Hank and Me

I had just left an Apache Reservation in Arizona after having spent a night there. I was hitching west and had been picked up by a guy named Jimmy. I never did learn his last name. He was a full-blooded Apache and he invited me to crash on his couch. I didn’t get much sleep because we stayed up most of the night and talked … well … he did most of the talking. He told me of the Denéé—The People—as he referred to the Apache. I learned of their history, their medicine, or religion, as we would call it. I even did some peyote with him and spoke with God. But that’s another story. Today, I want to tell you about Hank.

Jimmy was still asleep when I left. I didn’t have it in me to wake him and ask for a ride back to the highway. The sun was just over the horizon, it was still cool out even though it was the desert and it was summertime. I had been brought onto the reservation in the back of a pickup truck and had not followed our progress as we drove the back road onto the reservation; after all, I was facing backwards, looking at where we’d been, not where we were going.

As I started my walk, I saw the mountain I had been looking at as we drove onto the Apache homeland. It seemed as though it had taken us about half an hour to get from Highway 90 to Jimmy’s house. So, I reckoned that if I just kept the mountain in front of me and walked in a relatively straight line, it would not take me more than a few hours to make my way back to the highway. Boy, was I mistaken.

I started my trek across the desert full of vim and vigor. After all, I was nineteen years old; I was immortal, as are all young people. Of course, I had no water with me; ha … who needs water! Well, as it turned out, I needed water, and I needed a lot more than just water. I needed a sense of distance, and maybe even a sense of direction.

Allow me to explain. I set out at sunrise, headed towards a particular mountain, and after four hours treading the desert floor, that damn mountain seemed no closer than when I started. I had no watch with me, so I did not know the exact time, but judging by the sun, it must have been mid-morning—about ten o’clock—when I realized I had made a colossal mistake. When I first set out, I thought the walk to the highway would take two, maybe three hours at the most. But here I was four hours later with not a car—hell, with not even another human being—in sight. I was not even smart enough to follow the winding road we came in on. No, I had to play it cool, thinking I could shave off some time by cutting across the desert and walking in a straight line. Well, once I left the road, I never found it again. I pressed on, keeping the mountain in my sights.

Now, I’ll tell you folks something I didn’t know at the time. A mountain is a pretty big item. I was heading south, so I could wander a few miles either east or west and still have the same perspective of my destination, the mountain. And without a compass that is just what I did. I was zig-zagging all over the place, but I thought I was walking in a straight line.

By noon, or when the sun was directly overhead, the desert had started to heat up. And so did I. At that point, I would have killed for a glass of cool water. Maybe even with some ice in it. Those were my thoughts as I walked towards that goddamn mountain that kept retreating from me.

So as not to bore you all to tears, I will not tell you about that afternoon. Suffice it to say the afternoon consisted of walking and thoughts of water. The sun was on a slow descent to the other side of the world, and I had been walking for about ten hours when I saw it. There up ahead, unless it was a mirage, was a shack. I thanked God I saw it when I did. Complete darkness was less than an hour away, and I might have walked right past it in the night.

I was too tired to run, but I did pick up my pace a bit. When I got to within twenty yards of the place I saw my salvation—an old fashioned water pump, long handle and all. I ran right to the pump and without asking anyone’s permission, pumped that handle up and down like there was no tomorrow. And from my point of view, if I didn’t get some water in me, there would be no tomorrow, at least not for me. For all my effort, only a few dust swirls and a few grains of sand emanated from the spout. Then I remembered something, a pump has to be primed, and you need water to prime a pump. It’s kind of like—you need money to make money, and I needed water to get water. A catch-22.

Now that I was not going to have my fondest wish granted—a few measly drops of water—I turned my attention to the shack. I could tell right away that the place was abandoned; the fauna, or sagebrush, or whatever the hell grows in a desert, was three feet tall and blocking the door. The shack was about thirty feet wide, and after circumnavigating it, I discerned it was also thirty feet deep. There were no windows, so my ingress would have to be through the door.

As the night was fast approaching, I returned from my excursion of circling the shack and proceeded to the door, expecting to do battle with it to affect entry. However, to my everlasting surprise, the door flew open upon my touch. How inviting. With no windows, the only light entering said shack came from behind me and from the spaces between the boards that made up the walls of the shack. They were more like the walls of an old barn; there was about an eighth of an inch of open space between most of the boards. Some did join together, but they were of the minority. The wood was warped and old. This place has been here for a while.

The gloom within the shack made it hard to see what, if anything, was inside. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw a table in the middle of the room. I started for it, and then saw a single chair about five feet to the right. I had not noticed it sooner because it was in the shadows. The only light, as I’ve said, came mostly from the door. And that light was only as wide as the door, about three feet. It did not reach the corners or the far side of the room. Upon the back of the chair were draped some clothes.

For the time being, the chair and its accouterments held no interest for me. My attention was focused on the table. For upon the table stood a clear bottle about twelve inches high with a candle stuck into its mouth. It looked almost new, only an inch of its ten-inch length had been used. Maybe I would not have to spend the night in darkness after all.

I did not (and still do not) smoke. But I always carried a book of matches with me. One never knew when one might want to start a small fire and heat up a can of beans or a can of soup to get one through the night.

I went right for the candle, pulled out my trusty matches, and lit it. The light it gave off did not reach very far, maybe a couple feet past the table’s edge. By the way, the table was only about four foot square, and there was nothing else on it but the candle in the clear bottle.

Once I had a little light, I figured I could relax. I was still dying of thirst, but there was nothing I could do about that. I was thankful that the sun had retreated, giving me a respite from the heat for a few hours.

I pulled the chair over to the table and sat down. As I leaned back, I felt something bulky and hard. I stood and removed the clothing, which consisted of a “duster,” and two flannel shirts. You folks know what a duster is, don’t you? I am sure most of you have seen them in Westerns. But for those who are unfamiliar with the term, I will describe one. They were white, made of cotton, and looked something like a modern-day raincoat, except they were full length, falling to almost the ankle. And as the name implies, they were worn over one’s regular attire to keep the dust from soiling one’s clothes.

However, it was not the duster that caught my attention; it was the old-time six-shooter, lying in its holster, which hung from the back of the chair. Cool. Then I saw what was also hanging on the back of the chair, a canteen. I placed the candle on the table and with fear and trepidation, the fear and trepidation coming from the fact that the bloody thing might be empty, I lifted the strap attached to the canteen. I could tell by the weight that it was full. But even if there was water, chances of it being any good after sitting there in the desert for God knows how long were not good.

After returning the duster and shirts to where I had found them, I pulled the chair up to the table, sat down, and turned my attention once again to the canteen. I quickly pulled the cork from the opening and sniffed the contents. It didn’t smell bad, so I dribbled a few drops onto my tongue. It didn’t taste great, but I was thirsty enough to chance being sick, because at that point I was very dehydrated and would die in the desert the next day if I didn’t get some moisture in me.

Just as I was tilting my head back and raising the canteen to my mouth, a thought struck me. I did not have to chance anything. I could use half of the canteen’s contents to prime the pump, and if the well was dry, I would still have the other half for tonight and tomorrow. One way or the other, I was going to drink water that night even if it killed me. At least I would not die with my tongue hanging out, swollen from thirst.

I grabbed the candle, for it had gotten dark by then, and went out to the pump. I’m a city boy, there was only one other time I have had the pleasure of meeting a hand pump that pumped water up from a well. On that occasion, the pump needed priming and I watched my associate as he repeatedly primed and pumped, primed and pumped. So I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t screw things up by putting the water in the wrong place, like the spout, which is probably what I would have done if not for my previous experience with a pump.

I placed the candle on the ground so I could uncork the canteen; the candle gave just enough light so I could see what I was doing. With one hand, I poured water into the pump, and with the other, I took hold of the long handle at its end and started to pump. Up and down, faster and faster. The water seemed to be going in at an alarming rate, but I still poured and pumped. I had gone through more than half of that precious liquid and was about to halt my endeavor when the first few drops came out of the spout. And with every downward motion of the handle, more water came pouring out onto the ground until it was a raging torrent … a small raging torrent granted, but I had no complaints.

Then I could stand it no longer. I put my head under the spout, face up and mouth open, as I continued to pump. I have never tasted water so sweet in my entire life. And that would include any bottled water you may wish to proffer. After I had drunk my fill, I poured the contents of the canteen onto the ground and pumped a small quantity of water into it. I sloshed it around for a moment and emptied that also onto the ground. Then I filled the canteen, recorked it, and went back into the shack. Now that the water situation was taken care of, I could have gone for a light dinner, but hey … ya cain’t have everything.

I know most of you are asking: “Where the hell is Hank in all of this?”

Well, just hold on to your pantaloons. He’s on his way.

When I got back into the shack, I closed the door. As I’ve said, I’m a city boy. I didn’t want any desert critters coming in during the night, looking to start up a friendship with Yours Truly. In all likelihood, if any of the denizens of the desert did enter during the night, it would have been for the warmth of my body rather than my friendship. I allude to Crotalus Oreganu, better known as the western rattlesnake. I’ve heard that they like to snuggle up with human beings at night for our body heat. So the door would remain closed until morning.

Speaking of rattlesnakes, I said to myself, maybe a few are already squatting in this shack. I better take the candle to look around the perimeter, and into the far shadows to see if there are any ensconced hereabouts.

I saw nothing in the first three corners. But in the fourth, leaning against the wall, was a shovel and pickaxe, and on the floor lay a saddle and reins. There were no Crotalus Oreganu present, thank God, but there was a presence of another kind. Of course, I am speaking of Hank.

A bed stood against the back wall. I had not noticed it earlier because of my preoccupation with the canteen and the darkness of the room vis-à-vis the limited light of the candle. Upon the bed lay Hank. Now Hank wasn’t the most talkative hombre I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But that might have been because he was dead.

Holding the candle over the bed, I saw a human skeleton completely intact, probably because it was a bit mummified. The dry desert air will do that to a corpse. The skin was drawn tight and shrunken. For some reason, the eyeballs were missing.

The skull was still attached to the neck. The hair of the cadaver was jet black and full. If the hair had been all that I could see, I’d have sworn it belonged to a young man who was still among the living. The eye sockets, as I’ve said, were empty and dark. The missing eyeballs were a mystery I was in no hurry to solve. Years later when I mentioned it to someone, I was told that insects had probably eaten them.

Keeping the candle high over the bed, I saw that his hands were clasped together and resting on his belly. Hank—and I’ll tell you in a moment how I came to know that Hank was his name—was fully dressed.

Starting from the top and working down, he had a red bandana tied around his neck, and a faded cotton shirt (because of the light I could not tell what the original color was). He had on a pair of Levi’s, held up—well, not at the moment, but in life—by a belt with a square buckle that looked to be tarnished silver, with the name “Hank” engraved onto it. And on the belt was a knife in a sheath. His feet were covered by beige-colored socks. It seems his boots were off when he died. I don’t know if it’s more advantageous to die with your boots on or off, I’ll leave that up to the individual. I then moved the candle a little lower still, and perceived on the wooden floor, next to the bed, a pair of scuffed boots, black in color, one lying on its side. Oh yeah … I forgot to tell you. Everything—Hank, the table, the floor, the bed … I mean everything—in that shack was covered with a thick layer of dust.

There we were, Hank and me, staring at one another—me with eyes, him without. I needed to sit down after that.

I sat at the table, purposely not looking over to where Hank lay in repose. I was staring at the table, the top of it to be precise, when I noticed what looked like a small depression on the edge closest to me. It looked like someone had carved something into the wood. I took a deep breath and blew the dust from that area. It allowed me to read clearly what had been carved. The message was a simple one: “Hank Wiley 1889.”

I reckon ol’ Hank had been hangin’ out here waiting for me, or someone like me, to come along for eighty years. The year was 1969. However, more surprising than finding Hank, and almost as spiritually uplifting as getting the pump to work, was what I was about to stumble upon next.

When I first saw the shack, I was so tired from the day’s march that I envisioned being asleep almost before the sun went down. However, “The best laid plans …” Finding the canteen and then finding Hank kinda got my juices flowing if ya know what I mean. So here I am, sittin’ in a one-room, thirty-by-thirty-foot, broken-down shack in the middle of the Arizona desert with an eighty-year old skeleton and I’m wide-awake with nothing to do. So, like any good ex-Boy Scout, I went exploring.

