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Monday, October 29, 2012


Until just a few weeks ago, Derby Brown had never flown in an airplane. Unlike most of us, his commute to and from the Southeast Asia War Games in the late ‘60s,  had been aboard a very large, very well-packed, very poorly ventilated US Navy ship.

Upon returning home to Alpine, 13 months later, in mostly one piece, he vowed never to get aboard anything afloat. Unfortunately, his vow ended his streak of an unprecedented six consecutive New Year’s Day Water Ski / Liver and Onions Festival Championships, over at the lake.

No, his feet hadn’t been any higher than the top rung of his orchard ladder, in over 40 years. Derby had managed to get a sight higher on several occasions, but that was via his special blend of organic/free-range/bio-degradable smoking materials.

Back to the airplane.

Derby had wandered by my shop three weeks ago, and announced that he was going to visit his daughter, Luella, and her seven kids, in Bakersfield, California. I don’t recall what stunned me more, that Derby had reproduced, or the fact that his daughter was obviously both fertile and had had spewed out seven kids with at least 19 different potential fathers.

He said Luella’s fifth husband, Mitt,  had run out on her and the herd, and that she’d asked her old Dad to come for a visit. “Time I got me a airplane ride,” he said. “I put 'er off long enough.”

The trip to the airport, two days later, took almost four hours. It’s not that far away, but Derby had apparently developed a rather fierce thirst, and we stopped at five taverns and the Quik-Mart, searching out refreshments.

 My pickup backfired as we rolled up to the terminal. “Gotta lorp the schanna, hub,” Derby commented as he stumbled out onto the curb. He raised a hand, waved and muttered, “In fana sma to dister, foo,” and turned to wobble into the terminal.

My last sight of Derby was in the rearview mirror, as he walked unsteadily through the automatic doors. He’d laced a six-pack of Coors through a belt loop. Apparently Derby was pulling all the stops out for the big trip. He usually drank Coors only on the most special of special occasions.

Four days later, just before 3 A.M., I got a call from Luella. “You's better be’s getting’ out to the airplane place. Pa took out o’ here last night, headed home.” I immediately snapped fully awake. “Sna Hoffa non, ma serber?” I  asked.

“No, he still had one swim flipper and some broccoli,” she said and hung up, but not before I heard her scream, “You damn twins, get that damn cat outta the damn toaster!”

It was still dark and raining when I rolled up in front of the passenger terminal. There, sitting next to his luggage (a large, lumpy K-Mart plastic bag) sat Derby. Nine empty beer cans and a crumpled Cheeto’s bag were all the evidence I needed to prove he’d been there more than 15 minutes.

I tapped the horn to get his attention, but Derby remained motionless. Damn. I got out of the pickup, and wandered off in his direction. The closer I got, the worse the situation became. Derby was drooling again. He had a twitch in his right eye and one of his hairy ears wiggled with every breath. He was clutching a bag of airplane peanuts in one hand and had a death grip on three open beers in the other.

He had a red and black note pinned to his collar. “Unaccompanied, BFL/EUG. Closely Monitor”

It took a few minutes for me to coax him into the pickup, then a few more minutes to open the windows and air the cab out. Apparently, someone along the line was unaware of the damage a tuna sandwich does to Derby’s digestive tract.

As we pulled out of the airport, ol’ Derby stared straight ahead, and for once, his eyeballs didn’t look like they were trying to crawl into the same socket. He rocked gently back and forth and mumbled softly. I knew that whatever was getting to him, still had both hooks buried deeply.

Every so often, he’d blink, belch and deeply sigh.

He needed time.

We drove in silence, except for his mumbling and the sounds of drool dripping off his chin. I turned left at the intersection just south of the Alpine Tavern.

Now, ol’ Derby is known as a man of few words, so I didn’t expect much of a send off when I dropped him off at his place. “Som beefle’r aught, sop,” was all he could manage, as he shuffled through the screen door, and out of sight.

Three days later, Dexter Green called, saying he was headed over to Derby’s place. I said I’d hitch a ride with him. We stopped along the way at the Alpine Tavern, and picked up a couple cases—enough for the afternoon.

Derby was perched on a rocking chair on his front porch when we rolled up. His eyes were bloodshot, his nose running and it was obvious he’d been drooling. A small fire took the edge off the afternoon breeze.

“Boys,” he muttered. “Things is different out there these days. I seed things out yonder what just ain’t right.”

We opened some beers, grabbed a chunk of porch, and listened to the words of a broken man.

“My grand-young-uns is nothing but a herd of constipated, fear-crazed spider monkeys. They’s dangerous. They gots long hair, metal stickin’ out their noses and, hell, that seven year old smokes more than me.  

“The oldest one, they call him, Boy, dropped out of third grade to start his own gas station, and two of ‘em have more tattoos then a sailor.

“My Luella’s strung pretty tight, and screams a lot in her sleep. One of the babies beds down on the back porch with the dogs. Mostly, the dogs don’t mind, but sometimes I’d a’ hear them whimpering, looking to somewhere else to sleep.”

Derby paused to drink and drool equal amounts.

Dex, always known as the brightest  and most compassionate of us, apparently sensed Derby’s confusion, and gently said, “Derby, you damn moron, don’t you damn-well know that each damn batch of young-uns lives they’s damn  life the way they damn well want to? Damn, boy, did yo’ Mama drop you on yo’ damn head or what? Grow some, you miserable old fart, and deal with progress.”

I was genuinely moved by the deep kindness and gentle nature of Dexter’s words.

Derby looked up, with the searching eyes of a pilgrim.

“There’s more, boys. They’s more. To get on the airplane, this here city woman in a uniform looked though my stuff, and took a x-ray of my soft parts. My soft parts, Boys, right there in front of God and every-damn-body.  My damn soft parts.”

We were stunned.

“Gits worse. Getting’ on the airplane comin’ back, this time a city feller in a uniform and green gloves,  pulled me off to the side and went to putting his hands down ‘round my soft parts, again. Right in front of the whole world, there he is patting, squeezin’ and gropin’.”

It was all more than Dex and me could handle. We finished our beers, spit in the fire and got the hell outta there.

It’s been a week, but I am still haunted by Derby’s agonized whisper, “I been touched by a feller, boys, by a feller.”

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