A Quick Preface
During my early teenage years, I was absolutely obsessed with World War Two history. I collected two entire sets of vintage combat fatigues and field gear—complete with M1 Garand rifle and a sidearm revolver—and participated in World War Two battle reenactments whenever possible.
Since I was probably the youngest person in the universe with a desire to take part in historic battle reenactments, I was mostly running around a field with middle-aged guys in American and British military uniforms, shooting blanks at middle-aged guys in German wehrmacht uniforms. (Side note: shooting at Nazis is fun regardless of situational context.)
I also wore my fatigues to school on the anniversaries of major battles and events. As one would imagine, donning moth-bitten old army uniforms and spouting-off dates of historical remembrance doesn’t exactly make you the most popular kid in school. When I reached my late teens, my interest in social debauchery began to outweigh the battles of yore. So followed plenty of beer and plenty of trouble. By the time I graduated high school, the old 101st Airborne and 1st Infantry uniforms were packed away in dust-covered rubbermaid totes.
Murder at Moonville Tunnel
On some Friday or Saturday nights during the summer after graduation, my friends and I would make the one-hour drive to an abandoned railway tunnel called Moonville. Deep in the woods by way of an old gravel forest road, it had a local reputation for being haunted.
College kids would drive up from nearby Ohio University in Athens. They came in search of ghosts and boy did Moonville deliver (at least when my friends and I were around). Those kids are probably telling folks to this day about the paranormal phenomena they witnessed deep in the woods of Ohio in an old abandoned tunnel … In reality it was my friend Dustin making spooky noises and rolling boulders into the creek; or my friend Kyle walking across the far entrance of the tunnel in an old wedding dress; or even just an explosive rustling of bushes and growling noises—enough to send even the most cool and collected frat boys running for the safety of their sedans.
On other occasions, we’d take unsuspecting friends for their first visit and put them through the usual rounds of teenage scare-tactics—yelling BOO, making spooky noises, boilerplate stuff. Teenagers having teenage fun. Until—as teenagers often do—we took it too far…
One Saturday a bunch of us were hanging around the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart. Someone suggested we drive down to Moonville Tunnel. A group of four or five girls in our little crowd had never been before, so the boys began our usual rite of preparedness: telling them that the tunnel is haunted and that they were likely to run into a few ghoulish entities from beyond our earthly world.
A few of us (Kyle, Dustin, Greg, Dewey, Joey, and myself) went into the Wal-Mart to grab a few supplies for our journey. While we were standing in the checkout line, a terrible, insidious light bulb burned to life inside my brain. I told my three friends about my newly-hatched plan and thus, the cogs began to turn.
Back outside in the parking lot, Greg and I told the rest of the group that we were going to have to sit this one out: We had been called in to do some work early the next morning, we told them. Bummer.
Leaving the Wal-Mart, we turned onto Bridge Street and drove twenty minutes to my house. I dug into my closet and pulled out an old army ammo crate. I grabbed an en-bloc clip filled with .30–06 blanks, a handful of .22 blanks, and loaded my old blank-firing M1 rifle and .22 pistol into the back seat of my friend’s truck.
Operating through a spy network of covert texts sent via Motorola RAZR flip phones, Greg and I timed our arrival in Moonville—down the miles of dusty and unmaintained county roads, deep into the forest, to the makeshift parking area—to precede our group of friends. We drove past the parking area, farther into the woods, until we found a pull-off with enough space to hide the truck.
Carrying our weapons of mass disfunction, we backtracked toward the trailhead to Moonville Tunnel. We crossed a bridge over a wide creek, into and through the regular parking area at which our friends would soon be arriving. The entire parking area was a muddy quagmire at the time. We carefully rock-hopped through the sludge until we reached the beaten path of the trailhead. Once we’d hiked the half-mile back to the old creepy tunnel, we took up positions in the heavy underbrush.
Thanks to our two insiders, Dustin and Kyle, our timing was impeccable. We had settled into the leaves not more than ten minutes before we heard familiar voices coming up the trail from the parking lot.
As the caravan of our buddies traveled across the path in front of us, I noticed that Kyle’s mom and dad—Carl and Robbie—had joined the group. Carl had a habit of encouraging (rather than discouraging) these types of activities. I knew he was in on the plan when the group reached the middle of the tunnel and I heard him instruct everyone, amidst protests from some of the girls, to turn off their flashlights and “see if any ghosts come out.”
We took this as our cue. Greg and I crept to the entrance, pointed our blank-loaded guns toward the decrepit ceiling of the tunnel, and I whispered, “One … two … three—” BAM! BAMBAMBAMBAM!
The sound of cannon fire, screams, and laughter filled the tunnel as friends slipped in the mud, spun in circles, cried for their mothers, and struggled to regain their grip on reality.
Everyone who was in on the joke—Greg and I included—burst into a fit of laughter and the rest of our friends quickly realized they’d been bamboozled.
This is probably where the prank should have ended.
About an hour later we were in the main parking lot. Most of our friends had already left for home, but a few of us were still standing around and talking. I was going to hitch a ride back with Kyle and his parents, and had just loaded my things into the back of their truck. Just as I closed the door, a car pulled into the muddy parking area. My friends and I looked at each other. “College kids,” someone said.
