Road Trip, Part I

My family has always liked to travel, and every road trip was always viewed as an adventure.  Even the ‘vacations’ back to where my parents grew up in the South were at least in part an adventure, even if on the whole I would have preferred to have never gone on those adventures at all.  Being on the road and headed ‘somewhere’ always held the allure of a romance for me, and each city and town, desert and forrest, mountain and river and cow and cornfield all looked new to me, even if they looked like every one that I had seen before.  It was therefore with great eagerness that I agreed to accompany my brother and his wife on a road trip in June of 1969.

I had only just returned home from the Army; May 29 was my day of liberation to be exact, and after two years in Vietnam a trip across a thousand miles of open and friendly country sounded like heaven to me.  I was nearly scalped by the Army barbers who were intent on getting their last pound of flesh, thin as a stick because I ate only enough Army food to stay alive, and at twenty years and three hundred and thirty seven days old I was twenty eight days too young to have a beer in public.  Packing my bags and leaving everything behind me for a couple of weeks seemed like a dream come true.  Brad, my brother, would finish his spring semester in a week and a half and then we would all be away.

I chafed at the delay.  Being a Vietnam veteran in California, even a military-friendly town like San Diego, was not a sure road to popularity.  My old friends accepted me of course, but the experiences of my last three years, the things that I had seen and done, made it impossible to just pick up and move on as if none of us had changed.  I enjoyed going to the homes of friends and having a few beers, smoking a few bowels of weed and talking and laughing, but there were things that I did not feel able to talk about, that my friends did not want or, for that matter, need to hear.  These things were what I wanted to sort out, to see what I should hold onto and what I should let go of, and that sort of business could be better done alone in a 1963 Mercury rolling across the Southwest desert.  So the days crawled by until the eve of our journey

I would be driving my mother’s car.  Dad had a truck and Mom could live a week or two without wheels.  She didn’t tend to do much shopping or make social calls anyway, so it was of little inconvenience to her.  Brad and Ginny would be in their tiny Datsun pickup with an equally tiny camper on the back.  We loaded our vehicles the night before and planned to set out when we usually did on such trips, about two in the morning.  I loaded a cot and some blankets, food and minimal toiletries (I had little hair to brush), clothes and a few books that I knew I would not read.  I made sure that I had a cooler to hold the sandwiches that I would eat as we rolled down the highway and the beer that I was still too young to drink.  Brad and Ginny packed whatever it was they packed and a couple of cases of beer.  I knew that wouldn’t get us very far down the road, but it was at least a start.

We did not leave at two in the morning.  In fact, it was well after sunup and a good home cooked breakfast before we fired our vehicles up and nosed them into the traffic on Fairmont Avenue, which led to the onramp of Interstate 8.  Once we gained the Interstate we followed it for the five or six miles of it that had been completed, and which then fed us into the two lanes that comprised U.S. Highway 80, which we had always used before.  President Eisenhauer’s dream of a great, broad network of straight highways connecting all parts of the country was still in its early stages of development, and great stretches of the United States were still served only by the winding two lane roads which arose with the early age of the automobile.

U.S. 80 snaked across the El Cajon Valley, up and over the Laguna Mountains, and finally across the Imperial Valley towards the Colorado River and the border with Arizona.  El Cajon was warm and the mountains were cool and fresh, but the Imperial Valley was as hot as the very hinges of hell, and I loved every minute of it.  The mountains are beautiful, with live oak growing in the valleys and the slopes covered by chaparral and huge exposed boulders until one gets high enough to reach the pines.  The road only briefly gets that high and then returns to boulders and chaparral and then the descent into the desert.

The desert; how I love it.  There was little to look at but sand and rock, greasewood and sagebrush, cholla and ocotillo cacti, and a few other hardy plants struggling to earn an existence in such a forbidding environment.  Shallow, dry washes would appear and run through culverts under the highway to divert the rare rains which would come to this thirsty place.  Parallel to some stretches of the highway ran the tacks for the Yuma and San Diego Railroad which sometimes ran and sometimes did not, and at other places in the sand dunes one could still see segments of the old plank road which once connected Arizona with the port of San Diego.  I am certain that those old segments are completely gone now, but what do I know?  The desert is dry and does not give up its possessions lightly.

For many the desert holds no attraction.  When my grandfather traveled west from Georgia to stay with us for a while he crossed the desert in a Greyhound Bus.  Inside the bus was air conditioned comfort, while outside was a furnace which usually topped 110 degrees with a sun that would begin to redden unprepared flesh within a few minutes.  Accustomed to trees and streams and lakes, Grandfather was revolted by the empty, tortured wastes which stretched for seemingly endless miles in any direction.  The inhabitants of the desert unsettled Grandfather most of all.  People of indeterminate age, skin wrinkled and turned to leather by the sun and wind, doing what was necessary but only just what was necessary to survive one more burning day, and yet without any idea of leaving to live anywhere else.  Grandfather shared those thoughts with me and I told him that in some small way I understood those old coyotes of the desert; there was something of them in me as well.

It was therefore with a sense of freedom and rest that I rolled along the concrete and asphalt ribbon behind the Datsun pickup, thinking of times that I had passed this way before and the lives going about their business that very day in the late spring heat of the valley.  We passed fields of lettuce and other crops, aqueducts, rows of eucalyptus and cottonwood providing shade and a windbreak, and finally we arrived at Yuma on the border of California and Arizona.  We were not stopping there but instead turned north and drove a few more miles intending to stop for the night at Martinez Lake, one of many reservoirs on the lower Colorado River.  Brad and Ginny and my parents had camped here a time or two before and sent pictures when I was in Vietnam.  I could hardly wait to see the place.

We pulled into the camping area and noticed right away that the temperature had not dropped one little bit; in fact the humidity was uncomfortably high due to the proximity of the lake.  Nevertheless Brad and I rigged up an awning on the east facing side of the camper which protected us from the sun until it descended below the western horizon.  At that point we intended to cook a meal and relax before resuming our journey the next day.  The sun went obligingly down, but there was to be no cooking that night.  With the fading of the sun and cooling of the evening breeze came the mosquitos.  First a few and then hordes of them.  We slapped at our tormentors until we sounded like Spanish dancers with castanets.  I don’t remember who spoke up first, but we quickly agreed that we didn’t sign up for this and stowed our gear back in our vehicles.  Soon we were pounding back down the road and heading east, unsure of where we would stop for the night but dead certain that it would be nowhere near Martinez Lake.

