Tuesday, October 30, 2001

October 30, 2001



Times Leader Staff Writer

The pictures were fascinating.

Sitting at a table inside Keenan's Irish Pub on Wilkes-Barre's Public Square, admitted ghost-chaser Bob Shortz and his friends Reda and Heather Griffiths began to show Mary Therese Biebel and me an impressive collection of seemingly unexplainable photographs.

There was a shot of a phantomlike female figure in an area cemetery and strange circles - which they called  “orbs”' - hovering about a variety of settings. These, they told us, were spirits of the dead.

There was also a bizarre collection of pictures taken at the Wyoming Monument, which included laser-like bolts of light flashing around the local landmark. They too, Shortz told us, were spirits.

A photo taken at Our Lady of Fatima Blessed Grotto, a shrine to the Blessed Mother near the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, showed strange blurry lights, which almost completely engulfed the entire area. These, Reda told us, were prayers said a short time earlier, now on their way to heaven.

They also told us a few spooky stories of hearing eerie voices, witnessing vanishing cars and sensing strange presences.

Throughout the conversation, I couldn't help but think Shortz and the Griffiths seemed like normal folks and that the camera they used for many of the photos was a simple Polaroid-style model. Orbs, they told us, were common and could sometimes be found and photographed with relative ease. And when they offered us the chance to see for ourselves, Mary Therese and I jumped at the opportunity to tag along for a night of ghost-hunting.

Well, at least I did.

After hearing from Shortz that a spirit had once followed him home, Mary Therese seemed a little more nervous. She later confided that she even went to church to pray for protection just before we met at Keenan's. And even I must admit I did dab myself with a little holy water and said a few words to the man upstairs before leaving my apartment that night.

I did, however, really want to see a ghost.

For me, seeing such a thing firsthand would not necessarily be frightening, but might help answer the biggest question of all time: What happens to us when we die?

Think about: Our belief in God, and thus life after death, relies almost solely on pure faith. As far as we know, God simply does not reveal himself to us in any physical form. Our prayers often go unanswered. People we love die, sometimes far too young. Tragedies continue to grab the headlines, and bad things happen to good people every single day. But many of us, through our faith, continue to believe God cares for us and watches over us. We continue to believe - and hope - that our loved ones go on and that we will be with them again someday.

To me, seeing a ghost with my own eyes would give all of this a sense of tangibility. It would be proof of life after death, and in a sense, proof of God. It would be a life-altering experience and certainly not frightening.

Our first stop was at a local hospital, where Mary Therese tried to contact an acquaintance who recently died there. Hoping to reach him, we stood outside the old wing of the facility. Not one to stand idly by, Mary Therese took on a leadership role.

“We come in peace!” she said firmly. “We come with respect.”

 Then, upon the advice of Shortz, she invited any spirits present to appear in our photographs. Times Leader photographer S. John Wilkin took some photos of a third-story window on a dark corner, while Mary Therese did the same with the ghost-busters' Polaroid.

“Wow!”' I said, as Mary Therese's first photo began to develop before our eyes. There, right on the photograph, was a big yellowish blob of light, directly outside the third-story window of the hospital.

Maybe it was an orb!

Another photo, taken only a few seconds later of the same window from the same angle, revealed nothing. Perhaps, just for one split second, we had indeed captured a glimpse of life on the other side.

This was going to be an amazing night.

Next, Mary Therese, Bob and I went into the hospital's chapel, which was very quiet and holy, and, out of all the stops we made throughout the night, seemed to have the most spiritual presence. Mary Therese again invited any spirits present to pose for a photo, and again, it appeared she may have had something. When her Polaroid developed, streak-like lights invisible to the naked eye appeared. And though Bob believed something supernatural was happening, I wasn't so sure this time.

These looked more like blurry pictures to me.

At this point, I became more skeptical and began asking our photographer more and more about what he thought of the photos we were taking. When he said he believed the odd lights might be explained by shutter speeds, glares, hand movement, nearby lights or bulb flashes - and that he could probably reproduce the same effect with his cameras, I made a point of taking any pictures I shot in the darkest of areas an with the most steady hands.

And, from then on, I got nothing.

No ghosts. No apparitions. No more orbs.

Visits to the Wyoming Monument, the Forty Fort Cemetery and Our Lady of Fatima Grotto provided us with nothing but dark pictures or photos I would simply describe as out of focus. Bob, Reda and Heather seemed to share our disappointment but explained that there are good nights and bad nights for ghost-hunting, and we might have just picked a bad night to head out.

As for me, I certainly can't explain some of the photos they showed us earlier that night at Keenan's, nor can I explain the unusual photo Mary Therese took on our very first stop at the hospital. And, for all of the reasons I mentioned earlier, I still want to believe in ghosts, orbs and anything else that has to do with the spiritual world.

For now, however, I still don't have a definite answer to that big question, nor do I have a photograph that provides me with the answer to life's great mystery. And maybe that's just how the man upstairs wants it to be.

Maybe faith - not Polaroids - is all we're supposed to have.


Friday, October 5, 2001

They're reading names out, over the radio. All the folks the rest of us won't get to know ... Jesus can you take the time, to throw a drowning man a line ... peace on earth."

