The Good Old Days

The Good Old Days

How many times have we heard or even uttered the words “in the good old days”?

What was so good about the time being called forth? I will tell you my answer at the end of this article, but first a little explanation to help you see why I think the answer makes sense.

Why were they the best days of our lives, was it the age we were at the time?

Was it our youth spent aimlessly seeking fantastical beings or experiences? Living our days making believe that things were different? The reality of youth was that we had nothing, could earn nothing, and had no voice in any matters of importance?

Possibly our teen years driven by newly awakened hormones writing checks that we couldn’t cash? We wanted to be seen and treated as adults, but those gangly limbs and squeaky voices made it impossible to be taken seriously.

Our eighteen to twenty-one years where we were no longer kids, but no one would call us adults, except when we did something wrong and were told to act like what they wouldn’t give us credit for being.

Maybe it was the twenty-five to thirty-five age where we were sure that we were the true driving force of the universe and the free market world revolved around what we liked and wanted.

It has to be that thirty-five to sixty-five period where we control the wealth and head the companies and the corporations… or at least the PTA and/or the Friends of Youth (insert sport here.) Surely the period of productivity contained in these years is the golden glow to be remembered.

It can’t be the so called “Golden Years” of retirement where truthfully the only thing golden is in the specimen cup you give to the lab technician. That time in your life where “the older you get, the better you were,” which is a defensive re-write of memories.

In reality you can’t remember to pull up your zipper or if you took your noon pill, but you can recall the stupid hat that Smiley McFloogle wore to that party, twenty years before the person you are telling the story to (for the tenth time) was born. And for some reason you expect the listener to know him.

So if the good old days aren’t measured by age, maybe it was the time frame in which we lived. For me that started in 1953.

Were the 1950s post war (WWII & Korea) years really the period of peace and growth? People around me had nothing, had lived with less, and had learned how to get by on air sandwiches and imaginary coffee for the last few days of the month. They worked hard and knew that things could get better if they could just catch a break.

There was a tremendous amount of prejudice and hatred of anyone different, left over from the war years. This was the time of white male dominance in both the workplace and the home. People of color, women, and children were just barely considered human and had no place in the decision making process. The country was progressing, but human and civil rights were not.

Maybe the enlightened 1960’s? Or were they really the decade of human growth that we had hoped for? The USA nearly had another “atomic bomb solution” with the Cuban crisis and numerous other posturing situations. The people’s president was assassinated before our eyes and the real details hidden from us for generations.

A war (Vietnam) that was never declared took thousands of Americans lives as well as huge numbers of the Vietnamese people. A people who like today’s citizens of Afghanistan, were already extremely weary of invading saviors.

At home we had civil rights marches and union battles over workers’ rights happening everywhere. The country was waking up to idea of protesting injustice in front of the television camera and every day of the decade we were treated to violence on the evening news. The horrific battles and destruction in southeast Asia were bracketed by riots and more assassinations at home.

The 1970s were just a repeat of the above with faster coverage by a more technologically proficient media. War for profit had become the standard we lived by in America.

Since 1980 a more insidious foe has emerged as the corporate world has perfected buying the government officials they desire, changing the laws which hamper them, and using their advertising skills to make the people think everything is their idea.

Our public schools are failing the students who need them most while our secondary education costs climb to where only the rich can afford them. Our college systems value sports and partying over academics and rape is a team sport where the victims are prosecuted for bonus points. No, I don’t think that the era constitutes the reason for the good old days either.

OK, time for the answer. The “good old days” are a memory fantasy created in our own mind to provide a safer and more personally satisfying spot to insulate us from our problems in the present. Everything is better if you just remember it “right.”

The good news is that real “Good Old Days” are right now. Today is the only day that you have control over. The past is gone forever and the future isn’t here yet so don’t waste valuable time on them.

Learn from the past, but don’t live in it. Prepare for the future, but don’t sit and wait for it to arrive.

The best days of your life are here, in your face. Live each day as if you won’t get another chance. Do what makes you smile, breathe deeply, push the envelope, reach out to others and give of yourself freely.

Some “tomorrow” you will die and it will be too late to fix the regrets about all of the love you didn’t share, the sights you didn’t see, and things that you didn’t do.

