A Wild Ride with Chris

     One of the most interesting characters that I had the opportunity of serving with in the military was Chris Burnett.  Chris was either nineteen or early twenty-something, like all of the rest of us, and was one of the most easy-going fellows that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  I don’t believe that Chris had any enemies, at least not among the ranks of common soldiers, and he seemed to do his job well enough for the majority of his year in Vietnam to escape any attention of his officers or NCO’s.  Chris lived to enjoy life, and being in a war and in the crazy, regimented environment of the U.S. Army did not seem to make much of a difference to him.  I sometimes thought that Chris acted as if he had never really left his civilian life at all; that the olive drab fatigues and mess hall food and occasional bullets and rockets were only an aberration which would soon pass behind him and allow him to get on more fully with what he did best, which was living and enjoying life.

     I met Chris soon after he arrived in-country.  The GI’s and I had established a platform atop a water tower where we could spread out our lawn chairs and bask in the Vietnamese sun when we were not working at the port some twenty miles distant on the Saigon River.  I ascended the ladder to our outpost in the sun on my day off and found Chris sitting there already with a cooler filled with ice and beer and reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”.  I did not expect to see anyone on our water tower reading poetry, and nodded in his direction as I set up my own chair and opened one of Bruce Catton’s many books on the American Civil War.  It didn’t take but a few minutes before we were chatting like old friends and discussing books we had read and interests we would pursue when we returned to the ‘real world’.

     That evening I introduced Chris to the rest of my gang of friends when they returned from working on the docks, and after the obligatory question “Are you CID?” (Criminal Investigation Division: the branch of the Army devoted to stamping out pot smoking threats to the military establishment.  We believed that if they answered that question in the negative we were safe from any bust that they could put on us.  This was probably not true, but it is what we all believed), we all settled in to party and get high and do all of the coping stuff that we did while we were ‘over there’.

     Chris was one of the more decent guys in our group and was always careful to be mindful of the feelings of others, especially the Vietnamese who’s country we were ‘guests’ in.  Such consideration was rare, and many of the GI’s would be dismissive or openly hostile to any and all Vietnamese, from the men who burned the stuff from our latrines to the prostitutes who’s services they availed themselves of when they managed to get to Bien Hoa or Saigon.  This attitude made me uncomfortable but it just made Chris mad.  On his days off Chris would sit and chat with the female workers who would pick up and return our laundry, shine our boots, and generally clean up our bunk houses, or hooches as we called them, while the rest of us were at work at the docks.  Chris was always kind, kidding with the ladies and talking with them about their lives and about his own as if they were old neighbors.  The Vietnamese men who worked in the mess hall or maintained the grounds in our battalion area didn’t talk with anyone very much, either due to caution or because they were Viet Cong and would be throwing mortars at us that evening.  We couldn’t be sure.  Anyway, Chris seemed to be only dimly aware that there was a war going on; everyone was his friend.

     Don’t get the impression from what you have already read that Chris was a monk or a saint however.  Chris was a young man who was placed in an environment where many of the social constraints on life in the U.S. had been thrown out of the window.  He was as likely to sneak away into town and purchase an evening with a lady as the next guy, and Chris was sneaky enough to do this more than most and still not be noticed by anyone who cared.  The difference between Chris and others who did the same was that Chris managed to retain some sense of propriety about this business as is illustrated in the following case.

     Several of us were in Saigon one evening, having a few Tiger beers before we returned to the docks where we would stay that evening.  We were not supposed to be in Saigon in the first place, but that is meat for another story.  Chris was drinking beer with the rest of us but a very pretty bar maid had attracted his attention and he began to buy her small glasses of what was little more than water which we called Saigon Tea.  This was the accepted manner in which one secured the favors of the lady in question.  We were in a very high class joint with lots of officers and civilian contractors present, so a common soldier stood little chance of making headway in this environment.  Chris was persistent however, and after dropping what must have been nearly $200 on beer and Saigon Teas the lady led Chris outside, flagged a man on a motorcycle, gave him an address, and sent Chris off to await her arrival.

     We were all extremely nervous about this.  We didn’t patronize this bar often and did not really know anyone there.  The man piloting the motorcycle with a grinning Chris on the back through the darkened streets and alleys of Saigon could have been Ho Chi Minh’s nephew for all we knew.  We didn’t know whether to admire Chris’ guts or be in awe of his idiocy, but nobody intervened when he climbed onto the bike and disappeared into the gloom.  We returned to the docks unsure if we would ever see Chris alive again.

     Indeed we did see Chris again.  He showed up for breakfast at the mess hall on the port with a nasty hangover and the appetite of a much larger man.  “So, how’d it go?” we asked  “Well”, Chris began, “the guy on the bike twisted and turned until I had no idea where I was (I doubt that Chris knew where he was when he got on the bike in the first place), and then dropped me off at a house.  The people there were asleep, so it took a minute or two for them to get the door open.  An old woman let me in and then lit a small lamp.  In a second room there was a bed with a little boy in it where they had both been sleeping.  At just that time Mai, that is the girl’s name, came in the front door behind me and the old gal began to haul the kid out and get resettled on the floor.  I could see that they were going to sleep on the floor so that I could get it on with Mai in the bed.  Mai was probably the old lady’s daughter and might have been the kid’s mother.  I don’t know about the guy on the motorcycle; Brother?  Husband?  I could see that this whole thing was just wrong and nobody should have to do what they were doing to survive, and I told them that I would be sleeping on the floor and that they should all get into bed and get a good night’s sleep.  Mai was confused, as was the old lady, but they crawled back into their bed while I stretched out on the mat that they had just abandoned.  When I got up I left whatever was in my pockets on a table by the door and hitched a ride back here.”  Chris said that like it was a perfectly normal thing to do, and anyone would be likely to do the same.  The rest of us listened with amazement, thinking back on times when we had behaved a lot less honorably, and agreed that Chris was the strangest guy we had ever known, and in our company that was saying something.

     This brush with civility did not deter us for long from seeking the pleasures of Saigon however, and one especially memorable event deserves to be recounted in these pages.  One evening at our base camp we were sitting on the porch outside of our hooch and it occurred to my friend Chief that it would be a great evening to be partying at the Capitol Apartments in Saigon instead of sitting on lawn chairs on a wooden porch in Long Binh.  The Capitol really was an apartment but it also had a bar on the roof with all of the drinks and diversions offered by any other Saigon bar.  The place was one of our favorite venues but it had the disadvantage at that moment of being twenty miles across the Vietnamese countryside at ten o’clock at night in the middle of a war.  We discussed that obstacle and decided that with a little luck we could overcome it.

     Strawberry, who was from Gary, Indiana and who’s stateside employment probably included auto theft, said that he could hot wire the supply room two-and-a-half ton truck.  Chief, Chris and I agreed, like absolute imbeciles, that this could work, so we walked across our battalion area to where the deuce and a half rested, climbed in and fired her up.  Straw ground the truck into gear and we headed across Long Binh towards the main gate.

