Number of miles driven today: 119
Total miles driven on road trip: 10,986
Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Starbucks
Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 29-16-2.
Dunkin' Donuts' record: 16-29-2
Cheapest gas I saw today: $3.45
Number of states visited overall: 30
Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 14 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Utah)
Number of blue states visited overall: 16 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada)
My old school landline ringtone snapped me awake.
8:00 AM. 310 area code.
"Hello?" I said, fighting the grogginess out of my voice.
"Hey, is this Brad? I was told to call you. This is Billy Cowens."
"Oh hey. Thanks for getting back to me Billy. I'm writing a book that includes a chapter on your brother Al, and I was hoping I could talk to you about him today if you're around," I said.
"Well first off, he's not my brother. He's actually my first cousin," Billy said.
This was news to me. When I had met with Garry Templeton on Day 7 and showed him Al Cowens' card, he said, "oh yeah, I played with his brother Billy. We roomed together." Only three years apart and growing up down the street from each other, Al and Billy told everyone they were brothers, and no one questioned it. They looked enough alike, were both athletic, and shared the dream of being Major League baseball players. For Billy in particular, baseball was a ticket out of the projects in the Watts section of LA. Al was slightly better off, living in a small single-family home raised by his parents, both school janitors. Billy's mom raised him and his two siblings single-handedly.
Everyone called Al "Ace," or AC. Put together, he and Billy were an initial away from being one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
I was grateful for the phone call, since my leads on Cowens' family had dried up. But my visit to the Centennial High School alumni association meeting last night had paid off, as one of his classmates had taken my card and told him to call me.
A few hours later, I sat across from BC at the Elephant Bar in Torrance watching him devour jambalaya while I downed a plate of sirloin. He was fresh from a water aerobics class, physical therapy for his recent hip replacement.
"My second surgery," he clarified.
He wore a red baseball hat with no logo, red shorts, and a Compton FD t-shirt. Following his brief minor league baseball career, BC returned to Compton to become a firefighter, while AC played 13 years in the big leagues. On his right wrist was a gold watch; on his left a silver bracelet backed by a Powerband.
I asked Billy what he and Al did for fun as kids.
"We threw a lot of rocks," he said.
"Why not use a ball and glove?" I asked.
"We did that too. But we just liked throwing rocks, man. We'd go down by the railroad tracks and throw rocks. Al, he had an accurate arm too."
"Would you play a certain type of game with the rocks?"
"Yeah. We'd try to hit each other."
He smiled a big smile, glancing down at my tape recorder.
I asked him what it was like to grow up in Watts in the 1960s.
"Rough, man," he said. "Lots of fighting. But Al could fight. None of us had to worry because Al was a fighter. He didn't look for a fight, but he'd do fine when one broke out."
I brought up the incident that came to define Cowens' career. In 1979 while playing for the Royals, White Sox pitcher Ed Farmer uncorked a pitch that landed square in Cowens' face. He dropped like he was shot, writhing on the ground. Farmer claimed wildness, but Cowens had no doubt it was intentional.
"That was the one time I saw Al angry," Billy said. "He told me, 'you watch, I'm gonna get him.'"
And get him he did. Serving up a chilled dish of revenge a year later, Cowens hit a routine ground ball off of Farmer, but rather than run to first he charged the mound. Farmer and the White Sox were so irate that a warrant was issued for Cowens' arrest and Farmer pressed charges, which were later dropped.
Following lunch, Billy led me on a driving tour of their old neighborhood in south-central LA. He had bounced from project to project as a kid, massive yellow buildings with "No Trespassing" signs and names likes "No. 45." He showed me the railroad tracks where he and Al dreamed of the big leagues, transforming rocks into baseballs and taking turns pretending to be Maury Wills. We drove by Watts Towers and the former downtown area of Watts that never got rebuilt.
"You know, Al always had a bad heart," Billy told me when I asked about the heart failure that took his life at age 51.
"I didn't know this until after he died, but he had a hole in his heart or something."
I brought Billy back to his bright orange truck parked in the Elephant Bar lot. He asked me for Garry Templeton's phone number, which I was happy to provide. Putting old friends back in touch has been a nice and unexpected side effect of this trip. I also asked him to do the honor of signing Al's 1986 Topps card.
He took the Sharpie and wrote "Al Cowens" and below it "Billy Cowens," wished me luck and climbed into his truck.
I had one last mission to accomplish.
I had to visit Al.
All I knew from Google was that he was buried in the "Acacia Slope" part of the Inglewood Park Cemetery.
When I got there, I knew I was in trouble.
It was huge. Row after row of small headstones, laying flat, dotted the hillsides. I had no idea idea where to start looking. Since visitors usually know where they're going (cemetery browsing can't be that popular), there was no visitors map or signage to indicate how the grounds were laid out. My only clue was the curb of the road, where the name of each section was painted on, always with a botanical theme: Maple, Oak, Fern etc.
Thirty minutes of driving later, I had nearly exhausted the entire plant kingdom searching for Acacia.
Watching the sun dip lower in the sky, I realized that I might not make it. On this last goal on the last day before heading back to Oakland, there was no guarantee that I would even find the cemetery plot, let alone the grave.
I hit the brakes hard.
Acacia Slope, said the curb.
I parked and surveyed the next task: There were at least 100 rows of headstones, each more than 100 yards long, with no discernible pattern to their placement. There was no shortcut--I had to start at the top, start walking, and pray that I'd find him before dusk.
I pitied any of the departed here who had social anxiety. Their headstones were crammed so close they nearly touched. I could take two rows at a time as I walked, scanning for the name "Cowens" and hoping I would not somehow overlook it.
Then, about 15 rows of walking later, I found it. A simple black granite slab headlined "Cowens" with two angels in either top corner. Some weeds obscure the bottom. I uprooted them and cleared away the dirt.
"Ace" it read.
I placed his 1986 card on the stone and snapped a picture, feeling satisfied.
I turned and started walking back to my car and then stopped, walking back to the headstone.
I sat down in the grass next to Al and looked around. For the first time in 11,000 miles, I took the time to be truly silent. The air felt warm and comforting, the sun filtering through wispy clouds and a nearby tree to illuminate the frenetic dance of a swarm of insects, looking like lost snowflakes. I could hear the dull roar of jet engines at nearby LAX and the tweets of unseen birds surrounding me. I looked down and saw a single maroon ant probing my feet with his antennae.
Thoughts arose and formed like single drops, then just as quickly were absorbed again into the sea. Don Carman's comment floated back to me.
"We don't get to write the script in life," he said.
I closed my notebook, and put down my pencil.
"We only get to respond."
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Day 48: Compton, CA, 8.5.15
One Pack. No Turning Back.