It happened in Death Valley, although I can’t confirm the contents of this story to be entirely true. Time has a sneaky way of covering up details with a filmy layer of haze. Over the years, my gaps in memory become all too susceptible to excesses of an overactive imagination. As a result, history becomes not so much about a record of actual circumstance; but rather a daisy-chain of fractured fairy tales linked together with real-life events. In any case, I will tell things the way in which I remember them. The reader can make any necessary distinctions separating facts from fiction.
Death Valley, Nevada (Photo courtesy of wiseGEEK)
It was the late summer of 1984, we had entered just Death Valley and we were two hours into our drive outside of Vegas. I was just eleven years old then. Christian was twelve; Shannah was nine; and Aaron was at the tender but mischievous age of six. We had spent the entire summer with our dad in Anaheim, California and we were heading back to Iowa in one of those Malibu Classic wood-paneled station wagons.
Nobody was wearing a seat-belt on this trip. I don’t believe anyone ever did back then. My dad had pulled the back seats out and made it real safe and cozy inside by replacing them with a innerspring mattress. Sprawled out in the back, with our bare feet pressed against the windows, we ate bologna sandwiches and shared a can of orange soft drink between the four of us.
My dad seemed a bit moody on the drive. He had just spent half his gas money on the slots at Circus Circus; while us kids sat upstairs watching a midget with over-sized boxing gloves getting pulverized by a kangaroo.
Circus Circus, Las Vegas, Nevada
Despite it all, the trip seemed to be going rather smoothly. I had just gotten comfortable and was ready to doze off to sleep when Aaron decided he had too much orange soda.
“I have to pee!” Aaron proclaimed from under a pile of blankets.
“Well you’re going to have to wait five minutes!”, my dad yelled back. “There’s a service station just up the road.”
“Hey dad! Do you think we can get Slim-Jims when we stop?,” I inquired, leaning over the front seat.
“Hey John”, my dad replied, “Do you think you can stop screaming in my ear? What happened to all those Slim Jims I bought earlier?”
“Aaron ate them all except for one”, I told. “He’s hiding that one in his pocket”
“Then make yourself another bologna sandwich if you’re still hungry! Money don’t just grow on trees you know!”
There was this long-standing tradition with my dad for any road trips extending more than a few hours. We always had bologna sandwiches. It was a real simple thing. He would purchase a loaf of white bread, a pack of Oscar Mayer bologna, and processed cheese slices. Then when anyone became hungry, he or she would be handed the plastic grocery bag of the various food items and they would be expected to slap themselves together a road sandwich. We never carried any coolers on our trips. I don’t know if anybody used them back then.
A sign reads “Last Gas Before Death Valley”
My dad pulled into a dilapidated service station that looked about as old as the Mojave Desert itself. The sun was casting ominous looking shadows against dingy white stucco walls. The gas station had a sort of place where time forgot feel to it. It was close to six in the evening. As dad stepped out at the pump and began refueling his thirsty machine, Aaron scrambled out from under his fort of blankets and exited the vehicle to go inside and pee. Christian and Shannah were fast asleep.
Thirty minutes later we were traveling out over an endless stretch of dusty road. A deep red sun began to set upon the horizon. I looked out over the landscape and watched cacti and other sparse forms of plant life passing me by in an immense ocean of sand. The desert was a very desolate, foreboding place. I remember thinking that I didn’t ever want to be stuck in such a place at night. Suddenly Shannah, who had been resting in the front passenger seat, shot up from her slumber.
“The Name Game!” she screamed.
Before I go on any further, let me explain to the readers the rules of this cruel and unusual form of driving torture known as the name game. Unless you’re under the age of twelve, it can hardly be called a game at all. Any participant, who would most likely be of prepubescent age, would start things off by screaming “The Name Game!” He or she would then immediately began with his or her own name. The whole thing was based on Shirley Ellis’ 1964 hit song of the same name. You know the one:
Katie, Katie, bo batie
Banana-fana fo fatie
Only in our version we made it into a road game with a special twist at the end. After the first screamer belted out all the various rhyming sounds of their name; they called out the name of another eager participant waiting in the car. It was a kind of passing of the torch if you will. The newly elected screamer would then play out his or her name, verse by verse, until finishing in a crescendo and calling out another’s name. The game would drone on an on until some brave young soul, most often situated well outside the armreach of Dad, would be daring enough to call out the name of “Chuck.” So now let’s go back to Shannah seated in the front seat.
