A Question of War and Peace Chapter 5

Chapter 5

    “Hah!,” Jake said as he tossed another pebble.  “Do you want the long version, or the short?”
    “Let’s start with the short version,” I replied.  “Just the nouns and verbs.  We’ll get to the clauses and modifiers later.”
    “Okay,” he replied, and he stared at the cottonwood trees while he gathered his thoughts.  After a few moments he began to speak again.  “Here’s the thumbnail.  My childhood was not happy.  I learned that a bullet was never far from my head, no matter what I did.  I learned how to dodge most of those bullets by keeping to myself, staying invisible, and preparing myself for self-defense when necessary.  I’m trying to modify that now.  It’s hard, and it sucks.  Next question?”
    I waited for him to continue, but he sat silent and merely looked at me.  When I didn’t speak right away he returned his gaze to the field in front of us and resumed idly chucking pebbles into the grass.  I soon realized that he was finished speaking, unless I dug further.
    “That’s not a thumbnail; it’s a fingernail paring at best.  Could I get a little more please?  How about the childhood part?  Half the people I know had some tough times growing up.  What exactly was hard about yours?”
    Jake looked at me again, then flicked a pebble up into the air.  He caught it and chucked it into the field in one fluid motion, and then he began to speak.  “Did your father ever beat you up?  Did he whip you with a belt?”
    “No,” I replied.  “My parents didn’t go in for corporal punishment.”
    “Hrumpf,” he snorted.  “How detached that sounds.  ‘Go in for corporal punishment.’  Well, Father was not so delicate.  He didn’t ‘go in for corporal punishment’ either.  He preferred to beat the shit out of me.  From as early as I can remember, Father would beat me for any and everything that I did.  He’d beat me like Ginger Baker beats the drums.”
    “I’m sorry,” I said before he could go further with his story.  “I don’t mean to pry.”
    “Well, you asked, and I’m going to tell you.  I got beat for things I did and beat for things that I did not do.  Father used a belt mostly.  My mother used the flat of her hand - again - mostly.  I thought that it was just part of life.  My mother was not so bad early on, but as I got older she got worse, until she sort of began to disappear.  I think that she slowly cracked under the strain.”
    “Holy shit!  That sucks,” I said.
    “I told you that it did.  Mother tried to shield me at first, but like I said, she cracked.  After a while I expected it from both sides whenever she was around.”
    “Well, what was the deal?” I asked.  “That’s not normal.  You figured that out, right?  Like, what was the problem?”
    “I don’t know what a psychologist would call it, but Father wasn’t right in the head.  He was in World War II and Korea, but I don’t think that he was in combat.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t in combat.  I don’t really know what it was all about.  It just was the way it was.”
    “So, how did you cope with that?”
    “I suppose that’s the point of this whole story, isn’t it?  One day when I was 10 years old I was playing catch with some friends.  I chucked a baseball and my friend Tommy Fletcher couldn’t catch it.  The ball went off of his glove and through a window in Mr. Steinhoffer’s garage.  That didn’t end well for me.”
    “What happened?”
    “Father paid for the window, and then I paid for the cost of repairs and for his inconvenience.  Do you know what a web belt is?”
    I shook my head that I did not know what a web belt is.
    “It’s a belt like they issue in the military.  About 2 inches wide or so.  Made out of canvas.  Father used to take pleasure in picking his belts when he was to whip me.  The thin leather ones would sting like a whip.  They’d cut, too.  The web belt; well, it was like a cannon as compared to a BB gun.  On this occasion he wrote the names of my friends on that belt and then told me that it was my friends who were giving me my beating, and not him.  He then laid into my butt until his arm was tired.”
    I sat there as still as a rock.  “That’s barbaric!” I spluttered at last.  “That’s fucking Neanderthal!”
    “Yeah?  Well, that was just another day in my life,” he replied.  “A bad day, as compared with the others, but otherwise not so very different from the rest.”
    “Oh no!  There’s no way that I would ….”
    “There’s no way that you would what?” he interrupted.  I was 10 years old, dammit, and this was no so out of the ordinary.  So what the hell would you have done?”
    He spoke softly, but with a steel about his eyes and in the set of his mouth.  I don’t remember sensing anger, but there was a hint of scorn, as of someone hearing empty words from a source who has no idea what they’re saying.  I took my cue and swallowed my protestations.  “Okay,” I said.  “Go on.”
    “Well, I learned something that day; that hour.  Hell, I learned something the very minute that he quit tearing my butt to shreds.  No, I have to back up one more time.  The thought came to me when I had passed beyond pain, and was only aware of the belt coming down on my butt again and again.  I learned that a bullet was never more than an inch away from my head, or that a runaway train was never more than a car length away from hitting me.  I knew with iron certainty that I couldn’t prevent the bullet from hitting me every time; nobody can do that.  I could dodge a hundred bullets and step out of the way of a hundred trains, but number one hundred and one is going to get me.  But I also learned - and this is most important - that I wasn’t suffering because I was bad.  I knew that I wasn’t less because disaster finally hit me.  It wasn’t my fault that it hit me.  It was going to hit me sooner or later, no matter what.  It doesn’t matter if it’s my fault or not; in fact, it usually wasn’t my fault.  All I could do is try to limit how many times it hits me.
