Essay — From the March 2015 issue

Giving Up the Ghost

The eternal allure of life after death

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Fifteen years ago, in Lafayette, Louisiana, a little boy named James Leininger started having nightmares. Whenever his mother came to comfort him, she would find his body contorted, his arms and legs scrambling for purchase, as if he were struggling to extricate himself from something. The two-year-old repeated the same phrases over and over: “Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can’t get out!”

Over the next few months, the dreams became more detailed. James told his parents that he had been a pilot. He’d been shot down by the Japanese. He’d been the little man who couldn’t get out. His parents asked where his plane had taken off from, and he said a boat called the Natoma. He talked about his friends on the ship: a man named Jack Larsen, along with Walter and Billy and Leon, the last three of whom had been waiting for him in heaven. James named his G.I. Joes after them. His parents asked what his name had been, and he said James, just like it was now.

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

The boy’s parents, Bruce and Andrea, started doing research. Andrea concluded that James was experiencing memories from a former life, while Bruce was determined to prove otherwise. But what Bruce discovered made his skepticism increasingly difficult to maintain. An aircraft carrier called the Natoma Bay had been deployed near Iwo Jima in 1945. Its crew included a pilot named Jack Larsen and another named James Huston, who was shot down near Chichi-Jima on March 3 of that year. The crew of the Natoma Bay also included Walter Devlin and Billie Peeler and Leon Conner, all of whom perished not long before Huston. How would a two-year-old have known the names of these men, let alone the sequence of their deaths?

Bruce went to a Natoma Bay reunion in 2002 and started asking questions. He told everyone that he was writing a book about the history of the ship; he didn’t tell anyone about his son — or what his son claimed to remember. He discovered that Jack Larsen was still alive. Andrea, meanwhile, was less worried about the military history than about ending her son’s nightmares, which kept troubling him for several years. She told James that his memories were real but that his old life was over; now he had to live this one.

This was the idea behind a trip the family took to Japan when James was eight years old. The plan was to hold a memorial service for James Huston. They took a fifteen-hour ferry ride from Tokyo to Chichi-Jima, then a smaller boat to the approximate spot in the Pacific where the American pilot’s plane had gone down. James tossed a beautiful bouquet of purple flowers into the ocean. “I salute you,” he said, “and I’ll never forget.” Then he sobbed for twenty minutes straight into his mother’s lap. “You leave it all here, buddy,” his father told him. “Just leave it all here.”

In the end, the Leiningers wouldn’t leave it all there — not at all. Three years after the trip to Japan, they published the best-selling Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot (2009). They went on TV and were featured in numerous documentaries. Still, on that boat in the Pacific, something had been surrendered. When James finally looked up and brushed away his tears, he wanted to know where the flowers had gone. Could they see the blooms? They could. Someone pointed to a distant spot of color on the water: there they were, far off but still floating, still visible, drifting away on the surface of the sea.

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is the author of The Empathy Exams (Graywolf) and is currently writing a book about addiction and recovery.

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