I couldn’t get back in the gym. Usually the door was cracked open and I could sneak in through the side entrance.

Not this time. A group of jocks on the other side of the door were pulling it shut. I had no chance. I was just a 105-pound wrestler. One of them was a giggling 200-pound tight end with a scholarship to UCLA. (He later caught a touchdown pass in a Rose Bowl game from Troy Aikman). I was just playtime. No coaching necessary.

The door was in a bit of a cubby. Didn’t matter. I couldn’t hide there. I still had to get back inside. I’d just watched a wrestler get the smackdown in the weight room. It was his birthday too. They caught him while he was benchpressing. They grabbed him, flipped him over. His sweats were yanked down and his ass was whipped with their bear-like hands. I remember his ass was beet red. There were tears in his eyes. The birthday-haze-hungry jocks laughed gleefully.

I don’t know what’s worse. A physical beating? Or this mental game I was suddenly thrown into? They had grabbed me two seconds after my shower and tossed me toward the ravenous teen wolves of my youth.

First bell.

Students began passing by.

They didn’t know this was the dream I’d had countless times. The only difference was I could usually fly in those nightmares. Not like Superman. Just a little air. Slowly rising. The air under my feet barely heated. I could flap my arms as if they were real wings. As if someone were playing that old video game “Joust” and pressing the flap button. Just enough to barely get me off the ground.

I wanted to fly.

In fact, I wanted to flap and fly and sail into the clouds and rest there a while. Right on a big cloudy bed where I could fall asleep and forget the world.

Students passed. They looked and laughed. They pointed.

I had no actual dignity at that moment. But I pretended to have some. I started walking around the gym toward the back entrance. I tried to blend in with the crowd. I pretended I was fully dressed.

Later that day I would be haunted time and again, “Weren’t you the guy in his underwear right after first period?”

Tighty-whitie underwear at that.

That was me. At school in my underwear. That had been the dream.

I walked around the gym and saw faces, book bags, girls hanging on boy arms and voices shrill like siren songs from broken radios blurting static into the cosmos.

I walked along the concrete. I didn’t run. Those faces were like devils. But I didn’t run.

One night I was a guest on the Red Eye Radio show with host John Wessling. It was midnight. I was sitting in a bathroom near Disneyland. I had called in and started telling Wessling how I was on a mission to find out if some of the dolls on the “It’s a Small World” ride were really little people from around the globe who were cryogenically frozen.

“I’m ready to unravel the mystery,” I said.

My family was flip-flopping in the other room on uncomfortable beds, disturbed by my muffled bathroom cries to save the frozen children of Disney.

I was going off the cuff like a mofo (By the way, Wessling is a comedian).

People are drawn to tales of ghosts, Native American myths, UFOs, creepy underground tunnels, corrupt secret government societies, backwoods monsters, bizarre news and legendary crimes. In fact, many bizarre stories have taken on mythical status as urban legends.

Yet, everyone knows urban legends exist all over America. The creepy legends left unproven in the media work their way through bars, coffeehouses, Internet conversations and late-night get-togethers in living rooms.

Even today’s mainstream news often reads like a contest between which agency can report the weirdest story. Just try getting at the truth behind legendary pop star Michael Jackson and his untimely death. In the end, urban legends may well rule his legacy.

TheDenverChannel.com—the leading news site in Colorado—was guilty of reporting UFO-related details in 2008 about a white-faced alien-head peeking in a window. It looked more like a mask than Jeff Peckman’s “irrefutable evidence” of aliens among us. Yet Web traffic likely skyrocketed as a result of posting the story.

It’s almost as if society is just waiting for the smoking gun alien story to happen.

In Bakersfield, California, just mention The Grapes of Wrath and you might hear: “That book was burned in a barrel.” It was. But that was just propaganda for the book being banned in Kern County. It was a political mess. Either way, the legend of a more massive book burning with huge bonfires rests in the imaginations of many.

