Episode 6: Skin Takers

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Tess: I never thought I would say this but It feels great to be back in this dusty room. I guess it’s come to be a little bit of a home away from home.

Allison: I am just glad to have survived the visit with my mother..

Tess: It wasn’t that bad was it?

Allison: I guess.. And that guy on the bus was a lot of fun to talk to.

Tess: See, Good thing I brought the tape recorder huh?

Allison: Uh Huh.

Tess: Anyways, let’s see what the next interesting story from grandpa is. I found this manila envelope yesterday and it is really fat. I think it might have something extra awesome in it.

Allison: Is that a tape recorder?

Tess: Yup! And check it out there’s a tape in it already.

Allison:  Wait! Read the entry first!

Tess: fine.

May 1997

 One of my favorite pastimes living in Los Alamos is hiking. And there was no shortage. There are trails everywhere around town. I was out one morning upon West Mesa hiking a trail near the edge of Mesa itself, I tripped on a protruding rock and stumbled. I was righting myself when I looked down to find a perfect black obsidian arrowhead.

I have a passion for learning about the Ancestral Puebloan Peoples. Their history lies scattered all around the four corners but there is remarkable history right here in the Los Alamos area. Visitors come from all over to visit Bandelier National Monument right here in Los Alamos’ back yard. The ruins of the ancient peoples that used to live here still mystify us. The archeology shows that the ancient people simply disappeared one day, leaving their settlements behind. Their modern descendants live on the pueblos in northern New Mexico, from Taos to Albuquerque, along the Rio Grande.

As I stood there on the Mesa, holding the smooth glassy arrowhead in my hand, I took a moment to survey the area. Where I was there was just open mesa. I turned and looked down on the street below the nearby ridge. It was Rock Ridge Loop, a long street with nice houses, the street ending at the edge of the mesa. I began wondering if there could have been native ruins out here on West Mesa. There were small ruins all over this region, nothing on the scale of Bandelier but certainly the ancient native peoples were here in what we now call Los Alamos. As I looked at the street below I saw it: a hewn foot trail in soft volcanic rock making its way down the ridge, ending near a backyard of one of the houses. There were definitely ancient peoples out here on the mesa, but had anyone found any significant settlement out here I wondered?

That weekend, I went to the Los Alamos County Planning and Zoning Office to ask to look at the maps of the end of West Mesa. It took some time but I discovered that Rock Ridge Loop was developed in the late ’70s, about 20 years ago. It was likely, there were still families living there when the street was developed. I decided I would make a cold call on the house with the native foot trail abutting its back yard.

I knocked that Saturday to find a nice middle age woman at home. I told her I was interested in learning the history of this part of town and asked if she was the original owner of the house.

“Oh, we bought this house just a few years ago. The couple who built this house moved away but their daughter still lives in town I believe.” I jotted the name down and looked her up in the phone book and to my surprise, I found the name and gave her a call. We will call her Marissa. I had the opportunity to interview her. The story she told me was more intriguing than I would have possibly imagined. I have the interview recorded on a cassette tape.

Present Day:

Allison: See, listen to your Allyse

Tess: Yeah yeah, listen to my Alley Way. Let’s hope that the cassette hasn’t degraded too much. Here’s hoping.

May 1997 (Audio)

Grandpa: Let’s see,  is this thing on? Yes, I believe so. Thank you for letting me interview you.

Marissa: Oh no problem. I must admit I am surprised you went to such effort to find me but I can tell you about growing up on West Mesa. You say you found an arrowhead up on the Ridge?

Grandpa: Yes I did, its right here.

Marissa: I’m not surprised. We found all sorts of things like that up there. We also found some things I wish we hadn’t.

Grandpa: Like what?

Marissa: Well, let me start from the beginning. My family moved to Los Alamos in 1976 after my dad got his Ph.D. and came to work at the lab. We rented a small apartment until my parents found a place they wanted to buy. A developer named Richard Mason had bought a large piece of land at the end of West Mesa and was planning to put in a housing development. My parents liked the idea of being out on the mesa. In spring of 1977, we went out to look at the lot my family was going to buy. Back in that day, the road across West Mesa was all dirt. The stables were there, I don’t know when they were put in but I always remember them. Passing the stables on the bumpy dirt road we got down to the end of the mesa. On the left, was a solitary house, Richard Mason’s. He had a grown daughter, she was an anthropologist.

