Before the great wild fire took out the northeastern side of the park, a legend had persisted for nearly forty years. This legend is one that you would find in any town or commonwealth.
Legends like these pop up just as fast ones that are destroyed by a wildfire or construction.
The legend is not about a who – but a what. And would you believe me if I told you that there was once a haunted picnic table in this area?
It’s kind of corny when you think about it – a haunted picnic table? What does this table do? Does it steal your sandwiches or misplace the ketchup or mayo? Does it cause you to have indigestion? Or will it poison you?
Frankly, the legend has nothing to do with food. But that’s where my mind goes when I think of the word, “picnic.”
I think of red-checkered cloth, and wicker baskets, and a woman in a light blue dress, and her husband wearing a tucked in polo and khaki’s, while Junior plays with Scraps, the family dog.
I think of bliss – I think of America, or what it used to be...not what it’s become.
As much as one would like to laugh at the legend of the picnic table – and probably did, for those of us who worked for the City – it started to gnaw on us. It was much like any other deep rooted problem that gets under your skin after a while.
It wore us down, much like running water on a stone.
Which is why the City Council voted unanimously to develop that side of the park.
A park that was once a reserve for animals - for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who wished to see that this great metropolitan city of ours retain at least some of its natural preserve.
Everything changes – I get that – but the legend persists – it persists because unlike most stories – which can be considered a retooled fairy tale, this particular one has legs, or rather...teeth.
It persists because it is real.
And how do I know this? Well, I’ll get to that.
Let’s first talk about how the legend of the Haunted Picnic Table at D.W. Griffith’s Park, or as those in the city like to call it – No. 29 came to be.
Number 29 is just one of 417 picnic spots located throughout the park. Considering that the park itself is 4,370 acres, and one of the largest in the United States, the fact that we even know about picnic table number 29 is strange in itself.
Remember, this was all going on before the fire, before the flames eradicated number 29 – along with half of the park.
The legend started because of a tree.
A goddamn big tree.
A sycamore that at one time may have stood as King of all Sycamores.
When I last had eyes on it, the tree was still alive – though growing at a ninety-degree angle. It had wrapped the picnic table up into its branches, as if it were now a part of its ribcage.
It looked like an angry skeleton with a picnic table for a stomach, a stomach that was hungry and always on the lookout for its next meal.
And the last time I was there, I almost became that meal...
I often wonder if it isn’t the tree that was haunted, considering it started the whole damn mess in the first place.
Back in 1976, teenagers were no different than the ones we have now. Except for the fact that those kids wore different clothes and listened, for the most part, to Led Zeppelin and the Doobie Brothers – but the same thing goes for the teenagers of old as it does for today.
The main goal for most teenagers is two-fold: One) They want to get high and Two) They want to get down.
Nothing ever changes – I know that when I was at that age, those were always my goals.
There isn’t much else to say about that.
You see, Rand and Nancy were high-school sweethearts, and they were tackling both goals at picnic table number 29 on a warm Halloween night.
I can imagine that they wanted to get away from their group of friends, who were probably partying it up pretty good somewhere in the Griffith woods.
I can see Rand pulling on Nancy’s hand, her giggling and him drunkenly leading her along with a can of High Life in his hand.
They stop on occasion to kiss, the heavy petting gets heavier – and before long, they find the picnic table and off go the clothes, and off go the inhibitions as the two do what nature has instructed humans to do for the last million years.
Rand was on top of Nancy and while they’re doing what they know best, a tree toppled over and crushed them both on the table.
I’m sure it was quick – but then again, I wonder if it wasn’t.
There may have been screams and moans until the weight of tree could be endured no more – as everything went silent and gray – and remained that way until a park ranger found the couple the following morning.
In his report, the park ranger describes a scene that seemed at first to be a Halloween prank. But as he got closer, and saw how the flies had already been recruited in mass to feast on the open eyes of the victims...well, that Halloween prank that could have been but never was sent the park ranger into a dead faint.
After he came to – he called the emergency line on his CB, and the cavalry descended upon picnic table 29.
Next of kin were called, reports filed, photographs taken. All because of that goddamn tree. A tree that somehow remains unscathed by the legend.
The police had to request a crane to lift the massive tree off of the victims – but by then, you could have just taken hold of them and pulled they away – there was nothing left of the bodies underneath.
The table itself remained in good condition – albeit the wood slats on the top were broken, and the frame was bent– it had taken the brunt of the weight where Rand and Nance could not.
Once the victims were photographed and bagged, the crane gently released the tree back onto the picnic table with the City’s intention of chopping it down in the next few days.
This freak accident made the papers, but it stayed in the back pages where situations of this type belong – but by that following Wednesday, the story made its way to the front page and the legend was born.
But like all legends, it doesn’t just start in the papers. It starts with word of mouth, and from those who felt number 29’s presence – the story grew until it was a hot topic every year around Halloween.
