Previously on “The Secret Panel“
It happens now more frequently for me, undue and without reason. A certain deep minor chord from Elton’s Ticking, a ghost speaking trivialities, and dreams of the shadow of Harper Hill, foreboding and dark against its western skyline with two ten year old boys standing quiet before its incline. The La Plata River trickling southward to meet the muddy dark waves of the San Juan, breathing “sister” as she churns the ground, and it is midnight, always midnight. Merriam-Webster tells us that the word secret, has many parts to its definition. Among its many quantities a secret can be held to be, hidden, undercover, discrete, confidential, and certainly not of the least of all adjectives, esoteric, revealed only to the initiated. This is a story that stands tall and unwavering before us. In it, perhaps we find ourselves most interested in the impenetrable. It is there that all boys between the ages of 10 to 14, destined with extraordinary spirit might find themselves upon a dark and chilly night awaiting midnight. Two boys, uninitiated, Joe and Frank Hardy, alias Jason Waite, and Danny Swearingen, those two young stalwart lads brought to you by “The Secret Panel“, on such a night, in October of 1971, found to be disappointed, traversing the lonely highway from childhood to discovery, locked between adventure and the first taste of a woman’s lips. Two lads sealed between discovery and life, lost as it were between taped glasses, and immortality, timidity and fame. Still, now almost silent in the visions of discovery, as there it has been for now these forty-three years, and it is there, that I take you, for it is as if the angel moves these waters, waves now muted these many days, those tides that can be soundless no longer. From those currents, those times lost now found, I will tell you what happened at midnight. The Hardy Boys are no more, they have been lost upon the cold reality of harsh facts. Our young friends, as we had left them, startled, not bemused, indeed having discovered that the Secret Panel holds no more than a girl. One dark haired sibling with arched eyebrows and a button nose, related to one Mr. Frank Hardy playing in the Connie Mack World Series, on a chilly October night in Farmington New Mexico. The relationship is undeniable, the darkness to the psyche unstoppable, and as we left our young friends in our last tale they were indeed in a somber, one might say disagreeable mood.
Bert Waite, was enjoying all the wonders of his golden high school years, including having a pretty miss to take on a proper date to an amateur baseball game. I don’t remember her name, or the names of the other couple, that had accompanied Bert and his girl, on this wondrous evening in Americana history. Suffice to say, the parent dictated entry, and tag along of his younger ten year old brother, and friend would not have been the most welcome addition to an evening of gaiety and hand holding, at America’s favorite pastime. For Jason and I, we could have cared less about the angst brought on by our presence. For us the evening, was to be the genesis of the greatest certification of boyhood ever known. Our eyes were set upon the prize, of meeting our alter egos in life, and for that, no amount of glares, or snooty remarks coming from the older teenagers, in the vehicle pregame, could dissuade. Alas, postgame was to be of another matter entirely. As the crowds dispersed, and the stadium lights were extinguished, four flushed and boisterous teenagers arrived at the family vehicle to find two disheartened, disillusioned and dare I say sullen ten year old boys. Once self-esteemed as those preteen sleuths, we Hardy’s had become simple youth, not yet at the age of voice changes and awry thoughts, instead demoted to pouty lads. Indeed Jason and I were not open to diverse teenage dialogue and laughter, that now filtered through the darkened streets of Farmington as Bert maneuvered the family sedan onto Main Street toward home. The quarrels between siblings can be full of catastrophic semantics. It is thus among brothers, especially when one is a young lad, reaching for station in the waning hours of frustration and disappointment. It was such, on that October evening in 1971 when Bert Waite made the decision that he and his young lady and their accompanying duo date, would take of nourishment at the local Pizza Hut, located at 657 W. Main Street. Jason having no money, and knowing his young friend’s wallet was barren as well, suggested that the true course for the conclusion of the evening should be homeward bound. A bitter argument ensued. Words were tossed between brothers, those tidings of which for thoughtfulness, and respectability, will go unmentioned here. The conclusion of strife, has but of three courses it can take. The dominion of one party over another, a commitment to a lopsided peace, or an agreement of differences with a retreat to engage on another day. To my chagrin, the third option was my best friend’s choice. As the teenage foursome exited the vehicle, to enjoy their fare of thick cheese, and supreme toppings, two ten year boys, also exited the car, faces flushed, a hungrier destination at plan. The announcement by my young friend, to his older sibling was spoken thus and thus, and our intention to walk home, was met by a smirk and the unmoving, unbelieving face, of one Bert Waite. So it was, that as the night closed in, two young boys, angered and bereaved, turned to the West, and began their long passage home.
