The room’s warmth doped me like I’d burned a strong reefer—Panama Red or Acapulco Gold—and the drone of his words floated over me, damned near put me in a trance. Sentences strung out like a long trail of smoke: John Stuart Mill and the never-ending battle between the liberal and the conservative. I wondered if I studied Plato and Zeno and all those old guys, would they wrangle over the same concepts, traditional versus something more avant-garde?
The professor was a CPA and an attorney and he’d written tax policy for Congress. The big congress back in DC, and now he was teaching Philosophy of Law at the university. What a come-down, or hell, maybe it was a come-up from working beneath the heel of politicians. I wouldn’t know, and as I drowsed, I’m sure I’d thought, and who cares?
I needed a class like Philosophy of Law to graduate with my BS in Accounting. Or some course like ethics or one of those esoteric subjects that, once you got on the job, may or may not mean anything since the real business of business is to make money.
Our texts for the class were little pamphlets printed on cheap paper with the pages stapled at the spine and the authors—besides John Stuart Mill, who is the only name I can recall—were mostly a bunch of sirs and lords of the conservative bent in England during the mid-19th Century. Boring prose that bored into no place in my brain. I tried to stay awake and compiled copious notes in my chicken-scratch cursive in my lined paper notebooks. I doodled on the pages where I tried to sketch—like stick women and men—the people in my class, a bunch of pre-law, philosophy, or business majors.
At test time, I’d go to the bookstore and buy the little “blue books”, cheap paper with flimsy white pages between pale blue covers where I’d regurgitate all the notes I’d written down in the class—if I could remember them—if I could recall my scribbled notes.
I’d learned that about the learning process. A lot of my profs—the ones who taught stuff like philosophy, political science, and basic economics—preened themselves in their imaginations, or so I imagined, when you regurgitated onto the flimsy blue books required for exams the exact words they’d pontificated.
But the CPA lawyer’s drones were hard to capture. The paragraphs crooned and you swooned and you dozed, your eyelids like doors slipping shut and your attention like a hazy dream.
And then one morning in the late days of the semester he jumped up and smacked his big flat hand on the top of his desk and screamed, “And what the fuck I mean is!” The heads of my classmates jerked and a chorus of “Huh?” rose from their mouths. Suddenly alert, I figured he’d changed character to ensure we understood what Mill meant and what Mill’s adversaries meant, and how it all played out in law and the constitution of the United States.
Standing with a contorted face, his shoulders thrown back, the prof reminded me of a mean drill instructor I might have had at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in 1966. He was, for that moment, monstrous.
Something about his eruption, and about him, the professor, resonated with me.
I mean, how often did one hear that word “fuck” blast out of the mouth of a stuff-shirted CPA lawyer college professor in the 1970s, and one so dull he could cause you to dream while sitting at a desk?
Later that day, I laughed. And I laughed that afternoon as I headed back home, the forty-five miles to my house. And I still laugh.
Except for John Stuart Mill, I have forgotten the names of all those other lawyers and philosophers that came up in that class, but I haven’t forgotten that “And what the fuck I mean is!”
Theo stuck his big head inside the office door and said, “Hey, Ken, turn on your radio.”
Theo rarely talked and at that moment, as I watched him shut the door to the shop, I wondered if he’d ever said a word to me.
I walked into one of the bosses’ offices and turned on his fancy new Bose radio and the voice of Peter Jennings came through the speakers. Talking about chaos in New York and chaos in the vicinity and chaos, chaos, chaos.
As I listened, it became obvious that someone had flown a plane into one of the Twin Towers in New York, and as I worked at my desk, the radio blaring loud out of the boss’ office, I flittered in and out of attention.
Then the second plane struck the tower and we all figured out that it was an attack on us–our culture, our country—and the patina of pleasure I’d been experiencing for the past few months suddenly caved in and I felt as if my guts had zoomed to the bottom of my boots, and I thought about Vietnam and dead bodies and the stink of old death and the roar and the fear and my heart pounded and I plunged into a funk that I thought had been contained, killed, dead on arrival.
I don’t know why I blamed Theo for it all. He was only the initial messenger. He’d been on the shop crew for several months, a supposedly super woodworker who had been educated in one of those big New York City schools that taught the trades.
I hadn’t thought of this earlier, but being from New York, he must have felt something more devastating, more immediate about the murders that occurred that morning of 9/11 and, hell, he may have known someone up in that tower . . . a sister, a cousin, an old friend.
But as the day progressed, the attack on the Pentagon, the plane crashing in Pennsylvania, the only thing in my mind was the turmoil that roiled my innards and my desire for revenge against whoever in the hell had attacked the towers, New York, America, me. Yes, who had attacked me.
And as the following days heaped fear upon us, and chaos, and the flow of information about the attack and its impact on our world, my rage and my uncertainty festered like an ugly boil about to pop.
And every time I went out into the shop, the sound of radio people talking about the attack—the reasons for the attack, who was at fault—galled me. Most of the time it was Theo’s radio blaring a Bay Area station.
As time went on and I went out, the radio voices fingered someone to blame: the government, the corporate structure that kept us all under the yoke, Republicans, Democrats. The litany of blames became more obscure as the days went by, and in my paranoid mind, anyway, it seemed the announcers, the opinionators, the talking heads on that station were looking for anyone to blame except for the people who flew those planes—Mohammed Atta and his fellow murderers and their handlers who hid in the background controlling everything.
