The kitchen table at Magnolia Manor as I remember it. I always sat in the end chair closest to the camera. Mrs. Elaine always sat in the kitchen table chair on the right. Photo courtesy of Larry Childers.
(This entry is a retrospective and will contain some (only some) material that has been mentioned in other entries. )
WHEN CHAIRS GO EMPTY
A first glance at my Facebook page might suggest a quick case study in easily accomplished profiling. There is the prominent featuring of the Space Shuttle, an X-Wing fighter makes an appearance in their somewhere, and a well-known Disney pirate is featured, as well. One might automatically assume that I have attended a costume convention or two in my day, that I speak at least some Wookie and Klingon, and that maybe I rode out an asthmatic condition in my youth while building plastic models of the Saturn V rocket.
The truth is, I don’t quite fit this proposed profile. I grew up an avid sports fan. I’m not a Star Trek fan at all. As an aside, I do have to confess that I grew up loving Star Wars and was one of many in my generation who was awed by George Lucas’ ambitious approach to storytelling. Because I have a creative streak, or at least a poor excuse for one, there was a brief period where I tried to assemble the makeshift beginnings of a poor man’s museum that hailed some of Lucas’ characters, as well as some other characters that met a certain criteria. I even wound up obtaining the autograph of Nick Gillard, a stunt man who worked on the third Indiana Jones film, as well as the original Star Wars and the Star Wars prequels. I learned a little bit about the sword and bullwhip as is taught for the stage and screen. And, I did learn some of the sword choreography Nick introduced into the new trilogy, so I guess I am sounding rather nerdy after all. But, I really was a pretty serious student about learning sword choreography for the stage and screen just to have something to do since I could no longer play the sports of my choice at that point. What I can say is that I never dressed up as a Jedi with light saber in hand. In order to better understand my history, one has to know that I have had a general interest in storytelling over the years, perhaps because I was introduced to story as a child by some of the gifted storytellers we had in my extended family. The truth is, I have absolutely nothing in common with the movie industry. What happened for me as a child was that with the adventurous streak I have always had, I never saw a movie and wanted to become an actor. I cannot even imagine wanting to pursue such a path. Instead, what I noticed on screen was what the stuntmen were accomplishing on camera, and I wished I could do what they do. Even at an early age I was trying to see things for what they were beyond the illusion, and later on in life, one of the most fun things I really got to do was TO learn how to properly crack a bullwhip. I have Anthony Delongis to thank for making his instruction accessible to the general public.
The only reason I have played up some of these interests over the years is because I have a sense of humor. I’m actually quite grounded in reality, and I, personally, do not have any interest in donning movie costumes or going to sci-fi conventions. Come to think of it, I really do not have that big of an interaction with pop culture (some, but not that much).
You can beat me in a game of Jeopardy any day, because instead of retaining facts, I prefer to save what brain power I have for thinking analytically and not that of wrote memorization. For those of you who just seem to absorb facts cognitively without even making an effort, you have me beaten hands down. My storage is limited, and my brain’s CPU is that of an old TRS-80 versus your much more powerful modern day Pentium processor. When it comes to speaking of my affinity for space exploration, I always wanted to be that aviator who could touch down his main wheels on the runway right where he chose, although I never accomplished that ambition, either. I’ve always had to leave the furtherance of space science to the really smart folks. I’m more explorer than I could ever be an intellectual. I like the allowed for mix in aviation of being able to possess a combination of daring with an adventure laden mindset while also being responsibly grounded in terms of psychology.
Also, I never fell amazed by the appeal that comic books has for so many. I only built a few models in my childhood, a craft at which I was never very good. Now, certainly, my imagination was met squarely on by Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Zorro, the Musketeers, aircraft, and space vehicles while I was a child. But, my later interest in learning how sword fights are choreographed for stage or in learning how to crack a bullwhip were more academic endeavors as much as they were physical. And, these out of the ordinary exercises were certainly never any kind of attempts at escaping into some universe where swashbuckling is the norm. I’m far more grounded than some might believe, although this fact does not change one of the funniest memories I have. After sitting down and talking to the Chair of the Physics Department at Ole Miss and telling him my, once upon a time, career ambitions, he couldn’t help but feel that I was channeling the spirit of Howard Wolowitz (character from the TV show, The Big Bang Theory) into his office. I thought the joke was hilarious, and I laugh about it every time I recall that experience.
