Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bear

We're sitting around outside the set for the day, and one of our co-stars is about 5' away.

He is "Bear". Aptly named, since he is, in fact, 900-odd pounds of Alaskan Kodiak Brown. He was, in point of fact, the star of the movie The Bear. His head is larger around than the spare tire on my truck. His jaws would break 4x4s like matchsticks. His paws are the size of dinner plates, with 3-4" long claws that would tear through his trailer sides like a hot knife going through butter, were it not for the solid steel prison bar panels that have been welded continuously around said trailer.

It was once a trailer for 4 horses, but with the inner dividers removed, it's a snug fit for Bear. It's hooked to a Chevy Suburban. About 40' away is an identical rig, but with the smaller second banana for the day, "Griz," who's a mere 800-lb. grizzly bear. Just in case Bear chooses not to be feeling his motivation for today's festivities on set.

There's a small knot of us just out of paw-swiping reach at the end of Bear's portable domicile, marvelling at his magnificent beastliness. If not for the knowledge that he could rip my body asunder in two quick gulps, he almost looks petable.

His trainer/minder is about 20' off to our left, and he's about to tell us something: "I wouldn't stand..."

WOOF!
Wham!

Laying flat on his underside, Bear has let out a gentle "Woof!" and slammed only his front paws on the floor of his trailer. The motion shakes 3 tons of car and trailer like a chihuahua in a hurricane. The noise decalcifies every spinal column within 50 yards, and we notice that we've all, involuntarily it appears, levitated some 20 feet sideways away from the trailer without having taken a single step.

I look up at the trainer, with a spreading smirk on his face. I siddle over to him.
"You were about to say...?"

"Well, that's Bear's personal cave, so to speak. When people crowd around the front of it, it can get him a little agitated."

"Well, we certainly don't want to be working with 900 pounds of agitated Kodiak bear, do we?"

"Naw, ya probably don't. He was just doing that to make some daylight, and get a rise out of you folks. Now he's got some clear space by the mouth of his territory."

"So we just rewarded bad behavior, in so many words?"

"That's about the size of it."

Duly informed on bear psychology and behavior, I decide discretion is the better part of valor. I will monitor the activities from safely outside the set, on the theory that if I get eaten, there'll be no one around to bandage the survivors of a bear rampage. The utterly self-preservationist aspect of this decision is wholly coincidental, I swear.

Bear's co-handler arrives, and by and by, she and the head trainer lead him to the set. They have set up the World's Thinnest Wire, attached to a car battery, such that a miniscule pop and zap is the result, should Bear venture out of his assigned range on set. It is tantamount to putting a spider web around an army tank, but I'm not the pro bear handler. Other than that, his motivation for his scenes is generally a Jet-Puff marshmallow. They throw them where they want him, and over he goes, shuffling and snuffling. Seeing this, I make sure my chair - well off of the stage - is sited to view the stage door, and that my car keys are in my front pocket, should Bear suddenly charge outside, and they need someone to drive away for help. Like to downtown Los Angeles, 50 miles away. There's nothing wrong with being prepared, after all.

After a pleasant 4 hours or so of reading, catching up on the newspaper, visiting the craft service snack table (wisely kept off-stage for the day) etc., I decide prudence dictates a brief foray onto set to see how things are going, and see if anyone needs anything. And/or to verify that they aren't all laying about in great bloody heaps after Bear has killed them all, and is thence devouring one and sundry at his formidable leisure.

The set is totally dark when I enter, and unnaturally quiet. But I can see people silhouetted against the lit scene tableau, and they appear to be alive. I quietly move towards a better view of the action. Everyone is quiet, speaking in inaudible whispers mouth-to-ear when necessary, except the trainer and the 1st Assistant Director, talking about what they'd like Bear to do. It is an atmosphere of quiet professionalism conducted in a dark, church-like hush.

Our entire cast is laying in sleeping array under blankets, 20 feet from the bear. They finish that part, and the cast quietly and gratefully departs, to be replaced by dummies for the next scene. I get near camera just as they are doing the scene where Bear is to discover the one luckless sleeping cast-member, grab him by the leg, and rip him and drag him off stage.

Two grips move a body-weight dummy into position, and we begin. Bear finds his target, and tosses 200 pounds of dummy about exactly like the rag doll it is. If this were a human, Bear would be dining on Leg of Human now. He finishes his antics, and goes back to snuffling and devoring his Jet-Puff marshmallows, carried by the trainer in a large stainless steel bucket, and tossed one at a time nearby.

"Uh oh."

It's the trainer's voice. A gunshot couldn't have paralyzed the set more quickly or completely.

Our 1st AD: What's the matter?"

"I'm out of marshmallows."

MUCH longer pause.
200 eyes note the nearest exit, and whether they might outrun the fatter and slower crew members to get through it, should the need arise. The electrician running a light on a platform 20' up a metal roof support uses his foot to nudge a knotted rope down to one of his comrades, in case he needs to save at least one other witrness to the impending melee. If possible, it is even quieter than when I came in. I can almost hear 100 hearts beating. The pounding of my own makes up for the lack.

