This particular chapter was originally written for “When Can I Stop Running” and cut out completely from the final copy by my editor. It’s a chapter that tells a frightening tale from our childhood – funny today, but terrifying at the time. I’m certain some of you reading this will have experienced something similar way back then when ‘Running’ got you to safety. Well, most of the time anyway. Here’s the original Chapter 19 – I added photos to give the article some flair:
Isn’t it funny that when talking to others about something scary, everyone has a story of their own to tell. Last night at our weekly social outing, my friend Jerry (Boober) shared his haunting experience with me.
Jerry was about 15 years old at the time when he and a friend, Nick, were propositioned by the owner of the local drive-in theater – Bel-Air Drive-in – on 8 Mile Road (from M&M’s famed song) and Van Dyke – the boundary between Detroit and its northern suburb, Warren, MI.
The deal was that if the two of them cleaned the lot of trash (cups, popcorn, empty containers, bottles, etc.) from the night before, then he’d allow them both to sit up front and watch the first movie along with complimentary soda, hot dog, and popcorn. It was the first time for either of them to see a movie at the drive-in and were excited about this great opportunity. They worked hard during the afternoon, dragging oversized garbage bags around and poking at empty cups and popcorn boxes on the ground. They each had a five-foot long wooden stick with a six-inch long nail poking out from one end – using them like spears, they’d throw the weapon at refuse on the ground and then stripped their catch into the bags.
It was early evening when they finally finished – well before any of the cars arrived. They considered themselves too old to horse around in the playground under the large movie screen so they invented a new game using their spears. They’d stand, facing each other about six feet apart, and take turns throwing their spears into the ground as close as possible to the others’ foot – actually, within twelve inches. If it stuck within that range, that person would have to move his foot to the spear and then take his turn from that position. The purpose of this ‘game’ was to get the opponents’ legs so far apart that they could no longer stand. In Vietnam, we played a similar game in the bush, but using our Bowie knives and K-Bars, calling it ‘stretch’ and/or ‘chicken’. Soon, cars began entering the lot and jockeying around for the best spot.
Most families parked near the concession stand and restrooms while young couples parked further away in more secluded spots. When kids of all ages swarmed to the kiddie-park, Jerry and Nick stopped their game and headed to the concession stand to turn in their spears and collect their payment. Hands full, they found a spot on the grass just beyond the playground, and in the first row near a post with speakers attached and waited patiently for dusk and the movie to begin.
The first movie was called, “Night of the Living Dead.” They knew little about the film but heard from others that it’s supposed to be scary and was about dead people reanimating – whatever that meant – and roaming the countryside killing others and turning them into what they called, zombies. Both were excited and up for a little scariness.
Jerry told me it was a movie he’d never forget. Both youngsters sat before the screen, captivated, never before witnessing anything like this. After a while, screams began echoing from some of the vehicles behind them – mostly female, but it sounded like guys were screaming, too. The movie and sound effects made them extremely anxious – too bad they had not yet learned how to watch a scary movie with their hands covering the eyes and sneaking peeks between the fingers.
At about the halfway point, Jerry and Nick found they were beginning to over-react to any sounds from behind them; horns beeping, doors closing, gravel crunching and then seeing shadows moving in the darkness; each incident resulted in a quick head turn to scan the dark surroundings behind them. The interruptions were causing them to miss parts of the movie and soon agreed that as long as the noises weren’t moving toward them – they’d ignore them and focus more on the movie. Yeah, right! It turned out to be a long two hours!
When the movie concluded, the lot lights turned on to signal the start of a fifteen-minute intermission before the next movie began. Some car headlights came on, and vehicles began moving toward the exit – dodging the brave souls who were heading toward the concession stand. It was now midnight and time for Jerry and Nick to leave for home.
The two of them walked side by side, eyes wide and alert, their movements, somewhat awkward and jerky as they walked westward along 8 Mile Road. Their heads swiveled like radar masts, side to side, remaining alert for any threats that might be lurking in the shadows. Their pace was brisk and neither spoke a word since leaving the drive-in theater almost a mile back. When they came upon the edge of a park, an unheard command in their heads ordered them to quicken their step. During the day, it was actually a block-long playfield where kids of all ages played baseball, football, threw horseshoes, and flew kites. Older trees bordered along the east boundary and eight-foot-high fencing enclosed it; several gaps along the perimeter allowed access and egress.
Usually, this is where they’d split up; most times, Jerry taking a shortcut through the field, and Nick continuing alone for a couple more blocks. Only on this night, Jerry sent a telepathic message to Nick telling him that he wasn’t about to cross the empty field full of shadows and become fodder for any zombies that might be waiting for him in the darkness. They continued on in silence, but now moving at a quicker step – halfway between running and jogging.
When reaching the corner of Jerry’s street, they hesitated for a brief second or two – running in place while contemplating their next move. Nick still had a couple more blocks to go before turning south from 8-Mile – his home was the fifth house on the right. Jerry, on the other hand, had to go about a block and a half down his dark, narrow, and shadowy street; fourteen houses beyond the single traffic light swaying back and forth at the next corner.
