10. Big Bear Gun Stash

 

Dad had never gotten me interested in guns, but he’d still managed to drop a bundle of weapons in my lap. Unfortunately, it took a stroke to make it happen. He survived the event, which happened in Big Bear in 2000, when he was forty-eight, but his lifestyle, by choice and uncontrollable urge, like snakes too entwined to discern where one ends and the other begins, had finally caused irreparable damage to the man I’d known, loved, hated, admired, remained loyal to. In the period shortly preceding that life-altering event, Dad had been living in a small trailer at the far eastern edge of Big Bear, in an area near Baldwin Lake, a remote and largely uninhabited area. His trailer was part of a “farm” for unwanted or stray dogs, some sort of live-work arrangement. I had never visited or fully understood what was involved in Dad’s job—I’d recently moved from L.A. to Brooklyn before his stroke, leaving Dad without family on the West Coast—or known how he was paid, only that his compensation included lodging, which was the main appeal. That and he had escaped the methamphetamine dealers who were his neighbors where he used to live, in a small clutch of jumbled, poorly built cabins in an uneven and rocky area in the Boulder Bay area of Big Bear, a couple of miles from where we used to live in Cedar Lake. 

With Billy on my last visit to see him before his stroke, about 1999. This was Billy’s tiny place in the Boulder Bay area of Big Bear Lake, California. 

In fact, the last time I saw Dad in Big Bear was at that previous Boulder Bay location, shortly before my move to New York City. After about ten years together, Dad had split up with Arlene Krodell, the tow truck company operator, a vicious breakup full of accusations of wrongdoing and theft, and he was now on his own, collecting disability. It was a depressing environment, despite the tall pines and bracing mountain air. Long a packrat—at Cedar Lake we used go on dump runs for the camp, never coming away empty-handed—he no longer had a woman’s influence to keep him in check. His tiny one-bedroom cabin was so full of junk that you couldn’t really take it all in. And the odor was oppressive. It wasn’t surprising, though: Dad had more or less given up on society, on life, a while before that. He’d become something of a Charles Bukowski poem, passing through his days with little engagement in life, watching reality and nature TV, reading pulpy bestsellers, waiting to die, which he expected to happen sooner rather than later. Unlike a Bukowski poem, however, Dad couldn’t drink away the days, lest he put himself in true pain. Adding to the gloominess of the place was a direct hostility toward his neighbors, meth dealers who had their own cabin about four feet from his own. He hated living there. Whenever I would visit or talk on the phone, he’d complain about the situation at length, giving me detailed accounts of his grievances against the neighbors. So he was happy to be out of Boulder Bay, now living over on the other side of the valley.

This new remote location in Baldwin Lake made his stroke much worse, causing some permanent brain damage. He really had no business living way out there. His bouts with pancreatitis had made him a “brittle” diabetic, and he was in the advanced stages of emphysema, a merciless disease that had also taken his mother, another smoker. The emphysema limited his ability for extended exertion—he would get out of breath fairly quickly and, despite his reassurances to the contrary, he continued to smoke. At his old Boulder Bay place, his other neighbor (besides the meth dealers) was a buddy, and they talked and socialized regularly, so his silence would’ve been noticed. And his boxer Nickie, a longtime companion, surely was barking like crazy at the sight of Dad lying unconscious, and in Boulder Bay Nickie would’ve been heard. In his new place, however, his nearest neighbor was likely a good mile away, and he was surrounded by dogs that barked often, more a matter of conversation. There was no way to know how long he’d been unconscious after he collapsed in his trailer, but it was a while. If the farm’s owner hadn’t come by, Dad might have died.

Slowly, he recovered from the stroke, but Dad wasn’t the same. He could barely speak for months, and he would never be able to really write legibly again. Our trips back to Southern California were focused on visiting him, first in San Bernardino, where he was flown for emergency medical treatment, then to a convalescence home in nearby Fontana, so we didn’t make it back up to Big Bear to deal with his possessions. One of Dad’s tow truck buddies had helped us out: he emptied out Dad’s trailer and stored the contents in one of his unused garages in Big Bear City. In the coming months we flew Dad back to New York, to live with Trina in Dutchess County (after several years in Leadville, Colorado, Mom, John, Trina, and Trina’s kids had moved to upstate New York). A few months later, my short adventure in the city of cities over, I moved back to Los Angeles. Once situated, it was time to finally deal with Dad’s possessions. I drove my Honda Accord up the mountain, planning to take back whatever I could fit, and getting rid of the rest. I was nervous because I knew I’d be hauling back not just boxes of his photos, record albums, rattlesnake skins and kits, and important mementos, but also his guns. I didn’t know the laws, but I figured the California Highway Patrol, if they happened to pull me over, would frown upon me driving down the freeway with guns that didn’t belong to me.

