by Philip-Todd Franklin
After an uneventful drive to the airport, Buddy and Ellen Baker arrived at Los Angeles International Airport with plenty of time to spare. After checking in their luggage and locating the terminal to their flight, they sat down while waiting to board the plane. “Buddy, are you sure you can’t give me a hint as to where we’re going?” Ellen asked, gently squeezing his arm while flashing him a dazzling smile.
Buddy turned to look at Ellen and gave her a mischievous grin, then shook his head. “Now, Ellen, honey, you know not to ask me.”
“But, Buddy, please…?” Ellen asked, slightly pouting.
As they continued talking, other people arrived to join them as they waited to board the plane. The terminal’s intercom/speaker system, which had been playing one of the local radio stations, was interrupted by arriving and departing flight numbers and other information.
Buddy tried to remain calm, as he wanted to surprise Ellen with their destination, but it wasn’t easy. The last time they’d been able to spend some time together was on their honeymoon way back in 1967. Taking a moment to look around, Buddy noticed that some of the people around them were staring at them. “Okay, honey, if I give you a clue, will you let me surprise you?” he asked.
Squealing in delight, Ellen said, “Oh, yes!” She quickly kissed Buddy, completely oblivious to anyone else around them.
When Ellen finally gave him a moment to catch his breath, Buddy said, “Honey, I thought we could use a little us time away from the big city, so we’re going to a more remote place back east.” That should calm her down, Buddy thought to himself.
Before Ellen could try to pry any further information from him, Buddy placed his finger across his lips to keep her from talking and frowned while trying to hear something.
Buddy’s ears had perked up when the radio announcer interrupted the usual programming with a breaking news story. “Folks, this news just in from NPR News. It seems there has been a prison uprising at a Washington, D.C., jail. Details are vague at this time. Please continue listening to this station for more information as it comes.”
“Oh, Buddy, that sounds awful,” Ellen said.
Buddy simply sat there, keeping his thoughts to himself. He became this way every time something like this happened. Since he not only had super-powers but experience in fighting criminals and aliens alike, Buddy had often thought about donning the costume of Animal-Man and pitching in whenever he was needed, though if he had a choice he wanted to drop the hyphen in his name by then. But each and every time, Buddy ended up becoming frozen by indecision, remembering all too well the mockery he’d had to endure the last time he took action as a costumed hero. Although he knew it would be no different this time, Buddy was still fixated on the idea that people were being hurt simply because he couldn’t be Animal-Man any longer.
In moments, a blond, blue-eyed woman in a stewardess uniform walked up to stand behind the booth next to the gate. “Thank you for flying South Atlantic Airlines today! We are now preparing to board all passengers. Would those with first class seating, along with those who require help boarding the plane, please form a line here in front of me?”
Out of the crowd of nearly three hundred people, only thirty moved forward to form a line as Buddy rose from his seat and gently pulled Ellen to him. “Honey, that’s us,” he said, and Ellen looked shocked; she hadn’t expected Buddy to splurge on first-class tickets.
In moments they had boarded the airplane and soon waited for the rest of the passengers to board. A voice soon came over the intercom. “This is your captain speaking. We once again thank you all for flying South Atlantic Airlines’ non-stop flight to Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Hearing the name of their destination, Ellen glanced at Buddy. “We’re going to Knoxville?”
Buddy just grinned and shook his head. It wouldn’t be that easy to guess.
“The weather is reported to be a little rough between here and there, folks, but we don’t expect any problems,” continued the captain. “And, as the tower has just given us the green light, we’re ready to take off. So please, just sit back, enjoy the ride, and leave the flying to us.”
The flight from Los Angeles to Knoxville was a wild experience for Ellen Baker, since it was the first time she’d ever flown on first class anywhere. The stewardesses had just made their third trip past the couple as they wheeled the dinner cart by and began to lay out trays of fresh food in front of the first-class passengers. Buddy smiled at Ellen before pouring some dressing on his salad and eating it. Without really intending to, Buddy found that having animal powers had made him into a vegetarian. He’d also had to give up his hunting trips with Roger Denning, since he could feel the animal’s pain when either of them shot a deer.
