RIP Old Friend

14 07 2011

My friend Jim is dead.

The crusty ol’ conservative engineer from Arkansas has left this world. There will not be a third road trip to Vegas and back. And his death, at this point, remains a mystery.

I received word a few weeks ago from a mutual friend that Jim had taken his own life. This was shocking news, but it seems Jim had run into some financial difficulties that he was not prepared to combat.

You see, Jim was a proud man. His wealth, gained through hard work and vast knowledge, was slipping away. At 74, he would not transition well into a life of poverty, so he did what he has always done — he took control of the situation and fired up his vintage 1960 Thunderbird one last time inside a closed garage.

I never got to say goodbye.

There has yet to be an obituary published in the local paper. Jim rarely spoke of any family. For the most part he was a loner, married to his work. And with work hard to come by these days, Jim decided to check out.

I’m frustrated that he could not ask for help and reminded of the biblical saying, “Pride cometh before the Fall.”

Our trips through the American Southwest were incredible and first class. Jim spared no expense and said he was taking me along for the ride because he knew that I would appreciate the experience.

He was right. I realize this now more than ever.

Maybe he knew something I didn’t. Maybe he knew time was running out and he wanted to share some wisdom with a young writer. Whatever the case, his passing leaves more questions that will probably never be answered.

One thing is for certain. The man who showed me the Grand Canyon for the first time is gone and there is a big hole left in my heart.

Goodbye Old Friend


Time to Trust

9 02 2010

I’m still kind of surprised the officer pulled us over. It was really nasty outside. Bitter, bitter wind and freezing temperatures. But we did have a Florida license plate — good Ol’ Bay County for all to see.

The officer was of Hispanic descent and in good shape. Hell, he had to be — just to be standing out in these conditions. My sneezing had not gone away. The officer asked for Jim’s license and proof of insurance. Jim had it ready.

Now, I’ll have to admit, I have a lot of respect for men in uniform — and women too for that matter. I’m not sure if this guy lived in Vaughn, but if he did, I sure felt sorry for him.  It was pretty desolate and all. If the economy was puttin’ a hurtin’ on Vegas then it had damn near killed Vaughn.

Downtown Roswell

The officer returned to his patrol car with Jim’s information and I continued to blow boogers into my supply of Kleenex, which were starting to run low. I’m here to tell ya, I felt like Holy Shit. Flagstaff seemed like last month.

As we waited for the officer to return, Jim didn’t seem too put off by the state of affairs. He’d been pulled over before on this trip, he said, but that was in Texas. I wondered what ol’ Gabe did? I doubt his powers of persuasion and cock sure attitude work too well on law enforcement.

“I’ll just pay the fine,” Jim said.

And that’s what he did. When the officer returned he handed Jim a ticket and explained the speeding infraction. He also explained that if Jim wanted to contest this decision that another trip to Vaughn was in store.

“We’ll pay,” Jim said.

To his credit, Jim tried to politely engage the officer in conversation, asking how many inches of snow had fallen the night before.

“About nine,” the officer said. He didn’t want to make small talk and I don’t blame him. It was damn near frigid outside. The wind was blowing sand and sheets of snow across the highway. This officer was a real trooper indeed.

So, we left Vaughn a little lighter in the pocketbook, but grateful to be close to Roswell and the cozy confines of another Holiday Inn Express. The place was like an oasis by the time we finally arrived and thankfully a drug store was not too far down the road. Once we got checked in, Jim drove down to the drug store and bought me a pack of antihistamine. It was a mighty noble thing for him to do. Those kind of drugs aren’t real cheap. They do, however, work and my sneezing began to subside.

I’m sure that made Jim happy. Nobody likes to be around someone sneezing all the time. I remember when I was in grade school and would have those sneezing fits. Mom always said I didn’t know how to blow my nose.

That night we had dinner at the Applebees next door. As usual, Jim headed straight for the bar and, like clockwork, we got top-notch service. We both ordered the chilli and a few rounds of beer. The bartender was a young skinny fellow with a slick, freshly cut head of hair. He asked me for my ID.

“You got to be kidding me,” I said. “It’s back at the hotel. You’re not going to make me go outside again are ya?”

“What year were you born,” he asked me.

I told him and he left to get my beer. And that, my friends, like the speeding ticket in Vaughn, is what we call … Trust.

