This one’s for John Mundt, Esq, who climbed to the great treehouse this week.
This is the story about chasing UFOs. Not in the philosophical sense, but in literal terms. You see, some people can point to a general time in their life that they grew into adulthood … a coming of age time, per se. Some can look to a particular winter or summer. I point to a single night in my life. A night that, after it was over, things just seemed different.
Mid-summer nights along the Mississippi are always humid. During the day, it can suck the energy out of you in a heartbeat leave you running for whatever air condition you can find, even if it ends up to be educational like going to a library. During the night as the air cools, the humidity turns into droplets. They stay above the still hot ground but still drift above the rooftops and street lights. This night in good old Prairie du Chien, WI (53821), the heat of the day broke, and the fog remained thick at that higher level. You could see it running up the bluffs around the town in ribbons. After the hot days, this fog, while eerie, was refreshing.
I was pretty aware of this because I was already bored out of my mind.
There were three of us in the treehouse. Eric was pretty much the ringleader of the group. He was, of course, the coolest of us in his own way. Eric was in rock bands before there were bands for him to rock out with. He was an artist that could blow your mind with wicked, cool stuff. He was our idea man, give him a couple minutes and he’d come up with something fun to do. The treehouse was at John’s house. John was more worldly, having lived a while in the foreign land of New Jersey. He was a cartoonist in the coolest way possible … in that, he made really cool cartoons, ones that should be printed in comic books even. Cartoons that made you think feel, laugh and know that there was more going on that just sock monkeys. I was the third guy in the treehouse. I was the guy that laughed at the stuff they found funny even if I didn’t understand it.
Tonight was a critical night for a significant project. Three of us, Eric, John, and I, got together to finalize the script to a movie. Not just a movie … THE Movie. A movie we planned to write, shoot, edit, and release this summer before school started. Eric & I started talking about it as far back as June. It was now mid-July. We had been working on it for weeks, nearly months, and we knew if we didn’t knock out the script that night we would never get it done. The story was complex as it was action-packed. It followed a young man who learned to be a warrior in his desire to revenge the death of his father. Where we were going to set ourselves apart was that our movie would have a twist. In the super original screenplay we agreed this movie would have the warrior attack the enemy, push him to the brink of defeat, and scream “you killed my father” when the villain would say in the most original line ever in movies, “no, I am your father”. I think I was supposed to play the older teacher that happened to be named ‘Ben’ or something.
It had become late, near midnight. That was common for us. I think my sleep schedule for that summer was to be in bed by 4AM and wake at Noon. For years to come, whenever I spent time with John in particular, it meant long nights. More than once, I remember visiting him at his parent’s house and we would sit in his basement drinking creme sodas until the sun came up, and we had to be somewhere on normal human time. The groups may change who would meet, but we would talk for hours, we would listen for hours, we would laugh for hours. I remember hearing great albums or reading great books, or seeing great graphic novels – all for the first time in those late hours with John and Eric, and so many other friends to come over the years.
Back to that night though, as we discussed scenes, dialog, and whether or not we should raid the creme soda stash we had; I got bored and started off to the sky. By that time, it was about midnight. The city, for the most part, was quiet – which is not much to say since PdC wasn’t much of a ‘loud’ city to begin with. From behind me, Eric was doing most of the writing. John was helping out, but he was starting to struggle a little bit too. I was the one with the rotten attention span, so I had moved on to whatever would distract me.
From over the top of the houses across the street, I saw a blue light. Think about if you ever saw a laser show at some cheesy low budget place where they fire the laser through water or a smoke machine. Think about that laser show where you can almost see every droplet, but you can definitely see the light. In that hanging fog of summer, soundlessly, this blue light danced and zipped around in the sky. There was an intoxicating feel to the light, not like a moth to a flame kind of way, but the random nature of it. There was no rhythm to the light, and the way it broke through the fog seemed to be complex as well.
At first, I was the only one who was watching this, mind you. At this point of time, the other two were working on the boy warrior gets his father’s lightsaber … erm … sword. Testing the waters, I thought I would draw attention to the light.
“Hey guys,” I said, “You see that blue light up that way?”
John was the one who said the thing that was floating at the back of my head. “It kind of looks like a UFO.”
I don’t even know if he looked that long at the blue light, but Eric was the most focused on getting this movie done. “It’s a bug zapper,” he stated.
Let me just say this … As a forty-something guy writing this, I understand that calling a blue light a ‘UFO’ is a little dumb. Let’s just throw this out there, when you are a kid … anything can be a UFO. This is the 80s, mind you, where we get our weird ideas about the world from late-night TV, wild crazy rumors, and on rare occasions the forgotten media called ‘books’. We were fascinated by UFOs, in the same way, were fascinated by other myths like Bigfoot, Ghosts, and ‘Girls that actually liked us’. This in all to say, there was a subtly to this discussion. I didn’t say the blue light was a UFO, but didn’t discount the idea either — in fact, part of the reason I brought it up was that pure fact that the option was there. John, mentioning it was a UFO wasn’t him jumping on the alien bandwagon, but giving a bit of a joke where we all would have heard the possibility to be there. Eric wasn’t the skeptic either, he just wanted to get the damned movie script done.
We would have gotten back to work too — if it wasn’t for one thing. I was the one who noticed it.
I said, “If it was a bug zapper, shouldn’t we hear the bugs be zapped?”
Honestly, after all these years, I can’t be sure exactly how much longer we stayed in that treehouse. All I can say is that in my memory … we jumped!!! Literally leaping out of that treehouse, we were on the hunt. Movie be damned, we were out to find the source of that light.
