Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Not our day to die

©2008 Dave Knechel


In the early 90s, I was an ad artist for the Florida-based Belk Lindsey department store chain. In those days, I had my fair share of bars to choose from. One was Harper's Tavern, in Winter Park. Unfortunately, it burned down in 1996. Golly, how time flies. That was one of my favorite haunts and the owner, George Vogelbacher, also owned the adjacent French restaurant, Le Cordon Bleu. The tavern part was just a regular neighborhood hangout and the restaurant was high end French cuisine. I've seen Paul Newman dine there. George and his wife are from Switzerland and he has about the thickest, most guttural German accent I've ever heard. Hands down, George made the best French onion soup I've ever eaten. He used to buy my marinade in gallon containers and once told me it was a perfect recipe.

In the front corner of the tavern was a booth where some of Central Florida's most powerful men sat. The drinking kind, anyway. George eventually put a private phone with a dedicated line there for one patron in particular, John Schofield. John was probably one of the richest men in the area. Back then, he was a big guy and had a very commanding presence. He owned a brokerage firm and one of his claims to fame was some sort of deal that kept you from paying taxes on IRAs or CDs or something. I never really got into that financial stuff, so I never understood anything about it. I used to deliver my marinade early in the morning, hours before the bar or restaurant were open. On some of those mornings, John would be sitting at the bar drinking, eating breakfast and reading the Wall Street Journal. Much too early for me to drink, I always thought. One morning, I asked George why he did that for John, before the bartender or any of the staff came in.

"Dave," he said, "if you spent $3,000 a month here, I'd make you breakfast, too." I didn't have the nerve to ask him if that included the phone bill.

Saturdays were special days at Harper's. George's kitchen staff prepared a pretty decent buffet. I used to meet some of my friends there. We'd eat, have a couple of drinks, watch college football and meander over to Wayne Trout's house for more drinks and more football. Sometimes, we'd caravan up to - what we called - Fern Park Ballet, a region north of Winter Park where young ladies danced in little or no attire. Those were the days. Of course, I'm a lot older and wiser today, and besides, most of those places are closed down. What's left charge $20.00 a dance now AND the girls wear clothes. Or so I've been told. I'm no longer interested.

Our haunts in those early years were Harper's, Bailey's, Dubsdread and PR's. Except for Dubsdread, they were in the same neighborhood, and consequently, we'd run into a lot of the same people. Long before I got to know John, I knew his brother, Jeff. As a matter of fact, Jeff pretty much introduced me to John. Jeff was really a nice guy; polite, intelligent and a very good conversationalist. If you got to know Jeff, you had a lifelong friend.

Sometimes, my drinking buddies, like Wayne, Dave Stiglich, Larry Simo, Kerry Patrick and Tom & Linda Corkhill, would mosey on over to Harper's for more fun and drinks after happy hour was over at Bailey's, just as the perfume crowd, the beautiful people of Winter Park, started to show up. God, how we hated those diva's and their plastic boy toys. Heading over to Harper's usually meant I would eat, too. French onion soup and an excellent open-faced steak sandwich. It was a real steak on French bread and served with fries. Jessie bartended and she made very good drinks. Invariably, we'd run into Jeff, drink and cigarette in hand. John and his crowd would be gathered at his booth and it was a special day if you got to sit there and schmooze with the big boys.

One evening, Jeff asked me if I'd be interested in doing some work for his brother's company. Sure, I responded, what is it? He handed me a business card with a logo and asked if I could turn it into a large sign for an upcoming trade show. They needed it for their booth.

"What kind of a sign do you want?" I asked him.

"Well," Jeff responded, "we want a three dimensional cut-out of the logo that can be hung on the center wall of the booth. It needs to be about 6 feet wide. Can you do that?"

"Sure!" He took me over to his brother and we talked a little business. I always like to talk to people to get a feel of what they're looking for. After talking to John and Jeff, I knew exactly what to do. "Let me work up a price. Ill let you know early next week."

Working in the advertising department for Belk, I got to know the visual people. Visual departments take care of all the stuff you see on display in stores; signs, mannequins, glass cases, and just about everything you look at. The visual department uses a hot wire to cut out Styrofoam letters and designs from stencils. They can be of any thickness and are usually covered in faux finishes, like marble. Almost all cut-out store signs are made this way. I asked one of the guys if he'd be interested in making a little money on the side. Of course. He said he'd take $100 for doing the job, including the Styrofoam. I contacted Jeff and gave him a price of $500 and it was a done deal. Of course, I designed and cut out the template to pin to the plastic and did all the finishing work, like softening the edges.

