Surfin' Scott, Joey and Cameron, ready to hit the surf in Panama City Beach
I’d never asked my parents for much. And they’d certainly obliged.
But, with a weak signal on my cell phone, I placed a call from somewhere in Alabama. My father answered the line.
“I need your help, please,” I said. “Would you be willing to run down to the drug store? I need some aloe. Desperately. And, would you mind putting it in the fridge for me when you get home?
Oh, and also, some Tylenol. One of the big bottles.”
An old Mexican once told us that you can’t almost die – either you’re dead, or your alive; there’s no in between. We laughed. No, there’s definitely a gray area between life and death.
Returning from a weekend at Panama City Beach, struggling for breath, battered and barely able to walk, and badly burned, I was in just such a gray area.
Now Departing: Good Times
A couple of days earlier, I sat for hours in Cameron’s Jeep in the old city parking lot in downtown Douglasville; the top off, doors gone, lounging in the late springtime sun while Cameron completed a court-ordered class that we’ll let him tell you about in greater detail at some later time.
Our destination: a bygone era.
I flipped through the pages of a New Yorker, read some from a book I brought with me, and waited. I watched folks wander up and down the forlorn city sidewalk near the Old Douglas County Courthouse (I capitalize “Old” because, well, that’s what it’s called, according to the turquoise neon sign on the front). Life was good. The next week, I would be starting a new job, helming a weekly newspaper in Dallas after years of working part-time for minimum wage at the daily in Douglas County. I was excited. I would have money – adult money – and health insurance. Paid vacation. My own free-standing executive desk with a large American flag on a pole behind it. The works.
When Cameron emerged from his class, grinning from ear to ear and jogging down the sidewalk to his waiting Jeep, everything was set. It was go time.
The plan was hatched days before. I had to work, Cameron had his court-ordered class that he couldn’t miss – per the terms of his probation – but, Joey having no job and no court-ordered class, was free well before then, as was Surfin’ Scott, who is not to be confused with Pimpin’ Scott, who has been pimpin’ since pimpin’ was pimpin’, which is apparently circa 2003.
Joey and Surfin’ Scott, who along with not being Pimpin’ Scott, also was someone I’d not met but who had heard a great deal about me, left earlier that day for Panama City Beach. Their surfboards stretched between them, occupying the distance between the windshield and back window of Joey’s Camaro, so that it was as though each had their own traveling compartment in the car. In the back was my tent and some camping gear.
The plan was, Joey and Surfin’ Scott would embark early, establish our campsite at St. Andrew’s State Park, and get in some sun and surf while I completed my last day at the Sentinel and Cameron attended his court-ordered class. Then, Cameron and I would leave that afternoon, arriving at Panama City Beach sometime in the small hours of the morning.
We had, in tow, my dad’s old motorcycle trailer and my ‘83 Honda Nighthawk 750 motorcycle, with its purple and black paint scheme that matched the purple and black helmet that I didn’t think I’d wear very much while riding up and down “the Strip.” We’d gone ahead and removed the top and doors to the Jeep, having seen the weather reports for Panama City Beach and determining that we wouldn’t need them anyway. And so, we pulled out of Douglasville with our hair blowing in the wind, our gear in the back and the motorcycle hitched to the rear, heading out for Panama City Beach and the grand adventure that awaited us.
Going to Pieces in Eufaula
As we rode, we kept hearing an ominous “thunk! thunk!” from the rear of the Jeep. Stopping for gas, I inspected the straps securing the motorcycle to the trailer, and found everything to be tight. Must be the wind, we figured, and proceeded on our way.
We motored past the dark windows and quiet front porches of downtown Eufaula, Ala. – one of those towns you pass through and long to live in, with its stately old homes and impressively manicured lawns. On the outskirts of town, as we approached the bridge spanning Lake Eufaula, the source of the “thunk!” at last rendered itself known. With one last mighty “thunk!”, the Jeep lurched, and I looked over my shoulder to see the trailer, with its motorcycle attached, somewhat skipping along behind the Jeep.
