michael w paul

Stopover in Miami Beach


2051 North Bay Road was a step up from the small Asheville clapboard cottage where I was born and was certainly an improvement over the boarding and rooming houses, apartments, converted multifamily homes, hotel room or two and a few spare bedrooms in strangers homes. It was not that my residence really mattered because I never knew the difference. My first memory was of my mothers sister and my Uncle Barney leading me by the hand tearfully to meet my mother after living with them for my first three years. I had lived with them virtually from birth and had evidently served as a surrogate for the baby boy my aunt had lost in childbirth. The baby had been still born and is buried at the foot of my grandmothers grave. As best I can determine, North Bay Road was my tenth or eleventh “residence” by the age of three and a half years old. I had my own bedroom on the first floor where oftentimes Alice, the maid, would bunk with me to assuage my fear of the dark. I was afraid because I had served a little “time” in a closet for misbehavior in addition to there being an antique lamp that reflected a grotesque shadow on my bedroom wall when it was illuminated by a nearby street light.

North Bay Road in Miami Beach. The house where I came to live sat back off the street and had what I thought then was a long driveway where my mother and her new husband parked their identical Lincoln Continentals. It was a stucco Mediterranean with a terra cotta roof nestled on two lots a few blocks from what was referred to as the “Miracle Mile” and a short distance from Alton Road. It was only a street or two away and around the corner from a bridge leading to downtown Miami, across the street from the bay and just a short distance from the beach. My mother often played tennis and rode horses on the bridle trails at a nearby country club. It was about as far as she could get from the dirt farm she had grown up on in South Georgia.  She left with three of her four sisters after “graduating” from the third grade. I have been told that they had planned to hitch hike their way to Jacksonville but found a roll of bills under a bench at the train station. That windfall funded their tickets and gave them enough extra to pay for a room they shared in Jacksonville for a few weeks. It is amazing how far a pretty girl with a nice figure can travel accompanied by a little luck and determination. I never really appreciated this quality in my mother until late in life.  It is said that a woman can marry more money and celebrity on a Saturday’s morning than she can earn in a lifetime. Actually I’ve really never heard that said but in my mothers case it makes sense to me.

North Bay Road was one of the toniest, fashionable, high brow neighborhoods in all of South Florida at that time with the possible exception of the restricted and gated islands situated around the bay and off the causeway. I took up residence on North Bay Road on August 13th 1947 and can still visualize the monkey cage and swing set on the manicured extra lot beside the house where my fifth birthday was celebrated. There were servants quarters at the end of the drive access through a small screen porch and short pathway along the masonry fence. I remember most the dining room where my step father would hold court when he was home and summon Alice with a buzzer under his end of the table. Alice who happened to be “colored” served us from the left and instantly burst through the kitchen door when she was summoned morning and night. She lived behind the house next to the garage always, wore a crisp white uniform and tiny hat that resembled those worn by nurses in those days and cared for me with as much devotion as anyone before or since except perhaps my wife. Old “scar face” had been a neighbor before the Feds indicted him on a tax issue and put him in the big house. He and my stepfather were probably acquainted because my mother later told me that he, Cap, as he was referred to, was a professional gambler with no visible means of support. I remember little of him except he had thinning hair and smoked cigarettes in a long cigarette holder and wore multi colored shoes. I was not allowed in his bedroom at the back of the house upstairs because of the many guns he kept there. My mother had a separate bedroom across the hall. Once when my mother was entertaining her youngest sister and her new husband in the front room my uncle discovered a “tommy gun” in the umbrella stand by the door and managed to open fire not thinking it was real. I’m sure there is still evidence buried in the old plaster walls if they were examined. Cap had been a combat pilot in World War I, and some said became an ACE before the war ended. I have never been able to validate that claim but I have been able to confirm that he was once a fighter pilot. He also had a connection with the Miami Sea plane base according to his obituary and while I can not confirm it, flew the Burma hump. He owned a DC3 which I have been told was a duplicate of the one he flew in World War II. He kept it at the 20th street airport until it burned in a mysterious fire. The truth of the Burma hump story may be found in the two sacred monkeys of India living in a large cage on the lot next door. I have a searing memory of them because after being told repeatedly not to go near, I entered the cage one afternoon and still have a scar on my left forearm to prove their residence. They were not child friendly. Alice patched me up and had no choice but to inform my mother. I think I may have spent a little time in the closet over that trick.

The home across the street was larger than ours and although I do not remember being invited in, I do remember having lunch on a concrete table with a large umbrella in the yard adjacent to the tennis courts with my best and only friend, Benjj. He was about a year younger than I and our relationship finally ended one day when his mother ushered me home for throwing his toys in the bay. She wasn’t mad but just afraid I might throw Benji in. Although it was never my intent, that was my last day at Benji’s house. I told my mother he had asked me to do it so I was merely accommodating him. He is probably a lawyer today because he certainly convinced me. Actually, Benji was not my only friend. I came to know a sub teen girl who lived in the house behind us. I really liked her but unfortunately that relationship ended too when my mother discovered she and I behind the garage with my shorts at my knees and her examining my hither parts. Sex education started early for me and I came to miss her.

One sunny afternoon the doorbell rang and my mother was greeted by a stranger with a sopping wet five year old in hand. He explained he had been walking by the vacant lot next door to Benji’s house and caught me doing a pirouette and falling head first into the bay. The water wasn’t deep but the sea wall was too high for me to climb out.

Cap didn’t get upset when I put a For Sale sign I found in the garage one Sunday morning in the front yard and a nice couple knocked on the door wanting to tour the house.

Once when I found a handful of milk bottle caps that solicited for the March of Dimes I offered them to the neighbors and received a pocket full of money.  When my mother asked me how I came upon the money I told her that “the people just gave it to me” and then pulled a few bottle caps out of my pocket and said further “after giving them this.” My mother merely took me to the charity headquarters where I offered a donation.  My mother may not have always been as attentive as she should have been but her defense years later was that she had created “one really independent guy”.

Cap never involved himself in my discipline, except once, even after the afternoon my mother was entertaining several ladies from “the club” in our living room. While Alice was serving, I slipped out for a stroll. Cap had brought home a beautiful Terrier puppy as a gift for me and I had decided to have him or her join me on a tour of its new neighborhood. We managed to get a block or so away when a large sedan careened around the corner and killed the puppy instantly. I had not thought to put him or her on a leash. I ran home crying, interrupted the party and my mother left her guests to retrieve the corpse. The last time I saw my new friend was the following morning in the trash can by the street. Cap had been repairing a gate in the back yard to help restrain the new family member when the death occurred. Perhaps I now know why I have such a love of Terriers.

I believe Cap greatly cared for me. He had repeatedly begged my mother to allow him to adopt me. He spent time with me when he could and loved to take me to the airport to climb aboard his DC3 where I would pretend to be flying. I have accumulated three thousand flying hours and know exactly how aviation got into my blood.

He only disciplined me once and this incident deserved it. He had purchased a new bedroom set for my room. It was solid wood and the dresser and the head board were hand carved. If I were to guess it was expensive. He was however, clearly unhappy when he discovered that I found a hatchet in the garage and had chopped up the dresser. He didn’t paddle me and I don’t remember him raising his voice. He knew I would soon forget a paddling. He asked me which of my possessions was my very favorite. He asked in such an unincriminating way that I joyfully told him I liked the clip on tie with rhinestones I had gotten for my birthday. He asked me to retrieve it and when I did he handed me the hatchet and a small piece of lumber and instructed me to chop it up. I have never forgotten that experience and can still remember the sparkle in the grass from the three blue rhinestones. I have never destroyed someone else’s property since.

I think Cap was a good guy. My mother and he were mismatched. He was older and probably a little wiser. They both drank too much and may have lost sight of what is important in a marriage or neither really ever knew it. I believe he loved my mother but I will never know. When they married it was a May, September arrangement. He had a grown family somewhere in Ohio.  I never learned what had happened with his first wife. My mother told me she had never met his family. Cap was always somewhat of a mystery man.

