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


The Canyon Dinner

5 01 2010

From Durango, we drove through Monument Valley to get to the Grand Canyon.

Jim had secured dinner reservations with an old friend at the El Tovar, a landmark lodge overlooking the Canyon’s South Rim. It would be a chance for me to dust off the blazer with a night of fine dining in store.

Parked outside the El Tovar

Parked outside the El Tovar

Monument Valley was stunning.

“Can’t you just see John Wayne leading the Calvary,” Jim remarked.

We pulled off the road on several occasions to take pictures of the rock formations and mountain backdrops.

And this leg of the trip was the first time we spotted hitch-hikers. It was a sight I was not accustomed to, certainly not around Panama City.

It made me think about Barry, my Berkeley friend. When we were preparing for our renedezvous in New York, Barry had suggested I skip the bus ride and instead hitch-hike to Atlanta.

This idea, of course, seemed preposterous to me, but to Barry, the 60s radical, it was something he had done many times before in his youth. Turns out, the bus ride, with all those convicts in tow, might have been more dangerous.

Jim wasn’t about to stop and offer any hitch-hiker a ride. I was plenty enough company on this trip. We got to the Canyon before sundown and the bellhop at the El Tovar helped us unload the car and showed us to our room. Before dinner, Jim did some shopping at the gift shop, buying a piece of Native American pottery with a price tag that could be a mortgage payment for most folks.

Meanwhile, I was saving what little cash I had for Vegas and sprucing up, back at the room, for dinner.

We met Jim’s friend Tom in the lobby. Tom knew Jim’s annual routine well as the two had met years ago when Tom was a server at the El Tovar. These days, Tom was pretty much in charge of the place and had recently published a book on Grand Canyon National Park.

The three of us had a delightful dinner and great conversation. Tom was originally from Michigan, a stout fellow with a neatly trimmed beard. His overall appearance, sans the beard, reminded me of Syracuse’s famed basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

My intellect seemed to surprise him at first. Jim’s previous travel companions had probably not been as challenging a conversationalist and Tom appeared to appreciate this change.

Tom also seemed surprised that I had given up my newspaper career.

“But your stories were on the front page?,” Tom asked.

Before I could respond, Jim came to my defense, “But, if you’re not alive to read them, it doesn’t matter.”

As usual, Jim was right on the money. He had seen my career at the newspaper come full circle. He knew how tough it was, for me, at the end.

After dinner, which included a tasty entree of duck, we moved into the lounge where some of the park’s workers had just gotten off their shift. Waiting there, was another surprise. Tom introduced me to a young server named Stallone. He was a thin fellow of Hawaiian descent with feminine mannerisms. After a few drinks, Stallone asked me if I cared to step outside.

He wasn’t looking for a fight and neither of us wanted to smoke a cigarette.

“Do you kiss and tell?,” Stallone asked.

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.

Thankful for Dillan

15 12 2009

For Texas, Dallas is that shining city on the hill.

A bold tribute to the Lone Star State’s success in many ways. The city’s sky line is a view to behold and it’s diverse population likes to consider itself a “cut above” that of Houston, Atlanta and most certainly New Orleans.

My brother has called Dallas home for quite some time now. When Jim and I pulled into town, I gave him a call.

We had not been on the best of terms of late and I had come to regret this a great deal.

Younger by a good four years, Keith had matured faster into manhood. He was married and the father of a beautiful baby girl. Courtney, his wife, had recently landed a nice paying job as a public school teacher and the family of three lived in a condominium complex in the Dallas suburbs.

Miss Dillan Kate

My niece

On Thanksgiving Day, Keith and Courtney brought the baby by the hotel where Jim and I were bunking for the night. Jim’s schedule did not allow for much family time on the first stop through Dallas. I would have more time to visit on the way back.

Still, I really wanted to see my niece and Keith graciously accommodated this request. She was walking now and eager to explore.

They named her Dillan Kate, a nod to our Scots-Irish heritage. She was more than a handful these days, rambling around the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, pacifier firmly in place, seeking out stairs to climb and rooms to roam.

