We all have a favorite ghost story.
Mine, however, does not involve chains clanging
in pitch-black hallways, the spirits of girls cruelly detoured from
senior proms, or headless former queens who walk the fog-draped English
My favorite ghost story is almost beautiful in
its simplicity. Because nothing goes "bump in the night," or surprises
one at the top of a staircase; the matter-of-factness of the story
conveys its sincerity.
It is also a good ghost story because it is true.
Perhaps all ninth-grade students have the
opportunity to go on a three-day class trip. At Aliquippa High School,
ninth-grade trips to Washington, D.C., were as common as bland school
cafeteria hot dogs and cheerleaders named Debbie.
Another universal ninth-grade fact, or of any
grade for that matter, was The Best Friend. Every boy or girl had at
least one, a confidant who shared all your secrets. My Best Friend in
ninth grade was Mike Kachmar.
Mike was not going on the trip and acted as if
he didn"t really care. It was no big deal. But being his best friend, I
knew money was the real reason Mike wouldn"t be going.
Mike"s dad was a serious, no-nonsense man who
saw nearly everything in black-and-white terms. The money wasn"t readily
available for Mike to go, so he didn"t get to go. That was all there
was to it.
Because he couldn"t go, Mike asked me a favor.
Handing me a roll of film, he asked me to take pictures of the trip for
him. I agreed, telling Mike at every stop I would take two photographs,
one for him and one for me.
The trip was pretty much as any reasonable
person, or parent, would expect -- teenagers being led in and out of
national monuments by chaperones with fading levels of patience. Very
few of us appreciated what we saw and experienced until years later.
But there was one visit that did make an impression.
Even a ninth-grader stops and thinks at
Arlington National Cemetery. We read about war in our history books. We
almost regularly saw pictures from Vietnam on the nightly news. But only
then, with thousands upon thousands of real graves before us, did war
assume some form of reality.
After leaving the bus, I walked down one long
row of graves. I remember thinking how they all looked identical, like
rows of blockhouses.
I was nearly three-quarters down the row when I
remembered my promise to Mike. I stopped, turned to my right and walked
to the nearest tombstone.
The name on the grave read Paul Kachmar. It said he had died in 1943.
The name of Mike"s younger brother was Paul. I was amazed by the coincidence and took a photograph of the tombstone.
When we returned home, I took my rolls of film
in the same day to get them developed. Although it was difficult for me
not to tell Mike, I wanted him to see the picture when I told him what
Back then, it took nearly a week for film to be
developed, and after I finally paid the drugstore and got the pictures, I
rushed to Mike"s home.
I showed him the picture of the grave first, and pointed out the name on the tombstone.
Mike stared at the photograph for a moment, then
led me into the kitchen where his father and mother were drinking
coffee. He handed the photograph to his father, asking him to look at
the picture I had taken.
His father stared at the photograph and for the
first and only time in my memory the seriousness on his face vanished.
The closest word to describing his look then would be bewilderment.
He set the photograph down on the kitchen table and turned toward Mike and me.
"That"s my brother"s grave," he said. "He was killed in World War II."
Have you ever met someone in an unfamiliar place
and it turns out they know, or are related to, one of your closest
friends? Just as you"re about to walk away, they tap you on the shoulder
and ask you, by the way, to say hello to that friend or relative they
haven"t seen in years.
One time, when that happened to me, the request came from farther away than I ever imagined.
Freelance writer Andy Leheny of Preston,
Iowa, is a graduate of Aliquippa High School and Duquesne University. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org