Being that this is Halloween month, it’s time for a ghost story. This is a story that my mom used to tell back before she, too, became a ghost. (Miss you, Mom. And Dad. And Brother. I’m the only member of my original family unit who still doesn’t know what it’s like “on the other side.”)
The little girl woke up to see a man standing in her doorway.
It was dark in her room, and there wasn’t a lot of light from beyond the doorway. All the little girl could see was an outline of the man’s figure. He came forward into the room and spoke her name, and his voice was familiar. It was the voice of her favorite uncle. “How is my little sweetheart?” he asked her.
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Okay,” she told him.
Her uncle came closer, but not too close. “I’m sorry to wake you up, but I wanted to say goodbye. I’m going away for a while, so I’m not going to be able to see you so often.”
“Oh.” The little girl didn’t like that news. He was the one who always brought her candies and new dolls. “Where are you going?”
“On a trip.”
“Are you going to be a long way away?”
“A very long way away. That’s why I woke you up, sweetheart. I wanted to say goodbye before I leave.”
“Okay.” She was just a little girl, and didn’t know what to say. “Goodbye.”
Her uncle seemed to want to come and hug her, but wouldn’t allow himself to. This was odd. He sounded very unhappy, too. “Goodbye my little sweetheart. You take care of your mommy, now. Okay?”
“Goodbye. You go back to sleep now.”
“Goodnight.” Her uncle backed away from her, edging toward the door.
The little girl settled back into her bed, and glanced for a moment at the clock. She could just barely make out the time. It was after 11:00 PM, very late indeed. When she looked back up at the doorway, her uncle was gone.
The little girl went back to sleep.
In the morning, her mother was unusually silent, and spent a lot of time staring off into space. She’d burnt their breakfast eggs. While the little girl was eating, she suddenly remembered her uncle’s late visit. “Mom,” she asked, “where is uncle going?”
Her mother seemed shocked by the question. “What?”
“When he was here last night, he told me he was going away. Where’s he going?”
“Uncle was here? Last night?”
The little girl nodded.
“When?” There was an edge to her mother’s voice.
“It was really late. My clock said after eleven.”
Her mother went pale, and her mouth hung open. It took her a few moments to say anything. “Your uncle loved you very much. I don’t doubt he stopped by here to say goodbye to you.”
“Where’s he going?”
Her mother fumbled with a pack of cigarettes, pulling one out and putting it in her mouth. Her hands were trembling when she lit it. The flame wiggled and she had a hard time keeping it at the tip of the cigarette. “Your uncle went to heaven, honey.”
“Heaven?” The little girl didn’t understand.
“He was killed in a car wreck last night.” Her mother began crying, and so did the little girl. It wasn’t until a few days later, after the funeral, that she overheard her mother telling relatives in a hushed voice about the late night visit from the uncle. The other relatives gaped at the news, astonished, and gave the little girl strange glances. It was then the little girl learned that her uncle had died at about 7:00 PM that fateful evening, while driving home from a restaurant. The person who had come into her room at 11:00 PM could not have been her uncle, unless…
That little girl, as you probably guessed by now, was my mom. She swore up and down that this was true.
I believe her, mainly because of this story (which I was involved in): Nana Arrives in the Mail >
Not long after the Mexico trip I took with DT — which left me penniless — my dad convinced me to go back to work for him. He had a job that paid a very good wage and would allow me to live in hotels. That sounded oddly romantic to me, and so I went into it with enthusiasm.
Little did I know I would be defusing ticking time bombs.
You see, electric companies have lots of these things called transformers. They look like big metal buckets, or boxes, (or sometimes Daleks), and they take high voltages and transform them down into smaller voltages. When overloaded or overheated, they have this nasty habit of exploding.
A lot of electric companies keep their transformers underground, where they’re safer. They rest in things called “subsurface transformer enclosures.” The problem is that sometimes these enclosures fill up with water and soil, and over the years the heat from the transformer bakes the dirt into a hard clay. This keeps the transformer from cooling, as the heat is trapped just like it’s inside a thermos. This overheating leads to breakdown of the transformer, and power outages, and a big nasty detonation.
The only way they knew how to get the dirt out was to shut off the transformer, and then dig it out with shovels — which usually resulted in damaging the transformer to the point where it had to be replaced. Also, this entailed turning off electricity to the surrounding area, which also resulted in a loss of income. Instead of going through all this, the electric companies would just let the transformer explode before they’d deal with it. This was actually cheaper than preventative maintenance — even after taking into account the wrongful death lawsuits brought by surviving relatives of anyone standing near the explosion.
Don’t believe an electric company would think this way? Just watch the movie Erin Brockovich — she was dealing with the same electric company that I was.
My father figured out a way to use his Terravac vacuum trucks to clean out these transformer enclosures without the power company having to shut them down. We did it gently, with water pressure and suction, so it never damaged the equipment. We had to be very careful, because the high voltage plugs that the linemen called “elbows” would, if knocked loose, also result in an explosion — and most likely kill whoever was working on it.
I became really good at doing this. I would diffuse an average of four to six of these “bombs” a day. I never got comfortable with it, though, which is probably why I’m still alive.
There was this one job in Monterey where I encountered another danger. Working in posh shoreline neighborhoods, sucking out sand and mud from these enclosures (which often were embedded in people’s lawns), I would feel something crawling up my leg and I’d slap it, hard. This is exactly what the lineman I was working with told me to do. “If you crush them, you’re okay,” he told me. “Black widows don’t bite after their dead.”
This area, you see, was completely overrun with black widow spiders.
Did I mention I’m afraid of spiders? I have a very intense case of arachnophobia. Black widows especially. There was one time when I’d hung my wetsuit out to dry, and I pulled it down the next day and almost put it on, when a big, fat black widow dropped out of the sleeve. I swear I nearly had a heart attack.
So there I was, slapping at every little twitch in my leg, just knowing that this guy was playing a trick on me and it was all my imagination. But still, I slapped my legs until they were sore. All day long, slap! Slap! Then finally, at the end of the day, I went back to my hotel room and pulled my clothes off, and there were maybe thirteen dead black widow spiders on my socks.
The person in the room above me heard my hoarse scream as if I were standing right next to him. Within minutes people were banging on the door. I actually let the hotel manager in and showed him the socks. People crowding around outside the door, peeking in to see if there’d been a murder, also gave off shuddering exclamations and at least one danced around as if there were spiders crawling on her legs.
Proof that I can be a brave person: I went back to work the next day.
I had rubber bands around my pant legs, but it didn’t help. I still got black widows up my pant legs — and I was working in the infested area for over a week. There wasn’t a day where I didn’t come home with at least three dead spiders. One day, I swatted a live one off the lineman working with me — it had made it all the way up to his chest, nearly to his neck.
The perk of working this dangerous job was, of course, money. Lots of money. I made more in three days than I did working a month back in Berkeley.
The computer boom was upon us, then, and I knew at some point I would replace my trusty old IBM Selectric typewriter with a word processor. But the computers at that time were not portable, so I settled on a “smart” electric portable typewriter that that had a parallel port on the back. Hook it to a computer and it would be a daisy wheel printer.
I’m all set, I thought, and dragged that big white beauty with me from hotel room to hotel room, up and down the California coast, as I typed out the second draft of Travels.
This dangerous but lucrative job depended upon contracts, and when one job was finished there was no guarantee it would immediately resume elsewhere. I spent the between time at home with my parents, in my old room, working on my stories and spending all the money I had saved up.
There was a sale at the local computer store for a computer at an amazing low price. Not just any computer, but an IBM. It was called a PCjr.
Wow, I thought. I can afford this.
So only seven months after spending $799 on a fancy typewriter, I spent a mere $999 on a computer that had, get this, an astounding 128K of RAM. And, because I was friends with people who worked at the store (one eventually became my wife) they threw in IBM Writing Assistant (aka pfs:Write) for free.
A word processor! Finally! I was in heaven.
However it was not so wonderful. You see, IBM had purposely crippled this machine so as not to compete with their “real” computers, and by the time I bought all the third-party add-ons to bring the thing up to speed, I’d spent enough to have actually bought one of the “real” computers. Also, all the work I did on it made me, over time, into a bona fide computer expect — which led to a new career (one that sidetracked me for years).
Anyway, so I finally get this word processor, and I had the second draft of my novel Travels all typed out and ready for a third draft. So during lulls in my work I sat at my new word processor and wrote a third draft of the novel.
As I typed the manuscript into the word processor, I threw the page I’d just finished into the trash. When the trash filled to overflowing, I threw it out. Then I’d fill it up again.
Garbage trucks came and went. Page by page, the only hard copy of my manuscript migrated to an anonymous landfill.
Then, one fateful afternoon, I finished typing. Done, I thought. Completed. Mission accomplished.
I knew that the next step was to back the files up. Immediately.
Now, this was in the days before hard disks. I had two floppy drives on the computer, and what I had to do was make a copy of the floppy disk with my novel on it, so just in case anything happened to the original, I had a duplicate.
Lord help me if anything happened to the disk, because it was my only copy.
It’s a simple process. You put the original disk into one floppy drive, and a blank disk into the other, and you type in the DOS command DISKCOPY A: B:
Nothing hard about that, right? Pretty darn foolproof, wouldn’t you think? Of course all of this depends on you putting the right disk into the right floppy drive. If you don’t, you end up copying the blank disk onto the original disk, erasing everything.
That would be bad.
How do I know? Because that’s exactly what I did.
Intending to protect it from being lost, I ended up erasing it. Completely. Poof. The novel was gone. All I had left were the few pages of the last chapter, none of which at that point I had actually used.
The novel, in essence, had vanished.
I spent about a week mourning it, and then I sat down at the word processor and thought … well, I know this story frontward and backwards by now … why don’t I just type it out again? So that’s what I did. I typed it all out, from memory, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out a lot better.
This time around there was no fussing and fighting with the prose, no tight wedging of things in, no forcing this or that character to do some unnatural thing for the sake of the plot. Why? Because I knew the plot already, I knew from page one exactly what had to be laid out, and when. I knew the characters like they were family. I could see how they’d interact naturally, and was able to realistically portray their growth through the course of the story.
That was months later. Months. When finished, it still wasn’t finished, because it was now a first draft again. I had to rewrite and polish it before sending it off.
Little did I know that that would take years.
For years my friend DT and I would talk about driving down to Mexico, and now, in the summer of 1984, with us both in our early 20’s, we were finally doing it. DT and I had the stereo blasting and we were singing to Who and AC/DC and the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. By now L.A. was familiar territory, and I’d spent a lot of time in San Diego. It felt odd to be “just passing through.”
We stopped at the border and bought auto insurance, just like everyone and their brother told us to do. It made me nervous about making the border crossing, but we got through quickly and soon were driving in Tijuana. That in itself is not a problem, because everything is in English and there are Americans everywhere.
The highway heading south out of Tijuana was lined with unbelievable poverty; shacks built out of scavenged wood, parts of old billboards, crumpled corrugated tin, all up and down hills with no plumbing and no electricity. And there were little kids everywhere.
“Holy shit, Jer,” DT was saying, “we’re driving in another country! Another country. Can you believe that?”
I was all too aware of that fact, yes. Once outside of Tijuana the signs were no longer in English, and the speed limit was posted in kilometers per hour. I had nothing to translate on my speedometer; mine didn’t have kilometers on it. I drove a little bit slower than those around me and hoped for the best.
