I can’t tell you what happened

In 1939 three children went missing during the snowy winter months in northeastern Vermont. They were never found. There was much speculation at the time but not much since. If you ask one of the old timers, he might relate this story…

At the edge of the pleasant places to live is a hard-scrabble area the locals will tell you has ‘nine months of winter and three months of damn poor sledding’.  That place is the northeastern part of Vermont. When the tourists descend on the state they generally give the area a wide berth. And the locals like it that way. There’s a feeling among the youngsters who’ve spent a weary childhood looking at glamorous magazines and television shows filmed in places where you get to take off your winter coat, that if you don’t leave by the end of your graduation summer, you’ll be trapped there forever.

And it’s a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business but no one asks too many questions. It wasn’t surprising that no one could ever figure out what happened. Or no one would say.

In the middle of this wild landscape of forests and scattered towns of under a thousand inhabitants is a lake. It has several names, depending on who you ask. Lake Willoughby, Cold Lake, Lake Despair, Glacier Lake. No one knows what the Indians called it but everyone is pretty sure it has an Indian name.

The lake is dark and cold and wrapped in legend, most of it involving Indians and caves in the cliffs and mysterious sounds and lights at night. People go there because it half scares the pants off them and provides them bragging rights if they stay to midnight. Having survived that ordeal they return home and turn on the lights, safe from whatever inhabits the cliff faces on either side of the black water.

Directly behind the lake, a few miles due East, is a village. A typical New England “white” village, so named because no one ever thought to paint a house any color other than white. The name of the village isn’t important. Neither is the name of the lake. But it gives a compass bearing for the rest of this…

The first to disappear was young Evan Tate, a lad of great curiosity, who was the apple of his father’s eye. Evan, at age ten, knew he was destined for great things and had made a personal commitment to studying snow in some forbidding climate far worse than northeastern Vermont. Evan believed, and he might have been right had Fate not intervened, that he was meant to occupy the pages of National Geographic some day.

One of the great truths of life in the North is that you do not linger when the sun begins to go down. The temperature drops and Nature is not hospitable to stragglers. Evan was not a dawdler but dawdle he did on the evening of January 17, 1939, on his way home from a particularly hard day at school. Disembarking from the rickety truck that carried Evan, along with a half-dozen of his school chums, home that winter evening, old Bert Whitlock, the driver, urged him to “run like the dickens” straight home. Home was about 500 yards up the dirt road with no stops. Still, it must have been enough distance for Evan to get himself in trouble.

By 6 o’clock on a winter evening closing down fast, Evan’s father and mother were beginning to worry. Ringing the party line, Bert told him that he had left Evan off at the end of the road at about 4:30.

By 6:10, Evan’s now frantic parents mounted a two person search party to no avail. By 7:15 they had called the constable and the constable had called the Sheriff.

By 8 o’clock the constable and the Sheriff had made a sweep of the roads within a three- mile radius of the house and declared that stumbling around in the snow in the dark was not going to help matters any. Besides, they didn’t have any manpower.

By dawn, it was apparent that Evan was gone, not staying over at anyone’s house, and not face down in a snowbank. He was…just…gone. All that was left of Evan were his boot tracks that ended next to a snowy hillock. Stopped cold.

Despite a week of searching, Evan Tate was never seen or heard from again. The boy who wanted to study snow was seemingly no more. His parents withered after losing their Evan, dying before their time, and never knowing what strange and terrible thing had happened to their son.

By February 22, 1939, there was a ferocious blizzard that swept down out of the St. Lawrence Seaway and obliterated every road sign, landmark, and plowed driveway in a three county area. It was also the day Seth Bingum disappeared.

The loss of one child is inexplicable and harsh. The loss of two is a crime.

Seth was a lad of twelve and well on his way to being the town pill. Disobeying his parents and tempting the fates was all in a day for Seth. Large for his age and rangy, he was considered either jail bait or football potential, depending on who you asked and what day of the week. His mother would tell you he was a good boy and his father would concur, with reservations. But both parents were neither protective nor permissive. It was just in Seth’s nature to push limits.

The day of the storm Seth insisted that he was going to join his buddies, Carl Desilets and Bill Prout, for a few sled runs down Thornton Hill, near the Congo Church a short walk from Seth’s front yard. Seth left at 1:30 in the afternoon, in a break in the wind, and set off with a thermos of hot cocoa and a PBJ sandwich supplied by his mother.

When Seth hadn’t returned by 4:00, and darkness compounded by the storm had locked the town down, his mother called his father at the hardware store to ask him to take the family wagon over to Thornton Hill to drag their son home. And, boy, was he in trouble.

