The Picnic


It was about 9 O’clock in the morning when Phil Coltrane and Sandra Strickland rolled to a stop at the Arroyo Seco picnic area about seventy miles east of San Diego.  The lot was already filling up with cars as city dwellers fled the unseasonable heat and humidity spawned by a tropical storm somewhere off to the south, which had settled on the lowland areas of Southern California like a hot, sticky blanket.  Sitting at four thousand feet in the Laguna Mountains, the picnic area was much cooler than at the coast, and the gentle uprush of air tended to cool down as it rose, and convey that refreshing coolness to any who would make the tortuous drive on the serpentine two lane road that led there from the city.

Phil was apprehensive as he stopped the car, set the handbrake and turned off the engine.  “Here we are.  The hike to where I planned our picnic is about two hours away, so we had better get started.”  Phil tried to sound cheerful, but he was almost certain that the falseness was showing through like a searchlight on a clear night.  He and Sandra had only been together for seven months after meeting in the eleventh grade science class at Grant High School.  He was nervous as hell when he asked Sandra to go to a dance a couple of months after the beginning of the school year, close to Christmas, and was surprised when she agreed.  “One thing I should tell you” said Phil.  “I don’t know how to dance.”  Sandra’s laugh was soft and musical, and projected comfort rather than condemnation.  “Don’t worry about that.  I don’t know how to dance either.”

Over the next few months the relationship grew from two kids tottering through the steps of a neighborhood recreation center dance to a more-or-less committed thing, in which Sandra didn’t go out with any other boy and Phil prayed that it would stay that way. Phil, being a complete novice at this boy friend/girl friend thing, felt ill-suited to compete with other boys if any such competition should arise.

Phil and Sandra were able to get together at school and on one or sometimes both weekend nights for dinner at a drive in burger joint followed by talking and necking on a dark and uninhabited road wherever it could be found in or near the city, and an occasional movie, also at a drive in where kissing in the back seat was more likely to take up the bulk of their time than paying attention to whatever boring thing it was that Burt Lancaster or Tab Hunter was doing on the screen.

After about four months of this Sandra began to get a little less eager to participate in the usual weekend agenda, and a remoteness crept into her demeanor.  Phil thought he noticed it first at a party, where Sandra talked more to his best friend Matt than she did with him.  Talking with Matt later he asked him about the party.  “Are you interested in Sandra?  I’m not mad or anything like that; if you and she are interested in each other that’s OK.  I just gotta know.”  “No,” Matt said with genuine surprise.  “I’m not interested in Sandra at all.  She’s pretty and everything, but I’m busy with school and football, and I think Darlene and I might be getting together.  I’ll tell you though, if you’re worried about her looking at other guys, maybe you should think about whether you want to continue this or not.”

Phil instinctively knew that any relationship you had to beg for wasn’t a good thing, but he found that he loved being in a relationship at all and was prepared to venture into some unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory if there was any way that this first relationship could be saved.  Of course that’s if there really WAS anything amiss in the relationship.  With Phil’s inexperience, how would he really know?  Without asking, that is.  That is what today’s picnic was going to be all about.

They climbed out of the two-door Mercury sedan and Phil lifted the trunk lid.  Inside there were two packs of unequal size, one large enough to carry some food and water and a few items like a mirror, brush and tanning cream, and the other large enough to carry food and a blanket to spread out and eat on, and a fancy compact Swedish gas stove no bigger than the palm of your hand.  With this Phil planned to heat a can of soup and boil water for instant coffee.  Neither Phil nor Sandra drank coffee, but Phil was certain that it would look adult and make a good impression.  Swinging the packs onto their shoulders, the two began their walk to where, a couple of hours later, they were to have their lunch and a long conversation.

“Where exactly are we going to eat this lunch?” asked Sandra.  “It’s a couple of hours up the trail that starts over at the east end of the parking lot.  We’ll walk up the trail for a while, cut across a valley and then climb the side of a mountain to where there is a level place among a group of rocks.  I found this place hiking with my dad a couple of years ago.  It’s not too hard of a climb and I think you’ll handle it easily.  Let me know if you get tired though.”  “I’m tired now” Sandra laughed, but she was a very athletic young woman and Phil suspected that she could keep up with him wherever he led her.

