Larger than life. I got to know my brother-in-law Sam in 1968. Two years later he was gone. In those two years he didn't just become my best friend. He kicked my sweet ass into adulthood and left an indelible mark on me that I feel to this day.
Turtle. Sam had a very cool mark on him: a dapper turtle with high hat and cane tattooed on his calf. He was a member of the Turtle Club. Sam initiated me when I asked about his tattoo, teaching me the correct response to Are you a Turtle? He also taught me a bunch of the initiatory Q and A. Two stand out:
What common English word begins with f and ends with u-c-k? (firetruck)
What goes in long, hard and dry, and comes out soft, wet and short? (chewing gum)
Piercing. I never got a tattoo, but Sam did leave a physical mark on me I still have: a pierced ear. In 1968 there weren't many guys with piercings, mostly just ex-sailors. I used to boast I was the first guy on my block to get his ear pierced. Sam had his own way of piercing. He used a fat sailmaker's needle. It was at least an eighth inch thick. He said it was important to stretch out the hole so he didn't tear things up inside the earlobe when he pushed the post of the earring through. He had me buy a little gold ball for my first earring. All gold. Surgical stainless was not a thing in earrings then. Smooth so I wouldn't catch things on it and not flat on the ear so air could circulate to the wound for healing. No ice cubes or other anesthetic. Except of course booze. He put a wine cork under my earlobe and on the count of three pushed it through and well into the cork. It stung but I mostly remember the sound: a distinctly audible crunch. The sailor's needle and cork were really my first earring. I got to wear that for several minutes to give my flesh time to stretch out a bit. Then he pulled off the cork, pulled out the needle, and put my lovely earring in backwards. He said it was easier on my ear that way because the hole in back was smaller. Put the post through the small hole first and it has less chance of getting off course on the way through my lobe. I wore it that way for a few days before turning it around. My healing regimen was to rotate my earring every few hours so it didn't heal onto the post and douse the area with rubbing alcohol a few times a day to prevent infection. It healed up fine, and I never would have had any trouble with it at all but I got impatient and put a dangling earring in too soon, which he had warned against. Sure enough it got caught on something and tore my ear a little so I have a larger than normal ear piercing. But just a little. No plugs, thank you very much. No tattoos. Only unintentional scars. The undecorated man.
Sam loved life, and he lived full-on; he had no patience with namby-pamby halfway anything. He saw that I needed help in becoming a man, and he stepped right up to the task. But not in the way you might think. Sam's tastes in music had a huge influence on me. Sam grew up in cool jazz and he loved it. He passed that love on to me. Jazz gods like Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond. Brilliant works of art like Line for Lyons.
His taste in classical music was less inspiring. I like the other Strausses so much better.
Education. I met Sam when I was a child, but back then he was just a big scary dude I avoided. I really met Sam fresh off the boat, as it were: just back Stateside from Kenya. My parents thought I wasn't getting a good enough education. I thought I was getting a great education. I did my schoolwork in an hour then spent the rest of the day bombing around Nairobi on my motorbike, meeting all kinds of interesting people, eating, drinking and smoking who knows what. My folks didn't think this would prepare me for college. Go figure.
Sweethearts. It was decided that my mom and I would repatriate so I could do 12th grade and graduate from a real school. Then she would go back to her sweetheart in Nairobi. It was decades before I began to grasp how hard those ten months must have been for both of them. They were pretty much symbiotic, those two. I was just an oblivious teen.
Melbourne. Sam and Gail and their kids were living in Indialantic Florida, and it so happened that Melbourne High School, right across the Indian River, had a national reputation for being cool and progressive. It was B. Frank Brown's non-graded high school: all the smart kids got to be in the same class. Frank wanted slow learners together in small classes for intensive, hands-on work. That plan also produces groups at the other end. I was in one helluva senior English class.
Laid off. Mom and I moved into an apartment in Indialantic right up the street from them. Sam had worked production jobs in the semiconductor industry for years, but times had gotten hard in that industry. I started hanging out down the street. My brother-in-law and I became good friends.
This time for good. In the fall of 1968 I had a one night stand with a Polish princess. I saw her sitting by herself in the Mel High lunchroom and asked if I could join her. She nodded regally. We had fun talking and flirting. Meeting her for lunch became a regular thing. Her ancestors were Polish. I added princess because she really stood out. She was not my usual type. Neither strikingly gorgeous nor killer cute. This was before either of them. She was slender with long light brown hair she wore in a braid. It was her bearing and manner. She was regal. And her face was a sculpture, cheekbones to die for. One day when I got especially flirtatious she warned me, sadly, that she had a boyfriend. As we talked a dark story came out. He was abusive. Not physically but psychologically. She'd tried to leave him but always ended up going back. I sighed and held her hand. That was as intimate as we got. Then one day she looked entirely different. Still regal but bright and lively, not dark and haunted. She had broken up with him, this time for good. It was Friday and she asked if I wanted to come out to her place in the country after school. I said yes and she gave me a kiss.
