Monday, October 24, 2005

A memory becomes a book

Today, I signed a contract with New Horizon Press to publish my true crime/memoir, "Fall: An Intimate Crime Story." The book -- about a monstrous 1973 rape and murder that touched me, my family, friends and neighbors and still reverberates eerily today in the Wyoming town where I grew up -- will be published in late 2006 or early 2007. Naturally, I've spent much of today pondering life and death, the illusion of sanctuary in a small town, and two girls who suffered more than anyone should. Here some of what's in my mind today:

k k k
“There is no explanation for evil.
It must be looked upon as a necessary part
of the order of the universe.
To ignore it is childish, to bewail it senseless.”
W. Somerset Maugham

The place where I grew up was wrought by violent times, forces of nature, and Death. Dying echoes there in strange ways. And for the longest time, we never heard those echoes.

I grew up in a close-knit neighborhood on the far edge of Casper, Wyoming, a modest little cow-and-oil town on the brink of the Great Plains, unaware of what lurked in plain sight. I didn’t know Death. I didn’t know evil. The war in Vietnam seethed for most of my childhood, but our wars were fought in dirt forts with plastic soldiers, and the enemy was German or Japanese, although they had not been our enemies for more than twenty years. War was a card game and a rock ‘n‘ roll band. Boys ten years older than us, boys who had once attended our grade school, were fighting and dying in Vietnam, but sucking chest wounds and disembowelment by booby-trap were only discussed when children weren’t around. Like sex.

Kennedy and King were assassinated, but we didn’t really understand the abstractness of murder. Hot and cold wars raged in the world outside our town, but to us, hot and cold were seasons, not states of conflict. Our PE teachers showed us movies about how to survive an atomic blast, advising us to wipe the radioactive dust off the lids of food cans and to drink water from old Clorox bottles. We were non-plussed. It was far more frightening to be forced to watch “Death on the Highway,” a guts-on-the-pavement film designed to make us more careful drivers but which never failed to cause someone to pass out on the classroom floor. Later at lunch, we’d always talk about who fainted, seldom about decapitation by inattentive motoring. We weren’t even old enough to drive.

But we were invincible. Nobody we knew had died. We understood the theory, but dismissed the reality. In that way, we were probably not much different from most small-town kids in the guiltless years before videogames, twenty-four hour cable news, Columbine, the Internet, graphic prime-time violence, embedded war correspondents, gangsta rap and mass cyicism.

In the idealized hometown of my memory, a tall sissy bar and a long front fork on your Stingray bike was an emblem of rebellion. It made you look like a cool bad-ass biker when all you were was a small-town kid in a pair of muddy Chuck Taylors and white socks. We genuinely believed chugging Coke and Pop Rocks would cause your bowels to explode. Some of us sneaked tie-dyed T-shirts to school because our parents had forbidden them. And that was courting trouble.

Even in the world of fantasy, evil and murder were abstract, distant concepts. Movies like “Deliverance” and “The Exorcist” were just movies, not real, not reflections of fact. We had no concept of a world where crime and horror might be the same thing. That a man would rape another man seemed as unlikely as a child’s head spinning on her neck like a haunted carousel.

The most trouble I ever heard about was when a kid sneaked out his bedroom window one summer night and was caught skinny-dipping in a public pool. He feared he’d get held back a grade, because to us, that was as cruel and unusual as the death penalty. To us, it was the death penalty because it was socially fatal to repeat a grade while your friends moved on.

In our innocence and our abject naivete, the punishment tended to far exceed any crime we might commit. But when it was all said and done, the sentence carried out, that boy knew the feel of wind on a naked body. And he never forgot it.

But, of course, this was a place and time that doesn’t really exist anymore. Now that I think about it, maybe it never did except in my memory.

Oh, the houses I often rode past on my bicycle on summer nights are still there, but they no longer open their windows wide enough that passing boys can hear the life inside and smell suppers cooking.