In reality, I always felt that to work for the space program would be the height of professional accomplishment. Such a role should demand the highest devotion to professionalism and to scientific discovery. And, to all NASCAR and motorcycle enthusiasts, the idea of taking a trip on a vehicle that goes from 0 to 17,500 mph in just a few minutes should make you cut me a little slack on the nerd jokes. I don’t know about you, but to me, that kind of ride sounds like the best thing going. Call me a nerd if you like, but to me the idea of pulling 3Gs while reaching ascent on a launch vehicle producing several million pounds of thrust is what I call a good time.
Unfortunately, my appreciation for adventure and flight has not been without setback. Although I completed civilian flight training, my one and only legitimate chance at getting a slot in the Army’s flight school fell through as a result of unforeseen circumstances. I tried three or four more times to recreate that opportunity, but the door was always closed. Regrettably, the time I spent in pursuing a slot in flight school meant the day rolled around where I couldn’t get an age waiver to serve in the armed forces at all, and I really regret the fact that I never served in any capacity.
But, I did have one consolation prize in store that I never saw coming. I had the great honor of getting to sit at a lunch table with a small group of retired engineers who worked directly on the Space Shuttle program. I got to ask a few questions, but most of the time I just listened while trying to savor the moment. These gentlemen were the closest I could come to the Space Shuttle since the luncheon I attended came after the retirement of the Shuttle. I could not help but sit in awe at that table while thinking about what this group had accomplished in their lifetime. They made the machine that I revered so much a living, fire-breathing dragon.
But, like all things, that lunch experience had to come to an end. The time came when the meeting deconvened, the chairs were pushed forward, and the table was empty. That time had to come. For someone aspiring to pursue a challenging profession, it is fantastic to sit and listen to the ones who have already been there and blazed the trail. To be able to sit with the ones who have already traveled the road is humbling beyond expression. But, those who have already been there know what I know. At some point, the person aspiring to walk in their footsteps has to leave the table. There is a lot of hard work to be done, and there are failures to face and overcome. You have to leave a table of heroes and go pave your own path if you stand any chance at reaching their same destination. Chairs have to go empty.
The most unexpected surprise that life threw my way because of my inquisitive self and my interest in scientific inquiry came in 2002. Though some may chastise me for turning my back on the standards I have claimed to hold, I would have to respectfully disagree. I did not suspend my allegiance to rational thinking, but rather I chose to challenge it in yet another way. Sometimes the road less traveled turns out to be the most rewarding road to travel. While searching the internet for NASA related material, I ran across a website that took video and audio that was property of NASA and used it to spin an alternative view of reality. As one might imagine, my reaction was strong, so much so that I decided that I needed to learn and know how the other guy thinks. How does one process their view of a world that they see as being steeped in conspiracy and in a grandiosity that seems to mock anything remotely akin to sound scientific thought?
Thankfully, one of the few smart things I have done in my life was coming to the realization that I not only needed to learn more psychology, that I not only needed to learn more hard science, but when considering the broad spectrum of the anomalistic proposals that exist across the board, I knew that I needed to learn from magicians, as well. Over time, I became familiar with the work of Milbourne Christopher, a well-known magician who, like Harry Houdini, had looked into cases involving psi-based claims. Of course, I also learned about Harry Houdini’s engagement of early twentieth century Spiritualists who claimed the ability to communicate with the deceased. Consequently, my world was no longer confined to the sanitation of learning science for science’s sake, as in the Xs and Os of physics, biology, and chemistry. It was no longer restricted to the tidy balancing of science with traditional theology. All of a sudden, I was learning how to look at the world critically with not only what is known through established science, but also through having to work through an understanding of the philosophy of science and its application to the abstract. A biographer of Martin Gardner’s said that Gardner wanted to not only know what he believed, but also why he believed it. For all of the differences that exist between Mr. Gardner and me, this observation about knowing why I construct the worldview that I do and the wonder of mathematics are what he and I had readily in common.
In 2004, a TV show made its piloted airing on cable TV via the Syfy channel (then, the SciFi channel). I along with a few million other viewers tuned in to its original episode. I had some downtime while working for The University of Memphis, so I was able to watch the episode in full and see what was being proposed. What must be distinguished between the casual viewer of the show, or the impassioned believer who watched the show, and me, is that I watched that episode, as well as each additional episode of the program that I saw, from a critical standpoint and not an entertainment or educational one. Little did I know that this show was about to leave its imprint on American pop culture for some time to come.
