Me and Mr. Fox

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A true story about a chance encounter with a very ordinary extraordinary man.

Submitted: December 11, 2011

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Submitted: December 11, 2011

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In the 1980s I was a fireman working in the UK, and, like almost every other fireman in the UK at the time, I was working several part-time jobs on my days off to make extra money. At five o’clock one morning in July 1985, I received a call from the manpower agency I was registered with, offering me a job as a chauffeur for the day. I had no plans other than grocery shopping and a visit to the pub that night, so I agreed. They told me to go and pick up a “Mr Fox” at a hotel in Banbury near Oxford and take him to Gatwick Airport, so I showered and dressed and jumped into my battered but beloved 1974 Datsun 260Z. It was a beautiful summer morning so I had the windows down and the music on loud as I headed off to pick up the Ford Granada Ghia which I was to drive for the day.

When I arrived at the hotel I went to the reception desk and asked where I could find Mr Fox, and the receptionist pointed down the corridor and mumbled “He’s in 4 I think…” This was a very old, very traditional English hotel with low ceilings, no perfect right-angles and very creaky floorboards, so since it was still only 7am I crept down the corridor as quietly as I could. However, when I found “4 I think” I could hear frantic activity inside. I knocked cautiously on the door. With a startling flurry it was grabbed open, and there before me, silhouetted against the bright morning sunlight streaming through the window behind him, was a young man about the same age as me, obviously rushing to finish his packing. He was shorter than me, so he looked up at me and smiled. “Hey! You my driver?” he asked with a distinct west coast American accent (although he was in fact Canadian as I would find out later). As he spoke he was walking away from the open door to continue with his packing. “Yes,” I said, “do you need a hand with that?” He was pulling a very large suitcase off the bed. “No I’m good thanks” he said’ “What’s your name?” I told him and we shook hands quickly. “I’ll be out real soon” he said, “how about you bring the car up to the front?” I gave him a cool “thumbs up” sign for some reason and said “Ok, I’ll be outside when you’re ready…”, while mentally Anglicising his grammar and fighting the urge to put an “old chap” on the end.

I waited outside in the car with the engine running, windows down trying to make things as comfortable as possible for my exotic west coast “American” passenger. After about ten minutes Mr Fox emerged from the shadows into the daylight, dragging the large suitcase awkwardly over the gravel drive towards the car, his backpack constantly falling off his shoulder as he went. I got out of the car to help him. The Ford Granada Ghia was, by English standards, a large luxurious car, but by American standards it was obviously little more than a large roller skate with some seats welded to it. Mr Fox was too much of a gentleman to say anything, but as we arranged his luggage in the “trunk”, his face clearly spoke a thousand words – none of them very complimentary. Along for the ride with Mr Fox was Mr Randy Caramello (a much more satisfyingly American name than “Fox” in my opinion), who was apparently Mr Fox’s personal hairdresser. He was about 35 and hiding it badly, and he was a little more colourfully attired than any of my countrymen would have been outside of a fancy dress party.

After everyone was settled in I pointed our luxurious roller skate in the direction of Gatwick airport, Mr Fox in the front passenger seat next to me, Mr Caramello curiousy positioned in the centre of the back seat so that his face was all I could see in the rear view mirror. I had learned early on in my part-time career as a chauffeur that if passengers want to talk they will, so after saying “Seatbelts please” I kept my mouth shut. As it turned out, Mr Fox was a genuinely pleasant person who apparently enjoyed nothing more than talking to people. As we headed towards London and the M25 motorway under a bright blue summer sky, our conversation eventually turned to cars. He told me that he was the proud owner of a 1984 Nissan 300ZX, and I told him about my dear old ’74 Datsun 260Z, which was the forerunner of the 300ZX before the Datsun car company changed its name to Nissan. His car was not yet a year old and was obviously a lot more valuable than my old banger, so I respected the fact that he didn’t “trump” me as my judgmental working class Englishness was expecting his apparently middle class Americanness to do. He just said “Wow, cool!” and we compared notes on the differences for a few miles. Later he asked me how long I had been a driver and I told him I was actually an off-duty fireman working part-time. He jokingly said that it made him feel safe having a fireman at the wheel as we sped down the motorway. He never mentioned what he did for a living, and I can’t remember for the life of me why I didn’t ask – he did have his own hairdresser after all. As we talked, Mr Fox asked me if it was okay for him to smoke in the car, adding with a grin “If I set fire to the car, you’re the guy right?” I told him I would rescue him first as long as he gave me a cigarette. We shared a smoke in silence for a while, the beautiful sun-bathed English countryside passing us rapidly by in fields of bright yellow rapeseed and a thousand hues of green.

