29 December 2014

A Guy By the Name of Pike

“Name’s Pike,” the old man said as he shook my hand. It was a big strong hand that had done a lot of work. A weathered and muscular hand that was both warm and tough.

His voice was rich and deep and it seemed that everything about him was sturdy. He could have been an old cowboy or a farmer or a cop. His clothes were those of a working man but they were well taken care of and clean.

I told Pike my name and offered to buy him a beer. He accepted graciously. We drank a few beers together and got down to business. Pike had been referred to me because I was looking for someone to take care of our house while my wife and I were in France for a year. I wanted someone who was reliable, strong enough to do chores, could be trusted and didn’t have family obligations.

Pike told me he’d had a wife once but “she got the cancer.” He’d had several careers and I wasn’t surprised to learn that one of them was in construction or that another was on an oil rig. He’d also made sergeant in the army, been a park ranger and served as a bodyguard for some actors that you’d have heard of.

The terms were easy enough to agree on so Pike and I drove up to my house in the Berkeley Hills. We’d be gone for almost all of 1963, leaving January 10 and returning a week before Christmas. Pike would stay at the house. He’d collect mail, pay the bills, tend the garden and see to the upkeep of the house. It needed a little work and Pike agreed to see to it, either himself or by hiring some help. In return he’d stay in the house rent free — and it was a nice place with a spectacular view of the San Francisco Bay — and be paid $400 a month. There’d also be an expense account for the bills.

Pike had shown me a half dozen letters of reference all of which attested to what a fine man he was. The last question I had for him before shaking on the deal was whether he thought he might get bored just looking after a house for a year after all the adventures he’d had. Pike assured me that he’d be fine, that at his age — 63 — it was time to slow down. He had some reading to catch up on and was going to take advantage of living in a place with a TV set for the first time in his life. Plus he had a nephew across the bay to visit from time to time and a couple of army buddies who lived in the area.

“I’ll just be fine. More than enough to keep me occupied. Plus I aim to catch up on some sleep I haven’t had the last 45 odd years.”

Confident that the house was in good hands my wife Marcie and I began making final preparations for our trip to France. Marcie was from Paris so was looking forward to time with her family and I was being sent by the University of California — where I was a professor — to do research.
Marcie was a few months pregnant so our first child would be born in Paris. My only regret was that as a consequence he or she could thus never grow up to be president of the U.S. Not that there was much chance of that anyway, but still a guy can dream.

The day after I met him Pike came by again and met Marcie. Pike had an easy charm that Marcie appreciated. She later said he was the most American man she’d ever met. I showed Pike around some more more and we talked a bit. He’d lived all over the country, mostly in California and Texas but he was born in Delaware which would have been about my last guess. Most of all he thought of himself as ex-Army but was proud of every job he’d had.

Pike came again on the morning of the 10th. We gave him the keys and made sure he knew where everything was, last second stuff. He talked us out of taking a cab to the airport and drove us in our Oldsmobile which he’d have use of. Gentleman that he was, Pike walked us to our gate. He seemed surprised when Marcie gave him a hug.

We got on the plane for the long flight content that all was well and our house was in good hands.

It was in mid July, right around the half way point of our stay, when we found out what kind of hands are house had been in. To that point everything had seemed fine. We’d received regular letters from Pike in his rudimentary handwriting and with his poor spelling and grammar. He’d updated us on the house and his daily doings and told of his an added expense here or their to replace a broken garden tool or have a gutter fixed. My cousin Larry had been by to check on things a few times and gave us glowing reports on what a great job Pike was doing on the house and the property.  Then just after Bastille Day in France we got a call from the Berkeley Police.

The connection wasn’t great but I got the gist of it. They had Pike in custody for receiving and selling stolen property. The man who had repaired out fence was himself a fence. A couple of days later I flew back to California. Jet lagged, frustrated, angry and yes, not just a little curious I checked in with the Berkeley police. It turned out that Pike was exactly who he said he was. His references were all correct and he’d served in all the positions he’d claimed. But there was more to him. Pike had several aliases and using those assumed names committed a lengthy list of crimes ranging from burglary to extortion to fraud and now fencing.  What was really news though was that the FBI had been trying to track down Pike for years not only for his crimes but because of his involvement in a militant far right group. One that eventually hoped to assassinate Castro in Cuba and some liberal leaders in the USA. including President Kennedy. Of course Kennedy was assassinated just four months later but the gang Pike was part of likely had nothing to do with it. By November they had been rounded up, thanks in large part to Pike who ratted everyone out in order that he not spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.

Needless to say I was stunned by all of this. You never really know about a person. Someone who seems like the salt of Earth turns out to be an impostor, a crook and an extremist. My faith in humanity took a severe jot.

I managed to get a friend of my cousin Larry’s to serve as caretaker and was able to finish my research. Marcie and I got back home as planned just before Christmas. By then we had a baby girl, Claire. Of course the nation was still mourning Kennedy’s assassination. So were we. Marcie and I had been big supporters of his. That Pike had wanted him dead chilled us to the core.

We heard that in March Pike, who had done enough singing to have his sentence come out to only 10 years, was killed in prison. No one ever found who stuck the shiv in him but by this time he would have had plenty of enemies.

There was something different about the house. Pike’s presence and activities there somehow made it seem less like home, at least less like the place we wanted to raise our family. A year later I took a job at Columbia University in New York we figured we might as well re-settle instead of trying to fine a new place in Berkeley. A new opportunity seemed just the ticket. After fours year in New York we packed up and moved permanently to France.

I sometimes think we might have stayed longer, maybe even permanently in our Berkeley home. But things happen in life, totally unexpected, that can change everything. For us it was Pike.

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