Once upon a time, about the time I was midway through high school, I was fascinated with the subject of magic.
I loved the idea of an entire field of serious study surrounding mystery, suspense, danger, thrills, and wonder.
I know now, of course, that there are many different ‘varieties’ of magic. From the street magician with his portable tricks, to the stage magician with his large set pieces, to the huge spectacles that amaze and delight… or did, before visual wizardry through technology made the majority of folks feel that if something is too good to be true… it’s faked.
I also know, quite well indeed, that while often mistakenly called magic, there is an entire culture that overlaps but is seperate from magic, and that is the world of the escape artist.
I learned much more about magic, later on in life. When I was in the Marines, my best friend developed his own fascination with magic, the magic of the personal, one-on-one street performer, and I spent many an hour with him watching his endless practise with cards.
I had the pleasure, once, of seeing one of his “impromptu” tricks go off flawlessly.
Now, there are no such things as impromptu tricks. Every single one is painstakingly practised until it’s flawless… and until you can perform it and make it seem as though you just pulled it out of your butt. That’s part of the amazement when a face to face performer does one of these things.
In this case, Bob “just happened to have” a deck of cards on him. We were… hmm, where the hell were we? Ah right, we were in Bardufoss, Norway, after taking part in training exercises with the Norwegian 139th Air Wing. God, this was a long time ago, if I got the unit designation wrong, please, don’t kill me.
We had set up an Air Traffic Control section for MACS-5 on top of a mountain, a mountain whose other face was also used as a ski resort, and our base camp was way down below on top of a frozen lake.
It was very heavy winter weather in Bardufoss, very heavy snows, and the road to get to the top of the mountain was more of a single lane goat path. We had some heavily loaded 5 ton trucks that were hauling equipment up and down, and we coordinated the transport with two comm section guys using PRC-77s to make sure nobody started coming down after a truck started heading up. Seriously, single lane, mountain trail, and NO guard or barrier or anything preventing a drop down the mountain, and no room at all for movement if two trucks went nose to nose halfway up.
Sure enough, the comm guys get screwed up, one truck heads down as another heads up, and they meet in the middle beneath that old Georgia pine… umm, I mean on the slick one lane goat trail.
Everything shut down, as Marines headed up and Marines headed down on foot to figure out what to do. Backing down the mountain was the obvious option, a long and nasty drive to back down, inevitably wasting a few hours.
Marines often figure, if you get enough bodies into it, and find a lever big enough and a place to stick it, you can move anything. Maybe we could figure a place to get ‘em to pass.
So there we are, a bunch of Jarheads standing halfway up a mountain on a goat trail, heavy deep snow as far as the eye could see, and two trucks nose to nose.
The view up there was beautiful, Norway rocks. Sorry, wanted to throw that in there. I’d love to go back someday… when it’s not the middle of winter.
Anyway, right as we get there, a Lieutenant that had made good time and was first on the scene ordered the driver of the downhill truck to back and scoot towards the mountain as far as he could go, and then ordered the driver of the uphill truck to squish on by.
As I’m standing there watching, the uphill truck moves over slightly next to the other truck, pulls up and onto the pack snow on the side of the road to move over… and flips over and vanishes without a trace, straight down.
It was one hell of a magic trick. *Poof!* One second there was a truck, next second nothing. Not even a puff of snow. Voila!
We ALL rush over, and there at the side of the road, in what seemed to be part of the road itself, in a piled up snowbank, was a 5 ton truck sized hole, going straight down.
It turns out that the snow was SO deep, and blown up on the side of the mountain so well, that what the Lieutenant thought was a snow bank on the side of the goat trail covering more road was really just snow on top of snow, on top of snow, over a sheer drop of more snow.
I stood there, with my buddies Kit Carson and Willie Ames standing there next to me, and we looked down the dark hole in the snow.
Somewhere down there, we were sure, was a truck. Couldn’t prove it by me.
As with any man-made military disaster, we were then treated to the sight of an ever-increasing number of Officers descending on the scene like flies to a corpse.
It seemed nobody could quite believe the reports they were getting from the team on the road, and so more Lieutenants, then a few Captains, then a Major, and it just kept going on.
Pretty soon folks from the Norwegian Air Force started showing up, And then that group grew.
