The Unfortunate Case of Jerome Feller (or Part II of The Blockplant)

I should probably save this post for Halloween – but what the heck – I got a million of ’em, as the saying goes.  So in my last post I talked a little about the Blockplant, and left you with the statement that the house I grew up in was haunted.
Like any real haunting – proving that the place is haunted is pretty difficult. Radios would turn on by themselves, doors would shut and lock themselves, we all dreamed about the same apparition – and one family member who does not wish to be identified (no, it’s not me) saw a full body apparition in the house. There were also a lot of strange noises and occurrences in the house – a low breathing in the garage we could never figure out, and once right after we moved to California I heard that the basement filled up with hundreds of snakes.

Definitely a weird place to grow up. Add in the Blockplant, and you have the beginnings of a Stephen King novel. All of which goes a long way toward explaining why, as my mom puts it, “the veil between the worlds is thin with me” and my grandma always said I always have “one foot on the other side.”  It probably also sort of explains why my personality is a little on the odd side.

So there were all these odd occurrences in the house, and everyone agreed it all centered around the well room. The well room was clearly built onto the back of the house after the house was finished – otherwise it would have been a lot more integrated with the rest of the house. The parts of the house that had the most “activity” were the parts of the house closest to the well room. It was just that – a concrete room 3/4 sunk into the earth (1/4 above ground, in other words) with a well that went down over 100 feet, with an electric pump on the well head. Which was weird – because the artesian well was at the front of the house, which provided MUCH cleaner and softer water than the mud-hole well behind the house. It just seemed like a really bad place for a well.

The well room was always cold, and you could not get it well lit – a 100 watt bulb in that room would be no brighter than a 40 watt bulb. It was the darnedest thing.  When I was young, I had a lot of nightmares and waking nighttime hallucinations in the place, most of them centering around the well room. As I said, there is no doubt in my mind that that house is very haunted.

But, like most hauntings, there isn’t really a “smoking gun,” – something I can point to and say “See – it is haunted!”  We all dreamed about the same ghost, and we all agreed that there were “friendly” ghosts in the house, of which she (the ghost) seemed to be one. We also all agreed there were malevolent spirits in the house, and I don’t doubt that either.

But again – I have a pretty scientific mind, and while I know what I experienced in that house, I want proof. So, I assume, do you.

Enter the unfortunate case of Jerome Feller (first name pronounced “Ja – roam”).

Jerome Feller bought the house in 1967, after the owner of the Blockplant decided to give up his dream, apparently. He was the home’s second owner. (Note: the following information was researched through interviews with long-term residents of the town, and through archived newspaper articles in the town’s library.)  Again – the records showing this are missing from the County Courthouse, the records show that we were the first occupants of the house, but this is provably untrue. From all accounts, Jerome loved the place, and lived happily there alone until the winter of 1971 – one year before we moved in.

In early December of 1971, Jerome drove to Billings, Montana to do some Christmas shopping. He left Billings at 3 pm on a Sunday so he would be home by 5 pm – after sundown at that time of year “black ice” can form on those two-lane highways. Black ice is a sheer thin layer of perfectly smooth ice that forms as condensation on the smooth pavement freezes. Black ice is so slick that any car that hits it has no control over steering or braking – the best thing to do when you hit a patch of black ice is to let off the gas and try to coast over it without any more steering or braking input than absolutely necessary. On one sharp curve in the road that is known for the formation of black ice, Jerome’s car hit a large patch of black ice at too high of a speed and spun out of control. The car spun into the oncoming lane, and the front fender caught on a vertical drainage pipe sticking out of the shoulder on the other side of the road. The car caught on the pipe and flipped over several times in the ditch on the far side of the road, coming to rest on its roof. Jerome Feller died at the scene.

Every day at 5 pm – a car door slams in the driveway of the house. It is the loudest on Sunday evenings. Visitors to the home have heard it, friends who came over regularly have heard it. Even when there is not a car for half a mile in any direction (as was often the case on summer days when mom and dad were at work) a car door slams in the driveway of the house. It is loud enough to be heard from inside the basement with all of the doors closed. To my knowledge, the sound has never stopped or missed a day – exactly at 5 pm every day, whether there is an actual car present or not, a car door slams in the driveway. After extensive attempts to pinpoint the source of the sound – including experiments slamming a car door at the end of our dirt road and from down at the Blockplant – we concluded that there is no possible way for the sound to be produced by anything but a car door slamming directly in front of the house. Even when the driveway was completely empty.

It actually was not until we moved away that I talked about a lot of this with my family members and we all finally agreed on a paranormal explanation for the sound – after much debate, we decided the sound had to be Jerome Feller trying to come home at the same time every day, the time of day he was due back from his ill fated trip home from Billings.

Of course I didn’t need to do any of my research into the case or have any of those conversations with members of my family to know this – that was just so there was something semi-concrete there to point to as evidence that the place is actually haunted. Heck, I knew the car door slamming was Jerome Feller coming home as a kid.

In early December of 1973 – we went to Billings, Montana, in my dad’s Ford Mustang for some Christmas shopping. I was four years old. We planned to leave around three, so we would get home around five, just after dark, to avoid most of the black ice on those roads. On the exact same curve at the same time of day (though we didn’t yet know the story at that time) my dad hit a patch of black ice going a little too fast on the curve and the car spun out of control. The front bumper hooked on that drainage pipe sticking out of the shoulder, caught the car, and flipped it over.

POOF!!!!!!

