The Field Trip

The Thomas Estate

The Thomas Estate

Yesterday Diane and I were watching Fox News, admittedly something I do too much, and there was a preview of the soon to be released movie Breakthrough. This new movie is about a young man, a teenager, who fell through some ice on a frozen over lake or river and was trapped under water for a very long time. He drowned I think. He had no pulse for over forty minutes. The movie, and I am not giving anything away here, is about his miraculous recovery.

Just after seeing this ad, preview, whatever you wish to call it, Diane and I went for a fast walk around the RV resort where we have been staying for the last three months. Diane pumped her hand weights and as usual I just got lost among my own thoughts.

I started thinking about a time in my past, my long ago past, when I took a trip to California.

I was working for CBN at the time. That is the Christian Broadcasting Network, for those few of you who might not know what CBN is. I was a cameraman for the 700 Club and had just been recently rotated from the studio, where the show was broadcast live each day, to the remote features department. My new position would make me part of a three person crew that traveled to various places to do field interviews and features, human interest stories, as they were sometimes called. These edited features would be inserted into the live show at some point.

The three person crew was composed of two cameramen, one would act as sound person and videotape recorder operator, the other would be behind the camera. The third person was the producer and in front of the camera, and was known as the talent.

My first assignments were shot locally, around Virginia Beach. One day Jake, the second cameraman, and I learned that we would be gong to California for two weeks, to shoot news stories, do some interviews and some behind the scenes stories about Hollywood. These behind the scenes features would include some person on the street interviews. We were to leave for the West Coast the Day after Thanksgiving in 1979.

I was looking forward to this field trip. I thought flying was great fun, loved airplanes, airports, the whole experience. I was excited and a bit nervous about our first big assignment but in a good way.

Jake was excited too, but not in a good way, not at all. He was terrified to fly and that terror was magnified by two things that happened earlier. The first was the in air collision of PSA flight 182 with a private plane over San Diego on September 25, 1978. The plane went down in a neighborhood. All 135 passengers died, along with seven people on the ground including two children. The next tragedy happened on May 25, 1979 when an American L10-11 jumbo jet suffered an engine failure on takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, flipped upside down, crashed, and killed all 258 passengers, 13 crew, and two people on the ground. These incidents were very fresh in Jake’s mind, so during our late night flight, as we took off for LAX, he gripped the arm rests of his seat until his knuckles were bloodless.

I was rather relaxed, not worried about the flight and enjoyed seeing the lights of Norfolk and the bright night stars outside the cabin window. We were seated just in from of the wing on the starboard side of the plane. Jake started to calm down a bit, but while looking out the window, he suddenly leaned over and put his face up to the glass.

“What is that?!! Something Is Wrong! It looks like the engine is on fire!”

I looked out and saw blue flames dancing along the wing and over the engine cowling.

The flight attendant was walking by at the time, and she looked out the window.

“Oh, that is nothing to worry about, it’s just St Elmo’s Fire.”

“St. Elmo’s WHAT?”

“St Elmo’s Fire, its a weather effect, static electricity, I have seen it come into the plane, it’s really neat, but don’t worry it won’t hurt anything. Can I get you something to drink, need another pillow, blanket?” was her very calm response to Jake’s very panicky question.

From that moment on, we had a quiet, if not pleasant flight. Around ten pm, Pacific Time, we arrived in Los Angeles. Our talent person, Kathy O, met us at the airport and took us to a very late dinner at some diner close to our hotel. Kathy informed us, after asking how we liked our flight, that our first assignment, our first day’s shooting, would be at the home of Danny Thomas.

The airplane trip did not make me nervous, but the thought of meeting Danny Thomas, the Pope of Beverly Hills, certainly did. Mr Thomas was one of the most powerful and well known people in Hollywood, and he lived at the top of it, on Wilshire Boulevard in a huge mansion.

