A NIGHT AT THE OSCARS
By Don Kenton Henry
”You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop …” Finn’s Landing, Indiana!
Pardon the poetic license this author took in altering Rod Serling’s opening narration to Season 2 of his macabre television series, The Twilight, Zone. Rather, I submit your next stop is . . . my hometown.
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.”
That’s the opening line to another iconic TV series of the 1960’s - The Outer Limits.
I had just turned thirteen that summer of 1967. I had lived one year for every thousand people in that corn town and yet was still waiting for my life to begin the way I envisioned it should be. In a town that size there is not much for young boys to do beyond Babe Ruth baseball and swimming at the YMCA pool. Much of our time was killed in front of black and white television sets escaping the confines of our restless, self-perceived state of non-existence and―in my case―a ceaseless struggle to prove otherwise.
My viewing transcript reflected I had sat through seasons of the aforementioned shows, seasons which included more traditional and less dark diversions like Bonanza and The Man From Uncle. But my barely teenage tastes easily preferred what to me was undoubtedly the most exciting new TV series. (The pre-season preview of which I had recently watched in a spellbound stupor.) It was one about alien invaders secretly populating Earth for the purpose of making it their new home. Once they had eliminated humans of course. Humans who were occupying valuable but limited real estate. This show was titled in—what was obviously a wellhead of creative inspiration—‘The Invaders’. To me, it was simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
The small town headline event described herein was borne, as always, of the resulting conflict which occurred when the left side of my brain ― designed (at least in theory) to be responsible for rational, analytical thought ― met with the dominant right side of my brain, responsible for creative, artistic thought. The former had been shaped by objective efforts to reconcile empirical data and fact with fiction as portrayed in sci-fi flicks and the latter by countless nights of watching original episodes and re-runs of Candid Camera – the Godhead of practical joke television. Each of these competing hemispheres shared space in my over-size cranium with a vast vacuum where my frontal lobe should have been. That’s the part of the brain which, if present, enables one to draw future consequences from current actions and imbues one with the ability to choose between good and bad actions. My up-tight Presbyterian mother could not be dissuaded from the firm conviction I was possessed. A belief only reinforced by the conclusion reached by my own mind—unencumbered by a frontal lobe, of course—that one was never closer to God then when playing a practical joke.
This particular hot July day ended with a summer thunderstorm which stretched into evening and brought a deluge of rain flooding numerous streets and intersections. As light gave way to dark the cool rainwater collected and was slow to drain. It met the hot moist air of the day and an eerie fog arose and hovered over the entire town.
Into the wet shroud of darkness which cloaked Finn’s Landing, we were drawn. The fog’s irresistible allure beckoning us to become unwitting characters in what could have been a setting for a Sherlock Holmes mystery adventure or a scene from ‘Creature of the Black Lagoon’. Perhaps “unwitting” is too generous and an inaccurate characterization. Perhaps “unwitting” more fittingly describes the remaining residents of our hometown. By “we” I refer to myself, one of my best friends, Bob Lepkojus, and my little brother, Mark. Bob was slightly older than I. Mark was not quite seven and, like all little brothers, looked up to me and would do absolutely anything I asked of him – always for my entertainment of course. His personal enjoyment (or lack thereof), of whatever the experience, was of little consequence to me for I was smugly secure with the thought I was molding him into a self-confident, survivor tempered by the tests I put to him. Confident he would thus be better able to withstand the inevitable trials life would bring him once I was no longer available to serve as his virtuous role-model. (My sister would tell you Mark was less a little brother to me than a scientific experiment.)
In water-soaked canvas tennis shoes we trudged through the limited visibility of the fog to see what lay ahead, never quite sure where we were until just under a street sign. Eventually we meandered up hospital hill toward Mount Hope Cemetery. The entire time Bob and I were talking about what, this fall, would be our favorite TV show – The Invaders. How its protagonist, David Vincent, would fight an endless and seemingly unwinnable battle to identify and rid the Earth of human-hating, planet conquering aliens while attempting to enlist the assistance of an unbelieving media and public. Mark’s face was barely visible in the fog which enshrouded us but I knew by how quiet he remained that he was more than a little anxious about what lay ahead. Normally talkative, he hadn’t said a word for blocks. Most certainly, he wanted to maintain a brave demeanor for Bob and I.
