Big Bear Lake is a seven-mile-long, snow-fed reservoir nestled in a large valley high up in the San Bernardino Mountains, a real mountain range—its top peak, San Gorgornio, is, at 11,500 feet, over two miles high—that stands between the vast L.A. megalopolis on one side and the even vaster Mojave Desert on the other. The lake is held by a large 72-foot dam on the western end of the valley. Big Bear, as the area is more generally known (the “big” refers to the lake’s size, not the now-extinct grizzly bears that once dominated the area, differentiating it from nearby Lake Arrowhead, formerly called Little Bear Lake), functions in Southern California somewhat like the better-known Lake Tahoe does 450 miles to the north in the High Sierra: it’s a vacation destination for skiing, lake sports, fishing, camping, biker parties. It has an optimal combination of pristine mountain wilderness—tall sap-oozing and cone-bombing pines, stately fragrant cedars, outcroppings of giant rounded boulders of bone-white decomposed granite—and generally moderate weather: local booster committees tout that the area has around three hundred days of clear blue skies and sunshine a year. At a 6,750-foot elevation, Big Bear is slightly higher than Tahoe, though the southern latitude and warmer temperatures produce much less snowfall, and when it does snow, it tends to melt more quickly than up north, requiring the ski resorts to blow artificial snow throughout the winter. The handful of small communities surrounding the lake are wholly dependent on recreation and vacationing for their economic survival.
When Billy arrived in Big Bear in 1977, Mom and I were living in a small one-room place at Blue Jay Cottages, near “the Village,” the pseudo–Swiss Alpine–themed center of town. Times were tough. Mom was unemployed and steady full-time work was hard to come by. The general national economy was struggling, and unlike the Tahoe area, which could attract ever-moneyed gamblers, Big Bear was simply a middle-class vacation destination, and people were vacationing less (recurrent gas-price anxieties didn’t help matters). We now had Social Security Insurance checks on my behalf due to Paul’s murder in Tennessee two years before, but that wasn’t enough to survive on. What little savings we had was mostly gone, and Sunshine had not only left us poor and carless, but he’d done so impetuously, saying he was going to the pawn shop to get our stereo out of hock, lest it be permanently forfeited, but instead went to L.A. to party. In fact, Billy had learned about Mom’s separation from her second husband before she did: Sunshine ended up in Topanga, where he ran into Billy. When asked about Natalie and me, Sunshine was evasive at first, but after some partying it became clear that he had left us in a financial lurch. The two had an argument and nearly fought over the situation, then Sunshine took off, to Florida, as rumor had it. So Billy hitchhiked up to Big Bear to confirm that Sunshine wasn’t coming back, and also to eventually win Mom over. She was wary: after all, Billy was part of the same scene as the man who had just abandoned us, and she was only twenty-six, with two husbands down. But Billy and Natalie got along, and Billy played it cool, always the charmer. Besides, it was good to have a friend around, as Mom was still fairly new to Big Bear, where she was determined to permanently settle, and she didn’t yet have any close friends in town.
After months of scraping by, Fortune finally smiled upon us: Mom and Billy were able to get full-time work at a private Christian camp, she as a maid and Billy as a general maintenance person. Cedar Lake Camp and Conference Center was a set of lodges, cottages, and campsites surrounding a tiny artificial lake in a small valley up behind the Boulder Bay section of Big Bear. (For all intents and purposes, Cedar Lake is just another section of Big Bear.) The lake was tiny, not much larger than a football field, with a narrow, somewhat dangerous dam, one end of which terminated at a small, dilapidated-looking sawmill. I say “looking” because the sawmill was all exterior: it had been built by Paramount Pictures in 1936 to film Henry Hathaway’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the first film to be shot outdoors with Technicolor, a costly enterprise at the time. Over the years Cedar Lake has been the site of numerous Hollywood westerns, with stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne wandering around the picturesque scenery. It had also been the location for the original Parent Trap, Bogart’s High Sierra, several episodes of Bonanza, a Have Gun–Will Travel episode, and Elvis’s Kissin’ Cousins, where the King serenaded some swooning Smoky Mountain ladies on the sawmill’s wooden wheel. Even if the building was hollow, the sawmill’s exterior, which had been artificially weathered in the thirties, and by the seventies seemed downright ancient, looked cool. By the time we arrived it was owned by a large Christian church down in Los Angeles and was used mainly as a retreat and camping area that catered not just to their congregation but to larger groups and events as well (Boy Scout troops, Transcendental Meditation retreats, etc.).