One day years later after the marriage had ended and he died, I happened to be driving down Beach Boulevard and saw a shiny new XKE convertible with a young man behind the wheel, possibly Benji, and wondered out loud….perhaps that could have been me.

After two short years my mother and I were on a train heading for New York City where we would take up residence in the Martinique Hotel somewhere in Manhattan near the Empire State Building where she would work for the next year in the barber shop located in the basement and I would be enrolled in a boarding school–my next STOP OVER.


Room With A Bath

By the time I moved to Colorado at fifteen, having grown up in the heat and humidity of Florida, I was accustomed to two showers a day at the very minimum. Most had not heard of residential air conditioning and being an active kid, I would wind up smelling like a goat by noon. The junior high I attended required every student to participate in physical education classes and insisted no one return to class without a shower. I can’t even imagine what the classrooms smelled like in those years before public schools added gymnasiums with shower facilities, especially in the South. We did not have showers in elementary school and I do remember the smells of the old wooden “portable” classrooms and sweaty boys and girls. I can only guess that the smell was not a new one to me or any of us who were closed up on ninety degree stifling Florida afternoons.

Occasionally during the hottest months, I would sneak into the swimming pool down the street after it closed.  My friends and I would swim while hidden by darkness.  We would dog paddle around quietly so as not to draw the attention of the apartment residents  surrounding the pool and keep an eye open  for the local police.  Our late night swims would often serve as the third thorough cleansing of the day.  A morning shower before school was essential because of the humid nights.

When I arrived in Colorado, I was not prepared for the dry cool nights and being sweat free on even the hottest of days.  I was conditioned in a Pavlovian way to strip down three times a day and look for a water supply.  I can say this was just a little disconcerting to the couple I was spending the summer with.  I was told toward the end of my stay that first summer, if I returned the following year, I would either have to help my friend extend the leach lines on the septic tank or create a pool in the river I could drop into whenever the need for a bath arose.  Having fished in sixty degree water coming from the melting ice on the mountain tops, my preference would have been the leach lines.

When I moved into the little house in the feed lot, just prior to my junior year, I found it came with an outdoor privy and a milk jug for fresh water.  Since I didn’t have any way to transport the milk jug except for the graciousness of some visitor, I had to be very careful with my water supply.  Surprisingly no one got up and moved when I sat down in class or when I congregated in close proximity to others.  School assemblies really weren’t bad and if I were to guess, fifty percent of my fellow students, who lived on surrounding farms and ranches, bathed no more than once or twice a week.  Perhaps that was because none of my classmates or friends had ever lived in Florida during the hot season.  In south Florida there was only one season…HOT and HUMID.  I settled on the only thing I wanted in Colorado besides a means of transportation was a tub.  It’s funny how your priorities change with your circumstances.  I had found that for fifty cents, the proprietor of the Lincoln Hotel would allow me to use the tub in the hall bathroom on the third floor if I would promise to clean it.  The problem was the hotel was a couple of miles away and unless I went right after work, it became too much of a chore.  I soon became adept with a wash cloth and soap and a small amount of water in a porcelain bowl.  After that and even though I didn’t shave yet, there was always a splash of Aqua Velva to save me.

I had been living in the feedlot for about five months when one unusually warm Sunday afternoon a friend passing by stopped in to say hello.  He and another boy a few years older had just been to the dump when they saw me riding one of my friend Frank’s horses around the enclosure and curiously stopped to take my measure.  I have no remembrance of the driver but I will never forget his friend.

The weeks prior had been cold and snowy.  Temperatures had fallen to below freezing and snow had accumulated to a depth of a few feet.  It was not uncommon for weather to change dramatically in Colorado and in the few days since the cold weather, all of the snow had melted and the air temperature was in the seventies.  I had either been confined to school, the garage where I worked after school or the little house in the feed lot and was delighted to be outside enjoying the back of a horse.  The one boy whose name I have long forgotten climbed the fence and introduced his friend.  His name was Kenny Tinsley.  He was a big guy, or that’s how I remember him.  At least much bigger and a few years older than I was, and out of school.  He had moved to Colorado recently from California and told me he lived with his grandmother in the Arcadia Hotel.  He had never ridden a horse so I offered to give him a brief lesson and although the horse was bareback, within a few minutes he was riding around the feed lot grinning like a possum.  Once he had had enough he wanted to know how it happened I was living alone in the little house.  I gave him the short version of my story and almost before I concluded he said, “I just took a job with a tree service on the western slope and I will not need my room at the hotel.  Why don’t you take it and let me stay a few nights a month when I visit my grandmother.  That afternoon he helped me load up my few belongings and I checked into the hotel.  The weekly rent for a room without a bath overlooking a rooftop was five dollars.  One would have thought I had died and gone to heaven.  The old army cot I had been sleeping on was traded for a double bed.  There was radiator heat and a bath not two miles away but twenty feet down the hall.  Although I had to share both the toilet and the bath with the old timers who shared the residence with me, they rarely used the tub so I pretty much had it to myself.  Each room had a sink and mirror and was lighted by a huge window with a pull down shade.  The Chevrolet garage and dealership was beneath my window and only occupied during the day so while it wasn’t as quiet as my little house in the feed lot, there were no animals rubbing against the walls in the middle of the night.

I had always been afraid of the dark and had purchased a twenty dollar Saturday night special at the local pawn shop when I moved to the feed lot.  It was isolated from town and occasionally I would hear strange noises.  One night early in my residency, I heard a banging and scraping against my bedroom wall in the early hours of the morning.  I fired my .22 caliber pistol at the wall and the noise ceased.  I did not learn until days later that the donkeys would scratch themselves on the corners of the house.

I hadn’t been living in the hotel for long when Mrs. Mock, Kenny’s grandmother, left a note on my door asking me to visit her in the front office.  When I did, she told me she had another room available I might enjoy more than the one I was in.  It was located across from her office and the reception area, such as it was, and next door to a room with a tub.  I took it immediately largely because of the bath tub.  It turned out the tub was actually in a room two doors away from my room.  The space in between was a janitor closet and both it and the bathroom had small windows so my room actually looked into the utility room and the utility room looked into the tub room.  I soon figured out that if I were to climb through the window leading to the utility room and then through the utility room window into the tub room I would have a room with a bath.



                                       Where does one begin when all he knows about someone is hearsay? I never knew my grandparents. For that matter, I never knew my father. He was a man of “few words” my mother would say when suggesting I was “just like him”. I don’t think she meant it as a compliment. I spent a week with him upon returning from a tour of duty overseas and found at the end of that week I understood less than I did at the beginning of the week. We travelled, the southern part of California and crossed into Nevada, spent a night in Las Vegas and then back to Sacramento and his beloved ranch. Well, not a real ranch but five acres on Ranch Avenue in Citrus Heights, California. He liked small things, he said. Little women, little houses, little cars and if judging by the way he lived, he was telling the truth. He even slept on the bottom of a bunk bed that could have been used in a previous life on a submarine. The man was over six feet tall and slept in a bed my thirty-five pound terrier would not have been comfortable in. He said it was all those years at sea. He had been a ships officer in the Merchant Marine sometime during his youth but like everything else about him, I had no idea what, where or when. He was a total mystery to everyone who knew him.

My grandfather, my fathers father, died in a mental institution I have been told, but again, like much of the information I have about my grandparents, is hearsay.  His wife, my grandmother, left an even narrower trail leading nowhere.  I have just one photo of her that depicts a diminutive, black-eyed Irish girl of about eighteen announcing convincingly where my fathers strikingly good looks came from.  That’s it–nothing more.  She died very young on the Fourth of July of some indeterminate year long before my birth.  I cannot repeat this fact convincingly because I don’t have a clue who may have told me of her death.  It’s just in there with the one or two other “facts” of which I have no basis.  I did learn recently both my grandparents were buried together in a small East Texas town but I have forgotten its name.

