Tag Archives: Travel

I’m A Fool for the City

The year of our Lord 1976 was not my best year.  The first five months of that year I spent trying to hold together a marriage which was slowly melting down, and the last seven months were mostly lost in a boozy muddle wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke as I self medicated to forget the pain of my failure in that endeavor.  Each day of that last seven months was an undirected jumble of virtually meaningless hours and every night at the residence which I shared with three other people would have looked like a party to any reasonable person, not that there was ever very many reasonable people present in our residence on any given night.  One evening a person who accompanied a  friend of mine apologized for not bringing something to add to the party.  My friend laughed and told him “This isn’t a party.  It’s always like this here.”

That sort of lifestyle eventually either kills you or loses its allure and for me it was the latter, and so as that awful year drew to a close I awoke one morning, put my tools, some clothing and a few valuable items into my truck, and pointed the nose of that vehicle south and east away from Northern California and across Southwest deserts towards Albuquerque New Mexico, where my brother Bart lived.  I needed to restart my life and returning to my family seemed like the right place to get that journey underway.

Albuquerque is a very different kind of place than any that I had ever lived in before however, and it didn’t take very long after my arrival to find out just how different it was.  I actually felt like I had fallen into a crack between two universes and had emerged in some bizarre facsimile of the normal one I had inhabited up until I pulled into the city limits.  My introduction to this odd new universe came quickly when Brad announced on my first day there that he was going to K-Mart to buy some item which he needed for a construction project at his house.  I climbed into his truck and we were soon standing in one of the construction supply aisles near the rear of the building.  We were not alone however.  A few yards in front of us an argument was taking place between a young woman and a young man.

“I don’t know why you are saying that.  None of it is true” said the young woman.

“Don’t lie to me” replied the young man, spitting the words out between clinched teeth.  “You think I’m stupid?  or that I don’t have ears or eyes?  You’re nothing but a puta”

For those of you unfamiliar with the American Southwest, ‘puta’ is not a very nice thing for a woman to be called.

“Don’t call me that” she hissed at her accuser.  “I haven’t done anything wrong.  I don’t know why you’re making this up.”  The young man remained unconvinced.

“I’m not making anything up.  I saw you with Joe with my own eyes.  Are you saying that I’m blind, puta?”

“I said don’t call me that.  Me and Joe are friends and that’s all.  We’ve been friends for a long time.  You’re just trying to make something out of nothing.”

“I know you and Joe are friends.  Good friends, too.  You looked real friendly when I saw you get into the back seat of his car.  Maybe if I had stayed around longer I would have seen your heels in the window too, puta.”

This was as far as the girl was willing to let the young man go, and she lashed out with a vicious right hook that would have made Mike Tyson proud.  The young man’s glasses flew off of his face and spun through the air, landed on the floor and skidded to a stop at the feet of Brad and me.  Brad had found the item that he needed so we quickly did an about face and walked up another aisle towards the check out stand at the front of the store.  While Brad was paying we heard the quavering voice of a female in distress paging the store manager to the employee break room.  My guess is that the young man at that same moment was applying something warm and wet to the left eye that was swelling shut and already beginning to blacken.

I was completely blown away by the this event and as we arrived at Brad’s truck I asked “What the hell did we just see?”  “Oh, that’s no big thing here” Brad replied.  “You’ll get used to it”.  The funny thing is that I did get used to it, mostly because one odd event after another seemed to blend into the pattern of a unique personality of the city.  The next wrinkle of that personality was to make itself known to me before very much water in the Rio Grande passed underneath the I-40 Bridge.

My friend Wes showed up at Brad’s house two days after I did and all three of us strapped on our tools and began to hang drywall for a local contractor.  It was the dead of winter and Albuquerque sits at 5,000 feet above sea level.  Winter storms are not common there, but they do occasionally come and when they do they can bring significant amounts of ice and snow.  The three of us were working on the east side of the city one day when the grey clouds rolled in and began to drop snow while we were occupied inside of a building.  By the time that we noticed the weather there was a layer of snow an inch or two thick on the ground already and more was falling as we stood there.  Brad declared that we should quit and begin to make our way to his house on the west side of the city, as far away from where we were standing as we could and yet remain in the same city.

We stowed our tools in the back of Brad’s truck and he began to steer the vehicle slowly and carefully down the whitened streets, first stopping to procure a couple of cases of beer in case we were snowed in.  Many others had the same idea and there was an additional inch or two of snow on the streets when Brad completed his purchase and began to do the best imitation of a tip-toe in a half ton truck that I have ever seen.  Slowly and carefully he navigated the gentle hill which dropped into the South Valley where his house was, still many miles away.

