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On the run

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Sometimes things spiral out of control, from bad to worse, from worse to disaster. Sometimes you can’t control it; seized by circumstance, all you can do is ride it out and hope for the best. Other times, one bad decision can lead to another and then another until you’re dug in deep and can’t climb out. I’ve been a victim of my own bad decisions, having survived poor judgment numerous times, but I feel very fortunate to have escaped an encounter with someone who might have been Jeffrey Dahmer.

I was in the seventh grade in December 1978 and a student at Redeemer Christian School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a suburb northeast of Akron. I played basketball. Tall for my age, I dominated the boards, able to rebound and shoot without interference from opposing athletes. During one of our games, I racked up the points, building a sizable lead before the other team got desperate, committing fouls left and right. To make matters worse, the referee neglected to make the calls.

More determined and aggressive, I plowed through the opposition until I felt someone’s forearm slap across my face, knocking me dizzy as I drove for a layup. I missed the shot and stumbled out of bounds. Again, the ref failed to make the call, but this time I yelled at him, waving my arms in frustration.

He blew his whistle, pointed at me and said, “You’re out of here!”

I made a pretty dramatic exit, complaining loudly about stupid referees, slamming through gym doors. I went to the locker room and gathered my belongings. Still sweating, I left the school embraced by the chill and gathering gloom of a December evening in Northeastern Ohio.

When I got home, my mom said, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

I knew what it was before she even said it. I’d forgotten to take out the garbage that morning, and now the trashcans were beginning to overflow a whole week before the next pick-up.

“You’re grounded.”

I heard my dog barking, his frantic howl. Satin was a Labrador retriever, still a puppy, with separation anxiety. I asked mom why Satin had been confined to the basement.

“He chewed my new shoes,” she said. “He’s gone.”

I told her if the dog was gone I was gone.

She did that thing parents do when they try to call a teenager’s bluff. Acting all nonchalant, she lit a cigarette and said, “If you think you can do better on your own, there’s the door.”

I was still wearing my coat, gloves in pockets, black beanie on my head. I turned up my collar. “All right, I’m out of here.”

Stepping into the evening light, I headed down the street, no idea where I was going, but it felt good to get away from all the chaos, the confrontation, the stress. The air was crisp and still, a faint glow in the west. A light mist drizzled down from the cloudy sky.

I walked to the end of the block, pausing when the mist became a light rain. The street lights had come on, and I noticed how quiet it got when the air was cold. No crickets. No chirping birds. No children laughing and playing in the street, just traffic noise, and even that was beginning to die down with the end of rush hour.

I walked past the old Whitaker house, feeling a shiver at the boarded windows, strands of weeds languishing in flower beds, leaves covering the front yard, untrimmed branches scraping against the roof. There were stories about Old Man Whitaker’s ghost roaming the house, moaning for his murdered wife. Some said he’d killed her himself. Others said he came home from work and found her slumped over the kitchen table. Everyone said she was missing her heart when the investigators took her body to the morgue. 

I walked to Silver Lake Avenue, past Lions Park, spooked by the tall pines, the naked oaks beseeching the night sky, low clouds reflecting city light. I walked all the way to Graham Road where 8th street ends. To continue, I had to go down Bath Road, a strip of black leading through a tunnel of trees, branches like tendrils of shadow reaching through the dark.

My aunt, Carol Ruth, lived somewhere on Bath Road, in a house on a low hill. My cousins had hammered together a clubhouse the summer before, complete with an iron-barrel fireplace and stovepipe. I thought about holing up there for a while, starting a fire to keep warm. When the morning came, I’d wait for Brian, Michael, and Jenny to go to school, sneak into Carol Ruth’s kitchen, and steal a bite of breakfast.

With a plan of action, I forged ahead. Every once and a while, a car approached, and I strayed onto the shoulder, ducking into shadows until it went by. I walked by Fisher Fazio’s grocery store near State Road, the parking lot full of cars. I was hungry and wishing I’d eaten dinner, mad at myself for lacking pocket money so I could buy a candy bar, a soda pop, or a bag of chips.

Bath Road became a series of steep hills twisting into the darkness. I kept expecting to find Carol Ruth’s house around the next bend, but the further I walked, the less familiar things became. Finally, I came upon some buildings, the old Northampton Town Hall and fire station. Freezing rain had begun to fall, and I started to jog, hoping the physical activity would keep me warm. After a half mile or so, I got tired as the hills got steeper, the road streaked with cracks, strewn with crumbling asphalt.

I heard a vehicle approaching from behind, lights illuminating the path ahead. I kept jogging, trying to find a rhythm to balance breathing and movement. The vehicle drove by at slow speed, a black van with primer spots on the fenders and what might have been Pink Floyd’s "On The Run," thumping inside. I saw the glimmer of a black light in the back windows.

