Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Night the Bed (almost) Fell, thanks to Jack the Ripper

By Steve Crum [with a Hatlo tip to the James Thurber fiction classic, The Night the Bed Fell, except my version is totally TRUE]

I suppose that the Kaw River flood mark of my growing up in Kansas City, Kansas was the night Jack the Ripper nearly caused my bed to fall with me. It makes a better oral read (to which my friends and relatives can attest after hearing it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, and it helps the tale’s ebb and flow to slam closet doors, and scream like a hyena, to lend the proper atmosphere and verisimilitude to what is admittedly a somewhat pathetic tale. Still, it did take place.

As a nine year-old, I had honed my skills at convincing my parents to stay up past my usual 8 p.m., school night, bedtime. My younger sister, Becky, was also adept at pleading why we should extend our bedtime. Television was always the bargaining chip. It never mattered what was on at 8, be it The Loretta Young Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents or even Playhouse 90. Mom, the decision maker, impatiently listened and, half the time, gave in to our whines. “But Mom,” either Becky or I would say, “We know we have to get up early for school, but can’t we just watch Loretta Young? It’ll only be 8:30 when it’s over.” This was rote script for us, familiar to our mother.

Then, when Loretta neared her 30-minute story end, either Becky or I would time it so one of us would leave the room to go to the bathroom and then return just as Alfred Hitchcock Presents had begun. This smoothly maneuvered into phase 2 of Operation Stay-Up.

“Mom,” can’t we just see the opening?!” “Just the opening,” she’d agree. After Hitchcock’s opening monologue, it was easy to convince Mom we were hooked (since she was too), and had to extend our TV viewing “just another 25 minutes.” Becky and I became truly involved in these shows, despite our deceptions. In retrospect, I think watching Hitch and Loretta made us pretty sophisticated seven and nine year-olds. At the very least, we were happier, sleep deprived grade schoolers the next morning.
It happened in the same year, then, that I went to my bedroom and snuggled under the covers after I had successfully manipulated my mother into letting me stay up late to finish watching Channel 5’s Million Dollar Movie. My sister dozed off early in the film, so Mom carried her to her room. That left me alone on the floor in front of the TV, with Mom and Dad on the sofa, to screen a black and white flick entitled The Lodger, starring Laird Cregar as Britain’s infamous Jack the Ripper. It turned out to be a scary movie, the most frightening this Crum boy had ever seen. The atmospheric, 1944 movie included scene after scene of hapless ladies having their throats cut by Jack the Ripper. Stirred and shaken, I shuffled off to my room at movie’s finale.

With no night light, my room felt especially dark this evening. A London fog seemed to float around my covers as I pulled them to my chin, closed my eyes, and drifted asleep. Then the dreams began...women screaming...decapitations...London bobbies blowing whistles...the Ripper sneaking back to his upstairs room...more heads rolling...the Ripper...the Ripper. I awakened at a 45 degree angle in my bed, drenched in sweat, the covers totally covering me, nearly smothering me. I uncontrollably shook, and my bed rattled as if on the verge of collapse. Jack the Ripper stood over me, knife drawn, and ready to attack. At that moment, logic dictated. I recalled that Jack only killed women. So he was making a fatal-to-me mistake. Maybe he took a wrong turn en route to my sister’s bedroom, I reasoned from within my quilt cocoon.

I thought fast and yelled hard, “I AM NOT A WOMAN! I AM NOT A WOMAN! I AM NOT A WOMAN!” On my 11th frantic, banshee, Ethel Merman blast of “I AM NOT A WOMAN!”, Mom tore through my door, flipped on the lights, and ran to my bedside. After a struggle, she convinced me to stop screaming, that she was not Jack the Ripper, and that I could safely emerge from my protective covering. As usual, Dad was still sleeping, letting Mom handle any nightly Ripper travails. Down the hall, my sister never awakened either.

Mom gave me a guided tour of my room, opening the closet doors and checking under my bed to make me feel safe from cold cuts. (Yes, I thought I was lunch meat.) We even perused my chest of drawers just to make sure. I had been crying as well, and dear Mom sat beside me on my bed, and held me in safe embrace. Since I was finally calmed with my intruder relegated to a bad dream, my mother felt it was safe to leave me alone. The Ripper never returned to my home, but The Lodger holds a revered place in my movie memories as great story telling.

The incident did not deter the two Crum siblings from our ongoing campaign, and basic grade school age requirement, to stay up past bedtime to watch anything TV had to offer.

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