This is the sixth in a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.
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Up, Up and Away
By the time I hit fifteen, I was so much at war with my father we could not even be in the same room. I was always inquisitive about strategies of escape and was willing to work at it, in spite of my slothful efforts at opening textbooks.
Did you know that in the late 70s airlines would leave a blank ticket at Will Call at the airport for you if you could just read them your father’s American Express number over the phone? What a country! At the tender age of sixteen, I’m off to National Airport to board an Eastern Airlines 727 to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I think we left D.C. about 9:00 p.m., but we weren’t airborne long when the stewardess came around with beverages. I ordered a Wild Turkey and Coke and pulled out some of the one hundred bucks I had stolen from my dad.
You know, come to think of it, Dad was a smart guy; but he should have never showered after that fight we had. If he absolutely needed to deal with hygiene issues at that moment, he should have put his wallet within sight of the shower. The stewardess poured me my drink, winked, and told me that passengers in first class didn’t need to pay for drinks. I’ll bet Dad hated that American Express statement.
I landed in Atlanta, and it was the most exciting place I had ever seen. The Atlanta airport had a smell about it that was just intoxicating — perfume and cologne, cigarette and cigar smoke, leather, and the most incredible greasy cheeseburgers I have ever had. It was fascinating, watching businessmen sitting at that counter, all in the same endeavor. They were all horsing down these cheeseburgers with one hand, briefcases on the floor next to them, reading the paper with the other hand. They stared at the paper while they ate, four or five guys all lined up, all with vested suits, cufflinks off and sleeves rolled up, and ties loosened. All of them had grease running down their arms from those cheeseburgers and a cigarette burning in the ashtray.
I remember thinking, No wonder Dad travels all the time; this must be heaven. Good-looking stewardesses all over the place, bars, good-looking stewardesses all over the place, the most incredible cheeseburgers in the world, and good-looking stewardesses all over the place. I was only sixteen and had found the meaning of life. But I would have to say goodbye to my new love, Atlanta, and her airport.
I boarded the flight for Chattanooga and had a drink, the first class thing again. I was saving a fortune on beverages. Thank goodness I had the foresight to book first class; and not to be cocky, but not every sixteen-year- old would’ve been as practical.
I was amazed how quick the flight was. I walked off the plane, expecting another hustle-bustle place. It was about 1:00 a.m. and the fact that there were only about four people on the DC-9 should’ve tipped me off. Chattanooga was a very sleepy place at first glance, particularly at one in the morning.
I thought it would be best if I waited till daybreak to call my aunt and let her know I was stopping in for breakfast. I found an Asteroids machine; and since I was an Ace, I figured I would only use five or ten bucks of my stolen $100 life savings.
You know, there’s a skunk in every forest. Here, it was a pushy, nosy, law enforcement person. He indentified himself as law enforcement anyhow, and he was dressed the part, with a blue uniform and some kind of a patch on his shirt. Now as ridiculous as this may sound, when he asked me for ID … I asked him for his.
Let’s look at this through his eyes for a second. It’s now one in the morning; the airport is closed; and a sixteen-year-old with no luggage is standing at the Asteroids machine in Chattanooga by himself, stating his age as eighteen, looking fourteen or fifteen, with a Maryland Terrapins tee shirt on, and he’s refusing to show ID. To the contrary, he’s belligerently asking to see my ID. Hmmm . . .
Well, I thought I was entitled; after all, I had watched years of Starsky and Hutch and Baretta. Those guys always had to pull out a badge and ID.
My best bet was to buy time. If I could just get to daybreak, surely some folks would show up at this airport and I could filter into the crowd, get out of there, and hitch a ride to Cleveland, Tennessee, where my Aunt Polly lived.
The skunk kept trying to impress upon me that he was the authority and that I needed to have someone come pick me up. I slowly composed myself and started thinking and looking him over and thinking. Then it occurred to me that this guy was some type of security guard, as the name of the security company was on his uniform. I was a genius again . . .
