Space, The Final Frontier, Part I

It didn’t take me very long after I was discharged from the Army to enter the drug subculture that prevaled in California in 1969.  I had smoked a great deal of marijuana in Fort Hood, and later in Vietnam, and it was rumored that some of the weed that we smoked in Vietnam had been cured in opium.  I don’t know the truth of that, but there is no denying that it was powerful stuff.  I remember one night in Long Binh when I was sitting in a lawn chair on the wooden porch outside of our aluminum ‘hooch’, or hut, in which twenty or so of us soldiers made our homes.  I had smoked several of the pre-rolled ‘Saigon Bombers’ that we bought from a Vietnamese supplier and was feeling a good deal more loaded than usual.  A radio or 8-track nearby was playing the Beatles’ song “Hello Goodbye” and I felt like I was falling through solid rock towards the center of the Earth, with only the dum-dum-dum-dum beat of the song holding the rock apart to enable my descent.

On another occasion which I did not get to witness my friend Wes stripped down one of the bombers which I had sent to him through the U.S. mail and rolled four very thin joints out of it.  Later that day, at a break in classes at a community college in San Diego, Wes and three other guys descended into a canyon next to the school and passed around one of those tiny joints.  All four were so plastered against the ground upon which they lay that any thought of arising and making their next classes floated off into the wild blue San Diego sky.  Yeah, it was powerful stuff.

After many months of being home I finally got the opportunity to try a psychedelic drug, such as I had read and heard about during much of my tour overseas.  It was supposed to be mescaline, I think.  The reaction was non-existent.  It was a dud.  Probably somebody had sold me some aspirin.  I was disappointed and looked to try again later.  That opportunity arrived soon enough and I experienced my first trip on LSD, but because of a delayed reaction I had the misfortune of taking that first trip on my own.

I obtained the ‘hit’ of LSD, or acid, from my friend Jack.  Jack and I weren’t extremely close but had known each other for a long time, and when I discovered that he had a hit to share I bought it from him and ingested, or ‘dropped’ the hit right away.  Once again, nothing happened.  Eventually I went home, climbed into bed, and tried to go to sleep.  Sleep was not to come on this night however.  Shortly after I turned out the light my senses exploded, with vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell competing to see who would take the blue ribbon for Most Heightened Sense.  Even more unnerving was the reaction of my thought processes.  Perhaps you have had a lazy day in which you lie idle and allow your thoughts to drift.  It was sort of like that except that instead of drifting, my thoughts acted like they wearing jet packs.  Ideas would fly across my mind like laser-guided meteors, sometimes returning to deep space from whence they had emerged and sometimes colliding with new ideas, creating black rabbit holes down which new and unrelated ideas would fly with several of their half-baked relatives in their train.  The jumble of senses and unorganized and hyperactive thoughts, some of them in colors which I am simply inadequate to describe, put me in an extreme state of agitation or, as we said, “freaked me out”, and I arose from the bed, dressed, and exited my house in order to walk the mile or so to the courtyard cottage that Jack shared with his girlfriend, Angela.

The walk was marginally comforting, as I could fix my mind on the act of picking one foot up and putting it back down, and then the next, and the next, and so on.  The streets and houses and businesses along the way were as familiar to me as was my own room, since I had walked and driven and delivered newspapers and, well, lived in those streets for many, many years.  Eventually however, and too quickly I thought, I arrived at Jack’s place, only to find him gone.  The sense that I felt most acutely at that moment was ‘alone’, and the loneliness was heightened four-fold by the acid which was progressing toward its maximum effect, or what we called it’s ‘peak’.  When we reached this plateau of maximum effect we called it ‘peaking’.  I did not know all of this at the time.  I only knew that my brain was doing things that it was never programmed to do, and I had nobody who had any experience with this to guide me through it.

Across the cement path which separated the tiny stucco bungalows which made up this residential complex lived a couple whom I knew slightly from previous visits to Jack.  People tended to hang out on their front porches in the warm evenings of San Diego and got to know each other just a little.  I knew this couple well enough to know that they also used drugs and preferred barbiturates, or what were called ‘downers’, or ‘stumblers’.  These pills would make the user very lethargic, relaxed, almost hypnotic and mellow.  Mellow was exactly what I could have used at that moment.  I suppose that I knew the guy’s name forty years ago, but it escapes me now.  He was sitting on his porch as usual, listening to music and smoking, and I greeted him and explained my situation.  I then asked if there was any chance that he might sell me some reds (seconal), or yellow jackets (nembutal).  This guy didn’t really know me well enough to feel safe making that transaction, since there was in his mind the possibility that I was an undercover narcotics officer, or ‘narc’.  He told me that he wasn’t holding any stash that night, and so I turned away from the relief that I had hoped to find there.

Discouraged and more than a little bit freaked out, I returned to walking on the streets between Jack’s place and my home.  It was not too late but the neighborhood was very quiet.  As I walked past the houses, the big Catholic church and school on Marlborough and Orange Avenues, the closed jewelry store and hobby shop on busy University Avenue, and the Mexican restaurant which was always getting nasty ratings from the Health Department but was open all hours of the night, and fed many a taco and enchilada and cup of strong, black coffee to late night revelers who were trying to sober up enough to make it home, make it to school or make it to work, my mind was straining to reach out and grab security and comfort from the known and trusted, only to crash headlong into thoughts and sensations which were security and comfort’s polar opposites, which came roaring out of some parallel universe and breaking into our world through a wormhole in my skull.

As I approached my family home I knew that entering the house and sitting alone in the darkness of my room was not an option.  Wes, my best friend, was probably out with Jack, so I knew that it would do no good to walk to his house.  Besides, it was probably a good four miles away, and the idea of trying such a feat seemed out of the question.  The answer, which occurred to me with a clarity that was a rare thing for me at the moment, was to drive several miles east to Santee, a suburb of the city, to the house of my older brother Brad and his wife Ginny.  Why it seemed to me that I would have to walk if I chose to go to Wes’ house but could drive to Brad’s is entirely beyond me as I remember this event, but it seemed to make sense at the time.  I think that this will help the reader to understand how my thoughts were, well, a little bit unorganized.

