In 1966, the residents of Pepperton County were perfectly happy to go to work, attend church, mow their lawns and make occasional love to a husband or wife they’d chosen when the moment seemed right, before the moment passed. They enjoyed the weather, which was a bit rainier than most might’ve preferred but that was Upstate New York for you. “Keeps the river flowin’,” locals would say, and others would nod, agree, turn up their coats and dash out into it. A cloudburst would come unannounced and sudden, lacking the usual polite notice that might give Pepperton residents a chance to roll up their car windows or at least duck into safety. Pepperton residents were used to a little bit of politeness. But that didn’t mean that they didn’t still love a good juicy scandal when it came along.
That particular year, the residents of Pepperton County weren’t really hearing much about passive resistance, aside from the occasional TV and radio report that slipped through and prompted a flurry of calls to the station managers that had allowed them passage into Pepperton daily life. For them, the volume of rebellion was still significantly lower than the sound of the river that bubbled along at the base of the hill; in fact, the behavior of the river and whether or not it stayed inside its banks was of more concern to them than any woman who wanted to sit in the front of a bus, someone who wanted voting rights or whether or not a perfectly good, upstanding young man wanted to let his clothes and his hair go shaggy and walk around town looking like a bum. The residents of Pepperton would frown, figure it was just a phase -hey, the kid’ll grow out of it- and felt sorry for his parents. Whoever they were, certainly they didn’t deserve this kind of public scandal. Residents would dismiss the whole thing as a little local flavor and go back about their business. It wasn’t any of their concern. For them, the rest of the world was a far, far away place.
* * *
In 1967, a young local teacher Daniel Bradford made a few page-four headlines
after assigning students to write an essay detailing their opinions on the conflict in
Vietnam. He didn’t encourage open rebellion, or even state an opinion about the whole
matter. However, the very idea of encouraging students to have an opinion they might
even remotely call their own, one that might differ from the ideals espoused by almost
everyone from the president on down was so viciously un-Pepperton that Bradford was
soon sent scrambling for his teaching post, lost it, and watched as once again the volume
of rebellion had been successfully lowered beneath the mumble of the river.
Then, in 1969, residents on George Street were introduced to hi-fidelity stereo.
Specifically, they came to know the opening chords of Neil Young’s ‘Down By the
River.’ The resident responsible, an admonished teacher who’d since found a way to feed
his family of four, though how he did it no one knew, never played the whole song. Just
those opening chords, thirty seconds of electric guitar he sent out like a siren song that
never played during regular daylight hours.
The strum of Neil’s opening lines would usually blast forth around 2:45am, a
shout into the otherwise quiet night, bouncing off the steeple of St George’s Presbyterian
Church and the graveyard that stretched past the church grounds.
That was where Freddy first saw the shadows, running through the moonlight.
They always came at night. Always late. Silhouettes, outlines. They seemed
young. Freddy thought they wore bigger, looser clothes. Even the men. He was never
sure since the moonlight was unreliable that way. The streetlights weren’t much help.
It was a particularly hot August night when Freddy heard the opening notes of the
song again. He looked out his window; there were the bodies again, four of them running
toward the small trailer that his neighbor kept on a dirt shoulder just opposite the
The four running silhouettes hopped a short chain link fence. They sprinted
toward the trailer, opened the door and climbed inside. Freddy went back to bed.
When he woke in the morning the trailer was gone.
* * *
There were still two weeks to go before the official start of the school year.
Freddy dropped himself onto a hard wood chair in the breakfast nook that morning and
poured a bowl of Quaker Puffed Rice.The cereal shot from guns! as Seargent Preston
would say, just before lighting off on another Yukon adventure with his wonder dog,
Yukon King. He could hear the announcer’s voice reciting the commercial as he poured
his morning meal. He added milk then looked up at his mother.
“What’s the story with Mr. Bradford’s trailer?” “‘What’s the story?’“ his mother mocked. “Where did you learn to talk like that?”
“Uncle Ray says it all the time.”
