PEOPLE WATCHING: The Skill of Character Development
A Call to Grow Up.
When people ask my brother, Andy, what he recommends to new writers, he usually says three things: (1) keep writing – write about anything and everything, (2) visit new places – keep traveling both near and far, and (3) study people – pay attention to the people around you and take note of what they say and do. This week, I’m still talking about the benefits of people watching.
From my earliest days, one of the people I watched most closely was my Dad. I have many memories of Dad, but one sticks out in my mind from my high school senior year in Trona, California. Dad was the only dentist in town and active in community service. For many years, he served on the local school board.
Trona is an isolated, small town, located deep in the Mojave Desert. The principal employers in the area are the local mineral processing plants and the railroad. The surrounding desert is studded with old mines and active prospecting sites, where stashes of dynamite have been abandoned, ready for the taking by curious teenagers.
During one school board meeting, the recreational use of dynamite by high school students became a hot issue. Recently, someone had blown up a small bridge at the Trona golf course. (It wasn’t me.) The local golf course was just one big sand trap. It had no grass, but Dad sometimes played it. In that board meeting, Dad waxed a bit hot under the collar on what should be done about this problem, until another board member interrupted to say, “AlDean, your son is one of the ringleaders.”
That stopped Dad cold. Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that I might have dynamite.
I confess. I was guilty as charged. For several years, my friends and I had collected dynamite. With the hard caliche layer in our desert soils, the use of dynamite was common both in construction as well as in mining, and dynamite didn’t scare me. I had researched the use of dynamite in a large university library while I was staying on campus at a week-long, youth conference for high school kids. Along with learning the basics of setting a blast, I had researched safety issues. What could go wrong?
I was late that night coming home from football practice. We lived in Pioneer Point, north of Trona. As I walked in, I saw Dad sitting on a straight-back chair in the living room, facing the front door, staring at me. This was unusual. I had never found him waiting for me before.
“Come here and sit on the couch,” he instructed curtly. “We need to talk.” His unblinking eyes were stone hard, and I could see his cheek muscles tensing as he gritted his teeth.
Uh-oh. My thoughts raced as I tried to think of what I might have done.
“At the school board meeting tonight, someone said you were one of the kids using dynamite around town. Is this true?”
I never lied to Dad. “Yes, but I never blown up anything around town—just out in the desert.”
He proceeded to tell me what a numb-skull thing that was. He said I would get myself killed or, worse yet, kill someone else. “What are you thinking?” he finished.
“I never blow up anything that is worth anything to anyone, Dad. Just big rocks out in the desert and old abandoned cars and other desert junk. Things like that. And I am always careful.”
Dad glared at me, shaking his index finger. “Do you have any dynamite right now?”
“Where is it?
“Hidden out in the desert.”
That stopped him for a moment. “Well, get rid of it.”
“Dad, how am I supposed to do that? I can’t just put it out on the curb for the trash collector to pick up on garbage day.”
Dad stared at me for a second in thought. “Well, this weekend, go out into the desert and blow it all up. Just be careful! And, don’t get yourself killed.”
“Okay, Dad. I’ll be careful, and I’ll get rid of it.”
His face relaxed a little, then stiffened again. “And do not tell your Mom about any of this!”
I’m not sure now who came with me that Saturday. It might have been my good buddy, Ed Rockdale, who lived just down the street from me, but that weekend we had a blast blowing up 50 or 60 sticks of dynamite in some of the largest explosions we had ever engineered.
A good dynamite blast is a real science. Depending on how well the charge is set, the blast can range from just a loud boom with a sharp shockwave to a spectacular explosion throwing debris hundreds of feet into the air and significantly altering the face of the landscape. The size of the explosion doesn’t necessarily depend upon the number of sticks of dynamite used in the blast if the charge is set deep in a confined space. We usually rationed out the dynamite, but that Saturday we experimented with new variations on our normal blasting procedures and were rewarded with some spectacular results.
Saturday evening, Dad asked me if I still had any dynamite.
“It’s all gone,” I answered truthfully. I did do more dynamiting while away at college in another state, with dynamite purchased from a construction company, but never again at home.
After that evening, Dad never brought up the subject again. In Dad’s economy of words, the topic of dynamite was forever behind us. He was never backward about letting me know when I had messed up, but then, once the issue was resolved, the subject was in the past forever. Dad didn’t hold my mistakes over my head, and even as a teenager, I felt he truly respected me. I know I truly respected him.
As I grew into adulthood, with a family of my own, Dad became one of my best friends. I always valued his wisdom and advice. I miss him a lot, now that he is gone. I know that everyone thinks they have the best Dad, but I’m pretty sure that I did.
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 for you.”
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.
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.
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.
PEOPLE-WATCHING FOR FUN AND PROFIT.
Thank Heaven for the Characters of this World.
Last week, we established that, at least for writers, there can be creative benefits in tapping into the crazy side of one’s own id. In addition, there can be creative benefits in understanding the crazy side of a friend or family member. In fact, the closer the friend or loved one, the better the opportunity to observe and understand what makes that person tick, especially under stress, like when angry or afraid.
I have to tell you about my good friend, Jay Bell. Jay was blind, as in mostly blind, legally blind. Born prematurely in a small hospital, the oxygen mix was too rich in the tent they put over him and his eyes were permanently damaged. When I moved with my family to the isolated desert town of Trona, California, Jay was the weird kid with the heavy, half-inch thick glasses, but he soon became one of my best friends. Throughout our high school and college days, we had great adventures together.
