John Witalison: Demon scream, or the day I beat Jesse Owens

Published 6:51 am Sunday, July 24, 2016

By John Witalison

Special to the Salisbury Post

In 1968 my family’s homestead in picturesque Door County, Wisconsin, was a tranquil place. The land there is poor and rocky. Past generations had cleared the land and hauled load after load of rock out of the fields making stone fences and piles creating a patchwork of small fields covering the 40 acres.

Cherries were the cash crop that allowed the farm to survive. Rows of young and mature cherry trees, in their orderly checkerboard pattern, occupied several of the small patches. Pasture and hay fields filled out the mosaic.

In that summer, our family had gathered for one of our several yearly visits to the property. We lived in the old farm house that had changed little since the first of our family settled there. The old barn still stood where, in the past, half a dozen cows gave their milk. It was a place of history and adventure for my siblings and me, along with cousins who often shared these adventures.

A full moon graced our stay during this visit. The dim blue light bathed the landscape, allowing you to see yet not clearly see anything. This ethereal light, the warmth of summer and the calm clear air made it the perfect time to head out for an evening stroll.

I walked into a back field in the corner of the property that once was a pasture for the cows. Woods edged this field on the south and west creating the perfect backdrop for the scene. A stone pile in the middle of the field was the spot to sit in the moonlight to ponder about life.

I don’t recall if I was thinking about astronauts someday landing on that large orb in the sky or my future, but in truth, at the age of 16, I was probably thinking about a girl I secretly loved.

This tranquil scene was suddenly pierced by the kind of scream that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck and the blood drain from your face. I quickly decided it had come from the woods to the south. To my mind it sounded like the scream of a woman that was being horribly attacked. Was a camper in the woods being savagely killed? Was it an animal?

I didn’t know but I began yelling and heading toward the sound hopeful that my presence would end the attack. As I approached the dark shadow of the woods another scream pierced the air.

When panic sets in, there is a moment of hesitation. I turned to run from that sound, horrified. For a brief moment my mind said, “Don’t run! It will make whatever screamed chase you.”

Then the panic answered with, “no way will it catch me.”

Jesse Owens would have lost the race back to the safety of the farm house. I crossed the field in a split second. I jumped a six-foot-wide, three-foot-tall stone fence as though it wasn’t there.

I ran over and through the young cherry trees as though they were mere blades of grass. I made it to the farmhouse and the safety it afforded me from the demon scream.

My younger siblings and a couple cousins were the only people in the house. They quickly sensed my panicked state and became fearful themselves. As I caught my breath and some composure, I explained what I had heard.

After a short discussion, we decided as a group to arm ourselves and investigate this nightmare sound. We ventured out, shoulder to shoulder, wielding baseball bats to meet this unseen foe. As we moved, we tried to encourage each other, but when we made it to the field’s edge our courage waned. We convinced ourselves that whatever was there is now gone so we should just head back to the house.

If someone was killed in the woods that night, the police never reported it. The adults who heard the tale surmised it was anything from a bobcat to a porcupine that might have made that scream. All I know is that it is one sound I never want to hear again, especially on a moonlit summer’s night.

John Witalison is an artist and designer who lives in rural Gold Hill.