The Old Crew met at Miguel Abreau's Gallery on Orchard Street to honor Brock Dundee's documentary for the UK's MoD about the war in Afghanistan. The Scot had flown in helicopters to battle sites and crossed the mountains on foot with the assassins of the SAS. At dinner Dannatt joked that his old friend was a spy.
"Spy?" Brock pierced the art critic a steely squint.
"I thought as much."
Every killer spy employed by MI6 was a Scot, including James Bond, although according to my sources Brock worked for no one.
Our comradeship went back to the 90s. Our link was an an ambassador for the Foreign Office. Alice and I knew any other from Paris in the 80s. Everyone thought she was a spy. I knew different.
For the rest of the night Dannatt's jokes were at everyone's expense. The Art Critic knew his place in the world. He was not Welsh and not Celtic.
That evening Brock was in an expansive mood. He had money in his pocket. His wife Joanna was selling her paintings and his kids were healthy.
"It's nice to be someplace you can drink a beer without having to worry about a bullet chaser," Brock joked and the asked, "How are you?"
"I haven't seen my kids in months." They were on the other side of the world like their mother. "ButI'm working on 47th Street."
"How's that going?" Brock was familiar with my gig in the diamond district.
"I've had better years."
"Sometimes worse, but I'm working on a million-dollar ruby sale." I had met the client in January. She loved the 6-carat pigeon-blood red ruby from Burma. Her husband was fighting for a better price.
"My boss thinks it's a dead deal."
"And is it?"
Manny had little faith in miracles, but miracles were my speciality.
"I'll surprise everyone."
"I know." Brock was familiar with my strengths as well as my weaknesses.
"At least I'm taking care of my kids."
Supporting four children was a struggle, but one which I fought with honor.
"How'd you like to take a trip?"
"Where?" I was hoping to hear Thailand.
"Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City-Iowa City-Minneapolis-Chicago."
"Are you serious."
"I'm shooting a film about Barry Flanagan.
"The Irish sculptor? Doesn't he do rabbits?"
"Not rabbits, hares," Brock explained further that the sculptor was very sick. His project was to film Barry's sculptures around the USA. "And then I'll show them to the artist in Ibiza."
"Before he dies?"
"Motor neuron disease."
"Shit." Lou Gehrig, the great Yankee slugger, had died of a similar disease.
"Not a good way to go."
"Is there any?"
I shook my head and asked the Scot, "Why do you need me?"
"Because I can't drive." Brock shrugged with a wry grin.
"No?" Every spy in the world could drive a car.
"Never learned, so I'll pay you $1500 plus expenses to be my getaway driver."
"Count me in." I loved road trips.
Two weeks later early before the dawn I met Brock at his midtown hotel.
He had been drinking most of the night.
"I left Kabul two days ago."
The Afghan capitol was a hard town and even more so, because it had been a paradise for the hippies with its hashish and tribal life.
Those times were gone and gone for good for a long time.
"Well, you're back now."
Yes, I am,"
I paid the bar bill and the bartender warned, "You be careful. The airlines might not let him on the plane."
"He'll be fine."
I was Irish. We believed in good luck.
Brock still smelled of Khyber Pass and he slept on the taxi ride to JFK.
He snored like a drunken cat and I didn't wake him until we arrived at terminal.
Brock rubbed his face.
The dawn rimmed the eastern horizon.
We got out of the taxi.
The morning air was cool and we proceeded to the Jet Blue gates through Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal.
We each carried one bag in hand.
We both liked traveling light.
"You hungry?" asked Brock.
"I have a yen for sushi."
"For breakfast?" I somehow saw this hankering for something more than sushi, but
"I haven't had any in months. It's my treat."
We hit the Sushi Bar for raw tuna and cold saki. Brock licked his lips and said, "I could use a little pick-me-up. You?"
I sat down feeling that I was Kingsley Amis' minder.
Afghanistan had obviously been worse this trip and I kept pace with Brock.
I also had a reputation for drink.
An hour later Jet Blue called our flight. Brock and I boarded the overcrowded 737. I opted for the window seat. Brock lifted his bag into the overhead compartment. The chubby steward closed the door on my friend's fingers.
Brock winced in pain.
The steward regarded Brock and declared with an intolerant disdain, "You're drunk and you're not flying on this plane."
He marched us to the front of the plane.
The pilot and co-pilot stood at the door. We were not 9/11 terrorists and I explained to the pilot that Brock had returned from Afghanistan.
"Back in the 90s he traveled with the Mujahideen. He's not Army."
"Oh." The pilot caught my drift.
"In 1842 the Raj army had entered 15,000 and only one British soldier escaped the fall of Kabul. Not everyone gets out alive."
The pilot bought the story, because it was true and I knew how to tell one..
"We'll put you on a flight for tomorrow morning."
I thanked him and ordered Brock not to say a word.
Stranded at JFK we booked into the Ramada Plaza. The hotel had fallen on hard times, but the bar was filled with Deadheads en route from the legendary band's New York stand to the next gig in the South. We hung out with two guys from California. They were both named Steve. They didn't care that Jerry Garcia was dead.
"The Dead will never be dead."
We drank to the souls of Jerry Garcia and Pigpen.
The bartender cued up DARK STAR and ST. STEPHEN.
It was a good night to be stranded at the Ramada.
