Kyle Atkins: Green Men, Mean Men and Three Kids

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2013 16:01
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Young explorer Atkins at a Table Mountain promontory south of Jamestown in 1955. The photo was taken by his friend Norm Carlton, then 13, who today is Atkins’ neighbor in Tuolumne County

It was 1955: Flying saucers, Russian spies and murder mysteries were the stuff of youthful imaginations. All three, and a lot more, would be part of an improbable adventure I shared with two friends in the spring of that year.

After school on Friday, May 27, my mother dropped me and two cousins off at the Montezuma Y south of Jamestown. Neal and I were eighth-graders at Jamestown School, and Ora was in sixth. That our parents had no qualms about letting us go off alone on a three-day fishing expedition down Woods Creek and up Sullivan Creek is a sign of those more innocent times.

Indeed, our adversaries in the spring of ’55 were not sinister kidnappers or robbers, but nature: We crawled through a mile of unforgiving chamise thickets to the Woods Creek canyon floor where dusk was betting we would not make it downstream to our goal of the Sullivan Creek junction.

Shortly we passed an alcove in the graying canyon wall which held a small, not quite dilapidated cabin. It was the kind of place that is the heart of true adventure and the kind of place no real boy should pass by, but we did and before long reached our creek junction, a wide, flat area sprinkled with small willows. The close-in canyon walls gave it a homey but confined feeling, and we dropped our packs to explore Sullivan Creek.

Upstream we were astonished to discover another small cabin. A maze of narrow ditches shored with rock walls led around and under this shack. Their purpose could have been gold mining, but getting over and through them to the cabin required deft maneuvers, and they inspired confusion worthy of a sinister defense system. We felt vulnerable and trapped, but nevertheless made it to the cabin.

Its interior seemed ransacked. There were tumbledown shelves and a drawer or two, but no furniture save a couple field fruit boxes. Several boards had been smashed out of the south wall.

“Ransom!” Ora announced as he opened a drawer that held a dozen or so dime-store jewelry items. “They been holdin’ somebody for ransom.”

Realizing the implications, each of us returned one handful of the trinkets we had grabbed from the drawer. But then we rolled the other handful up in our Levis cuffs. At least if they caught us, they might not find that we had taken some of the loot.

Ora kept a chain and pendant, and Neal, a wide leather wristband with a beaded American flag. I took a bracelet from which dangled half a dozen silver horseshoes.

The cabin’s  waterlogged magazines seemed out of place and so did the newspapers, dated only last December. “Spies!” hissed Neal. “Who else would want to read the newspaper? They must have killed whoever was here.”

“Flying saucers,” I ventured. “What else could get into this canyon?”

“Maybe the spies got flying saucers,” agreed Neal.

“Look at this,” said Ora, holding up a large, coarse file with a flashlight battery jammed onto the handle end.

“What were they doin’?” asked Neal, producing the other cell and the flashlight it had come from. I removed the battery from the file, looked at the square hole in its bottom and put it back in the flashlight. Its beam was dim, but it still worked!

What manner of men would do such a thing to a perfectly good flashlight battery? What were they up to, and what would they do when they caught us? Frightened, we rolled up our treasure-laden cuffs one more turn and slipped into the night, finding our packs as we had left them.

We whispered that lighting a fire was entirely too dangerous, as it would blind us to the approach of any spies or little green men attracted to the light. We laid our bedrolls along the stream bank so we were nearly invisible from above.

After a can of cold pork and beans and water from our canteens, we pulled up the top quilt and contemplated our predicament. Vast blackness between the stars and occasional meteors gave greater credulity to the flying saucer theory. We could only hope they would not return for more specimens that night.

How spies worked hand in hand with spacemen troubled us until we realized the Russians were producing the flying saucers. Then it all made sense: This desolate area was the USSR’s secret western-states’ spy base, selected for remoteness and because there was water for fuel. We hyperventilated, realizing we were trapped at a Russian spy-flying saucer base between cabins full of stolen secrets and treasures.