The thing that struck me during the drive down was, well … you have a nice highway, smooth and straight, nicely maintained … but then all the underpasses looked half finished. Like they built the structure and got it so that it could be used, and started putting the finishing touches on it — tiles, paint, whatever — but then stopped half way. The tiles and building material still sat on pallets among the weeds, unused, obviously there for years.
I saw that over and over.
We made it without incident all the way to the seacoast town of Ensenada, and drove through to look for the ocean. In front of a nice looking marina there was a short middle-aged Mexican cop with a mustache standing in the middle of the street, and he waved at me to stop.
Mexican jail, was all I could think of. Raped up the ass by prison guards.
“Hi,” I said through my rolled down window. “How are you doing today?”
“I need to see your registration,” he said in broken English.
I quickly dug through the Volkswagen’s little glove compartment and produced my registration, handing it over.
He glanced over it, squinting like he couldn’t quite see, and then he said, “This is no good here.”
“This is no good here.” He walked to the front of my car and pointed at the license plate.
“Excuse me?” I said, thinking, Mexican jail.
“Where these plates from?”
“California,” I told him, and then realized … these were a brand new design of plates, white instead of blue. He’d probably never seen them before.
He walked back up to my window, still holding my registration. “Is no good here.”
I stared at him, not knowing what to say. He stared back, registration in one hand, the other hand empty. His empty hand was palm up, fingers gently rubbing together.
Oh my God. He wants bribe money. I knew my dad usually solved everything down here by bribing the local cops, but I never thought I’d end up doing it myself. Still thinking Mexican jail, I panicked and dug out my wallet, and handed over a $20 bill.
He smiled. “I let you go this time.” Handing me back my registration, he waved us to drive on.
I put the VW Bug into gear and eased away, out into the street and driving aimlessly along while I shook and felt sick to my stomach. DT later said I was white as a ghost. “You handled that well,” he told me.
“It was better than getting a ticket.”
I drove around another twenty minutes looking for a likely hotel, and got completely confused and ended up going the wrong way down a one way street. I quickly pulled into a parking lot, followed immediately by another cop car. This time, though, they had a legitimate reason to pull me over, and they told me to follow them down to the police station.
Mexican jail, I thought. Raped up the ass by prison guards.
“Can I pay the fine to you?” I asked. “Instead of going to the police station?”
One of the two cops said no. The other one said yes. I paid them $20, which made the “no” cop very agitated and nervous. They let us go with a “warning.”
This left me afraid of getting back into my car. “I don’t want to drive anywhere here anymore,” I told DT. “Not a single damn block.”
“Let’s just leave the car here and walk,” he said.
That sounded good to me. “We’ll find a hotel, drive the car directly there, park it, and leave it there.”
About five blocks away we found a standard looking hotel, nothing fancy, and went in to inquire about rooms. I was worried, already being down $40 with nothing to show for it — well, besides not being in Mexican jail — so I was worried about having enough for the room. I figured it would be about $60 for two nights.
I was wrong. It was $17 for two nights. I asked him several times to make sure, thinking there was a language translation error. No, there wasn’t. Wow, I thought, cool. After we paid and left with the keys, we went up to look at the room — it wasn’t fancy, but it wasn’t bad — I was ecstatic. Finally I could relax.
“Beer!” I said. “We need beer!”
Across the street we were able to buy two six packs of really good Mexican beer for about $2, and that was after they upcharged us for being Americans. Back at the hotel we filled the bathroom sink with beer bottles and ice, and were all set.
Popping open a couple, we sat on the beds and drank.
We were in Mexico, and we were drinking beer.
Drinking beer. In a hotel room. With no television.
“Okay,” I finally said, “this is boring.”
“I know,” DT said, “let’s go to a bar.”
Ensenada in the mid 1980’s was really nice as long as you were right on the water. Inland it was a rickety desert town that existed in a perpetual tan haze of dust. I saw garbage in the street, bashed and dirty cars with cracked windows, and throngs of Americans wandering around buying touristy Mexican-themed junk made in China. The Mexicans seemed to look at us in terms of dollar signs.
We wandered from bar to bar, happy at how cheap the beer was, and finally ended up at a really loud, crowded place where the drink specialty was to have you hold a bugle to your mouth while they poured booze through it, and after you’re gagging on that, they kick you in the head. I watched this happen in total disbelief, over and over, amazed that it left the victims on the floor laughing hysterically. They even did it to a cute, dark haired American girl, though she didn’t seem to enjoy it much, and ended up slugging her boyfriend.
About eleven o’clock we decide to start heading back to the hotel. I remember I wanted to do some writing in my journal, and besides, we had not slept for about 36 hours. So we’re walking back in the dark, through some pretty spooky neighborhoods, and passing this one building a guy comes walking up to us from a stairway. Panhandler, I thought. But no, the guy said, “Hey, you looking for girls?”
“You looking for girls? Pretty, naked girls?”
“Yes,” DT said immediately.
“Down here,” the guy said, pointing to the stairs. The stairs which led down into a basement.
I was not at all sure about this, but DT was already going down the steps, so I really didn’t have a choice. Once through the doors we were hit with a wall of loud music and flashing red and blue lights. Shockingly naked women danced on a stage and on the bars and on several tables. One did tricks with her shaved vagina, blowing out candles and shooting ping pong balls with amazing accuracy.
The audience was full of American sailors. In uniform. All of them bellowing, whooping, and shoving each other. I don’t know why, but that made me feel a lot safer. We sat down, and from the shadows were immediately joined by two beautiful Latino girls. The one beside me said, “Buy me a drink?”
“Um, okay.” I had the feeling I had no choice in the matter.
I sat there awkwardly drinking with this girl while other women wiggled their naughty bits at me and begged for money. DT got into some animated laughing conversation with his girl, and at one point something was announced in Spanish and his girl said, “Oh! That’s me!” She told DT she’d be right back, and then ran up to the main stage, stripped her clothes off, and showed all her deep dark secrets under harsh stage lighting. DT whooped and hollered like his horse was winning at the races.
My girl seemed to be in the same bleak mood as I was, and she hardly touched her drink. “So,” she finally said, “would you like for to make love with me?”
“I like you,” she said. “I would like for to make love with you.”
“Are you serious?”
I was thinking to myself … she is a hooker, right? This is going to cost money, isn’t it? Can I afford to do this? Do I want to do this?
“I … um,” I stammered, “I just broke up with someone.”
“I have a broken heart,” I told her. “I can’t really … I mean, I’m not … you know. In the mood?”
“¿Que?” she said again. I think I was treading outside her limited English vocabulary. “You no want to?”
“I would like to … I mean, you’re beautiful and all … but my heart is not in it.”
“Oh.” She nodded, not looking me in the eyes. Her expression remained bleak, but not disappointed. I got the impression that she was miffed that she’d wasted valuable time drinking the expensive drink I bought her.
She stayed exactly long enough to not count as leaving immediately, then thanked me for the drink, kissed me on the cheek, and got up. I watched her walk to the other side of the room where she sat down next to a very drunk sailor. She was with him maybe two minutes before they got up and left together.
Meanwhile, DT’s girl had finished her dance and returned to him, and apparently made him the same offer. Turning to me he said, “I’ll meet you at the hotel. Later.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure.” He and his señorita got up and left.
I sat there alone, watching the naked women frolicking in this den of alcohol-powered depravity, feeling like a wimp. DT had the balls to go off with one. Why didn’t I? How, I wondered, will I ever become that great American writer if I don’t do things like get freaky with a hooker?
Don’t think I hadn’t noticed that writers seem to be overly fond of prostitutes. They all have hearts of gold. All of them. Just crack open a novel and read. It’s there in black and white.
I finished up my beer — and the rest of the drink that my would-be hooker had left — then stood up and threaded my way through the brawling sailors and squirming live pornography, out the door and up those filthy concrete steps to the street above, feeling very much like having come out of the proverbial Lewis Carroll rabbit hole.
I was drunk, exhausted, and nervous. I have no idea how late it was, but it was pitch black out there and I had only a vague idea where the hotel was. I started walking, making each far-and-between street light my continuous goal, searching for familiar landmarks.
After twenty minutes I found the hotel, stumbled my way up to the room, and was about to put the key into the lock when I thought … what if DT is here with his woman? Actually, I hoped he was, otherwise I’d be worried about him. So I unlocked the door anyway, opened it a couple inches, and called into the darkness.
“DT? You here?”
Crap, I thought, and stepped inside. Fumbling for the light switch, I braced myself to find him dead on the floor with his throat cut, or something equally horrible. The dim light bulbs came to life, revealing a bleak, lonely room.
The ice in the bathroom sink had long melted, and the beer was warm. I popped one open anyway and guzzled. Beer is the one thing, I decided, that I can really count on.
I waited for a while, and then waited some more. An hour passed, and I was so tired I was delirious. Finally I crawled into bed and tried to sleep, but couldn’t.
Another half hour went by, then I heard a noise from outside. Thudding footfalls up wobbly steps, and then a key in the lock. I sat up just as DT came stumbling in, looking bleary and covered with sweat.
“Yeah,” he said.
“So what happened?”
“Well, let me — hold on.” DT went and got a beer. He popped it open and quickly drained half of it before continuing. “Well, we went … we left, right? Yeah. She led me to this other building, like half-way across town. And we go in to her room, and we kiss for a bit, right? Then she stops and says it’s going to cost forty dollars.”
“Yeah. I say, no problem. Yeah. So she kisses me a bit more, and she’s got her hand down my pants, then she stops and says, she’s got to go get something, she’ll be right back.”
“I don’t know. A rubber, I guess.”
“Oh.” I grinned. “How was it.”
“Let me get to that. So, I’m sitting there in her room, waiting. And waiting. The walls are paper thin, you can hear people talking and arguing on either side. There was a fight or something, you could hear things falling. Lots of shouting.”
I’m sure I was looking at him in horror.
“So I keep waiting,” he says, “and I look at my watch — an hour has gone by.”
He paused, looking like he didn’t want to continue.
“So?” I said. “What happened?”
“I sobered up and got the hell out of there!” He laughed and then guzzled his beer. “It took forever to find my way back. I wandered all over the fucking place.”
“So, what did you do?” he asked.
“I came back here and couldn’t sleep.”
He wasn’t surprised. “Oh. Okay. Well, I’m going to sleep.”
And sleep we did. Well past the next morning and deep into the afternoon. When we awoke, we cleaned up and went out again, and I decided I was brave enough to try driving. Down to the beach somewhere, is where I wanted to go. I was thinking about that golden time I spent as a child down here, where I met that girl named Linda during the weeks my dad was waiting for a part to repair his Caddy.
I wanted to find that beach. I wanted to wade out into the waves with a beer in my hand and commune with the past. I wanted to resurrect something dear from my memories.
We didn’t get a half mile before a cop pulled us over for no reason whatsoever. He, like one of the ones from the day before, tried to tell me that my license plates were invalid in Mexico. After parting with another one of my precious — and dwindling — $20 bills we turned around and went straight back to the hotel.
That’s it, I thought. I’m done.
We had passed a Tourist Bureau office a few blocks up, and while DT went to take another nap in the hotel, I walked over to complain and get some advice. The well dressed man inside welcomed me in and sat me down at his desk. I told him about the cops and the money and asked him what I should do.
