Search Results for: space-shuttle

Closure in Service of Grief: the Septuagenarian Couple Who Locate Bodies Under Water

Gene Ralston and his wife, Sandy, are shown with their boat at their home in Kuna, Idaho on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Jessie L. Bonner)

Gene and Sandy Ralston have worked for everyone from the FBI to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and NASA recovering bodies located under water. As Doug Horner reports at The Guardian, with specialized sonar equipment and patience, they’ve found the bodies of over 100 people who’ve succumbed to every manner of death from accidental drowning to premeditated murder. Their work is critical, bringing much-needed closure to families, some of whom have waited decades to say goodbye to their loved ones long after law enforcement has given up the search.

The Ralstons are now in their 70s and spend most of every year travelling to search sites or on the water, looking for bodies. They have clocked more than 31,000 miles on their motorhome in a single year. In almost two decades of searching, they have found 120 victims of drowning in lakes and rivers across the US and Canada. They are considered among the best underwater search and recovery specialists in North America, and have worked for agencies from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to Nasa (hunting for the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on atmospheric entry in February 2003, killing all seven crew members). They have helped solve crimes and generations-old mysteries.

Gene and Sandy are modest, unassuming people, but bring a relentlessness to their often monotonous work. They call it “mowing the lawn” – towing their sonar equipment back and forth through the water, piloting their boat in slow, overlapping strips. Typically, a corpse descends through water with its chest facing the surface. When the feet hit the bottom, the knees buckle and the body spills on to its back, arms outstretched. That is the shape the Ralstons usually look for with their sonar. They knew a murder victim would look different, though. “We call it ‘packaged’ – tied up and weighted,” Gene said.

Gene and Sandy are anomalies in the world of search and rescue. They pursue this work full-time, but they work for free, only charging travel expenses. They take a scientist’s methodical approach to everything they do.

For the families and friends, coping with the loss of a loved one who has drowned without a trace is a special kind of pain. “The human brain can’t let go unless there is evidence of transformation from life to death,” says Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and a family therapist, who has spent the last half-century researching what it means to reunite families with the bodies of the deceased. Without recovering a body, a haunting anguish takes the place of grief and eventual closure. Some people report catching glimpses of their lost loved ones in everyday situations – in the aisles of the supermarket, say – for years after they go missing. “You need to see that the person is no longer breathing,” Boss said. “Or you need to see the bones.”

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No Heart, No Moon

AP Photo

Matt Jones | The Southern Review | Summer 2018 | 22 minutes (4,337 words)


The space race killed the sparrow.

Of course, there were other factors.

There was the decision in ’46 by the Brevard Mosquito Control District to slather the Merritt Island salt marshes in DDT dropped aerially from a No. 2 diesel–fuel carrier.

Then, because the mosquitoes grew resistant to DDT, there was the application of BHC and Dieldrin and Malathion.

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Home Again, Home Again: A Reading List

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“Home, I began to feel, was the half-formed beliefs you fashioned in the middle of all you didn’t and couldn’t understand, a tent on a wide, empty plain.”

-Pico Iyer

Nine or 10 months after I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, my parents packed up all of our belongings in a Mazda 323, and drove us away from my natal home. My parents took the Alcan highway through Canada, and then made their way down to Texas, where we lived for a couple of years before moving again. There are photos from that initial journey. In some, I am lolling on a viewing platform in Yellowstone National Park, and in others, I’m bundled up in a snowsuit, unnamed mountains behind me. My parents tell me I remained watchful in the backseat, my eyes trained on the scenery as it flushed from snowy white to green.

After Texas, we maintained a peripatetic existence, moving to Louisiana, then back to Alaska again. Though I learned early on in my life that we didn’t live anywhere long enough to change the walls from sellable beige, the idea of home didn’t concern me until my first-grade year, when my parents suggested we move to a small seaport city on the edge of Borneo, the second-largest island in Indonesia. We spent six years in Indonesia, only moving once from Borneo to Java. It was the longest I lived anywhere. Not knowing as an elementary schooler the layers of privilege that complicated my presence there, I allowed myself to feel as though I had found a home. I learned to pull nectar from the pink flowers outside my front door, speak Bahasa Indonesia, and scooter past the monitor lizards on my way to school. America — the country people often reminded me I was from — became the other end of infrequent long-distance phone calls, during which I’d listen to the crackling, faraway voices of people I loved. When we returned to the States once a year, well-meaning family and friends would always say, welcome home or I’m so glad you’re back. I felt, in those moments, as though there were two of me, both versions shimmering and illusory. I didn’t fully belong in Indonesia, but I also couldn’t understand how I fit into the landscape of technicolor grocery-store aisles and the dazzling suburban asphalt streets of a country that others called mine.

