In 1985 we'd been living in our house in Omaha for a couple of years. We had the typical complaints that anyone else would have with an older home needing constant repairs, little money, two small children, and all of our extended family living over a thousand miles away. But we were merrily getting along, and welcomed distractions of every kind. Especially company!
Stephen's younger brother, Tim, flew out on a one-way ticket to visit us. We had a spare room to put him in and looked forward to having an extra man around the house to help with repairs or entertain the boys so we could dig in to some bigger projects. We showed him the highlights of Omaha, shared meals, played games and tried to be fun hosts.
After a week-long visit closed in on two and threatened toward three, we asked Tim what his plans for a return flight were. He confessed he had none. Since his limited handy-man skills contributed little to our concerns, and I began to feel the burden of another person to keep happy in the home, I suggested it was time for him to return home.
Stephen was in the Air Force at the time and it was nearing the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday weekend, so we decided that we'd drive Tim back to Massachusetts in our car and have a quick visit on a long holiday weekend with our families. So we loaded up the car with the two boys in their car seats with Tim in-between. We were facing approximately 24 hours covering nearly 1,500 miles in our compact Ford Escort together.
By the time we'd traveled over 400 miles non-stop, we were in Illinois. We had been in the car about 6 hours since we'd left in the early evening after Stephen had already put in a full day of work. He was tired, tired of driving, and we all needed a break.
Traveling from Omaha to Massachusetts is pretty much a straight shot. Our house was less than a minute from interstate 80, but driving along from Nebraska through Iowa, and much of Illinois at night is monotonous, at best, with little to look. Mile after dark mile took its toll, and Stephen was forced to exit and we found ourselves in a remote intersection where there was a boarded up service station.
And just like where all good horror stories begin, we wearily got out of the car to stretch and get some bracing cold middle-of-the-night late-November air. Since the boys were asleep, we stayed close to the car and just stretched and walked around taking deep breaths, and swinging our arms out windmill style to get the circulation going and our minds alert.
Tim bounded off into the dark.
After a good 5 minutes, I offered to drive again, but feeling rejuvenated, Stephen declined my offer and we assumed our travel positions and Stephen started the car. He suggested we'd need gas soon, and we'd swap then. A quick check on the boys in the back seat, still sleeping, we tooted the horn to alert Tim that it was time to go. And we waited.
Stephen revved the engine, and tooted the horn again.
Then we saw it. There in the beam of the headlights was Tim running full speed back to the car with the white hot look of sheer terror on his face. We knew immediately there was trouble; big trouble. Tim reached the car, never slowing, and stopped dead at my closed and locked passenger door.
He grabbed at the door handle and frantically lifted it up and down with his face close against the window pleading for us to let him into the car. We both screamed back at him, "Get in! What's going on? What happened?"
But he insisted with fierce intensity that he get into the front seat. "Open the door, NOW! Let me in, let me in." continually snapping the handle up and down. Our panic immediately escalated. I was certain someone else was going to emerge from the dark bearing a weapon at any moment so I screamed back, "Just get in the BACK!"
Tim would not relent, and looked at me dead on, pounded on the window and said, "Open the FUCKING door." Clearly this ordinarily mild-manner young man was absolutely terrified, and I saw it and shared it. As I pulled on the lock latch he pulled on the outside door latch at the same time and the door just jammed up. Now it wouldn't open. Meanwhile, Stephen is banging on the steering wheel and demanding to know what was going on.
Defeated, Tim leaped to the back passenger door, swung it open and lunged into the car. Stephen stepped on the gas and we slowly rolled forward "Tim, What or who is out there? What happened?" but he still wouldn't tell anything, but instead pried himself forward between the two front seats, and flipped down my sun visor.
WHAT? I could NOT understand in the sped-up frantic scene how in the world this made any sense and told Stephen, "GO! JUST DRIVE! GET US OUT OF HERE, NOW!"
Not finding what he wanted Tim said, "OH SHIT!" and slammed the sun visor back up into position and grabbed the rear view mirror sharply adjusting its angle and contorting his neck to see his reflection while he was still nearly prone between the two seats.
Tim's door remained open, but Stephen drove to the edge of the parking lot to the driveway entrance under the street light and stopped and turned to us.