Advertisements

Candy from strangers

Candy from strangers
1969 was a very passionate and confused year in America. It was the time of “do-your-own-thing” individualism and the Viet Nam war draft. There other mind-boggling events like the moon landing and riots taking place to keep your world stirred up. I was living in south Florida and that place was beyond crazy on a good day. For teenagers, life seemed uncertain at best.
A small group of enthusiastic teens formed an organization that we called the “Davie Rodeo Club” which was not affiliated with any school (like they are now.) I belonged to a close knit group of bull riders, consisting of myself, Stan, Dubby, and Pollard (he had a first name, but we never used it.)
The four of us were close and always watched each other’s back. If one had trouble, the others were there… if you needed money, the others were digging in their pockets. In a time that stressed individuality, we had unity. And we were glad of it.
There were other bull riders in the club as well as bronc riders, bulldoggers, and ropers who hung around with us, but had their own cliques too. The kid whose dad owned the property that we built our arena on was a team roper, but he spent more time with us than the other ropers. It was obvious that we were a team and that was attractive to others who were used to being alone.
We did all the normal teenager stuff; if you can call anything a teenager does “normal.” There was the usual dating, dances and school and we did have our own interests outside of rodeo. Bull riding was the common bond between us and it was strong brotherhood. To outsiders it was probably considered an insane passion, but to us it was life.
Pollard was a year older than the rest of us, but in the same grade. A little trouble (probably not so little really) along the way had interrupted his school career and he repeated a year, thus ending up with us. He was never rude or disruptive in class but he was treated like a troublemaker by every teacher in classes that we had together.
We all thought that being underage and drinking beer was OK, with the typical misconception that drinking beer made us cool. The need to seem older and more sophisticated than our peers at school made us do stupid things like that. Some members of our group had more trouble than others with growing out of that bad choice.
Our teenage years are difficult at best, and can be devastating at the worst. Successfully navigating those years was often dictated by who you had around you. If you had someone to either look up to for an example, or listen to for guidance, it made a world of difference. Some of us figured out how we were being “extra stupid” on our own.
It wasn’t really apparent to us at first that Pollard had a drinking problem. We were after all still teenagers and a year younger than him. The guy always had a beer on him when he was away from school, but he never seemed to get drunk when we were around him. He started skipping school and going to work instead, more and more all the time. He said it was because he “needed” more money.
Pollard lived by himself in a small three room cottage apartment in Davie. His father had run off when he was young, his brother died in Viet Nam during the early years when we were just there as “advisors,” and his mother had problems with alcohol and other substances of her own. His mother being a substance abuser was the one reason why we didn’t think that Pollard would get “that way.” We were wrong.
If he couldn’t get beer or hard liquor, he would drink cough syrup or anything with alcohol in it. Stan caught him straining Sterno through a cloth to drink because he was out of booze and money and needed a fix just like a junkie. We decided right then and there that we were going to put a stop to this before it killed him and/or us (he often drove the car with us in it.)
Pollard wasn’t left alone after the Sterno incident, and we wouldn’t allow him to take a drink of anything with alcohol in it. It was pretty tense for a long time. There were several fights and we didn’t fight fair, we’d gang up on him. We were determined to save our amigo and beat the booze.
After a few weeks it appeared that Pollard was over his craving for alcohol. We were elated, sure that we had won the battle. He told us that he was OK and didn’t feel the need for alcohol any more. It seemed like everything had worked according to our plans.
He had switched addictions and was chewing Redman and dipping Copenhagen or Skoal a lot more, but we figured that was a good trade off. No one thought about cancer much back then… well, the rest didn’t. I had lost my grandfather and an aunt to cancer in the previous ten years and the idea of getting cancer bothered me. We thought we had it all fixed, but we were wrong.
Somehow Pollard had hidden a bottle of vodka where we couldn’t find it and was “spiking” his tobacco products with it to get his fix. He repeatedly said that he really wanted to quit and knew that we loved him like a brother and only wanted to help him. He felt the same about us and wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt us. But alcohol was still ruling his life, in spite of what he wanted… until we found out about the vodka in his tobacco.
