MY OWN PRIVATE 8 ½
I don’t believe in God, luck, or fate. Nothing is written. I do believe in contingencies, even if it’s impossible to track them with accuracy. Contrary to all that, I have a sense of the presence of grace. I feel enveloped in protection.
1. Some time in my personal way-back I “suffered” rheumatic fever. It left me with a heart murmur, that eventually faded. “Heart murmur,” a wonderful term, the heart set at sotto voce, a sound that can barely be heard. A conversation in another room.
2. A few days after my First Communion my appendix burst. Poison took over my blood stream – high fever and intense abdominal pain. My folks took me to the emergency room of St. Vincent’s Hospital. The intern diagnosed a stomach ache and sent us home. The next morning, Dr. Gannon, our family physician, made a house call and had me rushed into surgery.
3. One deep winter night Jim Gallagher and I took our girlfriends to a rural cemetery for a little heavy-petting. The car got stuck in a snow drift. Jim and his girlfriend got out to push from the front, and I decided to pull from the rear. The car lurched, and I lost my footing. I held onto the bumper, but slipped under the car, my nose inches from the spinning black back wheel, my eyes wide open.
4. Once I hitch-hiked from Chicago, to Louisville, Kentucky. It took three days, and by the time I hit the home stretch in some run-down section of Louisville I was totally exhausted – wasted would be the right word. As I stood, thumb out, one foot on, one foot off the curb, a big, black sedan sporting a Confederate flag on its antenna, and a “Rebel Yell” bumper sticker cruised past. The passenger window rolled down, and out reached a hand holding a pistol pointed straight at me. I was too tired to do anything but take a deep breath, close my eyes, and sigh.
They drove past. I finally caught a ride.
5. Geoff Peterson and I used to spend late nights exploring the docks of Erie, PA. One night we were poking around a huge, derelict steel-barge that had been berthed for years. The watchman heard us, called the police, and gave chase. We made it off the barge as the police were driving up, and a freight train was pulling past. We made for the train. Geoff caught a box-car ladder and swung up. I grabbed the next ladder, and slipped down. I hung on to the second rung with about half of me flailing under the car, just above the tracks. Somehow I pulled myself up, the train out-distanced the police, and we evaded capture like movie stars.
The train was steadily picking up speed, and I was wondering how far I could actually ride, but I jumped off pretty quickly, and belly-flopped into a ditch full of railroad muck.
6. An Army buddy and I took overnight passes to Frankfurt, and hit the K-Strasse. He spent the night sitting at the bar with a B-girl, I just drank. When it was time to leave his bar bill was astronomical. He was buying her cheap champagne, she was drinking 7-Up, but the price was up there with Dom. We pooled our money – all of it – paid, and got out of there. John had a round-trip ticket back to the base, I didn’t. He went back. I hung around the Banhoff, figuring I’d wait ‘til day, make it to Division HQ in Frankfurt, find an MP, and catch a ride from there.
A few hours later I was out of cigarettes. I spotted a smoker, and walked up to him to bum one. He seemed a friendly enough guy so I explained my situation, and he offered me breakfast and a ride. I’d turned a few tricks in NY, and this guy seemed less than a Good Samaritan, but I was still half-loaded, and tired enough not to care.
We got to his car and started driving. He had a little yapper of a dog in the back seat that jumped up front into my lap. I tried moving him back a couple of times, but he was fixated, and I gave up. About twenty minutes passed, and we were out of the central city - not headed for breakfast.
The guy passed me a deck of black and white, circa 1950, pornographic playing cards, and asked me to pick my favorite. I thought my safest bet was to feign indifference:
“They’re all o.k.”
“But which is your favorite?”
“I don’t have a favorite.”
“Please, which one?”
I chose one at random, handed it to him, and a few minutes later we were pulling off the road into a Sunday-morning gravel-pit.
We parked, and he put the card up on the dash.
The dog was in my lap, the guy’s right hand was on my knee, and his prick was out of his pants. It was about 8 a.m., and I was thinking I’d seen my last morning.
He jacked off, came, cleaned himself up, and that was it.
“Would you like breakfast?”
“Would you come home with me?”
“Should I do something to you?”
“No. Take me to the Banhoff. Give me money.”
He did, and he thanked me as I got out of the car. I bought a pack of cigarettes, and a ticket back to base.
7. I spent about three months living in a walk-up on 9th, between B & C in NYC. It was a run-down, burned-out neighborhood, populated by Puerto Rican junkies – the police called it “the jungle.” Three of us shared the flat. Smead, the most street-wise of us, advised we carry our folding money in our shoes, and spare-change in a pocket - the reason being that no mugger would get down on his knees to untie your shoes, thus risking a literal kick-in-the-teeth. The spare-change was to mollify the bastards. It was good advice, I must have been held-up at knife point at least five times in those three months.
One afternoon, about a half block from our front door I thought I saw somebody duck into the building. It registered, but for some reason I paid it no never mind
We were on the 3d floor – 3C. John had tried to get 3D, but it was taken.
Just before the 2nd floor landing a skinny junkie in a trench coat popped up. Rank amateur, he was a few steps below me, instead of catching me on the landing. Somebody more macho would have just pushed him down the stairs. By then I’d learned the drill: raise your arms straight out and to the side, and point at the pocket where you had your money. I played my part, the junkie picked my pocket for 35 or 40 cents, and it was all about to come to an amicable close when inspiration struck. I slowly turned my palms out, and bowed my head in my best Christ crucified impersonation.
The junkie stared, freaked, dropped the coins, and his knife, half tripped backing down the stairs, and beat his retreat.
I picked up the coins, claimed his knife as a trophy, and chuckled my way up to 3C.
I wonder what he told his friends.
8. In 1995, I was crushed inside my little, red Toyota by an SUV. It was the “worst winter in 25 years,” bitterly cold, and the road was all compact snow and ice. The SUV’s driver had crossed the center lane trying to correct for a skid.
When I came to my radio was blasting Country/Western, and I was in wide-eyed shock. Someone reached through the window, turned the radio off, and covered me with a blanket. I slipped in and out of consciousness. An Emergency Medical Technician leaned into the car and told me to hang on, they were waiting for the Jaws of Life to cut the roof off. In and out, in and out.
The ambulance was way too hot. The EMT was holding my hand. I was higher than a kite on morphine and adrenaline. Except for the few moments preceding impact that are a “false memory” – that is, nothing I remember conforms to fact – and were terrifying anyway, the event didn’t seem so bad. The most important thing on my mind was for someone to call Reggie, and tell her I’d be late for dinner. We had a romantic evening planned.
Turns out my right heel was pulverized, my kneecap was fractured in four places and turned side-ways, my arm was broken above the elbow, my left collar-bone was fractured, and I had a head wound and concussion. Definitely wracked-up.
It took five months to get back on my feet and re-learn how to walk, and over a year to get re-employed.
The Medical Technician turned out to be my brother Bob’s best friend, and I met him at my niece’s wedding almost two years later.
8 ½. A life full of risks. Assignations in bare bulb flops; drug deals on dark streets in foreign countries; driving with one eye shut to make up for seeing double; long nights of fitful sleep under bridges, in parking lots, and city parks; drifting too far from shore in too many ways.
My mom believed in guardian angels. I was born on the Feast of the Guardian Angel. My dad taught me that life is treacherous. My godmother told me I’d always be taken care of.
Maybe they were all right.
Maybe they were all right.
Here I am.