Archive for the ‘odd experiences’ Category

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Two Dogs, One Book, and a Long Lost Friend

August 21, 2016

“In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” — Dogen Zenji, ancient Zen master

This is a story about a confluence of events that I could not have envisioned beforehand, the unpredictable kind that sometimes occur in life. It concerns two pit bulls, a book about dying, and a friend lost for forty-two years.

The story really begins back in June of 1970, before I met the two dogs, before I read the book, and before the friend was lost. The place was Saxtons River, Vermont, the training site of Peace Corps Group 39, scheduled to depart for the Philippines that September. It was there I met several people who were to become my friends — Greg, Steve, Max, Judy, and Linda — our relationship born of the communal spirit of the intense training as well as shared interests and that indefinable element that makes connections occur between certain people and not others.

Once arriving in the Philippines, we headed off to our assignments scattered amongst the far-flung archipelago. Greg, Max, and I took up residence in different towns in the same province in southern Luzon and ended up working together for part of our two-year tour. After some initial scrambling, Judy and Linda wound up in Davao City on the southern coast of Mindanao, about as far as one could be from where the rest of us were located. Steve found himself in an isolated area and in a job that never quite defined itself. An artist, he became unhappy with this situation and stayed only a brief time. He returned home, reportedly joined the Coast Guard, never to be heard from again.

We were all involved in teacher-training programs which often resulted in a high degree of frustration. Linda became especially disenchanted, and in the spring of 1971 returned to the states to pursue a degree in nursing. All of us continued communicating through the writing of letters (this was the 70’s, after all). Greg and I even managed to get together every so often after our homecoming.

However, in February of 1974, I received the last letter from Linda. It became the last letter because of my failure to write back, thus letting go of the remaining thread of connection to a friend, something I unfortunately have done several other times in the past.

Then in April of 1982, one of those strange late season snow storms struck. I took the opportunity to undertake one of my many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to clean out — or at least organize — my incredibly cluttered basement. In sorting through the piles of stuff, I came across that 1974 letter. Despite the passage of time, I decided to write a return letter. It came back stamped Address Unknown. I assumed that was it.

However, in 2003, after seeing a documentary about a guy who wanted to find buddies from his old neighborhood by searching on the internet, it struck me that I could do the same. Having only recently been introduced to the online world, a sincere but clumsy search ensued. I found what I thought to be a likely address and sent my last attempt at reconnection. No answer. I thought I had hit a dead end.

Fast forward to May 2016, a typical late spring day with nothing special on the agenda. My wife sorted through the mail that afternoon and said, “Here. This is for you.” When I saw the return address, I was stunned. Could this possibly be?

I opened the envelope, and indeed it was a letter from Linda. In it she said she had been cleaning her desk and came across my letter of 2003. She didn’t remember if she had ever answered it but figured she would respond now, saying that compared to my lapse of twenty-nine years between her last letter to mine that she was being quite prompt at only thirteen. We agreed to write a bit more regularly than that, modernizing to the more timely email mode.

The book, Where River Turns to Sky, arrived unexpectedly in the mail a few weeks later, a novel about aging and loneliness and the struggle with the end years and ultimate death. When described that way, most people say “Why on earth would you want to read that?!” Well, two reasons. One, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these subjects for a while now. Two, because whenever Linda, a true bibliophile, had recommended a book in the past, she was always on the money. So read it I did.

In the story, two old men, George and Ralph, had been left alone after the deaths of their wives. But they had each other, at least until a stroke devastated Ralph. Relatives put him in a nursing home where he lay unresponsive, and his good friend George was the only one to come to visit him. He did so religiously, sitting by the bedside and talking to his friend, feeling that Ralph was still inside there somewhere listening. George made a promise to Ralph that he would not let him die alone.

One day George went on a short fishing trip, one he took many times with Ralph, though not quite the same now. When he returned to visit Ralph, he found his room empty. He had died. Alone.

George exploded in grief and anger at himself for breaking his promise to his friend. He swore he would never let anyone else die alone in the bleak, uncaring environment of the nursing home. He proceeded to buy a big red house in the middle of town and by hook or by crook get as many residents out of the Home and into a real home where a community of support and actual caring could be theirs in what time they had remaining in this life.

Amongst the residents was Rose, a spiritual being who spoke of death being something not to be feared but rather as a natural part of the circle of life. And inevitably, death came to some residents including both Rose and George, but not before they lived together sharing joyful moments and exasperating ones — the stuff of real life. It brought tears to my eyes, something no book had done in quite a while.

During the time I was reading Where River Turns to Sky, I met Chloe. As I turned the corner at the end of my block on the way home from my morning walk one day, I heard a voice calling me.

“Yoo hoo! Excuse me! Can you help me?”

The voice came from a woman to whom I waved hello in passing from time to time. She stood outside her open garage door, a dog lying near her in the entrance.

“I’ve locked myself out of my house! Do you know how to pick a lock?”

