Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Trip

"I think it's getting lighter... Maybe it's too early, but it looks like the sky is getting lighter."

Steve cocked a heavy eye to the sky above the mountains. “Yeah’ it’s getting lighter.”

More cars were streaming from the left. I kept guessing that the next line of them would be Hwy. 99. Each time I was wrong, so I stopped. The increased traffic told us two things: 1. People were headed to work & 2. We were no longer in the exact center of nowhere.

We were at the “back side” of the San Bernardino mountains, almost 900 miles from home.

We’d worked all day the day before, driven all afternoon, all evening. Night fell near Roseburg. Grants Pass provided a Burger King. I think it was near midnight when a representative of the State of California questioned us about any produce we might have. We snuck across the border without revealing the two bananas in the back seat.

We changed places now and then, rolling down I-5, but as it was dark most of our time was spent talking or listening to the stereo.

As we slid over the top of Grapevine Pass, traffic got thick, especially as we transitioned to Hwy. 210.

We pulled off the freeway, in the general direction of our destination, looking for coffee. McDonald’s or Subway? Subway. The breakfast sandwich wasn’t too bad; I recharged my phone. We chatted quietly about our drive, the kids we saw walking to school, our mission.

We were a couple hours from the insurance agency where Dad had stashed the better items. We got there a couple of hours before our appointment. We found a burger place where Steve changed into his California duds: shorts and sandals.

I cleaned up travel debris from the back seat, cleared the Jeep’s rear compartment for our cargo. A half dozen garbage trucks crowded into the parking lot, a Hunter S. Thompsonesque convention. Perhaps Castenada, I dunno. A dozen cheerful garbage truck drivers milled around.

We reconnoitered the industrial park where the insurance agency was, noting entries (which I later forgot) and the alley where there was a sort of garage. We laughed at the idea of scoping it out first, noting there weren’t any snipers in sight.

We needed beer.

Unfortunately, California seems to have a dismal appreciation for beer.

We discovered California’s appalling lack of micro brews during the night when we tried to get a beer at a Denny’s somewhere in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t serve beer (apparently there are only two Denny’s in California which do), but we were welcome to buy some at the truck stop store and bring it in. There we discovered the best they had to offer was Miller Light. We settled for coffee.

The same was true for Rancho Cucamonga. No decent beer. No IPA’s. No amber ales. No dark, no light, no hand crafted pilsners. We found a Mexican restaurant that had Coronas, which would do.

The time came. We went to the agency. Steve waited bleery eyed in the car while I went in.

The guy wasn’t there.

I waited.

Steve waited.

The agent called. Someone would show me where our items were. We pulled around the building and I backed through the open garage door.

Under a comforter, atop an old desk, was the pile of stuff we had come for.

Several rifles, shot guns, a converted WWII 50 caliber tripod mounted machine gun. Stuff like that.

“Where’s the Luger?”

The guy didn’t know.

“There was supposed to be a Luger. There was supposed to be a bunch of hand guns.”

He didn’t know.

I loaded everything carefully, very carefully, into the back of the Jeep. Ammo went into the back seat, away from the guns.

We were supposed to meet a relative of mine and exchange these items for money to send to my dad who is very ill, nine time zones away. I’d been clearly told not to contact a gun dealer. This relative was to be trusted.

Should I call him? Where were all the other guns? An aunt was supposed to have some. Perhaps my dad’s ex wife had the other guns? I called her, left a message. Called my aunt, explained the situation.

“Will, we have a bunch of guns here, but there aren’t any hand guns. There’s a rocket, and a bazooka, and I think some sort of bomb.”

I looked at Steve. He had his head cocked, listening to my aunt over the speaker.

I decided I’d head to my aunt’s.

“I’m only going to say this once, then I’ll let it go.”

Steve didn’t look happy.

“Tell me you called this guy first. Tell me you did everything you could to know where everything was, and what was supposed to be where.”

“I did. I phoned this guy, I emailed him. I was told there were 30 or 40 guns here. I don’t know what happened to the rest.”

Steve didn’t look satisfied.

“And I didn’t know about a bazooka, or rockets, or,” I couldn’t help smiling a little at the weirdness of what I was saying, “a bomb.”

“OK. I can accept that. Let’s get to your aunt’s and figure this out.”

He was as good as his word.

My aunt is sweet. She welcomed us in. As we pulled up she waved and moved her Cadillac out of the drive so I could back the Jeep up against the garage. She gave me a big hug, welcomed Steve, and swept us into her condo.

