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July 22, 2012 / hippiechickamblings

Magic and Mahem

There’s a certain magic about summer, when viewed through the eyes of a child, that’s undeniable. Before we become jaded with too much living, before the scrim of cynicism blurs our vision, summer has a clarity and heady perfume about it that stirs our blood, igniting some giddy savage within. Every blade of grass stands out in sharp relief, a whiff of wild honeysuckle can make us drunk, and the warmth of the sun on our backs, buffered by the breeze whipped up on our bikes, is a siren’s call to freedom.

To a kid, summer is warmth and light and pure, unrestrained joy. It’s the loom where the most golden memories are woven into that glittering cape we can only wear a short time. But there’s always that one particular summer that stands out above the others, the one that sticks like those last stubborn grains of sand we can’t shake from our shoes. For me it was the summer of 1966. I learned how to swim that summer. It was also the summer I met the bear-man and learned about mass murder.

We vacationed in the Smoky Mountains that year, in a borrowed cabin out in the boonies. The cabin was no rental. That would’ve been beyond what my parents could afford. Funny, how it never occurred to me that we weren’t “well off.” All I knew was that adventure awaited me somewhere in the midst of those majestic peaks, their summits disappearing in a haze of violet. We did all the “touristy” things on that trip, visiting historical sites, national parks, seeing black bears up close, and wandering through a Cherokee reservation. I remember all those things, but only vaguely, like a remnant of a nearly-forgotten dream. What clings to me in the most vivid recall, what still gives me a shiver of delight and a tickle of fear, has nothing to do with bears or souvenirs.

If I close my eyes, I can still smell the sun-warmed leather of the bucket seats and feel the powerful rumble through the floorboards of our 1962 Buick Skylark, chewing up the miles as we rocketed south. How I loved that car with all its chrome and powder-blue metal, sleek as a bullet and roomy enough for a small village! My dad’s cousin rode in the back seat with me, grinning like a possum, teasing me with tales of how he and his brother built the pyramids. At rest stops I’d watch him roll his cigarettes, tapping the tobacco out of a Prince Albert tin into the thin rectangle of paper and giving it one quick swipe with his tongue. He made it seem like an art form. With his Levis, white t-shirts, and dark, slicked-back hair, Don reminded me of an aging James Dean without the cool.

I remember my mom, in her modest, one-piece bathing suit and swim cap with the pink rubber daffodils. Somehow, she still managed to look beautiful, splashing and dog-paddling in the creek we found just a short walk from the cabin. Aptly named Crystal Creek, it was the clearest, coolest water I’ve ever seen, ten feet deep at its widest point, with a smooth rock bottom you could see as easily as your hand in front of your face. I remember my dad’s laugh, ringing out over the water, the quiet seclusion of enveloping trees, and the feel of the damp, sandy bank beneath my bare feet. I remember that wobbly moment of anticipation as I stood on the great overhanging ledge, ready for the next dive, and that earthy, mineral smell of the rushing water. I can almost hear that hollow, singing sound it made as it bubbled around us.

There were no restaurants for elegant dining. We ate fresh vegetables from roadside stands and grilled meat purchased from a mom-and-pop butcher shop down the road. Evening meals were served at a long, wooden table on a vast, screened-in porch with a view of the woods and a puff of breeze at our backs. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything quite as good as Mom’s fried potatoes on that porch.  

Although there was no TV, entertainment was free. We had the Bear-man instead. Bear-man lived alone in a cabin not far from ours, and once he discovered us, he became a daily fixture. It never occurred to us to be wary of this total stranger. Serial killers were unheard-of in the news back then, and Deliverance hadn’t been filmed. No reason for fear.

Bear-man was a massive, barrel-chested mountaineer with intense, black eyes framed by bushy brows the color of dingy snow. Wearing grungy overalls and a salt-and-pepper flat-top haircut, he always came bearing gifts: packs of bear meat which he proudly bestowed on Mom, and which she secretly tossed. He claimed the meat was obtained through hand-to-paw combat with its previous wearer, during a most dramatic, life and death struggle. We listened. Nobody contradicted.

Mom still has a photo of Bear-man, seated in a ragged recliner with me standing beside him. I’m wearing a pair of brown, homemade shorts, a Batman t-shirt, and scuffed, bright orange Keds (yes, my fashion sense was in peril, even then). In the photo, I’m gazing up at him as though he holds the secrets to the universe, and with my choppy, pixie haircut and freckles, I bear a striking resemblance to Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird (though I bet you’d never catch HER wearing orange Keds).

Nights were spent playing Password and grazing on popcorn, popped in bacon grease. Instead of being sent to bed so the adults could play, I was allowed to stay up to participate, and I still remember the “warm fuzzy” that gave me. “You and me, we think alike,” Dad told me. “We’ll beat their socks off.” Looking back, I’m sure it was all intended to make me feel included, but it seemed that Dad and I won just about every game. At one point Cousin Don said, “I don’t think you’re a kid at all…I think you’re just wearing a “kid-suit.”

One evening, not long before we were due to come back home, Dad and I were outside, grilling burgers, while the rest were on the porch, setting the table. We were chatting and listening to music on a transistor radio, when suddenly, a breaking news story interrupted my favorite song. Dad froze, spatula in mid-flip, as an unseen anchorman, in clipped tones, dished up a plate of reality I’ve never forgotten.

An apartment in South Chicago…eight student nurses found stabbed to death…raped and tortured. EIGHT! Dad swallowed convulsively and lowered the spatula as if in slow motion. Mom, coming down the back steps with a dish towel in hand, stopped, her brown eyes widening as one hand drifted up to her throat. As they stood there like two statues, gooseflesh pebbled my arms and a peculiar chill skittered down my neck like a trickle of ice water.

“Come on in, come on now, time to eat,” Mom blurted, gesturing frantically for me to move.

As a swarm of nightmare images spun in my head, my throat worked against a clot of unshed tears, lodged there like a wet stone. My vision blurred and swam out of focus as a profound, unexplained sorrow welled within me. Eight women, dead! Those poor women! I wasn’t too clear on what rape or torture meant, but “stabbed” and “murdered” I could figure out.

“Dad? Daddy?” I stammered, my voice barely a croak. Suddenly, somehow, I was in his lap, strong arms enveloping me, the back of my head cupped easily against his broad chest. Wordlessly, he rocked me, making soft shushing noises, even though I hadn’t cried out. “I’ve got you. Don’t be afraid,” he said. Daddy’s got you.”

In the weeks to come, the news would be saturated with details of the gruesome horror endured by those eight young women, and the name of Richard Speck, an illiterate Texas drifter, would roam the pitted landscape of my dreams. That tragedy was my first introduction to a world populated with evil, but the fear and dread were kept at bay by the memory of my dad’s arms around me on that July evening in the Great Smokey Mountains. When it was all said and done, this was the summer of all summers. What about yours?


Leave a Comment
  1. annie / Jul 22 2012 10:41 am

    I love the way you write,I feel like I am with you in your adventures!!

    • hippiechickamblings / Jul 22 2012 11:25 am

      Thank you! If I’m somehow able to take you with me, then I’ve done what I set out to do. That is what gives me joy!

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