Tag Archives: Joey

The Birds

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Cameron was having a bad day.

Slumped in a chair in Tony’s basement, he laid it all out: he got fussed out at work, was short of funds, and had just had a terrible fight with his girlfriend. To close his day, he decided to take a drive in his Jeep. Driving his Jeep, he said, made him happy. But then…

“’Bam! Bam, bam, bam!’ They were pelting the front and the side of my Jeep like little Kamikazes,” Cameron said as I entered the basement for a night of story-swapping and trip-planning.

“Cameron, what are you talking about?” I asked with great interest.

“It was terrible, Joey: I was out driving, and I saw this massive flock of birds walking around on the ground in someone’s yard off to the left,” he told me. “I thought, ‘man, that’s a lot of birds,’ and, right then, they all at once just took off like a big gray cloud. I thought they were going to fly away, but they didn’t; the whole flock just flew right out into the road.”

“Well, what’d you do?”  I asked.

“I couldn’t do anything. They were everywhere,” he said. “I just kept cringing and driving until I got through it. And then I looked in my rearview mirror and saw all these birds laying in the road. A lot of them were dead, and some were almost dead and were flopping about like fish out of water.”

Cameron with Jeep

Cameron, with his Jeep, during happier days.

“Oh that’s awful!” I said.

“Yeah, I felt really bad,” he confessed. “I still feel really bad, but there was nothing I could do. It was like they were all on a suicide mission.”

The Jeep itself was a mess of feather and smeared bird… I don’t know, bird something. Cameron described in grim detail how he heard them desperately beating against the plastic windows of the Jeep, how they’d hit with such force that he’d had to stop shortly thereafter to squeegee off his windshield and readjust the side-view mirrors.

We had all seen birds fly into a closed window, or a pet parakeet fly into a mirror because of the reflection, but we’d never heard of anything the likes of what Cameron had experienced. If I didn’t know him better I would have sworn he was making it up. The thing about Cameron, though is that he never had to make this stuff up.

Despite Cameron’s unintentional bird massacre, we had convened at Tony’s with a mission to plan our trip to Florida in two weeks, so after getting over the shock of Cameron’s incident we got down to business. We left Tony’s basement that night with the satisfaction that another quick weekend vacation had been planned and the knowledge that at least one flock of birds had been infiltrated by a featherbrained cult leader and led into mass suicide.

A few days passed and by the middle of the week Cameron and I once again found ourselves hanging out at Tony’s. As we entered the door, Tony, who was sitting at his computer to the right of us, turned to face us with a look of contained excitement on his face.

“Cameron,” he began, “what day was it that you hit that flock of birds?” He was almost giddy. And Tony’s not a man who gets giddy. It was a little creepy.

Cedar Waxwing

A cedar waxwing, during happier days.

“Saturday,” Cameron said.

“And what road were you driving on when you hit them?” Tony asked.

“Banks Mill. Why?” a concerned Cameron asked.

“Funny thing happened to me at the office the other day,” Tony said. Tony was working as a reporter for the local daily paper, the Sentinel. “I had just got in for the day, and one of the photographers started talking to one of the other reporters about a ‘bird story.’ So, I asked them about this bird story. Seems someone found a massive collection of dead birds along Banks Mill Road on Saturday. The health department is investigating.”

“Really?” I said, not too surprised. This was at the time that the danger of the West Nile Virus to elderly people was a popular news story in Georgia, because the disease is spread by mosquitoes and if there’s two things Georgia has, it’s peaches and mosquitoes.

“Yeah, well, you know one sign that West Nile may be present in an area is finding birds that have died from being bitten by infected mosquitoes,” Tony said.

“Yeah I’ve heard of that,” Cameron said.  “What about it?”

“Well, you see, when you find a dead bird, you’re supposed to report it to the health department, so that they can check it out to see if the bird died of West Nile or not,” Tony said.  “So, you might could imagine the sheer terror one might face upon finding a total of 19 dead birds in one’s yard.”

“Are you saying that…,” I started before Tony interrupted me.

“I’m saying that when I was at the office today, one of our reporters was checking out a story about someone finding 19 dead cedar waxwings on Banks Mill Road,” Tony said.

We all started laughing.  “It can’t be,” I said.

“When did they find them?” Cameron asked.

“Saturday,” Tony chuckled. “I just searched on the Internet for a picture of a cedar waxwing. Is this the bird that flew into your Jeep, Cameron?”

“Yeah, that’s them.” Cameron started giggling.

“Like I said, when you find one dead bird it’s a scare, but 19 is a crisis,” Tony said. “Someone probably came outside and saw all those dead birds and just freaked the hell out. They’re urging old people and children to stay inside if they live near the area where those birds were found.”