But to those radio heads it was the government’s fault, it was George W. Bush’s fault, this organization’s fault, that bunch’s.
After some of the sorriest days I ever lived, I walked out one morning while the planers planed and the straight-line saws whined and the sanders buzzed, and over the racket of the shop, those now familiar voices on Theo’s radio announced that the one who was really at fault for the death and the misery of 9/11 was the architect who designed the Towers, because he had them made of this and that and he didn’t foresee the attack and blah and blah and bullshit that swelled in my craw and began to jerk and pinch and kick and burn, and with a voice that any Marine Corps drill instructor would have loved, I boomed, “If that “f**king radio isn’t’ shut off in ten seconds, I’m going to yank it off the shelf, smash it on the floor and kick the shit out of whoever turned it on.”
I glared at Theo, and the shop foreman ran over and turned the radio off, but I had more to say, “And If I come out in this shop and hear that f**ing station ever again, I’m going to take a hammer to the radio and its owner.”
After that, in my estimation, Theo couldn’t do anything right, and as the autumn turned to winter, he made mistakes and I bullied and berated him as well as the management about the costs of his “inefficiency.”
Finally, in part probably to shut me up, the bosses found Theo a new position with another woodshop, and by all reports he did his new employer one hell of a job.
This has all come to mind right now, I suspect, because of our current Coronavirus crisis and my memories of times when my universe morphed into something that scoped in on the uncertainties of the world: JFK’s assassination, the Siege of Khe Sanh, 9/11.
For months after that morning on 9/11, while driving down the road, I would burst into tears, I would sob and have to wipe my eyes. I hated that, the breaking down.
I was weak and not what I thought was the kind of man I wanted to be, and I understood as the weeks went on that I suffered from the return of all my guilt and grief and rage, my PTSD, from Vietnam that I thought I’d whipped into shape.
And I blamed Theo.
I’ve been thinking about my anger.
A big storm balloons inside my gut and burns like sulfuric acid. My legs stretch taut as twined metal cable and my brain morphs to a cauldron of ugly red boil that affects sight and sound so that all I can hear and see and smell is the guy who flew up in his Mercedes on my right, darted into the small space between me and the car in front of me, scaring the hell out of me.
And I want to…well, I’m not going to say that here.
Sometimes my rage is a symptom of combat-induced Post Traumatic Stress, but if my memory hasn’t hightailed completely, I believe I had a healthy dose of anger when I was a kid.
I’ve met with shrinks and discussed my childhood and war experiences and I’ve been told I was cured…or a better phrase might be: I’m somewhat tolerable.
My father seethed and until his golden years failed to keep a lid on his wrath.
I’ve stumbled upon photos of my dad with his father, brothers, and sisters, all lined up like a gang of somber hit men.
Dad once told me he shot a neighbor kid in the eye with a BB gun back in the mid 1930s, and my grandfather took the weapon and broke it over my father’s head.
So a portion of the rage I own today probably came from my father who used to bust my butt with his thick leather belt. The one with the silver tip.
In those days I fought and fought and fought: the neighbors, strangers, family members.
In 1958, we moved about seventy miles away. For days after we arrived, I walked the streets that circled the center of the development and battled every kid who dared. In my memory I see picket fences and kids in black tennis shoes—Keds, probably—and blood dripping from noses. Torn shirts.
Once, in my teens, my mother stormed into the backyard and nagged me while I mowed the lawn. I shut down the mower, walked to our redwood picnic table, dropped to my knees, crawled beneath, stood up as I balanced the table on my neck and shoulders and then ran, raising my arms, shot-putting the table at her.
I missed her by a mile.
Back in my Jarhead days, rage permeated everything inside me and surrounding me, too, including my comrades.
When I was stationed at the brig at 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego, we took our rage out on any number of things. All but one of the junior enlisted men and junior NCOs I served with there were Vietnam veterans, so a lot of my mates had issues with PTSD, moral injury and TBI although at the time, those conditions officially didn’t exist.
Our rage followed us around the brig, dealing with the cons, as we called them, and partied with us on liberty in movie houses, restaurants, living rooms and in bars, bars, bars.
One time, four of us attacked a water heater at the back of a honkytonk. The management had asked us to depart, due to our surliness and brawling, and as we loaded into my Dodge, we halted, ran at a wooden structure on the back of the building, and began kicking the plywood walls.
Once the walls were beaten into submission, we began to kick the water heater inside. I don’t know how we weren’t scalded with steam or blown to smithereens by a spark hitting natural gas, but we mangled the metal and moved on to the next saloon.
Inside the brig, we were all on the prod, mad, pissed off, all the time, at the cons incarcerated there.
Once, a team of us—two buck sergeants and another corporal—were on duty in the Base Parolee Barracks. After the cons went out on work patrols, we decided to conduct a detailed inspection.
We found packs of Marlboros and Salems and Chesterfields stuffed beneath mattresses, and dirty dungaree blouses and trousers, too, the blue Navy kind with bellbottoms. Back in the corner of one of the dorms, we found an ashtray full of cigarette butts, hidden away like the remnants were worth handfuls of money.
I don’t know which one of us went berserk first. Maybe it was me.