We were on the hunt for the UFO.
I mean … if it wasn’t a bug zapper, there was only one possibility for it.
Running out to the street, we realized that this wasn’t one or two houses over. It just takes a little running around you would expect the light to look closer and closer, but that wasn’t the case. Reaching the corner on foot, simple triangulation told us that it wasn’t near us at all. We realized that wherever this source was, we would need to move and move quickly. So we hopped into my car and went driving after it.
Now, it’s worth stopping at this point for another key bit of subtly. I said “we hopped in the car” as part of this “coming of age story”.
Did I mention this happened when I was old enough to drive?
Yeah, actually, I had been driving for nearly six months. I was, in fact, a few months from turning 17; just before my junior year in high school. Eric had his permit, also about to be a junior; in fact, we were sweating over the start of football two-a-days, that was the real crunch to get this movie done. John’s worldly nature was because he had graduated high school years before this adventure and actually was home from cartoonist college in New Jersey; so John could definitely drive.
Somehow I was the driver. We moved quickly in the direction where the blue light was flashing. It’s flickering continued, no more or no less brilliant, just continuous. What was curious was that we didn’t seem to get any closer to the light – it was a distance off, and whatever was making it had to be fairly brilliant.
If you aren’t from Prairie du Chien, here’s something about the topography. The area is partly carved by the last ice age and partly carved by the Mississippi river so that the town is nestled in a treelined valley. Where the hills rise up is mostly limestone, and as such could be quarried. PdC had a massive quarry at the edge of town.
That’s where the light was coming from.
The blue flashes were flickering from deep inside the quarry floor. We couldn’t see where specifically, but we couldn’t miss it. Anyone in the town would be able to see it. Since we were the only ones on the street at that time of night, it was like we were heading to some undiscovered world. The long drive up to the quarry was full of questions, excitement, craziness. We knew there would be a gate, knew it would be hard to get into the quarry, and the one thing we didn’t want was to get caught … by whom, we didn’t know … so we parked the car down the hill in front of some homes.
We climbed the small hill heading up to the gate, keeping low like uneducated ninjas. The light now was joined by sound. We heard hissing and burning, seemingly in time with the flashes. The closer we got the more it seemed like it was coming from a single source. A small area. Not a massive object.
We came over a ridge, and we saw it.
There, in the center of the quarry …
A man was welding pipe.
The blue was from the burn of the welder. In the midnight light, it burned bright enough to blast out across the entire part of town.
Needless to say, we were let down. More me than anything. It seemed as though all that hope that we might actually see a UFO ended with something that was earthbound. We didn’t spend long there, it didn’t make sense watching something that at the end wasn’t all that interesting. Hindsight should have had me challenging why someone is welding something at midnight, but that wasn’t on my mind.
As we were returning to the car, we came across a problem. The houses near where the quarry was included in that were owned by a family we knew and knew well. The father was now outside, smoking a pipe. It didn’t look like he was there to stop us, nor did it seem as though he saw us, but there would be no way to get to the car without him seeing us.
As we thought about our options, challenged ourselves to come up with a plan, I was the one that just said: “Why don’t we walk down there, get in the car, and leave.”
The other two weren’t keen on this idea and seemed taken aback. For me, the idea was just simple, and I explained, “We aren’t doing anything wrong. We aren’t in trouble. Let’s just go.”
So we did. We walked to our car, got in it, and left. The man didn’t stop us. Didn’t say anything to us later.
And with that, a mystery of life was over. When you are a kid in a small town, everything you do is under a spotlight – so you are always on the verge of being in trouble. When you are an adult, you are under the spotlight, but you take accountability for it.
That’s really where the story ends, but that’s what was so defining about it. There was no UFO. There was no great mystery. There was no trouble.
There were three guys who went on a hunt and returned empty-handed.
Albeit to a treehouse.
We finished that movie, and by finished we spend every waking hour the last week before school shooting every bit of film we can – then spending the rest of the time watching what we shot to laugh at it. Eric stayed loyal to that movie, and about ten years later he gave me a videocassette of the “Untamed World of the Savage”, complete with updated B-roll and original soundtrack. Before graduating we made other movies like Monkey See Monkey Die. Monkey See Monkey Die 2. Monkey See Monkey Die 3 (there was a pattern). Monkey See Monkey Die 3 the Sequal. Finally reaching our pinnacle of filmmaking with The Adventures of Mitchey-Poo Man – a superhero film later rebooted into a film called Infinity Wars: Endgame).
That night was really an end of time in many ways. Before we really got crazy on the movie, I went to a science camp, and when I came back it felt like things were more about the responsibility of finishing the film. Also, that summer my last in Prairie du Chien. The following year I started marching Drum Corps, and my summers at home were days rather than months. That continued until I got a real job as a real grown-up.
Things changed for Eric too because he got a girlfriend. The goal we all hoped to achieve and seemed challenged to reach.
John continued on. We didn’t know it at the time, but John had this knack of taking people under their wing. Stealing a line from Eric Gilitzer – John built treehouses for kids he never met. He was the king of the uncool people of the world, and by being around him we were cooler than we thought we could be. He treated you as a friend, when he was actually your mentor. He watched out for us, gave us a voice, and showed us things we wouldn’t ever see. It’s been years since I have seen John. Much, much longer since I spent nights talking to midnight. But I can’t think of experiences that made me happier than spending time with him.
I want to say tons more about John, but I struggle to. It’s hard to summary someone like that.
But I can tell stories.
So this is the one I chose to tell.