|2011 WINTER EDITION – NO. 42|
It started with an old episode of "Gunsmoke," about a troubled kid in curiously tight pants who brings grief to everyone, including himself, before finding redemption through the decent folks of Dodge City.
TV's Dodge City was a painted backdrop of a town, fabricated during the 1960s to represent all that was popularly viewed as right and wrong about the American frontier. Redemption was a common theme that often took curious forms in Dodge, where the most unassailably upright citizen was U.S. marshal Matt Dillon, who thought nothing of drinking whisky shots, while on duty, in a whorehouse at 10:00 a.m.
The plot of this particular episode was mildly provocative yet ultimately reassuring, typical of a formula that made "Gunsmoke" the longest running dramatic serial on TV. Each show revealed something poignant about a character's life story. The positive forces of the universe usually prevailed in the end. Some of the details in this episode were revealing in other ways, such as that the fledgling actor who played teenaged Travis Colter was the only young man in town who apparently had to be shoe-horned into his pants. That, and the carefully framed shots of his chiseled face, indicate that the director knew what he had to work with, which was a young actor with the makings for a major TV heartthrob.
Guest appearances on "Gunsmoke" were a starting actor's dream in the 1960s and early '70s, much as they are on "Law & Order" today (a show that's on its way to supplanting "Gunsmoke" as the longest-running serial). Among the lucky ones who went on to great things were Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, Charles Bronson and Kurt Russell. Not all used their appearances as springboards into stardom, of course. One frequent guest, Zalman King, became a successful producer of soft porn. Others went into sales. You can find out easily enough through search engines on the Web, if you're so inclined, which I am.
Like many nosy people today, I need only half an excuse to google anything, and I am particularly interested in stories that illustrate the wildly variable things that can happen to promising people over time. By the time I encountered Travis Colter, I had already developed a habit of wasting potentially productive hours piecing together the random life stories of actors whose careers began as I lay on the floor in front of my family's black-and-white TV. For this I blame not only myself and Google, but TV Land and Tivo.
When "Gunsmoke" first aired, I was a boy growing up in the quiet suburbs of a sleepy southern town, and one summer day, an actual troubled youth showed up and supposedly tried to kidnap me and my best friend. We were about six years old, sitting barefoot in the grass, watching a steam roller pave our street. I say "supposedly" because I have no way of knowing the man's intensions. All I know is that he appeared out of nowhere and suggested that we go with him to the creek, and instructed us to go home and get some shoes, then meet him at his car on the corner. Our mothers prevented the follow-through, and another group of women on a nearby street, whose sons had been similarly approached, called the police. After they caught the alleged kidnapper, the police informed our parents that he was 19-years-old, the son of a doctor, and had escaped from the local mental institution. That was it. In the years since, I have often wondered what his intentions were, and how his life played out, but there is no way to know. I cannot even google him, because I do not know his name. Finding things out is easier with someone whose life unfurls in full public view. You may never know what it is like to be that person, but you can see the structure of their life in bold relief, and draw your own conclusions about what can happen to people over time.
When the credits rolled on the Travis Colter episode, I learned that the actor who played him was Jan-Michael Vincent, who, I later found, went on to fame in scores of movies and as the star of the 1980s show "Airwolf", which reportedly made him the highest-paid TV actor at the time. One of Vincent's best known flicks was 1978's Hooper, starring Burt Reynolds, in which he plays a hunky stuntman who comes up with an idea to pilot a rocket-propelled Trans Am across a gulch. Vincent also appeared on "Lassie"; played a journalist in Nicaragua who falls in love with a beautiful Sandinista (in 1983's Last Plane Out); was immortalized in a loin cloth in The World's Greatest Athlete; and hosted the Disney series "The Banana Splits Adventure Hour". Sadly, my googling also unearthed a darker vein: Vincent's career eventually ended in a massive train wreck, the result of substance abuse problems. If you can believe what you hear, the marshal of Dodge City wasn't the only one taking shots at 10:00 a.m.
It is hard to know how much of what has been said about Vincent is accurate — we're talking about Internet gossip, for the most part, but there is no question that his career crashed, and that it was related to his drinking. He eventually went on the "Howard Stern Show" no less than four times to talk about it, and his behavior grew increasingly notorious even after his televised confessionals. He was reportedly arrested for public drunk on multiple occasions (one court case, in September 2000, involved his wife of then-three months, whose name was Anna; more on that later). The deal was cinched when Vincent crashed his car and suffered a broken neck and permanently damaged vocal chord. At that point his career was finally disabled. In his last movie, a lamentable gangsta flick called White Boy, released in 2002, Vincent plays a drunk cop whose rheumy eyes look absolutely authentic, and the camera seems intent on exploiting the damage, lingering over the disturbing ruins of his formerly perfect face. After that, Vincent disappeared. A 2004 blog, posted when Vincent was 60, indicated that he was living in seclusion in a remote cabin near Redwood, Mississippi, with a few horses and a female companion who possessed "an outrageous wardrobe."
