Milton, Florida—brick buildings. Old houses. Cute storefronts.
My wife and I roll into town early. The Imogene Theater is our destination for the evening. I’m here to tell a few stories at a benefit for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida.
Everyone tells me this theater is haunted, but I don’t buy it. I was raised by evangelicals. Believe in ghosts? We didn’t even believe in two-piece bathing suits.
This old opera house has been standing since 1912. Hank Williams played here once. So did Roy Acuff, and Minnie Pearl. My late father would’ve danced a jig if he’d known I was taking the same stage as Hank.
Anyway, they say the ghost’s name is Miss Imogene. She roams this auditorium, along with many others.
The stories are all alike. Some report hearing things, some claim to see a girl wandering the balcony. Paranormal enthusiasts around the nation believe this theater is a gathering place for metaphysical beings.
But not me. That’s kid stuff.
I am given the dime tour of the old hall. There are tall ceilings, stunning acoustics, and ornate woodwork. There is a rope and pulley system outside, once used to hoist steamer trunks for vaudeville performers.
“Here’s your dressing room,” the man says, flipping a lightswitch. “Can you believe Hank changed his clothes in this VERY room?”
“Yep. Hey, maybe he’s even in this room with us now.”
The hair on the back of my neck stands straight up.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I tell the man.
“Good,” he says. “Then you won’t mind if I leave Hank in here with you? He’s been getting in my way all day.”
Soon, I am in the dressing room alone. I’m thinking about things.
Mainly, how thrilled my father would have been to know I was in a room where Minnie Pearl once did her makeup, where Roy Acuff once tuned his fiddle. And all of a sudden it hits me hard. I miss him.
My father, not Roy Acuff.
I’m thinking about the wonderful things my father never experienced. Like all the things my wife and I have done these last years.
We’ve seen half the country in a car. I’ve told stories in small towns throughout the Southeast, and made new friends. We ate fried catfish on a Mississippi riverboat. I drank beer with an Episcopal bishop. I won two hundred bucks in Biloxi on a Roulette table.
My father hasn’t been here to see any of it. No matter how old I get, I wish I could share this life with him.
If ghosts were real, I wish he were one. I’d like him to visit me and say “hello.”
The band arrives. They warm up the crowd before I go on stage. The concession stand sells beer, wine, and popcorn. People trickle into the seats.
I take the stage. I tell a few stories. I pick at my guitar, I ramble.
And something happens. Nothing major, but something small.
While I speak, I am interrupted by one of my own memories. It almost makes me forget where I am. It’s a vivid recollection:
I see my father, seated beside a fireplace, stabbing a poker at a smoldering log. It’s Christmastime. He sings “Silent Night” in the German language of his ancestry.
Then, he teaches the song to me. It takes two full afternoons for me to learn these strange words. But I do, and it makes him proud.
He says, “You’re a smart kid, you know that?”
I can still hear his voice.
I am jolted from my memory. And I realize that I am standing before a microphone with an audience staring at me.
I have this whim. It might be a bad idea, but here goes.
I start to sing his song. I’m not sure if I will remember the words, or if I’ll get the German pronunciation right. But I go for it.
I surprise myself. The lyrics are still there. I don’t know how. It is almost paranormal.
I finish the song. I leave the stage. I sit in Hank’s dressing room. I close my eyes.
I feel something deep in my chest. It’s a heavy feeling. A good one. These might be the effects of a good memory. A memory so strong, I almost feel a middle-aged man’s hand resting on my right shoulder. A man who died too young.
The hair on my neck isn’t standing, there are no bright lights, I don’t hear noises. But I would almost swear Daddy’s here.
I open my eyes.
There is nobody in the dressing room but a gangly guy who was raised by evangelicals.
Ghosts? No. I don’t believe in ghosts.
But I sure hope they believe in me.