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THE MYSTERIOUS ROOMS AT THE DEL

By Keith R. Taylor

Although I am a skeptic, I was nervous as could be. A group of us were about to visit Hotel del Coronado's mysterious room 3312, and I could use some expert help. What if I saw, heard, or felt something unexplainable? How could I be sure it wasn't indeed the lovely, albeit long dead, Kate Morgan?

I am a skeptic, but gullible as can be. The shoddiest parlor trick performed by the clumsiest magician in town will leave me shaking my head in awe. A claim of flying saucers will cause me to go tearing outside looking for mysterious flashing lights, even in the daytime. Ghosts of old friends, some not even dead yet, peer at me from billboards advertising spaghetti. Other folks feel cold spots in rooms recently occupied by ghosts. I feel them in the ocean during an El Nino!

Clearly, someone like me needs someone like James Randi, the magician. He has been punching holes in spurious claims of para normal activity for years now. Back in the 1980s he joined Carl Saga, Isaac Amos, San Diego's own Elide Shiner, Paul Kurt and other skeptics to form the Committee For the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Para normal (CHICO). All were intelligent fellows; who else would be capable of coming up with a name like Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Para normal? I joined up.

Then about two years ago a local skeptics outfit was formed. It had an even easier name to remember: San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry (SARI). Like CHICO, SARI was loaded with scientists and others who were leery of para normal claims. I joined this outfit also. All of this brought me to the Hotel Del just before Halloween.

Three members of SARI were invited to take a tour of the ancient wonder. The president, Bruce Wallace, a local attorney, and Barbara Hemmingsen, a microbiologist at SDSU were also to come along. Not satisfied with the support of both the president of the local skeptics and a scientist I wanted even more help. I sent Randi an e-mail and asked what I might expect in a haunted room. It would be embarrassing to see a shadow, mistake it for the lovely Kate, and renounce my skepticism in front of all the others.

Alas, the reply was curt. "Do you expect me to teach you in 20 minutes what it took me 40 years to learn?" He asked. I had just been dissed by the Amazing Randi, but I would make the tour anyhow. Perhaps my fellow skeptics would stop me before I made a gaffe.

We three were joined by 17 other folks. The tour was led by Barbara Perkins, a beautiful, gray-haired lady who fell in love with a young Navy pilot in 1955 and the hotel in 1960. She married the pilot and adopted the old building. Barbara is now a contract tour guide, and one of the best. She started by confessing that she also believed in the legend.

"I believe in everything at my age," She said. Perhaps a good way to copper on one's bet, but hardly the stuff of a skeptic. I wondered what James Randi would have said to her.

There have been reports of bumps in the night and other "funny noises" in the ancient wooden structure since it was built 109 years ago. Kate Morgan's ghost was long thought to hang out in room 3502, a small room near the top.

Much of Barbara's lecture came from a book published a mere six years ago, The Legend of Kate Morgan. It was written by Alan May, a lawyer who had not only represented members of Nixon's family, but had worked for the government as well. Impeccable credentials indeed. His motivation was to tell Kate's story, so he self-published his book and hoped a blockbuster movie would be made from it.

Mr. May discovered a room even more haunted than 3502. He encountered the long dead, but still lovely Kate in 3312. There he once ate supper and drank wine with just her ghost for company. After the wine he had a conversation with her. If anything even more exotic happened between them he was discreet enough to leave it out of the book. Tis probably just as well, his unsubstantiated story revealed he later discovered she was his great grandmother!

But it wasn't just Mr. May who had experienced strange feelings, sightings, and sounds in the hotel. President Nixon was once a guest. One of his secret service agents fled the original haunted room, 3502, because of unexplained noises. Unfortunately the famous Nixon tape recorder was left behind at the White House, so we do not have a record of the noises.

One wonders if Kate had a "thing" for Republicans. Larry Lawrence, one of San Diego's premier (and possibly Coronado's only) Democrat, owned the place for many years, and he hadn't been bothered by her. Eighteen year Democrat congressman, Lionel Van Deerlin took his 14-year-old granddaughter on a tour of the building. Neither saw a ghost. Both JFK and Clinton stayed in the hotel. Both were said to have had an appreciative eye for lovely ladies. Neither were reported to have seen the beautiful, but awfully dead Kate. If she'd appeared to flash a smile at our current president, I wondered what he might have flashed in return?

So it was with our tour. Visitors occupied 3502 so we were limited to one ghost room: 3312. No one in our group saw much except a well kept room with a hefty price tag. It would have cost nearly two hundred dollars to visit. There was no extra charge for Kate if she appeared.

I asked our docent if she didn't wonder why ghosts used such a convoluted way of communicating with folks. For example, Alan May was certain Kate wanted to tell him something. Why didn't she just up and do it, why beat about the bush with blowing on curtains, causing cold/hot spots, coy smiles and stuff?

Barbara replied, "Well, maybe because it's so ephemeral I don't know. . .I don't question. . .I just feel that there are spirits, angels, whatever."

And, Alan May, what was his criterion for seeking the truth he wanted to tell and make into a movie? He wrote that he was proud his parents "taught me to say 'why not?' instead of merely asking 'why?'"

Perhaps, but won't we be more likely to find the truth if we keep asking "why," "Why not" is begging the question and causes us to look for the answer we expect.

The scientist, Barbara Hemmingsen, agreed. I also asked her what it would take for her to believe she'd seen a ghost. She said, "It would take the appearance of the ghost under reproducible conditions. In other words if there were a set of conditions, the time of the month, the phase of the moon, time of night. You know some condition that this ghost would always appear on. If it happened over and over again, and was reproducible and if it could be studied, then l would be willing to believe it."

Well, she and our entire group were disappointed this day. No uninvited guests, dead or alive, showed up. There was not even anything to be scared of unless one looked at the hotel's menu. A glass of orange juice was $3.95. Bacon and two eggs with pastries $13.95. That scared the bejabbers out of me. I'm glad I didn't have to buy Kate Morgan something to eat. And I was pleased I got along just fine without James Randi. ______________________

Keith R. Taylor is the new president of SARI. Although he is skeptical, Keith is pretty sure he lives in Chula Vista. He has a column in Navy Times, and has been published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Westways and San Diego Magazine among others. He also has appeared on stage in local night clubs as a stand-up comic. He quit because he was much funnier than the audience realized.