One evening, I ran into John at Harper's. "Dave, if you do this job on time and under budget, I'll fly you up to the convention in New Orleans on my private jet."

"Of course I will," I told him. "You already have the price and I guarantee it will be ready long before the convention." I knew it had to be shipped up before the event opened.

I delivered the sign to Jeff at their office in Winter Park. "Are you going to Harper's later?" Sure, I said. "Good, I'll let you know what John thinks." When I saw him that evening, he told me John was very impressed. He said, not only did I do a much better job than their ad agency, but they would have charged over $2,000 for the job. "We fired them." Darn, I could have charged a lot more, but I've never been a gouger. As we approached the date to fly up there, Jeff told me not to worry about breakfast, that John would bring it. It was going to be a same day flight, up in the morning, back later that day. Don't be late.

I arrived at Orlando Executive Airport very early in the morning. John wasn't there yet, but Jeff had traveled to New Orleans a few days earlier. John only needed to fly up on the last day for meetings and to hang around the booth a little. While waiting, I got to know the pilot and co-pilot, brothers who flew John wherever and whenever he wanted to go. They were veteran pilots from the Vietnam War. One had been shot down 13 times when he flew helicopters. Finally, John showed up (but not late) with breakfast. I didn't know what to expect, coming from the wealthiest guy I had ever met, but it was nothing more than sausage biscuits and grits from Krystal. That morning, I learned money can never take the country out of a country boy.

When we lifted off the runway, it was an incredible ride. We were off the ground and cruising at 41,000 feet before I knew it. I asked the co-pilot if I could come up to the cockpit and take a look outside.

"Sure," and I did. You know what I saw? Nothing. Air. We were well above everything. I walked back and sat down. It was a pleasant flight. John didn't say much the whole trip up. Interestingly, we left at 7:30 and arrived at 7:30. As we taxied and came to a stop on the tarmac, a limousine was there to pick us up. Nice, I thought, but as I stepped off the jet, I was immediately hit with a solid, thick blast of heat and humidity. My shirt was drenched in sweat before I even sat down in the vehicle. Whew! Never had I felt that much stifling weather in my life. No way could I live there.

When we got to the hotel, John promptly disappeared with powerful, pampering people awaiting him. "Go up to see Jeff," he told me, and he was gone.


I took the elevator up to Jeff's room and he greeted me at the door. "I'll be ready in a few minutes. Sit down and relax." As he was getting ready, he shouted from his room. "You want to eat? Get a Bloody Mary? Have you ever been here? No? You want to see Bourbon Street?" He emerged moments later. "C'mon, lets go."

I was almost afraid to step out the door because of the intense heat, but I did. No way was I going to fly up to New Orleans only to stay inside a building somewhere. We went to a restaurant and ate. Of course, we had to savor the flavors of The Big Easy. That included drinks, one for me, more for Jeff. I've never been into drinking early in the day, but heck, I was in the Jazz capital of the world! Voodoo! I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, but it was near the hotel and Bourbon Street and the front was all glass. "Keep your money, Dave. The company will pay," he said, as we finished and got up to leave.

The walk down Bourbon Street was very interesting. Bars and honky tonk joints were everywhere. More restaurants. I saw sensational sights. Wrought iron railings on second floor balconies. Ivy on brick walls. Alleys that just oozed romance and history. Not all was pleasant though. I saw hollow store-front windows where, when the sun goes down, women - and men that look like women - ply their seedy goods. The streets and buildings reeked of the filth from the night before; booze, sweat, puke, garbage, sex and cheap perfume. Shop employees were hosing down their entryways and washing the streets. The combination of aromas still wafts in my mind to this very day.

We worked our way through the French Quarter to St. Louis Cathedral. From there, we walked to the New Orleans Convention Center and, finally, air conditioning. By then, I needed a good shower, but the coolness dried me off and I was never a smelly sweater. The trade show was huge. John was already there when we approached the booth.

"How was your tour?" he asked.

"Great," I responded.

"Jeff told me he was going to show you around. The sign looks great. I've had a lot of nice compliments. I told everyone who asked that my artist is here today. You never know, Dave." Nope, you never know. After a while, I asked Jeff if there were any shops nearby to buy some souvenirs. I ended up walking down to the Riverfront Marketplace and saw the Mississippi River for the very first time.

