The Joke’s On You, Part II

Halloween was a special time in my neighborhood of East San Diego when I was a child.  I grew up there in the 1950’s and 1960’s when things were more simple, in my world at least.  These were the times when the elementary schools would have halloween carnivals in the evening at which one could fish for prizes from a tank, throw bean bags through a hole to win tickets redeemable for prizes, or win a cake on the cakewalk.  I will never forget how excited I was one time when the music stopped on the cakewalk and the paper plate upon which I was standing contained the winning number and some big, pink, three layer cake was mine.  And I didn’t even like cake!

Also missing in halloween these days is the homemade and natural goodies that we once filled our pillowcases with; brownies, fudge, apples and oranges and my all-time favorite, popcorn balls.  We knew most of the neighbors who were giving us these home concocted treats and the thought of them inserting something dangerous or gross into our treats never entered either our minds or theirs.  I really do miss the popcorn balls.

There is no doubt that I enjoyed the treats greatly, but I must confess that I really loved the tricks too.  Most people only said “Trick or treat” as a formality, but my brother Brad and I took that formula very seriously.  Our tricks originally were short on imagination.  Soaping windows, burning paper bags filled with doggie doo on the front porch and the like were our stock in trade at first.  As we grew a little older however the quality of our work was honed to a sharper edge.  My all-time second favorite prank was Halloween related, and was as follows.

Sometime right around 1960 Brad and I decided to make a dummy to hang from a branch of the pine tree which grew in the front yard of our house.  The branches spread out over the sidewalk and anyone walking up that sidewalk, and there would be hoards of people out trick-or-treating in those days, would have to walk under that pine tree.  We found an old pair of my jeans and stuffed the legs full of crumpled up newspapers, pine needles, dried weeds from a burn pile in our back yard, and dirty rags.  Brad then pulled an old shirt out of the rag bag in the garage and attached it to the jeans with safety pins.  The shirt was then similarly filled and a cotton rope attached to the collar with more safety pins.  We then glued a paper lunch sack into the collar opening of the shirt which represented a head and in the dark it made a pretty good likeness of a person hanging from a limb.

Our results were mixed.  It was Halloween after all, and people were expecting such props.  Some of the younger kids were a little bit spooked by our dummy but they were calmed down by their older escorts and not much came of it, so Brad and I decided to take the prank to the next level.  We tied one end of a string to a leg of the dummy and then climbed up into the tree, using the string to pull the dummy up into the tree with us.  Now we were able to wait for our victims to come walking up the sidewalk and let the dummy come swinging down right in front of them.

The effect was electric and hugely satisfying.  The first group gave out a shriek, and when they assessed the nature of the joke tore our dummy down and spread it all over the sidewalk.  After they walked on we repaired our masterpiece and regained our perch in the tree to wait for new victims.  The wait was not long and soon our dummy, now just a bit the worse for wear, went swinging back out of the tree.  The effect was identical, but this time we hoisted the dummy back up into the tree before our marks could recover from their fright and inflict punishment on the dummy like their predecessors had.  We received a few threats and verbal chastisements from our thoroughly punked victims but we stayed silent and mostly invisible in the dark recesses of the pine branches, neither moving nor even giggling until the party had moved on.  We then waited for the next party to stroll along, and the whole thing began all over again.

This prank generated a lot of laughs but eventually grew stale.  We climbed down from the tree after a while and removed our dummy from his branch over the sidewalk.  Several ideas were kicked around and we finally agreed to take the dummy a couple of blocks away where we would hide between two parked cars, wait for a car to come along, pitch the dummy in front of the car and then run out and snatch it up before the presumably startled drivers could react.  It seemed like a good plan, so we gathered up our dummy and walked to Chamoune Avenue two blocks distant from where we were.

When we arrived at Chamoune Ave, two blocks east and one block north of our pine tree, we found a pair of cars parked very close to one another and hunkered down to await the arrival of a passing car.  We didn’t have to wait long.  A car driving west on Wightman Street turned right onto Chamoune and began rolling slowly towards where we lay in wait.  When the car was very nearly even with our location Brad heaved the dummy out in front of the advancing car.

The driver hit the brakes and the car came to a screeching halt, but not until after it had rolled over our dummy.  The driver, an elderly man, emerged from his car and hobbled around the front to the passenger side.  While he was doing this Brad and I retreated to a row of shrubs, behind which we hid.  It turned out that we had no time to leap out, grab our dummy, and make our getaway.  The old boy quickly assessed the nature of what he had just run over and gave vent to a string of curses such as he had probably not used since he stood in the trenches of France in World War I.  He grabbed the dummy and threw it towards the sidewalk, yelled something about our mother, and then reentered his car and continued on his way northbound on Chamoune.

Brad and I howled with delight at the quality of our prank and recovered our dummy.  We replaced some of its stuffing with some of a newspaper that we had brought with us from home (it was a Thursday paper, and they were really thick with lots of pages), put a few new safety pins into it to keep pants and shirt together, completely discarded the paper bag which we had used for a head, and prepared for our next victim.  Again, we didn’t have to wait for long.

In the distance two headlights appeared and they kept coming toward us.  As the car passed Wightman we knew that they would be the next to suffer from our clever ruse.  We knew that we would toss out the dummy and go straight to our hiding place behind the shrubs this time, making no attempt to bolt out of our covert and flee with the dummy.  Worked last time didn’t it?  What could go wrong?

The car approached and once again Brad tossed the dummy in front of it.  The result was initially the same; screeching tires, grinding halt, dummy under the car.  That’s where the similarity ended.  Out of the four doors of the car boiled four large teenagers, easily Brad’s age or older, which meant a good deal older than me.  The four teens were not amused and we slunk back deeper into the darkened yard, trying to stay out of sight.  The attempt was a failure.  The four angry teens saw our movement and came after us with shouts and threats.

We retreated at a run into the alley and then followed it up to Wightman, then up that street and into the alley between Chamoune and 45th Street with the four teens closing the gap between us.  This alley was closer to our home however, and we knew that Mr. and Mrs. Larson had a big and intimidating dog that they kept in their back yard.  Brad decided to take our chances with the dog and hollered for me to stay close to him.  When we arrived at the Larson’s back fence we jumped up onto a wooden box-like structure where Mr. Larson put his trash cans and leaped from there over the fence, running for the fence on the front side of the yard like the devil himself was on our heals.

And the devil WAS on our heals.  Duke, the German shepherd, was taking his ease in his doghouse in the back corner of the yard when we exploded into his domain.  The dog was caught by surprise by two figures racing silently through the yard and did not get a good jump on us, and that was the break that we were hoping for.  Brad flew like an eagle over the fence on the other side of the yard and I made it most of the way before Duke clamped his teeth onto the heel of my U.S. Ked.  I lunged forward as Duke lunged back, and we traded my freedom from a mauling or a beating or both for my left shoe, and I considered it a bargain.

The four teens had no intention of entering a yard occupied by a full grown and thoroughly pissed-off German shepherd, and Brad and I flew through a passage which we knew of between two houses that led between 45th Street and the alley which ran between 45th and Highland Avenue.  We crept queitly through another passage and soon we were standing on Highland Avenue, close to our house.  Once on Highland I kicked off my other shoe and hid it in a bush, put my socks into my pocket, and we ran the rest of the way home.

