Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Charlie and Caylee

The last thing Charlie Drake remembered was trying to gather the bow painter as they backed away from Ms. Benson’s fish camp on the Ponachee River. Caylee, his wife, was at the helm and she had Red Witch in reverse at idle throttle just like she should have and he paused for a moment to watch the landing and the fish camp and the shore recede.

The Ponachee River basin was always quiet this time in the evening which was why they’d taken the boat out in the first place. With the light fading and the wine and glasses in the cooler what more could a couple want.

He remembered the slap to the back of his head. He remembered that later. He remembered seeing the registration numbers on the bow of the Red Witch upside down as he tumbled over the life rail with shards of wood and glass and papers and safety cushions and paper plates and maps and a bunch of other junk clouding the air above him. And he remembered the thump to his chest that took his breath away for a serious moment but luckily not for long when he hit the water flat on his back, looking up at the marvelous mid-summer, evening sky.

Caylee fared better. She’d stepped to the stern to retrieve and stow the stern line before it got itself tangled in the prop. There was plenty of room astern of the Witch and Caylee didn’t have to hurry but let Red Witch nudge its way, pulling at idle into the river current. The Ponachee River and basin sauntered at about a mile a day, so the Witch wasn’t going to go very far very fast in reverse. She had just turned to face forward and she also paused for a moment with ten or twelve feet between where she stood and the helm,when the shock wave hit her full force in the face sending her one step backward until the stern bulkhead of the cockpit caught her calf high. Rather than the cabin bulkhead shredding her, because the companionway hatch had been open, most of the blast towards the stern was a wave of heated air coming out the hatchway. The shock and being tripped by the stern bulkhead carried her out and flat almost like dropping a flat stone on the water.

The force that hit both of them, and destroyed the Red Witch, that broke her keel, must have come from below the engine. The blast’s downward direction might very well have saved Caylee’s life. With the bottom blown out of the Red Witch the engine, keel, water tanks, gas tank, pumps all went straight to the mud which was only about three feet below the keel. Red Witch sank like some kind of suck hole had opened up underneath her and just swallowed the boat whole. After the smoke cleared her superstructure stood high and dry as if she were a statue in the river.

To his credit Charlie was only 43. and in good shape, and the suddenness, all saved him. One second he’s glancing around at the beauty of the fish camp, and all his friends on shore and the cabins and blue sky turning pink, and a great blue heron coasting by, and the next moment he is in the water, on his back with this cloud of detritus forming over his head. And his back felt really cold right now but that was because the extra strong singe on his back hadn’t made itself noticeable.

Caylee got a good first-degree burn all up and down her front but noticeably her sides and back were unscathed. When she hit the water her ability to swim and being comfortable in the water kept her from panicking and someplace in her brain an automatic lifesaving function was launched.
Same with Charlie. Almost as if there were two of him, the second Charlie instinctively wanted to swim and float and hold its breath until some form of the first Charlie took over.

The debris hadn’t settled in the water before fisherman and other boaters had Caylee and Charlie both up on the boat ramp. Someone used a seat cushion as a pillow. Someone else immediately had the sense to throw a blanket over them. Now that they were out the water Charlie and Caylee both dropped off into a semi-shock state. Ten minutes later the first sirens were rising from the county road.
t was Ms. Benson, who owned the camp, that got things organized by the time the ambulance arrived. The deputy got there soon after. Ms. Benson made sure that the EMT knew Caylee and Charlie were husband and wife and that Caylee’s purse was probably in the mud of the river by now. But, no, someone had waded into the river and found it floating and brought it ashore. Charlie had his wallet. Ms. Benson also found that Caylee’s phone was still working. Ms. Benson sent her daughter to the house to get a change of clothes for both of them. Old man Benson wasn’t around anymore, thank God, but his shorts and t-shirts ought to fit Charlie and Ms. Benson’s daughter was about the same size and shape as Caylee.

With both out of immediate danger, although the ambulance was eager to head for the hospital, the deputy took some time to get their stories first. It seemed to him, from what he gathered, that there must have been a gas leak in the bilge and a spark, although he not being a boat man didn’t know beans from apple butter about boats, he figured that was what caused the explosion. Most of the force apparently was downward below the engine that weakened the above deck destruction. At least that was his starting point.

