Showing posts with label legends. Show all posts
Showing posts with label legends. Show all posts

06 April 2024

The Mystery of the Firebear

Firebear as seen by Indians and pioneer boy

This real-life mystery sounds like the title of a Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys novel, doesn’t it? But stay tuned.

First Nations near Flat Rock, Indiana first told of the Firebear living in nearby caves. At night, the Firebear roamed forests and fields, burning brightly at night. Seen by generation after generation of Native Americans, the creature was deemed immortal.

In pioneer times when homesteaders settled Flat Rock, they learned of the legend. Not only did they hear of the myth from local Indians, they saw the Firebear for themselves, coming out at night, flaming in the dark.

So, if I told you the Firebear was actual, factual, what explanation might you give? Historical records indicate it was real. Take a moment to ponder before we solve the mystery.

Major Works

My recent story, Dime Detective, was influenced by Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories. Tarkington was among a number of Indiana authors wildly popular in their time, but, despite films, stage plays, and now audiobooks, are virtually forgotten by subsequent generations.

Firebear at the mouth of his cave

Along similar lines, Indianapolis attorney Charles Major took to writing, and success eventually allowed him to give up lawyering. His intensively researched historical romances became immediately popular, beginning with When Knighthood was in Flower in 1898. Three years later as Knighthood was finally giving up its bestselling status, a new children’s novel set in soon-to-be Shelby County, Indiana, The Bears of Blue River, made a hit with youngsters and adults alike. Today, the town square of Shelbyville features a sculpture of a boy with bears.

Major was certainly aware of the Firebear legend. So how would you explain the mystery of the Firebear?

See solution below the break.    ⤵︎

20 July 2017

The Moon-Eyed People

Fort Mountain, Murray County, Georgia December 2015.JPG
Fort Mountain
photo from Wikipedia
Fort Mountain lies in the Cohutta Mountains, and on Fort Mountain is Fort Mountain State Park.  It's an eerie place.  I went there with a friend of mine - hi, Richard! - on a cold, almost snowy day in early winter.  Fog.  Lots of fog.  Half the time the visibility was down to 20 yards, sometimes 20 feet, which only added to the general frisson of excitement of an unknown mountain trail.  We didn't know what was going to be around the next bend.  In more ways than one.

Part of the Fort on Fort Mountain
You see, there's a ruined stone fort on Fort Mountain, and not only does it predate the arrival of Europeans, but the Cherokee claim that it predates them.  The ruins are an 885-foot long rock wall which zigzags around the peak. The ruins also contain 19-29 pits (depends on who's counting, I guess), as well as what looks like a gateway.  It may date to 500 AD. It might be older.  It might be newer, but not by much.  It's a very strange place, and there are a few strange stories about it.

Story #1:  European Version 1:  The Welsh Prince.  Madoc, son of Owain Gwynedd, King of Gwynedd in north Wales, had to flee a fight over succession after Owain died in 1170.  He fled to America, (300 years before Columbus), and wandered the continent, building and breeding lavishly wherever he went,  leaving lost tribes of Welsh Indians, white Indians, etc., everywhere he went.  So naturally at some point he arrived in Georgia and built a fort to protect himself from the marauding tribes around him.

Saint brendan german manuscript.jpg
St. Brendan the Navigator, 15th C. ms.
The Madoc legend is based on a medieval tradition - and I mean a tradition, not a story or even a poem - about a Welsh hero's sea voyage.  To be honest, we have more evidence of Brendan the Navigator than Madoc.  Nonetheless, this was a hugely popular legend during the Elizabethan era, because it gave Elizabethan England a foundation for claiming title to North America.  All of it:  after all, Madoc was said to have landed at "Mobile, Alabama; Florida; Newfoundland; Newport, Rhode Island; Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; Virginia; points in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean including the mouth of the Mississippi River; the Yucatan; the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Panama; the Caribbean coast of South America; various islands in the West Indies and the Bahamas along with Bermuda; and the mouth of the Amazon River" (Fritze, Ronald H. (1993). Legend and lore of the Americas before 1492: an encyclopedia of visitors, explorers, and immigrants). Sounds like he conquered the continent, doesn't it?  So of course Madoc was given credit for building everything and anything that Europeans couldn't believe the indigenous peoples built, from natural formations like Devil's Backbone in Kentucky to man-made buildings like Fort Mountain in Georgia and the Pueblos of New Mexico. And he was given credit for fathering every tribe later European settlers liked, from the Mandan to the Zunis, Hopis, and Navajos.

