The ID side of Dreams

I have written previously of my proclivity for vivid dreaming and feel called to return to that topic.  My dreams can be described in many ways; amusing, entertaining, frustrating, depressing and terrifying are only a few descriptions which come readily to mind, and there are others which could apply as well.  I usually lay down at night looking forward to what my personal late show will bring and I am rarely disappointed.  Last night my dream fell into the ‘other’ category however.  I will describe this dream as ‘disturbing’.

But first a few examples.  Perhaps my most vivid dreams in all of my life occurred shortly after I returned home from three years in the Army.  In one dream Godzilla – the Japanese version – was stomping up El Cajon Blvd. in my native city of San Diego.  I was hiding behind a wooden garage which opened into an alley between 47th St. and Euclid Ave, and when the Big Lizard entered my view I stuck my head around the corner of the building to snap a picture with my nice new Pentax camera.  The ‘click’ of the camera gave me away however and the old boy turned in a stately sort of pirouette and launched a blast of his radiation breath my way.  I awoke as the incinerating blast slammed into me.

I arose from that dream a combination of frightened and amused, but the next dream was nothing but fear.  In this dream I was running down a street near the house where I grew up with none other than the devil himself hot on my heels.  At this time in my life it would have been a stretch to label me as even agnostic.  I did not believe in God, the devil, or any other supernatural entities, although reading Carlos Casteneda’s “Don Juan” trilogy made me wish that I could believe in such things.  Be that as it may, Old Scratch was right there breathing down my neck as I fled east on Landis Street.  How I came to have a hatchet in my hand I could not tell you, and what effect a hatchet could have on such an ethereal sprite as Satan is even less clear, but a hatchet I had and I stopped and turned and chucked that hatchet squarely where I thought my enemy (whom I could not see) would be.  The effect of my effort was predictably minimal so I turned and fled again.  This time however I pulled out my trump card; I called on God to save me.

As I wrote earlier, I was far from a believer in anything supernatural in my waking hours and would not become so for many years to come.  I had been exposed to Christian doctrine some years earlier however and certainly a memory of that teaching was stirred up under the stress of the situation.  Or the devil could have been after me and God may have stepped in on my behalf.  Either way I woke up drenched in sweat and I remember the dream vividly to this day.

Many other dreams of vampires, werewolves, dinosaurs and spiders have haunted my nights but it has not been unrelieved fear.  I frequently have the ability to glide in my dreams and sometimes even have the power of flight itself.  Those dreams are my favorites.  The gliding dreams usually involve me running and jumping, with the jumps stretching out for longer and longer distances.  I eventually do come back to Earth however and have to relaunch unless I merge into a dream of independent flight.  Oddly enough I am frequently aware of the fact that I am dreaming when my dream turns to flight and I make sure that I make the most of those occasions, soaring high into the clouds and then swooping down in supersonic dives, then gliding in lazy circles around wooded islands in bluegreen seas.  I genuinely dislike awakening from these dreams.

Another recurring dream stems from a thread of my insecurity which has been a part of my personality all of my life.  In these dreams I am usually doing a job for which I am not well equipped or not properly trained.  As the dream progresses I and everyone around me become increasingly aware of my inadequacies and my ability to earn an income to support myself and my family is placed in doubt.  I hate those dreams and am always relieved to awaken from them.

Many other themes will enter my sleeping head in the dead of night.  Visits with my departed parents or cats which I loved long ago are favorites, as are the simply bizarre episodes of WW II battles and rescues of damsels in distress, or walks down streets which I trod years ago during other chapters of my life.  And I must never neglect my dreams of breathing under water.  The trick seems to be to breath very slowly, and then the water is no problem at all.

But now to my dream last night.  I found myself in a scene that could have been in the American Civil War.  I had a muzzle loading rifle and was creeping around through the bushes looking for an enemy to shoot and trying to not get shot in my turn.   There was little of that going on; I briefly saw a soldier or two but never got a good target to shoot at.  From that point the scene turned in ways that I don’t remember and I found myself faced with civilians, and I knew that my job was to begin shooting them.  I was horrified but began to comply, loading one ball at a time and shooting whomever came before me.  The civilians did not show fear, instead they looked at me with contempt and began to walk unwaveringly towards me.  A pregnant woman, a young man, a boy of probably twelve or thirteen, walked towards me slowly but with unbroken pace as I reloaded and fired again, reloaded and fired again.

I was backing away from my advancing targets, knowing with considerable discomfort that I feared them much more than they seemed to fear me, until I came to a modern, busy street.  After making sure that there were no enemy soldiers in sight I ran up that street to get behind the pursuing crowd of civilians.  I achieved my objective and, after turning a corner, found myself back in my Civil War scene, this time pursued by one visibly angry woman.  I ran up a road which climbed the side of a hill and which was guarded by a large, open gate.  I fired my rifle again as I passed through the gate and out of the barrel of the rifle flowed a stream of what I knew was food.  As soon as I was inside the gate it was slammed shut in front of the angry woman.  The obvious point of this dream segment was that food and the means to sustain life were on one side of the gate and the people on the other side, represented by the angry woman, were part of the enemy being fought and would be left to starve or freeze or die of whatever privation came to take them.  This time I responded with anger myself and glared at a guard who looked at me with an expression which said “I’m only doing my job.”

