I Can’t Get No Traction

Just the other day I discovered an old photograph of me and a friend that dates back to 1973.  That photograph is forty one years old, and at first glimpse it is hard to believe that the figure seated on a tractor stuck in a sea of mud with a beer in his hand and more hair than I have had in a good many decades is me.  As I look more closely however I can see more clearly a guy whom I used to know pretty well.  A friend of mine saw that photograph and asked if I was responsible for that tractor being stuck in the mud or had climbed upon the vehicle once it was already immobilized in the mire.  What follows is the story of me and that tractor.

Tractor Picture

After the first semester of my college days at Sonoma State College (now ‘University’) near Santa Rosa, California, my two roommates Walter and Arlen moved away from the zoo that was the apartment complex where we lived near the school.  It’s not that my friends were committed students seeking serenity so that they could pour unbroken hours into their studies in order to go on and cure cancer or develop a way to produce energy by cold fusion and thereby make mama proud.  They had no such idea.  They found an old, square, brown stucco house in a field outside of the city limits of Santa Rosa where we rocked out many of the days and nights of the week.  The advantage to my old roommates was that they each had their own bedroom, and that when their guests left or passed out in the living room they did enjoy enough peace and quiet to allow them to study just enough to pass their classes.  This house sat next to an open expanse of land which I believe was used to grow some sort of feed, or to pasture animals when the grasses were high.  I really don’t know, because Walt and Arlen moved out at the end of the second semester, before summer and its agricultural rhythms had fully kicked in.

One day in the late winter or early spring of a wet year I drove out to the house in order to hang with my friends.  We smoked a few joints and drank what little beer was to be found in the fridge while discussing Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers and the hyper-introspection of their style.  They’re all so excitable and moody in my opinion; very childlike  Perhaps that is why I love them so much.  Anyway, when the beer was gone and we were in need of further lubrication to ease our progression from “Crime and Punishment” to “One Day in the Life of ivan Denisovich”, I shared the news that upon checking the mail before I came over that day I received a small, rectangular piece of plastic which the Bank of America assured me would serve in place of cash at any store which announced its acceptance of said card by a sign in the window.

“No shit.  Really?” said Walter.  “That’s what they tell me” was my reply.  “That’s crazy” added Arlen.  “They don’t give those things to students, do they?”  “They gave one to me.  Wanna go see if it works?”  Approval was instantaneous and the three of us piled into Walt’s Land Rover and drove to the nearest liquor store, which was a mile or two from the house.  Upon arrival we went to the cooler to secure a cold six-pack, but as we stood in front of the glass doors it struck me that we were setting the bar of this experience far too low.

“Grab a sixer” I said to Arlen, and then made my way to a shelf in the back of the store where serious quantities of beer were to be found.  I returned to where my two friends were standing with their paltry six-pack carrying a whole case of the precious 12 ounce cans.  Walt and Arlen stared at me with amazement and admiration as I confidently sashayed past them and plopped the case on the counter.  I motioned for them to bring the cold six-pack, which they set on top of the case, and I turned to settle up with the clerk.

The clerk, who was probably also the owner, was old school.  Medium height and overweight, he was wearing khakis and an off-white button down shirt, a little bit frayed at the seams.  His large face housed beady, suspicious eyes which seemed to be seeking out evidence that he was being somehow swindled every time that we entered that store.  Perhaps he had been robbed or shoplifted too many times, or maybe his friends were named Mugsy and Clubber.  At any rate, he squinted at me and my two friends as if we were making him the butt of a joke or distracting him while some unseen accomplice relieved him of more precious merchandise in the liquor area of his store.  He had never seen us buy more than a quart or a six pack, and then count out nickels and pennies The probability of us having the capital to secure an entire case seemed to him to be pushing the envelope of credulity.  It was into that gale of doubt and disbelief that I reached for my wallet, extracted, and then flipped onto the counter with a nonchalance that I nowhere near really felt, The Card.

It worked!  The clerk ran a roller device over a carbon paper receipt placed over the plastic card and imprinted the necessary numbers to conclude the transaction.  The clerk was slightly more cordial as I signed the receipt, accepted my copy, returned the card to my wallet and began to carry the case of beer towards Walt’s car.  We laughed and whooped with joy all the way back to the house, and upon arrival cracked open three cold ones as other six-packs were placed into the fridge to await their turns.

I don’t know how much of that case we drank that day – probably all of it, knowing us – but at one point we grew tired of listening to music and discussing Russian literature.  Walt was very proud of his four wheel drive Land Rover, the type of vehicle one would see in documentaries of work on the plains and in the jungles of Africa, and began to brag about it once again.  We had all heard this many times, and Arlen began to tease him, saying that the car really wasn’t all of that.  Walt swore that he was telling the truth and then told us to climb in; he would drive out into the muddy field and prove the limitless worth of his extraordinary ride.  We all did as requested and Walt fired up the Land Rover, engaged the four wheel drive, and pushed the gearshift into first, and then we nosed out into the field.  All went well for a couple of minutes but soon, inevitably, the vehicle sank down into the mud up to its hubs.

We had a good laugh at Walt’s expense and then got out to see how we would go about extracting the entrapped Land Rover from the muddy field.  I had once rescued my father’s car from beach sand by jacking up the car and placing rocks under the drive wheels, but here the jack would only sink into the mud, and there were no rocks on this Russian River floodplain to be found.  We did find some short pieces of lumber, and Arlen and I would try to wedge them under any wheel that we could as Walt would rock the vehicle back and forth.  This produced nothing but splinters and a bit of mud splashed into Arlen’s face.  It soon became obvious that some other method would be needed to enable the Land Rover’s escape from the muddy clutches of the soggy field.  We began to look around, and all of our eyes fell one by one onto the neighbor’s tractor.

We knew that enlisting the neighbor’s help was a long shot.  That worthy farmer was not at all pleased with his new noisy neighbors and had done little to disguise his displeasure.  Still he looked like our only hope, so Walt walked over to the front door and rang the bell.  No answer.  Walt rang again two or three times, just in case the neighbor was laying low, hoping that we would go away.  Still no answer.  Walt walked back glumly and said “No dice.  He isn’t home”.  We were about to call for some friends to come over and get their car stuck in the mud too by trying to get Walt’s car out when Walt said “Wait a minute.  Let’s hot wire the tractor and pull it out ourselves.”  “You’re crazy,” said Arlen.  “He’ll have us arrested.”  “He won’t ever know” Walt replied.  “We’ll pull out the car, wash down the tractor and replace it where we got it.”  We briefly debated the insanity of this plan and insanity won.  We agreed that it was the best plan that we had, and so Walt walked over to the tractor, climbed into the seat, fiddled with a few wires, and the iron beast roared into life.

With a broad grin, Walt drove the tractor over to our field and with Arlen and I walking alongside,  the mud sucking at our boots, we made our way to the entrapped Land Rover.  Walt turned the tractor around and backed up to the front end of his car.  We then attached a tow rope from the back end of the tractor to some point underneath the front of the Land Rover.  Arlen climbed into the Land Rover, started it up, and prepared to drive out of the mud once the tractor had broken it free.  Walt put the tractor into gear and began slowly to strain forward.  The Land Rover budged, lurched, and seemed like it was about to pull free.  Then it fell back into the deep pits its wheels had dug.  The tractor, straining to pull the car out of its muddy prison, had begun to bog down into the mud as well.

This was a serious problem, and we all knew it.  There was no way on earth that the owner of that tractor would be amused to find it stuck in the mud, courtesy of the pack of stoned slackers living next to him in rural Sonoma County.  We began to work furiously to dig the tractor out, get lumber under one of ITs wheels, do ANYTHING!  No luck  We were in it and we knew it.  There was nothing that we could think of besides wait for the neighbor to return home and face the music.  Being who we were, the only thing left to do was to roll another joint, open three more cans of beer, and enjoy what was otherwise a very pleasant, sunny, almost warm Northern California afternoon.

So there I am in a photograph which was clicked by Arlen as Walt and I sat in the seat of that tractor with it’s wheels entombed in a sarcophagus of mud.  I had not yet learned how to truly worry, and the implications of the situation soon rolled off of my back as we smoked and joked and generally had a pretty good rest of the day.  You can see in that photo that life was still my playground, no matter the circumstances that I found myself in.

