Below is the full text of the Preface and Chapter 1 from The Burning of The Piping Rock
(Copyright © 2006-2013 by Joseph A. Cutshall-King All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt or the book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the author.)
Pharmacists are priests. They know how to keep secrets. George A. King, my father, was a pharmacist. He took all his secrets to his grave, except one: his secret of the burning of the Piping Rock Casino in Saratoga Springs, New York, on the night of August 16-17, 1954. He taped his confession just before he died. Whether he intended to or not, I am sharing it.
He died July 31, 1987. He left some major bills, some personal papers, and a dented Pontiac Phoenix I bought from his estate. Just before I sold it in 1999, I cleaned it out. Under the back seat was a canvas bag with some bills and gum wrappers on the top. I couldn’t deal with it, so I put it in my office and purposely lost it. In 2006, I “found” it and went through it. At the bottom was a Whitman’s 20-pound candy sampler box. I assumed it held photos and mementos from my late mother. Instead, there was a Sony “microcassette-corder” with thirty-two unlabeled cassettes he’d recorded. I was stunned. He was a prize-winning Union graduate, a decorated PT Boat commander, but couldn’t use most mechanical appliances. The second cassette I played was the first he recorded. His opening made me transcribe every cassette.
He had a phenomenal mind and memory, astounding given his equally phenomenal drinking—apparent in parts of this. It took several years to transcribe and edit the tapes, some garbled from his haste or from heat damage. I removed most of the unrelated details and comments about the living. Periodically I used brackets to convey missing words or explain unspoken noises or actions. Otherwise, it is just as he spoke it, including the period slang and the Upper Hudson Valley regionalisms (e.g. heighth for height; anyways for anyway, etc.) he used to reveal his ultimate “jackpot”—his term for a huge crisis. He was in the midst of another one when he died; I was able to remove most references to it.
The “Kefauver Committee” he refers to was the 1950-51 “Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce” of US Senator Estes Kefauver. Kefauver’s report dedicated a chapter on each major Organized Crime community, such as New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles. And, then, there was Saratoga County, New York, where the Piping Rock was located. Saratoga’s chapter had testimony from mobsters Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis, who ran the Piping Rock, and from some of the Saratoga politicians and law enforcement officers who serviced the mob’s activities.
To anyone upset by what he reveals, what can I say? We romanticize the past until we have to admit it. Saratoga loves romance and the past. The truth is sometimes another matter. My feeling is that his confession can’t hurt him or the innocent family members and friends he mentions, now all dead—such as my mother, Martha Jane King (“Jane” or “Jennie”); his mother, Ann Fitzpatrick (“Annie”); or “Frank Sullivan,” the New Yorker author and humorist, who was our Saratoga neighbor.
Finally, please be patient. It had to be difficult for him to record his truth aloud. He lingers on things and seems distracted. Alcohol does play a part, but far less than his obvious struggle to be truthful about something painful and dangerous. Above all, he was dying, another truth to face. Perhaps the best way to say it is to quote his own long standing advice as a pharmacist, given to customers and children alike: “Relax. Don’t get your hemorrhoids in an uproar. It’ll all come out in good time.”
All right, let’s get this underway. I’m George A. King. I’m dying and I need to confess what I know about the burning of the Piping Rock in Saratoga Springs in 1954. I know how it burned. I know why it burned . . . . I know I’m dying. Trust me. I’ve had this monkey on my back since ‘fifty-four. Thonely . . . sorry . . . the only people I ever told were my wife, my second son. And I didn’t tell them everything. I mean, about the Kefauver Committee . . . the mob, the others. Never even confessed it to a priest. Christ forgive me.
Only one other person ever knew it all. He burned the Piping Rock to the ground. I know he did . . . because, ah . . . because I was there. I need to tell you why. So, I’m letting this goddamn thing run and talking to it—to you. And you can listen. You can just sit there and shut up and listen! I’ll tell it my way. I’m 68. I’ve got the Merck Manual by my bed. I did the diagnosis. Several diagnoses. I’m dying. Jiggly J. Joy. Dying of a myocardial infarction ten thousand miles from where I was alive! I was alive in the South Pacific! Sorry Jennie. It’s supposed to be your marriage, I know. Sorry.