At this point I awoke and felt my entire body tingling with a most unpleasant sensation.  I lay there for a few minutes but shortly had to get up to walk off the physical effects of the dream.  I took a little water to wash out the bad taste that the dream left in my mouth.  The dream was entirely unprecedented; I have never had such a dream or anything like it before, and I wonder what dark corner of my soul was able to spawn such a hideous scene.  One Jewish Buddhist whom I have recently been reading suggests that dreams will tell you things about yourself.  I hate to think that this dream tells me that I am capable of anything like what I saw in my sleeping head last night.

After having time to think about that dream I am now more aware than ever that the plea of a soldier that “I was only doing my Job” is not a defence for war crimes, and that the concept of total war which developed out of WW II is unsupportable.  But I am still haunted by the fact that it was me committing these horrific acts.  It is one thing to try a Nazi camp guard for atrocities committed against inmates or condemn the fire bombing of Dresden or the cities of Japan, but in this dream I was the camp guard and I was pulling the lever and saying ‘bombs away’.  Like Walter Pidgeon in the 1956 movie “The Forbidden Planet”, is there an ID monster lurking in my own subconscious, ready when summoned to emerge and wreak inhuman havoc in the name of ‘duty’?  Must I be vigilant to be aware of and contain my monstrous alter-self in it’s shadows lest it shows its face in wartime or even circumstances of my everyday life?

This dream will stay with me, I am sure, for as long as I have a memory.  I believe that I will file this one generally under ‘disturbing’, but in a subfolder labelled ‘instructional’.  The lesson I will take away from the dream is to not be too comfortable pointing fingers at others and think that I am morally superior to them.  The same monster that lurks in others and sometimes is given free rein to show its face and wreak its havoc hides in the shadows of my own soul as well.  To ignore that fact is to give the ID monster leverage which it must never have.

Family Reunion

I had some very vivid dreams the other night.  It is not unusual for me to have vivid dreams; I have had them all my life.  More than five decades after the fact I still remember a dream that I once had while I was a child in my elementary school years: It was pouring rain in my dream, which would be an oddity in semi-arid San Diego where I lived, and a big red fire truck with lights flashing and sirens blaring raced down the street, firemen hanging from the back of the truck.  I could not imagine how a fire could rage during a downpour, and so the dream stood out and the memory lingers these many years later.

Now I’m in my sixty-fifth year and my sleep patterns have changed a great deal.  I rarely sleep eight consecutive hours any more; blocks of two and three hours is more likely, and on some occasions that means two or more vivid dreams might inhabit my night bringing entertainment, befuddlement, and sometimes terror.  On a few occasions I have enjoyed all three of those categories, and many others besides.  The night in question was one of those multi-layered dream events, and it’s uniqueness and connectedness makes it stand out even more than my flying, breathing underwater, being machine gunned by Japanese soldiers in WW II and being roasted by Godzilla dreams.  This dream series was of family reunions.

During my first few hours of sleep I dreamed of a reunion with my parents’ families during the period of my childhood.  Such a reunion never took place because my father’s family lived in Georgia and my mother’s in Kentucky.  Even if those families had lived closer to each other there is little likelihood that they would have mingled well; Dad never liked my mom’s family and Mom returned the favor.  In my dream however the two families did inhabit the same big farm house, and the mix was like oil and water.

“How do you like living in California?” asked my aunt Clara (Dad) of my mother.  “George (my dad) would have come back to Georgia if you hadn’t thrown a fit and declared that you would not raise your children on a Georgia farm.  Isn’t Georgia good enough for you?”

“I don’t think Georgia’s the problem as much as some particular Georgians” retorted my uncle Robert (mom) before Mom could answer.  “Sarah (my mom) didn’t feel like being anyone’s servant just for the privilege of growing sweet potatoes in Georgia.  If George would not have been such a stiff necked antisocial they would have both been treated decently in Hazard, but George is so much like you-all that he couldn’t abide decent company.  It’s your inhospitality and his behavior that’s the reason for them living as far away from you as they can get”

“I might point out that they are living as far away from you as they are from us” interjected uncle Raymond (dad).  “George has told us how you like to put on airs when they are up with you northerners (an insult to border-state Kentuckians that could not be missed).  We’ve even heard that you sometimes forget who’s married to whom.”