“Shannah, Shannah, bo bannah
Banana-fana fo fana
Christian picked up the tune.
“Christian, Christian, bo bishen
Banana-fana fo fishin
Aaron!… Aaron…. Aaron… John wake up Aaron!”
I pulled the cover off of Aaron’s fort of blankets and was quite shocked to discover Aaron wasn’t there.
“Hey Dad”, I yelled, “where’s Aaron?”
My dad, traveling about sixty, slammed hard on his brakes.
As Dad tore across thirty miles of open desert back to that station, we barely said a word . I was scarcely able to breathe. No one could. My mind raced with so many questions that needed immediate answers. Would Aaron still be there? Did someone else pick him up? Was he scared? Did he eat that last Slim Jim he had tucked inside his pocket…, Oh God!”
When my dad came walking out of the gas station without Aaron we all began to cry. “Where is he, Dad?”, Shannah whimpered. “Where is Aaron?”
“Well, that clerk in there said some hippies pulled up in a blue Volkswagen van about 45 minutes ago…”, my dad paused, drew in a deep breath and continued.” They took him with them.”
“Nooooo!”, Christian screamed.
“Shut up!” my dad yelled. “Looky here! Look what I got here!” With trembling fingers, my dad pulled a folded piece of paper out his shirt pocket. Unfolding it quickly, he waved it out in front of our tear-streaked faces. “The clerk in there knows those people! The driver was his cousin and he says they come into his station all the time! They don’t have a phone but look at this; he drew us a map!”
I don’t remember much about the map, other than it was a very detailed piece of topography. Considering it had been scrawled out on notebook paper by a gas station attendant; the map was nothing short of remarkable. The journey to reclaim my brother became a slow-going, agonizing drive through haunted trails and arid shadow lands. We traveled over long forgotten roads almost entirely reclaimed by the desert’s shifting floor. The roads carried us twenty miles out into the heart of the Mojave. After what seemed an eternity, we came to an abrupt stop at a broken down guardshack amidst rusty strands of razor wire.
We had reached the entrance of an abandoned airbase not used since the end of the second world war. Upon our arrival at the complex, I was met with one of the darkest nights I’d ever known. The sky was moonless and void of a single star . There was but a lone red lamp that beamed over the looming metal doors of the aircraft hangar. A large black peace symbol had been spray painted over the hangar door marking the entrance into the hippies’ makeshift commune. The group’s Volkswagen van was parked out back, just behind the sprawling structure.
“Stay inside the car and lock the doors!”, my dad whispered. “I’ll go in and get him.” My dad left with the car running, keys in the ignition, and the doors locked from within.
The three of us kids, who hadn’t been kidnapped by a band of desert hippies, huddled together under a blanket in the back of the station wagon; our Dad walked swiftly towards the hangar to go rescue the one that had. I peered through an opening in the blanket and watched my dad bang his fist against the massive hangar door. A short time later a smaller personnel door opened at the side of the structure. The illuminating light escaping through the side door revealed a woman dressed in a hooded white robe. I saw my dad turn and walk towards the door before quickly disappearing inside. With the hangar door shut behind him and darkness restored, I laid down my head, closed my eyes, and waited…and waited…and waited… I don’t know how much time elapsed but somehow, amidst all the drama and suspense, I managed to drift into a sleep.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The sounds jolted me out of my sleep causing me to scream. “Dad, you scared me so bad!” My dad was standing outside the car beating on the window.
“Shut up and unlock this door!”
Christian climbed over the front seat and raised the door lock to allow my dad to poke his head inside.
“They invited us inside for dinner”, he said.
“But Dad, where’s Aaron?” Shannah inquired. “Why can’t we just get Aaron and leave?”
“Yeah Dad”, I chimed in. “We don’t need to eat with them. Let’s just get our brother and go. We still got this bag of bologna sandwiches”. I held up the plastic grocery bag but my dad just seemed to ignore it.
