Follows a narrative in which the author is mooned by pretty young women, ponders the meaning of life, and remembers a dear and departed friend.
Once I drove cross-country to California to see a man named Ernie Reda. It was reported in Ripley’s Believe it or Not that Ernie had the largest cross collection in the world.
A publisher asked me to write a book called The Art of the Cross. A photographer came with me to photograph Ernie’s collection.
The book, mostly photographic and with about 25,000 words from me, would feature unusual and beautiful crosses worldwide. It would include not only the crosses in private collections like Ernie’s, but also Christian crosses in churches around the word.
My credentials for writing such a book were thin. I was then vaguely a Graham Greene Catholic, with a list of articles and with one impressive book I had published. I had also written a book under a pen name on male infidelity, hardly Christian material. But the book on the cross was not to be a Christian book, but a secular one, and my lack of credentials did not discourage my publisher, who thought I could research and write about anything (and maybe I can). It also did not discourage Ernie, who became my friend.
The story of Ernie and the book that never was printed will wait for another day. The important thing for what I am about to write now is that I met a certain reverend at a “Conference on the Cross,” held at Cumberland College.
This reverend made Christian crosses. He started doing this after the death of his first son. The son, a young minister who took after his father, climbed on top of his new church to change the steeple, a cross, on a clear day, and was killed by a bolt of lightning – literally a bolt out of the blue.
I never asked the reverend why he made crosses. I wanted to, but it seemed too personal. Also I thought I understood why.
Crosses have been painted and made by artists seeking meaning. Jung describes the cross as one of our most powerful symbols, even predating Christianity. Prisoners of war have hewn crosses out of rock. Penitents have knelt before crosses countless times and prayed for forgiveness or miracles. If you are a Christian, you believe our savior died on the cross. If a post-modern hippie, you might wear a peace symbol, which is composed of crosses, or an even an ankh. Prisoners in jail have compacted Camel cigarette packs into crosses. Poverty stricken Mexicans have made colorful crosses of the saints and the daily lives of their village (I have some of these hanging in my house and consider them my favorite type of cross).
In the tradition of most cross makers, the reverend, I believe, was casting the bones, working his way through life’s mysteries, particularly the death of his son, by making crosses with his hands and with tools, and while trying to make sense of things hard to make sense of in this world (or maybe the next, if there is one).
Like Native American medicine men casting the bones, the cross makers were trying to figure things out and make order of life, and that’s what writer’s do with words. And that is what I am going to do now about my friend Mitch by casting new words.
Mitch and I almost died in1963. Maybe in alternate universe, we did.
Through his father, Mitch had come to own a Pontiac. The Pontiac was not a new car, I think, but it was a recent used car, and in the terminology of those times it was a “cool” car.
One date night, my high school sweetheart Ophelia (because I have never dated an Ophelia) and I were double dating with Mitch and (we will call her) Betty. There had been a light rain. We were taking Betty home after a long date. It was approaching midnight.
In Mitch’s new chariot, we were cruising Highland and Patricia Avenue, one in the same linking Clearwater and Dunedin, along which my father had built a string of houses.
In the front seat, Betty and Mitch were arguing. I never knew if they were serious when arguing, or if Mitch and Betty were jokingly imitating the notorious bickering between his father and mother, who would shortly be divorced. The argument that night seemed particularly heated, but Ophelia and I, seated in the backseat and 17 or 18, were not paying attention, so I don’t know what role, if any, their fight played in what happened.
A slow car in front of Mitch gave him a chance to display his new Pontiac’s horsepower, which if I recall correctly was close to 400. He slammed down the accelerator. We were pushed back in our seats, and the engine roared simultaneously.
His car promptly spun and swerved off the road and headed directly for a house.
“Hold on!” I screamed to Ophelia, put her on my lap with one hand around her, braced my feet to the floor of the car, and put one hand to the roof. I probably saved her from flying forward to serious injury and possibly even death. It was the least I could do.
Inside the house, some older and wiser citizens were playing cards with their guests. Mitch’s Pontiac was slowed, because it glanced off one after the other of the guests’ parked cars. In the process, Mitch’s car tossed like a small boat at sea during a hurricane, while inside the car we tossed with it.
