I Once Had a Girl

I once had a girl. We met at a jazz club on the Upper West Side. My friend Lane had dragged me there, telling me I would really dig the sax player. I didn’t want to go because I was broke and I was embarrassed that Lane always picked up the check when we were out. But he persisted, so I agreed to go with him on that warm August night.

Lane and I were from upstate New York and had been friends since high school. We were both going to be writers and write the Great American Novel. And here we were, a few years later; Lane wrote copy for an ad agency, and I wrote short stories no one would buy.

I was twenty years old and had just dropped out of college. I did not think college was the way to go about becoming a writer. I figured the only way to be a writer was to write. So I headed for the Big City, found myself a roach-infested apartment, and opened my laptop. I got lucky and sold my first story to a weekly newspaper. It was a free paper, but on occasion they’d print a piece of fiction if they had space to fill. They paid me all of twenty-five dollars.

After that, I figured it would be only a matter of time before I had The New Yorker knocking at my door. Well, things did not work out that way. Six months later, I had not sold another story. The newspaper that had bought my first story was long out of business. I was nearing the end of my savings and something would have to break soon or I would have to get a job.

Unbeknownst to me, Lane and his girlfriend, Sally, had set me up with a blind date. When we got to the club, Sally was sitting at a table with a good-looking blonde. I grabbed Lane’s arm and said, “Hold on, what’s the deal? If Sally’s trying to set me up again, I’m leaving. You know I can’t afford to date. I can barely feed myself.”

With a shocked and completely phony look on his face, Lane said, “No, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that she’s in from out-of-town and doesn’t know anyone. Sally’s mother and her mother were friends. Don’t worry; she’s not your date. And she’s got plenty of money; she can pay her own way.”

What the hell. I was already there. With a sigh, I said, “Lay on, Macduff.”

We seated ourselves and I was introduced to the blonde. Sally started right off yakking away, but I heard nothing she said. I was looking into the most beautiful green eyes I had ever seen. But they were sad eyes. She was good-looking in a not-glamorous sort of way, and there was something about her. Something that made me want to put my arms around her and tell her everything would be all right. Her name was Karina.

We talked, ignoring both the music and Lane and Sally. When Sally saw where things were headed, she nudged Lane and said they had to go, but that we should stay. As they left, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lane hand some money to our waitress and point our way. He had made sure I would not be embarrassed for lack of funds.

The music was really too loud to carry on a conversation, so I suggested we go somewhere more conducive to getting to know one another. I had no hope that she felt toward me as I felt toward her, but I just couldn’t let her walk out of my life after such a short interlude. I had to know more about her.

We settled in at a Starbucks on 65th Street and talked until the early morning. Her parents were both dead and had left her relatively well off. She was from Norway and had come to the States to sell a cabin she owned up in the mountains of North Carolina. At twenty-two, she was two years older than I was. I prattled on about my writing and she said she would like to read some of my stuff someday. As I walked her back to her hotel that night, she slipped her arm through mine and we walked on in silence.

As we said goodnight in the lobby. She looked at me with those big, sad eyes. “Please, may I see you tomorrow and read some of your stories?” Normally, I would let anyone read my stuff at the drop of a hat, even if I had to drop the hat myself. But in this instance, I was reluctant to say yes. I didn’t want her to see how I lived. I mean, she was staying at the Plaza, for God’s sake! After a momentary hesitation, I told her I could bring my laptop over the next day and I would be proud to have her read a few of my stories. She would have to read them off my computer because I did not own a printer.

Well, the short of it is, it turned out she was as smitten with me as I was with her. She postponed her trip south and stayed in the city. We saw each other every day. Sally must have told her about my financial situation, because Karina always insisted we go someplace that wouldn’t hurt my wallet. We hit the art galleries and the museums, among other venues. Central Park was our favorite. As we walked through the park, the sunshine would ripple in her soft yellow hair like waves upon a sparkling ocean. At the end of two weeks, we both knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.

Karina liked my writing and told me I should be writing a full-length novel. Then, when that sold, I could put out a book of my short stories. No wonder I loved her, she believed in me more than I believed in myself.

One day, as we lay on a blanket in the park holding hands (we still had not made love), Karina asserted herself. She told me in no uncertain terms that she was taking me to her cabin in North Carolina. She would cook and clean for me while I wrote my novel, and then when it sold, I could take care of her. I was hesitant and told her I would have to think on it. She would have none of that. She insisted this would be the best way for me to get some serious writing done without any distractions. I did not need much persuasion, so I accepted her kind offer. After that was settled, we hurried back to her hotel and made long, slow love all that afternoon—and then again all that night.

We hit the mountains of North Carolina as the leaves were changing. It was the perfect metaphor. Our lives were changing; we were melding into one entity.

As the snows came, I wrote and Karina loved me. Truth be known, I didn’t feel like writing. I just wanted to make love to my girl. But Karina made sure I stayed at the computer at least eight hours a day.

Over that winter, my book took form. Karina would read what I had written each day. She would give me input as to the characters and the plot and edit what needed editing. I would sit there in the evenings watching her read my daily output, the firelight reflected in her eyes. I was so in love.

By the time spring was in full bloom, I had completed my version of the Great American Novel. I emailed my query letters to agents. I got lucky, and within a month, I had a signed contract with one of the larger agencies. When summer came around, the book had been sold to a publisher and I had money in the bank.

