From the Red Faced Man to Bloody Mary Partington, I have had connections that have found their way into my stories over the years.
The window peeper known as the Red Faced Man of my childhood found his way into The Kid, the Cop and the Con as the bad guy who stands before the Ballard tunnels, smoking a cigarette with its bright cherry illuminating his face in the darkness. The memory of the Red Faced Man following me home from the Joyo when I was ten years old, has haunted me for years.
The day Bloody Mary Partington paid me to chase her horses into her barn with my motorcycle, I never imagined I would write an entire book about her in the future. But back when I was 14 and I had accomplished my task of rounding up her three horses, she waved and smiled at me from her front porch, and a seed of an idea was planted in my head.
The misfits of Havelock walk through the pages of my book, as well. Franco, the old Italian man who was exiled to America for killing his wife and the man she was found sleeping with, lived with the Blazek family a block from where I live to this day. Old Franco once chased the Blazek kids down the street brandishing a butcher knife because they foolishly teased him by shouting, “Heil Hitler!” Poor Franco ran behind them, shouting, “Mussolini! Mussolini!”
I used to buy Franco bread and chicken, and old Franco would say in his broken English, “Ah, Gotta Blessa You! Holy Mary, Mother of Gawd!” Franco’s favorite saying was, “You gotta any mawney?” And when I would say, “No, no money, Franco,” he would say, “No mawney, no fun! No mawney, no fun!”
Newt, who wore seven wrist watches and sounded exactly like a train from the Burlington yards, lived in Havelock from the early 50’s until the year 2000. He would start out at 70th and Havelock each morning, take a bus down to Kuhl’s in downtown Lincoln, then venture to the Goodwill store (where he often bought his fancy hats, over 50 of them), then end up back at Burger King in Havelock by 5 each evening. I met Newt (Barry) one day down at Ballard Ball park when he swore he saw me singing on the Johnny Cash show the night before. I could never figure out if he thought I was Willie Nelson or Travis Tritt, but he was certain I was a famous Country Western singer.
George and Louie (Opey and Dopey) the two midgets (small people) used to stand on the corner by the Salvage Warehouse each day just watching cars pass by them on Have Ave. Louie, the smaller of the two, was always friendly and asked me for money, but I never gave him any handouts as I figured my money would go straight to Castle’s for a bottle of their finest.
Aaron the Hulk walked home each day from his work out at Reimer’s cement company with actual cement dust trailing off of him. His face and hair were always covered in a fine dusting of the white powder, as well. Aaron once took on five cops down at Arnold’s tavern and it was rumored that one of those cops went flying out through the tavern’s front window, and that two more followed him out onto the sidewalk, thrown there by the Incredible Hulk. Aaron, though, was a gentle giant most of the time, and the late Skip Kaluza, who lived directly behind him, swore the big guy did not have a mean bone in his body, except when he drank.
And then there were the misfit kids who wandered in and out of my stories.
There was Steve, who broke into the Joyo theater one night with three friends. Steve and the other boys were my first assignment as a Volunteer in Probation when I was 17. I failed Steve, as one night he was getting high by huffing from an aerosol deodorant can, and he suffocated and died because the aerosol he’d inhaled had closed off his lungs. Steve’s story was later depicted in my 8-Ball book.
The other three kids involved in the Joyo break-in, sobered by Steve’s unexpected, tragic death, straightened out. One of those kids, now an adult, showed up at my 8-Ball play just last year, and he sat there holding his breath as I shared with the audience my first role as a youth worker back in the day. As I re-told the Joyo break-in, he thought for sure I was going to mention his name as I stood there recounting the tale on stage. But I didn’t, and he came up and thanked me later for omitting his name from that particular story.
Kevin’s incident with four different drugs became a major part of my 8-Ball book. He had burglarized the Havelock Vet Clinic one night and therefore had obtained a supply of horse tranquilizers (namely PCP). He washed one down with Tequila, smoked a joint, and dropped a hit of acid all in the space of two hours. He then climbed on top of the Havelock train overpass and shouted at the world that he was Birdman. When the police were called to take him in, Kevin began biting chunks of flesh from his hand. He had to be handcuffed and when the cops were escorting him to the ER, Kevin said, “Get Father Frye! I need to talk to Father Frye!”
In those days, the name “Father Frye” was meant to be an insult to me, for I often sat down at Havelock Park, talking and “preaching” to the kids with anti-drug messages. But that night, it turned out to be quite funny as the cop drove Kevin over to Saint Patrick’s church seeking this so-called Father Frye. Poor Father Witt told the cop they didn’t have a priest there named Frye, but when the officer explained they had a drunken youth in his car, Father Witt figured out it was me this kid was asking to speak to. So the cop finally got a hold of me, and I ended up at the hospital for 5 hours in crisis intervention with Kevin.
The visions he saw that night also made it into my story. The seven-headed dragon from the Book of Revelation. Satan, mocking him and laughing at him. Demons swarming all around his hospital room. Jesus weeping in one corner of his room. Yes, it was quite a show Kevin was seeing in his head.