“I’ll be having a talk with your Uncle Ray,” his mother said. “I don’t want you
talking like those Bronx hoodlum friends of his.”
“I’m not a hoodlum.”
“Not yet you aren’t. And don’t get sassy.”
“I was just asking. Jeez.”
“And don’t say ‘jeez.’”
Freddy tried again. “So.. what is it?”
“What’s what, honey.”
“The story with Mr. Bradford’s trailer.”
His mother stopped. She stood up straight as if she’d heard a strange, alarming
sound from somewhere far away. “There’s no story, Freddy. Eat your breakfast.” She
swept crumbs away with a damp sponge.
“But I saw them.”
Once more his mother stopped what she was doing. She didn’t look at him.
She approached the table. “What people?”
Freddy didn’t answer.
“Answer me. I said, what people.”
Freddy shrugged. His voice dipped. “I don’t know. They just looked like people
wearing big clothes.”
“Big clothes? Like dresses?”
“Well, the women were maybe wearing dresses. The men seemed to be wearing
coats. Army coats, like the kind Vic Morrow wears on Combat.”
His mother returned to the sink. “Well. That’s quite an imagination you have
there. People running through the night in Army clothes. Has anyone else seen this?”
“I don’t know. I just heard the music. It woke me up.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard the song. It goes ‘duh-duh-donna-dah-dah dah..’”
Freddy tried to imitate the rest of ‘Down By the River.’
“It doesn’t sound like any song I know.”
“So what’s the story, Mom?”
“Would you stop saying that? There is no ‘story.’ Mr. Bradford owns a trailer. He
leaves it across the street. Every once in a while he takes his family on vacation.”
“Where does he go?”
“He showed us some pictures, of Canada.”
Freddy nodded. It sounded exotic. He’d never been to Canada. “Can I go
“Yeah, like with Mr. Bradford and his family.”
His mother swung around. She was holding a ladle she’d been washing. The tool dripped sudsy dishwater.
“No,” she said. “You will not be going to Canada with Mr. Bradford. If you want to go somewhere, ask you father.”
“Ask your father what,” his father said. Neither Freddy nor his mother had seen him approach the screen door.
“Dad can I go to Canada?”
His father tweaked his face with a where-did-that-come-from smile.
“Maybe later, when you’re older.”
“Why do I have to wait so long? Mom says Mr. Bradford goes all the time.”
“Yeah, and gets paid handsomely for it too.”
The look Freddy saw on his mother’s face was unlike any he’d seen before. She might’ve been an alien with laser beam eyes, able to cut her husband in half.
“What,” his father said. “Not like it’s a big secret or something.”
“John, I swear this is not a conversation we’re going to have in this house today.”
“Why not?” Freddy said. “What conversation?”
“Never you mind,” his mother said. “Go outside and play.”
“It’s too hot.”
“Then play down by the creek, it’s cooler.”
“Donnie said he saw a grizzly bear down there.”
“Then watch out for grizzly bears. Now go.”
Freddy let the screen door slam. He’d got a dozen feet from the house when his mother and father’s voices rose.
Freddy moved toward the river, where the only sound was the bubble and splash
of the water. He didn’t think about how it was snow still melting from last winter, or
runoff from the rains that had pummeled Pepperton just yesterday. Instead, to his young
mind it was just something cold and simple that was there to entertain him as it made its
way to the Atlantic, to safety.
* * *
Freddy’s fascination with Daniel Bradford’s trailer came to a head, but soon after
he forgot about it altogether. The song hadn’t chimed into the night in a while. He had
other things to worry about; he’d just started school again, joined a new Pee Wee football
league, had tons of homework, and there was this new girl in his class... Yes, he was too
occupied to think anything of the trailer, or Mr. Bradford or Canada.
Then, one night in October, the police knocked on the front door.
It was a typical Sunday, the kind that starts with sleeping in late, has church and
brunch somewhere in the middle, continues with some kind of ball being bashed around
the neighborhood and winds down with Freddy parked beside a radio as the streetlights
popped on outside his window. He would tune the radio to either a sportscast, local AM
station with new and cooler songs, or even some news if he thought he could listen in
without getting caught. Mostly though, he kept it on the local AM station.