Brad had never done psychoactive drugs and was much more of a weed and beer guy.  Still, he was my big brother, and I always had looked to him as the guy who would pull my fat out of the fire when i was in a fix.  Brad, being four years my senior, went before me in everything; in school, in the Army, in relations with girls, he had done it before I did and had done it better in my opinion, and so I climbed into the 1963 Mercury that my parents allowed me to use as I wished and began a kaleidoscopic drive across the east side of san Diego, and then down a long hill into the dark and sleepy town of Santee.

Brad and his wife Ginny were home and I soon explained my crisis.  Brad, of course, knew nothing about what I was going through, but his and ginny’s presence provided a contact with something familiar and non-threatening, and that helped to calm me down although I did not feel that effect immediately.  Thoughts and sensations seemed to take a while to catch up with each other.  Brad knew of a phone number to a service which was established to try to help people in my position.  This was 1970 after all, and there were thousands of young people in every city and town in America who were ‘tuning in, turning on, and dropping out’, many of whom had the same reaction as I had or something worse.  This particular service was there to talk to people who were freaking out, trying to tell if there was a real medical emergency that needed immediate treatment or just a scared kid who needed someone who seemed to know something about what they were going through and that they could hold onto until the drug would begin to wear off.  Brad dialed the number and a male voice came on the line, a voice that I hung onto for the next half hour.

By that time I had been peaking for about two hours, and even though I wasn’t aware of it all at once, the effects of the acid were beginning to wear off.  The colors of the afghan on the sofa did not appear to be as bright as they had been when I first arrived, and they had quit moving too.  The cat no longer seemed to know something that I didn’t.  Ginny went to bed and I hung up the phone.  Brad made some coffee, and although one would think that more stimulants were not what was called for, the warm and comfortable familiarity of a cup of joe at the kitchen table with my big brother was exactly what I needed.  Soon after finishing a second cup I was asleep, or floating in something which passed for sleep, on the sofa in Brad’s living room with Portia, their cat, lying on the pillow above my head with her face right at the level of my right ear.  The sound of her purring induced some very strange dreams.

One would think that a single such experience would be enough to convince a sane individual to give up such foolishness and never try anything like that again.  If we were dealing with a sane individual that might have been the case but, alas, we were not; we were dealing with me.  It would be many months later that I would try acid again, and this time in different circumstances and with different results.

I really don’t know exactly why I was willing to give LSD another try, but I believe it had much to do with the level of disconnectedness that I felt with life in general.  My childhood had been a life lived in a gray straight jacket of conformity.  I was uncomfortable with who I perceived myself to be and struggled to be something or someone that I wasn’t, even though I was not at all certain of what or who that was.  At the same time I was not able to discern the difference between a sage who had achieved detachment from the petty distractions of the material world and had found concrete truths upon which to anchor a life, and a stoned slacker staring at his naval because he was to hammered to do anything else.  I knew that I wanted to find a place where things made sense to me, where the inadequacies that I perceived in myself would be strengthened and the holes in my personhood would all be filled in with knowledge and capability.  I know that this reads like a bunch of pop psychology gobbildy-gook, but that is the best that I can do to explain it.  I did not know much about sages and how one went about pursuing the condition of sageness, and so I opted to take the drug path to enlightenment, and was determined to carry on at a later date.  The story of that path continues in Part II.

Introduction to “Space, The Final Frontier”

Books have always had a profound influence on my life.  From the time that I began to read, somewhere in my early years of elementary school, I also began to seek direction for my life in the stories presented in the books that I read.  Mark Twain made me want to view the world with a humorous twist.  John Steinbeck and Frank Norris made me aware of social inequity and economic oppression and led me to develop a sympathetic inclination towards Wobblies, Communists and others who at least presented the front of speaking up for those who had been pushed down by society.  I eventually recovered from my sympathies for those groups but retain my support for those who’ve been steamrolled by life.  Mary Austen fed my love of the desert.  Nobody, however, had as much influence on my young and malleable life than did Jack Kerouac.

I read Kerouac’s “On The Road” sometime in 1968 or 69 when I was in Vietnam.  My life had been rapidly changing since I had joined the Army and left my home, where any sort of real expression of my own personality was quickly suppressed by my very conservative, military, and authoritarian father.  I am not trashing my Dad; he was only doing the best that he could with what he knew.  Still, any real expression of my own distinct personality was smothered under a blanket of forced conformity that left me gasping for whatever breath of originality that I could manage to find.  I took to wearing hats, usually straw ones of the Panama type, bright red, green and blue socks with my shorts, or beltless (and classless) “continental” pants on occasions when long pants were called for, all in an attempt to establish some sort of individual identity.

Another item of clothing that I got accustomed to was a black turtleneck shirt.  Black turtleneck shirts were not very practical in San Diego where I grew up.  The long sleeves, high collar, and black color gathered heat like a solar collector, but black turtlenecks spoke of the Beatniks, the ultimate individualists of my childhood years.  My hope was that some of the hipness and coolness and detachedness from all rules that the Beatniks symbolized would be transferred to me if I adopted their look in even the slightest way.  Dad wouldn’t let me wear a black beret, I didn’t even like Dad’s Navy coffee much less expresso, and the only jazz music that I knew about was the theme music from the television detective show “Peter Gunn”.  Still, I wore that shirt as a symbol of my allegiance to the Beatniks, who represented something that I desperately wanted even if I didn’t know what that really was.

