“Okay, Professor! We’re coming down!” I heard a student shout from the second floor window, just above me, as I was entering the Hamilton building for my three o’clock class. I then turned to look in the direction the bespectacled student was shouting. I saw a man in his early to mid-forties with long sandy blond hair and a messier, slightly darker beard that was starting to gray at its bristly ends. This guy is a professor? I thought to myself.
It sure was strange to see a college professor wearing jeans to class. What was even more peculiar was that he completed his ensemble with a yellow Nascar t-shirt that said Busch across the chest and had an M&M’s logo on the sleeve. It was then that I noticed the dog sitting by his leg. It was a yellow lab with a red bandana wrapped around its neck. The dog was wearing a leash, but it was dragging on the ground behind him. The professor looked like he was either talking to the dog or to himself; I was too far away to hear what he was saying.
As I was trying to figure this guy out, I felt a tide of students come rushing behind me. This must be the “we’re” the bespectacled student was referring to. About twenty students hurried over to the man. Each one of them wearing a big smile on their face; they were all clearly happy to see him. He’s just a professor, I thought.
They all gathered near the gazebo between the Hartley and Wallace buildings, and after a few minutes they began to walk toward Butler Library. It was then that I noticed that the man walked with a cane. I wonder what happened. Was it just an injury or was he handicapped?
I don’t know what it was about this guy but I was completely fascinated. I decided to skip my boring Chaucer lecture, and follow this class on their journey. I thought it would just take me somewhere else on campus, but after about fifteen minutes of walking, the class ended up on the steps of a church on Amsterdam Avenue, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
His Timberland work boots complimented his yellow racing shirt nicely. It seemed like a weird choice of footwear however, for someone who walked with a cane. Wouldn’t sneakers be a better option? It made me think that whatever was wrong with his leg was just an injury and not a permanent disability.
As I watched this all from a distance, I felt like the Crocodile Hunter or something, watching the animal in its natural environment. What I saw was the mane of the lion blowing in the wind as the fearsome figure stood like a statue in front of that holy building. He was clearly the king of this academic jungle.
It was wild. If the professor pointed in a particular direction or turned his gaze in such a way, every single collegiate eye would follow his lead like a dog following the hand of a treat. It was obvious they were hanging on his every word. I wished I could hear what he was saying, but I was still on the opposite side of Amsterdam. One of the students probably would have noticed me following them if any of them had ever taken their eyes off of their vibrant professor; fortunately for me, none did, not even for a second.
He must have asked them a question, I thought. All of their hands went up at once. He pointed to a brown haired girl in the back, on one of the lower church steps closest to the street. Oh they were volunteering for something. I realized. The bespectacled student looked upset that he wasn’t chosen. At that point, the class followed the professor into the church. The girl he picked stayed outside with the dog. Oh, that’s what she volunteered for. It made me smile.
I decided to cross the street. About halfway across, I realized that I knew the girl who was watching the dog. She was in my Joyce class. I had only ever said hi to her, in passing, but at least that was something. “Cool dog,” I said as I approached her.
“Yea, this is Patches. He’s the best,” she said, her voice morphing from human speak to affectionate dog speak mid-sentence. She affirmed the dog’s best-ness by petting him on the head lovingly.
Patches gave me a quick sniff. I pet him on the head. And just as quickly he was walking back toward the girl, his tail wagging all the while.
There was a bit of an awkward silence as I stood there. So I just came out with it. “By any chance, are you in class right now?”
“Yea. You go to Columbia too?” She asked, taken aback by the question.
“Yea, I’m actually in your Joyce class,” I said, half embarrassed.
“Oh” she smiled nervously, not knowing where the conversation was going.
“What class is this?” I asked, looking up at the imposing church facade.
“The art of storytelling,” she said.
“Who is your professor?” I asked.
“Professor Guile,” she said proudly.
“He’s the guy with the long hair and beard in the Nascar shirt?” I asked, seeking confirmation.
“You don’t know who Professor Guile is?” She looked shocked and offended.
I was afraid to admit that I didn’t. Other students at Columbia love making you feel like the perfect philistine for not knowing something that you are “supposed to know.” I really hated that.
She then proceeded to explain to me why I was such an idiot. “He won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his book Argyle and Patches… about the incident.”
“What incident?” I asked timidly, knowing I should have somehow known this too.
“Wow, you really know nothing,” she said plainly. I think because she said this while smiling she didn’t even realize how hurtful what she said actually was. It made me not want to ask her anything else; but at the same time, I really wanted to know what the incident was. I figured I could just read the book she mentioned and find out myself.
I decided to walk away. I had found out enough to satisfy my curiosity for the time being. “Okay, I’ll see you in Joyce class on Friday. I got to get back to my Chaucer class.”
I just said that last part to be polite and save face. The Chaucer class would be more than half over by the time I got back to campus. At that point, what’s the point?