The top of the first climb was reached in about forty-five minutes, at which point the trail which was previously bounded by chaparral, a mix of twisted, thorny drought-resistant plants that had grown tall and in some places had become tunnel-like due to the series of wet years that the area had experienced recently, opened up as it passed along the western edge of a mountain valley.

“We’ll climb part-way up that mountainside” Phil said, pointing to a peak which rose from the east side of the valley and poked a little higher into the cloud-dotted blue sky than did its near neighbors.  “If you look about a third of the way up the hill, just above that tree that was split by a lightening strike, you can see where we’re going to eat, in that cluster of rocks.  There’s no path but the valley is level and there’s not much chaparral on that hillside.  Watch for water holes though.  The Cuyapaipe River begins up here, and it can be a little bit marshy.  We’ll stay in the upper part of the valley and then cut back to get to where the rocks are.

They stepped off into the low, grassy floor of the valley near the north end, and it was indeed fairly dry there.  The warm sun and dry air, the grassy valley floor strewn with wildflowers and the beauty of the mountains should have been a thing to make one’s heart glad, but Phil was not feeling glad at all.  He knew that a very difficult conversation needed to be had and he had struggled over when and how to begin it.  He had planned to broach the topic when they sat down to lunch, but didn’t feel like he could wait anymore.

“There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about” Phil began.  Sandra tensed, although that escaped Phil’s notice as he was focused on stepping over clumps of grass, avoiding marshy patches, and trying to collect thoughts which stubbornly refused to stay collected.  Sandra had suspected that this conversation was coming and in fact welcomed it, although its arrival caught her off guard and unprepared.  She had been feeling the strain in their relationship but had nobody to talk about it with.  Her parents were not going to be much help, she knew, and she thought about when she first spoke of Phil to them.

Her father was an accountant overseeing the tax needs of a large boat-building company on the San Diego waterfront, and was frequently at work in his office at home when he was not at work in his office at the business.  He was a kind man and made a lot of money, but was frequently distracted and distant from family life.  Her mother mostly took her direction from her father.  He was affectionate towards her, but there was little sense of partnership in their family.  Dad was the head of the household.

“What about this boy you want to go out with?” her father asked at the beginning of their relationship.  “What does he want to become, and what does his father do?”  “I don’t know what he wants to become, Dad.  We haven’t talked about that kind of stuff.   He hasn’t asked me what I want to become either.  We just like each other.  I think his dad works at the aircraft plant, but I don’t know what he does there and Phil doesn’t talk about him much.”  “Well, I don’t know about my little girl getting mixed up with a boy who shows no interest in a future.  How would he take care of you?”  “He didn’t ask me to marry him Dad.  We’re buying a couple of hamburgers and going to a dance.  Phil is a nice guy who helps me in science class and sometimes eats with me and Melissa Gormley.  He knows her too from their neighborhood, and she says that he is one of the nicer kids, and if she didn’t have a crush on a football player she might like to go out with him herself, and maybe would go out with him anyway if he didn’t already like me, but he hasn’t asked her.”

“Hmmm.  It doesn’t sound too promising to me, but why don’t you have him come over first and I’ll take a look for myself.”  “Oh Dad, I would feel bad about bringing him here to be inspected like a job applicant.  Can’t he just come in for a while before we go out?  I’ll be sure to take fifteen or twenty minutes longer than necessary to get ready after he arrives, and you can examine him all you want.”

And that was how the first date began.  Phil, it turned out, had dreams of becoming a helicopter pilot in the Army when he graduated, and while that carried with it the higher probability of not surviving the war which was at that time raging half a world away, the prestige and pay grade of an Army officer was sufficient to satisfy Mr. Strickland’s requirements, and he silently declared Phil to be suitable to take his daughter to a dance.  What Sandra’s mother thought of the affair is not known, as she was not asked.

Mom was spoken to now, however, as the relationship had grown flat and Sandra wondered what she should do next.  “For God’s sake, don’t keep going out with this boy if you don’t really like him.  You don’t owe him anything, and breaking up with him won’t be anything like as hard as staying with him will be if you don’t like him.”  Mom spoke from experience.  “That’s the thing Mom, I DO still like him.  He’s really nice.  It’s just that I don’t know how he feels about me.  He never really talks about how he feels and he has never asked me how I feel about him.  Or us.  I think that he still has a little bit of a crush on another girl who he knew before me; one who never gave him the time of day.”  Sandra’s mother knew something about not being consulted on her feelings, and advised that she drop Phil like a bad habit.  So when Phil raised the topic as they walked across the valley Sandra knew that the time had come to make up her mind.  “Go ahead” said Sandra.

