John Goodman – The man and the movies

@2012, Connect Savannah

One of the most recognizable character actors working today, John Goodman might also be the busiest — this week, three of his films are in Savannah theaters, including Ben Affleck’s box office smash Argo.

“When I saw it,” Goodman says of Argo, “I was on the edge of my seat. And I already knew what was gonna happen.”

Goodman will be at the Savannah Film Festival Oct. 28 to attend a screening of the new Denzel Washington thriller Flight, in which he has a pivotal role.

Already in the can for this prodigious talent: The Internship, with Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, and the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

It’ll be the fifth Coen film for Goodman, whose bombastic comic presence in The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou were instrumental in making those wonderfully quirky movies so … well, wonderfully quirky.

A native of St. Louis, Goodman first hit the public radar as Pap Finn in the original Broadway production of the Roger Miller musical Big River.

For a lot of people, he’ll always be Dan Conner, Roseanne Barr’s loveable lug of a husband on the long–running TV sitcom Roseanne.

We caught up with him at the end of a long day of interviews (called a “press junket”) for Flight.

Was doing Argo a no–brainer?

John Goodman: He called me in to that office that they had, and we sat down and shot the shit about baseball and stuff for a while. Then we got down to brass tacks. He was extremely prepared. Then Alan Arkin fell into the deal, and that was even better because I’ve really been a longtime fan, ever since I first saw him in The Russians Are Coming.

At what point do you consider a film a success?

John Goodman: You gotta blow off all the Oscar buzz talk and all that shit. Because that’s none of my business. That’s for people on Entertainment Tonight, Extra and all that stuff. That’s how they make their living, out of doing the red carpet stuff. So you just discount that stuff.

It’s how it makes me feel. If I get a good time doing it, and by good time I mean was it satisfying? That’s the only criterion I can have.

Do you ever get to the point where you see the finished film and go “This isn’t what we made”?

John Goodman: Uhhh… it’s happened.

In a long career, I guess they can’t all be great. To you, what’s the difference between a “paycheck film” and something you get really excited about? I mean, you work like a son of a bitch.

John Goodman: Well, there’s been times where I didn’t work like a son of a bitch. When I had a lot of down time. At that point you get — well, I did — kind of desperate that maybe you’re not gonna work again. So you wind up taking whatever comes along.

I’ve heard you say you’d like to do another TV series …

John Goodman: Yeah, you get to stay in one place for a while. You show up and work with people that you get to know. It becomes kind of like a family. Although in the case of the last experience, it was a highly dysfunctional family … but we grew to love each other. You show up every day and you see the same people, it gets to be fun.

Didn’t you and Roseanne recently do a series pilot together?

John Goodman: Yeah, we did a pilot for NBC. It was an idea that she had. But the times aren’t so good right now so she set it in a trailer park with a bunch of down–and–outers in Arizona. Then a family comes along that just lost everything in the stock market crash, or bubble, or whatever the hell it was, and how they adjust. It was great to be back with her. We had a lot of fun. But it wasn’t fun enough for NBC!

You’ve got another Coen Brothers movie coming up. Why is your chemistry so good with them?

John Goodman: I don’t know; I don’t know anything about chemistry. I know that I like ‘em, I like what’s on the page, I like the way they write and the way they think. They always make me laugh. To me, they’re terribly entertaining and interesting. You never know quite where things are gonna go with them.

It’s almost like a repertory company with them. Does that feel like a family to you?

John Goodman: Yeah, the first night I was on the set for Inside Llewyn Davis, I was gettin’ a makeup test. And Frannie, Joel’s wife — who won an Oscar for Fargo  — showed up with some soup for the boys. I thought that was cool.

What do you get hit up with most in airports?

John Goodman: Lebowski, it’s usually Lebowski. I used to get “Yabba Dabba Do,” but not so much any more, which is a relief.

And it’s always welcome. People yell out “Shomer Shabbos” or “Shut the fuck up, Donny” or something like that.

Of all the Coen films, why do you think Lebowski is the one that’s resonated so much?

John Goodman: I think the fact that the Dude Abides. (laughing). We all have an inner Dude. I don’t know. I think it’s the writing. It’s just a hodge–podge of mystery and goofiness.

You’ve been talking all day. Let me ask you, John — do you hate press junkets?

John Goodman: Yeah, because I’m no good at ‘em. And I just gotta make up shit to keep tap–dancin.’ People ask you questions, and then they shut off … it’s like they’re interrogating you. I’m just no good at it. I’m not clever. I’m lousy at cocktail parties. I don’t chit–chat well. It’s just uncomfortable, but apparently they can’t make a movie now without having this shit.

You’ve got another Monsters Inc. film for Pixar coming up.

John Goodman: Yeah! I go back in two weeks and work with Billy (Crystal), which is great because usually they put us in a room by ourselves … I don’t want to whine about shit, but it’s hard work. I mean, you’ve got to throw everything you’ve got physically into these voices to make ‘em live. And then you gotta do it over and over and over again, so that the directors have something to pick and choose from. I always feel like I’m doing it wrong, because they always want it again, three more times.

But when I’m working with Billy, the energy in the room just takes off. You don’t know where he’s gonna go. ‘Cause he’s so phenomenally clever. It’s just great to listen to him, and just hang on and see where you can go with it. The energy multiplies by 10.

Monsters Inc. was huge. Do you get little kids recognizing Sulley’s voice?

John Goodman: Not unless their parents shove ‘em at me, and say “This is Sulley.” Then they can hear it in the voice, and that’s pretty cool.

That’s kinda why I got into it in the first place, for my daughter. I used to bring cartoons home — and I’d try to bring good ones, like old Warner Brothers cartoons. And she got hooked on ‘em. Spielberg actually did a cartoon and asked me to be a part of it. Steven read all the lines, and I read the lines back to him. And that was really neat. She got a kick out of it.

Done any stage work recently?

John Goodman: Yeah, the last one I did was three years ago, I did Waiting for Godot on Broadway with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin.

Never could understand that play, but God bless you.

John Goodman: Well, yeah, I don’t think you’re supposed to. It has an effect.

Is that something you enjoy too, because you’re in the same place?

John Goodman: It’s not just because of that, there’s an immediate response that you don’t get (with film) … and the audience becomes part of the performance. I want to get back. I’ve got one artificial knee, and I need to get another one before I can get back up and stand around for a couple hours yelling at people onstage.

Before we got started, you mentioned that you’d been in Savannah once?

John Goodman: I was doing a bus and truck theater show, and we played there. But I don’t remember much of it. I knew it was supposed to be really cool and everything, but we didn’t have time. Back on the bus. Leave.

Anything cool to say about Flight?

John Goodman: I’d never seen a movie like it before. There’s a lot of ambiguous characters in it who think they’re doing the right thing. It makes for fascinating watching. Especially Denzel, he’s really compelling.

Shine On: A Tribute to Pete Ham (liner notes)


Look at every existing photograph of Peter William Ham and you’ll see it – a deep sadness behind the eyes, a sense of longing for something as intangible as the wind, a gossamer dream, always in his thoughts but just beyond his grasp.

It’s a face that declares, with its world-weary gaze, that he knows there’s something better out there. It says, as Brian Wilson once declared, “I just wasn’t made for these times.”

That feeling runs through Pete Ham’s music, too, even the high-octane rockers and sublimely melodious love songs. As a key component of the Welsh/English band Badfinger, he gave us nearly 100 songs that reached for the skies, even as they explored the depths of the soul.

He was a rare bird, was Pete Ham. And when he left this world, on April 24, 1975, just three days before his 28th birthday, he left a hole as big as his Swansea-sized heart.

The musicians who’ve come together to salute this lost genius chose the songs they wanted to cover, as Pete Ham, along with the legacy of Badfinger, continues to move and inspire every generation.

“The more I learned about Badfinger,” says longtime Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, who contributed to three of the Shine On tracks, “the more upset it made me, because they were so rich with promise. It’s not just a cautionary tale – it’s truly heartbreaking.”

As part of the Speaker Wars, with vocalist Jon Christopher Davis, Lynch turns “No Matter What” – Badfinger’s power pop anthem – into a gently swaying, country-rocking declaration of devotion.

And a second version of the song, with Davis and Indian vocalist Susmita Datta, re-imagines it as a psychedelic Hindustani dream.

With ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird, Lynch put together The Chefs; the band contributed a raucous rave-up version of “I Can’t Take It,” one of the few full-tilt rave-ups in the Ham catalog.

“That stuff was so infectious and fabulous, so obviously good,” Lynch says. “I never saw them live, but at the time when you heard those songs, you knew they were a cut above. The vocals were just so emotional. They weren’t showbiz. ‘Day After Day’ ripped my heart out.”

That song, perhaps Pete’s most indelible gift to the world, is interpreted on Shine On by singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne, who masterfully found the emotional core and gave it a blistering body that brings to mind nothing less than Dusty Springfield alongside the 1960s Wall of Sound.

That sort of inside-out happens time and again on this collection, from the sweet heartbreak of Mary Lou Lord’s bared-nerves take on “Baby Blue” to Amy Rigby’s spellbinding “Midnight Caller,” from Melanie’s heartbroken “Without You” (written by Pete with his Badfinger bandmate Tom Evans) to the love-has-no-limits rendition of “We’re For the Dark” by Mary Karlzen.

Each of the artists on Shine On – a true labor of love – would agree. We are all the better for however briefly sharing the planet with him.

Bill DeYoung

June 2022










The story of River Phoenix and Aleka’s Attic

When Josh McKay’s friends learned that the 22-year-old guitarist was considering moving to Florida to play in a band with teenage actor River Phoenix, they suggested he might be crazy. Movie stars, they said, can’t make music. You’ll be back in Texas in a month.

But in 1988 Denton, a suburb of Dallas, was nowheresville as far as Josh McKay was concerned, and the primitive recordings he’d received from Phoenix were encouraging. “It was really nice, these really tight jam-box garage tapes,” McKay remembers. “It definitely struck me that, ‘This is about music. It’s not about some hobby trip.’” He’d had a couple of long, deep phone conversations with the young actor, about music, and creativity, and what they meant. He hadn’t seen any of River Phoenix’s movies.

River Phoenix, 1988 in Micanopy, photographed by John Moran.

Phoenix, who was not yet 18, had recently moved to a farmhouse near Micanopy, Florida – a rural town outside of Gainesville – with his family. At the time, he was onscreen in Running on Empty, which would bring him an Academy Award nomination.

River was passionate about music. He’d been playing guitar since the age of 4, and wrote his first song when he was 8. As a teen, his obsessions were punky singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, Ireland’s deep-thinking U2 and the feisty British pop band XTC.

On the basis of his original songs, Phoenix had secured a development deal from Chris Blackwell, president of Island Records, which had U2 on its roster. Island laid out funds to put a band together, to rehearse and record demos, and – provided the music was good enough – they’d promised to record a proper album at the end of the two-year deal.