My family found out we were moving from Indonesia while on summer leave in the U.S., so I never got the chance to return or say goodbye. My memories from the formative years I spent there are buried somewhere deep within me — for years, I have felt too homesick to let myself remember. It is only in certain moments — the voice of a woman speaking Bahasa Indonesia rising from a crowded venue in Oregon, the echo of an adzan from a mosque — that I allow my memories from those days to unfurl like lush rainforest leaves, broad and green and glossy, beading with dew and bursting with song.

I move every two to four years now, and I am always filled with anticipation, hoping for a place that will hold me. I feel rootless, capable of fitting in anywhere, but not truly belonging. Most of the time I carry these thoughts quietly within myself, but I have found comfort in the way others voice complications with the idea of home. How much of who we are stems from the places that bear us? What does it mean to long for a home that doesn’t exist in the way it once did? What memories rise to the surface when you return to a long-forgotten place? What does it mean to be unable to return?

1. Reading ‘The Odyssey’ Far From Home (Azareen Van der Vliet, March 10, 2018, Electric Lit)

When Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi moves to South Bend, Indiana, she feels unmoored.

“Given the disorienting cartography of my life, there isn’t a singular home for me to return to. I am from nowhere; or, perhaps, I am from a constellation of places which habits and social codes violently contradict one another, leaving me empty handed.”

Van der Vliet Oloomi reads The Odyssey in Indiana, which helps her better understand her own nostalgia for an intangible place. Her encounter with the tale serves as an example of the power that literature, like place, has in offering an intersection between reality and possibility, solace and hope.

2. Baby Boy Born Birthplace Blues (John Jeremiah Sullivan, December 6, 2016, Oxford American)

When John Jeremiah Sullivan was young, a local paper in his hometown of New Albany, Indiana, ran an article about a boy who discovered a passageway that had once been part of the Underground Railroad. By researching old newspaper clippings reporting on runaway slaves, instances of racial violence, and the origins of blues music, Sullivan unravels myth to reveal truths about the complex and rich history of the place he “was raised in and where occurred the events that most shaped and damaged me as a human being.”

3. A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home (Jamila Osman, January 9, 2017, Catapult)

While watching salmon return to the site of their birth to lay thousands of eggs of their own, Jamila Osman feels a pang of jealousy at the certainty of the fish, their ability to find their way back to a point of origin. In this lyrical, haunting essay, Osman chronicles her parents’ journey from Somalia to Canada to Portland, Oregon, and reckons with grief after the death of her sister, the shortcomings of maps, and how her own identity has been shaped significantly by loss and place.

“A country is impossible to contain; a people are impossible to boil to the silt of parchment. A map is only one story. It is not the most important story. The most important story is the one a people tell about themselves.”

4. Enduring Exile (Alia Malek, October 15, 2013, Guernica)

When Anto’s neighbors warn him that he’s no longer safe in northwestern Syria, he heeds their warning, quickly shuttering the windows of his restaurant and inn, and selling what possessions he could. Alia Malek not only tells the story of Anto’s displacement in this harrowing journalistic essay, but also writes about the devastating effects of the Armenian Genocide and the way Anto’s family’s relationship to the idea of home was permanently altered as a result.

“He was curious to visit Armenia, even if it wasn’t really Armenia, and he wasn’t really from this Armenia.”

5. Fountain Girls (Samantha Tucker, Fall/Winter, 2016 Ecotone)

“There are Fountain girls who try to leave, but cannot outrun their hometown legacy; there are Fountain girls who never even stumble upon the chance to try.”

By deftly weaving together her own personal narrative about her upbringing in Fountain, Colorado and the death of her brother Ronnie, with the death of a “Fountain girl” named Tara, Tucker illuminates how a place can hold you in its grasp, even after you’ve physically left it behind.

“Where, in our reach for something better—an enlistment, an education, a steady job, a family, the dream—where do we, instead, cycle back, or discover our beginnings have inevitably been our end?”

6. Looking for Home in the Palestinian Diaspora (Marcello Di Cintio, September 24, 2018 Hazlitt)

Over 70 years have passed since Palestinians were first displaced by the Palestine War in the late 1940s, and many of the refugees living in UNRWA-administered camps have not been able to return to their ancestral homes. After Palestinian author Mona Abu Sharekh guides Marcello Di Cintio through Shati refugee camp in Gaza, Di Cintio begins to wonder “about the descendants of refugees who live far from the villages their grandparents lost — not just across a fence, but across an ocean.” Di Cintio meets with several Palestinian poets in Brooklyn in order to bear witness how both literature and heritage inform their conceptions of home.