As we drew closer, I divulged, “as the legend goes” . . . Mount Hope was haunted with numerous ghosts and entering under these conditions would surely entail entering the altered dimension of The Twilight Zone. When I suggested it was unquestionably a home to murderous aliens if ever there were one, he reached and took my hand. Bob and I looked over my little brother’s head and grinned. I kept up the dark spin as we passed under the archway of the main gate to the cemetery. We walked slowly through the fog along the gravel road toward the back and past the lichen covered limestone mausoleums home to Finn Landing’s finest dead. Even I was beginning to be unnerved by the other worldliness of the tombstones, like ghosts, peering through the fog. Then I turned to see Bob was no longer with us. “Oh, no! Where did Bob go?” I asked.
“I don’t know!” said, Mark, gripping my hand ever tighter. “Maybe the aliens got him!”
“Maybe so!” I said, scaring myself almost as much as him. We tip-toed forward along the road not certain whether to turn back and run from the grave yard. I admit, I wet myself a bit when Bob, after sneaking ahead under the cover of fog, jumped out from behind a tombstone while impersonating a stiff-armed zombie and eliciting some guttural sound as though retching on human flesh. I ran, half dragging Mark who was tripping and crying, as we fled Mount Hope with Bob laughing in pursuit. Not until half way down Hospital Hill did we finally stop and Bob and I commenced to laugh. Mark, lips quivering, managed a weak grin, then said, “I want to go home.”
We proceeded in that direction, back into the West end of town, until we reached the intersection of 7th Street and North Hood. We were a half block from Bob’s house and where he would turn to go home. Mark and I would proceed another two blocks before turning left to our house on Sycamore Street. We stood in the calf deep water which still occupied that corner devoid of all traffic due to the flood conditions. Then it dawned on me. It was one of those moments which still occur quite frequently when my left brain meets my right brain and a conflict ensues. As was almost always the case when I was young, the left and rational side surrendered to my dominant right and creative side.
“Hey, Bob – wouldn’t it be cool to have a little more fun before you go home?”
“I don’t know, Henry. Every time you say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool’ … we get in trouble. What are you thinking?”
“This corner is so foggy and spooky. Wouldn’t it be neat to make Mark lie down on the corner and pretend to be dead. We can hide across the street behind those bushes and wait for someone to come along and see him. It’ll scare the crap out of them!”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty cool all right!”
Little Mark gazed up at me visibly nervous. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to get in trouble, Don.”
“You won’t get in trouble, Mark. You just lay there and be perfectly still until you hear them walk up to you. Wait for them to say a few things and then just get up and run like crazy for home. Bob and I will be just across the street and, when you run, we will too and I’ll catch up and run home with you!”
“I don’t know. I’m scared,” said Mark.
I leaned down, took him by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “Don’t worry, Marky. Do just like I said and it will be ok.” With that, I told him to lie down on the curb directly under the fog enshrouded street lamp. I turned his head so it hung slightly over the curb and placed his left hand, arm and foot in the flood water of North Hood Street. His right arm I lay perpendicular to his shoulder and bent it down ninety degrees at the elbow, then twisted it over, palm up, to give the appearance of being broken. I turned his right ankle in to the same effect. “Now remember, Mark. Don’t move a muscle. Try not to breath except just enough to stay alive and wait until someone walks right up to you. Then you can get up and run straight for home!” He didn’t say a word. Apparently he was already getting into character. I stood up and Bob and I surveyed Mark lying there. When our eyes met, huge grins crossed our faces. “He really looks dead, doesn’t he?” I said.
“Yep,” said Bob.
We trotted across the street and ducked behind a huge clump of bushes on the opposite side of the street. In the darkness and fog we became as invisible as military snipers. “Now to wait for someone to come walking along,” I said. We lay there for what seemed forever. No cars came down either street as the water was obviously too high for safe passage. Even though it was not quite nine p.m. the sidewalks were devoid of people walking. Bob and I lay on our bellies and gazed through the shrubs at Mark on the opposite corner. “He sure is still, isn’t he. I haven’t seen him move a muscle since he lay down there,” I said.