He shook his head, concerned and sad, and said, “Don’t give them twenty, they’ll be happy with ten. Also, get their badge numbers and report them to me. I will take care of it, I assure you.”
I thanked him, we shook hands, and I left.
DT and I laid low the rest of the day and that night. Money was running low and I was worried about having enough for gas on the trip back. I remembered all too well what it was like being stranded on that long stretch of Interstate 5.
Early the next morning we left, making it out of town without any more police encounters, driving up to the border where customs looked at us like we were drug smugglers. My lack of concern, and happiness to be back in the bosom of the USA, convinced them we were innocent.
It took all day to get up through San Diego and across the Los Angeles basin, and it was well into the night before we were making that long boring shot up Interstate 5 through no-man’s land. I was freaking out because, on the radio, there was a brand new John Lennon song, and it was really good. “What did they do,” I asked DT, “raise John from the dead and put him in the studio?”
It turned out to be his son, Julian Lennon. It gave me chills. It was seriously like hearing his father’s ghost.
It wasn’t long after that when we noticed someone’s car was in deep in the meridian between the north and south bound lanes, flashing their headlights anytime a car went by. Of course no one was stopping. I remember no one stopped for us, either, on our original ill-fated Mexico trip. “Poor bastards,” DT said.
“You know, I bet they’re girls,” I said. “That’s a girl thing to do, just sit there and flash your lights.”
“Let’s go back,” he said.
Going back on Interstate 5, especially in that area, is no easy task. We had to drive 15 miles up the road before finding a place to turn around, and drove 15 miles back to see them still sitting there flashing their lights. We pulled over, and sure enough, it was two terrified teenage girls. It took us a couple of minutes to convince them it was safe to open one of their windows an inch so we could talk to them through the crack. One was a beautiful blond, the other one — equally beautiful — had jet black hair. I immediately thought Betty and Veronica from the Archies.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It runs,” Betty said, “but it won’t go.”
“It made this funky noise and then a dragging sound,” Veronica said.
I went and got a flashlight and looked under the car. Their driveshaft had come detached from the transaxle and lay on the ground. “Um,” I said, “you need a tow truck.”
Betty got brave enough to get out and look. “Oh great!” she exclaimed. “Can you take us to a phone?”
Remember, this was in the mid 1980’s. There were no cell phones. We drove them 40 miles to the nearest pay phone, then waited with them for a tow truck, then led the tow truck back out to the car. The tow truck driver looked like your typical beer bellied guy with food stains all over his shirt. I was concerned with leaving the girls with him there, alone, and as it turned out DT was too. He did a really smart thing … he wrote down the girl’s names, and got the tow trucker’s name and license number before we let them leave.
Veronica had her dad’s credit card and so wasn’t too worried about being stranded. We reluctantly left, but not before both girls gave both of us a kiss. I remember driving away feeling like a genuine hero.
Later, at home while I was recovering from the trip, DT called me sounding excited. “Dude, did you hear?”
“The news, have you been watching the news?”
Apparently while we were down in Mexico, there were a string of murders along the highway we were on by Mexican ex-police who’d been fired for corruption.
The victims: American tourists.
I met Benny at the pet store when I stuck my hand into a cage full of baby rats. These rats, sold mainly as food for snakes by the store owner, were cute little critters with mixed white and brown fur. They had bulging eyes and twitching noses, and one came up and licked my hand. He didn’t protest when I picked him up. “I’ll take this one,” I told the owner.
“So this little guy is going to be an astronaut?” the owner asked as he rang up the purchase.
“Yup,” I said, handing over $1.49. “The rocket is all ready for him.”
The store owner laughed. “Well, I wish him good luck.” He put Benny in a cardboard box, and I took him home on my bicycle.
I put Benny into the payload compartment of the rocket, testing the fit. I could see him staring out from the clear plastic tube, his nose twitching. He had no idea what was going on. I took him out and put him into an old terrarium, his temporary home, and then put the rocket away. The launch date was set for the upcoming weekend.
The rat did not please my mother. She was used to lizards and snakes by now, but not rats. I told her it was just temporary, because I was firing it up in a rocket. When she heard that her attitude changed. “That poor thing! You’re not really going to do that, are you?”
“Well, yeah.” I shrugged. “That’s what I got him for.”
Benny’s temporary cage moved into my room, and I ended up spending a lot of time with him. I had owned a hamster before, which was as dumb as a rock, so I didn’t expect much more from this rat. I was wrong. Benny was amazing. Affectionate, curious, and personable, this rat was more like a dog than a hamster.
Bad weather scrubbed my launch date, being far too windy to send rockets up; we’d have to chase them for miles. We would try for the next weekend. In the meantime, I gave him a name: Benjamin Franklin Rat. It was better than calling him, “The rat.” It only took him a few days to start responding to it. He would even come when I called him.
Taffy, our long-haired Chihuahua, didn’t know what to make of Benny. They didn’t fight, and they didn’t run away from each other. Both were curious and became good friends. My mom couldn’t believe it, and this is what probably first endeared her to Benny. Like me, she couldn’t believe how affectionate and intelligent the little guy was. My dad took a liking to him too, and so the rat had the run of the house.
Another launch date came and went. Then another. By the time we had good weather, Benny had grown too big to fit into the payload compartment. By then I wouldn’t have launched him anyway, as I’d become too attached.
Benny gave Taffy a second childhood, as she started running around the house like a puppy. They had lots of fun together. Sometimes Benny would actually jump on Taffy’s back and ride her around. It was hilarious and their antics kept us constantly entertained.
My dad told his friends about Benny’s happy behavior, especially about Benny running around and playing with Taffy. After that, dad’s friends started coming over to visit the rat. Not us, mind you. They came over and asked about Benny.
Benny graduated to bigger digs, as my parents bought him a deluxe rat cage with spinning wheels and other toys. When they’d go out on the boat and leave me at home, the dog and the rat went with them. Benny had the run of the ship, and they would feed the little guy right at the dinner table with them. Sometimes I wondered if I’d been replaced.
My most vivid memory of Benny is when he’d squeal with delight after you gave him a treat. Like a dog, Benny would run around me and beg. When I sat on the couch with something like cheese puffs, he would jump up and sit on my knee, both front paws up, sniffing like crazy. I’d break off a bit of the treat and give it to him, and he’d take it with a squeal, and then jump around with joy, and run off to eat it. A minute later he’d be back and begging for another piece.
Sometimes I’d forget to shut his cage at night, and wake at 3:00 AM with Benny licking my face. If I ignored him, he’d run around on top of me, playing. “Go to sleep Benny,” I’d say. “Go on, back to the cage.” If I said it a few times he’d leap obediently up, crawling over various shelves until he reached his cage, and then go inside. He’d sit right inside the door and wait for me to shut it. If I didn’t shut it, he’d come back out and start running around again. So I’d get up, shut the door, then go back to sleep. In the morning he’d wake me up again, because the first thing my mom would do in the morning was let him out of his cage.
Benny lasted about three years and then developed a big lump in his side. It was cancer. Domesticated rats seem to be predisposed to it. The lump got bigger and bigger, and he got slower, and he started squeaking a lot for no apparent reason. Benny was in pain.
One day I steeled myself for the hard job of putting the poor little guy out of his misery. He was in a lot of pain and was hardly eating. So I chloroformed him and got it over with quickly, then cried myself to sleep that night, and probably the night after.
Months later we got another rat, and while it was a sweet little guy as well, it wasn’t the same. Benny definitely had a personality that was unique, and he fit right in with us. A silly little $1.49 rat had been a major part of the family. While his life was short, it was a good one.
At the very least I saved him from becoming snake food.
Last Monday evening, on February 10th, my father passed away. He was going to be 94 on April 2nd this year.
He was a sailor, an engineer, a pilot, a lumberjack, an inventor, an entrepreneur, and an adventurer. He was a millionaire more than once, but couldn’t seem to resist risking each fortune on the next thing that captured his interest. He knew the weather better than the TV weatherman. He flew airplanes by the seat of his pants. He crashed several of them, too, but always walked away from the wreckage.
Women seemed to find him irresistible. Sometimes I wonder how many half-brothers and sisters I have out there.
Fiercely independent, brilliant with mechanics, he designed and built things way ahead of their time. He also had a love of rebuilding cars and airplanes. He also occasionally had a dismissive disdain for the law.
My best memories of him are of when he would pull me out of school for months at a time and take me on one of his adventures. One especially stands out, when we went searching for pirate treasure down in the Gulf of California.
Honest to God, the trip started with a treasure map.
Dad pulled it out and showed it to me, pointing to a tiny pinprick of an island labeled Isla Patos floating to one side of an oblong sea. “This is where it would be,” he told me. “This is the logical place for the pirates to hide their treasure.”
“Cool!” I don’t remember which pirates he’d been talking about, or exactly why Patos Island was the perfect place for them. But I clearly remember the thrill of hearing about pirates.
“What I want to do is go down there with a good metal detector and search around. I bet we come up with some Spanish doubloons!” He looked at me with a smile in his eyes. “How about it? Want to go?”
I was about 11 years old and in the mood for hunting pirate treasure. “Yes!”
“Well guess what,” he said. “We’re going.”
At the time, Dad had a big bronze 1964 Cadillac with 5-inch fins. He’d put a trailer hitch on it and hooked it to our boat trailer, on which sat the TI-KA II, a 25-foot Trojan cabin cruiser, all wood and heavy as a house. It was Dad, Mom, me, and Taffy our long-haired Chihuahua, and an 800 mile drive down to the Sea of Cortez. I couldn’t wait because I knew there would be new and wondrous lizards to catch down there. I didn’t really think we would find any pirate treasure.
The trip down was long and boring. I spent it as I usually did, stretched out in the back seat and trying to sleep, not wearing a safety belt (back in the 1970’s it wasn’t yet a law). Instead of staying in hotels, Dad would pull over to the side of the road and we’d climb up an aluminum ladder to eat and sleep in the boat while it sat on its trailer. My most vivid memory of the drive was that during one of these stops I saw my first and only Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) which was ten inches long with a green body, a blue-green tail, yellow feet, and a yellow and black head. Around it’s neck was a “collar” of black. I couldn’t catch it, though, because it surprised me and was way too fast. It disappeared down a hole in the ground, gone forever.
We had a moment of excitement while we crossed a checkpoint down in Mexico, as the Mexican customs agent decided to search the boat and found Dad’s .22 rifle onboard. I remembered sitting in the car behind my mom, frightened, and kept asking her, “Is he going to arrest us? Is he?” and my mom kept going, “Shhh! Shhhhh!” When my dad and the guy started smiling and joking my mom relaxed. My father had slipped the customs agent $20 and told him he wasn’t about to go anywhere without a gun to protect his family, and the custom agent said he didn’t blame him, and that he would do the same.
We spent some time in Hermosillo, which I remember was hot, flat, and trashy. Then we went on to Guaymas which is a port town, and we launched the boat and Dad rented us a birth at a local dock. This place was cool.
I swam in the warm salty water, diving with my mask, snorkel, and fins. I would swim under the boat and check out all the fish in the clear water. On the dock there was a Fanta Soda machine that took 20 centavos for a bottle, and we got a 15 centavos refund for the empty bottles. The exchange rate at the time was 7 pesos per dollar, so the sodas cost a few pennies at the most. We stocked up the boat with food and supplies, and one clear, sunny morning left on our adventure. It was one that was going to last a lot longer than my dad anticipated.
