Cutting Up

Cutting Up

It’s 1977 and I’ve been an FBI agent for 8 years. I’ve beaten the odds after manipulating the Bureau’s Office of Preference system, being lifted from FBI Denver to FBI Birmingham in  the fall, 1970, after a glorious year in Colorado, a lowly First Office Agent subject to being flung anywhere into the American Republic at the whim of The Transfer Monkey at FBIHQ, who, blindfolded, throws darts at a map to cast agents’ fates to the winds.

I pay no mind to the righteous wisdom that if you want to transfer West in the FBI universe, you list an Office of Preference in the East. If the North is your desire, you write South under your name and take your chances because The Transfer Monkey magically lands darts in the very opposite direction from where you list you want to serve.

I consider this approach with reproach and list NOTHING, nada, no preference at all for any of the FBI’s 59 Field Offices. I’m a vacant lot on the Bureau landscape, surely a surreal experience for The Monkey, creating uncertainty, angst, incomprehension, and migraines when he lets fly the dart with my name on it.

BINGO!

Birmingham, sweet Alabama, is my next assignment, exactly where I want to go, 48 miles from the University of Alabama School of Law that anchors the southeast corner of the Quad on campus in Tuscaloosa, where 3 years of toil and terror earn a JD in 1969 and the juice to enter on duty in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I am the aurora borealis, a bright guy and vigorously assume my place in the agents’ bullpen where we spring forth to hunt down federal bad people in The Magic City in the Heart of Dixie.

It is in this highfalutin state of mind that, in the spring, 1975, I’m at an apartment complex on Hanover Circle  on the south side of town and come upon a citizen who is locked out of his apartment. Do you FBI guys know  how to make an entry into an apartment?  He points to a sliding glass window at the bottom of the picture window  in front of his apartment living room. Surely easier to conquer than the heavy, bolted front door.   

I puff up and direct him to stand back while I defeat the sliding glass window and make everything hunky-dory. I do not reveal that I have never forced open a sliding window in my entire career or in my life. Nor been taught to do so by the Bureau wizards.

I kneel and bend to the task, full of vigor and spit, fiddle and diddle the sliding glass, lost in my own omnipotence,  the very agent who bamboozled The Transfer Monkey at HQ.

The sliding window suddenly yields in my hands, permitting the citizen to reclaim his apartment.

It takes 14 stitches to sew up my left palm in the Emergency Room at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I yield O Negative blood all over the place.

I was blinded by the dazzle of my own self.

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Driving In Neutral

Driving In Neutral

In 1975, when Bruce Springsteen and E Street exploded on the music scene with “Born To Run,”  I exploded on the Birmingham radio scene when my beloved VW Bug and I faced a shitstorm driving home  during rush hour after a day fighting crime and/or evil in the FBI.

Put-putting south on an incline through The Cut in the Red Mountain Expressway out of the city, my Bug humming on all rear engine cylinders, my tiny dash board AM radio gushing with traffic advisories from various helicopters, I was dumbstruck by what happened next. The adorable manual floor stick-shift broke off in my hands about 2 inches above the floor. I looked down in disbelief. Worse, the stick had broken off in neutral gear, casting me into traffic oblivion.   

How cruel. 

I could not drive forward or drive in reverse! I came to a halt, hit the brakes to keep from coasting back into  a  long line of vehicles behind me in the left lane, their  loud, angry horns assailing me. Plus, I was in deep shadows, stuck beneath the wide Highland Avenue overpass across the Red Mountain Expressway. I had descended into Hell.

Motorists shook their fists at me as the AM radio helicopter shouted a bulletin warning drivers that a mess was piling up on the Red Mountain expressway south. The car, the culprit, the villain was hiding under the Highland Avenue Overpass and could not be identified. The coward. With as much dignity as I could muster, I turned off the engine, manually closed the sunroof, got out, locked the door and bravely escaped across three lanes of shouted profanities, middle fingers at full staff, shaken fists, death threats and menacing teeth as the Southern race can so eloquently produce in a football minute.

If they had only known that  I was armed but not dangerous, heading home after another successful mission for God in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, just one of them, not a warckaloon, just a guy who ate peanut and mayonnaise sandwiches and who was kind to bad weather, they would have reacted to my predicament in an understanding, charitable, and saucy way.  Sure enough. 

Winning While Losing

Winning While Losing

I stared into the middle of a dark mud puddle and decided what I was going to do when I grew up. I was 5 years old.

My red and while plastic toy boat floated in the deepest middle of the puddle where you could snag tadpoles if you were bent on that. But I wasn’t. Instead, my future danced in my imagination and in my landlocked West Virginia soul. I was going to be an officer in the  United States Navy. Thrilled, I mentally laid my plans for a future aboard a warship, a glorious  prospect indeed.

But first, I had to start first grade in Maybeury, a coal camp along Route 52, McDowell County, West Virginia, where, not long after having an epiphany in a mud puddle about my destiny, I heroically fought off a malicious attack by a foul rooster eaten up with malignant meanness.

I have never wavered in my love for the Navy and for steel gray warships. Growing up in West Virginia,  then in West Chester, the loveliest borough in Pennsylvania, I collected books on ships, nautical history, and  battles at sea featuring the American and British navies. As the son of a football coach and a player myself,  I indulged my fantasy of playing football for the United States Naval Academy.

Then one day in the hallway between classes when I was in 8th grade at West Chester Junior High School,  I clocked a dude for insulting West Virginia. I was immediately suspended and sent home, where, alone and angry at school, I collected two pair of clean socks, mounted my bicycle and ran away from home. I peddled 35 miles to the  gates of the Philadelphia Navy Yard to join the Navy.

The Marines guarding the gates to the Yard listened to my story, smiled, asked my age, 14, and gently sent me away.  Deflated, I called my parents from a phone booth on South Broad Street. They drove to Philly and collected my bike and me. My mother praised my decision to include fresh socks in my quest to join the Navy, but scolded me for not taking underwear.

Four years later, Annapolis rejected my application for admission to the Class of 1966. Heartbroken, but with the support and love of my family and friends, I went in another direction. Which led to the School of Law at the University of Alabama and a 30 year career in the FBI. Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. However, the Bureau, unlike the Navy, did not provide socks and underwear.

 

 

Not Being Famous

Not Being Famous

Once upon a time in the long ago ’80’s, there was a grand white cat we named Bush. I first laid eyes on him when he was a kitten just finding his legs, a tiny white bush,  one green eye and one blue eye. My wife, Pat, gave five dollars for him at a Birmingham store and brought him home in a box. He grew.

Pat brought other cats home, different colored ones, none of them white. Bush took care of them like a mother. They all died or ran away. Bush stayed. And grew.

Bush let Stacey, Laura, and Molly do anything they wanted with him. They dropped him on his head. They dropped him on his back. They sat on him and held him upside down. They pinched him and stepped on his feet. He stretched out on the floor and let them rub his tummy. He  kept growing.

We had mice when Bush came. Then we had no mice. He brought home birds and moles and  chipmunks, laid them at the foot of our French doors in the back facing the side of the mountain where we lived. Pat scolded him for killing birds and small animals. He never ate them, just left them for us to see. His trophies. How the world he snuck up on any creature was beyond me.  He was all and completely white in a sea of mountain green. He stood out lying motionless in the grass  and weeds. Stalking.

One day Pat called me to the backyard. She and the girls were laughing. Bush was standing on our shoulder high  brick wall holding his head regally high and his tail straight out. He was a cat version of a bird dog, gently holding an uninjured chipmunk in his mouth, Bush motionless in front of a Chipmunk Crossing metal sign that I had planted in the grass months ago.

“Don’t let Bush move,” I yelled. I bolted inside and grabbed a camera that I kept loaded with film for candid photographs  of my 3 beautiful, athletic daughters and a chipmunk in Bush’s mouth next to a Chipmunk Crossing sign. I imagined my photo appearing in Life Magazine and winning first prize in a worldwide contest. I was going to be famous. I was.

I stepped back into the sunshine, raised the camera ready to snap a classic. Bush was still standing on the wall, large and majestic as always, one green eye and one blue eye. The chipmunk was gone.

“Bush let him go,” Pat said, giggling. The girls were jumping up and down, laughing.

You just can’t lay plans for becoming famous.

 

 

Crime Prevention

Crime Prevention

The FBI, local and state law enforcement from throughout the U.S., as well as Scotland Yard in London, believe that it is better to prevent crime than solve it. This came home to me in 1975 when FBI Director Clarence Kelly selected 8 agents, two apiece from four field offices, to join with 8 police officers, two each from four cities, to form 4 man teams to develop citizen participation programs to prevent  crimes through self-help efforts. My friend Leon Sizemore and I were chosen by Director Kelly to represent the  Birmingham FBI, embedding with the Birmingham PD under Chief James Parsons, joining officers Joe Warden and Earl Melton, two of the city’s very best in blue. Leon and I loved this assignment, which lasted two years.

