With Ken Gross
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When details of planes and war tragedies no two-year-old boy could know continued– even in stark daylight– Bruce and Andrea Leininger began to realize that this was an incredible situation. Soul Survivor is the story of how the Leiningers pieced together what their son was communicating and eventually discovered that he was reliving the past life of World War II fighter pilot James Huston. As Bruce Leininger struggled to understand what was happening to his son, he also uncovered details of James Huston’s life– and death– as a pilot that will fascinate military buffs everywhere.
In Soul Survivor, we are taken for a gripping ride as the Leiningers’ belief system is shaken to the core, and both of these families come to know a little boy who, against all odds and even in the face of true skeptics, harbors the soul of this man who died long ago.
Copyright © 2009 by Andrea Leininger and Bruce Leininger
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Grand Central Publishing
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: June 2009
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Having never attempted to write a book before, nothing could have prepared us for the sheer volume of work that goes into such a venture. Soul Survivor is the culmination of four years of research, tens of thousands of miles of travel, and over a year of writing, and none of this could have been accomplished without the help of some very special people. We would like to acknowledge and extend our heartfelt gratitude to those who have made the completion of Soul Survivor possible.
Al Zuckerman and Writers House: Your expertise, guidance, and support throughout this process have been invaluable. Thank you for leading us through this complicated process and for protecting our best interests every step of the way.
Ken Gross: Your ability to combine our version of events and spin them into a captivating and compelling narrative is a true testament to your amazing gift and undeniable talent. This year was an amazing roller coaster of emotions, temperaments, and uncontrolled laughter. We will fondly remember this experience all the days of our lives.
Carol Bowman: Your amazing book Children's Past Lives ignited our journey into unraveling James's nightmares, and it led to a long and wonderful friendship. Thank you for remaining available for support and advice, for your beautifully written foreword, and for putting us in the extremely capable hands of Al Zuckerman.
Natalie Kaire and Grand Central Publishing: for taking a chance on two unknown authors, and explaining everything we never knew about the publishing world.
Anne Huston Barron: for not hanging up on us the night we told you about James's memories, and for welcoming all of us into your life. We are so blessed to have been able to share this experience with you.
Bobbi Scoggin, Jennifer Cowin, and Becky Kyle—"The Panel": for the thousands of phone calls, endless investigating, researching, troubleshooting, evaluating, and fact-finding. This book would not have been possible without the Scoggin girls' "need to know everything" approach to life's mysteries.
John Dewitt: for providing us with all the videotapes, documents, photos, microfilm, logbooks, and countless other pieces of information about Natoma Bay, which established the foundation for the research that verified James's memories.
Al Alcorn, Leo Pyatt, and the members of the Natoma Bay Association: for your continuous support and tireless efforts in encouraging our research and embracing both our family and James's story. Natoma Bay and the men who served aboard her will not be forgotten. We cherish our memories of each of you and the special place that you occupy in our hearts.
We would like to extend a special thank-you to the families of the twenty-one men killed in service aboard Natoma Bay. By sharing your stories, photos, cherished personal documents, letters, and personal artifacts, these men came to life again for both us and the readers of Soul Survivor. Their sacrifice to preserve our freedom is one for which we are eternally thankful. Each of them were special men whom we have come to know and admire through your thoughtful efforts. We are not finished telling their stories.
Lastly, our son, James Leininger: Thank you for choosing us, and for leading us on such an amazing and unexpected journey. We hope you always have the courage of conviction to speak out about what you are experiencing, and to trust what you know is true in your heart—even when others around you may be in doubt. We love you and remain in awe of your amazing spirit and tender heart.
It's only a bad dream, and when you wake up in the morning, it'll all be gone.
MIDNIGHT, MONDAY, MAY 1, 2000
THE SCREAMS CAME out of nowhere. One day James Leininger, just three weeks past his second birthday, was a happy, playful toddler, the centerpiece of a loving family of three living on the soft coastal plain of southern Louisiana. And then suddenly, in the darkest hour of midnight, he was flopping around on his bed like a broken power line, howling at the sky as if he could crack open the heavens with his ear-shattering distress.