It was August once again, almost to the day Karina and I first met. We were leaving the next day for New York. My agent had set up a meeting with my publisher. There was still work to be done. Writing the story is one thing, getting it out there is another. However, before leaving, I wanted to buy something for my love. I went into town and bought Karina a ring. Nothing fancy, just a simple band of gold. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin, get down on one knee, and ask her to be my wife.

Driving back to the cabin, I smiled all the way. Then, as I turned into the drive, I saw the flames and heard her screams. “KARINA!” I shouted as I jumped out of the car and rushed toward the cabin.

I pushed the door open and a blast of heat and flames knocked me on my ass. I got up; nothing short of hell was going to keep me out of that cabin. But I could not penetrate the flames. On my third attempt, smoke inhalation, the burns I suffered, and the resultant pain caused me to pass out. When I awoke, I was in a hospital’s burn ward.

Karina was gone and I was alone.

I sold the rights to my book. I couldn’t edit and work on it with anyone else now that Karina was gone. I took the money and bought a sailboat down in Miami. I had Karina painted on the sides in large letters, emerald green, the color of her eyes. I now sail the Caribbean, going from island to island, looking for peace … and not finding it.

I once had a girl. Karina was her name.

Bye-Bye Baby

I wake up ’bout midnight, every night. Just cain’t sleep no more because my woman’s drivin’ me crazy. I told her a long, long time ago she was makin’ me nuts. Now, to keep my peace of mind, I’m gonna have to kill her.

I’m walkin’ the dark, lonely streets, gun in hand. Lookin’ for my woman.

If she’s with another man, I’ll have to kill him too.

Bye-bye, little girl … tonight you die.

Bye-bye, lover … bye-bye.

I see you through the window at Mose’s Place. You’re standing at the bar. You have on that red dress I bought you … and you’re with another man.

I ain’t got nothin’ to lose. I open the door and step inside.

The music, the cigarette smoke … and all my sorrow … assault me.

I know what I have to do.

You’re laughing. You’re having a good time.

Bye-bye, baby.

The first bullet takes off half your lover’s head.

I take my time before firing the next bullet. I want you to know that you’re gonna die.

I see the fear in your eyes. You’re splattered with your lover’s blood. It goes well with your red dress.

Bye-bye, baby.

Three Steps

Cowboy

I’m three steps from meeting my maker. Three more steps to the noose. I’m ready to die; I reckon I deserve to die. I’ve killed before, but never for such a frivolous reason as brings me to these last three steps.

The whole mess started down El Paso way when I walked into that little cantina. It was a bucket of blood, a real dive. But I had a raging thirst and it was the first saloon I passed as I rode into town. I had just ridden twenty-five weary and hostile miles. A posse had been on my trail because I had killed a man. But he was trying to kill me, so I figured it was self-defense. The posse had other ideas. I eventually lost them in the badlands. Now I’m only a few miles from Mexico and freedom.

I made my way to the bar and put my foot on the brass rail. The barman was a little slow in coming my way. When he was finally opposite me, I grabbed his vest and pulled his face to mine. “Give me some rotgut and don’t dilly-dally about.” I then drew my .45 from its leather and pointed the barrel in his general direction. His eyes widened and he wasted no time placing a bottle of some good stuff, along with a glass, on the bar. “Here, mister … it’s on the house,” he stuttered. I flipped him a gold half eagle. I could pay for my own booze.

With that taken care of, I pulled the cork with my teeth and took a good, hard pull right from the bottle. That’s when she pushed through the swing doors like she owned the place. One glance at her, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t in such an all-fired hurry to cross over the border. She was tall and blonde. She wore her hair up. Her figure had more curves than a coiled rattler. Her eyes were dusky gray. She strolled right up, and in a sugary-sweet voice that would have made strong men weep, she said, “Ain’t you the big one.”

I filled the glass on the bar and handed it to her. She smiled and said, “My name’s Rose and I like a man who will buy a girl a drink.”

We retired to a table with the intent of putting a good-size dent in the bottle. We didn’t talk about much of anything. I was too busy looking into those shrewd gray eyes of hers, sizing her up. In between demure sips of whiskey, she fluttered her long eyelashes at me. When we had worked the bottle down to half, she picked it up, took me by the hand, and led me to a room upstairs. “This is where I call home,” she purred. By now I had forgotten about killing that hombre, the twenty-five dust-coated miles, the posse … everything.

“You’ll find some glasses on that table over there. Pour us a shot,” she said. I found the glasses, blew the dust out of ’em, and did as I was told. When I turned back around, she was sitting on the bed. Patting the mattress, she beckoned softly. “Come and sit by me.”

Well, partners, that was all she wrote. For the next three days, we barely left that room. We had our hooch and food sent up. I had never known a woman like her. I’d mostly only been with whores, but she was no whore. She told me that she loved me. We spent three days exploring every inch of each other’s bodies, and I fell in love for the first time in my life.

