A Poem of Thomas Merton for his Brother

This poem was written by Merton in memory of his brother who died in WW II.

 

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep

My eyes are flowers for your tomb;

And if I cannot eat my bread,

My fasts shall live like willows where you died.

If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,

My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

 

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,

Lies your poor body, lost and dead?

And in what landscape of disaster

Has your unhappy spirit lost it’s road?

 

Come, in my labor find a resting place

And in my sorrows lay your head,

Or rather take my life and blood

And buy yourself a better bed-

Or take my breath and take my death

And buy yourself a better rest.

 

When all the men of war are shot

And flags have fallen into dust,

Your cross and mine shall tell men still

Christ died on each, for both of us.

 

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,

And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring.

The money of Whose tears shall fall

Into your weak and friendless hand,

And buy you back to your own land.

The silence of Whose tears shall fall

Like bells upon your alien tomb.

Hear them and come; they call you home.

 

Thomas Merton wrote this poem for his brother who died when his bomber crashed into the North Sea in 1943.  As I read it I cried for the fathers of two of my best friends who died in WW II, the brother of two of my friends who died in Viet Nam, and the Husband of a friend and the son of another who died in Iraq.  War sucks.  I do not pretend to know if war is ever justified or not, but even if fully justified, war still sucks.  I thought that this would a good poem to share as we think about involvement in another war in Syria.

Hosea Rock Opera Song #12

Gomer is lost in her old life, deeper than she ever thought that she could be and with no means of escape.  She reflects on her life with Hosea and how she looked down on it as boring.  Now she would have it back on any terms but knows that that’s not possible.

I’ve been laying in this room, I’ve been waiting for the knock all night.  Only turned a couple tricks, and I just don’t care enough to fight.  My man said he would send me work and in the room I’m ‘sposed to stay.  But when I don’t make the money it’s still out of my hide I have to pay.  I’ve got this booze and a nice sized stash of dope.  Maybe I’ll just do it all ’cause I’m all out of hope.  What’s the use?  I can’t get lose.  To live or die, is about all I got to choose.

I thought that I’d find freedom, but chains are all I got, a ticket on a train to hell is what I really bought.  The men I thought were lovers are just predators at best, now straw, syringe and bottle are where I can find my rest.  This life that I am living, that is, if it can be called life, points out to me how sweet it was to be Hosea’s wife.  And all the things I once called boring, dull and drudgery, I’d now do as a slave to him if he’d put up with me.  I’d crawl back like a snake if only he’d put up with me.

I wonder how Jezreel’s doing on the baseball field, I wonder if Lo grew into that dress.  I wonder if they behave when Hosea is at work, I wonder if they’re picking up their mess.  Funny how those little things meant little once to me, I walked away without a second thought.  I used to be the crown jewel of an honest husband’s heart, but now I’m just an object to be bought.  Tell me please o tell me how I ever could go back, tell me how I’ll leave this stinking room.  But wait, don’t tell me anything I know how I shall leave, when someone makes the garbage dump my tomb.  I’ll be thrown in gehenna for my tomb.

Someone’s knocking on the door, I don’t know if I should be glad or not.  I probably can’t fake it cause energy’s one thing I ain’t got.  He’s coming over to the light, I’m not believing what I see.  Hosea’s by the bed and he’s sayin’ “it’s time that you come with me”.  ” I can’t” I tell Hosea, “my pimp said I can’t give him the slip.”  “Your pimp got paid his money, and he’s using some to stitch his lip”.  “How could you ever take me back and love me when all I should do is burn?”  “You never lost my love babe, there’s nothing for you to earn.  You never lost my love babe, there’s nothing for you to earn.”

Hosea Rock Opera Song #11

Hosea has set out in earnest to find Gomer and bring her home.  He has forgotten what dank corner of town he found her in at first but he feels like he’s getting close.  You, dear reader, may choose whatever tune you wish for this; I will write the music later.

I’ve been up and down the streets all night, lookin’ in the holes and the small dark corners.  Open’n windows and a-turnin’ on lights.   Started cold as ice but now I know I’m gettin’ warmer. It’s a matter of time before I get her in my sights.  What makes it better is I don’t have to drown, in the sea where she’s been forced to swim.  All I have to do is find her pimp, and maybe take with me a piece of him.

And then you’ll see me running down the pavement; then you’ll see me beating down the door.  Then you’ll hear me shouting from the roof tops, no one ever loved you any more.  Then you’ll know that my love is everlasting, that it never was a thing that you could choose. My love for you is a from the first to the last thing and it’s a love that you will never lose.

This place is looking pretty damn familiar, I know that I have been this way before.  the lights the music, the despair and the laughter, I know who’s on the other side of that door.  I see the pimp sitting over with his friends, I know his swagger and his twisted grin. I guess I’m going to have to go and do some business, I hope I leave here without choking him.  You say she owes you well fool, her’s your money, don’t spend it all in one place.  Is that a bug crawling across your cheek (BAM) I hope that don’t leave a mark on your face.

