The fish in Ron’s bed

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Photo credit: Michael Weidner on Unsplash

Let’s take a breather from the whole hypnosis/amnesia/psych book question right now. Rest assured, things are happening in that arena as we speak—things having to do with (fingers crossed) the possible declassification of key names on significant documents. But these things take time, and I need to chill for a little while and let some important people make their pivotal decisions in peace. We’ll jump right back over to that topic as soon as there’s a new development.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the fish in Ron’s bed a little more. Why? Because there’s something intriguing about that fish story that I haven’t shared with you yet.

We already know that the fish was a prank, not a message from the Mafia. We also know who put it there. It was Richard (Dick) Titus, the guy who lived down the hall from Ron in room 212. The same guy who’d been studying with Ron at around 7 p.m. on April 19, 1953. In 2010, he confessed to me that he was the culprit behind the fish prank and, in 2013, he elaborated a little more on the incident. So, what more can that fish—that cold, slimy, disgusting, long-dead fish—teach us about Ronald Tammen?

Think of it this way: in these emotionally charged and divisive times, when no one seems to agree on much of anything, I present to you one shining example of a core belief with which all of humanity can surely agree. And that time-honored value is this: no one in his or her right mind would ever knowingly sleep with a dead fish in their bed.

Keeping that singular uniting principle in mind—that people of all stripes are inherently averse to sleeping with rotting fish—isn’t it just a little bit odd that Ronald Tammen would wait to change his sheets until Sunday night, when the fish had been there since at least one day prior, and possibly two?

That’s right. During our second or perhaps third conversation, Dick Titus and I had moved beyond his surprise revelation of being the person behind the fish in Ron’s bed and conducted a deep dive into the question of when he put it there. Walking me through the incident with what seemed to be the clarity of his adolescent self, Dick told me that it happened on the way home from class. He didn’t have retaliation on his mind, he told me. In their ongoing game of prank/counterprank, Ron had most recently short-sheeted Dick’s bed, throwing in some Rice Krispies for added crunch. In this telling, Dick told me that their back-and-forth had been going on for about a month and that Dick had allowed some time to go by after Ron’s latest stunt. (This version differs from our 2010 conversation, when his timeline was a little more condensed. In that interview, he’d said that Ron had pulled the sheet trick the day before he disappeared. I allowed the slight variation and continued listening.)

It was on Dick’s walk home that he spotted the dead fish in the pond outside of Fisher Hall, and a lightbulb had gone off. “Perfect,” his 18-year-old brain told him. He managed to bring the fish ashore and then carried it upstairs (by the tail? under his arm? I forgot to ask him for those specifics, but I’m sure it was gross) and placed the fish in Ron Tammen’s bed. It could have been a Saturday, because classes were held on Saturday mornings in those days. It might have even been as early as Friday. But, in his mind, it was most definitely not on Sunday.

Here’s a paraphrased snippet from our conversation that I typed up after we spoke:

Dick: I remember I was coming back from class, so it had to be a Friday or Saturday.

Me: Did you take the fish up to Ron’s bed right away?

Dick (sounding a little perplexed): Yes…so I don’t understand why he didn’t change his bed until that Sunday. Unless he didn’t come back to his room until Sunday.

Bingo.

In 1953, they didn’t have security cameras to track everyone’s comings and goings. There were no towers registering the pings of nearby cell phones. There was no such thing as GPS. However, thanks to Dick Titus, there was a fairly foolproof tracking device in Ronald Tammen’s room the weekend that he disappeared. Because of that foul little fish, we can reasonably conclude that Ron hadn’t slept in his bed on Saturday, the 18th, and he might not have been there the preceding Friday night either.

I know what you’re thinking. Can we trust the memory of someone 60 years after an event had taken place? I’d wondered about that too. Maybe Dick Titus hadn’t spotted the fish while returning from a class. Maybe he’d been walking back to Fisher Hall after some Sunday activity—a baseball game, a fraternity function, a trip to the library—and that’s how his brain had edited the scene. We already know that his 2013 timeline was a little different from the one in 2010. Could he have gotten things scrambled?

Fortunately, Murray Seeger, a nationally renowned reporter who was employed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the 1950s, published an article on May 4, 1956, that supports the story Dick told in 2013. The article said this:

“At about 8 p.m., [Tammen] went downstairs and asked the house manager for clean linen. Some freshmen pranksters had put a dead fish in his bed the night before.” [emphasis added]

It wasn’t some pranksters, it was one prankster. And, according to Titus, it happened during the day, not the night. But Seeger places the fish in Ron’s bed at least on the Saturday before Ron went missing. I’d call that corroborating evidence.

A two-day-old fish in Ron’s bed also helps clear up one minor mystery I’d been grappling with for a while. Namely, if Ron wasn’t planning to go to bed early Sunday evening—if he were still planning to attend song practice, for example—what would have motivated him to change his sheets at 8 p.m.? In other words, how would he even know about the fish unless he’d turned down the covers? But after at least two days, I’d think that the fish would have made its presence known even before Ron observed the visual evidence. Put simply, I’m sure it was smelling up the room.

The fish was probably one of several topics university investigators spoke about with Dick, whose name is included in Dean Knox’s notes, though the fish isn’t mentioned. The feds were well aware of the fish. Dick described to me a time in which two men from the FBI paid a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Titus at their home in Rocky River to discuss the fish incident, scaring poor Dick to death. [View Carl Knox’s note by clicking here.]

Even though we can deduce that Tammen wasn’t in his bed that Saturday night, we still don’t know where he went. It had to have been late when he arrived, however. He was said to have been playing with the Campus Owls at the Omicron Delta Kappa carnival that evening and then reportedly at a bull session at the Delt house. His brother Richard had said that he was with Ron until between 11 and 11:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Perhaps Ron was involved with someone whom none of his friends or family knew about. Maybe he was out with a group of people, although that wasn’t exactly like him. I doubt very much that he was alone. Other than stalkers, serial killers, and the occasional cat burglar, who goes out by himself all night?**

If Ronald Tammen was with one or more people on the night of Saturday, April 18, 1953, no one appears to have come forward after he went missing. Were they too embarrassed or afraid? Were they somehow responsible for his disappearance? It’s all just a little…fishy.

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(** Note: Stargazers, late-night wayfarers, sometimes insomniacs, etc., excepted, though I don’t think these describe Ron very well either.)