Fourteen and crazy

Fourteen and crazy
When you think of Florida a couple of the things that come to mind are oranges and tourists. In 1967 I seemed to get the two of them tangled up in just about everything that I did.
I was fourteen and constantly on the go, in a place where there were hordes of people who didn’t know you or didn’t care who you were. You could get in and out of trouble so fast that you hardly ever knew your present status. Was I in trouble or not? Who did you say were you again?
Working the Tourists
Being teenagers we were always in need of spending money. Having very little in the way of marketable skills, it was only natural that a few of us ended up doing manual labor.
An easy job to get was working for one of the orange groves moving bags and crates of oranges, grapefruit and lemons. Sometimes we got to work in the sorting area, and sometimes they sent us out to pick oranges.
Having teenagers as pickers wasn’t really a good idea on their part as we were too slow. The migrant workers who usually picked the oranges were very fast and they resented our being “in the way.” Honestly, they could get more done without us.
There were a couple of the guys who were very bold and preferred to hustle tourists. They would go to a rival grove (you didn’t burn your job “bridges”) and sit out front, waiting for one of the pushy tourists to order them to “Fetch me a bag of them oranges boy, and don’t get no rotten ones in it either!”
They would “Yes sir” them and go around to the sorting area and snag (steal) a bag of oranges off of one of the tables and take it out to the car for the tourist. When they collected the cash for it, they just put it in their pocket and waited for the next tourist.
Scoundrels for sure, but they would make on average fifty to one hundred dollars before any of the employees got wise. When that happened, and it always did, they would just go on to the next grove and pull the same gag over again. I couldn’t do it, the stealing and lying was too much for me to stomach. I preferred to work for what I got.
Another favorite money maker of our scam artists was to set up a table and cash box (that made them look legitimate) at one of the side gates to the groves. It had to be one that was near to a fairly well traveled road frequented by tourists going from attraction to attraction.
There were two variations to this scam; the least popular was the five dollar walking tour of the “World Famous Orange Groves.” It worked, just not for too long. When you’ve seen one orange tree, you’ve seen it all.
The better version was the “All of the oranges you can pick for twenty-five dollars.” We knew (and you probably do too) that you could buy a lot of oranges, already picked and bagged for that amount of money. We also knew that if those tourists thought that they were getting a better deal than somebody else, they would pay double the rate… they were nuts!
Sometimes we would ride through the groves after hours on horseback and pick gunny sacks full of oranges or my favorites, the Ponderosa lemons. Those beauties were as big as grapefruit and were less tart than regular lemons. They were also a lot more closely guarded.
One grove had night watchmen with dogs and those guys carried shotguns. I didn’t know why, but that was always my choice of places to go on an after dark raid. Maybe it was the thrill of possibly getting caught or even shot at. That we could actually get shot didn’t even enter our ignorant teenaged minds. We were incredibly lucky to have escaped unharmed from those forays.
The Party
Once there was a big outing planned to a very secluded pond, deep in the middle of a large grove of oranges. It was impossible to drive to without getting caught by the grove foreman because he kept padlocks and chains on the gates and checked them regularly.
Being local kids we knew a back way in from a spot where we could park the cars belonging to the two guys old enough to drive. It was about a half mile walk from there and you had to go through two fences, but it wasn’t bad.
We went on a Sunday afternoon around 5:00 p.m. because that would have been when the grove tourist shops would be closed (or in the process of closing) and all the employees would have gone home. Theoretically there wouldn’t be anybody around to catch us. There was a lot of luck and expectations in most of what we did.
The group that went on that trip consisted of four boys and four girls, aged from fourteen (me) to sixteen years old. Our intent, which was stated right up front, was to go skinny dipping in the pond there. Being the youngest one in the group I could hardly keep the grin off of my face as the others talked about it.
All eight of us agreed to take it all off and swim the length of the pond naked. Then if anyone wanted to put their bathing suit back on they wouldn’t be called chicken or said to have backed out of a dare. We talked a good story and the hormones were doing most of the talking. The girls definitely did their share of stirring it up, saying that the guys would chicken out.
There was a case of beer in a cooler in the trunk of one of the cars, for afterwards when we thought that we might really get to “party” with these bold babes. We definitely had hopes and plans for this evening; the other car’s trunk had sleeping bags in it. The girls knew all about the beer and the sleeping bags and were talking about it all too.
With high spirits and lots of laughter and giggling, we drove to the parking spot and stripped down to our bathing suits and sneakers. The oldest boy secured our clothes inside the trunk of his car, which was the one with the cooler in it. His plan was to have some cold beer ready to offer the girls when we got back and were getting dressed… planning, along with timing, being everything in his mind.
It didn’t take long for us to follow the path through the groves and slip through the fences. We were being the most courteous gentlemen and holding the wire apart for the girls to go through, on our best behavior and all that. The girls were doing their best southern belle accents as they thanked us for each polite gesture.
I think that the guys were ten times more nervous as we got closer to the pond, than the girls were. I’m not sure if that was excitement about seeing the girls naked, or insecurity about them seeing us in that condition… probably some of both.
I was a multi-sport athlete in excellent condition, but I only weighed one hundred pounds. I felt like I was a skinny runt compared to the older guys. They were all taller and heavier than I was, but mentally I ran circles around them, so it all evened up.
We stopped at the edge of the trees and took a good and careful look around the pond, making sure that NO ONE was around. Someone had left a tractor and flatbed wagon used for hauling orange crates right next to the end of the pond closest to where we came out of the trees.
It was decided that the wagon would be a perfect spot to put our clothes. The trailer was only a couple of feet from the water and chest high with a lip around it, making a safe, clean, and “no bugs” place to put our bathing suits. You had to be especially careful of fire ants.
Once we had all gathered by the trailer and were standing there staring at each other trying to figure out how to proceed, it was suggested that we should all strip at once.
One of the guys said, “But the guys all have their shirts off already and the girls have two articles of clothing on. The guys would be naked first and the girls could trick us.
The oldest girl and the one who had the most developed body said, “OK girls, let’s show these chickensh–s who has guts and who doesn’t! Off with the tops!” As she said it, she did it. The other three followed her lead and while they were not as developed they were every bit as beautiful.
All of the guys stood there with our eyes bulging out of our heads and the leader of the girls said, “Are we going to do this, or is this all you wanted the whole time?” We all stammered and stuttered, “We’re going to do everything we said” and puffed up like so many bandy roosters. The lead girl said, “On a count of three, everybody drop ’em, One, Two, Three!”
What do you think happened? We dropped those bathing suits and stood there staring at each other. The boys stared at the girls and tried not to look at the other boys. The girls weren’t as inhibited and looked at each other and the boys.
I’m afraid that the guys weren’t much to look at in that scared and nervous state, if you know what I mean. The girls looked awesome… the guys looked cold.
We put our suits up on the trailer to keep the bugs out of them (and have them where we could grab them if we had to run for it) and all headed for the pond. There was a lot of nervous looking around, searching in every direction for the sight of trouble as we got into the water.
Damn it was freezing at first, but as the girl I was paired up with came up behind me and wrapped her arms around my neck and hung onto me it got a lot warmer. In fact as she got friendlier, I thought that the water was going to start boiling any minute.
One of the other girls who didn’t really like the guy she ended up with, said, “Aren’t we supposed to swim the length of the pond? Come on girls, let’s show these ‘little weenies’ who can swim!” Ouch, that smarted.
I was enjoying what was transpiring with my girl just fine, without all the swimming. But if one girl said something, it was an all-for-one and one-for-all situation with them. So, we all took off swimming for the other end. I hadn’t realized how long that pond was; it was easily three times as long as an Olympic Pool.
We were pretty exhausted by the time we got to the other end and the girls had indeed left us in their wake. But I must admit, the view was excellent from a following position!
When we all reached the far end and stopped where we could reach the bottom and not have to tread water, we gathered together in a close circle. That way we could see each other in the fading light and talk about what to do when we left the pond. The girls were very much in agreement with having a party, but there was discussion about where.
Some wanted to go to the beach to get away from the mosquito’s that would be out soon. Others wanted to go to another remote spot where we knew that the cops (or anybody else for that matter) couldn’t come up on us without our knowing about it. I voted for wherever there would be the least mosquitoes. But, since I wasn’t driving, my vote didn’t carry much weight.
While we were tossing the ideas around we heard an engine start up and looked around us quickly. Once the source of the sound was located our hearts sank lower than the bottom of that pond.
There was a migrant worker on the tractor and he was driving it (and the trailer hooked to it) out a gate towards the equipment barn. All of our clothes were on that trailer, along with the car keys!
The girls sank down in the water up to their noses and started to get teary-eyed and say, “What are we going to do now?” The guys were “of course” much more in control… offering various wise things to the group like, “Aw Sh-t”, and “We are going to die!”
At that point one of the girls started to cry (there’s always one) which started the chain reaction of tears among the girls; except for the girl who had latched on to me. She had a wild look in her eyes and I believed that she really liked this situation. It got her more excited to be in such “danger” and she clung to me even harder.
We thought about heading for the cars naked, we could possibly get into the car and hot wire it. But, we still couldn’t get into the trunk to get our clothes. Plus, we would have to drive into town naked; the whole group of us completely bare butt naked! That idea started a new round of tears from the other girls as they envisioned the trouble they would get into with their parents.
That just left sending a clothes rescue mission after the tractor and trailer. I volunteered to go saying that I knew the grounds of that grove the best of any of us, all the while thinking to myself, “I want my clothes!”
The girl who was attached to me (literally at that point) immediately volunteered to go with me. I was sure that was because of the increased chance of getting caught; it was really turning this girl on.
Truthfully, I was conflicted between being excited about the girl with me being aroused and hanging all over me, and fearful that she would do something to get us caught for the extra “rush” of being busted.
We agreed that the rest of the group would wait either in the pond, or at the edge of the woods on the path to the cars, for us to get back. The other girls didn’t share the enthusiasm of mine for possibly getting caught, they were whining about what their parents would do if this got out, etc. The guys were pretty much speechless with fear, thinking about what the girls’ fathers would do when they found out.
Lady Godiva and I took off along the wagon road and while I was trying to be cautious and not be seen, she was walking right down the middle of the path. It was almost dark by now and chances of being seen were not great, but she was fearless.
In a short amount of time we came to a closed gate and past that we could see the wagon and trailer parked next to the equipment shed. I couldn’t see the man who drove it there anywhere around the building.
I convinced my wild date to stay low and wait for me to come back while I went for the clothes. As quietly as I could I slipped inside the compound and went along the building in the dark shadow next to it.
