Belford, New York. 1994. Snapshot of a place in time.
Pretty little town, nestled in a wooded valley in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Six churches and two graveyards (though one, a historical site that contains the earthly remains of Revolutionary War heroes, is no longer used). Liberal sprinkling of big, graceful Victorian houses. Tiny, neglected museum of local history. Town hall with your standard pretty white clock tower. Two scenic rivers that meet in the center of town – Shady River from the north, where it flows out of Black Lake, and the Silver River from the northwest. Heart of town is a park with a gazebo in the center.
Blue-collar town. Three thousand people, give or take. Centerpiece of the economy is Belford Wire, the copper-wire mill. The town’s other businesses include two supermarkets, a Jreck Subs, a McDonald’s, four bars, a print shop, three convenience stores, two pizza places, a diner, one “fancy” restaurant, two bar-and-grills, a newsstand, a florist, a Kinney’s Drugs, another – local – pharmacy, a video rental place and a bowling alley. Two local newspapers compete with each other to report the results of Saturday’s football game and the mayoral elections more thrillingly.
Pretty place, but not entirely happy. The northwest corner of town, cut off from the rest by the rivers, is known – appropriately – as “Rivertown.” Rivertown is one of those places that all towns, no matter how small, seem to have: the dumping ground, the “wrong side of the tracks,” where the town’s human refuse is left and forgotten and the houses – some once grand – are peeling paint and missing boards. But then, there are places within the purview of Belford – the outlying communities, the trailer parks, the isolated and all-too-often garbage-strewn lots where trailers squat in the woods – that make Rivertown look like Park Avenue. And while Belford is generally a safe, tranquil place to raise children, it’s a bad place to be young. No movie theatre, no arcade, no activities that aren’t tied to school once you get too old for little league baseball. The only real place for young people to hang out is The Java, a coffee shop whose owner established it for that very purpose, and the Iron Works gym. Instead, the youth of Belford make their own fun in the form of substances legal and illegal; and activities that, when engaged in by people who already have no hope for their future, produce a dozen babies a year at Belford high. And why do they have no hope for the future? Because when you live in Belford, you either get out when you leave high school, or you work in the Mill your whole life. And they know they’re not getting out.
A sleepy place. The pace is slow, little changes. But one day, in the gut of summer while old people sat on their porches and drank iced tea; while the mill workers sweated at the spools and cursed the heat; while the young children jumped into the rivers and rode their bikes; while teenagers drove their cars out to Black Lake and drank beer and swam and fucked on the beach in their sleeping bags when night fell, something woke up.
A lot has been written about the Belford Incident, most of it in tabloids, psychological journals, and classified military reports. And still, nearly twenty years later, no one knows what really happened.
Well, almost no one.
I’ve done my best to gather together all of the information extant on the Belford Incident. Some of it is stuff I shouldn’t have, but that doesn’t matter. Very few people are going to read this. Very few people would want to; very few would understand or believe.
No, I’m just doing this for my own edification; trying to get a glimpse of the big picture, to really understand what happened on that cool and misty fall back when Clinton was in his first term and the Republicans were making their Contract With America, when Forrest Gump was on the movie screens and hypercolor shirts were on every teenager’s back.
Maybe if I can understand it, it will haunt me a little less.
What all accounts seem to agree on is that it all began with those two poor dumb kids out parking on the shores of Black Lake. Lila and Jeremy. And I agree with that. But where they all get it wrong is in assuming that they were the start of something new, the first experimental stabs of a killer finding his rhythm, like Martha Tabram may have been for Jack the Ripper.
As far as I can tell, they were part of something old. Something woke up from a long, deep hibernation that fall, and it woke up hungry.