Camping in Wonderland, Part II

     My love of camping was born and nurtured within my family when I was a child.  Equipped with a mix of commercial, military surplus and homemade gear we would set up camp mostly at a public campground in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego.  We came to know every inch of that campground as if it was our own back yard, and even with that familiarity we still loved every hike, every dip in the river, every slide on the wet rocks by the falls, every day and every night that we spent there.

     When I graduated from high school in 1966 my President had plans concerning my immediate future, and within two months of my graduation I was a soldier in the U.S. Army and doing more camping out than I liked.  In California, in Texas, and in Vietnam I enjoyed multiple opportunities to live close to nature, all the while dreaming of getting back into nature without a drill instructor or a first sergeant yelling in my face or an enemy soldier shooting at me.  That opportunity arrived in late 1969 after I had finished my tour of duty and was discharged from the Army, a free man once again.

     Shortly after my return to San Diego my oldest friend, Wes, proposed that we backpack into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a place called Minaret Lake.  Wes showed me a book which contained many hikes in that area and they all were appealing.  The hike to Minaret Lake drew us to it mostly because the trailhead began at Devil’s Postpile, a busy area where it would probably be most safe to park a car for several days, and because the eight mile walk with a gain of over two thousand feet of elevation made us confident that we would encounter nobody who wasn’t out there for the same reason that we were.

     Preparations began for our trip, and for me they began at zero.  I had almost no backpacking gear and what little I did have was left over from a short and unsuccessful experience with the boy scouts.  We were all a bunch of misfits in my neighborhood and did not comport well with the boy scout mold at all.  With some of the money with which the Army sent me on my way I purchased a lightweight backpack, an Army surplus mummy bag for sleeping, a one man tent and other accoutrement.  We planned to spend five days at our camp, and so freeze dried and other dry and instant food products would also have to be carried in.  When we were ready my pack didn’t feel very much lighter than a full pack in the Army did.

     I arose early and drove to Wes’ house, where we added his gear to mine and began the day long drive to Devil’s Postpile.  Our route took us east of Los Angeles and out across the Mojave Desert.  I have always loved the desert and this was a very enjoyable part of the trip for me.  Speeding on northward we entered the Owens Valley, a dry valley now that most of its water has been siphoned off to supply that precious resource to Los Angeles and environs.  The locals are still quite irritated about that.  We drove through Lone Pine and Bishop, where we stopped to get a meal and a few other last-minute items, and then finished our drive in the parking lot at the Postpile.  We parked close to the ranger station, hoping for more security for my car.

     We slept in the car that evening; the big bench seats front and back that were common in cars of that vintage made pretty good beds, even for a couple of six-footers who had to fold themselves up a little in order to fit.  At first light the next morning we crawled off of our car seats, walked around a bit to work the kinks out of our cramped muscles, secured our packs onto our backs and set out on the trail which led to Minaret Lake.

     The trail was mostly broad and easy to follow, and Wes and I chatted as we walked along through the conifers.  It was easy to talk even though we started at about 7,500 feet above sea level, as we were young and in pretty good physical shape.  The gain in elevation for the whole trip was about 2,300 feet but the grade was easy at first.  Soon however we broke out of the thick conifer forest and began to pass through more sparse growth.  At one point, as we neared a broad valley where the creek which we were paralleling broadened out into a marshy area with no definite banks or borders, Wes and I somehow lost the trail and began following what looked like it might be a trail which led south of the valley and up a rocky and pine covered hillside.  After twenty or thirty minutes of struggling up that false track we realized that we were way off course and returned to the valley floor.  There we promptly regained our trail and continued across the cattail-covered valley to begin climbing again on the other side.

     By this time Wes and I had ceased to talk much.  The trail was beginning to climb more sharply now and although we were eating trail mix and hard candy our energy was being sapped by the grade and the altitude.  All along from the beginning of the hike I had enjoyed the view of the majestic mountains, with jagged splinters of rock which jutted a thousand feet into the sky after which Minaret Lake was named, and Minaret Creek which bubbled and splashed down the mountainside nearly always within our view.  As we began the final few miles towards our destination I began to focus more on simply getting up the next hill, breathing, and putting one foot in front of the other.

     At length we came to the last half-mile or so of our hike, which also happened to be the most steep.  We dug into that climb with determination in order to put this ordeal behind us.  I remember counting cadence in my mind as I walked; one-two-three-FOUR, one-two-three-FOUR.  My feet kept moving, rising and falling with my mental calling of the numbers.  The effect was hypnotic and soon my feet and the count were all that existed.  This went on for what seemed like an hour but in fact was much less than that, and soon the trail began to flatten out and I marched over the last rise to catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking jewel that is Minaret Lake.

     The lake lies in an upland valley at the base of a mountain range which includes several rocky spires which rise up sharply into the clear sky of the Sierras.  Somebody many years ago thought that they resembled the tall, thin buildings which tower over Muslim cities and towns from which mosque officials call the faithful to prayer.  I confess that I did not see that resemblance at all, but the other guy saw these mountains first so he got to name them.  The lake itself is the bluest blue imaginable, taking up much of it’s valley.  Grasses cover the dry portions of the valley with occasional evergreens stretching skyward, and softly rounded boulders seemed to have shouldered their way through the soil to show above ground a tiny glimpse of their true bulk, much like an iceberg shows itself in arctic waters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful place that I have ever seen.

     But that is not what I thought when I first saw it.  The exertion, the altitude, and perhaps a little dehydration combined to force me to sit down on the first rock I could find and try not to throw up.  Wes was similarly affected, but recovered a bit more quickly than me, so he shortly went off to scout for a good campsite while I continued to convalesce.  From my boulder I looked back at the terrain across which we had traversed on our assent to the lake.  I could clearly see the gain in elevation that we had recently made, which made me feel better about not feeling so good as I sat on my rock in the sun.  

     The ground sloped steadily to the east while mountains of bald, rounded rock rose up to the north and northeast.  It is said that those mountains were smoothed off by the action of glaciers during the last ice age.  I suppose that is true, but I don’t know; I wasn’t there then.  Regardless of how they were formed their massive solidity communicated strength and permanence, but their soft roundedness also suggested welcome, although I am certain that there was danger enough for the foolhardy in those peaks.  At least, that’s what it said to me.

     To the west rose up a cliff which was probably 800 feet high.  This rock feature traveled from southwest to northwest and provided a back wall for the valley of the lake.  the cliff was steep but not sheer, and Wes and I would soon be scaling it, but more on that later.  The southern boundary of our valley was the massive body of the Minarets, into which the previously mentioned cliffs merged.  The totality of this panoramic view was breathtaking and I could hardly believe that I was in this place, although the shakiness in my knees served to remind me that it was quite true.

     After catching my breath and regaining some strength I rose up from my rock and shouldered my pack.  I could see where Wes was pitching his tent and angled around a bay of the lake to gain that spot.  A good spot it was, between the lake and a stream flowing into it, on good dry ground and close to but not under a lone tree.  I pitched my tent beside Wes’ and we made a fire pit out of stones and a wire grate which we brought for that purpose.  Our food was placed in a bag which we hoisted into the tree.  I don’t know if bears hang out at 9,800 feet, but Wes and I had not interest in being surprised.

     With the hike over and camp made we sat with our backs against the tree.   Wes was facing the Minarets and I the rounded mountains to the north.  We didn’t speak much at first, as we were struck with the power and beauty of the place. I can remember reflecting on how only a couple of months before this moment I was squatting under a metal roof on the tarmac of Bien Hoa Air Force Base hoping to not catch a last minute bullet or rocket before flying home after two surreal years in Vietnam.  The regimented life of a soldier, the threat of death at any moment from a bullet going so fast that you don’t hear it, the alcohol and drugs that I used to self-medicate against the stress of Vietnam and the strangeness of returning home to a country which seemed to either scorn me or be embarrassed by me, and mostly preferred to pretend as if I wasn’t there at all.

     All of that baggage seemed to slough off of me as I sat in the tranquil cleanness of that vast mountain landscape.  The lake, the rocks, the streams, the mountains; none of them cared where I had been or what I had done.  They did not care that I was there, but neither did they reject me.  I was there as my own agent, as much a part of that scene as a fish in the lake or squirrel in the tree or marmot in the rocky cliff above us.  I was welcome to come and take my chances like every other living thing there, with the prize being a peace that I had not felt in years or perhaps at any time in my life.  I thought to myself “Not a bad way to start a trip”.