“Did you tell your co-worker that those birds committed suicide into the side of your friend’s vehicle?” I asked, knowing that as mischievous as Tony was that he definitely didn’t tell his coworker.

“I thought about it, but the guy said that the workers had already sent the birds off to the University of Georgia to determine the cause of death,” Tony said with a sadistic grin. “They held a press conference. I guess the autopsy results will come back with blunt force trauma as the cause of death?”

The thought of professional public health workers carefully collecting the massacre in little plastic baggies, marking them and sending them to a laboratory made me smile. The likely reaction of the biologist who would determine that all 19 of these birds sent in from Douglas County had been simply hit by a car made me smile wider.

“So, I killed 19 of those little birds, huh?” Cameron said sadly.

Always the optimist, Tony knew just how to cheer Cameron up. “Yeah, but look on the bright side: you single-handedly caused the largest West Nile virus scare this county has ever seen.”

 

Prologue

Driving to Panama City Beach for our weekend away, stopping for one of the many fill-ups the glorified tractor that is a Jeep requires, we spied something peculiar in the springs inside the front wheel well of Cameron’s vehicle. The three of us knelt beside the Jeep, peering at the grayish mash jammed between the coils.

“No way,” Cameron said.

“Awesome,” I said.

“Heh,” said Tony. “That means it was an even 20.”

 

Note:  While searching online for pictures of cedar waxwings to give an accurate description of the birds for this story, I came across a great many articles depicting the habits of the little gray birds. Cedar waxwings are renowned for their voracious appetite and a tendency to eat fermented fruit and berries. When a bird weighing only a few ounces gets a belly full of fermented berries, well, they have trouble flying in a straight line — or just flying at all. 

According to the state of Georgia’s health department on West Nile testing of birds in 2005: “Cedar waxwings, which are never positive, were the third most frequently submitted bird. This bird usually dies from drunken flying into windows or is found dead from alcohol poisoning from eating fermented berries.”

Maybe Cameron won’t feel so bad when he finds out that the birds were FUI (flying under the influence).

Why Facebook Is Not for Prospective Employers to See

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“Studies have shown that Facebook can be a useful hiring tool. Just a five- to 10-minute perusal of a user’s profile can net more information than a basic personality test. It’s no wonder employers head to the site to check out prospective hires.

“But one problem remains: Many users are now going private, cutting off their profiles from outside viewers. As a result, a new trend has emerged. Employers are reportedly now asking job applicants for Facebook passwords.”
— Reuters

Makes me glad I’m already employed.

Interviewer: I’m looking through your photo albums. Have you ever gone “streaking?”

Ready to go streaking

Cameron, ready to run naked up my driveway.

Me: Yes.
Interviewer: Were you alone?
Me: I was not.
Interviewer: Were you with more than one other person?
Me: I was.
Interviewer: And, was this group comprised of other males?
Me: Mostly.
Interviewer: Uh, was there any, um, physical contact during this incident?
Me: A little – but, of course, eventually they outran me.
Interviewer: I see. And, was law enforcement involved?
Me: Not formally.
Interviewer: OK. So, no arrests?
Me: No convictions.
Interviewer: Ah.
Me: Yeah.
Interviewer: So, tell me about this picture of you and all your friends holding guns.
Me: That was unrelated to the streaking incident.
Interviewer: I’d hoped so. Still, the image makes me wonder what you were up to. It doesn’t appear that you were dressed to go hunting, though you were out in the woods.
Me: We were shooting a microwave oven.
Interviewer: Why?
Me: I’m not real sure. Someone brought it over and said we needed to shoot it. I assumed he thought it had a demon or something.
Interviewer: This didn’t seem odd to you?
Me: Not really. Look, if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s when someone says an inanimate object needs to be shot, you shoot it.
Interviewer: You majored in philosophy in college?
Me: I did.
Interviewer: I see. Well, I’m looking through these vacation photos now, I think. It seems you’re on a cruise.
Me: Yes, we went on one last year. I won it, through a writing contest with Creative Loafing.
Interviewer: Congratulations. But, tell me about these pictures of the naked man in the hot tub.
Me: Oh, awesome! Have you got to the “Caribbean Jesus” picture yet?

Caribbean Jesus

Joey, a.k.a., "Caribbean Jesus."