My aunt introduced her partner to Steve, got us something to drink.

My sister wanted three of the best guns. She was in Cincinnati or Chicago or somewhere. Long haul trucker. Three of the best out of what was looking like only 20 or so guns. I set that aside for now.

“So where are the guns?”

She showed me. More rifles. More shot guns. The bazooka had a hole in the side of its barrel. The rocket launcher was in two or three pieces. I think. I don’t know that much about them. There was a rocket sort of thing. It didn’t look like it worked. I’d seen one on the TV show Sons of Guns and it should have had a grenade type pin in it, and the bottom didn’t look like it would accept the lifting charge.

“Where’s the bomb?”

“Right there by the door.”

I picked it up.

“Aunt Mary, this isn’t a bomb.”

“Really?! What a relief!”

“It’s a smudge pot. There should be a wick under there, and you fill it with diesel and light it to keep the frost away from the trees in an orange grove.”

“Oh! I remember those!!!”

“Yeah. It’s actually kind of cool, but it’s really nothing more than an antique door stop.”

We got ahold of my dad’s ex and tried to figure out what happened to all the hand guns and other rifles.

Apparently the guns had wandered out of my dad’s former office. They never locked the door and people, friends, former employees, and acquaintances had been streaming in and out of there for months, ever since my dad had moved to Thailand.

The hand guns and who knew what else were gone. What was in that living room, and what was in the back of the Jeep, was all of it.

I texted my relative, wrote I was ready to sell. He texted back. He didn’t want to meet that afternoon. If we could wait until morning he would bring four more guys who were also interested in buying stuff.

Do you know these guys well? Can I trust them?

Yes. I know them well. It’s OK.

I can’t take checks on something like this.

We have cash. See you at 10:00 tomorrow.

My aunt’s partner, a former homicide detective, offered advice. “Make your deal, but be careful. Do not go to a gun dealer. They will go in the back and you won’t like what happens. There’s nothing wrong with this in Oregon, they sell guns there as easy as selling shoes. But here in California, things are a little stricter.”

Our weariness was clear and my aunt showed us where we could nap. A couple hours later I felt normal. Sort of.

My aunt and her partner (who was very upbeat considering she’s had 18 operations for cancer in the last five years) took us out for dinner.

They wanted to take us to “the coolest restaurant ever.” A chinese buffet. Steve and I exchanged glances, but what the heck.

“Sure! Sounds good!”

They were astonished to find the restaurant closed. Permanently.

Across the parking lot was a Mexican food restaurant. Bright colors, surfboards, shark & turtle skeletons, all sorts of funk, was crammed into the small building. Plants sprung from every remaining nook and the outdoor propane space heaters were inviting.

What a great meal!

Did we want some guacamole? It’s free...

We did.

A young woman brought out a tray with a couple of avocados, onions, cilantro, and spices. Soon we were dipping chips into the best guac ever.

They mixed the margaritas at our table too.

The food was fantastic.

We went back to the condo.

Steve dozed while we talked.

I haven’t had such a good talk with my aunt and her partner in all my adult life. We talked faith and family and I poured myself a few shots of bourbon. We talked until 1:30 in the morning.

Then I went to bed. I hadn’t slept more than two hours in two days.

I got up at 5:30, showered, packed.

My aunt sent us off. She helped me wrap the guns (etcetera) in garbage bags and slip them into the back of the Jeep.

She gave us a sack of chicken salad sandwiches.

“Have a safe trip! Don’t go to a gun dealer or anyone like that. Be careful!”

Off we went to Huntington Beach.

I found a parking spot near the pier and Steve and I strolled past the surfers, skaters, joggers, and those also seeking breakfast to a sports bar where we found all we wanted.

I think one of the best parts of the trip was getting to know Steve. We talked a lot, along all those miles. When Steve had heard about what I planned to do, and why, he offered to help. It seemed like too much to ask of someone, but he volunteered and I accepted.

Steve is who I thought he was.

He may not be exactly love beads and paisley, but he’s as close as anyone comes any more and I am glad to call him a friend.

“I want to tell you a story.”

I looked up from my beer and Mexican breakfast thingie.

He told a little story. The upshot was that he was glad to have helped me in this little adventure, but he’d rather not be at the climatic moment.

So, when it was time I dropped Steve off at a 50’s style diner and went to the industrial park where I was to meet my relative and his four friends.