Mom, Billy, and I moved into a small one-bedroom trailer, with a makeshift addition and curtain demarking my room. It’s there, when I was around six, living on the edge of a lush mountain meadow near Cedar Lake in the Big Bear area, and with Billy around, that my more coherent childhood memories begin.
Billy was drawn to dangerous things, so naturally he loved guns, and his favorite spots to shoot guns were down in the high desert, places with Wild West–sounding names like Holcomb Valley and Cactus Flats. For all his partying and antiestablishment attitudes, Billy was good about observing strict safety protocols when it came to handling firearms. Never point a gun at a person unless you were willing to shoot and potentially kill said person. Check that your safety is on whenever you’re not shooting. And always check to see if your gun is loaded. Even if you just checked the gun before setting it down to take a piss, check again. I don’t know if these rules came from some NRA pamphlet, a sagacious biker friend, or if it was because I was a complete klutz growing up. (When Billy wasn’t ironically calling me “Killer,” his nickname for me was “Grace.”)
On those trips Billy would instruct me to make myself useful and set pull-top Budweiser cans on rusty old abandoned cars. (Prohibition from handling a gun while drinking or getting high were not among Billy’s safety measures, which perhaps further explains his insistence about repeatedly checking on whether or not the guns were loaded.) Sometimes Billy would have me shoot the low-caliber .22 rifle, though I don’t recall really wanting to shoot (years later, when I was fourteen, he gave me my own .22, but I was less than interested). I would tentatively place my hands on the rifle’s stock as Billy leaned over and held and fired the weapon. There was the force of the explosion going through my body right down to my toes, the concussion and echo splitting across the desert, and the smell of his Old Spice. On those trips, Mom didn’t care much for shooting, but she liked exploring for relics of the Old West: antique glass bottles, oddly shaped and in various colors; strange-looking silverware that was still fairly intact; the metal corner of an old wooden suitcase, perhaps from someone’s unsuccessful late 1800s overland journey. She also liked to collect odd and colorful rocks—had she stayed in college, Mom likely would have gravitated toward the study of rocks and minerals—and we panned for gold whenever the creeks were flowing. Needless to say, I was a sucker for fool’s gold, so I soon grew weary of the hand-chilling endeavor. Sometimes, if the weather and location made sense, Billy would even take me with him to search for rattlesnakes. Now that was fun.
Still, we didn’t have to go to the desert to shoot. Since we already basically lived in the woods, Billy could squeeze off a few rounds in Cedar Lake, off our little trailer’s front porch. Not too many rounds, and certainly only off-season, when the camp was quiet, but a few .22 shots wouldn’t disturb anyone. Except for those squirrels bounding around the tall pines—bang!, then their claws wildly scratching along the bark before landing with a sad quiet thump on the dusty ground. He found it funny that after slicing open the warm creature’s belly I thought the guts looked like swollen overcooked spaghetti. I mean, shooting Jaws or a mountain lion or the Abominable Snowman made sense. Otherwise, it just seemed sad. How could killing things make you happy? And I liked spaghetti.
I never took a shine to shooting, but I did like searching for rattlesnakes, which was weird and suspenseful. Besides, he wasn’t going to kill the rattlers, only capture them—well, not necessarily kill them, since it didn’t take much for a potentially captured rattlesnake to become a “perhaps you didn’t understand what that rattling sound meant” attacking rattlesnake. Unlike Topanga, on those desert trips Billy did it just for fun, and he caught at least one alive (we had a very depressed rattlesnake living in a modified fish aquarium in our trailer at Cedar Lake).
