12 December 2010

Juan's Story (Part 2)

Melan was from the small village of Ataxia, Mexico. Melan was always on the lookout for "Mr. Right". Melan stopped in at La Taca, the local pub, one innocent Saturday night. And this decision is where my existence eventually and eventfully stemmed from. As she entered, there sat a single man at the bar. Why not? She took a stool two seats away and ordered a marguerita. Billlie Bob turned toward her and smiled-- she smiled back. “My name's Billie Bob Odeen, and I’m from Louisiana.“ 

A conversation had begun and the more Billie Bob talked, the more comfortable she felt. Maybe it was his slow, smooth drawl, or maybe it was the fact he was a handsome southern country gentleman. Either way, Melan was beginning to like this man. After a few drinks they parted, but not before Billie had secured a dinner date for tomorrow evening.

Melan had been on the lookout for a suitable partner, so after a whirlwind courtship, they were married. At last, Billie Bob had found some peace and happiness and a perfect place to settle down. Billie Bob, whose parents died when he was just a child, spoke lovingly of his grandpa who raised him. He told of the little Cajun Restaurant he owned in Oleana, Louisiana, simply called Justin‘s.

But who was Billie Bob Odeen, and what was he doing in this small Mexican village?

Billie Bob was on the run from a gang of bad company he had gotten mixed up with while he was in the army. This bad company included Ben Jelson, Tony Lucco, and Bobby Green, all of which had made their living as small time hold-up artists. They'd been hitting quick shops, drugstores, and one small bank, when all three got called up in the draft. They spent three restless years on call, most of it spent planning jobs to score when they were finally free from the sudden call of government. 

The more they talked robberies, the bigger their appetite grew. They talked about hitting armored cars, large banks, a savings and loan company. Yes sir, they were gonna get some real money this time. Sure as heck, they were gonna make up for the three lost years. Unfortunately, all three bunked by Billie Bob. Night after night, he overheard these conversations, and soon enough was caught up in the fantasy of easy money. It was a particularly easy catch-- Billie’s background was far from squeaky clean. He fell right in with these hoods, and they welcomed him with open arms, as they always figured four would make a better team anyway. 

They got out. Not an ounce of time was wasted. The first job: State Bank of Kansas. They had studied it for a week and knew Friday was a good day-- the day they carried extra dollars to cash paychecks. They planned to hit just as the bank opened. Billie Bob was driving the getaway car and waited in front of the bank while the other three in simple ski masks did the robbing. It was more cash than they ever imagined, so much so, in fact, that they had to make two trips to the car. And it was on this second trip that the jargony mess of papers labeled "fate" got crinkled.

Tony carried four bags out and threw them in the back seat of the car, then hustled back for the second load. The bank alarm let out a loud whining howl. Billie Bob didn’t owe those guys a thing. He didn't owe those guys a thing. And he certainly wasn't fixing to do any time for them. 

He took off, leaving the three easy prey for the police. They caught five years each. One thing, and one thing alone, burned in their minds for those five years: find Billie Bob and kill him. Soon enough the years had passed; they were free at last, and so commenced the vengeful hunt for Billie Bob Odeen.

They knew of Billie’s granddad’s restaurant, and it was agreed their best bet was to intercept a letter from Billie to find him out. After waiting anxiously for 3 weeks, watching Justin’s mailbox night after sticky Southern night, they got just what they were after-- Billie Bob’s exact location. They were off for Axtaxia. They laid in wait and one evening as Billie Bob and Melan left the house, arm in arm, happy as a couple of teenagers, Tony, Bobby, & Ben stepped out of hiding and without a word shot Billie Bob dead right before Melan’s eyes. By the time she'd collected herself, all she could see was the distant red of the brake lights.

Melan was pregnant with me at the time. The shock and sadness wore off after I was born in a small room. My mother set out to find work to support her and me. She scraped by for as long as she could. I had just turned six when one morning out of the blue, Mom said, “Juan, we’re going to Louisiana.”

