Long before Harrison Ford set out on his swashbuckling adventures my lifelong buddy and neighbor, Gary DeBaise and I had a few of our own. The year was 1974. I was 12 and Gary about 14. We were very aware of our territory (Syracuse! I’m so aware of you!) to the extent that we perceived an opening, a portal to adventurous mischief that would eventually lead to an intriguing secret never revealed. Until now.
In the cold and snowy depths of yet another Syracuse winter there wasn’t a lot to do. So Gary and I sat on bar stools in his parents’ built-in basement lamenting our lot and playing 3-penny hockey. We discussed the usual topics and wondered what else we might do this drab Tuesday evening. We strategized and schemed to formulate some kind of meaningful activity to participate in. Nothing. Then we tried to formulate some kind of meaningless activity, but we were already doing that. I wouldn’t call it an Existential Quandary. I think you have to go to college first and have read A Catcher in the Rye to experience that level of alienation. Nah. Not us. We were just energized teenagers with a whole lotta nuthin’ to do. And as we ruminated, it slowly came to us:
Once upon a winter dreary, while we pondered, bored and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious talk to avoid this bore—
While we plotted, not besotted, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of something gently rapping, rapping at our inner core.
“‘Tis some visitor,” We muttered, tapping at our inner core—
Telling us thus and nothing more – Go to the warehouse in the Mucklands.
Our winter was no longer dreary, and soon we embarked to the Mucklands, cold yet cheery
I could continue to tell the story borrowing from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, but me thinks the foreshadowing with such a dark and gloomy poem has already set the tone. Let me more commonly describe the chain of events for that evening’s adventure. This cool and clear night Gary and I had nothing to do as we sat in his basement exhausting the topics of girls, SU football and school dramas. And since we dare not steal any more Canadian Club from his parents’ bar, the idea of penetrating the old warehouses down by the swamp seemed mighty captivating. Plus it gave us something to do besides talking about penetrating Allison Belge. Penetrating the old warehouses we’d actually get to do. So we decided to heed our Muse, brave the cold to go down to the Mucklands where these buildings were located. The Mucklands was a dying swamp with random patches of reed-filled ponds and various drainage ditches leading to lagoons of standing water. It was located adjacent to an old Erie Canal route that newly built Interstate 690 and the old New York Central Railroad paralleled. Within this muddy wonderland stood a few abandoned World War II plants that were protected by a perimeter fence and stood as monuments to the newly developing “Rust Belt.” As we’ll see “protected” might not be the most accurate word to describe this fence.
Gary and I prepared for this vital mission like Seal Team 6 – warm coat, small penlight and a common screwdriver. Alright more like Seal Team ¼. Under cover of darkness we departed base camp (his house) at 1930 hours (about 7:30) and, not wanting to draw any undue attention to ourselves (even though nobody was paying any attention to us at all) we proceeded along usual routes to our target. So over the Midler Ave Bridge across 690 and down the steep embankment near the frozen pond we marched, taking great care to circumnavigate the pond just in case our collective 190 lbs. might cause us to break through the ice thereby forcing us to abort the mission. By thinking in military terms we knew we were deluding ourselves, but it made the endeavor so much more fun and purposeful – this was now meaningful activity.
We continued our movements eastward on a heading of 095° over to the security fence surrounding the clutch of dilapidated and mostly empty buildings comprising some kind of ancient industrial park (in those days “ancient” meant anything prior to 1960). We either scaled the high fence or more likely lifted the bottom of the cyclone fence up and scurried underneath it. We were in. We were in country, behind enemy lines (even though there was no enemy and we were still in the United States) and the blood began to course through our bodies like it would through Rambo’s 8 years later.
Now what to do? We’d been in one of the taller buildings before and explored it in its entirety only to find nothing but bird sh*t and a few rooms filled with old ceiling tile stacked floor to ceiling. The old thick boring kind of ceiling tile; white with pin prick holes in it that you might see in a doctor’s office. Oooooh, pinch me. We didn’t want to scope out a builders’ surplus storage unit. We wanted more. We wanted a score, but we would have to earn it by heeding to our signs and acting in concert with its guidance. To reset the scene; it’s 28 degrees on a crystalline winter night and we’re in an abandoned industrial park as the varying whoosh of differently-sized vehicles is heard in the background. It only being about 2000 hours (8 pm) and God forbid we go home and watch yet another episode of Welcome Back Kotter, we decide to press on into areas we’d not been before. Far beyond the smokestack, over the railroad tracks and through the woods to grandmother’s house we’d go. Except it wasn’t grandmother’s house.
