Tuesday, February 20, 2001
Nature is not human-hearted. - Lao-Tzu
"Take it you KOOK!!"
Garrett Townshend laughed out loud when he heard his best friend Chook yell from the outside.
He was still chuckling when he wheeled his 6'6" tri-fin around and began negotiating the timing
of stroking into the 4th wave of a bigger than normal set. He knew Chook had given him the
wave because he'd probably seen a bigger and better one from his vantage point farther outside.
That was OK, it was getting dark and it wouldn't be too long before they both would have to
choose the last waves of this fantastic trip to the Baja.
The royal blue wave wrapped steadily around the promontory rock point, jumping at least 3 feet
as it collided with the underwater reef adding some good height to the already 5 foot of almost
vertical water. Garrett stroked strongly aiming slightly toward the highest point of the peak to
maximize the drop he would take to blast a bottom turn and race the breaking wave. He moved
smoothly to his feet at the first hint of forward slide staying in a semi-crouch, legs flexed, ready
to spring and unleash enough torque to send him flying out onto the moving wave. His board
seemed to explode out of his turn and in a fraction of a second he was already leaning forward,
tucked and straining, pulling into the hollow pocket of the wave which collapsed gracefully over
As he sped down the peeling cylinder he was now just a passenger, observing the emerald green
water over the gradual shallow bottom and the stark adobe colored desert cliffs in the distance.
He had ended previous rides early not wanting to make the long paddle back out to the point, but
he knew this could be his second to last wave so he was feeling a bit greedy about milking it for
all it was worth. The folding wave made a surprisingly quiet rumbling noise behind him and the
hiss from the wake of his board sounded like a squirting garden hose on a hot summer day.
Garrett was as happy as he'd ever been on a surf trip and yet also sad because he knew this
adventure would soon be over.
He ended the ride with a big showy cutback and roundhouse turn that sent a huge, thin, clear fan
of spray in the air. He hoped Chook was watching to see his brash display but figured he was
already lining up his own wave. Sure enough, as Garrett came over the top of his expiring wave
he could see Chook barreling and grinning down the line on an 8 foot bomber. He hooted and
waved as Chook came within earshot and waited for his friend to finish his ride so they could
make the long paddle back out together.
Garrett and Chook (a mutation of "Chuck," short for Charles Arthur Melton, Esq..) had planned
this end of summer trip for months. It was their self-reward for hard work in high school, getting
good grades that put them in the top 5% of their class and both getting accepted at Stanford in the
Fall. They had worked long hours in menial jobs, in addition to their volunteer work, to save
enough money for a trip to Baja, Mexico. As teenagers living in San Jose they had surfed the
rugged coast of Central California, usually wrapped in layers of neoprene and always yearning
for a warm water place to surf. Both of them had taken vacations with their families to Hawaii
and the Caribbean, but this was their first long distance surf trip by themselves. They had looked
forward to this emancipating adventure and hoped it would mark the beginning of many surf
trips to exotic places.
"Hey you Kook, you were totally slotted." Garrett teased his friend as he paddle toward him.
"Yeah, I didn't see you either until you blasted that kickout, you must have been housed for at
least 20 seconds." Chook was being generous, it was no more than 10 seconds.
The mutual smiles of satisfaction and accomplishment said it all. They turned and paddled
slowly back out without saying another word.
"Fronts coming in Garrett." Chook looked over his shoulder as he spoke. "You can see the low
clouds moving West and the air is gettin' damp."
It was true. A thin haze was beginning to lift off the water as the sun began to set through
translucent clouds looking on the horizon like Huey's own stained glass cathedral. To the East
the scale-like underbelly of the low, gray/green clouds moved slowly, hinting that a storm system
was moving in on them. It had been such a hot, dry, ideal week of weather it would almost be a
welcome change to get some rain. Both the water and air had been in the mid 80s all week, the
sun so hot at times they had to siesta under the tarp they'd rigged up for shade and wait for it to
cool off. The early evening sessions had been the best, with a relentlessly good swell running
from waist high to well overhead and a hot offshore breeze all week.
As they waited outside Garrett reflected on what good fortune they'd had on this trip. He'd heard
others at various breaks around Santa Cruz tell real horror stories of surfing in the Baja, but he
and Chook had done their homework thoroughly plotting and planning their route and itinerary.
They checked all available information, getting the appropriate documents, insurance and tourist
visas and making sure they were well equipped but not so much so that they would not be
burdened with stuff and could pick up and leave in a short time. Then they presented the plan to
Both sets of parents seemed reluctant at first. But the boys had done such complete research into
the trip their folks could hardly argue that they were not prepared. Garrett's Mom seemed most
concerned about them taking his old Honda Civic, so she gallantly offered to let them take her
old Volvo stationwagen, which was in much better shape and was more reliable. In fact, she
signed the title over to Garrett to make the documentation more credible with anyone who
checked. The boys had high-fived each other and hooted in typical surfer fashion when they got
the final OK. They were goin' to MexEEECO.
