Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Brian's Saga

Brian and I have been bowling, pizza, college and Halloween buddies, and lived in adjacent Smith and Salley residence halls at Florida State University a year after students had elected Bill Wade by 150 votes to be Homecoming Princess in 1980.

"Billie Dahling," as his name appeared on the ballot, was crowned at the Homecoming Pow-Wow, and his name was announced during Halftime at the game, but he was barred from the football field. He lived in Smith Hall, and one weekend evening after work at Mr. G's Pizza, I brought a pizza, and Brian and Bill and I ate pizza together and hung out in the Smith Hall lobby all night long. There was no air conditioning in Smith Hall at the time, and it was not uncommon for residents to crash in Smith's spacious downstairs lobby that had open windows.

Brian and Charlie were neighbors in Alumni Village in the late 1970s and we often went out together. Banks paid interest back then, sometimes six percent, and even accepted third-party personal checks on deposit. Bowling and party expenses were minor at the time. We could buy a Mr. G's cheese pizza for $4.12 including tax and I remember a particular check we passed around for one of our share for $1.03 that eventually received seven endorsements on the back, two from Brian, before it was finally honored by my bank.

Brian invented spam in Spring 1982. I would often see him at the FSU Landis Green fountain talking to people as I walked to class, and then see him there again when I returned. On one of these visits, Brian said, "Mitch, if we write everyone we know and ask each one for money, some of them will send us money!"

On July 5-6, 1982, several of us stayed up all night at that same fountain watching a lunar eclipse.

Brian and my telephone booth costume and I rode in Brian's convertible to the Phyrst on West Jefferson Street next to FSU campus on October 30, 1985, and I won first place in the costume contest.

On Halloween the next evening, I took my Big Choice Crane Game costume to the Holiday Inn Sugar Mill Tavern on North Monroe Street and met Peter there with his headless costume and we won all the big costume contests, for Most Original, Scariest and Best Overall.

We each won cash, and I won a trip to Panama City Beach, and Peter won a limousine trip to a concert. He picked me up in the limo after the concert and we cruised around town for a while. I bought my own headless mask after that night and used it with a working guillotine I built to win several costume contests in 1991.

Brian graduated with a degree in Business and moved away to direct commercials and films in New York and then Los Angeles, and we didn't see each other often in the intervening years until his wedding, but we did a good job of staying in touch.

Brian designed and patented special camera lens filters filled with liquors, liqueurs and other liquids through which to photograph subjects relevant to the liquids. He shot the American south through Luzianne ice tea, Mexico through tequila, Montreal through maple syrup, and Ecuador through fruit juices. Among others. In 2006, Brian was named Photographer of the Year by the International Color Awards.

In 2001, I received and accepted an invitation to Brian's Labor Day weekend marriage to Ruthann in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I selected steak for dinner the evening before the wedding and lobster for the wedding night. I never ate lobster before, and so I decided to try it in the region where it's known to be best.

I was to be gone for three days and two nights, and I ultimately spent all but about eight hours in transit one way or the other. I was delayed to the wedding in Atlanta, and then by the time I arrived to Boston Massachusetts to connect to Nova Scotia, I had missed my plane and my steak dinner. Charlie and Laurel and their daughter were also connecting through Boston and had fortuitously arrived early, because Logan airport wouldn't let the infant fly without documentation. Laurel had to drive to Hartford Connecticut to obtain a birth certificate, leaving Charlie and me and the baby in a stroller with a mountain of luggage in the Boston airport until she returned.

Charlie and Laurel and their daughter eventually caught their connecting flight, and Delta Airlines put me up in the airport hotel until morning. I finally arrived at the Halifax Westin Hotel less than an hour before the wedding began.

Besides a few Halloweens, and my wedding in which Charlie served as Best Man, this was the only occasion on which I coordinated apparel with a guy. It was a 1930's style wedding, so Charlie and I dressed in appropriate gangster attire, and if we had traveled a couple of weeks later, we probably would have arrived without our violin cases. By the time I arrived in Halifax, I only had time to check in, shower, and put on my zoot suit and carry my violin case and present downstairs to the wedding.