Instead we found a curious and unexplored railroad siding near the back of a long industrial production building. The kind that at one time was a beehive of activity where perhaps Rosie the Riveter helped manufacturing aircraft engines for the boys overseas. That was real ancient history (pre-1945), but for now it was our destiny to penetrate this once impregnable edifice and, like juvenile archaeologists, solve its Sphinx-like riddle. Right about here we transitioned from Army men to archaeological sleuths with a dash of the adolescent poet in our hearts – As we wandered cold and dreary, the snow was deep but we were cheery.
Had the original builders left a weak spot, an opening that would allow us access? After some reconnaissance we located an area of vulnerability where we might gain access to the long abandoned shop floor and see just exactly what stories the internal hieroglyphs might provide. Everything appeared to be locked down tight as a drum, so Indiana Hardiman and Solvay DeBaise plodded through the snow and examined the waist high windows. They were fairly small steel sash windows surrounding the perimeter of the building and extending up about 15 feet. The window opening was small, but not small enough to prevent 2 determined teenagers (if they momentarily dislocated their bones like a cat) from slithering through.
We didn’t want to break anything to gain entry – entirely uncool and besides, we knew from watching Hawaii 5-0 that this would constitute Breaking and Entering. Instead we had to find an alternative method of access and that’s where my glazing background came into play. In examining the individual panes of glass I determined that one of the ground level panes had been replaced with Plexiglas (plastic). Furthermore it was held in the frame only with retentive butterfly clips I’d seen a million times before – no putty. “Gary,” I exclaimed, “I’ve found the secret entrance to the forbidden factory. Give me the screwdriver.” Its handle was immediately placed in my right palm. Swinging the screwdriver like a master swordsman, I quickly popped off the clips, pried out the window and set it aside. In a flash Gary and I dislocated our bones, wriggled through the window and instantly found ourselves in a bleak, shadowy world on a gargantuan industrial scale. Words like desolate, foreboding and criminal trespassing came to mind. And yet this wasn’t Breaking and Entering. It was Removing and Wriggling.
We instinctively slunk low and stepped guardedly about like there was a family of Sasquatches hidden in the gloom and ready to pounce on us if we dared disturb the peace. Or maybe there was a demented and unpaid night watchman who’d been living on C-Rations and hadn’t left the building since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor – the Phantom of the Operation. Maybe he‘d built a makeshift cobweb where he trapped intruders and slowly sucked out their vital fluids while interrogating them about their Japanese sympathies. Then again maybe I’d seen too many Scooby-Doo episodes. In this creepy atmosphere our fearful minds concocted any number of nightmare scenarios and this was the thrill we had sought, but at what price? At what price Mr. Spock? My God I was talking like William Shatner now. What was happening? The mystical energy of unseen spirits who formerly occupied this space whirled around us as we tried to maintain our composure and complete the mission – whatever h*ll that was.
We regrouped and shined the penlight on the few understandable objects existing within this cavernous and echoing space. In the corner was parked a slab-sided ‘66 Chrysler New Yorker. Good. That was recognizable, if not comforting. Clumsily keeping our faculties about us, we moved ahead, a good 15 yards from where we had entered. There’d be no turning back now if we were cut off by vengeful phantasms or faceless henchmen. We’d crossed the Rubicon. As we warily turned one corner into another wing we shone our 2 candlepower penlight on an imposing array of large orderly objects. In the inky recesses of the building we couldn’t make them out at first, but they were neatly stacked far and wide completely filling our murky field of view. As we drew closer and discovered just what these evil apparitions were, we clung to each other as we realized what they were – caskets. Caskets stacked 3 deep and 10 wide and 6 high. Holy sh*t batman. My underwear was no longer clean. It wasn’t that clean to begin with, but now they’d definitely have to be thrown away in order to avoid unpleasant explanations.
We gathered our wits and swallowed our fears as we made our way to a dinky little makeshift office that appeared to be the base of operations. It had a padlock on it. Damn! And then began a string of peculiar events that indicated to us we were destined to complete our mission even though we still didn’t know what it was. Either the hand of God or the hand of Satan was guiding us. We hadn’t signed up for any of this. And yet we had by removing the Plexiglas and entering the building. There’d be no turning back till events had run their course. We had miles to go the evening was through and I was glad we weren’t in Germany because then we’d have to convert it to kilometers.