Finally, the two buds each raised a hand chest-high to wave goodbye; both still numb from the movie and trek home, neither able to talk yet. When the traffic light down the street turned green, they moved in different directions. Trotting slowly at first, then running as fast as their legs could carry them.
Jerry ran along the center of the street so he could keep on eye out for anything suspicious moving toward him from in between the houses on his right. He was a third of the way down the block when he noticed a shadow moving diagonally across the fenced-in field to his left. It was running too, and heading toward one of the gates at the lit intersection. He panicked when it suddenly dawned on him that this ‘thing’ might attack him at the end of the block. ‘What to do?’ He thought. ‘Do I stop and go back or should I turn on the afterburners and try to beat him past the intersection?’ He chose to run faster.
‘It’ll be close!’ Jerry thought, his arms pumping back and forth mechanically, and keeping pace with his racing heartbeat. At that point, he had a sudden revelation that he was now running faster than he could ever remember. Unfortunately, there’ll be no witnesses, awards or recognition from others, he’ll just have to settle on congratulating himself once he makes it home. Jerry glanced toward the moving shadow in the park, and realized that it, too, had also increased its pace. ‘Oh shit,’ he thought, ‘If I stop for the traffic signal at the end of the block, that monster will get me for sure.’ The light turned red as Jerry closed in on the intersection; houses in this neighborhood stood rather close to the corner, and it was extremely difficult for one to see the on-coming cross traffic; this is why most street corners had traffic lights, stop signs or those triangle yield signs. He had to chance it, thinking, ‘If I stop…I’m dead!’
He chose to cross the intersection against the light – never changing his stride. Jerry’s lungs burned and begged him to stop; his racing heart now feeling like it was off-kilter and threatening to break out of his chest. ‘I’m going to make it!’ Jerry thought, noticing the shadow still several steps away from the exit. Still unrecognizable. A beast. He was halfway through the intersection when he caught a flash of light in his peripheral vision. A car, moving straight toward him. The car horn blared, tires squealed loudly, the driver frantically trying to avoid hitting the kid. Jerry had too much momentum, and it was impossible to stop in time. He closed his eyes, offered up a quick prayer and launched himself into the air like a deer jumping over a fence. Luckily, he cleared the hood by mere inches before the car slide by. It was a miracle!He didn’t stop or look back, and was determined to continue this pace for the next fourteen houses.
When reaching home, the 15-year-old leaped onto the porch in a single bound and crashed into the door that was never locked. Jerry twisted the knob and stepped through the doorway – collapsing onto the couch – completely breathless. Panting deeply, he tried to control his breathing but began hyperventilating. He sat up and then bent over keeping his head low and between his knees – breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. The technique was something he learned in sports; it always worked after hitting an inside-the-park-homerun during a league baseball game.
Everyone was already sound asleep, so he locked the front door for the first time ever and headed to his bedroom.
He was still afraid of the living dead and did not attempt to check on his parents and siblings. ‘What if they died while I was gone and already turned like those creatures in the movie?’ As a safeguard, he used his desk chair and propped it under the doorknob to stop anything from entering his bedroom. All at once, Jerry’s legs and arms started shaking involuntarily, evidently, his adrenaline making the circuit. This worried him, as it was something he’d not experienced before. He reached into his nightstand and pulled out a 12-inch long hunting knife, a gift from his father, and then sat back on the bed and leaned against the headboard. He remained fully clothed in the event he’d have to make a run for it and kept the knife on his lap. Every sound in the settling house spooked him, and caused him to sit up straight and pay close attention to where he heard the sound. This continued for most of the night, until Jerry eventually fell into a fitful sleep.
He told me that even though this event occurred 44 years ago, it affected him so much that he has yet to watch an episode of “The Walking Dead.”
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I know this drive in very well. My mothers parents used to live on Orchard St. in Warren near 8 1/2 mile Road and Van Dyke. My stepfathers parents lived on Vernor Hwy near McClellan St. we used to live at 1504 McClellan. About two blocks from Jefferson Ave. on the corner was Jack’s Pharmacy. Near the house on McClellan there used to be a catholic church. I remember we used to go to Belle Island Park near our house to swim or take the boat to Bob a lo. What a magical place that was. Getting back to the drive in theater. We used to go watch movies there. I don’t remember any movies I saw but it used to be next door to Twin Pines Dairy. I was told that Milky the Clown was my uncle. I later found out that Milky was a neighbor of my uncles.
Thank you for the commentary. I, too, grew up in the city and lived near St. Charles church and went to Belle Isle and Boblo regularly…In fact, we used to walk there and go swimming at the docks near the beach. I’m also familiar with your past neighborhoods but don’t remember the name of that nearby church you went to I’m thinking St. Phillip or All Saints. Thanks for the memories.
On Fri, Mar 2, 2018 at 9:15 AM, Cherries – A Vietnam War Novel wrote: