A Day I’d Rather Forget—But Can’t

The following is an excerpt from my journal.

August 29, 1988 – Landstuhl, Germany

I’ve seen plenty of dead people during my tour with the Army’s 10th Medical Laboratory, but yesterday I finally tiptoed on the edge of insanity as I bore witness to the worst disaster imaginable. I am sure Flugtag ‘88 will be remembered by those who witnessed it as a day we’d all rather forget, but there’s no way we can. All I know is that I came to admire hundreds of nameless people as heroes today, because out of this madness emerged the kind of human spirit that defines the best in us.

Specialist Matthew Scheck being awarded the AAM for the USS Stark Incident, June 1987

Last May I participated in the recovery and identification of the sailors who were killed in the USS Stark incident, so I know and understand the horrific nature of death on a large scale. However, yesterday I witnessed death and pain and suffering on a scale that left me cowering in my barracks room after I got off duty. I wept openly for the first time since I was a child, and the only reason I was able to sleep was because I’d popped three 2-milligram doses of Ativan.

I witnessed the disaster’s aftermath from so different perspectives because my commander, Colonel Vladimir Jarotzky—known as COL J to his admirers and Vlad the Terrible to his detractors—asked me to be his driver after we mustered as many people from our unit as we could to support the disaster relief. COL J more or less defined his own leadership role that day, and he proved to be invaluable in about fifty different ways amid the disaster relief, and luckily—or unluckily, depending upon one’s perspective—he dragged me along for the whole experience.

COL J and I recently bonded because his son, Max, died of brain cancer at the very same time this summer as I was hospitalized with a severe leg injury. Before Max died, I hobbled on crutches to the ICU every day to visit him while he lay dying. Max was a good friend who interned as a Histology technician in my department in 1987 before he fell ill. His death devastated me as well as many of my comrades in the 10th Med Lab who’d gotten to know Max. He was a sweet and gentle little dude with a wicked sense of humor, and he would have made a great soldier—like his father and his brother Alex, who was a cadet at West Point—had he not been afflicted with brain tumors since he was a child. My father died of the same type of illness as Max, and being there for him during his last days brought me tremendous closure for the pain I still felt for my father’s loss.

Max Jarotzsky manning the grill in 1987.

COL J was like a whirlwind yesterday. Not only is he a brilliant pathologist and the commander of the 10th Med Lab and all its subordinate units, but he can also speak several languages, which made him useful yesterday because the victims were mostly German civilians and the Italian pilots who survived the wreck. So COL J acted as a medical advisor, senior military commander, and translator wherever he went. One of the Italian Air Force pilots, badly burned, held COL J’s hand in the ICU unit at the 2nd G and begged forgiveness for what he and his comrades had done. COL J, a devout Russian Orthodox, chanted a prayer in Russian and told the pilot, in Italian, that all was forgiven. That’s the kind of day it was for COL J.

The real heroes were the common folks on the scene at Ramstein Air Base and at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. When I say everyone helped, I mean everyone helped, whether comforting victims, cleaning up the wreckage to get to casualties, saving lives, or merely donating blood. Even amid the most awful disaster any of us have ever witnessed, people from all walks of life banded together and did magnificent and heroic deeds. The Air Fore medics and firemen were insanely brave and all deserve the highest medals awarded.

I remember driving COL J to the 655th Blood Bank, a unit under his command, and seeing the thousands—thousands!—of people waiting to donate blood. People wept when they were turned away because there weren’t enough blood bags for all the donors. Of course, because I am blood type O NEG—the universal donor blood type—COL J made me donate a pint while we lent a hand to our friends and colleagues in the 655th.

COL Vladimir Jarotzky awarding my best friend, Specialist Felipe Linares, the ARCOM in December 1987

Every person I know from the Landstuhl-Ramstein area—military or civilian, American or German—has a story to tell about yesterday’s events, and the small part he or she played in the relief effort. Everyone is in a fugue state and grieving over the dead and wounded, many of whom were burned horribly from the jet fuel that overwhelmed the crowd with the fury of a hurricane made of fire. The confusion and hysteria at the crash site was immense, yet those brave Air Force firemen and off duty soldiers, airmen, and civilians attending the air show risked life and limb to save hundreds of lives. All the preparing we’d all done for World War III paid off during this disaster. Despite the confusion and anguish, leaders emerged everywhere—like my beloved commander, COL J—who made things run as smoothly as could be expected. Amid this horrible tragedy, people performed brilliantly under great duress and I am as proud of humanity as I have ever been. Since many of the heroes are friends and colleagues of mine, I feel a surge of pride to be a member of such an excellent organization as the US Army. Today we earned our pay.

