A few months ago, I was shocked to find out that a friend of mine has been missing since January of 1980. A young man who lived in a house two doors up from our house, walked out his own front door and hasn't been seen since. He walked out the door of his family home at 4AM in a blizzard, took a right and where the sidewalk ends at the end of the block, the footprints stopped.
I grew up in a little town on Lake Superior. Ashland was a cold place to be in winter, all six months of it. Especially at our house. We were only a couple of blocks off the lake, on a corner lot. Everytime we walked outside, the north wind felt like a slap in your face. It really got you moving quickly to get wherever you were going. During blizzards, I remember loving the lack of human sounds and the loud sounds of Mother Nature really raising Hell. No voices of kids playing, or dogs barking. No piano playing could be heard above the sounds of a blizzard with a lot of snow and howling winds. The wind rattled the windows and shook the house. The trees groaned and creaked under the weight of ice and snow. The small branches would snap and slap at the windows.
A great war was being fought outside, Mother Nature herself was trying to regain the land that the foolish humans were claiming for themselves. The war raged on outside our house for days at a time. When the battle was won and Mother Nature had been victorious a calmness would settle in and the snow would subside.
In the morning we would blink at the bright sunlight and shiver in the icy cold temperature. The new layer of snow created a pretty white landscape all perfectly smooth, like frosting on a birthday cake. We would put on our layers of clothes, snowpants, extra thick socks, boots, scarves, mittens and hats and the adventure would begin. First up, jump off the front porch right into the snow. It wasn't very high, but we believed we were fearless to jump right in. Sometimes it was up to our hips and we had a hard time getting out of the snow, but it was fun. Cold but fun. We would go sledding or build a snowfort or go skating at the rink down the street. Even in winter we were outside, having fun and rarely complaining about the cold.
If it was too cold, like below zero, we went inside and stood by a heating vent until we could feel our toes again. Sometimes we were so tired we fell asleep before taking off all of our snow gear. But somehow magically we woke up in our little bunk beds every morning. My parents probably missed our nightly sing along.
I've always wondered why they never name blizzards. They name hurricanes and tropical storms, blizzards last for days, they are dangerous, cold, cause power outages, car accidents, frost bite, business and school closings. I think blizzards deserve to be named or at least numbered. Maybe we would have a better memory of those days if we could say, "Remember the big storm of '66, that Daisy Mae was a wicked storm." well, maybe not Daisy Mae, but you get the idea.
Perhaps it was because we were so close to the lake and the windows rattled so much, or maybe it was because we walked everywhere when we were kids, but the storms of my adulthood do not seem as severe. Keep in mind, I live 300 miles south of where I was born. That's why I went to college without thinking I needed to bring warm weather clothes. I guess location could impact comparing the storms of my youth to the storms we have now, but either way, they should all be named.
As a child, I never envisioned living anywhere else and I never worried about storms because I was safe in our big house on the corner of Third Street and Eleventh Avenue West. I knew that in that house, my family would take care of me and love me. When a storm approached, I went in the house and my parents made sure we were warm and clothed and fed. We were safe there. But not everyone has a safe place to go. Especially when you are a kid and can't take care of yourself. I never thought mistreated and abused children could live in my hometown and I thought poor people all lived far away and that's why we put money in the collection plate in church. I was a kid, my world was limited to our neighborhood and the lake. How could I know about kids who weren't safe or people who were poor? No one ever talked about stuff like that, at least not us.
On our block, we had Jody and her family across the alley, Mr. Olson and later Mr. Day next door. And on the other side of Mr. Olson's house was another house with a Mom and Dad and three kids. I think there may have been older children, but I only remember three kids in that house. The house was run down, covered in dingy white peeling paint. The lot it sat on was narrow and the backyard had a 4 door Rambler that didn't run and a little shack, covered in tar paper, the rest of the backyard had long grass and weeds. The front yard had a porch and little grass and a lot of dirt. Once in a while there would be an old rusty car or truck out front, but mostly the family walked. The Father worked just up the street at the Chicago Ironworks Salvage Yard. We were all afraid of him. I never really knew why, but we were scared.
The kids in the house all seemed OK. The oldest was a girl who I always thought was nice, and she had two younger brothers. The youngest boy always seemed to be in trouble at school and at home. He would get yelled at by teachers and homelife was not much better. The older boy Andy was a couple of years older than me. He was on the JV football team in high school and he was on the Varsity Wrestling team. He also worked as a janitor at my old elementary school Beaser. He swept the floors and emptied the trash cans at night. I would drag Angie up to sit in the park at the school and watch Andy as he swept the floors at night. I was not terribly subtle, I had a big crush. So Angie came with me to stare at Andy while he swept up.
My parents didn't want us to hang out with any of the kids in this family. I never really knew why. They didn't seem to have a lot of money, but there was something else and I never quite figured out. My parents would make us come in the house if one of those kids even stopped to say hi or something. I don't know why we were not allowed to play with those kids and I don't know why we were so afraid of the Dad, but we were.
With such a stigma following these kids, it did not surprise me that my Grampa would try and help Andy to get ahead. He was a nice young man and all he needed was someone to give him a chance. Andy worked for my Grampa, doing odd jobs. Grampa really wanted to help Andy, few people ever did anything to help those kids.
When my Grampa died, Andy went to the funeral home alone. I decided not to go, I was 13 and my Grampa lived across the street from me. I had seen him nearly every day of my life and I loved him. I didn't want to remember him lying in a casket, so I stayed away. My uncle told me that Andy walked in all alone and went and stood in front of Grampa's casket for a long time with his head hanging down. I think he probably loved my Grampa and I know my Grampa thought a lot of him.
After high school Andy joined the Navy and moved away. I was happy for him. I thought he finally escaped this town where people said things and treated him unfairly because of some family reputation or something. He had his big chance to get out and he did it. When I finished high school, I moved to Madison to go to college. I was not happy in Ashland either.
I had some good friends, but I felt like I would always be the homely girl with braces and acne. I was sure I would always be alone because I was not popular and pretty. My self esteem was pretty low. When I moved I thought I might have a chance to change my life and have a fresh start without having a label like I did in Ashland. And moving to Madison did change my life. I loved college, met and married my husband and had good jobs and bad ones, made friends and eventually reconnected with my childhood friends. I realize now that I cried alot but like every other teen, I grew up and somewhere along the way I learned to like myself. I wish every teen filled with self doubt could see that teen years are temporary and you are not defined by who you were as a teen.
In January of 1980 I was preparing to go back to Madison for my second semester of my sophomore year. And by preparing I mean, sleeping and eating. Four weeks of home cooking and a soft bed can reinvigorate any tired coed. Andy was back from the Navy. He served 4 years and came back to Ashland.
On January 20th, 1980 a terrible, blustery storm was brewing outside. I was warm and sound asleep in my bed. Two houses away at 4AM, Andy walked out the front door of his home. He stepped off his porch and turned to the right, headed south with the wind at his back. With each step Andy walked away from his home, his life, his family and his friends. And he hasn't been seen since.
Andy's disappearance is a shock. After hearing about this I realized just how easy it is to walk away from it all and throw off the ties that bind you and walk on to a different life, a different existence or perhaps to throw off the ties that bind us to this Earth and escape a life too full of sadness that it can not be endured for even one more day. A life where every opportunity leaves you full of self-doubt. Where the whispers and insults are an everyday event, with no safe harbor to ease a troubled mind and no safety net.
People throw off ties everyday. Families torn apart because of a remark, friends who have a bad day and no one makes the first step to repairing the break. Then too much time has passed and the fractured family or broken friendship can never be repaired and walls go up where there were once open arms. Set adrift with no safe haven, people young and old are adrift all around us. People without a safety net, without comfort, without love.
I hope that wherever Andy resides, whether here on Earth or beyond this life, I hope that he has found the happiness and acceptance that so often eluded him and I hope that he is loved and that he loves. God speed Andy.
And I hope that everyone who reads this has a safety net, a friend,relative, a pastor, etc. that can make you feel safe and connected. No one should be set adrift all alone, we are social beings, we need to love and to be loved. More important than new clothes, cars, or a brand new TV, the ties that bind you are really the things that set you free.
Thanks for listening.