Lone Star Brewery, Texas
June 26, 2006
(Originally appears in Narrative Magazine, Spring 2010, http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/spring-2010/lone-star-brewery-texas
I was trespassing, taking photos at the abandoned Lone Star Brewery, a 1930s post-Prohibition temple once known as the “world’s most beautiful brewery.” Now, ten years deserted after a succession of owners—Olympia, Heileman, Stroh, and Pabst—the brew house smokestacks still dominated the San Antonio River skyline and struck me as a decaying treasure of Americana, gutted and sublime.
Inside the steel door of the warehouse, I framed a shot and clicked the shutter. The image—an empty bay crisscrossed by light from shattered windows—was overexposed, blurry. As I adjusted settings to try again, I heard a noise and froze. Whatever lobbed the sound was too close for me to grab my gear and run. A shadow broke the light bleeding in from the doorway, and a German shepherd’s muzzle poked through.
A leather strap ran from the dog’s neck to a 250-pound security guard sporting camo pants, a black ball cap, a gold badge, a three-foot Maglite, and a holstered chrome heater. I hoped the guy would shoot to wound instead of putting one through my ten ring. I shoved my hands up and said, “Hello.” At the sound of my voice, the dog pulled so hard on the lead his bark choked. The guard sprung into a SWAT stance, yanked his hand cannon, leveled it at my skull, and yelled.
The guard struggled against the ninety-pound dog. Diamond studs quivered on his ears. His badge flapped, and his shined jackboots caught shards of sunlight. His torso, composed more of Lone Star than muscle, stretched his gray, pitted-out, starched shirt. Short sleeves exposed black-and-red forearm tattoos. He holstered the piece and spewed German at the mutt. I caught words like Zeus, nein, schlecht Hund, Fuß, setzen. Police K-9 school washouts must drift to low-bid security companies. The guard ordered me to turn around, spread my legs. With Zeus’s breath on my thigh, the guy planted a boot between my feet, frisked me, forced my arms down, and cuffed me.
“Is that necessary?”
“You damn right it is. What’re you doing here?”
“Taking pictures. I’m not vandalizing.”
“I hear that shit all the time.” Mountain Dew and Marlboros rode his breath as he rifled my shorts pockets. “Anything gonna stick me?”
He swiped my keys, phone, and wallet. Zeus panted as the guard dissected my billfold. Dust hovered on the musty air’s scraps of light. I ran the calculations. Best case: a sunk career; worst case: something between Deliverance and Pulp Fiction. The guard fingered my military identification.
“You air force?”
“I’m calling Lackland to haul you to base. Felony trespassing.”
I wanted to poleax this hayseed but squashed the thought. Sweat seared my eyes, and squinting just made the burn worse. As I wrestled my wrists against the cuffs, Zeus growled. The guard gabbed at his radio and repeatedly gripped the dinged flashlight’s shaft. His silver skull rings clanked the aluminum.
“Dispatch, Bravo seven . . . call Lackland. I got one of theirs in custody.”
A static voice replied. The guard eyeballed my ID.
“You’re an officer?”
Grabbing me by the cuffs, the guy shoved me so hard my foot caught the threshold and I nearly face-planted. I didn’t ask about my gear. Zeus jumped in the back of a white Jeep Cherokee, and the guard directed me to do the same, pushing my head down, just like on Cops. Zeus sniffed my ear and growled. We crossed a parking lot, where beer trucks once queued, toward the factory’s farside.
“Bravo seven, dispatch. Lackland wants an ID on your suspect.”
“Dispatch, Bravo seven. Disregard.”
“No copy, Bravo seven.”
“Disregard Lackland request. Situation resolved.”
He peered at me in the rearview.
“You’re lucky you’re an officer. If you were enlisted, I’d burn you.”
At the far corner of the lot he braked and told me to get out. The sun touched the roofs of the houses beyond the razor wire, and we stood in the shadows. I-10 traffic and cicadas droned in the humid mosquito air. I wondered if the guard was a disgruntled vet who wanted to exact some revenge on a stray captain. Had he been in the war? Was he going to order me to my knees? I braced for impact.
Instead, he stuffed the contents back into my billfold, tossed it on the hood, and unlocked the cuffs.
“This place is dangerous. I catch cholos here with nines all the time.”
