“Asking the Stars.” The artist completed several versions of this painting.
I mentioned last week when I wrote about “Mazes and Monsters” (1982) that the pre-Internet age still had its share of urban legends. They were definitely a part of 1980’s kid culture in my little stretch of New York suburbia. (Would they be suburban legends, then? Borderline-rural legends?) They were bandied about most often during the summertime — maybe because there were long, idle days when grade-school boys had little to do beyond swap the scary stories they’d heard.
A lot of it was predictable horror-movie fare — we’d all compared tales about prowlers who killed babysitters, or babysitters who killed their charges, or about a friend’s cousin’s neighbor’s classmate who’d discovered a razor blade in the their Halloween candy.
Some of the legends stemmed from our geographic area. There were the giant turtles, for example, that emerged from the Long Island’s waterways to stalk our neighborhoods — that one I actually believed (and still do). A fellow Cub Scout and his Scoutmaster father had both seen one, and if there’s one person you trust when you’re a Cub Scout, it’s another Scout and his Scoutmaster dad who backs up his story. And every kid had heard about the Amityville Horror house.
Another local myth was the “gangs” who tore through our imaginations as nefariously as we thought they tore through the region’s woods and marshes. (In addition to farmlands, Long Island has plenty of protected woodlands and wetlands.) There were definitely adults who went into the woods to break the law — I think it was primarily drug users and underage drinkers, and people who dumped cars illegally and then stripped them for parts. There were a few deep-woods graveyards, for example, of rusting white Volkswagen “Bugs.”
But in our fecund imaginations, the petty criminals who’d left them there were gangs of bikers and hippies and devil-worshippers and ruthless car thieves, who just might kill a few young kids if they found them playing army or going on a hike. (All of us occasionally ventured miles into the woods for such avocations, while we told our mothers that we were only going to the next block. If you were a boy in my neighborhood who didn’t lie to his mother to leave the area, you were considered a wimp.)
When you’re in the second or third grade, bikers and hippies and devil worshipers and car thieves all blended together in your mind into one single nebulous group. (As an adult today, if I ever met someone who was a biker, a hippy, a devil worshipper, and a car thief, I would be thrilled to interview them for this blog.) We’d found evidence. There were frequently peace signs spray-painted on or around the junked cars we liked to play on; it was just a motif of the prior decade that was still a popular graffito. One of our number gravely explained to the rest of us that it was actually a coded symbol for Satan — if you turned it upside down, the lines in the circle represented the head of a goat.
Oil on canvas.