He wasn’t listening, really. It was all Sonny & Cher, The Monkees, and someone
else the local DJ loved to play but Freddy could never remember; the guy had
Thunderclap in his name. Freddy assumed he was some kind of Indian.
He’d been concentrating on a page of longer division, the radio mumbling in the
background when his ears suddenly perked up at two familiar chords, the same he’d
heard booming from Mr. Brandford’s house.
Freddy scrambled for the volume knob. He listened. He thought he knew the
voice. He swayed as the song played out. It was long and glorious and just seemed to be
the sound of a man having fun playing a guitar, pinging and dinging little notes out as the
band played away in the background.
That’s when the knock came. As if for good measure, the doorbell chimed.
He heard his father answer the door. Two men’s voices echoed with a boom of
authority beneath the floor of his bedroom. Curious, Freddy left his homework on his
desk and went to the landing of the stairs.
“Just routine questions,” the first one said. He wore a uniform. The second one
wore a suit. He’d just put away his wallet, which even from the distance Freddy could see
had a federal-looking badge.
“You say this Bradford fellow has lived there about five years now?”
“About that, yes,” his father answered.
“What’s this all about,” his mother asked.
“Just collecting details for our investigation,” the uniform said.
“What kind of investigation,” his mother asked.
“Have you or any member of your family heard any music coming from Mr.
“Music?” his mother asked innocently. “What kind of music”
Freddy watched his mother shake her head gently.
“Why rock music,” his father asked.
“We believe he may have been using it as a signal,” said the suit. “Some kinda
pied piper thing. Now - ” and the suit had begun to open his mouth when he felt the
nudge of an elbow against his bicep. He looked at the uniform, who nodded in the
direction of the top of the stairs.
Freddy backed into the shadows. He planted his backside on the cedar chest his
mother kept the spare blankets in, the ones reserved for the coldest nights when another
layer was needed. But at that moment, Freddy could’ve pulled them all over his head and
it wouldn’t have made a difference.
He felt the weight of four adults waiting on his reply.
“Go to your room.”
“I heard voices.”
“Never you mind. Go to your room.”
“I was working but - “
“Do as your mother says! Go!”
Freddy retreated, quick, back to his desk. He’d try to concentrate on his math
homework but his focus was blown. He twirled a pencil between his fingers and watched
the neighborhood slip beneath the weight of the night. Finally, the front door closed. On
the sidewalk outside, the suit and the uniform walked toward separate cars; the suit to a
blue Dodge, the uniform to a marked patrol car. The men exchanged a couple words then
went separate ways.
Needing distraction, Freddy picked up the phone. He dialed. It rang and rang and
rang as if it would ring forever. Then:
“WNBF, we play all the hits!”
“Excuse me. But what was the name of that song you played just a little bit ago?”
“Which song kid? We played a lot of ‘em tonight!”
“The one that goes... duh-duh-donna-dah-dah-dah...” Freddy sang as many notes as he could.
“Oh,” the engineer said, “that’s probably Neil Young you’re thinking of.”
“What’s it called?”
“‘Down By the River.’”
“Thanks for listening! And hey! Kid!”
Freddy was just about to hang up, but he brought the phone back to his ear.
“Don’t take the story in that song too seriously now, OK?”
Freddy hadn’t noticed a story. He just heard the notes. He remembered something about people holding hands. But no, he hadn’t noticed a story.
OK,” he said.
He hung up.
Freddy looked out the window. The graveyard sprawled over acres of what he imagined must have once been farmland and, before that, Indian territory. He thought about how that civilization once had made its own rules and laws, that the elders had final say in who went to war, who killed and who was killed both honorably and dishonorably.
Freddy swung around.
His father came in the room, the door gliding partly shut behind him, caught by his mother’s fingers. She stayed in the hallway.