I returned to the apartment that afternoon before the neighbor returned, and it was a day or two later that I saw Walt and Arlen again.  On that occasion I asked them how it all worked out.  “He laughed” said Walt.  “He just laughed.  Then he drove over to a larger building and came out with a tractor twice as big.  With that he pulled the other two vehicles out like they were nothing.  We asked him how we could repay his kindness and he told us to wash off both of the tractors and keep the noise down after 9:00 at night”.

They did keep the noise down after that, and washed up the tractors real good as well.  For the remaining months that Walt and Arlen lived at that house they were on pretty good terms with their now-respected neighbor.

To Serve and Protect, Part I

All to often we read of bad and even tragic encounters between police officers and the people who those officers have sworn to protect and serve.  No doubt there are instances in which the police officers overreact to a situation, and perhaps even do so with malice.  Police officers are, after all, human, and come with the full compliment of frailties and personality failures that all of the rest of us come with.  I am not apologizing for bad cops any more than I would apologize for bad ultrasound techs, bad politicians, bad parents or bad writers.  All should, and with some compassion (with the possible exception of bad writers) be shown the error of their ways and in circumstances where it is merited, punishment meted out.

Police officers do have a rather unique occupation however.  Except when they are addressing a class of kindergartners at a public school on how to safely interact with strangers or, well, I don’t know of any other such scenarios, tend to be dealing with the rest of us when we are at our worse.  When a police officer responds to a call concerning some sort of trouble, sees something in a neighborhood which looks amiss, or pulls a car over on a street, road, or highway for one reason or another, the result may be that a split-second decision will determine whether that officer and the object of his attention goes home to his or her family that night or departs the scene in a body bag.

It is for that reason that I tend to be slow to jump to judgement when I read or hear about another alleged case of police brutality.  I repeat, police officers can be brutal just like I can, and have, been brutal.  I am not making excuses for bad behavior.  Nevertheless, I will never know what happened moment by moment in the mind of the police officer or in the mind of the object of his attention when I hear of a reported incident of police brutality.  The best that I can do is to support a thorough investigation of any incident by as neutral a third party as is possible and then be satisfied with the conclusion drawn by that party.

All that being said, I do have personal experiences with being the ‘object of the police officer’s attention,’ and now propose to tell three tales which I hope will give a little insight on how this relationship between server and served sometimes looks at ground level.

In the fall of 1964 I was fifteen years old and found myself sitting in science class next to an extraordinarily pretty girl.  One day this extraordinarily pretty girl invited me to go see a guy named Billy Graham who was throwing some sort of shindig at the football stadium where the San Diego Chargers played.  The girl could have asked me to peel the skin off of my feet and stick them into a bucket of salt and I would have agreed instantly, so the next evening I found myself at the Billy Graham crusade and before the night was over, to my considerable surprise, I was a Christian.  As best as I remember I did sincerely responded to the message presented by Mr. Graham that night, but the most important thing to me at the moment was that I now was able to attend church with the extraordinarily attractive girl.

Nothing came of this mutual attendance at church.  The girl already had a handsome, athletic, studly boyfriend away at college, none of which adjectives described me in any imaginable way.   I did however meet Roy Maxwell at that church, and he and his step brother Marty Corbin and I became an inseparable trio, even though Roy and Marty attended a different high school than I did ( a thing which meant much in those days).  We hung out together and did all of the teenage boy things until Roy got a girlfriend.  I was initially annoyed by that since it interrupted our horsing around and also probably because it highlighted the fact that I couldn’t win a girlfriend if I had a hand with four aces.  Even worse, she was a student of Hoover High, which was my school.  Quelle horreur!  The traitor!

As it turned out, Carole Jenkins was a very nice girl and I came to like her as a friend very much.  In fact, our friendship lasted for several years until I fell off of the end of the universe after returning home from Vietnam, but that is a different story.  In addition to being very nice, Carole had the additional advantage of belonging to a family that was very rich.  I have no idea what Carole’s father did for a living, but the Jenkins family lived in a gigantic house situated atop Del Cerro, a hill on the eastern edge of San Diego.  I don’t suppose that you could call the Jenkins residence a mansion, but to a kid living in a stucco cube in a working class neighborhood of East San Diego it looked pretty much like a mansion to me.

I was used to other kids having advantages that I did not, but in one area I did have a leg up.  I had a driver’s license and my father was very liberal about allowing me to use the car.  At least once each week I would drive to the Maxwell residence and pick up Roy and Marty and drive up the winding road which climbed past rank after rank of large homes which got bigger and nicer as we neared the top of the hill.  After a few weeks of this we began to feel like we actually belonged up there.  We were soon to find out how wrong we were about that.

Not too long after we began to drive to Carole’s house a series of break-ins occurred on Del Cerro hill.  First cars and then houses were hit by people who knew that Del Cerro is where one was most likely to find treasure worth the risk, in their minds at least, of burglarizing cars and homes.  The good citizens of the Del Cerro neighborhood took predictable umbrage at such nefarious doings and demanded, and received, a heightened police presence in the affected area.

As a result of this elevated police vigilance Roy and Marty and I began to attract attention as we drove up the hill in my Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor through a forest of Cadillacs and Lincolns and the occasional BMW and Porsche.  Three young men – old men did not usually adopt the occupation of burglar – in a cheap car (relatively speaking) was going to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and we began to grow accustomed to being stopped by the police nearly every time that we went to visit Carole, and having our identification checked before being granted permission to proceed.   The whole thing took on the air of a routine until one evening when that routine came to a sudden, screeching halt.

On that night we were climbing the hill on our way to Carole’s house when the predictable red and blue lights snapped on behind us.  We were very used to this by now and so I pulled over and rolled to a stop next to the curb.  Having done this drill several times before I decided that this time I would make myself super helpful and maybe speed things up a little bit.  With not the slightest idea that my actions could end very badly I slipped my hand down to the handle on the Mercury’s door, pulled it up, pushed the door open and emerged and began walking back to where the police car was just parking behind me.  To make matters worse, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I reached around into my back pocket to extract the wallet containing the identification which I knew that they would momentarily be asking for.  That’s me: Mister Helpful.  Always looking for a way to make a bad situation better.

 

This was probably my first lesson in the importance of perspective.  The police officers did not see a citizen emerging from a car to save them a walk and reaching for his wallet to save them the trouble of asking for identification.  Instead, they saw a car that was out of pace, inhabited by three youngish males, with one of the emerging from the car and advancing towards them while reaching for, what?  A gun?

“Get your hands up” came the shouted command.  I was stupefied by this response to my good intentions and took another step forward while still pulling at my wallet.  Both of the officers pulled out their revolvers, with one going down to his knee and the other remaining standing.  Both barrels were pointed squarely at your’s truly.  “Stop moving and drop your weapon”  shouted the officer who was standing.  I had no idea what they meant by ‘weapon’, but I figured out what ‘stop’ meant right away and did.  “Drop the weapon!  Drop it!”  repeated the policeman.  I didn’t have a weapon, but I did have my wallet in my hand and reasoned that if I dropped it I might somehow keep from getting shot.

“Turn towards the car and put your hands on the trunk” came the next command, and by now I was getting into the spirit of the moment and moved just as fast as I thought would look non-threatening.  The kneeling policeman rose up and the two of them began to walk towards where I stood with hands on the trunk of the Mercury and within an inch of peeing my pants.

One of the officers patted me down, searching for any sort of weapon, and when none was found the other bent over and picked up my wallet.  The first policeman turned me towards him and asked “What the hell do you think you are doing here?  You just about got yourself into some serious trouble boy.”  “I was just trying to be helpful” I replied.  “We’re driving to my friend’s girl friend’s house and we’ve been stopped a bunch of times.  I just thought that I would speed things up a little.

At this point the officers knew that they were dealing with an idiot, not a criminal.  They holstered their weapons and breathed a big, long sigh of relief.  “Son, don’t ever do that again.  We don’t have any idea what you intend to do when you get out of your car.  When a police officer pulls you over just stop your car, turn off the engine, put your hands on the steering wheel where he can see them and let him do his job.  Everybody is going to have a much easier time of it if you will just do those things.”

The officers returned my wallet to me and let me get back into my car.  Roy and Marty were pale as ghosts and began to babble incoherently as I fired the little Mercury up and drove the rest of the way to Carole’s house.  That night I enjoyed the spotlight, a position that I was not accustomed to, as we told the tale to Carole, who was not used to being involved with people who were held at gunpoint and nearly shot by the police.

