Schuyler Lawhead, 89He sits in the same booth of the same diner he's sat in almost every day for years. "Buddy's Grand BBQ" on Grand Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. He seems as much a part of the place as the sauce pit and the burger grill. They say he can tell you something about everyone in town, including those he's outlived through the decades.
He claims to have been born within a month of Capone in 1899. A WWI veteran and life-long astronomy buff, for years after the Great War he traveled through surrounding counties with a second-hand telescope in the back of a horse-drawn cart, offering glimpses of the moon and planets for spare change and conversation. He resided with his only living relative, his spinster sister Charmagne, from 1919 until her death in 1978. Since then, he has been looked after by the neighborhood locals who can't imagine Hot Springs without Schuyler Lawhead and his encyclopedic knowledge of the town and its most famous visitor.
I hadn't planned on meeting Schuyler. "Buddy's" was one of a hundred places I could have stopped at for a quick bite before catching the plane back to Chicago. My waitress, Debby, just happened to be assertively conversational. When I told her why I had interviewed the mayor, the county historian, and several townspeople, she pointed toward an ancient gentleman in the corner booth. He was all but lost within his shabby oversized coat.
"There's your fella," she said. Though I was seated facing him, I hadn't noticed the nondescript old man until she pointed him out.
Without this series of random events, I would have never encountered Schuyler Lawhead.
Yep, I was here then. Like ever'body else, he come for some clean fun gambling and playing the horses. And for the bathhouses, of course. This was a vacation spot for him and his bigwig friends, yes sir. Their getaway place. I was here. In fact, if it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't be here now writing another book about him. That's a fact. But I can tell you something all them other books ain't got. Not one of 'em tells you what really happened here, what made ol' Al Capone from Chicago the greatest President this country ever seen! (He pounds a fist on the table.) If it wasn't for me, why he'd a-been just another rich fella with no more to his name than, well, whatever he had before he come to Hot Springs that summer. It was Nineteen and Twenty-Six. The great Perseid meteor shower was about to rain stars down on us, like it does every August. They say shooting stars is just dirt from space. That's what my pal Weems said. Just shows you what a little dirt can do, don't it?
Oh, hell no. Pompeii. 'Course, we also had the race track, Oaklawn Park. That's what they called it before it was the Capone Americana Amusement Center. Along with the spas, the track brought us both fame and fortune. Mayor McLaughlin(1) saw to it that hot water flowed into the bathtubs as long as cash flowed through the horsebooks, casinos, and the courts. In the spring, you could hear the crowds hollering and the hooves pounding the turf. School kids knew everyday what the daily double paid. They laid odds and gambled away their lunch money. Them was good times. Not that nowadays ain't a whole lot better! You be sure to get that down that I said so. These days is a helluva lot better. I'm grateful to have been here to see it all happen, yes sir.
He signals for the waitress, Debby. He tells her to bring us a bottle of The Boss's best. She looks at me and I nod, reaching for my wallet. She smiles and brings us a bottle of "Boss" gin and two glasses.
Can you believe that once you had to go to special stores to get good booze? Hell, I made my own for fifteen years, before them big chain marts moved in and took all my customers away. You weren't even allowed to drink it if you was a kid. Yes sir, these are good times.
You mean An American Dream?
Yeah, that's it. Fine picture. They say Al himself had a hand in writing it, so it must all be true. Anyway, it showed how he started out as this poor shoe-shine boy from Brooklyn, then pulled himself up to be a successful, tough-as-nails business man, a man of the people who never done no one no harm. That's the picture where they made a Hollywood set of Hot Springs. Some of it, anyway. They made the Arlington Hotel and the Superior, the same bathhouse where I worked! There was that scene in the Superior where Steiger, playing Al, first meets up with Scofield, who's Robert Bishop. It shows how ol' Robert got his nickname, "Kingmaker." Boy, he was that, all right. Bishop coulda made a mule king of England if he thought there was advantage in it. They say that was the turning point in Al's life, you know. His meeting Bishop. But they got it dead wrong in the movie. Al never did meet him first in that bathhouse. I know, 'cuz I was there when they met. I was the reason they met. If they hadn't met each other, things woulda turned out real different. But if it hadn't been for me, they never woulda met at all.
How do you mean?
Now you just hold your balls, boy. I'll get there.
The comet falls slowly, but it gathers speed as it heads down toward the center. The prickly breath of the solar wind begins to affect its fragile surface. While the ice falls, the third planet revolves around its star a little over two million times.
