When I was 16 years old and in high school I was only allowed to go out Friday or Saturday night, but not both. However, if I was with my big brother, who was 2 years older, I could pretty much do as he did because my parents felt secure that he’d watch over me. Knowing I would be safe with him all my dad would say was not to stay out late. Not knowing what late meant since my brother had no curfew, I assumed I could do as he did. But I never pushed it, it was 1965 and democracy did not live inside our house.
At the time, I had rare blood disease, which had not yet been diagnosed. I bruised and bled very easily, so my family was used to seeing me in some sort of messy state. Plus being an only girl in a house with all boys, my parents (mostly my father) were very protective of me.
One Friday night in my junior year, I wanted to tag along with my big brother and one of his friends. It was not uncommon for my friends and his to do things together. But this time he said I couldn’t. However, after much pleading, whining, and puppy dog looks, he gave in. What a softie.
We drove around awhile, ending up in Berkeley, the hippie capital of the world for me. At the time we hadn’t really decided if we were hippies yet. (Dad would never allow any part of that) so we were “flower children” (same thing, dad).
We ended up at the Claremont Hotel, a very old, huge, fancy place, much like the Del Coronado in San Diego. It was built sometime in the 1920’s, I think. The hotel was set back in the Berkeley hills surrounded by a very upscale neighborhood.
It was dark when we arrived, and my brother parked on a side street behind the hotel. As we crept through a backside parking lot, he urged both of us to be very, very quiet. At the end of the lot we came to the rear of the building and looked up at the tall Grand Dame. I remember the Claremont being a beautiful sight all lit up. We paused when we saw windows open from a basement area which turned out to be the hotel’s kitchen. One of the kitchen workers was standing outside leaning on an open door, smoking. We waited in the shadows until he went back inside.
“What are we going to do here?” I asked
My brother ignored my question and instead told me to stay right where I was, that he and his friend would be back in a minute. I stood there and watched them for a while until they were almost out of sight. I wore a black turtleneck sweater, a navy and green plaid a-line skirt that came to just above the knee, white socks and black tennis shoes. My hippy hair, still damp from my shower, hung long and straight down my back to my waist. I was a little nervous and began to feel cold. He was kidding himself if he thought I’d stay put alone in the dark behind this huge property.
So when they turned a corner at one edge of the building and were out of sight, I followed. As I turned the corner, I realized I’d have to crawl on my stomach in order to get past the ground-level kitchen windows to avoid being seen by the dishwashers who were facing these windows. This must have been the way they went so I got down and scooted on my stomach just like a soldier in combat, past the windows, hearing all the kitchen noises, praying I wouldn’t get caught out there alone.
Once I passed the windows, I had to turn another corner. When I did, I saw my brother’s friend go into a cylinder-shaped metal tube that ran up the side of the building to the top seventh floor. There was a shorter tube next to it which ran up the other side five stories high. My brother and his friend were inside the tallest one and I could hear them whispering something to each other.
When I reached the opening, I heard their muffled voices guiding each other as they climbed. I stepped inside, my face smacking into what appeared to be a metal wall. I couldn’t tell because it was so dark. Using my hands on the sides of the tunnel and my tennis shoes for a good grip on the far side, I started to climb backward, scooting upward while listening to their instructions to each other. I realized I was climbing up in a circle. I paused at each floor level where there was an old barricaded door and a ledge just big enough to sit on.
“Did you hear that noise?” my brother asked his friend. I stopped and stayed quiet although my heart was pounding and I was breathing very hard. This was a difficult task I’ve attempted.
When they agreed there was no noise, they continued their climb. Then I heard my brother whisper that he’d reached the seventh floor and his friend said he was right behind. I realized that this was the hotel’s old fire escape, and they were going to slide down, and probably right on top of me!
I bumped my head again and said, “Ouch!” a little too loud.
My brother whispered “Mo, is that you?”
“Get down, now! You’re going to get hurt,” he said in a quiet but panicked voice.
“I want to slide, too.” I whispered.
“Then stop where you are and slide from there,” he whispered back. “How far up are you?”
“I’m almost to the fifth floor, but I want to slide down with you.”