On it went in that dream until Mom removed herself, my brother and I in a taxi to a motel where she waited until Dad arrived with our car loaded with luggage and supplies, ready to begin our return trip to California where it was far from peaceful, but everything made some kind of sense and I could find familiar places to pursue my own life unmolested by bickering relatives and, when necessary, hide.  I awoke to see that it was only about 11:30 in the evening.  After getting up for a sip of water I snuggled back under my covers and soon drifted off to sleep once again.

This time my dream carried me forward in time to a period of my young adulthood.  I had returned home from the Army, alive after two years at war.  My family had gotten together for a camping trip in the Southern California desert, one of the things that we really did enjoy doing as a family when I was awake.  In this dream it was very different however.  My parents, my brother and I were in this dream but so too was my grandfather, two cousins and one cousin’s wife, and a very good friend of my brother.  We had established a camp with other campers around us and set out to ‘enjoy’ ourselves.

If this dream would have been real I’m certain we would have ended up dead or arrested.  My cousins, brother, his friend and I raced madly across the desert drinking beer and smoking marijuana while doing hill climbs in a volkswagen bus and flushing out a nest of neo nazis who were engaged no doubt in planning some sort of skullduggery.  We lit a raging bonfire out of which I plucked glowing beer cans bare-handed while we chucked chunks of cactus at each other and surrounding campers.  My parents were islands of serenity in the midst of this chaos but our cousin’s wife became extremely friendly with another camper while my grandfather told stories of riding with the KKK in Georgia.  Somehow we managed to finish dinner without being ejected from the campground and I was soon lying on a cot while my father dug for cactus spines buried in my backside with his pocket knife.  My dream began to dissolve and morph into me lying on the bed clutching a pillow as if to steel myself against the pain of Dad removing the spines that were more deeply buried.  It was now 2:45 in the morning.

I arose at this time to relieve my bladder and take another sip of water.  Sometimes in the early morning my dreams begin to get hung up on some insoluble problem such as how can I remove a glowing beer can from my hand while Dad performs minor surgery with his knife.  In such cases I have to arise and do something to reset my brain and clear it of the troubling, constantly repeating dream.  I turned on the computer and checked the news on the BBC World site; Australia continued to burn while the black rhinoceros was declared extinct and a Venezuelan president was given total power by a rubber-stamp legislative assembly which was about as independent as the Roman Senate was in the third century A.D.  This diversion succeeded in effecting the necessary reset and I soon returned to bed, plumping up my pillows and drawing the blankets up close to my chin to keep out the cold air which was flowing in through the window that I prefer to keep open when I sleep.  I daydreamed about some story that I wished someday to write and before long I was once again fast asleep.

As before, my sleep slipped quickly into a dream state and once again I was at a family reunion, but this one was a good deal more somber than the previous two.  I was much older in this dream; my hair speckled with gray and the beard which would never grow as long as I liked was much thinner now.  I was standing with a cluster of family in a beautiful cemetery on the northeast edge of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  My brother and his wife were there, as was my son and a friend of his, a niece and her husband, two nephews and a small gaggle of children.  And Mom.  The children were doing their best to be good but the sunshine and green grass and sweet mountain air of New Mexico made them want to run and play and pick at each other as children universally like to do.  The young adults were softly sniffling, dabbing at their eyes and keeping a restraining hand on their coiled-spring children.  They had all spent many years of their lives with Grandpa and Grandma at their home in the country, learning about knitting and gardening and literature and family.  Each one of this group had offered some memory of their time spent sitting in a swing in the summer listening to Grandpa’s stories, or helping Grandma to remove a tick from one of the cats or one of the kids.

And then there was us old-timers; the silverbacks, the newly crowned heads of the family.  The kind is dead, long live the king!  Only on this occasion it was the queen who had died.  My sister in law was reading from Psalm 23:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  Tears ran down the faces of my brother and I.  In my brother’s hands rested the urn which contained the ashes of our mother who had passed away peacefully at the age of almost 94.  I was lucky enough to get to Albuquerque in time to see Mom before she passed, and we were all surprised when she recognized me.  Mom was not suffering from Alzheimer’s or anything like that, she was just old and tired and her body and mind were saying ‘enough’.  She didn’t recognize me for the next four days that I was there.  A week after I returned home Mom passed away.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”  Each of the younger adults brought forth a small item that connected them with Mom and put them in the square hole which had been dug next to the urn that contained the ashes of our father.  Betty put a knitted tissue holder in first, followed by Jonathan who placed a black and white photo of him holding up a bluegill caught with Grandpa.  Mom had cleaned and cooked that fish, small as it was.  Jeffrey offered up an old, tattered, stuffed bunny he once found on an easter egg hunt; a bunny carefully placed behind a rock and guarded over jealously by Mom to make sure that no other child walked away with that prize.

“Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  My brother leaned over and placed the urn gently among the offerings to her memory.  He lovingly adjusted the urn so that it would remain upright, as Mom had done with us all of her life.  As my brother stood back I stepped forward to place my offering into the little hole; a flask of Dad’s favorite rye whiskey.  It was silly, but I thought of Mom coming to reclaim her position by the side of her husband of sixty years and bringing a libation to help him celebrate the occasion. Dad had been dry for seven years, and I imagined that he would appreciate that touch.

“Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  The cemetery worker waited a respectful few minutes until we were clearly finished with our memorial, and then he began to fill the hole with dirt from the little pile which sat by the gravestone which now contained the names, dates of birth and dates of death of both Mom and Dad.  They didn’t really get on well in life on Earth and I hoped sincerely that they would have a much better time of it in the life that they were living now.  We turned slowly and walked to our cars, the children gleeful over being freed from captivity for the moment and the rest of us relieved that this painful, heartbreaking duty was over.  We were planning to go into Santa Fe for an early dinner at one of the magnificent restaurants that dot that city but at that moment the alarm on the table by my bed went off and I was snatched back to the world in which i live today.  I quickly punched the silencer on the alarm and lay there for a moment thinking about my dream before rising up to go to work.  I turned my head a bit on the pillow and noticed that it was wet, moistened by tears cried in the night as I remembered my last time together on Earth with my father and mother.

I arose and sat on the edge of the bed as I usually do and rubbed at the sleep in my eyes.  This morning, however, my eyes were clear, bathed by the tears which flowed while I had slept and dreamed.  At last I pulled myself erect and made my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and hair, get dressed and be on my way to work.  It was as I splashed cold water on my face that I realized that it was Saturday morning; I had forgotten to disarm the alarm for the weekend.  I was not too annoyed by my mistake however, as I had no desire to relive the pain of my goodbye given to Mom years ago.

I knew that there was little likelihood that I would return to sleep in bed, since the alarm went off at the time that I usually got up and got going.  My body was keyed toward beginning the day’s activities at that time and it would require a trick to shut that process down.  In cases like this I have an ace in the hole.  I took a spare blanket and went to the sofa in the living room.  There, I plugged in an old science fiction video tape containing a movie from the 1950’s, “The Deadly Mantis” it was.  I lay down on the sofa with my eyes closed, listening to the familiar dialogue which took my mind off of the fact that I was awake when I wanted to be asleep, and as usual my stratagem worked.  Within minutes of the opening credits and just before the giant bug had eaten it’s first Eskimo victim I was once again fast asleep.

And for the last time that night I fell to dreaming.  This time I was watching a scene in a hospital room.  Lying in the bed was a thin, frail figure whom I recognized with difficulty to be myself.  The hair which I once wore long and the beard which I could not grow long enough were gone now, wiped off of my head and face by the ravages of a disease with which I had wrestled earnestly but which had, in the end, prevailed.  Near the bed was an assortment of pumps and monitors and a ventilator, but only the monitor was being used now, and that for only the most basic of functions; heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure.  The irregular blip of the EKG was becoming slower and the beep, beep…, beep sounded like an old wind-up clock which was in the process of coming to its last few ticks.

Gathered around the bed was my wife, Gretchen, and children Alex and Naomi.  There was nothing being said; there was nothing left to say.  I knew that my last words had been spoken some time in the previous days, and by the same source of knowledge available to dreamers I knew that my aged brother wished he could be there, but he was not doing well himself and waited at home for the news that he dreaded to hear.  I knew than it wouldn’t be long.  Strangely I felt no dread myself.  I sensed the tiredness of the figure on the bed and that he knew that his race had been run.  It was now time to rest.  Beep…, Beep……., Beep……….,  Beep……………………………………………………….

The three figures standing by the bed slumped visibly, and Naomi began to cry softly.  Alex hugged his mother and whispered a couple of words to her.  She nodded assent to some question and Alex left her to go comfort his sister.  I watched as they all hugged each other and turned to leave the room as a nurse came in to begin the last page of my book.  The curtain across the doorway rustled as they exited the room and I became aware that it was getting darker.  My skin tingled and what I could see of the activity in the room began to spin and blend together into a patchwork of light and dark, animate and inanimate, living and dead.

After what seemed like only a few moments the picture began to clear up and I could see that there was a warm, glorious light that suffused the scene from some unseen source.  There was a small crowd of people who became visible and then recognizable. Dad and Mom stood before me, and they looked like I had never seen them before.  I couldn’t tell you what age they were; age didn’t seem relevant there.  It is sufficient to say that they stood before me with a health and vigor and expressions of joy on their faces like I had never seen anywhere before, much mess on them when they were alive.  ‘Were alive’?  They were now so alive that what preceded had only been dim, unhappy shadows.  Dad hugged me and laughed with happiness.  When he let me go he thanked me for that flask of rye with a chuckle and asked if I had happened to bring another one with me.  He then moved aside so that Mom could once again hug her baby.  One by one old friends from my childhood, from Vietnam, and my later years stepped up to hug me or shake my hand, and even the mob of cats which we had cared for and loved over the years were there to rub my legs and accept scratches behind ears, some of which I had not scratched in over seventy years.