Upon arriving at home we entered the house gasping and laughing, with me barefoot.  Our mother was not curious about this as we were in San Diego after all, and I was barefoot most of the time anyway.  We pretended to be stopping in to eat some of the candy that Mom was handing out to trick-or-treaters, but in fact we were waiting to be sure that the angry teens had given up the hunt.

After a while we ventured back outside and returned to the scene of our triumph by a roundabout way.  When we arrived we discovered that our dummy was nowhere to be found.  Not even pieces were seen in the street or in nearby yards.  It appeared that the teens had thrown the dummy into their car and drove away with it, probably to reproduce our joke somewhere else.  Brad and I returned to the Larson’s yard where he posted me in the alley while he went around to the front.  On Brad’s signal I began to make noise and distract the dog while Brad jumped over the fence and recovered my shoe.  Duke never saw him.  Mr. Larson raced out of the back door of his house just as Brad cleared the fence on this return trip.  I fled from my post at that moment and ran around to the front of the Larson house.  Brad was waiting with my shoe and we retraced our steps to the bush on Highland Avenue where we recovered my other shoe from its hiding place.

We walked home with me fully shod, enjoying a good laugh and only one old pair of jeans lost for our efforts.  We get a good laugh to this day every time we get together and tell the story for the umpteenth time.

The Joke’s On You, Part I

When I was young I lived in a neighborhood of practical jokers.  There were some who’s mischief ran to the malicious, to be sure, but by and large our pranks and practical jokes were harmless if occasionally quite shocking.  Almost all of the kids in my neighborhood were long-time residents, so any prank would probably be pulled on a neighbor who’s lawn one might cut for a few dollars on a Saturday morning or who one might deliver newspapers to in the afternoon, or who – worse case scenario – might go to bowling league with one or more of your parents.  Getting caught pulling any prank on one of these neighbors might easily result in retribution from Dad with his belt.  Getting caught pulling a malicious prank would result in a fate that would be much, much worse.

Also deterring us from pulling really bad pranks was Officer Alphabet.  Officer Alphabet grew up in East San Diego not more than 150 feet from my house.  His family was Polish, and his name contained nothing but C’s and Z’s and Y’s and a gob of other letters in unpronounceable combinations.  The real pronunciation of his name was something like “Shemshack”, but it certainly didn’t look anything like that, so we just called him Officer Alphabet.

Officer Alphabet had been a big kid while growing up in our midst and he grew up to be a big police officer, and he was assigned to patrol our neighborhood.  This presented big problems to us prank-loving kids, as Officer Alphabet knew every passageway between houses, every path through the canyons which laced through our neighborhood, and every hedge, tree or shrub big enough to provide cover to a hiding prankster with judgement hot on his heals.  Officer Alphabet had used all of those passages and hiding places himself when he was a kid pulling pranks.  Officer Alphabet couldn’t be in our neighborhood all of the time, but when he was there the place stayed pretty quiet.

We had all levels of tricksters living in our midst, and many were not all that creative.  Draping toilet paper over trees and shrubs and family autos parked in front of somebody’s house so that the morning dew would virtually plaster the paper to whatever it was draped over was a favorite of the unimaginative, as was scooping up a pile of doggie doo into a paper bag, placing it on a porch in front of the door, lighting it on fire and ringing the doorbell, hoping that the occupant of the home would answer the door, see the burning bag, and stamp on it to try to put out the fire.  That prank was so old that few people fell for it, but it still generated a lot of laughs on the rare occasions when it worked.

I belonged to a higher order of trickster, however, and enjoyed hours of entertainment with my friends as we raised hackles, ire and Cain throughout our neighborhood for many years without any of our jokes bringing significant retribution upon ourselves.  What follows are a few examples of our better efforts at creating good natured havoc with out neighbors in East San Diego in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

My third all-time favorite prank occurred one summer evening in 1963, I think it was.  Some friends and I, all fans of sci fi and monster films and all bored, came up with the idea of transforming me into “The Mummy” from the Boris Karloff 1932 movie of the same name.  We went to my house where we cut a hole out of a cotton pad and taped it over my right eye, covering up eyebrows which I wished to keep.  We then taped an intact cotton pad over my left eye and covered my close-cropped hair with a piece of rag from a bag of such things which my father kept in the garage.  We then proceeded to tape my head and hands completely with gleaming white adhesive tape until I was eventually doing a pretty good imitation of Mr. Karloff’s character.  I pulled on my black turtleneck shirt and we walked the short distance to the recreational center, which we called ‘The Park’, where all of the neighborhood kids hung out.

My friends hid behind shrubs while I strolled across the asphalt towards the center’s office over by the basketball court, dragging my left leg ever so slightly in homage to Karloff.  The effect was electric.  One of the girls gave off a stifled scream, or more like a swallowed squeak, when she turned and saw me approaching.  Everyone else simply stopped in their tracks and stared as I shuffled further into the light.  I made my way to a bench where most of the kids were sitting and took a seat which a couple of the kids had just quickly vacated.  I sat down, faced them, and then began to laugh through the tight slit which we had left for my mouth.  At this point my friends emerged from the bushes behind which they had been hiding and we all had a good laugh after a few punches in the shoulder from the guys and pushes from the girls, all of which I received with delight being a kid who was rarely the center of anything.

After a while Sonny Abacha, one of the newer kids in our group, suggested that we take our show out into the neighborhood.  We devised a plan to have one of the kids walk up to a house who’s owner we didn’t know, with me in tow, and ask for directions to a mythical house number on a street a few blocks away.  We all agreed on the plan and chose a house about a block away from the park.  Since our scheme was Sonny’s idea he was chosen to take me up to the first house.  We mounted the steps, rang the bell, and waited as we heard the steps of the approaching resident.  The porch light came on and the door was opened by a short, grizzled man in dungarees and a stained undershirt.

“Excuse me sir, can you tell me where I can find Myrtle Street?”  asked Sonny in the most polite manner which he could summon up.  The man stared at me for a moment and then looked back at Sonny,  “Huh, what’d you say?” he asked.  “We’re looking for Myrtle Street sir. I need to get my friend to a home where he will be taken care of but I must have read the map wrong.  Can you tell me if that street is anywhere around here?”  “It’s two blocks down the street that way” said the man, pointing with his chin.  “What the hell happened to him?”  Sonny didn’t miss a beat.  “Fire, sir.  He was in a car crash and got burned.”  The man stared a moment longer and then said “Hell of a bad break.  Well, Myrtle’s that way”.  This time he pointed with his thumb and shut the door as Sonny thanked him for his help.  Sonny and I held our laughter until we reached the sidewalk and the group of kids who appeared from behind parked cars and trees, and then we enjoyed our prank to the limit.  We repeated this scenario with different boys, and girls too, walking me up to the front doors, always to be greeted by gasps, stares, and frequently expressions of condolence.

The success of our little joke led us to try our luck with a larger audience.  The two main business streets in our neighborhood were Fairmont and University Avenues, with University being the most commercial of the two.  We decided to head towards Fairmont first where there was a hamburger stand at which we were frequent customers.  We pretended not to notice the stares of motorists who drove past us as we walked up to that business, and when we arrived Linda Stevens, one of my oldest friends, took me up to order.  Linda was a very pretty girl, and the boy working at the window was our age and always gazed longingly at Linda when we went there for burgers or taquitos or whatever.  Tonight he just stared at me, like everyone else, and then asked Linda “Who’s your creepy friend?”

