Saturday, March 14, 2015


Creating Props with Character

The Right Props Help You Tell Your Story

            We’re still talking about drawing clear word pictures by setting the stage in your story with the right props.  The best props have their own character or personality.  So far, I’ve talked about the roles that the Bell Family pickup and my own dune buggy played in my youthful adventures in the desert and mountains between Trona, California and Death Valley.
            During the summer before my senior year in high school, my family moved from Trona to Ridgecrest, California, 25 miles away, but still deep in the Mojave Desert.  Dad said that after the summer ended, I could drive back to Trona each day during the school year to finish high school there and graduate from Trona High, but in the meantime, all my old haunts and friends were gone for the summer with only dry, mountainous desert stretching between us.  I was left with every teen’s worst nightmare, making a new group of friends.
            Ridgecrest had almost 20,000 people then and was ten times bigger than Trona.  Meeting new people there, I soon realized that new opportunities for adventure had opened up.  As I shared stories of my Trona adventures with my new Ridgecrest friends, I wondered what we could do in the nearby China Lake area.  China Lake is a dry lake bed located in a Naval weapons testing zone, so we couldn’t actually go there, but there is lots of desert around it, open to the public and just begging to be explored.
Ford Truck by creativauy
            I knew we’d think of something, and an idea was born one blistering-hot, summer afternoon.  Sweat painted thick, dark marks on my T-shirt as I dug a trench through cement-hard Mojave Desert caliche, hiding under a thin layer of sandy topsoil.  A new friend, Barry Edwards, and I had gotten summer jobs with a local landscaper.  Digging trenches for sprinkler systems was back-breaking work, but the hourly pay was good.
            The solution to our hunger for adventure came in the form of Barry’s old pickup truck.
            That day, as we chipped our way down the trench, one of the other workers cocked his head at Barry’s 1950-something Ford pickup.  “You know, if you’re truck is the right year, the axle width is the same width as the railroad tracks.  As long as you don’t try to steer, you can drive that truck on the rails.”
            That was it.  I looked at Barry.  “We should see if your truck fits.”  He smiled.
            Our workday started around 4 am to beat the heat and often ended around 3 or 4 pm. After work, we had the afternoon free, so we drove out into the desert on a dirt road that led to an isolated railroad crossing.  We didn’t want anyone watching, and this dirt crossing sloped gradually away from the tracks.
            I jumped out, directing as Barry maneuvered the truck back and forth in the intersection until it was perpendicular to the road, heading in the same direction as the rails.  With both hands waving, I guided him, shouting, “This way.  Now that way a little, good, good ... come straight,” until all four tires had rolled onto the tracks.  The middle of each tire sat perfectly on the middle of a rail.  Success!
            Hopping inside, I said, “Remember, we’re on rails now.  You can’t steer or you’ll drive us off the tracks.”  Barry nodded, holding both hands up, off the steering wheel.  Slowly, he pushed on the gas pedal until we were going about 20 miles an hour along the tracks.  The ride was so smooth, like gliding on air.  The tracks curved gradually, and then started up a hill.  We exchanged looks as the truck started to slow, but with more gas, we purred up that hill like the truck was flying.  The feeling was exhilarating.
            We were literally on a roll, and eventually got the truck up to 55 mph!  We didn’t dare go much faster for fear we’d jump the rails, so we just cruised along, windows rolled down, radio blasting, scrolling the wind with our hands and watching the jack rabbits jump out of the desert bushes that covered both sides of the ten-foot-high berm that formed the foundation of the rail bed.
            Barry peered through the windshield, then pointed ahead.  We could see the faint trace of another dirt road cutting across the line of our tracks--another railroad crossing.  We worried the tires might pop off the rails inside the intersection, but we sailed through no problem.  By the time the next intersection loomed in the distance, however, we decided we didn’t want to push our luck any further.
