly soldiers have also been seen marching through the base’s cemetery.”
How marvelous that the shower in the basement of the gym might have previously been used as a morgue! Also on other websites, I read reports of military dependents, who living on or near the Oval of the old base, claimed that while watering their lawns they saw a garden hose pulled into the ground. Also, there were reports over the years of a little girl walking on the railroad tracks between the old gym and the water who did not respond to people’s warnings.
On my deployments I usually didn’t discuss my beliefs in the supernatural with others. There were enough tangible threats involved with my Army deployments in Iraq (mortar attacks, IEDs in the areas where we lived) that I was more focused on the real-life threats we faced every day. Also, as an NCO (non-commissioned officer, as sergeant), I wanted to appear more grounded for the troops I was supervising. That being said, I like to wonder about the possibility of supernatural events when it is more convenient to do so. I find it fun and interesting.
Who knows if ghost stories are true? I can tell you that, although I have never seen an apparition myself, I have heard stories from friends and acquaintances who were and are otherwise reliable, and not prone to fantasy. My friend Tom (who was in the Air Force with me) went through basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio and later was at Pease AFB with me. While at a weapons qualification range during basic training, I noticed Tom standing off to the side and smiling while we finished firing off rifles. I asked another airman if Tom was okay. The airman told me that my friend claimed to have seen his recently deceased family member’s face in a nearby tree, and that they were smiling at him. I remember it was a hot day, in a sandy and sparse training area, hardly a locale to inspire stories of the supernatural.
Another roommate of mine told me of a childhood visit to a relative’s house. When he went to use their bathroom, he saw the image of a strange redheaded woman gazing back at him from the bathroom mirror. My friend screamed and fled; none of the adults believed him afterwards.
One of my favorite authors, the late Norman Mailer, liked to mix genres and often would write crime and espionage fiction that contained echoes of the supernatural. I highly recommend Tough Guys Don’t Dance and Harlot’s Ghost. (As an aspiring writer of detective fiction, I am attempting to create similar stories. Just haven’t made any money yet!) Mailer’s protagonists seemed to believe that ghosts were devious—as does he.
Did that item fall off the table because I bumped into it? Are those human voices I hear as I awaken from a deep sleep, or is that the noise of seagulls or other birds?
The urge to ponder the existence of the supernatural is, for me, with cold air arriving and the leaves changing, irresistible. Decide for yourselves!
Art by Julian Armijos