That discovery caused a blowout of huge proportions. As always we were “plotting against him,” (as he saw it) so he told us all “where to go and how to get there.” We had finally had enough of spending all of our time on him and angrily stormed out of his place and went to Stan’s house to discuss what to do next. It was decided to do nothing; the next move was Pollard’s.
A week went by and we hadn’t seen or heard from Pollard and we were getting worried; the “what if” scenarios kept playing out in our minds. Then on Saturday morning about 11:00 a.m. Stan got a call from Broward General Hospital. He in turn called Dubby and I and we sped to town.
Pollard had gone fishing on the sea wall by the jetties near Dania Beach. When he went to stand up he reached back over his head to grab the handrail that went all along the wall, missed, and fell over backwards. The drop was about ten feet.
He landed on his head on some great big rocks that were jumbled up all along the dry side of the sea wall. The one-point landing split his head open and knocked him completely out. The witnesses said that he didn’t move after he hit.
Fortunately for him there were several other people out there that day and one of them ran to a phone to call for an ambulance. The response was very quick as there was a beach substation less than two miles away. The crew had to climb down into the rocks to get to him and check him over.
Keep in mind that this was 1969 and procedures were not anything like what you see today when a Paramedic or EMT arrives. They picked Pollard up, sat him upright, and put a bandage against his head wound to stop the bleeding. While checking his vital signs they noticed that he had a kind of green pallor about his face.
He just didn’t look right to them so they hauled him up the seawall bodily and manually carried him to the parking lot. There they strapped him onto a gurney, loaded him into the ambulance and hit the lights and siren. They didn’t have a clue why he would be green, but they were sure that it wasn’t right and that they had to get him to the ER, ASAP!
What they didn’t know (and Pollard was a little too unconscious to tell them) was that he had about half a pack of Redman Chewing tobacco (non-alcoholic version) in his mouth when he fell. He swallowed it all, and I promise you, that will give you a green color!
The call Stan got was from Pollard himself, wanting more chew (or at least some snuff to dip) and he sounded clear and alert. We met at Stan’s and then got into Dubby’s Oldsmobile and went to the hospital. They indeed did have him registered there, but no, we couldn’t see him until after 5:00 p.m. They were running tests on him and would be all day.
So, we went over to Leroy’s Coffee shop and drank coffee until we thought the tide had come in and we were about to drown. Then we took a road trip to Boca Raton to see the new Horse Track and finally, we thought we had burned up enough time and drove back to Broward General.
It was only 4:30 p.m. and that grumpy Charge Nurse would rip our heads off if we bugged her again asking to get in early. So, we sat in the car and listened to Dubby’s tapes. He was called “Dubby” because he had a speech impediment and could not say the letter “W” correctly. It always came out sounding like “Dubby” and that was a bummer since his first, middle, and last names all started with “W.”
We waited out our time and it seemed like forever because Dubby only had country music tapes in his car. He always claimed that it was because nobody would steal them like they did rock music. I would have gladly given them away to anyone who wanted them, especially when Dubby decided to sing along. The guy was tone deaf and didn’t care what he sounded like.
While we waited we had been watching two little boys, around six and eight years old, playing in their car while the adults went inside. They were obviously brothers and had been fighting most of the time. All of the windows were rolled all the way down in a failed attempt to keep them cool.
The boys had been repeatedly jumping from the front to the back seat and back again. They played with everything in the car; especially anything that they weren’t supposed to touch. The cigarette lighter, the ashtrays, the horn, everything was fair game to them.
Before too long they were even bored of fighting with each other. The young boys were just kind of lying across the backs of the seats with that,” been there, done that, too bored to bother” look on their kissers. The only thing that they didn’t even consider was getting out of the car; that would have brought the wrath of mom down on them.
Dubby said that it was time to go in and Stan and I gave a cheer. It was less because we now got to go see Pollard, and mostly because it meant that Dubby would quit that infernal noise. He said, “What? Don’t you like my singing?” I told him the sounds he made would give a Barn Owl hot flashes and he chased me around some cars. That boy just couldn’t take a little friendly critique.
While we were running around cars, Stan had been talking with the two little boys that we had been watching. They wanted to know if we were real cowboys, and Stan said, “Yep,” which was cowboy talk for, “Uh huh.” Then they asked him what that was that he was putting in his mouth.
I failed to mention that Stan had a broad mischievous streak. He said, “Candy, do you want some?” The little brother of course said, “Yeah” (which was little kid talk for “Yep.”) Stan gave him a big wad of Redman chewing tobacco, which he quickly jammed into his mouth so his brother couldn’t have any of it. I had been the target of his practical jokes in the past myself, so I felt sorry for the kid.
