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.

On Nikita Khrushchev, Boy Scouts, the Cold War, and Graduation

Yesterday, walking along the sidewalks that wind through the subdivision where we live, Betty and I admired the fulsome blossoms of ornamental trees that line the streets and walkways. Dogs barked . . . Dachshunds, Springer Spaniels, yellow Labrador Retrievers, German Shorthairs, black mutts with gray and wizened mugs.

The sound of a plane engine cut the afternoon air. Without thinking, I looked up. A single engine plane flew out of a cloudless northwest. I asked myself, why do I always look up, or want to look up, when a plane or helicopter flies over? And I immediately had an answer. I won’t say The Answer, but it was an answer.

I was raised in the 50s and 60s when the United States grappled with the Soviet Union in what we called the Cold War. Not that it was cold; it was plenty hot in Korea and Vietnam and Laos and Nicaragua and Angola. We just called it cold. The threat of annihilation via nuclear armaments hung across the planet like a giant shroud. We had bomb drills in school, watched Walter Cronkite broadcast Cold War info nightly from CBS News. It blared at us from the newspapers and Time Magazine and US News and World Report. We talked about it at school and at Boy Scouts. I was a rabid Boy Scout back then. The semi-militarism of it all draped on me like a French general’s tunic. It was heady, wearing war-tinted uniforms, talking about survival and battle. Dreaming of killing krauts like Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back.

One of my Boy Scout projects was to work with Civil Defense on some type of project designed to teach me the value of public service. One of my good friends, “P,” who was also my fiercest competitor on the march to be an Eagle Boy Scout, decided he would spend some time at the local airport watching for enemy aircraft. This was in the time when missile technology was new, so the standard method of nuclear armament delivery was the airplane. “P’s” father, “Mr. S,” was a Civil Defense volunteer and knew all the skinny on planes and weapons and the politics of Anglo-Russian enmity. If “P” was going to spend his weekends helping defend America, then in the spirit of competition, so was I.

We rode out to the airport on Saturday mornings in “Mr. S’s” green Chevy Suburban. Back then a Suburban was more utility van than sport vehicle. The airport was a sand-and-clay-particled mess that sat on a big flat stretch of desert surrounded by creosote and saguaro cacti. In the 1800s it had been part of the Santa Cruz Riverbed, but now it was just a flat spot where when the wind blew it created a dust storm that browned out the sun, the moon, the stars, the blacktop, the honky-tonk on the side of the airstrip, Little Mountain to the west and everything within an arms length of the viewer.

We climbed up the stairs to the observation tower and inside, sets of binoculars were strewn on plywood tables and posters of airplanes papered the sheet rock walls: side views, top views, bottom views, numerical enumerations, plane manufacturers, what ordnance they were capable of delivering, the names we knew them by, most prominently the Tupolev T-95, or “Bear,” as we called it. We stood most of those mornings with binocular straps cutting into the flesh around our necks as we watched the sky over Picacho Peak, and Newman Peak, and San Tan, and Silver Reef, Table Top, the Vai Vo Hills, and the Sierra Estrella. All we ever saw were buzzards and red tailed hawks, the pigeons that nested in the date palms that grew along the highway to Phoenix.

We were obsessed with the Soviets back then, or our parents were, as were our politicians. Nuclear attack was so imminent it was not a question of “if,” but “when.” But I must admit, other than a chance to get another merit badge on the road to my Eagle Scout goal, or a chance to play Army, I, and most of the kids I knew, paid very little attention to the Soviet threat.

Some of my parents’ friends created makeshift bomb shelters in their basements, stocked with fifty-gallon drums of flour and raw sugar and pasta and cans of beans and tuna fish. Lots of water. One of them, “Mr.B,” even had a lot of games for his kids to play. At night, we used to raid his air raid shelter and drink the soda pops he kept in the refrigerator as we played Chess, and Clue and Checkers, and if we could get some girls down there, strip poker. For us, girls were a whole lot more dangerous than Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan.