I took the candle and retraced my steps back to the bed and Hank. I knelt down next to the bed and placed the candle so the bottle that held it rested against Hank’s neck and chin. I first felt the two pockets of his shirt. Nothing. I rummaged in the left front pocket of his jeans, then the right. Nothing. I picked up the candle from its resting place and placed it on the floor. I wanted to check his back pockets. I put a hand on his shoulder and a hand on his hip, and I turned Hank onto his side. It was easy, I could have done it one handed he was so light. I held him in that position while I felt in the Levi’s rear pockets. The left pocket held nothing, but in the right, I felt something that might have been a wallet. I extracted it and lowered Hank back onto the bed. As I did so, his head became detached from the rest of his body and rolled onto its side, facing me. Those empty eye sockets seemed to say, “Why have you defiled me?”

I did not want to touch that withered skin, so I left Hank’s head where it was.

I picked up the candle and returned to the table. It was not a wallet, but a piece of leather cut into a rectangle, about eight inches long and folded in half. Lying between the folds were an envelope, a piece of folded paper, and an old, faded photograph. It showed who I believed to be Hank (the man had the same thick, black mane) and a woman with hair as light as Hank’s was dark, standing at the tailgate of a wagon. And on the wagon was a banner of sorts. Because Hank and the woman were standing in front of it, there were only eight letters visible, two to the right of Hank (“JU”) and six to the left of the woman (“ARRIED”). The banner obviously read “JUST MARRIED.”

I looked at the picture for a long time. I thought of the unnamed woman and wondered whatever had become of her. She was quite pretty, and now as I write these words and I see once again that picture in my mind, I recall they were also very young, although, at the time, that did not enter into my thinking. Being nineteen and believing myself fully grown, I considered anyone else my age to also be an adult. But as I think of that picture today, at the tender age of sixty-seven, I know they were just kids; they couldn’t have been more than nineteen themselves.

I next removed the letter from its envelope. It had a return address of Boston, Massachusetts, and it was addressed to Mr. Henry Wiley c/o Forrester’s Hotel, Tucson, Arizona. Surprisingly, the paper was not brittle; it was old and brown, but did not fall apart in my hands. The handwriting was feminine and it was addressed to “My dearest husband.” I did not read the letter just then. I put it to one side and opened the piece of folded paper. It also was a letter, but written in a different hand. This handwriting was masculine, and it started with “Dearest Andy.”

Before I go on, I would like to digress, or jump ahead, whichever term is proper. All this happened forty-eight years ago, and for forty-eight years I’ve held on to those two letters, never knowing the reason why. Through many incarnations—business man, criminal, fugitive, junkie, and now writer—I have kept these letters. While my mother was alive, they were kept safely at her home, and then in a bank safety deposit box. They sit before me as I write these words and I now know the reason I’ve kept them all these years. It was so that one day I might share them with you.

I will present them in the order they were written. The first one is dated 9 July 1888, and it is from an Andrea Wiley to her dearest husband Hank Wiley. Without comment, this is the text of the letter.

My Dearest Husband,

I hope this letter finds you well and happy. I am sending it to the address you gave me in Tucson.

Do you know it has been twenty months since you went away? I write you every week. Some of my letters are returned with the notation that you are not known at that locale. I pray that this letter gets to you, my love. This November will mark the second year of your absence. I miss you so very much.

I am fine. I am making dresses for the ladies of society. My work is very well thought of, and I am kept quite busy. I do miss Kansas, but you were right, it is better that I stay with my mother while you are gone. Mother sends her love.

I know you are seldom where you can post a letter, but please try to write more often. Only three letters in all this time makes me miss you all the more.

Henry, I know we discussed this before you left, however, can you not come home now? Yes, our farm in Kansas was doing poorly, and we both worked very hard. But you never heard me complain because I had no complaints. I loved you, and I loved our farm. I know you wanted things better for me. You did not want me to work so hard, you wanted to buy me fancy clothes and nice things. Henry, I never wanted any of that, I only wanted you. And by going away you have taken away the only thing I truly desired.

Will you please come home? There is a reason I ask this of you now. I know how stubborn you can be. Until you find your fortune in gold you will stay away. You will think that you have failed me. Henry, the only time you have failed me is when you went away.

I have not wanted you to worry so I have refrained from telling you this before, but Henry, you have a son. He was born eight months after you left. His name is Henry Addison Wiley, Jr. and he looks just like you. His eyes are the same, and so is his smile. However, his hair is fair like mine. He needs a father. All the riches in all the world cannot take your place. Henry, you are not a failure, not with a son like Henry Jr. Please come home.

I am starting to drop tears onto the paper and they will make the ink run. So I will close for now. Henry, know that I love you with all my heart and that I need you with me; you are my treasure, you are my riches. Henry Jr. and I need you, please come home.

Your adoring wife,

Andrea

P.S. I miss being called Andy. You are the only person who has ever addressed me as such.

A.

The other letter was from Hank to his wife.

Dearest Andy,

I have just received your letter. I see by the date that you wrote it seven months ago. I don’t get down here that often, but my friend who works in the hotel kept the letter for me. The reason some of your letters have come back is if the owner of the hotel sees them before my friend, he sends them back. He and I do not get along.

So I have a boy? I cannot wait to see him and you too. I will be coming home shortly. I stumbled upon an abandoned shack and decided to use it as my headquarters. And what do you know, not two miles to the west I found my fortune. It is in a small outcropping of rock. It comes out of the ground and gradually slants upwards to about the height of three feet. The rock is about four feet thick, and right in the middle of it, running the whole length of the outcrop is a vein of pure gold nine inches thick. I shoveled the dirt away from where she comes out of the ground and the vein continues. It could go on for miles. But I have no plans to find out. I too miss you.

I broke my pickaxe trying to break the rock away. I came down to Tucson to buy another one and to buy some chisels and a sledgehammer. If I had not found what I was desperately searching for these last two years, I would be leaving for home today. I just need to go back for one or two weeks. I am not greedy. I will only mine as much as I can carry on my horse. With it we can go back to Kansas and buy us a really good farm and hire us some help. You will not have to work so hard.

I will mail this when I come back to Tucson so you will know that I am om my way. I want to write more, but will do so at night in the shack. Until then, kiss Henry Jr. for me.

Hello, I am back in the shack. I have been here ten days and have all the gold I can carry. Tomorrow I start for Tucson, then for home. I cannot wait to see you and Henry Jr. As you know I am not much of a letter writer, so I’ll save my words until I see you.

All my love,

Your Henry

 There was more to Hank’s letter, but it was written in a different hand, a hand that seemed to shake as it wrote. It is hard to read, but after all these years, I know what it says. The script is in one continuous sentence without punctuation. For ease of reading, I have added the correct punctuation and separated the words into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs. Here are the last words of Henry Addison Wiley, Sr.

Wouldn’t you know it? The night before leaving for home and you, I have to go and get myself bit by a rattlesnake. I lanced the punctures and sucked out the venom, but I don’t think it was enough, or I wasn’t fast enough. I am feeling light headed.

I was getting packed up so I could get an early start in the morning, and I reached under the bed to pull out the box I keep the gold in, and a rattler bit me. I made short work of him with the shovel. But that doesn’t help me. I was going to transfer the gold from the box to canvas bags for the trip to Tucson.

I don’t think I have much time so I better get down to what I want to say. You were right, Andy; we were rich back in Kansas. I am so sorry I did not know it at the time. I guess staring Death in the face changes a man’s way of looking at things.

I know of your love of animals. Before I got too weak I took the saddle and reins off my horse and set her free. You taught me of the dignity of animals.

You were my shining light. I must have been crazy to have ever left you, now I will never know my son, and he will never know his father. Tell him of his father’s folly so he will know what is important in this life. Tell him that is something his father learned far too late. I have botched things up good. I write these words in the hope that someday someone will find them and forward them on to you. I want you to know that my last thoughts were of you. In the end, I have failed you … I am so sorry. Not for me, but for leaving you and Henry Jr. to the mercy of this world while I am in another. If possible, I will look after you from my new world as I have never looked after you in this one. All my love …

 The last few words were almost impossible to decipher because the writing had deteriorated to such an extent that they ran together, but I think I got it right.

After reading the two letters, I sat in the chair and just watched the candle burn. My thoughts were of Andrea and Hank, of their life on the farm in Kansas. I thought of Hank Jr. and wondered what kind of man he grew up to be. I think … no, I am pretty damn sure that reading those two letters is the reason I have had a life-long aversion to acquiring material wealth.

By now it was getting light out, but I kept the candle burning because I wanted to see something. I went over to the bed and knelt down. I used the candle to see if there were any snakes under the bed. When I didn’t see any, I grabbed the box that was under there by one hand and pulled. It did not move. I put the candle down, and using both hands, I dragged the box from under the bed. It was very heavy. When I slid it far enough out so I could see the contents, I lifted the candle and held it over the box. What I saw were two canvas bags lying on top of something. With my right hand, I removed the bags to expose rocks that reflected the light of the candle as a prism would. The light bounced off those rocks and reflected on the wall like one of those disco ball things that hang over dance floors in night clubs.

The rocks, of course, were pure gold. I call them rocks because that is what they were. They were not puny, little nuggets of gold; no, they were substantial rocks of gold. I looked on in amazement for a few minutes before replacing the canvas bags and sliding the box back under the bed. I can see how some can easily come down with gold fever. I must admit, for one half a second, I too had the fever. But the memory of what I had just read was all I needed to cure me.

I got up off my knees and walked over to the table. I folded the two letters, putting Andrea’s back in its envelope. I put them both in the back pocket of my jeans. Leaving the piece of leather on the table, I picked up the picture of Hank and Andrea. I walked over and unclasped Hank’s hands, now I had no qualms about touching him. I placed the picture between his hands and laid his hands back on his belly. Then I gently put his head back into the position it was when I found him.

I stood over him for a moment or two before saying out loud: “Hank old buddy, if you don’t mind, I’m goin’ borrow your canteen. I am sorry for disturbing you last night, but you and your lovely wife have been very good company. The rocks that you gave up so much for are where you left them. I have no need for them any more than you have. I know Andrea and your son are with you now, and I am glad for all of you. Thank you for your hospitality, and I’ll be seein’ you someday up yonder.”

I left the shack, closing the door behind me. Three hours later, I could hear the highway’s whine. An hour after that, I was standing on the side of US Highway 90, hitchin’ my way to California.

 

 

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Again

I went off to war at the tender age of sixteen. My mother cried and begged me to stay, but my country needed me. I would not see my mother again for four very long years.

Due to my age, I was assigned to field headquarters as a dispatch courier for the first two years of the war. However, by the beginning of the third year, I had grown a foot taller and was shaving. And because men were dying at an alarming rate, I was sent into the trenches.

They say that war is hell. I say hell is peaceful compared to living in a muddy trench with bombs exploding around you at all hours of the day and night. Though there were periods of respite from the shelling. Those were the hours when the enemy had to let their big guns cool or else the heat of firing would warp them. I lived like that for two years.

I was at Verdun where I saw the true hell of war. After eleven months, we fought to a standstill. When the dead were counted, almost a million men from both sides had given their lives and not one inch of ground had been gained.

By November of 1918, we were out of food, out of ammunition, and almost out of men to send to the slaughter. The people at home had had enough of seeing their sons and fathers and brothers shipped home in boxes. There were marches and protests against the war. Near the end, the dead were not even sent home. They were buried in the fields where they had fallen.

At last, the war was over. I am told that nine million men died in those four years, and another twenty million were wounded. I was there and those numbers seem a little low to me, but what do I know? I was only a private.

When I returned home, President Ebert was there to meet us soldiers. He shook my hand and said, “No enemy has vanquished you.” He said the same thing to each man as he stepped off the train. Then I read in a newspaper that he repeated the same phrase in a speech. He should not have done so. It was the basis of, the beginning of, Dolchstoßlegende, the Stab-In-The-Back Myth. The myth that said we lost the war because of the Jews, the Socialists, and the Bolsheviks. But mostly because of the Jews.

I told you of my war experience because I wanted you to know I was there. I saw why we lost the war, and it was not because of Dolchstoßlegende. However, Dolchstoßlegende would affect me much more than the war ever had.

My mother, when she saw me, dropped the dish she was holding. It broke on the floor, shattering into many pieces. She rushed to me and held me tight. I felt her warm tears on my neck until she let go and held me at arm’s length. “Let me look at you,” she said as she cried with happiness. “My, you have grown so big! You remind me of your father.” My father had died years earlier; I barely remembered him.

