The Occult

I had never believed in ghosts, the supernatural, the occult and so forth.  Now I don’t know what I believe.

Brother Dick

My oldest brother Dick, a Commander in the US Navy, was shot down in the South Pacific in either 1943 or 1944 and was adrift on debris knowing that he was going to die.  After several days, from afar, he heard You Are My Sunshine being sung.  The singing was coming from a war canoe from Tongatabu.  They picked Dick up and upon reaching their island, Queen Sālote welcomed him with great ceremony and he was treated royally until he was rescued the second time 4 months later.   A lot of his time was spent teaching celestial navigation to the warriors.  No wonder that You Are My Sunshine was his favorite song!

Meanwhile back at home, Mother was frantic.  We had not heard from Dick for several months.  Our house was in a long state of suspension until one day the phone rang.  Mother answered it by saying “Hello Dick.”  It was he, calling from Hawaii. 

Only in retrospect, do I wonder how she knew?  She, a devout Christian, would have believed that her prayers had brought him through, but that did not explain her knowing that the phone call was from Dick.



In 1964, when my Indonesian housemate in Kuala Lumpur (where I was a Peace Corps volunteer) told of the spirit tenikling. He was often called upon by Sjafi and other insurrectionists against Sukarno, in the jungles of Sumatra.  He told of an instance where after repeated calls, the spirit entered a stick and was able to write in the sand the answer to questions.  Sjafi, the only one with any education, asked for a mathematical equation.  Tenikling knew the right answer.

Inexplicable!  I really didn’t believe it but it made a good story. 


Lyn Dwyer (now Jacoby) and I were fellow Peace Corps volunteers in Malaya, (later Malaysia) from 1963 to 1965.

Lyn’s Peace Corps assignment in Malaya, as a nurse, was to work at the Bagan Datoh Health Clinic.

Bagan Datoh was a one-street fishing village situated at the mouth of the Perak River.  It was surrounded by rubber estates, kampongs, and Chinese enclaves.  Lyn was the only Peace Corps volunteer and only medical person there.

Lyn had expressed disbelief in “hantus” (the word for ghost in Bahasa Melayu). Her assistant nurses had told her that a “hantu” might extract revenge for that.  So, one Saturday afternoon she was riding her bike and suddenly the bike stopped and she went right over the handlebars. 

Her assistant nurses believed that a “hantu” did it and they spread the story all over the place.  It’s probably still being told.


Walking on Hot Coals

Even my disbelief in the occult was not completely shaken when I saw people walk barefooted on hot coals in Malaysia and later in Java and Bali – with no burnt feet!



Upon meeting Lalita she said “my name is Lalita – not Lolita!”  This was on the first day of my Peace Corps assignment at the University of Malaya Library.

She was a beautiful Indian girl wearing a gorgeous sari and I was to be her boss at the University Library.  (A recent picture found on the internet shows her to be beautiful still.)  For the several months that I knew her, she never wore the same sari twice.  As she walked, the end of her sari fluttered in her wake – like a light silk scarf blowing in a slight breeze.  Like a butterfly with gossamer wings.  A vision of loveliness.

My first day was memorable by two unexplained incidents.  The first happened as she was showing me the circulation desk.  As we passed the open paste pot, it turned over, spilling its contents over my only clean pair of pants – which I then wore stiffened for the next several days – until my air shipment of clothes arrived from the States.  Was this perhaps the billowing sari?  Or was it something else?

The other happened as we passed a pile of books on a desk.  As we passed, the books fell all over the floor.  Was this, perhaps, the billowing sari?  Or was it something else?

Explainable or Inexplicable?  The staff knew and I was too polite to disagree.

She left the Library several months later for a position reading children’s books on Radio Malaysia.


