Spuds

Sweat dripped into my eyes and sizzled. It slipped off the end of my nose, onto my lip, and down my neck.

My back felt like dagger slashes marred the flesh at the base of my spine and I wondered how all those folks working close to me in the other rows moved so quickly, steadily, while I had to stop and stand tall and stretch my back and drink water.

It was June, hot, and I was 17.

As I gazed across the field, the people, all bent over, reminded me of beetles. Their potato sacks fastened to a wooden stick with hooks that attached to the torso with a thick leather belt.

Besides my compadres, the brothers Tim and Brian, and the ragamuffin punk, Jacky, there were kids working among us with whom I’d attended school—elementary, junior high, high school. But as I spoke to Pete and Enrique, two guys I’d known since I was six, they turned away like they were more interested in the jagged incisors of Picacho Peak.

When I called to them again, like I would have when jiving into English class or out on the playground, they ignored me.

Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

That happened the first morning, and this all comes back to me now because I have been thinking about agriculture. It’s the season of crops maturing here in Idaho and the fields are all around. Besides, the COVID-19 episode seems to have brought into sharper focus where we get our food.

Back in 1964, morning number one of my spud-picking adventure commenced with high hopes that I’d make some money to buy and do the things that my parents told me I didn’t need. New shirts, some albums—Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones—and maybe even my own car like my neighbor had, a 1950 Ford with the bullet point emblem on the grill.

We assembled at the Greyhound Bus station at two in the morning and jumped into the back of a bobtail truck with sideboards. A lot of folks I didn’t know joined us. Mostly Hispanic -Americans, a few Native Americans and African-Americans.

Out at the spud fields the permanent crew handed out gear and we were ordered, “Get to work.” The drone of the machine that turned up the potatoes growled across the fields, people lined up abreast over individual rows of spuds, and the picking began. We stuck our hands in the dirt and threw the potatoes in the sack, which hung between our legs, and when the sack was full, we put it next to where we worked and moved on, picking, picking, picking, and the jefe came along and marked our sacks so we could get credit for them.

Being in some ways damned competitive, I looked left and right, not at my mates, but at the folks I deemed knew what they were doing. They worked fast, their hands and arms like tools on a robot that picked and sacked the potatoes at a quick and steady rate.

I had to keep up, but soon understood I could not keep up while they chugged along briskly, chatting in multiple languages. When they laughed it amazed me because I could barely keep breath in my lungs.

As the day progressed, my compadres and I fell further behind and when we got to the end of the day, noontime, I received a total of five dollars and some cents. That wouldn’t buy new, cool surfer shirts, or a bunch of Beatles albums, but at least some Cokes and a burger at the drive-in joint we festered around at night.

When we loaded onto the truck for home, I looked around for Paul and Enrique and the others I thought I knew well, but there was no sign of them. On the ride back to town, I dozed in the heat, sitting in the truck against the sideboards, sweat dripping down my back

.
At home, I showered and ate and soon hit the bed.

Day two was much the same. Not much cash in my hands.

On day three I rose early again, the swamp cooler outside our house blowing damp air into my room. When I arrived at Tim and Brian’s, I followed them down the ladder into the basement where we found a cabinet full of liquor. We poured Johnny Walker Black Label and Smirnoff Vodka and some red table wine into each thermos.

Upstairs, we added sweet tea and topped off the mix with ice and water.

At the bus station, we boarded the bobtail and watched the stars wane as desert heat began to nag. I unscrewed the top of my thermos and took a long swallow. I shivered all the way to the bottom of my spine, as if it were freezing outside instead of a surly Sonoran Desert morning.

At first, I burst out of the chute like all the other workers and I thought, I’m getting as good as the old guys. I saw Paul three rows over and I vowed that since he ignored me, I’d keep up with him.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

As I threw spud after spud into the bag that hung between my legs, my mouth grew dry and tasted like the worst thing I’d ever swallowed.


As I constantly sipped at the concoction in my thermos and wiped the sweat out of my eyes and stood up to ease the knife-stab jolts in my lower back, I noticed that I’d fallen way behind and so had Tim and Brian and snotty Jacky, too.

Even before the jefe called for an end to the day, we’d stopped and received our meager earnings.

In the company store on the farm, we bought Twinkies and Cokes and peanuts to put in our Cokes and walked out on the porch and then around the corner where we noticed a long line of cottonwoods that drew us down to the banks of what remained of the Santa Cruz River.