I’m exhausted and a little freaked out, but I imagine families in Germany and America are feeling worse as they learn the fate of their loved ones who were the victims of yesterday’s disaster. It would be easy to place blame on the US Air Force for having such daring stunts performed over a massive crowd like at Flugtag, and I am sure heads will roll in the upcoming weeks, but for now my friends and I are too tired, too saddened, and too burned out to give a damn.

During the Stark incident last May, I figured nothing would ever affect me as badly as that horrific tragedy. I was wrong; August 28, 1988 was the worst day of my life.

A War Story

I served in the US Army for seven years as a Medical Corpsman in the 1980s. Mostly my Army career was mundane almost to the point of banal. After all, the US didn’t go to war much during that era, except for a couple of minor skirmishes in Granada and Panama, so I have no war stories to relate from personal experience, nor did much happen during my two tours that was worth even recalling some 25 years later.

Looking back, the best I can say about my Army career was that I was just a soldier—no better, no worse—than any other.  I did my job and got out after many years of faithful service in uniform.  I never talk much about what I did, not because I am embarrassed for not doing much, or for not being a superhero like Rambo, but because, to overcome some of my worst nightmares, mostly I’d like to forget what I witnessed.

SPC Matthew Scheck, Frankfurt Mortuary, May 1987. Photo by SPC Kelly Wathor.

 

While it is true we were not at war during my tenure, because of my unique job in the Army I did bear witness to some appalling tragedies that are probably worth recalling, although I do it with great trepidation because the memories still cause great anxiety within me. For many years after my service I let these memories fade to the darkest recesses of my mind so I could get on with my life. Now, some 20 years later, I feel the need to write about them, if only to honor the brave men who died tragically in service of our country.

In 1987 I was stationed in Landstuhl, Germany and worked as an assistant to the Chief of Forensic Pathology for the 10th Medical Laboratory.  In late May of that year, my department was ordered to immediately go to Frankfurt to work on identifying and piecing together the casualties from the USS Stark, a Navy frigate that had been attacked by an Iraqi fighter jet on May 17, 1987 in the Persian Gulf.

Two Exocet missiles had been fired at the ship, one of which struck it directly at the part where many of the ship’s sailors were sleeping in their racks. We were told the damage was catastrophic and that anywhere from 30-50 sailors had been killed in the attack. We were forewarned that the dead bodies we would be receiving were either charred from the heat of the missiles hitting or were in pieces because of the blast; worse was that all the dead had become bloated and gaseous from being immersed in water that flooded the decks where they were recovered. The ship was located in the Persian Gulf, where the heat during the day rose to well over 100 degrees, so this only made the situation much worse for the recovery effort.

It is very difficult to articulate the horror of those five days working in a cramped morgue with all those dead sailors.  Imagine the stress and strain of working with so many charred, smelly, bloated, and damaged human remains; not only that, but these were American servicemen, good sailors—our compatriots and brother warriors.  Guys who could have been my friends.  In Forensic Pathology we worked around dead people a lot, but this was different— this hit home too close for all of us at that morgue in Frankfurt, Germany.  These were war casualties in another disaterous1980s foreign policy fiasco by the Reagan government. Worse, however, was that they didn’t die in some glorious battle or defending a great democratic ideal—they died pointlessly in a shitty and regrettable attack that was unprovoked and made absolutely no sense. Yet these men were great heroes for our country.

I will discuss what still haunts me and how it shaped my thinking today. No other event in my life affected me as deeply and profoundly as those five days in that Frankfurt morgue. To this day I am not sure if, deep within me, I can ever move beyond this horrible tragedy or forget the terrible images and memories that still remain so vivid in my mind.

I write this memoir only to honor the brave sailors who gave their lives in that horrible tragedy. My part in all this is insignificant other than I was a faithful witness for those 37 men who passed through that Frankfurt morgue in May 1987.

