Thirty years ago, a weird experience


Exactly thirty years ago, in the summer of 1977 I had just graduated from college and was working at Camp Aldersgate in Swartswood. One of the other counselors had been to the deserted railroad tracks in Chester to see the lights of the so-called “Hooker Man,” and intrigued, seven of us set off on a Saturday night between camp sessions to check out what there was to see. We borrowed the director’s station wagon, and piled in for the forty-five minute drive. As the oldest and a future seminarian, driving was entrusted to me. We arrived at the isolated tracks where a couple of other cars were parked — it was apparently the place to be on a Saturday night. I parked and we headed out on the tracks, joining the handful of other sight seers on hand, and sure enough, we began to see the lights: a bright white light, and a swinging red light, that would appear intermittently for a second or two, re-appearing every thirty seconds or so, perhaps one hundred yards down the track. Stories were shared by those on hand about odd things purportedly happening to people there — the one I vaguely recall was one about a sudden, unstoppable nose bleed striking a young woman who had come to view the hooker man’s lights.

Feeling adventurous and undaunted by the spooky stories, my friend Ed and I walked ahead of the others, perhaps a half mile or so down the tracks, hoping to get closer to the lights. The lights, however, seemed intent on keeping their distance from us, although at one point I remember the lights appeared to streak towards us, which lead me to feel momentarily afraid. It was clear to us that what we were seeing was not merely car lights in the distance, and the red light with its swinging motion made it easy to understand how the story of a railroad man swinging his lantern would come to be associated with the strange phenomenon.

After perhaps an hour and a half of being out there on the tracks we returned to the car in order to go back to our camp, and this is where one of the two weird things happened connected with the overall weirdness of seeing the lights themselves. I took out the borrowed car keys, inserted a key into the ignition, and immediately it locked — it was the wrong key! To my great embarrassment, there was absolutely no removing it. We ended up calling the camp director, who, none to pleased, drove out to Chester to pick us all up. We didn’t return to camp until something like 3:30 a.m., with a new set of campers arriving within a few hours. The station wagon had to be towed, and my recollection is that it took weeks for it to get fixed.   In retrospect, the Camp Director was extraordinarily gracious about the whole fiasco.

The second weird thing, to my way of thinking was that about ten years ago I was with a gathering of old friends that included Ed. The subject of that night on the railroad tracks came up, and Ed remembered everything except seeing the lights themselves. Now I like to think of myself as a fairly grounded person, lacking tendencies towards hallucination. My memory of the lights was quite clear — we had seen them numerous times over the course of the hour and a half. But Ed, who I would also take to be pretty grounded, was as adamant that there had been no lights as I was that there had indeed been lights.

Thirty years later, I still don’t know what to make of the experience. It does, however, make for an interesting story.