Someone had once told me that Al Capone believed you needed three things — a smile, a gun and a plan. And you always give them up in the correct order. Al thought you part with your smile first and your gun second, but you never part with your plan. I took Al to heart at that moment; I quit smiling, I never had the gun in the first place, so I’m left with my plan, Delay Till Daybreak.
First, I asked if I was under arrest, knowing a security guard couldn’t arrest me. I told him my family was coming in the morning. He asked why they would’ve allowed me to hang out in the airport all night, and that lying thing came in handy again. (See how well prepared I was?) I told him I had gotten on an earlier flight than planned due to available seating. Pretty good for a fifteen-year-old, huh? Of course he balked at that and continued to state that I needed to call someone to come get me. I argued like Clarence Darrow that he was being short-sighted and flat rude to my sweet aunt who was no doubt sound asleep preparing to wake early and come get her nephew. He insisted. But I again argued I would need to see better credentials if I were to stand here and take this abusive confrontation.
Several times he asked me to walk with him down to his office so he could call his company supervisor. And of course, clinging to my plan, I argued that if I was not under arrest I had no interest in accompanying him anywhere. He persisted and tried several manipulative ways of coercion. I’m thinking, This guy is a total rookie at manipulation and he’s met his match.
He asked me to accompany him to his office to get his cigarettes, so I gave him one of mine … and even lit it. (I thought that was a nice touch). Then he said he really insisted I go with him. I finally decided to push him back hard, and said boldly, “Look, pal, I’m minding my own business in a public place and you are harassing me. And further, if I am not under arrest and you take me against my will without being a policeman that is abduction. I’ve been patient, but this is not cute anymore, so I insist; leave me alone!”
And believe it or not, he did; he walked over and sat on one of those airport chair clusters and stayed there for about an hour. I had shown him and I had beat the system. I was prepared to be a grown-up. Life was good.
But then in walks Skunk Number 2, his buddy that patrols the hangar; and guess what — he needs a cigarette, too. I was tired of providing tobacco subsidies to the entire airport security system of Chattanooga, but Al said cling to the plan, so I’m clutching it hard. I heard the squawk coming from the two-way radio and I knew my plan was about to start leaking oil, quickly.
Can you believe Skunk 2 guy took the cigarette and let me light it for him, and then called “HQ” on his squawking thing he had removed from his belt. He calmly said, “We have a vagrant juvenile down at the airport.”
You can imagine how bad I wanted those cigarettes back. But then I thought, I can buy more in the morning; after all, I’m rich. I’ve got almost one hundred bucks.
Since it was clearly fourth and long, I had no choice but to drop back and punt. I called my aunt, and thank goodness her daughter (my cool older cousin) Kaye answered. Now Kaye had some experience dealing with colorful people such as myself and our situations. She said, “OK, honey, hold tight. I’ll throw on some jeans and be there in a few minutes. And do I need to bring a lawyer?” Just a tip to all you would-be derelicts. If you’re going to go push boundaries the way I did, always have a cousin you can call that can show up with a lawyer on about twenty minutes’ notice at 2:00 in the morning.
Kaye talked to Skunk 1 and talked him into not doing anything rash, like involving authorities in this trite little matter. The skunks conversed a minute or two and relented, allowing Kaye to come get me. It cost me another two cigarettes while they discussed it. They turned out to be pretty cheap to buy off; four cigarettes total and a phone chat with Kaye and I’m good to go.
Needless to say, Mom was quite surprised to hear from Aunt Polly at breakfast time. She was even more surprised to hear of my geography experiment. Of course, Polly was repeating questions to me as Mom rifled them off.
As Dad was probably somewhere near the other end of the phone, I lied about the method of payment on the Eastern ticket. As I recall, I said it was my lawn-mowing money. Now in those days, a fairly large lawn paid about four bucks. A first class, short notice ticket was in the neighborhood of a thousand. I never heard about the ticket again, from either Mom or Dad.