Late one sweltering day in August they drove non-stop from San Jose to San Diego and stayed
overnight at the house of a friend, also catching a late afternoon session at Sunset Cliffs on Point
Loma. Up early the next day they were determined to drive deep into the Baja and hoped to make
their first destination in two days near Rosarito, then head West toward La Purisima. The
Transpeninsula Highway was in much better shape than they anticipated but the checkpoints and
hassles were pretty much what they had come to expect. Garrett had never warmed up to his
Spanish (or French) classes in school and understood little of the language that surrounded him,
but Chook's better than average Spanish and sincere good looks got them through a lot of delays.
Toward the end of their planned route they had decided to explore some of the more remote
desert areas, making sure they had a good idea where they were going on their map, but at the
same time willing to seek out places that were not necessarily marked. Near a very small village
about 30 km from the coast they stopped for some local food and to get a sense of where a
remote beach they'd heard rumor of might be. They shuffled into a dilapidated cantina, no more
than a picnic table under some sheet aluminum, and ordered some tacitos, beans and beer. When
Chook asked the woman who was taking their order about routes to the ocean she said in
Spanish, "You should talk to my father, he is a retired fisherman but knows this area of the coast
Soon an old man with thousands of days at sea etched in his face shuffled over to the boys.
Chook spoke well enough to communicate what they were looking for assuming that the nodding
old pescador understood they were seeking a remote point somewhere due West of here. Soon
Chook was translating for Garrett what the oldman was saying.
There was an infrequently used road down to the sea that was still passable in the dry season.
Once they got there they could find a rock point off which many waves could be seen breaking. It
was a remote area with few inhabitants so they needed to bring all their food, water and gas with
them. The weather would be hot and dry for the next few weeks and offshore storms would
probably produce a regular swell.
Tipping heavily for the great food and information Garrett asked the old man in English if there
was anything in particular they should watch out for? The old pescador stared blankly at Garrett
and muttered, "Se habla espanol?"
Garrett thought back to his language classes in High School and came up with what he thought
was the appropriate response. "Lo siento muchisimo no habla Escargot."
Chook looked at him sideways with a pained expression and said, "You just told him you're
extremely sorry you don't speak snail, ASSHOLE!!." Chook apologized to the old man for his
friend's stupidity and disrespect. Then listened intently to the advice the old man gave him.
Chook translated, "He said we should only travel during the day and to stay on or near the beach
at night. Do not go off into the desert, there's nothing there anyway except some really big
rattlesnakes. He says we can fish off the point or snorkel off the reef if it's not to rough and surf
all by our lonesome. Sounds like our kind of place." They thanked the old man profusely
promising to stop by on the way back to tell him of their adventure.
The trip to the coast was torturously slow. The road, if you could call it that, had to be negotiated
very carefully. It was obvious it was rarely used. Several times they considered going back but
figured out ways to travel down the rutted path using two long planks they had picked up by the
side of the road. Once they arrived near the ocean the road ended abruptly at the edge of a fairly
deep arroyo, 20-30 feet wide. Now dry, the winding canyon worked it's way down about a half
km to the ocean's edge where it emerged at the base of a 40 foot cliff. The beach was mostly
cobblestone rock, and a little coarse sand. There was little or no vegetation save a few gnarled
trees and a tangled web of tinder-dry roots and driftwood.
Out in the ocean the turquoise waves seemed to be created from their dreams. Perfectly formed
long period lines wrapped in over the reef every 10 minutes or so around from the North West,
capable of launching a rider for 200-300 yards of surfslashing fun. The boys were delirious with
anticipation but spent their first two hours packing their supplies down from the car to the base of
the cliffs. They set up a primitive camp among some half dead trees all the while smiling like
medicated idiots over the waves they were witnessing.
After hiding and locking the car behind a small hill consisting of a mound of desert rocks, they
covered it completely with scrub brush. The boys, laughing and joking, flushed with the
excitement of their good luck, fairly slid down the remarkably smooth arroyo walls and raced to
be the first to paddle out. The little known point would provide almost a weeks worth of
unbelievably good conditions that resulted in bonecrushing fatigue at the end of each day, but
insured deep satisfied sleep under the deep dark starlit sky. Neither of them had ever surfed such
warm, ideal conditions. Without their neoprene suits their surfing took on a liberated exuberance
that freed them to attempt, and complete, surfing moves they had never done before. In their
own opinions both notched up their surf skill levels quite a bit in just one week. It's almost as if
they'd gone to surfcamp in heaven.
