Sunday, March 20, 2016

Memories of Manson Country

This blog often publishes non-political material on the weekends. This piece is a sequel to an earlier post.

In 1968, I spent every other weekend at the home of a boyhood friend named Russ. Since his parents both worked on Saturday, Russ' older brother was tasked to keep watch on us. This older brother, having just acquired his driver's license, did not want the job of brat-herder, so he would drive us to Chatsworth Park North and set us free.

Truly free. The kind of freedom unknown to mollycoddled moderns.

It was all so gloriously unsafe: Not yet ten years old, we lacked phones, "good" shoes, backpacks, water bottles, food, sunscreen, money and common sense. Most of all, we lacked supervision. Rattlers and bobcats never scared us. We happily clambered all over Stoney Point, a dangerous cliff now restricted to experienced rock climbers.

We explored the three train tunnels, including the mile-and-a-half tunnel that led into Simi Valley. That tunnel was narrow: If a train came, you had to run to one of the cubbyholes in the wall, which were about the size of a closet. (As I recall, there is a room-sized bolt hole at about the half-way point.)

In those days, nobody used the term "stranger danger." Yet we faced both strangers and dangers.

As in: The Manson Family. Our playground was their kingdom.

You should understand that The Family made camp in a popular recreation area. Many kids played there; we were hardly the only regulars. Suburban homes surrounded Chatsworth Park (though not as densely as now), and neighborhood children hung out in Manson Country every day.

All of those kids knew that hippies lived "back there" in the hills beyond the railroad tracks. For whatever reason, local children had formed the impression that the area hosted two hippie conclaves which did not always get along.

Hippie-spotting was all the rage in 1968. Our practiced eyes could tell the difference between real hippies (the ones who lived in the wilderness) and the poseurs who slept in comfortable bedrooms in the Valley.

I still remember The Girl.

I might even be able to find the spot where we met her, sitting on a rock not far from the second train tunnel. She had long, straight-ish brown hair and -- in memory, at least -- wore a flowing dress.

One does not forget an ethereal girl sitting alone on a rock, outside of time, communing with nature. We had stepped into a scene from myth.

Since "stranger" did not equal "danger" in our minds, we struck up a conversation with her. She said that she lived nearby. Perhaps she meant that she lived in one of the houses near the park -- but Russ and I felt certain that she belonged to one of the two competing hippie communes rumored to be in the area.

She asked us about our world. I described the plot of the Daredevil comic in my hand; to me, Marvel Comics were more real than reality itself. The Girl seemed quite enchanted as we explained the ins and outs of the Marvel universe.

(For decades, I believed that no other pretty young female would ever take an interest in All Things Marvel. Then Robert Downey Jr. played Tony Stark, and everything changed.)

I like to think that The Girl was Susan Atkins. She was lovely. Just lovely.

A short time later and a short ways away, a man walked past us. Charles himself? Perhaps not: Although he was fairly short, he had sandy hair (or so I recall). He appeared to be listening to music nobody else could hear. What I recall most vividly was the way he walked -- a kind of fearless, floating zoom-strut which sped him past all the treacheries that nature placed in his path. Without stopping, he made brief eye contact with us, said "Hi," and zoom-floated on. We encountered him on several other occasions, but never got anything more than a "Hi" from him. We just knew that he was one of the real hippies who lived in the hills.

One day, Russ and I found a man-made, concrete "cavern" beneath Santa Susana Road, not far from a tree which emitted guitar music. I remember that hidey-hole well: Russ and I sat inside of it and read comic books. I had an issue of Aquaman and one of those Fantasy Masterpieces that reprinted Captain America stories from the 1940s.

But I didn't want to remain in that place for long. Something about it gave me the heebie jeebies.

"Let's get out of here," I told Russ.

He called me a rude name, using a forbidden word beginning with the letter P. Nevertheless, he assented to a relocation.

At this point in our story, I must direct your attention to the first video embedded below, which was produced by a friendly, fast-talking Manson expert who calls himself Stoner Van Houten. At around the 2:15 mark, you can see the very same concrete "tunnel" explored by Russ and myself. (In the video, water flows out of the opening. There was no H20 on that long-ago summer day.)

This was the original resting place for Manson Family victim Donald "Shorty" Shea. He survived the first attempt to kill him, and awoke screaming in the middle of the night. Manson's men -- Clem Grogan, Bruce Davis, and Tex Watson -- completed their hideous task, and then (for reasons I cannot quite understand) moved the body to a gully not far from the railroad tracks. It remained undiscovered until 1977.

Let it be known that the little boy who unfairly bore the "P" label back in 1968 was actually wiser than his companion. Let the record duly note this fact.

Russ and I also explored what is now known as the Baby Cave. We never encountered another human being in there, although there were clear signs of habitation. I recall -- what? A cushion? A pillow? Something.

The Santa Susana Pass was always a strange, wild place. If I had seen Pan himself scampering over those stones, I would have been only half surprised.

Before Manson, nearby Box Canyon had given refuge to the "Fountain of the World" cult run by a Polish man calling himself Krishna Venta. Like Charlie, he cultivated the "Jesus" look. Like Charlie, he would re-stage the Crucifixion, always playing the lead role. Like Charlie, Venta believed in a coming black/white race war in which the blacks (aided by the Russkies) would slaughter the whites: The black victors would then submit to the overlordship of Venta. How could they not? Was he not the Messiah?

Nope. He wasn't. Krishna Venta was killed by a bomb in 1958.