And now there’s this fucking jackpot. Hope I’m dead before anyth . . . . [Screeching noises; garbled speech. Voice resumes:] Jesus! Screwed that up! Just let it run, George . . . unh . . . oh! God. My arm . . . pain . . . here. Get this under my tongue . . . . Unh, unh . . . ‘Kay. Okay. Better. No more Manhattans, George? Just beer? Gotta ship to run . . . . Let me finish, God?
All right. About that night in Saratoga? I remember everything. Just like I do the war. Taking those boys outta the Amboina camps in ‘forty-five. Broken glass shoved up their . . . their cocks. Us puking over the side. Fuckin’ Japs. Same with Saratoga. I remember everything.
August sixteenth, nineteen fifty-four. I’m in my pharmacy, King’s Pharmacy, in Fort Edward. George A. King, boy pharmacist, in the Little Loser. Ten years wasted in . . . .
Anyways, it was around nine-thirty. Streetlamps on. Chilly even for August. Still steaming in that store, though. Oh, Jesus, yes. I was in the back at the prescription table with a spatula compounding tablets from scratch. Just one light, over by the sink to keep bugs off the compound. Front of the store was dark, but I hadn’t loc up . . . logged . . . shit! Locked up. Just in case some late night Lothario needed a Trojan. Good money in prophylactics in those pre-pill days, boys and girls. H’yock, h’yock! So, I was really absorbed in my work. Radio playin’ “Make Love to Me.” I always whistled it through my teeth, so I never heard him come in.
“Hey, GEORGIE! How’s it goin’ pops? Just whistle while you work, hey?” Jesus, he was bellowing! Outta reflex, I dropped back from the table. My hand went down by my side and knocked the spatula onto the floor. My heart was pounding in my ears. I was having a lot of nightmares then—jumping out of the rack, racing into the hallway, always on deck, always under fire. I shouted at him: “Jesus, you stupid bastard! You nearly . . . .”
“Nearly got shot?” he says. Laughed like a machine gun, big white Ipana grin. I’ll remember that laugh if I live to a hundred. Which I won’t. Anyway, he says, “Yeah, dad, saw the old hand-a-roo go down there. Old war reflexes never die, do they? Reet, Georgie? Hey, man, I know.” I shot a look. He says he wasn’t any slacker. Laughed that stupid laugh. I felt stupid, tried to cover it. He gave me a break, fussed with his porkpie hat—creased the front brim flat against the crown, shoved it back on his head. Looked like a kid in the movie magazines. Button down shirt, Argyle sweater. Snappy creased slacks, two-tone shoes. Buh-ruther.
“Harry . . .” I nearly said “Harry the Torch,” which no one who ever knew him ever said to his face. Just did not. That’s what they called him. Besides, not many people knew his nickname because they didn’t know he was a torch. “You scared the shit out of me, Harry!” I barked at him and grabbed a clean spatula, started to mix again. “Why’re you here, Harry? Getting ready to raid the high school dance? Stop in for a quick malted and a pack’a rubbers?”
Didn’t faze him. “Slip me five, daddio,” he says. What’s up, I ask. “Nathan Shakin’,” he says. Had all the lingo. He stood funny. Like a midshipman bracing for an officer. Shoulders back, chin in. Like this. Always moving, like somebody peeing on an electric fence. I said he looked like a tall Andy Hardy. He was close to my heighth, six-two. “Andy’s old-timey, Georgie. Like that tune you’re whistling? Really the Tin Roof Blues,” he says. “Old-timey.”
