T-4 Two

 

Max had fallen asleep while resting his eyes. Tom didn’t mind too much, he understood how looking through a spotter’s scope wore a guy out. From their concealed perch up in the clock tower he could see above the forest all the way to the Polish border fifty miles away. The leaves were changing color under the October afternoon sky but the cold wasn’t enough to defeat his thermals and his sage colored fleece jacket. His right cheek was red from the butt of his SR-25 sniper rifle. He couldn’t grow a beard thick enough ease the friction from lying in place for hours at a time. They had been in position for 32 hours.

Laughing voices echoed from somewhere in the building. Max and Tom were in the administration building of the Dornier Sanitarium. The place had been abandoned since 1981 when the Soviets abruptly boarded up every window and bricked up the entrances to all of the doors. Tom listened holding his breath, and counted the number of voices he was hearing, he estimated that there were between six and eight children were playing a game somewhere below in one of the larger rooms, perhaps the dining hall. They began to sing a German nursery rhyme. This woke Max.

“Christ, can’t a guy get some shut eye around here?” he said, and looked at Tom and saw the concern on his face. “Are they getting to you?”

“It just bugs me, that’s all,” Tom said, lowering his head to look through the 16X Leopold scope on his rifle.

“Because they’re kids?”

“Yeah, it’s not fair. You know, being stuck here, it’s a fucking raw deal.” Dornier Sanitarium had been built in 1915 to house mentally ill children, mostly the mentally retarded, and severely autistic. The German government had used the place for research and performed experiments on the kids in hopes of finding cures. The ones that didn’t die on the table were left off in worse shape. In 1939, Hitler signed Action T-4, a plan to euthanize the mentally ill because, as he put it, they were “life not worthy of life”. The children were first to die,

“They sound like they’re having fun to me. I mean this huge building is theirs now,” Max said, getting to his knees and waiting for the blood to flow to his head before he got up.

“You telling me this is better than Heaven?” Tom said. He still peered through his scope.

“Never been there, dude, but I doubt it.” Max stood and went down one level to piss in the far corner. The machinery of the old clock had been removed in 1941 to be melted down and reused for the war. A few of the bricked up doors had been broken open by vandals and copper thieves over the years, but Max and Tom had found that the buildings were largely undisturbed. Whoever had broken in didn’t stay long. In 1941 the place was briefly used as a convalescent hospital for soldiers recovering from wounds from the Russian campaign. The Nazis abandoned it again in mid-1942 when they realized none of the wounded ever got better. Dornier had a 100% death rate. Max hadn’t bothered to tell Tom this fact. Navajos could be twitchy about cursed places.

Returning to the top platform he laid back down on his dark green foam mat.

“Wanna take a break?” he said.

“I’m good,” Tom said. He jumped when he heard the first door slam. A few seconds another door slammed hard enough that it made dust snow from the rafters over their heads. Soon is seemed every door in the building was slamming. Tom pointed to the building across the quad. “They’re doing it over there too.”

“Yeah, I hear that, weird,” Max said.

“So what the fuck is going on? Should we haul ass?”

“I don’t feel threatened, do you?”

Tom inhaled while he thought that over, and said, “No, I feel fear, but it’s not directed at us.”

“Same here, stay frosty,” Max said. He was comfortable with ghosts, and that’s why Tom had requested that he come along on this mission. He knew that if Max started to freak out then it was time to go. His friend’s calm helped him keep it together.

“Shit, someone’s at the gate, show time,” Tom said. Max popped the lens covers from his Steiner binoculars and looked to the left toward the tree-line where the fifteen foot-tall iron fences parted for the facility’s sole gate. An expensive black Mercedes sedan was pulling though and stopped. A man wearing a weathered white Fedora, and a blue and white plaid sport coat got out to lock the gate behind him.

“Why the fuck is he doing that?” Max said.

“One of three reasons, Bro, he’s careful, or the people following him have their own key, or the person he’s meeting is already here and we missed them on our recon.”

“Fuck. Do you think?” Max said. Dornier consisted of 9 three-story buildings covering twelve acres. They had arrived the night before scaling the fence from the forest in the rear of the sanitarium, and using their night vision goggles they searched all of the buildings finding nothing. The German government had intel that a man named Erman Klopf was using the place to make chemical and biological weapons to sell to Islamic extremists in the middle east. The Germans were afraid of blow-back should the WMDs be traced back to them, and they called the British government, who in turn called Washington D.C. The CIA was stretched too thin by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and east Africa to send anyone. Killing a German on German soil would have repercussions that none of the governments wanted to deal with if things went wrong, so they contracted out and called Drummel, who called Tom.

The Mercedes traveled the 300 yards from the gate and parked in front of the building directly across from the clock tower. The man got out of the car. Max recognized him immediately from the black eye-patch under his wide-rimmed glasses.

“Holy shit,” Max said in a whisper that made Tom turn away from his scope.

“What?” Tom said.

“Wait one.” The man walked from his car to the large mahogany doors that had not been bricked up like the rest, and used a key to open them. When the door was closed Max put his binoculars down. “That’s Heinrich-fucking-Steitz, he was the number two asshole in the T-4 program.”

“Wait, what? They didn’t hang his ass after Nuremburg?”

“No, he got nine years and went back to work for I.G. Farvin,” Max said, putting his binoculars away.

“No way,” Tom said, “The guy got a pass?”

“The British and U.S. needed him. He’d done a lot of work on genetics and biological weapons.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Fuckin’ A, Bubba,” Max said, and sat up. “Look at the bright side, we get to fix that mistake today.” He picked up his silenced UMP-45 and winked.

Tom got to his knees and stretched and said, “Aren’t we going to wait for Klopf?”

“He’s already here, you said so yourself.”

“I said that was an option,” Tom said, his elbows were stiff.

“Here’s where we fucked up: we’re both from warm states. I’m from Hillsburough in California, and you’re from Shiprock in New Mexico,” Max said, getting to his feet.

“It snows in New Mexico, dipshit.”

“Yeah, it the higher elevations, but not like it does here. How far to that building?”

Tom said, “Twenty-five yards.”

“If you worked here in January, how excited would you be to trudge over there and back six or seven times a day?” Max said. He was stuffing his gear into his pack.

“That would blow.”

“Exactly, and most places like this, like the old mental hospitals in New England, they all have tunnels connecting the buildings.”

Tom got to his feet and thought about this for a second, and said, “Oh shit, why didn’t we think of that before?”

“Evidently we’re morons,” Max said, flashing two thumbs up.

“So what else do you think might be down there?”

“Well, in places like Danvers and the West Allegheny Lunatic Asylum they had isolation wards, padded cells for the violent patients, and most had private operating rooms for their questionable work.”

“So there could be a fucking underground city that we missed,” Tom said, folding the bipod into the barrel of his rifle.

“Not exactly a city,” Max said, slinging his pack over his shoulders.

Tom flipped his rifle onto his back and chambered a round into his MP-7 submachine gun, and said, “There’s just the two of us, it might as well be a city.”

“True, but that works to our advantage. More guys would risk the op,” Max said. He was fiddling with the chin-strap to his black Protec helmet.

Tom smiled when he saw it and said, “When are you going to get a new brain-bucket?”

“This works just fine.”

“It won’t stop a bullet.”

“No, that means I have duck and stay alert, you know, cool commando shit,” Max said, clipping his NODs to the mount on the front of his helmet. “Besides, I don’t feel like spending a grand for your nifty high-speed Jedi beanie.”

“I picked this up for seven hundred bucks, fuck you very much,” Tom said, tightening the strap on his black Air Frame helmet. Both men double checked to make sure they’d left nothing behind and began to descend the stairs to the ground floor. Their NODs gave everything a lime-green tint as they moved quietly down the wall entry hall. “So where would the door be?”

“Near the kitchen, they would have loaded meals onto trays to distribute to the different wings,” Max said. They moved to the kitchen following the German signs overhead. Tom squeezed Max’s shoulder making him stop, and pointed to a trail of child-sized footprints in the dust-covered floor.

“Those weren’t there when we came through here yesterday. Why no shoes?” Tom said in a barely audible whisper. Max shrugged and continued into the large, industrial kitchen. Moving to a point in the center between two large cutting tables they paused to listen and scan the room. Tom began rapidly tapping Max’s shoulder. Max turned and he pointed to the far end of the room. A little girl Max guessed to be no older than eight stood looking at them. Her eyes glowed in their NODs allowing them to see she had Down Syndrome. She smiled and stuck her thumb into her mouth.

Max took a knee and said, “Where’s the door to downstairs?” His rusty German was pretty good after a week in country. Her smile grew bigger and she swayed side-to-side on her feet with her other hand clutching the side of her hospital gown. “I bet you don’t know where it is.” She took her thumb from her mouth and put both hands on her hips, and then spun around and skipped the short distance to the wood-paneled wall to vanish mid stride. Max moved to the wall and began feeling the wall for a leaver or release mechanism. Tom stepped forward and gave the panel a sharp push and it popped open. He stopped it when he heard the hinges squeal.

“How’d you know to do that?” Max said.

“Cheetahs had a door like this,” Tom said, referring to the strip club where he worked as a bouncer during his days at Bragg. He took point and opened the door carefully. Inside was a small landing, to the left was a dumbwaiter, and straight ahead was a rot iron spiral staircase leading down. Both of them turned on their targeting lasers and began the slow descent. It was a two-story drop to the bottom where they found a larger room filled with stainless steel meal carts. Tom went to the door and listened for a second before pushing it open. Max dropped an infrared chemlight on the floor in the hall so they could find it on their way out.

Unlike the ornate decor of the upper building, the underground was un-scenic concrete. Ancient gurneys and wheelchairs lined the south wall to their left, dozens of each. The years had been less kind here. Water had found its way through the cracks in the cement ceiling staining the floor where the pools would dry. Black mold climbed the wall an eighth of an inch thick. Max followed Tom along the hallway, his head swept right to left to right searching for threats. They passed many rooms, some with bedframes with leather straps, and others with moldy padding on the walls. On room had a dentist’s chair, Max grimaced when he saw it. Some patients were biters, and the hospital dealt with them by pulling out all of their teeth.

Something banged onto the floor somewhere ahead of them snapping Max back into focus. They waited a full minute before resuming their search. Tom came to a set of swinging doors and slowly pushed one open. I glow came from the far end of the hall 25 yards away. He estimated this was under the building where they’d seen Steitz enter. He resumed the stalking now moving heel to toe keeping silent. They reached a T-intersection where the floor went from bare cement to a black & white checkerboard tile.

Movement came from their right and they could see light seeping from under the ninth door down. Tom turned his head and nodded to Max. This was it; they would kick the door in (if they had to) and kill Steitz and Klopf, or whoever else was inside. Whatever pain they had in their joints was erased by the flood of adrenaline now surging through their systems. Tom began moving again but froze after three steps. The little girl from the kitchen was standing in the hall in front of the door where the light was coming from.

More children emerged from thin air, some in surgical gowns, some in shorts and with shirts, and others in white nightgowns. They ranged in age from five to fifteen. Unlike the little girl, their eyes were black holes set deep into their skulls. The little girl held out her hand with her palm out signaling for Tom and Max to stop. She smiled and put her index finger to her lips, and the others imitated her. One by one the children began to file into the lighted room passing through the closed door like smoke. The little girl remained in the hallway now sucking her thumb and swaying in the dark.

The sound of breaking glass filled the hall, and Max and Tom pulled their helmets off, and began fumbling around for their gas-masks. Once tight on their faces their helmets went back on. The whole time two men were shouting inside the room. Their shouts turned to yells, changing to screams. These screams went on for ten minutes, the final two of which the pitch of their cries rose four octaves. The doorknob began rattling and someone pounded on the other side begging God for help. The silence that followed was abrupt and thick enough to cause Max and Tom to hold their breath, until the first of the children reappeared walkinf through the door. Their black eyes now glowed brightly, the kids formed into a line and walked toward Max and Tom with smiles on their face. Some said hello with tiny voices, and other waved, and a few just went past looking straight ahead.

Finally the little girl came down the hall and stopped in front of Tom. She beckoned with her hand for him to kneel down.

She kissed him on his cheek and said, “Thank you for caring about us. Do not worry, we can go home now.”

“Save me a dance,” Tom said. She kissed him again and moved past him skipping down the hallway fading out of view with each joyful leap. Tom sniffed.

“You gonna need a minute?” Max said.

“Fuck you,” Tom said, sliding a gloved finger under his NODs to wipe his eyes. He stood and started moving to the door. The knob was locked when he tried it, and he took a step back, and kicked the door open splintering the frame at the strike plate. The lights forced them to flip their NODs up and turn them off as they went in.

“Well that explains how the Germans knew they were here,” Max said.

“Yeah, the power-drain, they most have traced it. Nice of them to tell us,” Tom said. His brain registered what his eyes were viewing. “Smack my ass and call me Sally.” Intestines were draped over the hanging lights like bunting. Small bloody handprints decorated all four walls and the sides of the laboratory tables.

“Jesus, they quartered them,” Max said. An empty, armless chest hung from a coat rack near the door with the flesh pulled back to reveal the ribs. Four severed hands were neatly lined on a counter next to a wall sink next to extensive lab equipment, much of it now smashed. “There’s Klopf.” Max removed his iPhone to photograph the severed head on the floor next to an old refrigerator.

“Looks like Steitz is over here,” Tom said, pointing to the other head lying on its crown. The wind-pipe and neck vertebrae showed signs of being pulled from the body. Max came over and kicked the head onto its side for a slightly less gory picture.

“Laptop,” Tom said, pointing to a desk in the corner. He went over to it and pulled out a USB leech-drive and began copying the contents. The Germans wanted all intel discovered here, but there was no reason not to copy it for the CIA and the Brits, both would pay generously for what was on this computer.

Max slipped on the large lake of blood in the center of the lab. “Whoops, Christ almighty,”

“Careful, twinkle toes,” Tom said.

“Eat me.” Max continued to take pictures while they both looked for anything that would be of value to the high priests of the intelligence world. Tom found six thumb-drives that he copied. Something hanging from the still ceiling fan caught his eye.

“Bro, what the hell am I looking at here?” he said, point it out.

Max frowned and said, “Those would be testicles.”

“Nifty, can we get the fuck out of here now? Tell me we’re done.”

“We’re done. I don’t see anything else we could use.” Max put away his phone and began to follow Tom to the door when something on the last table caught his eye. “Hold on, dude.” He grabbed Steitz’s car keys and continued to the door. Neither man spoke until they were outside.

“Do you feel it?” Tom said.

“Yeah, the kids are all gone,” Max said.

“Did we have something to do with that?”

“Probably, I mean I think that Steitz being here had a lot to do with it, but the fact is they must have known why we were here.”

“So they killed them instead?” Tom said, he took his helmet off.

“I think they did it so it wouldn’t be on us,” Max said.

“Bro, I think they did it because shooting those assholes wasn’t going to be enough for them.”

Max removed his helmet and thought about that for a second, and said, “You’re probably right.”

“They used their heads as soccer balls,” Tom said, slipping his NODs into their case.

“Well the good news is that we don’t have hike back to our car, we can take this.” Max gestured to the Mercedes.

Tom went over and Max unlocked the passenger door with the remote on the keychain.

“This is a nice car,” Tom said.

“Not for long,” Max said. He got in and started the engine. Abba’s music filled the interior.

“Fuck, the guy really was a monster,” Tom said, ejecting the CD from the dashboard stereo. He lowered his window and threw it like a Frisbee.

“How thick do you think that chain is on the gate?” Max said, revving the engine.

Tom grinned and said, “Not that thick, Bro. Not that thick at all.” He flipped up the latch on the dashboard and turned off the airbags. The computerized voice of the car protested in a stern female German voice.

“Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!” Tom said.

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads,” Max said, and floored the gas. A rooster tail of dirt and gravel spread out from behind the car as it launched down the driveway. The speedometer read 50mph by the time they reached the gate. The impact knocked the gate from its hinges smashing the rear windshield into a spiderwebbed pattern. The hood was creased into a tent-shape but the engine sounded good. Max fish-tailed the Mercedes as he made the sharp turn onto the county road. Tom hooted loudly while he set the radio to a rock station in Berlin. Max wondered how the Germans were going to take it when they found the bodies, or what was left of them. He would file a detailed report, but Max knew from experience that few people believed anything he wrote.

He smiled, this wasn’t his problem.

 

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The Pizza Parlor Ghosts (a True Story)

I looked out the small, glass-less window in the scullery door and see a man standing in the middle of the dining room. I can only see his silhouette against the arcade games behind him, but his arms are folded, and he is staring me down.

Hold on, let me backtrack here…

The pizza parlor I worked at from 1980 to 1984 was not in an ancient, rundown building. The shopping center was maybe 20 years old, and was home to a Safeway (supermarket), Long’s Drugs, an animal hospital, a Laundromat, a bike shop, a shoe repair shop, an office supply store, dry cleaners, a funky restaurant/ café called Peyton’s Place, and a salon. The outer complex featured a bank, a diner (Sambo’s, then Seasons), and a duplex movie theater. All this sat next to Highway 1 with the Carmel River at its back.

It was 224 yards from my house.

The pizza parlor will remain unnamed, but it was a franchise where the employees wore hats of straw…so you figure it out. The pizza was and is still damned good, and if you have a franchise in your neighborhood you should eat there often.

1980 was my sophomore year in high school. My brother already worked there along with many of our friends, and everyone else would drop in on Friday or Saturday night on the way to that weekend’s big parties. The first year and a half was packed full of non-haunted fun, it was a great job for a kid. The money was alright, enough to buy records and guitar equipment, and there was always pizza, or spaghetti, or hot pizza wrapped sandwiches, and the salad bar. By then I had a key to the front door to lock up at night, and did weekend prep-cook work. In October, 1981 I took the state proficiency exam, and left high school allowing me to work full time.

At that time the shopping center began construction for expansion. The crews and contractors would have lunch at the pizza place each day, and we got to know them. By then I worked morning prep five days a week, which meant backing up the kitchen during lunch rush. I had the job wired.

That November I found myself waking up at three in the morning, and unable to get back to sleep until five or six, and then I’d feel like shit for the rest of the day. I get the brilliant idea to just get up and go to work instead of going back to sleep. Walking in the dark cold morning air would get me hyped, and I’d have all my work done by seven, allowing me to play Asteroids until we opened at eleven.

My routine was this. Get in there, turn on only the lights I’d need for the back stock room (the kitchen and back pantry power was always on as they were linked to the walk-in refrigerator), and blast Van Halen on my Panasonic boom-box. I didn’t turn on all the lights because this attracted homeless people who would pound on the front door and window. Keeping the dining room dark meant I was invisible. The pizza parlor only had windows at the front kitchen so people could watch their food get made, and there were double glass doors at the far end. The place was a forty yard-long narrow rectangle with a narrow hallway between it and Long’s Drugs next door where we kept the dumpster.

We called this place the garbage hall.

Life is great when you’re seventeen going on eighteen. Your body can do just about anything. I would get in there at three or three thirty, work until five, and often come back around closing time at ten or eleven to shoot the shit and joke around. Three or four hours sleep? No friggin’ problem, dude.

Before I see the man standing in the dining room there had been other, less dramatic things happen in these wee hours. I heard girls whispering from the other side of the counter near the salad bar, but no one was there. I heard footsteps of someone walking around the salad bar in slippers. I wrote these off as by brain still being asleep.

I also turned the music up so I didn’t hear this anymore.

Everyone who worked there for a while developed a specific sixth sense for responding to kids waiting to get quarters for the arcade. No matter what you were doing you could feel their little eyes burning a hole in the back of your head until you turned around. You could be washing dishes in the scullery sink with your back turned, and know there was someone waiting at the bar for change.

In these early morning shifts I start dropping what I’m doing to help someone at the counter only to realize the place is locked up tight. Again, I blow this off to early morning brain farting.

That cheese on your pizza starts as a 25lb block, which is cut into smaller sections with a two-handled knife to fit into a grater attachment on a Hobart machine. This was done on a cutting table in the back pantry, called “The Scullery”. This particular morning I’m segmenting the Monterey Jack cheese when I look up. Through the glassless scullery door window I see a man standing, arms folded, in the middle of the dining room. The first thing I do is close my eyes and count to five. He’s still there when I open them.

Oh shit, someone’s broken in.

A few months prior some guys had busted in through the garbage hall and cleaned out the arcade games and took some other stuff. I think they’re back. This is long before cell phones. The closest phone hangs in the kitchen near the register where I’d be exposed, and an easy target. My two-handled cheese knife happens to be the most dangerous blade in the restaurant, and I grab a second, ten-inch carving knife. The entire time I keep my eye on the intruder.

He never moves.

Taking a deep breath I kick open the swinging door and yell something bad-ass while waving my knives.

The man is gone.

Oh shit.

I turn on all of the lights and begin a search. I check both restrooms and the garbage hall…nothing. I check the back of the dining room where the arcade games are by walking down the center in case he’s hiding in between one of them…nothing. I check the back stock room and the employee room…nothing. The back door is locked, the garbage hall door was locked from the inside, and the front door was locked.

I got back and finish prep-work for the day, but instead of playing Asteroids I decide to go to Seasons for breakfast, and come back when the rest of the gang comes in. I stopped going in before the sun was up. I figured I had imagined/hallucinated the entire thing.

Maybe three weeks later I’m sitting at the employee table at the end of the bar with the manager, Danny, and the janitor, Ray. It’s closing time, and we’re joking around while waiting for the night crew to finish up. As they walk past us to go back and change, Ray asks if one of us will stay while he cleans up for the night. We both say yes (it’s an easy job, I love vacuuming). We ask him why, and he says he doesn’t like being alone in here anymore at night. Ray is married to Regina, a French lady who runs the day shift in the kitchen. He’s been here longer than anyone. We ask him what was wrong.

He tells us that a few weeks back he was vacuuming the back dining room when he looked up and saw two girls walking to the front of the restaurant. They were blond, and in their teens, and wore white dresses. Thinking that they’d been locked in while they were in the ladies room (that had happened a few times), he shuts off the vacuum, grabs his keys to let them out.

They’re gone when he looks back.

He checks the kitchen, walk-in, and the restrooms, and decides to get the hell out of there. He came back in with his wife the next morning to finish up, and I remember that.

Danny shakes his head and says he’s seen them too. They had walked past the manager’s office at the end of the bar one morning. He got up to find out how they’d got inside, and they were nowhere to be found. Each of us had been alone in the pizza parlor. We cleaned that place and were out the door in record time.

We decide not to tell anyone else and wait to see if anyone sees anything.

The wait isn’t long.

I’m closing with Cathy D., Maureen M. and Lisa P. Cathy and I sit in the front booth across from the kitchen waiting for Maureen and Lisa to change in the back room. We’re talking when we hear the coffee pot on the top burner of the Bunn machine rattling hard.

Cathy calls out “Mo!” The pot flies off the burner onto the floor. Right at this time we see Maureen and Lisa walking to the front. I get back behind the counter, the glass coffee pot is unbroken, which by itself is just weird. I had personally detonated a pair of them while washing in the sink. Cathy is upset. She tells us she saw a blond haired girl behind the counter when the pot was rattling and thought it was Maureen. On the ride home I tell her about what had been seen by Danny, Ray, and I already. She seemed to be relieved, I guess she was more worried about going nuts or something.