And soon you’ll see me running down the pavement; then you’ll see me beating down the door.  Then you’ll hear me shouting from the roof tops, no one ever loved you any more.  Then you’ll know that my love is everlasting, that it never was a thing that you could choose.  My love for you is a from the first to the last thing, and it’s a love that you will never lose.

Here’s the door to where he said she is, I want to lift her up out of this gutter.  I want to go in looking strong and brave, I hope I don’t start to shake and stutter.  What if she says she won’t come home with me, what will I do then?  What if she says that she’s too far gone, a victim of her sin?  If I keep trying to control all the angles I think that i’ll probably go berserk, so I’ll just go in there with only my love, and then let the Lord do the real work.

Then you’ll see me running down the pavement; then you’ll see me beating down the door.  Then you’ll hear me shouting from the roof tops, no one ever loved you any more.  Then you’ll know that my love is everlasting, that it never was a thing that you could choose.  My love for you is a from the first to the last thing, and it’s a love that you will never lose.

Hosea Rock Opera Song #10

Gomer has left Hosea to re-experience the gaiety of her old life but finds that it is not as exciting and fun as it once was.  The brash young girl is a little older now and has a more broad experience of life.  The life to which she has returned has proven to be a trap from which she cannot escape.  To dull the pain of daily multiple sexual episodes she now depends upon drugs and alcohol, which her pimp provides at costs which keep her in a status of servitude.  She can never earn enough to be free of her ‘main man’ by her own efforts.  This song is sung in the more bluesy Janice Joplin style.

Sittin’ on this mattress, wonderin’ who’ll come in next.  Yeah I’m sittin’ on this mattress baby, wonderin’ who’s gonna come in next.  One john just looks like another one now, maybe this one will be quick, that’s the best.

This isn’t how I thought it would be, I remembered music, and good times.  This just isn’t how I thought it would be, nah nah nah nah, I remembered music and good times.  Now the only way I can do this, is with cocaine, and with junk, and with red wine.

And now I never, never never planned on this, this was not the way it’s supposed to be.  No there ain’t nobody got any time for this, I’m in hell and I don’t know how to be free.  But Hosea wouldn’t want to touch me now, so it’s my main man I got to please.

Did I say man? Men would be more like it now for me.  This has nothin’ to do with love, I’m nothin’ but a bag of guts that they use for a moment, then they’re tired of me.  I’m thinking only death, only death will ever be able to set me free.

And now I never, never never planned on this, this was not the way it’s supposed to be.  No there ain’t nobody got any time for this, I’m in hell and I don’t know how to be free.  But Hosea wouldn’t want to touch me now, so it’s my main man I have to please.

Here I sit on this mattress, I hear someone at the door.  Thank God it’s just a young kid, he’ll be quick and I’ll see him no more.  I don’t believe how I used to think that this was good, even once was free, but I left it to be a whore. I don’t know about third or fourth chances, but I don’t want to serve this master anymore.

Money, Murder and Merton

I have recently read two stories which go in widely diverging paths but which have led me unexpectedly to a single destination.  I write that sentence with some trepidation however because it seems to suggest, by the use of the word ‘destination’, that I have arrived at a conclusion or a program that I can in turn share with the world and wait impatiently for the inevitable adulation which must necessarily follow. Nothing of the sort has occurred.  Instead, my destination is a tangle of observations, possible paths, hints and guesses which come together to form a tendency of thought and nothing more.  I will depend on people smarter and better organized than myself to help me refine these thoughts into a more coherent form.

One of these stories is a recent, mindless, tragic event in which three teenage boys from Oklahoma (alright, ‘young men’ if you must, but to me still boys) who were bored one day and decided to go and kill someone.  Their victim turned out to be a real young man who was jogging down a road.  There was no connection between these individuals that I know of; the teens needed a target and the jogger provided one.  As a result of good police work these teens were stopped before they could kill more, which is what they intended to do.  The other story is an autobiography of a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  In his book he comments on capitalism, and while he is not accurate if the point of his statement is that capitalism is innately evil, I believe that his analysis of capitalism within the philosophical framework of a mechanistic and materialistic worldview is true and has a lot to say, in a roundabout way about the horrible event in Oklahoma.

Before I launch into my thoughts I would like to clarify some terminology.  I hate it when really smart people write as if only other really smart people are going to read their work, and then when a working class schmo like myself comes along I have to hope that I can figure out what the meaning of their words is by the context in which they are used.  I usually fail miserably in that task.  By ‘mechanistic’ I mean a view that the universe and everything in it is like a machine; it runs by perfectly logical rules without any input from supernatural sources and if science could learn perfectly the rules of the machine then science could perfectly predict events and eventually perfectly predetermine outcomes.