It was good to be home. I had no plans except to sleep late every morning and eat my mother’s good cooking. However, the sleeping late was not to be. When I left, my mother was working in her friend’s millinery shop, but the shop had gone out of business during the war. My mother had been living off the money I was sending home every month. She said she did not write me of her plight because she did not want me to worry about her.

I was no longer a boy. I was now a man of twenty years. I had seen the horrors of war and I had lived through those horrors. Certainly, I could provide for my mother and me. Four days after returning home, I went in search of a job.

My first employment was with a blacksmith. However, that did not last long. The automobile was driving him out of business, and he had to let me go. Then Herr Hoffman hired me; he ran the largest bakery in Berlin. It was a good job because I was treated well and shown respect by Herr Hoffman. It was a job I was to have until . . . well . . . until I could no longer work. More on that later.

It was about that time the troubles began. The Allies had demanded reparations, and because of the war itself, there were food shortages and inflation. It was not uncommon to see someone with a suitcase filled with Mark notes going to buy a few groceries. One day, a man came into our shop with a 10,000 Mark note and asked if it would be enough to buy ten loaves of bread. Before the war, a loaf of bread cost 10 Pfennig, the equivalent of an American nickel. It was good to work where I could take a little food home every day, even if it was only a loaf of stale bread.

By 1924, inflation had gotten so bad that the Mark was replaced by the Reichsmark, but it did little good. There was still rampant inflation, and food shortages persisted. Of course, someone had to be blamed for the sorry state of affairs. That is when the Brownshirts appeared. I used to see them on the street corners giving speeches. They were always going on about the Jews and the communists.

In those days, I kept mostly to myself. However, being a young man, I did, on occasion, go to a beer hall for a stein or two. It was on one of those occasions that I had my first, but not my last, run-in with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. They called themselves Nazis.

The year was 1931. I was thirty-three years old. I still lived with my mother and I still worked for Herr Hoffman. But by then, I did more than carry the fifty-pound bags of flour for the bakers. I was now a baker myself. It was a very good position.

I was sitting at a table with four other young men, none of whom I knew. At the next table was a group of Brownshirts loudly going on about how the Juden betrayed the Fatherland during the Great War.

After my second stein, I could take it no longer. I turned to them and asked, “Were any of you in the war?” I knew none of them had been because of their age. I think the oldest one couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.

One of the younger ones answered my question. “No, but if we had been, we wouldn’t have lost the war.” At that, I had to smile. I was dealing with children.

My smile seemed to anger them. “What are you laughing at?” one of them asked. Another stood and approached me. “Are you a Jew?” he demanded.

That was enough for me. I stood and said, “No, I am not a Jew, but I fought shoulder to shoulder with them during the war while you were sucking your mother’s tit. And pound for pound, I’d rather have a Jew fighting next to me than any of you!”

True to the Nazi form, they took out their batons and beat me. There were six of them, so I did not have much of a chance, but I did get in a few good punches. One of which knocked out a front tooth of the man who had asked if I was a Jew.

Someone called the police, and they broke up the brawl. Just in time from my way of thinking; I was getting the worst of it. I was told to go home, and as I paid my bill, I saw the policemen talking to the Brownshirts. They all seemed quite friendly with one another.

In January of 1933, Herr Hitler became the chancellor of our republic. In February, the Reichstag burned. The Nazis said it was arson and Hitler persuaded President von Hindenburg to pass the Enabling Act, which suspended our civil liberties. The Act empowered Hitler to name himself dictator of Germany, which he did in 1934. His first act as dictator was to outlaw trade unions. Then he passed laws prohibiting Jews from working in the civil service and as lawyers or doctors for anyone except their own people.

By 1938, I had been promoted to master baker in Herr Hoffman’s shop. My life was good. My mother was still alive, and we still lived together. On my way home one night, I stopped off at a local ratskeller for a stein. As I entered, I bumped into a man wearing the black uniform of the Schutzstaffe; he was missing a front tooth. I knew him right away. He was the Brownshirt whose tooth I had knocked out back in 1931. All of Germany knew of Hitler’s storm troopers, and all of Germany feared them. I could see that he remembered me from somewhere, but was not sure where. Before he could remember, I left without having my stein. As I was going through the door, I turned to see him talking to the barmaid, pointing in my direction.

Since the passing of the Enabling Act, it was legal to arrest a person for little or no reason. Most of the arrests were of people who spoke out against Hitler. The SS Storm Troopers were the ones that did the arresting. Once the SS had you in custody, you ended up in a concentration camp.

The establishment of the camps was also one of the things Herr Hitler did in his first year as chancellor. I had no desire to be sent to a camp for punching a party member in the face years earlier, so I hurried home that evening. I remember the date well. It was 8 November 1938, one day before Kristallnacht or Crystal Night, also known as The Night of Broken Glass.

Over a two-day period, the SS and non-Jewish citizens throughout the country destroyed property owned by Jews. Storefronts were shattered; homes entered and looted; synagogues set afire. The property of Jews was easy to identify because their stores, houses and synagogues were painted with a yellow Star of David or the word Jude.

When the rampage ended, the sunlight reflecting off the fragmented glass lying in the street gave it the look of broken crystal. Two thousand Jewish men had been arrested—two thousand Jewish men . . . and me.

On the final night of Kristallnacht, the SS—led by the storm trooper with the missing tooth—came for me. My mother cried and pleaded with them not to take me. I said nothing; I knew what it was about. It was about revenge for a single punch in the face seven years earlier.

The SS put me in jail and there I sat for a month before I was charged with treason to the Fatherland and being a “Jew-lover.” Without a trial, I was sent to Dachau, which was located in southern Germany. At first, I was treated as any other prisoner. I was sent to a sub-camp and used as slave labor, hollowing out a mountain for a military installation. Then one day, two prison guards hauled me out of the mountain, transported me back to the main camp, and escorted me into the office of the camp commandant, Hauptsturmführer Piorkowski.

I stood before his desk with a guard on either side of me. Piorkowski was reading a file and did not acknowledge our presence. I was hopeful that at last someone had realized my arrest had been a mistake, that it was due to a vengeful major of the SS. I had been in the camp five months by then and had lost forty pounds. I would not last much longer if I was not freed.

Presently, Piorkowski raised his head from the file and looked at me. “It says here in your dossier that you are a baker.”

It was not a question, but I answered him anyway. “Yes, I am a master baker.”

Piorkowski smiled and asked if I knew how to make strudel. Of course I did, and I told him so. Again he smiled and said, “We will see.” He told the guards to take me to the showers, get me a clean prison uniform, and escort me to the kantine. Turning to me he said, “This might be your lucky day. If you can make a decent strudel, I will take you out of the mountain and put you to baking for the officers and enlisted men. Our cooks are adequate, but none of them can make a proper strudel. And their breads are not much better.”

With those words, any hope of my release flew out the window.

After I cleaned up, the two guards took me to the main kitchen. There were two kitchens, the main one that prepared the SS’s food, and another one that did the same for the prisoners. Both were staffed by men of the Wehrmacht or regular army. The men of the Waffen-SS were above such things as running a mess hall. Of course, prisoners could not be trusted to work around food considering the insufficient amount we were given. They would not have been able to help themselves and would have stolen more food than they prepared.

When we arrived, one of the guards left and the other one told the cook on duty what the commandant wanted of me. The cook shrugged and pointed to a table next to a wall of ovens. The guard said, “You will find what you need under the table.” And he added, “The ovens are heated and ready to go.” He did not leave; he just stood there and watched me work.

I did have to ask where to find certain ingredients. But I soon got down to work. It felt good to knead flour once again.

The smells of the kitchen were driving me mad. I was hungry, incredibly hungry, but I knew if I asked for something to eat, I would probably be beaten. Soon the strudels were ready for the oven. I had made twelve filled with cheese.

When they were done, I took the pan out of the oven and laid it on the table. The guard was a young private; he was licking his lips as his eyes followed the strudels from oven to table. Then the cook came over. He looked at my work and then picked up a strudel. It was hot, but it did not seem to faze him. He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. Without saying a word, he nodded at me and went back to whatever it was he had been doing. It was all I could do not to shove a strudel into my mouth.

The private took me and the strudels back to the commandant. This time we had to wait in the outer office for about fifteen minutes. But at least I was not in the mountain with a pickaxe in my hand and a machine gun at my back. At length, we were summoned into Piorkowski’s office.

As we entered, the commandant told me to lay the pan on his desk. I could see that a place had been cleared for that purpose. Then he said, “If they taste half as good as they smell, you will have a new job here at our little camp. Now wait outside until called for.” The guard and I left Piorkowski to enjoy his strudels.

By the time we were called back in, two of the strudels were gone, and Piorkowski had a smile on his face. “It is a good thing for you that you are not a Jew,” he said. The questioning look on my face must have prompted him to go on. “If you were a Jew, I couldn’t allow you in the kitchen. None of my men would eat anything that was touched by a Jew, no matter how tasty.” As I turned to leave, Piorkowski told the guard that, after he brought me back to the kitchen, he could go about his regular duties. “I don’t think our new baker will try to escape because, if he did, then I’d have to have him shot.” To me he said, “The head cook will tell you what you need to know. I’ve instructed him to give you one meal a day, regular rations. We don’t want you getting too weak to make your wonderful strudel.”

As I bent to pick up the tray with the remaining strudels, he told me to leave it. Then as an afterthought, he said, “Keep clean. I will give orders allowing you to shower every day. And when your uniform is soiled, ask for a clean one. I do not want dirt or lice falling onto what you bake.”

I nodded, and the guard and I started out, but before we got to the door, Piorkowski asked, “How are you with pfeffernüsse?” I told him I was the best with anything he wanted baked, including spice cookies. When I answered him, there was a slight edge to my voice. I was still disappointed at not being released.

His smile was quickly replaced with a frown. “Never use that tone of voice with me again or I’ll send you back to the mountain. Now get to work!”

I was brought back to the kitchen and placed in the hands of the head cook. He informed me of my duties. His main concern was bread. There were 1500 camp personnel, mostly SS, but there were also, as I have said, some Wehrmacht. He would need 1000 loaves per day. Of course, it was also going to be my duty to make desserts. Unless ordered by the commandant to produce a particular dessert, he would leave the decision of what to prepare up to me. He was a nice man, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht. He treated me as an equal the entire time I worked in his kitchen. His name was Joseph Müller.

It was late in the afternoon, and there would be no more baking that day. They fired the ovens at 3:00 a.m. and that was when my day would begin. It would not end until I had everything baked for the evening meal, usually between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.

After he had finished showing me around and told me what was expected of me, I told him that I could not come up with 1000 loaves of bread per day and desserts for 1500 men twice a day, every day, without some help. Sgt. Müller said he had detailed six men to help me. He had told them to do what I said and pay no attention to the fact that I was a prisoner. It was the first time in five months that I had been treated like a human being and it brought a tear to my eye.

Unlike Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Dachau was not a death camp. It was a camp for political prisoners. Many died, but the deaths were mostly from disease and starvation.

I felt guilty eating my one meal a day in the kitchen while my fellow prisoners lined up for their meager meal of watered-down soup. We were always hungry, but I had it a little better than the other prisoners. That is why, one afternoon when my work was done, I smuggled two loaves of bread from the kitchen and brought them to my barracks. My intent was to feed a few poor souls. But when the people saw what I had, a riot broke out. People were shoving and stepping over one another to get to me. The loaves were wrenched from my hands before I was five steps into the barracks. Of course, with all the commotion, the guards came in, and when they saw what was happening and what had caused the disturbance, I was brought before Piorkowski.

He was furious and paced back and forth as I stood in front of his desk between two guards. Finally, he stood in front of me, and after a moment’s hesitation, he slapped me hard, right across the face.

“So that is how you repay my kindness?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on. “One more incident like we had this afternoon, I will hang you in the yard and your body will stay there until it rots. It will serve as a reminder to the other prisoners that my will is law, and anyone who breaks my law will suffer a similar fate.”

He then calmed down, and in a softer voice, he said, “Seeing as how you love your fellow prisoners so much, you can eat with them for the next four days. After that, you can go back to your meal in the kitchen. I don’t want you too weak to work.”

When I returned to the barracks, no one would look me in the eye or speak with me. They were ashamed for the way they had acted and resentful of me for being the cause of their shame. But I could not blame them. Hunger is a terrible thing. To be hungry day in and day out, with no relief in sight, will take away one’s humanity.

