Stepping Stones

STONES_001In June of 1969 I graduated from High School. My two best friends and myself, had just turned, or were about to turn nineteen years of age, as we sat that evening on the stools we had recently adopted, at a bar then known as Tony’s Char-Rich Lounge.

Earlier that summer, Pat and I had each been hired into jobs which had us working second-shift at Warner-Swasey, an east-Cleveland factory, training as turret-lathe operators. We thought at the time, it was a good idea, since we could drive together and spend our days at the beach, until it was time to go in. The strategy didn’t pan out very well after the first week however, as the prospect of leaving the beach and our friends in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon to make our way all the way downtown to punch a time clock and stand in front of a turret-lathe until one-o’clock the following morning for seven dollars and ninety cents an hour just seemed, well, stupid. Within a couple of weeks we both had lined up other jobs that more suited our interests and pretty much sailed through the rest of the summer, working, getting to the beach when we could, and generally trying to imagine what life was all about, now that we were kind of out in the world, although each of us still lived in the home of our respective families.

During that time life was relatively carefree. We worked, went home, had dinner, cleaned up and shortly thereafter would meet at the Shell station, our default gathering spot where our buddy Bruce was the manager and allowed us the use of the tools and garage to do whatever work on our cars was needed at the time, in exchange for a six-pack or two, which by the end of the evening we had all shared, and after which we made our ritual “cruise” through the Big Boy parking lots, followed by an hour or so of just driving around. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we just drove in silence. We always had to stop to get gas, each of us chipping in to bring the tank back to half. After that it was back to Shell, our parked cars, and then home.

It went on like that for most of the summer. A few parties, weekends at the beach and a lot of beer drinking. By September the routine had become rather tedious and we all were looking for something to do. Unsure just what it was we were looking for, none of us had a clue.

I decided to take on a second job. I went back to my first place of employment and asked Mr. Mack if he had any need for a second-shift dishwasher. Mr. Mack was my first real boss. He and his wife owned the local Perkins Pancake House and received me with a friendly welcome as he looked up from what appeared to be the same enormous pile of paperwork on his desk that was there the last time I saw him, as I knocked on the door.

“Jay, how good to see you after all this time”. It’d been five years since I left the store.

“Hey Mr. Mack” I said, pleased that he recognized me after all that time.

“What brings you to my door?” he queried.

“Mr. Mack, I need a part time job and I was hoping you might need someone to run the dishwasher a few nights a week.”

He turned in his chair and grabbed the labor schedule from the same rack it had occupied when I was a bus-boy back in nineteen sixty four. It took about a minute before he looked up and said:

“How many nights can you be available?”

Not expecting his response, I stammered a moment and finally coughed up “four, if you’ve got’em”.

“How about Monday through Wednesday to eleven, and Sunday till closing, but you have to be in by four on Sunday?”

I smiled and agreed to the hours.

“When can I start” I eagerly asked.

“If you could be here Monday at seven, Darren can run you through the routine and Tuesday, you’re on your own. Daren leaves for boot camp in a week.”

Oblivious to the boot-camp reference contained in his comment, I replied: “That’s great Mr. Mack, thanks. I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Good to have you back, Jay. See you on Monday.”

I exited the restaurant through the kitchen area and walked towards my car feeling very pleased that I found something productive to do with my evenings. Not that I wasn’t working hard enough at my new job with the telephone company as an apprentice linesman, I just needed something else to do. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was searching for a way to distance myself from my home environment. Some practical way to exert a bit of control in my life.

At last — I had the means and the opportunity to remove myself, even if temporarily, from the sphere of my alcoholic father’s influence. Sure, it was work, and it made for a few long days. But I was out of the house, making money and enjoying my free time when I had it. And as long as I was working two jobs, there wasn’t much left to his perpetual claim that I was a shiftless lay-about. Eight hours a day at the telephone company and another four day a week job washing dishes at Perkins, and that myth was dispelled. Besides, I actually liked the dish-washing job. It was a mindless, steady, and motion intensive task. No thinking involved, just doing. The time flew. It was ok.

A routine developed quickly and it was satisfying. I had little contact with anyone at home, which was fine with me and when I had the time to spend with my friends, I had money in my pocket for whatever showed up. My attention was diverted, and life was moving along. There were of course the intermittent conflicts with my father which were unavoidable no matter how many jobs I may have had or how many hours I may have worked in a single week. I was still living in his house, and they were just part of the landscape. Being the eldest child in an alcohol-abusive household, as is often the case, I became the default target of his scorn. It began for me just before I entered kindergarten, and just before I turned five years old. There was an event which I think, started it all, though it is much too complicated to include here. However, something changed. I was always in trouble. It was not that I changed, at four years old, into some incorrigible juvenile delinquent. Not that I was even aware what that could even mean. It just showed up that no matter what I did seemed to irritate him and get me punished. The abuse began as physical and there was no shortage of it, usually taking the form of the removal of his belt from his trousers with one hand, while dragging me to the bathroom to bend me over the tub and applying that belt to my bare bottom. Whatever the offense, the punishment was some version of the belt. There was also a library of developed phrases available to be hurled in my direction, I suppose to supplement his rage which as time wore on, and to this day I cannot forget. The one most often spoken, informed me he couldn’t wait until I was eighteen and old enough to join the military and get the hell out of his house. There were others which were a bit more personal. They tended towards things like questioning my morals, my ethics, my tendency to fabricate versions of the truth in a way that had me appear innocent of whatever charge was being aimed my way.

