I dedicate my song today to a family friend, Danielle O'Shea. Danielle celebrates her birthday today. Danielle lives in County Carlow, Ireland with her husband, Paddy, and their children in their farming homestead. Also, we celebrate the birthday of Mick Foley. Enjoy your special day, Danielle, and Mick.
My song today is ‘You Don’t Mess About with Jim’. This a 1972 single by Jim Croce from his album of the same name. The song was also Croce's debut single when it was released in June 1972 on ‘ABC Records’. The record eventually peaked at Number 8 on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart, and Billboard ranked it as being Number 68 song for 1972.
The lyrics are set at an underground pool hall on 42nd Street in New York City. ‘Big’ Jim Walker is a pool hustler who is not too bright but is respected because of his tough reputation, his considerable strength and size, and his skill at pool. Big Jim has formed a gang of ‘bad-folk followers’ who regularly gather at night in the pool hall. Their recurring word of advice to anyone thinking about crossing ‘Big Jim’ is as follows:
“You don't tug on Superman’s cape;
You don't spit into the wind.
You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim.”
A fellow pool player named Willie "Slim" McCoy comes from South Alabama to the pool hall to get his money back from Jim after being hustled out of it the previous week. When Jim comes into the pool hall, McCoy ambushes and kills him, stabbing him in ‘about a hundred places’, to the point where ‘the only part that wasn't bloody was the soles of the big man's feet’. McCoy gets his money back as well as the respect formerly granted to Jim, and the regulars at the pool hall have now a new allegiance. Their advice to anyone thinking of crossing the new ‘top dog’ is, “You don’t mess around with ‘Slim’”.
In 1971, I became a Probation Officer in West Yorkshire and was working in the Huddersfield Probation Office. At the time, drug-taking was not anything like the problem it presents to the police and society today. The worse problem in 1971 that produced unacceptable behaviour and led to an increase in criminal offending and a non-peaceful and aggressive lifestyle, was the growing addiction to alcohol.
For the first few years of my earlier period in the Probation Service, I would have a good number of alcoholic offenders on my books. Apart from myself, the only other person who did not mind working with the alcoholic client was an older colleague called Joyce Patterson, who sadly died about one month ago. Joyce and her friend, Irene Daniels (also deceased) took me under their wing and taught me a great deal about human nature. Both Joyce and Irene were as streetwise as they came and neither of them suffered fools gladly or took any nonsense from anyone.
Joyce was a woman of small height and slim stature. She was in her fifties (twenty years older than me) and had never married. She lived alone in her Dewsbury flat, with her cat for company. She enjoyed classical music immensely and loved reading Agatha Christie and all detective novels. Her favourite television programme was ‘Miss Marple’ stories. Joyce was probably one of the most popular, the most polite, and the most amiable of colleagues I ever worked with in my life. She was industrious and diligent in all that she undertook, and her working day was a few hours longer than anyone else’s in the office. She had no car and travelled everywhere by public transport. She was always one of the last Probation Officers to leave the building on an evening unless of course one of the ‘Miss Marple’ stories by Agatha Christie or ‘Morse’ happened to be showing on television that night. Joyce had lived a sheltered existence and her most cultured of lives fitted in perfectly with the old-fashioned image of a confirmed spinster.
Joyce would often get annoyed but rarely lowered herself or raised her voice angrily. She never lost her temper like you or I are prone to, and I never heard her swear or use any vulgar term unbefitting of ‘a lady’. Whereas almost everyone will include a ‘bloody’ in their spoken sentence occasionally when annoyed, and some might even stretch as far as a ‘f… it!’ if they become enraged, the strongest word Joyce would ever use at the height of her angriest would be ‘Rats!’ Whenever anyone heard Joyce exclaimed ‘Rats!’ with a simultaneous stamp of her right foot, anyone who knew her, would get out of her way because she was on the warpath.
