Monday, July 31, 2006

Swedish Babes, High Heels, San Quentin Prisoners And Guards, Mistaken Identities, Barfights, And An Old Guy Named Al.


Back in 1979, when I first got my driver's license, a close friend I'll call Rolf had locked himself out of his house. The house had just been built-- in fact, I helped build it-- and there was a brick facade going up the downhill front side, from the ground to the bottom of the second story, where white stucco started and continued up past many double hung windows all in a neat row, with one left open.

An open window.

If you have ever locked yourself out of your house, you've made this search. You look for a crack. a weakness, and you exploit it, finding yourself rolling onto your floor behind your fern in a heap, scraping your belly across a filthy sill and discovering that you are not as young, or graceful, or attractive-- inverted like a dead soldier over the saddle of his horse-- as you thought you were, your shirt pulled up to reveal your morning's choice of underwear, your head twisted by the weight of your ass as you try to figure out the safest way to flop your legs over.

Sometimes, you break something, with your heel flopping down behind you, and then you feel like one.

Rolf and I saw the crack in this locked house and decided we could exploit it. If we could climb a story's worth of brick and stand on six inches of ledge, and then get our fingers into this crack and lift the bottom sash up, we could crawl inside the house, where a refrigerator was waiting, and we could chug milk and eat uncooked chocolate cake dough in a silver bowl, and watch Hogan's Heroes reruns.

That was the plan, anyway.

I was barefoot. I remember this because had I worn shoes, the bruise on my heel would not have been so severe. Had I worn shoes, four days of backpacking may have been more bearable, even pleasurable. I climbed the brick using a corner, and met my friend Rolf on the ledge in front of the window, and we both stood there facing the wall, barely able to hold ourselves from "peeling" (a climbing term, where your center of gravity is outside your ability to cling to whatever there is to cling to) and we hung on in our various, precarious fashions and looked at this less than finger width crack with the seriousness of a couple of high school kids trying to break into a house to get to the cake dough.

The window would not come up. It was "jambed", if you'll allow a bad pun. Rolf managed to get himself to a knee and started trying to work the stuck window up. He grabbed one of my legs to keep him from "peeling". I had another idea.

A double hung window opens from the bottom, AND it opens from the top. Bottom up. Top down. Pretty cool. If I could just push down on the upper window, I could get it started, and then opened, and we could get in. I got the window to move down enough to get both of my hands onto the top of the window. Now all I had to do was push the window down and belly flop into the second floor.

Now that my hands were firmly gripped on the top of the window, all I had to do was push down, open the window up, and belly flop...

You see. It had seemed so direct and easy to me. But when you are on a ledge with a friend, trying to break into his house, dependent on each other for hand holds and balance, communication is the key. I mean, I should have said "I got the top started, I'm going to push it down."

And Rolf should have said, "I got the bottom started, I'm going to push it up."

When windows pass each other in a hurry, the hands that are clinging to them to keep their respective owners attached to a slanted, six inch ledge about twelve feet from hardened, baked clay, will be removed.

That's just how that works.

My hands were knocked free of the windows by the passing sash, and Rolf's hands were knocked free of the windows by the other half coming down, and for a moment we were both suspended on the ledge by a brief inertia, by a brief moment where our feet still remained palnted on the ledge while our torsos toppled. Again, gravity outranked desire and our desire ran out of time.

Or more accurately, the only chance we each had of grabbing and maintaining a grip was squandered by near misses. I just missed grabbing Rolf's sash that had come up. He just missed grabbing mine which had gone down.

Remember the coyote as he ran off the edge of a cliff? He would always pause, look right at the animator, and then fall. There was always time allowed for the poor creature to realize his fate.

We had that kind of time.

We were both "peeling". We were going to go down. Our feet were still on the ledge but our center of gravity had pulled us away from the house. I said "Aww... shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!!" like Butch and Sundance off that cliff, and Rolf said something in German that just came out.

I fell the twelve feet, did a "hit and roll", but my bare right heel caught too much direct weight right on a rock and drove a bruise up into the bone. "A stone bruise" everybody wanted to diagnose it. Yeah, OK, fine. It still hurt like hell to walk on it.

Which is the point of this part of the tale.