On this last day and in this last hour Garrett was getting tired on top of being sunburnt and sore.
Both boys had logged as much water time as possible and now the effects of 6 hours in the water
were taking their toll. The sets were less frequent now and with the tide coming in some waves
were even backing off the reef remaining largely unbroken until they reached shore. It was
getting quite dark due to the thickening cloud cover and both of them knew the next set would
bring their last waves of the trip. Barely able to see the dark horizon against the charcoal gray
water, Garrett could just make out movement on the outside. Finally they would both get their
Chook had position and took the second thick walled wedge that slapped it's peak, due to the
higher tide, only halfway down the face. Taking advantage he charged a deep crossface turn well
into the white water then slashed a 180 cutback to race the rest of the wave as it slowed and
steepened across the reef. Eighty yards down the swell Garrett could barely see Chook launch a
celebratory "air" which he, as usual, never landed upright.
Garrett felt strangely chilled all by himself, bobbing in the black water and losing his landmarks
in the dim light and thickening haze. Though he knew the reef thoroughly from having surfed it
all week, he suddenly felt he should not be there by himself. A deep sense of foreboding caused
him to glance about in a furtive attempt to see anything strange or out of the ordinary.
Unexpectedly, a wave came out of the dark nearly catching him unaware. He reflexively stroked
into the overhead wave, happy to be riding and relieved he was now moving toward shore. As he
angled his turn he knew he would not showboat this wave. Instead he carefully rode the shoulder
well ahead of the breaking lip and then straightened out to belly his way in the rest of the way.
In the haze he could barely see Chook removing his leash. The shore was pitch black, you could
barely make out the cobblestone beach just a few feet in front of you. They both took the walk
back to their camp very carefully.
Knowing it was to be their last day here, between sessions the boys had taken most of their
supplies back up to the car leaving only the bare essentials for one more nights sleep. The next
morning, weather permitting, they would catch a quick dawn patrol then pack a few remaining
things in their shoulder packs and leave. As they put on dry clothes and chewed some beef jerky
Garrett wondered if their last night might be spoiled by rain.
"You hear that Chook?"
"That deep sorta rumbling." Garrett held his breath as he listened again.
"Yeah, probably thunder. Let's get our stuff under the tarp."
Garrett listened more closely.
"Nah, doesn't really have that kind of distant quality, sounds like boulders being rolled down a
cliff." He wondered if there was some undetectable seismic activity in the area?
Garrett moved down the beach toward the water carrying his board to wash some sand off and to
get a better look back East over the shoreside cliff at the deep cloud cover. About a half mile
back up in the black hills he thought he saw some dim lights. They looked weak and yellowish
far in the distance and were moving in tandem very slowly, approximately where they had hiked
down the arroyo to get to the beach.
"Hey Chook, I think we got company." Garrett called not too loudly.
"How's that?" Chook said back out of the darkness.
"Not sure just yet, looks like someone driving a big off road vehicle down the arroyo. God knows
how. They must have 10 wheel drive. Looks like they got some weird foglamps on it. Better
grab your stuff Chooky in case we have to bolt."
"Ah, you candyass. I'll just sweet talk em. Probably some tourists looking for Cabo."
With that Garrett started to make his way slowly back up the rocky beach to be with Chook when
he made contact with the visitors. Better to show numbers just in case.
A new noise started to be heard over the breaking waves. This sounded vaguely like rocks being
shaken in an oil drum. Garrett thought, Man, these people must've lost their muffler or
As he moved up the beach Garrett was seized with a deep throbbing knot of fear in his gut. Until
now the trip had gone smooth as glass. He was not relishing a confrontation with locals or
banditos. They had maybe $75 dollars between them, plus their camping gear. Worse, no one but
the old pescador knew where they were. Damn, it was dark out here tonight. In the distance he
could just see the yellow headlights turn the final curve of the arroyo before it leveled out toward
the ocean. It was only another 200 feet to the beach. They slowed then stopped about half way.
They turned off and quickly back on.
"I see em," Chook called. "I'm going over to see what's up. They're probably lost."
Garrett couldn't see Chook move into the mouth of the arroyo but kept his eyes riveted on the
glowing yellow headlights. These were a type he'd never seen before with a narrow black vertical
space in the center that widened slightly at the top and bottom of the lens. Probably specialized
desert halogens or something. Maybe they were some kind of smugglers who didn't want to be
seen? He guessed this was some monster sized SUV or military truck, the lights appeared to be
about 10 feet apart, but did not illuminate anything at all in front of the thing. Pretty shitty
equipment if you asked him.