I informed her that skill was unknown to me as I approached to assess the situation further. The dog, a light brown pit bull, slowly rose and limped over to greet me with a nuzzle of my leg.

“This is Chloe,” said the woman. “Say hello to the nice man, Chloe.”

I extended my hand since Chloe was clearly both docile and friendly. I scratched behind her ears and she nuzzled me again, asking for more. I noticed Chloe’s haunch had been shaved and bore a large scar.

The woman introduced herself and indicated that she didn’t know what to do because she had to go to work soon. I suggested that she walk with me to my house down the block where she could call a locksmith.

As we walked, Chloe limping beside us, she told me about herself. Rose happened to be from the Philippines, something I had already surmised from her accent, and she was a nurse at a local hospital. She had taken Chloe in from a Newark shelter to foster during her convalescence. Poor Chloe had been abused and abandoned and then hit by a car, hence the scar. In spite of her terrible previous life, she was the sweetest dog. Rose thought she would most likely adopt Chloe.

After I got my phone and a locksmith’s number, Rose paused then excitedly exclaimed, “Wait! I just remembered something! My niece has a key, and she works nearby.”

I offered to drive her there to pick up the key, so Chloe clambered into the back seat, and we all drove together to retrieve the key. I dropped Rose and Chloe off, and she thanked me profusely.

“Be sure to come back and visit us any time!” she called as I pulled away.

The next day we heard a knock on the door. There stood Rose, a thank you cake in one hand and Chloe’s leash in the other. We invited them in, and Chloe greeted us warmly and then explored the entire house, plopping herself down by the front door when finished. From that day forward, each time Rose walks her, Chloe pulls Rose up our front walk looking for another visit. Whenever we see her on the block, she greets all with great warmth, including a new neighbor with a little boy in a stroller whom Chloe proceeded to “kiss” much to the little guy’s delight. I have yet to hear Chloe bark or growl.

Chloe

Chloe

A few days after finishing Where River Turns to Sky, a phone call came from my niece. Emma is a sensitive young woman with a tender spot in her heart for animals, especially dogs. There have been a succession of beloved dogs in her house, the current ones being Rocky the Schnauzer and Max the Morkie. She volunteers at an animal shelter, and this was the topic of her tearful call.

She had just encountered the sweetest dog she had ever met there, a pit bull named Bruno. Of course the image of my new friend Chloe came to mind. She told us that Bruno had a heart condition and had only two months to live. He had spent years in shelters and deserved to know a loving home in the short time he had left in this world. She wanted to take him, but her living situation precluded that. She thought we could provide that final home for him.

I had my doubts. Bruno was a large pit bull. We had Pop, a rather frail 95-year-old, living with us in our small house. But I too share her feelings about animals, and having just read the book Linda had sent left me particularly vulnerable. Could I let this poor creature die alone? I agreed to go meet Bruno myself.

I brought Pop and my wife along for they too must be in on the decision. When we arrived at the shelter, though, I figured I’d see Bruno first to make some kind of initial assessment before bringing Bernadette and Pop in. While they waited in the reception area, I headed off to the “meet and greet” room.

The handler came in to ask me a few questions and then picked up all the doggie toys from the floor and placed them on a high shelf, which struck me as a bit odd. I had bought some treats for Bruno, so I followed his lead and placed the bag with the toys. A few minutes later, the handler returned with Bruno, who was straining at his leash and pulling the handler, a rather burly gent, behind him. My first thought was that he was aptly named. Bruno came in and sniffed around the room, pretty much ignoring me. I had imagined a greeting like Chloe’s, but Bruno had a much different presence.

I asked the handler if I could give Bruno a treat, hoping that would break the ice. With a raised eyebrow, he said, “You’d better let me do it.” He took one from the bag and held it out. Bruno lunged for his hand, the handler tossing the snack into Bruno’s mouth as he quickly withdrew.

“He has an issue with food possessiveness. That and toys. You need to be careful with both.”

Not exactly the kind of information I was looking for. He continued, telling me that Bruno also had pulling issues (an image flashing in my mind of my diminutive wife trying to walk him and then another of Bruno bowling over Pop on his way to the food bowl). I asked how he was with other animals.

“Well, he hates cats.”

I envisioned our friendly ferals who come up on our deck to visit and Bruno smashing through the glass door to get at them.

“He also is not so good with certain dogs. Or young children.”

I pictured my walks through the neighborhood when I care for Rocky with all the local kids who run up to pet him and all the other small dogs we run across who sniff their greetings to each other. I shuddered at the idea of doing so with Bruno.

Finally I asked about his medical condition and what could be expected as his time drew near.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” the handler said with a quizzical look.

I repeated what Emma had told me about his two months left to live.

“No, not at all. He does have a 5th degree heart murmur, but there is no immediate danger. As a matter of fact, he’s pretty healthy. He could live another ten years.”

