Sunday, February 25, 2018

Worth a thousand words...

My last post mentioned the USS California gliding across the Mare Island Strait on launch day and winding up in the mud on the Vallejo side of the channel. I didn't mention that she wiped out a good sized section of dock as well.

Thanks to my friend John Parks, we have a photo taken that day, November 20, 1919. Look at the men -- either sailors or shipyard workers -- peering over the railing. I wonder what they were saying? Here are some possible captions:

     "Don't look at me. I wasn't in charge of the brake lines."

     "Maybe we should stick to building destroyers?"

     "Oh, so this is Lower Georgia Street."

     "Okay, who's gonna break the news to the captain?"

Feel free to add your own captions. 


Monday, February 12, 2018


I’ve long had a fascination with the USS California, for what I thought were two pretty good reasons. First, she was the only U.S. battleship built on the West Coast. Second, she was built at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in my hometown, Vallejo, California.

My interest in the ship really kicked in around 2003 as I was writing the stories that would appear in my collection, Children of Vallejo. The first chapter of the book is titled, “Vallejo Remembered,” and includes this paragraph about Mare Island:

…the shipyard prospered as one of the Navy’s major repair depots for the Pacific Fleet, and it earned its stripes as a shipbuilding facility. More than five hundred naval vessels were built there, including the USS California…On November 20, 1919, when the California slid down the shipway into the muddy Mare Island Strait, the brake lines could hot hold and she continued across the channel and onto the mud flats on the city side. She would find herself settled in the mud once again on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. But the California would rise to fight in battles all across the Pacific, a history followed with great pride by all those who touched her at Mare Island.

At that time, I was also working on ’68 – A Novel. One of my main characters is a man named John Harris, modeled after my father. The fictional John Harris served on the California during World War II. He was onboard for the battle of Lingayen Gulf when the ship was hit by a kamikaze. John is haunted by the attack in which forty-four men died and one hundred and fifty were wounded. In an early chapter of the book, John travels to Sacramento to visit the monument to the California which stands in Capitol Park.

Now he was standing in front of the monument. It was a simple structure: two square stone columns supporting a stone cap across the top… From the crosspiece hung the ship’s bell, its clapper removed. The California was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1959. This bell was all that remained of a once mighty warship…

John has a near-meltdown standing in front of the monument, remembering his service on the ship, feeling his blood boil at the idea that steel “…washed in the blood of brave men…” could be sold for scrap. Gradually, he regains composure.

His breathing was returning to normal now. He removed a handkerchief from his back pocket to mop his forehead and dab his eyes. He felt Martha touch his elbow gently.

“John, are you okay, honey?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. I’m fine now.” He took two steps forward and placed the palm of his right hand against the surface of the bell. Finally, he stepped away. “Okay, Martha. Let’s go.”

She wrapped her arm around his ample waist as they walked away, heading back to N Street and the entrance to the park.

Those two volumes, the story collection and the novel, were in the works as early as 2003. Just this past week, I was going through some family documents and I came across my father’s Navy discharge papers. One document includes a list of  the ships he served. There it is, plain as day: U.S.S. California.

Let me be clear, my dad did not serve in World War II. He left active duty in 1935, having attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer. But to see that he served on the California was a surprise and a shock. I had no idea.

I thought there were two good reasons I was fascinated with that old battlewagon. Now I know there was a third.



Friday, February 2, 2018

Street Cred, Chapters 24 - 27...

Chapter 24

June 14, 1971
            Nick and Grady stood at the edge of the cliff, looking down on Timber Cove. It was a beautiful day, the sun high, the sky blue. Wind from the west picked up, as it did most days along the coast. Whitecaps dotted the open water beyond the cove.

“Where do you scatter ashes in a place like this?” Nick scanned the beach, weighing the possibilities.

“Don’t look at me, buddy. No one ever asked…until now.”

“Maybe over there by the creek, where we pitched the tent last time?”

“Yeah, that would be good. Just mix the ashes into the sand.” Grady made a tumbling gesture with his hands.

“Or how about around the point, on the rock where we always fish? That would be good.”

“Yeah, but blowback could be a problem in this wind.” Grady blinked, imagining the grit flying in the breeze.

“True. There’s always the canyon. We could scatter some up there.”

“Good idea. One of Jeff’s favorite places.”

“I say we scatter in all three spots. The beach, the rock, and the canyon. How ’bout that?”

“Okay.” Grady turned to smile at Nick. “I love it when a plan comes together.”

They heard the car door slam and turned to see Jeff limping toward them, leaning hard on his cane. He’d been asleep in the back seat since they passed through Bodega Bay.

“What are you bozos up to?” Jeff stood next to Nick and surveyed the familiar scene.

“Not much,” Nick replied. “Just deciding where we would have scattered your ashes.”

“Oh yeah?” Jeff brightened, anxious to hear the decision. “And where exactly would that be?”

Grady took charge in his best undertaker’s voice. “On the beach by the creek. Around the point on the famous rock. And up the canyon, way back among the redwoods. I trust that’s acceptable to the deceased?”

Jeff approved. “Hell yeah! Three scatters for the old Jeffer. What’s not to like?”

The three friends shared a laugh. They made plans to help Jeff down the trail to the beach, his wounded leg still in recovery mode. They’d carry him piggyback if they had to. No camping or fishing planned for this trip, just a picnic feast in their favorite place on Earth. And they’d raise a few toasts to Jeff, one of the lucky ones who came home alive.

Chapter 25

July 30, 1971
            Nick flipped the pages on his desk calendar. The days crawled by. At last, June turned into July and he officially became a “short timer” to all the guys in the department. And then it was July 30, his last day on the job.

The entire crew was gathered in the warehouse for Nick’s farewell. After lunch, Gus made his way to the center of the large room and called for attention.

