Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mrs. Clarke's

Directly behind the house I grew up in was a giant mansion that was built at the turn of the century. It was owned by a rich and eccentric old woman, named Mrs. Clarke. By the time I was old enough to toddle it had been long abandoned. Left in its place was the decaying ruins of an old Hollywood palace once been. Night after night, my father and I would hurdle over the fence that separated our property from the old woman’s and go on midnight scavenger hunts. When the evening sky was clear and the moon was full, my father would sway me by starlight in the tire swing that hung under the giant weeping willow in the old crones back yard. The best part though, was when we would break and enter the pitch-black mansion.

A passionate curator, my dad was obsessed with many things, one of which was flashlights.

He had all different kinds in his arsenal…small ones, big ones, pocket models and heavy-duty police style numbers that pierced through the night like a chunk of the noonday sun.

On our nightly expeditions to the Clarke mansion, he always brought the biggest and brightest flashlight he had. It consisted of a giant twelve-volt battery attached to a silver parabolic dish, topped with a cherry red toggle switch. It looked like a brick attached to a klieg light. I had a tiny pocket model, with my favorite Super-Shero emblazoned on the side. It was not much brighter than a kitchen match, but still served as a talisman against the spooky specters of the darkness.

We would walk into the giant house, flashlights blazing, or twinkling in my case. My dad would have a large rucksack with him to collect the spoils. We would fill the bag with all kinds of stuff ranging from broken Spanish tiles to art deco light fixtures. Sometimes we would even lug back paintings or rugs or the old family photos of a family we never knew. Mrs. Clarke had died and left behind decades worth of memories, which we were now stealing.

When father and son got home, we would empty the contents of our outing onto the dining room table. Sometimes, on a particularly lucky night, the table would be covered from end to end with priceless junk and mementos of times gone by. Considering that our dining room table easily sat fourteen people, the amount of stuff was considerable. The family maid, Frances, would walk in eating her signature bowl of ice cream in her nightgown and say, “That boy needs his sleep, not another middle of the night!”

Out of the mouths of maids.

But another middle of the night I would have, and another, and another.

On one particular middle of the night, some weeks later, a couple of my sister’s friends decided to tag along with father and son.

The cast of characters:


Sis had told them about the treasure trove next door and they asked my father and I for a tour.

“Sure”, my father said, who gave permission like candy to anyone within earshot.

Four boys. Four flashlights. Big trouble.

As we pirated the place for the nightly booty, a fifth flashlight suddenly came on the scene. It was pointed directly at my fathers face and from the other end of it came the gruff sound of a man’s voice.

“Hold it right there buddy, this is the Beverly Hills Police! Get your hands where I can see them”.

“I can’t raise my arms”, said my dad, sheepishly.

“Why not?”

“Because I have a baby in them”

The officer’s spotlight traveled from my dad’s wild mane of curly hair down his black cashmere arm to my red rain booties. Then up to my little blue windbreaker and my drooping eyelids.

Then it shone to my Wonder Woman flashlight.

Gavin was holding the antique laden satchel.

David, a classical guitarist, wore black leather gloves to protect his hands from rusty nails and broken glass. He had long stringy hair and wore earth shoes and a black turtleneck. He looked like a cross between a hippy and second story man.

We all had on woolen watch caps.

Three burglars and a baby.

“Just what in the hell is going on here?” said the constable on patrol. He spoke into his walkie-talkie, “Yeah, twenty three to HQ, we got a situation over at the Clarke mansion, over…”

“Ahem…I can explain officer…see…I’m Stan Freberg, the entertainer. I live right next door. My boy and I come here every night to play on the swing in the dark. And…well…”

I have no idea what my father went on to say, but somehow, miraculously, the police let us go home. Put a spotlight on my dad, and he always gets a standing ovation.

That was the end of our nightly trips to Mrs. Clarke’s.

Shortly thereafter, the house was torn completely down. All that was left was the rubble of one of the oldest residences in 90210.

And the centuries old weeping willow.

When the bulldozers threatened that giving tree, my father threw on his Burberry trench, hurdled the fence like a gazelle and stood between the belching yellow-steeled monsters and the quiet willow. He went John Muir on their ass, telling the demolitionists that he had twenty pounds of dynamite strapped to his body and that if they came anywhere near that willow, he would blow them all sky high. His bluff worked. He had bought the tree another day.

The workers took off running and my dad came and got me for one last father and son swing on our tired old friend.

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