Now at this point I have to explain something about the tires on many of the vehicles in Albuquerque.  New Mexico is a dry place, and Albuquerque is more dry than many other parts of that state.  Without a lot of rain and snow and ice to make the need for good tread on one’s tires obvious it is easy to become lazy and not replace a tire until it is a good deal past far gone.  Many of the tires in Albuquerque are simply bald, and bald tires plus ice and snow are a bad, bad mix.

And a bad mix they were on this particular day.  Brad and Wes and I were rolling slowly down Second Avenue, enjoying a few beers before actually arriving at Brads house (I am not advocating this behavior; I am simply reporting it) when Brad noticed a large American car – all American cars were large in those days – coming up behind us at a much higher rate of speed that we were going.  The first that Wes and I were aware that there was a drama about to unfold was when Brad said “Uh Oh, this probably is not going to end well,” and he began to slow down a little bit more to increase his maneuverability in case things went horribly bad.

The car behind us, driven by a young man with his wife or more likely girl friend beside him, pulled into the oncoming lane in order to pass us.  When he attempted to straighten the trajectory of his car the slick, bald tires allowed not an iota of traction however and the car continued on in the new path which the driver had just initiated.  That path took the car and its passengers across the oncoming lane, down into a low and somewhat broad ditch, up a railroad embankment which paralleled Second Avenue, and back down the embankment to settle in the bottom of the ditch.  While this was happening the car began to turn a lazy half circle so that it came to rest with the front of the car pointing towards us as we continued our slow, careful pace up on the road where we wanted to stay and the now hopelessly stuck driver wished that he still was.

The whole thing seemed like some slow motion dance.  The car making it’s lazy arc up and down the railroad embankment, narrowly missing a road sign in the process; the female passenger already giving the driver hell before we passed them by; it was like an opera without the music.  There was not one thing that we could do to help in those days before cell phones, but Second Avenue was a busy street and we knew that a police cruiser and a tow truck were in this gentleman’s immediate future, so we drove on laughing so hard that we almost wet ourselves.

A final tale (and I could tell many more) featuring the peculiarities of Albuquerque came a year later, when I was back in town following the construction trades.  Brad took me to Chuck’s Lounge, a bar and pizza place on Central Avenue in the heart of the city.  There was always a diverse crowd in Chuck’s due to its proximity to the University of New Mexico a few blocks away up Central and two interstate highways just a short distance west and north.  They also made some very good pizza.  On this particular night one could see sandals and boots, headbands and cowboy hats, paisley shirts and big shiny belt buckles and every manner of clothing and personal grooming styles you can imagine.  I was there for the pizza because they made the best green chili, pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  Actually, they make the ONLY green chili and pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  I was interested only in the pizza and not the other clientele who were enjoying Chuck’s hospitality that night.

All of that changed in one instant however.  Unnoticed by anyone in the building, a man entered the front door with a handgun of some unknown calibre looking for the person who was fooling around with his wife, and his wife too if she happened to be so unlucky as to be there that evening.  This person bellowed out a name which nobody responded to, which prompted the man to discharge a bullet into the roof to make himself perfectly clear.  At this point everyone in the joint hit the floor or took cover behind whatever they could find.  Nobody bolted for the exit because that would put them into clear sight and might suggest to the cuckolded shooter that he might be the guilty party.

The armed man peered under tables and around bar stools and decided that the Casanova whom he was in search of was not going to be found in Chuck’s that night.  At that point he pulled out his wallet and laid a wad of bills on the bar, apologized for disrupting everyone’s evening, instructed the bartender to set everyone up as far as the wad of bills on the bar would go, and took his leave to search for his wife and her lover elsewhere.

Brad and I crawled out from under our table and found to our delight that very little beer had slopped out of our glasses as we dove for cover.  We finished our pizza and beer, paid up, and departed shortly after the incident.  Chuck called the police, since he would probably have heard about it if he had not, and they showed up just before we left.  There was no sense of urgency shown by the police since nobody was hurt.  The officers took a description and seemed to know who their suspect was, and we all got to leave without a great deal of fuss and to-do.

These are three of a great many stories that I could write about life in Albuquerque.  I found that city and state to be unlike any others, and I frankly enjoyed their quirky if somewhat dangerous personality.  I live far away from Albuquerque now and my family has also moved on, so I have little likelihood of seeing that city again.  I still keep it in my mind and heart however, and that will simply have to do.

Do You Know The Way To Veracruz, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movies on the Road, Part Two

When the time came to leave England my wife and I boarded a train in London and soon were speeding across the English countryside towards a large hole, into which we plunged and emerged less than twenty minutes later, and at almost twice our previous speed, flashing across the French countryside.  At first, everything seemed the same.  In a matter of a few hours however we were immersed in all things French; French language, French culture, French food, the works.  We spent a few days in Normandy and then travelled across France by bus, slow train and very fast train to a small city and then a tiny hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.  After a few days there we climbed back onto a bus which would take us back to the train, which in turn would take us to Bourg en Bresse, a small city in Eastern France.