“Arlen, that is a terrible thing to say” Linda scolded.  “This is Joseph, my cousin.  His family died in a fire and he was terribly burned.  Now he’s living with us and I would appreciate it if you would be a little bit nicer to him”.  Arlen stood behind the screened window apologizing to Linda and me for his poor choice of words while I stood beside Linda thinking that it would be worth getting burned for real to elicit that much attention and sympathy from her. Linda and I were good friends, it was true, but I would have loved to elevate that status if there was any way that my shy personality would have allowed it.

Linda went to pay for the two sodas which she had ordered for us but Arlen wouldn’t dream of taking her money.  Linda thanked him and handed me my soda.  I inserted the straw into the thin slit which we left open over my mouth and slurped some of the soda in an exaggerated way that forced a laugh out of Linda.  Arlen just stood behind his window looking stupefied as I limped beside Linda toward the kids who were watching from a darkened parking lot across the busy street.  Linda and I crossed the street easily, as every car braked instantly upon seeing me.

One block away was the corner of Fairmont and University Avenues, and this was a major hub in our corner of the city.  We were very aware of the stares of the drivers and pedestrians whom we passed by, and were busy planning our next act in this comedy when a black and white police patrol car slowed down as it passed us and then rolled to a stop by the curb a little bit ahead in the direction that we were walking.  As we pulled adjacent to his car the officer called us over to him.  “Is that dressing the real thing?” he asked.  It never entered my head to lie.  “No sir” I answered.  “Then what is this all about”?  “It’s just a joke sir” said Sonny.  “We’re just having a little fun.  We haven’t done anything wrong, have we”?  Well, actually you have”  replied the officer.  “You’re not allowed to wear a mask outside except on Halloween.”  We were stunned by that knowledge.  “Why is that?” I asked.  “Well,” the officer drawled, “how do we know that you aren’t going to rob some business or do some other bad stuff?  If people just all ran around with masks all of the time there’s no telling how many crimes would be committed and with no way of identifying the criminals”.

That made sense to us and so we promised to remove the tape.  The police cruiser pulled away and we walked around the first corner that we came to and plunged back into the darkness of a residential street.  We hated the idea of ending the joke, but as it was my rear end that would be in a sling if the policeman returned to check up on our level of compliance I made the decision to shed my disguise.  The tape came off, along with generous amounts of hair which I had not managed to adequately cover, and we all returned to the recreation center sharing a lot of laughs along the way.  We waved goodbye to The Mummy as I dropped the tape and accessories into a trash can just on the other side of the tennis court.

And that is the story of my third favorite neighborhood prank.  My second favorite will be told in my next story.

A Snake’s Tale

I have never in my life purposefully sought to have much in the way of dealings with snakes.  Surprise encounters did take place from time to time, and I have written elsewhere of spending an evening sitting on a pile of wood in Vietnam almost right next to a large king cobra, and being chased in Georgia by a water moccasin that was too stupid or too truculent to care that in addition to fishing gear I also carried in plain sight a 12 gauge, double barrel shotgun.  I have had other encounters with snakes however and in one case the encounter was quite intentional.  I now propose to tell you that tale.

Vietnam forty years ago was a place where there were many ways that one could die.  When I was there in the middle of a war I made the acquaintance of the cobra mentioned above, but there were more snakes there than cobras!  The bamboo viper, which is green and blends wonderfully into its surrounding jungle, is so poisonous that the GI’s in the U.S. Army called it the ‘step-and-a-half snake’, since that was about all of the time that you had after being bitten before you did a face-plant onto the jungle floor.  I feared and hated those snakes, and would not hesitate to kill one.

But not all snakes in Vietnam were our enemies.  One snake, Leroy was his name, was in fact quite welcome in our company.  You see, we had a rodent problem in our living quarters.  Well, heck, we had a rodent problem throughout the entire country of Vietnam, but that is a different story.  At the docks where we worked unloading supplies from barges, LST’s and freighters of all kinds and sizes, the rats were huge and we needed terriers to keep them sort of under control.  The rats there were too big for a cat to handle.  At our base camp about twenty miles away from the docks, where we had assembled aluminum prefabricated bunkhouses called ‘hooches’, we were free of the river rodents but plagued by a much smaller variety which nonetheless had appetites as big as their gargantuan riverine relatives.  Any morsel of food, such as what might have arrived in a care package from the family back home, was fair game if it was left out by accident or the result of a drunken stupor.  Even worse was their sweet tooth for our marijuana.  We would stash our weed in paper-covered bundles in the insulation of our hooches on the off chance that we might have to endure a surprise inspection.  We didn’t fear inspections too much because, well, what were they going to do to us if they found something that they didn’t like, send us to Vietnam?  Still, it was an aggravation that we could live without so we hid the weed in the insulation.

But the mice found our weed.  One evening we parted the fiberglass batting to retrieve our stash and found the paper wrapping gnawed through and most of the weed eaten.  A few teaspoons of dope remained but it was sprinkled with mouse droppings, as if the dirty rats wanted to rub it in a little.  We decided that this meant war, and we retired to the enlisted men’s club to hatch our plans over a few dozen cans of beer.  The result of those deliberations was Leroy.

My friend Chief and I made a trip into Saigon the next day to replace our devoured marijuana, or ‘can sa’ in Vietnamese.  As we made our purchase we explained, with some translational difficulty, our problem to Papa San, our Vietnamese supplier.  Once Pop understood the problem he laughed a good belly laugh and said “No problem.  You come back tomorrow.  Con ran numbya one.  No more trouble with numbya hukin’ welve chuot.”  We figured out that a ‘chuot’ was a mouse, but had no idea what a ‘con ran’ was.  If it kept our con sa save however, it was fine with us whatever it was.

Chief and I arrived the next day and, as promised, Papa San was there with a large burlap bag tied off at the top.  The bag giggled and squirmed a bit when Pop moved it, but otherwise lay perfectly still.  “That con ran” we asked?  “Yah” replied Pop.  “No charge.  Onna house.”  “We take a look” we enquired?  “Soo-ah, I show”.  Papa San took a knife and and cut the string which bound the sack shut.  Chief and I peered into the open mouth of the sack and then jumped back about three feet at the same time, because staring up at us was what looked like a very large snake.  “No worry for GI” said Pop.  “Con ran numbya one for GI.  No care about GI.  Con ran eat chuot.  chuot numbya one for con ran.  Con ran numbya hukin’ welve for chuot.  I tell you before, con ran numbya one.”  We had never been given a bum steer by Papa San before, so we agreed to take the snake.  We offered Pop some money but he wouldn’t take it.  We were good customers and, as he said, the snake was on the house.

When we got back to our hooch that evening we hauled out our sack to show the guys the solution to our problem.  The reaction was mixed.  Ray Harris, an African American from West Memphis Arkansas, hated snakes and nearly put a turd in his underwear when he saw Leroy.  Chief (not the Chief with whom I went into Saigon, but a Native American from Oklahoma) was not especially pleased, but agreed that desperate times required desperate measures.  Phiz was one of those guys who actually liked snakes, so he offered to switch bunks with Ray so that he would be well off of the floor where Leroy would mostly be crawling.  It took lots of coaxing, but Ray finally gave in and Leroy was turned loose to become the newest member of our family.