"Buenas Noches, Senor." He heard Chook say.... Then... Silence.
The lights turned off then came quickly back on again. A form of greeting Garrett thought. This
was a good sign.
"Hello? Are you Americans?" Chook took another stab at being friendly.
"Ask em if they're lost?" Garrett encouraged as he continued to move toward Chook's voice.
Silence. Eerily, even the ocean went mute. Garrett felt a slight breeze moving on the first winds
of what could be a rain squall, but instead of the subtle smell of rain he got a disturbing whiff of
the sharp, acrid smell of rotting flesh. Every hair on his body went rigid with a prickly tingling
sensation that made him shudder uncontrollably.
Silence. He still could not make out Chook in the blackness of the arroyo.
The yellow, now intense lights turned off then quickly back on again. What the hell was......
"Garrett?" He could barely recognized Chook's voice. Not only was it much diminished in
timber, but it sounded as if he was struggling for a breath.
"Yeah, Chook, what's goin' on?" Garrett kept moving toward Chook trying to sound reassuring.
"No you stupid gringo, what are you talk........"
With that a thin keening scream started off in a barely audible register, brittle as a shard of glass,
then filled into a full throated terror driven shriek that came piercing out of the arroyo like a
thousand fingernails on a blackboard. Garrett was stunned by a jolt of fear so paralyzing he
almost lost control of his bladder. The horror of this sound was terrifying.
The yellow eyes had flared in primal majesty as Chook was taken in one swift bite, penetrated
and gored, his dying, gurgling screams submerged beneath the gushing fluid of his life as it left
his body in weak spurts timed perfectly with his pounding heart.
Garrett sensed immediately his friend was gone. In what seemed like super slow motion he
turned with his board and ran as fast or faster than he ever imagined for the ocean, slicing and
gashing his feet on rocks with each step, though he was unable to feel the deep cuts and
punctures. In only knee deep water he launched himself through the first wave and began
paddling furiously, possessed with an energy driven by adrenaline and terror he had never
experienced in his life. He was so completely controlled by fear he never even bothered to
duckdive through waves. Instead he just plowed ahead seemingly powered by some hidden force
that he willed to drive himself through every wave.
In minutes that seemed like hours Garrett finally reached the outside break, though he couldn't be
sure since all his landmarks were lost in the dark. In the distance to the East he could see
gathering thunderheads that rumbled ominously and spit out an occasional forked bolt of
lightening. Only then could he barely make out the ridge of the coastal cliff, but nothing on the
beach. Feebly he called Chook's name in weak gasping sobs, knowing for certain his best friend
would not answer. Though both the air and water seemed warm, he shivered almost
uncontrollably, in shock with adrenaline withdrawal.
Garrett felt totally lost, crushed by the knowledge he would never see Chook again, and further
worried that he was alone, alone on a remote part of the Baja. No one knew for sure where he
was and he wasn't positive he could make it back to Rosarita by himself. He wasn't sure he
could even make it back to the car, or whether the car was even there, and Chook had the only
With a major line of thunderstorms coming on and the seas steepening and becoming larger and
disorganized, he could only lay on his board and sob into his forearm. He was very tired. He
knew if he could only get a few minutes sleep he would be able to think and figure a way out of
this mess. Garrett put his head down on his arm but could not relax his mind from the thoughts of
the nights events. Fear and uncertainty knotted like a fist in his stomach. Over the breaking
waves he could hear nothing but the scream that came out of the arroyo.
Far outside the reef a dark, primitive force gathered itself for the assault. It moved toward the
land as it had for millions of years shaping and ending the lives of creatures that dared to get in
it's way. Though born of the winds and traveling by sea, it's life would be over in seconds. But
there were legions more where it came from. Nothing in the history of the earth could withstand
Since the beginning of time many powerful forces had clashed and worked in harmony in the
creation and destruction of nature. By comparison, in the continuum of time the life of every
living thing is merely the blink of an eye.
Life, we learn too late, is in the living, in the tissue of every day and hour. -
Swim for your life
Tuesday, April 17, 2001
The 7 year old boy watched as his Dad dove under the first wave. He panicked
when he did not see him pop up on the other side but realized his Dad was
pulling one of his underwater swimming stunts, staying submerged for hundreds of
From near shore in the shallows of Daytona Beach the boy stood in knee deep
water, eyes scanning the endless lines of whitewater as the waves poured in
ceaselessly in the hot Florida sun. Already his skin was feeling the effects,
starting to tingle with sunburn. It being the dead of August it was so hot back
on the beach he just had to get in the cool water. He loved going out in any
body of calm water escorted by his Dad but this time he'd taken a flying run and
dive into the surf and took off like a rocket, cleaving the the smooth waters
surface with his strong effortless strokes, never looking back for the boy who
wanted desperately to join him.
