Column: Youthful yen for detective work led to terrifying mission

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 26, 2003

Heaven knows I was a news hen long enough to repudiate the vague. So I apologize for not knowing the exact date that my home town acquired a hospital. Our first junior high, though, opened its doors in September, 1928. That it and St. Mary’s Hospital were built at about the same time is engraved in my mind by the fact that my home town was nothing if not bigoted.

The question that agitated the town was, why should non-Catholics contribute money to build a Catholic Hospital, when Catholics were not contributing money toward building a junior high. I remember my mother’s dentist, an Episcopalian, was quite hot about this.

My father, on the contrary, couldn’t see the logic of the question. The town had no hospital, and the new hospital would be open to anyone who needed hospital care. So why shouldn’t the public at large be willing to help pay for it? On the other hand, the Catholics had their own schools covering all 12 grades, so why should they be expected to contribute to building a new school?

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To get back to the hospital &045; when I say we didn’t up to the time of St. Mary’s have a hospital, I’m not saying we never had a hospital. There was one before my time. The building still remained while I was growing up. A desolate place, it was used briefly to house a homeless family, but that is a whole different story.

Most of the time the building stood empty. Said to be haunted, it was. I had several groups of friends. My school friends were the ones with whom I shared my desire to be a private detective. My four best friends decided they, too, would be private detectives.

The case we were working on took us, of course, to the old hospital, at that time empty. A portion of the basement wall was missing so it wasn’t hard to get in. Our exploration was not extensive. The place was more than a little spooky.

On top of everything else, my father &045; a man who always seemed to know what I was up to &045; gave orders that I forget about exploring the old building and stay away from it. He gave me a long and frightening list of reasons why I should stay away from it and any other old empty buildings.

I knew he was right. I felt, too, that if I were murdered in that old building the first thing he would say was, &uot;I gave you credit for having more intelligence.&uot; On the other hand, when you’re involved in a project with your four best friends, you can’t let yourself be turned aside by mere parental interference.

We continued our detecting, but didn’t get far with the hospital, because, to be frank, we were all scared to death of the place. So vacation came, my school friends scattered as I did, to visit friends and relatives.

During the summer I depended more on my neighborhood friends for company. Most of them were older than I and most of them attended parochial schools. We all went swimming every day and they knew nothing about my plans for a career. Two of them, girls about 13 to my 10, had a cousin crippled by polio.

When she visited them, the rest of the neighborhood gang would join the twins in taking her for a walk, pulling her around in her coaster wagon. One such walk brought us to the old hospital.

The larger of the twins was at once seized with a desire to explore the empty building. She met with instant protest. The place was haunted, someone knew someone who had lived there and at midnight all the doors in the place flew open at once, and a skeleton had been found hanging in one of the rooms. The last family who had been forced to live there had disappeared without a trace.

I didn’t say anything. The would-be explorer looked at me and I looked at her. Without any discussion we left the others. We slid down through the hole in the basement wall, we went through the basement door and up through the stairs, second floor, third floor, every single room. How many? I don’t know. In the state of terror I was in, it semed to me there were hundreds of rooms. Probably there were less than 50.

The rooms smelled of must and decay. We could see bats sleeping on door and window frames. We saw no rodents, but we could hear scuttlings and there were tracks of tiny clawed feet in the thick dust on the floors.

With every step we had to brush away cobwebs that seemed designed to keep us from going farther. The floors weren’t in good condition. We had to be careful where we stepped. Many of the windows were broken. In front of one of them lay an extremely dead pigeon.

It was a place of nightmares and I had nightmares for sometime afterward. Neither of us spoke a word during our exploration. Looking back I believe that the only sound that would have come from either of us would have been a scream.

We didn’t hurry, though, and when we completed our mission and rejoined our anxious friends on the corner where we’d left them, we were very casual &045; very proud &045; but very casual.

That evening my mother complained that I had come home covered in cobwebs. She couldn’t imagine why.

&uot;Well,&uot; said my father, &uot;There are a good many cobwebs in old buildings.&uot;

It was all he said, but I got the message I had investigated what may have been the scene of a crime. I was satisfied. No need now to revisit the old hospital. After all, what’s the point of pushing your luck?

Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.