“Swell, a music lecture. And you’re what, Harry? Twenty-eight?” He gets this funny look. Huh! What’d’I mean by that? Ooo. Hit a nerve. Good! The bastard. In Saratoga—when I ran MacFinn’s Drug Store?—I got so friggin’ sick of his perpetual boy routine. He says, whatever he is, he’s still younger’n me, and laughs that laugh. Grrr. I told him, “Sure. You joined the War right after ninth grade.” Missing the War always got to these young hotshots.
“Why are you here, Harry?” Mr. Ants in His Pants is bouncing! I tell him to brace. He shrugs, says, “Jake with me, dad. Hey, get Fibber McGee on, huh? This crap’s awful. Another minute’n it’ll be Patti Page.” I told him, leave it. He put his elbows on the countertop, fists on his face, a habit of his. One of those things to hide his face, I’m sure.
“Why are you here, Harry?” Goddamned if Patti Page didn’t come on that very second and he gave me that, “See?” look and didn’t answer me straight, but says, “Sheesh. Countertop high enough?” Christ! Since I first knew him in Saratoga in ‘forty-seven, his mouth ran like a whippoorwill’s ass in a windstorm. With me, anyways. He was a gem salesman. Supposed to be. I mean, he actually did that, but it was a cover. Knew his stuff, though.
I mixed, counting strokes as I talked. I’d had the countertop designed for my height so I didn’t have to stoop. I was rolling the compound into a slender tube and he says, “Pills or tablets? Huh, Georgie? Pills or tablets?” I shush’im and cut the roll into thirty even tablets. He was like a little kid: “See? I remembered, didn’t I? ‘Pills are round and tablets are flat,’ you’d always say in Saratoga. I remembered, didn’t I, Georgie?”
“Yes, Lenny. Good job.” Zoom! Right over his head. I cleaned up and set them to dry. It was a dying art. Goddamn pharmacy school grads now wouldn’t know how to do that. I grabbed the towel and looked at him. I made my voice really flat, because I wanted him to know I wanted an answer. “Why are you here, Harry? Why?”
He’d been snapping his fingers and whistling one of those newer jazz tunes that aren’t tunes and he stopped dead and looked at me. “Whaddya mean?” he says.
“It’s not a difficult question. Brush-up course for pharmacy school? Try-outs for the school play?” I took out a Lucky out and lit up. “Why?” I didn’t want him to see I was nervous.
He was moving up and down like the armature on an Oklahoma oil well. “Just dropped in. ‘T’s’all.” Voice was kind of uh, um—shit! What ’m’ I saying? Whiney! Yeah. Whiney.
I remember looking at him. I’d walked back by the scales and he had the wall lamp to his back now, so his face was somewhat shadowed, but I could see his eyes. They were watching me. They did that in Saratoga—when he was on a job. As God is my witness, they glowed. “You up here on a job, Harry? On a job in Fort Edward?”
His voice got very, uh . . . what? Mature. Strange for him. He tells me, “If I torched anything here, I’d torch the whole town for the good of humanity.” For the good of humanity? That should have told me something. Then he says, “What are you doing here?” That caught me off guard, but I didn’t get to answer ‘cause he raced on, “Me? Just up to see my old friend . . . for good luck.” Uh-huh.
“Puh-leeze. Give it a break, Harry.” I can still smell the poplar trees and the Hudson blowing in through the window by the sink. And smell that Lucky. I can still taste that Lucky. Not a day goes by I don’t want one. Wouldn’t matter now. Sure wouldn’t.
Yeah, well. Anyway he—I can’t forget this—he laughed at me. Let’s see. He says, “Gee-yor-gee. Come onnnn. Like a rabbit’s foot, man. My good luck charm? Huh, man? Huh?” Always with the “Georgie” and “man” routine. Jesus. Well, I remind him it’s been two years since I moved and I knew he wasn’t out convalescing with Father Flanagan and the boys. More’n’a few places up and down the Hudson had gotten, shall we say, a tad above the flash point for wood? And in a style reminiscent of a style I knew? His eye gave that twitch I knew. I said, “You’ve been two-timing me, Harry. Yeah, a girl can tell.” I remember my heart pounding in my ears and asking him if he needed a little something to calm him, maybe a Seconal, Nembutal. I asked him very slowly, really watching my words. Never saw him blow, but I’d heard. Who knew? I always had an unmarked bottle ready for my regulars and I reached for it.
