Sunday, May 23, 2010

Not With A Whimper

Well, this didn't work out nearly as well as I had hoped. I haven't had anyone tell me a story for three weeks, and while I meant to write about some of my own, it's not very interesting to tell my own stories. My old man has some AMAZING Vietnam stories, but he hasn't sent me any, either. Hell, I could just write a biography of his life, and it would be worth reading, and maybe I'll revisit that idea if he comes out to see me this summer.

For now, though, I'm not planning on trying to keep up with Drake's Tales. It just isn't working out the way I had planned, and I'm too busy to throw time into it simply as a vanity project. I really thought I would have had more people sending me stories, but it just hasn't happened.

But I'm not really upset. It was an experiment, and it was fun while it lasted, but I think the guy was right when he noted that people who can't write in the first place are not likely to take the time to tell an entire story in an email. I still get to write to my heart's content, because Drake's Flames is doing just fine, and I'll keep this live just in case I ever get a bug up my ass and decide to try it again. Hell, if I suddenly get more stories, I'll write 'em up, because it's fun as hell.

And if I never write anything here again, it can fade quietly into the dark recesses of the Internet, never to be seen except by people who make typos in Google searches. I guess I have to disagree with Def Leppard - I would rather fade away than burn out.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The No-Handed Fireman

Before I start this weeks Tale, I have two things.

First, I want to remind everyone that while I can tell my own stories all day long, I started this thing to relate other people's stuff. And I've managed to drum up new stories every week for a while now, but it sure would be great to get more. So check out The Big Idea (the first post at this site), and tell me a story. Don't worry if you don't think you're a good writer - that part is up to me. Just tell me what happened. It doesn't have to be funny, either. It can be sad, exciting, or inspirational. Everyone has a story. Let me hear yours.

Second, this story contains a little bit of profanity. I considered editing it out, but once you read it, I think you'll agree that a clean version just wouldn't be the same. If you're sensitive to strong language, you may want to take a pass this week.

So without further ado, I present The No-Handed Fireman.


As anyone watches Lost must surely know by now, disabled people can do all sorts of things, like hunt wild boar or turn into clouds of smoke. But in real life, it can be difficult sometimes to persuade people that you're capable when you're at a disadvantage.

Take John, for instance. He worked in the Queensland Emergency Services, and he was born with no hands. His arms just sort of tapered down to nubs. For you or me, this might seem like the kind of thing that precludes you from a wide variety of employment opportunities, but John not only got by, he was a successful firefighter and emergency responder. If your house was on fire, you might think it would be nice if the guy who showed up with the fireaxe had hands, but John was just as good at saving you as any fireman with a full complement of body parts.

One night after a training exercise, John was on his way home with his buddy Bill. Bill was driving his pickup truck, but it was specially modified just for him. Years before, Bill had lost his right arm in a motorcycle accident, and so his truck was tricked out to let a one-armed man run the gear shift. Neither John nor Bill really gave much thought to the fact that both were technically disabled. They were fit, well-trained and competent, and they had saved lives where lesser men would have been hard-pressed to keep from urinating in their Dockers.

As they drove home, the car in front of them swerved to avoid a dog in the road, and slammed head-on into an oncoming vehicle. The smaller car spun, hood crumpled, glass flying, and came to a stop against the curb.

Bill showed once again that he could manage just fine with one arm. He threw the truck into a lower gear, slammed on the brakes, and before most of us could have finished checking to see if we were still alive, John and Bill had jumped out of the pickup and were running to help.

The driver of the smaller car was dazed and bloody, his door smashed permanently closed, chunks of safety glass clinging to his clothes and hair. He was struggling in vain to push the door open, and by the time John and Bill got up to him, he was attempting to crawl through the shattered window.

"Hey," called John,"Can we help?"

The man, still panting from shock and exertion, stopped to stare at the two rescue workers. He looked slowly at Bill's empty sleeve, then at John's nubs, and finally raised his gaze to look John dead in the face and say:

"What exactly could you two fucking do?"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Clown Surgeon

If you think about it, few people get to see more of the bizarre, unruly and twisted than police officers. They stop people who have drugs in their pants, guns in the glove box and heads in the back seat. If you've ever been pulled over and wondered why the cop seemed so unsympathetic, it's probably because they've seen far too many disturbing things to be impressed with your situation.

