The Ewok on the Motorcycle

Everyone needs a friend like Eric Beaumont. Funny, creative, warm, welcoming. But most of all, generous. Generous with his time, his friendship, and certainly generous with all the quarters he spotted me for videogames. He and I both went into the videogames industry, on different paths, but my path was paved by the stream of quarters that came out of Eric’s pocket.

Eric was also generous with his moped.

A glorious, glorious Puch moped. Single cylinder, 49cc, two stroke engine producing 2 (count 'em), 2 horsepower and a top-speed of 28 mph. Thirty, if you really, really cranked it. Going downhill.

Borne on the back of that moped (and take a minute to imagine the sight of two 6-foot-4 high school kids sharing one of these things), we were able to hit multiple arcades and malls. It was wonderful. Eric drove. I hung on. I ran out of quarters. Eric spotted me his, knowing that I would repay him if I could, but also knowing that I never could. Everyone needs a friend as good as Eric.

But that’s not the amazing thing about Eric. What was really amazing was that Eric shouldn’t ever have let me near his moped, with my record of two-wheeled motorized idiocy. He saw what trouble I could get myself into first-hand, and he let me ride on his moped anyway. THAT is a friend.

Our story consists of three parts.

Part 1: The Cousins

Years before I had met Eric, I visited cousins in upstate New York. They had a little 50cc motorcycle, just big enough to get yourself into trouble. In my two weeks there, with near daily rides, I never mastered shifting gears. No one simply explained them to me. I would just go up to fourth gear, plow through gears 1-3, get to fourth and stay there.

Part 2: Taking Toby’s Moped for a Slide

Before I met Eric, my step-father, Roger, acquired a moped just like Eric’s for twenty bucks. Seriously. He lived in an apartment complex, and a moped had been chained to a lamppost for about a year. It hadn’t been moved — the tires were flat, and the kickstand had even sunk into the asphalt. Roger figured the owner had moved and left the moped behind, so he snapped the chain with a bolt cutter, filled the tires, changed the sparkplug and lo and behold, the damn thing fired up. He presented it as a gift to his oldest son, Toby. Later, the owner showed up and saw what we had done, and instead of blowing his lid, he just asked for a nominal twenty bucks, which Roger instantly paid.

I was incredibly envious, because to me, the moped represented freedom.

Roger was much smarter than me, though, as I rather promptly crashed the moped, proving that I couldn’t be trusted.

It didn't look anything like this. But promise me something. Promise me you'll never Google the phrase "motorcycle crash." Just trust me on this, 'kay? If you need me, I'll be over here, huddling in the corner, trying to unsee what I just saw.

Toby and I were taking turns riding the moped around the apartment complex parking lot. I took a corner too fast, and laid the moped down like someone sliding into second base. Scratched myself up pretty good. Did that stop me? Of course not! Again, I refer you to the name this blog.

Part 3: The Ewok on the Motorcycle

Eric and I had a friend named Brett Carpenter. Brett had a motorcycle. A real, honest-to-goodness, fire-breathing motocross bike. The three of us headed out into the Irvine hills, planning to ride amid the partially graded spots that would soon house multi-million dollar mansions.

“Ever ridden a motorcycle?” Eric asked.

“Sure!” I said. “My cousins had a little 50cc bike in New York. Rode it quite a bit.” Note that nowhere in that sentence will you find a literal untruth.

Brett rode first, deftly going over small jumps. Eric hopped on and took his turn, his skill the equal of Brett’s. Then it was my turn.

Let me offer a defense,Your Honor, of the debacle that came seconds later.

  • Brett’s bike was a 250cc model. Five times more powerful than my cousin’s bike. Simple math has never been my forte.
  • Brett’s family was a family of gearheads. In later days, Brett drove a hot-rodded MG roadster juiced up with aviation fuel. God knows what they had done to that bike.
  • The bike’s power band was wildly different than anything I had ever experienced. It was rigged to go from zero to Warp 9 faster than you can say, “Dude, be careful.”

Now, I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and ... wait, what? We're talking about Frank? Oh, different deal. Sorry. Screw that guy.

So, I hopped on, put it in first gear, twisted the throttle to the max and took off.

Eric said his initial reaction was that I had been sand-bagging them all along. That I was really a super-experienced rider and had been downplaying my experience. “Oh, he’s going to show us up. The jerk.”

Eric was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In about two seconds, I realized I was in waaaaay over my head. I was just stuck, with the throttle wide open at the peak of the first gear power band. The proverbial deer in the headlights. Except deer are smart enough to generally avoid riding motorcycles.

Later, Eric said, "You looked just like that Ewok on the speeder bike from Return of the Jedi."

Brett said he was running through all the things I could do to get myself out of the situation. “Let go of the throttle. Pull the clutch lever. Pull the brake lever. Something.

I jumped off the back of the motorcycle. I just let go with both hands and magically floated to earth, landing on my feet. The bike drove itself another 20 yards or so before falling into the dirt. I turned around to look at Brett and Eric, who were running toward me.

“Whoa,” I said. “I’m OK. I’m not hu…”

Brett ran right past me. He couldn’t care less about me. Brett had priorities.

“My bike!” he said.

“Yeah, that was way more powerful than I expected. But it’s OK, I’m not hurt or anyth…”

“My bike!” he said.

While Brett took stock of the actual damage (there wasn’t much,thankfully), Eric sauntered up.