Her plan was to get a job at Billie Bob’s grandpa’s restaurant. Surely he would hire his daughter in law, the mother of his grandson. She had saved enough for two bus tickets and on July 10, 1958 we said goodbye to the hometown Melan had never left in all her thirty years.
After a tiring, 22 hour overnight journey, we arrived in Olean, took a motel for the night, and the next day set out in search of Justin’s restaurant. After just an hour of asking around, we were kindly directed-- seemed everyone in town knew about it. It appeared nothing more than a large shack, but surrounded by a parking lot teeming with people and the chatter they come with. Folks were everywhere, standing outside, sitting in cars all with a large paper cup.

We found out later those cups contained Justin’s famous crab soup. People came from miles around just to sample this culinary marvel. In all his years of making this soup no one had been able to copy it. No one could figure Justin’s secret.

Justin was a big man with a big belly and a built in smile that fit perfectly on his round friendly face. He welcomed Mom and me with open arms. He had been without a family for years other than his son Billie Bob, whom he hadn’t heard from since he left for the army. And as he found out shortly-- he didn’t have a son either.

But he put mom to work right away and found a school for me. It didn’t take long to find out I didn’t fit in, speaking only Spanish. From then on I just hung around the restaurant doing little odd jobs wherever I could. I learned to love my grandpa, and he loved me.

We soon noticed that Justin seemed to be tired most of the day, just forcing himself to do the work. We figured his being eighty-five and getting up every morning at four a. m. to start preparing for a busy day had much to do with it, but there was another thing tiring him: several nights a week Justin would get out of bed around midnight, grab a large cloth sack and a flashlight, and quietly leave the house, only to return about an hour later carrying a sack full of we knew not what. He always took it into his bedroom and laid it at the foot of his bed.

After watching this ritual for 2 weeks, Mom could contain her curiosity no longer. The next time Grandpa went out on one of his little night adventures, she followed him. Grandpa went directly into the large wooded area 100 yards in back of his house. Pretty soon he was shining his flashlight on a particular spot on the ground, then bent over, pulled up a few plants and tucked them in his bag, then moved on. Before long it was full. Mom only got close enough to make out it was some kind of a leafy, long stemmed herb he was gathering. The secret ingredient? Must be. She now knew why he went in at such an early hour to prepare his special soup.

Among the daily crowds, there came one day a man named Carl Johnson. He drew no particular attention, for few people had ever met this man-- the fourth generation owner of Johnson Soups. Carl Johnson came with a plan and despair. Johnson soups had not kept pace with the market and had fallen victim to the giant companies, such as Campbell and Progresso, and bankruptcy was becoming a near-reality.

While eating his soup observed two things. First, Justin seemed to be the busiest of all the hired help; secondly, the only time out he took was when his grandson came near. He always stopped, gave him a little hug, and talked tenderly to him for a few minutes. Carl Johnson waited impatiently, then finally made the bold move of walking right into the kitchen. He begged Justin to give him just five minutes. He had an offer to make: One half ownership in Johnson Soups, plus fifty thousand dollars cash. All this in exchange for his crab soup recipe. Justin flatly refused and asked Johnson to get out of his kitchen. Johnson walked out the door to his car devastated, madness spinning inside him..

As he sat in his car too distraught to drive away, an evil thing began to develop within his mind. He considered it as a matter of life or death. Was he to be the Johnson heir to let the company fail? The thought of the disgrace was more than he could stand. There was a way. “I’ll do it. I have no other choice.”

Johnson waited until he saw Juan bring a soup order out to the parking lot, then called him over as if to place an order. He had no trouble luring the boy into his car. He immediately locked the doors and sped away.

Busy as they were, Juan’s absence wasn’t noticed until closing time. He was nowhere to be found. Justin heard the kitchen phone, answered it to find Carl Johnson on the other end.
“I have your grandson, if you ever want to see him again come to my cabin. I want that recipe. Go to your car immediately and I will direct you step by step to this location. I have someone watching you, and the slightest suspicious move will be fatal for your grandson. Now grab a pen, quickly now, and here's where you're to go..."

