If you’ve never had the pleasure of riding a pedicab, I highly recommend it, especially when visting a romantic city like Savannah. I’ve ridden on rolling chairs on the Atlantic City boardwalk (Tre and I had done that on this vacation as well) and the South Florida version of a pedicab in West Palm Beach’s CityPlace; yet this was unlike any other experience.
Our rider was courteous and accommodating, even stopping by a market on the way to Vic’s so Tre could pick up a few needed items. Ever the considerate tourist, she purchased a bottle of water for our diligent rider, who gratefully accepted the gift as he pedaled us down to the river.
On the surface Vic’s is a delightful, elegant establishment with great food and a friendly waitstaff. That evening I enjoyed one of the best meals of my life — blackened prime rib — minus the horseradish mashed potatoes, with extra greens on the side, of course. Because it was such a large cut of beef, I happily shared it with Tre, whose scallop entree suffered by comparison (though she assured me it was indeed, delicious).
Our waiter was a cute, friendly guy, approximately in his mid-20’s. Thanks to him, though, my resolve to confront my ghosts, so to speak, diminished rather quickly. He informed us that he lived well outside of the historic district as most of the buildings were seriously haunted, including our very lovely Dresser Palmer House (upon hearing this, I became determined to sleep in the car) and the third floor of the restaurant. “Whatever you do, he warned, “don’t go to that floor.”
Apparently, Vic’s had once been a headquarters for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and had thus experienced its share of bloodshed. Angry spirits on the third floor continued to do battle by furiously throwing objects around and otherwise making their presence known in frightening ways. In fact, our handsome waiter steadfastly refuses to close the place on his own, after enduring some spine-tingling confrontations with earthbound spirits.
Still (and perhaps due to the delectible cuisine), I felt pretty certain I could handle a walking ghost tour with a good friend and other tourists. Our dinner conversation consisted mostly of Tre giving me a pep-talk about how great I would feel once I pushed myself to look fear in the eye and survive the experience.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, a wicked thunder and lightning storm, complete with a heavy downpour of rain, threatened our evening walking plans. However, by the time we lingered over coffee (and I must admit, a delectibly obscene piece of pecan cheesecake), the storm had passed and we (well at least Theresa) were ready for our “spirit walk.” During the meal, Tre had even spotted a Confederate soldier out the window, walking in the rain; we never did determine if he was an actual ghost, or a dressed-up actor, though we saw no other such actors strolling around the entire night. Needless to say, she was pretty jazzed about spying on other spectres, now that we could do so sans umbrellas.
We reported to a beautiful town square, replete with foliage and a statue of John Wesley, Founder of the Methodist Church. Our friendly tour guides greeted us warmly and informed — or rather — terrified us (me) with tales of tourists getting slapped in the face, pulled away and otherwise confronted in decidedly unfriendly ways by the ghosts of Savannah. “But I thought we didn’t actually go into the buildings,” I meekly protested.
“Of course we go into the buildings. We’re all about giving you an authentic experience!” one of the guides replied. As I scanned the crowd I realized that, unlike myself, these people truly considered this excellent entertainment. My heart began to pound in my chest as I not only confronted fear, but became entirely consumed by it. And when the tourguides confirmed hauntings at the Dresser Palmer House, what was left of my resolve drained out of me faster than a puddle in the South Florida sun.
Tre and I arrived in Savannah a few hours later, crossing over a bridge reminiscent of the Sunshine Skyway in Tampa (though not quite as high). As we entered the charming riverside city, we were immediately smitten with its hanging Spanish moss, stunning architecture (featuring wrought-iron balconies, large verandas and plentiful flower boxes) and beautiful gardens.
Making our way down Gaston Street in the historic district, I began to think the ghost stories were concocted marketing fantasies designed to enhance the city’s old-world elegance. Such reassurances went out the window, however, upon meeting Tom, the afternoon Manager of Dresser Palmer House.
