It was a dark and damp, moonless night out in the hills. I was alone, stuck in my restrictive and hated, full-body rain suit as I drove the old John Deere tractor through the fog – a fog so dense that it swallowed all the light from nearby southwest Petaluma, leaving me nearly blind as I drove down the path to perform my job of moving sprinklers. I knew my way around well enough that all I needed to see was what the weak headlights were able to pull out from the fog. It was like two misty cones of light from straight ahead for less than 20 feet.
There was no creepy, something-terrible-is-about-to-happen music playing – but there should have been.
One of my jobs in high school was the night water guy for the Petaluma Golf and Country Club. This club was up in the deep hills above highway 101 as it left Petaluma. If you’ve played golf there, especially that 5th fairway where PGCC is thought to stand for Petaluma Golf & Canyon Club, you will recognize where this story took place. My job started after the club closed and often took me until 2 or 3 am to complete. Because they could not water during the day, it was always dark and lonely for the poor water guy. All the watering was done by hand using either sprinklers plugged into submerged pipes or those cool little sprinklers that followed a wire path until they finished a wide swath of fairway.
I loved it when there was still some light from the setting sun, but even though I was not afraid of being there in the dark or being alone up there – late at night, with either a starry night or deep, life-force-draining fog; I hated the fact that I always had to wear that uncomfortable rain suit. I tried but there was no way to change out those sprinklers without getting soaked; in the dark; alone; over and over; until the whole course was watered, leaving me freezing by midnight. Brrrrr. . .
It would have been better if they would have left me the key to the club, so I could easily dry off and warm up, but nooo… The jerk who did the job before me had been caught stealing from the restaurant where the beer was kept, so the poor kid they hired after firing his fanny could not be trusted to just come in out of the cold between each round. Fine! I wanted the money bad enough to put up with it for a while and packed towels to dry off either in the cold tool shed or in my car where I could waste gas money running the heater.
Why, oh why couldn’t I have been born rich enough to not need this job? I had no idea, but even the god of small boys was staying indoors this night. I didn’t blame him at all. This was not a night to be out here.
During the summer, most nights weren’t too bad, but wow, the fall and winter could be brutal because of the wind and fog and no lights and damp air.
So, there I was cruising along in the old John Deere and pulling my trailer full of tools, trying to keep on schedule because the fog kept slowing me down. There is a spot, just off the 5th tee where the golf cart path edges along the side of a deep valley – classic Petaluma hillside design – with a fence demarking the edge of the golf course property at the bottom. Unwisely, I decided to push a bit faster than I should have and suddenly noticed a change in the noise the trailer made. The loose tools and sprinkler heads had a distinct rattle, but now it sounded different – wrong somehow. Suddenly, there was also unexpected motion to my right, barely inside the cone of light from the John Deere. Whoa! That was my trailer! It must have bounced off the hitch and was now enjoying the freedom and thrill of a fast acceleration down into the darkness of that valley. I stopped the John Deere and listened over the engine as the trailer crashed its way down the steep valley slope. The sound was like general hardware explosively flying away from a shattered trailer frame – until it went silent, leaving only me and the John Deere engine.
I am so screwed… I thought as I drove on to a spot where I could circle back and begin to pick up the wreckage of the trailer. How was I going to salvage this mess?
But, the god of small boys, must have come out long enough to preserve some of my reputation because the trailer was fully intact and waiting to be reattached. If you could see that drop from the path, you might not believe what I just described was possible. That trailer really should have been reduced to rubble.
Despite the cold, I needed to wipe the anxious sweat from my brow before re-attaching everything and getting back up and moving to my next stop.
Now I really was behind schedule which meant too much water in some places and not enough in others, so I had to hurry. I was just coming over the hilltop, sick of being wet and cold and not yet fully recovered from my trailer’s escape attempt. The fog was still so dense that I still could not see much. I was still barely able to see when I tried to turn left, pushing the wide steering wheel with my right arm which brought that arm into the weak light of the tractor light – and noticed – there was a giant bizarre bug attacking my arm!
Thanks to photographer Gary McDonald for risking his life to capture this photo for us.