“Hey, listen up, guys. Your attention here…” Gus waited for quiet. “Today is the last day for our man Nick Shane. Also known as Boots. Also known as Joe College.” An outburst of laughter made Nick blush. “Nick is leaving us to begin his career as a scholarship athlete at the University of Virginia.” Mock ooo’s and ahhh’s filled the room. “So, Nick, all the guys pitched in and got you a going-away present. Something I think you can use.”

Joe Jacoby came from the back of the room carrying a large suitcase decorated with a bright blue bow.

Gus continued. “This Samsonite three-suiter is for you to use in your travels, Nick. Cause you’re a guy who’s going places.”

This was a major speech for Gus Cordeiro, met with applause and cries of “Way to go, Nick. Go get ’em, kid.” Gus wasn’t finished.

“There’s one more thing, Nick. Something I think you’ll like.” Gus motioned with his hand and Dory Bouchka came forward out of the crowd, holding a small package wrapped in colorful paper. Mike shuffled over to join her.

Dory smiled. “Nick, Mike and I thought you might like to have this…to hang on your wall or put on your desk.” She handed the package to Nick. “Go ahead, honey, open it.”

Nick tore away the paper. Inside was a copy of the photo of Mike standing next to Nick’s dad, an eight-by-ten print in a plain black frame. Nick was speechless. He hugged Dory and whispered “thank you” in her ear. He hugged Mike too, which was a little awkward and brought a round of laughter from the crew.

Gus closed the little ceremony. “Nick, you’re fine young man.” His voice thickened, the words coming with difficulty. “It’s been great having you with us. We wish you the best. Now go make us proud.”

Norm Runyon piped up from a nearby table. “Hey, Nick, we got you a cake, too.” He lifted one side, tilting it for Nick to see. It was a large sheet cake with white frosting, decorated with a baseball diamond.

Joe Jacoby called out, “For God’s sake, Norm, don’t drop it.”

Nick went to Gus for one last hug. It had been one hell of a year.

August 2, 1971
            There were last minute errands to run, so Nick borrowed his mom’s car. He’d sold his beloved ’46 Ford convertible, though it broke his heart to do it. The cash would come in handy. He would leave the following day to fly east and begin his Virginia adventure. He cruised along Springs Road in his mom’s gray ’63 Chevy Nova sedan, a list of things to do resting on the seat next to him. Up ahead, a familiar sight came into view. The white City paint truck was parked in the center of the street, thirty or more orange cones diverting traffic away to the right-hand lane. And there was Ralphie Berger, laying down the stencils, preparing to paint a traffic warning, hopefully right-side-up. Joe Jacoby stood next to Ralph. Joe’s pickup was parked at the curb.

Nick couldn’t resist the setup. As he approached the cones, he accelerated and angled a little to the left. The front bumper caught the first cone and sent it tumbling. Then the next cone, and the next… Thirty cones in all went flying. Ralph and Joe stood in shock and horror as they witnessed the carnage. Nick flew past them and continued down Springs Road. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw the two men climb into the pickup, determined to chase down the perpetrator. Nick slowed, pulled over to the right, and stopped.

The pickup came to a screeching stop. Ralph and Joe jumped out of the truck and charged forward, ready to read the riot act—if not do bodily harm—to the driver of the old Chevy sedan. Nick rolled down the window and grinned. The two men stared at him, sputtered for a moment, their mouths wide open.

“Boots! Goddamn it! Joe College! You S.O.B!” And then they doubled over with laughter.

Nick had executed the perfect prank. Thirty traffic cones: a new City of Vallejo record.

Chapter 26

September 13, 1971
            Come September, Nick had found his place and his rhythm in Charlottesville. Fall semester was underway and he was enjoying his classes. He’d moved into the Baseball House, to that tiny cell in the basement. It had one major advantage: the rent was dirt cheap. He’d landed a part time job tending bar at O’Neil’s and the tips were good. Added to the money he’d saved from his city job, he was able to make ends meet. Fall baseball practice was also going well and he believed there was a chance to earn a starting outfield position when spring rolled around.

Yes, he was a long way from home, but he was too busy to be homesick.

It was 3:00 p.m. and practice had been underway for about an hour on a hot and humid day—ninety degrees and ninety percent, a brutal combination. The field was set up for batting practice—a protective tarp spread over the infield, a beat-up batting cage rolled out to home plate, an L-screen set up to protect the batting practice pitcher. One hitter took his cuts while a handful, including Nick, waited to jump in for their swings. Coach Chip Murphy stood to the side of the batting cage, hitting ground balls to the infielders between pitches. Pitchers and catchers were gathered in the bullpen, getting in some work under the watchful eye of Head Coach Jim West. The rest of the squad was arrayed across the outfield, shagging batted balls and relaying them back to the infield.

The coach on the mound, pitching batting practice, was an intense young man from Louisiana, a new addition to the staff. His name was Antoine Thibodaux, and though he preferred to be called Tony, the players immediately dubbed him the Ragin’ Cajun—RC for short.

Sweat poured from RC’s body as he labored in the heat, doing his best to throw strikes for the hitters to rip. He looked around the outfield and saw players in small clusters, talking, laughing, some lounging against the fence, no one interested in hustling after balls driven into the outfield.

They were lollygagging. RC could not tolerate lollygaggers.

He gave a shrill whistle and called everyone in, adding in the strongest terms that they’d damn well better run or there’d be hell to pay. The players double-timed it to the infield and gathered around the pitcher’s mound. RC lit into them with all the fury he could muster.

“Damnit, y’all! You’re loafin’ out there! All y’all! Draggin’ around the outfield, takin’ it easy, half-assin’ the balls back to the infield. Goddamnit, I ain’t gonna stand for it. Remember, ‘you practice the way you play, and you play the way you practice.’ I mean, look at me. I’m dyin’ out here. My arm’s hangin’. But I’m workin’. I’m gettin’ the job done. I may be suckin’ gas, but I’m getting it done. Hell, I’d suck anything—”

With that, a player standing behind RC broke up laughing. The coach spun around to confront the offender.

“Okay, damnit, what’s so damn funny?”