Such stories, whether harboring full-on freaky lies or hints of truth, tug on the fabric of society’s need for the unexplained to be reasoned.

On Aug. 7, 2009, I got a message on MySpace. A teenage girl said she hated to read but was researching Bakersfield, California area ghost stories. She came across something I had written about area ghosts and wanted to know more. She was ready to read an entire novel (Hallelujah for literacy!).

It’s not that I know much about actual ghosts. I’ve just told a few ghost stories. And I know that people are fascinated by urban legends.

One man used to tell me about his supposed Yokut wolf spirit sightings in California’s Central Valley: a sprawling 300-mile stretch of farmland and gang-infested towns and cities between Bakersfield and Sacramento. He was convinced the wolf spirit I mentioned in the fictional account of the Lords of Bakersfield was one and the same with his own personal haunts.

I wove more than one urban legend into “Lords: Part One.” There’s the Native American wolf spirit that haunted the apocalyptic Bakersfield dust storm of 1977, and the Lords of Bakersfield themselves: creepy prominent men leading dualistic hidden gay lifestyles. They are rumored to have preyed on young men and the apocalyptic fears of a God-fearing community. The Lords have even been tied to recent events in a drowning of a gay real estate agent in 2009, and in 2002, when the assistant DA was murdered by an ex-cop, in part, for accusations of the man’s frolicking with the ex-cop’s druggie son.

While promoting the book I would go on the radio and say, “Hey, this is just a fictional account.” But then I would get the inevitable response asking what percentage of the book was true.

People just want to believe, don’t they? How can you put a percentage on dastardly deeds?

A semi-related book by John Shannon titled “The Devils of Bakersfield” also dabbles in a corrupt secret society of government officials and Satanists. You never know. It could all be true.

The recent film “Witch Hunt” narrated by Sean Penn dabbles in accusations of Satanism and child molestation in Bakersfield. Oddly, while many of the cases were overturned, the DA is accused of being a Lord of Bakersfield himself.

Now add the mystery of the possible existence of Chinese tunnels hidden in downtown Bakersfield and you have yourself a real weird place, where Buck Owens country music and KoRn nu-metal rock often comes second to tales of mystery.

While exploring subjects for my bizarre book, Random Obsessions, a trivia book of strange factoids in history, disease, inventions, science, geography, film, and art, I tackled some of America’s most intriguing urban legends.

In West Virginia, the Mothman legend still stokes the fires of those who remember stories of a red-eyed birdman spawning from the government-run TNT factory area of Point Pleasant. Strangely enough, with the help of a comic book historian I was able to track down a photographer who hunts for the mysterious creature. But even his supposed sightings of shimmering birdman creatures in the woods were too bizarre for the book.

In the section, “Mothman, the Curse of Point Pleasant and Baby Mothman” you can read how the legend got started and how locals weren’t sure if they saw a spirit, mutant bird from a toxic swamp or some kind of reincarnated Indian chief who once cursed the land (Strangely, most of his bones have been lost).

Pick up a copy and maybe the shimmering red-eyed form of the birdman will soon be standing outside your window.

I spent two long summers in Helltown, Ohio—an area of small towns with a collective name that just reeks “urban legend.” I lived just down the street from a cemetery perched atop an Indian mound, which some locals believe has mystical qualities. In the summer there, when the sun dips between the thin trunks of the Cuyahoga woods, you can hear rustling along the remains of the Ohio and Erie Canal. On the cemetery itself a mist sometimes forms. It’s enough to make any city slicker run for the nearest bar and watch the Cleveland Indians get massacred.

I never could muster up the nerve to sneak into the cemetery at midnight and peer at hundreds-of-years-old headstones, marking those who died from pestilence, murder, and in the rare case, old age. I opted for daylight wanderings.

