In the late summer of 1968, at the young and innocent age of fourteen (okay, maybe I wasn’t so innocent), my family moved to Dresden, Tennessee. It appeared to be a quiet, idyllic town, full of close-knit families and warm, welcoming residents.
My first image of the town was spying a beautiful, tanned girl riding bareback on a horse down the edge of Evergreen Street. With my face pressed against the window of the car, trying to get a better look at the…..horse, I said to myself, “Yes, I could get used to living here!”
Those first several weeks were all about getting adjusted to change – learning classmates names, finding my way around the ancient, condemned school building (Yes, it had been condemned. But apparently in Tennessee “condemned” is considered merely a suggestion.), and figuring out who was friendly and who was not.
My fortunes took a definite positive turn in October when “I done went and got me a girlfriend!” Charlene had been born and raised in Dresden and knew everyone. Though someone else might have viewed the fact that her father was the no nonsense Sheriff of the county as a reason to steer clear of her, I knew what it was like to be treated like you have the plague because of your parents (I was a P.K. aka Preacher’s Kid), so I thought she and I already had something in common.
A couple of weeks later, as Halloween rolled into view, Charlene asked if I wanted to walk around town with her Halloween night. I thought that was sort of a strange request since I hadn’t gone trick-or-treating since I was ten years old. But hey, if in Dresden kids were expected to go door to door asking for candy until they graduated from high school, then far be it from me to judge them harshly. Plus it was a chance to spend part of the evening with her. I just hoped she wasn’t expecting me to wear a costume.
It was a relief to me when Charlene, her girlfriend, Jane, and her boyfriend showed up Halloween night dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. In hindsight I should have questioned why they looked like they were prepared to run sprints and why they kept giving furtive glances over their shoulders. I was that hapless victim in Alfred Hitchock’s movies that misses obvious clues because they are ignorant and full of assumptions.
My parents, happy that I was happy, bid the group of us a fond farewell as we set out in the dark of night. Little did I know that it was almost the last time I would ever see them again. No one had forewarned me that on All Hallowed’s Eve the teenagers of Dresden were transformed, possessed by the spirits of Marlon Brando’s outlaw biker gang from his movie “The Wild One.”
As we turned the corner to walk down Parkway Street, a pickup truck came speeding by us. The bed of the truck was full of yelling and laughing teenagers. Smiling, I waved at them, happy to see how friendly everyone was even on Halloween. I was surprised to notice that Charlene and her friends didn’t act so friendly toward the occupants of the passing truck.
Suddenly I heard the sound of screeching tires. I looked ahead and saw the brake lights of the truck as it came to a sliding stop. Then it turned around in the middle of the street and came barreling toward us. As it got closer, I heard something splat on the street close to my feet. In the dim light it looked like a raw egg, but how in the –
“Run!” Charlene suddenly screamed.
At that point in my life I had never heard of George Cecil. But his famous quotation could well have served as my epitaph: “On the Plains of Hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the Dawn of Victory, sat down to wait, and waiting—died!” I looked in confusion at Charlene and company cutting across a yard, running toward some woods (let me just say here, “so much for loyalty and sticking together!”) and then at the speeding truck heading toward me. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, I stood frozen as the truck flashed by me, but not before a volley of raw eggs and water balloons pummeled me.
Shock and terror quickly flooded my feet and legs with adrenalin and I ran like Olympic sprinter Jim Hines. Where I was running to I did not know; where I was running from I was certain.
When I reached the edge of the woods that my “so called” friends had disappeared into, I stumbled over their stooped and hiding bodies. Before I had a chance to catch my breath and give them a piece of my addled mind, Charlene grabbed my hand and said in a tone of voice she undoubtedly learned from her sheriff father, “Let’s go!” Uncertain that I would ever see my mommy and daddy again, I followed her blindly into the shadows.
When Charlene finally came to a stop, all four of us were so out of breath we couldn’t speak. Heeding my early lessons from Cub Scouts, I checked out my surroundings. We were in a grassy hollow. At our back was a thick woods, while on both sides and in front of us there was a high bank, the top edge of which was backlit by street lights from town.