Interviewer: Not yet… Oh, there it is.
Me: That was great! We cleared the whole deck of the ship!
Interviewer: I’m sure you did. You say you won this trip through a writing contest?
Me: Yeah. It was about a road trip that Caribbean Jesus and I took a few years back. I’m surprised I won – because of the word count limit, I wasn’t even able to talk about the 6-foot-tall lesbian who lived in the closet of the old, dilapidated townhouse where we stayed in Savannah, or about the tiny Asian girl who had the lease and was terrified I would use her toothbrush.
Interviewer: How unfortunate.
Me: I know, right?
Interviewer: Well, sir, thank you for your time. I’m sure we’ll be in touch.
Me: Oh, no – thank you!

Epilogue

Joey, naked, at the top of my driveway: Ah, man, there’s no traffic on Tony’s road!
Cameron, also naked at the top of my driveway: To Douglas Boulevard! <Cameron then disappears into the night.>

Dispatches from the Road: Nearly Dead in Panama City Beach – Part II

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Panama City Beach

Joey, Cameron and Surfin' Scott, making their way up the beach.

(Administrator’s Note: This blog is the second of a two-part series. Be sure to read Dispatches from the Road: Nearly Dead in Panama City Beach — Part I as well.)

It’s morning – God only knows what time in the morning – and we’ve woken up and emerged from our tent into the sunlight, where I’ve given Surfin’ Scott (who wouldn’t leave the tent in the morning because he was scared I’d stab him if he startled me) crap for using sun block, which was a bad idea on my part and a brilliant one on his.

After a breakfast of cold Gwantly hotdogs straight from the cooler, with condiments pilfered from a QuikTrip, we headed to the beach with the surfboards.

I do not surf. It’s not been something I ever wanted to do. I tried skiing once, and didn’t take to it. Surfing is for pretty boys with bleached hair. Like Cameron. And to a lesser extent with the hair thing, Joey.

At St. Andrews State Park near Panama City Beach, Fla., the beach is sheltered from the gulf by a long wall of piled rocks that juts out into the blue water. As the tide races around this barrier, it creates some rather impressive waves for redneck surfers who mostly spend a lot of time lying on the bellies on their surfboards out in the water, talking to each other about how cool they are because they surf but who rarely actually, you know, surf.

Snapshots of Agony – Or, the Coriolis Effect

I had my camera. It was new – my first digital camera – and I’d bought the warranty from Wolf Camera that would replace it, so long as I at least came back with the strap that remained around my wrist as, say, a bull at Pamplona snagged it on a horn as it thundered past me. With a limitless supply of photos on a warranty-protected device, I was becoming quite the little shutterbug. I took the camera out into the water and snapped pictures of Cameron and Joey with their surfboards, then retired the camera back on a towel on the beach and enjoyed the warm salt water, the buoyancy of which felt good against my injured ankle.

It was amusing to watch Cameron and Joey chase waves and try to mount one, jumping up eagerly on their boards as the crest raced past them, leaving them behind.

A weak swimmer, and injured to boot, a stayed fairly close to shore, as Cameron and Joey paddled further out to catch the waves as they lurched from the sea.

Panama City Beach surfing

Joey and Cameron, playing in the waves with their toys.

At last, Cameron caught one. And just like that old adage about a dog who chases cars, he didn’t really know what to do once he had it.

I watched him zip toward me, standing proudly on his board. As he drew closer, it seemed evident that he intended to ride this thing out. He’d take it to Orlando if it’d let him. So, I cut to my left. Cameron, with little control over his board, did the same. I cut right. Cameron did likewise. He drew closer. I zigged, he zigged. I zagged, he zagged. At last, just a few feet from me, he lost all control. Cameron went to my right, and the board passed to my left.

Well, it turns out that surfers are actually tethered to their boards by about a six-foot leash, which fastens to the end of the board and around the ankle of the surfer. And that six-foot leash was doing as it was intended, holding Cameron and his board together, even as it clotheslined me in the surf.

The Coriolis effect describes the circumstances that cause something that is turning to go faster, such as how the water in a bathtub spins into a vortex when you pull the plug, or even how it feels like a car is accelerating when on one of those spiraling highway onramps.

It also applies when you have a surfboard wrapped around your throat.

The leash caught me beneath the chin. I grabbed at it, the way a victim grabs at his attackers garrote, which is to say, futilely. The surfboard swung around, my throat serving as the fulcrum, and lapped me once, then twice. By then, the cord was diminished sufficiently to allow the board to hit me in the face. The board wrapped itself around its own leash, tightening its noose.

The blow knocked me off my feet. Because a surfboard floats, it stayed near the surface. My mass did not; and so the experience was somewhat less like choking and more like hanging, as the board kept my head near the surface and gravity pulled my body down into the weedy depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

At last, struggling for air, the world becoming encased in a black fog around me, I felt something: the bottom! I kicked against it and propelled myself up and backward. A wave caught me, pulling the board and me to a slightly reduced depth. I could stand! I found my feet and pressed them into service, heaved myself out of the water and pulled at the choker around my neck, gasping.

