Liberty Theater Part 5
by John Gilbert
I was at Lisa’s early that Monday morning. She was dressed and eager to get to school for registration. We arrived at Columbus High and almost immediately Lisa began meeting her school friends.
“Who is this?” one after another would ask.
“Oh, this is my friend, John.”
“Friend?” I thought.
Maybe I had read more into the relationship than was there but I thought we were more than just “Friends.”
I followed Lisa around the school as she registered and hugged her friends. I felt ignored. Her attention was on her friends and I was only acknowledged if someone else pointed me out. I began to grow uncomfortable. This was very awkward. I began to feel that all I meant to her was only a ride to school. Here was the girl that I had dated for three months and now I was just a friend. Why wasn’t she now turning her ring around to pretend that it was a wedding band? In a while she bid her friends good-bye and we started to the car. My feelings were hurt and, looking back, I now realize that didn’t know how to handle the situation. I just remained quiet for the drive home. I stopped on the street at her drive way. She stepped out of the car.
“Good-bye,” was all I said and I drove off.
I never saw Lisa again. Days passed and I longed to see her but the hurt was deep and the fact that she didn’t call only lead me to believe that she had been truthful in telling her friends that I was only her friend.
The next Saturday I worked 6:00 until close. As I climbed the balcony I could see that there was a lot of activity in the booth. I hastened my pace and entered the room. The top magazine from projector #2 was in the floor and two of the operators were feverishly working on the machine. Freddie Brown was holding a work light and James was standing by the #1 projector.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“The film broke and wrapped around the top sprocket and before I could shut the projector down, the film had wrapped so tight, it stripped a gear out in the head,” James answered. “I’m having to run the show a reel at a time until they can get it fixed.”
Just then the changeover alarm rang. James had the following reel sitting next to the projector in readiness. I told him that I would trim the lamp as he threaded. In a minute the que dots flashed onto the screen. James closed the dowser and allowed the tail leader to run through the projector. I killed the lamp and waited for a moment. I didn’t want to open the lamphouse door right away. The glass reflector would be hot and if I opened the door too soon, there was a possibility that the cooler outside air might shatter the reflector. After the leader ran out of the projector, James removed the spent reel from the bottom magazine and laid it on the floor. He removed the empty reel from the top magazine and placed it into the bottom and started threading his next reel. I opened the hot lamphouse and trimmed the carbons so that he’s have enough arc to run the next reel. In only a moment James started the motor and I struck the lamp and the show resumed. This procedure would be repeated for two more reels. Before the third reel was half run, we heard the other projector come to life. The gear had been replaced and the machine was running perfectly. The top magazine was then replaced and the following reel could be threaded. The show could now proceed without interruption. James thanked me for the help and everyone left me and I was alone in the booth.
The show ended later than it normally would owing to the projector problems. I turned off the usual switches and made my way to the lobby to say my “goodnights’ and walked outside to my car.
“Hey bro. You wanna’ buy some stuff?” came a voice from out of nowhere.
“No man. I don’t do that,” I said speeding up my step toward my car.
“Aw, come on man. I got some good stuff,” the guy persisted while following me.
“Not me,” I continued. Just then a white car sped to the spot and stopped.
“Catch ya’ later, man,” the guy said as he dashed off.
I saw Freddie Brown dash out of the theater and flag down the white car. He talked to the man in the car as I was getting into my car. I hurriedly pulled onto the street and headed for home.
I didn’t work again until Tuesday and I saw Mr. Brown in the lobby as I entered the theater
“What was all that about on Sunday?” I asked.
“Gilbert, you almost got your butt arrested!”
“Arrested? What did I do?”
“That was the narcotics guys and they thought you had bought some drugs from that guy who was talking to you.”
“Drugs?” I asked feeling puzzled. “I don’t take drugs.”
“I know. I just told them that you were my little White operator and that you were okay.”
“Well, they wouldn’t have found any drugs on me. I don’t do that kinda’ stuff,” I said with confidence
Several of the people in the lobby laughed. I was puzzled as I made my way to the booth. Why was that so funny? In a few minutes one of the doormen brought me several trailers from upcoming attractions to splice into the intermission reel.
“Gilbert, you are just joking about the detectives not finding drugs on you , weren’t you?” he asked.
“Well, of course they wouldn’t have found drugs on me. I don’t do drugs,” I protested.
“That’s not the point. They would have found drugs on you.”
“No they wouldn’t!” I continued.
“Gilbert, I know you aren’t that dumb. If they wanted to find drugs, they would have found drugs,” he insisted. “If they accuse someone of drugs, they won’t go away empty handed. They won’t risk a false arrest case so they WILL find drugs.”
It slowly began to dawn on me what he was talking about. I had seen this kind of thing in the movies where bad cops plant drugs on people but that was just Hollywood, wasn’t it?
“Just be careful,” he cautioned as he turned and started down the stairs.
I sat and contemplated the conversation for a moment. I had never even been tempted to use drugs. I had seen a friend get his brains burned out on drugs and I wanted no part of that. Still my imagination raced with scenarios of what might have happened. I could see me having to call my father from jail. I could see myself pleading my innocence to a cold-hearted judge. I could see the lying detectives pitching their made up story. I knew that no judge was going to not believe his officers. But I had never been in trouble with the law. I was an Elder in my church. Wouldn’t that convince a judge?
The clock on the wall brought me back to my senses. There were only 10 minutes until show time. I had been lucky that Mr. Brown had stood up for me. With that, I put the whole affair out of my mind.
After the show that night I drove to the Georgia Theater. My sister Alice wanted me to stop by that night. As usual, she wanted me to meet someone. Alice was always trying to fix me up with someone. As I entered the Georgia’s lobby, I saw my sister cleaning the concession. The last show was still going but the concession had closed.
