In this section you can submit questions to people that knew Elvis, or to other important people in the Elvis World.
Sun Apr 06, 2008 7:38 am
As I continue writing the book that will chronicle the saga of Vic and the bootlegs I often marvel at just how lucky I was and am. I married the loveliest girl on the planet, have two beautiful children and two adorable grandchildren, and it just doesn't get any better than that. Good fortune played a tremendous part in all those records, but I am at a point where luck reared its pretty head in another fashion. There was almost never a seventh record. It could have all ended with "New Year's Eve" but for an outcropping of rock. Four years ago I set down a number of incidents in my life for my children; one of them directly factors into the Elvis story. That one will be recounted in the book, of course, but for those of you who enjoy my writing (c'mon, must be one of you out there) I thought I'd reprint that lengthy bit I penned for my family. Not Elvis stories, just one that tangentially involves Elvis, but examples of "There, but for fortune, go I". H'yar 'tis: (for those only interested in the Elvis–related incident it is #6)
Borrowing from Cats
Why the Reaper Is Grim
Been there, done that. I’ve seen it all, heard it all, tried it all, got through it all. Now it is time to write about it. The journey from zygote to mote has been as wild a ride as Mr. Toad’s at points along the way. Here’s a chronological chronicle of the times when I could easily have, but for my leprechaun, wound up serving my fellow man by taking up residence in a compost pile.
Equipped with a hardy hoe to reconnoiter the road ahead, I have journeyed on the track less–beaten and exited to find myself in a host of perilous, near–calamitous circumstances. I looked back the other day, took stock, and marveled at my good fortune. Some poor cat out there is living on borrowed time; I stole all his lives. That I am here to relate these bits of wonderment is explainable by nothing other than the felonies visited on this hapless feline. The alternative is saying hi to the man with the scythe: Death—fierce, fast, forlorn, and a fleeting reminder of how fragile we all are.
INCIDENT THE FIRST: ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT
My oldest recollection is an incident 45 years ago last summer. I was enjoying the beauty and beauties of the beach at Cornfield Point, CT. My parents rented a cottage there for the month of August for a number of years and every weekend different friends arrived, all with children my age in tow, to enjoy the weather and bask in the sun. Frolic was the daily fare for me and my peers, and after seeing the pair of movies that came to town each Friday night, for this was the day of the double–feature (a quaint bit of Americana that coexists in my memory alongside the nickel candy bar), and the one that was shown at the Cornfield Point Clubhouse on Saturday night, we were left to sort through our imaginative devices to fill a Sunday evening before everyone departed, save my family, later that same night. I could swim incredible distances in those days; a five-mile splash from Cornfield Point to Old Saybrook was a tri–weekly feat I undertook undaunted. That served me well, as we shall see.
Sunday eve was always a bit of a downer, and although that word was not in play at this time, it describes our feelings well. After two terrific days and nights it was time to once again say farewell to friends I would not see again until school began. How to spice up the seventh day? On this particular occasion it had been decided sometime that afternoon that we would take a boat trip after dinner. This was a time when people anchored their larger craft offshore and rowed to the mainland. The rowboats and dinghies were simply pulled up onto the sand above the high–water line and left there for the morrow without a care. There was no concern about thievery; who would want a rowboat? Long before it became necessary to count the blades of grass on one’s lawn before the sun went down and recount the next morning, there was a quirky concept that affected most of America. I call it trust in our fellow man.
Thus, with no need to fear booby traps, high voltage, or ear–piercing alarms, and no qualms about exsanguination brought on by a bout with razor wire, we planned to simply make off with a rowboat. Steal one. But bring it back, and that made the idea palatable. After all, this was merely a form of borrowing, albeit without the necessary permission, and at fifteen, rationalization turns many a fine lad into a minor felon. We were no exceptions and we made our way down to the beach after the dishes had been put away. The Point was where cliffs rendezvoused and this meant our pillage would take place away from seeing eyes. The beach further comforted our trepidation by being narrow and cliffs jutted outward to the sea on either side. A veritable pirate’s cove it was, and we descended the 50 or more steps to the sand and prepared to make off with a boat unburdened by booty. The lovely Laurie, a distant cousin from the Patrick clan, supplied the beauty and made the venture worthwhile. My distant cousin and I had become kissing cousins that weekend and I would be especially sad to see her go. Adding to my sorrow, she lived in Stratford (that lovely town which is home to a replica of Shakespeare’s theater), many hoots and hollers from West Hartford, and who knew when we would meet again? Would our lips press anew? Did I impress her? Such are the manic meanderings of the teenage mind. For all I knew she was wishing for me to be impressed aboard the next ship to set sail for a faraway port. Those were the days of merriment and wonder, and accompanied by Steve, the Mr. Smee to my Captain Hook, we turned the rowboat over (oars were tucked unconcernedly beneath) and dragged our prize into the waters of Long Island Sound.
It was immediately obvious that we had neglected to factor in one major detail: None of us knew the first thing about rowing.
There we foundered, two klutzes and a hapless maiden, the trio bent on hurling our halcyon days into the abyss. We tried, oh how we tried. We found ourselves going around in circles, unable to synchronize our efforts. Laurie should have jumped into the water and swum ashore after a brief interlude of ineptness, but we made her captain and that meant she was along for the ride—wherever we trundled. Spinning lazily and crazily, unable to make any semblance of progress in even the most crooked of lines, we now noticed a few people had gathered on the hill overlooking the beach. They seemed to be chortling at our feeble attempt to perform, to them, the most mundane of tasks. Every little crook and nanny would soon join them. As they watched, we receded. Quickly. Another thing we knew nothing about was the riptide. That phenomenon has been the bane of many without gills. We were lumped in that category, and “woe be to he…” acquired a whole new meaning. No longer were we concerned about being discovered. We had been. The concern now was planting our feet on sandy soil again. Or we’d be planted. Or fish food. Did I mention there was a fog rolling in? Rolling as in going–like–sixty and blanketing the shoreline. The shore folk were becoming a distant memory, as we were intent on being. The only way out of this predicament was to solve our rowing dilemma, right this blasted boat, and head in the right direction. Did I say “right this blasted boat?” How prophetic. This was when Steve decided that might was right, leaned all the way back, dug his oar into the water, and gave a hearty heave. And the oar traveled less than a foot before his misguided exertions misfired and the oar came up and out of the water. This is when inertia and centripetal force collided, the boat overturned, and we were dunked into the water, water everywhere… Patooey, I can still taste the brine. Good thing I can. The alternative seemed the most likely incursion into my existence at that moment. The first thing I noticed when I surfaced was an oar drifting away. That wouldn’t do, and I set out after it. I retrieved it, turned around, and was astonished by the distance that now separated me from the rowboat. Forgetting about the oar I literally swam for my life. Shore was unthinkably and suddenly far away. I obviously reached the boat, and all that swimming I had been doing sure proved worthwhile. Every one of us had energy to burn at that age, and luckily I chose well. This would not be the last time I suspected a kindly leprechaun lurked in my pocket. Getting back to the boat solved my immediate problem, now all that was left was to leave this waterworld to its rightful inhabitants, make like a land animal, a sheep would do, and get the flock out of here.
One or more of those kindly folks who began the dusky hours diagnosed our plight correctly and scurried to a phone. In those days this meant a trip back to their abode, which must not have been far. If it was, we were sunk. Sunk, as in sink or swim. The rowboat floated nicely upside down, but I have often wondered if we could have clung to it all night. The body loses heat rapidly when immersed in water, and at some point enough enzymes would no longer be operating optimally, senses would dull, and bye, bye, wish I was a birdie. We could no longer see the shore and that meant no one could see us. And if they couldn’t see us then…
And at that very minute a Coast Guard cutter burst out of the fog and “Blinded by the Light” has been one of my top–ten favorites since the day it was released. Just to have stuck around to hear that song makes me wonder about fate and those Muses spinning wildly. There were no GPS gizmos back then so just how they got such an accurate fix is beyond me. More Irish tomfoolery. Lost and then found, swaddled in blankets, heading home, riding high, what a high, in the back of the cutter, looking back at what had just happened and at the rowboat being towed behind us. Or tried to. Between the time we were hoisted from our petard to the arms of waiting coastguardsmen, when the cutter was visible from a few feet away, and now, when the rowboat on a twelve–foot tether had disappeared, the fog had made it nearly impossible to see the person seated next to you. It was Nick’s time, and that’s what I have called my leprechaun since that day.
