Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hell Night: A True Story

I’ve told you how I scared the crap out of myself when I tried to conjure the Devil. That one haunted me for a while. But that was entirely the product of an overclocked imagination. Fear exploded like an atom bomb, destroyed logic, and turned everyday sounds and events into dark omens. I freaked myself out. I know this. But now I want to tell you about something real. No out of control imagination. No coincidences pulled into dubious context and blown out of proportion. This was 100%, unadulterated terror.

Before a series of unexpected and tragic deaths rocked our family, we were all very close. All the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandchildren would gather at my Grandma’s every Sunday afternoon. It was a modest house with a cement parking lot for a yard and an extensive support system that allowed it to hang out over the riverbank. Simply decorated with fading pictures of relatives whose names I never knew, a hutch with a lifetime of memories behind its glass paneled door: an average, working class West Virginia home. The hutch I mentioned faced a long table covered with a vinyl cloth and spread across the top of that table was a feast like you wouldn’t believe. Meats, vegetables, homemade biscuits and dinner rolls, cakes and pies and deserts. There was so much food laid out that you had to bring your plate very close to the edge just to have room to eat. Sometimes us kids ate at the large table, wedged between relatives; sometimes we ate at a smaller Formica table in a kitchen that always seemed tilted to one side. After the meal, the men would go out on the front porch to smoke and watch the after-church traffic drive up Route 119 while the women talked and laughed in the dining room and kitchen. Sooner or later someone would spy my great-grandmother through the kitchen window as she crossed the bridge with bent back and cane. My grandmother would curse under her breath and roll her eyes while the scent of fried food lingered in the air. For as long as I can remember my great-grandmother thought my name was Hod, incidentally. And my sister, Lorri, was Gloria. These are good memories, though. And it doesn’t seem like I set out to tell you about a good memory, does it?

The point I wanted to make is that we did a lot together as a family. So it was nothing unusual one Saturday afternoon when my mom decided she was taking my sister and I camping. My Aunt Joan, Uncle Boyd, and Uncle Bobby would be there and the rest of the family would be joining us the next day for fun and fishing on that river.

There was a problem with the spot we’d all agreed to meet at, though. I want to say that the river was higher there, that its waters had risen, covering the campsite and making it inaccessible; and that sounds right. But to be perfectly honest, I really can’t remember with 100% clarity exactly why we couldn’t use that site. I just remember that we couldn’t.

My uncles lead the way in Bobby’s pickup truck and my mom, aunt, sister and I followed in the station wagon. We were way out in the middle of nowhere at this point. There were no houses for miles in all directions, only rolling mountains with the river curling like a ribbon through the valleys. No stores. No farms. Utter seclusion.

The sun was sinking closer to the horizon and we were losing daylight fast. We eventually came across this little road off to the side of the main route. Calling it a road is actually quite generous. In reality it was nothing more than two ruts carved into the cracked mud by years of usage. It obviously led down to the river, but there was a slight problem. Posted to a tree approximately halfway down this road was a red and black No Trespassing sign. In this area of the state, it was a proven fact that the further you got from towns and houses the more serious the consequences for ignoring such a sign became. Old men with shotguns and a bad temper were a serious consideration. As was stumbling across someone’s pot field and running the risk of fishing hooks hanging at eye level from tree branches. The 10 pound, monofilament test was as semi-transparent as a spiderweb and you might not ever know it was there until it was too late.

So we parked at this wide space across the road and I remember the adults discussing whether or not we should go ahead and camp there anyway. By this time, it was already dusk. Before long, the sun would completely disappear behind the hills and the last glow of sunset would fade from the sky like an orange light slowly dimming out. We’d never find another spot in the dark. The edge of the road was bordered with woods and these little paths leading down to the river weren’t exactly marked. Sometimes they looked like nothing more than a break in the foliage, only revealing their true nature as you passed by. So it was decided that no one had ever seen the sign and everyone would stick to that story if they had to.

The short drive to the river was riddled with ruts and miniature canyons that caused the station wagon’s shocks to squeak as it rocked from one side to the other. I remember one dip in particular being so deep that when the car bounced, I actually rose from my seat and bumped my head against the ceiling. Still nothing usual. Just another family outing.

We set up camp and it was decided that my uncles would find the nearest pay phone and call my grandparents so they would know where to look for us when they came the following day. The women and we kids would stay behind, get the fire going, and start roasting hot dogs over the flames. Bobby and Boyd hopped into the pickup, honked the horn, and were gone.

My mother gave Lorri and I the job of collecting wood for the campfire and we tromped through the little grove surrounding the sandbar with sticks and twigs bundled in our arms. There was a small creek back there which fed into the river. The river was pretty deep near our camping spot, but a quarter mile upriver it was very shallow. The rocks peeked up out of the water, creating white created mini-waves, and the sound was a continuos hiss, like a radio tuned to a dead station. It was so shallow there, in fact, that even a little kid like myself would have been able to walk across the width of the river without the water ever coming above his waist. But more on that later.

