By Michael Tymn
A heartwarming movie titled ‘A Rumor of Angels’ was released about six years ago and is an occasional rerun on television. (It can also be found at most video stores.) The film stars Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly recluse in a small ocean-front town.
She befriends a 12-year-old neighbor boy who is grieving the loss of his mother in an auto accident. She tells the boy about how her son had communicated with her following his death in the Vietnam War during 1974 and gives the boy her diary of spirit communication from her son. The boy reads various entries in the diary and finds comfort in them until his stepmother and father discover the diary and conclude that the boy’s mind is being poisoned by the elderly woman and prohibit him from further visiting her. When the elderly woman dies, she communicates with the boy from the Other Side.
Probably few people who viewed the movie realize that it was based on a true story, although it took place in World War I, not the Vietnam War. The story, with many Hollywood modifications, came from the 1918 non-fiction book, Thy Son Liveth: Messages from a Soldier to his Mother, by Grace Duffie Boylan.
The soldier in the story was Bob Bennett, who grew up with his widowed mother in an old home on the Hudson below Tarrytown, New York. He went to Columbia University, where he studied electrical engineering, and was then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the army and sent off to fight in World War I. Well before he went to college, Bob developed an interest in telegraphy and set up a wireless in his home with a large mast on the roof. He persuaded his mother to learn Morse Code and they frequently experimented together. ‘We used to sit up here in this room and pick up diplomatic secrets which we could not, fortunately, decode, and international messages, which we could not, unfortunately, I believe now, decipher,’ the mother related, going on to point out that Bob spent many of his leisure hours trying to simplify Marconi’s already simple apparatus.
Not long after Bob was sent to France with the Engineers’ Corps, his mother received a letter from him. She took the letter up to his room to read it, and as she was reading it, the wireless signaled: ‘Attention!’ Then, the message came through in Morse Code: ‘Mother, be game. I am alive and loving you. But my body is with thousands of other mothers’ boys near Lens. Get this fact to others if you can. It’s awful for us when you grieve, and we can’t get in touch with you to tell you we are all right. This is a clumsy way. I’ll figure out something easier. I’m confused yet. Bob.’
A month later, official notice of Bob’s death on the battlefield was received by his mother. Before then, however, the mother had already received several additional wireless messages. In the second one, Bob communicated:
‘Get this across – there is no horror in death. I was one minute in the thick of things, with my company, and the next minute Lieutenant Wells touched my arm and said: “Our command has crossed: Let’s go.” I thought he meant the river, and followed him under the crossfire barrage the Tommies made, up to a hillside that had not noticed before: a clean spot and not blackened by the guns. Lots of fellows I knew were there, and strange troops. But they looked queer. I glanced down at myself. I was olive drab, all right. But my uniform was not khaki. It seemed to be a fabric of some more tenuous kind. I had no gun. I overtook Wells. “What in the deuce is the matter with me, with us all?” I asked. He said, “Bob, we’re dead.” I didn’t believe it at first. I felt all right. But the men were moving, and I fell in line. When we marched through the German barbed-wire barricades and in front of the howitzers, I realized that the body that could be hurt had been shed on the red field. Then I thought of you. Sent the wireless from an enemy station in the field. The officer in charge couldn’t have seen me. But he heard, I guess, by the way his eyes popped. He sent a few shots in my direction, anyway. I am using an abandoned apparatus in a trench today, depending on relays.’
Bob went on to explain that he was still very confused, but that Lt Wells seemed to have a better handle on what was going on. In a third wireless message, Bob communicated: ‘Wells is getting to be a whale of an oracle. Some of the fellows are in a funk, and others are sullen and unhappy, homesick, I guess. The young married men, mostly. If they could get in touch with their folks, it would be all right. That’s why I want to try and simplify some system of communication. You have never failed me; and now if you can get it firmly fixed in your mind that I am I, not what is vulgarly called a ghost but a being just as much as I ever was, we can start something worth while. It’s got to begin with someone as level-headed as you are. I’m called away.’
In the fourth wireless message, Bob encouraged his mother try automatic writing, as it was too difficult trying to get through on a wireless. He received instructions from a ‘fellow’ on his side as to how to do automatic writing and passed them on to his mother. He pointed out that he would project his thoughts to her and she would just take dictation. He warned her, however, to beware of ‘scalawags’ – mischievous spirits who try to mix up things.
‘Don’t try to hold your pencil any differently than you hold it ordinarily, mother, dear, I am not guiding your pencil. As I figure it out, I am simply dictating these letters by some improved form of telepathy, to your mind. You do the writing. It is wholly simple. I really talk and you hear… We all have perceptions and faculties that are capable of lifting us into supermen. The rub is we do not suspect our own powers. Do not let yourself be led into a maze of reasons why this thing cannot be. What is, is.’
After several failed attempts, Bob’s mother got the hang of automatic writing.
In the first clear automatic writing message, Bob explained that he was now working with sort of a ‘Red Cross unit’ on his side, guiding newcomers as well as working with the wounded. He said he could see his mothers mind like a white screen and knew he could write on it. ‘Mother, the soul leaves the body as a boy jumps out of a school door,’ he wrote through his mother’s hand. ‘That is, suddenly and with joy. But there is a period of confusion when a fellow needs a friend. Quote that. We are the friends. I guess that is the best explanation I can give. I told you Jack Wells came through with me. He has gone away now. I am told we go to other departments of usefulness, as others, suited to this field work, come on here. I will tell you as much as I can.’
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.