A QUESTION OF WAR AND PEACE, CHAPTER 2

     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?

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