I was sitting on one of the benches near the gazebo reading The Canterbury Tales, when all of the pilgrims returned from their pilgrimage to the cathedral. The professor and his dog were the obvious nucleus of the group. This storytelling contest had a clear winner. They were making their way toward me.
Not wanting to see that brown haired girl again, I decided to get up and head across campus to the Journalism building and grab a quick sandwich.
As I passed the Joseph Pulitzer plaque in the Journalism school, I was reminded of Professor Guile and “the incident.” I couldn’t seem to escape it. As I ate my sandwich, I googled Argyle and Patches to see what I could find out. Wow, I really am an idiot, I thought. Look at all of these results. Before I even found out what the book was about, I was bombarded with one headline after another proclaiming this book to be a “masterpiece,” “triumph of the human spirit,” “most inspiring story of the decade” written by “a real life Superman,” who had “raw writing talent mixed with real life heroics.” “First the Pulitzer, next the Nobel Prize!”
All of this praise was making me feel small. I was very impressed of course, but at the same time, I was like how good could this book actually be? No story could possibly be this interesting. How could it actually live up to all this praise? I thought of the mean brown haired girl who was gushing over the professor. It was her face that I saw behind these fawning headlines. It really irritated me. I was set against the book before I even found out what it was about, and I knew that that was unfair to the professor, who for all I knew picked the mean brown haired girl to wait outside with his dog because he couldn’t stand to be around her either. That thought made me smile.
When I finally found out what the book was about, I realized that I was wrong to think that it was just an injury. It was indeed a serious handicap the professor had. As a matter of fact, after finding out what happened to him, I was shocked that he was even using a cane. Based on the story, he should have been in a wheelchair, if not in the ground.
The online summary of the book explained the incident through real life news headlines that occurred at the time, but only vaguely enough that I understood that heroism was at play and it was all very important and inspiring. But I still had to read the book if I was going to find out the details of what really happened.
After I finished my sandwich, I went into Lerner Hall and took the escalator down to the university bookstore. Having been in here a lot, I knew exactly where the book should be. However, before I made it to that part of the store, I was hit with a large display promoting the book in the middle of one of the aisles, making me feel even more out of the loop. I really am the last person on the planet to have heard of this guy. I felt small again.
I grabbed the book and took it to the register. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a line.
I put the book down and the cashier picked it up to scan. “Argyle and Patches. Amazing!” The old woman said, “You are going to love this book! Are you in Professor Guile’s class by any chance?” She asked with a glint of hope in her eyes.
“No, I’m not,” I said, and instantly she looked deflated. I only found out who he was like an hour ago, is what I wanted to say. “Maybe next semester.” I said, trying to make her feel better, while at the same time sort of convincing myself of the possibility.
“Good luck!” she replied. “I heard he only takes like twenty five students a semester. Everyone wants to be in his class. Matter of fact, I heard last semester, one student paid another five thousand dollars for their spot.”
The thought made my heart drop. I was now the one who looked deflated. “The shoe is on the other foot now.” I actually thought I thought this, but it was just the old woman still talking.
Snapping back into the moment, I said, “What?”
“The shoe is on the other foot now. You will know what I mean when you get to it,” she said with a wink and handed me the bag and receipt.
I smiled politely and turned to leave. The shoe is on the other foot now? Did she just ruin the story for me? I was getting angry thinking about what she said. How can a person like that work in a bookstore? I kept getting angrier. I should tell her manager. I realized what I was doing and stopped myself. If I can’t tell whether or not she ruined the book, then that means that she probably didn’t. I reassured myself. She wasn’t so bad. She was just trying to be nice. I was trying to calm myself down and fix my karma with these thoughts.
I had been in the dark for far too long, it was time that I found out why this professor was such a big deal. I took my new book over to one of my favorite benches outside of the Philosophy building, near the Thinking Man statue. I pulled the book out of the bag. It was impossible to miss the Pulitzer Prize emblem on the cover. It is a cool looking book. I had to admit. On the cover there was an image of dirty hands pulling up a bloody argyle sock, and it was set against the backdrop of what looked like a patched up old dinghy. I thought the online headlines said the incident took place in the subway? I was growing more confused.
“You want me to sign that for you?” I looked up, startled. I saw his lion’s mane blowing in the wind as he started shuffling toward me. I was completely stunned. This guy was just a college professor, and for some reason I was star-struck. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even know why he was so special. I just didn’t know anything.
As if he must get this a lot, the professor smiled knowingly at my speechlessness. “You mind if I sit?” he gestured to the bench. I slid right over. He slowly sat down, using his cane for support. Seeing it up close, I realized it was highly ornate. The cane had a bull’s head on the grip with what looked like a lasso wrapped around its neck, spiraling down the length of the mahogany. The professor didn’t say anything. Patches laid down at the end of the bench beside his feet. The professor just looked off into the distance. It appeared as if he was looking at nothing and seeing everything all at once. His mind was obviously somewhere else.
