Hot autumn nights and serial killers.

This evening, when I went outside at about eight o’clock, I stopped mid-stride. The dark, quiet, heat of this early October night ignited random thoughtlings in my mind: Drums thundering. A snippet of an old Steve Miller Band tune. Me, wearing a cotton nightgown with short, puffed sleeves while sitting on cement steps. Tan grass that looked silver and red leaves that looked black. The sudden realization that “it wasn’t a summer night at all!” And an overwhelming … awareness of serial killers.

I have an unreliable memory. The details of my life – even milestones and heartbreaks – fade within a few years. Sometimes those details come surging back, as they did tonight, but I’ve learned not to trust such surges too much.

It took all evening, and a fair bit of web research, to reconstruct the memory that wanted to surface. As far as I know, there is no particular event or story buried behind my visceral recollections … just a sense-connection between tonight and a similar night, more than 30 years ago.

Here’s what I was able to piece together by prowling the net to stimulate and verify my memories:

In the last week of September, 1976, the temperature ranged between the mid-30s at night, and the high-60s during the day. The autumn had come on cool and colorful. By contrast, that summer – my ninth – had been hot and parched. In July and August, the unrelenting heat had granted me a new privilege – in order to cool off enough to sleep, I had been allowed to sit on the front stoop, after my tepid nightly bath, while my mother watched the ten o’clock news. The newscaster’s voice would drift out the living room window and mingle with the sound of traffic as it swooshed past the house.

By September, when school started, the rules had changed and I was in bed long before the news came on.

On Friday, October 1st, the temperature jumped to 82°. That evening, Goodrich Field – the stadium across the street from the house where I lived – came alive with the commotion of a high school football game in full swing. I begged my mother to let me go out to listen to the marching band play. She allowed it. She must have had friends over, because music poured out the windows, as I sat on the stoop, instead of news. The song I remember hearing was called Rock’n Me. It was #16 on the pop charts that week.

Knowing that my mother’s vigilance was relaxed by Black Velvet whiskey and the distraction of her companions, I took the opportunity to steal across the lawn. A leaf got stuck to the sole of my foot when I stepped on it. I peeled it off while standing under the maple tree that grew in the the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. My toes curled over the curb’s edge as I craned to see into the stadium.

For the most part, the memory shrapnel that bombarded me when I stepped out my back door this evening can be attributed to October 1st, 1976 – with a single, notable exception. I have no idea why that night is so intertwined with thoughts of serial killers.

My research revealed that both John Wayne Gacy and David Berkowitz were active in 1976, but neither should have been in the news yet. Ted Bundy had been convicted of the aggravated kidnapping of Carol DaRonch on February 23rd of 1976. On October 22nd, he was charged with the murder of Caryn Campbell. Still, I don’t think his intensive media coverage occurred until 1977.

Why, then, do I believe that my fascination with serial killers was born on that hot autumn night?

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