Mr Thomas turned out to be a very pleasant man. We interviewed him about St Jude’s Hospital. We also asked him, for another story, how he came to Lost Angeles, and became a star, a very big one. We shot all our footage outside on his massive lawn overlooking downtown LA. His daughter Terre was there and she helped wrap up and pack away our equipment after the shoot was done. I was still in a bit of shock that we were actually standing in front of this big mansion in this fairy story city.

We said our thanks, our good byes and headed back downtown, shooting stock footage of Beverly Hills and other parts of LA on the way. The next day we shot some people on the decorated for Christmas street. These man on the street interviews, were quite crazy. The moment a camera is seen on any street in downtown LA, all kinds of people show up, none of them shy.

I found LA to be a very, hot, and very dry place, and to me the Christmas decorations felt out of time and place, wrong time of year for lights on palm trees, people in shorts and tank tops. It was different to be sure. We had some other things to shoot, I don’t remember what now, and then we jumped on a plane and headed for San Francisco.

We were covering some public school referendum, which could have national consequences. We interviewed some school officials in Oakland, and some families with school age kids. Kathy had to leave early so she flew out with instructions for us to shoot school stock footage for her story. Jake and I did that and then flew back to LA that night.

Jake was getting very weary of airplanes, every time we got on one, he was positive our lives could very well end. Assurances from me, reminding him of statistics, that air travel was safer than car travel, especially in California, did not put his mind at ease, not one bit. Nope, even though his brother and family lived in San Diego, when we were told by Brenda M, our new talent-producer, that our next shoot would be in San Diego, Jake made it very clear, he would not get on a plane, even one that was flying into that city, not under any circumstances.

At dinner that night, in the big round Brentwood Holiday Inn dinning room, Brenda argued with him for sometime, looked at me for help and I just shrugged my shoulders.

The next day we did some more man on the street shooting, right on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That was a crazy day, our hotel clerk, who wanted to be an actor was one of our interviewees, along with a very cute young lady working in an ice cream shop on Hollywood and Vine. That night I went to the top floor dining room of our hotel and shot footage of the interstate traffic with thousands of headlights flowing like some incandescent river right below us. All these people, many with dreams of being discovered, coming into the City of Angels.

The morning after that, we got up very early, before dawn, and loaded all our gear into our rented sky blue GM station wagon and with me behind the wheel headed south to San Diego.

We chatted aimlessly along the way, Jake in the back seat, Brenda next to me. I am sure that at some point we passed a line of commercial airplanes lining up for their approach into the San Diego airport. Jake payed them no attention, not like he would if we were on one of them. I was thinking about the shoot we were going south for, a testimony of what many people considered to be a miracle.

We arrived at a nice looking modern house next to the ocean.. We were introduced to a nice young lady and her six year old son. We made some small talk. Brenda, laid out her ideas for the shoot, what room to be in, the best light, what questions she wanted to ask and so forth. It took some time to set up our gear. Soon we had the ladies miked, we made lights bright, and hot, the video recorder was loaded, and sound checked. Then we started the tape rolling.

One day some six months before on a very warm day, a usual day in San Diego, the little boy somehow fell into the family swimming pool when no one was around. He couldn’t get out and to put it simply, he drowned. It was determined by the first responders, and by his mom that he was at the bottom of the very warm swimming pool for over twenty minutes. The boy was rushed to the hospital without a pulse, with the EMTs working on him the whole way. The mom called church friends, and those friends called other friends, and eventually one member of this growing group of praying people, called into the 700 club. That was when the prayer chain really started to grow.

The attempt to revive the boy was still going on at the hospital. We interviewed the doctor as well, and I don’t remember all the things he told us. I do remember one specific thing, he could find no medical explanation for the lack of brain damage to this boy after he unexpectedly regained a pulse in the emergency room. The doctor also had no “definitive” explanation for how the boy was even alive at all after being at the bottom of an 80 degree swimming pool for so long.

The boy recovered with a slight limp, and a bit of a speech slur, but other than that he was a normal six year old.

The Mom and her Friends and Family knew exactly how he recovered, how he was clinically dead but then alive. It was God who brought their boy back to the world of the living.