Our 1st AD, voice with a noticeable quiver: "I uhhh, I thought the bear only works for marshmallows...?"

"That's right."

"So what do we do now?"

"I'm working on it..."

It's been maybe 30 seconds. A lifetime or two. Bear is beginning to get bored with his cinematic exploits. The shock wire is looking extremely small. I ever-so-non-chalantly move a step or two backwards, to clear an area around me for my possible break to freedom. As 99 other crew members do the same thing.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the female handler sprinting back onstage with not one but two bags of Jet-Puff marshmallows in her hands. From 40 feet away she throws one to the lead trainer. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice have never had as much coordination, nor as much fan energy focused on their efforts as this toss has.

The bag arcs and is caught in a beautiful pass completion, and the lead trainer pivots in one graceful motion while tearing the bag, and throws several marshmallows all around Bear. Bear finds one, and turns his head back to the set just before he's gotten totally bored with screen stardom.

100 hearts shift back down to 2nd gear, and I feel and hear 100 sighs. It's all we can do to not spontaneously applaud.

Every one on set is fine. I have narrowly avoided the one moment when we all could have become bear buffet. Fate has been tempted enough for one day.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me. Because I'm getting back outside. NOW.

I return to my chair outside, swiftly and quietly, and vow to remain there despite any curiousity unless called for. On my way out, I let the sound mixer know that if they need me, they should call me...after the bear has been dispatched, should there be a bloody rampage.

I am reminded of the words of Chef in Apocalypse Now: "Never get out of the boat."
Absolutely g**d***** right.

I also reflect that there was a time, in my brief career years selling firearms, when some Mighty Hunter would share that a fishing or backpacking trip to bear country was planned, and inquiring what make and model of handgun would be best to carry for protection.

People had argued near endlessly and mock-authoritatively about .44 magnums, .454 Casulls, and such.

I share to you now, for all eternity, that a Barrett M82 rifle in .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun would not be too much gun for the task contemplated, but that should 20 or more pounds of $8000 rifle be considered a bit much to tote on a fishing expedition, a suitable alternative is a small 2-inch barreled pistol in either .38Special or 9mm.

Should a bear anything like Bear or Griz decide to molest you, the technique I recommend is to immediately draw the pistol, place it just behind your own ear at a .45 degree upward angle, and squeeze the trigger just before his jaws approach your body, and you'll never feel a thing.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

O For A Muse Of Fire

Same day, later that night.

Arnie's gone. Vanessa's gone. Now it's just the shots and stunts and effects.

As I said, we were shooting the movie teaser/trailer for Eraser. They need them now, so they can be in theatres for Thanksgiving movies, to build interest for next summer.

And the actual film hasn't gotten to these scenes, so we're cheating by filming them early. Ahead of the actual production, with a different director.

Our director for this is Mikhael Salomon. We just happen to be sitting on the sound stage on the Universal lot that's right across the fence from the Backdraft ride. Mikhael shot that movie as the Director of Photography for director Ron Howard.

This is important, because it demonstrates that Mikhael Salomon knows fire. And as it happens, we're filming a scene that involves a flame or two.

Being conscientious, I nonchalantly ask the stunt guys what they're going to do. Then I ask the EFX guys what they're going to do. Then I ask the ADs what we're going to do. Then I ask the fire marshall what we're going to do.

On a really nightmarish day, none of the stories match. No one is on the same sheet of music. It's going to be a train wreck, someone may get hurt, and someone might even die. No one wants to be on that show.

Fortuitously, everyone tells me the exact same thing, and answers all my questions.
"What about that giant refrigerator-sized full propane tank right next to the set?"
"Don't worry, it's not going to get that hot."
"What about that TV on the set? Won't the picture tube explode?"
"Picture tubes are vacuum tubes, so they implode, they don't explode. But don't worry, it's not going to burn that hot or that long."
Piece of cake; I can relax.

For those who didn't see the movie, in it, Arnie is a witness protection agent. In the scene we're doing, one of his relocatees has been discovered by the Mob. Mobsters have tied them up, and are going to burn them alive in their own house, as a warning to other snitches. Unfortunately, they didn't know Arnie was on the case.

He wipes the bad guys out, rescues his protectees, sneaks them out, and on the way out, throws a road flare into the house living room, to burn up the Mob guys, as he escapes with his protectees to find them a new life to hide in.

What could be simpler?

Arnie's gone. A stunt guy is going to toss a lit road flare into a carefully hidden (in the carpet) pool of rubber cement about 3' across in the middle of the room. More hidden trails of rubber cement lead outward to all 4 walls, which is how we make the fire go where we want it to on cue. All you have to do is hit the bullseye.