So when the Phoenix family relocated to Florida from Eugene, Oregon in 1988, the first thing River did was claim the detached garage behind the house as his rehearsal room. He called it the Attic.

One of Blackwell’s A&R reps knew Josh MacKay and his (defunct) Texas band, Joshomisho, and thought she heard a similar, free-form element in River Phoenix’s songs.

Phoenix was making his home tapes with Josh Greenbaum, also 17, who came up from South Florida just to help his friend start the band. Greenbaum’s mother had grown up with Arlen “Heart” Phoenix, River’s mother, in the Bronx, and the families stayed close through the years.

Greenbaum had drummed for a metal band – after he left, the group changed its name to Saigon Kick and got famous – and he had to learn a whole new way of playing, softer and with complex rhythm changes, to jell with River.

Greenbaum’s fondest memories are of the days he and his friend sat on the trampoline in the Phoenix back yard, working out songs.

Out in Texas, McKay was half-heartedly taking anthropology classes and wondering what to do next. He found himself drawn in by the songs on the cassette tapes, and began inventing basslines around them, although he was a guitarist by training and hadn’t ever seriously played bass.

Still, he was intrigued, and once he discovered that he shared other interests with Phoenix – a vegetarian lifestyle, and a strong belief in animal rights – he decided it might not be so strange after all.

“I left as soon as my finals were done; I wasn’t really thinking about it too much,” McKay recalls. “I just said ‘this is a very unusual thing to fall down from out of nowhere’; some people down in Florida, in Gainesville where I’ve never heard of, want me to come out and hang out, and maybe play together. I didn’t have anything in Denton happening that looked like a musical forward motion.”

Included in the development deal was a retainer fee for the chosen musicians, so McKay’s room and board was picked up as long as Island remained on the line. Both he and Greenbaum lived with the Phoenix family for the first year.

Josh Greenbaum and River picked him up at the Gainesville Airport, and McKay loved the area, the home and the family – River, his parents and his four siblings – as soon as he got a look at them. It was very much a ‘Yes,’” he says, smiling at the memory. “Really, really good feeling together immediately.”

McKay was accepted into the extended family; he and River hit it off and furiously began writing and singing together. Sister Rain Phoenix, two years younger than River, was recruited to play keyboard and sing harmony, and the band was completed with the addition of 17-year-old Tim Hankins, a Gainesville native, on viola.

Hankins met Rain through a mutual friend. A member of the Gainesville Chamber Orchestra, he’d never before played pop music – a good thing, because the band wasn’t about to do things in the usual way. The key word was experimentation.


Toys in the attic

Clockwise from left: Tim Hankins, River Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Josh McKay and Josh Greenbaum.

Aleka is a poet and philosopher. The Attic is a meeting place where he lives, and he has a secret society. They come and visit him and read his works.

He then dies, and they meet regularly and continue the readings of his works, and from that learn their own, and become filled with this new passion for life.  And they express it through our music.

River Phoenix, 1989, interview with the author

Following a two-week tour of east coast clubs in early ’89, the band – now called Aleka’s Attic – joined the Gainesville music scene. River, his bandmates agree, was dedicated to his craft and paid little attention to those who said Aleka’s Attic was nothing more than a vanity project.

“He was the most annoyingly committed guy you’ve ever met in your life,” says Greenbaum. “Nonstop, every moment.”

Adds McKay: “For him, everything that mattered, he would cram in at the same time. So each limb was independent, because his time was precious. His time to enjoy was just as precious as his time to be creating music.”

The pattern began almost immediately: River was off to Los Angeles to make another movie, and then another, and each time Aleka’s Attic sat dormant in Gainesville for months at a stretch. The two-year development deal was frozen each time he left on a film assignment.

“There was a lot of change and readjustment of lives,” Greenbaum remembers. “It became a problem at times, it definitely did. Never to the point where there were big fights or anything.”

McKay: “He was at the mercy of a lot of other forces, and we were second generation from that.”

Greenbaum: “We were kind of at the mercy of his career.”

Tim Hankins, in particular, grew to resent the interruptions. “We’d practice for six or eight months, and we’d kind of reach this apex … and then he would go off for three months and do a film,” he says.

“It was like coitus, you know? It was like we worked toward something that never came to fruition.”

Hankins says River went out of his way to be nice to fans, to distance himself from the 40-foot-tall guy on the movie screen.

“He always took this posture of trying to dissolve this myth that had been created,” Hankins explains. “If you saw the way he dressed … if you didn’t know him, you’d think he was a homeless person.”

Likewise, he didn’t play bossman with his bandmates. “River was one of the most diplomatic people I’ve ever known,” Greenbaum says. “He had a way of making things flow – of taking energy from one place and driving it in another direction. He was constantly trying to keep things peaceful.”

In 1991, the Phoenix/McKay composition “Across the Way” appeared on Tame Yourself, a benefit album for People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A multi-layered, stream-of-consciousness piece about hypocrisy, it is the only Aleka’s Attic song ever to be officially released in River’s lifetime.

That year, Phoenix made the films Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho back-to-back. “After we did two-and-a-half months’ touring, up the East Coast twice, then we came back and  did the ‘Here’s where we’re at’ demos,” Greenbaum says.

“But as soon as we finished it, River went off to do press stuff for three months. And so Island was just sitting there with the demos. That was really the big period of change.”

Tim Hankins says he “just couldn’t get along” with River any more, and by late spring he’d left the band.

In August, Aleka’s Attic re-convened as a quartet, with the intention of really getting their album into gear. River returned all excited, McKay recalls, because he had ben offered the big-budget movie Sneakers.

“We started talking about going to L.A.,” the bassist says, “and instead of making the record the band would practice when he wasn’t doing the film. And I just sort of crumbled under that concept.”

Remaining in Gainesville, McKay and Hankins put together another band, Emperor Moth.

Greenbaum went to California with River and Rain; with T-Bone Burnett producing, they cut a couple of demos for Island while Sneakers was in production, using guest bass players.

“Those two demos that we did in L.A., those were pretty much the crux of the deal,” according to Greenbaum. “This was it. We had already gone over the two-year thing, and we had got to the point where we had to make a decision. It was overdue.”

Island heard the tapes – and passed. “It wasn’t like they just dropped us; they heard the demo and it wasn’t – in my opinion – marketable enough for them.”

A man possessed

River was actually relieved; he decided to finance and record the album on his own, at his own pace.

Today, there are 20 or more incomplete songs “in the can” at Pro Media Studios in Gainesville, the result of several furious months of recording in 1992 and ’93. Those who were at the sessions say River worked like a man possessed, as if he knew his time was short.

River Phoenix played his last two Gainesville shows in October 1992, with Rain, Josh Greenbaum and a bassist named Sasa Raphael.

“We still considered ourself a band – it was Rain, Sasa, River and I,” Greenbaum explains, adding that the group billed itself as the Blacksmith Configuration.

“It was rawer, and I think more nitty-gritty than ever. We became the tight garage band that we’d started as. We came full circle, in a way, but more mature.”

Hollywood beckoned again, and this time River accepted three movies in a row. “At that point, I began to look for things to keep myself busy,” Greenbaum says. “I decided I just can’t live for this one thing any more. I gotta make stuff happen.”

Greenbaum joined the jazz group Scarf & the Happy Dragons (later renamed Mindwalk) and Big White Undies.

River died Oct. 31, 1993, two months after the last session at Pro Media. A lethal combination of drugs killed him on the sidewalk outside L.A.’s Viper Room nightclub; he was expecting to jam that night with the house band. He was 23.

Josh Greenbaum maintains his friend didn’t abuse drugs. “I know that the time I spent with him was spent trying to be as healthy as we could,” he says. “Not only physically, but in lots of other ways, mentally.

“He was totally pro-life, and pro-happiness, and was constantly trying to make himself and everyone around him better.”

He wasn’t an angel – name one musician who is, Greenbaum asks– but he wasn’t a junkie. Josh believes River simply got run down on the Los Angeles fast lane.

“L.A. is a swamp, it’s a pit,” he says. “And I think it was just one night of … having too much fun. Simple: Young person making a mistake.”

Tim Hankins had settled his differences with River – he even played on some of those last sessions – and was chummy with him again before leaving in the spring to study music at the University of Miami.

“I spent three years of my life devoted to this thing, and we had some pretty amazing adventures,’ Hankins explains. “Some pretty difficult times, and some pretty great times. It was just a really amazing journey to be on.”

Josh McKay was two weeks into an extended tour of Indonesia when he got the news. On Nov. 5, he was scheduled to check in with his brother in Gainesville, for the first time since he’d left. His travels were taking him through jungles and over mountains, away from telephones and newspapers.

Before he left Bali for Sumatra, Josh intended to give his brother a forwarding address – River had expressed an interest in joining him, and McKay was hoping to spend some “quality time” with his former bandmate and songwriting partner.

Over dinner in his hotel, McKay struck up a conversation with a man from Finland, a musician and composer. They talked about music, mostly.

“Our conversation was just a real nice exchange,” McKay recalls. “And it ended up turning very abruptly and very unexpectedly, with him mentioning having read an article about some young American actor who died.

“And instantly, the hammer struck.”

@1994 Bill DeYoung/The Gainesville Sun













For the birds: Ralph Heath’s long, strange flight path

In the 45 years he operated the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Ralph Heath had been nipped by thousands of birds. Any traumatized wild animal will lash out, of course, and since Heath had performed emergency surgery on broken wings, legs and beaks, from tiny songbirds to gangly herons and pelicans, his hands and arms were tattooed with scars from decades of defensive, and often painful, beak bites. He paid them no mind.

He also ignored the toxic bite of a brown recluse spider, which led to his death Oct. 2.

It’s likely Heath was bitten at the Starkey Road warehouse where he’d lived in virtual exile since 2016, when he was forcibly removed from the world-famous Indian Shores avian hospital and park he’d founded, after a litany of accusations – and worse – about misappropriated funds, inadequate bookkeeping and shoddy animal husbandry. The attendant bad press led to a treacherous decline in donations, the nonprofit sanctuary’s lone source of income.

It was an ignominious end to a soaring success story.

“Ralph’s only weakness was that he was too trusting of people, and solely focused on the birds,” said his son Alex von Gontard, a member of the board of directors that forced him out. “He admitted that he wasn’t a strong businessman. He would always say, ‘The birds will always provide.’”

Ralph had grown up privileged in Tampa, the only child of surgeon Ralph T. Heath and his wife Helen. As befitting a doctor’s son, he never had to want for anything. “When he was ten, he got his captain’s license – so his father bought him a boat,” wrote Sarah Gerard in her book of essays Sunshine State. “When he was 14, he owned 18 cars. When Ralph entered high school, his father bought him a ’61 Corvette. When he graduated, his father offered to buy him a new one.” Which he promptly did.