Being out of the academy just six months, John was one of those patrol cops who gets to sit on a side road with a radar gun and earn money for his local government in the form of traffic fines. Still, six months is enough to see a good share of the odd and unpleasant. So when he spotted the Miata doing fifty in a thirty-five, he halfway expected some kind of lame excuse and possibly inexplicable oddity.

As soon as the speeding driver saw the flashing lights, he pulled right over, and John pulled up behind him. He frowned a little - with the top up, he could not see the driver at all. For all he knew, the driver might be loading a shotgun and snorting a speedball in the front seat. So he did as he always did, and approached with caution.

As John walked up to the door, he noticed a few things that started to set off alarms. Now that he could see the driver, he could also see that the man was wearing hospital scrubs - and they were covered in blood. John unsnapped his holster and put his hand on his gun, and as he came close enough to see the man, he also noticed the gory knife thrown casually onto the passenger seat. And yet the driver had his hands firmly on the wheel, obviously not carrying a weapon or posing a threat. He was, however, wearing a brilliant, rainbow-colored wig.

One problem with pulling over a Miata is that the car is extraordinarily low to the ground. John couldn't see the man's face at all, just the enormous, garish hairpiece. The knife and the obvious blood on the driver's clothing was enough to raise an internal alarm, but the wig was just plain bizarre. So he bent down, one hand still on the butt of his gun, to get a look at the man's face.

He was wearing a red clown nose.

The man still hadn't moved his hands, so John didn't feel an immediate need to draw his gun, but he did want an explanation, and he wanted it in a hurry.

"Sir, what in God's name have you been doing?"

John had seen that deer-in-the-headlights look a hundred times if he had seen it once, but he still didn't exactly expect it from a man covered in blood and wearing a clown wig.

"I'm sorry, officer, I was changing the radio station and didn't realize how fast I was going."

John shook his head. "I'm a little more concerned about the blood and the knife!"

John could see realization of his appearance dawn on the man's face. It was as if, right up until this second, the man had no idea he was covered in blood and dressed like a clown.

"Oh! Oh no! No! It's not real! It's - I mean, it's fake! It's just ketchup!"

John's eyes narrowed. "And why would you have ketchup all over yourself, and a butcher knife on the seat?"

"My costume! I'm an insane clown surgeon!"

It was John's turn to realize what he had missed - today was Halloween. With no kids in his house, and no real reason to keep the date in mind, John had completely forgotten. Suddenly the man didn't seem nearly as threatening. He took his hand away from his gun.

"So where are you heading in such a hurry, sir?"

The man looked sheepish. "I work for a medical supply company. We decided to dress up for Halloween. I just didn't realize how fast I was going until I saw you."

John shook his head again, half amazed at the bizarre costume and half surprised that he had so thoroughly forgotten the date. "Wait here," he said, and headed back to his cruiser.

John looked up the license, found a squeaky clean record, and chuckled to himself as he wrote out a warning. He walked back to the Miata and handed the driver the slip of paper.

"I'm giving you a warning because you're wearing the first costume I've seen today, and I had completely forgotten it was Halloween. You pay a little more attention and drive safe, now."

The man's nervous face broke into a grin. "Will do, officer. Absolutely."

John stopped several more costumed speeders that day, and by the end of his shift, he knew that he would never forget Halloween again.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Misplaced Wife

Kids these days have no idea how good they have it. If they can't remember the name of a band or the ingredients in a Long Island Iced Tea, they can pull it up on the Internet before they move on to discussing pop musicians and teen angst vampire movies. If they run out of gas or get a flat tire, they can simply dial roadside assistance from the phone everybody seems to keep in their pockets these days (including me).

But it wasn't always that easy. As recently as twenty years ago, communication had a way of slipping through the cracks, as John found out when he took his lovely wife on a bus tour of Europe.

The trip started off brilliantly. John and Judy discovered that all the overused cliches that dominate the American opinion of Europe are based in fact, as they wandered through ridiculously charming villages and explored gorgeous valleys. It was summer in Europe, the Cold War was over, and the exchange rates were still working in their favor.