We were almost to the front door when we heard the sound of the involuntary expulsion of foreign matter. The little guy was being dangled out the window held by the ankles by his big brother. He lost his wad of chew and probably his lunch too. I could hear the older one saying, “Don’t you get any of that on Momma’s car, I ain’t getting a beating for you.”
We slapped Stan in the back of the head and called him bad names for doing that to that little guy. He said that he just wanted to teach them the lesson not to take things from strangers. I told him that he just convinced those two that all that bad things being said about cowboys were true.
Pollard was wearing one of those silly open-down-the-back hospital gowns and every time he got out of bed his entire butt would hang out. The nurse thought it was cute, which really worried him. She looked like a Marine drill sergeant, and she told him that she was going to give him a sponge bath later. He wanted out of there!
We had smuggled in his chew (which he wasn’t supposed to have) and he promptly loaded up his jaw and eventually had to spit. He looked around for anything convenient to spit in, (that the nurse wouldn’t see right away anyway) and settled on the bedpan. It was stainless steel and held quite a bit.
Even though he was able to get up and go to the bathroom just fine, they still put the bedpan next to his bed. It freaked him out that the nurse asked him if he needed help using it every time that she came in to check on him. We of course, picked up on his aversion to her attention and teased him every way that we could think of about their “romance.”
We asked our amigo how he was feeling, really. What we wanted to know more than anything was if alcohol was involved in his accident, but none of us would ask. Pollard said that he was fine, just a cut on his head and they had sewed that up and he was as good as new. He stressed over and over that he couldn’t wait to get released… before “Nursey” came calling again.
In a moment of rising bravado I finally asked about his drinking and was he having any trouble needing a drink in there? He told us that after we left him on the day of the big argument, he sat down and took stock of his situation. That day he had come to the conclusion that he had to either quit drinking or die. Pollard said that he thought long and hard about which one he wanted.
He reached the decision that life was worth living and it was up to him to make it work. No one else should have to be responsible for his actions, and he hadn’t touched a drop since. He was afraid that he would backslide and was embarrassed about how he had acted. So he wanted to wait until he had a week of sobriety under his belt and knew for himself that he could do it.
According to him he had gone out to the jetties to fish and think about what to say to us, and then fell off the wall. There was a long silence where we thought about what he said and stared at this guy that we cared about, wanting to believe him. It was fair to say that there was a lot of doubt in that room.
Dubby said, “Pretty speech, but if you don’t mean it, we’re all through with you.” Stan and I stared him in the eyes and nodded our agreement…. he got the message.
It was past visiting hours by then, so we were about to leave when Dubby said that he had to go dump the bedpan somewhere, so Pollard wouldn’t get caught. The little monster took it to the Godzilla nurse and told her that Pollard had a bowel movement and it didn’t look right to him.
When the nurse looked in that bedpan and saw the chew spit and chunks of tobacco leaf all chewed and mashed (it did look awful) she nearly screamed. Dubby had said, “Get out of here quick” but didn’t say why. From the panicked look on his face we knew better than to delay.
She was heading for his room when we took off down the hall, at a very fast, I-wish-I-could-run-now speed. Pollard got to stay an additional night while they analyzed his “sample.” He not only got the sponge bath, Nursey gave him an enema as well to “clean him out.”
The next day, Sunday, he got “out” all right… when the sample turned out to be chewing tobacco spit they practically threw him out the front door. We were there waiting to pick him up, and give him more chewing tobacco. We knew it was a filthy habit, but still indulged in it anyway.
The good news was that Pollard got off the alcohol completely and the rest of us didn’t want much to do with it either. We had seen enough with his struggle to convince us to not let anything get grip on our lives like that. There was a funny (to us) side effect from Pollard’s hospital experience; he said that whenever he took a chew after that it gave him the weirdest feeling, like he had to go to the bathroom.
My family and I moved to Georgia the next year and I lost track of my friends. It is true that all of us have to go our separate ways in life. I like to think that we learned enough from those hard lessons to make better decisions.
I am sure that those other guys are still out there somewhere having fun; and probably at each other’s expense if I know them.
Epilogue:
Pollard and Stan are gone now, but Dubby is a wealthy business owner with a stack of kids and grandkids. I would bet that he is still playing that crappy music and singing along with it while he plays tricks on his friends.