I didn’t want to bother him, so I didn’t say anything. Not that I knew what to say anyway. I didn’t even really know why this guy was so important, and why everyone thought he was such a big deal. I didn’t really know what the incident was, and I felt like the only person on the entire campus (if not in the whole world) who had not read his book.
I thought it might be best to talk about something other than the book, so I finally broke the silence with, “So you’re a Nascar fan, huh? I used to watch it with my father once in a while.”
Still looking off into the distance. He started talking, but more to himself than to me, “He has my book but he knows nothing about me. Peculiar.” He leaned over and gave Patches a treat he pulled from the front pocket of his t-shirt. It had a number eighteen on it. The pocket, not the treat. I couldn’t see the treat, Patches inhaled it like a breath. The professor then turned to me and said, “If you don’t know who I am, then why were you following my class today?”
Did he see me? Or did the mean brown haired girl tell him I was there? Neither would have surprised me. “I don’t know. I think I was just surprised to see a professor who looks and dresses like you, You really confused me, that’s all. I guess I just wanted to know more.”
“I appreciate your honesty, young man,” he said with a comforting smile. He then grabbed the bull by the horns and hoisted himself up from the bench. “If you enjoy the book,” he said gesturing toward my hands, my eyes following his gesture and landing on the prominent Pulitzer emblem, “I will meet you back here a week from today, at this same time, and I will sign it for you. But I only want you to meet me here if you actually like the book.”
“Okay,” I said nervously, surprised by the gesture. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I had the same big smile on my face that his students had earlier when they were rushing out of the Hamilton building to meet him.
This man definitely had a way about him. There was no denying it. When he was talking to you it felt like the world around you was shut off. It was just you and him. As he gave me a fist bump and limped away with Patches at his side, still dragging his leash behind him and wagging his tail, I thought that if the professor’s presence on the page was equal to his presence in person then all the praise and accolades for his book were well deserved.
I decided to skip my evening Victorian Literature class and head back to the dorm early. Browning’s “good minute” would have to wait. I had to start reading this book right away. I had to know what all the fuss was about.
I made a cup of coffee and took it to the squeaky but comfortable leather recliner in the common room. I opened up the book and read the first words…
“Whatever you are expecting, don’t.”
That was it. That was the whole first page. It was the whole first chapter for that matter.
I felt my face scrunch with confusion. But then the understanding washed over me. Wow! That is brilliant!
“Chapter two.” That’s all it said on the next page. And that was it. That was all of chapter two.
Okay I get it, you’re messing with the readers expectations. Clever. But too much of this can get old really quick. As if hearing my complaints, most of the following chapters read like any other chapter book, in that, they were each multiple pages, with multiple paragraphs, and told a story in an understandable, coherent order. That was where its similarities to other books ended though. This book was unlike anything else I had ever read. It wasn’t only that the writing was stylistically innovative, but the words were also completely authentic. I mean, I saw the man who wrote them… he was the living embodiment of what I was reading.
I finished the book in about three days. I had to force myself to stop at times, wanting to savor it a little bit. I was kind of disappointed that I had to wait until the following week to meet with the professor. I really wanted him to sign my book, like he offered, but more than that, I had some questions I wanted to ask him — if he was open to it. The point is, I couldn’t wait to see him again. It was hard to believe that the man who wrote a book this good, and lived a story so grand, would take the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me. He didn’t know me at all. I just happened to be holding his book on a bench as he walked by.
I found out later there was more to it than that. Although serendipity did play its part in our meeting.
The day finally came when I was supposed to meet the professor near the Thinking Man statue around five forty-five. I decided to skip my three o’clock Chaucer lecture again, so I could once again follow his class. I saw them all waiting by the gazebo. It was around 3:15 when the students dispersed, heading toward Broadway.
The mean brown haired girl came rushing toward me. I asked her where Professor Guile was. She didn’t even stop walking. She simply muttered “in the hospital” as she moved past me.
“Hospital? What for?” I shouted after her.
“I don’t know” I heard her say. She didn’t even turn around.
I was devastated. I was both worried for him, as well as disappointed for myself that I wouldn’t get a chance to talk to him about his book. A realization dawned on me. If I hadn’t skipped my Chaucer class that day, I never would have known that he was in the hospital. I would have been sitting on the bench at five forty-five, thinking that he blew me off. Too much of a big shot, I would have thought. Selfless hero, my ass!
I had a hard time sleeping the next few nights. I was genuinely worried about the man. I found out on Friday from the mean brown haired girl in my Joyce class that he was fine. “Why was he in the hospital?” I asked her. She simply shook her head. I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it, so I left her alone. Or maybe she just didn’t want to talk to me about it. I mean, in all fairness, I really didn’t want to talk to her either.