In addition to spending hours googling different combinations of anything, I happen to live about 30 miles from Redwood. So while I had only passing interest in Vincent beforehand, I could not ignore the fact that his flaring bottle rocket had spent itself and landed in my own backyard. Redwood, Mississippi is an unassuming encampment of old houses and mobile homes just off Highway 61, a few miles north of Vicksburg, where a line of steep bluffs overlooks the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. There are waterfalls in the wooded hills and great expanses of brooding swamp below, which give the area a certain presence, but it is not the kind of place that rich, famous, good-looking people dream of ending up. When someone mentions trailers in Redwood, they are not talking about movies. It is, however, a place where a truly outlandish wardrobe might actually set someone apart, and that fact, coupled with the interest that a tragic former movie star naturally engenders, held the promise that Vincent's strange saga might be attractively within my reach. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed time to log off and hit the road.
I suspected that Vincent had probably abandoned Redwood by now, that his move there had been another in a long series of misadventures, but it's always nice to have a focus for a leisurely outing, especially if it gives you an excuse to stop everyone you see and ask questions while glancing over their shoulders to see how they decorate their living rooms and what they're watching on TV. If nothing else, the search held the potential to produce any number of women whose neighbors considered their wardrobes to be in bad taste. It was possible that Vincent really did not want to be bothered, and had moved to Redwood to basically disappear, but if that were the case, it would be evident soon enough and I would leave him alone. All I needed was a little prodding, and it came from my friend Neil, who listened to my idea and said, "Let's go."
Neil and I are old friends. We are both former farmers, and for two days in the 1980s I worked as a cowboy on his family's cattle operation, until I was demoted to carpenter because I was scared of horses. We once made a memorable road trip out West, during which we entertained ourselves with odd characters we encountered against passing backdrops of lonely neon signs and purple crested buttes. The idea of solving the riddle of Jan-Michael Vincent attracted us both for several reasons, not the least of which was the question of how he had ended up in Redwood, Mississippi, of all places. Our interest, I hasten to add, was not of the "Brangelina" sort, but sprang from a simple fascination with plot. Though Vincent's one-time celebrity was obviously part of the equation, we were more intrigued by the unfolding tale, which, despite its haplessness, had an epic cast. If we were lucky, perhaps we could view at least one scene from this oversized drama at comparatively close range — something between seeing a movie and actually watching the "based-on" story unfold. As is no doubt painfully obvious, we also had some time on our hands.
It was a balmy day in late November when Neil and I set out for Redwood. Our first stop, just north of Vicksburg, was at an Orbit gas station with a Bud Light sign advertising fresh bait, worms, minnows, crickets, ice, and cold beer. Inside, a friendly woman greeted us from behind the counter. "Can I help you?" she asked. Her smile sagged a little when I asked if she knew where Jan-Michael Vincent lived. "He's an old actor," I added. She said sorry, she didn't know, but that she'd ask. A moment later an older woman with a gray ponytail came out of the kitchen drying her hands. "I've heard of him," she said. "I've heard he lives off Redwood Road. I hadn't met him. I'm just telling you what I've heard." She offered a half-smile, indicating that Vincent's fame still faintly flickered, though at about the same level of intensity as the burgers sizzling on the griddle behind her. At least it appeared that Vincent was still in the area. We had reason to drive on.
There was another store on the other side of the highway, which was also a barbeque joint. Rural stores typically serve multiple purposes, such as selling gas and groceries, renting movies, and doing your hair and your taxes. A few miles back, on the outskirts of Vicksburg, stood Margaret's Grocery, which at one time doubled as a bar and church, and presented to passing motorists a candyland façade of red and white striped cinderblock turrets and other fantastically quirky constructs, surmounted by a hand-painted sign proclaiming, "All is Welcome Jew and Gentile." Inside, an elderly man named Rev. Dennis preached the gospel while his wife sold beer, aspirin, and chips to a ragtag band of regulars who sat around playing cards at a table scarred with cigarette burns. In the corner, next to a shelf loaded with paper towels, was a homemade Ark of the Covenant, which Dennis crafted from a wooden box, some castors, a glass doorknob symbolizing the all-seeing eye of God, and some PVC pipe spray-painted gold. At least that's the way it was the last time I was there, when cats were sleeping in the Ark. We had decided to pass on Margaret's Grocery this day because it was doubtful that Rev. Dennis had ever heard of Jan-Michael Vincent, and anyway, he always made it so hard to get away. He tended to follow you out to your car, preaching even as you rolled up your window.