Charlies’ business partner and friend, Sam Bowen, caught up to Charlie just before the emergency doctor wanted to start some testing and was beginning to shoo people out of the ER.

“Charlie, I can’t believe the ol’ girl blew up!” Sam was not excitable, ordinarily. Right now he wavered from trying to imagine the unbelievable and the sad reality. “She’s gone! Damn, I liked that ol’ girl. You had her a long time, I know. But, I’m glad Caylee is okay, too. She’s fine compared to you, buddy, but I worry about you, too, you know.”

“You just keep worrying, pal. It keeps me honest,” said Charlie Drake.

“Still. This is serious. I can’t believe it!”

“Me neither, Sam. Me neither.” Charlie had to pause as to think for a moment and catch his breath. His back was beginning to heat up like really bad sunburn. “Do me a favor?”


“I need my spare phone from the office. In the bottom left-hand drawer of the desk.”

“Sure. We need to take care of some private business?”

“Better believe it, partner. Also, get in my safe and get my thirty-eight and come right back with ‘em both. Okay?”

“You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I don’t know. I’m thinking the Witch was one helluva nice boat but somebody is really gonna pay for hurting Caylee. What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking Manny Clark?” Sam nearly spit at saying the name.

“You took the words right out of my mouth,” said Charlie.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Big Easy

I recently visited the New Orleans International JazzFest and had the pleasure of watching to five different bands. Of the newer generation of bands were the Mississippi Rail Company which was a small brass band and piano. Lively and smart music. The second was Marcia Ball who plays like she’s had way too much chicory coffee. That woman would be hard to keep up with!

At the other end of the spectrum was the “Tribute to Bessie Smith.” Bessie Smith is the matron saint of southern blues. A tragic life but a legacy of soulful music and warm lyrics. That was the kind of music you expect to hear in the background of any movie or show set in New Orleans. I only stumbled on this great show because I was overheating, because Taj Mahal had cancelled, and I unbelievably missed noticing that Aaron Neville was about to play.

Serendipities and epiphanies abound sometimes, because, “Greg Stafford & His Young Tuxedo Jazz Band” performed next. The band was neither young nor wore tuxedoes. What made this performance so New Orleansian was that the Jetsetters Dance Group made up of three women in red or pink tops and black shorts and delightfully gorgeous crowns came dancing in from off stage.This was unplanned. This is the tourist view of New Orleans maybe at it most historic and as advertised. The crowd went wild. This is what they’d come to New Orleans to see. They didn’t need to see an aged Elton John or an antique Jerry Lee Lewis, they wanted spontaneity and they wanted to see where all “this” the JazzFest, the Dukes of Dixieland, Pete Fountain, all came from. We were on the scene of the beginning of Louis Armstrong and every bluesman and jazzman from the late B.B. King to Alan Toussaint and Duke Ellington. For thirty minutes it was being back in time to a place we might not want to return but certainly wanted to sniff the flavor.

The old timers of the jazz band, Tuxedo was the name of their streetcar, played on and on getting a bit more tired with each tune. They played the dirge of farewell and the get-happy of Rampart Street.

The next night we visited a bar in the Quarter that had a trio of guitar, standup bass, and cornet. Good music in the open air. Folks just hanging around listening and being free for a moment. Lively, unstructured, no endless chatter from the lead pitchman. Which made me think of being back in Johnson City.

People visit our neck of the woods expecting to see sights and sounds, as advertised, just like when we visited New Orleans. Folks dance at the Carter Family Fold when they wouldn’t dare dance anywhere else. They whoop “hee-haw” at the Dixie Stampede because it’s part of the fun for a moment. Do we let our hair down out of the town so we won’t be spotted having fun?

In the “Big Easy” I tried to be conscious of my being a tourist and found there were two different locals just like there are here. There’s the born-and-bred-native and the moved-in (like me.)

I was told the other day that it is possible after many decades to become a native. I asked, “Where do I apply?”