On Christmas Past and Christmas Present

Betty and I are getting ready to celebrate Christmas here in Idaho. These last few years, Christmas has been muted, so to speak, vis a vis earlier years with lots of flashy glass ornaments of flutes and lutes and little angels, gifts wrapped like works of art and family get-togethers where we had to pull out and deploy both leaves for the kitchen table.

These years it’s usually a trip to the movies on Christmas Eve, sourdough pancakes with some of our Idaho friends on Christmas morning, and then a trip out in the ice and cold to photograph the magic of snow hanging off sage and the wild patterns of ice on the rivers. The light this time of year reminds me of the rays of light in Renaissance paintings, a rich hue that adds layers of meaning to what we can hear in our mind’s ears.

As always, pondering the future sends me searching the past for images of other Christmases: chasing quail through the old flood plains of the Feather River or riding my new three-speed Huffy along the streets of my old home town, my arms and legs festered with boils, but the joy of the new bike so illuminating, the pain of seeping sores could not compare.

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Every year I remember the Christmas I spent in Vietnam. It was 1967 and I was about as far from an American Christmas as you could get, not just geographically but ideologically, too. We were stuck out on Hill 881 South just a few miles east of Laos and a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. We were surrounded by hills and rough country, creeks and streams, jungle, and though they had not shown their faces much, the North Vietnamese Army.

Christmas Day began with a Red Alert that had us all in the trenches long before the rise of the sun. It was wet and so foggy we couldn’t see five feet in any direction. If enemy sappers had been in our wire, working their way toward our positions, we would have heard them long before we saw them. Private Foster, as he did every night or morning, depending on when he stood his watch, refused to get out of the rack and take his position on the line and when ordered to do so, threatened to whip me, the squad leader, the platoon sergeant and Lieutenant Dillon.

In the morning, I broke out several packages from home and opened them like I would have done on any Christmas. My mother made lots of fudge and hand-dipped bon bons and chocolate chip cookies and Christmas sugar cookies that looked like red stars and blue bells and green Christmas trees. She sent candles and socks which I shared with the men in my fire team, since we were always in need of candles and socks. There were tins of sardines and oysters which we opened and enjoyed along with our chicken noodle soup or ham and lima beans or beefsteak with potatoes.

As soon as the fog began to burn off, I led a fire team-sized patrol down the trail on the southwest side of the hill all the way to the bottom beside the stream that bubbled along from north to south. There were five of us…my fire team of three other Marines and the platoon right guide and me. We worked our way north along the steep western shoulder of the hill. Despite the grim and gory nature of the war in Vietnam, to have been with the five of us in the Annamite Mountains on December 25, 1967, would have been to experience the vibrant greens of a land with signature peaks that looked like the Alps without the snow, and long vistas of elephant grass waving in the winter breezes. The triple-canopy jungle sported huge trees and vines and fresh water frolicking down the steep flanks of the ridges and hills and mountains.

I remember that day, the sun suddenly warm and cheery as we patrolled along the trail, looking for sign of the enemy, boot prints in the red mud or rounds for an AK-47—the weapon of choice for the North Vietnamese Army—or 61 MM mortar rounds. We also kept our eyes open for cobras and bamboo vipers and other denizens that might harm us and hoping beyond hope, we watched for tigers and elephants. There is an old saying about men who have been in combat, that they “Looked the tiger in the eye and rode the elephant.” On Christmas morning of 1967, we did not want to see that metaphor come to pass, we were just hoping for the real thing. But alas, we only saw the verdant hillsides and heard the tinkle of the creek and enjoyed a momentary basking in the rare warmth of a meager sun.

I spent about four months out my thirteen-month tour tromping the wilds around Hill 881 South and I knew the trail and the creek and the hillsides, where the streams rocketed down through the wooded depressions that fed the creek below. It was a land of many greens, and the amber light of winter and the amber color of the jungle grass.

Presently we climbed back up the northwest end of the hill and entered the perimeter at the north gate. Not long after, choppers came from Khe Sanh Combat Base and brought Christmas Dinner.

In Vietnam, as I recall, we had A-rats, B-rats and C-rats, and I am not talking four-legged rats although we lived in close proximity to some of the most audacious rats you can imagine. A-rats was chow you got hot-cooked in the chow hall, B-rats was chow that was cooked at the chow hall and hauled out into the field in cans that kept the food warm, and C-rats was what came in small, individual-sized cans and boxes, chow for the Marine in the field and something we ate three times every day if we were lucky.

Christmas dinner of 1967 was B-rats and I can’t recall if it was ham or turkey or both, and if it was yams or mashed potatoes or both, and if it was hot rolls or just bread, and if it was corn or green beans or none of the above. Maybe there was pie—I suspect there was—and maybe ice cream that was mostly melted by the time we ate it. None of that mattered; what mattered was that for just a moment we were different, we were just men, sharing time together on a holiday that most of us knew well.

On Sheep, Blogging and Hog Leg .44s

The beginning of this October, I am to participate in a writers’ retreat about blogging with some fine fellow bloggers, and I suspect there will be a bevy of useful tips and advice for writers of all levels.

My experience as a blogger is: I know how to get my blog up on my site and add pictures and videos and other graphics. I know how to write, or it seems I should, since I have been blogging fairly steadily since 2010. I manage two blogs and have written as a guest at a number of other folks’ sites. I read other people’s work, too, so I have a notion of how my creations stack up.

As of late, I have not been blogging. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time analyzing why I am not blogging with any regularity, but let it suffice that if I am going to present at the retreat, I best get my rear end in gear and compose.

When I am on a roll, I generally blog on a weekly schedule, and the subject matter veers from book reviews to memoir to philosophizing to film reviews to travel blogs. The array cuts a fairly wide swath through types of blogs and thought processes and I suspect that occurs because after four years I’ve begun to frantically ask myself, “What am I going to blog about?” I think about this, I think about that, I grab a book off the shelf that I recently read, I think about a film I watched. Lately the only emotion that has been evoked by any of those actions is a big “HO HUM.” So, what’s the solution?

I am a thrill freak in some regards. I suppose it comes about as a result of my time in Vietnam when adrenaline rushes were what helped keep me alive. Nothing boring about getting shot at. After forty-five years, I still crave that thrill.

I have learned that you can capture, or re-capture, that thrill in writing. Danger is not the only stimulus that can give the writer a thrill. Any kind of thrill might be the impetus to get you banging away at the keyboard. For our purposes today, danger will be the fuse that lights the dynamite. The excitement comes at you as you begin to remember something that was dangerous, or had the capability of becoming dangerous. Once you let your imagination meet your memory, events can be relived, so to speak, and you are there, running from the snap-whine of a sniper’s rifle fire or digging your fingers and toes into the bottom of a trench even as incoming artillery rattles everything around you. You can be vicariously thrilled writing about memories. You can turn memory into action-charged prose (or poetry if you choose).