My mothers’ mother died of cancer in 1937.  More hearsay but I do not recall hearing a cross word sent in her direction.  She must have been by definition, a saint.  If not she was at the very least worshiped by her children.

And then there’s Pop.  I met him once or maybe more than once.  I vividly recall the time when my cousin and I spent the day in his cobblers shop on Main Street in downtown Jacksonville where we practiced buffing up old shoes and driving nails into derelict shoe carcasses long ago cast aside.  The shop was huge to a five year old.  If the truth were known, it could not have been larger than three hundred square feet.  His living quarters were in the back behind a half wall and a dingy old door covered with black hand prints spreading like a tropical disease toward the center.  His “residence” contained a small army cot on one wall and a radio on a three legged table next to it which was always playing softly.  The bath, if it could be called that, was behind a partition and included a toilet, small shower and a wall hung sink.  The floor was concrete and hadn’t been cleaned in a long, long time.  In the middle of the room was a small table covered by an old oil cloth and two mismatched chairs.  A half empty bottle of gin was on the table along with a wide brimmed hat and salt and pepper shakers.  A small open cabinet contained an assortment of canned goods and hung wide eyed adjacent to a refrigerator holding among other things the coca cola my cousin and I coveted.

As I recall, Pop wasn’t a big man.  He may have been five foot eight or ten and frail.  His most distinguishing characteristic was his hair.  It was a shock of white, thick and sat on his head like a small bale of cotton.  He was nice to us but the word was he had not been much of a father and had left  his “sainted” wife on a small farm to care for his mother and five children sometime during the midst of the depression.  He made and sold illegal alcohol and was well known in the community to take a drink himself.  One story I heard was of him trying to outrun the sheriff while making deliveries in a buckboard and overturning in a shallow stream.  The sheriff arrived while he was searching the bottom of the stream for a pair of pearl handled revolvers which had been lost during the mishap.

In spite of his absence, I have been told that until her death, my grandmother defended him and begged her children to watch over him upon her death.  “He is not a strong man”, she reportedly told her children, “but I love him–I always have and always will.  He is your father.”  While I was told they all promised their mother they would look in on him, the winds and the war blew them all across the world.  The two boys joined the Marines and the Navy and found themselves in the South Pacific.  The girls scattered along the coast of Florida trying to find their way and would only see one another occasionally or on Christmas when they all tried to get together.  My mother and her older sister somehow managed to put together a little dab of cash and help Pop open his shoe shop.  My mother had a love – hate relationship with her father.  She hated him for what he had done to her mother and her siblings and especially  for his drinking.  The irony was that she died with a symbolic bottle of gin on her kitchen table.  No matter how hard she tried, alcohol had the same hold on her as it did on her father.

The word on Main Street was Pop kept large sums of money hidden in the machinery in the shop.  It was said he eschewed banks and would never again get caught with his life savings in a bank.  “The crooked bastards had wiped him out during the depression,” he told someone, “and he would never trust them again.”  One small dry cleaning shop owner just down the street had been quoted as saying it would be the death of him.

The front page of the home edition of the Jacksonville Times announced in bold letters on March 26, 1949:  “LOCAL SHOP OWNER FOUND MURDERED”.  “Bound hand and foot with twine to a bed post, Edward F. Brinkley, 67, was found slain in his living quarters…the body when discovered, lay on the concrete floor, the arms stretched above the head by the pull of the twine…the face showed signs of a severe beating.  The murdered man found bound and beaten died of internal bleeding caused by a ruptured spleen and punctured lungs.  Finger prints of a former employee were found at the crime scene and Marion McKay, 27, a Negro, is being sought as a suspect in the crime.

The killer was apprehended in Chicago after being traced first to his mother-in-laws house in South Carolina.  After first denying the crime, he finally confessed and told police that he and Mr. Ed had been drinking the night of the murder.  “Mr. Ed,” he said, “became agitated once he asked him for his pay for the prior weeks work which totaled around forty dollars.”  According to McKay, Brinkley struck him first.  Following the beating, he (McKay) found a cigar box containing a small amount of money and took what was rightfully his.  He then left the shop thinking Mr. Brinkley would recover, packed a bag and took the 1:30 a.m. Greyhound to South Carolina.  He was captured, convicted and served six years for first degree murder.

I often hear of families where parents and grandparents are disdained or ignored.  The younger generation has little time for these “old fogies” and their antiquated way of thinking, curious habits and old fashioned morality.  I understand and as I look back, I’m not sure I did all I could have done to show my parents that in spite of our differences, I loved them and did not want them to come to any harm.  The tragedy of Pops death and the very paucity of knowledge I have about my other grandparents has always haunted me.  I think one of the things that would give me the greatest pleasure at this time in my life would be to be able to sit briefly with my parents and grandparents and just talk.  I was blessed to do that recently with two of my grandchildren and I am so thankful.


                                                                           I hadn’t been living in the little house on First Street inside the feed lot for long. Since I knew absolutely no one in town and had no transportation other than rather worn shoe leather, I was confined to walking to and from school and the garage where I worked a few hours every afternoon. It wasn’t a long walk and on sunny days it was a pleasure. I didn’t even mind it much on snowy days but there were a few when the thermometer fell into the sub teens and I wondered when the next bus was leaving for Miami.
It was perhaps a mile to school and another half mile to the shop and I soon found many different routes to make it more interesting. Some afternoons on the way home, I would pass the bridge where the Sheriff was killed so many years ago. Most mornings I would walk straight down First Street skipping the cracks in the sidewalk to be sure not to break my mothers back and then turn left at the athletic field.  A couple of dogs chased me out of a yard once and a half-clothed woman on a back porch offered me a beckoning wave…that was the way I saw it anyway.  She may have been shooing flies.

I have always been easily bored.  I wasn’t unhappy in school and though I didn’t find many classes challenging, as I look back, I wish I had paid a little more attention.  Like many young people, I didn’t see a need for putting forth much effort.  I didn’t have any specific plans beyond high school and coasted along doing just enough to get by and occasionally less than that.  I suspect I am the only person to graduate from high school anywhere in the world who didn’t take a foreign language or at the very minimum, a basic algebra class.

My teachers, those who took the time to learn my name, just looked the other way, recognizing some young people just don’t have what it takes and planned to spend their valuable time grooming the college bound.  I was certainly not that.  Not only could I not conjure how I might afford to go to college, I understood with my high school transcripts I would be laughed out of the administration building at the very least or perhaps escorted out at gun point at worst.  Of course I regret it now, but that was the way I saw it then.  My mother told me one couldn’t put old heads on young bodies.

I believe when the time finally came for me to be awarded a diploma, it was a part of some social plan by my former teachers with the fore knowledge that it didn’t really matter because I would never amount to much anyway.  I had after all, stuck it out.  I told some woman in administration I was not interested in the ceremony and had no intention of attending graduation. My diploma finally came in the mail.  I never did like crowds.

During the fall while working for a regional tree service cutting trees from under and away from rural high power lines, I wold pass what was then known as “Teachers College”.  I believe James Michener wrote “Centennial” ensconced there for an academic year.  It was not quite Ivy League but not a bad place to spend a cloistered year doing something one loved and being paid for it.  I think he may have been a guest lecturer as well as a writer.  Somehow it just hadn’t struck me that one gets out of life what he or she puts into it.

At the time I didn’t realize how dangerous my job was working in the trees.  It wasn’t until I watched a movie recently starring John Travolta entitled “Lineman” or something like it that I saw the big picture.  Removing tree limbs adjacent to and beneath 120 thousand volt transmission lines seemed kind of routine at the time even though the lines buzzed so loudly my teeth would rattle.  I had been taught to stay clear of them during morning safety briefings and to be careful.  When a colleague dropped a limb on a transmission line one day and the fireworks equaled those on the Fourth of July at Disney World, I got the message.  Nevertheless, the lines were often close enough to reach out and touch them.  That was a “Hallmark” card I never wanted to receive.

