Essays: The Night I Almost Died

It was 1967. I had graduated from high school with a small scholarship to go to CCAC, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. It was a fairytale scenario. I was a fairly straight-laced kid from the up-and-coming bedroom community of Cupertino, now made famous as the home of Apple Computers. I and two of my good friends rented an upstairs apartment in a beautiful old Craftsman-style building in Berkeley, right next door to the staid Christian Science Reading Room. It was a fantastic neighborhood with classic architecture and the proverbial tree-lined streets. It was a not-so-converted garage (they just nailed the large garage door shut, as well as the door to the house. Our entrance was the door to the side yard, which we accessed via a gate facing the street. There was no heat, and so we had a two-burner hot plate (only one coil worked ) for our heat. I think my portion of the rent was $15.

My friend Karl had a similar art scholarship and was attending most of the same classes I was in. Mike had entered the University of California. He was a bit of a math nerd, but an old boy scout friend of Karl’s and my classmate in high school also. We were an amusing trio. Karl and I drove our Vespa scooter to class, Mike had a car and struggled to find a parking space on the enormous campus. We yelled a lot and drove the two older female graduate students downstairs crazy with our juvenile sexist rants. We all lasted a year. Karl moved back home and Mike and I found a cheap place back near De Anza College, in Cupertino, which had just opened. I was taking classes in photography, philosophy, and sociology.

My high school girlfriend, Jill, was a free spirit, perhaps in San Francisco then, and sent us a dozen marijuana-laced cookies as a present. We were so thrilled to receive them! Being young and eager for the unknown, we each had one. They were gritty and tasted like grass. Well, being the curious boys that we were, we had another, and then another, etc. until they were nothing but tiny crumbs in the bottom of a wax paper-lined shoe box. It wasn’t long before things started to look different. We both started to laugh at the ordinary poor student reality we were in. We were having a rousing time of it. By now it was mid-evening and we were looking for something to do. We decided to go for a walk. Even though it was a cold November night, I walked out in a T-shirt oblivious of the temps. Mike suggested I put on a jacket. I was glad I did.

The moon and stars were bright enough to see by and we decided to head up the hill to the Stevens Creek reservoir. I would say it was less than a mile. The road meandered up through the brown hilly grassland covered in the characteristic overhanging dark oak trees. An occasional car would pass and I would remember to get out of the middle of the road. The dam was just ahead. Stevens Creek Dam had a reputation of being home to the “submarine races,” as we called them – see who would be the first to go down. Couples who had no other place would go up there and park overlooking the water. Making out – and then some. As we got to the top of the rise you could see a few cars were indeed in place just as predicted. We both laughed. We then turned around and started back down the hill.

We could see another set of headlights heading up our way. I was high as a kite. As the car passed us, I spontaneously yelled out, “Admission fifty cents!” The car suddenly stopped and slowly started to back up. “What did you say?” came the comment from the car. “I was just kidding!”, I said nervously. As this was happening, I looked over and saw a dark figure in the front seat. I will remember his eyes forever. They were very dark and seemed to me to feel like black-hole vortexes pulling me in. I could see him start to reach across the seat for something under a bag. All this was happening in a second or two. All of a sudden I knew what might happen and I instinctively bolted down the hill!

At this point, the story breaks in two. There was my experience, and there was Mike’s. Let’s start with mine. I ran as fast as my stoned body could with fear leading the way. It was downhill, so I got a head of steam going. At the bottom of the dam hill, the road turned and I decided to just run right up the hill and out of sight. I tromped and slipped through the mud and grass, wet from recent rain. I climbed until I couldn’t breathe enough. I flashed that I was in Viet Nam and was under attack. I had on my Army Surplus olive bulky jacket. Then my ears went to work. I heard what I thought was a shot and thought maybe Mike was hit. The war environment was coming on big time as I huddled under the tree in the dark. Crap! Mike is shot! Keep moving! I worked my way so far up the hill I could see the light of Santa Clara Valley stretched out like glowing coals. I stayed there for how long I know not.

Mike’s world: He sees me take off and when he looks back there is a gun pointed at his face. The man steps out and says, “Let’s go get your buddy.” and gestures down the hill where I went. Maybe it was the pot, maybe not, but Mike thought, “If I do that, I’m dead,” so instead he ran in the other direction right into the guy’s headlights. As he is running to the other cars nearby, he thinks, “I’m dead! He’s going to shoot me in the back!” He doesn’t, and Mike makes it to the closest car. As he bangs on the window he says, “This guy is trying to kill me, let me in!” No response. He runs to the next car and jumps into the back seat. The kind couple drives him back down the hill and they call the police.

Rand’s world: At this point I think Mike may be dead. I don’t know how long I was up there. I turn around and look down and I can see the road with what appears to be a police car or ambulance on the road lighting it up with all the pretty colors. (Still stoned.) I slowly start to crawl my way back in the direction of our garage. After some time, feeling like the Viet Cong, I zig-zag my way back to the property and hop into a boat stored there and pull the cover over me.

Mike’s world: He meets with the police and says a guy tried to kill him, and his friend is missing. He gets into the back of the police car. At this point, a radio squawks that burglary is underway. The officer slams both doors and heads for that scene. When he gets there he opens his door and runs out presumably for the suspect. In the meantime my stoned friend Mike is in the back of a locked police car with the door open and a suspect on the loose and thinks he may be in danger again! Eventually, the cop came back, got the report, and they started looking for me. He hits his lights and they head up the hill. After a long search they come back to the garage. 

Rand’s world: I peek out from inside the boat, see the cops AND Mike and jump out. We are all glad that all are present. The police put me in the back of the car and start asking me questions. I know nothing except we almost got killed. Then he asks me what the inside of the assailant’s car looked like, and I’m puzzled by the question. I look over at Mike. He rolls his eyes and looks nervous. “Well, when this guy gave you a ride, what did it look like?” I froze. After a panicked silence, I just burst out that I didn’t know… I was traumatized! Turns out Mike told the cops the guy picked us up hitchhiking because he was afraid they wouldn’t believe that we were just wandering around up there stoned.

They finally got some version of a report, and left. We were both still really high. Then I learned some more of the story. What I thought was a shot was actually the menacing guy’s car door slamming after Mike ran off. I had seen a car driving slowly off the road when I was at the top of the hill and asked Mike if they had been over there. He said no. So I imagined the creep was looking for me afterward. Scary.

We were both beyond exhausted. It was very late or early depending on what kind of a night you had. We went to sleep. In what seemed like a short time, I woke up. It was still dark. Through the thin house walls, I could hear the television coming from the other side. “It’s time for the Jackie Gleason Show?” yelled the announcer. Laying there I thought, “Wait – Isn’t that show on Saturday night? It’s Friday night! Shit!” I woke the still sleeping Mike up. Hey man! We missed all of Saturday! It is the only time I can remember in my life when I never saw the sun all day. We were still traumatized and drove over to my dad’s to tell him the story.

A day or two later, the local paper came out; the Cupertino Courier. It’s a dramatic headline across the front; GUNMAN THREATENS TEENAGERS. It was just a version of the police report – we never talked to a reporter.

We were asked if they caught him were we willing to testify – we said yes. They eventually caught him trying to assault someone else. Turns out he was an escaped murderer from Los Angeles. We didn’t need to go to court. Strange times in 1968. I thanked Jill for the cookies. The Cookie Monster has a different meaning to me. I wonder sometimes if I hadn’t been stoned would have I seen that coming as I did. Now I wonder what might have happened had he gone up to any of those cars in the lot that night. Pot makes me uber sensitive, and in this case, it was a good thing. Grateful to be here.