The Haint that Ain’t

One of my favorite quotes about what it takes to be a great writer is from Ernest Hemingway.

He said it took two things: ” real seriousness in regard to writing being one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.”

And so it is with being a great anything.

Let’s get real: The difference between how good a guitarist I could have been, compared to, say, Jimi Hendrix or Frank Zappa is not a matter of practice. They, like all geniuses, were born with something the rest of us weren’t.

Not to say they didn’t practice constantly. Of course they did. But so does anyone who achieves anything. Just is, to achieve greatness, you not only have to practice: you also have to be born with the right (and impossibly rare) combination of DNA.

All the greats have the combination ?- Baryshnikov, Beethoven, Muhammad Ali, Barbara Streisand, Van Gogh and especially Ricky Davis.

While everyone recognizes the first five names, I doubt anyone recognizes the fifth. Nor should you, since he was a guy in my Navy section. But he was a genius – of practical jokes.

Almost all practical jokers are of the hokey, cliche variety. You know the type – a joy buzzer in one hand, rubber dog doo in the other, a squirting flower in his lapel. But not Davis. Uh-uh, he was the Leonardo of practical jokers.

According to all standard measures, he was a conventional guy. He was average looking, well-mannered, didn’t wear unusual clothes, didn’t even express unusual thoughts. In fact, the only thing about him that was different was his practical jokes.

All his stuff was original. It was also subtle, clever, and sometimes weird. And his best one was Tex Barry’s ghost.

Tex Barry’s ghost was not the ghost OF Tex Barry, since Tex was alive and well. Instead, it was the ghost that haunted him.

Mid-watch weird-out

Tex was our section supervisor. We were telegraphers and we worked in strings -?that is, we’d work two day watches, two mid watches, and two eve watches, and then have 80 hours off. The mid watches, from 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. were the worst. We are not nocturnal creatures. Staying up all night raises hell with body and soul, period.

Different guys reacted differently to the mids. I got melancholic. My pal Frankie Fig turned into a compulsive talker. Oklahoma Steve got nasty. Tex Barry got jumpy. And he got even jumpier the first time he heard the ghost.

Of course, at first he didn’t know it was a ghost. And why would he? It was just this weird Woooo-oooo noise that started on one mid at about 0300 and lasted maybe 15 seconds. Since Tex’s desk was in back of my station, I heard it too, but didn’t think anything of it. Nor did Collins, the assistant supervisor, who sat next to Tex.

The next time it happened, a couple of weeks later, at 0400 and lasting for about 30 seconds, we all took notice. But then it stopped and we all just let it gotill the next time, a week or so after that. This time, it started about midnight, went for 10 or 15 seconds and stoppedonly to come back at about 0430.

And that’s what kept happening. There was no pattern to it, except it always happened on a mid. Sometimes it was louder; sometimes it was longer; sometimes it was weirder. Sometimes it happened once; sometimes it happened several times. Beyond that, we had no clue what it was. At least I had no clue. Nor did I care. But Tex and Collins did.

Remember I said Tex got jumpy on the mids? Well, this noise, whatever it was, started to make him a lot jumpier especially since he could never tell when it’d happen. He tried to be cool, but he even developed a twitch in his left eye.

Tex was a Navy Chief he was expected to be in control, and he really hated it when he wasn’t which was clearly the case here.

Collins, the second in command, started to lose it as well. But what bugged him, as opposed to what bugged Tex, was he knew what it was. And he laid it on Tex one night, after a particularly long and weird bunch of “Woooo-oooo’s.”

“The hell!” yelled Tex. “I’ve ’bout had it with that. Whatever it is!”

“Well, I’ll tell you what it is,” said Collins. “If ya think you can take it.”

“Whattaya mean by that?” said Tex, his twitch more noticeable. “Why couldn’t I take it? Whattaya think it is anyway?”

“I know what it is,” said Collins. “It’s a haint!”

Now, for you who might be geo-linguistically challenged, a haint is what a lot of Southerners call ghosts. I’m not sure if it’s used in one region more than another, but it seemed all the Southerners knew it.

Torn … but not too badly

I don’t know if Tex believed in haints, but Collins sure did. In fact, the mid-watch hauntings got to him so bad that during his time off he started going to the Rev James’s prayer meetings.

But even if Tex didn’t think it was a ghost, he knew it was something, something that was slowly driving him nuts and that he’d never find out what it was. Which he didn’t.

I, however, did.

Oklahoma Steve tipped it, by pointing out the only times the “ghost” started wailing was when Davis was gone from his station. So I decided to just go directly to the ghost’s mouth, as it were, and one day when he walked by my station and Tex wasn’t at his desk, I stopped him.

“OK, Davis” I said, “I know you’re the one that’s been buggin’ Tex and Collins. But HOW are you doing it?”

He smiled and then turned his head and looked up at the ceiling I looked too, but all I saw was a bunch of pipes. The more I looked, the less I understood what I was looking at.

“I give up,” I said. “Just tell me, willya.”

And he did.

Those pipes had been the building’s original water pipes. When a new system was put in, the old pipes were disconnected but not removed. Somehow, Davis noticed one of the pipes had been disconnected, right over Tex’s desk. He followed that pipe to the end of the building, where it was also disconnected. Then all he had to do was get up on a chair and Woooo-oooo into the pipe and the sound’d come out right over Tex’s desk.

It was as brilliant as it was fiendish, and something only someone like Davis could’ve figured out.

By the way, the hauntings never stopped, and Tex and Collins both got more and more nervous and nutty till they transferred to another duty station.

I never ratted out Davis, but I was torn about it.

On the one hand, Tex and Collins were good guys and I liked them both.

On the other hand, if they’d found out Davis was the haint, no good would’ve come of it for Davis, who I also liked.

It was a moral dilemma, but one I’ve been able to live with?- especially for all the laughs it’s given me.