By ‘materialistic’ I mean that there is only ethically neutral matter in the universe.  We are only matter ourselves and we struggle to obtain and protect other bits of matter.  Since matter is ethically neutral there are no confusing values to guide individuals in their behavior.  The notion of ‘good’, if it arises at all, is of infinitely less importance than the notion of ‘mine’.  If this bit of matter will increase my happiness, or even if I only think that it will increase my happiness, then I must have it.  And that, I suppose, you may call ‘good’ if you wish.  For an example, there is no intrinsic notion of a rock being good because it is cold and hard and another rock being bad because it is hot and just was ejected from a volcano.  A rock is a rock; you may describe it’s physical features but you cannot confer upon it greater intrinsic value because it is hot of cold.  In the same manner, in a truly materialistic world one cannot ascribe to the action of an individual the value of good if he stops his car to allow a mother pushing a stroller to cross the street and bad if he speeds up so that he can hit them both (with due respect to Sartre, which in my case means no respect at all).  If either act made the driver feel good who, in a materialistic world, is to judge his act as being right or wrong?  Of course the family of the deceased mother and child might find that they gain pleasure by tearing the driver limb from limb and who am I to pass judgement upon their action?  My point is that with this worldview no innate value is placed on life or things or abstractions such as good, honor, justice, mercy, and the like.

With that in mind I will quote Thomas Merton from his autobiography:  “It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of [worldliness].  And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money.  We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest”.

Merton had no idea that his observations on capitalism would be applied to a case like the murder in Oklahoma I think, but the application can be made.  The teenage boys have grown up in a culture which truly strives to “excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension…” and “to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible…”.  In the absence of a culture which teaches definitively that individuals have worth which is established by authority higher than ourselves and that the violation of the values established from above us will result in severe personal loss on an eternal scale, these boys acted in a rational manner; they were bored, killing people on video games was no longer stimulating enough, and the next level was to kill something or someone in real life.

So how are these boys and capitalism to be connected?  What on Earth do three bored juvenile murderers and an economic system have to do with each other?  In a material sense, other than the boys being small-time consumers and the gigantic edifice that is international capitalism supplying the microscopic amount of goods that the boys consumed, nothing.  In the realm of ethics however, everything.  In the absence of an ethical framework to guide behavior that is more than a vague list of suggestions which might be followed if one feels so inclined on any particular day, the behavior of the boys and a businesswoman and everyone else is predictable and not subject to condemnation.

In our society we have some do’s and some don’ts, but we have no clearly explained moral reason for why they should be followed.  We are told not to use certain words but we are not taught why we should not use them.  “They will hurt someone’s feelings” you say.  “So what” I reply.  “It is demeaning and dehumanizing” you add.  Again I reply “so what”?  “You cannot paw at the body of a coworker who does not desire your attention”.  Why not?  The answer to all of these and other such questions is that you may be sued, fired or worse, forced to take sensitivity training.

Social rules are enforced only by the coercive potential violence of the state.  So what”  You will be punished if you do.  Why not?  You will lose your job and be sued for all you are worth.  But nowhere does society seem to be willing to say “do not do that because there is a supreme entity which has made all things, including you, and will hold you accountable for your actions.  I wish to point out that this picture is not a very accurate representation of the judeo-christian God but a more generic concept of deity.  Still it will suffice to represent a yardstick, a balancing scale external to our rational little rules made up in our own rational little minds to try to make people be nice.

Because people still won’t be nice.  In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s several television programs in America portrayed ideal families.  As a child growing up in those years I was aware that almost none of the kids I knew lived in homes like the Cleavers’ in “Leave It To Beaver”.  Probably the few who did seem to live in such homes actually lived in homes where their family dysfunction was just better hidden.  Still, we knew that families were SUPPOSED to be like that.  Love, respect, duty, justice were all supposed to reign in the home.  Love was the guiding principle in these homes and everybody tried in the end to do good and be reconciled with others in the family.

We knew that this was just a model and that there was a wide range of variation within the context of the greater society, but the model reflected function rather than dysfunction and for a while we bought into it.  Later, as cynicism became a dominant theme of society we opted to throw that model out, rather than to encourage husbands, wives and children to aspire to emulate the model with their own personal variations to the best of their ability.  Since we were not living up to something like the ideal, let’s just chuck the ideal out the window and do our own thing, be the captain of our own ship, make ourselves happy any way that we can.  We know how the unrestrained pursuit of happiness as a supreme goal has turned out:  The happiness of the three boys in Oklahoma consisted of putting at least one .22 caliber slug through the back of a runner whom they probably had never laid eyes upon before that sad day.

And where does capitalism fit into this?  Basically the problem is the same.  The two competing economic models are capitalism and socialism, and socialism has proven to have the same negative social drawbacks as capitalism plus the additional negative that it doesn’t work.  Capitalism as an economic system clearly does work but where it fails is in exactly the same place where society failed in the lives of the four victims in Oklahoma (yes, the boys are victims too; they will pay for their poor but materialistically rational choice by spending the rest of their lives in jail, where they unfortunately belong).  A capitalism which is not restrained by a concept that people are more than economic statistics and that the Earth is more than a pool of raw resources is a beast that devours it’s own children and then defecates in it’s own nest.