Stumbling over unseen things I was almost to the trailer where I could see all of our stuff, right where we left it. And then I heard it… a low growl coming from somewhere in the shadows.
“Oh great” I thought, “A dog, and I’m naked.” Three guesses as to where my hands went instantly. Sure enough a big dog popped out of the shadows, but ran right past me…. straight to the crazy chick. She had silently followed me and was now petting the happy mutt like they were old buddies.
I quickly grabbed all of our stuff and made sure that I had both sets of keys. As fast as I could I put my bathing suit and shoes on. There was no way of knowing if the dog had alerted anyone else and they might appear at any moment.
The girl didn’t want to put her clothes on until the others did, which was fine with me. I liked the way she looked just like she was. The dog followed us back down the trail and we made no effort to hide going back and so made much better time.
When we rejoined the others, the party atmosphere had disappeared. After everyone had gotten dressed and hiked back to the cars, the girls wanted to go home. The other guys were of the same opinion, but didn’t want to admit it. Too much stress with their orange juice I guess.
I was still pretty excited about the “prospects” at that point and it kind of let the air out of my sails for the rest of them to want to quit. My girl was still hanging on me and kissed my ear or neck frequently, which drove me crazy.
When the decision was made final and everyone started getting into cars, the girl that I was with said that she didn’t need a ride… she would just walk back up to the house.
I thought to myself, “This girl IS crazy!” Then she followed up with, “It’s my uncle’s house… he owns this grove.” The world spun for a few seconds as my life flashed by and I thought that I was going to drop.
Right then and there I knew that it wasn’t her; I was the craziest one. If I had been caught naked with THIS girl, on THIS property… they would have to strain alligator sh-t to get enough of me to bury. Her family was the craziest bunch of violent red-necks in the county and all of her brothers and cousins had police records.
I changed my mind, I wanted to go home right away too; while I still had unbroken legs.
I did go out with the girl on one date to Pirate’s World after that ill fated swimming adventure, but her three brothers (one younger, two older) went along too. It was a lot less fun than you could imagine. I didn’t do that again.
About a year after the skinny dipping party I had occasion to visit that same grove and pond with my uncle. We went there to deliver a couple of special locking sixty gallon barrels that he had traded to the grove foreman for something.
While we were standing on the path (exactly where the wagon had been parked during our swim) an eight foot alligator climbed out of the pond and onto the bank. My uncle remarked that he must have walked a long way to get into the pond. The foreman said that he (the alligator) had lived in that pond for at least ten years and everyone there knew to stay away from him because he was, “cranky.” OK, the girl WAS crazier.

As simple as that

As simple as that
Driving a cab wasn’t a job that I had dreamed about as a young boy, or even something that I thought of “moonlighting” at for extra cash as an adult. It was a job that seemed full of confrontations and the ping-pong game of “can’t you go any faster” and waiting for the next fare.
The sudden lack of funds due to my involvement in the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike necessitated my finding employment of some kind to pay the rent and put food on the table. It wasn’t the time to be picky about what you were doing to earn money, as long as it wasn’t illegal.
I was still supporting the strike by picketing during the day from 08:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. so I was only available to work the swing or midnight shifts. Somehow I ended up working both.
When the strike happened, one of our suddenly unemployed controllers applied to a local cab company and got hired. The owner of the company was leery of what he was getting into because of what he had heard on the news. Federal government agents had worked hard at putting out negative information about us to the media and it had employers scared of us.
The controller, affectionately known as “Mad Dog,” (a Marine veteran, father, home owner, and decent guy) proved to be an intelligent and responsible driver. He always showed up fifteen minutes early to work and never forgot to do his log sheets at the end of his shift. The boss was so impressed that he asked if there were any more of “your kind” that were in need of a job and Mad Dog contacted me.
My response was immediate; we needed money. I quickly went down to the Albuquerque police station and got myself finger printed, photographed, and duly licensed to drive people around. The police officers were “unofficially” very supportive of our strike, but had to be careful what they said due to government pressure. The interaction with the police was a positive experience and I had not expected it to be.
Albuquerque, New Mexico was a lovely city in 1981 when I hired on with the Albuquerque Cab Company. The weather was good most of the time and the streets were well laid out, making travel relatively easy to anywhere in the city. You didn’t see any “gridlock” on the streets like in Los Angeles.
Due to my driving shift of 3:30 p.m. to 08:00 a.m. (scheduled double shifts) the question most frequently asked by my friends and family was, “When do you sleep?” “When I can” was the only answer I could give them. If I got off early from driving I would sleep for however long I could. Occasionally someone would cover my responsibility as picketing captain for a couple of hours and I would sleep then. It was hard, but I had to do it.
To make enough money for us (my family) to survive I had to drive the cab sixteen hour shifts seven days a week. My responsibility to my striking brothers and sisters was equally pressing. There was no room for personal weakness or silly things like being mortally tired. Fortunately, the military had conditioned me for extended periods of physical abuse and sleep deprivation.
At the cab company I was assigned ID number 28 for radio calls and given the keys to a checker cab that had more room in it than any car that I had ever seen before. The boss did a walk around inspection on the vehicle with me showing me what to check and write down when I signed for a vehicle each day. He really was a nice man and proved to be a good boss.
The man who owned the Albuquerque Cab company was a self-made man from India and expected everyone to work as hard as he did; at least that’s what he wanted. He wasn’t ignorant to the ways of the world though, and counted himself lucky when his drivers showed up for work and didn’t steal from him. His rules were clear and those who broke them were fired. It was as simple as that.
Out of a crew of a dozen drivers, there were only three who had worked for him more than two years in a row (some had quit and come back.) Those three had been with him for ten or more years and were decidedly grumpy towards new drivers. Seniority was everything to them and having the choice of vehicles (which cab you drove) and schedules went by continuous length of employment.
The rest were either gypsies (independents who owned their cab, but wanted the protection of working for ABQ Cab) or “revolving door” drivers. A revolving door driver was one who quit one company to work for another every year or two. They were chronically unhappy and always came back complaining about the “other guys” they worked for.
Mad Dog and I were a constant source of amusement for the professional hack drivers who considered us to be “playing at” being a cabbie. I guess we were, as we had no intention of making the job our long term career. We always gave 110% at our job though, whatever it was, and the boss appreciated us for it.
One dispatcher, Diane, (there were three counting the owner’s wife) had been a driver herself. She was shot during a holdup fifteen years earlier, leaving her partially paralyzed and unable to do that job. She was the one that I worked with the most and liked the best.
The story of how she went from being America’s girl-next-door-cheerleader to the permanently disabled victim of a senseless crime needs to be told.
A short side story
Diane had been driving a cab to help pay for her school expenses at the University of New Mexico. Her main focus of study was Criminal Justice Communications; she wanted to become a police department 9-1-1 operator and help people.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the drug addict who robbed and shot her was a fired police officer from Arizona. He had been a young cop from a small town who wanted to move up to the “big time” and transferred to Phoenix when an opening came about.
The pressure on “the new guy” to perform like a veteran under fire and his own weakness of character, lead him to pills. He took pills to help him be more alert and pills to help him sleep. Those drugs quickly became not enough and he switched to harder stuff.
Soon he was stealing drugs from evidence and pressuring dealers to supply him. He was found out by other officers and terminated with charges pending. They didn’t want to trust their lives to a junkie and a thief.
Knowing that he was going to end up in jail, which would be a death sentence for a police officer, he ran. By the time he reached Albuquerque he was out of drugs and in need. He had to find someone to rob and then a dealer that would sell to him, or that he could overpower.
Spotting a pretty, young, and petite woman driving a taxi leaving a fairly deserted bus station he figured that he had an easy mark. He flagged her down around the corner from the terminal, where no one would see them. She didn’t have a fare waiting so she stopped for him.
Catching her completely off guard with his easy smile and good looks, he calmly walked up to the driver’s side window. Looking around for witnesses and then leaning in on the open window ledge he stuck his gun barrel in her eye socket. With the experience and knowledge of one who had done many traffic stops, he wrapped her hair around his hand so she couldn’t hit the gas and get away.
He demanded her car keys and for emphasis, shoved the gun barrel hard enough against her eye to cut her with the front sight. She turned off the car and handed him the keys. The emboldened man demanded her cash and she handed over what she had in her cigar box next to her on the seat.
It wasn’t as much as he had hoped for, which enraged him and he hit her across the face with the pistol cutting her cheek and breaking her nose. She screamed at him for hurting her and the man went berserk with rage. He shot her in the left side just below the ribs. As the bullet passed through her it hit her spine, causing bone fragments to cut into her spinal nerve.
A janitor taking the trash out heard the shot and called the police. Fortunately they had a car in the immediate area and responded quickly. Within a few minutes of being shot she was in a hospital being worked on.
The shooter realizing that cops were all over the area ran into the bus station, hiding in the bathroom. He was spotted going in with blood on his clothes by the same janitor who had called the cops. The janitor called it in and they were soon there to question him.
He didn’t have the gun (it was found years later on the roof of the bus station) and had gotten rid of his bloody shirt and washed up. He denied everything and being a former cop himself, he knew how to play the game. They had little but gut feelings to go on.
They had no evidence, no witness besides the unavailable one in ICU at the hospital, and no way to prove what they were sure was true. The only suspect they had was allowed to bail out (using the very money he had taken from the cab driver.)
The police officers cautioned him to stay in Albuquerque and had someone following him twenty-four hours a day. They had hoped that he would lead them to his weapon, or that the victim would soon be able to look at his photo and identify him.
When the bus station toilet plugged up and maintenance recovered a ripped apart blood stained shirt from it, they went forward with charges. The judge didn’t require more bail citing the continuous police tail on the man already as being sufficient.
The evil former policeman found himself a drug dealer to rob and overdosed on nearly pure heroin (and died) while out on bail awaiting the trial for shooting the cab driver. Because there was no longer a defendant the case was dropped, leaving Diane with no judgment or settlement. 
That caused all kinds of problems with the insurance claim. The insurance company tried their best to not pay anything at all. The owner of ABQ Cab got fed up with them and paid for her medical bills himself. He then sicced his lawyers on the insurance company for repayment, which he got, but it took years.
On with the story
My first day on the job I was sent out onto the street solo, with no training other than, “If you have a fare in the cab, run the meter. When you get where they want to go, charge them what it says on the meter.” It was supposed to be as simple as that.
I had hoped that I knew the streets of Albuquerque as well as I thought I did when the boss was interviewing me. Doubts were creeping in and it began to feel a lot more complicated. The city grew by leaps and bounds in my mind, as I waited for my first fare.
