What WAS It?

I was born in San Francisco, CA at the tail end of the sixties, and when we moved out of the city proper, my parents bought a house in Pacifica, straight up a hill. I would have been approximately two at the time of the move, and we lived there for five years. I have no recollection of how old I was at the time of this incident, but I was probably five or six.

The house was small, but it had a huge backyard (which also went uphill) full of a variety of fruit trees. It also had a wooden privacy fence around the property, and if you climbed to the back corner of our hill and climbed halfway up the fence on the southwest side, you could see the ocean at the bottom of the hill on a clear day. I used to do that a lot, but one day, right at twilight, I happened to look up the hill instead of down.

At the crown of the hill above the neighborhood was a park surrounded by pine woods. It had meager playground equipment (swings, maybe a slide) but it had long ago turned into a place you did not take your children. It was known to be a spot favored by criminals and drug users, and in the wild and wooly sixties, you just didn’t go up there at night if you wanted to be alive the next day.

When I looked up toward the park, my eye caught a flash of something white. Having been born with an overactive imagination, I instantly thought it was a ghost. The memory is both dim and frustratingly clear at the same time, and it is seen now through the funhouse mirror of childhood perceptions, which clears up nothing. The only thing I am sure of is that it looked like a white sheet floating horizontally through the air and moving into the trees, and the sheet had a vague human shape to it. To a child, a human-shaped sheet is a ghost – I saw them every Halloween, so I knew that was what it was at the time. Normally, (I was a weird kid) seeing a ghost would have delighted me; but something about this incident terrified me. I jumped down off of the fence and ran madly down the hill and into the house to tell my mother.

I was frantic, and I guess she was just trying to calm me down, but she told me there must be people up there putting on a play, and there was a ghost character in the play, and it was someone dressed in a sheet. I don’t think I ever believed that, even then.

I never saw it again, but I’ve never forgotten the memory of the sight of it, either. As an adult who ended up a fan of true crime books, I’ve since come up with a macabre theory. In studying serial killers who were in operation in that area at the time, I discovered two case histories of killers which mentioned Pacifica as a dumping ground for their victims. Perhaps what I saw was a body wrapped in a white sheet that wasn’t floating, but was being carried by a man wearing dark clothing so that he was not visible at that distance. This perhaps sounds far-fetched, but further research dug up the fact that bodies had been found in that park more than once; one of them had even been stuffed into an old steamer trunk that had been dumped up there with some other garbage.

Or maybe it really was a ghost? I’ll never know, of course. What it left me with was something I am (perhaps weirdly) grateful for: a macabre sense of wonder that there truly are creepy things in the world, and for a kid (and adult) like me, that is a marvelous thing.

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