We just sat there and watched as Tim inspected his face, head, neck and hairlines. Had he been attacked? Had he taken a bad hit of acid in the dark? We had no idea, and were truly frightened. Apparently satisfied with what he saw in his reflection, Tim relaxed. He collapsed into the back seat, again, between the two sleeping boys in their car seats.
"It's okay." he said.
"What the Hell was that?" Stephen and I said nearly in unison. Tim closed his door and said, "It's okay, you can go." And just sat there. "No, no, no" Stephen said, "You scared the shit out of us, what happened out there?"
Tim calmly explained that when he'd bounded out into the darkness, he'd gone out behind the dark boarded up building to relieve himself, but got caught up in some tall grasses and in his attempts to become untangled had felt a cut from a wayward piece of barbed wire on his neck.
We immediately looked at Tim's neck and there was a small scratch with a slightly raised welt surrounding it.
Tim genuinely thought he'd sliced open his jugular vein and was going to bleed out right there in the cold at this abandoned service station while Stephen and I sat in the car, unaware, in the parking lot. Hence his terror and panic to return to the car, get to a mirror (my sun visor had none), and see the gaping wound and aortic spurts of blood. But it wasn't; it was just a scratch that raised a welt. In 1/2 an hour, there'd be nothing to see.
Completely consumed with relief that we weren't all about to be bludgeoned, and our children taken in some horrific bloody mass murder, Stephen and I laughed. We laughed loud, and hard. We caught our breath, looked again at Tim's wound, and laughed louder and harder.
Tim was not amused; in fact, he became furious.
We apologized, and explained our point of view of the entire event. If only he'd just stopped and said something! Unforgiving, he turned his back to us, gazed out the rear window and we continued on our way. Tim sat that way for nearly the remainder of the trip. Since he had no driver's license, he contributed nothing to help with the long drive ahead, and now, he refused to even speak to us. The miss-spent adrenalin would keep us alert for several hundred more miles, and it only took a glance in the rear-view mirror at Tim's dejected reversed position to keep us entertained.
Eventually, the road took all we had, and by the time we'd reached Pennsylvania, we were too tired to be safe drivers, so we decided to take a hotel room for several hours to nap. Still angry with us, Tim waited silently while we booked the room, unloaded the boys, and settled ourselves in. He finally joined us in the room where he promptly put himself to bed.
The next day we arrived in Massachusetts. When we delivered Tim, we were invited to Stephen's mother's house for Thanksgiving dinner where she and Tim lived. They shared the home with other women who stayed in for the meal and Stephen's sisters and their families joined the crowd. It was a full house.
After the meal was cleared and people settled in for the evening, someone asked Tim how the trip was. Stephen and I looked at each other, curious how Tim would recount the Jugular Vein incident off highway 80, but he said nothing! So Stephen and I offered our version. We described the frigid November winds whipping across the plains, the endless ribbon of highway, the lighthearted car games, all leading up to that fateful decision to stop in the middle of the night at the foreboding desolate abandoned gas station, what dangers lurking in the surrounding grasses of the Midwestern plains soon to be revealed.
Everyone was riveted. Stephen described the scene as if he were making a pitch for a Hitchcock movie. He let their fearful anticipation grow, and BAM! drives it home with a gripping and accurate portrayal of Timothy racing out of the dark, and with fevered pitch, we both replay the fresh scene with all its intensity for the gap-jawed crowd around the living room. Tim sat silently.
At the denouement, we described Tim's wee scratch, slight welt, and our overwhelming relief of raucous laughter with raucous laughter fully expecting everyone else in the room to join in.
No one laughed. In fact, the room was silent. Tim sat rigidly. His sister put her hand on his knee and quietly said, "That must have been really frightening, I'm very sorry that happened." And everyone turned to look at us as we were still breathing heavily and wiping our tears from laughing and giving such a fabulous performance of the previous night's events, still raw and fresh. Wait? What? Are they frowning? Is that displeasure? One of the women in the house stood and said, "I really don't see how that's funny at all." and the room slowly and silently emptied until Stephen and I were left sitting alone.
This happened in 1985. We didn't get invited back for Thanksgiving again by anyone until 2001.