“Jesus Christ, it’s hot,” I bitched to everyone in the room. The whole day had been sweltering. And now the night was too. It was odd for Culver City, a part of Los Angeles where the weather is tempered by the Pacific Ocean.
“Be quiet and have a beer,” my wife Elizabeth said, handing me one as she came from the refrigerator. She took a pull from hers then plopped onto a velour sofa that had started life chartreuse green, but over time darkened from oil stains and grinder debris.
The sofa sat in the lounge area of Caleb Owen’s shop, a two-story building dedicated to building motorcycles. The front half housed tools and bike lifts and was only one level, leaving twenty feet of open space for a hoist the previous owner used to pull car engines. The back half was separated into an upstairs loft used as a bedroom, and a downstairs lounge where we sat around a coffee table made from the window of a DC-10 airplane. Motorcycles in various stages of repair sat throughout the shop, some finding their way into the lounge to act as chairs. My son Gage ran among them chirping with excitement at the freedom to touch the bikes.
“Did I ever tell you about my dad and the wolfman?” Caleb asked Elizabeth.
“No, but now I need to hear it,” she said sitting forward and putting her beer on the table.
From a young age I loved horror movies, especially the campy old black-and-white ones from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The allure of a story with the wolfman was too strong and so I blurted, “me too,” with boyish excitement.
Caleb’s wife and her brother nodded in silent agreement. They had surely heard the story countless times, but allowed another telling for guests.
“Alright,” Caleb said looking from person to person. “It all started on a typical day. My dad had just gotten home from work and did what he always did right after walking in the house – he stripped off his clothes.”
Caleb was watching television when his father walked through the front door and into his bedroom. A few moments later he reappeared wearing only underwear. They were the old-fashioned type of boxers, worn high on the waist so the elastic band sat just a few inches below the chest. The Owens lived near Miami and had no air conditioning, so the humidity in their house was brutal, especially in the summer months. Caleb’s father battled the heat by removing all but the one necessary item of clothing. Once stripped, he did everything in his underwear, regardless of what the task was or who was there. Luckily for the neighbors and a teenage Caleb, his father usually confined his activities to the house when he was nearly naked. Usually.
Donning only boxers, Caleb’s father took his position by his boy to watch television. They sat there until the sound of metal ripping across metal came through the open windows of the house. It was the noise only two cars can make as they slide past each other in intimate contact. Caleb jumped up from the sofa and went to the front door in time to see a heavily damaged car driving away the from their Chevy Impala. He sprinted from the house, but by the time he reached the street the car was gone. The length of his father’s Impala facing the street was mauled. The navy blue paint was scraped clean off and a piece of trim hung sadly from the door. The impact had been so violent there was even damage on front fender facing the sidewalk.
Caleb jogged back to the house and through the screen door said with the exacerbated urgency of a teenager, “Dad, somebody just hit your car.”
“Where the hell are they?” old man Owens replied in a huff.
“They took off.”
“Son a bitch. How bad’s the damage?”
Caleb began telling his father as he opened the screen door and came inside. He had forgotten the damper was broken and let go of the door, allowing it to slam shut.
“God damn!” old man Owens yelled and jumped back. It was his response to all loud sounds.
Caleb’s father was a World War II veteran who proudly served in the South Pacific. He had fought in the Marines 3rd Division until being wounded during the Battle of Piva Forks on Bougainville Island. First it was sniper fire, then shrapnel, which sprayed his right side leaving his leg wounded. By the time he left the service, he had a glass eye and a severe limp that forced him to wear a special shoe fitted with a brace to his lower leg. But worse than the physical damage was the post traumatic stress disorder from unrelenting gunfire and brutal explosions. Caleb’s father often woke with night terrors and was sensitive to noise. Any loud sound – the dropping of silverware, a scream, or the slamming of a screen door – caused him to jump and yell, “God damn!” Caleb’s and his six siblings often took advantage of their father by making noises just to see him react. They typically suffered a whack with a hand or belt for such transgressions, but the joy of seeing their old man startled outweighed such punishment. They had overlooked their father’s refusal to complain about his battered body. His refusal to accept pity or admiration, or belief that a soldier should never speak of the war or wear medals, since both were the product of hubris. And it would be years before the Owens children would come to understand this and the depths of their father’s stoic nature.
“Sorry, dad,” Caleb said trying not to laugh.
A knock came at the door. Two teenagers stood on the other side of the screen door wearing the forlorn look of a kid that did something wrong. They began apologizing for the damage and for not stopping after hitting the Owen’s car. Fear of getting in trouble had fueled their decision to not pull over until well down the street. But after a few minutes they agreed to return.
“Can we fix the car without insurance?” the girl asked. “My dad’s a mechanic. He can do it at his shop.”
“He’s really good,” her boyfriend added in support.
“I’ll think about it,” Caleb’s father said gruffly to the girl. To Caleb he added, “Go get her father and bring him here. I want to talk to him. I’ll decide then if he can fix my car.”
And so all three teenagers began the trek to the girl’s house a few blocks away. The girl walked with intent, slowly opened a gap between herself and the two boys. Once out of earshot, the boy said to Caleb in a low voice, “Just so you know, her dad’s a little weird. He has some disease called Tourette’s.”
“What’s that?” Caleb asked.
“You’ll have to see yourself. But just be ready. He does some crazy stuff.”