While the Officers congregated, we wee NCOs had our own coffee klatch going, and we got the hoist going off the other truck, and lowered it, with a Marine hanging on, down the hole to see how deep it went, and where the hell our Marine driver went, and provide medical attention if necessary.
Turned out it wasn’t THAT far down, the winch reached far enough at maximum, and the driver was fine. We hauled him up, and everybody began contemplating how, exactly, to drag a heavily laden 5 ton truck back up to the road. I mean goat fuc… I mean, goat trail.
That was a fun hour, I tell ya. You learn a LOT about how “proper prior preparation prevents piss poor performance” when you see a Lieutenant make a single snap decision, give an order, watch it get carried out, and then see everybody from the CO on down chew him a new asshole.
I’ll cut this story within a story within a story short short by telling you how we got the truck out; heavy lift helicopter.
Okay, so let’s move on from the case of the vanishing truck, and on to our other, more planned magic act, Bob and his astonishing deck of cards.
We’re at the end of the deployment, we’ve packed up all our stuff, we’re down to seabags and alice packs, and we’re in temporary quarters, real four walls and roof type barracks stuff, because the tents we’d pitched over the lake were all shipped out already.
For a change, we had 30 minutes of dead time while we awaited transport out.
People are bored. Spades games are already popping up, sleeping is going on, etc, and Bob pulls out a deck of cards and starts doing a one hand shuffle, some fanning, limbering up the wrists.
Somebody starts pressuring Bob to do a trick… real twisting of the arm there. Because it was obviously all off the spur of the moment…
He says sure, takes the deck still in his hand, shuffles holy heck out of it, fans it out and asks the guy the infamous line, “Pick a card, any card”. Dude picks a card, Bob tells him not to show it to him, just look at it and tuck it back into the deck.
Then he pulls a rubber band out of his pocket, wraps it a few times around the deck, twists the deck around at the middle so the rubber band tightens up like a spring… and with a sudden, startling motion, SLAMS the card deck underhand towards the ceiling, where it impacts with a crash, shaking the walls and making people yell and jump wondering what the heck happened.
The deck had, of course, spun in midair due to the rubber band, and cards rained down from the sky… we all looked up, and there, stuck to the ceiling, face down, was a card.
Bob says to the Marine, “So, was that your card?”
Needless to say, everybody just looked at the card stuck to the ceiling, looked at Bob, and started saying such ego-deflating things as “Holy shit! How in the hell did you do that? That’s impossible! I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life!”
What an amazing trick to pull off. I knew he spent hours working on each trick, but it was still nothing less than amazing.
I spent a lot of time around magic in the Marines, Bob would take me along to magic shops throughout the Southern California area, sometimes we’d eat at a very cool resteraunt in San Diego that had tableside magicians that would perform tricks for each table while they waited for their food. We went to that one often, it was very cool.
He even made me watch and got me into this old TV series “The Magician”, starring Bill Bixby, that showcased Bill Bixby as a professional magician that ended up having to solve ‘impossible’ murders by exposing the trick the murderer tried to use to get away with it. It was much like a magician version of Columbo.
But my education in the world of magic did not begin with Bob. I had gotten interested in it, as I said, as far back as High School.
Now, it’s nearly impossible to study the history of magic without hearing of, or reading about, Harry Houdini.
I have read many biographies of Harry Houdini, and I’ve read his autobiography, and of course I learned many things, such as his real name as opposed to his stage name, the amazing fact that he had a nearly lifelong close friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with an ongoing disagreement concerning life after death and spiritual visitations, and many other awesome things.
But the single most surprising thing I learned was that Harry Houdini wasn’t a magician at all, he was an escape artist.
It was his ability to slip bonds, traps, restraints and containment that brought him his fame, not magic tricks with card and cup and ball.
I won’t go into that any more, since I would hope that if you had any more interest in the subject, you’d go and find some books about Houdini yourself.
I’ll just say that, in High School, reading about Harry Houdini inspired me not to try to learn how to fool people with card tricks, dice and sleight of hand, but instead to slip bonds and restraints.
My father, as I may have mentioned previously, was a police officer, so one of the obvious starting points was learning all the ins and outs of handcuffs.
One of the first things I learned was that the style of Smith and Wesson handcuffs the BRPD used had a pushpin double lock. By pushing in a small pin with the top part of a handcuff key, you could prevent the cuffs from being tightened further, locking them in place… but also making it much harder to unlock them without a key. MUCH harder.