I have never done an actual historical study on the term, “ghost hunter.” It is by no means a new term. The term was applied to Hans Holzer, the gentleman known for his ghostly investigations that made it to the public through television and books back in the 60s or 70s and onward. Harry Price, the magician, occult commentator, and showman was not a stranger to the term, either. And, I have a fictional novel on my shelf that is titled, “The Ghost Hunter,” which was published well over a hundred years ago. The point being made here is not regarding the historical timeline of the term, but rather the connotation that the term has come to be synonymized with in contemporary culture. The global vernacular now recognizes a ghost hunter as someone who will explore a purportedly haunted property while utilizing technical equipment and using a lights out stakeout approach in the attempt to find evidence for a haunting. The point of my writing this composition is not to address the flaws, as I feel I have to deem them, in typical ghost hunting methodology. But, rather the point that I need to make here is how strong my gut reaction was initially to the ghost hunter phenomenon. For most of my life, even while harboring theological suppositions, I reacted negatively and adversely to any mention of ghosts or the occult. I took the material to always be trite and tacky, and devoid of any common sense. This adamant opinion of mine can sometimes still be evident when the discussion at hand is regarding investigative methodology. This fact is because a discussion over investigative methodology and yielded results HAS TO BE rigorous. The differences can be night and day; the difference between something scientific and something pseudoscientific. If an approach to an investigation is flawed from the beginning, then one cannot hope to find objective answers upon its conclusion. So, there is still that part of me that exists, as well it should, so as not to travel down a wrong road of errant conclusions if the methodology by default sets one up for mis-drawn conclusions.
However, from a discussion point of approaching the topic of ghosts in a civil and quite a human manner, another point of writing this essay is to express that I have always sought to differentiate between talking about investigative methods from talking about the topic of the paranormal on a strictly human level. An analogy I draw to ghost hunting involves two documentaries I have seen about miracles that are produced by the same filmmaker. In one of those documentaries, a prayer healer helps a man on the street who is convinced by the prayer healer that one of his legs is physically shorter than the other. After a miracle is performed whereby the man on the street sees his leg grow right before his own eyes, at least for the moment, he has a new way of looking at life. But, what is so heartbreaking is that any magician, and any non-magician who is half-way alert, realizes that the performed healing is first suggested psychologically by convincing the gentleman that he had a physical ailment to begin with, which he did not. But, more importantly, the faith healer only accomplishes the feat through mere illusion. When I first saw this clip I happened to be staying with family as I was in the process of moving to my current residence. I immediately went to the next room in the house and performed the same trick using a family member as my assistant. Did this proclaimed miracle in the documentary give the man on the street something to find hope in that he didn’t have before? What do I do with a case like this? Do I take away this joy that the man in the street has supposedly been given? I do not want to take away anyone’s joy or hope for the miraculous. Much to the contrary, I would prefer that a person’s hope in God not be tainted by trickery. And, what about the faith healer? Is there part of him that is so hopefully deluded that he is bringing false comfort to those in difficult situations by rationalizing the justification of the use of trickery? Or, as has been seen since the beginning of humankind through countless examples, does his very existence thrive on manipulation for gain? Whatever the case, there is great risk in turning a blind eye to falsehood and allowing it to become precedent. The analogy that I make here is that when it comes to ghost hunting, a team may go into a home with a lot of fancy technical equipment and may wind up giving someone a bit of evidence that somehow comforts a home owner, or in a worse scenario, possibly scares them. But, what if there are simpler answers all along that are objectively true that may be missed by ghost hunters? Or, on the flip side, what if the subjective answers do more to boost the comfort of a person who is relying on ghost hunters for their answers and information?
In the past couple of weeks, I have had to ask myself if I should go forward in pursuing a blog whereby I would focus on breaking scenarios of the anomalous down reasonably. Regrettably, the whole point of the blog could be missed by many. It could be seen as being nothing but a source of debunkery, when that would not be the aim at all. Conversely, the intent of it would be to protect a person of belief from being taken down a path of vulnerability in certain instances. I am not opposed to belief, whatsoever, as an entire history of jottings that I have penned over the course of a lifetime would verify. I encourage anyone in their belief in God and in God’s providence. That belief is pristine when it is not altered by someone playing a role and making a miraculous claim that may be observably something far less. Where I have concern is when claims are made that something has been evidentiarily proven, when in fact it has not. Belief should not be corrupted by efforts that may suggest proof exists if the proof has not actually been produced. I know I sound exactly opposite from professional Skeptics when it comes to my sympathy for belief, but belief can be good and positive, and it does not need pseudoscience to bolster its benefit.