Let me explain more: This is a full-size bungalow house mock-up. It has a kitchen, living room, a practical (real) staircase, hallway, and back bedroom and door. The ceiling is canvas flats that are held with wires, but which swing away for overhead shots from above as necessary. The living room is on the front, and faces the cameras and "video village," where the director, script supervisor, producers, etc. all sit to watch the shots being filmed.

In this case, Video Village is maybe 25' from the open living room wall, against the wall, and next to that elephant door to the empty stage next door.

One of the EFX guys, a younger guy, has never done something this big. "Hey, could you film this for me with my camcorder?"
"Why sure!" says I. No problem. "Just show me the on/off switch, and I'll get it for ya!"

The 1st AD holds the safety meeting. We're going to get ready for the actual burn. We'll have three remote cameras, Left, Center, and Right. They'll be started, then the crews pull out. Stunt Man tosses the flare. House burns. We watch the burn for 30 seconds. Director will yell "Cut!" Six EFX guys, one at each corner and one at each door front and back, will jump in and blow fire out. Carpet is soaked in rubber cement. Walls have been sprayed with flame retardant. House is full of regular house props. Fire marshall has approved everything. Giant fan is standing by to suck smoke out of stage and vent to outside. There's even a charged live firehose laying on the floor in front of the set. Fire marshall was asked (and refused) to have overhead sprinkllers turned off.

It's a big stunt, a full burn, inside a soundstage. In fact, the fire captain and the chief engineer from the county fire station on the lot have come down to watch the show. The director and such are sitting around the monitors. There are about 5 people in chairs next to him. Closest to me, on the end, is the script supervisor. We know each other through a mutual friend. On my other side is the elephant door.

We're all ready.
Stunts? Check. EFX? Check. A Camera? B Camera? C Camera? Check.
"Action!"

Stunt Man misses the circle.
"Cut!" "Going again. Take 2."

"Action!"
Flare lands on lit end, pops loudly and goes out.

"Cut! Replace film magazines. Going again. Take 3."

Stunt Man bullseyes the circle.
Flames shoot to the four walls.
Room is fully, gloriously aflame.
Flames send thrity-five foot tongues of flames spiralling up staircase.
Thirty-five foot flames??
Towards sound stage ceiling and roof, which are at about 40', and made of timber probably put in place when silent movies were all the rage. And comensurately dry as a bone.

Flames build and crackle. Script supervisor turns to me, as I'm standing on my folding metal chair, and filming everything. I'm a total pro. I'm panning. I zoom in slowly and smoothly. I pull back and catch the flame spiral 35' tall.
"This is really exciting, isn't it?" she asks.
"If you don't ABSOLUTELY need to be here now, I'd consider getting out now." I reply.
I go back to filming.

Five seconds later, I look at her. Except she's not there. In fact, no one is there. Everyone, director, producers, cats, dogs, have quickly and near instantly passed me. I look to my right. There they are, safely on the other stage, and all peering at the flaming tableau through the gaping elephant door.

Miraculously, only thirty seconds are almost up. It seems much longer. (Near death experiences will do that to you.) The flames feel a little warm on my face. Kind of like a blast furnace in Hell. Fires, by the way, are louder than a freight train. The 1st AD yells into his megaphone "Cut! Blow it out!"
And then he's out the door to the next door stage.

On cue, six EFX guys pop in, and dump their extinguishers on the roaring inferno.
Psssssshhhhhhhhfffffffffttttttttt!
...
The fire burps, laughs, and continues to burn.
PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHFFFFFFFFFFFFTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!
...
The fire is melting overhead wires holding the ceiling sections up. The living room prop TV melts as the tube implodes.
PPPSSSSSSSSssshhhhhhhfffffftttttttt!
Psfbtbt!
...
On cue, extinguishers exhausted, six EFX guys pop out, and depart for regions unknown.
At this point, me still filming every second, the two L.A. firemen standing about 4' in front of me, the station chief and his engineer, in street clothes, look at each other, shrug their shoulders as if on cue, bend over, and pick up the fire hose. No helmets, no turnouts, just two guys with a firehose.

The flames have become so hot, one of the overhead sprinklers bursts. The alarm bell rings.
And these two guys walk into the fire, and kick its ass.

I film all this too. I figure if, God forbid, something collapses on them, I'm the last guy left to drag them out, so I can't really leave. Besides, the door out is only one step to my right.
They swing the hose back and forth, and blow Hell incarnate out in about 60 seconds.
The outside door is opened, and the giant fan starts sucking a huge mountainous column of thick black smoke straight out and up into the clear night sky.

Just as the KNBC-4 TV telecopter is swinging in towards Burbank for a landing prior to the nightly late news, as it happens.

Meanwhile, up on top of the hill at the studio, the other firemen in the station hear the fire alarm, jump into turnout coats, and prepare to respond.
"Where's the alarm?"
"Stage 24."
"Hey, where's the Captain and the chief engineer? And the other fire engine?"
"STAGE 24!!"
Holy crap, let's get there pronto!"