Nightfall overtook us as we travelled east across the farmlands of southern Arizona.  That was a time before cell phones, and as I followed the two red taillights of my brother’s truck I had only the AM radio and my own thoughts to keep me company.  Listening alternately to country and western, rock and roll, and the ubiquitous Wolfman Jack I thought again about the times I had travelled this road on the way to Georgia and Kentucky, and how I use to count the minutes until we would load up the car and point ourselves west again.  I also thought about the neighborhood kids who also went into the military, and about Frankie Mendoza and Marty Dempster who came home in boxes.  Why them and not me?  I think most veterans wonder about that every now and then.

I also thought about Carmen, Cathy and Greg.  I had known Cathy since elementary school and considered her a friend.  She was just a plain, ordinary kid in the first grade but grew up to be a beautiful young woman and our homecoming queen in my senior year.  Lovely as she was she never acted as if she was better than anyone else; in fact, it was almost as if she didn’t really know how stunningly beautiful she was.  Greg was on the high school diving team with me and we mostly played on the diving boards rather than honed our skills and truly competed.  Our coaches knew a little about swimming and nothing about diving, so we just did the best we could and considered it a great thing that we could play on the boards for high school credit.  Carmen I met while on leave between my two tours of duty in Vietnam.  By the time I returned home once again a civilian all three were dead.  Cathy died from some damned cancer, Greg was stabbed at a drug deal which went bad, and Carmen was at a stock car race with her husband when a car went out of control, flipped, and landed where she was sitting in the stands.  “Two in Vietnam but three here in San Diego” I thought as the mile markers slid past my windshield.  “I was safer in Vietnam!”

I remember that the Blood, Sweat and Tears cover of “God Bless the Child” was playing when I saw the red taillights pull to the right and into a roadside rest area.  Ginny must have had enough.  Several other cars and a row of long haul semis were already parked there and we found a space to set up at a little distance from the nearest other traveller.  We were in saguaro cactus country which boasts a plethora of its own bothersome bugs but was thankfully mosquito free.  We didn’t bother with cooking; sandwiches would do.  A couple of beers and a shared joint later, Brad and Ginny crawled into their camper and I onto my old military cot and slept the sleep which is reserved for the innocent and the forgiven.

I slept so well that next morning I did not even stir when the truckers fired up their diesels and the families loaded up their children to continue on their journeys.  My slumber was not impervious the the smell of Ginny cooking sausage and eggs on the camp stove we had brought along however, nor the aroma of the coffee which Brad was percolating over a small fire that he had made underneath a wire contraption which my dad had rigged for just this sort of occasion.  I lounged in the cot for as long as I felt it was safe and then emerged to get my fair share of the breakfast.  Although we were in no great hurry the breakfast was quickly consumed and I performed the clean-up  while Brad and Ginny straightened up their camper and stowed the coolers and the clean utensils once I was finished.  I merely had to fold my blankets and cot and replenish my small cooler with snacks and a few beers, and we were once again on our way.

The air was still cool from the night and the sunlight seemed to make everything sparkle.  The sun can have as many faces to the desert dweller as ice has to an Eskimo.  Sometimes it will beat down on you with what feels like physical force, and at other times it will tease you as it rises over a frigid winter scape, offering the hope of some warmth for your numb fingers or aching bones but then snatching that promise back when the next chill blast of Siberian air rolls over a land without any barrier to protect you from its malice.  On this morning it made the sand and rock seem warm and comfortable; as comfortable as rock and sand can be anyway, and the giant saguaro cacti and their lesser co-inhabitants of this dry land seem stately and not threatening, if not exactly friendly.

A short distance up the highway we deviated to the south and followed a long local road, sometimes paved and sometimes gravel, into the Dragoon Mountains and up into Cochise Stronghold.  What is now a campground and recreational area was once the last refuge of a band of Native Americans who yet held out hope that they might retain their lands and way of life in the face of a White tsunami which had roared in from the east, crushing all in its path.  Eventually they, too, were overwhelmed and were removed from their beloved homeland in the mountains and high valleys of Arizona and removed first to Florida, then Oklahoma, and finally allowed to return to the less inspiring hills of their cousins the Mescalero Apaches in south central New Mexico.

And what a home the Apaches lost.  Up in the mountains at about the 5,000 foot level the evergreen forest begins and there is grass and softer brush than found among the more prickly growth closer to the desert floor.  We could walk among the trees without having to navigate the sort of dense undergrowth common in the South and the Pacific Northwest.  Sandy washes, called arroyos, spoke of mountain rains ancient and recent, all of which are greedily swallowed up by the soil to be preserved underground, safe from the evaporative power of the strong sun in the thin, dry mountain air.  Water is too precious a treasure to allow it to be snatched back into the sky from which it fell without imparting life at several levels along the way.

It was early but we made a snack and cleaned up, poked around for a short while longer, and then resumed our journey down the gravel road on the east side of the mountains.  We shortly passed into New Mexico and found paved road.  We had decided to make for Carlsbad Caverns and so we stopped only for gas and restroom breaks as we pushed the speed limit along the way through Lordsburg, Deming, las Cruces, and then across the Llano Estacado (a God-forsaken wasteland of desert, but beautiful in its own way) and finally arrived at our destination.  It was early afternoon and we wasted little time in purchasing our admission and entering the elevator which would take us 750 feet down to where our tour would begin.

There are many things which stand out about that tour, and the first one was that it was 750 feet underground.  I have never been claustrophobic, and even used to crawl into the large sewer pipes which once emptied into the canyons in San Diego to divert the infrequent rains.  Later on, being as I mentioned earlier skinny as a stick, I was considered for duty as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, tasked to enter the tunnels of the enemy to flush him out or kill him if possible and check for useful intelligence left behind.  Being underground would not have been a problem; the whole rest of the package would, and so I was gratefully relieved that my six feet of height made that duty for me mercifully impractical.  Even so, the thought of being 750 feet beneath solid rock was at least a little bit disconcerting.  I reasoned that it was hardly likely that I survived two years in Vietnam as well as being friends with Carmen, Cathy and Greg only to be smashed into a greasy stain by a cave-in at Carlsbad Caverns, and so pressed on with the tour.