Story #2:  European Version #2:  The Moon-Eyed People are one of the lost tribes of Israel, per the Book of Mormon.

Story #3:  The Cherokee Version:  The Moon-Eyed People.  The Cherokee are an Iroquois-language family tribe, who moved south, slowly from the Great Lakes.  (Why they moved, no one knows.)  Some time after the 1540s, they reached the Appalachian mountains.  When they came to the area around Fort Mountain, they found the moon-eyed people already there, living in the Fort. The moon-eyed people were very small, pale, and couldn't see well by day, so they moved around mostly at night.  (Why that sounded Jewish or Welsh I have no idea.)

BTW:  The Cherokee County Historical Museum in Murphy, North Carolina has what is supposedly an effigy of The Moon-Eyed People.  (I tried to post it, but it just doesn't want to, so check out the link HERE, at Roadside America.

Anyway, the Cherokee and the moon-eyed people fought a great war, and at the end of it, the moon-eyed people were killed and/or dispersed.  (Benjamin Smith Barton, 1797)  The Cherokee may or may not have used the fort.  In any case, the story says that the fort was destroyed in a massive earthquake which shook the whole world - or at least the entire area - and caused the stone walls to collapse.

  • One version of the earthquake says it took place after the Cherokee-moon-eyed people war, because the Cherokee who were living in the fort were killed, while the Cherokee who were living in wooden houses weren't.  
  • Another version is that it was the earthquake that allowed the Cherokee to win the war, and that afterwards, the moon-eyed people went underground and in caves.  

So, we have a pale tribe that couldn't see well at night.  Albinos or Madoc?  Personally, I plump for albinos.  The Kuna people of Panama and Columbia "have a very high incidence rate of albinism. And, whereas in many cultures albinos are subject to everything from ridicule to persecution to murder, in Kuna mythology, albinos (or sipus) were given a special place. Albinos in Kuna culture are considered a special race of people, and have the specific duty of defending the Moon against a dragon which tries to eat it on occasion during a lunar eclipse. Only they are allowed to go outside on the night of a lunar eclipse and to use specially made bows and arrows to shoot down the dragon." (Wikipedia)  And, the Zuni and Hopi nations also have high rates of albinism. It's not Welshmen, it's genetics.

Story #4:  European Version #3:  Reptilians, or David Ickes Strikes Again:  Of course, in this day and age, the moon-eyed people have become part of the whole "Ancient Aliens" mythos. Some people have speculated that the moon-eyed people were actually vampires. The legendary David Ickes has decided they're a sub-species of the reptilians who are dwelling among us (mostly in public office).  Thus the moon-eyed people are still among us (because you can't kill them), and speaking of reptilians, did you know that the TV series "People to Earth" (about a support group for people who claim to have been abducted by aliens) is coming back to TBS on Monday, July 24th?  I, for one, can hardly wait.

Fort mountain, Georgia wall 2016.JPG
Anyway, if you ever get a chance to go to Fort Mountain, go, and hike around it.  Preferably on a day with heavy weather.  Rain or snow, sleet or mist, or just thick fog will do nicely.  And I can tell you that, walking around it in a thick fog on a cold day, those 885 wandering feet seem like a long, long way, and the pits seem like they might hold something, have buried something, that might be waiting for you to pass (or not) in order to come out again...

Walk slowly.  Look around.  With any luck, yours will be the only footsteps, the only breath, the only...

Then again, maybe not.

25 October 2015

The Legends of October

If you are interested in teenagers, you will print this story. I don't know whether it's true or not, but it doesn't matter because it served its purpose on me. 
A fellow and his date pulled into their favorite "lovers' lane" to listen to the radio and do a little necking. The music was interrupted by an announcer who said there was an escaped convict in the area who had served time for rape and robbery. He was described as having a hook instead of a right hand. The couple became frightened and drove away. When the boy took his girl home, he went around to open the car door for her. Then he saw — a hook on the door handle! I don't think I will ever park to make out as long as I live. I hope this does the same for other kids.
                                                            Letter to Dear Abby
                                                            November 8, 1960 
                                                            Quoted in Urban Legends

        There is something about October. It’s in the wind; it’s in the rustling dead leaves; it’s in the flames of the backyard fire.  Shorter days. Longer nights. The growing compulsion to retreat to the indoors, away from the lengthening shadows. It’s a time when the outside world -- our warm summer friend just scant weeks back -- turns a mercurial cold shoulder and casts a narrowed and appraising eye our way, a warning dare of things to come.  Is it any wonder that October is the time of Halloween? 