See, like all of life's intermeshings, this stone bruise would have an effect on a night out drinking beer over ten years later. The bruise would play a part in an unusual encounter with a San Quentin prison guard, and an ex-inmate who was wielding a pool cue like... well... a pool cue. The heel would heal, but its' possibility for creating pain would travel across a decade, and a decade after that, I would put two and two together and present you with four.

Let me continue.

My friend Rolf and my friend G, (who has an entire story dedicated to him because he played such a wonderful cowboy), had a plan to go backpacking in the Marble Mountains for a week. I was in that plan. They wouldn't go without me. I wouldn't let them go without me. I would tape my foot, wear my good boots, and things would be fine. No problem limping on a bad stone bruise for twelve miles wearing a forty pound pack.

Yeah right.

I used a staff for a crutch. I sent the two of them ahead and told them I'd catch them at their resting places. The entire trip was fraught with horrible things that make for a good story later, lots of pain, but that's for another day. Two bears ripped our tent apart. I got lost. G got caught with his pants around his ankles by a female ranger who knew not to make ass jokes at his expense, and lots of other stuff.

The rain on the third night convinced us to leave on the fourth day. My heel was hurting immensely but was better, but still a deciding factor.

We skedaddled out of the hills (all down hill) and I suffered with the stone bruise on my right heel, the HUGE blister on my left heel, and a pain in the right big toe nail which I would later learn was a wet and shrinking boot lifting my nail clean off (I had other pains that were more pressing), and we got to G's '66 Chevy truck and we rejoiced.

My feet were a mess.

At sixteen, the vicissitudes and vagaries of life on earth had not been fully explored and intellectually grappled with, and a shortened adventure was an unsatisfactory denoument to a well conceptualized plan. We couldn't just go home. Now could we?

"We could go see my uncle Hank?", G offered up as a plan. "He lives in Eureka".

After burgers and sodas, sure, that was a brilliant plan. We'd drive four hours out of our way home, go shower at Hank's house, oggle his gorgeous daughter, and then...

...figure out what to do with two more days.

Hank wasn't home when we got into town, but his wife was, and his gorgeous daughter. It was late and they met us at the local Supermarket and escorted us to their house and let us take showers and wolf down milk and cookies and go soundly to sleep. Hank was out fishing, and was expected home anytime. Perhaps we should spend the day with Hank's gorgeous daughter and wait for him?

Yes, please.

Mandy had dark hair and Brooke Sheilds' eyebrows. She had perfect skin. She had dimples and a naughty girl (to a point) quality about her, and she felt sorry for my wounded feet and the fact that I walked like a duck. My stone bruise still ached. My blister had torn and left raw skin the size of a silver dollar plus a nickle, and my right toe nail was hanging on by my fear of pulling it clean off with a simple tug

We were driven around town and shown the sights. My father's berth--he's not here yet.

The movie theater. The Frosty Freeze. This beach and that beach.

That evening, we had a nice meal and waited for Hank to get home. His fishing boat had radioed in. They were full and were coming home. All we had to do was wait up for him.

G was excited. His uncle Hank was a hero to G. And rightly so. Hank had been a star lineman in college. He had been a semi-pro boxer for a short stint. He had become a fisherman because he loved the work and the adventure and the lifestyle. Hank was the" iceman". He was the guy who got down into the hold and shoveled ice over the day's catch. Hank had arms and shoulders on him that were thick beyond reason. He had a tiny waist. He had shortish, but powerful legs. He looked like a cartoon super hero. Everything about Hank reminded one of a song.

Lots of songs. "Big John." "Casey at the Plate" "Macho Man".

Hank came in at midnight, shook our hands, grabbed a beer, talked for ten minutes, and said goodnight.

In the morning he was up before we were and out to unload his boat's catch and by noon, G and Rolf and I had decided it was OK to go home before our time...

I never saw Hank again.

Well, in those life's circumstances, anyway.

The photo I posted is of an old guy named Al. I liked Al. Al was a good carpenter and a good worker. He had false teeth and a genuine heart and had owned a store up at a lake called Ruth Lake until he tired of the seclusion and moved into the 101 corridor, north of San Francisco about an hour, and found work.

I had just come back from somewhere west of there (I think I was returning for a short shift home from a Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong jaunt) and we had both hooked up with the same builder (an old friend of mine) for some work. The photo you see, is of Al's breaks between the work we did.

On a payday Al offered to take me out to a bar he liked to shoot pool at. He was gonna school me and I was gonna let him. Beers and pool. On a Friday night. Cool.