The guide, a civilian working for the Park Service, gave us a vast amount of data about limestone, groundwater, erosion rates and so on.  I remember little of that, but I remember strongly the difficulty I had believing that what I was seeing was real.  I had been to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and other such places and seen re-creations of balancing rocks and stalagmites and stalactites, but they were all man made.  At those places stones would teeter back and forth as if ready to topple, all controlled by motors and gears and cogs and axels to mimic the real thing.  Here WAS the real thing.  I wanted desperately to touch it and reinforce its reality with tactile input but was admonished not to do so.  “The oils from your fingers, multiplied by all the fingers which pass through this place, would eventually change it, and change it for the worse” said the guide, and so I refrained.

When we emerged back into the daylight we saw that the sun was sinking rapidly towards where we had slept last night, off to the west.  The guide informed us that the bats which nested in the caverns would emerge at dusk to begin to feed on insects in and around the fields of New and Old Mexico.  We debated if a bunch of bats was worth seeing and decided, since the coming and going of the bats is how the caverns were discovered in the first place, we would take in the sight.  We grabbed dinner at the tourist center and then went with the guide and a few other fellow travelers to seat ourselves in a small stone bowl with a ragged gash in the earth opening up in the center.  We were seated on stone seats on the west side of the bowl and chatted together as the shadows crept down the seats, across the hole in the earth, and then up the rocky bank on the far side, away from us.

The sky began to shade into gray when we heard the first rustle, the first whirr, the first fluttering of thousands, no millions, of tiny leathery wings.  The first scouts emerged and flew a circular arc around the bowl in which we were seated.  Right on their heels were the rest of the colony.  Millions of bats followed the same spiral of the leader, creating what looked like a black coiled spring which rose up into the sky, bent southward, and then dispersed into the evening to begin their nightly gorge on the insects which would devastate the crops if they were not contained by the bats.  “They’ll be back at sunup” said the guide.  “Pretty much all of them at the same time.  They’ll get back to their same perch and after a while of bumping and jostling and perhaps making little bats they’ll go to sleep and rest so that they can do it all again tomorrow.”

We thought that sounded like a good plan for us too, so we took our leave of the Caverns and drove out onto the very flat plains of eastern New Mexico.  A few miles down the road we found a convenient turnout and pulled into it to make our evening camp.  Across the road was a sign that declared the presence of a potash mine somewhere in the distance.  Brad and I enjoyed making ‘momma jokes’ and found great amusement in finding occasions that evening to declare that “your momma is a potash miner.”  it was irrelevant that we enjoyed the same momma.  The entertainment was to be had in artfully crafting the joke, not about who’s momma was referenced or if, in fact, said momma had ever mined potash or even knew what potash was.  And if the subtleties of this form of entertainment is too complex for you, dear reader, It is highly likely to be because YOUR momma was a potash miner.

We did not stay up late that evening.  A beer and potato chips or some other snack and we went to our separate lodgings.  My cot at the edge of the turnout was soon swallowed up by the night but still faintly illumined by the billions of stars which poured their light down on this tiny patch of earth.  I thought about the bats, feeding in the fields to the south, and how there were a million stars for every bat I saw curl up and out of that crack in the ground.  My mind drifted back to a time when I was about 10, sitting in a bath tub and thinking about the universe.  It’s infinite, you know, which means that when you get to the end of it there’s more to go.  Always.  How does a 10 year old wrap his mind around infinity?  How does anyone wrap their mind around infinity?  The concept was overwhelming then and all I could do was cry.  As I lay on my cot I thought about the stars and universe and infinity, and concluded that it was not for me to wrap my mind around anyway.  It just was and it was beautiful to look at on this night in southeastern New Mexico, and that would have to be enough for me, at least for now.

Fish Story

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  So goes an old saying the origin of which I haven’t a clue, and I suppose that there may be some truth in it.  I suspect however that the author of that phrase never met a fisherman like me.  Many an accomplished angler has tried to impart to me the ways of the fish and how to coax one onto my hook but the result has, for the most part, been a failure.  Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  Try to teach Glenn Durden how to fish and you’ll be wasting your time and will probably get an ulcer.

I was introduced to fishing when I was a very small child.  My brother, who was four years older than me, had found out before the earliest reaches of my memory that he never wanted to mess with fishing, so I can only remember my father and I going to the lake to catch our dinner.  The lake which I remember best is Lake Henshaw, a reservoir in San Diego County located about 70 miles northeast of the city.  The lake was usually pretty low in those days because the region was in a prolonged dry cycle, but it had everything one would need for a good day of fishing; water, boats and the bait and tackle shack where necessities such as soft drinks, potato chips, candy, beer (for Dad), and a cardboard carton of worms could be bought.  There was no doubt other fishing stuff could be purchased there too but it held little interest for Dad and I.  We were going after catfish, and catfish liked worms.  Little did I know then that catfish would have cheerfully eaten the chips and candy that we bought there and the sandwiches that my mother had packed for us and anything else that was food or in some small way looked like food.  Catfish are the pigs of the aquatic world.

After Dad had purchased our day permits, rented the boat and procured our bait we would choose a rowboat and propel ourselves across the lake in search of a corner where the fish might be biting.  One would think that fish in a lake would as likely be biting in one place as another, but that did not seem to be the case.  Dad would choose a spot where we would throw out our lines and wait for a while, and if nothing happened we would move to another corner of the lake and repeat the process.  Eventually one of us would feel a tug on the line and jerk the line in order to set the hook.  I later learned that this was unnecessary with catfish as they scarfed down any morsel that they came across with no hesitation.  Like I said; catfish are pigs.

The bait that we used were common earthworms.  Not the big bruisers that you can see emerging from the ground after a spring rain in the Northwest where I now live, but their smaller cousins.  They would be packed in some moist substance which was sort of a cross between coffee grounds and sawdust.  We would dig into the carton and find the largest, and then skewer their wriggling bodies on our hooks.  Being young I assumed that it was a normal and natural thing to impale worms on a hook; it was their karma, and I thought the worms knew that and didn’t really mind.  If Dad had any similar feelings he never shared them with me, so I just did what he did.  I have occasionally wondered if someday I will be called to account for my serial murder of those innocent worms, much less the catfish I caught, but that is meat for another story.   It seemed like as I got older my luck left me and I brought home fewer and fewer catfish for Mom to cook.  Catfish are slimy characters, so I think I didn’t really mind too much not catching them, and I eventually moved on to try my luck with other fish.