“Hey Johnny,’ she greeted. “I want you to meet Diane.”
She called for Diane who emerged from the stockroom with a broom. Diane was not as tall as my sister and she was average looking. We talked for a little while and I noticed the odor of cigarette smoke about her.
“Why don’t you take Diane home?” Alice asked as she put away the cleaning supplies. “She doesn’t live too far from here. She lives in Smith’s Station, Alabama.”
Smith’s Station was probably fifteen miles from the theater and that was a long drive.
“Sure. Why not?” I replied.
We left out the front door and immediately lit up a cigarette. I gave an apprehensive look.
“You don’t smoke?” she asked.
“Nope. I’m too young,” I replied using one of my father’s lines.
She crushed out her cigarette and walked to the car. We talked all the way to Smith’s station and when we arrived at her house, she invited me in to meet her family. The visit was short and in a moment I was heading back toward Columbus.
As I crossed a railroad track, I heard something crunch beneath the tires. In another moment the rear end of the car was swaying and I pulled over. I got out and saw that my left rear tire was flat. Not only flat but there was a huge gash in the tire. I had just put a new set of tires on the car and now something had ruined a brand new tire. I got out the jack and the spare. There was only one problem. The lug nuts wouldn’t budge. Try as I may, they wouldn’t turn. A passing motorist stopped and asked if he could help. I gave him my home phone number and asked him to call my father. In about 45 minutes I saw daddy’s car pull up behind me. Daddy tried the lug wrench and faired no better. He finally dug through my camping gear and found my ax. He placed the lug wrench back on the nuts and began to bang the wrench with the blunt end of the ax. Slowly, one by one, the nuts broke loose. I changed the tire and saw a chunk of glass from a soft drink bottle protruding from the rubber. With the tire replaced, we started for home.
I would drive Diane home twice more but my luck only got worse. A few evenings later I again drove her home. We sat on her front porch and talked for a while. It was getting late and I begged my leave. As I drove home, I noticed that my gas gauge was on empty. This was the day before the 24 hour gas station and I was sweating bullets. I got to within 2 miles of home when the engine began to sputter. It died next to Richard’s, Jr. High where I had gone to school. As I was deciding what I should do next, I spotted a police car coming my way. I flashed my lights and the officer stopped. Again I gave him my home phone number and asked if he could call my father. A short while later daddy arrived with the gas can for the lawnmower. It was enough gas to get me home.
The weather was starting to cool and Tom Morris and I had decided that it was time to go camping. We had talked to our other buddy Dennis Curd and planned to go to Junction City that Friday night and camp. I had to work so Tom’s dad would drop them off and after work, I would drive to Junction City and meet my friends. I had loaded my trunk with my camping gear when I got called to the phone. It was Diane and she wanted to know if I could drive her home that night. I told her that I would but I had to drive and meet my friends at our campsite. I picked her up at the Georgia and drove as quickly I could to Smith’s Station. I only stayed a moment because I had a long drive ahead of me. I drove my usual route back to Columbus. The drone of the tires reminded me that I was very tired. The headlights pierced the darkness and the white lines produced a hypnotic effect. My eyes grew heavy as I pulled into Phenix City. I would usually turn left at the library and then right at the next block and then turn onto 14th street and cross the bridge back into Columbus. This night I decided to take a different route.
“I’ll just drive on down to 14th street and then make my left turn,” I thought.
That was the last thing I remember. I don’t remember the blinking red light at 14th street. I wasn’t aware of anything in my dreamlike state except I remember thinking that there were headlights that were really close to my door. Suddenly there was the sound of crashing metal and breaking glass. My car was spinning around in the intersection and I was suddenly wider awake than I had been all day. My car came to rest in the driveway to a gas station and I looked up to see a dark green car with its front end smashed, stopped in the intersection with its horn blaring. My door was wide open and I jumped out and ran to the car.
“Are you all right?” I said to a man who slowly emerged form his car. He then fell to the ground.
“He’s all right,” said a woman who got out of the passenger side. She walked into the darkness and disappeared.
In a moment a police car arrived and the officer radioed for an ambulance. People began to stop and ask if they could help.
“Stop that horn from blowing,” the officer ordered.
I popped the hood but I didn’t know how to turn off the horn. A bystander stepped up and pulled the horn wire and all was quiet. It was about that time that I noticed that my head hurt. The impact had knocked my head into the door post and it was throbbing. I watched as the paramedics loaded the man onto a stretcher The paramedic noticed me rubbing my head.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I think I hit my head on something,” I said.
“Come on, lets take you to the hospital and get you checked out,” he said.
I climbed into the ambulance and in a moment we had been whisked away to the Phenix City Hospital. As they rolled the man into the emergency room I realized that this was going to cost money and I had no insurance. I waited around until everyone had gone into the hospital and I sat down on the curb to think of what I was going to do next. In a few minutes the paramedic emerged from the emergency room.
“How’s that guy?” I asked
“He’s drunk!” he grinned. “He’s just passed out.”
“That’s great!” I thought. “He was drunk and I was asleep!”
I pulled the ticket from my pocket that the officer had written me. “Failure to yield right-of-way” it read. What was I going to do now? After a long moment I made my way to the emergency room where I found a pay phone and called my father. He soon arrived and drove me back to my car. The impact had been to the door post between the front and rear doors. The drivers door wouldn’t close so I took my belt off and tied the door closed and started for home. I kept reliving the impact in my mind. It played over and over. To make matters worse, I was supposed to drive to Junction City and meet Tom and Dennis but it was now three in the morning. I was too tired and too upset to drive anywhere but home. I would get a little sleep and drive up early in the morning.