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.
 
Epilogue:
 
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.
 
 
Epilogue
 
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.

Junior

Junior
 
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.

Second Chance Cafe

Second Chance Cafe 

It should be noted that life continues to march regardless of who we are, what we have done, or how much money we have. 

In most towns you can find a dining establishment that serves a good meal for a decent price. The often repeated advice given by experienced travelers is to, “Find the spot frequented by the locals, and follow them in.” As a kid I had heard the want-to-be wise men spouting, “Eat where the truckers eat, they always know the best spots.” Although I have found that last one had a bit more to do with where a driver could park his rig, than the quality of the food. 

Our town has many fast food establishments as well as what we refer to as “sit down restaurants” where wait staff take your order and bring your food to you. The former is perhaps cheaper, but to me the second choice is far more satisfying. 

As people get older and have less demand on them to provide for others, (which might be referred to as the “empty nest years”) they find that spending time slaving over a hot stove for two people no longer seems reasonable. It does still happen occasionally, just not often. 

Some people become full time “nibblers” and snack themselves out of wanting meals. Others eat fewer meals and exist on coffee or tea.Then there are those of us who combine all of that with a daily trip, (sometimes two) to a local eatery for both food and a certain amount of socialization. 

Many empty nesters say that something is missing since the house got so quiet. The simple fact is that two older adults do not make as much noise as even one child and most of the time there is quiet. 

What seems to drive many of the retired folks that we know to restaurants is not just freedom from cooking and cleaning up afterwards, but the chance to interact with other people. 

Our diner of choice I will call “The Second Chance Café,” which is not its real name, but it is safer that way. 

If you frequent the same establishment repeatedly over a period of time you get to be known as “regulars” and achieve a reputation with the staff as either good customers or “PITA” types with the first word of the acronym being “pain.” I’m sure that you can figure out the rest of it. 

Those who are students of human behavior or just good observers can have a lot of fun watching the antics of both customers and staff on any given day. There truly is a plethora of free entertainment to be had while you dine. 

People in the food industry have hard, physically demanding jobs. Add to that the aggravation of dealing with the public and the stress score climbs pretty high. There is a trait common to all of the restaurant workers that I have observed doing well in their jobs, and that is a good sense of humor. From manager to dishwasher and especially the servers (as waitresses and waiters are now called), it is a vital quality if you are  to make it longer than one week. 

Anyone who has ever worked with the public can tell you that interacting with customers is far harder than being isolated with just co-workers or solo jobs. 

When you throw in the attitude of many customers who have never had to deal with demanding individuals (like themselves) into the mix, it just gets crazy. 

Say what? 

The following examples were just a few of the things overheard in our local diner. 

“I am paying for this so whatever I want, it is your duty to provide it.” 

“Do you have vegan fish sticks instead of the all you can eat fish special? Oh, I don’t want them; I just wanted to know what kind of establishment you were running.” 

“Can you take 50% off of my bill, because I only ate half of my  hamburger?” 

“Why can’t you send the bus girl across the street to get me a beer? They have a liquor license.” 

“Can I have three large go-boxes and fill them up with more of the all-you-can-eat spaghetti? Well I can’t eat it now, but I can eat more, later. No, you can’t charge me for four meals, it is just one order.” 

“Why did you butter my toast? I wanted to butter it. No, I don’t want more butter, you have ruined my toast. I want you to take my entire meal off of the bill. You have wrecked my dining experience.” 

“What kinds of tomatoes were used in the making of this soup? You don’t know what kind of tomatoes Campbell’s uses in their soup? I should call the health inspector. What kind of joint are you running here?” 

I am really surprised that more bowls of soup aren’t dumped on people’s heads. 

We are evidently on the “good” list as we are greeted like family and hugged by waitresses and bus girls both upon arrival and departure. We were also the only non-employees (or their families) invited to the closed door Christmas party held at the restaurant. The staff all knows us by name and treat us like family all of the time. 

If I were being cynical I could say that it is because we probably spend more money there than any other customers and they like the financial support. But the truth is that the place is one big family. 

Many of the employees are related and those who aren’t have known each other for years. I have known many of them for years myself, having met them delivering their mail. Some of them knew Anna at the high school. For whatever small town reason, there is familiarity and closeness. 

The work environment is a happy one, with laughter being a near constant sound and very, very rarely is an angry sound heard from anyone. On the odd times that discord erupts, it is nearly always a customer fussing with someone that they came in with. 

The current manager was the lead waitress for several years and when the existing manager got fed up with her corporate bosses and the commute to work and quit, she stepped in without a hiccup in the operation as far as the general public could see. 

Within the first few days I could see the mood improving and the quality of the entire operation stepping up to a new level. A person with “from the ground up” knowledge was at the helm and respect was now a two-way street in the building. People tend to react positively to being shown respect. 

This restaurant is a special kind of place where everyone is made to feel welcome, the service is good, and the food is worth the money you pay for it. That combination is not as easily found as one might hope. 

So why do I call it the Second Chance Café? 