The house had an old-fashioned two-car garage; that is one with a pillar between two garage doors. The final resting place of Mitch’s new Pontiac was where the pillar had stood before the house came down on his hood. Car totaled.
Astounded card players emerged from the front door and garage of the house. A man said, “Look what you’ve done to my house!”
My recollection is that Mitch jumped out of his car, pounded his fist on the hood of his wrecked car in anger, and replied: “Look what your house did to my car!” or something like that.
I don’t know what happened after that because the rapidly arriving ambulance took me to the hospital to Mease Hospital to x-ray my back.
I hurt my back so badly holding onto Ophelia that it required hot baths and time to heal. Thus it was some days before I arrived one evening at the gas station owned by Mitch’s father where Mitch was forced to pump gas five weeknights every week. This was a place that I soon hung around almost every night until graduation.
Mitch had news for me. Bad news.
He was tall, six feet or so, whereas I have struggled not to shrink lower than 5 foot 7 inches. He was handsome at 18 or 19, I suspect, but am not a good judge of a man’s looks. He was thin, hardly ever going over 165, got no exercise and ate whatever he wanted, while I have exercised in superhuman proportions and constantly dieted to try to unsuccessfully reach that weight again all my adult life. He was a freshman at St. Petersburg Junior College, while I was a senior at Clearwater High. He smoked, drank, played cards, skipped school, and misbehaved, and was in that way a bad influence on me (or I was on him) (or we were on each other).
After the gas station was closed and the lights were off, we drank his father’s beer, and Mitch blurted out that Betty had broken up with him. He suddenly broke down and cried.
“Try to get Betty back,” I suggested.
“It’s no use,” he said.
(My recollection is blurry here, but I think I held him for consolation, which would make him one of two men I held for consolation. The other was my father.)
“They’ll be someone else,” I assured him, and there would be a fine wife, a good woman in due time. He would marry long before me, and she was (and I am certain still is) a wonderful woman.
But Mitch didn’t know that then. Betty was, at that time, the love of Mitch’s life, probably his first love, and we all know that first love is the truest and most passionate – at least for half of the couple. Mitch lost her, I think, because of the accident and her parents not wanting her to ride with Mitch. I believe this left a bittersweet mark on Mitch that helps explain a lot of his life afterwards.
I saw Mitch last briefly in the 1980s. I was driving across the Courtney Campbell Causeway toward Tampa and points beyond after visiting my parents when a car shot past me going about 25 miles over the speed limit. The speeding car caught the next light, and when I stopped I looked over to see who was so foolish as to drive at that speed, it was Mitch, late for work.
We stopped and chatted at Ben T. Davis Beach, making him even later for work.
He told me where he worked in Tampa selling used cars. I came to the car lot shortly thereafter to see him, but he wasn’t there. No one would tell me where he went or why he wasn’t there. I had no idea if he was fired or quit. I tried to get his phone number, but couldn’t because, like mine, it was unlisted and unpublished. He had also, like me, moved. I thought, well, he knows where I work, which was more than I knew about him. I thought he would show up at work or call me there.
I drove to Clearwater on a conservation mission on February 29, 2012. I turned off of Gulf-to-Bay onto Court Street. I don’t go to Clearwater much any more except to see old friends or my aunt.
Alongside my car was an older model car containing four girls, who were probably teenagers. If it was the 1960s and Mitch was with me, we would have been striking up a conversation those girls (despite Ophelia and Betty).
You could tell that the young ladies were having a good time. They were moving about and dancing in their seats while on their way to Clearwater Beach. Nothing had changed in five decades. Young people were headed to beach to have “a good time.”
The car with the four girls got behind me on Court Street and started beeping its horn. I shrugged not knowing what the beeping was about.
Nearer the courthouse, where I was bound, the car passed me with the horn still beeping, and when I looked, I saw hanging out three of the four car windows the bare behinds of three teenage women.
I was being mooned.
I haven’t laughed so hard in a long, long time. I think the last time I laughed so hard was watching the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Being mooned sent me back to the times when we, including this young fool, used to moon people going along Gulf-to-Bay from Mitch’s gas station.
