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[M]y heart would be racing and my breathing labored. I would be in the house, often in the basement or in the scary front hallway that was made into a dark crypt-like room for the mimeograph machine by being blocked off by a bookshelf on one end. I would hear the sound…

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

It was like a giant monster steadily tapping on the roof of the house, trying lazily to get my attention becuase it knew I was in there.

To escape a horrid but unspecified fate, I would have to get out of the house, and more than that, I had to make my way across the back yard to the base of the tree in the corner, where the fences met. This was the climbing tree. It was a medium-sized maple that I could climb quite high in, even as a small child. I could use it to jump into any one of three different yards (and later, as needed, retreat from said yards). I could climb into it and sit perfectly still and silent when my mother or my siblings came into the yard to do some thing, and they would finish their task and leave without ever knowing I was up there hiding. It was my escape tree, my spy tree, my safe tree. I knew I needed to get to that tree and, and then to find the hole at the base. The cage. The cage that was made out of a dug out hole at the base of the safe tree.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Louder.

This post originally appeared on or greg laden's blog and is part of a series of essays that I've rewritten or updated. These essays are posted here, usually with new titles, under the category heading "weblogue."

There would be obstructions, things making it hard to get out of the house, like closed doors and pieces of furniture in the way. Finally I would make it to back door, and it would be held shut by the bar set across it on the angle irons. This was an impromptu security device that my brother had made last summer when we found out there was a prowler in the neighborhood. We had no locks on any of the doors. We reasoned that if a bad person was going to try to come into the house, they would come in the back door, not the front door. Only good people came in the front door. So we barred the back door by putting up these angle irons, then dropping a broom handle into them. That would stop anybody bad enough to try to get in but not bad enough to simply break the glass window on the door and remove the broom. We knew this would be sufficient because the prowler was probably Pauly’s brother, who had been seen where he should not be a few times, looking in the girl’s bedroom window.

But in this nightmare, the bar was difficult to remove. It was not just the usual broom handle, but rather a heavy iron bar that resembled the piece of railroad track we had in the basement, the bull anchor. It was a piece of railroad track cut to about two feet in length, with the hole drilled through, which in turn had a metal ring through it. It was from my grandfather’s farm, where it would have been tied to the ring in the nose of a bull to, so the could get around to feed but would be hampered from running quickly. Or so I was told.

Eventually, I would move the rail from the back door, and it would clatter to the floor, and suddenly I’d be flying outside under the sound of the thing overhead, heading for the safe tree and the cage in the ground.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Closer.

And in my dream I would tear across the back yard and fall to my knees at the cage. This was a hole in the ground with bars across it, and inside would be all of my furry and feathered pets. My current cat, and the last cat or two, who were dead in real life but seemed fine in the dream. A rodent or two, a duck, a chicken, numerous turtles and even more goldfish, and a few other critters, and Kelly the parakeet was in there as well. They were all looking up at me, alive again, wanting to be protected. They did not want to leave the cage. This cage was their safety. They were safe from anything in this cage. Anything, that is, but the thing coming closer overhead.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Right on top of me.

Just at that moment, I would turn and look overhead and there would be a monster that looked exactly like Mighty Mouse, but that I knew was not that cartoon superhero at all. He would be wearing a swastika, and he’d fire a rocket down towards the cage. When I would turn back to look at the cage, all my pets would be in there, but all of them would now be dead. Even my cat, who was not dead in real life. Squished, sometimes burned, occasionally beheaded. Always dead. The fur and feathers were always gone, and they were always stiff, with their limbs sticking out in front and behind like they were diving into a pool. Naked and burned to death. And sometimes before I turned my head to see their bodies, I’d hear them scream. The thing overhead had killed them, and now it moved off to other objectives.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Moving off.

I had that dream every few weeks during two or three summers when I was about six or seven years old.

Years later I figured out what the dream was about. Well, it was about anxiety and fear and so on and so forth. But there were elements to the dream, elements of real life, from which it was created by my childhood brain.

The cage was obvious to me even at the time. It was at the base of the tree where I regularly buried stuff I wanted to hide. It was a hiding place, and thus a safe place, and thus in this recurring nightmare, it was the safe place for my beloved pets. The dream was so real, sometimes I was surprised to find that there was not a buried cage there. And it was not the pet cemetery. That was over in the alley way, by the pile of flagstones Pauly’s brother made outside my sister’s bedroom window.

The thing overhead was Mighty Mouse, and that was simply plucked from a popular cartoon reruns of the day. The swastika came from the Nazi enemies Mighty Mouse normally battled. The burned and crushed bodies in the safe cage were based on the imagery of the holocaust that I had discovered int he basement, unbeknown to my parents. They had twenty years of old Life magazines in mildewed boxes down in the basement, and they covered the war years. I had discovered the magazines and devoured them with relish, and when I found the articles and pictures pertaining to the Holocaust, I devoured those with horror.

So most of the elements of the nightmare were explained. But what about this:

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. The sound.

That sound was real. It was a sound from real life that made the dream happen. It was not of the dream.

After having these dreams for a couple of years, I got older and I was allowed to stay up later, and that meant staying outside during the summer. We didn’t even know what air conditioning was in those days, in that neighborhood, in that life. Summer nights were for sleeping restlessly under a plain cotton sheet, unless you were older, and you could go outside and trap fireflies, using their crushed bodies to make glow in dark ornaments and hastening them towards extinction. So, when I was older, I did that. And that is when I heard it for the first time in the waking world.

Thump Thump Thump. Thump. It came from the southwest and headed to the northwest. Everyone else seemed to take it in stride, but no one failed to step out into the open and crane their necks to see it pass over head. Slowly, it emerged from behind Eva’s bakery and passed directly over the apartment buildings next to my house, then onward and out of sight.

It was the blimp. The one you’d see covering events, advertising things with it’s marquee over sporting events or fairs. It turned out hat my house was a few blocks from the temporary landing pad for the local Goodyear blimp. This was over in a big empty lot by Hoffman Park, near the Thruway. Even on nights when the blimp did not dock at that location (and I think it actually docked there very rarely), it would often fly by rather low. And the slowly turning diesel engines in the amazing flying machine sounded like this:

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to identify the connection between Mighty Mouse and the blimp.


If you liked this nightmare, you might like this one too.

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