The other thing about the handcuffs, of course, was that the key hole is in the face of the cuff. And if the hole is facing your hand, why, there is plenty of opportunity to get your carefully bent and filed down paper clip into the hole and manipulate it.
If, however, the smartass turns the key hole to face your wrists, and locks the cuff very tight, you REALLY don’t have much chance to get at the keyhole at all, even with a key.
My dad had seen me reading up and practising with the cuffs, so he interfered before I had much chance to practise, and started locking me into the cuffs to “see how good I was at getting out”.
As I was also doing a lot of leatherworking with Tandy tools and dies at the time, the obvious solution was for me to stitch a hidden pocket in the middle of the back of my belt where I tucked an extra handcuff key.
He’d cuff my hands behind my back, and I’d slip the extra handcuff key out of the pocket in the belt and uncuff myself. It’s amazing how I have never had a handcuff on me, not once, in all the long years since High school. Go figure. Who said those skills don’t come in handy?
I made the mistake of being a smug smartass myself by slipping the cuffs off nearly as quick as he put them on, even double-locked… so he turned them around on me so the keyholes were at my wrists. My little concealed key didn’t do squat for me then.
So, figuring out ways to slip cuffs was fun for a while, but the best way to get out of cuffs is to control the way they will be put on or the model used… a fine idea for a stage show, not so realistic if you get cuffed and tossed in the back of a squad car.
I moved on to the next traditional escape artist situation… being all tied up with a heavily knotted, large rough rope, and then getting out of it incredibly fast moments after being out of sight behind a curtain or in a box.
Acquiring a book on rope techniques for escape artists, some rope, and some time, I set out to learn how to make an impressive escape.
Now, one of the first tricks (at least in the book I was using) was to use a tall-backed wooden chair, with narrow slats of wood as supports, with plenty of room for the rope to weave in and out.
When you are tied to such a chair, it looks very impressive, the rope weaving in and out of the chair, many knots and coils and loops clearly restraining the person so there is hardly room for him to breathe, let alone wiggle free.
The key there is that there are many knots. And what is knotted isn’t the rope to the person, but the rope to the chair. The knots look real impressive, but when done right they are designed to act almost as a vest or harness, letting the person be coiled up and restrained and tied in dozens of places, but all of those coils meet at knots that are accessible and cascade down. You undo one key knot and that frees one section, letting you quickly get to the next section. Once free, you retie the knots in the correct order, and it looks as though you vanished, and the ropes fell in place behind you.
A wonderful plan. It sounded very cool. I could totally do that.
One key element I had not taken into account was that most of the tricks required a skilled accomplice to tie you up just right, and of course to assist in the case of any problems.
Problems? What possible problems could there be? I’m INVINCIBLE!
Moving right along…
I practised tying and untying knots for a while, making my rope harness built on the framework of the chair good and solid, slipping it on and slipping it off, and making sure I understand the order of untying and that I can actually reach all the knots once this thing is on.
Then, with nobody home of course, I place my artfully roped up chair in the center of my bedroom, with the door shut, and nobody at home. I might be banging around this first try, and don’t want to alert anybody that something’s up.
After all, this is all a secret. The handcuff thing showed me that, if you reveal your plans before YOU are ready, other people love to get in the middle and screw it all up.
Much better to work in secret, get the trick just NAILED, and then have an amazing escape to perform.
I sit down, get my ankles, legs and waist properly tied in, working my way up the knots until I’m twisting to get the last few tied up all the way back to my wrists.
Woot! I am now all tied up like a freaking mummy to a high backed wooden chair, and it is clearly impossible that anyone could escape from such a fiendish trap.
I calm myself and get ready to do the internal count, pretending that my lovely assistant had JUST slipped the curtain over my closet so that I was concealed from view.
The test was to see how quickly I could untie myself, stand up in a minimum of space (as if I was in that concealed closet) and then tie the harness back up behind me.
How long was it going to take me? What time would I have to work at beating? The longer it takes, the less impressive the whole thing would be.
I run through the steps in my head, and begin the count. I twist and squirm to reach the first knot… and realize that, once I had actually tied the knot, my loops were just slack enough behind my back that it dropped out of reach after I finished. I couldn’t reach the first knot.
Oh, hell no. This is NOT happening. Nope. I will be smashing the chair to splinters before somebody catches me tied to a damn chair in my bedroom. Kiss my white ass.