One of the physicians in our town actually had a real bomb shelter built to specifications with a special system for filtering the fallout from the air that targets would breathe in the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb attack. Anecdotally, we called that possibility Nuclear Winter.

In 1964, at the close of my junior in High School, I went with my neighbor to his high school graduation party. I got drunk, not once, but three times that night, spent some hours fandangoing around a big mesquite wood bonfire as Sputniks passed overhead every hour-and-a-half, watching us, or so I imagined, and sending signals back to Moscow about our whereabouts. Later, we unstuck someone from the caliché muck of an irrigated cotton field, and then we went to the physician’s house for a graduation breakfast. His eldest daughter was graduating, too. She slinked around in her white shorts and blue top, the most dangerous thing I’d been near all night.

The sun was barely up and the Sonoran Desert heat not yet steaming off the paved streets and the concrete sidewalks. We all wanted to go into the bomb shelter, but the doctor’s dangerous daughter kept telling us no. I wanted to see what an air filter for nuclear fallout looked like. I wanted to see if they had ice cold Cokes down there, and maybe some more Vodka so I wouldn’t lose the buzz I worked on. I wanted to get close to the dangerous daughter.

One of the graduating seniors, “L,” kept sneaking down the steps and then we’d have to go down, led by the dauntless daughter, and capture him. At first it was funny, all of us laughing, but then it turned surly. “L” was drunker than I was, than anyone was and he grew violent, his face purple, his glare like a drill instructor’s. He wore a new gray graduation suit and was walking around with a bottle of Gilbey’s Gin which he sucked on now and then as he bellowed about going off to San Diego to US Navy Boot Camp later that day. Soon, he clunked someone in the noggin with the gin bottle and we had to gang him down in the green Bermuda grass that stained his new gray suit. We thought nothing of going to battle with him. That’s what we did, we Americans, we did battle with whomever: Dominicans, Lebanese, Laotians, North Koreans, Chinese, Russians, our next-door neighbor. We did battle. We wrestled “L” into the bed of a new Ford pickup and eight of us sat on him as he bucked and scrabbled and screamed obscenities about our mothers. He lived outside of town down a dirt road. We pulled into the gate and turned the truck around and threw him out into the dust and gravel. He staggered up and chased us down the highway, stumbling and falling, lurching in his now ruined new gray graduation suit as he picked up large rocks and tossed them at us. We laughed and headed home for sleep.

And soon enough most of us were in the Army, the Navy, the Marines, fighting too, or preparing to fight, each in our little parts of the Cold War, Germany, Korea, and for me Vietnam where we often looked into the skies for signs of North Vietnamese MIGS and Russian Bears. And then, years later, of course the sound of those September wings of 2001. How they haunt our lives now. The memory caught up in the dreams we sleep, the way we exist. Wary now. Striking out at what frightens. Looking into the sky at the sound of planes. Keeping a close eye on our new neighbors. We live uneasy.

Oh Outhouses, Four-Holers, and Burning the Heads

One of the Twitter headlines for The Washington Post.com on 4/5/2011 was, “Is it impolite to bring reading material to a public restroom?” I chuckled when I read that and not because of the inanity of the query, but because of memories that hove into my mind’s view.

In early April, 1968, I had just escaped from the siege of Khe Sanh and was killing time in the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment rear at Phu Bai south of the old Vietnamese imperial capital, Hue, waiting to go home. Luxurious being able to sleep in every morning on a cot, above ground, in a covered hooch, no mud, no incoming. Luxurious with hot showers, hot chow, movies, sodas, beer, no work parties. Luxurious, too—and this will sound basic, basic as hell—walking to the head with the latest edition of The Stars and Stripes military newspaper without doing the Khe Sanh Shuffle. Not worrying about being blown off the toilet seat while taking care of one of your most intimate acts.