Bourg en Bresse was the place on our itinerary that I most looked forward to visiting because there is no real reason for a tourist to go there.  The area does in fact enjoy a small amount of local notoriety for the very tasty chickens that are raised there, and if one is desperately seeking a ceramic chicken with which to decorate one’s kitchen or a kite in the shape of a chicken for the delight of one’s grandchildren, or any other conceivable use that one could wish to make with the image of a chicken, it could be found in Bourg en Bresse.  Unfortunately we did not at that moment have any use to which we could put the likeness of a chicken nor room to carry it if such a use presented itself, so we had to find other attractions to bring us to Bourg en Bresse and keep us there for two full days.

Fortunately those attractions did exist.  For my part I wanted to see a French city or town where the only attraction was French people being French.  Nobody in that city would be seeking to separate me from my tourist dollars any more than they would want to separate anyone else from their French Francs.  Except for my rather longish hair and beard which was somewhat uncommon in France at that time I did not look very much unlike any of the citizens of that city who thronged the streets and sidewalks and shops and parks.  That was exactly what I wanted to see, and I got my money’s worth.

My wife was on another mission.  Decades earlier when she was a teenager she had a pen pal in Bourg en Bresse.  My wife was taking French and a French girl, Edith was her name, was taking English.  They would write to each other in their native languages so that the recipient of a letter could practice reading real English and real French as real people speak and write them.  Now, almost thirty years later, we were standing on a sidewalk in front of the house which shared the same address as was on the letters in the bundle which was tied up in a ribbon and resting in my wife’s hand.

“Go ahead and push the button” i said, pointing to the button at the gate entering into the property where the house stood.  “We’re never going to be here again so why not?”  My wife is a cautious person and ringing the bell of a house owned by somebody we do not know in a city half way around the world from home is not the kind of thing that she would normally do.  This time it was different however, and so to my surprise she extended her digit and the button was pushed.  Nothing happened.  Nobody was home, apparently.  “Ah well, we might as well get a picture of you standing in front of the house”.  She agreed to that and I backed out into the street to get a decent shot of my wife and the squarish front of the large white house where Edith once lived.

These actions were very much out of the ordinary in Bourg en Bresse and we were noticed by an older woman who lived across the street.  I guess French people are not shy about asking slightly shaggy strangers in their neighborhoods why they’re taking pictures of houses, and so this inquisitive neighbor emerged from her house to enquire after our business there.  She spoke French and French only and I do not speak French at all, so the lot fell to my wife to use her high school French learned thirty years earlier to explain our purpose.  She failed miserably in that task.  Apparently there is no easy translation of ‘pen pal’ into French.  We were getting nowhere until my wife hauled out her beribboned bundle of letters, one of which contained a picture of Edith when she was a girl of sixteen.

Understanding flashed across the elderly neighbor’s face like fireworks over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.  You could see this neighbor, who had lived there when young Edith was showing neighbors the letters that she had received from a girl in the U.S., connect the dots; that this was the very girl!  She practically dragged us into her house and we waited as she got on the telephone.  I could hear a sporting event on a television or radio somewhere in the house and soon, as the woman was making her calls and explaining her mission, an older man appeared around a corner to see what was going on.  He was a great looking guy, wearing khaki colored trousers, what we call a ‘wife beater’ undershirt, a day’s growth of stubble on his face and a bit of a pot belly topped off with suspenders.

In French he asked, in a few words as is customary with men everywhere, what was going on.  His wife answered, in French and also in a manner which is customary with women everywhere, and told him in excruciating detail what was going on.  I will never forget his reaction.  First a slight lifting of the eyebrows.  Then an ever-so-slight pursing of the lips and a barely noticable tilt of the head which said, as clearly in French as in any language, “Whatever”.  He then retreated back into the interior of the house, presumably to enjoy the rest of the sporting event which I could still hear.  I really wished that he would have opened a bottle of wine and invited me back into the house to watch or listen to the sporting event with him.  Language, I am certain, would not have been a problem.  By the end of our visit with the old neighbor and her disinterested husband my wife was in possession of Edith’s new address and they remain in contact to this day.  I am deeply envious of them and have already written the story of my own still-lost pen pal.

We spent the rest of the day seeing the city; eating delicious snacks, doing laundry, and by early evening we had enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and withdrawn to our very comfortable hotel to relax for the evening.  We showered and made our plans for the next day and then turned on the television to see what the the French people of Bourg en Bresse were watching that night.  By far, the most interesting movie on the tube that evening was Forrest Gump.  We had already seen Forrest Gump in the United States but now we were watching it in a spacious continental hotel on a huge bed with a bottle of extraordinary wine.  Also, we were watching it in Italian.  Now Forrest Gump is a very good movie and the actors all turned in marvelous performances, and soon it didn’t matter that the movie was in Italian.  Between our memories of the general plot of the movie, the magnificent performances and the bottle of very good French wine we were all in with the movie and blubbering along with Forrest as he was talking to Jenny at her grave site under the big tree which they had climbed as children.