“Oh, sorry, sir. I’m sorry. Nothing’s funny, sir.” The young man could barely maintain composure.

“Now look, we’ah gonna stand here in the sun all day until you tell me what’s so damn funny.” RC was livid.

Seeing no way out, the player caved. “Well, sir…you said you’d suck anything.”

Now four guys on the other side of the circle burst into laughter. The rest did their best to suppress snickers. To his credit, RC knew when he was licked. He couldn’t let himself laugh, but he couldn’t stifle a smile either. He directed one of the catchers to replace him on the mound to finish batting practice and sent everyone else back to their stations, with an admonition to at least show some effort.

Nick soaked it all in and he loved it. These were his kind of guys. Three thousand miles from Vallejo, he was at home.

Chapter 27

September 30, 1971
            It was another warm September day, the sun dodging in and out behind puffy white clouds. Nick relaxed on the steps in front of the Rotunda, the iconic building designed by Thomas Jefferson. Just above him, on a granite pedestal, stood the statue of Jefferson, gazing off into the distance. Nick was a few minutes early to meet his date. He’d showered quickly after a fall practice session, collected his mail, and hurried the few blocks to the campus.

He watched, fascinated, as a crew worked to repair University Avenue, using a paving machine, a massive Barber-Greene 395. He’d never seen one in action. It was an amazing process to watch. A dump truck, the bed raised to forty-five degrees, poured asphalt into a hopper at the front of the machine where a conveyor belt moved it to a large rotating screw that spread and leveled the material. The rear section of the machine smoothed and tamped the asphalt firmly in place as it crept along at a steady pace, eight to ten feet per minute. The result: a perfect strip of pavement, one lane wide. No crew with shovels. No magician named Don with a long-handled rake. No guy named Norm driving a metal-wheeled roller. Just a man in the truck, one controlling the Barber-Greene, and someone to sweep up the excess that collected at the edges.

Progress. Or a job killer. It depended on your point of view.

There were two letters in Nick’s hand. One was from his mom and he opened it first. It was a long, newsy message. The closing lines read, “I’m sending the enclosed article from the Times-Herald. I thought you’d want to know.” The newspaper clipping was from the society page of the Vallejo paper.
  Mr. and Mrs. Branford Foxworth announce the engagement to their daughter, Donna, 
to Dr. Elliot J. Margolis of Seattle, Washington...

            The article provided a few more details, but Nick didn’t read to the end. He looked up to check the progress of the paving job, his thoughts far away.

The second letter was from Gus Cordeiro, short and to the point.

Mike Bouchka passed away on Labor Day. He died in his sleep. They say it was a heart attack.

            Nick let the letters drop from his hands. Tears obscured his vision and he didn’t see Kellen when she came up the steps to stand in front of him.

“Hi, Nick. Hey…what’s up? Why so glum, chum?” Kellen attempted a smile.

“Hi, Kel. Sorry…just some sad news from home.”

Kellen took his face in her hands and kissed each eye in turn, taking away the tears. “Sorry, babe. Want to talk about it?”

“Sure. Let’s get something to eat. Okay?”

“Okay. Anyplace but O’Neil’s. Workin’ there is bad enough without eating there all the time.”

Nick laughed. He stood up and took Kellen’s hand as they descended the steps to street level. “Did I ever tell you about a guy named Mike Bouchka?”

“No. Is he a friend of yours?”

“Yeah…he was. Come on, I’ll tell you all about him.”

They walked away down University Avenue, hand in hand.

Thomas Jefferson never blinked, staring unfazed into the distance. Perhaps he was thinking, Where in the hell are Lewis and Clark? They damn well ought to be back by now. Or maybe it was, I wonder what good ol’ Sally Hemmings is doing tonight? Maybe I’ll stroll down to the slave quarters. Whatever his thoughts, old Tom kept them to himself.

The End


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Street Cred, Chapters 20 - 23...

Chapter 20

February 17, 1971
            Nick had turned the one-car garage into a gym. His mom didn’t mind. Her gray Chevy Nova sat in the driveway, Nick’s old Ford convertible at the curb in front of the house. A weight bench, barbells, and various free weights were stacked and racked around the cement floor of the garage. A bright blue two-inch thick mat provided for floor exercises.

Work every quadrant, top to bottom. Add weight. Add reps. Feel the burn, that good sweet burn.

There was one device not seen in other gyms. A heavy cord hung from a metal eyelet screwed into the ceiling. The cord ended in a large knot, the knot positioned about waist high.

Nick took the weighted bat he’d made, took his stance in an imaginary batters’ box, swung the bat and hit the knot at the end of the cord. The knot flew up and slapped the ceiling, then returned to its original position. Nick took his stance and swung again. Click went the bat against the knot. Whap went the knot against the ceiling. Click-Whap. Again and again.

Weight back, bat back, ready to stride. Quick hands. Quick wrists. Follow through. Balance, balance, balance all the way.

He’d added about eight ounces to the thirty-two-ounce bat by drilling holes in the barrel, melting lead fishing weights in a coffee can on a camp stove, and pouring the lead into the holes. He’d wrapped the barrel with white sports tape and his training tool was ready. Fifty good hard swings, then fifty more. Take a breather, then two more sets of fifty. Another breather, then two more sets. Three hundred swings in total. This was Nick’s regimen, and it worked because he believed in it, believed it developed his swing—added strength, added power, added distance.

Click-Whap. Click-Whap. Ya gotta believe!

Nick knew it was true long before Tug McGraw shouted it in the Mets' locker room.

It wasn’t an original idea. Nick’s dog-eared copy of The Boys of Summer sat on the desk in his bedroom, the chapter where Roger Kahn visits George “Shotgun” Shuba flagged with a bookmark. Shuba used a forty-two-ounce bat, six hundred swings a night, more than Nick could handle. But he was working on it, building up, adding reps.

You want five tools? You want power? Watch this, all you slackers!

