harry hits the road



It seems like one of my many recurrent nightmares. I’m standing on a twenty-foot high platform inside a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. My knees are trembling, my ears are echoing the whirring of an electrical air pump. I stare down at my designated landing area, a blue plastic mattress about twenty feet wide. I try to imagine that it’s a blue lagoon filled with the world’s softest water.

A stocky, stubble bearded fellow in shorts and a T-shirt sidles next to me. His name’s Anthony Persad, and he’s a 25 year old instructor at Hollywood Stunts, a professional stunt training school. He is also my new best friend.

“It’s the illusion of getting hurt that you’re creating here, not actually getting hurt,” Anthony says. “We’ve done a lot of prep work for a fall that lasts only about two seconds. But that two seconds is your life.”

I nod, sucking  deep breath. In the two seconds after I leap off the platform, I’m supposed to execute a mid-air twist so that I land on my back and not on my neck. The whole thing is scaring the shit out of me, as well it should.

I hear a commotion down below, voices shouting back and forth over the whir of the electrical air pump. Anthony tells me there’s a minor problem with the mattress. It’s fixable, but I need to postpone my jump for another couple of minutes.

“We’re all good,” he says. “Just relax.”

“Yeah, sure,” I say.



When I step back from the edge of the platform, real bad dreams and nightmarish memories march through my mind like terrorists toting improvised explosive devices. The first flashback shows me in the Smart Car with Muse five days ago. We’re on the way back from Newport, crossing from Rhode Island into Connecticut on I-95. My cheeks are flushing red, and I’m white knuckling the steering wheel, trying to maintain emotional control.

“I don’t give a damn how much British art they’ve got at Yale,” I say, gritting my teeth. “You can go see it some other time.”

“You are so competitive because you are a Harvard man,” Muse declares.

“That’s got nothing to do with it. We are not stopping in New Haven.”

“Your old boarding school is there, no?”

“Choate’s up the road, in Wallingford. But we’re not going there, either.”

“Why not? They probably have cute pictures of you with golf bags.”

“Nein!” I holler, pounding the dashboard with my right fist. “Nein! Nein! Nein!”

Muse trembles like she’s in the middle of an earthquake. She turns her back to me, huddling against the passenger side window.

“You promise to stop your yelling,” she says.

“Look, I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m wrong. It’s just that...”

“Was?” Muse demands. “Tell me!”

I envision a dreamscape. It’s the outside of a house across the street from one a Yale dormitory, a quaint little cottage trimmed with gingerbread. I peer inside a second floor window. A woman is lying on top of a bed. She’s fully clothed, and there’s a green plastic garbage bag tied around her head. A man in a tweed coat carrying an armful of books enters the bedroom. He drops the books and rushes over to the bed.

“I’ve got two sisters,” I tell Muse. “Make that had two sisters, both younger. Maisy and Daisy named after my father’s twin sisters. They were inseparable, like Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Then Tweedledee --- I mean Maisy -- committed suicide in New Haven.”

“Oh, mein Gott!” Muse says, gasping. “When did this happen?”

“Five years ago. She’d been in chronic pain for a long time. A neck injury, some other things supposedly involving real, real bad PMS.  She took prescription pain killers, smoked a lot of pot. Guess none of that did the trick.”

“I’m so sorry. You must have been very close.”

“We were until we all got out of college.”

Gripping and re-gripping the steering wheel, I give Muse a primer on my sorry family history. Maisy, I tell her, was always the smart, super-serious one, introspective, idealistic, a brooder. Long brown hair, blue eyes, cheeks like my son Harrison’s that dimpled when she smiled, which wasn’t often. She was always the tallest kid in her class in grade school, and she tended to be a little heavy.

“Oh, I know already how horrible that can be,” Muse interjects. “I was the tallest one in my class. It’s so embarrassing. You feel so awkward and ugly. You want to hide under a rug.”

“Yeah, well, Maisy had some other issues, too. Most of them had to with our mother.”

The Magee Hurt that Bush #41 remembered so fondly was actually a nasty drunk, I confide. Also tall, variously tinted reddish-blonde hair, blue eyes, well-practiced walking and sitting postures. She grew up rich, but her father squandered his fortune gambling and drinking. She had a beau who got killed in World War II, a U.S. army paratrooper. She married a French paratrooper on the rebound. It only lasted a couple of years. At age 27, she married my father, who was already age 50. The whole time we were growing up, she complained about how old my father was.

“Magee had some real conflicted views about being a woman, which she hammered down on Maisy,” I recall. “She was real smart, but she only finished two years of college and she never worked a day in her life. She eventually blamed my father for making her have four kids in about six years.”

“Making her have the kids?” Muse asks.

“That was her line. I didn’t buy it. Neither did Maisy. And it wasn’t exactly the most loving thing to hear from the mouth of your own mother. Far as we could tell, Magee was just an overgrown, narcissistic brat, high strung, bitter, whiney, and of course, soused most of the time.”

