Meat Bees

Yesterday evening Betty and I ate out on the back patio. Much of the year in Boise is too chilled or sizzly for us to enjoy dining on our bar-b-qued portabellas and pork roast out there, but yesterday’s mild weather allowed the white butterflies to flit from arctic willow to carpet rose. Dragonflies jetted back and forth, preying on the small things that live in the lawn. Vs of Canadian geese honked past on their way from corn stubble to the river. We chatted as mourning dove cooed from the eaves of our neighbor’s patio. But then a yellow jacket showed, buzzing its angry little patrol around our plates, our forks, our faces, with its hostile yellow cast an alarm for all to know that it arrives to seize what’s rightfully its and then steal the rest. When I lived in New Mexico the old timers called them meat bees. Meat bees, cheat bees, nuisance bees.

Betty has sour experiences with these critters. They sting her and then infections erupt from the wounds where they attacked. The doctors told her yellow jackets love to feed on all kinds of things, both good and nasty, so that when they sting, they inject a lot of infectious demons besides the jolt of poison.

I recall a year in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains when meat bees swarmed out of every old stump, piece of rotten Ponderosa, or hole in the ground. Standing outside on the boardwalk outside of the Western Bar they’d check out the red burn on the end of your Winston. They’d snitch the deer meat off the end of your fork. They’d sample the milk, the cream, the cotton candy. As long as there was only one buzzing around, I could act like I wasn’t going to panic, but get two or three showing curiosity and my heart rate would amp up to one-hundred plus. I don’t know why I’m so damned scared of some little buzz-nut like that, but something about them sets off all my internal alarms.

That year I was involved in tearing up a bunch of high-mountain country to make a subdivision. It was fall.  Wofford was cutting roads through the fractured limestone. Alarcon and his wood crew cut right-of-way through the spruce and fir and pine. One Saturday I sat in my Ford Bronco II and watched Wofford maneuver his yellow D-6 crawler, pushing huge chunks of chalk and mud, yellow boulders around and down the banks as he cut the road out of Young Canyon up towards Rawlins Ridge.

I had gone out there to see if I could find the buttery blossoms of Hooker’s Evening Primrose, but cold Coors doesn’t seem to mix too well with identifying flowers. And I had Coors. I’d killed a couple before going out to the diggings, and now I sat watching Wofford and sipped more cold ones. I liked to hold the cans in the sun so the light reflected off the yellow and gold of the paint and then reflected off the glass of my rolled-up windows and back into my eyes, blinding me momentarily.

From time to time I opened a dog-eared copy of William Manchester’s massive tome titled the Arms of Krupp in which the author chronicles the family’s (and arms manufacturer’s) rise as the world’s greatest producer of weaponry from the 1600s through World War II. As I read it, I marveled at the warp and woof of the arms trade in this world. I had to laugh, too, as I sipped my cold beer, at how Krupp now makes appliances. At home I was grinding my coffee beans with a tool made by the most infamous arms dealer the world had known. Hmm—cannon cockers to coffee grinders. It’s all about technology and how we so easily convert the benefits of scientific and engineering expertise into tools both benign and deadly.

Once I looked up and watched Wofford as he roared and huffed his D-6 close to my Bronco. He waived at me and that’s when I noticed a swarm of yellow jackets gathered around the front of his Cat. I wasn’t sure why they buzzed and hovered around the bonnet over the engine. The cab was open and they didn’t seem to bother Wofford, just craved the front end of his Cat. Alarcon drove up. In some kind of serendipitous moment he wore a yellow hat that read CAT on the front. I supposed he needed to ask Wofford something about the right-of-way up the mountain. As soon as Alarcon got out of his blue truck the yellow jackets attacked his head. Had he just stood there they might have left him be, but as I sucked a long swig off my cold Coors, I couldn’t help but sympathize with him as he began to punch and swat, then run as they balled up like a yellow spirit out of Hell and began to swarm after him. I don’t know if while reading about death, about dive bombers and ballistics, I’d missed some of the earlier action, but it seemed that every yellow Jacket in Otero County had congregated on the road project and was suddenly after Alarcon. He ran, dodged, stopped, spun around, threw his arms up over his face, then ran again, stumbled, crashed to the ground, crawled under a young Douglas fir tree where an errant branch knocked off his yellow CAT hat. As he managed to get up on both feet and sprint across a grassy spot on the side of a steep hill, the yellow jackets stayed behind with that yellow CAT hat. Who knew that they loved yellow? But as I looked around, everything was yellow. The late afternoon sun caught in the tops of the aspen that were turning . . . yes, yellow . . . and the tops of the windmill grass and the sleepy grass and the imported Kentucky blue grasses planted by the early settlers a hundred years before.

It took me several weeks to read The Arms of Krupp and all the way through I marveled at our ability (I mean us humans) to institutionalize our violence, our hostility. We own it in so many ways. Man on man, man on child, man on wife, man on dog or horse, or sheep or cockatoo. Oh, and lest I be maligned as overly chauvinist, women beat men, too. We do it in groups. Hell, even yellow jackets are hostile. They don’t build cannons, but get them riled and they might sting you to death.