In examining the padlock we saw that it was a formidable indeed, but the hardware that it was affixed to was only nailed in place. So we searched in the dark with our penlight for a crowbar and, as thing worked out this fated night we found one in only 30 seconds; lying near some crates. In 10 seconds we had pried open the locking hardware and the office door swung open invitingly. Inside was a small office – about the size of 4 adult caskets. There were brochures of open caskets on the walls with cut out pictures of smiling naked girls beckoning you to join them for a romp in the box. Obviously they sold wholesale. Things were looking up, if not weird. After rummaging around the office, we didn’t find much there. A drill, office supplies, some paperwork.
Gary and I (we never got more than 2 feet from each other the entire time) went back out on the floor to reconnoiter a bit more. Reconnoiter is just a fancy term for looking around when you don’t know what you’re looking for. Well in this case reconnoitering paid off as we spied with our little eyes a set of hidden stairs leading to some kind of free standing second floor dwelling. It looked like a miniature house suspended from the plants metal rafters. There were several abortive attempts to scale the stairs. That’s what it felt like – an assault on the stairs as we tried to overcome our fears while ascending into the unknown. We’d made it as far as the first landing where the stairs doubled back. Jesus this was not getting any easier and the penlight’s 1972 non-freshness dated batteries were getting seriously taxed. Was there someone up there in this cabin in the sky? Was it a torture chamber, a Manson Family time share or just a perch where the shift manger could access the catwalk to oversee production? There were options none of which were very comforting.
Screwing up our courage to an all-time high Gary and I schlepped from the 1st landing to the 2nd landing in front of the door of the demented little house at the top of the stairs. It sounds like a bad horror movie – The Demented Little House at the Top of the Stairs. Of course somebody had to grab the door knob and turn it. I did while Gary held the penlight. Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch until click – nothing. The knob had turned, but the deadbolt was locked. Damn it. Dead end. Thwarted. This adventure is over and my heart rate can return to below 150 beats. I was kind of relieved actually.
Gary flashed the light around the vicinity of the pitch black entryway and there in block letters was the next enabling event. It was a sign taped to the door jamb reading: Key to Upstairs Office in Downstairs Office. After some giddy laughter of outrageous disbelief we clambered down the stairs and burst back into the aforementioned downstairs office where we rifled through the desk looking for a magical key. We didn’t find one. We found about 20 on a couple of rings and duly brought them all back upstairs to try them out. After considerable effort – one fit the lock but wouldn’t turn, many simply didn’t fit – we finally stumbled upon the Holy Grail of keys. It fit and it turned. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing because now we’d have to go in. We’d filled our swashbuckling Indiana Jones and the Temple of Casket Adventure to the brim. We were satisfied and perhaps even suffering from a little known and newly discovered syndrome called Swashbuckler’s Fatigue. I was content to go home and talk about all this for the next 3 months while the snow melted, but no. Now we had to enter a deeper more committed and certainly scarier phase.
The door opened and in our state of heightened awareness we could smell the unique and not altogether fresh odors emanating from inside the musty chamber. We hesitantly peered in. And when I say hesitantly, I mean slower than a thermometer’s mercury rising in its glass column on a hot day. As we stood in the doorway, we meticulously panned the penlight across the room and we saw nothing more than a disheveled room with toppled chairs and shadeless lamps. It was kind of like when the cop says, “Nothing to see here folks. Move on.” And we were ready to move on. That is until we came upon the ghastly image of a dead and naked female body in the corner of the room. She was missing an arm. We screamed and got the f*ck out of there like a watermelon seed being squeezed between a thumb and forefinger.
While jetting our way back to our missing Plexiglas exit we settled down a bit and it began to dawn on us that maybe what we saw, we didn’t really see. After all, the dead woman had beautifully toned skin and fresh eye make-up and even though she was missing an arm there wasn’t any evidence of pooling blood or nasty tendons. The worm had turned again. After talking it over we decided to head back over, recross the Rubicon and get to the bottom of her bottom. We retraced our trail of urine, back to the watchtower and back up the steps. This time we more deliberatively examined the room only to discover that our initial observation was correct. It was a lifeless and armless naked female body, except it was girl of the shapely mannequin variety and not of the “Does this dress make me look fat” variety. You can’t make this stuff up. OK. We were back on the beam having secured the first room, but there was another room to explore. This adventure had more sequels then Rocky would.