    I shuddered as I heard this.  “Oh, man, I’m sorry,” I said.  “You shouldn’t have had to go through that.”
    “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” he replied, and I shuddered again.  “Like I said, you can only limit it; you can’t avoid it altogether.  I remembered my friends’ names on the belt, and I learned that friends were a distraction.  If I’m screwing around with them, I’m not looking for the train.  If I was paying attention I could see the train most of the time.  It was a matter of survival.  So I quit playing with friends and began to pay close attention to myself and my surroundings, and it worked.”
    “Worked?” I asked.  “How did it work?  You were 10 years old and you gave up friends?  You gave up playing?”
    “Absolutely.  Playing was a distraction.  A big distraction.  If I’m thinking about my fingers on the ball, with Tommy in front of me and me slinging the ball like Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle trying to throw out a runner trying to score from second base, then I’m not thinking about Mr. Steinhoffer’s window behind Tommy.  That could be costly to me.”
    “Shoot, I did both.  I played and thought of both.”
    “You didn’t have as much on the line as I did.  Anyway, I learned to quit being distracted by friends and playing and frivolous things like that, and I learned other things too.”
    “Other things, like what for instance?”
    “Like staying busy, and making myself useful to the point of being necessary.”
    “How did that work?”
    “Like this.  Father always had a small garden.  I took it over - slowly, of course - and eventually used most of the back yard for it.  I grew enough that mother cut down her food budget considerably.  We had fruit trees too.  I learned how to prune and water and fertilize them.  We had fresh and frozen and preserved fruits and vegetables all year.  Father and mother liked that, which reduced the frequency of the beatings, but it served another purpose too.”
    “Which was?”
    “Which was that I went door to door in my neighborhood selling the surplus of that produce.  I would make a buck at one house, two bucks at another, and by the end of fall I would have earned a nice little stash.  I also began to take over the front lawn, mowing and landscaping.  Then I learned how to properly wash the car, change the oil, do a tune up.  Father liked that too.  He liked not having to do it himself.  I exported those skills to the neighborhood along with my vegetables.  By the time I was 15 years old I had saved $1,000.  For a 15 year old kid in 1967, that was some pretty good scratch!”
    “That’s some pretty good scratch right now,” I replied.  “So, what did your friends think of all this?”
    “I quit having friends.”
    “Yeah, but you had them before.  How did they handle you shining them on?  Didn’t they have questions?”
    “Not really.  Not too much.  It was a complicated transition at first, but all of this happened in summer.  There were some complications in the fall when I went back to school however.  I wasn’t part of the crowd any more, and that led to some problems.  You know how friendly the playground can be to an outsider.”
    I gave a low whistle and answered, “Yeah.  Lord of the Flies.”
    “Yep.  Lord of the Flies.  It was pretty uncomfortable at first.  Nothing like what I was getting at home, but the punches still hurt, and the pranks were still humiliating.  Hell, I could take a punch easier than I could take getting tripped in front of the girls.”
    “Oh man.  You were in hell.”
    “Yes.  Yes I was in hell.  I committed myself to getting out of hell though.  I started to work out.  I did push ups.  I did pull ups.  I tied a rope onto a tree branch in the back yard and worked until I could pull myself up, hand over hand.  Then I worked until I could pull myself up 9 times in a row.  I could never get to 10 times.  I did squats holding an anvil that Father had in the garage, and curls with a length of steel chain.  I invented exercises and worked every muscle in my body.”
    “Did all of that training earn you respect?”
    “Yes, sort of.  That and karate earned me respect.  I was earning enough money that I could pay for karate lessons three times per week.  Father didn’t care, as long as he wasn’t paying for it.  I practiced and I practiced.  I climbed the rope, lifted the chains, squatted with the anvil, ran endlessly.  I did it all.  I kept my focus sharp, too.  No distractions.  No playing.  No flirting.  No horsing around.  It all paid off eventually.”
    “So, you had to kick someone’s ass?”
    “No.  Not really.  Not right away.”
    “So, how did it pay off?”
    “One day one of the nastiest bullies and his pack cornered me behind some bungalows.  I’d never seen so many of them in one place at one time.  They started into their usual routine of pushes and insults, slaps and so forth.  If you’ve ever been bullied, you know what I’m talking about.”
    I shook my head that I had never been in that situation.
    “Well anyway, I challenged them.”
    “You chose them all out?”
    “No.  I challenged them to keep up with me in a workout the next recess.”
