Pre-ramble (that’s my ramble before the piece): It’s super hot outside and so this piece takes you back to February of 1979, a very cold February. It’s about memories and yes, that makes me pretty damn old this year.
I have said it before and I will say it again, my life growing up seemed uneventful to the point of most days being quite blurred one into the next. I envy people I know who can write about their childhoods with vivid sensory descriptions because I don’t seem to have that. I seem to be missing the scents and textures and sounds. I have an odd catalog of snapshots in my brain that represent various personal family events and some local events. Snapshots, not video snippets or Insta-story like memories, simple two-dimensional often black and white snapshot memories.
There were very few deaths that I recall growing up of members of our immediate or extended family or even family friends. When they did occur, as children, we were not included in the funeral home showings or the funerals themselves. Death was something that occurred on television and in the papers to other people often in sensationalized manners. In a small town there is very little that is newsworthy going on outside of politics and sports.
I do, though, have an odd memory of a small child going missing just two and a half miles from where we lived. I wonder if this was the beginning of my obsession with missing persons. How do people just disappear? How is that possible? I recently decided to look up this missing child, who I do recall was found deceased days later victim of an accidental death in a large container used for storage of newspapers bound for the recycling plant. The container was located at a church less than a hundred yards from the child’s home. That was the extent of my memory, vivid primarily in its tragic theme, and only a bit of this has turned out to be correct now that I have done some research.
I find it interesting how much I remembered and how much was incorrect and colored with assumption over time. Most of our memories are distorted from retelling these memories, even in our heads, over and over. Facts get distorted, if we even had all of them to begin with. That’s why memoirs are not called biographies. They are filled with perception and enhancement.
I assumed this event took place when I was fairly young, 10 or 11. My initial search parameters were based on the age that I assumed I was, plus or minus a few years, from 1965 to 1975. That covers me from age 4 to 14. I found nothing. How was that possible? This was a missing child. That was hugely newsworthy and nothing came up? I decided to extend the upper parameter to 1980. Not until I expanded my date range search in newspapers.com did I locate the first of a series of articles on the disappearance. It took place my senior year in high school: 1979. Truth be told, I was an immature seventeen as a senior, so maybe my thinking I was younger makes sense? (To this day I like to present myself as 10 years younger than I am.)
That wasn’t the only glaring error in my memory.
The child wasn’t six or seven as I had implanted I my brain but middle school age: 14. I was older than I had recollected and so it does not surprise that so were the missing. Bigger error though was that it was not just one boy but two eighth graders who had gone missing. Both students at the middle school I had gone to just four years before. That makes the mystery of a disappearance all the more baffling to me as it did to their parents and the authorities at the time.
One person disappears, there are a host of different scenarios that the brain can play out for you in wonderment. But two people, two boys, how can two boys disappear together? Were they taken? Did they run away? If one had gotten hurt, the other could surely have helped him or gone for help. If someone was trying to kidnap two boys, surely one would get free and run for help.
They went missing on a cold Sunday afternoon in February and the disappearance was front page news on Monday morning. One of their parents had tried to take them to a movie at the nearby Rolling Acres Mall but it was sold out. They returned home and went out together to look for beer cans for their collections. They never returned.
They would be found right away, alive – that was the hope. But snow overnight had covered their tracks in the snow. They were front page on Tuesday and on Wednesday. Tips had not panned out. Neither helicopter nor ground searches had come up with anything. A tracking dog had followed their scent from the home of one of the boys a short distance away to a car wash where they had found beer cans for their collection previously. My younger brother had collected beer cans around that time, too.
The dog stopped near a large container (the size of a semitruck or rail car) where people would stop and drop off bags and bundles of newspapers. All homes got at least one if not two major daily papers and the smaller weekly papers in those days. Papers would accumulate and burning them had become frowned upon. We saved ours in grocery store paper bags and would drop them off in this same container that was parked near the church. It was a church fundraiser. Not our church, but it didn’t matter. People were not always mindful about stacking their drop-offs neatly. Some would but then others would just pitch their papers in from the open end, creating a slippery, sliding mass. The doors of the container were always open. I remember looking inside once. It seemed awfully dark, too dark for me to want to brave entering.
The search dog stopped near the windowless container but did not go inside. People later said they looked inside but saw nothing. Everyone seemed confident there was nothing inside but newspapers.
Anytime a child goes missing, minds wander off to abduction, molestation and worse. Again, started the inevitable cautions to children of all ages to be more aware, more careful. Parents who could hug their children no doubt felt somewhat relieved and maybe a little guilty because of it. It was so cold at night in February in Ohio. So cold.
On Wednesday the newspaper container was picked up, placed on a trailer and driven away into the city where the containers were emptied out. Again, my recollection failed me. I assumed it was still there at the spot near their home when the boys were found. That is what I had in my snapshot of the memory. It seems interesting to me that it was even allowed to have been removed from a location so close to the target sight of the disappearance.
The bodies of the two boys were discovered among the contents of the container at the recycle plant after having spent the three and a half days so close to home. The parents continued to feel foul play was involved. It must have been, right? But those that saw the bodies said that there was no appearance of foul play. And the coroner’s report a month later would concur. There were only signs that the boys had tried to free themselves from the crush of newspapers that may have smothered them or at the very least held them trapped until the cold temperatures took them.
Now that I found the clippings, have seen their faces and those of their parents in the grainy newspaper photos and have read the full details that are available, I have more of the story. It makes clearer the memory in a way and yet now it is as though I have two different recollections running parallel to one and other in my mind. I have my own recollection and the newspaper retelling. I am not sure I did myself any good by clearing up the details to be honest.
It does make me wonder about and perhaps take greater care when writing about my own personal memories of home and family. They are my perceptions, my view from where I sat or stood. My angle may not have been the best angle. I know from asking my brothers about specific memories that we recall them very differently. And most of them can’t be googled. I process my memories through my writing in the hopes that I can at the very least achieve a sense of understanding of them and growth from them.
Post-ramble (that’s a bit after the piece): Take memoirs with a grain. Don’t label them lies or sensationalized, though some are. Just as we do with anything we read, learn from it what you can and leave the rest.