We made the 11 o’clock news and I got my first taste of brandy after midnight. All things considered, neither made much of an impression. I dismiss talking heads as irrelevant (but The Talking Heads are a band I love) and I never developed any taste for liquor. I quaff copious amounts of Coca–Cola® daily and read the newspaper from above the fold to the end of the sports section. As for the ocean, I went back in the water the next day with a healthy, newfound respect for its powerful “pull.” Years later I tasted Brandy after midnight again, unbottled, and that impression lingers.
INCIDENTS WITHOUT NUMBERS: JUMPING FOR JOY
I have always considered thirteen an unlucky number. That is my only superstition. The reason just may lie buried in this tale that does not rate a number because I had a backup. An inanimate backup, but one that I loved, cherished, and faithfully fondled frequently. Rocky was his name.
I attended the Army’s Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia in October 1965. This three–week course produces mannish mice that leave the red clay hills of The Peachtree State convinced they are the baddest, meanest, butt–bashingest troopers on the planet. It’s a start. The foundation has been poured. Toss Ranger School, Mountain School, Jungle School, and a few others on top of the lettuce Benning dispensed and you have young men in their salad days capable of claiming membership in Caesar’s praetorian guard.
We began the first week with just over twelve–hundred eager beavers. We graduated almost five–hundred exhausted dam–builders that thought, “Damn, I did it!” Successful completion of this course was an accomplishment, surely, and it did put a bounce in your gait and a snarl on your lips. “Airborne!” was the cry that resounded from dawn to dusk as would–be paratroopers learned, swung and dangled from, and fastened the ropes that would earn them the wings they would proudly display while they were still in the service. Later, those same wings would become dust–collectors, joining the once–jaunty members of a juggernaut atop the dustbin of memories we all hold so dear.
We made five jumps in the third week—one each on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday; two on Wednesday; graduated Thursday afternoon; and shipped out Friday to a new posting where everyone owned what had just been bestowed upon us. Scramble to the top, scurry to the bottom, such was the Army.
There was an added bonus for all this exertion: largesse, government–style. The munificent sum of fifty–five dollars was added to the monthly paycheck and labeled “jump pay.” Doesn’t sound like very much now, and by today’s standards it is a pittance. When I joined the Army I received seventy–eight dollars per month; this was raised to eighty–three dollars each month after four months. It then ascended to ninety–eight dollars monthly when I made PFC. Using that scale, you can understand there was a driving force behind making the grade; all this long before Americans thought of fifty–five as a restrictive nuisance that made for longer drives (and saved lives). Noteworthy is the fact that fifty–five dollars was the same amount received for hazardous duty or “combat” pay. Either experience builds character; but I wouldn’t characterize them as equivalent.
To keep the government coffers coughing up a Grant and a Lincoln each month we had to make qualifying jumps. Daytime static–line jumps from a C–117 were the commonest. We also jumped from a C–130 (this required some self–convincing: you had to run down a 60–foot ramp before stepping off into space); a helicopter (another stern talk with one’s will: you sat still on the edge of the door, the chopper hovered, and you pushed yourself up and out—no mean feat); and we made one night–jump.
The last jump I made, a few months before heading to Vietnam, was my thirteenth. Just another day; just another jump; just another self–induced foul–up. I tumbled as I went out the door, a King–Kong–sized no–no. Dutifully counting to four before looking up, I had the sensation something had gone awry. It had. I tilted my head back to see a tangled mess of suspension lines and canopy above me. That wouldn’t do, nor would it slow my descent. The training kicked in; I ducked my head anew, grabbed the handle of the reserve chute riding on my beltline, and pulled.
We had been told that this aluminum handle was worth a case of beer (I would have taken Coca–Cola) at the EM club. We had also been taught that pulling the handle of the reserve chute would cause a small parachute to be ejected that would then pull the reserve out of its packing and aid in deployment. Warned that the small chute might not do the job entirely, we were told it might be necessary to hand–feed the reserve out of its casing. With this in mind, and mindful of tempering my trajectory to something less than death–defying, I pulled the handle and reached toward the spot from which the pilot chute would emanate. The little sucker nearly tore my hand off. It came out, all right, at about four thousand miles per hour. The handle I had been tenderly tending was wrenched from my hand. The reserve asserted itself nicely, dampened the speed of my drop to something survivable, and a deathening splat thus avoided I arrived on terra firma none the worse for wondering where I would have landed and how hard if not for this fail–safe device.
I was in the seventh stick to plummet out of the planes. I was the second one on the ground. Praise the penultimate; I could have been the first. Rocky Reserve saved my life that day and, since that was my last jump, I never got to fondle him anew. Dandle Rocky for me, all you jump–booted jackers out there.
INCIDENT THE SECOND: FIRST MAN OUT
We now fast–forward to Vietnam. I had been in–country about two weeks and had hung around the base camp, there being a prescribed seven–to–ten–day acclimatization period (the exact number escapes me) for new arrivals. Pronounced ready to assume a position in “the field” I was one of two medics selected to join reconnaissance teams bent on discovering where the elusive “enemy” had secreted themselves. I went with a group from B Company; the other guy went with a group from C Company. We didn’t find anyone or anything. They did. I came back; he went home. He never got any older. I always have considered that one a coin flip.
INCIDENT THE THIRD: NEW SCENERY, OLD STORY
Same place, different time, similar story. Many miles south of the aforementioned base camp we joined up with members of the First Cavalry Division for a massive joint operation. No, silly, not that kind of joint operation. I only saw “grass” twice while I was there back in 1966. Vietnam’s “drug problem” was in the future, and I have always been of the mind it began here in the U.S. and was drafted over there. Back to the events at hand: A makeshift camp was erected and each day new missions and orders were handed down, enacted, and executed. We rotated back and forth, from the insecurity of the field to the relative calm and complacency of the mobile headquarters we had constructed. I was packed and ready to assume my rightful role with a recon team the following morning. Sitting there, jawing with the guys, I learned, when a first sergeant stopped by to tell me, that I was being transferred to Division HQ because they needed a medical laboratory technician. I had been cross–trained in that specialty. Another GI took my place. He stopped a couple dozen machine–gun rounds with his torso and thighs. Another flippin’ coin. In an earlier story I stated that he survived. I didn’t lie. He did. For a while.
INCIDENTS WITHOUT NUMBERS: TROPICAL TALES
These don’t get numerical designations because they don’t really qualify. Not close enough. Just another end–of–day; just another start–of–night in Vietnam. I wrote about them. They’re in my collection of Tropical Vacation Tales. One was about the misplaced artillery rounds that nearly landed in our lap thanks to a green second–lieutenant's snafu. The other was about the fusillade of machine–gun bullets sent our way by our own troops when we blundered too close to a base camp without notifying them. Everyday fare in that fair land. It was always hot, that I mentioned also. Sometimes the heat of the moment rendered the temperature insignificant.
And, of course, there was the debacle I mentioned in another tale of the tropics. I think I failed to mention that my column was one column away from one of the two that got zapped. Obliterated. Wiped out. Thirty–nine young lives were sucked into a violent vortex, never to return, in what was probably less time than it just took me to type this sentence. And now there is Iraq. And here come those tears again. Did I tell you that back in the beginning of 2001 I said to Patrick and Lisa, my criminal children, “You’re the first generation of Americans without a war to call your own?” Now, there is a fourth great lie.