From all the clients who came into the Huddersfield Probation Office during the 1970s/80s, the most unpredictable and potentially the most dangerous was a man called Harold. Harold came from a large family of Irish travellers who had settled in the Huddersfield area during the 1960s. There were over twelve siblings in the family who had been parented by an alcoholic and aggressive father who’d served more time in prison than out in the community, and a mother who would not think twice about stabbing anybody who exchanged angry words with her.
All of Harold’s family had a fiery temper and could explode into violence at a moment’s notice. All the family was heavy drinkers, and most of them (usually the male siblings) had served prison sentences for theft, burglary, or violent behaviour. Despite constant family disputes between each other, the family stuck together whenever it came to any problems that one of them had with the rest of the world. Few people with an ounce of sense would ever choose to make the family their enemy. The most amiable member among the large family was Harold.
Harold was in his late thirties. He had never married and had the build of a giant-sized man who stood six feet four inches tall. He possessed shoulders wide and strong enough to wrestle a mad bull to the ground. Given his alcoholic intake, Harold never showed any sign of developing a ‘beer belly, and he displayed a more muscular stomach than one might see on a teetotal fitness-fanatic and weight-lifting champion. Harold did not hold withy conventional exercise to keep his body honed though, and he only time Harold would have ever entered a gym was to rob it of any copper fittings it held that could be sold on to a scrap yard! In fact, the only weight that Harold ever lifted was the lead he stripped from church roofs during the dark hours of the night, or the bags of coal he once stole from a local coal yard to keep the home fire burning when he was in his late teens. Other things lifted by Harold would include unfortunate landlords who refused to serve him another pint or other pub customers who dared to challenge his actions when he was drunk.
Harold had a Jekyll and Hyde personality. He was the most affable and friendliest of people one could ever come meet; ‘whenever he was sober’, but were you unfortunate to be in his presence when he was drunk, you would be less than wise to either speak to him when not spoken to, or to engage with him in any way, or to even dare look at him sideways! Anyone who was foolish enough to imagine they could forcibly bring big Harold down was himself headed for the biggest beating they’d ever had in their life!
Once Harold had drunk one pint, he would not stop drinking; and probably could not even if he wanted to. Once started, few things would stop Harold from drinking more. These would include a lack of consciousness once he’d drunk himself to a standstill and fell to the floor, or the unlikely event of the pub running out of beer, or the police being called by the landlord and arriving in large numbers to arrest Harold for yet another offence. The most common offences Harold ever committed were ‘Disturbing the Peace’ (which meant fighting with every customer in the pub who dared to look at him sideways) or ‘Physical Assault’(which meant breaking the arm, busting the nose, or biting off the ear of some customer who’d offended him) or ‘Criminal Damage’ (which literally meant breaking every table and chair in the pub, and smashing every glass to smithereens when the landlord refused to serve him another pint), or ‘Theft’ (usually lead stolen from church roofs or anything copper that could be sold on to a scrap yard.
Whenever the local police were called, the cops knew what to expect and they came well prepared. They knew if Harold had been drinking that he would never be arrested voluntarily or come quietly. The police never tried to arrest Harold with fewer than a police posse of six of Huddersfield’s burliest constables with their truncheons at the ready as soon as they entered the pub and approached Harold. The local police knew what to expect and feared arresting a drunken Harold on a citizen’s call out. Even when the local constabulary arrived in large numbers in a ‘Black Maria’ to take Harold’s prostrate and handcuffed body away in, the police posse knew that at least one or two of them would be attending the hospital before their shift was through, with either a bust nose or a broken arm or leg. In fact, the police posse would consider themselves lucky to have one of its crew escape with no more than a broken limb during the course of their duty. Most of the arresting police officers feared having their ear bitten off in the inevitable brawl to take Harold in and lock him up in the cells until he could be produced before a court when he’d sobered up. I never learned what it was about chewing ears that Harold liked, but I once had it jokingly suggested to me that the family would often chew on tripe, pig’s trotters, and pigs' ears when they were growing up.