The City lighting crew was the department that dealt with any tree related issues – and since they were the ones with the proper equipment, those were the guys who were tasked with cutting the tree into bits and hauling it away.
The park planners decided to add a new picnic table – and as a touch of kindness, add a plaque honoring Rand and Nance.
I don’t blame the city lighting crew for feeling spooked about cutting down that tree.
And for Chip Granger, who was a veteran employee of the City Lighting crew, that’s exactly how he felt when he was ordered to get a chainsaw and head up to number 29.
Chip was no weenie – he had seen his fair share of combat in Korea, and except for a bit of a weakness with the drink, was a reliable worker who rarely complained.
So it was a surprise to the supervisor, Dennis Haggen that when Chip returned to the warehouse after a few hours, trembling with a broken chainsaw, that he thought his employee was taking the Mickey out of him.
According to Chip – he headed up to the picnic table around 11 in the morning.
Cutting down that size of sycamore was not a big deal, though it would be a herculean task for one man.
But as Chip saw it – he’d dismantle the tree, and then the other guys would come and pick up the wood.
Chip fired up the saw and got to work on the top end of the tree – which had now extended past the picnic table and was jutting out into the road.
Everything was fine for about an hour.
Then Chip started to hear whispers in his ear – more than that, hot breath along with those whispers – as if someone were standing right next to him, leaning in and giving him the business.
“Get out!” it said.
“Leave us alone,” it said.
“You’re going to die” it continued.
And that’s when Chip stopped the chainsaw.
With such a loud hum, one can hear all sorts of strange things due to the ear becoming adjusted to the whining drone.
But the whispers started up again as soon as he fired up the chainsaw and continued to cut the tree.
The whispers were getting louder now, more urgent, more threatening.
And as Chip progressed, cutting branches off the trunk, and removing the tree bit by bit – as he got closer to the picnic table and edged up to the bent metal and wood...
The whisper became shouts, they became screams – they became moans.
Then the chainsaw jammed into the tree. Having hit a knot, Chip pushed and pulled the chainsaw – and still, he could not get clean sweep through the wood, and instead something pushed him backward. Chip fell on his ass, as the chain snapped off the saw, and nearly took his ear off.
Chip tried to get up – but a burst of cold wind pushed him down again.
He felt something slap at his arms, and then a scratch ran down from his elbow to his wrists. And it was that same something, that when he tried to roll over and push himself up from his knees that a cold wind struck him down onto the dirt again.
This time, the voice came to him while the chainsaw was in the off position.
“Never come here again,” it said.
Chip got that message loud and clear – and at that moment, he was allowed to get back to his feet, where he ran to his truck and took off as fast as he could.
When Chip told Dennis the story, the man almost choked from hysterical laughter.
“Jiminy Christmas,” Dennis said, “Have I ever heard an excuse like this to get out of work?”
“It’s true,” Chip said.
“Every single word.”
“That a ghost pushed you?”
“It’s the spirits of those kids...”
“The kids who were fucking on a picnic table...”
“Yes, those are the ones, who else could it be?”
Dennis broke out into laughter again.
“That is the biggest load of BS I have ever heard, Chip. Ever!”
Chip covered his ears and tried his best to drone out the additional catcalls that came from other employees. He was never going to live this down – but he would never be going back up to number 29, either.
He’d quit his job if he had to.
“Who’s going to cut that tree down?” Dennis asked.
“Why don’t you do it?” Chip said, now red in the face, and fuming.
“That’s a deal.” Dennis said with a smug grin, “I’ll even do it after dark. I’m no chicken.”
And that was the last time any of them saw Dennis alive.
The following morning, the same ranger who found the bodies of the teenagers, found Dennis, lying flat on his back, dead – with his arms splayed out and with the most terrified look of horror on his face.
The police cordoned off the area – and though it was ruled a heart attack, even the most seasoned detectives looked at the situation with dread.
The story made the front page of the LA Times, and that was how the legend grew.
Looky-loos would report that for the most part, nothing befell them when they visited picnic table number 29. Someone spray painted a rest-in-peace message to Rand and Nance and it was one of those LA ghost stories that persists, like the girl who jumped from the “H” of the Hollywood Sign, or supposed ghosts who roam the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
But although the City wanted to remove number 29 from the park map, the tree remained on the picnic table for nearly forty years.
Some say that it was budget issues that kept the tree from being cut down; others say it was left in memory of Dennis – who was a well-liked supervisor for the City Lighting Department.
But I know the truth.
The City made over ten trips up to picnic table number 29 and those ten trips all resulted in the same thing: Broken saws and scared employees.
Nobody ever died – but then again, no one ever fired up the chainsaw when they arrived at the tree.