“Should’ve pulled the clutch,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Or just let go of the throttle,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“It’s OK. You just got stuck in the power band. That’s the trouble with that bike.”

Like I said — that’s a friend.

I never rode another motorcycle alone again. I’m a passenger, not a pilot.

Damn right, Frank.

A Quick Word From My Mother

When my mother heard I had embarked on a project to recount all the ways I’ve nearly met my maker (or at least the Angel Second Class in Charge of the Severely Maimed), she gleefully jumped in with additional suggestions. You know. Things that nearly killed me. That I was either too young or too scarred by the experience to remember.

Shh, it's OK. The monsters didn't get you. Soon, though.

Most of what she sent me I actually remember, and already have on a list of future posts. She likely remembers these stories quite differently than I do. She’s the type that remembers things like the funny looks on people’s faces as I’m, say, being wheeled into intensive care. For me, on the other hand, what I really remember is, you know, being wheeled into intensive care.

Yes, these are actual emails from my mother.

Dragged Out to Sea

You and I were meeting the family at the beach for a cookout. You were about two years old. As we walked down the beach, in the wet sand by the sea, you were nicely toddling along beside me. The tide was going out, so as I looked around for the others, you quickly decided to chase the water as it went out. So, as you go running after the water, a big wave comes in, knocks you over and then starts dragging you out to sea. How far out, I can’t estimate, but I can still see that little blond head being pulled under the water.

I just turned around to see you being dragged out! Fortunately for both of us, I was a quick runner and was in fast enough to rescue you. The water was up to about my waist. A couple of surfers also started to get to you. You suffered no damage, physically or emotionally. Actually didn’t seem to notice.

Gotta love the detail about the surfers. And I think she’s right, I probably didn’t notice. Oxygen deprivation does that to a tiny little mind.

Sigh. You know, I had potential once. Once.

Abandoned in Catalina

Mother sleeps on the ground at the dock all afternoon due to motion sickness medication. Kid has to wander around and entertain himself.

Let me fill in the details here. She decided on a weekend outing to Catalina Island, a two-hour boat trip from Los Angeles. Just the two of us.

Thinking ahead (+1 point), she took some Dramamine pills before the trip over. But then she miscalculated the dose (-10 points) and spent the day asleep on a small patch of grass. Leaving me to wander the tourist town of Avalon by myself for the day (-15 yards and loss of down).

I was 8 years old. Eight.

I rented a bike. Only because they wouldn’t let just any abandoned moppet rent a car, I suppose. I gave myself little missions to accomplish, and then I’d check back with her every hour or so.

“You OK?”
yeahyoujustkeepplaying.
“All right. Gonna ride over to the Catalina Casino and check that out.”
thatsoundsgood.
“Hope I don’t get kidnapped or anything.”
whazzat?
“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
youarethegreatestson.

I made that last part up about being kidnapped.

I mean, I’m sure that guy in the clown makeup really did just lose his dog.

The Wedge

My favorite joke about The Wizard of Oz goes like this:

At the end of the movie, the Wicked Witch of the West — how does she die?

She melts when Dorothy hits her with a bucket of water.

Where does Dorothy find the bucket of water?

It’s sitting in the corner of a room in the Witch’s castle.

OK, if there were a substance that could melt you in a matter of seconds … what are the odds you’d keep an open bucket of it in your house?

I mean, it’s not like it’s a surprise to the Witch. She says, “Don’t touch that water” right before Dorothy flings it at the Scarecrow. Presumably, the Witch knows to stay inside when it rains.

Listen, baby, baby. I know you're pissed off at this Dorothy chick. I mean, we all saw her drop a house on your sister. But first things first. How's about we get the bucket of acid out of your bedroom?

Which brings me to the Wedge.

The Wedge is a stretch of beach in Newport Beach, Calif., lying right at the tip of Balboa Peninsula, just northeast of the mouth of Newport Harbor. Geologically, the Balboa Peninsula is just an overgrown sandbar created by a combination of sand deposits at the pre-historic terminus of the Santa Ana River, and sand dredged up out of the estuary during the early 1900s when plans were made to turn the estuary into a commercial shipyard.

This was long before civilization was invented.

The city fathers realized all of this sand would just erode away into the ocean and block the harbor mouth again, so they wisely scrapped their plans and turned their attention to a better locale.

Just kidding, they just stupidly pointed a rock jetty straight out into the ocean. Problem solved, right?

Pictured: Problem solved.

While they correctly factored in the south swell of the ocean, they didn’t predict what this man would do to the psyche of the Southern California teenager.

Meet the Father of Surfing.

You see, the rock jetty angles out against the prevailing south swells. Waves that hit the jetty are reflected right toward the beach, wedging (see what I just did there?) into giant mega-waves. Moreover, the steep underwater geography increases the size of the waves as they approach the beach and creates a steep shore break.

Woo! Surf's up! Wait, wait ... this sucks.

They invented surfing in Hawaii, but the Wedge is like Hawaii’s messed up little cousin that likes to get ripped on meth and throw rocks at police cars. You go to Hawaii for soul-surfing and becoming one with Mother Ocean. You go to the Wedge to try and kick Aquaman in the balls.

Pro tip: Don't try to kick Aquaman in the balls.