Which brings me back to the evening of the lottery. As Pat, Ray and myself were sitting there waiting for the event to begin, we each were finishing our first round of beers, and ordered a second. We ordered round number three just as New York state Representative Alexander Pirnie, the lottery’s equivalent of Pat Sajak, had just opened the seventieth blue plastic capsule containing the date December 21rst. So far they had opened seventy birthdates, and not one of the three of us had been called. Tony delivered the three fresh ice cold beers we asked for just as the announcer said:

“Number seventy-one; September 10” …

… just as we were about to toast one another with a friendly clink of our bottle-necks accompanied by a hearty hoorah, the trailing voice that had just spoken sunk in. He had just announced my birthday. I was number seventy-one, and with no college deferment to hang on to, the reality of the moment hit. I was on my way to Viet-Nam one way or another. We each smiled and downed that third beer as a condolence of sorts, in a single gulp, replacing the empties on the bar with a bang, followed by huge CO2 inspired belches all three within seconds of one another causing everyone seated at the bar to laugh and raise their bottles in a sort of community salute. Pat’s number came up in the ninety-sixth capsule and Ray’s number appeared, finally as number two-hundred-forty.

I woke the next morning and called my boss at the telephone company to inform him that I was not going to be in that day.

“Yes Tom” I said, “I’ll be in tomorrow, just like always. I have some personal business to tend to today, but I’ll be there tomorrow, don’t worry”

By the time I fell asleep the night before, I decided I would enlist, rather than wait for that dreaded “Greetings from the United States Government” letter from the draft board. By four-o’clock that afternoon I completed the necessary paperwork and signed the contract which officially enlisted me into the United States Navy. Later that evening I was in the kitchen, my arms folded across my chest while leaning aggressively against the same kitchen counter where, over the years of my childhood, I had washed an endless number of pots, pans and after dinner dishes, waiting anxiously for my dad to arrive, as I knew he would somewhere very close to eight-twenty, his regularly scheduled lunch time visit. He had forty-five minutes to drive home from the factory, throw back a couple shots of Seagram’s Seven followed by two beers, get back in the car and drive back, and he did it with precision. Five days a week.

I heard the car in the driveway and braced myself. As he entered through the kitchen door, I said hello.

“What’re you doing here?” he snapped, “I thought you were supposed to be at work by now”

“I’m going in a little late tonight, I have something I need to tell you.”

“Well, make it quick, I haven’t got a lot of time” he responded, as he opened the refrigerator and grabbed his first beer, then opened it.

“You know the lottery was last night, right?” I continued.

“What lottery, what’re you talking about?” pouring his first shot.

“The Draft Lottery. It was on all the channels last night” I reported.

With the second shot filling the small glass, he looked up and said “Yeah, so” like a question.

“Well, I came up number seventy-one, and since you decided I wasn’t smart enough to send me to college, remember that, there is no deferment available?”

I paused to let what I was about to say really sink in.

“Well, with a number that low, it’s certain I’ll be drafted, so I decided to enlist instead. As of four o’clock this afternoon, I am an official enlistee of the United States Navy. And by the way, I volunteered for Viet-Nam duty as soon as I complete boot-camp”

It was the look of shock and surprise I was after. And I got it in spades. But he didn’t really let on. He poured a third shot, opened the second beer, and started to tell me that I couldn’t do any of this without his permission as he put the freshly opened beer to his lips. It was then I reminded him I turned eighteen a little over a year ago and I no longer required his permission. Slowly, he put down the bottle onto the kitchen table, bent over and rested on both hands for a moment, then stood, turned, and faced me.

As he did so, I peered into his eyes, and for the first time in years, they appeared tender.

He said “You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to go.”

I said “For fifteen years, you’ve been telling me that you couldn’t wait until I was old enough to join the service and get the hell out of your house. Have you any idea how many hundreds of times you’ve said that to me? Well, you win. I’m convinced. In three weeks I leave for boot-camp and within six months I’ll be somewhere in South Viet-Nam. You Win! I’m gone, finish your beer.”

With that I walked out, got into my car and drove straight to my part-time job. Slightly more than six months later, I landed with my battalion at Ben Hoa, Republic of Viet-Nam, all trained and full of piss and vinegar, with an M-60 machine gun slung from my right shoulder, ready, I thought for whatever.

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Ulterior Motive

EMERGENCY

“What’s his name”? “Sylvestre, Robert Sylvestre” came the quick response from Lévesque, the newest addition to the Cardiac Surgical unit’s A-Team. “What’re this guy’s options Doctor”?

“Here’re the x-ray’s” was the response from Lévesque, snapping the images into the LED viewer. “He’s losing a lot of blood Ma’am”. “Yeah, that’s what happens when you get shot son” Hale quipped, then, “what’s the background on the patient Doctor?” “Thirty-two year old African American male, five-feet-nine, two-hundred-seventeen pounds. He’s been shot three times, once to the leg, straight through, another bullet appears to be lodged in his right shoulder; however, this may be the leftovers of a previous wound. The third being the one requiring your services Doctor. It looks like” … abruptly, “thank you doctor, I can see what it looks like”

Doctor Jane Hale, was the head of surgery at the Reynard Institute, and the most experienced thoracic surgeon within five hundred miles. Not including today’s patient, she’d led more than six-hundred seventy surgeries similar to the one she faced today. Two thirds of them saving the lives of the damaged patients, though working with this new French import Lévesque was a first. Familiar with his candidate dossier and ultimately the final word on the hiring process, she was impressed with his educational background and the referrals from his residency colleagues, especially Chief of Staff Doctor Matija Branka, a friend and trusted fellow Marine colleague from their days in the field in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She was however, not so impressed with the newest additions’ inherent French bleeding-heart mind-set.