       And, once we are safely hunkered down inside, October is also a time to spit into the wind, to tempt fate.  We are safe -- so let’s spin some tales about those who are not. It’s a time to tell stories aimed at only one thing -- raising the hackles on the listeners’ necks.  Proving that, despite all of that civilization and infrastructure, despite the safety of our living rooms, we can still be reduced in a few hundred words to primordial horripilating fear. 

       “Ghost stories” are often set in the distant past.  They therefore are safely embedded in another time.  In this way, when we tell them, we insulate ourselves a little from the fear. This was frightening, this was horrible, but this did not happen here.  It didn’t happen now.  It is perhaps as a reponse to this historical distancing that a new genre of modern day horror stories evolved in the 1950s and 1960s. Popularly, these tales are often referred to as “urban legends,” a phrase that, according to The Oxford Dictionary, was coined in or around 1968.  In a sense the term is a misnomer, since many of these frightening, and often cautionary, tales do not share an “urban” setting.  For that reason sociologists and social historians prefer the term “contemporary legend.” 

     These legends, urban or contemporary, typically follow similar, and fairly constrained, narrative approaches.

       First, they are short. They can be told easily at a sitting. They are, in other words, “campfire length.”

       Second, invariably the stories are told as something that happened to someone two times removed from the narrator -- typically to “a friend of a friend,” popularly abbreviated FOAF. This narrative device provides just enough proximity to make the story seem “real” while also providing just enough distance to ensure that the narrator need not (and cannot) personally vouch for the truthfulness of the tale.  We are told to accept the truth of the legend as an article of faith.

      And third, in each legend all of this contributes to a frightening theme:  These are “common-man” stories.  The terror that is their backbone could have happened to anyone.  As we listen we shudder in fear because we know what this means:  this could have happened to us. 

Professor Jan Brunvand
       The term “urban legend” was likely coined by Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of English (now emeritus) at the University of Utah.  Certainly Professor Brunvand is the master historian of the genre.  He spent much of his professional life researching and then cataloging urban myths, collected in a series of fascinating works, including The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings, The Choking Doberman and other “New Urban Legends, The Big Book of Urban Legends, The Mexican Pet: More "New" Urban Legends, Curses! Broiled Again!, The Baby Train and other Lusty Urban Legends, Too Good to be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends, and (finally!) The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story

       While urban legends evolve by word of mouth (and now via the internet), and change through the re-telling, it is often possible to trace particular legends back to their origins.  As an example, according to Professor Brunvand the many variants of “The Hook” -- that story that found its way into that 1960 Dear Abby letter quoted above --  likely derived from a series of lovers’ lane murders that were committed around Lake Texarkana in 1946.   There is no evidence that those murders had anything to do with a hook.  That came later.  Beginning with a foundation in reality the stories grow, they gain embellishment, much as prose changes when whispered ear to ear in that birthday party game we all played as children.  Part of that growth was the addition of the hook.

       Often the common denominator of a particular urban legend, as Professor Brunvand teaches us, is a locale, invariably one that is frightening by its very nature, or that is linked historically to a crime, to a disaster, or to reported supernatural occurrences.  Such spots are by their nature fertile fields for the cultivation of urban myths.  And, since they can also be visited, they have spawned their own participatory variant on the urban legend -- urban tripping.  Why sit and listen when we can go there -- when we can go there at night

The Pope Lick Trestle
       Urban tripping therefore involves a pilgrimage, usually undertaken at night, often in October, to a site that has a notorious and frightening, often supernatural, past.  You won't need to look too far to find one convenient to you.  There are urban tripping sites all over the country. 

     In Louisville, Kentucky you may want to visit the Pope Lick Trestle, the reputed home to the Pope Lick Monster, described as a human-goat hybrid.  The monster (as the legend goes) escaped from a carnival where it (of course) had been cruelly mistreated. It now seeks revenge, and its vengeance is focused on any unsuspecting person who wanders (at night, of course) too near.
The Swift Mansion

       In Cleveland, Ohio why not visit the site of the Swift Mansion? According to locals the mansion was once the Gore Orphanage, where (again, as the legend goes) numerous children were killed by the staff, either murdered or allowed to die of malnutrition and neglect.  Historians dispute whether the mansion ever, in fact, was an orphanage.  But don't let that dissuade you -- it hasn't stopped the stories about those children. And they, too, are out for revenge. 