Really, I hadn’t seen any of Dad’s firearms since my early twenties, in 1993, when Trina, then fifteen, ran off to Las Vegas. Arlene had called, explaining that Dad had loaded up his Jeep Renegade with weapons and gone after Trina. He feared she was wandering those sleazy neon boulevards, vulnerable to getting picked by a hustler, pimp, or drug dealer. I’m sure he imagined getting involved in some grim Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood scenario. In the shadows, down an alley, bad guys would be made to pay. I flew down from San Francisco to help find her—and keep Dad from winding up in jail. It took a day to track Dad down, with tedious phone calls back and forth between Arlene and him, then Arlene and me, but we finally managed to plan a meeting at a specified time at a Denny’s near the motel where he was staying. It was there, in a windy, desolate Denny’s parking lot in Las Vegas, that I last saw his cherished .357, bought during our unhappy days in Connecticut. It sat on the passenger’s side floor, in its holster, along with some knives, plenty of bullets, and a bunch of junk food wrappers and soda bottles. Even in its holster, the .357, as always, looked dangerous. I recalled over the years seeing Dad proudly showing off the weapon to gun-friendly visitors. Or walking out of my bedroom to see him standing by the window with it held along his long leg, as though the cops were out front, preparing for a raid. I thought back to one time when I was seventeen: I’d recently dyed my longish hair blue-black and when I approached the house—I wasn’t living with Dad and Arlene at the time—he cracked opened the door with the .357 in his hand, held behind his back, looking at me like I was a hostile stranger. It was disturbing to see how he’d look at you if you weren’t me and you weren’t welcome. “I thought you were a Mexican!” he explained, laughing, relieved, showing me the gun. Dad could get a little bit paranoid, as he liked to say jokingly, which he blamed on wicked needling nuns when he was in Catholic school, among other influences. For me, the .357 there in Vegas was more immediately threatening, since Dad seemed fully prepared to quickly shoot anyone who was messing with his teenage daughter. 

Fortunately, my sister was safe, staying with a boyfriend who had moved there from Big Bear, and no one was harmed, though it was a bit alarming to see Dad behaving like a tweaker at Denny’s while we discussed how to deal with the situation. I later learned he was putting speed in his insulin shots for a little pick-me-up. In fact, that night after Denny’s we shared a motel room at the Best Western nearby and Dad was having insane dreams, which involved him laughing maniacally all night long. And his bag of guns and weapons were in the room, not far away. I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night

***

 

Imagine my surprise when, years later in that Big Bear garage, expecting two or three guns, I instead found nine, and the .357 wasn’t even among them! I quickly recognized the .22 rifle Dad had given me for Christmas when I was fourteen, a present I didn’t want and left behind when I moved to Simi Valley. It was one of those presents that only a Dad can give: not something you’d want, but something he wants you to have, a reminder of what he wants you to be. As though the gift’s presence will result in changed attitudes or interests, or, at the very least, serve as a reminder as to his disappointment. Back in 1985 in Sugarloaf, near Big Bear City, our last Christmas together as a family, I tried to pretend like it was a good gift, but he knew. He would talk about us going down to the desert for target practice like the old days, or go hunting, but I was not interested, more focused on girls, football, Stephen King novels and, well, girls. Spending hours in the high desert or woods, shooting at beer cans (or, by that point, Diet Coke cans), or sneaking up on curious wildlife and shooting them, wasn’t my idea of a good time. Even rattlesnake hunting side excursions no longer had any appeal. I’m not sure, but I believe I never once shot the .22 he gave me, a serious symbolic denial. I suppose that broke Dad’s heart a little.