A Cold Is A Brewing

8 02 2010

The drive back, for the most part, was pretty anti-climatic. We had planned to pass through Sedona before bunking down in Flagstaff for the night.

It was getting colder by the hour. When we got to the hotel in Flagstaff — another Holiday Inn Express — we rested in the room and Jim caught up on his daily dose of Fox News.

Although I was not very keen about getting out that night, Stallone, the young server from the Canyon was in town and wanted to see me again. We decided to meet at a historic hotel in downtown Flagstaff, or as the locals like to say, “Flag.” I can’t recall the exact name of the lodge, but they had a live band playing that night and it was a popular hangout for the college crowd.

Stallone was there with a bunch of his Canyon cohorts. They were lounging on the sofas in the lobby. Stallone informed me he had taken a room for the night. No telling how many people were expected to stay, but I didn’t feel like reliving another late night pow-wow with the Canyon crowd.

So Jim and I had a beer and we snapped some more photos with Stallone and his girlfriends. Stallone was very friendly that night. Sitting on my lap at the bar and all. He was so sweet, but it did make me a little nervous. We were in Arizona after all.

The Drive to Roswell

Jim didn’t want to stick around very long. We had quite a drive ahead of us. Roswell, New Mexico was the next destination and, as usual, Jim had the schedule planned out in precise fashion. The old engineer wanted to see the meteor crater and petrified forest on the way.

Temperatures continued to drop that morning. We left at dawn and it was a blistering seven degrees outside. Who knew Flagstaff got that damn cold?!?

Jim was determined from the start. He pushed hard that day. I remember asking for time just to wolf down the complimentary breakfast that morning. We made it to the meteor crater before they opened the gates. We were the first visitors in line. Jim promptly paid our entry fee and we went inside, looked around, snapped some photos and left. I wondered why the hell we even bothered. It was really just a big hole in the desert.

We spent a little longer in the petrified forest. This was much more sentimental to Jim. His family had taken him here when he was a youngster and he still had a faded yellow picture as proof. A skinny preppy kid, with wavy dark hair, sitting atop the petrified tree.

“They won’t let you do that anymore,” Jim boasted.

Indeed, the park ranger confirmed that we were not to be climbing on the petrified logs. Jim showed the ranger his photograph and she was impressed. What a job those rangers have. Must be fun as hell to come to work everyday.

We watched a short film about the forest and the message was clear — don’t take these rocks home with you. It’s a felony. The film also documented the wildlife in the forest. Coyotes, prairie dogs and such. The only creature we saw that morning, however, was a hungry black crow.

From the petrified forest to Roswell was pure hell. I must have sneezed a hundred times. I’m not kidding. The wind was picking up and snow covered the countryside. I drifted in and out of sleep. Not wanting to be a total bore,  like Gabe had been, I tried to stay awake and talk, but my condition was rapidly deteriorating. Jim realized this and he drove faster. Too fast, in fact.

I woke up and the car was stopped. Jim had pulled off the side of the road. We were in a small town a few hours north of Roswell. Behind us were the flashing lights of the law. Welcome to Vaughn, New Mexico.

Leaving Las Vegas

5 02 2010

We didn’t eat well in Vegas.

I had begun to notice Jim didn’t have much of an appetite. He did, however, like clockwork down a full glass of milk each night. He always ordered it warm. Sometimes Jim would get pissed when the waitress failed to follow his special directions of bringing the milk after dinner.

This happened inside the Sahara’s first floor restaurant. It was a pretty shitty restaurant by Vegas standards. Horrible decor. The only cool thing about the place were these huge photos of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior and Dean Martin plastered across the walls. Dining, as it turned out, was one thing Jim didn’t do first-class in Vegas.

The waitress working the Sahara diner was a shapely number, but she didn’t get our order exactly correct. In her defense, she was not an American. I noticed her accent and features and quickly popped the question.

“Are you Russian?,” I asked.

“No,” she firmly replied. “Romanian.”

So the Romanian took our order but did not stick around for any ideal chit-chat. She seemed way more concerned with cleaning off the nearby tables.

There was a decent amount of people in the restaurant. Some families, a lot of old people and booth full of hipsters laughing and having a good time over pancakes and scrambled eggs. One guy and two girls. All dressed just cute as a button and suddenly I felt jealous. Youth can do that you.