Within four weeks everyone had an encounter of some kind. Even the biggest crew skeptic saw something, and he freaked out enough that he had tears in his eyes while telling me about the man in black. During this time there were a lot of little things that went on; the man in black would pop up in the dining room when it was slow, a second here, a second there. Sometimes he wore a hat. I’m in the garbage hall when a girl’s voice laughs within inches of my face.

At some point someone brings in a Ouija board and everyone gathers for a séance, which was a huge waste of time. The only good thing about it was someone had the idea that whomever had their fingers on the planchette (the pointer thingie) should be blindfolded. This came into play later.

The activity ebbed and flowed. Sometimes we’d go a week without incident. Other days it was like a movie. The ghost loved to slam the fire-door that led into the garbage hall. Whenever we checked after we heard it, the door was always locked from the inside. The door slammed at all hours of the day.

The ghost’s favorite activity was trying to freak me out while I was punching in the code for the alarm no matter if I was coming or going. Sometimes I’d hear the sound of someone running toward me through shallow water. I’d hear the girls laugh. I’d hear a man laugh. One night after a long, ugly shift, I’ve turned off all the lights, and I’m getting ready to arm the alarm system. One of the coffee mugs on the tray next to the bar cash register starts rattling. I see it’s one in the middle of a dozen mugs.

“Look, I’m tired, and I want to go home. So if you’re trying to scare me you’ll need to do better,” I said.

The mug flipped up from the tray, bounced along the bar, and fell at my feet unbroken.

“That’s more like it.” And I’m out of there.

Ron G. had missed the séance. Dave A. had spent the evening telling him about it, and Ron notes that the Ouija board is still in the office, so he talks me into breaking it out after we close and see what happens. Sure, why not? After everyone else is gone, Ron and I don hand towel blindfolds and Dave’s job is to write everything down. We’re sitting in the dark restaurant like idiots asking questions to invisible people. Nothing is happening.

I ask, “Do you want us to leave?”

The planchette jerked hard to a spot on the board.

We both pull off our blindfolds. It’s pointing to “Yes”.

Ron and I are on our feet and out the door in seconds. The whole time Dave is asking what happened. We pile into Ron’s truck, and he’s so shook up that he doesn’t realize that his headlights are off until we reach the stoplight. Ron just asks me if I was wearing my blindfold, and I tell him it was on tight. His was too. Ron never talked about that night to anyone as far as I know.

The year went on, the crew changed, and the stuff continued to happen with no rhyme or reason. The ghost became just another thing to deal with day to day.

One Sunday evening I’m sitting with a friend, Caesar, who works next door at the supermarket. We’re talking guitars, cars, and general small talk, one of those nights where the conversation carries on until late. By then we’d moved to the employee table and Danny has joined us. It is a quiet night. The subject of ghosts comes up, and we tell him about ours, and he becomes intrigued. I mention the Ouija board, and he insists on giving it a shot. Danny and I are bored, and agree to stay after closing.

The crew leaves and we get the Ouija out and kill the lights. Danny and I tie on our blindfolds and man the planchette while Caesar takes notes. Danny starts asking questions and the pointer starts moving. It just goes around in a circle. Caesar starts asking questions and it responds. He asks a question in Spanish and it goes crazy.

Neither Danny nor I speak Spanish.

The next forty minutes he’s asking questions in another language and getting answers. And just like that he says it’s over. We take off our blindfolds and review the conversation. It begins with the ghost calling Caesar a drunk in Spanish (he had put away a few that night), and he’d asked what he and I had been talking about, the reply was “Amps” (we had been talking guitar amplifiers). The response when he changed to asking in Spanish was this:

I am talking with the one named Caesar

Spelled out in Spanish.

We got a date of 1887, but it wasn’t clear the significance. When asked about the two girls the response was “They’re mine” or “They belong to me”. The last long answer echoed the first:

I am talking with the one named Caesar

This time Caesar is the Latin spelling.

We’re all amazed. Two guys who don’t speak Spanish just answered question in Spanish while blindfolded. We lock up and go our own ways. Two days after this, Caesar comes in looking shook up. He says that when he got home and went to bed the ghost visited him in his dreams. Said the ghost was half Mexican-half Indian, and worked as a coachman for the Del Monte hotel. He lived in a shack in an area that would be in the far back corner of the shopping center. The two girls had been kidnapped, raped and murdered while on a picnic. Their mother had been killed first down by Monastery Beach. The two are buried between the shopping center and the river.

Caesar said our man in black was just a mean S.O.B. who enjoyed scaring people.

This was all from a dream, so take it with the appropriate amount of salt. However, in the 1990’s a woman’s skeleton was dug up near San Jose Creek across from Monastery Beach, a mile south of the shopping center. The man in black’s uniform matches carriage driver’s uniforms of the Del Monte Hotel in the 1880’s. I have never been able to find records about missing girls and their mother, but I did find a story about an 1890 lynching of a half-Mexican, half-Indian at the old hanging tree at the end of Fisher Place, about 120 yards away in Mission Fields.

Like I said, it was a dream. Who knows?

The man in black seemed to love harassing Ray. He had taken to doing his cleaning in the mornings because sometimes it was too much for him to deal with at night. One morning before the place opened, I’m in the kitchen loading the Make-Table (the stainless steel refrigerated table where tins full of meats and vegetables are kept in easy reach for making pizza). I turn and see the man in black standing near the alcove leading to the restrooms. I hear Ray swear. Regina, his wife asks him if he’s alright. Ray is crying. I tell him I saw our friend. He says he can’t take much more of this.

The final event I can tell you about happened in 1984, over a year after I had quit the pizza parlor to work at the movie theater in the back of the shopping center (note: I never had anything strange happen at the theater, and I was there at all hours). After closing up the theater one night (the late shows let out between 11 and 11:30 pm) a couple of the guys and I decide to hit the diner for munchies. We’re there just a few minutes when a pair of Sheriff’s Deputies come in and walk directly to our table.

“Where were you guys about twenty minutes ago?” one them asks. We tell them we’ve just got off work, and we give them the name of the deputy who’d escorted me to make the night drop at the bank. They check and start to walk away.

I ask, “What happened?”

“Someone was messing with the janitor at the pizza parlor.”

The deputies sit down at the counter. Less than five minutes later the janitor, Ray, and his son, Charlie, walk in and march up to our table.

“Just tell me it was you, and all is forgiven,” Ray says.

I tell him we’ve just left work, and ask what happened…

Ray and Charlie get started cleaning at 10:30pm, arriving after the crew has gone, shortly after a violent series of crashes comes from the garbage hall. Charlie goes to look. The stacks of empty white five-gallon buckets have been kicked over, and the collapsed cardboard boxes have been yanked out of the dumpster. He searches the garbage hall but doesn’t see anybody, comes back in and closes the door. Seconds later the ruckus begins again, buckets are heard bouncing down the hall, some are thrown against the door.

Ray calls 9-11.

The mall security guard arrives first, and while they’re standing out front they all hear trashing and crashing coming from the garbage hall. The guard goes in with Charlie, and searches the hallway – finds no one. About the time they come out the Sheriff’s arrive. As Ray and the guard relate the problem the buckets start flying again in the garbage hall. This time it’s the deputies turn to search. They enter and are heard yelling for the culprit to come out. Minutes later they return scratching their heads.

The next sound was never clear, they hear the buckets slamming around, but I think there was some kind of yelling too. The deputies go back inside, this time with guns drawn, and search the entire restaurant for the next twenty minutes. When they emerge one of the deputies has the mall security guard take him around to check the door at the far end of the garbage hall – it is secure. As they came back the noises begin again.

The deputies shake their heads and suggest the owner call an exterminator. They stand by while Ray and Charlie get their things, and lock up.

Ray quit the next day.

They never found evidence of raccoons or other medium-sized animals.

Several years later I’m poking around the shopping center on Halloween, and stop into a small bookstore. The two young women working that day are in costume, and in a holiday mood. We talk and one of them mentions that they have a ghost. The bookstore is fifty feet from the back door of the old garbage hall. They say he’s mischievous. I ask if he wears black, and they say he does indeed. I tell them I used to work nearby, and was well acquainted with him.

