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20 December 2010

My Favorite Ghost Story (against the common Post-Modern world)

A year or two ago in the midst of my avocational research on Texas history, I ran across the story of Josiah Wilbarger who was a neighbor of my family during the days of the Republic of Texas.

The main part of the story is well known, but not the ghost-story combined  with a dream which conspired to save the life of the man who had been scalped alive by Indians.  I pick of the version of the story where it continues after two survivors make their way to Reuben Hornsby's place:

Shot in the neck and being stunned, he heard but did not feel himself being scalped, Josiah Wilbarger lay motionless until the Indians departed, leaving him alone with his two dead companions.  He described the sound of the scalping as like that of hearing distant and rolling thunder-- probably the sound of a blade being drawn across his skull.


The first night, he managed to crawl to a puddle and drink before passing out again.  He saw his sister before him giving him words of comfort and promising that help would soon arrive.  His sister had lived in Saint Louis, and it was not yet known to anyone in Texas that she had died the night before.  Back at Hornsby's Station on the Colorado River, word had reached the settlers that Josiah and the two others had been shot, killed and scalped.  Preparations were made to leave at first light to collect the bodies and all went to sleep.
At some time in the night, Sarah, Reuben Hornsby's wife, woke from a profound dream.  She woke her husband to tell him she had seen Josiah Wilbarger in her dream and that Josiah was still alive.  Her husband dismissed the warning as a dream and therefore meaningless and went back to sleep.  Sarah had another dream and woke her husband again to share the details, saying that Josiah was alive, but badly injured, covered in blood and with some cloth draped over his head.  Again, Mr, Hornsby dismissed Sarah's dream as meaningless.
Sarah had no way of knowing that Josiah, after having been stripped of his clothes by the murderous and thieving attackers, had been left with only one sock which he had placed over his head to protect the bare skull from flies.  She awoke yet again, telling her husband that she knew exactly where Josiah was, that he needed help and that the men must leave at once.  The men did leave, and found Wilbarger exactly as Sarah had told.  He survived several years wearing a silk cap over the wound all the while as his scalp never fully healed.

I think I first read the account of the both the encouraging ghost of his sister and of Mrs. Hornsby's dream in James T. de Shield's, Border Wars of Texas, The Herald Company, Tioga, Texas, 1912.

I like that story so much because it sounds true-- that is, like how things really work.

Let me explain that; which is, after all, why I am presenting the story in the first place.

In my academic life, I have often run across students (and even a few professors) who have an impression that our technology means we have become smarter as a species.  There is, of course no evidence that human intelligence has increased because of society or technology-- it is merely presumption that we are better than those before us.  It does seem that about ten thousand years ago something did kick-in within the human race when humans began making dramatic advances in society and technology, but it is nothing new.

Arrogance is also not new:  Not mine, not yours, not theirs.  Dismissing ten thousand years of human wisdom out of arrogance that we are smarter is making our lives meaningless.  I read a non-mystical account of the Wilbarger scalping out loud to a friend this morning.

She answered, "It was all so horrible."
I said, "My ancestors lived that life, and I envy them."
"Why do you envy them?"
"Because the world did not hide behind a mask as much in those days as it does now-- the brutality and horrors were easy to see, and life was more honest-- they were so busy with basic human needs, but worked in defense of the innocent and justice when it was necessary."
"The world was evil."
"The world is still evil.  In society, we all wear masks, and we all look so much alike that the evil is hidden and many know it is there but choose not to see it-- pretending the masks they see and the masks they wear are the reality."

Masks
Just before the battle of San Jacinto in which the Texans were the only one of the three Mexican states to have rebelled against tyranny which succeeded, five or more Texas scouts were out probing the advancing Mexican forces and taking prisoners to be brought to General Houston for interrogation as he prepared for the decisive battle.  It was dangerous work and one of the scouts would lose his life doing that work, yet it had to be done, the men were good at it, and the risk was worth it to them.  Evil had to be stopped.

The men brought a Mexican prisoner back to camp and then left to go out and continue their reconnoiter mission.  The men in the camp stayed up late getting drunk and eventually turned on the prisoner, beating him to death.  Can you imagine what the scouts thought and felt when they returned in the morning?  They risked their lives every night doing this important work and men who risked far less not only did not value that work, but valued the life of a human being so little.