In the 1970s, the same property hosted an "Indian" group called Red Wind. Originally, this was a laudable movement run by a Chumash healer named Semu Huaute, who felt that a traditional tribal life could cure substance abuse and other problems. His community forged ties with the American Indian Movement, and -- according to the FBI -- became involved with shipping weapons to militant Native American groups. Eventually, Semu moved elsewhere, and the camp became overrun with lowlifes who made dubious claims of Indian ancestry. Several of these "Indians" murdered a neighbor in 1974, resulting in a scandal now largely forgotten.

In 1990 -- just after the summer solstice -- the body of UCLA student Ron Baker was found in the tunnel I had explored with Russ back in 1968. (Some call this the "Manson Tunnel.") Newspapers reported that Baker had taken a dabbler's interest in hermeticism, and had flirted with a group called the Mystic Circle (a.k.a., the Bruins for Metaphysical Inquiry). Naturally, many presumed that Satanists had sacrificed him to their infernal deity. Police later determined that Baker was murdered for non-occult reasons by his roommate, one Nathan Blalock.

I have no reason to doubt this conclusion. Nevertheless, let the record note that I hiked around this area just a few days after the body was found, and discovered freshly painted occult symbols -- alchemical, if memory serves. They were placed above the east entrance to the second tunnel (not the one in which Baker was found).

As I said: A strange place.

Strangely enough, I miss it.

I miss nothing else in California the way I miss those haunted hills. I miss seeing my late Havanese hellhound Bella leap across those rocks like a fairy gymnast.

Filmmakers established three "movie ranches" in this area. Not much filming occurred at the notorious Spahn Ranch, although an epic titled Satan's Sadists was shot there in 1968. (The trailer, embedded directly beneath the "Shorty Shea" video, is so hilariously bad it attains a Biblical profundity.) Right across the road was Iverson Ranch, where one may find the famous rock formation seen in the credits of the Lone Ranger TV series. The ranch gave way to a housing development some years ago; protests saved the Lone Ranger rocks, which you can still see.

A bit farther down the road was the "Crash" Corrigan Ranch, which briefly saw service as a kind of amusement park. My father took me there when I was very young, although I have no clear memories of the visit. In 1949, Fort Apache (perhaps my favorite western) was partially filmed there: The "Corriganville" landscape doesn't really mesh with the scenes filmed in Monument Valley.

Some people visit that land to visualize Charlie and Tex and Squeaky and their comrades -- but when I see those ochre-and-burnt-orange rocks, I think of John Wayne and Shirley Temple and Henry Fonda and Hank Worden.

I also think of the actual stage line which, in the 19th century, brought settlers through the Santa Susana Pass to Southern California.

Under the state constitution, the rightful inhabitants of the land -- the Chumash, the Tongva and other tribes -- had no rights. None whatsoever. You know the results.

If I believed in ghosts, I'd say that they linger in this pass.

The Santa Susana Pass is the West -- Hollywood's West and the actual West, simultaneously. The haunted West.

No over-supervised child of today's California will know the freedom that I knew.  No son of the suburbs will ever again have the chance to explore -- unguided, unrestricted -- a beautiful and parlous land of ghosts and outlaws.

Thanks for this journey. I've been waiting since you left a cliff-hanger about a year ago.

The things our parents let us get away with would get them arrested today. I remember staying at a ranch when I was about 13. The rancher gave me a holstered single-action handgun and a handful of shells to go out and plink for an afternoon.

Almost got killed twice in the Boy Scouts too. Sure not the same anymore...
Satan's Sadists, "Warped by the generation gap" - Dig it!
How very odd. I just watched Fort Apache (again) last night and this morning I was watching the last episode of Aquarius, then I click on Cannonfire and whomp! cosmic intersection. I spent most of my first 13 years in the woods (today we would call them the deep woods). A couple of friends and I would often hike miles toward the high ridges, straight into the territory of the bear and panther, usually searching for a mythical cave where outlaws and Confederate hid out. Never found it, but we found lots of rattlers, copperheads, chiggers, ticks, etc. And some of the best blackberries and huckleberries ever.
Satan's Sadists, eh?

Joe Bob would probably say check it out. xD
jt: Precisely. When I was six or seven, my younger brother and I routinely went out into the nearby hills to catch tarantulas. Found them, too. Trapped 'em in glass jars and showed 'em to Mom. "That's nice," she would say.

Now, kids stay at home and play video games. If ever they do venture outside, parents keep them on tethers.
Lovely story. I also have very fond memories of the area. Let's not forget that part of that stage route was called the Devil's Slide, and that one of the very first nuclear reactor accidents in the world happened right next door, as well as that same next-door site being a current superfund cleanup site because of poorly disposed rocket fuel. Oh, and the train accident! What a lively corridor.
"Go outside and play. I don't want to see you back here until the streetlights turn on."
Though I wasn't born yet in 1968, I can relate to your tales of exploration (though in central Pennsylvania, not nearly as interesting as Southern California). My friends and I were outside most of the time, though early video games and MTV did occupy some of our nights and an hour or two after school (until our mothers made us go outside). But what we most enjoyed was exploring the woods all around where we lived (which are mostly housing developments now, sadly). My walk to Junior High school was almost entirely through unpeopled woods (aside from the other school students on their way to school, of course). We didn't have quite as many interesting animals, but we did have rattlesnakes and a variety of spiders....and bats. Frogs galore too, which seem to have completely disappeared from that area. I do remember a very old foundation of a house, in the middle of the woods, that we would play around and come up with stories about (never did find out anything about it though). Anyway, great post and great stories.
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