Let’s just admit it — the Wedge is dangerous and should be dismantled. Here, I’ll let Wikipedia explain it for you:

Between the Balboa Pier and the Wedge, waves are referred to as a shore
or beach break. When the crest of the wave comes crashing down, regardless
of its size, it lands in water no more than 1 to 2 feet deep, and it
will sometimes land directly on to the sand. This condition causes
uninformed and inexperienced swimmers to be at extreme risk of a spinal
cord injury. If a person is to "go over the falls,"
(fall with the water in the crest of the wave), he will commonly strike
his head on the sand below the shallow water. Shore break waves are
much thicker and stronger for their size than waves that break
farther out. Their thickness increases the force in which they
strike the ground. Lower Newport sees many spinal cord injury victims
every summer who often end up as quadriplegics.

The Wedge is so famous, that on particularly big days, crowds show up just to watch the mayhem.

Kind of like spectators at a NASCAR event.

Naturally, the Wedge was my favorite spot.

Remember her? There's an area of the beach that will kill you. What are the odds you'll try to go there as often as possible? Before you answer, pretend you're Frank.

More than anything else, the Wedge is perfect for body-surfing. Lots of waves in short succession in a small space with wide, shallow bowls. Plus, body-surfing is easy. It’s casual. Body-surfing is like hunting pheasant — something gentlemen do when they’re not hunting lions and tigers and bears.

President Obama showing you how it's done.

The Wedge is anything but casual.

Pretty sure the Secret Service would frown on this.

One thing you have to understand is that, because the best waves are found closest to the jetty, an informal hierarchy develops among the surfers. Essentially, the better you are at this, the closer you want to get to the jetty. I was never very good at this, but I liked to think I was better than the non-Wedge surfers.


The very worst thing that happened to me was going over the falls. I was a little slow getting to the next set, and instead of diving through it, the wave stood me up vertically. As I was about to go over, I looked left, and spotted a guy in similar circumstances. In my last split second, I was contemplating my place in the universe, my hopes, my dreams. The other guy was screaming like he had just won the Atlantis lottery.

Pictured: Winning the Atlantis lottery.

The wave flipped me over, tumbled me around like a sock in the washing machine, and I hit the sand, shoulder-first. I actually felt the bones in my neck C R A C K.

But believe it not, it was the good kind of crack, like cracking your knuckles. No damage at all. I actually felt better. Again, the Grim Reaper let me go. “Not now, dude.”

Of course, this brush with a watery grave didn’t exactly stop me. I kept going back to the Wedge, but I never forgot my visit to Poseidon’s chiropractor, and in the hierarchy, I’m definitely over with the cowards.

Eventually, I took up another ocean sport.

Something safer. Something gentlemanly.

Something with less of a chance of random, violent death.

Perfect.

The Nile Princess

Ever heard the urban legend about the girl that was killed at Disneyland, crushed between two moving walls on the America Sings attraction?

Sadly, it’s not a legend. It really happened. There have been several folks that have died at Disneyland, and I almost joined them in ignominy. My story of near-legend status involves an aptly named deadhead.

I was a ride operator at Disneyland for two years, working on Big Thunder, the Tiki Room, the Mark Twain, Columbia and the Jungle Cruise.

Yes, that Jungle Cruise.

You may remember the Jungle Cruise as a 15-minute boat trip past scenes of animatronic animals, with a wannabe comedian on the mike.

My name is Dave, but you can call me Julie McCoy, and I'll be your cruise director. Get this kid away from me.

What was working at Disneyland like? It was equal parts amazing and soul-crushing. I watched a gymnast dressed like Tinkerbell fly down a zip line and crash into two burly guys, who had to park themselves at the end of the line and hold a mattress upright to break her fall. Amazing.

But I also got to see Tinkerbell do her thing Every Damn Night. The first three times is hilarious. The next 30 is soul-crushing.

In other words, the bloom comes off the rose pretty damn fast. It’s the Happiest Place on Earth. Right up until the moment you have to corral a brainless group of tourists.

So, the dirty little secret about Disneyland employees is that we enjoyed the job the most when we had the park to ourselves.

This'd be great if it weren't for all the damn paying customers!

But to be honest, the Jungle Cruise was awesome. Besides the Army, where else do you get to see 18-year-olds paid to play with guns.

Walt demonstrates the proper way to motivate employees. Yes, the guns were real.

Spoiler alert! Jungle Cruise boats are on an underwater rail.

That's the rail behind the hippo. By the way, the animals aren't real. Just destroying your childhood, aren't I?

And the rail is just a big circle. The boats are in a single-file line, in other words. You fill up with passengers, take off from one end of the dock, loop around, and drop your passengers off at the other end.

Like this. Simple, right?

The system is all very elegantly timed, if you stop and think about it. Disney engineers are actually really good at their jobs. There’s a maximum of 10 boats on the rail, with only three or four at the dock taking on or dropping off passengers at any given time. The other boats are out on the ride itself, spaced out by the inherent timing of the system, and the physical design of the ride itself, which hides other boats from view (as one boat enters the Hippo Pool, for example, the previous boat has *just* exited seconds before, and is now out of sight, aroound a corner). When everything is done right, there’s an illusion of being alone in the jungle.

But it doesn’t always go right. No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Pictured: The Enemy

Guests are sand in the well-oiled Jungle Cruise machine. Guests want things like “service” and “convenience” and “entertainment in exchange for their entrance fee.”

Which brings me to the deadhead.