Though Jay saw only a fuzzy version of the world the rest of us saw clearly, he was fearless, especially when we were exploring old mines. In the dark, he often led the way. In truth, I learned some important lessons about life while watching Jay face the unknown. Many of his strong, and some of his quirky, qualities are now reflected in my stories--in my key characters, both protagonists as well as antagonists.
In addition, being friends with Jay in high school had a number of great benefits. First off, was his Mom. “Hi, Berk,” she’d say with a smile when I showed up at Jay’s front door, and then she’d stuff me full with large quantities of home-cooked food. At 6 feet 4 inches and the center on the Trona Tornado’s football team, I was always hungry. My stomach was basically bottomless.
Another benefit was the freedom we had to explore the desert. I think Mrs. Bell thought Jay would be safe with me and pretty much let us run free in Mr. Bell’s old pickup truck--as long as I was driving of course. Jay never did get a driver’s license, and his father had long since retired, so his truck was rarely used. In hindsight, her faith in me may not have been justified. Though neither of us was ever seriously injured, it was not for want of trying, and to this day, I still carry minor scars from our misadventures.
One hot summer morning, a few friends, including Jay and me, decided to drive out to the Ruth Mine in Homewood Canyon. It was always cool inside the deep mines, and we were ready for adventure. Besides just hanging-out in the canyon, picking off mangy jackrabbits with our .22s, and gorging on Hostess cherry pies, we hoped to find dynamite left behind in the old, abandoned mine. We were always searching for new sources of dynamite and rumor had it that explosives were stored in the depths of that mine.
The main shaft of Ruth Mine is vertical, plunging straight down into the deep, dark core of the mountain. Every fifty to one hundred feet, horizontal shafts branch off, reaching out to where more veins of ore had been discovered. In our day, the only way down to the many horizontal tunnels was on a wooden ladder, really a series of ladders bolted in sections to the large, timber support beams bracing the sides of the main shaft. The ladders stretched for hundreds of feet down the sheer sides of the wide vertical shaft.
Carrying extra flashlights and batteries, we descended into the bowels of the mine, which seemed to go for miles in many directions, on many levels. Whenever we came across a cave-in or a tunnel closure, Jay was usually the one to squeeze through to see if there was anything worth exploring on the other side. Not only was Jay thin and wiry, nothing seemed to intimidate him. After exploring for hours and finding only old tools and mining equipment, but no dynamite, we were hungry and decided to climb back up to the truck. Those Hostess pies were calling us.
One behind the other, we crawled up the series of old ladders, passing one level of horizontal tunnels after the other, with Jay reluctantly bringing up the rear. He had wanted to go deeper, but we had prevailed upon him to take a break. We could go back down later and explore more. It looked like it would take days to explore the extensive, multilevel complex of horizontal tunnels.
We had reached the top of the vertical shaft, which connected with a short tunnel leading to the outside, and were waiting for Jay, when suddenly he called, “Hey guys, I need a hand over here!”
There was a large gap between the support beams that rimmed the top of the main shaft and the rocky ledge of the exit tunnel. The ladder ended even with one of the timber beams, and there was nothing to hold on to while stepping across from the ladder to the stone ledge. Jay had put his flashlight in his pocket so he could climb with both hands, and the exit tunnel at this point was far enough away from the entrance to be in perpetual dark. Jay was completely blind as he got ready to step over to the tunnel’s uneven floor.
Turning with my flashlight, I saw Jay’s free hand grasping helplessly at thin air, so I reached out and grabbed his hand. With one hard pull, I dragged him up onto the ledge next to me, and as Jay struggled to get both feet onto solid rock, the whole top section of the ladder, twenty feet or more in length, broke away from the support beams. With a splintering screech of old wood, the ladder dropped out of sight and crashed loudly as it fell hundreds of feet down to the bottom of the mine.
In the total silence that followed, we all stood at the edge of the gaping shaft, staring down soberly into the deep, black depths, realizing that lady luck had just smiled on Jay.
Finally, Ken Corbridge cleared his throat to speak. I thought he was going to say we were lucky that no one was still on that ladder when it broke away. Instead, he said, rather forcefully, “Oh, crap! Now we can’t go back down that shaft again.” That was as close as Ken got to swearing since he had sworn off swearing.
Jay straightened up defensively. “Don’t blame me! It wasn’t my fault the ladder broke.”
Suddenly, we were all grinning, so I added my two cents. “Yea, sure. You were going to try to ride that ladder like a sled all the way back down to the bottom of the mine. You were the one that kept saying we should keep going until we got all the way to the bottom.”
“Not that way!” Jay backed away from the vertical shaft and turned to leave. “That ladder probably fell halfway to Hell. I’m not interested in any one-way tickets to nowhere.”
“Well,” I said. “Let’s not tell your Mom about this.”
“Right! And she wonders why I never have much to say about our adventures. If she knew half of what happens when we go exploring, I’d be grounded for life.”
That about summed it up.
In silence, we trudged back to Mr. Bell’s old pickup truck. I knew Jay was a great story teller, when his Mom wasn’t around, so I couldn’t help thinking, Someday, Jay is going to have some great stories to tell his grandkids. I hope he remembers to mention my part in his stories.
It turns out that Jay never got a chance to tell his stories, at least not in this life, but that is another story altogether. In the end, it turned out that I would be the one telling the stories, and I do remember to include Jay in my stories—in more ways than one.