this is a true story. but even when i think about it, i find it hard to relay to others without feeling like they would never believe something like this happened. oh well…here it goes.
summers in las vegas were a monster, a physical thing. different than the humid heat of the south, the higher, drier temps of the southwest assaulted like a living entity. while those with the wherewithal had central A/C keeping their homes at near-arctic temperatures, we made do with something called an evaporative cooler.
lovingly called a “swamp cooler”, these devices are just a step above those window units you find in cheap, rent by the hour motels. designed to cool a small area for a short amount of time, there was no way that it could keep up in steady 112 degree heat day after day after day, despite our house being only slightly larger than said motel room. sometimes, mom would fill the bathtub with cool water and dunk me and my younger brother in it to prevent overheating and baking our developing minds.
many were the evening that, having run at full speed as long as it could stand, the cooler would give up with a last gasp and leave us stranded. so, the boys broke out the lawn chairs while mom would mix some lemonade. seeing as how all of the houses in the neighborhood had the same inadequete cooling mechanisms, we would sooned be joined in proxy as they broke out their own chairs and made themselves comfortable until the interior of the houses were cooler than the outside.
kids playing hide and seek, moms discussing recipes and dads debating the various merits of the newest lawnmower or sedan. all very 70’s and suburban, yes? as dusk grew long and night came for real, most would drift back to their own homes to see if the heat had subsided. my father still held court for our family, telling us a story about this or that from work when all of a sudden he stopped as he noticed a harried, disheveled man in his late 20’s running up the sidewalk at full pace, all the while shooting fearful glances over his shoulder.
the man slowed as he approached our lawn and then, seeing my father, ran up the grass to a point about 10 feet from him.
‘can I help you?’ my dad asked, subconsciously placing himself between the man and his family.
‘hey man, i need your help. these guys are chasing me, i’m not sure why. can i hide out for a minute?’ the man replied, out of breath and looking like a rabbit caught in headlights. i had never seen fear like that before or since out of a living breathing human.
my dad was about to reply when we noticed a car approaching from down the street. the man ducked behind a small red utility trailer my father used for hauling lumber or trash or whatever.
the car made its way to the end of the street, then, as if someone in the car noticed something unusual, it slowed. suddenly, the driver made a lazy uturn in the middle of the intersection and came back towards our house.
a little about my dad, at this point. when he was 17, his dad signed him up for the Navy. Evidently, my father felt school had run its course for him and his dad felt that if that was the case, the service held promise for a young man who didn’t want to finish school. this was is 1960, right before the heart of the Vietnam War. my father ended up spending 3+ years in the Navy, some of that in the Phillipines driving those boats that carry troops from a ship to the shore. my father took up boxing while in the Navy, and always carried with him a sense of indestructibility, confidence and strength…things needed to guide a bookish, sensitive 10 year old (me) through a tough world. he was tall, strong and would always stand up for what he believed.
the car slowed in front of our house. 3 doors open, and 3 scruffy dudes jumped out. at this point my dad had staked his claim to a point of the driveway situated between us and the intruders. the driver was in front of the other two as they slowly walked up to the liddle of the lawn, then stopped. one of the men had taken a knife from his pocket and unfolded it.
‘can we talk to that guy?’ the driver asked. he didn’t say any more than that, but the threat in the air was implied.
‘i think you guys had better get off of my property’ was all my dad said. he never took his eyes of the leader of their group, didn’t raise his voice, but stood firm like a sentinel. silence then filled the air for what seemed like an eternity.
suddenly, the driver shrugged his shoulders slightly, then said ‘the man wants us off his property’. he turned to leave, then glanced over at the man who had invaded our space that night, as if to say, we will get you. make no mistake.
the three loped back to the car, got it and sped away. dad turned back to us as if nothing had happened and smiled. the man whose person he had defended slid out from behind the trailer, muttered a quiet ‘thanks’, and took off in an opposite direction from the car. i watched him leave for a while, then watched the space he occupied for a time. for a 10 year old, this event was fodder for a thousand stories in his mind; why did they want to hurt him? did he steal from them? cheat at cards? owe them money or drugs? i still think about this from time to time…and wondered what happened to him.
at that point, despite my father already being a symbol of strength and unwavering support to me and my family, grew into a hero.