One late Friday afternoon it all came together.  It was very cold and the trees were covered with ice.  The ice prevented climbing and tying in at the top so I found myself in a hydraulic bucket with a thirty pound chain saw.  One moment the bucket was ascending and the next I was lying on my back on the ground in a soft pile of limbs looking up wondering why everything was so blue.  Keep the blue side up was an expression I learned later in life flying airplanes but that afternoon the expression had no meaning, rather it was an “aha” moment telling me very clearly that I had chosen the wrong career.  As soon as I got my wits about me and made sure no bones were broken, I whispered to my friend and fellow employee that I had  enough and planned to go to Florida.  When he questioned when, I told him, “Tonight”.

That night in a blinding snow storm, Larry, whose last name isn’t important, and I loaded all our worldly possessions into a shopping bag and a cardboard box and hit the road for Miami in my ’53 Chevy convertible.  If you haven’t driven a ’53 Chevy convertible across Kansas in twenty degree weather with two feet of snow on the ground, you haven’t lived.  A kindly farmer pulled us out of a ditch in Sharon Springs, Kansas at dawn and we slid through an intersection and into a motel parking lot in Shamrock, Texas where we chose to stop for the night.

I still feel a pang of regret for not giving my foreman at least a few days notice but he was a darkly bearded, heavy chested tough guy built like many of the tree stumps we had to remove. Although it would have been wise to call in my resignation, I didn’t.  I will have to do that someday.

The person other than me who was the most surprised about my departure, was my then girlfriend of a couple of years who was already naming our children.  I think the only way I could have managed to do what I did again was to fall out of another tree and come to the realization upon landing that I could not afford to buy cigarettes no less baby formula and diapers.  I digress…

The point of the story is I left home at fifteen.  The small Colorado town I chose was where my friend Frank lived but he wintered in Florida.  I lived in a small clapboard building adjacent to the city landfill–it was called a dump in those days.  It was managed by a man I had met the first summer I spent in town and his family had reached out to me.  They had migrated from Pitcher, Oklahoma a few years before we met and longed to return.

They were extremely poor by any standard but were proud and hardworking.  They lived west of town in a very small rock house with no running water and a privy.  The Patriarch could only mark his “X” but managed the city dump six days a week like a top 500 CEO.  He worked from dawn to dusk and his children made their living scavenging the cast off of the local towns people and selling eggs.  Among other things they would harvest tin cans to sell to a local landscape nursery, pick copper remnants from a burn pile and sell old car batteries to businesses wanting the lead.  I don’t remember any of them complaining or calling in sick to spend the day on the golf course.  They were remarkably generous people with a work ethic I have seldom seen.  They were too proud for public assistance but were never critical of those who took it.

Although I had met the father, my relationship with the family began with a plate of hot biscuits one winter night.  I rarely have seen any member of the family since leaving Colorado.  While our relationship is now confined to exchanging Christmas cards, it has not ended in over sixty years.  I still think of them and the example they set so many years ago.

What struck me  that first school year, an epiphany really, was one of life’s inconsistencies and one I try to remember when meeting new people and experience new ideas.  Human beings are quick to judge others by external manifestations–what can be defined as prejudice.  I found myself talking to an upperclassman one afternoon later that school year.  It may have been in study hall or perhaps the lunch room but in any event it was at a time when talking was allowed, if done quietly.  I actually did play by the rules occasionally.  We had come to know  one another by name and had attended a few classes together.  I don’t recall him being a stellar student but he did play football and was one of the “in crowd”.  I remember he was popular, dressed nicely and drove his own car, even if it was a jalopy of some kind.  I don’t remember him working or providing in any way for his family but then I didn’t know him that well.  He had a younger brother, about my age who was a class year behind me.  His name, not his brothers, was Wayne and while I do remember his last name it wouldn’t be constructive if I added it here in the event he is still alive and somehow came across one of my remembrances.  It has been a rather long time since the conversation.

I didn’t care much for his little brother–he was always ogling my girlfriend which was enough reason not to remember his name.  He would seek her out in class or in the halls and tell her the many reasons why she should be dating him and not me.  He was on the football team and had played the lead in some third-rate play.  I was that scruffy kid from Florida who lived down by the dump and hung out with the wrong crowd.  I really didn’t think I was scruffy and if the truth were known I took a bath no less than twice a week at the Lincoln Hotel in the claw footed tub in the hallway on the third floor.  Since I wasn’t a resident of the hotel, the proprietor felt a need to charge me fifty cents but it was worth it.  Money well spent.  My girlfriend didn’t complain but then a girl those days living on a farm with a cistern was lucky to have a bath more than once a week and only after her younger brothers and sisters had their ears and hither parts scrubbed in the same water.  It was a different time but she sure smelled good to me.

One afternoon Wayne said, “You know you are a pretty cool guy.  Everyone respects you for living alone and continuing to go to school.  We all know it must be difficult not having a parent or guardian to appeal to.  Many of us have talked about it and wondered out loud if we could manage the way you have.  If the truth were known, you could be a part of the clique (or what I referred to earlier as the “in crowd”) if you just didn’t spend so much time with those “Okies” west of town.  They really are low-class.”

I thought about what he said over the next few days and the prospect of being invited to some of the social functions and getting to know the movers and shakers on campus, although I don’t think that is what we called school grounds in those days. I didn’t say a thing to him but decided if I had to give up my friendship with the only people who welcomed me, I not only couldn’t but wouldn’t do it.  It wasn’t until a few weeks later someone told me Wayne’s mother was supporting her family on welfare and while I would never be critical of someone who was temporarily forced upon public assistance, I realized I was proud to have my new acquaintances west of town as my friends.

They may have been “Okies” to some but they were my Okies.  Very early I learned a lesson about life way back then, never judge a book by its cover.  I never have had a need to be in the “in crowd” since.




Billie Paul Smith

billie-paul-smith-img_20170222_0001_new                                                                                                                                                                          It was December of 1956. That fall Chevrolet had just unveiled what turned out to be its most popular model ever. Gas cost twenty-four cents a gallon and with a five dollar purchase, a driver would often receive dishware or a “crystal” glass as a bonus. One of the worst things a kid could be punished for in school was chewing gum in class. The Soviets had just launched the first “Sputnik”. Slinkys and Hula Hoops were popular and Pat Boone was one of the most listened to crooners on the radio. Sock hops were the rage and I was in lust over a dark eyed beauty named Bunny. I don’t think she even knew my name. I had just become a teenager and had celebrated my birthday with my mother at Villa Viscaya on Biscayne Bay.

It was Monday morning and I was standing post in front of Stadwicks Pharmacy on the Miami Springs Circle.  I had been chosen as an auxiliary patrol boy by my classmates.  I was the last person to be chosen to what was thought to be an elite group and although I served as only a buck private in the rear ranks, I became permanent when one of the boys mothers forbade him the dangers of service.   I was extremely proud and took my duties very seriously.  We had a special handclasp and a way to fold our white belt so that the badge was visible to all who passed.  I was one of the few who stood with a police officer on one of the busiest intersections of our small town.  That Monday morning I listened as Officer Sweeney chastised a mother for using a police officer to threaten her son.  She had said something to the effect that if her son didn’t behave, she would have him arrested and put in jail.  When she appealed to Officer Sweeney, he responded, “Lady, how can you expect young people to have any respect for the police when you use them as an excuse for your own inability to provide discipline.”

The light changed and several of my classmates were waiting to cross one of the last major intersections before entering the school grounds. I lowered my bamboo banner and walked into the crosswalk and ushered my charges safely across the street.  It was eight o’clock and Officer Sweeney released me to head on to class.  The Traffic Patrol was allowed to be 15 minutes late to class because of their important duties.  I skipped across the street, removed the tattered birthday card from my pants pocket and read it again for what must have been the twentieth time.