“Aw, Georgie, I don’t do that stuff. I’ve always told you that.” Surprising. He seemed genuinely offended. “Just don’t do it. Ixnay on the ope-day, Georgie.”
The “Georgie” bit was really grating on my nerves. Christ, how many times had I told him I hated it? And that whiney weird accent. Sounded like New York. I told’im he seemed to be doing okay without me, seemed to be getting his luck elsewhere. I made a limp wrist and said, “You left me for another. I’m wounded.” His looked like he’d been on bennies for a week. Not his face, I mean how he never stopped moving. I was gettin’ a little antsy myself. I needed to get across the street to the Manhattan bar, have a few before bedtime. Jennie’d just had our fourth in May and, uh . . . wasn’t doing well. Rough birth. Unexpected. Couldn’t afford it. God forgive me, we’d planned the others. I told the priest, “I’m not killing my wife for a passel of kids I can’t feed.” I’ll probably go to hell. And for selling a million prophylactics, too. Jesus. That’d be the least of it.
Okay, okay, so, um, so I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of him and I say, “Hey, good to see you Harry,” and he picks up the hint and puts his hands up and flaps `em like he’s stopping traffic. “Wait wait wait wait wait… Okay, Georgie…”
“George.” I had my teeth clenched.
“Reet, dad. George. Reet.” All this hepcat talk. “I came `cause I needed those special wrapping papers only you can sell me.” He winks. “Need to ‘wrap something up’?” He’s making quotation marks with his fingers and he’s moving his hands like somebody directing a plane down a runway. Got his face turned slightly to one side and he’s shaking his head “yes” with this “come on” smile. Jesus. Looked like a kid practicing to get laid for the first time.
And me? I’m bug-eyed. “Jesus!” I yell at ‘im, “You’re up here to buy wrapping paper? Here? You can’t get cellophane and scotch tape in Saratoga?” Or wherever the hell he was before. I always knew when something was going to get warm between Saratoga and Manhattan. Harry’d appear at MacFinn’s and, bang! Buy every box of cellophane wrapping paper and scotch tape we had. He’d wrap the places in it. Cellulose fiber? Not a trace. I always had cartons of it because of him. “You had to come here?” I was mystified. I was an idiot!
“Sure! Hey-hey! Course I did!” Ugh! That bizarre way of speaking of his! I said it was stupid. He could buy ‘em wholesale. “Lookit who’s being stoopid,” he says. You could always hear New York in his voice when he was excited or angry. “I can nevah buy it that way. I’m not a business. What’s somebody gonna say if I buy cases that way? Huh?” I can’t imitate his accent, but you get it. Boy, he was dancing. Then suddenly, like his strings were cut, he relaxed and says he always knows Georgie has what he needs. Old habit on my part, I guess, but, goddamnit, I did have cartons of it out back. Still, stupid me, I thought he was full of shit and told him so.
“Cool, daddio. You’re hip. Lookit. I gotta get a little ‘something’ done—in Saratoga? Can’t go in MacFinn’s the way I used to. You know? To buy it? Like when you were there?” He let out this big sigh, like he was my mother’s age. I thought I’d start to laugh for a second. “It’s not the same place anymore, George.” He sighed again. “Just not the same Saratoga anymore.”
Certainly wasn’t, which was precisely why I wasn’t there anymore, but I wasn’t going to say that to him. Jesus no! Instead I said, “Relax. Don’t get your hemorrhoids in an uproar.” I was only too happy to sell it. The lad always paid a lot. I needed it. But I didn’t need him around. No.
He beamed this big grin and said, “Where they at, Jah-gee?”