One of us, probably Tim, because he was kind of a leader, said, “Hey, my thermos is dry.”

We pooled what little cash was left and Jacky wandered up to the store and found an adult to buy us some beer.

We sat along the creek and drank Coors and got stupider waiting for the truck for home. Insulated from the others, we acted our ages, giggling and throwing rocks into the slim trickle of water that once was the pride of Southern Arizona.

We hunted frogs, making sharp sticks for gigging but all we found were big, warty toads that, according to Tim, were loaded with poison.

Finally the truck came and the horn honked, and before climbing in we managed to finagle another quart of beer each, which we harbored in brown paper sacks choked around the cold, sweating bottles.

As I loaded up, I again looked for Enrique and my other pals from school. But they were nowhere around.

On the road home, we took big sips and clowned around and folks back there, sitting with us on the hard deck, laughed and rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

Once, we hit a bump just as I took a big swallow. The beer didn’t go anywhere but out my mouth in an explosion that flew into the middle of the truck bed and down my shirt. I choked and coughed and the others really laughed. I felt kind of stupid, my head like a spinning merry-go-round.

Later that year, when I went back to school, all those kids I knew who chose not to recognize me in the potato fields acted like always, laughing and talking with me, clowning around.

For over five decades I have pondered what happened out there. Beyond getting stupid drunk and making an ass out of myself, and finding out that I was soft, and even though I would learn to do things that now amaze me—walk up steep hills with forty or fifty pounds of gear while smoking a Camel, unfiltered, of course, and the things that followed, the death and the fear—is the memory of those fellows not acknowledging me as…as what? An equal?

Back in 1964 I don’t think we were viewed, in my town, in my time, as being equal. There was a lot of talk about rights and equality, but no, we weren’t equal. And those kids who shunned me out in the spuds knew it, and when we showed up at the spud field, maybe they thought we were trying to take what was theirs, their world, their privacy. They weren’t going to get to go to college, and they were going to spend their lives probably working menial jobs, and we—us Anglos—weren’t keen to share what we thought was ours, either. Or maybe they were just tired of us after a year of all of us acting out “She Loves You” and “Alley Oop” while wearing our expensive surfer shirts. They showed up to school, in many cases, because the law said they had to. Or maybe it was something else altogether, like they secretly hated us, or something that I don’t know even now, and never will.

But they could work my butt into the ground, and they knew it.

Beech and Burgess

I spit, gagged, kicked, twisted, torqued, snarled and finally squealed, “I won’t.”

But that wasn’t enough. Grammy jammed the bar of Ivory soap beyond my teeth. I clamped my jaws like a vise and then Mom’s fingertips dug into my mouth and she pried and I bit and she screamed, “Damnit,” then dug harder and my jaws weakened, gave and the bar of soap lodged against my tongue.

My mouth drowned in the bitter bubbles and to this day the taste of soap turns my stomach and I have to fight to keep from vomiting.

But giving in wasn’t enough. They dangled me over the kitchen sink and “washed my mouth out” several times as Grammy scolded, “I’m going to cure those vulgarities and teach you your medicine.”

I promised, I promised and I promised to never, ever, say that word again.

Photo courtesy of Ken Rodgers

Recently, while washing my hands for the n’teenth time in a single day, the sudden scent of hand soap yanked that memory into my brain.
I think I was five, and we lived south of the railroad tracks on Beech Street, a potholed dirt road lined with older adobes, some newer homes and here and there, a puny cottonwood tree.

Down on the corner where Beech met Burgess sat a vacant lot with scrawny mesquites and holes and pits us children dug for forts and other things, like finding China.

A gang of local kids had gathered with their dogs—black and white Australian shepherds and brindle faced pit bulls, a German shepherd, some mongrels.

Some of the older boys began to stir the dogs with sticks and rocks and a cur fight ensued: growling, ferocious barks, the pit bull dragging the German shepherd around by a back leg.

A lot of swear words got tossed around. Some I’d heard Dad speak out in the backyard, like when he yelled, “Goddamn it,” when the mean red ants climbed up his legs and stung him, or the time he told Mom, “This is a bunch of shit,” when they decided to kill and pluck the coops full of fryers that Mom wanted to raise. He was a great one for “Jesus H. Christ,” and “Damn it all to hell,” around the house but if he ventured any further into vulgarity, Mom stomped her foot and shouted, “Dale!”

