I look back on that summer before first grade as one big adventure. I had two friends my same age and gender who lived in houses off the same dusty road. And of course my brother was always three steps behind whether or not I wanted him to be. We played hard from early morning until the evening mosquitoes drove us inside.
Our favorite games were skits – Daniel Boone was popular on television that year. And we knew all the episodes by heart. We reenacted the battles, protected the fort, shared the genuine imitation coonskin cap owned by my brother, and of necessity, expanded the roles of the supporting characters (they got surly otherwise). Yes, I was usually directing the action and handing out lines to my cast. I loved making up stories.
My grandmother was a natural storyteller. I don’t remember if her stories were particularly good or bad, but they certainly held our attention that summer. She’d take us fishing and while we watched the cork bob up and down, she’d tell us real, blood and guts stories. She wasn’t afraid to kill off the main characters, leaving us in tears, or scare the you-know-what out of us with descriptions of creatures she had hiding behind every gnarly bush or plot twist. We took in every nuance of the yarns she told us and begged for more. No fairy tales for us, we wanted adventure and most of all mystery.
She also created and tended massive flowerbeds. Today, for most families, their whole yard isn’t nearly as large as her flowerbeds. Ornamental trees, shrubs, honeysuckle, rose bushes, tiger lilies, massive hydrangeas, she planted them all together and created a true riot of color and smell. Even though we weren’t supposed to, we played hide and seek in those flowerbeds, dodging honey bees, collecting horned toads, and finding the occasional turtle or two.
One hot summer morning I headed for my favorite hiding place – a hollowed out area under a massive crepe myrtle tree near the barbed wire fence separating the back of the flowerbed from the hay pasture. Running full out, bare feet flying, I dove under the heavy blooms and encountered my first real monster.
It was huge. At least three times my size. Bristly hair, stretched leathery skin, flat nose, and the smell … the smell was the worst thing I could have ever imagined. The gates of hell had surely been left open and something evil and vile had escaped. I screamed and scrambled backwards as fast as possible, catching skin and hair on rose thorns and barbed wire.
My location betrayed, my cohorts arrived posthaste and after a collective survey of my ragged condition, and with visible trepidation, they slowly advanced close enough to peer beneath the branches. While they stood with stunned disbelief etched across their faces, I went for help.
Okay – it wasn’t a monster. It was a 200-pound hog that had escaped from the stockyard about a mile away which had died in that dark spot under the crepe myrtle. The hog was so bloated, so badly distorted, that a six year old would never recognize it for anything other than a monster.
My friends and I told and retold that adventure until it barely resembled the original event. I made up whole stories about that hog and why it ended up in my grandmother’s flowerbed. In essence, I created my first murder mystery.
There was a real monster there with us that day, but we wouldn’t know it for several months; childhood leukemia – a death sentence back in 1964. One of my friends never started first grade with us that fall, she was too ill. But I can still see her face when we retold that story– that look of real pleasure as we scared each other over and over.
So you see, I’ve loved mysteries for a long, long time.
Today, I’m on my way to Chicago to attend the Love Is Murder conference. I’m going to be on two panels – “We Killed” and “Cupid’s Call.” Stop by and chat about monsters, mysteries, or even hogs, if you’re in the area.