The battalion head at Phu Bai was a four-holer housed inside a substantial building vis à vis the one-holers I was used to. I had some experience with heads…crappers. On several occasions, I had to burn the “shitters” as we called them in Vietnam. I had shitter-burning detail for a whole month in August-September 1967 on Hill 861. Alphabet (a Marine with a Polish last name too hard to say or spell), Spooner and I had given each other Mohawk haircuts, out of boredom, I suppose, and the Company Commander, after catching sight of one of us, ordered us to fix the damned things. So we did the only thing possible, we shaved our heads and of course, given military logic, that was worse than a Mohawk, so the three of us had to run all the way around the trenchline of Hill 861 as our fellow Marines pummeled and slapped and kicked us as we stumbled and huffed and puffed and elbowed each other to come in first which really was not part of the punishment, to come in first, but as you know, coming in first is important. As I hunched my shoulders and kept my face buried to avoid the hands and fists attacking me, I recollect I thought of Tyrone Power in The Black Rose when Orson Welles as the Mongol warrior Bayan forced Power’s character to run lengthwise on a log through a dangerous gamut of Mongol warriors slugging Power’s character with inflated pig bladders with the intent of knocking him off onto spearheads buried point-end-up on both sides of the log.

Our reward (Alphabet, Spooner and I), whether we finished the circuit of Hill 861 first or not, was burning the shitters and the trash dump. Which we did. Twice a day. Using gasoline, diesel, and wet matches. Ignominy was draped on our shoulders. We smelled like what we tried to burn. Everything was monsoon wet. We joked about it and laughed and exaggerated our every crapper-burning action, but no matter how hard we tried, we were shitbirds, as the term goes. Luckily for me, time and time-in-grade moved me past my shitbird moments, through the dank wet of monsoon floods, red mud, two trips out-of-country on R & R, and then as a grand finale, the siege.

Then on to Phu Bai, where the head in Phu Bai was not under constant attack, as had been the heads in Khe Sanh. Right now I can smile at the guttery notion of it all, running between incoming rockets, mortars and artillery to do your business, but men were killed and wounded while conducting their affairs in the head. So, being able to sit on the throne and read The Stars and Stripes without fear of flying shrapnel, even though there was little privacy between stalls, just a half wall, was still paradise. That’s one of the things you learn in war and privation, the elegance that can be had with the most basic of functions in the most basic of places.
In the head at Phu Bai, what was scratched on the walls was more interesting than reading in the paper about Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for re-election, or who won NBA basketball games, or who got killed that week in-country. Some of the messages left dug into the unpainted walls were names, dates, home town, home states. One of the most interesting things I read:

We are the unwilling
Lead by the unqualified
To do the impossible
To help the ungrateful

I laughed when I read that little verse. It was cynical, yes, bitter, yes, but something about it drove home a little sharp stake near where I imagined my emotional heart, not necessarily the physical heart, lived. The unqualified out there tearing up a country, killing people, getting killed…and most of those we were trying to help, ungrateful. Not a comforting thought as you sat there, relaxing…not a comforting thing to think about. But like having to dodge shrapnel on the way to the crapper, not much about the Vietnam War was comforting.

To this day, while driving down country roads in Idaho, finding abandoned homesteads, often one can still find the outhouse. When I was a kid in Arizona, some of them were still functional. My grandfather had one on his old outfit. Tar paper, black widows, cold seat, hot seat, gossamer trailings into the dark corners. Flies. Seeing those old outhouses, with their doors flung open, hinges missing, throws memories at me, about incoming artillery rounds, my shitter-burning details, running the gamut, getting pummeled like Tyrone Power, and that message carved into the wall at Phu Bai.

I’ve never had an affinity for communal heads, and try to avoid them as much as possible. I’m not sure if that’s due to my bathroom days in a war zone, or the unwanted but often truthful messages carved into the paint on the walls. And whether someone carries Time or Good Housekeeping or Playboy into a stall is not my concern, nor is it my business.

