God Has A Special Providence—

I have already written stories about the sumer and fall of 1976.  That was the year that my first marriage disintegrated, beginning in February and extending to the end of the year.  That year was one of considerable transformation for me in some ways, and a bit of regression in others.  I had only just left the wild party-animal phase of my life in the summer of 1973 and had slowly, painfully, been settling down into a slightly more stable role of construction worker, student and then construction worker again, all the while assuming the role of husband and provider, establishing a home and living as a married, working, home owning middle class sort of guy.  I had not approached anything like becoming some sort of rock of the community by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was I spending very much time sitting with a bunch of stoned college students by a swimming pool using the bottom of a saucepan as a bongo drum while croaking out my best version of any given rock tune.

All of that began to unravel in February of ’76’ when my wife announced that she wanted to separate.  We agreed to do so in June, but in May when I learned that she was already involved in a relationship with someone else I left the next morning and then spent the next six months floundering in a sea of pain and self pity, trying to regain my balance but stumbling more than standing and rarely taking two steps forward without taking one or two or three steps back.

My first step in dealing with my situation was to avoid dealing with it.  I moved with four others into an old residence which was upstairs from what had once been a neighborhood grocery store.  Here the party went on day and night.  Once a friend from work came over to our place with a friend of her own.  After a little while her friend apologized for showing up at our place with neither food nor beer nor marijuana.  “If I would have known that you were having a party I would have brought something” he said with a guilty and embarrassed look.  My friend Evelyn laughed.  “They aren’t having a party,” she explained.  “It’s like this here all the time.”

And so it was.  I couldn’t stay loaded all of the time however, and sometimes even when I was the pain and loneliness became oppressive and on those occasions there was nothing better to bring me up than family.  I called my father and spoke with him every day for a month after the split with my wife, and that helped me to survive those awful first days.  Dad went to his grave not knowing the role that he played in keeping me out of my own, or at least if he did know it wasn’t because of my telling him.  He might have known now that I think of it.  Dad always had a way of knowing more than I thought he did.  I wonder if my kids feel that way about me?  Both of them are a good deal more bright than I was, so I doubt it.  And then there was my brother.

Brad is four years my senior and we have always been close.  We spoke on the phone often even before the end of my marriage and continued to do so afterward.  But these were desperate times, and Brad felt that I was in need of a little more assistance than frequent telephone conversation could provide.  Therefore, upon completion of the spring semester at the University of New Mexico where he was both teaching and taking classes, Brad packed some clothes and pointed his Ford pick up north and west and rode into town to help me keep my head above water.

Whenever Brad and I got together however it was frequently a question as to who was going to keep both of our heads above water.  Brad and I had always enjoyed being together and after I returned from the Army and turned twenty one years of age we had great fun, frequently with our father as well, trying to drink all of the beer in California.  All of the Budweiser, at least.  Brad has a very fast wit and Dad was no slouch either.  The three of us might sit around discussing philosophical or literary issues, sending Mom to the kitchen to escape the hot air, or after dinner (and a large number of cans of Bud) Brad and I might go to the soft, green front lawn, roar at each other like developmentally delayed orangutans, and bang into each other in what we called a ‘belly contest’.  I had never had a belly during my childhood but in the year after I exited the Army, after stuffing myself nonstop with pizza and beer and hot dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel, which we called Der Tumorschnitzel due to the dubious quality of it’s product, I had developed my first significant gut.  We would roar and bang into each other belly to belly, back up, and then roar and crash into each other again, all the while laughing maniacally.  At these times Mom would retreat to the deeper recesses of our tiny Southern California cubical of a house to avoid being seen in her humiliation by any of the neighbors whom she knew were peeking at the idiot Durden boys from behind curtains or between blinds.  So when Brad arrived to cheer me up it didn’t take long before we were back at our old tricks with only the faintest evidence of any maturity having occurred in the interim.