Roy and Carole would in fact end their relationship soon after this incident but, as I stated earlier, Carole and I continued our friendship several years more, long after I lost contact with Roy.  I hope that I might run into Carole someday, although that is extremely unlikely.  Maybe I will see her at my high school’s fiftieth year reunion.  “Hi.  Remember me?  The guy who was almost shot by the cops in 1965?  How’ve you been?”

The Joke’s On You, Part III

I have always had a unique love of practical jokes.  From the time that I learned what a practical joke was I have been drawn to playing them on other people and having them played on me in my turn.  Of course it was important to choose as my victims people who could take a joke, as some people just do not take them well.  I tended to avoid playing tricks on prickly people, even anonymously, since somebody was bound to run off at the mouth and there’d be a fight in no time at all.  I was never really interested in that.

Not all people were like me however.  Some of the guys in my neighborhood would pull off a  joke on just about anybody, and some of those jokes were not at all just in good fun.  Willie Starnes was such a guy.  Willie was bigger than most of the other kids and not at all afraid to cross the lines of propriety when it came to having fun at other people’s expense.

Willie’s jokes ran the gamut from simple fun to intimidation to outright sabotage.  For example, there were two slender trees growing at one end of our neighborhood park.  Willie one day took two lengths of surgical rubber tubing and tied one end of each to holes punched in opposite sides of a metal funnel.  He then tied the two rubber tubes to the trees and had in effect made a huge slingshot.  Willie then took a bag full of water balloons and began to rain them down on kids playing on the playground about 100 yards away.  Getting smacked in the head with a water balloon launched from half a block away was not a fatal event, but it was far from fun.  Willie liked it however, and that is all that mattered.

The boys in our neighborhood also had a little game that we called “Bam”.  In this game one could punch somebody in the shoulder, throw a basketball into their lap or hit them with a white bean shot through a pea shooter and be safe from retaliation if one would only say “Bam” out loud when the hit was delivered.  The effect was usually startling or embarrassing but rarely painful, at least the way that most of us played it, but Willie could be counted on to take it to extremes.  A punch in the chest, a football thrown at the head or groin, or a painful flick on the ear delivered by Willie to the accompaniment of a shouted “Bam” took all of the fun out of the game for the rest of us.

When Willie wasn’t annoying us he was sure to be somewhere stuffing a potato up somebody’s exhaust pipe or letting the air out of somebody else’s auto or bicycle tires or, as he once did, running a kid’s bicycle up the flagpole at the park and tying the ropes up high on the pole so that the little guy couldn’t reach it.  Willie was not the roughest guy in our neighborhood by a long shot, but he certainly had his own rough edge and was far from my favorite person to hang around with.

All of us guys looked for a chance to get back at Willie without taking a thumping on the head as part of the bargain.  Willie had a bicycle but nobody dared to mess with it for fear of being caught.  We would play the “Bam” game with him but always be sure to tap him lightly or telegraph the throwing of any object his way.  It was critical that we extend to him a sense of inclusion since he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon that we knew of, yet not make our actions aggressive enough to be interpreted as a challenge.  Walking that tightrope came to be a big pain in everybody’s necks.

The solution to the problem came to us unexpectedly when the older brother of Frank Cortner, one of the smaller kids in our group, got a summer job working at a movie theater in the suburb of La Mesa, which sprawls just next to San Diego.  This theater ran all of the old cheesy black and white “B” science fiction and horror movies; the ones we all loved and watched at the movie house in our own neighborhood.  Most of the movie companies produced posters to be displayed in the windows outside of the movie houses and wanted those posters back when the movie’s run there was completed.  Sometimes, however, when a poster got torn or soiled or in some other way defaced the company let go of it and printed up new ones to accompany their crappy movies to their next showing.  When this would happen anyone who wanted them could take these posters home, and that is how a poster from a monster movie came to find its way into the garage of Frank Cortner.

I do not at this time remember which movie that poster with a torn corner and a smudge of ketchup across the title came from.  I was certain that it was from “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” starring Michael Landon of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, but my friend Wes is equally certain that the poster was of “It! The Creature From Beyond Space”.  To add to the confusion another of my co-conspirators who still lives in San Diego, Ron Larimer, believes that it was the “Creature From the Black Lagoon”.  I guess it really doesn’t matter.  What is relevant to this tale is that we had at our disposal a nearly life-sized poster of a very frightening creature, and one fine day while we were all lounging in and around Frank’s garage a bright idea occurred to one of us concerning how we could use that poster to gain a small measure of revenge on Willie Starnes.

We carefully cut out the figure of the monster from the poster and glued it to a large piece of cardboard which had remained in the garage since Frank’s parents had bought a new refrigerator the year before.  We then cut away the excess cardboard so that we had a fairly sturdy, nearly life-sized image of a monster; trust me, it was the Teenage Werewolf.  The other guys don’t know what they are talking about.  Next we went to the hardware store a few blocks from my house and bought two eight foot 2 X 4 building studs.  We used a couple of strips of plywood as joiners and nailed the two studs together, and then tested it for height.  It was too big, so we took about four feet off of one end and now it was just right.

Willie Starnes lived in an upstairs apartment with his parents on the corner of Polk and 43rd Street, about five blocks from my house.  Willie always had his window open, wanting to see what was going on outside and liking being seen in return.  There was a streetlight on the corner opposite Willie’s window across the intersection, and a row of palm trees between that light and the window.  Those trees let a lot of light through but softened it so that things would not be seen outside in the sharpest clarity from inside Willie’s room.  We all knew that Willie had to be home on Thursday nights because his father insisted on family time, and Willie hated the thought of not being able to hang out at the park or prowl the streets with the rest of us so he would retire to his room as soon as he possibly could.

Darkness came early on the day that we got our revenge on Willie.  By 5:30 PM there was little more than a glow on the western horizon.  Willie was finishing his dinner and crafting his best effort at a credible excuse as to why he had to retire to his bedroom.  We were waiting in the shadows across the street when we saw Willie’s figure walk past his window, and at that moment we knew that our time had come.  Using a hammer that we had smuggled out of Frank’s father’s garage we pounded a couple of carpet tacks through the image of the monster, fixing it to the end of what had become a twelve foot pole.  We crossed the street, which was not a particularly busy one, and crowded behind a hedge which ran the full length of the apartment building in which the Starnes family lived.  Frank hoisted the pole with the image of whichever movie monster it really was and placed it squarely in the middle of Willie’s bedroom window.

We were probably not there for a very long time, but it seemed to us like we were there forever holding a long wooden pole with a silhouette affixed to it on a well lit corner in a big city.  We were worried that some curious neighbor would call the cops on us before we hit pay dirt, but all of those fears came to an end abruptly when we heard a terrified shriek come out through the open portion of Willie’s window.  Frank bobbed the pole up and down and Willie shrieked again, then we hauled down the pole and took off running, trying to stay out of the light as best we could.  We ducked into an alley, disconnected the cardboard monster, chucked the pole into somebody’s back yard, and trotted back to Frank’s garage where the monster was fixed in a place of honor on one of the walls.

Willie never did mention this event when he came to hang out with us at the park.  Frank or Ron or I would sometimes mention monsters that we had seen on the big screen at the Crest Theater on University Avenue and comment on how scared we would be if one of those creatures ever jumped out at us from the dark, but Willie would never take our bait.  I think that he suspected us, but that may just be the product of a guilty mind.  We never told any of the other kids about our prank, but all of the other kids went to the weekend matinees just like we did, and all of them would talk about this monster or that one, so Willie could never really be sure who had got the best of him.  That just made it that much better.

Frank and Wes and I are still in contact and we still laugh about that prank on rare occasions when we get together.  Nobody knows what happened to Willie however.  We have one clue only.  One day, many years later, Wes ran into Willie at Pacific Beach in San Diego.  Willie was living on the margins of society, probably what we would now call ‘homeless’.  Drugs had obviously wrought havoc on his life already and he seemed to be walking blindly into an alternate universe of delusion, paranoia, separation and eventually violent or drug-induced death.  I have no confidence at all that Willie still lives.  Nevertheless, Willie Starnes occupies the exalted position of recipient of the number one, all time best prank that I was ever a part of, and if for no other reason than that I wish him happiness if he yet lives and peace if he has gone to meet his Maker.

