As the small plane rose above the African Savannah in Zimbabwe, and banked northeast towards Harare, my mind shifted back to another plane-ride during my short stay in New York, just before leaving for Africa. I found myself snatching glimpses of the recent past to mix with the present, perhaps because my mind didn’t have time to process all that had happened and I needed to recall portions that were in buffer before transferring to longer term memory. In any case, just prior to leaving for Africa, while visiting Long Island, my boyhood best friend, detective John Flynn of Suffolk County’s finest, whisked me off for a ride in a police helicopter. It was a surprise. The helicopter ride was my going away present.
At the time, John locked up bad guys that polluted our environment, and helicopters come in handy spotting their unlawful activities. He picked me up bright and early in his Jeep Cherokee, pointing to a cup of coffee waiting in the cup-holder on the shotgun side. That was our normal routine when I visited from California. John would pick me up from my mother’s home, coffee waiting. Forty minutes later we arrived at a small inconspicuous gray concrete building with a sign hanging over the entrance announcing “POLICE AVIATION.” John had arranged for a chopper to checkout a lead on a dump site for toxic waste. That was the pretext. In reality we were off to view storm damage to the architecturally elite summer homes of the rich and famous on Fire Island and the Hamptons. No sooner had we entered the police aviation door when a raspy voice from a navy blue uniform rang out: “Hey John, how they hanging? Does your friend want to sample the wild blue yonder?”
“Does a cat fart?” John shot back, his thick Irish face in full grin. “Hey Barry, I want you to meet a friend I grew up with, Denis Hickey.” When the intros were concluded, John announced, “After we get a good look at a couple of dump sites, I thought we would wander over to see what the storm did to the barrier reef.”
I followed John and his six-foot-four inch two hundred and forty pound frame to a whirlybird perched on a wooden rack, warehouse style. It felt good to be with John in his environment, and it was clear that these guys enjoyed the presence of this old Turk. Barry was to be the pilot and John his mate in the front seat. I got the back. Before loading, John handed me earphones and a mike, standard equipment, and then leaned over to me half whispering: “These guys are good pilots – the best. All but the younger guys flew in Nam. When I was in emergency service, Barry got the chopper low enough for me to rescue this fellow who was barely clinging to the hull of his capsized boat. Takes a lot of experience to stay out of the drink in bad weather, flying so close to the water.”
Jesus what about John? I thought, visualizing him climbing down a rope ladder in churning seas to grab the guy.
Speaking through his mike, while maneuvering the craft off the skids and into the air in a swinging motion, Barry asked, “So John, who are you after today?”
“Joey Ferrelli. I hate that guy,” John said in a disgusted tone and wearing a nauseated look. “You bust him on Monday and by Friday his lawyer springs him, and the son of a bitch is back in business across the street from his last dump-site. You know what? I even hate his mother for bringing a fucken sleezebag like that into this world.”
The houses along Fire Island had been ravaged by the storm. I saw a single house standing lonesome on stilts forty feet into the ocean. Most had vanished. Locals who grew up in the area knew that about every thirty to forty years storms wipe out the bulk of new housing as if their very presence were an insult to nature. The marshlands off Fire Island are habitat for a variety of land and marine life. Yet within ten years spectacular new houses would replace ones lost, and the state and federal governments would pour enormous sums of money into structures like jetties to hold back the persistent seas. Locals complain their taxes go to benefit the few rich that can afford to rebuild or buy.
I left shortly thereafter for Africa and a year away, traveling with a backpack around the world. Some friends you bring with you in memory. Friends like John.