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Peoria botulism outbreak inspires new book stringing together 7 days of strange 1983 events

The cover of Gee, That Was Fun: 7 Days of Mayhem by Robert Fromberg.
Trunk of My Car Cooperative
The cover of Gee, That Was Fun: 7 Days of Mayhem by Robert Fromberg.

A Peoria native's latest book delves into a series of freak occurrences that happened one wacky week in October 1983.

Robert Fromberg could barely concentrate on a book or a movie as he spent six months shaking off a bad case of long COVID. But he did continue to regularly comb through hometown headlines. One on the 40th anniversary of the Skewer Inn botulism outbreak caught his eye. Then he stumbled upon a headline of a woman struck by a falling air conditioner in New York City. Both incidents happened in the seven days starting Friday, Oct. 14, 1983.

"Now I'm all in, because the kind of random mayhem that occurred from the patty melts at the Skewer Inn and Northwoods Mall in Peoria seemed very much like an air conditioner falling out of a window on someone's head," he said.

That was the impetus for the research that eventually turned into Gee, That Was Fun: 7 Day of Mayhem. The book features hour-by-hour, and sometimes minute-by-minute accounts of remarkable things happening in New York, Peoria, and Washington, D.C. over the course of this week and how they sometimes criss-crossed.

For instance, a New York publisher that week printed a controversial Bible with a gender-neutral God. The Peoria Journal Star opined on the book with a take Fromberg describes as "not very favorable and a little bit bemused."

"I really want to invite people to do is to look at all these events and sort of think about about the role of randomness in our lives. You know, we all, I think, strive to control events to whatever extent we can," he said.

Fromberg describes his book as a work of fiction, though much of it is rooted in the realm of fact.

The book delves into the minds of the types of people who are generally lost in the official accounts of events, and accentuates their vantage points as imagined by the author.

"One of the things that really wanted to do was to raise people who might not be seen, might not be known. A receptionist at the Department of Health and Human Services. The secretary of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The poor person who I imagine cooked, put the onions on the patty melt and caused botulism at the Skewer Inn," Fromberg said. "The incredible importance and richness of those lives against a backdrop of what sometimes passes for far more serious history."

Gee, That Was Fun: 7 Days of Mayhem comes out May 7, 2024. It's published by Trunk of My Car Cooperative.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.