But if we didn’t investigate, who else would expose these commies and what they were up to? We drifted into a very troubled sleep.

The cry of a coyote about 1:30 am quick-froze each of us beneath our cold, dew-covered quilts. With ears flared and mouths gaping, we searched the darkness. “They’re comin’!” Neal hoarsely whispered.

That a lonely coyote would try to save our lives by warning us was no less real than the murmuring voices we heard emerging from the stream, or shadows we saw taking recognizable form in the distances. After half an hour of tense anticipation, we arranged for Ora to take the first watch.

Faint hints of daybreak were dimming the stars when Neal shook us. “C’mon guys, we gotta get outta here.”

We rolled our loose gear up in our quilts and lashed them to our packs. By then we could see well enough to convince ourselves it was safe to have some breakfast, which was a large can of fruit cocktail. We pulled bean- and dirt-streaked spoons from our pockets and hogged as many cherries as we could.

We debated whether spies took weekends off or were sneaking up on us, and whether the other cabin, too, was bulging with treasure. Eventually we realized we had the responsibility to investigate and headed up Woods Creek.

A well-trimmed live oak guarded the entry to the cleft which held the cabin. No smoke issued from its chimney. There was no path and no footprints, yet a weathered shovel and rake leaned against the front wall, while a stack of wood sat off to one side. At barely 8-by-10-feet with a stove, bed, table and chair, the tiny cabin could hold two people at most.

“We probably have them outnumbered,” whispered Ora.

“I bet they’ve been burying people with that shovel,” said Neal.

We advanced slowly at first, three abreast, each fully aware that even a high-speed run for freedom might not keep us from being captured by the holed-up spies. Closing in on the door, we realized that whoever got in first would grab the treasure. So as Neal opened the door, Ora and I tried to force our way past him.

But in less than a second we were overwhelmed by the powerful stench of decay. We bolted in full retreat, not slowing until we passed the guardian live oak. There, each of us questioned what we all had seen in the cabin’s dark shadows, but none of us wanted to betray our fears.

After an uneasy silence, Neal asked, “Did you see what I saw?”

“A dead man!!!” shrieked Ora.

“He was sitting in a rocking chair facing the stove!” I said.

“He had gray hair,” said Neal, “and his skin was all black, and the meat was all falling off.”

“Let’s get outta here!” pleaded Ora.

“Yeah,” I agreed, “before they get us too.”

“We can’t,” said Neal. “One of us has to go back and close the door.”

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t, they will know we were here. Besides, we don’t want the evidence to be eaten by the wild animals.”

The logic was irrefutable, and so was the solution: “You opened it,” I said, looking at Neal.

“That’s why you guys should close it,” he shot back.

“No way,” said Ora. “I’m not going back there.”

“You will if I tell you to, little brother.”

“But you’re the biggest,” whimpered Ora.

“And the oldest,” I added. I never really liked Neal, but to this day I am thankful he shut that door.

This matter of a dead man caused us to reassess our priorities. We agreed it was time to call the sheriff. We also agreed that we didn’t want to wind up looking like the dead man.

But we were on a fishing trip, and we hadn’t wetted a line. We weren’t certain which deserved our higher consideration, the fish who were expecting us or the government which was not.

We eventually decided to shorten the trip a day and fish our way up Sullivan Creek to the Whitesides Bridge. From there we would walk four miles through Stent to Jamestown. Then we’d call the sheriff from the drugstore.

We stopped at two roaring waterfalls dropping into deep pools bounded by barefoot-smooth granite rims. Still, we could not achieve the confident serenity of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The fish would not bite, and we could not relax.

At the second pool we ate a tasteless lunch as the conversation repeatedly returned to the decaying man: How could a dead man sit in a chair unless he had been tied in? Was it a jacket cuff or ropes we saw on the arm of the chair? Then from memory new details emerged: a diagonal tourniquet of baling wires bracing the rocker rungs, stubby white whiskers protruding from black sunken cheeks.