“Are we ready to proceed Doctor?”, she queried Lévesque. “Yes ma’am” was the immediate and professional reply. “Very well, after you Doctor”, both making their way through the inner doors of the surgical theatre. “Good Evening ladies and Gents; are we ready to begin?”  Yes Doctor. “Very well, who’s in charge of the music today?” “I am”, piped up intern Davis, “what’ll it be today Ma’am?” “I think a little AC/DC would be appropriate in this situation, don’cha think?” as a benign snicker traveled through the surgical team, noticed yet not quite understood by Lévesque, as the bass line of track one filled the surgery.

A history of working with anesthesiologist Doctor Robert Winthrop to her immediate right, allowed the direct eye-contact nod of readiness as the signal to proceed; Winthrop monitored the respirator bag.

“Scalpel” snapped Surgeon Hale, as the instrument was crisply received in her waiting hand.

As the slice proceeded, a trickle of blood oozed from the incision, immediately swabbed by Cardiac Nurse Janeway.

“Doctor Lévesque, the Manman please”. Again, a split second behind the request, the sternum saw snapped into the waiting left hand of Doctor Hale.

“Doctor Lévesque, are you aware of the manner by which the man on the table generated our first opportunity to work together?” Hesitant to admit she did not, Lévesque offered instead “This is my fourth surgical assist today Doctor”.

“Finochietto” came Hale’s request. Again, reflecting the accolades of her Croatian colleague, the tool was ready before the request faded. As the verve of Bon’s vocals and

Marc Evans bassline to “Dirty Deeds” resonated throughout the surgery Doctor Hale placed the rib-spreader into position and opened the patients’ chest cavity, revealing the expected volume of blood … and a wry smirk on the face of the good Doctor.

HEMO-SEP

Lévesque was already positioning the extended nozzle of the Hemo-Sep machine to remove the pool of dark red obscuring Dr. Hales view. “He shot and wounded two of Albuquerque’s finest, and killed a third during the commission of a bank robbery. A working mom and the mother of three on her way home, also died. It was Mr. Brickman’s third such holdup effort in the past eleven years, and this one, while on parole” revealed Hale, with a dark, cold conviction.

 

“Forceps” snapped Hale, an appreciation for the theme of the song glinted in her eyes through the surgical loupes as her able assistant once again had the tool at the ready.

Lévesque absorbed the matter-of–fact-ness of her statement, unsure what Dr. Hale intended for him to understand.

The Bully

I never had to slap her more than twice. I never liked doing it the first time. But hey, well, ya’ know what I mean, women gotta’ know their place, right. I mean how many times have I told her to butter the toast as soon as it comes out of the toaster, right? How many times should I have to say it? It ought’a be easy, I don’t like my toast with cold butter messed all over it. I DON’T DO IT, She shouldn’t either, right? OK. Nuff said. I mean, if SHE didn’t like her toast that way, I wouldn’t do it, but hey, that’s not my job, right. Anyway, the rest of the breakfast was no worse than usual and I gave her ass a good slap as she refilled my almost empty coffee cup, just to let her know that I was OK with it all and there were no hard feelings, right? I mean who needs to start out the day on the wrong foot, right? I went back to the sports section, and noticed today’s numbers were gonna’ hit hard today. Talk about getting’ off on the wrong foot. Shoulda’ slapped her ass twice.

As I got up from the table I told Charlie Junior g’bye and let him know that I’d for sure be at his little league game this afternoon as long as mommy got the banking done, and picked up the car from the garage before three, as I looked up from Charlie’s forehead to see a smiling nod on the face attached to that ass I just slapped. Joyce knew I never liked missing one of Charlie’s games — when I could help it. I grabbed the cup from the table and swallowed the last gulp before making my way to the door, stopping for a quick glimpse in the hall tree mirror, like I needed it, and I was off.

By the time I got to the restaurant, it was eleven-fifteen. The discrete nod of Mario’s head over his left shoulder let me know Dusko was already waiting inside, adding to my sports page anxiety. I hoped the sweat instantly collecting on my forehead was less obvious than it felt as I pushed open the door to see Dusko Sava, the local Serbian Mob bagman, comfortably seated in my chair, his right foot casually propped on my desk. Dusko looked up and exhaled a cloud of light blue smoke, and with a flick of his diamond-ringed index finger added to the small pile of Cohiba Lancero cigar ash piling up on my hardwood floor, just between the empty ashtray on the desk and the trash can just to his right. Dusko’s first words quoted the size of today’s loss, and asked “could I cover his percentage by six p.m.”

Pasting on a half-assed smile, I tried to look surprised by his presence and suggested a drink, as it had been weeks since I had the pleasure of his visit. I hollered, “Yo, Mario; bring in the bottle of Balkan 176 and two fresh glasses”.

