"Cristomunchen?" It was saying. "Cristomunchen?"
At least that's approximately what I could make out. The only semi-certain part was that the speaker appeared to be asking some sort of question.
"I'm sorry," I said. "There seems to be bad connection. Who is this, please?"
The voice replied, "Lix."
"Lix?" I inquired. "Lix who?"
I was getting impatient, but I didn't hang up because I could hear odd things going on in the background. Were those loudspeakers? Airport loudspeakers? Was I speaking to a troubled soul afflicted with a bad case of the mushmouth who was stuck at an airport?
The voice said, "Fookin' Shite! Cristomunchen! Cristomunchen!"
Okay, now I was getting some hints. "Fookin'" was probably "fuckin'." And "Shite" - with the long i (eye) - was the way they said "shit" in the British Isles.
"Are you English, by any chance?" I asked.
This was greeted by a long string of what I took to be curses against me, my parentage, my ancestors, and so on infin-obscenity-itum.
I hung up.
"Who was that?" Chris asked, looking up from his typewriter.
"Beats the shit out of me," I said. "Or, maybe I should say, beats the shite out of me, 'cause that's the way the guy talked."
Chris frowned, puzzled. The phone rang again, but this time he picked it up. He identified himself, listened a second, then his face lit up.
"Kilgour, you fuck!" he said. "Where the hell are you?"
He listened, then looked up. "It's Alex," he informed me. "He's at Kennedy Airport."
Well, now things were starting to make a modicum of sense. The Alex (not Lix) that Chris was speaking of was none other than Alex Kilgour, model for Sten's sidekick of the same name. The garbled words also made sense - Kilgour was Scots and although I had never met him, I had every reason to believe that the dialect Chris put into his mouth in the Sten books was dead on accurate. "Cristomunchen?" was probably him asking for "Chris Bunch?"
Knowing who Alex was, I also forgave him for cussing me out when I inquired if he was English. With Irish roots that went back to the Battle Of The Boyne and beyond, I knew well how any member of the Celt tribes would feel if similarly accused. Bar brawls - nay, even wars - had been fought for less.
Meanwhile, I was big-earing Chris' side of the conversation. "You're in trouble? What kind of trouble? Come on, Alex, a 'wee spot of bother' isn't a fucking answer. Okay, okay, not on the phone. I get it. Sure you can crash with me... When?"
Chris looked up. "He wants us to pick him up at LAX. His flight will be in about four o'clock."
I shrugged. Fine by me. They chatted on for a few more minutes - what was incomprehensible Kilgour dialect to me was plain as day to Chris. Go figure.
I don't remember what script we were working on, but it was going smoothly, and a trip to the airport, and a drink or three at one of the airport bars, sounded like a nice way to wrap the day. Airports were fun in those days: No security barriers, you got to keep your shoes on, and you could meet friends as they disembarked from the plane and whisk them into any number of friendly bars for jolts of jetlag medicine all around.
Besides, I could rationalize the jaunt as research. Kilgour's character figured large in the third book of the Sten series - The Court Of A Thousand Suns - as he would in all that would follow. We were in the process of pounding out Court between script assignments, and if I was going to help Chris write Kilgour properly, it'd be nice to finally look the guy over.
Chris and Alex had met a few years before - just in time to include him as a character in the final draft of Sten #1. Vacationing in Scotland, Bunch visited the famous castle at Edinburgh. There he encountered this short, squat, heavily muscled little Scotsman who was head of castle security. A discussion of soldiers and soldiery, as well as weapons, both ancient and modern, started in the castle and then continued on to a boozy pub crawl.
They became fast friends when Alex learned that Chris was a Vietnam War era commando and Chris learned that Alex was an active duty SAS kiddie. (The Strategic Air Service is Britain's elite commando force, considered among the best in the world.) Alex had recently returned to light duties whilst recovering from having a chunk of his bicep shot off by some *&@#$* WOG in Oman.