Three hundred good, hard, balanced, competitive swings with a forty-ounce bat. Sweat poured from his body. When the weights and the swings were done, time to hit the streets for a run. Sweatpants, a sweatshirt, a rubberized warm-up jacket to protect against the cold and work up a good lather, a towel tucked around his neck. Three, maybe three and a half miles. Every night accounted for. Workouts on even-numbered nights, recovery on the odds.

Gettin’ stronger. Gettin’ ready. Gettin’ ready to play.

Nick only talked to himself when he worked out. Day in, day out, people took him for a quiet, soft-spoken guy. It was only here, in Mom’s garage and out on a run, that he went a little nuts.

Best shape of my life. I’m ready. Are you ready for Nick Shane?

Chapter 21

March 8, 1971
            Weed abatement duty was no picnic. It was wet, cold, nasty work. Wet and cold because of the March weather, nasty because Nick had his suspicions about the stuff they were spraying on vacant lots and fields. Was it hazardous to your health?

Nick and Marty soldiered on, out in the weather except for the days when rain drove them inside. They wore long-johns under their jeans, with several layers above the belt that could be peeled away if the sun came out. They’d been issued rubber boots that covered their pantlegs up to the knee, and rubber gloves to prevent contact with the herbicide. The material needed extended contact with the emerging grass and weeds, at least a day or so, or the rain could wash it away and their work would be wasted. But the rains relented in March, most storms staying well to the north, so they plunged on with their routine. Fill the tank with water from a fire hydrant. Dump in the required sacks of the powdered weed killer. Activate the paddle mechanism in the tank that kept the mixture stirred. Consult their book of maps for the next area to be sprayed. And repeat, again and again.

It was Friday and not a moment too soon. Nick was ready for the weekend. They parked the spray rig in the corporation yard, changed out of their wet clothes in the locker shed, and headed for the parking lot. The tables were reversed tonight: Nick was giving Marty a ride home.

“Nick, can we swing by Sibley’s place? I want to check on something. Only take a minute.”

“Sure. No problem.”

Nick turned left off Georgia Street and into Sibley’s neighborhood. As they approached the house she shared with a roommate, Nick felt Marty tense beside him.

“Sonofabitch! That goddamn—”

Nick turned to Marty. “What? What’s the problem?”

“See that Cadillac parked at the curb? That’s the problem.”

A late-model Caddy sedan, its black paint polished to a high gloss, sat in front of Sibley’s house.

Marty laughed. “She’s forgetting something—I still have the key.” He dangled a house key for Nick to acknowledge.

Marty was out of the car and running for the front door before Nick came to a full stop. He shut off the engine, rolled down the window and leaned back in the seat, too tired to care about Marty’s troubles, whatever they might be. He closed his eyes and relaxed. His eyelids felt heavy.

Sibley’s front door flew open and man ran out onto the front porch, buck naked, struggling to get into a pair of white underpants. He managed to get both feet into the tidy whities and pulled them up to cover his privates. He ran for the Cadillac but found the door locked.

Marty appeared at the front door, his arms overflowing with clothes—what looked like a suit, shirt, sox, and shoes. The guy in the undies took off on a dead run down the sidewalk, turned right at the corner and disappeared. Marty shook the suit jacket, then the pants, letting the contents spill out onto the lawn. He picked up a wallet and threw it onto the roof of the house, followed by a set of keys, then a pair of brown oxfords, first the left, then the right.

Sibley came out onto the porch wearing a short terrycloth robe, tied at the waist. “You’re a bastard, Marty.” Her voice rang down the street for all the neighbors to hear. “A real bastard. I’ll date anybody I want. I’m calling the police. Hear that, Marty? The police.” She spun around and ran back into the house.

Marty opened the passenger door and jumped in. “Let’s go, Nick. Our work here is done.” Now Marty's laughter echoed through the neighborhood.

Nick gunned the mighty V8, popped the clutch and heard the wheels scream as he tore away from the curb. No need to wait around for the police to arrive. He started to ask, So, how are things with Sibley? But Marty was too busy laughing to listen.

Chapter 22

May 7, 1971
            Mike Bouchka’s retirement party was set for early May. He’d made it to full-pension status, thanks to Gus and the entire crew. Gus reserved the large meeting room at Terry’s Restaurant out on Magazine Street, near the freeway. It would be a simple affair—a no-host cocktail hour, dinner, a few speakers, some parting gifts, and old Mike would be on his way. That was the plan.

Nick dressed in his best suit, happy to find it still fit. He thought about a tie, but decided that was too formal. An open-collared button-down shirt would fit the bill.

Cocktail hour was off to a rollicking start, a bar set up on either side of the room, two bartenders busy at each station, mixing drinks, opening bottles. There was a sudden commotion at the door. Nick turned to see Marty enter with Sibley on his arm.

Surprise! They’d made up. Nick recalled the last time he’d seen Sibley and he smiled.

The handsome couple made a grand entrance, though no one was looking at Marty. Sibley wore a form-fitting black cocktail dress, the hem cut just above the knee. The scooped neckline featured her exquisite cleavage. Her accessories included gold earrings and a necklace that Cleopatra would have loved. This was a generous gift on Sibley’s part, because it allowed all the men to look down and say, “Oh my, what a lovely necklace.” Not a man-jack among them could tell you the color of her eyes. (A warm milk-chocolate with gold flecks, by the way.)

It seemed the room had tipped and spilled all the men toward Sibley. Chaos threatened for a moment and Nick was afraid Marty was going to have to punch a few noses. Then Dory Bouchka came to the rescue. She made her way through the crowd, greeted Sibley warmly, took her by the hand and began to introduce her to old friends. Civility was restored.

Nick and Marty found a table and claimed three seats. Nick would sit on Sibley’s left, Marty on her right, thus providing some protection from the guys coming by to admire her necklace.