With such haunting thoughts on our minds, we drank our canteens dry climbing out of the increasingly hot, narrow and precipitous canyon, then followed a seasonal tributary. Eventually we emerged from the poison oak onto Jacksonville Road.

We scurried across Whitesides Bridge and were well up the grade when an ancient dark-green pickup rattled to a coughing stop as we stuck out our thumbs. We rode in its bed to the Jamestown Drug Store, where Mrs. Collard let us use the phone.

Sheriff Don Vars hadn’t had anything this big since the county fair, so he decided to handle our case himself and told Mrs. Collard to keep us there. A few minutes later, Vars appeared in a 1953 brown Chevrolet station wagon.

We were excited about helping the law, but nervous: What if we had never really seen a dead man and it was all in our imaginations? It would be awfully embarrassing to guide the sheriff to an empty cabin. Or what if the spies caught us all?

And why couldn’t Sheriff Vars find the dead man on his own from our instructions? A man who couldn’t follow simple directions was not likely to save us from Russians in flying saucers.

With the stolen ransom jewelry still bulging and burning in our pants cuffs, we said nothing of the spies. There was no sense in calling attention to our theft, and the evidence of spies would be obvious once he got there.

We drove to Jacksonville and picked up Fred Klein, a local who knew the area well. He directed the sheriff into a driveway off Jacksonville Road. The road became a rutted ravine, dropping off the edge of the earth. From our back seat, the walls sometimes reached the windows.

The men casually talked while our heads alternately kissed the ceiling and windows. They were both incompetents, we became convinced, and we’d have to walk out of that canyon a second time today if we were to live to tell any of this.

Sheriff Vars glanced at us in his rear-view mirror. “You boys gonna help us haul him out?” he said with a sardonic grin.

“No way he can be hauled out,” I replied. “He’s so rotten he’ll fall apart.”

“Can’t let a little thing like that stop us,” said the sheriff.

“Then I get the left leg,” shouted Ora.

“And I get the right,” said Neal.

“No problem,” said Mr. Klein.

From a fit of giggles Ora managed to hack out at me, “You know what leg that leaves you!”

I was somewhere between blushing for fear the sheriff understood the joke and anger at Ora for making it seem we were willing to do such a thing. I had never heard of a body bag, so I was worried that Vars was serious.

We reached the bottom of the canyon half a mile below the stream junction. There sat the rusting hulk of a Model A, perhaps the last car to drive to the bottom of Woods Creek Canyon.

Twenty minutes later, the three of us stopped at the live oak tree and gestured toward the cabin. Vars and Klein, thankfully, went ahead.

As we waited, Neal reached into a rotten cavity left in the oak’s trunk by a missing branch.

“Hey guys,” he said, holding a military patch with a multi-colored arch. “Do you know what this is?”

It had once been on a uniform, but showed little wear and couldn’t have been stashed in the tree for long.

“This patch is from the Rainbow Division,” said Neal, who was something of a war buff. “They were a famous unit in World War I.”

The dead man had been in the service, of course!

“They were probably holding him here trying to get information out of him,” I said.

“And tortured him until he died,” agreed Ora.

“And the patch was here because he was trying to signal someone,” I surmised.

A resounding thump and a metallic rattle of corrugated iron interrupted us. We looked up to see Fred Klein dizzily reeling across the flat and holding a handkerchief to his nose. He had hit his head on the door frame during a fast exit from the cabin.

“You boys were right – we’ll send someone out to get him tomorrow,” said Sheriff Vars.

We nearly wilted from the double relief. It was a dead man! And we didn’t have to carry him!

Our parents and a reporter from The Sonora Daily met us at Jamestown Drug. “How did you boys come to be able to handle yourselves in these kinds of situations?” asked the reporter. “Are you Boy Scouts?”

