In 1981, a ten-year old boy witnessed something very unusual involving two other children. For 37 years, this event haunted the boy. Finally, I am ready to tell his story.
The boy is me and it began in February of 1981. I was living in Roanoke, Virginia then. We lived on Read Mountain in a modern suburbia development called La Bellevue. At the base of the mountain were orchards. The Crumpacker Orchards closed in 1973, but a caretaker of the land still operated a small part of the business with the remaining fruit trees. On this massive amount of land were a main house which belonged to the Crumpacker family. A few smaller houses were scattered throughout the orchard.
A friend of mine named David and I had an argument on the bus one day about who could bicycle faster. We decided to have a race. In our development, at the end of a couple of roads, there were these dirt bike trails. We set up the race to go through the trails, into the orchard, and around a pond near the Crumpacker house and back again.
The race was on! David and I rode through the trails, into the orchard, and near the Crumpacker house. No one lived there. They left back in 1973 when the orchard closed. The caretaker didn’t live there either. He would periodically come by to check on things and make a meager living on the remaining fruit trees. So it was with great surprise when David and I saw smoke pouring out of the chimney of one of the smaller homes. As well, we heard noises. They almost sounded like walkie-talkies. I saw a figure behind a window with what appeared to be a gun. You have never seen two kids get the hell away from there as fast as we did.
That was on a Friday. The next Monday, I told a couple of friends what happened. They didn’t believe me. When I went to go to my friends’ house after school, I was told they went to the orchards. I became very afraid for my friends and I ran as fast as I could down there. This was probably a couple of miles away from their house so it took a while to get down there. When I emerged from the woods of the mountain, I had to go through some thick brush and weeds until the land became the orchard. As I made my way out, I ran over a dirt pile and saw one of old and abandoned houses. This was different from the one I saw a few days before. What I saw has haunted me ever since.
I saw a little boy with blonde hair playing outside the house. He couldn’t have been more than 4 years old. Just playing with toys. He didn’t look at me at all. He just sat there, playing. I froze. Then I saw another boy standing in the doorway of this small, dilapidated house. He looked to be my age. We stared at each other, not saying a word. It felt like an eternity. The boy in the doorway looked very frightened and scared. The look in his eyes has been burned into my brain ever since. I wanted to say something but the words wouldn’t come out. A hand from the inside of the house grabbed the boy and pulled him in. Were my friends in that house? I didn’t hear them. Were they dead? My frozen stature quickly mobilized and I ran as fast as I could away from there. I ran so fast, through the brush, through the woods, up the street, and into my house. I sat in my bedroom horrified. I was ten years old.
The odd part of that day was my friends never went down there. They changed their mind and blissfully played at another friend’s house. I ran down there to “rescue” them and to save them if I needed to. Instead, I saw something that had a profound impact on the rest of my life.
A few weeks later I was walking down one of the streets that led to the dirt bike trails. I saw a man, dressed in a suit, walking down the road. Nothing too unusual in the early 1980s. But when he went into the woods and down the trails, I knew something seemed off. I ran up onto a hill and watched as he walked into the woods. I didn’t want him to see me so I just let him disappear from my vision.
I moved from Roanoke a couple months later. Until this past weekend, I had been back twice. Once when I was 12 and again when I was 18. I didn’t venture into the orchards on either of those visits. Over the years, I learned a bit about what could have happened down there. My mother told me once, when she was concerned about her sons and other kids going down there, that she and another neighbor walked down there and talked to the caretaker. He told her they would get squatters at times in the houses. Usually homeless people who managed to find shelter. Eventually, they would be found out and asked to leave since there was no electricity in the homes and it was unsafe.
Flash forward to 2007. Browsing around on the internet, I found out the orchards were sold to a land development company. Aside from the original Crumpacker house, all traces of the old orchards are gone. The smaller houses were demolished. The pond near the main house was drained and filled in. What were once beautiful fields, when viewing Read Mountain from the mountain across from it, is now filled with modern suburbia. I scoured the internet for anything about kidnappings or murders in the area in 1981. Anything unusual with children or families. I found nothing.