It was 1957 and the boy's family was on vacation during possibly the hottest
month of the year. And the only reason they traveled in August was that his
Grandfather had offered to let them use his new Cadillac Fleetwood, the one with
air conditioning! Unfortunately the big black car with the enormous swept back
fins absorbed heat like a sponge and used gasoline at a horrendous rate barely
making it from one state to another on a tank of gas. This required lots of
stops at places like Hojos and Stuckeys.
It wasn't hard to find a beachfront motel in Daytona because it seemed the boy
and his family were the only tourists in Florida. The place was a ghost town.
Though the heat was oppressive the boy luxuriated in the blue green Atlantic
Ocean. For the last 4 years they had vacationed on a lake called Long Pond, near
Buzzards Bay in Cape Cod. It was, in fact, the place where his Dad had taught
him how to swim two years ago, something the boy practiced tirelessly whenever
he could. Though the lake water was warm, the ocean on the Cape was too cold and
rough. He spent most of his water time playing in the shallows of the lake with
his friends and their truck tire inner tubes
All summer his Dad had told him they would be vacationing at the ocean this year
and he would often take the boy to the municipal pool to help him perfect his
swimming. It wasn't long before he was confident enough to stay afloat so that
he could swim across the "deep end" of the pool. After each lap his Dad would
suggest ways to improve his technique, telling him to kick only slightly from
the knees and keeping his head in the water until he needed to take a quick
breath, and only raising his head out of the water once in awhile to make sure
he was swimming in the right direction. His Dad said most of the power in
swiming comes from the shoulders and arms; they should be cycled with good from
and little splashing. The boy took each of these pieces of advice very seriously
and stayed in the water as long as his Dad would let him or until he got so
sunburnt he had to leave the pool.
The boy finally saw his Dad pop up just inside the breakers far out from shore,
gosh it seemed like a mile but was really about 150 yards. His Dad dove under
two more waves and was finally just outside the break line. In the distance the
boy could see his Dad wave to him gesturing for him to come out. The boy froze
in his tracks knowing full well he'd never swam alone in the ocean with waves
before. He also knew he wanted to be with his Dad in the worst way, so
tentatively he began to walk into the deeper water. From way off in the distance
he could hear is Dad yell, "SWIM SON, SWIM!!!" As if launched out of a slingshot
the boy dove into the next wave, closed his eyes and set out with a
determination that consumed every fiber of his heart and soul. He would swim to
his Dad, or die trying.
The waves broke over him, dragging him back, washing into his mouth when he
gasped for air. He had to stop a few times to choke up water he'd swallowed.
Each time he could hear his Dad's voice, "SWIMMMMM!!!!" Each time he'd get his
bearings, put his head down and forge ahead in the direction of that voice.
He learned quickly that diving under the waves was be best way to get by them so
out of the corner of his eye he would watch for the whitewater until it was just
upon him then he would angle his body in a shallow dive letting the momentum of
his last stroke carry him through.
He knew he could not give up, he was in water over his head and he was getting
very tired. His pencil thin arms and legs were starting to hurt, a lot. But he
would not give in to the desire to rest. As he got farther out the waves seemed
to get bigger towering over him and crashing down, causing him to be violently
dragged everywhere in the strong currents and surges. This was very disorienting
and caused him to question his resolve.
Finally, when he thought he could not swim another stroke he heard his Dad yell,
"Come on Son, only another 50 feet to go, YOU CAN DO IT, I KNOW YOU CAN!!"
With a final spike of adrenaline charged courage the boy took his deepest breath
swearing not to take another one until he'd reached his Dad. At this point he
was pummeled by a large wave, and then another, but still he pushed on.
Suddenly the strength of his arms, legs and lungs gave out all at once. He was
defeated. He felt limp as a wet sock, barely able to even float to the surface,
and not really caring if he did.
Instantly a pair of strong hands grasped him under the arms and lifted him
swiftly in the air twirling him around to sit on the broad shoulders of his Dad.
He was sitting high and clear of the ocean as his Dad treaded water with his
arms and legs. They were facing out to the ocean as his Dad laughed and praised
his mighty effort. "That's the way son, I knew you could do it. You came the
whole way with no help. Good swimming." The boy was instantly rejuvenated by his
Dad's voice and comments and thrilled to pieces to be way out in the ocean with
him in the waves of the Atlantic.
