It is sometimes hard for me now to go back and read the stuff that I have written over the years about my cousin, Fred. His fifties have not been kind to him. Serious back problems, and then a botched knee-replacement surgery. Disability, and early retirement.
We still speak occasionally, but our lives have taken us separately where they will. Fred lives alone now, in a small apartment in Angleton, League City, one of those. Spends his days and evenings, I gather, mostly drinking beer and playing on the computer. He doesn’t even get out anymore, much at all.
He was so vibrant in his prime. With the heart and soul of a lion. One of the reasons I liked being around him so much, back then, was it sort of made me feel that way, too. We were so fucking awesome when we were young. When I think of Fred now, it mostly makes me sad.
Of course, I am writing this having just had one hip replaced and getting ready to have the same done to the other. My future is brighter than Fred’s, but I am not getting any younger, either. The days of leonine glory are long gone, and they are not coming back, ever. I know that.
Still, I can feel the lion, way down inside of me. The body isn’t what it once was, but the soul is still there. The spirit still flickers. Perhaps with effort, it can be made to burn brightly, once again.
I hope so. And I hope Fred feels this, too. I hope we can both do what Van Morrison once sang about. Just listen to that lion, way down inside.
“And I shall search my very soul
I shall search my very soul
For the lion, for the lion
Inside of me”
FRED THE HAMMERHEAD
My cousin Fred is pretty big.
He is not overly tall, 6′ 0″ or 6′ 1″, around there. And while he weighs over 200 lbs., the weight is stretched over a large-boned frame, so he doesn’t look fat at all. He is just one of those people who exude bigness. When you are around him, you think of this big person you have with you.
Fred really is just plain big, in some ways. His feet are size 16, and he has most of his footwear custom-made, which he says is expensive. According to his first wife, a clinical psychologist who was crazy as hell, there is something to the foot size/member size corollary; although I don’t remember anyone asking her about it at the time. Fred shipped her off to the loony bin years ago, and good riddance.
Fred and I grew up in different towns, but we saw each other fairly often, and we were pretty close, as kids. Not as close as brothers, maybe; but I would imagine we were closer than most first cousins, and we still are. Fred is one of those people who, whenever his name comes up, this warm feeling comes over me. He is my age, he is a good guy, he thinks like me, and we have had lots of fun together over the years.
One time we were staying down at the beach for several days, in a rented cabin. Me, several of my school friends, one of my brothers, and Fred. It was probably college Spring Break. I know we were around 18 or 19 or so. One night we were having this big party at our cabin, mostly friends of ours who were staying at the beach, too. Along the way, Fred had OD’d on beer, and passed out on the floor in the middle of the cabin. No problem, people just stepped over him, or around him, and the party carried on. At one point three or four guys were standing there drinking beer, looking over Fred, and dispassionately discussing his present state. “I wonder if he’ll come to before the end of the party.” “How many beers do you think he had?” “I hope he wakes up before he pisses himself. That would be kind of nasty.” Then one of the guys, wholly unintentionally, dropped an almost full can of Natural Light, right on Fred’s head. It made a sound I heard clearly, over the music and conversation, all the way across the room. But Fred hardly stirred. A halo of beer and foam formed around his head on the rug, and someone said he would probably wake up and wonder if he’d gone to heaven. Up to then, I’d pretty much always called him Fredrick, or sometimes Freddie if I was in a rush. But from that night on, my cousin was universally known as Fred the Hammerhead, or just Hammerhead. He seemed to like the nickname all right. Not that it mattered; we would’ve called him that anyway.
Fred was with us the night of the phosphorous ocean. That was an early spring night around the same time as the beach cabin party, when a bunch of us were drinking at night down on the beach on Bolivar Peninsula. That night, a rare incursion of phosphorous caused the whitecaps of the breaking waves to glow greenish-white in the moonlight, shooting right to left across the horizon each time a wave broke. If you dragged your foot across the sand, the track where you’d dragged it would glow. At the time, none of us had ever seen that before, plus we’d been drinking for hours. The night, especially in retrospect, took on an almost surreal quality. Later, I sometimes wondered if it had really happened at all. People who were there still talk about it, wistfully.