The place itself was a marvel. It had recently undergone extensive renovations, thanks to new management, with freshly-painted walls and new bathroom fixtures. Its decor retained the aura of the 1700’s however, with candelabras, chandeliers and other accoutrements gracing the parlor, dining and living areas.
In an effort to reassure myself, I queried Tom about the ghosts as he processed our credit cards. “Who told you it wasn’t haunted?” he asked. My heart began to beat wildly in my chest.
Did David lie to me just to sell a room???
Tre noticed the terror-stricken look on my color-drained face. As if reading her mind, Tom tried to calm me by stating that ghosts only appear to those who believe; if you don’t believe in them, you won’t see them. Nice try, I thought, thinking of a haunted house in my former neighborhood in PA, whose owners had not desired to see or experience poltergeist, but nonetheless ended up fleeing their homestead because of repeated “disturbances.” (for more on that read the book, Night Stalks The Mansion).
Regardless, we were now officially checked in to the Lady Astor, a pleasant-enough looking room in the daylight, anyway. Tom carried our heavily-laden suitcases up the back wrought-iron staircase and left with a promise to call Vic’s on the River for dinner reservations. Partly because of the intense heat and partly because I didn’t want to do it at night, I decided to take a shower.
Feeling refreshed, I had to admit I was taken with the true Southern hospitality offered by the Inn’s gracious staff. Tre informed me that Tom was calling a pedicab for us to ensure our arrival in time for a 7 p.m. reservation at Vic’s, and was also working diligently to reserve us a spot in the 9:30 pm. walking ghost tour. She was truly excited about touring haunted Savannah; unwilling to dampen her enthusiasm, I nervously agreed to “overcome my fears.” Besides, what could happen standing outside of a haunted building??
Note:In honor of my brother Ralph’s upcoming birthday on October 4, I am posting a piece I’d originally written in 1997, then updated a few years ago. Last year, this amazing human being, son, brother, uncle and friend celebrated a remarkable milestone — his 50th birthday — which drew family and friends together for a Hollywood-style gala in Springfield, PA (although he’s a big conservative, Ralph is also an avid movie-buff . 😉
An inspiration to all, my 2nd oldest brother is just one of many special souls who never fails to demonstrate the very best of human nature. While it’s heartening to witness society’s evolution in mainstreaming and accepting our brothers and sisters with Down’s and other handicaps, one of the most troubling statistics I learned during the 2008 election, thanks to Sarah Palin’s beautiful son Trig, is that 90% of unborn babies discovered to have Down syndrome are aborted. I pray for those loving creations of God who never had an opportunity to bless this world with their presence.
Happy Birthday, Ralph!
A Little Down Syndrome
As the youngest child in a family of five children and two wonderful parents, I have never had to look far for role-models. My positioning in the family line-up afforded me the opportunity not only to observe the behavior and personal characteristics of the people around me, but also to learn from their experiences.
Looking back, I realize that we all faced our own unique challenges, as is true today. As a slightly overweight child, adolescent, and young adult (I’ve since toned down to a healthy weight, which I’ve maintained for the most part), there were times when I felt as if I were the only put-upon soul on this earth. During my school years, I came to know and understand through personal experience the validity of the expression, “kids are cruel.”
Ralph around the age of eight.
But what I didn’t appreciate back then was that my elementary and high school angst paled in comparison to the obstacles life threw at one very special family member, someone whom I’ve come to regard as a hero — my brother, Ralph.
Ralph recently celebrated his 49th birthday, surrounded by his adoring nieces and nephews, siblings, and parents. For 23 years he worked in material services at a local hospital, where he was loved and respected by his boss, co-workers, and other hospital personnel.
In his spare time, he enjoys movies, both in the theater and at home (his DVD collection now exceeds 250 titles), attending wrestling matches, swimming, dancing (the guy can cut a rug!), babysitting for his nieces and nephews (characterized by lively rounds of “PlayStation”), and traveling (he often spends time with me at my place in Boca Raton, FL). Ralph is also an active member of the Knights of Columbus—not bad for someone who at birth, was predicted to amount to nothing more than a vegetable.