A depiction of the Jersey Devil
       In New Jersey the curious are drawn to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, home of the fabled Jersey Devil. The Devil is described as a flying biped with hooves that emits a blood curdling scream. And, again, this happens at night.  Often in October.

The Bunny Man Bridge
       In Clifton, Virginia, the Bunny Man Bridge (which is actually a tunnel) beckons. The bridge is where you need to be to see the Bunny Man himself (or itself?) -- a man (I kid you not) in a bunny costume who reputedly attacks (with an axe) any who stray too close. 

The Devil's Tramping Ground
     In a Bennett, North Carolina campground thrill seekers are drawn to a barren circle, known as The Devil's Tramping Ground. No trouble finding the circle -- it’s the only place in the forest where no plants ever grow. It is said that objects left in the circle overnight disappear by morning.  Dogs and other animals reportedly refuse to enter the circle at all.  

Old Alton Bridge
       In Denton, Texas, the place to be in the dark hours of October is the Old Alton Bridge, which takes its name from the abandoned Texas village of Alton.  Locally the bridge is known as "Goatman's Bridge," a name inspired by a legendary satyr-like demon that is said to inhabit the forest surrounding the area.
      And what trip to Vincennes, Indiana (my wife’s hometown) would be complete without a visit to the legendary Old Purple Head Bridge spanning the Wabash River? The bridge, believe it or not, is still open to vehicular traffic, a fact I know all too well, as previously recounted.  (A longer piece on Old Purple Head, and the legends it has spawned, was the subject of a Halloween piece several years back.) 

Old Purple Head
       Anyone looking to experience a more packaged urban legend this time of year need look no further than the nearest corn maze or haunted forest. There is a profit to be made almost everywhere, and that includes the provision of that October "chill fix" so many of us seem to crave.  But for the connoisseur, those looking for a more elegant blood chilling experience, there are some select urban tripping experiences -- spooky locales, just there for the asking.

       For a price, of course.

       For those on the west coast perhaps nothing can beat the Winchester Mystery House. This 116 room mansion, which has been termed the creepiest house in Silicone Valley, was built by Sarah Winchester, the slightly deranged widow and heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Reportedly, there was never an overall design for the Winchester Mystery House, or even an architect. The mansion, instead, is a bizarre and immense congeries of rooms built to the whims of Sarah herself.  Rooms were added daily or weekly, inspired by Sarah's own nightmares and warnings from her medium concerning how to best construct the house so as to allude supernatural spirits from following Sarah as she moved from room to room.

        The resulting mansion was continuously under construction for over thirty years, right up to the day of Sarah's death.  It has been described as “a 6-acre labyrinth of false doors and stairs that lead absolutely nowhere – ad-hoc additions reportedly made by Winchester to confuse the evil spirits of people shot and killed by the firearms of her dead husband's namesake.” Tours are available daily, but special flashlight tours -- so-called “Fright Nights” -- are conducted at night every Friday the 13th and regularly throughout the month of (you guessed it) October. 

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
      Closer to the other side of the continent is the infamous Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, which sprawls across the landscape of Weston, West Virginia. This massive, now-abandoned, 150 year old hospital is a monument to the horrors to which its inmates were subjected.  It has been the site of scores of reported paranormal encounters over the years and is now a very popular tourist attraction.

      The hospital has a daily schedule of tours, but what you will want (I know you) is the overnight tour. Here is the description offered on the asylum’s website: 
Ever thought about spending the night in a haunted Lunatic Asylum? Our Ghost Hunts last from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. . . . . After everyone is registered and divided into groups, guides will assist you in your exploration of this massive Gothic asylum.  After a brief paranormal tour you may either hunt alone or with our experienced ghost hunting guides. Our guides are here to ensure that you have a positive and safe evening. Make sure to bring your camera, digital recorder, EMF meter . . . . 
I have not taken this tour, but I certainly understand why payment is required in advance.  The most popular time to experience the asylum?  October, of course.  October at night. 

       The legends and sites discussed above -- only a few of those that are out there -- share a thread common to most "ghostly" encounters:  Actual evidence of supernatural happenings is available only in wisps and shreds.  And the psychic experiences associated with each are all potentially explainable – over active imaginations, stimulation brought on by atmospherics, coincidences that align just so. All of this is expected, after all, when we choose to view the surroundings through the shadows of midnight.  Particularly midnights in October.  But, in any event, solid evidence of an actual haunting is generally pretty hard to come by. 

       But not always. 