Just as I was ready to upbraid my companions for their callous abandonment of me, I saw a silhouette appear on the edge of the bank. Silently I pointed a skinny finger in its direction. As we all looked up, more silhouettes appeared on each side of the lone figure, until the entire rim of the bank was filled with the figures of twenty or so people.
I’ve seen this movie before, too. It’s the Indians that have surrounded the fleeing wagon train that is trapped in a box canyon. Silently they wait for a signal from the Chief before they swoop in and murder men, women and children. (I swallowed hard when I thought of “the children.”)
Slowly the faceless enemy descended down the bank toward us, first at a slow walk, then a trot. When they were about ten yards away, one of them broke ranks and ran full tilt toward us as we huddled together. Certain that I couldn’t be the target because I hadn’t lived there long enough to know anyone, I stepped away from Charlene and friends. (No – wait! That doesn’t sound right at all.) Certain that I needed to draw the charging bull away from the others, I separated myself from them and stood at the side. (That sounds better.)
Unfortunately, for the second time that night ignorance and assumptions were my Achilles’ heel. The charging bull aimed directly at me and slammed into me, tackling me to the ground. We both jumped to our feet and it was then I realized that he was the smallest person in the area, even than the girls. (But still, even a small charging bull is a force to be reckoned with.) He started swinging at me and I made a pretense of defending myself (something that’s hard to do with your eyes closed).
About that time, someone who I assumed was the leader of the “pack” grabbed the little fellow and picked him up off the ground. Referring to me, he told the boy, “This is not who you think it is.”
The boy looked out at me from the crook of the arm of his larger and stronger friend. Squinting, he said, “Hey, it’s not, is it? I’m sorry man.” He reached for me to make an apologetic handshake.
I carefully accepted his apology, but stayed on guard lest it was just a trick.
The entire “posse” spoke in friendly tones to Charlene and the others and then left us, carrying on in their quest for the fool who had done “something” to the crazy one’s girlfriend.
Once they were out of earshot, I looked at Charlene and said, “What is wrong with people around here?!”
She looked at me like I was the one who was insane. “What do you mean? This is fun!”
I looked down at my water soaked clothes that were dripping with raw eggs. The ache in my stomach where I’d just gotten tackled and the throbbing in my bruised shins confirmed what my eyes told me, there is nothing fun about battling against these denizens of Hades! I was even beginning to question whether this Sheriff’s daughter was somehow part of a conspiracy to “welcome” me into some sort of coven.
All I was certain of was that I was ready to get back inside my house. I’d had enough “fun” for the evening. But a 14-year-old boy can’t act like “a chicken,” so I did what any self respecting boy would do – I lied. “I think I need to head on back home,” I told my friends. “Mom and dad are going to be wondering about me and I don’t want to worry them.”
The three of them gave me a look of “sure, it’s all about your mom and dad.” But nonetheless, we headed toward my house. Relief began to fill my soul when I saw the lights from the front porch of the house. (Is there any more welcoming sight?)
But when we were about fifty yards from the house, the headlights on a hidden pickup blinked on. I didn’t know that headlights could squint so menacingly. The truck lay between me and “home” in this twisted game of kick-the-can (or maybe it was kick-the-new-kid).
The truck began slowly moving toward us, its bright lights blinding us to whether there was only a driver or whether it was full of a pack of jackals. It didn’t take long to learn the truth. People started spilling out of the bed of the truck and running toward us, throwing eggs and water balloons as they came.
The four of us broke into a dead run through a field of tall sage brush that lay beside us. Side by side we ran as hard as we could. What none of us realized is that there was a waist high fence hiding in the tall grass. We hit the fence in full stride.
If you’ve ever seen bed sheets hanging on a clothesline, then you have a pretty good mental picture of what we looked like. The breath was knocked out of me and all the blood was rushing to my head. I think I tried to scream, “Don’t let them scalp me!”, but thankfully that cry never escaped my lips.
The pack of jackals swarmed us, laughing and cat-calling. Once an adequate amount of shaving cream was dispensed on our heads and faces, they were off looking for more prey.
I’m not sure how I made it to my house. I fear I was lead there like Saul of Tarsus, blinded by the shock of my experience.
What I do remember is that I spent the night under my bed with my favorite blanket pulled over my head.