Big John is Gone

When a story stirs your imagination, digs deep into your inner consciousness, you must ride it for all it’s worth. So, here I sit: thinking, probing deep, trying to remember every minute detail. Pedal to the metal, I’m exhuming distant memories that meandered through my neighborhood

The impetus was a recent midday phone call. The caller-ID displayed the name of an old friend, roommate and teammate. His name is Chip. He rarely calls or visits anymore. But when he does, we’re always ready to roll, like we’ve never been apart.

We played baseball on the same and opposing teams before traveling the country together and sharing rooms as professional fundraisers – six weeks here, six weeks there, wheeling and dealing to raise money, primarily for police associations. Some called the chaotic, noisy, telephone offices in which we toiled boiler rooms. An apt description.

Our boss, a former Connecticut state amateur golf champ, admitted to 400 pounds. He was a big spender, and a bigger Elvis fan. His office motto had a humorous ring to it: “If you wanna live in style, spin the dial,” he’d bellow through his broad, bushy Fu Manchu. The catchy phrase probably means nothing to young folks familiar only with pushbutton dialing.

Our job took us thousands of miles, introduced us to places we probably would not have otherwise visited, and placed us in many motels, some better than others, providing a rollicking collection of entertaining tales. Unfortunately, few are appropriate for print. Oh well, such is life in the mainstream press, where the best stories can never be told. And when they are, it’s called “fiction,” which usually wanders little from the truth.

Whenever Chip and I converse, be it face to face or on the phone, the stories flitter up like mischievous ridgetop spirits in a cold, blustery, moonlit wind. We chuckle, reminisce, savor the conversation, often laughing to tears, as though our friendship never sauntered off in different directions many decades ago. Now retired and settling into our golden years, it’s a fine time to reconnect, to reflect back on the good and bad days of our past.

The last time I spoke to him, before Christmas, he and his wife were on winter vacation down south. He answered his cell phone to clinking silverware and the soft buzz of background conversation in a Charleston, S.C., restaurant. The city had escaped the full fury of another of those devastating 100-year hurricanes that seem to rear their ugly head annually these days. When asked, he said he had seen some of the storm damage from the air on his flight in, but Charleston had been spared.

The reason I had called that winter day was to inform him that an old friend had died – a troubled Vietnam veteran with whom we had played ball and travelled the country, and for whom we had served as ushers at his 1975 wedding. Having heard not a peep from the man in years, I was concerned. I finally Googled him on a nighttime whim and can’t say I was shocked to find his obituary. Big John had died at 62. Not recently, either. On July 13, 2013. The short obit offered no hint as to how the end had arrived. No “died suddenly” or “unexpectedly” or “tragically” or “at home with his loving family by his side.” Just benign official notice that Big John had passed.

“Something tells me it didn’t end well,” I surmised back then.

“Yeah, I hear you.”

This latest call from Chip was a reversal of sorts. He was calling to say he’d done a little digging to no avail, calling both phone numbers stored away in his address book – one a cell, the other a land line. The recorded answers were identical: both numbers were no longer in service. Hmmmmm? A dead end. Not surprising, considering the subject.

As mysterious in death as he had been in life, our buddy had a dark side reaching deep into his troubled past. Born out of wedlock with a twin sister in 1950, he had been up against it as a boy till the day he was dropped in Danang, South Vietnam, as a 17-year-old virgin fresh out of Basic Training at Texas’ Lakland Air Force Base. His mother was a single airline stewardess at the time of his birth. She claimed his father was Chuck Connors, “The Rifleman” of television fame. She would know, and the story made sense. The tall, handsome actor had indeed played briefly for the Boston Celtics around that time, and, yes, the resemblance was there, especially the eyes.

Big John’s Vietnam tour was in fact a cruel twist of fate. Had the big righthander played ball as a Norwood High School senior, he would have either signed a pro contract (as brother teammates Richie and Denny Hebner had) or accepted a scholarship to some big-time college-baseball factory. He had it all: an athletic 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame, good looks, a heavy, lively ball and a potent bat.

Maybe, it just wasn’t meant to be. Pitching Norwood’s 1968 season opener, the star-crossed kid’s season ended abruptly when hit by a pitch that fractured his right wrist during his first at-bat. When his telephone-company-executive stepfather declined to pay his college tuition after graduation, Big John had no choice. With the Vietnam War escalating to a loud crescendo, he was going to be drafted into the Army. Instead, he enlisted in the Air Force and took a circuitous route back to the baseball diamond four years later at UMass’ Earl Lorden Field, arriving in Amherst for the fall 1972 semester.

I met Big John driving to my first UMass baseball meeting that semester. There he was, tall and lean, thumb sticking out across the road from Sunderland’s Cliffside Apartments. He was wearing a baggy T-shirt, cutoff shorts, sneakers, and a floppy, green, wide-brimmed, military-issue, chin-strapped hat. I pulled over, picked him up and asked him where he was headed. When he answered UMass, I asked where and he provided a Boyden Gymnasium room number. If memory serves me, it was either Room 112 or 121, but I could be wrong. It was long ago.