Most of us ran around like idiots, screaming and playing in the glowing water and sand. Meanwhile, Fred went to his Silverado and reached behind the seat and pulled out one of those folding shovels like you’d buy in an army surplus store. I’m not sure why he carried it, but it did not really surprise me that he did. Anyway, while the rest of us were acting like retarded fools, Fred calmly shoveled several hundred pounds of the glowing sand into the bed of his truck. He figured he’d take some home, spread it around his flower beds and such. It would be a conversation starter. Fred was always thinking ahead like that.
I was with him the day his sister died. She was killed on the beach highway, on her way home. She wasn’t driving, it was her and three of her friends, and they were all pretty drunk, I heard; as was the guy who crossed the center line and hit them head on. Probably a majority of everyone else on that highway was drunk that day, too. Everybody involved in the wreck died at the scene, basically. We had been down at the beach for the day, and Fred and I headed back to town 45 minutes to an hour after his sister and her friends did. When we came up on the wreck, we didn’t know what it was at first. We were freaking out because there were cops everywhere. We were both pretty loaded, and we thought we’d come up on a DPS sobriety check roadblock. But it wasn’t; and when we saw what was left of the light blue Cutlass 442 her friend had been driving, we figured out pretty quickly what had happened. I don’t know what my immediate reaction was. I just remember that my emotions at the time were dulled by being intoxicated. So were Fred’s; I distinctly remember him being almost stoic when he found out his sister had been somewhere in the tangled mess of that Cutlass. Even though they were essentially mortally injured, Fred’s sister and another girl in the car were life-flighted to UTMB. So we jumped back in his truck and turned around and hauled ass to Galveston. By the time we got there, his sis was long gone. I remember sitting in the hospital while Fred called his parents and let them know what had happened. We were sobered up by then, and I felt myself getting emotional; but Fred’s voice never broke. I admired him a lot for that. His little sister has been gone 31 years now, but I can still remember parts of that day very clearly. Too much, too soon.
Fred lives in South Carolina now, in Georgetown, near the ocean. He’s a civil engineer. We don’t see each other much anymore, but we keep in touch by e-mail and the occasional phone call. Fred is a big Astros fan, always has been, and he tries to follow the team as best he can; but he says even with his MLB package and the internet, it is not the same as living close by. I called him last week, on his birthday, and at one point he asked me, “Are things as bad as they seem?” Yes, I told him, maybe worse. That’s what he thought, he said, but he’d hoped he was wrong. But, he can see it clearly, all the way from fucking South Carolina. Damn.
While talking last week, we remembered the night of the phosphorous ocean for some reason, and I asked him what he ever did with all that sand he’d loaded in his truck that night. He laughed and said some of it is in the pitcher’s mound on the AAA field at the Little League park in his hometown. The sand had never glowed at all after that night on the beach, and I was glad to hear that. What happened that night, if it happened, was fleeting. Only the people who were there are left to tell the story.
Fred’s sister didn’t make it past age 15, and so I will always remember her as young and pretty and a little bit wild and really funny; and not as what she might have become, good or bad. I sometimes wonder if she was ever even here at all, if I didn’t dream her up like I sometimes think I dreamed up that glowing night on the beach, so many years ago.
But I didn’t dream her up, of course; and I feel like I will see her again someday. On a night when the phosphorescent ocean is glowing in the background, the gleam of the whitecaps shooting like lightning across the horizon, as the endless waves keep breaking and breaking, out beyond the first sandbar, before rolling up and washing over our bare feet and toes; as we stand together there on the beach. I will be with her there on the beach that night, and I will put my arm around her when she shivers in the wind, and I will say something clever, and then I will listen to her terrific laugh. Fred will be there, too, of course; sitting in his lawn chair next to his truck, drinking a beer and listening to the Astros game on the radio. I’ll be able to hear the broadcast in the background, over the sound of the breaking waves. The team will have pulled out another stellar win that night, moving decisively into first place.