Camping in Wonderland, Part I

     Since the time when I was a young boy I have loved camping, and that is probably because my camping experience got off to a wonderful start.  Summer or winter my father would load up our family car and we would drive the forty six miles to the campground of Green Valley Falls in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, where he would pay for a space and park where our home would be for a day and a night, or perhaps several days and nights.  The road in those days was U.S. Highway 80, a winding two lane road which climbed into the Laguna Mountains and eventually wound and twisted down the east side of those mountains through canyons and around boulders the size of a house, down to the floor of the desert which stretched all the way to central Texas. 

     After forty miles or so California Route 79 branched off of the highway and led north towards the old mining town of Julian.  This road was more narrow and more serpentine even than was Highway 80, and I was almost certain to get carsick on this stretch of road if I hadn’t already.  We would pass by Descanso Junction, which was only a small country store, and shortly cross over the boundary of the State Park.  By the time we pulled into the parking space next to our camp site it felt like we had been driving for hours, and depending upon the traffic in which it was almost impossible to pass slower vehicles, we might have actually been driving for nearly two hours.

     Unloading the car and setting up the camp was an ordeal for two boys who wanted nothing more than to break away and go create our own fantasy world down by, and in the summer in the middle of, the Sweetwater River, which could hardly be called even a creek by a generous description.  Mom would begin stocking our canned and packaged food into a wooden pantry provided at every campsite.  Brad, my brother, would carry boxes of grocery items to Mom and she would arrange what was to be her kitchen.  Dad would haul out the big, heavy canvas umbrella tent that he ‘requisitioned’ from the Navy.  He and I would lay the tent out in a big square and fasten the corners to the ground with big, steel railroad spikes.  I have no idea where the spikes came from.  After securing the corners I would enter the tent and hold it up as high as I could while Dad brought in a two inch thick wooden pole which was the center support.  Four steel arms radiated from this pole and were slipped into metal-ringed eyelets in the four corners of the roof of the tent.  When fully extended theses arms held the corners taut while the six foot wooden pole held the center of the tent up.  Four more spikes, one in the middle of each side of the tent, were pounded into the ground and our home away from home was ready for occupation.

     The remaining details of setting up our camp were trifling and our father soon cut us boys loose to go play, accompanied by a menacing order to ‘Stay out of that river and don’t get wet.”  Of course he knew that we would make a beeline into that river so straight that it would astound even an ancient Greek geometrician.  We would play in that water and around the beaver dams and on the slippery rocks near the falls which tumbled down a dangerous height over smooth boulders under jagged rock promontories.  Mom was certain that we would get killed playing in that creek.  Dad probably thought that it was a possibility, but that the odds were low enough that the glory of the freedom we enjoyed outweighed the risk.

     Upon returning to our camp, usually after Dad came looking for us, we could smell the dinner which Mom was cooking on the stone camp stove which was part of the campsite, or on the Coleman stove which Dad had surprisingly bought legitimately at a store, or on the contraption which Dad had cobbled together out of bits of scrap metal which he called his ‘charcoal broiler’.  Dad was a welder in the Navy and came up with all manner of wondrous inventions which we used around the house.  Food always tastes better when it is cooked and eaten outside, and these meals were unforgettable.  After dinner we would clean up and frequently walk down to where a ring of logs were secured to the ground in a semicircle which was centered on a fire pit.  We would sit on those logs in the evening as it began to get dark and a ranger would light a large fire and give a nature talk that would address the fauna and flora and geology and history of the State Park.  Afterwards we returned to our campsite to bed down for the night; Mom and Dad in the big brown tent while Brad and I would curl up on wood and canvas cots, also courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and under thick olive drab Navy blankets.  Those were some of the finest nights’ sleep that I can remember.

     Whether we camped in summer or winter, the first hours of the day were my favorites.  I was a controlled pyromaniac as a child, never causing damage but always fascinated with being around fire.  Like a moth I was drawn to flames.  Every summer there would be fires in the brush choked canyons of San Diego and when one would be close to my house I would quickly mount my bicycle and follow the sound of the sirens until I reached the site of the blaze.  In later years I would even descend into the canyons to help drag the firemen’s hoses, but that is a different story.

     Dad recognized my enjoyment of a good blaze and harnessed it constructively.  I was put in charge of getting the fire started in the big stone and iron camp stove upon which Mom would cook most of our meals.  At night before we went to bed Dad would give me one match and tell me to use it wisely.  The next morning I would use that one match and have a good bed of coals over which Mom would cook; that is, if I used that match well as Dad advised.  It was a game between Dad and me but it was also a point of pride.

     Summer presented no obstacle to producing a good breakfast fire, but winter was another matter entirely.  If we cooked our first evening meal on the Coleman stove and/or the charcoal broiler there was a better than even chance that the camp stove was caked in snow and ice.  This would require that I use a hatchet to hack enough ice away from the ten inch square steel door which dropped open to expose the fire chamber of the stove.  After that I would remove as much ice as I could from the steel grate which was set in the stone above the fire chamber so that the melting ice would not extinguish my precious fire.  I could never get it all, but usually I scraped enough away to give my one match a fighting chance.

     Then came the all-important preparation of the fuel.  With increasingly freezing fingers I would use a large knife to shave slivers of wood from assorted sticks and other small bits of lumber which Dad brought to fuel our cooking fires.  First came the tiny slivers which would catch fire quickly and then even larger shavings until I could add small sticks and would then be on my way.  By the time I was ready to strike my one match my fingers would be numb and body shaking from the cold, and with the scratch of that one match across the abrasive surface of a match box or paper match book, depending upon which type of match Dad had given to me, the bright flare of the initial ignition followed by the small, pure flame of the burning match lit my hope for a continued status of master fire starter just as surely as it ignited the layered pile of kindling which I had so carefully arranged in the fire chamber.

     Nearly always the fire caught on quickly, beginning in the very fine shavings and then growing as larger splinters ignited.  I would keep my hands close to the fire, shifting my kindling and adding more and larger pieces while enjoying the warmth which my aching fingers craved.  As the fire grew to a point where the remaining ice on the grill overhead began to melt I would brush it over the side with hatchet and hands, which further froze my frigid digits, but with this last maneuver the fire was free to grow and pour warmth and cheer out of the stove and return my hands to a pain-free state in a very short time.

     All of this scraping and chopping and carrying on produced a good deal of noise and my parents, being light sleepers, would awaken in the tent and wait until the sounds died down, which indicated that I was sitting smugly in front of a roaring fire.  Mom would then arise and emerge from the tent to get the coffee started and begin breakfast.  Dad came out shortly after Mom, inspected the fire, and gave me a pat on the back and an ‘attaboy’.  That meant everything in the world to me.

     One thing which I took for granted in those times was the honesty of the other campers.  We would go on family hikes and leave our stove and icebox and sleeping gear and everything else right where they sat or lay and be gone for hours at a time.  Always, things were exactly where we had left them when we returned.  Brad and I would go straight to the icebox fter a long, hot hike and retrieve a twelve ounce glass bottle of Coca Cola.  The icebox was another metal contraption cobbled together by my father in the repair shop where he worked in the Navy, and we would fill it with ice and bacon and eggs and Cokes and everything else which we wanted to keep cold.  Brad and I got to drink two Cokes per day each and in the warm summertimes it was a treat indeed.  I cannot now imagine expecting such a level of trust in other campers in most public campgrounds.

     Finally the time would come to break camp and return to the city.  Dad would extract the wooden pole from the big tent and after loosening and withdrawing the steel spikes, we would fold up the tent and stuff it into the deep trunk of the car.  Icebox and Coleman stove and lantern and any remaining food and empty Coke bottles, which we could return for three cents each, filled out the trunk and the space between Brad and I in the back seat.  All of the trash went into cans chained to wood posts near the campsite and we left the space as clean as we found it, and sometimes cleaner.

     Many other features of my camping trips I have described elsewhere already; the hiking, the precautions against stumbling onto a rattlesnake, the climbing of trees and sliding on our fannies across wet, slippery rocks near the waterfall area.  When I was a little bit older I would fish for trout which were stocked in the tiny ‘river’ and on one trip met a couple of girls from the Los Angeles area with whom I connected and wrote letters to and visited for several years to come.  That campground will always be a magical place in my memories of childhood.  I don’t know if places as wonderful as that exist in our country anymore, and in truth I don’t really know if that place even then was as wonderful as it remains in my mind.  What I can confidently say is that Green Valley Falls campground in the 1950’s was as close to heaven on earth as this writer has experienced in six decades of life.