And here’s what still haunts me:

Frankfurt Mortuary, May 1987: Dr. Madeline Hinkes, SPC Matthew Scheck, MAJ (Dr.) Joe Dyer. Photo by SPC Kelly Wathor.

Some genius colonel or general decided, while we worked in that morgue, to let us watch the Navy’s memorial service for the Stark that was showing on AFN.  Here we were, putting these poor bastards back together, trying to figure out what arm belonged to what trunk, and so forth, and there, right before our eyes, were their grieving families.  I am standing in two feet of blood and guts, fried body fat, and all the fingers, feet, eyeballs, and decapitated corpses I wish never to see again, and all of a sudden I see on the screen the family of the boy whose decapitated head I am, right at that moment, holding in my hands.  I think now, upon recollection, their names flashed on the screen or were mentioned by the commentator.  Whatever the case, this was their son.  I recall that.

My nightmare:  We have just identified him by his dental records, and when I see his mother and father on the television, I look at his dead eyes, he’s looking at me, and I tell him, “Your Mom and Dad are crying and they’re very proud.” I’d seen hundreds of dead bodies in my work at the 10th Med Lab, but this poor sailor was the first I connected to something real and tangible. He was more than just another stiff I had to cut open. And I will never forget him.

I will not lie—everyone in that morgue was bawling.  I assure you we will never forget that moment, our moment in military history, and how ugly and cruel an experience it was.  Our job that day would have been much easier had we not gotten to know that much about these boys, that we learned they had families and loved ones back home, that they were real people and not just corpses we were working on.  It would have been easier not knowing.

This surreal and bizarre moment affected even the strongest and most callous among us. Even my boss, Major Joe Dyer, a forensic pathologist who had made his life’s work working with dead people, was moved to emotions he normally kept in check.

Because these Stark casualties became real human beings to us and not just anonymous “stiffs” on morgue slabs, we were forever changed by this moment.

I will never forget that kid, and I think at that moment I felt I had finally, after six years of service, proven my worthiness as a soldier, humble though my part was in the big picture of defending America and its interests.  Like the oil this boy was protecting while serving in the Gulf.  This dead kid was probably asleep in his rack, dreaming of getting laid or going home on leave, when the missiles struck.  Now his head is in my hands, and there’s his Mom and Dad, who will never get to see him alive, or like this, with no body, just a head, and an expression that still haunts me.  I used to say after this incident that these sailors’ families, along with getting their sons’ medals and insurance payments, should have gotten stock options in ARAMCO.  Maybe we weren’t technically at war, but this kid was a war hero and a war casualty.  I was a casualty, but certainly not a hero, just a college dropout, a screw-up who joined the Army for a job, and who was just doing his Army job.  It was time to earn the college benefits, free food and lodging, and all the free dental work the Army provided me.

Maybe for some of my fellow citizens the defense of freedom is a concept not fully understood by their own personal sacrifice or deeds. I certainly don’t feel as if I ever sacrificed much for this lofty ideal.  But this kid, whose detached head I was holding in my hands, gave everything he had for all of us. He didn’t storm some hill and take out a machine gun. Or dive on a grenade to protect his buddies. Or parachute into enemy territory and perform some heroic deed worthy of medals or national monuments. He was simply doing his job as a US serviceman and was a victim of a horrible attack that made no sense. And he yet was a hero to me. He will always be a hero to me.

Frankfurt Morgue, May 1987: SGT Dale Louder, SPC Matthew Scheck, SPC Derrick Green. Photo by SPC Kelly Wathor.

You have no idea how difficult it is to talk about this, even after 20 years.  I guess after spending three years doing a job like this—a job I didn’t ask to do, but I was chosen to do because my unit couldn’t find many people who could handle it—that I’d much rather keep the memories buried deep than talk about the experience.  I feel that even speaking about this now violates a vow of silence I made to myself a long time ago about discussing a time in my life that was painful at best, creepy, horrifying, and freaky at worst.  Remembering brings back the anxiety attacks and the depression, and I have found my life is much better without all that, so forgetting works best.

People will say that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about defending freedom.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but what I do know is that lots of young men and women have been giving their lives in these wars regardless of whether they are necessary or just.

After handling so many casualties back in the late 80s, I had become one myself, so I respectfully asked my superiors to transfer me out of Forensic Pathology. In order to heal I had to let go of the pain and anguish and nightmares.  Some people are wired to handle this kind of work; I was not one of them, but I was a good soldier and did what I was ordered to do, and every dead sailor looking up at me during those five days at that Frankfurt morgue made me feel, for the first time in my Army career, like a real soldier.  So how could I not do this important job?  I had to do this job for them, for their families on that television screen, and for America. However, a year later I was so burned out and anxiety ridden that I could no longer perform this duty. So I walked away from it.

I recovered from that hellish week in Frankfurt by hiding in my apartment, bathing every hour or so to remove the horrible smell that was literally in every pore of my body, and drinking myself into oblivion during every waking moment.  Yet the smell remains in my mind, 20 years later, the one aspect of war and death that television and movies can never express to the audience.  A charred and rotting human corpse produces some of the worst smells in this universe, perhaps as a reminder to all of us that death should not be something we ever forget.  I am sure the rescue workers, police, medical workers, and firefighters from Oklahoma City and 9/11 share that same memory with me, and it reminds them as it reminds me.

Just remember, America, that this head with no body, this poor kid from the USS Stark in 1987, died for you—would you have done the same for him? I don’t mean just beat your chest and boast about your patriotism, I mean put your ass on the front line for America like he did.  I wonder.

I’ll be honest: after seeing him, and many other casualties, my survival instinct told me to run and hide as quickly as possible if I am ever faced with that decision.  I am probably a coward, but if the chips were down I would do it for this dead sailor whose head was in my hands, I would do it for my family, I would do it for my friends, and I would do it for every American. I would do it for America.

To be honest, I wish some of my experiences had not been real.  Lots of men and women who serve our country have been thrown out into the “shit” and performed beautifully.  My job was to identify and clean up the ones who didn’t make it back so their parents could bury them with dignity.  It’s just history now, and it is hard to believe when I think about it, but we were never at war during those years, yet guys and girls were still dying in droves in training accidents or “incidents” like the Stark or the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983.  I guess I had an important job, and my job gave me a unique perspective about what it means to sacrifice for this country. I saw far too many of the people who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Stark Ceremony

10th Medical Laboratory soldiers who participated in the USS Stark casualty recovery mission in Frankfurt. Photo by SPC Kent Taylor.

I am no expert on war, but I still lie awake some nights, frightened of the images that became so normal and banal to me during those years.  They are hard to forget.  In a way, I am the faithful witness for all those dead kids who are not around any longer to tell their war stories while serving in the “Peacetime Army.”  Peace or no peace, it seemed to me that America was always at war during the Cold War—plenty of casualties passed through my shop in Germany, so I know too well.

I honestly believe my one purpose in my life is to honor that poor sailor from the USS Stark whose head I held in my hands in May 1987. I don’t even remember his name. But I remember his sacrifice. His sacrifice will never be forgotten by me. He is my hero.

A Nightmare on 22nd Street

A Memoir by Mat Scheck

June 15, 2002

This is the tragic stories of “Big Mike” Scheck and Jeff Ramsey and how a lovely middle class neighborhood was damaged forever by their untimely deaths.

1048 22nd Street in 2007

I was born in Rock Island, Illinois and lived there for the first twelve years of my life. My family owned a house on 22nd Street on the corner of 12th Avenue, a massive Victorian manor capable of housing my large family, which was comprised of six girls, three boys, and my parents, plus an endless gaggle of family pets and visiting relatives and friends. It was a happy household, nestled in a peaceful and quaint middle class neighborhood, until two tragic events happened in the span of a year that forever destroyed the peace, happiness, and tranquility of two fine neighborhood families. One of those families was mine. The other family was that of my best friend, Jon Ramsey.

For many years I buried the horrible memories from 1972-73 deep inside my mind and only revisited them in nightmares. My family moved away from Rock Island when I was 12, so it was much easier to escape from the bad memories simply because everything from that era was far, far away from me; I didn’t have any daily reminders of my once ideal childhood that had been shattered by death and tragedy. As I grew older the memories slipped into oblivion and eventually disappeared for long stretches of time.

But I could never escape the nightmares.

Mike & Tess Scheck, 1949

The story begins when my father, Michael Leo “Big Mike” Scheck, a Chicago native and World War II veteran, moved to the Rock Island area—known as the “Quad Cities” because Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa were all located in what is essentially one metropolitan area—in 1947 to attend St Ambrose College in Davenport. He and his younger brother, Ed, were outstanding football players at St. Ambrose under legendary coach Larry “Moon” Mullins. Uncle Ed was so good he was inducted into the St. Ambrose Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984. While attending St. Ambrose my father met my mother, Therese Marie “Tess” Bernat, a French-American beauty and Indiana native whose French-born father, Jean, taught French and Spanish at the school around the time my father was an undergraduate there. My parents married in 1949 and eventually settled in Rock Island, where my father was a teacher and counselor for the Rock Island School Corporation for many years. My parents bought the house at 1048 22nd Street about three years before I, their last child, was born in 1963.

For the first nine years of my life our neighborhood in Rock Island was an ideal place for a family to live. The Hauberg family, wealthy scions of the local timber industry, donated their large estate to the city seven years before I was born, and their beautiful, wooded estate became the Hauberg Park and Civic Center. This lovely woods and park was located across the street from our home. For years it was the best place for a kid to play, from sledding in the winter on its many hills, to building hidden tree forts or playing Army with friends in its woods, to playing at the park run by the excellent staff of the Rock Island Parks and Recreation Department, to playing T-shirt League baseball (a sort of pre-Little League organization) on its many ball fields.

In about 1971 my father started acting strangely. At first he had memory lapses and strange blackouts that grew progressively worse until he’d forget long stretches of time. When he’d come to from these memory “fits” he had no idea how he got to where he was. Then he started having bizarre personality changes where he exhibited behavior that was not only unusual, but also completely off character for him. Then he began having violent anxiety attacks that would wrack his entire body with trembles and sometimes even mild to severe seizures.

1961 Rock Island Argus article about Mike Scheck

Dad had been born into abject poverty, grew up in the rough-and-tumble, South Side Chicago ghetto during the Great Depression, and had survived Word War II, so he was an amazingly tough and resilient guy, and thus he laughed off these odd personality changes as male menopause. But when they started to affect his work, his concerned peers and family begged him so seek medical help, which he eventually did. Some of his more malicious peers started whispering behind his back that he was crazy, which was absurd, as Mike Scheck had been known his entire life as the most sane, logical, rational, sober, stable, dependable, and decent man most people had ever met. These vicious rumors spread like wildfire and I was taunted more than once by kids for having a “psycho” dad.

When Dad finally sought medical help, to say the medical professionals he reached out to failed him would be an understatement. Gross malpractice would be far too kind a description of the horrible treatment and care he received the first year after his strange symptoms arose. First they said he had a thyroid problem. When that proved untrue, they said he was insane and had him placed in a psychiatric ward for evaluation. The shrinks who saw him declared him completely sane and back he went to the internists for even more bungling and incompetent treatment by them. They poked, prodded, and examined him relentlessly, and then, finding nothing that verified their initial diagnoses, declared his troubles were psychosomatic and all in his head.

Finally, Dad was sent to be evaluated at the Veterans hospital in Iowa City, Iowa, where the excellent neurosurgeons from the University of Iowa realized almost immediately that dad had the classic symptoms of a brain tumor called glioblastoma. A brain scan confirmed this: inside dad’s brain was a gigantic tumor the size of a grapefruit. It was only due to dad’s immense strength, resilience, and toughness that he had survived so long. The tumor was spreading rapidly and had already begun to invade his spinal column. The doctors informed my mother that dad had less than a year to live. They were absolutely in awe of him that he’d survived this long.

For the next nine months Dad’s doctors tried mightily to help ease his suffering from this horrible disease, and of course Big Mike fought it with every fiber of his immense being, but in the end his cancer defeated him, and he died at about 4:00 am on October 15, 1973. I was 10 years old.

My life has never been the same since that awful last year of my dad’s life. Most of it

Mike Scheck's grave stone at the Rock Island Arsenal National Cemetery

Mike Scheck’s grave stone at the Rock Island Arsenal National Cemetery

remains a bad dream for me, even some 30 years later. The horror of watching my big, strong father slowly waste away and lose his mind was often too much to bear, and the worst part was knowing he was never going to get better, no matter how hard I prayed, and I prayed every day and night for nine months. I have never prayed for anything since.

