Hank and Me
It had been years since I’d seen Hank, like how many years I couldn’t remember. This friggin’ Facebook was incredible, how you could find people you thought you’d never see again. I was going to Austin, Texas, on a business trip and it occurred to me to try searching for Hank. Facebook had only been around for a couple of years and I’d only been on there for maybe half that time, but to my amazement, I’d uncovered Hank in a matter of minutes.
So I was headed back to Austin, the city that was so hard to leave fifteen years before when we’d made the tough decision to move to Lawrence, Kansas, simply because Kansas University had a better master’s program in telecommunications engineering. When was I known for making rational decisions? Obviously, I’d changed some during my time in Austin.
I’d arrived in the hippest town in Texas a long-haired hippie wanting to check out the music scene. I left town five years later a short-haired father with a two year old son and another on the way, serious about finishing an engineering degree that would finally be useful to make a decent living. In the meantime, I’d spent a couple of years getting a master’s degree in Latin American Studies that was interesting but useless, since I didn’t want to work for the CIA, the State Department, or international banks. I’d also had a part time job at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), and my best friend there by far had been Hank Strahan.
Hank outranked me at ILAS. After all I was just a grad student. He had his master’s already and was employed in the news program on Latin American issues that was produced by ILAS for the local NPR-affiliated radio station and distributed nationwide. But we were similar in age, me having returned to school after several years shared between Alaska and South America, between working hard and making mischief. Hank soon learned that I made the best margarita in town. He was the only gringo I knew whose Spanish was as fluent as mine, having grown up in Venezuela, and we both enjoyed the literature of the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other authors from the school of magical realism with its roots firmly in Latin America.
Hank and I had shared many an enjoyable evening in his house in Austin with our families and others, often under the blissful buzz of that cool frozen concoction that I made with a simple recipe of ground ice, Minutemaid lime juice, Triple Sec liqueur and Cuervo Gold tequila, lots of tequila. I particularly remember one night when we were all drinking and chatting away, my one-year-old boy crawled over to the kitchen cabinets, grabbed a bottle of furniture polish out from under the sink and took a big swig before we realized what was happening. I spent the next few hours in the emergency room at Breckenridge Hospital.
The nice Indian doctor, who finally told me my son was out of danger, commented on his appearance, “Your son’s facial features are unique. He is so good looking. Is your wife oriental?”. Knowing that he was referring to my boy’s high cheekbones, a product of his mother’s ¼ portion of Inca Indian blood, I replied amiably, “No, but our neighbor sure is,” which brought a rather inquisitive look and no further comment from the Doc. Hank appreciated the story when we got back to the party, everybody way ahead of me now with the margaritas, including my ¼ Incan wife who by this time was dancing up a storm to pulsating salsa music. We had a good time in Austin.
Fifteen years later as I got off the plane, I was definitely looking forward to seeing Hank. He’d divorced his graduate student wife Lisa, who I’d really liked because she was smart, politically savvy, and made the best pie crust in town. All because he wanted to marry Julie, the hot redhead working in the ILAS office. All the guys in the office lusted after bouncy, flirtatious Julie, but she wasn’t smart, politically savvy, nor could she make pie crust at all. I think Hank had let the little head do the thinking in this matter, but hey, he wouldn’t be the first one. Hank and Julie now had a couple of kids and he was getting along okay, having graduated from the radio show to become the editor of a local print publication.
Hank swung by to pick me up about half an hour after I checked into my hotel room. My business meeting wasn’t until noon the next day, so one might imagine where we’d be headed for dinner: the Mexican restaurant that made the best margaritas in Austin. They used all natural limes and great tequila, and oh, by the way the food was okay, too. It was great catching up, and it was amazing how our lives had developed in parallel along pretty darn similar lines: jobs that we were good at, wives that were a pain, kids that we loved, and always the margaritas, or whatever drink it happened to be. Hank dropped me off on Sixth Street to check out some of the clubs with live music that I’d loved going to as a grad student years before. I made it back to the hotel, barely, and to the meeting the next day. What happened in between — let’s just say it was fun for a while, then it got really stupid and dangerous, and though it was bad, it certainly could have turned out worse. There’s a whole ‘nother story there about some real nice crackheads under a bridge that I might get the nerve of telling some day, and then again I might not. Oh yeah, and the business meeting that paid for the trip to see Hank, I forget what it was about even.
Fast forward half a dozen years and Hank is in South Florida visiting his 93-year old father who’s in a fancy Assisted Living Facility (ALF) in Boca Raton. Hank’s son and daughter are with him, so one afternoon I take them all to Lion Country Safari in Palm Beach County, which turned out to be about as exciting as looking at concrete lions in a big field of dead grass. The dang things never get up and move in the Florida heat, they just lie there like statues, but hey — we took the kids to Lion Country Safari, okay? Hank had been through a messy divorce and had lost custody of the kids in what he viewed as a really nasty maneuver by Julie to get more money out of him, so it was important to him to show them a good time when he did get to spend time with them. I was going through my own version of the divorce drama and, once again, we had a lot in common.
One evening we took my little boat up the New River and had dinner at one of the joints at Riverside, a booming waterside complex in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. We had a jolly time with drinks and a bit of food, and as we headed back to the boat, I noticed a lady selling candles in a push cart on the walkway. Somehow her smile triggered my recollection that the running lights on my vessel weren’t working, and by some drunken logic I bought a candle to compensate for that deficiency.
After puttering down the New River, we were headed back across Port Everglades to the marina where we’d leave the boat, when we were stopped by a Ft. Lauderdale Police patrol boat. Shoot. As the cops put on their flashers, they barked orders over the loudspeaker for us to pull alongside. I was sure I was headed for a DUI in my lousy little 23-foot Dusky fishing boat.