We were soaked from lying in the wet grass and becoming impatient when at last we heard voices approaching from behind and along the sidewalk to our left. I rose to my hands and knees and crawled to peek around the corner of the house in whose yard we hid. “It’s the Flaherty girls!” I exclaimed to Bob. “They’re walking along, jabbering and looking down, headed this way! They’ll be here any minute!”
Bob and I flattened in the dark and peered at the intersection the sisters would soon be entering. They were twins and lived in the house across from Bob’s and just a half block past where Mark lay and were obviously headed home. “They don’t see Mark yet!” I whispered.
“They will soon!” Bob whispered back. With that the girls giggled their way past us and into the waters of the intersection. No sooner did they, then the giggling and yakking stopped as they came to a complete halt. Right there in the water a few feet into the street.
“Oh no! What is that?” said Jane Flaherty.
“It’s a little boy!” said Mary. “It looks like he’s been hit by a car and thrown on the curb.”
“Oh – this is terrible!” answered Jane, as they slowly made their way through the high water. I started to laugh out loud. Immediately I was shaking so badly, trying to stifle my laughter, that Bob reached over and clamped his hands over the back of my head and mouth. Mark was playing it “to a T”!
The sisters were now standing over Mark, then both kneeled down. “He may be dead! I think he’s dead,” said Jane, as she started to cry.
“Now would be a good time to get up and run, Mark,” I thought to myself. “Why doesn’t he get up and run!” I said to Bob. I was no longer laughing.
“Maybe he’s fallen asleep!” answered Bob.
“I’ll go up to this house for help,” said Mary Flaherty and with that she ran up the steps of the corner house and began simultaneously ringing and pounding the door. It was dark inside but after a few moments a light came on, and then on the porch, and the door opened. A woman answered. I knew her to be Mrs. Jackson but in an ankle length, pale yellow nightgown; giant curlers implanted in her hair and one of those plastic bags that looked like a weather balloon enveloping the entire engineering spectacle—further enhanced by globs of white (probably Pond’s) cold cream slathered on her face—I could have easily mistaken her for one of the alien Invaders. Especially the way she appeared to hover in the fog. Under different conditions I would have looked for the Mothership. Mrs. Jackson was none too happy to be seen like this and wasted no time in making that quite clear.
“What are you doing, pounding on my door at night? I have an early shift at the hospital and need to be getting my sleep!”
“There’s a little boy who has been hit by a car on the corner and we think he might be dead!”
Mrs. Jackson stepped on to the porch as though to assault the Flaherty girl then looked past her to Mark lying on the corner. “Oh my lord!” she exclaimed. “I’ll call an ambulance!” And with that she disappeared inside. Mary returned to her sister and they both knelt alongside Mark. Bob and I lay in disbelief as Mark remained motionless. The sisters resumed their sobbing. Soon Mrs. Jackson came back out, motioned the girls aside and knelt by Mark. “I’m a nurse,” she said, gently taking the wrist of his bent arm in her fingers and searching for a pulse. “I deal with these situations all the time. His pulse is very weak. I can barely detect it! That ambulance better get here quickly!”
By now the waters had receded somewhat and a car ventured its way slowly east on 7th Street approaching the intersection. Out of nervousness, or not knowing what else to do, Jane Flaherty stopped it in the middle of the street and explained a boy had been hit. The driver, a middle age man, put it in park and left his car in the middle of the street before joining Mrs. Jackson and the girls at Mark’s side. Before long another car, having difficulty getting around the first, stopped and its driver got out. Then, what with all the head lights and voices, the houses on all four corners started to vacate and a crowd gathered seemingly out of nowhere. Soon Mark was no longer visible for the people standing in the ankle to calf deep water blocking my view.
I turned to Bob and desperately asked, “Why doesn’t he run? He was supposed to get up and run! Do you think sewer gas could have come up and poisoned him? Mrs. Jackson says she can’t get a pulse! Bob – we have to go and get Mark out of there!”
“What do you mean, ‘we’? He’s your brother!”