Bass, Crappie, and even large bluegill are a better order of fish, and I next remember trying my luck in the lakes, ponds and streams of Georgia, where my father grew up and we visited every couple of years.  Georgia was not my cup of tea as it was hot, sticky, had enormous bugs and was populated with adults whom I didn’t really know and kids who viewed me with suspicion as an outsider.  I usually went with my dad to the town swimming pool, read Hardy Boys books or whatever I could find, or sat on the covered front porch trying desperately to find a breeze and counting the seconds until we would leave Georgia and repeat my torture in Kentucky where my mother grew up.

On one particular day I decided to walk a half mile or so to a large pond which I knew to be teeming with nice, fat, catchable fish.  The idea of a dinner of fried bass or crappie, a few dozen bluegill or even a by-now-detested catfish would be an improvement over the unsavory table set by my paternal grandmother, who frankly scared the tar out of me.  Mealtime on these ‘vacations’ was always an ordeal.  On this particular vacation, one of the last as I remember, I heard my father say to my mother “he can eat his grandmother’s cooking or he can starve”.  I felt like a soldier freed from a prisoner of war camp after the armistice was signed; a choice at last which didn’t involve me getting beaten about the head and shoulders!  I clutched my Get Out Of Jail Free card and cheerfully starved.  On the trip back to San Diego, Kentucky being mercifully omitted on this trip, I lay sick and weak in the back seat of our car and heard my dad say “if the kid will starve himself, I can’t win that battle”.  That statement signaled a blessed end to the struggle which Dad and I had fought for many years over what I was and was not willing to eat.  Anyway, I knew that one decent meal was waiting in that pond for me to catch it, so with pole, tackle, and Granddad’s 12 gauge shotgun I strode off across a field and through some woods to get to the pond.

I arrived at the pond and soon found the experience to be pleasant in many ways.  It was early, and so not yet oppressively hot.  I had no relatives or their friends and children around so I could sit quietly on the bank of the pond without having to perform for anybody.  The surface of the pond sported barely a ripple, and the sounds of birds and the soft breeze made me come very close to enjoying myself.  I baited the hook with a fat worm which my grandfather had dug up for me earlier and cast him out towards the snag of an old tree which somehow had found its way into the center of the pond.  I thought that fish must certainly like to hang out near old snags, although I couldn’t possibly tell you why.  I sat down and waited for the fish to jump onto my hook, and when they didn’t oblige I reeled in my line, changed my bait, moved a short way down the edge of the pond and cast again towards the center. I did this a few more times and began to wonder if I would bring home any fish after all to relieve the unpleasant prospect of that night’s dinner.

I don’t know how much time had passed, but eventually I became aware that the sun was rising in the sky and the breeze had vanished.  I was determined to catch my dinner however and reeled in my line one more time.  I was about to try a different bait when a movement in the water attracted my attention.  I looked out toward the center of the pond and saw that it was a snake swimming across the water, out by the old tree snag.  I had very little knowledge of snakes in the Southeastern U.S. but had heard of water moccasins which were poisonous.  I just sat there and watched the snake, being a young boy and naturally interested in such things.  Being a young boy however it was also naturally difficult for me to remain still for very long, and my small movements were enough for me to attract the attention of the snake.

The snake stopped dead in the water and seemed to look right at me.  I froze and waited for him to swim away.  He did not swim away.  After giving me the eye for a minute or two the snake changed course and began to swim towards me.  Being a kinder and gentler West Coast sort of kid I gathered my gear and worked my way through the undergrowth in order to gain the bank on the far side of the pond.  That took a while and the snake waited patiently until I arrived at a clear area from which to recast my line.  I baited my hook and was poised to cast when I saw the snake turn in the water and begin to wriggle across it, once again, directly towards me.  That was enough for me.  Forgetting all ideas of catching my dinner I put down my rod, picked up Granddad’s shotgun, waited until my reptilian pursuer made it abundantly clear that it was me towards whom he was swimming, and then dispatched that snake to whatever eternal reward my slithering friend had to look forward to.

The surface of the pond erupted and the largest intact part of the late water moccasin flew end over end to wrap around one of the branches of the old snag jutting from the water.  The ‘boom’ of the shotgun echoed through the woods and the serenity of the scene which I had previously enjoyed was officially flushed down the toilet.  I was fully aware that any chance that I would catch a fish, slim as it was to begin with, was now near statistical zero.  With the sun beginning to pound down on me in earnest and the remains of the snake dripping from its resting place on the dead branch I reloaded the shotgun, picked up my fishing gear and began a sad march back to Granddad’s farmhouse.  My failure to catch a fish would result in the near certainty of another night of sitting hungry in front of a bowl of some unrecognizable swill that everyone at the table but me would eat, and another night of my stomach growling as I waited for the morning and the corn flakes that would keep me alive for one more day.  I was so pissed off at this prospect that I returned to the pond and put another blast from the 12 gauge into the incomplete carcass of the snake.  It flew off of the snag and landed somewhere; I neither knew nor cared where.  I still don’t.

One of my last efforts to catch a fish occurred when I was a teenager.  I don’t know where my dad was, but it was Mom who accompanied my friend Mike and i to a reservoir closer to San Diego than Lake Henshaw.  My mother never learned how to swim, and since she witnessed the drowning of a neighbor when she was a child she had no great desire to get into more water than a bathtub.  It was therefore quite a sacrifice for her to climb into a tiny rowboat with Mike and I and row from one end of that lake to the other in search of somewhere where the fish were biting.  Mike and I both had tackle boxes like real fishermen and we tried every sort of bait and lure that we owned to try and coax a fish onto our hook.  Real worms and salmon eggs, fake worms and minnows, flies, poppers, and spoons.  Nothing was tempting enough to induce the canny fish who toyed with us for nearly the whole day.

We rowed over to a shady beach and had a late lunch, and then regained our perches in the boat and reluctantly resumed our quest to find one fish stupid enough to allow himself to get caught by either one of us.  That quest took us toward the back of the reservoir where the water became more shallow, with rocks and water grasses and snags sticking up into the air.  I was at this point thoroughly tired of chasing fish who were obviously determined to not get caught.  The sun was quite hot and my skin, which refuses to tan (quite a disadvantage for a kid growing up in Surf City) was beginning to take on an ominous red hue which signaled a very uncomfortable next two or three days.  I was ready to throw in the towel but wanted one more crack at catching a meal.