Later that year, my business partner, Robert Moser, went to Alaska and killed a moose and a caribou and brought some meat back and stuck it in his freezer. The next fall I volunteered to cook that meat and made a big chili stew. I thawed the back straps and diced them, then sautéed the meat in garlic and red pepper and a little salt.  The scent of cooking meat grew heady and I decided to open the windows. I slid them open so that only the screens protected me from all the hostility outside. As I cooked, I drank a Coors, then another, and listened to the Marshall Tucker Band sing “Can’t You See” over and over and over again. But something was amiss. A low hum interfered with the music. I walked over to the stereo and looked at it. Seemed okay, and the speakers too. I fiddled with the controls, swore a time or two and then kicked the woofer. No change. I scratched my head and looked around and noticed something on the screen on the back door. All light from outside was blocked from coming in. I walked closer and noticed the kitchen window was the same. A quick assessment of the rest of the house told me some sinister force was blocking the last light of early autumn from getting into my life. I wanted to walk closer, but shivered. I took one step, then another as the hum grew louder. And then I saw  them. Meat bees. They smelled me cooking moose meat and they wanted what I had. My heart began to pound and I had to sit on the green and russet couch in the front room. Yellow jackets, thousands and thousands, hell maybe millions, were on my screens trying to get in. I wondered if they could eat the steel in the wire mesh in the screens. I turned the simmering meat off and bit my fingernails and suddenly thought of Krupp, his guns, and I understood why we do these things. Starts out with fear, moves to protection of the self, then the clan. We get good at it. The yellow jackets are good at it and they are supposed to have no brains at all. But there they were, and if I’d had a huge can of RAID, I’d have murdered them all. What about my pistola? I could hull away at them from inside the house, but then I’d blow a hole in the screen and then one would get in and another and…

Amo, Amas, Amat

Wednesday morning I stood on the boardwalk in Nevada City, Montana. In shadows cast by the old ghost town’s buildings, my feet slipped on a thin sheet of ice and I caught my breath. A cool breeze blew out of the west and captured moisture rising off the roofs of well-preserved stores and shops that once roared and hummed in the town’s old 1860s days when it was famous for placer gold diggings and vigilantes lynching claim jumpers.

This is not the first time I stood in Nevada City. I arrived in late July of 1962 visiting with two busloads of high school kids from Arizona. We were conventioning at Montana State University in nearby Bozeman and had ventured for a day to Nevada City and its neighbor, Virginia City. Back then the place was what in the Marine Corps we would call a geedunck—greasy hot dogs smothered with mustard and chopped onions, strawberry phosphates, chocolate malts, cheap wallets with wild buckaroos stamped into fake leather, tourist trap crap.

We were in Montana with the Junior Classical League, studiers of Latin. Some of you might chuckle at the thought of me studying Latin, and you would be right about your intuition. The Latin teacher at our high school, Mrs. Johnson, didn’t care for me as a student. I continuously chewed gum in direct disobedience to her demands that we not chew gum. But that was only one of many torments I inflicted on her, and here she was stuck with me for four weeks of her summer as we traveled from Phoenix to Bryce Canyon to Salt Lake to Yellowstone to Bozeman to Missoula to Seattle for the World’s Fair, to Crater Lake, to Reno, to Las Vegas and back to Phoenix.

While in Bozeman we competed in translation contests, and mythology tests, argued about the history of Rome. I don’t recall doing well or not well in those things. I do recall chasing a weasel, treeing some red squirrels, eating hamburgers in the college rec area where we shot Snooker instead of attending lectures on Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul.

I was a mediocre student that year in all my studies. I was underweight, fighting pimples, my voice caroming high low high without warning. I hated my parents, my sister, and most of my friends. I was too small to be an athlete, and girls giggled at me (or so I imagined) when I tried to talk to them.

In Latin class we conjugated a lot of verbs, such as eō, which means “go.”

eō                           I go
īs                             You go
it                              He, she, it goes
ī́mus                     We go
ī́tis                         You go (the plural you)
eunt                        They go

I can see in those Latin words some roots of our own lingo:  Itinerary, itinerant…itinerant, journeyor, that’s what I have become, or maybe that’s what I always was. On our just-completed journey to Washington, DC, and back, sensory input bored through my eyes and ears and nose and got inside my brain and scrambled around and around like crazy cats chasing their long calico tails. I don’t know how long it will take for the profundity of it all to seep into my ken. I suppose that was one of the many reasons I wished to embark across the continent (besides making movies) . . .  the discovery of a lot of other mysteries and magnificences about our country, our people, about myself. And I am surprised by the affection I suddenly feel for my country, its landscapes, foibles, folks, critters.

Looking back, I want to list everything I saw and all the moments and sights that rattled my senses, but doing so would make this blog way too long. But I will say what surprised me the most. Brown County, Indiana, surprised me. Right now (and this might change) I think Brown County is the most beautiful place I saw on the entire trip. The hardwood groves and the old country roads. The ancient stonehead road marker carved in 1851 by a resident meeting his annual requirement to work six days on the local roads. The old log cabins, some as old as Honest Abe Lincoln, I suppose. The smell of wood smoke, the sound of roosters crowing, crows cawing, woodpeckers battering the bark of sugar maples, the taste of fried chicken and Maxine Bailey’s homemade noodles . . . all these things, mixed with the vernacular the Indianans speak, something we may have heard come directly out of Honest Abe’s mouth.

South Dakota surprised me, too, one of those states I tend to forget about when I think of this country. Sparsely populated, it moves from a lush, fertile east, to a flat, harsh center, to a hilly conifered west along with its fabled badlands. We saw it all. Sunsets so red you thought the gods were bleeding onto a table of black clouds. The Mount Rushmore faces of Honest Abe, and G Washington and T Jefferson and T Roosevelt, so life-like, enormous, peering out over the hills, visible for miles, as if looking into our dark and cloudy future. And I don’t want to forget—we saw bison, bison, bison, a vestige of our greater age.

