Fred Fink and the fifty cent pieces

Photo credit:  EnLorax G. Edward Johnson per Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: EnLorax G. Edward Johnson per Creative Commons license.

Fred Fink got off the “Hound,” wandered out of the bus station, and climbed a tree.  He didn’t know it then, and probably never realized it afterwards, but his perch placed him at the 100th Meridian and Cozad, Nebraska.   On the American continent, Fink had arrived at the precise point where east meets west.

Climbing trees was not a crime in Cozad, but since Fred did not come down, he eventually drew the attention of a police officer.  Since he had not gone very high, the police officer was able to tug him down after the officer became convinced that Fred’s incessant chanting meant one of two things.  Fred was either a Buddhist or Fred was crazy.  Betting that it was more probable than not that Fred was crazy rather than being a tree-climbing Buddhist who chanted incessantly, the police officer put Fred into his cruiser and drove him the 15 miles to the county seat, Lexington.  There, the cop dropped Fred off at the Sheriff’s office.

I learned the foregoing from the police officer after I had been appointed to represent Fred before the Dawson County Mental Health Board.  I also learned from Big John, the Sheriff, that after they had rifled through his wallet they were able to determine that Fred was a patient at a mental hospital in California.  Big John called the institution and learned that Fred had been given a pass to go to a baseball game, but never returned.  Under California law, since Fred was not overtly dangerous to himself or others, just crazy when not on his medication, the mental institution did not want him back.

I interviewed Fred at the jail.   Since they didn’t have suitable facilities for nuts, they put Fred into a cell where unused mattresses were stored.  I suppose that was the closet thing Big John had to a padded cell. Fred was not doing very well.  He chanted, really mumbled, quit a bit.  Through his haze, and from the stuff I saw from the contents of his wallet, I was able to learn that Fred was from New York City.  Fred had a brother there.

The Board quickly voted to let Fred go.  The Board was frugal and saw no need to put him at the Regional Center on the County’s dime if the California nut house didn’t think he was Jack the Ripper.  By the time Fred was let go, I had talked to the California mental institution and wrangled a prescription for his medications.

I took the script to a pharmacist friend who, upon reading it, proclaimed, “This would zonk a horse.”   As I remember, the drug was Thorazine.  That amazing and powerful drug has been described as the single greatest advance in psychiatric care. Since Fred had not been off his meds for very long, he began to get better very quickly after he started his regimen again.  Not good, you understand, just better.   For example, the chanting stopped.

Meanwhile, Fred lived at our home.  I remember taking him home to meet my wife and our two little girls.  When Fred got out of the car in our driveway, Fred’s pants fell down.  Big John had taken his belt and he had forgotten to give it back to Fred.  For a day or so, Fred kept his pants up with some rope from my garage until I was able to get him a belt with a cowboy buckle.  He seemed to like that.

While I tried to figure out what to do with Fred, Fred lived with us and slept on the couch in our front room.  Most of the time, Fred just paced back and forth, not saying much.  The girls were fascinated with Fred’s pacing–I have no idea why.  Sometimes, the girls would ask Fred a question, and sometimes he would respond. At meal time, Fred would eat quietly but try to respond to questions.  After a few days, his responses became more coherent.

It turned out the Fred was pretty smart.  He knew he had a problem.  He did not like how the Thorazine made him feel, so, when he thought he was no longer loony, he would stop taking the drugs.  Fred also knew he was good with numbers and money.  Back in New York, he had his own bank account where had saved a little money.  However, Fred was never able to explain how or why he had gotten to California.

I contacted Fred’s brother, who was definitely not happy to hear from Fred.  Nonetheless, he agreed that if I could get Fred to New York City, the brother  would look after him.  Somehow, and I don’t remember how, we were able to put together enough money to buy Fred a plane ticket from Omaha to New York City.  After a call to a minister friend, arrangements were made to have someone meet Fred in Chicago where he would change planes to New York.

Sometime later, Fred left our lives.  I remember the day Fred said his adieus.  As he walked out of our home and to my car for the 225 mile drive to Omaha and the plane, he gave each of the little girls a fifty cent piece.  They were thrilled.  Marne and Lisa waved and said, “Bye, Fred!”

Fred got to New York City.  For several years thereafter, Fred would call me every so often.  He was doing pretty well.  He was selling gold and silver by phone.  I could hear the chatter in the background, and it was clear that this was one of those “boiler room” operations where if you called enough schmucks  in an eight-hour period you could make a little money.  I always suspected that Fred’s brother ran the operation.  After a bit, Fred’s calls stopped coming.

Time passed.  Fred and his fifty cent pieces faded into a distant memory.

I distinctly remember, however, that the County paid me fifty bucks, the standard fee for such things. All in all, it was fair pay.


7 responses

  1. Great story and very well told. The name of your book could be: “Tales from a Reformed Trial Lawyer”. Dean Nasser

  2. Thank you, Dean. Although “reformed” my not be the right word. Perhaps, “Tales from a broken-down general practice lawyer, who dabbled in the courtroom.” All the best.


  3. LOL, this is the stuff I had to grow up to appreciate, when power of a big explosion wore off and the gravity of life’s truly interesting stories started taking hold. Question: do you ever, or have you ever, picked up hitchhikers? Similarly positive results? [I usually do, by policy, and have never been met with anything but gratitude. People tell me I’m crazy, but really I’m just an ancient Greek.]