Now, for all Cameron’s many faults – and there are many – I’ll give him credit for two distinct areas of skill: he is extremely adept at grooming himself and keeping himself fit, and he is a master at not panicking, even when everyone else is. The picture of Pimpin’ Scott wearing nothing but a McDonald’s bag? Only Cameron could’ve pulled off taking that picture without shrieking and dashing from the room. The heaving a trashcan full of ice water on me as I lay naked and splay-legged in the bathroom floor? Only Cameron kept his eyes on the prize and completed the assault – without shrieking and dashing from the room.
And here, again, Cameron kept his wits about him, deftly navigating the Jeep and, miraculously, the trailer that clung by a single safety chain, not unlike a severed leg still held to the person of its owner by a small strip of sinew, safely to the side of the road. I dashed out into traffic, seized the trailer by its tongue and hauled it in the last few feet after the chain gave way.
The ball itself had come off, still lodged in the socket on the tongue of the trailer. The nut which secured it to the trailer was perhaps mere feet from us, or had been lost some miles back; there was no way of knowing in the dark. Beginning to make plans, Cameron and I took note of the rather astonishing number of dead alligators, flattened across the highway in a rather obvious path, as it seemed they were departing from the marsh on the edge of the lake right along the roadway where we sat and playing gator-Frogger across the road.
We hatched our plan – gators also hatch from eggs – and, securing the latch on the trailer’s tongue with a padlock so as to prevent theft, we sprinted back into down in the Jeep. Surely, we reasoned, there was a Wal-Mart, and lo, a Wal-Mart there was, and blessed be, it was 24-hours. We purchased a new ball, a new adjustable wrench – and a spool of super-strength black duct tape – and rushed back out to the bike and trailer along the highway south of town.
I re-bolted the ball to the Jeep, and we wrapped the nut in duct tape to secure it to the tow bar of the Jeep and prevent the nut from turning, and reattached the trailer, on our way once more, feeling somehow blessed that a potential catastrophe turned out as well as it did.
“We got this,” Cameron said as he brought the Jeep back up to speed and we pressed onward to Panama City Beach.
Into the Panhandle
We knew that the days in Panama City Beach promised to be warm and sunny, but we’d not anticipated the nights would be a kind of cool that would turn nipple-blue freezing when riding at highway speeds in a Jeep with no roof or doors.
I was shaking so bad, I spilled my tin of gas station canned herring down my shirt.
Cameron -- during warmer, sunnier times on that trip
We crossed the state line into Florida, both of us huddled as close as possible to the dashboard, the heat on full-blast and giving very little warmth to the ominous night, without jackets or even a shirt with long sleeves.
I don’t recall the time when we arrived at St. Andrews State Park. It was late. Or rather, early. And dark. We rode softly into the park, past the sleeping canvas tents and dark cars. Along a narrow connecting road, along either side of which was swamp, we heard a familiar sound: “thunk!” Cameron stopped, and I cursed. I snatched the adjustable wrench out of the floorboard of the Jeep (which, being red, had always rather reminded me of my granddaddy’s old Farmall tractor), and leapt out of the raised cab of the all-terrain vehicle.
I landed fine. It was when I took a step that there was a problem. My foot – my left one, where I keep my bad and often-broke ankle – landed rather unevenly on the edge of the pavement. As Cameron would explain later, “I didn’t know what’d happened; Tony was there, then suddenly, he wasn’t.”
I hit the side of the road and rolled helplessly and in agony down the bank into the swamp. I called for help as I tried to drag myself up with handfuls of weeds and sand to no avail. I saw movement in the lights of the Jeep, and Cameron’s silhouette against the side of the vehicle above me. I begged for help out of the tall, moist grasses and weeds, terrified of the alligators, spiders and snakes that no doubt lurked all about me. Above me, Cameron stood and asked, “Are you OK?” not daring to venture further for fear of the alligators, spiders and snakes that no doubt lurked all about me.