     At this time, forty plus years after the fact, I cannot remember what we said to the MP’s who were guarding that gate.  We were four idiots without helmets, flak jackets or weapons giving them some bullshit story about why we had legitimate business driving a truck into the pitch black Vietnamese countryside at almost eleven o’clock at night.  It might have been that they figured the Army would be better off without morons like us who’s insanity might some day get good men killed.  Or maybe they were bored and didn’t care.  Or maybe we just cooked up a really good bullshit story.  I don’t know.  The result of whatever force was at work that night was that we soon found ourselves lighting a joint and laughing as we rolled down Highway 1A heading for a good time that we could hardly have predicted only an hour or two before.

     We were approaching the bridge over the Saigon River near where our port was located when suddenly Straw hit the brakes and the deuce came to a screeching halt.  “What the hell?”  “What’re you doing?”  “You gone F’n nuts, man?”  We were all babbling when a whole new bunch of babbling caught our impaired attention.  Outside of our truck, which had become enmeshed in concertina wire which the Vietnamese Army strung across the highway at night to prevent enemy soldiers from riding in to do their dirty work, were a dozen South Vietnamese soldiers with their M-16 rifles all pointed at our heads and probably yelling for us to come out with our hands showing.  Come out we did, but with the kind of stupidity reserved for flatworms and drunk, stoned, horny GI’s.  We just piled out of the cab and jabbered at them with no more real communication than we received from them in return, pointed at the wire and began to tug on it, trying to get it out of our wheels and axle so that we could continue our journey.  The commander of this detachment of soldiers, either impressed with our bravery or amazed by our stupefaction, directed his men to help us with disentangling our truck from his wire, and soon waved to us as we rolled across the bridge and into Saigon.

     Once in the confines of Saigon we felt like we were home free.  We were four unarmed, unhelmeted, unflakjacketed inebriated dorks in a stolen truck in Saigon after curfew in a war; what could go wrong?  I was dreaming of the party that was soon to come when all of a sudden “BAM”!  The truck came to a stop in the back end of a car parked on the street.  “What the hell, Straw?” someone asked, and Straw tried to back up and disengage from the car but the gears were stuck.  In a moment a Vietnamese guy was yelling at us, pointing at our truck and at the car.  We tried to give him some money but he wouldn’t take it.  After a minute or two Chief said “Look”, and pointed to the car.  In the back seat, which had been empty a few moments before, sat a teenage girl holding the back of her neck and moaning.

     We knew instantly that this was a scam.  The curfew applied equally to Vietnamese teenagers as it did to developmentally challenged soldiers in stolen trucks.  Still, this was a wild care that we had no intention of playing.  Abandoning the truck we ran through the darkened post-curfew streets of Saigon, open targets for any Viet Cong or American MP’s who might see us, and made our way successfully the remaining few blocks to the Capitol Apartments, where we ascended to the roof and continued to party as if this was all part of a normal day’s work.

     The next morning we could see that there were MP’s waiting at all the entrances checking ID’s.  Our battalion at Long Binh had no doubt reported a missing truck, and a truck with those unit markings was reported to be resting in the rear end of a civilian’s car near the Capitol.  Even the Army can add two and two and so the MP’s were looking for anyone who did not belong there.  We decided to separate and go out different exits at different times.  I don’t know what advantage we thought that would confer upon us, but it made us feel like we were doing something clever so that was our plan.

     I went first and pulled out my wallet with my ID as I approached the door.  The MP took my ID, looked it over, handed it back and waved me through.  I walked away on automatic pilot; I couldn’t believe that I was free!  I caught a cycalo, a sort of rickshaw hooked up to a small motorcycle, and rolled through the early morning streets of Saigon towards the docks that we had passed the night before.  Upon arrival I headed to the mess hall and waited as Chris and then Chief showed up.  We ate some breakfast and drank coffee, holding out from going to our duty stations and hoping that Strawberry would make it back.  Finally, as we were about to give up, Straw came staggering through the mess hall door and headed straight to the coffee dispenser.  It seems that Straw had a really good time.  We later learned that because our particular unit was based in Saigon but detached to support the battalion in Long Binh, our ID’s included the base unit’s home location as being Saigon and it was this home location that saved our bacon.  We almost never had contact with that home unit but in this case that connection came in very handy.  Our officers knew what we had done but had no way to prove it, which either really pissed them off or impressed them.  I never discussed it with them so I don’t know which way it went.

   When it was nearing time for Chris to go home he began to lose interest in his work.  Chris told me that he was trying to do his job but the BS which was routine in the military at that time, plus Chris’ longing to return to his family and girlfriend (whom Chris did not at that time know had moved on with her life) simply seemed to capture most of his attention.  Chris was finally ejected from the shack where he had monitored the flow of cargo out of ships which tied up at Deep Draft Number One and was reassigned to the motor pool, where it was believed for some altogether unfathomable reason that the U.S. Army might get some productivity out of Chris.  That project failed miserably.  I would occasionally look out the window of my building and see Chris wandering amongst the jeeps and forklifts smoking what he wanted people to think was a cigarette, but I knew it wasn’t.  Chris finally just threw in the towel and told our unit commander that he was retiring.  He had only four weeks until he left both Vietnam and the Army, and he was simply done.

     The commander, Lieutenant Williams, tried to explain that you just can’t do that.  Chris would have none of it however, and continued to take up space in the motor pool until the sergeant overseeing that operation complained to the Lieutenant that Chris was harming moral.  That was not really true.  All of the guys in the motor pool liked Chris as much as we did, but the Lieutenant finally came and accompanied Chris to a pile of sandbags which lay on one side of our communications bunker.  “Move those sand bags to the other side” he commanded, and then walked away.

     Chris moved the sandbags, two at a time, for a few hours, taking frequent breaks inside the commo bunker where it was air conditioned.  Eddie Morales, one of our group of friends, was in the bunker listening to the Doors and Velvet Underground and would have loved to enjoy Chris’ company, but he would have been roasted had he been caught with Chris inside where he could hear things he hadn’t clearance to hear, so Eddie would chase him back outside into the sweltering heat to continue moving sandbags.  When Chris completed his task he sat down in what shade he could find and awaited the return of the Lieutenant.  At length, Lieutenant Williams returned, surveyed the work and said “Well done.  Now move them back to the other side” and left.

     Chris was not impressed with this order and sat down to figure out how to meet this new effort to make him do useless work.  At that moment Chris remembered that a very important somebody, a general or congressman or senator or something like that, was supposed to visit the port that day.  This Very Important Personage would come by helicopter and there was only one good, open place for a chopper to land.  Chris sprang into action and began to place the green sandbags in a large circle in the dry red Vietnamese dust.  Slowly a peace symbol about thirty feet in diameter took shape and was completed in time to greet the visiting VIP.