INCIDENT THE FOURTH, PART ONE: TRUCKIN’
Back home again. Went back to college. Temple University, Philadelphia. Pretty tame after the tropics. I was restless, too fidgety to sit and learn. I needed to get out; after a couple years of classroom capers I did. In 1971 I was a truck–drivin’–man. Some irony here: This Sam drove for a fellow named Samuels, who ran the show from a dining–room table in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Talk about rickety, John Samuels’ outfit made disasters desirable! That those trucks ran at all was directly attributable to Mark, mechanic extraordinaire. He was on constant call, scurrying all over New Jersey to attend to Mr. Samuels’ disabled derelicts. The entire fleet belonged on a conveyor belt—the one leading to the crusher. The only thing in worse shape was the dining–room table. The operation can be summed up thusly: Mr. Samuels would place bids every year with the U.S. Post Office to obtain the right to transport mail from the Sectional Center in Pennsauken, New Jersey to a myriad of small towns, hamlets, and whistle–stops that dot The Garden State. Now there’s a euphemism: calling a landfill a garden.
I left my apartment in Germantown, a northwest section of Philadelphia, each morning at two and I arrived in Pennsauken at three. I loaded the truck—a “straight job” (like the ones U–Haul and Ryder rent)—and sallied forth at four, making stops in Wenonah, Sewell, Pitman, and Glassboro. Glassboro’s claim to fame was a state college. Wenonah had a cute store chock full of sundries with a lunch counter that I visited two or three times a day. The proprietor, George, treated me like royalty. I was a big spender. I dropped four or five bucks a day in that place. Pitman actually had a Main Street with a few stores, a bank, and a 7–11. Back then it opened at seven and closed at eleven. How did you think they came up with the name? Those were radical hours when The Southland Corporation began to replace beauty with blight. Sewell reeked from the pig farms. I’m sure Sewell is a foreign word. In that language the “ll” is used in place of “r.”
They all had post offices; I had a job. I ferried the heavy load of morning mail to those four backwater burgs and left Glassboro at six, headed back to Pennsauken, and normally left Pennsauken again at nine, noon, and four in the afternoon. The first trip out in the morning and the last trip back at night fell in the heavy–lifting category. The others trips were pit stops by comparison. Looking back, I wonder why they were made. No doubt, cutbacks have eliminated them. Funneling Registered Mail and Special Delivery Mail that arrived during the day is the only reason I can think of for bothering with those runs. Remember Special Delivery? Now you can consider yourself special if your mail actually gets delivered.
Wow! Was I ever in great shape back in those days? Just a shade over four years from the jungle, I had muscles in places where now I don’t even have places. I was tireless. I’m still a night owl, always will be. But back then I thought nothing of working eleven days out of every fourteen and racking up 140 hours in the bargain. Add twenty–two hours for driving time to and fro and that left me a bit more than one full week out of two for carousing. The motto back in those days was, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I nearly made it.
There was a day when I only made the first morning run; I didn’t complete the round trip. I was driving what I have always referred to as an “REA–type” truck. Those were the call letters for the Railway Express Agency. Haven’t seen them around for years. Must have gotten swallowed up. It was another “Samuels’ Special”—a collection of nuts and bolts held together with bailing wire. The truck I was driving was better than my usual ride—yanked off the road for repairs, of course—which not only didn’t have a heater, it had only the outer portion of the driver’s door and I found a new use for mailbags—insulation. The truck I drove that day resembled today’s UPS vehicles, but it was smaller. I was the last one to drive it. There was nothing in front of me but a windshield (that changed); the engine was under me and beside me. Where the console resides in a sporty car of today, I had an engine compartment. Behind me was the cargo bay, accessible by a sliding door from the inside and a roll–up from the rear. It wouldn’t hold all the mail I usually carried and my second trip would parrot the first. We never had that problem again. I made sure of that. What second trip? The second trip was history, just like I nearly was.
Okay, I’ve whetted your appetite, let me grab my whetstone and carve out the rest of this saga. “Haste makes waste” goes the adage; my haste nearly got me wasted. Because the second run would replicate the first, three Post Offices were screaming because they didn’t receive their usual complement of mail. They got all the First Class Mail, but there were plenty of bags of Bulk Mail and Parcel Post sitting back at the loading dock in Pennsauken. Since Pitman was always two weeks behind in sorting their packages (they caught up every Christmas) I had three, not four, unhappy Postmasters. Eager to please and appease, my chariot lurched along the road for all it was worth. It wasn’t worth much.
We’ve all heard that “accident waiting to happen” description; “potential for disaster” is another common one; rather than eschew I combined the two and edged toward entelechy.
Route 130, the last stretch of road on the journey back to the Sectional Center, was quite straight for the major portion of what I traveled. Route 130 was, and still is, four highly–trafficked lanes of merriment and mayhem. The east and west lanes are separated by those ubiquitous concrete barriers that are common at highway construction sites. Back then they were a novelty. You know the ones—mid–thigh high, wider at the base, top rounded slightly, and plug–ugly. Fireplugs rate a room in MOMA when compared to these monstrosities. I wish I had that concession. Someone is turning cold concrete into cold cash. Heartwarming.
The right side of the road was bordered by an asphalt shoulder, not wide enough to be called a lane, which abutted a concrete curb. This curb was prohibitively high—enough to guarantee that passing up and over would be courting calamity.
Let’s take a bumpy ride. I was doing about sixty–five, just a few miles from Pennsauken, and the only other vehicle I could see going in my direction was a tractor–trailer far up ahead. It was still before six in the morning, not much traffic at that hour. What a Godsend. I found myself pulling like a train on the trailer. I estimate he was doing about thirty. We were both in the right–hand lane, and as I got closer I put on my blinker, pulled into the left–hand lane, and darned if he didn’t do the same thing at the same moment. Swell. I hit the brakes and… I hit the brakes, and I hit the brakes. I was used to driving with my foot to the floor when the foot was on the accelerator. Having the brake pedal dive to the floor with no resistance is not what I call comforting. No brakes, not enough time to simply take the foot off the gas, which I had done, and slow down that way. Only one thing to do—by now the distance separating us was perilously close—and that was to jerk the wheel and dive back into the right–hand lane. I did just that, and that was when I discovered the reason for his lane change. He was passing a tractor–trailer that was doing about twenty–five. Double swell. Though I doubt that is what I said.
Collision was imminent. Just a shout away. Instinct, that must have been what it was, caused me to make the only prudent decision available: I aimed ME for the space between the trailers. The truck wouldn’t fit, but all I could do was head for the opening and hope. Good fortune has many smiles. The wake–up grin I got that morning was that the big rigs were side by side at the moment of impact. This has to be what saved me. That, and one other thing I will mention in a moment. At that moment I clearly recall one thought racing through my mind, “I lost my legs.”
I can’t tell you another thing with any clarity or detail until everything stopped bouncing. I recall a loud noise, that horrible thought, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting dazed, looking straight ahead at where the windshield used to be. In front of me was a field. The truck was still upright. The highway was nowhere to be found. It turned out it was behind me, more than two–hundred feet away. I looked down, saw my legs, wiggled my toes, lifted each foot, and sighed. I looked to my right. There was nothing. The entire right side of the truck was now behind me. Some jagged fragments were left that looked nasty and I wasn’t about to head that way. It was all squashed flat against the sliding door. The engine cover was gone. So was the air cleaner, carburetor, valve covers, and other assorted gimcracks and gewgaws that once were part of the engine. I was looking down at a shiny slab of metal that had been neatly shorn. The steering wheel was now pressed deeply down into the seat. I wiggled free, climbed onto the windshield frame in front of me, and hopped down to the ground. I took a few steps and just sat down. I wondered what had happened. Within a couple minutes a few people showed up. Then more. Then a policeman or three. Then an ambulance. I was placed on a stretcher and driven to a hospital. The sum total of my “injuries” was a bump on my knee. It was sore for a day.
If I had a Polaroid of that once–a–truck to show you it would be impossible to look at it and think anyone survived. The only other place this could have happened with the same result is a NASCAR speedway. I had none of their fancy protective devices. What I had, that “one other thing” I promised to mention, was someone or something that grabbed me by the shoulders, lifted me straight up and out a split–second before impact, whispered in my ear, “You don’t belong here.” and then we waited until the truck stopped. I was then, not–so–gingerly, put back in the seat. I bumped my knee in the process. That was one strong, fast–thinking leprechaun. There is no other explanation.