I waited at the bench in front of the Philosophy building the following week, to see if maybe Professor Guile would come this week to make up for missing last week.
I found out later, that I was the one who actually missed last week.
Turns out, he wasn’t in the hospital because there was something wrong with him. The hospital was just where he was teaching that week’s class. The mean brown haired girl actually said “at the hospital” not “in the hospital”. I had misheard her because she rushed by me so quickly. And the reason that she rushed by me so quickly was because she had to catch the next train uptown. The hospital was over fifty blocks away.
This was the way that Professor Guile operated. Every class began with a last minute change. Most students didn’t realize it, but this spontaneity was all part of the lesson. Last week they were at the church, this week the hospital, next week, who knows?
Well, I was going to find out. I skipped my Chaucer class again the following week. I had to. I had to apologize to Professor Guile for missing our meeting, and this was the only time of the week when I knew where he was going to be — well, as much as anyone else did, I suppose.
I saw a few of Guile’s students standing at the main campus entrance on the Broadway side of Columbia. I hurried across the grass in their direction. I saw the mean brown haired girl among them. I was probably seventy five yards away when they left campus and started walking downtown. I eventually caught up with them a few blocks away. Any one familiar with the television show Seinfeld would recognize the exterior of Tom’s Restaurant. They were all gathered together on the sidewalk right below the red neon Restaurant sign on the 112th Street side of the building.
I didn’t see the professor among them. At first.
Is he wearing a McDonald’s uniform? And is that a cowboy hat with a number 48 on it? No, that’s a 43 I think. Unlike the Nascar shirt that I saw him in last time, I now understood why Professor Guile was dressed the way he was. Having read his book and come to understand the circumstances of the incident, it all made sense to me now. Indeed, “the shoe was on the other foot.” Nevertheless just because it made sense, and I understood why he did it, it didn’t make it any less strange and jarring to see an Ivy League professor dressed the way he was.
“Hey sweater vest, go back to grading papers! This has nothing to do with you!” The man holding the gun against the crippled girl’s back shouted over his shoulder, as shoved her forward across the active subway track.
Passages from his book had a way of staying with you long after you finished it.
When his son was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer at the age of seven, it shattered Ralph’s whole world. Even with a professor’s salary and a great healthcare plan, the medical bills destroyed him. In terms of importance, however, the money was a distant second to his son’s health. Jack was the only thing that mattered.
The Ronald McDonald House is a charity that helps families of children suffering with cancer. Ralph would never forget how much they helped him and Jack. They connected them with another charitable organization that would grant wishes for sick children. His son said that, more than anything else, he wanted to swim with the dolphins in Hawaii. His doctor was initially worried about this, but since the circumstances were so bleak for Jack, he thought the upside outweighed the downside (in the grand scheme of things).
“They say that flying is the safest way to travel. I want to know who the hell the ‘they’ in that sentence is so I can kick their asses!” The man must have been in construction or an airplane mechanic or something. He was a strong roughneck type. It all happened so fast, that my brain could hardly register it. There was a jerk on the left side of the plane. The plane started shaking, and flying a bit off balance, and then… Boom! A jerk on the right side of the plane. The oxygen masks fell. The pilot said something over the speaker that my brain refused to compute. Even if I could have made sense of the pilot’s words, the screams inside the cabin would have prevented me from hearing them.
No one ever pays attention to what the flight attendants say when they do that silly safety presentation at the beginning of the flight. At that moment, however, I really wish I had. I looked around to see what everyone else was doing. Some were putting on their masks, others were fumbling through the back of the seat for the safety instruction fold out, and some were bent forward as if preparing for a crash. I put the oxygen mask on Jack, who seemed much calmer than me. He has had to think about his own mortality a lot lately so I guess this moment isn’t as terrifying to him as it otherwise should have been. The sadness of that truth floored me for a moment. I forgot about one deathtrap (the plane) and began to think about another (life itself).
Life just didn’t make sense sometimes.
Your mind goes to strange places when you think you’re going to die.
My brain seemed to have blocked out a lot. I was staring up at this square jawed, hairy armed man who was sitting me up in the life raft. If I remember correctly he was sitting two rows in front of us on the plane. The pain of my hip was only dwarfed by the fear for my son. “Where’s Jack? Where’s my boy?” I shouted.
"Stay calm, man. He’s with my daughter.” The big hairy forearm pointed to the other side of the raft. The sun was so bright, I had to take his word for it. Once my eyes adjusted to the light. I saw my son, a girl with arm crutches who I could only assume was his daughter, a soaked flight attendant who was breathing heavily, and a blurry faceless couple who were looking out to the sea with vacant desperation.
Now that I knew my son was still alive, the pain in my hip reminded me it was still there as well. When the plane made its impact with the water my leg went through the back of my hip. I think that is when I blacked out. The square jawed man with the big hairy arms had pulled me from the plane before the water filled the cabin. In fact, he was the sole reason that all of us made it on to that life raft safely. The flight attendant told him where the raft was stored and he did his best to find any survivors of the crash before the 737 submerged into the Pacific. Out of one hundred and twenty people on board, it was just the seven of us that made it onto the raft.
