It was Easter morning on Huntington Beach, California, 1969. I was nineteen years old. I had spent the night sleeping under a lifeguard stand. I only mention the locale because it is pertinent to the story—in a roundabout way.
I was in Huntington Beach that Easter morning because of food. Well, not good food, but food of any sort is good food when one is hungry. There was a storefront church right off the beach that every evening would serve us God and sandwiches. The way it worked was, they would go around during the day and collect day old sandwiches from stores in the vicinity to use as a lure to get the hungry into their place of worship. It worked pretty well, the joint was always packed. However, you had to have the God before they would give you a stale cheese sandwich. We also received miniature Bibles. Not the whole Bible, these little red books had a verse or two. I can remember them clearly. They were an inch high, an inch wide and about an eighth of an inch thick. And that cover, I will never forget that red cover. They come into the story later.
So, I’m tired of going hungry and sleeping on the beach, I’m thinking I’ll take a quick trip back east and visit the folks. You know . . . sleep in a bed for a change and eat a square meal once in a while. But before I left, at my last night at the Sandwich Church, I grabbed a handful of the little “Bibles” and stuffed them into my case. Back then I traveled with an old-fashioned suitcase. Three feet long, two feet high, and twelve inches wide; and solid, I could put it on its end and sit on it. That case must have done about 50,000 miles with me.
With my little Bibles and a cheese sandwich, I headed east. I had it down to a science back then. Three days from the California border to Miami or vice versa. At that time there was no Interstate Highway system. I made it as far as Louisiana. If you were going east to west, or west to east on the southern route, you took Highway 90. Going from west to east, highway 90 split at Baton Rouge. You could either go south into New Orleans or continue east toward Lake Pontchartrain. On this fateful trip, I did not go into New Orleans. I went straight ahead because the truck in which I was riding was going that way.
I was let off just outside a sleepy little town by the name of Denham Springs. I can still see the water tower with the town’s name emblazoned across it. Later, well into the 70’s, there was a cliché of a southern sheriff. He was fat, stupid, mean; he wore mirrored sunglasses, and he was very, very dangerous. He was, after all, the law—the only law you were ever going to get in his town. If you were an outsider, and he didn’t need your vote to get re-elected, then chances were good that if your paths crossed, you, and not he, was going to be the worse for it. That cliché had to come from somewhere and I know where. It was based on the sheriff of Denham Springs, Louisiana, circa 1969.
As the truck stopped to let me out and I started to climb down from the cab, a note of warning I heard: “That town up ahead, Denham Springs, has the meanest son-of-a-bitch for a sheriff. Do not hitchhike through his town. Just walk through and start hitchin’ on the other side.” I took his words to heart; I did not hitch through Denham Springs, Louisiana.
I proceeded to walk through that godforsaken town like the good citizen I was pretending to be. I made it halfway when a police car pulled up beside me and the “officer,” who was fat, mean, and wore the prescribed mirrored shades, told me to get in the back of his car. When a cop puts you in the back seat, you’re going to jail. Or at least that’s what I thought. Though it seems this joker was in no hurry to do anything. He just drove around town sayin’ hello to other troglodytes like himself. The whole time, I said not a word. Remember, I was just walking down the street minding my own business when I was accosted by this officer of the law. But as I’ve said, I kept my big mouth shut (for once) while he drove all over creation with me in the back seat of his police car. There were no handles on the inside of the doors, I was locked in.
Finally, after about an hour of that, I said, “Excuse me, sir, but what’s going on?”
His reply: “Shut up, boy, you’re under arrest.” No fooling, he actually called me, “boy”!
So I shut up, sat back, and tried to enjoy the ride. Shortly thereafter, we pulled up in front of the police station. This cliché of a cop got out, told me to grab my case and come with him. Only one thing though, he forgot that I could not open the door from the inside. He was halfway to the cop shop before he turned and saw his mistake. So he had to come back and open the door for me. I was tempted to take my time getting out and make him wait there, holding the door open like a valet parking attendant. But my better sense said: You might still make it out of here in one piece, so don’t piss the asshole off.
We made our way to his little kingdom and it was there that I met “Barney.” Barney was not his real name; in fact, I never did learn his name. But he was the deputy to Fat Boy. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, but he was dependent on Fatso for his job, so he meekly went about carrying out the orders handed down by the sheriff. I called him Barney because he reminded me, in looks and manner, of the Don Knots character from the Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife.
Then the inspection and interrogation began. My pal sat behind his desk, Barney standing off to his right, and me in the position of defendant before the bar. The first thing he does is open my suitcase and go through the contents. You never know, I might have been carrying explosives. Nope—no explosives found, but aha! I was carrying little Bibles. That had to mean something. So I was questioned quite thoroughly, if someone with an IQ of 76 can be said to know what a question is, let alone ask one.
“What are these?”
“Little Bibles, sir.”
“What are you, some kind of Jesus freak?”
“No sir. I just believe in the word of the Lord.”
I thought if I played at being a Goodie-Two-Shoes, I might get back on the road before too long. Boy, was I mistaken. My piety did not impress him, so I thought, What next? At that point, I figured I’d just play stupid and see what developed.