Six other commandants followed Piorkowski, and they all kept me baking my breads and strudels. That is how I survived Dachau. I did not starve to death because I ate relatively well. Besides my daily meal, I snuck cheese and fruits meant for the strudels and a piece of bread now and then. I had to be careful because, if caught, I’d be reported. Sgt. Müller knew what I was doing, but as I’ve said before, he was a good man. I did not succumb to disease because of my diet and the fact that I was allowed to shower daily.

I’ll never forget the date the camp was liberated. It was 29 April 1945. I was forty-seven years old.

The commandant and the SS officers left in the morning; the Americans came in the afternoon. The first thing the Americans did once they had control of the camp was separate the men of the Wehrmacht from the SS. Then they stood forty-five men of the SS up against a wall and executed them. At the time, I did not speak English, but a prisoner who did told me why the SS were shot.

A half mile from the camp, the Americans had come upon railroad cars that were locked and standing idle. When the cars were opened, there lay two thousand dead Jews. They had been left locked in the cars with no water or food for three weeks. Many of the Americans retched from the smell of feces and rotting flesh. Many more were sick just from the horrible sight.

So, when the Americans liberated our camp, they were not feeling too kindly towards members of the SS. In fact, they stood around and watched, and did not interfere, when prisoners who were not too weak or too sick attacked SS guards that had been rounded up and herded into the roll-call yard. When the SS men were dead, one man who took part in the killings came towards me holding a shovel, shouting that I was a Nazi-lover. He would have struck me, but another prisoner came between us. He held up his hand and said, pointing to me, “This man has done nothing against any of us. He did what he had to do to survive. You were not here at the time, but, at great risk to himself, he brought bread to us. He was found out and told that he would be executed if he did it again. What would you have done differently, my friend?” The man dropped the shovel, buried his face in his hands and cried. I think he was crying because at last the horror was over and once again he could live as a human being and not as a feral animal.

We could not leave the camp because the war was still raging all around us. The Americans were fighting their way to Berlin. My mother was in Berlin and I wanted to see her again so badly. We could not leave, but we were fed three meals a day, and the Americans brought in medical personnel to treat the sick. Half the camp was down with typhus.

Two large warehouses held the clothes that were taken from us upon our arrival at the camp. We were allowed to pick out a suit of clothes to replace the hated prison uniforms.

The war ended about two weeks later when Admiral Dönitz unconditionally surrendered. Hitler had appointed him head of state in his will. We were free to leave the camp, but before we could go, we had to queue up and get a card stating that we were ex-prisoners. This was done because many SS men had discarded their uniforms and were claiming to be either civilians or ex-soldiers of the Wehrmacht.

There was no train service because the tracks had all been bombed. So I started walking to Berlin. It was a three-hundred-and-fifty-mile walk. Along the way, I saw what the war—or more to the point—what Hitler had done to our country. There was devastation of one sort or another in all the cities. The countryside for the most part looked untouched. But wherever I went, people were hungry. And so was I. I stole vegetables from some farms and received handouts from others. There was no food to be had in the towns or the cities, at least not for me.

I was stopped numerous times by allied soldiers. Even though I had the card stating I was an ex-prisoner, I was asked on more than one occasion to remove my coat and shirt and raise my arms. The soldiers were looking for the tattoo of the SS. All SS men had the  symbol tattooed on the inside of their biceps. Some soldiers let me pass without checking for the tattoo because of my thin frame. It was obvious that I had not been eating very well or very much for a long while. All members of the SS were well fed.

It took me eighteen days to reach the outskirts of Berlin. I thought I had seen devastation on my journey, but I was not prepared for what I beheld as I walked the streets of Berlin. The city had been thoroughly destroyed. There was not a building left intact, and the people were walking around in a state of shock. I went right to my former home to find only a crater and half of a wall standing where my house should have been. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I prayed that she had not been in the building when the bomb struck.

I spent the rest of the day walking the streets looking for my mother before I had to stop because of darkness. I found a cellar that was unoccupied. Even though the floor was rough and hard, I slept through the night. I was awakened by an excited clamor up in the street. It was the sound of many people talking all at once. I brushed the dust off my clothes and went to see what was happening.

There was a line of people waiting to be fed. At the front of the line were American soldiers ladling out what looked to be soup. I hurriedly got to the end of the line and asked the man in front of me what was going on. “Isn’t it obvious? The Americans are feeding us so that we don’t devolve into cannibalism,” he said with a slight grin on his face. He went on to tell me that twice a day, at various locations, they dished out just enough food to keep a person alive. Then he looked at my empty hands and added, ‘Unless you are going to carry your soup in those, I would recommend you find a bowl somewhere.” By then there were about twenty people behind me and I hated to give up my place, but he was right, so I left the line.

I had to go only a block. In a destroyed building, on the ground floor, I saw an exposed kitchen. I moved bricks around until I unearthed a pie tin. Next, I looked for a spoon. I was throwing bricks aside as fast as I could. I was in a panic that the soup would run out before I could get back. Then I found what I was looking for. There was only one problem. The spoon was attached to a woman’s hand—a dead woman’s hand. It was all that I could see. The rest of her body was buried under a pile of bricks.

I had seen many a dead body over the last five years, so one more did not shock me. And I am ashamed to say it, but I took the spoon from her cold, dead hand and hurried back to the food line without giving her another thought. As I said, hunger is a terrible thing and a man will do terrible things to alleviate the pain.

That was my life for the next month. I would line up twice a day for something to eat, usually soup. When I wasn’t in line, I would search for my mother. At night, I slept in an air raid shelter with two hundred other displaced Berliners. The occupiers had converted all the shelters into sleeping quarters. Unless you were extremely sick, you were not allowed to be there during the day.

On all the light posts were notices put up by people looking for lost family members. I borrowed a pencil from a nice woman and found some paper that I tore into four pieces. I wrote my name, my mother’s name, and a short message on each piece, saying that she should meet me at the house where we used to live. I then placed one of them on the wall left standing at our old house and the other three on different light posts around the city. For as long as I was in Berlin, I went every day to where our house had stood, even long after my plaintive notices had blown away.

It wasn’t long before the Americans told us that all able-bodied people would have to work if they wanted to eat. I was given a wheelbarrow and told to collect bricks and deposit them in neat stacks at a certain location. I wasn’t the only one doing so. Men and women all over Berlin were doing the same thing. I think the work that the Americans had us do was as much about keeping us occupied as it was about cleaning up Berlin. But there was no shortage of bricks, and I kept busy in that fashion for the next five months. At the end of each day, I was given a piece of paper that allowed me to get in the workers’ line for food; a little more food was doled out there than at the other food lines.

After six months in Berlin, I had given up hope of ever finding my mother. If she were alive, she would have been at our old house waiting for me long before I even got back to the city. It was time to get on with my life. I was a baker, not a brick picker-upper. And as things were, there was no need of my services in Berlin, nor would there be for the foreseeable future.

By the time I came to that decision, some of the railroad tracks had been repaired, and there was limited train service, but only for commercial reasons. I hid in an open car that was carrying coal and heading northwest. The train stopped in Cuxhaven, a small seaport town on the North Sea. On the spur of the moment, I decided I would try to get to another country. Germany had been destroyed and, without my mother, there was nothing to keep me there. But first, I would need some money.

I was in luck and found a job loading and off-loading ships. Everything was still a mass of confusion; however, the Allies wanted to get the economy up and running as soon as possible to avoid the inflation that followed the Great War, and shipping was a necessary component of that strategy.

I had been working on the docks for a little over six months when I decided that I wanted to go to America. But I did not have enough saved for my passage. I worked hard and I got to know a few of the captains that frequented the port. One captain in particular, Captain Hans Becker. One day he invited me to come to his cabin when the loading of his ship was completed. “Come and have a glass of schnapps with me when you are done,” he bellowed from the bridge.

Once we were seated at his table, both of us with a glass of very good schnapps in hand, he said, “You once told me that you were a baker. Do you know how to cook also?”

I took a sip of my schnapps and thought for a moment before answering. “I cook for myself every night. I do not waste money eating out. I am saving for my passage to America.”

“That is very good, but will the Americans let you into their country?”

“I don’t see why not. I am able-bodied and can support myself. It is a big country. I am sure they can use one more baker.”

“There are such things as passports and visas, my friend.”

Yes, I knew of those things, but I refused to dwell on them until I had the money in hand for the trip.

Hans poured me another glass of schnapps and said, “I am sailing for America in two days, and I need a cook. If you agree not to poison my crew with your cooking, you can sign on. We will be in America for two weeks before returning. It will give you a chance to see if you like the country, and you will be earning the whole way there and back with no expenses for lodging or food. You will be able to put more away than if you stayed here.”

It may have been the schnapps, but I accepted his offer without hesitation. I was going to America!

It was a fast crossing. We pulled into New York Harbor just seven days after leaving Cuxhaven. The customs people came on board before we had even finished tying our lines to the dock. They checked Hans’ paperwork and when they saw that he was carrying industrial parts from the IG Farben Company as part of the war reparations, we were quickly documented and told to enjoy ourselves while in the city of New York. IG Farben was the company that made the poison gas used in the death camps.

At first I had trouble adjusting to the tall buildings. I had never seen anything like them before, except in the moving pictures that came from America prior to the war. I soon began to love the city. Whenever I had the time, I would walk the streets and observe the people. They were all so intent with their lives. Rushing to wherever it was they were going. I wondered if they knew how lucky they were that the war had not affected America as it had Germany.

One day while walking in a part of the city that I later learned was known as Little Germany, I happened upon a bakery. The smells coming from inside reminded me of Herr Hoffman’s shop. I went in not knowing how I was going to make myself understood. At the time, I still spoke no English. However, I need not have worried. The shop was empty but for a man behind the counter who asked me, in German, what I would like.

I told him I was just over from the Fatherland and it was good to hear my native tongue spoken in America. When he heard that I had been in Germany just a week earlier, he asked me to sit down at a little table by the window and excused himself. He was back in less than a minute with two cups of coffee and a plate of cinnamon cookies.

He had seen newsreels and read the papers. He wanted to know all about how things were back home. He asked if it was true that Germany had been totally destroyed. I told him what I had seen from one end of the country to the other, especially what had been done to Berlin. He sat there and listened without interruption and without touching his coffee.

As soon as I had finished speaking, he took my cup, went behind the counter and refilled it. When he sat down again, he asked about me personally. Was I immigrating to America? What had I done during the war, and a thousand other questions. We talked the afternoon away. By the time I realized that I would be late getting back to the ship, I had learned that he was a Jew and had left Germany two years after Hitler came to power. He had seen the handwriting on the wall. And I told him that, like him, I was a baker. He said he had things he wanted to talk to me about, but I didn’t have the time right then, so I agreed to come back to his shop the following day. The baker’s name was Herman Klein. He would turn out to be the best friend I would ever have.

I arrived early the next day, and the shop was busy. There were at least fifteen people in line and Herr Klein could not serve them fast enough. When I saw one lady get frustrated at the wait and walk out, I joined Herr Klein behind the counter and helped him serve his customers.

At last, the shop was empty. Herr Klein poured two cups of coffee, and we resumed our seats by the window. After blowing on his coffee to cool it a bit, he said to me, “If you would like to stay here in America, I think I can fix it for you. I can vouch for you and tell the authorities that you have a job with me so that you will not be a burden on the people of this great country. And when they find out that you were in one of the camps, they are bound to let you stay.”

I wasn’t so sure of that and I started to say something, but he silenced me by holding up his hand and saying, “Let me finish what I have to say, and then you can talk.”

“My wife died before I left Germany, and I have no children. I’m over-working myself and I could use some help, but good bakers are hard to come by. If you come in with me and we get along, I will give you a 25% partnership in my business after six months.”

When it was my turn to talk, I could think of nothing to say. I desperately wanted to take him up on his offer, but I had a commitment to Hans. I told Herman that I would have to discuss the matter with my captain, but whatever the outcome, I wanted him to know that I was deeply moved by the proposition.

That night, Hans only laughed when I told him that I did not think I could stay in America because it would leave him without a cook. “Listen, my friend. You would be a fool not to take Herr Klein’s offer. The crossing is seven days; I think we can manage that long without a cook. The men can take turns doing the honors. It might be interesting to see what they come up with.”