Leroy, it turned out was only about four feet of some kind of constrictor.  He was a pretty snake, as shakes go, but we almost never saw him.  We tried to keep the doors of our hooch closed as much as possible to keep him inside, relying on keeping our screened windows open and fans ‘requisitioned’ from among the supplies which we off-loaded from the freighters at the docks to keep our hooch ventilated, and we noticed immediately that the rodent population began to decline.  Our weed was never again tampered with and even some foodstuffs were safe to leave out, as long as it wasn’t something that a snake would like.  One drawback was that when you returned to your hooch after an evening of sloshing down beers at the EM club and turned down your blanket you might find two beady little reptilian eyes staring back at you.  You just never quite get ready for that. I would lift Leroy gently out of my bunk and place him on the floor and he would slither away to curl up in somebody else’s bunk.  After making sure there were no snake turds in my bunk I would then crawl into the sack and not give Leroy another thought.

Ray never did get used to Leroy though, and one night it was Ray’s turn to stagger home late and find Leroy in his bed.  Out of the darkness we heard a decidedly un-manly shriek and then the voice of Ray shouting “Shit! Goddammit! Goddammit!  Somebody get that f___ing snake out of my f___ing bed!”  Larry Wiest, a logger from the Pacific Northwest, lifted Leroy out of Ray’s bunk while the rest of us tried to calm him down.  It was of no avail.  Ray grabbed his pillow and blanket and went to crash in the hooch of a friend in Headquarters Company.  Ray remained our friend and hung out with us but he never slept in our hooch again.  Ray left Vietnam three months before I did, glad to be going home and especially glad to be as far away from Leroy as he could get.

Leroy was still living with us when my turn to rotate back to the states came around.  The snake had grown to almost six feet in length and was getting quite fat on the ample food that was available.  That amiable reptile had become very much a part of our little family and we came to leave the doors of our hooch open once Leroy had established it as his home base.  We would hear reports of his midnight slitherings in other hooches but most of those guys didn’t mind a little rodent control, so they didn’t object too much.

None of the guys to whom I wrote after I left Vietnam ever mentioned Leroy, and I suppose that one day he just crawled off into the Mekong Delta and rejoined the natural world.  I hope so, and I hope that there are hundreds if not more little Leroys crawling around the marshes and jungles of southern Vietnam to this day, keeping the vermin under control and living the good snake life.

Road Trip, Part II

I awoke the next morning shortly after the sun began to eat away at the darkness on the eastern horizon.  Some mornings are like that; your eyes snap open and no matter how much your body wants to return to the regenerative oblivion of slumber your mind says “Enough!  Get out of bed and do something”.  So I arose from my cot and looked around to see what I could do.  The answer was “darned near nothing”.  I had slept in my jeans and so it was a small matter to get dressed.  After banging the heals of my athletic shoes a few times on the hard packed dirt surface of the turnout to dislodge any scorpions or centipedes which might have taken up residence there overnight I put them on and then pulled on the shirt which I had worn yesterday.  Once we finished breakfast I would heat a large pan of water and Brad and I would scrub our armpits in an attempt to get the worst of the stink off of us.  We would then take a leisurely stroll, possibly in search of the celebrated potash mine, while Ginny took her turn.  That was an hour or two in the future however, and just now I was wide awake at around five in the morning with nothing to do.  My solution to a problem like this was to take a walk.

I have always enjoyed walking.  It is good exercise and it gives me an opportunity to daydream.  Whenever I take a long walk I always defeat my enemies, win the girl, outsmart the smart alek genius, and, oh, did I say ‘get the girl’?  Six or seven miles was a mere saunter for me when I was a young man and I can knock out six or seven miles to this day, albeit with sore legs and blistered feet for my efforts.  On that day however I only went a mile or so down the road and then came back.  I was hoping that Brad and Ginny would be up so that I could tell them that I found the dirt road which led to the potash mine.  They weren’t up however so I found one of my books, “The Teachings of Don Juan” I think it was, and began to read.  I had not finished the first page before the camper door creaked open and a bleary-eyed Brad poked his head outside to see if I was up.  I made a snide remark about slackers and Brad chuckled at the irony.  He was always the early bird and I the sluggard of the family.  Brad crawled out of the camper, moving carefully so as to not awaken Ginny, and with him came the wire contraption and the necessary equipment to brew a pot of coffee.  We had a box of wood in my trunk but I took a short walk into the roadside vegetation to see if I could find any dried brush or other wood which we could use instead.  Best to keep our emergency supply intact.  I did find enough large, dry branches and stumps to builld a fire under the inverted ‘U’ shaped structure and get some coffee boiling.  In fifteen minutes’ time we were sitting on my cot with steaming mugs of coffee, two of the happiest people on earth.

Brad and I were always close.  As very young kids we had the usual ruckuses and rows that any brothers have but Brad, who was several years older than me, never gave me the licking that he could have and that I frequently deserved.  Later, we tended to cover for each other in a home where our father could be a mercurial and frightening man.  Brad got himself kicked out of high school so that he could go to the continuation school, or “hard guy high” as we called it, where he could apply himself and amass sufficient credits for graduation much faster than he could at a conventional school, so he could then join the Army in order to get out of our home.

When Brad returned home three years later he was a man while I was still a boy, but we grew closer still.  Shortly after Brad returned we took a walk one day and a few blocks from our house we stopped in at a tiny burger restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard, where he offered to buy me a cup of coffee.  I had never drank a cup of coffee before but the romance of the idea seemed wonderful to me and I accepted the offer.  Coffee is an acquired taste and I did not like the bitter drink one bit, but walking down Chamoune Avenue with my very grown up brother and drinking coffee as we walked made me feel different than I had felt only thirty minutes before; not grown up really, but not a kid anymore either.

So we sat in the cool of the morning and talked of the three years that I had been gone and what I had done and what he had done while I was gone.  We compared Army experiences and Brad spoke of college.  I had tried to take a college English class at my base camp in Vietnam but a little thing called the Tet Offensive broke out and I didn’t think of college again.  Brad and I drained the first pot of coffee and he suggested that he brew another.  I countered with a proposal that if he would bring out the stove and cooler I would cook breakfast while he got Ginny up and moving.  The sun was bulging up over the eastern horizon and I was getting a little bit anxious to see some more country.  The plan sounded good to Brad and soon I had sausage and eggs sizzling in the pans and a fresh pot of Joe ready for action.  Ginny was already stirring when we got started so before much time had passed we were well fed, sort of cleaned up, and churning down the highway, past the road towards the potash mines, and heading toward Clovis New Mexico.

In Clovis we stopped at a small grocery store and gas station to fill up our tanks and resupply our cooler.  We went into the store first to see what was to be had.  Bacon, sausage, eggs, bread, deli meats, various snacks, all could be found in abundance.  What was not there was beer.  Brad and I could drink great volumes of the stuff and we had already done that on this trip.  We were not what one would call role models and more than a few beers were consumed as we rolled down the road.  The sad thing is that this was not at all uncommon and the police frequently let the offenders off with a lecture and confiscation of their liquor when they were caught in the act.  Even as late as 1977 I was able to purchase a six pack at a drive-through window in New Mexico.

“Where do you keep your beer” I asked the clerk.  “Ixyp jzzipf cmhrzuss wkob” I might as well have said.  The girl stared at me like I was a Martian speaking Klingon.  Come to think of it, Roswell is not so far from Clovis; maybe she had seen and heard a Martian or two before.  Anyway, she replied “we don’t sell beer here on Sunday” and looked at me as if any idiot should know that fact.  “Really” I exclaimed.  I’d never heard of such a thing.  “Can I buy some over in Texas?”  “Maybe, but I doubt it.  I don’t know much about Texas.”  “I do” I said.  “I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Texas.”  New Mexicans do not care much for Texas, so she smiled at that.

