Another week on the edge in 1965. I stomped out of the Sanford Naval Air Base frustrated by the aircraft I flew in, the program, and the ungodly Florida heat. The humidity pressed down on me. Swarms of mosquitoes, pesky bloodsuckers, buzzed around and left me scratching before I entered my Stingray. Rank swamp gas from decayed vegetation mixed with aviation exhaust reminded me of rotten eggs. But I had to hand it to this state—it had overwhelming sunsets, brilliant reds and oranges of filtered light spreading a multitude of islands across the clouded sky, even if enhanced by chemical pollution.
Friday night and I needed to wind down. Having reached my nadir of despair, I kicked a scorpion into tangled vines, jumped into my Vette, and headed for the Salty Dog tavern for drinks and pinball to relax my frayed nerves. I drove through a cloud of winged black and orange “love bugs” smashing the pests on my windshield. Enclosed in a metal cubicle, I trained in the backseat of a Mach-2, Photo-Recon jet, like a chimpanzee squeezed in a rocket to the moon, only with the fleet’s worst safety record. Pilots considered navigators like me “dipshits.” Drinking more than ever, I was melting down fast.
I hit the Salty Dog, ordered a gin martini straight up, played my favorite Gottlieb “Pleasure Isle” game on an upright pinball machine, and listened to bells and knockers. Using body English and flipper techniques, I racked up free games by hitting upright red targets, tapping, and knee nudging. The jukebox rattled out the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Elvis, and the Beatles. In two hours who knows how many gins I ordered? Head spinning, vision blurred, I stumbled into the bathroom and saw the distorted image of “Wild Man”—a nickname I’d earned from aviation buds for a newfound persona—in the broken mirror. I went back, gulped down hot coffee, bumped into bar stools, stepped on a cockroach, and glided out of the bar at eleven. After swigging martinis like a drifter lost in the desert downs oasis water, I jumbled into my car, and blasted out of the parking lot.
A right turn onto highway seventeen led toward the Maitland ranch house I shared with aviators. After the first red light, I punched the accelerator. Enjoying the freedom of a pilot taking off in his jet finally in control, though wobbly from gin, red lights flashed in the mirror jolting me out of my stupor. Having recently completed survival, escape, resistance, and evasion school, that taught me get out of trouble any way you can, I made a split-second decision to out-race him. Redlining the tachometer would leave the siren in the dust.
Pine trees and orange groves blurred as my Stingray flew like a Spitfire. The adrenaline from the chase kicked in a new mix of gin and wildness. Maybe I had the edge I needed. A strange sense of exhilaration came over me. Was I really trying to lose a highway patrol car? This dipshit had reached a new level of raging recklessness. I raced into my right turn over a dirt road, wheels spinning, rocks, pebbles, and dirt-clods flying. Oh no—more red flashing lights projected towards me. Two police cars appeared three blocks ahead. My wild high was rapidly fading.
The next right turn led to a fellow aviator’s home. I may have been crazy-high, but not stupid. No lights showed at his bungalow. I turned off my headlights, then my engine, and coasted into his carport. Popping wintergreen lifesavers to hide the alcohol, I slumped down in a futile attempt to avoid capture. A few police cars spun into my rear view mirror. Two muscular officers appeared through my side mirror shining flashlights.
“Get out of the car,” said the tallest officer.
I opened the door and stepped out. The tall tanned officer pushed my belly into the front bumper and radiator, his knee driving my lower spine forward, “Hands on the hood and spread your legs, punk,” he snarled.
“I’m an aviator at Sanford Naval Air Station,”I said offended.
“Show me your identification," said a shorter dark-haired officer.
My driver’s license and Navy ID card reduced the tension. The big officer released his grasp. “Ensign, we’re taking you in for excessive speed, evading an officer, and reckless driving. Get into the police car; you’re going to jail.”
Shorty opened the back door and I dropped low to get into the cage that separated me from the driver and his partner. Here I was, that monkey in a cage I joked about, feeling like a confined animal when I crawled into the back seat of the Vigilante after the pilot enclosed me in my shell. In control of all maneuvers during training, he peered out through a windshield, while I quickly slid shut my tiny side windows leaving me in darkness except for my radar screen unable to play any part in controlling the jet except navigation and basic communications. The certainty of jail made me feel regret. The Navy could prosecute me for "Conduct unbecoming an officer.” What the fuck was I thinking? Clearly, I was not.
I had avoided a DUI. The environment melted by on that dismal ride to jail in central Florida. Squirming in the back seat of the cruiser I remembered my first flight. Behind the pilot under a clamshell canopy, in a sleek, humped-back jet, like a supersonic porpoise, I waited for the afterburner to jolt us into a blazing takeoff. As the plane roared into the sky, I entered a science fiction world.
