Blue Harvest

The unemployment line was long and it had not moved in ten minutes as I checked my pocket watch once more. I had no-where to go but to the front of the line, so I continued to wait.

Off to my right was a single door where a small group of four men keep coming and going. The shortest one was looking towards the line I was standing in.

He raised his hands and with the pointer finger and thumb of either hand be created a frame.  He moved that frame back and forth as if he were attempting to frame something.

He quickly turned and disappeared behind the door. Moments later he reappeared and started walking towards my line.

Again he raised his hands and formed a frame. The other three men walked behind him. He stopped in front of me.

Quickly I glanced over my left shoulder to see what they might be seeing. It was me the man had framed up with his hands.

“You’re perfect,” he said.

I looked over my shoulder again.

“Yes, you!” he replied to my action, and then he stepped back.

“What do you guys say?” he asked the other three.

One was tall with black curly hair and a dark complexion. The second one was also dark-haired with a beard and glasses.

The last one was my height with close-cropped light brown hair and a beard. He spoke with a Scottish accent.

All three made the same framing gestures with their hands. I felt nervous and singled out.

Finally the one with the glasses said, “He’s a little shorter than I’d like, but he’ll do.”

By this time everyone in the unemployment office was staring at them and at me. I looked around the room and then at the double glass doors as I started to calculate my chances of escape if it came down to that.

The short man extended his right hand and said, “Hello, I’m Dave. I work for a movie company and you’re what I’ve been looking for.”

I reached out and shook his hand, telling him my name.

Dave asked me to come into their temporary office so I stepped out of line.  Inside the office, behind the single door he discovered that this movie company needed a stand in and stunt double for a major movie actor.

I fit his profile although I was one or two inches short than the lead actor.

They wanted me to accept the job on the spot before they could tell him anything more. I looked at the benefits form in his hand.

It was a measly seventy-five dollars a week. It did not take long to deliberate. I accepted the job—whatever it was.

The four men then asked me to read, and then sign a few forms which he did. In all honesty I signed them more than read them.

Then they told me about the project. The name of the Film was “Blue Harvest, Horror beyond Imagination.”

“Of course this was just the working title and might change before the movie’s released,” one of them said.

“So what do I do?” I asked.

“Show up at this address on Monday. Be there at eight in the morning,” said the short man.

“Okay,” I responded.

Then he got up and showed me to the door.

The weekend took forever to go by.

When Monday finally arrived I was up by six. I had to find a way from town to Smith River, a distance of roughly twelve miles, and everyone who had a car was either gone or their car was broke down. That’s the way it was with my truck that sat out in the drive way of the apartment I rented.

By twenty minutes after six I was out the door and heading on foot up Highway 101. After nearly an hour and a half I wasn’t even half way there. Fort Dick was the half way point and the sign said I still had two miles to go before I got there.

My luck changed when a logging truck stopped and picked me up. The trucker was on his way to Brookings, just over the border.

I was going to make my eight o’clock appointment after all as the log truck driver dropped me along side the road across from the Ship Ashore, the meeting place.

As I walked in to the resort I counted six vans and at least half a hundred people milling about. I suddenly had butterflies in my stomach and I yawned to let them out.

There were donuts and coffee being served. I grabbed one of each as I searched the crowd for one of the four men I had met on Friday.

I finally found Dave.

Dave smiled, “Glad you’re here.” Then he added, “You’ll ride with me.”

At that point he started ushering people into the vans.

Later as we traveled up the coast, I found out that the majority of the people there were extras; bodies needed to fill a scene to make it look busy.

I was not an extra Dave said. “You’re a stand-in and a stunt double,” he added.

The caravan turned up a gravel road just past a large rock on the right shoulder of the highway. I was surprised to see an armed man standing along the roadway.

He was in blue jeans, a leather jacket and was carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. I turned in my seat and watched him disappear into the scrub brush as the last van passed by him.

Now I was very weary.

We continued to drive for another fifteen minutes into the Six Rivers National Park area. When we stopped I could see the movie set. It was alive with activity.

There were people moving stuff and pounding nails here and sawing things there. I was surprised at the size of the encampment.

There were three mobile trailers on the set, two moving vans, a catering truck as well as the six vans we arrived in.  I could also see a structure half buried in the side of the hill at the base of a redwood tree.

Further to my left was what looked like an armored car on chicken-legs. These last two items would later be known as the bunker and the chicken-walker and would serve a pivotal part in the movie.