     That was the end of the line for Chris.  He was told to stay in his hooch at Long Binh until he left the country, which was fine with him and exactly what he did.  About a week after this we returned from work to find his bunk stripped and his footlocker open and empty.  At a time when guys were routinely waiting one and even two weeks past their scheduled dates to leave Vietnam Chris had left a week early.

     Many guys wrote back to us when they left ‘The Nam’.  I certainly did, for a while anyway.  You make connections in a place like that which are not easily broken.  Chris never wrote however, and although we were disappointed we understood.  Chris was a good-hearted guy who lived in the now, and once he left Vietnam and the Army I’m sure it was as if they had never existed.  I hope to run into Chris some day, but I haven’t in over forty years and so I don’t suppose that I ever will.  If you’re reading this Chris, I hope you’ve had a happy life.  I suspect that you have. 


A Snake’s Tale

I have never in my life purposefully sought to have much in the way of dealings with snakes.  Surprise encounters did take place from time to time, and I have written elsewhere of spending an evening sitting on a pile of wood in Vietnam almost right next to a large king cobra, and being chased in Georgia by a water moccasin that was too stupid or too truculent to care that in addition to fishing gear I also carried in plain sight a 12 gauge, double barrel shotgun.  I have had other encounters with snakes however and in one case the encounter was quite intentional.  I now propose to tell you that tale.

Vietnam forty years ago was a place where there were many ways that one could die.  When I was there in the middle of a war I made the acquaintance of the cobra mentioned above, but there were more snakes there than cobras!  The bamboo viper, which is green and blends wonderfully into its surrounding jungle, is so poisonous that the GI’s in the U.S. Army called it the ‘step-and-a-half snake’, since that was about all of the time that you had after being bitten before you did a face-plant onto the jungle floor.  I feared and hated those snakes, and would not hesitate to kill one.

But not all snakes in Vietnam were our enemies.  One snake, Leroy was his name, was in fact quite welcome in our company.  You see, we had a rodent problem in our living quarters.  Well, heck, we had a rodent problem throughout the entire country of Vietnam, but that is a different story.  At the docks where we worked unloading supplies from barges, LST’s and freighters of all kinds and sizes, the rats were huge and we needed terriers to keep them sort of under control.  The rats there were too big for a cat to handle.  At our base camp about twenty miles away from the docks, where we had assembled aluminum prefabricated bunkhouses called ‘hooches’, we were free of the river rodents but plagued by a much smaller variety which nonetheless had appetites as big as their gargantuan riverine relatives.  Any morsel of food, such as what might have arrived in a care package from the family back home, was fair game if it was left out by accident or the result of a drunken stupor.  Even worse was their sweet tooth for our marijuana.  We would stash our weed in paper-covered bundles in the insulation of our hooches on the off chance that we might have to endure a surprise inspection.  We didn’t fear inspections too much because, well, what were they going to do to us if they found something that they didn’t like, send us to Vietnam?  Still, it was an aggravation that we could live without so we hid the weed in the insulation.

But the mice found our weed.  One evening we parted the fiberglass batting to retrieve our stash and found the paper wrapping gnawed through and most of the weed eaten.  A few teaspoons of dope remained but it was sprinkled with mouse droppings, as if the dirty rats wanted to rub it in a little.  We decided that this meant war, and we retired to the enlisted men’s club to hatch our plans over a few dozen cans of beer.  The result of those deliberations was Leroy.

My friend Chief and I made a trip into Saigon the next day to replace our devoured marijuana, or ‘can sa’ in Vietnamese.  As we made our purchase we explained, with some translational difficulty, our problem to Papa San, our Vietnamese supplier.  Once Pop understood the problem he laughed a good belly laugh and said “No problem.  You come back tomorrow.  Con ran numbya one.  No more trouble with numbya hukin’ welve chuot.”  We figured out that a ‘chuot’ was a mouse, but had no idea what a ‘con ran’ was.  If it kept our con sa save however, it was fine with us whatever it was.

Chief and I arrived the next day and, as promised, Papa San was there with a large burlap bag tied off at the top.  The bag giggled and squirmed a bit when Pop moved it, but otherwise lay perfectly still.  “That con ran” we asked?  “Yah” replied Pop.  “No charge.  Onna house.”  “We take a look” we enquired?  “Soo-ah, I show”.  Papa San took a knife and and cut the string which bound the sack shut.  Chief and I peered into the open mouth of the sack and then jumped back about three feet at the same time, because staring up at us was what looked like a very large snake.  “No worry for GI” said Pop.  “Con ran numbya one for GI.  No care about GI.  Con ran eat chuot.  chuot numbya one for con ran.  Con ran numbya hukin’ welve for chuot.  I tell you before, con ran numbya one.”  We had never been given a bum steer by Papa San before, so we agreed to take the snake.  We offered Pop some money but he wouldn’t take it.  We were good customers and, as he said, the snake was on the house.

When we got back to our hooch that evening we hauled out our sack to show the guys the solution to our problem.  The reaction was mixed.  Ray Harris, an African American from West Memphis Arkansas, hated snakes and nearly put a turd in his underwear when he saw Leroy.  Chief (not the Chief with whom I went into Saigon, but a Native American from Oklahoma) was not especially pleased, but agreed that desperate times required desperate measures.  Phiz was one of those guys who actually liked snakes, so he offered to switch bunks with Ray so that he would be well off of the floor where Leroy would mostly be crawling.  It took lots of coaxing, but Ray finally gave in and Leroy was turned loose to become the newest member of our family.

Leroy, it turned out was only about four feet of some kind of constrictor.  He was a pretty snake, as shakes go, but we almost never saw him.  We tried to keep the doors of our hooch closed as much as possible to keep him inside, relying on keeping our screened windows open and fans ‘requisitioned’ from among the supplies which we off-loaded from the freighters at the docks to keep our hooch ventilated, and we noticed immediately that the rodent population began to decline.  Our weed was never again tampered with and even some foodstuffs were safe to leave out, as long as it wasn’t something that a snake would like.  One drawback was that when you returned to your hooch after an evening of sloshing down beers at the EM club and turned down your blanket you might find two beady little reptilian eyes staring back at you.  You just never quite get ready for that. I would lift Leroy gently out of my bunk and place him on the floor and he would slither away to curl up in somebody else’s bunk.  After making sure there were no snake turds in my bunk I would then crawl into the sack and not give Leroy another thought.

Ray never did get used to Leroy though, and one night it was Ray’s turn to stagger home late and find Leroy in his bed.  Out of the darkness we heard a decidedly un-manly shriek and then the voice of Ray shouting “Shit! Goddammit! Goddammit!  Somebody get that f___ing snake out of my f___ing bed!”  Larry Wiest, a logger from the Pacific Northwest, lifted Leroy out of Ray’s bunk while the rest of us tried to calm him down.  It was of no avail.  Ray grabbed his pillow and blanket and went to crash in the hooch of a friend in Headquarters Company.  Ray remained our friend and hung out with us but he never slept in our hooch again.  Ray left Vietnam three months before I did, glad to be going home and especially glad to be as far away from Leroy as he could get.