I thanked him for his time and told him that I didn’t think Bruno was right for our situation. On my way out, I wondered about the huge miscommunication that obviously had occurred with Emma. I relayed what I had learned to Bernadette and Pop on the drive home. I heard a decidedly loud sigh of relief coming from the back seat of the car.

Bruno

Bruno

How does the story end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.

It looks like Chloe will enjoy a life together with Rose and more than occasional visits to my house for good measure. Bruno awaits someone who can provide the kind of home that suits them both. In the meanwhile he’ll be cared for at the shelter with Emma, I’m sure, giving him an extra dose of TLC whenever she can.

I’ve started another book sent to me by Linda, A Tale for the Time Being, one which contemplates life and death, the nature of being, and the fate of inextricably bound people. I believe there will be many more welcome recommendations to come.

And my long-lost friend is now lost no more.

Two old letters found, two old letters answered years apart. Two dogs abandoned to shelters; one finds a loving home, one does not, my path crossing with both. Just the right book arrives at just the right time for just the right reader.

To what can this be attributed? Serendipity? Fate? I do not know. But I do know how to be thankful for good fortune, and I remain mindful of these simple events and their strange connectivity so often present in the world.

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My Short-Lived Movie Career

January 29, 2016

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The Methodist Youth Hostel on Adriatico Street in Manila, a compound of small ordinary-looking buildings, had become the place that most Peace Corps Volunteers would stay when in from the provinces. Both its location close to Peace Corps Headquarters and cheap rates made it ideal. Even with its shared bathrooms and barrack-style sleeping quarters, it was a luxury compared to most of our in-country abodes. Little did I know that this was to be the unlikely site of the beginning of my short-lived movie career.

One seemingly ordinary Friday in March of 1972 found me spending a weekend there along with a fellow volunteer, Bob Johnson. Bob had the semblance of a California surfer from his blonde Beach Boy hair to his laid-back demeanor, except that he happened to be from Brooklyn. We went through training together in the same group back in the states but saw each other infrequently since we had been assigned to different islands. This accidental reunion presented a welcome opportunity to catch up a bit. We had no idea what was in store for us.

The producers of the many B movies that were being made in the Philippines at the time apparently knew that this was the spot where young Americans tended to lodge. Whenever the need for extras of this type arose, this would be their first stop.

One such gentleman showed up on that Friday and spotted Bob and me. He asked us if we would be interested in making a little money by being in a movie. Having nothing in particular scheduled, we looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?”

At that time we had absolutely no idea what the movie was about, what kind of roles we would be playing, and most of all that this was to be the now-famous Tom Selleck’s film debut.

The movie folks drove us to the location in Manila where the scene we were to be in was being filmed. We soon arrived at Intramuros, a landmark of great historical significance. Built by the Spaniards during their colonial reign, the cave-like fort became infamous for its use as a Japanese prison during WW II.

And what were we going to be doing on this hallowed ground? Filming an R-rated scene for a trashy movie about devil worship!

The title of this cinema masterpiece was Daughters of Satan. Our one and only scene consisted of the flogging of one of the Daughters whose path had strayed from the coven, thus leading to her punishment. Bound spread-eagle and topless, she was faced with the choice of returning to her Satanic family or the prospect of some vile form of torture and death.

Bob and I played the roles of the “enforcer” warlocks. We sat on either side of the stone throne of the head witch who conducted the malevolent proceedings. And what an odd pair of warlocks we were! Bob was well over six feet tall, fair, and built somewhat like a lumberjack. I was dark, scrawny, bearded, and five-foot-eight.

Type cast?

Type cast?

We were dressed as we normally would have been: jeans, T-shirts, and flip-flops, not very warlock-like in my opinion. No matter. As the gathered coven, mostly Filipino extras trying hard to look evil despite their excitement at being in such close proximity to the naked bosom of a starlet, chanted “flog her, flog her,” Bob and I looked on, glaring with our sternest Satanic stares. My appearance was brief; after the opening part of the scene, there are but fleeting glimpses of me partly hidden in the shadows behind the flogging scaffold. I personally believe my best shots were left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I don’t recall exactly how many times the scene had to be repeated, but it turned out to be a lengthy affair with much waiting around in the tropical heat between takes.

At the end of the shooting we were asked to make up stage names (mine was Donald Wilborn, the best I could come up with under the hasty circumstances) and then paid seventy-five dollars for our troubles (not bad considering that equaled our Peace Corps salary for a month). Since he didn’t appear in our scene, we never did get the chance to actually meet Selleck.

Bob and I went back to the hostel with unanticipated money in our pockets and an unusual tale to tell. We finished up our Peace Corps lives over the next few months and then returned to the United States later that summer. Bob got married and moved away, and unfortunately I lost touch with him.

As time passed and I resumed my stateside life, I didn’t give much thought to this strange episode, at least not until one ordinary summer evening back home in Bergenfield.