My mind is searching over my history to find some moments when I was scared and thrilled at the same moment. Sitting here writing this, I’m back at Thanksgiving of 1971. I was employed as a sheep herder/fence builder/truck driver in southern Arizona. The day before, we had moved a band of sheep into an alfalfa field lying leeward of the Sierra Estrella. We pounded metal posts into hard white calíche and fenced-off eighty acres, then moved the sheep in. I dropped two big water troughs inside the wire enclosure and filled them up out of the water truck I was driving. The foreman who supervised me leaned against his pickup and smoked a Marlboro.

Across the field was the farmer’s headquarters: a house, a shop, several Quonset huts, a set of corrals, an old chute that hadn’t been used in a long time. Looking over there I noticed what looked like a bunch of dogs. Now, most town folk, animal lovers and non-sheepherding folk don’t understand how a sheep man feels about dogs. As my old friend Bob Moser used to say, “One dog’s a pretty good dog, two dogs is half a dog, and three dogs is no dog at all.” Packed up, dogs can and often do kill sheep, or worse, they maim them. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and most dogs seem to like me. But there is something about ancient predator/predatee relationships that often make a bad mix with sheep and dogs, especially sheep that are not protected by a herder or paradoxically, guard dogs. And of course, the dangerous dogs are the ones that are not managed by their owners and that gang up in packs. So, seeing four or five dogs darting around between those Quonset huts made both the foreman and me more than a little nervous.

As if on cue, the farmer got in a flatbed truck and drove out of his headquarters, down the dirt road that ran along our new fence, and pulled up. Dust boiled all around. Immediately upon stopping, the sound of barking and yapping dogs filled the air. As the dust calmed down, I could see five Blue Queensland Heelers prancing around the back of that flatbed. Their ears were up and so were their snouts. It was a primal moment, watching those dogs strut their business—the business of herding animals. Heelers are herders by trade. The sheep all balled up and ran into one of the opposite corners of that large field. They obviously had notions of their own about what those dogs’ intentions might be. I heard bleating complaints out of the ewes as they scampered around and moved their lambs as far from those Queensland Heelers as possible.

The farmer got out of his truck and walked over. He wore a smile on his red face and sported a scraggly mustache. He stuck out his big wrinkled hand and introduced himself real friendly like. He and the foreman talked for a while about alfalfa and sheep and the weather and water and then he said, “Do not put any poison out.” I did not blame him for saying this since he had five fancy dogs in the primes of their lives and also because sheepherders, us included, had a reputation for trapping, shooting and poisoning dogs and other predators. And our reputation was well earned because we did all those things. Remember what I told you. Dogs kill sheep.

I left after that and returned the next morning to check on the sheep. The sky wore a flat gray mantle and a cold wind whipped off the Sierra Estrella as I pulled off the highway onto the dirt road that ran along our page wire fence. I stopped and climbed over the fence. I heard a vehicle start up. I checked the water troughs and they had plenty of water. I pulled my old Levi jacket closed to keep out the chill. I heard a vehicle coming. I looked up and saw that flatbed truck turn onto the dirt road. I watched the truck for a moment, noticed the rooster’s tail of dust that reared up behind. I thought, seems like he’s coming a little too fast. It was kind of like radar going off inside my mind. I shook my head and told myself I was not at Khe Sanh and looked around to see if there was any sign of dead sheep since we did not put out any poison. I heard the truck behind me as the driver laid on the brakes. The tires bit into the gravel on the road. I heard the door slam and the farmer (whose voice I recognized) yell something at me.

I turned and immediately noticed he was toting a hog leg; looked like a .44. It had a chrome barrel and a black grip. I had an old World War I Mauser bolt action rifle in the truck that I had never shot, and besides I didn’t think I had time to get to it so we could have a standoff. I looked around for some place to disappear as his boots scuffed the ground and he mumbled stuff I couldn’t understand. The only place to hide was behind one of the water troughs but that would be ridiculous since he’d seen me and would just come shoot me if that’s what he wanted.

I felt as if I was lost out there with those troughs and those sheep and that farmer climbing over the fence. He did so awkwardly because he had that damned pistol and because he wanted to make sure, I’m sure, that he didn’t take his eyes off of me. I noticed there were no dogs on the back of the truck. The sheep bleated and moved around as if there was nothing wrong. But something was wrong. No dogs strutted on the back of the flatbed.

He stomped up to me and his face was three times redder than yesterday and his eyes were worn out. I’d of said he’d been crying but he was carrying that hog leg. He yelled, “Out, out.” I said, “What do you mean?” He blurted, “Get them sheep out of here, now.” I know I looked incredulous. He yelled, “Now!” I shrugged and turned the palms of my hands up. “Where? It’s Thanksgiving and I don’t…” He stuck the end of that hog leg in my face. It was close enough that it reminded me of the round eye of a dead ewe. I threw my arms up. “Whoa,” I shouted, “whoa. You need to settle down.” All this while figuring out how I would disarm him, or escape him or…or…or… He got his face close to mine and stuck that hog leg in my gut. I could smell coffee and garlic and the faint whiff of whiskey. He hissed, “I told you no poison.” I replied, “I didn’t put any poison out.” The gun jabbed further into my too-soft stomach flesh. “Get ’em out.” He didn’t seem to be in any mood to discuss the matter, so I lifted up the fence and after much chasing, haranguing, running and sweating as I cussed my foreman for putting out strychnine, I got that band of sheep out on the road pointed in a totally different direction than the business end of that hog leg .44. Getting them somewhere safe, somewhere they were wanted, and with water and feed was a totally separate adventure. Subject matter for another blog.

My wife pointed out how the voice and energy in this piece changed as soon as my memory dropped back to Thanksgiving, 1971. That anecdotal evidence jives with my notion of how memory and thrill might be a way to drive writing one’s blogs.

On El Norte and Moscow

Betty and I are going north to Moscow, Idaho, to screen our documentary film BRAVO! and as always, the prospect of traveling to a new location leaves me with—besides a sense of elation—a sense of trepidation…sort of, anyway.

Not that I am on edge like I would be if I had to travel to Syria right now, but it will be a new experience going up north to meet new people, see new places. We’ve passed through Moscow on the way north or the way south, but this time we will actually be driving down the streets and meeting the people there, the folks at the university and in the town and the surrounding environs. Every time I go on one of these “new journeys” I have an underlying tension, a subtle doubt that simmers just below my typical bombast and bravado.

Going into unfamiliar territory also sets my scout and warrior senses on high scan. I can smell better, I hear better, I hear things that no one else can hear and I hear things that may not even exist. I hone in on details, the true color of a turquoise stone in a bolo tie, or the dimples in a Stetson hat or the precarious spiked nature of a pair of high-heeled shoes. The moment screens right there in my mind, cinemagraphic in high-grade Technicolor.