Soon after that Forrest saw his son climb into the school bus which brought the movie around full circle, sat down to await his return, and we watched the feather take off and begin to fly to wherever the winds would take it, just as we all do in our turn.  We gave our noses a final blow after the sad scene and then turned the lights off, resting to prepare for the tomorrow’s journey to wherever the winds would blow our feather that next day.

Movies On The Road, Part One

I love watching movies.  The magic which is created on the Big Screen transports me from my mundane (but pleasant) existence of working seven-to three thirty five days per week, with gardening, church, family and friends filling in the rest of the time when I’m not asleep, and moves me to a place where empires strike back, kings return, and very large lizards with very bad breath rise out of the ocean to stomp cities and then return to rest in the lightless depths of the sea until they are needed once again to save us from destruction or, at the very least, entertain us for a few hours.  It is therefore not at all surprising that some of my favorite memories from a trip which my wife and I took to Europe many years ago revolve around movies.

That might strike a person as being somewhat odd, but it really is not.  One can only bounce from one historic site to another via Tube, bus, Metro, taxi or on foot for so long and then it is simply time to return to bed & breakfast or hotel and recharge for the next day’s adventures.  It is when the street clothes are off, the bath taken, a glass of wonderful french wine poured and the weary traveller is stretched out on a big luxurious (or small and cramped sometimes) bed that the television snaps on and the mystical journey into fantasy begins all over again.  In this story I will recall one of three movies which stood our among the dizzying number incredible sights and feelings that I stored up on that trip.

This first movie was watched in London, in an unspectacular bed & breakfast that we stayed in for nearly a week.  But first, a little background on the bed & breakfast.  We arrived in London from Bath early in the afternoon and took the Tube, London’s underground mass transit system, to Hampstead where we had secured a place to stay in advance.  The Tube station nearest to our  B&B was about five or six blocks away and we crossed that distance quickly as we were traveling very light.  When we arrived at the residence we were admitted inside and shown to our quarters.  They looked very clean, comfortable, and well lighted with windows and skylights in abundance.  The only feature which gave pause to reflect were the two female mannikins on the wall attired in S & M leather.  I don’t normally allow trivial things like that to bother me but my wife was instantly put on edge.  We were told that the room wouldn’t be ready for occupancy for another hour or two and we cheerfully agreed to depart until the appointed time.  Immediately upon our departure we consulted our Rick Steves guide and found another B&B less than a block away.  After proceeding to that facility we rang the bell, explained that we were in town without reservations, and were shown the cramped and rather dingy accommodation which was available.  These accommodations, for all of their shortcomings, were reassuringly free of any leather-clad mannikins, and we instantly settled upon renting it for the duration of our stay.  The landlady agreed to call the B&B which we would now not be taking and inform them of the change in plans.

The next day we spent traveling from one amazing attraction to another, and the tale of those experiences deserves several stories in their own right.  The British Museum, which contained artifacts that filled me with awe and in one case led me to tears.  The National Library which contains the Gutenberg Bible and the hand-written manuscript of one of the Beatles’ early songs, among a million other things.  Harrod’s Department Store which is like a small city itself, and the tiny shops and bakeries that line the main roads and back streets of London.  In one hour’s time we left Harrods, I saw my first Mini Cooper, stood in front of the clothing store where Madonna purchased her conical bra whatever thingy that she wore in concert and a little French bakery that would take a story to tell about in order to do it justice.  After a full day of being mostly on foot we took bus and Tube back to Hampstead, had dinner at what was probably the only cigarette smoke-free restaurant in London, and returned to our quarters exhausted but not yet ready to go to sleep.

British television at that time enjoyed the same reputation as British cuisine, so I had little expectation of finding something worth watching.  I could not have been more wrong.  As I flipped through the channels I came upon a scene of a young man on a motorcycle in a motocross race, and being a man (if not necessarily a young one) I was drawn to this movie ever so slightly over the forgettable rest.  My wife was initially unimpressed but as the movie proceeded even she was drawn in.  And I should point out that the movie moved at a pace that only a culture with two thousand years of history could appreciate.  This thing just crawled along!  Still it was compelling and we settled on watching it to the end.  I opened a very nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured the first of several glasses, and we snuggled under the covers on our narrow and lumpy mattress while we got sucked into the show.

The motorcycle racer was the main character and he was young, handsome, cocky and macho, and living on top of the world.  He was very good at a sport for only the strong and reckless and he felt like he was untouchable, just like many another young man in the UK and elsewhere.  It was therefore not a great worry to him when some lumps appeared on his chest.  His girl friend was concerned but initially he brushed her worries off with his hyper-testosterone bravado.  It was only after the lumps became painful and she pestered the hell out of him that he went to his doctor, just to get her off of his back.  The doctor delivered the young man a shock however.  After poking and prodding, hemming and hawing as doctors love to do in movies, he stated that he was concerned and extremely suspicious that the hero had breast cancer.

