I don’t believe in ghosts, zombies, reincarnation, time travel, angels or an afterlife. I’m open to the “Butterfly Effect” - the idea that the flapping motion of a butterfly’s wings in Africa can spur a chain of events prompting a North Carolina hurricane - and to the notion of a “collective human consciousness”. I respect genetics, the ability of water to link us (metaphorically and hydraulically), and the power of good story-telling.
I can’t recall my dad’s voice or laugh. He died in 1968, before our home movies had audio. No videos, no wire recordings. And yet I have his chin, some of his humor and probably much of his voice. DNA and behavioral traits are clearly shared.
Memories are also shared, passed on through generations in the form of family lore. As a lad, I was told that my great-grandmother Helen was Pancho Villa’s girlfriend. Great-grandmother Ollie was a Ziegfeld Follies “exotic dancer”. Great-grandfather Florent invented “shrimp de jonghe”. Great-great-grandfather Fred survived the Chicago Fire, removed his own appendix and was one of Chicago’s first traffic fatalities. (False. Partly true. Partly true. True.)
Now why would my family tell me such things in the first place? Maybe in the pre-Facebook/Google/YouTube world, the oral tradition was more vital so they had to spice it up so a kid would remember decades later. Plus, the idea of sweet Busie with Pancho Villa was pretty funny. The spirits of my ancestors lasted for decades through those tales.
Ghosts are found in most human cultures throughout civilization. Friendly ghosts, flying ghosts, vengeful ghosts, cautionary ghosts, metaphorical ghosts. Furies, wraiths, banshees. Maybe they are simply the instruments of story-tellers sharing long-held secrets and lore, preventing memories from being lost to the mist.
As readers of my “New Madrid Quakes Chronicles” know, I’m drawn to disasters - natural and man-made - which bring out the best and worst in us. Maybe it’s from growing up in a city shaped by such a defining disaster as the Chicago Fire. I was among the first on the scene at the fatal 1977 CTA derailment, odd 1992 Chicago River tunnel flood and grisly 1993 Paxton SRO fire. I’ve been through two riots, three “blizzards of the century” and the 1996 heat wave that killed 700. I’m a student of the Gacy and Speck murders. I’ve observed the anniversary of the Our Lady of Angels school fire by visiting the site and imagining the events of that awful day.
For years, I walked, drove and biked past the Eastland Disaster site without knowing what transpired. Every day, tens of thousands of commuters and tourists stroll by, oblivious to the horror. The 2015 centennial is a chance to remind everyone of the plight of the mostly young immigrant victims, the greedy recklessness of the ship’s designers, owners and captain, and the heroism of the rescuers.
It is also a chance to reflect on how history impacts the now and how our ancestors impact us.