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Op-Ed

The better part of valor

September 9, 2022

One midnight I folded my cards playing a strange game with a one-armed man on a hot night in a bar in Needles, California.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

One August night I waited for a pizza and a pool table in a bar in Needles, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Temperature outside was 99 degrees at midnight. I had a long night ahead.

I was heading home from summer vacation in the Berkeley bookshops to teach high school for another year on an Indian reservation in Arizona. My trusty Honda 360 motorcycle was a great little bike, but not designed for 800-mile treks across the desert. 

I’d learned, in my first two summer vacations, how hot that desert can be. Finally figured out that the 300 miles from Needles to the rez were better done in the dark, after midnight.

So. I sat in a bar watching other guys play pool, beer at my right hand. I thought. The barmaid had told me it’d take half an hour for my pizza to come up, so I was happily waiting and watching — pool, not my beer. ‘cause when I turned to my beer, it was gone. 

On the other side of the empty glass sat a grizzled old miner with one arm. He too appeared to be watching pool.

Returning from another colloquy with the barmaid, second beer in hand, I sat and watched a guy sink the nine ball. Turned back to my beer, which was gone.

Glass there, beer not. 

This time the old one-armed miner with gray stubble on his face was staring me dead in the eye, as if to say: “Yeah. So what?”

Right about this time I noticed that quite a few of the Needles pool sharks were stealing glances at us, out ’a corner of their eyes.

My Spidey Sense was tingling.

Diligent research (3 minutes on the internet) hath shewn that the major economic propeller in Needles today (if we allow the noun “propeller” in a desert) is tourist services.

Good on ‘em. Good on all o’ them Needlers. But it warn’t like that the night I was there. Contrariwise.

Back then it was mostly retired miners. Residents. Hometown boys. Outawork mostly.

My ponytail fell most o’ the way down my back. I was 36. They was in their 60s.

So what was I gonna do? Stand up for truth and justice and The American Way to be free of cheaters and beer-thieves? Or boogie on out of there?

“The Boogie is a dance, generally in 3/4 or 6/8 time, laid under or over a beat in 4/4 … it’s a lively dance …”

I boogied on outa Dodge, after a detour to tell the barmaid, “Give that pizza to someone else, would you?” and she smiled.

Two hours later, a horrible haboob swept over the desert. I had to lean hard left into a 60 mph haboob on my little scooter for damn near two hours, big rigs laid outright everywhere, right and left.

Finally, in Ludlow, California, Big Rigs was parked everwhar. I lay down behind one, figurin’ it was safe. Shows how smart I am.

When I woke up, the trucker had pulled out, and I saw he woulda crushed my skull if he’d backed up about only two inches. And no fault of his.

So. Survived that night and made it home to the rez.

Oh … Wait a minute. My body servant reminds me that the title of this column (what we in the news biz call a “headline”) is ‘Words to live by.’

Right. (Lemme check. Bob scans to the top of his column). 

OK, Right. Here are words to live by that will usually get you through any situation.

Shut up.

No, you don’t say it. You shut up.

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