    “And they accepted?”
    “Not at first, but I ridiculed them and told them point blank that they couldn’t keep up with me.  I told them that I was stronger than them, faster than them and smarter than them.  I told them, in front of all of their sycophants and hangers-on that they were afraid to compete with me.  They couldn’t ignore that; not when it was thrown down in front of their friends.”
    “Uh-huh.  So, how did it go?”
    “Exactly as I expected it to go.  The next recess they showed up.  They had to.  I ran them once around the playground and then did 20 pull ups on a high bar.  Most couldn’t do 20.  Then I ran them around the playground again, but faster this time.  When we came to the monkey bars, or what I guess they call the jungle gym now, I did elevated push ups, sit ups, dips, and exercises that I invented myself.  They couldn’t equal anything that I did.  Then I took off running around the playground again, but this time at a sprint.  They all fell out, and I just ran laughing.”
    “I suppose that earned you some respect.”
    “It did with some.  With others however, I had to explain one-on-one that if I could outperform them in every area of strength, then they should imagine what I could do if it came to a fight.  Of course, I had only just begun to learn karate.  At that time I probably couldn’t have taken on most of them in a street fight, but they didn’t know that.”
    “So I suppose that bought you some peace?”
    “Yeah, it did.  I wanted to learn more though, to make myself better prepared to defend myself.  I learned who were the best teachers locally and studied karate and other forms of martial arts under them over the years.  I only had to use those lessons one time on a bully, and that came several years after my elementary school trials.”
    “Wow,” I said after taking a minute to digest all that Jake had told me.  “I can’t imagine how lonely that felt.”
    “No,” he shot back.  “What you can’t imagine is how much the beatings had hurt.  My new framework for navigating a treacherous life was a bliss by comparison.”
    “But, no social contact with people….”
    “And no contact on my butt from that belt, or the back of Father’s hand.  Uh-uh, the trade was a good one.  Besides, I had plenty of business contact with my customers.  I kept one eye on my work and one eye on my academic studies, and the other eye on the horizon looking for incoming trouble.  In that way I ducked most of the grief that would have come for me otherwise.”
    “Most of it?  How much more did you have to take?”
    “Father would go into moods where he just had to take it out on someone.  Mother wouldn’t allow it to happen to her, but by the time that I was 15 she wasn’t home much any more.  She found other places to be and things to do, and other people to do them with. I’ll not say much more about that.  My older brother was long gone, in the merchant marine I was told.  My sister was two years older than me and she got pregnant and married a senior at high school.  She dropped out and he was drafted when he graduated, and after his training they moved somewhere; I don’t know where.”
    “So, that just left you and your dad?”
    “Yes, but he was never my dad.  I never had a dad.  No Daddy, no Pop or Pops, not even an Old Man.  I just had Father.  Biology was responsible for that and there was no way that I could avoid it.  Anyway, yeah.  Me and him, mostly.”
    “So, did he continue to beat you up when you were in high school?”
    “I was 15 years old the last time that he tried.  By then I was fully fit and had over 4 years of martial arts training.  He never tried again.”
    “Holy shit.  You clocked your Old Man?  I’m sorry man.  I know that I’ve already said that, but it’s true.  That kind of history would jack up anyone’s mind.”
    “Thanks, but I don’t think of my mind as being jacked up.  No.  It’s focused.  I’ve avoided other people’s problems and minded my own business.  It’s worked out for me pretty well.”
     “So, what about after you graduated?  What came next?”
    “I graduated at 17.  I really applied myself in the 5th and 6th grades, and two months into the 7th I was moved up one.  When I graduated I went straight into the Army.  I needed Father’s signature for that, which he gladly gave.  It was the last time that I saw him.”
    “What did you do in the Army?”
 Jake looked thoughtfully at me for a minute before resuming his story, and then he said, “The Army noticed my ability to defend myself and to not be seen by others if I didn’t want to be seen.  They developed several other skills in addition to those, and I won’t speak any more about what I did.  It is sufficient to say that I used my skills.”
    “Oh, uh, yeah.  I’m sorry.  We don’t have to go there.”
    “And we won’t.”
    “So, what are you doing now?  I mean, what are you planning to do after you graduate from here?”
    “Construction and real estate.  This state is going to grow like a weed, and I intend to cash in on it.  I need some business training; you know, business law, accounting, management, all of that stuff.  Also, I have to begin to learn how to navigate social interactions in a healthy manner.  It was my refuge to avoid social contact as a child, and it was part of my job to do the same for nearly 6 years in the Army.  Now I have to change that in order to function competently in the social world.  That’s why I’ve taken an apartment with two other guys instead of renting my own studio.  Have you noticed how well I’m doing?”
    He uttered a sardonic chuckle and flipped another two pebbles into the field.  He then fell silent, and I knew that he was at the end of his story.  I wasn’t finished with my investigation however, especially of one specific question.  “You were really unhappy with what happened today.  I saw you rescue an animal and defend yourself, which seemed like the right and logical things to do.  Why did that make you so angry?”