Amo                       I love

Amas                     You love

Amat                      He, she, it loves

Amamus               We love

Amatis                  You love (the plural you)

Amant                   They love

This is the Latin conjugation I remember. Back in 1962 and all that Latin Club trip jazz, there was a girl from Phoenix, a girl who looked like a woman, a pretty woman, smart, a straight-A student, who tried to kiss me out behind one of the shops in Nevada City. She may have succeeded, but what I remember is that she tried and when she did, lizards scrabbled up the insides of my legs, their little claws itching my thigh bones, my shins.

Moving towards home three days ago, we drove through Yellowstone National Park. I experienced that scrabbly feeling again when I spotted the white shaggy bodies of mountain goats above the Lamar River Valley and even more so when a grizzly bolted across the highway in front of us. His whole frame shook like muscles in motion. I stopped and peered into the thickets of lodgepole pine that ganged up like sentries in the evening light. Like the girl back in 1962, that bear was long gone.

The day before that, at Little Bighorn Battlefield, Betty and I wandered around the national cemetery and photographed headstones from every American war since the 1870s. A man asked me where Custer was buried. I told him, “At the US Military Academy at West Point, NY.“ He glared at me like I was lying and I suddenly figured he wanted to know where Custer was killed. I started to point up towards “Last Stand Hill,” but he interrupted me. “What’s that bird?” he asked. A sage grouse stalked between white gravestones. Unafraid of all the visitors, it headed south to north as the late dusky sun threw long headstone shadows. Two men struggled along as if they were looking for the name of some long-dead relative. The breeze hummed a tuneful anthem through the pine trees.  Amo, amo. Something inside my spirit wanted out of my self-imprisonment, to sing, to dance. I could have stood there the rest of my life and exalted in…in what? What was to come the next day, the day after that? What is to come forever?

Right then, like all of us, I didn’t know what was to come, that I was going to stop in Nevada City, Montana, and remember Caesar, Amo, that girl who wanted to kiss me.


Greetings from Canning, South Dakota.

Last week, Betty and I went to Richmond, Virginia, to visit our friends Lee and Betty Plevney.  They showed us around the city and took us to some historical sites. We ventured along the James River and watched the water roll over the rocks. We bumped along the cobbles on Canal Street. Drove beneath the gigantic statue of a Confederate Army officer who stared down into the old city from one of Richmond’s many hills. One-hundred-plus-year-old tobacco warehouses lined the river banks. Smoke stacks, red brick Georgian homes, white colonial architecture with massive columns that hold the heads of houses and buildings up high, up proud. As if they never lost the Civil War. Did they lose? Really Lose. They don’t act like it. It was green and ninety-nine degrees when we finally climbed up the steps to the old St. John’s church where Patrick Henry delivered his fiery speech on March 23, 1775, when he supposedly said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

When we drove up to Old St. John’s I expected something grandiose and pompous, a reliquary worthy of those hallowed words, but what we found was a small church on a hot hill. It looked like it would need a paint job some summer real soon. The big trees were dusty and the church yard was crammed with old gravestones scattered hither and yon with names that meant nothing to me as I stared at them and tried to read the names of the deceased. The stones flaked off and parts of the names had turned to sand and dust. A lot of the stones from the seventeen-hundreds were scripted in letters with big, showy flourishes which would  have made reading them difficult even if they had not been damaged by wind, water and sun. I wondered how many of the bodies there died as a result of the war that Henry and others helped to incite with their heady calls to arms.

After a great visit with the Plevneys, we headed north back to Washington, DC, and passed Cold Harbor and Spotsylvania Courthouse, the old 1964 battlefield called The Wilderness which, the year before that, was called Chancellorsville; and we passed Fredericksburg, and then Manassas where two monumental conflicts were fought. We missed Malvern Hill, and New Market, Petersburg, Harper’s Ferry and Appomattox.

My great-grandfather, my great-great grandfather and his brother were most likely at Appomattox, defeated and disarmed when Phil Sheridan and U S Grant cornered Lee and finally forced a capitulation. My father told me my great-grandfather walked all the way home to Texas after Lee’s surrender. That’s probably 1500 hundred miles and would wear out a pair or two of good boots, if he had them.

In Richmond the Confederacy lives on: That big statue I mentioned earlier, and monuments to Stonewall Jackson and Jeff Davis and the Confederate flags that flap on the little staffs that fit on the backs of cars and trucks. That slap slap slap they make as Virginia-licensed vehicles sped past us acted as reminders that they have yet to give in. Do I like that? That they won’t give in? I’m not sure what I think about it. On the one hand I admire their tenacity and think it speaks to some of the things that make this country what it is and some of those things I even admire. But then again, I don’t like the buried tint of racism I think lurks there, beneath the patina of Confederate bravado. Do I believe that all the people who fly the Confederate flag or who say, “The South is going to rise again,” are racist? I don’t think so, but still, there is some malice there in spite of Lincoln’s words, “With Malice Towards None.”

Virginia is a land of elan: the Marines, the Navy, the Army, the Air Force. Those old battlefields, Washington and Jefferson’s homes, Madison and Monroe, Jamestown and Old Williamsburg, Hampton Roads and Norfolk. Virginia holds the heart of militarism in this country. We are a military bunch, like it or not. 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Mideast of today.

And that’s just the big ones. Betty and I visited, not once, but twice, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and got a sense of all the other little scrapes, shootouts, assaults and invasions we have been involved in. The numerous Indian Wars as we like to call them (Blackhawk, Comanche, Creek, Sioux, Nez Perce, Apache, to name just a few), the Barbary pirates, and incursions in Chile, Nicaragua, Mexico, Japan, the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine insurrection, Haiti (how many times?), and ditto the Dominican Republic. In our lifetimes, how about Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, and on and on?