Flying down the long hallway from the master bedroom came his mother, Andrea. She stopped at the doorway of her first and only child and, holding her breath, watched her son's thrashing and screaming. What to do? Somewhere in one of the texts in her great library of child-rearing books, she had read that it could be dangerous to wake a child abruptly from a nightmare.
And so, struggling to hold herself back, she stood there in the doorway, frozen. She nonetheless did make a reasonable assessment of the situation, for she was nothing if not a thoroughly rational and well-informed mother—a student of all of the latest child-rearing tactics and techniques. She noted that James was not pinned under a wooden beam. He wasn't bleeding. She couldn't see any obvious physical reason for the terrible commotion. He was simply having a nightmare. It had to be a ghastly one, but still something that fell within the boundaries of routine childhood evils.
Of course, she wanted desperately to rush in and grab her little boy, shake him out of his bad dream, and cuddle him back to sleep. But she didn't. For Andrea Leininger was no ordinary parent. A trim strawberry blonde, she still had her stage-star good looks at thirty-eight, plus something less obvious: iron discipline. This came from her long training as a professional ballerina—a career she had given up when the pain of performing outweighed the pleasure. Now her career was kicking frantically at his covers and screaming bloody murder.
As she clinically tried to assess the situation, she thought she knew where the nightmare was coming from: the unfamiliar house. It was just two months since they'd moved from Dallas, Texas, into the seventy-year-old home in Lafayette, Louisiana. If it felt strange to her, she guessed that it must be a world gone topsy-turvy to James—her new great love. Even the outside sounds were alien—the wind whispering through the Spanish moss, the swamp birds yawking from the branches of the old oaks, the insects crashing into the screens. Nothing like the long, still silences that fell like a blanket over the suburban outskirts of Dallas.
And James's room itself, with its faded pink flower wallpaper and solid sealed shutters—nothing like a little boy's room—gave her the creepy feeling of being shut inside a tomb. Yes, these had to be the ingredients for a perfect storm of a nightmare. Calming herself, she tiptoed to her son's bed, picked him up, and held him in her arms, crooning softly: "Sleep, sleep, sweet baby! It's nothing, really, nothing. It's only a bad dream, and when you wake up in the morning, it'll all be gone!"
And as she held him, he gradually stopped thrashing, and the screams tapered off into whimpers—little whispers of grief—and then he went back to sleep.
That first night, she recalled, she hadn't been paying particular attention to what he was screaming—hadn't heard any specific word that made any sense. His sounds were blurred and blunted inside the high-octane howl of a very young child who looked and sounded as if he were fighting desperately for his very life. No, she thought, not a real life-threatening event. Just a child being attacked in a nightmare.
Nevertheless, she was profoundly shaken, but determined to cope with it—part of the deal. This was the bargain she'd made when she agreed to marry Bruce Leininger, twelve years her senior, who already had four children from a previous marriage. Of course, Andrea had been married before, too, but had no kids. If they were to marry, she had told Bruce firmly, she wanted a child. That was the deal; that was her prenup.
Bruce, holding to his part of the bargain, had heard the screams from James's room and rolled over and whispered, "Would you handle it?" This was Andrea's job.
In the grand scheme of their lives, the deal was a fair one. He got the gorgeous dancer, and she got the big, handsome corporate executive—plus a child. Of course, not everything worked out as planned. Bruce had labored to near collapse holding up his end of the deal, which was to provide his extended family with basic security.
At that moment, here in Lafayette, it was Bruce who appeared to be undergoing the greater crisis, striving mightily to master and hold down a new job. He had been "let go," as they say, from his last big-paying job in Dallas over a difference of opinion in management. The buyout wasn't bad, but the sudden cruelty of the experience—the prospect of unemployment for a man who had always been a high achiever, always at the top of his class, always near the pinnacle of the corporate hierarchy, a model of poise and self-control—left an unspoken fear hovering like a cloud over the Leininger household.
The new job, the adjustment, was not easy. Bruce was a human resources executive, which was a little like being a corporate fireman. Wherever personnel problems broke out, he had to rush in and put out the fire. That meant dislocation, a lot of moving around and resettling. It was okay when there were just the two of them, Bruce and Andrea, but now they had James. In four years, Bruce had been forced to uproot the family three times. The first time was when he landed a new job in San Francisco. He found a great town house overlooking the ocean in Pacifica. Andrea was enchanted. "There's nothing between us and Japan," she swooned.
It was a happy and romantic interlude. And it was in San Francisco that James was born. Within two years Bruce had a better job offer in Dallas, which had the added advantage of putting Andrea back in the bosom of her family. She was from Dallas and had deep attachments to her sisters and mother, but it entailed another move. And then that job fell apart when Bruce challenged the decisions of a superior and had to find a new job, impress a new boss, find a new home, and manage the relocation. Not that he was complaining—he was just exhausted. As for Andrea, she'd had enough of moving. When Bruce found the new home in Lafayette, she decided that this one would be for good.
And now along comes this shattering nightmare! Bad timing, Bruce thought. Still, it was only a noisy bad dream—no big deal. In his previous marriage, Bruce had managed to calm all four of his children going through night terrors. But he was now just too tired to manage this kind of thing again.
Of course, he had no way of knowing, when he rolled over and went back to sleep, that his family was on the cusp of something utterly unfathomable, something unimaginably fantastic. So, dog tired, he simply fell back to sleep.
If Bruce was under heavy pressure, so was Andrea. Giving birth to James had been very hard. She was thirty-six when he was born—fast approaching midnight on her biological clock. And it was a rough pregnancy. Andrea suffered from preeclampsia, a dangerous condition that caused high blood pressure, fluid retention, and seizures. And then, late in the pregnancy, her fetus inexplicably stopped growing. When the doctors measured her baby's size on the sonogram, James was a little more than three pounds and was not getting any bigger. The medical team was puzzled and uncertain that the child ultimately would be "viable." And even if he was brought to term, the doctors warned that there was a strong possibility of Down's syndrome or autism, or some other physical or intellectual deficit.
Bruce refused to accept the medical opinion. Always the solid rock of optimism, he said: "Bullshit! James will be fine."
And this was not meant as a careless outburst of bootless hope. Becoming parents was an affirmative, positive commitment that they had both promised each other, even to the point of picking out the child's name: James Madison Leininger. No accident. The name came out of the long genealogical research that Andrea had started early in their marriage. She had discovered that her great-great-grandfather, James Madison Scoggin, had served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. So her imperiled little fetus already had a name and a proud history, and fighting parents who would never consider giving up on him.
Finally, on April 10, 1998—Good Friday (an omen)—six weeks before her due date, when the doctors detected weakness in his vital signs, James was delivered by C-section. Bruce was there in the delivery room, and when the baby reached out to be born, Bruce took his hand—and, as they like to say in the family, Bruce and James have never let go.
After James was born, the doctors discovered the reason for his lack of development in utero. It was an anatomical quirk. Andrea's placenta was no bigger than a grapefruit. It should have been the size of a small watermelon. The wonder is that James survived at all, with all the reduced intake of nutrients. On the other hand, maybe that trauma in utero would be seen to play a part in what was yet to come. Maybe James would retain some postpartum memory of that tight spot he was in before he was born.
In the end, after time in an incubator, James turned out to be perfectly normal—no physical or intellectual deficits.
And he was a delightful baby. He didn't cry much; he didn't fuss much. He accepted all the moving and changes with hardly a peep. He seemed mostly happy and content. In fact, his parents felt that there was something uncanny and amazingly mature about his everyday good nature—which was part of why that first horrendous nightmare came as such a shock.
Given the brute facts of Bruce's new status, he had to work hard to keep his family intact. Because of his long work hours, Andrea kept James up past a two-year-old's normal bedtime. The reasoning behind this was a trade-off: James could sacrifice a little sleep to spend some quality time with his father. His bedtime became ten p.m. After they put him to sleep, Bruce and Andrea had some time for a glass of wine and some catch-up conversation before they, too, went to bed. Two days after the first nightmare, just after midnight, the bloodcurdling screams began again. It came at a moment when Bruce and Andrea were slipping into deep REM sleep, and once again it caught them unprepared. Andrea, of course, leaped out of bed and ran down that long hallway to clasp her son in her arms and try to console him.