    “Why did that make me angry?” Jake repeated my question.  He shook the pebbles which remained in his hand as if he were shaking dice before throwing them.  At last he allowed the pebbles to drop from his hand and spoke again.
    “Saving the cat was a natural thing for me to do.  I’ve come to value animal contact more highly than I have human.  Defending myself was an automatic act.  I don’t reflect on that much one way or the other.  What affected me was that when I strove to let my guard down a little; to let myself care what Paul had done to Lisa, I became angry that your sister had stepped up to defend that girl while I sat in a chair debating.  By the time that I allowed myself to consider joining the human race, the human race had gotten tired of waiting for me and passed me by.  
    “I didn’t like the way that I looked and I didn’t like the way that I felt, and I didn’t know what to do with how I felt.  For me, that was a lot of ‘I don’t knows,’ and that is a position that I have tried to never be in.  I was angry with myself.”
    “Hmm.  And when you took off your shirt and we saw that scar or whatever it is.  You didn’t look too happy about that either.”
    “It goes with the rest of the story.  I got that scar in the line of duty.  I got careless one day.  I missed some signs of trouble and I paid for it.  I don’t show that scar to people, just as I have avoided more than superficial contact with people.  It’s a sign that I can be beaten, and I have not allowed my enemies to even consider the possibility that I can be beaten.  Believe me, I have never found an upside to showing that. 
    “When I allowed myself to care about Lisa’s mistreatment, I thought about all of the other times when I have seen people being mistreated and I stayed out of it because it was not my business.  That exposed a flaw in my life, and I can’t allow flaws.  They can be fatal.  So after what happened at the pool I returned to the apartment and tried to return into my mental safe space.  I didn’t plan to do that really.  It was a simple autonomic reaction.”
    “It wasn’t that big of a deal to us,” I said.  “It wasn’t like we were judging you for what you did or didn’t do.  Actually, I liked it that you saved the cat, and I loved it that you clocked that punk Cary.”
    “I know that you weren’t judging me.  I was judging myself.  You and your sister saw my physical flaw that I received as a result of my loss of focus some years ago.  It made me feel weak.  It made me feel vulnerable.  It made me feel like a bullet or a train was about to crash into me, or maybe both a bullet and a train at the same time.  It was a powerful feeling and it unsettled me, and I didn’t handle it well.  This will be a long process I’m afraid, and I don’t know yet how it will work out.”  
    I now realized that Jake was finished talking.  I could see by the way that his gaze turned back out to the cottonwood trees that he had nothing more to add, and that was fine with me.  I raised the bottle of wine, but thought twice about drinking and finally handed the bottle over to him.  “Here,” I said.  “You probably need this more right now than I do.”
    He looked at me and said with a face that looked like moulded steel.  “I don’t need anything.”  Then that rigid face broke into something that looked close to a good-natured smile.  “But what does need have to do with it?”  He then took the bottle out of my hand and took a gulp of wine.


     The first month of the new semester passed quickly for me.  I enjoyed the social life of the apartments and the school, and I was challenged by the difficulty of several of my subjects from almost the first day.  I had dreams of a career in marine research, but wasn’t sure yet if I wanted to go in the direction of biology or oceanography.  All that I knew was that I wanted to do post graduate work at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, and that only the highest of grades would be acceptable when I tried to get into that school.
     It was October now, and although the days were still warm, the chill of the coming fall could be felt in the early morning air.  I got up early one Saturday and peddled my bicycle into Santa Rosa, which lay seven miles to the north.  I had not yet visited the local metropolis, and felt like it was time to give it a look while I gave my brain a rest.  I was about three miles north of the college on Petaluma Hill Road when I saw a jogger coming toward me.  As the distance between us closed I recognized that it was Jake.  He said nothing, as usual.  I waved at him and he nodded his head in reply.  As we passed each other I noticed that he was running almost as fast as I was riding.  Considering that we were on a level grade, that was a pretty good clip.
     I returned to Rohnert Park early in the afternoon.  As I crossed over Codding Creek and cleared the row of cottonwood trees that lined that creek from the hills to my left to Highway 101, a little more than a mile distant to my right, I saw a figure sitting on the ground with his back against the cinder block wall that separated the pool area from an open field.  Even from this distance I could tell that the person resting there was Jake.
     I stashed my bike in my bedroom, rolled a joint, and went outside to see if he was still there, and found that he was.  Without asking if he wanted company I sat down next to him and lit the joint.  He never made a motion of invitation to me, but neither did he look displeased at my interruption of his meditations.  With Jake, that was a normal response.  I offered the joint to him and he declined it with a simple shake of the head.
