Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boxes cover
Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

As a young man, Howard Hughes (born 1905) inherited the Hughes Tool Company from his father, using it as the starting point to build a vast business empire. He was a pioneer of aviation design and a daring test pilot (in 1946 he was nearly killed when the aircraft he was testing crash-landed and burned). In the 1930s and ‘40s, he was a movie maker in Hollywood, having become enamored of the movies as a child. He owned an airline and then another one, getting into trouble with the U.S. government for violating antitrust laws. At one time he owned almost all the gambling casinos in Last Vegas, lending an air of respectability to an unsavory industry. For a while, he was not only the richest man in America, but the richest in the world. He was a playboy, an escort for some of the most beautiful and well-known ladies in Hollywood. He had ties with organized crime and rubbed elbows with some of the most famous political leaders of his time. More than anything else, though, he was known for being extravagantly eccentric, reclusive, and mysterious.

This following quote from the nonfiction book, Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes (by Douglas Wellman and Mark Musick), tells us a lot about the real Howard Hughes:

“The world of Howard Hughes is sometimes unfathomable. Between the things he did do, the things he didn’t do but was accused of, and the things he did but covered up, his life is a bewildering series of conflicting stories. He was a master of secrecy, intrigue, and diversion, which is apparent from the abundance of books and articles on the man, many of which are contradictory.”

At the height of Howard Hughes’ fame, the world knew him as a rich eccentric. People loved to talk about him and write about him, but much of what was spoken and written was exaggeration or blatantly untrue. Nobody could know Howard Hughes, so people fabricated stories about him to sell books, newspapers and magazines. He was “hot” copy.

The world believes that Howard Hughes died a broken old man at age 71 in April 1976. He had been living in a Las Vegas hotel room, barely kept alive by his uncaring custodians. He was filthy, malnourished, emaciated and addicted to Codeine, Valium, and other drugs that he didn’t need. He left behind a fortune in excess of two billion dollars. At the time of his supposed death, he had at least forty pending lawsuits against him and was being hounded all the time by the U.S. government for non-payment of taxes. Great wealth has its own unique problems.

The premise of the nonfiction book Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes is that Hughes didn’t really die in 1976. A decoy died in his place, a Howard Hughes stand-in, presumably a Las Vegas derelict of about the same age, with similar physical characteristics. Why would a man like Howard Hughes fake his own death? The answer should be obvious. He wanted to be left alone, to live the rest of his life in peace and seclusion. The forfeiting of his great wealth was the price he was willing to pay.

We hear all the time about people faking their own deaths, but if anybody could do it, it was Howard Hughes. He had the means to do it and the “enablers” to carry out his wishes and keep their mouths shut. He assumed the name and identity of Verner “Nik” Nicely. He married a woman named Eva McClelland. He died in 2001 at the age of 95.

The book presents plenty of compelling evidence that the mysterious and eccentric old man named Verner “Nik” Nicely was in reality Howard Hughes. Mr. Nicely had burn scars on his body, consistent with the scars that Howard Hughes sustained in a crash in his test pilot days. He was the same height as Howard Hughes, had the same physical characteristics, and was in possession of encyclopedic knowledge of aviation and mechanics. His wife, Eva, who died a few years after he died, was certain that she was married to the once-famous Howard Hughes. Read the book and decide for yourself if she was telling the truth.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp    

Brumm’s Drug Store ~ A Short Story

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Brumm’s Drug Store
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

Mayfleur had worked at her new job for only two weeks and already she was thinking about quitting. There was always so much to do, she had never had to work so hard before. She was on her feet all day long without ever a moment to herself. The worst part, though, was Mrs. Brumm watching her all the time.

Some people named Brumm owned the store. Mr. Brumm was the pharmacist. He stayed behind the pharmacy counter all the time. He smiled a lot and hardly ever said a word to anybody. If anybody asked him a question, he pointed to his wife to answer it. And his wife, Mrs. Brumm, seemed to be everywhere all at once. Nothing escaped her scrutiny. She was all-knowing and all-seeing.