I don’t know what was happening to Cameron during all of this. I presume he was upside down in the water, as close to death as I was. He’d led me to believe no different. But he emerged from the waves just as the sweet salt air at last filled my starving lungs. So, I tried to kill him with his surfboard.

Land, Ho

Back on terra forma, limping, head aching from the merciless sun and temporary lack of oxygen, and my flesh starting to sear, we showered in a bathhouse near our site and planned to hit the town that night.

We were going to make a show of it, too. We’d invested in an order of Jolly Roger flags from a cheap online flag site. The flags they sent – black, sure, and with the skull and crossbones – also had emblazoned around them the legend, “Commitment to Excellence.” Which seemed a very peculiar thing to put on a pirate flag. The site made it right by us, however, sending us a double order of proper pirate flags, and so we had plenty. We placed poles on the running bars of the Jeep, flying a Jolly Roger off one side and, as a conversation starter, a “Commitment to Excellence” flag off the other. We affixed a Jolly Roger to the Nighthawk 750 as well, which I insisted on riding, despite my sprained ankle, because of the hell we went through to get it there after damned near losing it in Eufaula.

Toys

How did we ever have such wonderful toys?

Now, it should be mentioned that none of us can recall what happened to Surfin’ Scott during this part of the trip. I don’t believe he was surfing, it haven grown dark. But, we can say definitively that he was not in the Jeep, nor was he on the motorcycle with me. The very prospect of such a thing would have terrified him beyond his senses.

As the sun set, we hit “the Strip,” driving slow up and down with the other cruisers in heavy traffic. Cameron had, in a stack between his seat and his console, a series of signs on poster board that, like the “Commitment to Excellence” flag, were supposed to be conversation starters.

The signs included, “Honk if You’re Horny,” and “I’m Single and Well-Hung,” which was frankly a bold-faced lie on Cameron’s part, but we’d let him have his fun.

This was before Panama City Beach had become an endless stretch of high-rise condominiums from one side of town to the other. At the time, there was still an active – if rickety – boardwalk and an active college party scene, with a vast nightclub that hosted wet T-shirt contests that never turned out to be worth the cover charge.

Somehow, the signs and honking got noticed, and three girls accepted an impromptu invitation to hop on up into the Jeep. They stood in the backseat, shouting, hollering, holding up Cameron’s “I’m Single and Well-Hung” sign. Cameron and Joey were having the time of their lives, glancing up the girls’ shirts as they partied hard in Cameron’s Jeep.

And then, behind me, a loud voice cut through the bacchanalia: “You in the Jeep! Pull on over.” I glanced in the rearview of my Honda at the lightbar of the Panama City Beach Police cruiser.

Cameron pulled into a lot. I rode a little further down and parked. The girls climbed out of the Jeep and lined up alongside it. The cop gave Joey a lot of grief, it looked like from my safe distance. Finally, he let Joey get out of the Jeep and walk away. With a lack of excitement and concern that kind of startled me, Joey strolled over to my bike and said, “Yeah, Cameron’s going to jail.”

Joey explained that the first problem was the girls, who were not wearing seatbelts. Then, the girls, it turned out, were age 15, 15 and 16. So, any thoughts we had of getting them to come back to our campsite were going to be a problem. Also, Cameron had that whole court-ordered class-thing that he had to attend, and had his name in computers as being someone who had to be good and probably not, you know, cross state lines for an established period of time. So there was that.

We waited to see what might unfold, unable to help Cameron. I hung out to see if I needed to ride Joey back to our campsite, should they impound the Jeep, and Joey waited to see if they’d let him drive it away if Cameron was led away in cuffs. Finally, the cop pulled away – without Cameron – and Joey approached the Jeep. The officer said he would let Cameron off with a warning, if he took the girls back to where he picked them up (why he let Cameron continue to ride around with them at all was perplexing, but I think the officer just didn’t want to deal with the paperwork). Apparently, they were staying in a condo near there. With their parents. Since there weren’t enough seatbelts in the Jeep for everybody, Joey was the odd man out, and the poor lad went from a Jeep with the top off and three cute girls in the back on the Panama City Beach strip to riding down back roads on the bitch seat of a fat man on a Honda.

But, hey, at least we still had our Jolly Roger – and our commitment to excellence.

Words with Friends

While students – and, later, loiterers – at the University of West Georgia, Joey and Cameron devised a game called “Phrases” or “Fragments” or something like that. The idea was, you walk along, having an innocent conversation, until some interloper comes within earshot, at which point the conversation would take a violent turn into the macabre.