“So, I’m lucky you caught me.”
“Who knows what they’d do. We set booby traps—trip wires, flares—to catch taggers.” A grin spread under his Fu Manchu. “You think these big flashlights are for seeing in the dark?”
We loaded back into the Jeep and zipped toward structures reflecting the sun’s sherbet glow. We stopped at the red-and-white warehouse, and the guard retrieved my gear. He pointed to a gate twenty yards away. Our shadows unfolded in front of us as we walked.
“Don’t let me catch you here again.”
He jerked a key from his chained key holder, unlocked a padlock, uncoiled a rusty chain, and tugged the gate open.
“I’ll watch your six until you hit your ride.”
Alone on Lone Star Boulevard, I slunk back to my Camry. As the guard secured the factory behind me, the rattle of the chain sounded no more threatening than a kid locking his bike. I checked my back. The Cherokee hugged Lone Star’s perimeter until I crossed the bridge.
(Originally published on Mississippireview.com, now Blip Magazine, Fall 2009)
The crash and slip of tectonic plates spawns earthquakes. But the ancients’ explanations resonate with me. Certain Hindus thought earth rides four elephants, balanced on a turtle’s back, tottering on a cobra’s head; the earth shakes when any of these creatures shift. For Siberians, earth perches on the god Tuli’s sled and the land quivers when his dogs scratch fleas. Namuzu, a catfish curled in the mud under Japan, thrashes when his subduer—the demigod Kashima—gets careless. Vaqueros blame El Diablo ripping the earth from the inside. Some Greeks blamed Poseidon; others blamed shifting air pockets. Further suspects include the Great Spirit, Atlas, Drebkuhls, Chibchacum, raging underground seas, seven serpents, thunder, Loki, vengeful angels, a cross-dressing demon named Poxono, giants and their wives, frogs, whales, and thunderbirds. Several scientists argue that unlike most calamities, earthquakes trigger human beings’ primary fear—falling.
GI Joe just reminded me “that knowing is half the battle” when a low-thunder rumble, from too far away, rose above my crunchy mouthful of Froot Loops. The joint cracks of 2x4s and drywall punctuated the growl like a brittle invalid forced to stretch. Dual-mirrored candle holders swayed above the dining room table like twin faces disagreeing in unison. The brass light fixture, with eight tear-drop bulbs, carved lazy eights in the air.
Just then, my father—the chief of police—grabbed my 1st grade bicep. Shaving cream gave a Santa Claus feel to his anxious eyes. He didn’t have his shirt, but a badge and holster hung on his dress belt. He didn’t know what to do. A Hoosier new to the Golden State, Dad was better equipped to deal with twisters and doped-up college kids than tectonic plates liquefying beneath his feet. Images of the Big One—California falling into the sea—percolated through his brain. Instead of bracing under the sturdy oak table, we scrambled to the master bedroom. He tried to shove me under the California king, but I was too husky. The shaker ended before I stood up.
That day I heard older school kids chattering about a tsunami—the whole Pacific Coast under some sort of tidal wave alert. Worn out teachers explained the 3.4 temblor couldn’t generate a killer wave, but their words didn’t soothe my paranoia. That night I dreamt of a towering green-black wall of water—backlit by the moon—barreling toward me. This old water monster slams the shallows, soars up, looms over the houses, and pauses; a ten-story killer just milliseconds from obliterating Goleta, California.
My nine-year-old dream of the zoo’s misty rainforest vanished when Dad snatched me from bed and hauled me out of grandma’s two-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor of Grace Tower, a San Diego retirement home. Dazed from sleep, I thought we were taking out the garbage at 5 a.m. Grandma held fast in her recliner, knitting and smoking Virginia Slims. As we traded the apartment’s cigarette air for the hallway, I heard her, “If it’s my time, it’s my time.”
Shoeless, we scrambled down the outdoor stairwell cleaved to the building’s spine. While hopping the concrete steps, I realized it was an earthquake. Maybe it was the tower’s swaying or maybe Dad told me. The shaker was over before we hit the stairs, but that didn’t slow our escape into the earthquake. Out of breath at street level, Dad declared an end to our vacation, and an immediate high-speed run back up the coast. I sheltered in place—in the cardboard brown Nissan Sentra—while Dad climbed back up to pack. In the car, I heard stale-voiced newscasters report on damage and aftershocks. The Oceanside quake registered 5.3 on the Richter, a force equivalent to 150 kilotons of TNT or 10 Little Boys, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. One person died, a hermit crushed by his bookcase.