“My Dearest Michael,” it began.  “I know this card will come as a surprise to you.  But I want you to know I have thought about you so many times over the years.  I am your Aunt Billie–your father’s sister. Your mother has sent me pictures of you growing up and I am so proud to see what a handsome, alert young man you have become.  I follow your accomplishments and am very proud of you.  You look very much like your father did at the same age.  I have wanted to visit and had actually planned a visit several times but until the last couple of years I have been living in Europe with little time or opportunity to travel South.  I hope you will find the enclosed twenty dollars useful and ask that you buy yourself something you would not ordinarily purchase.  I now live in Colorado and have asked your mother if she would permit you to visit me during your summer vacation.”

In early June, I boarded a bus one late humid afternoon with the destination “Atlanta” displayed prominently in a little window just above the driver on the front of a silver and gray behemoth described as a “Scenic Cruiser”.  I settled into a seat just behind the stairway and above the restroom so I would be able to stretch out and put my feet on a package shelf beneath an opaque window.  It turned out to be the best seat in the house.  As the bus exited the depot, I saw my mother wipe her eyes as she turned and crossed the street leading toward the Greyhound customer parking lot.  I changed buses in Atlanta, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri.  After fifty two hours, I arrived in Denver late in the afternoon to a three person welcoming party.  I said goodbye to a young Army couple who had shepherded me all the way from Atlanta.  I had come down with a terrible case of strep throat somewhere between St. Louis and Kansas City and these two angels of mercy kept me covered with blankets and created mixed potions of salt water and Lord knows what that stung while gargling but lessened the pain considerably so I could ingest a bowl of weak soup and drink a Coca Cola at the several rest stops.  They were special people whose names are long forgotten but whose affection and care I will never forget.

Although we had never met, I instantly recognized my aunt from photos and wondered as I disembarked, who the two females were that accompanied her and were standing with her behind a protective guard rail.  They turned out to be her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, my second cousin.  They were living in Denver temporarily for a few months while my aunts’ son, an Army Lt. Colonel, was getting settled into his new command after having spent a few years in Japan.  They were all very welcoming and profusely thanked my bus companions for their thoughtfulness and the care they had shown me.  We drove immediately to my aunts’ home and a doctor met us at the door.  My aunt had called her personal physician from a pay phone and told him of her concern about my condition. Following his ministrations and about twenty four hours, I felt good as new.

The few weeks I spent in Colorado were wonderful.  My aunt who was working at the time, took her vacation for the entire time and drove my cousin and I all over the state.  We visited the Garden of the Gods, Estes Park, crossed the divide on the highest highway and attended a rodeo in Colorado Spring where the Lone Ranger and his horse Silver were in attendance.  My cousin and I rode horses down the coulees and on the high plains just outside of Denver.  I ate three meals a day which was rare for me.  My cousin and I played Monopoly and rummy for hours while Aunt Billie was out of the house shopping or running errands and occasionally I would sneak a cigarette around the corner behind a school building.

My aunts’ name was Billie Paul Smith.  If I were to guess, she was probably in her late forties, had auburn hair and a nice figure.  Her given name was Wilma but she laughingly refused to allow anyone to call her by that name.  Although my cousin whose name was Paula, having the most brilliantly red hair I had ever seen, was her only grandchild, she expected to be called Billie and not “Grandma, “Grandmother” or any of the other cutesy expressions used by grandchildren to identify their grandparent.  “That made her seem much too old,” she said.  It was not in her plans to get old and gray.

My aunts’ vacation ended and I had to return to Miami.  She arranged for my route to be changed so I could stop briefly in Houston, Texas and meet a half sister who, like her, I did not know existed.  She was the child of my fathers’ first wife and was about fifteen years older than me.  I spent a few hours in Houston before continuing my journey and met Wylene, her husband Rush and their new baby, Mark.  They treated me to a Mexican dinner which was an entirely new experience for me.  She and her husband were both very warm and welcoming people.  After just a few minutes, I felt as if I had known them both for a lifetime.  It had been a remarkable couple of weeks and instilled in me very early that life is not only full of surprises, but there are many remarkable people and new experiences out there just waiting to touch upon our lives and change our world view in some small way.

The very next year I met another remarkable person who quite coincidentally also lived in Colorado.  Once we became acquainted and he learned I had already traveled successfully from Miami to Denver alone, he invited me to visit Colorado again the following summer with the ostensible intent of my working on  a 120 acre ranch of one of his life long friends.  I have chronicled that next summer in my first book, “The Bridge Over Cedar Creek”.  The book has been rated with FIVE STARS and sold to readers all over the United States and in several countries outside of America.

Thus began my love affair with travel, meeting new people, experiencing new and exciting parts of the country and the world and thinking big thoughts many people can only dream of or read about.  I was introduced to people who were honest, interesting, caring and thoughtful.  I am convinced that along with my mother and her family, this new experience instilled in me a set of values and sense of morality that prepared me for life and established goals and objectives to which to aspire analogous to the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and Eight Fold Path.  I have tried to live up to the very high standards these people established and know in my heart it has been because of them and the pattern they set that led me to an extraordinary and fulfilled life.  I have tried to mold my life after them and while I have no way of knowing whether or not they all would have approved of my every act, or action, I understand it is myself I must convince.  I know they all would be proud of who I have become at their direction and with their encouragement.  I carry in my heart so many stories and experiences knowing I must never deliberately let them down.  I believe life is unfolding as it should.  I think of you often Billie Paul Smith and thank God every day people like you and Frank Kunce along with many others entered my life.

Billie, don’t be mad if you find one day I have published my account of how the steering wheel in the “Ambler” found itself in the backseat.  Every time I tell the story it brings a smile to my face and the faces of those who hear it for the first time.  I love you.  You were indeed a hoot.



How would you like to be married to that Bitch

angry-kids-collection-007 Transparent PNGHis first name was Jack.  I never knew his last name, or if I did, I have long forgotten it.  He was a few years, perhaps ten, years older than me and worked a couple nights a week along side of me at the Miami Springs Villas.  I was a two dollar an hour security guard and he was a Miami Springs policeman.  The night I arrived in Miami Springs, where I had spent a part of my youth, I had driven all day and was too tired to try and sleep.  The small duplex I was to live in was just a few blocks from the resort.  The Miami Springs Villas had several restaurants and was directly across the street from a small boutique hotel.  The hotel and the several small cottages on the premises housed both the classrooms and the living quarters for the young women who attended the Eastern Air Lines stewardess school. The campus also accommodated four or five bars and provided living quarters for airline flight crews and miscellaneous business travelers.  It was upscale and enjoyed a good reputation as a place to stay while in the Miami area.  The restaurants were considered five star.

I had been recruited the night I arrived in town by the owner of the security agency  to provide security for the young novice stewardess trainees.  Upon arriving that night after a long day, I had decided to take a walk before going to bed.  My walk took me around a  golf course and through the parking lot of the resort.  While crossing the darkened parking lot I was set upon by two police cruisers and an unmarked car and ordered at gun point not to move and to identify myself.  It turned out there just been an armed robbery of one of the bars and the robber had fled in my direction.  Once I convinced the several police officers that I was not the robber and had only found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time and the man in the unmarked car learned I had just been discharged from the Air Force where I performed duty as an Air Policeman, I was offered a job.  I had been in town no more than an hour.  Within a few days I was clothed in a grey uniform and issued a .38 revolver.  The interview consisted of the few questions the man asked that night in the parking lot.

A few weeks passed and I had my routine down.  I would surveil the parking lots, pass behind the several cottages and show myself in a lighted area long enough for anyone who might be up to no good to know that there was armed security on the premises.  I felt comfort in knowing that an armed city policeman was also stationed just beyond the students day room in the concession area.  I would frequently end each round by stopping to talk with Jack before reversing my course for another round.

Jack was referred to as “Cadillac Jack” behind his back by the parking lot attendants because he also dealt in the resale of luxury cars owned by some of the wealthy customers of the resort. He would buy second hand cars that were due for trade–in and resell them for a small profit.  He was always interesting to talk to and we both would quietly admire from a distance the pretty girls attending the airline school.   Each class was six weeks in duration so that every six weeks a batch of new starry eyed beauties would rotate through the Villas and on to their permanent duty assignment in New York, Chicago, Atlanta or Miami.