“I’ve begun to get the feeling that you don’t like me as much as you did a couple of months before.  Is that how it is?”  Sandra was surprised by the directness of the question, and in fact Phil was too.  “I don’t know” Sandra replied.  “I don’t think I do, but I still like you a lot.”  Phil felt an arrow rip through his heart as they walked along.  He knew it, and now it was out in the open.  “Is it because you’re attracted to Matt?”  “No, not at all” Sandra lied.  She actually did find Matt attractive, but she had no intention to act on that in any way.  “I don’t have anybody else that I’m interested in.  I still really do like you a lot.  I’m just not sure where we are with this, and I’m not even sure how you feel about me.  It seems like you just want to sit up at Sandford’s Drive in, eat burgers, and then go somewhere and make out.  I like all of that, but I want something more.  I want to know if there are any other sides to you.”

Phil and Sandra walked along in silence as they both digested what had just been said.  Phil was glad that he was not competing with Matt or anybody else and Sandra was glad that this conversation had at last begun.  They had crossed the middle of the valley when Phil picked up the thread again.  “Well I do like to make out with you.  You’re a beautiful girl, and sometimes I guess I can’t believe that I’m really kissing you, and then it’s all that I want to do.  Maybe I suffer from a lack of imagination about what to do when I’m with you because I’m so happy just to be with you at all.”

“Well, this is the first time that I’ve heard of that” said Sandra, and Phil knew at once that she was right; he had never said anything like that to her.  How could he know that he should say such things, or how to say them?  Phil’s father and mother lived a sort of cold war, sharing a house but separate bedrooms, separate budgets, separate vacations and separateness in every other respect.  They went dancing and to dinner with friends, but their marriage looked like a business deal.  Sandra, if she would have known Phil’s parents better, would have understood his confusion in this matter.

“And then there’s another thing.  When we were at the football game that guy, Paul Something-Or-Other, was fresh with me and you seemed to be afraid.  I know, I shouldn’t be looking for a muscle guy who’ll fight at the drop of a hat.  I just wonder if that shows that you don’t really care about me very much and what you would do if I was really in trouble.

That one hurt.  Phil knew that he had looked bad that night.  Paul Dugger was a big kid, bigger that Phil by a good bit, and he had made advances towards Sandra right in Phil’s face.  Phil had laughed a little and steered Sandra and himself to where some of Phil’s friends were sitting, and the number of Phil’s friends persuaded Paul to leave after another grating remark or two.  What hurt most about it was that Phil, unbeknownst to Sandra, had attained to the third degree of black belt in karate.  He had begun to train after being humiliated in the sixth grade by a bully and convinced his father to pay for lessons at a nearby school.  As Phil got older and attended competitions with other karate schools he found a much better one and switched to it, buying extra lessons with money he made mowing lawns, selling vegetables to neighbors that he grew in the back yard, and eventually delivering newspapers.  On the night that Paul made his oafish advances Phil was certain that he could put him out of commission with three, or at the most four, well-placed blows, but he was restrained by a code to not use violence except as a last resort.  He did not want to tell Sandra of this until he knew her much better, although he now knew that he had made a mistake.  Phil made a note to rectify that mistake at the earliest opportunity.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t more assertive that night” Phil explained lamely.  “I wasn’t afraid of Paul; I just didn’t want to get into a fight then and there.  If I thought that you were in any real danger I would have done whatever was necessary to protect you.  I would never let anything hurt you.  Never.”

At that Sandra felt a little embarrassed.  She really did want a knight to step up, slay a dragon, and preserve her honor.  Was that so wrong?  It’s what most boys did, or tried to do which was just as good.  She had wondered if Phil was a coward.  That was a strong word, and Phil did not seem like if fit him.  Sandra wondered if she had a skewed idea of what a relationship with a boy really was.  Was she playing the role of the pampered princess, expecting the boys to do the bleeding so that she would feel special?  They both walked along in silence, rolling these thoughts through their minds as they finished their transit of the valley.