In the dorm I supervised, we found foot lockers that weren’t locked and we dumped them on the floor in one big pile, and then we poured water on the pile and then two of us urinated, too, and if a wall locker wasn’t locked up, we opened the doors and turned them on their faces and then, as we moved from dorm to dorm, we began to hurl foot lockers out on the concrete grinder surrounding the barracks. When we threw them from the upstairs quarters, their wooden frames shattered.
When I saw one of those lockers smash and split, skivvy drawers and Mennen shaving cream and regulation-issue United States Navy socks scattering on the ground, my innards fluttered like a Marine Corps flag in a stiff breeze.
We screamed and laughed and danced around and hooted Marine warrior Ooorahs.
When the cons returned, they knew better than to bitch.
As the years moved on, my rage still seethed.
When I first started writing, people would say, “Your work is so angry.” I think it bugged a lot of people to read and/or hear what I had to report about myself, as a person, as a warrior, and in a bigger sense, the news about humanity.
And it wasn’t just my creative expression that gurgled with images of rage, but my behavior was suspect, too, some of which I will be ashamed of for as long as I live.
Once, my son, when he was about seven or eight, pulled a fairly dangerous prank along with one of his buddies, and when confronted, fibbed about his participation.
Instantly, the ugly that lives down inside me erupted and I reached down and grabbed his bare side with my right hand and picked him up, squeezing his skin as hard as I could.
For quite a while he wore a bruise over his ribs in the shape of my hand, and still, all these decades later, that bruise looks as dark and hideous as it was in the beginning.
She looked like a stick figure standing at the kitchen sink, one of those drawings she and I made as kids when we spent afternoons in kindergarten at the Catholic School.
Black pencil lines for arms and legs and a long neck. Her hair short and spikey. Her square, pallid face made her eyes big and dark, luminous, like they were full of tainted water.
Chemo? Radiation? Something like that.
I remember she could spell in kindergarten. I couldn’t and it pissed me off. Still does, kind of.
She married my best buddy. They fought all the time. Each was too smart for the other.
He died of cancer, too, but much later.
Right before he died, he told me over the telephone that he’d quit smoking cigarettes. His anger over his impending demise came through the phone line, all those hundreds of miles. I thought, you didn’t quit soon enough.
His idea of exercise was playing tennis with a burning Marlboro dangling out of the corner of his mouth.
I remember one time, in fourth grade, I stabbed her in the wrist with my #2 pencil, and the lead tip broke off beneath the skin.
I pointed at the wound and said, “It’s lead. You are going to get poisoned.” And then I laughed.
In the beginning, I only craved birds I could shoot and eat. But over the years, I’ve morphed into a watcher.
This last month, Betty and I have been driving around the West and observing a trove of avian critters.
Red-tailed hawks perched on every high point around the marshy fens near Klamath Falls, Oregon.
On the Sonoma coast, we spotted marbled godwits and willets nudging sand as the ebbing tide left prey for them.
In New Mexico, we sought cranes, the sandhill variety, thousands of them to delight all the photographers with the long, long lenses. And then the frantic eruptions of huge flocks of snow geese.
In Arizona where the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan Desert meet, we sought the elegant trogon, which to me is a holy grail of birds. Why? Maybe it’s the word. Elegant. That’s nomenclature not often common in the milieu in which I’ve existed.
In my early years it was mourning dove, Gambel’s quail, chukar, ring-necked pheasant and wild turkey.
My father loved to go fowling and I think it was something that his brothers and he did all the time during the depression. They lived in a house with fourteen or fifteen relatives and siblings. There was never enough to eat.
I’ve chased quail of multiple species across sorghum fields and desert flats, the undulations of sagebrush country. I’ve hidden in the woods as my hunting partner tried to gobble up a big tom, and I’ve scaled frozen hillsides chasing chukar through ten-degree dawns.
When I was young, I loved the chase and the thrill when what you shot plopped in a miniature cloud of dust.
I always considered myself someone who respected nature and especially the things I hunted. There were rules and requirements and there was proper behavior, a respect for the quarry, the law, and your fellow hunter, and for the landowner, too.
But I think the best of us often fall off the wagon as we wend our way through life. I recall northwest Kansas, the early 80s. Blue-knuckle cold and raspy wind and a gaggle of hunting partners with Springer Spaniels.
Back then I was sulled up like an old black bull that’s wandered off into a quicksand bog, and no matter how hard he struggles, can’t get out.
A man from Colorado Springs and I broke off from the hunting group and hiked around a big marsh, cracking sick and dirty jokes, laughing about stuff that the rest of the world wouldn’t see as particularly funny. At that moment, I felt the two of us were kindred and cynical, somehow bonded.
I noticed a flock of small birds fly into a bush growing next to the rough trail where we stalked. As we drew close, the sounds of their chirps and singing reached out and circled me like hymns you’d hear in the Christmas season and the red and blacks, mixed with the varying shades of russet in the surrounding soil and vegetation created a color palette that thrummed.
I stopped. Something boiled my guts like big heartburn. I lifted my twelve-gauge and hulled away, one, two, three times.
Gunpowder stench drilled into my nose as a slow smoke coiled from the end of my weapon’s barrel. I stomped to the bush but the only thing I found were tattered leaves on the ground.