One of the men in camp who did no scouting work for the unit wrote his memoirs decades later.  He never mentions the incident with the murder of the prisoner which took place in his presence.  He lists the men in his unit that he claims he can still remember.  He mentions not one of the scouts.  His mask which he holds to the world is in his memoirs.  He was a valiant soldier, a proud Texas Ranger.  He was chagrined that when he finally meets General Houston (who was outraged by the murder in the Ranger camp) the day after the great battle, that he then gets assigned to lowly "baggage duty."

The scouts however, wrote no memoirs.  The son of one and the brother of another was killed in action while out on such a reconnoiter mission seven days after the great battle when the war was over for all intents and purposes.    That made two senseless deaths: the Mexican prisoner, and the fellow Ranger.  Imagine being out alone every night probing an enemy force and knowing that their own spies are also out hunting you.  Imagine weeks of that with no rest.  Imagine the hand to hand combat that took place in the mud and the woods during the dark of night which resulted in another prisoner being captured alive.  Imagine the anxiety of making an escape with an unwilling companion and sometimes being pursued by the enemy in the process-- having to elude or outrun because death was the only other option.

The man who wrote the memoirs cannot imagine because to do so would require the removal of his own mask so that he could see clearly the world as it is, see himself as he is, and see others as they are.  Some evil, some truly good and both always at war even when wearing the same uniforms.

From: here
Good warriors often suffer from a soldiers disease.  In our present time, we call that disease, "post traumatic stress disorder" and one of the most common diagnostic criteria (but common only if you know someone who has this disease) is that they have a fore-shortened sense of future life.  I firmly believe that that "symptom" is not of disease, but of being unmasked and peering into the real world, able to see through the mask which it wears.  They know, because they see (have seen and will not look away) reality unmasked.  They have no sense of future life because they constantly perceive the very real evil and threat.  They do not cower, rather they are ever-watchful and always the first to react to a threat-- even as others perceive nothing at all and pretend safety behind their masks, still worn.

Unmasked, facing reality as one's true self, good is not a judgment, not some fondly spoken of (or written of) altruism, but rather good is a powerful and rare force.  Good is both possessed and possesses.  The good are set apart, which is the meaning of holy.  The holy dead seek out their beloved ones and desire to help and because they are good, their desire has powerful effect.  The unmasked good who still live have that power, they see in dreams, perceive with other eyes and they act, both in dreams and awake.  All of the truly good have that ability and power and they become more human with each such exercise of that life.

The post-modern experiment screams its denial of the good and then of the denial of the power and even the denial of the ability of the human soul.  It screams behind the mask but the unmasked do not heed its screams.  Angered by being ignored, society screams louder at those who have unmasked themselves, "Come back!  Come back!"  and finally, fearing its own indignity, offers only, "Or else!"  To the unmasked, the threat sounds like a whimper, and the unmasked grieve the souls trapped within the masks, hiding, fearful, denying, and weighing happiness as greater than purpose and meaning.  The unmasked grieve, but can only say, "Follow me, cross the line in the sand to the higher-- the better."

I know this because I hear the pleas of the unmasked-- I hear them.  Their grief causes their voices to break, but there is still strength in their voices, it hints at meaning and purpose.  Sometimes, I take off my mask and then I can see the good, but I can not see my way.

And I don't remember much of reading
 this as a kid, but it seems very appropriate.

2 comments:

Evelyn Sue Donahoe said...

One of my unpublished manuscripts deals with a woman who woke from a dream in which her husband had been scalped. When I wrote it, I thought it was fiction - based on a similar bit of family legend. Several years later I ran across this account of actual events, not like my family history, and - of all places - in the untidy archives of the Austin Museum Of Pop Culture. My story was called "Lightening and Herbs". I'll have to find it.
But it was nothing...just a yarn. This is an incredible essay by an enlightened mind, with a wounded heart. I'm so sorry you were wounded. Thank you for baring the scars.

cregil said...

I like yarns and want to read yours.

This weekend, I was working on a ghost story I have second hand. It may be too long for the Blog. I suppose I may try to get it up before All Hallow's Eve, although it is more about metaphysical speculation than haunting.