The radio crackled and the dispatcher called, “Number 28 are you available?”  I almost snatched the microphone cable out of the radio in my haste to answer her. I simply said, “Affirmative.” What else could I say; I was sitting there doing nothing, waiting.
She sent me to the airport to pick up a fare going to UNM. I said, “I’ll be there in five” and she acknowledged. As I pulled out of where I had been parked I hoped that I hadn’t estimated my time wrong. I also worried about if I would know how to get to wherever on the university campus the fare wanted to go.
Such were the thoughts, doubts, and fears that worked through my mind as I drove to my first ever customer as a cab driver.
I was brand new to the business or I would have known better than to give an estimated time over the radio that was accurate. As I pulled up to the curb at the airport baggage claim area, a Yellow Cab was pulling away with my fare. The driver even smiled and waved at me.
Yellow Cab drivers monitored our radio frequency and would “jump” (steal) our calls if they thought that they could beat us there… which he did. I just sat there with a stupid look on my face, watching my first fare drive away. I did have some choice words for the parentage and behavior of my now, foe; but I kept them quietly inside of my cab.
But, that’s life in the fast lane I figured, so I called in to dispatch and informed her of what had transpired. She said to just hang out there by baggage claim until they ran me off. We (cabs) weren’t supposed to be in that area until called for, but I didn’t know that yet, truly making ignorance blissful.
It was only a minute or so until a gentleman opened the passenger side door and asked if I was available. I happily said yes, and before I could jump out and help with the bags, they were inside and ready to go. That was more like it!
Of the two gentlemen who entered my cab one man looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Not until the other guy called him “Candy” and then it hit me, my first fare was Candy Maldonado, the baseball player! The “Candyman” was about to become a Los Angeles Dodger and a big deal, but that night he was just another nice guy.
Naturally I was thrilled to see such a rising star but I didn’t go nuts on him and ask for an autograph or anything.  I paid attention to my job and quickly and safely navigated through the city to the address they gave me. They must have liked what I did because they gave me a twenty dollar tip.
I was fired up from that great experience. The idea that I would be able to make some money from the tips, if not the minimum wage pay, was bouncing around my impoverished mind. There were visions of actually surviving financially until we went back to work (as controllers) bouncing around before me.
As the reality of driving all night set in and the usual tips proved to be a dollar, or the change that it took to round up to the next dollar, my euphoria wore off. I realized that it was going to be rare to get a tip like that first one.
At the end of that sixteen hour shift I had just over thirty dollars in tip money. Right then I was glad that there was a $3.00 an hour salary involved too or I could not have done it. It took me sixteen hours (salary) to earn what I was used to getting in just under five hours. The tip money helped make up the difference.
My second night I was on my own from the time I clocked in (no instructions or pep talk), but I felt more confident about handling whatever came up. I was determined not to let those suckers from Yellow Cab steal any more of my fares.
When I pulled out onto the street the dispatcher sent me out to the west on Central to standby. I didn’t have to wait long at all before I got a call to pick up two passengers at the bus station. Never having been to the Greyhound station I wasn’t sure how best to approach the passenger loading area and said so to my dispatcher, who quickly directed me around and into the terminal.
As I entered the area where cars were allowed (versus buses only) my fares were right there on the curb waiting; two teenage boys with backpacks, as described. Two white kids with brown hair and big grins on their faces who seemed nice enough. They were very chatty when they first got in the car, but got quiet as we neared their destination.
I took them to an apartment building in an older section of town which wasn’t all that far from the bus station. When I stopped the car and turned around to tell them how much it would be, they bolted out the doors and ran in opposite directions. I jumped out and yelled at them, but they were more experienced at this game than I was.
What a great way to start my shift; in the hole. The driver was responsible for paying the meter charge, whether he collects the money or not. I called it in and got a, “Tough Break 28,” from the dispatcher. “Yeah, Right” I thought. My attitude was certainly dark and getting worse. I wanted to rip somebody’s head off about then.
My next assignment was to go to the airport “bullpen” or waiting area for cabs. It was a vacant gravel covered lot close to the airport entrance road with room enough for several cabs. That lot was constantly under a territorial battle between ABQ Cab and Yellow Cab for the prime spots closest to the narrow driveway (entry/exit point.)
The calls were sporadic as the flights came and went. The Yellow Cab drivers were playing “daisy-chain-drive-by” where several of their taxis would drive around the loop into the baggage claim area. They would delay there until chased off by airport security.
Another of their cabs would be in the entry drive creeping along as slowly as possible until the security guy left and then they would park at baggage claim. That made it highly likely that if someone needed a taxi, they would be the closest. Eventually security caught on and chased them all off.
If Diane was on duty she would watch the flight schedule for known producers (needing transportation) such as international inbounds from Mexico. Sometimes she would then put out a bogus call for the Hyatt saying that it was for “a man in a hurry.” We knew that ruse.
Every driver knew that a man in a hurry would tip well if you got them to wherever they were going in time. The Yellow Cab guys would all go screaming out of the airport trying to beat us there. Meanwhile, our cabs were lined up for the arriving flight and got all of the fares.
I had been taking my turns and had made about six dollars in tips when I was called to go to a restaurant on east Central Avenue to pick up a fare going to the hotel in Old Town. I left the airport and made good time, wondering the whole way why one of the cabs on the east side didn’t get this one.
As I drove along Central Avenue looking for the restaurant entrance, I passed driver #15 waiting on the side of the road with a very flat left front tire. That explained why I was called and I was glad that it wasn’t me stuck there making zero tips.
My fare looked like a Midwestern traveling salesman with a bad haircut and cheap plaid suit. I thought it funny that he was waiting at the opposite end of the restaurant building from where the entrance door was located. There was a strip club right next to the restaurant on that side, which is probably where he really was, but I didn’t care.
When I dropped him off at the hotel in Old Town the fare was ten dollars. He handed me two fives and two ones and told me to keep the change as he faded into the crowd of tourists. Briefly, I had a two dollar tip… until I realized that the fives between the ones was actually one bill folded over. The smiling creep had shorted me three dollars and I had thanked him for doing so.
Along about 9:00 p.m. the dispatcher called for me again with the usual “Number 28 are you available?” I held my sarcastic response and just answered “Affirmative.” It wasn’t the dispatcher’s fault that I was a rookie cabbie.
 I was dispatched to a residence for a trip to the hospital. “This can’t be good” I thought as I drove “there are no doctor appointments at this time of night. Why didn’t they call an ambulance?” The streets were clear of traffic and the route was easy so I was there in no time at all.
As I pulled up to the address a woman and three kids came out right away. Fearing the worst I was out of my cab and around to them in a flash, but I didn’t see any injuries. I started looking around quickly for an irate husband or boyfriend, fearing that I had gotten into the middle of a domestic squabble and violence was coming my way, but that wasn’t it.
We got everyone inside and I took off for the hospital, driving the speed limit and obeying all of the traffic lights and stop signs. I had yet to see any reason for urgency so I asked the woman if everything was all right and she said, “No stupid, or I wouldn’t have called for a Fxxking cab!”
Just as soon as those words exited her mouth I hit the brakes and screeched the car to a stop. I was not interested in being abused when I was trying to help and told her so in no uncertain terms. I probably would have been fired had the boss heard what I said, but I was already angry from the earlier problems so it didn’t take a lot to set me off.
She backed off on the attitude instantly and said that the twelve year old boy had “accidentally” consumed some perfume and she was worried about poisoning. “OK, I can go with that” I thought, “It sounds pretty dumb even for a twelve year old boy, but not everyone is a genius.”
I radioed in that I had a possible poisoning and asked the dispatcher to alert the Emergency Room at the hospital that I was inbound with a twelve year old male who had consumed perfume. She said, “Ah ha, OK. I’ll call them.”
That kid had a wise guy look about him and kept grinning at me in the mirror. I knew that something wasn’t right with that story. And then the truth came out… all over the back of the front seat, the rear floorboard, and the rear seat. He vomited just about everywhere in the rear section of that cab. The two younger kids were climbing up into the rear window to get away from the mess that their brother was making, while his mother just sat there in it; she had nowhere to go.
Before you get to feeling too sorry for this kid, let me clue you in on an observation that came to discerning nostrils immediately… that mess didn’t smell like anything other than BEER! There is nothing like getting sick to bring the truth out. The boy confessed his “evil” deeds to his mother who had him by the hair, holding onto his head while he redecorated my cab.
He had stolen his dad’s warm beer out of a locked wooden crate in the garage and he and a friend had sucked it all down as fast as they could. Getting too smart for their own good, they then wiped some perfume on their faces to cover the smell.
Not convinced that the perfume bath would work well enough, the friend suggested that they take a little drink of the perfume so that their breath wouldn’t smell like the illicit brew. So they both did that, drinking a small bottle of scent between them. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
The woman asked me to turn around and take them back home at that point, but I asked her to wait a minute and contacted dispatch to ask if she had gotten through to the ER. The answer came back in the affirmative and she stated that they were standing by. I asked her to call them back and then stay on the line to relay for me.
When that was set up I informed the ER crew what had transpired and asked them for guidance. They said to bring him in and they would check him over, some perfumes have chemicals that will damage the stomach, especially when combined with alcohol. I looked at the mother and she nodded her agreement, so I advised my dispatcher and completed the trip.
When I unloaded that poor woman I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her; she looked awful and smelled worse. It took both of us to get the younger kids out of the back window, they were afraid to get the “yucky stuff” on them. You really couldn’t blame them for that.
The meter read $16.35 and the woman gave me a twenty and said to keep the change. She had an embarrassed look on her face as she surveyed the mess and started to say more, but I just held up my hands and shook my head. The poor lady just nodded and turned to enter the hospital with her three children.
I said, “Good Luck!” which I meant for her, not the twelve year old knucklehead. She kept on walking but replied, “He’s going to need it when his father gets home and finds out about his Antique Beer Collection.” Maybe justice would get served after all.
“Too bad I can’t have the kid clean my cab” I thought as I drove away.
I spent the tip money she gave me, in the car wash cleaning the car as best I could. There were very few calls coming in that night and none for me. The dispatcher had me move to another location to wait every couple of hours and I drove the rest of the shift with my head hanging out of the window.
When the dispatcher called me to “bring it in” at 3:30 a.m. my thoughts truly were sympathetic, “I pity the day shift driver who draws this cab and has to drive it in the heat.”
There was no reason to worry, it wasn’t a new thing to the garage guys and they had a cleaner that deodorized really well. They made it all as good as new again by starting time.
Maybe it was just as simple as that.

Things not spoken of

Things not spoken of
Life is not always full of unicorns and rainbows, there are also the things not spoken of, that are part of what has to be.
