When I moved into the King William neighborhood of San Antonio, I quickly had it explained to me that I had missed, by but a scant five years, the bohemian era. It had been described to me as a rollicking milieu of decayed old-money, like the French Quarter as envisioned by Hollywood. And sometimes, if I squint just right, I can get a glimpse. The aging hippy holdouts living in the mansion on Adams Street which is broken up into eight apartments, one just a single room, seven by forty-five feet. Or the Vietnam Vet over on Madison with the electronic larynx who plays his theremin late into the night. But, for the most part, it’s become a haven of upstanding citizenry. Such is the price of gentrification. Sure there are still artists here, but mostly of the well-heeled retirees. My duplex, with the apartment out back, is the last rental property on my block. All the rest? Yuppie homeowners.
Last year I met a filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood. Erik was in attendance at a DVD release party for a local psychobilly band at the Wiggle Room. I overheard him talking to one of the guys in the band, and by his reference to cameras and lighting, I had assumed he was the director. But then I saw him plunk down 15 dollars for a copy of the DVD. I went up and asked him what kind of movies he made. We went out to the patio and had a few beers. We mainly talked about books.
Yesterday he called me up to ask if I was available to help him shoot a short documentary. I had nothing planned, so I said sure. We were to interview some old guy who lives one street over from me.
Today I met him at the man’s house. On the porch I asked Erik what he wanted me to do. “Be the interviewer.” He rang the bell. Several small yappy dogs took up their defense cries. “I don’t know this guy,” I sputtered. “Me neither. But he sounds like a grade A kook. Just ask him about saucerians or the hollow earth. He’s bound to launch into some sweet tirade.”
Suddenly the dogs fell silent. The door opened slow with a creak straight from a Boris Karloff movie. Herbert Farnsworth revealed himself, the shadow of the door wiping aside as he leaned forward to take our hands, as gentlemanly as Karloff himself would have. I placed him in his mid eighties, but very fit. He wore white linen trousers and an immaculate white oxford shirt. He had on cheap black house slippers, the kind they sell at the Dollar General Store.
We followed him inside to a parlor done up in high Victorian, sans doilies. I never did see (nor hear) those dogs. Weird.
Erik deftly placed his equipment in a corner. And he continued a stream of small talk patter as he unpacked and set up. Mr. Farnsworth smiled and nodded politely, keeping to his feet. I decided to take some initiative. I sat and motioned Farnsworth to do the same. I was in a maroon winged back chair. Farnsworth sat and leaned back in a matching William IV settee.
When the camera was on the tripod, and the wireless microphone was clipped to Farnsworth’s shirtfront, Erik started rolling video. He nodded to me.
I began asking general questions about his life, his family, his work, the neighborhood. Nothing exciting. He’d remained a bachelor, worked for the Southwest Research Institute as an engineer most of his life, and he had lived in this Georgian Colonial revival-style house since his mother died and left it to him in the ’70s. It was all so prosaic. I could think of no legitimate segue into kookery. Some sweet old man’s nattering on about his mother’s volunteer work for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and I’m supposed to jump in with a question about extraterrestrials?
Erik came to my rescue.
“Mr. Farnsworth, if you’ll pardon me, I was wondering if you could tell us about the time you discovered the tunnels.”
Farnsworth gave us a shy smile, and he turned to me and began an elaborate explication of the day back in 1967 — it was August — that Farnsworth was under contract to design the subterranean concrete support piers for the Tower of the Americas for the Hemisfair project.
“O’Neail Ford had already weaseled out of his contract for the over-all design. The newspapers were supporting him, saying that he wanted to save dozens of historical buildings on the site from demolition. But the truth was that he had been in lengthy talks with Tom Slick (my boss at the Institute) and T. Boone Pickens, both rich Texas oil men with a fascination for the paranormal. They cautioned Ford. The site in question was over an ancient energy vortex, and clearly there was something down there that wasn’t supposed to be disturbed.”
I cleared my throat politely.
“Pardon me, sir. But didn’t Tom Slick pass away in the early 1960s. How could there have been lengthy talks?”
Erik nodded to me energetically, holding his thumb up. Let him have it, he seemed to be suggesting.
“You’ve a good sense of history, young man,” Farnsworth said. “Tom Slick was dead. But he could speak more clearly through a Ouija Board than any disembodied spirit I have encountered.”
He continued his story. When he was on the construction site, it wasn’t just him, but everyone seemed to feel this great dread.
“And sixty-five feet down they hit this metallic bulkhead. Some fellows from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology came out with their mobile lab. Now you can’t carbon-date metal, but they were using a device similar to Harry Hess’ magnetometers which were used to prove continental drift. They showed that the metal was forged at some time when the Earth’s magnetic field was flipped. The last time this happened, the Brunhes-Matuyama Reversal, was three-quarters of a million years ago. That’s a pretty old artifact. President Johnson sent in some hard-noses from military intelligence to chase off everyone who wasn’t crucial to the construction. And even many of those who were, found themselves replaced by the Army Corps of Engineers. But because of my connections with the Institute, I was allowed to stay on.”
I looked over at Erik. He was enraptured by the story.
“We didn’t have to go any deeper for the foundation, so we concentrated on how to cut through the metal. It was a very strange alloy, tough as hell, but it finally opened up to our oxyacetylene torches. We continued to build the Tower, but we had established a subterranean chamber atop the metal bulkhead. And we worked through the day and through the night. When we finally cut through two and a half feet of metal, we found a tunnel, eight feet in diameter. It took six weeks for us to cut the hole wide enough to send in an investigating team.”
Mr. Farnsworth paused. He looked at me and then at Erik.
“I have a pitcher of ice tea in the refrigerator. I know I’m getting rather parched. I’ll just be a moment. Make yourselves comfortable.”
Farnsworth rose to his feet and padded out of the room. Erik turned to me with a smile.
“You’re doing great. I knew you would.”
“This is it?” I asked. “He’s senile. It’s pure exploitation.” I wasn’t sure if the obvious had sunk in with the guy. Or maybe I had the whole thing screwed up. “Right?”
“Look, he’s not senile. Crazy, maybe. But what he’s talking about is the same sort of stuff he told a writer with Fate Magazine in 1973. He’s been interviewed several times. But never on video.”
Farnsworth entered with a tray containing a pitcher of tea and three glasses with ice. I got up and took the tray and placed in to the sideboard at the windows. I poured out three glasses and distributed them.
“Where was I,” asked Farnsworth.
“Investigators were sent into the tunnel,” I prompted.
“So, in July of ’69, while the Hemisfair was going on up on the surface, and as, much further above, Apollo 11 was touching down in the Sea of Tranquility, we had, at one time, seventeen teams mapping out the labyrinth of tunnels. We even had jeeps down there, and they were heading so far out, that they were running out of gas. Eventually when we began finding some of the tunnels which led up to the surface, here and there scattered over the planet, we were able to distribute fuel and food depots for the crews working down there. As artifacts and technology of this lost ancient culture was lifted up to the surface, we were on a tear to make sense of it all. There were linguists, archeologists, sociologists, psychologists, and on and on. When Nixon came into office, the whole concern was restructured. I, for one, was sent packing.”
I made a show of appearing sad.
“But there is still access to the tunnels through the elevators at the Tower of the Americas. Everyone who works there has security clearence. And they all know how to make the elevators go down. It’s really simple. Just a combination of buttons. You press UP, STOP, ALARM–”
At the moment, there was a rush of noise and activity at the front door. Three elderly women came walking in, chattering to one another. When they passed the parlor, they fell silent, gaping at us.
“What the hell’s going on?” demanded the tallest one.
“Bertie, where are the doggies?” the shortest one asked Farnsworth, all perplexed.
The third woman just stood in the hallway, her hand at her throat.
“My sisters, gentlemen,” Farnsworth told us with a wane smile. “I thought they’d not be back until the late afternoon.”
The short woman explained that the wine tour had been cancelled.
The tall woman was holding up her cell phone.
“I will soon be dialing 911 unless the media departs!”
Farnsworth signed and shrugged. “They are so protective. What can I do?”
I helped Erik pack his equipment. The tall sister stayed in the doorway holding up the phone. The other two drifted off. Farnsworth sheepishly sipped his tea and seemed to have nothing to say.
When we were ready to leave, we shook hands with Farnsworth, squeezed past the sister, and walked outside.
Erik grinned at me. He held up a scrap of paper.
“Look what the old man passed to me. It’s the elevator code. You know, to the tunnels!”
I don’t know if he really believed it. I was pretty sure he just saw it as a misguided narrative, that he wanted to see played out, even if he had no where to go.
“Come on,” he said with a disarming intensity. “Lets go distract an elevator operator.”
The Tower of the Americas was just a 15 minute walk away. I could hardly say no. So off we went.