One warm citrus scented night two young, pretty  stewardess candidates approached Jack and I.  One of the two had a look on her face that told me someone was going to be in for some serious trouble and neither Jack nor wanted it to be us.  The clearly agitated of the two who was wearing a dress that accentuated her very attractive figure shook her finger at us both and wanted us to know that a cab driver she had just ridden with had been drinking and he had frightened her.  We clearly were negligent in not doing something about it.  Once she finished her diatribe and turned to leave,  she dropped the change she had brought to purchase a cold drink and couldn’t seem to locate it.  That agitated her further.  After searching for a moment she threw her head back, muttered something neither Jack nor I could hear and marched back toward her cottage with her friend trailing her looking back at us as if to say, “Well do something, don’t just stand there.”

As soon as the two young women rounded the corner of the building Jack looked over at me and said in a stage whisper, “Jeez, how would you like to be married to that bitch?”

It wasn’t until a few years later that I recognized the dress…it belonged to my beautiful bride.



Rollin’ Ragtop

IMG_20160815_0001_NEW IMG_20160815_0003_NEW            By the time I reached the age of twelve, I had already owned a three wheeled scooter with a truck box mounted on the front. I could identify virtually every American made automobile and could distinguish between most models.

I learned to drive sneaking my mothers old Chevrolet convertible out of the driveway after she was sound asleep. My first experience with a clutch resulted in running into a concrete storage shed at the end of our driveway. The lights came on next door and the airline pilot occupant threatened to call the police if I didn’t stop the infernal racket. I carefully skipped the old car backward until I was far enough away from the building not to alert my mother in the morning. The older brother of a friend soon taught me how to operate a gear shift and clutch.
Long before I was eligible for a learners permit, I raced the old scooter around the small Miami bedroom community of Miami Springs delivering papers and transporting my mongrel Sheppard / Chow mix with his ears pinned back in the wind. Occasionally I would chance upon a local motorcycle cop and ease up next to him so we could cruise together two abreast until we reached the traffic circle a the center of town. I would grin, knowing in my heart, we were the only two capable people in the known world and I was totally disdainful of my contemporaries who either were still riding bicycles or walking because a bike just wasn’t “cool”. The motorcycle cop learned my first name and I soon began calling him John when I found him directing traffic in front of the junior high school.

It wasn’t long before a friend and I, also being raised by and unsuspecting single parent, would sneak my mothers’ new Chevrolet station wagon out of the driveway and cruise the neighborhood. On other late nights my similarly derelict friend and I would stealthily creep on to the back lot of a local car dealer where the trade-ins were stored. We found the cars were kept unlocked and for convenience the keys were kept under the front seat.  We would careen around the unlighted lot in everything from a sporty convertible to VW Micro bus.  That activity came to sudden halt when my friend decided one night to take a Ford convertible home and use it the next day to pick up a couple of female classmates after school.  He was caught along with the feckless girls and they all wound up spending a night in the local home for the wayward.  I lucked out and was off with one of my other friends attempting to sneak into one of the many pool parties conducted by the bikini clad airline stewardesses who lived in the apartments in my neighborhood. Needless to say, the car dealer no longer kept ignition keys in the cars and soon after, installed a security light to illuminate the back lot.

Within a few years, I moved to small Colorado town north of Denver.  I lost track of my fellow criminal.  I think he went on to become a great lawyer since he was prepared for a life of crime.

The town was sparsely populated and primarily rural.  There was no means of public transportation and most of the farm kids learned to drive at an early age.  I worked night s and Saturdays after school at an automobile repair shop that adjoined a Chevrolet car dealer.  It had a one car showroom and a separate back lot for trade-ins.  Walking home late  one afternoon, I spied a forlorn ’48 Plymouth convertible parked at the back of the lot.  It was a little long in the tooth.  Its passenger side fender was dented so that the metal rubbed the tire and the top was ripped in several places and a little worse for wear.  It sure would beat walking, I thought, so I asked the salesman if it was for sale and at what price.  He told me, “Two hundred and forty-five dollars.”  Negotiations began and it was not long before we settled on sixty-five dollars, which just happened to be the total of my savings.  The salesman either felt sorry for me or just wanted the jalopy off the lot.  I was able to convince and irresponsible aunt who lived in Denver, to sign for me and I was soon off with neither a driver’s license nor insurance.  I was fifteen.  I drove the car for several years until on my seventeenth, I drove it to the police station to take my drivers test.  I had no idea what I was going to do if I failed the test.  The law allowed for a license at seventeen without an adults signature.

I drove away from the station as a newly licensed driver.

There Are No Shortcuts

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We hadn’t been married that long and the baby came.  We barely knew one another but somehow we both understood this was for real and no matter what, we were not going to give up easily.  When the old priest who was to conduct our ceremony asked me if I understood marriage was a Sacrament and wanted my assurance we would be married, “Until death do us part”, I responded by asking him if he knew exactly how his life would turn out fifty or sixty years from now.  “I’m only twenty-two years old, Father, and I want to marry this woman.  The church says in order to receive its blessing, I have to be here, so if that is what it will take for you to sanction this marriage, I will tell you what you want to hear…I will love and cherish her until my dying day.  Now if you want the truth, and I hope you do, I have no idea but I am going to do my damnedest,” or something to that effect.  His brow furrowed, he removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and laid the glasses on the desk in front of him, hesitating a moment or two.  I could hear the clock ticking in the background and I think he may have turned to look out the window to hide the big smile that crossed his face.  Once he turned back to us he said, “Son, go with God”,  while scribbling his name on a church form that sanctioned our marriage and included my commitment to agree to raise our children in the faith.  When I passed him in the doorway, he whispered, “That was a first.”

I can’t imagine what she may have thought when she looked out the window of our mountain cabin that morning and watched the front seat of our ragged old Volkswagen create a perfect arc through the air and land twenty feet away on its back in the middle of the narrow dirt road. Even today, I don’t have any idea where I got the strength to rip the seat from its narrow tracks and hurl it down the dusty road.  Soon after the wedding, I traded our, it was “ours” after all, now that we were married, racy little Austin Healy for a Studebaker Lark with a rusted through rear floor and deleted heater at manufacture.  It had just been painted by one of those shops that advertise on television some ridiculously low price and perform equally low quality work.  The little car had very little ornament so there was not much to paint over but somehow the paint shop had managed to cover what little there was.

We left Miami and took the blue roads to Colorado with a brief stop in Western New York State in order to visit the in-laws I had yet to meet.  It was quite an adventure.  While neither of us was new to uprooting, it was the first time for my new wife to experience extended automobile travel through the South and across the Great Plains.  We followed two drunken Appalachian hillbillies early one morning across a beautiful valley.  We harbored in some clean but down on their luck rooms in motor courts probably constructed in the thirties.  After we crossed the Nebraska state line and about half way to Denver and our destination in Northern Colorado, she insisted there were no mountains and I had been lying to her.  “From the looks of things,” she said, “we would soon be living on the lunar surface”  Almost before she finished her sentence, the snow cap on Long’s Peak appeared on the horizon and then the dappled green mountains popped into view as if playing their own game of hide and seek.

The first few months in our cabin, adjacent to the Big Thompson River,  were hectic but everything was new and exciting.  The river roared past our bedroom window following a rain and whispered quietly on those cool dry nights when the daytime temperature reached into the high eighties.  I drove the little Studebaker the twenty-five miles each way to campus and back daily, arriving home just in time to watch an episode of McHale’s Navy on the old 1950’s television with its one channel and rabbit ears that caused the black and white picture to roll and sway like a small boat on a big sea, so appropriate for the show.  We watched the leaves change and the once green mountains became a beautiful tapestry of color, that at times took our breath away.  After several months, and once the snows came, I discovered driving the Studebaker down the mountain canyon was an experience I would not want to share with anyone.  A former Air Force friend had owned a Volkswagen that we had driven all over Colorado and Wyoming while I was stationed in Cheyenne and I remembered it was advertised as the car the snow plow operator drove to the snow plow.