 Dad’s customized license plate when I went to get his things out of storage in Big Bear City, California, 2000.

Dad’s customized license plate when I went to get his things out of storage in Big Bear City, California, 2000.

I also recognized his .30-30, a loud and powerful rifle with bullets that looked like small missiles, kept for potential bear or mountain lion encounters, as I recall. He’d had that one since our Cedar Lake days. The other guns, however, I’d never seen before. There were three rifles, including one that looked fairly antique, a shotgun, a .9 mm handgun, a .38 pistol, and, disturbingly, a small black ankle handgun with black duct tape wrapped around the grip, like some throwaway gun from a Hollywood crime movie. At least there were no military weapons, which really would’ve been surprising, as those kinds of weapons were not part of the scene I grew up with—only the real wack-jobs, usually Vietnam vets who had never really left the war, wanted those. Considering Dad had such little income, the small stash was even more improbable, though they might’ve been gifts, or the result of some barter transaction. And, naturally, the guns were all loaded and ready for action.

Speaking of bullets, there were stacks and stacks of those, including some illegal hollow-tips. The tow truck friend who had let him use his storage space said a cop had given Dad these bullets. Ironically, in his later years, Dad had come to befriend cops, even though while I was growing up he would routinely refer to them as pigs, a bunch of cowards who hid behind their badges and guns. They were little more than hired gangs controlled by the rich and corrupt in government who paid them to maintain their power. In a fistfight, he boasted, he could easily take them. In my teens, however, after Billy had been working beside San Bernardino County sheriffs and the CHP while driving tow trucks, he’d gained something of a wary respect for them. It also helped that Arlene was a former police officer. Still, despite his newfound conviviality with the cops, this didn’t mean that Dad respected the law, or their role in law enforcement. If push came to shove, he claimed, he’d take care of matters himself. Like he’d done back in L.A.

With some help from Dad’s friend, a seasoned gun owner, I managed to get the guns unloaded without blowing off any fingers/toes. I brought them and Dad’s other possessions back with me to my new apartment in East Hollywood. I was able to send most of the items to him in New York, but sending the guns across state lines was going to be impractical for various legal reasons (we’d have to go through a gun dealer, I believe, a costly, cumbersome procedure), so I put them in the closet until we figured out what do with them. I’m sure that before his stroke Dad would’ve relished that idea, of all his guns in my closet. We never discussed the idea that I might be gay—that, like my biological father, maybe I had discovered some new proclivities as an adult; he seemed to ask a little too often about girlfriend opportunities after I moved to San Francisco—but I figure it’s likely that Dad’s need to toughen me up, which anyhow was how he figured a man should be, had had this possible outcome in mind. Dad found it hilarious when I’d squirm as he made some crude sex joke. I suppose the last thing he wanted was a gay son. Though, on the bright side, if I weregay (I’m not), it would’ve given him a rich new source of teasing. 

Really, the biggest thing lost after Dad’s stroke was a sharply diminished, in fact almost entirely destroyed, sense of humor. He still told stories, but they were just sad, or riddled with petty complaints, little grievances, trifles. Or the opposite, pain and suffering, but the realities were too harsh, beyond words. His partial sentences would trail off. Even though I’d been on the serrated side of those jokes plenty of times, I did miss that aspect of his personality: it was part of what made him who he was. We’d had a hard time communicating ever since I left Big Bear for suburban L.A. after graduating from high school in 1989, and all the nastiness related to the tug of war with Mom over my sister, which dragged on for a couple of years after I left Big Bear, and which played no small part in Trina’s running away four years later, but we could still trade some jokes. Not anymore, not after the stroke.

One of Dad’s rattlesnake skins, along with his snake-bite kit and his medicine bag.