We finished the interview, both of them, and then we shot some sunset footage of the boy and Mom playing at the beach. Neither of them were afraid of the water. To me, that was a miracle in itself.

After our working day ended, we dropped off Jake at his brother’s house. Brenda and I went to dinner. She decided she wanted to go to the Hotel del Coronado, down at the San Diego Docks somewhere. It is the same hotel where the movie “Some Like it Hot” was filmed. The Marilyn Monroe classic with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Brenda had a hankering for some of their famous fried Abalone, and she wanted me to take her there. I was game, especially for any kind of seafood.

We sat and chatted, we were in no hurry, it was a great place to people watch, Brenda said you never know what famous person may just wander by. I didn’t see any celebrities, but people said Hi to her. Most of them men. Brenda was a very beautiful woman. Large brown eyes, a Marilyn Monroe figure, dark brown hair, great straight smile. Brenda was one of those people who came to Hollywood to make her dreams come true. She was also a former Playboy Bunny, and worked at clubs both in Chicago and LA. That is why, I suppose, some of the men knew her and some of the women gave her the evil eye. She didn’t mind or pay much attention to either the men or the women.

Brenda was a listener and she asked me about my life, my wife and kids, and how I came to work at CBN. I asked her about her life and how it changed so dramatically. Her story was long and sad, but getting better. She believed it would have a happy ending. Brenda had a checkered past, but she became a Christian and trusted God to look after her. She did have one big wish, to have a good man fall in love with Her, not just lust for her, and she hoped and prayed she would get married and have kids. I don’t know about the kids part, but her wish for a good man came true some years later.

We went and picked up Jake at the scheduled time. It was late. It would be a bit of a drive back to LA and we had an early morning but we were young and could go without much sleep. Jake saw us arrive, said his goodbyes and came out to the car.

“You drove down, I’ll drive back” he said.

No problem. I hopped out and got in the back seat. I had no idea then what a good thing it was that Jake the tooth pick chewing, scared to fly, New Yorker, chose to get behind the wheel.

We were pretty quiet heading north on I-5. There was very little traffic at ten pm and it would be close to two am before we reached our hotel. I decided to nap. Brenda decided her job was to keep Jake awake, so she chatted at him.

At some point, I woke up, and started watching the road zip past. I noticed that there were cliffs on the right side, lots of lanes and no shoulders on either side. In the distance I could see the lights of Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, so I knew we were near Garden Grove. I was just about to point out the sight when I heard a bang in the distance. Then I saw a burst of light, a fireball went up, and then a wall of fire quickly spread across the interstate in front of us. The car started to fish tail, Jake spun the wheel in the right direction to keep us straight, a shadow flew in font of us from left to right, the shadow of a car, Brenda grabbed the dash and yelled:

“JESUS!”

As The name of All names left her lips the car became surrounded by flames. It was so hot the breath was sucked right out of me. Jake swerved to miss something, another car shaped shadow, and he kept spinning the wheel. It felt like we were on ice. Jake kept the car going in the safe direction. He drove through the blue flames and on to the other side.

I turned around and saw a wall of fire, higher than a semi truck, that went from the guardrail between the north and south lanes, all the way across to the cliffs. Two cars were on fire, on opposite sides of the road. I watched as a truck driver stopped, jumped out of his cab and ran to the nearest car with what could have been a fire extinguisher.

“Oh my Lord in Heaven, oh my Lord.” somebody said, not sure if it was me or Brenda.

“Should we stop?” I asked.

“Where?” said Jake “There are no shoulders and it is too dark, and there is nothing we can do.”

“Yea but we were almost in an accident, and someone could be hurt back there.” was my response.

“We will call the Highway Patrol when we get to the hotel” said Brenda. “We can pray for whoever is in those cars, but that is about all we can do now.”

“Man we were almost crispy critters back there” I said.

“SHUT UP DERRICK!” was Jake’s response to my morbid little joke.