The Georgie bit. I pointed to the back beyond the prescription room, told him he’d see it by the table where I cut glass. The bastard said, “Pops! You cut glass, too? What a man!” And he made this limp wrist, pursed his lips in a kiss and winked.
“And sell paint, perfume, garden seeds, douche bags, rubbers and drugs—moron,” I told him. “It’s what small pharmacies in small towns do.”
“Reet, man.” And I will always remember him saying, “What the hell are you doing here, George? There’s Nathan Shakin’ here.” I was trying not to ask myself that same thing—and I didn’t want him asking me. God, he was really on my frigging nerves. I said something like, oh, I wanted to own my own store, lot of nice people here, etcetera.
“Lotta nice people everywhere, dad. But here? I mean, long on nuthin’ and short on somethin’—a drag, man.” He kept snapping the brim of his hat—really getting on my frigging nerves. I said that, didn’t I? Anyway, I sent `im out back pronto ‘cause I had to hit the head. Normally you can set a clock by my bowel movements or taking a leak, but I suddenly had to pee. Case of nerves. So, I’m coming out of the crapper as Harry gets back and he says, “That the head, Georgie?” I said, no, it was a confessional. I just got absolution. That cracked him up. Who ever knew what would’r wouldn’t? He looks at it and says, “That’s weird.”
Lemme explain this. The head was on the landing of a closed off stairway that had gone to the second floor. The landlord had made an apartment up there and we lived over the store four years. Jane, ah, Jane got really depressed. Feingold said, buy her a house. Her dream. Never mine, frankly. I’d grown up in a boarding house. I was on stateside leave in January ‘forty-five. Laid over in San Francisco’n won eight hundred iron men in a crap game at the Drake Hotel. Bought her a fur coat. She said, “We could’ve had that for a down payment on a house.” I guess I never really understood those kinds of things. I think I disappointed her a lot.
Well, anyways, Harry stepped up into the crapper, laughed and said, “A throne fit for George King, hey dad?” I was sick of his “dad” and “daddio” crap. A bitch of a day and then he shows up. I didn’t need a return to all that. I needed a touch of Dr. Budweiser’s medicinal wonder. I went out front to make sure I’d turned off the hot fudge machine and the nut roaster. That’s when I heard the crash. I ran back like a jackrabbit—I could still really move then, like when I was playing ball. He was on the floor. I saw blood. He was clutching his arm and groaning, saying he’d missed the steps. I was afraid he’d wake up Jennie and shushed him. “Can you get up?” I whispered. Yes. Was he dizzy, hit his head? Not that he knew of. I treated his cut. He laughed that insipid machine gun laugh. “You a doctor?” I said I was going to be one, but I got back from the war and, well . . . . That’s life.
“I know,” he said seriously. I laughed at him. What’d he know about life. “More’n you know,” he says. He was clutching his right arm up by his shoulder and wincing and I got him into the captain’s chair by the old safe, got a better light on, checked his pupils. Nothing. I wasn’t sure where the cut came from. It wasn’t serious, but he had a helluva a lump on his shoulder. I brought back some ice from the soda fountain and packed his shoulder. I was surprised at how it was already coloring, which didn’t seem natural. “You have blood problems?” He gives this blank look. “Blood problems in your family?” Yes. His uncle died from it at forty-eight.
I thought about how, here I was, thirty-five and scared to death of turning forty, because my father had died at thirty-four. To me, I was so old. And now I’m gonna die and I can’t get over how young I am. Sixty-eight! How’s that right, God? And Jane? Dead at sixty-five? God! Answer me! How’s that right? How . . . ?
Phew! Phew boy! Sorry! Man, I’m sorry. Don’t mean to cry. Doing a lot of that lately, like some old man. All right, where was I? He has this bump. . . blood prob . . . . All right, I remember. I remember. He was looking at me and saying, “What?”
And—listen to this. This is how insane it was getting. I said to him, “What?”
And he said, “What?”
And I said, “WHAT what?” Christ, Abbott and Costello.
He whispers, “You said ‘Forty,’ dad. Okay?”
