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.
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.
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.
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.