Leroy was still living with us when my turn to rotate back to the states came around.  The snake had grown to almost six feet in length and was getting quite fat on the ample food that was available.  That amiable reptile had become very much a part of our little family and we came to leave the doors of our hooch open once Leroy had established it as his home base.  We would hear reports of his midnight slitherings in other hooches but most of those guys didn’t mind a little rodent control, so they didn’t object too much.

None of the guys to whom I wrote after I left Vietnam ever mentioned Leroy, and I suppose that one day he just crawled off into the Mekong Delta and rejoined the natural world.  I hope so, and I hope that there are hundreds if not more little Leroys crawling around the marshes and jungles of southern Vietnam to this day, keeping the vermin under control and living the good snake life.

For the Love of Emma

It’s been about fifteen years or more since the last time that I saw Emma.  I work at a hospital, and although I was usually there in the daytime I was frequently willing to put in overtime to garner a larger paycheck. That usually involved working into the night, and Emma was a housekeeper who worked the evening shift. Emma was older than me and I was older than most of the others there. She was small of stature but was a hard worker. It was evident that Emma had never in her life imagined that anything less was expected of her than that she pulled her own weight.  Emma was efficient and very organized; we knew exactly when to expect her to come through our department and we knew that it would be clean when she was finished.

But there was more to Emma than her efficiency and punctuality.  Emma was the sweetest lady whom I have ever known. The adjective ‘sweet’ is one that gets overused in my opinion  A well-thrown forward pass may be described by the color commentator as ‘sweet’, or a shady business deal conducted behind closed doors may be called a ‘sweet deal’, but those usages of the word sell short it’s true meaning and impact. Emma did not have a mean or angry bone in her body, and treated everyone in our department as if they were a friend or even a child of hers; a beloved child at that. Yes, Emma was a sweet woman.

At quarter ’till ten o’clock her husband, who was already retired, would faithfully show up in the lobby of the hospital to wait for her shift to end.  Unlike Emma, Don was a quiet person who waited patiently for his bride to come to him ready to return to their home after a long shift.  Don never shared much of his life with us but it was clear that he shared all of it with Emma. When Emma walked down the hall carrying her little lunch bag at the end of her shift Don’s eyes would twinkle just a little and his shoulders would straighten a bit. Don would put his hand on Emma’s shoulder and say something into her left ear, low and inaudible to the rest of us, and they would walk out side-by-side to go home.

We all spoke with Emma often because she felt so much like an old friend, but my partner Becky spoke with her more than most. Becky had risen through a difficult early life to carve out a niche for herself in the middle class, and she felt a kinship with Emma that the rest of us who had no such background could not have access to. Emma told Becky that she grew up on a farm/ranch on the edge of a small town in Texas. Some of her family remained on the farm and some made a living in town, but she didn’t really know much about their lives because she hadn’t visited home in thirty years.

Thirty years! Think of how long thirty years is. As of the moment that I write this tale Ronald Reagan was president thirty years ago. The Soviet Union still existed and threatened the U.S. with destruction (and the U.S. returned the favor). Linebackers in the NFL could still sack a quarterback without receiving a penalty. Thirty years is a long time for anything, and it had been thirty long years since Emma had visited her family in Texas.  Emma shared that fact with Becky with an air of acceptance. Poor people don’t get to take vacations and visit family who live over 1,000 miles away.  That’s just how the world works.

Becky shared this news with me and I felt a great sadness; not pity, but sadness for Emma. My family was and still is very important in my life and I couldn’t imagine being without them. Becky and I discussed what a not-sweet deal this was for Emma and we began to cook up a scheme to correct the situation. We would ask everyone in our department; X-Ray. CT, MRI, Ultrasound and Nuclear Medicine, plus the radiologists who read our images, to donate to a fund to send Emma on vacation. We began that very moment by whipping twenty dollar bills out of our wallets and putting them into an envelope in a drawer in our exam room.

It was late in the evening when we began this crusade, and so there were only a few people to whom we could appeal with our plan. The response was reassuring however and we raised nearly one hundred dollars in cash and pledges that first night. Over the next month we approached everyone in the department with our plan and soon we had a bag bulging with fives and tens and twenties, and even more gratifying than that was the fact that we had an entire department that was united in the thrill of doing this act for our Emma.

I can’t remember a time when we were more united as a department. People were talking together in corners, giggling in the halls, and kidding with Emma even more than they usually did. I spoke with Don when we were nearing the number that we felt would be adequate to make our plan work and at first he was reluctant to go along with it, mistaking love for pity. I assured him that we all felt like our lives were made better by Emma’s kind spirit and we simply wanted to repay kindness with kindness and he relented. Don eventually became an active co-conspirator in our project.

Sometimes I was begging for contributions, but most of the time people were tracking me down so that they could throw money at me. The pot grew; three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, up it went. We asked Don when she would be able to take a vacation and he gave us a date.  Becky took a chunk of our bundle and bought two round trip tickets to Dallas-Fort Worth. The money continued to trickle in after that, and when the night came that we were going to spring the surprise we had two tickets and three hundred dollars for spending money amassed in the bag.

The file room was festooned with balloons and ribbons when Emma came to clean that night. Everyone was laying low and watching from behind nearly-closed doors and dark corners when Emma made her appearance.  As usual, she cleaned a few bathrooms first and then angled her cart out of the main hall and into the narrow passage leading to the file room.  Seeing the decorations she exclaimed softly to herself ‘I wonder who all of this was for.”  At that moment Lois, one of our support staff, couldn’t stand it any more and stepped out from behind a long cabinet of medical records and said ‘It’s for you.”

The cat was out of the bag, and so we all came out of our hiding places and stepped noisily into the file room, laughing and smiling and saying ‘Surprise’ and things like that. A moment later Don stepped out from behind a tall bank of fluorescent lights holding medical images and gave Emma’s dumbfounded cheek a kiss. Becky stepped forward and gave Emma the envelope with the tickets and money and said ‘You need a vacation’.

Emma was floored! At first she was uncomfortable; Emma had never taken a handout in her life. Don spoke quietly into her ear, telling her that this wasn’t a handout; this was a gift from people who loved her. Emma teared up a little and wrestled with her emotions as we wrestled with our own, and then found a place of peace with the situation. She began to banter with all of us and accepted, finally, that she was the star of the show. We were not about to allow it to be any other way.

Emma and Don took their vacation, and soon after their return she retired. Emma never said a lot about her trip and we didn’t ask her. The vacation was hers, not ours, and we were happy to let her enjoy her vacation on her own terms. I think it’s possible that we enjoyed her vacation as much as she did. I cannot remember a time when our department more enjoyed each other than when we were focused not on ourselves but instead were focused on doing one good thing for one good woman. I will always remember that as one of the very best times of my life.