Dad had taught me how to handle the boat, and so I was an all around junior swabbie. If I wasn’t piloting, I was riding up on the bow. I was also the one designated to jump off onto a dock, or onto a beach, or into the water if necessary, with the responsibility of “dogging” the boat. That was Dad’s sailor talk for tying it to something so that it wouldn’t float away. So I spent most of the trip on the bow, getting darker and darker with each passing day until I looked like a sun-bleached-blond Mexican native. As Dad followed the shoreline, and I peered down into the clear water and could occasionally see the bottom. Every once in a while a porpoise would show up and swim alongside, giving me a big thrill. They were camera shy, though, because every time my dad pulled out his super-8 movie camera they would disappear. They probably thought it was a gun.
In the evening we would beach the boat, and I would hunt around for lizards but found mostly land crabs. They were odd, silly-looking creatures with oblong eyes, and sometimes very sharp claws. To either side of the boat were miles upon miles of virgin beach and not another soul in sight.
When we entered the straight between Tiburon Island and the mainland it was like going from the ocean to a river. It wasn’t at all that deep, and so I had to keep a sharp lookout so that Dad wouldn’t run the boat aground. Also, the big island made me nervous because my dad had told me stories about the Seri Indians who lived there and how they used to be cannibals. The rumor was, he told me, some of them still were. So as we were traveling along this wide, shallow river, teeming with sea life and the bottom littered with strangely-shaped sand dollars, I would look up to see Seri tribesmen. They waded far out into the water off the island side, fishing with nets and spears, and staring at us with an intensity that frightened me.
The truth was, however, that the Seri Indians (they call themselves Konkaak, which means “The People”) were not and never have been cannibals. The rumor of cannibalism was a lie spread long ago by those who wanted to persecute them. I didn’t know any of this then, of course, and they scared me something terrible. Especially when we anchored at night.
At the north opening of the straight we could look out across the expanse of water and see Patos Island, which was nothing but a big white point. The island was so white because, as my dad put it, “It’s covered with bird shit.” But the water beyond the straight was so rough that we got sea sick and had to turn around and head back. It was decided we’d go find a nice sheltered place in the straight and recover, and wait until the seas calmed down before making our run to the island.
Dad chose a secluded stretch of beach and Mom threw the back anchor out, and as the bow slid into the sand I jumped off with the line and ran up the beach. I found a boulder to tie it to and quickly secured it. Dinner was prepared while I explored the beach and the desert beyond. Later, after the lights were out and we had settled in for the evening, I remember staring out the window and seeing nothing. It was absolutely black outside except for the stars. There were no lights on the shore anywhere.
The next morning when we woke up it was obvious something was wrong. The boat was leaning far to one side, and my dad started laughing. The tide had gone out and the boat was nearly all the way out of the water.
It turns out that the tide is extreme between Tiburon Island and the mainland, because an immense amount of water is funneled in between the island and mainland shores, and also because it’s so shallow. So this water will vary up to 25 feet between high and low tide, and as the tide is changing the current is so swift it literally looks like a river flowing. We propped the boat up and then my dad had to dig a hole in the sand under the propeller so that the shaft wouldn’t get bent under the weight of the boat. When the tide was completely out, the boat was six feet away from the water.
There was about 20 minutes when it was safe for me to go out in my little rowboat. At low tide there was no current, and I paddled around with my face nearly in the water checking out all the fish and sea life. After fifteen minutes or so mom and dad started yelling for me to watch out, and I looked up to see two large fins breaking surface. At first I thought they were porpoises, but as they went past (and they were close) I saw they were too thin and both were longer than my little boat. No doubt about it, they were sharks.
My parents decided it was time for me to paddle back to shore.
Land bound, I wandered around through the desert looking for lizards and watching out for snakes. This region had the only known “rattleless” rattlesnakes, who don’t give any warning at all before they strike. I’d read all about them and so was on sharp alert, but I didn’t see any during the whole trip. I did see a lot of very interesting lizards, mostly whiptails (family Cnemidophorus) and some funny little guys with striped tails that curled up and over like scorpions, called Zebratails (Callisaurus draconoides). The Zebratails were exciting to me because I had never seen them before.
There’s another creature that lives down there that I discovered, but it was not a pleasant discovery. As we were waiting for the tide to come back in, I was walking up and down the beach in about a foot or so of water (well out of reach of the sharks) and I stepped on something squishy. Split seconds later it was like I’d stuck my toe into a 110V electrical socket. My whole body vibrated with exquisite pain, and I screamed and yelled and danced around the beach thinking I’d lost my foot. Looking down into the water, I saw a flat thing go swimming away.
It turns out I’d stepped on an “electric ray” which was lying buried in the sand. I really believe that, in the second or so I was in contact with the creature, my 11-year-old mind thought I was going to die. I ran screaming and crying to the boat and my parents thought I’d been bitten by a snake or something. No, not a snake. I can handle snakes … this was a little monster. After that encounter I no longer walked in the water without wearing rubber-soled tennis shoes.
When the tide finally came in and we could get the boat off the beach, we went back out a ways and saw that the sea between us and Patos Island was still far rougher than Dad wanted to face, so we headed back in again for another night. This time we anchored far offshore, hoping to avoid being stranded once again come low tide.
Mom and Dad woke me up late the next morning, acting all excited, and told me they’d seen the strangest rabbit on the beach. They told me it was huge, and pink, and went around laying eggs. I looked at them with first alarm, and then complete skepticism. They had to out-and-out tell me it was Easter before I realized what was going on. Easter had been the farthest thing from my mind, and it was definitely the most bizarre one I’d ever had. My parents, planning ahead, had stowed away a bunch of colored plastic eggs, filled them with candy, and gone and hidden them around in the desert next to the beach.
After my Easter egg hunt, we had breakfast and then pulled up anchor. The tide was coming in and my dad wanted to make one more attempt for Patos Island. We were stretching the gas very thin as is was, and so his plan was to ride the fast tide to the island, anchor and explore, then ride the tide back when it changed. So we were heading out there, and the current was indeed pushing us along quickly, and that’s when we saw the first whirlpool.
You’ve never seen a whirlpool until you’ve seen one in the Sea of Cortez. Of course I was only eleven, and to me it looked like it could swallow the boat. At least, it looked like it could swallow my little rowboat. In reality I don’t think it would done anything to even the smallest boat but make the occupants dizzy, but it’s definitely not something I’d want to be swimming around. I could imagine an ancient mariner seeing something like this, then telling family about it, and the family telling friends. After a week the story would go from “scary whirlpool” to some gargantuan maelstrom of water that sucked down entire ships.
That was just one strange side effect of the strong tide. The next one caused us to turn back and forget about Pato Island. As we were heading out of the mouth of the straight, there was this very strange looking wave that didn’t seem to be moving. It was just this steep hill of water, and the closer we got to it the more frightening it was. It was eerie, looking like something caused by a sea monster. My dad nosed up toward it and then shook his head, and turned the boat around.
I don’t think it really scared my father, I think he was nervous about how low our gas reserves were getting. The TI-KA II was not a sailboat, and we were a long ways away from any kind of gas station. We had what was in our tanks and also some 5 gallon cans, and we were approaching the halfway point. My dad had rethought our chances of getting back, took into account he had his wife and young son with him, and decided not to chance it.
I’ve since learned that this phenomenon is called an upwelling, where a strong current underwater hits some feature on the bottom that causes the current to turn upwards. They’re not especially dangerous, just disconcerting, and we could have gone around it. But instead we turned back, and sadly never did make it to Patos Island to treasure hunt. Our adventure, however, was far from over.
The Crisis I Slept Through
We made it back to port from our aborted treasure hunt and filled up with gas, and since we had a few spare days left on the vacation, dad decided we should go out and explore some of the nearby sea coast. It was only a few hours before sunset when we came across a beautiful cove and anchored off shore. This was an area of dramatic ocean bluffs, but beyond some jagged rocks there was a secluded sand beach that was lush and picturesque. We had to go ashore in my little boat because of the rocks, and we didn’t spend a lot of time there. I can picture it all in my mind, illuminated by the “beauty light” of oncoming sunset. Soon it was time to go back to the TI-KA II for dinner. After dinner I spent some time fishing, and caught some strange rockfish which we let go, then it was bedtime and soon the lights were out and I went to sleep.
In the middle of the night a storm came up, and the swells reached lord-knows-how-big (the way my father tells it, there were 40-foot whitecaps).The size of the swells pulled the anchors right off the bottom and sent the TI-KA II adrift toward the rocks, which would have smashed the boat to pieces and quickly killed us all. My dad started the engines and backed the boat away from the rocks while my mom pulled up the stern anchor, but with the waves and the turning of the boat, the anchor line got caught in the propeller and killed the engine. The boat was dead in the water, adrift, and heading for disaster.
So, with a steak knife clenched in his teeth, my father dove overboard in the dark, in a storm, and swam under the boat and cut the anchor line away from the propeller. My mom said she watched the rocks get closer and closer, and by the time my dad climbed back onboard she thought it was too late. But he scrambled up to the helm, started the engine and threw it into reverse, backing away as waves broke over the stern and sent water streaming into the boat. When he had a chance he turned the boat into the waves and headed back toward port.
I’d gone to sleep out in the cove, and woke up – disoriented – back at a berth in Guaymas. I was somewhat upset because I was looking forward to more exploring and maybe some lizard hunting. I couldn’t understand why we were back at the dock. My parents thought this was hilarious, and they told me they couldn’t believe what I’d slept through.
When they told me this story, I was glad I had slept through it.
And that, my friends … that was what it was like growing up with Henry J. Davis II as my father.
When I was a teenager I stole my father’s camera.
It was a Canon FTb-N, heavy as a brick and fully manual. All metal, it was an SLR with a bright 50mm lens, 1/1000 shutter speed, and a hot shoe mount for a flash. A good, solid, semi-pro camera, especially for back in the mid 70’s.
It wasn’t that I was particularly interested in it. All I wanted to do was take some pictures of my pet lizards. I had a Arizona horny toad that I’d managed to keep alive and healthy for a couple of years, and when I found my father’s camera in the hall closet I thought I’d try taking pictures of it. Sunlight was coming through one of my bedroom windows, shining on my old green bedspread, and so I put my critter there on the bed and aimed the camera at it. The camera wasn’t all that hard to figure out. Focus was a no-brainer, and I somehow knew to match the needle with the circle for the light meter. When I pressed the shutter button, it made a healthy whack-clunk sound, which was strangely satisfying.
A few weeks later my father had developed the film and gave me my prints. I was surprised by how well they turned out. Amazed, actually. For not knowing a thing about what I was doing, it worked out pretty well. This encouraged me to experiment further.
I don’t think I ever asked him if I could use the camera. I just took it over. My friends and I went out on long walks and I took pictures of the silliest things, but I was slowly getting the idea of how it all worked. Most of the pictures turned out stupid, but a few were real winners. My dad must have been impressed, because he relinquished control of the camera to me without a word.
His company had accounts down at the local camera stores, and my dad arranged for me to use them. I’d take the bus across town every other day to drop off film and buy more. For my birthday he bought me a zoom lens.
