Monday, October 27, 2008

The Subtle Signs of Spring

Tony Hillerman died last Sunday. He was 83. He died from what was reported as pulmonary failure. The lungs fill with fluid and you stop breathing, but it’s all related to congestive heart failure. Tony had survived two heart attacks and surgeries for prostate and bladder cancer. In his last years he was losing his eyesight, hearing, and had rheumatoid arthritis so advanced that it made it very difficult for him to continue pounding on his keyboard, but he did. I think I’ve read most every book he wrote, and have recommended him to countless others.

But what makes Tony Hillerman special to me, and why I am, maybe, more affected by his death, is I had the pleasure of taking classes from him at the University of New Mexico. He was an integral part of the Journalism Department when I attended undergraduate classes there in the early 1980s. I had him for several core classes. He was a past executive editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican and started his journalistic career as a reporter and editor for the Borger News-Herald in Borger, Texas. He also worked for the Morning Press-Constitution in Lawton, Oklahoma, and related a lot of stories about his days with United Press International in Oklahoma City. Tony later became head of the Journalism Department after I had graduated.

One class I had with him, on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10:00, was one geared towards editorial and column writing. Professor Hillerman would have us write short pieces every week about any subject, which he would then review, grade, and pass around for all the students to read if he thought they were good enough to share. Only one of my submissions was copied for the class that semester, as I remember. Each week, on Friday, after passing out the work, he would take us, individually, out in the hallway, and give us feedback on our effort for the week.

One spring day on my way to school, I drove by this rather rotund lady bending over pulling weeds out of her flower garden, with, as I put it in the later piece, “Her posterior pointing heavenward and casting a shadow the length of the lawn.” It was a column about the subtle signs of spring, and I was rather proud of it.

Tony had, of course, read all my work. I know he did because I’ve still got his copious notes in red pencil all over the now yellowed typed copies. You paid attention to his critique because he was a published author, a mystery writer. He would later be President of the Mystery Writers of American, and winner of their Grand Master Award. He would also win the Golden Spur Award from Western Writers of America, among others.

So that Friday, after all the stories had been graded and returned, and the reading for the period passed out, Professor Hillerman called me out to the hallway about half-way through the session. He said that this was the best thing he had read of all my work and he emphasized that I should stick with humor writing. He went on to say that good humor writers are hard to find but usually an easier road to success, and that I could be “The next Mark Twain.” Oh yes, he said it, and for years I wanted to believe that he thought I was good enough to be the next Mark Twain. He didn’t say Royko, or Rooney, he said Twain. Of course, I think we all know what he probably meant, in context. I would settle for being the next Jean Shepherd, Robert Fulghum, Patrick McManus, or Tom Bodett, those being some of my personal favorites.

Speaking of favorites, one of my favorite Hillerman novels is one of the few that does not take place on the Navajo Reservation, “A Fly on the Wall.” In this book, the lead character is newspaper reporter, John Cotton, who stumbles onto a story of government corruption after the mysterious death of a friend and fellow reporter. We end up in New Mexico, though, in the end, fly-fishing on the Brazos River, where John Cotton is almost murdered. It was one of Hillerman’s earlier books, and we never got another book with John Cotton as a character. It didn’t get good reviews, but, I still count it as one of my favorites.

We did get several novels with two of his more famous characters, Lt. Joe Leaphorn, and Jim Chee. Professor Hillerman told us during one class session of how he had to buy back those characters so he could use them again. He had made the mistake of selling full rights to a studio for a movie that never materialized. He said all he could think of at the time was how excited he was that they were going to make a movie out of his book, how he was about to become rich, and he trusted his agent. The latter mistake he didn’t make again. After a few years of nothing from the studio, he decided to write another book surrounding his characters, and that is when he found out that he no longer held the rights to them, even though the studio had no intention of going forward with the movie. So for a price that Tony Hillerman indicated was a “bunch of money”, and a hard lesson, he bought his own characters back so he could include them in future books.

Four of the Navajo mysteries did make it to film. The first, “The Dark Wind”, which starred Lou Diamond Phillips, was supposed to be a theatrical release in 1991. However it was never shown in theatres and went directly to video. I remember there was a lot of controversy during the filming in New Mexico centered on the use, or lack of use, of native actors in major roles. In 2002, PBS’s Mystery, aired “Skinwalkers”, and “Coyote Waits” in 2003. “A Thief of Time” was the last film made of Hillerman’s work and aired in 2004.

Tony Hillerman was a decorated war hero too. He was a member of the 103rd Infantry Division that sailed from New York in convoy four months after D-Day on Oct 6, 1944. On October 20th they entered the port of Marseilles, in the south of France. Known as the Cactus Men, they were the first Allied troops to enter the port following the German withdrawal. The Germans had defended it strongly following D-Day in June.

The 103rd committed into it’s first action on Nov. 11, 1944 near St. Die. From there they began a six-month campaign, covering 500 miles up the eastern side of France, spending Christmas and New Year’s in foxholes, and finally making contact with the 5th Army in May of 1945 in Austria. It was during this campaign, at Lorraine-Alsace, that Professor Hillerman was severely wounded having both of his legs shattered. He returned to Oklahoma with a Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. He always walked a bit labored, although few of us knew why.

So another in a line of people that have had an impact on my life is gone. He leaves the world better for having been in it, and a legacy of over 20 books and numerous citations to his credit. He was a success. He was acclaimed. I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to know him.