INCIDENT THE FOURTH, PART TWO: TREE SURGEON
I’m on the road again, still working for Mr. Samuels; still driving those ramshackle trucks. I had been doing this for the better part of a year now; I had learned to sleep in shifts. At a point in life now where four to six hours daily is enough to keep me feeling rested and refreshed, back in those years I could sleep uninterrupted for ten hours or more. I still got close to nine hours of sleep each day while working this job, five of them between nine at night and two in the morning; the other four in increments during the day when I was waiting for scheduled departure times. I was able to plop down on a pile of mailbags and be asleep in less than a minute. Being rousted fifteen minutes later, I was up in a flash.
I flashed awake one morning and the nearest mailbag was being used for insulation. What woke me was the tree that had just halted my progress. On the straight stretch from Wenonah to Sewell, one that ended at a T–intersection where I normally turned left, I had fallen asleep, gone through the stop sign, and, in the blink of an unblinking eye, traveled onto a lawn. I was headed straight for the living room of a quaint colonial house, one designed for people who parked outside before entering. At four–thirty in the morning all were nestled snug atop their Sealys, the living room was empty.
My effort to enter the home and catch up on the morning news via their 26–inch Sylvania was thwarted, and ensuing exacerbation avoided, by a spindly oak that had been planted just a few weeks before. Just long enough, apparently, for the roots to find enough purchase to resist my usurpation and prevent intrusion. I was not traveling at a speed sufficient to allow me to plow through and past the tree; the jolt snapped my eyes open. All I saw in front of me was a house, and it took me a few seconds to shake off the sleep–fuzzies, gather my wits, and determine the cause of this interruption in my rounds. The tree, poor thing, had snapped at my bumper–grill line and the not–yet–mighty, fallen oak would never yield little acorns. I didn’t discover this hindrance to my progress until I got out and surveyed the sorry sapling severed from its trunk. By now I was joined in the front yard by some pajama–clad occupants from the house that Jack the Oak kept from being rebuilt.
They were, to a man and woman, unamused. I thought the whole thing was a riot; that is what nearly ensued when I attempted to make light of the situation. Unflummoxed, and by now equally unamused due to their intransigeance, I asked to use their phone. I was denied. I said, “Well, at least let me move the truck before it further damages the lawn.” That was met by a howl of protest; they insisted I leave everything undisturbed until after the police arrived and “took pictures.” This fiasco was turning into a major motion picture before my eyes. I wished I had brought along a fiasco of my own; mine filled with sparkling burgundy.
The constabulary arrived, information was exchanged, frowns deepened, and I set off for Sewell a bit later than normal. Thank you Jack, by now just an old oaken bucket, for preventing me from possible decapitation. You see, I did not mention until now, the architecture of this house: the second story jutted forward above the level of the first. That distance was approximately equal to the distance from grill to windshield. The height was approximate to my smiling face. Forward motion being what it is, I would have gone a bit further after striking the house, just about far enough to severely damage some arteries and veins. Carotid, thoracic, and jugular come to mind, and there must be others. I certainly didn’t, but I still wonder if my leprechaun didn’t mash down on that brake pedal as I rolled up on that lawn? A little ol’ tree can’t stop a big truck, can it? “Oops, there goes a billion kilowatt…” (Frank Sinatra and the Kids, “High Hopes”)
THE TELEVISION INCIDENT
While not exactly having cheated The Reaper, this tale deserves inclusion, for it could have ended differently, and badly. I was “between jobs” and had made some new friends. I cruised around town in a maroon 1963 Corvette convertible that had an aluminum block L–88 engine bored out to 550cc, side pipes, two Holley four–barrel carburetors, a Hurst shifter, and eleven–inch slicks on the rear wheels. I know nothing about mechanics. The car had more accouterments than I just mentioned; suffice to say it sounded like eighty–four motorcycles as it motored about. Corvette owners are a special breed. Whether they breed differently I don’t know, but I do know that they are quick to strike up a conversation with another proud owner of this classic sports car.
This is how I met Art Resnick. Art’s wife, Lynn, owned a blue 1968 Corvette convertible with a 427 engine block. Fast, sleek, and it had air–conditioning; mine had so much heat generated from the exhaust tubes that led from the muffler to the side pipes and passed directly under the footwells that I had to put in asbestos pads after the rugs burned away. My carcinogenic Corvette, where are you now?
Art was a television repairman. An independent contractor, he got his assignments from a shop in Philadelphia he was allied with and set out each day on his rounds that took him all over Philadelphia and its environs. I tagged along, thinking I might learn something about this lucrative line of work. Art lived in style: He owned a new Cadillac, had a stereo system that was an audiophile’s dream, his clothes were tailor–made, and he frequented fine restaurants. Topping all that off, Lynn was an architectural wonder. I can attest to the fact there was nothing phony about Lynn. I was over at their apartment one afternoon; Art was in the kitchen and Lynn, who hadn’t heard us come in, was taking a shower. I was standing in the middle of the living room when Lynn came around the corner toweling off her hair. She had only the one towel with her. I swear, the Bible blushed.
Art and I were out and about one day; I was doing the driving, as usual. Art’s “work vehicle” was one of a succession of junkers I drove over the next few weeks. Art and Mr. Samuels attended the same School of Fleet Furnishing. The first time was when I noticed the car behind us was very, very close. Tailgating, we used to say, long before the word had a festive connotation. I asked Art if he wanted to make some money; hit the brakes real hard after Art braced his feet against the dashboard; and was rewarded with a satisfying screech and crunch. We collected $600 less than forty–eight hours later. Art was pure genius; he went right to the head of our follower’s insurance company (“I want to speak to the chairman of the Board of Directors.”) and demanded payment for all the TV parts, now broken, that were in the trunk of his 1961 Dodge. That was all he wanted. No injury lawsuit, just “Replace my parts.” It was masterful. An adjuster came to Art’s apartment the following day; we signed releases; he presented Art with a draft; we split the pelf.
Three weeks, three junkers, and three accidents later we were $5,000 richer. No computers kept track of all these shenanigans in those days; not any that disseminated information to every agent and adjuster, at least. Certainly not to other insurance companies, and we had luckily “hit” four different ones. For the fifth and last caper we found ourselves in front of a truck, not unlike the ones I drove for Mr. Samuels. I signaled Art, he assumed the position, and I hit the brakes. The truck hit us, according to plan, but what we had not planned on was the force transferred to us by 16,000 pounds traveling at thirty–five miles per hour. Far greater than that we had experienced in the previous encounters, this sent us bucking and bouncing across a field that bordered the road. When we finally stopped, half a football field away, Art looked at me and said shakily, “Sam, NO MORE TRUCKS!”
INCIDENT THE FIFTH: GOOD OL’ BOYS
This time I have a companion, Vicki: The love of my life, the mother of our children. We are at the beginning of what would turn into a love affair, marriage, and those two criminal children to whom I just alluded. They’re both out on the streets now, plotting and scheming, about to strangle me as they read this. Lisa is a teacher; honor graduate of Holy Family College in Philadelphia; wife of Gregg the Great; mother of two children: Colin, age two, and Kaitlyn, age ten. If I knew grandchildren were this much fun I would have had them first. Patrick is an artist; still single, honors graduate of The Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. Lisa collects refrigerator magnets; Patrick is a girl magnet. Both are rehabilitated.
When I first met Vicki I was smitten, but she had a boyfriend and I stayed out of the way. Shadowy character that I am, the shadows suited me just fine. Said suitor joined the Marines and I, who had become Queen Victoria’s batman, agreed to drive her down to Paris Island, Georgia for a tête–à–tête with her soldier boy.