The whispers would start as soon as they left their truck – they would feel nauseous or overwhelmed. There would be a swarm of bees one day, or a terrible storm the other.
Ten times the City attempted to cut down that sycamore and haul away the table, and ten times it was aborted due to natural causes or supernatural notions.
Nearly forty years later, there was a changing of the guard. Mayor Eric Garcetti took over for Villaraigosa and the City gets a new supervisor in the lighting arena.
And this was a supervisor who didn’t have time for fairy tales and ghost stories. A supervisor who thought he was smarter than he was.
A supervisor, who looking back, should have kept his damn mouth shut.
God help me – I’m not a smart man at times.
I called this one employee of mind, “MacGyver,” on account that he seemed to be able to fix any of our tools with little know-how, and also was able to get some of the more ancient LA lighting back up and running without tearing all the wires out.
It was MacGyver who I asked to finish the job on 29 for once and for all.
And it was MacGyver who later pushed me to try and finish the job myself.
How this all started up again was that I found one of our employees talking at length with a reality television show producer about number 29 and it annoyed me to no end.
One of the reasons I was hired as supervisor was to help improve efficiencies and the bottom line. But when I see one of our people on company time, gabbing with a pretty television producer asking about 29...well, I got steamed.
I let the employee finish the interview with a warning, but I was not going to tolerate any more of this nonsense. Any publicity needs to go through the proper channels.
But when we started to get more calls from other shows, since I gather, their ghost telling well had about run dry – I wanted to put a stop to it all at once. Number 29 needed to go.
We have a damn tree lying on top of a picnic table, and it’s left untouched for forty years, because of what? A fairy tale?
I called up MacGyver and told him the lay of the land. He nodded his head and smirked, as he felt exactly the same way as I did about the legend.
It was bogus. And it was time for that tree to go bye-bye.
“I’ll handle it, boss.” He said.
And that was that.
We got the emergency call the following morning at 9AM. MacGyver was hurt, and I was one of the first to make my way into the park.
By the time I arrived, the paramedics were loading him up into the ambulance. He looked over to me and shook his head.
“I’m so sorry, boss.” He said to me – and his face was white as a sheet.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Something took hold of the saw...something took hold off it and damn near cut my leg off.”
That’s when I looked down and saw what had happened.
The chainsaw had ripped a ten-inch wide gap into MacGyver’s blood soaked thigh.
I could see marbled fat, the torn tendons, the split open muscle, and his femur cut in half, revealing the marrow as a glob of golden-brown mush.
I had to look away – I was about to become sick.
“Did you lose your grip?” I asked, doing my best to recover and stay even keeled.
He didn’t answer – whatever it was that the paramedics gave MacGyver must have started working, because by then he had become a raving lunatic.
“Stop saying that! I’m leaving, okay?” He said to no one in particular, “I’m leaving and I’ll never come back! Please, quit yelling at me, please, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he said, over and over, until the whites of his eyes rolled up into his head and he was out.
When the ambulance left, some of the other guys arrived in a truck.
I gave them the low down, and looked at the blood stained chain saw that sat on top of the picnic table.
The blood splatter had covered part of the spray painted message to Rand and Nance.
“I want to cut this goddamn thing down.” I said to the guys.
There were two of them, Bob and Jeff. And they looked at one another as if I said I wanted to call the devil on my cell phone.
“Don’t you think with what happened...” Jeff began to say.
“I don’t give a shit what happened. All I know is what didn’t happen, this goddamn thing is still here. Let’s get it done. No more doing this on our own. We will do this as a team.”
Bob and Jeff looked a bit green, but nodded and went to get their protective gear.
I threw the blood soaked chainsaw into the back of my truck, and grabbed the heavy-duty saw for the most stubborn of trees.
This was my legend to end. I was not going to endure the circus of another injury, of whispers, of ghosts who wanted to make love in peace.
But again, it’s not the picnic table...I know that now.
It’s that goddamn tree.
Instead of trying to cut the part of the tree that had been attempted any number of times, I went behind the picnic table, and go to work on the larger branches.
The chainsaw buzzed through the live sycamore slowly, but sure enough one branch came off, and then another.
The tree shook as if a giant had grabbed it by the roots. It vibrated with such violence that pinecones scattered like coins falling from your upturned pants.
Bob and Jeff who were now wearing their construction helmets, eye goggles, overalls and leather gloves stood by with their mouths agape.
As much as I wanted to retreat, I knew that I would have to keep cutting. Goddamn, this tree was a real live wire.
I buzzed off another branch, and another – and finally – I said to hell with it and attacked the trunk of the tree.
It had nowhere to fall but the picnic table it had already crushed.
And that’s when I heard it – or rather, when I heard them:
“You will burn for this,” a woman screamed in my right ear.
“I’ll kill you now, right now,” a demonic man’s voice said in my left.