In no time, thirty or forty people had filled the entire intersection and were lining the sidewalks as well as the steps of Mrs. Jackson’s home. The streets were blocked from all four directions and more drivers were stopping and getting out. The Frushour’s, the Shnurple’s, the Patton’s, the Bunnels, the Woodhouse’s, the Cunningham’s and the Olson kids—all nine of them—had heard the commotion and swarmed the block. Through the crowd, I heard Sharon Olson, a classmate of Bob and I, say – “That’s Mark Henry, my little brother Jimmie’s best friend! Don’t let Jimmie see him—get out of here, Jimmie!”
“Back off! Please give him room and air. I’m a nurse! This boy is seriously injured! His pulse is weakening! I think we’re losing him! Help better get here soon!” continued Mrs. Jackson
In the distance I could hear the faint sound of sirens wailing. “I have to go get him, Bob,” I said and with that appeared from behind the shrubs. The sirens were getting louder. I didn’t know it but at least one ambulance, a fire engine emergency truck and numerous police patrol cars were speeding their way to the site of the alleged hit and run accident. I had to make my way through the crowd pushing people aside from the rear. People turned toward the commotion.
“Oh, no! That’s Don Henry – this boy’s older brother! Don’t let him see his brother like this!” someone begged.
With that a man grabbed me firmly by my arm and tried to hold me back. “Son, you don’t want to see your brother like this,” he pleaded. I wrenched myself loose and said,
“He’s my brother, I have to get to him!”
Multiple moans and cries of, “This is terrible! Don’t let him see!” came from the crowd as I forced my way to Mark and stood over him. Mrs. Jackson looked up and tried to calm me. “It’s ok, son. I’m a nurse. Help is on the way.” With that, I reached down and jerked Mark’s arm, letting it drop back into the water where it remained motionless.
“Get up, Mark! We have to get home!”
“Dear Lord!” someone half cried, “He doesn’t know his brother is dead!”
“This is terrible!” someone else shrieked.
I stood there expressionless. “Get up, Mark,” I said in an even tone. Then, with more emphasis – “C’mon, Mark!” Still he did not move. I stared at him. He did not move in the least bit. He didn’t appear to be breathing. Could he actually be dead? Had sewer gas killed my little brother? In another attempt to spare me, two men now reached to take me by each arm, respectively, and, in an act of desperation, I reached down and grabbed a shock of Mark’s long hair, picked up his head and banged it on the curb. I did so while exclaiming, “C’mon, Mark! The jig is up! . . . The joke is over!”
Mark let out a long and theatric moan and slowly raised his head. “C’mon, Mark – we gotta get! “I grabbed his arm again and jerked him up. He was still acting the part, attempting to appear weak in the knees or – perhaps he was! I began to drag him through the crowd to make our escape. The sounds of the sirens were only a few blocks away. The crowd let out a collective gasp followed by cacophony of expletives which would make a prison guard blush!
“Why you little shit!” Mrs. Jackson yelled. “You should be whipped!”
“We should string them up!” screamed someone.
Another yelled, “Give the kid a fucking Oscar!”
Mark and I cleared the crowd as the sirens bore down on the scene and our knees were hitting our chests as we ran for home.
We scaled the front porch steps of our home at 333 Sycamore Street in one leap, burst through the front door and ran straight past our sister, Mari, and other brother, Preston, who were on the living room floor watching television. They didn’t even bother looking up. (Probably because one of us always appeared to be running from something.)
Our mother was in her bedroom at the very rear of the house in her easy chair. She was probably smoking a Chesterfield King, drinking her one per night limit of Miller High Life beer and reading a Harlequin Romance novel, as was her ritual each evening. A well earned respite after a hard day at work in an effort to support the four kids she was raising on her own. She probably exhaled a sigh of relief as she heard me run through the house. She most likely thought “Mark and Donnie are safely home,” and “Luckily, Donnie didn’t get him killed.” Little did she know that just a few short minutes earlier Mark had all but been declared dead. She was living the “high life” all right.
I ran through the house straight into my bedroom. I had no idea where Mark had gone. I grabbed a book (probably a ‘Hardy Boys Adventures’) off my desk, plopped on the bed, opened the book and tried to assume the appearance of being thoroughly calm but engrossed in my reading.
All too soon the doorbell rang. I could hear a man’s voice and soon thereafter my mom entered my bedroom. “Donnie – the police are here and they want to speak with you. Where is Mark?”