“Listen, Aaron is here. He’s fine. Things are just …well, sort of complicated. We will all go in there together, act real nice, and eat their food. Then when we’re finished we’ll all leave together with your little brother. Plain and simple, now get out the car!”
We all scrambled out the car into the cool desert air. My dad started towards the hangar and we followed. Halfway there he stopped midstride, turned his head towards us and instructed, “When we get inside don’t say a word unless spoken to. Don’t talk to me! Don’t say a word to your brother! Understand?”
No, I didn’t understand, None of us did. We just nodded our heads as expected and followed in our dad’s footsteps straight toward the door. I had no idea what to expect once we got inside. I just wanted to get my brother back.
We were greeted inside the hangar by the same woman I saw standing at the door earlier. “My name is Mistress O’Dreiw. My brethren and I thank you for joining us tonight.”
The hangar’s interior smelled of incense sticks and wet poodle; though I never saw any pets inside. At one time, this large high-ceiling facility had been used to house a number of airplanes. Now it stood transformed into a colorful maze of hanging tyed-eye blankets and strands of plastic beads. Holding an aqua-colored lava lamp to light her way, Mistress O’Dreiw led us into an area at the rear of the hangar near a burned out exit sign. We soon emerged into a large room partitioned off by flowy white sheets. A cardboard sign hung over the entrance of the room that read FELLOWSHIP HALL.
There were five others donned in white cloaks inside the room; though I could only make out four of them as we entered. Two were standing just inside the entrance, and two others were further back near the opposite wall. The room was dimly lit with just a few candles. As my eyes struggled to adjust to the poor lighting, Mistress O’Dreiw led us into the center of the room. We were seated in a semi-circle on the floor behind various dishes of food. As soon as I took my seat, something about the two cloaked men standing in the back of the room grabbed my attention. They were fanning another cloaked figure perched high on an elevated beanbag throne. It was a midgit…no…, my eyes were beginning to focus, it was…
My dad, seated to my left, smacked me in the back of the head.”Shhhh, don’t say his name!”
Mistress O’Dreiw walked to the foot of Aaron’s throne, bowed before him, and then turned to face us. Aaron smiled at me, popped a red grape into his mouth, and then proceeded to shoot me with a green plastic army man.
Mistress O’Dreiw looked down and addressed her bewildered guests.
“We are the Children of Cahrocia. Our destiny was bestowed upon us during an ordained galactic visit of the Grays. Our mission is to seek out the lost subterranean civilization that exists somewhere under the desert floor. There we will live harmoniously in golden pyramids, coexisting with the ancient reptilian race until the dawn of the apocalypse.”
Another woman cloaked in white suddenly appeared from under a wall of sheets. She was carrying a large metal urn on a platter. She approached us on the floor and very politely asked, “Would anyone care for some delicious grape kool-aid?”
I raised my empty glass to her and my dad quickly snatched it out of my hand. He turned to us with gritting teeth and whispered, “Don’t none of you want any kool-aid! You hear me? None of you!”
“But….”, I started to protest but was quickly silenced.
“Shhhh!” he put a finger to his lips. “Don’t drink the kool-aid and I will buy all of you a soda pop just as soon as we get out of here!”
The woman with the urn smiled politely and exited the room. Mistress O’Dreiw once more began to speak.
“The Grays came down to us again last night. They spoke of the chosen one.”
“The chosen one.” The cloaked men all repeated in unison.
“They said he would come to us like a child in the wilderness”, continued Mistress O’Dreiw. “They said he would have big eyes, fair skin, and golden hair. He would be our prince, our spiritual leader that would one day lead us to the lost subterranean civilization.”
My dad turned to me and whispered, “You didn’t drink any of that kool-aid did you?”
Mistress O’Dreiw continued on. “When we found our Guru Noraa standing alone outside the gas station we just knew he was the one that the Grays spoke of. And just like the rest of us, he’ll live a pure life committed to being organic, vegan, kosher, and 100% gluten-free! ”
Mistress O’Dreiw turned and bowed toward Aaron. Aaron returned her gesture by shooting her with his green plastic army man.
My dad got up off the floor and took to his feet. “Look lady”, he said, “I hate to break it to you but he’s not your Guru Noree! He’s my son!”