An otherwise good man or woman may live in a comfortable home in the developed world and make a living producing or selling goods which were made by impoverished or even slave labor in another country, who’s factories pour their effluent into the waterways of that country, and which do nothing towards improving the lives or economies of those countries.  A singer or actress may begin a line of cosmetics because her glamour attracts followers who wish to be like her, an how many animals are mutilated and killed as this product is tested?  The list of such miscarriages goes on and on.

The problem is not capitalism itself; the problem is capitalism without supernatural values from an absolute, supreme Source, which demands that the lives of laborers, retail employees and the environment be considered in the economy of businesses.  So many times I have read of a capitalist who says, sincerely I believe, “I would love to not do _____, but my competition does it.  I will go out of business if I don’t do it too”.  This is a place where government could do good if government were guided by the same external Source of values.  Realistic regulation of labor and environmental practices by governing agents untouched by bribes, either made in the back room or through campaign contributions should be something that an ethical government answerable to a deity could do.  Extending those regulations to factories and capitalists who work overseas but sell their products in our country would be a nice addition to that formula.

Ultimately we suffer from a lack of any good material reason why we shouldn’t exploit labor, pollute our environment, or murder random joggers.  The state, which has represented itself as all the religion that we need, will not tolerate competition from real religion.  The priests of that religion; university administrations and faculty, the entertainment industry and the machinery of government among many others advance their empty and destructive faith while hampering the challenge of any competition.  The system will not reform the system. The lot then falls to the Christian who fulfills the mission of Jesus Christ as it is given in the Bible; he is to love the Lord his God and her neighbor as herself.  Christians must apply themselves to the society in which they live rather than draw back from it to avoid being polluted by it.  Government, business, education law, entertainment, must all be infused with Christians who do not compromise their faith but who do not seek positions of authority within those fields in order to impose values from the top down simply because they have their hands on the controls of the coercive power of the state.  In other words love, not power, must win.

None of what I have written is original, and it has mostly been written better by somebody else.  The chance reading of the Merton quote just a few days after the murder in Oklahoma caused me to see a connection which I believed fit to share.  I hope that I have made some sense and will spur some further positive thought.  Christians must enter into the service of society in these and myriad other professions, bringing that supreme ethic into how they perform their duties.  The goal would be to become an ethical leaven which suffuses society from within rather than a Christian movement which seeks to mold society by seizing the controls of power.  But as I said in the beginning, I offer no roadmaps, other than that offered in the Gospels and by St. Paul.  We must find our own way in the desert, guided by the Holy Spirit.

If I have encouraged one person to think of the spiritual emptiness of our culture and to then initiate one act to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into this sick and hurting world I will consider that to be a wonderful thing and itself a gift to me from God.

Hosea Rock Opera Song # 9

Hosea is bitten by the blues.  He is sitting on a sofa in front of a TV set with HGTV on and he’s not watching it, as would be natural.  God suddenly materializes in an easy chair at the end of the sofa.  He is sipping an IPA and smoking a good Havana, and He points His finger at the TV set and it turns into a pillar of salt.  Hosea comes out of his reverie and God, who sounds a lot like a hip-hop Bob Dylan sings this song.

Hey! You! sittin’ on the sofa with a big droopy face, couldn’t drop it any lower.  Whatcha gonna do, gonna wallow in the blue thinking that your job is through, well I’m hardly through with you.

Your woman done lef’ you well I told you that would happen, so you sittin’ on the sofa with your long face hangin’ while your baby’s on the streets makin’ money with her thang’n now it’s time to get up, get up on your feet, put leather on the street, better turn up the heat.  I never gave you the option to lay down in defeat.

So what are you waiting for?  What are you waiting for?  The woman that you love is in a world of hurt so you better go out through the door.  You started by obeying rules, but now she’s joined you at your very core, so get back in the game, your bride is lying in pain, Hosea what’re you waiting for?

From the beginnin’ you people been sinnin’ been thinkin’ that you’re winnin’ while my patience was thinnin’, but I never stopped lovin’ you; never gave up on you, even when you did what I told you you should never do. A downside to being God is my pain is perfect and the pain you’ve been given’ me would probably be killing me except for the fact that I can’t die.

So up on your feet, do you need an invitation, I be tired of waitin’ do you need some motivatin’, I could light a fire if that’s what you desire but then you’d be a bleedin’ and you’d still have to go so go, fool, finish that task that’s been given to you now, go, fool, before I start to gettin’ annoyed with you.  I told you that I love you but my anger is risin’ send a message to the people there’ll be chastisin’ ‘less they come to their senses start to mend a few fences or there’ll be flinchin’ and winces and it won’t be a thing that they haven’t got commin’ but they actin’ pretty dumb’n my best hope is that the fools’ll take a message from you.

