Friday, February 20, 2015


PEOPLE-WATCHING:  A Spectator Sport.

Thank Heaven for Good Friends, who Survive.

            We’re still talking about the benefits of watching people.  Last week, I told you about my buddy, Jay Bell, and how by blind luck we all survived the rotten old ladders of Ruth Mine.  This week I’m going to tell a story about two more of my high school friends.  These are people who helped me understand a lot about human nature, and this is a survival story as well.
            I think it was during my junior year.  Debate class had gotten past the opening business, and we were breaking into small groups for individual work when Elaine Arnold slipped into the desk next to me.  Elaine was a year younger than me.  Good-looking, a straight-A student, and always a teacher’s favorite at Trona High School, she was a straight arrow if ever there was one and a good debate buddy.  I learned a lot from both her debate as well as her extemporaneous techniques.
            She spoke softly, leaning over the gap between us, so only I could hear.  “I’ve got a question.”
            I pulled back a bit.  “Oh?”  I was usually asking her the questions.
            “I know it’s ridiculous, but I’ve heard stories.”  She glanced around.  Everyone was busy.  “Do you go out in the desert blowing things up for fun?”  She shrugged.  “I just wondered.  Do you?”
            My shoulders relaxed.  I had imagined a hard question.  “Of course.  Doesn’t everybody?”
            I don’t know how I had earned the “mild-mannered reporter” label.  It always surprised me that everyone—except those who really knew me—saw me as the quiet guy who never did anything exciting or dangerous.  Most people incorrectly assumed that I was the careful, quiet type.
Put the Pedal to the Metal
            True, I was an introvert, hiding my shyness by being overly courteous to others, but that was just my outer shell.  Underneath, I hungered for the maximum speeds and loudest noises I could find. My definition of R&R included fast cars and high explosions.
            Elaine stared at me in earnest for a moment, analyzing what I’d said.  I wasn’t sure how she was reacting to this new revelation and was starting to feel nervous.
            She leaned in close again and whispered, “Will you take me with you sometime?”
            “Sure,” I said with a relieved grin.  “How about this Saturday?”  Saturday was a safe day to go out dynamiting.  The Sheriff from San Bernardino only came through town on Thursday.
             On Saturday morning, I got another long-time buddy, Ken Corbridge, to come along with us.  Ken was always available for a new adventure, but as I look back now, I realize that I may have made a mistake.  When we were exploring, if any one got hurt, it was always Ken. He had commemorative scars from all the big adventures.  He was the yin to Jay Bell’s yang.
            Whereas Jay Bell had a guardian angel who worked overtime, protecting him.  If Ken had a guardian angel at all, his angel had been missing in action for years.  In Ruth Mine, it was a good thing Jay came up the ladder last and not Ken, or Jay may have been the only one to get out alive.
            We picked up Elaine in my old dune buggy (with a Pontiac straight-eight engine) and drove out to our dynamite stash.  Elaine’s eyes got really big, but she made no comment.  The dune buggy had no sides, roll bars, or seat belts, and only one long bench seat.  We put Elaine in the middle of the seat, with me driving on one side and Ken seated on her other side to keep her from falling out.
            Ken held the dynamite in his lap.
            “We’re going to Gold Bottom Mine,” I explained to Elaine as we drove out of town.
            Before Airport Road, I turned off onto a wide, flat dirt road that circled around the dry lake bed of Searles Lake.  The mineral companies that mined the lake deposits kept the road in good condition, so I knew I could get up some real speed, which I hoped would impress Elaine.  The road, clearly visible through the many holes in the floorboard beneath our feet, whizzed by at ever increasing speeds.
            After the road curved south, I increased our speed on the wide, dirt road.  Elaine was enjoying the ride.  Suddenly, I saw the road leading to Gold Bottom Mine turning off on the left.  I spun the wheel, and we skidded sideways, throwing clouds of dirt into the air and massacring some bushes before finally straightening out onto the narrow, rutted mine road.
            Enveloped in dust, I felt Elaine tugging at my arm.  “We lost Kenny,” she yelled in my ear.  I glanced over.  Sure enough, it was just Elaine and me on the seat.  Ken was gone.
            I slammed on the breaks, slid to a stop, and backed up along the rutted track to return to the Searles Lake road.  Through the swirling dust, I saw Kenny lying flat on his back in the middle of the road, holding the dynamite tightly to his chest.  Jumping out, we ran to him.
            “Ken, are you okay?” I called.  “Are you okay?”
            I got to him first and stood looking down. “Ken?  Ken!  Are you all right?”
            Ken wasn’t answering.  It looked like he had some road burn on one arm.  Eyes closed tight, he lay perfectly flat and still.
            When Elaine joined me, she leaned over and commented, “He’s still holding the dynamite.”
            As soon as she spoke, Ken came alive.  Both eyes flew open.  Raising the dynamite above his chest, he set it over on the road away from him, and then pulled his hands back onto his chest again.
            I stared down at him, smiling.  “It’s too late for that, Ken.  If that dynamite were going to blow, it would have happened already.  With your luck, I’m surprised it didn’t blow.”
            “Don’t give me that crap,” Ken growled, using the one swear word he had not yet given up.
Abandoned Desert Junk
            After a couple minutes, Ken was up dusting himself off, complaining about the road rash on his arm.  It was bleeding and burning, but he had seen worse.  Elaine seemed fascinated by his quick recovery, so I explained that this kind of thing happened to Ken all the time.  I didn’t mention that it usually happened when I was driving.
            For the rest of the drive to Gold Bottom Mine, Ken insisted that Elaine hold the dynamite since she was in the middle and less likely to fall out.  Since Elaine was holding the dynamite, she insisted that I drive slow.  After all, the road to the mine was bumpy.
            I don’t remember specifically what we found that day to destroy, but we had a great time blowing up rocks and assorted, abandoned desert junk.  Elaine was suitably impressed with the power of dynamite, and being a quick study, soon had the science of dynamiting figured out.
            For my own part, I came away with a newly found appreciation of the power of dynamite in guaranteeing a successful date.  For the rest of my high school days and into my college career, I was never turned down once for a dynamite date, when I explained that we were really going to blow something up.  In fact, before we were married, I took my wife on a dynamite date, but I’ll let her tell that story.

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