While I was looking over the chicken walker it occurred to me that I had seen something like this once in a couple of movies a few years back. I stood there amazed as it all came to me.

The next morning Dave confirmed what I was certain I already knew. He told me that he could not tell anyone. But Dave underestimated the rumor mill in Crescent City.

The following day an article appeared in the Del Norte Triplicate. It reported that a major movie studio was shooting a Star Wars film in the Smith River area.

The first unit was already entering day 73 of the shoot when we drove on set. Dave told me that this would be my first chance to be in front of the camera.

I grew nervous.

Dave pointed out the fellow with the beard and glasses saying that I would report to him from now on.  He was the production assistant and his name was Ian.

Ian was a very busy man. He walked rapidly from one place to the next.

He also had a short temper. I would discover at the end of the day.

After the introductions were out-of-the-way, Dave left.  I followed Ian around the set.

When they came to the area of the stunt trailer he said, “This is where you stay.  You’ll learn some basics and get fitted.”

Then he was off again.

I stood outside the trailer for a few minutes and would possibly still be standing outside it, if it had not been for the woman’s voice with a British accent.

“Don’t be shy!  Come on in, Silly.” The woman said.

I grabbed the door knob and stepped in.

The trailer was sparsely furnished.  It had a folding table and a few folding chairs.  Other than that it was full of clothes on hangers.

“Back here, Love,” called out the woman’s voice.

I turned to my right and entered the back room.

Standing in the middle of a folding chair was a woman with dark brown hair.  She was athletic and taller than my five foot seven inches.  She smiled as another woman buzzed around her adjusting the hem in one of her off-white pant legs.

“Done,” the lady making the adjustments said with finality.

“Good,” said the woman on the chair as she stepped out of the chair.

She landed on the floor so lightly that she made no sound.  I didn’t feel anything on the floor in the way of a vibration and I was surprised.

She stepped up to me, very close and shot her hand out.  I grabbed it and we exchanged introductions.

Tracy was her name.  She told me that she and I would be working together as she was the stunt double for principle female, Carrie.

I thought I could not have gotten luckier, but that’s where my luck ended.

Tracy was a slave driver. She worked me until my body ached that first day on set.  She was also a perfectionist who showed no fear and expected none from those she worked with.

On the other hand I was quite intimidated.  She had me diving nearly thirty feet from a swing like contraption onto a double set of foam pads no bigger than a twin mattress.

At thirty feet, one miss and I’d certainly end up dead.  I had already missed several times at fifteen and twenty feet.

She also worked me into the French splits. Those are where the legs go straight out to the side.

And when I could not get all the way down she stood on my thighs until they gave in and I sank to the ground.  My former martial art instructor, Master Rick Madonnia was never as brutal as this woman from the United Kingdom.

After nearly ten hours of working out with Tracy limbering up my unused muscles it was time to go home.  While waiting for their vans to arrive Tracy and I played a little Frisbee.  This took a little of the edge off our workout.

Without knowing it, we had tossed that disc back and forth for nearly an hour.  That’s when Ian walked up to us and shouted “What the hell are you two still doing here?”.

“Were waiting for our rides,” I commented.

“Well, your ride left over an hour ago!” he shouted.

Then he paused for a moment and added, “You’ll be damned lucky if I let you on set tomorrow.”

Then he turned and walked away. I wanted to smash my fist into his face.

But I looked over at Tracy instead.  She was smiling

“What are you smiling about?” I asked.

“Don’t you worry, Love — he’s more bark than bite,” she replied.

Soon there was a van driving towards us.  It was our ride down the hill and out of the woods.

The next two weeks were much the same.  On the set at seven in the morning, lunch at noon and back off the hills by six that evening.

Sunday was the only day we didn’t work.  By this time, my brother Adam had a job as a storm trooper and an extra as did his best friend Robert, who was working as an assistant to Ian.

Meanwhile I continued to practice diving, falling and rolling.  Tracy had also added a bit more to our continued training.

She added the wooden practice sword.

My training with Master Madonnia had already prepared me for this.  I could walk through the basics of the bukken kata, which was much like a dance.

Tracy however wanted my use to be practical.

It was difficult at first to step into this sword play.  I was not used to a female aggressor and Tracy was all of that and more.

She would attack me viciously with the sword shaped length of wood.  The blows she afflicted would leave welts on my body. She did this over and over until I learned to defend myself and dropped the shy attitude about hitting a woman.

After nearly four days of beatings I had enough of her attacks.  I had learned enough to maintain a readiness by keeping my bukken in my hand at all times, even if in the rest room.

