I’m often asked what the backstory is to my Almost Human Series. Recently, I wrote a short collection of some of my stories. In one way or another, they’ve worked their way into my novels, Almost Human and Becoming Human. You can get a free copy by signing up for my newsletter on this blog or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. These experiences served as the foundation on which I built my characters and settings. The plot came from a deeper place, late at night, when the characters came to visit me and tell their stories as I wrote.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “In order to write about life you must live it.” While I’m not Hemingway, I believe this and have tried to write about what I know and have lived. Most of the time, my writing is loosely autobiographical.
Here is the first chapter of Animal Days. I hope you enjoy it!
Chapter One, Animal Days – Kenneth L. Decroo
One evening the mid-eighties, while working as the technical adviser and chimp trainer on the movie Animal Behavior, I relaxed after a long day of filming on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico with the movie’s human stars, Karen Allen and Armand Assante. After a few drinks, Armand commented on how humanlike my chimp Mike seemed. Mike, the animal star of the movie, played a chimp who used American Sign Language.
I put on my university professor hat and pontificated on all the traits we humans shared with chimps. I mentioned that they differed from us by only one chromosome; that we could catch a cold from them and them from us; that they had the same ABO blood type groups like us, and that they were more closely related to us than a gorilla. I talked about my work as a linguistic research assistant on a project in Reno that had successfully taught chimps to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) as used by the deaf.
The information fascinated them, and Karen asked, “Since chimps are so closely related to us, could they breed with humans?
“The famous primatologist Robert Yerkes once mentioned in one of his lectures that it was not only possible but also it’s rumored that the Soviets had attempted it in the 1920s,” I replied— remember that we’d had at a few drinks! “The rumor goes as far as suggesting that the Soviets had had success but the hybrids were on a ship that had burned at sea.”
My audience’s eyes widened, and we continued talking into the evening.
After the bar closed, I drove back to my accommodation, rolled some paper into my old Royal typewriter, sat down, and wrote chapter two. The setting is the University of Nevada, Reno, where I’d worked. In that chapter, Dr. Ken Turner gives a lecture filled with the information I’d shared with Karen and Armand.
The hour grew late, and I had an early call time. I’d just finished chapter two and was preparing for bed when Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald played on the radio. Inspired by the music, I rolled in another paper and wrote the first chapter in which a Soviet cargo ship carrying a mysterious cargo runs aground during a big storm. And so The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is another link in the circle that became the Almost Human Series.
I wrote those two chapters in 1984.
The flight from LAX to Rio de Janeiro (GIG) had been a long one but while tired I was excited to be at last joining the movie company to film on location. I had been hired to train Jaguars and was the only America working for the British film. When I met Gabriel at customs, I soon discovered that I had stepped into a surreal world and time. He stared right through me wearing a sweat-stained t-shirt that read “Kill Them All and Let God Sort them Out.” I could just make out a faded French Foreign Legion logo on a worn canvas bag slung over his shoulder.
In a thick Portuguese accent, he said in rehearsed English, “Welcome to Brazil,” and commenced to orchestrate us through customs. This was the tone that the shooting of this movie would take for the better part of a year. We filmed in fifty-five different locations that year which took us from the coast to deep in the jungles of the Amazon. We were on a golden voyage, a real old school adventure and it was 1984. Each day took us further from what we knew to a world of wild animals, jungle darkness, danger, Voodoo and real outlaws. We were a long way from home.
The production company knowing we would be filming in the backcountry of Brazil decided to employ a fixer, a bodyguard to look after me and my crew. If you didn’t know the year you would have thought that Gabriel was playing an outlaw in a ’40s movie set in a Banana Republic. He wore a Panama hat tilted over one eye and a loosely fitting white linen shirt that covered the pistol which he always carried in his waist belt. Simply put, his job was to keep us safe and make things go smoothly. And he did it with dedication and vigor over the year of our filming. Gabriel and I developed a close friendship that grew out of sharing a dangerous adventure that required us to live by our wits and depend on each other.
He didn’t really speak English and I didn’t speak Portuguese. But fortunately most everyone in the country spoke Spanish so I relied on it to get us by. It didn’t take me long to observe that Gabriel was known and feared by everyone we encountered. He was closely connected to the cocaine trade of South America. This was after all the 1980’s.
Gabriel could get you almost anything and he could make almost anything happen. But his real specialty was making problems go away. But I didn’t realize how good he was at this or how seriously he took his job until one evening after a long day of filming.
We had found a great little open-air bar that was terraced on a river looking out into the jungle in a little village near one of our locations. Besides serving great local drinks, it had the best garlic, sautéed shrimp I had ever eaten. So most evenings you could find the production company there. We were young and single and as such fit right in with the young crowd in the village. But as we got more familiar this caused jealousies with some of the locals that we didn’t realize until that evening.
A mixed group of us were enjoying ourselves drinking and dancing on the terrace. It was late and most of us had had our share of the local drink, Pinga or Cachaça, a dangerously strong and delicious spirit distilled from sugarcane when a man barged in yelling that we had not given him a job and had taken all the women of the village.
My friend, Colin, who being Irish held his drink better than the rest of us, stood up holding a drink out as a peace offering. But the man picked up a bottle and threw it hitting him squarely in the forehead. Colin fell like a sack of potatoes bleeding profusely. Several of us including Gabriel jumped up to give chase, as the man darted out and into the cover of the jungle.
Several minutes later, I found Gabriel and a few of his men in a clearing where they had the man on the ground. Hastily, Gabriel sent me back with one of his men after assuring me he would take care of the matter. And trust me, there was no arguing with Gabriel when he was working. So we attended to getting Colin to a small clinic where they very efficiently sewed him up.
For days afterward, Colin who didn’t speak Spanish asked me to question Gabriel as to what happened to the man. Gabriel always gave a vague answer and quickly changed the subject. This didn’t satisfy Colin who pestered me to continue asking.
Finally, after about a month this, while having lunch, Colin pressed me to ask again. This time, Gabriel was at the end of his patience. He pulled his pistol out and laid it on the table, leaned forward and leveled his dark, hard eyes on me and said, “Tell Colin to stopped asking me about the past. Let’s just say the man no longer lives in Brazil.”
I never asked Gabriel again.