I figure that my mother wanted to visit her own fate on Maisy, but Maisy wanted to go her own way. She was a feminist, not a deb. Elected president of her class at boarding school. Got an old witch of a headmistress fired and replaced by a new headmaster her senior year. Refused to let Magee or our father attend her graduation.

“But they were paying the bills, no?” Muse asks.

“Yes,” I say. “It might seem kind of hypocritical, but Maisy was bent on biting the hands that fed her. Lot of kids were like that in the late sixties.”

“Your father doesn’t put down his feet?”

I shake my head. My father, I remind her, was born in the last year of the 19th Century. Broad-shouldered, blue eyed, of course, with an unaffected elegance of bearing that one of my friends compared to that of a British colonel. Like mother said, he was old. And he was getting tired. Tired of her. Tired of getting old.

Magee would drink in bed upstairs day and night. He’s nap all afternoon on the living room couch. She kept the air conditioning at 68 degrees. In mid-August in Houston, the old man would wear an alpaca sweater and burn logs in the fireplace. When he reached age 84, which was in 1983, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He spent the last five years of his life in a wheelchair.

“Anyway, Maisy went on to graduate Harvard magna cum laude. She worked on Wall Street. Got a business degree from Yale. Signed on with a high powered consulting firm in Houston.”

“And the other sister?”

“Daisy was always in Maisy’s shadow. Which was kind of odd because Daisy was always the prettier one and the popular one, blonde, bubbly, cute looking, outgoing, a little goofy and absent-minded. She wasn’t a dummy, but she wasn’t an Ivy Leaguer like Maisy She graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. Worked as a waitress for awhile. Went on to teach grade school.”

The big split came around 1985, I continue. Maisy got it in her head that our parents were ganging up against her. Especially my mother. There was a lot of bad blood there, for sure. On the other hand, Magee was getting pretty weak and ineffectual from all her boozing. But Maisy decided she didn’t want to be part of the family anymore. She and Daisy left Houston, and never came back. Maisy married a guy who owns an art gallery in New Haven. Daisy moved there, too.

“About that same time, they decided they hated me, too,” I say. “Me first, and eventually, Biff, my brother who comes between them in age. Which was kind of ironic since I shared their opinion of Magee. I couldn’t even bear to kiss my mother on the cheek after age 13 or 14.”

“You don’t kiss your own mother?”

“No, she just gave me the creeps. Anyway, the sisters thought Biff and I were taking sides with the parents and against them so we’d get all the money when the parents died. That wasn’t true at the time, but it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Magee willed her estate, which included what our father left her, 20 percent to Daisy and 40 percent each to Biff and me. Maisy got cut out entirely.”

Muse leans over and kisses me on the neck. “But you and your brother are still close, no?”

“No. We don’t speak anymore, either.”

“Bitte!” Muse exclaims. “Why on earth not?”

“Also kind of ironic but inevitable. Maisy, Daisy and I were always a threesome growing up. We used to joke that maybe Biff was adopted. We all had straight hair, he had curly hair. Maisy and I were athletic. He used to be real frail or kind of chubby. Had the croup a lot when he was a kid. Plus, he was mama’s boy, Magee’s pet.”

I see another dreamscape. It’s the observation deck of the Empire State Building circa 1956. I’m age 5. Maisy is 3. My father, who is 57 but looks forty something, props my sister on a ledge with no screen or guardrail, and waves at me to join them. I shake my head and fall down on my knees, trembling all over. A uniformed security guard strides up and orders my father to step away from the ledge.

My father, my sister, and I are somehow transported to a suite at the St. Regis Hotel. My mother, age 34, is sitting on a couch with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other. My brother Biff, age 2, is cuddled in her lap. “Harry, you’re a horse’s ass!” my mother screams. “Thank God, I didn’t let you throw my little dream boat off the Empire State Building with those other two brats!”

An SUV horn honks, snapping me back to the cockpit of the Smart Car. I exit off I-95 at New London so Muse and I can take the Cross Sound Ferry to Long Island, avoiding New Haven altogether. The plan is to drop her off in Sag Harbor, and take the Southern State Parkway to my gig at stunt man school in Brooklyn

“Where now is the other sister?” Muse asks as I drive the Smart Car off the ferry dock in Orient Point.

I white knuckle the steering wheel again, gritting my teeth. “In New Haven, damn it. After Maisy killed herself, Daisy married her husband.”

Scheisse!” Muse exclaims.

“Yeah, shit. I hear second hand that Daisy’s very happy now.”

 “I think already I am starting to understand where your anger comes from.”

“Good -- then help me make it go away.”

“I try my best.”


I pull the car over at the edge of a dockside parking lot full of waiting cars. Muse looks at me, puzzled. I look back at her, teary-eyed. Then we kiss and kiss until the cars  beside us disappear into the open mouth of the ferry.


I hear a voice cry out over my shoulder on the 20 foot high platform at Hollywood Stunts. It’s my instructor, Antony Persad.