We are a nation of warriors. My mother’s ancestors, descendents of pilgrims on the Mayflower, fought for both the rebels in the American Revolution and for the British, too. My father’s clan fought for the south. I had a second cousin gassed in the Argonne in 1918. My father and four of his brothers, and my mother’s younger brother fought in World War II, as did two of my cousins. I had two cousins serve in Korea, one dying by the hand of a Chinese soldier on the frozen road south out of Chosin Reservoir. I, and I don’t know how many other of my kin, fought in Vietnam. Now we are in the Mideast and I am sure some of my family is over there. A lot of families in the country have similar warrior pedigrees.

Do we learn? Does it matter? Does it matter that the seed of men who fought against each other in the revolution and the civil war now fight together against our common—is the correct word enemies? Or are we the enemy? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pacifist, nor am I a war monger. I fought in the big disaster meddled with by the politicians while we waited for permission to load our weapons as the VC came through the wire. I am ambivalent about war, feel it is what we do—dare I say it is what we do best?

Later, after we left Richmond, we went to Nashville, Indiana, to visit Michael O’Hara and Maxine Bailey. We journeyed down to the local cemetery and looked at old graves. There was a grave for a union soldier who fought In the Grand Army of the Republic. The graveyard was full of World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans. As we ambled between the stones, we noticed a lot of common names and one of the locals told us that everybody in that place was related. A spider web, a string of interlocked families tied by lives and graves. Graves etched as monuments to war.

Back home at O’Hara’s, we talked Vietnam War memories and talked about our wealth of scars. I looked at pictures of his children and thought of my children and how we inadvertently pass on the remnants of our combat experience—death, blood, fear, violence, hate, anger. We scar our children and grandchildren, often without malice towards them.

We pass it on. It goes on—and on.

But . . . . Earl?

Hurricane Earl cometh. A big blow marching up the east coast from the Bahamas north to Labrador. A circling brouhaha arising out of Africa and bound to shake things on Cape Hatteras, Nantucket, Long Island. And Kill Devil Hills, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Nag’s Head, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Manteo, Roanoke. And First Landing, Hampton Roads, Willis Wharf, Accomack, Assateague, Ocean City, Long Neck, Cape May, Wildwood.

I must confess a certain titillation (although not sexual) at the thought of being caught in a hurricane. This one will probably miss Washington, DC, but something in my subterranean thrills at the images of flying tree limbs, smashed bonnets of red Ferraris , basements full of brown water, swimming brown rats, water moccasins.

I wonder why I crave thrills like that. On a trip to Europe I sat in a Barcelona hotel and visited with my boss and good friend, Arnie Carston, about venturing to Pamplona to run with the bulls. I was fifty- three-years old that year and a long distance runner and imagined myself donning those white get-ups with the bright red sashes the run-with-bulls people wear as they clamber over the walls and into the cobbled streets; the wild surges of adrenaline like a big cat bounding, bounding out of the chest cavity leaping up over the red tiled roofs and  . . . but we were in Spain in June and the Festival of San Fermin occurs from July 7 through July 14 and even though the thought of starring on Spanish national television; hooked, gored, then tossed in a bloody mess against a stuccoed wall was heady, the timing was wrong.

And here, in Virginia, I suppose we could vacate before the hurricane blows in and blame my chance at near death on timing, too. But I will be here in Northern Virginia when Earl (I wish this one had been named Fiona or Gaston, something more exotic) manages to roar by out there in the Atlantic somewhere close, but not close enough to do much damage here. In Vietnam I lived through at least two typhoons, both of which drove us indoors and suspended the killing for a day or two. We stayed cooped up in jarhead-green wall tents and got drunk one night on 200-proof Everclear rice hooch, and the platoon commander whom we sorely despised led a raid on the officers’ mess and we stole big two-gallon pales of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream, and reveled in our crime and guilt and in not getting captured. In our drunkenness, we planned to murder the platoon commander, but we didn’t because we lacked the guts.

And the first year Betty and I owned our house in Sonoma County, a mid-December brawl barged onshore with ninety-mile-an-hour winds and eight inches of rain in twenty-four hours that flooded the garage, the yard and forced me into much hard digging to rebuild the French drains. The storm belied the benign non-violent reverence with which our little hippy town viewed itself. I secretly pined for something more visceral and vehement and with the storm, at least, I got it.

Once, in 1972, I stood outside in a patch of desert and watched the pending arrival of a July dust storm. I had watched many over the twenty-two years I had lived in Casa Grande, but this one was different. A dust cloud loomed miles high and as it swarmed out of the southeastern Sonoran, the mountains around town disappeared into the maw of darkness like tiny brown knolls. That was one Hades of a summer blow that battered Toltec, Eleven Mile Corner, Eloy, Blackwater, Sacaton, Santan, Casa Blanca, Stanfield, Peters’ Corner, Mobile. The sharp scent of wet greasewood mixed with the taste of dampened dust. When it smacked into us, it removed roofs, destroyed elm trees and Aleppo pines, shoved house trailers off their foundations and flooded the local Napa auto-parts store. The low spots in the streets caused my truck-motor to flood as I tried to barge across to the liquor store to buy a jug of Spanada. I recall standing out there as the threat of total darkness loomed just ahead. The pelt of little grains of flying desert threatened to peel my hide, so I retreated. The charcoal tint of the sky made my heart leap, then scuttle down inside my guts. The next morning I ventured out into the scattered  leaves and roofing and chunks of old-house siding out Thornton Road, and admired the telephone poles snapped off at the ground and tossed around like pick-up sticks as if a wild tornado had plowed through, throwing half a mile of barbed wire fence. Was a tornado buried in the fangs of that ferocity? According to the weather dudes, no way, but back then we believed everyone, except us young know-it-alls, was owned by the insurance companies who kept all their money in a big brown bag (thank you John Lennon) and didn’t want to pay any claims. Then I got more sophisticated about business and money, but now I wonder if my 1970s simplicity was so off base.