So what are you waiting for?  What are you waiting for?   The woman you love is in a world of hurt so you better go out through the door.  You started by obeying rules, but now she’s joined you at your very core, so get back in the game, your bride is lying in pain Hosea what’re you waiting for?

So go on out the door but be assured I am with you I would never send you out ‘less I would be there for you.  The bride I made for you is out there waitin’ and her life she’s hatin’ she’s been self-castigatin’ so Hosea go out, ‘cuz your wife needs redeeming and if it’s been seemin’ that you’re doing all the work, just remember that before the story’s all over I’ll be doing everything that I’ve asked of you and even more.

So what are you waiting for?  what are you waiting for?  the woman you need is in a world of hurt so you better go out through the door.  You started by obeying rules but now she’s joined you at your very core, so get back in the game, your bride is lying in pain, Hosea, what’re you waiting for?

Iraq is Back

I have just read a most interesting bit of news on the computer.  The Associated Press reports that the Iraqi government is interested in getting some American assistance it it’s struggle with al Qaeda in Iraq.  Violence in Iraq has been escalating since the American military left in 2011 and has returned to the levels of the bad old days at the height of the U.S. military era in Iraq.  The government realizes that their resources are not adequate to squash the al Qaeda insurgency and that the last time that violence in Iraq was under control was when the American forces and their intelligence and advisor resources were available to help the Iraqi military and police.  This request, if it is truly as it was reported in the newspaper, represents a domestic and foreign policy nightmare for President Obama.

Barack Obama ran his first presidential campaign on promises to be the opposite of George W. Bush in every way.  Departing Iraq, closing Guantanamo Bay, and focusing on victory in Afghanistan were prominent features of that campaign.  Shortly after the election President Obama made a speech in Cairo in which he reached out to Muslims, which in itself is not a bad thing, and he embraced the “Arab Spring” early in the game.  We now see a new dynamic all across that region.  U.N. (read ‘mostly American’) troops are set to begin leaving Afghanistan and everyone on the planet knows that it will return to the status of a Taliban-run haven for international terrorists and a place of oppression of women on a scale that makes my skin crawl.  Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is now governed by islamists, and moderate politicians there tend to get shot.  Libya is a nightmare, and the most inept leadership and bureaucratic non-cooperation since Jimmy Carter resulted in a murdered ambassador and several other dead embassy employees.  Egypt is in near meltdown, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula projects terror from Yemen in multiple directions, and the civil war in Syria now features prominently al Qaeda who are jockeying for primacy in that movement and are cooperating with Iraqi al Qaeda to foment terror and unrest throughout both countries.

The President has a horrible mess to deal with.  He is not stupid, and knows that a Middle East in flames is not good for the U.S. or the rest of the world.  President Obama also knows that his own support base would go ballistic if he even considered reintroducing military personnel into Iraq, and that would distract and possibly derail his agenda for the rest of his presidency.  At the same time it would not look well in the president’s presidential history to see Iraq dissolve with the Kurds breaking free, the largely Shi’a east and south joining Iran, and the Sunni areas becoming a lawless zone much like Somalia or what Afghanistan is poised to return to.

I wonder if President Obama is up to this challenge?  I would wonder this about any president.  If there is one clear, safe policy path here I don’t see it.  A reintroduction of advisors and intelligence services would be the lowest impact with the highest reward from the American perspective, but when advisors begin to get killed by al Qaeda moles how long will the support base of the president keep silent?  And when the whole Middle East goes up in flames the President will eventually be graded poorly for it’s having happened on his watch regardless of what he could or could not do about it.

I am glad that I do not hold that position, and I feel for the man who does.  As the new presidential cycle begins after the fall elections I encourage everyone to evaluate carefully the candidates.  Anyone who really, really wants that job is probably, by definition, unfit for it.

Working like a burro, or a tale of growing up.

Most young men feel at some time in their lives that they must prove themselves; step out in their own direction and establish who they are, in their own minds if not necessarily in the minds of others.  Many young men of my age did so by joining the military during the Vietnam War and many others did so by opposing the war and the draft and possibly fleeing to Canada.  I joined the Army because I was bored and I volunteered for Vietnam because it was the only certain transfer off of my fort in Texas.  I didn’t like Texas.  Still, I was the same bubble-headed nineteen year old beach kid in ‘Nam that I was in Texas or back home in San Diego.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I found the image that I wanted to pour myself into.

My brother became a drywall hanger, or sheetrocker, or just rocker, while I was in my third year of college, and he took to it like a duck to water.  By the time that I came home for summer after my junior year Fred was an accomplished sheetrocker, or at least he was in my eyes, and he offered to turn me into a money-making drywall machine if I wanted to give it a try.  I wanted nothing more, so in very short order I was ready to begin my new and exciting life as a drywall hanger.