I remember getting out of the old station wagon that day, my mom Lily my dad Jim and my brother Toby were all so excited to see where our new home was going to be. While my parents and Richard talked, Toby and I ran to the ridge. Back in those days, that ridgeline was untouched. There were some small caves near the base of the ridge. Toby and I climbed up some big rocks and got to the caves. It smelled, smokey inside, and old.

Grandpa: These were caves dug out by the ancient Pueblo people!

Marissa: Yes exactly. I was only around 8 at the time, Toby was about 11. We didn’t really understand the significance of what was there. The base of the ridge was dug out some for houses so those caves are not there anymore, a shame.

In the back of one of the caves, I looked on the ground. There were a few small corn cobs sitting there, much smaller than corn you buy at the store, but beautiful with red, yellow, and blue kernels. I picked them up and brought them to my mom. “Look what I found mommy!” I said.

My mom Lily gave me a disapproving look and told me to throw them away, that it was probably just pack rats. She told us not to go back to the caves. Of course, it was only later I realized how amazing it was.

Grandpa: You found the meal of someone who lived hundreds of years ago.

Marissa: Yea, it was remarkable. My parents sadly never really appreciated what was there on the land. After buying the lot, my parents decided to buy a modular home, a home that’s prefabricated and brought up by a semi. We were the first house on the block, after Mr. Mason’s

That was an exciting day, the day our house was installed. It was early summer. Of course, we didn’t have electricity or running water at first.

Grandpa: Oh? How did you manage?

Marissa: Well we had kerosene lamps for lighting, like the kind you take camping. For water, we would go into town every few days and fill big water jugs. We would use the water for drinking, cooking, even the toilet. (haha) we would just dump a bucket in the toilet at the end of the day to flush. The sewage piping was the only thing that had been installed.

One of my favorite memories was to go outside and play with Toby in the trenches being dug along the roadside for the power lines and water pipes. That was so much fun for eight year old me.

Grandpa: You had mentioned briefly when we talked over the phone that there were ruins on your property?

Marissa: Yes, well, on the lot next door.

Grandpa: What did they look like?

Marissa: There were several square blocks, houses no doubt. Just like you would see in Bandelier. The roofs and walls had all collapsed but the square bases could still be seen, probably half a dozen. In the middle was the outline of a round structure.

Grandpa: A kiva?!

Marissa: I presume so. We would love to go outside and play around there. I mean, there wasn’t much else to do on West Mesa in 1977. After any rainstorm, we would go out and look around the ruins. We found arrowheads, and pot shards: hundreds and hundreds of pieces. We would bring them inside and try to piece them together on the kitchen table.

Mr. Mason’s daughter, the anthropologist. She dropped by one day to introduce herself. She saw the pot shards on the table and got excited, she asked if she could come back later and catalog them. She came back later that day with some books and a felt tip marker. She excitedly looked through the shards and wrote small numbers on them as she went. I saw one of the funny pieces I had found: it was a pot shard with two small holes drilled in it. I asked her what it was.

“They would drill holes to let the evil spirits out of the pot” she replied. It scared me some. You know how it is to be young and easily impressed.

My mom soon got tired of not having any utilities and took us to Ohio to see relatives for a few weeks. I was excited to get back though. Toby and I played in the yard as soon as we got back. We grabbed our kitchen spoons, that’s what we would dig with, and went out exploring in the yard. Toby was digging near the kiva when he excitedly said “Look! I found something.”

I went to go help him. It was either the top or the bottom of a pot from the look of the round disk he had uncovered but it was totally intact. It looked, different, like a harder clay. The spoon didn’t leave any scratches on it as we dug. Toby and I dug and dug. Soon we had uncovered a complete pot.

Grandpa: You’re kidding?

Marissa: I wish I was. It was black you see, very black, with no markings on it at all. It had a lid on it, which is what we had first seen when we started digging. The lid had been attached to the pot with some sort of, resin I would say. Tree sap? I don’t know exactly. We were so excited, and each held the pot together, I held the lid end, Toby, the bottom.

“ We have to show mom and dad!” Toby said.

“Yea!” I replied and tried to take the pot.

“But I found it,” Toby said pulling on it hard.

“But I helped you!” I cried back and yelled, pulling hard on the pot as well.

All of the sudden there was a pop. I had pulled the lid free from the pot. I also lost my footing and fell backward. Inside was a rust reddish powder. It landed on my sundress and all over my hands and arms. Toby dropped the pot and it shattered. A light breeze took up the red powder and blew it away from us. I landed hard on my back and smacked my head.

I stood up in a panic. I brushed off the powder from my dress and arms.

“Im telling mom!” Yelled Toby as he ran away back to the house. I finished bushing myself off and ran to the door as well.