I have to admit I haven’t worked very hard to attain that expectation of being the next Mark Twain, but I haven’t given up yet.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Voyage of the Titanic - An Epic RV Adventure

Chapter 1 – Sounded Doable

I remember getting the call, but I don’t remember actually getting it, if you know what I mean. I don’t know if I was at home, work, or on the way to or from work. I know the call came on January 15th, 1997. Not a day that will live in infamy, necessarily, but a date I remember for some reason. I might have gotten the call on the cell phone. We actually had one at the time, the big bulky flip phone with the antennae and the roaming charges. When you were out of the 2 mile service area that rarely worked, you paid a roaming charge. If you used your cell phone a lot, it was like taking on the national debt. Roaming charges were ugly.

“Daddy,” the voice said excitedly, “Tracy and I are finally getting married.” If I was out of the service area when I heard that announcement, it had already cost me $5.50. They’re right about weddings being expensive.

“Well congratulations,” I said. “When is the wedding?”

“June 6th. I’m so excited. We’re going to have it at the canal park, in the gazebo. It’s really beautiful. Flowers everywhere. You have to be there. I want you to give me away.” This call was going to cost me a fortune whether it was inside the service area or not.

I had already technically given her away to my ex-wife about 5 years ago when they moved to Buffalo, New York with her new husband. The second one or third one, I’m not really sure. Actually it was North Tonawanda, New York. Kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it, ton-a-wan-da? The new husband was from there originally, I guess, maybe not. I figure it’s an American Indian word for “Suburb of Buffalo.” Like Tucson, where I was living at the time, being an Indian word for “The spring at the bottom of Black Mountain.” But, actually it is. Indian shorthand of sorts, one word replaces eight. Probably have a hand sign that eliminates the word altogether. Bet it utilizes a middle finger.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “We’ll be there.” How in the hell we were going to accomplish that feat, I wasn’t at all sure.

We were barely, and I stress that word, getting by, paycheck to paycheck, living in a 20-year-old double-wide, in a mobile home park that was a few miles east of the “Corridor of Death”. So named by the local Tucson press to identify the area where the majority of homicides had occurred in the Tucson area in the last few years. This corridor pretty much ran the length of the main drag in South Tucson, an incorporated city by itself, also known as the barrio. We had lived in the area for three years now. The very day we were moving in there was an incident involving firearms. Police were everywhere, and they kept our U-Haul truck from entering the park for several hours while they cleared up the matter. We should have known then. No one was hurt, and they found the suspect hiding under his girlfriend’s trailer we learned later. No one was hurt except me, who had to pay for an extra day on the U-Haul truck in order to finish moving in.

I had to leave town the next day, and left my wife and daughter to fend for themselves without water, electricity, heat, and facing a possible armed conflict in a high crime area. I left them for a week. It was because I had to be in California for training on my new job. I was staying at the Holiday Inn outside of LA and although I had heat, electricity and water, I also had a hotel full of cheerleaders running through the halls screeching, playing in the elevators, and practicing their routines at the pool, in the lobby and any other open space they could find. I was slowly going insane. My wife and daughter, to this day, have not forgiven me for leaving them without utilities in the drab little double-wide though. I, to this day, insist I suffered more. These weren’t Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, or even high school cheerleaders, it was a competition for Pop Warner cheerleaders. Yep, average age of 8.

Did I mention the drive-by shooting at the nearby high school? That changed the face of high schools throughout the city a few years back, and was also one of the homicides chalked up in the “Death Corridor.” It happened at my daughter’s new high school. High schools throughout the city now had fences, razor-wire, and guards. It was said that our prisons looked like schools and our schools like prisons. They looked at least similar to me. The difference being one was to keep people in and the other was to keep people out. Although, once you were on the high school campuses, getting out wasn’t easy either.

I only tell you all this so you understand the conditions we were living under, and why the idea of purchasing a Class A motor home and driving it across country 5,000 miles might have been a bit insane, even if we could have afforded it.

But that is exactly what Plan A became. We would buy an RV, a used one surely, drive it to Buffalo, NY in four days, go to the wedding, and save all kinds of money by staying in our own “hotel”. We added the Ford Museum, Hannibal, Missouri (boyhood home of Mark Twain), Canada, Niagara Falls, and would hit Washington DC and Graceland on the way back. Sounded doable, at least it did at the time. We immediately began shopping for the motor home.

We had recently owned a “conversion van” of 70s vintage. Those are the Class B motor home classification. They have a raised roof, or a lowered floor, so you can stand in them, a pull out bed, table, a stove, sink and ice box with some limited cabinet storage. We had completely remodeled the inside of this one, and then sold it, at a considerable loss, after the transmission went out. I remember my father, who was visiting when the transmission went out, saying “That’s too bad, it still has good rubber.” I think that goes back to the war days when rubber was a scare commodity and tires that weren’t bald were just as scarce. “Good rubber” became a very important element in this greatest of RV adventures to come.

Transmission failure was the monkey on my back. Every used car I had owned in the last five years had developed transmission problems. I had had two of them rebuilt on two different vehicles and they amazingly cost the same amount: $1,700. I chose not to rebuild the van’s transmission, but I’m sure it would have cost $1,700. I took a road trip with a friend once, and the transmission went out on his car in the middle of the night outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma. The monkey didn’t care if I owned the car or not. The nice old mechanic, that worked all day on a Sunday to rebuild the transmission, charged us $1,700.

The Class B was a Chevy van. Yeah, can’t you almost hear Sammy Johns belting out the chorus about making love in his Chevy Van? Our Chevy van was known as the “Park N Bark” by our friends, because of a local dog grooming business that used an identical vehicle. We called him Bernie. He had a gas-sucking V8, a foot of extension at the back, and a foot and a half of fiberglass roof cap that ran the length of the conversion. We put a swamp cooler in it (not able to afford the preferred AC unit) so we could survive the Arizona summers, the dry heat travels even to the highest elevations, and we had gone camping in it on many occasions. It was the first of a long line of Recreational Vehicles we would own over the years. The Class A motor home was the dream though.