Ralph Jr. was obsessed with animals, and collected turtles, which he kept in filtered pools in the family’s back yard. If he and his friends happened upon an injured squirrel, rabbit or bird, they’d bring it to Dr. Heath and watch him stitch it up. Then they’d nurse the animal back to health.

He studied pre-med zoology, taking seven years to finish his undergraduate degree at the University of South Florida. He married Linda, his high school sweetheart, and wondered lazily how he should occupy his future. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted the responsibility of a veterinary practice.

The Heath family had a weekend getaway in Indian Shores, an acre and a half on the beach side of Gulf Boulevard. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Ralph loved to tell people, you could walk on the sand for miles without encountering another human being.

billdeyoungcom Ralph Heath Jennie Grimes
Early days: Ralph Heath and volunteer Jennie Grimes. Promotional photo.

In December, 1971, he was driving and spotted a cormorant – a sleek, black bird known for its underwater fishing prowess – limping along the side of the road with a shattered wing. He captured it and brought it to the beach house.

Since his father was unavailable, Heath called Pasadena veterinarian Richard Shinn, a family friend. Shinn set the wing, cleaned the wound and told the 25-year-old Heath the cormorant needed rest and rehabilitation before it could be safely released back into the wild.

“I’ve done my job,” he told Ralph Heath. “Now it’s up to you.”

Heath, who could spin a yarn, repeated that one – the lightbulb moment the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was conceived – many times over the decades. Charismatic and confident, he was no stranger to the art of self-promotion.

The cormorant – Ralph named him Maynard – was followed by a busted-up seagull from the Redington Long Pier. Next, someone called about a pelican ensnared in fishing line and hooks.

He took them all in.

“He was full of piss and vinegar, whatever you want to call it,” said Shinn, now 93, retired and living in North Carolina. “He was really wrapped up into it – and, of course, the average person wouldn’t do that. But he was just a big pushover for injured birds.”

Word spread about Ralph Heath, the patron saint of birds in trouble, and within two years of establishing the sanctuary on his parents’ property, he was famous. Profiled regularly in the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent, he was also featured in Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Times. Charles Kuralt interviewed Ralph for On the Road. Even Captain Kangaroo sent a film crew.

The narrative was always pretty much the same: Between 15 and 50 birds came to the sanctuary every day, thousands per year. They arrived from backyards in boxes and bags. When calls came in about large seabirds like pelicans or egrets, wrapped up in mangroves or dragging a wing on some dock or seawall, someone – usually Ralph – would go and fetch it.

Those that could not be released into the wild, following treatment by Heath or the vets he regularly consulted, lived out their natural lives in roomy pens built next to the house. He employed a small hospital staff, and local teenagers lined up for the honor of volunteering for him.

He was featured in a full-page ad that ran in Playboy magazine in 1975:

PROFILE: Tireless. Extremely dedicated, working eighteen hours a day without pay to repair the damage suffered by birds and their environment.

SCOTCH: Dewar’s “White Label.”

This was approximately the same time that Ralph, newly divorced, began dating actress Dawn (Gilligan’s Island) Wells, who lived in one of the giant condos up the beach.

Permanent-resident brown pelicans began breeding in their sanctuary pens, which had never before happened in captivity. When the chicks left their nests, the staff would “teach” them to catch fish in their plastic wading pools. Once the birds were fledged, the protective overhead netting was rolled back, and they were allowed to leave their pens. They always returned at sunset.

Eventually, the netting was made permanent, and the young pelicans were on their own. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary released 200 “new” brown pelicans into the wild this way, which might have contributed to the species’ removal from the Endangered Species List in 1985 (captive breeding was eventually made illegal by federal legislation).

At the height of its popularity, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary boasted 100,000 human visitors annually.

Until his death in 1986, Ralph’s father – dressed in khakis, a safari shirt and a pith helmet – roamed the sanctuary grounds, greeting visitors and leading tours. Back in the home/office, Helen Heath was her son’s bookkeeper.

“Ralph,” said Kevin Doty, Heath’s friend and attorney for the last 15 years of his life, “always deferred to his mother the business end of the sanctuary. Because Ralph’s attention was not paperwork. Ralph’s attention was birds.”

In 1982, Ralph married wildlife photojournalist Beatrice Busch, heiress to the Anheuser-Busch fortune, whose Missouri-based family wintered on Pass-a-Grille. In short order, the newly-minted Mr. and Mrs. Heath had three sons – Andrew, and twins Alex and Peter – and when the couple divorced in 1988, the boys went with their mother.

In time, they took the surname of their new stepfather, Adalbert von Gontard III.

Ralph continued to devote himself to his feathered friends. As Indian Shores became more developed, his 1.5 acre attraction – for a tourist attraction it had become – raised the ire of neighboring hotel and condominium owners, who saw it as an eyesore and a “waste” of valuable beachfront property. They complained about the smell, too.

“Ralph always believed, and I tended to believe, that the sanctuary was becoming a sore spot for elected officials,” said attorney Doty. “He believed there really was a vendetta against him.”

He was also beginning to make questionable choices. He purchased a waterfront home for himself, and allegedly spent more than $300,000 on a party yacht (he claimed it was being used as a research vessel). He was accused of letting a photographer take photos of scantily-clad young women, for a calendar, after hours on sanctuary property.

It was after the turn of the century that the squall of controversy became a hurricane. “When other businesses were laying off employees in the 2008 financial crisis and donations ground to a standstill, Ralph attempted to retain his full-time staff of over 25 employees,” related Alex von Gontard. “He even leveraged the sanctuary property to simply cover payroll; however, when that dried up too, he was levied with significant payroll tax fines and criticized in the media.”

Facing mounting debts and an IRS lien, Heath sold the deed to the property to Seaside Land Investments, the Dallas-based LLC owned by his estranged sons and their stepfather.

In 2013, three-quarters of the staff resigned on the same day, after one too many missed payrolls, and growing ever-weary of Heath’s increasingly eccentric behavior.

He often told the story about his friend Jim Billie, the Seminole chief, and how he was certain Ralph had an “aura,” or a sort of radar, that birds “picked up on.”

In Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State, Heath says:

“You get a wild heron or egret just to walk up to you, stand there without moving, and let you pick it up and operate on it without any anesthesia. I’m talking about setting wings, setting legs, sewing them up. Now, because it’s just me and it’s usually late at night, so nobody else is around. The bird will lie absolutely still, just like that dish there. And looking at me.”

Helen Heath, who had handled her son’s books since day one, died in 2014 at the age of 104.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission inspected the sanctuary and Heath’s house. He was charged with 59 misdemeanors over the way Suncoast was caring for its non-releasable residents, and his permit to treat migratory birds was rescinded.

At a subsequent raid at the windowless, sanctuary-owned Starkey Road warehouse, investigators discovered dozens of sick and injured birds wandering unattended, the floors thick with feathers, rotting fruit and feces. Eight birds had to be euthanized. Dozens of turtles were discovered swimming in a filthy pool that smelled of chemicals. Heath was charged with possessing migratory birds with an expired license, trying to rehabilitate injured wildlife in an unapproved location and other violations.

He was also captured, on a clandestine phone video, taking coins from sanctuary donation boxes and stuffing them into his pockets.

Enough, the von Gontards said, was enough. According to Alex, “as the media frenzy continued and donations continued to wane, we decided that it was in the best interest of the sanctuary to continue the mission without Ralph.”

He was allowed to reside at the warehouse, provided he stayed away from the beach property, which was immediately re-branded the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary. Rehabbing the rehab center and its tattered reputation had commenced.

Although they don’t reside in Florida, the brothers remain on the board of directors today, and say they are actively involved in Seaside’s operation.

Like a crippled bird in a pen, Ralph Heath lived out his days in this warehouse at 12238 Starkey Road in Largo. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

Ralph’s buddy Zach Platt used to drop by the warehouse on the way to visit his girlfriend in Dunedin. They’d stand outside the front door and shoot the breeze. “I was in there one time,” Platt said, “and the stench was so bad I couldn’t stand it.”

How did Ralph stand it? “He just acted as though it didn’t exist.”

According to Platt, Kevin Doty and a second lawyer Ralph hired “were just floored about how naive Ralph was about a lot of things. They couldn’t figure out how Ralph got so far being the way he was. But he did.”

His friends have pieced together Heath’s final days: He ignored the spider bite until it became infected and he began feeling poorly. After a stay in the hospital, he checked in, on doctor’s orders, to Tierra Pines Rehab Center.

During his exercise regiment on the afternoon of Oct. 2, he complained of feeling dizzy, and collapsed, likely from a cardiac event. He subsequently died at Largo Medical Center. He was 76.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22 at Anderson-McQueen Tyrone Chapel, 7820 38th Avenue N.

The von Gontard brothers intend to install a plaque at Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, to honor their estranged father’s legacy.

“Although sometimes misunderstood, we would like Ralph to please be remembered as a champion for nature and the environment and for his life of service to the birds,” said Alex. “He had a love for all creatures great and small, and a commitment to a cause that present and future generations can be proud of as we continue on a path to a more environmentally friendly and sustainable world.

“As Ralph said, ‘Everyone always gravitates to the cute and cuddly mammals; but, if you can take the time to win over the heart of a bird – well then, you really have something special.’”


Burt Reynolds and the ‘Miracle at the Truck Stop’


JUPITER, Fla. – During the late 1970s and early ’80s, whenever he appeared on the Tonight Show, Burt Reynolds rarely failed to mention Jupiter, where he lived and was planning to build a “top quality” theater.

Johnny Carson always seemed to think he was kidding.

Groundbreaking for the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and Institute for Theatre Training, on five acres at A1A and Indiantown Road, took place on May 19, 1978.

“What I’m trying to do is pay back the people here who have been so loyal to me,” Reynolds, who’d grown up in nearby Riviera Beach, told reporters. “There’s a real need for a theater here. This has been a dream of mine for a long time.”

Reynolds was, at that moment, the top male box office star in America. His Hollywood buddies, who knew of the actor’s dedication to home and hearth, never doubted his sincerity.

Actor Charles Nelson Reilly, a friend from Reynolds’ days in New York theater, remembers his first trip to Jupiter. Reynolds drove Reilly and Dom DeLuise down Indiantown Road – one unpaved lane a mile east of the U.S. 1 truck stop – and stopped the car.

“There was a mound, and he said ‘I’m going to build a theater here,’ and we all thought he was crazy,” Reilly says.

Still, Reynolds persevered and the $2 million Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and Institute for Theatre Training made its debut Jan. 30, 1979. Reilly takes credit for coining the phrase “Miracle at the Truck Stop,” which they had printed on bumper stickers.

“When it opened,” Reilly recalls, “the L.A. Times said ‘Burt Reynolds Institute? What’s next, the Anson Williams Conservatory and the Sonny Bono Academy?’ And he got so depressed.”

Still, no one had seen anything like it in Jupiter, and the opening season was sold out months in advance.