 

And that’s it, these are all the stories I can remember. The pizza parlor and that entire end of the mall are long gone, replaced by new buildings. Twenty years would pass before I ran into another ghost. Many of these events I can remember like they happened yesterday, but I have forgotten as many as I have told here.

 

 

What Have I Learned After Writing Ten Novels?

 

Before I get rolling I should inform those of you who might have clicked on this looking for easy answers, handy tricks, or magic spells to make your novel fill reams of paper then you can stop reading now. There are no short-cuts.

 

Okay, if you’re still here, I’ll get on with it.

When I started writing seriously I decided I would take the many things I’d learned while becoming a good guitar player and apply them to my new craft:

  1. Read about authors I admire to learn their influences, and approaches to writing.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Set reachable goals.
  4. Break the different story aspects down into small parts, and then drill on them.
  5. Put in the time and do the work.
  6. Accept the realities of what writing a novel and getting published means.

I had the advantage of learning from my mistakes as a guitar player and changing to not make the same ones as a writer:

  1. Get your work out there. Don’t wait until it is perfect.
  2. Hang out and share with other writers.
  3. Take a few structured classes (in my case, all of them).
  4. Do your own thing; never write to the market just to get published.

Starting with #1, after about the tenth Paris Review author interview I noted a common factor among many novelists, which was that most had written between four and seven novels before their first one was published. Of course I thought I would be the exception, but around the end of my fourth novel I started to understand why that number made sense. Sure, I could put together a comprehensive, complex story, but there was usually something missing. I didn’t figure out what that was until after my sixth novel. There was a depth that was absent. I wish I could explain what I mean by this, but the bottom line is that my writing lacked the weight I wanted.

So I soldiered on.

The last three novels began to fill in closer to the way I wanted them to.

Another thing that all successful authors have in common is they finish whatever they’re writing no matter how bad it is, and I understand this completely. I learn more from my bad writing than I ever can from the good stuff. Understanding how a piece failed, and where it failed has helped me sniff out a failure in progress, and I can kill it on the spot now.

An essential truth is there is no such thing as wasted time writing.

Numbers 2, 3, and 4 all run together. When I was learning guitar I played every day for an average of four hours, often more, and I usually had my guitar within reach. I learned new songs each week, and I ran scales endlessly. Taking that into writing I made a point in the beginning to write every day, and try to write a new short story each week. This lasted for two years, and I still write something almost every day.

If you wonder what a drill is, this means writing short scenarios relevant to the type of story you want to tell. I write a lot of action, so I would write car chases, shoot-outs, guys sliding down ropes in the dark, getting punched in the face, punching someone else in the face, and other things that my characters might end up doing. I would write in the styles of my favorite authors like Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Poe, and Elmore Leonard, and I would write a the same scenario using their voices.

It’s like trying on different shoes.

The payoff comes when I’m writing and a car chase ensues I’ve already done the work, I’m ready for the roaring engines, squealing tires, and the smell of burned rubber. I don’t have to waste time figuring it out because I have already the work. If you write stories about a person who hunts frogs then you should drill on writing about swamps, ponds, lakes, wet socks in wet shoes, what pond water smells like, what the air around the water smells like on a summer day as opposed to a spring day, the smoothness of the frog’s skin, and how that smoothness is different when the frog is in the water (yes, I’ve caught a lot of frogs). Whatever your chosen world to write about is you should be drill on the parts and action that are sure to take place.

I started this piece out by stating that there are no short cuts and #5 is the ground’s truth. The more you write the better you get. The more you read and write the better you get, just a little faster. Your story will not write itself, I have spent hours staring at my screen waiting for words to appear, and it never happens. Never will. I parked my but in front of my laptop for an hour or more every day and wrote. Today I average 1,500 words each day while I’m writing a novel. This is the perfect pace for me, and I get results…like I said, I’ve finished ten novels. You have to find your pace, and for some it’s 2,000 words per day, and others it might just be a few sentences. As long as you keep working on your project that is all that matters.

Getting to six, the fact is that after all of my past and future work there is no guarantee I will ever get published. If that day comes the reality is that I won’t make enough to quit my day job. I don’t care; I’m going to write anyway. My dad played golf every weekend, and he never played in a tournament. Most golfers never do. The same is true with runners, there are runners who could run and win marathons, yet never have the stones to sign up for a race. There are people who are great cooks who will never see the inside of a restaurant kitchen. The golfers still golf, the runners still run, the cooks still cook, and I’m going to still write no matter what.

I have successfully applied all of these things and have generated ten novels.

My next novel I will consider my first. Ten novels is the perfect foundation to build a library upon. I have a clear and sober view of what is ahead of me, and I’m excited by what I see.

This is supposed to be about what I’ve learned after all of that work, and here it comes.

  1. It doesn’t get easier. Each novel is different; new story, new locations, new characters, and each come with a unique set of problems. Four of my novels have featured the same characters and each one was a different experience.
  2. Outlines are a good idea. I write by the seat of my pants most of the time, but an outline saves a lot of time not just by knowing where the story goes, but because you’ll know what kind of engine the car in your story has, or when trout season is, or where the fire exits are at the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Looking those kinds of details while actively writing kills momentum.
  3. List your characters on a spreadsheet, and keep it updated with which chapters they appear, and what they did in those chapters. This helps prevent plot holes.
  4. Line-edit as you go. A line-edit is where you look for typos and other grammatical screw ups.
  5. Keep learning. This means read Writer’s Digest, Paris Review, and other writer’s blogs. One thing I learned from guitar that is true with writing is that no matter how good you get you can always learn something new, and you can always learn something from just about anybody.

Most of these are straight forward, but I want to talk about #1 a little more. It doesn’t get easier and that is counterintuitive. Two of my novels I banged out during NaNoWriMo, one even being completed in seventeen days. My last one took me eight months, and it’s not the kind of story that should have taken that long. In this case the presidential election threw me off my game for a few for a while. Like I said, each story is different with its own set of obstacles navigate. This used to bother me, but now I realize that a story is going to regulate how fast and easy it is done, not the writer.

The other reason it stays hard is that with each work complete you mentally raise the bar for the next one. This is compounded by the new books you read in the meantime which inspire you to write better, and you work that made you happy in the first novels no longer meets your new standard. Since this all began I have discovered a dozen more authors whose writing has inspired me and left me in awe. They’ve made me want to step my game up with every new book I read.

I love this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before I sign off I want to address a side issue.

The biggest excuse I hear from people is that they want to write their novel, but they can’t find their voice. Here’s the good news: You already have one, now get writing. I know, your expensive how-to books, or your Ivy League MFA have told you to find your voice, and that your work will languish until you do. Here’s the thing, the more you write the more refined your voice becomes.

Waiting until you find your voice is a chicken-shit excuse.

A great example is Elmore Leonard. I love Leonard’s work, and he is my primary inspiration, and my go-to author for when I get stuck. Two years ago, after he passed away, a collection of his unpublished short stories was released in a book titled: “Charlie Martz and Other Stories”. Some of these were his first works which came well before he was published, and while you can tell they’re Elmore Leonard stories his voice isn’t quite there yet. The narrative is flat. Even when reading his early westerns if you start chronologically you can watch his voice sharpen with each one. Do this with your favorite author, read their first book, and then compare it with their latest novel, and you will see it.

So get out there and write, or don’t, I’m not the boss of you.

Holiday Work (a Max Chrome Christmas Story)

     December is always cold in Ar Raqqah, Syria. Tom’s two winters in Iraq prepared him for this mission by choosing warm, comfortable clothes, and he would have thought he was Elk hunting in New Mexico is not for the calls to prayer from the nearby mosque’s loud speakers at their appointed times of the day. Sitting in the gold corduroy upholstered armchair next to him was his friend Max, who peered through his tripod-mounted spotter’s scope at the set of three industrial buildings inside the walled compound on the other side of the highway. The scope was fitted with a night vision extension and laser range-finder allowing him to switch between visual and thermal imaging to keep an eye on their target.