The van stopped a hundred feet ahead, tires crunching hunks of asphalt. I stopped running. The driver seemed to be waiting for my approach, for me to solicit a ride, but I hesitated. Something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the music, psychedelic, haunting. Maybe it was the black light glowing like poisonous radiation. I stepped off the shoulder, seeking refuge in the shadow of the adjacent wood line.

I heard a shout from the van, “Hey kid, you want a ride?”

I walked into the woods, trying to keep as quiet as possible, grateful for the dampening rain. No crunching leaves. No snapping sticks. I crept through the underbrush, grunting as a branch of thorns scraped across my face. I heard a door open and shut with a clunky metallic rattle, the scrape of boots on gravel.

“It’s going to snow,” the man said. “You’ll freeze your ass.”

I kept clawing my way into the forest, seeking a dark, safe place to hide. I heard the man calling out to me.

“Don’t be stupid.”

I looked back and saw his tall silhouette backlit by the van’s headlights. He was wearing a hood, a thick waist-length coat.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, voice quaking with anger.

I knew at that moment I was running for my life, and I plunged deeper into the woods as fast as I could go - nightmarish running, stumbling on sticks and logs, slogging through mud. Never fast enough. I ran headlong into a barbed wire fence, feeling the snag of sharp prongs on my coat, tearing through my jeans, rending flesh. I was trapped, the sound of the man’s footsteps behind me.

I struggled to free myself, and I heard my clothing rip open, my right knee naked to the cold. I managed to squeeze between strands of wire, falling forward. The sweet odor of rotting leaves mixed with pungent mud assaulted my nose, the sound of footsteps closer than before, heavy breathing, angry grunting, and a slur of cuss words.

There came a growl in the dark, a guttural, beastly noise. I imagined a Rottweiler, one of those devil dogs from the movie, The Omen. Afraid to move forward and too terrified to retreat, I curled into a ball, waiting for terrible teeth to shred my neck, the hot pant of a predator reverberating in my ears.

The beast went after the stranger instead of me. Reaching the fence, it barked and growled, displaying a fierce protest against the man’s presence. The man yelled in surprise. After a few moments, I raised my head to look around, and I saw his shadowy figure on the road. He climbed back into the van and drove away.

I didn’t move for quite a while, afraid the dog would discover me and attack, but the animal retreated back to wherever it came, leaving behind it a tense silence. As quiet as I could manage, I slipped through the barbed wire, snuck through the underbrush, and crouched in the darkness at the edge of the road. I watched for traffic, listened for engine noise, the creep of tires on cold asphalt. Nothing. The rain had turned to snow and was beginning to coat the road. I got up and started walking.

Cold, tired and terrified, I didn’t know which way to go. I wanted to head back home, but I figured Carol Ruth’s house was closer. I resumed my journey, determined to call my mom as soon as I arrived.

After a few minutes, I saw headlights approaching. I ran up a narrow drive curling into the shadow of a tall tree at the top of a hill. When I got there, I saw the entrance to the Northampton Cemetery. More afraid of the approaching vehicle, I ran among the tombstones, hiding behind a tall obelisk. I waited there as the car drove by, thankfully not the van.

I leaned against the cold stone, panting and shivering. I listened as the sound of the car got quiet with distance. I listened for the approach of other vehicles. That’s when I heard a pounding sound, the clank of metal on stone. Hyped as I was, I imagined a corpse with a hammer and chisel trying to pry open its own grave so it could walk the night draped in melancholy.

I started running again. Fueled by fear and dread, I ran down the road not stopping until I saw the familiar shape of a house at the top of a low hill, the living room lit with warm, yellow light. I went around to the back of the house and nearly frightened my cousin, Michael, to death when I pounded on the door.

Nearly twenty years later, I was watching a television show, a biopic about Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer. The episode addressed his origins, revealing that he had grown up in Bath, Ohio and that he’d murdered his first victim, Steven Mark Hicks, in the summer of 1978. This revelation intrigued me, recalling my harrowing experience on Bath Road so many years before. After all, Bath Road leads to Bath Township where Dahmer had lived and graduated high school.  

The biopic described Dahmer’s conflicting feelings about his homosexuality, his obsession with death, and his need to totally control his sex partners. I realized I had matched the profile of some of his later victims - a teenaged boy troubled by feelings of sexual conflict, a loner, and someone who’d been walking down a lonely road at the time he was beginning to express his monstrous impulses.

I’ll never know if the man who chased me was Jeffrey Dahmer. I have no idea if he even drove a van. There are all kinds of weirdoes in this world, but the time, the circumstances, and the location line up just right, igniting a dreadful curiosity: what would have happened to me if I’d climbed inside that van? Along with that question comes a great deal of relief, a sense of disaster averted simply because I’d made a better decision.

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About the Author

Paula Sophia Schonauer

Paula Sophia Schonauer is a novelist, slam poet, community activist, veteran cop and parent. Her...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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