It’s Only Rock and Roll

     I love rock and roll, and while I understand that it is really only rock and roll, nevertheless I like it.  The truth is that I like most music and if possible never miss a chance to hear it live, or as close to live as I can get.  In my twenties, which occurred during the bulk of the seventies, I saw a great many concerts, most of which I remember.  Sort of.  Growing up in the fifties and sixties in San Diego however afforded me and other music lovers a lot fewer opportunities to hear live music but we did the best we could.  This is a tale of my love of music and pursuit of exposing myself to it as much as possible.

     In the 1950s I had two avenues for the above mentioned exposure to music; the AM radio and my father’s record collection.  Dad had big, thick 78s with a variety of classical pieces on them and 45s of mostly Country and Western, singles from movies, and big band stuff.  It’s all I knew then and I loved it.  I can still hear Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind”, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” and all of that Rachmaninoff stuff that came on the thick, black records that were kept in the heavy pressboard boxes.  I mostly listened to what Dad listened to until a guy named Buddy Holly came along.

     The second phase in my life of music appreciation arrived with Buddy and the big Bopper and Bill Haley, et. al., and lasted through the great rivalry between the West Coast Beach Sound and Motown.  Most of the white guys in my neighborhood were solid Beach Sound, but the Latinos and Filipinos and the few black guys preferred Motown.  I came down squarely in both camps.  I loved Smokey and David Ruffin and especially the Four Tops, but I loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and others just as much.  Every night when I wasn’t hanging out with friends at the local recreation center which we just called ‘The Park’ I would be home listening to KCBQ, hearing my favorite two and three minute songs being spun by the legendary disc jockey Happy Hare.

     Then one day I got to see Jan and Dean live.  Concerts were rare in those days, in San Diego at least, and when my friend Ellen Marie and I heard that there was going to be the filming of a television show which would be emceed by Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the TV show ‘Bewitched’, featuring the surf singing duo, and that they needed members for the audience, we signed up as quickly as we could.  Ellen was one of my best friends in the neighborhood and we could often be seen hanging out together.  We both had braces on our teeth and the other kids joked that if we should get together as a couple we would be the “clash of steel”.  We never did have that kind of relationship, but our friendship was more solid and of longer duration than most of the romantic liaisons in my life.

     On the big day Ellen and I walked up to University Avenue and boarded the Number Five bus that took us directly to downtown.  From the old Horton Plaza it was only a walk of a few blocks to the Spreckles Theater where the show would be filmed.  Ellen and I showed out tickets, bought some popcorn and candy for a buck or two, and found our seats in the auditorium.  We were not too far from the stage and could see everything very clearly.  Ellen and I yammered away with each other until Ms. Montgomery mounted the stage and gave us all instructions on when we were to cheer, when to clap, when to laugh, and so on.  Ellen and I sort of paid attention, but we were too excited about seeing Jan and Dean to care very much about the details.  Finally all of the instructions were delivered and the crew began to film.

     The whole thing seemed a little bit odd to us but we played ball as best we could, clapping and cheering and laughing on cue.  Of course, Ellen and I would frequently laugh at the wrong time because the whole thing seemed silly, and to a couple of kids in their mid teens it was truly silly indeed.  But at last we came to the payoff.  During a break for technical reasons Jan and Dean came out on the stage and the cheering then was genuine.  The stars of the show, as far as we were concerned anyway, waved to the crowd and said a few words to the people in the front row.  

    After a few minutes they disappeared again and it was back to business.  The crowd settled down, Ms. Montgomery began her introduction, and Jan and Dean reentered the stage as their cue was given.  The “cheer” sign went up, but we were already providing that prop, and this time in earnest.  Ms. Montgomery said a bunch of words that nobody paid attention to and then Jan and Dean stepped up to sing.  The “cheer” sign was not up, but as the duo broke into “Surf City” a few of the girls screamed and some of us began to sing along with them.  That was not in the script however and the “cut” sign was given.

     “Please don’t make any noise while the boys are singing” admonished Ms. Montgomery.  “The producers want to hear the singers, not the audience.

     We settled down again as best we could and the introduction was made again, complete with canned and less-than-spontaneous cheering this time.  Jan and Dean burst once more into “Surf City” and this time the audience maintained its cool until the end of the song, at which time we anticipated the “cheer” sign and burst into wild applause.  Jan and Dean’s time was precious, and so their closing act of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” came right after that.  Same format, same admonition when our youthful enthusiasm got the best of us, and same sense of awe as the singers produced, right there in front of us, the songs that we heard at least twice per day on the radio.

     After a few more laughs, cheers, and rounds of applause, all delivered on cue, we were excused and filed out of the Spreckles and onto the sidewalk running along Broadway under the brilliant San Diego sun.  As we walked back to Horton Plaza where we would wait with the sailors, the derelicts sleeping on the grass, and the pigeons which flocked around the domed fountain which was a fixture in downtown San Diego as long as I lived there, Ellen and I dissected every word, every movement, and every glance that had undoubtedly been aimed directly at us.  The Number Five finally arrived and we climbed on board, thumbed our dimes into the box by the driver, and rode that bus back to East San Diego and to the park where we could brag about our adventure to all of our friends, who were jealous as could be but insisted that they really preferred James Brown anyway.  And indeed, some of them did.

     All of the Motown and Beach stuff came to a screeching halt in January of 1964 when the American release of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded onto the charts and the English Invasion was under way.  My Navy father wouldn’t let me grow a “mop top” but a lot of my friends did, and we listened faithfully to the radio as sometimes two or three new groups with a totally new sound emerged each week to make a splash.  The Beatles were nearly everybody’s favorites at first, with the Rolling Stones a very close second.  My one and only girlfriend, Rhonda, was much taken with the Stones and I have to admit that I was more than a little jealous of that, so I had to claim some favorite other than them. I chose the Kinks, partly because I really liked their music and partly because they were even uglier than the stones, at least to judge by the bands’ pictures on their album covers.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  

     My relationship with Rhonda ended amicably – no point in being a sore loser – and I was soon in the market for a new girl friend.  That mission was a lot like Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.  I was terribly shy and after my first relationship ended I couldn’t muster the courage to try again.  This was a pitiable condition because Teresa Beal, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood by my standards, was unattached.  I was on good terms with Teresa and I dropped more than subtle hints of my interest, but never received any indication of interest in return.  The thought of just coming out and expressing my interest made me nauseous, so I dithered and plotted how i would eventually make my move.

     My opportunity came in May of 1965 when it was announced that the Beatles would perform in Balboa Stadium.  The Beatles were an irresistible draw and I was certain that an invitation to go see them would be irrefutable proof of my ardent and undying love, and Teresa would fall into my arms like Snow White into Prince Charming’s, or something like that.  Tickets were $3.50, $4.50 and $5.50, and all I could afford were the $3.50 variety.  Two tickets added up to $7.00, and that was a lot of scratch for a sixteen year old kid living in East San Diego in 1965.  The tickets were procured and rested in my dresser drawer for days and weeks as I struggled to find the right time and right words to ask Teresa to go with me to see the Beatles.

     The upshot of this tale is that I didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger.  Beatles or no Beatles, you don’t get a date unless you ask.  I tried as best I could but Teresa and I lived in the same neighborhood; if she turned me down I would be faced with that fact every time I saw here and everybody would know.  That wasn’t going to happen and so I asked my brother if he wanted to go instead, which he did.

     Brad is also an interesting musical tale.  My brother spent two years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and had recently returned from the Army.  In Texas Brad learned to like old school Country and Western.  Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Marty Robbins were his sort of acts.  A few weeks after returning home Brad walked into our bedroom while I was watching either Shindig or Hullabaloo, which were television shows that featured rock and roll acts playing their music.  It was sort of like early videos, only live.  Anyway, that night the Rolling Stones were singing “Satisfaction” when my brother walked into the room and my old fifteen inch black and white television screen was filled with Mick Jaggers’ lips, teeth and tongue.  “What in the hell is that?” asked Brad in stunned amazement.  “Give it a few months” I replied.  “You’ll be borrowing my records.”  And indeed he was, so when I mentioned the concert Brad leapt to the occasion.