Legends of the Peninsula Python, a giant snake that escaped a circus train in the 1940s mesh right along with the mystical mound and even the thought that toxic mutants once lived nearby. I interviewed one local extensively who used to ride by horseback into a nearby swampy area. She said she saw government workers stacking barrels of toxic goo at a condemned house in the old swamp. It gets creepy when you include the idea that some nearby families have unexplained illnesses. I dated that girl for years. I finally dumped her after she turned into the Swamp Thing. Just kidding.

Yet there’s another urban legend in Random Obsessions worth mentioning.

 In Dan Brown fashion, I couldn’t help but write about the architectural mysteries of Washington, D.C. Just what is the deal about D.C. area reflecting pools and star alignments, or all the countless Dante statues, Athena artwork, the White House glyph and Sirius dome stars?

In a way we’re all hooked on such stories whether we’re sitting in a bathroom cooking them up for a midnight radio show, or just stumbling upon something real and freaky. They’re out there, that’s for sure, and you usually don’t have to look very far.
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You can read a lot more weird stories from Nick Belardes in Random Obsessions. Pick up a copy from Viva Editions. Intro by Brad Listi, founder of TheNervousBreakdown.com

I got onto the hood of our car and stared up at the milky stars. Eric’s yellow school bus was parked right behind us. Desert shrubs looked eerie in the moonlight. Olaf grabbed a blanket and walked off into the desert while I found myself dreaming about the past and the walking stick in the trunk and the mysterious man we had stumbled upon in the middle of the Ohio woods many days before.

Then I listened for snakes. I remembered what my parents had told me about the time they broke down in their old Volkswagen Beetle in the desert in the 1960s. My mother saw dozens of rattlesnakes when she took my sister for a pee by some shrubs. The way I remember my pop telling the story, there were snakes in the road, snakes winding past shrubs, snakes tangled, slithering, everywhere. It was like one of those classic old desert-set 1950s horror movies.

That story had given me an irrational fear of the desert. I figured the snakes would come and get me even if I were locked in a car. Now I lay back on the warm hood, smiling nervously, because I knew I couldn’t do what Olaf was doing. He wasn’t afraid. He’d come from Norway on an adventure to drive his son, Eric, from South Dakota to Arizona in a big yellow school bus. Eric was an air ambulance pilot. He flew medicine onto Indian reservations.

It had been a long trip across some of America: the green Midwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois; and into the South—Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas; and then into the Southwest—New Mexico and Arizona. We were dirty and alive. I looked forward to Eric’s shower. We had slept in the car for seven days now, save the one night in Eric’s bus. And we had grown oddly used to it. We had become ragged Americans, odd travelers staring into the burnt open face of our land. It was still a sonnenreise. I thought, in zigzag fashion, about the things we had seen and about all the places full of bushy trees and green grass and tall red brick buildings, and the many cluttered downtowns. How the St. Louis Arch had seemed stuck to the earth like a giant magnet near the Mississippi River’s edge. I thought about Jordan running up to the steely arch, hugging it and wanting to take the elevator to the top; and about wandering along the Missouri streets and staring at a decrepit fountain spewing blue-dyed water; about driving our dirty car through Indianapolis, where we had felt small and our car had looked tiny against the monstrous skyscrapers, the churches and malls; and then tearing through the countrysides and Oklahoma—passing countless cicada-filled trees, buzzing in the darkness. How our headlights had failed at a gas station and three UPS workers fumbled with wires under the hood before finding the right ones to twist together. And then on to Oklahoma City and thinking about all the people madly connected to the bombing; and then back to Missouri and the bathroom off the freeway with a sign inside reading “No Niggers Allowed” in handwriting that matched a sign by the front counter where a quiet white man stood and took our money; and near Amarillo where we spent the night parked at a motel and my girlfriend and I did it because we felt lonely and tired and had nothing else to do while Jordan slept; and in Texas where we ate at a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, mountains of pancakes with syrup, and stared out the windows into the green countryside, rain clouds rumbling; and in New Mexico and all that happened in Santa Rosa: the Blue Hole oasis, Olaf cooking hot dogs at Park Lake, our car dying as the rain fell against the scorched earth.