Yes … from my dreams to God’s ears.
RUN THROUGH THE JUNGLE
I had taken two spansules of synthetic amphetamine salts two hours earlier, or thereabouts … about 40 milligrams each, as near as I could figure. I was really starting to feel them when Fred asked me if it was time to open another bottle of Popov vodka, the kind that came in a 1.75 liter plastic container, for $8.99. It was probably the cheapest drunk out there, good old Popov. I have a lot of Russian in me, on my mother’s side, but I always fucking hated vodka, even the expensive kind. So I figured if I was going to have to drink the shit, anyway, it might as well be ‘Comrade Popov’, as we called it. Didn’t taste any better/worse than Stoly to me, and I’d save a little money.
To Fred’s query, I answered in the affirmative. “Fuck, yes!” I said. “Open that motherfucker up! I need another shot of the Comrade right now, goddammit! And what the fuck happened to the sangrita, jagov!?”
Fred and I had been riding along, drinking and laughing and telling stories and yelling at each other, for about an hour. At a snail’s pace, it seemed like. We were slogging through the mud and slop and occasional relatively dry ground, deep in a large palmetto swamp somewhere southeast of Georgetown, SC. We were in a vintage Land Rover some engineer friend of Fred’s had loaned us. The kind of rig Englishmen used to tool around the African bush in; the kind you could entirely dismantle (and reassemble, supposedly) with a slotted screwdriver.
That guy was nice enough to loan his vehicle to us, although I don’t know if he would have done it, had he known exactly what we had in mind.
I looked over at Fred, in the driver’s seat, just in time to see him take another long pull off of the vodka. He was as much Russian as I was – we were first cousins on my mother’s side – and I don’t know what his excuse was for tolerating this rotgut version of the national drink of the motherland, fermented and brewed from leftover crap in a trailer house in Missouri somewhere. But he took a big hit off of it, then reached back into the game bag of his camouflage jacket and pulled out the bottle of sangrita.
“You son of a bitch!” I cried. “You’ve been hiding the fucking sangrita! Hand it over, and the ‘Comrade’.”
Fred had eccentricities. One of them was hanging around with me, since we were little kids. Another was chasing his cheap-ass vodka with a tomato-based concoction originally formulated for chasing pricey tequila. But Fred’s lifelong credo had always been something like, “What the fuck?!” And in this case, I had to agree. The sangrita just after the Comrade Popov made the latter seem, well, not quite so bad.
Fred lived in Georgetown, a nice little city close to the ocean. He was a civil engineer at a large firm there. I was spending a week vacation with him.
Right after college I had been recruited by a company that ran these large catalogue showroom retail stores. This was the early 1980s, and that type of thing was really popular then. Anyway, I guess they were going by some of my work experience, and not so much my Political Science degree, when they hired me, as part of their regional warehouse office, based in Birmingham, AL.
But, you know what? They were right. I was a natural at that job. About half of the time, I fucked around with not much to do at the regional office – testing out new products, working on ways to modify our warehousing setup to make it more efficient. Shit like that.
But I was also part of a “crisis team” that would be flown in when a warehouse operation at one of the retail outlets had failed. The company I worked for had been a large regional retailer in the South, mostly, but they had recently acquired another retailer that was more spread out around the country. They were in the process of converting a lot of the just acquired stores over to their system, which caused problems. In addition, their prototype outlet had a wrap-around ‘warehouse’ (a large stock room, really), and they hired managers locally at just above minimum wage, and helpers at minimum wage. So fairly often the whole staff would just say, “Fuck it,” and the whole setup would go to hell, and it might be a week before the regional office caught on. At that point a crisis team of young-ish regional warehousing types from all over the country would be flown in to take over operations, clean up the mess, and hire and install newer and supposedly better staff. I was on one of the crisis teams.