One evening when Brad was doing an outstanding job of cheering me up and the party that was my routine existence was in full throat I received a phone call.  The call was from my friend Walt, with whom I had roomed when I first moved to Sonoma County to attend the University there.  We had remained friends ever since.  On this particular evening Walt was calling because his Land Rover was resting comfortably on the side of Highway 12 just west of Santa Rosa.  Walt loved that vehicle, although I could not for the life of me tell you why.  It looked like it could easily carry an intrepid explorer safely from one end of Africa or the Australian Outback to the other, while in fact it frequently had trouble carrying Walt from one end of Sonoma County to the other.  I have previously written of Walt getting his ride stuck in the mud near a house that he was renting.  That was not an infrequent occurrence, four wheel drive and all.  Still, Walt was committed to his vehicle and so he was calling me from a bar at the end of the nearest off ramp, asking me to come and drag the carcass of his Land Rover that was at that moment achieving ambient temperature on the shoulder of Highway 12.

Walt said that it would take him twenty minutes to walk back to his car, so Brad and I downed the rest of our open beers, took a few more hits off of a joint that was circulating through the crowd at my residence, and left to go and retrieve Walt and his dead Land Rover.  In order to give Walt time to return to his car Brad and I stopped at a corner grocery store to pick up another six pack of beer.  It’s not like we needed any more, but that had little to do with anything.  After exchanging pleasantries with the grocer we climbed back into Brad’s truck and roared off down the road to where we could get on the highway and get to Walt.

Along the way we did what we had been doing all night; drinking beer, discussing anything and everything that came to mind, and viewing the world through filters that were uniquely our own.  We might have told stories that we had told a hundred times before and still laughed at as if it was their first hearing.  We still do that, to the considerable amazement of those around us who are not wired in the same way that are we.  We were engaged in this manner when we came upon Walt and his disabled vehicle.  About a half mile further west we found a place to make a U-turn and came back to link the Land Rover to Brad’s truck with a chain.  That being accomplished to everybody’s satisfaction we all regained our mounts and slowly started rolling down the highway towards town.

Along the way, Brad and I began to slip back into the place where we had been only a few minutes before.  New beers were popped open, new (old) stories and jokes were dredged up, and new takes upon the affairs of our lives and the world in general were passed through our fuzzy and thoroughly unique lenses, and soon we were flying down the road without a serious thought in our heads or a care in the world.

In short order we arrived at our turnoff, made a quick left turn and sped through it to avoid being T-boned by a car that was speeding toward us from the opposite direction, and finally came to a halt in front of the building which housed my residence.  Laughing and wobbling a little we exited Brad’s truck and only then remembered that Walt and his Land Rover were still attached.

Walt was as white as a sheet.  He had been riding his brakes and hanging onto the wheel for dear life all the way to our house.  He got out of his car and was visibly shaken.  You could smell the smoking-hot brakes and i thought it looked like they might be glowing a little bit from the heat.  I asked Walt if he would like a ride home but he quickly declined the invitation.  Walt wanted nothing more than to get away from us and Brad’s truck as quickly as decorum permitted.  I offered Walt the keys to my own truck, which he gratefully accepted.  He climbed into the cab and fired the Ford up, waved weakly to us, and rolled off into the dark Santa Rosa night.  Brad and I returned his wave, and then went upstairs to rejoin the party which hadn’t missed a beat since we had left.

There are not enough words to describe how poorly thought out our actions on that night were.  On any of a number of occasions we could have been pulled over by the police or gotten ourselves, Walt, and perhaps others killed.  It is ascribed to the German Prince Otto von Bismarck the quote that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.”  I’m not entirely sure about the United States part of that quote, but I can testify with complete certainty that on this particular night God was most generous with two drunks and fools.