“‘My father infected in us a nostalgia for Palestine,’ Hala said. Though she’d never seen Palestine, she came to love the place because of her father’s love.”

7. A Woman’s Choice — Sexual Favours or Lose her Home (Jessica Lussenhop, January 11, 2018, BBC News)

Broke and homeless, newly released from prison, Khristen Sellers was offered an abandoned trailer under the condition that she’d clean it herself. She did, but when the inspector came by, he “asked her if she ‘gives head’” and implied that “his signature on the inspection was the only thing standing between her and a place to live. Sellers is not the only one to experience this kind of harassment.

“In a post-Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo world, most people are well aware sexual harassment occurs in the workplace. But across the US, women are subjected to it in a far more intimate setting – their homes.”

In this piece, Jessica Lussenhop chronicles the experiences of sexual harassment that many women tenants have experienced, the flaws in the system that allow for such egregious incidents, and related legislation.

8. Home by (Chris Jones, Jaunary 29, 2007 Esquire)

After the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated before re-entry in February, 2003, Donald Pettit, Captain Kenneth Bowersox, and Nikolai Budarin were left stranded in space. Through interviews with the crew, and research about the surrounding circumstances, Chris Jones, in this moving piece of longform journalism, writes about what it means to be suspended far from Earth’s comforts and minutiae, not knowing when — or how — you’ll be able to return.

“And sometimes you’re no longer a month away from home–you’re suddenly much farther, although you’re not really sure how far, because the miles are meaningless.”

* * *

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and illness.

America Is Still Hard To Find

Eugene A. Cernan holds the American flag during his first space walk, becoming the last man to walk on the moon. (NASA / Donaldson Collection / Getty Images)

Lily Meyer | Longreads | May 2019 | 12 minutes (3,115 words)

Catonsville, Maryland, is a quiet suburb of Baltimore, a leafy, American Dream-looking town where, in May 1968, a group of nine Catholic protestors led by pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan staged one of the most famous protests of the Vietnam War. As Berrigan describes it in America Is Hard to Find, a shaggy collection of letters and musings that functions roughly as his autobiography, “nine of us invaded the draft board at Catonsville, Maryland, extracted some 350 draft files and burned them in a parking lot nearby with homemade napalm.” Why? Because “it was better to burn papers than to burn children.”

The novelist Kathleen Alcott takes both the title and the spirit of her third book, America Was Hard to Find, from Berrigan. Alcott’s previous novels, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets and Infinite Home, are both elegant, contemporary stories set in extremely contained worlds. America Was Hard to Find, in contrast, stretches its limbs across two decades and two continents, plus the moon. It’s more structured than its namesake, but remains digressive and expansive, following a left-wing radical named Fay Fern and her loved ones across time and space. This includes outer space; Alcott’s history deviates very slightly from ours, and in her world, the first man on the moon was not Neil Armstrong but the fictional Vincent Kahn, Fay’s onetime lover and the father of her only child.

Vincent and Fay work as foils, as do Fay and her son, Wright. Through their shifting and overlapping perspectives, Alcott offers her own anti-war observation of Cold War America. She takes the political questions Berrigan lays out in America Is Hard to Find — what are the ethical limits of protest? What are the ethical limits of technology? Will citizens burning papers prevent a government from burning children? — and enacts them in slow, stylish, keenly observed prose. Read more…

House of the Century

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Daisy Alioto | Longreads | February 2020 | 16 minutes (3,903 words)

“A house is the physical manifestation of the ego”

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, “My Very Own Dream House”

I. Security

I have always harbored suspicions about fire escape windows. When my mother was living in Boston in the 80s, her TV set sat across from the window that opened onto her fire escape. One night she woke up to a hairy leg entering the window and screamed loudly enough to wake her neighbors and scare away the television thief. An acquaintance who lives in Park Slope listened to an intruder pop the glass out of her fire escape window and watched their iPhone light sweep closer to the bedroom as she silently tried to shake her boyfriend awake. After an eternity, he sprung up and chased the intruder out with a hockey stick.

My boyfriend does not harbor suspicions about fire escape windows, so when he moved to a one bedroom apartment, security considerations became my own research project. The acquaintance in Park Slope sent a link to a $20 window alarm on Amazon. I watched a short video about the installation process and began to read the reviews. The top review was 5/5 stars, written by Mary in Florida and it broke my heart more than any thief ever could.

She writes that she debated buying a door alarm but never did, despite the fact that the rest of the house was baby proofed for two children under two years old. One day, after feeding a bird outside, the younger one slipped back out without her noticing — probably to chase the bird, she says. In a few minutes she sensed the lack of noise in the house, the too quietness. She found him in the pond across the street and he died the next day.