They began their climb to the rocks and, as they picked their way through the sparse chaparral and the small boulders that were scattered about Phil picked up the conversation again.  “So I haven’t told you how I feel about you.  OK.  I’ll give you that.  I’m new at this and, honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing or should do. So let me tell you this now.  I look forward to every minute that I can be with you, and I feel sick when I think that I am losing you.  If you don’t want me to kiss you so much, then I won’t.  If you want me to stand on my head instead, I will. Just being near you will be enough as long as I know that you are happy just being near me.  But if that won’t work then we should break up now so that I won’t bother you or look like a fool, which is how I’ve been feeling.

There, Phil had said it.  He couldn’t believe that he got it out without his voice cracking, and he prayed that Sandra wouldn’t take him up on it, but it was out on the table and, whatever came next he would have to deal with, for better or for worse.  Sandra was happy to get it out in the open too.  She had only little more experience with this boy friend/girl friend thing than Phil and wanted to figure it out just as badly as he did.  She thought about her response to that statement as they drew closer to the rocks where lunch was supposed to happen, wanting to say the right words.  Shortly, Sandra decided to just say what she felt.

“This is what I’ve been missing.  We were acting a lot like my parents; pick me up at six.  Eat at six thirty.  Go to the movie at seven thirty.  Kiss from eight to ten and then go home.  I don’t want you to be my bodyguard and I don’t want to be your ornament, and I certainly don’t want to be part of a script.  I don’t want you to fight over nothing but I have to believe that you would protect me.  I don’t want you to think that you have to put on an act for me.  I want to know that you care about me and maybe surprise me a little sometimes.  Take me to a nice restaurant,  or just grill me some hot dogs in your back yard and tell me that I’m special to you while we sit on that big bench swing that your dad built.  Next time we sit in the back seat kissing while some stupid movie is playing, try to get into my pants.  I don’t want anything wild and crazy, but I don’t want anything so damned tame and predictable either.

They had reached the cluster of rocks and Phil stopped dead in his tracks, frozen by both his elation and the surprise that he felt from what he had just heard.  “You would let me get into your pants?” he asked in amazement.  “No.  don’t be silly.  But I wouldn’t hate you for trying.  At least I’d know that you want to get into them, and then we can talk about the rest of it later.”  Phil put out his hand as if to reach for the button holding up Sandra’s pants and she laughed as she slapped his hand away.  “A whole lot later.”  Phil laughed too, just beginning to believe that this was going to end a lot better than he ever believed that it could.  Sandra’s musical laughter was singing a love song in Phil’s ears as they pulled themselves up over the first layer of rock, and that is when the rattlesnake which had been sunning itself above the lip of the rock was startled by their appearance, and struck out at Sandra’s neck.

Phil saw the snake flying through the air and reacted instantly, due to his years of martial arts training.  Instinctively he thrust his arm between Sandra’s throat and the snake that was flying at her like a missile.  The serpent buried its fangs deep into Phil’s bicep, and he then swung the arm vigorously until the snake let go and wriggled swiftly into what chaparral was nearby, leaving a shaken Sandra and a bitten Phil in its wake.

“Oh God!  Oh God!  You’re bitten” Sandra kept repeating.  Phil stared numbly at the two puncture sites on his arm that were oozing blood, frozen with fear.  Sandra’s shrieks became louder and more hysterical, and the sound brought Phil back to something like his senses.  Phil’s father, who grew up in Oklahoma, knew a lot about rattlesnakes and had taught Phil how to negotiate the mountains without getting crosswise with a rattler.  One thing his dad did not include in his tuition was how to remain watchful for snakes while negotiating with a beautiful young girl about getting into her pants, even if in jest.  Phil had forgotten to tap the rock with the steel hatchet that he wore on his belt to alert any snake on the rocks that he was coming “The snake,” his father told him, “will let you know that he’s there, which will work out best for both of you.”

Sandra was losing it, and Phil went to her, put his arms around her and held her close.  He led her to the rock and sat her down with her back against it, then sat down next to her and cradled her with his good left arm.  “It’s OK.  It’s OK baby” Phil said, although he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how it could possibly be OK.  “Come on Baby, calm down.  You’re OK.”  Sandra’s sobbing diminished, and presently she looked up at the snakebitten boy who was comforting her and began to control her fear.

“You were bitten, weren’t you/“  “Yes,” Phil replied.  “It looks like I was.”  Sandra’s tears began to flow again, but Phil’s comforting arm kept her from falling completely apart.  Her jaw worked, but few words came out.  “Are you going to die?” she finally croaked in a whisper.