At last one figure approached whom I had never laid eyes upon before but whom I somehow knew as well as any of the others there.  She didn’t have a name because I was never able to give her one.  I never had the chance.  Standing before me was the child who was miscarried during my first marriage.  “Hello Dad” she said.  “I’ve waited so long to meet you, and now I see that the wait was well worth it”.  I instantly loved that person and held her tightly against me as emotion swept over me like a giant wave.  Strangely, I felt like crying with joy but the tears wouldn’t come.  My newly discovered daughter knew what I was feeling and smiled.  “Don’t worry Dad, you’re OK.  Tears don’t happen here.”  We all sat down and began what would be an eternity of fellowship, talking and laughing about things we had lived and done and about anything and nothing at all. I was petting old Tiger while Tiffy Girl curled up in my lap and purred.

I was just reaching out to grasp the hand of one of my uncles when the scene began to fade.  The cushion upon which I reclined slowly became the sofa on which I was sleeping in the living room.  The sun was up and a large crow was cawing raucously on the top of a spruce tree in my neighbor’s yard.  The VHS tape had finished playing the movie, rewound, and was playing again;  the giant bug was now crawling up the side of the Washington Monument.  I continued to lie there and think about where I had just been.  I don’t know where heaven is and I don’t invest too much time trying to figure out who will get there and who will not.  Decisions like that are made far above my pay grade.  I nevertheless lay there on the sofa grateful for what I took to be a visit with people who waited joyously for our real reunion and at the risk of sounding morbid, I lost all fear of what awaits me at the end of this life and the beginning of the next.

“Thank You For Your Service”

     Veterans Day 2013 is rapidly approaching and I am, as usual, looking forward to it very much.  I love veterans and have the greatest respect for the service that they have performed.  My father was a veteran of WW II, serving in the Navy and seeing action in the Pacific theater from day one.  My brother served during what was peacetime, but which could have flared into nuclear war with the former Soviet Union at any time.  Many of my uncles served, but I had little contact with them and so must honor them somewhat in the abstract; they served bravely in Europe and the Pacific but I could not recite for you the details.

     My own service took place many decades ago between 1966 and 1969.  Like so many boys who graduated from high school in 1966 my participation in the military and Vietnam was virtually guaranteed.  I had no interest in college and knew that my call would come soon enough, so one fine day a friend and I boarded the number 5 bus in San Diego and rode to the downtown recruiters’ office.  A few days later I was shorn high and tight and dressed in green.  For the next three years I was U.S. government property.

     Since my days in the service the U.S. military has become all volunteer.  There have been four major military actions that I can remember off-hand since the switch in personnel procurement format from draft to volunteer and in the last three of these the military men and women have been celebrated while they were deployed and welcomed home with gratitude and honor upon their the return.  In the case of the first, the intervention in Grenada, the country was still trying to figure out what their attitudes towards veterans was and should be.  While there were no parades in their honor which I can remember, there were no protests either.  

     This was not the reception that my comrades and I experienced however.  Many a G.I. was spit jupon while traveling from Oakland Armyh terminal to San Francisco Airport in order to fly home and try to reenter civilian life.  I was never spit upon, which partly explains my lack of a criminal record and jail time, but I certainly heard the label “baby killer” tossed my way.  I was never invited to participate in a parade.  On the contrary, on the day that I returned home I changed out of my class A uniform, took a long shower, and after spending some time with my family stepped out onto the sidewalk in my neighborhood in shorts, sandals, a T shirt and a hat to hide the thin layer of fuzz that covered my recently-military head.

     Since those strange days the country has learned to respect its veterans, partly I believe as a reaction to the shabby way that the 
Vietnam veterans were treated.  “Thank you for your service” is a refrain that I have heard from time to time over the last decade or so and have occasionally used myself.  I admit that I am happy to see our newer veterans so honored, but while I am in the mood for making admissions I will go on to make another:  I do not take any pleasure in having someone thank me for my service.

     My return from Vietnam was ugly and many of my comrades’ returns were much worse.  We were the people whom everyone wanted to pretend weren’t there, and a tragic number of men obliged an ungrateful nation by dropping under the radar and removing themselves from “polite company”.  I mostly confined myself to my immediate neighborhood and friends for a month or so, venturing elsewhere only under a straw hat until my hair grew long enough to introduce doubt as to where I had been for the last few years.

     Even after I had grown a full set of camouflage and placed my military service firmly in my rear-view mirror a drumbeat of negative portrayals of military personnel continued to dog my and my comrades’ steps.  “M.A.S.H.” (both the movie and the television series) made anyone who chose to serve out of a sense of committment to their country look like an idiot, and anyone who opposed war as a noble intellectual.  “Apocalypse Now” made us out to be psychopaths.  “Hamburger Hill” turned us into cannon fodder in the hands of cynical and stupid commanders and even into the 1980’s “Born on the Fourth of July” corrupted a true story to present not just a lie but a damned lie concerning U.S. soldiers in the war and afterward.  To this day I have little interest in watching a Tom Cruise movie and will not sit in a theater and watch anything produced by Oliver Stone.  The list of similar such movies is long and I do not need to reproduce it here.  Suffice it to say that I waited a long, long time before I saw anybody portrayed as anything other than a caricature of the people I knew on a movie or television screen.

     A person reading this could easily conclude that I am bitter and vengeful, but that would be wrong.  I hold no personal animosity towards those who disrespected us when we returned or cynically used us to advance their agenda or careers.  All of this happened a long time ago and time really does heal a lot of hurts.  I would gladly sit down with Jane Fonda and share a meal, and if I found myself seated in a pub next to an American who fled to Canada I would be happy to lift a pint with him and share stories of our most dissimilar lives.  I am fully aware of the fact that good people can have contrary opinions and that people can do thoughtless and hurtful things.  None of us is perfect and I am so far from perfect that I have no justification whatever to point accusatory fingers an anyone else.  My Vietnam War is over and has been for a long time.

     But all the same, I do not really welcome being thanked for my service.  America had an opportunity to do that forty four years ago and instead chose to be ashamed of me.  I am glad that America has realized its mistake and I add my voice to the chorus that now celebrates our veterans today, but America told me what it thought of me when I was young and searching for direction and an identity.  I know that I have to forgive, and I do forgive.  I know that I must also understand, and I do that to, to the best of my ability.  I know that we are all in this together, and if this nation is to move forward towards a better future we have to give up clinging to our personal hurts and work as one for that future.  Still, and with all due respect, I offer any value that my service might have had only to my comrades who shared my experience while we were in Vietnam and when we got home.  As for the rest; your thanks are kindly offered and I respect you for offering them, but they are neither solicited nor especially welcome to me.

Thank You, Mr. Rybiski

     I am in the middle of my sixth decade and approaching the time when it would make sense to retire.  I do not know at this moment just what the state known as ‘retirement’ will look like for me, but I do know that it will be very different than my current life is.  With a little luck I will be able to continue to do what I am doing now which is medical diagnostic imaging,  but do it in a more relaxed atmosphere and greatly reduced hours as compared with my current situation.  I have the good fortune of doing something that I really enjoy, and they even pay me to do it!  And for that I want to thank Mr. Rybiski.

     One half of a century ago I was failing miserably in algebra and chemistry.  How I got into a chemistry class without first passing an algebra class remains a mystery to me to this day, but there I was, looking out of the window in algebra daydreaming of being somewhere else; anywhere else, or in chemistry class seeing for myself why they said not to pour an acid into a base.  The inappropriateness of me being in either one of those classes could not have been more obvious and by the end of the first semester my ticket was punched to other places where I could take greater advantage of my educational opportunities.  Where I went from algebra I don’t remember, but from chemistry I migrated one floor upward and landed in Mr. Rybiski’s typing class.

     I suppose I may have been transferred to that class because my performance in the liberal arts classes was much stronger than it was in math and science.  Any student who might go on to a college course of study in the humanities, which is exactly what I did, would find himself or herself typing a lot of rather large research papers which is also exactly what I eventually did.  An additional bonus was the fact that most of the other students in my typing class were girls.  In 1965 it was assumed that most girls would grow up to be mothers, secretaries, teachers and nurses, pretty much in that order, and typing was felt to be necessary for three out of those four careers.

     I flourished in that class, thanks in part to the ten years of piano lessons which my father forced me into taking.  Dad wanted to civilize me and offered me the choice of piano or dance lessons.  The vision of me in a tuxedo leading a girl around the floor or worse, in tights prancing around with a girl in a tutu, and especially in my neighborhood, made the choice of the piano a slam dunk.  Running my fingers over the keyboard of a typewriter was not so different from running my fingers over the keyboard of a piano.  By the end of the semester I was able to type around 30 words per minute, corrected for mistakes, and Mr Rybiski strongly recommend that I advance in my senior year to his Office Practice class.  Since Mr Rybiski hobnobbed in the teacher’s lounge with my father, who taught English at my high school, my ascension to Office Practice was assured.

     Office Practice proved to be more interesting than I expected.  The foundational skill was still typing, in which I ultimately achieved a lofty score of 72 words per minute.  We also were exposed to a roomful of dictaphones, mimeograph and stencil machines, and even access to a promising new device, the electric typewriter.  I learned how to type dictation with a cylinder device and a foot pedal, make a few dozen copies of a map or document with the mimeograph machine or make hundreds of copies with the stencil, correcting errors with a hard rubber eraser, a razor blade, or the blunt curve of a paper clip depending upon which machine I was banging away at.  I thought of it as great fun, but knew that I would never be a mother, secretary, teacher or nurse, so I was not inclined to pursue this endeavor as more than an easy grade.