“I want a theater for people who haven’t seen live theater, and at prices they can pay,” Reynolds said before the opening. “I imagine we might have as 75 percent of the audience guys who climb out of pickups. I hope we’ll also get knowledgeable aficionados of good theater.”

First-night tickets cost $18.95; all other shows were $14.95. Season tickets were sold for $74.75 per person.

To enter the 400-seat auditorium, audiences passed an elaborate fountain, and a commissioned statue of Reynolds by Miami sculptor Manuel Carbonell.

“Vanities,” directed by Reynolds and starring his then-girlfriend Sally Field, came first. The cast also included Tyne Daly and Gail Strickland. Reynolds and Field next co-starred in “The Rainmaker,” also directed by Reynolds. Karen Valentine (of TV’s “Love American Style”) starred in “Born Yesterday,” followed by Stockard Channing in “Two For the Seesaw.”

“I’ve made friends who grew up in theater,” Reynolds said that first year. “They’d like to do it again, but they just don’t want to get clobbered by the New York critics. They want to have fun.”

Indeed, the first seasons were jammed with A-list actors Field, Martin Sheen, Charles Durning, Farrah Fawcett (making her stage debut in “Butterflies Are Free”), Richard Basehart, Carol Burnett, Jose Quintero, Robert Urich (Reynolds’ old footbal pal from Florida State University), Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis, Jim Nabors and a then-unknown John Goodman.

“I would just ask the actors ‘What’s your favorite play?’ or “What’s your biggest challenge?’,” Reynolds wrote in his autobiography. “Singers want to act. Actors want to sing.”

Reilly himself replaced an ailing Channing in a production of Ernest “On Golden Pond” Thompson’s “Answers,” a collection of three one-act plays about friendship. He played opposite Reynolds; the other vignettes were acted by Ned Beatty and Charles Durning, and Kirstie Alley and her husband Parker “Hardy Boys” Stevenson.

Joshua Logan came to Jupiter to direct Martin Sheen and Simon Oakland in “Mister Roberts”; Sheen’s son Emelio Estevez, yet to make his mark in the movies, also was in the cast.

Later, a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Reynolds, starred Sheen, Andrienne Barbeau and Sheen’s other son, Ramon Estevez – later to be known professionally as Charlie Sheen.

Reilly lived on and off at Reynolds’ three-story home on Jupiter Island for 17 years, teaching daily at the institute and working on shows, behind the scenes and on the stage.

It was, he says, a wonderful time for everyone associated with the place.

“I lived on the beach, and you could go out and look left and right, and not see another human being on Jupiter Island,” Reilly says. “We would have parties, and nobody would go in the water. Reynolds had all these towels that were the size of blankets, and hats for the sun.

“But there was so much to do in the theater, with the teaching and the kids and the mainstage plays, that you never thought of the beach. It was rather sad in a way, but there was so much to do.”

The audiences ate it up, and, Reilly says, the performers were only too happy to receive such genuine appreciation from a theater-starved community.

“There were always elderly people, and sometimes someone would get sick in the middle of a matinee and have to go to the hospital,” he remembers. “And I would go into the ambulance with them and say ‘Don’t worry, it’s not that good a show. You didn’t miss that much.’”

After two seasons, several rows of seats were installed to augment the dinner tables, and the venue’s name was changed to the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre.

There were three private dining areas overlooking the auditorium, for VIPs. “They had waiters and waitresses,” Reilly recalls. “It was like you’d died and gone to heaven. The china and the tablecloths were unbelievable.”

Often, Reilly or another actor would return to Los Angeles after many months in Jupiter, only to be called back in a pinch.

One year, living at the beach house, Reilly was being visited by actress Julie Harris, who was laying low after an illness, and veteran character actor Vincent Gardenia, who was at the time teaching at the Reynolds Institute.

“Brian Keith was making a movie, and it got delayed, so he couldn’t come do the show he was scheduled to do, whatever it was,” Reilly recalls.

“We were to start rehearsals Tuesday, and we had nothing. No attraction. So I said to Julie and Vincent, who were sitting in the kitchen, what about ‘Death of a Salesman?’ and they said OK, that’s fine. And we did it, and it was amazing.

“It was the best ‘Death of a Salesman’ I ever saw, not because I did it, but because of the quality of the acting.

“One critic in the area wrote that it was like ‘having Christmas and your birthday on the same day, with no limits to the gifts.’”

“Death of a Salesman,” Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater, 1981: l-r Julie Harris, Vincent Gardenia, James Nemec and Kenneth Kay.

The Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training put on lunchtime matinees; classes were every day. Each season, 10 theater students were awarded scholarships.

Among its successful alumni are singer Lisa Felcoski, who does TV jingles, and stage actress Anastasia Barzee, recently seen opposite Kevin Kline in “King Lear” on Broadway. According to Reilly, Reynolds was fiercely dedicated to teaching. “I never knew who that person was on the posters and in the movies,” he says. “Because he was always this wonderful man.

“He and I would teach at midnight, because he liked to teach then. I mean, no one teaches at midnight. But they’d stay till 4 a.m., then we went to the truck stop and had breakfast.”

Sadly, the dream ended in 1989; Reynolds’ financial woes cost him the facility, and it spent the next 10 years under several owners who tried to keep things going, but for one reason or another couldn’t rekindle the old magic.

Out of Office: ‘The West Wing’ says goodbye

@2006 Scripps Newspapers

Talk about life imitating art imitating life. On Sunday’s episode of The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet leaves office after two successful terms, turning over the keys to the Oval Office to the new guy, President–elect Matt Santos.

It’s also the end of the lease for The West Wing itself, winner of 34 Emmys, and one of the most critically lauded TV dramas of the past 25 years.

Cast and crew shot Sunday’s final scene March 30 on the West Wing set in Los Angeles. After seven seasons locked inside America’s most famous address, it was time to throw open the doors.

“We stayed up all night for the last shot, which was extraordinary,” says Allison Janney, four–time Emmy winner for her portrayal of press secretary C.J. Cregg (the character was promoted to Chief of Staff in 2005), in a phone interview. “Around midnight, the lobby of the West Wing area was just packed with tons of actors and people. We were all there as the president says goodbye to his staff for the last time. We stood there and clapped for half an hour.”

Veteran actor Martin Sheen, as Bartlet, had become a father figure to his castmates — much as the president had been to the White House staff. For Bradley Whitford, an Emmy winner as Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, “It was tremendously disorienting and sad. It’s like leaving a cult — an unprecedented volume of intimacy and camaraderie.”

West Wing creator and writer Aaron Sorkin and producer Thomas Schlamme, who’d left the series after the fourth season, returned for the group hug and ensuing wrap party. “I think the show ended at the right time,” adds Whitford, interviewed separately.

“It was such a special experience for all of us who worked on it, and you don’t want to pull the taffy too thin on these things. You get into years eight and nine and you’re feeding the beast, and people could start to not care as much as they should.”

Pressure cooker

Sorkin’s rapid–fire dialogue sometimes made The West Wing seem more like a reality show than a scripted drama. Politically savvy and smart, the series leavened the stentorian scenarios with healthy doses of humor.

Once you got to know the characters, you understood that the humor was the way they blew off steam during their profoundly difficult days inside the pressure cooker of American government.

“Aaron never set out to feed everybody their civic vegetables,” Whitford says. “We didn’t do this so we could teach America what was right and what was wrong.”

Whitford, whose character left the White House to manage Santos’ presidential campaign in the sixth season, says that “Aaron assumes the audience is as smart and funny as he is. He’s trying to entertain himself.”

It was a tightrope, Janney says, that could be hard to walk. “Aaron writes in this incredible rhythm,” she explains. “Every word, every punctuation mark was put there for a reason. “So if we added an extra ‘uh,’ we had to go back and re–shoot because it wrecked the rhythm of it. That drove people crazy sometimes. But it was worth it when we got it.”

Moving forward

Janney and Whitford are immeasurably proud to have The West Wing on their resumes. “The greatest thing was that the passion for doing this show never dipped,” Whitford says. “For seven years, we got to do a show that was not humiliating and not about a semen–splattered corpse.”

Janney says she still feels as if the show is on hiatus. The idea of no more C.J. Cregg, she says, is “mind–boggling. I feel very spoiled, too, like ‘Is it ever going to be as good as this again?’ “What am I possibly going to do that’s going to fulfill me and satisfy me and challenge me as much as The West Wing did?”

Dear John

Life at The West Wing was rocked in December with the death of actor John Spencer, whose Leo McGarry had been a keystone since the very first episode (as Chief of Staff for six seasons, followed by his resignation to run for vice president alongside Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits).

“Everything was kind of put into perspective when we lost John, and that makes the end of a TV show feel pretty puny,” says Whitford.

Spencer, a longtime stage actor, also won an Emmy for The West Wing.

“The weight and gravitas that John had about being an actor was the same that he gave to Leo, and that’s what was so great about him,” Janney offers.

“He had an unbelievable respect for the craft of acting and how you go about it. “You wouldn’t find him on the gag reel much — he was very hard on himself, and worked so hard, and would know his lines better than anybody. He’d be so happy if he did a great take, and would always be so appreciative of other people’s acting.”

Spencer, Janney says, shared her disinterest in political matters; they were simply actors reading lines of written dialogue. “I felt like John got me, and I got him,” she laughs. “Brad and Richard (Schiff, as director of communications Toby Ziegler) are so incredibly bright and politically minded, and can talk for hours about politics.

“John and I would just look at each other … with our eyes going around in circles. And we’d talk about some actor we’d seen on Broadway that we loved.”

Levels of hell: Chuck Sereika and 9/11

@2006 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

VERO BEACH, Fla. — It wasn’t bravery that compelled Chuck Sereika to walk into the smoldering ruin of the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

It was fear.

His sister Joy had a left a message on his answering machine. Just checking on you, she’d said. I guess you’re down there helping out.

Sereika had already heard the commotion in the street, seen the disaster unfolding in downtown New York City – about 60 blocks from his midtown apartment – on TV.

“And I still had no intention of going down there,” he remembered. “I don’t think like that. I hadn’t worked as a paramedic in a few years.”

In fact, he’d let his license expire months before, while he’d been at a treatment facility out west. Drinking, drugs and depression had become Sereika’s support system; the black sheep of an already dysfunctional family, he was used to disappointing Joy. Lately, however, their relationship had been improving.

So her call that morning stirred him to action.

“Maybe it’s in my character to help people, because I’ve done it for so long,” Sereika said. “But it wasn’t even a thought. The only reason I ended up there was because I didn’t want to let my sister down. The rest was just God.”

Sereika, 37, moved to Vero two years ago, after discovering the Treasure Coast during a stint at a Delray Beach rehab center. With his new bride Tracy, he runs Clean As a Whistle, a house–cleaning service.

Like many of those who braved the hell of Ground Zero to rescue others, Sereika’s story is told in Oliver Stone’s movie World Trade Center.