Not knowing what else to say, Caleb continued walking with the kids in silence until they arrived at the girl’s house. She told them to stay outside, then went in alone. A few minutes later a massive man came through the front door wearing a stained tank top. He was sweating profusely and clutched a towel in his right hand with a death grip. The man barreled up to Caleb, stopped right in front of him, then stood swaying as if unable to stop moving. For a startled teenager, the constant motion was disorienting.
“My daughter said she hit, hit your car,” the man stated.
“Yes,” Caleb returned. “Both side’s are dented and the paint’s scraped up.”
“I, I can fix it,” the man said. “I work on cars.” The man continued explaining to Caleb what he could do and that he would tell this to his father when he came over. The conversation was going fine until without warning the man lounged at Caleb and bellowed, “HOO!”
Caleb jumped back stunned. The sound was guttural, almost like a dog bark. It was like nothing he had ever heard from a human.
The man regained himself and continued talking as if nothing happened. He spoke a few more sentences normally, then lounged again at Caleb – “HOO!” After a pause, the wolfman fell back to normal speech and finished with, “I’ll come, come over to your house now and talk to your dad.”
“OK,” was all Caleb could manage before the man cocked his head to the side, scrunched his shoulders in strain, and howled, “Owwwwwww!”
Caleb stood frozen with bug eyes. Here before him was a man acting like the fabled wolfman who transformed by the light of the full moon and ravaged unsuspecting bystanders. The girl and her boyfriend stood watching as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
The man stopped howling, then smoothly transitioned back to a normal voice and said, “OK. Let’s go.”
Shock held Caleb as the four of them walked to the Owen’s house. He was unable to do anything beyond move forward. His mind was locked in confusion and awe at what he had just witnessed. But this was soon replaced by excitement as he considered the ensuing confrontation. And in a sudden fit of excitement he began stopping at every one of his friend’s houses along the way to tell them what was coming. Each kid dropped what they were doing and came in eagerness to see the clash between the wolfman and the war hero with a glass eye.
A pack of teenagers stood before the Owen’s house as the wolfman strode up to the front door still clutching his towel. The front door opened and the wolfman disappeared behind it before it closed. Unable to see, the teenagers scurried as a collective to the front of the house to get a look at what was going on. Through the glass louvers of a large jalousie window they caught the silhouette of the wolfman and Pops Owens speaking. Some kids hushed the others as they tried to hear what was being said. The conversation was low, allowing only snippets to be heard.
“The work will be good,” came through, though it was not clear whether it was a question from Caleb’s father or a statement from the wolfman.
Then, “How long will it take?” And, “There is the matter of work.”
The conversation seemed entirely normal, a complete letdown for the kids. They began losing interest and talking about leaving when all hell broke loose.
The wolfman’s profile lounged towards old man Owens followed by a deafening, “HOO!”
“God damn!” old man Owens shouted and jumped back.
The wolfman said a few words calmly, then released another, “HOO!”
And just then the wolfman’s bestial howl poured from the house, “Owwwwwww!”
The kids erupted in laughter. Some tried to suppress the sound by covering their mouths so the two men would not know they were being watching. Others held their stomachs and doubled over or fell to the lawn. But no matter how bad the pain was from holding in laughter, nobody left for fear of missing any part of what would surely be talked about in the neighborhood for years to come.
Yet nothing else happened. The two men finished their business, then the wolfman marched out of the house and collected his daughter and her boyfriend and went home. The kids slowly dispersed realizing there was nothing else to see. Caleb went inside to find his father back in his spot on the sofa watching television. He was still in his underwear, having never bother to dress for the visitor. The simple fact was that Pops Owens never changed from his boxers for anyone. Not for friends. Not for the division-I football coach who came to recruit Caleb for the gridiron. Not even for the wolfman.
Caleb’s shop echoed with laughter. Playing to the audience, Caleb cocked his head to the side, scrunched his shoulders in strain, then let loose one last howl, “Owwwwwww!” At the sound, Gage appeared from behind an ironhead sportster. He was covered in dirt and grease. The only part of him still white were his eyes and teeth, which showed when he smiled.
“Time for a bath,” his mother said to me. It was less a statement and more a command.
“Yes it is,” I replied, picking up Gage.
“Use our bathroom in the house,” Caleb’s wife said. “The tub’s nice and big.”
Once he was in the bathtub, I watched Gage play with the showerhead. It was the detachable kind that could be pointed any way a bather wanted, including up, which was the direction Gage had chosen. It made the water look like a fountain, shooting up against gravity then falling back onto his hands.
As he played, I wondered whether Gage would ever have to endure what Caleb’s father did during the war. Would my son be forced to pick up a gun to defend himself or his country, and in doing so return home damaged? And if that happened, would Gage exhibit the same character as old man Owens had through his life? I hoped so, but it was hard to know for sure. Folks these days believe every kid should get a gold star in school and a trophy for playing sports.
Caleb’s father would have laughed at such a proposition. He believed that to earn something important, hard work was not enough. A person had to suffer. And only through such trial could one truly appreciate their achievement. Caleb believes this too and lives his life through hard word and integrity. He is living proof a father’s virtues can still be passed on to his son.
After Gage was clean and finished playing, I toweled him off and dressed him in his pajamas. It was his bedtime and since we were sleeping in the loft over the shop, I walked towards the lounge carrying him. Over the last few weeks he had taken to mimicking sounds, like the siren of a passing fire truck or an exasperated huff from his parents. As we entered the shop, Gage saw Caleb and pursed his tiny lips.
Then let out a gentle howl.