My iPhone guided me to the address but it didn’t look right. The parking lot was torn up, no blinds on the windows, no furniture in the office. The gate was damaged and there was graffiti on the wall. I got out.

10:00 on the nose. No one there.

I got back in the Jeep. If Steve had been there, he would have given me that look he gave me the day before when he said he was only going to ask once.

A car pulled up, drove by slowly. The two men in it weren’t familiar. Not my relative.

I got in the Jeep, pulled onto the street. The other car pulled into the parking lot. I paused, backed up, parked, got out.

“Are you Will? Yeah, you must be. You look like your dad.”

We shook hands, made introductions. My relative showed; he’d brought his three year old. They’d been to the firing range getting the little tyke his gun safety practice.

A water leak had flooded the office, parking lot, and that is why it was all under construction. I pulled the Jeep behind the building and backed up to the back door.

We began unloading the guns. It was quite a lot of them when all spread out. We set the WWII machine gun up on its tripod with the ammo belts around it. There were quite a lot of ammo boxes, the metal military type, and one large wooden crate.

I laid out the rifles and shot guns, and though it was a loss of money for my dad, I was glad there weren’t hand guns. Well, the German Luger might have been cool.

The other guys weren’t going to show.

That was OK. They started picking up guns, talking about what they were.

There was a very crude, probably British, machine gun. There were lots of shotguns, deer rifles, military weapons.

A gun with a folding bayonet was a 1955 Russian M44. It had probably been kicked around the Soviet Union for a while and eventually sold to the North Vietnamese. It probably found it’s way to the states in the duffle bag of a returning U.S. soldier.

There was a musket, a 250 Savage, a couple of 19th century Winchesters, a 30-06, many more.

The relative said “Look what I found.”

We turned to see him holding a hand grenade.

“Put it down!” we all said.

“I don’t think it’s loaded, look.” He held up the bottom to us, showing a hole in it.

He fingered the ring.

“Don’t touch that!” we all said. He smiled and put it down.

One guy was particularly knowledgeable, and especially tight with his money offers.

“What kind of work do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a gun dealer.”


It turned out pretty good. I walked away with eight guns and a large amount of cash.

I was ready to head home.

Steve wasn’t.

“We did it!” I said. “We sold what I could and now I can drop some money into the bank where Dad will be able to get at it.”

A waitress asked if I wanted a menu. “No thank you.”

“I’m glad,” he said. He looked at me closely, smiled a little.

“I know you want to get home to your family, but I have to ask. We aren’t that far from my son’s house, and I’d like to see him.”

I hesitated. Almost a thousand miles north was my wife and child. His son was 75 miles in the other direction. We had to.

So we did.

I’m glad we did.

Steve has a very good son. He was the perfect host. His wife made a fantastic tortilla soup. The little boy was very cute.

I took a four hour nap, and was ready for the road.

The drive back was long. Very. We ran out of steam somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Slept for an hour at a rest stop.

We listened to a funny audio book, laughing until we had tears rolling down our cheeks. We talked about everything. Family, faith, friends. We debated if the mileage signs indicated the nearer edge of a city or its center and tested our theories (Steve was right, it’s the center). We rolled through sunshine and rain and snow. Twice the freeway came to a stop. Accidents.

And finally, I pulled into Steve’s driveway.

I’ve given my brother a couple of guns to remember Dad by. I’ve sold the rest. The money was deposited and he has drawn it out to get the medical equipment he needed. I kept a souvenir C ration.

A few pages aren’t enough to fully share what those four days, those 2200 miles were like. Eleven hours sleep isn’t enough to do such a trip, but we did it. I shan’t do it again, but, it’s good to know I can still muster that sort youthful endurance.

A few pages isn’t enough to fully share the sights and experiences, the huge snowflakes, the mountains, the stories, the laughs, the nervous moments.

A few pages isn’t enough to fully share what it’s like to find a friend like Steve.


Ame said...

a real, true, sincere, friend is a priceless treasure ... and what a story!

Marvin the Martian said...

Nice M1919 .30-cal. I've been thinking of getting one, but I really don't want the expense of feeding it.


What an adventure. It's nice to have those. <3

Judas Hate said...


And a second WOW! And you know I'm a gun dealer, right? Too cool.

Betty Courtney Bailey said...

Boy, you really know how to tell a story! What an adventure! And yeah, it is great to have a friend like Steve....and the guns are nice, too. :)

Jada's Gigi said...

Those kinds of friends are one in a million....what an adventure! and hello