As they wound their way through a carefree season, John began to want more. France was nice enough, but he really wanted to take Judy through Belgium, and see if it really was as silly as John Cleese liked to say it was. Rumors of fantastic beer and great cheese, not to mention all manner of cultural heritage, drew the pair to a bus that would drive them through the country.

John had checked the travel guides enough to know that he would pass through the town of Waterloo, where Napoleon's bid for power came to an end. John was a long-time gamer, and the location's historical significance was nearly as important as its influence on many of the games he had enjoyed. So when the bus pulled into Waterloo for a rest break, John and Judy grabbed their packs and stepped out for a quick look around.

John had spent countless hours playing Napoleonic wargames with his college roommate, and being early evening, figured he had a chance to raise his friend on the phone and brag that he was in Waterloo. However, since this is not a recent tale, John did not have a cell phone, and had to use a pay phone. A little searching turned up an antiquated phone booth that actually worked. John's old roommate answered the phone, and he and John began to have a lengthy discussion in which John told his friend that he was in Waterloo, and his friend made jealous sounds.

After a few minutes, John remembered that international phone calls cost astronomical sums of money, especially from pay phones in Belgium, and hung up. He turned around, stepped out of the phone booth, and realized that he was completely alone. The bus was gone. The stores had closed. The streets were empty. And worst of all, Judy was no where to be found.

At first John was confused as he began hunting for his wife. If they got separated, the plan was to meet up at the last place they had both been, so he waited for a while as worry began to set in. When hours passed with no sign of Judy or the tour bus, John's worry began to grow into panic, and he set out to find her.

As he walked in and out of gloomy bars and deserted streets, John's mind tortured him with visions of his wife, dead in a remote basement or discarded in the Belgian countryside, while he wandered, impotent and frantic, calling her name to no avail.

The sun dropped lower to the horizon, and darkness began to descend on the town of Waterloo. Minutes turned to hours as John searched fruitlessly through darkening alleys and cobbled streets, the sound of his footsteps echoing back at him from the old brick walls, mocking his solitude and desperation. Night came in earnest, and yet John continued to search through the streets as desperation and hopelessness began to take hold. He was alone in a foreign country, unable to speak the language, with no idea how to find his wife.

Finally, John realized that the last bus to Brussels would be leaving soon. It was midnight, and there would not be another bus until morning. With a heavy heart, John climbed aboard and sank into the seat, exhausted and distraught. The bus rumbled through the night, carrying John further from the last place he had seen Judy, into the heart of the soot-stained city of Brussels. The city seemed to draw the life out of the people who lived there, cold and miserable, especially to John's weary eyes.

Weighed down by equal parts exhaustion and sorrow, John got off the bus and trudged through the miserable concrete halls of the Brussels train station. In the dead hours halfway between midnight and dawn, the station was empty, silent as the grave. It seemed to feed on John's misery and fear, and he was weary to the bone.

His spirit broken, his mind a shattered mess, his body sore and tired, John dropped his backpack in an abandoned stairwell, sat against a wall and pulled his coat tight around him. He stared off into the darkness, and as his eyes began to adjust to the dim light, he could make out a dark figure at the top of the stairs. He rose with a start, and then the figure spoke.

"John? Is that you?"

It seems Judy had noticed the bus leaving Waterloo and had leapt aboard to ask the driver to wait for her husband. Sadly, the driver spoke no English, and simply shut the doors and drove away. Judy was unable to get off the bus, and the driver refused to stop until that train station in Brussels. So Judy, worried sick for her husband and completely unable to contact him, decided to wait at the station. It was a long, miserable day for both of them, but it was almost worth the fear and depression for that one glorious moment of reunion.

John and Judy are still married, living comfortably in the United States, and thoroughly enjoying the convenience of satellite television, GPS tracking and, most importantly, the cell phone.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Ultimate Fighting Christian

California is just about the perfect place to be young. Between hundreds of miles of beachfront and easy access to high-quality herbal remedies, California is a surf punk dream come true. Being a young man in his early-twenties, John could frequently be found in the company of a small groups of friends, gathered around a bonfire by the ocean, singing along to his buddy's guitar and passing around bottles of cheap liquor.