The young man almost hit the doctor.  “Only birds (English slang for girls and women) get breast cancer, ya bleedin’ quack” he raged.  The doctor, expecting this reaction, remained calm and explained in simple and plain English that men too can get breast cancer, and that it has nothing to do with your manhood or want thereof.  The doctor recommended that the young man get a diagnostic workup for breast cancer, including a mammogram and ultrasound.  After hesitating for a long time and incurring the wrath and severe henpecking of a very worried girl friend and family our hero capitulates and presents himself to a facility where the tests could be made.  Seated in the waiting room he sees that he is entirely alone in a sea of female patients and reception personnel.  After a considerable wait, and when we are talking about British television drama a couple of decades ago I mean a CONSIDERABLE wait, his embarrassment and shame and frustration boil over and he bolts onto his feet and stalks out of the office before being seen.  The drama ends after he sells everything he owns, moves to Thailand where an alternative treatment is offered for breast cancer, and he dies.

I would not have believed that an excruciatingly slow English drama delivered in black and white on a television in a somewhat sketchy London bed & breakfast would have had such an impact upon me.  We were exhausted from a day of crawling all around London and I was several glasses of wine into the bottle by the time that the movie ended and the credits began to roll.  My wife was not up to the challenge and was already snoring softly, curled up against my right side.  I clicked off the television with the remote control, for which I was heartily thankful since it spared me the trouble of having to get out from under our covers in the cold, dank room, and drained the last of my glass of wine before setting the glass on the tiny table next to the bed.  After clicking off the gooseneck lamp which arched over us from behind the bed I snuggled a bit closer to my wife and thought about the movie for a good hour before finally drifting off into a deep sleep, resting for another day of museums, galleries and tours to be taken on the next day.

That movie, the title of which I haven’t a clue, has stayed with me for many years now and has even moved me to make a bit of a row once at work.  A brand new facility dedicated to diagnosing breast cancer was being built at the hospital where I worked and a host of possible names was being kicked around.  A front runner amongst myriad possibilities was the “Women’s Center”.  Remembering that movie I raised a stink.  “Men get breast cancer too” I opined to all who would listen to me or read their email.  “How many men will die because they are not about to go to a ‘Women’s Center’ to get an evaluation for breast cancer?”  Apparently the one-person campaign worked.  The new facility was named the “Breast Care Center” and several cases of male breast cancer have been diagnosed there in the years that it has been open.  I really wish I could find out the name of that drama, its stars and producers, etc.  I would like to thank them for awakening me to a problem and maybe, just maybe, impelling me to agitate for a name change which just might have saved a life.

Road Trip, Part I

My family has always liked to travel, and every road trip was always viewed as an adventure.  Even the ‘vacations’ back to where my parents grew up in the South were at least in part an adventure, even if on the whole I would have preferred to have never gone on those adventures at all.  Being on the road and headed ‘somewhere’ always held the allure of a romance for me, and each city and town, desert and forrest, mountain and river and cow and cornfield all looked new to me, even if they looked like every one that I had seen before.  It was therefore with great eagerness that I agreed to accompany my brother and his wife on a road trip in June of 1969.

I had only just returned home from the Army; May 29 was my day of liberation to be exact, and after two years in Vietnam a trip across a thousand miles of open and friendly country sounded like heaven to me.  I was nearly scalped by the Army barbers who were intent on getting their last pound of flesh, thin as a stick because I ate only enough Army food to stay alive, and at twenty years and three hundred and thirty seven days old I was twenty eight days too young to have a beer in public.  Packing my bags and leaving everything behind me for a couple of weeks seemed like a dream come true.  Brad, my brother, would finish his spring semester in a week and a half and then we would all be away.

I chafed at the delay.  Being a Vietnam veteran in California, even a military-friendly town like San Diego, was not a sure road to popularity.  My old friends accepted me of course, but the experiences of my last three years, the things that I had seen and done, made it impossible to just pick up and move on as if none of us had changed.  I enjoyed going to the homes of friends and having a few beers, smoking a few bowels of weed and talking and laughing, but there were things that I did not feel able to talk about, that my friends did not want or, for that matter, need to hear.  These things were what I wanted to sort out, to see what I should hold onto and what I should let go of, and that sort of business could be better done alone in a 1963 Mercury rolling across the Southwest desert.  So the days crawled by until the eve of our journey

I would be driving my mother’s car.  Dad had a truck and Mom could live a week or two without wheels.  She didn’t tend to do much shopping or make social calls anyway, so it was of little inconvenience to her.  Brad and Ginny would be in their tiny Datsun pickup with an equally tiny camper on the back.  We loaded our vehicles the night before and planned to set out when we usually did on such trips, about two in the morning.  I loaded a cot and some blankets, food and minimal toiletries (I had little hair to brush), clothes and a few books that I knew I would not read.  I made sure that I had a cooler to hold the sandwiches that I would eat as we rolled down the highway and the beer that I was still too young to drink.  Brad and Ginny packed whatever it was they packed and a couple of cases of beer.  I knew that wouldn’t get us very far down the road, but it was at least a start.