Do You Know The Way To Veracruz: Part III

Wes and I stood outside the gate to the port of Veracruz for a short while and finally realized that taxis don’t usually come there unless to bring a fare. I returned to the big building to ask if there was a bus or some other form of transportation which would be able to return us to the city. After a difficult exercise in overcoming a language barrier I learned that buses came and went at shift change but not during the day. The man at the counter told me that we could get a taxi at the old stone fort which was about a mile down the road. I remembered seeing that fort on the way to the port and thought then that it looked like it would be an interesting place to visit. Now it looked like we would indeed be visiting it,

We began to walk down the road towards the city, jumping into a ditch from time to time to avoid the trucks carrying cargo to and from the port. Wes and I both picked up medium-sized rocks to launch at dogs if they should menace. The line between a Mexican stray and a Mexican pet can be a little blurry, and although Wes and I both like dogs we didn’t necessarily feel like being bitten by one. Or ten. The precaution was unnecessary and soon we were walking into a broad area in front of the fort which contained parking for cars, a taxi loading and unloading area, and several outdoor concessions which included one business selling tacos, carnitas, and more to the point, beer.

We ordered our food and beers and took up a couple of seats at a long table under a large canvas tent-like top. Soon the food and beer were in front of us and we wolfed it down in a few minutes. We had not really noticed how hungry we were. While we sat at our table we had time to get a good look at the stone fort, or ‘Fortaleza’. The polygonal building is massive, made out of huge carved stone blocks and standing a good twenty or thirty feet high. Wes and I decided at that table that we would spend a day enjoying Veracruz and then return home. We wanted to purchase our airline tickets – we had experienced all of the Mexican buses that we cared for – that day so that we would be certain to be able to get home. That would turn out to be a rare bit of good sense on our part.

But first we wanted to get a look at the Fortaleza. We bought our tickets and began a walking tour of the building, and it is huge and extensive. We walked in hallways built within the massive walls; in some places five or six feet thick. The fort was begun by Hernan Cortez at the beginning of the conquest of Mexico and it was the last Spanish foothold when Mexico rebelled and expelled the Spanish in 1825. The walls were lined with maps, drawings photographs, and historical notes in both Spanish and English. Wes and I were fascinated and stayed there longer than we had planned. At one point we did feel a little nervous however. One display of photos with their historical explanations concerned the capture of the city in 1914 by U.S. Marines and Navy personnel as part of a complicated affair involving German arms shipments to the Mexican government in the midst of a revolution. On the wall were several photos of Mexican soldiers and civilians defending their city as the battle waxed and waned through the streets and from behind buildings. Wes and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable as we stood with a group of Mexicans looking at the exhibit. We wondered just how gringo we looked.

At length we had seen enough of the fort and flagged a taxi to take us to the airport, where we purchased two of the last five tickets available on that flight for the return trip to Ciudad Juarez the next afternoon, and then returned to our hotel to settle up there as well. We then counted and pooled our money and set out to enjoy what had turned into being a vacation as well as an adventure.

We began the rest of our stay in Veracruz by walking to a rum shack on the waterfront which we had seen the day before from the trolley. Seated outside we began drinking rum and cokes, but the drinks became progressively more rum and less coke. I was twenty eight years old at the time and for the last ten years had lived anything but a temperate and sober life, so I could soak up a good deal of rum and remain functional. Next to us was a Mexican boy of about ten years of age who was selling coconuts. When a customer came along he would neatly lop the top end of the coconut off with a machete and send them on their way refreshed with the milk of the coconut. I purchased a coconut and asked if I could try to knock the top off myself. The kid agreed and I whacked away with the machete but failed miserably to even dent the shell. I returned nut and machete to the boy and he took off the top with one clean, effortless swing. Wes told me he was certain that I would cut my hand off and under the circumstances it was probably a miracle that I didn’t. I poured my rum into the coconut and drank the mixture of milk and rum with a straw. Soon after that Wes and I wobbled out of the rum shack in search of someplace to eat dinner.

We found a restaurant not too far away which featured foods from all over Mexico. There is much more to Mexican food than tacos and enchiladas. I don’t remember what Wes ate, but I had red snapper in a local red sauce with all the trimmings. While we ate we enjoyed a mariachi band which would circle the room, playing for anyone who would pay. My weak grasp of the Spanish language precluded my following their lyrics fully, but it sounded as if they were sort of a comedy act as well as singers. They seemed to be making fun of their patrons, but in a good natured way. Sort of like a celebrity roast, but less nasty. The patrons were laughing uproariously at some of the lines, and the singers worked hard to keep a straight face during their performance. After finishing our meal we walked for a while on the downtown sidewalks and then returned to the hotel bar where we sat nursing drinks for another hour or two before retiring for the evening.

The next morning we awoke early and hung over. It was a Sunday and most places where one might get a breakfast were closed, including the restaurant at our hotel. We exited the building and walked towards the center of old Veracruz, but still found nothing but closed businesses. Upon entering the large plaza in front of the old cathedral we lapsed into tourist mode, examining buildings and fountains and grassy miniparks with bleary eyes. As we walked through the plaza we saw a sight which caused hope to surge through our addled brains; a cantina boasted a sigh which said ‘Abierto’, or ‘open’.

A little hair of the dog which bit us seemed like good medicine so we veered to the right and made for the cantina. As we approached it our spirits soared even higher, for another sign announced free tacos for paying customers. This piece of luck cheered us greatly and we sat down at an outside table and ordered beer and tacos. Our order came straightaway and we dug into the rolled tacos with gusto, washing mouths full down with the cold Mexican beer.

After a short while of eating with abandon I happened to look over at Wes. He had been looking pretty green since he had crawled out of his bed that morning and now he looked a little greener. “What’s wrong, Man?” I asked around a large mouthful of half-chewed taco. “Do you know what we’re eating?” he asked, putting down his half-eaten meal. “No, and I don’t really care. It’s pretty good whatever it is. You should have seen some of the things I ate in Vietnam” I told him, although I really had no idea what I had eaten at some places in Vietnam. It could have been just about anything. Wes unrolled his half-eaten taco and showed me the white, honeycombed substance within. “It’s tripe.” I looked at the filling of the taco and sure enough, it was tripe, or ‘menudo’, the lining of a cow’s stomach. That is a very cheap bit of meat, which is why it could be given away for free. “I don’t care” I said with my best machismo, and finished my taco. I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat another one however.

A young Mexican lad was watching this drama from a short distance away from our table. I have no doubt that he’d seen this all play out before and knew the probable outcome of two gringos eating menudo tacos. After a few moments of seeing our hands remaining wrapped around our beers and not venturing close to the tacos he approached our table and asked in pretty good English “Are you going to eat those?” “No”, we answered in unison. “They’re all yours” said Wes, and the kid gathered up the tacos to go and eat them somewhere else, happy to have a free breakfast. This left Wes and I with our original problem; where could we get something to eat?

Just about as we were finishing our beers the answer to our dilemma came walking across the plaza. An old man carrying a basket of shrimp was approaching our table and we called him over. The shrimp that he was carrying was fresh, caught and cooked in some manner that very morning. The little sea bugs were still in their shells but were ready to eat. We bought a half-kilo of them and ordered two more beers, and for the next half hour popped those shrimps out of their shells like peanuts and feasted on them. Slowly a pile of empty shells grew on our table as we plowed through our stash of still-warm shrimp.

That breakfast held us over for the rest of the morning, and we did not eat again until we arrived at the airport as the sun was beginning to set in the afternoon, We counted up our money and found that after our taxi ride to the airport and dinner at a restaurant there, we had just about ten dollars left. Our taxi from the Ciudad Juarez airport to the bridge over the Rio Grande took all but about two fifty of that and the El Paso bus to the gates of Fort Bliss, where an old friend from our neighborhood was stationed, just about cleaned us out. A call from our friend Benny’s quarters to my brother resulted in two bus tickets back to Albuquerque where we would strap on our tool belts and begin making some money again in construction, but that is a story which must be told at some other time.

Do You Know The way To Veracruz: Part II

The airport in Veracruz, like many airports in the world, is well away from the city itself. This makes sense as most airplane accidents happen on takeoff and landing, and having large machines loaded with aviation fuel fall out of the sky onto populated areas is a very bad idea, as the city of San Diego learned in 1978. Wes and I recovered our backpacks and boarded a taxi to run us into the city. We told the driver that we wanted a clean hotel but not resort grade, and he took us to a hotel right on the waterfront that matched all of our requirements. We checked into our room and then stepped out to get a good look at Veracruz. Wes and I both fell in love with what we saw.