As I already pointed out, life just didn’t make sense sometimes. Is it “lucky” to survive a plane crash? I have been thinking about that a lot. It is definitely unlucky to get in a plane crash in the first place, so it’s hard to say that I feel lucky to have survived. Although, I guess I do.
And oddly enough, with how bad everything seemed, some would say we caught a few more “lucky” breaks. I don’t know, if I would be so flippant with the language though. If we were on that raft for more than nine days there’s no telling how bad things could have really become.
My son’s wish was to swim with the dolphins, and the smile I saw on his face as the dolphins flew past us on day three on the raft — like racehorses of the sea — was priceless. If surviving a plane crash and being stranded in the Pacific were the only way I could see that happiness on his face, I would do it everyday. I had no problem enduring horror if it meant giving him joy. My wife died giving birth to Jack. And I, too, would die if it meant he could live.
The heroic man with the square jaw and hairy arms was named Dale. He was a huge Nascar fan. He would describe races he remembered in glorious poetic detail. But it wasn’t his love of Nascar that was causing him to do this. He was really doing it in order to keep our minds off of the fact that we were likely going to die at sea.
His descriptions of the races were incredible. As a writer, I could only dream of being able to set such a scene and illicit such emotion. Dale would describe the length of the track, the smell of the tires, and the politics and controversies in the sport to add flavor. “And then on the final turn of the Daytona 500, the Intimidator hit the wall and died. You believe that shit? The greatest driver of all time, old number 3, Mr. Goodwrench himself, dying during the most important race of the year. That’s like Joe Montana dying during the Super Bowl.” In all honesty, the comparison didn’t really clear things up for me, but I understood his overall point.
"And then the following year,” Dale continued, “the Intimidator’s son won the race. You believe that?” Dale was so proud that his father named him after Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt. “A lot of people will say Richard Petty was the greatest, or Jeff Gordon, or Jimmie Johnson. But I think Earnhardt was the greatest ever.” I remember thinking at the time: I wish I knew who these people were he was naming. The names sounded sort of familiar but sports was never my thing, which should have been apparent by what I was wearing.
Dale knew that I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. But I really appreciated the fact that he was saying it. I would have gone crazy if it weren’t for Dale and his stories. He saved my life in so many ways. Despite our apparent differences, we were kindred spirits. He was also a widower with an unhealthy child, who was just trying to get through things the best he could.
As the dolphins swam around us again about four days later, Dale said that it would be his “honor and pleasure” to jump into the water with Jack so that my boy could fulfill his dying wish. I told him he didn’t have to do that. I didn’t stress the point enough, and for that, I will never forgive myself.
Before he even got the chance to help Jack into the water, Dale screamed like he was being burned alive. We never saw what it was, but we are pretty sure it was a shark. The water around Dale turned red in a hurry. The attacker let go for a second, Dale tried to reach toward the raft. The attacker hit the raft away from him. We all felt a jolt. What was worse, the raft started leaking.
“Quick! Get the patches!” Dale shouted as he was helped up onto the raft. The raft’s leak mixed with Dale’s leak and we found ourselves sitting in a red pool of ocean and blood. This was nightmare fuel. Dale pointed where the raft patches were to the flight attendant. She successfully applied them to the side of the raft. And the leak stopped. Well, one leak stopped. The blood was still pouring out of Dale and we didn’t have any patches for him.
The next fews hours passed in mostly silence. Other than the water around us, Dale’s daughter’s weeping was the only thing we heard. That was until Dale randomly said to me, “Ha ha, you know that is actually what my best friend used to call me.”
He seemed to be having his own conversation in his head, and was now inviting me to join in. “What’s that?” I asked, genuinely interested.
“Patches,” Dale said, “My best friend used to call me Patches. I used to be a smoker, and I was always trying to quit.” His wheezing achy laugh, echoed the sentiment. “Listen Ralph, if we ever make it out of this,” the way Dale said “we” it was obvious he was referring to everyone else in the raft except for him; he knew he wasn’t long for this world. “I want you and Jack to be Cassie’s family.”
This was all surreal. I had a son with cancer, I had just survived a plane crash, had been literally broken in half, we were all on a life raft stranded in the Pacific Ocean, and a dying man who saved my life on multiple occasions was asking me to raise his daughter with his dying wish. “Of course,” is all anyone could say in this situation.
A day and a half after Dale died, a plane flew overhead and rescued us. They were filming one of those nature shows. Turns out the North Pacific Humpback Whales makes a 3000 mile journey across the Pacific every year sometime between November and May. And although it usually happens in the winter months, the whales’ late migration that year saved our lives.