We actually drove a used one on the same consignment lot where we had purchased Bernie. It was great sitting in the armchair driver’s seat and maneuvering the coach the few blocks the dealer let me drive it. It was fully self-contained, had automatic levelers and the coach was in excellent condition with less than 12,000 miles on it. We didn’t have anywhere near the $28,000 asking price, so I reluctantly gave back the keys and told him that, even though it was, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. That was a year prior to Plan A, but it was where the dream to own a Class A started.

It so happened, that every day on my way to work, I passed a dirt lot with a bunch of motor homes on it that looked every bit like a junk yard. I had always thought it was a place where motor homes went to die and be parted out. But it had a sign out front, “Desert RV”, and there were a few coaches parked under the sign that appeared to be in one piece, possibly running, and for sale. I starting thinking this might be a place to get a bargain on a used coach. They obviously enjoyed a low overhead, and maybe they passed that savings on to the buyer by way of their margins. Here we might be able to get a Class A that we could possibly afford. Well, could at least afford the down payment. I’d seen many an older motor home still running down the road, and I knew that mileage was usually low on these units. People just didn’t get to use them much after they bought them. They ended up parked for months at a time in storage yards, beat to death by the elements so the outsides looked grim but the interiors were often in excellent shape. Even if their past owners were “full-timers”, people that actually lived in them, whether by choice or otherwise, they usually stayed in one place for long periods of time.

So I told my wife about it, and that following Saturday, sometime in March 1997, we drove up to the sales shack, I’m not kidding, on the lot of Desert RV and parked in front. Immediately I noticed that I was right about the junk yard. There were motor home parts and pieces everywhere behind the chain link fence with the razor wire. This was predominantly a place were moving vehicles no longer could be made to move. As soon as we got out of the car, the proverbial car salesman emerged from the shack. He was dressed in yellow plaid pants, a noticeable amount short of the tops of his white, I’m still not kidding, white leather shoes with a matching white leather belt. The wrinkled short-sleeved white shirt clung to his ample frame and looked like he had slept in it for several days, maybe weeks. Dark circles of sweat were visible under his arms and the way he smelled, I was going with weeks. A crumpled and stained yellow tie rounded out the ensemble. He reached out his meaty hand and I reluctantly shook it.

“Well, what can I do for you folks today?”

“We’re looking for a motor home,” I said.

“I see”, he said. “Well we have a few here. How much are you’all thinking of spending?” This is the trap question, the one that drags you in to commitment, the question that limits to a great extent what you are going to be shown. This question has to be answered carefully.

“We’re just looking,” I said. It clearly didn’t please him, but he kept up the cheerful front.

“Well, what do ya want to look at?” He put an emphasis on the word “look”

I had my eye on a Class C that was a step up from a conversion van, but still built on a van chassis. Class Cs have the signature cab-over bed. He opened up the door and we climbed inside. I could tell right away that she didn’t like it. The “she” being my wife.

“What do you think?” I said. “Pretty nice. Lots of room. Looks like it’s in good condition. Look, it only has 75,000 miles on it.” I added that last part pointing at the odometer as though we should really believe what the odometer reading was.

“Has brand new rubber on it,” the salesman said. “Hardly driven a’tall. Look at how good a condition everythin’ is. Looks to most like brand new. And I guarantee everything works, or we’ll make it work ‘fore you take delivery. We stand by what we sell.”

Our salesman’s name was, you’re not going to believe this, Charles Manson. I swear to god. He gave me a business card with “Desert RV, “Charles A. Manson”, the address, and a phone number crossed off on the bottom, and a new number penned in. I wondered if he did it on all the business cards he had or just a few at a time. I could see him sitting at his desk in the shack passing the time by crossing off the phone number on his business cards and writing in the new one.

“I’ll bet you get a lot of comments about your name,” I snickered.

“Not much, why?” he replied.

I let it go. I could hardly wait to tell everyone that Charlie Manson was trying to sell me a motor home.

When Barb stepped inside the 1982, 33 1/2 foot Fleetwood Southwind, with the queen bed in the back, there was no turning back

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Minute I left Garcia's

I did it again. I’ve done it several times in my storied career. If I had been alive in the 1940s, there would have been a lot of ships sunk. “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, the famous slogan from World War II. Someone tells you something, they tell you not to tell anyone, or specifically a certain individual, and you do it anyway, for whatever reason, probably an abbreviated version of the something leaving out key identifying source information, and it invariably gets back to the source who told you not to tell, that you did. The interesting point of all that, is the person that told you the something in the first place, was probably told the same thing, not to tell anyone.

The impact to me of these “breaches of trust” has been loss of friends, loss of jobs even, and loss of being trusted with “sensitive” information. The worst thing the teller of the something can say to you is “I guess I can’t trust you anymore.” Trust me to do what, not do what they just did, or when did they actually decide they trusted me with information they were entrusted with? That’s right; don’t tell me, or most anybody for that matter, anything, because it will probably be repeated. In my experience, it runs about 90% of the time that you tell someone not to say anything, they do it anyway, and to someone they trust not to tell.

As I was getting the full diatribe about the breach from the person yesterday about the something, I flashed back immediately to the feeling I had the day Glenn Holm called me into the break room first thing on a Monday morning in 1973 to tell me we were no longer friends. It was an absolutely horrible feeling and it’s stayed with me to this day. It wasn’t a breach of trust, per se, it was that situation where you tell someone you ‘trust’ something, and you trust they won’t repeat it to the person you said it about, because you don’t want the person you’re talking about to know what you said about them, and the person you told knows that right up front. But they tell anyway, and in this case, they told the minute I left Garcia’s. I guess the information was just too good.