Once in New Mexico, Betty and I lay in our bed in James Canyon and listened to the frightening crash of thunder as it roared off the southern Great Plains into the Sacramento Mountains. Rain and hail berated our old metal roof and shattered my dreams of search and destroy missions. Water poured around the foundation and I thought I heard the sounds of distant combat as the storm barreled west. I crept out into the misty cold of early morning and listened to the breath of something deep and sinister. Bright flashes of light gathered on the bottoms of the storm’s remnants that clouded the yellow-pine-and-red-fir-topped ridges. The shimmering light flipped and punched, retreated, then attacked. I pulled on my Wellington boots and trod down the stairs and slipped in the black mud as I walked down the road and into an open space. Alas, instead of apocalyptic, the fire resulted from someone’s propane tank being stabbed by lighting and a fierce breath of flame leapt into the glowering dawn. I could hear the storm rolling off towards White Sands Missile Range as the volunteer fire trucks arrived and excited men began to yell. I thought about creeping closer, something about the mix of red and yellow flame, waning night, waning storm, waxing mist, the subtle flutter of elation hammering in my chest. But I didn’t. I listened to the men screaming as they tried to stop the momentary holocaust. Out in an adjacent meadow, three black-tailed doe browsed on the new growth of a Douglas fir. Four white-spotted fawns followed.

I wonder about this desire to test the limits of fear and disaster. One August night in Yosemite National Park, Betty and I and our daughter Sarah sat and watched a one-man monologue channeling John Muir’s words, something akin to this: In the furious moment of a winter storm, I leaped from the ledge above Yosemite Falls and trusting my faith, or fate, crashed into the top of a leaning hemlock tree and spent the night there, my arms wrapped around the top of the trunk, feeling the majesty of a hard blow, reveling in the wildness of the wind on my face. Right then I wanted that. I still do.

According to the latest hurricane forecast, tidal flooding is a threat all day. It will be hot, ninety degrees and with all the humidity caused by the approaching hurricane, Friday will be leaky and wan. The air quality will be orange…the sky and the threat level. Dangerous to breathe, if not for the short term, then for the long term. But I doubt the big blow will show much here. I could jump in the car and head east into the cold stare of danger, across the loud mouth of the Chesapeake and on to Assateague, but I have a blog to write, movie clips to edit, poems to read.

Carolina Wrens

Sunday morning Betty and I drove into Washington DC and visited The Wall. The weather dawned rainy and cool and most of the people around this center of world power still snuggled in their beds. Down at The Mall, the Potomac looked like a mirror that needed to be re-silvered. Big white and blue cabin cruisers cut wakes in the flat gray water.

Most of the people out were sweaty joggers, their hair matted with the humidity. The Washington Mall has a lot of wide, flat, sandy trails and lots of trees, and the view from Lincoln’s seat in his big white Acropolis-looking shrine on down to the obelisk-y Washington Monument can be quite stunning with the reflections of the morning cumulus mixed with cirrus clouds in the long pools. When we got there a faint sheet of virago draped the eastern sky, as if stranded above the Washington Monument’s apex.

As we approached The Wall on foot, bus loads of Asians showed up and people piled out and began to photograph everything in sight:  Lincoln, the Korean War Monument, the sky, the street.  And why not, Betty and I were downtown this morning to do some photography ourselves. We checked the books at the Vietnam War Memorial monument and found names of men I knew back in the 1960s. We shot some pictures of the names:  Aldrich, Claire, Jacques, McRae, Norman, Rivera, Ryan. The names I knew or served with came in groups on the panels—batched alphabetically by dates they died. Twenty-some-odd men on Jun 7, 1967, twenty-some-odd on February 25, 1968, twelve or so on March 6, 1968, twelve or so on March 30, 1968. There are about eighty names on that wall that I served with in Bravo Company and there are another twelve or so names of men I knew from my home town. And that doesn’t count the men I trained with before Nam who died there without my knowledge and I won’t go into the non-lethal casualties of both then and now that are not on the wall and so remain anonymous.

Betty and I first went to the wall on a sweltering July 2 night in 1993. There were busloads of us and a piper in a plaid kilt played bagpipes on the lawn just above the wall. My old comrades stood around and made speeches about loss and sacrifice. They pointed to the etched names and let tears drip from their tough old eyes. But not me, not me, not me.  None of that stuff bothered me.

Years later, in 1999 Betty and I went again. I stood down there by myself while Betty looked for a name in the books, and I was engulfed by the high walls of the monument. It’s like a canyon sometimes, remembering all those men, or boys as they were at the time. I remember on that particular visit I was looking for a Marine named John Armstrong, a black guy I went to high school with who was killed in March 1967, the week I got to Nam. Something about the May sunlight glancing off the smooth black surface burned my eyes and tears leaked out of the corners. I looked around to see who was watching me as I pulled my red kerchief out of my back pocket and wiped my eyes and cleaned my glasses, sighing in relief that no one I knew saw me at that moment, weak and exposed, remembering his big black frame smacking me into the turf of the football field the year I was a junior. I can’t really visualize him well in my mind after forty-six years, but something about the way he moved, the way he was built, reminds me of a razor blade, and his big smile, and how aloof he was to all us loud-mouthed white guys.