I actually felt immense relief when he died, because I knew death had finally eased the massive pain from which Dad was suffering, not only from his illness, but also from knowing he was not going to be there any more for his beloved wife and their nine children, three grandchildren, and all their progeny who would be born after his death. For many years afterward I blocked all memories of my father, because every time I thought about him I’d fall into a deep depression that nearly paralyzed me for days.

But this story gets even worse. Much worse.

My two best friends for most of my life in Rock Island were Jon Ramsey and Larry “Buzzie” Phillips, both of whom lived up the hill from me on 22nd Street near 13th Avenue. Buzzie was a funny and neurotic dreamer who loved to build things and then tear them down for fun. Jon was a tiny but tough and brilliant kid, probably my one intellectual and athletic rival at Lincoln Elementary School. The three of us had been friends since we were babies. I cannot recall many days in my life that didn’t include either Jon or Buzz, or both, in my daily living and adventures.

Jon Ramsey was the first friend I told on October 15, 1973 that my father died. I have absolutely no recollection of why I decided to go to school that day, but I did, and as I lumbered out my front door for the long walk to school, Jon was the first kid I encountered. Jon, Buzzie, and I walked to school together nearly every day since we were in kindergarten, so it wasn’t unusual to run into Jon in the morning.

“My dad died last night,” I told him immediately. Jon—as will be seen later in this essay—was the one kid I knew would understand what I was feeling at that moment. We both cried all the way to school that morning.

During the dark days after my father died, Jon’s mom, Wilma Ramsey, was an incredible presence around my house. That’s what people did in my neighborhood. While my family shuffled through and attended to our seemingly endless post-death duties for my father, Wilma took care of our house, answered our phone, and cooked for us. It was an extremely magnanimous and generous gesture from a wonderful and caring woman.

The Ramsey family understood tragedy better than most. In 1972, Jon’s older brother, Jeff, was kidnapped and murdered.

Jeff was a rambunctious and wild kid who often tried his mother’s patience. For a 12-year-old, he lived life a little too far on the edge, always running off to places he shouldn’t have been, and in the summer of 1972 he paid the price for his Tom Sawyer-like adventures into the dark unknown.

For my friends and me, Jeff’s murder was a nightmare of horrific dimensions. One day he was there and the next he was not, and the circumstances of his death were so brutally macabre that it was almost impossible to believe. Nowadays kids get plenty of exposure to murder and horror from movies and video games, but in 1972 the idea of being kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered like Jeff was the stuff of campfire tales, not of reality.

Yet it happened to my best friend’s older brother, a kid I’d known since I was a baby; a kid I played Army with in the woods (Jeff liked to re-enact Vietnam battles where he and my older brother, John, and John’s best friend, Ted Clegg, always played the Vietcong); a kid who taught me to cast a fishing rod when I was four; a kid who was probably the most daring sledder and bike rider in the neighborhood; a kid who used to torment, tease, and beat up his little brother and me because we weren’t “tough” enough for his taste; a kid who used to turn his basement into the coolest haunted houses every Halloween; a kid who had coolest bike in the neighborhood—a spiffy Stingray upon which he spent all his money he earned from delivering the Quad City Times newspaper every day since he was nine.

Jeff was brilliant, creative, funny, and, yes, very wild. These days I am sure kids like Jeff are chocked full of Ritalin and probably aren’t allowed to leave the house, which probably would have been a good idea for Jeff in 1972. For all his crazy antics, Jeff didn’t possess a molecule of malice in his entire being, and moreover I had six sisters who adored him, because above all else the Ramsey boys were beautiful and charming and girls went crazy over them. No one would have wished this horrible fate upon Jeff. Back then life was fairly innocent and these terrible things just didn’t happen. But it did happen, and Jeff suffered the consequences.

When Jeff turned up missing the first week of June, my mother and father immediately went to the aid of the Ramsey family much in the same manner that Jeff’s mother would do for us a year later when my father died. I wouldn’t say my parents and Jon and Jeff’s parents—Wilma and Dale Ramsey—were close friends, but there was a mutual respect and admiration on both sides that had always been evident. Now in their most desperate time of need, Dale and Wilma needed all the friends they had to rally to their aid.