In the combo store-barbeque joint we found a group of men in hunting caps drinking coffee at a table. Two others worked the counter. Everyone called out good morning when we came through the door. I approached the counter and asked the older of the two, who turned out to be one of the owners, John Harper, if he perhaps knew anything about a guy named Jan-Michael Vincent. "I sure do," he said. "He comes in the store all the time. He came in a week or so ago." This was something of a surprise. We had expected Vincent's presence to be more of a secret. The younger guy, Shane Davis, added, "He's got an old girl he lives with. She's always driving him around. I remember him from movies but he don't look like that anymore. He's wore out." I sensed interest stirring at the table behind me, and one of the coffee drinkers volunteered, "You go up Highway 3 to Ballground, past Ballground Plantation to Bell Bottom Road, past the big ammonia tank. When you get to Bell Bottom Road, it goes straight, and when you come to a curve there's a house on the right. It's behind that house."
"It's a trailer," a man in a camo hat said. "But I tell you who you should really talk to: Old Man Henson. He's 95. He used to be a logger. If you sit up here in the morning with a cup of coffee and ask him a few questions, you'll be shocked by what he can tell you. How many men you know who logged with oxen? If his knees weren't bad, he'd work you to death." Clearly, for him, Old Man Henson and Jan-Michael Vincent existed on the same plane. I liked the idea of talking to Old Man Henson, because who knows, he might have a story to tell, but we had our plans for the day, and anyway Old Man Henson had already gone home.
"The lady he's with said they live at Eagle Lake now," Harper said, steering the conversation back to Vincent. "She's from California someplace, too. Evidently he knew somebody here and he was tired of all that. He don't get out much now."
"I live right there by him and I don't know anything about him," another of the coffee drinkers reported. "I bet it ain't one percent of the people in Warren County even knows he lives here."
"I'll tell you what you need to be writing a story about: The mayor," the camo hat said. "He's corrupt."
"You can tell at one time she was a looker," Harper said of Vincent's companion. "You'd never recognize him. Looks like he's 90-years-old, probably don't weigh 100 pounds. I was a big fan. I recognized him 'cause I knew he was in the area." He added, cryptically, "We're on the barbeque circuit," then unfurled a barbeque contest poster with pictures of his cooking crew.
Davis, the young guy, added, "They got a convertible Mustang."
Harper then asked if anyone remembered the movie Vincent was in with Burt Reynolds, but didn't seem entirely convinced when I said Hooper. At that point it seemed we had pretty much exhausted their Vincent knowledge, so we thanked them and drove on, toward the big ammonia tank at Ballground Plantation. If we didn't find evidence of Vincent there, we'd try Eagle Lake, about 15 miles to the west.
Contrary to what you might expect, Bell Bottom Road is named not for the pants but for creek bottom land settled by the Bell family. The first thing you see after turning off Highway 3 is an outpost of trailers clustered around a weathered wooden house, in what is essentially a low hollow at the base of the bluffs. On this day, a month or so before Christmas, the landscape was overwrought with lawn decorations, solar sidewalk lights from Wal-Mart, decommissioned appliances, small tractors, both freestanding and trailer-mounted yuletide decorations, and other assorted items that tended to get lost in the dazzle. As with Redwood, one got the impression this was basically an encampment, the only question being: For how long? Some of the trailers were homey and neat, but overall the place expressed tentative, rural disorder.
Most of the residents appeared to be at work, but there were a few operational vehicles parked here and there, so we started at a double-wide whose yard was a fenced corral of small concrete animals. There were the requisite Christmas decorations, an inordinate number of stylized metal suns affixed to the trailer's front wall, and two identical orange plastic baby swings hanging side by side on the porch. The gate was open.
Approaching a country house unannounced in the middle of a work day is problematic. Everyone has guns, even if they're just hunting rifles, and owing to the proliferation of crime, strangers are often suspect. Here, the blinds were closed on all the windows, so the place didn't exactly beckon. Beside the front door was an unexpected fixture that both invited and repelled: An intercom. I pushed the button and a woman's raspy voice replied, "Can I help you?" A small dog barked in the background. I heard it both through the wall and over the intercom.
"Sorry to bother you," I said, "but I'm looking for Jan-Michael Vincent. I was wondering if you could help."
There was a pause, and then the disembodied voice croaked back something unintelligible. It was a cheap intercom and the sound quality was poor. I begged the voice's pardon, asked for a repeat. Speaking more slowly and loudly, which actually emphasized the dissonance, the voice said, "Used to live in that single-wide right in front of my house, but he's gone. You might check the place across the way, the junky looking one. They might know."
I glanced back at Neil, who had opted to wait in the truck so we did not seem too threatening, and at the trailers and the rustic house, trying to determine which one looked the junkiest. It was a judgment call.