Not anymore. Now I was in a bad James Bond movie, disillusioned with the plane’s deplorable safety record, with the numerous accidents and deaths, and the Reconnaissance Attack Navigator (RAN) program. Just that day I had experienced another frustrating flight where none of the RA5C’s systems worked, forcing me to navigate the mission using a compass, hand computer, and radar with navigational maps. So much for the multi-million dollar sophisticated equipment in the Navy’s manual, a two hundred-page behemoth, glowing with expletives, including a digital computer system designated the “Versatile Digital Analyzer.” Locked in my cage with tiny windows shut, risking life and future, I feared my days were numbered. Breaking my reverie, the blonde officer twanged into his police radio, “I’ve got the driver of the white Corvette in the highway chase.”
We pulled up to the stone jail. How would my Dad, family, and fellow officers react to my meltdown? At least the police officers had not tested me for drunk driving. I had been dumb-ass lucky. Entering the jail I noticed a dank smell of sweat, alcohol, and cigarette smoke--like a team of lumberjacks outside a bar. Most were blacks. They sat on benches and milled about muttering to each other. Some glanced at me.
“Hey man, were you driving the Vette?”said a skinny black man with side burns in jeans and a dirty tee shirt, reeking from alcohol.
“What cha got under the hood?”said a tall, fat black man, in overalls and a three-day beard.
A police car message blared over a loud speaker, “I got two drunks I’m bringing in from the Round Table Bar.” I understood all of them had heard about my chase.
“Yeah that was my Stingray they were chasing. What did you hear?”I whispered to the skinny man.
“Man, you must’ve been flying. The cop said he was chasing a white Corvette at a hundred and twenty-five miles an hour that was leaving him,”he responded.
“I only have a 325 horse power engine, but I outran them ‘till they radioed ahead,” I whispered to the fat man.
“Come over here, hot shot,” shouted a bald, heavy-set, red-faced officer. “You better have some cash, ‘cause you’re spending the night if you don’t.”
“Can I make a phone call?" I said elated, hoping for a quick booking and roommates’ cash to help a busted fellow aviator. After all, they’d just received their pay and had cash for the weekend.
“You'll get your call after we book you. Get in line,” he said with curled lip, a sneer, and rolled eyes, pointing toward the big room where a rag-tag row of thirty disheveled men wound around the large room. The clock on the wall read 11:30 p.m. I had a sinking feeling my roommates would be sound asleep before I made my call.
Eventually, at 1:30 A.M., the booking officer took my information.
“Can I use the phone now?”I said to him with only a few twenties in my wallet, so what choice did I have?
“Good luck, hot dog. Your bail is $325,”the bald cop said, smiling.
I dialed my house. “Yeah, who’s this?”Dick answered in his New York accent.
“It’s Dan from a holding tank for speeding. The bail is $325.”
“Do you know how late it is?”
“Please help. Check with Dave and George. You know I’d do the same for you.”
I wondered how long my one call could last. After a long silence, “We’re coming to bail you out. What’s the address?”
The booking officer provided the information, “That is all the time you got, hot stuff. Hang up.”
I blurted out the address and hung up. In a half hour four Bermuda shorts and tee shirts with cash arrived.“Here’s Dan Lavery’s bail,” Dick said, handing a wad of twenties and singles to a grey-haired Watch Commander who looked ready to retire.
“Hey man, you got good buds to rescue you at two in the AM," rang out from the thin black man in a sigh at the end.
“You got that right, man,” I said with a smile.
“Hope you have luck in the Navy, man.”
“I’ll need it. I hope you’re out soon.”
The elderly Watch Commander checked me out—handing me all the paperwork for my court appearance and citation. My expression faded into tight-lipped stone as I considered the consequences of my actions. We went out in the fresh air and drove home. I thanked them profusely and relaxed; glad I would sleep in my own bed.
When we arrived, I walked into the backyard to reflect. Taking a deep breath my eyes welcomed the starry blackness and the wonders of the night sky. The Milky Way was a broad band of light arching across outer space. The Orion Nebula flared as a misty patch around the center star of three that formed the warrior’s raised sword, as though warning me not to wander from the straight and narrow path I once followed. Greek legend depicts Orion, “The Hunter,” the son of Poseidon who could walk on waves. He became inebriated, went into a rage like me, and threatened to kill all animals on the planet. Mother Earth had him killed by a scorpion because she feared his threat. Zeus revived Orion and placed him in the sky. The scorpion rises in the east as Orion sets, always chasing him, and reminding observers of his fate for vanity and arrogance.
Who had I become? I had just survived a reckless and dangerous episode of my own making, yet I had been complaining about an unsafe aircraft. What happened to my resolve to counsel others away from a frivolous life and find a purpose I once sought with a passion? How had I allowed myself to sit closed in the backseat of such a jet? Was I destined to hunt like Orion and wander aimlessly on a destructive path?
A man in a police uniform announced, “Come to order. Court is now in session.” Mom kissed me, “I must go. I’ll return soon.” Mom, her attorney, and Grampa disappeared through tall mahogany doors to the hearing. I sat with my grandmother, Ruthie, on a bench in a tiled hallway where everyone’s shoes and voices echoed off the walls. I was five. Mom had taken me to a custody hearing in Miami.