When I was young boy I made friends with elderly neighbors of my grandparents, aunts & uncles, and cousins. I say it that way because they all lived on the same street in Hollywood, Florida.
The couple was older than my grandparents (who were born in 1900 & 1915) and had a grown son who was about thirty-five. The son, David, was a giant of a man (it seemed so to a small boy) with the mind of a child. I never knew the reason for his mental deficiency as such things were not talked about in those days.
David and I got along very well, in fact much better than he did with my younger cousins who were his close neighbors (I lived a mile away) and teased him sometimes. They didn’t see his problems as being beyond his control. Nor did they comprehend the danger of angering a man who was 6’3” and over 200 lbs and didn’t have the capacity to control himself. They were just children too.
I would guess that David had a mental age of between four or six, but also had to wear a “diaper” (such things were very unusual in the early 1960s) under his pants because he sometimes had accidents. He was incredibly strong and often picked his average size parents up in his arms when he got excited.
All three of the members of this family were born in Germany, David in 1925 and his parents before 1890. The couple had waited until after Henrik (David’s father) had completed University and Graduate School to marry and then until his position was secure with the company he worked for until they had a child (in their middle thirties.)
They left their native country in 1938 as Hitler’s influence began to cause them to fear for the safety of their special needs child. There was also fear of involuntary military conscription (even at his age) due to Mr. Klaus having an advanced degree in mechanical engineering. So, they sold everything they had and sailed for America.
Arriving in New York City with a promise of employment (from a friend of a friend) they ran into strong anti-German sentiment at the firm he was supposed to join, and they were made to feel very unwelcome. Grace (David’s mother) spoke very little English and the other wives shunned her and their son.
A neighbor (also a German immigrant) in the apartment building they were living in told them of a company in Hollywood, Florida that was hiring machinists. Henrik said that it was better to be welcome and employed as a machinist than spit on as an engineer. Within a week the two families took the train to Florida.
Mr. Klaus worked as a machinist and then manager for the same firm for thirty years, retiring right before Christmas in 1968. During World War II they manufactured precision metal parts for military hardware from aircraft to tanks. After the war they switched to mainly heavy equipment parts but also made something for space rockets (like the Saturn V.)
By the time that I met the family, Grace and David had learned to speak English and had almost no perceptible accent remaining. Henrik had spoken English since he was a school boy and came from an educated multi-lingual family. He did have an accent that was interesting, but not confusing. You could easily understand everything that he said.
When they spoke to each other they spoke in German so that David would retain his native language, but switched to English whenever anyone else was present. I told them that I didn’t mind if they spoke German to each other as long as they let me know if I was supposed to know something. They smiled a lot and laughed at what I had said to them. I didn’t really know why.
Grace always spoke to and of Henrik as “Herr Klaus” (or Mr. Klaus if others were present) and waited on him as women did in that time and generation. He always treated her with respect and love and opened doors and held chairs for her, even at their own dining room table.
Henrik always wore a vest and tie from the time he got up, until he went to bed at night. If he left his property he had on a suit coat and hat and carried an umbrella that doubled as a walking stick (cane.) He was a slender man, about 5’ 8” tall, had silvery white hair and what was called a “Van Dyke” beard in those days. There was an air of class and dignity about the man that others could only hope to emulate.
In 1964 (it was after the Kennedy assassination) David had gotten a bit more belligerent when he wanted to do something and his mother had said no. He would protest loudly and throw a temper tantrum like children do; only this child was a big and very strong man.
I went to their house one day to pick kumquats from their tree and found Grace sitting on the back patio crying. Henrik was at work and David was supposed to be taking a nap (yes even at 39 years old) but he had gone out of the front door in defiance of his mother’s orders and was walking up and down the street.
The old woman was very distraught and even though I was only a boy, she confided that she was worried about not being able to take care of her son for much longer. I wasn’t sure just what “putting him in an institution” meant, but it didn’t sound good to me. She pulled herself together and smiled and told me that the kumquats were ripe and tasty and that I could pick as many as I wanted. I think she really just wanted to change the subject.
During a birthday celebration for me in the end of June, my youngest cousin ran around to the back of my uncle’s house where we were all gathered in lawn chairs yelling that David had thrown his mother down the steps. The entire family, except for my great grandmother who walked with crutches, jumped up and ran to help.
David was beside himself with frustration at what had happened. Everyone seemed to be afraid of him because he was yelling and waving his arms but I knew that he was just upset and unsure of what to do. I had seen him like that before. My father told me to stay away from him, but I took his hand anyway and he calmed down and then started to cry. It was a bizarre sight.
Grace was conscious and told us from her still prone position on the ground that David had “bumped” her and she fell down the steps. We were pretty sure that her leg was broken and I was sent inside to get the telephone number for Mr. Klaus at work.
I remember asking if they wanted me to just call him while I was inside and got slapped on the back of my head for asking. My dad was already angry at me for disobeying the order to stay away from David and said, “Just do what you are told for once!”
David and I went inside to get the number and I wrote it down on a piece of paper while sitting at the telephone desk between the dining room and kitchen. On the desk was a piece of paper from the South Florida State Mental Hospital. I wasn’t sure but I thought that might be an “institution.” We know it was now of course, but then you didn’t speak of such places, especially around children.
David was calm again by then so I asked him what had happened. The big man said in a little voice that “Mama said that I couldn’t go outside, but I wanted to go outside.” “So what did you do?” I asked him quietly, looking over my shoulder at the front door to make sure that no one else was in the house.
The huge man made a shoving gesture with both arms while saying “Yes Mama!” and then hung his head saying, “Mama fell down and cried.” I made the decision in my newly eleven year old mind right then that I was not going to volunteer that information to those outside. I was sure that they would tie David up and drag him off immediately to that “institution.”
Henrik arrived home in a few minutes and away they went to Hollywood Memorial Hospital. David rode along and actually carried his mother into the Emergency Room and then back to the car once all of the medical care was completed. Grace now had a new cast and some pain medication, along with a broken heart.
Women from their church were already bringing food over by the time they got home. Once Henrik got Grace situated in her bed, with David assigned to sit by her bed in case she needed him to get her something, he came looking for me.
Henrik took me aside and asked me what David had done really, because he knew that I had been with him the whole time since the accident and now the “boy” wouldn’t talk. I had told David not say anything about what he had done, that was true.
As we walked back to their house I explained to the very kind old man what his son had done. He broke down and cried for just a few minutes, which rattled me to the bones. I had no idea what this meant for their lives but I cried too, because Henrik was so sad.
A few days later my grandmother sat with Grace while Henrik and David took a ride to visit “the nice place.” That nice place was the South Florida State Mental Hospital and Henrik was checking it out in person. He took David with him to be sure that he didn’t hurt anyone while he was gone.
My grandmother said that when they came home again David told her that the nice place smelled like “the medicine hanging on the back of the bathroom door.” Many of you may be familiar with that rubber bag and hose arrangement.
His was just a statement of fact and not a social comment, but the story was told forever more between the women of that neighborhood and spread by those who overheard their whispers. The hospital smelled like either an enema or a douche, depending upon who told the story. It was known as the “_____ (fill in your choice) bag hotel” from then on.
When I went there in 1969 (See “Getting Inside the Bin”) and experienced the place for myself I decided that I would cast my vote for “enema.” It certainly was no “Summer’s Eve!”
On the Saturday after that visit, David hit his father in the face with a dinner plate during a tantrum at the table and knocked him out. He had broken his cheekbone and Henrik’s left eye was swollen closed and turned purple. That sealed his fate and arrangements were made.
After church on Sunday, a panel truck (like a van) from the hospital came and they led a heavily sedated, but still mobile David out to the truck and strapped him into the seat. I have never seen a more defeated looking couple than those two wonderful old people on that day.
They waited the requested week before they went to visit their son and when they arrived David went wild, throwing an orderly across a table and against a wall. A doctor had to give Grace a sedative and they helped Henrik get her back into the car.
Henrik tried to visit David several times after that, but Grace never went back. I don’t believe that she ever smiled again after that day. The doctors had to increase the dosage of medication that David was on just to control him. He had badly hurt the orderly on the first visit and had hurt another patient since that visit. At the doctor’s request Henrik quit going to the hospital.
They had no choice in what had to be done, David would have seriously hurt, or even killed one of them (or someone else) if he had continued to live at home. Henrik continued to dress, act, and work exactly as he had always done, but the smile was gone from him too.
Grace’s broken leg healed but still bothered her a lot, causing her to need to use a cane to walk for the rest of her days. She was soon showing some form of dementia (probably Alzheimer’s) and didn’t remember what happened to David. I suppose if it were ever a good thing to have dementia, this would have been it.
Henrik retired and spent his time taking care of Grace and puttering around in his super organized and spotless shop. The last time I saw him he sharpened a German World War I bayonet with a saw back (he did the saw part too) for me. I still have that bayonet.
Their personal dilemma taught me that even when you do the right thing, it can still feel wrong.
Grace lived to be 89 and five years later Henrik went at age 94, both passing in their sleep at home in their own beds.
David died in the hospital from a brain aneurysm fifteen years after being admitted. I did not try to see him when I went there on a psychology class trip. I was afraid of what would happen if he recognized me. I did not want to cause him more suffering and pain.

Avoiding a Greek Tragedy

Avoiding a Greek Tragedy
In 1982 I was in the United States Navy and stationed aboard the U.S.S. America CV-66, home ported in Norfolk, VA. Being stationed on the east coast of the USA, the usual six month deployment involved sailing the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, a trip through the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean.
This story is about just a tiny fraction of that trip, a liberty call (port visit) in the ancient land of Greece. Due to my relatively advanced years (being twenty-nine to the average sailor’s nineteen) I had a completely different expectation of what to do and see in Greece.
I was thrilled by the opportunity to see the city of Piraeus of “Never on Sunday” fame, then move on to the fabled city of Athens, of which I had read so much. To be able to stand on the Acropolis and see the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and below the Acropolis, the theater of Herod Atticus, was like being able to live the books I had read. To the others from my ship, it was all about ouzo and hookers, if they could find some.
The flight operations immediately prior to our port call were a stressful mess of airspace restrictions and peacock demonstrations by both the Greek and the Turkish military forces. I had to invent methods to stack and hold aircraft so that I could keep them close enough to not run out of fuel, yet not violate the imposed (and exaggerated) foreign  no-fly zones.
My name for the spot, “the Aegean Triangle” became the standard and even appeared on briefing maps (although I saw no monetary gain from my creativity.) I heard that it was a beautiful location, but I never got to see anything but a radar screen for the entire time.