I love beer and pool.

A few hours later, Al was talking to this enormous guy at the bar. They had met while Al was running the store at the lake. They knew each other. They were friends.

I must have been about twenty-seven at the time. I was fit. In my prime physically, and scared to death of this guy. This guy reminded me of those old bulls or lions you see on the nature channel. They are scarred badly. They have been tested over and over by younger males in their prime, and they have beat the living daylights out of all of them, remaining the top male ready, willing and able to copulate with the females at his will and mercy. This guy had "don't even go there" written all over his gnarled, massive, sweatered torso.

I was never, ever, gonna go there with this guy. In fact, I thought, I'll just stay over here and shoot my pool...

G used to tell me Hank stories all the time. Hank got a divorce. Hank went out in the woods for a year and lived in a tent. Hank got a job as a maximum security prison guard at San Quentin and they put him down with the animals. They took one look at Hank and elected him the guy who dealt with the serious nutjobs and violent screwballs and murderers and cannibals and downright unkind people.

Hank thought the job was fun. Hank would stop by G's house and tell his murderer stories and his billy club tales, and G would tell me later. I had met Hank all of ten minutes late one night over a decade prior, and yet I felt I knew him.

I overheard this big guy at the bar talking about his job at San Quentin. After a couple of games of winning, I had lost and I wanted a beer while I sat and waited for my turn to come up again. There was a space to order next to this big, scary looking guy and I filled it, ordering a beer and then paying for it. This big guy was talking to Al and they seemed like old friends.

"I know a guy who works at San Quentin." I said.

This guy looked at me. "You do?"

"Yeah. He works in maximum security. Deals with all the serious killers 'n shit. He's a bad ass like you." (A rule of thumb. Always acknowledge a badass when you are standing right next to them. Strictly precautionary, mind you.)

"What's his name?" the big guy asked.

"Hank."

"Hank? No, there's no guard by the name of Hank there."

"His name is Hank and he works with lifers and violent felons and death row inmates..."

"That's where I work." he said. He looked at me like I was a trick waiting to be sprung or a used car salesman.

I got a little nervous. I needed to fill in some blanks in the little bit of silence there was, so I just started talking.

"He used to be a lineman for Cal, I think. He was a fisherman for a lot of years and then he got divorced and moved out into the woods and stayed there without anybody knowing where he was for a year, and now he's working at San Quentin. He's a friend of mine's uncle. He loves to abalone dive and his daughter is a real hottie. I actually had a crush on her. I stayed at his house once when my foot was all banged up..."

The big guy had screwed his face into a question mark. He was racking his brain trying to conjure up an ideation of this guy Hank. Almost everything I was telling him sounded so vaguely familiar and was registering hits through his cortex, but my descriptions were falling short of an epiphany, and this big guy needed one of those really badly right about then...

Before he screwed his face up even more...

"He works at San Quentin, and his name is Hank?"

He had gone back to basics.

"Yeah. He's a big guy like you."

I had gone back to basics.

"Big like me, and his name is Hank?"

"Yeah. He's still there too. I heard he met Charles Manson."

"I've met Charles Manson."

"Well then, you should know him."

"Hank? His name is Hank?"

This big guy had one of those voices you don't expect from a really big guy but almost always find. High, hoarse, and squeaky. Think Mike Tyson crossed with Rod Stewart. A voice like that. His questions were accentuated by a drift into alto. A hoarse and very curious alto. Making his questions compelling. A rising voice and shoulders like Christmas hams.

"Hank? His name was Hank?"

"Yeah. Hank."

"What was his last name?"

"I can't remember. I used to know... but I'm drawing a blank..."

"Hank." His voice had come down from its' high perches. "Hmmm.."

I started to give him more details. I told him the story that G had told me about how Hank had gotten in a fight with a bunch of biker guys and had tore off a chrome exhaust pipe and beat six or seven guys with it. This made him sit up and take notice. I told him the story G told me of how Hank had rescued an overboard fisherman by tying a rope around his waste and swimming in rough seas to get a hold of the guy and get pulled in. The big guy smiled. I started to tell him the story about how Hank had pulled the steering wheel off of his daughter's first boyfriends' car, and he interrupted me and asked me who Hank's nephew was.

"Nephew?" I asked.

"Yeah. Hank is whose uncle again?"