It was during our dinner that night that Jim revealed to me his brush with death some years ago. I can’t remember the exact details, but the condition landed Jim in the hospital and was severe enough for funeral plans to be made.

I had heard a version of this story before. Not from Jim, but from his close friend Holley. Holley is the mother of my ex-lover Warren. She was always there for her friends and, to this day, still is.

“Holley was there at the hospital the whole time,” Jim said.

As we ate, I couldn’t help but glance at the hipster table from time to time. I wondered what they thought. Were they laughing at me? So many times during this trip, I had been mistaken for Jim’s grandson. Jim, however, always made the correction which usually produced a puzzled reaction from the inquisitor. I’m sure he took it as an insult. Bill, the bellman, never asked. He knew this routine all too well.

When we finished our meal, Jim downed his glass of milk and we made our way to the cash register where an older black woman was ringing up the tickets. Unlike our imported waitress, this employee had a name tag on. Oddly enough, I can’t remember her name, but I do recall her home state of Arkansas, which was also displayed on the name tag.

Jim, also an Arkansas native, struck up a friendly chat with the woman, who, like Bill, remembered him from his annual visits. She was very polite and smiled at me. When we left, Jim made a crack about her wig.

“Bless her heart,” he said. “Got that wig on.”

I guess Jim could make that crack and not feel guilty. Takes one to know one.

“That’s why I keep coming back,” he said, turning serious again. “They make you feel like family here. You really get to know these people.”

That was the case as Bill came up to the room the next morning to help us to the car. We really didn’t need Bill’s help, but Jim wanted it. I was more than capable of pushing the cart down, but instead, Jim insisted on letting Bill do it.

So, together we loaded our bags onto the cart and Bill pushed it through the hall to the elevator and down through the lobby to our car. Once we were loaded up, Jim and Bill hugged and said their goodbyes. Bill seemed happy with the tip and he turned and shook my hand.

“Hope to see you again next year young fellow,” he said.

“Me too,” I replied.

The Author, Bill and Jim

KA = Peace

3 02 2010

On the way to the show our entourage turned into a herd. There was a funny moment on the escalator when a man got one of his shoelaces caught in the tracks. This caused a minor commotion, but most people just casually scooted by and continued their march into the casino.

One fella, a lumberin man dressed in suit and tie and holding the hand of a pretty young woman, commented on the situation.

“Sorry bud, if I had my knife, I’d cut you loose, but they took it at the airport,” he said before muttering under his breathe in my direction, “Tie your fuckin’ shoelaces.”

The closer we got to the theater the better the eye candy and I was glad to be wearing my glasses this time out. It had been a while since I returned a curious glance and outside the theater there was quite a few lookers.

As is the case with these Cirque shows, the experience begins as soon as you hand over your ticket. Getting to your seat is half the fun and thanks to Jim, we had really good seats.

“First class, Tough,” Jim reminded me, “It’s the only way to go.”

For this show, the theater was crafted into a ship. One of those colonial types with towering masts and dark brown wood paneling. As we proceeded to make our way down to the front, center section just a few rows from the stage, an usher stopped us and asked for our tickets.

He was dressed in a gladiator’s costume with a lot of fur and a painted face and he made a wisecrack about Jim’s leather jacket.

And then he turned to me, looked me up and down, and said…

“Argyle always works.”

Having been fashion critiqued, we made it to our seats and waited for the on-stage theatrics to begin. It wasn’t a sold-out show, not by any stretch. This was a week night and Vegas was hurting.

The seats to my immediate left were occupied, however, by a lesbian couple from Wisconsin. A softball coach and a school teacher and I enjoyed chatting them up.

They knew about Panama City because the school teacher, turns out, was also a motorcycle enthusiast and had been to a rally on the Beach before. Small world.

I have never been to Wisconsin, but I knew enough about the Green Bay Packers to further the conversation. Jim, sitting on my right, said hello to the gals, but that was it for him. He was ready for the show.

The lights dimmed and soon we sat in marvel at the Cirque. These actors were true performers, physical specimens indeed and many displayed unbelievable athletic moves.

It’s hard to describe what we saw that night. People were dancing, sparring, running, jumping and swinging. It wasn’t in 3-D. It wasn’t animation or a game with rules and scores. It was better. It was real and it was amazing!

Without a doubt, the Cirque was a major highlight of my trip with Jim and symbolic in many ways. Tomorrow we would began the long drive home, back to Panama City.  I was glued to my i-phone as we left the theater, tweeting about the entire night.