“Marissa you are filthy!” My mom yelled. “Go take that dress off at the back door and I will bring you a sponge and some soapy water”. I washed thoroughly and went back inside.

That evening. I wasn’t very hungry and went to bed early. I woke up in the middle of the night. My hands and arms were burning. I was covered in sweat and felt feverish. I fell back asleep.

I don’t personally remember much of what happened next but I’ve asked my family about it many times. My mom says she came into my bedroom to wake me up as I had slept far too late. She says she pulled the covers off my bed. What she saw stills haunts her I think. She says I was barely lucid, my arms and hands were covered in…pustules and boils. She felt my forehead and immediately yelled for my brother to get the keys to the station wagon. Thankfully my dad had caught an early ride with a coworker who offered to give him one.

My mom says she never drove so fast down that dirt road to the Los Alamos Medical Hospital. She screeched to halt at the front door and picked me up wrapped in my bed sheet. She says I was yelling incoherently. The doctor on call took the pipe he was smoke out of his mouth in shock but took to his training.

I had a 104* fever, my mom says. They took me into an exam room that was by itself in the back of the ER. My mom frantically tried to reach my dad but his secretary kept saying he was out at a tech area at the Laboratory and wouldn’t be back for a half hour. The nurses were soon bringing over IVs with saline and a syringe of medication.
The doctor tried to get any helpful history from my mom but she could not think of anything that happened recently to me other than our trip to Ohio. After giving further instructions to the nurses, the doctor went over to the phone on the wall and spoke in low tones. About an hour later, my father arrived and comforted my mom and brother. They waited anxiously. The doctor returned and said he did not know the cause of the illness but that the nurses would be administering IV antibiotics right away. Shortly thereafter, my parents noticed two men dressed in dark suits and hats. They approached the doctor and he motioned to my room. The men approached. My father jumped up and stopped them at the door.

“That’s my daughter in there,” he said, “I won’t let you go in there.

“It’s ok sir, we from the Los Alamos Laboratory, we’re here to help.”

“Which department are you in?” my dad asked.

“Oh it’s not important” the men replied and pushed past my father and into the room where I lay, sedated. The doctor prevented my dad from entering, “Let them help” he said.

Donning gloves, one man took a blood sample from my arm, the other took scrappings of some of the pustules and put it in a sealed bag. They left without a word. My father says he asked at work but no one had any info on the two men who came.

I was hospitalized for two weeks and slowly regained my coherence. After numerous courses of IV antibiotics, I regained my strength and soon my skin healed, although I still have the scars as you can see. No one else in my family ever became ill as I did, thankfully.

In the days after returning home, where I was confined to rest, we noticed two bulldozers coming down the road. They approached the lot next door, the one with the ruins. They began digging up the ruins. It makes me angry when I think about it. Soon they stopped, and we noticed two black sedans had also come down the road as well as a heavy truck. Two men in dark suits got out of one sedan and looked into the kiva. Then they waved at the truck and men with shovels and masks came over. They dug for a while. Then they brought over two large black bags, much larger than trash bags. They put something into each bag and brought them back to the truck.

Grandpa: From what you are describing, that sounds like body bags.

Marissa: … The next time we saw Mr. Mason we asked him about it. He was flabbergasted. He wasn’t home at the time the bulldozers came.

“Why yes that lot was sold and there are workers coming to dig a foundation but not for a couple weeks. I have no idea who the men were who you saw.

Marissa: … “Do you believe in evil spirits, Mr. Groves?”

Grandpa: “I believe in evil, but all too often it seems evil comes in a black sedan. Well, thank you, Marissa. Thank you for sharing your story. And I assure you I will keep it confidential.

Tape Recorder Stops

Tape Recorder Starts

Grandpa: I don’t know what to make from Marissa’s story. It certainly confirms some…suspicions I’ve had about the Lab including the existence of a shadow organization within it. As to the crux of her experience, I don’t know exactly what to conclude. I know there are diseases endemic to the southwest such as the recently discovered hantavirus. I inquired with an acquaintance in the biological sciences department at the Lab about the probability of an infectious bacteria surviving undisturbed in semi-arid conditions. His knowledge was enlightening. He informed me that that anthrax spores have a documented dormant survival time in the soil of at least 48 years and can still be infectious to humans and animals. He also mentioned that he has colleagues who theorize anthrax can remain dormant in the soil for hundreds of years.

 I wonder if Marissa’s mystery disease has any bearing on the downfall of the Ancient Puebloans as a people. I suppose only the desert holds the answer.

 

Tape Recording Ends

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