Veracruz is a very old city. It began its existence when Hernan Cortez landed there and began the Spanish conquest of Mexico. But Veracruz is a new city too. Being one of only two major ports on Mexico’s east coast and being the closest port to Mexico City, the commerce taking place in that city insures that a very modern infrastructure of banking, communication, transportation and the like is available to service those commercial needs. Veracruz is also a major port of call for the cruise ships which ply the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. When those ships are in port, passenger loads of from two to six thousand will be available to debark from the ship and sample the food, drink and souvenir offerings in the city. Much work went into making the city as clean and attractive as possible so as to not scare off the tourists before they dropped impressive amounts of cash into the pockets of businesspeople large and small.

Wes and I noticed a set of very narrow steel tracks running down the middle of one street near our hotel and asked a vendor of fresh fruit juices if it was a working trolley. This was a somewhat difficult task as that level of communications tested my language skills, but the vendor’s limited English and my limited Spanish sufficed to get the job done, and we learned that indeed the trolley ran every day and if we would wait there a few minutes we could board it on its next pass through the neighborhood, I purchased my usual favorite drink, a pineapple/mango concoction which the vendor whipped up on the spot, and Wes got something for himself. We then sat on the curb to enjoy our drinks and wait for the trolley.

Before we finished our drinks we heard the ‘clang, clang’ of the bell as the trolley approached our position. It was still around a corner so we couldn’t see it, but we arose from our curbside seats so that we would be ready to jump on when it passed by. At last the trolley hove into view and I watched its approach with admiration and anticipation. The trolley looked like something out of a Disney movie. It was spindly but not fragile. Low side rails and thin roof supports left a great deal of open space so that the traveller did not feel enclosed at all. The body of the trolley was fairly light in weight which matched the small, thin steel rails set into the asphalt and cobblestones of the streets upon which the trolley ran. It was painted in the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag with golden pom poms dangling from the edge of the roof all the way around. The operator saw us waiting and slowed the trolley down so that we could jump aboard. We noticed later that he would stop for an elderly tourist, a senora getting on or off with little children and/or packages from shopping, or a young senorita under any circumstances. The rest of us had to time our step to board the still-moving trolley.

We paid our peso or two and found seats near the rear of the carriage. The trolley chugged at one or two miles per hour and we relaxed as we passed through shopping areas and residential neighborhoods, past piers where the cruise liners tied up and along the sea wall, called the ‘malecon’ (pronounced MALL-A-CONE with a long ‘A’), where everyone gathered on the summer evenings to walk along the waterfront, enjoying the cool ocean breezes and beautiful view of the sparkling Caribbean stretching out to infinity in the east. At several points along the way we jumped off to poke our noses into shops or collections of stalls and booths selling just about anything that one can imagine. We bought a couple of the tiny (by American standards) street tacos and some fruit on a stick, and hopped back onto the trolley when it made its next pass through the neighborhood. The operator of the trolley waved off our pesos as we reached to pay again, recognizing us from our first ride. We proceeded in this manner all the way around the loop which brought us back to the point where we had begun our trolley ride.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the streets of Veracruz and along the waterfront. We could not see the commercial seaport very well, although the derricks and cranes on the horizon showed us where it was. We would go there the next morning first thing. We decided to have dinner at the hotel, which wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either, and visited the hotel bar for an hour or two afterwards. After that the culmination of twenty four hours on a bus and the better part of a day flying to and exploring Veracruz caught up with us both and we turned in early to get rested up for the next day, since we had no idea what that day would bring.

Morning came and we were out of our beds and dressed in a flash. This day could possibly be the craziest day of our lives and we could hardly wait to begin it. After breakfast at the hotel we caught a taxi to the port, and soon we were standing in front the broad gate which opened into the Port of Veracruz. Wes and I had no idea where we should start asking about work on a freighter so we gambled that you just went up to a freighter, found the captain, and asked. Probably I let myself be influenced by reading Moby Dick and too many Jack London novels. None of the freighters in port had a captain with a large beard, a jagged scar, and an artificial leg carved out of whalebone standing on the fo’c’sle looking to hire rookie seamen for one three hundred and sixtieth part each of the profits of the voyage. In fact, we never laid eyes on a captain of anything that day.

The big, hulking freighters were tied up at the docks, and the gangways were down connecting dock to deck. There were no guards or any other official-looking people regulating who went up the gangway onto the ship but we were reluctant to just walk onto the ship in search of its captain. Dock workers were loading and unloading cargo but we weren’t allowed to interfere with them, so we located a large building and went inside to look for a harbormaster or whoever ran the place. Inside we found a small counter with nobody present behind which were doors which led into the interior of the building. To the left was a row of rather worn chairs in front of a dirty window. Wes and I went to the chairs and I moved one around a little which caused the metal legs to squeak on the floor. I reasoned that the noise might alert somebody to our presence. I don’t know if my stratagem worked or not, but soon a man appeared in the doorway and moved over to the counter. He looked surprised to see us.

“Buenos dias, Como estan?” “Buenos dias. Habla usted Ingles?” “No, no lo hablo.” The man did not speak English, and so this deal would have to be done in Spanish, which ensured that it would take a lot of time to get it right. At first the man had no idea what I was trying to communicate, and then he thought that we were merchant seamen looking for a particular ship. Finally I made it clear that we were two young American men with absolutely no experience at all with working on ships who wanted to sail somewhere. He never really did get the part about Saudi Arabia and the oil fields. Once he understood the main point however he motioned for us to wait and disappeared through the doorway, returning shortly with another man in tow. This person was dressed a little better and in general looked a bit higher on the food chain. I felt like I was buying a new car.

“So, Guillermo say to me you want work en un barco, uh, on ship, but you no work before?” “Yes” I said, and in the best Spanish I could muster continued to say “we work hard. Building houses. We know hard work, but never on ship.” At least I think that’s what I said, although I could have said “My mother’s tool belt shot fifteen birds” as far as I knew at the time. Eventually we both felt like we had the conversation right and he told us that the chances were not good, but to wait. Both of the men retreated into the interior of the building, probably to have a good laugh at our expense, and reemerged shortly to let us know that we wouldn’t be shipping out from their port.

It had not occurred to Wes and I that we would fail to find work on a ship in Veracruz and now we had to regroup. As I wrote earlier, I must have filled my head with romantic notions of ships always being shorthanded and having to shanghai sailors to fill their duty rosters. The reality appeared to be that there were plenty of capable sailors available and the rosters were all full. Wes and I thanked the men for their time and assistance and returned to the dusty yard outside of the building.

At that point we had no idea what to do next. The only reason for coming to Veracruz was to get on a freighter and forget the unpleasant world that was behind us, and that plan now looked like it was going nowhere. I looked back at the ships tied up along the dock with their gangways wide open and unguarded and said “Come on Wes, Let’s go and see for ourselves.” “No, man” Wes responded. “We don’t know the rules here. You know how you are always saying ‘remember where you are?’ Well then, remember where you are.” “I know man, but I just traveled a couple thousand miles, and a bunch of that on a Mexican bus, to do this and I don’t want to bag the whole thing without one more try” I handed my money belt and a pocket knife to Wes, retaining a small amount of money in my wallet. If I got into a bind I could try to buy my way out of trouble with the smaller amount of money which I kept on me. I would make the case that it was all I had. Failing that, Wes could come to my rescue with the bulk of my money. “Wait here” I said, and began to walk up the gangway.

The clatter of my shoes on the metal stairs seemed as loud as a snare drum to me but did not seem to draw anyone’s attention. I reached the deck and saw nobody in the passageway which ran along the side of the ship. I began to walk toward the bow of the ship, looking in the metal doorways as I passed them with the hope of seeing somebody to ask about the whereabouts of the captain. There was nobody in sight as I emerged into the open area of the front part of the ship. I don’t know nautical terms, and so you must be patient with me, dear reader.