She returned, hugged me, and said, “The judge will decide whether you’ll stay with me, or live with your father.” Her words puzzled me. They caused a growing fear, like the sudden darkness I sensed before a hurricane's lightning and thunder, when everyone runs for shelter, and feels helpless. Mom’s facial expression said she felt turmoil. What was about to happen? She tried to prepare me, but I had no idea what was at stake.
Mom had dressed me in my best pair of dark slacks, a white shirt, and black shined shoes for “Court,” a word that had no meaning to me. It sounded scary. A huge courthouse of gray stone with a large flight of cement stairs to a set of steel doors and down a tiled hallway beyond which sat the majestic room where a judge dispensed justice that pleased only half of the parties who appeared.
A grim expression scarred Ruthie’s freckled face, so different from the joyful way she looked when making music on her organ or piano. She and I talked about the fun we had playing card or word games, singing songs, going to the beach, and throwing a ball to Blackie, her black and white terrier. She mentioned our Cocker Spaniel, Sheba, and eating at Miami Beach buffets where Grampa drove us in his blue Buick roadster.
Mom, her attorney, and Grampa, partially bald with black hair beneath carefully combed white shocks of gray with alarm on his face, returned to the hallway. Grampa whispered to Mom, “Dick’s attorney lied.”
Mom came up and her large blue eyes looked at me, “You’re going to have a chance to talk to the judge.”She took my hand and led me down the marble hallway in the gray courthouse and into the judge’s courtroom. Mom took me to a table for lawyers. A white-haired judge in black robes sat in a tall-back chair above the court reporter, clerk, and bailiff. He looked like a picture of God with flowing white hair I had seen in church. A scowl covered his wrinkled face, as he shuffled papers. He had a gruff voice.
A high voice shouted, “All parties in Lavery vs. Lavery approach the bench.” Next to Mom, holding her hand, I trembled. Her attorney faced the judge with confidence. Dad tall, chest puffed out in his naval uniform decorated with medals, held a white hat with gold braid and anchor in the palm of his hand. His attorney stood next to him.
The bailiff wore a uniform like a police officer’s with a shiny gold badge, khaki shirt, and slacks. A gun in a black holster was attached to his belt. He had a burly neck, and muscular arms. His blonde hair rose one inch high in a crew cut. “Silence in the courtroom,” he ordered in his deep voice. He walked past Mom to me. His blue eyes pierced me, “Danny, the judge wants to see you.”
Mom had fearful eyes and stood shaking before these powerful strangers. “It’s alright, Danny. Do as he says.”
He took my hand and walked me to face the judge. My legs quivered and heart pounded. A heavy-set red face looked down at me, “Danny, you’re going to start living with your father today.”
Tears immediately flooded my eyes. My world shattered and fell apart. How could anyone take me from my Mother? My voice cried out to the stone statue, “I want to live with my Mom.”
“Now Danny, you are going to live with your father. That’s my order. Bailiff hand the boy over to his father.”
Darkness completely surrounded me. My world as I knew it had ended. My words didn’t matter. Now I would have to live with a man I barely knew and his family who were strangers. Tears fell from Mom’s eyes. Ruthie and Grampa openly wept. They could not prevent my helplessness.
The bailiff grabbed my right arm. Dad came up and took my other arm, “Stop crying. I’ll take care of you.” Dad led me towards the courtroom door. My feet stumbled in oblivion. My chest heaved as if I were going to vomit. Looking for a last time through tears at Mother, Ruthie, and Grampa, we said our goodbyes. We hugged and kissed while Dad stood close. Grampa held on to Ruthie and Mom. He had never cried in front of me before, but there he was wiping tears with his handkerchief.
The bailiff said, “Move out of the courtroom.”
Dad had won the custody competition by criticism of Mom as unfit and arguing a naval officer deserved custody regardless of who raised me. Having served America in a world war trumped the values of love and care from Mom and her parents. His lawyer argued, he should be granted custody to unite three children under one roof with his parents. That ignored the strong bond I had with Mom, her side of the family, and that naval officers spend half the time at sea. My world had little of Dad’s influence. Leaving my home had never occurred to me. When the judge tore me from her, I felt ripped from my Mom by a force too strong for me to understand or fight against.
For our trip, Dad bought tickets for Washington, D.C., and we walked to the Champion, a streamlined silver train, that for a moment took my attention away from my despair. I noticed steam shooting out from under the engine. The engineer waved at me making me think about my new life with Dad as an adventure.
I missed Mom, Ruthie, and Grampa who used to read books to me that took me into my imagination. They made me dream. Mom took me to the library with colored pencils and drawing paper. Having witnessed many newsreels at the theater depicting World War II, the books of American warplanes fascinated me. Carefully drawing and coloring at least two planes in action scenes, I spent two full hours each visit while Mom checked out a few books written by her favorite authors. Ruthie’s piano, organ music, and fairy tales made it fun to live with them. I fell asleep and dreamed of going to the beach with Mom.