Across the river we could see the silhouette of a bridge in the gathering gloom, connecting two hills like an exposed, metal skeleton. It was just far enough away that you could watch the approaching darkness devour it as shadows filled the basin. First there was an entire bridge. Then half a bridge. Then only pieces of a bridge where the beams caught the remaining light just so. After that, there was nothing but darkness and lightning bugs, the crackle of a campfire and the scent of wood smoke mingling with a smell from the river that always made me think of submerged logs, slowly decaying in their watery tombs.

As is its nature, time passed. At some point the rumble of motorcycles echoed off the hills and headlights splayed across the bridge on the far side of the river. I can’t say exactly how many there were, but it seemed like a lot. They zipped back and forth across the bridge, did donuts in the very center, squealed tires, and their shouts and whoops overcame their engines and the gurgling waters of the river. Eventually they all filed back across the bridge and the sound of their bikes faded with nature rushing in to take its place.

We were all sitting on rocks around the fire and had moved on to marshmallows by now. As is customary, scary stories had been told, tales of lunatics escaped from the nearby Spencer Asylum who had hooks for hands and what happened to young couples foolish enough to park on a lonely, country lane.. At some point my Aunt Joan had begun hushing everyone, insisting in a sharp whisper that we listen, just listen. With heads cocked to the side, we sat in silence and felt the tension mount. We didn’t know what we were supposed to be listening for. Just that something might be out there. A mountain lion perhaps. Or a bear that had wandered down to the river for a drink.

My aunt whispered that she’s heard something. Something that sounded like someone crossing the river. The sound of water sloshing around legs as they forced their way through the current has a very distinctive sound. And she was positive that is what it had been.

Our hearts beat with fear and my sister and I looked at each other in the dying light of the fire. We eyeballed the grove, searching shadows between its trees so black that it was if the earth really was flat and we had found its edge.. We scanned at the dark water of the river. We saw nothing.

My mom and aunt, however, spoke in loud, exaggerated voices, obviously talking to the darkness and not one another.

"The men will be back any minute now…."

"Joan, go get the gun."

So scarred that I felt like throwing up, I blubbered through quivering lips, "We don’t have a gun, Mommy. We don’t have a gun." I immediately felt stupid, realizing exactly what I’d done even before my mom fixed me with a piercing stare.

We clustered in a tight pack as fire wood became glowing embers and waited. But nothing happened.

After some time had passed my sister had to pee, but we were still scared. It was probably because we were still scared, now that I think about it. Anyhow, my mom tried to convince us that it was just another story, that Joan was simply trying to frighten us. My aunt insisted she wasn’t. This went back and forth for a while but eventually my sister’s bladder was too much to take and my mom walked her into the grove while I stayed behind with my Aunt. I’d begun chunking rocks into the river, one of my favorite things to do at that age, when I heard the screams. Shrill and piercing, both my mom and sister yelling wordlessly as they burst out of the trees.

It seems like I remember someone, either my mom or Joan, shouting "Get in the car! Get in the car!" The station wagon doors slammed shut and were locked as windows were hastily rolled up. My aunt was shouting at my mom, insisting to know what was wrong, what was going on; my sister was borderline hysterical and fear had welled hot tears in my eyes.

My mom told that story in rapid bursts, her voice straining with emotion, much too loud for such an enclosed space but nobody caring. They’d found a place for my sister to pee. Near the little stream. The shape of a man emerged from the shadows like a nightmare come to life. They’d screamed. Ran. And that brought us up to speed.

The station wagon faced away from the grove of trees and every eye in the car darted from the mirror to hatchback window with quick snaps of the head. "Are you sure?" my aunt demanded. "Are you sure it was a man?"

A sharp scream severed Joan’s questioning. In moments of extreme stress and panic, screams are more contagious than any virus ever known. All it took was that little kickstart and we all scrambled to the other side of the car, huddling and holding each other as words emerged from the chaotic din.

She’d seen someone. A face, crouched down at the rear of the car, peeking around the taillight and made closer than it appeared by the sideview mirror. When the screaming started, he’d given up on stealth entirely and ran, in full view, back to the grove of trees.

My uncles had been gone for hours at this point. They should have been back long ago. But not a single car had driven past the main road the entire time we’d been at the riverbank.
By now I was uncontrollably crying and had my arms wrapped around my stomach as I rocked back and forth. Snot bubbled from my nose and dribbled down my face as I repeated the only words I could think of like a mantra: I wanna go home, I wanna go home, I wanna go …. I suspect my sister was in much the same state, but in all honesty I don’t really know. A terror unlike any I’d ever known had gripped reality. It narrowed the focus to a mere pinpoint where nothing existing but fear. The entire universe was a single emotion. The cosmos was complete and utter horror. Only my repeated pleas anchored me to whatever floated beyond the dread.
I wanna go home, I wanna go home, I wanna go ….

