Tuesday, April 1, 2014

White Saab loads up for trek through hazy memories with world-famous veterinarian, a damn nice guy, and old Champo

When I hugged Carpy outside my old white Saab 900S, the 30-year-old car that became part of my life since I last saw him, I wondered if this could be the last time.... I don’t know.

Hell, it had been 36 years at least since I saw Tom Carpenter, a legendary Orange County, California, veterinarian, husband, father and grandpa who also has Kareem’s and Magic’s signatures on a small square of the old parquet ball court where they played.  A Mickey Mantle-signed baseball and some old Wrigley Field seats are also a part of his sports paraphernalia collection.  “I go in there just to relax,” the kindly vet says of his sports room.

At one point I contributed to his collection of sports paraphernalia as I sent him a “Muhammad Ali: Three-Time Heavyweight Champion of the World” button from New Orleans, where I covered – as a journalist and eventual friend of Ali – the dethroning of a clumsy Leon Spinks, the pride of St. Louis.

Tom likely has lost track of that button I sent him in 1978, the day after the fight. Most of what I remember from the day I got the buttons (one resided in my house as well, at least until the 2010 flood) is that I stayed up for the better part of 48 hours to cover the fight, enjoy the post-fight celebrations and spend the morning afterward with Ali.  But that’s beside the point. One of the incidents that bound Tom and me as friends was the agony we felt when Kenny Norton beat Ali in a fight we watched in the Hanson House TV room in Larch Hall on the campus of Iowa State University. (That was before the 50-pound bust of Old Man Hanson took a flyer from the seventh-floor windows. I still wonder how in the world that could have happened to that great ISU benefactor? Amazingly, he survived the fall with a few chips and perhaps a bit more respect due to his durability.)

I’ve never seen Tom’s memorabilia collection. Probably never will. I mean if I see Tom just once every 36 years or so, I’ll likely be dead at our next get-together, which could be a downer.  Or at least it will be relatively mellow.

But that’s probably not relevant, since most folks have proven with heavy punctuation they could care less whether I live or whether I die, although I promise to do both sometime. 

Oh well, occasionally life gets in the way, but friends, true friends, never really are gone. You keep them in your heart for awhile. Or, I guess my version of forever.  Hell, 38 years ago or so, when Carpy was still in school, I drove up to Ames, Iowa, from Nashville to pick him up for Jocko’s wedding.  I was driving my mom’s ’72 Dodge Duster since the exhaust manifold of my own ’65 Falcon had exploded for about the fourth time.  And, oh yeah, there was that little carburetor problem, which meant someone had to hold their hand over the air intake in order for me to start it.

Tom and I went and tried on those silly powder-blue tuxedoes at the Ames monkey suit joint. Had to get matching boxers so our underwear wouldn’t show during the nuptials. God knows a lot of our friends, some of them possibly sober, would be looking at us closely to make fun of anything we did wrong. That would include wearing underwear that put our butts on display beneath the expensive-to-rent, cheap fabric.

Well, to summarize, Jocko, Tom and I were able to remain on our feet through the entire nuptials and into part of the night after.   What happened when I left my feet is open to debate.  But enough of that.

“Would this calm and clear late-March 2014 Nashville Saturday morning be the last time I’d see Tom?,” I wondered a week or so ago.  Didn’t really get emotional, but as I drove away – he had to get back to the vet convention, fetal-pig roast and dog-castrating seminars or whatever thousands of whacky veterinarians were doing at the Nashville Convention Center &  Mayor Karl Dean Monument to Civic Excess. 

I’d seen Tom since Jocko’s wedding, but it still had been probably 36 or more years since that last sighting when, on a late-March 2014 day, I picked him up to enjoy a breakfast at Athens in Berry Hill, my dining hall of choice as many of my friends, including cuddly and over-sized sobriety evangelists, assorted blue-tooth-wearing banjo wizards and wry life observers will profess.