When Chris returned home he told me about Alex and voila - Kilgour became the short, squat, immensely powerful heavy-worlder sidekick of our hero.
I spotted Alex immediately when he exited the plane. There was no mistaking the muscular figure with the big, round, cheery face. He had a duffle over one shoulder and when he saw Chris, the face lit up even more.
They greeted one another with bear hugs, and heavy slaps on the back, with Alex saying, "Aye, Chris, yer fookin' fooker," and Chris similarly replying, but without the accent.
Chris turned to introduce me, but Alex waved him down. He offered his hand, almost shyly. "Y' mus' be wee Chris' mate, Allan," he said as we shook.
Well, hell, I was charmed and we were friends by the time the shake ended.
We took a few days off, introducing Kilgour to the joys of Bob Burns (bonnie steaks, but the wee lassies'r wearin' bloody Campbell kilts); the ear-pounding fun of trying out most of Big Dave's arsenal of some three hundred guns, including black powder and a beautiful little Enfield rifle that Alex said was just like the one he'd trained on; and long nights drinking and talking around Chris' prize coffee table, which was a thick piece of glass mounted on a chromed Triumph engine. (Chris' first major purchase when he returned home from Vietnam was a Triumph motorcycle, now retired, that he'd lusted after all those months in the jungle.)
Alex regaled us with tales of his misdeeds in the SAS, and told fabulously long shaggy dog stories, two of which ended up in Court Of A Thousand Suns: the clottin' Romans at Hadrian's wall joke, and the one about the peg-legged pirate with the eye patch and the hook.
In the meantime, Chris pumped Alex about his "wee spot of bother." Kilgour admitted that he wasn't really on vacation and that the visit had been totally unplanned. Several flights, beginning in Cairo, continuing to Munich, and then an intended return to London - and finally home - had been interrupted.
A mysterious something had caused him to grab a Munich-to-New York flight instead. And then, searching around for some place he could... well... hide out... he'd given Chris a ring, hoping he'd find a welcoming friend with a spare bed.
"Who's he hiding from?" I asked Chris when we had a moment sans Alex.
"He won't say," Chris replied. "But he asked if I had a spare 9mm or .45 he could tuck under his pillow."
"What did you say?" I asked.
"Fuck yes," Chris said. "I always sleep with a .45 under my pillow, so why should I deny a friend?"
"Any idea who might be after him?" I asked.
Chris shook his head. "Only thing I could get out of him was that he was on SAS business. I gather that the business was in the Middle East. And he did something that has some very bad people mad at him. Anyway, I get the idea that the whole thing ought to blow over pretty soon, then he can go home."
Chris and I thought about recent incidents in the Middle East, trying to maybe attach one of them to Alex. But, as always, there were so many nasty things going on, it was impossible to narrow things down. (Every newspaper I ever worked at had the words "Mideast Violence," and "Mideast War" already in type and ready to go in any size and font imaginable.)
A producer friend called. "Hey, Cole," he said, "Bunch gave me a shout the other day about showing your Scots friend how we make movies."
"Sure, as long as we can skip the boring parts," I replied.
Hollywood is a lot like combat: hours upon hours of nothing happening, interspersed with a couple of minutes of blinding, activity. The only difference is that in combat you shoot people with guns (or at them, anyway) and in Hollywood, with cameras.
"Got just the thing," the producer said. "My buddy, Timmy Burton, is going to blow some shit up right after the lunch break. How's that sound?"
I said it sounded perfect. The "Timmy Burton" he was referring to was Tim Burton, the not yet famous director-to-be of things like "Beetlejuice," several "Batman" flicks , "Corpse Bride" and any number of other zillion dollar grossing productions. (People in Hollywood love to add the letter "y" after names, to indicate that they are best buds - even if they've never met. James Garner, becomes "Jimmy" Garner. Harrison Ford becomes "Harry" Ford. Tom Cruise, "Tommy" Cruise, and so on. I've never known anyone to have the hutzpah to call Meyrl Streep, "Merley," but, you just hide and watch for the subsequent explosion.)