About a year and a half after the rescue, we caught another lucky break. Cassie won a lawsuit against a large pharmaceutical company. Turns out a few years back there was lawyer running an ad on tv talking about how a certain experimental medicine for scoliosis can cause rare cases of muscular dystrophy. Dale saw it and realized that that was what had happened to his daughter. Dale connected with the lawyer, who ironically, was referred to in the commercial as “the shark.” Now here we are, one hundred and seven million dollars later… I will give you a second to let that number sink in. One hundred and seven million dollars is how much the shark won for Cassie. She told me at the time of the settlement that she would give up all the money if it meant that she could be healthy instead. It brought me to tears.
“I don’t blame you, honey. Good health is indeed priceless.” I said, tapping my hand on my metal hip for emphasis. Her arms always bowed when she put weight on the handles of her canes. Yea, good health is priceless.
We were quite a motley crew — my son bald from the chemo, my new daughter wobbling around on her canes, and me just now finally out of the wheelchair.
All of what I have described so far is not the incident that made me famous. But it all needed to be said so that you can understand the incident more clearly and why it happened in the first place.
I had just dropped my son off at the hospital for one of his follow up visits. He was finally in remission. Thank God! Having Cassie around really lifted Jack’s spirits. Not only that but surviving the plane crash, made cancer seem like a very beatable foe. Jack had the attitude, if the crash didn’t kill me and being lost at sea didn’t kill me, then a stupid thing like cancer didn’t stand a chance.
It is in this sense that I say, “Yes, I do feel lucky to have survived the plane crash.”
All three of us seemed to have a new lease on life, or perhaps I should say the four of us. After the incident we got a service dog, whose sole purpose in life is to keep the smiles permanently on our faces. He does a really good job at this, but I’d be lying if I said the millions of dollars didn't help as well. However, I made it clear to Cassie when she won her settlement that it was her money, not mine or any one else’s. That being said, Cassie makes sure Jack and I never go without.
Despite her extreme wealth, Cassie is not one for luxuries. If anything, she just wants to live a normal life. One of the things that makes her feel the most normal is taking the subway with everyone else.
This finally brings us to the incident.
“Hey sweater vest, go back to grading papers! This has nothing to do with you!” The man holding the gun against Cassie’s back shouted over his shoulder as he shoved the crippled girl across the active subway track.
“That’s my daughter!” I shouted, following them as quickly as I could. How I climbed down from the platform on to the tracks with my bad hip, I couldn’t tell you. Did I look to see if any trains were coming? I couldn’t tell you that either. All I know is that at that moment all of the background noise disappeared; Cassie was my sole focus.
As the skinny, tattooed, familiar looking man climbed up on the platform on the other side of the tracks, and pulled Cassie up behind him with her canes rattling all the while, he shouted at me, “It’s my brother’s daughter! He’s dead and I’m the next of kin, so she’s my daughter now!” He then began to drag her toward the stairs.
The few people who were on the platform parted for the man with the gun and the crippled girl. “Her money is my money,” he shouted, climbing the stairs with madness in his eyes. It was then that I began climbing up on the subway platform. I was a bit too slow however. The 1 train hit my ankle as it went flying by. I guess it could have been worse. It could have killed me. I guess you could say I was “lucky” again. The sound of my ankle against the speeding train, and the blood curdling scream that went along with it, were enough to make Dale’s drug addict brother lose focus just long enough for Cassie to slam one of her canes down on the man’s foot causing him to let go of her and lose his balance. With her other cane she knocked him down the stairs causing his gun to knock loose and come flying in my direction. Despite my shattered ankle and foot, I crawled toward the pistol. In the amount of time it took me to reach the gun, three young men restrained Dale’s brother.
He was already on probation for drugs and theft, so the judge threw the book at him. Mario was sentenced to twenty five years in prison for his armed abduction attempt.
Cassie amazes me every day. But one of the most amazing things she ever did was right after Mario was sentenced. She said, “the only reason that Uncle Mario was bad was because the drugs made him bad.” She wanted him to get help for his drug problem in prison. Unfortunately, I told her, rehabilitation isn’t always the purpose of prison, punishment is. She wondered if he could get rehab if she paid for it. I reached out to Mario’s lawyer and asked if there was any way that we could pay for Mario to be rehabilitated by specialists while he was doing his time. The lawyer asked the judge, and the judge said as long as it didn’t cost the taxpayers anything he would allow it.
Cassie’s incredible generosity inspired me to be better myself. Once Mario finished his rehab, and was finally clean, I started to visit him in prison. I knew he had no one else in his life now that Dale was gone. I owed Dale everything, and I felt that this was a way I could pay back my enormous debt to him.
Cassie was right. When Mario wasn’t on drugs he was a really good guy. I began to become a regular at the prison. Every big Nascar race, and I was there watching right along side him. He would mention proudly that his father named him after Mario Andretti. I thought of Dale and smiled.
