If anyone ever asks me which moment of my 79 years was the scariest, there is no doubt in my mind — none at all — that the night of February 16, 1941, tops the list.
Nothing before or since has even come close.
On that night I learned something, though I didn’t understand it until years later. There can come a moment when fiction crosses the line into reality.
How easily it can happen. Our minds, filled with a mix of facts and beliefs through which we filter the world, can accept what we are seeing and hearing as real, even if logic tells us it cannot be so.
You see, Johnny, there is no single reality, no one world we all see the same way. Everything around us, everything we see, hear, taste, touch, feel — believe — is filtered through who we are.
And that means who we are at any given moment.
But back then, at age 8, all I knew was that a monster that should have been shut up in a radio had somehow escaped and was right there in the room beside my bed ready to eat me. I could hear the thud of its heavy paws on the linoleum of my bedroom, see the flash of its eyes through the bedcovers, hear it snarl, sense its movement beside my bed, and finally — the ultimate horror — feel it lifting the covers off me so it could sink its fangs into me.
Trust me, it does not get any more frightening than that.
I’ve never forgotten that night. And to show you how true that is, I have told this story to people at least a hundred times in my adult life, and every time I ever told it I said that I was 8 years old, that it was a Sunday evening, and the time was just after eight o’clock. Think of how deeply that night must have etched itself into my memory for me to remember something like my age, the day of the week, and the time of day.
I got wondering about that just recently, so I checked. And sure as shooting I had it exactly right — after 71 years.
Here’s how it happened:
As I said, I am 79 now, going on dead, but that moment back in 1941 I was 8 years old going on 9. It was February, a cold February too. Our hot water furnace had frozen and burst a few years before because there was no coal to put in it. And so the only heat in our downstairs apartment at 53 Brook Street in Staten Island, New York, came from two sources. One was a small carry-around kerosene heater in the living room, open to the bedroom through an open double doorway. The other was the kitchen stove, which my oldest brother, Bill, had “modernized” a year earlier, switching it from coal to “clean burning, ultramodern kerosene.”
Bill and Frankie had gone up the street to have an Italian dinner with some friends. Mom and her best friend, Mary Hein, were gone off to the movies, leaving me all alone in a house where the lights were always off after bedtime, which is where I was — in Mom’s bed, the warmest place in a chilly house.
About two hours earlier I had walked to the door with Mom and Mary Hein. As they opened the door I peeked out — at a wintry night enveloped in thick fog, fog so thick that I could barely see the streetlight just 50 feet away.
“Get in bed now,” Mom told me, eyeing the fog. “Stay warm.”
It didn’t take much to convince me. I went in Frankie’s room, set the radio to the station with our Sunday night programs on it, and dove into Mom’s bed.
I was tired anyway. I’d had a busy day. A long, cold walk to church that morning, a stop off on the way home to pick up a bag of New York style crumb buns for 27 cents, about the only luxury we had left, and an afternoon spent playing tag football down on Pike Street with the rest of the neighborhood kids, all of us dressed in two pairs of pants and at least two sweaters.
The kerosene heater, out in the living room through the open double doors, did its best to ward off the cold, putting out a flickering blue light though its glass sides. I rolled over on my side, pulled the covers up around my neck, and — torn between listening to the radio or just going to sleep — closed my eyes.
As always, the lights were out to save electricity, but who needed lights to listen to a radio? Back in those days the dial on the radio was bright enough to see by if there was an urgent need to get up, which believe me would have had to be really urgent to get me out of a warm bed once I was in it. And the flickering of the deep blue flame in the kerosene burner added even more light.
I do not remember the programs that came on before the one I’m going to tell you about. All I remember is that they were ones we listened to on Sunday.
Maybe I heard them and maybe I didn’t. Truth is, I got up very early in the winter months because the room I slept in had no direct heat, and without heat, no amount of blankets was enough to keep out the cold on the worst nights, so the minute I heard Mom in the kitchen each morning I blasted out of bed and dressed by the nice warm kitchen stove. As a result, I rarely listened to the Sherlock Holmes program, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the perfect Holmes and Watson, because it came on at eight o’clock, and by then I was often asleep.
That night I had just about drifted off when Sherlock Holmes came on. I was so sleepy that the chances are I would have been asleep before the first commercial ended — except for one thing.
The most blood-curdling sound I had ever heard. The eerie howl of a great wolf venting his anger at the cold and the fog echoed through the house — except that instead of being outside in the fog where wolves belonged, it was right around the corner in Frankie’s room. Then, as the howling stopped and shivers ran up and down my spine, I heard something even more horrible — the creaking of the floor boards. I’m picturing a ravening monster coming out of Frankie’s room, snarling and growling as it headed for the poor kid trapped in bed with nothing but thin covers to protect him.
Then I heard Doctor Watson say, “I stood paralyzed by the dreadful shape. A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes had ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame ...”
I was deep under the covers by then. Too little; too late. I saw the flickering of fiery jaws through the cloth. Loud footfalls thudded closer. I crouched in abject fear, knowing I was about to be ripped to shreds and eaten alive. The covers lifted ...
“Oh, look,” Mom said. “He’s asleep.”
Oh yeah, Johnny! That was real! All it lacked was that first bite.