 

Billy Interview, 6

I met Wicked Willie when I was bouncing at the Old P.O. The owner’s sexy seventeen-year-old daughter was getting hit on by this massive guy—I mean he made melook small. So the boss tells me, “Hey Rattlesnake, get rid of that guy, he’s trying to pick up on my daughter.” So I’m like, “What, are you fucking nuts? Look at the guy. He looks like he uproots trees for a living.” But he was my boss, so I had to think of a tactful way to get rid of the guy without getting my ass kicked. I went out front to think about it for a minute, and I saw all these choppers parked down the way, over near some picnic tables that we’d set up near the creek for BBQs and things like that. There were about five or six big biker types, so I went over and said to one of them, “Nice Harley,” and we started shooting the shit for a minute or so, and he introduced himself as Wicked Willie. “Well, Wicked Willie,” I said, “I bounce over here at the Old P.O. Why don’t I buy you guys a drink.” And he’s like, sure. So we all go inside and I have the bartender set them up. Meanwhile the big dude is still making his moves on the owner’s daughter, who is kind of leading the guy on just to fuck with her dad—they were always having arguments about one thing or another—not realizing that the big guy was pretty whiskey-drunk and things would get ugly when she was done having her fun. After the bikers had a couple of drinks of beer, I said to Wicked Willie, “Can you believe that shit?” pointing over to the corner where the two of them were sitting. And the guys were all like, “What, what do you mean?” “Well,” I said, “Can you believe he’s going out with that guy?” “What guy?” they all said, and I’m like, “That guy sitting right next to him.” And then they all got up and starting looking over at the two of them. The owner’s daughter and the big bastard were over in a corner of the bar at a booth and the lighting wasn’t all that hot. “Bullshit,” said Wicked Willie. “No fucking way is that a guy. Not with tits like that.” I said sure it is, and then they started pointing and making jokes and laughing at the big guy. I figured if I was going to have to deal with him, it’d help to have these other bikers think he was a fucking queer, know what I mean? But the big guy—totally out of the blue—got embarrassed with all their pointing and jokes and walked out. He left, just like that! I guess he looked a lot scarier than he was, or maybe the girl said she had VD or something. And the boss’s daughter left right after that too, so they couldn’t get a good look at her and see that she obviously wasn’t a man. Later, after I got to be pretty good buddies with Wicked Willie, I told him about my little trick and he got a kick out of it. “Fucking Rattlesnake,” he said, “you sure know how to bullshit a bullshitter.” Man, Wicked Willie was a piece of work. He thought he was Wild Bill Hickock or something. Of course he was one of my best buddies back then, which shows you where I was at. He was from Texas, had grown up on a ranch and the whole deal—a real cowboy. He lived down by LAX and had two Harleys. He let me ride his second one. Man, we rode all over the fucking place: to the Colorado River, to Reno and Vegas, down to Mexico. We even rode down the Baja peninsula once. He liked me because I respected his bikes. And you might say he was a little “protective” over those beauties. Yeah, Willie was one crazy motherfucker. Once, when one of his roommates down by the airport bumped into his Harley—they didn’t even really damage it, just a tiny dent—Wicked Willie flipped out. He had some dynamite on him and blew out his roommate’s wall with a quarter stick. I mean, I saw it: he blew out the roommate’s whole fucking wall. He wasn’t what you might want to call a “sensible” person. Most people don’t blow a wall out of their own fucking house just to make a point. But he could also be a pretty nice guy. A good friend. But Willie got nailed, went too far. There was this high-stakes card game over in Palm Springs that he wanted to rob. He told me about it, saying they didn’t have any security and it would be an easy score. But I tried to stay away from shit like that. I lived pretty cheap up there in Topanga, and between bouncing and catching snakes and the occasional construction job, I was doing just fine. But Wicked Willie tried to tell me I could buy my own Harley with the money from the score. “I ain’t gonna let you use my fucking Harley forever, man,” he said. He was kind of an asshole about it—like trying to guilt-trip me into doing it. It was tempting, I have to admit. I really wanted my own bike back then. But I said no. Later, I heard from his brother that he got shot by the cops with a twelve-gauge shotgun. I guess he had robbed the place, gotten the money, then run out the door and the cops were waiting for him. Shit, they shot him in the goddamn chest without even giving him a chance to surrender, and he died a couple of hours later. I was real sad to hear that. He was a good guy. But, that was the game he was playing. Every game’s got rules, and winners and losers. Poor Willie—he lost it all. That’s when Topanga lost it’s “luster.” I saw it for what it was. After Bob [Sunshine] came down and we had our little difference of “opinion” about Nat, your mom, how he just took off like that, I hitchhiked up to Big Bear and met up with you two. Tell you what, Carl, that was the best fucking decision I ever made.