“To the baseball meeting?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Imagine that.”

I reached out my right arm, shook hands, introduced myself and said, “Well, it’s your lucky day. That’s precisely where I’m going.”

We were friends from that day forward. What a wild ride it was, winding from Miami Beach to Orono, Maine, to Chicago, Rock Springs, Wyo., Denver and who knows where else. At every stop, we lived our own version of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Though it now seems like fanciful chimera, it was real. Trust me. Many stories. Maybe even too many for our own good.

Big John had a loud, defiant streak fueled by his years in ’Nam, which had instilled in him deep distrust for and aversion to authority. “Give ’em one more stripe than you and a half-thimbleful of brains,” he told me many times, “and you had to salute and say ‘Yes, Sir.”

It wasn’t for him. Let’s just say that, similar to many other Vietnam vets I met over the years, all of them aimless drifters, Big John was done with military protocol by the time he returned to civilian life. And he wasn’t one bit reluctant to admit it. He was all done taking orders. This predisposition did him few favors.

Shortly after meeting Big John, he told me that one of his Air Force buddies (I’m quite sure his name was Peter) lived in Montague. They met during Big John’s final Air Force days at Westover, where he served out his enlistment.

“Isn’t Montague right around here somewhere?” he asked, decades before GPS and the Internet.

“Yeah, it’s just north,” I answered.

“Well, you gotta take me out there someday. I think you’ll like Pete. He’s cool.”

Leave it to Big John to make the reunion happen quickly. Within days, he’d made arrangements to meet his friend at the Montague Inn. I drove, picking up Big John outside his Cliffside apartment on a Saturday afternoon and taking Route 47 north to the Route 63 bar. We pulled into the parking lot and Big John’s friend was waiting. Looking for us, he soon spotted Big John in my car and broke into a warm smile. Big John couldn’t contain him enthusiasm, either.

“Peter,” he bellowed out the window in his deepest, most sinister baritone.

“Mac! How ya doin,’ Man?”

Big John jumped out, walked joyfully toward his pal, locked thumbs and wrapped each other in the strong embrace of long-lost brothers. They were obviously glad to reacquaint far away the regimented Air Force.

Soon we were inside, sipping sour-mash whiskey and shooting 8-ball on a pay pool table. Among the neighborhood players there that day was soft-spoken Wil Stone, a dignified man I had seen before, no slouch with a pool cue in his hands. To be honest, I don’t know if that small joint’s still standing. The last time I passed it, the derelict building appeared to be fading into oblivion. Back in the day, the place drew a feisty assortment of townie characters. On any given day you might run into the likes of Al Holmes, Paul Prentice, Fast Willie Fistis or Stone, all local poolhall legends. If I’m not mistaken, the joint even had an occasional live band on weekends. I may be wrong on that one, though. It was long ago.

As dusk descended, Pete suggested a trip to Turners Falls, where in those days it seemed like every other door on Avenue A opened into a dim barroom. Once there we made the rounds, starting at the Bridge Café and working south to Carney’s and The Fireside before closing down the American House, known in Powertown lingo as “The Zoo.” Back then, the drinking age was 18, intoxication was encouraged by happy hours, ladies’ nights and you name it, and drunk driving was a misdemeanor rarely charged without good reason. That included property damage, serious injury or outrageous behavior. Otherwise cops would pull you over, assess your condition and follow you home. The man in blue would depart with a stern warning that you’d best stay home or face serious consequences. Wise folks, even those of a stupid, drunken persuasion, heeded such warnings.

My, those days now seem so long ago. Though the same points of the compass, it’s a different world. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the old days were better. Just different. More forgiving. Today, wise folks don’t drive drunk. The penalties are too severe. Not so then.

“We were lucky to grow up when we did,” Chip opined near the end of our recent telephone chat. “They were wild times and we got away with a lot of stuff that would be treated as serious infractions today.”

He was right. I feel fortunate to have enjoyed the freedoms of the Sixties and early Seventies, before the screws of justice tightened significantly. They play of keeps nowadays.

Despite remaining in the area since meeting Big John’s buddy that day so long ago, I never again caught so much as a glimpse of the man in my travels. When working for the Town of Montague in 1979, I asked around him and was told that if I was talking about who they thought I was, he was quiet, a bit of a loner and minded his own business. Many years later I happened to catch his newspaper obituary, if I had the right guy. The facts seemed to line up, if I’m remembering right. It can be difficult to piece things like that together so many decades later. I’m confident I have the basics right.

If so, it was not a happy ending for Pete. Then Big John joined him a decade or even two later. Though the end was premature and not pretty for either man, they’ve gone to a better place – one where the words “Yes, Sir!” and “No, Sir!” are never spoken.

Subservient responses like were made for this world. You can’t take them with you.

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