Key to the Kingdom - Chapter One
Halogen headlamps pierced the darkness of the cool central Florida night. The GPS guided the Mustang surging toward the coastal community of Port Orange. Racing along Taylor Road Dr. Grayson Hawkes approached an unknown destination. Questions swirled in the tornado of curiosity whipping through the preacher’s mind. The glow of the dashboard light illuminated the business card propped against the gearshift; “1819 Taylor Road, Port Orange” had been neatly printed in blue ink. Flipping the card he read the name on the other side.
Walt Disney Company
Reading the name of his dear friend brought a slight smile to his face. Rales had been hired by the late Walt Disney himself as an animator at the Walt Disney Studios on Rales’s thirtieth birthday. In the years that followed he had worked on animated features, been involved in projects at Disneyland, and eventually became a part of that exclusive group of creative Walt Disney Company designers known as Imagineers. Rales was part Disney historian, part Disney philosopher, and a modern day keeper of the dream that Walt himself had begun.
Farren Rales had given him the business card with an invitation to meet the old Imagineer at ten o’clock this evening. The GPS announced a turn seconds before an inconspicuous dirt road veered to the right. Hawk responded sluggishly and shot past it. He instantly banked his ride into a U-turn that corrected his course. Slowly navigating the heavily wooded, chassis-jarring dirt road, he watched for signage. The headlights threw a glow on a sign that read Gamble Place Parking with an arrow that pointed right. He turned the wheel. A gate immediately came into view, blocking forward progress. Hawk looked over the steering wheel trying to decide whether he had managed to bungle the directions and gotten hopelessly lost. With the car idling he got out and walked to the gate. Grasping the chain that held the gate closed, he saw the lock had been secured to the chain, but the chain was not fastened. When he dropped the chain, the gate lazily swung open. Hawk slid back behind the wheel of the car and it crawled forward as the dirt became softer below the tires. The Mustang eased up to a parking barrier, above which the headlights shone on a yellow house trimmed in green.
Exiting the automobile Hawk left the parking area and made his way toward the house. There was a display in front of the walkway to the house that probably explained where he was. The automatic timer for the headlamps clicked off, leaving him standing in darkness. Sensing his eyes would never adjust in the moonless night to read the display, he remembered a flashlight that hopefully was still in the trunk of the car. He retraced his steps. In addition to the soft sound of his shoe steps in the sand, Hawk thought he heard something else moving near him. He came to an abrupt halt. Rales? Listening closely he now only heard the sounds of the outdoor evening. The trunk popped open, producing a blast of light that momentarily blinded him. He fumbled for the flashlight and flicked the switch. The beam shone strongly as he slammed the trunk shut. He again moved toward the house. Sweeping the beam around him, he saw a large historical marker looming in the dark, over his left shoulder. He refocused the attention of the light on this newly discovered sign.
In 1898, James N. Gamble, of the Proctor and Gamble Company and a longtime winter resident of Daytona Beach, bought this land on Spruce Creek for use as a rural retreat. In 1907 he built a small cracker cottage with an open front porch and a breezeway connecting a separate kitchen and dining room . . . In 1938, Gamble’s son-in-law, Alfred K. Nippert, completed the “Snow White House,” a Black Forest style cottage inspired by the Disney animated film classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The house is surrounded by a Witch’s Hut, the Dwarfs Mine Shaft, and an elaborate network of rock gardens. Collectively these buildings and grounds form a historic landscape now known as Gamble Place. This property was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
Obviously Rales had asked Hawk here because of the Disney connection. It had been a Disney connection that had started the friendship between the two men. Hawk had been introduced to Rales and asked the Imagineer if he would meet with him and his church staff to teach them the art of storytelling. The first meeting had gone so well it turned into a standing appointment each month. However this evening the invitation was for Hawk alone. Sighing deeply in an attempt to relax, Hawk listened closely and his ears tuned in to the sound of water gently playing along an unseen shoreline. An unexpected snap of a branch unleashed a wave of adrenaline spinning him in the direction of the noise. He peered into the blackness of the trees, searching for the maker of the sound, but heard nothing.
“Farren, is that you?” Hawk spoke with a bit more edge than he anticipated.
Silence confirmed Rales was not the source of the sound. “So when did you get so scared of the dark?” he muttered to himself. “And when did you start talking to yourself?”
Out of the corner of his vision he noticed a glimmer of light across the wooded darkness. With a bit of reservation he moved toward it. His shoes cracked sticks and crushed leaves, creating a symphony of sound that shattered the haunting noises of nature that had moments ago surrounded him. His flashlight began to dim. Shaking it violently he resurrected the brilliance of the beam only to watch it fade into a momentary glow, and then disappear completely.
“Tremendous,” he said in frustration at the malfunctioning light. “Still talking to . . . and answering yourself.”
The point of light he had been moving toward disappeared as well. Pressing onward he drew nearer to where it had been. Once again it appeared and this time looked brighter and stronger. Hawk’s trudging through the undergrowth yielded to softer ground as he heard a familiar voice cut quietly through the night.
“I began to think you weren’t going to make it.”
“I was starting to think you were playing a practical joke on me,” Hawk whispered back.
“Now, would I do that to you?” Rales laughed softly.
Hawk could now see much better as he approached the place where Rales stood. Farren had brought a lantern that illuminated the place he was standing and cast long shadows in multiple directions. Hawk descended the steps to join Rales on what appeared to be a recently created platform. The sound of the creek was closer and Hawk assumed they were now on the edge of the river. Rales was dressed in a pair of black slacks with a lightweight black windbreaker. Hawk did not miss the stealth attire and was getting ready to comment on it when Rales again spoke in a hushed tone.
“Any trouble finding the place?”
“I suppose not, since it’s out in the middle of nowhere!” Hawk decided to satisfy his curiosity. “And could you tell me why we’re whispering?”
“Didn’t you read the sign? We’re in a state park. It closed at dusk. We could get arrested for being here.”
“Then why didn’t we come here in the daylight?”
“Now, that wouldn’t be as much fun, would it?”
“Farren, we should clarify our definitions of fun.”
“Breaking into a state park is a story you’ll be able to tell for years!”
“I didn’t break in, the gate was unlocked.”
“So you opened it and drove on in.”
“You invited me.”
“Shhh,” Rales interrupted.
Hawk grew quiet and strained to hear sounds coming out of the darkness. He studied Rales’s tense features, trying to decide whether the old man was toying with him or was actually concerned that they might be caught after hours in the park. Rales’s face softened and he turned away from Hawk, letting his lantern shine toward a nearby wooden cottage that looked as if had been plucked off of an animation cell from an antique piece of film. Hawk’s mouth opened slightly. Rales moved forward and panned the light across the front of this cottage that did not belong in this time or any other. It was recognizable as the cottage in the Black Forest of the classic cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Hawk’s eyes followed the movement of the lantern to the carved lintel and a stone trough. Rales moved toward the front door, fumbled with the handle, and then opened it. Looking back to Hawk, he motioned for him to follow him inside. Hawk entered, feeling like he was stepping into a fairy tale as Rales silently closed the door behind them.