I spewed a string of vulgarisms and something about not being able to hit a bull in the ass with a fiddle when I noticed my companion looking at me askance.
Our camaraderie hightailed like a flock of starlings that just figured out that a northern goshawk is swooping in for the kill.
For decades, the memory of all those pretty, scattering black and red birds has fluttered into my mind, me feeling like a creep who keeps bugging the head cheerleader at the high school prom.
I am not sure why but I perpetually ponder the need for killing. When I was a kid with a BB gun, we shot at doves and sparrows and anything else that moved, including each other.
One day I rode my bike past the J home and the three J brothers were out in the vacant lot next door. I lifted my BB gun and shot F, the oldest brother, in the ass. The report of that BB hitting its target rushes at me across the dusty decades.
Later, I learned to kill doves and quail with a shotgun and mule deer and pronghorns with a rifle, and then I joined the Marines Corps and the tenor of the killing changed. In Vietnam I tried like hell to kill communists, but I’m not sure I was successful.
One evening during the Siege of Khe Sanh, I snuck down the trench as incoming roared, exploded and shook the red ground beneath my feet. On top of the platoon’s command bunker lay one of my Marine buddies. He gripped an M-14 rifle with a starlight scope. I asked him what he was up to.
Right then I wanted to “kill gooks,” too. They’d surrounded us, pounded us, killed our mates. They had scared us into realms where fear was so powerful, multilayered and pervasive that, if we lived, we would never escape its ability to reduce us to skittering, paranoid animals for the rest of our lives.
I climbed up there and demanded to be part of the action, and he complied. He wasn’t excited about it, but in the spirit, I suppose, of brotherhood and Semper Fi, he handed me the rifle. Its cold stock felt like manna in my hands. As I placed my eye to the scope, I witnessed blurry images of heads and shoulders popping up and down across a long distance and those are what I shot. I don’t know if I hit anyone, but damn it, at the moment, I needed to. And maybe I did kill someone and maybe there’s a picture of him, or her, on a shelf somewhere in Hanoi, a remnant of a person.
And at the time, shooting at those North Vietnamese soldiers didn’t feel any more momentous than shooting at white-winged dove the first day of hunting season.
And now, as I recall the sneer of the man out there in the cold Kansas wind, I suspect that something was wrong with me when I shot at those innocent little birds in Kansas, and my need to go around shooting them was the tip of an iceberg of another order.
Maybe it still is.
The cock’s crow rattled me and sent my mind marching through memory’s journeys: into an old barnyard where I once stepped on a rotten egg while watching a big black-and-red rooster send out his call, the sickly pop of the decayed shell followed by the stink of the gas that hung in my nose for hours after Mother came and hauled me home; or down the muddy chuckholes of Beech Street where roosters sparred in a chicken coop beneath an ancient mesquite tree that the neighborhood kids said housed a spirit who could speak to rattlesnakes.
Betty and I have been on the road for a little over two weeks and are now snug in a three-hundred-year-old adobe in New Mexico near where the crowing cock lives. We’ve been here several days, admiring the ancient pine vigas holding up the roof and the micaceous clay plaster shimmering on the walls and the ancient floors that once felt the thump and thunder of dancers hundreds of years past when this adobe was part of a larger rancho.
One of the details about this area, called Talpa, is that it is a place of “brujas” and memories keep ghosting into my recall—not just rooster and cock crows, but other things that I suspect have barged into my mind because of all the things we’ve seen on this trip while motoring through rain and snow and peaks and deserts, canyons, ponderosa forests, redwoods sweeping the fog off the tops of ridges; days so clear they sting because of the singular lines between the blue of the sky and the snow-capped peaks beyond; and the cattailed marshes in the foreground are as pure as a spirit who tells no lies. Who knows, maybe the recollections are haunted by the spell of a local bruja living down Archuleta Road.
My memories usually turn to something more visceral, where I am captured in a concrete space where actual time has taken leave and left me mired—but not always, sometimes I’m in a sweet space that candies up the moment—in the details of a particular incident ten, twenty, thirty years gone, or maybe more.
This time it could be all the fog on the trip. As we drove, the clouds hung like shifty gray shrouds on the black macadam winding through the wild country between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. And then we encountered the fog that rises from a warmer, damp ground when smothered beneath cold air hovering overhead.
As I lay on the bed and looked at the log vigas in the old adobe, those recent fog images hurled me back fifty-plus years to a bleak and lonely night on the Laotian border when me and a Sioux Marine we called “Chief” were on a listening post in a curtain of mist so thick I damned near drowned in a pool of it as I crept down a trail I could only sense beneath my muddy jungle boots.
Chief and I tried to sneak about our grim business, like quiet death after a long coma, but we scraped and jingled where our dungarees met our web gear and our steps in the mud sounded like the sucking noise you make when rocking your boots out of wet, red clay.
We set up our listening post on the lip of a huge bomb crater and tried like hell to make out what ghosted within the haze that hurried past our chilled faces as it traversed west to east like a thief leaving Las Vegas heading to Salt Lake.
It’s funny how the imagination dredges up specters full of danger when you can’t see, and we listened for anything other than the sound of the fog, its cold voice like a low sonorous chant from an all-male chorus in an ancient Capuchin monastery.
And, in my memory at least, the fog was gone before we could contemplate it leaving, and we were stunned with a night so bright that the wet mud from the bomb crater reflected light at us that rendered me naked, a frightened waif, waiting to die.