The car landed on its roof in seven feet of freshly fallen powdery snow that had filled the ditch. It was like dropping a car onto a giant feather bed. Though shaken, none of us were hurt. The car’s roof wasn’t dented, and none of the glass was even broken. The only reason the car had to be towed home is because flipping a gasoline engine upside down kind of messes it up, so the car needed some minor mechanical attention after the incident, but that was it. We all rode home in a Chevy Impala sedan that the towing company was nice enough to send for us. This was the only major car accident I have ever been in, and to say that we were lucky would, in my opinion, be pressing the limits of what can be explained as mere luck.

Say what you want – I will always be convinced that the ghost of Jerome Feller guided that car on that fateful day and caused it to repeat his crash almost exactly – the only difference being that in so doing all of our lives were spared by repeating the same crash that killed him.

And maybe that’s just wild speculation on my part. I have to admit that. But I gotta be honest – I’m not real sure that I believe in coincidences like that. There are times – very few times – when the paranormal explanation is also the most plausible one.

If you believe in that sort of thing. And maybe, just maybe, even if you don’t.

I feel bad for the spirit of Jerome Feller.  For 40 years now, all he has wanted to do is come home.  If that isn’t Hell, I don’t know what is.

Is the house provably haunted? I think so. So, by the way, does anyone who has ever lived in it. At least one person I know of (since we left) had a nervous breakdown after living alone in the house for six months. The family that currently lives there has now lived there for over a decade. They are the first ones since my family to do so.

I visited them on a road trip back to my hometown in 2003. The first question out of their mouth was, “So what can you tell me about that well room?” Turns out that they had the well room all boarded up and didn’t use the basement for anything but storage. Incredibly, the carpet and drapes on the window wells in the basement bedroom were just as we had left them. I asked them about the car door slamming, if it still happened.

“Every night right at 5,” was the answer.

Why is the house haunted?  The unfortunate case of Jerome Feller is one reason – but clearly there is more going on there than just that.  Is the haunting connected somehow to the Blockplant?

I tend to think so, but that is one question that will in all likelihood never be answered.

People sometimes ask me if I believe in ghosts. I always give them the same answer – I grew up in a haunted house.

The Blockplant

I already mentioned the Blockplant in a couple of my earlier posts – it was a broken down old factory about a quarter mile behind our house.

It was our backyard playground growing up.

To be precise, it was what was called a block and redi-mix plant. They made bricks, gravel, bags of cement, that kind of thing. We just called it the Blockplant for short. The guy who started up the Blockplant also built the house I grew up in. You could actually tell that there was once a straight road between the house and the Blockplant, but that had long since been covered up to join to farm fields together into one big field (our house and the Blockplant were surrounded by over 200 acres of farm field).

To get to the Blockplant you thus had to follow a long gravel road along the far side of the farm field until you came to the first building – a double garage meant to store two 18 wheelers side by side with a pit in the middle of each garage for working on the undersides of the trucks. The road then curved and went down a little hill, at the bottom of which was the office, and kitty-corner to that, the main building – with a concrete storage garage built onto one end that we called the “Red Room” because someone had spread red dry mix everywhere in the room, making it look like a dried-up murder scene, and two more garage bays (which were both pitch black and full of bats, we found out) inside the main sheet-metal building. Inside the main building was a huge mixing pit, conveyer belts, a second story, a bathroom, and access to the main tower built onto the top of the building – a three story steel squarish tower that was basically just a giant hopper that could fill a boxcar with gravel if need be. My brother and I called this building the Butler Building because the name at the top of the main entrance said, “But ler.” There was supposed to be an “e” after the “t” – Buteler was a company that made sheet metal buildings in the 60s and 70s. But the “e” had been erased by time, so we called it the Butler Building. Behind the Butler Building was a two story silo full of gravel. I know this because one day my brother and I found a lever on the side of it that still worked, and so just had to pull it, of course. The lever released a couple of tons of gravel out onto the ground. OOPS. We were barely fast enough to get out of the way of the cascading gravel. Did I mention that this was a broken down factory, and that my brother and I practically spent whole summer vacations playing in the place? Not the safest place for a kid, not at all. But that was the kind of childhood I had – basically a non stop adventure, and that, after all, is the reason for this blog.

Beyond the Butler Building was a road that led to more farm fields and then to a large swamp and the woods behind our house.

The place was actually still operational when we moved there in 1972, though the owner obviously no longer lived in the house – the house I grew up in was originally meant as the owner’s house for the Blockplant – it was going to have a paved drive and an iron gate – a real manor for those days, if you will. But for reasons that I do not know, that dream was never to be realized, the road was left unimproved dirt, only the concrete posts for the gate were ever installed, and the basement of the place (which would become my brother’s and mine room) was 3/4 unfinished. Our house, and ultimately the Blockplant, was someone else’s broken dream.

As I said, the Blockplant was still in business when we moved in in 1972. I remember cement trucks and gravel haulers would come and go all day – I was only 3 or 4 years old at this point – and the place would get quiet at night with only a night guard on the premises.

That all changed forever in a single afternoon one summer day in 1974. And although I was only 5 at the time, I remember it vividly. They were digging near one of the buildings with a backhoe tractor. Suddenly, the tractor was shut off, and there was a lot of yelling. Then everyone left.

Forever.

They just left. Everyone shut everything down, got in their cars and trucks, and left. That day was the last day that factory ever made even a single brick. Tens of thousands of dollars of equipment – cement trucks, a gravel hauler (trailer) for a big rig, the conveyer belts, parts and supplies for the trucks, and bags and bags of cement, to say nothing of all of the stacks of bricks – unsold inventory – all just left to rot. On that first night two dump trucks came in real late and dumped a few tons of gravel where they had been digging. Most of that gravel pile was still there when I left Wyoming.

