This freaking cold weather has, for some reason, reminded me of the two years I spent in Wisconsin in the 1970’s. I started writing this vignette sometime during the summer and meant to post it at Halloween but forgot about it until today. So here you go, trick or treat:
It was a dark and stormy night….
My then husband and I were backpacking somewhere in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is attached not to the rest of Michigan, but to the top of Wisconsin. This was back when I thought it was fun to carry 40 pounds on my back for miles so that I could sleep on the ground while swatting at battalions of cat-sized mosquitoes. (My idea of fun has changed radically since those days.)
It had been raining for several days, which is NOT fun when you are stuck in a tent you have carried in on your back, so we finally packed up our gear, which now probably weighed an additional 20 pounds because it was soaking wet, and trudged for hours to get back to civilization, a/k/a the state park parking lot and our dry (!) car.
When we finally saw a laundromat, we pulled in and began stuffing the washers and dryers with all our worldly goods.
Eventually Laundromat Guy came in and started wiping down all the machines and emptying the change boxes. He was wearing a Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers jacket.
Laundromat Guy was friendly, so we asked him if he knew of a motel in the area since there was no way in hell I was going to climb back into the tent. And we’d seen nothing for miles except this laundromat.
He made a quick phone call and then said, “Why don’t you come home with me? My wife says you’re welcome to stay with us.”
Really, it seemed like a good idea – it was already dark and there was nothing else around – so we followed him to his house a couple of miles away.
Mrs. Laundromat looked like Mary Travers (this was back in the ‘70’s, remember) with her long blonde hair. She’d put on fresh make-up before we arrived. She was gorgeous.
Their two kids were supposed to be upstairs sleeping. The house had those old open registers built into the ceilings so warm air from the living room could rise and heat the upstairs. Every so often, we’d hear giggles coming from the register, and could see two little towheads peering down and saying things like “I love you Daddy.”
Laundromat Guy would look up and say, “Love you, too. Now back to bed, kiddoes.” He’d blow them a kiss and turn back to us.
Then he’d show us another torture device, like a thumbscrew or these brass knuckles that had little bayonet thingies on the end of each knuckle.
We were overnight guests of a man who collected medieval torture devices.
We were in the middle of nowhere. (Rhinelander, perhaps?) None of our next of kin knew where we were. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. And it was, as previously mentioned, a dark and stormy night.
Turns out that Laundromat Guy really was Torture Guy. He collected medieval torture instruments, which he kept in the living room. He claimed he kept them in locked cabinets when he wasn’t showing them to strangers, but still…
He said they were all registered with whoever you register torture instruments with, and the police did regular patrols of his house: “You’re really safer here than anywhere else in town.”
We chatted for a while more, and finally Mrs. Torture showed us to our room. It was a screened-in sleeping porch, and she had just put fresh linens on the bed. It was serene and very comfortable looking.
Right before turning the lights out, she paused at the doorway: “I don’t want to scare you, but…”
good lord. what next?
It turns out they had rescued a baby squirrel in the storm, and made a nest for it in one corner of the porch. They’d flipped up a little bit of the screen so the squirrel could get in and out if it wanted. There was a dish of food. She didn’t want us to be scared if we heard the squirrel come in or out during the night. (She was assuming, I guess, that the squirrel wouldn’t be lugging a miniature garroting machine.)
Amazingly, we slept well after our several nights of rain-drenched sleep deprivation, and Mr. & Mrs. Torture couldn’t have been more gracious and lovely. We awoke, still alive, to a sunny day and a nice breakfast before heading out, thanking our delightful hosts and their adorable children for an, er, interesting visit.
I wondered whatever happened to those people and all that stuff as soon as I started writing up this scenario. I started doing Google searches on things like “torture” + “Wisconsin” and an occasional “laundromat.”
Trust me. Searches like that will bring up enough bizarre story lines to keep the least imaginative amongst us going for quite a long while.
And then I found this: The Museum of Historic Torture Devices in Wisconsin Dells. Definitely worth a phone call.
Even though I suspect they get more than their share of crank calls, the young woman who answered the phone at the Museum of Historic Torture Devices still thought I was nuts. Duh.
She finally told me that the Museum had acquired most of its exhibits from “a private collector” but she didn’t know any more than that. Her father, who ran the museum, might know, but he wasn’t around right then. Her parents probably hadn’t even been born yet back when I met Mr. & Mrs. Torture.
I gave her my phone number, which I assume she didn’t bother to write down, given her level of interest. But she assured me that she’d have her father call me if anyone at the museum was dying (dying – get it?) to answer my questions.
And that’s it. No return call, no nothing.
I know, I know. I’m disappointed, too.
I had hoped for some kind of satisfying resolution – like those adorable children grew up to be axe murderers anyway or, alternatively, had saved the lives of thousands because they knew where the “secret clasp” on the Dreaded Chinese Death Cage was.
I’ll just close with the motto of the museum itself:
Nothing is More Frightening Than Human History.
…ain’t that the truth…