I rummaged through my tackle box and found shunted off in a corner an old Bomber lure.  This thing was created to look somewhat like a frog.  It would wobble when cast and reeled back in, and it was filled with some phosphorescent substance that would glow in the gloom of the water world.  The top of this lure had been cracked and some of the phosphorescent goo had oozed out and ran down the sides of the lure in streaks.  It had two treble hooks that made me uncomfortable using it, and in general it was a lure that desperately needed to be tossed into the trash.  That made it the perfect lure for this moment.  I carefully plucked the lure out of the bottom of my tackle box and affixed it to the end of my line.  Then, balancing myself in the center of the boat, I cast that piece of trash straight into the center of the rocks, grasses, and snags which adorned the edge of the lake, with little thought of successfully reeling it back to me through that obstacle course.

The result was almost immediate.  The tip of my rod bent down almost to the surface of the water and I only barely retained possession of both the rod and my seat in the boat.  All ideas of ‘setting the hook’ or ‘playing the fish’ went instantly right out the window.  For the first time in more than recent memory I had a fish on the line and, judging by the strength with which it was trying to tear the pole from my hands it was a big one.  Right then and there the conflict became personal; I would not play around.  Come to me or live with a big, ugly Bomber lure stuck in you mouth for the short duration of the rest of your life!

I reeled and reeled, and then reeled some more.  The fish exploded out of the surface of the lake; it was a largemouth bass and easily the biggest fish I had ever caught.  I didn’t miss a beat.  He plopped back into the water and I continued to reel until I could see him swimming side to side and back and forth just to the side of the boat.  Mike reached over the edge of the boat and slipped our net under the fish and hauled his big, beautiful, wriggling and flopping self onto the bottom of the boat.  I was nervous about fiddling with such a large and angry mass of teeth and fins and scales as this was so Mike did the honors and disconnected the fish from the lure and put him on our stringer.

At this point I was fully ready to go home.  Mom had been ready to go home from the moment we pulled into the parking lot.  Mike, however, was a very competitive guy who nearly always could do things better than me in almost every activity.  Mike was also my best friend, so I fished patiently while he chucked lure after lure into rocks and snags and any other forbidding sort of terrain that looked like it could hide a fish.  It was all of no avail however.  Our fishing was done for the day; the fish knew it and I knew it, and after losing a couple of much-more-valuable lures than my old, fractured Bomber, Mike knew it too.  He reeled in his line and we called it a day.

That was the last fish that I ever caught.  I tried several times more; at the ocean, in mountain streams and in the mighty Columbia River.  Nothing.  Not a nibble. It has been years since I last tried, as I live a fairly busy life and have little time for endeavors which I know well in advance will be futile.  I have to admit however that I am still drawn to the lure (if you’ll pardon the pun) of fishing.  Perhaps in a year or two when I retire I will purchase some tackle, a license, and whatever accoutrement are necessary and once again wade into a stream or river and try to bag a trout or steelhead or salmon, partly for the meal that it would afford but mostly just to say that I have finally become smarter than a fish.  My only reservation is the suspicion, based on a lot of past history, that I probably have not.

Born to be Wild

“Get your motor running, head out on the highway.”  So goes the opening lyrics of the great 1960’s tune “Born to be Wild”, and to me those lyrics capture something of the unrestrained joy and sense of freedom that a person gets when seated on a rumbling, throbbing metal horse and flying down the street, highway or trail with the wind in your hair and bugs in your smiling teeth.  The motorcycle has symbolized the free spirited outlaw since before Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One”.  “Easy Rider” continued that cinematic legacy while Evel Knievel presented that daredevil image in flesh and blood (much of which he left at the site of his stunts).  Today racing and acrobatic motorcycle events keep the heart of the motorcycle mystique pumping at ventricular fibulatory levels.  Among a great many American men and no insignificant number of American women the cross country trucker may be the new cowboy, but the motorcyclist is the new outlaw.

Very romantic, but my experience with motorcycles has been anything but romantic.  I didn’t mount my first aluminum steed until I was twenty one, or very nearly that, and freshly home from three years in the Army.  My father had a motorcycle which he would secure to the front of his pick up truck and take to the mountains or desert when he went camping.  It was a cute little thing with a 100cc engine, which made it a little more spunky than my old single gear bicycle into the spokes of which i would stick playing cards held in place by clothes pins in order to make a sound like a motorcycle.  Dad’s motorcycle had the advantage, however, that I didn’t have to pedal it, and that made all the difference in the world.  I would buzz around the streets of San Diego with my baseball cap on backwards, something done only by the rakishly cool in those days, and sunglasses intended to deflect flying bugs more than anything else, and feel free as a bird.

I collected a good many flies in the glasses and the teeth before one particularly nasty fly found its way into the ointment.  One afternoon I was rolling down El Cajon Blvd. headed eastbound towards I have no recollection where when a woman in a mid sixties Chevy station wagon (for those of you under thirty, a station wagon was a car that was a little like a long SUV without four wheel drive) pulled out in front of me.  I do not hold this against her.  The sun was dropping towards the horizon behind me and my skinny body on the tiny motorcycle was simply swallowed up by its bright glare.  The moment that she pulled out of her stop in order to make a left turn I knew that my day was going to take a serious turn for the worse.

I naturally grabbed the brake levers and squeezed them with all my might.  The wheels stopped all right, but the bike and its rider (yours truly) continued on at very nearly the original 35 miles per hour that I had been traveling.  The sound of the tires shrieking as they scraped along the asphalt alerted the driver to my presence and as understanding of the situation dawned on her she did the one thing I needed least; she stopped.  If she would have continued driving I could have laid the bike down and rolled behind her, but stopping instead only gave me the option of where on the Chevy I wanted to hit her.  I quickly decided that the driver’s door would be as good a place as any, and roaring a lusty obscenity I slammed directly into that portion of her car.

