Saturday, January 25, 2014

Howard Mechanic, no real apology and the Dateline side effect

Let me start at the beginning. Stick with me through the prologue... In 1970, a Washington University student named Howard Mechanic was accused of throwing a cherry bomb in a Vietnam war protest on campus. This cherry bomb started a fire and Howard was arrested. A bunch of people thought Howard was innocent, and one of them was my dad, who was a professor of English at Wash U. So, faculty and staff all went down to the courthouse to help post bail for Howard. Now, why his family did not do this, I have no idea but Howard had a lot of support and quite a few people showed up for him. Lucky guy. But the judge was kind of an ass, and wouldn't take bail from all these people- instead, he insisted one person or one family be on the hook for the whole thing, and unfortunately my parents were the people with the house to put up. So, the judge made my parents, with four young children and a pretty new mortgage put up their house as collateral for this student they barely knew. My mother said she made him look her in the eye and promise that he would show up. This is a longer story, but feel free to google Howard Mechanic to get his story. The end of this one is- the jerk did not show up. He jumped bail and disappeared for 28 years. My parents almost lost their house. Four children were almost made homeless. Luckily the community came together and saved our family from this awful fate, not that Howard Mechanic ever knew or cared about the consequences of his actions. Well, one day, 28 years later, Howard Mechanic is caught doing something stupid (running for office in Arizona) and there is a media frenzy. My mother hears this on the news and just shakes her head. My father thinks this is nice and for some reason is all about being on board with Howard being pardoned. Really? What about what we know he did for sure? Like jump bail? Even if he is innocent of the cherry bomb crime, he still committed a crime, and put us in a terrible place. But no thank you to us. No apology for almost making four kids homeless. But I digress. The media frenzy is happening. Howard is all over the news. The reporter that discovered him is all over the news. St. Louis and Washington U is all abuzz with the news. The marquis of the record store up the street says "Free Howard Mechanic" and I call them and ask them to please take it down, my parents live three blocks away. Then, Dateline calls. They have discovered my parents are the ones who put up the bail. Immediately, my dad says yes to the interview. I was very excited. I wanted to watch all of it and I did. I took the kids to school and show up at my parent's house and watch the whole thing! I chatted with the camera guys... I was in film school at the time. My mother respectfully declines to be interviewed but Josh Mankiewicz smells blood in the water. My mother does not agree with my father. She's still pissed off with him about what he did. He realizes quickly that this will make a better interview with her. So, the producers do what they do best. They flatter and convince my mother to get on camera. It doesn't take too much, and my father realizes that she is going to have her say. I am in the background silently cheering! Go Mom! Be the one person who says it is not the act of a HERO to run away! Stop making this guy out to be some kind of martyr for the cause. The justice system is still the bad guy but this is not how you deal with problems. My mother famously says "I always tell my children, 'say what you mean and clean up your own mess' Howard Mechanic did neither." This quote makes it on the air and I cheer. It was a good interview but they use just a clipping of my parents, which is fine. Story is not about them after all. Now all in all, this is a pretty good story as is. The Howard Mechanic group sends my dad a plaque for his support. What the hell ever. There is still no apology from him. There is still no offer to pay us back the bail money. But that is all over and life goes on. Until the phone rings... and there is a complete surprise on the other end. Now, before I tell you this part, I'm going to back up a little bit. All my life, my mother told me stories about her very best friend growing up, Elaine. My mother grew up in New York City in Queens and all I ever heard about was how much fun Elaine was. She was smart and beautiful and kind and she was the best friend ever. Honestly, Elaine was larger than life to me. I would get so excited when my mother would tell another Elaine story. She told me once that she had even considered naming me Elaine at one point. I knew right then and there that I wanted to name a daughter Elaine. When my mother was pregnant with me, we had gone to California to live and I was born out there in Santa Monica. Around the same time, Elaine had moved to Florida and they had lost touch with one another. One of the saddest parts of the Elaine stories was my mother lamenting how much she missed her and how awful it was to have lost touch with her. It made my heart ache and I wanted more than anything to find Elaine for my mother. The years went by and I did indeed have a daughter, and I named her Cassandra Elaine. I smiled and wished that just once, I could meet Elaine and tell her how much I had enjoyed hearing about her. But more than anything, I wanted my mother to be able to reunite with her best friend. And who knew that Howard Mechanic and all of his misdeeds would lead us to that moment... for the voice on the other end of the phone indeed did belong to Elaine. She had been watching that episode of Dateline and there was my mother on her television set. She found her listed in the phone book and called her up the very next day. And yes, of course, there was the most joyous of reunions. They connected like not a day had gone by as only best friends can, and shamelessly, I admit, even now I have tears in my eyes writing this because that happy ending could not have come for two better friends. I met Elaine a few years later when I was driving down to Florida. She was a little surprised I wanted to meet her so much but I really did. I made a special trip to Winter Park, Florida. This woman was a part of a story in my head. When she opened the door to me, she lost her breath for a minute. I look a lot like my mother and apparently this really stunned her. Behind me was another daughter who looks just like me, and just like my mother when she was about eight or nine and that threw her even further. Elaine was delightful and I wasn't at all put off by the staring. I understand that part. I'm going to end this story here in that, this is one of those really bizarre miracle things that happens. I don't want to be exactly grateful to Howard Mechanic but it makes it harder to completely dislike him. Instead, I'm happy that the Universe aligned in such a way that all those thoughts went out to connect two friends one more time.

1 comment:

Jack Snyder said...

Great heart-warming story! Though Howard was inadvertently instrumental in bringing about the reunion, he still needs a swift kick in the ass.