His friend agreed, “You’d better listen. This is too dangerous.”
I obeyed and climbed to the entrance to the fifth floor. My brother guided me with a whisper.
“Turn around slowly, sit on the ledge at the entrance to the floor you’re on. Lift your feet and take your hands off the sides. But DO NOT let your tennis shoes touch the slide.”
He was still whispering but I could tell he was very upset with me. But I didn’t hear his last remark, someone on the fifth floor heard our whispers and were questioning where the voices were coming from. So I let go of the sides. I didn’t lift my feet as instructed, and my tennis shoes stuck to the metal. I tumbled head over foot down five stories in a dark, dirty and extremely rusty cylinder.
BAH BOOM! BAH BOOM! BAH BOOM!
I rolled helplessly, floor after floor. The whole slide shook from the building, and the rumbling was as horrific inside the hotel as inside the slide. It was the loudest thunder I’d ever heard. And it felt as though the cylinder would pull away from the building and come crashing down, bringing all three of us with it.
I came flying out of the opening of the tube like being shot from a cannon, and slid face down for about 3 feet into the in the gravel lot.
“What was that?” my brother yelled.
“I think your sister fell down the slide!” his friend screamed.
“Mo,” are you okay? Talk to me.” He groaned.
“I’m fine” I replied, scared and shaken.
“Don’t move, we’re coming down,” he said. And his tone told me he was really mad.
Since they were already at the seventh floor entrance to the old slide they rode down, and I could hear the rush of air coming from inside the tube: Whoosh.. Whoosh.. Whoosh.., and their speed was picking up faster and faster. At the bottom, they flew out like rockets and landed in the gravel just past where I lay, except they landed on their butts, not their faces.
Holy Mole! I’d just fallen down five stories of the Claremont Hotel’s antique fire escape, and lived!! Now my parents were going to kill me.
I slowly began to pull myself together but my foot hurt and I couldn’t stand. When I looked at my feet, both shoes were gone. So were my favorite plaid a-line skirt, my black turtle neck, and one sock. I wore only my slip, and the other sock, and I was covered with rust and blood from head to toe. I was a red mess. My brother’s friend gave me his jacket as they looked at me with horror on their faces.
Then they both grabbed me and ran to the car, carrying me the whole way as we heard the security guards exiting the building, running toward the slide area.
“I want to go home,” I whimpered.
“Idiot!” he screamed, freaked out that our parents were going to kill us both.
“What were you thinking and how are you going to get into the house without Dad and Mom seeing you this way?”
I didn’t care, I hurt everywhere, and all I wanted was my bed. Forget cleaning up, forget the blood, I just wanted to hide in my bed.
I fell asleep on the way home, but soon was awakened by laughter.
“Man! I would have loved to have seen your sister come flying out like that.”
“Didn’t you hear her coming behind you?” my brother said mildly scolding his buddy.
“No. I was so scared to be there in the first place, all I heard was your steps and mine.”
“We should have stopped and looked for her clothes,” my brother said
“Are you kidding? Not with those security guards coming around the corner after us. We just made it to the car in time.”
Once at home, my brother went in the house first entering through the back door to distract our parents as I followed and crept straight to my room down the hall.
When they asked where I was, he said, “I think she might have gone to the bathroom. She’ll be out in a minute.”
But I didn’t come out. I went into the bathroom, stressed, scared, hurt, bleeding, and rusty and looked in horror at myself in the mirror. My nose was bleeding, my cheek was bruised, my hands and knees were scraped and my hair was caked with everything red. I showered quickly, slipped into bed and fell sound asleep in seconds.
I got up early the next morning and tried to make myself look presentable. The bruise on my cheek I covered up with makeup. Scratches and bruises were everywhere else on my body, so I wore long sleeves and jeans. I gingerly walked to the table for breakfast, every part of me screaming in pain. At least nothing was broken, just bruised, and amazingly I was alive. Smiling, as was her normal way, Mom asked me if I had fun with my brother since we’d come in much earlier than she’d expected.
“Yeah, hanging out with him is fun, but it wears me out.”
I missed that navy blue and green plaid skirt for years to come, and always with a secret smile on my face.