“Wasn’t Andretti more famous in the Indy Car world?” I asked Mario with my growing racing knowledge. I was so proud of myself. I now knew all the people Dale spoke of on the raft.
“You know with all the shit I have had to quit, nothing is harder than these things,” Mario lamented, tapping on the cellophane wrapper on his Marlboros.
“You ever try gum or patches,” I asked.
Mario started laughing. “You know that was my nickname for him.”
“Who? What?” I asked, not realizing what I had said.
“Dale. I used to call him Patches. He was always trying to quit. I never went through that quitting phase myself. Well, I guess until now,” Mario said, looking around him at the prison atmosphere to emphasize his point.
“Dale said his best friend used to call him Patches,” I said, seeking clarification.
“And who do you think that was?” Mario said with a wink and smile. “Older brothers don’t usually want their younger brother tagging along with them, but we were different. I was his older brother, but he wasn’t just some annoying little brother; he was always real cool. Plus it helped that he was also really big for his age. I remember one time when I had just got my driver’s license, I took him with me to get our father a father’s day gift. It was my idea to steal street signs from around the neighborhood to decorate the garage for our old man. Our father hated that he actually liked what we had done.” You could hear the slight crack in Mario’s voice as he was speaking. “I couldn’t have done it without him. You should have seen him, he could just rip the signs right out of the pole. I mean, you saw him. He was a powerhouse.”
“You’re right about that. Dale was like a superhero.”
We both kind of stared vacantly at the television for a moment. Mario finally broke the pensive silence with, “So how’s my niece doing, you taking good care of her.”
“Always,” I answered. “But in all honesty I would say, she takes care of me. She is so kind hearted. It is like Jack is an entirely different person since she’s been in our lives. He is the healthiest I ever remember him being.”
“That’s really great, Ralph,” Mario said genuinely. “You’re a really good guy. I see why Patches wanted you to look after his girl.”
I just smiled. I was never any good at taking compliments. I turned back to the television. “So what do you think? Is Busch going to win ‘the world’s fastest half mile’ again this year?”
“That showboat,” Mario began. “Both him and his brother are punks! But Kyle is worse. At least Kurt has some respect.”
“Yea, but you have to admit it, Kyle is such a good driver,” I said, holding my own in the conversation.
“He has definitely proven himself to be a force in Bristol, that’s for sure. Something about the short track makes him an animal. I’d rather see Truex pull it out though, or Hamlin,” Mario said.
People often think that me visiting Dale’s brother is somehow an act of charity. Maybe it was in the beginning. But really, it was always more penance than charity. Nonetheless, I think I get as much (if not more) out of my time with Mario than he gets from his time with me.
I owed my life, and more importantly Jack’s life, to Dale, and what started out as a way to perhaps pay him back in some way (as if that was even possible), turned into the closest thing I had to actually getting to know the amazing person who saved me and my son’s life, a man I only knew for a little over a week, a man who transformed my whole outlook on life.
When I first saw Dale in the life raft, I recognized him as the man sitting a couple rows in front of us on the plane. Truth be told, I looked down my nose at him when I first saw him. He was wearing an old Budweiser racing shirt. And here I was in my liberal east coast professor uniform — khakis, loafers, argyle socks, and a sweater vest, all topped off with a tweed jacket with suede patches on the elbows. What a schmuck! I was on my way to Hawaii for Christ’s sake! Where were my shorts and sandals? Where was my carefree vacation attitude? Sure, my son’s health was failing, but I wasn’t much help at lifting his spirits. I was so uptight. It was that rigidness that judged Dale and his Nascar shirt when I boarded the plane, and it was that same rigidness that I left behind on that life raft when the television explorers found us with the whales in the Pacific. And although I continued wearing my stodgy professor clothes when I first returned home, after the subway incident I never dressed like that again.
When the papers reported that a Columbia professor got hit by a subway train while saving a cripple girl from a drug addict with a gun, I became famous overnight. I was invited on all the different daytime and late night talk shows to tell my side of the incident. Dozens of times I explained what happened in the subway — Mario tried to abduct Cassie, and the train hit me as I went chasing after them. Not once during these many interviews did any of the hosts get into the background story that led to the subway incident in the first place. In my opinion, it was that story that was far more compelling, and the hero of that story was actually a hero, not just some bumbling idiot who couldn’t get out of the way of an oncoming train, and somehow just got “lucky.”
Besides the questions about my change in appearance, one question that kept coming up time and again during the interviews was, “So when should we expect a book about the events of that heroic day on the subway tracks?”
I have made a career writing books that have included different parts of my life. And I am well aware that I have become known for that, but I was getting tired of telling the subway story. Like I said, I was a bumbling idiot and I just got lucky. The only story that mattered to me was the story of Dale’s heroics.