Justin didn’t hesitate, said nothing to anybody-- just went to his car and drove away. He had no trouble following directions, and after about forty five minute found himself deep in the Louisiana Bayou country. He saw the cabin, parked, took a small handgun from the glove compartment, slipped it into his belt and covered it with his jacket. He warily approach the door and knocked. The door opened at once , there stood Johnson. I was nowhere in sight. “Let’s get right to it old man. Write out that recipe.”

Justin sat down and in great anguish, put pen to paper and began writing, and sure enough, there it was among the ingredients-- “nightrose,” the herb that made the crab soup famous. Justin wrote the final item in his recipe and looked up to see a German Luger aimed at his forehead. He went for his belt, but it was too late.

I listening to everything through the locked door, heard the shot and let out a terrified scream. I heard Johnson half-muttering, talking to himself. “I’ll take care of you later. First things first.” He drug Justin’s dead body to a hole he had prepared in his garden and made quick the disposal of it. Then back to the house and me. He readied his gun and opened the locked closet door to find my crumpled up little body-- a sobbing child. As cruel as he was, Johnson could not pull the trigger. He locked the door again and sat down to see if there was any way he could keep from killing me and yet keep him quiet. “I have it. I’ll put him to work in the soup kitchen and never let him leave.”


"......and that’s just what he did. He made the workers job dependent on the fact I never left the kitchen. He fixed up this little room; I’m locked in here every day at quitting time, and have been here ever since I was seven years old. The note you found was my one hopelessly wild attempt at ever being rescued. You are my one hope of freedom, please, please help me get out of here, I beg you!”

“I’ll do what I can. Let’s get back now before they return and act as if nothing happened.” Willie worked out the rest of his employment making it a point to steer clear of me. He did not want to arouse the least suspicion. He left the employ of Johnson Soups, but did not leave Macon just yet. He had a big job to do here and set about making plans. He decided the best thing was to go to the Macon Police and tell his story. It was so unbelievable, he had almost given up hope of a search warrant being issued. If it hadn’t been for a Hispanic detective it might never have happened.

The first stop was Johnson’s office to get the location of his cabin. He was reluctant but had little choice.

A search crew was dispatched there, and experienced as they were, they little trouble finding the grave. The exhumed body was that of Justin Odeen. Next stop, Johnson Soup Kitchen, and just as Willie had told them-- there was Juan. They checked out his little bedroom for more evidence that Willie’s story was true. Pete Ruben and his workers were brought in for questioning. After his testimony, Juan was given in to Willie’s custody. Carl Johnson was convicted of first degree murder and received a life sentence and forced to give up the “secret recipe“ to Juan which was crucial, since Justin was gone there would have been no way to carry on his tradition. The kitchen crew got fifteen years each. Johnson Soup Kitchen closed its doors for good.

Willie headed for home having fulfilled this ridiculous mission, happy as a lark and twice the man he had been before. He made a wide detour on the way back home to return Juan to his mother. He left Oleana a true hero with a promise to return some day. He surely would. A strong bond had developed between him and his little half-Mexican friend.

Willie returned to work Monday morning as if he had just spent a pleasant uneventful 2 weeks in Gulfport. And that’s the way it was until the account of this remarkable story appeared on network news. Willie’s coworkers were all over him with praise; the phone never stopped ringing. One of those calls was Pearl wanting to know if they could meet. They did and after making amends for their argument Pearl told Willie just how much she admired his grit and determination, and told Willie how happy she was. Willie didn’t listen to a word of what she said.

Next stop the Today Show, then Jay Leno and Katie Couric. Willie was a celebrity-- and the problems were just about to begin, the major one: living with himself. Two weeks later the worst thing that could happen to Willie, well, it happened. Hollywood called. Willie received the following message:
“We’d like to talk about a movie of your life. Our Jet will pick you up Wednesday, the fifth, two o’clock sharp, Benton Field. Please confirm, 1-800-239-6000.”
Willie thought it over for about thirty seconds, before he grabbed the phone, and dialed that 800 number that would change his life forever.

-by Bud Goldkamp (Grandpa)
-barely edited by Henry Goldkamp

Next up: Part 3: WILLIE THE GREAT

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