Of course, many of the years that separated us came in the time before Al Gore – that chubby mama’s-boy from Carthage, Tennessee, (said in all kindness, as I loved his mom and the feeling was mutual) – discovered the internet, much like his father, the late Senator Albert Gore Sr., discovered the Dwight David Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.   

So it was a sort of prehistoric time when people conversed and also had to pick up phones or write letters, and losing touch with friends probably wasn’t uncommon, unless you were perhaps drunk and lonely and in a life crisis and reaching out for a beloved friend for counseling in the middle of the night. (A guy can lose a lot of friends that way, I should note.)

I mean, I never forgot Carpy. Thought of him often over the years as one of the nicest guys I’d ever met. A kid from Mechanicsville, New York, who was game to mix and mingle with his elders as they toiled hard for their diplomas.

 Me in my pink bunny costume. Jocko in his. We had been the rabbits in an “Alice: Through the Looking Glass” booth at the university’s spring festival. I don’t know if Tom wore one or if he was even there that night.  Holes in the brains of time.

Sometimes I smile, sitting at my desk, when I remember Captain Kirk in his leather pilot’s jacket taking a flyer through an open window and being chased out of the apartment by a gang of women’s rights activists, unhappy to see a guy flying like Superman into their braless political rally.  He landed in peace, of course. Almost went away in pieces. And many of these women were my friends.

Within minutes, Jocko stomped on the gas pedal of the muscle car, a cream-on-bronze “Goat” (GTO) or similar beast.

If their window hadn’t been wide open and their preaching against men not so loud, Captain Kirk, a Vietnam war veteran who almost killed Ho Chi Minh one night while holding off hordes of Cong with a basket filled with grenades and Whoopee cushions, may not have made that flight. Good thing there was neither glass nor screen on that window.  Even a much-decorated Naval hero of LBJ’s war, a swabbie noted for his courageous use of torpedoes and sword-fighting on the Mekong Delta, wouldn’t have risked such a dangerous entry. 

 Actually, that’s an entirely different story, about Captain Kirk and his debut as a first-round draft choice to a sport I believe I dubbed “rolling” – a sort of free-spirited approach to life that usually began with the formal 4 p.m. Friday afternoon planning conference at Tork’s and ended when the “Maverick” reruns played on black-and-white TV on Sunday afternoons while Jocko and I pounded down 10-cent greaseburgers and studied physics.

All’s fair in the rolling world. As long as no one gets hurt. In fact, we passed around a coconut with magic marker lines and logos drawn on it to make it look like an NFL football. It was the game ball, for the person who had the most outrageous rolling experiences of the weekend.

It was retired when I graduated.  Still have it though. It’s been out in my back yard for more than 20 years, weathering down to nothing. Of course, the same has happened to me. Although, when my wife allows it, I do sleep indoors.

But then again, that’s not where this story is going this time.

I wish I’d showed Tom – aka Carpy or “El Carpone” when on the rolling squad – the coconut. We didn’t have time to drop in and tour the house, but I showed him where I lived.

“It’s like an oasis in the city,” he said. “God-damned fine place. I’m happy you seem happy, Tim. Look at all the mature trees. We don’t have them back home.”

Nah, back there they have swimming pools … movie stars…. according to a song composed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.  Earl’s house, still for sale, was along the avenue on which I conducted my brief tour of the city.

Actually Tom doesn’t live in Beverly Hills. His home, as I may or may not have mentioned to this point, is Orange County, California, where he has been the personal veterinarian of choice for everyone from John Wayne (“everybody loved the Duke”) to Joey Bishop (“I asked him for an autographed picture and he said: ‘Rat Pack or just me?’ I got both. Damn nice guy.”)  It is said that when Frank Sinatra wanted to begin using Tom’s veterinary services he was put on the waiting list (and then he died). Tom does things his way. Regrets? He has a few. Actually I made a lot of the preceding paragraph up. Well, only the Sinatra part.

Tom’s accomplished very much in his career. He was celebrated as “America’s Top Vet” by the Clinton White House and was the one who taught Bob Barker the importance of spaying and neutering your pets. And it doesn’t surprise me.  All the guys on the rolling squad have done well.