We did not leave at two in the morning.  In fact, it was well after sunup and a good home cooked breakfast before we fired our vehicles up and nosed them into the traffic on Fairmont Avenue, which led to the onramp of Interstate 8.  Once we gained the Interstate we followed it for the five or six miles of it that had been completed, and which then fed us into the two lanes that comprised U.S. Highway 80, which we had always used before.  President Eisenhauer’s dream of a great, broad network of straight highways connecting all parts of the country was still in its early stages of development, and great stretches of the United States were still served only by the winding two lane roads which arose with the early age of the automobile.

U.S. 80 snaked across the El Cajon Valley, up and over the Laguna Mountains, and finally across the Imperial Valley towards the Colorado River and the border with Arizona.  El Cajon was warm and the mountains were cool and fresh, but the Imperial Valley was as hot as the very hinges of hell, and I loved every minute of it.  The mountains are beautiful, with live oak growing in the valleys and the slopes covered by chaparral and huge exposed boulders until one gets high enough to reach the pines.  The road only briefly gets that high and then returns to boulders and chaparral and then the descent into the desert.

The desert; how I love it.  There was little to look at but sand and rock, greasewood and sagebrush, cholla and ocotillo cacti, and a few other hardy plants struggling to earn an existence in such a forbidding environment.  Shallow, dry washes would appear and run through culverts under the highway to divert the rare rains which would come to this thirsty place.  Parallel to some stretches of the highway ran the tacks for the Yuma and San Diego Railroad which sometimes ran and sometimes did not, and at other places in the sand dunes one could still see segments of the old plank road which once connected Arizona with the port of San Diego.  I am certain that those old segments are completely gone now, but what do I know?  The desert is dry and does not give up its possessions lightly.

For many the desert holds no attraction.  When my grandfather traveled west from Georgia to stay with us for a while he crossed the desert in a Greyhound Bus.  Inside the bus was air conditioned comfort, while outside was a furnace which usually topped 110 degrees with a sun that would begin to redden unprepared flesh within a few minutes.  Accustomed to trees and streams and lakes, Grandfather was revolted by the empty, tortured wastes which stretched for seemingly endless miles in any direction.  The inhabitants of the desert unsettled Grandfather most of all.  People of indeterminate age, skin wrinkled and turned to leather by the sun and wind, doing what was necessary but only just what was necessary to survive one more burning day, and yet without any idea of leaving to live anywhere else.  Grandfather shared those thoughts with me and I told him that in some small way I understood those old coyotes of the desert; there was something of them in me as well.

It was therefore with a sense of freedom and rest that I rolled along the concrete and asphalt ribbon behind the Datsun pickup, thinking of times that I had passed this way before and the lives going about their business that very day in the late spring heat of the valley.  We passed fields of lettuce and other crops, aqueducts, rows of eucalyptus and cottonwood providing shade and a windbreak, and finally we arrived at Yuma on the border of California and Arizona.  We were not stopping there but instead turned north and drove a few more miles intending to stop for the night at Martinez Lake, one of many reservoirs on the lower Colorado River.  Brad and Ginny and my parents had camped here a time or two before and sent pictures when I was in Vietnam.  I could hardly wait to see the place.

We pulled into the camping area and noticed right away that the temperature had not dropped one little bit; in fact the humidity was uncomfortably high due to the proximity of the lake.  Nevertheless Brad and I rigged up an awning on the east facing side of the camper which protected us from the sun until it descended below the western horizon.  At that point we intended to cook a meal and relax before resuming our journey the next day.  The sun went obligingly down, but there was to be no cooking that night.  With the fading of the sun and cooling of the evening breeze came the mosquitos.  First a few and then hordes of them.  We slapped at our tormentors until we sounded like Spanish dancers with castanets.  I don’t remember who spoke up first, but we quickly agreed that we didn’t sign up for this and stowed our gear back in our vehicles.  Soon we were pounding back down the road and heading east, unsure of where we would stop for the night but dead certain that it would be nowhere near Martinez Lake.