“KA had a peace message,” I typed to my Facebook friends.

Minutes later, as we sat on the monorail and puttered along the Strip, my inbox screen lit up with an email from a long forgotten address.

“Yes, it did,” it read. “Good to see you again.”

To this day I have no clue — no earthly idea — who sent that email.

Capable Shoulders

Here we come Vegas!

20 01 2010

We left for Las Vegas early the next morning. I did not bore Jim with the details of my Canyon excursion with Stallone. It really wasn’t that enlightening.

We loaded up the car ourselves and paused briefly for coffee in the lobby and I dropped a few postcards in the mail.

The Hoover Dam was our next stop and it would be a special one. Jim, the engineer, marveled at this true testament to American might. We both took a lot of pictures.

Dam Right

“You couldn’t build this today, with all the environmentalists,” he noted as we walked through the inner-workings of the Dam.

The Dam was built during the Great Depression and although it was not in my lifetime, the Great Depression felt very real. To construct this monster wall, the Colorado River was diverted. It was sheer power.

Many men lost their lives during the project. Many others were provided work and in turn were able to provide for their suffering families. It was a government program.

During our visit, Lake Mead was nearing a record low. Water is still a major commodity in the desert and ‘Bling-Bling’ Vegas requires a lot of it.

From the Dam, we made the short drive to Vegas, which would be our turning around point. Jim didn’t care to go any further West, despite the allure of California.

That was fine with me. I had visited the Golden State several times before. On my last trip to Los Angeles, I almost missed my return flight, having skipped out on a journalism convention and gotten bogged down in the  West Hollywood club scene.

Fast forward a few years and I was about to make my first-ever visit to Las Vegas…Sin City. Temptation was everywhere. Gambling, hot girls, muscle studs, booze, drugs, tattoo parlors…the works.

We would stay two nights at The Sahara. It’s an older casino, but still an anchor on The Strip. Jim had been coming here for decades and was on a first-name basis with many of the staff.

Bill, the bellhop, gave Jim a big hug and warm greeting when we arrived. A black man from Mississippi, Bill was close to Jim in age and you could tell they had a special bond. Jim’s arrival seemed to boost Bill’s spirits, although he was quick to bemoan the local economy.

“They’re dealing 50-cent blackjack in some of these casinos now,” Bill said.

Once settled in the room, Jim handed me a twenty dollar bill and told me to have fun gambling. I held my own on the blackjack table for a few hours and disciplined myself to leave with money in my pocket.

Just walking through the casino was entertainment enough. The rodeo was coming to town and the Strip was beginning to take on a decidedly Brokeback scene. Toby “I Should’ve Been a Cowboy” Keith was scheduled to perform that week.

Wanting to make the most of our one full day in Vegas, we retired early that first night. As we bunked down for the night, Jim asked me about a trip to Key West with R.C. and Bob — a trip I had made about four years ago. R.C. and Bob, God rest their souls, are no longer with us.

“I’ve never been to Key West,” Jim revealed.

“It’s nice,” I replied. “A lot different than Miami…you’d like it.”

“I’m sure I would,” Jim said.

On that fateful drive to Key West, I remember R.C., a jolly man who could pound vodkas with the best of them, describing South Florida as “God’s waiting room.”

I got the feeling Jim wasn’t ready to make that trip just yet. No sir. Vegas was on deck.

And we were ready.

Diamond Belle Tough

29 12 2009

We spent two nights in Durango. The General Palmer Hotel was located between the train station and the Diamond Belle Saloon — Jim had it all planned perfectly.

The Diamond Herself

The saloon was quite a treat. Bartenders dressed like something out of ‘Deadwood’ with garter belts wrapped around their arms. We were treated very good.

“Like Kings!,” Gabe chimed in.

I had spoken to Gabe last week about the trip. It was our first conversation since Jim and I returned.

We talked briefly at the Fiesta Room Downtown, ‘comparing notes’ as they say.

The Fiesta Room is no Diamond Belle — two starkly contrasting settings.

At the Diamond Belle on a Saturday night, patrons could hear bluegrass sounds from a local band and swap traveling stories with others who are “just passing through.”

In this intimate setting, you’d get a blast of cold weather when the doors flung open. On Friday night the college kids packed in and because of the train ride the next morning, we didn’t stay around very long after they arrived.

