In a riverfront honky-tonk deep in the South, the sliding doors open to the verandah, women sat on bar stools wistfully blowing cigarette smoke at the stars.
It was the kind of forlorn place where a man could bring his bird dog and let it curl up on the floor between the stools, and you could never tell which one stunk worse - the man or the dog.
Time was of no consequence in this place, here on the river, in the darkness, where the hours and minutes were marked by the bug zappers incinerating their random catch. Yes, the Universe was clearly at work, here, now, in this honky-tonk where men and women wandered in drawn by the Big Mystery.
I never did get the name of that bar, but there's one thing I'll always remember about that place. It was where I first met Jim and Bugsy.
Their table was heaped with the remnants of peel-and-eat shrimp and empty beer bottles. I'd accidentally bumped into a corner of the table on the way to the john, a bit sodden myself, when I whirled around to see Bugsy splendid in his Vintager apparel and Jim in a shooting vest and baseball cap.
They looked up at me - more startled than menacing. Both sported long, thick cigars, and I remembered what Freud once said.
Taking in the scene I thought "these men are my kind of men." So I decided to hold it in and rather than hit the john, and asked, "Can you buy you gents a beer for the inconvenience?"
Bugsy broke out laughing and turned to Jim: "Can you believe this guy?"
Jim simply nodded, world weary and wise.
"Of course you can buy us a beer," Bugsy shouted.
"Hefeweizen with a wedge of lemon?"
"Sure, why the hell not?" Bugsy shouted.
Jim simply waved his hand, as though to say, que sera, sera
"Miss, oh, miss," I called to the barmaid. "Three Hefeweizen with a wedge of fresh lemon, if you please."
She was young and lithe with a tank tap and no bra and she leaned over into the ice box, drawing the attention of the great rough slab of tramp-steamer maleness, each of them shanghaied to this forsaken place, here on the river, and she put three long-necked Snake Venom Ales on the bar in front of me.
"We're outta lemon wedges, handsome" she said. "Start a tab for you and your pals?"
"That would be excellent," I said. "By the way, do you have any coasters?"
She turned away, and resumed her conversation with the burly men at the end of the bar.
"Hey, you gonna eyeball those beers all night or bring 'em over here?" Bugsy said.
"Sorry about the coasters," I said sitting down. "Fielding-Clapp, Cletus."
Bugsy had a mischievous glint in his eyes, his face part pugilist, part English professor. Jim wore a scruffy beard, his dark penetrating orbs awash in a secret sea of resignation whose powerful tides shifted with the whims of Lady Luck. I couldn't help but notice he wore an orthopedic shoe with a platform sole; one leg was longer than the other.
Their cigar smoke enshrouded us in a place within a place, here on the lazy river. The bar opened directly on to the water, giving the impression that we were on a slow boat to the end of the world.
"Shrimp?" Bugsy asked, pushing the plastic basket toward me.
"That's extremely generous," I said, "but I have a shellfish allergy."
"No worries," Jim said. "I always carry antihistamines."
I put forth a polite smile. "So I see you chaps are into shotguns."
Bugsy broke out laughing. "Hey, this guy's a regular Sherlock Holmes," he said to Jim."
"Don't start," Jim said.
"Actually, I write for Shotgun Life."
"I love it," Bugsy shouted. "Man, we've got something for you to write about."
"Well, fire away."
"That's a challenge we'll gladly accept," Bugsy said. "Go ahead, Jim-bo, you go first."
"I think I will."
It turned out, that Jim was a dentist, originally from Long Island. He ended up down South to attend dental school in Charleston, South Carolina. And that's when he started getting into shooting -- at the end of dental school and his first residency.
He got invited on his first dove shoot, borrowing a neighbors bolt-action 16 gauge. It was old and weird. "I was hooked. I had a knack for it, and killed my limit rather quickly," Jim recalled.
Well, by now Jim is married with three children and a successful dental practice.
