Oh the stories that man could tell. Harrowing tales of gay bravado and Southern Living past, more than a few pointers on matching accessories to suits, and a long list of sexcapades from an era in which most of the players were long dead.
I never doubted that he embellished some of those tales, and was only grateful. They sure were listenable. His put-on Cajun accent when talking of the bayou Boudreaux’s and Cheramie’s always left me howling and remembering my own childhood.
His cache of stories spanned just over 70 years at the end. And among those tall tales was one about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was not a funny story. It was a story that accompanied him somberly through the rest of his life, a morality tale about what a person really does when faced with mass extinction.
Now I have a lot to say about the common American misunderstandings of the hows and whats of that particular crisis more than most all others in modern history (except maybe Iran-Contra), but that’s not the story here.
The story here is about one young 21-year-old, crew-cut college student at Loyala University in New Orleans. A good Catholic boy. And gay, sure. He already knew that. But his life was yet young and unformed. He was still cruising on youthful auto-pilot through all the courses they recommended he take.
The most he had pushed toward independence was to leave Tampa where he grew up and move all the way to Louisiana for schooling. To a Catholic University. He was considering becoming a priest, you see.
Cees got the alert, the formal notice that End of the World was quite really at hand, and his instinct was to drive to Tampa, to speed not toward safety, but toward home.
It was a very strange decision. The assumption was that the missiles would hit Key West and Miami, Tampa and Orlando first. Florida was the closest America got to Cuba and presumably the first target of incoming nuclear missiles.
But, Cees reasoned, not so much reasoning as feeling his way toward home at any cost to reason, what would be left anywhere if this went down like they were predicting? Would he want to face nuclear winter in Memphis or Nebraska or Amarillo? No. He knew where to go.
In retrospect in the arch of history’s telling of those same fateful days, Cees was right. It would not have mattered if he had driven in any direction. The result would be exactly the same. His was a decision based not on imperfect logic, but on love. And love pulled him to Florida.
He headed straight to his car and drove that beautiful Gulf shoreline home to Tampa, to be with his family.
From New Orleans on that warm October day, he could have more sensibly driven the other way, presumably toward safer ground. No doubt that’s what his Italian mama and Cuban daddy and Jewish neighbors back in Florida would have wanted. They were migrant people, all of them, from migrant stock, imports, as almost every person in Florida is. They knew how to move through islands and along highways to get where they needed to go. Survival first. Safety second.
But that’s not what Cees did. He told me that actually turning south just after Tallahassee, it all got mighty real. No turning back. Radio on, he just drove.
Bring it, O Death. Bring it and drop it right here. We are going to make dinner together. We are going to hug.
He always said the drive was the most go-for-broke, fatalistic, tearful, terrifying, comforting thing he ever did. He just drove, with tears in his eyes, prayers on his lips, facing Armageddon square on and plowing toward the mushroom clouds of his reasonable imagination.
The image for me as a second-hand listener has always been mingled with the last scenes of Dr. Strangelove, where Mr. Greenjeans rides the nuclear missile like a bucking bronco toward its target.
And I think of the car as a 1963 Impala convertible in white with maroon interior, for my own reasons of personal association, but of course that’s not possible.
The date is wrong and while the detail of it being a convertible was exactly the sort of glamorous embellishment that Cees was known for, it seems unlikely in his circumstance as a student.
But in my mind, having heard the story many times, begging to hear it many more, Cees was chin-up in Ray-Ban sunglasses, listening to the dire warnings coming over the car radio in his new white classic convertible, speeding past long lines of traffic headed the other direction, with tears streaming down his face in that warm Gulf wind, the words, “I’m coming, Mama – Goddammit,” on his lips.
I-75 to Tampa was opened that very same year, 1962, and I-10 in north Florida just the year before, so again my imagination of his telling cannot be quite right. I envision him like a horse that has memorized the path home in its bones. But if he was on any interstate that trip, it was surely one of the first times. He might even have been lost. I cannot grasp what chaos must have reigned in Florida during those harrowing days.
In any case, the details are not the truth but only mere facts. It’s the truth that mattered to Cees, and to me.
The end of the story is anti-climactic. He got home, and the crisis passed, if narrowly, and he turned around and had to drive all the way back to New Orleans a week later.
Other news soon eclipsed the American memory of the day the world almost ended with the press of a button.
But Cees never forgot what he did. He never forgot that compulsion to push against fear toward family. “Some things are more important than safety,” he’d say. “You’ll know when you come to them.”
I have been thinking about his voyage this weekend because of the events in Hawaii – a “false alarm,” was it? Or another kind of warning, maybe, longer-term, about foreign relations and our longterm security.
I have been thinking of Cees’ Catholic fatalism. His belief in angels. His loyalty. His panache and colorful shoes and wild moustache, at the same time he was as tenacious as any bulldog, and could be just as nasty in a fight.
Let us follow that example and consider what is the right place to be when crisis looms. When the clock is ticking – and it is always ticking – and certain damnation is blooming like an atomic cloud on the horizon, don’t sweat any logic, and don’t overthink it, but look inward and outward to the bigger truth.
We’ll know it in our bones. May we be so lucky.