Soon he saw a big wave bearing down on them. Just before it broke on them his
Dad boosted him in the air by his butt and shot him straight up above the top of
the swell where he had a bird's eye view of the breaking wave as it washed over
his Dad. He landed in the same strong hands as before but now those hands were
again positioning themselves to do the same thing, only this time much higher.
Each time the boy was launched in the air he swooned with the sensation of being
airborne and that close to the large breaking waves, giggling and laughing
uncontrollably until he was again gasping for air.
The two stayed out in the water for what seemed like hours, playing and diving
into the waves. Finally his Dad said, "We'd better go in, you're starting to
look like a lobster. Here, put your arms around my neck and we'll go in." When
the boy protested saying he could swim in his Dad looked at him with a genuine
twinkle in his eye and said, "Oh, we're not swimmin in sonny boy, that's too
easy." The boy latched himself securely to his Dad's neck and within seconds
could feel him stroking deeply just in front of an oncoming wave. Suddenly he
could feel them sliding along the unbroken face of the wave, gliding and
skimming in front of the swell. The sheer act, the movement of the water against
their bodies was amazing to the boy.
At last the wave died and his Dad dove under the water taking the boy with him.
They both came up laughing in fits 'til the boy puked up water. His Dad took him
by the shoulders, looked deeply into the burnt and freckled face, then pointed
out to the waves. "If you can swim son, the ocean is your playground. If you can
swim the waves become your playmates and friends. If you can swim, your life is
simply better." I never believed anything so much in my life.
I was that boy.......I am that boy.
FDNY a story
Thursday, December 06, 2001
We were kids of both the city and the country. A weird mix of urban culture
and truck farming influences. We lived on Staten Island, a small island
borough of New York City, and a gulag of street life and bucolic isolation
for a kid growing up in the 50s.
My friends were Italian, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Germans, Polacks, and WASPs.
They lived in seedy apartments, cramped duplexes, undistinguished row
houses, single family homes, run down shacks and above stores where their
families worked 18 hour days to make a living from a crappy little business
that barely supported a big family of Catholics.
Many of my friends were so poor they had one pair of shoes and one coat for
each school year. They were regulars at the church food giveaways and
firehouse clothing drives. They were skinny, sometimes sullen, tough little
kids who could stare down a junkyard dog. They didn’t take shit from anyone
and never backed down from a fight, but learned to walk away from one when
the reasons for fighting were not important. They were also the best and
most loyal friends a big clumsy red headed kid or anyone could have. We all
learned to watch each other’s back and keep together for fun and protection.
The neighborhood firehouse, Engine Co. 28, was a mile from where I lived,
but it was a second home to me. I lived most of my childhood until age 11
in the shadow of that massive red brick building, riding my rusty little
bike there several times daily despite the weather. It was the focal point
of my social arena and the place I felt the safest and most happy. The men
there were surrogates for a father who worked in the city and would spend
many hours at home studying his journals and books for his job as an
electrical engineer. They were benevolent uncles, stern disciplinarians,
compulsive jokesters and committed family men who defined their full time
jobs as, "290 days of boredom, and 20 minutes of terror."
My friends and I learned all about life watching the men of Engine Co. 28
live theirs. They taught us to play stickball and handball and practice
hard the skills that would help us excel at those pastimes. They let each
of us have our first tiny sip of warm Ballantine Beer, surely the vilest
beverage ever sold to the public for money. They taught us to play cards
honestly and to work toward a goal, being patient in achieving it and
remaining modest in our successes. They caught us looking at the Playboy
centerfolds taped to the equipment room walls and gave us a knowing wink
when we blushed bright red. When we mimicked them smoking cigarettes they
admonished us to never start smoking, though most of them did and to never
play with matches or lighters.
They let us sit in, or on special occasions, ride the big red engines. They
instructed us on how to roll hoses, polish the bells, slide down the fire
pole, put out brush fires as we hung desperately onto the three inch thick
lines that were bucking and jerking with water pressure so violently we
would have been flung into the air had one of the huge, bulky firemen not
been standing behind us to anchor that hose.
During the long, hot, interminable days of summer they would open the
hydrants in the street and hose down all the kids to keep us cool. This
weekly water fight, from the end of school in June to Labor Day, sometimes
reached epic proportions. My friends and I had learned how to sneak up the
back stairs to the second and third floor living quarters of the firehouse.
From strategic open windows we could bomb our tormentors with water
balloons or just buckets of water. Our firemen hated getting wet when they
didn’t have to. Ten out of ten times this egregious behavior would result
in the three instigators (me, Tommy and Duce pronounced "Deuce") getting
hung by our heels from the massive mitts of some muscle-bound man-monster,
wearing an FDNY t-shirt, jumpout pants and boots and a very wet smile.