“I don’t know, mom.”
Hesitantly, I made my way into the living room. Standing inside the front door at the opposite end stood two of the biggest cops I’d ever seen. No Barney Fife’s were these. I can’t remember the name of the second cop (I think it was Thompson) but I will never forget Sergeant Wheeler or the sight of him as I entered that room. He was at least 6’4″ and solid as a hickory tree. A tree which appeared to be on fire for his head was topped with wavy, flaming red hair. His skin was as white as milk and he had freckles to match his hair. Wheeler is English in origin but this guy’s image was the epitome of the big Irish cop. “Get over here, kid,” he said to me and I slowly made my way across the room to him.
“Where’s your little brother Mark?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“‘I don’t know, sir’ is how you answer a police officer!” he ordered as he glowered down at me.
“I don’t know, sir,” I answered sheepishly, looking down, afraid to make eye contact with him.
“Look at me while you’re speaking to me!” he barked. Then he turned to Preston, Mari and my mom and said, “Go find Mark. This one will be staying here with me.” The three of them shot out in all directions looking all throughout the house. But minutes passed and, after combing the entire house, including the basement, they returned claiming they could find him nowhere. Finally, the other officer joined the search and the first room he entered was the upstairs bathroom. He came out holding Mark by the shoulder.
“I pulled the shower curtain back and found him lying in the bottom of the tub. He’d covered himself in towels!” This cop seemed proud of his keen detective work. Mark on the other hand looked incredibly small and frightened.
Sergeant Wheeler asked me to explain the night’s events and as I did he continued to move closer and closer forcing his immense presence on me. I retreated equally with each step he took until he had me in the corner of the living room. I divulged the details of our prank gone horribly wrong accompanied by my mom’s gasps and moans as she tried to suppress her tears. Mark remained in the second officer’s grip while my other brother and sister sat cross-legged on the floor, looking up, enrapt, mouths agape.
With nowhere further to retreat, I was backed up against a radiator. (Thank goodness it was summer because I don’t believe I could have moved off it if it had been January and scalding my backside―what with that angry, red-headed giant pressing me against it!) Again, the Sergeant demanded I look him in the eye.
“You little punk! My partner and I were on patrol in the East End and we get a call over our radio that some little boy has been hit by a car and is dying on a street corner. So we turn on our lights and speed through town at eighty miles an hour, flying through red lights where we could have been killed and for what? All because some punk kid made his little brother play dead in the street! . . . Who do you think you are? If my partner and I had been killed trying to get to your brother could you have taken care of my family? . . . Could you have fed them? (I knew his daughter and she was a very big red-headed thing herself and I knew that would take a lot of chow. However, I made the decision not to point this out.) Could you have paid for my daughter to go to college? Paid for her marriage? Well—could you, kid? . . . I want an answer! Well, could you?”
My knees were shaking. Only the radiator was holding me up. I couldn’t look down or my forehead would have been resting on the third button above his belt. “No, sir.”
“‘No’, what, kid?” Came the order from his foam-flecked and freckled lips.
“No, sir. I could not take care of your family.”
He just stood over me staring into my eyes for what seemed an eternity. Luckily I had partially emptied my bladder back at the cemetery for I felt very weak and on the verge of wetting myself again.
At long last, he backed away but kept his eyes transfixed on mine, saying nothing. Then he ended all conversation with, “Our shift is about to end. My partner and I are going home to our families but I want to see you and little Mark here down at the police station at 1 p.m. tomorrow. Don’t even think about not showing up because if we have to come find you, you might find yourself in a new home away from your own family. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
“Do you hear, what I’m saying, Mark?” said Sergeant Wheeler taking his eyes off me for the first time since I entered the room.
“Uh, huh . . . ” hastily adding―”Yes, sir!”
I will spare you the lamentations which emanated from my mother’s bedroom the rest of the evening. The smoke from an endless chain of Chesterfield Kings wafted from it and through that end of the house into the wee hours of the morning.