On the morning of the fourth day, my head started to clear. We were lying in bed. I was on my back and she was propped up on one elbow, running a lazy finger up and down my chest. She said she wanted to go to Mexico with me. I told her that was fine by me, but there was no rush. That’s when she got a funny look in her eyes and exclaimed, “No, we have to leave today!” Before I could respond, there was a knock on the door. I got out of bed and slipped on my pants. I knew who it was; it was the little Mex boy who had been bringing us our food and booze. I always took the tray at the door and gave him a good tip, usually two bits. But this time was different. He beckoned me out into the hall and whispered that I should shut the door. “Señor, you have been good to me, so I must tell you that you are in great danger.”

I took the tray from his hands and winked. “Don’t worry, son. This is the kind of danger I like.”

I started to turn, but he grabbed my arm. “You do not understand, señor. She belongs to another man, a bad man. She has done this before and men have died. Her man will be back tomorrow, so today she will ask you to leave and take her with you. If you are still here tomorrow, José will kill you.”

He told me the town’s people were making bets if I’d get away before José got back or if I’d be planted up on the hill with the other men she had fooled. It seemed Rose – my great love – was using me to get away from her man José. In this country, a woman can’t very well travel alone. And besides, as the boy told me, José leaves her with no money when he goes away.

The news kinda punched me in the gut, took the bloom off the rose, so to speak. I gave the boy a silver dollar and thanked him. I entered the room … with a smile on my face.

“Where have you been? I missed you, big boy.”

Still smiling, I placed the tray on the bed. “You chow down. I’m gonna have me a drink.”

I had me some thinking to do.

As I sat in the chair and watched her eat, I weighed my options. We could leave together and avoid this man José, or I could leave alone. Or, we could stay and I could have it out with José. The problem was I didn’t know if she was worth it. She had played me. If I took her to Mexico, would she ditch me once we were there?

I was still thinking those thoughts when she said, “I want to be out of here by noon. I’m going to take a bath; you pack and then settle our bill. I’ll meet you at the livery stable.”

Still smiling, I said, “Sure, I’ll see you at the livery.” She gathered up some clothes, got herself dressed, and left to take her bath.

After she had gone, I thought of a fourth option to add to the other three. I could just shoot the lying bitch and be done with her.

I put on my shirt and boots, strapped on my .45, and went downstairs still undecided. By the time I reached the livery, I had made up my mind that I’d leave without her. She was a fine-looking woman, and the sex had been real good. But I had enough trouble in my life without no crazy man coming after me. I saddled my horse and started down the street at a slow pace. Just as I passed the saloon, she pushed through the swing doors. Seeing me, she dropped her bag, ran into the street, and grabbed ahold of the saddle horn. Walking alongside and looking up at me, she cried, “Where you going? Wait! Let me get my horse.”

“I’m sorry, Rose. It’s been nice, but this here is where we split up and go down our separate trails.”

She wouldn’t let go. So, I picked up the pace a mite, but still she hung on. Then she looked down the street and the fear in her eyes said it all. She turned and hightailed it back to the saloon.

Astride a large sorrel rode a big man … a big, mean-looking man. It had to be José. As we came abreast of each other, he grabbed the reins of my horse. “Whatcha doin’ with my woman?”

“Nothing. Just tryin’ to get outta town.”

I saw it in his eyes; he was going to draw on me. I may be slow when it comes to women, but I’m fast when it comes to gunplay. I had a bullet through his forehead before he cleared leather. That was my mistake – that and taking up with Rose. I should have let him draw first. The whole thing was witnessed by the town marshal and I was quickly arrested. I thought for a moment of killing the marshal before he arrested me, but I never did kill no man who was not trying to kill me.

For three days, I knew of love. In three steps, I die.

I Saw Jesus

I saw Jesus the night before he died, the night before he hauled that damn cross up the hill. I ran into him outside that little bakery, the one across from the wine shop on the main street. He was sitting on the stoop, talking to a gaggle of children. He always did love the kids.

“Hey, Jesus. What’s happening?”

“Hello, William. I’m just hangin’ with my little buddies.”

“If you can tear yourself away, how about I buy you a cup of wine at that shop over there? We can sit and talk and catch up. I haven’t seen you since forever.”

He smiled that smile of his.

“I’d like nothing better, my friend.”

He stood, patted one or two of the kids on the head, and whispered into one little girl’s ear. She looked up at him and smiled a thousand-watt smile.

“What did you say to the kid?” I asked.

“Nothing you’d understand, you old fart. Let’s get that wine.”

Of course, I had to buy. I never knew Jesus to have a dime to his name. In the old days, I’d see him on the street with a bowl in his hand, begging for food. I would always tell him he didn’t have to do that. I’d be more than happy to buy him a meal. And he always said the same thing: “There are many hungry people in this city. Buy them a meal and you will have fed me.” I never understood what he meant, but then, Jesus always was an odd duck.

With wine in hand, we sat at a table overlooking the street. It hadn’t rained in a while and there was a bit of dust in the air, but we didn’t mind none.

“So, Jesus, what have you been up to?”

“Just walking the streets, talkin’ of love. What have you been up to?”

That was too much for me. “Never mind me. What do you mean you’re walking the streets talking of love? You’re on the north side of thirty. You should have been married long ago. When I knew you back in Nazareth, you had a thriving business going with your old man. Then you gave it all up. For what? To talk of love? I worry about you, brother.”

He supped from his cup and smiled. “I thank you for your concern. But do not worry for me, I’m just passing through … as we all are. My needs are few. And come tomorrow, they’ll be fewer still.”