As I looked around I saw a man bent over something on the next deck above me. I considered calling to him but then decided that a personal touch was needed, so I sent to the metal stairway which led upwards to that deck. When I got there the sailor began to straighten up as I walked towards him. It seemed like he had removed something from his shoe. “Excuse me” I said. “Can I ask you a question?” The man jumped a little, surprised by my presence. He was a brown person of slight build, who gave me the impression that he might hail from somewhere in Southeast Asia. He also didn’t speak a word of English or Spanish. He did seem to understand ‘KAP EE TAN” however and held up a hand for me to wait. The sailor disappeared and five or ten minutes and later returned with a ship’s officer of undetermined rank or ethnic origin who was more familiar with English. “Are you the captain?” I asked. He answered in the negative and I continued. “I know that you are busy, but I wanted to ask if you needed any hands to work on your ship for the next cruise.” It took the officer a moment and some clarification but eventually he understood my question. “No, we have all of the hands that we need. We don’t hire people right off the deck anyway; we usually go through the harbormaster shoreside and only use skilled hands.” “Is it that way with the other ships?” I asked, and he nodded in the affirmative. “I think so. We can all find skilled hands when we need them, and as far as I know we all do it pretty much the same way.”

I hung my head for a moment, trying to think of any other angle I could pursue and also letting my disappointment show, just in case the officer took pity on me. Neither approach bore fruit. I thanked the officer and returned down the stairs and down the gangway to a waiting Wes. “No luck” I told him. “It looks like this is as far as we go.” Wes handed back my knife and money belt and we began to walk back toward the gate through which we had so recently and eagerly entered the port. The old plan was now finished, and the next order of business was to make a new one. We decided to find a place to have a little lunch and a couple of beers and figure out what we should do next.

Do You Know The Way To Veracruz, Part I

As I have written elsewhere, 1976 was not my best year. In February of that year my first marriage began to unravel and in May it melted down completely. Up until that time I had been working long hours sometimes seven days a week trying to make a success of a construction company which I began with a partner, plus finish my last class in order to earn my bachelor’s degree in history at a nearby college. With the collapse of my marriage came a collapse of my focus. The construction company and college class were abandoned and I secured a small part-time job at which I performed poorly and then devoted the remainder of my time to medicating my pain in whatever ways presented themselves.

For six months I shared a three bedroom apartment with three other people, and that was a time of impressively dissolute living. Every hour of the day when I wasn’t working, which was most of them, I was lounging in the sun drinking beer and reading classic literature or history, and every evening the music was on, beer and rum and tequila were flowing, and marijuana smoke was rolling out of our windows in clouds. One evening a young woman with whom I worked came over to our place with a friend. We had a keg of beer in the bathtub packed in ice and were passing joints like hot potatoes. My friend’s date began to feel bad about partaking of our intoxicants and at length said “If I had known that you were having a party I would have brought something to share.” My friend let out a small, musical laugh and answered him “They’re not having a party. It’s like this here every night.”

Eventually I began to tire of this life however, and the urge to move on began to grow in me. In August my wife and I stood before a judge and said the magic words in proper sequence and he declared us to be legally separated, divorce to be final after a six month waiting period to allow for any possible reconciliation. As we emerged from the courthouse I cried, not the first time and certainly not the last, and returned to my apartment to try to drink and smoke myself into annihilation.

It was a couple of months later as Christmas was approaching that I received a phone call from out of the blue from my oldest friend Wes, who still lived in San Diego where we both grew up. Wes had just broken up with a girlfriend qnd was feeling down in the dumps. We hadn’t spoken to each other in ages so Wes had no idea what my story was. After we hung up I began to take stock of my situation and decided that I couldn’t stay in this rut into which I had fallen much longer.

It was December at this point and Christmas was approaching. Two of my roommates and I had crept commando style onto a high-roller golf course and cut down a tree that would fit nicely in our living room. It was a revolutionary act, you see. We decorated the tree with strings made from the pull tops from our beer cans and crowned it with a piece of cardboard which we painted into a Chinese flag and onto which we glued a picture of Chairman Mao. Our revolutionary credentials were impressive and we were proud of our creativity.

But the thought of spending Christmas of 1976 in Northern California removed from my relationship with my wife but physically residing less than a mile from her was a prospect which I did not relish. Thanksgiving had been bad enough and the hangover from that binge lasted for two days. I had been thinking seriously about leaving for several months and now believed that the time had come.

I called Wes back and said “You want to meet me at my brother’s place?” “Whata you got in mind?” he asked. “I’ve got my passport and I thought about going to Mexico and getting work on a freighter that would take me to Saudi Arabis and work in the oil fields.” Now I had no connection with work in oil fields and in fact had no idea what one actually did in an oil field. I only knew that there was a gob of money being made in oil and I wanted to get as far away from my current life as possible. Wes, being my equal in age, wisdom and capacity for reasoning answered almost immediately and said “Sure. Why not?”

So a week before Christmas I showed up at my brother’s house in Albuquerque. I had at least called to let him know that I was coming, which was very out of character for me, and upon arrival I let him know that Wes would be showing up in a day or two as well. Brad was fine with that, but his wife Ginny was less enthusiastic. I assured them that we would stay a few days only and then be on our way. Brad is four years older than Wes and I and a little more willing to use his head as something more functional than a hatrack. He was therefore tempted to accompany us in our wild scheme but the responsibilities of a family, and the presence of a large wooden rolling pin in a kitchen drawer, persuaded him to sit this one out.

The day after Christmas came and, good as our word, Wes and I were on a Greyhound bus before the crack of dawn rolling south towards El Paso. We arrived there in the early afternoon and walked across the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. A short taxi ride brought us to the train station where we planned to purchase tickets to the port of Veracruz. The ticket seller seemed to be having trouble understanding us even though I spoke a little Spanish. He also seemed to be having trouble figuring out the train timetable, and even the cash register and the book in which the blank ticket stubs were located seemed to be beyond his capabilities. I knew what was going on of course. The ticket seller was waiting for us to pay ‘la mordita’, the ‘little bite’, a bribe to grease the process. I had had a very bad year and was nursing a very bad hangover, and didn’t feel like paying any damned bribe. Consequently, Wes and I were still arguing with the ticket guy when the train to Veracruz pulled out of the station.

So away we went by taxi to the bus station. We had changed our plan and would now take a bus to Veracruz. There were no shenanigans at the bus station, although at this point I would have paid ‘la mordita’ if it had been required. Perhaps they figured that two Gringos taking a long-distance Mexican bus must be so down on their luck that there was nothing to be gotten from us.

The bus meandered south down the Mexican roads, picking up passengers and the occasional chicken or goat along the way, and by evening we arrived at Torreon, deep into northern Mexico. We did not have any Mexican pesos with us, which had never been a problem in Mexico before, but Mexico agt this time was in the midst of an economic crisis. Inflation was out of control and nobody but a bank knew from moment to moment what the exchange rate was, and so no restaurants would take American money because nobody knew what it was worth, and we were hungry! Finally a very nice hotel restaurant took pity on us and took a chance on the value of our money, and we got a meal to hold us over to the next day when a bank would be open. In an hour or so our bus was back on the road leading east into the gloom of the Mexican evening towards Monterrey, the next city on the road to Veracruz.

It was a very long night. Wes and I slept on the bus, of course, and when morning came we were cramped, hungry, sweaty and thoroughly fed up with the bus. Upon our arrival in Monterrey we decided to forget the bus and rent a car. Both Wes and I had driven in Mexico a lot and were perfectly comfortable with the idea of doing so again. We looked in a directory in the bus station and found the name and address of a car rental agency nearby, and a short walk brought us in front of that establishment.

“En que puedo servirle?” asked the agent at the counter. “Por favor” I replied. “Habla usted Ingles?” “Yes, I speak English” she replied, and I told her that we wanted to rent a car and drive to Veracruz. For those of you who are geographically challenged the distance from Monterrey to Veracruz is 529 miles. “You want to drive one of our cars to Veracruz?” she asked, and we affirmed that that was indeed our intention. The agent looked skeptical. “Have you identification? A passport? A credit card?” We had all but the credit card, which I have since learned is critical to renting a car anywhere.

The furrows in her brow deepened as the agent struggled to grasp completely how imbecilic the two Gringos standing in front of her really were. “Do you have an employer with whom we could check?” “No, not currently. I worked for that last six months at such-and-such a business but before that I have been in construction for the last four years.” She looked over at Wes and asked the same questions and got virtually the same answer. The agent thought for a moment longer and then excused herself to go consult with her manager. I could see them on the other side of the office and I am almost certain that I saw them laughing. At length the agent returned. “I’m sorry sir, but we are not going to be able to rent you one of our cars.” We already suspected that that would be the case, and so we exited the building with no further ado and found ourselves out on the sidewalk in Monterrey debating what to do next.