My friends Johnny, Rob, and Chuck sat around the kitchen table at my house, once again reenacting the old “So, what do you want to do tonight?” routine from the classic film Marty. As I perused the movie listings, there I saw it: Daughters of Satan! Playing that very night at a theater in Englewood, the next town over!

We excitedly piled into the car and headed to the final showing of the night. Johnny tried to talk the older disinterested-looking woman at the ticket window into letting us in for free since one of the “stars” of the movie was in our party, but she only looked at us askance and asked if we wanted to buy tickets or not. My scene flew by in a couple of minutes, but we all had quite a hoot anyway.

Decades passed until Daughters of Satan unexpectedly resurfaced again.

Lunchtime in the faculty room at Pierrepont School evoked conversations amongst my friends and colleagues during which virtually anything could — and usually did — come up, including stories exchanged of our varied and often wacky experiences. I related the account of the making of my warlock scene, and it thereafter became kind of a running joke, culminating in two unique Christmas presents.

One year it came in the form of an original movie poster — amazingly procured online after all these years  — in which I can be seen, an illustrated extra looking for all the world like a young Charles Manson to the far left of the half-naked starlet who was, of course, the main attraction.

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Another year not long after, I received a DVD copy of the movie produced in England, of all places. I henceforth had the ability to view this awful piece of cinema in the privacy of my own home whenever I so chose. Normally it just sits in its dust-covered glory in the bottom of a cabinet, but I do admit that I take a peek at my sixty seconds of “fame” every so often. But otherwise, Daughters of Satan has fittingly faded away into the twilight of the distant past.

Unless, of course, Selleck calls to do a sequel.

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My Night in Jail

July 1, 2012

I suppose it goes without saying that doing foolish things is the province of the young. Normal rules of common sense fly out the window and impulsive decisions rule the day. How I ended up spending a night in jail falls firmly in this category. It didn’t involve anything nefarious. Rather, it was the result of an unpredictable series of events creating a path that led several friends and I to a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, jail cell.

In the summer of 1970 I began my Peace Corps training. Although I had been assigned to a tour of duty in the tropics, the Powers That Be had us train in the green mountains of Vermont. Thus Vermont Academy in the bucolic village of Saxton’s River became our home base, and for two months an eclectic assemblage of thirty or so young adults, mostly recent college graduates, spent many hours involved in intensive language study, technical training, and cultural acclimation. The combination of this full schedule and the lack of diversions in the rural isolation of the area fueled the scheme a small group of us hatched to go to the beach at the first available chance. We had heard stories of former trainees making their way to the only beach accessible, that of Portsmouth, about a hundred twenty-five mile drive across the southern segment of New Hampshire. Unfortunately, the only means to get there was to hitchhike, a practice frowned upon by the training staff. But the idea of spending a free weekend in the sun and sand proved too powerful an attraction, especially for several of our party from the Midwest, outweighing any potential downside, at least in our naive reckoning.

The opportunity for that free weekend finally arose, and the five of us set off bright and early Saturday morning. A sympathetic instructor, a former Peace Corps Volunteer himself, dropped us off several miles away on the highway running east. We excitedly started hitchhiking, something in which none of us had much experience. The excitement wore off after several hours of standing, thumbs extended, in the hot July sun and getting no rides. The previously unconsidered prospect of failure began to creep into our collective psyche, furtive glances at wristwatches and deep sighs punctuating our futile attempts at snaring a lift.

Just about the point of throwing in the towel, someone started pulling over. Could this be? Yes! A ride! A beat-up pickup truck rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust a few yards ahead of us, and we rushed in unison to the passenger side door. Through the open window we caught our first glimpse of the occupants, two scruffy men in their late twenties. The driver leaned over and said, “You need a ride?” His companion on the passenger side flashed a wide grin revealing several missing teeth.

Now, I know you’re thinking, who in their ever-loving mind would get in such a vehicle? I can’t say that very thought didn’t cross our minds, but our long-awaited ride had arrived, and the vision of our revelry on a sunny beach blinded us to any prospective hazards involved in undertaking the journey with these two.

“Sure,” we said. “Thanks a lot.”

“Well, two of you can come on up in the cab with me. Frank here’ll go in the back with the other three.” Frank began climbing out before we could even respond.

The two girls got in the cab, figuring the driver would be otherwise occupied operating the vehicle and thus be no problem. As we three guys clambered into the cargo bed, I mollified myself with the thought that Steve and Greg were pretty big guys, and after all we were three to his one should anything untoward occur. In spite of that, his crazed look was more that a bit unsettling.

The driver poked his head out the window. “Where you headed?” he asked.

“We were trying to get to Portsmouth, so as far east as you’re going would be great.”

“Well, hell, we’ll take you all the way! Me and Frank here ain’t got nothin’ better to do anyways!”

We smiled nervously as the pickup lurched forward, not sure if this latest news was a stroke of good fortune or the knell of death.