Jack Kerouac, correctly or incorrectly, for better or for worse, filled in a lot of the blanks in my life.  By the time that I sat in a lawn chair on the tower platform of our company water tank enjoying some beer and a joint under the warm Vietnamese sun reading “On The Road”, I had given up the electric blue socks and continental pants in trade for sex and drugs and rock & roll, which was possible even under the rigors of war.  Reading Kerouac, or perhaps I should say misreading him according to author Mark Sayers, I believed that I had found the person that I wanted to be.  Sal or Dean, it didn’t matter; each character was radically free from my point of view.  From that moment on I knew what I thought was important in life and who I wanted to be.

In May of 1969, three months before Hippy Nation joined in a celebration of music, drugs, utterly unrestrained sex and mud up to their eyeballs at Woodstock in upstate New York, I was released from whatever restraint the Army had imposed upon me.  Now returned to my old home in San Diego, I was a grown man, sort of, and as long as I caused a minimum of chaos at our family home I was entirely free of my father’s rules.  What followed was a period of abandonment to a life that Jack Kerouac would have recognized instantly.

The next few stories from my life will deal with that period.  I have wrestled with whether or not to write these stories at all.  There is little or nothing uplifting in these tales and I admit to a certain amount of embarrassment about many things that I will write about.  So why write them?  For better or for worse these stories are a part of my life.  These stories are about a young man who had no real ideals, who had no sense of value in life, who in fact had no real expectation of a long life.  These stories tell of a young man who was desperate to find a meaning in life while at the same time running away from the very concept of meaning itself.  Yet in the midst of this life there was still to be found friendship, humor, and a hint of the person who would emerge a couple of years hence alive and a little bit smarter, if somewhat worse for wear.  You might know a young person just like this and wonder what is going on in his or her head.  Perhaps these stories will give you some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  At least there was light at the end of mine.  My first tale, part of a series which I will entitle “Space, The Final Frontier”, will follow as soon as I get around to writing it.

What To Do About Hostages

I have recently read that an American hostage held by al-Qaeda somewhere in Yemen was killed during the attempted military strike that, it was hoped, would free him.  A subsequent story in the news suggested that al-Qaeda intended to kill that hostage on the same day as the raid anyway.  Whether or not that story is true or simply an attempt to cover for a rescue mission that failed I don’t know.  I contend that it really doesn’t matter; that when an American citizen becomes a hostage of al-Qaeda or any organization like it, that person should from that moment on be considered to be dead.

This is a harsh proposal, I know.  We always prefer to hope for the best all the way to the end of the line, whether it is a hostage held by ISIS or a patient fighting cancer or any other lost cause that can only find a happy ending if a miracle occurs.  One has to face reality however.  Once an American becomes a hostage of al-Qaeda or ISIS or any other such organization there is almost no chance that they will be returned alive to their families and their former lives.  At lease it hasn’t happened yet.  On many occasions I have seen the parents of hostages make televised appeals for mercy, only to have their son or husband murdered horribly within a few weeks or days of that plea.

The problem is that these groups who kidnap and murder American and other hostages do not exhibit the quality of mercy.  I don’t know if this is a result of al-Qaeda and ISIS, et. al., being or claiming to be Islamic or not.  I do not know what the Koran or any other authoritative writings or traditions of Islam say about the treatment of enemies.  I have read that some important Islamic clerics have very publicly taught that the actions of ISIS in particular are un-Islamic from the standpoint of prisoners and civilians in captured territories.  Whatever the reality is in that matter, these militant organizations have nothing resembling “love your enemy” in their theological or ideological worldview, and so televised appeals for mercy by tearful wives and mothers are not only wasted on these groups but probably give them some kind of sadistic pleasure.

With all of that in mind I propose that the following policy be adopted by the government of the United States.  From the moment that an American is taken hostage anywhere in the world, all of the intelligence and unconventional assets of the U.S. military which are available will be bent towards the rescue of that person at the earliest possible moment.  Technical and human intelligence assets will fly over, intercept communications of, buy or otherwise sniff out all available information on where the hostages might be, and then any rescue which offers a reasonable chance of success will be attempted at the earliest practical moment.

“But wait,” you might say.  “Won’t that result in the bad guys killing the hostage sooner or at the first hint of a rescue attempt, even if it turns out not to be the real thing?”  Maybe so, but as I already have written, the hostages are as good as dead at the moment that they are taken, and I would personally prefer to be cut down by a hail of bullets rather than have my head sawn off on video so that the civilized world can watch the act.  “And what about the advantage to the bad guys of knowing that the rescue attempt is coming?” you might add.  It is true that American military forces would have to know with crystal clarity that they could be lured with false intelligence into an ambush.  This sort of vigilance would be a factor in all such operations and every imaginable precaution would have to be observed to minimize the risk of ambush and failure.  Still, the possibility of things going wrong can never be erased and military personnel are aware of this like nobody else.

I think that it would do the bad guys some good to lose a little sleep, wondering if the ‘snap’ that they hear outside at night is Seal Team Six.  Also, even if the hostages are not in a particular location which has been identified as a likely place of imprisonment, other bad guys probably are. With as much care as can possibly be taken to not inflict casualties upon the innocent civilians that this set of militants loves to hide behind, pinprick damage should be inflicted in order to make the kidnapping and murder of Americans a dangerous and costly proposition.

And then there is the possibility of success.  Imagine the joy of a family to whom a former hostage is returned, alive and well, and imagine the chagrin and blow to the morale of the bad guys as the nation rejoices while they bury a few more of their dead.  Of course, they will still thirst for American blood, but they’re doing that anyway and are not likely to change in any way, any time soon.

Finally I would encourage any U.S. citizen to not make themselves easy targets.  We are all hungry for news and most of us wish to see people who are suffering comforted, but Americans should step back and let other news and aid agencies do the front line work where the risk is highest.  And tourists should simply find other corners of the world in which to vacation.  I would like to see the Sphinx and the Ziggurat of Ur as much as the next person, but common sense says that the risk is simply not worth the reward.

The problem of hostages is a small one for America as a whole, but a huge one for American hostages.  When all reasonable expedients have been followed by Americans and yet some continue to find themselves enjoying the hospitality of al-Qaeda, et. al., the iron hammer should fall hard and with a certainty that hostages and captors alike can count on.