Curfew. On the way out she told me about hammocks. A hammock is a dry area surrounded by marsh. She lived on one out in the marshy area between Melbourne and Kissimmee. We turned off Highway 192 heading north on an unmarked dirt road with a water filled ditch on either side. The hammock was only a foot higher than the marsh but it felt like a different world. She made me a decadent dinner. Filet mignon with crumbles of gorgonzola melting on top. We drank Barolo and made love in her air conditioned hideaway. Air conditioning was still rare in Florida. None of my Florida homes had it. Her air conditioning was yet another decadent luxury. I had a midnight curfew. She was determined I wouldn't be late. We made it into the parking lot exactly at midnight. We made out for a while so I was late but only a bit. The next Monday I was eager to see her but she didn't show up. I didn't see her until Thursday and she was back in full gloom. Our little fling made her feel so guilty she made up with her abusive boyfriend the next day. I was sad. So was she. She was a beautiful mess.
More than you'll ever know. I'd quite stupidly brought a decent little stash of Class A Kenya dope with me from Nairobi, hidden in my sax case. I dug it out and turned them on. First one's free. Hash was our preferred high when we could get it; we called it thirds. We'd cut off a slice with the single-edge razor then divide it in three, each just the right size for a lungful. As I made friends at Mel High I would bring them over to meet Sam and Gail, to hang out in a dope-friendlier environment, and sometimes to score dope. It was a safe place for them to sell and us to buy. My friends from school were mostly fellow students in Elaine's class. I became close with one of the guys, a real weirdo. The one who later visited me at FPC. He took me on my first acid trip that fall. He knew people who knew people and could get his hands on good quality hallucinogens. The acid I took wasn't Owsley but it was close. I spent the afternoon with him and a couple other folks in a crash pad near Sam and Gail's, waiting while the acid came on. I was beginning to hum along that evening when we all piled into Annette's station wagon and went to the drive-in to watch Yellow Submarine. The movie was old hat for them, but it was my first time on my first trip. When the Beatles made their triumphant march across the now-coloful Blue Meanyland, I jumped out of the car and ran toward the screen, waving my arms and yelling. I lay down on the downslope of the front tier, where there were no cars this evening. Stretched out under the giant screen. I had two of the sound boxes you hung on your window, one up against each ear as I watched the end of the show. I had arrived in Wonderland. I had a present under the tree from those friends, a largish triangular box that rattled when you shook it. No one could guess that one. On Christmas morning the wrapping came off and it was three album covers taped together with some beads inside. Two of the album covers were empty duds but the third was a winner, the recently released Child is Father to the Man, the first and definitely best Blood, Sweat & Tears album. I love you more than you'll ever know had been getting local airplay and I was gaga over it.
Missed connection. I had another visitor at Sam and Gail's house that Christmas. I'd fallen in love with Sue, and the feeling was clearly mutual. We couldn't be together in the apartment with my mom or at her place so Sam and Gail, sweethearts as they were, made their bedroom available to us. We didn't make love but we wanted to. We were both equally tormented by hormones and angst, and the angst won. Sue was graduating early and she'd be leaving at the beginning of the year on her way to New College. I only saw her once after that Christmas, a hurried visit by the mail boxes at FPC. Her guy was waiting for her in the car. A missed connection.
Stack pudding. Sam was a big guy with a big appetite, and pot, well, you know. Stack pudding was one of Sam's favorites. It became one of mine. He made a big mug of coffee the way he liked it: sweet, with lots of evaporated milk. Then he broke graham crackers into quarters and stacked them until he had a stack the diameter of his mug. Then he dunked them. It was all in the timing. Graham crackers disintegrate like that in hot coffee. Dunk just right and you get a stack of graham coffee pudding melting in your mouth. A second too long in the drink and it's mush at the bottom of your cup. Another fave was fried salami cubes. He'd buy the salami with whole peppercorns and cut it into half-inch cubes. Fry up in oil till crispy, then put before us a big plate of them with a shot glass full of toothpick spears.
Our favorite stoner pastime was watching the fish. Sam had several tanks. The one we watched like a television was a 55-gallon tall with an amazing array of fish: plecostomi, banjo cats, archers, kuhli loaches, silver dollars, rainbow and neon tetras, zebra danios, Lake Malawi cichlids, angels, a bedraggled betta or two, even an oscar. How could those all live together? Sam had a magic touch with fish, and that was gonna alter the family history forever, because Sam used the savings to buy a tropical fish farm.
Crash. Fishfarm as we called it was legendary. One of the hippies painted reverential wall art in the dining room: an elaborate stoned parody of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, awarding the Fishfarm the Timothy Leary Good Cribkeeping Award. Yup, it was pretty much the Space Coast crash pad. Well, one of many. For the second Christmas on Fishfarm I designed a t-shirt for us, my first published work of graphic art.