Back at the truck, we deliberated. There was what could be construed as a junky hodgepodge of used appliances waiting to be recycled beside the house, but in its front yard, directly before it, was the most woebegone mobile home imaginable, rusty and mildewed, with a few broken windows and three washing machines lined up on the sagging porch. It had a shed built over it, perhaps because the roof leaked so badly that it was easier to build another one on top. This, I had just been informed, was lately the home of former movie star Jan-Michael Vincent. It looked grim, so we opted for the house, where a white Chevy truck was parked at an odd angle, as if it had crawled out of the woods. As I approached the house I got an ominous vibe. A chain was wrapped around a porch post, at the end of which was a spiked and glaringly empty dog collar. This menacing country still life evoked all sorts of disturbing sensory images, despite the comparatively welcoming presence of a group of wicker chairs, a porch swing and a barbeque grill nearby. I took one look at the empty dog collar and headed back to the truck. Neil and I agreed that it made sense to leave the driver's door open so I could beat a hasty retreat if necessary. Then I went back and rang the bell. The blinds, as with the double-wide, were closed. There was no sound from within. After a moment, I gave up.
We backed out across the yard, because there was no real driveway — in fact, we basically had to drive across a shallow ditch to enter, and nosed our way back past the original double-wide. We rocked across some ruts and emerged through a screen of brush to another trailer that managed to be even more uninviting than the last, its defensive aura strangely enhanced by the presence of haphazardly strung Christmas lights, which were on. There was not a shred of vegetation in the yard and the windows were sealed off with aluminum foil, an indication that the person probably worked at night and slept by day. "Do not approach," the trailer said, unequivocally. Out front was an old, rusty, Deliverance-set piece of a truck, complete with Georgia plates. We backed away.
Fortunately there was another double-wide nearby, so we stopped there. There were three small blue cars out front, all in an orderly row, and the trailer's windows were open to the breeze. Evenly spaced poured-concrete stepping stones led from the drive to the door. There was some actual landscaping as well as a plywood Santa and an odd blue fountain sunk into the ground, of a configuration that brought to mind a small, weirdly shaped hot tub, at the center of which was a narrow pipe dribbling water.
"Hello," I called out when I reached the heavily tinted storm door, which swung open to reveal two women wearing shirts emblazoned with the logo for a store called Big Dog. I apologized for interrupting, and stated my mission. "He don't live here anymore," the older one, who wore a ring in her brow, said. "He moved about a year ago. I heard he's living on Highway 465." This was the road to the aforementioned Eagle Lake. Then she added, "He's not well," and hesitated, trying to decide if she should say more. "He could tell you some stuff," she said, measuring her words. "His girlfriend is named Anna." Something in her tone indicated that she felt empathy for Jan-Michael. I couldn't help thinking of Miss Kitty talking with Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" about the trouble in Travis Colter's life.
Back on Highway 3, a gentle breeze sent yellow leaves fluttering past a man with a garbage bag slung over his shoulder, who was picking up cans on the road shoulder. Living in Mississippi, you have a tendency to get inured to the poverty, but when you take the time to stop and talk to basically everyone you see, and get a close-up view of things, and put it all into the context of someone like Jan-Michael Vincent ending up there, you realize just how poor a place it is. At one point Neil asked, "Which county in Mississippi do you think has the most trailers?" Based on what we had seen so far, we agreed that it must be this one. There was every kind: New, faux French Provincial ones; old, rusty ones; put-together-side-by-side ones; concealed-under-a-new-roof-and-vinyl-siding-so-they-look-more-like-a-real-house-ones; others that you know the owners would prefer you call manufactured housing; and the worst, the abandoned and forsaken ones. There was no question that Vincent for a time existed at the very bottom of the local shelter scale.
The road to Eagle Lake passed through the lowest part of the low-lying Delta, bordered by farm fields that go under water almost every year, along with a few houses elevated on stilts and a labyrinth of bayous and swamps studded with moss-draped cypress trees. Posted at the entrance to every side road are signs warning, "You are entering a flood-prone area. "My grandparents once lived here, in a camp house with no telephone, drawing their water from a rain barrel. It was a lifestyle choice for them; they were attracted to isolation. Before Highway 465 was built, the area was accessible only by a circuitous gravel road that crossed the Yazoo River on a ferry, after which the road turned to dirt, of a variety known as gumbo, which is incredibly malleable and sticky when wet. When the water rose as a result of runoff up north, you could only reach their house by boat.
My grandparents found an affinity with the river rats, as outsiders called the commercial fishermen who lived in houseboats beached on the riverbank — the first step toward living on land. My grandparents' favorite neighbors were a family called the Boozers, who generally kept to themselves but were open to the free currents in a way that more settled people in the area were not. They spent a lot of time roaming the woods and watercourses by boat, on horseback, or in my grandfather's old Willys Jeep, until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers condemned the land for a new levee and a floodgate across Steele Bayou. Today the Corps has plans for a huge pumping plant designed to lift the floodwaters out of what is actually, officially known as the Backwater Area. When people dream of making their area a somewhat drier backwater, there is not much to go on. Still, certain types were clearly quite happy there, in the margins of American life, such as a man I once knew named Jimmy Vickers, who ran the last local ferry and had served 12 years in prison (typically the first opportunity for parole from a life sentence). Vickers sometimes took jobs diving in the Mississippi River to inspect ruptured pipelines or sunken towboats, using a modified motorcycle helmet with a foam rubber gasket around his neck to keep the water out, and a 50-foot hose for breathing, which was inserted through a hole in the helmet and connected to an air compressor manned by his 12-year-old son in a johnboat above. These modifications kept Vickers alive on the bottom of an absurdly powerful, deep and muddy river. He and his family lived in a beached houseboat, too, and although I suspect he was clean, he was fiercely protective of his tribe, no matter where they stood with the rest of society and, in particular, the law. This, I was given to believe, was a solid covenant among the river people. Vickers and his family were tolerant of everything except unnecessary meddling, and generous with what they had, and I always knew that if somehow my life turned south, and I got into big trouble and needed to escape, I could find refuge in their little warped houseboat in the mud, no questions asked. From the outside this might look like indifference, but it was far from it.