When I think of Wilma Ramsey I always remember going to Jon’s house after school and she’d make us sandwiches while he and I watched The Monkees on television—Jon and I were huge fans and owned all their records. She was a quiet, gentle, and kind woman, but Jeff drove her crazy because he was such a wild and adventurous rascal. Jon, on the other hand, was a great son, very smart and responsible for a nine-year-old boy, the obvious leader of my peer group, and in most ways the exact opposite of his manic brother. No parent deserved what happened to Jeff, and certainly not Wilma, who was great mother, and certainly no kid needs to see this horrible thing happen to his brother as Jon did. I doubt Jon and Wilma were ever the same.

When Jeff first disappeared no one was too shocked, because Jeff had a reputation for running off and not coming home until late, for which he was punished and grounded endlessly all the years I’d known him. But after a full night passed and he didn’t show up, everyone became worried. An endless line of police and FBI agents started interviewing all the kids and adults in the neighborhood. No one knew Jeff’s whereabouts, although everyone swore to have seen him on the day he disappeared, which wasn’t unusual because Jeff was a social being who hung out with everyone at one time or another. After a week it became apparent that Jeff was probably not coming back alive. By that time the front pages of both Quad Cities newspapers, and all the local news station broadcasts, were filled with little more than the plight of this missing kid from our neighborhood, this kid who had been our very dear friend and neighbor all our lives.

They found Jeff on Arsenal Island near the Sylvan Slough, buried beneath a pile of refuse. He had been brutally mutilated, tortured, and hanged by his captor. The Sylvan Slough was a popular fishing spot for kids in my neighborhood, a place where legendary-sized channel catfish could be caught if you knew where to look. A place we’d all frequented at one time or another for years. However, Jeff went alone that day he turned up missing, which for the rest of us was unthinkable. In his case it was a tragically unlucky thing for him to do.

The police and FBI never caught Jeff’s killer. For years my friends and I tried, in the spirit of Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys, to solve Jeff’s murder. One of my friends, Jimmy Hannan, knew more about Jeff’s case than other kids because his father was the Chief of Police for the Rock Island Arsenal US Army base. In fact, Chief Hannan was the police officer who found Jeff’s body.

Rock Island was a river town located on the banks of the Mississippi and had plenty of strange and crazy transients, losers, bums, and sickos capable of such a horrible crime. In the summer of 1973 Jimmy, my other friend Ralph Haymon, and I tried to find Jeff’s killer. It became our obsession. Jon Ramsey was our best friend, and finding his big brother’s killer became our Holy Grail quest. Sadly, we had few clues to go on other than what Jimmy glommed from his Dad, and we—like the Rock Island Police Department, The Rock Island Arsenal Police, and the FBI—never solved the crime.

My family moved away from Rock Island on May 15, 1975, and I have only been back five times since then. Eventually as I moved on with my life the bad memories faded. As the years went by I lost touch with all my friends from 22nd Street and Lincoln Elementary School. However, the nightmares would often return with an alarming frequency, forever reminding me of the pain and anguish that robbed me of my childhood.

The years 1972 and 1973 were a nightmare if you lived on 22nd Street in Rock Island, Illinois. First little Jeff Ramsey was murdered in the most horrible of ways, and then a year later Big Mike Scheck was felled by cancer at 48, leaving behind a wife and nine children and a town full of kids who missed his presence at school.

22nd Street entrance to the Hauberg Estate, 2007

The last time I visited Rock Island was in 1999, when I brought my then girlfriend there to attend a family reunion in Bettendorf, where I still had relatives from both the Scheck and Bernat clans. I took her to see Hauberg Park and the old Scheck House at 1048 22nd Street, then showed her where all my friends and I, including Jeff Ramsey, had carved our names on the giant H-Block Monolith that marked the entrance to Hauberg Park. I showed her all the cool hills where my friends and I went sledding. I showed her the ice-skating rink and ball fields where my friends and I used to play. I showed her my father’s grave at the Rock Island Arsenal’s Veteran’s Cemetery. I told her the tragic tales of Jeff Ramsey and my father. And then I finally closed that chapter in my life once and for all.

Until today; I guess I’ll never fully escape my nightmare on 22nd Street.