Brian had stated in the invitation that if guests wished to give them anything for a wedding present, then a bottle of wine would be most welcome. Charlie's gift was a giant wine bottle that he inflated before adding to the gift pile in the hotel lobby, and mine was a bottle of red wine wax candle.

Charlie and Laurel and their daughter and Charlie's parents and I and other guests exited the hotel and were escorted by Halifax's version of the Keystone Cops onto a double-decker bus. They told us we were being transferred to the "hoosegow," which was really an edifice next to the hotel, as we later learned there was an indoor hallway leading back to the hotel, and the bus ride was very short. It was my tour of Halifax. Once there, we were photographed by more "police" and then allowed to attend the party. The women were clad in flapper dress and the men were dressed like Charlie and me, but only Charlie and I carried violin cases.

There was little delay. The "prisoner" guests arrived and were photographed and booked within about fifteen minutes. Brian and Ruthann arrived with their seconds and officiator and they gathered in a central area with us around and the ceremony lasted less than ten minutes. When the bride and groom were announced to the crowd, I emptied a can of silly string onto them, which they took graciously right before dinner began.

I don't like crab, and learned then for the first time that my premium lobster tasted like crab.

We were each given a pint-sized galvanized steel bucket with peanuts and a sheaf of play money, with tactile consistency not unlike Pour Paul's money in Tallahassee, in $50 and $100 denominations. I recall it being a few hundred dollars. Then it was casino night and there were most of the usual games. It was fairly easy to win at gambling, as odds were slightly less inhibited than usual, and the "money" guests won was to be spent on a silent auction for loot at the end of the evening.

I played with the band.

I circulated through the crowd but gravitated to the blackjack table and socialized with the guests. I had traveled a long way to gamble at this particular casino and called myself "Florida Mitch." I took gambling pretty seriously that night. I rarely gamble.

I had my eye on the largest of the evening's booty, a beaver crafted from the dyed product of some coniferous flora with carved flat tail, ears, eyes and teeth. It was receiving the most bids throughout the evening, and my aim was no less than to win more money than anyone else at the party could amass.

Gambling was intense until midnight and I am sure that without one person's intervention, my evening would have played out differently than it did. There weren't many children at the wedding, and all but one I recall was of toddler age. Early in the evening, I spotted a boy walking by with a stack of casino money in the breast pocket of his bow-tied suit and using my best Max Calvada voice, I shouted out to him, "Hey, kid!"

The kid stopped and I pulled out a dollar bill, gestured to him and said, "Ya wanna make some real money?" He looked interested, so I pointed to the "cash" in his pocket, which he readily tendered for George Washington.

"There's more in it for you if you bring me more of that money," I said, and he disappeared into the crowd.

Ryan, the bride's nephew, ran money for me throughout the evening. I didn't ask where it came from and paid him several more US dollars over a similar number of meetings, and he was happy, and it put me over the top. I paid four million dollars for my beaver, which I still have, and I gave my guitar to Ryan in gratitude, and he still has it. Thanks again, Ryan!

Happy 10th Anniversary to Brian and Ruthann -- Best wishes to you and your family!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Great Imposter

In early 1975, I saw the movie the "Great Imposter," starring Tony Curtis as Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. and then read the two biographical books written by Robert Crichton, "The Great Imposter" and "The Rascal and the Road." On May 14, 1975, I rode with my dad to the New Brunswick New Jersey Public Library and I spent about a dollar making nickel copies of microfiche of a feature article about Demara published in Life Magazine in July 1959.

I became fascinated by the real-life adventures of a famous individual who never finished high school, and yet successfully undertook a wide variety of career choices and excelled at many of them -- before getting caught, exposed and only once ever prosecuted. He was something of a hero to me, someone who never had to grow up and commit to a particular life's course. I wrote book reviews and term papers on his life for school.

Fred Demara was born ninety years ago in Lawrence, Massachusetts and lived in relative comfort until his father's and uncle's motion picture theater business ownership failed during the First Great Depression. He did not take the socioeconomic fall well, and ran away at age sixteen to the Rhode Island Cistercian Monks, where he stayed until joining the US Army in 1941. A year later, he went AWOL with the identity of an army buddy, and entered other monasteries in succession before joining the US Navy, and then he faked his death and deserted.