Wedding Bells

At noon on August 20, 1973, the bells were chiming from the California Tower in Balboa Park, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the beautiful city that is San Diego, California.  August 20, 1973, was also the day that I married Clarice Braxton in Balboa Park, and although the bells in the California Tower chimed every day at noon whether I was getting married or not, I imagined that they were ringing for the happy couple.  On the surface it looked like a promising start to a life of marital bliss for the lucky pair.  A brilliant sun was shining out of the vast blue dome of the sky with not a single dark cloud to portend a cold, chill rain falling on this day or any other in the lives of the hopeful bride and groom.  Family, friends and neighbors collectively drew in their breath as the radiant bride, clothed in white and projecting the beauty and serenity of a Greek goddess, stepped out of a tent that had been set up as her dressing room and walked across the grass to where a judge was waiting for the ceremony to begin.  Everything was ready, but where was the groom?

This story begins two years earlier when I met Clarice in a history class at Grossmont Community College in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego.  We sat next to each other and I was surprised that this beautiful girl was so friendly with me.  I was very shy and didn’t expect to connect so easily with a girl as attractive as Clarice.  I pulled together my courage one day and asked her if she would like to go on a picnic with me and several of my friends, and I was again pleasantly surprised when she agreed.  Thus we began a five year relationship which included living together, being separated by 540 miles when I attended my first year away at Sonoma State University (“College” at the time that I attended), limited fidelity on both of our parts, and then living together again in San Diego after my first year at SSU was completed.

Both Clarice and I were not likely candidates for a long and happy marriage from the start.  Neither one of us came from a successful family and we went into our marriage without any sort of model of what a successful marriage even looked like.  Clarice’s parents had divorced some time before I met her, I’m not really sure how long before, and while I never saw any open hostility between Ellen and David Braxton on those rare occasions when they were at the same place together, it was easy to see that there were still scars, and that those scars still hurt.  I liked both of Clarice’s parents very much, but then I didn’t live in their home while their marriage was dissolving.

Clarice’s younger brother Don did live there however, and the strain of it showed up in his personality.  Either that or he was just a jerk from birth.  Don was a jock, a basketball player on the junior college team.  I was, if anything, the Anti Jock.  A skinny guy with wild, curly shoulder length red hair and a beard that looked like a big, red Brillo pad stuck to my face, I cared not one little bit about the latest clothing style or who was throwing or attending the best parties or, more to the point, that Don played on the Grossmont College basketball team or any other basketball team.  We tried to get along at first but we were like matter and anti matter, and only avoided a major collision as a result of periodic intervention by Clarice or by sheer luck when I went storming over to their family apartment with blood in my eye one day but he either stayed indoors or wasn’t home.  This was probably a great blessing for me as I am now almost certain that he could have kicked my ass three ways from Sunday.

Out of this family life Clarice emerged with an outlook that was a blend of fairy tale and tragedy.  She seemed to see herself as a Scarlet O’Hara figure from “Gone With The Wind” and would on some occasions lapse into a Southern drawl that I found sort of creepy.  And while I never once felt the least bit like Rhett Butler, I can’t help but believe that she somehow saw a little bit of Rhett Butler in me.  Clarice clung close to me, closer many times than my wild and unmoored self was comfortable with.  In spite of my continuing indulgence in partying with friends whom she did not care for, or my sitting on a bar stool until midnight or later with my friends Wes and Joe, Clarice would be waiting for her Prince Charming when he finally slouched in, bleary eyed and mostly ready to just go to sleep.  With some modifications a variation of this theme continued to be the pattern for our relationship for the next five years.

My preparation for marriage was no more auspicious than was Clarice’s.  My parents separated when I was twelve years old but reunited in less than six months because my brother Brad and I were spinning out of control and my mother could no longer handle us alone.  Our home was very much like the Cold War which was then simmering between the U.S. and the now defunct Soviet Union.  Between periodic outbreaks of violence was a nearly continuous low-level tension and a fear that bad things could erupt at any time.  Brad got himself thrown out of the neighborhood high school and was sent to the continuation school, or “Hard Guy High”, which oddly enough was structured like a college in that one could take a greater work load than most and graduate earlier than kids at the conventional schools.  Most of the students at Hard Guy High did nothing of the sort but Brad took that route and graduated from high school at seventeen years of age.  He then asked for and received our father’s permission to join the Army at the age of seventeen and thereby escaped our home.  I would graduate from the neighborhood high school four years later in the usual manner, and would also join the Army at eighteen years of age and in the middle of a war in order to make my own getaway,

My mother and father endured each other; that is the best way that I can describe the only marriage that I had had a close personal look at.  Love was never mentioned and never shown, and I got my training on love and marriage from “Leave It To Beaver” and from rock and roll lyrics and movie scripts.  It is not much of a stretch to say that neither Clarice nor I, and especially I, knew anything at all about the love that is supposed to be the foundation of a marriage and the hard work and commitment required to make a marriage succeed.

But we decided to give it a go anyway.  In June of 1973 I returned to San Diego for the summer and we moved into a lovely stucco cottage in a courtyard apartment not far from the home where I had grown up.  Brad promised to introduce me to the exhilarating and profitable life of a drywall installer, and I immediately began to spend long days engaged in that physically demanding and, in those days, very lucrative job of hanging drywall.  Clarice stayed home most of the time waiting for me to return,  which I did after downing several beers with the guys after work.  Drywall hangers in those days reveled in their image of hard working, hard drinking cowboys.  I don’t know if that continues to be true today.  Still, Clarice and I spent many hours together in relative bliss and so, one day, while we were sitting at a bar called ‘Grandma’s’, I put down my glass of beer and said “You know what?  I think that we should get married.”