There was only one customer at the lunch counter drinking coffee so Mayfleur wasn’t very busy at the moment, but she knew that Mrs. Brumm was lurking around somewhere—she could smell the stench of her sweet perfume—so she tried to look busier than she was. When the man drinking coffee asked for a refill, she was glad to be in motion for a few seconds with something specific to do. She gave him a sweet smile as she filled his cup and asked if he would like anything else.

“Mayflower!” Mrs. Brumm came around the corner without a sound. “The magazines are a mess! They need straightening! Right now!

Mayfleur jumped at the sound of Mrs. Brumm’s voice and sloshed some of the hot coffee on her hand. She put the pot back on the warmer with a clatter and then nearly fell down where somebody had dribbled some water on the floor. Her day was not going well and she had more than six hours to go.

Mrs. Brumm was right. The magazine rack was a mess. It was one of Mayfleur’s responsibilities to keep it in order, and Mrs. Brumm would accept nothing less than perfection. Mayfleur was just separating Look from Life and Superman from Justice League America, when Mrs. Brumm barked at her to drop what she was doing and fill a food order. Miss Tolley upstairs wanted a tuna salad sandwich on toast, a chocolate milk shake with a jigger of rum mixed in, a pack of Lucky Strikes—and she wanted them now.

Mayfleur knew that Miss Tolley was Mrs. Brumm’s sister and there was something funny about her. Something not quite right, but Mayfleur didn’t know what it was. Maybe she had a missing leg or something and couldn’t get out of bed. When she took the food order upstairs, she’d find out for sure.

She went behind the lunch counter and began preparing the food order, not bothering to wash her hands first. She put the wrapped tuna sandwich on toast in a white paper bag, along with the Lucky Strikes, and then she set about making the chocolate milk shake with the rum in it. (The bottle of rum was kept under the counter especially for that purpose.) She fastened a plastic lid on the milk shake and put it in its own white paper bag. When the order was ready, she carried it out the front door and around the corner to the door where the stairs were. She went up the steps slowly, looking at the grooves in the wood underneath her feet. The grooves made her think of all the people who had gone up the stairs who were now dead.

There were four apartments over the drug store. She found Miss Tolley’s door and knocked hesitantly, as though afraid she might wake someone. She heard the undoing of the locks from the inside and then the door opened and there stood Miss Tolley in a red Japanese kimono.

Mayfleur was only moderately surprised to see that Miss Tolley was a midget, no more than three feet tall. She realized it could have been a lot worse. She might have had leprosy or no arms or been covered in scales.

“Are you Miss Tolley?” Mayfleur asked.

“Well, I ain’t Virginia Mayo!”

“I have your food order from downstairs.”

“Okay.”

She took the two bags from Mayfleur and set them down. Mayfleur turned and started to leave, but Miss Tolley gestured for her to sit on her sagging sofa and “take a load off.”

“What’s your name?” Miss Tolley asked.

“Mayfleur Pickering.”

“How is Bertha treating you?”

“Who? Do you mean Mrs. Brumm?

Hah-hah-hah! Is that what she makes you call her?”

“That’s what she told me to call her from the first day.”

Hah-hah-hah! She’s a riot! I’ll bet she doesn’t give you a moment’s peace, does she?”

“Well, she is kind of demanding.”

“You don’t have to sugarcoat it for me, honey. She’s my sister. I know what a demon she is. How long you been on the payroll?”

“Two weeks.”

“I’ll bet it seems like a couple of years already, don’t it?”

Mayfleur felt uncomfortable hearing Miss Tolley talk about Mrs. Brumm that way and she wished she might go back downstairs and disappear behind the soda fountain.

“Well, if there’s nothing else,” Mayfleur said, “I really need to get back downstairs.”

“You don’t need to worry about it,” Miss Tolley said. “I call the shots around here and if Bertha don’t like it, she knows what she can do about it.”

“You ‘call the shots’?”

“I own the drugstore. Didn’t you know that?”

“No, nobody told me.”

“Not only do I own the drugstore, I also own these apartments and three other buildings besides.”

“Oh.”