“Did you ever get that rash cleared up?” “Nah – doctor said he’d never seen it before. Told me to come back if it started oozing worse.”

Please Leave This Door Closed - Tanks

A helpful sign from the locals posted in the shower facilities at the St. Andrews State Park campground. They were right -- you never know what kind of trouble is on the other side. (Tanks for the advice!)

“…so, after I found the pictures online that Bobby told us about, I was like, there’s no way I’m calling her back, but then I slapped my head and went, the hell I’m not!”

And so forth.

In the bathhouse down the lane from our campsite, Cameron and I retired to shower. (Not in the same stall. Not that he didn’t try.) I was badly burned, practically unable to walk, and pretty severely dehydrated. Also, it appeared someone had taken a shit in my shower stall. Damned Florida.

We spoke until we heard someone else enter the shower area. Then, we turned on the “Statements” or “Sentences” or whatever the hell they call it. In the shape I was in, I somehow utterly missed that Cameron left the shower – and that a stranger had occupied his stall.

Said stranger heard all kinds of strange things. I confessed to killing a hooker. In gruesome detail. And then I spoke about how I felt no different doing it than when I killed my whole family. I speculated how long it’d be until the bodies were discovered. I then told Cameron what I was going to do to him when I got him back to the tent, and that if Joey and Surfin’ Scott had anything to say about it, I swear to God, they’d end up just like that dead hooker, so help me.

The stranger said nothing. Nothing at all. As I collected my bath supplies and noticed that the sandals beneath the door of the stall next to mine were no longer Cameron’s, I chuckled. I didn’t apologize. I didn’t try to explain anything. After all, it’s a dangerous world.

Home at Last

We left about midday, packing up and heading back home.

I reclined as best as I could in the passenger seat of the Jeep, still baking beneath the southern sun, riding for hours on a cloudless day in a car with no roof.

Somewhere near Columbus, afraid that I would soon lose consciousness, I placed a call. I asked for aloe, for acetaminophen, and for peace. And I promised myself, I would never be sunburned again.

Promises are made to be broken.

Dispatches from the Road: Nearly Dead in Panama City Beach – Part I

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Panama City Beach surfing

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.

Panama City Beach

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.

Hallelujah.

“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 in Jeep

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

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!

Dispatches from the Road: Icing the Bear

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Joey in toga

When Joey suddenly wrapped himself in a sheet and yelled "TOGA!", we knew it was all down hill from there.

It was Long Beach, in July 2004, at the Holiday Inn. It was a comfortable hotel, very clean, and the room afforded plenty of space for four young men secure enough in their sexuality to see no wrong in sleeping two to a bed. If you’ve spent literally full days at that point crammed into an ‘89 Bonneville with three other guys, of course, it doesn’t take much for a given space to appear downright roomy by your perspective.

As you entered the room, to your right was a small alcove with a sink and vanity. Just beyond was the door to the shower and toilet. That door open outward, so as not to swing in and hit a person sitting on the toilet. It was a thoughtful design, but that night, as Scott showered and I brushed my teeth, I found its fatal flaw.

See, the gap between the door and the door jamb was just a little too wide. Not so wide you could see through it, but wide enough that the blade of a pocket knife could slip in and have room to work on the latch of the door. So, actually locking the bathroom door was more of a courtesy – a temporary encumbrance to let someone know that the space was occupied more so than any type of actual security measure.

Without giving the observation much thought, I finished brushing my teeth, casually slipped my knife in and jimmied the lock, opened the door, and tossed my plastic cup of ice water over the shower bar.

Scott yelped, and we all had a good laugh.

Unwittingly, however, I’d begun an arms race that would end in a cataclysm that we could not have foreseen when we embarked on our “Slap the Nation” adventure.

Bigger Boards, Bigger Nails

A day passed. Next in the shower was Cameron. Ice water was at hand, but the previous vessel seemed inadequate. A plastic cup has its place, but the room did come with an ice bucket that was just waiting to join the party.

We filled it with ice, then with water, and let it sit while Cameron bathed, doubtlessly dreaming of the strippers and hookers that awaited us in Vegas without much thought to poor Scott, who only hours earlier had stood in his same condition, cold, shivering and alone.

I jimmied the lock, and there we waited, posted by the door, listening for the shower to cut off. Timing was everything. We needed to get the chilled ice water over the curtain rod before the curtain opened and Cameron had space to dodge the onslaught of ice. The water stopped, the door flew open, and the ice water rained on our bleached-blonde friend.

Cameron squealed, and we all had a good laugh.

Knowing Your Victim

Third for assault was Joey. Joey hates beer. We made the mistake of buying beer we hated. Ice bucket, ice, and God-awful beer bought from the cheap liquor store around the corner from the hotel. Perfect.