As the overhead sprinkler continues to pour water on the smouldering remains of our little sacrifical house, the head electrician goes splashing across a stage through ankle-deep water to pull power to the lights, with the cables sitting on the floor.

The Captain and engineer turn off the hose, and lay it down. I shut off the video camera I'm holding, and step down off my metal folding chair.

The director and 1st AD venture back onto our stage.
"Where's playback?"
"Last seen heading towards the parking structure at a high rate of speed, sir."
"How about camera?"
"They were just behind playback, sir."

The director sees me. Sees the camera in my hand.

"YOU! Did you get that?!?"
"Uhhh, yeah..."
"Get OVER HERE. NOW!"

I rewind my masterpiece. I flip out the 3 inch screen. I hit "play."
I am Michael-frickin'-angelo.

I got it all. With sound. The action. The flames. The cut. The save.
The director is in ecstasy. The 1st AD is all smiles. The producers are glowing.
"Hey, d'ya think I can get into the Camera union local now?" I asked jokingly.
I get looks from the director, his DP, the 1st AD, and 3 producers that feel colder than the last winter I spent in Korea near the DMZ. Colder than the wind whistling through a penguin's knees. Colder than Siberia on a dark and stormy night.

With catlike reflexes, I shut up so fast and freeze so completely I almost believe I have achieved invisibility.

We play it a couple of more times, and the smiles return.

Four firemen come pounding into the stage.
"Where's the Captain?"
"Where's the Captain?"

"He and your engineer put out the fire. Everything's cool." I tell them.
Immediately, the four fireman pull Kodak instamatics out of their turnouts, and start snapping pictures of the near catastrophe like a group of tourists on the tram tour.

One by one, the EFX guys re-appear from parts unknown. I return the camera to the owner. "Hey, I got great shots of everything. Can you make me a copy?" "Sure. Thanks for filming it for me." He's all smiles.

A Producer comes up. "Hey, can you make me a copy of that video." "Uh, sure."
The Fire Captain comes up."Hey, can you make me a copy of that video." "Uh, sure."
The Fire Marshall comes over. "Hey, can you make me a copy of that video." "Uh, sure."
Realizing that the video is now more "evidence" than "memento," the new look on the EFX guy's face tells me that this video will be erased by noon tomorrow, and we'll never see it again.

The fire captain calls a huddle.

"Mr. Director, congratulations, because you got your shot. Mr. Asst. Director, congratulations, no one got hurt. Mr. Producer, your insurance is probably going to be buying a new floor for this stage. Mr. EFX guy, I think you can plan on not working on this lot anytime soon, probably for a few years. And Mr. Fire Marshall, after I talk to downtown, and the other two shift captains, I think I can say that the only way there'll ever be a permit for another full burn inside a sound stage on this or any lot will be over my dead body."

I congratulated him and his partner for their heroic moves, noting I'd seen their mutual shrug. "What else were we going to do? The thing was going to get away from us completely in about 1 more minute, and we'd have lost this entire stage and the one next door, plus millions of dollars in already built sets, which would have probabaly killed the movie too, or set it back weeks. By the time we got more than my lone engine company on the fire, we'd probably have lost half the stages on the front lot. And we just lost the back lot a couple of years ago. With me and my engineer watching, even though it wasn't any of our job to be here, it probably would have ended up being our fault. So we had to do it."

I never got a copy of the video.

Epilogue 1:"In other local news, a small fire occured last night at the Universal Studios BACKDRAFT ride after hours, and was put out quickly, with no injuries. The ride was re-opened today without further incident. Next up, Sports..."


Epilogue 2: About 4 years later, two friends of mine were attending a seminar for fire departments around California, called "How To Inspect/Monitor motion picture and TV productions." At the end of the seminar, the fire chief/lecturer from Sacramento said, "Here's a video of what happens when things go sideways..."

Having heard this story from me, they told him my side of the making of the video.
"Thanks for the insight. I appreciate the additional information."
"Hey, can we get a copy of that video for our friend who shot it?"
"Sorry, this incident never happened, it doesn't officially exist, I'm not supposed to have the tape, and if I gave it to you, I'd have to kill you."

Friday, October 24, 2008

"It"

I get a call to work on something called Eraser. At the time, "Erasure" was working, so I thought maybe it was a music video or something.

So I arrived, and got my "call sheet." For those of you outside "the Biz," this is a list of who's working, both cast and crew, on a given day on a production. It also lists where, when, and what's being done, special details, safety notices for everyone, etc.

It was a feature, and a pretty big one, all things considered.

But the call sheet has only two names of cast working that day:
1)Arnold Schwarzenegger
2)Vanessa Williams

I've been in the industry for nearly 2 decades. I went to school with "Jan Brady" (Eve Plumb) and Engineer Scotty's kids.
I don't get starstruck.

It's bad manners, and unprofessional. So I tried to just find a quiet spot to hang out, and await the arrival of Mr. Universe and Miss America, like it happened every day. Sh'yeah, right. As if.

