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Thomas Matijasic
Martin Fishman

I died in 1967 at the age of thirteen. The circumstances of my death are not all together clear to me, but I will relate them as best I can. Whenever one thinks of 1967, the images that come to mind are of the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, of rioting in Detroit, or anti-war protests outside of the Pentagon. Yes, I saw those images on a black-and-white television screen. What I saw in color were little league baseball fields, the annual Fourth of July parade, and the sight and sounds of a small town in the Midwest.

It is a popular cliché to say that the puberty years are confusing years. In reality, all periods of one’s life are pretty confusing. However, the trials of middle school are long remembered. You’re not really a kid any more. If you are a young man, you are intensely interested in women, but in the abstract. Those naked beauties that you see in Playboy only vaguely resemble the real girls in your eighth grade class. Where do the bunnies live and do they really look like that?

Due to the changing nature of your body, psyche, and hormones, you generally have tremendous anxiety about your future. In an attempt to discover the direction of their lives, many young teens turn to the occult. I had two first cousins (one a year older than I, the other a year younger) who lived in the town of Mahoning Falls, Ohio. Mahoning Falls, population 6,000, was best known for two wooden, covered bridges and a great Fourth of July celebration. George, the older of my two cousins, was tall, kind, and intelligent. A talented musician, he introduced us all to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He was also obsessed with the paranormal and read extensively on the subject. Fred, his younger brother, was very mechanically gifted. He was both humorous and hot tempered. Fred loved to pull pranks and his love of the fair gender emerged early and with great intensity. I spent a great deal of time with my cousins during the summer months. We were never bored when we were together. We rode bikes on country roads, attempted to play pop songs on our musical instruments, hung out at the local Dairy Queen, and did our best to flirt with any available young lady.

In our quest to learn our personal destinies, my cousins and I turned to the great occult figure of Mahoning Falls, Martin Fishman. No one called Fishman by his first name. He was simply “Fishman.” Fishman was an outcast. His family was poor and they lived in a small, run-down house by the town dump. He was a large boy, considered fat by the standards of the day. He was blessed from an early age with a deep, gravelly voice. His clothes came primarily from the Goodwill Store and they were only washed infrequently. He had few friends and was frequently taunted at school. Like any mistreated, junkyard dog, he became mean. Cousin Fred was one of the few kids to befriend him. I don’t really know if Fred liked Fishman, but Fred loved to fight. Defending Fishman gave him a good excuse to punch a few dime store bullies and look heroic. As a result, Fishman was fiercely loyal to Fred.

Everybody in a small town must carve out his niche. When he was about ten years old, Fishman found his niche. Fishman became acquainted with George through his friendship with Fred, and from George, Fishman became acquainted with the literature of the occult. Once introduced to the subject, Fishman embraced it. He read every book available to him on the subject. By the age of eleven, he was using Tarot cards to tell for-tunes. He learned to read palms. He saved money from cutting lawns and raking leaves to buy a Ouija board. By the time he was twelve, he was holding full-blown séances. He never became popular, but he did gain respect. In fact, among the students at Mahoning Falls Middle School, he was generally feared, which was fine with him. He understood that it was more important to be feared than loved if you were an outcast. Both adults and teens would sometimes pay Fishman to attend their parties in order to conduct fortune-telling sessions or séances. Of course, neither group would ever have considered inviting him to their parties as a guest.

By the time he was fourteen, Fishman was an accomplished showman as well as being a Master of the Occult. He would arrive at a party wearing an old, black suit, worn-out tennis shoes, and a dirty white T-shirt. His thick, greasy black hair would be slicked back and he wore his mother’s black eye-liner to accent his dark brown eyes. He stood about 6’1’’ and weighed about 280 pounds. After entering the house of a party-giver, he would loudly announce, “I am Fishman! Why have you summoned me?” Some of the girls would giggle. A few boys might heckle him, but he ignored them. He would command a candle. When it was brought to him, he would light it and place it in the center of a table. He would then demand that the electric lights be turned off and that everyone be seated around the table. Usually there were seven to twelve guests at these gatherings and everyone had to participate. He would direct that the guests hold hands. Once they did, he would murmur some bizarre incantations in a language that only he understood. With head bowed, he would fall into a trace. Suddenly, his head would snap back, and his voice would roar in an unfamiliar tone announcing that he was a particular spirit and asking why he had been brought into this house. His eyes would roll to the top of their sockets. His hands would squeeze the hands of those sitting closest to him. He would begin to sweat and quiver. If no one said anything, he would shout even louder, “Why have you brought me here! What is it that you want to know?”  