I remember when Al and his friends would come to the Superior. Everyday I washed the towels in this big tub the owner, Miz Raines, had ready for me. Kept 'em warm on the radiators and had 'em stacked neat for the customers. It was the only job I could get after the war. My folks died when I was sixteen. That's when I went into the army. After that, it was just me and my sister. Miz Raines said the good Lord gotta keep his eyeballs peeled overtime for some folks, so she let me work at the Superior. She kept a radio by the ironing table. I liked The Ozark Jamboree and Ma Perkins and Russ Morgan's orchestra from way out in California. The news was about presidents that couldn't hold onto the reins more than two terms, and foreign places like I saw during the war. But mostly the radio told me that the world was where bad things happened. It told me that being in the bathhouse was better than being anywhere else, where folks were meaner and bullets took away more than just birds and deer at hunting season.
He reaches into his coat as if to pull something from a pocket. He pauses with his hand hidden in the folds. After a moment, he returns it to the table before him, empty.
Al used to soak at the Superior whenever he come to town. That year he brought fellas you've read about and seen played in the movies. There was his brother Ralph. And Frank Rio. Danny Seritella. Later on, they was some of his most trusted cabinet members. In them days, you heard the word "Dago" an awful lot when the Capone boys were in town. But after he first got elected President, you didn't hear that word nowhere. That shows you the kind of good he did.
It passes the bloated outer planets without being trapped within their immense bowls of gravity. It speeds past a dry, red world where, long before, wide eyes would have noted its passing. It falls slipping onward until at last it rolls around the sun and relaxes into its own long orbit in this basement drain of the solar system. The solar wind touches what has been undisturbed since the object's birth. Ice and dust and gravel erupt from the nucleus and blow away on the particle breeze. The comet spills itself along its orbit, sprinkling a littered path that it renews at every curve of its endless fall around the sun.
Schuyler reaches into another pocket and pulls out a dollar coin. He stares at Capone's profile on it.
During the Great Depression, I used to listen to Al on the radio. He'd be traveling around, him and Rob and Jack, and he'd be giving speeches about Communists and corruption and making this country great again. I remember his Labor Day speech of '34. His Spread the Wealth speech. I joined his team right then and there. I said, "Now, there's a man who's talking sense! He's talking to me and I like what I'm hearing!" Sure, he was rich, he had money when no one else did, but he was like you and me. He wasn't no goddamn politician neither. Yes sir. A man of the people.
For the eighth August since the end of the Great War, he is having a star party in the open field at the end of Bathhouse Row, so everybody can see the famous Perseid meteor shower. Not far away is the Arlington Hotel, where the rich tourists stay. That morning, Miz Raines let him hang a sign in front of the Superior: NIGHTTIME TONIGHT! SEE REAL FALLING STARS! SEE THE HEAVENS THRU A REAL TELESCOPE! A NICKEL A LOOK! Underneath, an arrow points the way. He always goes home with his pockets jingling when the Perseids come to town.
He hands me an envelope from his coat. From it I withdraw a tattered, yellowed newspaper clipping. Its print is now barely legible, but the photo is the famous shot of Capone and FDR in front of the White House.
Lookie here. This was when Al's star really started to shine. Nineteen and forty-four. Franklin Roosevelt needed hisself a new vice president. Well, Al was flying high in the papers and on the radio, and was already right there at Roosevelt's side, thanks to that poor Senator What's-his-name who done shot himself. (3) So Roosevelt had the best man for the job right there ready to do his public duty.
He digs around in his coat and pulls out a large, folded sheet of paper. He takes another drink, then carefully unfolds the paper. It's the cover of a LIFE magazine. President Capone is posing with his second wife (Cissy Patterson, former editor of the Washington Herald) and three sons in front of the White House Christmas tree.
December, 1951. Just before he started his third term. The same month he got on national television and made his Strong Arm speech. Remember that? I tell ya, Al knew how to get good men on his team. After Secretary of State Luciano come back from Europe and Asia, all that shit them countries was giving us stopped real quick, didn't it? Why, I remember the day when Secretary of Defense Eisenhower first went to Japan. He said, "We are here to help, and we are here to stay." Yep, makes you proud to see what we've done over there since. They got us at Pearl Harbor, then they was the first to get nuked for their own good, but now we're letting 'em all work for the best boss in the world, the good ol' US of A.
By now the sky is proper night dark, except for the lights from the Arlington. In the south there's Sagittarius. "God's teapot," Schuyler calls it. "With the Milky Way pouring out like steam across the sky."
He searches through his coat again. This time he shows me an old-fashioned door key. It's long, black and heavy, with an ornate handle.