“What are you talking about, pal?”

“It’s not important, William. What’s important is that you live your life in love and not in fear.”

“Whatever. How about meeting up tomorrow? I’ll buy you lunch.”

“Sorry, my friend. I have an appointment with the governor. I’ll catch up with you in the next life.”

Jesus was always kidding. He had one wicked sense of humor. So, I paid no mind to what he said. Later, I wished I had.

I was with Honest Abe the night before he died. He had lost a lot of weight. And he had more lines on his face than I remembered. He smiled at me as I walked into the room. “Well, well, William, it is good to see you. How have you been?”

“I’m cool, Abe. That was some war you just won. I loved how you had the band play Dixie right after Lee surrendered. You got class.”

He did an aw shucks gesture and asked me to sit down.

“So, Abe, tell me. What are you gonna do with all those traitors, all those rebels now that you beat the hell out of ’em?”

Abe stroked his beard and looked to the ceiling before answering. “I’m gonna treat them like I’d want to be treated. I’m gonna treat ’em like any human being would want to be treated. I’m gonna treat ’em with love.”

“So, what’s your plan, Abe?”

“Stop by tomorrow and I’ll tell you all about it. I’m gonna heal this country, by gob. I have a plan to bring the South back into the fold. But right now I have to get ready for the theater. There’s a play Missus Lincoln wants to see. But remember this, William. Approach your adversaries with love and there’s no way you can fail. I’ll leave word with Mister Kennedy that I’ll be having lunch with you tomorrow. Till then, my friend, pray for me. I have a big job to do in the next four years.”

I was with Martin King, Jr. the night before he died.

“So, Marty. What’s shaking?”

“Please don’t call me Marty. You know I don’t like it.”

“I’m just messing with you, Martin. You’re finally getting there. You’re about to bring your people into the Promised Land. And it’s about fuckin’ time as far as I’m concerned.”

“One thing at a time, William. Yes, we’ve gotten to the mountain top, but it’s a long way down to the fertile valley below.”

“At least it’s all downhill now. I remember when you were jammed up in the Birmingham jail. Things looked pretty bleak back then.”

Martin smiled a sad smile.

“I don’t think I’ll make it to that valley,” said he. “I think it’s an illusion. There are so many more miles to travel and I’m running out of steam. But I can say with pride that I got the ball rolling. So, let’s not think about it now. How about a drink?”

We toasted with bourbon and branch water. We laughed and talked of old times. We hugged at the door as I said goodnight. The last thing he said to me was, “Go gently into the future. Go with love. You can never have enough love. Leave your fears at home. Go with Jesus.”

I saw Jesus the night before he died. I saw him in Abe and I saw him in Martin. I’m still waiting to see him in me.

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. 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, although 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 since 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 work 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.” 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 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 shown by a man 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.

He Let Go a Laugh

Those of you who have read my “official” bio know that I left home at an early age seeking adventure. And I had some luck in finding it. I’ve written about those adventures in these very pages. But now, I have a new one for you. I haven’t told it before because I get emotional when I think about it.

It was 1967, and at the tender age of seventeen, I was away from home for the first time. Home was Miami, Florida. During summer vacation between my junior and senior year in high school, I decided I wanted to see the world – or at least that part of the world bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on the North American continent.

So, I stuck out my thumb to see where it would take me. As it turned out, it took me to many magical places and a few really scary places, but ultimately my thumb took me to a land of discovery. I met people from all walks of life. I spent time on Indian reservations, in hippie communes, riding the rails with hobos, in different jails jammed in with good and bad people. I hustled food at back doors of restaurants. I spent time with one or two millionaires;  one nice lady living on the Upper East Side of New York City comes to mind.

I had planned on being gone for only the summer, but it would be many years before I saw home again. In the lonely night, out on the side of the road, I’d gaze at the countless stars in the heavens as I waited to be picked up by my new best friend – my best friend as long as the ride lasted. I’d sleep on the side of that same road when too tired to go on. I froze standing in waist-deep snow in the Rocky Mountains. I surfed along the southern coast of California. I was robbed and thrown in jail in Mexico. I was banned from entering Canada, but snuck in anyway, hiding in plain sight in a carload of young Canadian women returning home after a night of drinking in America.

I picked blueberries at the Bay of Fundy, then got drunk on Moosehead Ale in a basement with an old-fashioned player piano. I was fed by more kind people than I can remember. I was once taken to a party where I drank wine and discussed the meaning of life with Andy Warhol. I slept in a warehouse in San Francisco where the Grateful Dead rehearsed. I did peyote with an apprentice Apache holy man in Arizona. I was chased through a fog-laden swamp by a mad man with a knife at three o’clock in the morning. I was shown more kindness than I deserved. I forged friendships that will last centuries even though I’ll never see those people again. I was bold. I cowered in fear. I walked in happiness. I ran with humanity writ large on that never-ending road. I came of age while still wet behind the ears.

So many memories.

But today I’m going to tell you about a special memory.

I was headed west, trying to make California. This was in the days before the interstate highway system was up and running. I was coming down from Chicago on Route 66. Just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, I got dumped on the side of the road out in the middle of nowhere. The guy I had been riding with was headed home. Home being a ranch down some godforsaken country road.

