I had an appendage growing up in the black and white early 1950’s, my younger brother, Bob. I wanted to shed him at the time. Now I dearly wish that I had him back.
He attached himself to me in the bottom of West Virginia where we were lads in McDowell County and in Mercer County, growing up a half mile high in the mountain snow, living in goulashes that were the devil to fit over our shoes, sleeping in bunk beds, me up, him below, listening at night to the snow piling up and blowing in drifts that were the key to closing school.
Bob was 3 years and a few months behind me in age, a thick, squatty runt in blond hair, perfect posture, the very image of our father, all Owens, with Welsh blue eyes, while I was brown eyed, rail thin with a slouch, and happily pegged as my black haired Irish mother. No one ever delivered an initial opinion that Bob and I were brothers. We looked like we had wondered into the family from different countries. However, we were never apart, which scalded me, always having Bob at my side wherever we went, including Sunday school, pickup baseball and football games, and Church where we disrupted the praying by viciously pinching each other, bringing a menacing look and counter-pinching from our mother. She learned to separate us in the pews, one on either side of her. The real enforcer, Dad, was an island of neutrality in church, letting Mom get in her licks. Looking back, Bob and I enlivened many staid sermons in the First Methodist Church of southern West Virginia.
While Bob and I were duking it out on Sundays, we were gifted with a splendid an fantasy-like youth on the pine tree graced campus of Concord College, Athens, where we lived in an apartment attached to the Boys Dorm, where Dad ran the dorm, taught physical education, and coached football. Mom’s mission was to manage her two sons and referee their turf wars. Acres of campus manicured lawns beckoned Bob and me, placed there for the taking and we took it, our own private preserve of a sun drenched and snow packed wonderland. Crowning this marvel was The Girls Dorm Hill, down which every kid in Athens sledded, bundled up like Ralphie’s brother at Christmas.
I never went sledding without my appendage. Bob eagerly joined the older boys in my age group, who were accustomed to having him around like a belt loop, flying down the hill on the best snow in the world, extending the ride at the bottom as far as we could, yelling in triumph, then taking the long walk back up the hill to repeat the cycle.
Bob naturally rode with me, usually sitting up between my outstretched legs while I steered. I never let him steer. Occasionally, we rode lying down on the sled, Bob on top so that I could suddenly throw him off with a move I perfected.
There was a hiccup, a flaw in this winter reverie, and it loomed large. The row of thick snow laden pine trees were a menace to the left of the dizzyingly-wide expanse of yard, referred to as The Valley at the bottom of Girls Dorm Hill. You had to steer clear of this obstacle, and only those who were hog wild and pig crazy steered into it.
Standing at the top of the Hill when our turn came, Bob and I positioned our sled at the edge, sat down, Bob in front. We received a strong push from a friend behind us and off we went. Half way down, Bob screamed, “Jackson! Jackson!”, my pet family name (Son of Jack). I guided the sled straight at the huge pines. “Jackson! Jackson!”, Bob yelled into the frigid mountain air.
I expertly guided the speeding sled directly into the dense, snow packed limbs and pine needles, deeper and deeper we drove. Bob took the full brunt of devastation since he shielded me. When the sled finally spent itself, buried to the hilt in snow, trees and whatever else was in there, I immediately jumped up and fought my way out of the pines containing my brother. I knew that he was alive because I heard one last, strangled, angry cry, “Jackson!” buried in the carnage.
I ran to our campus apartment, barged in without removing my galoshes and snow covered coat, a no-no with Mom, and blurted out, “Bob caused me to sled into the pines!”
Mom stood mute, staring a hole through me. I waited for the verdict, sensing that it was not going to end well for me.
My wife, Pat, is the essence of cool. She does not overheat if provoked or swimming in stress. She takes things as they come and fully manages them with a clear head and discerning eye, not yielding to the temptation of the moment. As a scientist with a keen intellect, she is measured and absorbed in facts, demanding well reasoned arguments. She does not suffer fools. Her dry sense of humor is fully clothed. The fact that she long ago threw in her lot with me may strike some as curious, even puzzling. However, I attribute Pat’s love for me as an example that she appreciates a guy with West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama roots sporting a high forehead, weak eyes, small hands (alas), slow of foot, Welsh-Irish origins, with a law degree who did not practice law, a love for the FBI, the United States Navy, the Alabama Crimson Tide, and peanut and mayonnaise sandwiches.
Pat is a native of Talladega, Alabama, home of the big NASCAR oval, where, oval or not, all humans in Alabama and some animals must choose between Alabama and Auburn at an early age. Many emerge from the womb around the state shouting Roll Tide or War Eagle. There is no neutral gear in this pledge and declaration. No Switzerland facing 360 degrees at once.
Declare your lifelong allegiance and stand tall.
Pat chose Alabama. However, she enrolled at Samford University, Birmingham, to take advantage of a mathematics scholarship, which she parlayed into massive doses of science, voice, and piano. She played piano and sang at her home Baptist church in Talladega, and at a variety of church venues in Birmingham. Her voice
is exquisite, a blend of Pink, Ga Ga, Rita Coolidge, and Eva Cassidy, a steady, imperturbable presence on stage, mirroring her demeanor everywhere. She also embraced mixing drinks while in college, could have been in the bartender hall of fame.
When Pat and I were married, she naturally and happily resumed her lifelong alliance to the Crimson Tide, attending games courtesy of my season tickets as an alumnus of the UA School of Law. Over the years, Pat earned the title of Perfect Wife, requesting DVD’s of Bama’s most memorable victories for her
birthday and for Mother’s Day. She always knew what down it was.
The annual Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn is the nation’s most intense rivalry, a year long obsession, war, epidemic, and profane in-state battle. We can’t avoid each other, unlike Michigan-Ohio State, Notre Dame-Southern Cal, and Army-Navy. We eye each other suspiciously in church, at funerals, in the Piggly Wiggly, at hunting lodges, visiting relatives in prison, in jury pools, at BBQ’s, and over grits at the Cracker Barrel. The rest of the nation stands back and stares at us, aghast, putting us under glass and not comprehending what it sees. Pat and I are fully engulfed in this partisan saturation bombing. We make no apologies.
For the 1985 Iron Bowl, we had seats in the Alabama section in the north end zone of Legion Field, the last in the rivalry for Auburn’s heralded and peerless running back, Bo Jackson, one of the finest athletes in all of amateur and professional football and baseball. He won the Heisman Trophy that year. He was one of the reasons why Auburn was favored in the game. As usual, Alabama had a heart stopping defense and a good offense. The Tide was coached by taciturn and heady Ray Perkins, who had played for and then followed legendary Bear Bryant at the Tide helm. Former Bryant assistant, Pay Dye was the heart and soul of the Auburn Tigers, an emotional, intense fire brand, a hard nosed and winning coach.
Tickets at Legion Field were evenly divided between the two fan bases. Consequently, there was a roar on every play, the best atmosphere in college football. When the game was moved to home and away campuses beginning in 1989 at Auburn, the frenzy did not lessen, just the size of the home crowd, with the visitors scattered around the stadium or confined to a corner of the end zone.
Pat and I were cozily engulfed with friendly Alabama fans in the north end zone in 1985, ecstatic when the Tide jumped to an early lead, an omen, we were certain, that God was with us. The only blemish in our reverie was a lone Auburn fan sitting directly in front of Pat, a dude who endlessly shouted nasty things about the Tide. He had an enlarged orange and blue shaker that he never lowered, waving it constantly in front of Pat, blocking her view. She had a crimson and white shaker, which she kept under wraps. She stoically tolerated this shaker nuisance in front of her through a series of lead changes to the very end as befitted this take-no-prisoners rivalry. Auburn led, 23-22, when Alabama mounted a drive with no time outs left, getting the ball out of bounds to stop the clock with 6 seconds left. Auburn fans celebrated a sure victory. Shaker Man, delirious and deranged, kept rattling his shaker in front of Pat’s face.
Out ran Bama’s renown place kicker, Van Tiffin, sprinted to the right hash mark to attempt a 52 yard field goal into the south end zone. Many Auburn fans celebrated early and hustled down the ramps out of Legion Field for the victory drive home.
The ball was snapped. Tiffin approached the holder and blasted a kick that cleaved the uprights for a 25-23 Alabama
I yelled and jumped into orbit, came down and reached for Pat to hug her. However, Pat was not ready to receive me. She was busy. She pummeled the head and face of Shaker Man with her own shaker, bam, bam, bam, screaming at him, mocking him, laughing at him, her words lost in the din of Alabama cheers. Taken aback but fully amused, I shouted, “Go Pat!” Shaker Man fled in horror and defeat, puzzled no doubt over how this tall, beautiful lady had suddenly become unhinged. I could have told him not to underestimate the steel in a woman nursing a slow burn.
Surveillances are like fingerprints: no two are exactly alike, whether you’re walking
or driving a Bureau vehicle, or just parked, feeling the earth spin in harness with gravity. Too, sitting on a park bench with your eyes peeled in lovely weather fattens your happiness, or maybe you are fastened to the upper branches of a tree in a rainstorm wearing an FBI waterproof pancho that is not waterproof, and say to yourself, “Did I go to law school for this?”
I enjoyed surveillances, especially if an arrest was dangled in the equation. The long hours were quickened by adrenalin awash in anticipation, bringing a bad guy to heel, locked into the FBI creed of introducing overwhelming numbers into an apprehension, moral high as hell. Surrounded by my fellow agents, piss and vigor in the air, success felt inevitable. What? Me worry?
In the spring, 1989, I was a member of an arrest team in full glory in the suburbs of Birmingham. We were hunting a low grade thief not magnified as armed and dangerous, a bi-sexual dude living with his boyfriend in an upgrade apartment complex. I was not the case agent, not in charge, and did not have the “eye”, a direct view of where the fugitive might show himself. I was happily harbored alone in my dull Bureau car away from the action, hovering, ready to swoop. This was going to be a lazy Southern arrest, heavy on Dixie humidity.
I settled in with Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln, The War Years, Vol 1. My head came up occasionally to check things out. The Bureau dash radio purred quietly with agent voices becalmed by lack of action. I read. Absorbed.
General Grant was in charge at Shiloh, April, 1862, in a squalid, nuisance rain that saturated Grant’s heavy blue uniform. He tried to steal sleep under a tree behind Union lines. His right foot throbbed from a fall from his horse the day before, giving thrust to rumors that Grant was drinking again. Miserable in the rain, unable to doze off, he sought refuge inside a nearby log cabin where surgeons amputated limbs without anesthesia. After an hour of listening to the cries of agony from wounded and dying soldiers, Grant fled and went back to the comfort of the storm.
An agent said something over the FBI radio in my serene car, a faded mush without urgency. Radio problems plagued field offices, blamed on Babe Ruth’s trade from Boston to the Yankees, heat lightening down on the Gulf, civilian
pyorrhea, or communists. Damn radio was an invasion of my privacy and pursuit of happiness. I read.
Grant’s answer to upheavals with the Rebs was to throw in more troops. He had them, the Confederates did not. The South wanted war. Grant gave them war.
There was a knock on my car window. I put down the book and rolled the window down. My good friend, the case agent, starred at me, smiling. “You didn’t hear my radio message?”
I answered no. “Sun spots,” I declared.
”We have him,” the case agent said. “Stand down.”
I looked at my watch. Damn, it was time for lunch.
Like every FBI agent since God was a teenager, I started my career in New Agent’s Class, NAC, a four month festival of classroom, physical fitness, and firearms instruction that was fun to the hilt for me after sitting for 3 years in Farrah Hall on the Quad at the University of Alabama School of Law, a medieval chamber of torture, weakness exposure, and humbling servitude for weeding out those who couldn’t face three ways at once. Best to know straight off that you do not have the amour and spurs for the study and practice of law. I survived.
But I did not want to practice law in the traditional sense. Instead, I coveted a place in the Navy Judge Advocate’s Office to fulfill my life long dream of a career as a naval officer, having failed to cut the mustard for entrance into the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1966. So I detoured into law school to have a go at practicing law in our Navy. Show the Academy its mistake in viewing my qualifications as an academic ruin.
Then came the FBI in the form of an Agent who visited my class at law school with the lure of adventure, danger, prestige, and the satisfaction of serving America to the fullest, especially during the Cold War. I did not resist.
I entered on duty in the Bureau, June, 1969, taking the oath of office with 50 other men on the 8th floor of the Old Post Office, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, currently dressed in the garb of a Trump Hotel. I proudly took the same oath administered to the President since our Republic was birthed.
The class sat in alphabetical order for the four months of classroom training, including many weeks of firing on the ranges of the FBI Academy, Marine Corps Base, Quantico. Plus, physical fitness challenges, the FBI triad, strength, flexibility, and endurance. I loved every minute of New Agent’s training, immediately knew that I was a good fit for the job. Job? You mean they’re going to pay us?
One of our classrooms in D.C. was on the 5th floor of FBIHQ, just down the hall from the office of Director J. Edgar Hoover. Our two class Counselors were experienced field agents, great guys who helped show us the ropes. “Agents must conduct themselves in a professional way,” they emphasized, “wearing conservative clothes like businessmen, you know, IBM types.” Fine with me.
Then I made a mistake, along with many others in the class. We began brown baggin’, eating lunch in the courtyard of the Department of Justice. Trouble was, Director Hoover saw us carrying our brown bags. He exploded, scolding
our Counselors, ordering them to warn us that Agents NEVER brown bagged. We must eat lunch in a proper restaurant. As our Counselors delivered the Director’s diatribe, I gently nudge my bagged lunch with my left foot away from my desk to under the desk of the classmate next to me, my good friend, Jim Procopio. I smiled at him. Unaware of my treachery, he looked at me with an expression of, “What?” We both graduated NAC into long careers.
FBI folklore centers around two distinct factions, tribes, clusters, families, battalions, happily co-existing within the bosom of the Bureau. Catholics in the North and protestants in the South. The Pope and Grits rule the FBI.
My candidate for how an agent should look, act, dress, and excel, was Bob Rogers, guru of the physical training unit at the FBI Academy, Marine Corps Base Quantico. Bob lived the FBI Triad: Strength, Flexibility, Endurance. Plus he was smart as all get out. We served together as street agents in Denver during the first year of our careers, 1969-70. We became instant and life-long friends.
Bob had the goods and pedigree to become a legend in the FBI: Irish to the core, Notre Dame graduate from NYC, Catholic, Marine officer Vietnam combat veteran, politically conservative, patriotic, devoted to his family and to America. I loved the guy. He was the North. Me, I was a Grit.
Bob and I teamed on many arrests, dashing up and down Colorado, impregnable and omnipotent, agents full of ourselves and dedicated to the Bureau. We competed at everything, especially running and racquetball. I never bested him in running or on the racquetball court. His Notre Dame gave my Alabama Crimson Tide fits in football. “Bama is OK,” Bob said. “But it ain’t Notre Dame.”
Armed with confidence and gusto, Bob and I sniffed around downtown Denver at noon one gorgeous spring day, tracking a fugitive working somewhere in a deep seat restaurant. Bob and I walked into a
high tone establishment, showed the fugitive’s photo to the manager, who pointed at a waiter near the kitchen and
said, “That’s him.”
Bob and I walked slowly toward the waiter, who saw us and bolted into the kitchen at a run without saying goodbye. We chased him thought the kitchen, down an alley and out onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians stared at two guys in suits running after a waiter. A dispute about a bill?
Bob and I ran neck and neck. I had never pulled even with him during our races on a track. After a four block sprint, Bob and I tackled the dude and drove him into the sidewalk. We had an audience of citizens, plus a Denver uniformed policeman who piled out from behind the wheel of his marked car right beside us. “What’s going on!” he shouted. He placed his right hand on the handle of his holstered service revolver. He meant business.
“We’re FBI,” I said.
“Show me,” he said.
Bob reached into his suit coat and removed his leather enclosed credentials, flipped them open for the officer to see.
The officer relaxed, grinned, eased his right hand away from his weapon. “You guys need a ride?”
Once upon a time in the fall, 1970, when I had hair and two good knees and had been in Birmingham FBI only a few months, my second office of assignment after a year in Denver, I received information over the phone concerning the location of one of my fugitives, an Army deserter hiding in the Ensley section of west Birmingham. I grabbed the nearest agent, Hammonds, and headed at speed to the address in an unremarkable FBI Ford sedan. We were the cavalry headed for glory on a mission for God and ourselves, young bucks who had run track in college, hoping for an eventful chase to show our superiority.
We parked in an alley near the fugitive’s address, exited the Ford, and began a High Noon walk into destiny, invincible and cocky in our dark suits, white shirts and laced up 1940’s style brown shoes.
Up ahead, a guy came out of a backyard gate and headed up the alley toward us several first downs away. The three of us stopped dead in our tracks. It was the fugitive himself, served up and ready for handcuffs, another Bureau conquest and win for the good guys. Hammond and I smiled inwardly and outwardly, our adrenaline gearing up like our legs. We were hungry for renown.
The fugitive spun and ran down the alley away from us at high speed, obviously not giving quarter or a flip as to the magnificence of who he was facing. Hammond and I tore after him, oozing exhilaration and can do.
Funny how selfish you can be at a time like this. I completely forgot about Hammonds, wanting glory for myself, pumping my arms, my suit coat unbuttoned and flapping as I broke the sound barrier. The fugitive darted in and out of backyards, nimbly jumping fences in stylish form, using the alley and not using the alley as he saw fit in his escape, at home in this neighborhood, deploying garages to run interference as he fled across side streets impervious to oncoming traffic.
I can’t tell you exactly when I realized that I was running through west Birmingham neighborhoods completely alone. I liked to run, and this particular experience of just running was not unpleasant, even in my suit. I did not care that people were staring at me from their homes, porches or yards. I was in runner’s ecstasy. However, the fugitive was gone. I had never failed to nab a runner in my short Bureau career. Where had I gone wrong? I looked back at the puzzle of alleys and streets through which I had motored, deflated, beaten. I had just learned an
important lesson in law enforcement motivation. The fugitive was running for his freedom. He did not want to go to jail. Me, I’m was at work. I looked around and took stock.
Anyone seen Hammonds?
If you weren’t around for the Atlanta Federal Prison riot, November, 1987, you missed a hum dinger. A thousand prisoners rioted with knives and took 100 hostages without permission. National and world press were all over the story. I thought of this caper as the Gone With The Wind of prison riots, a massive challenge for the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, and many other federal agencies.
The Birmingham FBI SWAT team was ordered to respond immediately, along with many other field office SWAT teams, crowned by the Bureau’s first round draft picks, the Hostage Rescue Team. I had friends on other SWAT teams as well as on the HRT. I was confident that the FBI had fielded the very best professionals to resolve this life threatening hoedown.
But first, my partner, Don Wright, and I watched the inmates burn down a third of
the prison during the frosty first night we were there. Don and I sat in the front seat
of our FBI vehicle just outside the walls of the prison, feeling the heat from the massive moonless blaze. We were one of the first SWAT teams to arrive at the prison since Birmingham was only 150 interstate miles from Atlanta. We were spread thin at first, waiting for more cavalry to arrive.
The animals took over the zoo. The rioting inmates were mostly Cubans straight out
of Castro’s prisons and mental wards, curiously admitted to the U.S. by President Carter after getting bad advice from some quarter. The Bureau set sail with its armada of Spanish speaking agents to begin telephone negotiations with the rioters. I finished last in my high
school Spanish class and was not allowed anywhere near the phones.
As more and more SWAT teams arrived from as far away as LA, NY, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, all splendidly outfitted in black ninja uniforms, helmets, and impressive weapons, the Federal force accumulating, massing like the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, day 2,
Gettysburg. We were ready to storm the prison walls.
On a hill far away, no that’s a hymn. On a hill across the street from the main
gate to the prison grounds, was a build-up of reporters and cameras from around the globe. More importantly for agents, just inside the gates to the prison grounds, was a carnival of smiling, joyful civilians from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, happily erecting their abundant
tents and kitchens stocked with beguiling fruit, donuts, sandwiches, and cookies. Agents chowed down to supplement the excellent food that we received from non-rioting prisoners in the prison cafeteria, with one holdout, Agent Ashley Curry, our team sniper, crack shot and a savvy, seasoned agent.
“I’m not eating any of that damn prison cafeteria food,” Ashley said. “Everybody knows what cons do to prison food, peeing and spitting into it and worse. Count me out. I’ll eat in the tents, thank you very much.”
It took two weeks to end the Atlanta prison riot. Everyone stood down without a single injury to the hostages, law enforcement or the prisoners. Before leaving for Birmingham, Ashley and the rest of us thanked the terrific people in the tents at the Red Cross and at the Salvation Army.
“Where did y’all get that wonderful food?” Ashley asked one of the servers.
“From the prison cafeteria,” she replied.