To Bee or Not To Bee

I was recently invited to a friend’s newly purchased house to help them restore an old garden in the back yard.  There were six raised beds built of cedar that were in very workable condition, although the beds were overgrown with weeds and the soil was in serious need of amending.  We got busy with shovel and rake and soon had half of the beds cleared of weeds and ready to plant the summer crop.  By the end of the day we wanted to have tomatoes, broccoli, onions, cucumbers, squash and a lot of other vegetables planted either as starts or from seed.  When we were half done with the project we retired to a covered porch in order to relax in the shade and have a cold beer.  Upon sitting down in the deck chairs my friend noticed a wasp nest in the corner of the roof over his deck.  “Just a minute” he said, and disappeared into the house.  He emerged a few minutes later with a spray can.  Walking over to the corner where the nest was he prepared to cut loose.

“Whoa, wait a minute.  What are you doing” I shouted.

“I’m going to kill those wasps” was the answer, and he raised the can again.

“Bad idea” I exclaimed, rising up out of my chair in case the need arose to physically restrain my friend.  “Why on earth do you want to do that?”  My friend lowered the can but looked at me like I had lost my mind.

“Because they’re wasps.  They sting.  And besides, they chew the wood on my house to make the paper for their nests” he said, and he began to raise the can again.  This time I got out of my chair and told him to put the can down slowly, keep both hands where I could see them, and sit his hind end down in the chair and drink the cold beer that I extended to him.  My friend laughed, took the beer, and sat in his chair.  He knew that I am an organic gardener and so wasn’t surprised by my outburst, although he was unsure of what paper wasps had to do with gardening.  I proceeded to fill in that lapse in his education.

“How many times have we been stung today” I asked?

“None” was the reply.

“And that wasp nest was there all the time and probably a lot more just like it as well, huh?”

“What’s that got to do with anything” he asked.  And so I told him.

“Those wasps couldn’t care less about you or me or anyone else.  They would much rather be putting their stingers into caterpillars and cabbage worms that would otherwise be eating your vegetables that we’ll soon be planting.  They paralyze the hungry little critters and then lay their eggs on them so that when their young hatch they’ll have fresh meat to feed on.”

“Ugh” was my friend’s reply.

“Yeah, it wouldn’t be my first meal choice either, but it seems to work for them really well and it will help you to keep pests to a minimum without turning your garden into the Love Canal” I said, referring to a chemical dump that was covered up in some eastern state and a neighborhood built over it.

“Well, I got stung last year by one of these while I was mowing the lawn”.

“I’ll bet that wasp came up out of the ground” I said.

“Yes, it did.  And I nuked it good”.

“I don’t blame you; that was a yellow jacket.  Yellow jackets have a very bad attitude, especially in the fall.  I have a theory about yellow jackets.

“What’s that” he asked, knowing that something absurd was coming.

“When God created everything and said that it was good, Lucifer came up to him and asked ‘can I create something”  Huh?  Huh? Can I?  Just a little something?’  God knew that it was a bad idea but he was a little soft with Lucifer, who was a high strung but otherwise didn’t seem to be such a bad kid.  ‘OK,’ said God, ‘but don’t do anything stupid.’

‘I wouldn’t do anything stupid; you know me!’

‘That’s what I’m talking about’ said God, but before he could say another word Lucifer snapped his fingers and BAM: there were ticks.  BAM: there were spiders (some people say snakes, but I disagree) and BAM: there were yellow jackets.  God was horrified and said ‘OK, that does it.  You’re grounded for, like, eternity’.  And that’s how we got into this mess.”

My friend laughed and said “so I can nuke the yellow jackets and you won’t have a cow?”

“Yeah, it’s alright if they are in your yard or where they would be a threat to you or your family.  Otherwise I just leave them alone unless they are buzzing me.  Then it’s personal.”

“But what about them eating my house” he asked.  That paper comes from somewhere.”

“It does indeed” I replied.  “It comes from dead wood and live plant stems.  Painted buildings made of commercial lumber is a great place to build a nest but not very tasty. The wasp is getting its fibers for nest building from out there”.  I pointed out to an overgrown vacant lot a few houses down from my friend’s new place.  I can’t count how many hours I’ve worked in my yard sharing space with honey bees, bumblebees and wasps of all kinds and never had one bit of trouble, and my house has lots of nests but it’s still standing.

My friend knew that I practically lived in my yard from late spring through fall, so he was certain that i knew what I was talking about.  We yakked for a while longer and his wife brought out some snacks for us to munch on before we got back to work.  Before long however a yellow critter began buzzing around our heads and hovering over our salsa.  With little effort or fanfare I removed my sweat-stained baseball cap and awaited my moment.  When it came I struck like a cobra.  “Thwak!”  The stunned bug lay wriggling on the concrete deck.  I arose and went over to it, then ground it into a greasy stain.

“Yellow jacket?” was my friend’s two word question.


Food Fight

I was a very picky eater when I was young. In fact, to say that I was a picky eater is a lot like saying that the surface of the sun gets a little bit warm. I was such a picky eater that it is an absolute miracle that I survived long enough to learn to like food, which happened when I was twenty years old.  It is a miracle not only because I was nutritionally challenged, but because my father was completely unable to grasp the concept of not eating anything that he had declared to be edible, and had absolutely no tolerance for the wasting of any kind of food. This caused a great deal of pain and confusion for me as a child, because when my mother cooked something and everybody in the house knew that I was not going to eat it, it seemed to me like the ‘waste factor’ had been written into the script, and I was predestined to have a very bad evening. The picture never varied; it repeated itself over and over, like some dreadful video on a continuous loop.

I can’t really blame my father for his regard for food. Dad spent his middle-to-late teen years on a farm in Southern Georgia during the Great Depression. There was enough food to eat but it was not a particularly varied diet, and any meat at all was the cheapest of cuts. The better cuts of meat were sold in order to keep the farm going, clothes on their backs and the expenses paid. Dad spoke of walking behind a mule-powered plow all day long and making packing crates for a half-penny each just to help the family get by. When he turned eighteen my father decided to try to get into the military and expand his possibilities.

In 1936 it was not so easy to get into the military. The United States had demobilized considerably after the first world war and the smaller personnel needs meant more competition for fewer slots. Dad chose to try to get into the Navy because that branch offered more travel opportunities, so one day my grandmother made him a sack lunch and he boarded a Greyhound Bus to Albany, which was a couple of hours from his home near Tifton. The Navy recruiting officer told the roomful of boys who showed up that day that there were openings for three recruits from that county. He wished them luck and then passed out the tests.

My father never told me what was in the test but whatever it was, it was material covered by the Tifton High School Blue Devil faculty because Dad was one of the top three. He never said where he placed in the exalted crowd of three and I don’t think he cared. The officer congratulated him for now being in the Navy, handed him a train ticket, and pointed in the direction of the station. Dad already knew where that station was and walked across Albany to await the train which ran north and east to Norfolk, Virginia.

Dad was pleased that he had been accepted and grateful for that train ticket, but he noticed right away that it was not accompanied by a meal ticket. Dad had already eaten whatever it was that Grandma had made for him; probably a cheese sandwich and a turnip, and he knew that Norfolk was a long way away. He was not about to jeopardize his escape from the Depression however by asking about meals, so he climbed aboard that train and settled into a seat, content to sleep or stare out the window or do whatever he could to keep his mind off of the hunger that was gnawing at his belly. The next day at close to midnight, a full day and a half since his skimpy lunch, the train pulled into Norfolk with my dad and a number of other recruits that it had picked up along the way. Exiting the train, the recruits were loaded onto a bus and driven to the Naval Training Center where one mess hall was brightly lit and bustling with activity in the kitchen and on the serving line. Upon arrival at the Center the recruits were taken off of the bus, put into some sort of order, and marched in a ragged line into that mess hall where they had as much spaghetti and salad and garlic bread and dessert as they wished to eat. Dad told me the story of that meal many times, and always with a gleam of appreciation still in his eye at the memory. In 2005 I cooked the last meal that I ever made for Dad: Spaghetti with salad and garlic bread and a glass of red wine. Dad could no longer taste food by that time and was only a few months from his death, but he could still remember. He ate a lot that day, sick as he was.

My father got his wish and traveled widely, mostly in the Pacific. He told me stories of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Philippines, Burma (now Myanmar), Japan and China. Dad was in the Pacific before, during and after the second world war. One of the things which particularly struck him was the hunger that could be seen everywhere. People in Chinese port cities would row up to the garbage chutes of Navy ships in their sampans to collect the mixed-up scraps of food that the sailors threw away. I later saw a variation on that theme when I was in Vietnam, so I believe that what Dad said was true. It was therefore with authority that Dad could say “There are people starving in China who would love to have that food.”  He knew. He had seen it.

And this brings us back to my family seated around the table at our home in San Diego. Mom has produced a fine meal of pork chops, rice and gravy, corn on the cob, and peas. The rice and gravy and corn I love. The pork chops are OK as long as there is a good half-inch of meat between what I eat and any piece of fat. Dad knows that my pickiness will result in the better part of an extra chop for him, and he’s just fine with that. But then there are the peas. I look at the couple of tablespoons of the hideous green things with a mix of fear and loathing.  I loathe them because, well, they’re peas; they’re loathsome!  I sense fear because I already know how this night will end.

Dad sees everything and knows everything at the table. He knows that I have nearly finished off all that I intend to eat when he growls “You’re not leaving the table until you eat your peas.” I know that this won’t happen and I cannot believe that Dad doesn’t know it too. “Just put them in your mouth and chew”.  I reluctantly stick a few peas in my mouth and chew, feel the sliminess inside my mouth and nearly throw up.  I chew, but I don’t swallow. “Take another spoonful” Dad commands, and a few more peas are added to their friends that preceded them into my reluctant maw.  As the sad spectacle runs its predictable course my brother finishes his meal and is excused from the table. He will eat anything. Brad leaves the house; he doesn’t want to watch what he knows is coming with the certainty of death and taxes.

Mom sees the situation rising to a boiling point and begins to try to defuse the crisis, which incidentally she is responsible for! “I have ice cream.  Just eat a few peas and I will dish you up a big bowl full.” I would love to have the ice cream but it would in no way compensate for swallowing the bolus of green muck which was growing by the minute in my cheek. Mom would finally sense the futility of her mission and join my brother somewhere else. Finally, the wad in my cheek and Dad’s boiling points would intersect at some critical juncture and the inevitable eruption would take place.

“POP!” Dad would reach out and smack me right in that bulging cheek which was carrying pea-mush much like a chipmunk carries nuts. I would swallow most of that mass, and within a few seconds I would be running down the hall towards the bathroom where the inevitable emesis event would shortly be taking place. Dad was right on my heels, frapping me about the head and shoulders for the wastage that he knew would soon be taking place. The punishment ended when I leaned over the toilet and ejected the peas as well as the pork chop, corn, and rice and gravy (which would have otherwise stayed where it belonged!). At that moment I didn’t give a flying damn about starving kids in China, and as I reflect back on those times I don’t think that at that moment my father really did either.

I have chronicled elsewhere how this war finally came to an end. I was eleven or twelve years old and on a trip to my father’s hometown of Tifton. My parents were unaware that I was awake and I heard Dad say “the kid can eat his grandmother’s cooking or he can starve.”  At last I had been given an option which did not include getting boxed in the ears!  I exercised that option and as we headed west nearly a month later, and I was lying listlessly on the back seat of our car suffering from diarrhea and malnutrition, I heard Dad say “If the kid will starve himself, I can’t win that fight.” The war was over, and when I entered the Army six or seven years later I was six feet tall and weighed a hundred and twenty eight pounds. I was skinny as a rail but I was a happy skinny, and to me that was all that mattered.

If Only There Was Somewhere To Hide

In our diverse and crowded world it seems like we are all destined to be separated by geography, culture, gender, economic and educational attainments, and so on.  The list of things that separate us and set us apart is a long one that seems to be growing longer and more rigid day by day.  This would make it seem like reconciling ourselves to living together would be an insurmountable task but I do not believe that to be the case.  As I look at the people around me I see as many things that we share in common as things that we do not.  We all have loves and hurts, we all need to eat, to have shelter, and to have a purpose in life.  And that list could go on for a long time as well.  But lest I begin to get too lofty in all of this let me share with you all one other thing that we all hold in common.  We all, at one time or another, do something embarrassing.

A president will throw up into the lap of a prime minister, a congressman will send sketchy photos to an assumed girlfriend.  A radiologist wiil point to some shadows on a piece of film and ask “And what is this?’, and the harassed technologist will reply “I don’t know doc, you took that picture”.  A young boy will ask a girl to the dance but call her by another girl’s name, and the girl who does get to go to the dance will see that three other girls, including her sworn enemy, are wearing the same dress that she is and look better in it.  This is just the way of the world.  There’s no way to avoid it unless you hole up in a cabin somewhere and avoid all human contact, and that is a pretty high price to pay to avoid a little thing like embarrassment.

I have certainly enjoyed my fair share of embarrassment.  I am by nature extremely outgoing while my major secondary personality trait is that I am shy and easily embarrassed.  That is a poisonous combination.  I have already written about my prodigious three-meter belly flop which was committed while trying to impress a young lady at a swimming pool in my story “Age of Aquarius”.  Then there was the straw that got thrust into my nostril when I went to take a sip while sitting with several friends in a junior high cafeteria, and when I was giving an oral report and my mind went so blank that I could hardly remember my name.  I’ve had others and you, dear reader have had them too.  And most of us can remember The One, the worst embarrassment of all time, unless you are so fortunate that your mind has completely repressed the memory and there is no scar on your psyche to show where that particular land mine blew up.  My mind has not been that lucky.  I still remember my worst time, and now I will share it with the world.

I grew up in San Diego, California, and like many kids in that time I had a paper route.  I hated getting up early in the morning then just as I still do now, so I chose to take a route with the afternoon paper, the Evening Tribune, which I could deliver after returning home from school.  Upon returning to my house I would find one or more bundles of newspapers, depending upon the paper’s size on any given day, which I would begin to fold in half and then secure with rubber bands that I would purchase from the newspaper company.  Porch delivery was the desired model then and broken screens and upended potted plants were things to be discouraged, so we folded the papers as tightly as possible in order to make them as aerodynamically functional as possible.

We would load those papers into a saddlebag-looking canvas contraption that we would then sling over a steel frame attached over the back tire of our heavy-framed bicycles.  The smarter paperboys would affix a basket on the front of the bicycle which would hold a ready supply of papers for delivery, but the basket looked really weenie and so most of us rejected the notion out of hand.  We would instead withdraw a few of the folded papers from our canvas bag and hold them between the left thumb and handlebars so that we could launch individual papers with our right hand.  This is where it got tricky.  On the porch roof or through a screen was just a bad deal.  Into a shrub or a potted plant was only a little less bad.  We were forbidden to ride across our customers’ lawns so we had to launch our papers, at speed and like a Frisbee, from the sidewalk and across the lawn to land neatly with a satisfying ‘plop’ on the mostly concrete porches in the front of the customer’s house.  The surprising thing is how often we were successful at doing this.

One other thing you need to know in order for this tale to make sense is that San Diego in the early and mid 1960’s was a city that lived very much outside.  The weather in that city was nice most of the year and could be quite warm from summer through fall.  There were not a lot of residential air conditioners in those days and people would open up all of their windows and doors to allow any breeze to flow through the house, and in the afternoon and evening they would sit outside on the shady side of the house.  On any given day there was a line of people stretching down the street sitting in the shade of their front porches, running the sprinklers for the kids to play in and chatting with neighbors, or just watching the world go by.  And this sets the table for my moment of ultimate misery.

Thursday was always a day for big, fat papers because of all of its advertising inserts and announcements of weekend sales within the paper itself.  Only Sunday papers were bigger, and they required larger rubber bands to contain them.  I had flattened the papers as well as I could and double banded them in the hope that they would fly with more grace and accuracy than a drunken goose and that the bands would not snap and the paper explode into a million separate pages floating across the customer’s lawn and those of their neighbors.  I stuffed as many folded papers as would fit into the canvas saddlebags and tied it to my bike.  It was now time to deliver my cargo.

I encountered no misadventures that I can recall as I waddled down the sidewalk on my overloaded bike.  The papers were so thick that I could only hold two with my left thumb while I launched the third with my right hand.  This caused me to be looking backwards often as I sought to fish out three more of my paper projectiles without having to stop the bike.  Time is money!  I safely negotiated my first block and the action of the bicycle became smoother as I ejected my load missile by missile towards porches that, on that day, looked to be as big as a basketball court.  The first load got me two blocks north and then three blocks south on the opposite side of the street.  Upon emptying my bags I returned to my house to ram the rest of my papers into the bag and return down the street to where I left off.  One of the rules of the job was that we were not to ride on sidewalks unless we were actively delivering papers, so I was wobbling down the street with my unwieldy load attempting to regain my place where I had run out of papers.

About a half block from where I had left off a downhill grade presented itself.  It was not a steep hill by any means but it did permit the bike to pick up speed, especially under a heavy load, and braking became difficult and something that needed to be planned.  That being the case, I have no idea why I would choose that moment to allow my mind to go somewhere else.  Maybe I was thinking about one more girl that I wouldn’t ask out on a date because I was too shy, or maybe about a big wave that I would catch the next time that I got to the beach, or the sports team that I wanted to try out for – – -, naw, it was probably the girl.  Anyway, my bike was picking up speed and my brain was AWOL when I planted the front tire of that bike into the driver’s side portion of the grill of a 1956 Buick Roadmaster.

In terms of physics, I am going to lose that one every time.  The Buick didn’t budge an inch.  The bike stopped on less than a dime however and my mind came back to Earth as my body sailed over the left front wheel well of that square steel beast.  My body now took its turn of coming back to Earth and I landed with as much grace as I could, which was virtually none, and bumped and rolled a short way down the asphalt surface of Highland Avenue.  I finally came to a stop and popped immediately to my feet.  You never want it to look like it got to you.  Retreating back up the hill I righted my bike and examined the front end to ensure that it was still usable.  Bicycles were built like tanks back then and indeed it was unspoiled and ready to resume duty.  It was only after I had ascertained that the bike was serviceable that it occurred to me that somebody may have seen my humiliating brain cramp.  I turned slowly to my right and looked across the street to where the front porches sat in the shade on that very warm afternoon, and my worst fears were confirmed.

Arrayed across the lawns and front porches of that side of the street were no fewer than eight families; mothers, some fathers, and a host of children.  I stood there silently, blood beginning to drip from multiple road rashes, feeling like a bug stuck to a pin under a scientist’s microscope.  After a moment that actually felt like an eternity one of the older kids, a boy of about 14 or 15, began to slowly clap.  Several others took up that unwanted applause and my mind raced to find a way to get out of this gracefully.  There was of course no way to do that so I opted for Plan B; I propped the bike up against the front of that evil Buick and faced my tormentors.  I delivered the best formal bow that my several years of delivering recitals for my piano teacher had taught me.

The crowd appreciated my recovery and gave me a good natured laugh and a wave that said “It’s all right, we’ve all done something like that or worse.”  A mom called out and asked “are you OK?”  I would have denied a fractured skull.  I replied “Nothing hurt but my dignity.”  I had read a lot of Mark Twain and I thought that he would have said something like that.  Pulling my bicycle upright I mounted it once again and within a moment my bruised, bleeding, mortified self was coasting back down the hill to where I could resume delivering my papers and put this miserable day behind me.

It took me a couple of weeks to recover from the patches of skin that were shredded off by the pavement of that street and fifty years later I can still feel the burn of standing bleeding and stupefied in front of an audience of my neighbors.  At least now I can laugh about it.

Movies on the Road, Part Three

After enjoying the bustle and glory of London, the pastoral beauty and awe-inspiring history of Normandy, and the slower and thoroughly French and barely-touristed cities of Bourg en Bresse and Beaune, our trip finally brought us to Paris.  Paris, the city of lights.  The city that, in my opinion, is the most beautiful city in the world.  I admit that I have not seen all of the cities of the world, and if my travels ever bring me to Rome or Vienna, Beijing or Buenos Aires, I may perhaps change my mind.  I have been to Paris, Kentucky and to Paris, Texas, but they just don’t measure up.  For now, the most beautiful city that I have ever seen is Paris France.