            “Better get the speed down if we’re getting off,” Barry said, taking his foot off the gas, letting us coast.  The brakes on Barry’s truck pulled to one side, so we didn’t dare brake.  At the next crossing we were going slow, so with a touch of the brake, Barry slipped us off the rails onto the dirt road.
            Next day at work, we both agreed, “Let’s do it again!”  We spent the rest of the workday talking about ways to upgrade our rail-riding experience.
            That afternoon, with just a couple quick stops along the way for supplies, we were back at our favorite isolated railroad crossing.  Once we were rolling along the tracks again, we positioned a large, flat rock against the gas pedal with one end lying on the driveshaft hump in the middle of the truck and the other end resting on the floor below the pedal.  By scooting the rock up or back against the gas pedal, we could steady the gas flow until we had leveled our speed out at about 35 to 40 mph.
            We then scrambled out the side windows, climbing along the slick metal to sit on top of the cab.  Our legs dangled down onto the windshield as we ate our picnic of Hostess pies and soda pop.  We had our .22 rifles loaded and in hand for the shooting gallery.  We hadn’t forgotten those jack rabbits.
Train Tunnel by adamr
            The breeze swept our hair back and the whole Mojave Desert stretched out on every side.  With no one working the gas, the pickup slowed down when we climbed hills and gained speed on the downward side, but otherwise drove itself.  After cruising and shooting at jack rabbits for half an hour or so, we noticed a tunnel looming up ahead.  Not thinking much about it, we rode inside.  Pitch blackness enveloped us.
            “Uh, I think we need lights,” Barry said, and inched over to climb carefully down into the cab and switch on the headlights.  Deep black stretched beyond the reach of our light beams with no end in sight.
            “So what happens if we see a train coming?” Barry asked.
            I shook my head in the dimness.  “Depends on which way the train is going, but there’s no way for us to get off the rails in here.”
            For a mile or more we rode through the tunnel, eyes and ears alert for the stabbing light and clicking sound of rails that would signal an approaching train.  Relieved, we finally saw the approaching daylight at the end of the tunnel.  Once we had barreled out into the open again, we agreed, “That was dumb.  We should check the train schedules before going through a tunnel.”
            Back in town, Barry got to work, talking with people, who worked for the railroad, getting an idea of who used the tracks and when.  Not a fail-proof plan, but good enough for our purposes.
            Our next question was, “Who do we want to invite along on the next trip?”
            We tried out several friends, and first responses were always the same.  “Are you kidding?”
            “No, we ride the rails.  It’s great.  Bring your .22 and chips or pop.  We’ll bring Hostess pies.”
            A slow smile would come with belief, telling us we had made another convert.  Not all wanted to brave the slippery path onto the cab, choosing instead to slide out the door and climb around into the back bed.  Either way, everyone enjoyed the ride, eating and shooting.  We traveled for miles with no one in the cab, no one driving.  The tunnel was always a thriller.  Fortunately, we never saw a train.
            The large, flat rock stayed permanently in Barry’s truck that summer—always ready anytime we wanted to put the truck into auto-pilot.  I don’t know when he finally threw it out, but I wish now we had thought to keep it.  After all, that rock was a special kind of prop, a non-standard part of the truck.
            Thanks to Barry’s Ford, with the right wheel gauge, I made friends in Ridgecrest that summer.
            In the Fall, my new friends went back to Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, and I went back to Trona High, but we stayed in touch.  I saw my new friends on weekends.  At the time, I was not aware of any rivalry between the two high schools.  They were in completely different worlds.  Trona was in a totally different league, too small to even show up as a blip on the Burroughs’ radar screen.
            To this day, I still have family and friends in Ridgecrest and Trona.  I go back to visit as often as possible, and as I drive along U.S. Route 395, I look over at the railroad tracks and think of the carefree hours spent perched on the outside of a driverless truck, just cruising, talking, shooting, munching, and ridin' the rails.
            It didn’t get better than that.

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