But on Saturday night, with the fiddle striking just the right chords, Jim didn’t want to leave.

Truth be told, I wasn’t in the best of moods. Tech had lost that night — to Georgia of all teams. I don’t know why I had become such a big Tech fan, maybe it was out of kinship for my fellow nerds.

Tech had a damn good football team in the fall of 2009, but its defense in the Georgia game was piss poor. When we first saddled up to the bar at the Diamond Belle, I had overheard some of the regulars talking numbers and it reminded me of my college days.

Gambling is still very popular among the young males, especially in the West, where Vegas remains an outpost for those who seek to engage in games of risk and chance.

The fellas at the bar chiefly talked pro ball, but the Tech-Georgia game was on their radar.

Jim remarked about how he had been accepted at Tech, but opted to stay in Arkansas for his formal schooling. He said he couldn’t envision himself studying much in Atlanta.

I didn’t study much at Troy, but somehow came away with a degree.

“You’re going to get a Master’s in Social Studies on this trip,” Jim chimed in.

Jim hit the bottle hard on our last night in Durango, but he still made it up the stairs at the General Palmer on his own power. Considering how steep those stairs were, this was no small feat.

That night, before we called it lights out, Jim gave me a nickname.

“Well, Tough,” he said. “We’re headed for the Canyon tomorrow.”

Tough was much better than Ruined and I was pleased.

Back at the Fiesta, the subject of Durango wasn’t broached with Gabe. Instead, we talked about the Canyon and its dry season.

The Canyon was were I would be set free to become one with nature and the park people.

Time to venture out on my own. It would be a challenge, like those summer streets in Queens, only colder and without as many means. It was a challenge that I needed to prove to myself.

Was I really ‘tough’ enough?

Chugging Along the River of Lost Souls

23 12 2009

Was Durango the high point of the trip? Jim said it would be and elevation-wise he was probably right. We took a narrow gauge railroad into the Rockies. Jim had made reservations in the first class parlor, which was the final car on the line.
Those afforded this luxury were granted access to a full-time attendant, a stunning view of the San Juan forest and, most importantly, comfort.

Gabe did not make this trip.

“Slept right through it,” Jim lashed out in disgust.

Was Gabe really sleeping back there at the cozy General Palmer Hotel? Probably not, but who cares.

Being the good chap, I joined Jim for the train ride.  Inside the first-class car there were a wide variety of people:

A young blonde female attendant, a hippie couple from California and an uptight school teacher and his ethnic father from Chicago, who seemed to be Polish. The school teacher was a handsome young man who taught English in the Durango school system and the hippies were quick to question him on his reading list.

Jim did most of the talking to the hippies. I remained quiet, intent on the scenes outside as we chugged into the mountains. This was a steam engine model. Big, strong men shoveled coal into the train’s tummy and away we went, up to 9,000-feet.

Narrow Gauge Journey

The tracks followed along the San Juan River, or as our not-so-perky attendant noted, the “River of Lost Souls.”

It was a fascinating river to follow. The water flowing against us as we climbed. I took a lot of pictures and shot some video too. There was an observation car and there people jostled for position, hoping to capture that perfect picture.

It was quite cold outside the parlor car and soon we made it into snow covered territory. During the summer months, with tourism season in full steam, the train would make it all the way to Silverton, an old mining town.

We chugged about half way to Silverton and stopped inside a canyon for lunch. Jim bought us hot dogs and bloody marys and after we ate, the conductor granted everyone a few minutes to explore our surroundings.

People began to scatter in every direction. Jim took a picture of me in front of the train and then headed back inside for the warmth of the parlor car. He encouraged me to go ahead and look around, the train would let us know when it was time to go.

“Trust me, you don’t want to be left up here,” the attendant said.

It was cold indeed, even with the sun shining. I was bundled pretty good, down to my freshly purchased steel-toe boats. Those boots, just one month prior had been soaked in Florida marshes and now they were getting a workout in the Colorado mountains.

The river was frozen over in parts and its rocky perimeter made it difficult to walk — or was it those damned boots? Whatever the case, my right ankle would be sore for a few days to come.

But it was worth it. Beautiful country. Images that stoke patriotism and pride in one’s country. Images I shall not soon forget.

When I climbed back into the parlor car, Jim remarked at how red my face was.

“I did a lot of breathing,” I said.

And introspection.