When I was a sophomore in high school I started taking the camera to school. There I captured some goofy shots of my friends and classmates, but timidly, stealthily, I started taking candid portraits of girls. Girls playing soccer, talking with their friends, sometimes dancing. They were turning out rather well. I began bringing the prints to school and showing it to them, and giving them copies if they liked the shots. Many of the girls didn’t like it, but some did. Some liked it a lot. Thinking back about it, many of these girls were pretty but didn’t realize it, or for some reason had a bad self-image, and just the fact that a boy was inclined to take their picture made them feel better about themselves. Of course some of them were just vain. The end result was that I started making some close friendships with girls, who until this point seemed unapproachable to me.
One of these girls started taking me shopping and buying me clothes so that I wouldn’t look like such a dork. I had no fashion sense, and my parents were more inclined to get me weird polyester crap that you’d find on old men in Florida. Finally, toward the end of my high school experience, I was kind of cool and somewhat accepted. I owe that directly to the camera. Instead of Jerry the geek, I was Jerry the photographer.
In college I took a lot of photography courses, and one of my instructors was a prodigy of Ansel Adams himself. This is when I stared becoming an actual expert, understanding light and color, depth of field, and darkroom techniques. I was doing so well at this point my dad bought me an entire darkroom setup, and gave me a room down at his office building to set it up.
Soon after this I got myself a business license and had cards printed up. “Davis Photography Ltd.” Everyone wanted to know what the “Ltd.” was about. It means “limited company” and is used primarily in England, but my friends and I just thought it looked cool, so that’s what I used. Then I put an ad in the paper and started getting a lot of work.
I specialized in doing model portfolios, brochures, and weddings, but what I really wanted to do was album covers for rock groups. This never happened, though I did take a few shots for the band I was involved with. Weddings felt like shooting portraits in a war zone, and I bowed out of that even though it was my biggest income.
The old Canon FTb-N was traded in for a professional Canon F1 with a 7fps motor winder. I also had a fully automatic Canon A1 for more informal situations. I never did a lot with lighting because I was more of a candid portrait artist than a formal one.
I remember this one model I was shooting; we were doing bikini shots around my parent’s pool, and after twenty minutes she said, “Hold on” and took her bikini off. “I want to get some nudes,” she told me.
“Okay.” Not a problem for me. I think I did a good job hiding my sudden nervousness. I kept expecting my mom to look out the window, and had no idea what would happen. I had her pose on the diving board, then by the water, then told her to get into the pool. The lighting was perfect for the pool shots, the ripples in the water obscuring details but revealing enough to be alluring. The angle was wrong, though, so I got into the water with her and got some great shots at the perfect angle. What made them so good was that I was catching her reaction to me being in the pool with all my clothes on. She thought it was hilarious and her smile was genuine.
Bit of a portrait tip for you: Fake smiles backfire on film, but genuine smiles always shine. They’re precious and golden. Do anything you can to get your subject to laugh.
After this I started asking some of my regular models if they’d mind doing nudes. Most of the time the answer was a big NO, but on occasion there would be a hesitant yes. Nudes were very interesting for all parties concerned; the model, the photographer, and the viewer of the pictures. It stems to the fact that people are interested in seeing intimate moments, because that’s when people are the most vulnerable and the most real. Walls are down when someone doesn’t have clothes on. There’s a trust, a sensuality. When it comes across on film it can be magic.
Amidst all this I was also working for my father, doing promotional shots for his industrial equipment and services. There was this one job in Sacramento where I almost fell off a building. My brother’s company was removing gravel from the roof of a high rise building using one of my father’s vacuum trucks, and there was this dramatic 6 inch pipe snaking all the way up the side of the building. Unfortunately I was having a problem getting good shots of it. The view was best from up top looking down, but I had trouble getting the perfect angle. So without thinking about it I started climbing down the outside of the building, hanging by one hand and one foot while I snapped away. The workers thought I was suicidal, and in retrospect I guess it was. I couldn’t get back up, but I could get to the balcony below and to the side. So I jumped and landed on this balcony fifteen stories up, surprising the hell out of an old Norwegian guy who was standing in his bedroom dressed in an oversized pair of boxer shorts. I tried to explain what was going on, but I don’t think he fully understood. I don’t think he cared. He was lonely – apparently no one ever visited him – and he didn’t want me to leave. He immediately gave me a beer and a sandwich, and started showing me his old family photos. It took a half hour to get out of there.
During all this time I was also trying to become a professional writer. It was rough juggling two major goals at the same time, and after some long, deep soul searching it became apparent that one or the other would have to take a back seat. Writing is what I’ve always loved – it even predated photography.
I sold the cameras in the summer of 1984 to finance a love affair with a girl in San Francisco. The affair only lasted a few months. I was heartbroken for a decade. But now that the pain is gone, I miss those cameras. And while I’ve long-ago graduated to digital, there are occasionally days when I miss the delicate art of chemicals, film, and paper.
Sitting in a booth at a pizza parlor in Stockton California, I was sharing a pitcher of beer with my friends when the most amazing person walked up and began talking to us. He was a tall, skinny African-American man, looking about in his mid-twenties, wearing a tee-shirt and Levi jeans with pant legs split up the sides all the way to his hips. That was the first thing I saw when he came up, these long, flapping split pant legs that were like four denim flags hanging from his upper thighs. They made a loud flopping sound with each step.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m Crazy Bob.” He slurred his words a bit and had a lisp, so it sounded like this: “Hi. I’mb craythzee Bawb.”
We all stared at him in silence for a moment, not sure whether to be amused or terrified. Dan, always the outgoing friendly one, suddenly said back, “Well hi there, Crazy Bob, my name’s Dan. How’re you doing?”
My other friend, DT, gripped his beer mug tight, ready to use it as a weapon if necessary.
“I’m Crazy Bob,” Crazy Bob said again. “I wasn’t always like this. You see, the Martians they took me and put a needle in my spine, and they made me like this.”
“The government, they put a needle in my spine. The put a needle in my spine and turned me into a vegetable.”
“Really?” It was about all any of us could think to say.
“They turned me into a vegetable. The government, they put a needle in my spine. They turned me into a vegetable. Vegetable. Vegetable…”
We sat staring in stunned silence, thinking to ourselves: Where did this guy come from? We were just sitting there, minding our own business, drinking beer and waiting for our pizza, and here comes this guy. We didn’t know what to make of it. We didn’t know what to do.
“You see,” he continued, “I have to endure. That’s what my brother told me. He told me that because the government stuck a needle into my spine, I would have to endure.”
“Your, ah, brother told you this, huh?” said Dan.
“Yeah, my brother told me I must endure. It was my brother, Gerolda. Gerolda. Gerolda.” He continued repeating the name, turning slowly to one side, and his voice grew quiet and faded.
“Gerolda told you this?”
“Yes. He’s my brother. My brother Gerolda, in the home, told me that because the government put a needle in my spine, I must endure. They turned me into a vegetable.” He was walking around the room now, his split pant legs flapping, each step he lifted his leg so far into the air it was nearly a kick. “The Martians, they control the government. The Martians told the government to put the needle into my spine.”
“The Martians? Like from Mars?”
“Yeah, the Martians, they came down here. See, the Martians, they control the government, and the government controls TV. They put a needle into my spine. Turned me into a vegetable.”
“The Martians control the government?”
“The Martians control the government, and the government controls the TV.” He was standing right in front of the table again, and DT was holding his beer mug so tight his knuckles were turning white. “My brother Gerolda told me this when I was in the home. Gerolda, he’s my brother. Gerolda. Gerolda. Gerolda…”
“Hey Crazy Bob,” called a lady behind the counter.
Crazy Bob did his flapping goosestep over to the counter, and to our amazement the girl handed him a boxed pizza. Crazy Bob took the pizza and, pant legs flapping, he marched out the front door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s just Crazy Bob. We give him a pizza and he leaves.” She shrugged. “What else can you do?”
We all looked at each other, our eyes wide. Indeed! What else could you do? After that, we would occasionally see Crazy Bob flapping his pant legs down Pacific Avenue, rain or shine, summer or winter, and we’d honk and wave at our strange new acquaintance. It’s been thirty years and the image of him is still vivid in my mind.
As teenagers, my friends and I liked to take our cameras out to spooky places in the middle of the night and take timed exposures. It was just for fun, like a dare, to be out in ruins or graveyards at one in the morning. We never saw a thing, and nothing ever showed up in any of the pictures…
…except this one time.
This is from a rural cemetery in Lodi, California, a very quiet place next to a small trailer park. When we were actually out at the cemetery taking this picture, neither my friends or I heard or saw anything unusual. I didn’t see any lights or movement around this gravestone, nor did I realize it was leaning to one side. You see, it was dark out there. Really dark. We could barely see anything. I think the shutter on my camera was open for around 40 seconds when this picture was taken.
So what’s weird about it? May I direct your eyes to the strange swirl around the leaning tombstone? That’s what’s weird about it — that and the fact that the stone itself is tilted up onto one edge with nothing underneath it.
Some of my friends where skeptical when I showed this to them, because they knew I could have faked it. It’s true, I could fake it. Easily. I can even tell you how to get this exact effect. The point is, though, that I did not fake this shot. It is real. If I wanted to fake a ghost photo I would do something a lot more dramatic.
After this photo was taken, we went back to the same spot and took more photos. Nothing strange showed up in the second set of photos, nor did anything strange ever show up in any other shots I took at this cemetery.
I don’t know if this mysterious photo is actually a picture of a ghost. I only half-believe in them. Sometimes I do, and sometimes (when I’m in my very rational mind) I don’t. Nevertheless, I can’t explain my strange photo.
But here’s a little ghost story for you…
On one of the subsequent nights when I was out there with my friend Jeannette, taking more pictures in the hopes of capturing another interesting image, I somehow lost the keys to my Subaru Brat. I’d dropped them somewhere, and we looked all over and couldn’t find them. It was about 1:30 AM and very, very dark — and yes, we were a little spooked. Fortunately I had a spare key in one of those magnetic boxes clamped to the fender, so we were able to get home okay. The next morning both her and I went back out there to see if we could find the keys, and I jokingly addressed the spirits, asking them, “If you find my keys, could you put them right here for me?” and patted the corner of a small brick fence.
There was no one else in the graveyard. Jeannette was with me at all times. We searched all over the place, trying to trace our path were we’d been taking pictures the night before. The keys were nowhere to be found. So we gave up, and were walking to the front of the graveyard when I spotted the keys. They were sitting on the corner of the small brick fence, exactly where I’d asked “the spirits” to put them.
Totally freaked out, I grabbed the keys, said a quick thank you to whomever it was that put them there, and Jeannette and I ran like hell back to the car.
Okay, brace yourself. I’m asking you to really shake the dust out of some of those brain cells. Many of you may be too young to remember. Maybe all of you, depending on when you read this.
There was this 1960’s Japanese television show called Ultraman. It was in the same vein as those goofy old Godzilla movies, and Ultraman would always “get big” to fight off whichever rubber-suited monster threatened Tokyo that week. While small, Ultraman (aka Science Patrol Officer Hayata) drove around in a 1960 Corvair (which the Japanese considered futuristic).
I had one of these Science Patrol cars. I had a 1960 “unsafe at any speed” Corvair.