“Where are y’all from” she asked.  “San Diego” Brad replied.  “Oh, I have a cousin who went out to Los Angeles a few years ago.  It was awful.  There was crime everywhere and nobody was friendly and she never felt safe until she came back here”.  “That’s funny” I replied.  “We grew up there and have never been mugged, never been robbed, never been threatened, and have loads of friends and go just about anywhere we want and feel as safe there as anywhere else”.  That was just the tiniest bit of an exaggeration but I didn’t feel like letting that trashing of my home state slide.  The girl looked taken aback and we paid our bill and wished her our hardiest “have a groovy day”as we walked out the door.

Stashing our purchases we pulled into the service station to gas up.  They called those places ‘service stations’ in those days because you actually did get service there.  In addition to your gas you got your windshield cleaned of all of its bug splatters, tire pressure checked, oil, radiator water and other fluids checked.  We had just serviced our vehicles before pulling out of San Diego so I was a little surprised to be told that the transmission fluid level was a bit low.  The attendant showed me the dip stick and there was no doubt about it, so I had him top it off and afterward we paid for our gas and etc., used the bathrooms there, and soon after that we were rolling east, woefully short of beer, and plunging across the state line into Texas.

Returning to Texas put a shiver down my spine, for I was not lying when I told the store clerk that I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Texas.  It was the only transfer request that was guaranteed to be approved.  In retrospect I don’t suppose that Texas is much better or worse than any other state, but being a kid coming from the beaches of Southern California I couldn’t imagine being anyplace worse at that time.  Fort Hood was an armpit, as most Army forts are, and when one set foot off of the fort one became an instant target for punk Texas kids who delighted in jumping on and beating up soldiers.  Not at all unlike punk San Diego kids ganging up on sailors, but I did not at that point have the advantage of perspective.  As a result of my aversion to fighting for my life just to experience something other than Army life, I tended to stay on the post for the protection that it offered, even if it greatly limited my opportunities for any kind of entertainment.

My unit at Fort Hood was technically a supply company, but in fact we didn’t really supply anything other than bodies for nasty work details all over the fort.  “The Second Armor needs to have latrines hauled in from the field”, or “You, you and you, go to the Post Commander’s house and mow and trim his yard (and don’t you dare look at his daughter who will do her best to get your attention)”, and so on.  We would awaken, dress, fall into formation to be counted and inspected, dismissed to have breakfast and then to return to our barracks to await our detail for the day.  Unless, of course, they couldn’t find you.

We were not actually ordered to sit in our barracks and wait for orders to go on these details, an Army failing which I cannot explain to this day, so many guys would go to the day room to smoke cigarettes and shoot pool.  Others would hang out at a nearby snack bar eating burgers, drinking cokes, thumbing nickles and quarters into the juke box and getting nabbed by Sergeant Smalley.  I was not to be so easily snared.  No more than two blocks further away from our barracks than the snack bar was the small branch of the post library system.  This little building was air conditioned and had a nice collection of books, and the enlisted man running that branch could order in anything that was in their system and it would arrive within a day or two of my asking for it.  Sort of like a weird prototype of   There were nice easy chairs with ottomans to put my feet up on and a water cooler and a bathroom.  I virtually moved in.

Sergeant Smalley prided himself on being able to find every soldier under his authority and nabbing him for some crummy little detail somewhere on the post, but only got me once when I got careless.  This gave me a good deal of pride and status with my friends, who began to call me “Weasel”.  Sergeant Smalley would give me hell during inspection, try to follow me from the mess hall and in many other ways try to crack my code.  But Sergeant Smalley was not a great reader; heck, I don’t even know if Sergeant Smalley could read at all.  In any case, it never occurred to Sergeant Smalley to look in the library, and that’s where I spent the majority of my time in the summer of 1967.  I am divulging this information now partly for the love of telling the story, but just a little in the hope that Sergeant Smalley has learned to read and will stumble across this tale.  I suppose he deserves to know at last where I was hiding.

So into Texas we went, and stopped for a snack just outside of Hereford.  The area is as flat as a tabletop and everywhere there were pastures with cows in them or pastures being watered and allowed to grow the lush grass that the cows would be feeding on soon.  We lingered for a little while but the monotony impelled us to fly north Dalhart, in the Texas panhandle.  “In Dalhart” the Clovis store clerk told us “you might be able to buy some beer,” so to Dalhart we fled, but our quest was in vain.  Discouraged, we continued north until we crossed into Colorado.

The southwest corner of Colorado is like the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma; flat as a board, and we drove through the featureless flatlands for a while until we determined that one pace to stop for lunch was as good as another.  The little Datsun puled off the road and parked on the shoulder as far from the almost non-existent traffic as it could get, with me right behind.  Ginny pulled out a small, low, collapsable table to make sandwiches on while Brad got the stove burning so that we could heat up some soup.  We opened a couple of beers and passed the time of day while Ginny put the finishing touches on our lunch.  The company was good, the lawn chairs fit our fannies just fine and the prospect of a good lunch completely distracted our attention from the clouds that were gathering and boiling up to the highest heavens right over our heads.  Our first clue that something might be desperately wrong arrived in the form of a flash of lightening which seemed like it landed just on the other side of the car from us.  The thunderclap which almost bowled us out of our chairs was virtually simultaneous with the flash, and the smell of ozone was sharp in the air.  Then came the first great, fat drop of rain that splashed against my head, then the second, the third…and then the heavens opened up.

We grabbed our sandwiches and dived into the camper, wet shoes and all.  Ginny was not impressed with the muddy streaks on her blankets and sheets but there was nothing that we could do about that.  We ate our sandwiches while the thunder and lightening boomed and flashed and the rain came down with a violence that I can hardly describe.  Brad looked out the window at the soggy groceries left sitting on the table which was in danger of floating away in the water which was rising along the roadside where we parked.  The Coleman stove was filling up with water, with some of the water leaking out through small holes in the sides.  We knew that the stove would need to be broken down completely and cleaned and dried before it would work again, which we had hoped would be that evening  After no more than fifteen or twenty minutes of this soaking the storm cell floated off to the west to bestow its watery blessing on other more grateful recipients, and we emerged to clean up the mess, asses the damage, and return to our journey north to a formal campsite on the Platte River near Ogallala, Nebraska, where we planned to stay.

The fabled flatness of the Great Plains in the middle of the United States is in some places extremely accurate.  Much of the Plains is not uniformly flat however, and I found myself actually drawn to the tree lined streams in low valleys and the gently rolling hills that pop up as you leave one county and drive into another.  The terrain became more broken and irregular as we headed north and it was late afternoon when we arrived at the campground near Ogallala.  Ginny had hoped we would arrive early enough to put her soiled blankets and sheets into a washing machine at a laundromat, but we were too late for that.  Instead, we found a space close to the river and started to pull our camping gear out of ur vehicles.  We didn’t even have time to unfold my cot however before we realized that the mosquito population here was a hundred times worse that it was at Martinez Lake.

The little pests moved in clouds, and it was impossible to swat one biting devil on your leg without having two devils biting you somewhere else.  I quickly had several bloody patches on my exposed skin where I had slapped the miserable bugs and I wondered if it was my blood or somebody else’.  Other campers seemed oblivious to the attack and I suppose they had some kind of nuclear waste-based repellant on their bodies.  We had no such protection and without a moment’s debate we threw our gear back into the truck and car and headled north.

