It’s 1959 in Castlerock, Oregon when Gordie La Chance and his three friends – Chris, Teddy and Vern go looking for adventure. After learning the general location of a body that may belong to Ray Brower, a young boy who has been missing for several days, the inquisitive bunch set off on a bold quest to find answers. Assuming Ray Brower met his untimely death by being tragically struck by a train, the boys hike along the railroad tracks in search of the ultimate discovery. However, on this fateful expedition, the intrepid foursome find themselves confronting not only their own fears and personal struggles, but they also come face to face with death as they finally locate the lifeless body of the young boy.
This is the synopsis of the film, Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner. The 1986 movie was adapted from the novella The Body, written by famous horror author Stephen King. Since the movie was not classified as a horror film, King’s famous moniker was only mentioned in the closing credits. Because King’s contributions were not promoted, most people are not aware the movie was based on his fictional story and by further extension of his life.
In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, Stephen recounted the first time he watched the movie with Rob Reiner. “He showed it to me in the screening room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was out there for something else, and he said, ‘Can I come over and show you this movie?’ And you have to remember that the movie was made on a shoestring. It was supposed to be one of those things that opened in six theaters and then maybe disappeared. And instead it went viral. When the movie was over, I hugged him because I was moved to tears, because it was so autobiographical.”¹
Many of King’s books take place in Maine, the state where he spent the majority of his childhood. However, it is known that in his younger years, King and his family moved around quite a lot. In the early 1950s, Stephen, his mother Ruth, and brother David lived with Ruth’s sister on the west side of De Pere. A local childhood friend of Stephen and David’s estimated they lived here between 1950 to 1953². Because the King family’s time in De Pere was brief and Stephen was at such a young age, his residence here is often considered somewhat inconsequential.
“In March of 1979, I was invited to be one of three speakers on a panel discussing horror at an event known as the Ides of Mohonk (a once-yearly gathering of mystery writers and fans sponsored by Murder Ink, a nifty mystery-and-detection bookshop in Manhattan). During the course of the panel discussion I told a story that my mother had told me about myself–the event occurred when I was barely four, so perhaps I can be excused for remembering her story of it but not the actual event.
According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house–a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.
It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact.”⁴Stephen King in Danse Macabre
In the above excerpt Stephen states this tragic incident took place, “when I was barely four.” King was born Sep 21, 1947, which indicates the accident may have occurred around October 1951. In another book On Writing: Memoirs of a Craft, King recalls a string of babysitters he and his brother went through while living in De Pere, mentioning again that his age was four. Their neighbor also places the King family in De Pere from around 1950 to 1953 (approximate ages 2 to 5)². Each of these facts confirm that the train fatality did, indeed, happen in De Pere.
Because he has no memory of the tragic event, King has reiterated that this specific story told to him by his mother bears no impact on his decision to become a horror writer. He believes that “Writers are made, not born or created out of dreams or childhood trauma–that becoming a writer (or a painter, actor, director, dancer, and so on) is a direct result of conscious will.”³ While King believes he chose to be a horror writer, this principle alone does not exempt any possibility of his novella, The Body and by extension, its movie adaptation, Stand By Me was influenced by the heartbreaking accident that happened when he was just a small child.
Writers remember everything…especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.”Stephen King in Misery
The newspaper confirms there was a train death on Thursday October 25, 1951 on the west side of De Pere. It occurred just north of Cedar Street near the bend in the tracks. Below is a photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The newspaper’s description of the accident lists a brother and sister of the deceased little boy as well as two unnamed children who were present at the time of the accident. It seems likely, given the evidence, that one of these children was young Stephen King.
The stories we hear in our childhood are the ones we remember all our lives.”Stephen King in The Wind Through the Keyhole
Earlier that year in May, 1951, Governor Kohler approved the $300,000 Main Avenue underpass project.⁴ It was completed the following year after the project was approved- around November of 1952.⁵ Before that, the train tracks were level with Main Avenue in De Pere, causing traffic backups when trains would briefly pass through the intersection. The newly constructed underpass would allow traffic to flow freely regardless of train activity and connect to Highway 41.
Shortly after the underpass was completed, the State Highway Commission proposed closing railroad crossings at Ash, Elm, Pine, and Oak Street, citing them as “unnecessary and dangerous.” These crossings did not have traffic signals like the one on Cedar Street (which was recently given the old Main Avenue crossing signal)⁶.
The City Council agreed the crossings were dangerous and decided to hold a public hearing to vote on the resolution. At that meeting, 75 people surprisingly voted unanimously against the closure of the Ash, Elm, Pine, and Oak Street crossings. Their reasons included the following:
- The railroad could just slow their speed like they do in larger cities
- If the closures were about safety then the more dangerous crossings at Lande and Reid Street should be closed too (today Reid Street is also closed)
- they reasoned that the crossing closures would not stop children from playing on or crossing the tracks
- they feared a possible decrease in home value citing dead end streets as undesirable
- Fort Howard Avenue (at the time) was the main thoroughfare to get to Green Bay and the closures would make travel more difficult
- Closing the roads would force children to ride their bikes on the much busier Highway 32.
Nonetheless, on April 13, 1954, Chicago and Northwestern Railways barricaded the crossings. They had circumvented the city’s hearing by going direct to Madison. Citizens were outraged. One even called it the “wooden curtain.”⁷ Despite all of the opposition (including the mayor and police chief) and a surge of community meetings, the decision was upheld.
Today, other than Cedar Street crossing, railroad tracks no longer cross any of the tree street intersections in De Pere. It’s very reasonable to assume that the death of one small boy may have prompted the closings, or perhaps it was always a consideration once the Main Avenue underpass was constructed. It’s difficult to determine for certain that the death of the young boy impacted Stephen King, however the pieces of the puzzle seem to fit perfectly in this particular case.
Is it possible to witness a train fatality at a young, impressionable age and later write a novella about an unrelated train fatality years later? I find this hard to believe. There is one thing for certain that cannot be disputed; Stephen King’s time in De Pere has most definitely shaped him. For those three short years, he was told our tales, met our people, and walked our rails. Given his age (2-5), it’s quite likely, that his first memories took place right here in this city. De Pere played its part in King’s own coming-of-age story and like all coming-of-age stories, all experiences, good or bad, leave their mark.
It seemed right to do it this way, because the rite of passage is a magic corridor and so we always provide an aisle – it’s what you walk down when you get married, what they carry you down when you get buried. Our corridor was those twin rails, and we walked between them, just bopping along toward whatever this was supposed to mean.”Stephen King in The Body
Special thanks to McKim Boyd and Amanda Reif for making me aware of this story. Also, a major thank you goes out for the substantial help of my wife turned editor, Dawn Hoffman.
1- “Stephen King : The Rolling Stone Interview” by Andy Greene
2- De Pere Historical Society Kids’ Newsletter Volume IX Issue II November 2019
3- Danse Macabre by Stephen King
4- Green Bay Press-Gazette : May 11, 1951
5- De Pere Journal-Democrat : October 9, 1952
6- Green Bay Press-Gazette : Apr 10, 1952
7- De Pere Journal-Democrat : Apr 29, 1954