Back then, I didn’t associate empty skies and epic spaces with Death. I associated them with nothingness, or maybe a sense of man’s smallness in the universe. Maybe free will. Maybe even a kind of agoraphobia, where people fear they might fall down and tumble off the very edge of the Earth. But not Death -- as if Death were not nothingness, smallness, ultimate freedom and a great fall into an infinite black vacuum.

The waves of settlers who passed through here believed, deep in the heart of their hearts, there was something beyond what they called “the Big Empty.” On the other side waited remedy, Oregon, prosperity, a great ocean, escape, restoration, a place to set down roots, a new start, perhaps Heaven. Certainly, Death awaited some, but these were sanguine people. Death and hope were in conflict.

Still today, one finds the oldest Western cemeteries on hills because they would be a little closer to Heaven. By the same token, it was common for outlaws, scoundrels, desperadoes, rustlers, ruffians, rogues, thugs and other scofflaws to be buried eight feet or deeper, a little closer to Hell than most.

Death defines this place where I grew up. Like my family and my neighbors, I just didn’t think of it that way. To me, the landscape’s vastness and the rawness was evidence of its simplicity, its incorruptibility. It was immortal. It shaped us more than we shaped it.

Antelope died, rabbits and rattlesnakes died. Prairie dogs, horny toads, carp, millers, deer, sparrows, mosquitoes, trout, elk, quail, midges, salamanders, ants … they all died at our hands. We killed like champions. But those were deaths with a little “d.” Those animals were all alive, but in our unsullied young minds, they had no lives. Not like people. And none of our friends died, so we never knew the inexorable sadness of loss.

Until Becky and Amy.
Pictured above: Becky Thomson (right) and Amy Burridge (front) with their mother in 1973, just days before they were abducted and thrown from a bridge into a remote, isolated Wyoming canyon


Anonymous said...

Hi Ron - this is one of the best written descriptions I have ever read of life as it used to be in Wyoming. As a native, I can truly understand what you are saying. I wish you the best with your book - I know it will be a huge success. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to participate in it. cc

Rebecca Shaffer said...

Hi Ron... I remember this too well...A Sunday morning we sat with Becky in the basement of our Pastor's house. Becky told us the whole story, all that had happened. I remember the world felt like it spun out of control because on that day we learned the truth of what did and could happen. So vividly I remember her sharing how, during that long night to warm herself,she flipped her long hair over her back and then over her front, each time praying her little sister was doing the same somewhere in the dark. I am glad you are writing their story and know you will do it well. Thank you for sharing it!

Judy Browning Morse said...

Hi Ron, I too remember this horrible tragedy and how it changed our lives forever. I am so excited to see your book is finally being published and can't wait to read it. Amy was a very close to our family growing up and her death touched our lives forever. I have such wonderful memories of her and am so glad that her tragedy did not wipe those away. Thanks for sharing this with all of us and I know it will be awesome.

TC said...

Actually stumbles on this story from msn home page. The lost ideals you described remind me of so many people enjoyed when times were simpler in so many towns across this country. My own home town childhood was very similar in Carbondale, Pa. However I dont recall it shattered by such a tragedy. What a shame. TC

Gen Cotherman said...

I, too, remember this tragic event vividly, especially when I drive by the location from where they were abducted. The Burridge family were neighbors of mine in the 1960s, and I was good friends with Kelly, sister of Becky and Amy. I am looking forward to reading this book and sharing the story with my 10-year-old daughter, reinforcing the fact that things like this CAN happen, even here.

Pam said...

It is now 2010, and something each week comes up where I think about the tragedy. I was a young girl of 12, turned that age Sept 24th..........the night of the murder. It molded me into who I am today. I am glad the story was written, because as a little girl, I had so many of the details wrong. It gave more clarity to the night, and for some reason gave me some closure. By writing the book you gave Amy and Becky a voice. Something I am sure they didn't have that night.
Pam Cooper-Shiba