Major Browning’s Penchant for Horror
By car, Hobo Jungle was easy to get to; drive up 101, turn in just south of the Rincon on the other side of the VenturaRiver. They arrived before 7:30 and the morning fog draped itself lightly over everything in sight. Here and there, misty spider webs reminded Frankie of macabre lace handkerchiefs. In the deserted parking lot the three campers hefted on their back packs.
Elsa had also brought a large picnic basket full of homemade goodies; she loved to have lots of food handy. Nick grabbed one of the handles of the basket to help his wife and the two hiked ahead like a pair of star crossed lovers. Frankie brought up the rear lost in thought and lost in the lonely misty feel of this place. They hiked along a trail of flattened sedge grass, past windblown cypress trees and thick strands of wild fennel. It was so quiet; it seemed that they were the only people there.
Camp was set up in less than an hour. Frankie watched her mom and dad. Most people her age didn’t seem to like their parents; Frankie cherished the rare time the three of them had together. Nick and Elsa seemed so happy and relaxed, who would think that her dad was going to be deployed for over a year in Vietnam to set up a medical facility in Saigon; to Frankie it seemed like forever. But at this moment the day was slow and mysterious and full of potential. “Live in the moment,” Elsa was so fond of saying. Frankie allowed the lonely beauty of this isolated beach to wash over her as she heard the distant call of a seagull.
She hiked down to the shore for an initial survey, it was fantastically wild! On her way she discovered a huge old cedar tree; gnarled yet straight. A slight shimmer caught her eye: a dry, brittle cocoon fluttering and empty on a lower branch. With great care, Frankie collected it and noted it in her field journal. On the beach the low tide revealed a number of strange specimens which had washed up on the beach; for one, a small dog-shark, its dead green eyes staring nowhere. She stayed clear of a huge but very dead man-of-war jellyfish. She was bare footed and had seen on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom that jelly fish can sting even after they were dead. “No lethal toxin for me,” thought Frankie.
Off in the distance, she detected a wailing sound! Frankie stopped in her tracks and listened; there it was again, could it be the Char Man specter Rose had told them about? The sound drew closer, now she recognized what it was: a train whistle. Peering around through the fog she saw the vague shape of a rickety train bridge. She gasped as a train appeared as if out of nowhere and raced across the trestle. That bridge seemed so narrow. She shuddered to imagine if a person tried to cross a bridge like that knowing a train could overtake them at any moment. She heard a final wailing cry of the train whistle; the fog had a strange effect on distant sounds. Looking out into the misty obscurity in the direction of the ocean she felt like she could be anywhere on earth at that moment.
As the day went on, the fog lifted, the sky was high and clear and now the AnacapaIslands were visible. Every detail stood out even the little arch on the north end of the island. Frankie tried to imagine what it would be like if the tide pulled back further and further right up to the islands; oh what specimens she could find and study! She met up with her parents strolling on the beach.
“Look how beautiful those islands are,” said Elsa. “Nature is art,” she added simply.
Elsa had put together a substantial lunch of corned beef hash with sour kraut and homemade potato salad; but after a few hours of beach combing and good salt air everyone’s appetite had returned. The shadows grew long as a sunset blush formed on the horizon.
“I was going to catch some fish for dinner, but the red tide signs posted on the beach changed my mind,” said Nick as he got a blazing camp fire going. Frankie scanned the picnic area for sturdy sticks and having found three to her liking hunkered down on a large driftwood snag to whittle the ends into sharp spears while waiting for the fire to be just right.
Instead of perch, smelt and clams they roasted ears of corn on the fire. Elsa cut thick dark slabs of homemade onion bread, covered them with slices of smoked Gouda then set them near the fire to melt the cheese. Frankie sprinkled the camp-toast with tiny sprigs of the wild fennel she had gathered that day. And of course there were plenty of delicious leftovers from lunch. Elsa passed around steaming hot mugs of spiced cider; it was a homey meal to remember. For dessert, Frankie handed out her sharpened sticks along with a bag of marshmallows. For the Browning family, building the perfect “S’mores” was serious business! Each person skewered their marshmallows just so and arranged their precious piece of Hershey bar on a graham cracker to be ready to go.
By this time it had grown pitch dark. Frankie stared into the fire as she roasted her marshmallow.
“You know,” said Nick as he too stared and roasted, “I’ve heard of Char Man.”
Frankie shivered with delicious anticipation. She loved the way her dad told ghost stories. Perhaps because her birthday was on October 31st, ghost stories and macabre images had always been very special to Frankie. Nick had a penchant for horror stories and so came up with a new one for each birthday.
“My corporal, J.B., at Port Hueneme always talks about him.”
“Oh-Oh,” said Elsa, “here he goes with the spooky stuff!” She laughed and gently elbowed him.
Dad winked at his wife then continued: “according to the locals, this Char Man is truly hideous to behold…”
“Worse than the Headless Horseman?” said Elsa.
Sleepy Hollow was Frankie’s favorite; it was the first of many tales of terror her Dad had told her over the years.
