The Thanksgiving holiday is behind us, Christmas not far away. Since I’m not a big fan of the Hallmark Channel, I guess I need to tell my own holidays stories.
Westbound on I-10 just before dusk, many years ago, I see a hitchhiker on side of the road. I had just passed the north bound entrance to 1-75, so I guess it’s fair to say this guy was heading west, same as me.
My hitch hiker, a short bearded fellow wearing a blue flannel shirt, threw his gear, a sleeping bag and a back pack into the rear of my truck and climbed up front with me. I asked him his name and destination. He told me in a very thick French accent that his name was Andre Beaubleur. He was from Ontario, Canada and that he was headed anywhere that he could find work.
I told Andre that if was willing to work, that there were plenty of good jobs to be had. His response was slow coming out, like he was having a difficult time forming his sentence. “Not for one such as I, I am afraid. You see, I have no papers. I am zee lumberjack. In my family I have 11 brothers, I am zee youngest, we cut trees. But to work here, I must have zee papers.
I was sort of surprised to hear him say he was a lumberjack. Andre was kinda small, short you might say, about 5 foot tall. To think of him as a lumberjack was stretching it a might. I asked him why didn’t he cut trees in Canada, don’t they have plenty of trees up there that need cutting?
Andre replied, “Zee bears, I am much afraid of zee bears.” I told him that “the Bears around here play in Chicago, ain’t that a long ways from Ontario?” He said, “No, not zis Bears, but zee bear in za woods, big bears, zey will hunt you and eat you.” Finally catching on, I had to laugh. Little ole Andre wouldn’t have a been much of a meal for a hungry old bear, I don’t think.
I had a six pack of beer in the front seat. I finished the last beer and put the empty bottle back into the carton. Then as we were approaching a highway sign, I asked Frenchy to lean back a might. He did as I asked in bewilderment I’m sure, until I zipped out two empty bottles and nailed the sign as we were passing by.
I think he was impressed because he said, “Sacre bleaur, you are zee marksman I think, you can do that again?” I told him “oh yeah, no sweat, I’ve had plenty of practice, watch this.” Then I nailed the next sign with three empty beer bottles, Looping the first one up high, following it up with two more direct tosses that all ended up in the middle of the next sign at the same time.
Frenchy as I started calling him, came back with “For this I have never seen, you must be extraordinaire, I think.” I told him, “No, I’m from the South, all the guys in the South can do that, it’s just the way we was raised.”
Andre asked me what type of work did I do. I told him that I was a traveling tool salesman, a “Jackman.” He asked me if he could work for me, I asked him, “Doing what?” He responded by telling me that he could take care of the truck, keep it clean, check the oil, clean the windshield, watch my tools when I was away and keep them nice and clean. To top it off, he said, “Merci, pardon me if I may, I will sleep in the truck.”
Well if that didn’t beat all, he was offering to be my French valet. The tools do get heavy when I have to lug them into the motel room at night. To top it off, he said that if I was willing to teach him to speak zee American, he would be very happy to teach me to speaka zee French. This was too much, I had to laugh. Okay, I figure why not, I was just going to Baton Rouge to work, if he didn’t pan out, I could leave him with some Cajuns or something.
From then on, if I got a six pack, he drank one maybe two, he always marveled at my accuracy when I target practiced with the empties. Once I hit the same sign with all six of the bottles at once. He marveled at this for days and would brag to the other guys on the crew about my unique talent.
When it got cold, I let Frenchy sleep on the floor of my motel room. He had his sleeping bag. He refused to sleep in a bed. The first time I let him in the room, he disassembled the the meter on the night stand for the vibrating bed while I was in the shower. When he showed me the stack of quarters, his face was lit up like a Christmas tree.
I let him know that I was pissed about it. I told him that when I needed money, I worked for it, I didn’t steal. I told him he could find more money than that behind the seat of my truck. Later I realized it wasn’t the money that intrigued him. It was just the fact that it was a mechanical device that he sought to outwit. I over looked it and told him we live in motels, we don’t steal from where we live.
Maybe him being from another country had something to do with his morals. It wasn’t long after, that Frenchy showed me another bag of quarters, a big bag. I got mad at him and told him that I thought that I told him to leave those vibrating boxes alone. He used his hands to motion for me to calm down, then he said, “Dis is not from zee motel but from zee booth with zee telephone. I use zis clamp to put pressure on zee box and zee lid, she pop off. Now, we have zee quarters to buy more beer.”
Here I am earning five hundred to a thousand a day, if the weather’s good and this guy is jeopardizing that by stealing chump change again. I picked up a hoist handle using it like a club and slammed the top of the table. I told him that I don’t know how they teach people not to do things up in Canada but if I caught him doing it again, I was going to straighten out his learning curve.