The only thing visible was an A & W Root Beer drive-in joint. You know, the kind they had back in the ’50s, carhops and all. What it was doing out there in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea. Maybe because it was on Highway 66, which, at that time, was a main road.

I was thirsty and the thought of a big frosted glass of root beer was something I could wrap my head around. But I had no money. In fact, I hadn’t eaten in about twelve hours, so I was also feeling a mite peckish.

Traffic was light, so I figured I’d take a break from hitchin’ and see what I could scrounge up over at the root beer place. Maybe someone would take pity on me and buy me a meal. If not, maybe I could wash a few dishes in exchange for a hamburger. Thus fortified, I’d get back on the road.

Well, no one offered to buy me a hamburger, and when I knocked on the back door and asked if I could do some work for a meal, I was told to hit the road, Jack. I took no offense and didn’t sweat it. I knew there would be a meal down the road, somewhere. There always was.

Seeing as how I was already behind the restaurant, I decided to kill a little time until the burning sun settled a bit in the west and things cooled down before I went back to hitchin’. I sat down in the shade of the building on an overturned plastic milk crate, blue in color it was. I was contemplating the enticing smell of cooked meat coming from the kitchen when someone said, “You hungry, kid?”

I looked over by the dumpster and saw an old man. He was bone thin. His dirty, raggedy clothes hung on him like they were two sizes too big. They weren’t, he was just so thin. On a second pass, I saw he wasn’t as old as I first thought. I later learned he was only forty-seven. But he did look a lot older. He was pulling something out of the dumpster.

“Well, kid, I asked you, are you hungry? You sure look like you’re hungry.”

I thought I’d hit it lucky. Here was a guy who was gonna buy me a hamburger. Thank you, Jesus! He kicked over a milk crate, sat down next to me, and rummaged around in the white paper bag he had taken from the dumpster. “There’s good pickins hereabouts and I don’t mind sharing with the less fortunate of God’s children.” He brought out a half-eaten hamburger and held it in my direction.

I was hungry, but not that hungry. “Um, no thank you, sir. I just ate,” I lied.

He shrugged and took a bite of the thing. With a full mouth, he asked, “What’s your name, kid?”

“They call me Billy.”

So there we sat, saying nothing. Out there in the Arizona desert, behind a hamburger joint. An old man and a kid. When he had finished his half a hamburger, I asked him his name.

“Harry,” was all he said. There were still some fries in the bag he was working on and they had all of his attention. When the last fry was only a memory, he wiped his hands on the bag and crumpled it up. He tried for a three pointer from where he sat, but the bag missed the dumpster by a mile. He laughed and got up and put the bag where it belonged before sitting back down.

So, there we sat, again saying nothing. I was starting to feel uncomfortable and was about to get up and leave when the back door flew open. The woman who had slammed the door in my face earlier screamed, “You bums get outta here before I call the police on you!”

The guy said, “That’s our cue. Let’s hit the pavement, kid.”

I wished he’d stop calling me kid.

As we walked back down to the highway, he asked where I was headed.

“I’m going to California. Where are you headed?”

“The same. You hitchin’?” he asked.

“It’s the only way I know how to get there,” I answered.

He smiled a sad smile before he said, “Those days are over for me. Ain’t nobody gonna pick me up, lookin’ the way I do. When I first hit the road – probably before you were even born – I did a lot of hitchin’. It was easy back then. The war had just ended and everybody loved everybody. The whole dang country was one big happy family.”

When we got to the side of the highway, I hesitated. I didn’t want to stick out my thumb with him standing there. He was right. No one was going to stop for an old dirty bum like him. A young clean-cut kid like me, yes … but him, no. But then I noticed something special about him. I had finally looked him in the eyes and saw the clearest, bluest eyes I think I ever did see. They were kind eyes, knowing eyes. There was a twinkle in them that bespoke mischief, that bespoke a depth of knowledge, that spoke of things I could only hope to know.

I can’t explain it, but all of a sudden, I wanted to travel a few miles with this man. This man I had just met. His clothes were old and grimy, but he was clean. He didn’t smell bad. He was probably cleaner than I was. We could hitch together. It would take longer for two people to get a ride, but a ride would eventually come. They always did.

“You wanna hitch together for a while?” I asked.

He looked surprised. “Mighty nice of you to ask, but I got my own way of getting around. You ever hop a freight?”

I hadn’t, but I’d always wanted to. I had romanticized jumping on a freight train and letting it take me to wherever it was headed. “No, sir, I haven’t. Don’t really know how I’d go about it. A few weeks back, up in Peoria, I came across an idle train and climbed into an open boxcar. It was funny … I sat there for two hours and that damn train never moved an inch. I finally gave up and went back to the road and stuck out my thumb.”

He pointed across the street. We were standing on sort of a rise. That’s where the road was, but down in a little valley, about two miles away, there stood one of the longest freight trains I ever saw just hanging out there in the middle of the desert. “You see that?” he said. “That’s what I’m taking out to the land of sunshine and oranges. And it’s gonna be leaving soon, so I best be on my way. It was nice meeting you, kid.”

I let him take a few steps, then said, “Mind if I tag along?”

He stopped in his tracks and turned to me. With a smile that almost knocked me down, he said, “I’d consider it an honor, Bill.”