The beaten path was a combination of Route 301 and Interstate 95 from Philadelphia to the Marine Base back in 1972. The Interstate Highway System was all planned out but years from completion; intervals of the new superhighway were interspersed with the old road. There were long stretches of Route 301 in North Carolina and we were in The Tarheel State late that evening, heading north. There had been a “hairy” moment just a short while before: we were in a roadside café eating dinner; it was about eleven in the evening; Vicki was wearing something provocative (with a face and figure like hers she was ill–suited for “Plain Jane” roles); and I glanced out the window to see four or five good ol’ boys sitting on and leaning against my car—grinning like banshees and having a blissful ol’ time as only ignoble savages can. A wave of sadness washed over me. They looked so young and so fresh. I knew they were stupid, and it seemed unfair. They were outnumbered. What they learned in the woods paled when compared to what I learned in the jungle. I wasn’t sure if I could stop it at the point where these lads would simply go home to their coon dogs with their tails tucked. Vicki demanded we simply head for the car, get in, and drive away. She pleaded with me not to start any trouble; she was right, of course: They had friends in the area and we didn’t. It was the darned Hydra dilemma that Hercules faced; I wasn’t Steve Reeves and there was no sense kidding myself.
All went smoothly. We paid the bill, stepped outside, lit cigarettes (always a handy item when there’s an evil eye close by), and approached the car. Just like the gentlemen I knew they were not, those boys kept on grinning stupidly; but they were not stupid enough to provoke anything. We backed out of the parking space after a minor delay that lasted until the two perched on the hood slid slowly off (“What idiots.” I thought, “I now, instead of feet, fists, elbows, knees, forehead, and fingers have thirty–three hundred pounds of steel to back my play and here they are still jerking me around.”). As we continued north, first one, then two, then three more vehicles passed us. You guessed it; a couple of them were pickup trucks. Ah, The Dirty South, mythological and Gothic. Geographically gorgeous, provided you ignore the strip–malls and strip–mines and just focus on the shady groves, lazy rivers, leafy glades, and red–clay hills. They do things differently down there, and two examples awaited us.
Up the road a piece we rounded a bend and there they were. The five that passed us had found a spot to park—Route 301. We were looking at a barricade that stretched from shoulder to shoulder. They were all out of their vehicles, maybe eight or nine of them, smokin’ and back–slappin’, and jess havin’ a good ol’ time. Not a care in the world; not a brain among them.
I slowed, pulled over on the right shoulder, stopped, and took stock. There was no sense in going any further; there was no way around them that I could see. No doubt there were roads, trails, paths, and dog–runs in the woods that were all around us; they knew but I sure didn’t. Civilization was five miles back, at the café; ahead of us a bastion of incivility. We sat there, about seventy–yards apart; I thought, “Pickup trucks; gun racks; point–blank range for a rifle.” This had the makings of more than a drive–by frowning. I was a half–second away from catapulting us across the median, about one–hundred feet of grass with a deep gulley in the middle, and heading back to the diner, bright lights, and a phone. It was obsidian–dark where we were, not at all comforting. Engines burst to life, lights cut through the blackness, and they sped off. Not a toot, not a wave. Those ingrates! Just when I thought we had a chance to make some new friends.
Off we sped, and that’s a misuse of the verb. Old Betsy’s galloping days were behind her. My 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air needed a valve job and sputtering best described our takeoff. When she got going, Betsy could hold her own with the best of them. I later figured out the best way to get her going from a standing start: pedal to the metal and she purred magnificently and responded like a Volkswagen Beetle. We talked for a bit and then Vicki rolled herself into a ball and was asleep in a minute. “Poor thing,” I thought, “You’d sleep for a week if that was me you visited.”
I trudged along, smoking and changing cassettes, and paid scant heed to another of those numerous overpasses that loomed far ahead. At our current distance it was just a bump on the horizon. Getting closer I sensed something strangely different about this one. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was a bit off. Whatever it was, it focused my attention: Attention that could otherwise have been easily diverted when lighting another Camel or swapping cassettes.
I didn’t slow down, we were doing about sixty–five, and then I noticed what it was that was odd. There was no space beneath this overpass. None I could see: Just a black, rectangular shadow that went from one side of the road to the other. I may have stomped on the brakes harder some other time, perhaps in Incident the Fourth, but that was then and this is then later. Betsy slewed, and we wound up in the gulch that separated northbound from southbound. There were no seat belts back then, at least not in 1956 Chevrolets, but we managed without them. I braced myself against the steering wheel (surprisingly, it didn’t snap) and Vicki, curled up as she was, just slid forward and wound up in the same posture but now in the footwell beneath the glove compartment. That woke her up. She blinked once or twice, looked questioningly at me, and extricated herself without a word; I think the expression I wore told her something strange had happened. It had.
Betsy was cocked at a forty–five degree angle, both to the flat earth and the road, and I was staring in disbelief at a flatbed trailer not twenty–five feet away. There were no running lights. No lights at all. The cab, on the right shoulder, was twisted northward at a ninety–degree angle to the trailer. Had I been changing a cassette or lighting a Camel at the moment I decided something was amiss, we would have hurtled forward far more than the distance that now separated us from the trailer. You do the math. Figure it out. Just where would my head have landed as a result of the decapitation process? Vicki would have been crushed; my crush on her would have ended ugly.
Betsy had stalled. Poor thing, she was used to tender loving care. I washed her regularly. Now she was mud–splattered, nearly overturned in a soggy roadside ditch, her battery no longer connected. I got out, lifted the hood, situated the battery correctly, saw the lights come on that I had never turned off, turned toward the trailer, and took an unsteady step. Unnerved, yes, but not uncertain. I wanted an explanation. Before I could take another step the tractor roared to life. Lights blazed and twinkled; the tractor and trailer pulled away. There went our second chance that evening to make a new friend—right down the ol’ drainspout.
Were those two events, some fifty miles apart, connected? I never thought about it until I wrote this. Had our new friends hurried up the road a piece and concocted a wake–up call? But now, thinking back…
Ah, The Enigmatic South. If you’re not from around there, their ways can be puzzling.
INCIDENT THE SIXTH: HOUND DOG ROAD
Another vehicular variant. Sorry for beating the horsepower to death, but that will change in an incident. Now it is early January 1978. Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977 (two other greats that epitomize their fields died on August 16th—Babe Ruth and Jim Murray) and my exclusively–Elvis mail–order business enjoyed a big jump in sales overnight. Elvis’ birthday is January 8th; Memphis was abuzz; the Civic Center was poised for a gala. I saw an opportunity to spread the word about our albums and friend Glen knew a neighbor that would loan us his van to transport my Elvis wares to Memphis. A deal was struck; off we went.
I drove the first few hundred miles, which took us well into Arizona. Arizona’s commonest nickname is the “Grand Canyon State” and it is also known as the “Copper State.” The latter I could relate to, a few more strip–mines and the place would lose its drabness. It was later in the evening by now, our departure time having been mid–afternoon. Time for me to take a nap, time for Glen to drive, and drive he didn’t. For some unknown reason I kept the seatbelt on, a fortuitous decision. I was cramped, not really comfortable, but the long hours spent staring at the bleakness of Arizona’s endless desert quintupled the weight of my eyelids. Variations in rock formations are not suitable stimuli for fending off Morpheus. Forfending forgotten, I fell asleep within a few miles, confident that Glen could pilot us in a straight line until I was refreshed. It’s a good thing Glen wasn’t at the helm of some conveyance with a passenger list exceeding two.
I had learned previously, as noted, to fall asleep quickly and awaken immediately. That learned trait would not have been necessary on this occasion. In the middle of a dream I found myself dreaming that I was bouncing all over the place, being tossed hither and yon, vertiginously vibrating. I was not dreaming. This was all too real; I had a mouthful of sand and a faceful of same to verify I was awake. There were pieces of glass all over me. The windshield was missing. Again. I just can’t keep track of those things.