“So, two weeks, you say?”

“That’s right.”

“I bet you think every day about quitting, don’t you?”

“Well, I…”

“You can be truthful with me, dearie. I know nobody can stand working for Bertha for long. You would not believe how many girls she has had working for her! I think we average about one a month.”

“Well, I don’t like to complain. I had a little trouble finding a job, so when this one came along I was glad to get it. I’d like to keep it for a while.”

“But still, you’d like to tell Bertha to take it and shove it, wouldn’t you?”

“Well, I…”

“And what do you think of the mister?”

“Who?”

“The pharmacist. His name is Lloyd Brumm. He’s Bertha’s husband, if you can call it that.”

“Oh, him! I don’t usually see him unless I have to go behind the pharmacy counter for something.”

“Don’t let the smile and the quiet demeanor fool you. He’s a drug addict and he’s just as crazy as Bertha.”

“He seems all right.”

“He’s in the perfect profession for an addict. One day he’s going to overdose himself. Do you know he used to go around telling people he was a doctor? He did it to impress the ladies. They’d see the white coat and believe him. Oh, he’s quite the ladies’ man, he is!”

“He seems harmless enough.”

“Let me warn you about him, though. He’s quite the skirt chaser. He’ll go after any female over fourteen years old. It don’t matter if she’s married or ugly or obese or covered in fur. Drugs are not the only thing he’s addicted to!”

“Does Mrs. Brumm know?”

“Of course she knows, and it don’t matter to her! It’s a marriage in name only.”

“I do feel a little sorry for him being married to her.”

“You and me both, honey, but you don’t want to waste too much sympathy on him, though. And, take my advice. Don’t ever let him get you alone if you can help it. That’s what he likes to do. Get a girl in the room alone, and then he’s all over her!”

“I never would have known!”

“And, something else I gotta tell you: he peeps at you when you’re going to the toilet.”

What?

“He’s got a peep hole in the wall. He spies on you when you’re in the bathroom.”

“Are—are you sure?”

“Yes, he’s a very sick person!”

“Why don’t you plug up the peep hole?”

“Because I’m waiting for the right time. I’m going to bust him and I’m going to bust her, too! I’m going to squash them both like bugs! Do you want to know why she watches you all the time?”

“No. Why?”

“She’s hoping to catch you stealing from her.”

“I’m not going…”

“She’s always on the lookout for a thief so she can call the police and have them arrested.”

“Why would she do that?”

“She enjoys getting people in trouble. That’s her thing. She’s an absolute lunatic. She wants to embarrass you in front of other people. If she so much as caught you taking a toothpick that didn’t belong to you, she’d be on you like a dive bomber. She’s hoping you steal money, though, out of the cash drawer.”

“I would never…”

“Her favorite thing, though, would be to catch you with him.”

“With who?”

“With Lloyd, her husband. The pharmacist. If she caught you dallying with him in the back room, that would push her over the edge.”

“I thought you said it was a marriage in name only.”

“It is, but she’s still jealous of his attentions to other women. She’s a drama queen down to her toenails. She loves explosive, emotional scenes. She watches soap operas on TV all the time. That’s where she gets a lot of her material.”

“Believe me, Miss Tolley, I would never dally with him in the back room or anywhere else! The thought of it makes me sick!”

“Makes me sick, too!”

“And I would never steal money from her. Or anything else.”

“I believe you’re a good girl, or I wouldn’t be telling you these things.”

“I’d better get back downstairs. She’ll think I’m taking too long.”

“Don’t worry about it, Mayflower. If she says anything, just tell her to talk to me. I’ve got your ass covered.”

She went back downstairs, expecting a large dose of Mrs. Brumm’s anger for taking so long with Miss Tolley’s food order, but Mrs. Brumm was standing in the back of the store near the pharmacy counter, talking to two men. When Mrs. Brumm saw Mayfleur come in the door, she stopped talking in mid-sentence and pointed. The two men turned and looked at Mayfleur. Breathless, Mrs. Brumm strode forward in a few sprinting steps.