       There is a stretch of road in Southern England that for centuries has been the site of reported supernatural occurrences. Horseback riders and carriages traveling through the countryside over two hundred years ago avoided this stretch of road not just because of some inexplicale sightings, but also because horses simply refused to travel the road.  They would grow increasingly agitated and then bolt if spurred to continue.  Travelers who did brave the road at night sometimes failed to reach their destination and, indeed, sometimes were never heard from again.

       More recently some drivers have reported that as they steer around a particular “s” turn in what now is a paved road, a flickering figure can, at times, be discerned hovering in front of their car. Eventually, in an attempt to prove that something might, after all, be out there, a team of investigative reporters from the BBC set up a camera on a hillside overlooking the turn. The camera automatically recorded many cars rounding the curve over a stretch of weeks.  Not surprisingly, for days the camera recorded nothing out of the ordinary.

       Nothing that is until the clip below was filmed.

       Even then the investigators were not certain that anything ghostly had been captured on their film.  They began to change their opinion when they were able to carefully view what they had filmed back in the BBC studios.  This is the clip that convinced them that something really might be there. Watch very carefully, or you may miss it.  Pay particular attention to the area right in front of that car as it rounds that final turn. 


        . . . four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.  Okay.  Deep breath. 

       Some of you will recognize that clip from an article I posted this same October week several years back. Sorry about that!  I couldn't resist trotting it out for one more spin.  It’s always fun to offer up one's own re-telling of an urban legend long about this time of year.  And, as the clip shows, you never know when you might trip on one right there on your own laptop!


25 December 2013

Lawrence of Arabia

[First, a shout-out to Janice Law, who has a terrific, twisted story in the March 2014 ALFRED HITCHCOCK, called "The Raider." Secondly, a very Merry Christmas to you all, and my best wishes for a great New Year.]

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA was released fifty years ago, and the recent death of Peter O'Toole prompts me to consider yet again, as a landmark in movie history.

LAWRENCE was a milestone for me personally, as well. I first saw it early in 1963, in its original roadshow release. Directed by David Lean, from a screenplay by Robert Bolt, shot in 70MM Panavision by Freddie Young, with a score by Maurice Jarre. It was astonishing. In fact, a transforming experience. Given the state of the art at the time, total immersion. I'd call it life-changing.

Early in the picture, there's a breath-taking cut. (And anybody who's seen the movie remembers it.) Lawrence, in close-up, blows out a match, and the screen opens suddenly wide to sunrise over the desert. It's a dramatic effect, but it does something else. It prefigures what's to come, and you somehow realize this, without knowing it. The movie shifts its shape, in that one piece of editing. The reason I'm making a big deal out of this cut, also, is that it made me realize, consciously, that movies don't happen by accident. I didn't think this in the theater, mind, but afterwards, as the idea began to percolate. It's worth pointing out, too, that in the course of that year, and the next two, I went back to see LAWRENCE some six or eight times, no exaggeration, and each time I saw something more. The picture deepened. It was breakthrough, for me to understand that David Lean (who began his career as an editor) was using the tools of movie-making to manipulate my response to what I was watching. Looking back, this seems naive, that it would take me so long to catch on, but it's instructive. More on this, below the fold.

My pal John Davis, a guy I'd met in boarding school, and who started college in New York with me in late '63, was a movie fanatic. He idolized Brando, and went on to be an actor, himself. That fall, we took every advantage of the New York revival houses, which were legion, in them days. LOOK BACK IN ANGER, THE 400 BLOWS, SEVEN SAMURAI. And the big-ticket new releases, TOM JONES and DR. STRANGELOVE. But of them all, John was utterly queer for LAWRENCE. He could quote the dialogue wholesale, the way O'Toole quoted Shakespeare. ("The best of them won't come for money. The best of them will come for me.") And he did a pretty fair Peter O'Toole, as well as a good Richard Burton. This says more than a little about our obsessions. Kurosawa, for example, or Truffaut. That was the year THE LEOPARD came out, too, and John could quote Burt Lancaster's lines---"Those that come after us will be jackals and dogs." Was it simple chance that we weren't head over heels for Hawks or Ford, yet, and our enthusiasms were the Brits and the Europeans? Arty, or kitchen sink, as opposed to Hollywood? I don't know. I'd like to think our horizons broadened.

David Lean, like Hitchcock, wasn't by any means art-house. They understood commercial necessities, box office, popular appeal. You're only as good as your last picture. Lean was very much involved in the revival of the British film industry after the war, with pictures like BRIEF ENCOUNTER, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, OLIVER TWIST. They did good business, but they also happen to be terrific movies. The he hit the jackpot, with BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and he was able to write his own ticket.