Now this here is 1957. The same year Governor Faubus got called to Washington to head up the new Federal Police Force. Them was wild times. I'd hear on the radio about them bombings in Harlem and at them colleges. No one ever did find out who done it. And every so often you hear about it happening again and the Feds round up a lot of folks who look like they coulda done it and no one ever sees 'em again. So I guess that's good. They're trying to keep us safe, which is what I pay my taxes for. Yes sir. Them was good times for Hot Springs, but hard times for some of us. The year before, we elected a new mayor, but he got killt in a car accident, so the next mayor was this young fella who was part of that "Al Generation" the radio yap-jawed so much about back then. Well, he jumped on the bandwagon after the government made prostitution officially legal and all right. Pleasure businesses was cropping up all over the country. Now, it's a man's right to get his needs taken care of by the government. That's what them politicians are up there for, ain't it? But Miz Raines didn't see it that way, not with her bathhouse, no sir. One night, the mayor and a bunch of his police come in for a soak and a sauna. I was working that night. We treated 'em like kings, then they up and busted the place real good. Hit me upside my head real hard. All I was doing was standing there calling "Miz Raines! Miz Raines!" and the next thing I knew I was at home with my sister Charmagne putting something cold on my head.
It isn't long before he sees Robert Bishop approaching from the Arlington. Schuyler recognizes him from the local paper. Bishop is in from New York City, taking a vacation from all his rich friends.
He reaches into his coat again. This time he hands me a small plastic bust of President Capone, no different from countless others. He points to the underside of the figure's base. It reads "Made in the American Republic of China." I shrug and hand it back to him. He grins, unveiling stained false teeth.
Mao about getting me outta this here cement? Get it? Yeah. There's other ways it goes, too, like "Mao about getting me outta this Great Wall" or "Get me out from under this 50-yard-line." Guess we'll never know the real punch line, will we? Heh.
Three men step away from the line, where they have been waiting while Robert Bishop is having his conniption. Two big men in dark suits. Another man in a suit and fancy hat. The man with the hat is in the middle. He says something real soft to the other two, and they step up and take Bishop by the arms. Then he steps forward. Schuyler sees that it's Mr. Capone the business man, who asked him to turn up the radio playing jazz music six days ago. Capone is pulling his arm back, ready to punch Bishop in the face for being a pain in the ass. Schuyler breathes a short prayer of gratitude. Then someone yells "Look!" and the biggest meteor Schuyler has ever seen flashes all the way across the sky. All eyes follow it from one side of the sky to the other. Schuyler's. Capone's. Bishop's. The two guys holding Bishop in place. It looks close enough to touch, a streak of fire like a Fourth of July rocket, or a star that really is falling. Or Weems dropping in for one last wave goodbye. That's what Schuyler is thinking about.
What do you think President Capone will be most famous for?
Boy, that's a toughie. Let's see. Well, I say it'll be for the space program. What with the Apollo missions that got us the first Moon landing in '67. Even after he passed on, they kept Apollo going strong, then followed that up with the Artemis program and that Moonbase. Them Ares ships really are gonna give us a piece of the action on Mars, just like they say. Kennedy Industries is heading to the asteroids. Them Galileo probes are at Jupiter. And we got American rocket bases all over the Earth, so we can launch 'em and land 'em as fast as they can build 'em. I always wanted to be a 'stronomer, maybe work in a big ol' observatory or in one of them fancy planetariums. I ain't never had no kidswell, none that I know of (Laughs)but if I did, my grandsons would be up there on the Moon or on their way to Mars or working for Kennedy. Just so their old granddad could see it! Yeah. I'd like that.
That's her. He was a good Catholic, a family man. He didn't tolerate fooling around. That's in all the books. Who knows why she hung herself? It was Hollywood. They're crazy out there.
He pours more gin into his glass. He takes a gulp and some dribbles down his chin. He doesn't seem to notice.
I remember the day he got sent to Hoover Memorial Hospital, in '76, during the biggest goddamn birthday party America's ever seen. It was as much a party for him as anything. He made this country what it is today. It's a crying shame his health went bad on him. 'Course, being The Boss'd put a strain on anybody. But all the best doctors and all them fancy machines couldn't keep God from bringing him home. You always hear people say, "Where were you when you heard The Boss died?" Well, I was right here, right here at Buddy's. At that table over yonder. Debby'd just brung me my eggs and biscuits. She said she heard it on the radio. We just sat there and cried together. Debby's a good girl. She loved The Boss like ever'body else done. Yes sir, I remember that day.
From his coat he removes three softbound books. They are battered and worn, their titles printed on featureless gray covers. They are crudely printed and bound. Schuyler glances around, then quickly pushes them toward me.
You ever heard of this fella? This Noam Chomsky? Or this one, Bob Woodward? Or Harlan Ellison? No? Yes sir, the Helms Act shut them up real permanent, you betcha. (He chuckles.) Yeah. Real permanent.
I push them away and ask, "Don't you have a copy of the Banned list?" The waitress has returned and asks if we'd like anything else. Schuyler scoops the illicit material into his coat. The waitress asks if everything is all right. He coughs and nods. She gives Schuyler a long look, then returns to the kitchen.