At the guardshack we just had to introduce our Scotsman to Scotty, the world-renowned gate guard. They hit it off famously and in no time were having an incomprehensible conversation, peppered with "Ayes" and "bloody hells."
The shoot was set for New York Street - one of the many false-fronted studio neighborhoods. They also had Chicago Street, Boston Street, among others. There was an Old West section, with saloons and general stores, with hitching rails out front. There was Paris and London, naturally. And any number of idealized Spielberg-styled All-American neighborhoods.
Alex's head was on a swivel as he craned this way and that to see all the strange sights. As we passed odd-looking vehicles, costumed actors and stunt people, there were lots of "Would'ja look at fookin'" thats, and "what in bloody hells," as we made our way through a rather typical day at MCA/Universal.
Before we got to New York street we just had to stop at a big cage on rollers, where an orangutan was taking his ease.
"Is tha' Clint's wee ape?" Alex wanted to know, meaning the simian co-star of Clint Eastwood's movie, "Any Which Way But Loose." (In Hollywood for less than a week and already Alex was on a first-name bases with the stars. At least he didn't call him "Clinty.")
Then he added, "Aye, that wa' a grand film, i' twas. Excellent fisticuffs."
"No, that's from the TV show, BJ And The Bear," I told him, indicating the big ape. "It's sort of a rip off of was Any Which Way."
"Oh, aye, we have tha' program in Scotland, too," Alex observed. "Me and the lads in the boozer turn off the sound and make rude suggestions to all the girls with the big knockers."
He indicated the orangutan, who was busy ignoring us while digging for fleas. "Is that the same one from the telly?"
The orangutan made kissy faces at us and farted.
"Gotta be," Chris said. "Looks like a fucking star to me." He wrinkled his nose. "Smells like one, too."
Leaving the car at the orangutan's domicile, we strolled on to New York Street where we found a big crowd gathered at the corner. Some were crewmembers, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, others were extras, or stunt people in citified dress clothes - skirts and blouses for the women, a mixture of suits and sports jackets for the men.
A big camera was set up on the corner. A double wall of sandbags protected the camera, as well a small knot of crewmembers. Hunched over it was the cameraman and behind him a young guy I took to be the director, Tim Burton. A young woman - his assistant no doubt - was at his elbow.
She spotted us, waved, and hurried over. "I'm Janice," she said, offering a small hand. "You must be the visitors we were expecting."
"How'd you know?" Chris asked, shaking the hand. "Do we have CIVILIANS tattooed on our foreheads, or something?"
The girl didn't crack a smile - obviously a recent graduate of film school, a tribe noted for having no sense of humor whatsoever.
"You're just the only people here I didn't recognize," she said. Then, all business: "There's no room behind any of the sandbags, so you'd better get over by the pharmacy." She was pointing to a false storefront with a PHARMACY sign over it.
"Keep perfectly still while you're there," she instructed. "And for God's sake, don't wander around."
Chris snapped his bootheels together and saluted. "Yes m'am," he said.
The young lady gave him a look that said, you'd better not be trouble, then hurried back to her post by the director.
As we moved to the place we'd been told to go, Alex said, "Ya' don't want'a be fookin' with that wee lass, Chris. She's got that killer's look in her eye."
We had barely reached the safety of the pharmacy doorway, when the director, Tim Burton, said something to Janice, and she keyed a mike and her voice boomed out from some hidden speaker: "This is the real thing, people. Get ready... and stay safe..."
Then Burton's hand came down and he called out, "Action!"
Immediately the extras started strolling along the pre-arranged paths, a few cars moved past, and then we saw an odd little figure rise up from behind a mailbox and run across the street.
The guy was skinnier than anyone I'd ever seen. Even so, the checkered suit he wore was several sizes too small and the cuffs stopped some inches above his shoes, displaying crazily colored socks.