LAWRENCE wasn't the most obvious choice. An obscure campaign, and a hero who was something of a queer duck. "He saw the odd, and missed the even," Lawrence once remarked, although not of himself. It was intransigent material, and it wasn't an easy sell. Sam Spiegel wanted Brando to play the part, and Albert Finney was actually tested. O'Toole only came on board after they turned it down. There's a story (not on IMDb) that when O'Toole leaned over Spiegel's desk to shake hands on the deal, a half-pint of whiskey fell out of his breast pocket, which didn't inspire confidence. They spent something like a year and a half on the shoot, Jordan, Spain, Morocco. Spiegel must have been tearing his hair out, as production costs mounted, but he was already in too deep, and he kept the faith. CLEOPATRA, the next year, put Fox out of business.

Both the risk and the reward were enormous. It cost fifteen million bucks, in 1960's money. It grossed seventy million, eventually. It swept the Oscars. It made Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif bankable stars. It gave David Lean the opportunity to make DOCTOR ZHIVAGO---which for all the sentimental attachment people have for "Lara's Theme," we might as well admit is a dull thud. LAWRENCE, though, in a sense, is sui generis. It made spectaculars buzzy. But everybody in the movie business missed the point. LAWRENCE was an intelligent spectacular. That's what made it work. It wasn't a sword-and-sandals epic, although there was plenty of sand. It was about something, and it was about something you could imagine having a stake in. Lawrence spits in the fire. "That, is not an argument," one of his Arab captains says. But the movie itself is. It argues that a man can change history. Lawrence, in life, may have well seen the odd, and missed the even. In legend, he becomes larger than life.

What's it say? We write stories. Lawrence wrote his own. SEVEN PILLARS is, perhaps, not entirely candid, and even while he left stuff out, he embroidered other things. Why spoil a good story for lack of the facts? More to the point, as writers, we're often jackdaws, and feather our nests with shiny borrowings. The lasting lesson of LAWRENCE, for me---the movie, and in some part the man---is that we shape a narrative to suit our purpose. The match, the desert landscape opening before us. "Nothing is written," Lawrence says, meaning nothing is Fated. But in a fiction, of course, everything is. It all answers to a resolution. Grief is purged, innocence is redeemed, the natural order is restored. Well, maybe. We impose, in other words, a moral, and leave ambiguity to life itself.

19 July 2013

A Legend Gone Wrong

On Wednesday, July 10th, our David Edgerley Gates wrote his blog article about Legends, the deep cover for a spy who needs to appear as someone completely different from his actual being. In David's article, he brings up the premise of possibly reinventing "yourself in order to escape your personal history, to slough it off like a chrysalis, to create an entirely new identity, to become a different character, cast in an altogether different drama."

Which Reminds Me of a Story

I was quietly enjoying life after about ten years of retirement when the telephone rang at home on a nice spring day. By the simple act of answering the phone, I was dragged at least fifteen years back into the past. On the far end of this long distance call was an Assistant United States Attorney in the judicial district of my last Post of Duty. He wanted to know if I remembered a Mister X.

Of course I remembered X. I was the case agent who testified in grand jury about Mister X's trafficking in large quantities of illegal drugs. Most of us in law enforcement, both local and federal, were aware of X's business ever since he had taken an earlier fall on state drug charges, went on to do his time as required and then slid back into society. Naturally, he was more difficult to build a case against the second time around. Seems that during his leisure hours spent in stir he had learned some valuable lessons about survival and being more careful with his transactions. He also made some good criminal connections for his future.

Before trial on his federal charges came up, Mister X disappeared into thin air. No one talking to us seemed to know where he went. Therefore when I retired, Mister X's case remained an open file with him listed as a federal fugitive. Yep, one had gotten away from me. But, this call from the AUSA was about to change all that.

Back to David and His Article

"The problem being that the world around you  wouldn't change." "Putting on the clothes of concealment isn't safety." "The legend is a trap, an illusion of choice."

The Disillusion

According to the AUSA, Mister X had been arrested in the mountains of Venezuela where he was running a camp for tourists. It was a small camp with fewer than a dozen cabins. Mister X was posing as a German national, had a comfortable life, but by no means extravagant existence. The locals had accepted him for who he said he was and had done so for several years. So, what went wrong for him?