If you’re a bus driver or in the airline industry, you might know the non-Jerry Garcia meaning of the term “deadhead” — a trip without any passengers, or any commercial vehicle trip designed to merely get the vehicle itself to the right place at the right time. Just move the vehicle from Point A to Point B so you can actually use it for its intended purpose.

In our case, the boats are on a rail, like I mentioned. You can’t change lanes. Slower vehicles can’t move right. If Grandma Okie insists on stopping for pictures with her little Okie grandkids and can’t remember which button is the shutter, the 30 guests in the boat behind her just have to wait. And as the ride operator with the microphone, let’s just say it’s Evening at the Improv, and I’m fresh out of material.

"So, anyone here from out of town? Please, God ..."

Deadheads are a means of addressing spacing problems like Grandma Okie who won’t get off the boat. You just send a ride operator out alone in his boat, which frees up space at the dock for other boats to disembark passengers.

For the ride’s lead, the manager, it’s a black mark. You’re not serving guests fast enough, and somehow this is your fault.

For the ride operator, though, a deadhead is 15 minutes of blissful silence. It’s just you, the boat and the fake animals. Nobody asking you where the bathrooms are. Nobody asking you when the 9 o’clock parade starts. Just you and your 18-year-old non-thoughts.

"I wonder if Cinderella is single?"

One typical night, I’m sent on a typical deadhead. I try to hide my giddiness and zoom off into the jungle, which because of crafty landscaping and nearly 50 years of the best horticulturalists around, is pitch black if I leave the boat’s lights off, which I do.

Now, I still have to drive the boat. Well, I mean, I’m not steering. But I have to operate the throttle. And  I still have to play the game, so to speak — I have to keep the proper spacing, so I’m not ruining the illusion of boats being alone in the jungle.

In my case, I was actually standing on the prow of the boat, working the throttle with my foot, looking backward. I was trying to gauge how far back the next boat was.

This model is the best illustration. The throttle is the little gray handle. I'm standing on the prow, looking aft, toward that smokestack. Pay attention to that smokestack -- it's important a few paragraphs later.

Yes, that’s right. I’m driving the boat forward but looking backward. I’m 6-foot-4, which means, standing on the prow, I’m about three feet taller than that smokestack.

I’m about to have my appointment with the Grim Reaper.

You see, I forgot about the archway.

That archway. The one looming over the river. The one just tall enough for the smokestack to pass under.

I’m not going fast — maybe 5 miles per hour. But it sure is a surprise when the archway slams into the back of my head. The boat keeps moving forward, and the archway pushes me down onto the boat canopy and SCRAAAAPES my head as the boat passes beneath.

Yeah, it was kinda like that.

It was all over in a second. I was so disoriented, I nearly fell out of the boat. Which really would have been the highlight of some tourist’s visit. As it was, my hat was knocked into the water, and it took me a minute to fish it out of the drink.

This asshole saw the whole thing, and I think he's still laughing about it. Hardy har har. You're made out of rubber, jerkwad.

My mind raced the rest of the deadhead. What if I had been killed? Well, my corpse may have fallen overboard. The boat would’ve kept sailing without me. And remember, it’s pitch black and the water is dyed a deep river green. They’d think I just jumped out somewhere and walked off the job. It’d be days before anyone found my body.

Wrong ride.

But what if I didn’t fall overboard, though? The boat would’ve still made it all the way back to the dock via the rail. That would’ve been an interesting sight. “Oh, look, here comes Frank. Hey, Frank, whatcha doing there, buddy? Taking a nap?”

Creepy just to think about it. I like to think I’d have figured out a way to get some payback.

From the grave.

"So, anyone here from out of town?"

The Dart

Quick! What’s the most frightening two-word sentence you can think of?

  • “Behind you!”
  • “I’m pregnant.”
  • “Please hold.”

Those are all very troubling, but incorrect.

No, the most frightening two-word sentence is:

“Watch this.”

This isn’t actually a How Is Frank Not Dead story. Instead, this is a How Did Frank Not Make Someone Else Dead story. In a way, that’s worse.

Before we get to it, let me first tell you about Nolan Ryan.

Pictured: Not Frank.

When I was a kid growing up in Orange County, Calif., I had plenty of baseball heroes – Steve Garvey, Rod Carew, Don Sutton. But they were just baseball players. Nolan Ryan was something else. You talked about Ryan as if he were a superhero, some kind of earthbound god with spikes and a mitt. The guy even had his picture in the Guinness Book of World Records, for throwing the fastest fastball.

Damn right.

More than a dozen years later, Ryan was still playing, and I got to see him in the Texas Rangers locker room from my privileged spot as a sportswriter. Dude was richer than God at that point (he owned banks, for Chrissakes), and yet he was still playing, and was still a solid block of muscle. He finished each game with an hour on an exercise bike to loosen up his legs, and said the secret to his pitching longevity was the power he could still get out of his “great big ass.”

Robin Ventura was just lucky ol’ Nolan didn’t have a branding iron with him on the mound.

But I digress.

Now, I’m no Nolan Ryan. Never have been. Throwing, hurling and chucking stuff is not a core competency. Instead, I have delusions of grandeur that lead me straight into danger. If I pick up a small object and say “Watch this,” expect bad things to happen.

Bad things, man. Bad. Things.