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 Story of Divorce

I enjoy telling stories orally and that has led me to take up the pen and write down some of the stories of my life.  I usually try to inject humor into my tales and that is not an especially hard thing to do as there is almost always humor in life if we will only look around and try to find it.  There are times and events however which admit to no humor.  Our lives can take dark and painful turns which we never see coming and demonstrate to us that life can be a fragile and unpredictable thing, subject to pressures which crush the spirit and leave you just trying to get out of bed in the morning and make it through another day.  I have experienced these times, as have most people, and I will now write about one of them. In February of 1976 my wife, whom I will call Clarice since I believe that in reality I do not personally know anyone by that name, announced to me her desire that we should separate.  I had sensed a growing distance between us but believed that it would pass and we would somehow get back on our usual track.  With this announcement I now saw that the rupture of our relationship was much worse than I had previously thought it to be.  I didn’t say much, but instead went outside into the cold winter evening in Northern California to get my thoughts straight.  After a while I returned to our house and we talked about the issue. “It would only be a separation” she said.  “Just to see if things could get worked out between us.”  The thought gave me some hope although in fact that hope was pure fantasy, a straw clutched at by a drowning man.  “Would you see other guys while we are apart?”  “Sure.  I’m not going to become a nun.  You would be able to see other women too”.  I had no interest in doing the dating rat race and the thought of Clarice with someone else made my stomach turn.  “Can we at least agree to not be with other people until we are actually separated?” I asked.  She agreed to this, and the date of June 1 was set for our separation. I immediately stopped the construction work that I had been doing for ten to fourteen hours per day, sometimes seven days per week, and found a part time job that gave me a good deal more free time to try to mend fences with Clarice.  This did little good however because Clarice was gone most of the day.  She worked part time also and was part of a local actors group, and was always rehearsing or taking singing lessons or doing something or other which kept her away from our home for most of the day.  I rested on our agreement, however, and hoped that something would change before the agreed-upon separation date arrived. One of the things that I did in my new-found spare time was to reconnect with a lot of my college friends.  With my ‘now’ descending into a depressing progression of one empty day leading into another as our separation date approached I reached out to those who were my companions in happier and more care-free earlier times.  On one day I happened to be at a house rented by a couple whom I knew when we lived in the same apartment complex at school.  There were some other people there, and we drank a few beers and smoked a joint or two, and being highly gregarious I just naturally ended up talking with a complete stranger. We both exuded a melancholy air and ended up listening to Aretha Franklin records and telling each other our blues as Aretha sang her own.  This guy, whom I’ll call Eugene, was telling me of the breakup which he was in the middle of with his girlfriend.  I listened with great sympathy and then began to tell him of my situation.  “My wife, Clarice, works at such and such a place, and is involved in such and such activities,” I explained.  “We’re separating next month and I hate it.  At least we’re staying faithful to each other.  I can at least feel good about that.” Eugene looked at me in a funny way, but I was a little bit stoned and drunk, and was deep in my sadness so it didn’t register with me at all.  Finally he asked “what did you say your wife’s name is?”  “Clarice Durden” I responded.  Eugene sat for a minute, looking out of the window at the chickens scratching at bugs in the dirt of the fenced yard outside.  In another minute he asked “Where did you say she works”.  “She works at the college” I replied, still unprepared for what was coming.  Eugene sat for another minute, sipping his beer and looking out of the window, and then he put on another Aretha record.  “There’s something I got to tell you man.” Eugene went on to tell me of the relationship that Clarice was already in with another man.  I said that it couldn’t be true, but Eugene knew too many names, facts, dates and descriptions.  I sat in my chair like a pig that had just been whacked in the head with a sledge hammer.  Lisa, one of the couple who lived at the house, saw what was going on and came over to thump Eugene in the back of the head.  “What are you doing man?  They were going to be separated in another month and he would never have to know about that shit!”  “A man deserves to know this kind of thing” he responded.  “It’s not right that she’s making a fool of him”. Well, Eugene was partly right.  I did have a right to know.  As for a man deserving to know more than a woman in the same situation, I don’t think so.  I would tell a friend anyway.  As for the part about being made a fool of, well, I was pretty much doing a good job of that all by myself.  