Back in the desert, I was shaken awake. Eric’s face hung above mine looking bluer than ever. It’s the starlight, I thought. His normally strong face looked frail in the faint glow and his eyes were cold like two black holes in the heavens. I got up. Already Eric had moved away and disappeared into his bus. And Olaf, back from the desert and amazingly alive, was waiting for me to rejoin the caravan.

I climbed into the car, where my girlfriend lay, asleep. I started the motor, and it shook her awake. “You okay?” she asked, her voice cracking. I said yes and pulled out to follow the demon red lights of the bus.

After a while, the fatigue set in and the white lines blurred together and didn’t seem so broken, but were instead almost snake-like, as if an albino serpent had uncoiled itself across the vast desert expanse. Its head was just around the next turn. Then those Ohio woods again rushed back into my mind. I saw myself with Jordan and my girlfriend as we went searching for Buttermilk Falls. I saw us rounding a corner and finding the man there. He was leaning on a log, carving a head into a staff. He looked like a killer, the way he sat there silently with his knife. He handed over the carved stick and mumbled a few words. Jordan held onto it like a shaman child. His face was filled with what appeared to be instant wisdom.


(Jordan Belardes at left holds the old man walking stick. Circa 1996)

Back in the desert again. Five in the morning. The road. The lines. The mountains just outside of Flagstaff. Huge green meadows, some rung with high wooden fences. Pine trees and valley peaks rising on either side, cradling our entry.

Eric was at the wheel of the bus, exhausted. He swerved out onto the shoulder as the first dim haze of day broke along the horizon. Dirt flew up in a cloud as he wheeled back onto the highway and nearly sideswiped a pick-up truck in passing. I felt lucky to be behind him. I hit the brakes and flashed my lights, hoping Eric would see me. Finally, after many minutes of tired swerving, he managed to steady himself, bringing the bus back between the broken serpent lines and finding an equilibrium.

“Oh good,” my girlfriend said, “he’s awake now.”

As awake as the sun that was lifting its head above the bright Arizona morning.

I pulled up to the gas station in a 1978 Bonneville that was by far the worst car I ever had to drive or ride in. My girlfriend had that same stupid, sweet smile she had on her face as when we’d stolen some gas a few days before. We were in Akron, Ohio. A few days earlier, we had poured about sixteen bucks worth in the tank and took off without paying. It was easy as that.

We were living on the edge, but that was the state of things back in 1996. We were traveling in a terrible car, wishing we had more money, wishing we had a real vacation. We were living on the edge like some kind of Hunter S. Thompson fiasco. My girlfriend had just gotten a job as a waitress at a restaurant where she stole bread each night for us to devour. It was that and the eggplant from a forest ranger who had a big garden in his yard. He made his own mulch, grew his own delicacies. Nick (that was the ranger’s name) had bought his car dirt cheap after some people drove it into a lake and drowned in it. “The car smelled for a while,” he said.

I stole a few boxes of canning jars from the house where I was staying. That way Nick would keep handing over vegetables.

At the gas station we hopped out for a fill-up. That’s when we saw a pig come running out of nowhere and dive under the car across from us. The person pumping the gas got a dumbfounded look on his face. I’m sure I did too. Then some people came running. “You see a pig?” someone said. I gestured to the car. Seemed like ten people peeked underneath at once.

My girlfriend’s stupid smile turned into a roar of laughter.

She liked attention and a circus (whenever she could be near one or create one).

The pig acted like it sensed some kind of insanity in the air and bolted for our car. Either that or my girlfriend’s chaotic laughter had attracted the beast in her direction. It dove underneath the car. I took a peek.

I could see the pig had a terrible panic in its eyes, like it had just seen the secret of the universe because God had left his Book of Infinity open on a desk somewhere. Then, when an arm reached under the Bonneville, this magical pig of Akron bolted again. It zigzagged in an evasive maneuver and was back under the other car in a cloud of dust.