The girls appeared to be attempting light banter with the driver, so we settled back as comfortably as possible amidst the rattling tools. As we barreled down Route 9, Frank began rambling on about his various adventures and misfortunes in life. The most memorable of these dealt with his heroin use.

“Yeah, man, I know it’s supposta be bad for you and all, but, man, I just love the shit!”

We struggled to respond in a manner neither antagonistic nor encouraging of further conversation. No such luck, for Frank continued with great fervor.

“Yeah, I shot myself up in my arms for a while, but them tracks it leaves was no good, so I started sticking myself all kinds of other places.”

We hoped further elucidation on this aspect of the topic would not be forthcoming, but Frank was on a roll.

“Yup, I stuck myself here, and here, and even there.”

We gulped and grimaced as one.

“Then I took to sticking myself between my toes cuz no one usually looks there. Ain’t that a hell of a thing!”

Good information to have in certain quarters, I supposed, but his discourse had become even more uncomfortable than the bumpy ride on the ridged floor of that pickup. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we pulled into Portsmouth.

“Where do ya wanna go now that we’re here?” the driver inquired.

“It would be fine if you just drop us off right here. We really appreciate the ride.”

“You sure?”

We responded emphatically that yes, we were quite sure.

“Yeah? Well, okay then,” he shrugged.

We scrambled out, waved good-bye, and as the strange duo pulled away, simultaneous waves of great relief washed over us.

The beach in Portsmouth is small compared to those of the Jersey shore I was used to, but it mattered not, nor did the fact that we arrived quite late. Taking a walk by the ocean side in the fading evening light, we basked in the joy of having made it there successfully.

The next problem was one that strangely we hadn’t considered: where to stay. We had little money between us and certainly not enough for a motel. We walked around for a while as night fell looking for a park or some other acceptable place to spend the night. One of the girls suggested going to the church. “Surely they’ll take us in!” she exclaimed with a confidence born of a Catholic school upbringing. When we finally found one, however, the doors were firmly locked with no one in sight to come to our rescue.

As we wandered disconsolate and aimless, a patrol car pulled up alongside of us. The officer rolled down the window and asked, “Can we help you folks with anything?” Our forlorn expressions must have been sufficiently pathetic, for when we told him of our plight, he replied, “Come with us to the station. I think we can help you out.” Exactly what he meant by that we weren’t sure, but since it appeared to be our only alternative, we went along with him.

Though technically a city, Portsmouth had the character of a smaller town, both genteel and old-fashioned, and the police station recalled the one in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. When we arrived, the officer requested that we sign in at the front desk (“Just for the sake of keeping proper records,” he assured us) and then led us inside.

“There’s no one in lockup tonight,” he explained, “so I suppose there’s no harm in you sleeping in our cells. Don’t worry,” he continued, no doubt noting the nervous looks on our faces, “we won’t lock them.”

The accommodations were Spartan to be sure — a hard bunk bed with faded sheets and a flattened pillow — but quite welcome nonetheless, and we settled into our jail house lodging after the doors clanged shut. We left the next morning with copious thank yous and assurances that next time we would think our plans through more thoroughly. The ensuing hours at the beach were pleasant though short since we figured we needed to give ourselves more time for the return trip than we had previously.

Once back on the road, it became apparent that our luck had run out. The several short rides we did manage to get interspersed with tedious hiking left us well short of our destination, and it was getting very late. Fewer and fewer cars appeared in the darkness, and the point of no return arrived. We were forced to call the head of our training facility to beg for a ride back. He was none too pleased, but faced with the choice of retrieving us or leaving us to our fate on the side of the highway all night, he really had no choice. The next day a terse but stern edict was posted absolutely forbidding any further hitchhiking by trainees with the threat of unspecified harsh consequences.

In the many  years since, I have rarely been in the position to need to hitchhike. In those rare situations when it was necessary, I always thought back to that day in New Hampshire. Images of Frank in the pickup truck and our night in jail immediately flash through my mind. I thankfully haven’t had the occasion to spend any other nights in jail, though. I have a feeling that probably can’t be said for the pair who picked us up.

Recently I visited my good friend Greg, one of my stalwart hitching companions who coincidentally now lives just outside Portsmouth. We drove around looking for the old police station to check it out, but we couldn’t find it. Greg thought it had been knocked down to make way for one of those modern municipal complexes. It would have been nice to stop in to see our former cells for old times sake, but it was not to be, for they were gone,  gone as crazy Frank and the old pickup truck, now just memories of a youthful misadventure from long ago.

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Chased

June 17, 2012

That particular spring afternoon began innocuously enough as I left my Belleville apartment to meet my wife after work in New York to join her to celebrate her birthday. My plan was to walk to the local subway station, take it to Penn Station in Newark, and then hop a train into the city. The weather forecast warned of possible showers, so I brought my umbrella to be safe.