It was getting time for a break. I liked this guy, but he was getting on my nerves. I told Frenchy about my brother and his friend Arnie Fields that lived up in Arkansas. I suggested that we go pay them a visit. Arnie had bought a 40 acre farm for $8,000.00 and my brother bought the land next to it. The Ozark Mountains were heavily wooded and these two tracts of land were nestled between the tops of three mountains and the two valleys in between.
The main drawback to me, were the ticks and the lack of women. If you have money though, the women will come out of the woods and find you, but you have to be in one spot long enough for them to find out just where to look. The tick problem was solved when Arnie bought 200 chickens. Then we had plenty of eggs and lots of chicken and dumplings.
Frenchy was pretty industrious. He went to work building a chicken coop and felling trees for firewood. Most of the trees on the two parcels weren’t that big, two or three year old saplings, about 4 to 6 inches in circumference. We went out to work in Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, leaving Frenchy in charge of getting the homestead into shape.
It sure was cold that winter, 40 below freezing in OKC. So cold that we had to put cardboard in front of the radiator of the truck to keep it from freezing up. One thing you notice when you work Oklahoma is the fact that they don’t have any trees. My brother Gary and I dropped a load of tools to a feed lot. We sold the feed store owner our load of tools for cash and got a 16 foot utility trailer to boot.
Gary saw a dwindling pile of fence posts for sale and asked the man how much did he get for his posts. The guy told us that since there weren’t any trees for hundreds of miles, that every farmer and rancher needed all the fence post he could get. He said that they were in short supply. He asked us if we knew where he could get any. He said he would pay us $5.00 a piece for all the fence post we could get.
That sparked an idea into our heads. Gary and Arnie probably had 80 acres between them of nothing but fence posts, ready to be cut. When we got back to the farm, we saw that little ole Frenchy had been busy. First off, he had the land around the front of the 2 BR House cleared of any trees and underbrush. That and the cold weather had killed off any ticks. He had cut several cords of firewood near the house and had the wood stacked between trees that grew close together. Then we found that he had taken an old truck that I had rolled over a couple of times and hooked it up to a portable saw mill that we had bought, without a power source. Frenchy had put it up on concrete blocks, took the tire off one of the rims, made a belt from an old fire hose and used the motor and transmission as power for the saw mill. I was afraid to ask where he got that fire hose from. He had a stack of railroad ties cut from oak about head high (his head), about 40 foot across.
We went to work making bridges across the many little streams that criss-crossed the property. Then we parked the trailer, bought a chain saw and told Andre to start cutting some of the thousands of small trees that covered the property into 6 foot fence posts. The next week when we came home for the week end, Andre had that trailer loaded down with over five hundred fence post and another thousand or so laying nearby.
We not only hauled fence post to that Feed Store but another half a dozen as well. There are plenty of tiny cedar trees in the Ozarks, not so many in Oklahoma. The size of these trees may not be good for much of nothing else, but they were plenty good enough for fence posts in Oklahoma.
After about a year’s time had come and gone. Frenchy was ready to see the bright lights of the city. When I mentioned that I was heading back home to Florida, Frenchy begged me to take him with me, so I did.
Driving back home, I always take the back roads, scouting out for future territory to sell tools. We took Highway 82 through Dothan, Alabama. About an hour or two after dark we passed a night spot that looked pretty hot. I couldn’t just pass it by, the next day was Thanksgiving. I just had to have me a couple shots of “Wild Turkey.”
I probably should have told Frenchy to watch the truck. He wasn’t a bad looking fellow, he was just short. His beard had grown considerably living out in the woods back in Arkansas and I couldn’t swear that his “Englise” had gotten any better. Any way, I was having a good time, really enjoying myself meeting lots of new lady friends, next to chucking empty beer bottles, my forte. I saw that Frenchy was having a problem with some big dude across the dance floor and I walked over to see just what the problem was. As I walked up, I could hear the big guy saying “Tell me what you told her.” Then Frenchy saying “I say to her, you give me service?” Now I was kind of use to Frenchy’s bastardization of the Queen’s English, it didn’t bother me that much. He was just asking the lady for a dance, but I could put myself in this guy’s shoes. If some guy come up and asked my old lady for service, I would have got hot about it too.
