To make sure I'm dead, they should wheel a jukebox into the funeral and play Tony Bennett's "Cinnamon Sinner." If that doesn't rouse me, it's safe to say that neither will anything else, until the sounding of the Last Trump.
"Cinnamon Sinner" was selection A1 on the jukebox at the Sand Box Restaurant and Bath House at Virginia Beach, where in the summer of '54 I got my first real job. The juke box was a Seeburg, not a Wurlitzer, but it was a gem. Give it a nickel and it might play for an hour; drop in a quarter and it was likely to keep going all afternoon. But what the machine liked best of all was a fork in its vitals: Stick the tines in just the right place -- through a hole some rowdy had kicked in the front panel -- and it would play every tune it owned, from A1 to J10.
Onion Dudley, proprietor of the Sand Box, would come in at dawn to turn on the grill and poke up the jukebox, which he turned to full volume. Only a thin plywood wall stood between it and the women's bath house, on whose benches my big brother and I slept, along with the other beach bums on the Sand Box payroll plus various persons who had been unwilling, or unable, to make it home the night before. The wall acted as a giant amplifier, and a few bars of Bennett would have even the most besodden of us bouncing around like waterdrops on a hot skillet.
Onion never heard our shouts and groans, because before the needle hit the groove he would have trotted into the ocean, and by the time the first of us gathered sufficient of our wits to contemplate retaliation, he would be about a thousand yards offshore, swimming strongly and steadily toward the shipping channels.
It was just as well we never caught him, because Onion was a formidable character, barrel-shaped and possessing all the massive dignity of Sitting Bull. One night a guy came in, pointed a gun at him and demanded money. Onion just stared at the fellow, who eventually pocketed the pistol and sidled out.
"He was lucky," commented Miss Mary Malbon, the septuagenarian chainsmoker who ran the bath house.
"He sure was," somebody said. "He coulda got shot."
"No, I mean the crook was lucky. Onion broke the last one who tried that."
"What do you mean, 'broke'?"
"He took the gun away and grabbed him and squeezed him until he broke. Snap, crackle, pop."
Onion's morning constitutionals were unvarying: He would swim out to one of the buoys marking the channel into Chesapeake Bay, which were several miles offshore, and rest awhile, then swim back. He paid no attention to storms amounting to less than a whole gale, and people were always trying to rescue him. Someone would spot him from a ship and call the Coast Guard, which would call the Navy, which would send a helicopter out from Oceana Naval Air Station, which Onion would ignore.
We were supposed to have the place all shipshape by the time he stepped ashore: restaurant swept and squared away, bath house scrubbed, itinerants evicted from the parking lot, beach cleared of debris. This last was my favorite job, because I was not yet of legal driving age and it involved dragging a vast rake behind Onion's raggedy old Jeep Wagoneer. That ended the morning when I drove it under a pair of cross struts bracing the pilings of Williams's Steel Pier and left the top behind.
"But it fit under there yesterday," I wailed.
"The tide rises and the tide falls," Onion explained in a calm, controlled voice as he surveyed the wreckage. "Every day it brings in sand and takes it away. Sometimes more, sometimes less. So you can't just assume the clearance will be the same, you dumb little jerk."
I was demoted to ever-simpler tasks, as Onion sought to discover my level of competence. But still I got to sleep in the bath house and drink beer with the big boys and sit up on the stand and pretend to be a lifeguard, until it was time to haul trash or sweep up.
And for weeks after returning to "civilian life" I would snap awake just after dawn, because "Cinnamon Sinner" was not roaring through my head.