But really, there has got to be a way to reach that damn knot. This is the real world, this crap doesn’t happen in the real world.
Stretching to reach it succeeded only in tightening the whole damn thing. Surprise! The knots were designed to slide. And slide they did… they got a little tighter. Yay. Smooth move.
Okay, how about gravity. My hands are up here, the knot fell down there. If I rock forward, let the chair fall to where I am on my knees… my face will hit the hardwood floor. Okay, let’s rethink that plan just a bit.
If I fall backwards, I’ll land ON my hands… and the knot will not fall UPWARDS towards my hands anyway.
Hmmm, ropes actually suck pretty bad, don’t they? I never quite realized that heavy rope left such interesting burns on skin, either.
Okay, so. How about if I inhale deeply, putting tension on the ropes, so that they stay put. Then, I carefully undulate my body to make the ropes move gradually up towards my hands. A little squirming, a little twisting, a little scraping against the wall…
No, no that’s not working. The damn chair frame is preventing any actual control of the ropes.
Fine. Screw it. I’ll have to buy my dad a new f’ing chair out of the pittance I make at my after school jobs, because this freaking chair is getting smashed.
JUST like the guys in the movies do it. You make the chair fall over, and the weight of your body smashes the wood all up, relieving the tension on the ropes.
So I lean the chair back on the back legs, and start bouncing to get the legs to break off.
Did I mention that the floor was hardwood? Nice, smooth hardwood?
You know that feeling you get, when you are sitting in the chair at the back of the class, leaning back, and you lean just a little too far and you, the chair, the whole shebang goes ass over teakettle backwards, and you can’t stop it?
Yeah, it’s worse when you’re tied to the chair. With your hands and arms behind the frame.
F’ing chair didn’t break, either, the sturdy piece of shit.
Who the hell makes these things, anyway? Don’t they know the damn things are supposed to break at the slightest sign of stress?
Fine. Now I’m down on the floor, still tied to a chair, a chair which, I might add, is quite intact… and I hear the front door open.
Oh, son of a….
Hmmm. If I remain very, very quiet, maybe they will go away.
I hear my step-moms’ voice call out from the living room downstairs, “John? Are you home?”
Wisely, I remain quiet.
Footsteps coming up the stairs.
I’m not answering, so why, dear lord why, in the name of all that is holy and just in the world, why is she coming to look? There was no answer, if I was here, I would answer, wouldn’t I?
Well… I would, if I didn’t spend all my time listening to Dead Kennedys, The Clash, Rush, Styx, Pink Floyd and Shadowfax on headphones in my room.
The sound of footsteps come the rest of the way upstairs, and stop, of course, outside my door.
My closed door.
I am a teenager. My door is closed. Please, dear lord, please assume I am jacking off and do not open that door.
She opened the f’ing door.
And behold! There before her wondering eyes, for her consideration, the following tableau;
Her son, fully dressed (thank god), tied oh-so-tightly to a chair from ankles to neck, cocooned like a mummy in bright, BRIGHT yellow rope, fallen to the floor in the middle of his room. Nobody else present. Front and back doors securely locked.
She looked at me.
I turned my head and looked at her.
Now, my dad was a police officer of many years, so as you might imagine he had, quite literally, seen it all. But my step-mother, god bless her, was not only one of, if not THE first female fire fighter in the state of Florida (I really have to check that statistic someday) but worked at the time as the night shift 911 fire dispatcher.
And in Boca Raton, at that time, she was the ONLY night dispatcher.
You would be surprised at the kind of batshit insane trouble calls she would get from people, that would have absolutely nothing to do with fires.
She was just as jaded as my dad. And of course, they liked to compare notes on what crazy shit was the latest crazy shit in the city, to top each others’ stories.
She opened her mouth to say something, but I’ll never know what it was going to be.
Because I cut her off and said, with quite a bit of dignity I thought, “Please get me loose of these f’ing ropes. And not one word to dad. Not one word.”
You know your mom is a treasure when, 24 years later, you have still never, ever heard a single word, ever, about the day you were found tied to a chair in your bedroom. From anyone.
The moral of the story is… magic is pretty cool, escape artists are very trusting souls, and if somebody ever were to ask me if I was interested in bondage, the answer is GET THE F^(# AWAY FROM ME WITH THAT G#))&MN ROPE!