     After that senior year came the cold slap in the face that reality brings.  Any young man graduating from high school in 1966 soon realized that he stood a better than even chance of being drafted into military service and that the destination of hundreds of thousands of draftees was Vietnam.  After a summer of loitering around San Diego with my neighborhood friends, a summer which could be a story in its own right, I decided to face the inevitable head-on and joined the U.S. Army.

     Many young men at that time dreamed of training for the Army’s Special Forces; the Green Berets.  I admit that I toyed with that notion but a rare moment of sanity concerning my capabilities caused me to drop that idea before I arrived at Basic Training.  My next opportunity to do something idiotic came after an initial course of testing at boot camp revealed that I had the adademic horsepower to go to helicopter flight school.  Now there was nothing idiotic about being an Army helicopter pilot.  The pay was good, the accommodations generally better than enlisted men’s, and the thrill of flying was reward enough all by itself.  Even the fact that every Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldier in the war wanted little more than to bring down an American helicopter was not enough to discourage many men from pursuing that honorable calling.  What would have been idiotic for me would have been to try to navigate the spit-and-olish lifestyle of Warrant Officer school for six or nine months or however long that school lasted.  I am not a detail guy when the details make no sense to me, and having my boots shined to a mirror polish, my socks rolled up into a tight little ball, the blankets on my bunk tight enough to bounce a quarter, and no dirt on bunk, weapon, or footlocker in a white glove inspection just made no sense to me whatsoever.  The path which ultimately recommended itself to me was clear; I was to become an Administrative Specialist.

     An Admin. Spec. was anyone who could handle the mountain of forms that the military loved to use in the 1960’s.  Morning Reports which advised our superior organization of our functional strength had to be prepared every day.  Requests for transfer, orders for promotion, proceedings of non-judicial punishment, all had to be prepared in triplicate, quadruplicate, ninetuplicate or whatever.  Being an ace with a typewriter was my E-ticket, my get-out-of-jail-free care, my magic door away from the ranks of the airborne and into the ranks of the chairborne.  I am certain that I can thank Mr Rybiski that I spent two years in a rough but relatively safe field office in the hell that was Vietnam when braver and more noble men than me fought and lost their lives there.

     After my tour of duty I spent several years seeking a bachelor’s degree in History, which I eventually received in 1981.  Interspersed with those academic years were several years engaged in hanging drywall and other aspects of the construction trades.  In 1976, the second time that I tried to put construction behind me, I used the talents taught to me by Mr. Rybiski and developed in the Army to take a job with the Public Health Department of a California county, registering birth certificates and providing lists of newborns to the local newspaper.  I was based in the local community hospital and worked between medical records and the labor and delivery floor.  As it turned out, 1976 was a very difficult year for me and I did not perform my responsibilities particularly well.  I returned to construction and probably avoided a termination of employment notice by only a couple of days.

     Three years later I had had enough of construction and was determined that I would return to school and find a career that did not involved trashing my body.  This plan was complicated by having a wife and child for whom I had to provide, and to me this meant that I had to have a job since I had no stomach for taking out student loans.  I was naturally drawn back to the two non-construction endeavors with which I was familiar; clerical and hospital.  I landed a job in a pathology laboratory at a large San Diego area hospital and worked there forty hours per week while taking a full load of classes for the better part of the next five years at the State University and the local community college.  I was now applying the lessons taught to me by Mr. Rybiski in both my work and my education, and the skills I gained in his classes both paid my bills and prepared me for the next phase in my career.

     In May of 1984 I graduated with a degree in non-invasive vascular diagnostics, and accepted my first job in that field a few months later.  As the years went by I added depth and breadth to my skills and now anticipate retirement from a very respectable career which I enjoy now as much as I did on my first day working, which is why I don’t expect that I will just clean out my locker and go sit in a rocking chair on the front porch when my ‘retirement’ day actually arrives.

     I would have never guessed that I would owe so much to Mr. Rybiski when I walked into his typing class on the first day of the second semester of my junior year in high school.  That mild man with his military crew cut hair, his bow tie on a white or off-white crisply pressed long-sleeved shirt, provided me with an opportunity to succeed which I can trace directly to the comfortable life which I and my family enjoy today.  I am saddened that I never thanked Mr; Rybiski for the gift that he gave me a half century ago, and it would probably never occur to him that he had done something special for which to be thanked.  But it WAS special to me, and I want to say to him wherever on Earth or in Heaven that he might be:  Thank you, Mr. Rybiski.

Who’s holiday is Christmas?

It is a couple of days after halloween in America and that means it’s time for Christmas.  I know we still have Thanksgiving to celebrate between now and December 25 but let us be honest; getting together with family and friends to share a meal and be grateful to Yahweh or Allah or the Great Universal Consciousness or Nobody In Particular for the good things that we enjoy has little to do with the next two months.  Christmas, American Style, is the king of holidays, and since Christmas is such a dominating event in our American calendar I think that it is deserving of a great deal of study and discussion.  More astute observers and writers than I will, no doubt, rise to the occasion, but the marketplace of ideas is open for business and I propose to put my wares up for sale on my own table in the corner.

