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Garrison Keillor and The Serial Killers of Youth

Posted October 31, 2006

It's fall here in Minnesota, and as I smell the sweet woodsmoke from recently swept chimneys and rekindled wood stoves, and hear the children tromp through the piles of amber leaves crunch, swoosh, crunch, swoosh, I think about the autumn days of my youth: waiting for a hot apple pie or a loaf of baked bread, polishing the runners for my sled, and the occasional discovery of severed heads in the church rectory or abandoned barn, stacked carelessly like forgotten cans of paint.

Our town wasn't special. Adults worked hard to feed their children, we raised barns with our neighbors, and occasionally neighbors turned up dead. Not in great numbers, mind you, just a pair or three, nothing like the serial killers today. You'd think after burning a dozen or so people, you might realize it's more than a hobby, and think about making a life out of it. When you spend every day carving woodpeckers out of alder it's time to open the wood-carving shop.

Nobody much talked about it. It was a gruesome business, and just as every town had one madam of loose virtue, it was generally known that somebody would snap just as the frost was setting in and kill some people to blow off steam. It went unreported, just as the games of mail box baseball and pumpkin smashings. Unlike the media's omniscient eye of today, you didn't see a news van and preening reporters every time six people were found butchered in the tool shed. The greengrocer didn't complain about their shock and horror just to appear on the nightly news. People went about their business, and quietly hope that Mrs. Jensen would move beyond the violent loss of her immediate family and best friends and find a way to fill all the orders for alpaca tea cozies by Christmas.

I recall one such autumn, a few days after Halloween, when I was too old to trick-or-treat but too young to find myself in any serious trouble. If I were growing up today I'd solve my boredom with a thirty hour marathon of Halo, but our family didn't even have a television, and we were only allowed to listen to the radio to hear the farm report and a dreadful variety show with skits and music. I skulked down to the basement, where we kept the model trains, and I played listlessly, not realizing that days of luxury and boredom would melt away like that first October snow, and I'd be soon trapped in the suede handcuffs of a radio career. With nothing better to do, I poked around shelves I'd seen a thousand times before, hoping there was some noxious chemical I could huff for a cheap high. Nothing but fishing tackle, oily rags, canning supplies, then, wait: what's this? I catch a glint of something behind the shelf of pectin and mason jars.

Quickly and quietly, I remove the contents of the shelf, and pull it away from the wall. There's a second shelf, built into the concrete, and it holds a dozen bowling ball cases. My flashlight must have caught the metal from one of the zippers. Nobody in my family had ever bowled, or golfed, since my parent's greatest passions were barn raising and beekeeping. Unable to contain my excitement from this fresh mystery, I open each and every bag to discover the perfectly preserved heads of the entire Petersen family, who'd disappeared early in the summer on a fishing trip.

Dad was a strong man. He didn't say much, and when he did, you know you should listen up. I looked at the collection of severed heads and my heart swelled with pride. Dad put in long hours supervising the mill, he kept us in clothes and food and toys that I always discarded too early, and never bragged about beheading an entire family. There were no cryptic clues left by a man desperate to get caught. Only later did I learn that Keillor was the Norwegian word for killer. To this day, I don't know how he perfected the taxidermy that kept those heads frozen in an expression of pure terror. In a time of blogs, video diaries, and online photo albums, where privacy is something to be sold or traded like frozen rutabagas, there's something we could all learn about a man who's willing to keep his killing to himself.



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