The waitstaff began to file out of the kitchen, delivering salads to each table. The dinner choices were steak and baked potato, or baked chicken breast and mashed potatoes; steak for the red ticket holders, chicken for the blue. Large bottles wine, both red and white, were delivered to each table, proudly displaying the Italian-Swiss Colony label, courtesy of an anonymous benefactor. It was all good, so long as you liked your steak medium and your chicken dry. As the dinner dishes were taken away and coffee cups refilled, the program got underway, Joe Jacoby acting as master of ceremonies. Joe had several new jokes to share, duly scrubbed so as not to offend sensitive ears. Thanks to cocktail hour and Italian-Swiss Colony’s little old winemaker, the crowd was ready to laugh. Joe did not let them down.

At the head table with Mike and Dory, Nick was surprised to see Mayor Florence Douglas, quite an honor for Mike. Madam Mayor made a few remarks, thanked Mike for his service to the country and the City, then spent ten minutes extolling the wonderfulness of Vallejo. The Director of Public Works (Nick missed his name in Joe’s intro) came to the podium to present Mike with his retirement check. Short and sweet.

Gus rose to a rousing ovation—clapping, foot stomping, hoots and whistles. Again, short and sweet—Gus, as always, a man of few words. He presented Mike with a gold shovel, like those used in groundbreaking ceremonies. And then the gift from the entire crew: round-trip tickets on United Airlines to Chicago so that Mike and Dory could visit Mike’s mother. Nick shook his head in wonder. Mike’s mom, now in her late eighties, was alive and well, living on the South Side.

Now it was time for the keynote. Joe introduced Dory Bouchka to a polite round of applause. A large screen was moved into place and Dory proceeded to present a slide show, photos dating back to Mike’s childhood. No surprise to Nick, Dory was warm and funny, quite poignant at times. The chronology reached their wedding day, and there was Mike in his full-dress Navy uniform, a Chief’s stripes on his arm; and Dory, beautiful in a lacy white gown. Nick saw the young Mike, ramrod straight and full of vigor, and a lump formed in his throat. Life can be cruel to the human body. Dory was nearing the end now, but there was one more slide that Nick was not prepared for. It flashed up on the screen and he caught his breath.

“Nick Shane?” Dory looked around the room until she found him. “There you are. Nick, Mike tells me this is a picture of your dad.”

Nick raised his hand and nodded to Dory. There in the photo were Mike and Nick’s father, Mike holding a pool cue, Dad holding a long-neck bottle of Budweiser, both wearing their American Legion Post 104 caps and grinning at the camera. Nick smiled and blinked back tears.

Dory asked for the projector to be powered down. She had something to say and she commanded their attention.

“There is something Mike and I need to tell you, all of you who worked with him through the years. We know what you did. We know the extra work you took on so that we can stand here today. We know it wasn’t easy, or even fair to all of you. But we will never forget the kindness and love you’ve shown. From the bottom of our hearts, we say Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.”

Dory left the podium and returned to her seat, bathed in silence. Then slowly, a few at a time, people began to stand and clap their hands, until the entire room was standing. The ovation continued for several minutes.

The party wound down slowly. The bartenders had shut down as dinner was being served and most of the wine had been dispatched. And yet folks lingered, reluctant to see the night end.

Nick said his goodbyes and made his way to the parking lot. A heavy case of the blues came over him. He thought about Donna. God, how he wished she was there beside him, holding his hand.

Chapter 23

May 22, 1971
            May 20 marked Nick’s twenty-first birthday. He didn’t feel like celebrating. The blues from the night of Mike’s retirement party clung to him like flypaper. His mom insisted on some sort of observance, some recognition of the milestone, and so she planned a special dinner for the evening of Saturday, May 22. Ella, Nick’s sister, would drive in from San Francisco, and Grady would stop by later in the evening to help blow out the candles.

Lucille Shane shopped at the commissary on the shipyard and brought home a lovely sirloin tip roast. She would whip up her much-admired mashed potatoes with pan gravy, along with a nice green salad, and of course, chocolate devil’s food cake for dessert.

As they finished their cake and coffee, Grady insisted on taking Nick out for one quick drink, now that they were both of legal age and no longer needed their fake ID’s. Grady practically ran to the car. He had something up his sleeve. He even held the door open for Nick, then jumped behind the wheel and made a beeline for the 714 Club, a working-class bar on Benicia Road near the freeway.

Nick nursed his drink at the bar while Grady excused himself to make a call from the pay phone in the back. He returned, took his stool, and grinned at Nick.

“Okay, buddy. I called the not-so-secret number and gave the not-so-secret password. The car from Glen Cove is on the way to pick us up. It’s my treat in honor of your birthday.”

“Ah, Grady…geez…I don’t know man—” Nick hadn’t anticipated this surprise.

“Come on, Nick. Can’t back out now. The car is on the way.” Grady couldn’t suppress a laugh.

A few minutes later, Maisie, the gray-haired black woman who drove the pick-up car for the Glen Cove brothel, stuck her head in the door of the bar. Grady smiled and waved to catch her attention. The boys followed her to the car, an old Chevy sedan that was well known around town. A favorite sport among high school kids was to follow Maisie on her rounds, honking their horns as she loaded customers into the vehicle. Thankfully, there were no followers tonight.

When they arrived at the old mansion, out in the rolling hills surrounded by grazing land, Nick tried to point out the sections along the drive where he and his workmates had performed repairs. But it was a moonless night, no way to admire the work.

They didn’t have to wait long inside. Business was transacted quickly, Nick chose a girl with a nice smile and followed her up the stairs to a private room. It quickly became clear that his heart, among other things, wasn’t into it.

“Mind if we just talk?” Nick was apologetic.

“Sure, honey. It’s your dime.” She flashed that nice smile again.

And talk they did—about life, love, work, plans for the future, favorite movies, books. It turns out the young lady was a fan of Emily Dickinson. She recited two poems from memory—the one that begins, There’s a certain slant of light, / On winter afternoons…, and then her all-time favorite, Ample make this bed / Make this bed with awe… Her eyes were shining as she finished. Nick was touched by her love for the Belle of Amherst.