I found my quiet spot on set, and faded into oblivion. I explored the stage a little. Found craft service (munchies!), the bathrooms.

We were on Stage 22/23 IIRC. Our stage had the big sets. The one next door was vacant, for the big wheels and important cast members to hang out nearby, without being in the middle of everything. The "elephant door" connecting the two stages was open.

So I'm standing in the back, chatting with the prop master and the county fire marshall, just shooting the breeze.

I look up.
Through the connecting elephant door to the vacant stage, Arnold Schwarzenegger is walking right at me.
He is not, as his studio bio claims, 6 feet tall. He's 5'11". He's also 5'11" wide. In a suit and tie, and 20+ years after his bodybuilding heydey, he's the size of refrigerator, still. A walk-in refrigerator. As I'm processing this, he reaches out a huge hand, and says, "Hi! How'z eet goingk!"

The left side of my brain, in a split second, says "It's Arnie!" The right side, equally fast, says, "Dont say that, you'll sound like an idiot!" I smile and mumble a discreet "Hi!" as he mercifully doesn't crush my arm into kindling. He moves to shake the hands of the prop master and the fire inspector.

And it is Arnie. (No offense or disrespect to our current multimillionaire superstar governor, but I'm not going to type "Mr. Schwarzenegger" another 50 times here.) No entourage. No handlers. Just...The Man. I later find out he worked all night the night before, then drove himself - in the Beemer, not the Hummer - to be here to shoot the movie trailer, which is what we're doing. And he has to be back at work tonight. So he's not some sugar-coated crybaby primadonna either.

I watch as he moves to each other small knot of people, grips, electricians, etc. and shakes the hand of every person on set. No affectation, he's genuinely warmly interested, but quick, and gradually, after a few minutes, his presence is noted by the folks running today's show.

In that same nearly 20 years in "the Biz," I've met a lot of big names and wonderful and talented actors. I've seen firsthand a total of 2 people who have demonstrably had "IT," - charisma, or whatever "it" is.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of those two.

I know this, because I notice also that every eye on set is on him, pretty much incessantly. It's also true because immediately, whatever Arnie says is instantaneously the brightest, bestest, smartest idea anyone's ever heard.

And in a respectfully deferential way, not a sycophantic suck-up way.

For example "Okay, Arnold can relax in his trailer, and let's bring in the stand-in while we light this shot."
Arnie: "Hey, I'm here, let's just light it and shoot it."
"Ah, okay, we'll light Arnold and just shoot it. Make it happen."
And we do.

He does teasers for the movie. He delivers tag lines over and over. He shoots his scenes with Vanessa Williams. She is talented, charming, poised, professional, pleasant, and thoroughly delightful to be within 50 feet of. She also looks like she weighs maybe 80 pounds, and Arnold could break her with a twitch if he were careless.

But he's not; she finishes her work, and we get back to Arnold scenes.
I visit with Arnie's stand-in. At this point, that's Dieter. Dieter is in his late twenties, blond, 6'3" or 6'4" , and looks nothing like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dieter is also from (then West) Germany. He is thus, in effect, one of Arnie's "homies." Apparently Arnie met Dieter when Dieter was an extra on something, they chatted at crew lunch, he found out Dieter was a German ex-pat trying to make it in show business, and the rest was history. Now Dieter stands in for Arnold, and occasionally wrangles small roles in his movies.

Arnie's entourage has arrived. All one of him. In a town and an industry where 15 butt-kissing celebrity courtiers are nothing, Arnie has one guy. He has only 3 jobs.
1) He carries Arnie's briefcase. In between takes, Arnie has 20 or 30 folders in it, and he's doing deals. Movie deals, promotion deals, production deals, real estate deals. This man was a millionaire before he ever set foot on a movie set.
The briefcase is probably why.
2) He holds Arnie's cell phone. Partly so Arnie can do all those deals between takes. Mainly so Arnie can talk to Maria and the kids and family and friends as well, while he's at work.
3) He holds Arnie's lit stogie. Arnold and his cigar are fairly constant companions. I should point out for those out of the know that there is absolutely no smoking on any sound stage in Hollywood, other than an actor as part of a scene. Seriously. No smoking. We even have a county fire marshall there.

And no one, repeat no one, is telling Arnold Schwarzenegger that he'll have to put out his cigar. Not even the dedicated fire marshall.

It's good to be king. And Arnie is it.

As he finishes his scene, another curious, never-before-witnessed phenomena occurs. On a non-publicized shoot, on a closed set, on a secured lot, there are miraculously 20 or 30 or 40 kids, sons and daughters of crew members on set. And they all have cameras.

Folks, this never happens. Yet there they are. And as Arnie wraps up his stuff, his assistant closes the briefcase, Arnie pockets his phone, and finishes his cigar. And is mobbed by the parents and those aforementioned children. He graciously agrees to a picture. And another. And another. Ad infinitum. When some parent starts to take it, he tells his assistant to take the camera, and tells mom or dad to "C'mon, get in here with your son/daughter, we'll all be in the picture."