     We found our seats and almost had to pay for oxygen, they were so high up.  I had never been to a real concert before and had no idea what to expect.  The opening acts were all pretty good; Cannibal and the Headhunters was my favorite of that bunch, but soon we got to the main event.  Out they came; four tiny figures on a stage down on the fifty yard line who wasted no time in starting the show.  The audience wasted no time either in breaking out in pandemonium.  Girls were screaming and kicking the sheet metal which surrounded the stadium lights.  Guys raced out onto the field only to be tackled by burly security men.  It turned out that Ronald Angulo, a kid from my neighborhood, was one of the first idiots to pull that stunt.  The Beatles sang twelve songs and that was it.  It actually seemed like less than that, but I am assured that we got twelve.  And then it was over and I went home again to crow at the park, although it was hollow because I had wanted to be there with Teresa.

     My love of music grew over the next decade as music became the medium by which  disillusioned youth expressed their feelings to one another and the world.  Music had become a complicated business and revolution filled the air along with the sounds of Hendrix, Cream, The Starship and a million others.  But I’ll never forget the simple love that I had for the music, just the music, of my youth.  No great causes or movements, no subliminal messages, just innocent music.  Yeah, it was only rock and roll, but I liked it then.  I still do.

 

Sand Trap

1967 was a very good year for me. I had a girlfriend in that year and this was not something which came along often in my young life. In fact, she was the one and only girlfriend I had during the first twenty one years of my life. Rhonda was the friend of one of my neighborhood pals and we used to all eat lunch together at school. I was quite taken by the extraordinarily pretty Rhonda and hesitated for the longest time to ask her out on a date because of the curse of painful shyness which I endured in those years. When I finally found the courage to ask Rhonda out she accepted, much to my surprise, and we began a relationship which lasted a short but very pleasant while.

As I wrote earlier I was very shy, and just the thought of trying to kiss a girl made my head spin; the prospect of rejection was almost too great to bear. On the other hand I had an easy knack for talking with anyone, and with Rhonda it was even easier than with others. We would talk about our likes and dislikes, plans and dreams, our lives before we met, music, in fact just about anything and everything. I eventually worked up the nerve to try a kiss, and to my surprise and delight I met with success.  None of this ever led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking, but it was heaven to me. Of course all of this very personal conversation and extracurricular activities required a quiet place of solitude, and that solitude was frequently found parked at the top of Del Cerro hill on what was then the edge of San Diego. A street had been paved over the top of the hill in anticipation of houses that would be built later, but at the time the street is all that there was, and we spent a few evenings there talking about life and plans and sharing a kiss or two.

I have always enjoyed variety however, and so one evening I decided to see if we could find a place to get away from the maddening crowd by going to the beach. I selected Mission Beach to be our hideaway for that evening, which proves that logic was not yet my strong suit. The beach, in a large beach city, is never a place to get away from people. In this case however, those people would save my bacon later that evening. We drove down Mission Blvd., past a closed and darkened Belmont Park amusement center. It seemed like Belmont Park was closed more than open back then, or the wooden roller coaster out of commission by fire or things like that.  Anyway, it was dark that evening and as we drove south on Mission Blvd. it got even darker, but still there were people popping up on sidewalks or paths which led to and from the beach itself. Eventually we came to a dead end at a jetty built out of large, jagged boulders. A dirt road led to the left, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen in that direction, so I pulled in and drove a hundred yards or so down that road in search of the solitude which we desired.

There was, however, no solitude to be found. It wasn’t exactly a parade, but it was summer at the beach in San Diego and any solitude found there would be rare and of short duration. I analyzed the  situation and decided that the heights of Del Cerro was going to have to do, and began to make what was called a ‘Y’ turn in the dirt road rather than return to Mission Blvd. in reverse. That was where I made my big mistake.

The road was narrow but I was sure that I had room to make the maneuver of inching forward and backward, slowly turning the car to the right and eventually making a 180 degree turn. Perhaps I did have the room, but the night was dark, my mind was on other things, and my hand was completely out of aces. At ninety degrees in the road I backed up a foot too far and settled gently into the soft sand of that dark bit of beachfront San Diego. Thinking of myself as a resourceful male I got out of the car certain that I could make everything work out just fine. I walked around to the back of the car and sure enough, the tire was buried in sand up to the hub.

I reentered the car and assured Rhonda that I could get us out of this.  I began to try to rock the car gently by accelerating in drive and then backing off of the gas pedal, hoping that my parent’s Mercury would sort of walk its way out of the trap. This plan was a complete bust; if anything at all the tire sat lower in the sand than before. For the first time since I felt that depressing sink of the rear of the car I registered a twinge of fear.  The car was not going anywhere, and I had no idea how to change that fact.

“How are we going to get out of here?” was Rhonda’s reasonable question.  I concealed my annoyance because I really liked Rhonda a lot.  Besides, I wasn’t annoyed by her question; I was annoyed because I didn’t have a good answer.

“I don’t know.  I’m going to have to think about this”.

We got out of the car and stood disconsolately next to the sunken tire. I had never been in this position before, and had no interest in walking a great distance back to the lighted area where I could find a pay phone and call my father. Dad went to bed early and would be unimpressed with his son stuck in the sand off of a dirt road in a darkened section of Mission Beach with his girlfriend. The thought of explaining myself to Rhonda’s parents gave me little cause for cheer as well.

“Do you need some help?”

I was jolted out of my thoughts by an older guy, maybe in his twenties, and his lady friend, who had approached as I was lost in my reverie. I explained the problem, which was pretty obvious to see, and he stood and thought a minute.

“Let’s get the girls in the back seat for some additional weight and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies, who were not impressed by the ‘extra weight’ comment, nevertheless piled in and I fired up the Merc once again while my new best friend pushed, but the result was the same.  Before we threw in the towel another couple arrived and soon I had two guys pushing while I drove, but still the Mercury squatted obstinately in the sand.  I exited the car and walked back to where my two new best friends stood discussing the problem.

“How about if we jack the car up and then push it forward?” I proposed.  “We only need a foot or two to be on the solid part of the road.

“You’d probably put that jack through your gas tank” came a voice from behind us. The owner of that voice was a single guy of undetermined age who was carrying a paper bag. “Let’s see what we’ve got here” he said.  Our new rescuer placed his bag on the sand and studied the problem for a minute, and then said “I think we can use that jack after all.”

I raised the trunk lid and extracted my bumper jack, which was the old kind of jack which stood vertically on a square metal plate and attached beneath the car’s bumper.  This newest member of my rescue party placed the jack under the bumper and began to lift the car up.  “Go and get some rocks to put under the tire he said, and we scattered to find stones of the right size, which was not as easy in the sandy area as I would have liked.  We all came back with what we had found and put them as close to underneath the tire as we could get them. He lowered the jack and I tried once again to advance the car out of the sand. The attempt failed and some of the rocks flew out from under the tire, but some of them stayed in place.

“Get more” said the new quarterback of this operation. We scattered to comb the area for rocks, preferably flat ones of just the right size. Several more people out enjoying the evening pitched into the effort and soon we had a nice pile of rocks under the drive tire and I was ready to try to move the car once again.

“Wait a minute” came a voice from the crowd.  “Let’s get some people on the trunk.”  Guys lifted their ladies onto the truck while as many as would fit positioned themselves behind the car to push.  In a moment I shouted “Ready!” and the throng responded “Go!”  I did just that. The tire bit into the rocks while the guys pushed, and with the agility of an arthritic rhino the Mercury lumbered forward onto the solid dirt path.

A cheer went up as I stopped the car, now safe and sound on solid ground.  People were talking and laughing; the men shaking hands. This was 1967;  nobody hugged back in those days. The quarterback with the paper bag retrieved his cargo and pulled a beer out of it and popped it open, toasting to the success of our operation. I thanked everyone profusely and assisted my lady into the passenger seat. With a last round of thanks I climbed into the driver’s seat, put the Merc in gear, and rolled out accompanied by the waves and cheers of our rescuers.  You’d have thought that it was a wedding.

Rhonda and I knew that little in the way of kisses would be enjoyed that night, but there was no shortage of things to talk about. We drove directly to Oscar’s, a drive-in hamburger place on El Cajon Blvd., and soon the drama of the early part of the evening faded as we returned to our role of two teenagers infatuated with each other. Rhonda got home on time, we shared a good night kiss on the front porch, and I got home just before my curfew. The next morning I was up early vacuuming sand out of the inside of the car and checking it over for scratches or dents. There was no physical evidence that anything untoward had happened with Dad’s car the night before and I chose not to share that tale with him. In fact, Dad died almost forty years later without ever hearing that tale. I hope that it’s possible he’s getting a chuckle out of it somewhere right now.