They would call “stand-in,” and I would rush down to the camera location.  I would literally stand in the position they needed until the lighting and focus was perfected and then I would rush back up to the trailer.

On occasions Tracy would attack me as I was walking down the trail to the location or on the way back. She even attacked me once within seconds of the director saying “Thank you.”

That was the day I said enough and the two of us put on a real show.

She silently and swiftly flanked the area, and then rushed me from the left, striking towards my right side.  I had my sword in my right hand and without looking, I parried her strike as it came within inches of landing, and then I spun to my left and struck back.

Tracy blocked the thunder cut as it swept over my head and  directly at her head.  The surprise left her shocked and I could see it in her eyes as she bolted away down the hill-side.

This time though, I gave chase.

Having grown up in the forest I had a slight advantage.  I had always been the cowboy to her Indian, the samurai to her ninja.

I turned the tables and that day I was the aggressor and she had to fight for all she was worth.

Nearing the end of the shoot as it was commonly referred to; I was fitted for the costume of the principle male lead.  I had met Mark several times and we had even spent time walking through the woods talking about and looking at nature.

He gave me the chance to appreciate what I had so long taken for granted.  I could name plants and give the briefest history on Redwood trees and the area. Meanwhile Mark told me stories about other movies and plays he had worked on.

“Bring on the stunt doubles,” the director called.

Tracy and I walked out onto the set and in front of the cameras.  She winked at me and I yawned hoping to let out the butterflies that had grown in my stomach.

“Here’s what I need to happen,” the director started, “I want you riding the scooter and when I say, pitch yourself off to the right.  In other words, just jump off the thing.  You got that?”

I nodded my head yes.

“We’re going to do this several times from all sorts of angles,” the director added.

“Okay,” I replied as I climbed on the scooter.

The scooter was painted dark green and was affixed to the ground.  It looked like a motorcycle seat mounted to two metal pipes and had four flat pieces of metal attached to them at the far end away from where I was to sit.

There were two handles to hold onto as I sat there.  I was only three feet off the ground.

“Quiet!” echoed through the woods as the signal was passed on by word of mouth.

Finally the director said “Roll camera.”

A few seconds later someone said, “Camera at speed.”

A man walked out and snapped the boards together.  There was a long silence.

I wanted to look at the director but fought off the urge as he shouted “Now!”

We pitched ourselves off the scooters and to the ground.

Tracy and I did this over and over.  And in between takes the director had the cameras moved or a light placed there or here.

After every fall we would lay there until we heard the word “cut.”  Then we would get up and the prop master would come out and dust off and readjust our uniforms.

Finally after three hours of this the director got what he wanted.  He came over and said thanks and walked away.  It was lunch time by now.

The hard part was coming up as I watched them move the swing from behind the trailer where Tracy and I had practiced so many hours for so many days. This was not fair to my way of thinking as I had just eaten a big lunch and now the director wanted me to dive from the swing and fall on the ground, complete a roll and then turn to look at the camera.

Tracy was on the swinging platform with me.  She was there as a counter balance, a guide and to hold my hand as I was nervous because I had never become fully comfortable with the swing.

This time, however the director left it up to me.  I could jump when I was ready as I only needed to do it a couple of times; completing a twenty-five feet leap.

I could easily see the pads but I was afraid I’d miss them. Since I had a fear of missing them, I figured that if they weren’t there then I wouldn’t be worried about missing them.

“Get rid of the pads.” I said to Tracy

Within moments they were gone.

With the mats out-of-the-way and the cameras up to speed and Tracy as my counter balance, I launched into the air, kicking and flailing and then rolling in a somersault, to my feet.  I turned as instructed by the director and looked towards him.

A great cheer went up and everyone was clapping.  Tracy jumped from the platform and wrapped her arms around me, picking me up off the ground.  We spun in a celebration circle.

I had done the stunt, small as it was, in one take and there was no need to re-shoot it. However, for good measure the director asked for it to be shot two more times, but now the pressure was off.

Later that day I met up with my brother, Adam.  He was dressed in the all white storm troopers uniform and I was still dressed in the rebel uniform.

We were directed to the scooters, where we were allowed to beat on each other as if we were fighting while flying along.  Unlike the time before, the scooters were on tracks.

They were powered by crew members who pushed us along and into each other until we were instructed to jump off. The scooters were set very close together and at times they even bumped into each other.

Adam and I had a lot of fun that day. That brought to close day 80 of the shoot.

