I have a photocopy of a letter I sent my parents in 1961, wherein I mentioned that Slim Brooks gave me a haircut for my birthday on April 17th.

In a tone of fascination, I added the remark that Slim had worked as a ship's barber, for it seemed this swashbuckling soldier of fortune knew how to do everything. In my letters to my father and mother, I shared all that seemed important, and even told them that Slim had good ideas about where to meet girls.

Since I was not keeping up with the news during that interval, I had no idea the fateful Bay of Pigs invasion was taking place the day I turned 23.

I am tempted to believe that Slim's cutting of my hair on the day of the Bay of Pigs invasion, coupled with the coincidence that it was also my birthday, was used to endow me with a peculiar significance to a secret society cloaked in a camouflage of Satanism and witchcraft. I hope it will become evident why I suspect this possibility as these recollections unfold.

Note 1

By his own account, Slim was a merchant seaman who happened to be in dry-dock with a bad case of tuberculosis. Towering over ordinary mortals like a derrick, his consumptive frame emphasized his height. By hunching sociably and quizzically grinning, he made up for this.

"You can remember my name real easy," he would say, "because I'm a long, tall drink of water: Slim Brooks."

Slim was the kind of individual who could have won anyone's trust, practically, at least for awhile. A funky, haphazard aspect of his personality made him seem like anything but secretive.

Personal tidiness seemed, in fact, to offend him deeply. Much of his barbed wit was aimed at people who thought they were too good to share his lumpen living habits. That he carried this characteristic to such extremes was also the reason what trust he won did not serve him in the long run.

I had first met Slim in a telephone soliciting "boiler room" of an aluminum awnings and siding company where I was holding down part-time work while writing The Idle Warriors.

He was hired about two weeks after I went to work there, and one day he doodled some Japanese ideograms on his desk, thereby catching my attention. When I told him I was just in from the Far East myself and was writing a novel about peace-time Marines overseas, he simply nodded knowingly and said, "Yeah."

After work that day, we strode back to the French Quarter together, enjoying the afternoon sunshine and chatting about his adventures and my dreams.

"I'm just in from Hammond, Louisiana," he told me, "where I was a hand on a river barge. I got along with those backwoods rednecks just fine. I like that about myself. I get along with about every kind of people."

Of Norse descent, Slim took pride in his Viking ancestry. "Hell, my people came over here, threw a party, got drunk and then politely went home. Your people still celebrate Columbus Day and you ain't even I-talian. Not only did you poison the country with your mechanical piss, but you hog credit for discovering the campsite in the beginning. And what's more, you won't even admit we're so much as the bastard cousins of your red-headed Irishmen -- and before us Vikings raped 'em they was all black-haired virgins."

Then his lilting, soft and easy laugh assured me that he was not after all such a desperate individual.

A walking compendium not only of original proverbs and unique quotations, he was also well versed in the lore of the French Quarter.

Shortly before my arrival in New Orleans, there'd been a Beatnik coffee house on Exchange Place called the Fencing Master. "I was the fencing master at the Fencing Master," he boasted, and it struck me how his thin Douglas Fairbanks mustache lent credibility to the claim made otherwise ridiculous by his quixotic stature.

"When you spend months cooped up on a ship," he added, "and if you happen to be as ornery as I am, it behooves you to learn as many methods of arguing by hand as possible."

"Slimericks" was what I was eventually to dub these colorful embellishments of his. Most of them occurred in the course of conversation, though he also wrote homey couplets from time to time, such as this one, titled "Cortez":

"With tongue in cheek and sword in hand
We made Christians of this heathen land."

Occupying a large, mildewy second-floor room on Dauphine Street, Slim served his guests cold coffee in Mason jars, as the mud-moist Louisiana breeze blew at the curtains in the large, open windows.

A stack of rolled-up navigational maps filled the space beneath a card table in a corner.

Ornate French Quarter rooftops and garrets were part of the view, with the green tops of nearly tropical trees at a greater distance. Sitting here, you couldn't forget you were in New Orleans. Harbor horns bleated as Slim chuckled out phrases like, "God willing and weather permitting," while he spun yarns.

A vivid memory remains from about the time of the haircut, perhaps within days afterwards. I recall Slim saying, "Now, my brother-in-law is coming to town in a in a few weeks, and I'm going to introduce you to him with the warning that he's kind of a weasel, like 'Erman."

In "San Juan Sinbad," a short-story upon which we were collaborating, the Puerto Rican villain was named Hermando, which Slim anglicized as 'Erman. "So don't trust him too much," continued Slim. "Just pay attention to him. He has a brilliant mind."

"Slim," I objected, "that sounds frightening!"

"No. Just keep your wits about you. You'll see."

Slim gave me that haircut in the new apartment into which Greg and I had moved, in a complex called The Buccaneer on Saint Louis near the Napoleon House. And I think it was just days or maybe weeks after April 17, 1961, that I met Brother-in-law in Slim's room.

I don't remember who got there first. Either Brother-in-law arrived while Slim and I were passing an afternoon together or I dropped by for a visit and Brother-in-law was already there. But I recall with full clarity what happened next.




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