This thing was huge- almost as long as my thumb! It had wicked antenna, like a small hands coming out of each side of its head, lots of gnarly legs and had caramel-colored back plates with lots of bright white pin stripes on each side. Instinctively, I knew it was going to tear off a chunk of my arm so, I immediately twisted to slap it across the fairway.
This panic-driven move, of necessity, meant I had to take my eyes away from steering and leave driving to chance for a few seconds, which was just enough time to swerve and run over an expensive baby tree the landscaping guys had just planted.
I felt and heard that poor tree yield to the power and weight of the John Deere, so I resumed the role of piloting and slammed on the brakes, which sent the tractor and trailer sliding sideways down the damp hillside for about 10 feet until we all coasted to a stop.
What in the hell was that thing!? I thought – really, really loudly. And what just happened?
Recall that I was born and raised within 4 miles of where I sat and I had never seen such a critter before or since. This thing was huge and ugly enough to belong in Australia.
Later when I looked it up, I found that the monster was named, Ten-Lined June Beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata). Shockingly, they are very much attracted by light (sigh). In terms of threat – they’re harmless but brutally horrifying in cold, wet conditions with limited light and strained imaginations.
The John Deere’s engine was still running but it was still dark, and all I could see was the few feet in front of both tractor lights. At school, I was half-way through high school biology, so I knew now it was only a beetle.
It was embarrassing that a stupid bug had scared me so badly, but my heart was still pounding and the rest of me was trying to turn off the “flight” or “fight” adrenalin still spilling into my blood system, leaving me struggling to catch my breath.
I set the tractor brakes and shut off the engine so I could safely focus on what to do next.
First – as a selfless act of public service, I had to find and stamp that damned beetle out of existence, so I dug out the flashlight from the toolbox and retraced the tractor skid-trails, past the munched tree, to the scene of the assault. I found it and had raised my foot when a better idea occurred to me. I owed a bug collection with all the pinned critters spread out and labeled with their full taxonomical names correctly spelled out to my biology teacher.
Ah, I thought. I think I prefer a coleopteran execution by ether followed by a public display of the poisoned Ten-Lined body to demonstrate what happens to beetles who scare the night-lights out of me.
So, I went back to the toolbox and found an old glass jar with some spare nuts and washers; dumped them and captured the monster alive for execution the next day in class. Then I did what I could to restore that infant tree to at least be standing up-right again and shoveled enough hillside to disguise the tractor slide marks in the grass fairway. With any luck, my boss would see it the next day and blame a rowdy golfer screwing around with his golf cart.
This is how that harmless beetle became the star attraction in my high school biology insect collection, circa October 1972. As expected and hoped-for, several girls thanked me for taking this guy out of the local gene pool.
With both the trailer and that blasted beetle captured and under control, I finished my round, but the balance of water distribution was uncorrectable now and I hoped my one screwed up cycle would pass without notice. But now, I was left without a dry-off break before the next round, so I had to start the next round early and rebalance as best I could.
By now – I just wanted the night to be over.
My next round was well underway, when I got to that same spot where the trailer had made its break for freedom causing all the excitement of the previous hour. I was calm again, finally but I slowed down just to be extra safe near the edge of that ridge.
The John Deere was running fine, always a friend that tractor, and the trailer had had enough free wandering for one night and was also behaving, but I kept glancing back to check.
I had just returned to watching the path ahead of me, when a white streak shot out of a nearby tree and hit the hood of the John Deere making a loud steel-drum crashing sound. I swear, if I had not stopped long enough to take a quick bathroom break between rounds, I would have lost it all right there. I made another panicked skid to a stop, which was not far because I was moving so slowly. But my self-control was shot. After everything else, what in the hell was that?
But over the idle of the John Deere, I could hear – yes – that’s – laughter. What? Who?
I turned off the John Deere and grabbed that flashlight again and stomped back behind the trailer, wishing I had my shotgun because this time, someone or something needed to die. Enough, is now more than enough.
Climbing out from behind those trees were a small group of – you have got to be kidding me! – my friends – yes, my good FRIENDS did this to me. They had chosen tonight to sneak into the golf course after midnight, find a golf ball, lie in wait of me driving past in the John Deere, in the dark, in the fog, after everything else that had happened tonight to try and scare me by throwing the golf ball at the tractor.
Well – IT WORKED ALREADY! ! !