Ash hollow was the next place that we could find on the map where we could camp for the night.  It was a stopping point on the old Oregon Trail because the water and trees offered a respite from the arid and shadeless miles between St. Joe, Missouri, and the Rocky Mountains.  Of course, the presence of water also guaranteed the presence of mosquitos as well, and this fear was borne out although not to the extent of what we now called “Skeeter Davis Park” in honor of a country and pop singer of that name who had a song out at that time.  We could tell that Ash Hollow was a beautiful place with rocky hills and trees and a nice little stream which moved too quickly to allow the kind of mosquito swarms that infested the slow moving Platte, but we got in too late to see it very well.  We were at the end of a very long day and just wanted to eat and unwind.

Brad had completely disassembled the Coleman stove and cleaned and dried it, and our first order of business was to see if we would be cooking with gas or wood.  Gas it was, as the Coleman lit off with the first match.  Ginny cooked up some burgers and green beans from supplies we picked up on our way out of Ogallala and soon we were well fed, enjoying the last of our beers, and passing a doobie or two between the three of us.

The mosquitos, as I mentioned earlier, were less of a menace than at Skeeter Davis but still very much present.  To address that problem we placed green branches on our campfire and sat in the smoke.  Additionally I wrapped a towel around my head and face so that I looked like a Taureg nomad from the western Sahara.  The plan worked pretty good.  While we were enjoying the evening we heard gunshots far away to the west.  Hunters, we suspected, and thought nothing more about it.  We were experiencing a good, mellow buzz underneath the Nebraska stars, finishing the last of our beers and passing another doobie, and talking about the route we would take on the morrow to reach our ultimate destination; Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota.  That’s when John Wayne walked into our camp.

We were vaguely aware of a car pulling up just outside of our view in the very dark night but thought it belonged to other campers.  It was, in fact, a law enforcement officer of some kind.  We thought possibly a game warden, but all possibilities were on the table. All we knew for certain was that he had a uniform, a badge, and a very large sidearm on his hip.  Brad put the joint under his shoe and pressed his foot as firmly against the ground as he could without looking suspicious, although how a guy sitting next to a guy who looked like a Taureg in western Nebraska could look anything but suspicious is awfully hard to imagine.

This man exuded complete confidence in his capability to deal with whatever challenges might come his way.  His six foot one or two height and what I would guess to be two hundred or two hundred and ten pounds were well proportioned and there was not a visible ounce of fat on him.  More impressive was his demeanor; absolute control and confidence.  As he approached three stoned travelers with beers in their hands, one of who’s head was wrapped up in a towel, he said “Good evening folks.  How are y’all doing this evening?”  We recovered quickly and my recent military experience had left me prepared to deal with authority reflexively.  “We’re doing fine tonight sir.  Can we offer you a cup of coffee or a bite to eat?”  There was a little coffee in the pot left over from our dinner which we hadn’t touched in the last hour, which was close enough to the fire to have kept warm.  “No thank you.  Have you heard any gunshots this evening?”  Rooster Cogburn couldn’t have cared less about the joint which he almost certainly knew was resting under Brad’s right foot.  He was attending to other business.  “Yes sir” I answered.  “About twenty or thirty minutes ago.  They seemed to be coming from up that way.”  I pointed west, where we thought we had heard the gunshots.  J.B. Book hitched up his belt a little and said “Thank you.  You folks have a good evening” and returned to his car.  Lights on, he proceeded to drive slowly up the dirt road – more like a path, really – leading west to where the suspected poachers were just about to be paid a visit by Big Jake. Please forgive this writer for all of the John Wayne character allusions, but they seemed appropriate at the time and we certainly indulged each one of them as we resurrected the stomped-on joint and finished it up.  Brad, Ginny and I agreed that we did not want to be in the probable poachers’ shoes.

The time quickly came to put out the fire and settle in for a good night’s rest.  We would arrive at our destination early the next day and looked forward to getting a campsite and a shower, and then going to town to wash clothes, buy food, and of course acquire more beer.  We planned to stay there for a few days before moving on to who knew where.  That was the plan, anyway.

Working like a burro, or a tale of growing up.

Most young men feel at some time in their lives that they must prove themselves; step out in their own direction and establish who they are, in their own minds if not necessarily in the minds of others.  Many young men of my age did so by joining the military during the Vietnam War and many others did so by opposing the war and the draft and possibly fleeing to Canada.  I joined the Army because I was bored and I volunteered for Vietnam because it was the only certain transfer off of my fort in Texas.  I didn’t like Texas.  Still, I was the same bubble-headed nineteen year old beach kid in ‘Nam that I was in Texas or back home in San Diego.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I found the image that I wanted to pour myself into.

My brother became a drywall hanger, or sheetrocker, or just rocker, while I was in my third year of college, and he took to it like a duck to water.  By the time that I came home for summer after my junior year Fred was an accomplished sheetrocker, or at least he was in my eyes, and he offered to turn me into a money-making drywall machine if I wanted to give it a try.  I wanted nothing more, so in very short order I was ready to begin my new and exciting life as a drywall hanger.

First a little background on drywall and drywallers.  Drywall is basically gypsum pressed between two sheets of paper into four by eight, four by twelve, and in those days four by fourteen foot sheets of varying thicknesses between one quarter and five eighths of an inch.  The sheets come in bundles of two held together by thick strips of paper on each end.  The most important thing to know about drywall is that it is heavy.  I never really knew what a sheet weighed, but when you nailed up fifty or so sheets in a day you had done some macho work, and we were proud of the tonnage that we threw around day after day.  We called ourselves ‘burros’, and there was more than a little truth in that.

Much more important to us than the physical prowess required to do our work was the image that we liked to project on a construction site.  We were the cowboys; the randy bunch that everyone thought of as a little bit crazy.  We were who their parents taught them not to grow up and be, but they wished they could be anyway.  We were the hippies, the beatniks, the guys working in a country and western world who listened to Soul Makossa and Quicksilver Messenger Service.  When the carpenters, plumbers and roofers were sitting in their trucks drinking coffee before work started in the morning we drywallers were sitting on a stack of bundles drinking Irish Coffee, and the others knew it.  This was exactly the image that I wanted and I took to it immediately.

My first few weeks were a trial, as I had to learn from the beginning how to carry a sheet, walk up on an aluminum horse and hold my end of the sheet up against the ceiling with my head while I hammered in nails upside down with a kind of hammer/axe unique to drywall.  The hammer head part of that tool has a face of small teeth designed to make a waffle-like dimple in the sheetrock over the nails so that the taping compound, or mud, that was spread over it to hide the nail heads would have a rough surface to adhere to.  After a month of missing the nails and squashing my thumb with that axe my poor digit was tenderized like a piece of country fried steak.  On one instance I stroked that inflamed thumb with home run power and let out a howl and a curse that caused our foreman, a grizzled veteran and  somewhat crazy individual who was standing right behind me to jump a good foot into the air.  He turned around and cursed me for being a useless rookie and left the house completely unable to contain his laughter.  Pain and all, it felt good to fit in.

Getting to work on that job was my first experience with union corruption.  I am not saying that all unions are corrupt or that we would be better off without them.  I am only saying that getting to work on that job was my first experience with union corruption.Most of the big tract projects in Southern California were union jobs and one had to be able to produce a union card to insure that one wouldn’t be thrown off the job (literally) and the company fined if a union agent came checking for ‘rats’.  This card was supposed to be obtained after seven years of apprenticeship and the taking of many tests.  In reality this card was obtained one day when my brother and I drove about a hundred miles north to Riverside County where we found a union hall in a semi rural area and I bought my journeyman card fair and square.  This was the place where my brother bought his, so he knew the drill.  After that I was free and clear to work any union job and, as long as I was paying dues, nobody cared how I came by my card.