Tom sat back rubbing his eyes and said, “You ever think about the ethics of killing a guy on Christmas Eve?”

“No, these clowns think their Muslims,” Max said, without looking away from his viewfinder.

“But we’re not; we’re a couple of Episcopalians who happened to be armed to the teeth, waiting to drop so shitbag while our butts are parked a few hundred miles from Bethlehem.”

“When was the last time you went to church?”

“That’s not the point.”

“I haven’t seen the inside of a church since my parent’s funeral forty years ago, and you told me you haven’t hit the pews since junior high. So give me a break.”

Tom sighed and leaned forward into the scope of his .338 Remington MSR rifle. A large garage door rolled open revealing a trio of Toyota pickup trucks now packed with high explosives, and he counted twenty-one men, three of which were receiving their final blessings before driving into the last night of their lives as suicide bombers.

“Got him, our man is at your ten,” Max said. Their man was Abdul Khan Amadi, a colonel in the Intelligence Organization of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IOIRGC), specifically in command of this Quds unit in I.S.I.L.- controlled city. The car bombs are not going to target ISIL locations, but instead will be used on Syrian rebel units opposing the Assad regime.

“Do you see anyone who looks Russian?” Tom said, locating Amadi and setting his crosshairs on him.

“No, not that I give a shit.”

“See, that’s what I’m talking about. What if there’s a Russian Episcopalian down there, and we wax him on Christmas Eve. Do they have Episcopalians in Russia?”

“Fuck if I know, besides – a good Episcopalian wouldn’t be in this town anyway.”

Tom snickered and said, “Fuck you.”

“And to all a good night,” Max said. In his scope he saw the men gathering around the drivers taking turns hugging and kissing their cheeks. “Is this really bothering you that much?”

“Not really, I’m just wondering if one day I get to heaven, and the J-Meister is waiting there and says, ‘You killed some mother fucker on my birthday, not cool.’”

“I don’t think he’d be upset. Judas was an assassin.”

“Say what?”

“Iscariot evolved from the name Sicarii, a cadre of assassins in Judea who took out Romans.”

Tom looked away from his scope to Max, and said, “Dude, the Sicarii weren’t a thing for another ten years after the crucifixion. The name Iscariot comes from the Hebrew meaning ‘Man of Kerioth’ which was somewhere in Judah.”

“Yeah, but that’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew, and they were busy fucking up the New Testament. And who’s to say that the Sacrii weren’t around a century before? Maybe they were just that good at their job,” Max said, re checking the range from their window to the garage – 215 meters.

“Okay, fine, but did Judas ever kill anybody on Jesus’s birthday?”

“I don’t think so, but I don’t think the opportunity came up. Come on, are you telling me that none of the guys who killed S.S. troop during the Battle of the Bulge never got into heaven? Bullshit. It’s not like it was their idea.”

“True, but in our case this was our choice,” Tom said, looking back through his telescopic sight. He and Max were private military contractors working for Drummel Security Options based out of Connecticut. Ar Raqqah was in ISIL control, inside Syria (a country hostile to the United States), and they were there to kill an Iranian national. The CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) wanted nothing to do with this operation due to the potential fallout if things went south…but they wanted Amadi dead bad enough to order out.

“We’re getting paid way more than thirty pieces of silver, Bro.”

“Like you need the money.”

“I love the Holy Land during the holidays.”

“Holy Land…now you have me hearing Burt Ward in my head.”

“Burt Ward? Christ you’re old. You probably fart rust,” Max said. Burt Ward portrayed Robin in the 1966 Batman T.V. series.

“Holy Geritol, Batman!” Tom said, his grin nudged the butt of his rifle, and threw the sight off for a second until he eased it back onto Amadi’s head.

“Well, Robin, you can take the shot any time.”

“I’m Batman.”

“Whatever.”

“Are you going straight home, or are you going to hang out, and bring in the New Year on the continent?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of doing New Years at Loch Ness.”

Tom shook his head but maintained his view on Amadi, “Loch Ness, can you even get laid there?”

Max chucked and said, “Probably, Scottish women might feel sorry for a pair of lost black sheep like us, take us back to their place, and mother us…so are you coming with me?”

“Fuck yes, at least I can load up on good Scotch, and hit the Glasgow library.”

“That’s actually a great place to meet women.”

“See? Good thing I’m going, or else you’d be all alone with your Yule Log.”

“But none of that happens until after we put this guy down,” Max said.

“And escape,” Tom said.

“That too.”

Tom was measuring his breathing as he slid his finger onto the trigger. Amadi stood back from the clusters of Jihadi fighters while talking on his cell phone. At this range the round would blast through his skull and pass through the cinderblock wall five feet behind him. When the trigger was squeezed, the round would fly, and he would see the impact clearly through the scope. Amadi’s head seemed as big as a pumpkin. The other men would first drop to the floor, or behind cover, and he and Max would use these seconds to exfil from this two-story house once owned by a dentist. They had a 2007 Honda Civic waiting to drive to the safe house a few miles away.

“You gotta be kidding me,” Max said.

“What do you have?”

“Check the rooftop at your one.”

Tom swung the rifle up to the One O’Clock position and said, “No way, is this a joke?”

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“I’m looking Corporal Tandy dressed in full battle-rattle.”

“Good, I see that too. At least we’re not batshit crazy.”

On the roof of the building stood an American soldier wearing the dark green, olive, brown, and black woodland camouflage  uniform of the 1980s, complete with flack vest, ammo vest, and the distinctive rag-topped helmet of the 7th Infantry Division (Light). His face was painted in dark green and black, but Max and Tom recognized him.

Tom said, “Okay, what the hell does this mean?”

“Wait, maybe he’ll let us know.” On cue, Corporal Tandy raised his arms and waved them over his head. “He’s telling us to get out of here.”

“Do you think we should?”

“You know what? I do. Why else would he be here?”

Corporal Dan “Dandy” Tandy was killed on Christmas Eve in Colon, Panama, by a negligent discharge from an M-249 machine gun. He was in Max and Tom’s platoon in Alpha Company, 2-27.

Tom looked Max in the eyes and said, “We might not get another chance.”

Max pointed out the window. “Take another look, dude. Do you still see him?”

“Yes, he’s still there waving us off.”

“Okay, so how long does a dead man have to tell you something before you listen to him?”

“Point taken.” Tom picked up his rifle, collapsed the bipod legs into the stalk of the rifle, and stood. Max was already up putting on his pack. They went downstairs and locked the door on their way out. Tossing their packs into the back seat, Max got behind the wheel while Tom opened the steel courtyard gate. Max drove out onto the street and waited for Tom to get in the car.

“What do we tell Ops?” Tom said, buckling his seatbelt.

“No clue yet, I’ll think of something,” Max said. He drove down the narrow street watching the road, and the dentist’s house shrink in the rearview mirror. A bright flash, then a shockwave shook the car hard enough the crack the rear windshield, and break the windows of the houses on both sides of the street. In the rearview mirror all Max saw was brown-gray dust mix with the red from his break lights, and then a mushroom-shaped orange and yellow fireball boiled into the sky from the other side of the highway.

“Fuck a duck, that was more than three car bombs,” Max said.

“Way more. Bro, we gotta go back and do B.D.A,” Tom said, referring to Bomb Damage Assessment. Max made a U-turn, and went back to the house, but could only get to within a block. The blast had leveled the house they had been sitting in for the past six days along with three neighboring homes. Their occupants had long ago fled the I.S.I.L occupation and all there was to do now was get infrared footage of the compound across the street.

“I don’t see anything over there now,” Max said.

“No buildings, no walls, notta. They must have shot their whole wad.” Tom said.

“Let’s get out of here. Satellites can take this.” Max and Tom got back into the car. Tom called the Drummel operations center to report the blast, but they already knew about it. The drive to the safe house would take twenty minutes. There they would stash their weapons before heading to the Turkish border.

They were silent for a while and then Tom said, “Nice to see Tandy again.”