My smile was not returned.

Seconds later Mario walked in, sat an ice cold bottle of Serbian Vodka and two glasses on the desk, and left.

Dusko Sava dropped his right foot to the floor, sat up and grabbed the bottle from the desk to inspect the seal. Dusko would not drink from a bottle if the seal was broken. Satisfied, he opened the bottle and poured two, three fingered shots into the glasses. “Zjevli”, Dusko toasted, and clicked the rim of his glass with mine, downing the shot in a single gulp with me following his lead. Dusko immediately poured a second shot of equal size and was ready to neck it before I could even catch my breath. With my eyes watering as I choked back the urge to vomit. This shit was like drinking paint remover, I thought, hesitantly offering my glass for the refill. Dusko poured and again, we clinked glasses.

My vision was already beginning to blur as Dusko repeated, “Zjevli”.

I downed the second shot and I think I smiled. Dusko Sava stood and made his way out the door, his voice trailing off; “I’ll be back at six for my money”.

Again I hollered for Mario. I was barely able to stand as he helped me to the sofa. “You gotta’ wake me by four” I slurred, hoping Mario heard me. Sixty-five hundred was gonna’ be hard to cover in only two hours.

The List

On a normal day, Bill’s drive home was never uneventful or tedious. Life on southern California freeways demanded complete attention during the ninety-minute plus commute from Torrance to Riverside at five o’clock in the afternoon. Still, three years later, he was pleased with his decision to accept the Project Manager position with General Dynamics. While many of the routines of living the small town Riverton, Illinois lifestyle had faded from memory, the fifteen minute bicycle ride from his garage to the parking lot at Lucent Technologies was sorely missed.

With the clear, post-card blue sky above, Bill’s attention was focused elsewhere. Tomorrow was Bill’s fiftieth birthday, and he was in the midst of a small-scale, semi-anxious assessment of the life he had built for himself, his wife and their two children. For the most part, He felt successful enough, certain his next raise would take him to just over that magical six-figure annual income he was sure he would have attained five years earlier.

Ah, the list.

That elusive score card Bill had been revising, on and off for the past fifteen years had a number of items yet to be crossed out. A few were traded off, some with the bar set a bit higher, while others due to some unspoken self-compromise of the moment had decided the bar could be brought down a rung or two. Like his desire to hike the Appalachian Trail with his first wife.

When that list item was scratched, it took with it his first home, his black 1965 Porsche 365 Cabriolet, and his cat named Louis. Then there was the mis-adventure while on the Borneo Cross Country Expedition. Two days into the trek, he was bitten by a relatively rare, and poisonous, Gin-Gu centipede. The resultant infection swelled his foot to the size of a small watermelon, ending the excursion, thereby also ruining the trip for his “trek-mates” as they were the ones that carried Bill back to the base camp, since he was unable to walk. Three days in a local hospital and he was back on a plane headed for home, ending, but not completing that particular list item on a very sour note.

On the up-side of the list, he is now married to the love of his life, the former Ms. Valerie James, and has, as I mentioned, two small children with her. Bill Junior is nine and like Bill, an obsessed CUBS fan. Then there is Casey. Casey is their six year old daughter. She acquired the moniker of “two-cents” by the time she turned five years old – for her peculiar ability to have something – frequently insightful – to say about any conversation she happens to open her ear to.

Which is almost any conversation within earshot.

Of course with that goes the lovely house they currently make their home. It sits squarely at the head of the cul-de-sac on Morningside Lane in Riverside. Beyond the official perimeter of Bill’s back yard lies the well‑manicured and verdant landscape of the Eleventh Fairway at Indian Hills Country Club, to which he was given full membership by Valerie, for his forty-eighth birthday, which was one of those “compromised items” spoken of a bit earlier. The actual list item was to play fifteen of the best courses in the country by the time he was fifty. Living on the eleventh fairway at Indian Hills, he decided, was a worthwhile trade-off.

To replace an item lost earlier, that being his Porsche, Bill, in a stroke of sheer luck had managed to score mightily in December of last year.

While attending the Concours d’Elegance at Cambridge, Maryland, he placed a bid on a “full-frame” restored 1966 MGC. Yeah, that’s the six-cylinder one. Unfortunately he was bidding against another equally avid MG enthusiast, and lost. Later that evening however, while he and Valerie were having dinner at Cranium’s at the Beach, a local seafood and steakhouse, Bill’s cellphone rang. He usually didn’t answer the phone during meals, especially while out with his wife, but since the kids were with the baby sitter, he took the call. The look on Bill’s face caused Valerie to wonder what the broad smile on his face was about. When the call ended, Bill just sat there and smiled.

“What. What is that smile about?” Valerie asked.

“You’re not going to believe this … but that was Tony Robinson”

“You mean Tony from the car show, that Tony?” Valerie continued.

“Yes, The very same”

While being sure it was true, Bill continued in a tone of mild, though pleasant shock …

… “I’ve been awarded the MGC we bid on this afternoon. It seems the guy we bid against was on his way back to his hotel room down in Prince Frederick, and while stopped for gas at the BP in Chesapeake, had a heart attack and died right there at the pump, just after swiping his credit card into the reader..”

“You’re kidding” Valerie gasped, reaching for the napkin in her lap to wipe her mouth. “Just like that?”