I crossed the final street at the crosswalk approaching the station. The light was red for oncoming traffic, but I saw a white station wagon speeding toward me looking like it wasn’t planning on stopping. I hustled to the sidewalk, pointing to the light with my umbrella, an unpremeditated gesture in reaction to the dangerous situation. Perhaps at other times or places I might have chosen a different gesture, but for whatever reason, this time I did not. Therefore, what happened next came as a complete surprise.

The station wagon screeched to a stop just past the intersection. The driver, a burly and rather unkempt man, clambered out and came after me with an angry scowl on his face. I could tell he meant business, so I began walking more rapidly down the block.

“Com’ere! I just wanna talk to you!” he yelled with a telltale slur.

Not likely, I thought, judging by his aggressive demeanor. He began coming after me, so I began to run. His staggering gait told me he wouldn’t be able to catch me on foot.

I was now a street beyond the subway stop with the brute between me and it, so I decided to go around the block and return after enough time passed to ensure he’d left. When I rounded the corner, I heard a squealing noise closing in behind me. It was the station wagon, the sound unmistakably that of a loose fan belt. He was chasing me! I sprinted up that block and cut through an alley to the next one over, but after a moment, there it was again — that fan belt signaling the approach of the station wagon.

Panic set in. This guy was serious. Abandoning the thought of catching the subway, I took off down the side streets towards my apartment, but the wagon kept reappearing around each corner in relentless pursuit.

In desperation, I decided to cut through a complex of old-fashioned garden apartments. I sprinted through the courtyard, but there it was again! He had driven over a sidewalk and entered the grassy area between the buildings and zeroed in on me, bouncing over flower beds and through clothes lines as he went.

I yelled to a woman hanging clothes, “Call the police! I’m being chased by a crazy man!”

She saw the car and called back, “Oh, he lives here. He’s probably drunk, as usual.” I had unwittingly wandered into the lair of the beast!

I cut back through another alley to the street that led to Clara Maas Hospital, dashed past it to my block, and considered taking refuge in my apartment but thought better of it in case he spotted me. Instead, I got in my car and sped away in the opposite direction to safety.

I ended up driving to New York. I must have looked shaken up when I finally arrived because my wife immediately exclaimed, “What happened to you?!”

I told her the story of my strange encounter and subsequent escape. Her first response was, “Are you sure you only pointed with the umbrella?” I explained that indeed I had, but even if I hadn’t, his reaction could certainly not be considered rational.

Not long after this incident, we moved from Belleville. It wasn’t totally because of that event, but I must say I was glad to be out of there. I had spent my remaining time looking over my shoulder, growing anxious every time I saw a white station wagon driving my way.

A year or so later, I noticed an article in the newspaper which told of the arrest of a man in Belleville. He was convicted of driving his car up onto a sidewalk in a partly successful attempt to run down two pedestrians. I can’t be sure it was the same guy who chased me (there was no mention of a fan belt problem), but the similarity seemed too great to be merely a coincidence.

To this day I try to keep a wide berth of that area. And I still jump whenever I hear a squeaky fan belt.

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Katie and Me

March 18, 2012

Life is filled with innumerable random incidents. Why they occur as they do is a mystery. Some believe each is a small piece in a great puzzle, fulfilling a preordained design for that particular life. Others feel that these are a product of the chaotic coincidences of our existence. Most have little significance and are forgotten no sooner than they occur. But for some reason, I tend to remember them quite clearly, especially the ones that seem to be of no great consequence. The day of my brief encounter with Katie Couric was one of those.

My family was on the first of what was to become our annual family vacation. By family, I mean my wife’s family: her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and their two kids. I’m not sure exactly how it got started, but it continued for thirteen years, starting from the year my nephew Luke was born. We traveled to many marvelous places together from Hawaii to the Mediterranean. Many of our trips were to the West, and this first one brought us to the beautiful state of Wyoming.

The year was 1995. Emma was five years old and a bit anxious about being in such unfamiliar surroundings. Luke was seven months old and quite oblivious to all but his next meal, diaper change, and the loving arms of his mom. We had flown to Arizona and rented a van to haul our crew of eight through the natural wonders of that area.

On this particular day, we had taken a trip to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. A shuttle boat took us across the lake to a trail on the other shore suitable for hiking in the shadow of the surrounding peaks. The trail led to places with such enticing names as Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, but since we had both oldsters and youngsters in our party, our goal was a leisurely walk in the glory of the countryside. As was her normal practice, Emma made frequent stops to pick up, examine, and then have me hold onto various specimens of flora along the way. Had they all been saved, she would own one mighty collection of sticks and flowers and leaves.

Emma and her Uncle Muskie

The shuttle boat operated on a loose schedule, so when the time approached for the boat to return to pick us up, we headed back along the trail to the small dock. As we approached the spot, my mother-in-law turned around to see another small group approaching us.

“It’s Katie Couric! It’s Katie Couric!” she excitedly whispered. And sure enough, right behind us was Katie Couric with her small band of fellow hikers.