“Much, much worse,” Nick said without missing a beat.
Elsa glanced at Frankie with a knowing look but her daughter was already deep in thought, gazing into the campfire, ready to listen and absorb and lose herself in a story.
“He walks alone,” said Nick, “on lonely beach and deserted road; a tattered, matted, scarred, shell of a man.”
Elsa chimed in again, “How do we know that this Char Man isn’t some poor homeless person?”
“Good question,” said Dad. “You see, this Char Man is never seen in public or near groups.”
“Like groups of three, right Dad?” Frankie asked without looking up from the campfire.
“Possibly, but be that as it may, the same phantom-like image of a terribly burned man has been reported in all the lonely places and wild places in this area for over one hundred years.” Nick paused from his story. The sound of the waves in the distance and the complete darkness that crept right up to the campfire created a feeling of isolation. What would it be like to live in a place like this all the time with no one else to talk to? Nick shifted his weight stretched a little and picked up his monologue. “Wandering alone, searching, searching, howling a mournful cry into the night… ah, hmm, Frances, watch it there!” Nick broke off from his story and pointed to Frankie.
Frankie was staring blankly into the fire; her marshmallow had gone past golden brown and has now burst into flames: oozing black molten fire. One moment the perfectly roasted solution to S’more construction and the next moment, a wasted mass of charcoal bubbles hissing with blue fire: Fire! Bombs! Danger! PAIN! FLESH, NO FLESH! Something from far away was calling to Frankie a faraway forgotten memory…it was pulling her back in time… then, something she knew, something safe…
“Frances, honey, it’s OK, we can get you a new one,” Elsa spoke gently as she helped Frankie remove the candy torch from the fire. She blew it out with one puff, pitched the burnt mess into the fire and added a new marshmallow to Frankie’s roasting stick.
“Good as new,” she said as she handed her daughter the stick. She then turned to her husband, her blue eyes flashing. “You scared her, Nick, time to stop!”
Nick chuckled, “my girl’s not afraid of ghosts!” But there was a look of concern in his eyes as he spoke.
Frankie rubbed her eyes and scratched her head. She had a dull headache and a cramping feeling low in her belly. She felt strangely irritated and depressed.
“I’m not afraid of Dad’s stories, Elsa.” She smiled weakly at her mother; the vision of fire was now passing.
“Well, I am,” said Elsa as she walked over to the picnic table to get her guitar. She carried it over to her driftwood stump, sat down and began strumming. After a few minutes she was playing something by Donovan. It seemed to Frankie that the old windblown cypress trees leaned in closer to listen too. Frankie’s new marshmallow was now roasted to a perfect golden brown, she sandwiched it on to her Hershey Bar and graham cracker and squished it down. Nick sang with Elsa; Frankie listened contentedly as she munched on her treat. The sweet flavor had an instant mood lifting effect on her. Eating cleared her head and she was able to relax again.
“Wear your love like Heaven,” her parents sang in perfect harmony with each other.
“Yes,” thought Frankie, “they wear it on their sleeves”
“La-la la-la-la Heaven!”
Frankie sighed. They had the whole weekend together; she wished it could last forever.
Blue Fire Science
The next day Elsa found out that Nick was going to take Frankie snipe hunting and she refused to allow it. She had been taken on a “wild snipe hunt” once and once was enough! Nobody argued with Elsa when she had her “Dutch” on! After dinner that night, they banked the campfire, lit candle lanterns and made their way to the lonely, wild beach. The moon was nearly full (full moon on Wednesday Frankie reminded herself) and lit up the shore. As they walked on the water’s edge, Frankie playfully kicked the wet sand. To her amazement, a sparkling trail of electric blue light followed her foot!
“Elsa, Dad, look at this!” as she ran and dragged her foot in the sand creating an incandescent blue arch. Elsa and Nick laughed and danced and kicked up the sand tossing specks of light into the air. Frankie looked out into the waves; as they broke and a little blue light scurried ahead of the wave! Where ever the waves hit the shore a mysterious little light sparkled and flashed. Plankton, red tide, Frankie had heard these terms in biology class: the science of phosphorus tide. But to see this phenomenon with her own eyes astonished her. She picked up a flat stone and skipped it on a calm spot on the water; five skips, five splashes of blue light. This was why Frankie loved science, because when you saw it in person, it was more; when you saw it with your own eyes–it was magic!
F.B. FIELD JOURNAL Aug 4 1967
Hobo Jungle Specimen Inventory
Low Tide: 8:45 A.M. Saturday
14 pieces beach glass: various colors (3 Noxzema blue!)
1 Lg. vertebra- possibly pinneped
Old Railroad spike: note oxidized patina
Small brown univalves
1 single shoe- Note: not collected*
1 empty cocoon- Note: possibly Monarch butterfly
1 dead dog-shark: Note: not collected
*where’s the other shoe?
*Bee Widget* collaborative design effort by Lisa Noble and Kree Arvanitas