A Wrenching Tale about Monkey Joe

I recently saw a picture of the Julian Hotel on the internet.  The old place is enjoying better times than it once did, to judge by that picture, and I have no doubt that it is a great place now to spend an evening or two.  And it will come as no surprise to anybody that the Julian Hotel is located in Julian, California, a former mining town which dwindled to a few buildings when the mine played out but is now quite a destination in the mountains of Southern California.  Julian lies about sixty miles east and north of San Diego, the city where I grew up, and I am told that these days Julian is very tightly growth-controlled, as the village fathers and mothers seek to retain the charm of the place.  I applaud that effort, if that is actually the case, because Julian is one of my favorite places on earth.

When I was young we would often camp in the mountains south of Julian.  When we would pack up to head back to the city we would frequently stop in the town and enjoy what it had to offer.  On those rare occasions when it snowed in those mountains we would usually drive there to play in the unfamiliar white, cold stuff.  On those occasions too we would usually stop in Julian on the way back home.  Almost always we would end up in the one cafe in town, probably called the Julian Cafe, where hamburgers and fries and sodas or hot chocolate were to be had.  Yes, Julian was one of my favorited places to visit when I lived in San Diego.  But Julian also provides the starting point for a tale altogether unlike any that I can personally tell.  My friend Jerry told me a tale which began in Julian that set his hair standing straight up.  Here’s the way Jerry told it to me.

Jerry was two years older than me and a friend of my brother Brad.  Jerry was a handsome devil and secured the interest of Anne Marie, a girl who lived with her single mother a couple of blocks away from where we lived.  Anne Marie was my brother’s age and she knew him well.  Because Anne’s mother worked most weekdays, Anne’s house became a gathering point for Jerry and Brad and a lot of other kids in the neighborhood, and since I was Brad’s little brother and Jerry’s friend, and since Anne took a shine to me, I was allowed to tag along as long as I didn’t get under foot.  Anne’s mother liked us all, or most of us at least, and we generally behaved ourselves when we were there.

Anne’s mother, Gertrude (yes, Gertrude!) had lost her husband in an accident in Japan after the end of the Second World War.  I don’t know the details, but he survived the war only to fall in the peace, and never made it back to rejoin his family in San Diego.  Gertrude did alright however because she had extensive family in San Diego County, including one branch of the family which was located at Banner Queen, a collection of buildings which included a store, a headquarters residence, and several cabins which could be rented by vacationers who wished to fish in nearby San Felipe Creek or hunt, or simply escape the springtime gloom of foggy San Diego.

On many occasions Jerry and Brad and some other of Anne Marie’s friends would be invited to spend the weekend at the Banner Queen, and even little me was once invited to go with Anne and her mother to the place.  As I was thoroughly infatuated with the bewitching Anne Marie, I thought that such an event was like being invited to a weekend in heaven.  I still remember walking along the creek with Anne, watching the giant black wasps with orange wings who’s favorite meal to feed to their babies is tarantulas, and I also remember lying in my sleeping bag the first night, talking with Anne in the pitch dark.  “My father told me that I walk in my sleep sometimes” I told her, and it was true that I had done so.  On one camping trip my father heard me stumbling around the campsite and came out to investigate.  I was stone, cold asleep and yet mumbling and trying to go somewhere or do something which was real only in my dreams.  “Just make sure that you don’t crawl in your sleep” came Gertrude’s voice out of the dark.  She and Anne laughed heartily and I laughed along with them, although I really had no idea what was so funny about it.  I was only twelve at the time, and it would take a while for me to figure it out.

The road between Julian and the Banner Queen in those days was steep, creeping along the side of the mountains and ducking in and out of the valleys, generally paralleling  the descent of the San Felipe Creek Valley once it drew next to it.  This daunting grade dropped almost four thousand feet from Julian to the desert floor, and the route was known as Banner Grade.  I wrestled with motion sickness as a child, and when my turn came to descend the grade it was openly known that I stood only a 50/50 chance of making it to the bottom without popping like Vesuvius.  On my visit to Banner Queen I am certain that I successfully survived the grade; vomiting my guts out in front of Anne Marie is something that I would certainly remember, and I don’t remember doing any such thing.

I now return to my friend Jerry.  On one Friday afternoon he and Anne Marie found themselves in Julian.  How they got there, exactly, I don’t remember, but a good guess would be that some family member was going only that far.  The plan, as I remember it, was for another family member, one known as Monkey Joe, would take them the rest of the way to the Banner Queen, where Gertrude would joint them later after she got off of work for the weekend.  In most cases that would have been a good plan.  In this case however there was one glaring miscalculation in the logic, and that glaring miscalculation was named Monkey Joe.

Not every family has a Monkey Joe, but a lot of families do.  The prodigal son, the ne’er do well, the black sheep; there are a lot of ways to say it.  In my family we would have called Monkey Joe a shitbird, for a shitbird he truly was.  But in my family, too, Monkey Joe would probably have been included, accepted and endured as best as possible.  Blood, after all, is thicker than water.

Monkey Joe’s relationship with his extended family might have been strong enough to weather a few storms, but he definitely had a tenuous relationship with the law.  He was never know to hold down a job, but he always seemed to have money; sometimes more, sometimes less.  I never witnessed or heard of Monkey Joe being a violent person, and Jerry and Brad, who knew him a whole lot better than I did, had no concrete proof of such tendencies either.  But nobody could account for the money that he usually had, when we never knew of him lifting a finger in the pursuit of honest employment.  Nobody asked, either.