Camping in Wonderland, Part IV

     There were many camping trips in which I engaged following my release from the Army.  I have already written of one of those trips; the trip to Minaret Lake with my oldest friend Wes.  That trip came early in my new civilian life and was among the best of my life.  One year later Wes and I decided to hike out of Yosemite, up the north wall of that amazing canyon and onto the more or less level high ground which our hiking guide book said that we would find up there.  We attacked the trail in mid-morning but by noon we seemed to be nowhere near reaching the top of that twisting, tortured, switch-backed trail.  Wes and I decided that life is too short to waste on such energetic endeavors, so we returned to the valley floor.  

     Resting in the shade by my car, Wes and I scanned the book in search of another place to camp.  We didn’t want to stay in the valley with the million-plus other tourists and vacationers, but we didn’t want to drive somewhere else either.  Wes noticed that there was a trail which extended up the east end of the canyon, beyond the general tourist area, where it began to climb up into the Sierra Nevada mountains.  That path followed the Merced River to the string of falls and small lakes that could be found up there.  That path appeared to be a road commonly taken and we were interested in a road less travelled.  Looking at our map we noticed that if we veered north from where the shuttle bus ended it’s route into the eastern end of the canyon, around the misnamed pond of Mirror Lake, there began a sort of path which followed a creek the name of which I forget which flowed out of a smaller canyon which climbed back up into the mountains too..

     This was no formal trail, but others had been this way and a sort of path could be seen among the rocks and trees which lined the creek.  I don’t know how long we walked; it didn’t seem like a very long time but these things become cloudy when a person is disconnected from their clock and enjoying nature.  It couldn’t have been more than an hour or two because we reached a good place to camp with a good deal of the day left before us.  Our camp was by a pool at the base of a ten or fifteen foot waterfall, beneath a tree which had dropped a thick bed of leaves over the years, which gave us a soft place to pitch our tents.

     This spot was enchanting.  The falls was beautiful and the valley secluded.  Few other hikers came by that day or the next.  Water birds called ‘dippers’, or ‘water ouzels’, would fly into the creek and walk along the bottom eating insect larvae, tadpoles or small fish if they could find them.  We marveled at those birds.  The only negatives to this campsite were the squirrels which quickly gnawed through Wes’ pack to get at the food items within before he could hang the pack by a rope from a tree limb, and the white noise from the waterfall.

     The white noise was an interesting phenomenon.  I paid little attention to it during the daytime but at night, after we had sipped a bit of our backpacking staple of cheap bourbon whiskey, and smoked a joint or two, the strangest sounds could be heard emanating from the noise made by the constant splash of water falling ten to fifteen feet into a pool.  As I lay in my tent I could hear everything from people talking to ten speed bicycles clicking to police sirens, and all of this several miles from any possible police sirens or ten speed bikes.Like everything else in life one gets used to it, but it did detract from a good night’s sleep.  Wes and I hung around that camp another day fishing (with better luck than we experienced at Minaret Lake), reading and relaxing, and then returned to my car and from there to San Diego.

     That was not my last foray into that part of Yosemite however.  One year later my best traveling partner, Joe Medina, and I were driving around Northern California visiting friends and camping out here and there and I mentioned the place where Wes and I had camped earlier.  That sounded good to Joe and so we pointed his Volkswagon bus towards Yosemite National Park.  We parked the bus near the visitor’s center and stocked up on food at the little store that is maintained there.  A short shuttle ride later we were standing in front of Mirror Lake and ready to walk eastward into the wild canyon at the rear of the park.

     The trail was a little busier than it had been when Wes and I had camped there the year before, but it was still very quiet  as we walked further from the tourist area.  We reached the waterfall where Wes and I had pitched our tents before but the day was still young, so we decided to push on.  Climbing the steep bank over which the creek was falling was not too difficult a project and upon reaching the small plateau which gradually narrowed and rose as one walked further east we recognized instantly a perfect campsite.  Two logs lay perfectly situated on the ground to provide seats in front of a fire.  We brought stones together to make a fire pit in front of those logs and pitched our tents on the soft soil nearby.  The bank over which the creek fell was just enough of a barrier to traffic that only a few hardy hikers passed by our camp, and they mostly just waved and walked on.

     Our area seemed to have hardly been camped in at all and so there was no shortage of dry firewood littering the floor of the forest.  We had small gas stoves to cook on, but a fire in the morning to brew coffee over and a fire at night before going to bed is something which makes a camp a camp.  We were as comfortable as could be, and even being twenty two year olds and restless as that breed tends to be, we were very content to explore around our camp a little but mostly sit on those logs and talk about things that I couldn’t possibly remember today and probably wouldn’t interest me now anyway.  They were interesting and speaking was effortless then however, and we spent the rest of that day and most of the next doing just that.

     There were however three occurrences which added a little spice to the trip.  Early the next morning I was forced out of my tent by the need to take care of some urgent business.  Even in such an idyllic setting of nature one still must answer when nature calls.  Taking the toilet paper and a collapsable shovel I looked around until I found a small log lying on the ground which looked as if it would serve for latrine duty.  I dropped my drawers and positioned myself comfortably on the log, and proceeded to add another log to the forest floor.  About midway through this process I heard a ‘snap’, and my attention went into high alert.

     My first thought was that Joe might be sneaking up on me with his camera.  We were young males and that kind of humor was (and remains) common to that set.  My second thought was a bit more dire.  Bears frequent the vicinity of Yosemite, usually on the valley floor where there are trash cans, picnic baskets and coolers to pillage in search of the crap that we humans usually like to eat.  But the bears have to come from somewhere, and eventually return there when the garbage is gone, so I wondered if I had chosen to take my ease on some sort of bear highway.

     That is a thought that will pinch things off in a hurry but I knew that it would be foolish to move an inch, so I just sat there bare to the world, waiting to see if a bear would come along to ruin my day.  In a minute or two I heard soft rustlings in the leafy carpet of the forest floor and a large brown shape loomed from behind a boulder.  “This is it”, I thought, “Smokey’s revenge”.  The shape did not have the rounded bulk of a bear however, and as my panicked vision cleared I could see that my visitor was a deer.  I don’t remember if there were antlers, so I couldn’t say if it was a buck or a doe.  All I cared about was the fact that it didn’t have claws and teeth and a very bad attitude.  The deer and I stood and sat motionless for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes at very close range.  Slowly the deer ambled off towards the remote east end of the canyon.  I quickly finished the business at hand and returned to the safety of our camp where Joe and his camera were still snuggled comfortably in his tent.

     Later that morning a couple of parties of hikers came past our camp.  The first was a middle aged man and woman who simply waved and walked on.  That is usually how I liked it when I camped in the wilderness; I didn’t go to the woods to hang out with people.  The second party was different though.  Two guys, roughly our age, with German flags sewn onto their backpacks.  This told us clearly that these were two guys who would bring interesting stories into our camp.

     Pius and Rene were indeed from Germany; from Munich, or “Muenchen” to be exact, and with the customary German fondness for precision they insisted on being exact.  We offered them coffee and rolled a couple of joints, and within an hour’s time we were fast friends.  Pius and Rene were students traveling abroad during the summer, and this was a time in America when more people would still hitchhike from coast to coast with little fear.  It was far from a perfect time, but two white guys with short hair and no beards had a good chance of traveling in America by the seat of their pants in relative safety.  We spent a couple of hours with our two new friends, learning about them and their home as they learned about us and ours.  The time came for Pius and Rene to move on, and we exchanged addresses.  Oddly enough we were visited by Pius and Rene later that month at the house I shared with three other friends.  I have not made it to Germany yet to repay that visit.

     My last outstanding remembrance of that camping trip came later in the afternoon.  It was a warm day but not uncomfortably so, and there was a nice breeze blowing which cooled things down to a very acceptable level.  I had a can of deviled ham and some crackers and prepared to enjoy them while sitting on the bank over which flowed the creek into the falls.  From that vantage point the view was stunning.  Not a single evidence of human activity could be seen from that spot, and the whole of the Yosemite Valley opened up before me.  The sheer walls of naked rock stood in their frozen permanence while the carpet of tree tops in the valley below swayed and rippled like tall grass in the wind. 