The moon was full and as big as the snout on a five-hundred-pound bomb, and off in the distance, the flicker of stars went on and off like interstellar messages sent via semaphore.
And then, as if the night was meant to be a parade of differing tempers, a thunderstorm roared in from the same direction the fog had come, and we were lit up not by moonlight, but by lightning that crashed and boomed so close, the ground we sat on shook, and the rain came at us like cat’s claws followed by hail as hard as machinegun rounds and then the rain beat upon us again. Sheets and sheets of it shrieked out of the black.
We rolled up in poncho liners and donned ponchos, but soaked to the marrow of my backbone, I began to shiver, and then I began to shake and my teeth chattered so hard, I feared the enemy could hear them.
Chief, a man of few words, grabbed my poncho and pulled it over my head and I began to scrabble, all arms and legs, to make him stop, and then he yanked my poncho liner from around my body and exposed me to the horrible blare of the rain and thunder. Then he rolled up against me and put his arms around me and we were suddenly beneath poncho liners and ponchos and then he whispered, “Blue-eyed boy, you got hypothermia”—something I’d never heard of and something I felt Chief knew nothing about. “Settle down, Blue-eyed boy, hypothermia can kill your dumb ass.”
Those words frightened me and as the rain settled into a steady drizzle, I gradually stopped shaking.
What bothered me as much as fog and thunder and mud and lightning and rain was the fact that we—two warriors exposed to the elements and whomever might be crawling through the soggy night to slice our throats—were trapped in a momentary intimacy that felt taboo in a way that United States Marines back in 1967 would never understand. And I felt that lack of understanding and I envisioned myself as weak, unfit, and violated, although I had not been violated. I feared that my fellow Marines up on the hill would find out what Chief had done to…to…save me, and I would be stamped, forever marked.
But neither of us ever said a word and several months later Chief rotated home and I sometimes, at night, see his thin face smirking from my cold, damp dreams. I am haunted by my inability to contact him out there in South Dakota and thank him for saving me; and I have thought about driving back there on one of Betty’s and my adventures and talking to him, but I never have and probably never will.
He may be dead, he may not want to relive the memories of that war, he may not want to see me and talk to me about that night where he wrapped his arms around me and chased the killing cold from my body. He may, he may, he may…I know, they are excuses and I should analyze them, take them apart like a Marine disassembling an M-16 in the pitch black of night.
But I won’t.
The whacking at the corner of my home office sent me to my feet and the window. I opened the blinds and shadows of birds darted through the naked branches of the nine bark bushes growing against the northeast wall.
An ornamental pear stands close and the birds— a murmuration of starlings, speckled black birds that first arrived in North America over a hundred years ago–attacked the bare branches and devoured the marble sized fruit still attached to the tree.
The ornamental pears fall on the ground in late autumn and make a mess. So even though the notion of an exotic bird—or exotic species of any kind wreaking havoc on local environments—leads me to cringe, in theory, as the yellow-beaked creatures dove into the pear tree’s branches, landed, and ripped fruit from moorings, for a moment I felt…what was it, relief that one more chore was now rendered moot? Or was it something more…joyful? I wasn’t sure.
Back and forth the murmuration swarmed, banging branches against the house, the combined whoosh of their spread wings barging into the confines of my office.
Once Betty and I spent several nights in the French city of Rouen, in Normandy. We lodged in a small hotel with a balcony that allowed us to sit in comfortable chairs and see the old cathedral that the Impressionist artist Claude Monet painted many times. The cathedral—as either a church or something more grand– had been built, destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since the fifth century AD.
Its stately and angular Gothic architecture make a visual feast and I understood Monet’s fascination with it on an aesthetic level. Yet for me, the history it embodied, the Vikings who became the Normans of the region who went on to invade England and add their culture to the Norse, Anglo –Saxon, Roman, Celtic milieu that stewed in England prior to 1066 AD when the Norman Duke William the Bastard became King William the First of England invaded my senses and for a moment, ignited a buzz in my guts that I recognized as something strangely tied to the history of the human race.
In the cathedral, when Betty and I made our tour, we found a sarcophagus where William the First’s great-great-grandson, Richard the Lion Heart’s heart was entombed. Yes, his heart. Not the rest of him. His entrails are buried at Challus, where he died of gangrene from an arrow wound and the rest of him is buried near Chinon, in Anjou, close to his parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
In the evenings, after our trips to the cathedral and discovering a smidgeon of its history, or dining on crepes in a local café, or heading off to the Normandy beaches, we’d come back to our room just before sundown and listen to the starlings jammed in the foliage of the trees that surrounded the square between the cathedral and us. We found it enchanting, the singing, like it was happy talk between good friends. In the US starlings are considered by the ag industry as pests and according to a number of articles I read, they can destroy a vineyard or a cherry orchard or a blueberry field in less than a week.
The locals in Rouen who frequented the cathedral district seemed to hate the birds, too and from the looks of the ash gray tinted sidewalk and street gutters beneath the outer branches street side, I understood. Starling scat is probably hard on Peugeot paint jobs.