     His reserve did not bother me any more.  He had been neither friendly nor unfriendly toward me during the last month.  He was more like neutral.  My own personality is one that leads me to believe that most people will like me sooner or later unless they are weird, and in that case they’ll let me know and I’ll leave them alone.  I know now that this view does not represent reality, but I’m still hardwired that way as a default, and have to make an effort to not slip back into my old habit.
     Other people - most of them, anyway - are not wired in the same manner.  I knew that Jake was rubbing some people the wrong way, and that bothered me.  It bothered me even more that it did not seem to bother him.  Dave, our roommate, was one of those people.  I figured that now was a good time and place to address that issue and try to head off an uncomfortable collision.
     “You don’t smoke dope at all, do you?” I asked, trying to open a conversation.
     “No, I don’t.”
     “How do you feel about others smoking it?  Just about everybody in the complex does, you know.”
     “That’s their business,” he replied.  “It hardly affects me at all.  I’ve been around it before.  Weed, and stuff a lot stronger than that, was used all around me most of the last few years.  I don’t even think about it anymore, and I have no interest in using it.”
     Jake continued to stare out across the field, looking north toward the cottonwood trees.  The creek was little more than a string of puddles and marshy ground marching toward the west at this time of the year.  The trees drank deeply of the stream which flowed inch by halting inch in the subsoil beneath those marshes and puddles. 
     I took another hit of the joint and then launched into what I wanted to discuss.  “Jake, I’ve never known anyone quite like you.  Nobody else says that they have either.  Some people think that you’re rude and stuck-up.  That’s not what I think,” I quickly stated, “but it’s something that I’ve heard.  I thought that I should let you know that; that people are talking.”
     Jake smiled a little, then looked down and picked up some pebbles off of the ground.  After a minute he said, “Most people aren’t really talking about me.  Most people don’t know that I exist.  A few do know that I exist but have a lot of things to think about that are more interesting than a weird guy who doesn’t say much.  The very few who remain, I think that I can manage.”
     Silence settled between us.  I had no idea what to say next.  I was trying to warn Jake that he was creating some ill will, in spite of what he thought, and now he had just blown me off.  I was tempted to call it a lost cause, rise up from the ground and return to the apartment when Jake broke the awkward silence.
     “Have you noticed the sound that’s coming from the trees?” he asked.
     “Say what?” I asked.
     “That sound,” he repeated, and pointed toward the trees.  “Listen.  You hear it?”
     I thought that he was crazy.  I was trying to warn him of possible trouble and he was talking about some damn trees or something.  I told him that I hadn’t heard any sounds, but I then focused my hearing in that direction.  I became aware of a soft sound like that which might have been produced by wind among the branches and leaves.  “Yeah, I hear it now,” I said.  “So?”
     “What does it sound like to you?”
     “The wind, I guess.”
     “Look closely at the trees.  The branches aren’t moving.  Heck, the leaves aren’t even moving, as far as I can see from here.”
     I did as he asked and, sure enough, there was hardly so much as a quiver of a leaf in the nearly motionless warm air of the early afternoon.  “Yeah, you’re right.  So, what is that supposed to mean?” I asked.
     “It’s not a great revelation,” Jake replied.  “It’s just a curious thing.  It sounds like wind, but no wind is blowing.  Things aren’t always what they appear to be.  The fact is that the sound you’re hearing is traffic on Highway 101.”
     “I doubt that,” I said.  “The highway’s too far away.”
     “Yeah, it’s weird.  Still, in some way the trees act like a sort of conductor of the traffic noise.  Or maybe it’s the wet creek bed creating a pipeline of higher humidity just above it, with improved sound conductivity through the moisture in the air.  Maybe it’s both, or maybe it’s neither.  I’m not sure at all.  If you move a hundred yards further away from the creek you can’t hear it at all.  You have to be this close or closer to hear it. And if you move closer it gets more strange; the sound of wind racing through the trees and not so much as a quiver in a single leaf.”
     I took another hit off of the joint, and after exhaling asked, “So, what does it prove?”
     “Prove?  It proves nothing.  Nothing at all.  What it does, however, is illustrates that there are pathways by which you can hear or otherwise perceive things that are not obvious, or might not make sense on the surface.  For much of my life I’ve spent far more time listening and looking than I have speaking.  That’s the reason that I was given two ears and two eyes but only one mouth, I suppose.  I’ve made it a rule of life to be very aware of my surroundings at all times, and I see and hear things that a lot of other people don’t.  I therefore have a pretty good idea what people, including our roommate Dave, are saying, even if they haven’t said a word to me.  Sometimes especially if they haven’t said a word to me.
     “Pathways?  What sort of pathways?  Like, how do you really know what Dave’s saying if he isn’t saying it to you and you don’t really talk to anyone else?”
     “I’ve taken years to learn how to do it.  It would probably take even longer to explain how it works.  It’s not voodoo though.  It’s more a matter of focus and filter; being attentive to what I need to hear and know and filtering out what is just white noise.
     “Man,” I said.  “I have got no idea what the hell you’re talking about.  How does sound traveling some crazy way through a bunch of trees, or whatever, tell you about what people are saying?  And how did you say that it travels through trees?  Wet air or whatever?”
     Jake smiled again as he looked at the trees.  “Hell if I know,” he said.  “I only know that it does; not how it does.  Joe, as much as possible I try to work with what I know.  I constantly try to add to that body of information - what I know that is - and try to rely as little as possible on what I can only guess.  I trust my guesses, as far as I can, but they’re just educated guesses and inherently fallible. That’s why I try to observe as much as I can so that I can know as much as I can and rely on that knowledge as much as I can.  That is an activity that keeps my mind pretty busy, which is one reason why I’m not very social.  So, that sound? I can only guess about that sound, so I’ll only run so far with it.  It makes for a good example however.  That’s the only reason that I mentioned it.”
     My joint was burning low and I was very relaxed, if thoroughly confused.  I automatically offered him the joint one more time and then, realizing my mistake, I pulled it back.  Jake had already spoken to me today more than he had in the entire past month, and I found myself growing increasingly curious about him.  After listening to the sound in the trees a little longer I continued the conversation.
     “Have you had any thoughts about joining our parties in the unit or around the pool?  I know that you don’t smoke weed at all, but I’ve seen you drink a little beer.  If you just hung around a little bit I think that most of the talk that I’ve been hearing would go away.  I don’t mean to pry into your business, so don’t feel like you have to answer me, but if you would loosen up just a little I think that it would go a long way.”
     “I’ve already loosened up, as you call it,” he replied.  “I just did, for your sake.  I have a wall to my back and a field in front of me.  I can see nearly anything that could come at me.  That gives me the space to loosen up a little.”
     “No, I mean mingle a little.  Have a little fun.”
     “Fun’s never been my friend.  Fun distracts.  Fun shakes your focus.  Fun will get you killed.”
     “Oh, man.  I couldn’t be like that.  I have to have a little fun.”
     “A little fun can come back and bite you,” he replied.
     “How’s that?  I think having no fun would be a lot worse than an occasional bite.”
     Jake was quiet now for more than a moment.  He looked down at the dirt, then up at the trees.  It seemed to me that he was listening to the car noise that sounded like wind; listening for it to tell him what to say to me next.  At last he spoke up.  “Have you seen any mice in that field in front of us?” he asked.
     “No,” I replied as I looked out into the field.  “I haven’t been looking for mice.  What’s that got to do with anything?”
     After another long pause, Jake took a deep breath and exhaled, and then he said, “Joe, I’ve found that life is more like a war than it’s like a party.  There is an enemy or a circumstance or even an simple accident that is waiting just around the corner, waiting for you to get lazy and lose your focus.  Then, it’s going to take you out.”
     “Damn, man.  That’s dark.”
     “Yeah, maybe.  But it’s true.  I don’t let that be the sum of my life; sometimes I act against that rule, and when I do I know that I’ll have nobody to blame if it bites me in the butt.  But it’s one of my most important guiding principles, and it’s kept me out of more shit than I can relate in one conversation.”
     “I don’t buy it,” I said.  “I’ve never been in a war, but I wouldn’t describe my life as being in one.”
     “Hmm.  Well, I have been in a war.  Been in a couple of them, to be more accurate.  Vietnam you’ve heard of, of course.  I’ve been there.  I’ve been in a couple of other places too, and you haven’t heard about them.  In those places, that joint that you’re smoking?  That joint could get you killed.  The reality that I understand is that your joint will knock your focus off kilter, and that could get you in a world of shit or maybe killed.  In the places that I’ve been, and I’m not just talking about Vietnam, you could pay for losing your focus, maybe with your life.  Back here in the Real World, you may not believe that it’s the same as it is over there.  You don’t believe that it’s possible.  You’re lulled to sleep by your fun, then you aren’t ready when the shit hits the fan.  That’s what puts your ass truly in a sling, my friend.  Yeah, you don’t realize it, but you’re right smack dab in the middle a war.  We all are.”
     “I ain’t in no war,” I replied.  “I’m a lover, not a fighter.  This joint isn’t putting me in any risk unless you’re a cop.  That’s just a bunch of paranoid hooey.”
     Jake then turned and looked at me with an intensity that almost knocked me sober.     “Tell me,” he asked.  “Does that weed sharpen your senses or does it dull them?”
     “Well, it certainly enhances my senses of humor and taste.  It helps my creativity too.”
     “But what about your sight?” he asked.  “Your hearing?  Touch?  Smell?  Does it help them?  Does it analyze unexpected changes that those senses can detect?  Does it sort that information into risk scenarios and move you to react quickly if necessary?”
     “No.  Shit no, but ….” I began, but Jake was on a roll.