Actually it was my Mom’s. It had started out as Dad’s, back in Tucson, but after we moved to California and my Dad bought a Caddy, Mom inherited it. It was easy to work on and very easy to drive. Like a VW Bug it had a rear engine that was air-cooled, and when it was running it was so quiet that it sounded like a sewing machine. To change gears, a tiny shift switch on the dash controlled the automatic transmission. When I was 12 my dad would let me drive it around on dirt roads. At home, I was allowed to back out of the driveway, and pull it into the garage. When I was fourteen, my mom would let me take it to the store (less than a mile away) even though I didn’t yet have a learner’s permit.
It was the summer of that year that my parents started leaving me at home on weekends while they took their boat out. My friends Brad and Pat were over one of these weekends, and I got a wild hair or something and decided we should take that Corvair for a ride. Brad’s father had a cabin up in the nearby foothills, so we loaded up on soda pop and Cheetos and took that Corvair out on the open road.
I knew the rules of the road. I looked at least 17 or so. We pulled it off, though we never did find the cabin. We did get completely lost in the woods and took hours to find our way out, and then headed back home to arrive just after dark with barely any gas in the tank.
My father, upon their return, noticed that the gas – which had been full when they left – was way down, and there was strange red dust in the wheel wells. “This car has been up in the mountains!” he exclaimed. “You took this car up in the mountains!”
“No I didn’t.” I proclaimed my innocence over and over, and since he didn’t have any real proof he let it drop.
It was about a year and a half later that I got my learner’s permit. I took driver’s education in High School and then my parents rounded it out by sending me to Sears Drivers Training School.
My instructor was a belligerent dickhead. We drove around in a special car with a steering wheel, gas pedal and brake in both the driver’s and passenger’s side. He seemed to love throwing on the brakes for no reason and yelling at me for imaginary mistakes. “You just wiped out a whole row of parked cars!” he yelled once.
I looked around and wondered where these cars were. There wasn’t a car within 100 feet of us, parked or otherwise. It turns out I was supposed to pretend that there were parked cars in every parking space, but he’d neglected to tell me this up front. When I pointed this out to him he just got more belligerent.
This guy was everything I hated about adults all rolled into one consolidated butthead.
Regardless, I passed and got my certificate. I also passed my driver’s test and got my real, actual driver’s license. The first thing I did was take the Corvair to pick up Brad, and then Brad and I drove to our favorite place, Tower Records. I bought Leftoverture, the new album by Kansas (which gives you an idea when all this took place).
Though the Corvair was still technically my Mom’s car, I was the one who drove it. She didn’t need it, because whenever she wanted something from the store she’d just send me. If she actually had to go somewhere, she usually went with my Dad.
If you haven’t heard anything about the 1960 Corvair, there’s one thing you should know. This is the car that Ralph Nader made his reputation on. The car was poorly designed and very unsafe. Through the years I found this to be true over and over again.
The first time was when I was driving to my friend’s house near the local university, and I made a right turn and the car leaned over and stopped. I got out of the car and found, to my horror, the right rear wheel was about two feet from the car, like the rear axle had telescoped out. I called my Dad and he knew instantly what was wrong. It seemed this had happened to him before. He drove out with his toolbox and had me jack the car up, and he crawled under and reattached the axle to the transmission.
Years later, after this car had been passed back and forth in-between family members several times, it ended up as mine again. This time it was actually registered to me. I was newly married, struggling to survive, with a new baby at home that needed food and diapers. I got a job as a computer repairman for ComputerLand and used the Corvair to make house calls. There was this one call I was going out on for a professor at the University of the Pacific, and I hadn’t gotten three blocks from ComputerLand when I saw smoke pouring out of the vents on the back hood. I whipped a quick U-turn and zoomed back to the store, and once in the parking lot I got out and raced around to the back end. Opening the hood, I discovered the engine was on fire.
Panicked, I raced into the store, startling sales people and customers alike, ran to the break room and grabbed the two-gallon coffee maker. I raced back out carrying the coffee maker, again startling everyone in the store, and dumped all two gallons of coffee onto the burning engine. It put the fire out all right, but after that the car smelled like burnt coffee for years.
One good thing came out of it, though: ComputerLand bought me a van to use for company business.
More years passed. The car passed hands again amidst the family, and ended up as mine one last time. My baby daughter was now 4 years old, and her and I had been with her mom at some event and decided to leave early. It was past dark and getting close to my kid’s bedtime. Her mom, having her own car at the time, stayed behind to finish up.
As my daughter and I were driving home on the freeway, the car began to shudder. My first thought was that the engine was freezing up. Our exit was within sight, which was a relief. I let up on the gas pedal and let the car coast, but the shuddering continued to increase. It became violent, and my daughter started screaming, and then suddenly it stopped and the Corvair very slowly tilted to one side. Moments later there was a muffled dragging sound. I let the car glide over to the side of the freeway and stop.
“Daddy!” my 4-year-old cried, “I’m scared!”
“It’s okay honey. A wheel just came off the car. We’re okay now.” I got her out of the car and we started walking toward the off ramp. She was still shook up and frightened, and in an effort to console her I said, “It’s okay sweetie. We’re having an adventure. This is a real, true adventure! Isn’t it exciting?”
It took her a moment, as I guess she was thinking it through, but then she said, “Daddy?”
“I don’t like adventures.”
After that, I gave the car back to my Dad and never touched it again. He called me one day and said, “You know, I’ve got your Corvair all fixed up. You can pick it up anytime.”
“No, Dad,” I told him, “that’s okay. You can have it back. It’s yours.”
During warm summer nights in that small suburb of Tucson, a mighty hunter emerged from our house. Six years old, wearing shorts and a tee shirt, high-top tennis shoes, and carrying a flashlight, a bucket, and a butterfly net, I stalked off through the streets in search of prey. It was toads I was after, big ugly warty toads. And they were out there, hundreds of them, hopping from out of the desert and through the neighborhood, all answering Mother Nature’s annual call of love.
During the day, the only time you would see one of these puffy, awkward creatures was on the road — smashed flat as a pancake. You’d see a lot of them, everywhere, rows of them where cars would score more than one at a time. It was disgusting. Of course as a young boy I was fascinated by that, too.
But at night they were big, round, and alive. Not quite frogs, and not quite lizards, these toads had short legs and didn’t jump as their froggy cousins did. No, they hopped. Quick, furtive, nimble little hops. Like this: Hop hop hop hop hop!
Being a born Herpetologist (even though back then I couldn’t even pronounce it, let alone know what it meant) I didn’t find these creatures at all ugly. They were adorable! I liked their weird bumpy skin, their gleaming eyes, and their humble just-leave-me-alone body language. To dogs, I knew, they were deadly poison. I remember at least once my dad sticking a running garden hose down my poor dog’s throat after catching him chewing on a toad. There was poison in those bumps, and if you broke them it would come out and kill you. That is, if you happen to be chewing on it. Being that I had no intention of doing that (and this being a long time before people found they could get high by licking them) I knew I was safe.
I remember walking along the sidewalks, catching them in my net and dumping them into my bucket. I also remember dodging tarantulas and other assorted big bugs. One was a long beetle with huge pinchers in front, and if you picked these up and got them mad they’d hiss at you. I also remember some of my friends out under a streetlight with their father’s fly fishing pole, whipping the fly around in the air and catching bats (who thought the fly lure was a moth, no doubt). But mainly I caught toads. Dozens of them. Literally, dozens, all piled up and hopping in a mass at the bottom of the bucket.
Then I’d bring the bucket of toads home and put them in the backyard. One time my future sister-in-law Cara was curious as to what exactly was in this bucket I kept bringing in at night, and looked down into it as it sat on the concrete of the back patio.
I can still hear her piercing scream.
“My God!” she shrieked. “That bucket is full of toads!” By the hysterical tone of her voice, it was like she’d found a severed human head. She did a frightened dance on her tiptoes and escaped into the house, complaining loudly about the Bucket ‘O’ Toads.
I remember one time I was out later than my curfew. I was late and I knew it. I don’t remember why I was late; there must have been something extra interesting, because it was a conscious decision not to leave just yet. Then when I arrived home and my father said I was late and that meant a spanking, I voluntarily submitted, putting myself over his knee and telling him I was ready. That made him laugh; he thought it was hilarious. But the spanking still hurt.
Since being a 6 year old toad hunter I’ve learned that I was right about the creatures. They really aren’t hideous little monsters. In fact, they’re a boon to us because of the hundreds of tons of bugs they eat every year, including cockroaches. That’s hundreds of tons of bugs that would otherwise be crawling around our homes.
Yes, this toad hunter has retired his net and bucket, but every once in a while I’ll happen upon one of these little guys, and I’ll pick it up and say hello. They’re welcome around my house.
That is, as long as they stay outside.
Back in the mid 1970’s, during a period when my Dad’s business was going full blast, we had an office down in San Diego that was being run by a crook. We didn’t know this at the time, but we should have. As Dad liked to brag, this was “one of Nixon’s old dirty-tricks guys.” He enjoyed having one of Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks guys on the payroll. I don’t want to use his real name, so let’s just call him “Dick Headley.”
I hated the guy the moment I met him, and that’s a rare thing for me. He was somehow oily, slithery, in a social way. Smarmy and smart-ass. I could just tell that everything he said was a lie. He was the type to talk to you like a best friend and then insult and make fun of you the moment you walk away.
Dad realized there was something weird going on when a big check showed up at the office for work we had no record of performing. Another thing we noticed, is every time my Dad left to go down there, our office manager would call Dick Headley and let him know Dad was on his way. She did it, said another office assistant, even after my Dad told her not to.
We found later that this office manager was having an affair with Headley. We also suspect Headley was slipping her money under the table. It was a fact that she was spying on the main office for him.
What my father suspected was that Dick Headley was running side operations, using our employees and equipment, but pocketing the money. The check sent in for work we didn’t perform had actually been performed, on the side, and the innocent customer had sent the check to the wrong place. According to Headley, business was slacking down there. During one “slack” week, my Dad called me into his office, and with the door open, said, “Hey son, how’d you like to go trout fishing with me up in Oregon?”
I gave him a funny look. It was a Wednesday. He wanted to go trout fishing? In Oregon? “Um,” I said, “sure, I guess.”
“We’ll fly up tonight,” he told me, saying that we’d stay at his friend’s ranch. “I need to get out of here and relax.”
When we left for the airport, my Dad explained what was really going on. He wanted me to go with him down to San Diego, and sneak around without the office manager tipping Dick Headley off we were in town. I was going along to photograph evidence.
I’d never seen Dad so paranoid. He acted like Headley might have spies everywhere. We got into his plane, took off and flew North as if we really were going to Oregon, but after we got away from town he made a wide circle round to the south, and we followed the coastline down to the bottom of California. When we landed, it was at an airport he never used.
We rented a car that no one would recognize.
Dad got us a hotel room and we ate in, watching TV, and then he made some phone calls. One of the calls was to Headley, telling him he was up in Oregon and would be incommunicado for a few days. Still no work? No? Got any promising leads? Yes? Great! Go get ’em!
The next morning we started snooping around. Dad made phone calls to some of our established customers to see if there was any work going on. Nothing was brewing, although some said they’d have work for us later in the month. Then one of the people he spoke to said he’d seen one of our trucks working at another site. My Dad inquired where and when they’d seen the trucks working. They were working that very day, down in the San Diego shipyards.
Dad and I piled into the rented car and zoomed out there. We drove up and down the shipyards until we spotted one of our white vacuum trucks, removing sandblast sand out of the inside of a ship. Dad had me sneak up and take photos of the truck and the workers with my telephoto lens. I got a lot of shots, from several angles. I recognized the guys who were working.