Traveling to new country happened to me a lot when Betty and I lived in New Mexico. Once a good friend of mine and I went quail hunting down in southwestern New Mexico, around Columbus where Pancho Villa invaded the United States in 1916. We arrived and found a camping spot on a piece of Bureau of Land Management land west of Columbus at a place known as Hermanas which virtually straddles both Mexico and New Mexico.

After dropping our gear and setting up camp, we ventured west along the international border between Mexico and the US to the Big Hatchet country and New Mexico’s boot heel and some of the most isolated spots on the US-Mexican border. We murdered red-hued rattlesnakes and visited with the two or three locals we met over the course of our two-hundred-mile jaunt. (I have previously written about this in several genres–fiction, essay, for instance–maybe even in this venue. The event impressed me, what transpired proved instructional.)

When we got back to camp we mixed biscuits and marinated T-bone steaks and baked potatoes and simmered pinto beans and roasted Big Jim chilies.

After nightfall, as we yarned, some pickup trucks appeared out on the highway and three long tall mean-fisted buckaroos showed up in dirty black hats. We could see the beams of their flashlights seek us out among the staghorn cacti. We could see hog leg pistols dangling from their right hands.

Talk about feeling alien. My friend conducted a heated discussion with them about who had property rights and why they didn’t want us camping there, even though it was federal land. They feared we were drug smugglers, or coyotes running illegals across the border, or that we were illegals camping out before moving on to New York or Chicago.

The firelight gleamed off their six eyes, one of which flipped and flopped every time that old farmer/cowpoke moved his head. Several times I thought we were going to have a shoot out, between folks who didn’t know each other…who were of the same race, same skin color, spoke the same language, were citizens of the same country and state. We obviously upset them as they tried to hide those hog legs up against their sides. The oak coals in our campfire sizzled and popped. The wind whispered around the thorns of the cacti and a great horned owl hooted over our controversy.

They were frightened of us…these big, black-hatted, hard-knuckled buckaroos. We were different, weren’t from around there, weren’t familiar to the straight road that ran along the bottom of Tres Hermanas.

We finally convinced them with logic—or maybe they were afraid we’d shoot them—that we meant no harm to anything except the quail we expected to kill the next day. So they left us and went on back to their trucks.

Right then, I understood how it must feel to an illegal, an alien, a person who does not belong to the cultural milieu of a particular place. And I’ve felt it before, but it wasn’t so visceral, so bone-shaking scary. Yes, I fought in Vietnam, but that was different in many ways, because I went to fight, to shoot at, to kill the people who supposedly hated me for what I represented. Not for who I was, but again, for what I represented.

There at Hermanas, I understood how it felt to be in a country in an illegal status. I felt how it was to be a “wetback” crossing into the States. I know those black-hatted buckaroos were frightened too, and concerned about what kind of activity was happening right there down the road from their houses, their families, their lives.

But at that moment they had power—familiarity with the arroyos and ridgelines, familiarity with the local folks—and they held hardware in the form of those long-barreled six-guns. Had we been the kind of undocumented travelers I’ve normally encountered along the border, we’d have had nothing but our feet to run with and our fear to drive us wherever we needed to go to keep from being killed or captured.

So it was with a different view towards aliens when later that year we again encountered some gentes crossing the Chihuahuan Desert on their way towards El Norte. My friend and I stood next to a mesquite thicket mid-morning, waiting for some sign of quail to shoot. The muggy sky glowered at us from gray clouds and scads of ravens flew across the horizon cawing their unknowable lingo.

As if they had been there all along, six men stood behind us, and when we got over the shock of being sneaked up on, I said, “Buenos dias.”

And one of them responded with a “Buenos dias” back.

I thought back to our experience with the black-hatted Hermanas gents with the hog leg pistols dangling from their right hands. I knew how that felt to be on the receiving end of those buckaroos’ fear and the concomitant reactions it generated in them. I smiled.

Even though my friend and I were armed, the six men we looked at didn’t seem particularly alarmed.

They wore straw hats and though it was a warm autumn day, they donned faded jeans jackets. They wore jeans trousers and carried sacks and cloth bags and cheap backpacks. Most wore sneakers of white and gold or red or blue on their feet. They looked about our age, but they looked harder, too, and maybe “harder” is not the best word. Maybe the word “seasoned” is a better way to describe them. One’s face was pitted with smallpox cicatrices and another had a large scar across the left side of his face. One wore a wispy black mustache that reminded me of fine feathers.

One of them asked me if we had work. I responded that we were only cazadores trying to shoot some codorniz. He must have thought we were locals because he asked me if I knew the farmer on whose farm we hunted. I recall looking out across the sorghum field and on to the low ridge of hills beyond. I shook my head and said, “No.”

Gracias,” another one said and they moved on, across the dusty road and along the ditch that ran west of the sorghum field, over a barbed wire fence and into the desert. Towards El Norte.

On Tippah County, Mississippi and Boston’s North End

I am sitting here in central Maine thinking about radiant hardwoods that glow like neon in the waning light of evening. Brilliant, possessive reds and oranges and yellows crowd my inner vision, but we are in Maine too early, so the only colors here are summer green and the hinted ends of the maples barely kissed by the cool lips of autumn.

When I last blogged, I promised to be prompt with reflections of our travels, but the travel itself has battered us a bit and our schedule of BRAVO!’s film screenings, although heady and satisfying, have drained us of energy.

My last blog was created in Memphis, Tennessee on August 20, 2012, and since then we have motored east and north approximately 2700 miles over 23 days including a trip to one of my paternal ancestral homes in northern Mississippi where we bought fat red bell peppers from a retired school teacher at the farm market in the parking lot of the old Tippah County courthouse in Ripley and visited with the historical museum director about families with the last names of Adams and Banta and Rodgers.

We spent a day with a Van Dyke-bearded National Park Service Ranger at the Chickamauga Civil War battlefield in northwestern Georgia, just a few miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The ranger was a man caught in a love grip with history, and he dramatically sashayed and bent and swayed and delivered other gesticulations about history, life and death on the battlefield.

The heat stayed away as we journeyed east and we were refreshed as we drove through the fog on the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina, recalling books like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, a story of the Civil War and that dire tale certainly slipped and bobbed in my brain as we cast our eyes on the gorgeous layers of ridges that ran off east and west, the greenery seething with the mists. I recalled, too, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel The Yearling about a young boy and his pet deer named Flag. The deer population in the Blue Ridge country is prodigious (as we saw it) and the harsh nature of the epiphany of Rawlings’ story seemed to fit right in with the Civil War milieu that is still so important in the American south of 2012.

In Washington, DC, we stayed with Betty’s cousins Chuck and Donna Dennis and journeyed to Richmond to visit our old friends Lee and Betty Plevney. We attended a Khe Sanh Veterans reunion where we again screened BRAVO! to over 130 enthusiastic viewers. We journeyed to Colonial Williamsburg—a most wonderful place—and toured the Revolutionary War site at Yorktown and the archaeological dig at Jamestown where Virginia’s first settlers managed to survive. Old tales from high school literature about John Rolfe and Captain John Smith and Pocahontas erupted into a time capsule reality as we trod across storied ground by the waters of the wide James River where they lived their lives with osprey and belted kingfishers and fiddler crabs.