My old man—a die-hard Catholic—said we all die, we aren’t in control, and not to worry about it because there is nothing we can do. During mass at Saint Raphael’s that Sunday, I peered at the car-sized light fixtures—wrought iron, flying-saucer shaped masses—waiting to jackhammer me into the kneeler after their flimsy chains snapped. And the stained glass. Lead and edges, one step from bullets and blades. I conjured splintered shards imploding and pinning me to the pew.
San Jose creek tumbled its way toward the Pacific a block from my childhood home. Tim and I waded the waters scooping tad poles and casting salmon eggs for fish that weren’t there. Once we scoped an old milk bottle jutting from a steep bank fifty feet above the stream. A colony of tiny black ants thrived within the jug’s frosty glass. We pried the container from the dried soil and watched the ants scramble as their world flipped. A moment later, I palmed the bottle and softball lobbed it toward the calm waters. The jug whirled on its parabolic trajectory slinging its contents like spin paint as I shook ants from my hand. An explosion of glass—then soil, ants, and eggs floated or fell to the surface, spreading in rings from the epicenter. We clambered to the stream to view the carnage as the San Jose’s waters scurried the ant world to sea. Survivors clung to each other and brittle brown sycamore leaves.
Villagers in Eastern Europe or Southern Asia use a failsafe earthquake warning system. Like canaries in coal mines alerting miners to poison gas, ants in ant hills can sense seismic spasms. People eyeball the mound from time to time, and if they spot frenzied ants—hauling eggs from the nest—then a tremor is imminent. In California, many believe cats and dogs can sense temblors. Experts discount people’s beliefs that insects or animals can predict earthquakes.
Fifth grade football practice on La Canada Elementary’s shabby turf. As a skinny lineman on the Scorpions, I willed practice over so I could get home to watch Game 3 of the World Series, the Battle of the Bay… A’s versus Giants. McGwire and Canseco were due. My coaches, a trio of gritty sergeants from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, wanted to be home watching the game too. One of the assistants—Ellis, an Air Force cop—had played ball at Clemson, and yelled too much. The sun hovered above a wall of fog chugging in from the Pacific. The sergeants seemed meaner than usual. Their ire likely targeted Andy, the kid who bawled at practice the day before. The sergeants wanted us tough, to peel our baby fat. Tackling drills.
There was no way I could have felt the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake killing dozens nearly 300 miles from me. The shaker would have felt like thunder if I wasn’t battle-royalling another kid between the two tattered yellow dummy bags. The truck’s radio blared when Dad picked me up. I expected Al Michaels’ voice propped up by background crowd noise. Instead, newscasters droned about pancaked highways, a broken bridge, and exploding row houses. Later, I read motorists’ accounts: “The bridge was like a wave. I saw the bridge go up and down and then I passed out,” or “the freeway was just falling down. Concrete was flying everywhere and people were screaming.” I watched news videos of the Superman cars trying to jump the gap in the Bay Bridge. Could they just not stop, or were they trying to escape—to span the void?
Parkinson tremors shake up insidious, unpredictable, and terrifying consequences just like the spontaneous flux, rupture, or twist of tectonic plates. Like fault lines crisscrossing California, Dad’s synapses and nerves cradled a terrifying potential. His motor cortex and spine, a personal San Andreas. A lack of the key neurotransmitter, dopamine, generates Parkinson’s, and the friction between two chunks of crust churns up earthquakes. No chemicals or hormones can ease the tension between these tons of rock just as they can’t relieve Parkinson’s. Medications can’t penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Brain surgery can temporarily mask symptoms, but it becomes futile, like riding out an earthquake in a doorway.
Dad spent every minute wondering not if or when, but how his world would shake. It began simply with a twitch in the hand, a jumpy leg. Not crumpled bridges, or flattened schools, but the helplessness of not being able to carry a cup of water, walk to the bathroom, or work a fork. He lived in a world of aftershocks constantly reminding him the Big One was coming.
