What’s In A Word: Chico The Barking Spider

I look into the origin of words or phrases that catch my interest

Definition of barking spider: What farts are blamed on when no dog is available.

A barking spider is a convenient scapegoat when you’re caught farting.

Here’s how I imagine this expression was born:

The scene is a college fraternity house in the early ‘60s, right out of the movie Animal House.

A bunch of guys lounge around, having a few beers, exchanging the usual raunchy banter, when… fuuurrp!

“Oh, jeesh! Beer fart!” — “OK… who did it?” — “Animal! Was that you?”

“No, man, not mine,” an unabashed Animal coolly replies. “It was a barking spider.” Uproarious laughter

Bodily function humor is best appreciated by staggeringly immature young men who’ve had too many beers.

I first learned about Chico The Barking Spider from my friend John Gallanos. Must have been around 1975 when I met that immensely likable, remarkably talented, and star-crossed individual.

I thought John giving the barking spider a name, Chico, was ingenious — the funniest thing I ever heard.

Especially as Chico is suggestive of Mexican food — all that cheese, beans, salsa, onions. Mex food is a prodigious producer of ass-whistles, butt thunder, and backdoor breezes.

I was young and staggeringly immature, and rarely let my blood-alcohol level fall lower than what’s known as Irish sober.

I couldn’t get enough to drink. If the Pacific Ocean were Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, I’d worry about evaporation. It was that bad.

I guess you had to be there, to see John’s trademark big, toothy grin and hear him shout “Chico!” whenever someone sat on a duck, shot a bunny, stepped on a frog, or just plain cut the cheese. John was our official fart alarm.

Now, at 62, I’m old and my blood’s alcohol free. But as you can tell by this post on farts and barking spiders, I haven’t matured much.

As my onetime friend Steve Rankin says, “You’re only young once, but you can be immature all your life.”

Boardwalk on Balboa Peninsula

I first heard Rankin say that to a bald-headed, middle-age guy who was walking along the boardwalk on Balboa Peninsula.

I dropped by Rankin’s second-story beachside apartment and found him on his balcony shooting off bottle rockets. One rocket exploded just above the poor man’s head.

The man looked up to see Rankin smiling down, about to light another rocket (embarrassed, I quickly crouched out of sight).

“Dammit! Why don’t you grow up?” the man shouted at Rankin.

“Sir,” says Rankin, “you’re only young once, but you can be immature all your life.” I’ve seen that bit of Rankin wisdom demonstrated many times over the years.

Rankin introduced me to John Gallanos. It figures those two madmen would be close friends.

And one day fifteen years after that introduction Rankin called me at work with sad news about John.

I was surprised to get a call from Rankin. Long estranged from all my old friends, I hadn’t seen John for years, and very little of Rankin.

My life had descended into alcoholism. Like all drunks, I had nothing to offer, wasn’t worth knowing.

“The other guys asked me to talk to you because I’m your best friend,” Rankin told me one day in the late ‘70s. “We’re tired of you coming over and drinking all our beer.”

One of many, many humiliations drinking caused me. And not the worst, by far not the worst.

When Rankin called, I was 7 or 8 years sober, but the damage was done. Some things are unforgettable, unforgivable. Not that I looked for Rankin’s (or anyone else’s) forgiveness. I can’t — I won’t — forgive myself.

Rankin called because he thought I should know: Last night, he said, John drove to a cliff in Malibu and ran a hose from his pickup truck’s exhaust to the cab. Suicide.

I had heard that John suffered back problems, took a lot of pills to kill the pain, couldn’t surf anymore, put on weight and was so out-of-shape, so different from the John I knew, that I wouldn’t recognize him. I heard that he married a horrible woman whom all his friends hated, and that she caused him a lot of pain before she dumped him.

I heard all this, but I had my own problems. Now I kick myself for not reaching out to my old friend, someone who meant so much to me. Too late, too bad.

Rankin said John’s family planned to scatter his ashes at sea.

The sea is where John forever belongs.

John was a great surfer: intense, aggressive, with tremendous strength and agility. He’d often get up before dawn to surf before going to work.

The last time I saw John was at Zunzal, El Salvador, near the legendary surfing spot, La Libertad.

Zunzal, El Salvador. Surfline.com says, “Extremely consistent quasi-world class rock-bottom right point. On a solid swell it can hold up to 10 feet plus, peeling evenly along the rocks. A 30-minute bus ride from La Libertad costs less than a dollar American. Just look for the bus marked “El Zunzal.”

I sat atop a big rock on the beach and watched John, the only surfer out that day, working the waves, tapping the source. I can see him in my mind now.

John surfed alone because he ignored warnings about the sharks.

Sharks were congregating off the beach at Zunzal. One surfer told me he saw a shark leap from the water and corkscrew in the air. He said a shark expert had come to Zunzal to study the phenomenon.

Even visiting Australian surfers stayed on the beach, complaining about all the “snappers.”

A shark had chased Rankin and me out of the surf.

See the waves breaking far on the outside in the above photo of the beach at Zunzal? That’s where Rank and I were body surfing, way out there.

Suddenly, Rankin took off. I watched him swimming madly toward the beach. “Where’s he going in such a hurry?” I thought, then turned around and saw the reason for his abrupt exit.

Thanks for the heads up on the shark, Rankin!