First a little background on drywall and drywallers.  Drywall is basically gypsum pressed between two sheets of paper into four by eight, four by twelve, and in those days four by fourteen foot sheets of varying thicknesses between one quarter and five eighths of an inch.  The sheets come in bundles of two held together by thick strips of paper on each end.  The most important thing to know about drywall is that it is heavy.  I never really knew what a sheet weighed, but when you nailed up fifty or so sheets in a day you had done some macho work, and we were proud of the tonnage that we threw around day after day.  We called ourselves ‘burros’, and there was more than a little truth in that.

Much more important to us than the physical prowess required to do our work was the image that we liked to project on a construction site.  We were the cowboys; the randy bunch that everyone thought of as a little bit crazy.  We were who their parents taught them not to grow up and be, but they wished they could be anyway.  We were the hippies, the beatniks, the guys working in a country and western world who listened to Soul Makossa and Quicksilver Messenger Service.  When the carpenters, plumbers and roofers were sitting in their trucks drinking coffee before work started in the morning we drywallers were sitting on a stack of bundles drinking Irish Coffee, and the others knew it.  This was exactly the image that I wanted and I took to it immediately.

My first few weeks were a trial, as I had to learn from the beginning how to carry a sheet, walk up on an aluminum horse and hold my end of the sheet up against the ceiling with my head while I hammered in nails upside down with a kind of hammer/axe unique to drywall.  The hammer head part of that tool has a face of small teeth designed to make a waffle-like dimple in the sheetrock over the nails so that the taping compound, or mud, that was spread over it to hide the nail heads would have a rough surface to adhere to.  After a month of missing the nails and squashing my thumb with that axe my poor digit was tenderized like a piece of country fried steak.  On one instance I stroked that inflamed thumb with home run power and let out a howl and a curse that caused our foreman, a grizzled veteran and  somewhat crazy individual who was standing right behind me to jump a good foot into the air.  He turned around and cursed me for being a useless rookie and left the house completely unable to contain his laughter.  Pain and all, it felt good to fit in.

Getting to work on that job was my first experience with union corruption.  I am not saying that all unions are corrupt or that we would be better off without them.  I am only saying that getting to work on that job was my first experience with union corruption.Most of the big tract projects in Southern California were union jobs and one had to be able to produce a union card to insure that one wouldn’t be thrown off the job (literally) and the company fined if a union agent came checking for ‘rats’.  This card was supposed to be obtained after seven years of apprenticeship and the taking of many tests.  In reality this card was obtained one day when my brother and I drove about a hundred miles north to Riverside County where we found a union hall in a semi rural area and I bought my journeyman card fair and square.  This was the place where my brother bought his, so he knew the drill.  After that I was free and clear to work any union job and, as long as I was paying dues, nobody cared how I came by my card.

Once you were in you were in, and the pranks could be creative and even dangerous.  Early on I was sent for a ‘rock stretcher’.  I doubted immediately that there was any such thing, but as I went from house to house on the construction site each team of rockers would tell me it was in the next house up the street.  When I got to the last house they told me it was back in the first house.  I was cleanly taken in by the skill with which they didn’t miss a beat as they sent me further along on my personal snipe hunt.

On another occasion a serious prankster, Charlie N________ (I love doing the blank line last name thing, it makes me feel like a Russian writer) sneaked into Andy’s unit and drove a couple of sixteen penny nails into his stack.  The unsuspecting Andy came in and attempted to lift the first sheet which, needless to say, went nowhere.  The effort cost Andy a few fingernails and left him simmering, looking for paybacks.  That opportunity came soon enough.  One afternoon Charlie unstrapped his tool belt and went into the porta potty.  This unstrapping of the tool belt was a clear sign that Charlie had in mind more than light work in the little green structure and as soon as Andy was certain that Charlie was seated upon the throne Andy threw up a ladder behind the porta potty, climbed up and dropped a lit cherry bomb down the vent pipe.  In addition to scarring the crap out of Charlie when the bomb went off, the resulting explosion caused an eruption of the evil contents of the holding tank to paint Charlie’s exposed backside.  Andy’s revenge was complete.  Charlie cleaned up as best he could, chucked his tools in the back of his truck, and retired from the site for the rest of the day.  I could go on and on about such shenanigans but I’m certain that you get the picture; we were a rank crowd who exulted in our rankness.

After a few years of this life I began to grow up and reassess my career choice.  At one point I realized that standing on my aluminum horse which was itself placed on two two-by-twelve boards laid across the safety rails of the third of three stages of scaffolding in an open stairwell with steel reinforcing bars protruding out of the concrete floor was not a great recipe for longevity.  Being a gypsy and wandering around the western states was also fun, but that too soon lost it’s charm.  Finally, at the age of twenty nine, the constant pain that I was feeling in my hip joint convinced me that it was time to find another way to make a living.  One day, after hanging eight hours with a slight cold and feeling miserable all day I took my belt off and announced to my partner that I was through.  Jeff knew me well enough to suspect that I was serious but he still came by my place the next morning at 6:30.  I had a pot of coffee ready and we sat at my table for a while, and then Jeff shook my hand and wished me luck.  Jeff must have had some kind of magic, because luck is what I have had until this day.