I found a 1959 Beetle in a campus trailer park one afternoon advertised for three hundred dollars.  It was hard looking by any standard, access was only granted by reaching through the wing window and opening the door from the inside and the hood was wired shut. After speaking with the graduate assistant owner, I learned it had given him good service.  He was only selling it, he said, because he had finished his degree and was moving on with his family and needed a station wagon.  He also had a thirty foot Airstream for rent but that’s another story.  I bought the car and believe it or not soon sold the Studebaker to a single man in town for what I had paid for it.  Years later, I would see it parked around town and not looking any worse for wear.  I had to eat the cost of the heater I had installed that I scavenged from a forty Ford at the local junkyard but considering the thousands of miles the little car traveled, I was pleased with my results and I am certain the new buyer appreciated it.

The university was on the quarter system.  I would arrive early every morning and study in the student union until class time after which I would return to a big soft chair facing a mountain view and continue my class reading assignments until four o”clock and then begin my trek home.  I treated it like a job.  Unfortunately, I was over my head.  I had done poorly in high school and while I had taken basic classes at night school while in the Air Force and attended Miami Dade Junior College briefly, I was not prepared for upper level courses.  One youthful professor asked me to write a paper on “dissent” and I had not idea what the word meant no less could I take and intelligent position.  At that time in history, because of the Vietnam War, it was all around me and I couldn’t define it.

One of the absolute worst classes was Economics 102.  It was taught by a disinterested graduate assistant in a stuffy room accommodating so many that I could hardly breathe and taken from a book by some erudite professor named Samuleson, or some such spelling, whose name I cannot bear to hear today.  Individual attention was out of the question and there was no money for a tutor.  By the end of the second quarter, I was ready to quit and join the foreign legion.  If I could just get through this quarter, I thought, we were going to California for spring break to mooch off my best man who was attending theatrical college in Pasadena.

The last class of the semester ended Friday afternoon and we were on the road early the next morning.  The map revealed that Pasadena was a straight shot down Highway 25, over Raton Pass, through Las Vegas, New Mexico with a right turn on Highway 40, across the Painted Desert, through the Petrified Forest and into Southern California.  Nothing to it, I thought.  We loaded the Volkswagen with our two year old dog, baby food, cloth diapers and a few changes of clothes for ourselves.  Once the dog was firmly dug in, in the well behind the rear seat, the baby was cushioned in an old plastic tub in the back seat and our clothing piled next to her to the top of the front seat, we set out.

We were over Raton Pass before we knew it.  The weather was mild and the little car just purred along.  The heater wasn’t necessary, again another story, because except for the time we crossed the pass the weather was warm and the roads were clear for miles ahead.  Just about dark we stopped and ate a few pieces of cold fried chicken and washed it down with a cold drink.  I decided to check the map.  I knew Highway 25 would eventually intercept Highway 40 and I thought we might be nearing the intersection.  I was surprised to find Highway 40 was still miles away and we would need to head north for a while, pass through Santa Fe and then south again to Albuquerque before we had a straight shot to Pasadena.  That will never do, I thought, there has got to be a better route.  Surprisingly we had stopped to eat and study the map at a wide spot in the road just before a road sign pointing south on which was painted Villanueva, Highway 3.  I am sure the mileage was prominently displayed but whatever the number, it didn’t seem to concern me.  My pretty wife had her reservations but I was convinced this short cut would save us both miles and time.  I wanted to get to Pasadena as soon as the law would allow, lie back on my friends couch, drink a cold beer, enjoy the California sun and forget completely about the last quarter at Colorado State University.  I had no idea whether or not I passed Economics 102 and I really didn’t care.  After all, I told myself, it is a straight shot to Highway 40 and there is no way we can miss.  I was certain the locals had built this road to avoid all of the tourist traffic streaming down Interstate 25 and probably laughed with the knowledge they could cut miles off their trip to Albuquerque.  The road appeared on the map like anyone of those many blue roads we took crossing the country from Florida to Colorado, so I muttered to myself, how can we go wrong?

I turned off of Interstate 25 and on to Highway 3 trying to ignore the skepticism on my wife’s face and accelerated.  Night began to fall.  Within about thirty minutes and twenty five miles, the sky settled behind a mountain ridge before us and I turned on the headlights.  Soon after, I spied a road sign on my right that announced…”PAVEMENT ENDS”.  While most people would have given the sign a little more thought and may have taken a moment to look at the map again, I wasn’t concerned.  Many mountain roads were unpaved.  We continued down the road a few miles and passed a small settlement of mobile homes, hog pens, horse corrals, dilapidated barns and abandoned vehicles, yet I still was not concerned.  The road began to narrow and the shoulder on one side was primarily rock while the shoulder on the driver’s side dropped off precipitously.  Once I turned on my high beams it became clear there was no turning around. The road continued to narrow and with its swale in the center, it was more a rutted wagon track than a road.  My option was to back down the road in the dark with a steep drop off on the driver’s side guided by taillights so dim as to be unrecognizable at a distance and no back up lights.  I didn’t dare ask my wife to get out of the car in the cold and guide me several miles. Proceeding, the little car would center as the crest of the road rose and fell and the narrow grooves on both sides deepened.  Rocks would scrape the floor pan and the bangs and bumps on the undercarriage grew louder and louder.  I didn’t dare stop the car because I didn’t think I could get enough traction to keep the little car moving forward.  Suddenly there were headlights in our rear view mirror.  We crept along at less than five miles per hour and the lights moved closer.  They followed us for several miles.  My heart started to race.  Who else could be on this road at this time of night?  I envisaged highwaymen at the very least and rapists or murderers at the very worst.  The few times I glanced at the face of my wife in the dim light of the instrument  panel, I didn’t like what I saw.  Hers was not a happy face.  Just about the time I didn’t think the road could become any worse, we rounded a curve and began a steep descent down a thirty percent grade.  The road began to widen slightly and the scraping sounds diminished.  Around another curve and I could see the headlights of cars traveling down a highway a few miles in the distance at least one thousand feet below us.  The road flattened and the lights behind us disappeared as the cars in the distance grew larger.

When we finally reached Highway 40, I stopped briefly to catch my breath and breathed a sigh of relief.  Whew!  Several hours had passed since we left the interstate.  I was perspiring on a cold night in a dry climate.  I didn’t dare break the silence in the car, yet I knew we both were relieved.  I wasn’t until we finally pulled on to Highway 40 that I muttered, “That was interesting,” and I got a “Uh huh” response.  We drove on in silence for several miles.  I had no idea what damage had been done to our little car but I didn’t take a moment to look.  We traveled on to California and arrived in Pasadena at sunup after driving nonstop except for an occasional fuel stop and a moment to change drivers.  We had a wonderful week with our friends and visited as many attractions as possible with our very limited resources.

Once we got home, I felt refreshed enough to get back to the books and no longer feeling a need to join the foreign legion.  I graduated a year or so later with a less than stellar GPA but with the knowledge I could do just about anything if I put my mind to it and would just put one foot in front of the other, make no excuses and never give up.  The real lesson learned from this adventure was there are NO SHORT CUTS in life and when given a choice between two alternatives, I always try to choose the proven route.



Bowling Night

Pin setter-bowling-alley_-caa_2-e1421338021574.jpg aWhen the front door of the basement level bowling alley opened and closed, which it seemed to do with regularity that night, it made a whooshing sound and affected the pressure in my ears. The nineteenth century building was extremely well insulated and had a low ceiling brightly lighted by florescent bulbs that flickered occasionally and buzzed when all of the sounds of occupancy died.  The small four lane hall was accessed by descending a series of slippery metal stairs and entering beneath street grade.  The plate glass store front was so black with grime that it obscured the occupants and muffled the noise from within.  At night, the bright light from inside could barely be seen at street level.  If a person wasn’t looking and didn’t know the small bowling alley existed, he could easily pass by it unnoticed.  There was a counter next to the door where the manager stood greeting customers.  A series of sconces behind him contained a few dozen shabby bowling shoes of all sizes.

