My Lunch With Sonny Bono . . .

My friend Sonny Bono
My friend Sonny Bono

It was a few weeks later (after the Palm Springs Girl Scout bus crash) when I found myself sitting at a table, amazingly, having a quiet lunch with the famous Sonny Bono. No need for reservations – it was his restaurant. It was also his idea. The layout of Bono’s was extraordinary enough to mention, with world-class tennis courts on each side of the building and plenty of windows to watch the action. The courts were flawless green and set lower than the landscape, providing a bird’s-eye view from the tables inside. That was no accident, either. Sonny wanted his celebrity friends to feel comfortable, without the annoyance of the desert wind. And he knew very well that paying customers would flock to a place where they could watch people as famous as he was, running around in shorts. I couldn’t help but notice some of the shorts myself.

Johnny Carson was out there, engaged in a serious match with somebody, and Stefanie Powers sat with elegant ankles crossed, sipping something cold under an umbrella. Her television show, Hart to Hart, came immediately to mind. I smiled to myself. On some days the village of Palm Springs can honestly bumfuzzle the brain.

Inside, the penne pasta was delicious. Mayor Bono had listened to my opening spiel and now he sat with his fork suspended above his plate, staring at me in rapt attention. The expression on his face was one of utter shock.

“Are you honestly saying that this county – our county – is deranged enough to pull your Paramedic license because we used that helicopter?

“Not the whole county,” I answered. “Just the EMS part.”

“How can anybody be that pea-brained?”

I shrugged. “The helicopter was not EMS-certified. Not the aircraft, not the pilot. They were never approved to transport patients.”

He plunked his fork down and screwed up his face as if the whole world had gone mad. “That helicopter was a godsend out there. It was like . . . divine intervention! What kind of fools would let those girls lay out there in pain a minute longer than they had to?”

“The kind of fools who don’t like medics making independent decisions.”

“So what about the taxis?” he said. “I suppose we shouldn’t have used them, either.”

I sighed. “To tell you the truth, I’m surprised they didn’t make that an issue, too.”

He groaned. “There’s something wrong in the heads of people who think like this. They were probably normal till they got a little authority.”

I toyed with my iced tea. “I had about 30 seconds out there to make a decision. It made perfect sense. You saw the traffic mess. I made eye contact with the battalion chief who was busy on his radio at the time. We pointed to the chopper and we both nodded. He agreed, but it was my call. I don’t know that he even had time to talk to the pilot. That puts my certification on the line.”

He shook his head. “Sometimes I’m ashamed to call myself an American.”

My sentiment exactly. I swallowed some food and spoke quietly. “Mr. Bono, you’re a decent man. You were the most humane person out there. It took me a week to realize that. And because of that decency, you’ll probably never understand what I’m going to say next.” I paused to stress my point. “For all the good it does, rescue does not exalt moral courage at all. To the contrary, it squelches fortitude almost by reflex. In the world of EMS, saving lives is not the priority. Following every rule every time, is the priority. You get creative; try too hard to save people? That’s the fast track to a short career.”

Sonny cringed as though in pain and I suspect he probably was. His rock star days were behind him now. He was a normal person these days and this peek into the Twilight Zone was like a kick to the stomach.

He said, “Do you know why I became Mayor of Palm Springs?”

“Not really, no,” I replied.

“I ran for office because some small-minded bureaucratic twits wouldn’t let me put a sign up for this restaurant.”

“Wow. So instead of fighting city hall, you became city hall.”

“Sometimes you’ve just got to out-sneak the bastards.”

I nodded. “Well, you certainly have a great sign out there now.”

We sat silent for a time as we finished our lunch, but when he spoke again his voice grew lower, calmer, filled with resolve. There was none of the high-pitched nervousness that seemed his norm. I realized there was more to this man than being Cher’s former husband, or the overly emotional fellow in the presence of dying teenagers. Sonny Bono had not gotten where he was by dodging challenges.

He leaned forward in his seat and narrowed his eyes. “I have an idea that might work. By God, they are NOT taking away your Paramedic license.”

(And thanks to the marvelously sneaky Sonny Bono, they never did)

*          *          *

At one point during our lunch Sonny Bono had asked, “So in other words, we’ve reached a point where a rescuer can’t say ‘screw the rules’ and just do the right thing?”

Not in other words, Sonny. Those are the perfect words.


Immutable Law #2

Saving lives is not our priority.

Following our policies is our priority.

Protecting ourselves comes next. Avoiding

lawsuits comes third. You come somewhere

after that.

(Excerpt from the book. “Paramedic Heretic”)


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