Not only did the police fear arresting Harold when he was drunk, but he was also feared by every Probation Officer whoever supervised him (and we all had him under our supervision at one time or another during our career). By far the most common of Harold’s problem behaviour related to his excessive violence whenever under the influence of alcohol. We never knew whether to expect him drunk or sober when he next reported to the Probation Office. One week Harold might arrive at the Probation Service Office in the mid-afternoon, drunk as a skunk and threatening to wreck the building or burn it down if his supervising officer refused to give him a few pounds out of the emergency cash fund.
On such occasions, upon seeing Harold drunk, the receptionist would instantly call the local police to have him removed from the building. Everyone in the Probation Office knew not to see or to try and talk sense to a drunken Harold if they valued their personal safety. On other occasions, when he hadn’t touched a drop since the previous night, Harold would arrive at the Probation Office smiling and cheerful, as though he had decided to go on a morning outing to see how many new friends he could make before the pubs opened at 11:30 am. Probation Officers who supervised Harold would soon suss out that the best time of day to have Harold report to them was between 9:00 am and 11:00 am on a morning. Only new Probation Officers just out of training would ever arrange an afternoon or early evening appointment for Harold at the Probation Office; or more dangerous still, dare to risk a home visit!
The Huddersfield Probation Office employed around two dozen Probation Officers on the payroll. The Probation staff came in all sizes and from all walks of life, and their combined experience of dealing with dangerous clients was extensive. And yet, only one person in the Huddersfield Probation Office had the slightest chance of quietening Harold down and persuading him to go home peaceably and to ‘sleep it off’ if ever he arrived inebriated or drunk and determined to do damage. That person was Joyce Patterson, whom we all prayed was in the office if ever Harold arrived drunk, unexpectedly, and threatening violence and mayhem if the emergency cash box was not immediately opened for a handout.
The change of atmosphere from one of total bedlam to one of gradual serenity in the Probation Officer needed to be observed to be believed. As soon as Joyce approached an aggressive and blind drunk Harold, he would immediately stop frothing at the mouth and start to quieten down. Within five minutes, Joyce would be gently escorting him to the front door like a cowboy leading a broken-in stallion to the stable for an afternoon nap. In her usually quiet voice, Joyce would ask Harold to come back the following day ‘sober’, and then she would see him.
Joyce, however, was never one to be in for a penny if she could extract a pound. Before showing Harold the door and encouraging him to leave the building, Joyce would insist that he first apologise to the receptionist for the foul and aggressive abuse he had flung her way upon arrival, as well as apologise any other Probation colleague Harold might have offended. To see such a ‘big, aggressive man’ be controlled by such a ‘small, and polite woman’ was a wonder in psychological dynamics to behold.
None of Joyce’s work colleagues ever did learn why Harold responded to her in the compliant way he did. It was something nobody else on the face of the earth ever managed to do whenever Harold was drunk; not even his siblings or parents. We often wondered if there was some long-hidden secret between the two which gave Joyce some leverage of influence and power of persuasion over this giant of a man that enabled her to blackmail him into quietness and civility when he was drunk.
Experienced probation officers who have served a few decades or more in their jobs usually develop a grapevine of criminal contacts that sometimes feed them information about another Probation supervisee. Such information can be either passed on to the police or another official body or in some instances, the information may be confidentially stored and retained by the officer concerned, to be brought out like an emergency umbrella on a ‘rainy day’. Such information in the hands of any streetwise Probation Officer was as explosive as a stick of dynamite in one hand and a lit match in the other, and could be used as an influential tool of ‘persuasion’ and ‘moral coercion’ at best, and downright ‘blackmail’ at worse!
Could our calm and charming colleague, Joyce, ever have lent herself to such underhanded methods? Never! Surely not?
Love and peace Bill xxx