  • At age 7, I shattered a sliding glass door with a metal-tipped dart. Did you know that one dart could make the entire pane of tempered glass explode? Yeah, neither did I. You’d think I would’ve remembered this lesson, but I refer you to the name of this blog.
  • I hit a kid square in the forehead with a curveball that didn’t curve. I don’t remember his real name, but I know that I nicknamed him “Lumpy.”
  • I tagged poor Larry Kaml in the temple with a bamboo spear during some Jungle Cruise shenanigans. I was pretending to be one of the animatronic jungle natives. Nearly knocked Larry out of the boat he was standing in. In retaliation, he left me stranded on one of the ride’s two islands for an hour — I couldn’t work up the courage to jump into a passing boat loaded with tourists.

And then there was the dart.

Think of this object like your teenaged daughter. Letting a teenage boy near her ends only with tears. And the occasional lawsuit.

Let’s focus on two important lessons here.

  • First off, don’t give teenage boys cheap champagne. It goes straight to their heads.
  • Second, don’t give teenage boys that have had cheap champagne access to metal-tipped darts. Or metal-tipped anything, really.

So, there we were — Eric, Steve and I — in Steve’s garage, generally screwing around, drinking the aforementioned cheap champagne from plastic cups and playing darts.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Not here, that's for damn sure.

We were throwing darts, moving farther and farther back from the dartboard. How far back could we stand and still hit the dartboard? With each shot, we heard the thunk of dart into dartboard.

10 feet? Thunk! 15 feet? Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

For the record, the official distance is eight feet. Did I mention that I suck at geometry? And critical thinking?

“Watch this,” I said.

Eric and Steve stepped aside, and I walked back as far as I could go, back to the wall. In my altered state, I was Nolan Ryan. I held the dart in what I thought was an elegant grip, index finger extended along the shaft. I would up with a major-league leg kick and let fly with all my might.

Silence.

No thunk. What happened?

Eric and I inspected the wall. No dart. Where’d the dart go?

“Umm … hey … guys?” said Steve.

The dart was sunk into the inside of Steve’s thigh.

Straight through his jeans. I really pinned him, so to speak. The metal dart had gone in about 1 inch, with the plastic fin body sticking out like a tiny Comanche arrow.

“Umm … ouch?” said Steve. More bewildered than in pain. That came later.

We spent a few seconds debating what to do, while blood started to stain his jeans. Pulling on it didn’t work. Gingerly, Steve had to twist the dart in its thigh hole before it could come straight out. The self-surgery was complicated by the fabric on the jeans pulling away with it, and Eric and I standing over his shoulder offering color commentary, which consisted mostly of Eric and me saying, “Dude. No way! Dude. DUUUUDE.”

Dude.

Steve’s long since forgiven me for this. Although, he has tried to kill me, too, so maybe not. But we look back on this now and laugh. He offered to send me pictures of the scar, which he says is still visible. But in my book, a dart to the thigh is a blessing. I had no idea where that dart was going to go. I could have just as easily buried that dart in his skull.

Trust me, I never tried to imitate Nolan Ryan again.

And there was much rejoicing.

Three Riots

I’ve been in three riots.

Three  honest-to-goodness, capital “R” riots. Didn’t start them. Didn’t participate in them. Didn’t seek them out, like I’m some kind of war correspondent (“Have civil unrest? Will travel!”). It’s just that when I get into a sufficiently large crowd of people, there’s a higher-than-normal chance of someone shouting, “Kill the pigs!”

Really? Really. Seriously?

Let’s walk through all three.

The Palm Springs Riot

I like to think I played a small part in birthing the political career of Sonny Bono.

Before he was Congressman Bono, he was Mayor Bono of Palm Springs, Calif. Elected in 1988, as the story goes, Bono opened a restaurant in the city and got into a kerfluffle with the city council about a permit for a sign. Instead of fighting city hall, Bono decided to pull a Clint Eastwood and become city hall. Two years earlier, Eastwood became mayor of Carmel, Calif., in similar circumstances – unhappy with a city zoning practice, Eastwood got himself elected and settled his little problem.

Bono had bigger plans, though. In addition to getting his sign, one of Bono’s platforms was to erase the city’s reputation as a Spring Break destination. In the 80s, Palm Springs was just as much a party spot as Fort Lauderdale and South Padre Island, and in 1986 and 1987, the collegiate bacchanal bubbled over into full-blown rioting.

I imagine Bono, in his restaurant, sweeping up thong bikinis and rousting passed-out Sociology majors. He shakes a sequined fist. “There oughta be a law!”

A fabulous, fabulous law.

I visited Palm Springs in both 86 and 87. Now, I missed the ‘86 riot, which was the more famous one, but that trip spawned its own How Are You Not Dead story — I’ll come to that one in due time. Rather, in ‘87, I sped out to Palm Springs with a posse of fellow over-educated, under-employed Disneyland workers, and we planted ourselves at a beer garden overlooking the main drag, which had a miles-long train of cars, just cruising up and down the street. There was beer, water balloons, fire extinguishers. No girls gone wild, that I could see. Dammit.

Now here’s the main thing I’ve learned about riots: Everything is fine and then suddenly it’s not. There’s almost no transition from civil to not-civil. One minute you’re having a good time. The next minute, you’re an extra in a Mad Max sequel.

"Give me your pump, the oil, the gasoline and the whole compound, and I will let you return safely to UC Santa Barbara."