Almost all of that equipment and inventory sat there for over 10 years, unused. The inventory – the bricks and bags of cement, had a funny way of disappearing, and by the end of that 10 years, all of that  was gone. (It was not unusual to see a car go in there late at night and load up on inventory and drive off – a car loaded with bricks and bags of cement doesn’t look quite right going down the highway, at all.) Right around 1983, they came in and hauled off the heaviest of the equipment – the tires had rotted off – it was all nothing but scrap metal by then. About that same time the main tower fell over and demolished the entire second floor of the Butler Building. Nature was beginning to reclaim the Blockplant. After that the Butler Building was an even more dangerous place. By the time I left Wyoming, the two inside truck bays and the Red Room had also collapsed.

The night I graduated from high school, the Rock and Roll Gang (see two posts ago) managed to get up on top of the Butler Building and we drank California Coolers (a now defunct brand of wine cooler) all night. If we had fallen through the dangerously dilapidated roof, we would have been badly hurt or killed.  Oddly, none of us, nor my brother, ever got hurt playing at the Blockplant, and all things being equal, that’s pretty surprising.

Now what’s left of the Butler Building is just a roofless shell, most of it has been hauled away. The last I heard, the office was still there with all of the paperwork and logbooks from 1974, like a blue collar time capsule, still in unsorted piles on the counter tops and on the floor. The first building – the garage – has been reinforced and is now used by local farmers for storage. The Butler Building was once used for this too – for a short time around 1981 it was used to store some modern tractors and an International dump truck that I had a fondness for. One night around two am I walked down to the Blockplant, got in that International truck, and played trucker. The keys were in it. I started her up, turned on the radio and the lights, and played interstate trucker. I would have been about 12, and wasn’t big enough to work the massive clutch and get the thing in gear (I don’t think I would have actually tried to drive it anyway) so I just played trucker for an hour, the big diesel engine idling and revving in the night. That night was a total blast. After that, I found out, the keys were no longer left in the trucks. OOPS.

The Blockplant today, except for that front building that seems to have been adopted, is more memory than material. Where a factory once stood is only sheet metal and ruins, and that odd little forgotten office.

What happened to the Blockplant? What happened on that sunny summer afternoon in 1974? Your guess is as good as mine. I was never able to find out.

I do know a few things. The records showing that the same person who built the Blockplant also built the house I grew up in are missing from the County Courthouse. Our family is the first family on record there, even though the house was 10 years old when we bought it.

You tell me. – it’s a mystery.

I can tell you one thing though, although I think this should probably be another post – laugh at me if you want, but there is no question in my mind about this whatsoever – the house I grew up in was really quite haunted.

 

To be continued…….

 

 

Montana Man Wins Darwin Award (or Darn Well Should)

Okay -so today’s post isn’t necessarily about Wyoming, but rather its neighbor to the north, Montana.  And today I’ll give you a break from the stories of my time in Wyoming, but I’ll come back to those tomorrow. Montana and Wyoming have sort of a special relationship anyway, because if you live in Wyoming and feel the need to go to an actual city, you pretty much have to leave the state. Casper, Cheyenne, and Rock Springs are the three largest “cities” in Wyoming, and put together they have a combined population of just under 150,000.

Denver, Colorado is probably the closest actual city to anywhere in Wyoming, but Montana has a couple of nice smaller options. Billings, Montana (population 105,000) is where everyone goes to shop when that “big city feel” is desired for larger shopping malls, high rise hotels, and what have you. Weather permitting, of course. Billings is only a couple of hours from my small hometown.

Of course, Montana has its share of one-horse towns as well. Take Kalispell, Montana, for instance.  Kalispell is 20,000 people (okay, so a two-horse town), and is located in a high altitude valley between mountain ranges.

Now, I’m not trying to be ornery here – I think Montana is a gorgeous state with a rich history – but for a Rocky Mountain state with only 1 million people – about double the population of Wyoming – Montana sure does seem to produce some kooks. Mr. Kaczynski being the most infamous, of course.  And now it has produced a man who I believe is eligible for the 2012 Darwin Award of the Year, and will probably show up at some point on the television show, “1000 Ways to Die.”

For those of you not familiar, the Darwin Awards are awarded (usually posthumously) each year to individuals who permanently remove themselves from the human gene pool in a sublimely idiotic fashion.

Enter Mr. Randy Lee Tenley, 44, of Kalispell, Montana. Last weekend Mr. Tenley waited until the sun set, donned a camouflage “ghillie suit” and stood in the middle of U.S. Highway 93.

Was he trying to commit suicide?

Nope, at least authorities do not believe so. After interviews with Mr. Tenley’s acquaintances, Montana State Trooper Jim Schneider issued the following public statement, in what may be the best news story quote of 2012:

“He was trying to make people think he was a Sasquatch,” Schneider said.

Before we go any further, it might help if you were familiar with what a ghillie suit is and what one looks like. A ghillie suit is a full-body camouflage suit covered in fake foliage. A classic ghillie suit:

“Obviously, his suit made it difficult for people to see him,” Schneider said.

Really? I mean, wearing that, at night, in the mountains, on a major highway, might not be the best idea?

Well, it wasn’t – Mr. Tenley was struck and killed by two cars in a row while he stood in the middle of the highway. The first car was driven by a 15 year old girl, the second car was driven by a 17 year old girl. The drivers failed to see or identify the obstacle in the road that would have basically looked like a small tree growing out of the highway. No charges have been filed in the case, as it is clear that Mr. Tenley’s actions were not in the interest of public safety, and least of all his own. Authorities have deduced after several interviews that Mr. Tenley was indeed trying to impersonate a Sasquatch, trying to incite a false Bigfoot sighting. It remains to be seen if alcohol was a contributing factor, Schneider added. (But if I were a betting man……..)