Billy took me along on these rattlesnake adventures partly because I could be useful as rattlesnake-sunbathing-on-rock spotter, but mostly it was his version of male bonding, even father-son bonding. We’d go on long walks, Billy telling his Topanga stories as he looked under boulders, poked into mahogany bushes. Also, he explained, it was best to go rattlesnake hunting with someone nearby in case you got bit. After all, who was going to cut open the pierced skin and suck out the deadly venom? Sure, Billy wore steel-toe biker boots or thick knee-high moccasins, but a rattlesnake’s fangs could still pierce his denim jeans further up the leg, and generally there was a decent chance you’d get bitten in locations where it was impossible to self-administer the venom-sucking procedure: on the ass, for example (Billy loved that joke). While I was never called upon to do this—Billy had been bitten several times, including occasions where the venom was not sucked out and he claimed to have developed a quasi-immunity, the venom essentially giving him a peyote-like experience—the idea of cutting open Billy’s flesh and sucking out the venom nonetheless flourished in my sleeping hours over the years, and not to delightful effect.
The camp could get lonely, especially in the quiet winter months, and it was hard to form friendships when people were often coming and going, but I was gregarious and Cedar Lake offered plenty of fun for a kid. I wandered about and explored the area with our dog Honeybuns, my trusty golden collie–German shepherd companion.
The summers were much different than the winters. In the summer, the camp was busy and full of excitement, with all sorts of new people to befriend and chitchat with. I was especially fond of wandering around the campsites during breakfast, hoping people would share their delicious Coleman stove–cooked eggs, bacon, sausages, and/or pancakes with me. I’d lie, saying I hadn’t had breakfast yet. Sure, I’d love to join you! My name’s Carl! I actually got in trouble for this, as one woman went to the camp’s manager, outraged that there was some starving kid living in the camp. I remember young Christians in bizarre costumes performing strange biblical skits in the little amphitheater by the lake. I came across a bear cub that had gone out onto the dam’s narrow walkway to get some drinking water, but had trouble turning back around to leave and was awkwardly backtracking toward the woods, with Mama bear’s worried roars in the distance. There were girls sunning themselves on the boulders and along the little beach area, or sitting on the diving board that was bolted to the largest boulder near the dam. I would sneak into the forbidden hollow sawmill—it had bars blocking the entrance, but I could squeeze through—which had dangerous gapping holes in the floor that dropped into a hundred-foot, boulder-clogged ravine. Once about fifty Boy Scouts took over a whole section of campsites, where they proceeded to sweep up pine needles along the dirt ground, scrub the boulders, and were generally obsessed with orderliness and tidiness. Mom, helping out in the kitchen during their stay, inflamed the diligent youngsters by accidentally applying cayenne pepper, not paprika, to their pork chops. It was mayhem in the Herriman Lodge cafeteria that evening. I remember a large group of Christian hippies who took over the meadow near our trailer and would sing folk songs about peace and love and Jesus late into the night, though I was more interested in the dude who could carve intricate nameplates out of soft wood. Then there was that time Billy caught and killed a rattlesnake rattling away in some bushes near the lake. A group of Christian girls around my age were walking by when they heard the rattling and started shrieking and running. Billy was nearby and took control. After he killed and skinned the good-sized rattlesnake, he cooked it up on a BBQ pit to prove to the girls—they were nervous yet thrilled—that rattlesnake did taste just like chicken, which was generally agreed upon all around. Later the camp manager, however, disapproved of the BBQ. He’d given Billy permission to get rid of any rattlesnakes on the property, but the BBQ would become a story, publicizing the dangers of rattlesnakes in the camp. The girls managed to talk themselves into quite a frenzy that night, their dreams-turned-nightmares full of deadly rattlers, keeping much of their lodge awake into the early hours.
We still had visitors in the winter, only much fewer, and only in the lodges and cottages. I recall the day I returned to our trailer, gleefully thwarted in my attempt to get to school because the melting snow had overflowed the creek near the camp’s entrance gate, washing away the sole road into and out of the camp, effectively isolating everyone inside. I liked to jump off boulders and roofs into snowdrifts, and throwing my giant mountain cat Sylvester off the trailer’s roof into snowdrifts. I was always managing to get myself stuck in snow drifts or embankments made by the snowplow. There was the time I was saucer-sledding fast down the steep slope next to one of the lodges, lost control and embedded myself backwards into a snow berm that collapsed and buried me, so that Billy had to come over and scoop me out. Or hauling ass with Billy on a snowmobile out in the open country behind the camp and hitting an unseen ditch, which pitched the snowmobile nose-first and threw me a good twenty feet, where I landed headfirst in the deep snow, with only my legs sticking out. Once again I needed Billy to yank me free.