A guy got soused by water from an old-school pump fire extinguisher. He responded by dragging the shooter out of the back of the pick-up. The shooter’s friends jump to his defense. And some other guy decides it’s the perfect time to set a palm tree on fire.

And then SHAZAM there were cops in riot gear, walking down the street in a skirmish line. The beer garden emptied out. I decided to walk toward the cops, thinking, “Well, since I’m not actively rioting, they’ll let me pass, right?”

"This one says he’s a Journalism major. I’ll trade him to you for a Pre-Med."

The Huntington Beach Riot

Huntington Beach is Surf City USA. They’ve trademarked the name and everything. The south side of the pier is the key spot, with left-breaking waves that can take you perilously close to the pier pilings. You can shoot the pier and either gain instant immortality. Or serious head wounds.

In other words, it’s perfect for the annual U.S. Open of Surfing. In 1986, this event was sponsored by a surfwear brand called Ocean Pacific, which in the early 80s was like Abercrombie, Aeropostale and Hollister all rolled into one. The OP Pro was more than just a surfing contest – it was a full-blown weekend event with skateboards, MTV and a bikini contest.

I had to go. Obviously. Dude.

DUUUUUUUDE.

About 100,000 people had the same idea. I parked miles away, in nearby Newport Beach, and rode a bike into Huntington, which allowed me to maneuver around. But even then, I couldn’t really see anybody surfing. Just faraway dots in the water, and the occasional cheer from the beach. In other words, just like any other day at the beach, only with way more people.

And then they flipped over a police car and set it on fire.

I'm the one on the left. Devastatingly handsome with six-pack abs. Just kidding. I'm in the blimp.

The news stories pegged it accurately – however it got started, it started near the bikini contest. Again, everything is hunky-dory. A day at the beach. Whoo, check out the blonde. Hey, let’s burn this police car!

"I am gravely disappointed. Again you have made me unleash my dogs of war."

I rode back to Newport Beach.

The Rodney King Riot

I hadn’t quite graduated from college. I had one, last annoying class, which kept me around campus for one, last, annoying semester. In hindsight, I should’ve just blown it off. I mean, at this point, I even had a full-time job as an actual journalist (I asked for an internship, and the nice old lady offered me a job instead). And no one has ever asked for proof of my nearly useless Bachelor’s degree, but I have one.

So, at about 4 p.m., on April 29, 1992, I was walking down the hall toward the newsroom of The Daily Titan, the college newspaper. Walking in the other direction was one of my journalism professors, Jay Berman.

“Did you hear?” he said.

“Hear what?”

“They let them off.”

Jay was referring to Messrs. Koon, Powell, Wind and Briseno, the four police officers that were filmed beating Rodney King.

Courtesy of "LAPD Greatest Hits."

The idea that all four of them would walk seemed preposterous.

“You know,” I said to him, “I’d hate to be a police officer tonight.”

Jay pulled up and visibly winced at the thought. I have never, ever predicted anything with as much accuracy as I did in that moment.

Fast forward a few hours and now the riot has metastasized. The junior college volleyball game I was supposed to cover for the Daily Star-Progress is canceled, and now the Orange County Register is marshaling people for coverage. This was the Big One. The event everyone was waiting for. These reporters and editors seemed just as crazy as the rioters.

"You there, sports guy. You're Frank, right? You can take pictures, right?"

And just like that, I’m a riot correspondent, in the midst of what my own paper would classify as an “orgy of violence.”

Highlights from the next few days:

  • The National Guard was marshaling troops at the Fullerton Armory. My first reaction was, “We have an armory? For what? In case Anaheim invades?” But yeah, the city had an armory, and I met two types of guardsmen – guys eager to finally get a chance to kill someone, and … and … no, that’s pretty much every Guardsman I met that night.
  • Dominos Pizza was still delivering. Medium size pepperoni only. Twenty bucks. In cash. No change provided. And the delivery guy won’t get out of the car — you throw him the money, he throws you the pizza. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.
  • If you’ve never seen real looting, I recommend it. It’s like watching kids scrambling for piñata candy. Only instead of kids, it’s everyone. And instead of candy, it’s everything that isn’t nailed down. You all know that one guy? The one that sees a couch on the side of the highway and thinks, “I could use that. We’re taking that with us.” Now imagine that everyone you see is that guy.

Not pictured: Civilization and rule of law.

Still, even in the midst of a riot, there’s humanity. For example, I saw several cars wait patiently while an older gentleman carried a television across a street. The Boy Scout in me almost wanted to help him. And maybe score a merit badge.

But for the record, I didn’t steal anything.

Scout's honor.

The Mountain Lion

I killed a mountain lion.

I killed a mountain lion with a Volkswagen.

Let me back up.

I love Seattle. It’s a torrid romance that started around 1992. This is the year when Butt-Head, of “Beavis and” fame, said, “If you go to Seattle … anybody you see … is cool. We should go dude.”

I had flannel.

Plus, my buddy Steve had moved to Seattle around that time. The newspaper I worked for was swallowed up by its parent company, and I managed to bank three weeks of vacation, and in 1994, with two other friends, Eric and Dan, we set off on a road trip.

Now, I had traveled before this. Not as much as some, but more than others. I had taken the tourist elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and had literally kissed the literal Blarney Stone. But in Seattle, I was buzzing.

“That’s the Space Needle! That means I’m in Seattle!” I said.

“OK, you’re a dork,” said Kris, a girl Dan was hitting on.