“He was a good guy,” Max said.

“Still is, apparently.”

“God loves us, but a Wolfhound will always have your back.” 2-27’s nickname is Wolfhounds.

“Amen…so, do you think the Loch Ness Monster is real?” Tom said.

“Sure, I mean it’s not a dinosaur, and it’s only about fifteen feet long but it’s a real thing.”

“What is it?”

“A giant lake salamander.”

“Bullshit.”

“Tell you what, I’ll rent a boat, and we’ll go fishing, and I’ll bet you fifty bucks I catch one.”

“Oh it’s so on. Easiest fifty bucks I’ll ever make,” Tom said, suddenly not so sure. If the Loch Ness Monster was real, Max was the one guy who’d know how to catch one.

Max laughed, “We will see. Besides, we have a week of pub-crawling ahead of us.”

“We owe Tandy that much.” Tom looked out of his window trying to imagine the bright star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem, but mostly he thought about how Dan Tandy had been laughing as he waved them away from the roof of that building, knowing he and Max would get to see another Christmas.

The Grinder

The Grinder

I don’t believe in “Writer’s Block”, but the past six months have been hard for me as a writer while I deal with health issues, and I’ve definitely been knocked out of my daily routine. In spite of that I pulled off another NaNoWriMo successfully even with a crappy story. Why? I like being a writer; I like writing, the act of shaping a story from nothing. This is so much truer for me now as it is one of the few things in my life I control. The problem is that I am also still human complete with the sea of emotions that everyone else has, and there have been too many days since the last week of August where I did no writing.

Still, I get back on the horse and gallop back into the grinder.

On those days I don’t feel like writing I hear M.Emmet Walsh’s voice in my head speaking his line as Bryant from “Blade Runner”:

“If you’re not cops, you’re little people.”

In this scene, Decker has been detained and brought to Bryant and reinstated as a Blade Runner involuntarily. I relate to both Decker and Bryant on my non-writing days. Decker doesn’t want to go back to his old job. He’s clearly beaten by the past, and knows the many downsides. Bryant needs Decker because he’s the best at tracking down replicants. Decker resumes his job, hunts down his target, and mostly gets his ass kicked. In the end he is ultimately rescued by the last replicants, Roy Batty, the most dangerous one on his list, as his fingers slip off the ledge. Like Batty, my writing usually ends up saving the day in ways I would never have discovered had I not written at all.

(If I just spoiled Blade Runner for you that’s your problem, you had 34 years to see it, loser.)

Since I began this new writer’s life I have established a set of rules, some of which I have posted here already. These rules are subject to change, and are ignored whenever they get in the way of the story…except one.

The Exchange Rule: On days you don’t feel like writing – write something else.

This means that on a day when you’re second-guessing your latest novel, questioning your direction in life, or feel the need to wallow in a puddle of negativity you still have to write. Write anything. Write about why you think you’re shit. Write about how life has peed in your pool. Write about your cat, dog, turtle, or that one drawer in the kitchen. The point is that even though your novel is sidelined you haven’t walked away from the table. You are still producing content.

Here’s the thing, writers write. If you’re not a writer, you’re little people.

 

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You want to be in the club? Write. That’s all you have to do. That steaming pile of self-indulgent ooze you just wrote about your long dead dog just put you ahead on 99.999999% of the human race who didn’t write jack-shit today.

You won.

Yay.

Tomorrow you get back into the game working on your big project and do so until the next time. When that time comes, write something else, but just write.

I started “Short Story Tuesday” back in the summer in between novels. The mission is to write a new short story before I go to bed on Tuesday night. I started looking forward to Tuesdays because it was a day off from writing…while I was still writing, and since I was not working on a novel this gave me six days to revise the better stories. I basically found a way to keep writing while fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t writing. Not every story was good, a few stank, but it kept me in the game.

 

Van Halen and 1978

1978 was a good year for me. I graduated from the 8th grade, and started high school. On the third Monday of September, 1978 (the 18th), I walked into 6th period guitar class after dropping an English class because the teacher sucked and I felt my time was better spent ditching school. The class was my councilor’s way of keeping in school the entire day. 1978 was a good year because I had discovered rock music in a big way, and was growing a record collection along with my brother. We were buying the classics, and we were catching up with the current top bands like Led Zeppelin, KISS, Ted Nugent, ACDC, Cheap Trick, and others.

van halen 1

In February of 1978 my brother bought Van Halen’s self-titled debut album in Modesto a few days after its release. This was a southern California band that we’d been reading about in B.A.M. Magazine (Bay Area Music, a free newsprint tabloid found in racks by record store checkout counters everywhere back then) in the back columns that covered the far end of the state. The buzz surrounding the band was significant. So the first thing we did when we got home was put the record onto the turntable and drop the needle.

Running with the Devil announced itself with car horns morphing into a landing alien space ship sound, followed by a thumping bass, and then a powerful guitar. Not just powerful, but the sound was fat, and rich. Good rock song, the solo is cool, but nothing to get excited about.

The next track was Eruption.

Holy fucking shit.

The track is 102 seconds long, nothing but Eddie Van Halen playing the crap out of his guitar. My brother had to listen to it three times before letting the needle advance to the third track. I can say two things: I was born in a world before man had walked on the moon, and I was born in a world before Edward Van Halen knocked rock guitar on its ass.

You Really Got Me was the third track, and the band does more than just cover the Kinks’ classic, they almost reinvent it by putting their stamp on the music. They even managed to leave a verse from the original song out and nobody noticed. That would become Van Halen’s signature: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to.

Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love is where the legend of Van Halen started for me. That fat, perfect, heavy sounding guitar opens the song with a staccato arpeggio that wants to take your head off and slam-dunk it. The song itself was written as a parody of punk rockers that shared the L.A. music scene at the time, and it’s only two chords, but God damn it they get more mileage out of those two chords than some bands could with their entire albums. The song has a belligerent attitude. The song does not feature a great guitar solo, but it fits the song (and that’s important).

On the 5th track that guitar solo problem is resolved. I’m the One is wall-to-wall blistering guitar over a swinging shuffle rhythm. This is where Eddie stood out. When handed a standard I-IV-V-I blues progression he takes the format to another dimension and puts frosting on it, frosting with sprinkles. Even when he drops into a blues-style it’s nothing we’ve heard before. The song’s highlight is the acapella break after the guitar solo. Van Halen was a package deal that featured incredible backing harmonies from bass player, Michael Anthony, and Eddie Van Halen behind lead singer, David Lee Roth.

We listened to that first side of Van Halen a second time before flipping the disk over to the second side.

Jamie’s Cryin’ kicks off Side Two. It’s a conventional song written while they were on the studio, and it was clearly for the radio.

The real action follows on track #7 with Atomic Punk. The song is aggressive and excessive and fast, and it’s the kind of song that would take your lunch money. This song is drawn from a well that continues to serve Van Halen to this day.

Feel Your Love is mostly a forgettable song. Sorry, it just is.

Little Dreamer is about as close as Van Halen got to a ballad with Roth as their singer. It works on a couple of levels. Roth’s lyrics paint a dark picture of a doomed woman, but unlike the thousands of other songs written by L.A. bands on this very topic, it is not specific to Hollywood. In fact, in none of the tracks does Roth mention L.A., Hollywood, or Southern California at all, and that is something song writers can learn from today.

Roth’s acoustic guitar playing opens Ice Cream Man on the next track. The album’s second cover song, this one was written by John Brim, a Chicago Bluesman, in 1953 (originally recorded at Chess Records). The anticipation while waiting for the rest of the band to kick in is rewarded. Again we see Eddie handed a blues song only to morph it into something new.

The final track is On Fire, and made of the same driving force that Atomic Punk and Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love are forged from.

Van Halen was recorded in three weeks for around $40,000 and as of this time has sold 10 million copies.