Most of the words those boys down on the corner tossed around like baseballs were well worn, but there was a new one and for some reason it sang to me. Nothing, at that moment, particularly remarkable about it—except I liked it–a word that years later I would come to understand was about as basic, and useful, an example of Anglo-Saxon-influenced modern English as one could get.

It was the “f” word and I elbowed right into the middle of the older boys and we were ”f-ing” this and “f-ing” them and “f-ing” that.

My sister, almost five years my senior, sauntered down the street to get me because lunch was on the table and the first words out of my mug were “fuck you,” and thus I ended with my offensive mug in the kitchen sink and my mouth full of Ivory soap and my butt busted, too. I remember Mother announcing, for the first of many times throughout my life, “Only ignorant people talk like that.”

And you’d think I’d have learned and maybe I did for a short time but later that year, the first of September, my Uncle Les came down from the Valley with his side-hammered twelve-gauge shotgun that was longer than he was tall, and he and my father collected shotgun shells, bird vests, water and Coors.

They asked me if I wanted to “bird dog.”

That had never happened before so I, raring to go dog those birds, jumped between them in the 1950 red pickup with the green and red and black and white Texaco logo on both doors. We rode south of town and pulled into a mesquite thicket next to an irrigation sump and a field of maize. They ordered me to settle beneath a tree about twenty yards away from where they hid so the doves wouldn’t see them.

The sun boiled and my sweat ran and they sipped on cold beers and father smoked a Lucky Strike and Uncle Les puffed on his pipe and I leaned to listen and a lot of the words that came across the empty space to me were words not to be said in our household, most prominently that “f” word.

When their utterances hit my ears it shocked me and then it dismayed me and I worried about Uncle Les and Father’s souls because Grammy told me about hell and the rewards I’d get there if I didn’t change. I feared Uncle Les and Father were too old to change.

Ken Rodgers Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

Then the doves started flying and Uncle Les and Dad started banging and I started running, hustling the dead birds, yanking their heads off to make sure they didn’t come to and run or fly. The “f” words flew more often than the blasts from the guns. As the words battered my eardrums I let the rhythm of the music—and there was a curious tune in that word, smooth “u” and hard “k”—add a visceral lyricism to my vocabulary that might come in handy when I needed to accomplish something special, a warning, a dose of derision, a moment of shared inside humor.

I also learned something else, or at least had it emphasized: the rules were only for certain folks and places and situations. No matter what somebody said about “don’t do this and don’t do that,” there was a time and place for almost anything, either good or bad, including the “f” word.

Over the years it’s been more acceptable for folks to employ the word and not just men out hunting doves on the first day of September. But women and politicians, too. And the expletive’s frequency litters millions of conversations and sometimes it seems, too liberally.

But as I learned from the Marine Corps drill instructors in Boot Camp, the word can be used in almost any situation, whether the goal is to amuse, frighten, motivate, marvel at or intimidate.

I have a notion that the word, eight or nine hundred years ago in England, wasn’t relegated to the class of folks who my mother called “ignorant.” It was, I suspect, just another Anglo-Saxon word that described something people, cattle, dogs and toads performed to meet their obligations.

But in the 11th Century, folks who spoke Anglo-Saxon went from a sovereign nation to a downtrodden, defeated class. The Norman French invaded in 1066, defeating Harold Godwinson’s English army, and made their French dialect the official language. Subsequently, a lot of those old Anglo-Saxon words were thrown in the metaphorical trash bin labeled “vulgar,” spoken only by the defeated.

I recall some twenty or so years ago attending a lecture for writers where our guest speaker, the author Gerald Haslam, answered a question about language and how it was changing, with the notion that languages are alive and as such, they grow and add words.

He reminded us that a large portion of the world speaks Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian—all languages that grew out of Latin. He said, “If languages didn’t grow and change, all those people would still be speaking like Julius Caesar.”

So, maybe what’s happening with the “f” word is that as time goes on and our language continues to morph, the word will worm its way into a lingo much more acceptable among all classes of English speakers even the folks for whom rules don’t matter.