“Not me,” said Ora.

“Not me,” said Neal.

“I think I went to a Cub meeting once,” I said.

“When did you make this discovery?”

“A little before seven this morning.”

“What time did you call the sheriff?”

“We spent most of the day fishing; it was about one o’clock.”

“Thank you. What else can you tell me?”

We looked at each other; our pants cuffs bulged and burned. The rainbow patch in Neal’s pocket glowed to the point that Neal held the top tightly closed to keep the light from giving us away.

“Nothing really,” I said. “Sheriff Vars probably has more information than we do. We never went in that cabin.”

The paper printed the story two days later. I learned a lot from the article; I found out I was a Boy Scout, that I had run to Jamestown and that Mrs. Collard was my neighbor.

Newspapers, I realized, sometimes rewrite the facts to fit the story they have in mind. The Daily carried not a single hint as to the whole truth of the murder.

Thus I came to understand that reporters and the sheriff’s department were incompetent.

Either that or they were working in conjunction with the U.S. government to conceal the truth about flying saucers and Russian spies.

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Atkins on Mt. Whitney

About the Author

By Chris Bateman

This fascinating tale from author Kyle Atkins’ youth offers clues to what the Jamestown School eighth-grader in the story would become when he grew up – a teacher, mountaineer and outdoorsman whose curiosity and sense of adventure defines his life.

After graduating from Sonora High School, Modesto Junior College and Fresno State, Kyle spent two years in Alaska with his wife, Margaret. The couple returned to Tuolumne County in 1967, when Kyle began a 30-year career as a Curtis Creek School science teacher.

By that time he was hooked on mountain climbing, having scaled 11,755-foot Tower Peak on the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park at age 19.  Often joined by Margaret, he has since climbed more than 1,000 mountains – including the highest points in all 50 states.

The lure?

“It brings a kind of aliveness far beyond usual,” Atkins says. “It is rewarding to continually assess where you are, how you and your partners are doing, read the terrain and the weather, weigh the risks and make the sort of commitments that build a definition of yourself.”

“Then there are the adrenaline highs from getting a good dose of scare,” he adds.

Kyle and Margaret have two grown sons and two grandchildren. Since retiring from teaching careers in 1997, they have been climbing family trees as well as mountains, researching their ancestry as amateur genealogists.

They visited the Azores last summer, and over the years have been to Africa, Australia and Alaska in search of more adventure, more mountains to climb and more stories to write.

“We’ll do it until we can’t do it anymore,” says Margaret.

Looking back on climbs that sometimes involved furious snowstorms, high winds and perilous predicaments, has anything been scarier than Kyle’s 1955 adventure with his cousins? “Probably not,” he laughs.

Enter FAN’s Tales of Adventure Contest

Maybe Kyle Atkins’ tale brings to mind your own escapades from childhood, young adulthood or even last week. Share your story with other FAN readers by entering our 2014 Tales of Adventure contest.

However you define “adventure” – whether a trip, relationship or moment in time – tell your true story in 1,000 words or less. Submit by Sept. 15, 2014 to FAN, 171 N. Washington St., Suite H, Sonora, or by email to editor@seniorfan.com.

The contest is open to FAN readers 50 or older; please include name, age, address, phone and email (contact information will not be shared). Stories may be edited; photos are welcome, but please send copies that don’t need to be returned.

Prizes? Yes. Glory? Of course – we’ll print the winning stories in our Winter 2014 issue or post them online at seniorfan.com.

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2013 16:01
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1 Comment

  1. LaDawn (Prieto) Johnson November 4, 18:38

    Great article on an amazing teacher! Mr. Atkins was my favorite teacher at Curtis Creek Elem. and his wife had actually taught me as well at MLCS. It was because of their love for nature, God and education that I went on to travel to over 32 countries and obtain a post-graduate degree. I hope they see this and know how God used them and their passions to inspire a poor little girl from Tuolumne county!

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