Monday, June 22, 2009

Hurricanes, The Mad Gasser, and the Kokomo Hum

For the second Thursday evening in a row, I saw writer friends. On the second Thursday of the month, Southern Illinois Writers Guild sponsors an open mike at Latta Java in Marion. When I can, I like to go to hear others read. I might not have made it this month since Jeannie and Cecelie were visiting, but I had a phone call that morning from Lois Barrett that she was in town from Texas and she planned to be there. I told her to be sure and bring copies of her newest book—her fourth novel.

Despite a crazy afternoon where a hair appointment was cancelled because the shop kept losing their electricity off and on all day, Jeannie was encouraging. We managed to get back to the farm, feed everyone, and be at Latta Java at 7. We heard some wonderful readings including the first chapter of Gulf Coast Love Affair: 19th Century Hurricanes, which is based on Lois’ research about local hurricanes. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but as sit lies on the table, I am enjoying the cover by her grandson Matt Fowler of Harrisburg. When Lois still lived here, I used to engage in email conversations with Matt, who did Lois’s website for her while Matt was still in high school.

Then this Thursday my friend Jari Jackson and I scurried over John A. Logan College for our regular SIWG monthly meeting to hear Jason Brown. After teaching at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he studied in the Creative Writing Department, and teaching at JALC, he became a part of the faculty at Eastern Illinois University up at Charleston. But we are fortunate that he is still living at Murphysboro this summer and could visit SIWG. A poet and short story writer, Jason had been much praised by our president Jim Lambert ever since Jason and he met last summer when both had won scholarships to Ropewalk Writer’s Conference in New Harmony, Indiana.

Much published as a poet, Matt talked some about his aggressive submission of his poetry and encouraged us to do the same. He gave us copies and read us some of his poetry in his fine reading voice. (He thinks we enjoy most when we can both see and hear poetry at the same time. I agree.) But he spent most of his time talking about the novel he has been working on nightly to the exclusion of most of his other writing. One of his handouts was copies of articles in the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette, a town near EIU where Jason and his wife will be living when fall classes begin. That handout instantly piqued my interest since down through the years since they have lived in Mattoon, my sister-in-law has frequently sent me clippings from that newspaper telling of activities and successes of their family.
However, I had never heard them mention the “Anesthetic Prowler.” Jason is basing his novel on a happening in Mattoon in the fall of 1944 (long before my brother’s family moved there) when several families reported being attacked in their homes by the sickening sweet fumes coming in from an outside window. They suffered nausea, slight paralysis of their legs, burning eyes and mouth, and other unpleasant symptoms. Footprints outside windows and even a cloth permeated with the mystery gas left on a front porch escalated the excitement. National newspapers picked up the story and there was widespread terror in the town. No one was arrested, the incidents stopped, and it is still debated today if this really happened as reported or if mass hysteria played a part. Oddly when I just checked Wikipedia, I found that l0 years earlier a similar situation occurred in a Virginia community.

I couldn’t wait to call my brother the next day and ask him about this story. “Oh, you mean the Mad Gasser?” he asked. No one had talked to him about the historic event, but sometime in the past decade the newspaper had run a feature about the Mad Gasser and he had read about it.

That brought to mind that shortly after our youngest daughter Mary Ellen and husband Brian left Kokomo, Indiana, and moved to the Saint Louis area, we heard about the Kokomo Hum. They had not heard it while living there, but evidently many people did and reported headaches and health problems because of it. That story too was picked up the national newspapers, which is how I learned about it. Come to find out, there was also a Taos Hum and numerous other Hums in cities around the globe, and certain people were affected negatively by these reported mysterious low-frequency sounds.

Brian has been down to Woodsong for the weekend hauling off soybeans and checking his crops. He will be doing the same tomorrow. After a job assignment change, their family just settled in this week in their new home in rural Wagoner, Illinois. Their five acres is somewhere up by Springfield, Litchfield, Raymond—all towns I’ve heard them mention during their house hunt in that area. I wonder what new legends and stories will come from that area, where Lincoln used to walk. Brian had me laughing at the extreme burglar alarm system in their house including a search light on their roof. They haven’t turned it on. If the Mad Gasser shows up, they will be all fixed to scare him away.

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