We were still facing east but no longer moving. The plethora of boxes behind us were encroaching into the passenger and driver’s seat and partially filled the area between us. There were glass shards everywhere—when safety glass shatters the results mimic confetti, the three–dimensional variety. The cartons had been sealed with asphaltic tape, that’s the kind that requires a blowtorch to get into the package, and everything remained unopened. We had a truckful of my Elvis bootlegs, the prime profit-maker, plus many other appurtenances of Elvisdom. We had packed the truck to the proverbial gills, and aside from a shift forward the merchandise was none the worse for “Where are we and what the heck happened?” I said.
Here we are on the way to an Elvis Convention and Glen, talk about irony, was all shook up. He started muttering some lame excuse and all I could think of was, “Got to get to Memphis. Start the truck, let’s get going.” I said. The windshield was gone, the headlights were history, the front and sides were caved in, and there I am worrying about getting back on the road. My priorities were established; my perspective was flawed. We were not going anywhere for a while, not without a tow truck. (Another tow truck will arrive in another incident, driven by a friend of mine. Kindly stay tuned.)
Leprechaun luck. We had been paralleling a local road and in the not–too–distant distance a marquee beamed brightly: MOTEL. It was a fair piece to walk, but all of it was downhill. But before we went there, before we got a shower and a good night’s sleep, before Glen’s friend arrived to join us the next day and the three of us resumed the trip to Memphis with another truck—this time a pickup—I had a chance to survey just what had occurred. We had been fortunate in another way. Very fortunate.
Downhill was the key word. We had come to rest on the only flat spot between Interstate 10 and the road a few hundred feet below. The entire stretch was a thirty–degree slope that meandered in front of us and receded behind us. Lights from the cars passing by not far above us reflected nicely off the sand and rocks and illuminated just enough for us to get an overview of the countryside. The motel sign below was large and bright and served as another source that brightened the way to comfort and showed just how bleak and desolate the southwest once was—everywhere. Our perch was wide enough for two cars to fit side–by–side and measured not more than sixty feet in length. We had made one complete revolution. Both sides of the truck and the roof had bounced off the sandy soil—de rigueur for this part of the country—and we had come to rest back in the saddle the wheels provided, again. In the morning I would walk back to this spot and discover this was the only space we could have landed on that would have prevented us from rolling all the way to the bottom. We would have tumbled enough to spell our likely finish I later calculated. The load behind us was mainly records, fifty–count boxes that weighed thirty pounds each. We had loaded the LP’s first, some seventy boxes of them. That spelled five hundred copies of each of my six Elvis bootlegs marketed at that point in time. One was a two–record set, thus the extra ten boxes for all those calculating. That is twenty–one hundred pounds, just over a ton, which would have been fighting us for space. Always bet on the big guy. Another fifteen revolutions were what I estimated the truck would have finished before the terrain smoothed and our progress would have been arrested.
We weren’t, although the police gave us a thorough grilling, and bade us Godspeed. We sped. We made it to Memphis on time and I made a few bucks. Enough to cover the repairs to the van that insurance would not; enough to cover expenses; not enough to buy boxing gloves and give Glen the whuppin’ he had coming. His lame excuse: He was changing a cassette, took his eyes off the road, and the wheels on his side waltzed just past the edge of the highway. When he jerked the steering wheel to bring us back onto the highway he overcompensated, the weight shifted, and he couldn’t correct for it. Being on an incline, that shift was what precipitated our precipitous position. We know he fell asleep. He was still half–asleep when I gave him a sandy look, fixed him with a glassy stare, and inquired just what it might have been that brought us to a halt. Thanks for the ledge, leprechaun.
INCIDENT THE SEVENTH: I ALMOST LOST MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO
Life with Vicki was iffy at best by this time. It was 1979, sometime in the spring. We had purchased a house in February and the $1,100 monthly mortgage payment was a burden; Elvis had demonstrated remarkable staying power; we were living life in the fast lane. Vicki had a new Pontiac Formula (a Firebird without that gaudy bird splattered all over the hood) I gave her for her last birthday in April 1978. That’ a fun story, I’ll tell you about it another time.
I had been spending uncountable hours trying to keep my Elvis mail-order business churning out profits. The wheels were covered in inches–thick grease; we were on a fast–track that led straight to Beverly Hills; the future was so bright I needed as many pairs of sunglasses as Bono.
At the same time, the days ahead were full of questions. You know the old story: I once had the answers to all life’s questions. Then they went and changed the questions. Vicki was unhappy. I guess she though I was, well, whatever she thought only she knows. And only I cared. How long we could go harping through days we used to hop through I did not know. Among the many remedies I attempted was a trip to separate us from surroundings that, once fun–filled, were now fraught with fear. Gloomy, that would have been my weather report for our tomorrows. When life’s a drag, time drags; when life’s a joy, time jumps. These days moved with glacial slowness.
We flew to ‘Frisco for the weekend. Accompanying us were lawyer–friend Bill Hertz and his paramour, Susan. We headed for Fisherman’s Wharf, where we would later dine at DiMaggio’s, and boarded a boat that would cruise the bay and point out the historic and haute monde sights along the shoreline. Offshore was Alcatraz, America’s Bastille, awesome reminder of the Draconian days of the Justice Department. Now they have reformed the penal system and the government’s ways are merely curiously cruel and unremittingly unusual. Progress is not their most important product.
On board and on guard, I was facing a violent Vicki who had flown off the handle of her broom because of some insignificant interruption to her inanity. Lovers reduced to losers, happens all the time. “Take the “L” out of lover, and it’s over,” sang the Motels; our “L” dangled as precariously as the “L’s” in the Hollywood Sign after an earthquake.
Vicki approached me as I was standing railside, looking out at the bay, relaxing in reverie. She had gone to get a soda; upon her return an argument immediately started. Over what, I don’t recall, it didn’t take much in those days. Vicki ended the spat with a flourish—she threw the Coke in my face and snorted away. “You ….” I thought. And then the bulb blazed: I turned to Bill and said, “Who was that girl? I never saw her before in my life. She must be crazy.” The other passengers, who had been sizing me up as some sort of evil–doer, immediately turned sympathetic. They regarded Vicki as the culpable one; I escaped being the object of further wrath.
Later that evening we were back at the hotel—some Snob Hill structure that charged accordingly—and in the midst of another (the same?) bout of insult–swapping. I’d had it—with Vicki and life in general. I just plain hurt too much. Here was a girl that I would hurl myself in front of a train for; one for whom I would die that minute if she could live five minutes longer. How do you know if you’re in love? There’s an easy test to tell: If you know no one who ever lived ever loved this much before, and no one who will ever live will ever love this much again, then you’re in love. I truly loved this girl but I could not make her happy. I saw no way to change her; I have always been one hard to convince he is wrong. My mulishness was certainly an impediment; could it get worse? It sure could.
Despondent barely captures my mood. The milieu provided an escape. I walked out of the room, onto the elevator, and went straight down. The first phase of my planned descent into the maelstrom complete, I went for a walk. And I walked. And walked. I was in a fugue state, knowing where I was going but not where I was coming from. My destination was a famous landmark, that storied span rhymed with “wait” in song. The plan was simple: don’t think about it, just keep walking, go up and over. Historians would assign a number to me. The pain would disappear.
After a few miles I saw her. Grisly in the fog, not golden. The end was in sight. I doubt I even muttered a prayer. I just wanted it to be over. I got nearer. My resolution never wavered. I was unstoppable. Until I got to the base of the bridge. The pedestrian entrance was gated and chained. The sign read, “Bridge Closed To Pedestrian Traffic From 10 p.m. To 6 a.m.” I stared unbelievingly, for how long I don’t know. Perhaps a minute or two. The toll–takers would not respond with a nod and a wink. Gradually, a shot rang out. Synapses fired, and I shook my head, wondering just what the hell I was doing here. It all came back. I nearly drowned in the ensuing flood of tears. I was never so ashamed. Not once had I thought of Patrick and Lisa, safely asleep under the watchful eyes of our trusted baby–sitter. Just what the heck I was thinking I don’t know. Do airheads think?