As for me, I’ve used it widely for more than those moments where I kneel beneath mesquite trees waiting for the dove

More on the Power of Names, With Mr. Bill Jayne

One of the things that amazes me about writing is how often something one writes generates a round of thought and dialogue.

Yesterday I put up a blog about a friend of Betty’s and mine, Gail Larrick, and how she asked us to speak her name when we went to visit one of her old domiciles.

The response I received to that blog was impressive and wide ranging and contained a lot of thought provoking messages.

One of those messages, which I found profoundly moving, came from one of my Marine Corps comrades who served with Bravo Company, 1/26, at the Siege of Khe Sanh. I didn’t know Bill then, or maybe I did by sight, but he endured the same horrors I did, and maybe more. As the saying goes, “He rode the elephant and looked the tiger in the eye.”

Bill Jayne, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

After his service in the USMC, Bill went on to a distinguished career with the Department of Veterans Affairs where he spent many years honoring veterans. When I first read Bill’s note to me, it moved me to tears and that is something that I don’t often do and when I do, I hate to admit it.

Semper Fidelis, Bill Jayne.

Here is what Bill wrote:

I didn’t comment on your Facebook post because it didn’t seem germane, but I want to share a story about the power of names.

Somewhere around 1979 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was just getting off the ground, I was at something like a board meeting (I don’t think we had an actual board at that time except for the three guys who had incorporated the VVMF). We were talking about the design elements the memorial should contain, basically within the context of putting together a communications and fundraising strategy.

One of our leaders was a brilliant (and troubled) West Pointer who had spearheaded the drive to build a Vietnam memorial at the academy and he was adamant that the memorial needed to include the names of all those who died. No one in the room immediately agreed with him. We said things like, “There are too many of them! It will look like a phone book.”

He insisted and talked us into an exercise to illustrate his conviction that the names were essential. He asked us to go around the room and one by one, say the name of someone we knew who died in Vietnam. There were only about 15 of us, or less, but by half way around the tide had shifted. The power of the names to invoke the enormity of the loss was floating in the air like green smoke from a grenade. I spoke the name of Joe Battle, a Marine from my fire team killed on 25 February and was immediately committed to a memorial that offered up the name of each who had died.

Bill Jayne in boot camp at Parris Island, SC.

Any of us who have been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, can attest to the power of 58000 plus names etched in black stone to generate grief and remembrance and redemption. Names. Not grandiose statuary or columns in the classical mode. Just names.

Bill’s bio:

Bill Jayne enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years in September 1966. Originally from the Hudson Valley of New York state he went to boot camp at Parris Island and joined 1/26 on Hill 55 in early 1967. He was a rifleman, 0311, but found himself in H&S Company and then Bravo Company as a clerk. An insubordinate streak landed him in 1st Platoon of Bravo Company in October 1967. Patrol, patrol, patrol; Hill 950, Hill 881S, etc. After college he ended up in Washington, DC, working for a small magazine and then a big lobbying organization involved with heavy construction. A chance phone call in 1979 led to the opportunity to serve as an early volunteer on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and then a career in the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He ran the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) State Cemetery Grants Program and later the Federal cemetery construction program. In his 20+ years with the NCA he had a role in the establishment of about 50 new cemeteries for veterans and their families, every one of them a “national shrine” to the memory of those who served in the military. He is now retired in Wilmington, NC.

Speak My Name

We stood in the middle of the street in Teasdale, Utah and said, “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” and Betty filmed it and later Gail wrote me in an email, “That corner is where I used to live,” even though there was nothing on that corner.

Betty and I were in the early days of a long journey back east that went through Utah and Colorado and Texas and Arkansas and Memphis and Chattanooga and Washington DC. From there we went to Boston and since Betty had never been to Nova Scotia, we went via Maine to Halifax and north to Cape Breton.

From there we drove to Quebec City. Then on to Thunder Bay over one of the northern-most paved roads in Ontario, and then to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies before hitting the front door of our digs in Boise.

As we traveled south on the first leg of our trek, we posted copious photos on Instagram and Facebook and we shared our travel via texts and e-mails and many of our friends traveled with us, vicariously, of course, and one of them was our good pal, Gail.

We told everyone we would begin our journey by stopping in Torrey, Utah, and spending a few days at Capitol Reef National Park.
When Gail saw where we were headed, she sent an e-mail telling me to go to Teasdale and to please speak her name in that town.

Ken Rodgers Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

On our third day, we’d had enough of the park, so we headed to Teasdale, a small, insular place peopled mostly by Mormon folk, or that’s what Gail had told us. And there we spoke her name. When I said “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” Betty took a video of me and the surrounding location.

It was quiet and no cars or trucks buzzed and pushed and passed; no middle fingers flipped at us even though we weren’t from there.

When we stood in the street and spoke her name, I felt exposed and kind of stupid and it was one of those moments when you think everybody’s looking at you and smirking and giggling with their hands over their mouths.

But when I stopped speaking her name and turned in a three hundred sixty-degree circle, I didn’t see anyone except Betty.

But I still felt dumb, like what I had done was…was…fake? Or false? Or….

The Apaches have, or had, a tradition of “speaking with names” that, as far as I know, relied on the use of a place in the landscape to explain things they wanted their people to understand. By saying the name of a place where something significant had happened, issues of a social nature or some other kind of quandary could be recognized, acknowledged, and possibly understood. In that context, I think saying the name carried a spiritual power.

So maybe the fact that we spoke Gail Larrick’s name standing in the middle of the Street in Teasdale, Utah, toted some kind of spiritual weight.

Speaking names might also help us recognize our place in a family, a community, a connection, and maybe Gail watching a video of me saying her name somehow tied her into her past, her friends in Teasdale.

Some spiritual folks believe that there are things that own power that don’t necessarily jibe with science, and that the speaking of a name, whether a place or a given name like Gail Larrick, or maybe a flower like a Sego Lily, or a mountain like Mt. Shasta, may have power or may convey power.

Me not being particularly spiritual, I might scoff at the notion that a word or two has power. But then again, I write, which is a verbal form of art, of communication that carries a lot of gravitas: speaking and understanding language being perhaps the most powerful and unusual quality we humans possess.

Gail passed away a few years ago and I am glad we spoke her name in Teasdale, Utah. I think she got a big kick out of us standing out there, saying “Gail Larrick” again and again and again.

Gail was an extremely intelligent woman who had a background in editing, photography and writing. She’d lived in the wilds of Utah and in the wilds of San Francisco and when we knew her, as a writer, she lived in Sonoma County, California.

Once she shared a powerful essay with me. It was about her time in Teasdale and how she and her fellow female roommates lived there among the Mormon folk. Evidently Gail and her roommates got along famously with the local women.

I don’t know about the men, she didn’t say too much about them, but she suspected, with all the truth that swelled in her heart, that it was men who burned her and her friends out.

I met Gail sometime around 2006. I was teaching online writing classes and she signed up for several sessions. Later, but not much later, Betty and I traveled to Sonoma County, and one night we had a get-together where I grilled carne asada for friends and acquaintances.
Early in the evening, one of my compadres came into the house where we were meeting and said, “There’s a lady outside who’s looking for you. She said you saved her life.”

I remember feeling mildly shocked by that notion. When I think back on my life, I can’t really identify any specific moment where I saved anyone’s life except for an event at the siege of Khe Sanh where I dashed after a squad of Marines who were mistakenly veering into a barrage of friendly incoming that would soon make those men friendly WIAs and KIAs.

I am not sure what I did to save Gail’s life—she never told me and I never asked, but as the years moved on, we grew close in a friendship unlike any other I’ve had.

When she passed, it shocked me, and it felt like there was too much about life that we still needed to investigate together.

Maybe now, almost eight years gone, the name we spoke there at the intersection, “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” remains floating in the ether, draped over the tops of the trees and along the eaves of the old homes in Teasdale. Haunting, like a spirit, or a ghost, and not a nasty one because Gail was a woman of sublime attitude. And when the wind gets up, or a zephyr sneaks around the corner of a house, they also speak the name we left there.

And what would be even better is if she—wherever and if she still exists as a persona—hears that name on the wind still speaking to Teasdale and maybe to me, here and now. I think she’d like that and maybe that’s why, at the oddest times of day or night, when I am kvetching or griping or just hanging out, I think of her and smile.

The Prof

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.

Ken Rodgers Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

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

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.

Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. Photo courtesy of Reuters

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.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

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.

Rage

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.

 

Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, courtesy of the Estate of Dan Horton

 

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.

Memories

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.

Maybe It Still Is

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.

“Killing gooks.”

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.

But I Won’t

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.