He ran to the entrance of a store with a big display window, and a PET STORE sign above it. Then he went inside and Burton made motions for everyone to keep rolling... keep rolling...
Extras doubled back into camera range, sweeping off hats, or putting hats on, and making other minor costume adjustments so that unless you looked real close you'd think they were different people from the first group.
Then the Pet Store door banged open and the odd little man came running out and suddenly everybody was running like hell, or ducking down, and then the little man dived behind some sandbags I hadn't noticed before and there was a huge Boom! and the glass blew out of the pet store, followed by lots of smoke.
Beat, beat, then pigeons flew out of the store and up into the sky...
Tim Burton shouted, "Cut!"
And everybody rose from wherever they were hiding and Janice shouted,"Half an hour!" and people got busy doing all the things movie people do in between setups.
The little man hurried over to Burton. He looked worried, but Burton patted him on the back and murmured reassurance.
Alex suddenly gave a start. "Well, I'll be a bleedin' Campbell," he said. "I kin tha' lad. He's fookin' Pee-wee Herman, is who he is."
Chris and I hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. Pee-wee Goddamned who?
Alex was exasperated. "I don't bloody know if it's his reg'lar name," he said. "But me n' my boy - young Alex - saw him on the telly at home. Right funny, he is."
Neither of us knew who the hell he was talking about, but later our cultural gaps were filled in when the movie we had seen being filmed, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, was released and everybody was talking about the comic genius, Paul Reubens.
Unpleasant things happened to Mr. Reubens later on, as they do to almost everyone who achieves fame. But he survived, is doing well again, and if he's reading this now, I'd like him to know that he impressed the clot out of one, Alex Kilgour, and that was no mean feat.
Later in the day, we made our way to our old stomping grounds - The Burbank Studios - where a buddy was directing a television episode.
By now, Alex was reaching the stage where the stars no longer shone so brightly in his eyes. He'd seen a Hollywood explosion. Got a close up look at a star - two if you count the orangutan. Visited Grauman's Chinese Theater, where he goggled at Marilyn Monroe's hand prints, and matched his foot alongside John Wayne's mark.
Despite his short stature, wee Alex had large feet and after measuring his against The Duke's he winked and said, "Ya kin what they say about a lad wi' big feet?"
His walk was jaunty and he had a look of a worldly man who's seen it all when we approched the site of the shoot. It was Dixie Street - a facade of Old South buildings set around an ornate fountain with some Civil War hero on a horse, and a large Courthouse, complete with Grecian columns.
Our buddy stepped away from his cameraman to greet us, fussed over Alex and made him feel important, then got back to work setting up the shot.
There was a cry of "Quiet on the Set! Camera! Speed! Sound! Action!"
And then a fabulous old Dodge Charger tooled up to the courthouse. Red in color. Engine throbbing with barely-suppressed power. A big Confederate flag on its roof.
Rather than opening the doors of the car, two beefy young men shinnied through the windows.
They paused to help an incredibly beautiful young woman slide out to join them. She was wearing a shirt tied up to show a yard of bare flesh, a narrow waist and flaring hips. And she wore denim shorts so tight and cut so high that they were potentially lethal to any male suffering from high blood pressure.
She darted between the young men and started up the steps with them, her whole body demonstrating new meaning to the term, poetry in motion.
It reminded me of the Jack Lemmon line in "Some Like It Hot" when he watched Marilyn Monroe ankle away from him. "You know, they're a whole other sex!"
Alex drank in the scene, transfixed.
But then I saw that his eyes weren't on the girl, as much as they were the red Dodge Charger.
And with great reverence, he breathed "It's fookin' General Lee!"
(For more about The Dukes Of Hazard, Daisy Duke and The General Lee, see the entry at IMBD.com.)
NEXT: WE SAVE FLIPPER FROM A TUNA CAN