Like so many people working in low paying, demanding jobs, most of the staff have had rough spots in their lives and didn’t have the opportunity or good fortune to make it to (or through) college. Some have seen the  inside of the “barred hotel” and others have burned up eight of their nine lives with personal problems that that would have killed a weaker person. No one spends their youth dreaming of being a waitress in a small town café. At this establishment everyone is respected and equal. They are judged solely upon the effort they put in and how they conduct themselves now. The past is over. 

Another reason for the name would be the giving and supportive attitude of the entire group. When misfortune strikes, whether it be death, or house fire, or any number of calamities that can and do happen, whatever needs to be done, will be done. Money is raised, comfort is given, hours are covered, and places to live are found. They exhibit the finest qualities of humanity without hesitation. 

All waitresses are not (thankfully) created equal 

There are endearing qualities present in all of the servers and staff — some of it just won’t stay inside of them. 

The staff plays jokes on each other and keeps up a running banter of jibes and faux insults that you would have to be blind to not see through. To those of us who know them well it is easy to see that they love each other more than most blood-related families. 

One star of the floor show is empowered with an over abundance of awesomeness. She knows it, and we all know it. I have known this woman for more than twenty years and I can truly appreciate the difference between her former aggressive, obnoxious self and who she has become in the last few years. There is no one who can handle a full house like she does, and make you like it while you wait for your order to hit the window. Your meal comes out right, the food is hot, the drinks get refilled and she keeps you laughing the entire time you are there. It is no wonder that she is the top tip earner and the most requested server in the house. 

Another of the wait-staff warriors is a woman who is generous and giving to the extreme, often turning over her daily tips to a family member or a bus person who mentioned a need for something without a moment’s hesitation. She knows what it is like to have nothing and be hungry and I have seen her pay for a stranger’s meal out of her own pocket. She laughs so much that if she stops, we look to see what’s wrong. To say that she is a character is like saying that the Pope is a Catholic. 

One of the veteran servers is an accomplished horsewoman who not only can handle cranky horses, but can put an unruly customer into the back of a booth with a single glare. I am fortunate that she likes me and uses her powers for good and braids my beard for me. Nothing can get the plaits to lay flat and tight like her experienced hands. She also makes the cook fix my /quesadilla/ the right way and finds jalapenos for me when they have some. 

Another long time hash slinger is closer to our age and is raising a grandson which means that retirement is not an option and like it or not, she has to roll out early in the a.m. to put on the coffee for a few hundred folks. I have seen her in the place on her day off, popping up out of her booth to get coffee or tea for customers in her civilian clothes. She is always ready with a laugh and smile. 

Cooks are a tough crew 

Cooks at most restaurants are scary people. Many are given to angry outbursts and mood swings that make you think that they are all bipolar. Wait staff and managers alike have cautioned me against upsetting a chef or cook when I needed something out of the ordinary. I consciously look for the location of all knives and the available exits whenever I enter a professional kitchen, just as a habit. 

The Second Chance Café cooks labor for long hours trying to make every meal come out right and quickly, facing constant pressure to perform.They get oddball requests and last minute changes tossed at them by servers who are trying to give their customers what they want. To their credit I have not seen a meat cleaver thrown into a wall or a steak burned to a lump of charcoal in this restaurant like I did another eatery in this very town. It is a rare occasion that they even get upset to where the customers notice. I must lead a charmed life because I have never had an order request turned down in this restaurant. These cooks care about what they produce and it shows. 

Young people get into the profession for different reasons. Sometimes it is purely a lack of experience at any job and getting hired to wash dishes or bus tables is a doable entry level job. 

The latest hire into the floor staff tells me frequently that she is so happy to work at this restaurant and even though it is hard work and long hours she can’t wait to get there each day to see her coworkers. She has friends and a life, but knows the value of employment and feels fortunate that she has such a good work environment. 

One young shining star of the local eatery has lived far too fast and hard for her years and nearly ended before she began. Today she is living, learning, earning, and gaining respect for herself and from others who gave her the chance to act like the adult that she can be. Life is still one day at a time for her, but I have every confidence that the woman she is becoming will make her proud. She has an infectious laugh and a smile that melts bad moods on contact. She has gone from a bus girl who spilled everything that she touched, to handling (as the waitress) a full-on lunch rush solo with a prep cook chasing refills for her. 

There are young people who work at the diner because they have family members already there and it did give them a chance to get a foot in the door. Those folks have to perform twice as hard to meet the scrutiny of both boss and the relative who spoke up for them. It is not a cake walk for them as they soon learn. 