“I guess so. Tony didn’t have too many more details other than the fact that as the next closest bidder, the car was ours, if we still wanted it.”

“Well of course we do, right?” Valerie smiled rhetorically.

“Sure. We can take care of the paperwork and have the car shipped back to Riverside next week.”

But, back to the list. Well, as I said, tomorrow was his birthday, and another of Bill’s list items was on the agenda, to be eliminated.  Bright and early he and Valerie had a date just to the south of the Lake Perris Recreational Area, in Perris, California. It was at the Perris Valley Skydiving School. Bill was going to complete his five week-crash course in skydiving and make his first solo-jump.

“Good Morning Birdie”, Bill and Valerie excitedly greeted the manager of the school.

“Hello folks. Come on over and grab a cup of coffee and a donut, they’re fresh from Cyril’s Bake shop, and not more than twenty minutes old,” Coaxed Birdie to his first customers of the day.

Valerie and Bill made their way to the hut and took him up on his offer of the coffee, but passed on the donuts.

“How long before the plane is ready Birdie?” asked Bill.

“Half an hour at most. You should be up to drop altitude within the next forty-five I should think. Let me check with the pilot.”

The words trailed off as Birdie, broadly smiling, walked off to greet new arrivals.

“Well, I’m off Val. Wish me luck.” hollered Bill excitedly over the roar of the propellers, as he reached out to take his wife into his arms one more time.

This is going to be so cool. Scary and cool at the same time he was thinking, as he hugged her.

“I’ll see you in a half hour Bill. Enjoy yourself. Are you sure the GoPro is working?” she asked.

“Yeah. Everything is checked. It’s all good. Chute, watch, rigging, camera. All good baby. Have coffee ready when I get back.” Bill smiled.

Bill turned and climbed into the Cessna Grand Caravan C208B.

“Good Morning” Bill said to the other four jumpers, already positioned.

“I think we’re good to go, eh?” They all gave the thumbs-up.

As the aircraft approached the runway, Bill’s pulse was pounding. This was a big item he was checking off his list, and he couldn’t be more excited. Everyone on board was feeling the same way, he imagined.

They were all jumping solo, for the first time, at an altitude of nine-thousand-five-hundred feet. It was a beautiful morning. Seventy-six degrees and clear skies with wind speed below six miles per hour on the ground. The jump master called out the altitude at each successive thousand-foot increment. At eight-five hundred feet, he gave the general safety precaution information he always did, reminding each of them to keep an eye on their altimeters, and to give their helmet straps an extra tug. He then asked everyone to check out their jump-partners rigging to their left and right.

Everything was a go.

“OK soloists. We have reached jump altitude” boomed the voice of the pilot over the broadcast speakers. The roar of the wind rushed through the open bay.

“First jumper is out the door in twenty-five, twenty-four, twenty-three …” announced the jump-master and the count continued to zero, as first jumper Zoe exited the craft with a whoosh.

“One away” hollered the jump-master. “Who’s next?”

Bill stood up and made his way to the door, grasping the handrail, and smiling from ear to ear. The jumpmaster smiled in return, smacked Bill on the top of his helmet, and said “In four – three – two – one, you’re outta here buddy.”

Taking a deep breath, like just before you hit the surface of the water during a dive, Bill jumped for the first time without being strapped to his training partner.

Three seconds later, Bill let out a scream of pent up exhilaration at the top of his lungs, heard by none other than the azure sky through which he fell. At ten seconds he looked at his altimeter. He was travelling straight to the ground at one-hundred-thirty miles per hour and loving it.

His altimeter beeped at fifty-five hundred feet, alerting him to be ready to pull his rip-cord.

He looked down to the ground rushing up at him and was awed by the sight. He took another look at his altimeter, then reached for and grasped his rip-cord handle firmly and calmly. Three – two – one … he pulled.

Nothing happened.

Anxiety flooded Bill’s thoughts as exhilaration gave way to panic; his lungs now gasping for the cold morning air. Bill forced himself to remain as calm as he could … it was useless.

Good God almighty, he thought. I’m headed towards the ground at a hundred thirty miles an hour — and my chute didn’t open. I’m gonna die on my fiftieth birthday in an oozing bloody puddle on the ground, right in front of my wife.

Whose idea was this anyway, he thought. Then regaining his composure, he forced reason to take command, and reached for, but couldn’t locate his emergency rip cord.

As he looked down for the handle, he couldn’t believe what he thought he was seeing. Some kind of near-death hallucination.

But no … that … that just can’t be, he thought.

Looking quickly away, and then back to refocus, Bill finally wraps his hand around the handle of the emergency rip-cord … and pulls.

Nothing.

Bill looks down again and sees … wait, wait … it is. It’s another man … flying straight for him … even as he is rushing headlong towards the ground, and certain death.

As they get closer — Bill — screams out — at the top of his lungs:

“Hey, heyyy … do you know anything about parachutes?

The two men pass in mid-air and Bill hears the man’s swiftly fading response …

“Nooo, do you know anything about gaaaasss stooooves?”

ALL HISTORY MATTERS

Reprint from 27 JUN 2015:

To: Cleveland Plain Dealer Opinion Pages

Confederate Flag Controversy

Never allowing a controversy go to waste, and driven by the “politics of hysteria”, the usual suspects of the left wing leadership cabal, is once again calling for all manner of history revision. Change the name of this, remove the statue of that, eliminate the memory of her, denigrate the legacy of him … and on and on and on.