Then on to Boston through rural Pennsylvania and New York. We again screened the film and enjoyed a tour of Boston from our wonderful host, Marie Mottola Chalmers, who snaked us through the delightful warrens of the red- bricked North End, redolent with the history of Paul Revere and the Old North Church, Samuel Adams and Faneuil Hall, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, Peter Agoos’ modern sculpture titled “Art Imbalance.”

Boston Tea Party, Chickamauga, Civil War, Yorktown, Khe Sanh, Boston Massacre; it seems I am encapsulated by war. Is it only me, filled up with a memory of death and mayhem, who lives in the cocoon of war?

We are now in Calais, Maine, pining for the colors of fall. But we are early and the weather is quite balmy and so, it seems, we need to head north. On to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

On the Battlefield at Shiloh, Tennessee

Yesterday the blue in the sky acted like a magnet, dragging me into the puffed-wheat world of clouds. The road bored into a thick hardwood forest. The humidity and temperature pitied my dry-skinned Idaho-ness and remained in the realm of comfort.

Shiloh

Betty and I showed at Shiloh battlefield early, before the midday Sunday visitor rush descended like long lost Civil War angels. The official name is Shiloh National Military Park and the name “park” fits the location well. It looks like a park, with the requisite monuments and peaceful fields bordered by luscious stands of pine and hardwoods.

The fight at Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862, was the first great Civil War battle in the west with one-hundred-eleven-thousand combatants and resulted in 24,000 dead, wounded and missing in action. What happened there belies the peaceful place Betty and I encountered. Wild turkeys clucked and putted. Spotted white tail fawns loped across the East Corinth Road, the Corinth-Pittsburg Landing Road and the Bark Road. Woodpeckers drummed and cicadas sang.

Old Shiloh Meeting House

Only the monuments and the field markers told of the havoc and death that occurred there one-hundred-fifty years ago. Musket balls, grape shot, bayonet charges were apparent only in the history. All over this magnificent park, signs and testaments delineated every regiment, every artillery battery, the field hospitals, the troop movements, the savage engagements with names like the “Hornet’s Nest” and “Bloody Pond” and the “Peach Orchard.” A serious student of what happened at Shiloh in April 1862 could spend days walking from sign and monument to sign and testimonial and receive a detailed lecture in both historical and spatial facets of the battle.

Interior of the Old Shiloh Meeting House

But Betty and I were here for the country and the mood and the photography, and yes, the history, too. But what never fails to astound me is how these manmade cataclysms, these Antietams, Gettysburgs, Pea Ridges, Spottsylvania Courthouses all tendered their slaughter on terrain of breathtaking beauty. And not just in the Civil War: The beaches at Normandy are magnificent; the battle site of Little Bighorn—or Greasy Grass as the native Americans have named it—commands a kingly view of the surrounding plains, mountains and rivers of the Wyoming/Montana landscape.

When I arrived in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in the spring of 1967, the triple canopy jungles, the mountains and marshes were gorgeous. When I left in the spring of 1968, the land was shattered tree trunks, rust red bomb craters and death death death.

Cannon at Shiloh

I could wax on about why we do this, but answers that make sense evade me as do so many other pat solutions when man goes about besetting himself against man. We love, we crave the beauty of our surroundings, and then we sometimes crush it.

On this day, in the rolling verdant landscape of southern Tennessee and Shiloh, we pondered man and history for a while, then went to dine on catfish filets at the Catfish Hotel, hard by the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing.

On El Greco, Aretha and Art in the Bar

Last Saturday Betty and I hung her photography exhibit in Boise at an event titled Art in the Bar V at the Knitting Factory Concert House. It turned out to be a 15-hour event and it took us a few days to recover from that experience.

Betty shared booth space with her photographer and writer friend, Sheila Robertson. This all took place in a larger space with a wild and diverse mix of artists and arts from tattoo to performance art. There was zombie art, nude photography, surrealistic paintings, horror photographs Photoshopped from various other photographs, metal sculpture, jewelry, funny political and pun drawings, found art sculpture, ceramic mosaic and a lot of stuff I don’t know what to call.

The Lineup

There was a lot of what I will call digital art. The man in the booth next to us, portrait photographer Allan Ansel, said to me, “Digital is the new canvas.” I had to think about that for a while. El Greco and Velasquez and Rubens painted on canvas. So did Picasso and Matisse. So did Jackson Pollack. A wide variety of ages, philosophies and methods, but they all painted on canvas. Why can’t modern artists paint on canvas?

I think about El Greco who was painting in Spain four hundred years ago, and how his highly dramatic and expressionist paintings brought consternation to his contemporaries, but we like him a lot now because much of our present work finally caught up with him in the 20th century. I think what I am getting at here is that what seems foreign and new and weird now might be acceptable, even revered down the road. So if digital canvas confounds us now, maybe it won’t later.

El Greco

When I was in Vietnam I remember waking up from a nap hearing Aretha Franklin sing “Respect,” over and over and over and over. While she was singing out of a little battery powered portable record player, a bunch of Marines and Corpsmen were singing along with her, over and over and over and over.

At the time I really liked soul music from singers like Sam Cook and Smokey Robinson, but Aretha was something else again, a wild-bird-flying-up-loop-de-loop voice that sang that song like avian acrobatics. It was different, and they played it, they sang it, over and over and over and over again. I jumped off my cot, groggy, my head banging inside and I screamed for them to “Knock it off.” Lucky they didn’t get all over me and whip my butt for my behavior.

One of the men singing the loudest had come to our company from another battalion that had done some serious damage in the A Shau Valley…some damage that could (but didn’t) have caused a My Lai kind of reaction from the American public. At least that is what that Marine and the other Marines that came with him told me. I remember after I jumped up and shouted at them to turn that horrible music off, he stopped and laughed at me. Let’s call him A. A laughed at me.

And I can remember four months later hearing the Beatles singing “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” and the Jefferson Airplane singing “Somebody to Love,” not knowing if I should like it or disdain it for the break with what I thought was real music.

I remember A standing up there as I obviously showed some confusion about what was and was not proper music. He grinned and his gold-capped teeth caught the glint of the sun, and he raised his long muscular arms over his head, and showing off the twin, silver plated, .357 Python revolvers snug in their shoulder holsters, he said “Brother, you can’t stop the train that’s coming. Music brother, music, like you’ve never heard it. Can’t stop. Love it.”

I think of El Greco and Aretha and John Lennon and how A was right, you can’t stop it even if you want to. It’s coming at us like a freight train. Nor can I stop digital media, digital art, poetry slams, techno-thump-boom-boom-thump-thump music, or tattoos.