And now, as the starlings in my little murmuration zipped back and forth like short shafted arrows stripping my pear tree of fruit, I recognized that they were driven by some motivation that reminded me not only of hunger, but more; need, and maybe even the human desire called “greed.” I felt it standing at my window, the ferocious craving they had to eat and eat and eat as fast as possible, before all the fruit disappeared. And that led me to ponder King William the First and Richard, too, how history has portrayed them as men who needed more and more and more.
Yes, I felt it, like a jolt from the business end of a fletched crossbow bolt it hummed through me and for just a second, it felt primal, like knowledge in my DNA passed to me from humans alive way before I was born. I suspected it was kin to our need to survive, something that William the First and his great-great-grandson Richard surely understood as did Monet, I suspect, and if not consciously then down in the bones and the sinew and the soul.
I have now or never had any intention of having anything to do with mineral exploitation, so I chose other avenues of earning a living, but in 1983 my boss sent me to the Texas Panhandle to learn about the oil business. He owned some shares in several gas and oil drilling partnerships that were formed as tax avoidance schemes for people who made a lot of money. He wanted me to find out if the wells really existed and if I thought the operators were legitimate.
I ended up in Borger, Texas, with a jelly-muscled, slick-talking Panhandle lawyer and a couple of partnership operators who appeared to be kids (they looked younger than me) who offered me evenings with their two secretaries and veiled promises about wild nights of drinking, drugs and after-hour sexual activities. Those secretaries played along by acting sexually attracted to me but I suspected they had no interest in me other than as a diversion to keep me from bothering my oilfield hosts.
When we went to see the wells in my boss’ partnership, we rode around in a big black, fully tricked out Chevy Suburban. Since I was deemed important, I got to sit shot gun next to the operator’s mouthpiece. The way he spilled out gas and oil well data made me nervous about all my boss’s money. All that oil field info arrived rat-a-tat-tat, way too fast.
As he went on about the “Booger Town” oil field and rock formations, output per barrel and thousand cubic feet, well maintenance, the best bars in town, which of the secretaries he thought I’d like, I couldn’t keep from wondering how he could afford that Suburban and those $700.00 Lucchese ostrich skin riding boots and those heavy gold chains dangling around his neck and his right wrist.
We drove around the northern Panhandle and looked at geological maps and inspected pump jacks and drank Coors pulled from a big green Coleman ice chest. I think they thought if they kept me tightened up on beer and the promise of wild sex with one of those secretaries I’d tell my boss it was all okay.
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t have told you it was okay or not okay. I had no interest in pump jacks and drill strings and moon pools and ginzels and no interest in being where I was. I told my boss I didn’t trust the jelly-muscled lawyer or the partnership operators and that his investments in the partnerships were bad deals. I wanted no part of the oil and gas business.
I still feel the same way about oil. So it was with some surprise to be traveling on California Highway 33 up toward the Salinas Valley from Southern California when Betty and I happened upon the oil patch town of Taft.
What a shock to see all those drill rigs and pump jacks and pipe lines and old derricks etching a fetching skyline in the drab landscape. Something about that drew me. It’s ugly and it’s polluting and it’s poisonous, and I liked the way the detritus of exploitation created a scene that was…dare I say, beautiful?
You need to understand that for the last twenty years or so I have been fascinated by the junction of the ugly and the beautiful. In my mind, so much of what we have on earth exists in the space where the hideous, the repulsive, the horrid meet the gorgeous. I am not interested in oil or the petroleum business, but the visual scene and the irony of the fetching images grabbed me.
So we stopped and took photos of derricks and pump jacks and the gray hills behind. We were so damned fascinated by the place that we went back two weeks later and took more photos.
When we took photos of the remnants of the world’s largest oil spill that occurred back around 1910, we were warned by an oil field worker about inhaling the oil field’s rotten egg gas—the H2S—like we used to create in high school chemistry class. He also told us that if we came in contact with some miniscule number of H2S particles we’d be “done for.” I didn’t believe him when he told us it would kill us. I looked it up and yes, it can kill you and we breathed some of it. While there we found out that the oilfield workers wear H2S warning devices on their caps and hard hats. Obviously, we weren’t exposed to enough gas to damage us. Nevertheless, both days we were in Taft, there was bad stuff floating around that oil patch, not just H2S, but other junk emitted from the wells and the entire oil patch industrial hubbub that gets trapped in the Central Valley’s endemic, low hanging fog.
All my life I’ve lived in a world that is petroleum fueled and not just in the transportation area. Look at plastic. We get plastic, and a lot of other things, from gas and oil. For centuries the world ran on foot power and animal power and water power and wind power. But now we are in love with petroleum.
And I suspect it is not doing the world we live in any good. I’m in favor of hydropower and wind power and solar power and anything else we can use to reduce petroleum use. But then I think, yeah, I am against a petroleum-powered world, but hey, I drive a car. I drive our car thirty thousand miles a year. It gets pretty good mileage, but still, I’m guilty as hell.
I might go for an all-electric car, but every time I plugged it in, I’d be consuming energy that came from where? Petroleum? We humans are now consumers, not savers. Every bit of petroleum not consumed will be replaced by some other kind of energy. When we conserve, we don’t cut back on demand, we just find more things to do with what was saved. Whatever replaces petroleum will not be as clean as we think. There will be unexpected, negative ramifications. Like I said, we are consumers and as time marches on we will consume more and more to fuel our technology and our demand.