I don’t regret one day of my sheetrock experience.  As a rookie and then a veteran, as part owner of two companies, and as a guy who learned how to make a living with the sweat of my brow and the bending of my back (two occupations which I now respect but dislike engaging in), I gained much by the experience.  I also learned to use a porta potty with only the greatest of care.

Hosea Rock Opera Song #8: Bedtime Story Blues

After stepping out on Hosea even while pregnant with child number three (not Hosea’s at that) Gomer finally returns to the life of a whore.  The point of this story as given to us in the Book of Hosea is that Israel, and us by extension, prefer the life of a whore to the life of a bride of a faithful husband.  Gomer has done nothing that all of us don’t do, and Hosea is grieved by Gomer’s unfaithfulness every bit as much as God is grieved by our own.  Well, maybe not quite as much, but it still hurts deeply.  This song is to be sung in a deep blues style; think BB King foundation with strong notes of Leadbelly, Muddy, Clapton, even a little Stevie Ray.  David Bromberg’s “Not Be Your Fool” is also an inspiration.

It’s time for bed children, if you go nice I’ll tell a story to you.  Come on and get up the stairs, kids.  And I’ll tell a story to you.  Don’t listen too close to the words babes, ’cause the story comes to close to me and you.

There once was a man who loved a woman, not too much at first, but then – all the way.God told the man where to find her, but how it would work out He didn’t say.  So the man went out and found a bride, shed seemed to live him for a little while, but then went away.

[When’s your momma coming home?  She said that it would be in just a little while.  She said that she had important business, maybe it would take more than a little while.  But if you knew how much she really loves yu, it couldn’t help but make you smile.]

Now back to the story kids, that man knew all along she would break his heart.  He knew he would always love her truly, but that she just wouldn’t do her part.  So now he’s just waiting for God’s signal, and then he’ll try to give it all a new start.

[Yes, I know you miss your momma.  I want you to know I miss her too.  I set her place at the table I wash and hang her clothes I call out her name at night!  God in heaven knows I miss her too.  Some day God in His glory will bring her home to us, till then wait and hope is all we an do.]

I’m sorry ’bout this story kids, I’m sorry that your momma’s not here too.  I’m not sorry ’bout the time she was with me, I’m not sorry she gave me the three of you.  I guess we’ll have to go to bed with the blues tonight; tomorrow I’ll tell you ’bout the three bears.

TET

I am not a very big fan of the way that we celebrate the Fourth of July in America. I don’t really believe that a large percentage of our population know much about the details of what they are celebrating; the creation of English colonies on the eastern shores of North America, which colonies revolted against their British masters to create an Enlightment nation-state which at last waged seven years of war to be granted it’s right to exist. Instead, many people view the Fourth as a time solely for barbecue and fireworks. In many parts of the country personal use of fireworks is illegal, but in my corner of the Pacific Northwest fireworks are easy to come by and only very loosely regulated. And that is why my neighborhood reminds me a little of the Tet Offensive on that night and on New Year’s Eve.

“Tet Offensive” is a term which is little spoken of these days, and many of my younger friends have no idea what the Tet Offensive was. Even amongst older folk the name of Tet only rings a bell with the guys who were in the military then or with that body of political activists who were very much aware of things concerning the war in Vietnam.

A little background is necessary then to understand this story. There is a long tradition of armies at war calling truces for the holy days. At Christmas during the American Civil War opposing armies would call a truce and soldiers from each side would share tobacco, coffee, food and sometimes letters to post to relatives living behind the respective lines.  During the first world war an event transpired in which, on the first Christmas Eve, the German, French, and English armies in one sector of the trenches spontaneously laid down their weapons and sang, ate, played soccer and worshipped God together. They were all reprimanded severely for this of course. Many other examples of such truces, official and spontaneous, could be given.

It is therefore not surprising that during the conflict in Vietnam it was arranged that there would be a truce on Christmas for the western soldiers and their allies, and a truce for Tet, a Vietnamese holiday one month later.  How this truce was arranged I have no knowledge, but I do not doubt that the U.S. military and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had contact in some way. This fact was made obvious to me by the collection of California ranch-style houses surrounded by a concertina barbed wire fence and guard posts which clustered just to the rear of my battalion area. I wondered about those very out-of-place houses and asked an MP once what they were for. “Oh, that’s where the senators and congressmen and other bigwigs stay when they come on a ‘fact finding’ tour. Most of the facts that they find are well stocked liquor cabinets and some very obliging company with the mostly female staff.” I believe his story to be true, because during my twenty months at that location I was never aware of a rocket, a mortar bomb, or so much as a spent AK 47 round landing in or near that compound. My guess is that there was some area in communist held parts of Vietnam which never got bombed, napalmed, strafed, or otherwise harassed in return. “The wire” my MP friend told me, “is not to keep the Cong out; it’s to keep you out.” So however the truce arrangements came to be, come to be they did, and we all enjoyed standing down just a little and forgetting for a few hours that we were in a war 12,000 miles from home.