Glenn and I started at Mountain Bell in Laramie, Wyoming, at virtually the same time. He was hired as a Commercial Representative and I transferred to Laramie from Santa Fe, NM, as a Service Representative. Similar jobs, but one paid twice as much as the other, and it wasn’t my job title. When I first checked into the job openings available in the Laramie office I talked with Office Manager Charles (Chuck) Holt, and he told me that he did indeed have a Service Rep opening, but said nothing about the Commercial Rep opening that was also available. Now this was right around the time that AT&T had signed a consent decree with the government to put more emphasis on non-traditional jobs, putting women outside hanging from the poles, and putting men inside sitting at the desks and switchboards. Chuck having me as a Service Representative in his office of six woman was perfect for him to meet his quotas. The Commercial Rep job was traditionally a male job because one of the responsibilities besides acting as an Assistant Manager was collecting the pay phones, a job which required lifting hundreds of pounds of coins from the car to the airport freight terminal. Glenn was his man for that job.

So I show up with my family, wife and infant daughter, find an apartment, and go to work a few months after that first conversation. Glenn had already been working for a few weeks, remember, in an office full of woman, and gladly took me under his wing when I started. We immediately hit it off, taking coffee breaks together, talking football, wives, women, the usual stuff. Hanging out after work at a happy hour now and then, or watching Monday Night Football at his house, going to the Wyoming Cowboys’ games, and even going to get a “Dream Steak for Four” in Bosler after the game once with our wives. The thing was, Glenn was paying for everything; the drinks, the game tickets, the dinner tabs, and the beer on Monday night. I wasn’t making enough money to pick up a tab at the time, let alone afford to go out and have drinks, but I truly looked forward to the day when I actually could reciprocate. I’ve bought a lot of dinners, drinks, tickets and beer since those days, but I never got to pay back Glenn for any of it, and I always felt bad about that.

The breach of trust incident occurred at one of those after work, Friday night Happy Hours. The ones where you get home at 1:00 am but you promised your wife you would only be going out for an hour or so. After a few drinks too many, sitting with Glenn, myself, and three other guys from work, all in outside plant jobs, I said the something to Tim next to me, when Glenn went to pee. I probably don’t need to add that Glenn was buying for everybody.

Tim said to me something like “Glenn’s sure a nice guy, isn’t he?” We were almost at that “love ya man” point in our drinking that evening.

I said something like “Yeah, but I should have had his job.” I went on to describe how that damn Chuck Holt hadn’t even told me about the opening and I was certainly qualified and that it was all about this damn Equal Employment Opportunity shit, and I think I finished right about the time Glenn got back to the table. That’s what I said and that’s how I remember it.

True to form, as most often is the case, what I said, got embellished quite a bit in the retelling by none other than Tim whom I expected, drunk or not, not to tell Glenn I had said those things. I left shortly after Glenn returned, because I had made the mistake of calling home and telling my wife I would be home in an hour, three hours ago, and well, it was just time for me to go home. I thanked Glenn profusely for buying yet again and headed out the door.

That following Monday morning Glenn walked up to me the minute I arrived and said he needed to talk to me. We went to the break room and I got my coffee. Glenn was sitting back from the table arms folded in front of him, waiting for me to sit down. I had no idea what was up, but it didn’t look good.

And that’s how I started the conversation, “Man, what’s the matter?”

“Look,” he started, “I don’t mind picking up the tab for people, I like doing it, but I don’t like it when somebody talks behind my back.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I stammered back.

“You know. I pay for your drinks, I’ve paid for you and your wife to go out to dinner, I’ve picked up the tab a lot, and then you go and tell people that you should have had my job? I don’t get it?” There was an awkward pause. “But it’s over. I’m not doing it anymore.”

I sat there literally stunned. I couldn’t talk. This feeling of incredible sadness came over me and it seemed like all the strength was being sucked out, not knowing if I was feeling sorry for myself or what I had done.

“Glenn, that’s not what I meant. I just meant I should have had a chance at the job, not that you shouldn’t have gotten it.”

“That’s not what I heard you said. Tim says to me, ‘What’s that guy have it out for you or something? Told me he deserved the Commercial Rep job, not you. Kind of biting the hand that feeds him isn’t it?’”

“I don’t let people do that to me. That’s it, he said, consider us done.”

The words stung and I just sat there. No argument was going to change this. I had said it after all. He got up from the table and walked out, back to his desk at the back of the office. I did the same.

Not too long after that, Glenn quit Mountain Bell and bought the Sears Outlet franchise in Cody, Wyoming. I offered to come over the Saturday morning they were moving and help them load up the U-Haul truck. He told me to come by around 10:00. When I drove up to his house that morning, the U-Haul truck was driving off. He couldn’t have timed it better. Man, you can believe how that felt.

My wife and I were traveling through Cody on our way to Yellowstone Park a few summers later, and I drove down Main Street to find Glenn and Nancy Holm’s Sears Outlet store. I found it easy enough. Right there on Main Street. Glenn was outside sweeping the sidewalk when I drove up and he recognized me right away. He ran up to the car window and asked how we were doing. What we were doing in Cody. The usual stuff. He wanted us to come on in and get caught up. I told him we couldn’t; we had to get going to make the park by dark. We had reservations. He understood.

“Good to see you,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Have a good time in Yellowstone.”

That was the last time I saw him, but I think about him a lot. Every time I’m in one of those “breach of trust” situations. The feeling is always the same. I wish people wouldn’t tell me things. Maybe someday I’ll learn to tell them I don’t want to know.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Have You Been Drinking This Evening, Sir? - Relief and Disbelief

My appearance date was set two months out, so I would be expected to appear and, of course, plead “not guilty” on the appointed date in May. I counted the days, made sure I knew where to go (remember I had lived in Tucson for less than a year), checked on everything I could find about DUI on the web, asked everybody I knew about what to expect, and scheduled a vacation day for that date. The one thing I didn’t do was get an attorney.

