My heart is hammering away as I'm driving up J.D. Salinger's long, snowy driveway, and it hits me like the night train:
This isn't how I wanted it to happen.
Ever since I was 15 years old and The Catcher In The Rye became my bible, I'd dreamed of the day I might come face to face with this intensely private author.
I knew he'd stopped publishing, and I knew he never gave interviews, but still - I couldn't help wishing I'd one day meet him, if only to thank him for creating Holden Caulfield, the tortured, idealistic teenager who made me feel that I wasn't alone in the world.
Watch out for wishes. They have a funny way of coming true, right out of the blue.
It begins on an otherwise slow news day at the New York Post in 1986 when metro editor Al Ellenberg comes up to me, a Camel cigarette as always dangling from his lips.
"How'd you like to take a ride up to New Hampshire and bang on J.D. Salinger's door?" he asks.
I'm a general assignment reporter, and as assignments go this one is far from general. My blood is tingling.
"He doesn't talk to reporters," I numbly reply.
"Oh, don't worry, you won't find him," Ellenberg chuckles. "Nobody can find him. Just write it up as 'The search for J.D. Salinger.' "
There's actually a news hook for this mission - a biographer named Ian Hamilton is writing a book about Salinger, and he intends to quote from letters Salinger had written. Salinger would have to fight the man in court. I'm supposed to ask him about that.
Next thing I know, photographer Don Halasy and I are heading north to Cornish, New Hampshire, where we catch a short night's sleep in a local motel before beginning the hunt for J.D. Salinger.
I ask the locals if they know where Salinger lives. They shrug, they shake their heads, they ignore me.
"You just missed him," says the grinning postmaster at the local Post Office where Salinger picks up his mail each day.
Ellenberg warned that we'd never find him, but we're good at our jobs. We persist in our search, and eventually find ourselves on an unmarked mountain road, where a woman on horseback hesitates before pointing the way.
"He lives right there," she says, "but he won't be happy to see you."
And just like that we're on Salinger's property, rolling up a long gravel driveway toward a two-story wooden house.
It's happening. It's actually happening. Halasy gets his camera ready as I pull up beside a barn-like garage.
("And then," Halasy reminded me just the other day, "you did the dumbest thing in the universe. You parked so close to that garage that I couldn't open the passenger door!")
It's true. With the photographer trapped in the car, I jump out and take a few steps toward Salinger's house. Before I can get there a slim man in blue jeans appears from a door on the second-story porch, as if he's been expecting me.
"Yes?" he demands, in a strong, hard voice.
His hair is snow white and his eyes are dark and grim beneath a knotted brow. It's J.D. Salinger, waiting for an answer.
I feel as if I'm under water. I clear my quaking throat.
"Mr. Salinger," I begin, "I'm from New York City. I'm a reporter - "
The word "reporter" does it.
"Oh, go away, please!" he shouts, waving a dismissive hand at me. "I've had enough of that, please!"
I stumble back to the car as Salinger vanishes into the house. I throw the car into reverse. The rear wheels spin, but the car doesn't budge. Salinger's face appears in a window. He looks on in horror as dirt and gravel fly.
"The car won't move!" I cry.
Halasy remains calm.
"The emergency brake's still on," he says gently.
I release the brake, and we roll out of Salinger's life. The last thing I remember seeing is two freshly-dug half-moon trenches left by my car's rear wheels.
So ends my meeting with J.D. Salinger. For years I'd dreamed of a fireside conversation with him about Holden Caulfield and the Glass family. Instead I'm fleeing from his property like a burglar, leaving behind a damaged driveway.
Don Halasy has to take the wheel for the long trip back to New York. I can't drive, and I can barely speak. I've never felt worse. No picture, no story, and my literary hero has just told me to get lost.
J.D. Salinger has been dead for a year now, and I'm still sorry that I never got to thank him for The Catcher in the Rye, or apologize for his driveway.
There's one more chapter to my Salinger story.
Not long after my driveway fiasco, another photographer nails Salinger outside his local supermarket. That's good thinking. Even literary legends need food, and they can't order you out of a parking lot.
Salinger goes wild, and the lucky photographer gets a shot of him with his fist held high.
Of course as the Post's Salinger expert, I'm assigned to the story. I interview the photographer and write it up. CATCHER CAUGHT! screams the front-page headline over my bylined story.
When I get to work the next day, desk man Myron Rushetzky hands me a bouquet of messages from media people all over the world.
"Some guy called for you a few minutes ago," Myron adds. "Said he read your J.D. Salinger story and he's going to kill you."
I accept the bouquet of messages, crumple them in my fist and and toss them.
"I'm guessing that last caller didn't leave a number."
"You guessed right."
I'll always wonder if that caller could have been Salinger himself. Not likely. The creator of Holden Caulfield had to have been a sensitive, gentle soul. On that day I showed up uninvited at his house, I was the assassin.
Ahh, but I wasn't fifteen years old anymore, and Holden Caulfield's idealistic words about wanting to be the catcher in the rye no longer applied. Now I was a grownup, with some new words I used whenever I got into a jam.
In fact, I said them to myself right after J.D. Salinger told me to beat it.
"Sorry, man," I mumbled on my way back to the car. "I'm just doing my job."
Charlie Carillo's latest novel is "One Hit Wonder." His website is www.charliecarillo.com. He's a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition."
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