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Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Twelve

BULLDOG

Although throughout the remaining ’67 summer and fall I did on weekends revisit my connections at The Potter’s Wheel in Hollywood, the days of the work week confined me to the Downtown L.A. area.  The hotel where I rented a sleeping room occupied the two floors above a machine shop and was owned and managed by an elderly Japanese widow, “Mama.”  A gentle, unassuming lady of diminutive stature, she engendered a feeling of warmth and trust immediately upon first meeting.  The district thereabouts, bustling with commerce during the day, was bleak at night, shady and subdued.  Sometimes I’d encounter hookers cruising the sidewalk outside the hotel steps; however, to my knowledge Mama never allowed them to entertain their johns within her hotel rooms.

Tamkin Towel, as it turned out, consisted of a huge industrial laundering business, servicing hospitals, hotels and restaurants.  Located within easy walking distance from my hotel, it employed mostly Hispanic and African-American laborers, many of them women, and I was assigned a station in the flatwork department.  My immediate supervisor, Albert, a young Mexican-American employee, had a pleasant, amiable disposition, but Sophie, an older Jewish lady in charge of all operations, came off tough as nails.  However, I would come to realize that that personality trait constituted a prerequisite for keeping the personnel in line and maintaining the work flow running smoothly and on the clock.

Mama, the hotel owner, had a special assistant who helped her with the building maintenance more or less on a voluntary basis—a tall, middle-aged single man whose room was next to mine.  His name was Hank, but he went by the moniker “Bulldog,” and considering his square-jawed face, buzz cut and beefy build, that appellation seemed apropos.  He had a partial plate to fill in his missing two front teeth, which he’d lost in a barroom brawl, but he seldom wore it.  Regarding that said incident of loss, he once commented, “Jeez, when you’re knocked flat down and some guy stabs a knife into the floor beside your face, it kinda’ makes a fella go a little crazy.”

Bulldog had been married once, and had an adult daughter living in another state, but he never revealed the full details.  He’d worked for a time in the Kennecott copper mines and apparently done well financially, but now he preferred a less harried life style.  He’d work awhile at some day-labor jobs until he’d accumulated a reserve, then kick back and drink beer until the savings ran out.  Of late he’d been helping Mama with light carpentry repairs and touch-up painting around the hotel in exchange for a free room.  And most evenings he’d relax in her living quarters, sharing a home-cooked meal and watching TV.  He seemed to respect my work ethic right off, and soon I became the occasional beneficiary of Mama’s oriental cooking and Bulldog’s brotherly advice.

In time I discovered that Mama and her late husband had been caught up in the World War II Japanese internment and had to undergo removal to one of the U. S. government camps for a while.  They were screened and released prior to the conclusion of the war, but had to undertake the laborious task of rebuilding their lives from the ground up.  Nevertheless, and admirably, Mama bore no resentment or abiding ill will toward America.  As she expressed it in her soft broken English, she believed, following the “infamy” of Pearl Harbor, it was a time demanding sacrifices from many and the soldiers engaged in the island-hopping campaigns had it far worse than those Japanese citizens confined in camps.

One evening in conversation I let it slip that I had just acquired a college degree, and Mama’s and Bulldog’s reactions couldn’t have been further apart.  “It’s good you start to learn from the bottom.  You understand more when you make higher up,” Mama offered.  “A college degree?” Bulldog exclaimed.  “What the devil you workin’ in a laundry for?”  I really had no sensible answer for either.

One afternoon at the laundry, as things were running smoothly and humming along, a man ran into the washer room shouting “IMMIGRATION!”  Abruptly most of the Mexicans scattered in every direction, disappearing as if by magic.  Seconds later uniformed Border Patrol agents burst through the doors, some lining up those workers remaining and demanding to see their immigration papers or work permits, others searching the premises for persons in hiding.  They pulled one man out of a washing machine, another out of a trash bin.  With the efficiency of a military sweep, they soon had loaded and locked up the unfortunate detainees in a wagon, checked off some paperwork and departed the scene, leaving the building as hauntingly silent as a ghost town.  “Shut down the machines and call the union,” Sophie ordered.  About an hour later a truckload of Mexicans arrived, were given a quick orientation and soon things were up and going again as if nothing untoward had occurred.

Each night on the corner immediately opposite my hall window a neon sign blinked its inducement above the door of a Hispanic bar and to the right, half a block away, stood an American Indian dance hall.  One Friday I’d accepted an offer for overtime on Saturday repainting the flatwork floor, and so I’d foregone departing for Hollywood that evening.  Hearing band music blasting out from across the street, I decided to explore both the bar and the dance hall.  I had no inkling at that point of the day’s end what a life-altering event was about to unfold.

The clientele of the Hispanic bar consisted mostly of a sparse older crowd, nursing their beers to mariachi tunes blaring out of a jukebox.  In contrast, however, the dance hall patrons were nearly all young Native Americans, drinking and dancing to an amateur rock-and-roll band whose repertoire extended to only three numbers, repeated over and over and over again.  Finding nothing there to indulge my fancy, I finished my beer and wiggled my way through the crowd and out the door, heading back to the hotel.

I hadn’t been asleep long when I awoke abruptly to the slamming of Bulldog’s door and the background din of shouting and yelling rising up from the street.  I slipped into my jeans and padded out into the hallway to see what had initiated the commotion.  Bulldog had pushed up the window and was leaning out looking over the fire escape at the street down below.  The dance hall had let out, and a huge crowd of intoxicated youth swarmed about the parking lot and sidewalks and out into the street.  Here and there fistfights were beginning to erupt.  Glass was breaking.  Some girls were screaming and crying and trying to separate some of the fighters.  “Jeez, guy,” Bulldog commented.  “Looks like we got ourselves a regular street riot.”