To say that my liberty expectations were high would have been an understatement. My enthusiasm had spread to other members of our group, although I had a sneaking suspicion that bottles of ouzo danced in their dreams… not Melina. That was OK with me, they could have all the ouzo that their little hearts desired; I didn’t want any of it. I would be happy to settle for the antiquity of the port city and Athens. I was going to get to see the Parthenon with my own eyeballs, and maybe even touch it, if that was permissible.
I could hardly stand the wait to board the liberty boats. It took more than an hour of standing in line, and we were almost at the front (of the line) when we started. I could not for the life of me, figure out what was taking them so long. The boats had been in the water for hours already, so it wasn’t that. They kept letting the officers go ahead of us (normal practice) and they seemed to be able to get on a boat and leave right away.
Finally the line started moving and we got onto a liberty boat, but only half of the normal load was allowed to board, usually a sign of rough water. When I looked out across the harbor from the top of the ladder, it was smooth, no waves, not even a ripple.
We were on our way at last, so the reason for the delay didn’t matter anymore… or so I thought at the time. The fact that it wasn’t raining (as had been forecast) was a happy bonus.
As we neared the beautiful port city of Pireus, I could make out more and more people around the docks. “How cool” I thought, “the people were turning out to welcome us. What a great place this was going to be.”
“Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that a hammer and sickle on that sign?” I said to the group in general as we neared land. We all started looking and spotted another one, and then more as we got closer.
The boat driver broke out his binoculars and looked the situation over and said, “Guys, them signs say Americans Go Home and Death to Americans, with Greek Communist Party logos all over them.”
We all said in unison, “Get us out of here” as the crowd pushed forward to the point that a few of them went into the water, pushed by the masses behind them.
The boatswain’s mate put the helm hard over and we took off across the harbor for the other side, where there wasn’t any crowd. He docked without incident and we could still see the crowd gathered on the main landing shaking their signs and waiting for the next boat.
That little landing that he took us to was where the officer’s all came ashore and they were nowhere to be seen. Usually there were a few (officers) waiting for their friends or wanting to go back to the ship but it was a ghost town all around that dock. There weren’t even any local residents in sight. The absence of people did nothing to ease the feeling that trouble was stalking us.
The radio in that liberty boat was inoperative for some reason so we couldn’t call back to the ship. To expedite things those still going ashore (most of us) got out quickly, while the remaining few who were fearful of trouble and wanted to go back out to the ship, eased aside (or kept their seats if they were out of the way.)
We shoved the boat off and the boatswain turned it towards home and kicked it hard (accelerated quickly.) He needed to get word to the duty officer aboard ship about the impending danger before someone got hurt by the mob at the primary landing site. They appeared to be worked up into a frenzy and ready to attack without provocation.
I told the group (I was the senior person present) that I felt it best to get out of Pireus as soon as possible, to which they all agreed and started trying to hail a taxi. It wasn’t going to be that easy we were finding out. Any cars that came by, taxi or otherwise, sped off at first sight of us.
I asked one of the guys to give me a cigarette and he said, “I didn’t know that you smoked cigarettes” while reaching into his pocket for his pack of smokes. “I don’t,” I said, “but I do speak, trade.”
Upon receiving the cigarette I walked over to a slender young man (wearing what looked like a waiter’s uniform) waiting at a marked bus stop, to see what I could learn. After conversing with the gent for a few minutes, I returned to my friends armed with new information.
The group of angry people on the main landing area was indeed the Greek Communist Party and there were over ten thousand members in attendance at this rally. They were armed with instructions to do harm to any and all American “dogs” that they could find.
The smoke that we could see behind the mob was coming from the burning overturned taxis that didn’t obey the “party’s directives” fast enough. Those directives were to not pick up Americans and to get out of Pireus until the American ships departed a few days from then. Those that argued, or didn’t leave quickly enough, became examples for the others.
That information certainly removed taxis from the escape equation and we were aware that it would only be a matter of time before renewed interest in our whereabouts caused some of the mob to come looking for us. Without liberty boats coming in the organizers would have to do something to keep the emotions high and the crowd stirred up. We would be that impetus.
Walking out of the area was do-able, but would not be fast enough to put the kind of distance between them and us that we needed. There was no liberty boat inbound that we could see (and we had a clear view all the way to the ship) so even if we had wanted to there was no getting out by sea.
Just as we thought that we were going to have to choose between running and swimming, a bus with “Athens” on the destination placard rounded the corner. I was already moving towards it when it stopped at the bus stop where the young gent I had spoken to had been just moments before.
The young man who had waited so patiently for the bus was no longer there, which made us all look around for where he went. One of the guys stepped up to the bus door and asked, “How much to Athens?” The driver replying in English said, “I don’t speak English.”
It was very plain to see that the poor man was scared, with sweat pouring down his reddened face and his eyes pleading for understanding. He did show great courage by waiting with his vehicle’s door open to us while we hesitated.
After explaining my plan “B” to the others, I approached the driver and tried speaking to him in Spanish. He cheerfully responded to that language and told me that the party had spies everywhere and if he spoke English with anyone at all (the man visibly shuddered) well, he didn’t want to think about it.
Our group quickly boarded with our bags and I cautioned them all to not say anything in English until we were clear of the protesters. The locals on the bus sat in their seats like stone people, staring straight ahead and behaving as if we did not exist. We knew that they were also very afraid of what might happen.
The bus followed the road around the harbor and I got very concerned with our direction of travel, as it took us right to the angry mob. I moved up right behind the driver and whispered in English where only he could hear, “You aren’t doing something that we will both regret are you?”
The look on his face told me that he understood my meaning, and he said, “No Sir, NO. The road to Athens lies there” and pointed to an intersection just before the crowd’s edge. He said, “Please Sir, make your friends to be small… that they are not seen and we all die.”
When I turned back to the others all of the American eyes were focused on me. I motioned to the guys to get down and they did it without noise or question. There were definite benefits to being trained military personnel.
The other folks on the bus remained as they had been. As they sat rigidly upright in their seats with their eyes staring straight ahead, not a sound came from any of them. It did occur to me that several of those people were old enough to have experienced WWII and I hoped that we weren’t causing them flashbacks and renewed distress (PTSD.)
As we passed the intersection, I saw the young man that I traded the cigarette to for information. He was obviously working the other side of the street this time, talking fast and pointing emphatically as he spoke, in the direction that we had just come from. The little weasel was most assuredly selling us out to look good to the Party. He did have to live there and try to stay alive after all, so you couldn’t hate him too much. Well, maybe we could. No one likes to be sold out.
We got by the intersection and the road turned towards Athens. When we got to the very next bus stop, all of the locals (to the last person) got off the bus. They all wished us good luck, in English, as they got off of the bus and walked away.
I went up to the driver with my hat in my hand and told him in English that he had done a very brave thing by helping us get away from that mob and if he wanted us to, we would get off of his bus and find another way to Athens.
As I had hoped, hearing that made his chest swell up and he said that he “Had to get us safely to Athens.” Those Greek men were worse than the Italians when it came to Machismo. I almost felt sorry for playing him that way… almost. I had no idea how else we would get to Athens or anywhere else for that matter.
The bus drove on with the driver singing a Greek song for us that we all nodded and smiled our way through, none of us understanding any of it. The driver was happy to have done a brave deed, but did caution us to stay away from the bus windows as much as possible. He didn’t want to get caught by traveling communist party members.
We arrived in Athens with no further incident and checked into “The Grand Hotel,” right on the main plaza of town. As I looked out my hotel room window, I could see it; The Parthenon! But actually going there would have to wait for one more night.
It had gotten dark and the Bell Captain advised us urgently that it would not be safe for us to be on the streets with all of the Party activity going on. The headquarters of the Communist Party for all of Greece was located across the square and people came and went from there twenty-four hours a day. We did discuss whether we should stay there or leave the city at first light to avoid causing some kind of international incident, but those were sailors and they loved trouble, so we stayed.
We ordered room service and watched TV in Greek; every show on that TV had at least one girl without her top on… which made us all wonder if we could get them to put Greek shows on our cable at home. There was also a lesson learned about deceitful practices perpetrated by hotel telephone operators. Know your connecting rates and all fees before you place a call from a Greek hotel. I ended up with a bill for $170.00 for a three minute call from Greece when I got home.
The following day we went out for breakfast at a recommended nearby international café where the food was good and reasonably priced. Then we walked over to the Parthenon, which was even more inspiring in person. I would not describe it as like the Sistine Chapel kind of eye-candy “wow,” but rather as an enduring kind of awesome.
It had stood for all this time, enduring weather, wars and political changes and was still the unchanged masterful piece of Architecture that it was. You could not fail to be impressed as you walked up the road to it.
My favorite feature of the whole complex was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which was a theater (built by the Romans in 161 AD) located off to one side of, and down the hill from, the Parthenon itself. It was carved out of the hillside, right down into a bowl shape that created a natural acoustical amphitheater. A whisper could be heard plainly, everywhere in the bowl.
The features of the theater were carved out of stone too. It even had stone seats and a stone stage. A lot of beautiful marble tile had been used originally and was replaced during the repairs made in the 1950s. When it was built it had a cedar roof that had no visible supports to block the view of the audience.
Historical entries claim that the acoustics were so good that a single instrument being played would fill the building (which sat 5,000 people) with sound. It was incredible and unlike anything that I had ever seen.
There was a local theater company that regularly performed Greek tragedies on that stage. Once a month they would do a Shakespearean tragedy, just because it was so awesomely cool to perform there. All of those plays were free to attend. Unfortunately there were no plays being performed the days we were there, or I would have gone and damn the Communist Party!
The following day several members (including me) of our party were signed up for a tour out into the countryside, if the upset protesters didn’t cause it to get cancelled.
One of the least expensive ways to see a lot of a country and experience some of the culture was through organized tours sponsored by the ship’s Morale & Welfare department. They made group purchases and arranged everything way ahead of our arrival so really good deals were able to be made. There was no way an individual could get the same price breaks, which I had learned the hard way in a previous port.
The tour that I purchased was to the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Tomb of Clytemnestra. This remained the largest beehive shaped tomb for over one thousand years after its construction in 1250 BC (until a larger one was built elsewhere.) It was quite a long bus ride out there and back, as we had to go to Panagitsa Hill in Mycenae which was a long way from Athens, especially given the conditions.
The most difficult “condition” was of course, that the Greek Communist Party was extremely active and had thousands of members well connected and willing to mobilize at a moment’s notice. They also hated Americans with a passion for reasons that I did not know. That disturbing dislike of our group could have ended our trip in an ugly way.