“Son. Your mother and I have been talking. We decided that you’re probably going to hear a lot of things from your friends. Maybe from the neighbors too in the next few days, or weeks, maybe even years.”
Freddy sat still. “OK,” he said.
“Um, how do I say this. OK. Sometimes, things happen in life. And you see them happen, and you might have an opinion about what just happened. And sometimes your opinion is so strong, you decide you have to do something about it.”
“Like when Bobby Conroy pushed Jessica Mitchell down?”
“When who did what?”
“Bobby Conroy. He’s this big guy in our school. He’s two years older. He pushed Jessica Mitchell. She skinned her knee.”
“And you had an opinion about this?”
“Yeah but.. I didn’t do anything about it.”
“And how did you feel after that?”
“Mad. Like really mad. I should’ve done something.”
“Because! Jessica’s small! She walks kinda funny and he’s always making fun of her, calling her ‘gimpy’ and all that. He calls her other names. They’re not nice.”
“So,” his father said, “you got mad at Bobby Conroy because he picked on
Jessica. But you never did anything about it.”
“No. And I should have. I’ve been mad about it ever since.”
“Well,” his father started, “sometimes, when people see someone doing something they don’t agree with, they get angry. Even though they don’t do anything about it, they’re still angry inside. Then one day, they decide to strike back at this person who’s been hurting someone else.”
“OK,” Freddy said.
“They ‘take matters into their own hands,’ as they say. And sometimes they might do something that may or may not be legal.”
“What your father is trying to say is that you’re going to hear a lot of talk about
Mr. Bradford, Freddy. And we don’t want you to - “
Freddy stood up. “Did someone hurt him?”
His father held out a hand, appealing for calm. “No. No, nothing like that. It’s just that, well, Mr. Bradford won’t be coming home anytime soon.”
“Well. That’s hard to explain. You see, he felt that someone was hurting people.
And that someone – now this is what he felt – he felt that the government was hurting
people. Hurting his friends. So he decided to help his friends get away to where the
government couldn’t hurt them.”
“So he was doing a good thing?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know yet.”
“If you’re helping your friends stay safe, how is that not good?”
“Because what he was doing was illegal, Freddy.”
“How can it be illegal to help people?”
His father looked down. “That’s a good question Freddy. It shouldn’t be illegal to
help someone. But if that someone...”
“John, I don’t think you can explain this,” his mother said.
His father held up a hand in resolve. “OK son. Let’s say your teacher gives one of
your classmates an order. Right?”
“OK, so let’s say this order might get your classmate hurt. Maybe the teacher says
‘hey, climb up on top of the building and jump off.’ That wouldn’t sound like a good idea now, would it.”
“But because they’re the teacher, your classmate might feel like they
what they’re told. Right?”
“I guess so. But jumping off a building is stupid.”
“Right. It would be stupid. And let’s say your classmate doesn’t know how to get
out of it. They’re stuck! They want to do as they’re told but they don’t wanna get hurt.
this, right? So you say ‘hey classmate, c’mere. I know a good place where
you can hide until the teacher forgets about it.”
“Where would I hide them?”
“Canada,” his mother answered from the shadows
Freddy was beginning to like this place more and more. “But why would Mr.
Bradford hide his friends in Canada?”
“Because the government wanted them to jump off a building,” his father said.
“That’s dumb. Why would they ask his friends to do that?”
“Because their daddies and granddaddies all jumped off buildings like they were told and a few of them survived,” his mother said. “So someone somewhere got to
thinking that jumping when you’re told to do it is always a good thing.”
“Do you understand any of this?” his father asked.
“I guess so. He was helping his friends and he got in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble did he get in? Like having to stay after school?”
“Well, not quite. So let’s say you help your classmate hide until the teacher forgets that she told him to jump off the building...”
“But your classmate, there’s this girl that likes him. And she thinks he’s being a
wimp by not jumping off the building. She calls him names. She tries to goad him into
jumping off the building, too.”
“She sounds like a jerk.”