Then Dad walked right past me, out in the open, and crossed the yard to where they were working. I followed, feeling nervous. What was he doing? I’d thought this was supposed to be a covert mission.
Dad asked them how the job was coming along. The guys looked freaked – they all had that “Oh shit!” look on their faces – and Dad poked around and asked how long they’d been working on this job. They all gave different answers, but it was clear it had been going on since Monday at least.
“Well, keep up the good work,” Dad told them, and he walked back toward the car. He was walking so fast I had trouble keeping up with him.
He drove in a rush across town to the local office, which was a small warehouse in a shabby business park. The place was closed and locked, and Dad’s key didn’t fit – Dick Headley had changed the locks. There was a window open, though, up on the second story. “Can you get up through there?”
“Uh…” I looked it over. “Yeah,” I told him, and started climbing. I had to get on the roof of a lower building and work my way over the top of a large sliding door. Swinging one leg through the window, I found … nothing. There was no second story inside. The inside wall, however, wasn’t finished – there were beams and supports that I used as rungs to work my way down inside. I unlocked the door and let my Dad in just as someone pulled up. It was one of Headley’s guys, a shop mechanic, coming back from lunch.
“Hey!” he yelled. “What do you think you’re doing! I’m going to call the cops!”
“Excuse me,” my Dad told him, “but I own this business.”
“What?” He looked unsure. It took him a few minutes, but he changed his tune, and afterwards was following my Dad around helping him.
Dad was confiscating all the paperwork. The receipts, the ledgers – everything. He went through all the drawers in the office, all the file cabinets, all the desks. When the guy asked him what he was doing, Dad said, “I’m performing an audit.”
We piled it all into the trunk of the car, and locked it up. Before we could leave, though, Dick Headley himself came driving up, very fast, like there was an emergency. Apparently he’d gotten a call from one of the guys at the job sight. The car slid to a stop in the gravel driveway, and he jumped out. “Jim!” he said to my Dad. “I thought you said you were in Oregon!”
“I thought you said we didn’t have any work.”
“We just got some today. I was about to call you.”
Dick Headley was desperately trying not to lose his cool, quick-talking a mile a minute. Dad wasn’t listening. At one point, Headley began getting belligerent, like my Dad had no business sticking his nose into what Headley was doing. Dad, in one of his rare shows of restraint, just rolled his eyes and told me to get into the car.
Dad had an accountant go over the papers and receipts, and as it turned out, there were two separate ledgers. This didn’t surprise the accountant – this was common. Usually it was one real ledger and one for the IRS. In this case, it was one for the company and one for Dick Headley. Dad was able to take this down to the DA’s office and get a warrant. They used my pictures as evidence, too.
Dick Headley went to jail. At least, he ended up there for a few hours, only long enough to get himself bailed out. He still had some strong political ties, as strings were pulled and he was let off, after paying back part of the money he stole. It was only a small fraction, though, and then Headley walked away. Smirking.
And people wonder why I’m cynical about the American justice system.
We didn’t get a chance to fire the office manager who was spying. She quit the moment she heard what had happened. She was gone by the time we got back.
I was a kid when my grandmother on my mom’s side passed away. We were out camping at the time, so word didn’t get to us until we returned from the trip. My mom was devastated. Her mother had choked on a chicken bone during a midnight snack, and Grandpa didn’t find her until the following morning.
Years passed and the tragedy faded. We made the move to California. I remember this part clearly, because we were still living in the duplex, before we ended up at the house with the pool. At least three or four years had passed.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, my dead grandmother arrives via parcel post.
I don’t remember a whole lot about this grandmother. She’s only a vague memory because she passed away while I was so young. Being that she was only 14 years older than my mom, she didn’t feel she was old enough to be called “Grandma” so I was instructed to call her “Nana.”
Nana and her husband, my mom’s stepfather — who for some reason they called “Spud” — were only occasional visitors. I mainly remember them from Christmas mornings. Grandpa Spud is especially vivid in my memory because of the year he dressed up as a convincing Santa and scared the holy crap out of me.
So, years later, Nana shows up at our duplex in California in a white box. She’d been cremated and these were her ashes. Obviously they didn’t wait this long to cremate her, but I’m at a loss for why it took so long for the ashes to reach us. I’d hate to think they’d been lost in the mail all that time.
The ashes arrived addressed to my father, because Nana’s will stipulated that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes spread via airplane over a specific forest in Oregon. My father, being a pilot with his own airplane, was the logical choice. They had all lived in the same area up in Oregon in the 1950’s, back when my dad was in the lumber business. I guess this forest was someplace dear to Nana; perhaps that’s where Spud had proposed to her. My father was familiar with the place. The idea of flying up there and taking care of Nana’s last wish wasn’t a problem. However, it wasn’t a priority either. After all, she was already years dead, and my father was a busy man.
Nana’s ashes, still securely sealed in the white cardboard box, sat around the house for a while. It would spend some time on the dining room table, or the coffee table in the living room. Or I’d occasionally see it sitting on the kitchen counter. Finally during a frenzy of housecleaning, Dad took the box and put it on a shelf in the garage. There it sat for quite some time.
It was after Dad put the white box in the garage that Mom started noticing weird things going on. She’d be cooking dinner, and have the oven set to a specific temperature. She’d turn away and take care of some other detail, and turn back to see the oven temperature knob was not where she’d set it. Puzzled, she’d set the knob back to the proper temperature, then later discovered someone moved it again. This was unsettling, especially since she was the only one in the kitchen the entire time.
Then Mom noticed that someone kept changing the temperature on the air conditioner. This also was odd because it was happening while my dad was at work and I was at school. There was no one else in the house.
These things had been going on for a while before Mom finally mentioned it. She didn’t seem frightened; she seemed bemused, almost comforted. It was familiar to her, because it was exactly the kind of things that would happen when Nana was around. Mom and Nana always argued about what temperature to set the stove or oven, and Nana always wanted it colder or warmer in the house than Mom did.
This talk of Nana’s ghost being in the house scared me, but I didn’t see any of these inconsistencies of temperature settings with my own eyes. I was 10 or 11 years old at the time. My toys weren’t moving around, and I wasn’t seeing anything strange. Nana wasn’t appearing to me in a doorway or anything like that. So I didn’t really believe it. It still gave me chills but it was fun to go along with it. Mom had always believed in ghosts. Ghosts were fun.
Being scared was fun.
This changed when our little dog, Taffy, started getting involved. Dad used to call used her “Ten pounds of love in a five pound package.” She really was a tiny little thing, but she thought she was a ferocious attack dog. Taffy had no fear, and she was on guard at all times to protect her family. She’d bark at the mailman, at other dogs and cats, and especially at visitors that she didn’t recognize.
Suddenly Taffy had begun to bark frantically at things that no one could see. Especially in the late evening, she’s suddenly start growling and barking for all she was worth at a corner in the dining room, or at a spot in the hallway. It didn’t seem to be that she was barking at something she heard or smelled, because she had her eyes fixed on a specific point and all her attention was right there, right in front of her. She was barking and snapping at thin air.
This is something I witnessed personally. It was very freaky. I remember that it even disturbed my Dad. “Taffy!” he’d say. “What the hell are you barking at? Taffy! Stop!” He’d have to bend down and pick her up, and carry her away from whatever had her so upset.
Finally, there was the time when my dad was gone on an extended business trip, and my mom and I were up late and watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We were sitting together on the couch, with Taffy at our feet, and Taffy started growling. By this time she’d gotten a lot less frantic about the whole thing, having become more familiar with whatever it was that upset her. She’d just stare and give a low warning growl.
On this night, she did more than just stare at a spot in front of her. Very slowly her head turned as she was growling, as if she were watching something cross the room from left to right. It was weird. I remember sliding over closer to my Mom. Taffy suddenly stood up, still tracking something with her eyes. She was pointing toward Dad’s rocking chair.
As we watched, and as Taffy continued to growl, the chair moved slightly. Just a little bit forward, and just a little bit back, like something was trying to rock in it. I remember the look on Mom’s face. She turned toward me to make sure I was seeing the same thing she was seeing.
I didn’t have to convince her to let me sleep in her and Dad’s bed that night. We slept with the lights on. As soon as my dad got home from the business trip, Mom told him that he needed to get Nana’s ashes spread over that Oregon forest.
He needed to do it now.
Dad agreed. He took me along as copilot. Back then he had a single-prop Cessna 192 and it took a while to fly all the way up to Oregon, but he navigated us via familiar landmarks to where we needed to be and then had me open the white box. Inside was a thick plastic bag. I’d expected the ashes to be white and powdery, like the ones in the fireplace, but they weren’t. They were strange flat chips colored black and gray. After all those years, there was Nana – and now, as I’m writing this, when I think about Nana this is all I can see. Not her face or her voice, but these strange looking ashes.
In an airplane, you can’t just crank down a window and toss something out. The only part of the window that opened was this little five-inch hatch, and when Dad reached across and flopped it open, the wind made an unbelievable wail and it was like a tornado had been let loose inside the cockpit. I had a hole cut in the plastic bag, and I shoved it up against the open window hatch as my dad dipped one wing low and circled. Most of Nana’s ashes made it out the window, but a good percentage of it swirled around us in the cockpit. I even got some in my mouth. My dad was yelling and the airplane bucked and jumped. The ashes stung my eyes.
There was a sudden THWAK, and the window sucked the last of the ashes out along with the plastic bag. I shut the little hatch, and continued spitting out ashes. Dad leveled the airplane, and after a few moments began laughing. We turned south and headed back home.
After that day, Taffy no longer barked at invisible things, and the air conditioner and oven ceased changing the settings on their own. That cinched it for Mom. For her there was absolutely no other explanation than it being the ghost of Nana haunting the duplex, waiting for us to fulfill her final wishes. I think my father was convinced, too.
If you think this was spooky, read this one: A Picture of a Ghost? >
With loud hissing and crackling the rocket leaps off the pad and streaks up into the blue. My friends and I crane our necks back so far we nearly fall over backward. If it wasn’t for the smoke we wouldn’t even know where it went.
There’s a distant popping sound, and impossibly far above us blossoms a tiny white and orange parachute. My friends and I shout and whoop with excitement, then go chasing after it. We were young teenage boys and we’d just discovered a new thrill.
Because this toy was labeled as “science” and my parents liked the idea of me becoming a scientist, my mom was more than willing to bankroll the project. At the time model rockets were still illegal in California as they were considered fireworks, so I couldn’t ride my bike down to the local hobby store and buy them. I had to get them via mail order.
I would gaze through the catalogs of the strange and exiting rockets, pick the ones that fell within the budget set by my mom, and fill out the order form. Mom supplied the handwritten check and the stamp. Half the money was spent on new rocket kits, the other half on engines. Then there would be two weeks of agony waiting for my rockets to arrive.
They came in long, rectangular boxes of white cardboard. The joy at seeing the mailman bringing one of these boxes up to my front door was equal to that of firing them off. The launching was not just something to do, it was an event. I would call all my friends. We would set a date and time. We would pray for good weather.