Jim had also turned into a dove-hunting addict; and after doves he got hooked on quail. When he couldn't hunt birds, he started to shoot skeet. If it flied, it died, whether it sported feathers or fluorescent orange, it was going down. And as he got deeper and deeper into the shotgun sports, he joined a shooting club in Charleston, which was where he met Bugsy.
After skeet, Jim and Bugsy discovered sporting clays. They started to shoot competitively. Every weekend, Jim was out shooting - and it didn't matter what the heck it was...doves, quail, skeet, sporting clays...
Jim was telling all of this to me, until he paused for a moment of deep reflection., where he gazed into his fate like a warrior about to face the battle of his life... "Then I got bit by the tick," he said.
Bugsy nodded to me, puffing on his cigar.
"It's back in '94," Jim said. "I was on a dove hunt in Somerville, South Carolina. I got a tick bite without even noticing it - until the rash. Things started falling apart...neurological problems...my balance gave way and I started having pains and troubles with my legs.
"For almost two years, no one could diagnose it as Lyme's disease. I went to urologists, neurologists and internists. People weren't aware of Lyme's disease at this point -- and they never tested him for it. Mostly I was tested for MS, and it always came back negative.
"You see, Cletus, the doctors didn't really believe that Lyme's disease made its way all the way down south. You know, it was first detected in Lyme Connecticut.
"In the meantime my situation is deteriorating. Well, I finally got lucky. My sister and brother-in-law are physicians, and when they finally identified the problem, they put me on antibiotics immediately. And they also hooked me up with the head of infectious disease in Columbia, in South Carolina. My sister pulled strings."
Jim pushed out his chair. He showed me his orthopedic shoe. "That's what Lyme's Disease will do to you. You tell your readers, first to spray before they go out to hunt, and if they're bitten, they should run, not walk, to get treated."
"Jim, you gotta face it, you've always been jinxed," Bugsy said. "Falling on those fire ants...that woman who got sick on the plane next to you when we flew to Argentina..."
"Well, I do live under a cloud," Jim told me. "But I've never been..." He gave Bugsy a meaningful glance that only men who've seen it can know how meaningful it really is.
Bugsy nodded. He took a long, enjoyable puff on his cigar. "Heck, Cletus, what I've been through, that's just one more good story to tell."
And he proceeded to tell it with a flourish...
His introduction to the shotgun sports was more sordid than Jim's. At about 14, his parents introduced him to shooting in Savannah at the Forest City Gun Club in Savannah. They took him there because it was a private club and they could drink on Sundays.
As the years passed, he never lost of his love of shooting. He started a home-building company in Columbia, South Carolina called Colony Builders.
"That was 25 years ago when I started at Colony," he said wistfully, puffing on his cigar.
Well, in the great tradition of the South, Bugsy introduced his son, Bugsy II, to hunting. In 1998, the father took his son for his first shooting trip outside of the U.S., to Mexico, in John Wayne territory: Rio Bravo.
To minimize any dangers, Bugsy decided to stay in Texas. From their base in McAllen, Bugsy and Bugsy II would cross the Pharr Bridge and make day hunts South of the Border. Bugsy knew his outfitter well and they always adhered to the same routine. Pick-up at around noon, shoot until 6:00 or 7:00 on the preserve, and then to the world-famous La Cucaracha in Reynosa for dinner.
It was the kind of routine that men followed through the ages - for time immemorial -until such said day, when out of the blue, it happened...
"The horror," he said, gazing into the darkness, beyond the slow river.
"Well...," Jim said.
Bugsy, never one to lose his composure while telling a good story, sucked it up and resumed his compelling narrative.
"We were hunting some five miles from Rio Bravo when a storm came up," he recalled. "There had been a misty rain, the kind of rain that chills men to the bones and makes you want to brew up a strong cup of Earl Grey tea.
"So we get there, three vehicles full of hunters. It clears up and the rain quits. The day before it was all dry so you could drive to the spot but now it was all gumbo and you had to walk. We walk into the field - my son and myself and the two bird boys, and we're out in the field, it begins to rain again. I don't mind the rain but I don't like the lightning. You know what I mean, Cletus?"