Once we tied up to the patrol boat, I produced the registration that thankfully I’d updated recently, as Hank and I tried to maintain a safe distance so they wouldn’t smell our breath. Two big guys in a beautiful launch with dual 225-horse Yamaha outboard engines examined my papers closely, then the guy in charge turned to me,
“No running lights. You know you’re required by law to have running lights on the bow and the stern.”
I nodded in agreement, still keeping my distance as I explained that we were just heading back to the marina because the running lights had gone out, so we bought this candle and put it up behind the windshield on the center console where it would stay lit.
“Hmmm,” one cop said to the other, “No running lights….They have a candle.” They looked at each other like,
“Do these guys think we’re idots?” Or was it,
“Well at least they put a candle up on the center console, and it’s not too far to the marina.”
Were they going to bust us or be nice? Finally, after what seemed like an eternity looking at the boat’s registration and talking it over between themselves, they came back with,
“Okay, boys, just hustle on back to the marina and get those lights fixed.”
Man, another bullet dodged on another evening that could have definitely turned out worse, that’s for sure. We couldn’t believe we’d been saved by a candle, and two 50-year-old boys had a hearty laugh once we were safely back at the marina.
Hank and I had an honest heart to heart conversation before he left to pick up the kids at their granddad’s ALF in Boca. We were both drinking too much, we admitted, and needed to cut back or quit altogether. Feeling good in our drunken haze, we definitely weren’t talking about going to AA, but we would make a pact. Hank in Texas and me in Florida would only drink two days out of the week, and check in regularly on each other, at least once a week. I knew it wouldn’t be easy for me, but I also knew it was a long time coming.
As my divorce had dragged out for over a year with my loving wife trying to figure out how to skewer me, as I saw it, or protect her future, as she saw it, my drinking had become more regular, daily now, and more voluminous. Not just tasty margaritas any more, every evening began with a bottle of red wine and ended with anything liquid and alcoholic anywhere in Broward County. Fortunately, I didn’t usually drive while drinking, having found a personal taxi driver who would drink and drug with me as we bounced from one after-hours dive to another when I got so incensed at my loving wife that I went on an all-night tear. I needed this pact with Hank to straighten me out, I was dodging way too many bullets.
For the first couple of weeks after he returned to Austin, Hank and I got along okay. We’d have a conversation on Saturday or Sunday every week, which was usually one of the two days per week we were allowing ourselves to drink, by the pact. However, it often seemed like we were trying to shoehorn a week’s worth of alcohol into those two days of drinking. One Saturday evening, I called Hank, and his girlfriend Jewel answered, not really happy. Though we hadn’t met yet, she and I had become pretty friendly. She was a nice lady, with problems of her own, but with a seemingly big heart and an engaging personality.
Hank and Jewel had invited guests over for dinner, and Hank had been cooking all day, imbibing pretty constantly as he did. By the time the guests arrived, he was stretched out on the floor and Jewel couldn’t get him up, so after an embarrassing period of wait and see, the guests had decided it was best to do this another time. Jewel was in tears.
Hank was having trouble at work and was drinking almost every day it seemed, though often in secret. His ex, Julie, was being a real bitch, accusing him of aggressive behavior toward the kids while drunk and getting a restraining order to keep him from dropping by to see them. It sounded bad.
I thought seriously about getting on a plane to Austin and going down to try to straighten my friend out. But what was the solution? I didn’t have one. A lousy divorce had put him in personal bankruptcy, while his brother was a multimillionaire working for Goldman Sachs, with houses in London, Westchester County, and Malibu. The comparison he felt in his dad’s eyes was a nightmare for proud Hank, and his brother never once offered Hank a helping hand through his financial troubles.
Hank was on probation at his job, and here was one of the brightest and kindest human beings I knew feeling like a financial failure and maybe even a bad father. Hank had complained bitterly the weekend before about the injustice of it all; it was all somebody else’s fault. There was no doubt in my mind now that Hank needed help, but I had problems of my own, and now that Hank had broken our pact to drink just twice a week, well, so did I.
It was Dec. 23rd and I was in the back seat of my car with my son at the wheel cruising up I-24 through central Tennessee, headed to see family in Missouri for Christmas. I got a call out of the blue from Jewel in Austin. This couldn’t be good. I asked my son to turn down the radio as I strained to hear what Jewel was telling me between sobs. My body turned rigid as I listened to the tragic words she spilled out over the only means of communications we’d ever had in our short relationship, a telephone line.
Hank had come home from work and poured himself a tall glass of vodka from a bottle he kept in the back of the fridge. Apparently, he’d just gotten fired by the Editorial Board at his magazine. Then he’d gone upstairs mumbling something about Tibetan monks and locked himself in the walk-in closet in the master bedroom. After a while Jewel had traipsed upstairs to see what was going on, knocking loudly on the closet door. Hank wouldn’t answer. Jewel called the fire department when she saw smoke coming out from underneath the closet door, and when they’d arrived and broken down the door there were flames leaping to the ceiling with all the clothes and boxes on shelves now on fire.
Hank hadn’t dodged this bullet. He’d stepped right in front of it, dousing himself with gasoline to set himself on fire, burning to his death and wreaking havoc on the large house in south Austin, ironically the only major asset he had left to leave to his children.
I hung up, stunned into silence. My son finally asked me what happened. I told him. What could I do? What did I do? Nothing. Was this enough to make me quit drinking? What does it take to get an alcoholic to stop before he crashes and burns? Hank never found out.