As I think about it, it should be said that this unexpected journey of mine really started before 2002. When I was eleven years old, my grandmother passed away from cancer. The last time I saw her alive was when she was in the hospital in Tupelo, Mississippi. Her treatments had been brutal, and she only had a few locks of her beautiful white hair remaining. There has never been a sweeter lady who has lived on this Earth than my grandmother, and yet she was so tough and able to be a vital component in her family’s survival. Her loss affected my grandfather profoundly. I became the beneficiary of this great change that took place in my grandfather’s life. He began to treat me, while I was barely a teen, as an equal. He was passing on life lessons and teaching me with every visit I had with him. My grandfather passed away three years after my grandmother. The table that my grandparents had in their kitchen, overlooked by an art print of a cat with sad eyes, and where I had the best home cooked breakfasts ever and where my grandfather and I had one of the best laughs ever, was now unoccupied. The visits I had so looked forward to making to a farm home that was built in 1933 came to an end in 1987 with the passing of my grandfather. Immediately, from then onward, I was ready to grow up. I became immensely aware of the reality of life, and I had numerous questions about the universe we inhabit. The experience turned me into a philosopher, if only of the arm chair variety. The chairs in my grandparents’ home were now empty.
In October of 2008, I knocked on the front door of an antebellum home that was built brick by brick until it was finished in 1849. It once was the home of Judge Austin Miller, a prominent figure who played into the history of West Tennessee and the Northern edge of Mississippi. I arrived at the home because I had a ticket to an upcoming Halloween tour of the house the following weekend. I drove to it a week prior so I could see what parking was going to be like and where I needed to go to start the tour. A kind lady answered the front door who was as charming and cordial as she could possibly be. She exemplified the stereotype of Southern hospitality, so much so that I hated even more that I had disturbed her at her own front door.
While standing at that front door, I fumbled over all of my words while trying to explain to her that I was NOT a ghost hunter. No, I was a man of science, and in order to live up to inductive standards, I was willing to go where the ghosts are. Instead of just sitting back and disparaging the idea, I was willing to visit the most haunted property I could find in my local area. This gem of a woman who greeted me at her front door remained consistently gracious throughout my lecture, only to warmly welcome me to return for the tour the following weekend. I did indeed return and take the tour, after which I asked my host’s grandson if he would mind if I came back inside the house so I could thank her for her hospitality. He said she would be thrilled, and so that is exactly what I did. After getting to thank her while she sat in her living area with her family, no doubt worn out from having conducted other tours leading up to Halloween, I promised to return as a bed and breakfast guest at a later time.
I did not know it, but that night started a whole new part of my life that I never could have imagined would exist. I returned a few more times to Magnolia Manor with the intent to amble the same ground where ghost hunters had made camp on a regular basis. I was there to experience for myself what I had read about and heard about. Mrs. Elaine Cox, or Mimi, as her family addresses her, could not have been more endearing. My first night at Magnolia Manor staying as a guest, I was the only visitor staying there. Mrs. Elaine gave me the keys to all of the bedrooms upstairs, and she said if ghosts were my interest, then I was welcome to make myself at home and go find them. I could not even adequately process the hospitality as I was so humbled by its gentle warmth and sincerity, and that night set the tone for what became one of the most significant runs of my life. I could not tell you at what point, but after a few stays at Magnolia Manor, ghosts even became secondary as I came to view Mrs. Elaine as a grandmother. Instead of being given keys to the upstairs bedrooms, our tradition changed to where most of our time was spent at the kitchen table. Over some of the finest meals I have ever had, we talked about everything one can possibly think about, whether it was about religion, old stories, philosophy, and, yes, ghosts! But, most of all, we laughed! We laughed from the time I arrived for visits until the time I left.
Maybe one of the funniest offbeat memories I have is that I only stayed over at Magnolia Manor on nights when ghost hunters were not there. I probably would have been a pesky impediment to the ghost hunters getting much investigating done because I would have constantly been asking, “Why are you doing that for?” But, no, in all seriousness I would have been well behaved. Funnily enough, over the course of nine years, I actually never crossed paths with a ghost hunter at Magnolia Manor except for my first visit when I took the home tour. Instead, what I did was look at photos and the like that ghost hunters had left behind so I could explain them and then wait for the next round of evidence. Every trip to Magnolia Manor became a sacred mecca for me. I always knew that it did not matter if ghost hunters were not going to be at Magnolia Manor when I was. I always made some sort of new discovery, but more importantly than any searches for signs of ghosts, I was becoming aware that the trail of ghosts had given me something I had lost before. I was visiting an old Southern home where there was a kitchen table, breakfasts to be had, and more laughs to share.