An hour later, as he made his way back down the stairs, he knew Grady would want a full accounting. Should he make up a good story? Nah. He decided on the plain, unvarnished truth.

They were on their way back to the 714 Club, Maisie at the wheel, when Grady asked the question. “Okay, Nick. Tell me about it. I want a blow-by-blow description.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, pal. Nothing happened.”

“What?” Grady was shocked. “What do you mean ‘nothing happened’?”

“I mean nothing happened. The elevator was down.” Maisie laughed softly.

“Ah, man. No elevator?”

“Nope. Down in the basement. Couldn’t even get to the first floor.” Nick glanced at Maisie and saw her shoulders shaking.

“Wait a minute… Did she push all the buttons?” Grady wasn’t buying Nick’s story.

“Yep. But it was no use. A total power outage.”

Grady mulled it over for a moment. “So…what did you do?”

“We talked. Turns out she’s a big fan of Emily Dickinson. Recited a couple of poems for me.”

“Oh crap. So, I paid for a poetry recital in a cathouse?”

“Hey, don’t feel bad, buddy. It was very nice. I had a great time.”

It was quiet for a minute while Grady thought it over. “You know what? I think we have song here. We’ll call it, “The Elevator Blues.”

Maisie could not contain herself. She burst out laughing. The three of them went to work putting together verses for the song. As they rolled down Benicia Road, the first verse came together with ease:

Down in the basement with those elevator blues
                       Got a power outage, don’t know what to do
                       Pushed all the buttons but it ain’t no use
                      So, I’m stuck in the basement with those elevator blues…

There were more verses, some better than others. They pulled up in front of the 714 Club and finished with a grande fortissimo:


It was a birthday Nick would never forget.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Street Cred, Chapters 16 - 19...

Chapter 16

November 25, 1970
            Nick sat at a long, wooden table and finished his lunch, aware of the conversations around him, paying little attention. Near the wall on the south side of the building, a group was involved in pitching quarters: closest to the wall kept ’em all. Joe Jacoby was cleaning up, winning almost every toss, maintaining a steady stream of comments designed to keep the suckers pitching. At another table, a four-handed game of casino was underway at full volume. The stakes were modest, the passions high.

The Street Department had taken over this warehouse, situated near the waterfront, sometime in the late fifties. The former owner, Levi Strauss, had used it to store raw material. It provided a warm, dry place for the crew to get in out of the weather, eat lunch, play cards, kill time before hitting the bricks. Work on the streets was slow during late fall and winter, especially when the rains came. Major repair projects were on hold. The typical assignments were patching potholes or working with the Parks Department to prune the bare trees that lined neighborhood streets.

It was the day before Thanksgiving and the men were looking forward to a long weekend. Thursday and Friday were paid holidays, one of the perks afforded city workers. Nick would spend the holiday weekend in San Francisco with his mom, sister and brother-in-law. Good food, good wine, lively debates around the dinner table. He had hoped to spend it with Donna, but she’d opted at the last minute to stay in L.A., citing work on a class project that was due. It seemed the distance between them was growing like a foreign weed.

Gus Cordeiro slid onto the bench across the table from Nick.

“So, Joe College…How’s it goin’? Fill me in on the latest.”

Nick laughed. He hadn’t heard the Joe College label in a while. “I think it’s coming together, Gus. I signed the letter of intent early this month, right after I got back from Charlottesville. I start school in August of next year. Turns out the guys at the house where I stayed back there have an empty room. The rent is really cheap, mainly because it’s like a cell in the basement, barely big enough for a bed and desk. But really cheap. And I met somebody who can possibly hook me up with a part-time job tending bar.”

“What?” Gus laughed out loud. “You don’t know anything about tending bar.”

“No big deal. I’ve got a book, I'll do my homework. Besides, it’s a college town. How hard is it to open a bottle of beer?” Nick was serious. He’d already borrowed a book from a friend: The Bartenders Guide—Pour Your Path to Success.

“What do you think of the coaches?”

“I like ’em. And they say the guys that will be back for the ’72 season are a good group. They think they’ll be competitive in the ACC, maybe get a bid for the NCAA tournament. That would be a first for the program. I don’t know, Gus, it all looks good.”

“Good for you, Nick. Just stick with the plan. I want you gone come August of ’71. Got it?” Gus looked around at his crew while Joe Jacoby collected another pocketful of quarters. “You’re gonna be working with the guys on the pier this afternoon. The weather is breaking up. We can get a good start on the job.”

“Question, Gus. Why are we working of the Ryder Street pier? Is that Street Department stuff?”

“It’s a contract thing, kid. Besides, they’re thinking about running the car ferries again, Ryder Street to the shipyard, so the pier is an extension of the street.”

Gus got up and called for attention. “Okay, guys. Break’s over. Let’s get back out there.”

The men wrapped up their fun and games, gathered their lunch pails and headed for the door. Nick hadn’t been to Ryder Street in years. The old pier, built during the World War II boom, ended in a slip where car ferries could dock to unload and load vehicles. Nick and his friends fished there when they were kids.

The sun was beginning to sink in the west, 4:00 p.m. now, dark by 5:15 or thereabouts. The afternoon task had been to rip out and replace cross beam supports under the pier. Old rotted timbers floated in the shallow water while new beams, heavy with creosote, were bolted into place. To aid this task, two flat-bottom skiffs had been rented from the Lemon Street Resort, just up the channel from Ryder Street.

Nick’s job was simple. He was stationed in one of the skiffs, holding it close to a massive piling, passing the necessary tools to the men working under the pier. Old Mike Bouchka sat in the second skiff, about ten feet away, wrapped in a heavy jacket, a black watch cap pulled down over his ears. He was sound asleep.