I knew what was fixing to happen, even before it did. Frenchy was short, this guy was taller than I was. I looked for something to use as a weapon. I spotted an empty bar stool on the other side of the dance floor and I was just about halfway back with it, when the big dude picked Frenchy up by the front of his shirt, held him up over his head and started shaking him like a rag doll. Just about that time me and the bar stool caught up with them, me catching the big man behind the head with the meaty end of the stool. He let go, rubbed the back of his head and turned to face me. I swung the stool again, this time catching him in the knees. Bending down rubbing his sore knee he was just about the right size. I hit him with a beer bottle and he went down.
In the background behind the bar, I could hear some one say, “The police are on the way.” Then far off, I could hear the whining of a siren. I knew we had a few minutes because we were 7 or 8 miles past the city limits. I grabbed Frenchy up from where he had been tossed and herded him to the truck. The name of the bar was the Wagon Wheel, it’s still there. It’s been closed for years though, when I drive past it today, I can still hear the sirens approaching and visualize the police cars as they passed us heading for the bar as we drove back towards town.
The area we were driving past was nothing but pulp wood trees, large, giant pulp wood trees. In my rear view mirror I could see the far off blue lights leaving the bar and coming towards us. I turned off the head lights and drove in the dark, looking for a logging road to pull up in and hide out. Before I could find a road, the accelerator linkage decided it had enough and came apart on me. The motor was running at idle speed but no power. Still coasting, I crossed the ditch and put the truck between two trees before it came to a stop. I was pretty sure it could be seen from the road, so I took off running. I thought Frenchy was right behind me. I shinnied up a pine tree and crawled behind some branches as the police cars pulled in behind my truck. In the glow of their headlights I could see Andre walking out of the woods with his hands held high in the air, hollering out, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, I am afraid of zee bears, don’t shoot.” His silhouette against the trees, while standing in the glare of the headlights made him look 10 feet tall.
That damn Frenchy. I wouldn’t be in this spot if it weren’t for him. I only 60 feet from the truck, up in the air. I could see and hear everything. The cops were searching the woods for me with their flashlights. I could hear Frenchy telling them to be careful, I was a deadly accurate shot, he had seen me place six shots dead center, with the truck going very fast.
That little rat. Now he’s got the police thinking I’ve got a gun. I wanted to shout out that he was talking about beer bottles, but I didn’t want to give away my spot. I guess though it served its purpose. The cops didn’t want to search the woods at night for some one who was “a deadly shot.” They might of been scared of “zee bears” too. All I know is they called a wrecker to tow my truck in. I didn’t want to be left stranded in the woods at night. The road was dark and lonely. It was too far to walk back to town, besides I was pretty drunk at the time. The police cars pulled off into the night, one with Frenchy in the back seat. I could see the tow truck driver was still hooking up his chains. I decided that now was as good a time as any.
I climbed down the tree and in the dark I ran to the truck and jumped in the back, crawling under my load of tools, just as the driver was pulling off. When we got to town, the driver put my truck in the compound and shut the gate, locking it behind him. Then the driver went inside, did some paper work, got into his pick up and drove off.
After making sure that the coast was clear, I raised the hood on my truck, hooked the linkage back up on the accelerator. Then I got my spare key out of the tool box that was mounted on the fender, under the hood and a hack saw. I cut the chain to the gate, drove my truck off into the dark, without any headlights.
I found a nearby apartment complex to hide my truck in, parked and got out on foot, searching for the police station. Frenchy might be a rat, but we got into this together, I wasn’t going to leave him behind without trying to get him out of jail. I called a taxi from a convenience store and asked him to take me to the jail. Oh, the driver was a talker. He asked me if I had heard about the police chase and the shoot out. He said that he heard the whole thing on the scanner. The guy they were hunting got away, but he was supposed to be a real desperado, that is according to the hostage that the police had brought in.
Just about that time we pulled up in front of the police station. I’m still trying to figure all of this out but I was in a fog. A shoot out? A desperado? A hostage? That damn Frenchy. I was about to get out of the taxi when I see Frenchy’s blue sleeping back rolled out under some stairs next to the police station. It was him alright. He wasn’t locked up. He told the police that I made him go with me and they believed him and let him go.
The police had gotten a K-9 unit and were headed back out to the woods to search for me. The taxi driver was ecstatic. He couldn’t believe his luck. He wanted to drive us to Jacksonville on the down low to thwart the police. I had to use my head. If I didn’t lead him on, he would call the cops, and he just might do it anyway. I told him to drop us off at the apartments, go fill up with gas and meet us back here in 30 minutes while I said good bye to my girlfriend.
He ate it up. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. He told me he would only charge us us 400 bucks for the trip. I led him on. I agreed to the deal. Just as soon as he was out of sight, I jumped in the truck and went south on Highway 231 toward Cottondale and Panama City, leaving Dothan, Alabama in my rear view mirror.