“Aw, the hell with it. Let’s fly” I said. “That would leave me with almost no money there” said Wes. “No worry. I’ll cover you” I said. I had a good bit of cash from splitting our savings when my wife and I divorced, and getting to Veracruz with Wes that very day seemed like a great way to spend it. Wes felt uncomfortable with that plan at first but I convinced him that I thought of it as money well spent.

Within the hour we were at the ticket counter at the Monterrey International Airport buying our passage on the next plane to Veracruz, which was leaving in just under two more hours. Wes and I hurried to a restaurant in the airport where we bought some belated breakfast and washed it down with a couple of beers. At the appointed time we boarded the plane and sat back into the soft seats of the jet airliner. The flight was a quick one, little more than and hour, at the end of which the doors were opened and we descended the portable stairway. We crossed the tarmac, entered the terminal, and exited into the front of the building where the taxis were lined up. Phase one of our mission was accomplished. We were in Veracruz.

A Memorable Day With My Friend Clay

The year 1971 is a year that was nearly lost to me. I grew up in a very authoritarian family, and upon reaching eighteen years of age in 1966 joining the Army, even in the middle of a way, was like liberation to me. My father was raised in a strict rural Georgia family and spent twenty years in the Navy where he flourished in the military environment. It was natural then that Dad modeled that regimented style into his parenting.

Being in the Army was, as I said, like liberation. After basic and advanced training I found the Army to be a routine which left me more or less alone for a good piece of the day, with large amounts of free time of which I could dispose pretty much as I wished. I know that this will sound odd to a lot of people, especially those who have also served in the military, but that is the way it was. My first real duty station was a supply company in name only. We didn’t supply anyone with anything. After breakfast we were supposed to return to our barracks and wait for the First Sergeant to come and select us to perform menial labor around the fort where I was stationed. Most of us elected not to hang around the barracks, and our sergeant became very good at finding us in the snack bars, the PX, the post swimming pool and so on. I don’t think Sarge was much of a reader however. I mostly hid in a branch of the post library not two blocks from our company area and Sarge never looked for me there. He really hated me for hiding so efficiently from him.

When my name was called and orders arrived for Vietnam I was glad to go. I had had enough of Texas and needed some newer scenery. I arrived in country and soon was working twelve hours on, twelve hours off, with every fourteenth day a day of rest for me. I found a surprising amount of free time within that schedule as well and, in the absence of all of the spit and polish that is common to the military life outside of a combat zone, I actually felt free and mostly left alone except for the inevitable annoyance which comes with being in a place where people are trying to kill you.

When I left the Army after three years I was now free of my father’s close supervision, free of the regimentation under which I had lived in the Army, and free of any kind of good sense. All of this took place in the late 1960’s and as most people know the late 1960’s were a time when, for many people, moderation and restraint were ripped out of our lifestyles and thrown into the ash bin of history.

Being ungrounded in any spiritual or moral framework I embraced a lifestyle of radical personal freedom that was visceral and not philosophical. If I wanted to do something and it seemed like I could probably get away with it, I did it. I was neither nihilist nor anarchist; I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and mostly did it. All of which is to say that I was stoned a lot on recreational drugs in those days and don’t remember a lot, and that is why there are big parts of 1971 that I do not remember so well. On the other hand there are parts which I remember quite vividly, and this is a story of one such event which stands out clearly in my otherwise foggy memory.

I loved to travel then, even as I still love to travel now, and when one of the guys in the group of students and ex-military guys with whom I was hanging out returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to become involved in his father’s large construction company, this gave me all the excuse I needed to pay a visit to that magnificent part of the country. My main traveling partner in those days was Joe Medina. Joe had been in the Air Force with Clay Wistler, the recently moved friend, and we all met at college. Joe and I needed almost no excuse to drop whatever we were doing and go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California or just putt around the state visiting his friends and/or mine. Joe and I would throw a few items into his Volkswagon bus (yes, when you were stuck on a two lane road going uphill in a string of 200 cars behind a chugging VW bus, that very well might have been us) and roll down the roads and highways of California stoned and happy.

We would camp near Lake Tahoe, stop in for a few days in Sacramento to visit his friends Mike and Yoko, or drive over to Petaluma to see my friends Lara and Sherry, whom I met on a camping trip in my teens in the Laguna Mountains behind San Diego. A couple of times we stopped in Yosemite, parking in the public areas and then hiking way back up the east end of the valley where it begins to climb up into the Sierras. That was some of the most beautiful country that I have ever beheld.

On one trip however we went specifically to visit our friend Clay. Clay was now driving a cement truck for his father’s construction company when he worked at all, which was not very often. One can sometimes get away with a certain amount of laxity when one is the only son of a wealthy businessman. Most of the time Clay spent loafing on a twenty-six foot sloop which he tied up to a buoy thirty yards or so off the dock in Sausalito Harbor on the north side of the Bay. Clay had a six foot boat called a dinghy tied up to the back of his sloop, and when he wanted or needed to go ashore he would cast off in that little boat and putt into the dock. This guaranteed Clay a certain amount of privacy, a situation which Clay valued greatly.

Joe and I arrived at the dock and locked up his VW. We walked to the end of the dock and Joe took out of his pocket a little compressed air horn, such as people use at sporting events to make a loud, annoying noise. This horn was Clay’s doorbell. Joe pointed it at the sloop and gave it three short blasts. Shortly after that Clay’s head appeared over the side of the boat, or the gunnel, I think nautical types call it. Clay waved back to us, mounted his dinghy, and putt-putted his way to the dock to pick us up.

Clay’s boat was surprisingly comfortable for the three of us, with room for three sleeping bags, a galley, a head, and room to lounge on outside on the deck. We relaxed from our long drive, smoking a joint or two and sharing a six pack of Budweiser that we brought out to the sloop with us. At length however the sun began it’s descent in the sky above and we decided to go into Sausalito and eat rather than cook in the small galley. We climbed into Clay’s dinghy and he navigated it over to the dock, where we tied the dinghy’s rope to a piling and climbed up a ladder to the surface of the dock, and then walked a short distance to the No Name Bar.

That was not really the bar’s name. In fact, the bar had no name. There was no sign on the front identifying the establishment as a bar. Only a sign in the front door window alerting people under the age of twenty one that their presence was not welcome gave any indication whatsoever of what to expect upon entering that establishment. If you lived there however you knew exactly what you would find there; excellent mixed drinks if your preference ran to that (mine didn’t), great wines, cold beer, and pub grub that bordered upon gourmet.

We sat at a table, ordered our food and some beers, and spent quite a while at the No Name. I don’t really know how long because time was not something that I cared about all that much and so I usually chose to ignore it. However long we were there, it was quite dark when we exited the building and began to wobble back across the street and along the dock to where we had tied up earlier. When we returned to the dinghy we learned that time might be a concept of little consequence to us but tide was a much more substantial and pressing issue.

The tide may have been coming in when we tied up in the afternoon or it could have been at low tide, but one thing was abundantly clear; it was certainly coming in now. The point on the piling at which we had tied up the dinghy was several feet below the surface of the bay now and the rear of the dinghy was being raised out of the water as the bow of it was being pulled down by the taut rope. Clay cursed his stupidity and began to peel off his shirt and shoes. He extracted a knife from his pants pocket and slipped into the water, submerging near the piling and slicing through the rope as close to the piling as he could. The rear of the dinghy slapped back down as the rope gave way and Clay broke through the surface of the water, still fuming about his rope and unschedule dip in the water.

We climbed into the dinghy and made the short trip back to the sloop, where Clay toweled off and changed his clothes. His shower facilities were on land and so he would have to wait until the next morning to wash off the salt water from his swim in the Bay. We smoked another couple of joints and then turned in to sleep to the rocking and rolling rhythms of the swells on the Bay. It was a relaxing motion and I slept like a baby.

The next morning Clay got up early to shower and pick up some supplies at a store. By the time Joe and I awoke Clay was back with bacon and eggs cooking in the galley and a couple of six packs in the cooler. We had decided the evening before to cast off from the buoy and take a ride out on the Bay in Clay’s sloop, and although we had slept late it didn’t take us long to eat and clean up, and soon Clay was navigating his sloop out of the harbor and onto the broad expanse of San Francisco Bay.