(He whispers.) Kept these hidden for a long time. Even when the Federal Police broke in for one of their checks. I never read 'em, no sir. Just like to keep 'em, that's all. Don't like them Federal Police and their boss Bush anyhow. Don't care what Chief Justice Nixon said back in, back in, whatever the hell year it was. Fuck 'em.
In two seconds the meteor is gone. But by then, Bishop is sobered up enough to say that he is sorry to Mr. Capone. Bishop says, "Let me buy you a drink." Capone looks at him for a moment, then tells his boys to let him loose. Capone says to Bishop, "Meet me inside," and Bishop walks back to the Arlington without saying a word to Schuyler. Bastard, Schuyler thinks.
He tops off my gin, then empties the bottle into his glass. He stares out the window, up into the thin midday clouds.
Some say he never did die, that he's still alive up there in one of them military space stations, all secret-like, running things like God hisself on high! Boy howdy, I'd like that to be true. I voted Capone for twenty years and I'd do it again if I could. Yes sir, if he is up there somewhere, I'd like to remind him that he owes ol' Schuyler Lawhead big! He owes me! If it wasn't for me, things woulda been real different for him, let me tell ya.
I ask him what he means by that. For a long moment he doesn't speak. Then he asks me for a dollar. He gets up and shuffles toward the juke box near the men's room. Punches up "Our Pal Al" by Frank Sinatra. When he returns, he taps his fingers without rhythm on the tabletop between us.
During the Great War, I had a buddy. Name of Tim. Tim Williams. We all called him Weems. From Kansas City. He was, oh, about twenty, a few years older'n me. A real nice fella. Smart, too. He knew all sorts of things about the stars. We'd be in the trenches and he'd point up into the night sky and say "That's Polaris, the North Star, around which all the heavens turn!" Or "There's Mars, bloody god of war." Or "There's the mighty hunter Orion, chasing the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades through the night." He talked like that. His head was full of stories about the stars and how the constellations got their names. He knew all the planets in order, all the way out to King Neptune. We spent whole nights on guard duty with him telling me about the universe. I thought my head was going to bust with all the knowing, but I still wanted to know more. He let me borrow his books about the stars so I could read more about 'em.
He reaches a hand inside his coat and slowly pulls out a small, leather-bound book. He holds it up as if it were something religious. It's "A Boy's Guide to the Sky," by Dr. Todd.
He give me this the night he died. (He pauses.) At Meuse-Argonne. Shrapnel, all through his gut. The next morning, I helped pull him in from the field. We brung him back and I stood by him until they put him in the box and sent him home.
The man with the hat comes up to Schuyler and says, "I'd like a look, please." And Schuyler says to Mr. Al Capone from Chicago, "That'll be a nickel." Capone places a nickel into Schuyler's outstretched hand, then looks at Jupiter through the telescope for a long time.
Schuyler stops his story. The gin has taken hold, and he sits there lost in memories he never reveals. I don't press. I use the moment to check my watch, then look around for the waitress, who is on the phone. She waves the bill at me, nodding. After a while, she hangs up the phone and brings me the bill. She gives Schuyler a worried look.
(Schuyler leans forward.) It was all because of me. If my ma and pa hadn't died when I was a young'n, I might not've gone into the army when I did. I woulda never met Weems. If Weems and me hadn't been together in the war, and gone to that trench in France, and if that German soldier hadn't been there to cut Weems in two, I woulda never looked up and seen his soul flashing out there among those stars. I woulda never learned astronomy. I woulda never done the star party. Hell, what if there'd been no meteors that night?
The night after this interview, Schuyler Lawhead was arrested and sent to a Rehab Camp. The Federal Police had received a tip about Schuyler possessing books on the Banned list. One week later, he died shortly after a lengthy interrogation.
# # #
(1) Mayor Tom McLaughlin. Later, a U.S. Senator (Strong Arm Party) 1952-66. Back.
(2) Kingmaker, by Robert Cyril Bishop, Patterson Press Worldwide, 1960. Back.
(3) Senator Harry Truman (D-Mo.), who gained prominence as head of a committee investigating corruption in the defense industry, was found dead in his home in April 1944. Capone gained favor by voluntarily leading an investigation into, in his words, "the tragic end of a fellow American." His report concluded that the death was indeed a suicide. Back.
(4) See Part VI, Where the Money Is: President Capone's Race into Space. Back.
(5) By the Rockets' Red Glare: Building America's Muscle Overseas, by President Al Capone, Patterson Publishing, 1955. Rev., 1962. New edition, revised and expanded by President Alphonse Kennedy, 1968, 1976, (with R. B. Cheney) 1988. Back.
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