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.