I’m pretty sure that was not the proposal that Clarice had dreamed of since she had been a little girl.  No down-on-the-knee action in a restaurant, no “close your eyes” and a ring in my hands when I say “open your eyes now”.  Just a transvestite playing the piano in a neighborhood dive and a guy who truly did not know any better saying “You know what?  I think we should get married”.  What followed is absolutely inexplicable:  Clarice said “Yes”.

Now began the days of planning.  A license was to be applied for and obtained, blood needed to be drawn, a date and location in Balboa Park had to be reserved and a hundred other details needed to be tidied up.  Clarice did most of those things while i continued to hang drywall in order to pay for all of this.  We went together to Tijuana, Mexico, to find a shirt to go with my nice new blue jeans.  It was pale green with a quetzal bird motif.  We also found our rings in Mexico; silver, with what they said was a peyote bird imprinted into it.  As far as I know there is no such animal as a peyote bird but that is only a bothersome detail; I liked the sound of it and so we bought them on the spot.

I continued to work as the big day approached and about a week before the ceremony was to take place I had an accident on the job.  For one moment I lost my concentration and in less than a heartbeat I had drawn my finger across the fresh blade in my drywall knife and sliced a slab of meat off of the side of my right middle finger.  Brad took me and the now-separated piece of my finger to the emergency room at a nearby hospital where it was deemed necessary to reject the sliced piece and graft another chunk of flesh removed from my arm onto my finger.  The result of this was that for the next couple of weeks I constantly appeared to be flipping people off with my heavily bandaged middle finger, which I held upright a lot of the time to limit the throbbing pain that I felt when it hung down by my side.

At long last the day arrived.  Clarice disappeared early with a coterie of family and friends to be pampered and primped and prepared so that she might emerge from the tent in the park as a dazzling example of feminine perfection.  I, on the other hand, had little to do except get dressed and be at my appointed spot at the appointed time.  As it turned out, this was too large of an assignment for me to handle.  When I arrived at the park Brad and Wes were waiting for me with a cooler full of ice cold beer, and it wasn’t long before we were drinking to my wedding, to each other’s health, and finally just drinking for the hell of it.  I remembered my role in the day’s business when my dad walked up the hill and cuffed me on the back of my head.  “Late for your wedding” he said.  “That’s about as shiftless as it gets”.  Dad was grinning when he said it however.  He was rather proud of having raised two boys who seemed determined to march to their own drummer the way that he had done all of his life, and would continue to do until the day that he died a little more than thirty years later.

I arose, somewhat wobbly, and made my way down the hill to where the crowd of spectators was waiting.  The judge was anxious to get things underway so that he could return to his weekend routine, and a very hairy hippie to whom we had given $20 began to strum a guitar and sing something from his seat on the grass under a nearby palm tree.  I stood there in my haurache sandals, blue jeans, and quetzal bird shirt with curly red hair exploding out from under my leather headband and the beard which jutted from my face, and with a big gob of gleaming white gauze and taped wrapped around my upwardly extended right middle finger in a way that made it seem like I was giving the judge, Clarice, and the whole world in general, the bird.

In the end the wedding went off without a hitch, except for the fact that we were hitched when all was said and done.  We stayed hitched for nearly three years, but our marriage was a doomed ship from the moment that it left port.  We both continued to mature slowly after that day, Clarice more quickly than I.  Ultimately however neither one of us embraced the idea that marriage is hard work, and that fairy tales are imaginary.  On that day however we were both happy as larks; me with my goddess and her with her scruffy knight in shining armor.  The sky which boasted of it’s glowing sun and unbroken blue was indeed littered with clouds filled with the promise of a future storm, but we couldn’t see them.  It seemed like a very good day to us at the time, and I am happy to leave it at that.

Just A Walk In The Park

Five days before my heart attack, on the day that I turned 66, I had planned to take a thirteen mile walk just celebrate the fact that I could still walk that far.  It rained that day so I said “I’ll do it later.”  “Later” turned out to be after a heart attack and bypass surgery and several months of regaining my former vigor.  I am still regaining my old form and taking walks of four, five and six miles, so when my wife said that she wanted to go to a store twelve miles away on a bright and sunny day I sensed that this would be a great opportunity to see how far I have come on my journey back to health.  After church we gassed up and nosed the car into freeway traffic and drove south to the store which my wife wished to visit.  After checking for the item that we sought at the store I used the restroom, buttoned up, and stepped out of the store to begin my walk home.

Within a block I realized that my walk was going to be a cold one.  The temperature was somewhere around 36 or 37 degrees but the wind was blowing at over twenty miles per hour, and the weather app on my iPhone said that it “feels like 24″.  I think that it felt colder than that.  I’ve walked in cold before but this was more than just cold.  This was blue ice, bone chilling, face burning, digit numbing, freezing ass cold.  This was the kind of cold that just snatches the breath right out of your lungs.  The first three blocks of my walk were straight into the teeth of that wind and by the time that I had made it to the bicycle path which I intended to follow nearly all of the way home I had tears streaming laterally from my eyes and headed towards my ears and more snot running out of my nose than Aqualung.

Upon reaching the path I turned north and began to churn at a good clip north towards my home twelve miles distant.  The path was very nearly empty, which did not surprise me at all.  Who in their right mind would be out there in conditions like this?  Present company excluded, of course.  I walked along and tried to let my mind wander like I usually do when I take such walks, but on this day my wandering mind constantly came back to “damn, it’s cold”, so I finally gave up on that and instead simply tried to pay attention to what was around me and think as little as I could.

What was around me was evidence of the wind storm that we endured a week or two earlier.  Fence sections were lying flat where they had been blown, while holes gaped in the ground where trees had been blown over, sawn up and carried away.  Piles of trash had collected between the chain link fence and a guardrail on a light rail overpass which paralleled the bike path, and the wind was trying to pick that trash up and spread it out across the rest of Portland to the west of where I walked.