     “Does that joint enhance your basic instinct?  Your fight or flight? By that I mean are you more attuned to who and/or what is around you because you smoked it?  Do you know when someone’s staring at you in a crowd, or does the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you’re walking alone, yet you know that someone or something’s watching you, following you, hunting you?”
     “No man.  Life’s not like that.  Life’s not some sort of law of the jungle.  Shit, you’re creeping me out! I wouldn’t want to live in any sort of world that’s like that.”
 “Well, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you but that’s just what you’re doing.  Life is exactly like that.  I learned that early.  Your life is like that too, to one degree or another, but you don’t know it. Yet. You just haven’t been standing in the wrong place when the hammer’s come down.  When it does come down you’ll be wondering ‘how the hell did that happen?’  Well, I’ve trained myself to look for that damned hammer, and I’ve seen it and dodged it more times than I can count.  I may still get squashed some day, but I’ll know that I did everything that I could to avoid it.”
      “Holy shit!  That’s really dark.”
      “No, not really.  It’s neither dark nor light.  It just is.  Joe, we don’t live a nursery rhyme life.  None of us do.  But it’s not all dark.  I relax and enjoy life.  I just do it in a different manner than most others do.  I have different points of reference for danger/not-danger than most other people, but I also have different areas where, as you say, I loosen up.  This ‘being different’ sometimes draws negative attention from the few people who notice me at all, but I’m used to that.  To the vast majority of the crowd I’m invisible.  By next semester nobody will think twice about me.  They won’t even see me.  I’m cool with that.”
      Jake then stopped speaking and stared off into the sky.  I finished my joint, and was finished with this conversation too.  He was just paranoid, and I decided that I didn’t need to spend any more time on this project.  I moved to get up but he put his hand on my knee.  “Wait,” he said.  “See that bird that’s circling over by the trees?”
      I squinted into the deep blue in the direction that Jake was pointing and quickly found the bird that he was pointing at.  “Yeah, I see it,” I said.
      “That’s a red shouldered hawk.  He’s been circling for a while, but now mostly staying in one tight area.  Watch him with me for a little while, would you?”
      I rested back against the wall without speaking and fixed my eyes upon the bird.  His flight pattern was limited to a small circle, and he kept gliding back and forth, barely moving his wings.  I soon began to lose interest and my gaze began to wander.  Then Jake slapped my knee and said, “There.  Watch closely.”  The bird suddenly folded its wings and plummeted to the earth.  A moment later he rose from the field and flew off to the west.  Even from this distance I could see that the hawk clutched something in its talons.
      “The mice that you can’t see?” he said.  “Well, the hawk can see some of them.  He sees the ones who get relaxed; who forget that they have their own personal war going on.  Now that mouse is going to be the hawk’s lunch.  You speak of dark.  Well, it’s pretty dark for that mouse right now, but pretty light for the hawk.  I’m like the hawk, as much as I can be.  I try to be the hawk if I have any choice in the matter, but I’ll tell you the truth;  I get tired of being a hawk.  As God is my witness, I truly do get tired of it.  But I never get tired of not becoming the mouse.  Never.”
      I stared speechless at the bird as it receded from my view.  I was too stoned to process the words that Jake had just spoken to me, and I knew that he was aware of that fact.  He let out a low chuckle at that moment - the first thing that had resembled a laugh that I had heard from him that day - and then he stood up.  He offered me his hand to help me to my feet, and I took advantage of his offer.
      “So I think that I will continue pursuing the qualities of hawkness.  You can choose what you wish.  I rarely meddle in anyone else’s business.  But even a hawk gets to relax when the hunt is over and the fledglings are fed.  Let’s go and have one of those beers that you are so obsessed with drinking.  You ARE 21 years old, aren’t you?

A Question of War and Peace, Chapter 1

     I met Jake Cross in an apartment in Rohnert Park, California, in September of 1975.  I had finished my second year and Mira Costa Community College in Southern California and was beginning my junior year at Sonoma State College.  The College View Apartments complex was a short walk away from the campus, cheaper than the dorms and populated almost exclusively by other students.  It was, in all respects, perfect.
     Jake had been the first to enquire about our particular unit and, for fifteen more dollars each month, had acquired the single-occupant bedroom.  I shared a slightly larger two-person bedroom with Dave Fisher.  Dave was also a junior college grad, a former linebacker on his school’s football team, and generally considered by all to be crazy as a loon.
     I didn’t see Jake for the first three days that I was ensconced in the apartment.  I knew that he was there because I sometimes heard him early in the morning stirring in the kitchen.  The door to his room was always closed, and when he had left his room I simply missed his going and coming.  David said that he saw Jake twice during that period, and that he had said little more than ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ to him.
     On the fourth day I finally met Jake.  It was Monday, classes had began, and I was seated on the sofa smoking a joint when the door opened.  I expected to see Dave and Kathy, the freshman from Redding, California, whom he had already hooked up with.  Instead, someone else came through the door.
