Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Scenes from Silver Creek: The Girl Who Was Lost

Silver Creek was, and is, a safe town. Growing up we had little crime, and what there was wasn’t serious. Cars being broken into. A little vandalism. That sort of thing. But in 1976 we had a murder. And it hit pretty close to home.

Paula Bradley was only two years ahead of me in high school. She was a cheerleader and sang alto in the choir. She lived two blocks away on Alder Street and I used to see her in the evenings walking a very yappy beagle.
She dated the brother of my best friend, Sean. She was whatever the female equivalent of an Eagle Scout was and every year my family bought Thin Mints from her.

She had long brown hair, parted in the middle, and so straight it looked like she ironed it in the morning. She had blue eyes and a small constellation of freckles on her cheeks. She collected blown glass animals and shy male admirers. And when she sneezed it sounded like a cartoon character.

Paula was one of five girls of similar appearance who was killed between 1975 and 1977. She was last seen leaving choir practice at school and was found three days later in what was then an empty field behind the local Mormon church.

Back then there was more privacy for grief. The news didn’t push microphones into the faces of devastated parents, and the papers didn’t publish all the grisly details. All we knew was that Paula was dead and we were stunned.

Silver Creek High was small enough that pretty much everyone knew her, at least by sight. So we shared a quiet, shocked sorrow that, in retrospect, caused irreparable changes in my town. We didn’t have grief counselors back then, no canceling of classes for the day while we dealt with the news. In fact there wasn’t even an official announcement. It was just a word whispered between classes in increasingly quiet hallways. I’m sure the parents knew a lot more than they told any of us – but we who knew her, even slightly, were kept mostly in the dark.

There was no public assembly. No huge, publicized funeral. Those who were close friends went to a service – those who were merely acquaintances stayed away because it seemed intrusive back then to go to the funeral of someone you barely knew. Back then sorrow required a degree of familiarity. Today if someone in a high school dies the entire school, whether acquainted or not, shows up in some TV-covered service; usually wearing homemade buttons with photos of the deceased. But in 1976 it wasn’t seen as support for the family, it was seen as mere vulgar curiosity to attend unless you were related or deeply close.

So we had no acknowledgement of her. She was a solo photo on the back page of the 1976 yearbook. The only “official” sign of her loss at school was a dramatically empty chair in the alto section at the year-end choir concert. And by silent agreement of the manners of the mid-sixties, she was a subject you didn’t talk about because it was scary or rude or mean.

She was, both physically and emotionally, lost.

But she was never really forgotten. And her killer was never found.


Duke said...

A nice story. Thanks, Decca.

It reminded me of the Marshall University airplane crash in the 70's. Like any football team they recruited nationwide. As a result there were no local people on the team. A few were in-state, but none from Huntington where the college was located.

I lived there at the time and actually drove to the crash site about an hour after it happened. The town thought it was tragic but since we didn't know anyone on the planes it wasn't a personal loss.

A few years later Hollywood started making movies about the crash. They staged the most stupid circumstances you can imagine. One movie had the college questioning if they should even rebuild the team or just drop football altogether. All the movies and PBS specials concentrated on how "devastated" the town was. I can assure you it wasn't. It was the topic of conversation but soon dropped.

In fact, if a standard commercial flight had crashed it would have affected the town much more since every passenger would have been local rather than almost none.

I understand the point in the blog. Media makes these horrible situations into soap operas.

The Calico Quilter said...

In the mid-60's a girl in my seventh grade class died of a brain tumor. She missed a lot of school, we heard she was ill, and then the teacher told us she had died - no sugarcoating of the facts. Although it wasn't customary at that time, as you said, for people such as schoolmates to insinuate themselves into the grieving process, the teacher lined us up that afternoon and lead us across the street to the funeral home which was handling the arrangements (yes, there was a funeral home next to the grade school, and none of us thought much about it). We all signed the condolence book and paid our respects to the family. It was handled in a classy and dignified way. In retrospect, it was probably an unusual thing to do but no one complained and no child was "traumatized" by it. No grief counselors were needed. Nowadays parents would descend on the administration building with pitchforks and torches if a teacher did such a thing, and there would be hell to pay. In many ways back then we were a little more naive and grew up a little slower, but we also had a pretty good grasp of the realities of life (and death).

Decca said...

I find public grief interesting, as are the changes in society when it comes to dealing with it. I've been to funerals of people I didn't know, but there was always a personal connection (a friend's mother, for example). But never an organized mourning for a lost member of the community.

With one exception. I was there at the candlelight vigil the night Harvey Milk and George Moscone were killed.

Thanks for reading and commenting. You two always make me think and brighten my day.