Ralph arrived on October 4, 1959, the second-born child of my parents, Rose and Al. Despite the trauma of his premature birth and the absence of my father who was working in upstate Pennsylvania as part of his medical residency, Mom was thrilled to have a baby brother for her older child, Mark, then 17 months-old. When she held the beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed infant in her arms, the young 28 year-old mother felt truly blessed. Ralph was a sight to behold.
My parents with their two oldest children, Mark and Ralph.
Her joy was shattered early the next morning, however, by a visit from Ralph’s pediatrician, who matter-of-factly informed her that her baby had been born with a terrible affliction known as Down syndrome. With clinical certainty, he pronounced that Ralph’s future would indeed be bleak. Pointing to a tree outside the window, he explained that my brother would be just like a tree trunk—unable to do anything but stand there. To say that this guy had no bedside manner would be an understatement. He completed his “professional analysis” by recommending Ralph’s institutionalization since my Dad was a resident doctor, and the presence of a handicapped child would be a “stigma” on the young family.
The more he spoke, the angrier my mother became—after the initial shock. Summoning her courage and faith in God, she ordered the doctor out of her room with the firm admonition to stay away from her baby. As of that moment, he was no longer Ralph’s pediatrician. Filled with an inner strength and supported by my father and close family members, she vowed to do everything in her power to help this special boy reach his full potential. And she would soon discover its scope went far beyond anything the “experts” foresaw.
Easter Sunday in Ocean City, New Jersey, 1970.
Under the guidance and tutelage of my determined mother, Ralph crawled early, walked early, ate with no problems, and even toilet-trained early. A loving, affectionate child, he was a source of joy for his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and a wonderful playmate for his big brother. Mom switched to a new pediatrician—a kind, caring man named Dr. John Williams—who applauded her efforts and was amazed at all that Ralph had accomplished.
As he grew, Ralph attended kindergarten, followed by first-grade where he was placed in the special education section. It was there that he flowered under the supervision of a dedicated teacher named Ruth Izumi. Ruth’s patience and caring assisted Ralph in garnering all of the knowledge and skills he would need to live a happy, productive life. Above all, she taught him to believe in himself and his abilities.
Ralph continued his education through the public school system, eventually graduating from Marple-Newtown Senior High in 1978. Though only 11 years-old at the time, I remember watching the ceremony and observing how gratifying it was that the school did not separate these “special” graduates; they processed in line with all of the other seniors. Additionally, Ralph had interacted with everyone during his high school years, attending class trips, parties and other festivities. He’d also been a member of the swim team and a participant in the Special Olympics. It sure was a long way from that dismissive doctor’s ominous prediction the day after his birth!
Ralph’s graduation from Elwyn Institute, 1981.
Growing up, I didn’t truly appreciate Ralph as I do now, though I understood his challenges in being “different.” There were days at the Springfield Swim Club when, standing in line at the snack bar or diving board, we’d hear the taunts of “Retard!” Though visibly shaken and misty-eyed, Ralph maintained his dignity and bravely ignored the ignorant comments of their limited young minds. As a little girl, I wasn’t quite so accommodating. On several occasions, I remember physically pushing the bullies who ridiculed him with the clear admonition to “leave my brother alone!”
Sometimes in the movie theater, Ralph and I would be forced to change our seats when the gawking stares of other people became unbearable. It would be comforting to report that most of this bad behavior originated from immature children; however, many “mature” adults were some of the most-guilty parties. To this day, I find that difficult to accept.
Perhaps the taunts of strangers seemed particularly tasteless given the way my parents raised all of us. Ralph was never babied or pampered because of his condition. When he did something worthy of special recognition, he was praised; if he did something bad (like tell a lie), he was disciplined appropriately. Because he was subject to the same rules and treated as one of the family, I never perceived Ralph as being “handicapped.” He was simply one of my older brothers, all of whom I adored.
One of my favorite baby photos of Ralph.