Often earthquakes don’t kill, but their side effects do. It’s not the earth’s shaking, but the movement of things—buildings, glass, furniture, water—that slaughter. In the great San Francisco quake of 1906, fire consumed more lives than seismic waves. The 4th deadliest shaker in history slammed countries ringing the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. It registered 9.3, roughly 26.3 megatons of TNT or 1500 Little Boys. The quake—off Sumatra, 19 miles below sea level—unleashed 10-story tsunamis. More than 230,000 people—the population of Birmingham, Orlando, Scottsdale, or Jersey City—died not from the shaking, but the walls of sea water.
Many diseases don’t kill, but their side effects will. Choking, pneumonia, falling, or dementia usually claims Parkinson sufferers. Dementia ravages 40 percent of Parkinson’s patients. For my father, dementia was his Big One. Three years before his death, he fell into a choppy sea of memories, hallucinations, and delusions. His past blurred with the present, marooning him in time and place. Early on, his grip on reality overpowered the episodes. He could rationalize his way out, lulls in the storm.
Eventually, the delusions and hallucinations became his reality. Frequently he was two states and decades away. Sometimes he left the house for 3 a.m. appointments. He called the sheriff to rid the house of invisible trespassers. Mom moved his guns out, sold his truck, and took his keys. Dad blamed my Mother. She conspired with the spacemen. In 2005, I was charged as an accomplice when I couldn’t take him to a 1977 Illinois Elks Lodge for a Pabst. His grandkids were alien progeny. He unpacked and reshuffled thirty years worth of police records daily. He showed my wife crime scene Polaroids from yesterday’s twenty-five-year old murder.
He said “this is the damndest stuff; I’m not sure how it will end up.” The medicines wore off with sleep, and most nights he was paralyzed in bed with his runaway mind. He slept with a hand-crank radio, sports commentators linked him to reality and lulled him to troubled sleep. Once, raccoons, skunks, and porcupines scurried around his room, under his bed—glared from the windowsill. He asked me to help oust the rodents, and warned me about their short fuses. He recommended a soft “shhhh” sound. Together we shooshed away the varmints.
The VA dementia unit’s locked doors open in one direction, and they buzz to let staff and visitors in. Once I walked in his room to find him under the bed. His bare feet jutted out, like a Wizard of Oz witch or shoeless mechanic. The orderly said he’d been under there for an hour.
“What’s going on, Pop?”
“Damn earthquake, so I got under the truck.”
“A big one?”
“Not too bad.”
“Why are you still under there?”
“Figured I should fix this thing while I was here.”
“Can I help?”
“Sure, hand me that crescent.”
On my knees, I handed my father an imaginary wrench as he tinkered with the motors and rods of the wheeled hospital bed. When he finished, I grasped his still muscular arms, helped him to his feet. Later, I sat at the foot of his bed and wished he could somehow get us out of this mess. On the way out, I stood in the doorway and clutched the frame.
Pry, Pick, and Claw
(Originally appears in Hot Metal Bridge, Spring 2010, http://hotmetalbridge.org/sleep-on-it/pry-pick-and-claw/
“Old lady’s dead in the tub. Always find ’em in the tub,” mumbled chief as I shuffled into the half-burnt single-story. Debris crunched under my turnout boots, and I focused on the blue beyond the beams. Steam bled from blackened two-by-fours, and water drops pattered my coat. The smell of bar-b-que and garbage rode the air. I was a volunteer. This was my first fire, and I was on mop-up—the heroes already departed. I felt strong and awkward with the gear, and wondered if the smoke and sirens would ever feel routine. With a slow motion swing, I knocked a glowing ember from a door frame with the drop-forged alloy Halligan—a combo pry bar, claw, adze, club, and pick—the tangible result of the training mantra “Never go without a tool.”
An old-timer at the Texas A&M Fire School—just miles from George Bush’s library and the deadly bonfire collapse—said “Never know when you’ll need to get your ass in or out!” At thirty inches and twelve pounds, the Halligan felt balanced, hefty, and useful, but somehow inadequate. Invented in the ’40s by New York fire chief, Irishman Hugh Halligan, firefighters use the tool to punch locks, pry doors, pull walls, pound beams, lift furniture, snap chains, bust windows, shut off gas, and provide footholds, to name a few. Halligan showed it to the fire commissioner who said “you can do anything with this tool,” and every truck in New York still carries one.