Sitting in a chair watching all the people come up and look at Sheila and Betty’s photos, I observed the wide variety of folks: old, young, children, Ivy League, cowboy boots and hats, people struggling with walkers, and the illustrated people with all their piercings and tattoos. Even though I had decided that I needed to accept the wild art I was exposed to, I still wasn’t sure about the colored, tinted, narrative skin I kept seeing on the young men and women.

Admiring Art in the Bar

I noticed a young man—a big strong man—carrying a little boy in a backpack. That young man had things in his ears that looked like they’d let fifty-caliber machine gun bullets pass clean through, and his skin was tattooed on the arms, the neck and who knows where else. I wondered why he did that to himself and I wondered how it might feel to have all those tattoos removed.

He came up to a neighboring booth and took his backpack off and picked up his son and hugged him. They looked at some digital art and then the illustrated man whispered something to his little boy, and they laughed. They smiled and they laughed and laughed and laughed.

A Day at the Races

I cleaned my office this last weekend and as I straightened the bookshelves, J Edward Chamberlain’s, Horse (Blue Ridge, New York, NY), fell on the floor. Horse is a narrative that laymen can read about how mankind and the horse have developed a somewhat unique, symbiotic relationship.

As I hefted the book, an image of the racetrack vaulted into my mind. Not just any racetrack, but the racetrack at Ruidoso, New Mexico where they specialize in American Quarter Horse racing with the distance being a quarter of a mile, the money pot being in the millions.

Ruidoso crouches beneath the shoulders of Sierra Blanca, a twelve-thousand-foot peak in the southern part of the state. A lot of big Texas “awl bidness” money hangs around the restaurants, boutiques and honky tonks. There is a ski area and more important to horse folk, a racetrack.

One of my father’s younger brothers, Hugh, and his wife Lona Beth, owned a house on the Rio Ruidoso in the older part of town. They had box seats at the race track, too. Betty and I, for a time, lived thirty miles south in the more modest village of Cloudcroft. But we got invited to the track and we sat and watched the races and we bet from the sheet and lost money until Aunt Lona Beth pointed out that one shouldn’t bet the horses. They should bet the trainers and the jockeys and the owners. I thought, but geez, that means you have to know them. She read my mind and smiled as she went back to her racing notes, and then to the window to get her winnings.

The rest of the day I imagined I witnessed(or maybe I really did see it) the jockeys on the favorite horses in particular races pulling back on the reins so that one of the other horse owners could win some money and pay a feed bill, pay the veterinarian, pay for his daughter’s wedding in Telluride or Steamboat Springs.

Right then, I understood what was meant years earlier in the palaver I heard in Prescott, AZ about jockeys holding the horses back. That was in1976 when I summer-long hung out at Bruno’s Buffet just across the main drag from the racetrack. Bruno’s was chock full of horse owners and trainers and jockeys, not to mention the other gambler denizens. I was more interested in the vintage pinball machines against the back wall and the homemade tamales and burritos and of course the Coors and the schnapps and the Dewars and water. But I do recall the men sitting at the bar winking and giggling about shenanigans at the track. Drugs to speed up a steed or slow him down, or her if she was a filly. They fought, too, bringing their competitive natures from the track into the bar where the liquor started doing the talking and then fists started cracking faces and the pointed toes of ostrich skin cowboy boots bomb-shelled into opponents’ soft groins. Humans are a competitive bunch and they sling their drive to win onto the shoulders of all kinds of things: their hands, their feet, their fellow man, their brains tied to poker hands of aces and queens, the back of a horse, a pinball machine.

Back in the early 1970s I used to hang out on Sunday afternoons outside of Casa Grande, Arizona at the weekly races sponsored by the Los Conquistadores, a local Hispanic caballero club. Cars would line up along a makeshift track, their trunks open and loaded with Corona and Dos Equis and Coca Cola and orange sodas from Fanta de Mexico, or Jarritos, and better yet, fresh tamales and burritos, lots of jalapeño and Serrano chile slices laced among the beans and meat. The kind of food that made your mouth burn and your nose run and your head sweat and goosed you so you felt like you might just get out there and run beside those elegant caballos whose owners let them strut and kick up puffs of dust to whet betting appetites. A lot of cash changed hands out there one race after another, the green hundred-dollar notes flapping in the breeze as one man agonized and another rejoiced. Sometimes the tempers flared and men threatened others, but then one of the gentes managing the race stepped in and refereed, negotiated.

Back then I used to work at a large agricultural concern out west of town in the flat Sonoran desert plain below Dick Nixon Mountain and Table Top. One of the owners’ sons, whom I will call Butch, loved racing horses and bought a fancy prancing young dun stud he hoped would win him money and fame. He didn’t ride it himself; he hired one of the hostlers who worked for the company instead. That man was a slight Vietnam Vet whose seamed and ruddy face told stories he would never relate. He sat a horse like he was part of the animal; they reminded me of a centaur. The dun stud and the hostler would lope across the flat, greasewood-pocked ground leaving their caliche clay signature on the wisps of the wind. That dun was a moody, cranky thing and the only man who could handle him was the hostler.

Late one Saturday evening a strange pickup truck and horse trailer pulled up outside the office and some Chicanos I had seen all my life, but did not know, unloaded a big dapple gray gelding who stood around and sniffed with suspicion the eighty-two-thousand head of Hereford, Brahma, and angus cross-bred cattle in the feed pens.

I asked a cowpoke what was up and he told me there was a match race for big money. Of a sudden, cars and pickups began to arrive and the hostler brought the dun out and it snorted and cavorted sideways as the hostler talked soft words of comfort in its ears that reminded me of radio antennae the way they checked out the hubbub building with the powdered dust of the parking lot.

All of a sudden too, big white Panama-hatted cowboys and long-haired hippies and Chicano dudes arrived in large groups, drinking Dos Equis and speaking Español; also a couple of Yaqui Indians who hung back, leaning against some sucker rod fence as they laughed at all the proceedings. And yes, the greenbacks started to flash and a lot of harsh talk, as if words of intimidation from one man to the next would make a difference in how a horse would run. One man had a .357 Magnum six-shooter sticking barrel first in his left rear pants pocket. I hoped it wouldn’t fall out, go off and hit me.

The jockeys jockeyed their horses to the line. A cotton farmer with a long-barreled .22 Magnum said something about the race, although I was more interested in the array of weapons I saw sticking out of boots, hanging on belts. I wondered when the war might start. Was this a horse race or were we going to invade Baja California? All the Chicanos and most of the hippies sided with the owner of the dappled gray. Most of the cowboys and some of the hippies sided with Butch, the hostler and the young dun stud.

A stocky man stomped back and forth between each group, swearing in English and Spanish as the horses snorted and jumped around as if infected with the sense of competition. The bets continued. I kept my wallet in my pocket.

The stocky man flexed his fists like he wanted to hit someone and I heard talk that he liked to drive sixteen-penny nails into railroad ties with those fists. I doubted he could do that and smiled, but only on the inside, as I thought how that might feel, to pound a nail with the fist. Why in the hell would someone want to do that unless to show somebody else up, I reckoned as I inched my way to the back of the cowboy crowd.