     Like every other stoned slacker of my age in those days I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about a Yaqui sorcerer in Mexico with whom he allegedly spent time doing a research project.  The first of the books which emerged from this project was entitled “A Separate Reality”.  Many are doubtful of the academic seriousness of his books or even the existence of the focus of those books, Don Juan.  Nevertheless those books were read voraciously by those of us who were comfortable living in our own separate realities, and I sat there trying to see the entire valley as a living, breathing organism.  That effort failed miserably but the beauty of the simple, three dimensional here-and-now valley was deeply impressed into my memory.  I finally picked my stoned self up and retreated to our camp, where our campfire coffee and reconstituted freeze dried food and another snort or two of whiskey completed our evening.

     We broke camp the next morning and retraced our path to Mirror Lake in time to catch the shuttle to the visitor center and have a late breakfast there.  We left Yosemite to continue our rounds of visiting friends in the north and I have never returned to Yosemite since.  In a way I don’t have to.  The diving birds, the waterfall, the deer, the breathtaking views of the valley, Pius and Rene; all remain in my mind as if it was yesterday instead of forty years ago.  Part of the pleasure of retelling this story lies in the fact that I get to relive it  That is a blessing indeed. 

 

Camping in Wonderland, Part III

     Wes and I recovered quickly from our arduous climb to Minaret Lake, and after a short while of sitting under the lone tree that was close to our camp we decided to get busy.  We were both hungry so we lit a fire in the rock fire pit that we had built. The nearby stream seemed to contain clean snowmelt off of the white stuff which crowned the nearby peaks and so we scooped up a couple of pans full with which to cook up some of our freeze dried dinners.  It was probably beef stroganoff for me, and as I recall the finished product did roughly resemble beef stroganoff.  I certainly remember that it tasted wonderful, but then sitting in paradise at 9.800 feet eating food cooked over an open fire, I could have eaten the sole of one of my K-Mart boots and liked it just as much.

     Wes suggested that we explore the valley in which we were camped and so after cleaning up our mess we began to poke around the area.  One of the first things that we noticed was that even at 9.800 feet mosquitos lived near water.  And they were big suckers, too.  While not as numerous as I’ve seen elsewhere, these guys were on steroids.  As we walked along the lake shore the little vampires rose up and attacked like kamakazis.  They would bite anywhere, including through denim jeans. I had completely failed to take mosquitos into account and was therefore defenseless.  Wes had a small amount of a commercial insect repellant in his kit but it was nearly gone.  I could see that Wes’ repellant wouldn’t last long even if he was the only one using it, and it didn’t seem right that he should suffer more because I neglected a pretty basic tenet of camping.  I declined his offer to share and continued slapping at the little monsters, leaving bloody splotches on my arms, face, and jeans.  

     At one point we jumped over a small stream and mounted one of the rounded rocks near where the trail rose up out of the valley below.  Lying on the ground on the other side of the boulder was the remains of a camp which did not appear to be more than a week old.  We could see where the tent pegs had been driven into the ground, where the campfire had been, and where the garbage still was.  Up next to the rock were two large black plastic bags with all manner of cans and paper products and uneaten meals and, most amazing of all, empty bottles of one of the cheapest and nastiest pop wines on the market at that time.

     Wes and I stood there looking at the mess with disgust and astonishment, and did not hear the sound of the horse’s hooves until the beast hove into view over the same rise that we had surmounted earlier that day.  Seated atop that horse was a forest ranger who was making his rounds.  I believe that the ranger saw us before we saw him because he never once gave us the impression that he connected us with that pile of trash.  I’m certain that he could read the disgust on our faces as plain as day.  

     “Good afternoon boys.  How is your day going?” he asked.

     “We were doing fine until we saw this mess” was my reply.  “What I want to know, beyond why somebody would leave this crap in a place like this is how they got it here at all.”  When every box, can and bottle in that pile war full it would have amounted to a lot of weight.

     “They probably got it here the same way that I got here.  Usually a party of hikers will be met by someone with a pack horse who will bring their supplies in here.  It doesn’t happen a lot and usually they clean up after themselves, but this is not the first pile of shit that we’ve had to haul off of the mountain.  Someone will be back later to pack that stuff out of here.”   I couldn’t help but wonder how somebody with the resources to have access to a pack horse would stoop to drinking that increadibly nasty wine, but they were clearly bottom-feeders so I left it alone.

     “What kind of camp have you set up?” the ranger continued.  We showed him our camp in the distance and described our equipment and plan, which was limited to exploring, relaxing, fishing, and maybe a little reading.  Wes and I were both avid readers.  

     “The only thing bothering me is that I forgot mosquito repellant” I commented in an off-hand way.  The ranger scowled and said “They’ll eat you alive.”  He reached into his saddle pack and retrieved an olive drab can with a spray nozzle on the top.  “This will keep the little bastards off of you” he said as he tossed the can to me.  The can was classic government issue.  As I wrote earlier it was olive drab, with some code of letters and numbers denoting what item number it was in some catalogue somewhere, and written across the can was INSECT REPELLANT in black letters which blended into the deep green of the can.  I gladly accepted and sprayed myself down, and as I handed it back the ranger smiled and said “Keep it.  I’ve got plenty.”  I don’t know what was in that insect repellant but I am certain that it had a plutonium base.  The mosquitos never bothered me again on that trip.

     The ranger told us that someone would probably be back the next day to clean up the mess and waved goodbye.  We returned the wave and continued with our exploration of the valley, which was in fact more like a shelf.  We jumped over creeks, waded gingerly through marshy ground, and eventually came back to our camp.  The day was creeping into evening, and shadows from the cliff behind us began to advance across the valley floor.  Wes began to fiddle with his very light weight, collapsable fishing rod and other gear while I laid back against the tree with a book.  We could cook dinner in the shadows of evening but it would be hard to read or do much else, and that is pretty much how we spent the rest of that day.

     After cooking and cleaning up, night fell upon us like an onrushing train.  Wes and I pulled out our half-pints of cheap bourbon whiskey that we had brought and drank a swallow or two before turning in.  I shed my shirt and jeans and crawled into my mummy bag.  Even in mid summer the nights can be pretty cool at 9,800 feet, especially with a wind blowing off of the showpack even higher up.  I felt perfectly comfortable lying in my bag on a thin foam pad in my little tent.  The darkness was as nearly pitch black as it could be, especially as I was cut off from the starlight in my tent, and there were almost no sounds apart from the occasional rustling of the grasses by a light wind.  I lay there awake for a short while, alternately nervous in the unfamiliarity of near total dark and near total silence, and utterly relaxed in those same phenomena.  I was reflecting on that duality and the next thing of which I was aware was the light of a new day penetrating the nylon of my tent.

     After leaving my mummy bag and dressing quickly in the chill of the morning I emerged from my tent and immediately got a fire going.  I knew that Wes wouldn’t be far behind me and coffee would be needed on an emergency basis.  I took a nip of bourbon to get the blood moving and then went to get a couple of pans of water from the nearby creek.  By the time I returned Wes was sitting on a rock close to the fire pulling supplies out of the pack which we had hoisted into the tree the evening before.  In no time at all we had breakfast and coffee prepared and ate one of the finest meals ever cooked.

     After putting our camp in order we prepared for our first adventure of the day.  Behind us rose the 800 foot cliff which I previously described and at that height, nestled in a bowl created by the confluence of the cliff and the Minarets, lay Cecil Lake at 10,400 feet.  The book that we brought with us said that there was a steep trail which led over the top of the ridge and sure enough, we found that trail.  Steep, however, was an understatement.  The climb was as close to vertical as one could get without going hand-over-hand, and near the top that’s just what we did.

     The payoff, however, was worth every exertion.  Cecil Lake lay cradled in its stony crib with little more than rock, ice, snow, and water making up the scene.  The starkness of the environment had a severe beauty and Wes and I simply sat for a while admiring it.  Broken rock had tumbled down the steep sides of this natural bowl with little growth of any kind poking up from between the jagged stones.  The lake had a fifteen to twenty foot ring of ice extending from the shore towards the center of the lake, with the ice-free bulk of that center even more blue than Minaret Lake below.  The picture was stunningly beautiful.  Rising from our rocky perch we carefully crossed over to the other side of the bowl, disturbing marmots who somehow lived in that sterile-looking place.  Climbing the bank on the other side we gained the rim to look out over a vast scape of mountain peaks, most of them at a lower altitude than we were, which stretched west across the Sierras towards Yosemite and beyond that the great central valley of California.