The venue was different. We didn’t want to wait for Joey to shower; we wanted to get him while he was even more vulnerable than that. We waited until he was on the toilet.

We didn’t have to wait long.

Messed up bathroom

Cameron, surveying the damage after we assaulted Joey in his sanctuary.

The door swung open and we acquired our target. Joey looked at us with puppy-dog eyes, helpless and unassuming. In the blink of an eye, it was over. The grooves of grout along the tile floor became tributaries of bad beer flowing around islands of ice cubes. We thought the room stunk before we drenched him with beer, but there we left him, our poor Joey, good ol’ Joey, awash in beer and his own extremely unpleasant stink.

It was a terrible way to go… to the beach, which we did, like, a few minutes after we busted in on Joey.

Assaulting the Sasquatch

That I was next was not lost on me. It was my fate, set by my own foolish, extemporaneous endeavor to pull a fast one on a friend. I could still see the flimsy plastic cup, cloudily opaque and clanking dully from the ice within, leaving my hand. It turned so gracefully in the air then plummeted, like the nose of a Japanese Zero on a kamikaze dive, first aloft and angled skyward before plunging toward its destiny.

From that point, I knew that every nap, every crap, every second I went un-soaked in ice was borrowed time. Verily, the train was coming, and there I was, bound to the tracks by the ties of my own poor foresight, incapable of seeing how far it still had to go.

I had to shower, but I could shower smart. In the corner of the bathroom was a pile of dirty towels. I retrieved two of these and tied one end together. I then wrapped it over the shower curtain rod and the hook on the back of the bathroom door, and knotted the other end. I then took my dirty boxers and shoved them into the knot, first so that I would have a frame of reference for detecting movement, and second, so the first person to stick their head in the door would immediately get a face full of Tony funk. It was an awesome trap, given what I had to work with. The Vietcong would’ve been proud.

The only other defense mechanism I had was myself. Rotund, hairy – a body only a woman with poor eyesight could love, and even then only in the dark. If they made it through the trap – if the dirty boxers didn’t deter them and the towel-lock didn’t stop them – they would have me to deal with: hairy, wet, naked, and at peace with my commitment to tackle the first poor bastard who came through that door.

I’d but barely begun my shower when they came for me.

The doorknob wiggled. The door opened as far as the towel rope would allow. Cameron had point.

“It’s blocked,” I heard him to say.

“It’s blocked? By what?” someone asked.

“I don’t know – it looks like a towel and his underwear,” Cameron said, sounding uncertain. The psychological presence of the boxers was having its intended effect.

“Well, push,” someone said.

Push? Damn. I knew my trap wouldn’t withstand a, you know, shove. So, as Cameron put his shoulder into the door and barrelled through my defense, I put my Plan B into action, expecting to turn the tables.

Like so many other little ideas I’ve had, it didn’t go as planned.

I flung aside the curtain and threw one foot out of the tub. It hit the floor, and I began to crouch in a sumo wrestler stance. I yelled, “Yokozuma!” I don’t know what it meant, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Over my man parts was but a washcloth. (It was a big hotel-grade washcloth, by the way, for those of you snickering right now. A BIG wash cloth.)

It was at that moment that friction failed me.

First, I saw my foot – the one I’d used to step out of the tub. It was no longer on the floor. It was almost at the same elevation as my head. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I then became aware of the feeling of freefall. The door, the walls, Cameron – everything was getting taller as I fell toward the floor. I saw movement, and looked up to see my washcloth, the only covering I had, as it twirled freely through the air.

Then I landed. The offending foot was behind the toilet. The other was still firmly planted in the bathtub. I was as wide open and exposed as a man can be. Someone screamed. I looked up to see Joey and Scott scrambling to climb over each other, both in full retreat.

Not Cameron. No. He was committed. He looked back at the Scott and Joey and the tangled clump of limbs they’d woven trying to be the first one out of sight of this unexpected, grotesque occurrence. Then Cameron looked at what he was holding.

The plastic cup and ice bucket had given way to the trashcan, filled full of ice and brimming with water, just as the bow and musket had given way to the thermonuclear missile.

Cameron looked once more at me, grimaced, then closed his eyes and steeled himself. This was his duty. The voice in his head reminded him of that sacred creed: “Go big or go home.” Just as my destiny was to be soaked in ice water, so his was to do the soaking. And he’d pulled out all the stops.

He lunged. The spray of ice and water cast a rainbow as they moved, in slow motion, through the air. I called my senses together and began barking orders to my wayward limbs. Feet, together! Hands, grab curtain! Body, duck behind the sheet of vinyl; it’s all that might save you!