Padrugpadrug. The living room was carpeted. Sam put a room sized Persian style rug with a thick pad down on top of the padded carpet, creating a four-layer padded floor. It was also no doubt a teeming refuge for microscopic Florida wildlife. He christened it Padrugpadrug. Lots of weirdos crashed on Padrugpadrug over the years, including most of us, too drugged to find a real bed.
Accent. When I first arrived in Florida I had an English accent. I tend to adopt the talk of people I hang out with. In Nairobi I mostly hung out with British expat kids. I was aware it was happening and I worked at it a bit. One of my proudest moments came when I was talking with a bunch of guys there, some of whom I didn't know, and I said something that gave away my nationality. One of the guys I didn't know looked at me in surprise and said, "You're a yank eh? Cor, you don't tawk like a yank." Oh ta, man.
Eyecatching. Girls were intrigued by my accent, or so I thought. Something was working in my favor. I'm good looking but not that good looking. I honestly had no clue that being intelligent, well spoken and modestly sensitive was working in my favor. I started hanging out with a trio of gorgeous smart girls, all blondes. A clique almost everyone else found intimidating felt like home ground to me, a relief to be with. I still needed to learn how to drive. I'd been too young for a learner's permit in Kenya. Annette offered to let me practice driving her car, that Rambler station wagon. We drove to an empty parking lot. I got behind the wheel. The pheromones in that Rambler were so thick you could eat them with a spoon. Her nefarious plot worked: we made out in the car and I fell in love with her. I was as true to my girl as you might expect a high school boy to be: a month later I fell in love with her trio buddy Hutch. Hutch was eyecatching, the gorgeous girl with long blonde hair who would have been homecoming queen if she hadn't detested team sports. I stayed with Hutch for three years, even sticking it out for a while when things got complicated between us in college because of a different trio.
Bullshit. As a kid I bullshitted about myself, like when I got shocked awake by the dahlia farmer next door. I made shit up to make myself seem more interesting than I really was. As I got older, that meant I had to keep track of which lies I'd told whom. Mom warned me, quoting Sir Walter Scott: Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! I didn't listen. But the least bit of bullshit and Sam would start giving me that look. I would immediately fess up. He was the one person who saw me for who I was and still loved me. He became my closest friend. That's how he helped me grow up.
Refuge. One night at the Fishfarm I finished up what Sam had started. I was visiting from college with my girlfriend Hutch. That night I took some kind of hallucinogenic pill. You never knew what you were getting in those days. Hutch didn't take a pill. She had more sense than I did. I started flipping out. I reached out to Hutch for refuge. She was there for me, but I could not reach her. All I could feel was the distance and falseness between us that I had created by my lies. I started confessing to her. We stayed up till dawn, debunking everything I'd ever told her about my life. It didn't break us up; it brought us closer together. She talked me down from my self imposed exile. She was a true friend, a real diamond.
Sam's death. I was there at the Fishfarm the night Sam died. It was late summer 1970, just a few weeks after that harrowing night when I confessed all my lies to Hutch. I would soon head back to FPC to start my sophomore year. The family was all there that night: Gail, Sam, Tim, the five kids, my nieces and nephews and me. The six of us all woke up to a family tragedy in progress. Sam, Gail and Tim had already been up for hours. Sam had a stroke that night. The first symptom Gail knew of was numbness. He woke her up, asking her to rub his arm, it had gone to sleep, but her rubbing didn't help. Then he tried to get up to go to the john and fell, crushing an end table and possibly breaking some bones. Sam was a big guy. They woke all of us up as the ambulance finally arrived and Sam and Gail headed off to a hospital in Orlando, hours after his stroke began. We all huddled together around the dining room table, talking quietly and crying. Finally there was a phone call. It was probably four or five in the morning by then. Tim took the call. It wasn't long. Gail was calling from a pay phone at the hospital. Tim hung up, turned to us, and said Sam is dead. I still treasure his complete lack of euphemism. We all let out a wail I can still hear and feel after fifty years. I've lumped myself in with Sam and Gail's kids in this scene because that's how it was that night. My mother died in 1988 and my father in 1990, late in my Boulder adventure. By then I'd given my family up, dutifully distancing myself from them, a thing TH said was important for Harmonizing. Gail was the one who came to our parents' rescue, nursing them both through their final years. Their deaths made me cry, but I have no idea what it's like to lose a parent as a child. But I was right there with the five of them that night. We all lost Sam, and he left a huge hole in all of us. He was my best friend. My brother in a way Tim never came close to. Tim had betrayed me too deeply for me to ever really forgive him. He shouldn't have ganged up on me with his football buddies that night.
Sam wasn't supposed to die. He was just thirty-eight, a giant of a man, full of life as Zorba, more alive than any man I have ever known. Because of that I started out afraid of him, but he won my heart. He saw the world for what it was and people for what they were. When I needed some tough love he was right there for me but he only gave me as much as I needed, then welcomed me back as soon as I cleaned up my act. He was a deep true friend and mentor.