Then there are more general memories: being afraid to take long baths because I didn’t want to get stuck in an earthquake naked; worries that Jaws was lurking in the lake; being bored; waking up under my bed after sleep walking again (something that had started back in Tahoe); getting to check out a crazy space vehicle while Hollywood was in the camp filming for the short-lived TV series version of Logan’s Run; the time when Billy was trying to teach me how to siphon gas and I sucked on the short piece of garden hose when I was supposed to blow, causing gas to pour into my mouth, and then gagging and staggering about; Honeybuns and Sylvester getting into a vicious fight with a pack of coyotes, though Sylvester kicked as much coyote ass as Honeybuns, both pets bloodied and badly cut up by the confrontation but still alive; our other dog Thaddeus who ate my entire box of sixty-four Crayola crayons (scoundrel!), followed by reports of brightly colored turds scattered throughout the camp for weeks; getting rides by any means possible (cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, snowmobiles, horses) to and from the bus stop for school, which was a long mile down the mountain. Billy especially enjoyed telling the one about seeing two gorgeous young women on horses coming into the camp; when he went over to say hello, a little innocent flirting, I popped my head out from behind one of them, having persuaded the beauties to give me a ride home.
My main last memory of Cedar Lake was not long before we left, when they emptied the lake—it looked like a giant bathtub slowly draining—to repair earthquake-related cracks in the dam. Billy was excited, getting a metal detector to scavenge the lake’s floor for unknown goodies. It took overnight for the lake to drain entirely, and the next morning, eager to see what treasures lay at the lake’s bottom, we were met with a putrid stench. The entire lake bed was coated in a greenish-black layer of slime and stringy weeds, with bloated dead fish all over the place (at one point the lake had been stocked with trout, catfish, and exotic carp for the visitors). There were swarms of mosquitoes and bugs and flies. And throughout the creepy apocalyptic landscape, there were various weed-entombed objects, mysterious but promising. Billy had me wear a bandanna for the reeking odor, but that didn’t help much. I wore my snow boots, which sank deep into the muck as we walked out—a couple of times I started sinking in way too deep and Billy had to pull me up and out. We found two props from Hollywood, both probably intentionally dropped into the lake during a pivotal scene: one was an old musket-style rifle, completely fake—mostly wood—with some metal pieces attached so it would sink to the lake’s bottom; the other prop was a strange wooden box with dollar signs emblazoned on its side, also fake, with nonfunctioning metal latches to give it weight. We opened up the Hollywood box, hoping that something thrilling—a time capsule of sorts—might be inside, but, of course, it was empty. Billy also found an expensive watch, which he kept, along with a few old coins, including a Buffalo Nickel. Otherwise it was your typical recreation fare: broken Frisbees, rusted lawn darts, badminton rackets, a football that looked like a massive prune, and many items that were simply deteriorated beyond recognition.