The first foursome to take lane number one that night included a pretty young woman who failed to release the ball early and followed it about half way down the alley before dropping it into the gutter and landing unceremoniously on her cute little rear end with her pleated skirt billowing above her waist.  The pinkness of her panties matched the color of her face as her teammates snickered and she reached one hand behind to pick herself up.  A pimply faced boy about her age straddled the gutters of two lanes and extended his hand trying not to laugh.  I could hear the sound of new customers stomping the snow off their feet between the clamor of bowling balls striking pins, laughter and the beat of rock and roll on the radio behind the owners station.  The dingy pit where the pin boys labored, only me that night, smelled of stale bodies, lubricating oil and was not well lighted.  A soiled solitary rope dangled from the mechanical pin setter in each bay that was often pulled on the fly as I scrambled over the four foot center wall to reset a game on lane four.  Why didn’t the owner assign adjacent lanes on short handed nights like this, I asked myself.  There were four lanes normally attended by two pin boys.  I only filled in when the regulars were otherwise engaged and normally would stop by after working at the garage on my way to the pool hall for supper.  The pool hall was two doors down.  It wasn’t difficult work on week nights when there were two pin boys, but on weekends it was at times frantic.  The object was to gather the several downed pins and replace them in the semi automatic pin setter as quickly as possible.  The pay was not great, ten cents a line, but the place was warm and well lighted and the laughter was contagious.  I would often earn a few dollars on weekends and occasionally receive a tip from some benighted adult.

I didn’t look forward to going home to the little shack by the dump on nights like this.  The outside temperature had dropped to well below zero and had remained in that vicinity for several days.  My water supply, which was contained in a milk jug, had frozen solid.  Heat in the little house was provided by an ancient gas propane cook stove and a vented cast iron relic of a previous century.  I had never quite mastered the art of banking a fire.  I was out of wood and had taken down the majority of the small closet I used in the bedroom to warm the place a few days before.  It was mid February and perhaps the coldest night I had ever experienced in my life.  I slept in my jeans and pea coat on the old army cot piled high with woolen blankets that could have been survivors of the first world war.  I had a small dog for a few weeks but he soon learned the pickings were slim in my house and moved on.  Snow had been several feet deep for days and the streets were piled high at their gutters in dirty mounds.  In places, they resembled revetments and bunkers from a hard fought battle and were marked with yellow urine stains from stray dogs, frozen expectorant and tobacco juice hurled by passersby during the day.  Several of the mounds along the street concealed abandoned cars.  They were completely covered with snow and frozen ice.  I wondered how their owners would ever find them again.  It had been too cold to snow and nothing had melted all week.  The streets were frozen and slick requiring the occasional automobile or truck that plied the roadways to be equipped with tire chains that struck the fender wells nosily and rattled in the cold night air. The cold that night would only be surpassed by the many nights I spent guarding a missile site in Nebraska in the middle of a windswept cornfield a few years later, but in those instances, once my shift ended, I could huddle inside a warm Air Force supplied pick up camper in a fur lined parka reading my favorite book.

A classmate joined me in the pit after he bowled a few lines with friends.  I recognized him from passing in the hallways at school but did not know him by name.  He extended his hand and said he thought I could use some help.  We had met briefly between sets and once he learned I was setting all four lanes by myself, he offered to join me.  I had worked with Chile and Spot at the garage all day and only reluctantly inquired about work that night.  The sense of relief that crossed the owners face when I came in could have lighted the room.  I had no idea the next few hours would be likened to the proverbially one legged man in a butt kicking contest.  Although there would be occasional breaks, all four lanes had been occupied since the doors opened and I was exhausted.  Setting the four lanes was difficult enough but having to hurl the four foot wall dividing them had taken almost all my energy.  We worked together well and during a brief lull around eleven p.m. my new friend asked if I planned to spend the night in the shack.  I had no idea he knew I lived alone.  I didn’t keep it a secret but I was often so busy working after school and Saturdays and spending time with Wild Bill at the dump that I hadn’t gotten to know many people.  When I said I did, he responded with a question, “How would you like to spend the night at my house?  I live on the north side of town near the old cemetery.  My father is a minister and I am certain he would love to have you.  Since it is Saturday night,” he said, “I doubt he will even be awake when we get to my house so we could sleep in the basement.  My mother is a great cook and she always attends the late service so we can have breakfast before you go home.”  I accepted.

The lanes closed at midnight but there were still a few stragglers finishing up so we weren’t able to leave until around twelve thirty.  There was no traffic on the streets.  We walked all the way to the boy’s house down the middle of Cleveland Avenue where the snow was soft and not iced over and slick.  About halfway to his house, we walked in the island divider separating the street.  It was bitter cold and the mucus in my nose froze.  My glove less hands were stiff and my finger tips tingled and my feet ached with every step as we walked to his house.  My ears felt as if they might crack and fall to the ground any minute.  In the several miles or so it took to reach his house we talked about the cold, school, and the subjects we liked and those we didn’t and the teachers we liked and those we didn’t and he asked me how I happened to be living alone.  I explained how I had come to Colorado and why and how I had lived with relatives much of my life.  I didn’t like Miami that well, although I missed the warmth that night and while I cared deeply for what family I had, I was happier here.  I didn’t feel as if I was alone and enjoyed my little house except perhaps on days like this.  The subject of girls never came up but it would not have mattered because I didn’t know any.

When we reached the sidewalk to the boy’s house, the porch light was on and a faint light was coming from the front room.  The boy’s father came to the door in a house coat and invited me into the foyer once my new friend explained who I was and why he was so late.  The house was warm and smelled faintly of black cherry pipe tobacco.  I heard what I assumed to be the test pattern on a television in the background and could tell from the man’s hooded eyes, he had probably been sleeping when we arrived.  A book was open on the floor adjacent to a recliner facing the door and a reading light was lit.  My new friend’s father admonished him for not calling with his whereabouts and remarked how worried his mother had been.  “That was just very selfish,” he said.  After my friends apology and some further discussion about pin setting and the cold walk home, he advised his father he had invited me to sleep over and told him I was the classmate he had mentioned who lived in the shack on First Street down by the dump. The warmth of the house began settling over me as I removed my old Navy pea coat and handed it to the boy’s father.  He laid it on the sofa in the living room and returned to ask me if I would mind waiting in the basement a few minutes while he spoke with his son.  By this time my hands had thawed and the pain in my back from the extreme cold had lessened.  I discovered I could actually straighten up, and although my shoes were still frozen, I could wiggle my toes as my feet began to thaw.

I descended the dark stairway and located a light switch at the bottom step.  The soft light of a table lamp revealed a very inviting room with a couch and a couple of comfortable chairs, a pool table with a red felt cover as well as a table piled high with parlor games.  The pool balls were ensconced in the rack on the table top and cues were placed on its sides as if waiting for new play to begin.  There were several family photographs on the walls, an attractive elliptical rug on the floor and a large crucifix lighted above the couch.  I could not hear the substance of the conversation upstairs but I could discern a distinct rise in its hum as its tones became more animated.  No one was shouting but it was clear that the two were not entirely in agreement about something.  The conversation lasted for several minutes before I heard footfalls on the wooden stairs leading into the basement.  The boy entered the room but he was not smiling. He brushed back his blond hair with the fingers of both hands revealing two red tinged ears that were a sign he was either still cold or embarrassed.  I soon learned it wasn’t the cold that caused his ears to redden.  He averted his eyes and said, “My dad agreed you would be welcome to stay the night with us, but if you do, he asked that you agree to join Mother and I for church in the morning.”

I hesitated briefly contemplating the long walk home before looking around the warm comfortable room one last time and said, “Would you get my coat?”  I don’t remember the boy’s name.

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