Later, that next morning, is when I started writing Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball. I was simply so frustrated with all the recent tragedies involving Havelock kids:
13-year-old Terri hanging herself.
15-year-old John shooting himself.
11-year-old Tommy hanging himself.
17-year-old Dan placing an M-80 in his mouth and lighting the fuse.
15-year-old Steve huffing the deodorant and suffocating.
18-year-old Joe trying to outrun a train and getting struck by said train and killed.
17-year-old Kim smoking a joint laced with PCP, and forever after swearing he worked for the FBI and that Led Zeppelin owed him a “Ka-trillion” dollars for stealing the lead rift of Stairway to Heaven from him.
14-year-old Greg who skipped school one day, stole a car, and flipped it out on I-80 overpass, and was crushed in the impact.
And then there were all the kids who passed beneath the pines of Havelock Park at all hours of the night, seeking to get high. And there were hundreds with the mind-set that life was one big party and their only goal was to go from one high to the next. Unfortunately, I was involved in so many crisis interventions with so many of these kids that I lost count of most of those situations. Perhaps they still remember them to this day, but those early connections in the first days of my youth work all had an impact on me and the books I would write later.
Reason Nelson. People still wonder if there was a real Reason. And in truth, some of my own life got dumped on that character, but also little long-haired John and scruffy, scrawny Eric, also were incorporated into the memorable Reason Nelson, the main character in four of my Havelock series books.
Boone Nelson. The other “Kevin,” the older brother of the late Phil Hildebrand who shot himself on accident one night, became Boone, Reason’s older brother.
George. The real George knew “every one” and any time I wanted to sell something, two trucks, two guitars and two of my old motorcycles, I would put in a word to George. He would in turn have my items sold within a week. I still regret to this day that he sold my old Alvarez 12-string to Kevin who smashed it a drunken rage one night.
Jack. Jack and I had an exciting adventure two years after Kevin’s Birdman incident, when Kevin left his parents a suicide note. Jack and I actually found Kevin that night partying with a bunch of bikers down at Linoma Beach, and I had to threaten Kevin with bodily harm if he didn’t just get in my van and ride back to Havelock with Jack and I.
Al Simants. Al wouldn’t allow me to go alone with Roy Stobbs the night I was hunting for Tom Wolfe who had falsely given police my name one night when he was arrested. Because of Tom Wolfe’s lies, I had to go to the police and to explain they had a warrant out for the wrong guy. Luckily, I knew Detective Duane Bullock and Captain Jake, and they both gave me unofficial permission to go out on the streets and hunt down Tom Wolfe. Roy Stobbs claimed he knew where to find him, but Al Simants and Randy Rockenbach wouldn’t let me go alone with Roy as they suspected he was setting me up. Al and Roy rode shotgun that night with Roy and I, both Havelock brawlers armed with baseball bats in case Roy was leading us into a trap. We never did find Tom Wolfe that night. Which was probably a good thing for him.
Collin Young, the drug-free voice of wisdom in my books, was based on little, shaggy-haired Rusty Thomsen, who was very unlike Collin in the story. Collin was also based on Phil Hildedrand who followed me around Havelock like a shadow, as Collin follows Johnny Mason in my book.
Bummer the German Shepherd was based on my first dog Sandy. But later, became the name of my Dobie/Shepherd mix that I adopted and rescued years after the book was published.
In my Stag-Heart books, Donice Reeves, became my central characters of both Dawn Red Feather and Carly Raven, both Lakotas from a reservation in North Dakota. Donice was my first girlfriend from 6th grade through 9th, and I sent her several excerpts from these books to show her how she found her way into my stories.
So there you have a break-down of what influences me and inspires me to incorporate real-life people into many of my books. I change most names, last or first, to keep things confidential, but those who read my books know exactly who they are in the story.
I did, however, have a negative side to this crop up one day during Havelock Days where I was selling books in front of Wolfe’s Hardware. An old Havelock boy, Mark, walked up to me and said he should sue me for using him in my book as a drug dealer.
Astounded that Mark even thought I had suspected him of using drugs, let alone selling them, I said, “Exactly which character do you think you are, Mark? Because I never once thought you did drugs, but hey, if the shoe fits, wear it out.”
Over the years, I have had several kids come up and tell me their moms were once my girlfriends back in the day. Often when I asked the names of these moms, I would draw a blank and have no recollection of that particular mom being part of my life. But I would go along with these kids, never letting on that I had no idea who their moms actually were.
And then there was the time I was speaking for one hundred boys at the Wahoo Youth Center. This kid in the front row raised his hand at the end of my speaking engagement, and when I called on him, he said, “My mom was your girlfriend in high school.”
I looked at him and said, “What was your mom’s name?”
The kid said, “Kathy Jones.”
Without missing a beat, I held out my arms and gasped in surprise, “Son!!”
It brought the house down.