If you have ever been there you know that the Bay is one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth, and this day was one of the finest and most clear that I had ever seen. The massive yet graceful span of the Golden Gate Bridge stood out in its red/orange glory against the indescribable blue of the sky over the Pacific Ocean. Alcatraz Island slipped past and behind us as we slid effortlessly across the slight chop of the untroubled surface of the Bay. Sipping our beers, sharing joints and gliding like a phantom over the waters I felt as free as I ever had. Out in the middle of the Bay there were no rules, no expectations, no timetables to be met. This was exactly where my radically individualistic, unmoored soul longed to be. Nothing could touch me here. Nothing could make me dance to its tune. Nothing except—.

AHHHWOOOOOO! The deep roar of a ship’s horn brought the three of us out of our stoned reveries. The Gate we had seen. Alcatraz we had seen too. But somehow the gigantic oil tanker that was now bearing down upon us had eluded our attention. “Holy Shit!” we bellowed in unison, and Clay instantly maneuvered the sail and tiller so that we would catch the maximum amount of wind to push his sloop out from in front of the black behemoth which was looming up over us already. Joe and I leaned far over the port (left) side of the boat as the starboard (right) edge dug deep into the water after Clay’s maneuver. From that position I could see the top of the ship’s bow which was pressing relentlessly straight towards us. Some Asian crewmen were looking down at us, probably certain that we would be run down and killed beneath the hull of their great ship.

Somehow, that didn’t happen. Clay’s quick action and a good breeze propelled us like a shot across the water and we looked back with relief as the tanker, with a huge “Phillips 66” emblem painted on the side, plowed irresistibly past us. Clay backed off on the sail and we slowed down to a more measured pace. For a minute we just looked at each other, too shaken to say anything. Joe had peed his pants, and I have no idea why I had not done so too. Then we began to laugh so hard that piloting the boat became impossible, We lay more or less dead in the water while we laughed away the terror which had so recently owned us. Joe peeled off his soiled pants and underwear and gave them a good wash in the Bay. He got some fresh clothes out of his pack which was stowed in the sleeping area below deck and we proceeded to continue our tour of the Bay.

On the way back we stopped in Tiburon to pick up a case of beer and then returned to the safety and calm of the buoy in Sausalito Harbor. After tying up the sails, I think that may be called “reefing” them but I am not sure, and immobilizing the tiller we climbed into the dinghy to go get showers and a meal somewhere that was a little less expensive than the No Name Bar. That night we slept the peaceful sleep that God grants to drunkards and fools before arising the next day and continuing with our journey to wherever we went next (I’ve forgotten that part), blissfully unconcerned with how close we came to a watery death the day before on the beautiful but sometimes dangerous waters of San Francisco Bay.

The Tale of Captain Henry Kershaw

“You never can tell who’s hiding in the woodpile.” That was my mother’s way of saying that we cannot help who our relations are or who our ancestors were, and you cannot always be sure about who you’re even related to. It was funny to me that Mom would actually have such a saying when for most of the years that I knew her she never showed very much interest in who her own distant family members were or might have been, and none at all about my father’s. That familial and generational ambivalence seemed to change a bit as she grew older and moved back to her home state of Kentucky in her retirement years, and on one visit I found myself one morning in a car headed east on the Bluegrass Parkway towards Lexington and the mountains further east of there.

Most of Mom’s immediate relatives had settled in Louisville Kentucky or across the Ohio River in New Albany, Indiana. She grew up however in the coal mining mountain counties of Eastern Kentucky. To be exact, a large part of her childhood was spent in and just outside of Hazzard, Kentucky. Mom used to laugh when we would watch the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” She called that show “The Dukes of Riverside” because the terrain in the television show looked a lot more like Southern California than Eastern Kentucky. I later found out just how right she was about that.

On this clear, warm Kentucky day we took the Parkway through low hills and broad fields of corn and tobacco and in an hour or two arrived on the outskirts of Lexington, where grand farms raising some of the finest horses in the world lined the road which narrowed as it neared the center of town. I don’t care much about horses one way or the other but I have to admit that the sight of a group of three or four of them standing regally under the shade of an oak or elm tree, with the white rail fences and ever-present arena and track, did stir the Kentuckian blood which runs through my veins.

We threaded our way through downtown Lexington, picked up the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, and headed east. The flat farmland continued for about a half hour and then the road began to rise and twist through low hills that bunched together closer and higher until we knew that we were officially in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. A bit further on we found the turnoff to State Route 30 which led to the town of Jackson, the seat of Breathitt County. After another half hour we pulled into Jackson, a picturesque mountain town with a downtown that seemed to be right out of the late nineteenth and early twentiety centuries. There was a lot of stone and brick, with diagonal parking in the street in front of the hardware store, the drug store, the dress store and so on. Jackson looked like the set of a movie and I would have probably not believed it to be real if it was not so much like Campbellsville, Lebanon, Bardstown and a host of other small Kentucky towns that I had already visited.

I parked our car in one of the diagonal slots in front of a large stone and brick building which housed the Breathitt County Library. My mother had a list of relatives whom she wanted to research and I was mostly along for the ride. We exited the car and walked up a short flight of stairs to the front door, which we found locked and sporting a sign which gave some reason or other why the building would not be opened that day until one in the afternoon. It was now barely ten thirty, and so Mom and I went back to the car to decide what to do next.

“We’ve already eaten breakfast” I said. “Do you want to walk around Jackson?” “No” she replied. “I don’t have any close connections here.” “Oh, really? I thought your family was from around here and that’s why you are using the library to look up some genealogies” “Some of them, yes, but only the more distant ones. I grew up in Hazzard, in the next county east.” I pulled out our Rand McNally atlas and saw that indeed, less than a hour further down the highway was Hazzard, Kentucky. “You want to go there?” Mom’s eyes lit up just a little but she said “I don’t know anyone there anymore.” “So what?” in asked. “We could just go and take a look.” Mom thought about that for just a minute and then nodded her assent. I backed out of the parking slot, nosed the care back onto U.S. Route 30, and we were quickly on our way to Hazzard.

As we drove deeper into the mountains I began to understand why Mom used to laugh at the television show. Breathitt and neighboring Perry County, of which Hazzard is the seat, are very vertical places. Steep, forested hillsides and deep valleys through which tumbled swift creeks and narrow, twisting roads were the order of the day in this broken, irregular landscape. The long, straight country roads that the Dukes piloted their muscle car down bore no resemblance whatsoever to the serpentine roads in this vertical land.

Mom and I pulled into Hazzard and quickly found ourselves in an older part of town. “Park here” said Mom, and I rolled slowly up against the curb. We exited the car and began to walk along the sidewalk in front of a row of usable but sad looking and run down buildings, some of which still contained struggling businesses but many of which were empty. Across the street was an old wooden pedestrian bridge which spanned two hills between which a narrow road came into town. “I used to walk on that bridge when I came into town as a girl” Mom said. “My best friend, Etta Boggs, and I would go to school or I would go to buy some small thing for my mother, and I would cross over that bridge. It came down to town just around the side of that hill”

I instantly became interested in this girl, Etta Boggs. What would she look like today?  What would she be like? Did they play with dolls, even if only paper ones? Did they fix each other’s hair and talk about boys? Could they ever see each other again? I asked Mom if she ever tried to find Etta Boggs. “No. I wouldn’t even know how to start looking for her. Etta married young to a man who worked at the mine office. He had a good job, as those things went back then. One day there was an explosion at the office; gas or coal dust, I don’t know what caused it. The explosion blew the office safe into the air and it landed on Etta’s husband. Squished him good. I left right after that and lived with the Browns in Newport News Virginia and never saw her again.”

This was a time before Google searches and the ancestry web sites, and I knew that Mom was right. It would require a laborious search of genealogy libraries with follow-ups of birth certificates, marriage licenses, birth announcements and perhaps a death record to hunt down the mysterious Etta Boggs. Mom didn’t seem interested enough to do the legwork to find Etta’s trail and so I let the topic drop.

We continued walking the sidewalks of old Hazzard, Mom pointing out where stores and homes and schools used to be when she was a little girl and I felt the mixed emotions of imagining her when she was very young in the 1920’s in a bustling town, and comparing that vision with the old, tired, down-at-the-mouth town through which we were walking. It seemed like Mom wore her years much as the town was wearing its own. We soon felt like we had killed enough time in Hazzard and reentered our car to begin the return trip back to Jackson. Mom was hungry but we decided that the fare in Hazzard did not look too tempting, so we gassed up and made our return to Jackson. To be fair to Hazzard, we did not go into the newer areas to the east of the old downtown. It might be a much more attractive place than what we saw. I also think that there may have been a ghost or two pestering Mom there; the boyfriend who didn’t work out, the cousin who drowned in the creek, poor old Etta’s squished husband and so on. In any case, we were soon heading west, slowly losing elevation as we rolled back down the road to Jackson.