That is how I ended up in America. I was allowed to stay because I had money, a job, and a sponsor. Herman was right—having been a prisoner did help my case. When I showed the man who was interviewing me the card stating that I had been at Dachau, I saw something in his eyes, something sad.

Herman taught me English and when I was proficient enough, I took the citizenship classes to learn about this wonderful country and its history. Six months to the day after I started working for him, Herman gave me a 25% interest in the bakery. It was official; his lawyer had drawn up the papers.

I became a proud citizen of the United States on 9 February 1947. I was forty-nine years old. Herman and I worked together for ten years. He was nineteen years older than I and in the fall of 1957 when he was seventy-eight, Herman announced that he could take the cold no longer and was retiring to Florida.

He sold me his interest in the shop, but no cash changed hands. Our agreement was that I would send him a check every month to cover his expenses with a little left over. If I sold the shop, then I would send him his percentage of the proceeds. This time there was no lawyer involved. It was a handshake deal. Two years later, Herman died in his sleep . . . two days after his eightieth birthday. I was listed as his next-of-kin and was duly notified of his passing. I closed the shop for a few days and flew to Florida to bury my friend under the warm Florida sun. I was sixty-one-years-old.

I ran the shop until I was eighty-five. Of course, I had help. I trained a young man to be a master baker and ended up selling him the shop with no money down. He sent me a check every month for ten years.

I am now one hundred and three years old as I sit in the Florida sun waiting to die.

Now I come to the purpose of my narrative. My hands shake too much for me to write, that is why I am speaking into a tape recorder.

I told you the story of my life so that anyone who hears these words will understand that I know whereof I speak. I lived through two of the worst periods in human history. And they took place only twenty years apart. The first, of course, being what was then known as the Great War. I saw the carnage first hand. In that war, nine million men were slain. The second occurrence of man’s inhumanity to man was the second great war. Sixty million men, women, and children died in that war, including the eleven million human beings that perished in the concentration camps.

To my point: All that suffering and all those deaths came about because of fear. I was young at the time, but I remember the election of 1912. The left-wing Social Democratic Party made huge gains in that election. The right-wing Prussians feared a loss of power and started agitating for war to distract the populace. Terms like “nationalism” and “territorial rights” were used. We Germans began to fear that there was not enough land. We felt that we had to take land from others so that we would have enough for ourselves. It is ironic, or maybe not, but that is the same argument Hitler used when he had his army march into Czechoslovakia. He wanted land for the German people.

In 1914, it was fear of not having enough space in which to live that caused the death of nine million men and seriously wounded another twenty-two million. And here we are one hundred years later and still there is plenty for everyone.

All wars are fought because of fear. Hitler did not hate the Jews, he feared them. He feared the left-wingers, and he feared anyone that was not just like him. Unfortunately, there were too many people in Germany at that time that had the same fears. That is how concentration camps come about. Concentrate those who are different from you behind fences of barbed wire.

In Germany, we gave up our civil liberties through the Enabling Act because of fear. The Reichstag had just been torched, and we were all fearful. Fearful of what, we were not quite sure. We were definitely afraid of the Jews, but our other fears were not so self-evident. We believed our leaders knew best, so we allowed them to take our freedoms in the hope that they would protect us. And once you give up your rights to a government—any government—it is very hard to get them back.

Here in America, this beautiful adopted land of mine, we gave up our civil liberties after 9/11 through the Patriot Act, another act that was born of fear. Like the Enabling Act, it was supposed to lapse after four years. And like the Enabling Act, it is not going anywhere.

In Germany, it was the Jews. Now many of us here fear Muslims. I am not saying that America is on the verge of another Hitler. What I am saying—and this is from an old man on his way out who has seen it all and lived it all—what I am saying is this: Come from a place of love, not fear.

I am one hundred and three years old as I speak these words, and I can still get around. I walked to a pawnshop not far from where I live and bought this recorder. It is a cassette recorder. The man in the store told me they were obsolete, so he gave me a good price. I bought it to say just one thing. I have to say it now because tomorrow I will be either in heaven or in hell, I do not know which, but wherever I am, you will not be able to hear my words. So I speak them into this microphone to be placed on a tape, and I pray that someone, someday, somewhere will hear them. Not only hear my words, but also heed them.

This is what I spent the better part of an hour getting to: There is only love and fear. That is all. All negative emotions come from fear; jealousy, hatred, greed, just to name a few. Fear of not having enough, fear of not being loved enough, fear of someone that is different from us, fear of someone who worships a different God than we do. There is only fear and love. I tell you: Live your life with love. The kind of love a mother has for her child. The kind of love that a man has who jumps in front a bullet to save his friend; love like Mother Teresa had for the poor of this world, the love that Jesus had when he laid down his life.

Love or fear?

Please . . . do not let what took place in Germany ever happen again!

I’ll ask you once more . . . Love or fear?

The choice is yours.

 

 

On Amazon

A P.S. To a Letter to My Dispirited Writer Friend

You can read the original letter here.

I forgot to mention that publishers, for the most part, do not take on books that have already been published. And agents think the same way. If your book is selling maybe 1,000 copies a day (or even 500), and all by word of mouth, then they’ll knock down your door to sign you up.
I don’t know if you are in the process of writing another book, but if you are, you might want to save all that energy and work sending out your query letters for the new book.
You probably already know this, but there are sites that will teach you how to write a dynamite query and their members will critique it for you and add advice. That’s what I did. I think the site’s name is Agent Query. They also have up-to-date lists of agents to work from when sending out your letters.
Finally, have you ever thought of doing paid promotions with the likes of eReader News Today, Choosy Bookworm, or Free Kindle Books and Tips? For $30.00 or $40.00 they’ll send out an email to their thousands of subscribers and you’ll get some sales. You’ll have to drop your price to $0.99 for the day of the promotion. Remember, the more books you sell the more reviews you’ll get, and the more reviews you get the more books you’ll sell. I never give my books away for free. When people get books for free, many of them stick it on their Kindle and forget about it. But if they pay for a book, they’ll read it. Even if the book was only $0.99.

 

 

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V-8 Ford

Another one of my hitching adventures.

V-8 Ford

I have no idea where I was when this story started. All I know is I was north of Atlanta, somewhere in the backwoods of Georgia. I had been hitchhiking in from California, going home to Miami for a visit. I fell asleep in the passenger seat of the car in which I was riding, and the next thing I knew, the driver of the car was shaking me awake. We were stopped, and he said, “Here it is. I turn down that rural road. You wanna’ stay on this here county road. It’ll get you to 301, then its south right into Florida. Good luck.”

I didn’t say the obvious, like, Why the hell didn’t you let me off before we got to the boondocks?  Instead, I thanked him for the ride, got out of the car, and watched him disappear in a cloud of dust down some godforsaken gravel road. So there I was. Where I was, I did not know. All I knew is that it was getting dark—and not a car in sight!

I thought I better scout out a place to unroll my sleeping bag before it got too dark. It looked as though I was going to be stuck there for the night. Just about then, I saw a pair of headlights coming my way—heading in the direction I wanted to go. So I do my part and stick out my thumb. Now if only the driver of the approaching car would do his part and stop. But no, the car sped right on by me. Guess you’re here for the night, Andrew. Might as well get used to it. These were my thoughts as I turned away from the road and went about my search for soft ground upon which to lay my head.

Because I was busy looking for a place to bed down for the night, I did not notice that the car had stopped about three hundred yards down the road. For all you folks out there who have never “hitched,” three hundred yards is not the normal stopping distance. When I finally noticed the car, I became a little apprehensive. I’d been hitchin’ around the country for a few years by then. And it’s been my experience that cars pass you by or stop relatively close to where you are standing. If a car passes you, and then stops further down the road and just sits there, it usually means trouble of some sort.

I’ve been involved in scenarios like this on more than one occasion. In the past, this is the way it played out. The driver was speeding to God knows where and he passed me by thinking, “Fuck him.” But in the back of his mind he’s thinking, “I may be able to make use of that guy.” By the time that thought enters his head, he’s a good piece down the road. But he stops anyway. His nefarious plan had not yet crystallized, so he sits there a moment or two before backing up, which always meant they had decided what they wanted of me. Those kinds of rides never picked me up to help me; it was always about them.

The majority of the time it was some poor closet queen. You must remember, this was 1970 and in the Deep South. Nobody in that neck of the woods, at that time, was out of the closet. And a “stop” like that usually meant a sexual proposition. However, there were times I had to run for my life. So what to do? If the car stopped for the former reason, then I’d get a ride, and the subject slowly broached. And by the time it got around to my polite but firm refusal, I’d be miles down the road. If, on the other hand, the car had stopped for the latter reason, given the locale and the fact no one else was around, then I was in deep shit. These thoughts were coursing through my mind while the car and I maintained a kind of Mexican standoff. We stood there looking at one another, neither of us making the first move.

Finally the brake lights went off and the car started to back up. Now it was my turn. Do I stand my ground, or run into the woods? The car had been stopped for an inordinately long time. But the percentages were with me that the man in the car was just trying to get laid. So with that reasoning, I stayed where I was and waited for the car to reach me. As it got nearer, I noticed that the lid to the trunk was missing, and that it was “army” green in color. I also saw that it was a 1950 V-8 Ford. The V-8 Ford of song and legend.

When the car finally got abreast of me, I was surprised to see that there was a family inside—a man, a woman, and two of the most adorable little girls I’d ever seen—and not the solitary man as I had expected.

I leaned down to the passenger side window and said, “Howdy.”

The man leaned forward, past the woman so I could see his face, and in form of a response said, “Need a lift?”

Now before I can go any further, I must convey something to you kind folks. And in this day and age, it should not be necessary, but it is germane to our story, so it must be stated. The family that had stopped to give me a ride was black. In 1970, they were “black.” Today they would be referred to as African-Americans. And good for them! It’s about time these people got a little fuckin’ respect. Please excuse my language, but I am passionate about the way people of color have been treated, and still are treated, in this supposed “Land of the Free” in which we live.

Okay, back to my story. The man had just asked if I wanted a lift. My answer was an emphatic “Yes!” to which the man replied, “Then get in.” The woman, who I assumed was his wife, moved over towards the driver to make room for me. So there was nothing left for me to do but open the door and get in—after depositing my sleeping bag and suitcase in the back with the children.

Before I even had the door closed, the car lurched forward with a squeal of tires. One thing about those V-8 Fords … they could sure move when they wanted to.

As we sped down that lonely county road, the man said to me, “My name’s Lonnie. This here’s my wife Michelle. And the two in the back are our little girls, Anita and Suzy.”

“Glad to meet you folks. My name’s Andrew.”

For the next few minutes and the next few miles, there was no conversation. It was completely dark now. The Ford’s headlights lit up the road, and the only light inside the Ford was from the speedometer, which illuminated Lonnie’s face. As the car raced down the two-lane, I had a chance to observe my hosts. Lonnie was thin, about thirty, and a rather handsome man. I inferred that because his wife was a knockout. And I didn’t think anyone as pretty as Michelle would hook up with someone not in her class.

After a while, Lonnie asked me, “Where you going?”

“I’m going to Miami. How far are you guys going?”

“Hey man, we’re going to West Palm Beach to stay with my sister. We can give you a ride all the way there.”

I thought that was great news. But, as with everything else in my recent life, there was a catch. And man, what a catch this was. However, let’s progress slowly, and in the order of events as they played out. It’s more fun that way.

We had gone about five miles when Lonnie said, “I’ve got to make a little run first, then we can head south.”

I told him I was cool with that. After all, he was taking me practically to my front door. West Palm Beach is fifty miles from Miami, but when you’re coming in from three thousand miles out, fifty miles is your front door. And when Lonnie said, “run,” I thought he meant a short errand. No, he meant run as in a moonshine run.

We must have been way out in nowheresville because we didn’t see another car, coming or going. After a while, I turned to Lonnie and asked, “Where the hell … oops … sorry Michelle … where are we?” Lonnie answered that we were in Pickens County, halfway between Jasper and Tate. Thanks, Lonnie, now I know just where I am. Wherever the hell Jasper and Tate are.

Finally, Lonnie slowed and said under his breath, “I know it’s here somewhere.” He was looking out of the right side of the windshield. (I’m sure not many of you remember the particulars of the 1950 V-8 Ford, but the windshield was actually two pieces of glass separated by a metal bar in the center.) We crept along at twenty miles per hour for a mile or so until Lonnie exclaimed, “There she is!”