That was a crazy place. Hollyweird in ’71 or ’72—nothing like it that I’ve ever seen. People that weren’t fucked up beyond human recognition stood out like sunflowers in a pool of shit. I got a job bouncing at one of the brothels on the Strip that sort of fronted as a strip joint. And the girls that worked there were just as crazy as some of the guys that came to that joint. One girl lit another girl’s wig on fire in an argument over a pair of fucking shoes. I had to take her to the emergency room. No joke. It was kind of a tough job. Things were pretty loose back then, so you had to be on the ball. I caught several guys bringing in weapons and shit. One guy had a vial of some kind of acid he wanted to pour on one of the hookers’ faces. And there were just a lot of blitzed-out fuckers strolling down the Strip, looking for trouble. That’s the thing back then. I looked like a bad-ass and people were always trying to get me going, just to test themselves, especially the short guys. I generally had to beat respect out of people. Of course then they wanted to be my best friend. But when I was working I had to be cool. Man, I remember one day I nearly shit my pants when these three big-ass Angels came up to the door where I worked. They wanted to get in for free. The set-up was that you had to pay at the door to get in, then pay the hooker later. So, when I asked them to pay, they said, “Oh fuck that man, we’re the Angels, we go wherever the fuck we want. You got a problem with that?” I was shaking in my boots, even though I stood a good head above the tallest of them. But they were big motherfuckers. And you just knew. They could make you disappear if they really wanted to. I’d had good experiences in the past with them, but I’d also seen a couple of Angels go off up in Topanga. It wasn’t a pretty sight. They fought to hurt-like. They didn’t fuck around. But I stood my ground. “Listen, man, you gotta pay to get in, man. Those are the rules.” They looked at me a moment real hard, and I figured it was all over. I was scared shitless. My ass is grass for sure, I thought. But then, without saying a word, they just left. And that scared me even more. Jesus fucking Christ, I thought, what, are they going to get some other guys and just raid the place? But after a while my boss came out—a pretty scary guy in his own right—and told me the Angels were happy with my work. It turned out they fucking ranthe place! Can you believe that shit?! He told me they were happy because I was doing what they were paying me to do. If I was gonna stand up to three Hell’s Angels, than I sure as shit was going to stand up to some hard-up Marine or knife-wielding wetback looking for a freebie. It just goes to show ya, you never know what’s reallygoing on, no matter how smart you think you are. I worked there a whole summer before the guy next door got shot. There were a few parlors in the same block—down the street, next door. There was this huge black guy that did my job next door and we’d shoot the shit sometimes when it was slow. He was a funny fuck, had an endless supply of dirty jokes. And he was big. Must have been three hundred pounds. And the tubby bastard was always lifting dumbbells, all day long. But he was strong, too, not all fat—we arm-wrestled a couple of times and he beat me. He’d be telling me the one about the midget and the bald whore, all the while lifting his dumbbells. One day, in broad daylight, a couple of guys in ski masks robbed the place. They held him up and took him downstairs while they robbed the place. I guess he was tied up down there, but at some point he must’ve gotten loose because that’s when I heard the shots. Must have been five or six shots. Then the robbers came flying out the door. And, I couldn’t believe my eyes, the black guy—for the life of me I can’t remember his name—came staggering after them. He was bleeding like a stuck pig, but he kept coming. And they shot him like four or five times more. He finally went down. He was one tough motherfucker. And one stupid motherfucker. Why the hell die for someone else’s money? We were just hired hands. I wasn’t going to take any bullets for someone else’s cash. Needless to say, I didn’t stick around much longer after that. I had, shall we say, a moment of “job reevaluation.” I had to decide whether to start packing a gun at work, or get lost. My basic philosophy was, if I’m going to a knife fight, I bring a knife, and if I’m going to a gunfight, I bring a gun. Since I had already seen that things were on the gun level, I had to make a choice. I sure as shit wasn’t gonna just be a sitting duck. In any event, I decided they weren’t paying me enough to risk my life, so I quit. Which was fine. I had enough money to last me through the winter up at my tent anyhow. In fact, I lived like a king in Topanga that winter. There were a bunch of rainstorms and these crazy chicks kept coming across my tent and sleeping with me just for shelter. I didn’t mind. Some were pretty hot, too, even stayed a day or two. But others, they were nutty as hell, man. One time I got laid just because Tom had a shower. I met this chick at the Corral and she hadn’t bathed in God knows how long and, jokingly, she said I could fuck her if I’d let her use my shower. “Shit,” I said, “I ain’t got a shower, but my brother does. He’s right down there by the beach. He won’t mind.” And sure as shit, after she cleaned herself up—Tom wasn’t too happy about thatarrangement, but fuck him if he can’t take a joke—she made good on her promise. Topanga in those days was just chock-full of the crazed and wacked-out. And the funny thing is we all thought we had it good. We thought we were living in fucking paradise. I thought I was a regular Don Juan. I’m glad you never got too deep into drugs, Carl.