They’d hold us over a big, round galvanized steel tub of ice water (and
Ballantine Beers) and dunk us as many times as our other friends screamed
for more. In our twisted overheated childhood minds this was the coolest
way to spend a hot summer day in the city. We loved our firemen.
When they knew the men were out on a call late in the afternoon and
couldn’t cook for themselves (and everyone knew that from the sirens) our
mothers would bring them casseroles of baked beans and hot dogs, macaroni
and cheese, cakes, cookies and pies. In return, the firemen would keep a
watchful eye on their kids and in the summer and hose down their parched
lawns and vegetable gardens.
Every day the firemen raised and lowered the American Flag in a solemn
ceremony of respect and patriotism. Everyone, every kid, in the vicinity
placed their hands over their hearts and removed their sweaty baseball
caps, and nobody laughed. Many of our firemen were veterans or reservists,
former cops or National Guard. Since they were there from my earliest
childhood memory I guess we took them for granted. Got a cut? Get a
Band-Aid. Bike chain broken?
Fixed in a jiffy. Family cat up a tree? Haul out that big ladder (and a
pair of canvas gloves). We could count on them for almost anything. One
day l learned just how much.
Behind the firehouse Mrs. Wilson kept a small barn and a fenced paddock to
house and exercise her two horses. Her son, Brian, an ugly, and dirty
little brat was our paperboy. When he couldn’t ride his bike to deliver the
Staten Island Advance due to snow or driving rain, he’d bring it on
horseback. In the 5 years he did this he never once landed that paper on
our front steps. My dad was convinced he did this on purpose because we
only tipped him $1 at Christmas time when everyone else gave him $2.
Most of the time the paddock was an 2 acre field of lush green grass. The
horses Mrs. Wilson kept there were broken down old nags that could barely
walk let alone run. We were never in fear of cutting across the field
because we could outrun both the horses should they ever chase us, which
they wouldn’t since at least once a week we’d feed them carrots or
crabapples we’d steal from Mrs. Wilson’s garden. She knew all this but
never said a thing.
One day in the spring of 1959, Tommy and I were going to cut across the
field to meet Duce at the firehouse to play handball. When we got to the
fence we saw two teenagers punching and slapping Duce silly in the middle
of the field. We knew these guys were from another town and were probably
passing through the area and were shaking down Duce for any money he
had. Tommy looked at me with one of his electric blue-eyed,
kill-the-fucker stares and without a word I knew we were going in to get
Duce. Without a seconds hesitation Tommy and I launched ourselves off the
wood fence to go help our friend.
The teenagers were 14 or 15 years old and attended a local High School.
They were slapping the snot out of Duce who was screaming and fighting back
as best he could, but one of the bullies had him pinned to the ground while
the other searched his pockets and slapped his face when he didn’t find
anything. We knew this was going to be a suicide fight. These guys were
much bigger than we were but that did not bother Tommy in the least. Size
and age were not factors in the equation of a fight in Tommy’s mind. All
you needed was heart (and a really nasty Irish temper).
It was understood from the get go as the biggest kid in our circle of
friends, I was going after the bigger guy of the two. I dreaded this
because though I was big for my age, I was not strong and very
uncoordinated which virtually guaranteed I was in for a severe asswhipping
at the hands of a greasy bastard named Richie Carbone".. a thuggish, thick
chested and stupid goombah of the Eyetalian persuasion.
Small for his age, Tommy was the toughest little Irish kid I’ve ever
known. Racing ahead of me he launched himself head first at the punk who
was slapping Duce, hitting him with such force he knocked the guy flat on
his back. In an instant Carbone was on his feet and ready for me, legs
spread apart and reaching in his pants pocket for God knows what. Though I
was scared shitless I knew unless I handled this guy he would kick the
living crap out of all of us. Ten feet from Carbone I headfaked to the
left screaming "Watch out for the Horse!!!" As "shit for brains" turned his
head slightly to look, buying the oldest trick in the book of street
fighting (or in the country) I rammed my shoulder with all my might into
his ample gut knocking us both on the ground.
Duce and Tommy were now on the other guy, named Strauss, like a pair of
rabid weasels. But he was bigger than both of them were and started
throwing them off like they were annoying bugs. Regrouping instantly my
guys charged Strauss high and low in a bullrush to get him on the ground
where their sheer weight might give them an advantage. They all went down
in a tangle of arms and legs but Strauss, a lineman on his High School
football team, flicked Duce off like a feather. At that point Tommy had to
play his ace move from the dirty street-fighting manual. Jumping up in the
air and coming down with his elbow on Strauss’s crotch like he saw the pro
wrestling guys do on Channel 11 every Saturday morning, he simultaneous
disabled the guy and ran his own face into Strauss’s upwardly moving fist,
which inconveniently mashed Tommy’s nose onto his cheek. Great screaming,
yelling and swearing ensued from both boys.