Back on my feet, I wrapped myself in the curtain. The water rained down on my shoulders, but the bulk of the ice hit in the curtain and collected harmlessly in the bottom of the tub. Like a refugee rescued from a frozen river, I was wet and cold, yes, but I was alive.

The last thing I saw was the door slamming home as Cameron fled. My towel rope dangled uselessly from the curtain rod, still tied, still with my underwear crammed into the knot. At the end of the rope was the hook from the back of the door. It still had a chunk of the wood from the door attached to it.

Seeking again that familiar false sense of security, I locked the door. I turned the shower to hot, and washed away the ice until I had a place to stand and finish my shower.

It’s over, I told myself. Thank God. Now, there can be peace.

Prologue

Peace was fleeting. The following morning, Joey told us how he awoke that night. Cameron, Joey’s bed buddy, was writhing in his sleep, mumbling. Then he screamed, and began to whimper. Joey woke him enough to calm down and go back to sleep.

One can only imagine what awful trauma Cameron was reliving that night. But we know sleep helps you store things in your long-term memory. It prevents you from forgetting. And since that day, Cameron’s smile has been a little less wide, his laugh a little less loud.

Of course, that could’ve just been the venereal disease we figure he got in Vegas.

Dispatches from the Road: Football, Dirty Feet and the Sign People

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Scott

Don't let this man drive your car. Especially if it's a minivan.

I don’t remember the year precisely, but it was after 2000 and Douglas County High School had made it to the state football playoffs, so that should help narrow it down.

Scott and I were employed by the Douglas County Sentinel – he as a sports writer and I as a… well, I worked on toilets, fixed air conditioners, hauled rock salt and frequently wrote news stories and a regular opinion column. When the Tigers advanced far enough in the playoffs that someone was going to have to drive a ways to see the game, Scott was their boy.

Since he was going to be driving down and getting a hotel room anyway, he was kind enough to extend an invitation to Joey, Cameron and I as well. It sounded like a terrible proposition – drive down to the edge of the South Georgia swamps to watch a high school football game and stay in some backwoods motel in the middle of nowhere. So naturally, we were in.

For the trip, Scott invested in a new stereo. Not new speakers, mind you (or an oil change, tire pressure gauge or any transmission fluid to top it off) – just a new stereo. It folded down from the dashboard of his Saturn, aglow in bright pinks and blues. That it folded down from the dashboard of a Saturn made it conspicuous enough, but then it also had an animated display featuring dolphins dancing and frolicking as the music played. The rims on Scott’s car were not large enough to support such a system, and so it soon refused to fold down properly from the dash until Scott agreed to buy some spinners for the damned thing.

Now, if it’s Scott’s car, Scott insists on driving. He says it’s not a trust thing, but of course it is. Why didn’t Scott drive the Bonneville any further than from the gas pump to the front of the convenience store in the two weeks we spent driving to California and back? Because we couldn’t trust him after he said he couldn’t drive a minivan because it was “too big.” Scott’s style of driving is to avoid lane changes at all costs, preferring instead to tuck in closely behind a semi and all but climb across the hood and grab on to the truck’s rear bumper to pull the car along. He also has a thing about pedals, where he seems to forget precisely which one he is currently pressing, and so “gooses” it a little just to see what the car does. So, you end up with these little jolts of sudden acceleration and brake checks that cannot be attributed to any external factors, like the desire to pass a car or someone riding his ass even as he rides the ass of the tractor trailer in front of you.

We compensated for Scott’s erratic driving by first making our peace with God and ensuring that, unlike the rest of the vehicle, the seatbelts were in good working order. Then we proceeded to distract ourselves by laughing, joking and telling stories all the way from Douglasville to Waycross.

Once there, we found the hotel – a Day’s Inn, I believe it was, and a nice one at that – and checked in. Scott, Joey and Cameron were going to the game. I was going to stay in the room and see how big a dent I could put in a case of beer.

As the game – and Douglas County’s season – drew to a close, the three climbed into the Saturn and filed into the procession of cars departing the stadium. Looking about, Joey was unfamiliar with his surroundings (which, admittedly, isn’t unusual for Joey). He asked Scott if Scott knew where he was going. Scott replied that he did not, but was simply following the cars in front of him.

“Scott, those people probably aren’t going back to our hotel,” Joey said.

So, Scott made a “Scott U-turn.” A Scott U-turn occurs when, instead of turning around, you pull down a random side street and presume that you will be able to circle a block or otherwise complete a series of turns in the same direction that will, geographically speaking, place you facing the opposite direction from that which you were facing before you turned off onto the side street. Successfully completed, you’ll have no idea where the hell you are.