Some said that Monkey Joe had a penchant for braking and entering.  We knew that he spent a lot of time at the Banner Queen, both in hunting season and out, and without the benefit of state-issued hunting license in any season, and on many occasions renters complained of their cabins being broken into and valuables taken.  Monkey Joe could never be definitely linked to these events, but there was little doubt among non-family people that he was involved in this larceny.  Funny thing is that reports of such breaches of order dropped to near zero when Monkey Joe was not at the Banner Queen.  I wonder if there was a corresponding spike in nefarious activities elsewhere during those times.

But there Jerry an Anne Marie were one afternoon, in tiny Julian, waiting for Monkey Joe to take them the rest of the way to Banner Queen.  They found a booth at the Julian Cafe and first ordered a coffee for Anne and a chocolate for Jerry.  After a good long while, when the staff began to put the stink-eye upon them for occupying their space for so long with so little a purchase, they ordered burgers and fries.  These they ate slowly – glacially – until the last morsel of beef patty and ketchup-soaked bun, and the last cold, soggy fry was consumed.  Still no Monkey Joe.  At last they ordered a cinnamon roll and both had more coffee, eating slowly and planning how they were going to get back to San Diego.  No very good option presented, and Jerry was t the point of calling his father, who was separated from his mother at the time, and begging for a ride home when Monkey Joe pushed his way noisily into the cafe.

“Ah, there you are!  Why weren’t you down at the hotel?”  Monkey Joe boomed out over the background noise in the restaurant.  Jerry knew darned well that they were supposed to meet at the cafe, but shrugged it off.  He needed a ride now, and not an argument with an obviously tipsy Monkey Joe.  Joe had with him one of his cronies and they both plopped down onto the bench seat in the booth.  “We’ll have a couple of coffees” said Joe to the waitress, who in turn looked at Joe like he was a bug pinned onto a specimen tray.  This was probably not the first time that she had served him.  The waitress looked over at Jerry, who nodded his assent.  “The more coffee that Monkey Joe had in him before we started down that hill the better” he told me later.  Monkey Joe talked his usual crap and soon finished his coffee.  “Well, let’s be gettin’ down the hill” he said.  Jerry paid the bill, which took most of the money which he had intended to use to buy cokes and candy and other snacks for Anne Marie and himself at the store at Banner Queen, and they exited the cafe, probably to the considerable relief of the staff and owner.  Outside, the truck was waiting.  Monkey Joe often showed up in different vehicles and nobody asked where they came from.  This one was the vehicle that he most frequently drove however, and Jerry and Anne climbed into the back while Monkey Joe and his friend settled themselves into the cab.  Joe turned the engine over, ground the gears into position, and pulled away from the side of the street.  He turned right at the only intersection in town and pointed the truck towards the Grade, which began not a half mile ahead of where they then were.

The truck had gone only a few hundred yards out of town when Monkey Joe pulled over to the side of the road.  “This damned steering wheel is loose” Joe announced, and then he proceeded to yank it off of the column.  “Here.  Put this in the back” said Joe as he handed the steering wheel out the window of the driver’s side.  Jerry numbly reached out and took the steering wheel and placed it in the bed of the truck near where he and Anne were sitting.  “Are we going to walk back to town” Jerry asked.  “Nope.  I’ve got this under control”  Monkey replied.

“Under control?” Jerry asked. “How in the hell can you have it under control?  You keep a spare steering wheel just in case of emergencies?”  Jerry had had enough of Monkey Joe and this whole adventure, and was ready to get out of the truck and do whatever he had to do to get someplace where common sense was to be found.  “Alright” said Joe from the cab.  “Here we go.”

Jerry looked through the rear window of the truck and could see by the fading light of the late afternoon that Monkey Joe had placed a large crescent wrench onto the nut on the steering column and had now begun to drive down steep and twisting Banner Grade, steering the truck by turning that wrench.  By the time Jerry got his wits about him the truck was moving too fast for him and Anne to jump out, although he told Anne to be ready if the truck slowed down enough in one of the many hairpin turns on that serpentine ribbon of asphalt to jump out an make their escape.  The truck however didn’t slow down very much in those curves, and tires squealed while suspension groaned, and Monkey Joe cackled with delight at the excitement of the ride, or the terror being voiced by Jerry and Anne, or the white knuckles and face of his companion, or all of the above.

Finally the road leveled out and straightened as they reached the desert floor.  Monkey Joe roared down the remaining three or four miles of road between the bottom of the grade an the Banner Queen an then pulled into the parking area in a cloud of dust and gravel.  Jerry told me that what he wanted most to do was punch Monkey Joe right in the face but one got the sense that Monkey was probably a tough guy without much in the way of scruples or mercy, and could be a nasty opponent in a scrap.  Instead, he helped Anne out of the truck, grabbed the suitcase and sleeping bags that they had brought, and vanished into the store without saying one word to Monkey Joe.

Later that evening Gertrude drove into the lot at Banner Queen.  Monkey Joe had disappeared by then and the adventure had been pretty much forgotten.  It wasn’t until the next day that Gertrude learned that her daughter and her daughter’s friend had been subjected to what turned out to be one of Monkey Joe’s favorite jokes.  Apparently he was notorious for scaring the poop out of people with that routine, and it was reported that Gertrude walked up one side of Monkey Joe and down the other for that little episode.

I don’t know what ultimately happened to Monkey Joe.  He apparently got into some bad business in San Diego and became a guest at the Gray Bar Hotel.  Upon his release from that facility he quickly committed some other particularly nasty infraction of the law, such that his family was finally unwilling to put up witht.  They were also unwilling to talk about it.  Monkey Joe vanished and has been absent from sight until this day.

I have been down that grade many times and can’t imagine sitting in the bed of a rusty pickup truck while a crazy man, cackling like a hyena, steered the thing with a crescent wrench.  Every time that I have been to Julian and/or drove down that grade I have thought about Monkey Joe and how glad I am that he’s disappeared from the face of the earth.

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