I hopped up onto the window ledge and squatted there where I could survey the scene more clearly.  Two security guards were hopelessly attempting to direct traffic out of the dance-hall parking lot.  Engines raced and tires squealed.  “Somebody’s gonna get run over,” I declared to Bulldog.

About then, immediately below, an older-model black auto appeared, nudging its way along the street through the crowd.  Suddenly someone bounced a beer bottle off its roof.  The vehicle stopped and the driver piled out, an Anglo, fists clenched ready to brawl.  Three natives waited on the curb, holding bottles—one had what appeared to be a blade—egging him on.  He turned back to the car, opened the rear door, reached in and pulled out a spike axe and began heading for the curb, dragging it behind him.  “Good God!  He’s got a fireman’s axe,” Bulldog exclaimed.

That was the moment I heard the thunder of a gunshot, and was simultaneously aware of broken glass tinkling down on the iron of the fire escape.  My first thought was that a security guard must have fired in the air to disperse the mob and somebody threw a bottle clear up and hit the fire escape.  Then I turned and saw the bullet hole in the window glass beside my head, and heard Bulldog shout, “Come back in!  They’re shooting at us!”

Posthaste I scrambled inside and away from the window.  Glass lay all over the hall floor where the second pane had shattered inward from the impact.  Bulldog looked at me.  “That didn’t miss your head by more than an inch,” he declared.

“I know,” was all I could feebly respond.

The next thing we heard was sirens approaching, and the crowd commenced a flight to the four winds.  Only those too beat-up or too drunk to run were remaining when the squad cars and paddy wagon arrived.  The black automobile was long gone.  The police beat on some with nightsticks and threw some in the paddy wagon.  In writing up the report of the shooting, they described me as the victim, Bulldog as the witness—and called it a night.

Upon reflection the next day, Bulldog pieced together what had likely precipitated the shooting.  Two hippy-type renters, residing in a room on the floor above ours, had also been at their hall window observing the street fracas below.  Their car had been stolen days before, and when the black auto had halted in the middle of the street, they recognized it as theirs and began shouting, “There’s the guys who stole our car!”  I hadn’t heard them, but Bulldog did.  Apparently someone in the car, packing a pistol and hearing the shouting from the hotel, spotted Bulldog’s and my silhouettes, thought we were the ones shouting and decided to silence us.  And, BANG, that’s how cheap life can be in the street.

The close passing of death’s kiss began to haunt my thoughts thereafter.  What if I’d positioned myself slightly to the left?  What if the bullet had grazed the fire escape and deflected slightly to the right?  What if the shooter had had a slightly better aim?  What if?  What if?

Perhaps—I reasoned in my youthful imagination—if there’s a bullet with one’s name assigned to it, it will find you wherever you go.  Escaping a war zone won’t matter.  One can’t cheat fate.  And if there’s none, well then, it won’t matter where you are or where you go.  It will be something else further down the line that will take you.  And it was partly that logic, I suppose, and my fertile naiveté, that was responsible for my finding myself, many months later, sweating in the jungles of Vietnam.

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

10 comments to Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Twelve

  • mistermuse

    Interesting read, as always, Mark. So, what did you do for fun besides tempt fate? 🙂

    I had a close call or two myself (one which could have been fatal when I was in the army), but I’ve never thought in terms of “if there’s a bullet with one’s name” on it — ‘fate’ is too impersonal to target (or ‘give a hang’ about) individuals, other than in the general sense that we all end up dead sooner or later. As my good friend Disraeli said before I was born, “We make our own fortunes and we call them fate.” 🙁

  • A J A J Cameron

    Mark, another way to look at your near death experience is that God had bigger plans for you than the shooter. Seeing the world today, it appears the Hollywood experience has expanded throughout the country.

  • markscheel1

    Hi muse,

    Well, there were a few other things I did for fun, but I’ll keep them between myself, my priest confessor and God! Ha!

    Now, as for “fate,” in a certain sense I agree with you. Consider the possibility that our spirit might contract for certain life experiences before birth and then fulfill that. My forthcoming book, And Eve Said Yes with Seven Stories, offers that possibility. As for Disraeli, wonder where he’d factor in luck? My finally getting an agent certainly was luck at last coming my way! Yes, much to ponder. Thanks, muse.

    Mark

  • markscheel1

    Hi A. J.,

    I think you’re probably right on both counts! Thanks for the insight and suggestions.

    Mark

  • Street brawl, beer bottles crashing, and bulletts flying wow..Enjoyed this read..thanks for sharing..look forward to reading Eve Said Yes sounds like something to think about…

  • markscheel1

    Hi Maryann,

    Thanks for commenting. And Eve Said Yes with Seven Stories will be coming out in the fall of 2019 from Waldorf Publishing. For a foretaste, check out The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom on Amazon. If you have Amazon Prime, you can get it free on Kindle. It’s a series of blog posts covering about every topic imaginable and some excerpts from Eve and also Blossoms are included. Glad you enjoyed! 🙂

    Mark

  • Mark, I think the guy shot at you because he thought he knew you and he was wondering what you were doing there because he had an appointment with you in Samar.
    Don

  • markscheel1

    Don,

    Ah, another interpretation! Yes, Smarra. Most interesting, good sir. Well, as Nietzsche once said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Hmmmm. Wonder what O’Hara or Maugham would have said about that? 😉

    Mark

  • Mark, I think they’d both say that Nietzsche had an appointment in Rocken bei Luztzen. I had to look that up but that’s where he died.
    Don

  • markscheel1

    Don,

    Thanks for doing that research for me! Ha.

    Mark

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