In 1965 I was eighteen years old, and a Private in the U.S. Army away from home for the first real time, and on reassignment orders to an overseas facility located at Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Being new to the army I had never heard of the place. I was aware of Germany, of course, but never had any great and pressing desire to go there. Yet somehow after a seriously-long and terribly-sick sea voyage, I managed to find my way to Kaiserslautern.
I reported to my destination only to discover that the unit was deactivating, which means it was closing all operations. It was in last stages of moving all of its soldier inhabitants to various locations, respectively. It took me more than a bit to figure out what this meant for me personally, coming to the eventual conclusion that the army had made a big mistake sending me here. A wrong committed, yet here I was nevertheless.
Finding the Sergeant, I asked what I should do under these confused circumstances? Giving him my reassignment orders, along with voicing my complaint, he told me to consider myself lucky, to make myself comfortable, and to go find a cot in one of the many vacated rooms in the building. Saying further that I could have my pick as to which room but to make myself available for I would be notified in a few days as to new orders and new location.
The room I selected was on the second floor of the solidly built, but drafty, three story, old stone structure that I reasoned had in the past housed many soldiers, both German and American. But now all was quiet. And as I soon learned a drafty vacant billet was an understatement regardless of who used to call it home, it was like a ghost town.
My room was empty of all furnishings except for two other cots. No one was claiming either and I enjoyed the privacy knowing it would be short-lived once my orders came.
It was on day two that I met two other soldiers, all three of us facing identical situations. However, unlike me, they'd taken up residence on another floor. We quickly became friends, mainly taking our meals together and shooting the bull while each waited individually for our new assignments.
-- On day three after a good night's rest I woke to the door opening:
Thinking it might be one of my new found friends, I sat up on my cot when in stepped a young soldier about my age, wearing a dress green uniform and sporting a green beret.
He stood at the open door and asked if he might join me in the room?
I welcomed him to come on in, all the while thinking 'so much for privacy' and quickly pointed out that I recognized him to be a Special Forces Soldier, the beret he wore cocked on his head being a dead give away for same.
He smiled. And stepping inside closed the door and stood next to my cot where we engaged in further conversation. I could see by the black plastic name tag he wore that his last name was quite similar to my own:
-- His name was BRIDGER; mine BRIDGES:
I pointed out this fact, excited as I had not encountered another soldier with a similar name as mine. He told me he and his family were firmly rooted in North Carolina. I told him mine as far as I knew all came from Kentucky. That I had grown up in Illinois. We exchanged further small talk at which time I again brought up his green beret, commenting also that I noticed he wasn't carrying any duffle bag with him and wondered which room he had chosen while waiting for orders?
That's when he explained that he really wasn't Special Forces. That he really wasn't even old enough to be in the army. That by some trickery he had managed to join with a group of real Special Forces Soldiers from a base in North Carolina and that they had all deployed to a place far from his homeland, to a place called South Vietnam.
I had heard of Vietnam and told him so, there was a war happening there, to which he explained to my amazement that he had been caught by surprise upon arrival in the jungle there -- and shot -- and killed.
I will admit I was surprised by what he was saying but at the same time found his story, and his manner, in an oddly and curious kind of way, quite believable.
The boy explained further that as he lay on the ground dying that he had wished he had not tricked anyone. Wishing he had stayed with his family and friends back in North Carolina and had not gone to Vietnam. Telling me this he became extremely sad saying he was never going to see his grandfather again, and how he was already missing the white gravel road that ran past their house. Dying and knowing that his life was slipping away, how he had wished with all his might to be able to visit a relative.
And for some dumb unexplained reason that even he was unable to fully grasp --
- That relative was me.
The names were different yet he claimed we were related and that's why he was there in my room. His wish had been granted, if only in part. Saying beyond that he had little understanding as to how he came to be at my door and became surprised learning that he was in Germany.
After a few minutes more of this 'crazy talk' the boy in the beret moved to one of the vacant cots and lay down. I got up and dressed in my fatigues and was lacing my boots when my two loud buddies came crashing into the room with purpose of gathering me up to go to the mess hall for breakfast.
One of the two friends sat on the edge of the cot where BRIDGER lay quietly looking over at me, obviously listening to the general conversation then happening but himself not participating.
I thought this rude that not one had acknowledged BRIDGER's presence so I asked if it would be okay if BRIDGER joined us?
They looked at each other, and at me, seemingly lost as to what I was asking.
-- BRIDGER then said they couldn't see him. That no one else could see him or hear him, just me. He said he would stay until we left and then he'd continue on his journey.
That sounded strange but so had everything else up to that point.
Caught up in my two friend's insistence, we left the room with BRIDGER looking over and waving a casual goodbye as the door closed behind us.
Thinking this had been an elaborate ruse I laughed, and said so, bringing up the matter again as we continued down the stairs. Again to vacant stares and comments that they had no idea what it was I was talking about. I tried relaying BRIDGER's story as we went but the two simply wouldn't listen.
Seated in the dining facility, the two insisted they saw no one in my room and asked that I drop this idiotic conversation for more logical chit chat.
Lost in thought, I continued with my meal. I was beginning to believe they actually hadn't seen or heard BRIDGER and that perhaps I might be losing my mind.
Upon returning to my room BRIDGER was gone; never to be seen by me again.
My new orders came that day; and that was the last I saw of my two lunch buddies. For which I was thankful for I was sure they thought me completely nuts.
It was nearly ten years later that I learned our family name of BRIDGES had in fact long ago been BRIDGER. And that many of my ancestors had in fact migrated from North Carolina and taken up residence in Kentucky. I strongly believe I saw a ghost that day. What do you think?
SPRING BRANCH, TX 78070