After about a mile I began to run into pedestrians, mostly homeless people and bicyclists.  I was puzzled by the bicyclists.  I was walking at about three miles per hour and the wind chill was making my life miserable.  The bicyclists were whizzing by at several times greater speed than I was walking and I know that the wind chill must have increased for them exponentially.  Portland Oregon is a place where common sense is viewed askance if not with outright hostility.  Even so at some point simple survival should kick in when common sense has failed you.  Still, by ones and by twos the bicyclists came in increasing numbers, peddling past me with their bright red faces as I continued to plod north towards home.

At length I passed over Foster Road and it occurred to me that I really don’t know the streets of Portland.  In Vancouver where I frequently walk I know all of the streets and can gauge how far I have come and how far I have yet to go by what street I pass at any given moment.  Along this day’s path I would intersect the dead ends of one street after another and their names meant nothing to me, apart from the big ones that are familiar to me for one reason or another.  Holgate, Powell, Division and Burnside were familiar names but separated by great distances; great if you are walking into a mind-numbingly cold wind many miles from home.  At one point I passed a street named St. Francis, and I thought of the Catholic Saint by the same name.  I couldn’t remember what St. Francis was supposed to be the patron saint of but my mind wandered back to the 1960’s when many of us wore St Christopher medals around our necks.  St. Christopher was said to be the patron saint of lost causes (I have no idea if that is true or not) and as I shivered and continued to stump forward on rapidly numbing feet I thought that Christopher might indeed be my guy.  I also wondered if there was a guy who was the patron saint of old dudes of 66 years who try to walk twelve miles in freezing temperatures just for the fun of it.  St. Doofus would be the guy, I think.

By the time I had walked a mile and a half I was cold in every part of my body.  I was properly layered with sweat shirt and jacket, wool watch cap and gloves, and a scarf which I had borrowed from my lovely wife, yet the wind found every crease and crevasse in my attire, or had just blown through inadequate fabric.  Even my upper lip provided inadequate insulation for my teeth, which began to ache early into my journey.

As I wrote earlier, the cold had found the switch which turned on the mucous machine in my head. I had a package of tissue paper in my jacket pocket but fishing them out and using them would have required that I remove one of my gloves to get the job done, and that just wasn’t going to happen.  Instead I would swivel my head to see if anyone was riding up behind me, and if the coast was clear I’d launch a couple of snot rockets and keep on moving.  By three miles I did not care who was behind me.  Fully gloved I would fire a couple of blasts that would freeze soon after making contact with the icy pavement.

At one point the path rose up a small hill and the shattered peak of Mount St. Helens came into view.  I wondered if it was any colder up on that peak.  Maybe so, maybe not.  Once you get to “cold”, “colder” seems to lose meaning.  Right after seeing the mountain I reached Burnside and crossed over the freeway to continue my journey on the east side of that road.  At this point I had walked nearly four miles and my legs and joints were feeling it.  Also, this part of the trip was more exposed than most had been and the wind was hammering at me unimpaired by buildings, trees, or retaining walls.  I knew by this time that I wouldn’t be walking the whole way home.  The sun was now hanging low in the western sky and shadows were beginning to creep across the city.  But so far I had not tackled any kind of a hill, and this walk would not be complete if I did not conquer one good rise in elevation.  Past Gateway Transit Center I knew that there was a good drop and rise on the way to the next light rail stop in Park Rose, and I decided to walk the last two miles to that stop.  I purchased my train ticket at Gateway however, because I had no confidence that my frozen digits would be able to extract a couple of dollar bills out of my wallet and feed them into a slot in the ticket dispenser after two more miles of walking in that cold.  I could barely get it done at Gateway.

Train ticket tucked safely into my wallet, I struck out for Park Rose.  I wanted this hill very badly to complete my accomplishment this day.  In the Army one of my nicknames was “Weasel” because if I didn’t want to be found by our first sergeant who was looking for people to complete a list for some nasty work detail, I would not be found.  The man hated me for this.  I was proud of that name.  Weenie sounds a lot like Weasel on the surface.  Both start with a ‘W’ and have the long ‘ee’ sound, and both are composed of two syllables.  But there’s a world of difference betweenThe Weasel and a weenie.  I won’t be a weenie, so with numb and aching face, fingers and feet and muscles and joints protesting because of the effort that they had already expended, I walked past two homeless guys standing and smoking at the point where the bike path resumed at the north end of the Transit Center and resumed my trek north.

As I passed those two gentlemen I reflected that I didn’t look so very much different than them.  My old blue jeans and blue jacket show the signs of the years upon years that I have worn them.  My shoes are pretty good but the old woolen watch cap pulled low over my ears and neck and the gloves with holes here and there make me look like a member of the brotherhood of the road.  To complete the picture, I found that I had lost one of the earplugs which I intended to use to keep the deafening road noise from the freeway out of my ears.  In order to address that shortcoming I dug one of the tissues out of my pocket and stuffed it as best as I could into my right ear and tried, with limited success, to tuck the tissue under my watch cap.  A corner of the white tissue paper insisted however in peeking out from under my cap.  Therefore, with my somewhat shabby clothes, snot trails and tissue paper hanging out from under my cap I looked appropriately demented and people left me completely alone, which worked for me under the circumstances.

That final leg was just miserable.  The first half of that segment of my trip took me through an isolated patch of grass and trees between two stretches of freeway.  This is a place where a guy could get mugged and nobody would be anywhere close to provide aid or call a cop.  As I walked through this half mile of my journey I reflected that nobody in their right mind would be hanging out in that lonely and Siberian piece of real estate, but that did not give me much comfort.  Under that formula, the only people whom I might meet there would by definition not be in their right mind.  There was nothing that I could do about that however, and I was way too done in to run if I was accosted, so I just put my head down and trudged on.