Eventually, one of the guests would ask him a question:  “Is my dead grandmother in heaven?” “Will I marry John Smith?” “Does Doris Brown really love me?” “Will I be rich?” “Do all gym teachers burn in hell after they die?” Fishman would answer these questions with great authority. After a half an hour to forty-five minutes, he would again fall into a trace. When he emerged from this second trace, the show would be over. Appearing exhausted, he would collect his fee and leave. For a short time, the partygoers would discuss his revelations. They would drink; hook up, gossip, and dance. Fishman was soon forgotten. He walked home alone in the dark to the house near the dump. He slept well knowing that he had earned some badly needed money. He despised his peers, but he needed their money. They despised him, but he was the best show in their little town. He was a must if you were going to have a cool party.

Lisa Major lived across the street from George and Fred. We had all grown up together, but in the summer of 1967, we began to look at Lisa differently. She was, shall we say, blossoming. Early in the summer, George had “gone steady” with Lisa. They even kissed a few times before “breaking up.” Later Lisa went steady with Fred, but she caught him kissing another girl behind the rec center during a teen dance. I was very interested in Lisa myself and would always find an excuse to go over to her house when visiting George and Fred. Fortunately, she had a younger brother and there was a basketball hoop on the side of their garage. 

It was early August, but rather cool for that time of year. We were in the basement of my cousins’ home. George was on keyboard, Frank and I were on guitars, Lisa’s younger brother Paul was playing George’s bass, and a kid named Al was playing drums. After several hours, our jam session was broken up by a knock on the side door. It was Fishman and he was his usual, profane self. We conversed in the basement for about an hour. Al left near twilight to return home and eat supper. Following his departure, Paul suggested holding a séance. Fishman was reluctant to conduct the proceeding because he said he was tired, but we talked him into it. We lit a candle and placed it on a workbench. Fishman sat on a large wooden chair, the rest of us on metal folding chairs arranged in a circle. George sat to Fishman’s right and Fred to his left. I sat between Fred and Paul. We joined hands and Fishman began to induce himself into a trance. About five minutes into the trance, Fishman asked, “Who do you wish to contact?” Fred replied, “The Ripper?” Fishman opened one eye and responded, “Are you sure that’s who you want?” Fred said, “I’m sure.” Fishman paused and then forcefully stated, “I command the Ripper. I command the Ripper!”

Fishman’s head slumped forward. All was tranquil. Suddenly, his head snapped back and Fishman’s eyes opened with a red glow. His fist violently slammed the table and he shouted, “Who disturbs my slumber? Who dares to summon me to this ridiculous place?”

“I do!” shouted Fred defiantly. “You will tell me what I want to know or I will send you back to hell where you belong!” Paul’s arm was visibly shaking and he clutched my hand so tightly that the blood was cut off to my fingers. “Don’t test me, you insolent bastard or I will drag you back to hell with me when I go. Now what do you want to know?”

Fred’s question was clear and straight to the point: “Will my brother become the greatest rock star ever?” The Ripper’s answer was far more vague, but it was prophetic: “Your brother’s greatest music will be written after he is dead. Thousands will come to see him perform. Ten of thou-sands will buy his records. But for all the money he makes, he will never be able to buy back what he will lose. Horror will come at night and the man I am speaking through will be dead by the end of the week. You can’t change anything. It is out of your control. By God, you will rue the day when you summoned this spirit! There will be much suffering for all of you.” The Ripper laughed. Then Fishman’s head slumped again, and after a few minutes, he opened his eyes and spoke in his normal gravelly tone.

When the séance ended, Paul jumped to his feet and nervously squeaked, “I’ve got to get home.” He ran up the stairs and out the front door. Fishman looked exhausted. George got him a glass of water and a towel to wipe the sweat from his forehead. We all sat silently as the candle burned low. Finally, Fishman said that he had to return home because his mother was waiting for him. He moved slowly up the steps and then exited into the night.

After Fishman departed, I turned to George and said, “Man, that was weird, even for Fishman.” Fred quickly threw in his two cents, “Oh, it’s all bullshit. I love Fishman, but it’s all a show and no one does it better than the big man.” George waited to speak, but he expressed the feeling that Fishman was on the level that night: “I don’t think he was faking it. Whatever he tapped into was real. I don’t know if the spirit that possessed him was telling the truth, but that wasn’t Fishman talking.” Fred’s laconic response was just as emphatic: “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

News of Fishman’s death that very night hit us like a thunderbolt. Apparently, he was walking home from the séance along the railroad tracks headed for home. He accidently stepped into a nest of timber rattlers in between two wooden ties. He was bitten on the right heel and on his left ankle. The shock of the snake attack caused him to fall forward and to the left. He hit his head on a steel rail so hard that it cracked his skull. His body wasn’t found until the next day when a group of workmen saw Fishman’s lifeless body.