Once you were in you were in, and the pranks could be creative and even dangerous.  Early on I was sent for a ‘rock stretcher’.  I doubted immediately that there was any such thing, but as I went from house to house on the construction site each team of rockers would tell me it was in the next house up the street.  When I got to the last house they told me it was back in the first house.  I was cleanly taken in by the skill with which they didn’t miss a beat as they sent me further along on my personal snipe hunt.

On another occasion a serious prankster, Charlie N________ (I love doing the blank line last name thing, it makes me feel like a Russian writer) sneaked into Andy’s unit and drove a couple of sixteen penny nails into his stack.  The unsuspecting Andy came in and attempted to lift the first sheet which, needless to say, went nowhere.  The effort cost Andy a few fingernails and left him simmering, looking for paybacks.  That opportunity came soon enough.  One afternoon Charlie unstrapped his tool belt and went into the porta potty.  This unstrapping of the tool belt was a clear sign that Charlie had in mind more than light work in the little green structure and as soon as Andy was certain that Charlie was seated upon the throne Andy threw up a ladder behind the porta potty, climbed up and dropped a lit cherry bomb down the vent pipe.  In addition to scarring the crap out of Charlie when the bomb went off, the resulting explosion caused an eruption of the evil contents of the holding tank to paint Charlie’s exposed backside.  Andy’s revenge was complete.  Charlie cleaned up as best he could, chucked his tools in the back of his truck, and retired from the site for the rest of the day.  I could go on and on about such shenanigans but I’m certain that you get the picture; we were a rank crowd who exulted in our rankness.

After a few years of this life I began to grow up and reassess my career choice.  At one point I realized that standing on my aluminum horse which was itself placed on two two-by-twelve boards laid across the safety rails of the third of three stages of scaffolding in an open stairwell with steel reinforcing bars protruding out of the concrete floor was not a great recipe for longevity.  Being a gypsy and wandering around the western states was also fun, but that too soon lost it’s charm.  Finally, at the age of twenty nine, the constant pain that I was feeling in my hip joint convinced me that it was time to find another way to make a living.  One day, after hanging eight hours with a slight cold and feeling miserable all day I took my belt off and announced to my partner that I was through.  Jeff knew me well enough to suspect that I was serious but he still came by my place the next morning at 6:30.  I had a pot of coffee ready and we sat at my table for a while, and then Jeff shook my hand and wished me luck.  Jeff must have had some kind of magic, because luck is what I have had until this day.

I don’t regret one day of my sheetrock experience.  As a rookie and then a veteran, as part owner of two companies, and as a guy who learned how to make a living with the sweat of my brow and the bending of my back (two occupations which I now respect but dislike engaging in), I gained much by the experience.  I also learned to use a porta potty with only the greatest of care.

The Story of One Eyed Jack, or ‘set the table for 100’

Winter of 1973 found your humble author pursuing a higher education at Sonoma State College, now Sonoma State University, in the town of Cotati, California.  Cotati was a wide spot in U.S. Route 101 about one hour or so north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Sonoma State was the newest of the California State Colleges then and there were no dormitories yet, so students were left to find lodging as best they could in Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, or somewhere in the rural countryside where the locals would take in a student or two to augment their income.

I was fortunate enough to find an apartment in a two building complex that was about 200 yards across a flat field with a narrow asphalt path that led from just across the street to the west parking lot of the school.  This complex housed something like 200 students and was conducive to just about anything but studying.  My unit consisted of a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms and one bath.  Three of us were lodged in that unit, and on a roll of the dice I ended up alone in one bedroom while my roommates Roy-Boy and Animal shared the other.  It was a good arrangement, from my point of view, and we all got along very well considering that each one of us was, in our own very unique and individual ways, crazy as loons.

I can safely say that every night in that complex when school was in session there was at least one party going on.  Many times the entire complex was a party.  My crew in building ‘A’ would frequently be at the poolside, winter or spring, skinny dipping and making music.  Some of us played actual instruments and the rest of us would improvise.  On such a night a cacophony produced by anything that could be blown, scraped, plucked, thumped or tickled would waft out into the dark Sonoma night accompanied by the voices of those who’s preference for instruments of auditory torture ran to the vocal cords.  As a result our courtyard would not infrequently look and sound like a couple of the circles of Dante’s vision of Inferno.

One of the earliest members of this fiendish ensemble was Jack.  Jack was a tomcat, and I mean 100% tomcat.  He was probably once a pet because he was not overly skittish around us once he became accustomed to us.  Jack would hang around us looking for a handout or some morsel that might fall to the concrete paving of the pool area.  More often we would find him diving in our dumpster looking for gustatory jewels which we had carelessly thrown away out of the ignorance of our abundance.

Jack was a large cat but there wasn’t much fat on him.  Lean at the hip with a ragged coat and a tattered ear, he was a veteran of many a scrape with plenty of evidence of battles lost as well as battles won.  Chief of his battle scars was his right eye, which always drooped to a greater or lesser extent from day to day, and a tearing or weeping of fluid which made it look like he was crying, or got something irritating stuck in the eye.  The wounded eye never got much better or much worse as time went on, and we just accepted that feature as part of his essential ‘Jackness’.

A couple who lived in my building, Jan and Sheila, took a particular shine to Jack and began to feed him when he wasn’t out catting around, and eventually the attraction of a warm bed and steady meals was sufficient to entice Jack to move in, more or less, with Jan and Sheila.  These two people were probably my best friends there and so I got a chance to get to know Jack pretty well.  One afternoon we were sitting in their living room petting and sharing treats with Jack when Sheila said “We ought to take Jack to a vet and get him checked out.  He probably has worms and maybe we could get his eye fixed.”

“I would love to Honey”, responded Jan, “but how are we going to do that”  We’re eating on food stamps as it is you know.

“It couldn’t cost that much” I chimed in, demonstrating how little I knew about such things.  “Maybe if we just squeeze a few bucks out of our food budgets next month we could get a little done for him, and then more each time we scraped a little together’.

“I think it’ll take more than that” said Sheila.  ‘I’ll call a vet tomorrow and see what this kind of thing would cost”.

“That sounds like a plan Babe” said Jan, and then we dropped that subject in order to pursue weightier matters, such as the dull roar that was beginning to pick up over at the poolside.  It was actually a few days later that Sheila obtained the information that we needed, and the number set us back on our heels.  “The vet said anywhere from $80 to $150 to do the kind of check-up that we talked about.  Any work that he had to do on the eye would be more.”

We sat there thunderstruck, just looking at each other in bewilderment.  Jack sat over on a pillow, fresh from having a mouthful of dried food and looking at us with his perpetual ‘wink’ as Jan called it.  At that time my entire monthly budget was $125 from the G.I. Bill check that I got every month.  That included rent, food, and the all important beer ration.  Jan and Sheila had less than me, therefore the already-mentioned food stamps.

“Maybe we could take up a collection” offered Jan.  “Everybody else likes Jack too.”

“Yeah, they like him as long as they don’t have to pay for him” I said.  “Their budgets are the same as ours; beer, rent and food, and pretty much in that order of priority”.