I am very pleased to be a part of a learning environment where we get to practice Spanish while helping others perfect their grasp on their second language at the same time. Several of the employees speak Spanish as their native tongue but must speak English to the customers and fellow staff members who do not know their language. Their progress is an inspiration and their patience with me as I mangle their language is a great lesson in how to behave. 

The work ethics shown by the least well paid employees at this restaurant is another lesson in how people should behave. They never do as little as possible to get by, which I have seen in many higher paid vocations. From the dishwashers to the food prep crews they bust their butts supporting the staff out front. They are willing (to the last person), to come out of the back and do whatever is necessary to make the operation work. On many occasions we have seen dishwashers acting as hosts, seating customers, taking their drink orders, carrying plates of food to tables, and then cleaning tables on the run so more people could be seated. They know that their tasks are still waiting and no one will be washing the dishes while they are doing the extra work, but they never hesitate. We should all be that willing to step up when needed. 

There are families that have three generations employed at this diner and it is a joy to be around them. The work ethic and enthusiasm is consistent from grandmother to granddaughter. They are a joy to be around and always earning their wages. 

It is both amazing and amusing to realize that I have known some of the people waiting on me since they were little children. 

One of the waitresses, who was a little girl when I delivered her grandmother and mother’s mail, now has kids of her own and takes care of me. A hostess/bus girl used to drive her mother crazy at work asking questions until she got parked in a corner with a coloring book. Now she hugs me when I walk in the door of the restaurant and before I leave. That doesn’t happen at Mickey D’s. 

Customers 

The customers who frequent our chosen oasis are even more varied than the staff and span the age range from newborn to over one hundred years young. The place has been open since 1966 and some of the original customers still get their morning coffee there. 

Some diners I have been in have a particular clientele made up of locals with the same opinions who seem to run off anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Since one of the commonly heard nicknames for our town is  “Fal-abama” you can probably guess how conservative and redneck things might be here. 

I am happy to report that while the “Good Ole White Boy” (Tea Party) contingent is still present, and still wanting things to go back to 1950, they have no control over this restaurant. 

The presence of the navy base brings a delightful mixture of humanity to add to our Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the influence of Burning Man is felt in a very positive way. The clientele is as diverse as the United Nations, and are better behaved (no diplomatic immunity.) 

I used to get harassed and called names because of my beard braids, and people with ink and/or piercings were rudely stared at until they left. That is no longer the case. Gay couples or mixed race couples were made to feel uncomfortable and in some cases refused service in this community as late as the late 1980’s. That is no longer openly true (you can’t fix everyone) here and most certainly not at the Second Chance Café. 

There are characters that make the world unique and like them or not, they do add color to the mixture. 

One such person is a very large man with a burning need to be the center of attention. Not just the focus of his captive group seated with him, but everyone within earshot of his always too-loud voice. He will often wear a top hat to the diner and sometimes rides up on his Harley and revs the motor loudly before shutting it off, to let everyone know that he has arrived. The man says whatever he can to cause the most controversy, upset the most people, and agitate the largest group. He lives for argument. 

There are people who are referred to in diner language as “campers,” meaning that they “camp out” (usually in a booth) and spend hours drinking coffee or tea and don’t order anything else. This ties up the seating and  cuts into the profit made from “turning” tables quickly. The real money is made from turning tables as often as possible, not from which meal customers order. This is why the most successful restaurants have bus people cleaning tables as quickly as customers get up, and frequently come by and take the “finished” dishes out of your way. It isn’t “to give you more room” as they are trained to say, but to cut down the reset time when you leave. 

The Second Chance Café has its share of campers, some of whom are senior citizens who will generally take a table and hold court for several hours in the middle of the day between lunch and dinner. They are not too much of a problem and do order a meal or two among the group. 

A far more problematic group comes around in the evening hours and is usually young people who will attempt to camp out in a prime corner booth where they can put their legs up and stretch out. They usually order water to drink and share large orders of French fries, making a mess all over the table with salt and ketchup and if left unchecked will get loud and rowdy. This is the group that unscrews the lids on the salt and pepper containers and spills water “accidentally” into the artificial sweetener holder. By the time they leave their tab will be five dollars or less, they leave no tip, and the booth looks like a group of toddlers had a confetti party. The cleanup efforts take forever and it adversely affects all of the tables around them. As you might guess they are very unpopular with the understaffed and overworked swing shift crew. 