The road trip back took Dan, Eric and I through Smith Rocks, Oregon, and Yosemite, where we stopped for rock-climbing. When we returned to Orange County, I still had more than a week of vacation left.

I decided to drive back to Seattle.

“But we just got back…” Eric said.

“I know!”

“You just spent two weeks in a car…” Dan said.

“I know!”

I would ride back to Seattle, and this would be my horse – a 1988 Volkswagen Fox.

Four very powerful cylinders.

Jay Leno assured me, in a Playboy magazine automotive advice column, it would be as reliable as a Maytag washing machine.

You’re damn right I read it for the articles.

The actual results were mixed. This car was apparently built by former Nazi engineers that escaped to Brazil and later managed to entice a work force to trade Ipanema Beach and thong bikinis for an assembly line and eye-protection. In other words, it was designed to be a miniature tank capable of running roughshod over the Low Countries, but let’s just say Ronaldinho wasn’t too concerned about fit and finish.

Typical Brazilian automotive worker.

That said, this car absolutely smoked Simba.

BOOM! HEADSHOT!

About 10 hours into Seattle 2: Electric Boogaloo, with a belly full of Denny’s in Redding, I entered the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in the middle of the night. This is where you finally pull out of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The flat, ribbon of black asphalt gets replaced by a curving ribbon of black asphalt, and you start to climb into the mountains.

You’re not too far from something called the Yolla-Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness. You cannot make this stuff up.

Now, I had just spent the previous 10 hours doing about 80 miles per hour. That’s just what you do in the San Joaquin Valley. If you’re not farming, you’re speeding the hell out of there. But even though I’m driving in the mountains, I still hadn’t gotten “80 miles per hour” out of my system. I was going too fast. In the dark. On a winding mountain road.

My brain had just enough time to register “holy shit, there’s a mountain lion in the road” before I hit it.

Holy shit, that idiot actually bought a Volkswagen Fox!

The lion disappeared from view in a tawny flash, as my car’s left-front wheel went up and over it.

I was still driving. What in the H-E-double-hockey sticks had just happened? Did what I think just happened really just happen? I mean, people hit possums all the time. But mountain lions?

I better go back.

“Hold up there, Sparky,” said the voice in my head.

The voices sometimes call me Sparky. Just go with it.

“What?”

“If you go back, one of three things could happen, and all of them will suck.”

“What are my options?”

“Option 1 is, you go back and the mountain lion is dead.”

And you are sad.

“Option 2 is, you go back and the mountain lion is alive.”

And you are dinner.

“Option 3 is, you go back and a trucker hits you with a Peterbilt, in exactly the same way you just hit that mountain lion with a Volkswagen.”

BOOM! HEADSHOT!

“I’ll take Option 4, Alex.” Sometimes, I call one of the voices Alex. Just go wi … oh, never mind.

Option 4 was to pull over at the next stop and call the Highway Patrol. This was in the Age Before Ubiquitous Cellphones, of course. Someone should go out there with a shovel.

Someone like these guys.

I dialed 911.

Dialing 911 is always an adventure. Not because you’re deeply in trouble. If you think about it, if you’re dialing 911, it’s probably not you, personally, that’s in trouble. Someone else is having the heart attack.

No, your job is to explain why, out of the wild blue yonder, you’re calling for help. And make it snappy, because there’s a cliff, a James Bond villain and a school bus packed with orphans on Line 2.

“I hit a mountain lion.”

“You hit a what? A mountain what?”

“Mountain lion. You know. A big wild … cat … thing … animal. Snarl.

I didn’t actually snarl. But in hindsight, it probably would have helped.

“You hit a cat? Son, people hit little kitty cats all the time. I’m sure you’re sad about it; I had a kitty cat once myself …”

“No, I hit a mountain lion. A cougar.”

No, not that kind of cougar.

“You sure you just didn’t hit a possum?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it was a mountain lion.”

Here’s where a bizarre night turned absolutely Salvador Dali.

“I’m going to transfer you to the Department of Fish and Game.”

The Mission of the Department of Fish and Game is to manage California's diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public. Why are you calling us, Frank?

“I hit a mountain lion.”

“You hit a what? A mountain what?”

This was my night for the next two hours. A payphone in the middle of nowhere. A series of incredulous Fish and Game officers asking me questions. I bet they were passing the phone around the office in a game of “can-you-believe-this-crazy-white boy.”

“You hit the mountain lion. With your car.”

“Yes.”

“You sure you didn’t shoot the mountain lion? With a gun?”

“No, I hit it with my car.”

“Was the mountain lion in a tree?”

“How am I going to hit a mountain lion in a tree with my car?”

“Well, were you off-roading?”

“No, this was on the Five.”

This five.

Eventually, I had either convinced them I wasn’t a mountain lion poacher, or they got tired of making fun of me (“You actually bought a Volkswagen Fox?”), and they let me off the phone.

Silence. Cold mountain air. Trees.

I drove back.

Looped around on the highway, retraced my steps. I had to know.

I couldn’t find a body. It was dark, of course, and a few hours had passed. Maybe the highway patrol had moved the cat corpse off to the side of the road. Maybe I hadn’t killed the mountain lion, and it had limped off. I don’t see how I couldn’t have killed it. But I couldn’t find it, and wasn’t about to break out a flashlight and really look for it (see Options 1, 2 and 3, above).

Was the car damaged? Nope. Not at all. Not a scratch.