On the weekend of the Ultimate Fighting Christian, John was at the beach with his close friends Eddie (the guitar player), Dave (the singer), and a few hangers-on. The most notable sometimes-friend was Bruce. His friends called him Kenpo Bruce, because Bruce had an irritating tendency to discuss at length his black-belt qualifications, and how he was going to study advanced martial arts techniques so that he could teach his considerable talents to the hungry masses. You know, give something back.

As the group enjoyed music, booze and the glories of the California shoreline (which frequently counted among its many virtues loose women in scant clothing), a friendly but large fellow wandered over and asked if he could join the easy-going gathering. He was welcomed with the glowing warmth one tends to find around people who have been inhaling hallucinogens for a while, and introduced himself as Chuck.

Chuck was a carpenter from up the coast. He was on vacation, and spent his downtime wandering the beaches and meeting people in casual conversations. While it was entirely possible that Chuck's 'vacation' might also have been confused with 'unemployment', and his 'wandering journeys' might have been mistaken for 'homelessness,' he was nonetheless a friendly guy, though by the time he approached John's campfire, he was very, very drunk. Chuck stated, in no uncertain terms, that he was a Christian, and that he was delighted to find a like-minded group of holy brothers. Chuck obviously did not know John and his friends very well.

The conversation eventually came around to Oriental fighting arts, with Kenpo Bruce talking at length about his martial arts training, and how he was potentially the most dangerous man alive. This intrigued Chuck, who announced that he was also a practitioner of the noble art of karate. He jumped to his feet and gave an impromptu demonstration, which resembled a paraplegic receiving electric shock therapy, and made John and his friends laugh out loud.

Chuck was not amused. In his inebriated state, he was pretty certain he was a karate genius. He declared loudly that Kenpo Bruce must stand up and spar with him, right there in the sand. Bruce waved him off, but Chuck insisted. Finally, when Chuck told Bruce that his father must be embarrassed to have raised such a pathetic child, Bruce decided that he should teach this drunken lout a lesson.

A quick aside might be in order here, so that we can enjoy a brief discussion of martial arts. You see, there's a considerable difference between knowing what one should do in a fight, and actually knowing how to fight. In the one case, the student of martial arts may believe himself to be a powerhouse of violence, but in the other case, the actual brawler has been hit in the face enough times to know that simply memorizing a few Chinese fighting stances and Japanese words for 'pants' means absolutely nothing when a near-homicidal drunk decides to beat you to fine paste.

The fight began humorously enough, with Kenpo Bruce dancing around the beach, throwing fistfuls of sand at Chuck and shouting, 'Kenpo! The art of fighting without fighting!', which was both nonsensical and comical. Chuck continued to berate Bruce, calling him all manner of unmanly names, until Bruce finally worked up enough nerve to punch him.

Even though he was a complete pansy who had never been in a fight, that black belt in Kenpo had at least taught Bruce how to ball up a fist and plant it in a man's face. The solid smack was enough to make John wince - but it barely fazed Chuck. So Bruce kicked him in the stomach, but again, Chuck didn't even seem to notice. Instead, Chuck jumped at Bruce, brought him to the ground, and began to throw Hail Mary punches at this face.

Two factors saved Bruce. First, he was a wiry five-foot-ten, and he whipped his head around so fast that Chuck couldn't land a blow. Second, Chuck was severely impaired by his inebriated state, and while he probably thought he was delivering killer blows, his main accomplishment was to churn up the sand.

Bruce realized immediately that he was hopelessly outclassed. Kenpo taught him how to fight on his feet; it left him completely unprepared for a situation in which he found himself pinned underneath a huge drunk who threw punches like a bull elephant. He screamed to John and his friends, 'ASSISTANCE! I REQUIRE ASSISTANCE!'

Those were his actual words. I did not make that up.

While the farcical scene was enough to make the rest of the gathering howl with laughter, John and Dave quickly realized that unchecked, this situation could result in police activity. So they ran over and told Chuck that he had won, Bruce had been soundly trounced, and the fight should come to an end. Chuck, in his advanced state of alcoholic delusion, ignored them and continued to punch the sand with enough power to cause earthquakes in Saigon.

Seeing that words would not have an effect, Dave began to pummel Chuck about the face and back. But Chuck was in a zone, unable to acknowledge outside influences, and maintained his current undertaking of beating the sand around Bruce's head into submission. So John entered the melee and immediately resorted to extreme measures - he cracked Chuck over the head with a mostly-full bottle of cheap vodka.

Another aside is in order. At this point, we should examine the sturdiness of the modern glass bottle. In the movies, glass bottles tend to break if a skinny woman sits too close to them, and they always break on impact with a man's head. However, in real life, liquor bottles are surprisingly sturdy, and skulls are remarkably soft, all things considered.

John's bottle did not break. There was a dull thud, but no crashing glass, and John turned in amazement to Dave, who shrugged. Chuck, meanwhile, ignored the blow to his cranium and still refused to give up on beating the stuffing out of Bruce. So John took a step back, leapt into the air, and brought that bottle down with both hands on the back of Chuck's head.

This time the bottle did break. Grain alcohol, glass shards and drops of blood sprayed everywhere. And at that point, John and Dave realized another important fallacy - not everybody who is conked on the head passes out cold. In fact, Chuck rose to his feet, a wounded expression on his face, and asked John, 'Whadja do that for?'

John was more than a little nervous now. Chuck had withstood a near inhuman level of punishment, and seemed to be little more than irritated. The big drunk advanced on John, who explained quickly that Chuck would be ill-advised to continue this course of action. John had been in fights, and knew what to do with the jagged chunk of glass in his hand. Chuck kept coming, so John cut him.

The broken bottle bit deep into Chuck's side, tearing through his t-shirt and a fair amount of flesh. Blood began to stain the shirt immediately, but still Chuck refused to fall. John was panicked - if a bottle to the head and a stab in the belly couldn't stop this monster, what would?

In a moment of inspiration, John found his voice.

"Chuck! You're a Christian, right? Would Jesus want you to do this?"

As if struck by lightning, Chuck dropped to his knees. Tears mingled with blood and vodka as he cried out, 'I'm so sorry, brother! I'm so sorry!' Completely surprised by the sudden change of attitude, John graciously accepted the apology, after which Chuck rose to his feet and stumbled away, mumbling and crying to himself as he teetered off into the sunset.

John never saw Chuck or Kenpo Bruce again, but he did learn some valuable life lessons that night. He learned that there's a big difference between knowing karate and knowing how to fight. He also learned that glass bottles are quite a bit sturdier than Hollywood would have us believe. And he learned that, while there are remarkably few problems that cannot be solved with an appropriate application of violence, sometimes the right words can stop a man better than a painful beating.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Naked Norwegian

Judy and her husband John lived in Jerusalem, which is a lovely city, especially if you like exploding coffee shops. Of course, not all of Jerusalem was prone to improved explosive zealots, and it was, after all, the Promised Land. Not only was it great if you wanted to take a pilgrimage through the Holy City, but there was actually some pretty fun stuff to do. Fun enough that John and Judy were lucky enough to host their Norwegians friends Erik and Karl.

Erik and Karl, being young men in their prime, decided that they should tour the city. John and Judy, being actual working people and not Norwegian tourists, went about their normal routines while Karl and Erik went out and painted the town red. This, it turns out, was not a particularly great decision.

Karl and Erik, being tourists, did not know enough to avoid the parts of town where the food may or may not be prepared by goat farmers who washed their hands once a week with used wet-naps. Karl seemed to weather the tainted food fairly well, but Erik's felafel seemed to be prophetic, because four hours later, he said, 'I feel awful.'

Only, you know, in Norwegian.

At any rate, it did not take long until Erik was laid up in Judy's guest room, alternately sleeping and vomiting into a bucket. Karl, very concerned for his food-poisoned friend, set out to procure medication. John was at work, leaving Judy to keep half an eye on Erik. Fortunately, Erik was currently passed out, so Judy went into her room to do a little cleaning.

After a while, Judy grew parched, and decided to get a drink. But as she walked into her kitchen, she was greeted by a decidedly uncomfortable sight. Erik's fever had broken (for the time being), and he was thirsty. So he wandered into the kitchen and got himself a glass of water. Naked.

Judy was slightly shocked at the bare-assed tourist in her kitchen, and retreated before Erik could see her. She hid in her room for several hours, until she heard Karl come back to the house. Then she hurried out to talk to him.

Judy mentioned the naked kitchen trip to Karl. Karl smiled and nodded, and explained that Norwegians are quite a bit more cavalier about free-swinging genitals. Erik would not have gone to the store in his birthday suit, but he thought nothing of stumbling around the house wearing only a smile. He promised to ask Erik to wear some clothing the next time he had to get out of bed.

The night passed uneventfully, with Erik sick in bed until morning. The next day, Karl and John set out, once more leaving Judy to tend the ailing guest. Judy went about her business, working around the house. By mid-afternoon, she decided it was time to break for lunch, and headed to the kitchen to make a sandwich.

Once more, there was Erik. Sick and thirsty, he had again ventured out for a drink. And this time, he was dressed.

Well, he was wearing a coat.

It matched his testicles perfectly.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Prom Night Waiter

Even as a student at a public university, John still had times when it was hard to cover the bills. He would have loved to ride Daddy Warbucks' trust fund, but sadly, John's father was mostly broke, so John had to have a job. Unfortunately, John wasn't good at a whole lot of things, so he became a waiter at Denny's, which is about a half-tick above asking people if they would like to supersize their fries.

John went to school during the day, so his main shift was the graveyard. John liked the graveyard, because he worked from around eleven at night to about 5 in the morning, and for about half that time, Denny's is very quiet. You might say it was as quiet as a graveyard, which would explain the origin of the phrase. Between ten and about one in the morning, the place is overrun with rowdy teens who can't get into bars, and who sit eight to a booth and split a bowl of fries and two cups of coffee. Then at about 1:30, the drunks start to roll in, looking for some waffles to soak up the booze. By three or so, the place clears out, and everyone goes home except one waiter and one cook. John loved that time - he could do all his side work, clean off the tables, count up his cash and otherwise get ready to go home and sleep until his classes started at noon.

One fateful night - early morning, really - John was cleaning coffee pots and emptying ashtrays when a pair of teenagers in bad evening wear walked into the restaurant. The young man was wearing one of those hideous, ill-fitting tuxedos that you can rent for budget prices from ugly stores in strip malls, and the girl was wearing a strapless dress that fit so poorly, she mostly just walked around holding her purse in one hand and her sagging neckline in the other. Of course, young people in odd clothing was kind of par for the course at an all-night diner, so John thought nothing of it. He was also completely unsurprised when they asked to sit in the smoking section.

John took their drink orders and began to walk into the back to pour the soda, but before he could get five steps, another couple wearing equally ridiculous dress-up clothes walked in. So John diverted, got them to their seats (again, in smoking), and attempted once more to get the drinks.

Only now there were a half-dozen kids in bad tuxes and ugly dresses waiting at the door, and before he could even find seats for all of those kids, another five couples had come in. Before he knew it, John was seating smart-mouthed teenagers at any open table in the restaurant. Unruly kids were hollering drink orders, throwing wadded napkins, yelling for menus and otherwise reminding John exactly why he never wanted to breed. Even with every table full, the waiting area just inside the doors was stuffed to capacity with ill-behaved adolescents, and they were spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of the eatery. Even after John told them that they were unlikely to get a table before sunrise, he had a tough time convincing them that they should go haunt some other cursed establishment.

Simply taking food orders was a nightmare. Idiot kids, probably victims of the public school system, seemed to be incapable of ordering off the menu, instead asking John ridiculous requests and potentially impossible food combinations. As he was berated by hundreds of lippy teens at the same time, John's patience began to run thin, and he was soon telling kids they had five seconds to order or they were waiting an hour.

Then John began to put in food orders. The restaurant used a computerized ordering system, which required John to plug each dish into a computer before it would be sent to the cook. The cook, of course, was cleaning the griddle and getting the food ready for the morning shift, and was thus completely unprepared when John began to send him order after order. At one point, the cook even poked his head out from the back, mouth hanging wide open, and flagged John as he ran past with coffee pots in both hands.

"What the hell is going on?" asked the cook, to which John replied, "Prom night!"

The night only got worse. As food came out, John began to discover that kids were changing tables, denying orders, or just leaving before the food arrived. One particularly vivid moment in the sea of chaos had John standing on top of a table, yelling, "Nobody is getting any food for at least thirty minutes, and feel free to get your own coffee!"

At around 4:30, the lady who had the breakfast shift came in. By that time, about half the restaurant was empty again, but it was in a state of utter disarray that left her stunned as she walked through the doors. John was understandably frazzled, still running like a maniac from point to point in a mad attempt to keep up with the impatient punks who had ruined his night. To her credit, the replacement waitress jumped right in, and within twenty minutes, things were settling down nicely. By five, when John's shift ended, there were only a handful of kids still hanging out, dragging on the last of their cigarettes and avoiding having to return to their no-doubt tyrannical parents before they spent the entire day in bed. John spent another thirty minutes cleaning up, cashing out and wiping down, and then dragged himself home.

John has since had his heart broken. He has had to sleep on the streets. He has had some hard times, for sure. But if you ask him today, there is no hesitation. Without a doubt, that single night at Denny's resonates as the worst night of his life.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Roadblock Inspector

When John's old man got tired of teaching sixth grade in California, he decided to become a missionary and move the entire family to Uganda, which is an absolutely beautiful country in East Africa.

John's family left for Africa just after the despot Idi Amin was sent packing, and so there was still plenty of evidence of the mad dictator's reign. The most obvious was that the local soldiery (to use the term loosely) liked to earn a side living by setting up roadblocks and extorting money from anyone driving past. The thuggish soldiers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted to the natives, but because the replacement government was still attempting to suck up to the United States, a soldier who took liberties with a white person was about two hours away from a shallow grave.

Sadly, the soldiers in Uganda were not exactly America's Finest. They tended to drink a lot, carry filthy weapons that would never have worked if they were not AK-47s, and were about as sloppy a bunch as ever wore a uniform. So from time to time, John would hear about a soldier who detained a carload of missionaries for an hour or two, until a ranking officer showed up and the soldier disappeared, probably to be found in a ditch with his hands cut off and a bullet in his forehead.

John lived in the capital city of Kampala in ninth grade, but he had a good friend whose father was a foreign investor. John's friend lived in a small town about two hours from the capital. John went one weekend to spend a few days at his friend's house, and to get back, he bummed a ride with a couple Peace Corps guys in one of those horrible miniature pickup trucks that had no shocks and barely enough room for two people in the cab. The Peace Corps boys were in the front. John wound up sharing the bed of the truck with two Luganda women who claimed the spot right behind the cab, leaving John to have mosquitoes the size of grapes bounce off his teeth for two bumpy hours.

Before they had gone far, the truck was stopped at one of those ubiquitous roadblocks that seemed to crop up anywhere a soldier could find enough room to put up a sawhorse and a lawn chair. The standard operating procedure for missionaries, when the soldier leaned in and stuck out his hand, was to give him a pamphlet and smile. Unfortunately, nobody told the Peace Corps guys. They were a couple college grads working off their student loans, and they weren't religious, anyway. So they didn't know to bribe the soldier with crappy brochures about Jesus.

To set the scene, the roadblock had been erected in the absolute middle of nowhere. Uganda is a small country - you could fit the whole thing inside Texas - but for being that small, there sure was a lot of no place at all. This wasn't even remote farmland. There was an open, grassy field, and just as with nearly any location in Uganda, you could see jungle somewhere. They were on a two-lane road with more potholes than finished surface, transporting two Luganda women, and stopped by one soldier who had pulled over his jeep and slapped up a barricade to spend a day supplementing his income. It was just the five people in the truck, the soldier, and a water buffalo. And the water buffalo was sleepy.

The soldier leaned into the cab, and in the sort of pidgin English that you see in movies but are never really sure if it's real (it is, by the way), asked the driver for something. John didn't hear what the soldier said - he was in the very back of the truck, as far from the cab as he could be without sitting on the bumper. The driver and passenger pulled out passports, which would usually have been more than enough, but the soldier wasn't particularly happy to let the truck drive off without a bribe, and the two kids in the front of the truck did a sorry job of reminding him they were white people. So the soldier, unhappy with his luck, came back to the bed of the truck.