Nick heard laughter from the deck of the pier, some eight feet above. He looked up to see Norm Runyon and several other men looking down at Mike and laughing. He heard Norm say, “Watch this.” Runyon leaned over the railing holding an eight-pound sledgehammer in his right hand. The hammer would hit the deck of the skiff with a bang and give Mike a good scare. A little harmless fun with the old man. Norm released the hammer and Nick watched in shock as it crashed through the rotted hull of the old boat and disappeared.

Norm got the reaction he was looking for. Mike jolted awake and hollered, “You rotten sonofabitch!” They all watched, frozen, as water started to rush through the hole left by the hammer, the skiff sinking in the muddy Mare Island Strait with Mike aboard.

Nick pushed off the piling, sliding his skiff toward Mike's. He grabbed an oar and jammed it into the shallow water against the muddy bottom, leaning hard until the boats came together. Mike was attempting to stand, the water up to his shins now. Nick reached out and grabbed Mike's jacket with both hands and pulled him in, stumbling, falling into Nick's skiff. For a few seconds, they were face to face, the smell of coffee and onions on Mike's breath, a look of fear and bewilderment in his eyes. Nick struggled to get the old man seated, secure, and then he had the overwhelming urge to punch Norm Runyon in the mouth. He wasn't alone. Voices were raised all over the pier. 

“Goddamn it, Norm!”

“Are you nuts?”

“You trying to kill the old guy?”

It came like thunder from the west end of the pier. Gus Cordeiro had been with a group working on the ferry slip. Now he was running toward Norm Runyon, raging at the top of his lungs. All voices fell silent, in awe of Gus’s fury.

“Runyon! Goddamnit! What in the hell were you thinking? Use your frickin’ head! For God’s sake, man! You’re damn lucky the water is shallow there…”

The tirade went on and on. Nick had never seen Gus so angry. He felt sorry for Norm Runyon, but only for a moment. Norm stood with his head down, hat in hand, mumbling apologies. He had it coming.

Nick rowed the skiff toward the shore, thirty yards away. Several guys came down the bank to help secure the boat and get Mike safely to dry land.

Meanwhile, Gus had regained composure. He directed his men to secure the worksite for the day and then took Mike by the arm, leading him toward a truck parked out on Ryder Street. He would drive Mike home.

Gus’s explosion would become part of department lore, growing louder and longer with each retelling. They would all learn to laugh at Norm’s prank-gone-bad, but it would take a long time.

Chapter 17

December 31, 1970
            Nick and Donna sat on the steps outside Morgan’s apartment, away for the moment from the New Year’s party. The crowd inside swung between raucous laughter and the steady buzz of conversation. The December night air felt good, refreshing. Donna wrapped her coat tightly about her against the chill. She’d be leaving soon to return to L.A., ready to begin a new semester at UCLA. Nick shared his news about Virginia. They paused to listen to the commotion from within the apartment.

“Nick, I’m glad we got to spend time together while I’ve been home. It really was a wonderful Christmas.”

“Yeah, it was. Good times with your family. And mine.” He took her hand in his. “I’m happy for you, Donna…that it’s going so well for you. If anybody deserves it, it’s you.”

She was quiet for a moment. When she spoke, there was a thickness in her voice. “Look, Nick…I know it’s been hard for you. I mean…we’re not a couple like we were before, and I know that’s sad for you. For me too. But it’s the right thing, for both of us.” She looked at him, pleading her case.

It was another dagger to Nick’s heart. Donna was moving on, trying to let him down easy, to soften the blow. The pain got to him and stirred a little anger. His words came without much thought, dripping with sarcasm.

“Donna, this long-distance thing isn’t working. For either of us. I really think we should see other people. I’ll always care for you. My God, you were my first…” And there his voice broke. He couldn’t continue.

The words stung. “Don’t be mean, Nick. That’s not like you. Don’t make what we had cheap. I loved you, and I know you loved me. Can’t we keep that?”

All Nick heard was loved. Past tense.

A loud POP sounded inside the apartment as a Champagne cork flew. Zeke’s voice rose above the noise. “Come on, everybody, fill your glasses.”

Nick stood up. “Should we go back in? It’s almost midnight.”

Donna stood next to him, just as the countdown began.

“Five…four…three…two…one…Happy New Year!”

“Auld Lang Syne” blared from the television set inside, the party singing along.

Donna threw her arms around Nick’s neck and kissed him, long and deep, with a passion he hadn’t felt in months. When she stepped back, her eyes were filled with tears. She took his hand and led him up the stairs, back to the party.

He didn’t know it then, but it was the last time he’d kiss Donna Foxworth.

Chapter 18

January 13, 1971
            The parking lot at Scotty’s was nearly empty on this mid-week evening. Through the plate glass windows of the cafe, Nick saw a handful of customers enjoying the best coffee and doughnuts in town. Grady sat at the far end of the counter on the left side. The bell above the front door rang brightly as Nick entered and made his way to the stool next to his friend.

“Hey, buddy. How’s it goin’?” The waitress approached and Nick ordered a glazed doughnut and a cup of coffee.

“It goes, Nickie, it goes. How’s by you?”

They chatted for a while about life in general—work, the 49ers, the Warriors—then Grady got to the point of their meeting.

“Your message said you had something for me, Nick. What’s up?”

“I got a letter from Jeff, from Vietnam, addressed to both of us. I knew you’d want to read it.” Nick pulled the envelope from the pocket of his jacket and handed it to Grady.

“Wow.” Grady took a few seconds, turning the envelope in his hands, amazed at the cluster of stamps and the detailed return address. He removed the letter and unfolded it. A smile crossed his face as he recognized Jeff’s neat handwriting. He glanced at Nick, then read silently.

Dear Nick and Grady (one letter for two buddies – how efficient),

             Well, here I am, though I’m not supposed to say exactly where. I think this would be a beautiful country if we weren’t blowing it up. Picture a rice paddy the size of several football fields, a lone figure in a broad straw hat plowing the field behind a water buffalo, great blue mountains in the background? Now picture the buffalo dead and bloated, feet in the air, the rice paddy pocked by bomb craters, that lone figure long gone.