And all the mindless low-information lemmings that follow their creed sing the same song, a capella, in lock-step, giving little, if any thought to the consequences of such actions.

What they miss in their mindless support of such victim-seeking entreaties is the fact that by the removal of such historically significant figures, statuary, plaques, remembrances and other exhibits of homage, they also reduce the scope of the footprint our great nation has left upon the history of the world as well.

Do they seem to care? Not a whit. For theirs is the focus of reactionary political response. Demands for knee-jerk legislation firmly seated upon the shoulders of righteous indignation, designed to quell these fevered masses and relieve their ever oppressive and unforgettable damages of the past, as though they continue to suffer the exact same indignities in the now. The course corrections and adjustments that have been borne of these historic injustices apparently hold little notice with these harmed souls. No, for them burning the past, as well as the cities that surround them, in temper tantrums of violence in the name of “fairness”, memorialized with the likes of “burn this bitch down” and “hands up, don’t shoot”, smashing the store-fronts of their own local businesses and generally reveling in the  chaos of the moment, stoked either by their own unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions and lifestyle choices, or their inability to recognize the inevitable consequences of such behaviours.

The efforts to rewrite this country’s historical record must be pushed back with all the will and determination we as a nation pushed back against the efforts of the Axis Powers and the Imperial Japanese armies of World War Two. Make no mistake, the left-wing progressive movement in this country is just as determined and vengeful as the enemies we faced in that struggle. And tALL HISTORY MATTERS 3he consequences may be equally as grave.

This is the record of OUR HISTORY, and we must fight to preserve it, and all of its warts and bumps as they are. For it is by regarding OUR HISTORY that we shall be guided to our future. If we allow them to remove the records of our history, our struggles, achievements and our failures, if we allow them to turn our past into a vanilla smoothie, depleted of every nuance of strife or the indecencies towards one another that we have grown through, then we allow them to pass on to our future generations a legacy of falsehoods and fantasies bereft of meaning.

The entire history of the United States is worthy of being fought for. All history matters.

AURAS

 

The dark blue ink stamped my stained white time-card at 2230 hours exactly. I headed for the locker room and spun the dial of the aged Master combination lock that secured my twelve by fourteen by twenty-four-inch World War II vintage locker, theoretically preventing access on a good day to all but six or seven other people of my personal belongings while I was on duty.

Day to-day, those belongings consisted of my lunch; usually three peanut butter, salami, tomato and mustard sandwiches, a zip-lock baggy of six Lorna-Doones, a quart of milk and three bottles of orange Gatorade, all tucked safely inside a black nylon off-brand backpack I got on sale for twenty-one ninety-five during a Blue-Light-Special at Kmart last October, which, if it lasts through the end of next week will have made it to the end of my Department of Corrections six-month probation.

Woodford Detention Center, while recently re-landscaped thanks to a property tax levy passed in November, is as bleak and foreboding inside as a MAX-SEC prison might be imagined. Most of the interior of cell-block R is concrete gray. The furniture in and around the control rooms came in one of two designer-free colors: standard military olive drab, and Samsonite beige. The doors to the inmate quarters are flat-black as are all door and window frames, tier-railings and ventilation duct-work. The only colors in the cell-block are the round blue-gray steel tables bolted securely to the floors in the community areas where checkerboard are engraved and epoxied into place with their traditional red and black squares and a thin gold border on the outside edge. The intentionally insipid visual properties of the block were offset only by the brightness of the recently upgraded LED lighting system, thanks to the same gift-horse as the landscaping. While otherwise as boring as hell, we could see everything that was going on.

Well, almost everything.

Every third Thursday of the month, I reported to the Sally-Port where I manned the intake desk and oversaw the transfer of prisoners both in to, and out of Woodford. The best part of Sally-Port duty was also the worst part: the paperwork. The process of transferring inmates was exhaustive and time-consuming. Each incoming prisoner wristband had to be removed and replaced. Once completed, they became inmates. Each inmate had to have his wristband photo and thumbprint image matched to the image on file in the CLINCHER Inmate Identification system. Each inmate transfer then required a FBOP-A0399 form completed and signed by the OOD. The three-ninety nines are short, critical and detailed forms. For the past two months, each three-ninety-nine had to be completed on a manual typewriter due to a persistent glitch in the computer system, disallowing that part of the data entry to be properly recorded. This made for a very busy evening and the shift passed quickly.

At 0248 hours, a call was patched through to the phone at my desk. It was the pilot of the JPATS flight from Soledad reporting their aircraft, and my prisoner were stuck on the tarmac and running about half an hour behind schedule. I reported this to the OOD and requested a few minutes to slip to the break-room and hit the vending machine for a cup of coffee.

***

Returning to my desk, I was greeted by Stoltz and Cotnick, two detectives I had come to know from 1PP. They had a federal guest from Rikers who was headed to FCC Pollock to await trial on charges of trafficking in young women and drugs. I began the paperwork and called the desk sergeant:

“Frank, yeah, it’s Dawson. Listen, I’m gonna’ need two escorts for inmate Jekubiaz. He’s on hold for a medical-eval scheduled for tomorrow night prior to his transfer to Louisiana.”

“I’ll have’em there in twenty minutes.” Ortiz barked.  “Anything else?”