Our tour guide was a tiny lady named Delphina, who was in her thirties, maybe 4’ 10” and eighty pounds soaking wet. She was elegant, well mannered, impeccably dressed, and spoke multiple languages. Delphina also had an MBA from Harvard Business School.
The diminutive woman had been married right out of high school and was widowed after just a few years. She worked and went to University in Athens until she had saved enough money to achieve her dream. All of her teachers had said that the best business schools were in America and if you wanted to be the best, you had to go there to learn.
Armed with her savings and an intern job arranged by a friendly professor, she had gone to the US in order to go to what she felt was the best business school; Harvard.
Upon completing her MBA she returned to Greece (as was always her plan) to give the benefit of her degree and training to her country. The communists didn’t see it that way and labeled her a traitor for going to America.
She had lost her job in Athens when the rallies and rioting started because her company was afraid their building would be burned because she worked there. Her name was on the “enemies of the party” list circulated to all business owners and managers.
Delphina was quickly hired by the tour company the navy had contracted with due to her language abilities and detailed knowledge of the country. They made their money from tourism and they loved American dollars even more than Greek drachmas.
We loved Delphina; she understood American slang and was unruffled if an occasional cussword slipped as the guys talked. If only the communist guys would leave us alone.
Fortunately for us she had many relatives and friends in the area we toured, as we actually played hide and seek with several vehicles full of potentially violent protesters during our travels.
We toured the Treasury of Atreus and it was very impressive as a structure, but I was still as puzzled about it when we left. They had no idea who was supposed to have been buried in the tomb, or what had happened to whatever had been inside it. It apparently was cleaned out before the contents were recorded. This had to have been one of the quickest grave robberies on record.
Not far from the tomb site we parked the bus under a grove of trees and walked over a hill to the site of a small palace. That palace wasn’t on the tour list and was seldom seen by anyone other than the locals who lived around the area.
Delphina said that it was the ancestral home of her family which dated back hundreds of years. By keeping it off of the tours it suffered less damage from souvenir hunters. She was very worried that the communist group who was looking for us, would vandalize it terribly should they find it. We all stated to her emphatically that we would defend it should they arrive while we were there. That moved the tiny lady to tears.
The palace was not really a “structure” at that point. There were a few standing walls, several partial walls, and a complete foundation. Oddly enough their water systems seemed intact including wells, irrigation channels, indoor plumbing, and several baths.
The toilet and bathing areas attracted the most attention from the sailors and many wanted to sit on an ancient toilet. It was hard to comprehend what was so exciting about sitting on a stone slab with a hole in it. The young guys took each other’s photo sitting on the marble “thrones.”
Delphina explained the idea of the vomitorium to them, where the party goers would stick a feather down their throat, (or have a servant do so), to induce vomiting and thus be able to consume more food and drink.
The young men were mightily impressed with the “party attitude” of the old days. She asked me if she should tell them that it was just a misconception, and she had only told them this tale as a joke. I told her no; let them have their grand idea of partying people to remember. She just covered her face and laughed.
The scheduled meal stop had to be eliminated due to a large contingent of troublemakers waiting for us there. One must remember that this was prior to the advent of cellular phones being in everyone’s pockets. Tremendous effort was being expended by both sides to call land lines and then send someone out to notify the interested party. We were lucky that Delphina was on her home turf.
Delphina had been so taken by our offer to defend her family estate from harm that she called a cousin and arranged a meal for us at his restaurant; a business which was normally closed on that day.
We deliberately turned away from our destination on the main road in the area and then traveled via back roads to the house in the trees where said eatery was situated.
Immediately upon arriving the passengers offloaded quickly and were herded inside by a scared woman who turned out to be the owner’s wife. The bus was then taken around behind the buildings out of sight and the kids took brooms out to sweep away the tracks of the bus in the dirt. They had learned well from their grandparents who were Greek Resistance fighters in WWII.
Once inside we were seated at nice tables with linen table cloths and napkins, nice place settings, and a bottle of red wine on each table. The aromas coming from the kitchen were making us crazy with hunger even though we had no idea what we were being served.
The incredible meal they prepared for us was lamb and stuffed grape leaves with green vegetables and bread. Plus the aforementioned red wine which seemingly had no bottom to the bottles. Our hosts were very attentive and brought us new bottles of wine as fast as we drank the others empty. The Greeks loved their wine and so did we!
As we finished our meals, the owner and all of his family came into the dining room carrying musical instruments. As some began to play, the owner and his grown sons began to dance with their arms linked and shout, “OPA!” They switched directions back and forth and danced wonderfully well to the music.
The music stirred us and the wine removed what inhibitions “might” have been found in young American sailors. Everyone was singing (who knows what) and clapping their hands to the rhythm. Excitement was at its peak as the family tossed plates into the air from the stack they had brought from the kitchen and as they came crashing down everyone shouted “OPA!” 
It should have been expected; it had to happen as sure as rain falls down. As the loudest “OPA!” yet was yelled out, the room immediately filled with plates flying through the air.
Every occupant (myself included) of the tables around the room had tossed their plates into the air like the other plates had been. When we looked up from the sight of piles of broken china, the music had stopped and the owner looked like he had just been shot, such was the expression of disbelief on his face. 
We didn’t know that the family had put their best dishes on the tables in honor of our visit, nor did we know that only those participating in the dance were supposed to throw plates. They had brought out old, chipped plates for the entertainment and never anticipated our reactions. 
American military men were not ones to let anyone else suffer for their actions so all was set right with them in short order. Their good dishes had cost them the equivalent of about sixty U.S. dollars which was a tremendous amount to them in 1982, and something that they could not afford to replace. We not only paid cash for our meals, which gave them tremendous bargaining power in their market (and black market), but left them over two hundred U.S. dollars cash in tips. 
The man and his wife were both crying when we left and Delphina said it was because they were so happy. I’m not sure if that was happy for all of the cash, or happy that we were leaving. Either way, it was an experience that I’ll never forget. OPA!
After leaving the restaurant we arranged (with more off the record American dollars) for the tour bus to swing by our hotel in downtown Athens. We were very wary of trouble and made sure that one of our group stayed on the bus at all times (so the driver didn’t panic and take off), just in case the communists spotted us.
We successfully rounded up the other guys and our bags and departed the beautiful city of Athena. The return bus ride to Piraeus was quick and uneventful.
Arriving at the landing we surveyed the scene carefully for problems, but the crowd had all departed, leaving only a few burned taxis to tell the story of what had happened. We were assured by the driver that even those cremated cabs would soon be gone.
A liberty boat soon arrived to take us back to the ship where we reluctantly returned to duty. We were underway by 01:00 a.m. and steaming for Beirut…. again.
So that was Greece, where they wanted our American dollars, but not our physical presence. And it was old… very, very old. I wish that I had been able to spend more time there and see and learn more about their great civilization.
I never did get back to either Piraeus or Athens, Greece but I did learn part of what had upset the local population.
The U.S.S. Nimitz (CV-68) had preceded us into Greece and had two substantiated major incidents of harm/damage caused by American sailors. A sexual assault had taken place, and a hotel had been burned down by drunken sailors partying. Both incidents made the Greek national news but got very little (if any) mention in the U.S.
We (the crew of the U.S.S. America) were allowed to walk into the aftermath without warning. It is possible that the officers had been briefed (which would explain their vanishing acts) but the enlisted men were not. I only learned about it upon return to the U.S. and subsequently speaking with counterparts in the Nimitz crew.
To their great credit, the people of Greece that we met (other than the crazy communists) treated those of us in the group I traveled with, with respect and kindness and never once mentioned what the other sailors had done.
I have to wonder if in the moment where we destroyed their best plates those kind people were second-guessing opening their home to Americans and wanting to side with the communists who were hunting for us. I am glad that we made things right with them and I hope (thinking back) that those dishes were not family heirlooms.
We must never forget that there are always consequences to everything that we do. Even if we do not realize the fallout, those who follow in our footsteps may be harmed by what we have done. Compassion, tolerance, and understanding never hurt anyone.


We lived in an unofficial community of small”ranches” called Rolling Oaks, which was a wondrous land of no hills and no oaks, obviously named by someone with a sense of humor. It had been the Bailey Ranch until the old man died and his grandchildren (who had been raised rich and wanted no part of working a ranch) sold it to a real estate developer for some fast cash.
It was South Florida in 1970 and I was living in the middle of grasslands next to the Everglades and loving it. Life was still pretty simple and uncomplicated in those days.
The prelude
My trusty companion Thor the Wonder Dog, was always with me when I went out and about. There were times when I was either gone to school or doing the rodeo thing, or inside doing homework, or for whatever reason, not around for him to watch over. At such times he was left to find his own means of amusement and he was quite good at it.
There were times when you could quite literally smell Thor coming up the road before he even got to the gate, which was one hundred and sixty feet from the house at the end of the driveway. He had a real penchant for killing skunks. Of course, he paid for it every time by getting sprayed by the poor creatures. Then I had to scrub him down with tomato juice and/or vinegar and Tide laundry detergent and anything else that I could find. None of which deterred him from going after another skunk at the first opportunity.
The only thing Thor hated more than skunks was cats. A big tom cat had attacked him inside of his doghouse when he was only twelve weeks old and he never forgot or forgave the species.
If you could have seen this great beast at his full one hundred and twenty pounds with his shiny coat and energetic manner of moving, you would have been impressed. At the time of this story he was three years old and all male in his habits and attitudes.
He was a German Shepherd with a nose like a Bloodhound and could smell a female dog in heat for miles. Which lead to his other consuming passion, (which I’m sure you can guess) besides killing skunks and cats. I once drew up plans for a male “chastity belt” for him but couldn’t figure out how to secure it on him to where he couldn’t chew through it.
There were a lot of dogs in our spread out mini-ranch community, everybody had at least one and some had their own packs. It was often necessary to have Thor along just to be able to safely walk to some areas of the “neighborhood.” He knew them all, and they all knew him and stayed way back from us, not eager to test their mettle against this black and tan warrior. I was glad; I hated dog fights and hated getting dog bit even more.
To the north of our place was a gentleman who was either the first or second person to settle in the area when they split the old ranch up and he considered the rest of us “squatters” or intruders of some kind. He was not the friendliest sort of guy and was prone to temper tantrums and yelling. You could hear him over the half mile between our houses like he was standing next to you.
He did have one redeeming feature (as far as I was concerned anyway) in that he owned a beautiful silver and black German Shepherd female who was not only registered, but had her Champion title from the dog shows. She was a sweet girl, always friendly and would try to come and visit us when we worked on the fence bordering their property, or rode by on the horses.
