Chapter 1 – Break on Through to the Other Side
The afternoon of December 12, 1982 was clear and beautiful as I delivered Walt Bone on a trip to his death.
Walt was my karate instructor, close friend, and mentor. He was 39, and I was his 21-year-old protégé and highest-ranking black belt. From 1978 to 1982, we taught karate together at the St. Petersburg Junior College (SPJC) and at the Florida Karate Academy (FKA) in Seminole, FL.
From my first karate class on February 12, 1974, I knew I wanted to be a karate instructor. After four years of training hard, I earned my black belt in the summer of 1978 at age 17. Walt Bone hired me the following week to teach karate for $5 a class.
He was a national karate champion who was highly respected and recognized in the martial arts world. As a young, budding black belt, I couldn’t have asked for a better martial arts mentor.
Walt Bone was an excellent karate instructor who was totally, some would say fanatically, committed to his students. For the previous four years, I had the privilege of standing by his side class-after-class. Like a sponge, I was soaking in everything he taught and did.
On a typical weekday, we would teach the college kids at SPJC from 11am – 1pm and then go to a local restaurant and eat the buffet for lunch. He would always pay for my meal and we’d spend the time discussing the classes, the students, and life in general.
Mostly, he did the talking and I just nodded. After lunch, we’d part ways for a few hours and reunite at the FKA to teach the evening classes. After that, we’d often end the day with beers at his favorite watering hole, Clancys in St. Petersburg.
Walt had an alluring, charismatic energy about him that endeared him to many people.
He was a leader of men but also never shied away from pitching in to help out a buddy. He would be one of the first to volunteer to help set up the nets for volleyball, help to fix a deck, or patch a roof.
Walt was a sincere friend. He would shake your hand, put his other hand on your shoulder and look you dead in the eyes and listen, really listen, when you spoke.
He loved life yet there was one thing that seriously haunted him; he hated the idea of getting old. He was in great shape, had a playful attitude about life and was fearless yet the idea of getting old terrified him. Walt truly dreaded the passing of each year. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who feared age more than Walt Bone.
In the Stephen King book, The Stand, there is a black crow perched on the periphery of the dark scenes of death in the story. Age was Walt’s black crow.
On the day of the drive, I was to pick up Walt at his home in Seminole. Seminole is one of those nice little towns that no one hears about unless you live in the area. Walt was flying home to Dallas for the holidays and asked me to take him to the airport.
As I pulled up to Walt’s modest home and started to park in the street, he raised his hand like a traffic cop, stopped me and yelled “Hold on! I’ll pull the van out.” He pulled his black van out so I could park my dented, green Maverick in his driveway. My car didn’t have a radio nor did it have any air conditioning. But, it got me from point A to point B and that was all I cared about.
Our deal for me playing airport taxi was that I would chauffeur him to the airport and then get to drive “The Bone-Mobile” while he was gone. That meant about two weeks of luxury air-conditioned van time with all of the conveniences of modern driving. It was like my dad loaning me his car, but without the curfew.
The path to the airport took us across the landmark Howard Frankland Bridge, AKA The Frankenstein to the locals. In those days, it was a narrow, four lane bridge spanning 3-miles across beautiful Tampa Bay which is connected to the Gulf of Mexico.
When you are flying out of Tampa International Airport, crossing the bridge is like passing through a relaxing, beautiful corridor that helps you relax into your journey. When you return, you’re greeted with a beautiful, panoramic vista that instantly reminds you that there is no place like home.
We were cruising across the bridge listening to Walt’s favorite band, The Doors. The wind rushed in the open windows delivering the humid scent of seawater and a clear view of the water, which was active with boats, jet skis, and people fishing.
I was driving and for most of the ride, Walt just looked out the window, bobbin’ his head to music, enjoying the scenery, and playing finger drums on the door. Occasionally, he would harass me about my driving or lay out instructions for me to take care of his house and dog.
Walt loved to harass people, but in a fun way. He had his own vocabulary of playful insults turkey breath, a maroon (think Bugs Bunny), or a pecker-head (don’t think about that).
We arrived at the airport and I jumped out to help him with luggage, we hugged, said our farewells and off he went. But, as I drove back to my home in St. Petersburg, I couldn’t shake that feeling that something was not right.
Despite the clear skies outside; an undercurrent of dread was spawning inside me but I had no idea what it was or where it came from. It was like the black crow was following me in the van that was still blaring The Doors.
“Break on through to the other side”
The drive took about 45-minutes and when I got home; my roommate Rick was there. Rick and I met in the karate school when I was about 14 and he was my closest friend. He worked for the cable company and was relaxing after work and watching the news on TV
He asked if everything went okay with the drop off. I said sure, but then I thought for a moment, and then it hit me like a punch you never see coming. I told him point blank, “I’ll never see him again.”
Walt Bone died in a plane crash ten-days later.
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