Farther west along the highway is Eagle Lake, an old, wide bend of the Mississippi River that was cut off more than a century ago by a change in course, which is today lined mostly with camp houses and, of course, trailers. Its architectural centerpiece is a three-story antebellum mansion known as Buena Vista Plantation, or, locally, as "the old Conway place," whose builder survives in local lore for once hosting a grand ball for his slaves, during which he allowed the women to don the cast-off finery of his wife, who chose to be out of town that weekend. Another maverick of Eagle Lake was Larry Crowe, a shadowy businessman who in the 1980s wanted to build a horse-racing track on Australia Island, but who, owing to a confluence of legal and financial logjams, went down before he could transform the place into a world-class resort. Also getting star billing, for what it is worth, are various Civil War generals, a few Civil Rights heroes, a scattering of blues musicians, some millionaire hunters and, more recently, one washed-up former surfer dude turned international action star who drinks too much and reportedly bums smokes at the local bar.
As we neared Eagle Lake we saw two guys in gangsta wear pouring gas into the tank of a decrepit Mercury Marquis beside a cotton gin. We rolled to a stop, exchanged the wussup nod, and I asked if they'd ever heard of Jan-Michael Vincent. They shook their heads. "He's supposed to live here," I said. "He used to be a movie star." They laughed, then suggested we ask at the gin.
At the gin, two men were preparing to weld something and the machinery was loud, so I first asked an elderly couple loading gin residue — a popular garden composting material — into the back of a pickup with a sign advertising "Fresh Greens Home Grown." They had no clues, so I approached a toothless man who looked like he was in charge of the welding, who turned out to be very helpful and knowledgeable, and gave us explicit directions. "There's some kinda black sports car," he said. "I don't know what kind." We followed his directions and there it was, the house overlooking the lake, with the locally famous Mustang parked beside it. It was a vast improvement over the trailer on Bell Bottom Road, though it needed some work, and overall there was a feeling of inertia, atrophy and neglect. A struggling rose bush determinedly bloomed out front, hinting of better times. The rail was missing from the tall stair to the front porch and the treads were littered with fallen leaves. A wooden pier extended into the lake, which shimmered under blue skies. A small boat knifed past, against a backdrop of bare, stark white cypresses that had been shitted to death by hordes of roosting cormorants. The steps to the rear deck, facing the lake, appeared to be the primary approach.
Getting to Vincent's house had proved remarkably, almost disappointingly easy, and although we were about to show up at another stranger's home uninvited, there was no way Neil was going to wait in the truck this time. I found myself wishing I knew more about Vincent's movies, and wondering if I was really there for the reasons I claimed — to glean the details of the complex human experiment that was Vincent's life, or merely to gnaw on some once-famous bones. But it was too late to turn back now. As we walked across the deck, past a bowl piled with discarded pork ribs and an Elvis novelty tag leaning against the wall, a dog commenced barking inside. We stopped before a single French door, beside which hung a wind chime bidding "welcome." I knocked. A moment later the door opened and a middle-aged woman stood eyeing us doubtfully. Then she stepped onto the deck, leaving the door open behind her. "I'm sorry to bother you," I said. "I'm looking for Jan-Michael Vincent." There was an awkward pause. An old black dog sniffed my feet, wagging its tail.
Then the woman asked, "How did you find us?" Harper was right. You could tell she had been pretty once.
"I just kept asking people," I said, and offered a slightly convoluted explanation — I was a journalist who happened to live in the area, I'd heard Jan-Michael Vincent was living here, I was wondering how that came about, etc. It all sounded kind of lame now. I might as well have said, "I'm on a scavenger hunt." But she seemed OK with it. She looked a little tired, a little world weary, but she offered her hand and said, "I'm Anna." She wore an iridescent blue sweatshirt and some kind of blue synthetic pants, which weren't outrageous at all. "Who do you write for?" she asked. I named a few publications. "Tabloids?" she asked. I said no, and could not tell from her expression if she was relieved, disappointed or incredulous. No doubt she and Vincent had had their share of trouble from the tabloids, but it was also possible that they had considered selling their story. Anyway, she said, "It's not a good time right now. My husband just got out of the hospital with a broken hip. I'm just getting him up."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "I don't want to bother you. This all started when I saw him on an old episode of 'Gunsmoke.'"