What she was, was a dirt road, and not a very pretty one at that. From the little I could see in the car’s headlights, she consisted of only wheel ruts in the earth. We pulled off the county road and onto the side road (well, it was more like a trail than a road). However, what was to come next would make this mess seem like the brick-paved road leading into the Emerald City of Oz.

After bouncing along that “road” for what seemed like forever, we made a left onto something that no man in his right mind would call a road. The car could make only about five miles per hour. There were tree branches that were windshield high, and holes eight inches deep. I don’t know if the 1950 Fords had lousy springs, or if the ones on this particular Ford were just shot, but every single hole was felt by each of the five occupants of this particular 1950 Ford.

At that pace, it took a while to reach our destination. Through the trees, and a little to our left, I saw three small fires about a hundred yards before us. When Lonnie saw the fires, he sighed and said, “We’re here, folks,” and pulled into a small clearing in the forest that surrounded us.

When the Ford came to a halt, Lonnie said, “Ya’all stay here. I gotta let ’em know about you, Andrew, and explain why I brought the family along.”

As I sat in the front seat next to Michelle, I saw three men emerge from the shadows, each holding a shotgun pointed toward the ground. They converged on Lonnie, and entered into what seemed like heated discussion. After a few minutes, Lonnie came back to the car, leaned his head in the driver’s side window, and said, “It’s cool. I told ‘em I’ve known you for a long time, Andrew, so don’t blow it for me. They don’t exactly trust white boys. Michelle, you and the girls are gonna have to wait here for me while I make the run. Come on, get out. I’ll introduce you guys around.”

I slid out the passenger side door and held it for Michelle. The girls wasted no time in effecting their egress through the back doors. They each availed themselves of one of the two.

With Lonnie herding the girls into our little collective, we moved as one to the three men who stood before the fires, looking somber, and non-welcoming.

Lonnie tried to put a cheerful face on things by lightly saying, “Boys, this here is my family and my friend Andrew. We’re all goin’ down to Florida after I make this run for you. Michelle, Andrew, girls, I want ya’all to meet Sonny Boy, Slim, and Peetie.”

Michelle said, “I am very pleased to meet you gentlemen.”

The only thing I could think of to say was, “Howdy.”

The boys—Sonny Boy, Slim, and Peetie—didn’t look too happy having a white boy, a woman, and a couple of kids in their midst. In case you haven’t cottoned to it yet, this was strictly a black moonshine enterprise. I was the only white face in the crowd. Man, how I did get around in those days.

The one called Slim raised his gun, and using it as a pointer, said to me, “You, white boy. Ya see them boxes over there? As long as ya here, ya might as well work. Them boxes go in the trunk of the Ford. Lonnie will help ya.”

Now that my eyes had become adjusted to the night, I could make out that the three fires I had first seen were firing three large vats with copper tubing spiraling down into five-gallon plastic buckets. What I was looking at were three very large stills. They are call stills because they distill corn mash into an almost 200 proof concoction of pure mountain dew.

But first things first. Michelle and the children had to be taken care of. Lonnie told me he’d be with me in a minute, right after he got his family situated. It was then that I noticed there was a small shack back behind the stills, in among the trees. It was there that Lonnie shepherded his flock. When he returned, I was standing by the boxes that Slim said had to be loaded in the trunk of the Ford.

I asked Lonnie, “Will you please tell me what’s going on here?”

That’s when I got the skinny on the whole shebang. It seemed as though I had stepped … no, that’s not right … it seemed as though I had been picked up and driven right into the middle of a moonshine war. And to make matters worse, it was a white versus black moonshine war—in the backwoods of Georgia, circa 1970.

This is how Lonnie explained it to me, as we loaded his car with pure, 190 proof liquor.

The sheriff of Pickens County was a man by the name of Bob Cole, and he received a percentage, or a “cut,” from every illegal activity that took place within his county, from prostitution, to gambling, to moonshinin’, even from the sale of marijuana. The drug trade was fine with Bob Cole as long as he got his cut and it was confined to the black sections of the county. Until the drug culture of the 1960s exploded onto America, and the children of the affluent white populace started doing drugs, every police department in the country knew of, and tolerated, drugs being sold in the black areas of their cities, counties, and towns. In those days police departments were made up of all white men. I believe they thought drugs would help keep the black population docile, and besides, Who cared if a few niggers became drug addicts. Not my thinking, I just report the way things were.

Man, I do go off on tangents, don’t I? Back to the story: Sonny Boy, who owned the stills, decided one day to stop paying tribute to Sheriff Cole. Believing he would be safe from the sheriff’s reprisals the further removed from civilization he was, he moved his operation to where we now found ourselves.

Now, Sheriff Cole and his brother-in-law, who was his partner, his enforcer, and his collector, have to make an example of Sonny Boy. To allow his revolt would only encourage others to follow suit. By the way, Cole’s brother-in-law’s name was Ed Williams.

The “shine” that Lonnie and I were loading as he was telling his story was to be the first consignment since Sonny Boy went independent. Word had gotten around that Cole was gunning for Sonny Boy, and anyone foolish enough to be caught with a load of his hooch would be in serious trouble. And I’m not speaking of trouble with The Law. No, this kind of trouble meant your next of kin would be shelling out money to the local funeral home. So Sonny Boy had trouble recruiting a driver for this inaugural run.

This is where Lonnie enters the picture. His V-8 Ford was the fastest car in the county. He had built the engine from the ground up. The car could reach speeds of over 150 miles per hour. There was nothing in the county that could catch her. Or so I was told.

Sonny Boy offered Lonnie a thousand dollars, plus the proceeds of the run, if he’d take the chance of running Sheriff Cole’s blockade. As Cole had a point to make concerning Sonny Boy, Sonny Boy also had a point to make concerning Cole. He would get his shine to his customers in spite of Cole’s best efforts.

Lonnie took the job because he wanted to start a new life for himself and his own down in Florida. Which was good, because even if he could outrun Cole and Williams, they would know his car, and he wouldn’t be safe in Pickens County for a very long time. Those boys, Cole and Williams, did not mess around, as you will shortly see.

As the trunk began to fill, I noticed that there were a lot more boxes than there was trunk space. I mentioned the discrepancy to Lonnie, who told me not to worry about it, just keep stacking until the boxes were even with the roof of the car. That explained the missing trunk lid. After we had everything stacked roof high, we filled the floor in the back (V-8 Fords had plenty of legroom) and the seat right up to the headliner. Then we put the last two cases in the front seat.

Just then the one known as Peetie walked up to us carrying a rope. He handed it to Lonnie without a word, turned, and walked away. Lonnie took the rope and tied one end to the rear right door handle. Then he brought it around the opposite door and looped it through the handle, and then back again to the other door. He did this a few more times, and with each pass, the boxes in the trunk became more secure. When he had tied off the end of the rope, he went back to inspect the boxes. He tried to shake them loose, but to no avail. He turned to me with a big smile and said, “That oughta hold ’em.” He continued, “Okay, you can stay with Michelle and the girls while I’m gone.”

My retort was, “Hold on just one cotton pickin’ minute. If you think I’m gonna sit with the women and children when I have the chance to go on a moonshine run in the middle of a moonshine war, then you’re crazier than I am.”

I had just finished speaking when Sonny Boy and Slim walked up. Sonny Boy said to Lonnie, “Ya ready to go?”

Lonnie replied, “Sure am, but this crazy white boy wants to go along.”

Sonny Boy said nothing right off, he just looked me over. At length, he said, “Why ya wanna go?”

“Because when I’m a grandfather, I want to tell the story to my grandkids of the time I went on a moonshine run.”

“This ain’t no game, boy. This here is serious business.”

“I know that, Mr. Sonny Boy. Lonnie explained things to me. But Lonnie’s my friend; I may be of some help. Hell, he can’t even see out the back window. I can spot for him, you know, tell him if anyone is coming up fast behind. You never know when two men might be better than one.”

“You ain’t no man, boy, but ya got spunk. Okay … you can go.”

Lonnie said, “If it’s cool with you, Sonny Boy, then I’d love to have him along. Let me go tell Michelle I’m leaving. I’ll be right back.” As Lonnie walked to the shack, the three of us—Sonny Boy, Slim, and I—stood there staring at one another. I felt uncomfortable with them just standing there staring at me. So I said something only a young kid who was out to prove his worth would say. “You know if I had one of those guns, it might prove useful if we run into trouble.” Both men still had their shotguns tucked under their arms and pointed toward the ground.

Again, Sonny Boy looked me over as though he’d never seen a twenty-year-old white male before. He then turned to Slim and said, “Give him your gun.” Slim made no movement to comply with Sonny Boy’s order. After a few seconds, Sonny Boy said to Slim, “Look, he don’t talk like us, he ain’t from ’round here. He ain’t one of Cole’s stooges. He might just help git this load through. I got a feelin’. And Slim, ya know my feelin’s ain’t never wrong. Give him the gun.”

It took a couple of seconds, but Slim slowly raised his gun, and though it wasn’t pointed directly at me, it was pointed in my general direction. And he spoke for the second time that night, “If’n anything goes wrong, I’ll know who to come after.” With that cheery thought, he turned the gun around and handed it to me butt first.

Sonny Boy asked me, “You ever fire a shotgun before? You look kinda city to me.”

“Nope, never have. I reckon I just pull the triggers.”

“Ya might want to shoot just one barrel at a time so you don’t shoot ya load all at once. And it might be easier if’n you pull the hammers back first.”

So that was it. I was now officially riding shotgun for the Sonny Boy Express.

When Lonnie got back, he did a double take at me holding the gun, but said only, “Mount up, we’re ridin.”

As we got in the car, I had to arrange the two cases in the front seat so I could get my butt in there too. Lonnie saw me fighting with the cases while holding the shotgun and jumped out of the car. He walked around the front to the passenger side where I was still doing battle with the cases. He tapped me on the shoulder, and when I straightened up and turned to him, he politely, but very firmly, took the gun from my right hand.

“This, until it’s needed, if it’s needed, will lie on the floor. Please do not touch it unless I ask you to. I’ve got enough problems with Cole and Williams. I don’t need you blowing my head off because we went over a bump in the road.” He laid the gun on the floor of the V-8 Ford, the business end facing me—of course.

All that took place with Sonny Boy and Slim watching. They said nothing, but I could tell they were mentally shaking their heads. Now that the gun and the cases were taken care of, Lonnie and I got into the car, and he turned her around so that we were facing the direction from which we had come not so long ago. To me it seemed a lifetime ago.

As we started down that non-road road which we came in on, I said to Lonnie, “How the hell are you going to get your booze out of here without breaking every damn bottle?”

“Well, Andrew, first of all, they’re in jars, fruit jars, not bottles. And we came in at five miles per hour, but we’re going out at two miles an hour. And don’t you worry. I can’t afford to lose even one jar. Right now, it’s my shine, and I get $15.00 for every jar I deliver intact.” Made sense to me, so I just sat back and enjoyed the tortuously slow pace we were making.

Eventually we got to the county road, and were my kidneys glad. Once on the smooth surface, Lonnie showed me what his V-8 Ford could do. Within a very short time, we were cruising down that road at a hundred and twenty miles per hour. I couldn’t see the speedometer, so as we accelerated, I had to keep asking Lonnie how fast we were going. I think my constant asking annoyed him a bit, but he was so proud of that car he put up with it, and told me every time I asked.

Now, my dear friends, we come to the crux of the story, the place where we got to meet up with Ed Williams and friends. In my hitchin’ career, I’ve been in a lot of scrapes, but I must admit, this was one of the better ones.

We stayed on the back roads as much as possible. But then we pulled onto what seemed to me to be a main thoroughfare. So I said to Lonnie, “Is this cool? Maybe someone will spot us on this road.”

“It can’t be helped. We’ve got to cross the swamp up ahead. It’s this road, or a twenty-mile detour down south. And I’m itchin’ to get this over with and get my ass to Florida.” Well, as it turned out, the detour would have saved us time after all.

We’re haulin’ ass across this swamp. I mean, it was pitch dark, but you still knew there was water on both sides of you, just from the spread of the headlights out to the sides of the road.

Then we saw it, a car across the road up ahead. Lonnie and I saw it at the same time. I said nothing. Lonnie said “Shit!” There was no way we could go around it, so Lonnie said, “Hold on, I’m turning her around.” Just then, and I don’t know why, I stuck my head out the window and looked back, and I saw headlights coming up fast. I told this to Lonnie and he said the bastard must have been tailin’ us with his lights out, using our taillights to light the way for him.