Sometimes I would experiment with the engines themselves. About the size of a big firecracker, they were high quality little cylinders of ceramic and dense, treated paper. Big hole on one side, little hole on the other. The little hole was the nozzle where the fire would come out. The solid rocket fuel would burn inside the cylinder and force high pressure gas out with a lot of noise and smoke, burning its way up the inside of the cylinder. When the propellant was spent, it would slowly burn a delay charge which released smoke and helped us see the rocket while it was coasting upwards. When the delay charge finished burning, the fire would hit a little packet of explosive called the ejection charge, which would blow the ceramic cap off the other end and push the top of the rocket off, and also (hopefully) push the parachute out.
If used as directed it was completely safe. However…
I found I could wrap paper around the engine, gluing it in place, and form my own homemade body tubes. I could also fill this body tube with something other than a parachute. Oh, say, possibly firecrackers, which would be ignited by the ejection charge. I’d make my own paper nose cones and fins too, making the rocket expendable.
The model rocket manufacturers had spent a great deal of time and money making these little engines as safe as possible, and there I was circumventing all their efforts. This went against everything that model rocketry stood for – a safe, exiting, fun hobby for kids and their families. It just goes to show, you could put just about anything in the wrong hands and have it turn to evil.
Not that my friends and I were evil.
Well, okay, maybe we were a little evil.
I had one set up and ready to launch in my front yard, and my friend Larry — who lived down a few houses and across the street — just happened to be coming out his front door and heading my way. I yelled, “Hey Larry, watch this!” and shot the rocket off.
My paper fins, folded over in a v-shape and theoretically sturdy enough, weren’t quite sturdy enough. The rocket shot straight up about twenty feet and then veered over, hurtling like a missile right at Larry. There was an instant of time where I saw the rocket heading right at him, and saw him standing there staring at it, eyes wide, and then at the last second it veered upward again and exploded about 30 feet above his head, showering him with bits of hot paper.
After a few moments of shocked silence he yelled, “What are you trying to do, kill me?”
“It wasn’t supposed to do that!” I yelled.
“That was cool!” he yelled back. He ran over to see the other ones I had made.
At night time we would shoot these into the air and couldn’t believe how beautiful the colors were just coming from the rocket engines. They would explode about 1000 feet up and the firecrackers would come crackling down. For a few years our 4th of July celebrations were especially fun. Our highly illegal rockets rivaled the efforts of the professionals.
We also continued traditional, safe model rocketry, launching them out in a field beside the railroad tracks. I had ones that would fly up as a rocket but come down as a glider, and ones that had three stages and flew so high we never found them again. We also had ones that would carry things up inside, such as small lizards and tiny tree frogs, and I’m happy to report they all survived.
There was this one day we were shooting so many off that it had become boring. When a train came by I had a sudden idea. “Hey,” I said, “lets shoot one at the train!”
I chose an older rocket that was beat up and on the verge of falling apart, and aimed it at the railroad cars as they lumbered past. It shot like the missile it was, and to our delight it went right inside the open door of a boxcar. My friends all laughed and one said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if a hobo was in there?” Just as he said that, a hobo poked his head out the open door and shook his fist at us, and we all fell over laughing.
Toward the end of my teenage rocketry career, I was in Arizona visiting my brother Hank and had brought all my rockets with me. We went out one afternoon and shot them off, which my older brother thought was amusing, and when the engines were all gone we went back to his house and found, to my complete amazement, a model rocket in his back yard. It wasn’t one of mine, either. It was some other kid’s rocket, and they had shot it off and it went too far up, and the wind carried it away, and it just happened to land in my brother’s back yard right after we had been out doing the same thing.
Years later, after I’d grown up and gotten that horrible, bad, dangerousness out of me, I took my kids out shooting rockets at a big club in Dallas, Texas. Some of these guys were shooting off huge rockets with really powerful motors, and they weren’t made out of cardboard and plastic, either. They were metal and hard PVC, and had sophisticated electronics aboard. These guys were very professional about the whole thing, and were highly safety conscious. I thought this was a good, safe way to introduce model rocketry to my kids.
One big, white rocket went up with a terrific crackling roar. I was video taping it, and heard everyone start yelling. It had gotten to the top end of its flight, which is called the apogee, and it turned around and started coming back down. The trouble was that the parachute had not come out, and now it was a deadly missile coming straight down. I turned the camera off and took a few steps back, because it looked like it was coming right at me.
The rocket hit the ground and exploded not more than ten feet away, showering me with stinging little pieces of PVC shrapnel, and to my horror I realized it had hit the curb right in front of my van, right next to a little kiddy table, right exactly where my younger daughter had been sitting not 30 seconds before. She had just happened to get up and wander away…
In all my years of abusing model rocketry, I had never come as close to disaster as these safe and sane rocketeers had.
Summer morning, and I’d awaken and jump out of my bed, eat a bunch of sugary cereal, and then jam on down the street toward the train tracks to meet my friends. I had a Stingray bike with a tiny front tire, a banana seat, and a tall sissy bar. 5-speed, straight shift. Front wheel had a drum brake like a motorcycle.
The bike was “boss.” It “burned rubber.”
I’d race down the dirt of the levy road, dodging shadows and fallen branches, then leap over a mound of dirt and rumble down a rocky trail to the tracks. Turning north I’d follow the tracks to the second bridge where the creek was wide and deep. Usually I was the first one there, but not every time.
Randy would show up, sometimes with his neighbor Philip. Sometimes Larry would be there. Other friends came and went; I don’t even remember their names. All us boys were in-between the 4th and 5th grades. Lizard hunters, proto-motocross riders. Creek swimmers. Train challengers.
This was the lost Tom Sawyer boyhood of my youth.
The railroad bridge was a quiet place. Overgrown with trees and brush, the creek ran gurgling at a good pace. There were mini-rapids both upstream and downstream, but right around the oily, wooden bridge supports it was almost a pond. Deep enough to swim in, and if I stood it would come up to my neck. Because of broken glass, swimming with shoes was mandatory.
There were always new things to see or find. We’d catch at least one snake a day, but rarely do anything besides hold it for a while then let it go again. Only exceptionally cool snakes would be taken home so that they could escape and scare the bejeezes out of our moms. But there were also alligator lizards, and skinks (with really pretty red or blue tails), dozens of bluebellies, massive bullfrogs, and the occasional swimming turtle. They had the tendency to bite, though.
The really fun stuff was more dangerous. One of our favorites was to jump our bikes into the water. I only did this when I brought my second “junk” bike out. We would zoom down the short hill from the tracks, up a big lump of dirt, and fly 15 feet through the air and into the creek. Another favorite was to huddle under the bridge as a train went by. There was talk of actually lying down the middle of the track and have the train go right over us, but thank God no one actually tried it.
Then one day we found the hiding place of a genuine railroad hobo. Abandoned during the day, apparently this hobo returned at night to sleep in a corrugated metal pipe that ran under the tracks. There was clothes, cans of food, bottles of water, blankets, and a pile of really nasty, dirty magazines. They weren’t like our dad’s Playboy magazines. They were lurid and sleazy; wide open and shocking. We were fascinated, like deer unable to look away from oncoming headlights.
We didn’t know what to do with this forbidden treasure. We were afraid if we simply left it, it would disappear. But no one would dare take it home. We could all imagine the nightmare of it being found. So it was decided we had to find a new hiding place for it.
We searched the surrounding area for a likely place. There were piles of old railroad ties, and boards under grass, and areas where there were piles of concrete. We were surrounded by farmland, and we found what we thought was a perfect place: another corrugated metal pipe on the other side of a barbed wire fence, right below a small tree. It was perfect. It was about a foot wide and hidden by tall grass.
The next day we came out and yes, the treasure was still there. We’d all pour over it, joke about it, ask each other question which none of us truly knew the answer (though it didn’t stop us from bluffing and stating our guesses as fact). We were boys trying to fathom the mysteries of women. We were trying to integrate our knowledge of our mothers, sisters, and girls next door with what we’d learned from the dirty magazines. It was difficult and ultimately frightening.
I think we were all a bit relieved when several days later we came out to find the pipe holding our forbidden treasure was under water. As it turned out, the field was a rice field, and the farmer had come and turned the valve, flooding the area with water from the creek. The water had carried the magazines out into the acres of rice paddies and they were obviously ruined and lost. Our only consolation was that the next day we were treated to the joyous show of a biplane flying right over our heads, dropping sprouts into the fields of water. The daring of the pilot earned our undying admiration, especially after he waved at us from about ten feet off the ground.
After that it was back to normal at the bridge. Snakes, lizards, bicycles, and swimming. Seeing how long we could stand on the train tracks while a train bore down on us. Stupid boy things like that. I’m sure we spent the whole summer out there, but when school started again and the weather grew colder, the place wasn’t as much fun. Things changed, bulldozers pushed things around, and the old wooden railroad bridge was replaced by a new, modern, concrete one. And for some reason they cut down all the surrounding trees.
It was over. The next summer the tracks didn’t hold the same magic, and it took many years to find a place like that again. By that time I was a teenager in a different crowd of friends, and girls were involved, and there was not much innocence left. People had jobs and responsibilities. Car payments had to be made. It was different.
Like Tom Sawyer, we were doomed to grow up.
We didn’t mean any harm. Seriously. We were just kids.
I think I was about 10 years old when we first moved to Stockton, California, and our first house was right on the edge of town in an area being developed. Directly across the street was a large empty field, a perfect place for us neighborhood kids to play. With this huge field of dirt, all we needed was a shovel. I provided the shovel, and we took turns digging. We all wanted to see just how big a hole we could make.
The project took weeks. At first we called it “The Hole,” as in, “Let’s meet at The Hole after school.” “Mom, we’re going to go play out at The Hole.” “I did more work on The Hole than you did!”
The Hole became quite large, and then someone came up with the coolest idea. With all the construction going on in the neighborhood there was plenty of wood around (scrap and otherwise) so day by day we were able to start covering The Hole with a roof. As the roof was built, dirt was piled on top of it so that it couldn’t be seen. It was at this point it stopped being The Hole and became “The Fort.”
With The Fort in place amid all the weeds and tall grass, it was the best place on Earth to play Army. We armed ourselves with cap guns, squirt guns, plastic battle axes and swords, and the filled that field with wars, insurrections, rebellions and general free-for-all mêlées. The Fort was a nexus for our little battles until summer, when a rival gang of kids, older and meaner, took it from us. Our interest in it waned, as we’d discovered new places to play (a creek with a railroad bridge, God help us) and so we finally gave up on The Fort.
We let the bullies have it.
Then I remember the day we spotted a Caterpillar tractor out in that field, lumbering and squeaking through the tall grass. I stood on my front lawn with my friends, watching in fascination as the tractor pulled its plow back and forth across the field, edging closer to The Fort with each pass. Then there was this magic moment when the entire tractor suddenly disappeared from our view. From across the field came a terrific Wham!.
Little did we realize that we’d created the perfect tractor trap.
The tractor driver came up out of that hole hopping mad, and we ran. Later someone came door to door, inquiring about whose kids had dug a big hole in the field. My mom kept her mouth shut, no doubt fearing a lawsuit. Later it came out that the bullies who’d taken it away from us got blamed, and were in big trouble.
It took a huge semi-truck looking rig to pull that tractor out of The Hole. We stood on my front lawn watching that, too. Come next summer, they’d started building more houses there and soon the field was a block of brand new triplexes. It didn’t take five years for the whole area to deteriorate into a low-rent slum.
Frankly, I liked it better as a field.
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Books by Jerry