Fred obtained the identity of Dr. Robert Linton French and taught psychology in a Pennsylvania college, served as an orderly in a California sanitarium and taught at St. Martin's College in Washington. The Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually caught up with him on the wartime desertion charge, but only imprisoned him for eighteen months.

After Fred's release, he assumed the identity of Brother John Payne and studied law at Northeastern University and then founded a state-chartered college with the Roman Catholic Brothers of Christian Instruction in Maine. It was there that he met and obtained the identity of Dr. Joseph C. Cyr and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy. As Dr. Cyr, he served as ship's surgeon on the HMCS Cayuga destroyer in the Korean War, and was found out after he successfully operated on more than a dozen seriously wounded soldiers, saving all of them, and resultant publicity was discovered by the real doctor's mother. Modern historical accounts of the Cayuga, scrapped in 1964, include proud reference to the "Great Imposter" having served on board. The Canadian Navy declined to press charges and he returned to relative obscurity in America -- until I found him.

I was a regular visitor to the East Brunswick New Jersey Public Library, often asking my parents to take me there after school so I could read or play Star Trek with Tim, Mike, Preston and occasionally Lee on the library's computer terminal. The terminal, not a graphical display monitor, was housed in a small closet with a window on the door, and it had enough room for a large green-bar paper printer and keyboard, a chair and a small table on which there was a telephone and an acoustical modem -- the kind into which the telephone receiver was pushed after calling the Rutgers University data center ten miles away.

In the Spring of 1978, my final year living in New Jersey, a class project required us to subscribe to or regularly obtain the New York Times newspaper for several weeks to gather articles on current labor relations events. One weekend, I visited the library to catch up on a few back issues of the newspaper, and happened across a very small article that announced that "The Great Imposter" was working as a religious counselor at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Anaheim California.

Years before cell phones, Internet and personal computers, I called Fred -- immediately. I walked into the computer terminal closet and instead of dialing the phone number for the computer at Rutgers University, I pressed zero.

I needed to only ask for the Long Distance Information Operator for Anaheim California. No, I did not know the area code. Yes, she would be happy to look up the area code and then the phone number for the Good Samaritan Hospital and also connect me. I was extremely elated to have come this far without impedance and was anxiously expecting to talk to my personal hero.

The receptionist at the Orange County Good Samaritan Hospital answered.

Eagerly I inquired, "Hi, may I please speak to Reverend Demara?"

My heart leaped at, "One moment, please."

Alas, the respondent at the line to which I was transferred said, "I'm sorry, Reverend Demara is out. May I take a message?"

I said, "Would you ask him to call Mitch, please?" and gave my home phone number.

It would be a seemingly interminable two-hour wait before my ride home arrived, and my dad came to pick me up. Before the car door closed, I was breathlessly telling my story, and my dad didn't believe me, because he told me that a half hour earlier, someone had called for me and left a long distance phone number with the name of Fred Demara. My copy of the New York Times article convinced him, as he had been aware of my previous research on Fred. I asked if I could call him back and the answer was yes. I went into my dad's office and shut the door and called and talked to Fred for the better part of an hour.

Twenty years earlier, Robert Crichton had asked Fred about the secret to his successful impersonation of others, and Fred said that he believed that in all organizations there is a "lot of loose, unused power lying about which can be picked up without alienating anyone," and that, "if you want power and want to expand, never encroach on anyone else's domain; open up new ones."

By the time I talked to Fred, none of his antics were glorious to him anymore.

Fred told me, "Be yourself, Mitch."

Fred and I enjoyed a few more phone calls, during which he always downplayed his life experiences, because he didn't want to encourage anyone else to do those kinds of things. I was about as old as he had been when he originally left home. We spoke about events in my life. He seemed genuinely regretful about his past experiences but was generally happy with his current life. He, as Fred, was a respected member of the Good Samaritan Hospital community.

I last spoke with Fred that summer, after which his health significantly declined. He passed away on June 7, 1982. 