I can still remember the look on the driver’s face.  She was clearly terrified as the screaming hippie came crashing into her door. I have to admit that I was just a little scared myself, but the adrenalin which was coursing through every cell of my body kept my vision clear and my memory intact as to the whole event.  I hit the door and flew off of my seat, the left side of my face making contact with the area where the door slopes up to the roof of the car.  It was probably that curved angle of my contact point that saved my life.  The bike and I both shot straight up into the air and I had a nice bed of broken headlamp glass to land in.

I jumped up more or less immediately and began to drag Dad’s bike out of the road.  The bike was squeezed like an accordion and so it didn’t roll very well.  The woman was speaking to me from the front seat of her car but I don’t remember what she was saying.  I just pulled the bike to the curb and sat down on a bench at a bus stop to assess the damage.  The bike was totaled; I could see that at a glance.  I also quickly noted that i was leaking from several holes in my body created by the bed of glass that I had landed in.  I was still engaged in this when the police officer drove up.

“Are you all right?” the officer asked as he got out of his car and walked toward me.  “I’m fine” I responded.  The officer stared at me for a few moments and then went to get the necessary information from the woman.  It was then that I noticed the two children who were in the back seat of the car with eyes as big as saucers.  I instantly felt very sorry for the driver, whom I now saw was terribly shaken up by the incident.  The officer asked her to exit the car and I saw that I had impacted her door so forcefully that she could not open it.  Remember, cars in the Sixties were still made of steel.  When the officer was finished writing down the relevant information he allowed the woman to drive on and returned to me.

“Do you want a ride to the hospital?” he asked.  “No, I’m all right.  I just need to call my dad to come and pick up his bike.”  The officer did not look convinced.  “I think you really should go to the hospital” he reiterated.  “You took a nasty pop against that Chevy” “No, really, I’m feeling OK” I insisted.  “Whatever you want” he replied,  “but I was parked right across the street and saw the whole thing.  I was certain that when I made the turn and got over to this side I would have to write up a fatality.  I thought you would be dead, man.  I really think that you should go to the hospital”

I assured the policeman once again that I felt OK and, after taking down the information that he needed for his report, he drove off.  There was a phone booth (what people away from home used before cell phones) across the street from me and I crossed over to it, thumbed in a dime and called my father.  Dad arrived about fifteen minutes later and took me and the bike back home.  When we got there we unloaded the bent and wrecked bike and I went in to bandage my wounds and take a shower.  It was only when I looked into the bathroom mirror that I saw the blue paint on the left side of my face; the paint that I removed from that Chevy with the force of the impact.  I had neither a broken bone nor even a black eye as a result of that accident, and i cannot point to any natural explanation as to why that would be.

I had many other motorcycle adventures, such as riding on the back of my brother’s bigger 500 cc bike from San Diego across northern Mexico to the central Arizona/Mexico border in the fall season.  We met our father there at a campground near the border. Dad had arrived there first, with his nice new 120 cc bike which the Chevy driver’s insurance had purchased for him.  We spent a fun few days riding the highways and trails of Arizona and then decided to head back in the late afternoon.  Unencumbered as we were by irritants such as speed limits we flew through the increasingly frigid Mexican air on Mexico Highway 2 and pulled into Yuma, Arizona, about nine o’clock at night.  The night had become bitterly cold and we crossed over ice patches as we flew at over 80 miles per hour across the Imperial Valley on Interstate 8 and then climbed more than 4,000 feet to pass over the mountains and descend into the El Cajon Valley.  My brother pulled slowly up to the old, sagging wooden garage which came with the house that he and his wife rented and we tried to extend our legs as rolled to a stop.  We both failed miserably and the bike keeled over and landed on us both.  We crawled out from under the bike and laughed like idiots as we wrestled it into the garage.  It took us the rest of the night to warm up and get the cramps out of our legs.

But I am relieved to be able to state that I am not the only rider who has had trouble staying vertical on a non-moving bike.  One summer when I was living at the beach my friend Claude who, as you might guess, we called ‘Clod”, and I were returning from one of our frequent evenings at the Quiet Village Bar and Grill drinking beer and playing some silly version of shuffleboard.  By about 10 o’clock we had either finished drinking or, what is more likely, run out of money, and climbed into my car to drive back home.  Clod and I pulled out onto Mission Blvd and turned right onto Grand Ave, and just ahead of us was a classic American biker; leather boots, dirty jeans, jeans jacket with the emblem of some motorcycle club on the back, the whole enchilada.  I held back a bit from him as I had already had a few dealings with bikers and understood that they could be a little hair-triggered.  That proved to be a wise course of action.  The biker was clearly hammered on God-knows-what mix of intoxicants and was a bit less than steady.  As he reached the first red light he eased up to the line, stopped, and WHAM!  Over on his side he went.  He had forgotten to put his foot out to prop himself up.

Extricating himself from his chopper he struggled to lift the heavy machine, and then glared around just in case anyone was laughing.  Of course we WERE laughing but the dark and the distance of my car behind his bike prevented him from being able to see us.  The befuddled knight remounted his steed and when the light turned green he resumed his journey down Grand for six more blocks until he reached the next red light, and once again he rolled to a stop and WHAM!  Over he went again.  This time we rolled up our windows even though it was a warm summer evening in San Diego for fear that he would hear us laughing, for we were splitting our sides at this point.  Sir Drankalot went through his drill once again and propelled his misguided and increasingly scraped and dented missile down the road until he came to the next red light.  Yes, you guessed it dear reader; WHAM!  At this point I could hardly drive.  The next right turn would take me to my house which was only a couple of blocks away, but Clod and I wouldn’t pass up this show for all the tea in China.  At the next red light our boy managed to get his foot down, although it appeared to be a close shave.  At the fifth and final light however the Man Without a Plan did not disappoint; WHAM!

At last however our hero’s luck seemed to turn for the better, because there were now no lights between him and the freeway onramp.  I don’t suppose that was actually good news for him or anyone around him, but at least we can be sure that there were no red lights on Interstate 5.  Clod and I continued driving straight, passing under the freeway to an intersection where we could make a “U” turn and returned to our rental where we laughed about this story with our other roomies for the rest of the night.