     “Hello,” he said, and began to walk past me.
     “Hello,” I replied.  “You must be my mystery roommate.  My name’s Joe.”
     He stopped, appearing to be reluctant to do so, and then said, “My name’s Jake.”
     The man standing in front of me was about six feet tall.  He wore khaki pants and a blue work shirt, the kind that you could get at J C Penny’s.  He was clean shaven, unlike many of the students who lived in our apartments, and had brown hair trimmed high and tight; military style.  His shoulders were slightly more broad than most of the students and his waist was lean without looking thin.  He was a little older than most, and his overall appearance was that of a cop.  I stared at my joint and then back at him, and he laughed.
     “It’s no sweat,” he said as he pointed at my joint.  “Ain’t none of my business.”
     “Oh, well, you never know.  I’m glad to finally meet you.”
     I began to rise and extend my hand in greeting, but he said, “Nice to meet you Joe,” and walked back to his room and closed the door.
     I saw Jake more as the weeks dragged on.  We all found our individual rhythms as students and roommates; rhythms which overlapped from time to time.  Jake continued to say little, if anything at all, when our paths crossed.  My first impression was that he was rude and a snob.  Dave suggested that he might have to jack our standoffish roommate up before the semester was over.  I began to think that if this was going to be the atmosphere in my apartment, then perhaps I ought to see about moving somewhere else.
     It was the Friday of the third week that I finally said more than a few words at one time to Jake.  I was returning from a chemistry class at about 5 PM and my nose was assaulted the moment that I walked into the apartment by the not-unpleasant odor of something that was cooking.  Jake was standing in the kitchen stirring that something in a large pot, and I said “Hi Jake,” fully expecting the usual reply of two or three words.
     “Hello Joe,” he replied.  He tasted some of whatever he was cooking in the pot, chewed speculatively, and then a smile spread across his face.  “Dinner is served.  You hungry?” he asked.
     I was caught off guard by Jake’s friendly overture, but the fact was that I really was hungry and had nothing but some bread and deli meat in the fridge.  One more sandwich to go with my beer was all that I had to look forward to.  Almost without thinking I replied that I indeed was hungry and asked, “What’s on the menu?”
     “Beans,” he replied.
     “Yep.  Beans and ham hock.
     I put my book bag down on the sofa and walked into our tiny kitchen.  Jake stepped away from the pot to give me room to approach it.  The pot was about three quarters full of plump, brown beans.  Small bits of what I took to be onion floated among the beans, and right in the middle of the pot was a large bone with what appeared to be some sort of thick rind around it.
     “Help yourself to a bowl,” he said.  “Make sure that you dig some ham out of that hock, too.”
     Unsure of this strange food, I took about half a bowl and one small piece of the ham.  Jake filled a bowl for himself and we sat down at our small apartment-sized table.  As we waited for the beans to cool down he began to speak.  “Joe, I just want to make something clear before we go further into the semester.  I’m not a very social person.  It’s not that I don’t like people, or that I think that I’m superior to them or anything like that.  I’ve just been a loner for a lot of years, and usually try to keep to myself and mind my own business.  People sometimes think that I’m judging them because I’m usually silent and watching my surroundings, but that’s not what’s going on.  I really hope that you and Dave are okay with this.”
     “Sure,” I said.  “That’s cool, and I hope that our noise doesn’t bother you.”  In the short while that we had been living together in the apartment, there had already been one party in our unit and several in the pool area just outside of Jake’s window.
     “Yeah, no problem with noise,” he replied.  “I’m pretty used to noise, and I have ear protection anyway.  Try your beans.”
     I sensed that his invitation to eat was a way of saying that this conversation was over.  I put a spoonful of the beans into my mouth and was surprised at how tasty they were.  I started shoveling more into my mouth and asked rhetorically, “Where have these been all of my life?”
     “I grew up on them,” Jake said.  “Nineteen cents per pound for the beans, a quarter a pound for the hocks.  A little onion and garlic, salt and pepper, and your have several meals on the cheap.  That’s how I like it.  Help yourself to more if you’d like.  I’ll put the rest away when it cools.
     He then got up and washed his bowl and spoon while I refilled my own bowl.  I sat down and went at the beans with gusto.  Jake finished cleaning up and headed toward his room.  Before he disappeared through the door however he turned and said, “Just a couple more things.  Help yourself whenever there’s a pot in the fridge, only leave some pocket change in a bowl on the counter.  It’s cheap, like I said, but I’m not rich.  Tell Dave that he’s welcome to them too, with the same provision.  Also, apologize to Dave for me.”
     “Apologize?” I asked.  “For what?”
     “Those beans are a gift that keeps on giving.  You’ll find out what I mean in good time.  In fact, one of you might want to plan on sleeping on the sofa tonight.”