"My friend G."

"G?"

"Yeah."

"And his sister S?"

"Yeah."

"Well... wait a minute! I'm HANK!! HOW DO YOU KNOW ME?"

I was not sure what to say. I had been giving this monstrous guy second-hand information, basically lying to him, and now he knew the jig was up. "G's my best friend. I've known him since I was six." I figured I'd go with the best friend of family tack, which seemed to work just fine.

Hank laughed and I laughed. He asked me about G and about S and about how and when I had met him. He vaguely remembered that night we met, he had been exhausted and a little drunk, and I confessed that I had been too busy oggling his daughter to have remembered much about what he looked like, and old Al came over after finally losing a pool game and asked what was so funny and did we know each other, and the next hour was spent buying each other beers and swapping stories, with Hank telling one for most of the hour, drawing out the details painfully-- but who cared, we had beer and a seat at the bar-- and all was going well until one of the biggest, meanest, ugliest guys I have ever seen walked in with two of his sidekicks, and then the festivities dwindled.

In fact they went away completely.

Hank had just finished telling us about playing in his twenty year alumni football game. On the program, they had written "From San Quentin" after Hank's name, and poor Hank could not understand why his former teammates shunned him like they did. Nobody wanted to talk to him. Everybody kept a cold distance. Hank was hurt. He had played hard and had had some fun. But nobody wanted to smack him in the ass or punch him in the arm. Talking to him was a short grunt and a look away. Hank couldn't take it. He asked a group of guys he once called friends what the hell was up. One of them spoke up.

"You're from San Quentin, Hank. People don't know how to deal with you."

"So?"

"What'd you do, Hank? Kill somebody?"

"Wait a minute!" said Hank. "Yeah I'm from San Quentin. But I'm a guard there!"

Hank seemed to attract these kinds of miscommunications. Don't ask me why.

He was finishing this story when his eyes narrowed to two focused points and he leaned toward me and whispered in my ear.

"Scott. Can you fight?"

"Huh?"

"Can you fight?"

"Yeah. Kinda." My voice had risen to match Hank's in its squeakiness.

"Can you take those two guys over there?"

"Those two guys?"

"Yeah. I'll take the big guy. But you gotta take the two skinny guys. Al's too old to be of any help.

"I'm not too old for nuthin'!" Al piped in. He had caught small fragments of what Hank had said to me.

"You help Scottie keep those two off me, and we'll be fine. Can you swing a pool stick?"

"Me?" My voice was kermit's on the way to being Miss Piggy's.

"Break it in half. You get one too, Al."

Al piped in. "You think there's a fight coming?"

"That big guy. See that guy with the scar?"

I took a furtive look at the biggest, meanest, ugliest guy I had seen on planet earth. "Yeah."

"If he recognizes me, there will be a fight. He was a prisoner in Quentin. His time musta come up."

"We should leave." I suggested.

Just a thought.

Ever lose a toenail? Well, I lost mine about four days after that backpacking trip. The long, limping downhill walk in wet boots had caused the slow lifting of the nail. Everything else going on with my feet had caused me to ignore it. There was no black and blue. Just a nail lifted clean off of a big toe.

It came off at my friend Rolf's house. His sister was home cooking up chocolate cake so we'd stop eating the dough. I was in the other room watching Hogan's Heroes reruns and tugging on it. It just came off. I looked at the nail. It looked perfectly fine, except that it was detached from my toe. I thought about what to do with it during a commercial break.

I put it back on my toe.

"Hey Monika, come look at this."

Monika was a senior and had very lovely lookings. She liked to put her face down close to what she was looking at. She was a serious looker, if you know what I mean.

I jerked the toenail off in one swift motion making a fake grunt noise and held it up for her to see. Her face went that very unruddy white you read about when one is frightened to death. I wasn't sure if she had suddenly become afraid for me, or of me...

"I agree." said Hank. "I'll go to my car and you guys watch. If he follows me out, you guys come and help. If not, we'll go down the road and the next beer's on me."

"What if they have guns?" I asked.

"Run." said Hank. "I mean, shit. What else ya gonna do?"


Ever walk into a bar, Swedish babes hawking Makita power tools on posters plastered on the walls, and have Hank order you up a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale before?

Pretty Gosh darn cool if you ask me...

And we swapped abalone tales until two in the morning, and then drove the backroads home.

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