While I was watching the hammer-fisted dude slinging his vernacular of violence around, the .22 Magnum reported and as I stood on the toes of my boots I saw those two horses, the muscled dapple gray and the young dun stud, erupt like funny cars at the drag races. They were gone and each of the jockeys, especially the hostler, leaned off his ride, slapping at the other jockey with his quirt. A lot of the men in each crowd were busy hurling epithets at counterparts on the other side and missed Butch’s dun win the race by better than two lengths. An anti-climax, for sure.

I moved back and stood next to the Yaquis, anticipating the fireworks to come. My heart sped up with the thought of some fist fights, a knifing, a shooting; but while the winner’s crowd ganged around Butch, the hostler and the dun, the loser’s crowd quickly sneaked off, leaving a lot of hot-tempered talk about welching on bets and the like.

It’s amazing, I think, how a man and an animal can symbiotically interact and create an entire industry—horse racing—that so perfectly corrals some of the essential best, and worst, of human emotions. The horse usually being the one that does most of the heavy work. The humans creating the rest—the hubbub, the competition, the hate, and yes, the love.

On Siobhan Fallon and “Thank You for Your Service.”

On April 8th, 1968, I flew into the Tucson, Arizona airport returning from my thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam. When I got off the Boeing 707, two of my best friends, who lived in Tucson, and my parents, who lived seventy miles to the northwest, were waiting for me as I debarked. The shock on their faces at my appearance gave me a clue to the gulf of experience between us and what was soon to become apparent.

After picking up my seabag, we went to a Mexican food restaurant and ordered some comida. I was anxious to start telling them about incoming eight-inch artillery shells, sniper fire, leeches, cobras, bayonet fights. It was crammed down inside of me as if someone had stuffed me like the seabag out in the trunk of my parents’ blue, 1967 Buick. As I talked to them, they wouldn’t look me in the eye and by the time I figured out they didn’t want to talk about my experience at Khe Sanh, my beef tacos had arrived and I was looking at the light from the ceiling bounce off my father’s balding head. Right then I told myself, they don’t care. And if they didn’t care, then nobody cared.

It took me longer than forty years before I got it in my head that it wasn’t because they didn’t care what happened to me…about the siege, the death, the maiming…it was because they were not able to understand. They wanted to care, but didn’t know how. Lack of experience created lack of empathy. So, I think they were embarrassed that I had undergone that experience and they were unable to fathom it on any level that would allow them to talk to me about it. They were embarrassed, so they didn’t want to talk.

Move forward in time to today, tomorrow, yesterday and think about the men and women who are going off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, again and again. Think about the gulf between their experiences and the experiences of those who have not fought.

In his book, Making the Corps (Simon & Schuster, 1995), Thomas Ricks talks about this gulf in terms that are, to be frank, somewhat frightening to me in that the Marine Corps feels that the public they protect does not live up to, nor appreciate, the values that the Marines are fighting and dying for. And I would add, given that most of our military is now very professional, this gulf probably exists between the American public and all of the military services.

And I believe this is a precarious thing. The ninety-five percent of us who let the other five percent carry the fight forward have no idea what combat is like. We say, “Thank you for your service.” But do we really care? Given what we don’t know about war, can we understand what service really means? (For forty years almost no one ever said, “Thank you for your service” to me, and now I hear it all the time and frankly I am tired of hearing it from anyone who has not had the pleasure of putting their butts on the line or serving their country in some way. Not to say there aren’t folks who are grateful. But I think I know the difference between those who say “Thank you” because it’s now socially requisite and those who really care what I did.) While we sit on our decks and drink sauvignon blanc and eat grilled prawns, men and women have answered the call and are dying or are losing limbs or are living with fear so powerful, every moment, that we don’t have the slightest idea what that is like, what the cost is.

Not that there aren’t citizens out there generally opposed to war on a philosophical basis. There are, and though I may agree that in a perfect world we would have no war, we don’t exist in a perfect world. If they have a philosophical abhorrence of war, I respect that. The people I am talking about this morning are those who accept war as a legitimate means of advancing our country’s foreign policy, but are very happy to let someone else do the fighting.

In her recently published book of linked short stories titled You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn Books, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Group, USA, NT, NY, 2011) author Siobhan Fallon shows the reader the multifarious, insidious and heinous ways the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their wives and children are haunted by the wounds, both apparent and hidden, received in combat. As a combat veteran of another nasty war, I can attest that Fallon knows of what she speaks. The wife of an officer in the United States Army who has served several tours in the Middle East, she knows firsthand the damage done and not just short term damage, but long term damage, often the kind not readily seen.

In her short stories, Fallon shows us with imagery, action and dialogue; PTSD, missing limbs, wrecked marriages, “Dear John” moments, agony, betrayal, redemption and love. All centered on the alienation the modern day warrior feels when he comes home to a society that pays what I believe is often lip service to his sacrifices, but then who, right after saying, “Thank you for your service,” needs to go sell something or attend a cocktail party or go on holiday.

But that may not be much different than any war, although in earlier wars, the participants were drawn from a broader and more representative group of U S citizens. I look at some of my liberal friends and remember back to all the draft resistors and Vietnam War protesters when I came back from Vietnam. Now some of them are flag waving patriots who want to go out and destroy all of Islam. I may be cynical but I always wonder why, when they were eligible to fight in Vietnam, they managed to stay in college, or join the National Guard to avoid putting their lives on the line. And not just my liberal friends, but some of my more conservative friends, too. I’ll never forget watching a news show a few years back where a group of young college Republicans were being interviewed. When asked their opinions about our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, they all voiced their ardent support of our efforts over there, and yet when asked if they had gone and served, none of them had and what was more interesting was the backtracking and excuse making that spewed from their mouths indicating they had no intention of serving in the future.

No wonder those who fight our battles look at the general population they defend with a jaundiced eye. Warriors go off and lose legs, innocence, job opportunities, spouses, and come back with PTSD to a society that they could view, if they were as cynical as I am, as being hypocritical.

I think it is dodgy that while we are out on the putting green drinking cold bottles of Hefeweizen, we have absolutely no clue as to what simmers in the souls of these men and women we have asked to do our killing for us.

Forty years ago, I , for one, was an ardent opponent of the military draft, but today, I believe everybody who lives in this country should have to serve in either the military or some other regard if they cannot serve in combat. No excuses, no deferments, nothing. Of course some politicians are not going to like that idea because they will have to justify to the moms and pops of our young why we need to go to war in the first place, and the professional military people will not like it because the draftee may not be as willing a soldier, sailor, Marine or airman.

I think everybody in this country should carry his or her share of the load when the bullets start flying. If moms and pops think their sons and daughters are going to be dying, then they will first want to know beyond a doubt that the war is a damned urgent affair and if it is not, they will make sure everybody knows about it.