Home in Kirtland, was a robust nine and a half miles west, of the Farmington, Main Street locale, Jason and I found ourselves standing at, that chilly October night in 1971. I remember looking at my best friend, as he pushed his taped dark framed glasses, toward the bridge of his nose. His front wave of blonde hair had shaken loose in the mild breeze, and the fierceness of his anger toward his older brother had begun to subside. In its place deep behind his glasses in his spacious blue eyes a curious shine was glowing. Any thoughts I had maintained about a cautious approach, and perhaps a warm ride home with Bert and gang quickly disappeared. Stubborn pride drew a close second to my young buddy’s genius, and with the confidence, I had witnessed so many Friday nights before, one Jason Waite, took on the exploratory alias of his alter ego, Joe Hardy, and with a wave of knowledge toward the west, he began to walk. Without deliberation, his older brother Frank Hardy loyally followed. West on the left side of the road we hiked, two lads homeward bound. My eyes tentatively looking over my left shoulder hoping against hope, for but a sign of Master Bert and the family wagon, and it’s chorus of teasing teens. Jason’s eye’s set solidly, as his face, ever west. One step and then many others, by the Safeway to the North, its lights dimming, closing, in small town America. The traffic to our backs beginning to thin, as Main Street’s cruising young lovers, headed to the bluffs to the South, for a private location, in search of snipes never to be found. We walked on, forward, without talking, side by side, the occasional street lamp as our guide, our young private thoughts, exclusive, summing mystery in the light wind. The lighted sign of the Chef Bernie’s Cafeteria, was glowing eerily, as we neared the parking lot of the restaurant. The lights for the t and the r in cafeteria were burnt out, giving the sign an almost ethereal look. I still remember the sounds of the shorted circuits talking to the night. Jason and I, had almost passed, the nearly empty parking lot, when we saw the man. The long haired Albino, was standing near the open door of his white pickup truck, near the base of the sign. He was smoking a cigarette, and just watching us, the sign above him sending strange reflections off of his pale hair. We hurried on, picking up our pace, now both of us looking over our shoulders, until we had walked up the incline of the road and were out of sight. At that moment, we began to talk, and our disappointments from earlier in the evening melted away. We were the Hardy Boys again. Taffy Marr was the greatest villain that Frank and Joe Hardy had ever encountered, as far as Jason and I were concerned. He was sinister, and his lack of conscience as a jewel thief and smuggler, ranked him as one of our favorites in many a discussion. His role in causing mischief and mayhem, for the Hardy Boys in their case, “What Happened at Midnight“, made him, in our combined opinions, enemy number one, in our investigator world. We were also convinced that we had just seen Taffy, or at least a member of his infamous thieving gang. As the night air grew chilled, and we walked on, we talked about the possibility that the man we had witnessed, in the Chef Bernie’s parking lot might be a criminal. His appearance, his demeanor, and most of all his pale eyes, skin and hair had spoken mystery to us. The more we talked of the possibilities of mystery, the more our excitement grew. We walked on talking possibilities, the street grew darker around us, the traffic sparse, and you dear reader, would not have noticed the white pickup approaching slowly from behind us either.
The Apache Twin drive in theatre owned by the Allen family had been dutifully entertaining the citizens of the Northwest New Mexico area since 1952. Positioned between West Apache Street and Main Street, the finest that Hollywood had to offer, had been presented at one time or another, on each of its mammoth screens. As Jason and I walked by its seasonally shuttered gates, the massive double screens appeared to glow in the dark, the luminosity, casting a moonlike shadow across the vacant lot from the south screen closest to where we hiked. Our discussion on Taffy Marr, had just shifted, to what it might take, to track down and solve our own pending case, when one or the other of us, noticed the lights from a car, pulling slowly up behind us. I would expect that we turned in unison. Our minds foreseeing Bert Waite, his anger abated, his pizza sated passengers jeering two youngsters, foolishly walking homeward alone. The white pickup truck pulled abreast of us, its passenger window lowered, its driver’s pale face, absent of shadow. The cigarette hanging from the man’s mouth was lit, casting a waning shadow across his pastel chin. It was our own Taffy Marr. I remember looking down, thinking perhaps that there might be a stick, a lost revolver, a paper, with a written plan, on how to deal with villains. Jason next to me, was doing his own share of wild eyed observation. As I looked down, I noticed the tiny stenciled black letters on the door of the truck. It read, JR Ticking Ranch, Mancos, Co. “It’s kind of late for you young boys to be out by yourself”, Taffy’s voice was high, almost with the lilt of a woman’s tongue. When he spoke the cigarette stayed in his mouth, and his eyes never moved off of us. We took turns giving Taffy our story, lying, telling untruths, to a criminal. We lived close by, our parents were waiting, why anytime, our father who was a local police chief would be looking for us. Our words, and worlds stumbled together, talking faster, frantically looking for friendly headlights any savior would do. Taffy, his voice, softly making its way into the atmosphere, never moving the