Most of the team members, men and women, were in their early 20s, like me. We had to fly all over the country, at a moment’s notice. Go in, work twelve hour days at whatever location required us, then go out and drink and raise hell and try to hook up with the local talent, or (less often) someone else on the team. Then get up early the next morning, tired and hung over, and do it all again.
An average operation lasted a week or so; then we’d all return to whatever office we’d come from, and try to recuperate before the next call came. This particular time I’d been flown out to a giant-sized clusterfuck in a north Georgia store, and after my team had completed its task, I asked for and got a week’s vacation I had coming. So I rented a car in Athens, and drove up to see Fred in South Carolina.
By chance, Fred was off that week, as well. It was mid-April. When I got there Fred told me we were going “hog-hunting.” I’d never done it, but it sounded fun, so I told him I as all in.
I found out we weren’t going hunting in the sense of shooting something and killing it, though. Fred’s firm had a big company barbecue every year just after Memorial Day, and the tradition was that Fred and some of his engineer buddies would go out into the marshes outside of Georgetown, in two-man teams, and track down and capture feral hogs; which were then brought to a couple of locals out there, who had heavy steel corrals set up on their properties. The captured hogs were put in the corrals, and then spent about a month being fattened up on corn. Apparently the combination of lean feral pork and a month of domestic feeding made for really good barbecue.
We splashed through two or three or ten more deep-ass mud holes in that Land Rover, and over several more hummocks of dead marsh vegetation, causing the vodka to slosh around violently inside its plastic receptacle, and inside of me, as well. Finally, we came to a stop, and Fred killed the engine.
We were in a clearing that looked pretty much like the last ten or twelve clearings we’d been through. But Fred pointed out to me something I hadn’t seen at first. In the heavy undergrowth across the way, if one looked hard enough, one could see a kind of tunnel bored through it. Made by a feral hog, my cousin insisted.
The idea of our quarry being nearby, and the sudden relative quiet that came when we shut off the Land Rover, just made all the other things going on in that swamp more noticeable to me.
The weather was hot and sticky, and the place smelled of rotting vegetation and decay. And the mosquitoes were beginning to have their way with us. But fuck it, we were on a mission. Fuck the heat, fuck the decay, and fuck the fucking mosquitoes. Fuck the humidity, too.
Fuck it all. Down a few spansules of crank, slam down some cheap vodka, climb in an antique all-terrain vehicle, and make a run through the jungle.
And don’t look back.
My cousin and I were crawling on hands and knees, commando-style, through the underbrush and mud, down the same trail a hog had made some time before. We were a sight to see, I’ll bet. Fred had us decked out in camouflage fatigues and Gore-Tex, which kept us somewhat dry and protected from the elements, and somewhat protected us from the mosquitoes; but it was hot as hell in that get up. I was sweating tons, and some of the craftier mosquitoes were still finding their way through, anyway.
Fred was ahead of me, “on point” as it were. He had black cork on his face and forehead, and a large Ka-Bar bayonet in his teeth. Fred had been a Marine once. I tended to forget that. I thought the big knife clenched between his incisors was a bit much, but he said you never knew what might happen walking (or crawling) the point and he wanted to be ready. It seemed to me he was reverting back to his active duty days a bit, out in this swamp.
I was about the most un-military person you could find, but I’d spent a fair amount of time out in the woods, too, in the past, pursuing my own agenda; so I wasn’t a total stranger to privation in the wild, or to stalking a quarry for dinner, either. I had a Bear Mfg. lock back knife in a leather sheath on my belt. It was a 5 ½” knife – 5 ½” folded, that is; with a 5” blade. I’d spent the previous evening sitting in Fred’s camp, sharpening my knife with one of those Lansky kits, the kind with stones of different gradations of coarseness. If one took one’s time and gradually sharpened with stones from coarser to less coarse, one could get a knife pretty fucking sharp. I ventured mine was about as sharp as a blade of that heft and thickness could get. I felt if it got down to it, that hog might get the best of me, in the end; but he’d damn sure remember me for a while.