I don’t know if Bigfoot is real or not – I have heard evidence both for and against. In the long run, I’m not really even sure it matters. I mean, new species are discovered by scientists every year (mostly bugs, I grant you). Is it possible that there is a large humanoid mammal species out there that has not been formally inducted into the Animal Kingdom?  Sure, almost anything is possible, I guess. Is it likely?  I don’t know. And I really think that’s the wisest answer in the “Search for Bigfoot.”

Of one thing I am pretty sure, though – anything that has managed to avoid detection for this long is not going to be standing in the middle of U.S. Highway 93 just after sundown. I’m just sayin’.

Although the loss of any human life is of course tragic, I might suggest that Mr. Tenley did not quite think things through here.

Congratulations, Mr. Tenley – allow me to be the first to formally nominate you for Darwin Award of the Year. I really think you stand a really great chance of winning, I really do.

Rock and Roll High School

Okay – some ground rules for this post: First, if you don’t have 20 minutes or so to kill, stop reading now, because this is probably going to be a pretty long post. Second, I know I usually try to throw in a good measure of humor with my posts because that’s my personality – I love to joke around. Not today. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not gonna get all depresso-puppy on you either, but rather just share what I always have thought was a pretty cool story that happens to be true. Call it a coming of age story for lack of a better description.

So this past weekend I went to the last Trash Film Orgy movie of the year for Sacramento (see previous posts for what the Trash Film Orgy is). The movie we were trashing was “Rock and Roll High School.” Sort of a dumb teen comedy about a school marm with a broomstick up her (bleeep!) regarding allowing young people to listen to rock music – on or off campus.  Things escalate, and she has a record-burning bonfire in front of the school to censor the kids’ music – a scene in an otherwise pretty dumb movie, a scene that I think ended up being a lot more poignant than it was ever intended to be. In response to the album – burning bonfire, the kids burn down the school.

There were some real messages hidden in this on-its face unbelievably trite movie. Messages about rebellion, youth, and censorship. You already know I’m going to say this film sort of reminded me of my high school days, so I might as well just come out and say it.

This film really kind of reminded me of my high school days.

But not exactly in the way you might think, and we certainly never wanted to burn down the school. Truth be told, most of us loved our high school.

So, I talked about my freshman year in another post – I missed most of that year because of my leg but still managed to pass on to sophomore-ness.

My sophomore year I just skipped school a lot, hung out with some rough around the edges types, learned to smoke, you know – the usual.

Remember that drunk driving incident I told you about in my last post?  Well, it was during that time (while I was grounded for a month in late 1985) that I had my radio on all the time and listened to Rick Dees Top 40 every Friday night. I even remember the station – 98.5 Rock out of Cody, Wyoming. That was 90 miles away, but my boom box pulled it in just fine. And the hit parade just bombarded me with the music of a generation – Night Ranger, Van Halen, Def Leppard, REO Speedwagon, Motley Crew, Cinderella, Guns and Roses, The Eagles (my all time hands-down favorite band), Kansas, Boston, 38 Special, The Moody Blues, Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar, White Lion (remember them?), Bon Jovi, The Cars, dear God, it just never stopped, but you get the idea. It truly was the music of a generation, and I suddenly felt kind of left out. I mean, up until that time, my sheltered idea of music was mostly Neil Diamond and Charley Pride. I know those musicians had their place to be sure – but they weren’t part of a movement – those other performers I just mentioned were – they were part of a movement called Rock and Roll.

Some say that 80’s Rock was the “death rattle” of classic Rock and Roll. I tend to think it was more like the apex of a social movement. And all you had to do to join was listen and feel the music, really feel it. Because that’s what rock was really all about – letting the music make you feel. And if you were very very lucky, maybe rock would lead you to, or at least be the soundtrack to, burning down the school without actually burning down the school. Which is to say, simply, to matter.  That’s all we wanted, really, to be heard, and to matter. I think that’s what “Rock and Roll High School” was actually trying to say.

Northern Wyoming. Spring 1986. I don’t really remember the first time I “cruised Main.” I do know that it was hardly a new idea – this of course had been going on all over the country since at least the 50’s – but I somehow got the distinct impression that those of us at WHS at the time seemed to like cruising Main a little more than previous generations. Maybe not – maybe we were just young and full of ourselves, or maybe we just wanted to be heard. My mom called cruising Main “helling around town.”

And, oh my god, we were. We rolled down the windows and blasted Dire Straits as we cruised Big Horn Avenue a.k.a Main. The town isn’t very big, so one round-trip drag of Main took like 10 minutes. I never counted, but if you do the math, if you cruise from 8 pm or so to midnight, say, that’s four hours of cruising, six or more laps of Main Street an hour, equals at least 24 laps of Main in a night, unless of course you went to a movie first.

Probably even more than that.

So, anyway, I started cruising Main for one reason or another – possibly a friend wanted to check out what this cruising thing was about – in a Chevy Chevette (HORRIBLE car). I at least got my dad to put in a decent Clarion stereo system with a tape deck and Kenwood speakers so I didn’t have to listen to an am radio while cruising. (You can imagine cruising small town Main Street while listening to Paul Harvey – it’s just not the same). After I consistently returned the Chevette with an empty gas tank and hundreds of additional miles on it each weekend, but otherwise undamaged, they let me take the Chevy Suburban out a few times. We once loaded 17 people into that car and went four-wheeling in the badlands, and there is a story out there that is to this day unconfirmed that I careened onto Main in that car with the two wheels on the driver’s side off the ground. I don’t think that really happened, but hey, anything is possible, I guess. Especially the way I drive, er, I mean, drove back then.

So – up to this point it was all pretty normal small town stuff – playing music, chasing girls – and I mean we used to literally chase each other through town, you know who you are – like a high speed chase on the Lifetime Channel.  Anyway. Then, in the late fall of 1986, something kind of neat happened.