The review continues. “I am a good mom,” she writes, listing the other ways she baby-proofed the home. “I am a good mom.” I’ve forgotten why I’ve come to Amazon. Maybe this is someone’s idea of a sick joke, a manufacturer’s enthusiastic review of their own product gone too far but no… with a little Googling, I find Mary and the local reporting on the tragedy.

I want to reach through my screen and hold Mary. To tell her yes, you are a good mom. It’s not your fault that doors open and babies look at birds. Of course you are a good mother, there’s just so much that can go wrong with a home.

According to Robert Lee’s A Treatise On Hysteria (1871), Greek physician Aretaeus was one of the first thinkers to link hysteria to the female body. “In the middle of the flanks of a woman lies the womb, a female viscus closely resembling an animal.” The womb wanders the body, leaving a slew of undesirable symptoms in its wake. “On the whole it is like an animal within an animal,” Aretaeus writes.
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I Had a Friend. He Dreamed of Israel.

Illustration by Eléonore Hamelin

Michael Shapiro | Longreads | October 2019 | 28 minutes (7,073 words)

This essay is published in collaboration with The Delacorte Review. You can read a longer, complete version here.

I told people that I was returning to Israel for the first time in thirty-five years to visit a grave and this stopped them, mercifully, from asking why I had been away for so long. This was true; I was going to visit the grave of my best friend, Jonathan Maximon, who had died in 1984 when he was thirty-one. It was also true that I could have gone back in all the years since but for reasons I could not explain to anyone, including myself, I had stayed away.

My wife had twice gone for work, and though we had traveled with our children, we did not take them to Israel, nor send them on Birthright. Then, not long ago, my daughter mentioned that she might be going and while I did not want to intrude on her time, overlapping by a day or so felt like the pretext I needed. Her plans changed but by then I had my ticket.

Jonnie was buried at Yahel, the kibbutz at the southern end of the Negev desert that he had helped found in the late 1970s. I had not been in touch with his wife, Aliza, since his death. I emailed the kibbutz and asked if my message could be passed along. She replied almost immediately. “I am still in Yahel,” she wrote. “Mark my husband, and myself will be happy to meet you.” She and Mark had four grown children. Moriyah, her daughter with Jonnie who had been a year old when he died, now lived in the north and was married with two young sons. He would have been a grandfather.

I was 66 and had not made this trip since Jonnie’s brother called to tell me he was gravely ill. I had just gotten married and was preparing to move to Tokyo. My wife, Susan, told me, “Go.” I had last seen Jonnie seven months earlier. Susan and I were traveling in Egypt and Israel. We took the bus from Jerusalem four hours south to Yahel, which then, like now, felt as if it was in the middle of nowhere. I was so excited to see him that I left my leather jacket on the bus. Hanging over my desk as I write this is a snapshot from that visit. He and I are leaning on a white jeep. He is wearing a San Francisco Fire Department t-shirt that is tight across his broad shoulders. He was always nuts about fire fighters. Together with Aliza and Susan, we went on our only double date to see ”Play it Again, Sam” in the kibbutz cafeteria and as we walked back to their apartment Jonnie told me that I’d be an idiot not to marry Susan because if I didn’t someone else would and quickly. I do not recall his saying this with a smile. Nor was he one to elaborate.

The next time I saw him he was lying in a bed in a dismal ward at Tel HaShomer Hospital near Tel Aviv. A tumor in his spine had paralyzed him from the waist down. His hair was falling out and he was skeletal. Another patient told him, “Get out of this place.” He did, but only to a private room.
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The Known Unknown: Tales of the Yucca Man

Photo by Ken Layne

Ken LayneDesert Oracle | Winter 2015 | 11 minutes (2,903 words)

The story you’ll hear most often goes like this: There’s a young Marine on guard duty in some far-off corner of the massive Twentynine Palms desert training base. He hears an awful sound in the dark, something like a growl. Then, the breathing, coming from one side of his lonesome little guard booth and now from the other.

It’s circling him.

He steps out into the dark, his sidearm drawn. There it stands, eight feet tall, an unbearable stench from its hairy body, the eyes glowing like red coals.

Sometimes, the Marine is knocked unconscious by the beast and found hours later by the next shift. One version occurs at the old rifle range, where the watchman — also armed with a rifle — wakes from the assault to find his weapon bent in half.

Since the 1970s, when the Mojave Desert base expanded from its World War II encampment, there have been regular reports of new recruits terrorized by both the Yucca Man and pranks inspired by the tales. But most sightings of the spectral creature come from campers and hikers at Joshua Tree National Park. Tents have been opened in the night by stinking monstrosities, and there is an occasional large footprint or blurry photograph submitted as evidence. A snapshot from the Hidden Valley campground has made the rounds for a decade now: The figure bounding over the boulders looks much like the iconic Bigfoot from the Patterson–Gimlin film of 1967.


