Archive for January, 2010


Monday, January 18th, 2010

I was sixteen, still full of the excitement of World War II. An intact war-surplus P-38 had been sitting, forsaken by its owner, on the tarmac at the Wilkes-Barre – Scranton airport and had been offered to me for $1,000. Trying to convince my father the fighter could be disassembled and stored in a neighbor’s barn, he asked if “I had my head on straight,” saying it was “a fool’s dream.”  My Dad refused to come up with the money.

Forty-five years later, on the road as a long haul trucker – gathering the information to write 3 ACES – I would visit the air museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and learn that the “piece of junk” my father had ignored was currently worth at least $1 million dollars – whatever its condition. The plane had finally been sold for scrap.

And here I was, about to board a Jet Blue A320 for JFK, 3000 miles away, at the very Burbank, California airfield that had been the birthplace of that fighter plane and thousands like it. The Lockheed plant was now a parking lot.

The Burbank airport is tiny compared to JFK, the personnel folksy, its TSA people even managing smiles.  I stood a moment in the hallway leading to the security check-in, admiring a chiseled bronze statue of Amelia Earhart surrounded by photos of her famous Electra parked before some of the old Lockheed hangars.

Once in the air, we climbed through a filmy layer of pure white clouds to 36,000 feet. Scudding at 460 miles per hour through a clear blue sky, I read for most of the flight, but spent the last two hours in conversation with a student occupying the window seat next to me. Deep into criminal law, he had spread his schoolwork out on the little seat tray before him. He wanted to know what I did, where I was from, what my life had been like – and what I thought of his girlfriend. His questions were sincere, very much in earnest. I did my best at the answers, and he thanked me by saying the conversation had not been like talking to “just another old man.” Those questions of his opened up the age gap in a way I’d never experienced. On the ground at JFK, when we shook hands at the baggage carousel and parted, I felt like I’d just lost a chunk of my past.

Getting off the Air Train and approaching my car in the long-term parking area, a queasy feeling hit me. The weather here very cold during my week in Ojai, something told me my battery was dead. The key went into the ignition switch very carefully…I turned it…and my 1987 Dodge Diplomat roared to life! Then came a sharp rapping on my driver’s side window – a frantic young couple pleading for help: it was their battery that was dead! Half an hour and two jumper cables (in series) later – after one hell of a cranking session – we got their newly bought Chevie running.

An hour later, I was coming off the lower deck of the 59th Street bridge, proceeding west in Manhattan on 60th Street. May I advise Mayor Bloomberg that his 60th Street is an ungodly mess of dips, patches, and thick steel plates?.. Cars double-parked in the middle of the night, buses and taxis converged on me more rudely than ever. West on wider 57th was little better. Relief came only when I emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel and found myself running almost alone on New Jersey 3, west toward Scranton and Tunkhannock, PA and the peace and quiet of the Endless Mountains.

My thoughts drifted back to the two hour ride that morning to the Burbank airport, with Tom and Christine, my hosts for the past week. We’d left their peaceful home in the Ojai Valley bathed in 80 degree sunshine, to climb route 150 along the edge of the Sierra Madre Mountains then descend steeply into Santa Paula (an area setting for the Daniel Day-Lewis movie, THERE WILL BE BLOOD). Those quiet agricultural valleys, framed by leafy, sandy hills had left me partly in another world.

A quick Cheeseburg platter at my favorite diner polished off the transition back to the East Coast. As always, Frankie and Charley (I’ve no idea of their real names) were on duty. “Frankie” sits on a stool as you enter the diner. He escorts you either to a table or the counter. When I indicated the counter he grunted, his face curling in a sour smile. My platter came “up” as though it had been waiting, the Cheeseburg delicious, and “Charley” slithered from the kitchen, waving an empty milkshake glass at the Strawberry phizz machine; it spit a horrible thin stream of rosy liquid into his glass. A dejected look on his puss, he moved off to the empty dining room.  At the register, “Frankie” grunted again, took my money and waved a menu to three wise-guys who, elbowing me aside, had just come up the diner’s brick steps. Yeah, yeah, yeah…I was back in Jersey. But traffic was light and the diner business was hurting.

Four hours later I turned the key in my door and set down my stuff. Just for fun, I unzipped my overnight carry-on bag: I didn’t need the TSA’s pre-printed, stamped tag to tell me what had happened. Those smiley faces at Burbank had dumped the contents, pawed through every smidgeon, then jammed it all back in again. The inspection probably triggered when the metal in my surgically corrected hip and shoulders set the bells a-ringing, which in turn had brought a fierce sweat to the TSA fellow’s brow; combing my frame with his wand, he couldn’t get the bells to stop ringing. (When was that bomb he thought I was carrying going to explode on him!) I’d stuffed the transformer, wires, and cables for my laptop into my overnight bag (along with the mouse and batteries in the toe of one slipper) to make my laptop case lighter to carry. Wonder what kind of a sweat my bag had raised on the forehead of the X-ray techie?…

Well, it’s a changing world, folks. Moving a little too fast for this old man…and maybe way too fast for the poor devils at the Burbank TSA.


Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

From the corner of my eye, driving home New Year’s Eve, I spotted him in the the driving snow…treading the bridge walkway over the ice-filled Susquehanna River…bent into the snowdrops, grizzled, ruddily complected, bed roll strapped above his backpack…not a scene I felt comfortable being a party to from my snug, warm vehicle.

Had I been the victim of some paranormal vision? – a witness to some holiday will-o’-the-wisp?..or some benighted Santa sailing through the Christmas of our town and on into 2010? Bless me, I swear I was perfectly sober…and may I say, completely rational.

In nine years of crossing this nation as a long haul trucker – incidentally gathering information for my novel, 3 ACES – how many lost wanderers had I borne witness to over the million miles I logged? In springtime they would sprout, once again after a winter’s absence, along the highways and byways. And a week or so later you would pass them off as part of the indigenous scenery. But this? – this isolated Santa seeking neither aid nor attention, this apparition bending doggedly onward in a swirl of snowflakes… (more…)


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