More disquieting was seeing the Hindu festival of Thaipusam northeast of Ipoh in Malaysia.  It was the annual homage to Lord Subramanyam, the Indian god who rides the peacock.  The devout followers prepare themselves with purification rites and meditation.  On the holy day, those who will carry the kavadis (platforms) in the procession pass into a trance to the ringing of gongs and cymbals and the chanting of prayers.  The tongue, cheeks and the skin of the chest and back are pierced by long sharp steel spindles, with no blood and no apparent pain.  I remember that I almost fainted and sat under a tree for a while until I told myself to get up and watch because I knew that I would never again have the opportunity.  It was clear that some had enough faith.  Were they better than I?  Perhaps.  I didn’t dwell very long on why and how.  It was easier this way, particularly since I knew that I didn’t have enough faith in anything to ever be tempted to put myself to any such test.


Fortune Teller

But – then I had an experience that shook me to the core – a fortune teller in Jaipur, India.

It was in December of 1970.  Having finished my official visit at the Library of Congress Office in New Dehli, I visited Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal in Agra.  On December 23rd I received a call from Quantas Airlines saying that my flight to Rome had been cancelled.  My driver was willing to take me to Jaipur the next day.  Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, is the capital of the state of Rajasthan.  It is important to know that no one knew beforehand of my changed plan.

We arrived in Jaipur mid-morning on Christmas Eve.  After finding a hotel for me, the driver left to find himself quarters saying that he would be back in 30 minutes to take me sightseeing.  My hotel was beautifully situated in a padang (a large grassy field) with many frangipani trees in full bloom.  It was a beautiful and quiet setting.  Waiting on the lawn for the driver to return, I was approached by a Sikh, complete with the turban, beard and all.  He asked if I would like my fortune told.  I told him that I couldn’t for I was going sightseeing.  I thought that that was the end of that.  I was too polite to tell him that I didn’t believe in fortune tellers.

 It was a wonderful day and, upon return to the hotel, and I decided to take a walk around the padang.  The Sikh, who must have been the resident fortune teller, again approached me and asked me if he could tell my fortune.   Since dinner wouldn’t be served for another hour, I thought “why not?”  After we had negotiated a price, he asked me to come to his office.  His office turned out to be a post at the edge of the lawn at the hotel entrance – complete with two chairs.

 He handed me two dice that were threaded on a string.  He asked me to rub them around and tell him what they added up to. I would give him the total. He would either tell me things or write them on a small piece of paper that he would tear from a bigger sheet.  We did this before each pronouncement.  Through the years I have lost some of these scraps; however, a few are shown below.  He started out by telling me that my name was Joseph Harvey Howard and that I was a librarian (misspelled)

     He told me my late wife’s name along with her birth and death date.  She had died in 1969.  Very few people knew Dorothy’s birth date, but he did.  Wow!    He told me her death date which he missed by one year.  When I said no, he corrected himself to the correct date.  This was the only mistake relating to the past that he made.

He told me that I would be married in 1971.   He even wrote down for me the name of the one that I was going to marry.  (Scrap lost)  The scrap said “Noncie.”  I had been dating a girl by the name of Nancy but as with most of his answers about the future, he did not get it right.  Nancy and I didn’t marry.  It was not until 1980 that I remarried and her name is Patricia.

Another example of his bad spelling, which can easily be forgiven, was when he wrote the name of my Mother. (Scrap lost)  He wrote “Lettitia.”  One too many “t’s.”  He got her dates right.  He was also correct about dates for my father and 4 brothers and sisters.  When he came to my brother Bill, he said that I had a brother with the same name as my father – both were named William Lester – one senior and one junior.

 None of the predictions for the future turned out to be accurate.  However, one was interesting.  He predicted that I would inherit $30,000 dollars in June.  I didn’t know anybody with $30,000 who would leave me anything.  But – on the last day of July, I received a letter from a lawyer in Lawton, Oklahoma enclosing check for about $300.  My late Grandmother’s (Mama Howard) property in Pecos, Texas had been sold and the proceeds were being divided among her many grandchildren.

Did the prediction come true with the loss of two zeros or was it just a coincidence?  I choose to believe the latter – I think.

I have lost a lot of sleep over this.  Upon my return to the States, I read every book that I could read about extrasensory perception (ESP) which further confused me.  The only thing I know is that he must have been reading my mind.  I finally got back to normal by taking the coward’s way out – I refused to think about it and I refuse to question it. 


In summary, I’m afraid to say “I don’t believe.”  I can say for sure, “I don’t disbelieve.”