                                                                                              - U2, "Peace on Earth," 2000

Reality Sinks In On Visit To Ground Zero

The Times Leader
October 5, 2001


The top was down on my old Chevy convertible as I cruised over New York City's George Washington Bridge on Tuesday. It was a gorgeous fall day - picture perfect, in every sense - and to my right I could easily see the majestic skyline of the town I've always loved the most.

I wish I could tell you I had a deeply profound thought just then, at that moment, when I first saw that skyline, or that I said something wise, spiritual or even self-comforting. But the only words that came to mind cannot be printed in any newspaper.  

There was, of course, a sad and empty space in New York's landscape where the World Trade Center once stood. And my not-so-kind words were clearly directed at the lowly bastards who shamelessly killed some 3,000 innocent people on Sept. 11. 

Upon clearing the GW and entering the Bronx, an old friend and I parked my car at Yankee Stadium, where we would be seeing a game later that night. But before that, there was a subway ride to take, down to lower Manhattan. There was respect to be paid, and a human travesty to see firsthand.

There was a planned visit to what is now called Ground Zero.

What I saw there, three weeks to the day after the world was forever changed, was, in some ways, exactly what you've seen on television. There were millions of tons of concrete and twisted metal, still serving as an ugly grave for the innocent. There was a war zone feel, with roadblocks everywhere, and police officers, firefighters and military personnel on every corner. There were prayers posted on abandoned buildings, flowers hanging on fences and an odd smell in the air. There was still a dusty soot covering some storefronts, even several blocks away.  

And Broadway - a festive road if there ever was one - was silent. 

At one point, I ran my finger across some of the ash-like dirt covering a pay phone. I think I just needed to feel some tangible connection to all of this, or to prove to myself that what I was seeing was real.  

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," I thought, as the soot touched my hand. The sad irony was obvious.

Standing amid this horrid mess, I thought of my visit to the Twin Towers with my aunt when I was a kid and how my sister and I stood in their shadow less than a year ago at the Yankees' ticker-tape parade. I thought of the obituary of the young man and attack victim that appeared in our paper on Tuesday, how he and I graduated from high school in the same year, and how we graduated from King's College together.

"I didn't know him," I thought, "but our lives must have crossed paths at some point."

If not, they certainly did on Tuesday. 

Some people at Ground Zero wore protective masks and some bought flags and patriotic pins while others stood still, staring at the wreckage in deep thought. I did what I always do whenever I pass a car accident on the road or a fire on the street: I made the sign of the cross and said a short prayer.

All of New York, it seemed, was also looking inward. 

The subways were full yet also quiet. Soft and polite gestures from strangers were common. Later, back at Yankee Stadium, planes flying overhead that never would have drawn much notice caused some to pause. And because the game being played was originally scheduled for Sept. 12 - the date on my ticket - I couldn't help but think that some of the empty seats in the stadium may have been so because those planning to come were no longer with us.

"Thank you," a stadium security officer said after he gave me what I once would have considered an insulting pat-down as I entered the facility.   "No," I said. "Thank you."  

Everything has changed. Everywhere.

The other night at Hops & Barley's in Luzerne, my favorite hangout, the entire bar sang along to "The Star-Spangled Banner" when someone played it on the jukebox. Last week, I was pleased to find out I'm still young enough to serve in the military if need be.

"Just give me a couple of weeks' training," I thought. "And the biggest gun you have."  

I've never thought that way before, nor have I ever even held a gun. But I'd sure like to now. Especially if I could help get whoever did this.

  What does any of this have to do with music?

Nothing. Nothing at all.   I was, however, listening to music as I crossed that flag-decorated bridge and saw that crippled skyline. And I will tell you this: John Lennon, a peaceful man who also loved New York, may be gone, but thankfully, his disciples sing on. And for me, his spirit and voice can be found in the music of such artists as U2, Sting and Bruce Springsteen, who have always been discerning and thoughtful, and who have always served as a fine voice for the social and political conscience of America's youths.  

As I drove around New York on Tuesday, I actually listened to three songs from U2's latest album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." One, "New York," celebrates the vibrancy and energy of the city yet also mentions the "religious nuts and political fanatics" who can be found on its streets. The gorgeous "Walk On" talks about overcoming adversity through inner strength, and "Peace on Earth" condemns needless violence and hints at a sense of jaded faith.  

All seem perfectly fitting at this time. And all were written and released a year before this happened.

So if you, too, have turned to music at all, even just a little, during these crazy times, I recommend bands such as U2 and artists such as Sting and Springsteen. I refer you to people whose integrity can be trusted and whose hearts and motives are pure. Be leery of silly, chest-pounding, angst rockers, who - just three weeks ago - were singing songs about needless violence but are now suddenly singing on benefit songs. Be leery of the now suddenly sorrowful rappers who only three weeks ago sang about turf wars and murder but are now weeping under the flag and calling for brotherhood.

My trip to Ground Zero, with the dust on my hands, the smell of death in the air and the silence of the city showed me firsthand that what's happening in this world is quite real. And though it's somewhat insignificant, I want my music to be real, too.

Now, more than ever, everything is real.