In the morning she tried to describe the scary quality of the nightmares to Bruce in some detail so that he would recognize the gravity of what she experienced, but he shrugged and insisted that they not make a fuss, that night terrors were normal. But she nonetheless pressed her case, telling him about the wild kicking and violent flailing. Still, Bruce showed little interest. He was in the midst of his own nightmare trying to help take his company public.
Bruce worked for Oil Field Services Corporation of America (OSCA), an oil company that specialized in deepwater oil well maintenance and management far out in the Gulf of Mexico. OSCA was in the midst of trying to launch a public stock offering. As the human resources expert and adviser, Bruce had to formulate sound health plans and compensation packages that met federal guidelines so that OSCA could become listed on a major stock exchange—no small feat since Bruce was, himself, still being trained at the time. It was a frantic moment as he dealt with the dizzying details of high corporate negotiations and the needs of several hundred oil rig workers.
In the midst of all this, the nightmares seemed less urgent.
"Listen," he told Andrea, playing down the significance of the outburst, "it's an old house and there are creaks and groans that routinely come with an old house. It's all part of settling in here. It'll stop; you'll see."
But the nightmares did not stop. After the second, there was another the next night. James would skip a night, sometimes two, but the nightmares kept coming with terrifying regularity and increasing frenzy. Often five times a week. And they were all, every one, spine-tingly creepy.
And so, in that first spring of the new millennium, in a small home near the coast of Louisiana, four or five times a week it felt as if the rafters shook with the ferocious cries of a little boy. Andrea did all she could at first, but nothing would soothe little James in those furious moments. Because of James's premature birth and early weight problems, she was diligent about medical checkups. Soon after they moved to Lafayette she found a young pediatrician on the next street, Dr. Doug Gonzales, who could find nothing abnormal when he examined James. When the nightmares began, Andrea called him. He told her that these were normal night terrors and that they would soon diminish. He was not worried. Meanwhile, confirming what she had read in her parenting books, he advised her not to wake the boy suddenly or frighten him when he was in the midst of a bad dream.
Andrea now had begun sleeping close to James's bedroom so she could get a head start on the screams. She slept lightly, listening for the first cry. And, she told Bruce, James was so deeply asleep during his nightmares that she had to hold him as tightly as she could to break the spell.
Bruce spoke to his son. "Listen," he said, "you've got to stop this. You'd better get over whatever it is that's causing this." Only it turned out, this wasn't something that a two-year-old could control, no matter how mad it made Daddy.
Almost two months after the nightmares began, James was still thrashing and shrieking, but this time Andrea set out to try to discover what he was saying. His cries, she realized, were not just incomprehensible sounds—there were also words. Once she'd deciphered some of them, she came quickly back down the hallway and shook her husband awake.
"Bruce, you need to hear what he's saying."
Bruce was groggy. "What do you mean?"
"Bruce, you need to hear what he's saying." Bruce was annoyed, but he pulled himself out of bed, muttering, "What the hell is going on here!"
Then, as he stood in his son's doorway, he also began to pick out the words, and his resentment faded.
He was lying there on his back, kicking and clawing at the covers… like he was trying to kick his way out of a coffin. I thought, this looks like The Exorcist—I half expected his head to spin around like that little girl in the movie. I even thought I might have to go and get a priest. But then I heard what James was saying…
"Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can't get out!"
Those were the very words, the actual text of James's outcries. The child flung his head back and forth and screamed the same thing over and over and over: "Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can't get out! Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can't get out!"
Now, it was not long after James's second birthday; he was just learning to speak in complex sentences, just finding a language to fit his thoughts. And yet, what he was screaming as he thrashed around his bed that spring were words so rich in detail, so plausibly offered, so unchildlike in their desperation, that Bruce Leininger was struck silent. In all his life, he'd been the problem solver, the go-to guy, the man who could make things right because he understood the nature of almost any problem, grasped its geography, and managed to find a solution. But standing in that doorway of his child's bedroom, he was paralyzed—and a little frightened. These panicked phrases could not have come out of nowhere; on that point he was certain.