Here’s the thing, I liked the album but I didn’t love it. Not at first anyway. After I began to play the guitar I started to listen to it more, but as a novice I couldn’t relate to anything Eddie Van Halen was doing. Which leads me to the rest of the story…

I learned to play guitar in about an hour. I’m saying I was awesome, but I could strum a tune, and then remember it and play it again. I bought music books for my favorite albums and learned to play all of my favorite songs at the basic level. I couldn’t wait to get to guitar class, which consisted of twenty other kids scattered around the large rehearsal room for the Carmel High School band. The room was big enough that we could all spread out and not bug each other, and we either played alone, or clustered in groups.

Then there were the seniors.

Six or seven 12th graders would bring their electric guitars to school and jam in the back practice rooms of the buildings. Freshmen weren’t allowed. These guys played Aerosmith, Lynard Skynard, and Zeppelin. We all envied them. The seniors didn’t waste their time talking to underclassmen, and sure as hell never took the time to show us how to play something cool on the guitar.

On Saturday, December 2, Black Sabbath headlined the Oakland Coliseum, and all of the seniors drove up to see the show because Sabbath was cool, and nobody wanted to miss the show.

Van Halen was the opening act.

That Monday, December 4, the seniors weren’t playing their guitars. A boom-box (what your grandparents called a portable cassette player that was the size of a refrigerator) was brought into the room, and Van Halen was placed in the carriage, and Eruption was played over, and over, and over, and over. Even the teacher came out to listen to the track. You know the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes wake up and find the obelisk? It was exactly like that. The seniors looked like someone had let the air out of their tires. I was already a Van Halen fan, and I was pleased to know that I was culturally ahead of these guys.

The problem was that with Van Halen blasting in the main room nobody else could practice without going outside or into the back, and I wanted to practice. I go into the front practice room because nobody ever used it except me, which was weird because it was huge and had a piano. This time, however, I’m joined by Christian Nesmith, who also was looking for a quiet place to play. The name might sound familiar and that’s because his father is Michael Nesmith, member of the Monkees, and pioneering video artist. Christian was one year ahead of me and a genuinely cool guy.

At the age of 15 he was already a gifted guitarist who played a Seville Les Paul copy. Christian could play anything and did. Unlike the seniors, he was happy to show me, or anyone who asked something cool on the guitar. This was a classy move on his part that I emulated as I got better on the instrument.

So we’re sitting in the front practice room and he tells me he’d seen Van Halen a bunch of times already. He shows me the hammer-on/pull-off move that Eddie Van Halen is best known for doing.  Christian walked me through it step by step until I had it down. He tells me that most people did it wrong by using the side of their pick. Sure enough, later when we come out of the room the seniors are using their picks to hammer the neck.

That was about the most time I spent with Nesmith that semester, but it was one of the most important forty minutes of my life. I incorporated the hammer-ons into my playing as I developed, and by the time I was a good guitarist they were second nature. More importantly I learned it was important to share what I knew with people who wanted to learn. I have no idea how many people I’ve taken time out to pass along a little guitar wizardry, but it’s a lot.

None of that would have happened had Van Halen not opened the Sabbath show.

For full disclosure it was Van Halen’s Woman and Children Fist album that turned me into the massive Van Halen fan that I am today. By 1980 my playing had advanced to the point where I could grasp what Eddie was doing and I could appreciate his genius on a whole new level. 1978 was a turning point for rock music, rock guitar, and little old me.

 

Randy Rhoads and 1981

Randy-Rhoads

I remember the day I’d heard Randy Rhoads had been killed in a plane crash. I was at work and the local FM radio station, KLRB, made the announcement. It was a punch in the gut. I’d skipped the Ozzy Osborne concerts because I’d figured I’d catch him at an outdoor show at some point. One of those shows had been just up the highway at the Santa Cruz Civic, in Santa Cruz, California, which was a small venue that Randy would have been right in my face no matter where I sat. When I got off work I went for a long walk that ended up at the beach. I don’t think I listened to any of his music for a week, and that was a huge deal for me.

I’d listened to Randy Rhoads every day since “Blizzard of Ozz” had been released in September, 1980. That album was a major point of contention among my high school friends at the time, Osborne had left Black Sabbath (or had been kicked out depending on who was telling the story at that time), and his fans hated him for it. They wanted to hate the album, they wanted it to suck, so it would fail. This way Ozzy would see the error of his ways and return to Black Sabbath and all would be right in the Heavy Metal universe. But it didn’t suck.

Nobody had anticipated Randy Rhoads.

“Blizzard of Ozz” was a thunder clap riding the lighting of shit-hot rock guitar. There isn’t a weak spot on the entire album thanks to Ozzy and his wife, Sharon, having the good sense to hire rock veterans Bob Daisley on bass, Don Airey on keyboards, and Lee Kerslake on drums. Kerslake had done 10 albums with Uriah Heep, had just done two tours with Rainbow but had earned his bones with the progressive fusion band Coliseum II (featuring Gary Moore on guitar), and Daisley was also a Rainbow alumnus. They laid a foundation allowing Rhoads to excel. Fans will always talk about the solos, but guitar players like me and my peers were equally blown away by his rhythm playing.

1981 had been a seminal year for Californian rock guitar. For the six previous years the Los Angeles rock music scene had been fermenting an army of over-the-top super guitarists who, in spite of selling out clubs and backyard parties, where being ignored by the morons at the record labels. While Van Halen had broken through selling three platinum albums thanks to the Godzilla-like playing of Edward Van Halen, they were considered a “Pasadena Band”, an anomaly. Ed was considered a unicorn, but the truth was he was an equal part product and engine of the nuclear reactor that was generating other guitarists like George Lynch, Warren Di Martini, and others. They weren’t swimming in shark infested waters – they were the sharks. Yet only Rhoads was the other to get exposure to the larger music world.

In Northern California we had Neal Schon of Journey, Ronnie Montrose, and Dave Meniketti of Y&T, and all were great players, but they weren’t melting brains like the L.A. guys, and one could argue that Rhoads and Van Halen had come from another planet. It wasn’t just the speed- it was the power and the attitude. With “Blizzard” suddenly anything was possible on the guitar. Rhoads’ playing, while fantastic, was accessible. Van Halen inspired a lot of copy-cats, but few grasped the fact that he was skating on the other side of the ice. In 1981, if you played guitar you were either a Van Halen guy or a Randy Rhoads guy.

I loved Van Halen but I was a Randy Rhoads guy.

Rhoads worked within a structure that I could understand, and his playing was elegant. The second album with Ozzy was “Diary of a Madman”, and here we got to see him stretch out. His playing was a little more insane, but the songs were more complex, more orchestrated. His acoustic work is outstanding. His tone was evolving into a fuller voice that seemed to reach inside my head to turn on switches I didn’t know I had. We are left with the pain of wondering what was to come next if only…

…If only…

Rhoads’ death left a black hole in the potential of rock guitar. His willingness to teach others along the way would have shaped the musical landscape in positive ways.

The worst thing about his death is how he died. I am still angry at him, and while this is selfish it is the truth. He hated to fly, but he got into that plane flown by his bus driver who’d just pulled an all-nighter. What was he thinking? I can’t come up with any good answers and it makes me mad.

His death would propel his old band, Quiet Riot, into the Top 10, in 1983. Suddenly any band with big hair that was sober enough to hold a pen was being signed by the labels. We got some great music out of the deal, but it didn’t last because it wasn’t always honest. Rhoads never lied with his music. He kept Quiet Riot on course. Without his voice to keep things in perspective the 1980s were lost.

And they were lost.

Everyone who knew him says that Rhoads was planning to attend UCLA to study classical music. The effect this would have had on young guitarists cannot be understated; there would have been a flood of guys with big hair headed back to junior colleges across the country so they could transfer to a university. Instead we got MTV Spring Break, cocaine-fueled antics, and the crime of pointless and forgettable music.

There will always be 1981.

That year everything was still possible. Van Halen’s “Fair Warning”, while not ripping up the charts, was a game-changer, and “Diary of a Madman” showed that supped-up rock guitar was ready to shave and get its driver’s license. Stadiums still waited to be filled with thunder.