Cruising was hugely popular with our class especially by then (I know how self centered that sounds – but it really seemed true at the time), the Class of 1987. So much so that this empty parking lot that used to be a Chevron station sort of became “Jock HQ” – it was where all the “cool” kids – the jocks, the popular kids, etc. parked on Main and watched the parade of cars blasting Night Ranger and The Boss(Springsteen) out of open windows go by and back again. And again. And again.

I think in a way those of us who were not strictly part of the “In Crowd” felt a little intimidated by this. And no one really wanted start the “Loser Lot” – so basically if you weren’t popular you could cruise, but you better not park. That was the unspoken but totally clear message – the “In Crowd” had staked a weekend claim on Main Street, and if you weren’t there, you didn’t park. Sounds ridiculous now, I know, but at the time, it felt like a kind of rejection, and an unspoken challenge. (These kinds of feelings make up most of the lyrics of many of the great rock songs of all time, incidentally.) It felt like, I don’t know – it felt like cruising was open to anyone – but actual social interaction, actual conversation with all of the other kids at the school, you only get to do that if you’re cool – cool enough to park at the Jock Lot.

I guess during the 80’s recession (we didn’t know there was one, really) having a gas station in a small Rocky Mountain town wasn’t the greatest idea, because kitty-corner across the street was this broken down and abandoned 76 station. Not a cleared empty lot like the Jock Lot, but just a forgotten and abandoned Union 76 Station. It always struck me as really odd that the place went under, too, because north of town is a Union Carbide 76 refinery. But I digress. Oh, the station became a video arcade / sandwich shop for a while there in 1985, but that went under too, and after that the station – still with the orange 76 ball on the brick side of the building – sat abandoned until the day I moved to California.

Now, I want to be careful here – I don’t really want to take credit for much here, other than to say that in the late fall of 1986 I pulled the blue 1967 Chevy 3/4 ton truck I had bought myself with my school bus driving money (yet another future post) into that 76 station, directly facing the Jock Lot, cranked Dire Straits, and just watched them all, alone. I know it sounds kind of trivial – but in that setting, it felt kind of like an act of defiance. Which was probably because in a very real way at 16 years old – and maybe just a little scared of life, the Universe, and everything, (sorry again Douglas Adams), that’s exactly what it was.

The next night I did the same thing, and one of the jocks actually drove over to me and asked me what I thought I was doing. I told him I was listening to Dire Straits. He then said that I was on private property. I said so was he. And he got into his truck and went back to the Jock Lot. About an hour after that, Dale came over, and parked next to my truck. A while later Dave, another good friend of mine, did something odd, and was one of the few people in the town that could have pulled this off – he pulled his muscle car into the Jock Lot, got out and talked for a while, then got into his car and came over and joined Dale and I at the 76 station.

Someone had finally had the audacity to start the Loser Lot. To be fair, I don’t know if that was what the Jocks called it or not. We didn’t call it that – we didn’t call ourselves anything for a long while, but we had, for the most part unknowingly at the time, indeed started something.

What we had started was the Rock and Roll Gang, as we later loosely called ourselves, a core of seven people who became the best of friends over the next two years – the Rock and Roll Gang was the core of a stake on Main that grew to be larger than the Jock Lot.

The next weekend, Dave brought in some friends who had already graduated from high school, one drove a classic 1977 Trans Am, the other drove a 1979 Camaro Berlinetta. Other classic cars that became part of the original group included a 1970 Chevy Chevelle, and a 1977 Chevy Nova.  Along with my truck, the Rock and Roll Gang was 3/4 of the way to a “Like a Rock” General Motors ad. Okay, not really, but you can’t tell me that wouldn’t have been one cool commercial. Heh.

Anyway, so that was the original gang – Dave, Dale, myself, two Lisas, Kev, and Rich. We all drove muscle cars (even my truck had a small block Chevy 307 racing engine under the hood) and we were all in love with Rock and Roll. (There was one member who really wasn’t that into the music to be honest, but to each his own, I guess). We all became fast friends, and went drinking in the badlands, went on impromptu two-day road trips out of town, went to a seemingly endless string of rock concerts all across the state – the famous time was when we did 160 mph in Rich’s Trans Am between Shoshone and Casper on the way to a Van Halen concert with five souls on board including my own-  and you know, those were just some of the best days of my life.

Maybe it was the fact that we had a few older kids as part of our group, but several of the girls and a few of the guys “defected” from the Jock Lot and came over to join ours, and I think that in the summer of 1987 most of the entire Junior Class of the high school joined us as well, and it was at this point that our group became larger than the Jock Lot.

We hadn’t burned down the school, but we had stood up and said, “Hey – we matter!”  And we did it to a soundtrack that even now I think is some of the best and most intriguing music ever made by human hands – classic American Rock and Roll. And standing up to matter is all any of those songs were ever trying to get us to do in the first place.

Glory Days? Yeah, maybe. I mean, here I am, 25 years later, writing about it. Rock and Roll High School?

Oh, yes, most definitely. And though unfortunately most of those friendships didn’t last – those were rocking times, and the Rock and Roll Gang in the end gave rise to two marriages, friendships that mattered, and a lifetime worth of memories.

So, in 1987, was Rock and Roll in its death rattle?

No way. And to the next generation, to the next Rock and Roll Gang –  I’d simply say to you – Rock on.