People tried to pull the pig out, but the little fatso had wiggled itself firmly beneath the gas tank.

Then someone came with a rope and tied a slipknot. The pig squeaked. The rope was hooked around one of the pig’s feet. And then it screamed. Mix Luke Skywalker wailing after getting his hand lopped off with Joe Pesci screechin’ for his life—then you’ll have some idea as to the wail of this pig as it was slowly dragged from its freedom.

Once out from under the car the pig didn’t squirm. It let out a shiver, then continued to squeal as the man cradled it in his arms.

Nothing was said. Nobody asked where the pig was from. Nobody asked where the pig was going. No one asked who owned the pig or what its piggy name was.

All around were bushy-headed trees and red-bricked buildings. This was summer in Akron. A time of petty thefts and pigs running amok.

For a brief moment I smiled at the goofy grin splattered on my girl’s tan face. We watched gleefully as the man cradled the crying pig. We stood like idiots under the crackle of distant storms. We were idiot lovers lost somewhere past middle America where dirt roads and city asphalt collided in God’s kaleidoscope.

And then, in an instant, karma took a sudden turn. As we stood there watching, the man darted away with the bawling pig in his arms and walked right through the doors of an Italian restaurant.

El Camino. 1984. V8 engine. 350. I never had one and I still don’t. But my just-graduated-son Landen gave me and a six-year-old punk girl named Jai Ann our first El Camino joyride. Destination: McDonald’s.

It goes like this: We hit Gosford Road and flew like the Furies were chasing us. Clouds rolled past. Time slowed. This was our video game. Pull out the joystick. Hit the fire button. Blast some asteroids. Jump like Frogger. Fly like the Pacman family. Donkey Kong it. You get the picture. Soaring Xervious adventure. This was old school.

We hit the drive-thru in style. Jai Ann had no idea what was soaring through my veins. She couldn’t feel the 80s. But she could feel something: 80s Generation X energy. After two Sprites, oh, and a coffee-for-the-old-man later, we pulled out. But suddenly Lando (as I usually call him) swerved back into the lot. “What’s going on?” I say.

“You’re drivin’.” Damn if he ain’t the captain.

Aw, hell yeah. My kid does love me. My foot still tingles as I remember. I imagine pressing down on the gas, the fuzzy dice above the dash, the fuzzy steering wheel cover in my grip like a puppy coming for a lick. I think about the tires on the road, the El Camino zooming toward the horizon. Yeah, Gran Torino should have been playing on my boy’s iPod followed by Fast and the Furious, Gone in Sixty Seconds and the highlights of Tron.

The next day my eyes were wider than usual. I’m standing around the car with he and his brother Jordo (Real name Jordan). The hood is up. We’re glaring into that secret of the universe that mechanics and teen boys dream about. We’re electricity zoomin’ through the distributor, fuel slippin’ through the filter, belts searing in hot passion, pulling by the radiator. “Aw yeah. I got it,” I say. My boys look over. “Candy apple red. White stripes up the hood.”

“Oh yeah,” Lando says then adds, “Can’t though. Cops would target that.”

I give him the I-don’t-care shrug as if I should be yelling out: “Murder is worse. Let’s do this thing. Let’s paint the town when we’re done with the car.”

While I’m tired and my head is spinning from having just pushed the El Camino through a busy intersection at Ming Avenue and Oak Street—as if JELL-O legs could ever attach to a robot—that doesn’t matter, I’m right back to dreaming: this car is a rocketship. “Oh yeah.”

