Cryptic Personal Traumatic Story Details

If you went to Washington Lands Elementary School at the same time I did, and if you were in the gifted/advanced students program, you might have had a bad time.

A lot of very bad things happened to me when I was a child. I went headlong down a flight of bare wood stairs. I was fed a bellyful of poisonous wild mushrooms. I was put on an acne medication that makes males have suicidal tendencies that increase with age. But today we're going to start with the weird stuff. The stuff that makes me laugh in a dark place like nobody understands. The experience that is simply hard to believe, but is real.

I was experimented on by the government when I was in the third grade.

Honestly, by comparison to some of my other traumas, it was a lot more weird than bad.

More specifically, I was part of a class that was sent outdoors into a wooded field for a special activity one day, that turned out to be some kind of group psychology experiment, involving sound torture.

The only things "cryptic" about this story (gotta earn that acronym), are those things a child doesn't know; who the strange man was, whether he was reported (I heard a rumor he may've been), what happened to him, whether anyone else was implicated. What was the abstract on the experiment -- what was it meant to prove? What was written in the after-report about predictions and outcomes?

I remember a few details of that day, and a lot about what was going on in my life around that time. The emotional slog of undergoing my first parental divorce was a current climax to years of my home being a micro-scale war zone. I was also the new kid, in a new school (but newer to me than everyone else), for the first time this year. My current distraction of choice was pretending my trapezoidal pink erasers were the 2nd-generation Voltron fleet. And everything seemed normal that day until we got to our special class.

This was the coal mining outskirts south of greater Wheeling in the 80s. My early-advanced-ed experience may take some explaining, because, like many things about the cultural micro-climates that seem to be common in mountain valley regions, you may've never heard of anything like this before. Advanced early education in the 80s seemed to be hyper-local in culture, then and there, but of course this was Appalachia, which I usually describe by telling people I grew up in the 17th century.

Our school system had optional summer schools (teaching Spanish, computer programming, logic, etc. to 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-graders). Plus, during the normal school year, advanced kids were taken to a separate class for an advanced class that took a grab-bag of topics and spread them out throughout the year (either daily or some number of days per week; I forget the schedule at Washington Lands). On filler days, we played logic games and talked about topics like personal growth and (kids') literary meanings. We also had a lot more field trips than the other kids, albeit most of that was actual trips by foot the vast fields then surrounding the school. This was an agricultural area, and the school system was happy to use its natural surroundings for every manner of science fodder it could; to a bunch of 3rd graders, a good discussion of the wheat-germ you've been scraping off into your hands every time you walk in the woods, can be mind-blowing science.

I remember when the book fair came to our school. When I found out it wasn't just for us, I got competitive at first -- library-of-scarcity mentality, meets baby's first shopping spree. But I digress.

As if to drive home that we were different, we didn't go directly to our special class when it was scheduled. We went to the class everyone else was staying behind in; their class was held up until the teachers of our special class came and got us. The other kids watched us be called to go, and then after the door closed behind us, got started doing I-don't-remember-what.

On this day, our teachers were visibly nervous. We usually processed through the halls quietly anyway, because for everyone else, class was already in session. But despite the quiet, this was our chance to admire our new-smelling, sound-dampening, wood-and-black cathedral of learning, roaming casually in quiet contemplation, without the crush and noise of the full student body. But quiet is one thing; on that day, our normally bright team of teachers seemed stiff, and loathe to engage anyone or anything, as if distracted in mourning.

Certain emotions blot out precision of memory and excitement is one of them, which is probably why I don't remember whether we went to our classroom at all that day, or whether we were told class would be outdoors during the walk in the halls. I do remember the unusually long wait lining up at the exit doors, with again the teachers' uncomfortably-odd air of sternness. I do remember seeing an upper-middle-aged man who seemed to be the focus of the teachers' fear, who I believe passed by us and exited; the teachers let us go outside after watching him go some distance, away outdoors.

When we went out, we went the same direction they had watched him go, and another unusual detail: we were headed toward the nearest part of the woods, where we'd never been allowed before.

This area usually wasn't maintained or used, or perhaps it only looked that way from a distance. But we were walked to a small gap in the tall brush wide enough for single file, where we saw, on this day, it was otherwise. Beyond a certain distance, the high grass had been pressed flat in large open spaces and walkways, except in some places, limiting distance of vision and creating the illusion of limiting movement.

We were brought here and told: you're going to be left without direct supervision a while. Buddy up; you don't have to hold hands, but if you're about to lose sight of your buddy, turn back. We'll be back for you, at this spot.

The teachers left.

At this point, everything became fun very quickly. Having our minds blown with surreal behavior and events, then being set loose to explore with no idea why; our imaginations were primed and this was a time when we were expecting to work our brains. I can't tell you any particulars about this part, except that my buddy and I kept sight of each other, but occasionally lost sight of everyone else. Any happier memories I was in the middle of making were about to be blasted out of my mind.

The sounds seemed faraway at first. We all lived deep enough in the country, even those who nominally lived in a "city", that we knew what a tractor sounds like. That is to say, we knew what a vehicle that drives on tracks instead of wheels sounds like, and we also know when we're hearing a tracked vehicle that doesn't sound like a tractor. The sounds were of large, heavy vehicles with big, squeaky, slow-moving tracks. Lots of them. It sounded like they were approaching us.

I don't remember the exact sequence of fake auditory events after that; whether more tank-sounds came from all around us before, or after the overhead sounds of helicopter strafing passes. Fear is another emotion that can blot out precision of memory. I remember making a human chain for a kid who tripped and fell down a slope. I remember walking in a circle around what seemed to be an invisible source of sound while a few of us had the presence of mind to realize there weren't actually any helicopters overhead. I remember by the end of it a lot of us were on the ground covering our heads in the first large clearing where our teachers said they'd retrieve us, and that I was eventually one of them.

The sounds stopped; I don't remember whether that was abrupt or gradual.

I don't remember the moment when the teachers came back. I remember another awkwardly silent walk, but only the part where we got on the sidewalk, and the cooler air moving around the building, and being glad to go inside. 

© 2019 Nathan Hawks