Nightfall overtook us as we travelled east across the farmlands of southern Arizona.  That was a time before cell phones, and as I followed the two red taillights of my brother’s truck I had only the AM radio and my own thoughts to keep me company.  Listening alternately to country and western, rock and roll, and the ubiquitous Wolfman Jack I thought again about the times I had travelled this road on the way to Georgia and Kentucky, and how I use to count the minutes until we would load up the car and point ourselves west again.  I also thought about the neighborhood kids who also went into the military, and about Frankie Mendoza and Marty Dempster who came home in boxes.  Why them and not me?  I think most veterans wonder about that every now and then.

I also thought about Carmen, Cathy and Greg.  I had known Cathy since elementary school and considered her a friend.  She was just a plain, ordinary kid in the first grade but grew up to be a beautiful young woman and our homecoming queen in my senior year.  Lovely as she was she never acted as if she was better than anyone else; in fact, it was almost as if she didn’t really know how stunningly beautiful she was.  Greg was on the high school diving team with me and we mostly played on the diving boards rather than honed our skills and truly competed.  Our coaches knew a little about swimming and nothing about diving, so we just did the best we could and considered it a great thing that we could play on the boards for high school credit.  Carmen I met while on leave between my two tours of duty in Vietnam.  By the time I returned home once again a civilian all three were dead.  Cathy died from some damned cancer, Greg was stabbed at a drug deal which went bad, and Carmen was at a stock car race with her husband when a car went out of control, flipped, and landed where she was sitting in the stands.  “Two in Vietnam but three here in San Diego” I thought as the mile markers slid past my windshield.  “I was safer in Vietnam!”

I remember that the Blood, Sweat and Tears cover of “God Bless the Child” was playing when I saw the red taillights pull to the right and into a roadside rest area.  Ginny must have had enough.  Several other cars and a row of long haul semis were already parked there and we found a space to set up at a little distance from the nearest other traveller.  We were in saguaro cactus country which boasts a plethora of its own bothersome bugs but was thankfully mosquito free.  We didn’t bother with cooking; sandwiches would do.  A couple of beers and a shared joint later, Brad and Ginny crawled into their camper and I onto my old military cot and slept the sleep which is reserved for the innocent and the forgiven.

I slept so well that next morning I did not even stir when the truckers fired up their diesels and the families loaded up their children to continue on their journeys.  My slumber was not impervious the the smell of Ginny cooking sausage and eggs on the camp stove we had brought along however, nor the aroma of the coffee which Brad was percolating over a small fire that he had made underneath a wire contraption which my dad had rigged for just this sort of occasion.  I lounged in the cot for as long as I felt it was safe and then emerged to get my fair share of the breakfast.  Although we were in no great hurry the breakfast was quickly consumed and I performed the clean-up  while Brad and Ginny straightened up their camper and stowed the coolers and the clean utensils once I was finished.  I merely had to fold my blankets and cot and replenish my small cooler with snacks and a few beers, and we were once again on our way.

The air was still cool from the night and the sunlight seemed to make everything sparkle.  The sun can have as many faces to the desert dweller as ice has to an Eskimo.  Sometimes it will beat down on you with what feels like physical force, and at other times it will tease you as it rises over a frigid winter scape, offering the hope of some warmth for your numb fingers or aching bones but then snatching that promise back when the next chill blast of Siberian air rolls over a land without any barrier to protect you from its malice.  On this morning it made the sand and rock seem warm and comfortable; as comfortable as rock and sand can be anyway, and the giant saguaro cacti and their lesser co-inhabitants of this dry land seem stately and not threatening, if not exactly friendly.

A short distance up the highway we deviated to the south and followed a long local road, sometimes paved and sometimes gravel, into the Dragoon Mountains and up into Cochise Stronghold.  What is now a campground and recreational area was once the last refuge of a band of Native Americans who yet held out hope that they might retain their lands and way of life in the face of a White tsunami which had roared in from the east, crushing all in its path.  Eventually they, too, were overwhelmed and were removed from their beloved homeland in the mountains and high valleys of Arizona and removed first to Florida, then Oklahoma, and finally allowed to return to the less inspiring hills of their cousins the Mescalero Apaches in south central New Mexico.

And what a home the Apaches lost.  Up in the mountains at about the 5,000 foot level the evergreen forest begins and there is grass and softer brush than found among the more prickly growth closer to the desert floor.  We could walk among the trees without having to navigate the sort of dense undergrowth common in the South and the Pacific Northwest.  Sandy washes, called arroyos, spoke of mountain rains ancient and recent, all of which are greedily swallowed up by the soil to be preserved underground, safe from the evaporative power of the strong sun in the thin, dry mountain air.  Water is too precious a treasure to allow it to be snatched back into the sky from which it fell without imparting life at several levels along the way.

It was early but we made a snack and cleaned up, poked around for a short while longer, and then resumed our journey down the gravel road on the east side of the mountains.  We shortly passed into New Mexico and found paved road.  We had decided to make for Carlsbad Caverns and so we stopped only for gas and restroom breaks as we pushed the speed limit along the way through Lordsburg, Deming, las Cruces, and then across the Llano Estacado (a God-forsaken wasteland of desert, but beautiful in its own way) and finally arrived at our destination.  It was early afternoon and we wasted little time in purchasing our admission and entering the elevator which would take us 750 feet down to where our tour would begin.