“Copy that, Sarge. Naw, that’s it. Thanks.”

I put down the phone and told inmate Jekubiaz to stand and turn to his right, so I could scan and replace his wristband. Jekubiaz moved slower than Stoltz thought was indicated by my request, and grabbed him just above his left elbow, yanked him up from his seat, then spun him hard to his right.

“Next time when the man asks you to get up and turn, …” Stoltz didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Jekubiaz, now only ten inches or so from my face, looked into my eyes and smiled as I reached for his left wrist and scanned the bar-code ID embedded in the wristband.

That brief physical contact I established with Jekubiaz while scanning his wrist ID, provided me all the necessary details a jury would need to convict him of everything he was suspected of. His dark-brown aura, tinged with black revealed to me his core: he was a man filled with deceit, selfishness, and a bad quick temper. More than a few of the traits innate to a person accused of such crimes. This gift, as my mother described my ability to see these aura’s, often revealed information I never wanted to know. But I’ve learned to live with it, and could frequently ignore it.

But not always.

Jekubiaz’s escorts appeared at my window into the hallway of the Sally-Port. I hit the buzzer and they entered pushing an Emergency Restraint Chair. They immediately took custody from Stoltz and Cotnick, and pushed Jekubiaz into the chair, securing quickly his head, wrists and ankles. I handed them the paperwork Sergeant Ortiz would need.

“Thanks guys. Have a nice trip Mr. Jekubiaz. Hope you enjoy the weather in Louisiana” I said, finally returning his smile.

I turned to shake hands with Cotnick, and nodded goodbye to Stoltz, who was already standing at the door.

“Stay safe and say hello to Drazdick when you see him.”

“And hey, remind him of the corned beef from Nick’s he still owes me” I griped, knowing the only way that I’d ever really get that sandwich would be to drive across town and buy it myself.

***

I glanced at the clock. It was 0328 hours and I wondered where my JPAT prisoner was. Just as I dropped my ass into the chair behind my desk, the yellow alert beacon in concert with the claxon brought my attention to the fact that the inmate from Soledad was en route from the front gate. Officer’s Schmidt, Osgood and Kretchmeier focused their attention on the arriving prisoner. As soon as the van stopped between the wide yellow painted lines on the concrete floor of the Sally-Port, three armed guards exited the van and ran to the passenger side. The doors opened from the inside, and the ramp lowered. Two additional guards pushed the gurney out of the van and down the ramp. The prisoner, was strapped to the gurney, head hands waist and feet with two-inch-wide yellow nylon webbing, secured with stainless pinned buckles. I’d not been, nor was anyone else on my end given any information regarding this prisoner’s background prior to his arrival.

Schmidt and Osgood reported the Sally-Port was secure. Kretchmeier and I rolled up the armored security door and the armed guards rolled in the prisoner.

***

FBI Special Agent Kirkpatrick introduced himself and handed me a black briefcase. From his inside coat pocket, he brought out a key and opened the case. He handed me one of two envelopes contained inside. I opened the envelope and removed the paperwork. The prisoner on the gurney was known as John Alexander Orminster. I could not imagine the crimes this man committed to demand such precautionary levels of security. The paperwork stated his age at seventy-three years four months. He looked every bit of it. I completed the paperwork as it was handed to me and prepared a new CLINCHER ID for former prisoner now inmate Orminster, and returned the resealed envelope to Agent Kirkpatrick.

I stepped towards the gurney with my scanner and the wristband. It became obvious that the prisoners left arm required release from the gurney restraint so that I could properly attach it. I grasped the prisoners forearm and was immediately overcome, as if by an abyss. I remained aware of what I was doing and the people around me, though profoundly aware of a building darkness that saturated my mind, the Sally-Port and everyone in it.

I glanced at Special Agent Kirkpatrick, and then the sidearm holstered at his waist. Resisting with all my effort the incredible urge to reach for it, I instead snapped the CLINCHER ID to Orminster’s wrist, grabbed the scanner and copied the data into the system. The scanner beeped, and completed its process, sending the information to the printer which I could hear turning the data into a hard copy for agent Kirkpatrick, and our records. Next, I had to type the FBOP-A0399 form and take it to the OOD for his signature. Again, my attention focused on the Glock on Kirkpatrick’s waist as the darkness became thicker, thinning my desire to resist.

When I looked up, I was emotionally seized by the malignant penetrating eyes of prisoner Orminster. His willful gaze proffered me a dare, in the form of a terse snarl from his gaunt, thin-lipped face.

Asserting my will, I restrapped the prisoner’s wrist to the gurney and forced myself to the desk to complete the A0399, after which I stood and removed the form from the typewriter. I walked around my desk, and passed directly behind Agent Kirkpatrick, with the intention of having the OOD sign it, as required.

The darkness however, sucked my intention dry. I threw the scanner against the wall, and distracted Agent Kirkpatrick just enough to provide me with momentary access to his Glock, which I unhesitatingly grabbed, chambered, and kneecapped him with from behind. I turned and placed two rounds directly into the forehead of that evil rat-bastard, inmate Orminster.

My right shoulder exploded in pain as I was thrown backwards hard against the wall from the impact of an opposing Glock round, where I slid snail-like red to the floor and traded the darkness for unconsciousness.