Mr Fox broke the silence by announcing that he had run out of cigarettes and asking me to stop so that he could buy some more. I pulled into the next rest area, stopped close to the shop and Mr Fox jumped out. While he was out of the car, the face in the mirror asked me, “Do you know who you’re driving today?” I said I had no idea, and he said “Well, his latest movie has just been released in the US, and he’s about the third rated actor in America right now.” I thought for a second and said “Well, America’s full of third-rate actors…” and proceeded to giggle at my own joke. Apparently I was the only person in the car who found it funny. Randy crossed his arms, raised his chin slightly and stared blankly out of the window. Well excuse me…

We continued our journey around the M25 motorway towards Gatwick airport, but unfortunately a section of it had been closed due to an accident, so I had to take a detour through the countryside. I didn’t want to admit it to my passengers, but I was actually hopelessly lost, so every now and then I made an excuse to stop in the villages we were passing through so that I could ask where the hell Gatwick Airport was. In the end I managed to find my way there purely by luck, and by heading vaguely in the same direction as the aeroplanes I could see descending from the clear blue sky above, hoping they were heading for the same airport as we were. After an anxious hour of discreetly glancing skyward, I screeched to a halt at the kerb outside Gatwick Airport departures with only about an hour to spare before my passengers were due to catch their flight to Los Angeles – but not before Mr Fox had started to recognise some of the areas we had passed through more than once. I assured him that much of the south of England looked very similar to the untrained visitor’s eye.

I stepped hurriedly out of the car, opened the boot and helped Mr Fox and Mr Caramello (who was still ignoring me) wrestle their bags on to trolleys. Mr Fox then shook my hand in a genuinely grateful way, and gave me £20 (about US$100 today), a full bottle of coke and 200 Marlboro cigarettes. He had obviously bought the coke and the cigarettes when he got out of the car to buy cigarettes for himself earlier. Very generous and very thoughtful. “That should keep you going on the way back mate” he said with a smile. I love it when Americans say “mate”… They sound as wonderfully ridiculous as English people must sound when they say “buddy”. We were kinda buddies by now so I ventured a joke. “How about I go back to California and drive your 300ZX, and you stay here and drive my 260Z?” I asked. He smiled.“Ha ha… I don’t think so mate, but you drive safe” he said, before slapping me gently on the shoulder and disappearing forever into the anonymity of the bustling airport crowd. I watched him walk away, thinking what a nice guy he was, and wondering how the hell I was going to find my way home. The hairdresser followed him, speaking furtively in his ear and occasionally looking back over his shoulder at me. I could imagine every word… “You’ll never guess what that driver said to me…” Maybe that’s why I never got a Christmas card.

I enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Oxford (luckily the M25 was open again), sipping coke and smoking heavily, then dropped the car back at the hire company office and went home. That night in the pub I bought my friends a drink with my windfall, and told them the story of how hopelessly lost I had been in the wilds of south London while driving one of our generous colonial cousins and his hairdresser to Gatwick. They teased me appropriately, saying things like “Lucky Gatwick wasn’t on fire” and we all had a good laugh at my expense.

A few months later my friends and I were in a movie theatre in Oxford to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster Back to the Future, and my “Mr Fox” came up on the screen larger than life as the star of the movie. I spat a mouthful of popcorn into the hair of the person in front of me, and blurted out to my friends “That’s him! That’s the guy I drove to Gatwick airport!” It turned out that Mr Fox was Michael J. Fox, the super-famous sitcom and movie actor (and now Parkinson’s disease activist). I could hardly contain my excitement.

In 2004 I read his autobiography, Lucky Man, in which he refers to the filming of A Family Ties Vacation (a feature length episode of his sitcom Family Ties) in Banbury, England at the time when I picked him up and acted as his driver and temporary travel companion. A loose reference I know, but it was near enough to a “mention” for me. Luckily he never never realised we were lost or how close he had come to missing his flight that day, or I may have received a rather more specific mention. Back to the Future had been released while he was filming in Banbury, and he was heading back as fast as he could for press interviews and personal appearances. Had he missed that flight because of me that day it would probably have cost him a fortune – and me my lucrative part-time job.

Michael is quite critical of himself in the wonderfully well-written Lucky Man, but I can tell you from personal experience that he is nothing like the stereotypical arrogant movie star I might have expected had I known who he was when I picked him up on that summer day in England all those years ago. This was a genuinely pleasant encounter with a genuinely nice person, and one which I will never forget. His relentless campaign for a cure for Parkinson’s disease, and his own brave fight against it, are, in my experience, typical of this warm, humble, kind-hearted man.

(Click here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1326832/Michael-J-Fox-Parkinsons-saved-life-better-man.html to read an interview with Michael in the Daily Mail during which he mentions the filming in Banbury, England.)


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