Fred Demara sent me a Christmas card in 1978. The Great Imposter was my friend.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Haunted Houses

In September and October 1978, I volunteered to work in a March of Dimes Haunted House in the Tallahassee Mall with the Godby High School Drama Club and actors from Florida State University. Fortunately, the mall was only a couple miles from home, so I was able to go every night after school and on weekends. November 1 was a bit of  a letdown, because I had been so active with Halloween up until that point, and I still experience that feeling most years on the same day for the same reason.

My First Halloween in 1980, Mike and Arlene and I each paid $5 to go to a Haunted House in the Tallahassee Mall sponsored by another organization. I can't say that it was any more frightening than the one we had spooked in 1978, but we weren't familiar with it and towards the end I got jumpy when two arms grabbed me from behind and it became exceedingly difficult to walk. The Haunted House hallway had darkened and narrowed and I was in front, with Arlene immediately behind me and Mike was behind her. I yelled and attempted to leave them behind and RUN the last twelve feet to a small lighted opening marked EXIT, but the best I could manage was a sluggish uphill struggle until I finally DOVE headfirst through the egress, somersaulting into the mall as I noticed Arlene and Mike tumbling afterward in my direction. It was then that I learned that the hands that had grabbed my arms were Arlene's, and Mike's hands had held Arlene's arms, TO STAY TOGETHER. The people waiting in line to enter the Haunted House had a great laugh at our tumultuous expense.

Less than a year later, friends and I were visiting "real" haunted houses in Tallahassee. We knew of two. We never saw anything supernatural, but each was spooky in a special way. 

On Florida State University's Southwest Campus where Innovation Park now is used to be a dairy farm. Levy Avenue, which begins near Lake Bradford Road, was a dirt road west of Iamonia Street and there were a few modular style homes on that part of the road that supported the farm efforts. One was particularly interesting and we visited it twice in the early 1980s.

On our first visit, the house was filled with refrigerators. None were turned on, but it was eerie to imagine what might have been stored there by unsavory characters. In reality, I am sure they stored dairy products there while it was still in use. On our second visit, the refrigerators were gone and we noticed the single full bathroom in the unit. Water had obviously been turned off for quite some time, and someone, likely a sole person, had published epic poetic verse in neat handwriting on every square inch of available space in the bathroom, on the walls, in the bathtub, on the porcelain around the base and inside the tank and bowl of the commode, on and under the sink, and inside the bathroom's medicine cabinet. It was as if a lyricist spirit had been entrapped in the bathroom until some condition like the available space had been filled or a package of Sharpie markers had been exhausted. 

A couple of years later on another visit, the modular homes were gone and construction of Innovation Park had begun.   

On Ocala Road, south of Continental Avenue and north of Tennessee Street, on the east side of the road and set back into the woods stood a stately house that was originally built in 1834 on North Monroe Street, Highway 27. It had been moved to behind Rainey Cawthon's Ocala Road home in the 1960s, and by the 1980s, it was only visible from Ocala Road during winter with reduced foliage and it was quite overgrown and in serious disrepair. We often brought friends by to look at it, and every time we saw it we were saddened that such an old impressive house had been so badly neglected. 

In 1986, the late Rainey Cawthon's daughters Ann Booth and Sarah Shaw donated the Sarah Payne Cawthon House on Ocala Road, named for their mother, to the Florida State University College of Law. It was restored and is now a prominent building on the FSU Law School's Village Green.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Capitol Derring-Do

The new Florida Capitol building was a year old when my family and I moved to Tallahassee in 1978. A citizens' restoration effort had recently succeeded in saving Florida's old capitol building from demolition and having it preserved it to its 1902 appearance, sited immediately to the east of the new capitol Building. Travelers headed west on Apalachee Parkway towards Tallahassee see the old and new Florida Capitols first.

Charlie had returned to Tallahassee by June 1982, when friends of ours were visiting from out of town one Sunday afternoon, and we decided to go downtown to see the sights. A couple of restaurants were open, but little else was going on. There were several of us and we eventually walked to the new Capitol building and thought it would be a nice idea to go up to the observation deck to look out over Tallahassee.