My initial charge on Carbone had knocked the wind out of him and he was
very slow getting up. But when he finally did, it was like a guido launched
out of Mt. Vesuvius as he ran at me with evil eyes and spewing curse
words. Grabbing me by the neck and arm he fairly lifted me off my feet and
slammed me into the soft and grassy ground trying to break my neck. I let
out a howl that could be heard blocks away but did not cry. Carbone was now
punching me wherever he could strike me that I was not protecting with my
arms and legs. I took a couple good shots to the chest that did not hurt
much, but he grazed me off the cheekbone and that hurt like a mother. The
bruise I would later sport got lots of attention from my friends. My Mom
was horrified, my Dad was kinda proud but never said so.
As I looked up at Carbone’s angry mug, the bloody, crooked nosed face of an
enraged Tommy Byrne came into view behind him. Instinctively I knew Tommy
was going to be my last chance to get out of this without a bad beating.
Thomas Bryne, a smallish, good Catholic boy from a family of eight, knowing
he was not going to overpower the bigger boy, had armed himself with of all
things, two hands full of the gooiest, steaming, gelatinous horse shit he
could find in Mrs. Wilson’s paddock. To get Carbone’s attention he yelled
through his squashed nose, "Hey Caaaahbone. You fuggin’ asshole wop!!!"
Richie Carbone stopped pounding me for a second and turned to see who would
be so stupid as to address him in that manner. In that instant Tommy
smashed both hands full of the yellowish green turds into Carbone’s face,
stuffing it in his eyes, nose and mouth. I was never so glad to see horse
shit, or Tommy in my life. Blinded and gasping for air, Carbone lurched to
his feet lashing out with his fists hoping to connect a lucky shot. Tommy,
the nastiest little street fighter I’ve ever known, took dead aim with his
good throwing arm and punched the hulking Carbone with a full roundhouse
swing right in the throat. He went down like a house of cards gagging and
swearing like his buddy Strauss.
This whole little tableau took outwards of maybe 5 or 6 minutes. The
shrieking and yelling that resulted brought five of our firemen running out
to the field behind their firehouse to see what had happened. After
separating the two groups, both screaming and yelling, Duce told the
firemen how the big boys had set upon him trying to steal his allowance and
how Tommy and I had come to his rescue.
The teenagers were searched. Carbone was found to be carrying a
switchblade in his back pocket and when the firemen saw that they took the
two boys back to the firehouse for a stern lecture. Tommy was escorted to
the squad room for some medical attention and a phone call to his Mom. He
yelped when one of the firemen reset his nose. After cleaning the teenagers
up they were sent packing with this advice which I overheard as one of the
firemen gave Tommy and I some ice for his nose and my cheek. It went
something like this:
"These three little boys you attacked are our kids. They are from our
neighborhood and they are part of our family. They are like sons to us and
make no mistake, if you attack them you attack us. We know your family
Carbone. This is our family and what you did we take personally. You both
stay out of this town. If you ever come through here again, we will know
about it. We have eyes and ears everywhere. If you ever come around here
packing a weapon, your daddy will be getting a visit from the police.
Kapish? Now get da fuck outta heah."
We never had trouble with Carbone or his like again. Tommy Bryne joined the
New York City Fire Department after graduating from Tottenville High School
and the NYC Fire Academy with honors. He rose to the position of Captain
in his own precinct in Brooklyn, New York. He was a strong supporter of
athletics, especially boxing in the NYC Police Athletic League (PAL) and
often told his young charges his own proboscis was malformed in a street
(field) fight. Had he known how to box he’d be much more handsome and a guy
not working on his third marriage. He was probably right, though he had bad
judgement in women and a tendency to drop his right hand after three punch
Thomas Patrick Bryne died Sept. 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center, New
York City. He was last seen leading 12 of his men on a suicide mission into
a burning building to save the people he had promised his city he would
protect. Brave and fearless to the end, he never lost sight of his
commitment to his fellow man and the citizens of NYC. He left a wife and
three kids, all college graduates. He was decorated three times in his
career for heroism in the line of duty.
Three hundred and fifty friends, relatives and fire fighters from around
the country attended his dignified funeral on Staten Island as he was laid
to rest in his family plot on a brilliantly, clear, Fall afternoon. As soon
as the bagpipes droned into "Amazing Grace," Duce and I cried like
babies. It was simply one of the saddest moments I have ever known. We
loved you Tommy.