Speaking of food, I sparked something of a revolution in the food habits in our building.  Being of Southern and Appalachian extraction I learned early on how to eat cheaply.  Beans, rice, ham hock, greens and various inexpensive soups were the mainstay of my diet, and my body was well accustomed to eating these low-budget delicacies.  Such was not the case with many of my neighbors.  We would leave our doors unlocked and people would routinely enter my unit and heat up a pan of soup or beans.  My only request was that they leave some change and a little bit in the pot, and clean the pan so that I could use it when my turn came around.

One afternoon when I was actually working on a paper on Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at the site of the ancient city of Jericho I heard the door open and close and a female voice cry out my name.  “Back here” I shouted, wondering what this innovation of a female person looking for me could be about.  I heard rapid footsteps and found myself confronted by and obviously agitated Maureen, one of my co-tenants and the significant other of Joe.  Maureen was pure Irish, and at this moment in time her Irish was up.

“You stop letting him eat here” she barked.

“What are you talking about Mo?” I asked, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.

“It’s your damn beans” she said.  “When Joe’s been eating them I can’t be around him.  He’s peeling the paint off of the walls.”

“I’m sorry Mo, but that’s something that you guys are going to have to work out.  I can’t very well share with everyone else but tell him to bug off.”

“Isn’t there something that you can add to them, or something he could take to knock the edge off?  I’m telling you, I can’t live with him if he keeps this up”.

I invited Maureen to sit down and I tried to calm her down, with some success, and we talked for a while.  Maureen and Joe were another couple of my favorite people in that complex.  Finally I threw out, only half in jest, and idea.

“Why don’t you have a couple of bowls yourself; you know, fight fire with fire?  I’m getting hungry and wouldn’t mind some company.”  Maureen just looked at me blankly for a moment and then as a devilish grin began to grow at the edges of her mouth,  said “Sure.  who knows, I might like them too.”

Like them she did, and in Maureen’s virgin gastrointestinal tract the components of those beans frolicked like young sheep gamboling in a field in spring with lush grasses and wild flowers growing in profusion.

Full of pinto beans and the promise of retribution Maureen returned to the desecrated love nest of Joe and Mo and waited for her lunch to reach it’s full measure of payback potency.  All of Building ‘A’ knew when the knockout blow was delivered.

Jeez, Mo, did something crawl up you and die?” cried Joe.  He was answered by a fiendish cackle and ‘braack’.

Within minutes we heard a door slam as Joe exited their unit to find succor and a breath of fresh air in the field between our buildings and the college.  Roy Boy, Animal and I were lying on the floor laughing until I thought that we would pee our pants.  I arose after I composed myself and went around the corner of the building to look through the window into Joe and Mo’s unit.  Maureen was dancing gaily in the kitchen as I looked in and I knocked on the window.  Maureen turned, broke into a huge smile, and waved for me to come in.  I declined that honor and she smiled even more broadly.  She gave me a thumbs up which I returned with a smile and retraced my steps back to my unit.  Peace did return to the Mo and Joe unit, and Mo came over often to learn from me how to make those wonderful beans and other cheap meals.  It was always a little dangerous to go over to Joe and Mo’s place after she began to cook that stuff herself.

Anyway, Jan and Sheila and I were cudgeling our brains trying to figure out how to raise the money to give old Jack a tune up.  Beer, rent, and food was pretty much all of our budgets.  Beer was untouchable.  Everyone has priorities, and beer was top priority for most of us.  Rent; everybody had to pay rent, so that one was no use to us.  Food; everybody needs food.  Everybody eats food.  Everybody – wait!  Not everybody likes to cook food but everybody likes to eat food!  There it was, starring us in the face from the beginning.  “Let’s have a benefit dinner for old Jack” I said.  Jan and Sheila’s faces lit up with big grins and we struck hands on the deal.

Jan was useless in a kitchen, so the best he could offer was to stay out of the way.  Sheila was by far the most skilled cook of the three of us but she was more oriented to a delicate kitchen and palate.  What we needed was bulk, and that is where I shine in a kitchen.  We laid our plans and started saving our pennies, and Jan and I even cut into our beer allowance.  Jan was a passable calligrapher and he began to produce exquisite posters to put up throughout the complex announcing a spaghetti feed to benefit Jack.

Interest ran high, and on the morning of the big day I began to prepare a large kettle of my own sauce recipe: ground beef and pork, tomato sauce and paste, onions, garlic, mushrooms, olives, peppers and a pinch or two of various spices, simmered for a few hours.  In an even larger kettle we threw the noodles as the time to serve drew near.  After letting them boil for a few minutes I began to pluck individual noodles out and throw them on the wall.  When the noodle would stick to the wall it was done.

Sheila opened the door and the first of a horde began to file through.  Jan snatched noodles out of the kettle and I applied dippers full of sauce while Sheila passed the hat.  Technically the food was free, but Sheila put the serious stink eye on any chiselers who thought that he’d get away with a free meal.  People filled every corner of our unit and spilled out into the courtyard and beyond.  We served every bit of that spaghetti except for the plate that I saved for myself.  Jan and Sheila did not indulge, as they were vegetarians. After the last diner had left we counted our take; minus the cost of the raw materials we had raised $78 and some change, not a small amount in those days.

The next day Sheila made and appointment with a vet, and on the appointed date we cornered Jack and wrapped him up in a towel so that he wouldn’t do too much damage to us on the way.  We all piled into my old Dodge Lancer and began the trip to the vet.  Jack liked this idea about as much as Joe liked Maureen’s revenge, and was pretty edgy when we carried him into a room filled with other cats and some dogs too. Our turn finally came and we stepped up to the counter with Doctor Hendricks.

“Well then, who’s cat is this?” he asked.  We looked at each other and said “Well, Doc, nobody’s really”.

He looked at us kind of funny and said “so you want me to work on nobody’s cat?”

“Well Doc, he’s a stray that we all have come to like and so we want to fix him up some if we can” Sheila said, telling him the story of the benefit dinner.  “We raised $78 and some change and can each of us add a few dollars more if we have to.  What can you do for Jack with that?”  The doctor just stood there for a few moments and repeated the story to make sure that he understood it.  He decided that he did understand it and said “OK.  Let me keep him until this afternoon and I’ll see what we can do”.

We thanked the doctor profusely and then went about our day’s business.  About four in the afternoon we returned to pick up a bathed, wormed, vaccinated, and thoroughly mortified Jack.  the doctor said that the damage to his eye was permanent, but he could see out of it, it did not seem to cause pain, and would not negatively impact him if he remained indoors.  Jan and Sheila decided on the spot that Jack was their indoor cat from that moment forward.

“How much did this cost?” asked a nervous Sheila.  She knew that the extent of the doctor’s work was probably a good deal more than we had.

“How much did you say you raised?”

“Seventy eight dollars and some change.”

“Then the bill comes to seventy eight dollars” he said.  “And change”.

With further expressions of gratitude we returned to Jan and Sheila’s unit and turned Jack loose to sulk in his corner and lick his wounded pride until dinnertime.

I remained friends with Jan and Sheila for a few years until my gypsy lifestyle led me to new fields.  The last thing I remember of Jack was him doing one of his favorite things.  Jan and I opened a couple of beers and rolled a doobie the size of a Havana cigar and enjoyed both while Jan’s excellent stereo boomed out album after album of Pink Floyd.  Jack loved that band and would sit still as a statue about four feet away from the speaker, winking his wounded right eye at Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and the boys as long as the music would play.

I was told that Jack lived a couple more years after I left the scene.  He died a happy and loved cat.