Only one time does the tiniest flash of temper show; someone is beyond the circle of light, and snaps a picture from out in the darkness.
"Hey who is that?? Tell them to come over here and ask if they want to take my picture!"

The offender, head down, comes over, and Arnie smiles for another picture. And another. Smiling, warm, and quintessentially gracious throughout.

When the last bunch is finished, he walks himself out, goes to his car, and drives himself home, to await his driver and another 12 or 14 or 16 hour all-night shoot.

That, gentle readers, is the difference between a mere celebrity, and a first-rate movie star.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Epic Fail

{Caveat: This isn’t anecdotal. I saw the newspaper article, with pictures, of the incident in question.}

Back in the day, shortly after bidding adios to the Marines’ full-time department, I ended up selling firearms behind a counter. One of our all-time best selllers were little jam-a-matic Raven .25autos. We’d get them from the factory (in a shoebox!!) by the dozen, and sell them for $49.99@, and make a tidy profit.

The store chain I worked for probably distributed thousands of the things throughout the greater Los Angeles area, and we could have sold 5 times as many as we did if we'd received more to sell.

Then came a story in the L.A.Times: It seems one gentleman was seated in the front of a full transit bus at afternoon rush hour. As part of the group of new folks boarding, a basically crazy man got on too. Noting that there were no seats, he decided that his craziness entitled him to Our Hero’s seat. He told the seated man to get up and let him sit down. Words were exchanged (most of them with four letters) as the bus proceeded along its appointed rounds.

Crazy Guy decided he wasn’t going to stand, nor stand for being so shabbily treated, so he drew and emptied his Raven .25auto at the seated Hero, at a range of about 2 feet. Our Hero, duly perturbed, got up, and beat the living crap out of Crazy Guy, handing his much-the-worse-for-wear bloody and battered carcass over to the local constables, summoned by the bus driver’s radio, and the sounds of flying molars from the commotion (this was, obviously, the Pre-Cell Phone Era), whereupon they took custody of Crazy Guy and his Weapon of Mass Destruction, the Raven .25auto - now empty.

And all the slugs, which had lodged in Our Hero’s chest pocket.

In the photographs accompanying, Our Hero revealed his secret: Crazy Guy had grouped six shots of ferocious .25auto into his left breast pocket, in which Hero had carried his $6.95-cent, Radio Shack Pocket AM radio, now in several pieces. Not so much as a plastic fragment, let alone a bullet fragment, had penetrated almost 7 dollars’ worth of the cheapest Taiwanese technology sufficient to do any harm, not even a scratch or bruise, to Our Hero. In one photo, he held out the battered little radio in the palm of his hand.

(When several of us sent Radio Shack/Tandy Corp. a letter awarding their pocket radios an Honorary NIJ ½A Threat Level Rating, they were not amused.)

After that, we advised customers enamored of the little .25s to buy them by the six-brace, carried on a leather sash, a la Blackbeard. We further advised them to shoot them until they were empty (or until they jammed), throw the now useless weapon at their attacker, draw another, and continue with their personal combat.

But we cautioned them to be very careful with their shot placement, because if they accidentally screwed up and hit someone, they might irritate them, and be beaten to rags for their trouble.

Then we showed them other choices, starting in .380, and moving upwards.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Little Night Music

I attended a small liberal arts college in Southern California, and the dorms were coed in the sense that one floor was inhabited by men, and the other by women. We all shared the kitchen, activity room, TV lounge, etc.

Back in the day, when first constructed, it was an all-female building. The office (now the Resident Assistants' office) was next to the lounge (now the TV lounge). When a gentleman called to visit a lady, the office had an intercom system that connected to every (female's) room in the dorm, and the lady would be informed that so-and-so was waiting in the lobby to see her.

Thirty years later, and all that was quaintly passé. But much of the hardware was still mostly intact, a fact which bears greatly on what follows.

The dorm, by my occupancy, was confirmedly and overwhelmingly the "freshman" dorm, other than a bare few holdouts and the junior and senior-level R.A.s, one of whom had the duty in the office each night, to check out keys to the small kitchen, loan out ping pong paddles and such, and adjudicate disputes when they infrequently arose over what TV program should be watched.

Occasionally, this would require the R.A. to leave the office, as would the necessity to use the bathroom, get a book from their room 1 or 2 floors up, or settle loud music complaints upstairs, etc. So, the R.A.s would be only too happy to trust the few upperclassmen in residence to mind the store for them on those infrequent trips away from their duty post.

Foolish, foolish mortals.

Because the year I lived there as a new freshman, two of the upperclassmen were Jeff and Steve. Jeff and Steve were, in a word, nerds. Geeks, in fact. The honestly hyperstudious, pocket-protector wearing, slide-rule toting ubergeeks of lore and legend. Super-nice guys, if rather socially challenged. The kind of person who could actually build their own C-3PO, at least partially because they needed the company.