“You will die, you will die, you will die,” they said in unison as I buzzed halfway through the tree.
Bob and Jeff continued to stand there, like the stupid goats that they were.
“Come on! Cut it down! We don’t have much time...”
That seemed to kick Bob into gear...but as soon as he stepped forward, he spun around to Jeff.
Bob said something, and Jeff was taken aback.
I hit the kill switch on the saw, and heard:
“I didn’t call you anything, chill out!” Jeff said.
“The hell you did, you are always talking behind my back!” Bob responded, with spittle flying from his lips.
“Shut the hell up and get to work,” said Jeff, who brushed past him and fitted his ears with the dangling plugs.
As soon as Jeff fired up the chainsaw, he spun around to Bob, who was still shaking his head in anger.
“Don’t you touch me when I’m holding this...” Jeff scolded.
“I didn’t touch you...” Bob said.
“The fuck you did!” Jeff took a giant leap back to Bob.
They were soon bumping their chests – like a couple of rams you watch on National Geographic.
“Cool it, you guys!” I yelled.
But the whispers started up again.
“You will die, you will die...”
I felt a migraine invade my brain and my head throbbed. I looked at the tree trunk and the chunk I had been able to burrow out of it.
“You motherfucker...” Bob called out – and soon fists were flying between the two.
I stepped back – at first I was thinking it was guys just being guys – I’ve seen plenty of jawing in my time and this was just that.
“Cool it! We have work to do!” I bellowed.
Blood flew from Jeff’s nose, and as he stepped back, the sound of a jackknife opened, and I have to tell you, it had happened so fast – and with the migraine and those goddamn whispers....
The way the police report reported it later, was that a dispute broke out between the two men – over what, they’ve never said. But fists were thrown, Jeff had lunged with a knife, and Bob defended himself by using the chainsaw. But then Jeff fired up his own saw and instead of a tree they were cutting – it was each other.
As you can imagine, my adrenaline did a back flip and I was about to charge over. The way I saw it, those two guys were only chasing each other around with the chainsaws – no serious damage had occurred as of yet.
I had to time to shut this down.
But then I saw it.
I saw what that old supervisor, Dennis had seen that night, and quite possibly what others have seen that forced them back into their trucks, or to hightail it and run.
I saw what it was that could terrify you in the middle of the day.
I saw a face open up to me from the inside of the tree – it protruded just above where I had made my major trunk cut.
The face was rippling bark, with eyes that glowed with a sickly light blue. It was a horrible blue – the blue of lightning, the blue of death, the blue of drowning and your last breath.
A mouth under the eyes opened up to me, a mouth with the mashed up innards of blood, guts, pus and boils.
The mouth opened wide with razor sharp teeth as if it were about to swallow me whole...
But then Bob caught Jeff – and that’s when the screaming really started...and the face in the tree, it turned...it rumbled through the bark and swerved to the opposite side as a captive audience.
The tree laughed.
Bob took the spinning chain and buried it into Jeff’s stomach, but not before Jeff was able to cut off Bob’s leg just below the knee.
Blood sprayed in every direction – and later, when they found me, with the bodies of Jeff and Bob in dismantled bloody stacks – I was curled into a ball, and mumbling away the whispers. There was a question as to whether or not I was the one who dispatched them both. I was covered in their blood, I was alive, and I was nearly out of my mind.
I think that was the tree’s plan all along.
But luckily DNA evidence, fingerprints, and the trajectory of the saws momentum on each body cleared my name, and frankly, I was happy to spend those few months in that sanitarium while they finished their investigation.
But number 29 remained intact.
The legend only grew.
So when I heard that a fire erupted in that part of the park recently, and the fire had grown beyond saving, and that the fire department had to be content to just let it burn for once and for all, I have to admit that I was able to sleep a full night for the first time in a long while.
It’s a pity – all those acres, now charred to bits, and soon to be developed for housing or stores, or some such stuff.
A loss for the park – but hey, sometimes things just need to be cleaned, they must be purged.
And if someone dropped an open Zippo lighter in a patch of dry tinder near picnic table 29, well then, that’s just life, right?
A Zippo that might had a very special engraving. Something to the effect of:
“For No. 29, Halloween 1976-2014.”
But I’m just guessing of course...
There is no harm in that, is it?
Written by Trevor Boelter
Author's Note on No. 29: This is a work of fiction, and although the story was built off of a very real legend in Griffith Park, it is purely fiction! Except for the photograph below and the "death" picture above (which I'm pretty sure was staged) -- the rest of the photos were taken by me this past weekend - when I ventured with my dog, Fox to Royce Canyon and located Picnic Table 29. Although the story refers to a wildfire at the end, there has not been a wildfire in this area - and I hope there never will. You can visit the picnic table today - though I warn you not to go at night, and definitely do not bring along a saw. Happy Halloween!