As the date approached I got more and more nervous about what was going to happen to me and less and less comfortable with my decision not to enlist the help of a capable attorney. My decision was predicated by the fact that I didn’t have even close to enough money to pay for one. So, I was hoping at the very least, I would get a public defender assigned to my case. I watched enough TV to know how this process worked, not having any direct experience with the criminal justice system.

On the appointed date, I headed down into the bowels of the city of Tucson, found the Municipal Court Complex and waited outside the door for the building to open with a handful of other unhappy looking people. I was told I would find my docket number, assigned courtroom and judge on a bulletin board just inside the door. I found the board with a list of close to 75 people, just inside the door on the left. I crowded to the front, got the information and wrote it down on the legal pad I had lifted from work.

Okay, have 2 hours to kill before court is in session. Judge William McCoy. Court Room number 575. “I wonder if he’s the ‘real McCoy,’” I thought, trying to make light of my current situation.

I headed for the court building and sat in the courtyard wondering how I had landed myself in the dregs of society. You know what I mean, there is a certain segment of the group milling about the courtyard that is familiar with the system, and then there is that other small group that looks, worried, upset, lost and totally out of place. I was definitely in the latter. I read for a while, and then watch the people. I’m intrigued by a girl standing on the corner of the courtyard yelling up three stories to some guy who is leaning out the window of the detention center.

“They’re not letting me out, Maria,” he screams down onto the street.

“What am I supposed to do?” Maria says. She looks around to see who is watching. I avert my eyes to the sidewalk. “I don’t have enough money to get bail. I don’t know what to do.”

“You have to get me outta here,” he pleads. I’m surprised that they are not speaking in Spanish, as most of the others in courtyard. “Please get me outta here. Go talk to (I can’t make out the name.) She’ll help you.”

“I don’t know what to do,” she repeats. “Miguel, what I’m supposed to do.”

Almost instantly he turns ugly. “Get the fuck outta of here,” he screams, “Useless fucking bitch! Just get the fuck outta of here!” he pauses for effect. “Puta! What the fuck good are you?” and he disappears into the building. She looks around the courtyard again to see who might be watching. The entire courtyard is watching.

She screams up, “Miguel!” No one comes to the window. The windows are slender, tall, and tinted very dark, with the bottom foot or so, folding out. He had to stick his head out the window to talk to Maria, but he doesn’t reemerge.

I immediately feel sorry for her, but know there is nothing I can or will do to help. She waits a few minutes then walks out of the courtyard and down the street. I think she’s probably more worried about him getting out, and I wonder just how much she did to facilitate his release. She almost seemed to skip down the street when she was leaving. We, the dregs of society, look at each other for a moment and then go on with what we were doing, reading the paper, reading a book, or smoking a cigarette, waiting for our appointed hour to arrive.

“Can I bum a smoke?” A horrible foul smell reaches my nostrils. I look up to see a guy in a tattered brown blazer standing very near to me, but not in front of me, so I didn’t see him approach. He’s wearing a straw cowboy hat. There’s a pretty large hole in the crown. His front teeth, bottom and top, are missing. He’s not carrying anything, but is obviously a member of the homeless society. There are a lot of them in Tucson because it’s warm most of the year. I don’t want to give him a smoke. I want him to get a job. I realize that’s not realistic. I tell him instead it’s my last one.

He sees the pack in my shirt pocket, so he doesn’t believe me.

“Come on man, I need a smoke.”

I reach in my pocket and pull out the pack intending to give him one. He snatches the pack out of my hands before I have a chance to react, and is sprinting out of the courtyard at a pretty good clip. I can imagine the satisfaction on his face. It pisses me off, but there is nothing I can do about it. I’m not chasing some homeless person through the streets of downtown Tucson for a half-empty pack of cigarettes. I notice how I think it’s half-empty instead of half-full.

It’s now 9:30 and I’m to be in the courtroom by 10:00. I start for the door and the metal detectors, and I notice several others are moving in the same direction. Someone else presses my floor on the elevator buttons, and I watch the numbers. We stop on every floor. When 5 is highlighted I get out. Four others get off on this floor as well. I’m struck by how much this reminds me of a college classroom building. I find 575 and go inside. There are two guys in suits, one girl in a yellow pantsuit, and a uniformed person, walking around the front of the room, behind the railing and in front of the bench. The suits, all three of them, are stacking files, pulling stuff out of briefcases, preparing.

I take a seat in the middle row close to the aisle. The room is starting to fill up. I sit there staring at the suits, my hands clasped to the paperback book I brought. I want a cigarette, but I know I don’t have them anymore and I can’t smoke in here anyway. One of the attorneys from the Tucson Prosecutor’s Office starts calling off names. I’m pretty sure I heard my name. Pretty sure, so I listen up.

“Those people I just called, please come down to the front row and take a seat,” he says.

Yellow pantsuit smiles at us as we shuffle into the front row. There are six of us, four guys and two girls. We range in age from, say, 24ish to 50ish, I’m guessing.

The attorney reads the names again. Now I’m sure I’m in the right place. I heard my name clearly. One of us is missing. His name is called twice, then the file returned to the desk stack, the remaining manila folders, he holds between his hands, and looks directly at us.

“You all tested below the legal limit,” he says, “charges are being dropped. You are all free to go.”

We look at each other in relief and disbelief, and then he adds, “You will have no arrest or arraignment record.”

