Mortality Becomes Reality
It was Easter Week March 1964; Friday the 27th had been Good Friday and Easter meant spring break from school. Being a teenager in Middletown was a good thing, the weather was clear and mild and Saturday the 28th started as a glorious day.
This particular Easter weekend I was nearing the end of my time in high school as I would graduate in the coming month of June. Three friends and I decided to embark on an adventure to try and find and visit the legendary Tom Dye Rock. One of those friends was a 17 year old young man named John Wrieden. John was always a joy to be around as his attitude was always light hearted and funny. John’s father was Earle Wrieden a well respected city father who was also our county Supervisor and my mother’s employer. We knew nothing about our upcoming adventure other than the folklore told about Tom Dye’s hideout while he was avoiding the law after he murdered a man named Charles Bates in Middletown.
John, I and our good friend Ron McDonald headed up Western Mine Road to find the spot where we thought we could start our search for Tom Dye Rock. Some distance up the road we met up with our basketball coach who was along the side of the road digging in an old Chinese camp dump site, we invited him to join us and he did.
We had no idea where we were going but we followed the ridge line that would lead to the summit of Mount St. Helena thinking that would be the best approach. About 2 hours later we found a large rock outcropping that had a natural cave in its westerly facing side. We figured we must have found Tom’s hideout. There were natural paths about three feet wide along the sheer face of the rock that appeared to lead to the caves entrance. It was very steep terrain with lots of loose rock and shale. I was in the lead so I started heading toward the cave on one of the paths, our coach was next, then John and last was Ron. It was a steep drop off of the path into more rocks about 50 feet below. After a few feet I realized I was on the wrong path, I needed to be on the one about five feet below us so I just dropped down and proceeded into the cave which was quite large. Next came in coach.
Ukiah Daily Journal Location: Ukiah, California Monday, March 30, 1964
· “Son Killed in Fall from Cliff ST. HELENA — John Wrieden, 17, son of Earle Wrieden of Middletown, chairman of the Lake County Board of Supervisors, was killed Saturday at 2 p.m. when he fell off a cliff on the Napa County side of Mount St. Helena. The victim, a junior at Middletown high school, was hiking with two classmates, William Wink and Ronald McDonald, when the accident occurred. His companions said the trio was exploring caves near Tom Dye Rock when young Wrieden lost his footing and plunged over an embankment.”
We looked over the edge and saw John move; we hustled back to the hillside and hurried down the shale and loose rock to John. It was obvious he was badly injured. After evaluating his condition best we could we agreed that coach would stay with John and Ron and I would hike out to get help. We ran. Forty five minutes later we were at our friend’s house that lived on Western Mine Road telling them the story and that we needed help.
· “The Alaskan Good Friday Earthquake occurred at 5:36 P.M. AST on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Across south-central Alaska, ground fissures, collapsing structures, and tsunamis resulting from the earthquake caused about 139 deaths. (Wikipedia)”
We waited, and we waited and finally everyone started showing up. Lake County Sheriff’s Office had requested assistance and a helicopter that was returning from Alaska to Hamilton Air force Base was diverted to our location. My memory says there was a crew of three.
I was recruited to accompany the crew to the scene of the accident.
I had taken first-aid as a freshman in high school plus I had studied other science courses. I knew what a compound fracture was and how it looked and understood the damage a fall such as John’s could do.
I told the medic John had a compound fracture of his leg above the knee, a broken arm and other injuries.
In a couple minutes we were at the site of the accident and coach was standing on top of the rock formation with a small fire going waving his arms.
When we arrived the helicopter was unable to land so we had to descend by cable and harness to the top of the rock formation. I was first down then followed by the medic. After the medic descended the helicopter left and with it went the Stokes basket. I was in disbelief, I asked the medic how we were going to get John out and he replied he would walk out, I was further in disbelief as I had told the medic about John’s broken leg.
It seems the helicopter was returning from Alaska and was low on fuel and had to return to Hamilton to refuel. The plan was to get John to the top of the rock formation by the time the copter returned so he could be evacuated.
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Without the Stokes basket we were left to try and improvise a stretcher made of our shirts and tree limbs which were in scarce supply where we were. After the medic attended John’s obvious injuries and secured them the best he could we began our task of trying to move John from where he landed to the top of the rock which was up a steep grade that was nothing but loose rock, shale and dirt. The medic had the front of one tree limb, I had the other and coach had both limbs at the back. We slipped, we fell, we slid and after about an hour we were not even half way to the top. It has been many hours by now since John fell.
John had been conscious much of the time but by the time we reached the resting point he was not. I had his head in my lap and was holding his hand as he passed. I called to the medic who confirmed John’s passing. The helicopter had not yet returned.
If we would have had the Stokes basket would it have made a difference? It may have, however, even if we had made it to the top John passed before the helicopter returned anyway. By now it was getting dusk and the crew made the call to not try and retrieve John’s remains but to ferry coach and I out and let ground forces hike in and bring out John’s body.
To my knowledge a crew of inmates from Konocti Camp retrieved John’s remains. The story is, they hiked in after dark, but it was too dangerous to try and bring John out in the dark, so they built small fires to keep critters away and brought John out after day break.
One never knows what fate awaits them. Back then there were no counselors available you were just expected to “suck it up” and move on as there was no other choice. Vietnam was going full steam by 1965 and I was drafted, however, contemplating my own mortality was not new to me, I already knew it was reality.
Bill Wink © May 2017
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