Or at least one version of his story.

“It was a very long, very tiring rescue, and nothing like you see in the film,” said Sereika, who sat uneasily through a recent advance screening of the movie. “Paramount Pictures can make any kind of movie they want, but certain people know the truth. And the truth stands by itself.”

He thought the script, and actor Frank Whaley, made him look like an unprofessional “geek” who had a very small role in the rescue. They bungled many facts, he felt, and he’s considering a defamation of character lawsuit.

In the real world, meanwhile, the nightmares have finally ended. For years, Sereika jumped at loud sounds, at violence on television, at low-flying airplanes. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – like a soldier who’s come out of particularly violent combat – but it seems to have “worked itself out,” he said, through therapy.

But when he wants to, he can still close his eyes and go back to The Hole.

He’d thrown on one of his blue paramedic sweatshirts, walked to a nearby hospital and talked his way onto an emergency vehicle going to the site.

He arrived at 11 a.m., not long after the twin towers had collapsed like stacks of kindling. He figured he’d splint a few legs, apply an oxygen mask or two, feel good about himself and head back home to call Joy.

“It looked like a huge snowstorm in September,” he recalled. “Everything was just covered in this white ash. Everybody was standing around. I saw no civilians at all; it was a sea of uniforms. There was nobody to treat. There was nothing there.”

Sereika spent several hours carefully stepping through rubble with members of the New York police and fire departments.

At dusk, the site – pockmarked with fires and the jagged architecture of disaster – was deemed too dangerous, and rescuers were called back.

On his own, he began to climb the smoking rubble heap. “It’s just out of my character to have done what I did,” Sereika said. “I felt like we were on hallowed ground. I put it into my head that it was a woman and a child that were trapped.”

It was God, he believed, that put the trapped mother-and-child image in his mind.

“I actually figured that their lives were probably worth more than mine. I also figured that I wasn’t going to live through this. I thought ‘There’s no way I’m coming back.’

“Because I had to crawl, from the outside, on my hands and knees. There was big spaces in the rubble, and some went down what looked like 90 feet.”

He came upon Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, a retired Marine who’d driven in from Connecticut to volunteer.

“So I see one marine in a uniform, standing there by this opening, all by himself. And I thought ‘I’m really going to die now.’

“He’s looking at me for help, going ‘Thank God! The rescue team is here!'”

But Sereika, balancing on a broken slab of what once been Building 7, was all alone.

Karnes pointed his flashlight down into what remained of an elevator shaft, where officer Will Jimeno lay, almost completely covered by chunks of concrete and splintered rebar. At first, all Sereika could see was Jimeno’s frantically waving hand.

Karnes helped Sereika shimmy himself into the crawlspace that would lead to the trapped officer. “I reached for my cell phone – at least, I thought, I can call my sister before I die,” Sereika said. “It fell out of my hand, down one of the holes. It was gone – and that was it.”

Karnes radioed for assistance.

In The Hole, the smoke choked Sereiko, and the heat was nearly unbearable. Still, he clawed his way down, until he found the body of Dominick Pezzulo, a cop who’d been crushed by falling debris. And then he saw Jimeno.

“I was right next to him,” Sereika said. “He was pinned from the neck down. I started digging him out on my own, because I didn’t think any help was coming. I wasn’t going to leave him. He was scared.”

The frantic young officer, who’d been buried for 10 hours, talked about his daughter, and his pregnant wife. He cried. “He was begging me to cut his legs off,” Sereiko said. “Like I could cut his legs off! He was trapped pretty good.”

Sereika pulled debris away for about 30 minutes, and once others arrived, he gave Jimeno oxygen and an intravenous drip. A pair of emergency medical technicians backed into the tight space to assist.

“I had to reach for every rock I took off Jimeno,” Sereiko said. “The smallest rock, I would hand to Scott Strauss, he would hand it to Paddy McGee. And he threw it in the elevator shaft. That went on for three hours.”

Once Jimeno was freed, loaded into a stretcher and ferried out by a bucket brigade of responders, Sereika – bruised, exhausted, his lungs scorched by the burning subterranean air – was helped out of the hole. He could barely stand.

“When I came out, there was a chief by the entrance. He goes ‘Good job, son,’ and he patted me on the back.

“And he gets on his radio and says ‘We need another paramedic.’ Which made me feel pretty good.”

He was, despite his screwups, self–doubts and family recriminations, a paramedic after all.

Jimeno – and Sgt. John McLoughlin, who was freed around dawn – were the last people pulled from Ground Zero alive.

Around 11 that night, Chuck Sereika walked the 20 blocks to his cousin Jennifer’s apartment in Greenwich Village. He was dazed and shivering, and had the cold sweats.

Eventually, he told his family about his part in Jimeno’s rescue. “And my sister said ‘Well, the TV said it was the fire department that rescued him.’ They didn’t believe me.

“So I let it go, because it’s pretty typical for my family not to believe a word I say.”

It was only after the New York Times wrote about his act of heroism that Sereika’s family understood, and praised him.

Days after 9/11, Sereika read about United 93, the hijacked plane that had crashed in a field on Sept. 11. A lightbulb went on in his mind – God had told him about the woman and child, and both Jimeno and Karnes had spoken of “seeing Jesus” amidst the chaos.

“The last thing heard on the cockpit recorder was ‘Allah is Great,'” he said. “So why would it be so strange that, whether it’s the same god or not, that He sent us to try to make right something that was wrong?

“The only thing left was two officers. Everything else was done. I don’t have any big questions about it; I believe it was divine intervention.”

– Bill DeYoung

Bleeder, a memoir. Part 2

There are frequently many or a few strokes associated with the recovery phase from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. It is due to these strokes that Bill still has persistent ataxia, tremor, some rigidity of extremities, personality changes and some behavior problems. His youth and determination should help him overcome many of these problems.

Whether or not he will ever recover completely without any residual deficit is very uncertain … There is no known drug or form of therapy which seems to speed up the recovery and there has been no proven drug which will really diminish the damaging effect of a subarachnoid hemorrhage.

Whenever any improvement is apparent it should be pointed out. He is very frightened and apprehensive and will need a lot of encouragement. As he begins to see some improvement himself hopefully much of his depression will clear.

R. Hurston Babcock, M.D., P.A.

Letter to E.L. DeYoung (my father)

Oct. 3, 1978


Back at the house, they walked me up the short hallway to Mom and Dad’s room, where I was to spend the first few weeks of recovery. There was a queen bed there, the better to accommodate my lanky six-foot-two-inches. I suppose my parents each took one of the other bedrooms.

After so long lying prone, muscles atrophy, meaning they’ve been neglected and so don’t work too terribly well. They’re rubbery. So standing up, walking across the room, even using the bathroom, they were all out of the question. Someone, usually Mom, would have to come in and support me through all of it.

She would stand me up, and my head would spin. It was like going from stone sober to dead drunk in a heartbeat. A helpless feeling compounded with another helpless feeling.

My friend Chris, who lived not too far away, was recruited to help me into the shower every other day. It was terribly awkward for him, I know, but he’d wear a bathing suit, hold me up under the water, and we’d get through it. I was embarrassed, but by then I’d become used to being dependent.

Somebody came over and cut my long hair to a manageable length.

One day a physical therapist arrived. They’d hired him through the hospital. He was tall, and had blonde hair, and that’s all I remember about him – except that he came into my room, on that first day, with a worn paperback copy of a book called Joni – the story of a quadriplegic teenager who’d leaned to adapt. On the cover, she held a paintbrush in her teeth and was smiling at the camera.

Clearly, the guy didn’t know what he’d find when he met me, and brought the book as inspiring evidence that people with catastrophic injuries can still lead productive lives.

The cover of that book is burned into my mind, because it was the first time I was forced to really think about where I was headed, whether I’d heal up and get back into my own skin – continue with life as I knew it – or wind up in a wheelchair with a paintbrush clamped between my teeth.

But the physical therapy guy was great. Every day, he got me out of that bed, stood me up and held onto me until I began to regain my balance. He talked to me. We laughed. He had me sit on a big inflated rubber ball with a handle – it was called a kangaroo ball, I remember – and roll back and forth, balancing with my legs. I’d walk stiff-legged up and down the hall, over and over, with my arms on his shoulders.

On a day he wasn’t there, after a few weeks of therapy, I hauled myself out of the bed, walked slowly down the narrow hall, balancing with my hands on the walls, walked through the kitchen and dining room holding onto furniture, and presented myself to Mom, who was in her usual chair, watching TV in the Florida Room. I stood there smiling silently. When she saw me, we both exploded with tears of joy.

So I was more or less ambulatory after that, crashing from one room to the next, getting to the bathroom, the kitchen and wherever else I needed to be. Soon I was back in my own bedroom, sleeping in my own bed. My girlfriend was there a lot – in fact, I think she might even have lived in the house for a while – and her presence was calming. She looked after me, and tried very hard to make me feel normal. Best of all, whenever I sank into depression, feeling sorry for myself, she talked me down.

Progress was slow, but every few days I’d reach what Dr. Babcock called a plateau – as if I was climbing a mountain, attempting to reach the pinnacle – i.e., who I was before this had happened. A plateau was a new height reached on the way up.

One morning I called my dad in. I could hear him getting ready for work in their room. He entered, stood by the side of my bed and smiled. I said ‘Watch this,’ and held up my left hand, which had been frozen in a claw since the early hospital days.

As he looked on, I dramatically opened my hand. All five fingers flexed fully open, shut again and re-opened.

This was a plateau.

Still, I lived with the fear of an unknown future. Every minor headache, every ache, pain or throb that passed through my body for the slightest second, was the onset of the next hemorrhage, I was sure of it. In my darkest moments, I knew I was going to have another one, and I wouldn’t survive it.


The question on everyone’s mind, especially mine, was how much of him will come back? I was fortunate that the hemorrhage had only affected the part of my brain that controls motor activity, which meant that my mental acuity (such as it was) was undamaged.

The residual damage was all on the left side of my body. My arm and leg seemed to be carrying extra weight – they swung like clubs, without any kind of fine-motor movement and without the coordination I desperately willed into them – and the now un-stuck fingers of my left hand shook with slight tremors. Sometimes they kicked like the legs of a walloped spider, in its spastic death throes on a hardwood floor.

I was a guitar player. It was all I knew. I wasn’t a great musician, but I never stopped learning and I knew that I possessed a pretty keen sense of how music was put together, how harmonies were structured, how changings keys, or the tuning on the guitar, gave you endless possibilities. Most of all, I loved it. I loved to play, and I loved to sing.

Making music was my talent. It was my passion. And at 19 years old, I had never thought of a future, any future at all, that did not involve my playing, singing and writing music.

Dr. Babcock assured me that, while he couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that my left hand – my guitar-fretting hand – would fully recover, practicing certainly couldn’t hurt. After all, he said, the muscles in my fingers had atrophied, too. Should the dexterity return, another plateau, those muscles would need to be ready.

