The house I grew up in had a picture window and a giant tree in the front yard. Pretty much all of my memories from inside the living room feature dappled sunlight. Even the ones that feel like they should have taken place on a rainy day. One particular sun-dappled afternoon, both my parents were at work and I'd only been home from school for a little while. I was a senior in high school and it had been kind of a rough year, but it's hard not to look forward to graduation. I looked out the picture window to see a news van pulling up in front of the house and my stomach hit my feet.
Was it an accident or murder?... Like I said, it was a rough year. For most people who graduated high school in 2002, the most memorable moment was probably similar to me walking into my period 1A English class to see my teacher bent at the waist, wailing as the news replayed the footage of an airplane hitting the WTC over and over again.
The seniors at my high school had more than one soul crushing moment to hang onto.I grew up in the shadow of Steven Stayner. If the name sounds familiar, that's because they made a movie about him.
By the time I was in school Steven had been kidnapped, abused for seven years, returned home, started a family, and died in a motorcycle accident. I went to the same elementary school he attended, hung out at the same local landmarks. It seems like I’ve always known his name, even though I never knew him.Steven had a brother, Carey Stayner. That name probably sounds familiar, too.
He's a serial killer.
Merced wants desperately to be known as the Gateway to Yosemite. While it’s true that any kid who went to public school in Merced has memories of field trips to the national park, most people only associated us with Yosemite because Carey killed four women there. I was a sophomore watching the local news as they searched for, and eventually found the bodies of the missing tourists he'd murdered. I watched when Carey Stayner was taken into custody and Steven’s name was repeated again.
There came a point in high school where you knew the announcement was going to be bad news before the assistant principal got a full sentence out. I can mark life events by deaths. The day I visited my college campus, I got a call that my cousin and two kids I'd gone to school with for years died in a drag racing accident. The day I left for college, I attended a funeral for a friend who died in a drinking related accident.The Santa Clara sheriff who murdered his three stepchildren, five-year old daughter, then shot himself while their mother was on a morning jog wasn't an accident. It was, however, a stomach churning media frenzy that outdid the callous vulture behavior displayed when my cousin died. Is it any wonder I still don't trust the media? The most depressing game of 6 Degrees of Separation I've ever played revolved around a vagrant wandering from one town to the next until he wandered into Merced and terrorized a house full of children with a pitchfork, killing two. I had connections to the victim and the killer that time. That was also my sophomore year.
The year I graduated, our government teacher offered extra credit if we attended a political event. I shook hands with Gary Condit - running for re-election after somehow dodging murder charges. If you don't remember his name, maybe you remember Chandra Levey, the intern he likely killed.
Oddly, I didn't know these were national news issues. They were all local news to me. I didn't realize that anyone outside of my general area knew who Scott Peterson was until I was watching his sentencing hearing in DC bar three years after the remains of his wife and unborn baby washed up in the Bay Area.
Condit and Peterson hailed from Modesto, a mere 45 minutes away.
These events weighed heavy on me, on everyone I knew then. It's a lot for a high school kid to take in. I don't think I realized how incredibly fucked up our high school years were until much later. Merced is crime and gang ridden now, but it didn't seem that way then. I think about the training I received in the military, the way people talk about combat (I never saw any) - nothing ever happens until something is blowing up. That was Merced. Nothing ever happened until it was big enough for news crews to pull in and set up shop.
Nothing ever happened until you had that interesting, but difficult to share story about the first time you saw a dead body and why you can't stand the smell of nag champa (I'll save that one for another day).
So, is it any wonder I read and write dark shit? Is it any wonder I hate the media?
I waited behind the screen door as the news anchor and camera- man approached the porch, and waited to be told that someone was dead. That someone had been murdered in a spectacular fashion and once again, it was someone I knew.
The dappled sunlight didn't ever hit the porch - it was covered.
Turns out, my mom had called a consumer complaint in on the people who printed our graduation invitations incorrectly and refused to fix or refund them.
I’d never been so relieved to be embarrassed.