The next morning we caught the early flight. I protected Brock from the flight attendants. He sat by the window. The plane took off on time and Brock fell asleep at 30,000 feet.
Two hours later we landed at O'Hare and hired the rented car. I drove on the Interstate. I-70 took us directly to St. Louis.
The truck traffic on the Interstate was a horror.
"You mind, if you take back roads?"
"That's why you're here. To drive. This film is as much about the trip as it is the sculpture. Barry's dying. He wants to see the world."
"Then I'll show him the Fly-Over."
"The Fly-Over?" Brock was unfamiliar with the term.
"It's what people from LA and New York call the land under them on Trans-continental flights. A million square miles of corn, wheat, and soy on flat plains."
"It sounds like Barry would love it."
"Then let's go a-stray."
I got off the highway to enter a world forgotten by all.
"Feeling better off the highway?"
"Two hundred years ago the rivers were the only way south to New Orleans. The Mississippi, the Illinois, the Missouri and many others."
"America," Brock said the word, as if it were holy.
We drove without hitting any red lights or traffic to Joliet.
The old industrial city lay on the Des Plaines River. We passed the Correctional Institute, which seemed to be the only thriving business in town.
"They filmed THE BLUES BROTHERS here." Brock was a film buff.
"The opening scene."
After crossing the river at West Jackson, I drove south Peoria. There was little traffic along the river road. @008 had been even worse in the Fly-Over than New York.
Peoria was a ghost town of abandoned factories and its rusty steel mills.
Once hundreds of ships had plied the muddy Illinois River.
"Looks like the Midlands," commented Brock.
"Or Charleroi in Belgium."
"The land of no hope."
"But people don't leave, because they know nowhere else by here."
"At least the Caterpillar factory is working." The parking lot was half-full and I added, "Probably a single shift."
"You think it's contagious."
"Who knows?" I wasn't taking a chance and I stepped on the accelerator to get us out of town.
The backroads through Illinois were desolate. We stopped at a farmhouse. Brock surveyed the land.
"Where are the people?"
"Probably in the fields or at Walmarts." I pushed the car to a 100.
Any state troopers were revenue-pirating on the Interstate.
We were free."
We arrived in St. Louis near sunset.
There wasn't much left of the city on the Mississippi.
Brock said, "St. Louis is a zombie movie backdrop."
We opted against staying at the downtown hotel and drove to a suburban motel not far from the Cahokia Indian Mounds.
That night Brock and I shared a room. The Flanagan family was paying us a per diem. We went down to the bar for happy hour.
On my third margharita my cell rang.
My wife Mam was calling from Sriracha in Thailand. My son Fenway was sick. I had to wire money. The only Western Union was in East St. Louis. I beelined into a dark neighborhood of abandoned buildings and empty lots and wired $150 express.
On the way back to motel a highway cop stopped me on the highway. The trooper said that I had been speeding and I explained my story about sending my sick son money via Western Union. He believed me and let me go. I was a lucky drunk.
In the morning we topped the rental car with gas and drove to the Canokia Indian Mounds.
"These were the largest structures in North America until the 1900s." Canokia's population had been greater than any 13th Century city in Europe. "I once camped on the top of that mound."
"No, I was with a Texas insect professor. His van had been packed with spiders. Sleeping under the stars seemed safer." It had been quiet that night.
Today I-70 generated a constant grind of traffic.
Brock and I climbed the hundred-foot high earthen pyramid. The Mississippi shone in the distance. Tall trees blotted out most of the present.
"It could almost be any time, if you shut your ears." Brock filmed our surroundings.
The highway was closer than I remembered from 1972.
Five miles down the road a rival mound had ben constructed from garbage.
No one was allowed to climb on garbage dump and we rode over the Mississippi into St. Louis.
"St. Louis must have looked different in the day." Brock focused on the Arch.
"It was once the fourth largest city in the USA."
"58th." I had read that information online at the motel.
"Towns disappear. Cities can vanish." Brock had seen both phenomenas in Afghanistan.
In 1996 Barry Flanagan had erected the Nijinsky Hare next to the new St. Louis Hockey Arena. I recounted Bobby Orr's goal against the Blues to Brock. I doubted the Checkerdome's replacement had a photo of that iconic goal.
"What do you think of the Hare?" Brock broke out his camera. He was shooting commando-style without a permit.
"The Hare is good for all." I told myself that I had to read something about these statues.
Brock interviewed workers and commuters coming off the trolley.
Everyone liked the Hare.
After leaving the Gateway City we meandered up the Mississippi. The river lapped over the banks. Floods were a serious business along the Father of All Waters.
We waited for the ferry.
"Do you have any friends out in the Fly-Over?" asked Brock.
"In Kansas City and Iowa."
"Are you going to see them?"
"I guess." I hadn't seen Ray or Rockford in years. "They'll give you another view of America."
"Barry will like that."
And me too.
I turned west at Louisiana and crossed the river on the Champ Clark Bridge. The five-span truss bridge ran high over the Mississippi for over 2000 feet.
"Good-bye, Illinois," said Brock, filming our passage.
"And hello Missouri." It was a second time in the Show Me State today.
We were on our way to Kansas City and according to Wilbert Harrison, "They had a lot of pretty girls there."
And one of Barry's hares too.