Ellen wasn’t sure how to handle the treatment, but she felt a bit like a princess, just like she’d dreamed of as a little girl. Looking at her dish of pasta, she began cutting it into bite-size pieces, all the while looking around her and watching the other first-class passengers as they ate.
A few moments later, the stewardess came by. “Is everything okay with your meal?” she asked the couple.
Washing down a bite, Buddy looked up at the young woman and said, “Yes, it’s very nice. One of the best salads I’ve ever had.” Ellen, her mouth full of pasta, just nodded with a smile in agreement.
“Would either of you like to have any dessert?” the stewardess asked. “We have both peach and apple pie, along with chocolate or vanilla ice cream.”
Buddy declined with a shake of his head and took another bite of his salad, and the stewardess went on to the next passenger.
During the flight, Buddy continued to think about the events taking place at the D.C. jail, though there wasn’t anything he could do. Picking up on his thoughts, Ellen tried to get him to talk by bugging him with questions about where they were going and why. But although Ellen continued for nearly the rest of the flight, only taking a few moments to glance out the window at the view, Buddy never did tell her where they were going, except to hint that they were heading for a retreat in the mountains. Near the end of the flight, he decided that he was going to have to tell Ellen what had been bothering him once they reached the hotel.
The plane landed in Knoxville and soon reached the terminal. Without much fanfare, the passengers were loaded off the plane and directed to the baggage area. Buddy and Ellen Baker slowly walked through the airport, looking like the tourists they were as they peered around them at everything as people passed by in both directions. After a few minutes, they arrived at the baggage carousel and grabbed their luggage as it arrived.
Buddy kept holding on to Ellen’s hand as they walked through the airport, and if it hadn’t been for the Hertz rental car, he probably wouldn’t have let go at all. After loading the luggage into the car, Buddy took out a local map and followed it from the airport toward the mountain resort town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
October 12, 1972:
In an abandoned building just off Pigeon Forge’s main street, three teenage boys sat around a table that looked like it had seen better days, and was leaning to one side under the boys’ weight.
“So, you two, see — you’re gonna be our lookout, Steve,” said Peter, his older brother. “Make sure that no fuzz shows up before we’re able to leave.” Peter was a muscular, seven-foot-tall youth with a large Afro hairdo, who wore a black leather jacket and a pair of black bellbottom pants. Steve responded with a nod at his older brother, who continued.
“Jake, you’ll be with me,” Peter said with a grin. “We’re goin’ through the back entrance that old man Wilkerson uses to leave the store by.”
Jake still wasn’t completely sure of this whole thing; the thought of getting caught kept coming to mind even as both Peter and Steve continued to assure him otherwise. “Still, guys, if we get caught, we could spend a long time behind bars,” he said, trying to be the voice of reason. “Why, the scandal alone would destroy my family.”
Peter’s face flushed red with anger at the younger man’s words. “What are you, Jake?” he retorted angrily. “Are you a man, or are you a mama’s boy? Dang, Steve, thought you were only friends with real men.”
“Now, Peter, I’m not saying I ain’t with you,” Jake quickly replied. “Just trying to be extra careful.”
Steve had been listening to the exchange, and for the first time in nearly a week he found his thoughts turning to family. Peter is all I’ve got left in the world, what with Grandma now passed on, he thought. I sure do miss her wisdom and understanding.
“Then it’s agreed,” continued Peter. “Remember, Steve, you’ll be the front watch, and Jake will be with me while we strip the store bare.” Peter’s old grin came back to his face as both boys agreed to his plans. “Great! Then we meet here three days from tomorrow, and then we leave this joke of a town behind us.”
Peter placed his hand on the middle of the table, and soon both Steve and Jake placed their own on top of Peter’s; their agreement had been made.