A photograph of the alleged Yucca Man from the 1990s.

Since the 1960s, when tales of Yucca Man and his desert cohorts were commonly reported by Southern California newspapers and television stations, amateur “cryptozoologists” and Bigfoot researchers have analyzed the blurry pictures and measured the prints in the sand, all in the effort to document a flesh-and-blood creature they believe exists alongside everyday mammals such as bears, coyotes, and humans.

But the Natives who lived in California long before European colonization considered these creatures to be supernatural entities, with names that often translated to “hairy devils.” They took care to avoid the gloomy spots where the devils were often seen.

The Tongva People living around the Santa Ana River called the devils’ hideout east of the river’s source in the San Bernardino Mountains the Camp of the Takwis, pronounced the same as the Tahquitz known to the Cahuilla of Agua Caliente. According to John Reed Swanton’s The Indian Tribes of North America, “Takwis” also survives as a site name at the head of the Santa Margarita River, at Temecula Creek. Throughout Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, you’ll see it spelled Tahquitz — the angry specter’s unhappy home in the region is the cursed Tahquitz Canyon.

Sometimes the Takwis or Tahquitz played a role in creation stories, as in Cahuilla culture. Other times the creature was an omen, or simply something weird in the wilderness that should be avoided. To the Cahuilla, the Tahquitz could be the “original shaman” and a murderous monstrosity that collected victims from Tahquitz Rock (or Lily Rock). “Tahquitz has also been said to manifest as a large green fireball moving through the night sky,” the website Weird California reports.

That coastal and desert Indians should know the same creature is not in itself cause for skepticism: Under various names and dressed in myriad traditions, Yucca Man has been reported in the wilder parts of Southern California as long as people have lived here.

In Fontana, that hard and wind-blown Inland Empire town, there was a famed racetrack north of Foothill Boulevard called Mickey Thompson’s Fontana Dragway. From 1955 to the dragway’s closure in 1972 following a gruesome series of fatal crashes, spectators repeatedly saw something they called the ‘Speedway Monster.’ Assumed to be a “wild man” resident of the foothills of the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, it had the habit of crossing the rural land at the dragway’s edge, during car races that produced horrific noise.

In the new suburbs of Antelope Valley, encounters with the Mojave Sasquatch reached epidemic levels from the late 1960s through late 1970s, as new housing developments in Lancaster and Palmdale pushed into the wild desert and secret technology was tested at Edwards Air Force Base and Lockheed’s notorious Skunk Works facility.

Under various names and dressed in myriad traditions, Yucca Man has been reported in the wilder parts of Southern California as long as people have lived here.

The Antelope Valley Daily Ledger-Gazette described the common features of the eyewitness reports in a staff report from June 1973 beneath the headline “Bigfoot Surfaces Again In Palmdale, Nine-Mile Canyon.”

According to reporter Chuck Wheeler, “the creature likes to run around houses and leaving footprints. That is its MO in the East Lancaster area where footprints were found around several houses recently. One woman reported that the creature ran around her house and scratched at the door. A small boy sent to tell his father supper was ready was found hours later crying near the corral. When asked what happened to him, he answered that a big, furry man would not let him pass.”

Southern California encounters were common enough in the 1970s to keep multiple Bigfoot-investigation groups busy taking reports. In March of 1973, a babysitter and three Marines — separately, we presume — reported seeing the sasquatch in Lancaster. Nerves were frayed to the point that two separate vigilante groups searching for the monster nearly killed each other two months later, according to the files of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

In May 1973, a search party in Lancaster attempting to follow up on several ‘Big Foot’ reports was forced to take cover when another party on the same sort of search panicked and started shooting when they thought they were being approached by a large creature. Fortunately, no one was injured.

In recent years, the hair-covered red-eyed “Sierra Highway Devil” has been repeatedly spotted by terrified drivers on Highway 14 near the junction with Pearblossom Highway, always at night, always running along or across the road.

The strangest tales come from Edwards AFB itself. The desert base adjoins the massive Rogers Dry Lake, with its miles of smooth desert runways, and is famed for its “Right Stuff” test pilots and landings of NASA’s space shuttles. There is significant subterranean infrastructure at Edwards AFB, with the personnel and technology required to keep secret aircraft a secret. Security cameras were always pointed at sensitive areas. According to persistent stories from Edwards, those cameras repeatedly captured images of desert sasquatch moving through the tunnels by night. Entire families of the hairy monsters apparently traveled the base’s buildings and corridors, appearing and disappearing at will, and to the bewilderment of base police sent chasing after the phantasms.

