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TV Great Is Now in the Beyond

November 01, 2000|Steve Chawkins

When I read that 31% of Americans say they believe in ghosts, I had to wonder how many of them would be voting next week, and for whom: Christmas Past? Marley? Casper?

The ratio of ghost-believing Americans is twice as high now as it was two decades ago, according to the Gallup Poll. This raises only two possibilities: Either superstition has become a growth industry, or more Americans than ever are in tune with an unseen universe.

I posed the question to my newsroom comrades--highly intelligent, analytical truth-seekers, disciples of a craft whose best practitioners eat empty rhetoric for breakfast and train wrecks for lunch.

Do you believe in ghosts? I asked.

The results: By 2-to-1, it was well, um, who am I to say they don't exist, I guess so, you bet, and absolutely. With all seriousness, a number of veteran journalists reported spiritual emanations in their homes, their favorite bed-and-breakfasts, even a church. A few preceded their stories with cautionary I-can't-be-sures.

I can't be sure, but I'd say Steve Allen didn't believe in ghosts.

Steverino--the Renaissance man of entertainment--was a hero of mine. Over the last few years, I saw him when I could. I saw him play jazz on a baby grand piano in a Santa Barbara garden. Last winter, I saw him and his wife, Jayne Meadows, give moving performances in "Love Letters" at the Laurel Theatre in Ventura.

When I was a kid, I loved to watch him on the "Tonight Show," diving into a vat of Jell-O, playing one of his thousands of jazz compositions, doing hilarious readings of angry letters to the editor. He was a comedian, a songwriter, a brilliant conversationalist, a wit in the days before cynicism ruled the waves.

In his later years, he lent his name to campaigns against superstition and pseudo-science; he was even honored by a group called the World Skeptics Congress for "cultivating the public appreciation of critical thinking and science"--an award impossible to imagine for a Leno or a Letterman.

So it's a matter of wonderful comic timing that news of his death surfaced on Halloween--a day devoted not just to sugar-crazed children, but also to ghosts, ghouls and other beings scientifically unprovable. I too am a skeptic, mostly. The famous white light that people see as they die? Merciful brain chemistry, I say. UFOs? Mass hysteria. I'm with you, Steverino: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Ghosts? Spirits? Vibrations from the once-alive?

Well, I'd like to be with you on all that too, Steverino. But if Gallup calls tonight, I'm not saying yes and I'm not saying no. I'd have to admit to being one of the Cosmic Undecideds, and hope that election day isn't coming up too soon.

There was this thing that happened when I was 16. Maybe it was just a strange coincidence. I'm a big believer in strange coincidences. On the other hand . . .

It was the winter of my senior year, and I was interviewing at a small college in upstate New York.

A train left me off in Utica and a cab took me to a cavernous, once-elegant hotel, a musty place where the steam pipes clanked all night. An elderly woman at the desk took down all my information and gave me a room key.

This was my first overnight solo trip, and I was excited. In the empty dining room, an ancient waiter asked if I cared for a drink before dinner.

"Why, of course," I said, immensely gratified that I could be mistaken for an 18-year-old traveling salesman. "A martini, please." After my interview at the college the next morning, I checked out of the hotel and took the train back home, feeling worldly and independent.

When my mother scanned the receipt that I hadn't even glanced at, she grew suddenly serious: Did you do this? she asked. How did this happen?

The name on the receipt was Kenneth Chawkins--my older brother.

And it was written in a highly distinctive, familiar script--my father's.

He'd been dead nearly seven years.

So, Steverino: In the highly improbable event that you can read this, you don't have to give me a sign. Just know that more than a few of us earthbound sometime-skeptics hope, against all logic and scientific principle, that this could be the start of something big.

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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