“Guru Noraa!”, Mistress O’Dreiw corrected. “You must address him correctly!”
“Guru Noroo”, my dad attempted the name again.
Misstress O’Dreiw became visibly flustered. “It’s Guru Noraa! That’s N-O-R-A-A!
“N-O-R-A-A?” my dad shouted. “You just took my son’s name and turned it around backwards. I’m taking my kid right now and we’re all getting the hell out of here!”
The four cloaked men rushed to the center of the room and seized my dad by his shoulders and arms. “It’s okay, my apology! It’s alright”, my dad assured them.”I’ll just sit back down and eat some of this delicious food! Besides, it’s always better to talk about things once everyone’s had a chance to cool down.”
The food was actually pretty good. We had Persian spiced lentil patties, garbanzo beans, and a roasted garlic kale and quinoa salad. The dessert though went well beyond excellence! To this day, I can’t figure out how they got a vegan brownie to taste that good! I was so enjoying the brownie that for a split second I forgot we were surrounded by a hippie cult; a hippie cult that had just kidnapped my little brother. I was only two bites into my brownie when Aaron looked down with a chocolate covered face and pointed at me.
“Brownie…Gimme his brownie.”
“Give Guru Noraa your brownie!”, ordered the cloaked men in unison.
“Dad, I don’t want to give him my brownie!”, I whined. “He already ate all the Slim Jims earlier and this one is mine!”
“Do what they say, give him your damn brownie!”
I got up and handed off the rest of my brownie to Aaron and then sat back down. I looked up at him to send him a dirty look and the boy was actually smirking at me.
“He’s smirking dad! He’s smirking at me!” I mumbled under my breath. My dad elbowed me .
The room became uncomfortably quiet for a second and then my dad cleared his voice as if preparing to speak. Before he had the opportunity to do so, Aaron interrupted him.
“Gimme his yoyo.”
“Give Guru Noraa your yoyo!” ordered the cloaked men in unison.
I looked left and then right but Aaron was definitely pointing at me. “I don’t have my yoyo anymore. I lost it”.
“It’s in his pocket.” Aaron had ratted me out.
“Dad, please don’t let him have my yoyo!” I begged. It’s my light-up yoyo that cost me 400 tickets at Chuck-E-Cheese’s! Do you realize how many games of ski-ball it took to win that thing?!”
My dad elbowed me. “Give him the damn yoyo!”
I sat back down and refused to look directly into the path of Aaron’s gaze. Still, through the corner of my eyes, I could see him smirking at me.
“Gimme me twenty dollars”. Aaron broke the silence again.
“Give Guru Noraa twenty dollars!” ordered the cloaked men in unison.
I began to panic. I didn’t have a single dollar to my name; but when I looked up, Aaron wasn’t pointing at me.
“I’m not going to give you twenty dollars, son!” my dad said. “This is gas money! If I give you twenty dollars we’ll be hitchhiking part of the way home!”
“Give Guru Noraa twenty dollars!” the cloaked men ordered again.
I elbowed my dad. “Give him the damn twenty dollars!”
My dad fished a twenty from his wallet and handed it to Aaron. He then whispered into Aaron’s ear loud enough for all to hear. “When I get you out of here, me and you are gonna go round and round!” My dad then walked over to us and sat back down.
Mistress O’Dreiw positioned herself to the right of Aaron’s beanbag throne and began once more to speak.
“I thank you all for coming tonight but I’m afraid now that’s it’s time the four of you leave. Guru Noraa has a long day ahead of him tomorrow and…”
The women’s speech was suddenly interrupted by the scream of one of the cloaked men. “Guru Noraa’s eating a …he’s eating a beef stick!”
At the sound of beef stick , Mistress O’Dreiw covered her ears, threw back her head, and let out a howl. “The chosen one has to be just like the rest of us! Organic, vegan, kosher, and 100% gluten-free. Get that brat and his family out of here!”
“See!” I told my dad as the cloaked hippies escorted us out of their compound, “I told you Aaron had the last Slim Jim hidden in his pocket!”
Thank you for reading this troubling story from my shattered past, I hope you will visit Big John’s Adventures in Travel again real soon. Feel free to explore other areas of my blog, post a comment, and show some love on social media.