I have no memory of the explosion itself...the one that killed all those nuns, but when I was a kid on Kenwood Avenue in Peoria all those years ago, I remember that the adults in the neighborhood talked about it from time to time. As far as the kids I grew up with were concerned, the Ghost Nuns of Kenwood Avenue was the neighborhood legend, and we used to scare each other senseless with stories about them and the stories just got better and better as time went on and the scary tales were passed back and forth from kid to kid.
I'm pretty sure the explosion itself happened before I was born. I remember that occasionally, when my dad had neighbors over for a couple of beers and some chips with dip, he'd point at this large crack in our living room wall and boast about that crack as having been caused by a huge gas explosion in a Catholic girls school that happened just across a large field at the end of Kenwood Avenue where it butts up against North Sterling Avenue. I checked Google maps and sure enough, there is a large field labeled Franciscan Recreation Complex right exactly where I remembered where that school was located. I also Googled “Peoria Natural Gas School Explosions”, but came up empty handed. You'd think there would be a permanent official record of something that big happening. But the stories about that explosion persisted throughout my childhood days in Peoria and about the nuns that were supposed to have been killed in the explosion. The memories and stories continue to haunt me to this day.
The Ghost Nuns
The big kids in the neighborhood used to get such a charge out of regaling all of us younger kids with horrific stories about those ghost nuns. Scary tales about eternally grinning nuns, creepy skull faced horrors in singed, torn and bloody habits wielding steel rulers wandering Kenwood Avenue at night. They would tell us these creepy apparitions were just waiting, waiting mind you, to catch some numb-nuts little kid wandering around after dark so they could catch you and beat your knuckles bloody with their fearsome rulers and maybe even carry your rotten little soul off to hell for being out after dark when you know darn well that your folks expected you to be inside at that hour.
The ghost nuns were a real and tangible part of the outer darkness for all the neighborhood kids below the age of seven—the big kids made sure of that. Those stories made for many a nightmare in my youth in Peoria.
A couple of doors down from my house and across the street there lived a nice old retired couple with a great big double garage and an attic space built on above it. Nothing up there but a bunch of old boxes and assorted junk, and we weren't supposed to climb up there on that splintery old wooden ladder but we did anyway when we thought we could get away with it. We ignored our parents warnings about climbing up there because It was such a cool place to play and hang out for us younger kids in the neighborhood. It didn't take long for the bigger kids to find out about that and start laying their plans.
A couple of those bastards got their hands on a sheet of burlap and a couple of pieces of costume jewelry they probably swiped out of their mom's jewelry box, a couple of over sized fake rubies with little steel loops on the back. The big kids sewed them on to the middle of the sheet of burlap just far enough apart to look like eyes, then they climbed up into that garage attic and one of them put the burlap over his head and layed down behind some boxes while the other one hung back in the shadows. There they stayed, just waiting for me and my little friends to climb up that ladder for an afternoon of frolic and scary late afternoon fun, the fucking sadist bullies! The big kids waited until we were well into our little kid ghost fantasy for the day, and then the big kid with the burlap over his head stood up from his place of concealment on the floor and moaned loudly and in a forlorn ghost nun-like manner; “GHOOOST NUUNNS...COMING for your AAAAASSS!”
The big kid's asshole buddy was laughing himself into a cerebral thrombosis while I, with my heart in my throat and too scared to even scream turned around and ran over my best friend to get to that fucking ladder. In addition to almost breaking my damn arm falling halfway down that ladder and on to the cement garage floor trying to make it out of there, I spent the rest of the goddamn afternoon picking splinters out of the palms of my hands. Gee, thanks a lot big kids. I was halfway down the block with my hair standing on end and one hell of a skid mark on my jockey briefs that I was going to have to explain to my mother on laundry day when I realized that I'd been had.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sulking under my porch.
Peoria... ah, Peoria...long ago...far away...life was clear...close your eyes...