Besides, the draft-era military was one of the great democratizing experiences in the history of the United States of America, and if we had that experience back again, we all might try to understand and better appreciate those neighbors of ours with whom we don’t normally interact. And, it might give us a better understanding of the costs, the true and brutal costs the men and women who fight our wars pay. And the costs their families pay, too.

On Bangkok, Top Sergeants and Hookers

Last Friday my wife Betty and I enjoyed lunch with the Idaho Writer’s Guild while we listened to guest speaker and author, David Schmahmann, read from his book, The Double Life of Alfred Buber, (The Permanent Press, 2011).

I have not yet read the book, but from what I learned at the luncheon, it’s about a married and successful American lawyer who has an illicit relationship with a Bangkok, Thailand bar-girl.

As Mr. Schmahmann read from his book, my mind drifted into my own memories of Bangkok. In the early fall of 1967, I left Khe Sanh, Vietnam and flew to Danang and from there journeyed on to Bangkok for R & R.

We flew into Bangkok via Continental Air and after debarking were whisked to a room in the city loaded with service personnel from Vietnam: Navy, Army, Air force, Marines. An E-8 United States Army Top Sergeant marched into the room and delivered the skinny on hookers. Yes, I said it, hookers. It was strictly business. “Don’t deal with hookers who refuse to provide a look-see at the health card that proves they are in the government hooker provision program (or something official-sounding like that).” A program financed, I assumed, by the good old American taxpayer. At first it didn’t seem fair that the United States government should participate in disintegrating the social fabric of an alien society, and on top of that, a society that was assisting us in our fight to defeat Communism. But then I thought about it as the top sergeant talked the dos and don’ts of visiting another country, another culture, the need to respect conventions and customs. But it was hard to pay attention to instructions on how to shake hands or look someone in the eye when your main intent was to carnally know their daughters.

But his Top-Sergeant barks kept me listening. It makes sense, I thought, because us young dudes are coming here with a single thought in the back of the brain: It may be my last chance to get laid. Yes, I said that too, Get Laid. To party, to smooch, to dance, yes and we will look at some pagodas and the beach and buy some cameras and some sapphire rings, but really the trip here is to…get laid. And since we are going to be testosteroned, drunk, dreamily dazzled by the beautiful Thai women (and they are beautiful) in their miniskirts and low cut blouses, then why not get a handle on it, keep the VD and the STD and the pregnancies, the pimp-generated violence, to a manageable level. Made sense to me, in the often-twisted, practical way the military approaches attempts at proactivity.

At the club where we hooked up with the women, I wondered about how the Thai people saw this…this…what, this invasion? Cultural exchange? Did they like the fact that we were there, breeding with their twenty-year-old and younger women? Or was the cash we carried more important than the ramifications of what we left behind: half-caste children, a Thai-American patois punctuated with every vulgar, four letter word you can imagine, flavored with slang from Minnesota, NYC, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Wyoming, California? And who knows what else.

The girls acted like they loved us and told us so, as long as we coughed up the daily rate, which was cheap, five bucks a day for a rent-a-wife, a rent-a-wife and a whole lot more. As long as you fed them and bought them jewelry and clothes, they loved you, nuzzled you and did most anything you asked. We could have left it at that, sex, but I was interested in other things, too…the golden pagodas, the happy people, the strange culture. We went with the hookers to where they lived. Back behind the western-world façade of buildings that lined the thoroughfares, to entire communities on stilts, with bamboo walkways, teeming with people, shops with dried fish and crackly dried squid, rice, dried spices; families with 10 or 12 people dwelling in little rickety 800-square-foot domiciles perched on legs that made them look like giant water insects. Other than a toilet that drained below into the swamp, there was a kitchen, sleeping space and of course a place for the TV. We went in and met the people who lived there, their stoic faces appraising us as what, monsters? Saviors? I could not tell and have for years wondered about what seemed to me a backward world that demanded that young daughter shook Yank servicemen to keep families fed, clothed and sheltered. How did those people feel as we came in and threw our money around, insulted (even if it was unintentional) their customs, violated their daughters? I wonder now what kind of long-term ramifications that created. And I also wonder, given similar circumstances, if we could do any better than allow our children to prostitute themselves. But then a lot of Americans think we already do that, allow our children to prostitute themselves for a few bucks and a mortgage.

Don’t get me wrong, I whooped it up with the best of them in Thailand, and on my second R & R in Kuala Lumpur, too; but I wondered then, and I still wonder what kind of effect my ephemeral passing had there. Did it dry up like spent sperm or did it dig itself in and create something more, something better, or something worse?

My liberal friends often decry our involvement in the affairs of the countries we try to help with our military intervention, occupation, industrialization, globalization. They say we aren’t helping at all, altering the culture, leaving unwanted children, our customs, our violent ways, forcing our religious beliefs on the locals, our system of government, our military extravaganzas. Not to mention raping their natural resources and misusing their cheap labor pool. But I don’t think it is that simple.

And my conservative friends would say that we are doing all these places a favor, showing up, helping them conquer illiteracy, disease, converting them to the true religion, showing them the benefits of democracy and capitalism, helping overcome their internecine civil wars and revolutions, or in some cases, like Libya, helping foment revolution . But, again, I don’t think it’s that simple.

I don’t think our excursions into the affairs of our neighbors near and far are necessarily bad. Nor do I think they are all for the good. What I do believe is that when we show up to do good or maybe not do so much good, we bring the whole potato with us…our customs, our business, our culture, our music and TV, our movies, our religion. You can’t get the missionary or the military man to come help you without the business man following. If you want our help, we are going to sell you something, we are going to buy whatever you have that we want, and we are going to try and buy it cheap, and we are going to sell you something else in return, and we are going to try and sell it high. And when we bring the well rigs to help you drill for water, we will bring the Constitution and the Bible and the Book of Mormon, too. We will bring Britney Spears along with Abraham Lincoln. And yes, we will spend our tax dollars to help you fight AIDS, or poverty or a rancorous enemy. Hell, we might even arrange to have a particularly sorry leader assassinated. But whatever you get from us will be more than you bargained for.

And I have often wondered what I personally left behind there in Thailand. I left a considerable amount of cash, relatively speaking, and my innate curiosity led me to try and understand people, and not exploit them, but even though I didn’t want to exploit them, I believe I probably did. Not intentionally, but does that matter? In the long run? I wonder if I left children. For all I know, there may be Ken (or Kenneeneth) Rodgerses running around in Thailand and Malaysia, caught between the bone crunching drive of the old Buddhist culture of Siam versus the fast dance attack of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Otis Redding, B. J. Thomas.

And if I did, what are those children now, or did they come here, refugees from the world I, at the time, helped defend, the surviving world I helped create? Maybe they are trapped between two cultures that don’t really want them and what they represent: our attempts to help, and sell, and buy and proselytize…to help.