Fred had a difficult time accepting the death of his eccentric friend. Fishman’s mother was extremely poor and burial arrangements were very limited. The coroner examined the body within hours of its discovery and declared the death to be accidental. He was sent to a local funeral home. His burial took place the next day, with the wake occurring one hour be-fore the service. Fishman’s mother requested that Fred, George, Paul, and I act as pallbearers. We recruited two other friends to help us with the casket. We were the only ones, apart from his mother, who attended the funeral. Since the Fishmans didn’t belong to a church, Fred and George were each asked to say a few words about their fallen friend. Frankly, I can’t remember what either of them said. I just kept wondering what timber rattlers were doing so far north and in the middle of town.

Mrs. Fishman sat quietly through the ceremony. She looked older than her years and appeared to be completely isolated. You might say that mentally, she was in her own world. Unable to afford a cemetery plot, her son was buried in her backyard with a simple wooden cross to mark the grave. She died two days later and was buried next to her son. There was really no known cause of death other than loneliness and a broken heart.

I didn’t see Fred and George every week. I lived in a suburb of Ohltown, about twenty-five miles to the east of Mahoning Falls. I generally visited my cousins every other week and sleepovers were common in the summer. About a month after Fishman died, I decided to spend the weekend with Fred and George. It was late August and the nights were getting cool. During the afternoon, we played basketball at Lisa’s house. While shooting hoops, we decided to get together after dark and build a campfire in the high weeds near the edge of the woods behind my uncle’s property. My aunt and uncle had plans that evening and we were left alone. Fred and I mixed together metal shavings with sulfur and gunpowder from firecrackers in order to create a shocking surprise for our campfire guests.

When the sun disappeared behind the trees, we took armloads of firewood into the high weeds and dug a small pit for the fire. We lined the pit with rocks so the fire could not spread into the dry vegetation. We then returned to the house. About 8:30 p.m., Lisa, Paul, and Paul’s friend Aaron came to the door. They helped us carry some lawn chairs and a cooler to the campfire. The six of us sat in a circle and told jokes and stories until the night grew dark. About 10 p.m., only the fire light illuminated our little circle and you couldn’t see much beyond the tall weeds at our backs. Lisa was looking particularly fetching that night in her blue jeans and oversized sweatshirt.

Fred suggested we hold a séance. Paul and Aaron seemed a little reluctant given the recent death of Fishman. Lisa didn’t express an opinion, but she looked pensive. Fred was persuasive and triumphant. We held hands. Fred began his mumbo-jumbo routine.

Finally, he said, “What spirit should we call?” I replied, “The Ripper!” Paul quickly whimpered, “No, no not the Ripper.” I repeated, “Call the Ripper!” “The Ripper it is,” said Frank.

In a very dramatic and loud voice Frank shouted, “I call upon the Ripper to come to us now! To show himself to us now! To kill us now!” Just as he finished, I threw our “magic mixture” into the fire, which immediately created sparks and a bad smell. Lisa, Paul, and Aaron jumped to their feet and I believe that Aaron actually peed on himself. Fred and I burst into laughter. The others called us bad names but also began laughing at their overreaction to our prank. Once everyone settled down, we took turns telling ghost stories. About a half hour later, I heard a distant, high-pitched howl coming from the darkness. Fred looked at me and said, “Did you hear that?”

“Yeah,” I said, “maybe we should head back in.” The others were not impressed. George accused us of plotting another prank once we went into the weeds to head home. Lisa and Paul agreed.

We sat for a few minutes patiently listening for any sound that could be heard beyond the crackle of the campfire. Suddenly, a huge roar bel-lowed from the weeds just beyond where we were sitting. All six of us jumped and huddled together near the fire. Maybe we were hoping that the light of the flames would protect us from the darkness. We waited for what seemed like hours but was more likely minutes. Using the electric light near the backdoor as our guide, we slowly made our way through the weeds to the safety of the house.

We never really knew what creature made that blood-curdling cry. It may have been a feral dog or a coyote passing through the area. It may even have been a black bear heading toward the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Intellectually, I’m sure there is a logical explanation. But we were teenagers and we all knew emotionally that we had heard the final howl of Fishman as he moved from this world to the next. Certainly, this world hadn’t treated him very well. I’ve got to say that I’m kind of grateful that he gave us one last scare before he departed.

Thomas D. Matijasic is a native of Youngstown, Ohio. He earned a B.A. from Youngstown State University, a M.A. from Kent State University, and a Ph.D. in History from Miami University. He has taught at Big Sandy Community and Technical College since January 1, 1983. Dr. Matijasic has received four BSCTC Great Teacher Awards, five NISOD awards for teaching excellence, and the 2006 Acorn Award. He served as President of the Kentucky Association of Teachers of History (1994) and served three terms on the Kentucky Heritage Council (1994-2006). Dr. Matijasic has published more than 20 articles and 30 book reviews, the most recent entitled, “It’s Personal: Nixon, Liberia and the Development of U.S. African Policy (1957-1974),” WHITE HOUSE STUDIES (2011).

 

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