I volunteered to call the Highway Patrol.

Back at the hotel, Brenda said she needed to get to her room in a hurry. I didn’t ask any questions, I wanted to do the same thing. I put my key in the door, headed for the bathroom, I came out and picked up the phone.

The CHIP dispatcher answered and after reporting what I had seen, he told me that there had been a report of the accident on I-5. There was one injury, driver of a Grand Torino station wagon, condition unknown but the person was in the hospital. It seems that the station wagon collided with the back of an abandoned Mustang that was in the far left lane of North I-5. The Mustang’s gas tank exploded on impact which caused the Grand Torino to also catch fire. There was burning fuel spread across the highway. The officer was very glad we were not harmed. He gave us a number to call if we wished to get a report of the driver of the station wagon. Thanks for calling.

That was it. Jake and I just sat there after this. I finally told him I was glad he took the wheel, because I could have never driven our car the way he did. I would not have been able to handle all that skidding and sliding around. I was not used to ice like he was, plus my car was a small front wheel drive. Jake’s decision to take the wheel may have saved all our lives.

Jake looked at me, and said “I’m calling home, give me the phone.”

It was almost five in the morning back home, but that didn’t matter, he talked to his wife for about ten minutes, hung up, went to the bathroom then came out and raided the mini bar for some very cold water. I decided I needed to talk to Diane as well.

The next morning, Jake and I went downstairs to load up the station wagon, which meant removing all our gear, from the room, and hauling it down on a luggage cart to the lobby. Jake went to get the car. I met him outside and noticed that the car looked strange. The bottom half was black, the hubcaps too. The rear license plate looked bent around the bumper, and the paint was blistered and peeling off. I realized I was looking at fire damage. Jake and I just stared at each other, and he said “We should record this”. He grabbed the camera. I hooked up the tape recorder, started it rolling and then he slowly walked around the car. It was bad, even the tires looked a bit off. That fire was really hot.

Brenda came out, and watched what we were doing.

“You know, when I got back to the room, I had to break off my panty hose, they were hard and cracked in places, like the heat crystallized them.”

“Wow'‘ was my response.

Brenda also reported to the office and gave them the whole story.

We then drove to Universal Studios, jumped on the tour trolley and taped the whole thing. While watching the shark from Jaws jump out of the water, I thought to myself, what a strange set of circumstances this trip has given us.

The next day we caught a plane back to San Francisco. Brenda had set up a last minute interview with an old acquaintance. She wanted his director’s opinion of what it takes to be discovered and his thoughts about the current movie industry. I suppose he was a good man to ask.

We arrived at his studio and Brenda introduced Jake and myself to Francis Ford Coppola, the director of all three (or was it two then?) Godfather movies. His latest movie at that time was Apocalypse Now. It was an interesting interview.

We flew back that day, and for some reason when we were making our landing approach and the landing gear was lowered, the noise freaked me out. Delayed reaction to an almost car wreck I guess.

We did many other things while in California, we interviewed Efrem Zimbalist Jr. of 77 Sunset Strip Fame, father of Stephanie Zimbalist, you know, the star of Remington Steele. We visited churches in the area, We visited a couple of ladies, boutique store owners, who gave most of their profits to charity, all kinds of things.

Finally it was time to leave and fly home. I was anxious to get back. Diane told me that the rumor had gotten around the “office” that we had been killed in a traffic accident. Fortunately she knew better and set everyone straight. She thought it was funny. I did not.

Brenda decided to do a short “stand up” from the front seat as we drove to the airport. I rolled tape and was behind the camera as she twisted in her seat and told a condensed story of how three people survived a very bad wreck after interviewing the mother of a child who survived, no, a child that came back to life after drowning. She ended with a scripture, which I will quote here and use it as part of the perfect ending to this story as well.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

Isaiah 43:2 NIV

Obviously we made it home okay. It was possible Jake didn’t nervously squeeze his arm rests as hard as he did during the flight west. I don’t know, I was sleeping.

Derrick