Finally I crossed that last two miles and felt a surge of anticipation as the Park Rose Transit Center came into view.  Now all I had to do was to wait for the train that would take me to the next station, where my wife would be waiting to take me the rest of the way home.  Now that the walk was over another problem took first place in my consciousness;  my bladder had been sending ‘full’ signals for the last three miles.  There were several points along the trip that I thought I would like to find a bush or tree to get behind and relieve the pressure but modesty, the legalities of the thing, and ultimately the thought of the frigid wind on tender and exposed flesh put a damper on any such thoughts.  I elected to pace around the platform for the thirteen minutes that it took for the train to arrive and carry me to the waiting car and my wife who whisked me home to the restroom, a hot bowl of soup, and a glass of good red wine that combined to relax the weary wanderer who is now providing you with the story that you have just read.

A Modest Proposal

It has been many months since the American people saw a wave of youthful illegal immigrants break upon our southern border.  Thousands upon thousands of children were swept up in the near vicinity of our borders and were warehoused in whatever large buildings were available to lay down a steel bed, a cot, or a pad on the floor.  There they passed their time, with virtually nothing to do as they sat idly biding their time while politicians fought over why they were here and what to do with them.  These children may still be in those soulless warehouses but we have moved our national attention on to weightier issues; ISIS, the midterm elections, the four-team NCAA football playoffs to name a few, so I don’t really know.

This status somewhere between life and death comes after a nearly two thousand mile trek in which rape is guaranteed, exploitation in all conceivable ways is assured, hunger, thirst, physical abuse and sometimes death are common.  The level of despair endured by parents that would induce them to entrust their precious children to the tender mercies of demonic ‘coyotes’ who run the immigrant railway from Central and South America through Mexico, and who then throw their children at the border like shooting a shotgun, figuring that a few might get through to burnish their coyote credibility, is a level of despair which I cannot even begin to assess.  I would do anything I could to alleviate this level of suffering, and I believe that there is a way that I can suggest to at least try to help some of the sufferers.  I can do that by making the following proposal.

The nation which consistently holds second place for sending immigrants towards ‘El Norte’ is El Salvador.  The reason is easy to see.  Crime and violence and hopelessness are the very bread that Salvadorans eat.  The power of violent street gangs, known as ‘Maras’, is far greater than that of the police and other government agencies which are tasked with ensuring tranquility and an environment in which a parent might raise his or her children and hope to enjoy their children’s families in their old age.  Sudden and purposeless death are regular visitors to Salvadoran households and cleaver and creative ways of dealing out public and painful deaths are common and even recreational activities for the Maras.  The government treats with the gangs in the same manner in which governments normally treat with other governments, and the police and law enforcement establishment are thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated by the Maras.

This is couples with a government which discourages any foreign investors who might be foolish enough to try to engage in honest business (if there is such a thing) in El Salvador.  International business has virtually ceased trying to invest there, and take their business and their money elsewhere.  If I lived in El Salvador, I would try to make it to El Norte too.

My proposal is to examine whether or not it would make sense to offer to the people of El Salvador the opportunity to become an unincorporated territory of the United States in the same manner as Puerto Rico.  Under the U.S. legal system, even with it’s flaws, crime would be challenged head-on and an effective counter to the power of the Maras would at last be visible on the streets.  Realizing that the Maras are attractive to young people because opportunities for advancement are not available in other areas, a revamp of openness to foreign investment, plus investment from a Unites States which would no longer be foreign, would expand job opportunities and give young people jobs which do not include the possibility, nay probability, of dying a violent and premature death.  The infusion of input into the education system to train young people to fill the new jobs would also result in the production of Salvadoran jurists, educators, writers and scientists; people who would use their skills to benefit their people and, beyond them the world.

Is my idea sheer madness?  Possibly.  It is the result however of my revulsion that I feel when I consider the pain which Salvadoran parents must feel when they kiss their children goodbye and send them to hell in order to escape the even greater hell of remaining in El Salvador.  If I have the ability to help somebody and do not help them, I bring judgement upon my own head and richly deserve it.  What do you think?

It’s a Lion, and I Aint Lyin

March of 1977 saw my brief return to northern California after a few months of playing the construction gypsy in New Mexico and Colorado.  My friend Wes and I tried our luck in New Mexico first but the construction standards were very poor there, at least with the contractors we worked for, and that combined with the footloose place in life which Wes and I both occupied at that time led us to throw our tools into the back of our respective vehicles and head north to Colorado.  We did this with almost empty pockets, since we had just returned from Mexico where we both had spent our last dimes.  Wes had worked in Colorado before and was certain that we could get on with somebody quickly upon reaching that land of promise.

We left Albuquerque after breakfast one morning and arrived in Fort Collins Colorado in the early evening.  We purchased a couple of bottles of wine and went to the dormitory residence of two girls whom Wes had known on his first pass through this territory several months earlier.  The ladies broke out glasses and opened the wine while Wes looked up contractors’ phone numbers in the Yellow Pages and called them from the dormitory phone, looking for work.  Wes’ word was sound and before the wine was gone we had work in Greeley, which is about thirty minutes drive away from Fort Collins.  We thanked the ladies for the use of their telephone and drove through the night towards the construction site in Greeley, where we would spend our first night in Colorado sleeping in our vehicles.  I unrolled my down sleeping bag that had been state of the art long ago, and stretched out as much as my six-foot frame would allow on the bench seat of my Ford truck.

That night was cold.  We had arrived in Colorado at the end of January and the temperatures trended towards the teens at night.  I slept fitfully that night, awakening frequently and rising up to peek into the black eastern sky, hoping to see some sort of glow on the horizon announcing the end of the seemingly endless night.  Seeing no such glow I would change positions and try to return to sleep, to pass the night more quickly as much as to gain refreshment for the next day’s work.

While I lay there my mind drifted to the realities of my recent past and the hope for my near future.  My first marriage had ended in May of the previous year and I lay on the seat reflecting on how my fortunes had changed.  My warm bed next to a wife in my own home in northern California where I co-owned a drywall company with one friend had been traded for a cold and lonely bed in the cab of my truck with another friend sleeping in his Mazda parked next to me waiting for daylight so that we could work for somebody else.  The funny thing is that apart from the lingering sadness over the demise of my marriage, a sadness mitigated by the woman in Albuquerque who I had met and who within a year would become my second and last wife (a condition which Happily continues to this day), I was not the least bit disconsolate.  I tend to take the view that things can always be worse and look for a bright side.