My motorcycle days continued on their way toward an exciting and bumpy denouement, and by the time of my last ride I had gone down once again when an elderly woman turned directly in front of me to enter a restaurant parking lot.  I had decided earlier that I didn’t like eating paint and so I put my bike into the curb.  Ejected from the seat, I bounced and bumped across the parking lot, leaving patches of skin, hair and blood on the asphalt while the lady calmly parked and began to walk towards the door of the restaurant.  She had no idea whatsoever of what she had caused

I also had the joy of riding through a swarm of bees.  Cruising along with traffic on a main road in El Cajon I felt the soft thud of a large insect hitting my jacket.  This was quickly followed by the thwack of another hitting my forehead.  Then thud, thwack, thud thud, thwack thwack thwack, ….  I knew that there wasn’t a thing in the world that I could do but accelerate to get the ordeal over as quickly as possible.  After getting to the top of a hill where I could pull off the road I took off my old Army field jacket and combed the wounded but still armed and dangerous bees out of my long and curly heir, and ultimately counted only nine stings on my head and neck, and one where a crippled bee crawled inside my jacket.  That evening, when the sting sites had all swollen up, my head resembled a bunch of grapes.

All of that brings me back to my last ride.  I had borrowed my brother’s 500 cc for the night and was returning it to him.  I had been drinking and getting high as usual, but no more than usual, and it was dark when I decided it was time to take my brother’s ride back to his place.  It was a very damp and misty evening, unusual for southern California, and the streets had become slippery as the moisture mixed with the oil that had collected on the surface of the street.  I was not thinking about that at all when I tried to make a left turn at an intersection that was utterly deserted.  I was doing nothing out of the ordinary but as I leaned into my turn the bike slid over and I once again found myself eating pavement.  The landing was not too bad, as I was not going very fast in my turn.  Getting up, I pulled the heavy motorcycle erect and checked for damage.  There was a little but hardly enough to mention, so I fired it back up and rode the rest of the way to my brother’s house.

All the way there I was thinking how I had now gone down three times with remarkably little personal damage to show for it, and with a flash of rare clear thinking I reflected on how lucky i was.  I would later know a biker who lost both legs when he went down and somehow slid into a road sign which sliced him like a knife.  I showed my brother the damage and told him that I intended to sell my own 305 cc scooter and give up riding motorcycles.  “Yeah, sure” he said, but I told him again that i just didn’t want to press my luck, and so it has been to this day.

I have since had to even give up my bicycle which I owned for over forty years when my balance began to be somewhat suspect.  I gave the old Peugeot to my son and he doesn’t know that I cried just a little when he peddled it down the driveway and out into the street, heading to his home across the river.  Even now, though, I get the occasional thought of how grand it would be to get a little Cushman or something like that so that I could putt around town once again, helmet on this time but once again with a big, stupid grin and bugs in my teeth, just like in those long ago good days.

Age of Aquarius

I should have been born an Aquarius.  I don’t know diddle about astrology and couldn’t tell you what part of the year Aquarius covers, but if that zodiac sign covers water I should most definitely have been born under it.  From my earliest memories I have been drawn to the water and for the most part I have been comfortable in it.  In fact, I have sometimes been too comfortable in it and have forgotten to respect it.  It is my good fortune to have lived to write about my love affair with water and to tell a few tales from our long and enduring relationship.

As I said above, I have long remembered being in and around water and loving it.  My father taught me how to swim at the Navy pool in San Diego when I was six or seven years old, and before that I would sit on a poolside bench or in the sand at the beach and watch with the greatest envy while my family and some of my brother’s friends would swim.  My mother was the only person who would not swim, but that gave me no comfort at all.  I felt like a prisoner staring out of my jail cell through gray steel bars while everyone else would express their freedom with no regard for me whatsoever.

As the years passed I earned my gills and could be found in any body of water which presented.  The beach was my favorite, but the Navy pool and later the Municipal pool occupied countless hours of my time.  Even the Sweetwater River, which was barely more than a trickle most of the time, would draw me in.  When my family would camp in the mountains east of San Diego my brother and I would head straight for the river as soon as we were finished helping to unpack the car and were cut loose.  I can still hear my dad roaring “And don’t get into the water” at our backs as we ran towards the river that everybody, including my grinning father, knew that we would jump into without hesitation.

As I mentioned above, the beach was my favorite place to be.  As soon as I became a capable enough swimmer my dad would let me venture out to where the waves were breaking.  I would dive under them or try to jump over them, but if I wasn’t careful I would get picked up and thrown to the sandy bottom by them.  That was great good fun and I had no idea that those waves could jam a person’s head into the bottom and snap their neck like a rotten twig.  The only thing about that experience which gave me pause for concern was when I would get dunked by a wave and rather than popping up on the surface I would swim for the top but instead hit the bottom.  Invariably, when I would correct my error and reach the surface, the next wave would crash down upon me and I would get to do the whole thing over but with a good deal less air in my lungs.  A few times I got nailed by a set of three waves, and that got a little hairy.  I never really felt like I was in any danger when this would happen though, which only serves to demonstrate what a weak grasp on reality I had.

Things could get uncomfortable at the pool just as easily as they could at the beach.  From my earliest days in the Navy pool I longed to go off of the diving boards, but a person as young as I was had to demonstrate the ability to swim the length of the pool and back before that could happen.  I achieved that exalted status early on and before long I was doing dives and flips and all manner of launchings off of the end of both the high and low boards.  I mostly used the boards to have fun but once tried to use the board to impress a girl.  Like most of my other attempts to impress a girl this was a disaster.  Even at my young age I should have known better.

LaDonna Lanning was without a question the prettiest girl at Hamilton Elementary School, and in the summer of 1960 her family moved just one block away from me and almost right behind my friend Craig.  With a boldness entirely uncharacteristic of me I marched right over to her house one day (sweating bullets every step of the way) and knocked on the door.  It was LaDonna who answered and we talked on the porch for a while.  I went back nearly every day and we would talk on that front porch.  Sometimes a friend or two would come with me.  We never did enter her house.  One day I decided to take my chance and asked her if she would like to go to the pool.  My father was a retired Navy man and would periodically take me and a carload of my friends to the pool.  I expected a polite decline but, to my astonishment, she was interested and went in to ask her mother who, after learning that my dad would be present at all times, agreed.  Oh happy day!  I didn’t have the slightest idea what a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship would look like but I knew that LaDonna was going to the pool with me, and that was enough for the time being.

When we arrived at the pool my dad escorted LaDonna to the women’s locker room while my friends and I dove into the men’s.  I was dressed and showered in about two minutes and emerged poolside well before LaDonna could do all of the stuff that girls have to do before they jump into the water.  I looked toward the deep end of the pool where the diving boards were and saw that there were a few men lined up to use the low board but nobody on the high.  That was exactly what I had hoped to see.