So I practiced, as soon as I could sit up and hold a guitar. As soon as my head stopped spinning. As soon as the double vision subsided enough that I only saw one instrument in my lap, not two.

It was hard. My fingers at first were like blocks of wood on a puppet hand, or inanimate fleshy things that did not receive the current of messages from my brain. They twitched. I still knew every chord, every lick, every bass run – as I said, the cognitive part of my brain was undamaged – but I could not make my fingers do as they were told. It didn’t help that my arm refused to gently glide my wrist and hand up and down the guitar neck; instead it moved in jerky movements, a few inches at a leap, never landing in exactly the same place twice no matter where I directed it.

Muscle memory means nothing without muscle control. It was frustrating beyond belief to pick up my instrument, go to play something I knew like the back of my hand, and have nothing but the discordant noise of buzzing, half-fretted strings come back to me.

I was left with an awkward, stumbling gait. I was left with peripheral vision that blurred and doubled every time I moved my head only slightly to the left or right. And the tightening in my stomach told me that music – at least the way I knew music – was not going to be an option any more.

For a while, I wore a black patch over my right eye. The idea was to make the left eye, the damaged one, work harder. In those first few months, the double vision was intense. I crashed into walls. I tripped over furniture. I fell down. My depth perception was all screwed up.

Over time, things improved. The patch was discontinued.

After three months at home, I was walking – slowly – with the help of a cane. I couldn’t turn my head quickly or risk dizziness and a possible fall.

Christmas came and went, and I was mobile enough to where my parents – in consultation with Dr. Babcock – agreed to let me go back to work. I dearly loved my job in a mall record store, and even though everybody I worked with had come to visit since I’d left the hospital, I still missed their company. I missed the camaraderie and the joking around and the endless, enthusiastic conversations about the music that consumed our lives.

Most of all, I missed feeling normal.

It was tough at first. I remember being behind the counter one afternoon when an old white-haired lady came up, buying something or other with a kid I imagined was her grandson. I spoke to her, then turned around to get a bag for her, using my cane as support. As I faced her again, the old lady said “You’re all crippled up, ain’t ya?”

That hurt. Forty years later, I can still see her, and hear her, as if it were yesterday.

Mom took me to see an expert in biorhythms, which was some sort of psychological craze in the late 1970s. Perhaps she’d read about it in Readers’ Digest. I didn’t know what it was all about – and today, after researching biorhythms, I still don’t.

The woman placed tiny sensors all around my head, attached with little adhesive pads, and talked to me. I was depressed, I told her, because everything in my life had been turned upside down. I’m sure I went into the whole spiel about no more guitar. My girlfriend, who’d been so great throughout the recovery period, had left me.

I went to the biorhythm center a couple of times. One day, the “therapist,” or whatever she was, told me she understood my depression – and then asked me if I’d ever spent Christmas alone, which she had done and would certainly be doing again, and that it filled her with unspeakable sadness … her eyes welled up with tears.

I did not go back.


Looking back, 40 years later, I realize that I’ve lived a lot longer with this thing – and I live with it every day – than I did without it. The dexterity in the fingers of my left hand never fully returned, so guitar playing – the only thing I was any good at – was reduced to something a bit less musical, a lot less fun, and way more frustrating than such a joyous exercise ought to be.

Still, I soldiered on, and still do, dreaming every so often that I’m Eric Clapton onstage at the Albert Hall, playing fluid lead lines with a killer band. Then I’ll wake up and remember that I have little to no fine motor coordination in those fingers. The weird thing is that my brain can still take a song apart – I can hear the chord progressions, the melody and the harmony, I know where my fingers need to go – but my body simply can’t translate it.

I guess I reached the final plateau when I was in my early 20s. Physical therapy stopped helping. From there, it was all about forging an entirely new life.

I’m 59 years old at this writing, and my equilibrium remains shaky. I have no balance, and can’t take more than a single step in a straight line before I wobble off the path. Sometimes, when I’m walking, I’ll involuntarily take a half step to the left or right, or half-spin in a different direction. I don’t have any control over it. I don’t know when it’s coming. Sometimes I’ll crash into a wall.

I still get the occasional tremor in the fingers of my left hand.

I have not run in 40 years. Not once. My left leg slams down hard, like a club, and I cannot find any body rhythm at all.

I have not jumped in 40 years. If I try a little hop, straight up in the air, my legs never meet the ground at the same time. I can’t even hop down from a box or a chair. It’s like my legs are in two different bodies.

Dancing? Not a chance. I’m Lurch from The Addams Family.

When I turn my head slightly, the double vision is still there. My depth perception is poor at best. One of the great sorrows of my life was while my beautiful son was growing up, obsessed with sports, and I was unable to throw or catch a baseball, or a football, with him. I couldn’t see it coming until it was a foot away from my face.  After a dozen tries, you get to be fearful of the thing coming in, and you’re no good at all.

Of course I realize that I was lucky in one very significant way. So many people live their lives in pain, or some sort of agony, or extremely difficult adjustment, and I’m still alive, thinking and breathing and walking and talking. And I’ve had a pretty great life, all told. My son and daughter are healthy, bright and compassionate people, and I could not be more proud of them both.

Being 100 percent honest, however, not a day has passed that I haven’t thought about August 29, 1978, at least for a brief moment. Once I got over feeling sorry for myself – and that took a very, very long time – I started to examine the event in terms of how it affected me emotionally, and in terms of my relationships with family, friends and co-workers.

I was bitter. Man, was I bitter. What did I do to deserve a kick in the head?

A group of soldiers stands in formation. “I need a volunteer,” the captain says, “for a dangerous mission. You might not survive.”

Everyone in the line, except me, takes a step backward. I’m the involuntary volunteer.

The first thing that happens: You think everybody is looking at you, and they can tell that you’re not right (remember the old lady in the record shop?) So you develop a kind of armor, a protective mechanism that renders you impervious to criticism. Bite them before they bite you.

As a reaction to depression and denial – twin snakes eating each other’s tail – you develop a thick skin to disguise your thin skin.

Behind this is a deep, deep sense of self-consciousness. I have not felt like an entirely normal human being in 40 years, not since my “new normal” was introduced. Despite my successes – I raised a family, had a pretty good career in journalism, wrote a couple of books and ultimately married my best friend – something way down in there has always told me I lost my essence at 19. That I am an impostor in Bill DeYoung’s skin.

Another defense mechanism that developed: Whenever I would drop something (which happened a lot) I would say “Of course.” This was a reference to the Murphy’s Law that I believed my life had become. Something broke – of course. I knocked something off a counter – of course. Couldn’t get a door, or a drawer, open – of course.

The truth, I’ve since deduced, is that I’m just clumsy. For a long time, I guess, it was easier to get pissed off at God, or whatever it was that threw this anvil at me.

It became my mantra, “of course,” so much so that those around me began to believe I was just reacting negatively to everything around me. For a long, long time, I found it very difficult to be happy.

The downside to this is a guilty feeling I’ve never been able to shake – that I gave less than I should have to those who’ve loved me over the years, because I simply couldn’t get over a life that no longer existed. None of this has been fair to them.

It’s been 40 years, and I’m still here. Love and gratitude are key for me these days. Even though I’m reminded constantly of the limitations of my body, I can say this now without crossing my fingers behind my back: I’m over it. You know, forgive but never forget. And enjoy another day.

Read Part 1 here


Bleeder, a memoir. Part 1

Dinner was at 6 o’clock sharp. Dinner was always at 6 o’clock sharp; my parents came from that generation where the man went to work, and the woman took care of the house and the kids. So Dad would get home from his insurance office around 5:30 in the afternoon, change his clothes and relax a while, and Mom would have dinner on the table, for all of us, promptly at 6.

It’s not like Dad insisted or anything – ‘have my dinner ready when I want it!’ – that was just the way it was, a working routine, probably passed down from the generation before theirs. Anyway, I never heard him demand and I never heard her complain. Theirs was a happy marriage, four kids later, if not terribly exciting for either of them.

I was 19 years old, the youngest child and the only one still living at home. My brother and two sisters had flown the nest, leaving the comfort and routine (and 6 o’clock dinners) of home and family for lives and adventures of their own. I was struggling through junior college, and waiting for something better to come along.

Mom called us to the table. From different parts of the house, my father and I swept in, hungry. The three of us sat down with the sound of the 6 o’clock news coming from the TV in the adjacent room. It was usually Arch Deal, the evening anchor for the local NBC station, WFLA. Channel 8. Arch’s monotone had been part of this ritual for as long as I could remember.

The meal on that Tuesday night was pork chops, thin cut, fried in a pan (no one really thought about healthy foods in those days) and spinach out of a can. There might have been a potato and a small salad. The spinach was sort of soggy, dark green and salty, with a consistency rather like finely-chopped seaweed. This was a standard weeknight dinner at our house. We always had milk to drink.

I guess it was about 15 minutes in when I noticed the headache. It was in the back of my head, on the right side. At first it was mild, just an annoyance, but after a while I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I must have told Mom and Dad about it and excused myself from the table.

I went to my room – the back bedroom in the house – to lie down in the dark. I didn’t suffer from migraines, and wasn’t prone to headaches, but I knew from experience that lying on my side, keeping still for a while, would make it go away. It was, at worst, a minor irritation.

That night, I was to drive to Indian Rocks Beach. I’d gotten involved in sea turtle conservation – well, as involved as you could get in populous Pinellas County, where there weren’t too many stretches of dark and isolated beach left for the big turtles to haul out and lay eggs in the sand.

Still, some of them ran the gauntlet of condominium and hotel lights anyway. I’d been helping Evelyn Hoezel, an older lady who lived in a little house right on the beach at Indian Rocks. She was authorized by the Florida wildlife powers-that-be to dig up turtle nests from St. Petersburg Beach, Pass-a-Grille, Treasure Island or whatever stretch of brightly-lit tourist beach, and re-bury the eggs in her back yard. We’d mark the transplanted nests with a wire cage.

That way, when the baby turtles emerged after 55 days of incubation in the hot sand, supervised, they’d get to go straight to the water when we released them, unmolested by winged predators or well-intentioned humans. Including us – we never physically touched them.

On that Tuesday night, August 29, 1978, I was due at Mrs. Hoezel’s. One of our nests had hatched out, and we were to remove the wire cage and allow the babies free access to the Gulf of Mexico.

This was my favorite part of the job, watching them crawl across the sunset sand to freedom.

I was thinking about this as I lay on my small bed, the right side of my head pressed down against my pillow. The headache had become a dull throb. In the bathroom, I lost my dinner, then went straight back to bed.


Dad was standing next to my bed, talking softly, telling me it was time to wake up. He was dressed in his standard going-to-the-office suit. It was morning. I’d never gone to the beach that night – no Mrs. Hoezel, no sea turtles, no nothing.

