May 18, 2010
(July 8/ 2007)
It was supposed to be just another slow night at the funeral home, but Mr. Valentine put an end to that.
And for once, neither I nor Big George had anything to do with it.
George wasn’t any bigger than I was; he just seemed bigger, because he was sort of larger than life. We were both in the same high school, but at 18 he already looked like he might be in his mid-thirties, getting a little thin on top, a little ragged around the eyes. He smoked constantly and his favorite pastime, it seemed, was fighting.
We both worked for Trestle’s Funeral Home, a venerable establishment across town from Steinberg’s, it’s main competition. Trestle’s catered mostly to the blue-collar crowd, Steinberg’s mostly to the people they worked for, and for big shots at the local university.
There were other funeral homes, but those two were the big ones. It was the mid-sixties, right toward the tail-end of the days when funeral homes operated the local ambulance services.
That’s where I and Big George came in. We were attendants for Trestle’s fleet of “convertible cars,” which were Cadillac hearses that, with a couple of on-the-fly changes, could be turned into ambulances. George and I were the guys who sat in the back with patients while one of the older morticians drove helter-skelter to the hospital.
It was very seat-of-the-pants stuff. None of us, as far as I know, had even the most basic first-aid training. If you were still alive when we got you to the emergency room, it was because God wasn’t ready for you yet.
Trestles was in a spooky antebellum house in a part of town that had seen better days. The main floor held the offices, a couple of “viewing rooms” where services were held, a lobby, and the embalming room. Upstairs were showrooms for caskets, and rooms where college students stayed in return for being on call one day a week to help out with funeral calls. George and I were outside help, and worked on both ambulance and “death calls,” and helped out in the embalming room. While our friends were learning how to work on cars at their gas-station jobs, George and I were learning how to embalm people, a skill that, at least for me, hasn’t come in all that handy since.
In the basement was a room where extra caskets were stored in their shipping crates or on gurneys. Next to that was the Ambulance Ready Room, where there was a short-wave radio for communicating with ambulances and a radio to listen to police calls, and a telephone and a TV. A couple of side rooms held beds for those slow nights when nobody got hurt, sick, or died.
So, it was after midnight this one night. Big George and I were watching a horror flick on one of the Atlanta stations. Some students came in through the back, as they were supposed to, passing through the casket storeroom and through the ready room. They nodded, but didn’t stop to talk, but went upstairs to their rooms.
A minute or two later, we heard an odd noise coming from the casket store room.
OK, so I and Big George had seen some things in our days at Trestles, but still, odd noises in the basement of a creaky old funeral home, especially while one is watching a horror flick, are just a little unsettling.
“What was that, George?”
“Damifino,” said George through a cloud of smoke.
“Go see,” I suggested.
George’s response is not printable.
So, we both got up and walked into the storeroom.
One of the caskets on a gurney was moving. All by itself. And making noises. Muffled, panicky noises.
“Open it up,” I said to George.
George reiterated his earlier suggestion, which would have been medically impossible and intensely uncomfortable, in addition to unprintable.
Caskets typically have a dual lid. And dual latches. So, in the spirit of compromise, I said “let’s both open it.”
So, we walked over to the jostling gray embossed flannel casket. It was making sounds like something wanted out of it very badly. I looked at George. George looked at me. He took another hit off his Winston.
“Aw hell,” he said, and reached for a latch. I did the same thing. We released them both at the same time.
It seems that a week before, one of the pranksters living upstairs had hidden in that very same casket and lain in wait for some of his fellow roommates to come in. A group had passed by and the prankster had thrown back the lid, grabbing one of the boys and hollering.
This had the desired effect of scaring the bejesus out of everybody.
Fast-forward a week, to the night George and I were on duty. One of the group so effectively frightened witless had figured he wanted in on the fun and, dressed in his white sleeveless T-shirt and Valentine’s Day boxer shorts with big red hearts, slipped downstairs into the storeroom, clambered into the casket, and closed the lid.
Note: He closed the lid.
It will come as no surprise to most people that caskets do not actually have release latches on the inside. Most people, but not Mr. Valentine.
I don’t know how long he laid there, full of anticipation. But eventually a group of guys – the ones who walked through the ready room just as Count Dracula was about the rise yet again from the dead – walked by, talking and laughing.
Mr. Valentine threw back the lid.
Or, tried to.
He must have gone really cold when he realized that he was closed up in a casket that only had, at best, a couple of hours worth of air in it.
So, he started banging on the lid and yelling. Nothing. He banged and hollered and got more and more panicked.
Enter me and big George. Exit Mr. Valentine.
I mean straight up. You can tell me that levitation is impossible, but I was there and I saw it, and so did Big George. We stood there, cigarettes forgotten in lips, as this skinny, very pale young man arose, verily, from the grave right before our eyes. He came down and hit the ground running, which did not go well for him because it was a small room full of caskets and crates.
He ricocheted off of nearly everything for what seemed like a long time, though he never hit me or Big George. Eventually, and apparently by accident, he slammed into the back door and careened outside into the night. And that was the last we saw of him.
“Well,” said Big George, taking another pull on his Winston. “Damn.”