For the first time, she smiled. "I know that episode," she said. "If you give me your card I'll have him call. He just got out of the hospital three days ago." Then she added, politely but finally, "He can't talk to you right now. We don't really give interviews. We had some trouble in Vicksburg a while back. We try to keep to ourselves."
"What kind of trouble?" Neil asked, way too eagerly.
"I don't want to get into it," she said. "If you give me your card, I'll have him call."
I handed her a card and as she looked it over, stole a glance through the door. I saw a guitar. I felt a little ashamed for prying, and wondered if Vincent was listening, or if he was prostrate on a bed somewhere in the recesses of the house, out of it. "I appreciate it," I said. That was it. We turned and left.
As we drove away, I recalled that one of the men back at the barbeque joint said people in the area did not really see Vincent as an actor, that for them, he was just a guy down on his luck, a guy who, it turned out, was too young to have a broken hip but had one just the same. From all appearances, the locals were only vaguely curious about him, and we were starting to see why. "We probably came within 30 feet of him," Neil said, not so much disappointed that we didn't get to hear Vincent's story in his own words, as he was crestfallen that we had to stop asking people about him. So we decided not to. I don't know what I intended to ask Vincent anyway. What I mostly wanted to know was how he ended up in Eagle Lake. I did have a few questions about "Gunsmoke", such as what, exactly, was up with James Arness and Amanda Blake, who played Marshal Dillon and Miss Kitty, the owner of Dodge City's Long Branch Saloon. One of the curious things about so many ostensibly wholesome, family-oriented shows from the 1960s is that they so often veered into alternative terrain without anyone seeming to notice. On "Gunsmoke", it is no secret that Matt and Miss Kitty are having sex while maintaining their independence from each other, which to a pubescent boy seemed ideal. I was hoping to ask Vincent if they ever talked about that, and if he kept up with Arness or Blake, and whether she called him when his life started falling apart and perhaps lectured him, saying something like, "Remember what I said to Travis Colter …. " I know, it was a TV show. Vincent's life was real. There were broken bones. There was blood, and alcohol. It was none of my business. Yet he was interesting, and he had wandered into my zone. I wanted to know the stages of the plot, and how the characters interacted over time.
A few miles down the road we came upon a bar, so I pulled in. I had no doubt that Vincent frequented the place, and figured someone inside might be able to fill us in. Before entering I took a moment to scratch down some notes in the truck, and I noticed a man who looked to be the proprietor eyeing us. When we entered the bar he followed us inside. He was evidently not pleased to see us. The bar was big and charmless, populated only by the sullen proprietor and an old man in Coke-bottle glasses who appeared to be mesmerized by a football game on the suspended TV. I knew immediately that neither would have anything to say to us about Vincent or anything else, but felt I have to ask for something, so I blurted out, "We just came from Jan-Michael Vincent's house and I have their house number so I can send them something, but I don't know the rest of the address." This was true; Neil had suggested that I send Vincent a copy of a book of my grandmother's photographs of the area, to try to break the ice. The proprietor glared at me, looking even more pugnacious than before, then reluctantly gave me the information. As we strolled back into the sunlight, I pictured Vincent propped on one of those barstools, beside some other saggy-eyed guy with his own story to tell.
Vincent's life isn't a movie — not yet, but it's been on public view for a long time, and I have read more than once that his roles often reflected his lifestyle choices. He seemed particularly attracted to rebellious characters, which he portrayed to full effect in movies such as White Line Fever (a rebel trucker battling corruption) and Baby Blue Marine (a soldier who is dishonorably discharged from the military). As the Internet Movie Data Base points out, he seems to have been equally comfortable playing men on either side of the law.
The first notable turn in his life had been fortuitous. Vincent, who was born in Denver in 1944, was reportedly finishing a stint in the California National Guard when he caught the eye of a talent scout. His first acting job was a bit part in a 1967 movie; afterward his career took off. In the 1970s he starred or appeared in 12 films and 18 made-for-TV movies and shows, including "Gunsmoke" and a film that many consider his finest work, Big Wednesday, in which he plays an aging surfer grappling with the erosive forces of time. In the 1980s he appeared in 12 movies, many of them action flicks, and six TV shows, including "Airwolf" and the mini-series "The Winds of War". He continued to get work in the '90s, and in fact made more movies than ever — 21 between 1990 and 1999, but the parts were getting smaller, his acting was growing increasingly uneven, his drinking was causing trouble on the sets, and many of the films went straight to video. Today, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, "ongoing health issues and personal problems seem to preclude his return to the screen."