Jocko, God rest his soul (well, he’s not dead, but he doesn’t take phone calls from rolling squad members – hasn’t since his ex-wife died and broke his heart), has spent 30-plus years as the best inside salesperson in Cedar Rapids and a good share of Eastern Iowa.

Captain Kirk. Well, hell, he’ll say he’s not done anything. Except he gave up alcohol and drugs for the most part – we all have you know… me, I retired from that sport 25 or so years ago at the top of my game – but Captain Kirk is one hellluva Bible thumper. And it’s cool. He also airbrushes T-shirts of Jesus for gang-bangers and two-headed women at circus sideshows and he’s obviously eaten far too many funnel cakes.  Oh, and he spends his free time and money going to Romania to help the orphans. Which is cool, in my mind, as my two children gave up their Romanian orphan status 15 and 18 years ago. 

There’s an ease when you get with old friends. If they were really good friends, the conversation just picks up where it left off. In our case, I think it was outside the house trailer where Tom lived in the green pastures at the edge of Ames while he was finishing vet school. I think they have skyscrapers in that trailer park now. If not, they should …..

A lot of things have happened, many of them bad, in the last 36 years. I’ve stood over bodies of dead kids and taken notes as well as written about escaped monkeys, war heroes, aliens and Cassius Clay. Tom has operated on the pets of movie stars as well as built what appears to be the top veterinary practice in the Western Hemisphere. He also runs marathons and curses at the maladies of age while pushing past the 26.2 mile-marker.  “I always add an extra two miles on just for fun,” he said. And he wasn’t joking.  He once did an extra 13.1 miles at the end of the Boston Marathon.

While our communication in person ended long ago, modern times, such as they are, enabled us to reconnect digitally and seemingly personally in a way that perhaps only Smokey Joe (another story) could have envisioned in a cloud of oily, black-cubed revelation decades ago…

We’d been communicating via Facebook for the last few years, so I knew what Carpy looked like: Just like Tom Carpenter with an older body encasing him.  Me, I look just the same as I did in the 1970s, though my hair is white and thinner and the curl is gone, my face is lined and drawn and punctuated by age spots, there are constant black circles beneath my eyes and my frame no longer shows the bloating of beer but instead shows age and decay.  If they cut me in half, they could count my rings and be surprised there are only 62. (“Thought the bastard was older than that,” they’d say, tsk-tsking while rolling the carcass into Hefty bags for curbside recycling.)

There’s no real reason to go into what Tom and I talked about. You wouldn’t understand.  Unless you are John Nitz. Leonard Sandholm. Captain Kirk (Terry Kirkwood). Jim Mraz (Jocko). Carpy. Champo (my college-era persona who didn’t take much morphing to become the OCD, free-loving, often depressed and crazed journalist hailed by the nether world as “Flapjacks”).   I guess Ben Sorenson, who abandoned his Chevette after driving it into a snow drift would understand.  I’ll never forget that Iowa blizzard, when Ben agreed to drive us to Tork’s for emergency supplies.  He left the road and the car disappeared – us in it – into a snowdrift. The blizzard erased any image of the car and the fact we had to crawl out the windows to escape.   “I’ll just leave it there and see if it’s still there in the spring,” said Ben.  We hitched a ride in the back of some hemp farmer's pickup. He was a kind old man who knew the Iowa State rolling team desperately needed to get to Tork's for supplies to outlast the storm. He brought us back to the dorm, too.    

Of course, you’ve – I hope – shared the experience of reconnecting with an old friend from the past and realizing they have been a part of you all through the years. Like grains through the hourglass, those were the days of our lives… Isn’t that how that dead guy with the cool voice pronounced the old soap opera?  

Tom and I are similar in so many ways. We have become devoted and stone-cold-sober family men. His kids are grown. Even has a couple of grandkids he dotes on and posts their pictures on Facebook.

Mine are making their way in life after a start that was rough, through no fault of anyone but a maniacal, cruel dictator who greeted the throngs by wearing used jockstraps on his head. I made that last part up. Ol’ Nicolae was left as dead as Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner when the Romanian people got done with him.