As soon as my brother-in-law heard this, he pounced. Not because he was a TV groupie (that was more my mother-in-law’s angle), but rather because she had recently done a story that was anti-pharmaceutical industry, and that was his bread and butter. I didn’t get to hear his harangue because I was busy occupying Emma since the boat was nowhere yet in sight.

Emma wanted to head directly for the water as most kids would. The bank was a bit steep for her five year old legs, so I carefully ushered her to the edge of the water. And what activity is better suited for a child by the edge of a lake while waiting for a shuttle boat than throwing rocks in the water, which is exactly what we proceeded to do. My task was to search for smaller stones which I handed to Emma who then tossed them with great gusto but less than stellar accuracy towards the water. It was great fun.

In the meanwhile, Katie was trying to make a gracious escape from my brother-in-law, not so easy to do on a narrow trail. Her little daughter Ellie saw Emma happily engaged in her waterfront activity and immediately wanted to join her. Though clearly not thrilled with the prospect of a potential wet-shoes afternoon, Katie may have seen this as good exit strategy and edged her way toward the bank with Ellie, who joined right in with the fun. I poked around for more stones and handed them to both Emma and Ellie who quickly bonded in their mutual pursuit of beholding the wonder of the displacement of water when struck by a solid object.

The shuttle boat soon appeared, and its timing could not have been better. I was running out of stones to give the girls, and they were inching ever closer to the water on the muddy shoreline. I began easing Emma away, but she insisted, “One more, Uncle Muskie, one more!” Of course I obliged (I could never turn Emma down), and little Ellie then wanted the same. Katie turned to me and said in a firm but gentle voice, the smile never leaving her face, “Okay, Uncle Muskie. I think we’ve had enough rock throwing for one day.”  I smiled in return as she gathered Ellie up and we all headed our separate ways.

Countless people pass through our lives during the course of events both great and small. The crossing of paths may be as simple as an exchange of glances or a few words. This one particular incident took only a few minutes. It happened a long time ago (by my hasty calculations, 22,830 days have gone by since). I was by no means a star-struck fan enchanted by an encounter with celebrity. She said exactly a dozen words to me. But I can recall it as clearly as the day it happened.

Now, I realize that Katie Couric is a busy woman with many things on her mind, far more than me, I’m sure. Still, I wonder if she ever sits down on a rainy day to look over her old vacation photos and, coming across the ones from that Wyoming vacation in 1995, recalls the afternoon when Ellie was throwing rocks in a lake with Emma’s Uncle Muskie.

Katie, if you happen to read this, drop me a line and let me know.

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Attack

December 9, 2011

Back in the  70’s, comedian Redd Foxx had a recurrent routine on his sitcom “Sanford and Son” in which he would feign “having the big one” while clutching his chest during times of stress. Everyone understood what the implication of his action was. Two Saturdays ago when I clutched my own chest, I was not feigning. I thought it was “the big one.”

It began as a typical Saturday with breakfast out with my wife and a stop at the farmer’s market for some fresh produce. We then took our normal neighborhood walk on that beautiful morning, but as we arrived back at our house, I felt it, this frightening pain in my chest like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Only one thought crashed through my brain — heart attack. It felt as though a giant hand had reached inside my chest cavity and squeezed mightily.

My wife, a nurse, immediately knew something was drastically wrong. I was pale, cold, and sweating, and could not mask the fear in my eyes. She rushed to get me an aspirin and called 911. I slumped on a living room chair fearing the worst.

The ambulance arrived, and though the grip had loosened, my symptoms dictated that I be taken to the emergency room. Upon arriving, I was hastily examined and hooked up to monitoring equipment — not at all how I envisioned my Saturday morning. It seemed as though the immediate crisis had passed; however, tests needed to be done.

The next several days brought a procession of doctors: the ER attending, a young Ethiopian nephrology fellow, a female Indian endocrinologist, a Vietnamese resident, the nephrology resident, and two cardiologists, each questioning, poking, and prodding me. The blood tests were so frequent my arm felt like a pin cushion. The first major test, a “perfusion scintigraphy at rest and post-exercise,” requiring an injection of radioactive substance, twenty minutes of scanning, resting, stress testing on a treadmill, a second radioactive injection, and a second scan, proved inconclusive due to “movement caused by breathing.” One wonders how one can endure two twenty-minute scans without breathing, a point I futilely raised with the Pakistani tech. This led to the decision to do a cardiac catheterization, a rather invasive (in my opinion) procedure with risks involved, but one that would be definitive. After a day of delays, this was accomplished. Results? No heart problem of any kind.

Then what the heck was it?

“Well,” the cardiologist said, “we don’t really know what it was, but we did rule out the one thing that it wasn’t, and since that was the deadly one, we’re in good shape.” He  speculated that it was most likely something called an esophageal spasm, a physiological occurrence that mimics a heart attack but is basically innocuous (except for the fear involved).

