Rick grew up in New York City during the post-war, Prohibition-era Twenties. His mother was a prostitute unfit to mother who soon disappeared. He was raised by an adoptive bereaved mother, an adoptive uncle and the madame of the speakeasy / brothel which they ran. Rick’s growing-up world was minimally academic. He was more of an autodidact and preferred to spend his days reading than going to school. His adoptive uncle Art played chess by himself and taught Rick the same. With time spent in the speakeasy, Rick became a keen observer and reader of people at a young age. He learned the rules of running a bar, and a lot about running a brothel. During these years, Rick never had af pet, nor later a girlfriend.
At 17 years old he enlisted in the Navy. He spent the next four years non-stop at sea, crossed the equator a few times. He took his training as a radioman at Great Lakes Naval Basic north of Chicago. He took care of the ship’s radios and occasionally served as the commander’s radioman and signaller in morse and semaphores. He learned skills from bunkmates, one a boiler repairman and one a torpedo technician. He got to the point where he could fix just about any problem with any engine, and stay cool de-fuzing torpedos. Always a good chess player, he sharpened his poker skills, and usually broke every sailor, and the occasional lieutenant well before the end of every float. Prohibition put the vise on Art’s finances. At each port of call Rick would wire Art part of his paycheck.
After his hitch in the Navy, Rick returned to New York City, still in the grip of Prohibition and all that it had brought with it. He got back in town 1 year before the Stock Market Crash. He worked to make a go of it. The docks made the most sense, but the Mafia had the jobs and the unions all tied up and kept it in the family. He got occasional work but really it wasn’t safe to crash the party. During this time he helped ageing Art handyman Alice’s place. From running the speakeasy with Alice, and keeping it supplied with liquor, he’d made contacts and leant on them to get Rick work. Art had served in World War 1. One of his comrades-in-arms was a Mick, named Connie, who ran a speakeasy. At Verdun, Art had carried a mustard-gassed Connie out of No-Man’s Land and from the trenches 2 miles further to the Aid Station. The debt had not been repaid, Rick knew the business. Connie’s odd sense of right & wrong got the better of him and Rick got the job at Connie’s.
The work at Connie’s went well. Connie was a cranky, bitter, volatile Irish bastard but Rick was able to keep his cool and his own counsel and keep the place running. Connie handled the part about keeping the cops well-compensated. On a given weekday, Rick would be out back, standing on the loading dock, smoking like he did on the ships’ fantail. West Virginia moonshiners showed up without notice. They’d mostly gotten ripped off and “taxed” every other mile of the drive out of the mountains to the big city. They arrived ragged. Rick would drive bargains but not hard ones and send them to Alice’s to make another sale and get a decent meal.
At Connie’s he was straight up. Didn’t skim cash off the top. Even if he’d wanted to, Connie’s shrew of an accountant would have ripped his ‘nads off.
At Connie’s Rick ran into trouble trying to help out a patron who’d gotten on the wrong side of the lawmen that “protected” Connie’s. The patron was the son of a NYC Ward Heeler. His trouble involved a federal agent. As a result Rick got on all the wrong lists and had to leave NYC, in a hurry. Art helped him get out of town, aboard a steamer bound for Le Havre, France. At Connie’s Rick had become friends with the piano player, a colored or negro named Sam. Two years earlier Sam had decamped to Europe on counsel of a Spanish poet-student patron of Connie’s. Sam wasn’t a great piano player but he was charming, reliable, good enough, picked up a little French and became the house player at Paris’ The Hot Club. Art knew Sam from his first days in NYC, when he strode in from Arkansas. When Rick got into trouble Art had suggested he get on board the first ship sailing, then make his way to Paris whence Sam had written that the living was good.
At The Hot Club Rick met Sam’s circle. This included the Reinhardt brothers, Josephine Baker and other luminaries of the burgeoning post-war Paris black jazz scene including occasional visits by Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald — who were invariably too drunk to fuck, or keep their mouths shut while Django and Grappelli held forth and the crowd danced a storm. These were of little interest to Rick, but he had hit it off with the itinerant AeroPostale pilot, Antoine de St Exupery, Tonio, who had a fancy name but not the fancy funds to back it up, nor the focus to finish school before he started his flying career.
Tonio was past the planning stages, and into preparation to fly from Paris-to-Saigon, faster than had been done by any before. Only he needed an advance man, and navigator. He invited Rick and Rick accepted the work.
Rick and Tonio crash-landed in east Africa, near Djibouti and within spitting distance of the border with Ethiopia where Mussolini was trying to channel Julius Caesar. There Rick and Tonio learned and saw the results of Il Duce’s mustard-gassing of Abyssinians from an Italian colonel who had recently deserted.
The three of them get involved in running guns into Ethiopia. It become clear that Mussolini won and Halle Selasie lost. Rick and his partners decide on one-for-the-road, one big run of weapons from Djibouti to Spain where rumors of civil war speak louder and louder.
They got the weapons to the Republicans just before the German & Italian blockade froze everyone out. Rick decided to stay on in Spain to fight with the Loyalists. Tonio flew for AeroPostale for a few months but then got an offer as a war correspondent for Paris Soir. He had wearied of the Rabat-Toulouse AeroPostale mail milk run. He could use the money. He was a little bored and his last adventure, Saigon had ended up blue-balled. Tonio flew into the Basque country, stashed his Aero Avion at a Tungsten quarry and made his way to Madrid. There he drank, smoked and sometimes wrote, with the other correspondents at the Hotel Florida. These included Hemingway, Stephen Spender, Gellhorn, Capra … On their sojourns out, they put money down, playing chicken as their Spanish drivers raced and sideswiped their careening Rolls-Royces across the goat-ridden mountain roads.
Rick seems a decent, if reserved, guy. He has a rather awful record when trying to help people. He cares, but every attempt to help an aggrieved, in-danger or underdog has only made things worse for his would-be beneficiary. He adopted an “i don’t stick my neck out” policy but it’s not clear if it’s more about self-protection or the well-being of others.
In the last days of the Spanish Civil War Rick and his people are betrayed utterly. The entire team is killed except for Rick who concludes he has to leave Spain. In early 1939, Rick contacted Tonio. They motored up to the Basque country, uncovered Tonio’s plane, flew across the border into France and made their way back to Paris. Tonio resumed his work flying for AeroPostale. Rick became the manager of The Hot Club.
Then one night …