The obvious question was, What do we do now? And you want to know something? That’s the very question I put to Lonnie. His answer was not very reassuring. “I don’t know. Let’s play it by ear and see what happens.” He saw that I was reaching for the shotgun and added, “No, not now, maybe later.” As he said that, he brought the V-8 Ford to a halt about twenty feet from the car blocking the road.

Lonnie and I sat in the Ford, while two men came out of the darkness to be illuminated by the Ford’s headlights. They both carried shotguns. The bigger of the two ambled over to Lonnie’s side of the car. The other one was going to be my date. Before they reached us, I asked Lonnie, “Are these the bad guys you told me about?”

“Yes, I recognize Ed Williams; he’s the big one.”

“Alright, Lonnie boy, I’m getting an idea. Don’t pay any attention to anything I may say. Just keep your eyes open.” Who said that? I’ll be goddamn … it was my twenty-year-old self that said that!

Before the men could reach us, I opened my door and sprung out of the car. They both raised their guns at this unexpected motion, but before they could think to fire, I said, “Thank you, thank you! That crazy nigger almost got me killed. He was goin’ over a hundred miles an hour. I asked him to slow down but he wouldn’t. I was just hitchhiking and the son-of-a-bitch picked me and wouldn’t let me out.”

I guess because of my age, and the fact that I was white, was the reason I didn’t get my head blown off, coupled with the fact that I had called Lonnie a “crazy nigger.” I hate that word. I don’t even like using it now, and believe me, if it wasn’t for what I perceived as a matter of life or death, I would not have used it that night.

As I was going through my little act, the car that was following us pulled up behind the Ford. Only it wasn’t a car. It was a flatbed truck with wooden slats on the side, but not the back. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time. The only thing I knew at the time was that the headlights shining from behind the Ford gave more emphasis to my performance.

The man closest to me lowered his gun a bit, not by much, but just enough to show he had bought my act. The other man, after hesitating to review my dissimilation, continued on to his objective, which was Lonnie. Then a third man came out from behind the Ford. He was the one who had been driving the truck.

The big man, who was Williams, said before he reached the driver’s side door, “Keep an eye on the kid until we know what’s goin’ on. Put him in front of the car, and keep him in the light.” I had ears, I heard what he said, so without being told, I walked over to the hood of the Ford and leaned my butt against it, facing out into the darkness.

When Williams got to the left-hand door of the Ford, he peered in and, upon seeing Lonnie, said, “Okay, boy, outta the car.”

In no time at all, both Lonnie and I were ensconced between the headlights of the 1950 V-8 Ford.

Once Lonnie was next to me, the three men congregated in front of us. Williams was obviously in charge, so he spoke for his little aggregation. “What have we got here? An integrated, illegal moonshinin’ outfit?”

That was my cue to continue with my Oscar-winning performance. (I’m not putting the TM after the word Oscar. If the Academy of Motion Pictures, or whatever the fuck they’re called, wants to sue me, please go right ahead. My next story is about those assholes.)

As I said earlier, it’s hard to keep me on track. Let me try that again.

Williams alluded to an integrated moonshine ring. And as I said, that was my cue. So here’s what went down:

“Sir, you got this all wrong. I was just trying to get home when this here nigger picked me up. Hell, I’d ride with the devil hisself if it would git me back to my mama. She’s sickly ya know.” At that age, I could play the mother card quite effectively. It worked every time, except in one hellhole of a town in Louisiana, though that’s another story.

Man, I tried, but Williams was a hard audience to crack. He only said, “Hold on, boy, we’ll git to you in a minute. Right now I got me some questions for the nigger here.”

He asked his questions without, I might add, waiting for a reply. “What’s in the boxes, boy? Why did you feel it necessary to kidnap a white boy? You got anything to say for yourself?” He might have gone on in that vein if the guy from the truck didn’t say, “Hey, Ed, let’s git the shit transferred to the truck, then we can have us some fun with the nigger.” Ed thought that was a great idea and said to Lonnie, “Git loading your illegal liquor onto Jim’s truck.” Oh, so that was the asshole’s name … Jim.

But ol’ Ed Williams wasn’t forgetting Yours Truly, no way José. “You, boy, you help the nigger. You two hand them boxes up to Jim. Jim, you git up on the bed and arrange ’em so they don’t fall over. Don’t stack ’em. Keep ’em all flat on the bed.”

As Jim climbed up onto the truck to await our deliveries, and I stood next to Lonnie as he untied the rope, he whispered to me, “Man, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were King Cracker.”

Whatever the hell that meant.

Before we were joined by the two original assholes, Ed and What’s-His-Name, I had just enough time to tell Lonnie, “I’m going for the gun first chance I get.”

I noticed that Jim didn’t have a weapon, and if the other two kept close together, as they had been, I might be able to pull something off. They might, after the booze was loaded, relax their watch over me. I knew that no way in hell was Lonnie going to get a chance at the gun.

We loaded the moonshine onto a vehicle for the second time that night, all the while under the watchful eyes of Ed Williams and company. When we had finished, we were told to go back to the front of the Ford and get between the headlights. It was now time to assert myself. I rehearsed my lines, and then went upon the stage and spoke so those in the cheap seats could hear me.

I addressed myself to Williams, “Sir, if you’ll just loan me your gun for a minute, I’d be happy to blow this here nigger’s brains out all over his car.”

“Calm down, boy, we don’t do things like that hereabouts. No, we have our own way of doin’ things. When a nigger gits uppity like this one here, we use a rope. We ain’t had a decent lynchin’ in I don’t know how long. But we sure as hell gonna have us one tonight.”

Okay, from his demeanor towards me and his speech, it looked like I was winning Williams over. So I asked an obvious question. “Excuse me, sir, but I don’t see no trees hereabout, how are we (notice how it has now become we) gonna lynch the nigger without no trees?”

“We’re gonna take him to my brother-in-law. He’ll want in on the fun.”

Quite abruptly, he said, “Time to go. Hey, boy, can you drive the nigger’s car? You follow us. You’ll be between the truck and us. So you cain’t pull nothin’. And if you try, we’ll have us a double lynchin’. We’ve lynched nigger-lovin’ whites before.”

“Yes sir. And I’d like to be the one that puts the rope around his goddamn neck.”

“Okay, boy, just stay with us and maybe you can.” Then Williams turned to Lonnie and said, “Come on, boy, it’s time to meet Sheriff Cole … and your maker.”

At that instant, the three assholes were surrounding Lonnie, and the sons-of-bitches were really enjoying themselves. I was momentarily forgotten. I’d been waiting an eternity for this moment. I ran around to the driver’s side door, which was already opened, leaned down, and grabbed the stock of the shotgun. I had it out before anyone, including myself, knew what was happening. I yelled, “Lonnie, move.” I think he was expecting something because he was out of the line of fire before the others even lifted their heads to see what was going on. I trained the shotgun on all three of ’em. Their guns were pointed earthward; hence, they were no good whatsoever in a situation like this.

I said, “Gentlemen, if anyone is going to meet his maker tonight, it’s gonna be you three assholes. So, how do we play it? You want to die now, or do you want to lay your guns on the ground and live for a few more minutes?”

If nothing else, you can say definitively that racists are the biggest bunch of cowards on the planet. The two with the guns meekly put them on the ground. And I could see that all three were shaking down to their BVDs. I told them to move back, and when they had gone far enough so as not to cause any mischief, I asked Lonnie to pick up their guns. What a waste of breath. Before I had finished speaking, Lonnie was beside me, holding a shotgun on our three friends.

So now that I’m the hero and saved the day, I didn’t know what to do next. I turned to Lonnie and asked, “What now?”

He says, not to me, but to the three assholes, “Gents, if all of you can fit into the trunk of that car that is blocking the road, you’ll live through the night. Anyone not able to fit in, we’ll just have to shoot.” He then addressed Williams. “Where are the keys?”

“Fuck you, nigger.”

I think that was the wrong thing to say to Lonnie at that particular moment because he discharged a round of buckshot into Williams’ leg. The son-of-a-bitch crumpled to the ground with a yelp of pain that I am sure was heard in Jasper, wherever the hell Jasper is.

Lonnie then asked the other asshole that was not Jim where the keys were, and you know what? He received no smart mouth in return. He was told that they were in the ignition. Lonnie told me to go fetch them and open the trunk. When the trunk was opened, Lonnie told Jim and asshole number two to pick up the big piece of shit that called himself Ed Williams and put him in the trunk. When they had done that, Lonnie said, “Now you two climb in after him, and remember anyone not in the trunk will find himself in the swamp … and dead.” Somehow they managed to fit themselves in, though I don’t think they were very comfortable.

As soon as the lid was shut and locked, Lonnie grabbed the keys and got into the car. He started it and backed it off the road. After throwing the keys as far out into the shallow water of the swamp as possible, he asked me “Can you drive the truck? I’ve got a little brake problem, so I’ll have to drive the Ford.”

“Yeah sure, but where are we going?”

“The drop is just a couple of miles from here. We’ll give ’em the truck and the liquor. We won’t have to wait around for no unloadin’. We’ll just get our money and vamoose.”

So that’s my story. We dropped off the booze, Lonnie collected his money, and we hightailed it back to pick up Michelle and the girls. When we left, we had one shotgun, but when we returned to the clearing in the woods where the stills were located, we had three.

As we drove up, Sonny Boy, Slim, and Peetie came out to meet us. Before any questions could be asked, I got out of the Ford carrying the three guns and walked up to my old buddy, Slim. I gave him all three, and said, “I don’t remember which one is yours.” Then I went back to the Ford to await Lonnie and company. The look on Slim’s face was worth everything I had gone through that night.

Of course, we couldn’t get out of there until Lonnie gave the boys the highlights of the evening. When he had finished, Slim walked over to the car and stuck out his hand saying, “White boy, you is the first white person I’ve ever stuck my hand out to and meant it.”

Well, with a preamble like that, I had to shake hands with the man. In fact, I was glad to do so.

Just then, Sonny Boy walked up and said, “Did you remember to pull the hammers back?”

“No, sorry. I forgot.”

“That’s alright, son, you done good, thanks.” Without another word, he and Slim walked back to tend the fires, as they had been when we drove up.

Lonnie came back with his brood and herded them into the car. And off we went—Florida bound.

The only other thing of interest is that when we got to West Palm Beach, rather than let me off on the highway, Lonnie asked me to stay with them until we got to his sister’s house. He said he would see to it that I got back to the highway alright.

When we got there, and after I said good bye to Michelle and the girls, Lonnie turned to me and said, “I want you to have this car. The papers are in the glove box.” I started to say something, but he cut me off. “I’ve got no more use for her. You saved my bacon back there and no way around it, you’re takin’ her or you’re walkin’ the five miles back to the highway. There’s just one thing, I don’t know if you noticed or not, but every time I put on the brakes, I have to pull the pedal back up with this here rope. He then showed me something I had missed entirely. Lonnie demonstrated the mechanism for me. He depressed the brake pedal and then released it. It did not rise as brake pedals are wont to do. He had to pull it back in place with the rope. He had become so proficient at applying the brakes, and then pulling the brake pedal back into place, I hadn’t notice a thing the whole trip from Georgia.

I’m getting tired, so the short version is that I humbly accepted Lonnie’s gift.

One last point of interest:

A few weeks later, I found myself on I-95 in Miami, and traffic was stop and go. Well, I stopped, but couldn’t get the brake pedal up right away. I fumbled with the rope, but because I didn’t move the Ford along fast enough, a semi-trailer plowed right into me. He hit me hard enough to give me whiplash to my neck for a couple of weeks. But you want to know what damage my V-8 Ford suffered after being hit by an eighteen-wheeler? None! That’s what. Not a dent! They just don’t make cars like the old V-8 Fords anymore.

Click to see on Amazon

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Hermosa Beach

I took off from home halfway through my seventeenth year when I was still wet behind the ears. I was on the road for almost five years and in that time I’ve had a few adventures. Not many, really. But the ones I had were doozies. I recently wrote about two of them (Sand Paintings, and The Swamp). They were well received, so I thought, what the hell? Might as well let it all hang out. Below is the latest installment of how I spent my misspent youth.

surf-lll

I’d been travelin’ up and down the coast of California for about six months when I finally thought that I’d check out the beaches. You know, Huntington, Redondo, Manhattan Beach … the usual. It wasn’t long before I caught sight of the surfers. Man, to that eighteen-year-old boy, surfin’ looked really cool. I wanted to try it. So, I got myself a job washin’ dishes at this hash house. I was sleepin’ in alleyways and under lifeguard stands because I was workin’ for a board and didn’t want to spend money on rent. And before I knew it, I was able to quit that job because I had earned enough for a second-hand surfboard.