There is no question that Vincent was a talented actor, but his success clearly had something to do with his square-jawed, all-American face and his taut physique, both of which suffered from increasing abuse. Now he appeared to be playing the anti-hero for good, marooned in Warren County, Mississippi with a broken hip, borderline destitute, almost unrecognizable, and dependent upon Anna for everything, including fending off random journalists and their friends. Perhaps it was just as well that he didn't have to deal with us.
As Neil and I speculated about whether the conversation would have been productive, whether he would call, and whether we would eventually meet, we came upon a little store named Eagle Lake Candle Company, with a food vending stand out front called Hotdogs Plus. Maybe it was the name of the hotdog stand, but we could not resist asking about Jan-Michael Vincent again. A sign on the door to the candle shop announced, "Barber On Call," and inside, a diminutive woman invited us to browse her wares. "I'm actually looking for Jan-Michael Vincent," I said, feeling a little guilty, because now, I wasn't really.
"Hmm," she said, thinking. "Why don't you look over our candles while I check the book?" I feigned interest as she leafed through the pages of the notably thin local phone book. The scent of the candles was overwhelming, like a potpourri of over-sanitized gas station bathrooms. "I see a couple of Vinsons," she said, "but …."
"That's OK," I said, and shrugged. Just then a gold El Camino pulled up outside, crunching gravel, and a middle-aged man with a thick mane of curly orange hair got out. "He might know," the woman said. "That's his hotdog place." Before we could get out of range she added, "We make all our candles. We can custom-make anything. We got special ones for Christmas. We got the barber chair and a tanning bed. I also make quilts." I felt obliged to inquire about the candle-making, and she said, "We order wax out of Alabama. It's soy wax — totally, 100 percent child safe. They may drink it and it might give 'em diarrhea, but that's it. The wicks are cotton, from the Delta." I nodded as I sidled over to Hotdogs Plus.
The hotdog man said sure, he knew where Jan-Michael Vincent lived. "He's a nice guy," he said. "Been here about a year." He described the house, gave us the directions we already knew, said, "Just look for a little Mustang convertible."
As Neil pointed out while we were driving away, Vincent's whereabouts were well known. "I mean, if he really didn't want to be found, he could use a different name," he said. "It's not like people would recognize him now, if he looks like he's 90 and weighs 100 pounds." Then, when we passed a game warden, Neil said, "Want to talk to him?" but at the moment, I didn't. I was thinking this would be a sad story indeed if it weren't for Anna.
So far the consensus was that Anna was always with him. "You never see one without the other," was the common refrain. From all appearances, Vincent had little to offer her now. His looks and, apparently, his money were gone. He was in bad health. Yet she stood by him. "Obviously a lot went wrong," Neil said. "You could see it as a sad story for sure, but he's got a place on a lake, with a pier, and a good woman beside him. It could be a lot worse." Then: "Who do you want to ask next?" I suggested we return to the barbeque store and report our findings, as John Harper had asked.
The barbeque place was now crowded with lunch customers, and Harper was nowhere to be found. Davis was happy to hear that we located Vincent, sorry to hear about the hip, but had little time to talk amid the noonday rush. Instead, a woman behind the counter, whom I had not noticed the first time around, listened to our brief conversation, then leaned over, resting her elbows on the counter, and said, "Her ex-husband's name is Lester Birdsong." Actually that's not the name she gave us, but because we never talked to the man and have no proof of his existence, much less of his involvement in the Vincent saga, we will call him Lester Birdsong.
"Whose ex-husband?" I asked.
"Anna's," she said.
I introduced myself. Her name was Brenda Welch. When I mentioned how nice Anna was, she said, "She's always very nice." Then she asked, "Is her hair dark?" I shook my head.
"It's actually sort of blondish," Neil offered.
Welch looked surprised. "Lester is from Redwood," she said. "He moved off to California where he ran a restaurant. I believe it was in Los Angeles. He's got a barbeque shack by the post office in Redwood now. He's real nice. He'd talk to you. His barbeque place is on Highway 3, where the road is shut off. All three of 'em came together. Lester married this lady, Anna, in California somewhere, and Jan-Michael used to come in his restaurant, and they all became friends, and then she left him and went with Jan-Michael. Lester has a son by this lady. So when he come back to Redwood, they came, too."
"And they're still friends?" Neil asked, surprised.
She nodded. "He's just real quiet," she said of Vincent. "But his wife is steady talking. They been here, maybe eight years?" She said she thought Birdsong lived off Bell Bottom Road. So naturally, we headed back. We were now as interested in Birdsong as we were in Vincent, which raised the question: Just how far into voyeurism had we strayed? When I mentioned this, Neil said, "But Lester's a part of the story." Neil also pointed to a telephone repairman working on a line by the road, and said, "Maybe we should ask him if he knows Jan-Michael. Or we could ask him if he knows where we could find Lester." I decided to pass on the phone guy, but we did stop at the post office in Redwood, a short distance from Birdsong's garishly painted barbeque shack, which, according to the portable sign out front, was scheduled to open soon. The door and windows of the post office were wide open, and behind the counter, amid the wanted posters, was a display of teddy bears, commemorative stamps and seasonal items for sale. No one seemed to be around, but when I called out, the temporary walls of a grayish cubicle trembled. Apparently I had startled someone.