I dragged myself up, one handful of dirt and rotten organic matter at a time, out of the swamp and up the bank. I found the wrench in the dark and, on one foot and without a word to Cameron, issued the ball and tow bar a vicious beating. I hopped back to the passenger’s side of the Jeep and pulled myself into a seat. Cameron climbed in beside me.
“What happened?” he asked.
I glowered at him. “I hurt myself,” I said. “Drive.”
My New Surfin’ Acquaintance
We located the campsite and pulled our gear out of the back of the Jeep. I sat in a chair and sought to examine my ankle with a flashlight. Cameron dozed in the Jeep. I have no idea why. Said he wanted to be along or something. The hell with him. I was hurt. I was mad. To hell with all of you.
I finally hopped over and nudged him (probably more like a poke – a violent poke) with my Maglite. He insisted he wasn’t asleep. I told him I didn’t give a fuck, I’m going in the tent and going to sleep.
Surfin' Scott -- a man who was happy to see morning.
We unzipped the tent and found Joey and Surfin’ Scott inside, asleep. As is the custom when two heterosexual men share a sleeping space, Joey was at one end of the tent, which the box said could sleep six or eight people, and Surfin’ Scott was at the other. Both were dead to the world.
I fished my Bowie knife out of my sack and laid down in the tent between Cameron – who quite naturally took the spot alongside Joey – and Surfin’ Scott, whom I’d never actually met. (You must understand that, when nothing separates you and the world put a thin sheet of plastic canvas, and you know that it is an especially dangerous world beyond that canvas, sleeping unarmed is simply a fool-hearted way of passing your slumbering hours.) I clutched my knife to my chest, propped my injured extremity on the sack at my feet, and turned myself off for a few hours.
When I awoke, sunlight was streaming in from the screen skylight at the apex of the tent. Cameron still slumbered next to me, sleeping on his stomach, facing his left, with his hands tucked under his pelvis. Beyond, Joey slept the exact same way. Weird. To my right, Surfin’ Scott’s sleeping bag lay empty – though Surfin’ Scott had not left the building.
I found him balled up in the corner, his knees to his chest, watching me. It was strange. I said, “Mornin’.”
He asked if I was Tony. I told him that I was. He asked me if I was awake. I told him that, yes, I was. He asked if it’d be OK if he stepped past me so he could leave the tent. I said he was welcome to do that, if he so desired.
Turns out, the only stories Cameron and Joey tell about me are the “crazy” ones. The ones about how they found me asleep on a futon one morning, holding a knife in one hand and “The Collected Works of Nietzsche” in the other. The ones about how I ran down on foot an SUV full of frat boys who shouted, “Sherlock Holmes is a faggot!” out the window as they passed me, in my overcoat and hat, smoking a pipe. The ones about how I kept a weapon within reach of every seat in the basement where I lived – a sledge hammer behind the recliner, a tire iron under the couch, a bush blade beside the armchair, and a revolver in the drawer of the desk behind which I sat whenever I had company.
So, when Surfin’ Scott awoke early, eager to hit the early morning tide, he found between himself and the exit a large, sleeping, bearded man, holding a Bowie knife against his breast – a man who kept himself substantially armed, who had no qualms about taking on an SUV full of college kids, who had a tendency to react to disturbances by stabbing and stomping them. And so, he decided to sit perfectly still, and not make a noise, until he was sure it was safe to pass.
As we all awoke and stumbled out into the morning sun, I scratched my furry chest and clawed at the sand that was itching my beard and tried to put weight on my injured ankle. Surfin’ Scott sat on the edge of a picnic table, liberally applying sun block, as the instructions on the bottle told him he should.
“Sun block?” I asked.
“Yeah – you want some?” he said.
“Pussy,” I said, and limped away.
I knew better. But the timing of landing the punch with that word won over my rational side. Sometimes, you do what’s best for you, and sometimes, hell, you just do it for the lulz.Surfin’ Scott, Joey and Cameron, ready to hit the surf in Panama City Beach
Read more in tomorrow’s exciting adventure: Dispatches from the Road: Nearly Dead in Panama City Beach – Part II!