The bunch of us gets up almost at the same instant, file out of the bench, and head out the door of courtroom. I think we’re all thinking we better get out of here quick before they change their minds. No one speaks to anyone as we wait for the elevator. Within a few minutes I’m back out in the courtyard thinking I should go look for that vagrant, and see if he has an extra smoke.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I'm Heading for the Nearest Circle K

I have a John McCain story. Yes, theee John McCain, the one running for President. Granted, my John McCain story will be a lot more valuable if he actually wins the election, but, still, I tell everyone that I personally know John McCain.

I would like to point out up front that he probably doesn’t remember me from Adam, but he sat in the chair next to my desk on several occasions and we chatted as though we’d known each other for a long time. He’s a very easy person to talk to, as you might imagine.

I was the Town Clerk in a small southern Arizona town, and John McCain was and is a Senator from that state. It was prior to one of his now famous “town halls” that he was sitting in the chair by my desk, making small talk about the major topic of the day: smoking. Or more correctly, the 60 cent per pack tax that was on the ballot in the upcoming general election in Arizona. This tax would raise the price of a pack of cigarettes to well over $2.00 at the time and was to be used by the State partly to educate young people not to engage in the habit. All because then Governor Jane Dee Hull and the legislature had cut the funding for the Tobacco Education and Prevention Program. Know as TEPP. A very successful program and well know nationally, which was launched in 1996. I smoked. I wasn’t happy about another tax on cigarettes.

John McCain had been an admitted two-pack a day smoker for 25 years, and had finally kicked the habit in 1980. He had had some health issues related to skin cancer and just plain decided that smoking wasn’t a good idea. Maybe because he thought he needed more time to get to the presidency. A lot was made of it in the press at the time, as I remember, a lot of it front page.

This proposed increase in the cigarette tax was a pretty big topic of discussion in the small town of Sahuarita, Arizona also. A majority of the town council, town manager, and town staff, smoked. None of us was in favor of paying 60 cents more in tax for a pack of cigarettes. That would bring the total tax on a pack of cigarettes to $1.18, almost doubling the cost.

I argued with John McCain, while he was sitting in my office chair, that it would hurt the low income individuals the most. How about the fixed incomes? Senior citizens made up the majority of the population in this small community and they had been smoking since smoking was cool. Some of these people in their eighties still smoking two packs a day of Pall Mall Reds and Camels. TEPP advertising wasn’t having any effect on them for sure.

By the way, if you had seen these ads, you would have wondered why we were spending tax money on this drivel. They were almost sickeningly humorous. Talked about for their weirdness, sure, but effect, I didn’t think so, especially with the teens they were targeting. We all thought they were being produced by some Madison Avenue ad agency. In actuality though, they were done by a local Phoenix company which grew to be one of the largest ad agencies in the state, predominantly from the TEPP contract money. I wouldn’t waste time betting that there wasn't some shady negotiation in that contract award.

Arizona only spends a small 4.5% of the estimated $518.4 million in tobacco-generated revenue on educating the masses of the ills of smoking. I should mention that some of that five hundred million dollars is part of the tobacco settlement payments and not a result of the cigarette tax.

I continued my argument that smokers shouldn’t have to pay to educate people not to smoke. Shouldn’t that come for that very tobacco settlement and not from me? And how about the loss in tax revenue if the program really was effective and people stopped buying cigarettes?

I also maintained that banning smoking, getting rid of Joe Camel and educating against tobacco use was only serving to make it more attractive to kids. Even if they were showing ads on TV with blackened lungs in jars, and people having their cancerous jaws removed, and people with artificial voice boxes. The bottom line is it was a forbidden thing, and that made it real attractive to a teenager.

McCain generally agreed with my points, or so it seemed, but issued the prerequisite response.

“You really need to quit,” he said.

I used my prerequisite response to everyone who says that to me.

“I have quit, Senator McCain, quitting is easy. I’ve quit at least a hundred times.” I think I’m funny but admittedly steal a lot of my lines.

“I quit smoking over ten years ago,” he said, “and let me tell you, the craving never goes away. I still want a cigarette right now.”

He paused for a second. Looked out my window to the desert outside, and then turned back to look me in the eyes.

“My friend, let me tell you, if the Russians ever push that button, the first place I’m heading is the nearest Circle K and buy me a pack of cigarettes.” And then he smiled.

It’s my own personal McCain story. It might not be much, but it happened, although the witnesses are nil. The cigarette tax issue did come up during the town hall discussion, but it centered around the impact the added cost would have on the residents there. John McCain just gave them a lot of political lip service, but didn’t talk about his personal smoking experience.

The cigarette tax initiative passed by a very, and I mean very, slim margin. It was something like 17 votes. It was hailed as a victory and a clear indication that the citizens of Arizona wanted TEPP and thought it was worth the millions being spent. That figure being around $23 million per year. And it has, according to sources, resulted in significant decreases in the ranks of smokers both adult and young adult (18-24) in Arizona. They also claim a reduction in the number of smokers that are low income and low education (their labels). Ya think? But do you think, really, that the Tobacco Education and Prevention Program’s $23 million dollars was responsible for that? It was a direct result of Arizonans voting to double the price of a pack of cigarettes and give over 50% of the cost to the state.

And let me tell you, they lied and told us the money would be used for additional health care expenses that smokers bring to the table. Instead they ended up with a huge budget surplus that ended up in the general fund, and they spent it anyway they saw fit.

I still smoke. I still pay exorbitant taxes for the pleasure, or whatever you want to call it: habit, addiction, rebellion against society. It’s probably the most unfair, yet profitable for the states, tax there is.