There are many things which stand out about that tour, and the first one was that it was 750 feet underground.  I have never been claustrophobic, and even used to crawl into the large sewer pipes which once emptied into the canyons in San Diego to divert the infrequent rains.  Later on, being as I mentioned earlier skinny as a stick, I was considered for duty as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, tasked to enter the tunnels of the enemy to flush him out or kill him if possible and check for useful intelligence left behind.  Being underground would not have been a problem; the whole rest of the package would, and so I was gratefully relieved that my six feet of height made that duty for me mercifully impractical.  Even so, the thought of being 750 feet beneath solid rock was at least a little bit disconcerting.  I reasoned that it was hardly likely that I survived two years in Vietnam as well as being friends with Carmen, Cathy and Greg only to be smashed into a greasy stain by a cave-in at Carlsbad Caverns, and so pressed on with the tour.

The guide, a civilian working for the Park Service, gave us a vast amount of data about limestone, groundwater, erosion rates and so on.  I remember little of that, but I remember strongly the difficulty I had believing that what I was seeing was real.  I had been to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and other such places and seen re-creations of balancing rocks and stalagmites and stalactites, but they were all man made.  At those places stones would teeter back and forth as if ready to topple, all controlled by motors and gears and cogs and axels to mimic the real thing.  Here WAS the real thing.  I wanted desperately to touch it and reinforce its reality with tactile input but was admonished not to do so.  “The oils from your fingers, multiplied by all the fingers which pass through this place, would eventually change it, and change it for the worse” said the guide, and so I refrained.

When we emerged back into the daylight we saw that the sun was sinking rapidly towards where we had slept last night, off to the west.  The guide informed us that the bats which nested in the caverns would emerge at dusk to begin to feed on insects in and around the fields of New and Old Mexico.  We debated if a bunch of bats was worth seeing and decided, since the coming and going of the bats is how the caverns were discovered in the first place, we would take in the sight.  We grabbed dinner at the tourist center and then went with the guide and a few other fellow travelers to seat ourselves in a small stone bowl with a ragged gash in the earth opening up in the center.  We were seated on stone seats on the west side of the bowl and chatted together as the shadows crept down the seats, across the hole in the earth, and then up the rocky bank on the far side, away from us.

The sky began to shade into gray when we heard the first rustle, the first whirr, the first fluttering of thousands, no millions, of tiny leathery wings.  The first scouts emerged and flew a circular arc around the bowl in which we were seated.  Right on their heels were the rest of the colony.  Millions of bats followed the same spiral of the leader, creating what looked like a black coiled spring which rose up into the sky, bent southward, and then dispersed into the evening to begin their nightly gorge on the insects which would devastate the crops if they were not contained by the bats.  “They’ll be back at sunup” said the guide.  “Pretty much all of them at the same time.  They’ll get back to their same perch and after a while of bumping and jostling and perhaps making little bats they’ll go to sleep and rest so that they can do it all again tomorrow.”

We thought that sounded like a good plan for us too, so we took our leave of the Caverns and drove out onto the very flat plains of eastern New Mexico.  A few miles down the road we found a convenient turnout and pulled into it to make our evening camp.  Across the road was a sign that declared the presence of a potash mine somewhere in the distance.  Brad and I enjoyed making ‘momma jokes’ and found great amusement in finding occasions that evening to declare that “your momma is a potash miner.”  it was irrelevant that we enjoyed the same momma.  The entertainment was to be had in artfully crafting the joke, not about who’s momma was referenced or if, in fact, said momma had ever mined potash or even knew what potash was.  And if the subtleties of this form of entertainment is too complex for you, dear reader, It is highly likely to be because YOUR momma was a potash miner.

We did not stay up late that evening.  A beer and potato chips or some other snack and we went to our separate lodgings.  My cot at the edge of the turnout was soon swallowed up by the night but still faintly illumined by the billions of stars which poured their light down on this tiny patch of earth.  I thought about the bats, feeding in the fields to the south, and how there were a million stars for every bat I saw curl up and out of that crack in the ground.  My mind drifted back to a time when I was about 10, sitting in a bath tub and thinking about the universe.  It’s infinite, you know, which means that when you get to the end of it there’s more to go.  Always.  How does a 10 year old wrap his mind around infinity?  How does anyone wrap their mind around infinity?  The concept was overwhelming then and all I could do was cry.  As I lay on my cot I thought about the stars and universe and infinity, and concluded that it was not for me to wrap my mind around anyway.  It just was and it was beautiful to look at on this night in southeastern New Mexico, and that would have to be enough for me, at least for now.