The question can be asked, what if Mrs. Elaine had thought like me? She tried to take an agnostic approach about ghosts when speaking formally about her house, but there was that side of her that informally spoke like the ghosts were there. What if all of the ghost hunters and visitors who took the ghost tours of Magnolia Manor over the years had thought like me? Would there have been a cancellation of the tours? Magnolia Manor would no doubt have been robbed of some of its energy that was always around because guests and ghost hunting teams were always staying there. I guess part of what keeps the world interesting is how many different takes there are on the same topic. Again, it is important to look at claims responsibly, but when the stakes are not as high, it sure is a little nicer to live in a world where ghosts are allowed. I would have been disappointed more than anyone if the curtain had been drawn on the Magnolia Manor ghost tours because everyone in the world became skeptics and turned their back on the idea. This truth is why I thank those of you who have taken the time to tell me your own ghost stories, because I need to hear them in order to understand the phenomenon in the way that I strive. And, for the most part, I have considered my rivalry with ghost hunters to be good natured and a fun competition for answers.
If you keep up with the ghost hunting world at all, you know that it is high on drama, and if you are going to speak to it with any regularity, eventually it will be your turn to have your name smeared. There has been at least one detractor who has typed public comments about Magnolia Manor in cyber land. What I can say emphatically is that Mrs. Elaine would never charge me for a room during all the times I stayed as a guest, and if you added up the grocery bills for all of the meals she fed me and that she never charged for, that tally would come out to be quite high. Whatever one’s opinion is about ghosts, I found something in the search for truth that meant so much more to me than evidence. I gained a grandmother. I got to go home again. The table that had an art print of a cat that oversaw the best times of my life came back around in an antebellum home that was not given its life by ghosts, but rather by a wonderful lady named Mrs. Elaine. At her kitchen table she always sat in the chair on the right that backed up to the refrigerator, and I sat at the end of the table to her left. Seeing an image of this very scene on a real estate website brought back an inundation of wonderful memories for me.
I always wanted to emulate John Young and Neil Armstrong when it comes to awareness and reliability. After having written what I have above, those who know their astronaut biographies would expectedly be saying that I sound more like an Edgar Mitchell or a Jim Irwin than I do a John or a Neil. It is interesting if you consider this small pool as a sample of psychologies since the original groups of astronauts selected were not that large in number. Even in such small groups, you still get contrasting viewpoints separated out where some of the group are classified as more liberated thinkers, or imaginers as some might say, whereas the others are more reserved and cautious. What I am saying is not that I want to be a carbon copy of anyone else. I am simply saying that there are certain qualities that I strive to attain, and personally I would have always pointed towards a John Young or Neil Armstrong when it came to having living examples to look at and model oneself after concerning soundness of mind. These are two individuals in history that I can point to and say that they had the characteristics I should want to have. But, at the same time, I can say that I am better for having taken this journey that I have described. What I would want ghost hunters to understand is that if they work a forty or more hour a week job like I do and they are simply earnest in their beliefs, I will be the first to take up for them if someone makes fun of them. Their same spirit of inquiry is the same that I have. I have always thought of our rivalry as being a friendly one where we just approach the same question from different angles. But, when the ghost hunter is a public figure and they espouse flawed evidence as science, or if their pockets are fattened over something that is not legitimate investigation, then that is where our paths immediately diverge. Since I was fourteen I have committed my life to understanding the bigger questions about life, perhaps in the imagined effort to make sure my grandparents’ hands were gently ferried to another home, somewhere else that is much better than here. However, I simply cannot accept foul play in this discussion about the possibility of consciousness continuing beyond a physical death if skewed evidence is introduced. The discussion, and the quest, should be a sacred and respectful one.
I realize that it is time, once again, for me to stand up and push my chair forward. Mrs. Elaine, I just wish there was a way for you to know the gratitude I have felt, and do feel, for your hospitality. You gave me more than I could ever have given back to you. I cannot imagine you and Magnolia Manor not ever having been a part of my life. Over almost a decade, Magnolia Manor stood tall in my world. Some of my greatest successes, and my greatest failure, occurred while the doors of Magnolia Manor were open. But, Mrs. Elaine, Magnolia Manor only stood tall because you were always its backbone. I’ll always love you as my second chance grandmother. I have my chair pushed forward now. The chairs at Magnolia Manor are now all empty.
Maybe Magnolia Manor has at least one ghost after all. I think I just saw one. It looked an awfully lot like the old stubborn me.