Anyway, as Betty and I were taking all those photos, I was thinking about drilling rigs and moon pools and the slick-voiced peddlers from the Panhandle. I was also thinking about how much we drive our Honda CRV and how we keep our house warm and the gas we use to cook our tacos. My environmentalist side was chiding me for being a petroleum hypocrite. Yep, I’m a petroleum hypocrite, that’s what I am.
But, like I say, those black pump jacks against those drab gray hills, and the sand in the ravines, and the white clouds in the blue sky make mighty fine photos in my estimation.
Besides, we need to get somewhere.
We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.
The breeze slipped through the tops of the beetle-weakened conifers and headed east. The light from the setting sun cast its rays through the phalanx of dying trees illuminating spots here and there around the parking lot. Three pickups sat like abandoned hulks.
I walked left and right and back and forth, kept looking at my watch, listening for the sound of anything besides the zephyrs in the pines. Nothing. No birds, no coyotes, no squirrels. Nothing.
I plopped in my old camp chair and turned on my battery-powered lantern and tried to read a short story from Rebecca Lawton’s, Steelies and Other Endangered Species. I kept standing up, peering into the darkness. I searched for a place to sit where my back wasn’t exposed. No large rocks close by. No thick trees. I sat back down and picked up the book. The approach of night chilled my back. Like something had sneaked up behind me. I stood up.
Finally I escaped into my bedroll, covered my head and tried to sleep. But sleep proved elusive. I thought about home and work I needed to do and about what might be out there sniffing around the car, my gear, my bedroll. I thought about tomorrow’s hike and I thought about the possibility of rain and I thought about Vietnam, and Arizona, and California, Illinois, Seattle, Boise. It seemed I relived my entire life as I rolled and tossed and turned. I kept sitting up, looking around.
I recalled a fable by Edgar Alan Poe that I read when I was a kid titled “Siope,” about a character who cursed the noise and horror of a storm in the wilderness, and the noise and storm then became silence, and the character cursed the silence for it was more frightening than the chaos of the storm.
And then I fell asleep.
I awoke at 01:45. Wide awake. I wondered why. I wondered if something was prowling around my campsite. I wondered if I should look into the black of night or if I should stay buried inside my sleeping bag. I listened. Nothing. Not even the breeze in the treetops.
I threw back the tarp and sat up. The night chill hit me and I shivered. Nothing except the Milky Way spread east to west like a raging mountain river surging between the snaggled treetops. The galaxy was bright and white and yellow with hints of blue and red scattered around. A satellite blinked across the night and shooting stars rocketed from the north and the southeast. I saw a plane fly over.
I laid back and folded my arms behind my head and watched the magnificent stream of stars and galaxies that thronged the black heavens. I retraced my thoughts, the earlier ones. And then the stream of stars led me to think about something I’d heard years before. It was from the motivational guru Earl Nightingale and about personal security and by inference, fear. I am paraphrasing here:
You want security? You are living on a piece of rock that is spinning around at about one-thousand miles per hour. The earth orbits the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles per hour. The Milky Way, our galaxy, travels at the speed of five-hundred-fourteen-thousand miles per hour. Our universe is expanding at a rate signified by an almost unimaginable number. And you feel secure? You are not secure.
As I looked at the amazing patterns of galaxy upon galaxy and the flash and sputter of dying asteroids, I thought, this is what you are out here for. Security. Or your need to overcome your need for security and your penchant to let fear (fear of what…suppression, failure, rejection, death?) depress your drive to do what you must do.
I thought, I am out here. Alone. By my choice. Not a choice I normally make, but that’s why I’m here, lying on the ground, unable to sleep. Overcoming my fear of being alone and all the fears I wish not to think about. I am overcoming my constant need for security.
Then I went to sleep again only to wake at 04:30 to the sound of tires knocking over rocks. I rose and climbed inside the car and watched. Headlights blared into the stillness. The rumble of the engine destroyed the silence. I listened and watched and wondered who would come into this place this time of night, or morning. They parked and a door creaked, then slammed. What did they want out here? I heard the sound of steps and looked in my rear view mirror. Nothing. Again, a door creaked open, then slammed. Then the sound of feet shuffling off in the direction of Hell Roaring Lake. I wondered if it was a good idea to hike in the dark. It seemed like whoever had arrived came as a single person. I heard no voices and soon I heard nothing at all. Whoever had arrived hiked alone, at night.
Later as the morning hinted at showing up, I ate and dressed in layers, put on my ball cap, my bright blue day pack, laced up my hiking shoes and took off up into the wilderness area. Nothing but a squirrel on a tree trunk and a buck leaping across the meadow. Nothing but beetle-killed trees, and rocks. A chipmunk skittered across the trail. Then the sound of a woodpecker. A Cassin’s vireo landed in a tree and flitted from one branch to another. So, I thought, I am not alone after all.
But who was I kidding? I was. Not a human being in sight although there were tracks in the mud from other hikers, one of whom must have been the person I heard arrive so early in the morning. What if a mountain lion stalked me? I kept spinning around in three-hundred-sixty-degree pirouettes trying to catch a glimpse of what might be behind me. What if I encountered a mother bear with cubs? At my age, could I run fast enough and climb high enough in one of the skinny, dying trees?
