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Bakersfield Cacklefest 2013

The Night of the Living Nitromaniacs

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Ted Soqui

Smoke & Ash

It was June 2001, and my best friend, Lee, was in a coma at St. Joseph's ICU in Burbank. He had beat cancer, but complications developed due to a staph infection. Because of belated concerns about germs only three visitors were allowed in his room, including his mom, his common-law wife, and me. I'd go visit Lee every day and bullshit and tell him stories. It was my understanding that he could hear me, despite the lack of response.

I was telling Lee about people I had talked to who had extended their salutations. I knew he was going to die, but I never let on. I just talked like I was a passenger in his truck, and we were going to get a burrito. While I told him who said hello, he started to well up, despite his inability to move any part of his body. Maybe he had a speck of dust in his eye. Or maybe he heard me and was sad that he would never see these people again.

In my travels while interviewing people for drag-racing magazines, I knew two guys who had been in comas—"Wild Bill" Alexander and "Jet Car" Bob Smith, both race-car drivers and both of whom had erroneously been declared dead after crashes—and they had told me that when they were comatose they heard what people were saying, and even knew when loved ones were crying.

When my visit was over, I had to take my Chrysler to my mechanic on San Fernando Road in Sun Valley. I had to leave it overnight, so one of the shop lackeys—this cool Chicano dude—was ordered to shuttle me home in the company pickup on a 20-minute ride to Tujunga. As we went up Sunland Boulevard, this young guy played the radio and wanted to shoot the breeze about female rappers and the Lakers. I tried to answer and stay involved in the banal banter, but I zoned it out.

He asked if anything was wrong, and I told him about my friend in the coma. I also said that I knew two other guys who had been in comas and came out of it.

We motored further, and Sunland became Foothill Boulevard, and then I blurted, "There's one of them right there!"

It was freaking uncanny, but as we approached Rose's Liquor on Foothill, I saw "Wild Bill" Alexander walking out of the store with a 12-pack of Keystone Lights under his right arm. "Stop the car!" I said. The kid obliged. I wormed my way into the open truck window, raised up and shouted across four lanes of traffic: "Wild Bill!" He looked up, startled. "Can you give me a ride home?" He said, "Get in the truck, amigo."

I lived up a winding, narrow canyon. Alexander and I gathered at my kitchen table and opened up a couple of beers. I told him about my friend in the coma. "Been there," he said. I reminded him that we had talked about that in the story I did on him for Drag Racing USA, when he discussed his crash at San Fernando Raceway in 1963. I told him about Lee tearing up as I talked to him. This kind of made "Wild Bill" uneasy, as he was like most drag racers and didn't like talking about hospitals or death. But, he confirmed that my friend could hear me when I talked. Our talk was comforting but also awkward. I don't know what I wanted out of this chat. My friend was going to die, and that was that. Bill knew it, and I knew it. It could've been him. It could've been me. It wasn't. It was Lee. Those were the breaks.

We had two or three beers each, and then Bill went home.

Lee died two days later.

In 2009, "Wild Bill" was in Rose's Liquor again (as per his daily ritual) and a paroled mental patient was threatening the clerk. Alexander was in line with his Keystones and said, "Leave him alone, amigo." The psychopath turned around and sucker-punched Bill, dropping him and then beating him into a coma.

He came to in a hospital in South Pasadena. I went to visit him every couple of days as Bill slowly came back to senses. The hospital vigil seemed all too familiar. Bill would live, but his brain was so rattled I knew he would never be the same.

This year, he got sick with pancreatic and liver cancer. It is my understanding Bill called his sister from the hospital last Friday and said, "I'm gonna croak." The next day he did.

Subsequently, he has been cremated.

I have been told here are no plans for a memorial. But I'll never forget him.

By Cole Coonce
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