Happy Jack – Chapter 1

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Editor’s Note: This post is the first chapter of my recently completed novel manuscript “Happy Jack.” Enjoy!

Forward from the author, James “Fish” Fishman

The man who you will read about in this account is real. There are no shortage of hospital records, college transcripts and public tax files to prove he exists.

The psychic and emotional powers I will describe this man as possessing are, however, open to skepticism. But there is no doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of the hundreds of eye-witnesses interviewed for the writing of this account, of his unique abilities. These witnesses testify with stunning consistency to the sensation of euphoria experienced in his presence, the lengths to which he went to please them, the feeling of addiction and withdrawal when he left their lives.

What does it mean to make everyone happy?

In my personal experience with Jack, his presence causes your pleasure synapses to fire like crazy. You feel high in a way that no drug compares, but you’re not aware that you’re being acted upon by an outside force. If that were the end of it for Jack, I wouldn’t have much of a story and Jack would probably be a much different person.

In describing his own perception of his “special trait,” Jack told me over beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans early one eventful summer morning that “I just understand what people need to be happy.” He couldn’t elaborate, and I can’t ask him to elaborate now because as you will see that morning was the last time I would ever be able to speak to Jack. From that conversation and more with the very few others who knew Jack’s secret, I gather he was often incapable of articulating why he performed a certain action to guide someone to happiness even they didn’t know how to acquire. His understanding is one of instinct. Some other force imbues him with the answer and guides him to provide it, all while Jack is left with only the space in the corners of his mind to contemplate why, chewing on the question as he would another of his favorite doughy beignets.

We do have some indication that Jack’s condition is not unprecedented. In many cultures, but most prominently passed down through the oral traditions of Haitian Voodoo practitioners (Vodouisants), folklore exists telling of children who bring happiness to all those who set eyes on them. The evidence suggests these children in Haiti were hunted down and taken from their homes by Voodoo priests and priestesses in order to please spirits. It seems they never lived long thereafter. But I find it fitting that the strongest history, anecdotal and superstitious as it may be, of people with this power comes from Voodoo folklore. Vodouisants, after all, have altered the course of Jack’s life even more than I have.

The end product, the exterior effects of his peculiarity and not the mysterious cause, was what first drew me to the man known as Happy Jack.

When I met him on Dauphin Island, that precious accumulation of Gulf sand dangling like a fragile golden chain below the slender neck of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, soon after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, those exterior results looked like the human-interest story I needed to get my producers off my back.

I could always see a story and built a career on jumping right in with no regard for consequences. For those of you familiar with my career as the CNN news caricature Fish Fishman, you may recall some of my more famous – or infamous – TV moments. If CNN needed to throw someone into the middle of a hurricane, I was their man. If CNN needed to put someone in a flak jacket and let bullets and missiles fly over their head in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Sudan or Detroit, I was their man.

More notoriously, if CNN needed to cover a snowstorm that wasn’t so snowy or a flood that didn’t really flood, I was the man willing to pile up snow in a field or stand in the middle of a drainage pond to give my cameraman the shot CNN needed to convince the viewing audience that we were delivering to them a major news event.

Of course, in the budding age of camera phones and social media, I was caught completely unaware when my “good shots” became viral internet sensations capturing the insanity (and inanity) of 24-hours news television. I used to blame CNN, the producers, but I was complicit undermining the serious journalism career I had hoped to create.

In that sense, Jack is my salvation. He was compelled to help me achieve my dream.

But, at first, I only saw the story. The story right in front of me. The homeless man risking his life to rescue people trapped in homes they thought would keep them safe before the hurricane reduced them to splinters.

I didn’t begin to sense the bigger story, Jack’s personal story, until much later. To be precise, in April 2010, when I met Happy Jack on Dauphin Island for the third time while on assignment to cover the BP oil spill. When he disappeared, and I felt the symptoms of withdrawal described again and again in the testimonials collected for this work, I began to grasp the nature of what I had encountered. A skepticism I didn’t know I was clinging to eventually melted away. I saw that Happy Jack possessed magic, or something – a power, a gift, a supernatural ability.

But I still didn’t fully understand what device drove this man until after I tracked him from Dauphin Island to a tiny apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where I found him standing over a perverse sex addict chained down in his bed. That’s when he explained it to me, and she asked for help.

Along that tortuous path, he fulfilled his obligation to steer me to happiness. To help me get over my fear of starting over. Earnestly pursue becoming the serious journalist I so fiercely desired to be. Let go of Fish Fishman and just be James again.

I needed to be James to tell his story the right way.

It took many nights, and many long arguments with my editor, to best decide how – and in what order – to recount Jack’s life. In the end, we decided to unveil the secrets as they would have been revealed to Jack.

In this decision, I worry the following pages are somewhat not in keeping with the principles of good journalism. I sometimes withhold context the reader is owed to frame what was happening to Jack during certain periods of his life. I will break a best practice for any journalist: I will bury the lead. I won’t always attribute facts and opinions to their source. In some cases, this anonymity is used to protect my sources. Jack was involved with a countless number of individuals in New Orleans whom the word “shady” does not even begin to describe. But I have at times chosen to forego attribution because I do not want it to get in the way of the reader experiencing Jack’s predicament more intimately.

In exchange for forgiveness in these matters, I hope I can reward readers with a proper understanding of a person who secretly fought the biggest war imaginable. He could never win more than a few battles, and yet he chose to fight for us.

I did not write this account to convince you of the authenticity of a mystical being. I wrote it because Jack Hazelwood is an incredible man who has done more to help the depraved, forgotten, snakebit people of the Gulf Coast than anyone. He deserves to be mentioned with the greatest of our modern saints: Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Mandela.

His story deserves to be told.

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Posted on January 6, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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