I was reassigned to the second unit after day 83.

They loaded the second unit up and flew us to San Francisco.  It is the only time I ever flew out of Crescent City’s McNamara airport.

There was not much time for anything other than work once the unit got there.  For me it was time for more sword play which meant no time for play at all.

The character I was doubling for was to die.  He had to look like he had done the stunt, which would involve a fall from a height of about twenty feet.

The other would be a strike to the stomach by my opponents’ sword.  But before that, I would end up cutting off the hand of the character that would “kill” me.

The sword in this case was nothing more than citizens band radio antennae.  It was white fiber glass mounted in a plastic die-cast handle, about three feet long.

The stunt actor I was to fight with stood was about six feet, eight inches.  Our first sparing match was a very well choreographed dance.

Thrust, parry, stroke, thrust, parry, strike.

We danced it out until everyone was happy with the movements. This was an action scene and it had to be dramatic.

The following day we were suited up.  My opponent came out in an all black suit, with his face completely hidden under a black helmet and face visor. He also had on a cape.

As I saw it, this was an advantage because I didn’t have anything blocking my eyes and I had no cape to get tangled up in.  I wished someone would have told him this though.

The moment action was called he advanced on me like a swarm of locust.  It was all I could do to keep from being hit.

His blows were fast and furious.  The taller man struck me twice and they stung like the snap of whip.

The final two shots were of me cutting the hand off of a manikin as it was propped up and fastened to a guard rail.  I completed it in one take as there were five different camera angles involved.  Then I had to stand on a collapsible walk way and fall from it as it dropped out from underneath me.

On day five of the second units shoot, I had to play like I was killed.  The first part of the day was the easier of the two stunts.  I received a belly cut from the tall man’s sword, fell to the ground, rolled over and pitched myself from the platform onto some awaiting mats.

The second half of the stunt involved having two guide wires attached to my waist by a harness.  I was propelled through the air and into a wall as if I had been in an explosion. Then I’d slide down the wall, to the floor, ending up in a seated position where I would “die.”

Once the stunts were completed I was flown back to Crescent City where I was just in time to work in the final battle scenes. I had just one more stunt to complete.

This one involved six people getting captured in a hanging net.  The net was made of rope and painted with a rubberized material and was lifted off the ground by a crane.

As the six of us were caught and the net closed around us everything went fine.  But as we were raised six to eight feet off the ground, the cable came undone and the ball attached to the crane plummeted to the ground.

The ball landed a couple of feet from our piled up bodies.  Fortunately, no one was hurt by either the fall or the 100 pound ball.

The old saying is true: “The show must go on.” Within minutes the cable was repaired and the director shot the scene without any further hitch.

The remainder of the day I spent my time wearing either a rebel uniform or a storm trooper outfit, running up and down the wooded hillside, fighting imaginary battles, blowing things up, being shot at and playing dead when told. All too soon, “It’s a wrap,” was called and like that it was over.

For over three-weeks I had lived, eaten and breathed “Blue Harvest.” I had helped carry lights and stood in front of cameras.  I had done stunts, fought with a sword, died time and again and carried Ewoks (including Warwick Davis and Debbie Carrington,) over the forest’s deadfall as they had difficulty getting around in costume.

Quickly I realized I would miss being on a movie set.  But I also knew I had to get back to reality.

It was over a year later that I heard that the movie was coming out – but under a different title: Return of the Jedi. By this time I was living in Arcata, stationed at NAS Centerville and working part-time at KATA-KFMI radio stations.

I invited all my friends at the two stations and the few Marines from the Navy base to come see the movie.

It was amazing how Mark, the man I had doubled for, was now in my place during all the stunts I had completed and the more I saw Mark, the more I grew quiet and sullen.

Before the movie started, I was certain everybody would know it was me, but no one could tell, not even me. Now I felt silly because I couldn’t prove it was me who had done all those things in that movie.

I really wanted someone to say, “There’s Tom.  Did you see him?”

That never happened. Worse yet, I thought my name would appear somewhere in the credits – but that didn’t happen either.

Later that night I sat on the couch and nursed my wounded feelings with a six-pack of cold beer, remembering I had an autographed picture from Mark, the lead Actor.  That was all the proof I had.

It read, “Tom – (Luke II!) Many Thanks (From a Galaxy Far, Far Away.) Mark Hamill.”

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About Tom Darby

French-born, American-raised, U.S. citizen, husband, father, friend, veteran, and writer.
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