As I’m older now and have slept in a cold bed myself, I now realize whatever trouble I was in with Mom or Dad for this excursion probably paled in comparison to the block of ice Dad had to sleep with for the next two or three weeks. You don’t mess with Mama’s babies. Now bear in mind, I was not savvy enough to play that card, or Dad would’ve felt the north wind blow like he had been transferred to Siberia. None the less, even though Dad was in hot water, I never knew about it at the time. I myself felt a little frost on my rear end, coming from the north wind named Mom. She was clearly caught between two guys bent on making each other miserable.
I wish I had had the foresight to buy a round trip ticket, but Dad had the last word on cranking up the misery meter. He had Mom tell Aunt Polly to put me on a bus home.
Trailways back then meant “trail” ways, because no roads were involved. I never knew there were so many towns between Chattanooga and D.C., but we stopped at every one of them. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be a town; it would just be four or five mailboxes on one post out in a pasture. The cows were clearly startled to see a motor vehicle other than a tractor.
After four or five days in this bus that smelled like a diesel- burning bulldozer pushing hot, fresh asphalt and hauling a port-a-john, we got to the Tennessee-Virginia line. I remember thinking, Great, only four or five more days, and we’ll be close to Maryland. No wonder those bus drivers were always going on strike. I vowed privately to go picket with them when I got home; if I got home. It was a far cry from first class and good-looking stewardesses serving cocktails.
Back in Maryland, things were no better. I think they had lost hope and lost each other at this point. Mom looked very strained and tired; Dad looked resentful and lost; and he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me anymore.
I think the low point came after a night out for Phil, playing quarters over at the aforementioned girlfriend’s house. Mom and Dad were still awake, so it had to be about 11 p.m. It was December and freezing outside, and we had quite a bit of snow on the ground. I came in the house hammered, in my heavy coat, gloves, and scarf that we used to stay warm in Maryland winters.
Now, when one is as drunk as I was, being hot is the worst feeling one can have. My head was spinning and swimmy and I had that green, I-may-need-to-throw-up thing going on. I walked in the foyer of our house and it felt like a blast furnace compared to the breezy twenty degrees outside. I couldn’t peel the hat and coat off quick enough. I could barely stand up.
I was horrified when Dad summoned me up to my parents’ bedroom. It was unusual for him to speak to me, and I have no idea why he chose that night to summon me, but it was bad timing. I thought I could pull it off. Just don’t breathe on them, I thought.
I stood at the foot of the bed, about ready to pass out. But the moment I knew they were looking at me strangely and could tell I was drunk, I started to throw up all over the foot of their bed. I contained most of it and ran down the hall to my bathroom and finished throwing up there.
I stumbled across the hall and fell into my bed. My parents came into my room, and I remember Mom asking, “What’s wrong with him?” Dad said, “He’s drunk.” And remarkably, they left the room.
Many times since, I’ve awakened with a fear of “Uh oh, what did I do last night?” But never was there fear like that night. I was waiting for Dad to come shoot me or throw me out of the house or beat me with a ball bat … or all of the above. I also knew Mom would chime in with the I’m-so-disappointed-routine.
What happened next was indescribable. Nothing, absolutely nothing. No one said a word the next day about anything. Maybe they were paralyzed with their own confusion as to what to do; maybe they had quit caring; maybe they organized it to make me sweat it out. I don’t know, but it was very quiet.
I was walking to a girlfriend’s house shortly after this incident, and a very strange set of thoughts hit me. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was one of those cold and gray December days; and I was walking around the lake, about a fifteen-minute walk to her house along a bike path.
I realized my parents had lost control and given up. And so had most of my friends’ parents. I had always wanted freedom and lack of accountability, and all of the sudden I realized I had exactly that.
I broke into absolute fear at that moment, and this was a different fear. I had been afraid before of consequences and all the things kids normally fear. This fear was new; I realized I was afraid of myself. I wasn’t just out of my parents’ control; I couldn’t even control myself.
Misery doesn’t even describe our family at this point. It was cold, very cold and dark. We were all involved in destructive patterns. We were isolated from each other and there was zero warmth, zero communication. I don’t know how we managed to muddle through the basics. Everyone was estranged and detached and depressed.
We needed a savior, and one was about to show up. For me, anyway.
Next: The First Hero Shows Up
Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901
Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.