“You outta get out that pistol and fuck with em,” Kyle’s dad suggested to me with a boyish grin.
It took no more cajoling than that for the rest of us to jump onboard with the plan—even though at the current moment there was no more “plan” than the suggestion of “getting out the pistol and fucking with” the college kids.
I discreetly opened the truck and harnessed my little revolver in a shoulder holster underneath my jacket as Carl approached the college kids. He introduced himself and told them we had just arrived as well; that we were getting ready to check out the supposedly haunted tunnel; and that we were first-timers.
I approached the group and took stock of them. There were five total: One big, tall corn-fed fellow who could have been a linebacker, a short guy in glasses who was about as wide as he was tall, and three innocent-looking girls who looked like they had just moved into their freshman dorms.
Of the five of them, I only remember the name of the short guy in the glasses: Dakota. An interesting name, which might be why it stuck with me after all these years. Or it could be because Dakota’s introduction prompted Dustin to spontaneously (and untruthfully) tell the group of strangers that he happened to live in North Dakota, where he was a professional bull-rider. His name was Mike, by the way, and he was only in Ohio to visit his cousin, Jeremy [Kyle] here. One of the girls went to shake his hand in greeting, but when they reached for it, Dustin held up an empty jacket sleeve (his hand was pulled back inside of it) and told them he had lost the hand in an accident on his family’s ranch as a child. “Kinda messed up of you to try to shake my nub,” he told her. When she issued an embarrassed apology, he accepted.
While the group of college kids were enamored by Dustin’s tall tales of Dakotan bull riding and lopped-off appendages, Carl leaned back and whispered to me, “Act like you’re hammered drunk.”
Thus, I mentally consumed a pint or so of hard liquor and assumed the name of Sam. “Nice to—hic—meet ya,” I slurred to them.
We started down the trail. Dakota told us that he had been to Moonville Tunnel several times. He knew all kinds of interesting facts about its history. There was an old mining village beyond the tunnel that was abandoned in the late 1850s, he told us. You had to cross a stream to get to it. There have been several recorded deaths, one in 1958 when a brakeman fell onto the tracks. We learned quite a bit from Dakota on our walk back to the tunnel, and in return, we filled his head with as many lies as it could hold.
Finally we made it to the tunnel, walked through it, and approached a stream on the other side. “The mining village is just a little farther, past this creek,” Dakota told us. “Just need to cross on this log.” He pointed to a mossy fallen tree that spanned over frigid, rushing water.
Carl turned to me. “Sam, your drunk ass is liable to fall off that thing and drown yourself.” I took the hint, and after a couple of lines faux-protest, I consented to stay behind with Carl, Kyle, our friend Dewey, and Kyle’s mom Robbie. The college kids, along with Dustin and a few of our other friends, crossed the creek on the log and disappeared into the woods on the other side.
As soon as we figured they were out of earshot, we started to conspire. Of course, Carl was the first to offer a suggestion: “We should wait for them to get halfway across that log and fire the blanks at them so they fall in the creek.”
I imagined news headlines of a tragic accidental drowning, all caused by a group of prankster teenagers who would learn a valuable life lesson by way of spending their twenties and thirties behind bars.
“I have a better idea,” I said.
About fifteen or twenty minutes later, we were back in the tunnel and patiently waiting. As soon as we heard voices coming down the trail, Kyle and I started to argue.
Somehow, despite the fact that we were but a simple troupe of Appalachian hillbillies with zero acting experience, I swear the performance that followed could have won an Oscar:
“I saw your number in her goddamn phone!” I slurred to Kyle. Dewey was holding him back against the wall of the tunnel and Carl was holding me back on the opposite side.
“Bullshit,” Kyle replied, “you’re fuckin delusional. Every time you get like this you start accusing me of this shit, you paranoid asshole.”
The back-and-forth continued until the group of strangers and friends approached our stage. Dustin and our other buddies hung around, (not in on the plan at this point themselves); the college kids passed between Kyle and me with confused caution.
Our improv routine escalated.
“Boys, calm the hell down,” Carl told us. Then to me, “Sam, you’re drunk.”
“So what if I’m drunk,” I told him. “He knows what the fuck he did.”
Kyle started to push Dewey away to get to me and Dewey tried to ‘calm him down’ in the same manner as Carl. “Jeremy [Kyle] goddammit, he’s drunk, let it go—”
“I ain’t lettin shit go, get the fuck off of me—”
The college kids hung a few feet away in the tunnel and watched as Kyle tried to get past Dewey.
“This is the last time,” I told Kyle, “the last time I hear about you trying to fuck her behind my back.” I reached into my jacket and started to pull the revolver from its holster.
Carl’s entire demeanor changed from the moment my arm reached in my jacket to produce our primary plot device:
“Jeremy—Jeremy he has a gun—HE HAS A GUN JEREMY, GET BACK—”
Cue collective gasps from the college kids. Carl wrestled with me and pleaded for ‘Jeremy’ to run, but Kyle’s character wasn’t having any of it.
