I found this photo when I was digging through some old envelopes in the garage a couple days ago. There's a story behind this, one I haven't told many people and certainly one I had almost forgotten. Until now.
The car is my 1956 Chevy Bel Air convertible. It was my first car. I was stationed in Pittsburgh at the time, a Special Services Officer, which meant I was in charge of getting teams together for tournaments, along with distributing ping pong balls we received from the Salvation Army, maintaining athletic facilities at the HQ as well as on the Nike missile sites. If our nation were ever attacked and the enemy descended on Pittsburgh, we could beat them in a ping-pong tournament for sure. Unless they were Chinese. A second lieutenant with a paddle in his hand, backed up by rugged men with wooden softball bats, badminton birdies, sharpened darts, and free passes for old movies was a deterrent not to be messed with. The word had evidently gotten out. We were never attacked.
Back to the car. On one particular winter weekend in 1958, the volleyball team and I travelled to Ft. Meade, Maryland for an important Army regional tournament. Major Theobald, our CO, had high hopes for us. We were big, we were fast, we were smart. I wore my dress greens, and kept my winter overcoat in the back "well," beneath the rear plastic window. I took three guys with me. The only one I remember is PFC Norm Mitchell, a scrawny guy from Tennessee who spit a lot, had a wicked laugh, used words and expressions I had never heard before, held military life in low esteem. Everyone called him Mitch, one of those naturally likeable guys. At the time I thought, someday I want to write a story or book about him. This is the closest I've ever come.
The other guy on the team I remember clearly was a big, black private whose name might have been James. Well over six feet, at least 200 pounds, not flabby. He was a natural born leader, but seemed interested only in leading others to the dark side. I followed him on that trip, to my embarrassment. Someday I'll remember his last name, then maybe I'll befriend him on Facebook. If he's still alive. Or not in solitary.
We got to Ft. Meade with no problem. We made it through the first three rounds looking sharp. The semi-finals were our next challenge. We won the first game easily, 21 to something in the low teens. Then the spirit left us. I don't know if we ran out of gas or got cocky or decided to screw Major Theobald, who nobody liked. The streak just ended. We lost the next two games.
"I know a good club," said James. "I know this town, got some friends there." 'This town' was Baltimore. We ended up in what I only remember as a street with lots of bars, broken sidewalks, dark alleys, shimmering neons with missing letters, and lots of people around. All ten of us - the entire team - followed James into a large bar with a juke box playing. This was 1958, remember, so it might have been some Wilson Pickett or Chuck Berry or "Rock Around the Clock," which had been out about 5 or 6 years. It sure wasn't Perry Como or Theresa Brewer.
Our fearless leader was greeted like a returning hero, even though he had missed three spikes in that second game, which of course none of the folks at the bar knew or cared about. I remember sitting at the bar, being introduced to some of his friends, including the very pretty black lady tending bar. I was the fresh-face white second Looie in the very soul of Baltimore's night life district. I don't even remember asking for a drink. If I did, it would have been scotch, my choice of alcohol at the time. I've since developed a strong dislike for it, along with gin. The lovely barkeep with the emerging breasts and sparkling eyes set a drink in front of me. "You'll like this, honey." Most of the other guys had boiler makers: a shot of whiskey or vodka and a bottle of beer. We clicked glasses. "Here's to next year," someone said. "I hope not," I thought. I knew I'd be out in less than a year. I finished my drink while the bluesy guitar sunk into my head. And that's the last I remember.
I awoke - or came to - the next morning. Three of the guys from the team were there. I was in a bed. A strange bed, in a strange house or apartment. James was there, big, satisfied smile, as was Mitch, looking slightly hung over. "You feelin' better?" said Norm. "He needs coffee, and some flapjacks," said someone. A woman handed me a cup of coffee. The last time I had seen her she had handed me that magic drink. "Here you go, hon." I didn't touch the coffee.
So they made a fuss over me, making sure "the lieutenant feels okay" after eating something bad and getting sick and passing out. All I had was that drink and I knew how that went down. I washed up and said it was time to head back to Pittsburgh. Somehow my car had turned up outside the house. The weather was freezing, the smell of snow in the air. I hurried out to the car and saw the back window had been slashed. I opened the door. My overcoat was gone. Nobody knew anything.
It was a long drive back to Pittsburgh. And it was my last volleyball tournament in uniform.
About two weeks later, Mitch came up to me outside the radar van on the Nike site. He had this small grin on his face, tempered with his attempt at apology. He threw me a casual salute. "Lieutenant, I feel bad about what happened over there. I'd like to help pay for the window." He tried to hand me some folded up greenbacks. I told him I didn't want his money, just an answer. "It was a mickey in my drink, right?" He nodded. "James set it up?" He looked down at his feet. "I don't really know, sir. He likes you a lot. Me? I think he did. But I don't know for sure. He didn't say nothing to any of us. Swear to God."
Like I said, I liked Mitch. I believed him. I didn't mind losing the overcoat. It was just an overcoat. But it sure hurt to see my Chevy cut like that. Happy ending: the insurance company paid for the whole thing, no deductible. A favor to a man in uniform.
Here's how the car looked on a better day.