As we entered the 2nd of the two bedrooms in this bungalow in the rafters, our eyes weren’t diverted by anything so fantastic as a corpse. Instead we found a rather orderly room whose function was, as of yet, unknown. There was a sort of countertop sink with a nearby hotplate. A desk (where the second set of books were kept?), some chairs and a little twin bed. Oh did I mention the safe? There was a small safe on the floor near the desk. A safe that begged to be opened, but who was I, Corporal Newkirk from Hogan’s Heroes? It was impregnable. There was no way in – especially for a 3-tumbler, rotary combination lock safe. By now we were deep in the belly of the whale and despite every sign indicating we should pack up our experiences and good fortune and head back to the supremely reliant middle class lives from which we sprung; we didn’t. We wanted to know what was in this safe located in a dark and dreary upstairs hidden inner chamber surrounded by lifeless mannequins and stacks of supposedly unoccupied caskets. There was no turning back.
I approached the safe with the confidence of an inveterate safecracker doing 5-10 years in Leavenworth. A few turns of the dial and…and…nothing. This couldn’t be the end. Surely we had been promised more by an unseen force guiding our moves and getting us to this point. “Must think,” we postulated as we went back below to the downstairs office to get the drill and see if we could drill the safe open. By now we were getting into a comfort zone having infiltrated numerous apartments and having satisfyingly analyzed the situation with our abundant teenage savvy. We were operating like a finely meshed unit. We had upticked to Seal Team ½ with generous doses of Indiana Jones thrown in. After lugging and pushing the safe like a tackling sled so it was near an electrical outfit, we plugged in the short-corded drill and began drilling the safe in what we thought were strategic locations. We only achieved in creating enough smoke to choke a horse and enough noise to wake the dead or, in this case, a mannequin.
Hmmm. We took a break, looked through some drawers and decided to call it a night it being about 9:30 and having school the next day. “One last try,” I said to Gary as I hovered over the impregnable safe which lay on its back. I began rotating the dial again with the false confidence of an actor being filmed in a movie. And after a few careful, but random spins of the dial I felt a détente or release. “No way,” DeBaise whispered as I grabbed the handle and opened what felt like the Tomb of King Tut. As the 12” X16” door lay open Gary and I looked at each other in disbelief. What was inside? – cash, JFK’s real assassin’s confession, a bottomless portal into another dimension. By now we had grown so comfortable in our environment we turned on the lights in the room and began methodically removing and analyzing each item from the safe. First there was a queer little brown jar whose label read: For Relief of Piles. I unscrewed the top and fleshy, rubbery finger sprung forth. We didn’t quit get it at the time, but evidently it was some kind of gag gift for relieving hemorrhoids. Gary was next and he pulled out an 8 millimeter movie spool that we tucked away for future viewing, being fairly certain its contents had nothing to do with increasing casket sales. It was my turn to fish and I pulled out some signed greeting cards saying things to the effect of, “Glad you’re One of Us” or “I’d Take a Walk on the Wild Side with You Any Time.” Still didn’t get it and then there it was.
Gary reached in and withdrew a couple of magazines with all these naked people in them. Except all of them were men. Manly man in manly poses. Some wearing guitars, some wearing birthday suits. We had discovered the secret life of Larry Blevins (name changed). Holy sh*t! This guy owned a casket company, was married with kids and was, in the parlance of the day, a homo. And this was back when homosexuality existed in a parallel universe and couldn’t quite be comprehended with the mechanisms then available to a 13 year old. What had we stumbled into? There were a trove of love letters and personal snapshots of transvestites and Larry holding his lover by an elongated appendage located mid-body.
Our journey had come to an end as we had reached a climax of sorts. We resolved to unwind everything we had disturbed and, except for the 8mm movie, return everything to its original state. We replaced everything we had disturbed and backtracked in our original steps while leaving our urine trail to evaporate. After we exited the building through the window, I replaced the Plexiglas window by respringing the clips (Breaking and Exiting?). And we returned home to our button down lives. Thus was our adventure of Indiana Hardiman and the Caskets of Doom.
As I look back from the safety of the statute of limitations expiring, I can only offer a couple of comments. I was wrong to invade somebody’s space like that, but maybe I needed that experience to realize it. And if that’s not rationalization I don’t know what is. Also I wonder what you call a collection of coffins – a murder of coffins.
And as I reword the Edgar Allen Poem to fit our adventure I remember this:
And from that day forward our lips were sealed
Gary and I decided to not reveal
Yet here I disclose from Livermore
When I’d sworn. Quoth the David “Nevermore.”