It was July and Finn Landing’s annual Circus City Festival was in full swing. The streets were filled with carnival rides, games of chance and food vendors. Mark and I were in the midst of it like every kid in town. Word had spread of Mark’s acting debut and masterpiece performance the night before and, while most regarded me as some kind of pariah, Mark was being extolled as an actor with Academy Award winning potential. Little kids his own age did everything but ask for his autograph. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had gotten some marriage proposals from the endless line of fawning grade school girls he attracted. “Oh, you poor thing! How could your brother make you do a thing like that?” the little groupies would say as they gave him a hug.
“You’re one cool dude!” said a second grade boy.
“I’m so glad you’re not dead. Can I sit next to you in first grade?” said a cute pig-tailed blond girl.
“Sure!” said Mark.
He was eating up the attention like a movie star on the red carpet! I on the other hand couldn’t take my eyes off the courthouse clock and when it got to be about five minutes until one, I took him by the hand and we headed to the police station. By now Mark was full of swagger, chomping on a huge wad of gum big enough to choke a circus elephant and apparently trying to channel James Dean, Marlon Brando, James Cagney or all three at once. All he needed was a pack of Lucky Strikes to roll up in the sleeve of his white T shirt.
We reported to the front desk and Sergeant Wheeler came out and escorted us into—I guess you would call it—an interrogation room. “Spit your gum out, kid,” Wheeler’s partner said to Mark. Mark walked over and, trying to look as cool as could be, spit his gum into forest green metal trash container. There was a distinct “clunk” as it hit and stuck to the inside of the can. The officer shook his head in disgust. “The two of you take a seat,” he said, gesturing to two directly in front of the desk.
Sergeant Wheeler launched into another melodramatic accounting of how close he and his partner came to dying in the line of duty the night before and, as I recall the monologue, I think the town could have handed out more than one Academy Award that day. He went on . . .
“Ok. I want to hear it again. We’re going to start with you, Mark. Give me your side of the story. Why’d you do it?”
I thoroughly expected Mark to say, “Youse lousy coppers – youse can’t make me talk!” Instead, without a moment’s hesitation, he raised his arm and pointed the index finger of his right hand straight at me and exclaimed, “Don made me do it!” In no more time then it took Sergeant Wheeler to ask the question, my own brother had ratted me out!
Sergeant Wheeler made his way out from behind the desk, stood straight over Mark, and said “That’s what I like! An honest kid!” With that, he reached in his pocket and pulled out three quarters. As he handed them to Mark he said, “Here kid, go and buy yourself some cotton candy!
“And, on the other hand, we have big brother. You stay here,” he said, looking down at me with the same scowl he used so effectively the night before. Something told me cotton candy ‘on the Sarge’ was not in the cards for me that day.
He returned to his desk and fixed his eyes on me again. “You ever been in trouble with law before, Henry?”
“No, sir!” I said.
About that time, Officer Davey Cornwalt came in the room and stood behind the desk next to Sergeant Wheeler’s partner.
“I had to see who this demented kid was that deployed the entire first response resources of our fair city last evening. Everybody’s talking . . . Hey, wait a minute!” Officer Cornwalt exclaimed while raising his right hand—the second person (in addition to my own brother) to point a finger at me in the last five minutes. “Yeah! Yeah! . . . It’s you!”
Sergeant Wheeler and the other officer looked at him for an explanation. “Yeah, it’s him all right!” said Cornwalt, returning their look. He’s the smart ass kid who walked out of the Finn’s Landing Savings and Loan last summer with a roll of fifty pennies and followed me around. Put a penny in the parking meter every time I’d just about finished writing a ticket! All for the amusement of his buddies who sat on the courthouse wall watching him try to make a fool out of me!”
“Yeah, it’s you!” he continued, redirecting his attention back and forth between me and the two other officers. “Took me about five or six wasted tickets and then I picked him up by his ear and dragged his skinny little ass in here! Even without that head-band for his teeth – I’d never forget that face! I told you I never wanted to see you in here again, kid!”
I sat motionless, resisting the urge to ask if I had the right to an attorney. I could hear every click of the clock on the wall as the three of them stared at me apparently trying to absorb the magnitude of it all.
Sergeant Wheeler leaned back in his chair and ran the fingers of his hand through that wavy fire-engine red hair, and then, as though expressing a most profound revelation, said, “So boys … It would appear we have a repeat offender on our hands. A regular John ‘fucking’ Dillinger!”