When I returned, I met a very nice gentleman and we struck up a conversation. We walked around and around that trade show for what seemed like hours, talking about everything besides finances. After all, my lack of knowledge would have made me out to be quite inept had I tried to feign even a remote amount of authority on the subject. He was a nice man. I remember talking about his grandchildren and my field of art and design, but little else now. Every time we walked past John's booth, Jeff would give me an approving nod. Eventually, it was time to close up shop and return home, so I said goodbye and offered a firm handshake to my new found friend. Of course, he gave me his card. Some institution of some kind in New York. When I got back to the booth, Jeff asked me, "Dave! Do you know who you were talking to? I mean, do you have any idea who that man was?"

"No, but he was a really nice guy."

"He is, like, the gold guru of the world. He's almost as big as Greenspan. How did you manage to keep him going for so long? We're lucky to have a few minutes with a guy like him." Quite obviously, he was very impressed and so was John, because during the trip back, as he and Jeff spoke of business, finances and the people they rubbed elbows with, they included me. Imagine that, the people I was impressed with thought I was impressive. Oh, how I must have some knowledge or power to keep the company of such a powerful man. Not really.

"He probably got sick of talking business and I was like a breath of fresh air," I told them. "We had a very nice talk."

On the way home, the pilots switched roles. The pilot on the flight up was now the co-pilot. The twin engine jet, which sat about 10 or 12 people, came equipped with a bar. The co-pilot acted as a flight attendant and made the first few drinks for us.

"Hey, we're missing happy hour!" I blurted out.

"Hell," John replied, "you're having it right now on this jet." He was right, until the co-pilot came back from the cockpit and mumbled something in John's ear. "Take care of it."

We went on about our happy hour business until the co-pilot came back a second time. By then, we were half schnockered and didn't much care about what was going on up front.

"John," the co-pilot announced, "we have a serious problem. We've lost hydraulics. We can't maneuver the flaps. We can manually lower the wheels. That means we have a one shot chance of landing safely. When I tell you, you are going to have to brace yourselves for a crash landing." Oh, how exciting. He gave us the drill. I recall, a few months earlier, there was a commercial flight in California that went down, killing all on board, because the plane lost hydraulics. Great, I thought, no hydraulics. What a way to end the day.

One more for the road, we must have thought in unison as we scrambled to pour ourselves one final drink. "Let's make these extra strong if they're going to be our last," one of us blurted out.

Clink. We toasted to our health.

"OK," the co-pilot said firmly, "get rid of your drinks and brace yourselves." I'm not Catholic, but I watched John and Jeff do that sign of the cross thing across their chests as I tucked my head between my legs, arms folded tightly. There was a lot of soul searching and praying going on as we made our final descent. My ears were popping.

Suddenly, BOOM! We hit the ground hard and fast. The jet screamed to slow us down. When it came to a stop, we were all safe. Had I not known, I would have just thought it was a hard landing. John and Jeff both said they thought we were going to die. Clearly, they were shaken and stirred.

"It's not my day to die. It's not my day to die," I told them. "I knew we would be safe. I wasn't afraid. It's not my day."

I think we all kissed the ground when we got off that jet. Trust me, it was a sobering experience. Sobering enough that when John suggested we all meet at Harper's for more drinks, including the pilots, we agreed. Many of our friends were still there, oblivious to what we had just gone through, but our "jet set" sat together. We were bonded forever by that experience. All drinks were on John. Food, too, but none of us wanted to eat. The pilot who was shot down 13 times in Vietnam told me this was much scarier than any crash he had lived through. We only had that one shot. Later, Jeff told me if we had missed the airport, we would have crashed into houses on the other side of the highway, about a mile away. We owed our lives to those incredible guys in the cockpit.


Throughout the years, I've thought about that experience. Jeff and I always talked about it when we ran into each other. It became one of the repertoire of stories I'd tell friends and anyone else who wanted to hear. So did Jeff. In 2005, John passed away. I went to his funeral and it was the biggest one I've ever attended. Half of Winter Park was shut down. As I was leaving, I saw one of the pilots, but I was too far away to say something. The crowd was too large and vast to find him again. I wanted to say hello and ask him why he wasn't with his brother. They were always together and certainly for John's funeral. One day I saw his brother's picture in the newspaper. I'm sure he was too sick to attend back then. Now, he is gone.

There were five people on board that fateful flight home. Am I the only one left? Jeff and I will never have a chance to laugh about it again. He passed away on the 24th of May. What a great guy he was. I'd drink a toast to my old buddy, Jeff Schofield, but I won't. I don't want to because I really don't drink much anymore. Besides, it's the alcohol that finally got him. Sadly, the jet would have been less painful and a whole lot quicker, but it wasn't our day to die.

ADDENDUM: To read more on Jeff, an old friend has some very nice things to say, along with others who knew him that left comments on his blog. Please see: CRACKED WINDOW by Michael Bales.

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