He Is Who?
By Pia Krause Aitken
A frighteningly scruffy man emerged from a road-dirty but relatively new convertible and ambled into the front desk, way too confident, I thought, for someone who looked like that.
At slightly more than 17, I had the pompous title of Assistant Manager at the new fancy motor hotel in the middle of town. I took my job seriously. An avid reader, I saw myself as the Nancy Drew interface between the terrors of the outside world and the safety of my little town of 5000 sliced in half by the Union Pacific Railroad and the Lincoln Highway – the nation’s original cross-country highway. Because I had completed almost all the high school credits I needed by the end of my junior year and was second in my class, I had talked the business teacher into giving me credit for this daily job. All I had to do was take one other course early in the morning before going to work and not get fired.
The manager who had hired me, a “foreigner” from the big city of Denver, often disappeared for hours or even days. What I didn’t get at the time was that he was a closet gay immersed in the very protestant, homophobic world of our small town, escaping at every opportunity.
So when the unshaven, dirty Mr. Scruffy walked into the office, I was alone. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
“Whaddaya got for a room?” he asked, his eyes scanning the simple lobby decorated in muckledumbrown.Was he checking to see that I really was alone?
“I have a single for $29, a double for $35 or a Suite for $51”, I announced in my most powerful teen voice. People always said I looked older.
“Okay, lemme have the suite,” he said, pulling a mammoth pile of bills from his pocket and peeling off $51 after he signed the register in an unintelligible script. The only thing I could read was his California license number.
“Yes, sir, thank you, but with tax that will be $51.10.” He threw down a dime. I handed him the key and directed him to the stairs that led to the suite in the corner opposite the beautifully decorated suite of our town’s most famous resident, Clayton Radcliffe, the blind former President of the Nebraska Bar Association.
This probable crook on the lam in a suite next to the Radcliffe’s would never do. I plugged the old-fashioned switchboard behind me into the Sheriff’s office. Sheriff Schulz’s son was in my class. I was on close terms with the Sheriff, not just because of that, but I had been almost-arrested by him twice, once for filling the back of my pick-up truck with straw and spreading it onMain Street to celebrate Homecoming. Please don’t ask me what spreading straw on our main street had to do with celebrating Homecoming. I have no idea. It had just seemed like a good idea at the time and we had fun doing it right up until his car, lights flashing, pulled up behind us and ordered us to go back and pick up every stem of straw we had just deposited. Yes, we almost missed the Homecoming Dance, but he was nice enough to come back with four brooms.
The second time I was almost arrested, I was “making out” with my boyfriend in the car at the Fairgrounds parked, we thought, completely out of sight. Nothing too major, in today’s sexual world, was going on. Just a few kisses. He said he wouldn’t “take us in and call our parents,” but we should never do this again.
“Sheriff Schulz,” I said when I was connected by his deputy, “I think you’d better come over here. A very suspicious guy has checked in. He’s dirty, smelly and his car is a mess, but he had a pocket full of money. His California license is xxx123.”
“Okay, I’ll check it out and be there shortly.” he said.
A little later, in his tan cowboy hat, holster evident, the Sheriff ambled in. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I don’t think you need to worry,” he said. “That car is registered to a Broderick Crawford. Ever heard of him?”
“No,” I replied.
“Does this look familiar, he asked, pulling out a newspaper article. “The Star of Highway Patrol, Broderick Crawford, Honored at Ak-Sar-Ben ,” the headline proclaimed above a picture of the same guy looking a lot less like a thug.
“What’s Highway Patrol?” I asked.
“A TV program. But you couldn’t know that since we don’t have TV here yet, could you?”
“If he’s what they have on TV, I’m not too excited about getting it either,” I replied.
I didn’t even ask for his autograph when he came down for dinner.
(Ed. Note: If the writer had known that Broderick Crawford was one of the best-known actors in Hollywood in the late 40’s and early 50’s, having starred in two of the best movies of that era, Born Yesterday (with the delightful Judy Holliday) and All The King’s Men, for which Crawford won the Best Actor Oscar, she might have have asked for that autograph!)