cigarette in his mouth, offered to give us a ride home. After all it was late, we were young children, he was sure our parents would be concerned. We declined, rapidly and politely, backing away from the rolled down window of Taffy’s truck, and then a miracle happened. Phenomena is based, on unconscious awareness, of a reality created line, that is exceeded beyond the limits, of what our neurotransmitter synapses, are prepared to have happen. It was a wonder, for two young boys that traffic seemed to spring up from nowhere, on a dark and lonely street in October of 1971. From east to west it flowed, from west to east it rolled. Headlights filled the street, the space around Taffy’s white pickup truck becoming brighter than under the noonday sun, and from the east it came, from the near east, the sound of a siren. Jason and I were still backing from the Albino’s truck, our eyes wide and glued to his pale face. The white eyes stirring, abruptly in discomfort, the cigarette, at last showing movement, in the headlights that were appearing, as if from the abyss of the desert night. I felt my back hitting the support of the Apache Twins, bordering fence, realizing Jason’s hand was held by mine. Taffy it seems, had realized that he had other opportunity’s to attend to. His composure broken if only for a moment, seemed to kick into a state of self-survival. As the sound of the siren neared, Taffy lifted his pale white hand to us as if in some solemn salute, and putting the truck into gear, he roared westward bound into the night. “He was smarmy”, I said, my favorite description to describe villains from my Hardy Boy investigative training. We were walking again, the traffic disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. The siren too. Jason was hunched over studying his once new white Adidas Athens, now dingy, his right big toe punching a small hole through the canvas top. “I don’t think he’s a jewel thief though”, he said. We were walking without the aid of street lamps now, the only light to be seen rolled across the highway from the children’s home at the Navajo Ministry complex. Our discussion full of dangerous curiosity. Taffy, or JR Ticking, was a scoundrel that much we were sure of. The nature of his background, was what we were uncertain of. His description fit the profile of every criminal, we had ever dreamed of investigating, but our close encounter with him, had given us few clues. “I think he’s a bad man” Jason said, the somber analysis, brought a silence, the only sound being our feet crunching the gravel, as we walked. “I wonder where he went”, I said? The speculative question brought further silence between us. Young detectives lost in thought, weariness, and if truth be known a growing fear.
In 1971, Farmington, New Mexico, was a long narrow town with the majority of the new growth centered to the east and northeast of the city. The western edge, that took the city boundary out to where the La Plata River crossed underneath 550 Highway, was quiet. The last bastion of any commercial or residential life disappeared, once past the westbound Y of West Apache and Main Street. It is, this very location that we find our young sleuths, eyes perhaps not so full of adventure, upon this eve, a few minutes before the midnight hour. Jason and I, walking, the soft hills rising to our right, but a stone’s throw to the north. To the south, the plain drifting downward to meet the San Juan’s, rolling darkness. We are homeward bound now. Are young minds, committed to the long walk ahead, five, maybe six more miles. The disenchantment of the earlier evening already forgotten. Bert Waite and his pizza nourished friends no doubt already home, their young wards forgotten. In the original edition (1931) of What Happened at Midnight, Frank and Joe Hardy are tracking down Taffy Marr, in New York City, when they are the victims of a thief. Having no funds available to them, they end up sleeping in a park, and hitchhiking back to their home in Bayport. For Jason and I, that chilly October night in 1971, we entered the matrix, and fiction entered authenticity. Without money, swindled by reality, we were on foot, homeward bound. There we would find a place, a harbor, to regroup, to rest. We would find Taffy upon another day, when it was light, and reason and facts would prevail, or perhaps the following Friday evening, at Jason’s house, or my own, we would seek clues, we would chase the shadows in a known darkness, and then our world would be safe. Our breath in the darkness, I can still see Jason’s, as he see’s mine. We are at that place, the one place, where the highway tilts forward, downward slightly. The moon, a waning crescent, hiding really, not interested in our times or these ways of this earth. The shadow of Harper Hill, foreboding and dark against its western skyline with two ten year old boys standing quiet before its incline. The La Plata River trickling southward to meet the muddy dark waves of the San Juan, breathing “sister” as she churns the ground, and it is midnight. The white pickup truck waits, there, resting it would seem, where the La Plata highway joins our pathway home. Taffy waits there too. Standing by the tailgate, his long white hair floating down. Staring, eastward it seems, in search of something or someone, the cigarette glowing and unmoving.
Very little has been changed in the truth of what you just read. For most that will bring questions, and for even more, sighs of relief. For it is that place in the human heart, that quality of the human condition, that longs for a childhood adventure, that glistens with innocence, and thrills with natural fear. – For Jason – 10.25.2014 – דָּנִיֵּאל Hardy Boy Characters, and Title’s “The Secret Panel” and “What Happened at Midnight” All Rights – Grosset & Dunlap