We went to The Wall in 2001, too, but I don’t recall much, except the reds, golds and oranges in the late October trees along the mall, the nip in the air, and the smell of wood smoke floating over the river from Arlington, Virginia. We went to the Iwo Jima Memorial that time, too, and stood up above the sculptures of that monument and looked through and over the power lines at all the monuments on the other side. Yes, monuments, monuments—a lot of monuments. Smoke still rose from the wound in The Pentagon caused by the September 11 attack. As I stood there looking at the replica of the photograph taken of the staged flag-raising on Iwo, I felt a great sense of fear and a great sense of sadness smothering us, our country. One of the things that bothers me now is that this sense of fear is still with us and I want to grab the lapels of my accumulated countrymen (metaphorically speaking) and scream out FDR’s words, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” but we are frightened and cower behind our PCs and Wii games, and fail to see the world as something that spins on whether we are frightened or not. The world, history, time, physics, nor the universe give a damn whether we are frightened or secure.

This Sunday’s visit quickly saw throngs of people troop past the panels we photographed. The sun got out and glared down and all the Asians left off photographing Abe Lincoln and started walking down the mall. They passed us by with a certain reserve, maybe a reverence or so I’d like to think, the lilting music of their voices toned down to almost whispers.  Although none of them stopped to look at any of those fifty-eight thousand names. I wondered what they thought as they walked past chatting in their languages that sounded so much like the ones spoken by the men we killed, and who in turn killed all those men on that black marble wall.

When I got back from our Sunday visit I swore I wouldn’t write about any of this, but here I am doing it. We returned to where we are staying via Arlington and Alexandria and Annandale and when we arrived I wrote down the names of all the men I know who died at Khe Sanh when we were besieged. I wrote down their ranks—Private First Class, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Lieutenant–and the panels where their names are memorialized and the row numbers so Betty and I can go back with cameras and tripods and movie camera and shoot all of them, all of them, all of them.

I swore to myself I wouldn’t write about this. I said it to myself as I sat there and wrote those names and their locations on The Wall on the lined yellow sheet on the yellow pad. I will not write about this. And outside, the Carolina wrens picabooed their music, and the cicadas scratched out their claims to the big-leafed trees in the back yard. Some newly spotted fawns fed on the ferns. Somewhere lightning shattered. It thundered and showered.


This last week we meandered down the west side of Lake Huron and spent four days in Ann Arbor before motoring on to Washington, DC. While in Ann Arbor, we took a look at the University of Michigan campus and ate some pizza down by the football stadium—the Big House, as the locals like to call it.

At night we went out and chased fireflies around as they rocketed out of the grass below the oak trees and blinked at us with a ferocious and ephemeral lucidity. We discovered them at dusk, when their flashy lights seemed surreal, as if they wore special LEDs or had little flashlight bulbs installed in their abdomens. I’m not going to Google them and get the scoop, but I suspect they are so luminous because of something to do with sex, and yes, ultimately, survival.

Betty and I were in Ann Arbor to interview a couple of my comrades from the Vietnam War experience. Both of them are quite likely to end up in our documentary film, Bravo! ( Both men are undergoing or just completed treatment regimens for cancer probably brought on, or exacerbated, by their exposure to Agent Orange.  All of us, them and me, survived seventy-plus days of pure Hades-created existence, and now later for some to be gobbled by an affliction (or at least partly so) resulting from our own side’s attempts to make our fight easier is situational irony. Talk about friendly fire—but of a very long-range, delayed fuse type.

After talking to these men, I lay in bed all night throwing the covers off, then pulling them back on as I battled my memories and how they had been boys with big wide smiles and now wore grins that spoke a gallows humor, and a wariness that they cannot escape.

And I wondered again, as I have for forty-two years, about the mystery of war . . . its unfairness, its finality, its destructiveness, its general propensity to be inconclusive. I make this last claim because I firmly believe that somewhere In the future we will, in one national form or other, again fight Germans, Japanese, Spaniards, Vietnamese, Mexicans, British, Filipinos, Russians, Chinese, each other.

There are many mysteries to life . . . birth, death, love, hate . . . and there are many avenues which to drive the M-1 Abrams tank of understanding. Physics, Zen, Jesus, Allah, Brahma, the guy who exists in the sap of trees and the guts of bed bugs. And I don’t know which one is right and I’m not sure I care. But the mystery of it, the mystery of why one man, in war, will exterminate large numbers of people with whom he has no personal quarrel.

My liberal friends might tell me that it’s all a stunt of the military-industrial complex and the right wing Republican hard core neo-cons. And my conservative friends might tell me it’s a result of trying to make sure that we, as Americans, are able to hold on to our traditions in the face of constant belligerence from those who hate us. And some might tell me that it’s the will of God that we carry the cross of the West and Christendom to its ultimate pinnacle. I have problems with all of these philosophical treatments because long before Christ and military-industrial complexes and all the other modern mechanisms for promoting factional and national hostilities, we were pretty damned handy at wielding a short sword, parrying spear thrusts as we slashed another man’s guts open.

This killing business is as old as we are. There have been proven instances where gangs of chimps planned ambushes of other gangs of chimps and killed them with crude weapons. And before you chasten me for comparing men and chimps, like it or not, chimps are close to us in terms of DNA, so we might learn (or at least recognize) something from their behavior. War is as old as the species, and beyond, Homo sapiens sapiens, and before that Cro-Magnon, and before that Neanderthal and before that . . .

