Niagara with Deniz's Helmet
DENIZ TEK ORIGINAL POST JAN 2010
Sunrises are often spectacular on the north shore of Oahu. This dawn was exceptional ...The pale seashell pink glow, with bright crimson borders, was almost painfully beautiful. There were splashes of mauve, deepest gentian, and even subtle shadings of celadon green against a gentle milky background.
The only difference was that today the sun was shining on a different background - not sea and sky - but skin. It was the skin of Niagara; skin normally so pale and translucent that the faint criss-crossings of underlying veins often gave it a disturbing blue tint. Today, as the sun rose over Kaneohe, its golden rays highlighted yet another overlay of bruises and welts, the traces of activities left by the night before...
At the Officers Club things were starting to heat up. It was a Friday night squadron party, and the theme was “Sixties”. The F-4 Phantom pilots and RIO’s of VMFA 212 were drinking. They’d be letting their hair down if they had any, and no one ever accused Marines, much less Marine aviators, of being less than totally gung ho at these sort of gatherings. These guys flew hard, fought hard, and played hard. I was their flight surgeon, and flew with them in the back seat. In my cut-off denim jacket with Radio Birdman logo emblazoned, spinning 45’s, playing DJ and feeling very happy. I had an endless supply of local Primo beer and Jack Daniels coming my way, as long as the hits kept spinning on the turntable. Namu, Bone, “Evil” Frog, and some of the other squadron “class clowns” had shown up in long hair wigs with mock drug paraphernalia. Even “Pack”, the cigar chomping, hard as nails skipper, was relaxing ... just a bit.
Lt.Col J.J. “Pack” Barta had a right to be a tough customer. He had spent a fair amount of the late sixties in the jungle living on bugs, dodging AK-47 rounds and avoiding booby traps as a recon Marine. He had a little different perspective on that decade than us younger dudes. Ron Asheton, who was visiting me and my wife of three years, Angie, in the Islands, had yet another perspective on the sixties based on several operational tours of duty with the Stooges. Niagara had flown out with Ron for the holiday. They had gotten over jet lag and climate shift, and the carefree couple were beginning to enjoy a taste of squadron life.
The drinks flowed freely, the conversation got louder, the music and dancing grew wilder as the Marines and their Michigan guests partied on into the night. Niagara was constantly surrounded by Marines bringing drinks, like courtly slaves at the beck and call of a princess in ancient Egypt. She was completely in her element, as self-assured, and in control as a 6000 hour veteran Navy or Marine jet fighter jock making a carrier landing in daylight and good weather. The young pilots had never seen anything remotely like her. Usually fearless, often loud, they were now not only polite, but a little bit ... shy! They didn’t know what to do when she spoke to them in “that” voice. They were even less certain of the outcome when confronted by a pale white breast spilled momentarily from the low cut dress. This was at home, mind you, not the Phillipines! There were wives around, and there was no emergency procedure checklist for that!!
Ron had acquired the honorary call sign, “Sixpack”. He knew his military history, and he loved airplanes. Ron’s father had been a Marine aviator in the Pacific in World War 2. Ron rode to work with me, and had been spending plenty of time hanging around the squadron. Once Ron was in the ready room, and had taken over the base radio. He was actually communicating with Phantom crews out on a mission, when The Skipper walked in, shook his head in disbelief. Without removing the cigar from his mouth, he yelled “ASHETON! IN MY OFFICE NOW!!” Both Ron and the duty officer, who had taken a break leaving Ron in charge, took a verbal beating. Ron prided himself on this later. Being disciplined by the Skipper made him feel like he was really part of the team! Tonight he was drinking hard, enjoying conversation with the squadron guys but always had one concerned eye on Niagara and was feeling a little bit of anxiety over some of the indiscretions of the evening, and where it all might lead.
Finally things wound down and Marines with three sheets to the wind drifted out into the balmy tropical night. On the way out of the club, the laws of gravity overcame high heels and equilibrium. To the horror and fascination of onlookers, Niagara murmured “Ohhhh, Ronnie!” and then plunged head first down a long flight of stairs. She swapped ends two or three times, long legs and thin arms violently slamming corners, rails and steps all the way down. She landed in a piteous heap at the bottom of the landing, knickers exposed, moaning. The crash was spectacular, but Ron had seen this scenario many times before and knew what had to be done. After a quiet “God DAMN it” from between clenched teeth, he looked around at the shocked audience, lit a cigarette, and smiled. He said, “Hey, its OK, she’ll be all right, could you guys just help me get her in the car?”.
We did just that and drove the 10 miles northwest up the King Kamehameha Highway to our townhouse on Hui Kelu Street in Temple Valley. Everyone went straight to bed ... because in an unbelievable lapse of planning wisdom, I had organized fishing for the next day. It would require an early start.
Three hours later Niagara, Ron, 7 months pregnant Angie and I had climbed into the green ’72 Olds Cutlass-S and were heading for the pier. We were all tired and (except Angie, who wasn’t drinking) hung over, that was a given. Ron, beyond tired and hung over, was barely able to speak. Niagara was even worse, and seemed very close to needing to be placed on life support. Niagara’s external injuries were bad enough, but there was also inner damage to that slender wraithlike 50 kilogram body. The mix of fermentation by-products and toxins from the alcohol were taking an even greater toll from the inside. The weary pair only wanted to be unconscious, better yet fully anesthetized, but being the good sports that they are, tried very hard to stay present and awake. It didn’t work out that way.
★Deniz Tek, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a proliﬁc guitarist, singer and songwriter currently based in Sydney, Australia. His career in music, grounded in late-60's Detroit, extends through several decades and across continents. He is best known as a founding member of the inﬂuential Australian independent rock band Radio Birdman.
In 2007, Deniz was inducted into the Australian Music Hall of Fame, and in 2012 was voted number 7 in the top 100 Australian guitarists of all time.★