At least he didn’t call me kid.

That’s how I came to know Harry. Now I’m gonna tell you how he changed my life forever. How he showed me the Way, the Tao. Because of Harry, I don’t think I’ve had more than a few moments – total – of anxiety or sadness in the last half century. I’m not counting the times I’ve been in love, because being in love will always throw you a curve. But my life in general has been one of contentment, peace, and happiness. It didn’t matter if I was rich (which I later became) or poor (which I became subsequent to being rich) or middle of the road (which I am now), I never lost my pivot. All thanks to Harry. We caught that train and many more. We traveled together for five months before we split up.

Harry’s story came to me in bits and pieces as we sat in hobo jungles, as we rode the rails. As we walked in the rain, as we worked side by side digging ditches as day laborers. As we stole coins from fountains so we could buy a can of tuna fish to make it through one more day. As we bailed hay on remote farms. As we picked oranges in solemn and capacious groves. As we crisscrossed this great big land of ours.

I’ll tell it in the first person … as I heard it. Harry was a teacher alright and God bless him.

Harry speaking:

“I had just turned twenty-one when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. I was driving a truck back then, saving up to get married. Her name was June and I sure was in love with her. But my country needed me, so we decided to put off getting married until I came home.

“I was down to the recruitment center bright and early the next morning, along with about a thousand other guys. The line snaked all the way around the block and then some. I ended up in the infantry. I don’t really talk about the war all that much. We did what we had to do and that was it. Some of us made it back in one piece and some didn’t. I never allowed myself to get close to any of the guys because you never knew who’d stll be around the next day.

“But I will tell you this much, Bill. The single biggest thing I ever did in my life was having a small part in liberating Dachau. You know, the concentration camp. The camp was bad enough, but a half mile from the camp, we came upon a slew of railroad cars standing locked and idle. Even before we busted open the doors, we knew what we’d find inside.

“The cars had been built to take German troops to the front. They were designed to carry forty men. But inside each car we discovered hundreds of dead Jews. Hundreds! We later found out they had been locked in those cars for three weeks with no food or water. I can still smell the stench of dead flesh to this day.

“After seeing that, it would be an understatement to say we weren’t feeling too kindly towards the members of the SS we had captured. Our officers looked the other way when a few of us put forty-five of the SS motherfuckers up against a wall and made short work of them.

“It was a little after that, that I got my ‘Dear John’ letter. June had met some guy with a college deferment. She said by the time I received the letter they’d already be married, so there would be no sense in my writing back. I gotta tell you, I took it hard. But what are ya going to do?

“After VE Day, they sent us home on those overcrowded troop ships. There was hardly enough room to sit down. But we didn’t care. We were going home. I was a bit apprehensive. I had no family waiting for me, and without the thought of marrying June, I didn’t know what I’d do.

“Feeling inadequate (because of June and her college man), I tried college under the GI Bill, but that didn’t work out. And after what I’d seen in Europe, I couldn’t go back to driving a truck. Besides, I was having trouble sleeping and living day to day. So, one day, I up and said, ‘The hell with it’ and hit the road. Like you’re doing, Bill. That was about eighteen years ago and I haven’t stopped ramblin’ since. At first I always thought things would be better in the next town, the next city, down the road, over the horizon … anywhere but where I was at. It took me a few years to figure out that any happiness to be had, had to come from within me. Not from something outside me.

“That revelation set me free. Until recently, until I became so disreputable looking, I would interact with those people I met along the road. People like you, Bill. I’ve talked with people from all walks of life. I’ve gotten to know some of them quite well. I knew of their fears, their loves, their likes, their hopes and dreams. Everyone has dreams. Except maybe me, at this stage of my life. And I’m sure a kid like you has more dreams than I can imagine. But my point is, I’ve learnt something from everyone I met. If they were good people, I learned goodness from them. If they were bad people, I learned how not to be. But at the same time, I always tried to see a flicker of goodness even in the worst of ’em. And most of the time I do. I think if I had it to do over again with those SS guards I might even see some good in them. I’m sure they loved their wives and children and love is always good.

“What you gotta know, Bill, I’m as free as the breeze, and so are you … right now. But if you’re not careful, it may not last. Material things don’t matter. The only thing that matters is your state of mind. Fighting and clawing for more and more is bad for your soul, bad for your inner self. Look at me. I’ve got nothing. I’ve seen evil up close. I’ve seen the worse – the very worse – one human being can do to another human being. I eat out of trash cans. In winter I’m constantly cold. I’m hungry more often than not. People look at me and turn away, embarrassed by my poverty. But I’ll tell you this, I consider myself the richest man on Earth. Howard Hughes, on his best day, can’t buy what I have.

“You know what will give you true happiness? Doing for others. Not that you have to go big and start a soup kitchen or anything like that. Although that wouldn’t be bad. Small kindnesses add up. I know you have no coin on you now. But later in life you most likely will. When you see a man with his hand out, dip into your pocket. Not for change, but for something heavy. Why not blow his mind. Isn’t that what you kids are saying nowadays? Why not blow his mind and turn over a twenty. And don’t hesitate because he might spend it on booze. If he does, it’s because he needs it. Who are we to judge a man’s needs.