I’m not making excuses for war, and I’m not a lover of combat. I fought in one. It is primitive, my friends. Primal in its roots. I don’t like being frightened so thoroughly that you never escape that rapid beating of the heart, that moment of instant alert when a car backfires or a jet roars overhead. I don’t like having to stand on the precipice of sanity and decide if I am safer to go insane, or just shuck my shoulders and endure. The shaking, the dry mouth—perpetual dry mouth, the agony of it all imprisoned in the marrow of your bones. Never to be released.

And as for philosophy, when men fight in war, they aren’t fighting for all that high-minded stuff, they are fighting for their lives—it’s personal—it’s part of the prime edict—survive.  Fighting in a war is also about taking care of the man on your left, and on your right, because he is the man who takes care of you.  And while you are fighting as mates, like I did with those two men we interviewed in Michigan, something happens in the relationship, a bright stellar bond that flashes in the short time you carry on your tasks of shooting, maiming, blowing up, impaling that man on the other side, that man who has a wife, a child, cousins, sisters, a mother who wants him to come home too, just like yours does.

And here I am now, going out at dusk in Washington, DC, where we are now digging around in the Marine Corps’ archives in search of memories, hazy, now exposed to the sun so they can start to stew and stink and sprout all over again. Memories of events I had begun to think I had imagined are now being confirmed as reality. I was not nuts. I did see that, and that, and that, even though I wish I hadn’t.

At dusk, in DC, the fireflies are not out. And I want to see them, their bright, ephemeral flashes that last just a moment or two—that flashing.

A Panoply of Presque Iles

Thursday morning Betty and I rose at 5:30 to catch the sunrise at Marquette, MI, on Lake Superior. Clouds reared up somewhere on the east end of the big lake (the third or fourth largest lake in the world, depending on how you categorize lakes). We listened to the complaints of seagulls and cormorants who still sat on their nests. In the berths of boats, a gang of mallards, one female and her young, back and forth, zigzagged between the sterns of white and blue hulls. Masts speared the emerging day as the wind rippled the water, set the trees to waving in the slant of light.

An old man sat at a table in the grass, his lunch bucket beside him, his brown ball cap pulled down low over his eyes. Women jogged along the path that runs for miles around this bay where iron is shipped out onto the Great Lakes.  Iron ore made this country boom and it still does. Compared with the rest of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this town is wealthy.

As the sun rose, we watched it beat the thunderheads to a faint rose tint. Suspicious of our intentions, gulls circled as they hailed each other. They landed on the asphalt near our car and watched, then chased each other around and around, their webbed feet slapping the parking lot surface.

We photographed the reflection of masts, hulls, trees, clouds—all caught by sunrise light and flashed upon the rippling face of the blue lake, dark here, bright there, like the surface of a mirror in the protected places.

Wednesday was sultry as we left Duluth, Minnesota. Before departing we had red flannel hash with eggs over easy. Betty and I found where her great-grandparents lived in Duluth about a hundred years ago. Overlooking the lake, the house perched on a hill. She took pictures. Her mother lived there for a while in 1927, when she was a small child.

From there we wound across Wisconsin’s northern tip, stopped at a National Wildlife Refuge, saw ruby throated hummingbirds , cedar waxwings, black-backed woodpeckers. Mosquitoes feasted on our arms and legs. Clouds sailed across the sky, puffy and dark, they were welcome when they hid the sun’s anger.

The country is green, but snowmobile signs, skating rinks, bowling alleys, the harsh edges of weathered houses reminded us that the Februaries here will not be lush.

We went to Ontonagon, a tiny town settled mostly by Finns. We have a friend who grew up there.  We have lost contact with her. Her name was Hiltonnen, Sylvia Hiltonnen. The funniest, quick-witted of women. We have lost contact with her. My advice:  Don’t lose contact with those who are important.

They love red brick here, the color of iron ore, red, red, the rustiness of it pervasive in the multiple Lutheran and Catholic buildings in every large town. Every small town.

Yesterday morning as the Marquette breeze slinked around our legs, the bells at the big, two towered Catholic church pealed out a call to Mass. The sound echoed off the nineteenth century mansions built with iron ore money. They look across the water towards Ontario’s distant shore.

Last night we dined on white fish caught locally from the lake. Light and flaky and divine. Then we drove out to Marquette’s version of Presque Isle. Presque isle is French for being “almost an island,” and up north here in the land where the French first Europeanized the Americas, it denotes any piece of land that is almost an island. Michigan has more than one place so named. There are also Presque Isles in Maine, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, among other places.

While out among the white cedars, maples, spruce, white birch and pine, we photoed the sunset , the moonrise, the rocks and the way they caused the water to eddy. Mamma gulls fed their gray and brown youngsters who seemed to fake penitence as they slinked along, begging for a meal. They looked like mendicants getting ready to beat their backs with cats-of-nine tails on Palm Sunday.

This morning we knifed straight east across Michigan’s UP, crossed the Straights of Mackinac that flow between Lakes Huron and Michigan. We motored down the sunrise side of the state to Thunder  Bay. Canada has a Thunder Bay, too. Way up on the north coast of Lake Superior. (We wanted to go that way, but felt restrained by time frames.) On the way to our Thunder Bay, we visited another Presque Isle. This one with a working light house in operation  since 1871. The newly-painted white sides glanced light off the columnar shape of the beacon.

Tomorrow we return to civilization. Ann Arbor, where we will conduct more interviews for our movie.