Son of a bitch’s hearing was like mine, sharp. I told him I was thinking of a page number from the Merck manual. “Check. Am I gonna die, pops?” He used that word pops fi. . . .
[The tape ran out here. The next tape starts with him saying, “I don’t know if this is working,” but he obviously hit the rewind button by mistake and something further was lost.]
“….arge. Go on. One for the road. A parting gift. Go ahead. I gotta close up.” I heard him leave. I get ready to go, thinking about Saratoga and the old times when Harry used to come in to buy cellophane. Sometimes he’d buy a couple of thousand dollars worth of expensive perfumes, watches. Expensive tastes. Expensive times. Times I wanted to forget.
It’s, oh, not even five minutes later. I’m in the back’n’hear the front door and call out, “Hey! Closed up. You want a six-inch swimsuit, come back tomorrow,” figuring somebody wants rubbers. No noise and I think, oh great, it’s a woman’n I offended her.
Instead, there’s a panting voice, like a man overboard in rough seas: “Georgie. George!” I ran down that left aisle to him by the time he hit the cases with the perfumes and colognes. I remember hissing at him, “What’re’you doin’ back here?”
“I got trouble, George—trouble moving my arm!” He’s clutching it like it’s going to fall off. I guess I’m not saying anything and he says, “Armus no movus?” and then suddenly he says in this high-pitched voice, all serious and scared, “I can barely open my car door. I don’t think I can shift gears to drive!” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say tough shit, but just mumbled something and he tries to put both arms up, you know, so’s to put his hands on both my shoulders, but winces with the pain. “Georgie! Georgie, I’m in trouble if I can’t do this, George!” He’s begging. I can hear his voice. I can always hear his voice. I’ve heard it playing inside my skull for years. It’s whining, “I’m in real trouble—spent my advance! A lotta bread, lotta iron men. It’s big. It’s big! I can’t pay it back!” Now he’s prancing around clutching his arm and shouting, “How do I tell you this? It’s not just the money. Christ, dad, it’s big. I’m in it. Oh, God, I’m in it.” All these years. I can hear him like a minute ago.
I say something like, why doesn’t he get somebody else? I swear the bastard starts to cry. Breath in short little gasps. “Nobody’s supposed to do this, except me,” he’s saying, “nobody’s supposed to know except me.” He grabs me. “I have to do like they told me to.”
I felt . . . I, I didn’t want any part of this. I didn’t reply and he screams, “Don’t you get it? Nobody’s supposed to do this, except me. If they hire somebody else, they’ll kill me.” I told him to keep it down. He’s gasping but laughing—that kind of laugh guys make when they’re tryna keep it light but are ready to soil themselves?
Still, oh, I don’t know, though. It still seemed like he was full of shit. I mean, these frigging younger guys could be so melodramatic, especially if they hadn’t seen active duty. We were by the perfume testers, Matchabelli fragrances floating in the air. I said, “Come on, Harry.”
And he cuts me off with a whisper like a bullet . . . hissing like those snakes in the Philippines: “They will kill me. It has to be done the way they want it.”
Let me say this. You have to know when men are telling you something true because they are afraid of dying. I’d known it before. I knew it now. I said in this very low, controlled voice, “What are you talking about, Harry? Who’re you working for?” He shook his head no. I tried angry: “I asked you what the hell you’re talking about. Who’s this `they’ you’re working for?”
He was shaking his head “no” again and saying softly, “They will kill me.” Now I was really pissed off. “For Christ’s sakes, if you can’t tell me who, tell me what this job is! Tell me!” I’m screaming at him now. It was Saratoga all over again. That same crap all over again. I could smell it, like the perfume and the cologne. “Tell me!”
He picked up a tester bottle and smelled it. And then in this almost far away voice, he said to the bottle, “It’s Piping Rock, George. They want me to torch the Piping Rock.”
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(Copyright © 2006-2013 by Joseph A. Cutshall-King All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt or the book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the author.)