I was seven. My family moved into an apartment in the small enclave of Terrytown. Looking back, it was a way station for my parents while our house was being built near Oregon Trail Park in south Gering. I believe the buildings were a low-income tenement. I could be wrong. Our imaginations have a peculiar effect on us when we’re young. As a kid it was a big place but seeing it now, it is the size of a shoe box, with no yard and no room to roam considering the sparse playground.
Nearby, Terry’s Lake and the Carena Drive-in offered adventure. My imagination was boundless. For a while, I convinced myself an ancient sea monster lived at the bottom of the lake and fed on the schools of sunfish, toads and other slithering creatures around the shores and shallow water. Our own Loch Ness Monster was ready to emerge one day and wreak havoc on our fair community if he ever tired of fish. I watched too many Godzilla movies.
The drive-in, which was later replaced by a community center, was a different story. When night fell, a different crowd of people took over. Fishermen with their nets and poles trod home, giving way to the wandering gangs of ‘West Side Story,’ our own version of the Jets and the Sharks, dancing around with switch blades. Riff and Bernardo, the respective leaders of those gangs, were the essence of cool, urban heroes who would die for their turf, a tiny piece of concrete jungle. Thanks also to the magic of TV, there was so much to fuel my young imagination, even in a small town where I knew little about the outside world.
Because of the small apartment, I shared one of three bedrooms with my younger brother who slept in a crib. One night, after stuffing my belly with large portions of one of my mom’s down-and-dirty meals – my two older brothers and I woofed down Hamburger Helper mixed with peas after a hard day’s play – I went to bed, dreading my younger brother’s fussing. It was a hot summer night. So, clad in blue footie pajamas, I threw off my sheets and blankets. I couldn’t sleep. My hair sticky from sweat, I prayed for a cool breeze to come through the open window.
The only light came through the window from the street lamp. A burning sensation spread throughout my body, starting at my feet. I looked down at crumpled blankets on the floor but had second thoughts about collecting them, afraid the hands from beneath my bed might pull me down into a deep dark abyss, never to be found again. I thought of Walter Cronkite reporting: ‘We start our telecast tonight with the tragic news of a missing child in west Nebraska …’
Looking at my brother’s crib to see if he was stirring, I could barely make out his shape in the inky darkness. He lay so still, his shallow breathing giving little hint he was there. Beneath the crib, there were two red glowing lights. At first, I thought there was something hanging down, some toy with glittering parts hanging over the edge of my brother’s crib. But that was not it. The longer I stared, the more I realized the two glowing red lights were eyes. They belonged to a shadowy, not quite human form. The wavering outline was distorted by darkness. It moved slightly, seemingly shifting its weight in my direction, then emitted a growl. The sound was guttural, low and mean, like an animal getting ready to pounce.
By a sheer act of courage, I jumped out of my bed to quickly grab my crumpled sheets and blanket. I wrapped myself like a mummy, closing the blanket tightly around my damp head. I felt my stomach grumble and begin to hurt. The sharp pains jabbed at me, and I yelled out for mom. There was no answer. No rescue. I might as well have been on the other side of the earth.
In the morning, I told my brothers about the strange visitor and cried at the relief that somebody else knew. I never told my parents. My mom still doesn’t know to this day. A year later, we moved from the apartment complex (the small town ghetto) to our a new home. I was probably more relieved than anyone else in my family, though I would miss the Jets, the Sharks, and the Loch Ness Monster.
Years passed and I would think about those glowing eyes from time to time. I chalked it up to an upset stomach, thinking there should have been warning labels on those boxes of Hamburger Helper.
Finally, at the ripe age of 30, I moved back to the United States after three years and three months of living in Tokyo where I had worked as a military news editor. I moved to Boise, Idaho, with my first wife. I couldn’t help but feel a presence under the bed. It sounds stupid for an adult to delay getting out of bed with the silly excuse of feeling lazy, which was but a half-truth. I was a copy editor with the Idaho Statesman and didn’t need to report to work until early afternoon. Sleeping in until 9 a.m. wasn’t uncommon. Though after the wife shuffled off to the office, hearing the car engine start and the garage door shut, I settled my head onto the cool side of the pillow. Staring at the vaulted ceiling, I heard the noises begin – the distinct shuffling and chattering of something in the room. I blamed my overactive imagination.
Getting from the bed to the doorway was a monumental feat. From a safe distance, I pondered what strange mysterious creature lurked behind the piles of dirty clothes, a pair of fuzzy brown slippers and a herd of dusty bunnies. There, the two glowing red eyes appeared. Then they blinked. I blinked and rubbed my eyes hard to take a second-long look. Then, the familiar growl took me back 23 years to the tiny shoe box apartment in Terrytown. The growl turned to words and a message took shape.
It was a reminder that a boy can create a wonderful world of fantasy or something equally startling, frightening and outright horrifying. In that instant, I discovered the excitement, the sadness, the fear – raw emotions can endure a lifetime.
The creature – or more accurately the monster – was there to say good-bye, in a way, telling me to leave my childish ways behind. The monster went on to say he belonged in make-believe stories, mostly. But make no mistake, with these jolting parting words in his important message to me, he added, what’s in our minds is as real as what’s outside. In a faint baritone voice, as if to mock me, he said, using the famed news anchor’s signature sign-off, ‘This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News, good night.’