But it wasn’t long before the world told me differently. And soon, he caught on too. One telling evening, my sister Carolyn, Ralph, and I — ages 9, 12, and 4, respectively — were playing in the finished basement of our house. Amid the merriment, Ralph suddenly became very thoughtful. Looking at the two of us with very serious eyes, he asked if he was “retarded.” After some careful consideration, during which Carolyn and I exchanged worried glances, she finally proclaimed with the wisdom of a 9 year-old, “Just a tiny, tiny bit.” In an effort to emphasize the extent of the insignificance, she brought her thumb and index finger close together. Then she assured Ralph that, no matter what, he was our brother and always would be. Satisfied with that explanation, he resumed his activity.
Over the years, Ralph has been so much more than just an older brother. He’s been a loyal friend, a good listener, a fun-loving companion, and an excellent “hugger.” When there was no one else to play with, Ralph was always a willing participant. From mimicking the dance routine of John Travolta and Olivia Newtown-John to “You’re The One That I Want,” from the movie musical Grease to challenging each other to swimming games in the pool (like trying to determine who could hold their breath longer under water), time spent with Ralph was invaluable and precious.
As a young adult, he faced another challenge: alopecia, a scalp condition that causes irreversible hair loss. Within weeks, it claimed his light-brown hair. To bolster his self-esteem, Mom had him fitted for a wig. Though he continues to wear one to this day, there are times when he must summon the courage to go without. Those first few days at the beach or by the pool were the most difficult, but, like everything else, Ralph took it all in stride.
Ralph meets the Phillie Phanatic at Mercy Catholic Medical Center.
Inevitably, as time went by, Ralph also had to deal with separation. Perhaps the most difficult was my brother Paul’s departure from the family nest to attend Vanderbilt Medical School in Tennessee, since Paul and Ralph had always shared a room. It marked the end of an era and the beginning of new transitions as eventually, Paul, Mark, and Carolyn married and moved out permanently. Though he felt these changes deeply, Ralph accepted them graciously. He stood up for Paul as best man in his wedding and acted as an usher for both Mark and Carolyn. Today, he enjoys close relationships with his sisters-in-law and brother-in-law, as well as their offspring.
When I decided to move away soon after Carolyn’s wedding, Ralph found himself an only child. Though I’ve never regretted my decisions, I miss Ralph’s “huggies” and taking him to the movies at the spur-of-the-moment. We visit as often as we can, and, in between, I love hearing about his social life and latest escapades. Ralph has a way of endearing himself to people in a way that is difficult to explain yet marvelous to witness. He exudes a combination of honesty and warmth that is as rare as it is irresistible.
Once, my dad went to the movie theater to pick up Ralph at the agreed-upon time. Not finding him in the lobby, Dad then went next door to Pizzeria Uno, knowing it was one of his favorite hangouts. When he described Ralph to the hostess, her face lit up as she pointed to the bar. Sure enough, there he was, having a few beers with the guys. Noticing my father, he promptly introduced him to his friends. As they made their way out of the restaurant, Dad asked if they were people he knew from work. “Oh no, Dad,” he’d replied, “I just met them and started talking to them when I went in for a pizza.”
So it seems Carolyn was correct in her assessment of Ralph’s condition. It is such a small part of who he is that it is nearly insignificant. Viewing it from a spiritual standpoint, I’m convinced that Ralph is an advanced soul, put on the earth to make other people better. He’s been an inspiration and a testament to faith for my entire family, and my siblings and I are more sensitive, considerate human beings as a result of growing up with him.
Celebrating my mom’s birthday circa 1992.
Several years after Carolyn’s childhood observation, Ralph was solicited for life insurance through the Knights of Columbus. He had just received his 4th degree, which is quite an achievement. The salesman sat down with him and methodically posed a series of health-related questions: “Do you have high blood pressure? Do you get dizzy spells? Do you have diabetes?” After a lengthy period of negative responses, a frustrated Ralph echoed his sister’s long-ago words: “Look, Mister, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. All I have is a little Down syndrome, that’s it!” As he spoke, he gestured to make his point by bringing his thumb and index finger together, as Carolyn had done. There were no more questions. The next week, Ralph received approval for his life insurance.