     After taking in the view for a good long while we retraced our steps and returned to camp.  We had taken a couple of hours to climb the cliff and return and we wanted to try our luck with fishing in Minaret Lake.  Our gear was as simple as we could make it, but we had enough to try bait, lure, and fly.  Unfortunately, none of them seemed at all tempting to the fish.  We would switch baits, we would move to other spots, we pulled in our lines and then returned in the evening, and nothing worked.  I suppose it’s possible that there weren’t any fish in that lake at all.  I don’t see how they could have gotten there in the first place, but as I have heard elsewhere, “Life finds a way.”  We finally threw in the towel and broke down our rods and stashed our gear away.

     The trout dinner which we had expected had to be substituted with more of the freeze-dried food that we had packed in with us, and we were eating that at a faster rate than we expected.  The exertion of the climbs on both days, the general exhilaration of being so far into mostly unspoiled nature, and the fact that we were two twenty-one year old men with serious appetites, combined to make us literally chew our way through our supplies a lot more quickly than we had intended.  Taking stock, we saw that we had enough for one more day, but we would have nothing for breakfast the morning after that.  Our path back may have led downhill but it was still eight miles, and neither of us relished that long of a walk on an empty stomach.  In the end we decided that we would have a good breakfast the next morning and break camp.  I was beginning to fear that my mosquito repellant was running low anyway (it wasn’t really.  It lasted for two more camping trips).

     The next morning we made up the coffee and a larger than average breakfast, and lounged in our camp until the sun was well up.  Wes and I took our sweet time folding up our tents and rolling up our sleeping bags, and when we were packed and ready shouldered our packs and bid goodbye to Minaret Lake with as much melancholy as it was possible for two young men with their lives ahead of them to muster, and then we set out on the trail back to Devil’s Postpile.

     My car was untouched and waiting as we trudged into the parking lot.  Wes and I quickly stowed our packs in the trunk and fired that Mercury up.  In very little time we were on the road, and pulled into a restaurant in Bishop ready for a real meal.  I’m certain that we smelled like a garbage dump when we walked into that squat & gobble cafe but that didn’t bother us at all.  If it bothered anyone else they didn’t share their displeasure with us.  It was about two in the afternoon and since it was between lunch and dinner we decided to eat both.  I am sure that I put five pounds of food down the hatch and Wes might have eaten more.  All that remained was about nine or ten hours of driving and we would be home, clean and fed again and lying in our own comfortable beds in our own homes, with refrigerators full and the noise of the city around us, a million miles away it seemed from the pristine beauty of that jewel of the wilderness, Minaret Lake.

     

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”.

A Wild Ride with Chris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

When Death comes For a Friend

I received some really crummy news today.  A friend of mine has A.L.S.  ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a very nasty and untreatable disease.  In a nutshell, ALS causes degeneration of the nerves which conduct signals to the muscles.  As those nerves fail and finally die the muscles lose their ability to contract.  Things like walking, talking, swallowing, and finally breathing become progressively more difficult and finally impossible.  What my friend has received, in essence, is a death sentence.

A couple of things come to mind as I try to come to grips with this news, and the first of those is the definition of the word ‘friend’.  This person and I do not attend each other’s birthday parties and in fact I don’t even know when his birthday is.  We have never visited each others’ homes, nor lifted an ale at the pub.  In fact, at work is the only time that we see each other at all.  So how can I call this person my friend?

I call him friend because I like him and he feels like one.  We have worked together for many years and we have spent many hours talking together.  We both love gardening and football, although I watch college ball and he prefers the pro game.  We both love eating and cooking and classical rock and old movies but most of all we love to talk, and we like to talk with each other.  It has never occurred to us to get together away from work.  We would probably enjoy a friendship that extends beyond the confines of our workplace but the subject has just never come up.  I have a very full social life away from work as does he, so it just seems to work best for us to pursue our relationship at the workplace only.  Does that make our relationship any less a friendship?  I don’t think so.  I have several friends with whom I spend a great deal of time when I am not at work and I take great pleasure from their company, so I know what it feels like to be a friend and it feels very much that way with My Friend.

And that is why my eyes filled with tears several times today when my mind turned to my friend and his diagnosis.  My friend is younger than me and has a wife and young child.  His wife also works where we do and I speak with her from time to time on the phone in the line of duty.  We like each other too, but our relationship is much more that of ‘acquaintance’.  I have not spoken with her since I heard the news, and I know that it will be hard to talk about.  I will want to say something sympathetic but what will that be?  “I know what you’re going through?”  No, I don’t.  “Is there anything I can do for you?”  No, there isn’t.  “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you both?”  Big friggin’ deal; he’s going to die.  Change that!  Perhaps I’ll just say “I have no idea what to say.  I’m as helpless as you are in this matter.  If you think of anything you need that I can do; anything, just say it.”  Maybe that will help, but probably it won’t.

The hardest thing for me is that my sense of fairness has been outraged.  Why does this decent, hard working family man and his loved ones have to go through this ordeal?  My friend does not deserve this.  Charles Manson, a name synonymous with ‘monster’ for my age group, rests comfortably in his cell in a California prison, living to a ripe old age and content in the tortured jungle that is his diseased mine.  Idi Amin, a dictator as likely to eat his victims as merely to kill them, dies after a long life of comfort in exile in Saudi Arabia.  Even Ariel Castro, the man who recently imprisoned and brutalized three women for more than a decade, met his end quickly at his own hand; no slow, wasting disease for him.  So why do these criminals get a pass and my friend must die slowly before his family’s eyes?

Mark Twain took a stab at that problem in his short book entitled “The Mysterious Stranger”.  In that story a young man runs into an extraordinary individual who turns out to be an angel.  At first delighted, the young man is soon horrified to learn that his new angelic friend’s name is Lucifer.  When the angel detects this reaction he says “Oh, you are thinking about my uncle, but what difference is that to you?  Who are you, a human, to judge us angels?”  Twain’s theology is tortured and Augustine answers that question clearly in “City of God”, but the story goes on to make a good point.

The young man learns that a friend of his is going to die soon.  He begs of the angel to spare the friend’s life if he can do it, and the angel replies “yes that is possible, but are you sure that you want that?”  The young man assures Lucifer Lite that he wants just that very much and so Lucifer says “It is done”.  Lucifer then shows the young man that his friend will now live a long life filled with disease, heartbreak and despair until the day when he finally, mercifully dies.

Now I’m OK with the proposition that an early death may be preferable to a lingering, tragic life, as long as that death is not self-inflicted.  In my view, willingly seeking death in order to avoid what is assumed, but not known, will be a long and painful life is caving in to Despair, who eats the souls of men and particularly enjoys dining on the souls of those who serve themselves up by their own hand on his infernal platter.  I am not talking about the position that suicides go to hell which would be a topic for a later conversation, and I assure you that you will not correctly presuppose my position.  I am only saying that Despair loves and feeds on our own personal despair, and I have no great desire to gratify his appetite.  But I can’t see how this can apply in my friend’s case.  There is no unexpected happy end to be found in his diagnosis.  ALS ends, after a very disagreeable time, in death.

But maybe I can still find some solace in Twain’s words after all.  Lucifer the nephew asked the young man “who are you to judge angels?”  The answer to that particular question is that angels can and will be judged just as humans will be judged and humans have (or will have) the rational powers to judge just as well as angels, but my comfort is not to be found in that quarter.  Instead, Twain’s greater (and probably unintended) observation that the imperfect perceptions of humans make it very hard for them to discern the course and ends of heaven-ordained events, or even events chance-ordained but guided by heaven for ultimately desirable ends, gives me some hope that a prognosis even as grim as my friend’s may, in the end, be shown to be in some way a mercy.  We are somewhere at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the creation parade.  We cannot see the whole stretch of time and do not know how all of the pieces will ultimately fit together.  It is therefore our lot to bet on a loving God who sees the clowns, the lions, the ringmaster, the Tattooed Lady and the guys sweeping up the elephant droppings all at the same time.  We do not have that perspective and can only hope in the One who does.  The alternative to that view is that we are all alone and utterly screwed and that would point towards Despair, and you know where that leads.

So will any of this make it easier for my friend if I share it with him?  I don’t know; probably not.  But maybe so.  Maybe the existence of a ‘maybe’ will be enough to kindle a hope that it will all work together for good in the end when the whole parade has passed by.  And in the end, isn’t Hope a much better thing than Despair?