This was 1968 and a short board was anything under ten feet. I got me a 9’6’’ beauty. I even painted the bottom in an American flag motif. I think I was protesting the Viet Nam War. Today, I’m not so sure why I did it. Maybe the surf was flat that day and I had nothing else to do, but it did look cool.

I bought the board from a shop on Hermosa Beach, so naturally I stayed in the neighborhood. I mean, how far could I go with a surf board and no car? It was summer, and sleeping on the beach was no problem … most of the time. When it rained, well, that was a bitch. But for the most part, I was happy surfing all day and cadgin’ a meal at night. I usually fed myself by going to the back door of a restaurant and asking if I could work for something to eat.

One of the most memorable of my “back-door escapades” was the time I knocked at a restaurant’s back door and gave my usual spiel. Well, this cook—or maybe he was a chef—lets me in, walks me over to a table in the kitchen, and says, “Don’t worry about the work. Just sit here and I’ll feed you.”

Just as I was putting the first mouthful of his fine cuisine into my mouth, this woman walks in from the dining room, sees me, and says, “What’s he doing here? Get him out!”

It turned out she was the owner. Well, my friend the chef answered, “When a man comes to my kitchen hungry, I am gonna feed him.” As he finished speaking, he lifted the knife he was using and pointed it menacingly at his boss. He kept it pointed at her until she—without saying a word—turned around and went back into the dining room.

Anyway, back to my story. Okay, I’ve got my new surfboard, I’m eating at least once a day, and I’m surfin’. Of course, I’ve got nowhere to live, but, to an eighteen-year-old, that’s no sweat. I’m happy as a pig in shit. I needed nothing else.

I had it worked out with one of the lifeguards to watch my board on the few occasions I left the beach. Surfin’ does work up one’s appetite. So I’d meander up to the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) every once in a while to see what I could promote—food-wise. On the day in question, I was attracted by loud music blaring out of a pair of speakers placed in front of a waterbed store. It was Canned Heat’s Going Up The Country.

So, I was standing there, just killing time until the song was over, when this dude walked up to me and said, “I dig this song too.” He was about my age, maybe a few years older, blond hair, about 6’1’’ and kinda thin. His name was Pete. We got to talking and then he asked, “Wanna blow a joint?” Now, did you ever hear of a kid in 1968 who didn’t want to blow a joint?

He took me to the house that he shared with his sister. It was only a few feet from the beach and it was painted green. That I remember. I also remember his sister; she was my age, beautiful and unattached, which did me no good whatsoever. I was too shy in those days to open my mouth around girls.

The long shot of it was, I was invited to move in halfway through the first joint. And that set into motion events that led to my being robbed, having a knife at my throat, being the victim of a murder attempt, trying to smuggle a pound of pot across the Mexican-U.S. border, being jailed, having a near-death experience, and all sorts of fun things. And, no, Pete was not a bad guy. Pete was a great guy; he was just an idiot … like I was.

After a few weeks of living with Pete and his sister, he and I start talking about how we could make real money. We thought that if we went down to Tijuana, copped a pound of primo Mexican Gold, brought it back to Hermosa Beach and sold it by the ounce, or “can” as it was referred to in Southern California back in those days, we’d be rich. Not to mention all the “free” pot we’d have. So guess what the two idiots did? If your guess is that we hitchhiked to Tijuana to buy a pound of pot and then walk it across the border, then give yourself a cigar. That’s exactly what we set out to do. But things didn’t work out quite that way.

On the way down, we got picked up by these two guys that were going there to cop “Reds” and “Greens.” Now I know those things have legit names, but to me they were “downers”, and not my type of high at all. I was pretty square in those days. Sure, I smoked pot, popped a little acid, shot a little acid, shot a little speed, did some mescaline (both organic and synthetic), but besides that, I was as pure as the driven snow.

Anyway, these guys were hip. They stopped before we got to the border and showed us how they were going to smuggle the shit in. It’s probably old hat by now, but, at the time, I thought I was talking to two geniuses. What they were going to do was hide the stuff under the carburetor on their car engine. They even popped it off and showed us where they had hollowed out a space and were gonna put the jars of pills. Genius, I tells ya! Pure genius!

They drove us into Mexico, and there we split up. Each pair out to make their own score. The only difference being that those guys knew what they were doing. As opposed to the two babes-in-the-woods that Pete and I turned out to be.

I don’t remember how we found the asshole who said he’d sell us a pound of marijuana, but find him we did. He took us to the seediest whorehouse I’ve ever seen. And seeing how it was the only whorehouse I’d ever seen, I reckon that’s not saying much.

As he’s bringing us in the back door, who the hell do you think we meet coming out of the place? You got it! The two geniuses. They’re holding big, brown, fat bottles of pills. There had to be at least five hundred pills per bottle. They stopped to show us their score, and then one of them asked, “Hey, you guys want some Reds?”

“Sure. Why not?”

They open one of the bottles and pour about ten pills each into my and Pete’s hands and we put ’em in our pockets. Now, this scene was keenly observed by our connection, which, as you’ll see in a moment, played a big part in this sordid tale.

So, the guy was holding the door of the whorehouse open for us. Right then and there I should have smelled a rat. He was smilin’ too broadly, and that one gold tooth he had in his mouth made him look just like the bandit in the Humphrey Bogart movie. You know the one, Walter Huston is in it along with Tim—can’t think of his last name right now—but it’s the one where the bandit and his cohorts are pretending to be the police; Bogie requests to see their badges and one of ’em says, “Badges? We don’t need no steekin’ badges!” Great line, great movie. Holt! That was his last name, Tim Holt. Well, our doorman looked just like that bandit.

bandit

Once inside, we were escorted down this poorly lit corridor with rooms on each side. I’m being generous when I call them rooms. They were about ten feet by ten feet, just big enough for two people. There was some kind of bed in each room, and upon each bed was a roll of toilet paper. Because it was the middle of the afternoon, every door was wide open—no customers.

Okay boys and girls, here’s where the fun really begins. It’s all been peaches and cream up to now. We got about halfway down the corridor when the bandit stopped in his tracks and asked to see our money. You know, just to make sure we were legit. And being the complete dumb asses that we were, we whipped out our money to show him just how legit we were.

It was at that very instant that a door flew open and three guys that looked even worse than our bandit rushed towards us. Before either one of us knew it, we were pressed up against the wall with knives at our throats. They were talkin’ Spanish, but I kinda had the feelin’ they wanted our money.

Hey guys, you can have it! We appreciate you asking so nicely.

Behind the three guys stood our bandit, still smiling—the son-of-a-bitch. Then our bandit said something to the new bandits in Spanish, and the next thing we knew, these guys were rooting around in our pockets. You know, it’s kind of hard to hold a knife to someone’s throat and simultaneously go through his pockets. Try it some time, and you’ll see what I mean. But these guys were good at it. They probably had a lot of practice.

My personal bandit, and by that I mean the one holding the knife to my throat, as opposed to Pete’s personal bandit who was holding a knife to his throat, pulled out about six of my ten reds while still holding his knife in the prerequisite position, then he turned his head and showed his find to our bandit, who intoned, “Si, si.”

Si, si is right. Yes, yes. What the hell am I doing in a whorehouse in Tijuana in the middle of the afternoon being robbed by a character out of a Humphrey Bogart movie?

Did I say that the fun was going to start when these guys held knives to our throats? Well, if I did, I was mistaken Now the real fun began. Pete had gone through everything I had gone through. His bandit was now holding his reds. Then the two bandits turned their attention back to us once our original bandit nodded his head in approval. Approval of what we did not know. But hey, no sweat. We were about to find out.

Now, before I go any further, for all you non-junkies out there, two of those reds would put you to sleep for at least twelve hours; three, and you could kiss an entire day good-bye. Four . . . you’re talking about a trip to the emergency room. You get my drift? I don’t know how many were shoved down Pete’s throat, but I got six. Then they threw us out onto the street. I didn’t know what was going on then, but over the years my feeble mind has kind of pieced things together.

This is what I believe their thinking was: One, we would either OD on the streets of Tijuana, or two, we would be picked up by the police on a public whatever-you-call-it-when-you’re-really-stoned-on-reds charge. They had very little fear that we would go to the police on our own volition. What the hell were we going to say? “Excuse me, sir, but I tried to buy drugs in your country, and I was robbed.” I don’t think so, and our bandit friends knew so. And anyway, they probably had the police in their hip pockets. Mexico is one of the most corrupt countries in the world when it comes to the police. And Tijuana was, and probably still is, the most corrupt city in all of Mexico.

Well, whatever their plan was, we fooled ’em. We didn’t pass out until we were back in the good old U S of A … barely. This is no exaggeration. We were only two steps across the border and into this country with its wonderful jails, as opposed to Mexico’s shitty jails, when we keeled over.

Can you imagine the police of today finding a comatose eighteen-year-old boy on the street and taking him to jail? I mean, really! But that is what the San Diego County Police did. I probably wasn’t actually comatose, but I have no recollection of being arrested. I was in their goddamn jail two days before I regained consciousness. The only saving grace as far as I was concerned was that Pete was in the same cell with me. He had regained consciousness about an hour before I did.

So there we were, two would-be drug kingpins, on the second tier of the cellblock, down the row, in the last cell.

The coppers wanted to get us for being under the influence of dangerous drugs. But to do so, they needed a urine sample. I’m escorted downstairs, handed a cup, and told to go into the open cell in front of me and pee into said cup.

This next part, I swear, is the God’s honest truth. When I walked into the cell, there was a puddle of piss on the floor. I knew what it was because of its fragrant aroma. I don’t know about most of you, but when I come out of a coma, I just can’t piss. Maybe it’s because my body was in the process of shutting down. You know, some people call it dying. Well, whatever the cause, I just could not pee that night. And believe me, I tried!

When the copper came to take my sample, I told him I just couldn’t go. At about that time, he saw the puddle on the floor. He accused me of being the culprit. Who me? I’d never peed on a floor in my life. Well, at least not until recently.

Because they thought me a wise-ass, I was unceremoniously thrown back into our cell. By the way, we were not given a phone call, or arraigned within the time limit prescribed by the Constitution. Of course, at eighteen, I was not yet the constitutional scholar that I am today, so I kept my big yap shut.

To pass the time while awaiting our day in court, we made a chess set out of torn paper bits. We were lucky; somehow, we came into possession of a pencil, which meant we could identify the pieces. You know, “P” for pawn, “Q” for queen, etc … etc. But we didn’t have a board, so we had to imagine the squares. Three days of that shit, and I haven’t been right since.

We were finally brought before a judge. Looking down at us, I guess he saw a couple of stupid kids. After all, the charge was only a misdemeanor, so he gave us OR. Which meant your Own Recognizance, which meant no bail need be posted. They’d trust you to come back for your day in court.

So Pete and I found ourselves free and out on the street once again. And Pete says to me, “So, what now?”

I say to Pete: “Fuck California, I’m goin’ east. Sell my board and keep the money.

And, as I am so fond of saying, I then walked into a new life.

Yellow Hair

 

My First Ever Book Review

2016-07-15-14-48-40

This book was recommended to me by a friend and I must admit that it’s not my usual kind of read. But I thought I’d give it a chance. Right off the bat, I had two favorite characters, Abby and Sam. The author drew me in with good writing, excellent pacing, and an antagonist that had me turning pages at an alarming rate. I had to find out what the dastardly villain would do next!

Our hero, Abby, has a lot to contend with. Her mother has died some time ago and her father has now disappeared. She is shipped off to a new town where she’ll have to start a whole new life. All this in the first few pages. But then her problems really begin.

My only regret is that I don’t have a young daughter to share this with. This is the perfect book for young girls, but so expertly written that even an old reprobate like myself can enjoy it.

One last thing, it wasn’t until I was well into the book that I started to pay attention to the haikus at the beginning of each chapter. I was too focused on the story. But once I did take the time to read them and realized their significance to the chapter that followed, I went back and read them all. What beautiful poetry indeed.

 

The Author
The Author

The Link: Amazon