“Bag up?” he wants to know.

“Not yet,” shouts one of the handlers down below.

I see stunt school owner Bob Cotter limp over to the edge of the mattress. Like me, he’s 57 years old, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, but at 5’8” and 150 pounds, much more supple and fit. A former construction foreman, he once supervised window washers on skyscraper scaffoldings. He’s done stunts for music videos starring the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi. He’s doubled for Burt Reynolds in the television series Stryker. And he’s performed in the 1998 film Rounders with Matt Damon and Ed Norton.

 The week before, Bob ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), while setting up some of the equipment in his school. As result, he can’t perform stunts for six months. “All I can do is watch other guys perform stunts -- that’s the sucky part,” he’d  complained earlier that day. “I never get hurt doing stunts. And I can’t stop. I can’t just  sit around watching. Running off to play golf doesn’t cut it for me.”

HH3 and stunt man

Bob’s been operating Hollywood Stunts for a little over two years. Tuition for a standard three-week course is $2,900, but it can qualify you for a job making up to  $200,000 a year. My training session under the supervision of Bob’s protege Anthony, a seven year veteran, was a Whitman’s sampler compressed into about three hours. It covered the art of staging a fight scene, low falls on tumbling mats, and high fall preparation on trampolines.

“Once we step even an inch off the ground, everything’s got to be on point,” Bob said. “You want to walk away from a stunt, not get carried away on a stretcher.”

I hadn’t attempted a gymnastic tumble or flip of any kind since age ten, and it showed. I kept landing on my head and neck instead of my shoulders. Then I had a revelation: the trick was to let gravity be my friend. The higher I bounced and the more I leaned forward as I bounced, the easier it was to flip or twist. I eventually managed one decent head first flip and one semi-perfect back twist.

“Okay, we’re ready ” Anthony declares at last.

The moment of truth, dare, or unforced suicide is just another casting call. Or so I tell myself when Anthony leads me back to the edge of the twenty foot high platform. I was hoping to look straight up or straight ahead, never down. That’s impossible, as Anthony reminds, pointing to a white square in the middle of the blue air mattress.

“That’s your target,” he says “Keep your face and eyes locked on it at all times.”

“Yeah...uh.... okay,” I stutter.

“Bag up?” Anthony shouts.

“Bag up!” Bob confirms.

“Falling!” Anthony shouts.

I gulp one last breath, and lean forward to befriend gravity. Then I spring out as far as I can, spinning my hips and shoulders the instant I clear the platform. Everything happens in a blur. My first memorable sensations are a popping noise when I hit the mattress and a pain that shoots up my neck.

“Awesome!” Anthony cheers from above. “You just missed landing on your shoulders!”

HH3 leaping off high tumbling mat, Brooklyn, NY.

Grimacing, I roll toward the nearest edge of the mattress, which is already beginning to deflate. No longer a buoyant trampoline, the mattress feels like a bottomless lagoon. As I keep rolling, I keep sinking deeper and deeper as if I’m going to drown. I think I’m going to lose my mind. Instead, my left sneaker comes off.

“This is the hardest part,” Bob says when I finally reach the concrete floor clutching my sneaker by the shoestrings.

“Nah,” I mutter, rubbing the back of my neck and wincing. “It’s really not.”

I give the high fall another try. Once again, I land more on my neck than on the back of my shoulders.

“Much better,” Anthony allows. “You almost nailed it.”

What I really nailed is my neck, which now feels stiffer than the 2x4s on the scaffolding. I tell Anthony I’m looking forward to moving up to the 40 foot level some day in the not too near future. I hug him and Bob, say thanks to the crew, and hobble out to my Smart Car.


That night, I soak my battered body in a bathtub at a midtown hotel, puzzling over what possessed me to believe gravity is my friend. I’m only a dozen blocks from the venerable St. Regis, but I might as well be on another planet inhabited by poor to middling people who know nothing of Robber Barons or Wall Street billionaires. The bathroom tiles are cracked, the towels frayed around the edges. The paper wrappers stick so tightly to the soap bars I can barely claw them off with my fingernails.

I wish I had the talents, guts, and durability to become a real stunt man earning six figures a year in the movie industry. Hell, I wish I could fly, play the French horn, invent a complex financial derivative that makes me a billionaire, and operate my TiVo.

Empire State Building

 Coming out of the bathroom to dry off, I look out the window and see the Empire State Building looming over the backlit skyline like the obelisk of an ancient civilization.  I wonder what my dead sister saw during her last conscious moments in a draw-strung garbage bag. Was she suffocating under an avalanche of green plastic leaves? Or was she plunging off the ledge of a skyscraper’s observation deck in a high fall toward a bottomless blue lagoon?




Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. Batman (stock) 2.Stuntman Anthony Persad (Hollywood Stunts) 3. 3. Stuntman Bob Cotter (Hollywood Stunts) 4. Empire State Building (stock)

Hollywood Stunts