Our basic plan was to run the hog down into his lair and then jump and, well, hog-tie him, and drag him back out of there. It seemed like a crazy-ass plan, to me. The feral pigs in that area were often 200-300 lbs., with hooves and tusks. Between us, Fred and I were about 350 lbs., but a big hog would outweigh either one of us individually by two times, at least.
That is why teamwork was so important. We’d been crawling for maybe 1/8 mile (it seemed like longer, but I doubt it was) when we came to an open area under the overgrowth. Fred stuck out his arm to stop me, and then quietly pointed to the other side of the opening. It was pretty dark, but eventually my eyes adjusted, and I could see a decent-sized sized hog, resting on his side in the leaves. He was all black, and looked lean and mean. Nothing like what one saw in cartoons, or in a feedlot. Fred started crawling around to the left. He would take on the front end, the front legs and the head complete with a couple of smallish but still nasty-looking tusks. I slipped around the other way, to sneak up from behind. I had my knife out and unfolded by then, gripped in my right hand as I crawled around. I felt like I was amped up on max adrenaline, and ready for whatever happened next.
Suddenly, Fred leapt onto the head of the hog, just as it was rising up to see what the fuck was going on. He had the front end of the pig momentarily immobilized, but I knew that wouldn’t last. As quickly as I could, I jumped across the back of the hog, landing across his hips, with his hind legs in front of me. I grabbed the knee/elbow of one leg with my left hand, and I quickly and – I thought – pretty deftly sliced into the back of the hind leg with the knife in my right hand, about halfway between the hoof and knee, just like Fred had showed me how to.
It was basically the same concept as clipping a bird’s wings. When I was a kid, my brother and I found a wounded mallard hen once, out in the marsh. We brought it home and – long story, but we ended up with a bunch of wild mallards as pets. To keep them from flying away we would take just a couple of feathers out of the wing on one side of each mature bird. It made them feel unbalanced in the air, and after a while they would quit trying to fly at all. What Fred had instructed me to do was nick the tendon on the back of one of the pig’s hind legs. He didn’t want me to slice it all the way through – that would injure the hog grievously, and render him lame. The trick was to just nick the tendon – the hamstring, I guess – just enough so the pig wouldn’t try to run for a while, at least long enough for us to get him out of there and to a pen somewhere.
I nicked that pig with surgical precision, using my Bear Mfg. lock back knife as my scalpel. Then I quickly wrapped the cut leg in cloth, and tied the back legs together with nylon rope, then duct-taped them together on top of that, for good measure. Fred had meanwhile done the same up front, and just like that, we had caught us a wild feral hog. We rolled it onto a tarp, and then Fred grabbed one front corner and I grabbed the other, and we dragged that big boy on out of there, all the way back to the clearing where the Land Rover was.
The tarp and the slick ground in the swamp eliminated a lot of drag and resistance, but still, it was close to 300 lbs. of dead weight we were dragging out of there. That burden, coupled with the heavy gear we were wearing and the heat and the humidity, really began to get to me. We kept after it, though, and finally I saw the clearing ahead. When we got to it, we dragged the hog around to the back of the Land Rover, and then, on ‘three’, we heaved him up into the back. All that was left to do was bring him to a friend of Fred’s trailer, about ¾ miles away, where we would deposit our porcine friend into a corral. He could recuperate and fatten up there, before being dispatched to his final destination. In other words, mission accomplished.
Before we got into the Land Rover to go, I sat on a hummock for a few minutes, to catch my breath. Fred seemed relatively at ease and nonchalant, but I was still on fire with adrenaline, and at the same time beginning to feel fatigued. I’d been pouring sweat, and my heart had been pumping. I felt like I’d just finished an intense thirty minute cardio workout, which, in fact, I basically had. I was fucking worn out, but I felt good, too. You know? Along with all the sweat, and all the lactic acid flooding into my muscle fibers, a lot of endorphins had been released into me, too. I felt … good … great, actually.