On the eve before Tet most of my entire detachment, which consisted of about twenty five guys, and Headquarters Company which counted to another sixty, came together for a grand unit party. We had a small open trailer, which was usually pulled by a jeep, filled with ice and beer. Close by we had a grill made out of a fifty-five gallon drum cut in half lengthwise with the two ends welded together. Grenade screen, which looked like chicken wire but made of much more substantial metal, was laid over the cut drum. Charcoal was lit in the drum and steak, chicken and burgers were cooked on the grill. All of the meat and beer had been “requisitioned” at the ship terminal which we operated on the Saigon River. A pallet here and a pallet there would never be missed in the river of supplies that flowed through Newport Army Terminal.

The party went well into the night, and you may not be able to envision a pallet of beer but it is a lot, and by the end of the evening it was gone. I had put a pretty good buzz on but wouldn’t say that it was the best buzz that I ever had; the time that my good friend Joe came down to visit via helicopter from the 173rd Airborne claimed that honor. We walked on that occasion to the NCO club and began to drink rum and coke. At the table next to us sat six Australians drinking beer. Joe and I felt an alcohol assisted rush of comradeship with out brothers of the Southern Cross and bought them a round. They returned the favor, but since there were six Aussies they bought us six rounds.  We were not to be outdone so we bought them twelve rounds, and then they bought us…, well, you can see how this thing went. By the end of the evening the Aussies, out of the goodness of their hearts, drove us to my battalion area and poured us out of their jeep within staggering distance of my bunk. That one took more than a day to get over. Anyway, I was just a bit less buzzed than that.

It was probably not three hours after the party ended and we had returned to our bunks that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese introduced us to their way of celebrating a holiday. Rockets and mortar bombs began to rain down all around the perimeter of Long Binh and small arms fire was thick. As usual we hustled into our bunkers and soon our weapons were made available as we fell into trenches to await an assault which, thankfully, never came. By morning we were able to see that the infantry had secured the wire just in front of our perimeter fence and we took a little more relaxed posture. Breakfast was served in the mess hall but we ate in flack jackets and helmets.

After breakfast I was walking back to my ‘hooch’, or aluminum bunkhouse that we had constructed, when I was treated to an experience that I was completely unprepared for. On the other side of Long Binh was the largest ammunition dump in Vietnam. Ammo of all kinds, from M-16 bullets to 175 mm howitzer rounds were stored in huge, partially underground bunkers. The Cong wanted desperately to get into that section of Long Binh and torch as much of that ammo as possible. Wave after wave of attackers hit that wire and finally one guy got through. He shot a lock off of the door and died in a hail of gunfire just after he tossed a satchel charge into the depths of that explosives-filled bunker.

The resulting explosion occurred as I was walking back to my hooch, and as I saw the black cloud begin to rise I stopped and turned to face it. I watched as it grew and before very long it had expanded into something like I had never seen before. I was transfixed, and the only thought that registered in my brain was that the Cong had somehow gotten hold of a nuclear weapon. I had seen eight inch cannon go off and B-52 strikes, but nothing even came close to this. The black cloud boiled and billowed as it grew, with jets of flame erupting through it’s outer surface and ripples of concussion coursing through it as more of the ammo dump blew up.

I was strangely calm as I watch this. I had seen the films of nuclear tests and had been trained in the battlefield realities of a nuclear blast, and so I knew that there wasn’t one stinking thing that I could do, being so close to the detonation. I could only enjoy the spectacle with my last few seconds until the inevitable blast and heat wave turned me into glowing molecules. The thought that it should be instantaneous and painless was some comfort. I stood and watched, stood and watched, stood and watched, and as I saw the cloud grow to about fifteen or twenty percent of the sky and then stop I began to believe that I might survive this thing after all.

The rest of the day contained plenty of activity to keep my attention diverted from the shaking that I experienced once I realized that I would get to live at least a bit longer. No more heavy stuff fell on us and the North Vietnamese, who were dug in on a hill across from my unit, had the infantry and a C-47 gunship to keep their attention directed away from us.  Tet dragged on for several more weeks and was a bloody nightmare for both sides. The war eventually settled back into a more routine grind and fifteen months later I went home. Unlike too many of my brothers I was able to leave that place behind and get on with life. But like all of those guys I still retain very vivid memories of those events, and when it happens that I run into a guy who looks my age wearing a hat or something which indicates his Vietnam Veteran status I will great him, we will ask where we served, and when I mention Long Binh he’ll usually say “were you there when the ammo bunker went up?” It happens all the time.

So when the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve fireworks go off I try not to be a grinch. I remember that these are just people who don’t really know what an explosion is. I pray that they never have to find out.