Brian Bahouth is a longtime public radio reporter and short story writer. He also edits and produces My Audio
Universe, a literary magazine of sound in conjunction with KVMR Nevada City/Sacramento, CA.
When the radio signal came from the bottom of the hill that the police had breached the lower barricade and were on their way up the dirt road, a pair of logging activists locked themselves to a massive yellow bulldozer, and I began the climb up into my hiding spot.
I was a reporter for the Pacifica Network News and embedded in the encampment protestors called Never-neverland, a muddy, clear-cut spot at the top of the hill where four days earlier an enraged logger felled a two-hundred-foot redwood tree that killed an activist. Hundreds of protesters rallied and used their bodies to block access roads to a quarter million acres of national forest and declared the area a Free State. I could hear the distant growl of police ATVs approaching as I climbed deep inside a mountain of jumbled redwood trunks where I was perfectly hidden in a dark, fragrant nook the size of a small closet. Through an opening in the logs, I could see forty feet down onto the shackled protestors.
Peter Pan, as he called himself, lay on a matted scrap of rug with an arm inside a hardened steel pipe that was shoved through an opening in one of the bulldozer’s rusty tank tracks. On the other side of the track, a woman whose forest name was Tinkerbelle lay on a small rug with her arm in the other end of the pipe, and inside the heavy tube, their hands were chained together at the wrists and locked with a carabineer only they were able to undo. Police could not safely pull them apart, and the close fitting steel pipe could not be cut without mutilating an arm, so the county sheriffs would torture them until they unlocked.
Through my long, highly sensitive shotgun microphone I could hear Tinkerbelle’s whispered incantations crisp in my headphones, and my video camera zoom could resolve their tiniest expression. I began recording when a helmeted police officer wearing knee pads and blue rubber gloves kneeled next to Peter Pan. In one hand he held a small, bright red box with ominous metal points protruding from one end, and in the other he held an index card from which he read.
“I am officer Jesse Kirkendal of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s office and I command you in the name of the people of the state of California to unlock from this equipment and vacate the premises. If you do not comply I will administer a nonlethal shock from this device to your body in thirty seconds...”
At the same time, on the other side of the track, a mannish policewoman named Beverly Fowler squeezed Tinkerbelle’s head tight between her knees. She wore blue rubber gloves and waved an open bottle of pepper spray and a cotton ball over the activist’s face. Fowler gave Tinkerbelle thirty seconds to unlock or she would swab her eyes with the caustic fluid; and as they counted down on both sides of the track, my sphincter tightened, and I held my breath in terrible anticipation.
On the day I arrived, the leadership circle authorized me to report from inside the Free State, and it was Peter Pan who escorted me behind the barricade and up the mountain to Never-neverland. He was sixteen and looked unlike the other activists with hair trimmed short and neatly parted on the side. I recorded our conversation while we walked up the steep, wet road past impromptu shrines made of boughs and private trinkets arranged and dedicated to his fallen friend Damian “Ginger” Stone.
“Since Maxxam took over Pacific Lumber they’ve been taking whole groves of trees that are a thousand, fifteen hundred years old and turning them into picnic tables. The state doesn’t enforce the law, so we go right up to the base of the tree where they’re working and try to reason with them...”
While we walked I could feel the negative pressure of well camouflaged eyes somewhere in the forest watching through binoculars. Local police would be the uniformed storm troopers to disperse the protest, but the FBI was covert and insidious, and I was certain they were out there taking photos and notes.
“On the day Ginger was killed, we were using a bullhorn to engage the loggers over the noise of the chainsaw,” Peter Pan continued. “And this crazy-assed logger named Dan flipped out and started cussing us out and whipped out a pistol, so we moved a little farther away and kept trying to talk to him with the bullhorn when he dropped a whopper tree in our direction. They do it all the time, but this time they caught us on a slope, and it rolled right over Ginger.”
Officer Kirkendal jabbed the Taser prongs into Peter Pan’s shoulder; and in a single chaotic spasm of sound and motion, Tinkerbelle and Peter Pan shrieked as one. That electricity passed from one activist to the other through the metal pipe around their arms was a surprise for the police, so when Tinkerbelle convulsed, Fowler spilled pepper spray onto her face and neck and arms. Loud and bright in my headphones and large in my little camera screen Tinkerbelle shrieked out all the air in her lungs and continued to exhale nothing, respiration frozen while Peter Pan grunted, teeth clacking like teakwood blocks until the Taser was removed.