“That short time I was in college, I didn’t learn much. But I did pick up a book once that I found on a bus bench and it kinda opened my eyes about things. It was called the Tao Te Ching, meaning ‘The Way of Integrity’. It’s supposed to be the Chinese Bible. Anyway, I read it and that led me to another book called the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu Bible. In English that means The Song of God. My two big take-a-ways from those books were: ‘Always without desire be.’ And that death is like our soul shedding an old overcoat, namely our body. After a while, after we’ve had a little rest and time to reflect on our recent life, we’ll come back to Earth with a new body and we’ll get going on a whole new adventure, a new life.

“So, I guess because of those two books, I ain’t got much desire for material things and I got no fear of death. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking how could two lousy books change me so much? Well, it wasn’t just the books. It was what I had seen overseas. And what I’ve seen during my years on the road. You’ll understand what I’m talking about if you spend any time at all out here meeting people, like I have. Because the more people you meet, the more you’ll see God. God’s in all of us. Look at the mess I am. But God’s light shines from my eyes just like His light shines from your eyes, Bill.”

• • • • •

Hey, it’s me again … Billy. Harry told me some more things, but what I wrote above covers the important stuff. As I’ve said, I hung with Harry for five months. And what I want to say is that Harry wasn’t all words. He also walked the walk. I can’t tell you how many times I saw him give the last of his food to someone as hungry as he was. How he reached into his pocket and gave up his last dollar to someone he felt needed it more than he did.

Harry was getting weaker by the day, but wouldn’t tell me what was wrong with him. Finally, he got so weak we had to get off the road. We were in Texas at the time.

In the 1930s, during the depression, every town and city had a hobo jungle, usually on its outskirts. However, by the late ’60s, there weren’t that many left. But Harry knew them all and we’d camp in one if we found ourselves anywhere in the vicinity. So that’s where we headed, to the one just outside of Lubbock.

There weren’t that many hobos around anymore, so we had the place to ourselves. I got Harry situated and then hitched into town to buy some supplies. Luckily for us, we had a few bucks. We had just worked two days for a rancher outside of Norman, Oklahoma. By then, I was taking care of Harry. I did all the work while he sat in the shade of an old oak tree. I never let on to the rancher that Harry was too sick to work. I just had to work doubly hard and collect the pay for the both of us.

I picked up a loaf of bread, a pack of baloney, a gallon of water, and a fifth of bourbon. Hanging with Harry had taught me that we didn’t need much more than that.

When I got back to the camp, Harry was in bad shape. He couldn’t even eat anything. I asked him what was wrong but he just smiled at me. That pissed me off. I demanded he tell me what the hell was wrong with him. It was then that he finally fessed up.

“Well, partner, I reckon it’s my time. I didn’t tell you, but I have a cancer. It’s in my pancreas. Just before we met up, I went to the VA Hospital in St. Louis. They gave me the good news. Said I had six months to live. Looks like they hit it right on the money.”

I was beside myself. I jumped up and said, “I’m gonna find a phone and call for an ambulance! You sit tight until I get back.”

Harry weakly held up his right hand. “Please sit down for a moment. There’s something I want to say.”

“Just say it because I gotta get going.”

Harry shook his head. “Please, Bill, sit down. This is important.”

I started to argue with him, but the look in his eyes changed my mind real fast. I sat down in front of him and said, “Okay, Harry. What is it?” I was short with him and instantly regretted it.

He had been sitting on a log, but now he slid to the ground and leaned his back against it. He then looked me directly in the eyes and said, “You know, travelin’ around with you these last few months has been the best time of my life. I knew I was dying and even though I don’t fear death, I was a little nervous that I would have to go it alone. Then you came along.”

“Harry. This is stupid. We have to get you to a hospital.”

“No we don’t, Bill. I don’t want to die in a damn hospital. Look about you. There’s green trees here, and soon the stars will be out. I wanna die looking at God’s beautiful creation. What’s in a hospital but four white walls and a ceiling that keeps me from seeing the stars. My time has run out as it does for all men. I’ll just be shedding an old overcoat for a body of light. The pain will be gone and I’ll be hopping a train to a new location. But this time I’ll be riding in a Pullman Car with red velvet seats and sipping fine, imported champagne. But I’m worried about you, Bill. How are you gonna take it?”

I had calmed down some. He was making sense about the hospital and all. But I didn’t want to lose him. He was my best friend. We had been through so much together and he had taught me so much. I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I started to cry.

“I don’t want to lose you,” I sobbed.

Harry patted my shoulder and let me cry out. When I had myself under control, he said, “Believe me, I know how you feel. But I gotta go. The pain has become unbearable. I’m gonna miss you, too. But we’ll see each other again. You’re young. I’ll probably be back with a new body before you know it. I’m sure we’ll know each other if we meet up. Keep checking people’s eyes. You’ll know me. Now down to business. I can feel the time is close. Have you ever seen a dead man before?”

I almost started crying again, but I bucked up and said, “No, I haven’t.”

He laughed and said, “Well, it’s about time you did. Dying is part of life and if you’re afraid of dying, then you’re afraid of life. If you don’t mind, I’d like it if you stayed with me until it’s over. Then I want you to get up and just walk away. Leave my body where it lies. It won’t mean anything to you and even less to me. Can you do that for me?”

