Five “life sentences”, six counting the title.

I know what I want to be when I grow up.

Pine Tree cliff was 110 feet to the water and don’t let anyone ever tell you different. Legend was the locals, Trussville hoodrats in cut-off jeans shorts and stinking of cheap beer, would climb the pine tree at the top and let their weight bend the bark down until they dropped 110 plus feet into the fake blue water of the quarry. I never saw anyone attempt this, and I never talked to anyone that saw it attempted, but I did meet a lot of people that knew someone who saw the Pine Tree bend. This was miles before Trussville became the white-flight Christmas shopping paradise it is now. Trussville was a one road town with train tracks and rednecks and no Best Buy.

The news crews were there when they found the horse trainer’s body at the bottom of Pine Tree. Neck broken on impact and under a shopping cart that his lifeless body disturbed on his descent to the bottom. A drunk dive gone bad, I was surprised that he was the only body they found that day, underneath swarms of fat starving catfish, sweat soaked mattresses, and Food Max shopping carts.

By my count I jumped Pine Tree six times. Each time I’d wear black high top Converse to deaden the impact of the… impact; shoes similar to the ones I’m wearing now only I’ve “sold out” and gone to low tops. I watched Channel 6 news when they found his body and I swore to my unborn children that I’d never jump Pine Tree again.

Part I
I’m writing this with scar torn arms from not minding my own business. The blood poured from multiple windshield glass wounds, thinning out in the rain of last week’s storms. Reminders of my nosiness consist of small shards of glass that I’ve found hidden in my hands all week long. I stood out in the middle of Highway 31 and thought of a 110-foot cliff and how far I can fall still smiling. Granted, I’m a little crazy now, but I was REALLY crazy then. I should have tried to bend back the pine and fall further.

Her friend came running into the Mill crying and grabbed Charlie, or should I say Officer King. Officer Charlie King and I went back a ways to an era of me waiting tables at Chili’s and him working the graveyard shift at an all-night grocery. I bought skim milk from him every night until the day he quit, graduating from the grocer’s life to being a cop. I soon followed suit and graduated from waiter to bartender, still at Chili’s, where I’d suffer for three more years. I still have nightmares about that goddam corporate restaurant. I didn’t cry when it burned down.

Her friend came running into the Mill crying and grabbed Charlie, both of us working our assigned life slots, police and bartender, only now we’d escaped the melted streets of Irondale for the one-way circles of Southside.
I went outside with the two of them, fearing a purse snatching, a bar fight, or something equally as trivial. The image would be a lot more… severe. Her friend pointed at the car, fifty yards ahead, headlights lit, windshield shattered, and a girl’s chest beating short fading beats, life-leaving rhythms. A year later I sat in the courtroom staring back at her father, my role next to insignificant, a time and place witness of the accused. Her father’s eyes on me paralleled the 110-foot fall into a water black abyss. What else am I supposed to say? Young girls’ fathers are left on this earth to fight their wars for them. The emptiness of his losses, his daughter and her war, is a long way down. An abyss of untouched photos and high school annuals. Cheap flowers left by anonymous friends en route to the rest of their lives.

Part II
So I write these haunted memories with gasoline soaked hands. The gas burned every single cut that hid shards of broken glass. The pickup truck was still on fire with a five-gallon canister in the back that I didn’t feel like watching burn. So I snatched it out. The plastic container had melted across the top and fuel spilled all over my arms. “Throw those fire gloves away”, Archer told me. “That gasoline will never really come out.”

I told Chris where I was going and he showed up to have a beer, passively aggressively trying to stop me. No one ever jumped Pine Tree at night. And no one did it in 15-degree weather. The swim from the bottom to the gravel shore wouldn’t be that far, in the daytime, in a normal swimming environment. But in the quarry, full of stolen cars and concrete-shoe corpses, at night, in the frozen cold, it might be akin to breath strokes in a pool filled with razor blades. It got late and I got tired and I had somewhere to be in the morning, (I always have somewhere to be in the morning). Get a black marker. The excuses keep coming.

When I grow up...

I want to be someone’s memory when I grow up. I want to be a folded over photograph, kept in a wallet or on the dresser. A bookmark. Taped in a locker. Tucked in a fire helmet. Crumpled up and thrown away in the most frustrating of moments, only to be dug out of the trash and taped back together. My dad, the other George Cowgill, made front-page papers fighting like mad in ’76 to save the life of a young black girl crushed in a car accident. I found the paper folded over in a stack of documents, none so memorable as that article. At least not to a seven-year-old boy that would grow up to fight the same wars as his father.

I want to be someone’s ghost when I grow up. A silent nod, a smile. A memory of craziness and laughter. “Hey remember that time George…” My ghosts wake me up at the same time every day, regardless of the sleep deprivation from all-night car crashes, heart attacks or drinks poured.

Sonny Kincaid left his father on a front porch in North Birmingham to stop the Japanese aggression in the Pacific, circa 1943. Until the war’s end he would call the USS Otus home, a ship sailing the war-torn seas to assist submarines and wounded vessels. In 1945 he came back to Birmingham to marry my grandmother, put flowers on his father’s grave and, 37 years later, take me to Rickwood Field to meet Mickey Mantle. I was wasting away in college when I found a handful of black and white photos, “Kincaid” etched in pencil on the back of every one. Photos of the celebration of the Japanese surrender. A corner ripped shot of Sonny leaning against a beach boardwalk railing, smoking a cigarette with the arrogant swagger of a yeoman. Another picture in the handful has been permanently scratched into my shoulder, black and grey ink.

Fathers’ sons (and grandfathers’ grandsons) are put on this earth to continue to fight their wars for them. So if you ever wonder where I’m coming from, or why I do this… Now you know.

No Part III
I’m NOT writing this shivering from a 3am fall in the black sky of Trussville into the black waters of the quarry. Feet and arms bruised from the impact. Soaked Converse. Nose running, swimming in a panic to get to the gravel. I just couldn’t go. Responsibility of job one and job two, and it just got too late. (Get that black marker)
Oh and, thankfully, Chris stopped by for a beer.

Please remember all of the things I never got a chance to say.” – Rocky Votolato

I come from down in the valley, where mister where you’re young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done.” – Bruce Springsteen


  1. incredible. as always, makes me want to write more, and be more. i adore you and your words george cowgill.

  2. Chilli's wasn't all nightmares, was it? I'm at least glad that our paths crossed there. I always enjoy reading you.