Werewolf of San Diego

Werewolf! Aghhh! Just the word summons up a dread chill which threads its way down our spines, and this is especially true for a kid who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s and watched Henry Hull and Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Junior change from mild mannered men into wild and terrifying wolf men who struck fear into entire cities, towns and gypsy camps across England.  It was easy to ignore the fact that the early lupine night stalkers from Hollywood looked a lot more like overgrown Yorkshire terriers than fanged agents of death crawling out of our worst nightmares.  The simple fact was that they were big, they were hairy, and they would at least kill if not eat you, or bite you and turn you into one of them, was enough for me.

Over time werewolves began to – well – change.  In 1981 the creature in “American Werewolf in London” actually looked like something that you would really rather not meet in a dark alley instead of like some guy who should tip better at his barber shop.  From that point forward werewolves became truly more frightening as the transformations were more convincing and the results of those transformations more nasty and determined to ruin somebody’s day.  The television series entitled “Werewolf” (1987-88) introduced the usual reluctant werewolf who was suitably ugly and evil-tempered, but it also produced the innovation of a werewolf who actually enjoyed his werewolvery in the person of Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors), who’s death the reluctant star must effect in order to be released from the curse.

As we move into the 1990’s and beyond werewolves have once again completely transformed.  Long gone is the antagonist who looks more like your neighbor’s annoying pet on steroids.  In 1994 Hollywood gave us Jack Nicholson peeing on the shoes of an evil (and also Were) business rival (cleverly intimating the fashion of a dog marking his territory) in the corporate bathroom, and by 2009 Michael Sheen is saving a damsel in distress who just happens to be a vampire, to really muddy the waters.  In both cases the wereheroes end up enjoying the affections of fair ladies; Michelle Pfeiffer for Jack and Rhona Mitra for Michael.  How the heck can you go wrong with that?

It all gets adequately summed up by Warren Zevon in his 1978 tune “Werewolves of London.”  Whether enjoying a dish of beef chow mien at Lee Ho Fooks or a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, or ripping Jim’s lungs out or mutilating a little old lady in Mayfair, the Werewolf was sure to be engaged in either activity wearing a suit that makes you want to meet his tailor and with his hair perfect.  Warren Zevon was a world class songwriter and musician, and ahead of his time.

So, what does this all have to do with me?  While I am perhaps a bit more hirsute than is the norm these days I have an excuse; like Jackson Browne, in ’69 I was 21.  It just sort of stuck.  And while it is true that I am a carnivore without regrets, I tend to prefer my meat more on the medium side than really, really rare.  I am also much more of a shorts-and-tee-shirt sort of guy than one who might be envious of someone’s suit.  Finally, I have never even shaken the hand of Michelle Pfeiffer or Rhona Mitra, in London or Transylvania or anywhere else (and more’s the pity).  To the contrary, I still regard the full moon as only a likely harbinger of stranger folk than usual showing up in Emergency Departments in hospitals everywhere and, if I was to obtain a pet for my home enjoyment, it would be a cat.

The connection goes back to 1965, when Mrs. Lebeau decided to conduct a week-long day camp for the younger children who lived in our neighborhood.  Mrs. Lebeau was the leader of the recreation center which rested mostly at the intersection of Highland and Landis in San Diego, the city in which I grew up.  I can hardly remember what “the Park”, as we called it, was like before her arrival, but I do remember that she arrived like Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, determined to rearrange things to suit her vision of how things should be run.  Mrs. Lebeau was there for at least the last six years of my childhood before I graduated from high school and left to join the Army and she succeeded, for the most part, to mould the Park in her own image.

One of the high points of the reign of Mrs. Lebeau was the day camp.  This was a week-long event in which every day was filled with different crafts and stories and games and so forth. One of the higher points of this camp came in the form of a genuine Hawaiian luau, in which our high-jump pit was excavated and a pig slow-roasted Hawaiian style, wrapped in banana leaves and buried and all.  I have to say that it tasted pretty good, although the head of the cooked pig looking back at me made me just a little bit squeamish.  All week was one imaginative event after another, and I cannot give enough credit to Mrs. Lebeau’s creative genius.  The greatest triumph of Mrs. Lebeau in this project lay in another direction however.  More amazing even than a team of Islanders roasting a pig where our high jump pit had previously been was the team that Mrs. Lebeau gathered and employed to help make all of this work:  Us!

“Us” refers to the older kids who used the Park as a sort of hang-out headquarters.  We were in our fourteenth through seventeenth years of age and came from a fairly wide ethnic, economic and family stability mix.  The Philippines, Mexico, Sicily, Hawaii, Poland, and us ordinary Anglos were represented there.  One parent and two parent families of varying functionality produced our little group, and of money there was rarely much.  Every day and evening some or all of us would meet at the Park to play basketball or football, or put together jigsaw puzzles or play ping pong, or sit on the picnic tables out in the field and smoke cigarettes and tell stories and generally try to act older than we were for hours on end.  Some of “Us” found more of a sense of family and community at the Park than we did at home.  As one might expect, such a group could have a difficult time positively channeling their energy, and such was the genius of Mrs. Lebeau that she accomplished exactly that.

This story takes place in and around a canvas teepee that was erected on the grass behind the basketball court.  This teepee was mostly a visual prop for the camp but one night Mrs. Lebeau agreed to allow us to spend the night there because we had been behaving ourselves particularly well during the camp.  This was extraordinary because the team consisted of underage boys and girls.  The piece which made this possible was the intermittent presence of Adam Clark.  Adam was a college student and athlete whom Mrs. Lebeau knew personally and who lived just across the street from the Park.  Adam was not going to stay in the teepee with us all night, but instead would get us quieted down for the evening and then check in on us at unpredictable times.  This tactic was sufficient to keep us all minding our P’s and Q’s, as Adam was serious about his role and we had no desire to damage the relationship that we had with Mrs. Lebeau and her two younger, paid assistants. We knew that we had a good thing at the Park and didn’t want to mess it up.

