On Ivan Milat, ‘Runaway Train’ and stranger danger in the ’90s

state forest

Christmas, 1993. I received, among other gifts, a Super Nintendo game called ‘Tecmo Super NBA Basketball’ which I preferred to the more flashy ‘NBA Jam’ due to its realistic 5-on-5 play, respect for gravity, and the hilarious injuries you could dole out to opposing players. My favourite was a hyper-extension, which sounded hilariously brutal to my brother and I for some funny reason – and our goal soon shifted from winning games to unleashing hyper-extension after hyper-extension without prejudice, even though we had no idea what a hyper-extension was. Around the same time, a series of decaying bodies were being discovered in a state forest three hours down the coast from us, and news of a then-unknown serial killer swamped newspapers and evening TV bulletins for months on end. I had just turned eleven at the time and was beginning to emerge from the Fraggle-filled cocoon of early childhood into a world filled with serial killers who offered lifts and ended lives with cruel arbitration. Stranger danger was – not surprisingly – at its peak at the time, and my worried mother soon implemented a secret word which we were to request if anyone other than her or my father ever attempted to pick us up from school. Our secret word was ‘ANT’, an acronym plucked from the first initial of mine and my two school-aged siblings’ names. I only got to ask for this secret code word once, to which my grandfather told me to stop wasting time and get in the car, and then lectured me about how McDonalds was “low-grade dog food” when I suggested a drive-through detour.

There was a popular Soul Asylum song at the time called ‘Runaway Train’, which wasn’t at all about runaways but thematically matched enough for the Missing Persons Unit to wedge photos of young runaways-at-large into the video clip with names, ages, and ‘last seen’ dates, like an updated milk carton, or a particularly morose basketball card. (This was localised by state and country, I later learned – although when you are young, the world stops at the outskirts of your town.) As the weeks went by, and the papers kept thudding onto our wooden veranda (and sometimes on the window sill)  various kids from this video – whose names, faces and ages I had by now obsessively learned – would appear on front pages and in shallow rainforest graves, and would be dutifully edited out of the clip by the following Saturday, as a fresh “runaway” hit the starting lineup. I’m only now thinking about the fact that making these edits was somebody’s job. Each day for months I rolled out of bed, thundered down the steps, grabbed the cling-wrapped newspaper from the veranda, ripped it open (which was, and still is, stupidly hard to achieve) and read gruesome updates that would blow apart my blossoming brain, as my sugar cereal sat soggily in front of me.

At the time, my mother worked late shifts at a nursing home and would often get 11pm cabs home, which filled me with a thumping sense of anxiety, what with my daily intake of strange-car-related murders, the sudden need for secret code-words, and a killer still on the loose. My best friend at the time told me someone tried to snatch her brother out the front of our school which didn’t help things either, despite being almost certainly untrue. Each evening my mother worked late I lay terrified in bed, silently mourning and knowing – as I did for certain each time – that she was indisputably dead and in pieces in some shallow, foresty grave. And so, each evening for months on end, I worried, and grieved, and slowly dragged my small self past the point of pain to the inevitable acceptance of this loss: plotting my life without a mother, an orphan Annie with an even more feminine bob, stoically hiding from school-friends the pain one feels when their mum falls victim to an evil serial killer… until around 11:15pm, when I would hear her key in the door and breathe freely, silently vowing to make a million dollars in the next week as a child actor or child inventor or some such thing so she would never need to leave the house again and we would be safe, indoors, forever.

The police quickly zeroed in on Ivan Milat, who decided it would be a good idea to have a distinctive look, leave behind witnesses, and keep items belonging to his murder victims in his house, and he was tried and sentenced to life. Milat would spend the following decade feigning insanity, pleading his innocence, going on hunger strikes to protest his lack of a video game console (yup!), blaming and framing his brother, and swallowing razors. Being the most prolific and publicised murderer of the past hundred years, he was bounced around from jail to jail, and ended up, as if to reward my early, fear-riddled curiosity, in an old convict-era jail a few hundred metres down the hill from my high school. During my very first day there, our year adviser had warned us that when walking around at night near the school, we should put one hand in a pocket and clutch our keys in a fist, with the sharp, jagged part protruding between the first two knuckles (something I still do the in sketchier areas of the universe) in order to be ready. Ready. He dropped this knowledge as casually as one might explain the ‘I’ before ‘E’ rule (which shouldn’t be a rule, by the way), and his negligent, windswept demeanour coupled with this casual fight advice set my new school up as an urban jungle, where danger lurked behind every Toy World or Time Zone. We had a special morning assembly the day Milat was moved to the jail, as parental and student unrest was justifiably high – when inmates break from prison, they often head to nearby schools or malls, where their hostage situation and therefore bargaining position is much stronger. Not to worry though, there was a solid plan, our principal assured us: a new “Jailbreak Bell”, which was just the normal bell, blasted continuously. It was alarmingly similar to the “Bomb Threat Bell”, but held even longer. If the bell sounded continuously for longer than two minutes (with haste obviously not too much of an issue when dealing with escaped serial killers heading towards a school filled with thousands of kids) we should then implement The Plan. The principal calmly explained: upon the inevitable jailbreak, each classroom teacher would calmly lock the door and draw the blinds, after which students were to calmly place their chairs on top of their desks and calmly crawl underneath. Calm. Impenetrable.

In the end, Ivan Milat never broke out of jail, I never learned what a hyper-extension was, and my fear of hopping into strange cars subsided around the time that strange cars became the only ticket to ride anywhere past the outskirts of our town, but I often think of our 24-hour news cycle these days, and of anxious, unequipped young brains being hit with an avalanche of suicide bombers, food allergies, mosquitoes and rivers carrying diseases, cops who shoot kids, and all the ugly worst of it – while being given no historical or statistical context in which to place this information; freely dealt out to them between cat videos and Carpool Karaoke on phones that live in their pockets. It makes me long for a world where news was delivered on paper in the morning and television at night. At least then, parents could hide the more gruesome pages, and switch the evening news to ‘Home and Away’, the tales from a blissful seaside town where all the kids were orphans, people regularly perished before they hit 30, and drownings, septicemia, car-crashes, and bushfires were at least dealt out evenly, and scored with dramatic music. Those were the days…

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