  4. Demo,

    Sure. I used to pick up hitchhikers all the time but less so now because I am seldom driving on the highway by myself. It also seems to me that I don’t see as many hitchhikers as I used to see. Sorta sad.

    In a similar vein, I spent a lot of my younger days hitchhiking. I know how tough it can be to get from point A to point B particularly when there are hundreds of miles between those points and it is hotter than hell outside or so windy and cold that you can’t feel your fingers or toes. Only once was I little concerned, and everything turned out fine.

    All the best.


  5. Sigh. I wish more law practice were still like this. Then young lawyers wouldn’t get so burnt out so quickly, though your efforts were extraordinary. When I get asked about my favorite case from my practice days, I always remember one that somehow got referred over to our office by Legal Aid, and it wound up in the in box of a partner who was too busy to handle it, and he handed it to me about about 4:30 in the afternoon and said “look at this, I think there’s a hearing or something tomorrow.”

    So I looked at the file. A woman and her husband lived in a small trailer and had reached some agreement where for $200 per month they could park their trailer on the rural property of some other people, and use their electricity. Somehow a dispute had arisen, and the “Landlord” with no warning or authority had unhooked their trailer and towed it about a half mile up the road and left it there, to be discovered by the “Tenants.” Unfortunately, they had done this the day after my new clients’ food stamps had come in and they had been to the grocery store and stocked their fridge, and by the time they found their trailer all of the food had spoiled in the punishing Sacramento heat.

    So anyway, Legal Aid had filed a complaint for all manner of relief, including a hearing on a preliminary injunction (for what? I wondered), the hearing on which would be the next day. So the hearing was at 9 am in front of a state court judge whom I knew well — Judge Robie. The way California state courts are arranged, some judges are assigned as “motion” judges, which means that they handled all motions through summary judgment motions, and then it got turned over to another department for trial.

    So I made arrangements to meet with my clients down at the courthouse at about 8 am. They smelled awful, which really wasn’t surprising considering their current circumstances. But they were lucid and told pretty much the same story they’d told Legal Aid. So in we went to Department 27 (odd that I remember the number after all these years, but the brain in a funny thing) and I decided that the wife made a better witness, so I told the husband that it would be best if he stayed in the car and minded their 6 dogs (which may have partially explained the smell).

    I asked them what they really needed. They said they needed $300. $100 for the lost food and $200 because they’d found another place to park their trailer, but they needed a deposit. So the wife and I sat in the back while Judge Robie efficiently disposed of about 20 or so pleading and discovery motions.

    So he called our case and broke into a broad grin when I appeared on behalf of the plaintiff. I was something of a favorite with many trial judges because I had clerked for Kennedy (a local legend) and I worked really hard on motion papers, and made sort of interesting arguments — at least interesting judged by the standard of what they saw. I was something of a favorite of Judge Robie, because I had talked him into a sort of novel theory on one of those causes of action that lies in that hinterland between tort and contract, and the Court of Appeals had affirmed him and commented on “the well reasoned trial court decision” (which was basically cribbed from my brief).

    So Judge Robie said: “Nice to see you Mr. Borchers. I see you want a preliminary injunction. For what?” Well, that was kind of the heart of the problem. “Well, your honor, to prevent the defendants from further abusing my clients’ trailer.” Well that’s easy enough said Judge Robie. Here’s where it got tricky. “Plus, we’re requesting $100 in ‘interim damages’ for the lost food.” Interim damages, Judge Robie asked, what are those? This was an excellent question, because I had invented the term on the spot. “Well, just like you can get interim equitable relief, you should be able to get interim legal relief.” At this point, my client and the woman who owned the land started to shout at each other. Judge Robie instructed the court reporter to put them under oath. The woman who owned the land had to be coached by the court reporter as to which hand was her right hand.

    OK, Judge Robie ruled, $100 in interim damages. Then I offered up that for a total of $300, we’d dismiss the case. Judge Robie turned to the landlady and said: “Do you hear what he’s saying? For $300 you can settle the suit.” She would have none of it. So I’m pleading for $200 more and Judge Robie, much as he likes me, has about 20 more cases to go and he needs to get rid of it. Finally I said: ‘How about $200 in attorney’s fees, if I promise to turn them over to my client and dismiss the case?” Judge Robie slammed his gavel and said: “The defense is sanctioned $200 for its frivolous opposition to Mr. Borchers’s motion.”

    So I got my firm to cut my clients a check for $300, and one of the paralegals somehow got the landlady to pay $300. So it was all good.

    I handled cases three orders of magnitude larger, but I’ve never forgotten that one. And I really hoped that once they got that trailer hooked up again, that they’d get a shower.

  6. Great story Pat.

    I particularly liked the part about the smell. I will have a post on that subject later this week. I also liked Judge Robie’s quick and practical resolution of the case after you proposed a most inventive solution.

    I, too, wish young lawyers had more of an opportunity for doing such things as a routine part of their practice. More important than whatever benefit the clients receive, these cases provide young lawyers with some reason to hope that the practice of law can be truly fulfilling.

    All the best.


  7. Pingback: Crazy and cruel « Hercules and the umpire.

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