As soon as we possibly could we checked in to our hotel on the Rue de Bac, deposited our gear, and hit the streets.  Within an easy walk was the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides where Napoleon lies entombed, the monument where Princess Diana had her tragic accident, and a little further down the Champs Elysees the Arc de Triomphe.  We took in all of these sights and more in the five days that we were in Paris.  A full recitation of those excursions would require a story of its own, and a long one at that.  I will set the table for this story of watching a movie by recounting only a few of the highlights of the week.

The most stunning moments for me happened at the Louvre and at Chartres.  The Louvre is the former palace of the French kings and is now a gigantic art museum.  The building is so enormous that on gray and rainy days, when it was engaged in its kingly duties, there would sometimes be hunts organized, horses and all, in wings which were cleared out for that purpose.  My wife and I walked together for a while, but as our tastes differ and she wanted to see wood cuts by Albrecht Durer while I preferred to see Sumerian and Akkadian artifacts we split up with the agreement that we would meet at the snack bar at a certain hour.  We both knew that I would get there early to enjoy a glass of wine and a crepe.

It took me a good while to find the Mesopotamian room but only a moment to see that for some reason it was closed.  This put me in a somewhat sour mood and I began to wander the halls of that cavernous building, passing here an exhibit of central American masks, baskets and sculpture, and there passing Japanese Samuri figures in full dress.  I was walking through a section of renaissance paintings of David; I was completely blown away to learn that Hebrews in the ninth century BCE, their kings especially, wore little or no clothing, and saw a sign which read “Mona Lisa” and pointed to a stairway.  I determined that the Mona Lisa was something entirely worth seeing and began to mount the broad stairway which led upward to the next floor where the painting was alleged to be waiting.  Halfway to the top I reached a landing where I turned one hundred and eighty degrees and prepared to climb the remaining set of stairs but was stopped dead in my tracks.  I just stood on that landing looking up and struggling to breathe.

There at the top of the stairs, bathed in light which may have come from artificial or natural sources (I could not tell then, was too stunned to think about looking, and wouldn’t have been able to remember such an odd detail anyway), stood the Winged Victory.  For those unfamiliar with that piece of sculpture it is of a winged female humanoid figure.  The head is missing (which prefigures my trip to Chartres Cathedral) but the rest is intact, and it is a marvel in marble; perfection in form.  I am not an aesthete by any measure, and cannot tell you clinically why this sculpture arrested my attention while time stood still.  The beauty of the detail in the feathers on her wings, the ripples of her clothing, the feminine form which projected regal, even divine strength, and the fact that she still possessed the power to awe an admirer over two thousand years after an unknown Greek artist liberated her perfect form from a marble prison, held me captive.

After staring at her for a good long while I continued down the hallway to where the Mona Lisa rested hanging from a wall behind velvet security ropes and with an armed security guard present, presumably instructed to shoot anyone who should try to steal, disfigure, or take a photo of the famous lady with a flash camera.  The Mona Lisa is indeed a phenomenal piece of work, and if I would have seen it first I would surely have been even more impressed than I was at the time.  The afterglow of my introduction to the Winged Victory was strong however, and even the Mona Lisa played second fiddle to that magnificent lady.

the next day we went to Chartres Cathedral, which is about 50 miles southwest of Paris.  It was a gray day and we arrived a bit early for the tour.  Chartres Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world and one of a select number that remain standing after the insane wars of the twentieth century.  We walked slowly around the cathedral while sipping coffee and hot chocolate, inspecting the exterior of the building and the landscaping, the labyrinth in the garden behind the cathedral, and the statues which surrounded it and which were, like the Winged Victory, missing their heads, or most of them anyway.  At 10 o’clock the doors opened and a guide bade us enter and showed us around the inside of the building.

There was much to see and much history to learn, but the gloom of the interior was an impediment to seeing the pictures, the wood and stonework, and the historical objects that filled the place.  The gray, overcast sky did not permit very much light to penetrate the unrivaled stained glass windows.  Usually, when the sun is full, the play of light and color within the cathedral is breathtaking to say the least.  On this day we were forced to enjoy the cathedral as a work of art rather than as a place of living beauty dedicated to reflecting glory to the God who was the inspiration for this place.  At the conclusion of the tour and on the way out I remembered the headless statues and asked what was the story behind them.  It turned out that in the days of the French Revolution the removing of the king’s head was an event much approved of by the common folk of Chartres.  These good folk, having never received much of an education and having probably slept through many a long and boring sermon in the cathedral, believed these statues to be of the kings of France, while in fact they were of the kings of Judah.  Filled with ardor for the revolution and being sadly bereft of real kings to send to the guillotine, they gleefully decapitated the statues of the kings of Judah.  Ah, well.  From what I know about most of the kings of Judah, they probably had it coming too.

On the evening before our departure from France we took a barge trip up the Seine and ate at a restaurant who’s name I have forgotten but who’s food I will never forget.  It was beef bordelaise with caramelized carrots and a wine that was like drinking warm velvet.  My wife and I returned to our quarters exhausted from five days of walking all over Paris and twenty days of walking all over southern England, western Switzerland, and northern France.  We decided to retire to our room where we took our showers, packed our luggage, opened one last bottle of French wine and turned on the television.

Just as it was in Bourg en Bresse, we saw mostly the same slime which oozed out of our American television sets (shout out here to Frank Zappa and the Mothers).  There was one movie which attracted my attention however.  It was “The Eiger Sanction”, a thriller staring Cling Eastwood in which he climbs mountains, kills bad guys, and generally does all of that Clint Eastwood stuff.  My wife was as interested in this as she would have been in examining stool samples in a medical laboratory, so once again she was quickly curled up by my right side and snoring peacefully.

I watched that movie to the end and drank that bottle of wine to the end too.  Clint and George Kennedy climbed a volcanic chimney which I had seen in Monument Valley in Utah and so the movie had a little personal interest for me, but by far the most interesting part of the movie was the fact that it was in French.  Try to think about that; a Clint Eastwood movie in French.  The fluid, melodic, slightly nasal quality of the French language simply does not lend itself to a Clint Eastwood movie.  German maybe, Arabic is a possibility too, Klingon absolutely!  But French?  Imagine if you will Clint with his face hard as stone, his eyes squinting with malevolent intent, his teeth gritting like two boulders grinding living bone between them, and then:  “Je bleh bleh bleh.  Sui le Bleh du bleh, etc., etc., etc.”  Really?  I almost laughed loudly enough to awaken my wife.

Turning out the lights I reflected on the wonderful things we had seen and tasted and learned on this trip.  Perhaps I will write of them some day.  Many things filled my soul with awe, and many filled my head with new facts and understandings.  My stomach had been filled with some of the most amazing food on the planet and my heart filled with affection for wonderful people whom we met in three countries on a different continent than our own.  But as I drifted off to sleep on that last night in beloved Paris I couldn’t empty my head of the image of Old Clint growling at his enemies with a voice meant for poetry, not mayhem.