The best months of the year were just beginning. Endless summer days, filled with Iowa’s bluest skies and brightest sun. The new fall school year was so far off in the distant future, we never gave it a second thought. I was 11. No more yelling up the stairs from Mom, “Denise, it’s time to get up for school. You’re gonna be late!”
My lazy days were semi-filled. I could take swimming or baton lessons. My home town of Rock Valley had recently stopped using a germ laden swimming hole and built a state of the art swimming pool. It was amazing. A separate ‘baby pool’ which was only a few inches deep and an enormous pool with a shallow end, deep end and 2 diving boards (I never went off the high dive. It peaked beyond heaven I think). So most of my afternoons were spent at the pool. I rode my bike, (about 8 blocks away) donning my swimsuit, flip flops and a butt ugly, rubber swimming cap with a strap under my chin, already snapped. My beach towel was tucked in the basket. Mom bought me a season pass but I usually had money for a treat. I didn’t bother with a locker unless I was wearing street clothes and had to change. It wasn’t politically correct but Mom always used to say by mid-June, “Denise is as brown as an Indian!” And I was.
Although northwest Iowa experienced an over abundance of plus 90 degree days, I only swam during the day. Seemed like evenings at the pool were geared for older kids and adults. I had other stuff to do anyway. After supper (when the town’s whistle blew-I’d better be in the kitchen, ready sit down, pray and eat) there were still hours of daylight left and I put them to good use. My bestie Char had completed whatever chores were on her list for the day (mowing the yard, working in the garden, baking, dusting, dishes. I had/did no chores). A bike ride was a welcome relief, no matter how hot. You always had a breeze while you were peddling. Up and down the streets, avoiding the houses we deemed too scary to ride past lest we kidnapped and/or killed ha-ha. It was all in our heads but that’s the way kids think.
When we got too sweaty from riding, we’d park our bikes at Char’s. She lived alongside our public school. The school’s playground was enormous. A big section had been black topped for basketball and the summer it was completed we walked, ran, chased each other. On stilts my Dad made for us. By the end of that summer our armpits were calloused from constant friction from the tops of the square stilts.
But there were other choices on the playground to keep us busy during the waning hours of a long summer day. Swings that could be pumped high enough to equal the high diving board at the pool. Why wasn’t I scared of swinging high enough to pass out from the atmosphere’s thin oxygen level? Dunno. The monkey bars were a good time. Back and forth, trying to hang on with sweaty hands. The drop to the ground wasn’t bad by the time we were 10. Our slide was legendary. Two freaking stories tall. They still have the same slide 60 years later. We used to sneak some waxed paper from Mom’s kitchen and plant our butts on the paper before we pushed off. You were flying by the time you got to the bottom. The slide was something to avoid when Iowa temps soared. You could do serious damage to your hind end and the backs of your legs. That slide was hotter than Mom’s oven.
But as dusk descended on the day, it was the merry-go-round we were drawn to. The number of kids gathering varied between just the two of us (Char & me) or a dozen kids. Maybe a sibling or 2 from Char’s clan, but just as likely to show up was a kid or two from the Bunch, Flanagan, Burgers, Wynia, Kosters, Plueger, McGill, Vande Velde, Reinke families-or several others. This was not the time of day where someone pushed the merry-go-round so hard the rest of us clung on for dear life to avoid flying off in a heap of broken bones.
No, this was the time of day where we wanted to be terrified. Why? I have no idea. I’ve never been a fan of scary shows. To this day. And the more unbelievable the plot, the more frightened I am. Makes no sense. I can watch psychological thrillers which certainly could be true, but the impossible, implausible plots scare the living shit out of me.
So we’d tell scary/ghost/monster/serial killer stories. Yikes. The one I still have issues/recurring nightmares about is a tale of a couple. (So a few years older than the kids who were now sitting, loosely scattered on a slowly spinning merry-go-round with the last of day light disappearing. You couldn’t appear scared shitless because you’d lose your street cred. Yeah, it was a thing. No matter how scared, this 5th grader had 2 agonizing, terror filled blocks before I made it back to safety. Some nights I was so scared, I sang hymns on the way home, thinking God was gonna protect me. Guess what? He did. Thanks God). There was nothing wrong with our imagination.
Ready to be spooked? This teen couple are old enough to drive. They’re on a date and want some serious make-out time, so it’s imperative they find a secluded spot (pronto) to ‘park.’ Luckily for them (and all of us merry-go-rounders in a few years) Iowa has an over abundance of corn/soybean fields. Literally hundreds of thousands of acres. (Rumor has it ha-ha-ha, like I wouldn’t know every single parking spot-in the county in a few years). All fields have a dirt entrance off their gravel road so the farmer can do whatever needs to be done with crops before harvest time. Weeding and fertilizer? Don’t judge, I was a townie.
Every car (except the 2 my parents owned) had a radio. No 8-track, cassette, or CD’s. No Sirius, iTunes, Spotify. Just a radio. An AM radio. At night you got a better selection of radio stations from farther away. So this highly hormonal duo are listening to romantic/early/classic rock songs (Stand by Me, Runaway, Wooden Heart, Crying, Runaround Sue, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Walk Right Back, Crazy) on their AM radio station in a deserted cornfield. Their only company was a star filled black sky. Or so they thought.
Suddenly the girl breaks away from a hot and heavy, part pleasurable/part torturous two minute filled tongue-fest. “Did you hear that? What was that funny noise?” (Oh good Lord girlfriend, not now. Please not now). Him: “Um, I didn’t hear anything. Maybe some cornstalks hitting each other?” She frowns, “no, I definitely heard something. Sounded like metal scraping on something. Are you gonna tell me you didn’t hear that noise?” Him: “No Neese, (just using a fabricated name here) I honestly didn’t hear anything.” (The kissing and petting resumes, much to his delight).
Scrape, scrape. Me: “Stop! You must have heard that. What’s making that noise? Could it be the radio?” (Sigh, mood is heading south at an alarming rate). Him: “No it can’t be the radio. I don’t know what to tell you. There’s no noise, nothing to hear and we’re all alone. Isn’t it great?” Me: “Yes it’s great except for that scraping, scratching noise. It’s scaring me. I think we should leave. I wanna go home.”
Him: “FINE!” Starts the car, rams it in reverse, drives like a maniac. Neese (again just happenstance with the name) puts herself back together, snuggles up and tries to make amends. But the mood is ruined and it’s back to the town with streetlights, stop signs and our one stoplight. They arrive at her house. He’s a gentleman, gets out, walks around to the passenger door and stops. Swallows a scream before it leaves his throat. On the handle of her door is a hanging apparatus. A pirate’s hook! Attached to some bloody flesh from a surgically repaired amputated arm. Gulp! (He’s gonna have to find a different corn field if this romance is headed to the next level).
Now how was I supposed to serenely walk home in the dark, after my head was filled with this unimaginable horror? Couldn’t be done. Not without some serious hymn (Him) help…