I caught a bus back to the hotel. Vicki was asleep. I never told her. Until now, when it doesn’t matter. I have always wondered what would have happened if I had set out at an earlier hour. It doesn’t really matter, does it? The only thing different would be you would have read this story years ago, written by someone else. With a different ending. And I would never have seen my children grow up. Or seen my beautiful grandchildren. How stupid. How completely, utterly dumb. You wonder why the Reaper is grim? Do you think my leprechaun is in the sign business?
INCIDENT THE EIGHTH: GUARD DUTY
It’s 1985 and our Reaper friend must have been getting antsy. No reason for him to get his hopes up for quite a while. One glum chum. And then I bought Vicki a new car. A red one. Another Pontiac. Still no bird on the hood, but this time around they called it a Firebird Trans Am. Garish was out of style. She threw the keys at me. Things had improved. Last time I never even got a sip of soda. This time I got to drive back to California in style. Progress, just try and halt it.
The first thing I did when I got back to Los Angeles was to take the car out to a custom paint shop in the San Fernando Valley. Way out, all the way to Canoga Park, an hour away. Good help is hard to find. The anemic factory decals were replaced with Yosemite Sam, guns blazing. Subtle pin–striping set off the lines of the car, and a 24–carat band that glinted nicely in the sun ran along the base of the car from wheelwell to wheelwell. The effect was muted elegance. I had a mistress, and she never asked me for my phone number.
This car flew. The old Formula was no slouch in the speed department, but seven years had improved performance even if the engine was invisible. They told me it was someplace under all the anti–smog doodads. I took them at their word; the car took gas and took off. This was the T–top version. A cheesy half–convertible, but I have never been accused of cutting in at a fashion dance.
And I was flying. I left the store sometime after midnight, bound for Brandy’s. She’s the one who tasted best after the bars closed, and I was dying for a taste. I eased onto the Ventura Freeway (Route 134 for you Easterners) at seventy–five and hit the gas. I loved this car, I loved going fast, and I loved the dearth of traffic at this hour. Plus, I was parched. Brandy was only two exits away, my entrance to the stuff dreams are made of. At the rate of speed I was traveling it took far less time than during rush hour. Oops! Exit ahead. And I was doing almost a hundred. I swung onto the exit, braking as I did.
What a rush! Much of the California Freeway System was designed fifty years ago. Cars were slower and they were fewer in number. Exits were shorter then and many remain unchanged. They have curves or bends that approximate ninety degrees. This exit had one of those. I modified it.
Entering an exit at the rate I was traveling is proscribed. A prescription for disaster is what it is. The first half of the exit evaporated. I had slowed to sixty, not the recommended speed for negotiating a right angle turn; I may as well have been flying blind. I knew I was, to put it mildly, one sorry Fokker in deep doo–doo. Guard–rails have never infused me with confidence. How many times have you read about a car going through one and over the edge, off a bridge, down a slope, etc.? They look sturdy, but three or four thousand pounds of metal crashing into them breaks down resistance. Quickly.
Somehow, I took the only sensible avenue of approach: I steered into the guard–rail so that the entire driver’s side was in contact with it before it banked sharply. I then guided the car around the curve; with the additional assist the rail provided slowing me far quicker than brakes alone. I negotiated the turn and found myself still upright. Incredible. I couldn’t get out the driver’s side so I climbed over the console and went out the passenger door. It was then that I saw it.
I had forced the guard–rail back ten or fifteen feet along most of the portion I had used to bring myself to a halt. It now teetered on the edge of a steep slope that led back down to the freeway. Had it not held, I would have careened down the sharp embankment, certainly have rolled over a few times, and been mincemeat at the bottom of this steep gradient. Or, I might have made it all the way back to the freeway I had just left and been a target. Eighteen–wheelers were the most common vehicles on the road at this hour. Something tells me I would not have had long to wait. Forbearance would have proved futile. My lips would have been sealed. That didn’t happen, obviously, and all I have left to say is, “That leprechaun sure can drive.”
And this: I called a cab and also my buddy Steve who drove a tow–truck during the graveyard shift. I told Steve the keys were in the car and to take it to his shop. The cab arrived quickly and my assignation went as planned. The state police still would like to talk to the driver and so would the city attorney. It all has something to do with payment for property damage. The car was registered in Pennsylvania, not to Vicki.
UNNUMBERED INCIDENT: THE MARQUIS RULES
This doesn’t qualify as a close call. It was only close to a close call. But it does bear mention, if only for the “what if” aspect. Another time, another jail. The pokey. The hoosegow. Stir. The slammer. Something few can empathize with; be glad you cannot. My mail was sent to Safford, Arizona, not Tijuana, and this was a Federal Prison Camp. No gun towers, no walls, no guards with guns, no fences topped with razor wire. It was just a spot in the desert for interlopers to cool their heels and await release. A place to serve time. Martha Stewart Living. A “killing ground” designed to kill the will of white–collar criminals that incurred the wrath of the petty and vindictive U.S. Justice Department. This was a place that countless Assistant United States Attorneys could point to and count their successes with unaccountable satisfaction. This was my first “debt of gratitude” that resulted from my copyright violations. No tergiversation from this lad—I saw the writing on the wall, pled guilty, and asked for a piece of chalk. I was grateful this was the United States. In some other land the government might have, instead of a bed, given me a blindfold and a wall to stand against. My prosecutor would have enjoyed that. I remember him for one thing: the coldest, clammiest handshake I ever felt.
I first saw Ray through a window. I was talking with some guys in the “A” barracks and looking through their window at the Auditorium Building about fifty feet away. The double doors of the auditorium were open and I could see some people talking and a couple others playing ping–pong. Some sort of discussion started, obviously heated, and one of the ping–pong players put his paddle down on the table in disgust and began to walk away. He was a middle–aged black gentleman, a couple inches under six feet tall, with a droopy pipe that hung from the left side of his mouth and was clenched firmly between his teeth. I later met him and he introduced himself as Ray.
As Ray started to leave, another man, and this one quite tall—almost six foot six as I later noticed—reached out and grabbed Ray’s arm as if to halt him so the discussion could continue. Ray pivoted smoothly, feet planted before the pirouette was completed, cocking his arm in the process. The punch traveled little more than a foot and it connected squarely with the intended delayer’s jaw. Watching this unfold from my vantage point at the window reminded me of watching a drive–in movie. The actors, “some that you know and some that you never even heard of,”* assumed their positions and went through the motions. “Celluloid heroes never let you down. Celluloid heroes never really die.”* (*The Kinks, “Celluloid Heroes”).
Down went the tall one. Straight down. It looked as if someone had tied a rope around both ankles and gave a mighty tug. He bounced once and didn’t move after that. Not for over ten minutes. I thought he was dead. So did others. Ray removed the pipe he had been chewing on from his mouth, held it against his thigh, chewed on what had taken place for a couple of seconds, turned, and strode calmly away. Had he paused to brush his hands together, it would have been a fitting gesture. Job over, time to go home.
Ray lived in the same barracks to which I was assigned. I was a new arrival; Ray had been there for a bit and played bridge and backgammon many a night. During the daytime, when he wasn’t working, Ray could be found in the recreation area pounding away at the heavy bag or directing the punching bag in an unrelenting staccato rhythm. Ray, now retired, had been a professional heavyweight boxer in his younger days. He still retained the skills. His reflexes and movements may have slowed, but his punching power had not dissipated a drib or a drab.
Ray and I became friends and bridge partners. He was a quiet man—kindly, intelligent, introspective, and gentle. A veritable teddy bear, that was Ray. He offered to teach me how to box; though I doubt I was an “A” pupil I learned a few things about pugilism that, thankfully, I have never put to use. I filed the knowledge away; all part of the well–rounded education I was receiving as a denizen of this doomed orb.
Every night at ten we were required to stand by our bunks for a “count.” This process took place seven times a day; the Bureau of Prisons means of making sure the inventory in their warehouses did not shrink. Returning to the barracks one night, walking on the north side of the quadrangle that separated the eight barracks into two symmetrical rows of four, I saw Ray on the other side heading home. I hopped onto the grass, sprinted across the common area, and hurried over to Ray. I alighted just behind Ray and put my hand on his shoulder, saying, “Hi, old buddy.”
