“We need ghost stories because we are, in fact, the ghosts.” — Stephen King
As ghost stories go, mine probably doesn’t convey the bone-chilling terror of Stephen King. It surely won’t make you want to wear turtlenecks in quite the same way Anne Rice did. And it definitely doesn’t leave the lingering imagery of H.P. Lovecraft. But, nearly 20 years after it happened, telling the story still raises the hair on the back of my neck.
It was the fall of 2001, around this same time of year. Operation Enduring Freedom was underway, and the memories of 9/11 were still raw. I was serving as a division planner in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY, and most of the past several weeks was a blur, having spent much of that time sequestered in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility – or SCIF – in the basement of Building T-95, the old division intelligence office. There, on a steady diet of burned coffee and cold pizza, we’d sketched out a number of contingencies should the inevitable call come for the Screaming Eagles to join the fight.
After one especially long planning session, I was returning to my on-post quarters at about 2:00 AM and decided to stop by my office and check email, something I rarely had the time to do during the day. When I wasn’t burning the midnight oil in the SCIF, I occupied a quiet ground floor space in the division logistics office, a quaint World War II era barracks building that had long since surpassed its “wear out” date.
I settled into my desk chair and flipped the switch on the desktop computer, a model old enough that it still sported a drive for 5-1/4-inch floppy disks. After only a few moments, the hard drive on the computer came to life with a familiar sound not unlike the grinding gears in old farm truck, and the screen flickered slightly as the first bytes of data began to flow. In an odd way, the computer seemed well-suited to the building, a wooden structure that creaked and moaned with even the slightest breeze.
As I skimmed the day’s email, I heard the sound of the front entrance to the building open and close, and footsteps as someone climbed the stairs to the second floor. The building’s floors creaked under the weight of someone walking the length of the building and into the G-4’s office above me. I was curious what brought him into work this late and walked down the hallway and up the broad wooden stairs. While it seemed odd that he hadn’t turned any lights on, I didn’t give it much thought as I walked back down the second-floor hallway and into his empty office.
Writing it all off to being too tired and too late at night, I made my way back downstairs and to my office, determined to finish up and get home. As I settled into my chair, I heard the same footsteps again in the office above me, then the echoes of those steps as someone made their way down the second-floor hallway. The creaking of the old stairs was similarly unmistakable, but instead of leaving the building, the footsteps continued down the hallway to my office. When the footsteps stopped, a dark figure was silhouetted in the dim glow of a streetlight against the glass in my office door.
I stood up, walked to the door, and opened it. But, no one was there. No one.
By this point, I was wide awake, and my heartrate felt like I’d just finished a four-mile run. I’m not exactly what you’d call superstitious, but I’ve watched just enough horror movies to know that I didn’t want to be in that building at that moment in time. I knew what I’d heard, and there was no mistaking it. Without so much as a minute’s hesitation, I exited the back door of the old building and didn’t look back.
The following day, I was sharing my story over coffee with a couple of the old civilians who were mainstays in the Division G-4. They listened intently, nodding occasionally, even sharing knowing looks between them. Finally, one of them said, “You’re not the first person to see that guy, major. Spend enough time here at night, and eventually you’ll hear him walking the building.” The other added, “I’ve heard lots of stories: guy hung himself in the office next to yours, guy died alone in here one night, guy was killed training for the Korean War. Never know what’s true and what’s not.” The first civilian continued, “Yeah, but one thing is true: you don’t want to work in this place late at night. Not unless you want to learn the truth the hard way.”
Was it a harmless spirit? A looming poltergeist? Or just an old wooden building blowing in the wind? I never knew for sure, but I also never went back in that building again after midnight.