PEOPLE-WATCHING FOR FUN AND PROFIT.
Thank Heaven for the Characters of this World.
Last week, we established that, at least for writers, there can be creative benefits in tapping into the crazy side of one’s own id. In addition, there can be creative benefits in understanding the crazy side of a friend or family member. In fact, the closer the friend or loved one, the better the opportunity to observe and understand what makes that person tick, especially under stress, like when angry or afraid.
I have to tell you about my good friend, Jay Bell. Jay was blind, as in mostly blind, legally blind. Born prematurely in a small hospital, the oxygen mix was too rich in the tent they put over him and his eyes were permanently damaged. When I moved with my family to the isolated desert town of Trona, California, Jay was the weird kid with the heavy, half-inch thick glasses, but he soon became one of my best friends. Throughout our high school and college days, we had great adventures together.
Though Jay saw only a fuzzy version of the world the rest of us saw clearly, he was fearless, especially when exploring old mines. In the dark, he often led the way. I learned some important lessons about life while watching Jay face the unknown. Many of his strong, and some of his quirky, qualities are now reflected in my stories--in my key characters, both protagonists as well as antagonists.
In addition, being friends with Jay in high school had a number of great benefits. First off, was his Mom. “Hi, Berk,” she’d say with a smile when I showed up at Jay’s front door, and then she’d stuff me full with large quantities of home-cooked food. At 6 feet 4 inches and the center on the Trona Tornado’s football team, I was always hungry. My stomach was basically bottomless.
Another benefit was the freedom we had to explore the desert. I think Mrs. Bell thought Jay would be safe with me and let us run free in Mr. Bell’s old pickup truck--as long as I was driving of course. Jay never did get a driver’s license, and his father had long since retired, so his truck was rarely used. In hindsight, her faith in me may not have been justified. Though neither of us was ever seriously injured, it was not for want of trying, and to this day, I still carry minor scars from our misadventures.
|Do Not Try This At Home|
One hot summer morning, a few friends, including Jay and me, decided to drive out to the Ruth Mine in Homewood Canyon. It was always cool inside the deep mines, and we were ready for adventure. Besides just hanging-out in the canyon, picking off mangy jackrabbits with our .22s, and gorging on Hostess cherry pies, we hoped to find dynamite left behind in the old, abandoned mine. We were always searching for new sources of dynamite and rumor had it that explosives were stored in the depths of that mine.
|Old Wooden Ore Car|
The main shaft of Ruth Mine is vertical, plunging straight down into the deep, dark core of the mountain. Every fifty to one hundred feet, horizontal shafts branch off, reaching out to where more veins of ore had been discovered. In our day, the only way down to the many horizontal tunnels was on a wooden ladder, really a series of ladders bolted in sections to the large, timber support beams bracing the sides of the main shaft. The ladders stretched for hundreds of feet down the sheer sides of the wide vertical shaft.
|Tools for Mining by Hand|
Carrying extra flashlights and batteries, we descended into the bowels of the mine, which seemed to go for miles in many directions, on many levels. Whenever we came across a cave-in or a tunnel closure, Jay was usually the one to squeeze through to see if there was anything worth exploring on the other side. Not only was Jay thin and wiry, nothing seemed to intimidate him. After exploring for hours and finding only old tools and mining equipment, but no dynamite, we were hungry and decided to climb back up to the truck. Those Hostess pies were calling us.
We had reached the top of the vertical shaft, which connected with a short tunnel leading to the outside, and were waiting for Jay, when suddenly he called, “Hey guys, I need a hand over here!”
There was a large gap between the support beams that rimmed the top of the main shaft and the rocky ledge of the exit tunnel. The ladder ended even with one of the timber beams, and there was nothing to hold on to while stepping across from the ladder to the stone ledge. Jay had put his flashlight in his pocket so he could climb with both hands, and the exit tunnel at this point was far enough away from the entrance to be in perpetual dark. Jay was completely blind as he got ready to step over to the tunnel’s uneven floor.
Turning with my flashlight, I saw Jay’s free hand grasping helplessly at thin air, so I reached out and grabbed his hand. With one hard pull, I dragged him up onto the ledge next to me, and as Jay struggled to get both feet onto solid rock, the whole top section of the ladder, twenty feet or more in length, broke away from the support beams. With a splintering screech of old wood, the ladder dropped out of sight and crashed loudly as it fell hundreds of feet down to the bottom of the mine.
In the total silence that followed, we all stood at the edge of the gaping shaft, staring down soberly into the deep, black depths, realizing that lady luck had just smiled on Jay.
Finally, Ken Corbridge cleared his throat to speak. I thought he was going to say we were lucky that no one was still on that ladder when it broke away. Instead, he said, rather forcefully, “Oh, crap! Now we can’t go back down that shaft again.” That was as close as Ken got to swearing since he had sworn off swearing.
Jay straightened up defensively. “Don’t blame me! It wasn’t my fault the ladder broke.”
Suddenly, we were all grinning, so I added my two cents. “Yea, sure. You were going to try to ride that ladder like a sled all the way back down to the bottom of the mine. You were the one that kept saying we should keep going until we got all the way to the bottom.”
“Not that way!” Jay backed away from the vertical shaft and turned to leave. “That ladder probably fell halfway to Hell. I’m not interested in any one-way tickets to nowhere.”
“Well,” I said. “Let’s not tell your Mom about this.”
“Right! And she wonders why I never have much to say about our adventures. If she knew half of what happens when we go exploring, I’d be grounded for life.”
That about summed it up.
In silence, we trudged back to Mr. Bell’s old pickup truck. I knew Jay was a great storyteller, when his Mom wasn't around, so I couldn’t help thinking, Someday, Jay is going to have some great stories to tell his grandkids. I hope he remembers to mention my part in his stories.
It turns out that Jay never got a chance to tell his stories, at least not in this life, but that is another story altogether. In the end, it turned out that I would be the one telling the stories, and I do remember to include Jay in my stories—in more ways than one.