Among my repertoire of dives off of the low (one meter) board was a one-and-a-half flip.  I would get all the height that I could, tuck into a tight ball, and spin as fast as physics would allow, coming out of my tuck at the last moment to make a clean entry into the water.  I got to where I could make a good dive almost every time.  Today was going to be special however.  I wanted LaDonna to see me tumbling down from the three meter high board in a more leisurely and graceful version of that one-and-a-half flip and marvel at my courage and skill in executing such a dive.  I was certain that spinning just a bit slower was all I needed to do to pull off this dive from the higher board.  I climbed the ladder and placed myself at the take-off point and waited to see the blue of LaDonna’s swimsuit.  Being as much a novice at girls as I was at making one-and-a-half flips from the high board I continued to wait and wait until I feared she wouldn’t come out at all but finally, with a beauty that nearly took my breath away, LaDonna stepped out of the doorway and into the pool area.

I took my cue and began a stately march down the length of the board.  Two steps from the end I took my first high bounce and then rode the board downward, using the upward recoil of the board and full exertion of my leg muscles to propel myself high into the chlorinated atmosphere over the deep end of that pool,  I went into my tuck and spun with a little less energy than I would have if diving from the low board, as planned.  At what I thought would be the moment of perfect execution I extended myself straight as a board.  What I received, instead of perfect execution, felt more like I had just been perfectly executed.

I opened up and straightened out just in time to do the perfect belly flop.  Fingertips, arms, face, chest, belly, legs and toes all hit the surface of that water simultaneously from a height of probably fourteen or fifteen feet.  My father later told me that the “WHOPP” that my flop created echoed back and fourth within that cavernous indoor pool for a good couple of seconds, and that everyone in the building who did not witness my magnificent belly flop was looking around, searching to find from whence that dreaded and well-known sound had come.

I was unaware of any such thing happening above the surface of the water.  Pain and humiliation battled across my nervous system and I just gently let out air and sank to the bottom where I could nurse my aching body and devastated ego away from the eyes of the other swimmers and especially the eyes of LaDonna.  When the option was finally surface or drown, I came back up and tried to affect an air of nonchalance about the whole thing which was betrayed by my glowing red belly and legs.  LaDonna didn’t say much about it and I don’t really remember much more about the day.  LaDonna moved again at the end of that summer and I never saw or heard from her again.

One decade later I was installed in Sonoma State College north of San Francisco and I was quickly drawn to one of the most impressive geographical features of that county; the Russian River.  The Russian was as different from the Sweetwater as it could possibly be.  It began as a smallish but very active river in the far north and grew as it added from tributaries on the way down from the hills.  Eventually it would meander in a large and stately fashion through the forests and meadows of Sonoma County and at last empty into the Pacific Ocean near Jenner-By-The-Sea.  My friends and I would swim, raft and fish in that river every chance we got.  One of our favorite things to do was to get buck naked and lie on the beach in little sheltered coves in the thick undergrowth which grew periodically along the banks.  Canoe tours would descend this more tame portion of the Russian with tourists from all parts and as they would paddle by we would wave while the cameras went off.  We believed we could hear the tourists saying “Look Harriett, look at the hippies”.  Maybe they didn’t say that, but we believed that they did and would take stories of the exotic fauna of the West Coast back home.  We did our part to not disappoint.

On one particularly fine, warm day we decided to visit a pool on the upper reaches of the Russian which we had swam in before.  It had been a wet year and the river was a little higher than usual.  Into a Volkswagon bus we climbed; Terry, Lisa, Fred, Rip, Marty, Cleo, Steve, Chris and myself.  We journeyed north into Mendocino County drinking beer and smoking weed, which is to say that we were in our normal state, and finally arrived at the turnout on Highway 101 where we could park and carry our coolers and food and blankets down to the small beach by the pool.  Because of the wet year the pool was deeper than usual and we had a great time diving off of the rocks (stupid under the best of circumstances) and swimming in the cold but not nearly freezing water.

After a while Rip and I noticed that the downstream outlet of our pool was a very smooth looking little rapid that dropped by easy stages into another pool.  This looked like it would be great fun to raft, but we had failed to bring any rafts.  After a while during which we drank a few more beers and shared a joint or two I said “Come on.  Let’s just take in a deep breath for flotation and go down on our backs.”  All of the guys agreed with the plan (better dead than ‘chicken’, I suppose) and we lined up to take our shot bare-back down ‘the chute’.  I went first.  Drawing as deep a breath as I could I floated on my back, toes out of the water and let the current draw me into the middle of the chute.

I was not ten feet into the rapid before I realized that this was one of the stupidest things that I had ever done, and when you ponder the competition on that list it was an impressive accomplishment indeed.  The velocity of the current went from gentle to hell bent for leather in no time at all.  The first drop plunged me under the surface where I could see snags and boulders which could easily break bones, bash heads to a pulp, and jam bodies underwater which wouldn’t be recovered until hours later.  Bouncing off of my first boulder I turned a half circle and caromed off another and then dropped a few feet into a swirling cauldron of water and stone that pinballed me out of that hellpot to drop a further couple of feet into the calm pool which we had noticed before.  Numb with fear and amazed to be alive and in one piece I swam over to the edge of the pool and clung to some thick grass which grew there.

Looking back I saw Rip, eyes almost bugging out with fear, plopped unceremoniously into the pool.  Rip paddled over to where I clung to my grass and we watched while the other guys, one by one, carried the same facial expression over the same drop into the pool.  We all pretty much just clung to the grass and stared at each other for a few moments.  Then Chris, who was clearly the craziest of all of us, began to laugh.  That broke the tension, and we were soon all laughing like madmen.

After a few more minutes we swam to the other side of the pool where we could pull ourselves onto dry land and begin our climb back up to the highway.  As we began to climb we looked up and saw a group of motorists who had stopped to look at the river.  There were probably half a dozen and they were still looking at us with jaws hanging open.  We thought that was odd, since we were all wearing swimming trunks this time, but when we got to the top and looked down upon the rapid which we had just surfed on our backs it looked like something out of the movie “River Wild”.  We stood and gawked for awhile, then broke into laughter once again, this time for joy of being still alive,