With the report of Edwards Bobbie Ann Slate, that tireless Bigfoot researcher, collected this report from the base policeman, who was patrolling the old “sled track” section of the base where the notorious Thelemite wizard and Jet Propulsion Laboratory founder Jack Parsons tried out his rockets, and where Nazi V-2s had once been tested on a specially built railroad:

Heading back to the main base, I noticed maybe 200-300 yards to my left, these large blue eyes. I do a lot of night hunting and it was strange — they were larger than anything I’d ever seen before. The [blue eyes] had to be about four inches apart and seven feet off the ground. I stopped the truck and sat there watching them. It was too dark to see any body shape to the thing. The blue glows proceeded toward my truck at a right angle for about 100 yards and then stopped.

As an overpowering stench filled the desert air, Sgt. House saw the huge blue eyes again, now just 50 yards away. “The movement of the eyes was extremely fast. Another thing that bothered me was that they didn’t bob up and down. It was like two lights on a wire moving from one point to another.” A radio call gave him a good reason to drive away fast.

Because of the ribbing he suffered after filing a report, others in the squadron refrained from making formal statements about their encounters.

But the encounters didn’t end. Not until 2009 would Edwards Air Force Base officially acknowledge the many incidents with “Blue Eyes” and other strange phenomena.

The hair-covered red-eyed ‘Sierra Highway Devil’ has been repeatedly spotted by terrified drivers on Highway 14 near the junction with Pearblossom Highway, always at night, always running along or across the road.

According to a 2009  article in the base newsletter, Inside Edwards, the entity known as “Blue Eyes” was much discussed at a reunion of the 6510th Air Police Squadron officers who worked on base between 1973 and 1979, known as the 6510th Desert Rats.

“Attendees traded memories of their bizarre experiences on patrol such as seeing ‘Blue Eyes,’ the local version of a Yeti near South Base or ‘Marvin of the Mojave,’ a ghost who could be heard but not seen and left size-10 sneaker imprints in the sand,” Lisa Camplin of the 95th Security Forces Squadron wrote in the official Edwards newsletter.

The now-retired Edwards guards also recalled “observing unexplainable objects in the skies [and] seeing disappearing tail lights on the dry lake beds.”

The Desert Rats’ motto, shared with the Air Force Test Center for which it served, was Ad Inexplorata, or, “Toward the Unknown.”

As with the padres’ old stories of “hairy monsters” living at a camp of devils along the Santa Ana and Santa Margarita rivers, written accounts of monsters in the Antelope Valley date back to the Spanish colonial era. Horace Bell, famed for his role in the frontier vigilante group called the Los Angeles Rangers, later wrote two influential history books about life in mid-19th century California. One of those, On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger, tells of a shadowy winged beast at Elizabeth Lake, that deep-water hole where the Sierra Pelona Mountains meet Antelope Valley. The “sag pond” was created by the San Andreas Fault, and successive generations have branded this generally welcome geographic feature—ample fresh water in the desert!—as a cursed place. Supposedly given its old Spanish name by no less a figure than Junípero Serra himself, the Laguna del Diablo held an awful creature, a beast that would fly in shadow form over the rancho from the 1830s—when early California legislator Pedro Carrillo (grandfather of actor Leo Carrillo) abandoned the place following a mysterious fire and general bad feelings.

The winged wraith flew over the hacienda of Don Chico Vasquez, a man unimpressed by the folklore surrounding the lake. It was his foremen who alerted the Don to the beast thrashing in the mud on the cursed lake’s shore. He saw it, too, but the creature vanished — whether into the lake or into the sky or into thin air, they never knew. Cattle and horses began disappearing shortly thereafter, with the eventual discovery of several carcasses leading to the belief that the devil in the lake had grown hungry for meat. As with the “hairy monsters,” the winged lake beast also assaulted the rancho with its vile stench.

Don Chico Vasquez had enough, selling cheap to Miguel Leonis, the “Big Basque” known as the “King of Calabasas.” Leonis not only proposed to capture the lake monster that had bedeviled his Indian, Spanish and American predecessors, but he also planned to make money on the deal. The Big Basque contracted with the Sells Brothers Circus, which operated across the country from its base in Columbus, Ohio, from 1862 to 1895. According to On the Old West Coast, Leonis’ contract with the Sells Brothers would have made him significantly richer, had the flying lake beast been captured:

That if the python is such as the party of the first part describes it to be, and if the party of the first part succeeds in taking it alive, then the party of the second part agrees to pay the party of the first part the sum of $20,000.