Back to David Again

"We become what we pretend, and fade into the background noise. The danger is that when we shed our skin, and grow a new one, older habits of mind have to be discarded as well." "Living a lie, we trust it to protect us. As the Russian proverb has it: 'If you play the sheep, you'll meet a wolf...' "

Old Habits

Knowing he might have legal situations again someday, Mister X had used his criminal connections to build himself a rabbit hole in advance. He'd set up a new identity in another country, with paperwork to go with it. The man had successfully acquired a legend. Problem was he couldn't let go of family ties.

Before he left the States, Mister X arranged a method of getting money to him, which would supplement his meager income, by using a cutout or middle man. His Mom, who owned a legit business, would send money every month to a trusted friend in Florida (the cutout). After receiving these monthly transfers, the trusted friend would then drive south to Miami and transfer the money to Venezuela. Supposedly only three people knew about the financial corridor. It should have been safe. But, as the Hells Angels say, "Three can keep a secret if two are dead."

The Wolf

The trusted friend in Florida had a girlfriend who also knew everything, the fugitive status, the financial corridor, the whole can of beans. But, all was well, the secret was kept, right up until the trusted friend and his girlfriend had a knock down fight one night and he threw her out of the house. As we all know, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In revenge, she went straight to the authorities and spilled the beans. The U.S. contacted Venezuela who soon descended upon Mister X and his legend was blown. Turns out for him, there were no hearings in Venezuela courts for extradition. Their Prez Hugo Chavez (before cancer got him), who did not like Americans to begin with, promptly threw Mister X out of the country without bothering about legal technicalities. When Mister X arrived on U.S. soil, he was immediately arrested.

The only saving grace to be said for Mister X is that he quickly took a plea bargain rather than go to trial. As part of the bargain, his dear old Mom would not be prosecuted for her part.

The Moral

Our David knows what he's talking about. If you are going to create a legend, a new life for yourself, then you not only have to become someone else, you also need to cut all ties to the old life, old habits as it were. One small slip can reveal your disguise. And, sometimes you have no control over who the slip comes from. You can run, but you had better really be good at it if you want to continue to hide.

04 September 2012

Jersey Fresh

Not being a native of the place one lives in can sometimes offer a fresh perspective.  And even though I have dwelt in the Garden State for over twenty-five years, I do often find the place fascinating.  First of all, let's face it, Jersey takes an awful beating as a result of Snooki and the Gang, corrupt politicians, and the view from the infamous Turnpike of oil refineries, chemical factories, and rubber plants.  To some, these may look unappealing ( and I include Snooki and friends with this).  But there is a whole other New Jersey out there that is largely hidden away from the tourists on their way to NYC.  It is a place in which I often set my stories, and bears little resemblance to Soprano Land: a place of leafy suburbs and rolling farmland; salt marshes and barrier islands; pineland forests and windswept beaches.

The county I live in is called Cape May, and named after a Dutch explorer by the name of Mey who sailed by sometime in 1623.  He was too busy exploring, apparently, to bother landing on this new cape that he had discovered.  Of course, he had only discovered it for the Europeans who were to follow.

Native Americans had fished and hunted the area for thousands of years before Captain Mey bobbed by in his little ship.  The historical tribe was known in their own tongue as Lenape, an Algonquin peoples.  The Whites would call them the Delaware after the river, which was in turn named after Lord de la Warre, who saw to it that the English, and not the Dutch or Swedish, would dominate this part of New Jersey.  The poor Dutch got stuck with Soprano Land and NYC; the Swedes just went home.

The first European settlers to the area came mostly from New England, Virginia, and Long Island, and they came for the whaling.  In those early days, whales often traveled along the Atlantic coast side of what would become Cape May County, and even into the vast Delaware Bay that washes the western half of the peninsula.  The locals would simply row out to harpoon the great beasts and tow them back to shore.  Even back then, with only a sparse population of whalers, it didn't take long to deplete the animals and virtually kill the industry.  The English turned to farming and fishing, and for the next several centuries this was what they did.
Pirates frequented the region as Jonathan Dickinson wrote in 1717, "We have been perplexed by pirates on our coast and at our Capes, who plundered many of our vessels."  Captain Kidd, that most unfortunate of pirates, spent some time in the area, as did Edward Teach, of "Blackbeard" fame.  Naturally, tales of buried treasure abound.  Most of these are baseless, but try telling that to all the folks with metal detectors walking the beaches… fugedaboutit!  It never made much sense to me that pirates would risk hiding their treasure on land.  After all, sometimes they might be gone for months or even years.  But then it was explained to me that this was mostly done when the boys in pantaloons were planning a visit to a large town, such as New Amsterdam, to replenish their stocks and provisions.  There was always the chance that they might be recognized as pirates and arrested.  The treasure trove on board could be damning.  Hence the lightening of the load prior to docking.