I introduced Keith and Courtney to Jim and after a few pleasantries, the old engineer retired upstairs to finish watching the Cowboys game. Jim wasn’t too keen on toddlers.

I, however, couldn’t keep my eyes off Dillan. Her eyes…that face, it jogged my memory something fierce. I had seen that tender look before, decades ago in Central Florida. It was hard to believe my little brother was now a daddy.

I was proud for them.

That night, Jim and I visited the Oak Lawn neighborhood in Downtown Dallas where we had dinner and drinks.

Jim explained that this was the more affluent section of town and we would have no problem striking up conversation at the local watering hole, appropriately enough, called “J.R.’s.”

I really wanted to be with Keith, Courtney and Dillan, but that wasn’t part of the deal. I think they understood, at the very least, I hoped they did.

At J.R.’s, a large Hispanic fellow tried to pick me up. Jim offered little support. Fortunately, I was able to politely deflect his advances and eventually the man left.

“Jim!,” I said intently. “You gotta be a better wing-man!!”

“He wasn’t my type,” he replied.

Later, another man approached us. He was a stout guy, in his early 40s I’d say and very clean cut.

The man bought us three rounds of beer and come to find out he was a military contractor just back from Iraq. Having served his time in the Army, Jim was much more engaged in this conversation.

With a long drive to Amarillo ahead of us, we called it a night early, thanked our newfound contractor friend for the drinks and headed back to the Crowne Plaza.

It was a Thanksgiving with no family around a dinner table. No dad carving turkey. No mom making dressing in the kitchen. No relatives bemoaning the ills of the country.

But the Cowboys were still playing football and I had just seen the next generation of McDonalds.

Much to be thankful for.

Engineering a Road Trip

8 12 2009

Jim picked me up at half past eight on a Wednesday morning. As I would come to find out — Jim was a stickler for schedule.

“You’re going to learn all about engineering on this trip,” he said before setting his in-car computer with the necessary coordinates.

We were driving to Las Vegas and back from Panama City Beach and, yes, there was a daily itinerary.

The first leg of the trip was to Monroe, Louisiana, a place I had visited once before during my sports writing days. And much like its college football team, Monroe is quite depressing.

I was so ready to go that morning that, in the process of loading up the car, I forgot a very important piece of clothing….a heavy winter coat.

Thankfully, Jim came prepared with several coats and jackets. From leather to suede to material I can’t begin to name. Jim had it all covered. And as well he should, seeing how he had made this trip many, many times in the past.

Always at the same time of the year.

The Nissan Murano

Jim had most of what we would see already planned out. Reservations were made and dinner dates set.

My only request was that I see family in Dallas. It had been two long years since I last saw my brother…on his wedding day, in fact.

Keith was a father now. My how time flies.

On the way to Monroe, I tinkered with the I-phone, checking weather, stocks and Facebook. Social networking is a lifeline for so many these days, especially the country’s rising unemployed.

Jim wasn’t sold on Facebook. He scoffed at the idea of “strangers” knowing his daily activities. I found this somewhat amusing considering the fact Jim’s life was so planned out, you really didn’t need Facebook to know where he would be at any given time.

“John was a tappin’ and Gabe was a nappin’,” Jim liked to say.

This being a reference to the previous escort, Gabriel, who accompanied Jim out West last year.

Gabe, according to Jim, slept a good portion of the way. He was your classic hustler. A good looking boy with dark features that knew how to work a pool table.

While Gabe was a napping, John, the nerdy kid from Port St. Joe was a “tappin'” at his new I-phone, an “engenius” gadget that, however so cute, at any time could cause World War III.

John didn’t have Gabe’s stunning beauty, but he did keep up on current events.

At every layover from Florida to Nevada, Jim would have the television tuned to Fox News, a brodcast he felt was very “fair and balanced.”

We watched the news together and I tried hard to agree with Jim, although sometimes we had to “agree to disagree.”  Ultimately, each night we found common ground at that famous, and timeless, watering hole.

The hotel bar.