It sounded like a lawnmower
at first, a really big one. Joey and I didn't think anything of it but Tony shot to his feet, tipping over his chair in the process and darted down the hall toward the back bedroom. I was about to mention that it was far too loud to be a lawnmower when the projectiles started hitting the house
. Joey yelled "It's a machine gun
, we're under attack" and dove underneath the kitchen table just as the window shattered behind him. I sat dazed for a moment until I heard something whiz past my head and I decided to join him. The terrible "thwack thwack thwack" against the side of the house didn't sound like one machine gun but a bunch of them. The lawnmower began to sound more like a helicopter
We were aware that Tony ran with a tough crowd but we didn't think it might involve commando raids. The dark corners of his life were populated by colorful, some might say dangerous, characters but that was half of the fun. Joey and I were barely in our teens and we could learn more on any given day with Tony than we could in a year on the street. We knew that he hung out with bikers but they rarely wielded machine guns; this sounded more like a full-scale military assault on Tony's suburban kitchen.
Joey found a lima bean sized stone amid the shards of broken glass and then another, as we cowered under the table. He held one of the small rocks up in front of my face while the barrage against the house intensified. The realization that it wasn’t bullets that were assailing us provided little comfort when an incoming pebble ricocheted off the wall and caught Joey in the arm. "Ow," he yelped, "let's get the Hell out of here!"
We crawled gingerly across the shards of glass and stones, "ouching" our way toward the basement steps and nearly tripped Tony as he ran back from the bedroom. He carried a large brass ring with about a hundred keys in one hand and a battery operated megaphone in the other. He told us to get on our feet and follow him as he ran for the back door. I'm sure Joey was thinking the same thing as me, that the basement seemed like a better idea than the rock storm, but we followed Tony. In addition to being a hugely charming cat, Tony was a real live pirate and a badass and a biker's biker. He rarely barked a command but if he said, "jump" you answered "from which building?" Tony was Bwana.
Despite his roguish demeanor, Tony was also a deeply sensitive individual. He called Joey "J" and he called me "Slick" and treated us like we were his own children. There wasn't much love in his own family growing up so he compensated with his friends and associates. Tony paused as he opened the back door and spoke calming words to the obvious concern on our young faces.
"Don't worry little dudes, it's just my dad."
Tony came up the hard way, under the softest circumstances. His father always brought home plenty of dough but his main contribution to the family was expanding discipline. Tony went through the rebellious phase that we all encounter in adolescence but when his irresistible force met his father's immovable object, something had to give. Things were said and done which could never be taken back so, at sixteen, Tony left home with a motorcycle gang
and never returned.
Shortly after travelling with the pack from Minnesota to California Tony was diagnosed with debilitating polio. He was stricken with a disease that had been effectively eradicated and was one of the last unfortunate souls to bear its burden. The spread of the contagion had been halted near his left hip so he only lost the use of one leg. The lifeless limb was not removed but braced and attached to a weighted shoe. He developed a broad sweeping gait, throwing the braced left leg out and forward in an arc, then following with the healthy right. Tony resembled a pirate on a peg leg and grew to fit the role.
His parents weren't even aware of the polio until more than a decade after the fact. The motorcycle gang was his only family throughout his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from the disease and they were ever faithful. The bikers raised money, through various means to cover his hospitalization and physical therapy. When he emerged from the rehab center with the leg brace, they gave him a job working on their bikes. He developed a knack for pinstriping that became his trade and then his specialty. His locomotion around a motorcycle or car in a crouched position required the use of both of his arms so he held the paintbrush in his teeth.
Tony cultivated singular fame as an artist, rather than a tradesman and word of the mad pirate genius who pinstripes with his teeth spread from biker to biker around the globe. Commissions from Europe and Asia became commonplace and his work was uniformly categorized as the best of its kind, with no allowance made for his handicap.
He was Leonardo in leathers.
Tony's old man went on to become a big shot at Westinghouse
and Tony ended up with his own body shop. He hadn't spoken to his Dad since the day he left home, unless you count the megaphone. When his father was promoted to regional vice president he bought a helicopter
to cover his territory and when business demanded that he travel to Minnesota he'd run strafing missions on his estranged son's body shop. Tony had long since meant to pave the gravel parking lot but it would have cost a fortune and he thought the old man would give up or die soon enough. His mother had written and told him that his father was all but retired, almost legally blind
, his driver's license had been revoked but he was still "messing around with that damned whirly bird
Tony motioned for us to follow as he ran out the back door, across the driveway, toward the body shop. The monstrous thing was hovering about fifty feet above the driveway, altering its pitch and yaw to throw rocks in different directions. We cowered behind one of the outbuildings while Tony rifled through the jangling keys, cursing just under his breath, "where's the f**kin' key to the T-bird," then, "Got it!" He maneuvered the key from the ring and handed it to Joey, "get the Thunderbird, Now! I'll cover you." He held up the megaphone by way of reassurance.
Joey looked at the key in his hand and then across the field of hurtling geologic shrapnel and then up at Tony's bullhorn. "You gotta save the T-bird, J." Joey rose as though he was hypnotized and began running serpentine toward the classic automobile. Tony yelled obscenities and taunts through the megaphone at amazing volumes that actually overcame the din of the chopper.
"STAY AWAY FROM THE T-BIRD YOU OLD PRICK, OR I'LL KILL YOU, I SWEAR!"
Tony laid down the megaphone and began rifling through the key ring again. "The Jag's here someplace, it's got a yellow tag, I know it's here...screw it, get the Porsche...the black one, damn it!...Here, get the white Porsche behind the light post, go Now!" He slapped the key in my hand and retrieved the megaphone, as if to comfort me, "Go Slick, I'm counting on you little buddy."
We heard a lot of yelling out of Joey on the way to save the T-Bird so I decided to bag the serpentine method and run in a direct line toward the Porsche. I could hear Tony through the bullhorn behind me as I sprinted.
"THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING OLD MAN, I'M GONNA SHOOT OUT YOUR TAIL ROTOR, I'M NOT PLAYING ANYMORE!"
Pebbles were clipping me from every direction and just as I reached the relative safety of the car, a large one shattered the rear windshield. I tossed up plenty of gravel myself as I exited the driveway of the body shop.
I think I was fourteen at the time and while Tony would allow us to move the cars around the parking lot we could never take one out on the open road. Tony hadn't told me what to do with the Porsche, after all, he just told me to get it out of harm's way. With the hurly-burly behind me, I noticed for the first time that I was behind the wheel of a bitchin' $90,000 European babemobile and decided to grab a quick McDonald's and show off the ride. A cute girl named Becky was working the drive-thru and she dug the wheels big time. When I told her the back window was shot out in a high-speed police chase she gave me her phone number. By the time I returned, the helicopter was gone and Tony and J were solemnly surveying the damage.
Tony was a little annoyed when he found the McDonald's wrapper but he was proud of me for saving the wheels and for getting the girl's number.
"What are you gonna do, Tony? Look at the side of your house." The house had hundreds of tiny stones embedded into the cedar siding and three of the windows were shattered. A half dozen cars sustained serious damage and a few of them were totally trashed. "He's getting braver, no doubt about it, his skids scraped the top of that skanky Oldsmobile this time." Tony didn't seem even mildly annoyed when he told us he had plenty of insurance to cover the damages.
He actually cracked a smile when he said that it was his old man's way of keeping in touch.