At 4:15, when Morris Bingum pulled up to the hill, it was, as you would expect, deserted and snowed in. Mr. Bingum drove the few blocks to Carl’s house to see if Seth had decided to stay over and forgot to call. Carl was home and what he told Mr. Bingum more than a little disturbed the older man. Seth had never arrived at the hill. Both Carl and Bill figured that the storm was too bad and that Mrs. Bingum wouldn’t let Seth out of the house so they each made a run and went home.

At 4:35, Mr. Bingum used the Desilet’s telephone to call the constable. The constable called the Sheriff. Because the storm was piling snow faster than the horse-drawn plows could handle it, the whole town had closed down until daybreak. The Sheriff was stranded on the other side of the mountain.

Mr. and Mrs. Bingum, and their neighbors, ventured out in the teeth of the second wave of the storm to call for Seth. But he didn’t answer. Come daybreak, the search resumed and the Bingum’s feared the worst. They had good reason. Despite searching door to door, prodding the snowbanks with steel rods and questioning whether any strangers were seen in the vicinity, all that was found of Seth was his sled buried in a deep drift of snow at the edge of the main street.

Much was made of the boys’ disappearance. The Sheriff conducted what the state’s largest newspaper called “an exhaustive investigation.” But it was no use. The old timers exchanged looks the youngsters failed to notice. Mothers hauled their rosy-cheeked sons and daughters into the house refusing to let them play outside. Fathers walked their children to school…and back. Social life in the town disappeared.

It was inevitable, I guess, that someone would rebel against this parental prison. That young man was nine-year old Clive Pitkin. After spending every available minute with his mother and father, he needed to get away. He and Sam Robinson, Derek Bywalter and Bob Orcutt decided to duck out the back door of the school just about the time the fathers were coalescing at the front door. It was 3 o’clock on a dingy afternoon, March 7, 1939. Not a month since Seth Bingum had disappeared. But children have a taste for adventure and curiously short memories.

By 3:05, a giggly, excited group of misbehaving boys, led by Clive Pitkin, exited by the same wooden door the janitor locked from the outside at night. Whether they had a plan was never determined but the joy seemed to be in running and whooping. After a few minutes of this and the realization that a bracing spanking was probably going to be universal when their fathers caught up with them, the other three boys high tailed it back to the school hoping to make up some excuse on the way that didn’t sound too far-fetched. Clive Pitkin decided to linger. And that was his mistake.

By 4 o’clock, a worried Mr. Pitkin was hoarse from calling for Clive. With a growing fear and despair vying for equal time in his gut, he drove up one road and down the other street calling out the windows for Clive.

By 4:30 with darkness setting in, he stopped by Clive’s best friend’s house. Derek Bywalter had managed to construct an adequate alibi to cover himself, at least until Mr. Pitkin arrived. When it was discovered that all the boys, except Clive, had returned to the school, a frantic Mr. Pitkin repeated what the other frantic parents had done: he called the constable who called the Sheriff. It was 4:45.

Again a night search was mounted. Traversing the roadway and field behind the school with flashlights and half the town at their heels, the Sheriff and his deputy, Amos Mars, used long metal poles to poke holes in the snowy fields. Nothing was found. Nothing was seen. Like Evan and Seth, Clive had vanished.

It would seem that three boys going missing in three months in a small town in a remote area would cause the locals who could to move. But no one did. At least not right away. It did, however, turn neighbor against neighbor. Tempers flared. Everyone suspected everyone else but there was no one to accuse. Not really. No trace of anything suspicious was ever found. No strangers were seen lingering by the roadways. It is what it was at the time: a mystery.

But these facts remain: whatever happened involved snow, and darkness, and time. The same times every time. The hours between 3 and 5 p.m. The fact that Evan’s boot tracks and Seth’s sled were found next to the margin where the road meets the deep snowbanks did not escape the notice of some of the old timers who were less bound by fact and more by the myths that grip the lake and the mountains that surround it.

In nearly eighty years no one has unlocked the mystery of the disappearance of three boys from a snow-locked town of 600 people in the inhospitable northeast region of a rugged state. The old timers died one by one taking the local lore with them. But some of it remains, passed down from son to son. And the questions remain. Why is it none of the locals venture to the lake at night? Why do visitors insist there are lights on the cliff sides where there are no roads? And, maybe most important of all, why do the locals keep their children close when the snow falls and the sun goes down on a winter night. Sometime between 3 and 5.


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About Phyllis Alberici

Hanging a few lanterns in the darkness. Let me know how it's going.
This entry was posted in Crimes, Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to I can’t tell you what happened

  1. Carl Johnson says:

    What do I say to something like this? Great story? Well, it is, and yet . . . . I guess it’s a useful reminder that not all the fears of the modern world are so modern. As you read through old newspapers, this sort of thing happened much more often then you would think.

  2. kirsten says:

    Hi Phyllis,

    Very good and very creepy. Now, is it truth or fiction?

  3. Phyllis Alberici says:

    It might be 😉

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