Larger than life. I got to know my brother-in-law Sam in 1968; two years later he was gone. But in those two years he didn't just become my best friend; he kicked my ass into coming of age and left an indelible mark on me that I feel to this day.
You bet your sweet ass I am. Sam had a very cool mark on him: a dapper turtle with high hat & cane tattooed on his calf; he was a member of the Turtle Club. Google it if you want more, but Sam initiated me when I finally asked about his tattoo, teaching me a bunch of the initiatory Q&A; 2 stand out:
What common English word begins with f and ends with u-c-k? (firetruck)
What goes in long, hard & dry, and comes out soft, wet & short? (chewing gum)
Sam loved life, and he lived full-on; he had no patience with namby-pamby halfway anything. He saw that I needed help in becoming a man, and he stepped right up to the task, but not in the way you might think.
My folks didn't think this would prepare me for college. I met Sam when I was a child, but back then he was just a big scary dude I avoided. I really met Sam fresh off the boat: just back Stateside from Kenya. My parents felt I wasn't getting a good enough education. I thought I was getting a great education. I did my schoolwork in an hour then spent the rest of the day bombing around Nairobi on my motorbike, meeting all kinds of interesting people, eating, drinking and smoking who knows what.
I was just an oblivious teen. It was decided that my mom & I would repatriate so I could do 12th grade & graduate from a real school, then she would go back to her sweetheart in Nairobi. It was decades before I began to grasp how hard those 10 months must've been for both of them; they were pretty much symbiotic.
Ride across the river. Gail & Sam & their kids were living in Florida, the Cassady family home state, and it so happened that Melbourne High School, right across the Indian River, had a national reputation for being cool & progressive. It was B. Frank Brown's non-graded high school: all the smart kids got to be in the same class. Frank wanted slow learners together in small classes for intensive, hands-on work. That plan produces groups at the other end; I was in one helluva senior English class.
Laid off. Mom & I moved into an apartment in Indialantic, right up the street from Sam & Gail. Sam had worked production jobs in the semiconductor industry for years, but times had gotten hard in that industry. I started hanging out a lot down the street, and I became good friends with my sister & brother-in-law.
First one's free. I'd quite stupidly brought a decent little stash of Class A Kenya dope over with me from Nairobi, hidden in my sax case. I dug it out & turned them on. Hash was our preferred high when we could get it; we called it thirds. We'd cut off a slice with the single-edge razor then divide it into three, each just the right size for a lungful.
Paranoia haven. Friends from school would visit me there when the stash got low; it was a safe place for them to sell and us to buy. I had a present under the tree from them, a large triangular box that rattled when you shook it. No one could guess that one. On Xmas morning the wrapping came off and it was three album covers taped together with some beads inside for sound effects.
I love you more than you'll ever know. Two of the album covers were empty duds but the third was a winner, the recently released Child is Father to the Man, first and mos def best BS&T album. That song had been getting local airplay and I was gaga over it; my friends noticed and came through. That song combined blues with the acid edge of Al Kooper, riding high those days for his brilliant work in Super Session.
Munchies. Sam was a big guy with a big appetite, and pot, well, you know. Stack pudding was one of Sam's favorites. He made a big mug of coffee the way he like it: sweet, with lots of canned milk. Then he stacked graham crackers broken into quarters until he had a stack the diameter of his mug and dunked 'em. It was all in the timing. Graham crackers disintegrate like that. Dunk just right and you get a stack of graham-coffee pudding melting in your mouth. A second too long and it's mush at the bottom of your cup. Another fave was fried salami cubes. He'd buy the salami with whole peppercorns and cut it into half-inch cubes. Fry up in oil till crispy, then put before us a big plate of 'em with a shot glass full of toothpick spears.
Our favorite stoner pastime was watching the fish. Sam had several tanks; the one we watched like a TV was a 55-gal tall with an amazing array: plecostomi, banjo cats, archers, kuhli loaches, silver dollars, rainbow & neon tetras, zebra danios, Lake Malawi cichlids, angels, a bedraggled betta or two, even an oscar. How could those all live together? Sam had a magic touch with fish, and that was gonna alter the family history forever, because Sam used the savings to buy a fish farm.
The Fish Farm was legendary. One of the hippies drew an elaborate stoned parody of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, awarding the Fish Farm the Timothy Leary Good Cribkeeping Award. Yup, it was pretty much the Space Coast crash pad. Well, one of many.
Padrugpadrug. The living room was carpeted, and Sam put a big old Persian-style rug with a thick pad down on top of the padded carpet, creating a 4-layer padded floor, which he named Padrugpadrug. Lots of weirdos crashed on Padrugpadrug over the years, including most of us.
Oh ta, man. When I first arrived in Florida I had an English accent. I tend to adopt the talk of people I hang out with, and in Nairobi I mostly hung out with British expat kids. I was aware it was happening and I worked at it a bit. One of my proudest moments came when I was talking with a bunch of guys there, some of whom I didn't know, and I said something that gave away my nationality. One of the guys I didn't know looked at me in surprise and said, "You're a yank eh? Cor, you don't tawk like a yank."
The pheromones in that Rambler were so thick you could eat 'em with a spoon. Girls were intrigued by my accent, much to my delight. I started hanging out with a trio of the smart girls at school. I needed to learn how to drive, because I'd been too young for a learner's permit in Kenya. Annette offered to let me practice driving her car, a Rambler station wagon. We drove to an empty parking lot and she gave me the wheel. Her nefarious plot worked: we made out in the car and I fell in love with her. She was a lovely blonde with a great big nose and a fetching short hair style that she might've borrowed from Annette Funicello. We joked about her nose, which sometimes got in the way, but who's complaining? I was just as true to my girl as you might expect a high school guy to be: about a month later I fell in love with her trio buddy Hutch. Such a fickle boy I was. Hutch was the girl who would've been the homecoming queen if she hadn't detested team sports; she was eyecatching. I stayed with Hutch for three years, even when things got complicated between us in college because of a different trio.
Sam saw right through me and loved me anyway. As a kid I bullshitted about myself, like getting shocked awake by the dahlia farmer next door. I made shit up to make myself seem more interesting than I really was. As I got older, that meant I had to keep track of which lies I'd told whom. But the least bit of bullshit and Sam would start giving me that look. I would immediately fold and tell the truth. He was the one person who saw me for who I was, and he liked me anyway. He became my closest friend. That's how he helped me grow up: he saw right through me and loved me anyway.
It didn't break us up; it brought us closer together. One night at the Fish Farm I finished up what Sam had started. I was visiting from college with my girlfriend Hutch. That night I took some kind of hallucinogenic pill. I started flipping out. I felt the distance and falseness created by my lies so I started confessing. We stayed up till dawn, debunking everything I'd ever told her about my life. She was a true friend. She talked me down from my exile.
A bit of him lives on in me. Sam's big life finally caught up with him: he died of a stroke one night in 1970, just a month or so after that harrowing night with Hutch. I was left utterly bereft. My best friend was gone, and I'd only just gotten to know him. But he gave me a new life, gently kicking my ass into adulthood.