Vernal Equinox

Last Sunday, when the equinox bumped into Boise, Idaho, the wind scattered last fall’s leaves around and around the patio. Sullen clouds in both the east and west grayed the day as the full moon reveled in its gravitational attachment to earth, or so I imagined. Betty and I ventured out and tried to capture on camera this “supermoon” but haze and clouds obscured our moment. Like some kind of super moment, I thought, or wished, a marriage of moon and season, but actually it was just another advent of spring.

 Most people I know like fall of the year best, but I think I am partial to spring. In Idaho, I definitely believe it is the best time of year. Southern Idaho is a harsh landscape to the eye, anyway, but now the grass will green and the hills will take on an ephemeral, emerald hue. In northern California, where Betty and I just visited, spring was erupting in greens and yellows. Like blares of horns announcing a new symphony, they showed up along the roads, in the meadows, in the marshes, in the vineyards, and the apple orchards. Yellow and green mixed with dabbles of fruiting-tree blossoms painted pink, and lavender and white.

When Betty and I lived in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico, lambasting snowstorms roared in during spring. Twenty inches on the first day of April, and later in some years, and you would think that spring would never arrive. But when it did, the grass’s music rang as true as any tune out of the beaks of mountain bluebirds, and the pollen of Douglas fir scattered over the land like Moses’ manna, a dusky gold that blanketed cars, roads, patches of ice, the ferns that struggled to recover from a cold winter.

In Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, spring, if any amount of rain showed up, would turn the sand and powdered caliche a short-lived green, peppered orange and purple with Indian wheat and filaree and six-weeks fescue, pink-eye weed, poppies and lupine with buds as big as the end of your thumb. Spring is a strange time in the Sonoran Desert, but balances on a short span of time caught between a winter, which many places call summer, and a summer which Dante might have imagined while penning The Inferno. I recall going to work one April morning at 4:30 under a clear, starlit sky. I rolled down the window and rain drops blew in. A storm front thirty miles away announced its life-giving arrival. In the star-spangled sky I was seeing Lynx and Leo, Canis Major while tasting the pure dew of raindrops on my tongue. The anomaly shocked me into understanding how the things we think are opposites are really just parts of the whole. 

In Vietnam, where I spent two springs, the first was wet and hot and delivered doses of heat prostration, leeches and bamboo vipers; the song of the AK-47 rang out, too. But lucky for me, the song was just slightly out of tune. My second spring was cold and wet—fog and mist and fog and mist and rain, rain, rain, and the song of napalm and M-16—death and decaying flesh’s stench were the only flowers I noticed in 1968. If beauty existed, I don’t recollect it. The only beauty I saw that spring was the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro when my plane landed in California, where it was ….green, green, green.

Back here in Boise, the starlings seem to be a harbinger of spring. Three weeks ago they arrived in my back yard, black bodies in late winter plumage, speckled with yellow and hints of red and indigo. They strutted around in my grass and then got on line like Marines policing the parade ground. They goose-stepped across from end to end, probing and gleaning I don’t know what…worms, larva? It’s gotten to be a ritual here: every year, just around the turn of spring, they show up, front yard and back, c leaning up whatever it is they clean up.

Last spring robins nested in the crook between a rain gutter, an eave and the corner of our house. That little drama went on for several months.  We photographed the three blue eggs, the nestlings dressed in their voracious voices, their first flights crashing on the ground; rising, then falling, then rising and flitting like tunes on an iPod over to the ash tree in the corner of the yard.

Once, in an earlier spring, Betty lay on the couch listening to robins in a neighbor’s pine tree. The young ones were raising a ruckus with their constant ravings for more food. But a raven barged in and gobbled them up. You could hear mom and pop robin as they shrieked for what…. for help, or to scare the raven away? I don’t know. Whatever their goal, it was futile. I watched it all transpire as Betty put her hands over her ears to defeat the dissonance.

This bird world is a nasty place sometimes—spring, summer, winter, fall—but not unlike our own world (and I mean that in the sense of our own ken). I suspect the drama of birds reflects the drama of our own existence, without the BMW or the HD TV, but still it reflects, emulates; birth, life, nurturing and death. Winter and spring.