And if they're hugely successful in their attempts to reduce the number of smokers in Arizona, they're going to have a serious budget shortfall. Might want to think about that.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008



In the fall of 1972 I was wanted by the FBI. My mother told me this, frantically, on the phone. I told her to calm down. She was rather freaked out by the FBI knocking on her door, as you might imagine. Two agents actually went to our house, showed their IDs, and asked where they could find me. I told her I had taken care of it, not to worry, and that it was just a big misunderstanding. I had just returned for my second year of college, and had to hang up because I was late for “Work Study”.

Work Study for me was climbing inside, literally, huge pans and stainless steel mixing bowls, in an attempt to clean them for the next day’s food preparation. I also ran the “macheen,” as my co-worker, Manny, called it, in between inserting myself into food-encrusted pots. My friends all worked in the offices around campus, or in the library. I made the mistake of putting my summer experience as a fry cook, on my Work Study application. For this, I was banished to dish and pot washing at the Connor Hall cafeteria to help pay my tuition. I was severely jealous of my fellow Work Study recipients, and I tried every semester to have my work assignment changed. It never happened. For those of you who never had Work Study, just so you know, your paycheck went directly to the Registrar’s Office to pay down your tuition bill.

The FBI was looking for me because I was a draft-dodger. I was ordered to report for the Armed Services Physical Examination in Casper, Wyoming in August 1972, but I didn’t show up. I didn’t show up because I told the 92-year-old lady at the Selective Service Office that I would be back in New Mexico by then, that I was getting married in September, and then returning to school. I asked her if it was possible for me to take the physical down there which was scheduled for the end of September. That was fine with her, she said, but maybe she said it because she secretly enjoyed getting us young men put on the FBI’s most wanted list. Not a lot of exciting stuff happening in that small town. I never got anything in writing, my first lesson with regard to that rule.

I was ordered to report for the Armed Services Physical Examination because I scored a low number in the annual Selective Service Draft. Your birth date became a lottery number 1-366 randomly pulled from two drums, one with the birth date and one with a number. So, for example, if September 10th was pulled from the one drum, and 127 pulled from the other, then everyone born on September 10th would have a lottery number of 127. Then you had a letter drawn, A-Z, to determine the last name order for each local board. Then you had the number of inductees needed by the armed services to meet troop levels.

My draft lottery took place on February 2, 1972, for those of us born in 1953. Nine days before my 19th birthday. All the Freshmen men sat around in the dorms that day, waiting for the numbers to be announced, like college football players waiting to be drafted, but we didn’t want to go in the first round. I got number 26. The year prior my birth date got 351. Just my luck. We had two big “winners” in the draft lottery on my floor of the dorm; a #3 and a #6. That afternoon they both got drunk and enlisted in the Army. If you enlisted, the theory was, you could have some control over your military career. The “control” part wasn’t really true, we later found out, and you served a four-year enlistment instead of the inductee’s three. There were other enticements they used, though, to get you to voluntarily sign up. One of them was the automatic induction if you didn’t show for the draft physical. The fact that you held a lottery number in the top third was still their best recruitment tool, however.

I started doing the math, not one of my strongest subjects, but I refused to cave. I knew, for example, that 49,514 men between the ages of 19 and 26 had been inducted in 1972. (There were an estimated 70,000 draft-evaders and deserters living in Canada by that time also.) I expected it to be less in 1973 since the induction number had dropped every year from 1969, when the first lottery was held since 1942. Prior to that, the draft, which was still in place, was done by oldest first.

So I still, in my feeble opinion, had a pretty good chance of not getting an induction notice even though my number was 26, depending on how many men were needed. In the 1970 draft the highest lottery number called was 125. So everybody with a higher number 126 through 366, and likely some individuals with #125 because of last name order, were not drafted. In 1970, 162,146 men were inducted through the draft. As a general rule, the Selective Service said that the upper third of the list would be inducted, the middle third would probably not, and the bottom third would definitely not have to forcibly tote a gun and wear green for three years.

Then there was President Richard Milhous Nixon, who campaigned for his second term on the promise to end the draft as soon as he was re-elected. Since he was also intending to withdraw from Viet Nam, I was putting my faith in the hope that the draft would indeed end in 1973, before my number came up.

So if Nixon didn’t follow through on this promise to end the draft and pull out of Vietnam, like most politicians once they get in office, then I still might have a chance of not being drafted since they would pull all eligible men from the other lower 25 lottery birthdays first to fill the quota. Where they got the quota from is something I was never able to determine, and wouldn’t it suck if you were the last man drafted? The last man drafted to make the 400,000 troop strength number, but you were really number four-hundred thousand and one. Would they let you go once they did the recount?

Registrants with low lottery numbers had to report for a physical, mental, and moral evaluation at a Military Entrance Processing Station to see if we were fit for military service. So that summer, after the draft lottery and my #26, I got the order to report for the Armed Services Physical Examination which was being held in Casper WY in August. I was home for the summer working at the Drive-Inn 4U, my now ill-fated food service experience.

I knew there was very little chance of me not being classified 1-A, but I was hearing about all kinds of ways to beat the draft. One that I actually heard a lot was that you could inject yourself with peanut butter to raise your blood pressure temporarily. I’m not sure how that worked. I can’t imagine peanut butter going through a syringe, but needles were out for me anyway. Another was simply to not register since it would take them a while to find you. Already missed that one, but it usually only took them a week to find you and then you risked immediate induction. You could say you were a homosexual (they weren’t “gay” yet). That would raise some eyebrows, but not always work, although some really practiced at it. I know of at least one lottery “winner” who just walked out of the physical. Many tried to score as low as possible on the mental segment of the test. That didn’t work either. Intelligence wasn’t a requirement to get shot at, I guess. I wasn’t going to be able to get that college deferment that filled up the universities during the 60s either, because they reformed the draft in 1971. You could only get a deferment now until the end of the current semester unless you were a senior, then they would allow you to finish the academic year. Still that could buy you some time if the draft was going to end before you were called up. And then there was my method, I just didn’t show up for the physical. It took the FBI two weeks to find me, probably because I was from a small town in northern Wyoming, still, not a very effective method of avoiding the draft, unless you were already packed and headed for British Columbia.