 

The Case of the Art House Film and the Beer Commercial

I mentioned in a previous post that while horror movies were sort of pushed on me in a way when I was growing up, I was a receptive audience. I couldn’t get enough of horror movies – B Grade, blockbuster, obscure, cult following – you name it – I loved them all and still do.
Which was unfortunate in a way, because my father must have kind of figured that “Hey – he liked the horror movies – maybe I can get him to like some of my other favorite movies too!” Most of these other “favorites” were in black and white.  Snore.
When I was 16 I came home from a friend’s house one night pretty hammered – sloppy drunk, I believe, would be the correct term here. I got grounded for a month for that – more than even for the drag racing incident. (I had driven drunk – that’s why the harsh punishment, and well-deserved, I might add.)  And this was hard time too – no TV, and no real family time except for meals. When I was not upstairs for family meals, I was confined to my room. It was summer vacation, so this was a really harsh sentence – in my room for a month except for food and bathroom visits.

This might seem harsh – but I am so glad I got that punishment – I had a radio / tape player downstairs in my room and it stayed on most of the time. This was when I really fell in love with rock and roll – but that’s another post (Coming Soon!)  During this time I also fell in love with classic old movies.

You see, about a week into my sentence, Dad declared that my sentence would be amended – I was allowed to watch TV in the family room, but only after prime time, and only after my brother and sister went to bed. Oh, and I had to watch what Dad wanted to watch – I got no say whatsoever in the programming. Oh, God……..

And so he made me watch the classics. And I mean I really didn’t want to watch these movies. But no TV for a month, I was in withdrawal, I think – I mean, I must have been – because I agreed to watch these things without protest. And so we did. Casablanca. Gone With the Wind. To Have and Have Not. The African Queen. Shane. Citizen Kane. The Ten Commandments. The list goes on and on. No horror movies, no B movies, just the giants of cinema here. In a month’s time – I watched over 40 of the best films ever made. And a funny thing happened. I fell in love with them. All of them. At 16, I was doomed to be a huge movie buff for life. I think I also fell in love with Ingrid Bergman, which is odd since she died two years after this, but I digress.

In fact, I had almost completed my sentence – and a crash course education in classic cinema – before I realized that, while she was arguably the best film actress who ever lived, Ingrid Bergman was not in fact a Swedish art house movie director. I thought this last crop of esoteric films my dad wanted me to watch were called Ingrid Bergman movies, which was odd, since she only starred in one of them. Finally the mystery was unraveled – my dad was, as my sentence came to a close, trying to get me to watch Ingmar Bergman movies.

It’s actually pretty amazing that my dad actually had all of these films on VHS in the mid 80’s. Even more amazing that he had nearly every Ingmar Bergman film on VHS.

This was where I had to draw the line, finally, and retreat back to Rick Dees Top 40 on my radio downstairs. I just couldn’t get into Ingmar Bergman movies.

Ingmar Bergman was a Swedish film director / producer who produced what I like to call “art house films” in the 60’s, 70,s and early 80’s. Most of his work was really depressing. He did some black and white and several color films. It seems like they all dealt with death, misery, suffering, and sexual repression. Just not very cheery stuff to watch, and I just could not get into them.

Take an example – “The Seventh Seal,” one of Ingmar Bergman’s more famous works, starts out with two men on the sea shore. It’s in black and white, and arduously slow. We find out like 15 minutes in that one of these men is Death. The Grim Reaper. Whatever. So the other guy challenges Death to a chess game in hopes of prolonging the inevitable, and Death accepts the challenge. This is your plot, people. There are not very many people who saw this movie that needed a Sominex to sleep that night. I’m just sayin.

So, I never really got into those. But like I said, I did become a huge movie buff, which eventually led to me watching some more obscure movies. And – gasp – even non-horror B Movies! Which led to a sick little passion of mine – movie riffing (verbally making fun of a movie while you watch it).  Trained and taught by a puppet show. Those of you who know me well already know what I’m talking about – my over decade-long love affair now (through DVD mostly) with a TV show called Mystery Science Theater 3000. For those of you not familiar, probably the best way to school you is with the opening title song!  Yay!

In the not too distant future, next Sunday A.D.

There was a guy named Joel, not too different from you or me,

He worked at Gizmonic Institute, just another face in a red jump suit,

He did a good job cleaning up the place, but his boss didn’t like him so he shot him into space.

(mad scientist appears in green lab coat)

I’ll send him cheesy movies, the very worst that I can find, he’ll have to sit and watch them all, as I monitor his mind,

Now keep in mind Joel can’t control when the movies begin or end, ’cause he used those special parts to make his robot friends:

Cambot!  Gypsy!  Tom Servo!  Croooooooooooooow!

If you wonder how Joel eats and sleeps and other science facts, repeat to yourself it’s just a show, you should really just relax,

For Mystery Science Theater 3000!

There are actually six versions of that song, and yes, I know them all. The show ran from it’s odd and modest beginnings in the local Minneapolis market to Comedy Central and later the Sci Fi Channel from 1988 to 1999. Each episode is 2 hours long, as Joel and the bots (later replaced by Mike) rip up a fresh B movie. These things are divinely hilarious, with skits and songs put on by the bots to break up the movie a bit.  They did 198 two-hour shows in all. I have seen 108 of them, which is pretty good considering the first season was in the Minnesota market only. And oh, God are the movies soooooooooooo bad. (Incidentally, this show is also responsible for movie-riffing groups like The Trash Film Orgy I mentioned in a previous post – this thing had and has a HUGE cult following.)

Well, the other day, I got one of the latest DVD releases of this show – this episode was from 1994 , “The Sword and the Dragon” (all MST3K episodes are named after the movie being riffed on.) Think “Jason and the Argonauts” made by Swedes on a low budget, then add ham. I’m tellin ya – this thing was as goofy as a string cheese sprayer. (I realize “Jason and the Argonauts” probably should have been an MST3K, so that was probably a bad example, but anyway….)