The bright side came at last in the eastern sky and before very long Wes and I were lifting heavy sheets of drywall and nailing them into place, and hit up the boss for a draw against our first day’s labor so that we could secure the comfort of a $10 per night fleabag motel room.  It wasn’t much but it contained a shower and two beds, which was all i really needed after a night of shivering in a cramped position in the cab of my truck.

This began our brief climb to prosperity in Fort collins.  With our first week’s pay we rented a higher order of motel accommodation, one with two rooms for sleeping and a tiny kitchen, and opened bank accounts to hold the money that we knew would soon be flowing in.  When we were not working we were looking for the apartment that we would rent to move us further towards respectability.  And then this rosy picture began to fade.  I do not know if there was a prejudice against California workers or if our work was just not up to Colorado standards (we did OK everywhere else, but who knows?), but the jobs dropped off and we began to go through the money that we had already made.  Whatever the cause, we had no interest in either starving or begging so we threw our tools into our vehicles once again and drove back to northern California where my old partner had promised us work.  And that is how I ended up back in my old home town hanging drywall all day and trying to drink all of the beer in Sonoma county; a combination I had tried before and which had contributed to the end of my marriage.

Wes and I were in Santa Rosa for three months and it was in that time that we were sent to do a remodel job at a residence in the semi-rural area north of the city.  We pulled into the driveway and got out to knock on the door and introduce ourselves.  Both husand and wife were at home and took us to see where the work needed to be done.  We walked around the back of the house to where a garage and porch were being enclosed and converted to living space.  Wes and I took stock of the scene and quickly noted an adequate supply of drywall and nails, a mix of new wood and old, the latter of which would be rock hard and certain to bend many nails, and in a cage directly behind the project – a fujll grown male African lion!

I have known people who keep exotic pets; rats, snakes, tarantulas, etc.  I tended to not spend much time in the houses of those people.  Lions, however, are of a different order of magnitude.  One reads or sees reports in the news of people who keep pythons and alligators and apes and other such creatures.  Many times we learn of these people when a large snake or alligator escapes or is released when it gets too large to feed or safely live with, or when a chimpanzee ripps somebody’s face off. The point is, these exotic creatures oftentimes end up being more problem than pet.  What was this homeowner thinking when he acquired a male African lion for a pet?  I can only guess, but I can tell you the story of that lion as far as it touches me.

Wes and I thought and spoke about that lion all day, and at lunch we sat out by the lion’s cage.  All the time that I sat there eating my deviled ham sandwiches and chips that tawny, straw-colored beast sat silently on his side of the bars looking at me in the same way that I looked at my sandwich.  That broad feline nose measuring six or seven inches across, the great shaggy mane that made me think so much of Tina Turner, the long sharp teeth all made me nervous as we sat just a little further than a paw’s reach away.

The most unsettling feature however was the eyes.  They did not blink, at least not when I was watching.  Measuring probably an inch and a half in visible diameter and amber-colored just like the lion’s coat, those eyes just stared at me impassively, communicating to me the message that I did not have a history, I did not have a personality, I did not have hopes or dreams.  I did not work as a drywall hanger or have a mother or father.  To that lion the totality of my existence could be summed up in one word:  Dinner.

This did not appear to be the case with the lion’s owner.  This mad man entered the cage and fed and then roughhoused with the lion the way that I would play with my pet cat.  The lion did not make any kind of threatening move towards its owner, and that was a very dangerous thing for Wes and me.  Both of us enjoy telling a story, and waving before us the possibility of being able to tell the story of standing in a cage with a lion was like throwing red meat to, well, a lion.  Wes and I both declared early on that we intended to do this very thing.

As the day wound down and we finished our part of the construction job the time came to poop or get off of the pot.  Wes and I stored our tools in my truck and returned to stand outside of the cage, working up the courage – or stupidity – to take our step inside the cage.  The owner went in again to stand next to his lion and told us we could come in one at a atime.  I looked into those eyes again and they had not changed; still without passion, without soul, without pity.  I then looked up at the eyes of the owner.  They were not as malevolent as those of the lion, but they did nook a little bit demented.  Hell, little bit?  The guy was standing in a cage next to a lion!  I had seen “Psycho”.  I had read “The Island of Doctor Moreau”.  I had no guarantee that the owner was any less dangerous than the lion.

I signaled my decision to decline the offer to make myself a snack for Leo and the torch was passed to Wes.  Wes seemed to be even more drawn to the magnet of being able to tell this story than I was and I could see him wavering before the barred door.  Wes wanted to go in so bad he could taste it but some vestige of common sense, and perhaps the image of my own crazy self not taking the lunge, worked on him to the point that he declined the offer as well.

But Wes couldn’t quite leave it completely alone.  The lion hadn’t actually done anything aggressive; no roars, no growls, no swats with those huge paws.  Maybe it would be safe to reach in and touch the lion.  Who do you know that can say that they’ve done that?  Wes extended his hand slowly, aiming to touch the long hair of the lion’s mane and the lion, in a move that looked like the intersection between a cobra and silk, effortlessly, efficiently, and very quickly flicked his head to the side and took a nip at Wes’ finger.

Wes howled and jumped back, holding a hand which now sported a finger missing a chunk of meat.  A string of ungentlemanly swear words issued forth in front of the owner’s wife, but I suspected she had heard them before.  The owner emerged from the cage expressing sympathy but there seemed to be a ghost of a smile playing at the corners of his lips.  A bandage was offered but I kepty some in our first aid kit and we elected to put an exclamation point at the end of this particular sentence, and gert as far away from that lion as we could just as quickly as we could.