The day following my hospital release, I went for a follow-up visit with my own doctor. He reminds me of Conan O’Brian both in looks and demeanor, which made the story he told me as I sat on his examining table all the more humorous.

After graduating medical school, he became the only doctor in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert as part of a deal to pay  off his government loans. One day he decided to visit Las Vegas. Being a Jersey native and having heard so much about it, this seemed like the time to go if ever he was going to. The one hundred fifty mile drive through the desert in one hundred degree heat drained him, so as he reached the outskirts of the city, he saw a welcome oasis in the form of a Mexican restaurant, and there he stopped.

He entered the cantina, plunging into the cool darkness of the air-conditioned joint. Sitting at a back table of the empty room, a large bowl of taco chips with an accompanying saucer of spicy salsa was delivered, which he devoured in short order, as he did the Margarita that followed close behind.  Suddenly, his chest felt as though a five thousand pound elephant had sat on it. He couldn’t breathe. He was sweating so profusely that it poured off his forehead and dripped on the table. There was no one around to help.

Well, he thought, either I’m going to die alone right here, or it will pass in a few minutes. Luckily, it was the latter. As he sat there, mortified at the thought of being a doctor in this situation, he concluded that the rapid temperature change and the sudden ingestion of a large amount of chips, spicy dip, and a cold drink triggered an esophageal spasm. “So,” he said in smiling camaraderie, “you’re not alone! It hadn’t happened before, and hasn’t since,” he chuckled, “but now I have a good story to tell my patients.”

He told me he had been as scared as I was, but there were no real medical repercussions. This was reassuring, and after all, I didn’t have to go all the way to Nevada to experience mine.

And now I have a story to tell, too.

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Blood Wedding

October 21, 2011

It was to be a day of joy, the union of two good friends in marriage. When it began, I didn’t know fate would have my path cross that of a young man of such great ill fortune. I never even knew his name, but his spilled blood still stains my memory of that day.

Charlie and Lucy were to be wed in the chapel at Seton Hall University on the campus where my circle of friends had all met. Since I’d recently returned from overseas, I was in a period of transition, living in my childhood room at my parent’s house in Bergenfield. I had no car and thus was forced to take a complex and circuitous route to get to South Orange. This entailed a bus ride across the George Washington Bridge, a subway to 42nd Street, another bus from the Port Authority Terminal to Irvington, ending in a walk through Ivy Hill Park to the chapel in the center of campus.

The trip began uneventfully enough, but something went terribly awry. As the downtown A train was pulling into the 42nd St. station, it suddenly jolted to a squealing halt with most of the cars, including mine, not yet out of the tunnel. I could see through the window that the next car had made it into the station, so I went there. Since I was running late, I exited between cars despite the posted warning against doing so. As I stepped onto the platform, I saw him right there in front of me. It was an image I can’t forget.

The young man was awkwardly sitting on the floor next to the subway car in a huge pool of  blood. One leg was bent beneath him, the other pinned at the thigh between the platform and the subway car. His face was a ghastly white, his terrified eyes staring down in agonized disbelief, all the while rocking, rocking, and repeating trancelike in a low moan, “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” over and over again.

I stumbled back, both horrified and transfixed by the sight, as a transit cop rushed over and started applying a tourniquet. In numbed shock, I made my way up the steps to head for the bus terminal, peering back as a crowd gathered around the drama that was unfolding below. The bus ride to Irvington was a blur as the horrific scene replayed itself in my mind. Who was that poor guy? How could something like that happen? And so much blood — could he possibly survive?

Being with friends at the wedding was a good salve for my shaken soul, but I remained distracted. The following day, I hurried to the local newspaper vendor to buy a Daily News to see if there was any information about the incident. Indeed there was, buried way back on page 48.

The young man was from a small town in Pennsylvania. He had recently returned home unscathed from a tour of duty in Vietnam. To celebrate his safe return, he decided to go into the Big Apple, something he had never done in his short life. Finding himself on the wrong side of the track to go downtown and unfamiliar with the stairway system to cross over, he had jumped onto the tracks, run across (amazingly without contacting the deadly third rail), and was climbing up the platform wall when my train pulled in, pinning and crushing his leg. The article went on to say that the leg had to be amputated, but he was expected to survive.

As it turned out, Charlie and Lucy’s marriage did not survive, ending in divorce several years later, perhaps another victim of ill fate. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how someone could get through the extreme travails of war only to be maimed in that fashion back home and the odd manner in which I had come to witness it. I wonder sometimes what became of this young man, if he was bitter about what happened, or did he count his blessings to have lived.

I occasionally told this story to my students in school when discussing the role of fate in the play Romeo and Juliet. There are two sides to consider. The decisions of those involved can be seen as the direct cause of the consequences that followed. However, the series of events that placed them in the position in which they found themselves sometimes seems inexplicable but for destiny. Who knows for sure? Either way, my recollection of Charlie and Lucy’s wedding is forever entwined with the blood of an unfortunate young man on the platform of that New York subway station.