The sound is distinct. Boots on an old wooden floor. One. Two. Three. Three steps.
It is well past 9pm, and I am the last one in the museum cleaning up after an evening tour program, getting ready to lock up and call it a night. The sound comes from directly above me, in the attic space; no doubt about it.
Instinctively, I freeze. Listen. Listen closer. With a racing anxiety, I try to be certain that no one else has entered the building. I creep my way into the attic to take a look. I hear nothing unusual. No more sounds, steps, creaks or crackles that could reveal the origin of the sound I’m certain did not come from my late night, dark museum imagination. Through a deep exhale I accept that I will find nothing. I will chalk this up to yet another experience courtesy of this century old place.
Ghost tales are a part of life here. For myself, for the staff, interns and volunteers, the unexplained is a year round subject. It matters not, the time of day, the time of year, things just happen here. Things you can’t explain away.
Step into this original Life-Saving Station and you walk into a time machine. Built in 1903, the building has been standing on the Virginia Beach coast for over one hundred years. Timeworn and proud. Ever evocative of a period when this little community along the shore was first being established. Many souls lingered within this structure during the waning days of tall-ships and all too common maritime tragedy. From the men that worked here, to the occasional body of the shipwreck dead stored here.
The remains that washed ashore were often not whole. It was pretty rare that a body washed up with that neat and clean movie extra persona. These were souls exposed to the harshest of deaths. Ripped and mutilated by their ship’s debris or torn apart by the force of the waves themselves. Unidentified, nameless, and soon warding in burlap for a final resting place in a nearby cemetery.
But they did have names. They were living, breathing, hard working seafaring people that found themselves on a ship in a storm. Some spend the rest of their life trying to figure out how to get to the beach. It’s never a stretch of my imagination to think one or more of these souls is with me on a given day. And on this night.
I have worked in other historic buildings during my museum career, but this one is different. I’ve had a few distinct experiences in the past, but these are collected over more than a decade. In this place, I’ve had more experiences in a month than in all of that time at previous museums.
As when I’m climbing the stairs in the famous Lookout Tower late on an August afternoon. The climb sends me into a column of choking heat trapped within the narrow confines of the unique architecture. Each step higher means it gets hotter and hotter. Over 110 degrees in Summer. There are no vents. No A/C. I don’t expect to feel a chill. The freezing cold air that envelopes my arm seems unreal at first.
But it is real. It is happening. The cold slowly runs up my arm, until a freezing ache surrounds my tricep. By the time I stop to figure out what’s happening, the cold is gone.
In a moment. Gone.
I’m not the first one to feel that in the Tower. I won’t be the last. Things are seen up here as well. Lights. Figures. A man. It’s a running joke that we have the cardboard cut-out of Surfman John Sparrow in the window. But folks don’t see the cut out. People see a man walking, moving, carrying a lantern, as if still on watch.
My view may be skewed. I’ll admit this. That’s because I’m a believer. I believe in ghosts. In Spirits. Within me is a heart-felt, soul-felt sense the afterlife awaits. I don’t pretend to understand it. I don’t pretend that I have any type of valid answers about what waits for us beyond this mortal, physical place.
What I do know is that when I unlock the door in the early morning; when I step inside this very old, very special place…
I am not alone.