I had interviewed Tinkerbelle the day before, and we sat together on the rug next to the bulldozer track in case there was a sneak attack and she had to lock down fast. Her body odor was sharp as fresh garlic. Lively tufts of hair grew from her underarms. Before I began recording she excused herself and took a few steps away from the rug and noisily shit in a five-gallon bucket. Her eyes studied my reaction as she grunted and pushed. My thinking became tangled. She laughed, and while her long thin arm craned and tensed as she wiped herself, her unblinking eyes never left me as if I was something miraculous. She sat on the carpet again, and I held the microphone between us. She rubbed a clear, thumb-sized crystal point on her forehead and down to her heart and then deep under her filthy dress and into her crotch and back up to her forehead where her thumb pressed the greasy crystal tight to her brow chakra.
“After Ginger died, I summoned you,” she said. “I knew you from the radio, and here you are... I knew you would come...”
She lifted a leather pouch from under her layered dress and delicately poured a remarkable six-inch amethyst crystal point onto the ratty carpet between us as if she was afraid to touch it.
“Ginger had this in his pocket when he died. I had to wash the blood off,” she said. “Go ahead, pick it up.”
I weighed the obelisk in my hand and held it above my head against the seamless gray sky and peered into its translucent purple center.
“I can feel the magic prickle when that thing touches my bare skin,” she said. “But Ginger used to say there wasn’t any magic in it at all...he said the way it worked was ‘pure physics.’”
“What’s it do,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s different for everyone. But I can tell you it’s big magic, and you can feel it’s an old old crystal that has been passed from person to person for a long long time, and besides, every radioman needs a crystal,” she smiled.
Officer Fowler flushed Tinkerbelle’s scalded face with water from a gallon jug while Kirkendal looked on.
“It looks like she’s been boiled,” Fowler said. “What are we going to say?”
“We don’t say shit,” he said.
“I dumped half the bottle on her...look at her Jesse...she’s hurt real bad...we gotta call this in...”
Kirkendal yelled at his luck and waved his arms in big angry swoops. Tinkerbelle’s face was swollen as if she had been repeatedly punched, and she breathed in tiny gasps like a fish in the dirt.
“We aren’t calling in shit until these people are off this machine,” Kirkendal scowled. He stormed to the other side of the dozer track and grabbed a semi-conscious Peter Pan by the collar and banged his head off the ground a couple times hard as if he was unobserved by man or God.
“My patience has run out motherfucker,” he roared. “You either unlock or she’s gonna go blind...it’s up to you asshole,” he said.
Fowler yelled from the other side of the track. “She just opened her eyes and goddamn Jesse her eyeballs are all pink and milky...they’re swelling up real big...I’m gonna call for help,” she said.
“Don’t touch that radio,” ordered Kirkendal. He kicked Peter Pan in the leg. “What’s it gonna be jungle boy?”
He put his face near Peter Pan’s ear and spoke in a half-whisper.
“I don’t give a shit if she goes blind...I get paid by the hour either way dickhead so take your time.”
Peter Pan unlocked, and they hauled them both away tied to ATVs like dead deer, and I had recorded it all.
I waited and listened as they gathered their gear and descended the hill. The coroner scraped up Ginger’s putrefied remains and liberated a fetid odor that will never leave me. While I listened for the distant sounds of their vehicles and trailers to go away I held the purple crystal in my hand and recalled when Peter Pan took me to see Ginger’s corpse. There in the darkness of my cave I had a powerful vision of the scene in colors much brighter and deeper than original. Vivid innards blue and purple contrasted with jagged white bone and glistening green flies, clouds of flies. The image lingered with the smell, and by the time I was sure they were gone, the sun had set and I climbed from my hiding spot in purple twilight.
Out in the open, in the dark, a steady breeze that smelled of the ocean blew from the west. I would not shine my flashlight for fear of detection, so when the wavering blue light of a waxing crescent moon shone through a fast moving break in the clouds, I took halting steps down the oozing, primitive road. I held Ginger’s crystal in my hand like a machete, and when persistent fog immersed me in utter blackness for too long, I stood in the road and hacked and stabbed at giant police lunging from the blackness, each with huge blue hands and Tinkerbelle’s milky swirling eyes. Between these fantastic bouts of blind madness, when moonglow returned through a patch of clear sky, I walked safely from the primeval forest, step by mindful step.