Hey, we’re just doing our job. Right?

Our job is called ‘search and destroy,’ though it should be ‘bait and switch.’ We go out on patrol, trying to find the VC or the ARVN, we get our asses caught in an ambush, then we call in air strikes to blow the shit out of ’em. Our kill ratio is great. We get ten of them for every one of us. The problem is, I knew that one. We shared a tent, we shared rations this morning. I knew his parents’ names and he knew mine. Now he’s in a pine box, heading home. Bait and switch.

I don’t know what they’re telling you at home, but we’ve got a term over here that sums it up. FUBAR. Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. If they send me home in a box, I want you to promise to scatter my ashes at Timber Cove. Pinky-swear, okay?

Take care, guys. Say a prayer for me.

Your buddy, Jeff

“Ah shit, Nick. Holy freakin’ shit.” Grady dropped the letter on the counter and blinked back tears. “We should never have let him go. Not in a million years. We should have thrown him in your car and driven his ass to Canada.”

“I know…I know, man. Look, all we can do is pray and hope for the best—”

“It should be me over there. You know that, don’t you? I’m the one that was ready to go. Goddamn it, Nick, just goddamn it.”

The waitress started toward them, a full pot of coffee in hand, ready to refill their cups She read the situation and turned away. Now was not the time for more coffee.

Chapter 19

February 8, 1971
            Wind and rain whipped through the North Bay in February. Nick didn’t mind. His new assignment had him working indoors, for the time being.

Gus Cordeiro had taken on a new task for his crew, partnering with the Vallejo Fire Department on a weed abatement program. The plan was to spray open fields and vacant lots with a combination herbicide and sterilant and thereby eliminate potential grass fires in the dry months. A four-wheel drive truck had been outfitted with a spray system. A large tank in the truck bed fed a spray bar mounted on the front bumper. The spray bar covered a path fifteen feet wide over open ground; it folded in for travel on the streets. A hose-and-nozzle attachment provided for places the bar couldn’t reach.

Through January and February, Nick and his partner worked with the VFD Captain in charge of the project, preparing plat maps that marked the lots and fields to be sprayed. It was good to be warm and dry, working upstairs in Station 21 on Marin Street. But it was too good to last. The plan was to begin spraying as soon as the rains subsided, likely to be early in March.

Marty Nyland was Nick’s partner. A shade under six feet tall, Marty was built like a two-hundred-pound block of granite. In his early thirties now, he was the youngest man in the Street Department, until Nick came along. Marty could charm you with a smile, the twinkle in his eye, and the sense that he was always up to some mischief. Nick liked him immediately.

“Okay, guys. That’s enough for today.” Captain Ferris patted Nick on the back. “We’ll pick up from here tomorrow. We’re almost done with the maps.”

Nick and Marty closed the map books, stored their marking pens, and headed downstairs.

“Hey, Nick. I’ve gotta make a couple of quick stops on the way home. Okay?”

“Sure. No problem, Marty.” Nick’s old Ford was being serviced. Marty had given him a ride to work. “Where are we going?”

“My girlfriend left her wallet at home. I’m gonna pick it up and take it to her at work. The house isn’t far from here.”

“Where does she work?”

Marty smiled. “Remember the bar on Sonoma Boulevard called Shorty’s?”

“Yeah. Topless place, right?”

“Yeah, well now it’s bottomless. Shorty changed the name to Bottoms Up. She works there.”

“Oh…what does she do? Waitress? Tend bar?”

“No. She’s a dancer.”

Nick let that answer hang in the air. He turned to look at his partner, trying to judge the grin on Marty’s face.

Nick followed Marty into Bottoms Up and stood near the door waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. It didn’t take long. The stage for the dancers was built above and behind the backbar and it was well-lit. The club was crowded with guys stopping after work to drink and gawk at the nude dancers. Nick looked up to the stage and his jaw dropped. The girl on stage, a beautiful brunette wearing black stilettos, danced sensuously around a bent-wood chair, using a heart-shaped pillow as a prop. He’d never seen a woman so perfect. Could she be real? Was she a hologram? He felt a hard slap on his arm and turned to see Marty glaring at him.

“You’re drooling, man. Cool your jets.” Marty smiled. Or was it a sneer?

Nick mumbled something in response and turned back to the stage as the song ended. The crowd erupted in applause as the dancer took a quick bow, then slipped on a shirt that had been draped over the chair. She bowed again, picked up a pair of black panties from the chair, and exited to the rear of the stage. Marty gripped Nick’s elbow and led him to the bar. They took stools vacated by customers now heading for the door. Marty signaled the bartender and two bottles of beer quickly appeared.

“Hi, sweetie. Did you bring my wallet?”

Nick turned to see the girl who’d just left the stage. She reached up to plant a quick kiss on Marty’s lips.

“Yeah, babe. Here ya go.” Marty handed the wallet to her. “Sibley, this is my partner Nick. Nick, this is my girl Sibley.”

Nick got up from the stool quickly. “Hi, Sibley. Nicetomeetya.” His tongue felt fat, words ran together. He motioned for the girl to take his stool.

“Thank you, kind sir.” She was even prettier up close than on the stage. “Marty, would you get me a 7-UP, sweetie?” She turned to Nick.  “I’m new here. Just started this week. I’m still trying to get my routine worked out.”

She smiled and Nick felt his knees wobble. If she was fishing for a compliment, Nick was hooked. “Oh, you were great.” His cheeks flushed. “I mean really great.”

She wore a dark blue men’s shirt with a button-down collar and it flashed through Nick’s mind that she was naked under that neatly pressed garment. He reached for his beer and nearly knocked the bottle over. Marty and Sibley laughed.

They chatted for a while, finished their drinks, and said goodbye to Sibley. She headed for a back room to get ready for her next set while Nick and Marty made their way to the door.

“So, what do you think, buddy?” Marty grinned at Nick as they came to the car.

Nick looked at Marty with new appreciation. “Wow!” he said. It was the only word that fit.