"De nada, irmão."

The Soda Fountain

My first real job was at a movie theater. This movie theater, to be exact. I was an usher. Red polyester vest to match my red pervasive acne. Most of the time, I tore tickets in half, cleaned theaters between shows and directed people to the restrooms.

The other half of the time, I was behind the concessions counter with the girls, schlepping popcorn and soda. I went a long time absolutely hating popcorn. Popcorn was everywhere. I smelled like popcorn. Bits of popcorn clung to my clothing. And one day, I realized I had tracked popcorn into my car and into my house. It’s OK, I’m much better now. I can look at popcorn without shuddering.

The ushers were all guys, and the concession stand was an all-girl affair. I don’t know why the theater manager, whom we called Matt Mayonnaise, made that distinction. I’d like to think he was sooper-smart and had calculated that people would much rather buy their popcorn from a sun-kissed, blond 16-year-old girl than a guy that looked like he rarely washed his hands. I’d like to think that, but it’s probably not the truth.

So, it was boys in the front picking up trash, and girls behind the counter selling popcorn. When it got busy, the guys jumped behind the counter to help out.

Which brings me to the soda fountains. There were three of them. Three fountains with three ingredients — water, syrup and carbon dioxide. Water came straight from the tap. Syrup came out of a bag-in-a-box contraption, with the boxes housed in what was essentially a walk-in closet, located behind a heavy steel fire door right off the concession stand. This room was a riot of brown hoses and stacks and stacks of syrup boxes.

Changing a syrup box was easy — just twist a hose off, and twist a hose on.

Carbon dioxide, though, was fed to the fountains from giant steel tanks. Picture a scuba tank’s big angry brother. Thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch, with big brass fittings.

The girls wouldn’t go near the tanks. Changing out an empty tank required a monkey wrench. Not difficult, but I’m no handyman, and neither is your typical 16-year-old girl. But they were much cuter than me, so when theater-goers started complaining that the sodas were flat, one of the guys had to cowboy up and change the tank.

Here’s where the story gets good.

One night, it’s mind-bogglingly busy. This was the summer of 1986, and we had Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off playing for months. The call goes out. Flat soda! Change the tank! I grab the monkey wrench and leap into action.

This change doesn’t go over easy. In hindsight, I must have cross-threaded the hose to the tank nozzle; I don’t quite remember. But the tank was changed out, and I ran off to sell more popcorn.

Feels like 30 minutes goes by before the tank empties again — more people coming back, complaining of flat Diet Coke. Weird. A tank should last for hours and hours. Maybe I mistakenly plugged in an empty tank instead of a fresh one. Once more, into the breach.

The closet door shuts behind me. The room is ice cold. Huh?

There’s a foot-long icicle hanging from the tank fitting.

My public school science curriculum has the answer. I’ve plugged in a full tank, but I didn’t properly seal it. A tiny jet of carbon dioxide was leaking through the cross-threaded shank of the nozzle. Cold, cold gas makes for a cold brass nozzle, which forms an icicle from the humid air of this damp, fetid and syrup-sticky closet.

I take the monkey wrench, bang off the ice and turn off the tank. Then I start unscrewing the nozzle.

And suddenly, everything is … purple. Wow. Feel woozy. Can’t catch my breath. And I’m tripping balls. Have you ever wondered why they call it a monkey wrench? I mean, it doesn’t look like a monkey…

“Dude?” says the little voice in my head. One of several little voices at this point, actually.

“Yeah?” I say.

“The carbon dioxide tank was leaking for about 30 minutes in a tiny, unventilated room.”

“Yeah?”

“Know what’s in a carbon dioxide tank?”

“Umm, carbon …”

“CARBON DIOXIDE!”

“Oh.”

“Maybe you should, you know, escape?”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

I came to, slumped on the floor, back against a wall. I don’t really know how long I had been passed out. Probably just a fraction of a second. Just long enough to fall down and wake up.

I opened the door to the smell of fresh air. And popcorn.

The Beginning

“How are you not dead?” the wife said.

At the time, she wasn’t my wife. It was in the getting-to-know-you-phase for the first two members of our budding team. I believe this was at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Seattle. Hey, I never said I was a great date.

I think the tipping point in the conversation was the honest-to-goodness chemical accident when I was eight-years-old.

The chemical accident that left me miraculously unscathed.

Again.

Yet another moment where the Grim Reaper his own bad self apparently looked me right in the eye and said, “Not now, dude.”

“Seriously,” she said. “How are you not dead?”

“I don’t know. But it all makes for a great story.”

Stories. I haz them. Want to know why it’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and not Six Degrees of Some Other Random Actor? It’s not because Kevin Bacon has been in a lot of movies (even though he has). It’s not because “Kevin Bacon” rhymes with “separation” (although it does). It’s because Kevin Bacon has been in lot of ensemble casts. JFKA Few Good MenApollo 13. Fertile ground just on those three alone. That’s where all the linkages happen.

Now, Kevin didn’t set out to become a game show punch line. It just kinda happened.

I’ve escaped death and dismemberment. Several times, in several different ways. Sometimes, I haven’t even realized it until after the fact. Like the time I stepped over live electrical cables, blissfully unaware of the several hojillion volts just itching to kill me. “Not now, dude.”

I cheat death. That’s my thing. I never set out to do these things. I never wanted any of them to happen. They just do. And it all makes for a great story.