We went to the east front door of the new Capitol building and it was locked. Despite the fact that we "should have known" Florida's Capitol would be closed on a Sunday afternoon, we didn't let that stop us from visiting the Capitol. Undaunted, we walked around the corner of the building and found another door on the north side. Charlie walked over to it and said, "Maybe this one is open." Fatefully, it was.

We entered the Capitol and proceeded to the elevators. The elevator came quickly and we pressed the highest floor number while remarking that we thought the Capitol building was taller. We weren't surprised to not see anyone on our way inside. It was Sunday afternoon. We were surprised that when the elevator doors opened, three Capitol Police officers were waiting for us.

They herded us onto another elevator that led to the building's floor on which the Capitol Police Department resides, and then we were each individually interrogated for about ten minutes while police attempted to determine what was our purpose and how we had gotten inside the building.

"You should have known the Capitol was closed," the captain admonished me.

"But we found the door OPEN," I replied, as I am sure we all did.

Since businesses put a "CLOSED" sign in the window when they close, it has always been Charlie's assertion that the reverse side of the sign should read "OPENED" -- but I digress.

Capitol Police let us go after an hour, but they never agreed to any opinion other than that we should not have been there, despite the door having been unlocked.

Marshall Ledbetter, Jr. had never heard of us on Friday, June 14, 1991, when he commandeered the Florida Capitol building. He didn't find a door unlocked. He gained access by breaking a window to the building early in the morning and then faxed a list of demands to radio station Gulf 104's song request fax line, instigating a several hour standoff with police. Among other requirements, he requested a 20-inch vegetarian pizza with extra jalapenos from Gumby's Pizza, and 666 Dunkin Donuts for his "fine friends" at the Tallahassee Police Department, Florida State University Police Department and Leon County Sheriff's Department.

The standoff ended after Capitol Television reporter Mike Vasilinda convinced Marshall Ledbetter that his demands were being nationally broadcast by televising his own reading of the list of demands on closed circuit Capital Television, and Ledbetter surrendered and was taken away to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.

Mike Vasilinda's wife Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2008.

It was to be Marshall Ledbetter's sole noteworthy lifetime achievement, as he checked out by choice at 34 years of age on July 14, 2003.

I may not always remember the date on which my brother Jonathan's wedding reception was held at the observation deck of Florida's Capitol; however, I do know it was on the day that Florida Governor "Walkin' Lawton" Chiles died, December 12, 1998, because Jonathan's photographer showed up late because of the late governor.

I presented Jonathan and Dana with a pineapple for their wedding, at the top of the Capitol in front of a window with a great view of rainy Tallahassee, which was inadvertently captured as one of my favorite photos, on a twice-exposed roll of film with my granddaughter Alicia's birthday party photo of a few months earlier.

On to Election Day, November 7, 2000 -- the day the Associated Press told us an election had been hijacked as they camped out on the Florida Capitol grounds for several weeks until Vice-President Al Gore conceded on December 13. Two years after Jonathan's wedding reception, Dave the Cat and I joined the circus at the Capitol. We dressed for the occasion, in a t-shirt with the American flag on it and a Cat and the Hat hat Heidi had constructed and given me. When I arrived to the fray at the Capitol with my cat 'n' the hat, about a dozen camera operators quickly confronted me, and I realized they were waiting for a statement from me.

Without even thinking, I uttered the first triply appropriate phrase that came to mind, from when Kevin Kline, as Dave Kovic, as President William Harrison Mitchell in the 1993 movie "Dave," shouted to a room full of constituents and media, "God bless America!"

The camera operators were unimpressed and moved away. I didn't care, I just loved going to public events with Dave.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Suing Louise

In the late evening of July 4th, 1987, Dana and Bill and I left Poor Paul's Pourhouse in Dana's white Mazda coupe and visited many of our friends in the area throughout the evening until we ran out of fireworks. We didn't stop at any homes without cars parked outside and we didn't knock. We announced our presence with fireworks until our friends greeted us, or as in some cases, vehemently cursed at us to leave. The loudest would receive additional visits from us later.