I nodded, a somber nod, reserved for men of few words, like Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
But off in the distance, lightning had hit an electrical transformer - causing a loud explosion. "By my count, 1, 2, 3, I figured it was about 10 miles away," Bugsy said.
Bugsy and Bugsy II decided to take shelter under a nearby mesquite tree. What they didn't know, unfortunately, was that it was the devil mesquite tree.
Yes, of all the mesquite trees in all of Mexico, they unbeknownst to them stood under the mesquite tree that went by the name of El Diablo. But before any of the outfitters could warn the two men, Bugsy II had asked his father "What are the chances of getting hit by lightning here?"
Suddenly, it came up out of the ground and hit Bugsy, lifted him off the ground like El Diablo itself, and threw him down with a body slam that would've made Hulk Hogan proud. A fireball ran down the outside of the gun and there was a huge explosion.
"I'm going to tell you something, Cletus, that was my moment of truth. Because if that bolt of lighting had gone inside the gun, well, just let me say that I had three shells in that guy and it sure as hell would've gone off and killed both me and my son," Bugsy said. "Yes, it would've...got us both."
There was a silent aftermath, the kind of long silence that makes men wonder, in the solitude of the vast nothingness where men have dwelled among other men in a silence of their own, wonder to themselves as they barely move their lips "It sure is mighty quiet - too quiet."
At first, Bugsy II thought his father had fired the gun.
Bugsy remembered what followed as clear as if he were laying in that field now.
"In my calmest voice, I said 'I've been hit by lighting, I'm hurt and you need to go get help.'"
You can imagine the fortitude of this man amongst men.
From the waist down he could feel nothing whatsoever. There was a tremendous pain in his left arm, so that he actually thought it had been knocked off and sent flying clear across the field.
There was blood, plenty of it coming from somewhere and he truly believed that his arm had been knocked off and sent flying across the field, where now the vultures had gathered. And they weren't ordinary vultures. They were the vultures known as El Diablo.
"I pulled on my arm to see if it was attached -- so I realized I didn't need a tourniquet. There was no wound either," he described with the most masculine fortitude I'd ever heard.
As fate would have it, the wound was on his hand and it came from falling on broken glass - also known as the tears of El Diablo.
"My son runs off, through the gumbo, to get some help, and I'm on the ground, can move a thing from the waist down, and there are the bird boys, speaking Spanish to me," Bugsy recalled. "Speaking Spanish."
"Yes, Spanish is a very manly language," I said.
Bugsy and Jim gave me a solemn nod.
"It took them about 40 minutes to get back though the gumbo, to find the guide on the other side of the field, and explain what happened and get them back to me," Bugsy said. "I'd been hunting with him for about eight years and when he saw me laying there and he said, 'Bugsy what have you done now?'"
Bugsy insisted they take him to the hospital on the other side of the border. It was the hospital known among the muscular men in this part of the world for its cherry Jell-O with fruit cocktail in it.
They got Bugsy to his feet - a brotherhood of hunters that has rung true and square through the millennium, and got him into Rio Bravo where they got a cab back to Texas. It was now about 7:00 PM, on a Saturday night, in the emergency room of a border-town hospital.
And he waited.
"By 10:00, they were bringing in the fighting victims, the knife fights, the fights of honor fought by men against men in parking lots with no name," Bugsy said.
By time the doctors got around to Bugsy, his
blood pressure was 200 over 150 (normal is about 110 over 70). The doctors gave him several doses of medicine to lower his blood pressure, sewed up his hand and kept him on a heart monitor over night.
The next morning, the doctor comes in and says to me "You were really lucky."
"Let's see if I understand, doc. I'm in a field with 15 guys, I get hit by lightning, and you call that lucky. I think I'd like a second opinion. The doctor said 'that's not what I meant' and I said I know what you meant."
"Yes, now I know what you mean," I said. "Yes, yes, yes."
Jim was puffing on his cigar through Bugsy's tale of his travails. "Hey, Cletus, let me ask you something."
"Want to go shooting with Bugsy and me tomorrow?"