By then, I had gotten my emotions under control. If that’s what he wanted. If that was his dying wish, then I’d be strong.

“Sure, Harry. Whatever you say.”

“Good. Did you get the bourbon like I asked?”

“Yup. Got it right here.”

“Well, break it out. Let’s do some serious drinking.”

We sat there passing the bottle back and forth. There was no more talk of death. We reminisced and took turns bringing up different “situations” we had gotten ourselves into and how we had to high step to get out of those same situations. With every pass of the bottle, Harry’s smile grew. I thought I was helping him face death. But I later realized he was doing it all for me.

I brought up the time we got drunk in a small town and had to spend the night in jail where we met quite a character. The old bird told the funniest stories. I had just finished repeating one of his stories when Harry let go a laugh … and died. There was one swig left. I hefted the bottle and said, “Here’s to you, Harry. Thanks for everything.”

I downed the last of the booze, rose on unsteady legs, and walked to the highway not shedding a tear. I stuck out my thumb and hitched into a new life. One without Harry.

All the Women Think I’m Fine

All the women think I’m fine

All the women, when they see me, want me

I’m walkin’ down the street

They can’t get enough of me

I’m smilin’ my smile

They can’t get enough of me

I’m strutting my stuff

They can’t get enough of me

I’m drivin’ my short

They follow me down the road

Around the curves

Into the straightaway

They follow me wherever I go

I wanna get somethin’ to eat.

They’re there with their faces pressed against the window glass

I get home and there are three or four waitin’ for me

Two or three scramble in before I can git in and close the door

It’s a long night I gotta put in

It’s a long night takin’ care of ’em all

It’s a long night being me

All the women think I’m fine

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia was my girl, she was my love. Georgia was taken from me. She is not of this earth anymore. Georgia awaits me in heaven.

Georgia was taken from me last spring as she crossed a street. She was killed by a drunk driver. Winter is now coming on and the murderer has still not faced justice. He has money and a very good lawyer. His trial has been postponed repeatedly.

He may have money and a good lawyer, but I have my granddaddy’s Colt .45. I have decided to be judge, jury, and executioner. I have waited long enough for justice.

He goes out to the clubs every night. He does not drive now. He has a Cuban drive him in his big fancy car; the same car that took my Georgia.

It will be tonight.

As I wait in the alley for the murderer to emerge from the newest, hottest club on Miami Beach, I think of Georgia.

My Georgia was only nineteen when we met. She was in Miami visiting a friend, and the friend suggested that she see Fort Lauderdale before she went home. I was at the bar in The Elbow Room, sitting on my usual stool, when they walked in. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but that night I had my doubts.

I sat there and looked on as a few guys hit on Georgia and her friend. They all walked away empty-handed. Normally, I wouldn’t have made a move, but something drew me to Georgia. She was full of life. If I could see someone’s aura, I’m sure hers would have been a light blue. A loving and pure soul was she.

To make a long and loving story shorter, I sweet-talked her phone number out of her. At that point, all I wanted was to get laid. But that was before I fell in love with my Georgia.

I called the next day. We went sailing on my boat. I told her to bring her friend along so that she would feel safe. The three of us sailed the bay and then ate a picnic lunch on Elliot Key. As we sailed back, the sun was setting into a fiery western sky .

We hit Dinner Key just as it got full dark. By then I was in love.

My home base is Fort Lauderdale—about two hours up the Intercoastal Waterway.

I asked Georgia to sail up there with me and I would send her back to Miami in a cab. To my great surprise, she said yes. Her friend left us and I cast off from the dock.

Two hours later, in a cove off Dania Beach, we anchored and made love. The sweetest most loving love I have ever known. From that moment on, she was My Georgia.

She flew home, settled matters and came back to me. We had two years of love and life before she was taken from me. In that time, I learned how to love another human being. I learned of tenderness. I learned of love. And because of what was done to My Georgia, I will kill a man tonight.

It’s coming up on 2:00 a.m., about the time the killer heads for home with his conquest of the night.

I see them now, the three of them—the murderer, a girl, and the Cuban.

My quarry has his arm around the tall, skinny girl. She sways on her high heels. She wears a silver dress that reflects the pink and yellow neon lights of the bars they pass. He weaves as he walks. I hope and pray that he is not too drunk. I want him to know why he is going to die.

I step out of the shadows to block their path. I stand before them and tell the girl to hit the road. She hesitates, but when I raise the gun, she finds someplace else to be.  I then turn to the Cuban. “This ain’t your fight.”

He also hesitates. So I explain it to him, “In one minute, your boss will be dead. Do you want a piece of what is about to go down?” I reckon he didn’t because he shrugged and walked away.

Now it is just me and the murderer.

“This is for Georgia,” I say as I put a bullet into his shocked face. His blood and brains splatter onto the wall behind him. So simple to take a life. So very simple. I did it with a gun … he did it with a car.

I thought I would feel better killing the son-of-a-bitch. But you know what? It does not feel good to kill another human being … although I am glad I did it.

Now I’m waiting for the cops. I hear the sirens nearing. But I am not worried; I will not be here when they arrive.

With the barrel of the gun in my mouth, I think of My Georgia and tell her that I am on my way.

When I see the first cop car approach, I slowly squeeze the trigger.