“OK, maybe she is. But she’s in love with your classmate. And so, rather than help you hide your classmate, she tattles on you and tells the teacher where you’re both hiding.”
“She’s a fink?”
“A what ?” his mother boomed.
“A fink. Someone who turns you in when they say that they’re your friend.”
“Exactly. She’s a fink. And when she rats you guys out, you both get caught and thrown in...detention.”
“So Mr. Bradford’s in detention,” Freddy said.
His father sighed. “No. He didn’t make it to detention.”
His father’s stare was fixed on the floor now. “Because,” he said. “Mr. Bradford decided that the rat-fink girl wasn’t going to get off so easy.”
“What did he do to her?”
His father looked at his mother. His mother stared at him long and hard.
“He killed her.”
Freddy’s eyes popped open.
“He killed the rat-fink girl?”
His father nodded. Finally, he said “yes. He killed her.”
Freddy jumped up from his chair. “Good!” he shouted. “I’m glad!”
“You don’t mean that,” his mother said.
“Sure I do! She was a rat fink! People were going to get hurt because of her, right? So too bad! She’s dead! Good!”
“Son, it isn’t right to kill anyone, even if they’re wrong.”
“Too bad! You say it’s wrong, but I say too bad!”
“He could’ve done so many other things, Freddy. He had a lot of other options.”
“But she had options too. And she decided to be a fink.”
His mother rolled her eyes. “Please stop using that word. It isn’t nice.”
“Neither are finks!”
Freddy ran out of the room, down the stairs, out of the house. His mother and father exchanged looks.
“You’re the one that wanted to tell him,” she said.
His father sat for a long moment. Finally, he nodded. “Yes. And maybe someday he’ll make different decisions if the time ever comes.”
His mother looked over her shoulder. “It won’t. Not if I have anything to say about it.”
His father stood.
“Where did he go, anyway?”
* * *
Three doors away, the lights blazed in the Bradford house. From his spot on the sidewalk Freddy could see into the front parlor of the family’s home. A woman that Freddy assumed was Mr. Bradford’s wife sat on the couch. A phone reached all the way from the kitchen on a long extension cord. She held the receiver to her ear.
“Child protective services took them,” Freddy heard her say. “No, I’m not sure. They’ll be OK I guess. I have to get everything else sorted out.”
“I don’t know what else to say Mom,” the woman continued, “I already called the lawyer and he said he’ll work on Danny’s bail. Meanwhile, it’s just a mess. A real mess.”
“I asked. They said that under the circumstances I should consider myself lucky that I wasn’t in jail, too.”
“I don’t care, Mom. You might think that what we were doing was wrong but we also had mouths to feed and ... besides, the government isn’t exactly innocent here...”
“No! I get that they didn’t pull the trigger Mom but ... wait... hold on a sec...”
The woman rose from the couch, seeing a young boy pulling open the front screen door of her home. She thought the kid looked familiar.
“Can I help you?”
Freddy, as if in a daze, walked across the room and went to the stairwell.
“Hey! Kid! Where are you going?” She then said into the phone “I don’t know Mom, some kid just walked into the house. Hey kid! What are you doing?”
On the second floor Freddy went room to room until he found the record player.
Unlike the small plastic model he had in his bedroom, this one was made of chrome and
glass and looked like it had cost millions of dollars to retrieve from outer space. The
speakers stood on the floor. Freddy lifted the window. Then he turned to the player, lifted
the arm and set the needle on the first track of the record with the orange label bearing an
That night, residents clear down to the banks of the Pepperton river could hear the
chiming and pinging of a man who sounded like he was just enjoying playing his guitar.
It echoed like a siren call, sent out to everyone as if to say that freedom was still a great
thing worth fighting for, in whatever form mattered to them most.
Matt McGee was born in Vestal, NY beside the Susquehanna River. He writes short fiction in the Los Angeles area, drives around in a vintage Mazda and plays goalie in local hockey leagues. He got to know the work of Neil Young through the soundtrack of ‘The Strawberry Statement.'