If the man was home when she visited us she got severely chastised, at times even whipped with a belt. The man hitting her made Thor very angry and he would growl way down deep in his chest. I knew that the big dog was just hoping that I would give him the word, so he could “deal” with this abusive human, but of course I never did; I wanted to, but I knew better.
When dogs run free in any area there will inevitably be an accidental breeding, or shall I say an unplanned breeding, or an “oops litter” if you will. Being the owner of a dominant male dog who ranged far and wide in his solitary travels, quite a few fingers could be pointed in our direction. Most of the sensible people who had female dogs, had them spayed to prevent this problem. I don’t know why the idea of neutering our male dogs never came up. It would have helped too.
Our neighbor to the north did not have his female spayed as she was a valuable breeding commodity to him. His female German Shepherd came into heat and before he could arrange for a suitable stud, one was provided for him, or several possibly, we never knew for sure.
There is a lot to be said for adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” The man had locked his dog in the garage while he went to town thinking that she would be unreachable there. On the side of that two car garage there was a “jalousie window” type of door that would prove his theory wrong.
For those of you who don’t know about “jalousie windows,” this door had a center section of three inch glass panels running horizontally across the door and installed in a framework which allows them to be opened or closed for ventilation, similar to Venetian blinds, and with a screen to keep the bugs out. The windows were cranked all the way open at the time of the “dastardly doggie deed.”
I don’t know if it was Thor, or another dog who figured out the way to do what they wanted to do. I do know that the female was very much a willing participant in the “act.” They somehow removed two window panes at the correct height, and then chewed a hole in the screen. The female backed up to the open spot and the male dog stood up on its hind legs and copulated with her through the door. It was quite ingenious if you think about… and she wasn’t your dog.
The owner of the female came home in time to see Thor next to the garage, not in the act, but suspect none the less. He snatched his shotgun out of the gun rack in his truck and attempted to fire at the, “I’m going home now, but I’ll call you, I promise…” Thor.
Luckily for the dog (and the man) there wasn’t a shell in the chamber. By the time he figured it out, cycled the pump action, and then got off a shot, the dog was out of range and only suffered from the noise of the blast… Thor was terribly afraid of loud noises.
Enter Junior
Skip ahead in time now to about fifteen weeks later.
The grumpy neighbor from our north pulled up in our driveway in his truck and slammed it to a stop by putting the truck in park before it has stopped moving. That was something that he did frequently and then grumbled about the “lousy quality of truck transmissions these days.”
He piled out of that truck in his bullish way and with his usual scowl on his face. Thor was standing next to me, on guard and silently shaking with anger (not fear) waiting for me to turn him loose on the man. I wondered if this was going to be the “big showdown” or something.
There was never any concern that the man would hurt me, but I did have a real fear that if he reached for me my dog would seriously hurt him. That would cause the police to come and they would take Thor to the pound for quarantine and there would be lawsuits, etc.
The big bully reached into his truck bed, turned, and then he swung a beautiful silver and black ball of fur into my arms. Before I could get a grip, he let go and turned around to get back into the truck… and the worst thing happened. That squirming puppy went right on through my arms and fell head first onto the concrete. It landed on the crest at the back of its skull and died from the impact, just like it had been clubbed.
The man said to me, “Why did you do that? It was your damn dog that got me into this mess….” and then he shut up. I guess the look on my face told the story plain enough. It was an awful heart wrenching event; a real sick to the stomach, going into shock experience. I could do nothing but stand there and hold onto Thor’s collar as his growl became audible and his intentions became clear.
My neighbor reached into the back of his truck, grabbed another puppy and handed it to me, making sure that I had a grip on it this time. He picked up the dead one and tossed it into the bed of the truck, like so much garbage. The man then said that “he should just dump the whole damn litter on our doorstep” and ground the starter and the truck once again came to life. He stomped the gas pedal and fired his vehicle backwards out of our gate, barely missing a pole that I promise he could not have moved. It would have killed his truck deader than that sweet puppy.
This new puppy (when I could stand to look at it) was just laying there in my arms. It had the dopiest look on its face and then blasted me with a welcoming “green cloud” that would peel paint. He was colored similar to Thor, but had more of a rust brown (vs. tan) color to his “markings” and he had short hair.
So, “OK” I thought, “if Thor was partially responsible or whatever, I guess we were kind of honor bound to take this little monster.” In a hopeful moment, I named him “Junior.”
From the very beginning, Junior spent every day proving that he was NOT a chip off of Thor’s old block. His coat never grew any longer, something very odd for a puppy supposedly from two German Shepherds; in fact he looked more like a hound.
Then one day I saw a large male Doberman trotting over to the neighbor’s house and he went straight to the side door of the garage and sniffed at the spot where the hole was before. The neighbor had replaced the entire screen and the two glass pieces immediately after the incident took place. That dog didn’t hang around for very long, but long enough for me to grab a horse and follow it to the house nearest to the entrance to Rolling Oaks. His home was straight up the road from the “scene of the crime.”
Now that I was fairly sure as to the real parentage of this knucklehead puppy, I wasn’t nearly as embarrassed. He wasn’t Thor’s puppy, of that I was convinced.
Junior was an opportunist in the extreme. He found out how to get the dog food barrel open and drug the entire unopened fifty pound bag out of the overturned barrel and onto the concrete parking area in front of the garage door… about twenty five feet away. He then proceeded to rip open the bag and eat until he looked like a dead cow that had been out in the sun for days. It was hard to believe that his body could stretch that far. Thor wouldn’t even come near the bag of food; he knew trouble when he saw it!
I didn’t know that the little troublemaker of a pup had done all of this until Dad got into his truck and backed out of the garage, not even thinking to look behind the truck. You didn’t have to worry, dogs got out of the way when you started the truck… at least normal ones did.
The truck ran over Junior with both tires on the driver’s side, naturally making a bump each time, which clued Dad that something wasn’t right. And he was correct. That should have been the end of the story and of Junior, right? Wrong!
Not only was the dog not killed, he didn’t even bother to get up. Junior had definite tire tracks across his middle, just like you had painted them on; black zig zag lines. He just lay there burping and farting from eating most of 50 pounds of dog food and would occasionally wag his tail a couple of thumps and moan and groan.
The only thing that we could figure was that he was so packed with food that it supported the approximately 3,500 pounds of weight of the full sized half ton truck going over him. Junior showed absolutely no ill effects from the “parking block” imitation that he did, and we often remarked that his real parents were obviously aliens.
Junior chewed everything that he could get a hold of. He was so different from the well behaved dog that Thor had conditioned us to expect, that he was not a favorite of any one in or around our house. He not only ate all of the dog food, if you weren’t watching he would eat the horses sweet feed too.
We made the mistake of allowing him to chew the pieces of hoof that the blacksmith had removed when shoeing the horses. When he ran out of those trimmed pieces he would try to chew on a horse’s hoof while they were sleeping.
My cousin’s old cranky palomino kicked him square in the forehead once for doing just that, and again we were ready to start digging a hole for his last remains. The horse had kicked him so hard that we figured that his skull was crushed. After flying through the air for about twenty feet, he parted two 55 gallon drums full of feed and ended up against the fence pole behind them.
It was all I could do to move those barrels; they weighed more than I did. He crawled out from between the barrels and the post and staggered over to the shade beside the house; where I looked him over. Junior had a horseshoe impression on his head that never really went away. But the idiot was fine, no lasting damage from a kick that by all rights should have killed him.
My buddy (and neighbor, two miles away) David had animals of all kinds running around his place. His parents were a bit different than most I knew at the time. They were not your basic conservative types… more of the anything goes variety.
I didn’t know what hippie parents were like before meeting them, but they were. The father was kind of half and half, having to keep his hair short and wear a suit to work in the conservative business world and then switching gears when he got home. David’s mom was 100% hippie.
At times their house would smell of freshly smoked weed and frequently there would be adults (not just David’s parents) walking around without clothes on. It was a teenaged boy’s dream world. David and I never spoke about any of this at my house. Don’t get the wrong impression, their house was always very neat and clean. David’s dad was a very well paid executive so they had plenty of money to live on. They just did things their way.
David had all the usual animals; a dog, cats, birds, fish, a horse. Then there was a raccoon, and a pig named Nancy that followed us around and was well trained and very smart. He also had a monkey that they couldn’t handle anymore. It had matured and figured out that it was a monkey and not a human, and wouldn’t play nice at all. The monkey cage was always kept padlocked.
His dog had gotten run over by a delivery semi out on the main road through our area and now he was short one critter. Being the good buddy that I was, and having two dogs of my own I offered to give him Junior. I could share and Thor would not get along well with all those other animals crowding his space… so it would have to be the puppy. I was not sure if my ulterior motives were transparent or not.
I really expected his mother to say no, but shockingly she said, “That’s really sweet, of course David can have the puppy.” We departed immediately for my house and gathered up Junior and his collar and tags, and hauled him to David’s house where he would reside for the rest of his days. My parents must have been happy to see the dog go, but they never said so.
It didn’t take long for Junior to “endear” himself to his new family. And it wasn’t much longer than that for both of David’s parents to stop speaking to me unless they had to. Junior had a knack, a gift even, for causing trouble. He would open the animal cages and eat their food, while the creatures wandered about, some of them deciding to relocate permanently.
If there were little baby animals around he would round them up into a corner and not let them leave or get back in their pens. He would even go to the neighbor’s houses and steal kittens and bunnies. The goofball didn’t hurt them, he just corralled them and wouldn’t let them go anywhere until a human came and freed them. One positive thing that I can say about him is that he never hurt any living thing in his life.
Junior also liked to turn on the outside water faucet and sit under it with it running on his head while he leaned against the house and fell asleep. And, just like a kid, he never turned it off again. There would be a veritable lake on whichever side of the house that he decided to take his bath. Once it ran for an entire weekend while they were gone to a festival. I can still hear David’s dad yelling about the bill for that pump running non-stop all that time. They removed all of the faucet handles after that episode.
I thought for sure that Junior had finally done it when he decided to drink green house paint. The enterprising dog found a one gallon can in their “supposed to locked” shop and of course immediately turned it over and it got all over everything on the floor of that building.
Being crazy, the dog licked up a bunch of the normally toxic liquid and rolled in it. He then had a new green coat, which he used to go on a painting spree around their place. The dog rubbed up against their white car, the tan stucco finish on their new house, and of course the laundry hanging on the line and the rugs on the porch. Somehow, for some reason that defies rationality, he survived again.
Junior came close to getting blown to smithereens for being a thief. He was an uncontrollable and unrepentant shoe thief (and doormats too.) The dog would go around the entire area at night and steal whatever shoes were left outside on the porch, which was very common in mud country. He would then go back around and nab all the doormats and little rugs that might be on the porch. He brought all of this contraband back home (to David’s house thankfully) and hid it in a recessed corner behind a big bush on the side of the house.
