I was 10 years old, an active kid with a vivid imagination and a penchant for old horror movies. I had just seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” for the first time, and it had scared the living crap out of me.
I was also a kid who had grown up pretty much in the suburbs. Aside from a brief period in rural Iowa, which I was mercifully too young to recall, I had always lived in borderline small urban areas – with a lot of moving around. I also spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house – firmly in the suburbs of a quiet little town.
It was a life of contrast – poor, single Mom, moving around like a gypsy, the absolute definition of “bohemian” and the flip side of solid, extreme upper-middle class grandparents, in the same house forever and a day, and old-fashioned, Southern manners.
So it was, that summer, Mom decided to move us out to the country. The reasons don’t matter. The how, why, what for, etc questions don’t matter. What matters is this: the place we moved to was out in the sticks. I don’t mean, “sort of” out there. I mean it was 60 miles from anything of importance. The closest “town” was a solid three miles down the road, and it featured all of five buildings: a tiny school, a gas station/general store/post office, a small “market”, a hardware store and a feed store. The population of the “town” was all of 350 people – including us.
Our closest neighbor was over a mile away. There were no other houses within SIGHT of us. Oh, and let’s not forget, we were only a few miles north of the Mexican border, in an area so unpopulated and remote that it was frequented by human smugglers.
The property was “high desert” and had been empty for some time. The surrounding area was full of chaparral, that odd mix of tough shrubbery found in certain areas around Southern California, and the odd Live Oak tree as well as some Mesquite and more Sage and California Buckwheat than you can imagine. There was also a large field full of desert wildflowers. On the property were traces of an old horse coral, the long-empty shell of a burned out house, a brick barn-like structure and an old, aluminum side mobile home, circa 1955. A few odd trees, and remains of a clothesline as well as a partially filled in fire pit and a running, full spring complete the image. The property was in a basin at the top of a rise, so it felt even more isolated than it already was – the high sides and rock formations of the surrounding hills created the horizon, shutting out the rest of the area.
It was about as desolate looking a place as you can imagine. The “door” on the barn was a piece of plywood, hinged on one side and latched on the other with a simple hook and eye. The barn had been crudely converted to a house with walls of plywood. The mobile home housed two large beehives – one under the kitchen floor and the other midway down the hallway. The burned out house was a mystery – it stood, it’s outside barely marred, a dull, brick red. The windows, like eyes, were the evidence of the soul within – they were blackened, without glass and hollow. Inside, the house had been essentially gutted – the floor was still reasonably solid, and the support framing was intact, but the entire house had been blackened by some long ago blaze that had consumed the interior. The roof was a patchwork of beams – some good, some not.
Into this strange and distant place we drove, and my 10-year old self looked at the bleak property and the strange buildings and already I felt the tremors of fear. When the car rounded the last curve of the drive, the sight that greeted me was not something I will ever forget.
All around the property, sitting on the power poles, the remains of the fence, in the trees and all over the rooftops were big, black birds – crows. Later I came to understand why they were there – the remains of the crops grown there before us were ample feeding grounds for them, as were the rather abundant small rodents. But at that moment, no logical explanation sprang to mind. All I could see were dozens, it seemed perhaps hundreds, of these big black birds… and all I could think of at that moment was the movie I had just watched. And I was afraid to get out of the car.
Obviously, the property was not inhabited by a huge flock of killer birds from the imagination of Alfred Hitchcock. Nor was the place as creepy or desolate as it initially seemed. As in all of life, there was good and bad to be found and the stories and experiences there make up much of my life.
Today, that area has been built up, there is a casino nearby and the little town has a few more buildings. The property still exists, the burned out house replaced by a new structure, the barn fully converted to a home and the trailer is gone, replaced with something more modern, more permanent.
Sometimes, when I’m out in that area, I drive by just to see the old place, and each time, I look back at events past – sometimes funny, sometimes sad – but these are the stories that make me who I am. Perhaps, someday, I’ll share more of them.