To be fair to Mr Rankin, there’s another angle to this true story that I hesitate to reveal, because I doubt you’ll believe me.

Neither of us was in his right mind. We were both under a chemical influence.

Let’s just say that if that shark had taken a bite of Rank or me, in about fifteen minutes that shark would begin to feel very, very strange: tangerine trees, marmalade skies, cellophane flowers of yellow and green, the works.

It was the 1970s, you know.

Though Rankin had a big head start, I caught up with him. I must have ran on top of the water. Entirely possible on a quarter hit of bulls-eye blotter acid.

As we scrambled out of the water, Rankin turned to me and said, “You’re eyes are as big as saucers.”

A Salvadoran walking along the beach witnessed the whole thing. “Tiburon, muy perigoso,” he informed us.

“No shit,” said Rankin.

I threw rocks as far out in the sea as I could, hoping to hit the shark in his cold, coal-black eye, the same eye I stared into, horrified, as the fucker passed a few feet from me, dorsal fin knifing the water, just like in the movies.

I admired John’s hardcore surfer attitude. All true surfers respect, not fear, sharks. Share the ocean.

I’m no surfer. I need a few breakfast beers, maybe two or three shots of Tic Tac, and to drop LSD before I’ll swim with sharks. Well, not knowingly swim with sharks. That was just my usual morning routine in El Salvador.

Tic Tac, the nasty, liver-rotting liquor of El Salvador.        I have sampled this product.

John and I almost died together not far from where he surfed and where the shark chased Rankin and me.

We were exploring caves that went deep into a cliff by the sea. You could tell from the clean-swept sandy floor and dank walls that the caves flooded when the tide came in.

Our timing was off. The tide came rushing in while we were poking around the hot, humid caves. We hustled to escape through a natural-worn tunnel when a rogue wave flushed us both out like turds down a toilet. Ended up a short swim near the beach.

How we weren’t drowned, smashed against the sharp rocks of the narrow tunnel walls, or swept out to sea, I don’t know. But if we had died that day long ago, we’d have both missed a lot of future misery. Too bad.

Odd that John ended up dying on top of a sea cliff at Malibu, when at Zunzal he almost died inside a sea cliff.

For more than 35 years, depending on the situation, I’ve blamed farts — my own or others — on Chico The Barking Spider. Just this morning my wife Lizzie attributed a toot I overheard to “a little Chico.”

I can’t mention Chico without summoning memories of my friend John Gallanos, now gone more than twenty years.

I’m sure John doesn’t mind associating his memory with farts. There are worse ways to be remembered. I should know.

Malibu at sunset. Here, John rides the waves forever. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times)

A man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus

In 1978, at Rankin’s invitation, John grabbed his surfboard and flew from LA to El Salvador to spend his vacation with The Three Steves during our epic, year-long journey through Mexico and Central America.

I wrote about that big adventure in an earlier post, Monkey Business, which includes photos (I lost the hat I’m wearing in photo below when John and I were flushed from the seaside caves). Check it out.

The Three Steves. From left, Steve Rankin, Steve Call, and me. Photo taken in 1978 at Cahuita, east coast of Costa Rica.

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2 thoughts on “What’s In A Word: Chico The Barking Spider

  1. Steve says:

    I had other close calls in Zunzal.

    My legs cramped while boogie-boarding. I was caught in a rip tide, headed straight for the same rocky point John and I barely avoided when we were flushed out of the tunnel. I managed to catch a wave to shore. Rankin watched from the beach, couldn’t muster much interest in my predicament, and was absolutely no help at all.

    Once at a Tic Tac bar on the beach I was trapped between two guys having a sword fight with machetes. Luckily, Tic Tac has a pernicious effect on muscle coordination. Two drunk peasants with wet noodles for arms could barely wield their machetes. Gringo clumsily escapes in slow motion. Tic Tac probably causes permanent brain damage, too. Can you tell?

    At the one-room “hotel” we stayed in Zunzal, I was awakened one morning by a grinning Salvodoran soldier poking an assault rifle in my side. Not a great way to start your day.

    Remind me sometime to tell you about Zunzal’s Rio Azul cantina/whorehouse, and the creepy Australian sociopath who lurked around Zunzal. I believe Rank and I inadvertently saved a drunk American woman from rape or murder by this evil individual. “You don’t understand what’s going on,do you?” he told me before we ruined his plans for the young lady. The guy gives me the chills to this day.

    Zunzal was quite a place. I wouldn’t last two minutes in Zunzal today. From what I understand, it’s overrun by gang-bangers deported from LA. Stay away from Zunzal.

    • Steve says:

      Steve Rankin died July 25, 2012, after a long, mysterious illness, age 59. Steve Call phoned me with the news.

      I hadn’t spoke with Mr Call in years. I didn’t know Rankin was ill; I still don’t know what he died from, Steve Call couldn’t say. He said maybe it was from a bacterial infection he picked up in a visit to New Zealand in 2010.

      I was at Rankin’s memorial service today. More than 100 people showed up. I’d be surprised if a couple of people show up at my memorial service, if I were capable of feeling surprise. Rankin was special to so many people.

      My life would have been very boring if I had never met Steve Rankin. We had many incredible adventures. I often recall them. I smile, laugh, and look back in wonder. That’s where Mr Rankin still lives.

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