Instead, the winged snake flew east after being shot by the Big Basque’s hunting party. According to legend, this was the same “dragon” killed outside Tombstone, Arizona, in 1890. But evidence of the monstrosity’s corpse has proved elusive, and Elizabeth Lake remains “haunted” to this day.

While Yucca Man and its cohorts are often described as huge, hair-covered humanoids, there are nearly as many reports of shadow beasts lacking any real definition beyond their brilliant glowing eyes — often red, sometimes blue as in the Edwards AFB reports. Such brazenly paranormal entities have much in common with England’s “Owlman” and West Virginia’s “Mothman” — or the Mojave Desert’s own “Cement Monster.”

As with the ‘hairy monsters,’ the winged lake beast also assaulted the rancho with its vile stench.

Anyone who has taken the scenic drive on Highway 18 from the West Mojave up to Big Bear Lake has driven past the huge concrete mine eating into the mountainside and national forest. Now owned by the Mitsubishi Cement Corporation and surrounded by security fencing, there was a time when many of the mine’s graded roads could be easily accessed from the two-lane highway.

In March 1988, two U.S. Marines returning from a day of snow skiing at Big Bear encountered the red-eyed shadow giant and pursued it into the strip mine. The former Marine, Ken Fox, sent his report of the incident to sasquatch researcher Douglas E. Trapp in Texas.

“From the left side of the road something very large seemed to stand up on two legs and run across the road,” Fox wrote. “The bottom half looked human, covered with hair. The top half wasn’t very visible, but appeared monsterish, scary in other words. The headlights only got the bottom half, and the damn thing ran out about 150 feet in front of us. It made it across the road in three strides. I distinctively remember seeing the arms pumping back and forth just like any of us would do if sprinting across the road in front of a car. It appeared to be 8 feet tall.”

What was it? Ken Fox’s buddy recognized it immediately: “It’s the Cement Monster! After him!” They briefly pursued, but having no luck continued back to base at Twentynine Palms. If the cement mine is still haunted by this monster, it is considerably more difficult for people to access the cuts in the mountainside today.

This transition zone between the transverse mountain ranges and the High Desert is rich with reports of similar monsters, from the beast seen as recently as 2012 at Devil’s Punchbowl to the sasquatch stalking hikers at Big Rock Canyon.

Yucca Man, too, is connected to these immense mountains via the Little San Bernardino range that runs from Joshua Tree National Park westward into the proposed Sand-To-Snow National Monument up to San Gorgonio and Barton Flats —generations of summer-camp kids have suffered sleepless nights as a diabolic forest monster lurked just beyond the cabins.

The harsh, hot badlands that comprise much of Anza-Borrego State Park are home to many strange and terrible stories of the creature that has been called “The Missing Link” and the “Borrego Sandman.” The Sandman has been seen by 20th-century gold hunters and rockhounds and is most often described as being an enormous primate with whitish fur and glowing red eyes.

The Missing Link sasquatch of Deadman’s Hole is reportedly a mass murderer.

Once the Gold Rush reached Southern California’s mountains and deserts in the later 1800s, prospectors and bandits quickly made the area home. Discoveries of gold at Julian and in the desert to the east brought many hopeful miners to the scorching San Diego County desert, and many stagecoaches loaded with suspicious characters. One of them, Peg Leg Smith, claimed to find and then lose a “mine” near the Salton Sea where gold nuggets could be picked up off the ground. And a couple of characters from Julian, Edward Dean and Charles Cox, claimed to have shot a sasquatch dead. An 1878 article in the San Diego Daily Transcript reported that the men had found and then killed the monster at Deadman’s Hole, northeast of Warner Ranch. Delivery of the mysterious creature’s corpse was promised, but it never appeared in San Diego. More than a century later, a Daily Transcript reporter named Herbert Lockwood went digging for the old story and found it appeared in an 1878 issue dated April 1.

While Yucca Man and its cohorts are often described as huge, hair-covered humanoids, there are nearly as many reports of shadow beasts lacking any real definition beyond their brilliant glowing eyes.

It was March 1876 when a more credible report appeared in the San Diego Union. A man named Turner Helm claimed he saw a “missing link” near Warner’s Ranch (four miles south of present-day Warner Springs). Described as a bear-like giant with a human face, the report generated great interest because of the many unsolved murders at Deadman’s Hole, then a water stop on the Butterfield stage line.

The bodies had been piling up at the stagecoach stop’s waterhole for two decades, with the victims including a French-Basque shepherd, several dubious individuals on the run from the law or creditors, and a wealthy San Franciscan named William Blair.

Many of the victims were found with bruised and broken necks, their money or gold untouched. The last unsolved murder at the waterhole dates to 1922, when again a strangled victim was found there, 64 years after the first recorded murders at the hole.