Apparently my parents had been trying to wake me up for some time. When I opened my eyes, they were both standing there. I tried to speak but could only mumble like someone heavily sedated. I tried to get up, but my arms and legs didn’t cooperate. It was as if they’d all fallen asleep at once; instead of blood, bone and muscle, my limbs were stuffed with sponge. Mom and Dad stood me up, holding onto my rubbery scarecrow body. They looked gauzy to me.

I remember telling them – or attempting to tell them – that they needed to call my boss. I was supposed to be at work that morning. On a scrap of paper they put in my hands, I wrote “Nora.” I saw the paper later. It looked like spider tracks in the snow. It looked like the scrawl of a 100-year-old man.

They loaded me into the back seat of Dad’s car. I lay there, face down and eyes open, full of fear and dread, but relieved that we were going to the hospital, where somebody would be able to fix this thing. I stared at the little embroidered pillow that had fallen on the floor. That’s a very clear memory.

This all sounds like some sort of overdose, doesn’t it? The sad final act of an idiot teenager’s life? I did not use drugs. The fact was I’d smoked a bit of pot in my life, but even that made me uncomfortable. I was a pretty well-adjusted kid, reasonably intelligent, and putting chemicals in my body, for fun, to be cool, or to numb some sort of subconscious pain, was something I’d just never been tempted by.

My sister Patty met our car at St. Anthony’s. Inside the emergency room, somebody wearing white muttered to someone else, ‘Looks like drugs.’ I was tall and bone-thin, with long, black hair and a scruffy beard; a reasonable assumption, I suppose. I heard Patty say to them ‘My brother doesn’t do drugs,’ and I smiled somewhere down inside.

Next, I heard ‘We’ll do a lumbar tap.’ I knew this was a painful procedure, involving a long needle in the spine, because I’d recently read a Rolling Stone interview with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, who said as much (he’d had one done). That was actually what went through my mind as I lay there, helpless and terrified, on the cold steel table.

They did the spinal tap. I never felt a thing. I think that scared me even more than the anticipation. I heard the guy say there was blood in my spinal fluid, which I understood was not good.

I lay there, unattended, for what seemed like a long time. Very sleepy. I started to close my eyes, thinking how easy it would be just to drift off. I suppose that’s what it feels like when you’re freezing to death – just close your eyes, and let go.

I made myself open my eyes again.

Now, on the books of some local Baptist church I was a member of the congregation. This was a holdover from a girlfriend I’d had in high school; I joined her family’s church to make her happy. And, I suppose, to make her skeptical parents think I was after more than good old teenage sex. I had them pretty well conned.

Anyway, after we broke up – acrimoniously and not a moment too soon, as it turned out – I forgot all about the church thing. A year had gone by.

My last recollection of the ER was the appearance, in the doorway, of the pastor of that church. Somehow, he’d heard that something had happened (I’ll never know how he found out, and so quickly) and had appeared to “comfort” me.

I saw him standing there, and here’s what went through my mind: He’s here for my last rites. I used the last of my strength to scream “Get out!” He got out.

And then I went down the rabbit hole.


About a year before she passed away, in 2014, my mother gave me a little diary she kept during those awful first days. I treasure this book. There’s her handwriting, which I know so well, and it’s emotional for me to read her thoughts – I can hear them, in her voice.

When we arrived at the hospital Bill was given immediate attention. Dr. Babcock was with him in 20 minutes. Ten minutes later Dr. Babcock came to us with the most horrendous news parents can receive: “Your child is in critical condition + his chances are not good. It’s possibly an aneurism but until tests are taken we can’t be sure. Bill will be in intensive care + we’ll take it from there.”

Not our Bill, our tall lanky long haired Bill, this is a nightmare, we’ll wake up I know we will.

The neurosurgeon’s full name was R. Hurston Babcock, which made me think of Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island. Still does. Later I found out that R. Hurston was Grand Admiral, or whatever, of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. There was a framed portrait of him there, serious and proud, wearing a blue blazer and an official –looking blue-and-white yachting cap.  So he really kind of was Thurston Howell III.

He was also a nice man, and fortunately for us, a good and caring physician. Within a few hours of my arrival, his test results showed that I’d suffered something called a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a form of cerebral aneurysm.

It’s defined as bleeding in the area between your brain and the surrounding membrane. Because there’s a webby series of tiny, spidery blood vessels, science calls it the subarachnoid space.

Head trauma, smoking, cocaine use and congenital defects are the known major causes; I hadn’t fallen or been knocked in the head by vicious thugs (to the best of my knowledge, anyway), I didn’t smoke and, as I’ve explained, drugs were anathema to me.

So Dr. Babcock and his team decided that I must’ve had a congenital flaw in a tiny subarachnoid capillary, and it burst at that particular moment for no particular reason, leaking less than a teaspoon of blood into the soft cocoon around my brain. Even though it’s a tiny bit of blood, it causes pressure, which can lead to … well, some bad stuff.

I looked this up recently. According to an online physician site called,

An estimated 15-30% of patients with aneurysmal SAH die before reaching the hospital, and approximately 25% of patients die within 24 hours, with or without medical attention. Mortality at the end of 1 week approaches 40%. Half of all patients die in the first 6 months, and only half of the patients who make it to the hospital return to their previous level of functioning.

Back to Mom’s diary:

At a little before 3 Ed + I walk down to see Bill, something is wrong, the curtains are drawn + Dr. Babcock is being paged. Dr. Babcock came to us + told us Bill had another hemorrhage + things were as bad as they could get, he didn’t hold out much hope. They had put Bill on the ventilator to help him breathe as he also had pneumonia.

This was 1978, and the percentages aren’t nearly what they are today. Mom and Dad were told, after this second episode, I had a five percent chance of survival. My sister Karen was in Central America, a journalist covering the bloody Nicaraguan revolution. When they called to tell her what had happened, she was informed that I would most likely be dead before she could get a plane back to Florida.

How does a family deal with that?

It came out of nowhere, with zero warning. I had never really been sick in my life. I loved my family and I loved my friends. I played bass and guitar with them, in a little band we’d put together for the beer clubs out on the beaches. That’s usually where I was Friday and Saturday nights, working.

Well, I guess you could call it working. I lived for it. The other four band members were older than me by a decade. It had been their project; I joined after they’d played out a few times, and I convinced them they needed someone to handle bass and sing the high harmony parts. The integration was seamless. I started adding guitar parts and singing some leads, too. We were never going to be rich or famous, and there would always be bands that were better than ours. Didn’t matter. We were having a great time. I enjoyed belonging to a gang. I was the kid, but I was one of them.

I had a job in a record store – there, I was in my element – and a girlfriend I was crazy about. I attended my junior college classes infrequently.

I had no idea where I was headed in life. Honestly, I was happy not thinking about it. The only things that interested me were music, turtles and girls. And not always in that order.

There’d be plenty of time to work out a plan for the future. Wouldn’t there?


Keith Moon was dead. The enigmatic drummer for the Who lived a life of grand excess, and had famously battled alcoholism for years. The band had only weeks before issued a new album, Who Are You, and on the cover Moon looked seriously overweight and out of shape. It was obvious something wasn’t right. On September 3, he went bloated-belly-up in a London flat, the result of combining his weight-reduction pills with medication prescribed to help him stay off the sauce.

I loved the Who, and for me Keith’s manic, jackhammer playing was a big part of why they were such a great rock ‘n’ roll band. I had Who Are You on cassette in my car.

In the Intensive Care Unit of St. Anthony’s Hospital, there was no day and there was no night. The lights were either on – fluorescent and obnoxiously bright – or off. The big room had no windows.

There was a huge, round white clock on the wall, centrally located where I – and presumably, the other ICU patients – could see it and have some sense that we were still in the real world. It was just like the clocks they had in schoolrooms, the clocks I had been staring at since I was a little kid waiting for the bell to ring so I could get out of there. Otherwise, I didn’t know where I was or who I was, much less the time of day.

And there was always a radio playing. Over and over, I heard the Top 40 hits of the day (“Hot Child in the City” or “Boogie Oogie Oogie”) and the hourly news report. I didn’t understand most of the newscaster jabber, but when I heard “Rock drummer Keith Moon of the Who has died in London,” I perked up. That’s how I found out.

My brother, Ed, came in to visit that afternoon. I told him Keith had died. It was probably the most complete sentence I’d spoken in the four days I’d been in the hospital. He stared down at me. “How did you know that?” he said.

Dr. Babcock told me much later that they’d been close to performing cranial surgery, to relieve the pressure on my brain. I don’t remember the reason, but they never did it. I was never drilled. Once they were sure the bleeding had stopped, it was decided that the best course of action was to keep me comfortable and just see what happened.

I suspect that I was pumped full of some drug or other, because the 16 days in ICU are etched into my memory. When I slept, I had hideous nightmares, and when I was awake, I had little or no idea what was going on. I knew what had happened and I knew where I was – well, sort of. The people in white, flitting in and out of the darkened room, were conspiring to kill me. Every so often, a nurse – male or female – would appear and mercifully drop a couple of ice chips into my Sahara Desert mouth. Best of all were the periodic sips of sugary Gatorade.

Sometimes, though, they didn’t come, for what felt like hours. I could not raise my head, so I listened – to the distant radio, to the moans of patients in nearby beds, and to the sound of the ICU attendants’ chatty conversations on the far side of the room.

They mocked me. They ignored me. I knew they were talking about me … and so I started to scream to get their attention, and to let them know I knew what they were up to. I really just wanted more ice chips and Gatorade. But in my mind, the screaming only made them hate me more.

According to Patty, the one time she came into the ICU to look in on her brother, I screamed at her to ‘get out.’ I don’t have any memory of this, but it makes sense with the rest of the narrative.


Periodically, my body would twitch and jerk, my arms and legs flailing about like worms on a hotplate. It was totally involuntary, and probably a reaction to the drugs in my system. The kicking got so bad that they had to tie my legs to the metal bars on the side of the hospital bed.

My family members would come in, one or two at a time, to stand there in the dark and talk quietly to me. I remember being embarrassed that I was strapped to the bed.

I was transferred to a gurney and wheeled out into the hall. Everything seemed so bright and so loud. We went up in an elevator, and my gurney was parked alongside a wall outside whatever room we were going to. I lay there for a very long time before they came back and retrieved me. People were moving back and forth, walking past me. Ignoring the long-haired, skinny kid on the bed. I felt like a piece of furniture. I caught windy bits of conversation and understood nothing.

Then my bed was rolled into the room. Now, the years gone by have blurred this particular memory somewhat, but here’s the way I see it in my mind’s eye: I’m rolled into the center and left under a single very bright light, a hot lamp. A doctor and about a dozen medical students, all dressed in scrubs and surgical masks, gather around the bed, which is now some sort of observation table. It’s what they call an operating theatre.