The Birmingham Crime Prevention team addressed burglaries. We did countless speeches and appearances before civilian groups and the media. Here are two tips about preventing burglaries.

First, don’t tape notes to your front or back doors that announce that you are gone and when you will be returning home. If you really must pen a note before you leave home, write this:  “Be back in 2 hours. Don’t worry about the snake. He usually doesn’t bite.

A construction site in California was burglarized almost nightly. In frustration, the foreman nailed up a large sign that read: “No trespassing! Anyone found here at night will be shot!” The chief of police received complaints about the sign from citizens and asked the foreman to take down the sign. He did, replacing it with this: “No trespassing! Anyone found here at night will be found here in the morning.”

 

Down Under

Down Under

In October, 1988, my wife Pat and I boarded a plane in Birmingham for a flight to Sydney, Australia, so that I could compete in the International Police Olympics in both wrestling and the 1500 meter run. Our flight went from Birmingham to Atlanta; Atlanta to LA (crossing back over Alabama); LA to Honolulu; Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand; Auckland to Sydney. A stretch of 36 hours in the delightful company of fellow FBI agent Tom Wiseman and his wife, plus a number of skilled and seasoned Alabama local, county, and state police officers and their spouses. We were beaten to a nub when we finally touched down in Sydney, washed out and worn to a frazzle, barely in time to bum rides in the back of a police paddy wagons to the evening Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics in a massive rugby stadium in downtown Sydney.

There were over 5000 competitors from all over the world participating in dozens of athletic events as well as in marksmanship with long and short guns. Our Alabama contingent wore white sweat shirts with a  crimson Alabama emblazoned on the front. The stadium lights bathed the venue as all the competitors lined up in orderly rows in the grass facing the reviewing stand crowded with VIPs in front of thousands of spectators. I easily spotted Pat in the stands, her long blond hair and height of 5’7″ giving her away. We later purchased a wide angle photograph of the ceremonies. My thinning hair and high forehead was visible in full glare. I reminded my children when they were growing up that my missing hair was with Jesus.  

After opening speeches welcoming the competitors and audience, the Australian national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, was played by a live band. I looked to my right and saw Australian Customs Agents lined up next to us. I casually said to one of them, “Who’s minding  the border?” He shrugged and said, “Who gives a shit mate!”

I finished both of my Olympic events in track and and wrestling before the end of the week, leaving time for Pat and me to see the sights in and around Sydney.  Based on the results of my efforts in competition, I should have wrestled the runners and run against the wrestlers.

Son of What’s in a Name?

Son of What’s in a Name?

Once upon a time my name was Jack Owens. I’m the second Jack Owens since my father was the first. He proudly gave me his name when I might well have been named after my mother, Mary Helen Owens. Surely, go ahead and call me Surely, I would have avoided being haunted by dozens of names like Jackos and John Jackman if I was Mary Helen. Having a lovely name that graced my mother and now my granddaughter would have raised dark suspicious in the FBI when I entered on duty as a Special Agent in June, 1969. Had J. Edgar Hoover accidentally hired the first female agent? My first trip to the FBI urinals  would have dispelled that notion when a fellow agent inquired, “What say ye?”, from the next urinal down. “Death to Moby Dick,” I replied.  No woman agent would have said that.

Many years later, writing as Jack Owens, I created a character named Pock, a swell serial killer in Alabama with a face that looked like water brought to a boil or a man who fell face down into vipers.   Pock’s lower extremities turned heads as well, sporting the mother lode of a club foot on a right leg that was shorter than the left. He walked with a tilt to starboard and came at you like a hungry crab. Pock as a package was unnerving.

After dozens of rejections shopping POCK to publishers, I landed a home and readied him for the public. And “glory be,” as my grandmother would have said, my daughter Stacey’s haunting photograph graced the cover of POCK. I was the envy of myself and happy as all get out.

POCK was published and began to gain the traction that I believed he deserved. After months of book sales and  hundreds of howdy dos, it was discovered that Jack Owens had been misspelled on the spine of the  cover of the book. A guy named Jack Ownes was the author. At least Ownes wasn’t misspelled.