I do not know how they made it back to the hotel, except that Cameron swears they entered a tear in the space-time continuum and actually made it back to the hotel five minutes a full five minutes before they made it back to the hotel.

Since this was going to be their vacation for the year, Joey and Cameron decided to go sightseeing. In Waycross. Surely, they supposed, everything there was to see would be within a brief walk of the Day’s Inn.

When they returned, they had with them some letters that they had found – the kind that are used on those illuminated marquees to advertise one-dollar pints and “Big Macks” (because the people who put up the signs are not paid sufficiently to be concerned with spelling). These letters were all over town, they said, probably owing to the strong storm that had moved through prior to our visit. Deciding that these made novel souvenirs – the ratio, they figured, was that three letters was good for one magnet, seven were the same in value to a T-shirt and one, folded in half with some chewing gum inside was equal to a postcard – Joey and Cameron went back out to find some more.

I stayed in the room, read the Gideons’ Bible and kept working on my beer.

A short time later, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and Joey was there – alone.

“Where’s Cameron?” I asked.

“They got him,” Joey said.

“Who got him?” I asked, figuring Cameron had gotten busted for grabbing letters. Usually, if someone’s going to get arrested, it’s Cameron.

“The sign people,” Joey said.

I was puzzled. “You mean, the people who own the signs, or the police?”

“No, the sign people.”

That moment was the closest I’ve ever come to clocking Joey. It would be ill-advised, because the man is much stronger than he looks, and because he is well-liked and a lot of people would be unhappy to hear that he had been clocked. But when you’ve had a bit to drink, a friend is evidently in danger, and the person giving you information related to said friend’s whereabouts is so terribly ill-suited to the task, it’s normal to feel that you must take action. If you’re me, that action usually involves hitting something squarely on its chin before it can see it coming.

“What sign people?” I asked, growing desperate. The need to sock him was not unlike the need to pee. I tried to ignore it, but the urge just kept getting stronger.

“You know, the sign people,” he said. He looked unconcerned, but he always kind of looked that way. Unless someone was vomiting milk. That usually gets him excited.

In my mind, I was shaking him. I had him down on the walkway outside our room, standing over him, holding him by the shoulders and shaking him violently. The back of his head was bouncing off the concrete, and with each bounce, a stain of red grew ever wider underneath as his skull grew concaved on that side and flesh and hair gave way to the hardened mix of sand, stone and water.

In my person, however, I stood motionless, the door open, looking out into the dark at good ol’ unassuming Joey, who had just seen his best friend taken by the sign people and who was now either in shock or, more likely than not, just wanted to come in and eat a sandwich.

It was then that another figure stepped from the shadows into the narrow square of light from the open hotel room door. This one was tan-skinned and smiling. I couldn’t hit Joey. Joey wasn’t the type of person you punch. Cameron, however, was. So, I hit him.

“Ow! What was that for!?” he said as he stumbled into the room.

“That’s from the sign people,” I said.

That night we cracked open a few beers (not Joey) and made use of the hotel stationary to write a long and detailed letter. The letter was addressed to whomever might find it, and included a narrative, in first person and graphic in detail, of a romance that had allegedly unfolded in this room. The author met a man, a stranger in his early 20s, at the bar across the way. Their conversation began casually enough, but it brought the two to this room, where the author, at 46 years of age, found a sense of “fulfillment” he had never imagined possible. The men made love. Everywhere. There wasn’t a surface that had not been touched by casual, unprotected and anonymous gay sex.

The letter was then placed just behind the framed picture over one of the beds, such that it was unnoticeable until a guest would lie down for the night and notice it, just as they looked up to turn off the lamp beside their bed. There is would be, a small sheet of paper, something that did not belong there, just sticking out from behind the frame. One would reach for it, surely. You could not chance that it might fall free in the night. Besides, human curiosity is a powerful force. It can put men on the moon, or even on top of one another on an autumn evening in the Waycross Day’s Inn.

That done, we then set Joey about walking outside, barefoot, until his feet were black with parking lot grime. We dabbed the soles carefully with a wet paper towel and then, holding Joey upside down, helped him “walk” with his feet to the ceiling. His path led from the bedside to the toilet in the bathroom, and back again. They would not be easily noticed by cleaning staff more concerned with changing sheets and vacuuming the floor than inspecting the ceiling. Who really looks at a ceiling in a hotel, except the guest who finds himself prostrate on the bed, looking at the dirty footprints above and left to assume that some previous guest’s sleepwalking truly needs to be addressed by a professional.

Of course, if that guest would just read the letter, they’d understand that not even the ceiling was sacred.