After Junior was seen leaving a house with a man’s new leather Florsheims (which he had gotten muddy and sat on the front porch to clean later) and had a blast from a shotgun come close enough to leave a little “proof” embedded in his backside, the mutt was followed to his hideout and the goods were discovered. Some of it had come from as far as four miles away.
I liked Junior more and more as time went on… I was exceptionally fond of the fact that he wasn’t my dog.
When I left Florida, Junior was still residing with the same family, and still beating the odds.
When I talked to David in 1973, Junior had been shot twice and stuck in an electric fence all night once (by accident I’m sure) and was still going strong. David’s dad finally got his way and Junior had to wear a muzzle when he was out of their sight. The muzzle wasn’t because he might bite someone, but so that the dog couldn’t pick anything up with his mouth and carry it home. Knowing Junior, he would find a way around that too… I had faith in him.
If someone were to tell me that Junior was still alive, forty plus years after his birth, I would have to believe them. Maybe his parents really were Aliens after all.

A Walk on the Wild Side

A Walk on the Wild Side
Did you ever have one of those days where everything you tried to do went wrong?
Mitch, Scott, and I did in Alaska in August of 1976 and we accidentally discovered what to do about it.
Our radio repair specialist, Scott, was pacing back and forth across the control tower floor threatening a piece of equipment that he had been trying to fix all day, with destruction. Mitch, my controller trainee, was fighting with unusually heavy traffic and stressing out because he had to continuously make decisions at such a rapid pace. As the supervisor on duty I was responsible for everything that went on so I was listening to Mitch, watching Scott, and answering telephones that wouldn’t quit ringing. That was when the idea hit me.
At face value the idea was completely ridiculous. I proposed that we catch a ride up to the ski lodge for Arctic Valley, get off at the 2500’ level on the mountain, and hike down the other side into the valley. We would descend until we reached Ship Creek and then follow the stream farther into the mountains until we found a logjam where a friend said that he had built a log lean-to. That particular location was supposed to be unequaled for fishing and peacefulness according to this friend, Neil.
Granted, Neil was drunk most of the time that he was not at work, but he did know the area. He had a different outlook on life than most (OK, All) people and even the Alaskan trappers who wandered the bush thought that he was odd.
It could have been his constant drinking and loud singing as he walked the back country of the state that spooked them. Or possibly it was because Neil refused to camp within three miles of any other human, even to the point of breaking camp and moving in the middle of the night if anyone camped near him.
He hated being “crowded” and spent all of his free time away from humans. It wasn’t unusual for him to walk from Anchorage to Palmer (about 40-45 miles) through the wilderness, by himself. I had driven to Palmer to pick him up more than once and he always came out on the day he said that he would.
When couldn’t get away due to his work schedule or having duty, he would spend all of his extra time working out. The man was a living contradiction. A drunken physical fitness nut and a singer who couldn’t stand to have an audience. I liked him.
Neil had a single eyebrow that went from temple to temple and some people would call him “Neanderthal” but never to his face. He could walk up and down the steepest mountains like he was strolling down a sidewalk and it took no effort. His singing voice was a beautiful tenor (almost baritone) and he was really quite good. I had heard him singing (always under the influence of a bottle of whiskey) various things from opera to Irish ballads and was amazed. He just couldn’t tolerate being near people. I could only guess that his childhood contained the answers, but I never asked him.
We considered that anything was possible and Neil’s recommendation to go camp there was certainly a better option than staying locked into the rat-race of our jobs where even being off duty didn’t stop the telephone from finding you. The cycle needed to be broken and only getting to a place where we were unreachable would do that.
The thing that made this idea so ridiculous was the fact that we only had twenty-four hours between shifts to accomplish the entire trip. There were also minor problems such as not knowing specific details about the area, being unsure if our directions to the logjam were real or hallucinated, or how long it would take to get in and more importantly, out.
Our source of information (Neil) had never entered or exited from the point that we chose to leave “civilization” (that’s funny in Alaska) and enter the wild areas. He couldn’t tell us what to expect for a time table as he worked in days (not hours) when he hiked. It wasn’t really very far into the bush but in 1976 the bears and wolves walked through the airport and into base housing on a regular basis. You didn’t have to go far to get into trouble.
I believe that it was the absurdity of the situation that sent us up the mountain that afternoon in August. We should not have done it for any number of common sense or rational reasons. I am sure that it was just that kind of break from routine and rules that made the journey mean so much to us; it was breaking free.
By five o’clock in the afternoon we had started down from our jumping off point at the 2500’ altitude marker on the mountain. The three of us were hiking down an animal trail that we had only just learned about and hoped that it went where it was supposed to. There was quite a bit of discussion about what we had gotten ourselves into as we walked.
We descended rapidly through a cool meadow littered with tumbled down trees until we reached the first creek and our first decision. There was an unexpected fork in the trail and we faced that age old choice of whether to take the left or right path.
Instead of simply opting for the Robert Frost choice of the one less traveled, we made the decision based upon what felt logical. Following the right path as it continued to descend in the general direction we had been going, made more sense to us than the left which stayed level and appeared to wrap around the hillside. There was no fear of getting lost; we could back-track our own footprints in the soft earth of the trail if we needed to.
Continuing downward on our chosen path we soon passed through an area covered with more red berries (rose hips and high bush cranberries) than we thought existed in the entire state of Alaska. It was among those berries that we came to the second rapid drop in elevation. The trail was so steep that we had to run down it to keep on our feet and feared for a misstep that we were sure would cause a most spectacular tumble. Only Scott came close and slid the last few yards on the seat of his pants.
By that point we had crossed two small bubbling creeks containing clear, cold water and descended approximately twelve hundred feet into the heart of Arctic Valley. It was hard to decide whether to watch where you were stepping or gawk at the surroundings. I tried to do both.
As we descended the third steep drop we noticed that the tree leaves had changed to purple, gold, and crimson, and that the trees themselves were larger. The size change probably would not have been noticed in the lower forty-eight (U.S. states) but in mainland Alaska the trees were so small that any change was noticeable.
The biggest change to me was the quiet. The silence was not only external, but internal too. Quiet was no longer just the absence of sound coming to our ears, but the cessation of the voices in our heads. Even though our trek was strenuous we seemed to be resting as we walked. I realize now that it was relief from stress.
We crossed three creeks, a boot grabbing marsh, and descended about two thousand feet in elevation in the course of about six miles. By all rights by the time we reached that elusive logjam we should have been worn out, but we were not; in fact we felt great. The three of us had just done a forced march over rough terrain carrying forty pound packs that lasted two and a half hours without a break; and we weren’t tired.
The lean-to was right where our friend had told us that it would be and in far better condition than I expected. It was just a crude shelter of logs but it served our purpose well and I managed to quickly fix the few spots that had fallen in. Mitch and Scott gathered spruce boughs for cushioning under our bedrolls and then easily collected more firewood than we could burn in one night.
Our campfire was built on an open rock surface between the lean-to and the stream and there were already logs to sit on or lean against in place. It was a dream of a camping spot and we sat around the fire getting high on good company and fresh air.
Scott was suffering a little as he had lost his cigarettes somewhere along the way and the idea of not being able to smoke for several hours was working on his mind. Mitch told him to just sit downwind of the campfire and breathe deeply. We all laughed at the idea but I did notice that before long Scott had shifted his seat to a position where the smoke hit him.
The location was incredibly beautiful and the word “serene” comes to mind as a good description of our surroundings. The air and water were so pure and clean it that it amazed us and we hesitated to put our hands in the water for fear that we would “contaminate” it.
When we finally gave up and went to our bed rolls the tiredness of our bodies won out. I don’t think more words than “goodnight” were spoken before we were dead to the world.
The next morning we discovered that a good-sized bear and a huge moose (judging by their very fresh tracks) had battled their way past our camp without even disturbing us. We guessed that it happened during the early morning hours (by the dampness) and were both amazed and concerned that we hadn’t heard a thing.
The tracks told quite a story as it was evident that the moose had slid backwards at one point and the bear had dug its claws in for traction, possibly pushing the moose. Other places showed that the moose had dug up chunks of soft earth with its antlers. We were really sorry that we had slept through the event.
Scott was raised as a concrete jungle city kid. After seeing the large animal tracks he spent a great deal of time muttering about wishing that we had a “bazooka” in case one of them came back to “eat  him.” No amount of reassurances could convince him that the creatures were not interested in us. Mitch was from Hilo, Hawaii and while he laughed at Scott’s fears, I did catch him looking over his shoulder frequently. I hoped that we would see them again, but it was not to be.
We had awoken just after sunrise and that was supposed to be the magical time to fish our little stream so we quit looking at tracks and got our hand lines (no poles) into the water right away. The stories were true and in just two hours we had caught thirty Arctic Char big enough to keep. We caught more than that but we released the smaller ones to grow for another year before jumping into our frying pans. It was rather mystifying to me to be able to catch fish on nothing more than a shiny hook with a reflector (spoon) attached, but that was all we used.
We quickly reached the point where we had to quit so I cleaned the fish we had and packed them in plastic bags to go into our backpacks for the trip out. While I cleaned the fish, Mitch and Scott made sure that there was absolutely no trash and as little evidence of human interference as possible. Thinking that it might prove useful to some future traveler we stacked the collected firewood under the lean-to to keep it as dry as possible.
Our exodus went faster than we anticipated (with it being all uphill) and we walked into the parking area at the lodge in just two hours. I can only guess that knowing where we were going and feeling the pressure of having a definite deadline made us walk faster.
The three of us were early for our shift and slept very well for a week afterward. You might attribute that to fresh air and exercise if you hadn’t been with us.
Whenever things got hectic and demanding for any of us after that we would just take a mental journey back into that beautiful valley and the smile would soon return. That hike had definitely been worth it. We had each learned how to be at peace with ourselves and that was the most important lesson of all.
The fish that I had so carefully cleaned, bagged, and packed out didn’t fare well. There was no ice to keep them cool and the heat from our bodies caused rapid deterioration. But, the local wildlife on the airport was happy to have the spoiled fish so all was not lost.
We learned a fishing lesson from that experience too. Only catch and keep what you can eat on site, or have a cooler with enough ice to make it home again. We did the latter when we fished for salmon.
P. S.
The area we hiked 36 years ago is now easily accessible from Anchorage and part of a trail system. It is currently very popular with people who weren’t born yet when we walked that ground. I hope that they respect it and do their best to leave no evidence of their passing, just as we did way back then.