Wait – did someone say Swedish – made film?  Yes, yes I did. And although of course “The Sword and the Dragon” is a little beneath Ingmar Bergman’s level of film mastery (or so I’m told, but I’m still not that convinced on this point) might this not be the perfect time for the crew of MST3K’s Satellite of Love, or SOL, to launch an absolutely irreverent parody of an Ingmar Bergman film, just for the pure Hell of it?

Yes, yes it is.

And so I give you MST3K’s 4 and a 1/2 minute parody of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” with a beer commercial thrown in for good measure. (If you can’t find the beer commercial – it’s perfectly okay – it just means you are younger than 35…..)

I hope you enjoy watching this as much as I did – hilarious, but infinitely more so if you have ever seen an Ingmar Bergman movie:


My dad would probably ground me for a month again if he could for this post, but what can you do…….
Oh, and for your homework today – I challenge you to go rent an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The funniest ones of all time (but there are SO many qualified candidates!) are almost unarguably “The Final Sacrifice,” “Werewolf,” “Gunslinger,” “The Dead Talk Back,” and “The Blood Waters of Dr. Z.”

Follow That Dinosaur!

For today’s blog, I’ll save you some time – if you are under 35 years old, stop reading now, because you are likely going to have no idea what I’m talking about.  You might even think I’ve been smoking something, which I assure you is not the case.

But I CAN tell you who was smoking something – Sid and Marty Krofft.  Everyone reading this who is under 35 just went “who?” and everyone roughly over 35 just went “Oh my gawd – yes!”

Sid and Marty Krofft were responsible for a procession of television shows during the mid-1970s that mixed live acting with animation / claymation.  These bastions of American pop culture included, HR Puff & Stuff (think talking McDonald’s Fry Guys that have had several espressos) , Lidsville (wtf – ruling a world that smacks of Candyland in flying hats?????), Wonderbug (a talking dunebuggy – really – c,mon…), Bigfoot & Wildboy (self explanatory), Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (shorts, capes and 70s girl hair, and I’m convinced that’s the same car used in Wonderbug……) and it all seemed perfectly normal at the time.  Yeah, I grew up on that stuff.  But Sid & Marty Krofft are oft remembered for one of their earlier shows that was a smash hit above all of the others put together (which wasn’t really much of an accomplishment).  The show was called the Land of the Lost.  And no, not the intentionally dumb Will Farrell movie of late that was nothing like the original. But I stumbled across the remastered original series on Netflix, and you know I had to get it.  I’m not shelling out the $90 for the complete set, but I was definitely up for the Netflix rental for a quick trip down memory lane.

From the first intro, you know you are in trouble, at least by today’s standards.  It becomes immediately clear that the Land of the Lost budget didn’t include science advisers.

…..and a one, and a two and a three – sing it with me!  …….”Marshall, Will, and Holly, on a routine expedition, met the greatest earthquake ever known, high on the rapids (ummmm…) it caught their tiny raft and plunged them down a thousand feet below (with an accompanying ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh’ for dramatic effect) to the Laaaaaaaaaaand of the Lossssssst, (insert T-Rex roar) to the Laaaaaaaaaaand of the Lossssssst!!!”

Just think, only a thousand feet below the Colorado River there’s a portal to a land of dinosaurs, walking lizard men called Sleestak, some ape-like casting rejects from Bigfoot and Wildboy that end up being called Pakunis, and tinfoil-covered “pylons” that are controlling it all.  Will looks like he might be solely responsible for the porn industry, our buck-toothed Holly looks just slightly feral, and with one look at Marshall, it’s not hard to see why.  We are never told why someone who looks like he’s 26 is constantly arguing with a little girl that looks to be about ten, but maybe Will wasn’t blessed with a lot of gray matter.  Indeed, every time he gets scared, he starts throwing rocks – and even the Pakuni use spears.

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVED this little show.  And I remember how I would set my alarm and get up at 6 am every Saturday morning as a kid to watch the thing back in 1974.  One of the darkest days of my life was the day Land of the Lost was canceled, at the end of 1976.  Well, not really.  But I was definitely a fan. I actually am pretty sure this show is solely responsible for my lifelong fascination with dinosaurs.  It’s just that, looking back, this thing oozes cheese.  And, like a lot of Saturday morning kid shows back then, some of the content was more aimed at adults.

Case in point, the episode entitled, “Follow That Dinosaur.”  The whole episode is about the fact that the Marshall family suddenly realizes that the reason all of the dinosaurs (including “Grumpy” the claymation T-Rex and “Dopey” – a baby Brontosaurus that is more than a little slow on the uptake – are we starting to see a pattern here?) in the Land of the Lost are constantly gathered around their cave is not because they are the protagonists, but rather that the cave is surrounded by green leafy fern-like plants with little buds at the top.  Apparently, subtlety hadn’t yet been invented in 1974.   Even T-Rex is walking off with mouthfuls of the stuff, that  Holly calls “dinosaur nip.”  They get the bright idea to go pull all of the “weeds.”  In the process they find a scarecrow stuffed with the dinosaur nip, and a notebook instructing them how to get out of the Land of the Lost.  The instructions lead them through the sleeping Sleestak hordes in the “Lost City” and straight to a molten pit that rises up and wakes up the Sleestak.  Doh.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, all of the dinosaurs come down with an incurable case of the munchies, and Grumpy does a balancing act to cross a narrow foot bridge and confront Alice – the other big carnivore (an Allosaurus – get it?) around.  They end up in a fight over the dinosaur nip, allowing the Feral, um I mean the Marshall family to escape safely back to the cave, by which time they’re all famished.

Sigh, the good old days.