Phil didn’t answer right away because he didn’t know what the answer.  His father had told him that all of the Hollywood stuff about snakebites was horse shit  “The best thing to do is to get to a doctor as quickly as possible without raising the heart rate any more than necessary” his father had said.  Sitting against a rock an hour and a half at least from a ranger station, and then another hour from a hospital, meant that getting to a doctor in time was not going to happen.  Phil felt the shiver of the terror of death crawl down his spine.  Bile crept up his throat and he almost threw up with fear, but the look of Sandra scared, shaken, and fearing for HIM settled him down, and he remembered more of what his father had taught him about snake bites, and one possibility rose to the top. “My father told me that sometimes rattlers will give you a ‘dry bite’, where they don’t inject venom.  All we can do now is start back to the parking lot and hope that this snake was in a good mood.”

Sandra was beginning to fall apart again and Phil, who was not far behind her in that department, now placed both arms around her, worrying in some surreal fashion that he might drip blood on her clothes.  “Come on, we should get going” Phil said and stood up.  He reached down to Sandra with his good arm and she rose to stand next to him.  “Let’s get these packs off” Phil said.  “I don’t think we’re going to do a picnic today.  Sandra dropped her pack next to where Phil’s lay in the dust and they set off down the hill, towards the valley.  “We’ll go straight across the valley” Phil told her.  “I’m not worried too much about wet shoes right now.

They walked quietly side by side across the grassy alley.  Phil was wondering how far he would get before the effects of the bite would lead to weakness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and perhaps death.  He wanted to be sure that Sandra was on the path that led straight to the parking lot by the time that happened, if it happened.  Phil thought about dying, and panic began to rise into his throat once again.  He was not raised in a religious household, and being a teenage boy he never thought much about death.  Now it was a distinct possibility, but in an odd way its fear did not immobilize him.  Phil knew that there wasn’t one damned thing he could do about it, and so  whatever came would come.  Heaven or hell or whatever else was beyond his control, and so he would just put one foot in front of the other for as long as he was able.  The rest would just have to take care of itself.

Sandra was deep into her own thoughts too.  The panic that she had felt only a short while before was only pushed back slightly from her consciousness, and as she walked, images of the last hour came at her with shotgun randomness.  The tension between the two, kissing, burgers at Sandfords, Paul, her parents, Phil’s monotonous and unchanging demeanor.  They swirled and left her dizzy, and she leaned on Phil for support.  Phil stopped and steadied her and said “I don’t know how long I’ll stay standing but I’ll do so as long as possible, so you’ll have to stay vertical yourself.  I’m trying to get you as close to safety as I can before I go down, if I go down.  Sandra stood there for a moment, and the image which coalesced out of the maelstrom of her thoughts was Phil, the guy who preferred not to get into a fight with Paul for Sandra’s honor, had just taken a rattlesnake bite for her.  She threw her arms around Phil and kissed him.  “I don’t really know what love is” she said.  “I don’t now if I’ve ever seen it before.  But what I feel for you may be love.  We’ll see.  But first we have to get you to a doctor, so come on.  And ‘NO’, you still can’t get into my pants.”

So down the path they went, through the chaparral tunnels and on toward the distant parking lot and help to be had from there.  Phil gave Sandra the keys to the car in case she had to go some of the way alone but as each minute passed and none of the expected effects of snake venom set in, Phil became more convinced that he had received a dry bite.  Sandra began to sense it too, and began to cry all over again.

“What’s the matter?” asked Phil.  I think I’m going to be all right.”  “I do too” replied Sandra, and her voice cracked once again as much of the strain and terror of the last hour began to slip away from her.  “It’s a miracle, you dumb son of a bitch!  You’ve been bitten by a rattlesnake in order to save my life a million miles from nowhere and you’re going to be all right, and it’s a miracle!  How can I love a guy who’s so damned stupid?” Sandra kissed Phil again and then took his hand and led him down the path.

The parking lot was soon in sight and the car parked on the far site looked like heaven.  When they reached it Phil led Sandra to the driver’s side and, taking the keys from her and opened the door, saying “You’re driving”, and I think it will be best if we share the driver’s seat in all of the other areas of our life too.”  Phil kissed Sandra slowly, deeply, and then got into the passenger side.  “Maybe you’re right about miracles” he said.  “I’ll give that idea some thought.”  Sandra with tears of relief and joy rolling down her face, put the Merc into gear and rolled down the road toward the ranger station, and whatever would come after that.

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