So I got it all straightened out by reporting to the local Selective Service Board in Las Vegas, NM, where they scheduled me for the physical at the end of September, in Albuquerque, Albuquerque being the closest MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station). We traveled there on a military “school” bus. You know the ones with the hard fiberglass seats. The trip was about 124 miles and would take us 2 hours. We were to arrive at the bus to leave by oh five hundred hours. Yeah, that’s five am.

Within 5 minutes of my arrival at the bus, I was elevated in rank. I was now responsible for the conduct of everyone on the bus, I was told. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to accomplish that, but it was clear that they had picked me because I was the smallest, weakest and least likely to keep order on that bus. In other words, they picked me, seated ignorantly in the front, for their entertainment. I didn’t know anyone on the bus, and most were Hispanic, talking amongst themselves in Spanish of which I couldn’t decipher a word. Well, not exactly true. I did know how to say phrases like, “This street is beautiful,” “Turn to page 3”, “Where’s the bathroom,” and “I want some more beans (or another beer), please,” among others. I didn’t hear any of those familiar phrases in the bus on the way to Albuquerque.

The trip was uneventful. I know this because I’m sure I would have mental scars from my attempts at maintaining order on the bus, and I don’t seem to have any. We disembarked on a downtown sidewalk in front of a tall brick building, and were ushered inside, up two flights of stairs, two abreast, to a classroom, where we were told to take a seat. That’s when the fun started. We were told what our day would entail, how long it would take, and how we were getting home. We were each handed a clipboard, told to fill out the information on the top of several forms, then we counted out in tens. Then the first group was, “stand up, shoulders back, follow me, single file, no talking,” the rest of us were to wait our turn.

The first thing I noticed was the yellow shoe prints on the floor in the hallways with “This Way” printed on each one, going in one direction, and back the other way on the other side of the hall. There were other directions on the shoe prints, like “Stop”, “Wait” “Go Left”, “Go Right”, I later discovered. It was like a yellow brick road. Follow the yellow shoe prints. They were on the floor in a normal stride, so you could actually step from shoe print to shoe print, and we all tried to do that, as we were led down the hallway. The heel and sole cutout must have been made from a size-13 shoe though, because it dwarfed my foot as I went from “This Way” to “This Way”.

The first station we came to was a blood pressure check. Four positions in an 8 X 8 cubicle, each manned by a soldier in a white smock, obviously with no medical experience, putting on the cuff, squeezing the bubble several times, releasing the pressure, making the reading, writing it down on the chart on the clipboard and we were told to follow the prints to the next station.

The next station was a vision check. We were told to read the middle line of an eye chart. While I was standing there trying to focus on it, I heard two different series of letters coming from the two men on either side of me. So, I just said “L M O 9 D G” without pausing. They checked me off. I either hit it perfectly without seeing them, or they really didn’t care whether I could see or not. After all, I was being tested to see if I was physically fit enough to be a target.

Follow the yellow shoe prints to the next booth and the next. Getting our ears looked at in one, our throats in the next. All in an assembly line system. All done very quickly and no one has failed yet, that I can tell. We follow the shoe prints to a door where we seem to be stacking up. The shoe print says “wait”. So we do. Up to this point we have stripped down to our pants, carrying our shirts and t-shirts with us along the trail. Finally the door opens and we are herded into a large room, a gymnasium. We follow the yellow shoe prints to a circle which runs around the center of the floor. There are now 30 of us. Three group of ten.

The sergeant yells for us to get out of our pants. Put our clothes in front of us, clipboard on top and face out from the circle. Several of us don’t understand the directions and are screamed at until we are all facing out, standing in only our tighty-whities (thank god I listened to my mother and am wearing clean underwear) or our colorful boxer shorts, but we try not to look at each other.

“Face forward,” the sergeant screams, and I mean screams, at the man next to me. My eyes are locked on the wall. He walks around the circle. I know he’s a sergeant because my Dad was one in the Army. He was a staff sergeant, and I’ve seen his stripes. I know this guy is at least a higher rank than a private.

“Drop your shorts around your ankles,” he screams. The room echoes. Then there is only the quiet shuffling sound of men dropping their drawers. I feel the cold air contracting the balls. “Arms, at your sides,” he screams. Then he walks from man to man around the circle, telling them to turn their head and cough, as a doctor-type follows and writes whatever result they are trying to determine on each man’s clipboard. I found out he wasn’t just following. He was actively involved in poking his fingers half way through your lower abdomen while you were turned and coughing.

“Everybody turn around. One eighty. Do it now! Keep eyes front. Bend over and grab your ankles!” I’m sure that was a sight. You could hear a pin drop after that order was executed. Then footsteps, stop, footsteps, grunt, footsteps, stop. They’re behind me, groping where I would rather not they grope, and then they move on. I assume I’m an acceptable asshole. I don’t move. Footsteps. Stop. Footsteps. Stop.


Someone has obviously come up with a unique way of getting out of the draft. We all strain looking up-side-down through our knees to see what’s going on. We must have looked like a flock of ostriches. The only thing I can make out is a naked guy with his drawers at his ankles waddling quickly out of the room dragged by his arm. The double doors open and shut and he is gone.

“Don’t anybody move!” our leader screams. The review continues, and then we are told to turn back around pull up our shorts, and get dressed. We follow the yellow foot prints and amazingly end up walking down the hall we started in and turning into the classroom where we began. We are told to turn in our clipboards and take a seat. The “mental” part of the test is ready to begin.

To Be Continued………