THERE WERE PLENTY of tantalizing clues about what was happening to young James Leininger. If Bruce and Andrea hadn't been so busy skidding around their own high dramas—a killing workload and yet another domestic realignment—they might have guessed earlier that it had something to do with airplanes.
But there were too many distractions that kept them from following the trail—an oversight that they would more than make up for in the coming months. Foremost was getting settled into their new hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana.
The start of the new millennium had been grueling. First, there was the dread of a Y2K meltdown, which, thankfully, didn't happen, though it nevertheless spiked everyone's nerves. Then there was the actual physical move from Dallas to Lafayette—a hectic, hysterical, complicated repositioning of hearth and home.
The logistics alone were bumpy. But for Andrea there was an added bit of sadness; it was the emotional wrench of leaving her sisters and her mother four hundred miles away. Nevertheless, she was a good soldier and understood that her husband's working life was at a critical juncture and that her job was to support him. And so, on Thursday, March 1, 2000, Bruce and Andrea closed the deal on their seventy-year-old Acadian house in the leafy upscale subdivision of White Oak.
But even as she tried to get herself into the right spirit, (it was an early spring, and the azaleas were in full bloom—the town was a heart-catching watercolor of pink and white and red), she was blindsided by a cold bolt of reality. Before they could move into their charming house on West St. Mary Boulevard, the Leiningers would have to spend a long weekend in a seedy little room four miles away on Edie Ann Drive, in the industrial basin of Lafayette.
It was only a layover, just until the moving van arrived on Saturday, just until Andrea had enough time to go over and make her new home livable—which, in her case, meant spotless. Because this time, she told Bruce with clenched determination, she intended to stay put. "I'm not moving again," was the way she laid it down.
In spite of that firm declaration, she still had to get through that long weekend at the grubby Oakwood Bend Apartments; which was where OSCA gave temporary shelter to the soiled and tired oil workers coming off month-long shifts on the deep rigs that lay far out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Andrea could hardly believe that Bruce had been living in this squalor since November.
When she turned on the light, she felt as if the filth were crawling up her legs. The layers of dirt and the layers of dust, encrusted over the years by layers of crude oil, had become some new and scary variety of muck.
Even the ceilings were thick with the aftermath of all that unwashed traffic. The inside of the shower curtain was black with mold and mildew. When Andrea turned on the fan, the dust flew off in fat clumps. Her first thought was that a cat had jumped off the blades.
"Don't let James touch anything," she told Bruce. "I'm going to the store and load up on cleaning supplies."
First she cleaned the temporary home enough to make breathing possible, if not to make things comfortable. Then, in the middle of it all, the movers called—their truck had broken down on the interstate and they couldn't get to Lafayette until Monday.
Well, there was nothing else to do but make the best of it—a family shrug that became like a nervous tic, a gesture the Leiningers used to get through the hassles of life.
Finally, they piled into the car and headed for their new home. As they tried to navigate their way there, the traffic slowed to a crawl. Both the big roads—Johnston and West Congress Street—had been narrowed to one lane. They were snarled with barriers and the construction of gaudy food stands. It was Mardi Gras.
Bruce and Andrea knew that Lafayette was in the "Cajun Heartland"—territory originally settled by the Acadian French who were booted out of Nova Scotia in 1755 when they refused to swear allegiance to the British. But they had no idea that the intensely Catholic French Cajun culture was still sunk so deep. The descendants of the Cajuns took the pre-Lenten bacchanalia very seriously. New Orleans was world famous for its Fat Tuesday festival, but Lafayette had its own riotous pride. In Lafayette no one delivers the mail on Fat Tuesday. The schools close for a week, and for five days the main streets are blocked off two and three times a day for the elaborate parades.
After the heavy-duty cleaning, stalled traffic, and the pressure of tricky timing, the Leiningers were all exhausted by the time their moving van arrived early on Monday, March 5. Still, Andrea sent Bruce off to work—she would handle the unloading and placement of the furniture by herself. No need to have Bruce underfoot as well as James. She had planned exactly where she wanted everything placed.
- On Sale
- Jun 5, 2009
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing