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.

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.”