The Last Motel Room in North Dakota

In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes what it feels like to travel from east to west, from the lush summers of the upper Midwest to hard-case Montana. Betty and I experienced that in reverse, from the harsh sagebrush prairie of Montana, Missouri River, Milk River, Marias River, to the soggy, soaked land of the St. Louis River that empties into Lake Superior. From Montana’s river breaks, yellow chalk, yellow grain stubble, to North Dakota’s organized agriculture, every red grain of wheat in place, no rooms in the state except one? A ten-twenty-three PM find in Rugby, the geographical center of North America. Maybe it is fitting for two people so intent on seeing it all to get a taste of north, south, east, west on a different plain. Plain and simple. At this very spot, Rugby, step one pace south and you are south, one north, you are north . . . you get the picture, as they say. Old notions of North versus South, or east coast, left coast, southwest, go AWOL. Is there a need for regional chauvinism? And in the background, the click-clack of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Chippewa, Cree, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Sioux, Ojibwa—we motor through their lands:  Fort Benton, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Fort Totten, all the places we built to herd the originals out of their buffalo cultures and into our churches, our schools.
Coulees, breaks, badlands, avocets, American white pelicans, “Meth, not even once,” a double sun dog at Devil’s Lake—all morning long. Sunflowers both cultivated and feral in North Dakota and Minnesota, blackest of earth, monarch butterflies, a thunder magic at Minot, the lightning flashes gigantic, wild, around and across, jagged like the cracks in old bones. The sun beneath the sullen sky, sneaking in with the taste of lime, a green so pristine like the first light that struck the earth. Caught on the bellies of the telephone poles; the green, green fields of new-mown hay; the rolled up bales like big, three-dimensional periods; the bellies of the yellow grasshoppers, swarms and swarms caught in the vicious wind. A red roadster, eighty miles an hour, a texting driver, a child in the passenger’s seat, a red fox long-steps it out in front and somehow escapes his black wheels, our black wheels. A fox red like neon in the false approach of storm-forced night, a tipped-tale the color of white.
Breakfast with Paul  Zarzyski, the bard of Great Falls, Montana, a bard for every place and time, every genre.  His mate, Liz Dear, their dog, Zeke.  A Great Falls, Montana , Cajun food breakfast. The poetry of politics, philosophy, prosody, the aesthetics of wolves and the maw of the grizzly bear. Books, Montana mountains, bucking horses, rodeo poets.
The names of Minnesota remind me of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” (which I always felt was maudlinly sentimental—but the music of the words, the words!):
By the shores of Gitche Gummee

Of the shining Big-Sea-Water

Stood Nakomis, the old woman

Pointing with her finger westward . .

And the real words of Minnesota, not unlike Longfellow’s:  Minnesota, Minnetonka, Winnibigoshish, and Oshkosh.

Pointing eastward, from Boise to Duluth. Lake Superior; a hard, warm wind; rutabaga-filled pasties and the slick, enunciated “OOOOO” of “you,” “too,” “smooth,” “Duluth.”

Ken Rodgers

Ken Rodgers

Posted by Ken on Aug 6, 2010 in Uncategorized

Author, Poet, Teacher
Featuring On-line and On-ground Classes—Creative Writing, Short Stories, and More

“Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop.  Die knowing something.  You are not here long.”
—Walker Evans, Photographer 

Ken Rodgers teaches and writes in Boise, ID.  He has chased sheep across the desert, chased the enemy through the jungles of southeast Asia, run the head gate to capture cattle, pounded the keys of a calculator, pounded the keys of a typewriter, peddled mountain real estate, and tailed off recycled redwood at a finishing mill.

An award-winning author, Ken explores the region where poetry and prose meet. 

His poems, short stories and essays have appeared in Idaho Arts Quarterly, Eagle Magazine, The Farallon Review, 34th Parallel, Ascent Aspirations, Switchback, VerbSap, Absomaly, Tiny Lights, Fiction Attic, Roman Candles, and other publications.  He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco.  Ken was a Pushcart Prize Nominee, and was nominated for Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, California, as well as for inclusion in Best New American Voices.  His first book of poetry, Trench Dining (Running Wolf Press), was published in 2003.  Barstow and Other Poems, was released in 2008.  His latest collection, Passenger Pigeons, is scheduled for release in 2010.  

He has performed his work in libraries, hair salons, coffee shops, book fairs, wineries, movie theaters, colleges, pubs, book stores, and on public radio and television.  He has also juried several writing contests. 

Ken is a founding member of the Idaho Writer’s Guild which is an affiliate of The Cabin literary center in Boise.  He recently served on the board of both Big Tree Arts and True North Creative Learning Center.  Along with his wife, Betty, he was a founding member of the Literary Arts Council of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts in Sebastopol, CA, and together they have hosted many classes, workshops, and readings.  They have a married son and daughter, as well as two granddaughters. 

Ken is available to help you spice up your writing.  Whether you are a committed writer trying to start or finish a book, a budding poet, or a businessperson trying to discover better ways to express yourself, Ken’s instruction and advice are invaluable.  Working with him will bring dramatic changes to your writing.

From Ray Holley’s column, Main Street, of the Healdsburg Tribune:

“Healdsburg novelist Jean Hegland says this about Ken: ‘His commitment to writing spans many years, and I have admired his work for nearly that long.  He has a fine eye and an excellent ear and a huge and courageous heart.  Whatever his subject, his writing is always unflinchingly honest, and I’ve grown to depend on the way that honesty both scathes and celebrates the subjects he writes about.’”

Contact us to learn how to invigorate your creative writing.