Since the two women were closest to the cab, he started with them.

'Let me see your ID,' he said, vaguely threatening with his AK and smoldering marijuana roll-up. His eyes were completely bloodshot, and he smelled like reefer madness on a tequila bender. The two ladies complied, conjuring paperwork that the soldier examined (though John was not entirely convinced the man could read).

Before the story continues, we should take note that John was 14 years old and traveling with complete strangers. He did not have a driver's license. He didn't even carry a wallet, because he didn't need one, because he was 14 years old. So he had absolutely no Earthly idea what he was going to show this drunken, stoned highway bandit when the soldier asked for identification. John's heart was racing as the ludicrously inebriated soldier turned to question him.

If you asked him today, John could not tell you if it was sheer panic or a burst of inspiration, but he somehow managed to maintain the kind of calm you usually only see in James Bond movies or nuclear safety films from the 1950s. Before the uniformed thug could say anything, John beat him to the punch, and asked:

'Can I see your ID?'

John must have looked like he had some right to ask for identification. It might have been his white skin, his completely false arrogance, or the obviously altered state of mind the soldier was currently enjoying. Whatever the case, the soldier took his AK-47 and shoved it into John's hands, saying, 'This is my ID.'

Still pretending to be some kind of roadblock specialist, John took the gun and looked it over, then handed it back with a nod. But the soldier had one more piece of identification, so he took the assault rifle from John, took the joint out of his mouth, and handed that to John, saying, 'And this.'

John just kept nodding like a UN inspector. He took the hand-rolled smoke, looked it over, and handed it back.

'That's good,' he said. 'You can go.'

And just like that, the soldier stepped away from the truck, turned around and walked back to his lawn chair. Not needing to be told twice, the Peace Corps kid behind the wheel took off.

John never talked to either of the Peace Corps guys again, and so he never found out what went through their minds when, while stopped at a remote roadblock in the middle of terrain perfectly suited to hiding bodies, the high-school freshman in the back of the truck took the assault rifle away from an African soldier, and then examined his drugs. John likes to think they were impressed.

Drake's Tales - The Big Idea

I want to tell your stories. They'll all be true... mostly. For one thing, all the stories will be feature either John or Judy. Even if your name is Drewbert, I'll be changing it to John for the purposes of telling your story (which would be a shame, really, because Drewbert is a hilarious name). I'll even be telling some stories from my own life, if I run out of interesting stories from other people, but you won't really know if they're mine because they'll be about John.

Also, I'm taking all kinds of creative license. I'll do my best to keep your story as true as I can, but if I need random details, I'm adding them. I may describe the shocked look on your mom's face when you came in the house with your pants on backward, but that's just because you forgot to mention that your mother was upstairs with the postman at the time. I won't change the details you tell me, but I'll embellish at will.

One thing that's exceedingly important - if your story includes illegal crap that could still get you arrested, do yourself a favor and don't tell me about it. As much as I would love to tell the hilarious story of that one time when you cut up a body and lost the left arm in a gas station unisex bathroom, the first time some police officer asks me for details, I'll sell you directly down the river. I'm no priest, doctor or lawyer, and I'm not going to do time just because you weren't smart enough not to tell me about the night that got your face on America's Most Wanted.

And finally, there's the legal garbage. If you email me your story and I write it up, you can't sue me for royalties. You're granting me permission to relay that story to anyone who might read it, even if I manage to make a couple bucks at it one day. I'm not sending you a check for your titillating tale of college hijinks, even if you managed to put a VW Bus on top of the Empire State Building. Newspapers and magazines might pay their sources, but I'm not a newspaper, I'm a dork with an email address.

So if you want to let me tell your story, send me an email. Your story doesn't have to be funny - it could be frightening, exciting, or sad. It could be a silly tale about your first kiss, or it could be about the time you raced ostriches in Kenya while being chased by smugglers on jet skis. Give me as much or as little as you want, and I'll spin you a yarn. My email address is:

I'll put up a story a week, even if I have to write about my vasectomy surgery.