“Oh, you need a fuckin gun huh? Pussy ass little bitch—” he made it past Dewey and halfway across the tunnel with fists raised when suddenly I ‘managed to free my hand from Carl’s grasp’ and aimed the pistol at my faux-foe.
A cacophony of noise erupted in quick succession:
“NOOO!” screamed several of the college kids as they saw the pistol being pointed at their new friend Jeremy.
BANG! went the sound of the first shot as it reverberated through the tunnel like a stick of dynamite exploding in someone’s living room.
And then there were the screams. The most awful, blood-curdling cries of terror that you could ever hear. The kind of screams that stay with you for the rest of your life—even as you write about it over a decade later.
Kyle dropped to the floor of the tunnel. I fired two more shots, and with each of them his ‘lifeless body’ convulsed a half a foot into the air.
Carl’s performance continued. He left me and rushed to Kyle, who was stifling laughs between his best attempts at a dead guy impression. “Robbie, call 911!” Carl yelled. “Robbie, he’s not breathing! Call 911 right now!”
I collapsed against the wall and began to ‘drunkenly weep’ at the sight of what I’d done. The gun fell to the ground.
Carl turned and grabbed the lapels of my jacket, slamming me into the concrete wall. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GONNA DO NOW?!” he asked me. “HE’S DEAD, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING TO DO?!”
“I don’t know,” I cried. “I don’t know, I can—we can—we’ll put his body in the creek and—oh god, I’m so sorry … I’m so sorry …”
Carl started to laugh. We turned and saw that the college kids had already made it to the other end of the tunnel. They paused at its opening, disoriented and panicking.
“We-we-we need to g-g-get to h-higher ground!” Dakota screamed.
“Run down there and scare ’em,” Carl told me.
Something in me, a little voice, thought for just a fraction of a second that maybe we had already taken things too far … but the laughter of my friends on our end of the tunnel was like an addictive drug. Laughter, which, either didn’t reach the ears or the consciousness of the college kids. When I took off down the tunnel, they saw me and screamed all over again. They pushed each other out of the way and stumbled in the mud trying to turn, and then fled down the trail toward the parking lot. The laugher in my ears waned and with it, its effect. I thought, These people are going to be traumatized for the rest of their lives if they leave here believing someone was murdered.
I holstered the pistol and continued out of the tunnel and down the trail, trying to catch up with them. By the time I reached the parking lot, they were already in their car. Dakota was behind the wheel, and the big linebacker was in the passenger seat.
Their car was stuck in the mud. Wrrrrrr …. wrrrrrrrrrr … The front tires were spinning backwards with the speed of a straight-lane dragster, but the car wasn’t budging from its mire.
As I entered the glow of their headlights, I saw both of their eyes grow to the size of baseballs.
“Stop! Stop, it was just a joke!” I yelled, waving my hands.
From inside the car, they saw the guy who just killed his friend running toward them, shouting nonsense, and waving his arms wildly.
The passenger door opened and the linebacker tumbled out and ran at a full sprint into the opposite tree-line until I heard a SPLASH as he swam across the creek near the main parking area to the other side.
Dakota panicked and put the car in drive, suddenly propelling it forward into a boulder on the edge of the parking area and smashing the front fender.
I finally reached their car and they screamed in unison before I held up my hands. “Guys, this was all a joke. It was all a joke, I’m so sorry. There were just blanks in the gun. My friend Kyle—uhh, Jeremy—is coming out of the woods right now.”
Dakota was sobbing. “I don’t care,” he cried. “I don’t care, I don’t fucking care I just want to go.”
All three girls in the back were sobbing.
My god, what have we done, I thought.
“It was just a joke,” I repeated. “We thought it would be—”
“Just a joke?” I heard a voice behind me. I turned to see the linebacker towering over me, clothes dripping, face covered in briar scratches. “It was just a joke, huh?”
About that time my friends were running back into the parking area from the trail.
“Uhhh, listen man,” I stammered. “I don’t want any trouble, we were just—”
“You don’t want any trouble? Don’t want any TROUBLE?!”
He started to raise his fist but Dewey pushed me out of the way and stepped in front of him. “Get in your fucking car … and go back to Athens.”
Several other friends stood behind Dewey and the linebacker eyed them all.
Dakota called from the bruised Camry … “C-come on, let’s just get out of here.”
The linebacker took a deep breath and pushed past Dewey. He went to the front of the car and pushed, along with a couple of our friends, while Dakota was finally able to back the car into the gravel road.
The linebacker paused at the open car door and turned to look at us one more time. “Just so you know. We’re calling the sheriff when we get back to Athens.”
He got into the car and they sped away, trailed by a contrail of flying gravel and mud.
We were silent; everyone realizing the gravity of what had just happened. Well except maybe for one of us: Carl started laughing his ass off.
“What?” Kyle asked him.
“Hell,” he said once he’d caught a breath. “They’re gonna call the sheriff and tell em they met some guy named Mike, who’s a one-armed bull rider from North Dakota, and saw his drunk friend Sam shoot a guy named Jeremy.”