So naturally, they were, more often than not, asked to mind the store when one or another R.A. was momentarily called away for one emergency upstairs or another. Being the inquisitive sort, they soon discovered the 1950s era intercom console tucked under the counter in the office. And they'd seen the presumably useless speakers in their, and every other dorm resident's room. Then their inate techno-geek combined with being just disreputable enough to be truly evil geniuses.

They experimented.

Over the course of one and a half semesters, they trouble-shot the sytem, and worked out the arcana of its functions. They replaced tubes, rewired transistors, and generally brought the large metal box back to full life.

Then, the night before spring mid-terms, they struck.

They put a timer and a top-drawer amplifier and tape deck under the cabinet, wired to the intercom system. But importantly, only for the speakers on the 3rd (women's) floor.

Set for 3:30 AM.

'Twas the night before midterms and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Then, at the tic of an LED at 0330 hours, the first faint strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (with cannons) began to filter into every darkened dorm room on the 3rd floor. Gradually and inexorably it built in volume, enhanced to get even louder by Jeff and Steve's tape, as it whirred quietly under the 1st floor counter of the R.A. office, where they'd surreptitiously placed it earlier that evening.

Jeff and Steve knew about the reaction, because they sat watching on the hillside opposite one side of the dorm, bundled up, waiting for Chaos.

One by one, lights on the 3rd floor clicked on, until they were all on. The culprits heard the screams, shouts, and wails. They heard women pounding on the previously unhated speakers. And they heard the roar and boom of taped cannons.

Joy warmed their hearts.

Unbeknownst to them, a mob was forming. Three score of enraged pajama-clad women formed an ad hoc lynch mob.

Unfortunately for himself, meek and mild freshman Alex was just returning from an all-night cram session with friends from another dorm. He had just alighted the landing to the 2nd floor when the leading edge of the mob spied him, up and about, as they descended from the floor above.

"There he is!" rose the accusative cry. "Get him!"

Alex had a defining moment. Faced with a wall of homicidal women, he ran like the wind. Down the hall. Into his room. Locked the door. Pushed the dresser in front of it. "What the @$#@?" asked his roommate. Then the thunder of approaching teenaged fury. Then the pounding on the door. The screams. The frenzy. The utter angst.

Other dorm room doors opened. Insults were exchanged. Flash bulbs went off, as photos were taken. Laughter ensued as the plaintive story unfolded. R.A.s sought to reintroduce the rule of law, and eventually, the unsatiated mob returned sullenly to their bedrooms. Where they methodically ripped and clawed every last now-silent speaker from their decades-old homes in the walls.

Jeff and Steve basked in the glow of the Chaos they created. The next night, they quietly removed their equipment, carefully unwired the intercom box so it couldn't be used on their floor in retaliation, and crept back into oblivion, their perfidy undiscovered.

They revealed the origins of the stunt the following fall term to a select few former dorm residents, including this writer.

They are, and ever shall be, prank gods.

Books Are Our Friends

Once upon a time back in the day, I was in day care. It was private, back in the days before government got involved and turned it into the modern statist incarnation that more resembles the
Young Soviets. In fact, it was a lady somewhat older than my own mother, who took on the supervision of 3-5 children of pre-school age to allow their mothers to work, in return for some modest sum.

During one randomly recollected day, probably when JFK was still president, I was found peeling the ill-applied plastic covering off of a children's story book (in fairness, I was doing it to tidy up the cover, not vandalize it, but when you're 3 or so, you aren't that glib with adults).

My matron du jour solemnly informed me that I oughtn't do that. There was no physical punishment involved, and no loud, angry words, but I was told in no uncertain terms in such a way that I felt more like a troglodyte than if I had been led in chains in front of a colloseum of witnesses under stadium lights and derided over the p.a. system.

The final thought imparted to me in this little lecture was seared so brilliantly into my consciousness that I can still remember the exact words to this day nearly half a century later.

"Books are our friends."

I learned that lesson so well that aside from 8 years of higher education, I have a personal library that encompasses - nay, overflows - 50-plus feet of ceiling height shelving, spills over the edges, stacks itself up on any stray flat surface after any brief interval, and still probably sees me spending more on books than groceries in a given month.

I am, in fact, a book-a-holic, and if the disease doesn't exist, they would have to invent it to describe me adequately.

Were there even one worthy of the name, I'd read a newspaper or three, but I also devour magazines with equal fervor, in a Renaissance-man sort of eclecticism that defies description. I read a book or more a week, usually with anywhere from 2-7 laying about half-read. And I'm talking about real books, not some collection of slapdash junk novellas by authors of dubious talent and enamored of prurient subject matter.

I bring this up for the benefit of those who foolishly think that print is dead, or were so bereft of educational opportunities that they regard self-enlightenment and discovery as a chore, rather than one of the profoundest joys of modern mankind's existence.