My mom turned the ignition, threw the gearshift into reverse, and slammed her foot onto the gas. The engine revved and the wheels spun with an insistent drone familiar to anyone whose ever been stuck in the mud or snow. The station wagon rocked backward but never really moved. It lurched forward as my mom let up on the gas, then shot backward again, only to be stopped a fraction of a second later. Not able to drive forward and unable to reverse, we were stuck.

Despite the rolled up windows, the stench of burnt rubber was strong and my mom quickly shifted from drive to reverse, drive to reverse, attempting to rock ourselves free. Someone was yelling that this couldn’t be happening, and someone else chanted Please God in the same wailing tone that I repeated my four words.

It was obvious we weren’t going anywhere without knowing what we were up against. It was complete pandemonium within that car but somehow it was decided that my aunt would open her door, peek her head out super quickly, and see what we were stuck on.

The thought of having that thin barrier between us and them removed, of being completely vulnerable, even for a fraction of a second, was enough to make me pull myself into the tiniest ball possible as I cried, screamed, and tried to make words with a throat that hitched too severely to form sentences. That’s why people moan when terrified, I think: because the synapses have gone haywire and they’ve devolved to the most primal forms of communication.

I remember my aunt saying "It’s rocks, Brenda, oh my God, it’s rocks, they’ve blocked us in."

One large stone placed in front of each wheel. One large stone behind. As effective as the boots they use these days for parking violations. We weren’t leaving the riverbank. Not unless someone moved those rocks. Not unless someone left the safety of the car.

Here’s where the frailty of memory comes into play. What I remember is being told I would have to do it because I was the smallest. I could slip underneath the car where they couldn’t get me. I could move the rocks. It even seems like I can remember shimmying across the rough ground on my belly, the stench of exhaust, oil, and grease just above my head. My mom, however, says that didn’t happen. And to be honest I really can’t picture her sending a little boy out on a mission like that. You just have to know her to get what I mean. It just doesn’t seem to be in her nature. So maybe this was a fragment of a nightmare I had later, fused with memories of the actual event. Or maybe that entire episode played out in my mind then and there. I’ve always had an extremely vivid, visual imagination. It was even stronger when I was younger and pictured things as clearly as if I were watching them on TV. So this is a possibility.

Regardless of who actually removed the rocks, my mom finally got that car moving. If I thought the drive in was rough, it was a stroll through a meadow compared to our exodus. With each bump, with each gouge in the road, we were jarred so savagely that our jaws snapped painfully shut. With one hand braced against the ceiling and the other clutching the door handles, we hung on with everything we had. Our bodies wanted to whip about like rag dolls and the tailpipe scraped against rocks so roughly that we could feel the vibrations through the floorboard; but my mom didn’t let up on the gas until we’d fishtailed onto the main road.

Heated discussion ensued. My mom and aunt wanted to wait at the wide spot across the road for my uncles to return. As previously established, I just wanted to go home. I wanted as much distance between me and that river bank as humanly possible, to be safe within my bed with my stuffed monkey, my encyclopedias, and my Wild Kingdom animal cards in their rolodex-like container. Familiar things. Good things. Safe things.

We ended up waiting, much to my distress. The engine was left running and the car was left in drive. We watched for someone to emerge from the other side of the road, ready for a quick getaway. Much later, my uncles finally showed up. Before they were even out of the truck my mom and aunt had covered half the distance between the vehicles with my sister and I hot on their heels. Joan ran into Boyd’s arms and my mom let her brother hold her as stress turned to tears on the shoulder of his green tee-shirt.

My uncle’s voices were soothing as they gently asked what was wrong, what had happened and I knew, without a doubt that they would protect us. As long as they were around, there was nothing to fear.

They said the first pay phone they’d come to didn’t work. So they had to press on. And on. They said they eventually intersected two counties before coming to the next phone and were able to call my grandparents.

A few years back a suspicion dawned upon me. They had been gone a long time. I called my mom and asked her about that night. If it had all been a hoax. I suspected Boyd and Bobby had circled around to the road on the far bank, and then waded across the river to scare us. Which may sound extreme. But you have to remember that in this part of the country it was considered a rite of passage to take a young kid into the woods with a paper sack and inform them that he was hunting a nocturnal animal called a snipe. The adult usually had a couple sticks of wood and explained that he’d go out into the forest and bang them together. The sound would drive the snipes toward the clearing and the kid’s job was to catch them in the paper sack. The adult then wandered back to the house or camp, leaving the child in the middle of the woods on a darkened night. Sooner or later the youngster realized there’s no such thing as a snipe and he’s been left in the woods alone. This is how my paternal grandfather taught me to find my way out of the forest. And how his father probably taught him. So you see, it seemed entirely reasonable to think that night could’ve been nothing more than an elaborate, if not somewhat cruel, prank.

My mom, however, said that wasn’t the case and both my uncles swore on all they valued they had nothing to do with the entire ordeal. And I have no choice but to believe her. My uncle Bobby is dead now, taken from us by an aneurysm. But he was a good man. An honorable man. So is Boyd. And their word, even second hand, is good enough for me.

True story.

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