I reached Hell Roaring Lake. The morning sun etched audacious patterns into the craggy spires of the Sawtooth peaks to my west. Fish jumped. I saw a snowy plover and some kind of grebe I could not identify. I looked for bald eagles or osprey. But nothing else appeared except a jumble of black storm clouds lowering over the peaks to my west.
The sullen charcoal color of the clouds alarmed me so I started back down the trail. A sudden summer bluster blew right up behind me. Lightning and thunder suddenly filled my mind and I hurried along towards the car. But the storm caught me. I thought about all the things I’d learned. Don’t get beneath a tree because lightning might hit it. Keep yourself as low as possible. I halted and yanked my poncho out of my daypack and found a rock to lean against. What would happen if I got struck by lightning? Bright flashes and thunder stabbed at the land and at my eardrums. I squatted low and let the rain run down the poncho and onto the ground. Blinding blares of lightning caused me to flinch and shut my eyes as I waited for the sound of the thunder. You can get a pretty good estimate of how far away from you the lightning is striking by counting the seconds between flash and boom. Some of the lightning got pretty close. What if lightning split a thick tree and it fell on me? Crushed me? Who would help me?
The rain squall blew east and I started out again towards the car. Another storm hove into sight and I started to trot but that was not sufficient either. I ended up squatting beneath a thick conifer as hail peppered everything around me. I thought of those hailstorms in the Great Plains where hail grows so large it can pummel a man to death. I feared that might happen as the hail came in the teeth of a more serious blow. What would happen to me if the pounding balls of ice knocked me unconscious? The hail ganged in the sunken boot tracks on the hiking trail, but it did not harm me.
I finally got back to the car and shucked my gear and tossed my pack and wet poncho into the back and eased my way down the rock-strewn road that leads to the pavement. I stopped in the town of Stanley and treated myself to a thick, greasy cheeseburger. As I headed home, I metaphorically slapped myself on the back. I had done it. Not that I had any illusions about conquering fear. We are born alone and we live alone and we die alone and fear of all kinds of things is perched on the shoulders of our consciousness like red-headed vultures. But for the moment, I’d gone out alone and slept alone and hiked alone. Alone.
Recently I was digging around in some boxes of old photos my mother gave me before she died, and among copies of tintypes and really old pictures I found one of a woman and man standing in a stiff, late-1800s/early-1900s pose. Written in my mother’s hand were these words: Mary Ellen Riggs Morris and husband Porter (Half-sister).
The photo stopped me for a moment. I looked closely at this half sister and thought, half sister of whom? The two of them were young and handsome and I stared at them for a while to see if I could discern any family resemblance. I thought she faintly favored my mother’s clan and suddenly I recalled a conversation out of my childhood.
Let’s set the stage. My mother’s folks were/are LDS, or Mormons, and have been since the early days when Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were leading Mormons across the American continent from upstate New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and on to Salt Lake City in a quest to find a place to practice their religion.
When I was a youngster, I recall that my grandmother, mother and sister took off for Tucson on a shopping trip. They were gone all day leaving me to watch Felix the Cat and Heckle and Jeckle on TV, play baseball, go swimming. When they returned I asked where they’d been. My sister blurted, “We went to see Aunt El in St. David.” (St. David is in Southeastern Arizona just north of Tombstone.)
“Who’s Aunt El?”
My mother glared at my sister and the subject was promptly changed to new clothes, new shoes and the drive back from Tucson.
“Who’s Aunt El?’
Grandmother turned off her hearing aids and Mother went into the kitchen to heat some water for Grandmother’s senna tea; and Sister looked guilty and finally whispered, “Grammy’s sister.”
I knew my grandmother’s sisters—May and Emily—but no El.
Sister whispered, “Polygamy.” She grinned and rolled her eyes and nodded her head so hard her brown curls bounced.
Evidently Aunt Ellen or El, my grandmother’s half sister, was the result of a polygamist marriage between my great grandfather and some woman I don’t believe I ever heard mentioned.
Family history was important to my mother for both personal and religious reasons. Genealogy was important, too, but when it came to taboo subjects like polygamy, it seems to me she (and other members of her large family–I’m talking cousins and aunts and uncles here) needed to hide any mention of them.
As time went on I’d capture tidbits of info on Aunt El. She went to the pen. That was a shock. “The penitentiary?” “For what?”
“But Mormons don’t drink booze.”
“It was really her daughter (name unknown to me). Aunt El took the rap.”
And that was the last I heard of Aunt El. I suspect she’s buried down there around St. David or Benson, Arizona, and has descendents living in the region, cousins of mine, a few times removed, but still cousins.
As I look at the old photo of Aunt El, she seems kind. She seems polite and neat and clean and frankly, she seems a little frightened.
I don’t know why she looks frightened. Maybe it’s because her expression tells me something bad has happened, or is about to happen. I think the photo is old enough that she wouldn’t have been involved in bootlegging yet. That wasn’t really prevalent in the 1920s.
As I look at the second family photo in this blog, the photo of the other side of this polygamist family, I see my grandmother sitting in the lower right-hand corner. My great-grandmother, Clarissa Ann, is sitting in the middle. Both seem to be looking out of the photo at something or someone. My grandmother wears a bemused look. Or is it a look of derision? Who is she looking at? I wonder if she is looking at Aunt El.
My most recent book of short stories, THE GODS OF ANGKOR WAT is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon HERE.