Christmas is first and foremost a religious holiday, but it is not a Christian one.  We have long been told that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was piggy-backed onto pagan holidays of Greco-Roman and Germanic origin to facilitate the adoption of Christianity by those pagan peoples, and I will not argue one way or the other on that score.  Jesus may or may not have been born on December 25; it really does not matter to me.  Jesus, the twelve disciples, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and every other giant of the Judeo Christian faith could have been born on December 25 and it would still not be a Christian holiday.  To be sure, Christians place great importance on this holiday, and being a Christian myself I greatly enjoy getting together with friends and family and celebrating the Incarnation with food and drink and fellowship and worship, both private and communal.  But again, that has nothing to do with Christmas in America.

Christmas in America is one of the high points of the religion of consumerism.  I call consumerism a religion because it answers some of the same questions that other religions do:  What is wrong with my life?  What must I do to make it right?  What does the restoration of a perfect world look like?  Most other religions are looked at with suspicion in America and excluded, one way or another, from the Great Conversation which takes place in government, academia, the media and elsewhere.  Consumerism however, because it denies its own existence and camouflages its trappings, is given full rein.  But there is a priesthood and a hierarchy, doctrine and dogma, and there is an inquisition to deal with heresy when it rears its ugly head.  I propose to examine briefly that priesthood, its dogma, and the inquisitorial arm of the faith and show how it is in play at Christmastime in America.

The priesthood of Consumerism may be found in every city and town in America where advertising agencies produce commercials for television, radio, newspapers, mailers and even at movie theaters.  The high priesthood however is found on Madison Avenue in New York City.  There, the high priests are concocting the dogma which will sink into the subconscious of the American public and convince many that Mountain Dew is for the edgy and cool, retirement with golf, horses, beautiful homes and eternal sex lives should be the norm, and that all the girls are crazy about a sharp dressed man.  OK, the latter was a ZZ Top song but it fits very neatly with what I am agruing, as anyone who has seen a particular men’s clothing outfitter’s commercials can verify.  Just as a priest, pastor or imam will instruct his or her congregation that certain life and thought patterns and behaviors are the key to happiness and union with the Greater Good, the high priests of consumerism and their lesser acolytes exist to instruct the American consumer that the want of happiness and fulfillment in their lives stems directly from their failure to purchase the right material products in the proper amount.

And that is certainly the dogma of the Church of Consumerism; your life is wanting because you do not possess the latest electronic devices, or highly-processed snack foods, or razor, or whatever.  Highly seductive visual images connect the purchase of these products with the amorous attention of beautiful women and handsome men, or with a group of these almost impossibly perfect people having a wonderful time on a beach or in a bar or on a city street that could be in your own home town.  These priests have pinpointed and magnified our natural feelings of insecurity and inadequacy and tied the correction of these shortcomings to the purchase of the right products, which just happen to be whatever they are selling.  If the priests do their jobs well the consumer will come to identify the act of buying itself with the act of perfecting their lives.  Then, the idols we serve will have a steady stream of worshippers coming to make their sacrificial offerings, and it only will remain for the idols to divide up the pie.

And is there an inquisition?  You can be absolutely certain that there is indeed and inquisition!  Go to a middle or high school and see what the student who is wearing the wrong shoes or clothing can expect from his or her classmates.  Go to the toney Hamptons or to uber hip Portland Oregon, or super cowboy Texas and see how it plays when you don’t live up to expectations.  Or closer to home, go into a living room on Christmas morning and watch the demeanor of the children who did not get the phone, X box, or clothing that would have lifted them out of the relational doldrums in which they find themselves relative to their peers who’s parents clearly love them more.

Christmas is the time when all of these forces which operate all year particularly come together to create a perfect frenzy that would warm the heart of any priest of Cybele.  Conditioned by the priests and their dogma, wives are looking for material proof of the love of their husbands.  Children are looking for their protector to give them the accoutrements that they need to fit into their society, and husbands are looking for a way to navigate this minefield and come out on the other end financially drained but relationally intact.  And all of this is portrayed as fun and something that you can hardly wait to do again next year.

I admit that I have bowed out of this holiday and no longer pay it any mind.  I am comfortable with sharing my life with my family and friends, and I find it vastly more enjoyable to give gifts to people who really need something than it is to give somebody another sweater which will be forgotten by the time the NCAA Championship football game is played.  Finding people who really need gifts is not at all hard to do if one digs a very little.  There are many people in my community who have little, and people in the world who have nearly nothing.  A goat, a few chickens, or a well of clean water means a great deal more to them than a diamond ring would mean to my wife (which is considerably to her credit).  This Christmas, as I have for many Christmases past, I will worship at a church far removed from the Church of the Holy Consumer.