“Here she is!” Mrs. Brumm said. “Here’s the girl! She’s the one!”

As the men came toward her, Mayfleur saw they were uniformed police officers, but still she didn’t know what was happening.

“You work for this woman?” one the officers asked.

“Yes,” Mayfleur said.

“How long?”

“Two weeks.”

“She says you’ve been stealing money from her. Money from her cash register.”

“I haven’t!”

“Of course she’d lie about it!” Mrs. Brumm said. “They always do!”

Mayfleur saw that there were several customers in the store and they had all stopped what they were doing and were looking at her. Mr. Brumm had come out from behind the pharmacy counter and was looking at her with a strange smile on his face. Mrs. Brumm was performing for the assemblage.

“She has a hundred and fifty dollars, at least, inside her purse that she keeps in the back room,” Mrs. Brumm said. “Where would a girl like that get a hundred and fifty dollars in cash?”

“I don’t have a hundred and fifty dollars in my purse!” Mayfleur said. “I have two dollars and some change. If there’s a hundred and fifty dollars in my purse, you put it there!”

“I did not!” Mrs. Brumm said.

“Anything else stolen besides the hundred and fifty?” the officer asked Mrs. Brumm.

“Yes, I’m sure she’s been stealing from me all along!”

“Oh, Mrs. Brumm!” Mayfleur said. “The magazines are all messed up. I never got a chance to straighten them earlier. I think I’ll do it now.”

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Confessions of Nat Turner ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Confessions of Nat Turner book cover 2

The Confessions of Nat Turner
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

In 1831, about thirty years before the Civil War, in the state of Virginia, a slave uprising resulted in the deaths of 59 white people and significant destruction of property over the course of two days. A slave named Nat Turner (he heard voices and had visions) planned the methodical attack for years, believing he was following the will of God. He saw himself as an avenging angel. He didn’t act alone in the uprising; he recruited followers from among his fellow slaves who were more than willing to wreak havoc against the establishment.

American author William Styron (1925-2006) published his historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967. It is a fictional account (historical accuracy not verified) of the only slave uprising of its kind in the Southern United States. The mastermind of the uprising, Nat Turner, narrates the story in his first-person voice. Through the character of Nat Turner, William Styron gives an articulate voice to the enslaved.

The irony of Nat Turner, according to this novel, is that he was favored among slaves. He was intelligent, he could read, he was a skilled carpenter and he possessed mechanical abilities beyond his station in life. He possessed an uncanny knowledge of the Bible, better than most preachers, as one character in the book observes. He passed through several owners, some of them cruel and callous, but, for the most part, he was with people who cared for him, valued his abilities and wanted only the best for him. Already we see the irony of this situation. Why would such a man plan and carry out a bloody and violent attack of vengeance?

Nat Turner spent years planning the bloody insurrection, working out every small detail, even drawing maps. He thought of it as a military operation. He shared his plans with his group of loyal core followers, swearing them to secrecy. They were all willing to give up everything to make the undertaking a success. They hoped that, as they made their bloody way across the landscape, hundreds of other slaves would join them and their numbers would grow into an invincible army. Their plan was to kill every white person in their reach (eventually numbering in the hundreds or thousands), and when they were finished with their march of death and destruction, they would escape into the swamp and never be seen or heard from again.

The operation fell far short of Nat Turner’s expectations. The group of renegade slaves killed 59 white people, including at least one small child, and attracted about two dozen additional slaves to their ranks. The problem with most of these “recruits” was that they were undisciplined and wanted only to drink whiskey and run wild. Ironically, Nat Turner killed only one victim, a young white woman named Margaret Whitehead. She had shared her views of the Bible with him and had only ever been kind to him; he had no reason to want to kill her except for her whiteness. Most of the white people killed were not known for their cruelty or mistreatment of slaves.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is the psychological portrait of a subjugated man and the cruel times in which he lived. It is a fascinating glimpse into a chapter of our long-ago history. It is a thoughtful, intelligent book, beautifully written, filled with bitter irony. If you read no other “serious” book this year, you will have made a wise choice.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp