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Remembering Cam Cunningham

Posted by admin on May 10, 2013 in Musings, Remembrances |

This is the season of remembrance and I suppose as we get older we can expect our opportunities to mourn and grieve to line up and bang at our metaphorical portals. This one is a bit tardy, but nevertheless, I choose to now write my remembrances.

Last summer Betty and I were traveling in the east when our friend Cam Cunningham died. We were far from northern California when his memorial celebration occurred, and even though I was sad, and am sad, I missed it. But in some ways I am also relieved that I was in Nova Scotia. Something about good-byes, especially final good-byes, bothers me to the point that I tend to elude them. Maybe what I do is elide. Elide in the sense that I slide around them, keep them at arms length if they must happen.

In some ways Cam and I were very different. I was one of the two or three resident rednecks of Sebastopol, California, and more than once he described himself to me as an Anarcho-Marxist. In terms of war, economy, history, we saw things very differently.

But we also had many things in common…more in common than we had in opposition. I first met Cam in a poetry class. I think it was the fall of 1995. He came into the classroom, a tall, long-haired man with a booming voice and a Texas drawl. He announced he planned to become a poet. Over the course of five weeks we found out, besides our differences, we shared some parallel experiences. When he was young, he’d hunted dove and quail, like I used to do. He was from the southwest and had lived and lawyered on the Navajo Reservation. I had not lived there, but I’d spent a chunk of the summer of 1963 on the res. We’d both been caught up in the craziness of the 1960s. We’d both been victims of ourselves…substance abuse and other personal disturbances. We both liked blues music. We both liked poetry. We talked football and baseball. We talked about the oil field and cowboys and….

Over the course of the next five years, I bumped into Cam a number of times, at street fairs and art shows…besides a poet, he was a painter.

In 2001, Cam became a student of mine. We worked on poetry together. He wrote and wrote, putting out copious amounts of poetry, musical things with snare drum rhythms and a voice often trapped between Baptist fundamentalism and Delta blues. His poems roughed you up at the same time as giving you a glimpse of the spiritual; a native mask, a prickly pear cactus, a bottle of Mescal, a stumble down a south Texas street, a native god sitting on a fence post both smiling and frowning at you. As my wife Betty says, “Cam was the closest thing to Magical Realism that I know.” When Cam wrote, your shoe soles were firmly on the ground while simultaneously bouncing along atop a Navajo country thunderhead. He also composed pieces that investigated how one segment of humanity tromps on another. He was blantantly political and irreverent while still remaining spiritual. Sometimes he would actually sing his poems and his voice would soar over the audience and lift the rafters. Cam could warble…he had a powerful baritone voice that was as familiar with scat as it was with old time rock and roll…way-back stuff, like Carl Perkins songs, and Elvis, and Johnny Cash. I really liked when he mixed spiritual-style music with the lyrics he composed. Made for some sweet hearing on my part. It wasn’t unusual to have him break out in song in any location, in the park, in a coffee shop, in class; something I had heard when my older sister played her little radio, like Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Tiny Bradshaw.

By 2005 I’d moved on to Idaho and he and I had become pretty good buddies. He’d been to see me. I’d gone to see him; had lunch with him fairly often at K & L Bistro where we both enjoyed juicy cheeseburgers of the highest quality. Then…Cam got sick. And even though I thought of him everyday, I stayed away. We got fairly regular reports about his progress…it didn’t sound good.

Finally, Betty and I went to visit Cam at his home up on the ridge where you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Wind blew in the gum trees along the road. Cats sat on the deck and lounged around like nothing could be wrong. Cam sat trapped in a wheelchair and his appearance frightened me. Not for who he was, I think, but for a vision into what I will become one day. Sick and leaving this existence. He reminded me of a cadaver, a really old man, except for his eyes and the way he sat in that wheelchair, ramrod straight. Cam’s face had always been so alive and animated that I had never noticed the power in his eyes. Even in a weakened condition, those eyes reminded me of chunks of burning mesquite in a campfire. Orange and blue flame sizzling, and his mind too. Not much gone wrong on that end at all.

Of course we talked about a lot of things, one of them being the future and us…and when I left, I wondered if I’d see him again.

I didn’t, because he died not long after.

But I’m still thinking about him every day.

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