To this day, I doubt any of them realize the proximity of the near-death experience they just brushed past. They were laughing too loudly. It’s what friends do for friends.
Have you ever noticed that some friends could easily be replaced by a mild case of food poisoning?
Oh, there’s my good bud Dennis; standing there and laughing the hardest. I bet this was all his idea and he most likely threw the golf ball.
Perhaps, he would look good in my insect collection…
Man! It has to be time to go home.
16 thoughts on “The Scary Night Adventure”
gotta love our buddies!
yea… I figure we must have done something to deserve some of them though…
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First, beetles are not my favourite insect. The very thought on it on any part of my person makes me want to remove my own skin and run away screaming. Second, haha to your friends. It really was the best timing. Great story!
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Hi Shari. I have to give you the point on this one. That beetle scared me soo badly, I really did almost crash the tractor and as it was, I tore up some of the golf course fairway and ran over a sapling tree. Darn near gave me a heart attack. I was so embarrassed, but thankful that I was not buried beneath a headstone that said something about dying from fear of a bug.
who needs enemies when you have friends like those!!!
PS I dont care much for bugs but its not as intense as my dislike for snakes, from how they just slither along the ground to not having longs everything about them just screams I will bite and you will die, of course I know some are harmless and they might be more afraid of me than them but my response usually involves fleeing or stoning them dead extreme I know but as they say a snake is a snake ….
I can take of leave bugs normally – but when they look like that monster in my photo and they land on my arm when I’m driving through an edgy darkness already, both he and anything in my path is lucky to survive. Gracious – what a memory that still is.
And yea, such friends I had, but I did get the guy who threw the golf ball back. I mobilized a small team of insurgents (from the same group) gathered several stacks of used newspapers, snuck into his room while he was away and we set to wadding up sheets of newspaper and tossing them to the floor. In almost no time, we filled his room to the ceiling with wads of news paper.
He caught us in the act – just as we finished and one of the most epic wrestling matches between him and us unfolded. Since none of us could see anyone else, it was always in doubt who you were trying to subdue. We laughed so hard and all but destroyed his room.
Hahahaha Ok that kind escalated yeah I don’t think you ever quite forget moments like that
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Loved it! The god of small boys was indeed watching over (and laughing at) you…
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I’d have had a heart attack and crashed the tractor if something like that landed on me.. What a great memory!
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Hi Kathleen –
That night I nearly did, 3 times. I also seem to recall that I didn’t keep that job much longer. After that night, I’d pretty much had enough.
Very Merry Christmas to you and your family.
Thanks for being part of my 2021.
When you were about to announce who was behind it my first guess was to say your father.. I remember reading another story of yours where you shared with us his sense of humor lol.. I always enjoy reading your stories from your childhood, looking forward to the next one 😁😁
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Hahaha – Hi Christina
That was pretty bright of you – I hadn’t thought of that possibility but for some reason that would not have been like him. He was all for having fun but the gag my friends pulled on me was not his style – but it certainly was right out of the playbook used by my friends.
I’m so glad you enjoy my stories and agree with something you said on your blog. We all need to laugh sometimes.
Did you know that my full collection of childhood memories are fully available any time on my story blog?
I’d be honored if you clicked on – then bookmarked this link:
I’ve renamed the collection to “I Recall” but all 80 (I think) stories are there for you to play with as desired.
From your blog, I think you either live or used to live, in San Francisco.
So you might enjoy my stories of going to trace college there after high school.
It was at Healds College right on Van Ness near Geary, about a 1/2 block north of Tommy’s Joynt.
This little school changed my life and set me up to succeed well beyond my expectations.
Anyway, I always love seeing you in my list of reader likes or comments.
You’re always so kind and I have a hard time seeing you as ever being sad or frightened as your blog describes, but if I can make you smile or laugh – I would so richly enjoy doing so.
I’m so excited Gary! I will definitely start on your collection this evening 😁😁
Oh my gosh! What an experience!!! I used to be afraid of the dark, and while I’m not anymore, I still would not want to be alone out there, whether I was male or female.
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Yea – this event really unhinged me that night. But such good friends helped me sorta-see the humor in most of it the next morning when they couldn’t stop laughing.
I chalked it up to character development, but didn’t keep that job any longer than I had to.
Makes for a decent laugh now – right?