This has been the purpose of this book. It is my attempt at telling you the reason why the famous subway incident happened in the first place. You may be thinking, that is not what we asked for. We wanted the subway story, the one that makes the Ivy League professor look like the triumphant hero over the redneck with a gun.
I said in the beginning of this book, “Whatever you are expecting, don’t.”
I learned the hard way about putting people in their nice neat little boxes. I was a walking stereotype and I saw others the same way. Now I try to imagine the shoe being on the other foot. Every day I try to think of new ways to thwart expectations. Being predictable is boring, and being boring is lifeless, and being lifeless is…
After the professor finished talking, he went inside the Seinfeld restaurant. All his students followed. Well, except for the bespectacled student who volunteered to wait outside with Patches. Having eaten there before, I knew that on the inside, the restaurant looked nothing like it did in the sitcom. It was much smaller and darker. In fact, it was surprising to think that everyone in the class could even find a seat (never mind find a seat together). It seemed like an odd venue choice for the class. But who am I to second guess Professor Guile? I wanted to walk in and join them, but I knew that that would be extremely awkward, especially with the mean brown haired girl in there.
I tried to occupy myself while the class ate. I walked a couple of blocks and got a slice of pizza. When I was done with that I walked back toward the restaurant. I walked around in the same general area, between 111th Street and 113th Street, for another twenty minutes or so. And then finally the class started to spill out onto the sidewalk.
It was my plan to catch up with Professor Guile to apologize for missing our meeting, and to explain the misunderstanding of how I thought he was in the hospital. In my head, he thought the misunderstanding was funny. In my head, I caught up with him on the street once he came out of the restaurant. However, on his way back to campus, a few of his students were still orbiting around him. I should have known. I followed them until I reached the Alma Mater statue in the middle of campus. I was becoming aware of how obsessive I was acting. I mean, I skipped nearly a month of Chaucer classes already. What am I even here for? I thought, looking out across campus as I stood there in self reflection high atop the library steps.
I convinced myself that it wasn’t weird to be so fascinated by the professor. His peculiarity was magnetic and enigmatic. Everyone who was aware of him, couldn’t help but be aware of him. Here he was a Pulitzer prize winning Ivy League professor — not to mention rich, famous, and a real life hero — and he was walking around campus wearing a McDonalds work uniform. Who the hell does that? This guy was a real class act.
And those who weren’t aware of him, just weren’t aware of him. To them, he looked like just another fast food worker. Albeit one with more hair than most, and probably the only one wearing a cowboy hat in order to look more like Richard Petty.
I felt like such a moron that day in front of the church when the mean brown haired girl looked down her nose at me for not knowing who Professor Guile was. I completely understood her point of view now. And that realization was almost too much to bear.
At Joyce on Friday, I summoned the strength to ask her why her storytelling class went to the Seinfeld restaurant.
“Are you following me or something?” she said with a smile, almost happy that I might be.
“No, I was supposed to meet with Professor Guile last week, and I just wanted to explain why I wasn’t there.”
“You didn’t show up?” she said with shock.
I felt flushed.
“No,” I shot back, “you told me he was in the hospital.”
“I told you? When did I tell you?” She looked very confused.
“When you rushed past me on the grass in front of Butler, on your way to the train.”
She squinted her eyes as if trying to remember, and then she continued talking, completely dismissing my point. “Well if you read Professor Guile’s book, you wouldn’t skip a meeting with him, I tell you that. After everything that man has been through…”
“I did read the book,” I said defiantly, proudly.
She squinted her eyes again, this time trying to figure out if I was telling the truth. And then trying to catch me in the lie, she asked, “Why is his dog named Patches?
“Because that was Dale’s nickname,” I said with confidence and familiarity.
Her eyes relaxed as if accepting that I had in fact read it. I now knew what “I supposed to know.” I felt like I was finally allowed to sit at the cool table.
She then proceeded to talk about the book with me like an equal. “Imagine everyone expects you to write the details of a particular story, which they all know and love you for, because in it you are a hero on the side of right, but instead, you tell them a completely different story, which is even more interesting, but it makes you look, at times, small minded, bumbling, and wrong. And not only that, it puts the previous story in a less-heroic light, and has the potential to destroy your creditability and reputation. He really took a big risk with all this. His writing is so brave. That is why he’s heroic.”
I really enjoyed this side of her. Her ability to analyze his writing was incredibly insightful. She helped me to understand that his writing style had a unique ability of subsuming one story into another in order to subvert our expectations. And in so doing, we, as the reader, can experience a little bit of what it was he experienced, which transformed him into the man he became — the man we all admire.
Obviously her storytelling class was paying dividends. I found her literary analysis very attractive.
After class I asked the (formerly) mean brown haired girl if she wanted to get some lunch. She agreed. That was our first date. It is going to be our tenth wedding anniversary next month. When people ask us what brought us together, we smile and say, “Ralph Guile’s Class.”
God help them if they ask, “Who is that?”