I managed to find some memoirs from folks who lived in the area last month. The Crumpacker family ran the orchards for decades, going back to the earlier parts of the 20th Century. During World War II, there was a German prisoner of war that worked the orchards. It became too much for the family and they sold the land to Fralin-Waldron who eventually created the hundreds, if not thousands of homes, that riddle the landscape. That happened in 1973. The caretaker would take the money he made from the orchards and would bury it in glass jars around the homes. In 1983, some boys were shooting BB guns around there and accidentally shot one of the buried jars. All told, they found $2,000 of the caretaker’s money. As a reward, he gave each of the boys $100.
This past weekend, I went back for the first time in 29 years. After I checked into my hotel at 9:30pm on Saturday evening, the first place I drove to was Crumpacker Road. Based on my research, I knew they named the main road in the development after the family that toiled the land to grow fruit for the citizens of southwest Virginia. Most of the homes looked very modern but one stood out. It was the original Crumpacker home. Just seeing it sent chills up my spine. A road in the development leads to the Read Mountain Preserve. From there, you can hike up the mountain on trails. I did that Sunday morning. Which led me to better memories of the short time I lived in Roanoke. After I finished my hike, I drove around the Orchards housing development. Every single road. I couldn’t find the location of the old house with the boys in it. I knew it wasn’t too far from the tree line. As I was driving back to my old neighborhood, I saw a road from the other side of the orchards that led to another new housing development. After a few turns, I found it.
The old house was long gone. But I saw the exact location where I came out of the brush. I saw the remnants of the old dirt hill. I knew that was where my 37 year old mystery originated. Where I froze like a snowman as I witnessed something so surreal, so bizarre, it haunts me to this day. I felt the emotions I felt back then. Not the memory of those emotions, but the actual fear, bubbling to the surface. I let the fear get far enough to the point where I controlled it. I said “No more” and I finally made peace with this part of my history.
To a 10 year old boy, the world is filled with awe and mystery. Especially when you live in a huge and vast area that is your plaything. A place where you could wander around freely without consequence or trepidation. Until those weeks in 1981 when my safety and security disappeared in a few moments. It was my first experience with the “real world”. That the world isn’t always safe. It isn’t a place where you can just wander around without any caution. Chances are pretty good that what I saw that day was a family of squatters. I probably scared them as much as they scared me. I imagine they were dirt poor and the adult didn’t want to be seen. It was most likely a safe haven for them and they didn’t want to be found out. Recently, a friend of mine asked if it was ghosts I saw. It could have been that as well. They might have been kidnapped children. Abducted from their families and forced into captivity. At this point, I will never know. But I faced my fear of it all and finally came to terms with it. Back then, we didn’t have missing children all over milk cartons. The media didn’t grab ahold of a missing child. There was no Megan’s Law or Amber Alerts. We took these things for granted because we didn’t know about it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. We just didn’t hear about it as much.
A funny thought occurred to me as I walked through my old neighborhood two days ago and went down the dirt bike trails. What if a child was behind me, watching me? Was he wondering why a grown adult would be taking pictures all over the place and then walked into the woods. On a Sunday morning at that. Did I start a brand new mystery for some other doe-eyed innocent child? Did I start a new cycle?
The world is so much bigger when we are children. When you go back to a place you lived in as a child, did you ever notice how much smaller everything looks? A child’s brain is a wide open canvas of wonder. Over time, the canvas is filled with reality. Things from our childhood are forgotten or blown up at times to be bigger than they were. For me, it was truly the end of my innocence after that day. I understood what fear meant after seeing that. Whenever I walk alone somewhere now, that little flag goes up in my brain. Look around, be vigilant. Listen. Watch. Look all around you. I tell my son the same thing. Even when he is in a store or playing with friends, I make a point to be around. Don’t let him wander off.
Would I have gone back to those orchards if the housing development wasn’t there now? Most likely. But the fact this beautiful landscape (at the same time haunting) is now a regular neighborhood gave me a sense of security. I went back to the new housing development yesterday morning for the sole purpose of getting a picture of the original Crumpacker home. I didn’t count on the rush of emotions and exact memory to come back when I found the exact spot where I saw those two little boys. But finally, after 37 years, I am ready to let the mystery be. Unless, in the very off-chance the boy in the doorway should ever happen to view this perception of the events of that day, he reached out to me and let me know what did happen. I would be honored to hear his story.
The original Crumpacker home, now restored and lived in, May 7th, 2018
A view of The Orchards housing development from a hiking trail up Read Mountain, May 6th, 2018. 37 years ago, these were orchard fields with the exception of the main Crumpacker house and the few smaller homes in the area.