I especially remember our three visits to brothers Ralph and Mark off Cactus Drive. They lived in a house near the end of a secluded woodsy court and had two big television consoles that took up a good portion of their living room, even though they were stacked upon one another. The picture tube worked on one and the sound worked on the other one.

I worked with Ralph, who sold his 1975 Ford LTD to me for parts for $75. It barely ran and the tires leaked air -- he had to stop a couple of times to refill the tires on his way to my house. The car immediately paid for itself when I removed its power steering pump to replace the leaking pump on my own 1975 LTD, and the spare car would eventually be left behind when I moved away from my house on Harold Court after the bank foreclosed on my landlords.

The first time we went to Ralph's and Mark's house and lit off fireworks, we all hung out and talked for a while before we told them we had others to visit and left. By the time we returned after lighting fireworks at other people's houses, it was quite a bit later, but we weren't paying attention to the time. Like many people do, we saved our bigger and better fireworks for later on, which had the effect of escalating our appearance to homes to which we had already been. We stayed in the car on our second visit to Ralph and just tossed non-flying M80-type firecrackers on their front doorstep until the door opened and we heard a loud expletive from Mark, who then slammed the door.

We went past Louise's house between visits to Ralph, and afterwards. Louise used to be Bill's landlord when Bill lived next to her house. Bill didn't like her, or her numerous poodles she raised and kept inside her white picket fence, and every time we drove by, our presence stirred up the dogs, which seemed to number 30 or 40. In actuality, there were likely only several poodles, but they were loud, and by our second visit, Louise also emerged to holler at us. By our final visit shortly before sunup, we only drove nearby and the dogs began barking again.

I will never forget seeing Mark through the Mazda's rear window after our third and loudest visit at 4:30 am chasing after our car for two blocks on foot wielding and waving a nine iron and yelling at us. I know it was a nine iron because moments before, I had noticed it resting on the railing of their front porch as I quietly lit what probably either should have had a longer fuse, or a more distinctive warning label. I was still nearby when it went off, and have some sympathy as to what made Mark so mad at that time of "day." A few months later, Ralph and Mark graduated from Florida State University and moved to South Florida, and we never saw each other again.

I didn't realize Louise would be my next landlord until in mid-June 1990, when I saw an advertisement for $150 monthly rent in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper and showed up to her house with Dave the Cat and most of my belongings and $200 deposit, including a $50 non-refundable pet deposit, which she had specified to me in my phone conversation with her before I arrived. My apartment included a tiny bathroom and consisted of a third part of the house that had been walled away from the rest of the house, and the other two-thirds was rented to two of Louise's friends. It was SMALL, and had a twin bed, table, chair and a window with an air conditioner in it, and I lived there only six weeks.

Two weeks after I moved in, I returned from work one evening and Dave was nowhere to be found. The window and air conditioner were intact so I concluded that only Louise could have let Dave out. I walked over to her house and knocked on the door, which she answered while pointing a semi-automatic pistol at me, and I asked her where my cat was. She hissed, "I DIDN'T KNOW YOU HAD A CAT. My other tenants complained about noise in your apartment, so I visited WITH THIS GUN and knocked, but you weren't home, and when I opened the door, A CAT ran out." I protested, saying that I had paid her a PET DEPOSIT as we had agreed upon, and I was worried about my missing cat. She again denied ever allowing me to keep a pet in the apartment. I disgustedly left her door without saying anything else and returned to my apartment and Dave was waiting for me outside.

That same evening, I typed up my notice to leave at the end of the next month and asked for my $150 deposit back, and sent it certified mail the next day a block away to Louise's house. She never accepted the letter and it was returned and forwarded to me several weeks later. After I moved out at the end of July, I called Louise and reminded her that I had sent her notice of my departure and I wanted my $150 deposit back, and she refused to give it to me.

I went downtown and paid $50 and filed suit against Louise in Small Claims Court, and I represented myself. My unopened certified letter with receipt from the Post Office served as key pieces of evidence and I won. Louise sent me my $150 deposit back, and I never saw her or her little dogs again.