On Grasshoppers, Mormon crickets, C-Rations and Cannibals

I just read an essay about Africa in which the author mused about sitting in an airport waiting for a ride out of Nigeria. As he dealt with delays and uncertainty, he killed time watching the insects fly around as evening arrived and he noticed how the locals trapped them and cooked them in a can. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten insects on purpose, although sometime in my life I might have dined on some kind of six-legged critter. I suppose if you are ravenous enough, a cricket, an ant, a cockroach might hit the spot. The thought of munching on one of these hard-backed, black beetles I’ve seen on the trails around Boise isn’t too palatable and I’m sure their armored parts would not be as tasty as braised asparagus spears or a rare t-bone steak. I have no intention of finding out if cockroach legs taste as sharp as they look.

I have eaten some pretty sorry grub in my life. Once, in Vietnam, we went out into the bush for a two or three hour patrol and ended up staying over a week. We took no chow (on the orders of the Platoon Sergeant) and for a number of days received none either. Those of us who, disobeying orders, thought to take a can of chicken noodle soup or pound cake found ourselves quite popular. Once, while we were out there looking around for someone to shoot, or something to eat, a six-by Marine Corps-green truck loaded with soda pop come down the road and sped around a curve just below our position. The lieutenant sent a few of us to check out the chaos and we found a whole palette of orange Fanta spilled out into the road. The NVA were out there too, so we set up a perimeter and helped load up the wayward soda. When we got down to the last few cases of pop, we got into an argument about our share. The sergeant in charge of the truck full of soda said his orders were to deliver all of it to Khe Sanh, so he was thankful we’d helped round up the errant cans, but he could not share. Since we were hungry enough to eat the skin off the rock apes that lived up on the ridge, we took offense and brandishing our locked and loaded M-16s, acted just like old-time highwaymen and held up the shipment. We stuffed our pockets full and then ordered the sergeant, at gunpoint, to vamoose and we formed a detail to haul the rest of our take of Fanta up the hill.

We were hungry, actually on the verge of starving, and after three or four cans of hot fizzy orange Fanta, we began to vomit. After that, we reserved our food procurement activities to sweeps alongside Route 9 to see if we could find some discarded cans of ham and lima beans or beefsteak and potatoes. We did not, but we did find thrown-away crackers, Hershey’s candy bars, Big Hunks, and Almond Joys, all which were mostly rotten, so we picked the bad parts off and were glad to get what we could get.

We might have eaten insects, or other such critters, but luckily for us a chopper full of fresh water and cases of C rations showed up. Yes, we might have eaten the insects—they were all around us—and some of their cousins like big black arachnids with red and yellow stripes and blazes. Spiders as big as my hand which could provide a substantial repast and less inviting, the ever-present leeches. They loved to climb onto us for a ride, or try and slither into our mouths while we slept, or into our noses. I think I was lucky and found the ones that were on my lips, looking for a way into my mouth and further down. I think I got them all, of course in the rain and wind and the humidity, who knows, I could have gained protein from a leech.

Pondering bugs, this came to mind. Years later, in southern Arizona, returning home from viewing a high school baseball game in early May I stopped in Chandler, Arizona, to buy a Coke or a Coors or maybe some pickled jalapeños. It was one of those hot spring-times of the year when the Sonoran Desert is castigated by Biblical hordes of grasshoppers. I got out of my pickup to go into the 7-11 and as I walked across the parking lot I could hear them crunching beneath the soles and heels of my lizard skin Justins. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I am not a stranger to death and mayhem, but I remember feeling just the slightest bit squeamish as I massacred all those grasshoppers, cutting short their oh-so-brief flings and I won’t even venture into what I was probably musing on…if grasshoppers feel pain, know they are dying, consider death as we do in a self-conscious way, or if they just live and die, driven only by the need to survive long enough to fertilize their eggs.

After I came out of the 7-11 with my bag of Lays or sixpack of Coors, I remember stopping to gawk at the gangs and gangs of grasshoppers flying around the street lights. It reminded me of rainfall in Khe Sanh, the way the big drops seemed to thunder down between me and the lights, but instead of thundering down they flew around and around, so many of them the light was clouded, but eerier, as the shapes and hordes moved and shifted, they caused the light to reflect, then refract, then reflect. I crunched on to my truck. I had the window down and could hear the decimation of the grasshoppers beneath my tires as I drove south.

Herds of grasshoppers like that can scour the crops and I suppose that was their goal. Similar to my grasshopper experience was when I drove my Toyota Tacoma north from Sebastopol, California, to Boise when Betty and I moved. As I approached McDermitt, Nevada, I was suddenly surrounded by hosts of critters that splatted on my windshield to the point I could not see. I turned on the windshield wipers and they got mucked up so badly I did not think the wipers would work.

I stopped at the Texaco gas station in McDermitt and the bugs were all over the asphalt and gravel parking lot. They crunched beneath my feet. Bigger than grasshoppers, almost succulent, I’d say, and as I tried to avoid that squishy sound of death beneath my boot heels I recalled I’d seen these critters before. Once my friend Wayne Wolski and I trudged up the flanks of high Mt. Jefferson in Central Nevada on a backpacking trip. After scaling to the top, our breaths wheezing, our heads like overripe muskmelons, we struggled back down and on the way, found similar critters lying in the trail. We looked them over and headed on to camp for a meal of freeze-dried spaghetti mixed with Top Ramen noodles.

Inside the McDermit Texaco, I got the skinny on “Mormon crickets,” as the lady called the succulent joint-legged denizens out there crawling, zooming, looming about. Talk about biblical or more than that, “Book of Mormonical.” I’d read about the hordes of these critters, which are actually katydids of sorts, but unlike the image of katydids of bucolic wonder that you might read about in stories like “Little House on the Prairie.” These katydids, these Mormon crickets , toted a sinister reputation that made my neck feel like a Rotweiler’s might when his hackles get up. I had read about them migrating, for one supposed reason, to keep from being eaten by other Mormon crickets.

Cannibalism. These critters eat each other. In our civilized time, cannibalism makes our skin crawl, or mine anyway. I think about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the constant need to eat, and the constant fear of being eaten. By other humans. Our civilized neighbors. Primitive, like it must have been in the old days, when food didn’t exist at Winco, or Safeway, or Whole Foods, but had to be foraged and scoured from whatever source was available and whenever available.

I think back to those days on that little hill alongside Route Nine in Vietnam and if we’d have had to go much longer, we would have begun eating insects, snakes, lizards, and when those were gone, what? Imagine, eating one of your comrades, one who had died in battle, or worse, one who had died saving you, protecting you, and then becoming a source of a different type of salvation. And from there it’s not hard for me to imagine how starvation might drive you to kill and eat a person more as quarry, as game. And maybe enjoy eating them. Achh, and maybe developing ritual to make one feel better about dining on one’s own species.

Ah, but we aren’t like that…..we are civilized.

Yes, we are civilized and don’t do things like that. Wolves do that, and fish, and lions, and bear, and Mormon crickets. I wonder.