On returning home, I went on-line because I was going to find Mitch no matter what and found this instead: born August 27,1945, died September 23, 2009, or so it says on the Internet. I presume this is true – dead at 64 years old.
I have reached the stage where I find more deaths among friends than births. This one hit me hard because I always thought I’d go back and catch-up with Mitch.
On the Internet, a few other entries about Mitch, but no cause of death. No history of his life. No obituary. Nothing.
Here is something to remember Mitch by.
One day in the 1975, I drove to Southern Discount Company, located then on Armenia in Tampa. I came on a day without classes at USF.
In college, I was out of place because I was considerably older than the students. I had been drafted; Mitch had been spared. I had gone to Vietnam; Mitch had gotten married and had a son. I spent six years away from home after the war, half of it in Europe, a bunch in Chicago. Mitch spent the whole time in Clearwater.
The war, dissipation, and bad relationships had taken a lot out of me; in fact, I was no longer myself - but someone altered.
Mitch was married with a child and worked in an office full of secretaries. I went to school with pretty and handsome young aliens who were ten to eleven years younger than me and with whom I had little in common except humanity. Nothing had yet died in their lives.
My friend Mitch managed that loan company. I have no idea how well or poorly. I used his copier to copy off my typed short stories before submission to various magazines.
Mitch and I went to El Carmelo’s, now defunct, for lunch on the day Mitch was a hero. My recollection is that Mitch paid.
We had a good lunch, yellow rice and black beans followed by flan, with a bowl of collared green soup somewhere in there.
I told him it was good to see him, and it was good.
We went outside and stood waiting to cross Armenia.
The traffic zipped back and forth at the usual dangerous pace. The speed limit on the road was 45. People were going faster.
It was sunny and hot.
I was only two months recently returned from Europe, and it was difficult to get used to the Florida heat. The glare was bad too. The only place in Europe where I felt hotter or had worse glare was on the Greek Islands, like Crete. I shielded my eyes, and when I looked again Mitch was gone.
Where was he? I looked all around. No Mitch.
Then I spotted him. He was running through traffic, going right across busy Armenia Avenue, frantic and holding up his hands to stop the cars that could kill him.
At first I thought he was just playing a prank. I never knew he could run so fast. He looked like a sprinting deer (with a cigarette dangling from its mouth).
Across the street, a car had been rolling backwards from a parking space in front of a store and into the road. There was no driver inside the car. Inside, however, was an infant child.
Mitch had seen what was happening. Somehow he had spotted the kid inside the car, maybe because his own son was strapped into baby seats attached to the big people’s seats.
He reacted instantly and without regard for his own wellbeing.
In the military, they say that when they give you medals for valor, that you did what you did without regard for your own safety. If Mitch had been in the army, they might have given him a Bronze Star for Valor.
The traffic had halted in both lanes while Mitch slowed the rolling car. I ran into the street and helped him stop the car. He opened the door of the driverless car, jumped inside, and applied the brake.
From a shop came a distraught mother.
“Thank you, thank you!” the woman said. “How could I have left the brake off? I must not have been thinking.”
Mitch casually opened the door for her. She got in her car, started it, and drove away still telling Mitch “thank you” over and over out the driver’s window.
He was a hero that day. He saved that child from serious injury and possible death. He saved the people driving on Armenia who would have struck the car from suffering too. He did this without any evident concern for his own safety. And, the true mark of hero, I doubt he ever told anyone else about it. I may be the only one who knows what he did that day, except the mother of the saved child, who doesn’t know his name
What have I learned in life? Sometimes it doesn’t seem like much. Other times it seems like I have learned too much. Let’s see what lessons I take from this remembrance.
We all have accidents.
We all make mistakes.
Sometimes we lose love. Other times we gain it.
We are sometimes foolish and show our ass. We sometimes rise above ourselves and become brave.
I also know we are sometimes broken and sometimes healed.
We incorrectly think there are many paths and have regrets for those we didn’t follow. The truth is there is only one path, and regrets won’t get you a large cup of coffee without money.
When we are no longer here, it is hoped we will be remembered for our good acts. I will always remember Mitch preventing a tragedy in 1975 on a hot summer day on Armenia Avenue.