The Jersey Devil legend sprang up in this period as well, and comes out of the haunted pine barrens.  It seems that the dirt-poor and miserable Mrs. Leeds of that neighborhood, upon learning that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, cursed him; wishing the devil would take him.  Apparently, she had some pull in hell, for her son was born with wings and hooves and flew out the window to begin a reign of terror over that dark and lonely region.  He does so to this day.           

Cape May became a county in 1692, via a charter from the Crown. In those days there was a West and East Jersey--Cape May County being in the west.  There is a cemetery at the county seat, Cape May Court House, that dates to 1766; prior to that people were buried in their back yards, a custom still observed for former business partners in North Jersey.  By the way, nearly everything in the county is named Cape May Something: There is the aforementioned Court House, wherein sits a several hundred year old (you got it) court house, there is also Cape May City, West Cape May, Cape May Point and North Cape May.  There was even once a South Cape May, but the sea claimed it as its own some time ago.  God's judgement, perhaps, on one Cape May too many.  Enough already with the Cape May.

New Jersey became known as the "Cockpit of the Revolution" during the War of Independence because of all the important battles fought on her soil.  Washington slept everywhere, and New Jersey named not one, but several towns, after the father of our nation.  Having a maritime economy, the southern half of the state was affected by the War of 1812.  This region also produced one of our nation's earliest naval heroes in the person of Richard Somers.  This young man was to lead what amounted to a suicide mission against the Barbary pirates in Tripoli.  Sailing directly into their harbor under cover of darkness, he and his crew boarded a captured American vessel and blew it up in spectacular fashion.  Though the resulting explosion and fire damaged and destroyed many of the pirates' ships, it also took the lives of the brave American sailors before they could get away.  Their graves still lie in a small plot in Libya.  His home exists as a museum in Somers Point, the town named for his family.  I have had the privilege of visiting it.

As the northern half of the state embraced the industrial age, the south remained agrarian, not unlike the nation as a whole at that time.  The capitol even boasted the proud motto, "Trenton Makes, The World Takes," in huge letters across a bridge spanning the Delaware River.  It's there to this day.  South Jersey, meanwhile, continued to make the Garden State just that.  Most of the "industries" practiced in the south related to the exploitation of natural resources: cedar mining (the reclamation of prehistoric cedar trees from the fresh water swamps for shingles and ship building), bog iron collection from the streams of the Pine Barrens (this naturally occurring iron tints the water the color of tea), harvesting salt hay from the marshes for both animal feed and lining coffins, the production of glass from the fine sands of the region, etc... Then came the trains.

By the late 1800s, the great population centers of both Philadelphia and New York had discovered what would be forever more known as the Jersey Shore.  Trains made it possible.  The industrial era had given the working man both stable wages and a few days off a year.  He spent both at the shore.  The tourist boom was on and the great shore towns began to spring up--Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Wildwood, Avalon, and yes...Cape May.  Of course, many decided to stay, and the local population took a decidedly Irish and Italian turn.  Catholic parishes began to pop up amongst the Baptist and Methodists.  The small town of Woodbine was founded as a Jewish colony, while the town of Whitesboro became the the county's first predominantly African-American municipality--a by-product of the Underground Railroad, not the one from Philly.

By the mid-1970s tourism was king.  Though farms remained, they had grown smaller and began to adapt to specialized crops in order to survive.  Commercial fishing survived, as well, by both downsizing and growing more efficient.  The waters off New Jersey continue to be one of the greatest producers of scallops and clams along the eastern seaboard and oyster farming is making a comeback in the Delaware Bay.  But the tourist dollar, and vacation real estate, are the mainstays of the current economy--battered by the recession, but still king.  Unemployment here in Cape May County during the off-season (roughly from November to April) can reach 12% or worse.   But you take the good with the bad, and this is the place I happily call home.  My literary characters, Chief Julian Hall and Father Gregory Savartha, both live here, as does a ponderous and troubling little girl named Mariel, who is the subject of my next story in EQMM (Dec. 2012 issue).  The bewildered protagonist of "Tap-Tap", though he meets his fate in Belize, worked for a tourist agency here, while Kieran, the young kleptomaniac of "The Vengeance of Kali," lives just around the corner.  There are many, many more.

So, as you can see, after twenty-five years in a place, you make some friends; form some ties.  And luckily for me, having a fresh perspective, a "Jersey" fresh perspective on my adopted home, made it all possible.