We found out later that a couple of local police officers had spotted Mr. Valentine tearing down the center of College Street in his skivvies and, given that it was 2 a.m. and 28 degrees, thought to stop him and inquire as to his state of undress and wide-eyed distress.
It took some doing. Neither gendarme was much of a sprinter, so they finally passed him in the police car, jammed on the brakes and stopped him that way. It didn’t hurt him much, and they took him off to spend the night with some friends on campus. He didn’t want to come back to the funeral home, though both cops came by a little later, after Dracula had been nailed with the wooden stake and the hero got the girl, and verified the story.
They tried hard to be all official and everything, but once they stepped back outside, they completely lost it and drove off howling. Mr. Valentine sent a friend over a day or so later to collect his stuff. His daddy, we were told, paid to have the liner of the casket replaced. It was pretty badly shredded.
George and I got a pretty good laugh out of it, too, but we were a little ticked off that we missed the best part of the movie.
© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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OK, this is from back in 2006. I haven’t posted anything in a while, for which I apologize. This one was published in Flagpole, and entertainment and politics weekly newspaper in Athens, Ga., with an excellent hand-drawn illustration that I have on my backup drive and haven’t retrieved yet.
Anyway, a friend saw something on facebook that reminded her of this story, so here it is:
I read recently about a former Marine who was attacked by four armed thugs – two of whom had guns – as he walked home from his job at an Atlanta restaurant.
Thomas Autry, who is 36, was jumped as he was walking home from work. He called for help and pulled a knife out of his backpack, and got busy. The upshot: One attacker dead, one in critical condition, and two in custody.
Only a Marine would take a knife to a gunfight and walk away the victor.
Police, sensibly enough, did not charge Autry. Of course, Atlanta is the South, where I grew up, and, for good or ill, the South has always viewed weapons of any kind as educational tools and instruments of attitude adjustment.
I guess every guy dreams about having his own “John Wayne Moment.” I had one once. There is a song that says “life is different than it is in your dreams.”
My John Wayne Moment came late one summer in the late 1960s. My wife and I lived in a little wooden farm house on Turkeyfoot Road in Clarke County, Ga… The house sat back in a clearing in thick pine woods, at the end of a long dirt driveway.
We were hippies, sort of, and the house was small and isolated, but had most of the modern amenities. Well, there was an outhouse that you had to chase the copperheads out of when you needed to go, and the electricity was limited to a single light bulb hanging from the center of each of the rooms. But it did have running water, though no water heater and we had to bathe in a washtub on the front porch.
Still, it was $50 a month and we liked it. Until the strange car started showing up.
It was an old white Ford Falcon station wagon, not in good repair. There were always three or four guys in it. The car would drive to the edge of the clearing, stop, and just sit there, idling.
The men just sat there, watching. I approached them the first time, thinking they might be lost. They backed up and left. They came back several times over the next few weeks. I didn’t like the way they looked at us, especially the way they looked at Mary. They always had beer.
We did not have a telephone.
After about the third visit from the Falcon, I drove to my parent’s house and dug out my old Stevens .22 automatic rifle and a couple boxes of cartridges.
And a good thing, too.
In the small hours of the next day, the Falcon was back. This time, it drove right up into the yard. A man got out of the front passenger side, and strode right up on the porch. He walked right past the bedroom window. In the moonlight, I could see he had a knife.
It was hot, so the door was open, the screen latched. I heard him cut through the screen.
I don’t remember this part, but Mary said I rose up off the mattress, cursing and praying in the same breath, and, scooping up the rifle, ran toward the porch.
I was a good shot, back then. My buddies and I used to hunt rabbits with .22’s. This was a fat man in a white shirt on a moonlit night. I figured he was mine.
The man jumped off the porch and ran toward the far side of the clearing. I ran out into the yard, raised the rifle, and fired all 15 rounds at him.
At that point, I remembered the Falcon wagon and the fat man’s three friends. The car was about 10 feet to my left.
This was my John Wayne Moment. One bad guy, I thought, perforated in the piney woods. Three drunk bad guys and a ton or so of steel to my left.
And me, long hair sticking straight out every which way, wearing nothing but a St. Christopher medal, a Timex watch, and an empty rifle. Not even a cowboy hat.
It was a moment, all right. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more naked.
I don’t know how long we all stood or sat there, respectively. Seemed like a long time to me, but I didn’t check the Timex. The driver of the Falcon threw the battered old heap into reverse and tore down the driveway without bothering to turn around. I guess he didn’t realize my gun was empty.
Suddenly, there I was, all alone, under the moon in the piney woods, standing barefoot in the red clay dust, wondering if I had made the whole thing up. I mean, it was the 60s, after all.
I think Mary came and got me back into the house. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I did not sleep.
Nothing ever came of it, except the white car stopped coming around. I never called the Sheriff to report the event. The guy was, after all, running away from my house, so if I had hit him, I would have been the one going to jail.
I got a bunch of friends to come over and walk around looking for a fat guy with a lot of holes in him, but we never found him. I finally had to admit that I was so angry and afraid that all of my shots had gone wild. I have to say, though, that I never saw a fat man move so fast.
© 2006 Marsh Creek Media,
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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