My kids came from orphanages in Romania, but they are as All-American as their pop. “Give Peace a Chance,” they sing when the network news comes on the television machine and Boris the Spider is ready to invade Ukraine. Hold it, that’s not Boris… it’s Vladimir Putin.

Tom and I have had many other friends in life. His are California runners and dog docs who go to the Final Four and run out at Joshua Tree and wager over golf at $1,000 a stroke (made that last one up).

My friends, for the most part, are News Brothers, some are dead and some are living.  Tony “Lying Sack of Shit” Durr and Harold “The Stranger” Lynch and Scott “Badger” Shelton among the former.  Okey “Skipper” Stepp’s also dead.  Jerry "Chuckles" Manley, Ricky G. "Dumbo" Moore, Jim "Flash" Lindgren, Frankie "Wuhm" White, David "Teach" Ross, Jim “Kentucky Fats” Monday (noted evangelist and hustler for God) and, most especially, my frequent book collaborator, Colonel Robert Stanley Dollar (“Death” News Brother) are among the living and I love them desperately. Future Nashville Mayor “StrawBilly” Fields was “whited out” – for awhile, anyway  – from that list when he failed to pay his dues by returning phone calls or e-mails from his friends who needed his help.  Probably better for his political future, as The News Brothers don’t like hacks and whores.  Come to think of it, I need to put his name back on that list. I love the big, old East Nashville “man of the people” (or man the size of many people).  He's just like so many other "friends" you only hear from when you call and they say "Damn, I've been meaning to call you.... So, you're still alive?"   

When the News Brothers get together, there is no time elapsed.

Of course, in the case of Rob and me, there really isn’t much time elapsed, as we talk in the shorthand of special friends frequently.  Soon we’ll be on our third book together, buoyed by the success of our first two and the overwhelming support of our friends.   

The shorthand of friendship is understood by so few, only the special ones who have shared life experience, who have loved us, who continue to do so.

Folks who know and celebrate our faults and our weaknesses with laughter and greet our few and meager successes with cheers.

Unfortunately, these folks are outnumbered in life by those who reply with self-righteous expletives when we just try to be ourselves, cynical warts and all, when reaching out for friendship and reassurance.

 It had been a long time since I saw Tom Carpenter, DVM, Orange County, California, a young man who long-ago admired my tie-dyed rolling jersey and later became the Duke’s veterinarian.

But as we forked into out breakfasts at Athens, it felt like any other Saturday morning in the early 1970s, when the rolling squad would regroup over breakfast before planning another day and night of serious study of the human spirit and other academic pursuits.

We were the benevolent Merry Men of Ames, Iowa, beloved at any all-night truck stop or biker bar.  We were fast on our feet and left good tips.    

When we stood by the old, white Saab at the end of our morning and reunion, I hugged Tom. He did so in return. I really didn’t want to let go, but he had pigs to castrate, or whatever the world’s top veterinarians do at these confabs.  The actual pig-castrating by the way came at the John Nitz homestead in Northwest Iowa, where a bunch of city boys were taught the cut-and-fry art by the local hog doctor 40-some years ago.

Actually Tom is more likely to be discovering the cure for feline leukemia than about anything else I can imagine. He’s that good of a fellow and vet.

Would we see each other again or is this the final chapter, the punctuation, the post script, one last roll through time with an old and steadfast friend?

Hell, Tom, if you’re out there, let’s get together again.  I just remembered the Viking Fest.

Were you there for that night when our guests – male and female -- tore into the roasted turkeys and then threw the naked bones – “Tom Jones”-style -- over their shoulders while filling glasses from an Everclear-spiked keg of Schlitz? We saved the Mad Dog 20/20 for the desert beverage?

Heck there are more tales to write. Thanks, Carpy. Your visit meant more to me than you can imagine.  

  (Note: The thing is that this is, for the most part, a true story, although time has played tricks on me.  There’s a hole in Daddy’s brain where all the memories go.)





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