In Jackson we stopped at a drug store which had a lunch counter that offered the usual southern fare. Burgers and fries, bologna and macaroni and cheese, or fried anything. We ate and left a tip which Mom thought was too generous and returned to our parking slot which was still available in front of of the big stone building. We were five minutes early and waited in the car until we saw the sign come out of the window and the doors open up. We slipped out of the car, made our way up the stairs, and then plunged into the cool confines of the library. We found the genealogy section right away and I left Mom to her research while I went throughout the library savoring its look and smell and feel, and daydreaming about the generations who had passed down those aisles and past those stacks of books, sat at the tables and perhaps flirted over by the section housing the history of the Roman Empire.

Mom was having success with her search and called me over to see what she had found. Mom’s maiden name was Cooper and her mother’s name had been Kershaw. She had always heard that a great great uncle, Captain Henry Kershaw, had been a bit of a rogue and had even seen him mentioned in an article in “Kentucky Magazine.” Mom was on a mission to set the record straight about her distant uncle. She had found a wealth of records including microfilm and microfiche which contained photos of news clippings, court entrees, sheriff’s warrants and the like and as we worked together the picture of that distant relative began to come into a sharper focus.

Captain Henry Kershaw, or “Cap’n Hank” as he was called, enlisted in the Army on the Federal side in the Civil War. Through his own skill, luck, and  attrition he rose to the rank of Captain by the end of the war. After Appomattox Cap’n Hank returned to his home near Jackson and began to farm and mine a type of near-surface coal, which gave him the funds to enlarge his land holdings. Kentucky had been a border state however, and the Confederate Army also drew units from that state. After Appomattox those soldiers went home too. This was not a good mix.

Amos Riesen had never liked the Kershaws anyway, and when Cap’n Hank bought the land next door trouble was inevitable. Cap’n Hank had a nice herd of swine and when he noticed that he was missing quite a few shoats, or juvenile pigs, he was certain that he knew who the culprits were so he set a trap. Cap’n Hank was waiting early one morning when the Riesens came to plunder his stock again and put a well-placed bullet through the heart of Cletus Riesen, Amos’ oldest boy. The other Riesens exchanged fire with Cap’n Hank and then fled, leaving the body of Cletus where it lay. Cap’n Hank secured the body to his horse and brought it to the sheriff in Jackson, who declared the homicide to be justified but would not swear out a warrant for Amos. That rascal would only deny that he had been there and in the end it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

As I suggested earlier, there were families and clans which aligned with either Federal or Confederate sympathies. The Federals were known as the Red Strings and the Confederates as – and I am not making this up – the Ku Kluxers. Naturally, Amos Riesen was a Ku Kluxer and Cap’n Hank was a Red String. So Amos gathered a few cousins and his remaining offspring and encircled the cabin of Cap’n Hank one dark night. When dawn came they opened fire on Cap’n Hank, and he and his wife and his young son were pinned down in the cabin.

After three days, his food and ammunition running low, Cap’n Hank crept out at night and put his young son on a horse and sent him for help. The boy got through and soon a dozen or so Red Strings were riding to the rescue. The relief column showed up and took the Riesens completely by surprise, killing three of them while the others took to their heels and fled into the forest. Cap’n Hank then led his men to the Riesen homestead, sent the women and children to walk to Jackson, killed all of the livestock and burned down every building on the farm to the ground. That was enough for the Riesens. Amos took his immediate family and moved to Tennessee, while the remaining family members gave Cap’n Hank a wide berth ever after.

For his remaining years Cap’n Hank was a peaceful man, more or less. His association with the Red String bunch placed him at odds with the Ku Kluxers, and from time to time and there were reports, unsubstantiated of course, of him being involved with assaults and shootings in connection with the feuds which wracked the county. But Cap’n Hank worked hard, increased his holdings and made a large family before one morning, when riding back with his youngest son from an inspection of some of his more distant property, he was ambushed and killed. The boy got away to report the event but nobody was ever charged or arrested. It was just not healthy for a sheriff to take a side in those feuds until well into the early twentieth century.

Mom and I were lost in time for almost three hours in that library, and when we were finished we looked up and saw that it was later than we had planned to stay. Dad was going to be cranky because we would not return home until nearly sundown, and he liked to eat earlier than that. We called him to let him know the situation and then hit the road west towards their home in central Kentucky. We chatted almost non-stop about all of the people and events that we learned about on that trip and made our plans to do it again soon. Those plans didn’t work out, but I at least have that one memory or Mom and her crazy Appalachian, feuding family. It is enough for me.

Serious As A Heart Attack: Epilogue

Home at last. Home, where I can lie in my own bed, eat food of my liking, sleep in front of my cheesy old movies and relax while my body knits itself back together. At last I can truly heal, because I am home. At least that is what I thought. The reality however is that I have never before had my chest split open and sewn back up and been put on blood pressure and antiarrhythmic medications, so I really had no basis for expecting anything. And the unexpected is exactly what I got.

My appetite and enjoyment of the taste of food did not return right away, and although I ate much more than I did while in the hospital, and ate much better stuff, there was little joy in it. A persistent light headedness continued and continues to make walking difficult, and the slightest hill of any sort will exhaust me almost instantly. The combination of less food and a lower sodium intake than before my surgery, plus my various medicines, led to dehydration which for one night put me back into the hospital. What a scare that was, as one of the possible causes of my problem could have led me back into the operating room to be opened up again. I think I would have preferred to slip into God’s arms rather than to do that. Fortunately for me, my problem did not need to be addressed in that manner, and I will always be grateful for that fact.

One thing that I mentioned earlier was the threat of constipation, the result of anesthesia plus pain medication plus heart medications. I ate salads and veggies galore and other high fiber foods, drank a lot of water, and still fell afoul of constipation. To a great many people that seems like a minor problem, a humorous side-note, a potty joke. It was none of those things. Constipation is a vastly painful condition which is exacerbated when in the context of major surgery, which left me in agony for at least six hours and almost sent me back to the Emergency Department, so awful was it. I feel constrained not to describe my pain or the difficult and messy manner by which my constipation was resolved because I believe that the story should be told in detail with proper prefaces so that the reader will understand from the very beginning that there is nothing in that story meant to be funny or gross or shocking or anything else. If I ever write that story it will be because I hope that at least one person will read it and take it to heart so that they never have to go through what I went through that day.

And then there’s the sweating. I would wake up in the middle of the night with bedclothes, sheets and pillows drenched in a cold sweat. I assume all of the medications I had taken plus the anesthesia had to work their way out of me, and also my improved eating which replaced what was already a fairly good diet was probably liberating toxins stored up in fat cells which were now melting away. I have lost nearly fifteen pounds since my surgery and the junk stored in those fat cells has to get out one way or another. My wife was kept busy washing clothes and sheets and pillow covers every morning for much of the first week that I was home. This has now subsided and I hope is at an end, although I deep protective coverings over my bed just in case.

Still, there have been many things at home that have lived up to my hopes. I cannot go into my garden but I can see it from the deck or a window, and I can eat out of it. I would love to pull the weeds creeping amongst my rows and beds and lift the drooping tomato plant branches and support them with cloth slings tied to wooden frames that I have build around the plants, but that is not to be for now. Instead I can watch my wife and my son water and tend and harvest my vegetables, and that counts for a lot.

So it’s been two steps forward and one step back; one step forward and one step back, and so on. My recovery is very likely to take the whole three months that I have been given off from work, and I still wonder if I will have the energy to return to what can be a physically demanding job. I’m not overly concerned about that as we could probably do all right if I was to retire, but I did not want to do that yet and it would be a hardship of sorts if I should have to. I will continue to pray for healing and be comforted to know that I have family and many good friends praying for that end as well.

Now it’s time to tell other tales and lighten the mood. No matter what happens from this point on, my life has still been an interesting one, to me at least, with many stories to write and hopefully many laughs to share with my readers. And from now on when I am tempted to respond to somebody’s question of ‘seriously?’ by saying “I’m serious as a heart attack”, I believe that I will catch myself and ask “was I really that serious?” My guess is that the answer will be that I am not quite that serious after all.

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.