In 2012, television has become complex, thought provoking, and rich with astonishing special effects.  Well, sometimes anyway. (I’m a TOTAL fan of The Walking Dead, for instance.) Television is so good these days that with a minimal investment in a good home entertainment system, there’s no reason to ever go to the movies. And yet, as bad as those old shows were, there’s a certain sense of something lost from those more simple times, even if it isn’t necessarily our innocence that was lost.  Today, an episode like “Follow That Dinosaur” might well be seen as corruptive to young minds, stifling their imaginations.  Sitting a few feet away from me right now is the gag gift I bought myself one Christmas several years ago, an animatronic robot dinosaur with advanced AI (artificial intelligence) that I named Ally.  Sort of a tribute to ol’ Alice, I guess. As I think back on those days and how Land of the Lost sparked a lifetime of imagination in me, I’m not so sure if those shows were all that corrupting, or just a sign of the times.

Train, Train, Goin’ So Fast……

A few years ago, Microsoft discontinued its least popular franchise of all time: Train Simulator. The idea: to put the PC Gamer at the controls of a mile – long freight train. Or an old time steam-locomotive Orient Express. Or an Amtrak Acela on the Northeast Corridor between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Sales were dismal. So dismal, in fact, that Microsoft canned its Train Simulator II halfway through development. It was a PC Game that was not meant to be. Still, I thought Train Simulator was fun. The sounds, especially the sounds of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe GP38-2 diesel electric locomotives, were as “real as it gets,” as Microsoft likes to say. It was like having a freight train in my game room. And I ought to know, because I heard those same exact locomotives enough times growing up through the years.  Sometimes after school, and sometimes at 3 a.m.

Our house was 70 feet from the tracks. At that distance, freight trains become part of your life, and a backdrop to a childhood. At least they were for me.

One day when I was about 8, a freight train was stopped in front of our house as I came home from school. Not sure why, really. (The other two times that happened growing up, I knew perfectly well why.) Not wanting to camp in the “borrow pit” – named because it’s the area where construction crews “borrow” the dirt from to build the highway – between the Highway 20 school bus stop and the railroad tracks, I simply crawled under the freight train to the safety of home. While I thought my solution to the temporary blockade was bold, my parents did not share my enthusiasm for my intrepid determination. Not at all. They were mostly just glad I was safe, though.

I do have a life-long love affair with trains that comes from growing up around them. I’m not a trainspotter or anything – I really don’t have that kind of time these days – but I do and always have loved trains. Trains even play a sort of lead role in that 700 page novel I wrote – the book is about a mysterious steam train carrying passenger cars on the freight rails in the middle of the night, and what happens when two young boys hop aboard. I had a lot of fun writing that novel, though the project took over five years to complete. What a lot of people don’t know is that there are nuggets of truth in the novel – my brother really did a hop a freight train and rode it into town for 7 miles one day. And there really was a mysterious Burlington Northern train in the late 70’s that would come through in the middle of the night with these lit up Burlington Northern passenger cars. It was the darndest thing. Of course it wasn’t pulled by any steam locomotive, but the things we do for creative writing. So I would be so bold as to say that over my life I have had something of an intimate fascination with trains of all types. After all, how many people do you know who have flagged down – and stopped – a freight train?

And the funny thing was that it was completely unintentional – we just wanted flags for our forts. You see, my brother and I had this habit of building little “forts” out of giant tumbleweeds – little weed burrows that we could literally burrow into and watch the trains go by at a distance of about 7 feet. The boxcars at that distance feel like skyscrapers rushing by, and you feel the wind of the momentum of the steel beast as she surges by. Amazing we weren’t killed, of course, but those experiences imbued me with a love for the rails that lingers to this day. So one day after school, my brother and I got off the school bus, and here were all of these red flags – surveyor flags, but we didn’t know that at the time – arranged throughout the borrow pit. So, we plucked all of them – undoing weeks worth of surveying work, of course, and stuck them in our “weed forts” along either side of the railroad tracks – about seven on each side. What we didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, was that a series of red flags on either side of the tracks was universal engineer’s code for STOP – EMERGENCY AHEAD.

And this is how it came to be that for the second time since we had lived there, a mile long freight train was stopped in front of our house – this time for over 8 hours. It threw off Burlington Northern’s train schedules for the rest of the week, and they had to run extra trains to make up the lost time. The next day, my parents received a somewhat stern visit from some unamused railroad officials. That was more or less the end of the weed forts. I told a coworker this story recently, and she thought I meant a different kind of weed fort, not the tumbleweed variety. I was like dude – I was like 9 years old……

Anyway, the next time there was a train stopped in front of the house was because a Burlington Northern freight train had sliced neatly in two a Dodge pickup whose driver thought he could beat the train. In a way he did, because even though his pickup was rather neatly disassembled into two even pieces, cab and bed, the driver didn’t have a scratch on him. I have never heard of that happening before or since. It was the kind of freak accident that is a freak accident only because no one got hurt. That was the third and final time a freight train stopped for a considerable period of time in front of our house.

In my novel, twelve year old and nine year old brothers in a fictional town in Northern Wyoming stop that mysterious midnight steam train by placing a flashlight at a railroad crossing. I seriously doubt that would actually  work. Neither, in this modern age of satellite phones and radios, and on board communications computers, would red flags along the sides of the tracks. But in the late 70’s, those flags stopped a speeding freight train.

Those flags on the sides of the track would go unnoticed today, because they didn’t register on a computer terminal – the computer says ALL CLEAR AHEAD, and it’s not a simulation.

Maybe it is, all clear, I mean. But I can’t help but feel like there is some small thing lost there – that these days it takes a lot more than a freight train to impress a 9 year old. A very fundamental part of me thinks that’s kind of sad.

My mom used to amuse me as a very young child by playing a Joni Mitchell song sometimes when the trains went by:

“Train, Train, Train Train, goin’ so fast, train, train, train, train, goin’ on past, please don’t tell them what train I’m on so they won’t know where I am.”

I kind of miss the sounds of those trains.