So there we were, six of us with our sleeping bags rolled out and stories flying back and forth.  Adam was with us for much of the evening telling about life in college;  a life none of us could imagine and most of us would never experience.  After a while, when we all seemed to be settling down for the night, Adam took his leave with a promise that he would be checking in from time to time.  We were lying in or on top of our bags when I paused from my yammering to look out of the opening which passed into and out of the teepee.  It was a warm, beautiful San Diego night and the soft glow of moonlight was flooding into the teepee.  It was the light of a bright, full moon.

My friend Max was lying just across the teepee from me and I saw that he was looking at the moonlit opening too.  There was a strange sort of bond between Max and me, and while we were very different people we had a lot of fun together, and frequently seemed to be dialed into the same wavelength.  We were sort of a comedy team, as we both enjoyed a good joke and tended to justify our position within the group by being funny.  Folks didn’t speak in such terms then, but I suspect that we both shared a lot of insecurities, and used humor to make that justification.  On this night, when I went silent and just stared at the moonlight, Max became quiet too.  He didn’t know what was stirring in my fertile brain but he knew me well enough to know that some sort of utter nonsense was about to happen.

At last my thoughts crystalized, at least to the extent that any seventeen-year-old boy’s thoughts ever get crystalized.  I saw Max looking at me and I gave him the faintest of nods.  Max looked at me for a moment longer and then turned his head away towards the inside of the teepee, as if he was going to sleep.  I let him lie in that position for a while, until at length I began to growl softly.  The conversation of the others continued at first until, one by one, they became aware that I was behaving more strangely than usual.  As the teepee fell quiet I slowly increased the volume of my growls for another ten or fifteen seconds until I exploded up and off of my bag and flew threw the opening, out into the night.

Max told me later that everyone in the teepee jumped about a foot off of the ground when I made my move.  He pretended to have been awakened by the commotion and asked what was up.  “Glenn just went crazy” explained Clarence.  “He growled like a dog and then jumped out of the opening.”  All of the other kids then spoke at once, echoing what Clarence had just told him.  “It’s OK” Max told them.  “He’s done this before.  Some nights when the moon is full he just changes.  I don’t think he really gets hairy or anything, and I don’t think that he’s ever hurt anyone, but he really does get pretty weird.”

Everybody knew that Max and I were tight and they assumed that what he was saying about my nocturnal habits must be true.  How it would have been possible for Max to know anything about what I did or did not do at night, full moon or otherwise, was a question which never occurred to them.  “I’m going to go out and keep an eye on him, if I can find him.  Sometimes he doesn’t know where he is when he comes back to himself, and it really freaks him out.”  “Man, I don’t want to be anywhere near him” said Elizabeth, and her twin sister Rebecca echoed that sentiment.  “OK, you can stay here” said Max.  “He’s never hurt me, so I GUESS he won’t hurt anyone else.”  Max let the uncertainty of that proposition sink in for a minute or two and then moved toward the opening.  A moment later, like little ducklings following their momma, four people who did not want to be trapped alone in a teepee with a growling lunatic running around outside followed Max through the opening and into the moonlit night.

I wasn’t very hard for Max to find.  Upon my exit from the teepee I trotted over to where a couple of rather small pine trees, neither of which was more than twenty feet high, grew at the other side of the field.  After climbing into one of the trees I waited until Max and the others emerged and then growled again and did a very poor imitation of coyote yips.  I would have preferred a good wolf howl but I had never actually heard one of those, and coyote yips are not a bad substitute if your goal is to scare the snot out of some fourteen and fifteen year old city kids.  The sound was sufficient to draw the little crowd towards my arboreal covert, where they gathered on one of the picnic tables where we would gather at other times and smoke.  There, Max spoke to me.

“It’s OK Glenn.  Just get it out of your system.  Nobody here wants to hurt you or get in your way.  We’ll just be here if you need us.”  I growled and yipped in response and jumped from limb to limb, which was not a bad trick when you consider that very little of the moonlight filtered through the pine needles to illuminate that stage in the air where I was playing my part in the drama.  Max was in fact the star of the show, making up stories about my psychotic history with the skill of a master storyteller, and as my persona became more frightening I felt that I had to elevate my own game.

While Max was talking I crept down to a lower branch and then without warning dropped to the ground about five or six feet from the bench that they were perched upon.  Elizabeth and Rebecca both shrieked while Clarence yelled “Shit!”  Even Max, who wasn’t expecting that move, jumped off of the bench with a “shit” of his own.  All of the others were freaking out and backing away too quickly to notice that Max could barely keep his composure and not laugh out loud at my moment of inspiration.  With nothing more to add I simply took off, running, tumbling and crawling awkwardly on all fours across the field and up into a pepper tree which grew between the basketball and shuffleboard courts.

In no time at all Max came over to the tree, leading his little flock.  Benigno, Clarence’s younger brother whom we called Bennie, had seen just about enough.  “This is bad, man.  This shit is crazy.  I don’t know what’s wrong with him but I think we need to go wake up his father and let him know about this”

That was a game changer.  Dad did not like the kids in my neighborhood very much and enjoyed being awakened at one o’clock in the morning even less.  The thought of my father being dragged from his warm bed at that hour with Clarence and Bennie, et. al., standing on his porch saying that his son was a werewolf convinced me that it was time for this ersatz werewolf to return to his lair.  Max understood that fact as well as I did and went immediately into damage control mode.  “No, it’s OK. He’s never like this for very long – – -.”

“Hey, what’s going on?  What am I doing in this tree?”

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