***

“And that’s how it happened in the wee hours of 20 April 2017” I painfully recounted from my bed in the Bellvue prison ward.

“Eight days short of making my probation. Ain’t that a bitch” I winced.

Stoltz and Cotnick listened to all of it, looked at me, and then each other shaking their heads.

A ringing phone broke the uneasy silence. Cotnick reached into his coat and retrieved his cell; “Cotnick” he huffed.

“Got it, we’re on our way.” He looked at Stoltz. “We got a body.”

Cotnick flicked his head and right thumb at Stoltz towards the door. They nodded to the patrolman as they passed.

“Hey” I groaned. They stopped just outside the door, and gave me a quarter turn of their heads. “remind Drazdick he still owes me a corned beef from Nick’s.”

MARIAN and CHARLIE

My attention was focused on the tips of gramma’s flour covered fingers as they stopped a hair’s breadth above the hot bursting bubbles of the boiling water, where she calmly urged from that old wooden spoon each glob of the sticky yellow caraway-seeded dough into the aged copper pot, which would soon render the most succulent dumplings ever to grace a platter of roast pork and sauerkraut.

It was certainly Christmas day.

My view of this creative process was made possible through the well-worn seat of the high-chair of my earlier years, and which by the age of five-and-a-half, my bottom could hardly, any longer, be said to fit. Still, there I sat absorbing consciously perhaps for the first time, the unfolding of what was to become a cherished and fondly remembered holiday experience.

Whether Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, or Easter, it didn’t matter much. To one degree or another, they were all very similar, holidays were. Unique, but similar. The guest-list such as it was, was not so much an official list of invitees, but more an open-door policy welcoming whomever could be there if only to drop by to say hello, and “oy, maybe, since I’m already here, just a nibble, yes”, even if they didn’t need it.

Uncle’s, nephews and nieces, cousins, brothers and sisters, great grandparents, second cousins and, every once in a while, the neighbors from two streets over that you barely even knew, but just yesterday bumped into at the West twenty-fifth street market while arguing with your friend Radich the poultry vendor over the price of the turkey now pleasantly stuffed, basted and roasting ever so slowly in the oven.

Sure, everyone was welcome back then. Especially on Christmas day.

***

While I watched those dumplings come to a boil, gramma stooped to pull open the oven door for a peek, and decided it was time to place the pineapple slices and brown sugar on the ham, giving it just enough time to brown nicely before pulling it from the oven allow it to rest.

As I sat next to the stove in that old high-chair, watching my grandmother carefully tend to every detail of the Christmas feast, I was unaware of the myriad sights and sounds being joyfully and indelibly catalogued in my brain would be so easily and readily available, now sixty-one years later.

***

My grandmother, a first-generation Croatian immigrant, and the youngest of a family of nine, and my grandfather, a native Ohioan were not only married, they were co-workers as well, employed by a large clothing manufacturer just to the west of the city, where large numbers of post-World-War II Slavic immigrants also earned their wages, as they raised their families, attended churches, became U.S. citizens, and close friends. The war-torn fabric of their ethnic origins bonded and provided them with cause for great celebration during the holiday season, managing somehow to adjust, interpret and respectfully communicate through the many dialects each of them brought to such gatherings, where such interpretations were frequently, if surreptitiously, assisted by several shots of Slivovitz or Rakija and a couple of good Cuban cigars, of course.

In those days, had the word “geek” existed, it would’ve well described my grandfather. Throughout the house, he’d hidden speakers and microphones, and all were connected to a large reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder secreted in the basement, there recording for posterity I suppose, much of the content of these gatherings. When finally played back years later, and sufficiently present under all the people chatter as the soundtrack to the gathering, you could hear Bing Crosby crooning I’ll Be Home for Christmas from the record player in the dining room, while on the television in the living room, Dicken’s Christmas Carols’ ghosts could be heard frightening the bejeezus out of poor Mr. Scrooge in his large four-poster bed, shivering in fear as he crouched on his knees under the blankets, drapes drawn, effectively imparting his fears to the kids gathered to watch, chins upon hands lying on the floor.

***

By this time, the arrivals had slowed to a crawl, and the soon-to-be-dinner smells thickly wafted about the entirety of the house. In the oven, the ham’s pineapple slices and the big tom-turkey were turning toasty brown alongside the rosemarie, the spare crock of turkey stuffing, and a macaroni and tuna casserole of unknown origin, apparently dropped off and squeezed inside the cavity of that tiny oven as well, was once again steaming. The sweet potatoes were simmering away on the stove as the green beans one burner over were slowly absorbing a half-stick of home-churned butter and sharing space with the pan of bubbling creamed corn making plup-plup-plup noises. Suddenly, a chill wintry gust escorted a late arrival through the opened front door accompanied by the  scent of fresh hot cinnamon and apples uniquely distinguishing itself from the wet cold aroma of winter snow, road salt and damp bulky wool coats that almost reached the floor, followed closely by the wet-slush footprints of unremoved galoshes and flowery-sweet old woman perfume smells swirling towards the ceiling and merging, finally to hang, at the exact same level as my nose seated upon that aged high-chair of my recent youth.

I looked up and noticed a smile paint itself slightly upon my gramma’s face as she turned, reached up and embraced my grandpa. I scooted down from that chair, happy to see that everything was finally coming together, and that dinner was soon to be served.

Merry Christmas indeed.