A woman emerged from the cubicle and asked what I needed. I said I was looking for Lester Birdsong, and asked if that was his barbeque shack down the way. She stiffened. "As an employee of the post office, I'm not allowed to give out addresses," she proclaimed, somewhat indignantly. How is it that the officious air of the U.S. Postal Service permeates down to the lowest possible level? I asked if she could at least tell me whether that was his barbeque shack. She stared at me, said, "It's scheduled to open soon."
I asked for a phone book, hoping to find Birdsong's address, and Neil said, "If we went to Ballground, would we be getting warm?" She glared at him, as if we were subjecting her to a surprise audit. "Have you heard of Jan-Michael Vincent?" he asked.
"We're kind of quiet," she said. I was unsure what she meant, and when I asked, she said, "We're kind of protective." I could tell: Despite her pretense that she did not know anything, she actually did not know anything, and in fact, she now said as much. "All I know is that's Highway 61 and that's Highway 3," she said. "That's all I know. I'm not from here. I'm from Onward."
"Like that's another planet," I said, then laughed, to make sure she didn't get even more defensive. Onward was about 20 miles down the road.
As we made our way back to Bell Bottom Road, Neil said he had a feeling that Birdsong was the trailer-lord whose house, the one with the empty dog collar, sat at the middle of the compound. "I bet he rents out those trailers," he said. If this was true, it meant that Birdsong had rented out the worst trailer in the hollow to the fallen stud who had allegedly stolen his wife.
It made sense to return to the double wide with the sunken fountain, where the women inthe Big Dog shirts live. "We're back," I said as I navigated the stepping stones to the door. This time, only the mother was home. "We found him," I said, "and we were told that he followed Lester Birdsong to Redwood. Now we're looking for Lester."
She leaned against the door jam, surprisingly patient with this exercise, and seemingly more inclined to talk this time around. "He did live here," she said. "She stayed with him all the time. If you ever saw one, you saw the other. She never left him alone, and he hardly ever came out of that trailer. Half the time he don't know where he is. They didn't even have a car when they lived here. A guy who works with my husband is a big fan, and when he found out he lived behind us, he said, 'I bet he lives in a big mansion,' and we said, 'Unh unh.'"
I asked how they got around without a car. "He called a cab from Vicksburg!" she said. "No telling how much that cost." What about the horses, I asked, and she said, "There were no horses." She mentioned Vincent's outdated website, which once linked to an email address. "People can ask him questions, and somebody asked him once if he lived in Redwood, and he gave some smart response and never did really answer. Most of the stuff on it's old," she said. As she talked, a shirtless teenager on a four-wheeler, with a younger boy on the seat behind him, circled the surrounding terrain. Occasionally, they set off fireworks. "Lester lives in that house," she said, gesturing over her shoulder in the direction of the wooden house. "He drives a white pickup. He pulls a little trailer behind it. He'd probably talk to you."
"OK, we'll try there," I said. "But first, I have to ask what you made that fountain out of."
She smiled. "It was the tank they baptize people in at the church. They got a new one and they were gonna throw it away, so I asked if I could have it, and we buried it in the ground. It's deep."
"I bet it is," I said, now recognizing the steps leading down into its murky depths.
I felt a little more comfortable approaching Birdsong's house this time. At least I could say I'd been to Jan-Michael's. Also, I had convinced myself that there was no attack dog lurking beneath the steps. The truck was still there, along with the unhinged little trailer, but the blinds remained closed, and when I rang the bell, no one answered.
"I bet he works at night," Neil said. "I think we have to come back. So many people know about what happened. Someone's been talking. Maybe it was Lester."
But for now we had run out of options, so we reluctantly headed back into the hills, past trees glowing gold and red in the autumn sun. I thought of something Brenda Welch said, back at the store: "People here know who he is, but so what if he's had some bad times? There's a bunch of us up in here that's had bad times. He's a just a human being, like the rest of us." I thought that maybe, under the circumstances, Vincent was now right where he needed to be. But who am I to say? I just googled the guy, and asked around.
We never went back to Birdsong's house, and Vincent, not surprisingly, never called. Two years passed before I noticed a brief in the Vicksburg paper, under the headline, "Former Actor Treated After Wreck on 465." It said only this: "A Vicksburg man was treated and released following a single-car accident Sunday on Mississippi 465. Jan-Michael Vincent, a former actor for whom officers declined to release a Vicksburg address, was taken to River Region Medical Center after he lost control of his vehicle."
That was it. Jan-Michael Vincent was still deconstructing his own life, and people still felt the need to more or less protect his privacy, though he hardly needed it now.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
This article originally appeared in Issue 27, October 2008.
Where loss is found.
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