Deadman’s Hole — “Deadman Hole” on modern maps — is located in a grove of live oaks about 15 yards east of California State Highway 79, an 8-mile drive up from today’s Warner Springs, just southeast of the place called Takwi at the headwaters of the Santa Margarita River.

The visitor to the Deadman’s Hole of today should look for the small, plainly lettered sign that reads “U.S. Navy Remote Training Area,” at an unmarked crossroads just before Sunshine Summit. As at Edwards and Twentynine Palms, here the Marines train side-by-side with the elusive sasquatch of Southern California’s wild lands.

* * *

This article first appeared in the fourth issue of Desert Oracle, the quarterly print magazine edited and designed by Ken Layne out of Joshua Tree, California. 

The Stuff That Came Between Mom and Me: A Story About Hoarding

Getty / Illustration by Katie Kosma

Susan Fekete | Longreads | March 2018 | 13 minutes (3,541 words)


I lived in Atlanta for six years after college. I only went back to St. Pete twice in that time, and both times I stayed with my aunt Linda.

Mom would make excuses about not having cleaned the house, not having done laundry, and therefore not having clean sheets on my bed. It made me sad, a little, because I knew they were lies. I knew her house was full.

Full — floor to ceiling, windows to walls — of stuff. Her mass of belongings included objects de art, trinkets, furniture, memorabilia, books, magazines, journals. And many cats, especially ones with extra toes. Although no one was sure anymore how many of those — or of anything else for that matter — she had.

When I visited, she came over to my aunt’s house, and we hugged and laughed and loved each other greatly and talked for hours on end. About everything.

Everything except the stuff in her house. My mother was a terrific metaphysician, passionate about the world around her and the lives of others. She was spiritual even at her darkest moments, and funny even in her greatest sorrows. She was a joy to be around, if you could avoid the stuff.
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La Otra

Getty / Sire Records / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Jaquira Díaz | Longreads | June 2018 | 19 minutes (4,721 words)

1985. These were the days of Menudo and “We Are the World,” the year boxer Macho Camacho gave a press conference in a leopard-skin loincloth as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” blared from radios across the United States. In one month, the space shuttle Challenger would explode while all of America watched on television, entire classrooms full of kids, everyone eager to witness the first teacher ever launched into space. My mother had just turned 22, and a week later Levy turned 8. By then, Mami had three children. She’d already been a mother for more than a third of her life.

In those days, Mami teased her blond hair like Madonna, traced her green eyes with blue eyeliner, applied several coats of black mascara, apple-red lipstick, and matching nail polish. She wore skin-tight jeans and always, no matter where she was going, high heels. She dusted her chest with talcum powder after a bath, lotioned her arms and legs, perfumed her body and her hair. My mother loved lotions, perfume, makeup, clothes, shoes. But really, these were just things to her. The truth was my mother loved and enjoyed her body. She walked around our apartment butt-ass naked. I was more used to seeing her naked body than my own. You should love your body, my mother taught me. A woman’s body was beautiful, no matter how big, how small, how old, how pregnant. This my mother firmly believed, and she would tell me over and over. As we got older, she would teach me and Alaina about masturbation, giving us detailed instructions about how to achieve orgasm. This, she said, was perfectly normal. Nothing to be ashamed of.

While my father only listened to salsa on vinyl, Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón and Ismael Rivera, my mother was all about Madonna. She was American, she liked to remind us, born in New York, and she loved everything American, including her music. She belted the lyrics to “Holiday” while shaving her legs in the shower, while making us egg salad sandwiches for lunch. She talked about moving us to Miami Beach, where most of our titis and Grandma Mercy lived, about making sure we learned English.
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Volkswagen and ‘the Normalization of Deviance’

Volkswagen recently admitted to intentionally skirting U.S. emissions controls by installing “defeat devices” in nearly 500,000 vehicles. This scandal has undermined their credibility and profitability. In The Atlantic, Jerry Useem looks at historic precedents in other large organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Ford and NASA to explore Volkswagen’s expensive mistake and the corporate climate that led to it:

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the [O‑rings] from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself.

If that comparison sounds overwrought, consider the words of Denny Gioia, a management professor at Penn State who, in the early 1970s, was the coordinator of product recalls at Ford. At the time, the Ford Pinto was showing a tendency to explode when hit from behind, incinerating passengers. Twice, Gioia and his team elected not to recall the car—a fact that, when revealed to his M.B.A. students, goes off like a bomb. “Before I went to Ford I would have argued strongly that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall,” he wrote in the Journal of Business Ethics some 17 years after he’d left the company. “I now argue and teach that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall. But, while I was there, I perceived no strong obligation to recall and I remember no strong ethical overtones to the case whatsoever.”

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