We are endowed by our Creator with 3 pounds of jelloish grey matter, which has given us the ability to comprehend greater subjects in an afternoon than all of mankind was able to grasp in millenia of earnest thought. To piddle that ability away for a lifetime on reruns of Oprah and The Badminton Channel would be tantamount to setting your head on fire just to watch it burn.

As long as you have functional eyes and the barest abilities of comprehension of your mother tongue (or these days, even the chance to pop a CD book-on-audio into the stereo) you can avail yourself of people deeper, wittier, funnier, cleverer, and altogether more profitable for your personal development, not to mention more fun and enjoyable in one afternoon than you would receive spending years trapped with the combined wisdom of the peurile word-vomitting refugees from most Hollywood screenwriter's academies combined.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, read.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Tyranny Of The Blank Life

Writers frequently complain about writer's block as "the tyranny of the blank page."
Conversely, I've never been very adept at shutting up. Since typing is almost as easy as talking, here we are.

I did a foolish thing when I was young and, well, foolish. I decided I wanted to live an interesting life. (Kids, don't do this!) Unrestrained in my conceit, I think I have done so. I can also recommend the eternal truth that the Chinese saying "May you live in interesting times." is always intended as a (not so) subtle curse.

Is my life cursed? I think not. In fact, it's been a pretty good life, with scattered spectacular patches. But I would have preferred a simpler and more predictable existence, all things considered. (If you know where I can go to order that, contact me here at this address.) But if that had happened, I wouldn't be starting this, and you'd have nothing from me to read, yawn at, mock, jeer, sneer, or, God love you, laugh over and perhaps enjoy. If I'm any bloody good at all.

 Let me fill in with my response to "have you done anything?" from another blog:

"I did a tour and change with Uncle Sam's Misguided Children, 5 years armed security and consulting on the southern border catching 2-legged coyotes and cartel drug runners, most of my degree work is in political history and international affairs, got 200 feet of bookshelves (that I've read) incl. everything military from the U.S. Army TO&E of 1936 to the Colonial Army Manual of Arms to the Lessons Learned in Vietnam ca. 1969 and in the Indian War ca. 1869. And most everything in between.
I've shot documentaries, worked on 100+ feature films and network shows, written published articles and shot photos of the Border War currently occurring to the south, run shelters in major disasters, trained Navy docs, nurses, and corpsman for gunshot trauma before they went into Iraq in 2002, racked up almost 20 years of emergency medical work, the last 12 exclusively in the busiest ERs on the planet, zipping up enough body bags and strapping down enough crazy people to last me a lifetime. I've resurrected the dead, cared for the sick, tended the injured, started the breathing and stopped the bleeding, and been punched, kicked, puked on, pissed on, spat upon, promoted, commended, fired, nearly arrested, and occasionally even thanked for my efforts. I've flown cars, been toyed with by grizzly bears, petted mountain lions, stolen dogs, juggled kittens, and wrangled pigeons and seagulls, and have both the scars and soiled undergarments to prove it. I also have a decent number of small arms, have shot semi-competitively, sold guns retail and wholesale, crossed 3 international borders on foot -1 of them legally, speak better Spanish than most of the hispanics I work with, which isn't bad for a white guy, and I am a successful business, as the IRS reminds me every year. I've broken rules, laws, bones, and hearts. I've seen The Exorcist 27 times and it keeps getting funnier every time I watch it. I'm a Virgo, my turn-ons are cowboy guns, automatic weapons, and hot blondes in leather skirts, and I have a cat. In my spare time I log onto internet blogs, and regularly get my @$$ handed to me by 7-year olds on X-Box Live Call of Duty.

That and $1, gets me 3 glazed donuts at Krispy Kreme.

So yeah, I've done stuff."
Guilty as charged.

So what I aim to inflict upon any random gaggle of folks who stumble by are the flashes of memory that inhabit my mind at this point in my existence. I think some of them are funny, or interesting, or illustrative of some greater truth. A hat tip, even, to my own misanthropy. As Mel Brooks said, "Me stubbing my toe is tragedy. You falling off a cliff is comedy!"

Or else it's just that at this point in life, I've finally lived enough that, like eating too much meatloaf, some of the spicier bits keep getting burped out. Who can say? My fingers clack this stuff out, because some unseen muse has finally made me her thrall.

If I make factual errors, mistype, misspell, or otherwise bollocks up anything here, it's my own fault. If I say anything that offends, irritates, or annoys you, or generally twists your panties 3 sizes too tight, I honestly, sincerely, and humbly beg you to get over it. And if I hit the mark ever, let alone with any regularity, I offer my sincerest and most heartfelt applause to a couple of truly extraordinary English teachers in high school. (Back in the late Pliestocene, when TV came in two colors: black, and white.)

With that out of the way, I defer to the words of a wiser man than myself (which is no small club):
All that's past is prologue.