I am a disembodied head in the center of the table, mute, looking up helplessly as this guy pokes and prods, answering his students’ questions about this test subject. My eyes blink but I am mute. I am propped up on a little stand, part of my spinal cord trailing down from the back like a raccoon tail pinned to Davy Crockett’s yellow skull.

Sixteen days after my arrival at St. Anthony’s, I was released from ICU and moved to a private room (my parents insisted, even though it cost a little extra. I’ve always been grateful for that). The kicking and screaming had ceased, as had the nightmares, and it was decided, there being nothing else medically to be done, to return me to some semblance of normalcy.

Over the next two weeks I was visited by every member of my family, and by many close friends. I guess none of the latter knew what to expect, because they hadn’t seen me for so long. I was gaunt (being fed intravenously will do that to you), I had double vision (which was also the name of a stupid song by Foreigner, playing over and over again in the ICU), and everything was blurry, so I imagine I looked at my visitors rather cockeyed. Most significantly, my left hand was clenched in a fist. I could not uncurl my fingers, and I could barely move my left arm. I was stiff and I was weak. I spoke slowly and deliberately, like a stroke victim.

Even so, it was so wonderful to have visitors, to finally, completely understand that I was still around. I remember them all, the gifts they brought, the music they knew I loved, the jokes, the tentative questions about my prognosis, and about my future.

That was the big mystery. Would my speech return? Could I stand up? Walk? Drive a car? Feed myself?

Would I be able to play the guitar, the only thing I really knew how to do, again?

Dr. Babcock said there wasn’t any way of knowing how much damage had been done – certainly, the hemorrhage had only affected the part of the brain that controls physical activity, and only on the left side of my body. Oh, my mental faculties might be in shambles – I was a weepy, emotional wreck – but from all indications, they were still intact.

Only half of the patients who make it to the hospital return to their previous level of functioning.

The doctor advised us to take a “wait and see” attitude.

My parents took me home after 31 days of hospitalization. And we waited.

And we saw.


Read Part 2 here

The whales

This was the first feature story I wrote, after a couple of concert reviews. I was 18 years old. It was published in the St. Petersburg Times Sunday, Feb. 20, 1977. It’s reproduced here exactly as it was written.

MAYPORT – A large school of pilot whales (globicephala melaena) committed suicide in a mass beaching at Fort George Inlet two weeks ago near Jacksonville. Less than 48 hours later, I was there dragging dead whales out of the surf and observing post-mortem scientific activities.

The pilot is a toothed whale. It does not exceed 20 feet, but is very muscular and bulky. It is completely jet-black, prompting the common name Blackfish.

Fort George’s Inlet is a deep, choppy channel barely 65 feet wide, running off the Atlantic in a mushroom-shaped bay. At one side of the bay is a bridge, behind which lie salt creeks and marshes. All around the rest of the bay is broad, white beach, running back to high dunes and seaoats.

ON THE DAY of the beachings, commercial fishermen spotted a herd of upwards of 200 pilot whales headed, rather deliberately, for the mouth of the inlet. Because the pilot whale is a deep-sea mammal, the fishermen knew something was wrong.

“As the fishermen saw the whales going past and towards land at high speed, it was all they could do to get their nets up in time,” said Quentin White, a member of the scientific crew from Jacksonville University.

Mass suicides, while not common, have appeared with some degree of regularity on Florida coastline. Last summer, a small group of spinner dolphin beached and died at Casey Key near Sarasota. Within the following month, larger groups of False Killer whale beached at Fort Myers and Loggerhead Key. Whether these suicides are deliberate or accidental is a point of speculation. In autopsies taken on self-stranding whales and dolphins, the common factor seems to be two kinds of parasites found living in the animals’ inner ear.

THE PARASITES, the theory goes, throw off the animals’ delicate sonar, a hearing mechanism that allows them to navigate and locate food sources. Thus impaired, the whales swim frantically, and when the pod leader, or “pilot,” swims too close to shallow water, the entire group follows him straight into the shallows and right into the beach. In such shallow water they cannot maneuver, and having neither the strength nor the will to return to deeper water, they eventually roll on their sides and drown. The animals’ blowhole, or nostril, is located at the very top of its head. When they roll over, water gets in the blowhole, and they lay helplessly, waiting to die. The ones that make it onto the beach die of exposure.

As soon as word got around, volunteers of all ages came to the stricken whales’ rescue. Frogmen came from nearby Mayport Naval base, skin-diving clubs turned out in wetsuits and rough weather gear, and scientific researchers from several Florida colleges arrived in vans full of equipment. More than 150 whales, ranging from monstrous bulls 20 feet long and weighing close to a ton, to calves five feet in length and barely a year old, were lined up at various points on the beach or in shallow water.

SOME WERE floundering off the bay’s entrance, still others were stranded on a sandbar several hundred feet into the chilly water. The volunteers’ objective was to right the whales and drag them into deeper water.

The volunteers worked long into the night, and all the next day, trying to keep beached whales alive and grouping up to drag larger animals into deep water.

But beaching whales seem to have a death wish, and, to the workers’ horror and dismay, the unencumbered whales turned right back around and beached again.

During the first day, the situation became so frantic that the Marine Patrol had to block off entrances to the beach, to keep the ever-expanding mob of residents, curiosity-seekers and by now unneeded extra volunteers from getting in the way.

Someone came up with the idea of herding the whales back out of the channel with boats. Several dozen whales were tagged on the dorsal fin with red plastic tags. These were mostly in the deeper parts of the bay, where a little maneuvering was still possible. At the first high tide the boats were brought around, and the roundup began.

“AT FIRST, it looked like it might work,” said one local observer. “They played cat-and-mouse for a while, with the boats trying to stay between the whales and the shoreline.”

Apparently, the attempt was partially successful. “They were playing it right, getting the whales into the channel. Some of them went out into the Atlantic. But then” – and then the Mayport resident speaks quietly – “one of the big whales made a shrill noise and they all turned and dived under the boats.” Moments later they went back in the shallows, dying with the remainder of the school.

Dr. James Mead, curator of mammals from the Smithsonian Institution, was expected to arrive the next day to begin autopsies.

Slowly the volunteers dispersed, leaving an aura of hopelessness and sadness to the scientists and onlookers. The last glimmer of hope for the living died away and finally no one made any attempt to save the last few suffering individuals.

The beach at Fort George Inlet is long and wide, and the sand, continuously shifted by the cold Atlantic wind, made travel by car extremely difficult. As I walked from the last road to the first group of scientists, I could see the Marine Patrol digging a Humane Society van out of the sand.

The tide was high and I spotted a black fin protruding from the breakers.

There were several whales there; all dead, all on their sides. Up the beach researchers from the University of Florida were standing around a group of whales. These were cows and calves, the smaller whales pulled far up on the sand for autopsy. The creatures were beautiful, so streamlined, so perfect. Their dorsal and pectoral fins, stiff and cold, jutted up into the air. Their expression was that of a creature from a different planet: very distant, very foreign.

They all had the same trace of a smile; and I had trouble visualizing them as carefree, free-swimming creatures. One calf, I noticed, was completely decapitated. “They arrested some guy here yesterday,” volunteered one of the scientists. “He came down here in the middle of all the activity, and cut off its head with a chain saw.” He had wanted to take home some whale teeth.

A DISTANT FIGURE on the far point of the bay, near the mouth of the inlet, was Dr. Mead, who had arrived a few hours earlier and was investigating the situation.

As I hiked the good mile of beach to the point where I would find Dr. Mead amid a large concentration of dead whales, I heard a blast of air and looked out into the water. There, about 60 feet out, lay the last live whale, floundering in two feet of water. She twisted and turned, and every 10 seconds or so she would raise her tail and blow out her blowhole.

I stared hopelessly from my isolation on the beach, wondering if I should try and help her, as she blasted out her pain in gradually weakening spurts. Then I realized her destination was already planned, and, remembering the admirable but vain efforts of the volunteer corps, I moved on, as the tide slowly carried her shallower.

“THIS IS AN extremely large beaching,” Mead said, gazing at the scores of fins sticking up from the now receding tide. “Pilot whales are very sociable animals, but usually the big school will split up out at sea and beach at different locations.” Mead said he expected the group of whales driven out of the inlet the previous day would merely beach themselves somewhere else. Several different accounts of the number of dead whales were circulating, but most believed the figure was about 100.

Mead explained that studying beached individuals in such detail may not provide the answer as to why such suicides occur. “The most valuable thing here,” he said, “is not to find answers but questions. Things to look for.”

He said the problem with the parasite theory is that scientists don’t have the opportunity to examine normal, wild pilot whales to check for the parasite. “The narwhales and belugas, both northern dwellers, also have parasites in their inner ears.” To further complicate the situation, the beached spinner dolphins, when examined, were found to have parasites in what would well have been normal amounts.

“The pilot whale’s way of life is quite different. While the narwhales, belugas, and bottlenose dolphin are close relatives, there is one important difference: they all live in coastal water, that is, close to land mass and shallows. The pilot whale, as well as the spinner dolphin and false killers are deep-sea dwellers and as such, they don’t realize the ocean has sides and a bottom,” Meade said.

“THEN, WHEN their sonar or hearing, is impaired, they swim right into the shallows, get confused, and try to keep swimming.  They don’t understand confinement. They’re virtually helpless in shallow water.

”We don’t fully understand the hearing mechanism, so we can only assume that these parasites, in abnormal numbers, are driving the animals into these frenzies.” The beachings then may be more a case of running into a land mass than looking for a beach to kill themselves on.

Whales have beached en masse for thousands of years and it is easy to remain detached when you hear about it on the news, but being there, seeing so many, beautiful, intelligent creatures lying still on the edge of their world, I felt a kinship with them.

THE DOLPHIN is the most intelligent animal next to man, and I wished I could see these whales slide back into the water, out of this foreign tomb. I wanted to shout to them, “Prove it!” But everywhere along the coast of the small bay, still flukes and stiff fins revealed that the story had run its course. The waves would roll them back and forth, revealing the glassy eyes and rows of short, white teeth.

The scientists and workers hauled all of the carcasses onto the sand in a long line. All of them were towed there by the tail, and every one of them faced the ocean.

Walking back down the beach, now at low tide, I again passed the last whale.  She was completely stranded now, on the edge of the receding tide. Painfully she breathed, loud, gasping sounds emerging from her blowhole as she exhaled.

I WET MY HANDS and stroked her head. Her sides heaved and she made several feeble efforts to raise her tail. I was alone. The scientists, reporters and officers were all busy with the autopsies. I wet her dry skin and talked quietly to her. I looked down at her eyes to see if she was watching me; they were closed tightly, the skin around them contorted as if she was straining to keep them closed.

And coming from both her eyes in a slow, steady stream were thick tears. I knew that whales, as well as other marine animals, did this as a way to dispel excess salt from their system. Still, if she had ever had reason to cry, this was it.