The next insidious thing found in my case was the infamous Carnation Instant Breakfast packages. There were about five or six of the damn things. Do you remember them? They were just a powder of some sort that one drank in the morning in lieu of a healthy breakfast. They were factory-sealed, and when Fats asked me what they were, I just stared at him. I mean, it was printed on the packages he was holding what the stuff was. But Sherlock Holmes wasn’t going to be fooled by any snot-nosed kid. No sir, no way.
This guy was way too sharp for the likes of me. Thinking there were hidden drugs concealed in those factory-sealed packages, he tears one open, wets the tip of his finger and sticks it into the package. He pulls out the fat finger with Carnation Instant Breakfast (chocolate flavor) stuck to it. He brings it up to his mouth and was about to lick his finger with the “drugs” sticking to it. But no, wait, this guy is sharp. He stops before tongue touches finger. He turns to Barney and holds up said finger. The unspoken command: Hey you, Idiot, come over here and lick this poison off my finger. You got to hand it to ol’ Barney, he did his duty. I don’t know who was more surprised that he did not keel over dead after ingesting the “poison,” Barney or Fatso. After a few minutes, when it was evident that my Carnation Instant Breakfast was not laced with LSD, the interrogation stalled.
It was at that point I thought I’d try my second gambit. The Holy Roller act hadn’t work, so let’s try motherhood. I was going to try to outsmart my captors.
“Sir, may I make a phone call?”
“Why? Do you think you deserve one?”
“No sir. It’s just that my mother is dying down in Florida, and I was on my way back to see her, and if I’m not going to get back there any time soon, I’d just like to say good-bye to her over the phone.”
I have to admit, I almost had him. I had Barney, no problem. I think I even saw a single tear trickle down his cheek. But at the last second, Fats says, “You know, we had a hippie in here last week, shaved his head and sent him out to the work gang. He’s now helpin’ build us a nice new road over on the north side of town. How’d ya like to join him?”
Okay, I thought, you got me, but I’m keeping my eyes wide open for you to make the littlest mistake, then it’s swish . . . I’m outta here.
Without further ado, he told me that in the morning I would have my hair shaved off and then sent out to the work gang for six months. No trial . . . no habeas corpus . . . no lawyer . . . no nothing!
It was now time to put me away for the night. At first, I thought Fats was going to have Barney do the honors all by himself. But no, Fats was enjoying himself too much, he wanted in on all the fun until the last possible moment.
It was as they were leading me up the stairs to the cell block that an idea came to me. As I walked slowly up those dark, dank stairs, I prayed for just one good break. That was all I needed, only one.
We reached the landing housing the three cells that comprised the Denham Springs Correctional System. The door to the nearest cell was standing wide open and there didn’t seem to be any other inhabitants about. Thing were looking up.
My plan was simple. I just had to antagonize Fats into physical violence. That shouldn’t be too hard. All afternoon I could see he was just itchin’ to give me a good one, right across the mouth. So, let’s see what you’re made of, Fatso! When we stepped in front of the opened door of the cell, he grabbed my left arm at the bicep and walked me inside. Great, thought I, this is the moment of truth. I yanked my arm from his grip, spun around and spit in his face. Well, that wasn’t so hard. He turned beet-red and let a haymaker go in the general direction of my jaw. Of course, I was expecting it, so I went with the flow. As soon as his fist connected, I went in the same direction in which his arm was moving; his punch had very little effect on me. But that’s not how I played it.
A moment to digress. When I saw the cell door open, and neither Fats nor Barney with a key between them, that’s when I knew I had a fighting chance. No key, that was my ace in the hole. You see, it had been my experience that one needed a key to open jail cell doors, but not to lock them. They locked automatically with some sort of spring mechanism. At least that’s the way it worked way back in 1969.
Okay, back to the drama. When I feigned taking his best blow, I grabbed my chest in the area of my heart, and said, “My heart.” (What else?) I fell to the floor, did a spasm or two, coupled with a little shaking, and pretended to pass out. As I lay there with my eyes closed, I couldn’t tell what was going through Fats’ mind, but I heard Barney exclaim, “Great, now you killed him!”
Fats was already in the cell, but my plan depended on both of them being in there with me. So, as Fats shook me, trying to elicit a response, I bided my time until I heard Barney enter. When I was sure he was far enough through the door, I jumped up and pushed them into one another. As one, they crashed to the floor and I ran out of that damn cell, clanging the door shut behind me.
Now Fats still had his gun, so even though he was entwined with Barney, I didn’t stick around to enjoy my victory. I bolted down the stairs, grabbed my case, and was out of the door before either one of them got to his feet.
Two blocks away, I hit it lucky and got a ride with a Peterbilt going all the way to Tallahassee.
Well, that’s about it, folks. The only other thing of interest is that about eight months later, I was hitchin’ through to the west coast and once again, I was let out near Denham Springs, Louisiana. And you know what the guy said as I left his car?
“Don’t go through Denham Springs, they got them a real mean sheriff there.”
My answer to his kind advice: “Yes, I’ve heard of him.”
Needless to say, I went through New Orleans that time around.