The toughest campers to deal with are on the midnight shift. These are frequently people who have had too much to drink and/or have nowhere to go. People under the influence of whatever, are unpredictable at best.  They hang out for hours and vent their frustrations on the staff. This can make the graveyard shift a scary shift to work with only three people on duty. To make it worse sometimes if it is slow the supervisor lets one person go home early. 

In recent years we have seen homeless people use their panhandling money to buy a cup of coffee (and free refills,) spending all night inside where it is warm and there is a bathroom. If they behave themselves and stay  awake (no sleeping allowed) they are usually tolerated at the Second Chance Café. People who work there understand what being down on your luck is like and aren’t as quick to toss people to the curb. 

We are part of the growing group of “I don’t want to cook” customers who have enough disposable income to exercise the option of paying someone else to handle the kitchen duties. We trade the grocery bill and entertainment allowance (we don’t drink or gamble) for a restaurant bill. 

The Second Chance Café gives us another chance to interact with people and have a sort of second family to pick up the slack where our own busy family has departed. Life is good and every day is another adventure with old friends. I’ll drink (iced tea) to that! 

Life in the half-fast lane

Life in the half-fast laneLife as I see it from the middle lane, where we no longer scream along like a runaway rocket, nor are we looking to exit.

Situations

On the road

We all know the scenario: the guy in front of us is going slower than the speed limit, while the guy behind us is trying to set a new land speed record. Frustration, anger and a rebirth of all of the bad language that ever got our mouths washed out with soap, surfaces without restriction. We are pissed off and feel completely justified for being that way. How can they let that idiot drive when he can’t even maintain the speed limit! What is that nut trying to do behind me, cause an accident? You slow down and keep to the right, letting rocket man do whatever he is going to do.

You can’t know the what or why of their situation, only what you have control over. Somehow we get through the predicament and move along to the next one.

In the store

Sometimes you get behind a person in the express lane at the grocery store (you know, the one with the 10 or 20 item limit) and it is obvious that they have many more things in their cart than the limit. Now what? Do you make a fuss? Does the checker make a fuss and risk delaying the whole process even longer? If the checker stands up to the numerically-challenged individual she risks bringing down the wrath of the young punk assistant manager on her head, because “the customer is always right” (as per the management handbook). You both (you and the checker) give the miscreant “the look” and just let it slide. To do otherwise would just add grief to your life and one more nut, more or less, won’t matter in the long run.

Choose your battles wisely. Is it life or death? Will an innocent person suffer because you failed to act? Is it necessary? Is it wiser to let things go and keep your blood pressure down?

At the drive-through

I recently witnessed a strange act of impatience and anger. An undecided person was at the ordering station of a drive-through fast food place, you know the kind; no idea what they want or even IF they want what is on the menu. It would seem logical or sensible to us that they would figure that out before they got in line, but they didn’t. Behind this person was also someone that we can identify with, the hurried worker who only has a thirty minute lunch break and half of that is used up driving to the restaurant. Stress was rearing its ugly head as Mr. Impatient began to yell at Ms. Undecided and bang on the outside of his own car door. This only served to fluster the young lady and she couldn’t get her order right. The angry man yelled obscenities and attempted to pass the car in his way and depart. He gunned the motor and managed to drive up and over the concrete curbing and promptly hung his car up on the bushes planted in that divider. The young lady got scared and drove through the lane, right past the delivery window and out of there. Mr. Impatient now had to wait for Mr. Policeman AND a tow truck. I’m pretty sure that his boss won’t be amused. I know that the restaurant manager wasn’t.

Someone else does a silly or unthinking action, or possibly a selfish one, and we react by getting angry and losing control. Have we gained anything? I would say no.

It all comes down to us

We get angry at young people because they do things without thinking, acting on impulse and living life faster than their brains can keep up with. I think that perhaps we are just resentful that we no longer are able to live without care, having learned responsibility and being accountable for our actions. There is also the physical restrictions that age places on us, a little at a time.

Sometimes we get frustrated at elderly folks for being so slow and forgetful, making us repeat everything that we say, and often for not caring about what is important to us. The real reason is that we are afraid that we are becoming just like them and we don’t want it. We are still trying to hold onto the youth that we no longer have and fear being less than we once were.

I can tell you that image is NOT everything, regardless of what the advertising says. Who you are remains the same.

Let me leave you with this challenge:

Strive to be at least as nice to others, as your dog is to you.

The world will be a better place and we will all be happier, together.