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.

Blazing a Quiet Trail

Blazing a Quiet Trail

Once upon a summer night in the Central (Confederate) Time Zone, along the lower spine of the Appalachians just above the tush of Alabama, the  Birmingham FBI SWAT team soldiered up and set forth into a dense and inhospitable forest to catch a federal fugitive holed up in a cabin with a heavenly variety of beans.  His age could best be described as looking older than he was. We will call him, Earl.  The SWAT team was going to sneak up on Earl and arrest him on the spot for being a thief.  Earl had no history of being violent. However, since everyone in Alabama was armed….

Our task was to creep, crawl, walk, and paw our way through the impossibly thick under brush, over brush, spiders, weeds, fire ants, poison ivy, snakes, mosquitoes, bushman with banjos, and demonic roosters, as quietly as possible. Speed was not an option is these hostile woods, a wall of living obstacles and creatures you would not find in downtown Birmingham. We began, single file. Five of us. The word was QUIET. Keep down the noise. Whisper if you speak at all. Do not alert Earl that we were coming for him to take away his freedom and beans.

The going went badly straight off and continued for hours. I was miserable. Roughing it for me was running out of ice. I tripped, spit, coughed, sneezed and wheezed into holes and gullies,  was speared in the legs and other parts of my anatomy by sharp objects, scratched on the face, entangled with vines and hostile roots, and bitten by critters within an inch of my life. Along the way, fellow SWAT teammate, Leon Sizemore, accidentally turned on his over-sized searchlight and blinded me in my eyes and ears. Leon apologize and threw salt into the air, his way of blessing the terrain to court favor with the almighty.

It what seemed to me to be a month later, we found the cabin as the sun nudged up, surrounded it in FBI fashion, yelled for Earl to come on out, that he was under arrest. However, Earl did not come out.  After a fashion, we looked through the crude windows into the cabin and saw Earl sitting comfortably in his rocker with a spoon and bowl of beans in his lap, content as could be. We knocked on the front door. “FBI, come out!” Earl did not come out. Just sat in his rocker. Rocking. We bust through the door and nearly into Earl’s lap. “You’re under arrest!” we told Earl.  “WHAT!” he said, over and over. “WHAT!”

We could have landed an FBI helicopter on Earl’s head and he would not have heard.

Earl was deaf.

I blame Leon.

At least there were no roosters in Earl’s cabin.


Waiting on a Sunny Table

Waiting on a Sunny Table

Once upon a time, my aunt and uncle, Ted and Janet Owens, treated me to lunch in a restaurant along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We were promptly seated and quickly approached by our smiling waitress. “Hello,” she said. “I’ll be your server.”

“Hello back,” Ted replied. “I’ll be your eater.”

Which inspired me to survey the members of my family who had served as waitresses or waiters, asking them for their most memorable encounters with customers. Here they are, or are not.

“Hello! How are you doing?” Laura asked. “What can I get you to drink?”

“Burn in hell.”

“Hello. My name is Molly and I’ll be your server this evening. What can I get you to drink?”

“Your mother never loved you.”


“Hello, my name is Brett. What can I get you to drink?”

“You have some nerve asking me a question like that.”


“Hello. My name is Stacey. Can I get you a beverage?”

“I really loved you in Castaway.”


“Hi. My name is Deke. Would you like something to drink?’

“Eat yourself out of house and home. Go ahead.”


“Hello. My name is Duane. I’ll be your server tonight. What can I get you to drink?”

“I don’t have to answer that.”


“Hello. My name is Laura. It will be my pleasure to serve you this afternoon. Can I get

you something to drink?”

“Don’t you know that people are starving not far from here?”


Hello. My name is Molly. It’s nice to have you here. Would you like something to drink?”

“I’ve never heard anything more insulting in my life.”


“Hi there. My name is Brett. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Your dog hates you.”


“Hello. My name is Corinne. It will be my pleasure to assist in your selections tonight. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Shoo. Be off with you.”


“Hello. My name is Deke. Can I get you a beverage?”

“Is this some kind of joke?”

Finally, from the Magic City in the Heart of Dixie in the bosom of Alabama, here’s what a waitress once said to me.

“Good evening. My name is Floss. I’ll be your server tonight on this first ever February 30th.”

Taking  a Chance on Love

Taking a Chance on Love

When my daughter, Laura, was in kindergarten in Homewood, she was already the lovely, effervescent, athletic, focused, kind, intelligent, fearless, and spirited lass that she is today as Laura Owens Barfield, wife of  Clay and mother of the incomparable Elizabeth.

The essence of Laura is her humor and pluck. She has grit, can take a punch, or, in her case, a fall off the beam in gymnastics where she excelled on her team at the Joel Inman Gymnastics Academy.  Laura practiced long and hard in the gym, then delivered splendid performances when it counted.  Though wiry and slight of build like Elizabeth, every inch of Laura was made to last and to excel. I could not contain my pride in her then. I still can’t. She is my hero.

One day Laura came home from school deep in thought. Something was up. I asked her what is was. She explained that she liked a boy at school who was not paying any attention to her. She wanted him to notice her. “Here’s what you do,” I said. My wife Pat shot me an oh no look. “When recess starts,” I told Laura,  “I want you to calmly walk up to this boy, give him your best smile, say hello, then tackle him without warning. Take him straight to the ground.” Pat’s face froze in horror. “Don’t do it Laura,” Pat advised. However, Laura was ablaze with enthusiasm.

I could not wait to see Laura the next afternoon. “Did you tackle him?” I asked. “Yes”, Laura said in triumph. “What did he do?”                                                                 “He ran away from me as fast as he could and never looked back,” she said with a grin.

Which was to be the story of Laura’s non-relationship with this boy for the duration of their years in school at Homewood, graduating in the same H.S. class, then four years together at the University of Alabama, where he never looked back or came near her. He kept his distance and has not looked back to this day, afraid no doubt of being tackled when he least expects it.

Laura took it all in stride with her usual humor, now gleefully teaches her daughter, Elizabeth, how to tackle.  A girl has to be prepared to take a chance.

Beer for Breakfast

Beer for Breakfast

The Cold War expired when I was an FBI agent, transforming the USSR into the UFFR, the Union of Fewer and Fewer Republics. At the time, Vladimir Putin was a baby faced KGB second fiddle who had not yet learned to ride a horse with his shirt off or win at ice hockey against no opposition.

In the aftermath of the Cold War’s bloodless death, I hosted two Moscow cops who came to Alabama as guests of the FBI to beg insights and advice about coping with conflicts between freedom and law enforcement in the new Russia. How were local police supposed to behave in the  upstart Russian Federation? Democracy had brought organized crime, defense attorneys, unruly teenagers, drugs, and  loud music the two cops told me. Police morale was low. They could no longer round up people and have them disappear. They wished that things were like the old days under communism, when everyone got drunk and did what they were told.

I had just the tonic to make the two Russian policemen feel better, a down home Southern breakfast in a mom and pop place called the Ranch House, owned by a family descended from Greek immigrants. What could be more American that Greeks running a grits and barbecue eatery in the Heat of Dixie? The year was 1994.

I ordered scrambled eggs for three, with home fries, sausage, ham, gravy and biscuits hanging with grits, jelly, and tomatoes on the side, plus a whole pot of coffee. The waitress brought our food and spread it around a large round table. Before eating, the two Russians had a question for me. Did this American restaurant serve beer?

Several hours later, after we had pledged not to let bosses stand in the way of good police work, and to continue the quest for the perfect donut, the table was covered with empty long neck Budweisers standing mute like dormant smokestacks in the old USSR.

P.S.  What’s In A Name Revisited.  Over the Christmas holidays, good wishes were  sincerely addressed to me as Mr. John Jackman.



Back when I had hair and two good knees, and the moon over Alabama ignored Daylight Savings Time, Celine Dion came into my life and into the life of my wife, Pat. Celine was set to appear at the 17,000 seat Civic Center in Birmingham. Pat did her usual end run around the throng fast breaking for tickets at Ticket Master and secured terrific seats close to the stage. There is something divine about the way Pat calmly stiff arms the competition for tickets. She learned these tricks while attending mandatory Chapel as an undergraduate at Samford University.

The date arrived for the concert and we had visions of Celine’s Titanic soundtrack soaring in our heads. Pat dressed for comfort but still looked sharp and chic. Me? No one looks at me when Pat  is on my arm. I happily feel like the dude in pairs figure skating.

It was time to leave for the evening concert and we were stoked. We drove downtown and parked in a lot near the Civic Center. Much to Pat’s dismay, I motor to football games and concerts far ahead of kick offs and stage lights coming to life. We parked and waltzed into the Civic Center with a light crowd and eagerly presented our tickets. The clerk looked down at the tickets, blinked,  looked again and came up for air. “You’re early,” she said, not quite stifling a laugh. Pat and I looked at our watches. “What do you mean?” “Celine does not appear until a year from now.” Pat stared at her ticket. I stared at my ticket. We were exactly 12 months early. Not ready to surrender, I asked, “Well, what’s going on tonight?”  “Monster trucks,” the clerk said. “Monster trucks.”

Before you judge, remember this. Pat is married to me. Nothing is without challenge. We saw, and loved, Celine a year later to the hour. What a country.