The signals, if I wasn’t as naive as a six-year-old, were all there to be read.  I just didn’t want to read them.  Now, a perfect stranger had just pointed out to me that I was the last person in the entire county to know what was going on. I went home right after that and sat in my kitchen until Clarice returned several hours later.  She entered the house as she usually did with a cheerful greeting, but I confronted her with what I had heard right away.  Clarice denied it, but I could finally see the truth in her face.  She continued to deny the relationship and at last I said “If you won’t tell me the truth I’ll take my .38 and get the truth out of your boyfriend”.  I actually called him something other than that, with a few adjectives thrown in for good measure.  I didn’t really own a .38 or any other type of firearm and wouldn’t have dreamed of using one if I did, but Clarice wasn’t sure about that, so she admitted at last to the affair to prevent a possible murder. I was crushed.  I went into the garage and pounded my fist onto a 2 X 4 handrail and roared my pain in inarticulate sounds.  Clarice just sat down in a kitchen chair and didn’t move until I finally returned.  I had nothing to say; nothing that would have made any sense.  I told her I was going to bed, and I actually showered and got into bed.  I was running on automatic pilot, not thinking because my brain was imploding.  I had only programmed routine to keep me sane. That last night that we spent in the same building together we had sex.  As I said, I had lost the ability to put one coherent thought together with another.  Routine took over while my mind retreated to some distant and protected place where the teeth and claws of a now-malevolent present life could not be able to reach it and finish the job that it had begun of driving me over the edge.  Finally, exhausted with grief, I passed into a fitful sleep. Early the next morning I arose, dressed myself, threw a number of clothes and personal items into a backpack and a couple of shopping bags and drove my Ford pickup down the gravel drive to the street and finally onto the highway, with my home behind me and nothing that I was certain of before me.  I decided that I would first go to see an old college roommate who was now caretaker at a rural volunteer fire department nearby.  Driving down the road my Ford sputtered and died.  This was not the first time that this had happened, but on this occasion my frustration was magnified two hundred percent.  I rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the road and walked a short way to an offramp.  Down the offramp was a store where I got some change so that I could call my dad from a phone booth in the parking lot.  My mother was away visiting her relatives in Kentucky and Dad was alone when he answered. “Dad, I just left home” was all I could say before I was blubbering incoherentely.  My father, who would never be described as a sensitive, new age sort of guy, listened patiently as his youngest son broke down on the phone.  After I regained some composure we talked for a bit, and Dad said to call when I needed to; every day if that’s what it took.  That was exactly what it took.  I called Dad each day for a month.  When I hung up on that first morning I returned to the truck, which fired up immediately, and I completed my trip to the fire station, where a sofa in the recreation room would be my home for the next four days. This all happened in May, and I quarterbacked our divorce proceedings through the courts in August.  We remained friends, oddly enough, and I harbor no resentment towards Clarice to this day.  We had no business being married at all, let along to each other.  Neither one of us had a successful model of marriage in our lives and our chances of making a marriage work were doomed from the start.  I had no idea of what a spouse is supposed to bring to a marriage and neither did Clarice, although we both had fantasies which unfortunately turned out to be contradictory.  Probably the only maturity that either of us showed in the whole of our relationship was in refusing to let the separation and divorce descend into rancour ( know that the word is properly spelled ‘rancor’, but adding the ‘u’ makes it seem,well,British, and adds to the effect I think).  It took me about three months before I laughed again.  I know this because it was pointed out to me by one of my new roommates.  It was a year before I could sit in a bar or restaurant and not sink deeper into depression as I sank deeper into my cups. I finally remarried, as did she.  My second marriage has lasted for quite a few decades now.  Clarice’s lasted a couple of years, but then she left him to marry someone new and stayed with him to the end of his life; several decades later.  I must admit, and it is petty of me, that I derive some pleasure that the man for whom Clarise left me got to enjoy some of his own medicine.  I know that I shouldn’t, but I hope it hurt.  If I have a moral to this story it is that marriage is not to be entered into lightly and never to be taken for granted once the vows are said.  Those who are successfully married have an obligation, I think, to model their marriage to those who might otherwise walk blindly into a meat grinder that, if you are not prepared for it, can turn your heart into sausage and make your soul a prison of pain.  But I didn’t write this to moralize; I’m just telling a story.