Frenchy told me that he put the heat on me, to get it off of him. He said that he had no fear that I would get away. That’s why he waited at the Police Station, so that I could find him. That skeezer. I knew that was the truth, it’s hard to think of that good a lie in a foreign language.
The next day in Jacksonville, I needed a shower bad. My funds were getting a little low. The money from the fence post was running out. Instead of getting a motel room, I looked up an old friend Cherie Eagerton. Her parents owned a plumbing company, but her sister Angel worked for the FBI along with Jean Jones, one of my jack buddy’s sister. I sure didn’t need any more heat. Cherie and Angel were cut from two different bolts of cloth. While Angel was my age, she was straight as an arrow. Cherie was a couple of years younger, we had dated in high school. Back then, she looked older than what she really was. Cherie though, was my kind of people, she had a streak of outlaw in her, a touch of the wild side.
Cherie invited us in, she was glad to see me. Frenchy made the small talk, as good as he could I guess. That night, Cherie got a baby sitter for her daughter Amber and the three of us celebrated Thanksgiving at the Wrangler on Beaver Street. I had plans for the next day, leaving early from Cherie’s the next day, she kissed me by at the door and told me to hurry back.
I was counting my money at the gas station when we stopped to fill it up. Frenchy leaned over to me and gave me 60 dollars. I was shocked, amazed, just where did he come up with 60 dollars? Then he told me that he “was the jackman, when you sleep with zee girl, I take zee money from her pocketbook.” Oh man no, tell me you didn’t.
Cherie was my friend, an old girlfriend at that, you can’t steal from my friends. I grabbed him by the scruff of his outdoorsman’s vest and held him up with just his toes touching the ground. I cussed him and told him she was my friend. That we were going back to return her money and he was going to apologize. Cherie was in her housecoat when she opened the door. Disbelief covered her face when I tried to tell her what happened. A single mom with a little girl needed every penny. I couldn’t leave her with that hanging over my head. She seemed grateful but I couldn’t be sure when I left, I hoped she believed me.
Andre and I drove down to Orlando to join up with Wayne Holland’s crew. I needed to drop a load of tools or two to get cashed back up. No one knew the story on Frenchy, he had never been around these guys before. Wayne was gearing up for the Christmas break. He wanted all of his men to get cashed up before the break. He had bought a new brief case with all kinds of fancy locks, to keep his payroll money in. To add incentive to the crew and to fire everybody up, Wayne brought his briefcase full of Christmas bonus cash to the breakfast meeting to show the guys at breakfast. After the breakfast meeting, Wayne and I decided that we would take turns, going out with each guy on the crew to help them sell their load. The when we got back, we would divvy up the Christmas bonus money.
The next morning, our meeting place was the restaurant. Wayne left his brief case in his motel room. He and I made several sales apiece that day, helping everybody out with cash in their pocket and an empty truck for the holidays. That afternoon, with only empty trucks in the parking lot, the crew met back up at the motel restaurant for a celebration. We gathered round, had a big feast. To top it off, for the grand finale, Wayne brought out his brief case to spread the wealth. When he opened the brief case, it was empty. Yeah, bare to the bone. The money was gone. Disbelief all over Wayne’s face. All of the guys were down trodden with disappointment.
The first thought that entered my mind was that damn Frenchy. He was the only one that didn’t work that day. He usually rode with me but I was busy helping every body else. I couldn’t prove it, so I didn’t say anything. Wayne and I hit all the topless bars on the Orange Blossom Trail hoping to see someone spending lots of cash, to no avail. I still blamed Frenchy in the back of my mind. I had brought him into this, I felt responsible. There was 6 guys on the crew and I had earned about $2,800 in two days. I gave each guy $400.00. I told them it was from Wayne. Wayne asked me about it. I told him that I remembered him selling a load of tools with me, when I first started out with him in Orlando a couple of days before Christmas, many years before. He and I sold a load and made $2,890 dollars profit, he gave me all of it. I told him what comes around goes around.
The next day, we split up for Christmas. What goes around comes around. I stopped at a convenience store just before I got to the Beeline Expressway. I gave Andre $20.00 to go in to get some beer. I said we’re going to take some target practice.. Before he could come back out, I was gone.
I don’t have to worry about Cherie being mad at me anymore. About 2 years ago I got a private message from her, no not a friend request. She just wanted to cuss my butt out. She never returned any of my friend requests.
Frenchy? Oh, I think about his turkey neck every Sunday when I’m watching football. Because every week I pull for “zee Bears.” Tres bien mon ami, merci beau coup.