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“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