A few months before, I visited the local volunteer fire house with my oldest boy’s Scout pack, and realized the potential for a part-time escape from the office doldrums. My daytime desk job made me miserable, but I couldn’t quit since I had a pregnant wife and three kids to support. I applied with the suburban San Antonio department, and told them I’d wanted to be a firefighter since I was five. The crew vouched me in, and trained me to be a member of a station that didn’t even cover my neighborhood. My wife asked me why, and I didn’t have an answer. I spoke of civic duty, but a rush of lights, hoses, and hydraulics roiled inside.
A singe ran down my spine when the chief mentioned the body. In the cubicle, I never had to deal with the dead. Half of me wanted escape, but the other half yearned to look. “You should see your face,” he said. “I’m screwing with you. Everyone got out.” I felt my shoulders relax, smiled, and my knuckles whitened on the Halligan.
“Started here. Oxygen machine,” he said pointing to a bulbous heap of plastic near a skeletal nightstand. “Granny was smoking Kools on her O’s.” A humid breeze snuck in a broken window. Melted glass hung limp across the window frame in icicle strands. “Grandkids were Xboxing when they smelled smoke. Grandma ran out—arms burned.” Cylindrical candle glasses—fogged and free from their images of Christ and the Virgin Mary—lay scattered about a torched dresser.
“Where’s mom and dad?” I asked.
“That’s the kicker,” chief said. “It’s their honeymoon.”
“Honeymooning on Lake Travis,” he said. “This is his house, and those are his kids. Grandma is his bride’s mom, and she moved in a couple days ago. I told him his kids were safe at his ex’s, his new mother-in-law stable at Baptist, and half his house burned down.”
“How’d he take it?”
“How do you think?” he replied. “You keep an eye on things, and take off in an hour or so.”
With that the chief moseyed out and across the crab-grassed yard to his SUV. He tossed his helmet onto the passenger seat, pawed a snuffed stogie from a shirt pocket, re-lit it with a Zippo, and drove off.
Inside the gutted ’60s track home I heard the drone of cicadas and I-25 traffic in the mosquito air. The house’s unburned half bore the opposite of flood damage—a soot-colored tinge from ceiling to waist.
In the backyard, a keg floated in a garbage can, and plastic chairs littered the lawn. While exploring the dim kitchen a diesel F-250 rumbled into the cul-de-sac—maroon, white stripes, camper shell, winch, and Tracker bass boat. The rig pulled up the drive. I hadn’t expected this, figured they’d hit the hospital before diving into the wreckage. I stood by the house’s darkened front door as the 250’s door flung open.
“That fucking bitch,” shouted the driver, a 200-pounder sporting cargo shorts, Oakley’s, and an Astros cap.
“Fuck that fucking bitch. God damn it!”
He pummeled the truck’s hood with a fist, and stormed toward me as if I was invisible. He open-palmed the brick façade, and stomped around the remains.
The sun-burnt bride sat in the truck, head in hands. Straight blonde hair hid her face. Her neon green tank top only amplified the burn. I slinked over to Engine 3—the brush truck, a Ford pickup with Darley 250 gallon per minute pump—and reeled the trash line. I wanted to speak to the bride, reassure her that her mom should be okay. Instead I double-checked pump controls, and fiddled with the radio handset. Shouts and dull thuds leaked from the house. Eventually, the groom emerged… his white Bass Pro Shops tee stained as if he wrestled a 40-pound bag of Kingsford. He was pacing his front yard when I approached unsure of what to say.
“Sorry about your place… I’m heading out. Need anything?” I asked.
“There may be hot spots. Call if anything flares up,” I said surprised that I didn’t trip on the words.
As I unlatched the compartment above the driver’s-side rear wheel, I watched the man crumple on the curb. He rifled his pockets to pull a pack of Camels and a matchbook. He packed the smokes, pulled one, cupped his hands, and lit. He spit, flung the match to the gutter, took a long drag, and followed the thin smoke rise with his eyes. He cradled his callused hands, right over left. I tapped the Halligan against the curb, wiped the pick on my pants, and snapped the instrument into its custom spot—nestled among a TNT tool, two-foot Pike pole, Pulaski, flat-headed axe, and flashlight. Metal clips grasped the Halligan just tight enough for both security and convenience.