VIDEO: El Camino, Lando On Guitar, At Intersection Right Before Breakdown

BAKERSFIELD, CA-

She was a head-injured quadriplegic at a nursing home. I took care of her sometimes. The other assistants who cared for her brought her Playgirl magazines. They’d open them up to a photo of some guy’s package. That brought a big smile to her contorting face, which was the only part of her body she could move. A former Cal Trans road worker, she had been smashed by some kind of vehicle as she stood on a Florida roadway. She couldn’t talk, only smile. She couldn’t eat except through a tube that dangled from her side. But she loved porn. You could see it in her eyes.

I had to turn her constantly to keep the sores off her body.

A head-injured man shared the room. All he could do was eat. He couldn’t move a muscle. I spoon fed him and had to massage his throat so he could swallow. I changed his diapers, took him to a shower room and hosed him off while he lay on a big blue gurney. He stared a lot. That’s all he could do. I didn’t sense any thoughts behind his eyes. I figured any kind of reasoning was hidden far behind a veil of fog so thick that his soul was in a constant winter.

His mother, whose fingernails looked like strange digging spades, would come to his room once a week and rub his head. She thought he might wake up. “He’s going to come through,” she said. Her little puffs of grey hair and big glasses hid a motherly anger.

I hung out with a couple of CNAs at the nursing home. James was a large black man who would tell me lots of Bible stories. “You know Christmas trees are in the Bible,” he said one day, then launched into the old testament tale on the topic, saying there was an evergreen, that it meant Christmas. “It’s true,” he said.

“Fool. That’s a bad word. Don’t ever call anybody a fool,” he said on another occasion. “People don’t know, but they should be afraid of that word. God will punish them.”

I was glad to be at the nursing home, far away from the clinic and the likes of the angry head-injured like Ken Svent, who would always throw his breakfast at me. He often screamed until his ribs cracked. Herman Burger also lived there. He was a six-foot, five-inch-tall gay lumberjack. He once lunged at me with his razor while trying to help him re-learn how to shave. More than once he threw a shoe at his Alaskan wilderness lover, missed, and hit a window.

My favorite head-injury victim was an old timer named Tom. He pitched in the World Series back in the 1950s and still had enough wits to show me his hand gestures for a slider and curve ball. His smashed brain could at least put together those memories. I always wondered if he made the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame

The rooms and halls of the nursing home smelled like piss. The old people in the hallways constantly pissed themselves, the floor, their rooms. The smell lingered in a cloud of human waste.

I studied in the nursing home. I read and then fed the head injured. I remember Fall months and the leaves tumbling through the air outside the windows. I remember James saying he had another story for me. “It’s about God’s covenant by fire and water,” he said. He came into the room often and saw a bit of God in there. I know he did.

I don’t know what happened. I could be one of those people who black out, who say things in moments where there’s no clarity, no real consciousness, just daydreaming —  starwalking in silent dreams during schoolyard bells.

The bus dropped me off near Geneva Avenue — that’s on the southside of Bakersfield. It was a poor blue collar street with stray dogs, tumbleweeds and the shitty kids I grew up with.

Walking home, I remember a short Asian-Mexican boy with a cleft palate. His face always looked angry, distorted. He had a mouth like a pumpkin scar. He was in the group of kids following me, encouraging the boy at the front of the pack to get me.

There’s no pride in fighting when your father claims to be a fighter and he never teaches you how to even slap someone with a glove and say, “Touche!” So I kept walking.

The boy following me was a dirty-faced white kid with dark stringy hair. He thought I said something at school. Something mean. Something that questioned his boyhood maleness. I racked my brain for some sort of explanation since I had no memory.

He turned me around and clocked me on the left side of the temple.

He was taller than me. He looked tougher. But I remember it didn’t really hurt. And I didn’t fall down. I just stood there. “I don’t want to fight,” I said.

Eventually he and the others left. They were laughing. I got one final stare from the kid with the cleft palate and permanent angry eyebrows. His curdled milk lips knotted into a gleeful smile, thirsting for blood.

I turned around and walked home. I was looking forward to reading another book in the John Carter of Mars adventure series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’m guessing I was about halfway through “The Chessmen of Mars.”