I looked across at my cousin, who was sitting on the tailgate of the Land Rover, looking off into the distance of the swamp somewhere, contemplating who knew what? And at the same time he was idly stroking the hindquarters of the feral hog lying mostly quietly in the back of the Land Rover. When I looked up, Fred had been looking off into the distance; but then he sensed me looking at him, and he looked over at me with the oddest look. Maybe I had surprised him out there. I don’t know. May he didn’t expect me to do as well as I did; or, more importantly, once we had decided to do this thing, maybe he was a little surprised that I went at it with such gusto, and with no fear. Maybe he was surprised, after he’d jumped on the hog’s head, to look up and see his wayward cousin, the one who drank and drugged to excess and was by most accounts totally irresponsible … maybe he was surprised to see him, right there and right on time, on top of that fucking pig and cutting him where he needed to be cut, with no hesitation. Maybe he was surprised to see me just taking care of fucking business, as dependable as I could be.
If he was surprised at that, he shouldn’t have been. Fred and I played racquetball together in college, and in our junior year we completed a mighty upset of the defending champions, who were much better players than us, and much more serious about racquetball and just about everything else than we were, and we won the intramural doubles championship, against all the odds. We were a terrific combination, actually. We trusted each other implicitly, for one thing. Fred was the tactical player, making precision shots and returns; while I was the one who dove headfirst into the walls, trying to make saves … and who bent several rackets, and had nearly a dozen pairs of goggles broken by return shots because I’d got too close to the front wall, just doing my thing. I think my style of play amused Fred, but he respected it, too. It helped us win; and anyway, it was the only way I could ever play.
Fred should have known that would translate over to hog hunting, and just about anything else I tried, especially with him. We didn’t see each other as much as we had as kids and in college, so maybe he just forgot.
It was nice to bask in the tacit approval of my lifelong friend and cousin, who I respected so much. But that really wasn’t why I felt so good that afternoon, sitting out in the middle of a palmetto swamp in the middle of fucking nowhere South Carolina.
By that time, it was late afternoon, and the shadows had begun to lengthen across the clearing we were sitting in. The sun and the shadows cast by some nearby tallow trees were dappled across my face. I looked up and just about all I could see was blue sky. I was physically spent, but in a good way. Unlike about 99% of the people I knew, who lived and worked and loved and died and never once had any real idea what it was like to be at the mercy of the elements or truly out in nature, if even just a little bit … unlike them, I knew. I’d had the opportunity … to be out there, in the open. To sweat and labor and risk injury, in order to do something worthwhile and, well, great. How many of my co-workers knew what it felt like to have a wild animal under them? An animal who meant no good, who could and would do harm, if given half the chance? How many knew what it felt like to subdue this wild thing, with one’s own hands, and feel the fight go right out of it, right under one?
And then afterward, how many would know the tremendous amount of sympathy and even empathy one would have for the quarry one had just hunted down and subdued? I remember reading of the respect and even reverence the Native American buffalo hunters held for the noble animal they hunted. I don’t think I really understood that when I read about it, back in school somewhere.
But I understood it that day in the South Carolina swamp; at least a little bit. Fred had been idly stroking the hog lying in the back of our truck, comforting it, almost. Now I pulled myself up, and went over and sat next to my cousin, and did the same. That hog was getting some mixed signals that day, for sure.
He would be fattened up and then killed and butchered, soon enough. But I felt like I had some sympathy with him, by the end of our day together. I felt like I shared something with him, if only just a little bit.
We all have our day coming, we can be sure of that. Just like that hog, and everything else walking around alive on this planet. But we don’t think about that. I am sure the hog wasn’t thinking about it, even in the predicament he found himself in at that point. We don’t spend much time thinking about our end, because we are not made to. What I think I realized that day, if I didn’t know it already, and what that hog and all his brethren knew down to their bones, is that we are here for one thing – to live, to feel alive.
Alive! All the rest of it is just the mundane details.