In their hotel room in Pigeon Forge, Buddy Baker was lying in bed next to his wife as she continued sleeping. They had arrived late the night before, and even though they’d been hungry, they decided to just retire for the night. Shifting softly in bed, he glanced over at the clock and moaned, “Aw, it’s nearly noon.” Buddy began softly shaking Ellen to wake her up. At first Ellen wasn’t sure what was happening, but she quickly came to her senses as Buddy turned on the radio. Buddy tuned into the local and national news, listening for more information on the prison riot, but there were no new updates, so he turned it off.
Buddy and Ellen began enjoying their first day in Pigeon Forge by relaxing next to the pool at the hotel, and then they wandered the main strip of the resort town, visiting the shops. For a girl used to the hustle and bustle of the big city, Ellen found this mountain town to be a breath of fresh air.
They had just begun crossing the street when Ellen stopped and ran toward one of the shops, nearly pulling Buddy’s arm out of his socket. “Oh, Buddy, look — what a quaint little jewelry store!”
The store looked small from the outside, having only one wooden door and a display window to the left. There were no price tags on any of the items in the display, but Buddy guessed by a glance that several of them would cost him at least a week’s pay or more.
“Can we go inside and take a look, Buddy?” Ellen asked, turning to look at her husband, an almost pleading expression on her face.
Buddy sighed as he looked Ellen in the eyes and knew once again that he would do anything she asked. “Sure, honey,” he said with a smile. “Nothing’s too good for my best girl.”
Inside, an elderly man was beginning to lock up his store for the day the same way he had for the past fifteen years. Old Man Wilkerson had thinning white hair and wore a three-piece blue suit with a bright orange tie. As he reached the back of the store, he looked back and saw the couple at the front door. Smiling and giving them an apologetic wave, he turned off the lights as he closed the shop, then left through the back of the store.
Buddy slipped his arm around Ellen’s and gently pulled her away. “We’ll come back later, honey. I think there might be something in there with your name on it,” he said, smiling as they slowly crossed the street and started back toward their hotel.
They made it back to their room around nine o’clock that evening, and the first thing Buddy did was turn on the news, while Ellen walked over to the phone and dialed the hotel operator.
Ellen was oblivious to the news as she spoke on the phone with room service. “Yes, we need two of your house salads, one with ranch and the other with thousand island, as well as a spaghetti dinner and the lasagna special.” Turning to Buddy, she began, “Do we want any–?”
Buddy shushed her and turned up the volume on the TV.
“At this time reports coming from the local prison are conflicting at best,” the reporter was saying. “The identity of the woman who gave the sheriff’s guards a hand is still unconfirmed, but eyewitness reports suggest that it appears to be the work of the new female crime-fighter known only as Wonder Woman.”
“Huh,” Buddy muttered, turning off the TV after that. Walking over to Ellen, he took the phone from her hand and said into the receiver, “Yes, we’ll need a bottle of Cabrera. No, the price is not an issue. Yes, thank you.” Hanging up the phone, he smiled at his wife.
Ellen just stood with her mouth agape, shocked at having been shushed and then having the phone taken from her. To stave off any hint of anger, Buddy slipped his arms around her and, smiling brightly, softly kissed her lips, nearly taking her breath away.
When their dinner arrived sometime later, Buddy and Ellen sat on a pair of lawn chairs on the balcony, the sound of the radio in the background. While eating their dinner and talking about what they’d seen that day, Buddy asked her if there were any places she wanted to return to again.
Smiling at him, Ellen named a few of the shops they’d seen that day, but to his surprise she never mentioned the jewelry store that had caught her eye that evening. He decided that, if she didn’t say anything about it, he would have to surprise her with something from that shop before their return trip home.
After dinner, the two spent the rest of the night as if it was a second honeymoon, ignoring all other sounds coming from the open sliding glass door or the radio.
Over the next couple of days, the Bakers returned to the stores that Ellen had mentioned and even took the time to see a couple of shows from the local theaters, but not once did they pass by the jewelry store. Still, they laughed and held hands almost as if they were kids once again, truly enjoying their vacation.