Today, Ralph is inspiring the next generation, as his nieces and nephews — ranging in age from four to 16—clamor to spend quality time with “Uncle Ralph.” A particularly proud moment took place recently involving my then eight-year-old nephew Mark. My sister-in-law Lisa had taken a few of them to the movies, and, when one of his friends remarked that Ralph was “funny looking,” young Mark snapped back that insults to his uncle would not be tolerated.
And with my parents aging (though they are still in excellent health), inevitable thoughts of the future pop into my head from time to time, though I absolutely dread the day when they are no longer with us. As devastated as I know I’ll be, Ralph will feel the loss even more deeply when his live-in companions make their transition. It will rattle his feelings of security and call the rest of us to action. I’d already determined countless years ago that any potential mate must be open to the possibility of welcoming Ralph into our home, whether on a permanent or part-time basis. My married siblings are also prepared for that new phase of life, and I pray that their spouses remain understanding when it finally arrives.
It’s the least we can do for a brother who’s taught us that even the worst prognosis can be overcome with a little love, faith, courage, and determination.
Note: Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I’d repost a multi-part series I’d written four years ago after visiting Savannah, Georgia with a good friend. While I didn’t actually see any ghosts or walk through any “cold spots”, I experienced a relentless, palpable discomfort during my brief but memorable 24-hour stay in this simultaneously charming, historic and eerie southern city. And while I’d definitely visit again, this time I’d be sure to stay in a hotel somewhere on the outskirts of town — far from any paranormal activity. A girl needs her beauty sleep, you know! 😉
Dresser Palmer House.
Sleepless in Savannah, Part One
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to visit Savannah — a city rich in history, tradition and Southern charm and hospitality. Several close friends who’ve spent time in the Garden of Good and Evil have had nothing but praise for its wealth of culture, cuisine and myriad attractions. None of their glowing reviews, however, ever mentioned the fact that Savannah is also well-known as “the most haunted city in North America.”
Had I been aware of this well-deserved title, I may never have agreed to accompany Theresa on an overnight stay in the historic district, on our way back to South Florida from Pennsylvania. To be honest, I did have an inkling about the city’s supernatural tendencies, mainly because Theresa excitedly talked of staying in a haunted Bed and Breakfast, until I begged her to compromise on our lodging arrangements, to which she graciously agreed.
In return, I nervously conceded to participating in a walking ghost tour, like those offered in St. Augustine (based on her experience in America’s oldest city, Tre was positive we wouldn’t actually enter any haunted buildings, but merely stay outside while the guides regaled us with tales of horror and history). We’d soon find out that Savannah does things a little differently when it comes to giving their guests an authentic, spine-tingling experience (more on that later).
Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, we were able to call ahead to several places, using the GPS (whose female satellite voice we dubbed “Sally”), while cruising south on I-95 somewhere in South Carolina. After many fruitless calls (“Sorry ma’am, but we’re booked solid”) I finally called what I thought was a Hampton Inn safely on the outskirts of town.
A friendly voice answered, “Good afternoon, Dresser Palmer House!” and I knew right away I was in trouble: I had to at least ask if rooms were available, in fairness to my friend, though I dreaded a positive answer. Unbelievably, they had one room left — The Lady Astor — which came with a Queen-sized bed and a fireplace. As if to eliminate any possibility that this was a trap set up by phantoms of the underworld, I asked if the place was haunted. “Do you want it to be?” the nice gentleman on the line queried, to which I firmly responded with a resounding NO!
He then assured me that while many B & B’s in Savannah were indeed inhabited by earthbound spirits, Dresser Palmer House had never had any problems. Feeling somewhat better, though still a bit apprehensive, I made the reservation (much to Theresa’s delight). That’s just the beginning of the story.