That startled him, something I hadn’t considered, but he regained his composure instantly. He then said to me, “Sam, don’t come up on me like that. I almost hit you.” Had he, I think I might have lain there longer than ten minutes: Unmoving, but not unmoved. I, with all that training, had forgotten a few things in the seventeen years since I had come home from the jungle. Once able to lick my weight in jungle cats, I was now cat food. I was getting rusty. Hell, I was covered with the darn stuff. I’m glad Ray didn’t dust me off.
INCIDENT THE NINTH: BATTERIES INCLUDED
I’m back. In jail. For the millionth and the last time. Been back on the streets for over fifteen years now. Like Binx Bolling, I go to the movies often. Unlike Binx, I do not have Loverly Lindas to accompany me. I am a solitary moviegoer. Unless I am with my son or my grandchildren, then I have an accomplice. My daughter usually stays home when I go a–moviegoing; she gets a well–deserved rest. If the movie doesn’t live up to the hype—once a decade one does—then I can pass the twenty bucks ill–spent off on someone else. Whatever way, I pay. Wouldn’t have it any other way. What’d I say? Beware, patrons of Cineplexes everywhere—a recovering copyright infringer just may be in the audience. Rent the DVD, feel safer, sleep sounder.
This time the hospitality was provided by the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, IL—that toddling town. The residents of the triangular building plumb square in the middle of The Loop were not going anywhere. Van Buren Street was home for as long as the courts decreed. A little crazy and stuck like glue, that sums up the crowd in that overcrowded facility.
I spent twenty–one months there. The majority of the time I was in “the hole” or solitary confinement. I refused to work—any job other than a cleaning job on the floor I lived on, that is. Every time I was assigned to the kitchen, plumbing, whatever, I respectfully declined. I was never arrogant, never belligerent; I was a docile denier. The hole was made for me. I had no roommate or bunkmate to annoy or be annoyed by; I didn’t have to stand in line for meals; I could read for hours uninterrupted without TV’s blaring; they even brought my commissary requisition to me each week—another line avoided. I had writing paper, books, and stamps. I even had a transistor radio with headphones. The pampered pet of the prison system, that was me.
On those few occasions I ventured back to my floor, the twenty–third, I played backgammon and Scrabble® whenever I could. I subscribed to Games magazine. Anything that would work to keep the mind nimble and occupied, that is what I did. Books were at a premium. I received a few each week from friends and family and devoured them. The library was anemic, except for the Law Library, and I had no use for that. There were not many readers, but the few of us that enjoyed books made them available to others as soon as we finished with them. Except for Nelson. He was a hoarder. I never knew this until I happened to glance over at his area one day and his lockers were open. Somehow he had finagled an extra one. One was crammed with books, the other half–full. It wasn’t proper prison ettiquette to eye another’s possessions, one of the idiosyncracies of the captive life.
I wanted to ask him if I could look through what he harbored, but that was taboo. Life is sere and brittle in prison environs. A few nights later I was on my way to the bathroom to sit and read. My favorite haunt after the lights went out; I only slept a few hours a day and I had to fill in the hours with something or “stir crazy” was the next stop. One particular night I was on my penultimate book and Getting desparate. I had to pass Nelson’s bunk (it was dormitory–style living on this floor) and I hovered in the aisle at the end of his bed and pondered just what I might say to him that would not be deemed offensive and would gain me entrance to his trove. He was asleep, nothing came to mind, and even if it had I would have had to wait until morning, and a few seconds later I trekked to my throne.
Comfortably seated (more like comfortably numb in the nether regions), I turned the pages. The minutes passed, I had the place to myself as usual when my glasses suddenly flew off. I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I seemed dazed. A split second later I noticed blood pooling at my feet. The second blow struck, a millimeter from the first and this time I recognized it for what it was. I looked up, ducking and protecting my head from further assault as I did, and there was Nelson, readying his battery–laden sock for another strike. I grabbed the door lock, loosed the latch—the damn door opened in!—and fended off the third blow with my forearm as I stepped out of the stall. We hadn’t made any noise, nothing that would alert the guard, and I pushed open the unlocked door to the adjoining stall where Nelson still stood atop the toilet seat. I tackled his legs and twisted. We went down in a heap, but he fell further than I and smacked his head on the stainless steel plumbing and again on the tiled floor. He was out. Part of me wanted to kill him, as I was sure he had just tried to do to me. The sensible part told me there was no way to avoid detection. The guard took mental note of who journeyed to the bathroom. He was, like the other baton–wielders, used to my being in there for hours. I was the one with a bathroom book–habit.
Nelson was bleeding too. Not nearly enough. I removed the socking sock from his hand and went over to the sink to wash away my blood and staunch the bleeding. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with/to Nelson. I had the weapon now, he was my size; I wasn’t a bit concerned. He was breathing, at least, and if the guard ventured in I had a plausible story about him slipping on his own and my slipping when I went to help him. I cleared my head, washed up, and was estimating the size of the ever–expanding lump I now sported. After a few moments of cenotaph silence, Nelson stirred. I stood over him, ready to send him back to dreamland, but he waved me off as if to say, “Enough.” Warily, I watched him walk over to the sink and perform the same libations I had just concluded. “What the deuce is the matter with you?” I whispered. Out came the jailhouse logic: He was partially awake when I paused at his bed for those few seconds and he thought I was contemplating killing him as he slept. He figured he would get me first.
This, from a fellow I played backgammon against and conversed with. He was one shark short of a feeding frenzy, of that I was sure; I never figured he was one cell short of a brain. That pretty much ended it, no sense in either of us becoming embroiled in a vendetta. Naturally, the antennae alerted whenever Nelson was near from that point forward. I thought about it later and realized the damage he could have done with the four D–cell batteries inside that sock. Put four of them in your hand. Heavy, yes? Swing a long sock filled with them as hard as you can. Measure the approximate speed of the batteries, which are traveling at a much faster rate than your hand. Now, try to imagine, as I did, the result when those batteries smash into your temple, that vulnerable soft spot. Though unimpressed, I still have the impressions D–cells leave just a half–inch away from my temple. That half–inch spelled the difference between a BONK! and a SPLAT! I have two indentations, whether they are from two swings or two batteries connecting at once, I do not know. I do know my leprechaun spoiled Nelson’s aim.
There you are, handsome hepcats and cute kittens: Life has been rather tame and uneventful for over fifteen years. Save the time in ’06 when that tractor trailer turned the corner I had just turned, me walking and lugging a couple wheeled bags, and my instinct took over. Having learned to drive big rigs I knew the back wheels would soon be where I was. I jumped up a grassy hill and hugged a fence. My bags went flying. The trucker never slowed. Bet he was yakking on a cell phone.
Lisa, as I mentioned, married Gregg, a G–g–g–great husband and father. Those two beautiful grandchildren, Kaitlyn and Colin, are a never–ending source of joy. Patrick has left a trail of darling damsels stacked on the roads like cordwood. I thought about getting a job as a street–cleaner. Vicki remains my albatross, my cross to bare.
I thought I might have to winnow an inconsequential tale from the mix, but you have them all. Truth and consequences. There was the garden–variety cardiac event on November 1, 2002 (oddly, my parents’ wedding anniversary), but those things happen to everyone. Three stents and seven pills a day have made that hardly worth a mention. I thought so little of it that when I noticed a tightening in the chest around midnight I passed it off as indigestion. The textbooks call it “crushing chest pain” but I called it crushing chest discomfort. With all my medical training I knew better. I knew what it was. Denial is difficult to deny. Finally, at ten the following morning, I walked into the clinic at the Veteran’s Hospital in Rocky Hill, CT and told them what had been going on. The nurse got so excited I thought she was going to have a heart attack. And I won’t discomfit you readers any longer. Looking back at these incidents has been fun; much more, I believe, than looking down at a partial list. Some say everything happens in slow motion at times such as these. Some say their life flashes before their eyes. I believe them, but it never happened to me. But yes, I believe—in leprechauns. ‘Nuff said.